OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE by Lawrence Block

Number 7 in the Matt Scudder mystery series, this one written in 1989.  Yep, we are still in the era where he makes phone calls from pay phones and lives in a residential hotel for cheap, and actually has a real honest-to-goodness phone in his room. I have decided he is a very Zen kind of person.  He earns just enough to live on and sporadically support his kids, he doesn’t go looking for cases, they all just come to him, his possessions in his hotel room are minimal, he has no car, and he tries to do good.  What more can we ask of life?  Well, we can ask more, we all do, don’t we, but perhaps we shouldn’t, since studies show that happiness is not in possessing things, but in possessing interests and being interesting, and being interested in something.

In this volume, Scudder has been sober for three years, and a Subaru dealer from Indiana has hired him to find his missing daughter,  would-be actress Paula Hoeldtke.  She seems to have moved out of her rooming house room, leaving behind only the sheets and the telephone answering machine.  Her parents haven’t heard from her in several months and can’t contact her, so the dad comes to the city, where he is directed to Matt Scudder to kind of nose around and see what he can come up with.

Meanwhile, a fellow AA member whom he met at one of the meetings has asked Scudder to hear his confessions of his failings, which is Step 5 of the AA program.  Scudder agrees, and when he doesn’t hear from him for a while, looks for him, and finds him dead in his room, asphyxiated by a rope tied to his bed frame.  Looks like an auto-eroticism act gone wrong.

In the course of his investigations he acquires a dangerous new lady (she drinks) and a dangerous new friend (they call him “The Butcher Boy,”, both of whom impact his life in different ways.

As reviewer Bill Kerwin writes, this is a typical Matt Scudder mystery: slow as molasses, slim on plot, very grim—and totally absorbing.  Yep.  I do like this series, because although the subjects are often very heavy, it is easy reading.    This one teaches us about Paris Green.  It is the name of a restaurant the protagonists patronize.

“It gets the feel of the place across.  The French atmosphere, and all the plants hanging from the ceiling.”

“Don’t you know what Paris green is?”

“Evidently not.”

“It’s a poison,” she said.  “It’s an arsenic compound.  Arsenic and copper, if I remember right, and that would account for the color.  It used to get a lot of use as an insecticide.  You would spray it on plants to kill chewing insects. They absorbed it and died.  Paris green was also used as a coloring agent.  To color things green.  They used it primarily in wallpaper, and consequently a lot of people have died over the year, most of them children with a bent for oral experimentation.”

How apt for a murder mystery book.  Spoiler:  it has nothing to do with the deaths in this book.  It is just an interesting side note.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Scudder has with a playwrite, who is discussing an ill friend who is too ill to revise his play.  (Remember, this is the 80s.)  The playwrite says to Scudder

“Everyone’s dying.  Have you noticed? …. Do you know what I think?”

“What?”

“The earth has AIDS.  We’re all whirling merrily through the void on a dying planet, and gay people are just doing their usual number, being shamelessly trendy as always.  Right out in front on the cutting edge of death.”

 

OK, now I am sad.

Enjoy your read, and fret not, for there are many more to come in the series.

 

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AFTER CLAUDE by Iris Owens

This is one of those arch, darkly humorous works of what I call urban sardonic writings which were so popular in the second half of the last century. Kind of like Iris Murdoch with a lot more bile and bite.

Barbed and bitchy, it is almost scary. Here’s the plot: Harriet is leaving her boyfriend Claude, “the French rat.” That at least is how Harriet sees things, even if it’s Claude who has just asked Harriet to leave his Greenwich Village apartment. He found her in the stairwell crying one night, having been kicked out of a friend’s apartment, and he offered her to stay in his place for a couple of days until she found a new apartment. Ok, that was months ago, and she is still there.

Well, one way or another she has no intention of leaving. To the contrary, she will stay and exact revenge—or would have if Claude had not had her unceremoniously evicted. Still, though moved out, Harriet is not about to move on. Not in any way. Girlfriends circle around to patronize and advise, but Harriet only takes offense, and it’s easy to understand why. Because mad and maddening as she may be, Harriet sees past the polite platitudes that everyone else is content to spout and live by. She is unblinkered, unbuttoned, unrelenting.  With no place to go she moves to the Chelsea Hotel where a flakey guru offers her a place in his harem.

Harriet is one of those horrifying leech people who will not let go, and make everything seem the fault of those trying to help her. I found it unfunny, maybe because our current times are so unfunny. But it does have some funny lines.

