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What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

It was ten feet tall and topped with a single strip of wire, and something about the sight of the wire got to Teddy. He felt a sudden pity for all those people on the other side of the wall who recognized that thin wire for what it was, realized just how badly the world wanted to keep them in.

Dennis Lehane is my literary nemesis. I have never met the man, he never made a statement that insulted my god, countryman and/or parentage – but I have had occasion to be exasperated at the sight of his name in raised lettering.

You see as a Joe R. Lansdale fan the first thing I do whenever I visit a book store is gravitate to the ‘Fiction’, section of the shop and peruse the alphabetical listings of authors. Lehane and Lynda La Plante (I also bear her some irrational resentment) are usually present and accounted for, but never my favourite creator of good ol’ boy amateur detective novels. If ever you are passing the ‘L’, section and hear a long drawn out sigh – that is probably me.

Ashecliffe Hospital is the gothic setting for Shutter Island, a mental hospital situated on a bleak and isolated island, designed to treat some of the most violent mentally ill patients in the American psychiatric system. The story begins with the arrival of two Federal Marshals to the island in September of 1954. Teddy Daniels has been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at the facility who reportedly vanished from her cell in the middle of the night. While he usually works alone, Teddy has been assigned a partner for this case, the gregarious and good-humoured Chuck Aule, a recent transfer from Seattle. Where Teddy is haunted by his past, Chuck is warm and charismatic. The two men bond despite their differences, both veterans of WWII, although Teddy is still traumatised by his war-time experiences, including the liberation of Dachau.

The two men are introduced the director of the facility, Dr. Cawley, who explains the circumstances of the case. Rachel Solando was delivered to her room by an attendant. There was another member of staff present in the hallway outside her room monitoring that evening. On the floor beneath a game of poker was being played by several of the attendants. There was nowhere in the room where she could have hidden and so when her cell was checked and she was not to be found, everyone from the attending staff up to the board of Ashecliffe are baffled as to what happened. However, one clue was left behind. A cryptic note written in code that refers to a ‘rule of four’. Teddy has some facility with code-breaking and sets to trying to decipher the meaning of this note, while he begins interrogating the staff and patients.

The two marshals are convinced that this is an inside job, but they have no way of proving it. Slowly Teddy becomes convinced that something much larger than a simple missing persons case lies behind his being called to the island. After all while no one can give him any insight into Solando’s vanishing, what little they can tell him is remarkably similar in wording. There are hints of radical surgery being performed in secret at the facility, perhaps within Ward C, which the two men are forbidden from entering. Dr. Cawley is effortlessly polite, but refuses to give Teddy access to any of the files belonging to patients, or staff. Then there are the headaches – crippling, numbing migraines that have begun to afflict Teddy with increasing intensity. Is there a cause for this affliction that is somehow connected with Ashecliffe? Teddy, however, has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. There is another patient here, someone he has been looking for for years. A man named Laeddis – the killer of his wife.

This is a dark and intensely paranoiac thriller, a rich concoction of grand guignol and ‘Reds under the Bed‘, era suspicion. Conspiracy theories are exchanged like conversational tidbits, psychiatry is regarded with fear for its desire to fix the human mind as one would a car engine. Lehane plays on these pulp fiction tropes to build the narrative to an explosive finale.

If I had a complaint it would be that the characters’ voices were for the most part indistinguishable. However, that is a moot point.

This is a book of taut and effective thrills, that will leave readers chilled. Well executed.

A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

“I didn’t mean to,” he finally blurted out, “but they were drownin’ you, and I was so scared…” He was quiet for a minute. “There sure is a lot of blood in people.”

Prior to reading this book I was only dimly aware of S.E. Hinton’s writing. I knew that she wrote young adult fiction and that her novels often had male protagonists involved in street gang life. I must confess though that was mostly due to Francis Ford Coppola having made a film of The Outsiders back in the eighties – and even that movie is not really all that well known today, except for its astonishingly prescient casting. Here’s a list of the young turks Coppola snapped up for the flick. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and Ralph Macchio (he of Karate Kid fame).

Man Tom Cruise looks crazy in that trailer.

The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy Curties, the youngest of three brothers who recently lost their parents in a car wreck. All three boys are Greasers, belonging to a gang of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who like to drink late into the night, roll drunks for change and rip off stores on occasion. They wear their hair long and slicked back. The only implement they hold more often than a comb is a flick knife. They also are the sworn enemies of the Socs, society kids from the wealthier part of town who cruise around in expensive cars looking for lone Greasers to pound.

