Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Snippet: The Devil Met a Lady by Stuart Kaminsky (ibooks, 1993)

The Devil Met a Lady blends facts concerning Bette Davis’ life with the fictional world of private investigator Toby Peters (my review here). Kaminsky’s dialogue is snappy and smart, and the book would easily translate into a retro-noir movie or be updated to be set in the present.

The emergency room nurse patched up Jeremy’s head with iodine and strips of gauze held down with tape, and then she took care of me. She was dressed in white, smelled like rubbing alcohol, and reminded me of my ex-wife Anne. The nurse’s name was Joanne Writz. Her hair was yellow, her body thin. She didn’t look the least bit like Anne, but she noticed that my wounds were not fresh and she looked at me with the disapproving eyes of someone who expected no better from men.

‘I saw them enter the hotel,’ Jeremy explained as he watched me being cleaned and chastised. ‘I wasn’t sure it was them or I would have come inside.’

‘We’ll find her,’ I said.

‘You sure you want me to hear this?’ asked Joanne the nurse.

‘You plan to talk to anybody about it?’ I asked.

‘Only if I’m asked,’ she said, touching a rib. ‘Body’s not bad, if you ignore the scars.’

‘You like movies?’ I asked her.

‘Sure,’ she said, wrapping tape around my chest. ‘Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in For Me and My Gal?’ I tried.

She looked at Jeremy and then at me.
‘Are you asking me for a date?’ she said, putting her hands on her hips.

‘Says ‘Miss’ on your name tag,’ I answered with a grin.

‘I don’t go out with suicidals and children,’ she said.

‘I’m not suicidal.’

The nurse looked at Jeremy.

He looked back at her and nodded.
‘I’m sorry, Toby,’ he said. ‘But she may be right.’

‘Anne used to say I wouldn’t grow up,’ I said, as Joanne stepped back to survey her work.

‘Hmm,’ she said, satisfied.

‘Anne’s my ex-wife,’ I explained.

‘From what I can see, she’s a wise woman,’ said Joanne. ‘You can go now. Come back when you grow up.’

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forgotten Friday: The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (1943, William Collins and Sons; reissued 2000 by Cassell)

Sammy Rice works as a scientist in a small outfit that seeks to produce and evaluate inventions that are useful to the war effort and which reports directly to the Minister for War. Despite his academic skills he suffers from poor self-esteem after having his left foot amputated in 1928 and replaced with an aluminium substitute. With a penchant for feeling sorry for himself, he often swaps whiskey for his pain-killing tablets, and waits for his girlfriend to leave him for somebody more worthy. Things are not made any easier by having to deal with endless rounds of petty politics at work between the scientists, civil servants and the army, for which he has little appetite. When the Germans start to drop a new type of booby trapped bomb, which explodes when disturbed, the army turns to Sammy in the hope that he can find a way to defuse them, and Sammy embraces the task sensing that this is a way to repair his esteem and make a real difference to the war effort.

Nigel Balchin started the war as a psychologist in the personnel section of the War Office before transferring to the Army Council, eventually becoming Deputy Scientific Officer. By the end of the war he’d risen to the rank of Brigadier General. His insider knowledge of how science was being employed to help the war effort gives The Small Back Room an authentic feel. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised that the book had been published during the war given that he paints a fairly negative picture of Whitehall politics, the organisation of the scientific research, and relations between the civilian scientists, the civil service and the army. It’s not difficult to suspect the novel might have been written as a means to highlight how things needed to change.

I found the story very engaging. Although told from a first person perspective, the story largely unfolds through dialogue with only a few reflective interludes. The conversations are exceptionally well written and give real insight to the nature of the main characters. And given this style it’s easy to imagine that the book was relatively painless to adapt for the big screen, which it was in 1948. In general, the plot is highly believable and the petty politics and manoeuvrings of personal and inter-departmental rivalries are well done and will be familiar to anybody who works in a university or the civil service. Some of the emotional turmoil is a little overwrought, but otherwise a highly enjoyable read and I’d certainly be interested in watching the film adaptation.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seeking Armenian fiction

A little more tricky this request. I've been invited to go to Armenia in two weeks time to talk to the Minister for Diaspora and the National Competiveness Council about developing and implementing diaspora strategies. Armenia is a little unusual in that more Armenians live outside the country than in it. Its population is 3.2 million and its Armenian born diaspora estimated to be 5.5 million (plus a sizable extended diaspora). What I'm after is recommendations for Armenian fiction (of any kind - I suspect narrowing it to just crime fiction might be a step too far). Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Planning for a sustainable Ireland

I drafted this editorial on planning and economic recovery in Ireland a little while ago and it never saw the light of day, so I thought I'd publish it here.

Creating a sustainable, successful society and economy requires a well thought out, comprehensive planning system that works to maximise efficiencies, returns and quality of life, balanced against fairness and social justice, and minimises wastage, inconvenience and deterioration of services. Effective planning works both sectorially (e.g., economic, health, transport) and spatially (local, regional, urban and rural), blending and balancing the needs of different social and economic sectors within and across areas and scales. Good, strategic planning, along with associated targeted investment, is vital to ensure short and, in particular, long term solutions to the present economic crisis. It will work to position both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland favourably to benefit from a global economic recovery when it occurs.

Over the past twenty five years planning in Ireland has been both progressive and regressive. Planning was transformed from the mid-1980s onward by the rolling out of a new form of entrepreneurial planning that designated certain zones for regeneration using tax exemptions and public-private partnerships as a mechanism to encourage and drive development. The new approach targeted very select, flagship sites such as the IFSC that would seek to attract specific industries, notably those of the service sector. Similarly, the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) was charged with encouraging inward investment by skilled, manufacturing companies to selected, ready-made and serviced sites, accompanied by grants and other incentives. As a result, planning became more pragmatic, flexible and results-orientated, focusing on areas that were perceived to have the highest potential for success. This approach, while not free of problems, was successful in providing the planning conditions conducive to encouraging inward investment, gentrification, and speculative property development that drove the Celtic Tiger economy. Planning thus became more responsive to creating the environmental and spatial conditions necessary to attract inward investment (whilst at the same time creating an abundance of problems through poor implementation that ultimately has led to NAMA).

From the late 1990s this was complemented by a spatial planning approach driven in part by the new territorial strategy devised for Europe by the European Spatial Development Perspective. This led to the formulation of the National Spatial Strategy in the Republic and the Regional Development Strategy in the North. The NSS and RDS aim to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development across Ireland, supported by more co-ordinated and effective planning at the regional and local level through Regional Planning Guidelines and Local Development Plans. In order to drive development in the regions, the NSS proposed that areas of sufficient scale and critical mass be built up through a network of urban gateways and hubs that links Ireland more effectively into a European and global economy. Effectively the NSS is designed to build connections between urban centres and the creation of new relationships between urban and rural areas to capitalise upon the potential of all regions to contribute to sustainable development into the long term.