Iris Owens spent her early career writing pornography for the Olympia Press in Paris. She wrote only two literary novels, After Claude being the first. The novelist Emily Prager writes an introduction to the book, and you begin to get the idea of what you are getting into when she says, “I am honored to write this introduction for Iris’s book but I think you should know she and I were not speaking.” For me, that was the funniest line in the entire book.

WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES by Lawrence Block

This is the sixth novel in the Matthew Scudder series of detective fiction.  Who likes the sixth of anything in a series, right?  Yeah, usually by the sixth volume, it is getting stale and repetitive and we Gentle Readers are starting to get the idea that the author is in it just to scrape off the money more better deserved in the first several books.

Yeah, well, you would be wrong.  Another really fine offering, and told by our protagonist quasi-P.I. Matt Scudder, ten years after he quit drinking.  Some lovely reminiscences of his old neighborhood, of places known and loved and gone now, replaced by other, possibly lesser, establishments.  Although he still lives in that hotel, most of life and environment have changed.

The mystery in this book  involves not one particular case, but three: the armed robbery of an after-hours joint, the extortion of a tavern for the return of its cooked books, and the murder of the wife of a patron of one of Matt’s usual haunts. Scudder does eventually connect two cases and solve them, and he sort of solves the other case too, but it seems the point of the book is a meditative farewell to drink: to its taste, to its effects on the drinker, to the world where it is served and the colorful people found there, but, most of all, to the bond between drinker and world, a bond which our determinedly sober protagonist may never experience again.

I love the titles to Block’s books, but this one was especially good.  Matt doesn’t want to go back to his lonely hotel room after the bar shuts down for the night, and a friend/barkeeper says to him, “You’re a guy, a human being.  Just another poor son of a bitch who doesn’t want to be alone when the sacred ginmill closes.”  The barman explains that is from the Dave Van Ronk song, “Last Call”.

And so we’ve had another night
Of poetry and poses
And each man knows he’ll be alone
When the sacred ginmill closes

And so we’ll drink the final glass
Each to his joy and sorrow
And hope the numbing drink will last
Til opening tomorrow

And when we stumble back again
Like paralytic dancers
Each knows the question he must ask
And each man knows the answer

And so we’ll drink the final drink
That cuts the brain in sections
Where answers do not signify
And there aren’t any questions

I broke my heart the other day
It will mend again tomorrow
If I’d been drunk when I was born
I’d be ignorant of sorrow

And so we’ll drink the final toast
That never can be spoken:
Here’s to the heart that is wise enough
To know when it’s better off broken.

The lyrics have a kind of T. S. Eliot feel, don’t they.

NEMESIS GAMES by James S. A. Corey

The fifth in the hopefully never ending series The Expanse, by those two guy who write under one name.  For what has gone before, just put the author’s name in the search box here.

This series is space opera and character development and epic story telling and some nifty imagined futuristic science, and all those good things wrapped up in a hard sci fi package set in the future future, where we have technology to reach the stars via the ‘Epstein Drive’,  which is a modified fusion drive invented by [the fictional] Solomon Epstein and which enabled humanity to travel beyond Earth and the inner planets and colonize the Asteroid Belt and outer planets.

The drive utilizes magnetic coil exhaust acceleration to increase drive efficiency, which enables spaceships to sustain thrust throughout the entire voyage. A ship fitted with the efficient Epstein drive is able to run the drive continuously for acceleration to its goal and then after flipping at about the halfway point is able to run the drive continuously during deceleration. Previous engine designs used propellant less efficiently and could not be run long enough to achieve the high velocities that the Epstein drive permitted.

Since its invention and up until the discovery of the Ring network, the Epstein drive remained the most advanced transportation technology humanity had access to.

 

In Cibola Burn, the protomolocule’s gate has opened the doors to innumerable worlds for humanity, and a movement to colonize new planets is underway. But, it’s not all good news for the solar system’s power struggle: Mars’ terraforming project is threatened by the mass exodus, and the Belt is seeing its own sources of supplies and resources dwindling.

