One Good Deed

One Good Deed

We’ve been here before. If you’re a fan of postwar paperback originals, you’ve been probably here quite a few times, in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be here all over again if a talented writer can make it worth the trip.

A stranger arrives in a made-up big town/small city, typically in some vaguely Midwest or southwest locale, only to wind up in trouble with the local law, corrupt power brokers and – inevitably – the resident femme fatale. It’s been a standalone mystery/crime fiction novel staple since the 1940’s. Paw through musty paperbacks in a used bookstore and you’re bound to come up with one or more. Familiarity (even occasional redundancy) doesn’t undermine this viable noir-ish story setup, any more than seascapes, still life’s and figure studies would be invalidated simply because painters frequently explore them like an artistic right of passage. Two examples of this type of story that immediately come to mind are Ross MacDonald’s Blue City from 1947 and The Long Wait, a rare non-Mike Hammer novel from Mickey Spillane in 1951. And I bet you could name some others.

Blue City MontageThe Long Wait Montage

So, there’s nothing surprising about David Baldacci giving this time-honored theme a go in his current One Good Deed, other than the fact that this NYT bestseller already knocked out nearly 40 novels (his first novel, Absolute Power, adapted to a successful film as well) before contemplating his first retro postwar setting. Based on some online reviews I’ve spotted, it caught a few of his loyal fans off-guard. Well, they better get used to it, since it sounds like One Good Deed is the first in a new series Baldacci has planned.

In 1949, Aloysius Archer steps off the bus in Poca City in ill-fitting clothes, a measly few dollars in his pocket and a three day stay prepaid at the only hotel. He’s due to meet his parole officer, find a job and start over after a three-year prison stint on trumped-up charges. But Archer (which is the handle he prefers) endured far worse as a decorated infantryman in WWII’s Italian campaign, and is a man to reckon with.

An ill-advised but understandable urge for a forbidden drink and some barroom banter with a local lounge looker are among his first mistakes. Followed by a bigger lapse in judgement when he agrees to collect a debt for Poca City’s big shot, Hank Pittleman, who owns the local bank, the town’s only industry (a hog slaughterhouse), the hotel Archer’s staying in…hell, even the cocktail lounge they’re drinking in. And the girl who’s got Archer’s head spinning. As will happen in such tales, Archer winds up in bed with Pittleman’s seductive mistress…the same night Pittleman’s murdered, his throat slit ear-to-ear. All of which finds Archer in one hell of a lot of trouble with the local law, the State Police homicide investigator who takes over, and Archer’s own parole officer…who just happens to be an intriguing woman with a mysterious past and is every bit as alluring as the Poca City bad girl he’s already mixed up with.

There’s enough small-town drama and family secrets to fill both a Grace Metalious novel and a Tennessee Williams drama here, mixed in with a puzzling murder mystery (and a few other dustups and deaths along the way), all capped off with a climactic courtroom scene, which may sound like a bit much for any one book, but then Baldacci’s a real pro and more than up to the task. I’d never read one of his novels before, but knowing he plans more Archer novels after One Good Deed, I’ll be watching for the next one. The fact is, when I stumble across some musty old paperback by a long-gone writer in a used bookstore with some other loner stepping off the bus in a made-up town’s Main Street, I’ll probably give it a try too, no matter how many times I’ve been there already.

The Chelsea Girls

The Chelsea Girls - Fiona Davis

Looking to take a break from dark, noir-ish crime fiction after James Ellroy’s This Storm, I knocked off Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, taking a refresher course in the world of thrillers, suspense fiction and serial killers, those enormous categories so closely aligned with mystery/crime fiction, but not always quick to consider themselves a part of the genre.

But the bigger departure from my more customary reading material was Fiona Davis’ The Chelsea Girls (2019), Davis’ fourth novel, the second I’ve read, and the second using an iconic New York residential hotel and mid-twentieth century setting as a backdrop (her debut novel The Dollhouse was set in the Barbizon in the 1960’s).

Ambitious, outgoing head-turner Maxine Mead and comparatively mousey Hazel Ripley partner up on a USO tour during the end days of WWII in war ravaged Italy. After VE Day they drift part, Maxie to Hollywood while Hazel returns to New York where she flees from her manipulative stage mother to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel, home to actors, writers, artists and a colorful cast of the postwar Boho set’s hangers-on. Reunited over a provocative Off-Broadway play penned by Hazel and starring Maxie, the two friends fall under the watchful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Just when Hazel and Maxie should triumph, self-appointed boycotting blacklisters ruin everything, and unexpected betrayals tear the friends apart, only to reunite in the late 1960’s for a sort of reconciliation revealing that, the era’s injustice notwithstanding, not everyone swept up in the Communist witch hunt’s net was entirely innocent.

A novel like Fiona Davis’The Chelsea Girls provides valuable lessons for writers even as it delivers the goods for readers. Davis crafted a page-turner, but does so without any gunplay, car chases, ticking time bombs or steamy sex scenes. It’s just a damn good tale expertly told with two characters that engage the reader pretty much right from their initial introductions. Make that three characters, because the Chelsea Hotel itself is a character as much as Hazel and Maxine, much like the Barbizon was in Davis’ first book, The Dollhouse.

