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The slaying of an Oregon P. Although it would've been nice to see things tied up somewhat less neatly in the end, The Devil's Wind remains as welcome and unpredictable as a desert breeze. Kingston Pierce. Starring an obvious alter ego, Antonio Polsinelli both he and Benacquista are Italians born in France in , Holy Smoke is less a traditional piece of detective fiction than a first-person family saga shrouded in fumes of mystery, mafiosi and amusing mayhem.
There are flashbacks to World War II, some corrupt villagers and churchmen, and plenty of wine and pasta. If it weren't for the gunshots, la dolce vita might not be so bad. Polsinelli's family lives in an Italian enclave on the outskirts of Paris. He tries to avoid them, but heads home occasionally for a dutiful meal of macaroni. In the 'burbs, he's accosted by Dario Trengoni, a childhood friend who's lapsed into prostitution and petty crime. Trengoni persuades Polsinelli to write an enigmatic love letter for him, then promptly turns up with a bullet through the head.
As a result, Polsinelli becomes the heir to a scrubby 10 acres of vineyard in southern Italy that, as far as he can tell, has never turned out anything but plonk. That doesn't stop the neighboring farmers, or some American gangsters, or the Church from making him all kinds of outrageous offers for the land. What's the secret? Polsinelli figures it out, and decides to honor his dead pal by setting up an elaborate scam.
It all goes more haywire than Polsinelli had counted on, and he ends up trusting to his wits, his feet and his devil-may-care attitude in order to scramble out of several uncomfortable situations. Money, not truth, is Polsinelli's main motivation, although once southern Italy gets too hot for him, he's content to save his own skin instead of getting rich.
Benacquista makes an ordinary joe into a bitterly amused character, a less alcoholic heir to the mantle of the hard-boiled P.
Polsinelli's not out to save the world, just his own tolerance for it. And he lets the reader know he's not all that tough a guy: Pasta, he says in a moment of poetic rhapsody, "is a strange combination of blandness and sophistication. At age 70, Arai who prefers to go by "Mas" is too old to still be pruning trees for a living, but like the other Japanese-American gardeners he pals around with, he can't afford to quit. Before the Bomb, Arai wanted to be an engineer. After surviving its ravages, he figures that life, with a little house of his own and nice California weather, has turned out about as good as he could have hoped for.
But things have only gotten busier in his seventh decade. Bachi treated Arai to an unwelcome exploration of the lingering effects of 's Hiroshima devastation, with murder and theft upending his quiet existence. Gasa-Gasa Girl Delta , Hirahara's new, second Arai novel, opens with the elderly protagonist heading for New York City, summoned there by a frantic, mysterious phone call from his estranged daughter, the always gasa-gasa restless Mari. Arai may be a tough old bird, but he's also sentimental, and so he gets himself a credit card, a plane ticket Mari, an impoverished filmmaker and the worried new mother of a sickly boy, is married to Lloyd, a shaggy-haired hakujin , or white man, who's a professional gardener.
Lloyd tries to bond with Arai over their presumed love of plant life; Arai ignores him. Gardening was a job for Arai, not a calling.
But when Mari asks her father to help Lloyd finish renovating a year-old Japanese garden in Brooklyn, he can't say no -- until the project boss, Kazzy Ouchi, a half-Japanese millionaire and the son of the man who built the garden, turns up dead under a pile of trash in a koi pond. It was Arai who discovered the corpse, and who notices some peculiarities at the scene that police don't.
However, the aged gardener long ago learned to keep his observations to himself. Only after his son-in-law becomes the prime murder suspect does Arai act, trying to protect his daughter and her family. Hirahara knows how to weave a plot; at the end of Gasa-Gasa Girl , hardly any strands are left untied. But her real strength lies in character and atmosphere. The tension between the more traditional Arai whose speech, written in slangy dialect, takes some getting used to and his totally American daughter feels genuine, and Hirahara expertly contrasts the freezing wind and grimy streets of New York with the smoggy sun and endless lawns of Los Angeles.
