A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block

This is the last of the Matthew Scudder detective series.  I disliked the previous two because of the unwanted sections giving the viewpoint of the serial killer.  But in what may be the final Scudder book, we are back to old times, old style.

Scudder is now in his sixties, still sober, still married to Elaine, and sitting around with his old friend and criminal, Mick, who has now married the daughter of the folks murdered two books ago.  He has also cut way back on the drink, some days not drinking at all.   As the two get to reminiscing, Scudder remembers old High-Low Jack, Jack Ellery.  They were in grammar school together for a couple of years before Scudder’s family moved, and ran into each other a couple of times since, with Matt having joined the police force, and Jack having taken a criminal route.

But when they meet once again, about a year after Matt is sober, it is at an AA meeting, and Jack has been sober longer than Matt, a couple of years at least.  He is working the Steps, the twelve steps of the program which have been created to help a person get sober and remain sober.   He is working on the 8th and 9th steps, where one lists all those one has harmed by one’s drinking, and in the 9th step, goes to each one to make amends.

He is found one day in his rooming house room, shot twice, once in the mouth, and it is not suicide, unless you consider him a very determined person.   The police have nothing, and the case goes cold, but Jack’s sponsor has a dilemma which he discusses with Matt.  He has the list of persons harmed written by Jack, and if he turns it over to the police, they could involve a lot of innocent people with dicey backgrounds.  If he doesn’t turn over the list, perhaps the killer is among those on the list and will go free.  He asks Scudder to investigate the people on the list in order to clear them.  And it looks like everyone on the list is clear.  And then some of them start turning up dead, one as an apparent victim of a murder, and one an apparent suicide.

Great mystery, really well done, and the case solved by Scudder’s now legendary tenacity and inability to let go.

There was a lot about AA and the meetings, and a fair amount about the steps, and I found it all just so interesting.  I am glad this seems to be the last of the series, because I was getting tired of it,  and judging from the previous two books, so was the author, but I did want to finish out the series.  The book ends with Matt and Mike:

Somewhere along the way he’d returned his bottle to the back bar and came back with a liter of Evian water.  And there we sat, two old men up past our bedtime, talking and drinking water.

I might try some of his other series.  He is a prolific writer with a style I enjoy.

 

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THE SEEKER’S RIDDLE by Andrew Calhoun

A seventeen-year-old kid from Corpus Christi in the Southern Union, an insular and backward-looking area of the country (world? not sure), wants out.  He is obsessed with space, and astrophysics.  It is the 23rd century, and citizens of the SU are not accepted into top universities in other areas because their education is so backward.  Locke Howden and his ten-year-old sister are orphans, living off the charity of their housemates.  He figures if he gets a job mining asteroids on a three-year hitch, then goes to a decent university, he will finally be able to return to Earth and get his sister for a decent life elsewhere.

On the elevator vehicle to the space station transportation center, he meets a young woman pilot and her autistic brother who is continually tapping something.  Bullies enter the room, and do bullying things, Locke intervenes, and the sister is grateful.  He eventually figures out that the young autistic man is tapping out some mathematical equations.   They reach the space station and board their transport to the outer fringes of the galaxy, but help!  The ship is boarded by pirates, and the sister, the brother and Locke are kidnapped and taken to an heretofore undiscovered planet.  Fortunately, this planet is like earth with gravity, biosphere, atmosphere, and all that.  What is also on the planet is a downed HUGE spaceship.  The planet is the headquarters for the pirates, and they want to get into that spaceship but it apparently still has internal power, and the security system won’t allow them in.  In fact, there is a vestibule which has a wall containing a puzzle which must be solved in order to get into the rest of the ship.

Turns out the pirates are ‘hacked androids’ — human brains and consciousness in an android human-like body, and the ship won’t let them even near it.  But the planet also has a community of human farmers, and the ship will allow the humans into the vestibule. But nobody can solve that puzzle.

The autistic brother is actually a savant, with some extraordinary knowledge, and the pirates kidnap him hoping he will be able to solve that puzzle and get them inside the ship.