Despite these initiatives, the public perception of planning in the Republic is that it is at best weak and at worst corrupt, and that the economic successes of the Celtic Tiger happened in spite of planning decisions and provisions rather than because of them. While the latter assertion can be debated, there is plenty of evidence – both from the press and anecdotally – that planning has been performing sub-optimally. There are many reasons for this including cronyism, too many different institutional bodies and vested parties being involved in the planning process (there are 88 local planning authorities in the Republic plus government departments and semi-state agencies such as the EPA and NRA), a reluctance to prosecute planning offenders, a high turnover of planners from the public sector to private sector developers, and a failure of elected parties to deliver on political promises. The result has been widespread, inappropriate development projects consisting of poor quality housing with weak infrastructure and services (such as no or low public transport provision, a lack of schools, health services and shops), an oversupply of one-off housing, and disinvestment in public housing. In addition, the timing of the NSS was unfortunate as it missed the opportunity to be tied to the NDP 2000-2006 funding stream and was undermined by the decentralisation plan that ignored its recommendations. It now underpins the NDP 2007-2013, although that plan is being massively revised in the face of budget cuts.

While an economic recovery might happen regardless of planning decisions, the chances of long term, sustainable success are greatly increased through a strategically aware and robust planning system. This means, on the one hand reform of the planning system, and on the other the implementation of the NSS and RDS and investment in sectorial and spatial planning initiatives. If these two reforms take place then planning will help create balanced regional development by ensuring equal access to infrastructure and resources necessary to ensure the businesses are not disadvantaged by locating beyond the major cities; regenerate areas blighted by social issues; enable the rolling out of the green economy; implement a sustainable/low carbon transport infrastructure that promotes economic development; and put the housing and commercial property sectors back on an even keel. Moreover, planning on a cross-border basis, where there is a matching up of investment on key infrastructure projects and the sharing services, will lead to new opportunities and cost savings and efficiencies.

Our long term future needs to be driven by a strategic, sustainable, robust planning system that formulates and implements investment decisions that will pay back handsomely into the future. Planning needs to be seen and positioned at the forefront of providing long term solutions to our present economic predicament. It has to become a central plank of our strategy for recovery, not seen as a distraction or a hindrance. This means, in particular, reform of the planning system and pushing ahead with the NSS initiatives.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review of Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Calcutta by Glen Peters (Carnival/Parthian, 2009)

It’s 1960 and Mrs D’Silva is a young, Anglo-Indian, widow trying to make ends meet in Calcutta having lost her husband to a rail accident five years previously. She teaches at Don Bosco’s Catholic School, which her ten year old son Errol also attends. On a picnic visit to Our Lady shrine in Bandle Errol discovers the mutilated body of a young woman washed up on the bank of the Hooghly river, a tributary of the Ganges. The girl had been raised in the Loreto convent and had recently married a much older man who has converted to Christianity. In the absence of any compelling evidence, the death is ruled as suicide by a judge. Two of the girl’s friends, Anil – a former pupil of Mrs D’Silva - and Philomena suspect foul play. Unbeknownst to Mrs D’Silva, both have become involved in a Mao-backed communist movement and are active in a campaign against a British owned engineering company. At one of the protests a manager in the company is stabbed to death with Anil’s knife and he is arrested for murder. When Mrs D’Silva visits him in prison he protests his innocence and she vows to try and clear his name. A few days later he is found hanging in his cell in suspicious circumstances. It seems as if Dutta, the ruthless Shaitan of the communist movement, will stop at nothing to secure a new India free of the legacy of colonial rule. Despite the obvious dangers, Mrs D’Silva in her own understated way tries to help uncover the truth.

The back cover describes Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts as a ‘vivid and engaging novel of recipes and murder, intrigue and romance’. Food and culture certainly feature strongly in the story and Peters takes great care to detail sights, sounds, and particularly the tastes, of the melting pot of 1960s India, just a few years after independence. To that end the book is informative and provides strong historical contextualisation. The story, for me, however never really amounted to more than an okay read; a relatively pleasant sojourn but failing to turn into a real page turner. I think this mainly to do with (somewhat ironically) taste. Mrs D’Silva is effectively an Anglo-Indian cozy that fairly gently rolls along, so that despite the murders and political intrigue it never really builds up a head of steam. In the first half of the book, the plot meanders aimlessly until Mrs D’Silva discovers her rather shaky detective instincts and the story starts to gain some structure and purpose. The characterization is fine without being stellar and while Mrs D’Silva herself is ably drawn I have no particular longing to catch up with her on any of further adventures. For me, the thing that is most striking about the book is its production values. The novel is beautifully presented and feels like something invested with time and passion. It’s just a shame that the story itself didn’t instil the same in me, although I know that it has received very favourable reviews by others – see:

It’s a Crime
Crime Scraps

Monday, October 26, 2009

It was a dark night …

Yesterday evening I took a walk down to a neighbour’s house with one of the dogs for a cup of tea and a yarn. I stayed slightly longer than I was expecting and did the mile or so return trip under a moonless but star filled sky. It’s easy to forget how dark and quiet it gets in the countryside, especially when there are no streetlights or housing estates for miles. The cattle have all been taken in given the sodden fields, and the birds had long given up on the day, so the only sound was my boots and occasionally the dog’s claws on tarmac when he wasn’t rooting around in the long grass between the roadside and the ditches. The lane is lined by tall, ivy-covered ash trees that lost their leaves in the last week or so and it was barely possible to see my feet let alone a few yards beyond. And the dog simply vanished except for the slight tug every now and then on the long lead. The only thing to guide our direction was the expanse of stars visible through the branches above. We only passed three houses on our jaunt, one long abandoned, entropy letting nature creep in and smother the crumbling structure in ivy and weeds, the other two letting out weak light through unlined curtains. There was something magical, yet slightly spooky, about our little adventure and as the winter draws in these night time escapades will no doubt become a regular experience. I have to admit I’m looking forward to them.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

We only receive the four domestic Irish TV channels. That provides a fairly limited choice and as there was nothing much on last night we went to the DVD rental place. Having spent ten minutes browsing we came home empty handed. For some reason nothing much appealed; well not enough to spend five euros renting it. I can't ever imagine that happening in a bookshop, but perhaps the day will come. The big difference is likely to be that I can return home knowing there'll be something in the to read pile that'll take my fancy. Not unsurprisingly spent the evening reading instead whilst the rain lashed down outside (no surprise there either).

