James Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon introduces LAPD Detective Sargent Lloyd Hopkins, a “genius” homicide investigator with a reputation for solving tough cases. First published in 1984, the book contains what are now a set of common tropes. Hopkins is a rogue cop working against the strictures of the department that employs him. His self-sworn duty to protect the innocent is born of his own childhood trauma. He can be as single-minded, violent, and relentless as the killers her pursues.
The Cocktail Waitress was the last book James M. Cain wrote before he died in 1977. Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai pieced it together from a number of manuscripts and published it in 2002. The book, as Ardai says, “is a classic Cain femme fatale story that’s told for once from the femme fatale’s point of view.” And what a point of view it is. The book opens with twenty-one year old widow Joan Medford standing at her husband’s grave.
Alan C. Logan’s The Greatest Hoax on Earth is a journalistic examination of the life of Frank Abagnale, the infamous con man immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 file Catch Me if You Can. That film, based on Abagnale’s autobiography of the same name, portrays a smooth charmer living a life of glamour and adventure. The young Abegnale cons his way onto free flights around the world with beautiful women in tow.
The Troubled Man is the final installment in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, and the only one of the series I’ve read. I found the book in a Little Free Library in a park in Virginia. I picked it up, because I felt quite troubled at the time. I saw the title and thought, “That’s me.” In this book, Wallander, a police officer in a small coastal town in Sweden, is sixty years old and spends a lot of time reflecting on his life.
Jean-Patrick Manchette’s No Room at the Morgue is the first book I’ve read from NYRB Classics that’s just flat out bad. The back cover includes a blurb from Kirkus Reviews that says, “If Marx, Freud, and Jim Thompson collaborated on a noir, this might be the result.” Actually, if Marx, Freud, and Jim Thompson had had an editor, this book would never have been published. A good crime novel raises questions in the reader’s mind to keep them hooked.
I wanted to like George Pelecanos’ The Cut, but it left me a little cold. I’m a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, and Pelecanos has a lot in common with the master. Both rely heavily on dialog to convey character, and both have a good ear for the language. Leonard’s characters come off a little sharper, at least compared to this book, in which the testosterone-drenched wise guys on both sides of law do too much posturing and smart-mouthing.
In the opening of Day Keene’s Bring Him Back Dead, sheriff’s deputy Andy Latour seems to be stuck in the wrong job and the wrong marriage. His wife, Olga, a descendant of the faded Russian aristocracy, barely speaks to him. He had promised her a life of wealth and ease as the oil boom struck southern Louisiana and the Delta Oil Company had opened a test well on his land.
I’m often disappointed by contemporary mystery and thriller bestsellers. The characters are flat and unengaging, the writing is often heavy-handed, as if the author is telling us through a bullhorn what we’re supposed to feel. Many writers jack up the action to make up for a lack of depth, like a bad guitarist turning up his amp to try to bowl us over with power because he doesn’t have the skill to win us over with substance.
These five works show Millar to be a brilliant mystery/suspense writer. I’ve reviewed them all separately, and they’re all four or five stars. She really deserves to be more widely read. Note that the negative reviews of this book on Amazon complain about the small print size, not the content of the works themselves. The print is indeed small. That, combined with large pages and narrow margins makes reading hard on the eyes.
Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls opens in a room in the Windsor Hotel in Mexico City in the late 1950’s. Two American women are vacationing together. The mousy, deferential Amy Kellogg is feeling some resentment after getting roped into this trip by her domineering friend Wilma Wyatt. Wilma, thirty-three and just coming off her second divorce, is alternately high-spirited and moody, arrogant and temperamental, a drama queen seeking attention and excitement to distract from a life that wasn’t going as planned.
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