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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.

Leonard started the car as the brothers came out of the café, stood on the sidewalk and looked at us. Leonard watched them a moment, backed out and drove off.

‘Trouble?’ he asked.

‘No. But I will say this. It’s not every day you can actually step into a science-fiction episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance.’

Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of books, contributed to a number of short story collections, comic book anthologies and even had some film adaptations of his work. So why is it so damned hard for me to track down his Hap and Leonard series. I have evolved a habit of snatching his books off the shelf as soon as I see them. I read the fourth book Bad Chilli first, then the second Mucho Mojo and this morning on the train to Sydney finished the third. Consequently I have a very confusing understanding of this pair of righteous country boys’ adventures, kicking ass and righting wrongs across Texas. And I don’t care.

Hap Collins is still blue after having been dumped by his lover Florida for the local police lieutenant in the last book. The only interruptions in his moping are provided by his best friend Leonard’s habit of burning the local crackhouse to the ground. This being the third experiment with arson, Lieutenant Marvin Hanson has them brought to the station and offers the pair a deal. He agrees to look the other way one more time, if they run a little errand for him. Florida has vanished. Last Marvin heard she was chasing down a lead on a story involving a possible wrongful death in police custody and voodoo rites in a place called Grovetown. If Hap and Leonard have a look around and see if Florida is okay, he’ll let bygones be bygones and drop the arson charges.

Leonard agrees to the deal, despite the Kmart-loving police sergeant Charlie’s warnings of the dangers a black man would likely face in Grovetown. Apparently the clocks stopped there some time back in the sixties. Civil rights are seen as a liberal conspiracy and an offshoot of the Klan holds great sway in the town. Hap and Leonard march into Grovetown ready to bust heads, but find themselves up against bigger odds than they expected. The local sheriff has a ruptured testicle and a permanent bad mood. He welcomes the pair with a death threat. There is no sign of Florida anywhere and the ‘victim’, who’s memory she was trying to defend was a hateful son of a blues legend who enticed a record company rep with the promise of undiscovered music tapes and murdered him for his wallet. Everywhere the pair go, it seems they have big, fat targets scrawled on their backs. Maybe they should have just agreed to do time for burning down the crackhouse?

Lansdale has a filthy sense of humour, a love of confounding expectations and inverting traditional notions of machismo. Hap and Leonard often find themselves beaten and bloody after a fight, but are always ready with another quip to aggravate their opponents. They just don’t know when to stop. Split down the middle they are a very opposite duo. Hap is white, votes Democrat, hates guns and tries to see the best in folks. Leonard is black, gay, Republican and just loves cracking heads. Also he plain distrusts most people and often seems to be correct in his assessments.

There is a great moment when Leonard tries to explain to his boyfriend Raul that what he and Hap have is a bit like love. It reminded me of a speech I saw Sean Connery give once at the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. There were sniggers when he referred to Brokeback Mountain as an example of male friendship, but jokes aside, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. Lansdale is interested in what makes a man, a man. Leonard is homosexual, but tough as nails and macho as they come. Hap is ruled by his emotions, but acts according to firm principles of honour. The pair also are skilled in Korean martial arts, something of a hobby of Lansdale himself. Whenever I try to describe these books, I often say try to imagine Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, as played by Chuck Norris.

Blackly comic, offensive, filthy and laugh out loud funny, if you haven’t been in Hap and Leonard’s company yet, I’d advise you to look them up some day.

Do I dream? Cried Manfred returning, or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why does thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for – Ere he could finish the sentence the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him Lead on! Cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition.

The Castle of Otranto is a book that has achieved immortality courtesy of first year English students in college. It is a literary virus, passed on from one generation to the next, thanks to this –

It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Castle, and Walpole by extension is arguably the forerunner to such authors as Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.(wiki)

It is a footnote, a book no one ever reads outside of completionists and academics. So while I knew of it, I never bothered to investigate. I was surprised to find that I liked it.

Walpole’s tragic tale begins with Manfred the lord of the castle Otranto preparing for his son’s wedding. He is eager to continue his family line and despite the sickliness of his heir Conrad, rests all his hopes on his union with Isabella, the daughter of a missing lord with a rival claim to his lands. Manfred’s grandfather inherited the castle and its territories from Alfonso. His claim to it is weak and he fears the return of Isabella’s father from the Crusades. He is also aware of an obscure prophecy, which hints at a dire fate for his family line.