Posts I've enjoyed this week
Harvey Ismuth's 42 essential 3rd act twists - Dresden Codak (via The Bunburyist)
Amazon - WTF - Crime Scene NI (the next day I got the same email but because I bought August Heat by Andrea Camilleri!)
Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction - Do You Write Under Your Own Name?
Hey, I hear you've written a book - Do Some Damage
Back in the land of the almost living - Big Beat from Badsville
Guys and Molls - Do Some Damage
Start Screaming Murder by Talmage Powell - Killer Covers

My posts this week
I'm not saying it's true, but ...
Review of The Devil Met a Lady by Stuart Kaminsky
Seeking Oz crime fiction suggestions
Review of The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp
Second guessing
Saturday Snippet: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone is a coming of age story concerning sixteen year old Ree’s attempt to track down her no-good father in order to save her family’s beat-up house from possession by a bail bond company (my review here). Beautifully told, Daniel Woodrell expertly captures the sense of place and clannish familial social relations of the rural Ozarks of Missouri. In the following passage, Ree turns to her jailbird uncle for help, only to be turned down – Woodrell capturing the casual violence and minor politics of family ties.

Teardrop raised his hand and drew it back to smack her and let fly but diverted the smacking hand inches from Ree’s face to the nut bowl. His fingers dove rattling into the nuts, beneath the silver pistol, and lifted it from the lazy Susan. He bounced the weapon on his flat palm as though judging the weight with his hand for a scale, sighed, then ran a finger gently along the barrel to brush away grains of salt.

“Don’t you, nor nobody else, neither, ever go down around Hawkfall askin’ them people shit about stuff they ain’t offerin’ to talk about. That’s a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishin’ you was. You ain’t no silly-assed town girl. You know better’n that foolishness.’

‘But we’re all related, ain’t we?’

‘Our relations get watered kinda thin between this valley here and Hawkfall. It’s better’n bein’ a foreigner or town people, but it ain’t nowhere near the same as bein’ from Hawkfall.’

Victoria said, ‘You know all those people down there, Teardrop. You could ask.’

‘Shut up.’

‘I just mean, none of them’s goin’ to be in a great big hurry to tangle with you, neither. If Jessup’s over there, Ree needs to see him. Bad.’

‘I said shut up once already, with my mouth.’

Ree felt bogged and forlorn, doomed to a spreading swamp of hateful obligations. Therewould be no ready fix or answer or help. She felt like crying but wouldn’t. She could be beat with a garden rake and never cry and had proved that twice before Mamaw saw an unsmiling angel pointing from the treetops at dusk and quit the bottle. She would never cry where the tears might be seen and counted against her. ‘Jesus-fuckin’-Christ. Dad’s your only little brother!’

‘You think I forgot that?’ He grabbed the clip and slammed it into the pistol, then ejected it and tossed pistol and clip back into the nut bowl. He made a fist with his right hand and rubbed it with his left. ‘Jessup’n me run together for nigh on forty years – but I don’t know where he’s at, and I ain’t goin’ to go around askin’ after him, neither.’

Ree knew better than to say another word, but was going to anyhow, when Victoria grabbed her hand and held it, squeezed, then said, ‘Now, when is it you was tellin’ me you’ll be old enough to join the army?’

Definitely on my list of best reads for this year and an author whose back-catalogue I'm looking forward to catching up with.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Second guessing

I've been having an odd email exchange with someone. His replies seem to have an intangental relation to what I'm trying to convey. So, for example, I originally asked whether he would consider contributing a single paper to an academic journal that would form the basis of a forum where other people would then comment on the paper. He replied that he'd be delighted to put together a special issue consisting of several full papers. It was a couple of days until I replied as I was travelling, so I started by apologising for the delay and then explained that I wasn't looking for several papers but just a single one. His response was to say he was looking forward to my reply when I got the chance. I think he's just skimming the first line of my emails, guessing the rest and replying. It's kind of annoying as I have to start all of my responses by correcting his misreading.

Anyway, this has got me to think about backcover blurbs as I think the same phenomena might be happening with them. There have been a few books I've read recently where the blurb seems tangentally related to story the book tells or has fairly basic factual errors. My sense is that they have been written by someone who has at best skim read the book or wrote it after an editor tried to describe it to them after a few drinks down the pub. Some of the backcover blurbs for my academic books have been awful and I now insist on writing them. I guess what I'm wondering is, 1) who writes these blurbs and are they expected to have actually read the book? 2) do authors get to see them, and if so, why don't they get them altered?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review of The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp (2006, Allison and Busby)

A lowlife paedophile who gets his kicks fondling young children whilst working as Rambunctious Rabbit, the signature mascot of the global entertainment conglomerate Lamarr Enterprises, is found dead in the subterranean warren of service tunnels below the FamilyLand theme park. LAPD detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs are assigned to the case, immediately coming under political pressure to keep a low profile and the case out of the media. Soon another Lamarr employee is murdered, then a customer, and it appears as if somebody has a vendetta against the company, determined to drive down the stock price and put the company out of business. There are no shortage of potential suspects from disgruntled ex-employees, the son of one of the founding cartoonists swindled out of millions of shares, and the rivals of a casino owned by the mob who have signed a partnership agreement to create a Lamarr themed, family friendly complex in Las Vegas. Lomax and Biggs not only have to investigate a series of killings that are very carefully plotted and try and keep the murders out of the media to stop mass hysteria, they have to stay in the game as other agencies look to take the case away from them.

The Rabbit Factory was an enjoyable read and from about halfway through became a real page turner where, despite being heavily jetlagged and desperately needing sleep, I kept on going wanting to find out what happened next. Lomax and Biggs are engaging characters and the story was generally well plotted with some nice twists. The scale of the story is perhaps what’s most impressive and in particular how Karp envisages how a global conglomerate can be speedily bought to its knees. This is not to say that book is not without issues. For example, at over 600 pages the book is too long and could have done with a relatively severe edit, at least trimming 75-100 pages. This in part is caused by an unevenness in the pacing of the story - the start of the book is quite wordy, with each day taking up a fair few pages, but by the end of the book days pass relatively quickly. In addition, the subplot focusing on Lomax’s wayward brother could have gone as it had no bearing on the core of the story, plus some of the over-elaborate back stories to relatively minor characters such as the Israeli visitor who does a cameo and then is never referred to again.

The cover blurb compares Karp to Carl Hiaasen and suggests that he’s funnier. I’m not sure I’d go along with that. Hiaasen is a lot more screwball and farce-based with a cast of oddball characters. Karp has a wise-cracking cop, some witty dialogue in places, and a light touch, otherwise it’s a fairly straight police procedural. Overall a fun read and I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, Blood Thirsty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Seeking Oz crime novel suggestions

I've a colleague visiting from Griffith University in Brisbane at the start of December. I was going to take the opportunity to try and load him up with some Australian crime fiction to bring over with him. To give him enough time to order them in I want to let him know what I'm after as soon as possible. But there's the rub - I'm not sure what I am after! The only book I have on my list at the minute is Phillip Gwynne's, The Build Up, and to my shame I think the only Oz writer I'm familiar with is Peter Temple, of whom I'm a great fan.