At the start of Nemesis Games, the worst case scenario unfolds: Ships have begun to disappear across the solar system, and a brazen attack against Earth and Mars plunges the solar system into chaos. Each of the crew of the Rocinante are caught up in the action as the solar system is torn apart.  Nemesis Games turns into a complicated solar-political story: radicalized Belters declare war on the rest of the system, attempting to kill the political leaders of Earth and Mars, and worse. The undercurrents of racism and economic inequality that have shaped Corey’s world come up front and center.   We see a couple of serious points emerging out of the space opera story — that radical actions and movements don’t come out of thin air: they’re born out of inequality and racism, often at the hands of those who are willing to overlook the human cost of their actions. In the Belt, each day is survival, and there’s some clear parallels between the War on Terror and the actions of the OPA’s Free Navy (the radicals’ organization) movement.

And secondly, the violent actions of terrorists rarely speak for the entirety of a people: Rather, they’re conducted by individuals looking to expand their own power, latching on to whatever is convenient to get people to follow them and act in their name.

This was a humdinger, a page turned from beginning to end.  LOVE LOVE LOVE this series.

nem·e·sis
ˈneməsəs/
noun

– the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall,  archrival, adversary, foe, opponent, arch enemy

  • a long-standing rival; an archenemy.

-a downfall caused by an inescapable agent.

 

DECEPTIVE CADENCE by Kathryn guare

This is the first of The Virtuosic Spy series, and features, of all things, a reluctant Irish violin player who is sucked into spying for the M6, which is the British spy  counterpart of the US CIA organization.

Our grudging protagonist is from a farm family in Ireland.  He has become a successful violinist playing with the Dublin Symphony Orchestra, and loves his life.  He has an older brother, who loved the farm.  But he somehow got himself into a financial mess by applying for some government grant and squandering it.  He then disappears completely.  Our boy, Connor, is forced to return to the farm and his ailing mother, to work the farm and pay off the debt, thereby giving up the career he loved.

He is approached by a dapper fellow who tells him that he is with M6 and wants to recruit Connor to go to India to find his brother, whom they are sure is a kingpin in a money laundering activity there, find him and turn him over to the government.

Well, the whole thing turns into a spy vs. spy thing, with lots of various government thumbs in a lots of various legal and illegal pies.  A great spy thriller, with lots of twists and turns.  And you will love that he uses an obscure classical piece of music as an almost unbreakable password.  Because who would think of that, right?

Really well written, and guess what ….. by a woman, no less!  Who says women can’t write international spy thrillers.

So I bet you are wondering about the title, Deceptive Cadence, aren’t you.  Sure you were.  It comes from the  musical term for a chord progression where the dominant chord is followed by a chord other than the tonic chord  — usually the sixth chord or superdominant chord or submediant chord (V-VI), but sometimes something else.  In other words, for us music-theory-challenged folks, it is not followed by what our ear is expecting …. a resolution to the chord progression…. but by something unexpected, which does not resolve the progression, but sets it off in new directions.

You can see how much I love you because I dug this out for you so that you didn’t have to do it yourselves.   

CIBOLA BURN by James S. A. Corey

This is the fourth in The Expanse sci fi series.  This novel describes the flood of humanity now pouring out into the galaxy and the race for the newly accessible resources on the various planets and asteroids, using the ring gates that the aliens have left behind something like a kabillion years ago.

I absolutely love love love this series.  Each is a stand alone book, loosely hooked to characters and situations from the previous volumes,with the four crew members of the Rocinante being the centerpiece of the series,  so if you have read any or all of the previous, you recognize some principles from the other books, and if you have not read them, there is enough back story to keep you in the loop without being b.o.r.i.n.g.

This series is about the Belters, people from the outer planets, most of whom have never been to Earth or Mars,  and about Earth and the UN which has started the process of methodically cataloging and investigating the new planets on the other side of the mysterious ring,  and trying to regulate who can settle and mine which planet, and about the OPA, the Outer Planet Association, which represents the Belters’ interests against the Earth UN.

Mars gets a nod here, and it is becoming clear that Mars will eventually be a lost civilization because the terraforming is slow going, and frankly, now with the rings opening up the universe to planets with Earth-like atmosphere, who wants to live their entire life underground while waiting for breathable air and the radiation to go away?  Mars will become a ghost planet, yesterday’s news, old hat, or should I say old space helmet?

In this volume, refugees from the Ganymede disaster end up on a ship that finally locates a remote uninhabited planet with atmosphere, which they name Ilus.  After landing, and looking around, they discover it has a great quantity of lithium, a highly salable alkali metal, and begin mining it.  Turns out the planet also has some weird wildlife, some of which is not exactly life, if you catch my drift.

