Thursday, September 29, 2022

Review: The Mourner

The Mourner The Mourner by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Parker was in the middle of a night of passion with Bett Harrow, he got attacked by a would-be assassin from the Outfit. Parker dealt with the guy, but Bett ended up sneaking away with a gun that had Parker’s prints on it. Since his prints are on file from an old arrest and Bett knows his best assumed identity, this could lead to big problems.

Turns out that Bett, who has a thing for the bad boys, has a rich daddy who wants to have a small statue worth a fortune stolen from a diplomat who doesn’t realize what he has. For a hefty fee and the return of the gun with his prints, Parker agrees to the job. However, the diplomat’s communist government thinks he’s been embezzling and sends their most trusted spy to settle the matter just as Parker and his comrade Handy McKay are setting up their theft. Will Parker be able to do the job and recover the incriminating gun?

This is another stand-out Parker story with the usual complications and double-crosses screwing with what should be a simple job. Stark (a/k/a Westlake) uses this one to give us a better idea of Parker’s code of ethics, such as it is. While Parker is always a no-nonsense pragmatist who is willing to do things like torture people for needed info, he considers it a wasteful and unpleasant way to do things. He also shows that if he makes a deal, and if the other party holds up their end, that Parker will keep his word. (Usually.) But if anyone double-crosses him, then he’ll stop at nothing to get what he’s owed.

Another surprising thing in this one is the loyalty he shows to Handy McKay. When circumstances make it appear that ditching Handy would be a safer and more profitable option for several reasons, Parker still sticks with Handy and does quite a bit for him. Maybe it’s because he’s the closest thing to a friend that Parker has, but it was a little surprising seeing the unsentimental thief stick his neck out for somebody else.

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Review: Heat 2

Heat 2 Heat 2 by Michael Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 1995 film Heat is one of my favorite movies of all time so I was both excited and scared to check this book out. Sequels to things you loved two or three decades ago can go either way. For every totally awesome Top Gun: Maverick there’s an abomination like Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

So how did Heat 2 do? Much better than Afterlife, but not as well as Maverick.

Writer/director Michael Mann teamed up with veteran crime novelist Meg Gardiner to give us a story that is equal parts prequel and sequel. The story bounces between the '80s when thief Neil McCauley and his crew were pulling jobs while cop Vincent Hanna is desperately trying to stop another group of criminals pulling off extremely brutal home invasions that include rape and murder. The sequel thread involves one of the survivors of the original film trying to escape the cops and what happens in the subsequent years. An old thread that ties the whole Heat story together eventually draws characters back into the same orbit, but none of them realize this at first.

As just a crime novel, this works pretty well. Mann knows how to do stories about heists, and there’s a couple of great ones in this. There’s interesting background information we learn about the characters from the movie that adds some depth to them. The dialogue hits as it did in the movies so that when a character speaks, you can hear the actor who portrayed them in 1995 saying the lines. This is particularly true of Vincent Hanna where it's very easy to imagine a younger Al Pacino belting some of these out with his own brand of gusto.

The thing I thought didn’t work as well is what happens in the sequel portion when we jump forward to 2000. At this point the crime aspect isn’t about heists, it’s more about high tech black market computer gear with international organized crime.. That feels like it's borrowing elements from more recent Mann movies such as Blackhat or Miami Vice. That’s an interesting topic, too, but it felt like the book turned into something else then.

Also, there’s no getting around the fact that Mann is a filmmaker so a lot of his appeal is visual in nature. Yes, he can create great characters who speak snappy dialogue filled with a lot of cool lingo, and he and Gardiner can set the scene well. But I felt myself longing to see the action play out on a big screen with amazing locations, a killer soundtrack, and Mann’s distinctive visual style rather than just reading it. It also leaves a lot left hanging so it’s not entirely satisfying to wait almost three decades for a follow up that still has more to come.

Still, more of this works than doesn’t, and I enjoyed it. It was a real treat to revisit this fictional world again. It’s 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

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Friday, September 9, 2022

Review: The Outfit

The Outfit The Outfit by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Parker and the Outfit had a dispute in the first book of the series, Parker warned them what he’d do if they didn’t leave him alone. But after surviving an attempt on his life, it’s time for Parker to make good on his threat.