All very space opera-y and fun, and filled with some interesting ideas.  But there were some things that kind of took it out of the A+ category for me.  First of all, not sure why the protagonist was a 17 year old boy.  It didn’t quite work for me, seems like it should have been a young twenties person.  Second of all, and most annoying, even though the time is the 23rd century, the book is filled with current, and not only current to 2018, but current to mid-20th century’s slang and phrases and references.  Like when a character who is in a hurry quotes Frost:  “I’m afraid I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Really?  Folks would still be quoting a somewhat minor American poet of the twentieth century in the twenty-third century?  naaaaaah.  And lots of tired old cliches, which are tired old cliches even now, like “avoid like the plague”.  Stuff like that.  It put me off.

This is billed as a First Contact novel, so I am not letting the alien out of the bag if I tell you that, yeah, there were aliens, the main spokesalien of which seemed a pretty jazzy hipster, which also struck an odd note.  I can go with the alien speaking English using one of the character’ brains and body, but it seems just a little far-fetched that it would be so culturally attuned in his attitude and speech. Well, culturally attuned, that is, to the twenty-first century American culture.

But anyway, as I said, it was fun, and hey, aliens! Right?  Nifty weapons.  A boots-on-the-ground battle. The good guys win, the bad guys go to android heaven, and the rest who have a righteous mission to save the rest of their android brethern and sisteren from slavery, go and do just that.

(Yes, I know that sisteren is not a word. I was just being cute.)

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

I wonder how many lifeboat books there are, other than Das Boot?   Maybe not as many as a reader might think.

This lifeboat tale is told in first person by a sweet young newlywed, Grace Winter, whose husband does something ….. we are never sure just exactly what ….. to get her into an already somewhat overcrowded lifeboat as their ship, The Empress of something or another, sank rapidly after a mysterious explosion.

It is 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just assassinated, so and after having honeymooned in Europe, the young Winters grab a ship home to the USA.  but alas, that explosion puts an end to their lovely cruise.  Was it from a submarine?  The cause was never found, but it was found that the lifeboats were underequipped, and the evacuation process was chaotic, with some boats not full, and other overcrowded.

The boat in which Grace found herself included one seaman from the ship, who took charge.  As they float around, hoping to be rescued,  the 39 passengers began to exhibit their true natures, and our narrator begins to show us that perhaps she is not as reliable a narrator as we might have wished.

We learn of these events as she writes her account of the ordeal while sitting in prison awaiting trial with two other women, for murder of one of the people on the lifeboat.  She writes not only about the lifeboat but about her life leading up to the sailing, and we come to understand that Grace has the soul of a survivor, and nice guys finish last.

Great book, and the twists are sleight and devious, until we come to that point where we are saying to ourselves, “Oh.  Oh. Oh.”,  having been under the spell of the sweet-natured and good-hearted Grace.  We remind ourselves that it is the winners who write the history.

 

THE MADNESS OF GRIEF by Panayotis Cacoyannis

It is 1969, London, and motherless teenager Jane is about to learn even more about the world, and her world, than she may possibly want to.

Cacoyannis’ trademark quirky style is evident once again as it dances around a … oh, what’s that word for not exactly sad? …. oh, yeah, poignant, that’s it …. poignant tale about secrets.  Everybody has them, don’t they.   Even me.  My secret is that I am not really 37.  But back to Jane, and her …  what’s the word for goofball in a good way? … oh, yeah, eccentric, that’s it … eccentric family and friends.  Her father is a magician.  Mr. Magikoo.  He is beloved by his fans, and spends a good deal of time touring the country with his wife and daughter.  Well, hey, it’s 1967, and in 1967 we all still thought the world was a lovely place, we were just coming out of that era of naiveté that spawned Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Benny Hill, Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar, and the like, so Mr. Magikoo’s popularity is not such a stretch.

Well, the touring goes just fine until Mr. Magikoo kills his wife.  OK, OK, it was an accident, having to do with electricity and lightning, but still.  So he continues touring with his young daughter right up until the time he wanted her to walk between some swinging knives mechanism they dubbed the Sweeney Todd, until his sister put a stop to THAT, you better believe it!