A research ship sent by the UN shows up to take possession because they have a charter from the UN, but some Ilus activists blow up the landing site, and unfortunately, catching a shuttle as it was about to land, killing some of the scientists on board.  Thus starts a war between the two, led by a psychopathic head of security on the research vessel and a hotheaded activist on the planet.  James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante, a Mars  war ship, awarded to him for his services, and his crew, are sent by the UN head, the indomitable Chrisjen Avasarala, to act as mediator.  Accompanied by the ghost of the detective killed in an earlier volume, Holden finds a mess, and the ghost Miller is a construct of some vast alien being who is The Investigator looking for the thing that killed off the protomolecular and to disarm it.

A little confusing, but definitely different in scope.

A nuclear explosion in the ocean on the other side of the world from the colony sets off a vast tsumani which totally destroys the planet.  Fortunately there were ancient ruins of the alien to shelter in, but the days and weeks of the subsequent rains bring down an organism which finds the human eye just a dandy habitat, and everyone is slowing going blind, even while both sides are still trying to kill each other.  Such a fine testament to the basic nature of humanity.

Lots of exciting stuff goes on, and although some reviewers were not happy with the book, I — having much lower standards — thought it was great.

The title…. all the titles in this series seem to refer to some — often obscure — sci fi title or theme.  Cibola is a mythical area somewhere in the American southwest, thought to contain 7 cities flowing with gold and treasures.  The Spaniard Coronado tried to find it and all he could locate were some very poor settlements.   In this book, I think the reference is to the idea that the planet Ilus has a treasure — an abundance of lithium, which now all the big three (Earth, Mars and the OPA) want and will do what they can to obtain it.  Since the myth talks about seven cities, maybe it suggests there are six more planets, or maybe it refers to the quest for the treasure.  In addition, the noted sci fi author Connie Willis wrote a book about a journalist who meets a woman who claims to be the great granddaughter of Coronado, but that would make her 300 years old, and also claims she knows where Cibola is, so the journalist and the woman set off on a quest to find it.

 

THE RED: FIRST LIGHT by Linda Nagata

Official plot:  Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear.

OK, folks, this is a military sci-fi story set in something like today, and …. you ladies will love this … it is written by a woman.  It was originally an indie-published book but has been re-released by a major publisher. Does my heart good to see women sci fi writers get the notice they deserve.

So, like I said, not just a sci-fi, but a military sci-fi, and what the heck was I doing reading this?  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we share an Amazon account, whatever he downloads shows up on my Kindle, too.  So I started reading it thinking it was …. well, I don’t know, I just started reading it, and found it kinda hard to put down, frankly.

It is kind of cyberpunkish, I guess, because Lt. Shelley has implants in his head, and their suits are like exoskeleton things, and they have all these nifty weapons.   They get caught in a surprise attack, and Lt. Shelley gets his legs blown off, but not to fret, Gentle Readers, they have a new experimental deal where they attach prosthetic  legs right to the bone and muscle!!!,  (which my amputee Dearly Beloved would truly prefer, since his above-the-knee prosthesis weighs a friggin’ ton.)   So after getting his cyborg attachments, back he goes into a secret and very dangerous mission.

Because, here’s the thing, it is getting known that he gets these feelings,  that warn him of coming bad stuff, and one of his team calls him King David, (you know, how God spoke to King David and helped him win battles? Not the part where King D. sent his best friend into combat to die so he, King D., could have the wife.  Not that part.)  That he has these warnings is starting to get around, and rather than think it is God or some alien, it is suspected that it is a computer programming hack, that possibly arose on its own out of a collection of marketing and inventory programs.  An emergent program, if you will.  However, others think it is  defense-contractor designed program, because as we all know, if there are no wars, DCs don’t make any money.

One interesting aspect of the storyline, interesting because I keep trying to ignore it here in R. L., is that the defense contracting industry went from supporting government declaring war, to figuring out they would do better by buying the congress so that the congress would find new places to hold a war, and then….. it occurred to them they could bypass the middleman Congress altogether and start wars all by themselves.

It was just a great read, and I am glad I stumbled onto it.  There is a sequel, but as the storyline gets more into conspiracy theory and farther away from It Was Aliens, I am less interested.

Oh, and the title comes from a major player who believes Satan is behind all the problems, and says that the Devil is everywhere.  He is the red stain bleeding through into all the affairs of Men.   People have started referring to the hacking as the red stain, or simply, the red.  I found that interesting, because the Spanish word for network is red.   Synchronicity.

I still hope its aliens.