So, what I am after is some recommendations for four other books, preferably in paperback and relatively easy to get hold of, that I can pass on to him to order for me and lump over in his suitcase. Any suggestions? Pointers to reviews would be good as well!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review of The Devil Met a Lady by Stuart Kaminsky (ibooks, 1993)

It’s 1943 and Private Investigator Toby Peters is contacted by Bette Davis’ test pilot husband who has been warned that his wife will be kidnapped and an embarrassing recording released that'll ruin his wife’s Hollywood career unless he hands over the secret plans of a new bombsight. Peters is named as the preferred go-between because the potential kidnappers know that he knows that such a recording exists as he was responsible for secretly capturing for posterity Davis’ affair with Howard Hughes. Not long after agreeing to take the case Peters is warned by a local seer that Davis will be kidnapped twice and himself three times before the case is resolved. And so it comes to pass as a tough, caustic, witty and cynical Davis and a Chandleresque Peters are pursued by a group of third-rate, wannabe actors who form a hapless Nazi spy ring, falling in and out of their grasp as they try to recover and destroy the offending record and foil the blackmailing plot.

Based on extensive research of Bette Davis’ career, The Devil Met a Lady blends facts concerning her life with the fictional world of Toby Peters to produce a screwball comedy that Davis’ would have excelled at playing. Kaminsky captures Davis’ character perfectly, Peters is an engaging, nourish PI who stumbles from one crisis to the next, and there are a host of assorted, odd but well drawn characters including a massive former wrestler, a dwarf, a cranky landlady, and host of failed, hammy actors. The dialogue is excellent and the story is engagingly written and zips along at a jaunty pace. The blending of historical fact with fiction is very well done (perhaps not unsurprisingly as Kaminsky was a Professor of Film History), and one feels dropped into 1940s war time Los Angeles. I though the first half was excellent and while the second half was compelling the screwball element slipped away a little and the ending didn’t quite rise to the crescendo I was expecting. All in all though a very enjoyable read and I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books by Kaminsky (who unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago after a highly productive writing career).

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm not saying that it's true, but ...

I spent part of yesterday catching up on the week's news. The following piece on RTE made me smile, not only because it takes a swipe at economists, but because billonaire businessman Denis O'Brien does his fair share of making a nuisance of himself (including making this speech). I've had my fair share of arguments with economists over the years who have a very particular way of looking at the world. I remember one exchange where an economist was insisting that his model was right and the world was wrong (and the model was meant to be explanatory not normative - i.e., he was trying to explain the world, not detail how the world ought to be). My line was that the world is as it is and if the model didn't explain what was going on then it was the model that was wrong. He categorically refused to accept that! His model was the truth and the world was some sub-optimal version of it, rather than vice versa.

Mr O'Brien also said the country's third level sector supported 250 academic economists whom he accused of 'writing blogs, twittering and taking out ads to stop NAMA'.

He said they generally made a nuisance of themselves - which would be fine if 99% of them had not failed to predict the economic meltdown facing the country. He said the other 1% predicted doom all the time.

'I have a sense that all these economists need to come and work for real businesses to really understand how the economy works and see the actual stress and strain of running a business... only then will they have something to contribute,' he said.

A fairly damning assessment of academic economists in Ireland. I'm not saying that it's true, but ... To be fair, what's really being said is that because they are not advocating what is best for Denis O'Brien they are not up to scratch. Of course, what is best for O'Brien and what is best for the country are not necessarily the same thing.

The rest of the article is part of the softening up process for the forthcoming budget wherein public sector workers are going to get hit again with a wage cut. Through tax levies public sector take home pay is down between 10 and 15 percent so far this year. It's likely that they'll cut base pay in the budget by up to an additional 15 percent depending on overall salary. Of course this cuts disposable income, which cuts consumer spend, which cuts indirect sales tax revenue, which cuts the overall tax base ... I better stop there before an economist steps in to correct me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Well I've made it back to Ireland in one piece. Trip went well, if a little tiring. Only one major incident - reaching under a desk to unplug a cable 30 minutes before a talk I managed to split my trousers from zip to belt. There wasn't enough time hurry back to the hotel to change them, but thankfully a secretary had a travel sew kit in her bag and I managed to sew them up (and my amateur stitching lasted the rest of the day). It was that or staple them!

I didn't look at my reader while away and I've just taken a peek. There are hundreds of posts to catch up with, so I'm going to skip the 'posts I enjoyed this week' bit.

My posts this week
Review of Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Off the peg PIs - one size fits all
Review of The Irish Sports Pages by Les Roberts
The Village Bookstore
Review of Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Saturday Snippet: The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valins

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Snippet: The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valin

Since I’m flying back to Ireland today, I thought I’d do another Ohio snippet, revisiting The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valin, which I’ve posted about before here and here.

The following two passages give some insights into the psyche of Harry Stoner, his sentimentality and desire to help, but his deep cynicism of the world and his ability to make a difference. The second passage also has a go at detailing the difference between a fictional and real detective, which I think was a nice turn.

I didn’t really think about it. I wasn’t in a thinking mood. Which is no way to run a business as perilous and actuarial as mine. Those photographs had touched a nerve, right down to the root, awakened the strict moralist who hides inside of me and makes cheap ironic patter at the expense of my clients. Like an insult comedian, he’s a sentimentalist, quick with the apologies, the gush about how all his needling is well meant; and, like the insult comedian, his apologies are as phony as his laughter. All he really understands is anger – a comprehensive anger that extends to anything that falls short of the ideal. Which is why he stays hidden most of the time. He’s a vehement, childish cynic- all moralists and comedians are; and in a different city, in a line of work less likely to give him occasion to rail, he’d probably get me to into a lot of fights. But if Cincinnati is good for anything, it’s good for beating the dickens out of a latent Puritan.

