Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Book With the Deep Dark Noir

The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes
by Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime

4 out of 5 movies on TCM.

The title of this one makes it sound as if Lisbeth Salander and Travis McGee had a baby, but it’s far more like James Cain than Stieg Larsson or John D. MacDonald. Actually, let’s just skip the comparisons and say that it’s 100% Lawrence Block, and his fans know that this is a very good thing. 

Doak Miller is a retired NYPD detective who moved to Florida where he now does the odd job as a private detective. A local sheriff has gotten word that beautiful Lisa has tried to hire a hit man to do away with her wealthy husband, and now the sheriff asks Doak to meet with Lisa as the hired killer to record evidence of her conspiracy to commit murder. However, Doak becomes infatuated with Lisa’s picture and instead cooks up a way to warn her off which is the start of a steamy affair between the two of them. It’s also got Doak thinking of ways that he could actually pull off the murder so that he and Lisa could get all that money. 

That sounds like a familiar set-up, but this isn’t just your typical story of the adulterous couple trying to kill off a spouse. From it’s traditional start the story morphs into what would can only be described as metafiction in the way that Doak acknowledges that he’s essentially living in a noir story as he watches movies like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings while planning his crime. (I’m a little surprised that Body Heat wasn’t mentioned because the plot, Florida setting, and steamy sex scenes seem like it’d be a natural one to bring up, but maybe Block was worried about Doak catching that one on TCM.)

However, this never feels like a flashy gimmick because it’s a compelling story told to us from the third party perspective of Doak. At first it seems like Doak could be another version of Block’s Matt Scudder. A retired police detective with some some regrets about his past living a low-rent life as he works as a PI is very Scudder-esque, but Doak is a different kind of animal which we learn from his willingness to turn killer as well as his interactions with Lisa and other women.

Those interactions include several graphic sexual encounters. Block has never been shy about throwing kinky scenes into some of his books, and as the cover indicates this one has no shortage of them. He uses them very effectively to a way of establishing Doak’s character as well as providing a believable twisted bond between him and Lisa beyond just some kind of insta-love thing which probably would have seemed hokey. Despite the lurid potential of some of this Block does a great job of portraying it in a matter of fact way that trusts that his characters and readers are adults who can handle it.

This is a master crime writer doing a sharp and clever take on noir tropes, and it’s a great read for fans of the genre.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, October 2, 2015

An Artistic Apocalypse

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

4 out of 5 snow globes.

This is one well written apocalypse.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor who suffers a heart attack and dies on stage just before a deadly version of the swine flu kills most of humanity. Station Eleven then uses Arthur as the center of a web of connections that we learn from the people in his life before, during and after the disease wipes out the world as we know it. Kirsten sees Arthur die as a child actor, and years later she’s part of the Traveling Symphony that tours the small towns of the post-apocalyptic landscape. Jeevan is an ex-paparazzo turned paramedic who once stalked Arthur, but he is in the audience when the actor keels over and tries to save his life. Miranda is Arthur’s first wife who could never adjust to the spotlight his fame brought and wrote a comic book about a space station as a hobby. Clark was one of Arthur’s best friends who gets stranded far from home when things really start to fall apart. 

The thing that astonishes me most about his is just how deftly Emily St. John Mandel portrays the end of the world. There’s no shortage of post-apocalyptic scenarios out there, but whether the culprits are zombies or nuclear weapons or killer viruses the aftermath is generally as brutal as an ax blow to the face. Mandel writes with such an understated elegance that there’s a dark beauty and grace to her fallen world even as she acknowledges all the hardship and horrors of it. 

She also does a masterful job of managing the structure with its shifting third party perspectives at various times. All the links and coincidences could have felt very forced and ultimately pointless, but again it’s her skill at making us interested in all of these people at their various stages of pre and post apocalypse that make it all work so that the connections feel organic and not simply plot points.

While the post-apocalyptic world seems believable for the most part there are some quibbles I could make. Mandel writes this as if a flu with a near 100% mortality rate would essentially wipe out all the accumulated knowledge and technical ability of the survivors and takes everyone back to an almost medieval way of life.

It’s weird that everything has been so ransacked just fifteen years later because the math doesn’t seem right there. If 99% of the US died within days so that there was no prolonged destructive cycle to use up resources, that'd be roughly 3 million people left in a country that had all the crap that 300 million people accumulated. Yet, Kristen is amazed to find a house in the woods that had not been searched where she finds a dress to replace hers that is worn out. Or guns and ammo are portrayed as being increasingly rare even though America has enough guns that each survivor could have about 1000 each. Books also seem to be in short supply as if the libraries were also killed by the flu. 

So those would be some serious flaws in the premise if you were judging this solely on criteria like world building (Or world destroying.) and plausibility, but it didn’t lower my opinion much because this just isn’t that kind of book. It’s more interested at exploring human connections as well as providing a reminder that we’re living in an age of unappreciated wonders that is a lot more fragile than we want to admit, and at that Mandel succeeds exceedingly well.

Also posted on Goodreads.