Dad eventually takes up with a classy lady, Mia-Mia, who moves in, mostly, cleans and cooks and takes care of the two of them in their tiny house next to the magic shop, displacing Aunty Ada, who had been doing that for them, and whose nose was now a bit out of joint about it.

Jane has a bff, a young man, Karl, a classical pianist, who has a German mother who is a Reichian therapist, and a father who left them long ago for another woman.

Frau Angela had married a philandering Smith, and then, when it dawned on her what he was up to, divorced him and proudly reverted to Schmidt.  Frau Angela (who was now Dr. Schmidt) had then insisted on a hyphenated surname for their son, and Karl duly became a Schmidt-Smith.

If you have read enough Cacoyannis, you will already suspect that all is not as it seems, and that there are secrets that have other secrets, and that the book is actually an onion.  You know, layers, and layers, and every time you peel off a layer, your eyes tear up.

I am not going to tell you any of the secrets, because that would spoil the whole thing for you.  But remember that it is a book about secrets and identity, and realness and fantasy, grief and recovery, and what masquerades as fantasy often is a disguise for despair.

I admit to a smidge of disappointment with the ending.  I felt it was cliché and ..oh, what’s the word for facile and overdone?…. oh, yeah, trite, that’s it….. trite.  In fact, it could have done just splendidly without the final section altogether.  But what do I know?  I’m just a simple illiterate peasant who likes to read and muse on the human condition.  Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, criticize.  Guess which one I do.

I have to give Mr. Cacoyannis some serious praise for his seemingly innate ability to write a female character.  Not only a female character, but a teenage female character.  Everything about Jane struck just the right note, and I should know, having once myself been a teenage female, about a century ago or so.

So, funny, quirky, sad, surprising, clever and witty.  And the title?

That for everything else I forgave him, because the things that happened after we lost mum didn’t count, they were all part of a madness that couldn’t be helped.  That madness of grief….

 

CARS, CATS AND CROOKS by r. H. Carter

A little cozy mystery, and I didn’t even deduct points for it not using the Oxford comma in the title.

Very lightweight mystery.  A guy loses his job he has had at a car factory, and is actually happy, because he wants to become a private eye, now is his chance.  So he sets up shop, his wife being very helpful, and offers him his first case, the missing cat of the elderly next door neighbor.   He takes on a ‘partner’, the at-loose-ends 18-year-old-son of his divorced sister, and together they nose around the neighborhood.  However, when the woman receives a ransom note, the case takes on more gravitas as a catnapping.  He enlists the aid of his police detective brother, and come up with some useful info, and go to the perp’s house and discover the missing cat.  Case solved!

No, no, no, wait. Don’t leave.  There’s more.  The boyfriend of his sister has a son who works at the same place our new PI used to work.  The son of the boyfriend appears to have committed suicide, and Peyton (our PI) rushes over there with his sister.  The police arrive, call it a suicide, complete with suicide note on computer, but the father is sure it is not and enlists the aid of Peyton and partner to see what he can find out.   Things get hairier and more serious, family secrets begin bubbling to the surface, and it all sounds a lot more interesting that it really was in the reading.

I don’t know why.  It was a fairly decent plot and a fairly decently contrived mystery, but somehow it never read as all that serious. Not sure why. You ever have that experience of reading about some serious issues but it doesn’t have that weighty feel to it?  Wish I could explain better.

Anyway, this is the first in the Kimble Detective Agency series.

 

THE BIG CLOCK by Kenneth Fearing

This 1946 novel is one of those pieces of crime fiction that you can call literature, encompassing as it does something of a meditation on mortality, which the protagonist calls The Big Clock.   It has what I think of as a literary mid-twentieth century feel to it, (think The New Yorker fiction).

In this noir crime novel, we meet George Stroud,  a writer, managing editor for one of the entities of a large New York media conglomerate.  He meets the girlfriend of his boss at a party, and as things happen, they get together.  They go away for a weekend, return to the city in time for dinner and a stop at a bar, and a stroll down a street of antique shops where he buys a small painting from a now obscure painter, one whose work he is collecting.

He drops her off at her apartment building but does not go in.  As he stands there, he sees his boss arrive and go into the building.

The next day, the woman is found murdered, and we know the boss did it, because the perspective of the narration goes from character, and one of them is the boss telling us of his act.