As Parker told the bosses of the Outfit, all the professional thieves know each other, and all of them have worked out some kind of scenario for robbing one of their operations because they’re cash-rich and won’t bring any legal attention. Potential revenge by the Outfit is the only thing stopping anyone from acting on their plans. But if someone fired a starting gun and they all hit at the roughly the same time, the confusion would greatly increase the chances that they’d be able to get away with no payback.

Parker writes a series of letters asking his fellow thieves to go ahead and hit any syndicate operation they’ve had their eye on. Many jump at the chance, not out of any friendship or loyalty to Parker (Parker doesn’t have friends.) but because someone gave them an excuse. As the Outfit reels from the shock of multiple robberies and the loss of a small fortune, Parker is going to find the head man and settle his problem once and for all.

This is one of the few Parker books that wouldn’t use the plot of him planning a job, carrying it out and dealing with complications, and it gives Stark (a/k/a Westlake) a chance to spin several mini-stories in the middle of the book as he deftly describes some of the different robberies that Parker’s fellow thieves carry out against the Outfit.

This one really solidifies Parker’s no-nonsense nature. With no patience for polite chit-chat or other social niceties, Parker’s encounters with other people can be hilarious. When he recruits Handy McKay to join him on his attempt to get to the top Outfit man, Parker offers money and a chance at picking up more along the way. When McKay indicates that he doesn’t really care about the money, that he’s going along because of their relationship, Parker is baffled and uncomfortable about it. He doesn’t understand sentimentality and doesn’t like that McKay is showing it about him.

Another solid Parker outing that wraps up a lot of the overall plot arcs from the first couple of books but leaves one nice dangling thread for Parker to pick up in the next one.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bernie Rhodenbarr is not happy about the state of the world. As a used bookseller his business has been pretty much destroyed by Amazon, and that used to be less of a problem because he made most of his money in his second job as a burglar. However, the modern world is now filled with surveillance cameras and various forms of electronic security that can’t be cracked with old school lockpicking. When a rich jerk buys a priceless diamond and brags about keeping it in a nearby penthouse, it’s a score that Bernie would have once jumped at, but one quick look convinces him that he wouldn’t even be able to get into the building.

Bernie grumbles about all this to his best friend Carol over drinks one night, and after going home he then tries to take his mind off it by reading a book by Fredric Brown about alternate universes. Something strange happens the next day though.

The world seems mostly the same, but Bernie’s Metrocard has now been changed to a Subway Card. Even weirder, his bookstore is now doing a brisk business and Amazon doesn’t exist. Bernie also quickly notices that there are far less security cameras and high tech locks around. Only he and Carol seem aware that there’s been any changes, and Bernie can only guess that somehow they’ve shifted to an alternate universe that is lot more hospitable to a guy who sells books and breaks into places. Maybe he could even now manage to steal a priceless diamond.

Getting a new <i>Burglar</i> novel at this point feels like a real treat precisely because of what Bernie himself is saying at the start of the story. It’s nigh on impossible to be a bookseller who just runs an actual store or be a professional burglar in modern times. So when the series is oriented around those as key traits of the main character, you’d think it’d be time to retire or maybe set the book in the past.

So it’s a delight that Lawrence Block found a loophole with the idea of alternate realities, and then just transplants the whole concept to one in which Bernie can not only exist, but thrive. It’s a little odd because Mr. Block isn’t really associated with sci-fi, and to just have this happen in a series that’s been set in ‘reality’ requires a regular reader to shift into a different gear. 

Yet it completely worked for me because the alt-universe thing isn’t the point, it’s just a way for Mr. Block to tell us a story with Bernie again. Not only that, the story eventually becomes a kind of meta-commentary in which Bernie starts to become self-aware about how a lot of his burglary jobs become complicated and involve him playing an amatuer sleuth. Most importantly, this still feels like a Bernie book with him having his conservations with Carol, trying to steal something, and solving a mystery in a low-key grounded kind of way.

Mr. Block has said that he’s retired from writing novels, but fortunately we exist in a reality where a new book like this can appear.