I was feeling a very different kind of weariness as I trudged back to the bedroom. If Jo hadn’t been sleeping so soundly, I would have tried to ease the load by confessing some of it to her. The big difference between detectives in books and detectives in real life is that detectives in books are always rescuing their clients from perilous straits – which is a bunch of hokum, at that. That’s the way we would have things be, when the bitter truth is that no one can rescue anyone from anything. As exciting and professional as they are, those books about ageless beach bums who salvage their women’s psyches along with the family fortunes aren’t doing the world much good. All it takes is a little living to know how far from the truth that kind of fantasy can lead you and how irresponsible and finally dehumanizing playing the role of rescuer can be.
Now I am and have always been a sentimentalist. I’m a sucker for romance, maybe because I have so much trouble conjuring it up in my own life or maybe because it’s more romantic to live it out through other people’s lives. But, in my work, there comes a time when I have to abandon the abiding and pleasant notion that Harry can make it all come out right in the end. Harry can’t do that. And Harry shouldn’t promise desperate old men that he can. And Harry shouldn’t take jobs with that in mind. And Harry was feeling sick at what he’d committed himself to.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre, 2006)

Ree Dolly is sixteen and old beyond her years, living a hard life trying to make ends meet in a beat up house, deep in the rural Ozarks of Missouri, where every neighbour within thirty miles is also some kind of relative who live by their own code. Her father comes and goes, her mother has slipped into her own hazy world, and her two younger brothers aren’t yet old enough to look after themselves. Not long after her father wanders out to spend a few days doing who knows what, a local deputy comes to the house and tells her that if he doesn’t show up for a court date in a couple of days time the rest of the family will be turned out to fend for themselves and the property handed over to the bail bond company. Determined that his won’t happen she sets out to try and hunt him down, only her suspicious, clannish, extended family seem equally as determined to thwart her.

Winter’s Bone is a powerful tale, exquisitely told. Woodrell expertly immerses the reader in the rural, clannish society of the Ozarks, creating a multi-textured sense of place populated by authentic familial and social relations. And immersion is the right word; one doesn’t simply read a description of Ree’s world, one is plunged into it, living it with her, experiencing all her anxieties and frustrations. The characterization is excellent and Ree and her close and extended family are full, complex characters which radiate emotional depth and whose interactions and dialogue resonate true. Whilst the story is sombre and bleak, it also has hope, and it quickly hooks the reader in, with the narrative taut and tense, and the prose beautiful and lyrical. Indeed, one of the strengths of Woodrell’s writing is that it is so rich and yet so economical. I sense that Winter's Bone is a story that will stay with me for a long time and I very much look forward to reading more of Woodrell's work.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Village Bookstore

My host at Ohio State University, Morton O'Kelly, drove me out to The Village Bookstore yesterday afternoon. As you can see it's located in the former Linworth United Methodist Church (1889). It specialises in remaindered books and has a fairly ecletic collection for reasonable prices. I managed to limit myself to three purchases. Stuart Kaminsky's The Devil Met a Lady, Andrew Klavan's Damnation Street, and Nigel Blachin's The Small Back Room.

I've had three good days in Columbus, presenting three lectures and meeting with various faculty and students. I'm on the road for most of today, driving from Columbus to Lexington in Kentucky. This post is another small milestone - my 100th.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review of The Irish Sports Pages by Les Roberts (Gary and Co, 2002)

Brian McFall’s con is to pretend that he’s recently off a flight from Ireland, that the airline has lost all his documents and luggage, and that he needs a roof over his head for a couple of days while he tracks down his cousin. Hugh Cochran falls for the line and given his apartment is too small, passes him on to Maureen Hartigan, a Common Pleas judge and wife of a deceased senator. Then McFall disappears with some cash, jewellery and incriminating photos. Judge Hartigan turns to Milan Jacovich, a PI of Slovenian descent, who shares some romantic history with her daughter to try and find McFall and return the photos. Only McFall is found dead and the photos are missing. Finding McFall’s killer should hopefully lead to the photos, but life is not made easy by Con McCardle, the local Irish republican godfather, Florence McHargue, a local ball-busting, homocide detective, and sometime friend, mob boss, Giancarlo D'Allessandro.

This is a fairly straightforward PI novel and what I’d call an okay read. The writing is proficient without being sparkling, the dialogue is functional, the characters are taken straight out of the crime writers' generic and clichéd character box, and the story relatively formulaic. It whiled away a few hours pleasantly enough. I guess my big problem was the initial premise. I just couldn’t buy into the idea that a savvy, sassy judge would let somebody she didn’t know stay in her home for a few days, especially one as inept as Brian McFall with a story that didn't stack up (there's no way you can get into the US without documentation and judge would know this). There were also some issues about repetition, which seemed more about poor editing than anything else.

A few pages into this book I realised that I've read a Les Roberts novel before – A Shoot in Cleveland. Funnily, I’d read this flying from Chicago to Dublin (I read most of The Irish Sports Pages flying Dublin to Chicago) although I managed to leave the book in the seat pocket 30 pages from the end, much to my annoyance (that’s what red eye flights do to you). I’d enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t going to buy another copy to finish it off, so technically it’s in my didn’t finish pile. I wouldn’t rule out reading another story by Roberts, but I have a long list of other authors whose other works I want to catch up on. The Irish sports pages, by the way, are the obituary columns - the first pages any respecting Irish man reads to find out who in the community has passed away.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Off the peg PIs - one size fits all

I’ve just finished The Irish Sports Pages by Les Roberts (review to follow shortly). This is the fourth of the Ohio/Kentucky crime novels I’ve recently read and I’m detecting a trend (the other three books being The Killing of Strangers, Satan’s Lambs and The Lime Pit). In fact skipping forward to the next novel I’m about to read, Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta, it might in fact be a de facto rule of Mid-Eastern crime writing – that all crime novels are PI novels. I won’t pre-judge TISG, but the other four all share some similar characteristics with regards to the PI.

1. They’re all in their late 30s to mid 40s.
2. They’re all single with failed marriages and only a few close friendships.
3. They have a caring, romantic, sentimental side that they do their best to hide or deny.
4. They’re driven by a core sense of justice and fighting the wrongs of the world, and yet they know and are friends with people who routinely break the law.
5. They’re prepared to use violence, but only for a righteous cause.
6. They’re prepared to take a beating or dally with death to solve the case. In fact they seem to actively court it.
7. They’re smarter than the collective minds and resources of every state and federal agency combined and are always several steps ahead of them (even though they are often a failed cop).
8. They’re stubborn and ignore every warning to back off from a case and let the professionals deal with it.
9. They have suspect judgment, especially near the end of a case, rushing off to save the day rather than doing the sensible thing and calling the cops or bringing reinforcements (meaning they are caught and disarmed and then have to get themselves out of a sticky situation – a bit like James Bond really – why the bad guys don’t jut kill them straight off is a mystery in itself).

It obviously takes a certain kind of person to be a PI in these here parts. Of course, lots of crime fiction has it cliché characters and formulaic plots – they’re familiar and comforting and they work, producing a flawed hero people can identify with and an entertaining story. Reading four of a kind in a row though can be a bit wearing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review of Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2009)

Finally got to Columbus late last night (5am Irish time). The next three days are fairly hectic including breakfast meetings, workshops, and evening meals out, so my posts are probably going to be quite short, including this one.

