Way back in 1989, British author Philip Kerr published March Violets, a hardboiled mystery in which tough, tarnished private investigator Bernhard Gunther plunged into the depthless iniquities of Nazi Berlin in search of some small sliver of justice. This was followed up by two other moody period novels featuring Gunther – The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, and all three books were subsequently published together as Berlin Noir, a trilogy that deeply influenced much of today’s WWII thrillers by such authors as Alan Furst, J. Robert Janes, Paul Grossman, Joseph Kanon and Jonathan Rabb. Quite few readers have mentioned Berlin Noir to me as one of their all-time favorites, and I agree. Continue reading “Crime: Philip Kerr – Back to Berlin.”
The book’s location is MYSTERY > JAMES. Quick – who’s the author?
Chances are you guessed P.D. James, the doyenne of contemporary British crime fiction, who over the past fifty years has penned over a score of titles – most featuring buttoned-down Inspector-cum-Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh – that have consistently raised the bar on what is possible in crime fiction, and won scores of fans among genre and literary readers alike. Fair enough, and fans of James should check out her recent master class on the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction. Continue reading “Alphabet of Crime: Keeping up with the Jameses.”
As I set out to read my way through my alphabet of crime, I was a little worried about the letter ‘I,’ but it turned out to be quite a little Anglo-French treasure trove. Here are three great authors in our mystery “I’s,” each with their own distinct voice.
Graham Ison is one of the many British authors represented in our collection through those nice little Severn House hardcover editions, and we have several titles in each of his two mystery series. His contemporary police procedurals feature stolid – okay, stodgy – veteran Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and his mouthy working class partner Detective Sergeant Dave Poole, who banter and grouse their way through the sordid array of casework, somewhat in the vein of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe or Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series. A good early title, Light Fantastic finds the duo drawn into the posh lives of the rich and fabulous, but it isn’t long before they’re back on the seamy side again.
Ison’s other series are historical mysteries set on the British home front during the Great War, where crime rages on despite the epic struggles overseas, and featuring the investigations of Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle, a man as respected for his dogged determination as he is avoided for his (very entertaining) mean temper. Hardcastle is a man who doesn’t suffer fools, and of which there is an inexhaustible supply. (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind, as does John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Hardcastle’s Armistice, in which the murder of a prostitute turns out to have unexpected political ties, is a fine early entry in this non-chronological series.
Just down the shelf is Claude Izner (a pseudonym for a pair of sister bookstore owners from Paris – sounds heavenly, no?) whose series featuring Victor Legris – also a Parisian bookseller – is drenched with the sights, sounds and personalities of the City of Light, circa 1890. Legris’ first case involves a Murder on the Eiffel Tower, seemingly achieved via a most unorthodox weapon – a bee sting. Historical mystery fans get all the intriguing period detail they came for, and what a great time and place to visit. I can just imagine all the historical personages waiting in the wings as we approach the fin de siècle. A good choice for fans of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series.
The France burned into the pages of Jean-Claude Izzo’s books could not be further from Izner’s belle époque. Izzo is one of the best noir writers, and (like the more celebrated Stieg Larsson) died far too young, leaving a small but indelibly affecting body of work – ruthless kick-in-the-teeth depictions of a world gone mad. (Readers of this column will know I have a soft spot for this kind of hard writing). Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy begins with the aptly named Total Chaos, in which loose cannon Fabio Montale, who in his youth used to run with a bad crowd and now runs with a worse (he’s a cop), hunts for justice in the seething, squalid, racially charged ghettos of Marseilles. No justice to be found, he’ll settle for revenge. Fabio eventually gives up the police force as too corrupt, but cannot stop wrestling with the evil that surrounds him and ravages those he loves; his further descent into the underbelly of Europe continues in Chourmo and Solea. It doesn’t end well, but then you knew it wouldn’t, didn’t you?
Talking with fans of detective fiction, you tend to hear the same authors come up a lot, so it is a real pleasure to introduce readers to great crime novelists who are less well known, such as Gar Anthony Haywood.
Hawyood’a Fear of the Dark won a Shamus Award in 1989 for best first private eye novel, introducing characters to Aaron Gunner, a black private eye who investigates crimes in Los Angeles neighborhoods avoided by the likes of Phillip Marlowe and Harry Bosch. Tracking down the white supremacist killer of a black activist, Gunner finds himself implicated in the bigot’s death, in a case simmering with racial the tensions that were soon to erupt on the streets of South Central.
Haywood also wrote a pair of farcical mysteries featuring the retired couple Joe and Dottie Loudermilk, travelling the country in their airstream trailer, and a pair of excellent darkly funny thrillers in the vein of Elmore Leonard – Man Eater and Firecracker – under the pen name Ray Shannon. The there’s standalone Cemetery Road, in which Errol “Handy” White returns to South Central Los Angeles to find out who killed his old friend R.J., and if the murder was connected to a terrible crime that the pair of them and a third friend had pulled back in the day. This great dark thriller is a fine introduction to Haywood’s work, as is his latest thriller, Assume Nothing. Miami cop Joe Reddick’s wife and child were murdered. Struggling to put this devastating event behind him, he relocates to Los Angeles and eventually remarries and has a son, although his demons still haunt him and wreak havoc with his life. Then some baddies looking to put the scare into Reddick threaten his family, and the demons take over. Revenge never felt so good.
“Assume Nothing” would make a fitting motto for Hawyood’s diverse output (he’s also a graphic designer), a sheer inventiveness that may work against his notoriety in a field dominated by authors known for series featuring a single hero or duo. But no matter what kind of a mystery reader you are, there’s a Haywood for you.
I know – you were thinking G was for Grafton, but as the Kinsey Milhone series already made an appearance in a recent post on the most prolific female detectives, I get to resume my Alphabet of Crime with one of my all time favorites: David Goodis.
Close your eyes and think of “Noir.” What do you see, hear, feel?
A hot, lonely city street, after midnight, after the rain. A pair of doomed lovers, trapped in each other’s arms. Plaintive minor notes echoing from a solo trumpet somewhere in the night, chords achingly unresolved, a call as seductive as the sleep of death. A fall; a plunge from the some fleeting promise of a better place, a better life, down, down to the inky depths of despair.
This is the kind of noir that David Goodis wrote. Not the gritty proletarian tragedies of James M. Cain or the sadistic depravities of Jim Thompson, but achingly lyrical jazz noir swelling and ebbing with dark and sensuous poetry. His words were like wounds on the page – wounds that will never heal. He wrote them fast and he wrote them cheap, and he died before the age of fifty. He’d had his brush with fame: Bogart and Bacall starred in a classic adaptation of his Dark Passage. French cinéastes lapped him up, adapting his books again, and again. Then he became a nobody, and then he was gone, the ghost of a forgotten melody lost down some dark alleyway, the silent memory of a song.
Now he’s back in a handsome new volume from the Library of America (whose fine Crime Novels collections included his 1950 novel Down There) featuring five of his most lurid, longing noirs. I think every crime fan should read at least one David Goodis; I suggest Dark Passage or Down There. To learn more about this quintessential voice of American noir, check out Shooting Pool with David Goodis, an excellent website devoted to his life and works.