Like her first novel, Gasa-Gasa Girl is an exploration of family and history, of secrets and misunderstandings. It takes teamwork to sort everything out; Arai, no lone wolf, recruits all of his Japanese connections on both American coasts to help him out, producing useful gossip, legal help and translation services within hours. The result is a surprisingly warm portrait of a man, a family and a community, nesting inside one another like Russian dolls.
Even Arai, who has his curmudgeonly moments -- he compares the random scatterings of Japanese-American culture to "weeds stuck on the blades of a lawn mower" -- knows where his heart lies.
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He stays in New York longer than he'd intended, long enough to see cherry blossoms appear on broken branches he'd fixed himself just days earlier. The Morrow folks are namedropping flicks such as Bad Boys , and making a lot of noise about the hero being African American.
But all the hoopla does a disservice to Hardwick's novel -- for all the actual "color" of its hero as evidenced in this "gritty urban thriller," Green might as well be played by Ben Affleck. Not that The Executioner's Game is a bad book. Nor is there anything particularly wrong with this novel's hero. As written by Hardwick, Luther Green is an intriguing cipher, a coldly pragmatic assassin for E-1, a top-secret American intelligence organization that undertakes "all of the dangerous, covert, and illegal missions the government needed carried out in foreign lands.
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He's no flag-waving super-patriot, either -- just a lean, mean, but oddly affable sociopath with a license to kill and a refreshingly skeptical take on his job and his country. His race is probably the least interesting -- and least important -- part of his entire character. Also the least convincing. Sorry, but Green just doesn't seem all that "black" to me -- or is that supposed to be the point? Hell, it didn't even dawn on me that he was black until the fourth chapter or so.
Oh, sure, Green listens to hip-hop when he's not listening to classical music, and we're assured that he knows how to please the ladies who was the last black action hero who didn't make like a private sex machine with all the chicks? And Green's mission, to track down and take out Alex, a rogue agent and former mentor who may have potentially dangerous proof of this conspiracy, conveniently sends the globetrotting assassin and his techno-geek white assistant, Hampton, on a tour of U.
Too bad, because when his creator's not trying to convince us that Luther's some Super Fly Super Spy, he's an often-compelling character, and the book's clever reworkings of Fleming in particular are a hoot. But Hardwick's writing isn't always up to the task, and the promo machine's overheated comparisons to people like Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley just underscores that fact.
Hardwick, a veteran film and TV producer, as well as the author of several previous crime novels, writes with enthusiasm but too often seems more interested in establishing a franchise than in telling a story. A bit more energy spent on character development, and especially on editing and tightening up the writing at hand, and less on pre-selling some possible cinematic adaptation or a sequel a few years down the road, would have been a wiser investment for all concerned.
James M. Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice , begins with the line, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," and that's a perfect encapsulation of the world the men in Controlled Burn Scribner , Scott Wolven's amazing new collection, have come to know -- an unforgiving world marked by back-breaking physical labor, booze and drugs and casual violence, stained by a pervasive, pragmatic under-the-table morality that soaks through everything. But it's a world not entirely devoid of self-awareness, or humor, either. These men know who and what they are.
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In "Atomic Supernova," one of the many fine tales included, an aging Nevada sheriff confesses that he occasionally visits the grave of a man who killed one of his deputies:. Then, just when you think that's it, he adds:. That's the kind of hard dry talk, tight-lipped humor and no-bullshit awareness that peppers these skinned-knuckle tales, rough confessions by rough men who take each day straight on, not expecting much and rarely receiving it.
They're "either busy working or busy living their lives, which is work itself Subtitled "Stories of Prison, Crime and Men," this collection offers a swirling kaleidoscope of heartbreak, pride and busted dreams, an episodic road trip of character-driven vignettes that stretches from the woods of "The Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont, Maine and New England to the lawlessness of "The Fugitive West," a road trip as American as a Woody Guthrie song, a John Steinbeck novel or a Sam Peckinpah film.
These men are loggers and crank dealers, boxers and bounty hunters, drifters and drunks, petty criminals and ex-cons, no strangers to work or cut corners, working guys who smell of "beer But beyond the desolate stillness and stoic fatalism that lies at the core of these tales, there's a surprising amount of heart. But it's that compelling, almost uplifting sense of rough-hewn humanity that lingers long after these stories have been read. Yes, life is dark and cruel and unfair, Wolven seems to suggest, but his characters rarely surrender to it; instead, they adopt a dogged determinism and grim pragmatism, doing whatever they have to do to survive -- a philosophy that owes as much to the rugged if tattered working-man's idealism of Steinbeck as it does to the pessimistic fatalism of Dostoyevsky or the hard-boiled machismo of the tough-guy pulp-era writers like Dashiell Hammett , Horace McCoy, W.