Though seemingly unrelated, two events have occurred in the city of Ankh-Morpork – an ancient football trophy is discovered in the Royal Art Museum and Mr Nutt who seemingly has no past, nor any memory of it, has started to work in the Unseen University as a candle dribbler. Both though are destined to come into each other’s orbit as football, modernism, class, racism and celebrity are parodied through the lens of Terry Pratchett’s satirical eye. Trying to summarise a Pratchett book is never easy. There is often no main plot as such, but rather a clutch of subplots that interweave in and out of each other binding to create a whole and tightening to a climax.

Unseen Academicals (the name of the University football team) basically revolves around the night time staff of the university - the mysterious Mr Nutt, Trev Likely (Nutt’s colleague and son of football legend Dave Likely), Glenda (the level headed, cook extraordinaire) and Juliet (Glenda’s airhead assistant blessed with glamourous good looks) – as they each come of age. It involves Dwarf fashion, street gangs and hooliganism, inter-university and club rivalry, and tyrannical and inter-racial politics. While Pratchett’s books are light and comic, they are multi-layered, inter-textual (think Romeo and Juliet via Posh and Becks), and always explore and make deeper philosophical points and Unseen Academicals is no different. As with all of Pratchett’s books the characterisation is excellent and the story skilfully plotted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read. The first half of the book was excellent, although the second half tailed off a little. Whilst not quite up there with his very best books, it’s certainly high quality fare.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service: The first hurdle

Well I’ve managed to reach the three month milestone and to post something each day (apparently over 90 percent of blogs become dormant within three months). Whether what’s been posted has been worth reading is a different matter. I’ve been tracking viewing statistics using Google Analytics, and while I’m aware it’s not measuring those people using readers, daily visits have been pretty much the same from the first week to this! I guess it’s somewhat reassuring that it’s remaining relatively static, although it would be nice if it was on an upward trajectory; when it starts to plummet I’ll start to worry. Thanks to those that commented, given advice and encouragement.

My posts this week
Review of Satan's Lambs by Lynn Hightower
Freakin' Loser
Review of The Killing of Strangers by Jerry Holt
Thursday Teaser: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Saturday Snippet: Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill

It seems approprite that on a flight from Ireland to Ohio I'll be reading Les Roberts' The Irish Sports Pages concerning the Irish mafia in Cleveland. I've also got Michael Koryta's Tonight I Say Goodbye in reserve, along with a first draft of my own book with Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, and a full draft of one of my PhD student's thesis. That should stave off any possibility of running out of something to read, even if there's a major delay.

Sorry for the lack of 'posts I enjoyed this week'. I barely kept on top of reading all blogs I subscribe to this week and I didn't keep a record of the posts I enjoyed. It's got to late Saturday night and I've run out of time to go back through my reader to re-find posts (and I'm on a slow GPRS connection that takes forever because the mobile broadband seems to have dropped off as it does every now and then) and I'll have left for the airport early this morning (hopefully the scheduling on this post has worked!). More from the far side of the pond tomorrow, hopefully.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill

Colin Cotterill’s lightly comic series following the exploits of Dr Siri Paiboun, the reluctant state coroner, is set in Laos in the mid-1970s, shortly after the communists come to power. In the following scene from Disco for the Departed, Nurse Dtui, his assistant, takes the opportunity to wind-up a small group of former royalist officers who have been send to the rural north-east of the country to be ‘re-programmed.’

‘I’m looking forward to seeing my first pog.’
‘Your first what?’
‘Pog. My ma used to tell me about them when I was little.’
Siri looked away so the policemen wouldn’t notice his smile.

‘Can’t say I’ve ever heard of them,’ the officer confessed. ‘What are they?’

‘You can’t be serious. You haven’t heard of a pog? I admit they’re rare, but up here in the north-east the animals are never penned up. They all roam around together, the chickens, the dogs, the goats, the pigs. With the animals being the way they are, there’s a fair amount of experimentation that goes on, if you know what I mean.’

Siri could no longer control his face. He got to his feet and walked over to the front steps to look at the full moon reflected hazily on the surface of the pond. It was a beautiful setting for such a dishonest political racket. He chuckled under his breath but made it sound like a cough. Dtui continued at her most convincing best.

‘… and here in Huaphan, probably due to the altitude, or, some say, the sulphur in the water, on occasions, the union of a randy male dog and a sow, produces …’

‘You cannot be serious.’

‘I swear on my brother’s life. I’ve seen the photos. They have the face of pig and the paws and tail of a dog. I can’t believe you’ve never heard of them.’

‘Yeah, I’ve heard of ‘em,’ said Officer Four.

‘You haven’t,’ said Officer Two.

‘Now that you mention it, I might have seen one on a farm just outside of Tha Reua. Didn’t know what it was, though. Odd-looking thing,’ recalled Officer One.

‘That’s right,’ said Dtui, ‘and up here they’re everywhere. If you see one around perhaps you could grab it for me. I’d love to take one back for my ma.’

What I like about the scene is that the officers are unsure of how to react and are unsure of what will make them look bigger fools – being ignorant of the existence of pogs or admitting that they know of their existence. Cotterill, I think, captures this balance between ego and worldly-wiseness and indecisiveness really well. My review of the book can be found here.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Since I’m off on a long distance flight on Sunday I thought I’d give a plug to the Aeromobilities book edited by Saulo Cwerner, Sven Kesselring and John Urry (Routledge, 2009). It brings together a collection of essays that explore the modern airport and air travel in general from a broad social sciences perspective.

Myself and Martin Dodge contributed a chapter on the role of software in governing and regulating how airports operate and in particular how contemporary airports consist of a set of interlinked code/spaces – that is spaces that are dependent on software to function as intended (to check people in, to pass through security, to move baggage from one place to another, to let people into a country, and so on). Our argument is that the transduction of code/space is not deterministic (i.e., software determines in absolute, non-negotiable means everyday practices) or universal (i.e., such determinations occur in all places and at all times in a simple cause-and-effect manner), but rather that the work that software does in the world is emergent, relational, contingent and embodied in nature. Code/space is never consistently created and experienced the same, but rather it is always (collectively) produced by people and code; it is always in a state of becoming, emerging through individual performances and social interactions that are mediated, consciously or unconsciously, in relation to the mutual constitution of code/space.

In other words, software’s ability to do work in the world is always mediated by people – either through a direct interface between passenger or worker, or through gatekeepers who take the outputs of a program, interpret the results, and negotiates with a passenger(s) or fellow worker(s). What this means is that how travelers engage with software and its gatekeepers (the travel agent, check-in, security, immigration staff, and so on) and react through embodied practice varies between people and is contingent on their abilities, experiences, knowledges, and the context in which interactions occur. It is a social and cultural event, not a simple, deterministic exchange or an act of naked governmentality, and it unfolds in multifarious, ever-changing ways.