The two gangs fight over narrow strips of turf and spends their day plotting revenge for various slights when they’re not getting drunk, or looking for a girl.

Ponyboy is different though. He gets good grades, likes to read and is not physically as strong as his brothers Darrel and Sodapop. Those are their legal names; apparently Poppa Curtis had a sense of humour. Darrel works two jobs to try and provide for the family. Ponyboy resents how the eldest brother put pressure on him to do better in school and not stay out too late at night. Soda has dropped out and is also working. He is less scholarly that the other two Curtis brothers and has no interest in going to college. All he wants to do is marry his sweetheart and party with the other Greasers, Dallas, Two-Bit, Steve and Johnny. Little Johnny Cade is the baby of the gang. All the other Greasers look on him like a little brother and try to protect him. After getting beatings from his dad for years, Johnny took a turn for the worse when a gang of Socs left him beaten and bloody on the wasteland bordering their respective territories. Ever since Johnny has been traumatized and highly strung, retreating further and further into himself.

Ponyboy and Johnny spend most of their time together. As the two physically weaker Greasers they tend to gang up on individual Socs during fights and are less outspoken than the rest of the gang. One night at a drive in Johnny snaps when Dallas begins harassing two Socs girls. Shamed by the younger Greaser’s words, Dallas takes off, leaving the two boys with Cherry Lane and Marcia. Ponyboy discovers an unlikely friend in Cherry, the two of them quickly bonding over their frustration with the gang life they are trapped by. She tells him that he is different, he can make something of himself, that even the Socs have it rough sometimes despite coming from privilege. Greasers feel too much, they decide, whereas Socs feel nothing at all, even in the heat of a rumble.

After they offer to walk the girls home though, a gang of Socs drive past, with Cherry’s boyfriend Bob in the car. Johnny and Ponyboy find themselves targeted by the rival gang and during that one terrible night everything quickly goes very wrong.

S.E. Hinton captures Ponyboy’s voice perfectly, with his musings on class differences and his frustrations with life slowly changing as he becomes more aware of what is really happening around him. She also describes the bond between the Greasers with great sympathy, with the friends trying to give one another what family has failed to provide.

There is perhaps an overly sentimental tone to the proceedings, with Cherry an unlikely greek chorus, but the bursts of violence lend it weight. This is a sad, bittersweet take on adolescence.

Dimitri Karras and Stephanie Marroulis had dinner at the Thai Room on Connecticut and Nebraska, then went back to Stephanie’s place and watched that cop show everyone liked on TV. Karras noticed that every time they ran out of ideas, the writers would send the main character into a bar so that he could fall off the wagon again for an episode or so. But he liked the show all right. It was something to pass the time.

This book’s blurb carries a quote from Stephen King ‘Perhaps the greatest living American crime writer’. King’s a great man for book blurb quotes, but there is no hyperbole here. After all Pelecanos was one of the writers on The Wire, one of the greatest crime shows on television in recent years (leaving the types of shows described in the quote above in its dust). A show which, I am ashamed to admit, I have yet to make it through the first season. While I do love it, I found myself really caring about the well-realized characters and as I suffer from what Germans call fremdschämen, I am terrified to find out what happens to Kima Greggs after the botched sting. That’s the hallmark of quality in Pelecanos’ writing as well. He makes you care about the lives behind the crime statistics.

In downtown Washington DC, July 1995, three criminals, brothers Frank and Richard Farrow, and karaoke-loving Roman Otis, target a Pizza joint called Mays. The job immediately goes wrong. The gang kill the customers and staff and then shoot a cop alerted by the gunshots. As they speed away in their car, Frank runs over a five-year old boy. Afterwards they dispose of the car and weapons, clean up and go their separate ways. Come January 1998 the case has been declared a cold case, as no evidence pointing to the gang was uncovered. Still Frank has unfinished business in Washington. The cop who confronted them outside Mays shot and killed Richard, though the police never found his brother’s body. Frank crippled the cop that night, but he reckons he’s due more pain.