On the night of the wedding tragedy strikes when Conrad is found crushed beneath a giant helmet. The castle is thrown into confusion – although secretly Isabella is relieved as she felt little love for her arranged match. Manfred flies into a rage when a mysterious peasant points out that the helmet belongs to the statue of Alfonso. He orders the stranger to be kept captive beneath the helm that crushed his own son. This macabre command shows how his rage has begun to warp his judgment. Manfred in desperation to avoid fate decides on a new course of action. He commands his pious wife Hippolyta and daughter Matilda to remain in their chambers and asks Isabella to join him. When they are alone he attempts to force her to consent to marry him. He blames his wife for producing an unsuitable heir and has decided to divorce her. Isabella refuses and flees in terror. Manfred becomes a man possessed and orders the castle searched to find her. As the night continues there are further signs of the supernatural within the grounds. Spirits and agents of God’s divine will makes themselves known, condemning Manfred’s desperate madness.

Reading Walpole’s novella it is obvious the influence it had on books such as Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are corrupt lords and foul deeds hidden behind castle walls. Unnatural portents and the very real threat of damnation. What surprised me was the influences contemporary readers can detect in Walpole’s own novel. The plot bears a slim resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, once again due to palace intrigues and lordly haunts. Furthermore though there are occasional comic scenes, with servant girl Bianca and the idiotic duo of Jaquez and Diego stretching Manfred’s patience to breaking point with their babble. These scenes of aristocrats growing increasingly impatient with their ‘domestics’, owes a lot to Shakespeare’s comedies, such as the encounter between Dogberry and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

There is also doomed romance and melancholy princes, as well as a silent knight whose presence threatens Manfred. All in all a gripping yarn.

It deserves better than to be a footnote in a college text book. Jan Svankmajer appears to agree.

I think my mother’s talents deserve a little acknowledgement. I said so to her, as a matter of fact, and she replied in these memorable words: ‘My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.’

What a delightful surprise this book was. I first heard of Dorothy Sayers some seven years ago while I was living in Edinburgh. A friend mentioned her to me, as he was reading her translation of Dante’s Inferno. A singular woman, one of the earliest female graduates of Oxford, she was a scholar who wrote murder mysteries. To give you an idea of what to expect, the main character of this book is called Lord Peter Wimsey and whimsical this tale most certainly is. His second named is ‘Death’. He solves murder mysteries as a ‘hobby’.

While enjoying a welcome rest on the island of Corsica, he receives the unwelcome news that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been accused of murder. The victim was a man named Denis Cathcart, whose body was found with the Duke standing over it by Mary Wimsey, who was also engaged to the dead man. Her testimony at the Coroner’s Court lands the Duke in jail awaiting his hearing. By the time Lord Peter has returned with his trusty man-servant Bunter in tow his sister has taken to her bed in hysterics, his brother the Duke is refusing to speak with his defense counsel and the whole thing has become one dreadful black mark on the Wimsey family name.

Joining forces with police detective Mr Charles Parker, whose feelings for Mary go beyond professional courtesy, Lord Peter strives to uncover evidence that proves his brother’s innocence. No matter what the cost. Perhaps the Duke’s silence is due to the Court having accused the wrong Wimsey and as a man of honour he is defending his sister’s reputation? The victim Denis Cathcart’s past is a murky one, with secrets that may have exposed the family to blackmail. Lord Peter’s powers of observation also identify the presence of a third man in the conservatory gardens on the night of the murder, whom he comes to refer to as Number 10 due to his shoe size. Of course there is always ample opportunity for a fine cigar and a glass of brandy, even when there is a murder mystery to solve.

There is a Wodeshousian tone to the proceedings that lift it up from the more dour detective novels. A wicked sense of humour is present throughout, as well as a rich intelligence and breadth of reference. Wimsey enjoys humming Bach to himself, or quoting Wordsworth randomly while searching for clues. He is a dilettante detective, whose genius was buffeted by his experiences during the Great War and a doomed love affair, leading to him exploiting his flair for investigation while he spends his fortune hosting parties in London.

The foppish Columbo acts the fool in order to provoke suspects into revealing something, with his status as an aristocrat allowing him to bounce from Paris to New York chasing down leads the police cannot afford to follow. When the Duke’s trial is held in the presence of Parliament, Sayers depicts the noble gentry as being to a man much like Wimsey, treating a murder inquiry as an opportunity for a bit of entertainment, chortling away at the witticisms of the defending counsel. With the world-weary Bunter as an alternative take on Jeeves assisting the amateur detective, Sayers enjoys poking fun at the conventions and morals of the British upper class.

She even introduces the occasional element of bawdy humour into the proceedings. Submitted without comment:

‘That thing’, was a tall erection in pink granite, neatly tooled to represent a craggy rock, and guarded by two petrified infantry-men in trench helmets. A thin stream of water gushed from a bronze knob half way up….

Ok stop right there!

So if you are looking for a ‘spiffing good time’, with bounders, poachers, blackguards and socialists, I would recommend checking out the adventures of one Lord Peter Wimsey, dandy detective.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.

If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.

Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.

Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.

All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.

Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.

This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.

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