In this sense, the code/spaces of air travel are of-the-moment and performative. The airport is never repeated exactly twice and never fully predictable or ordered (though that is what systems of management and regulation aspire). If there is a seeming orderly pattern at a broad-level it is because the various parts of the airport assemblage are citationally performed and people and systems are employed to make air travel work in particular ways. The airport is remade as the airport continuously – cleaners clean; security guards patrol; food is prepared, served, cleaned away; planes land, taxi, disgorge passengers and luggage, are cleaned, re-fuelled, serviced, re-boarded and leave; passengers and luggage flow through the various circuits and are helped on their in various ways (by signs and flight information display screens, by printed boarding cards, by audible announcements, by customer service agents). If one spends time in the airport observing what is happening its diverse realities become all to clear. And much of this work in citationally reproduced through people and code doing work together. This becomes very apparent if a software system fails and the space fails to be produced as intended (e.g., the check-in area becomes a waiting room) and passenger flows rupture into flux.

In order to illustrate our arguments we detailed observant participant research that focused on three key sites and practices – checking-in, security screening, and immigration - in a number of airports to illustrate how code/spaces are diversely transduced, contested and negotiated.

What this all means is that every trip through an airport turns into a research expedition and I’ll have my notebook at hand to capture observations and useful nuggets of information! It'll be no different this Sunday.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday Teaser: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

I’m one of those readers who have Terry Pratchett firmly placed in the genius category. I own a copy of all his Discworld books and quite a few of the others. Getting my hands on his latest book is always a moment of glee and so it is with Unseen Academicals. This time out its football and celebrity that come under Pratchett’s satirical eye. Along with the excellent characterisation and observations are the usual comic turns and puns. I’m about two thirds of the way through and thoroughly enjoying it. A couple of teasers.

‘You mean it was some sort of metaphor?’
Smeens handled this quite well in the circumstances, which included being so deeply at sea that barnacles would be attracted to his underwear. ‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘It could be a meta for something that didn’t look so stupid.’

Truth is female, since truth is beauty rather than handsomeness; this, Ridcully reflected as the Council grumbled in, would certainly explain the saying that a lie could run round the world before Truth has got its, correction, her boots on, since
she would have to choose which pair – the idea that any woman in a position to choose would have just one pair of boots being beyond rational belief. Indeed, as a goddess she would have lots of shoes, and thus many choices: comfy shoes for home truths, hobnail boots for unpleasant truths, simple clogs for universal truths and possibly some kind slipper for self-evident truth. More important right now was what kind of truth he going to have to impart to his colleagues, and he decided not on the whole truth, but instead on nothing but the truth, which dispensed with the need for honesty.

I’ll be posting a review shortly.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review of The Killing of Strangers by Jerry Holt (Lucky Press, 2006)

Another of my Ohio/Kentucky reads.

Sam Haggard left the police to take up a job as a security guard at the local university and in turn his wife left him. He’s now been sacked by the university for yelling at her new partner. As he picks up his stuff to leave the head of security offers him details on a baby-sitting job – keeping an eye on Crystal Jones, a local counter-culture celebrity, who’d been an agitator at Kent State University during the 1970 civil guard shootings. In the aftermath her partner, Delbert ‘Lucifer’ Jones, disappeared and now it seems he might be back, twenty five years later, stalking Crystal. Haggard is hired by Corrie, Crystal’s daughter, to keep an eye on her alcoholic mother, but her grandfather soon pays him off. Not long after Crystal dies in a mysterious fire, the Feds are taking an interest in Haggard, and the local cops are trying to bury the story. Everything seems to lead back to the Kent State killings and Haggard is determined to find out why to save himself and Corrie, the young woman he feels compelled to protect.

I found The Killing of Strangers a rather frustrating book in many respects. Some of it was well written, the contextual story of the Kent State shooting was interesting, and it certainly had a lot of action, but I found it quite patchy and uneven in quality and there were parts I just couldn’t buy into. For example, Haggard getting the sack for yelling ‘Get your fat arse out of that window’ at a professor who was illegally entering a university building at two o’clock in the morning and who had set off the fire alarm. I can’t see that standing up to any kind of legal scrutiny. The ending also stretched credulity to the limit, with coincidence after coincidence, and a very careless special operatives abductor. The older, downtrodden but worthy man falling for the girl half his age is also a well worn path at this stage. Some of the scenes were very well done, but others were pedestrian or redundant or below the standard set elsewhere in the book. The characterisation is generally good, and I thought the Mac character was excellent with his bitter wisecracks, but he was underused. My sense is a book, written in the third person, that focused on Mac and his wife would have great potential. All this, of course, is my opinion, and the book gets a raft of strong reviews on Amazon. It just didn’t click with me, even though I enjoyed parts of it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Freakin' Loser

Things have been pretty hectic lately. On Thursday and Friday last week I was up in the North-South Ministerial offices in Armagh meeting about ICLRD (International Centre for Local and Regional Development) projects that focus on cross-border spatial planning. I also spent time giving my views to the Innovation Task Force that's meant to be setting out how Ireland can realise a 'smart economy'. Not unsurprisingly my message was you can't expect an innovation and knowledge-led economy if you disinvest in education and research and development (which is what is presently happening). The weekend was spent preparing for a site visit that was held yesterday that concerned a large collaborative bid for a National Audio and Visual Repository for which I'm the chair of the coordinating committee. It brings together researchers in the humanities, social sciences, computer science and libraries from ten higher education institutions across the island, plus the main cultural and media institutions, and industry. Thankfully things went well on the day and I think we made a compelling case. Hopefully there's a bit of joined up thinking between the government funding body and the Innovation Task Force! Today I'll have spent the morning contributing as a member of the Census Advisory Board where we'll have been going over the pilot results for the 2011 census and finalizing the questions. In the afternoon I have to reprofile the Institute's budget which will no doubt be a joy. We're presently audited every three months and I've just been told I now have to sign-off on daily timesheets for the 31 people whose salary/scholarships we cover. If only the politicians received the same level of scrutiny! What all of this means is that I don't have anything meaningful to say today because there's too much other stuff going on (yeah, I know, I'm a freakin' loser). Back to a review tomorrow, when hopefully things are back on an even(ish) keel.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review of Satan’s Lamb’s by Lynn Hightower (Felony and Mayhem, originally published 1993)

Satan's Lamb's by Lynn Hightower is another of the Ohio/Kentucky novels recommended to me.