Burnett and Cain who echo through these pages. Wolven, who attended Columbia University's MFA program and now teaches creative writing at SUNY Binghamton, and whose work regularly shows up in year-end collections this year will make the fourth in a row that one of his stories has featured in Otto Penzler's acclaimed The Best American Mystery Stories series , is an original, a muscular and fearless storyteller, literate in a sleeves-rolled-up, hands-on way. He has a great ear for dialogue, particularly the way guys speak, and an even greater eye for the small, telling detail that digs in under your skin and itches like crazy long after the story has been read.
This collection, simply put, marks the arrival of an important new voice, not just in crime fiction, but possibly in American literature itself. Although trust-fund kid-turned-private eye Philip Corvascio Beckett assures us repeatedly that he's just another working stiff, and that he turned his back on his wealthy family and their business empire a long time ago, that's not quite the case.
The guys who inhabit Controlled Burn would eat him alive.
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At first, I was drawn to the idea of a man who would abandon inherited wealth in order to work the mean streets. What would drive a man to such lengths, and what kind of individual would he be? And what if he chose not to divorce himself entirely from the family coffers? That would also be intriguing: a dilettante detective able to draw on all those vast resources, able to take on only those cases that interest or challenge him. I pictured Philip Marlowe with a platinum card, Bruce Wayne without the bat fetish, or maybe a Philo Vance for the new millennium. This could be good , I thought.
But it turns out that Beckett isn't motivated by personal demons, a burning obsession with justice or revenge, or anything like that. He lives his life tongue-in-cheek and pinkie up, inhabiting a two-bedroom Manhattan condo a gift from his industrialist father and laboring part-time as a "gumshoe to the ruling class," as he so cheekily puts it. A trust fund, established by his late mother, pays him quarterly, thankyouverymuch , with millions more to come after Daddy passes away.
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Beckett only works in order to finance "a continuing, self-indulgent passion for Chinese antiques. Despite all of this, Beckett seemed at the outset like an enjoyable character, with a self-deprecating sense of humor; and he's at least self-aware enough to occasionally admit his limitations. So I was looking forward to what seemed like it was going to be a sly update of The Thin Man , especially when it turned out that there was a Nora of sorts in the wings: Philip's latest inamorata, the lovely and witty Maggie Santos, a corporate lawyer for Exxon who's bored with corporate law.
However, as Cray's plot thickens, Dead strays far from Hammett -- instead we get mostly a bad episode of Dynasty , full of china-rattling familial treachery, incestuous backstabbing and the usual corporate skullduggery among the rich and listless. Obsessed not with justice but with acquiring an expensive chunk of Oriental jade that's about to go on the block at Sotheby's, Beckett reluctantly allows himself to be hired by his younger sister, the ever-ambitious and manipulative Regina, on behalf of "the family.
But when Sergio goes down for the count, courtesy of a bullet through the skull, it's Philip who's the prime suspect. Predictably, Maggie and Philip take it on the lam, hiding from the law while they try to bring in the real killer. Who framed Beckett? The gangster who held D'Alesse's marker?
Or maybe a member of his own family?
After a while, the paper-thin characters, the listlessness of the plot and its cookie-cutter, staged artificiality scream out for some sort of real heat and passion, some real action, some real emotion. Instead, we're given some so-so sex, some unconvincing violence, a lot of scenes including the obligatory gather-all-the-suspects-together conclusion that whimper away to nothingness, and a hero who's not quite the hard-nosed detective he's lead us to believe he is. Beckett, whom I had really wanted to like, turns out to be about as effective as Niles Crane from television's Frasier , a glib wannabe with delusions of hard-boiled grandeur too often hopelessly out of his league.
But Dead Is Forever doesn't play this for laughs -- when push comes to shove, Beckett simply gets pushed.