Not to suggest that The Chelsea Girls lack of suspense tricks made it all sunshine and sweetness. It’s definitely not, dealing with the end of the war and the Red Scare after all. But reading it right after This Storm was akin to listening to Taylor Swift after hours of thrash metal. I won’t say ‘soothing’, but it was something like that. For me, it did what it was supposed to do. With the Barbizon and the Chelsea under her belt, I don’t know what other iconic retro residential hotels are left for Fiona Davis, but wherever she goes with her next novel (and clearly, there’ll be a next one), I’m making my reservation now.

 

All The Wrong Places

All The Wrong Places - Joy Fielding

If Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places reads like a Lifetime Channel movie turned into a novel, it does so in a good way. Clearly there’s a sizeable audience for this formula, as Fielding’s nearly 50-year career with just-shy of 30 novels indicates.

After spending days in the impressive but depressing milieu of James Ellroy’s epic This Storm where everyone’s evil or at least mildly crooked, I needed a break from mid-twentieth century gangsters, cops, junkies, pimps and blackmailers (to say nothing of fascists and fifth columnists). So a non-crime fiction novel came home with me (still reading that one) along with Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, its color-saturated cover literally reaching out to me from the shelf, flanked as it was by two comparatively dowdy looking trade paperbacks. (So think about that when fretting over your books’ cover art!)

To be clear: I don’t read a lot of so-called ‘suspense’, ‘thrillers’, ‘psychological suspense’, ‘suspense thrillers’ and whatever other monikers publishers’ marketing departments dream up. Yet, there are a lot to choose from. Given a choice between sadistic serial killers/tortured victims vs. something retro and noir-ish, I’ll always go with the latter. But I’m not completely out of touch with this category, even if some thriller writers adamantly disassociate themselves from the mystery/crime fiction genre, presumably leery of genre labels.

All The Wrong Places updates the familiar ‘lonely hearts killer’ for the 21st century with charming ‘Mister Right Now’ prowling dating apps for his prey. Now I’m not sure what alternate universe you need to visit to locate women who are foolish enough to go to a blind date’s home after only one get-acquainted drink, but in All The Wrong Places they succumb to good looks, a beguiling smile and the promise of a handsome bachelor’s home cooked dinner. No surprise that once the meal’s laid out and the wine is poured, they suddenly find their hands cuffed behind their backs, a noose around their necks, and a long night of unspeakable torture and death in store.

Scenes of this icky torture (mostly kept ‘off screen’ in a kind of PG-13 level of ick) are interspersed among the novel’s main narrative trail, in which thirty-something Paige gives in to her hip widowed mother’s prodding to surf the dating apps herself. Paige is bunking down with Mom after leaving her unfaithful live-in boyfriend and losing her ad exec job. Meanwhile, Paige’s bestie Chloe endures a philandering husband’s hellish abuse, while they all suffer through trickery and worse at the hands of Paige’s scheming near-twin cousin, Heather, the novel’s resident bad girl…and in some ways, its real villain. Frankly, the story could almost stand on its own without the sadistic serial killer at all, even if it wouldn’t have ever found its way onto my to-be-read end table. Some readers will complain that Fielding chickened out at the novel’s climax. There’s no amateur sleuthing, Paige doesn’t vanquish the killer (or even encounter him at all outside of texts) , and even the bad girl’s fate is only implied, not depicted. But I think it was a surprisingly brave choice on the author’s part, particularly in a category that relies on formula.

So I’ve read my serial killer thriller for 2019, though I can’t swear that another won’t sneak home with me from a bookstore visit. Formula can be a good thing, particularly in the hands a talented pro like Joy Fielding, and all the more intriguing when a skilled writer chooses to bend the rules even a little.

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

Dodging And Burning

dodging & burning

John Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning is subtitled “A Mystery”, and it is, though this is no ‘whodunit’, and as the complex story evolves, told from multiple points-of-view and in different times, no less, it becomes as much a who-done-what as a whodunit. Like most of my favorite mystery/crime fiction tales, this is less about the mystery and more about the characters themselves, the setting their tales unfold in, and the events that lure us into unexpected situations, almost indifferent to anything so simple as a crime being solved in the end. Because with the really great books, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Reminiscent in part of novels as diverse as Peyton Place and To Kill A Mockingbird, Dodging And Burning begins as a coming of age tale in a small WWII-era town. At first it appears there’ll be a brutal crime to solve, but the small town setting starts to feel a bit like Twin Peaks as we start to have doubts about the nature of the crime…or if a crime occurred at all. In Copenhaver’s capable hands, that alone would’ve made for a wonderful novel. But he delivers something infinitely more complex, probing characters’ painful secrets and revealing the era’s exciting but dangerous underworld of hidden sexual identities that could never hope to survive in 1940’s small town USA. The novel’s conclusion is bittersweet – in the telling, but also in the reader’s realization that the book is over. The fact is, you’ll want more.

‘A Mystery’? Sure. But no locked rooms, no private dicks, cartoon femmes fatales or gunsels waving snub-noses around. Whether the author planned to write genre fiction that was ‘more’ or ignored genre conventions altogether and the publisher is responsible for that tagline on the book’s cover, who knows. But this is one one hell of good read, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever might come next from this writer. Like Dodging And Burning, I bet it’ll be a surprise.

 

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