Lena Padget had been in graduate school completing a PhD in economics, but for the six years since her pregnant sister and nephew were murdered by her brother-in-law, a member of a satanic cult, she has worked as private investigator, helping women who are in trouble. Jeff Hayes got two, concurrent twenty years terms for first degree manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Having behaved himself and supposedly found God he’s being released early. Likewise, Hayes’ old business partner, Archie Valetta, is also being released. Padget and Hayes have unfinished business, and she’s also hired to protect Valetta’s ex-wife who fears that the former biker gang member is going to return to reclaim the stolen money she was supposed to have hidden. Soon Hayes is back on the scene wanting to collect his wife’s life insurance money, and Valetta attacks his ex-wife, making off with her young son, Charlie. With the help of local detective, Joel Mendez, a specialist in occult crimes, and Rick, her hacker ex-husband, Padget is in close pursuit, but when she finds Valetta he’s dead and the boy missing. It’s clear that Hayes is once again mixed up in a satanic cult and that they’re almost certainly holding the small child captive, waiting for the right time to use him as a human sacrifice. With the clock ticking, Padget races to try and save the young boy’s life.

It took me quite a while to get into Satan’s Lambs. Hightower writes proficiently, but the story took some time to develop and whilst the characters were well drawn it wasn’t until well into the book that I started to identify with them. My feeling was that the first half of the book spent too much time trying to set out the context for the story and flesh out the characters and their relationship with one another. In the second half of the book there was a better balance between description, action and contextual material and it morphed into a page turner and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. The relationship between Padget and Mendez develops nicely, and there is a good cast of supporting characters. I won’t give any spoilers, but I thought the moral ambiguity of the ending was excellent. Overall, a slow burner that got better as it progressed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbot’s Queenpin charts the relationship between the legendary Gloria Denton, the city’s chief moll, and a young woman who she takes on as an apprentice (my review here). Abbott sure can write and her two principal characters are multi-layered and complex. Here’s how both are introduced.

I want the legs.
That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no comparison.
In the casinos, she could pass for thirty. The low lighting, her glossy auburn hair, legs swinging, tapping the bottom rim of the tall, better stools. At the track, though, she looked her age. Even swathed in oversized sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, bright gloves, she couldn’t outflank the merciless sunshine, the glare off the grandstand. Not that it mattered. She was legend.

Hell, I’ll admit it, I had a taste for the other from the start. Where would a twenty-two-year-old kid rather be? Setting the table for corned beef and cabbage dinner with her old man, forks scrapping, moths fluttering against the window, the briny smell from the kitchen sinking into my skin with each tock of the imitation grandfather clock? Or gliding my way through the fuzzy dark of the Tee Hee, vibrating with low, slow jazz, clusters of juniper-breathed men and women touching, hands on lapels, fingers on silk nylons, cigarettes releasing willowy clouds into every acid green banquette? Sure, it was no El Morocco, but in this town, it might as well have been. The place felt alive, I could hear it beating in my chest, between my hips, everywhere. Clock-out time and I never wanted to leave. I’d grin my way into a Tom Collins from Shep, the lantern-jawed bartender, and watch from the corner stool, watch everything, eating green cherries, the candied drink soaking into my lips, my tongue.

Tell me you don’t want to get to know these two feisty, scheming women?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Forgotten Friday: Review of The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valin (Felony and Mayhem, originally published 1980)

Harry Stoner is a PI in the classic Chandler mould, but with a more sentimental and romantic side. Having completed a profitable out-of-town job, against his better judgement he decides to take a charity case – an old man with little means to pay is trying to track down a young, homeless girl that he’s befriended. It soon transpires that the girl has been co-opted into a child prostitution ring by a young, handsome couple, and soon Stoner is questioning various low lifes, although it’s clear the answer to her whereabouts lies amongst a circle of rich men that prey on naïve and vulnerable children. With everybody warning him to give up the case, Stoner carries on regardless, knowing that even if he does find Cindy Ann Evans, it’s unlikely to have a happy ending either for her or himself.

As I noted yesterday, Jonathan Valin is a great observational writer of both characters and places. In Harry Stone he created a multi-layered, complex and flawed character that one immediately identifies with and cares about, and the book is populated with a myriad of other memorable and well drawn characters. The pacing is good and the dialogue snappy and realistic, and the contextualisation is strong without being overbearing. I thought the first half of the book was excellent, but the story started to slip a bit in the second half losing a bit of coherence and realism. Without giving any spoilers, my feeling was that Stoner’s judgement becomes suspect and slightly out of character and I think the story could have been resolved more effectively. Otherwise, I thought The Lime Pit was a great read and Stoner is definitely a character I want to catch up with.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

On Bus Stations and Restaurants: The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valin

Given that Jonathan Valin’s The Lime Pit was first published in 1980, I’m holding over my review until tomorrow as a Forgotten Friday book. The novel was recommended to me in my plea for crime novels set in Ohio or Kentucky (where I’m heading to in ten days time) and The Lime Pit is set in both – Cleveland (Ohio) and Newport (Kentucky).

This is the first Valin book I’ve read, but what strikes me about his writing is that he’s a great observational writer, both with respect to characters and places. Here are two passages concerning everyday spaces of the city – the bus terminal and the restaurant – that I think capture the essence of both.

No matter how noisy a bus terminal gets – and on a July Saturday they get pretty damn loud – you can always hear your own footsteps echoing above the crackle of the loudspeakers, the hiss of air brakes, the soft sigh of bus doors opening, and the amplified roar of the diesels as they pull out of their loading docks. I don’t know how they do it, how they calculate the eigentones and reflecting angles to bring the click of heels and shoe leather into such crisp prominence. Nor do I understand why bus stations are always made to look so dreary. Or why the people sitting on the hard blue-and-red plastic benches are invariably as cheerless and sullen-looking as the gaunt men and women in Walker Evan’s studies of the rural poor. Even the attendants and guards are seedy and impassive, and everyone looks too damn bored to talk about it. If there’s an urban hell, the bus station must come pretty close to being it.

The Bee shut down at half past nine. I sat alone in the dining room while the waitresses cleared the tables and smoked and joked and toasted one another with empty Coke glasses. A restaurant is a far cheerier place after the customers are gone. Everyone is loose and clubby. Left-overs are eaten. Drinks are poured. No one wants to go home. It’s like leaving a warm, friendly kitchen.

I recognise both descriptions and they’re spot on. And one more for good luck.

When this was just a market town, maybe Cindy Ann could have afforded to come here wide-eyed and unwary. But cities grow up and become delinquents. Even cities as strict and unglamourous as this one. Years pass and what is just a smirk or a piece of conventional wisdom out in the farmlands becomes an industry in the flats.

I like the idea of cities as delinquents. I also managed to find these other covers.