In the years since the massacre at Mays the family members and loved ones of the victims meet every week at a support group. Dimitri Karras is the father of the boy who was killed by the gang during their getaway. In the years since his marriage broke up, he gave up on his career and his only routine is waiting for the day of the support group to come round again. A family friend approaches private detective Nick Stefanos to help out the bereaved father. Turns out the Karras and Stefanos families go way back, both coming up in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Chinatown in Washington back in the ‘30s. Nick gets his childhood friend a job working in a bar back in the kitchen. Dimitri starts to find his rhythm again, enjoys making new friendships, having a routine that does not focus solely on his grief. Still he can’t forget what happened to his boy, can’t stop thinking that if the opportunity were ever to arise, he would find his son’s killers and let justice be done.

Pelecanos excels in character work and dialogue, but what I really loved about this book was the unofficial soundtrack that runs through each page. The characters joke and poke fun at one another while listening to Motown records, seventies kitsch makes the staff of Karras’ workplace groan, and the go-go music scene native to Washington is touched on. The writer captures a real sense of time and place by discussing styles of music. There is a great scene with karaoke-fan Otis trying to do justice to an Al Green number in a country bar. This murderer and career criminal is left deflated by the experience. In Pelecanos’ fiction we get to know the criminals as well as the cops. Both skirt the moral dividing line and deal in greys instead of black and white.

No lie, I read this book in one sitting. Not only is it a crime drama, this book deals with the morality of justice and the possible comforts offered by the idea of judgement after death. Pelecanos’ Washington is left high and dry by bureaucrats and out-of-state lobbyists and businessmen, with the native populations descended from immigrants left to fend for themselves. The law is not colour-blind.

This is vital, thrilling fiction. Strongly recommended.

‘You know,’ Carter said, as the cheering faded, hoping this would solve everything, ‘I do love magic. By itself, for its own sake.’

Ledocq nodded. ‘So. If you do a trick and no one notices, does that satisfy? Or is it like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it?’

Carter sighed. His curse in life was to be attracted to people who understood him. With a sip of beer, he said, ‘I feel sorry for that tree.’

I cannot count the number of times I have taken this novel down from a shelf in a book store and then not bought it. For one reason or another, I never made that last trek to the cashier. Since Glen David Gold’s debut novel was first published it has attracted a rake of plaudits and praise. I sometimes suspected this was another one of those popular novels that actually is not all that good, but somehow managed to attract the newspaper literarti. I’m very contrary like that, always plumbing for the obscure over the well known. Turns out I was very wrong.

Gold’s novel is a fictionalized account of events involving real historical persons. President Warren Harding did die suddenly, during an administration notable for corruption scandals and falling public approval. He is still referred to as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. The book’s main character Charles Carter was a popular magician and contemporary of Houdini’s. Gold takes the lives of these two men and intertwines them, effectively ‘framing’, his hero for the President’s death.

For in this revision of history, President Harding attended a performance of Carter’s and after taking part in the show stopping illusion known as ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, returned to his hotel and died only two hours later. The magician flees the scene of the crime, with special agent Jack Griffin in pursuit. The government agent becomes obsessed with the history of his quary and the book skips backward and forwards in time, relating the events in Carter’s life that the search uncovers, as well as revealing his origins as a magician to the reader.

Early in the novel Carter’s first steps as a magician lead him to a fateful encounter in a snowbound house. Still a child, he comes face to face with a madman who captures both him and his little brother James and beats them horribly. Using what he has already managed to learn about escape artists, Carter frees himself and his sibling and rushes to find help – only to be dismayed when no one believes his story. It is a frightening and disillusioning experience for the young boy and his later obsession with illusions seem to indicate a fascination with truth and belief. Magic, he learns, is all about misdirection. The spectacle is designed to exploit human psychology, their willingness to believe what their eyes can see over all else.

Gold fills the books with period details, in keeping with choosing real-life personages such as Harding, Carter and Philo Farnsworth as characters. The early faddishness of psychoanalysis is touched upon, as well as the cult of personality enjoyed by Houdini. Conspiracies and new exciting breakthroughs in technology are revealed. By choosing this period, Gold introduces contemporary readers to an age of wonder, when invention and the need of the status quo to financially control such advances in technology, grappled. Thomas Pynchon brought to light the same conflict in Against the Day and H.G. Welles’ wrote The Open Conspiracy revealing how science could become a tool of control, with the greater public remaining in ignorance of its benefits.

This is a gripping and fascinating historical drama, with thrilling intrigue and murderous plots to keep the pace racing.

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