The boss goes from the woman’s apartment to the home of his number one guy, one who is willing to do what needs to be done, and this guy sets up a search for the unknown man who was with her, because he would be the most likely candidate for the killing.  The second in command sets George and his staff, who work for Crimeways, an investigative magazine, to pull out  all the stops and find this unknown man.  George does what he can to slow down this process as he thinks of what he can do to get out of this, because he knows his life isn’t worth diddly as the top brass work to keep the boss’ name clear, to keep the magazines from going under.

Very cleverly plotted, tight and concise.  And I am not telling you anything more.  Read it yourself, because it is short, and you can get it free on Project Gutenberg.

You can get very artsy if you wish about the symbolism in the book, because Fearing was very concerned with the dissolution of American life, with it becoming a mechanized society devoid of belief, faith, and love.  George Stroud represents Everyman, the antihero, the Big Clock represent the inexorable march of time and its tyranny over everything, the media company he worked for represents the soulless money machine, the Pac Man of its day gobbling everything in its wake.  It won’t surprise you to know that Fearing was a very respected poet in his day.

The book has been adapted for the cinema three times. The first and most faithful was the film of the same title,  then came a little-known adaptation  Police Python 357, a 1976 French film starring Yves Montand, Stefania Sandrelli and Simone Signoret , and finally one  loosely adapted into the Kevin Costner spy movie No Way Out.

 

THE BELIEVERS by Zoë Heller

Audrey, a British chick, meets  American lawyer Joel Litvinoff at a party in London, and for a date, Audrey takes him to meet her Polish immigrant parents in their tiny, airless, awful apartment in some distant village.  When they arrive back in London, she invites him to bed, and after love-making, he proposes and she accepts, and off they go to America, NYC.

He becomes famous for his Socialism, defense of the poor and downtrodden, his activism in human and civil rights, and Audrey is right there at his side.

So far, so good, except that she, having adopted an attitude of British coolness and distance in order to distinguish herself from his hoard of fans and camp followers, finds that after a time, her persona facade has become who she is. And who she is is awful.  She is distant from her two daughters, and indifferent housekeeper and meal provider.

“Audrey had never evinced the slightest sentimentality about children.  Insofar as she had recognized them as independent category of personhood, she had tended to think of them as trainee humans.  Inadequate adults.”

She is a strong-mouthed pot smoker, and truly disdains her older daughter, a young woman who has struggled with her weight and self image all her life, becoming servile to her mother in an attempt to win her approval.  The younger is a rebel, spent four years in Cuba, and when we meet her, is working with an organization for disadvantaged teen girls, and is always on the outs with her mother.

After one case of Joel’s, who is called in to defend a mother who was involved in an armed bank robbery, the mother asks him to do something about her son, 7 years old (I think), waiting in her apartment for her return.  He and Audrey go there, and for some reason, Audrey falls in love with this kid.  They take him in as a foster,  and she cares so much more for him than for her own children.  So much so that she ignores, and enables his growing criminal behavior, as he becomes an addict.

The plot involves the older married sister trying to get pregnant with a man who admits he choose her to marry even though she was not particularly attractive  and obese because they shared the same ultra left political values.   It becomes clear that she never really loved him, but was grateful someone wanted to marry her, and he never really loved her.

The younger daughter, of this completely atheistic Jewish family, somehow becomes enamored of orthadox Jewish life, and begins exploring this lifestyle, which infuriates her mother.

The father, at age 72, has a massive stroke, and is in a coma for 8 or nine months, during which the older daughter meets someone who seems to have fallen in love with her for herself,  the younger daughter becomes deeper involved in Jewish orthodoxy,   the drug addict foster son attends a rehab for the nth time but this time it seems to take, and the wife discovers that all was not as it seem with the husband when a young woman comes forward to advise her of her long term affair with the husband which has produced a son, now four years old.

A book filled with characters for whom this jaded, cynical reader just really had no patience for, and situations for which one already can see the outcome, but which kept me turning pages anyway.  Kind of like a good gossip about which you have nothing to contribute and don’t know any of the gossipees, but are eager to hear more.