Saturday, April 18, 2015

Making Crime Pay

by Lawrence Block

4 out of 5 rejection letters with suggestions on how to improve the plot.

Lawrence Block is one of those authors that I’ve often wished I could spend some time with just to hear him reminisce  about his long career as well as get his opinions on other crime writers. I haven’t gotten a dinner invitation yet (Although I did get to meet him when he was touring for Hope to Die.), but until that day reading The Crime of Our Lives is damn fine substitute.

Through this collection of introductions and essays he’s done over the years, you get a sense of what Block thinks about the mystery genre as a whole as well as specific things about various writers including some very humorous stories like the time Charles Willeford asked him if he had ever eaten cat.

Some of the more interesting stories come from the early days of his career when Block was working for a shady literary agent where he’d read submissions all day and write up rejections that would encourage the suckers to submit more work for a fee.  Block believes that slogging through that much bad fiction was a better education than reading masterpieces of literature because it taught him what not to do rather to admire what most everyone already agreed was great.

The most moving parts come in several things Block wrote about his late friend Donald Westlake.  (It’s probably a safe bet that Block was inspired to do this by the similar collection of Westlake material in the posthumously published The Getaway Car.  Block also wrote  that the introduction for that is reprinted here.)  Through the various pieces you get a real sense of the long friendship between the two writers as well as the deep respect that Block holds for his work. There’s also some intriguing musings as to how he thinks Westlake’s career and legacy might have been different if his early book Memory would have been published at the beginning of his career.  The story of how Block helped get it into print after Westlake’s death that he relates here shows just how much Block thought of that particular work.

Because there are some different pieces on the same subject, there’s a little bit of repetition, but even that becomes interesting if you pay attention to the different ways that Block can relate the same story.  Fans of Block or of the crime genre in general will find a lot of interesting tidbits as well as probably adding a few writers to their To-Read lists.

(Also posted at Goodreads.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Good Old Days

World Gone By
by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow & Company

3 out of 5 stars.

I like crime stories set back in the days of fedoras and trench coats, and I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s. So this should be perfect, right? Sadly, the best I can say is that it isn’t bad.

Set 10 years after the previous book, Live By Night, Joe Coughlin has left behind his days of building a criminal empire based on bootlegging to the more respectable position of being a prominent man in Tampa. Joe runs several successful businesses but his real job is to work as an adviser and fixer for the Mob. As World War II rages, the same shortages of men and resources have hit even organized crime. Thanks in part to Joe’s help the drugs, gambling, prostitution, and various other criminal enterprises are still doing well as he splits time between Florida and Cuba.

As a man who makes no enemies and is a cash cow for the Mob, Joe’s days of danger seem to be behind him so he’s shocked to get a tip that a contract has been put out on his life. As Joe tries to find out if there’s any truth to the rumor he also has to deal with an escalating conflict between a white mobster trying to muscle in on the turf controlled by a black man as well as being leaned on by the war department to help them try to root out spies on the docks.

I wanted to love this one, and I found Joe a fascinating character in a lot of ways, this really comes across as kind of a generic gangster story. The last book was Joe’s rise to power and made for the more interesting of the two as he fought to build a bootlegging empire, and this one just didn’t do anything that adds anything new or different to the genre.

The whole trilogy is a little weird because the first one, The Given Day, was more of a look at post-World War I Boston from a social and economic perspective with elements of a crime story that focused on Joe’s family when he was supporting character as a kid. Shifting from that to Joe as a reckless bootlegger and then into the older, wiser counselor was a good story, but didn’t really seem to match up to the first book.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Shaken, Not Stirred

The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories
by George Pelecanos
Little, Brown and Company

3 out of 5 stars.

I might have liked this martini more if it came with some blue cheese olives.

One of the things I love about Pelecanos is that he creates a great sense of time and place which makes his characters come alive, and I was slightly worried about reading this collection because I wasn’t sure how well he could pull that off in short stories rather than novels. The way he builds a character by describing the streets they walk, the liquor they drink, the music they hear, and the restaurants they eat in didn’t seem like seemed like something that he could condense down easily. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well he was able to almost instantly create characters you felt like you understood whether it was a middle-aged loser in an inner city trying to get his father’s respect by turning into a confidential informant to the cops or a ruthless insurance investigator chasing a lead to South America.

My favorite aspect was The Martini Shot novella which is the first person account of a TV writer working on a cop show in a rundown city who feels the need to get some justice for a friend who has been murdered. Pelecanos’ has done some TV and film work (Most notably his time as a producer and writer on The Wire.), and he made the whole day-to-day routine of working on a show interesting. He also does some clever stuff with the main character blending the real and fictional together while giving us the idea that he kind of sees himself as the lead in a crime story he’s writing. I’d be more than happy to read an entire book with this setting and character. My only complaint is that the sex scenes provided a graphic amount of detail that seem to cross over into soft core porn. Maybe he was going for some of those50 Shades of Grey readers.

The short story I liked most provided the background of one Pelecanos' lead characters in a series, Spero Lucas, by telling us how he came to be adopted by his parents and what their family was like when he was a kid. Those are things that have been touched on in the Lucas books, but this added a lot of details that I enjoyed. However, the problem is that like the rest of this collection, it really just made hungry for another Spero Lucas novel.

So while Pelecanos has the ability to write short stories, what I really wanted from almost everything I read here was more. (Except for those sex scenes. Then less would have been better.) It’s like Pelecanos is great chef who makes entrees that make my mouth water, but here he’s only offering a tray of appetizers. They’re great to pop in your mouth with that martini, but they don’t make for a full meal. 

Also posted at Goodreads.