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“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.

When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.

According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.

The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.

Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.

After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.

Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.

Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.

Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.

Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

‘Pacino can play Jewish. Okay. You don’t like Pacino, how about Jack Lemmon? Richard Dreyfuss?

‘Jack Lemmon’s too old…’

‘Dustin Hoffman…’

‘I dunno…I was thinking, I was thinking Michael Douglas. I want somebody who’s more, like sexy.’

There’s something about kitchens. MasterChef is all the rage in Australia at the moment. You have a dozen celebrity chefs per television channel, cooking books are the perfect gift for Christmas and Jamie Oliver is the finest political mind of this generation. Apparently.

Course there’s the other side of kitchens. I used to work with chefs wired on something-or-other at night. I came to understand this was simply an aspect of the culture. Anthony Bourdain is a writer who likes to play with the seamier side of the restaurant scene and Bone In The Throat is a post-Sopranos tale of protection rackets, wire-taps and media-savvy Mafiosi.

Harvey is a man with a dream. A dream of owning and running a fine cuisine restaurant, that specialises in fish dishes. Unfortunately Harvey has a few problems. He’s in debt to the local mob and Sally Wig may look ridiculous with his hairpiece, but he does enjoy bouncing the would-be restaurateur’s head off furnishings when he is late with his payments. Not only that, but Harvey is a stool-pidgeon for the feds, having agreed to take part in a sting to take down Sally and his outfit. In fact there’s nothing real about the restaurant at all – it’s a front for a federal investigation into racketeering. A man can dream though, right?

Harvey’s staff are not doing too good either. The chef has a heroin habit and sous-chef Tommy is embarrassed by his family connection to Sally. In fact the only reason he has his job is due to his uncle putting pressure on Harvey. Now Sally wants a favour and Tommy knows that ‘favours’, can quickly get out of hand. Throw some messy affairs among the floor-staff and you’ve got a whole heap of trouble brewing at the Dreadnought Grill.

Bourdain’s has an amusing central gimmick to this yarn. A character’s moral worth is measured by their interest in food. Tommy and the chef are both frustrated foodie’s trapped by their respective circumstances. They see the local mobsters pouring money into joints that specialise in fried calamari and dishes swamped in red sauce. Restaurants that would not know a fresh tomato if they saw it on a shelf, or how to de-bone a fish!

Unfortunately if you’ve watched any episodes of The Sopranos you probably already know how the story goes. The personal failings and love lives of characters receive more attention than actual crimes, until a sudden explosion of violence occurs every now and then to shock the reader into paying attention. The banter is quick and sometimes funny, but mostly repetitive cursing.

The book opens with a prologue revealing that one of the characters has died, washed up on a shoreline. When the identity of the floater is finally revealed, I had already forgotten about that particularly plot thread.

Passable fare, but nothing especially interesting.

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.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

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