The Two Faces of January, by Patricia Highsmith / *** ½

highsmith_januaryThe more work by Patricia Highsmith that I read, the more that two things become very clear. The first is that Highsmith had a fascinating mind for suspense, immersing readers in minds shaped by guilt and perverse impulses that they themselves didn’t understand, and using simple premises to play people against each other. The second fact, though, is that Highsmith is, at best, a decent author, one whose prose often failed to elevate the material around it, and sometimes made it feel as though her books aren’t as good as they really can be. (In other words, Highsmith has a bit of what I’m going to call “Philip K. Dick Syndrome” – great ideas, phenomenal complexity, iffy writing.)

Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve just been picking some of her lesser work since knocking out most of the Ripley books. But The Two Faces of January undeniably fits into this realm; there’s a lot of great psychological tension being built into this story of a trio of Americans whose lives get entangled when they meet over the course of a quick body disposal, only to find things get far, far more complicated. A middle-aged swindler; his much younger, attractive wife; and a young man running from a shadowy reputation and a complicated family life – Highsmith brings them to life and plays them beautifully off of each other, constructing their minds so carefully and intricately that everything feels inevitable, horrifyingly unstoppable, and unrelentingly tense as it unfolds. The plotting is simple but effective, much in the way that so many of Highsmith’s works revolve not just around a crime, but around the repercussions and the way they ripple outward for far, far longer than you would think.

And yet, for all of that tension and craft and psychological insight, The Two Faces of January sometimes feels like a bit of a drag, perking up every so often as Highsmith turns the screws again. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but what I came back to again and again was that Highsmith, for all of her thoughtfulness, so often lived so deeply in the mental lives of her characters that she forgot to keep things in motion. More than that, the hand-wringing and internal debating is fascinating up to a point, but ultimately, it takes until the book’s halfway point for things to really take off, when Highsmith plays her hidden ace and we see what the book is really about – at least, until a somewhat disappointing, rote ending that feels like a fizzle.

And so, appropriately enough (given the title), we have a strangely divided book. The characters are rich and intriguing, and when the book is at its best, watching Highsmith pit them against each other as they play their horrifying game, it’s wonderfully taut. But when Highsmith dives too deeply into Freudian motivations or internal waffling, it can feel glacial and overwrought, belaboring material that works best when it’s tense and uncertain. It’s well-crafted, intricate, carefully paced…and also overlong, a little flat at times, and fizzles towards the end. On the whole, there’s more good than bad, but there’s definitely a sense that this isn’t her best work.

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The Grifters, by Jim Thompson / ****

grifting_away_01There are numerous varieties of noir out there – your hard-boiled detectives by Hammett and Chandler, your neo-noirs by Lehane, and so many more, creating a massive spectrum of darkness. But even in the depths of dangerous, flawed protagonists, there’s something especially nasty about the “heroes” of Jim Thompson, who gives us twisted killers, con artists, helpless saps, and throws us into worlds where everyone is corrupt, sleazy, and in it for themselves. It’s noir in its purest, most unflinching sense, and done without even a hint of judgment or morality to filter it all out.

And even with all of that, The Grifters manages to stand out from the pack, giving us a queasily incestuous tension between a con man and his grafting mother, two figures who only care about the world inasmuch as it can give them what they want. No, Roy and Lilly may not have the depraved sense of violence to them that Thompson gave us in Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me, but they’re equally broken, nearly sociopathic characters; these are people who have divided the world into grifters and chumps, and chumps are only as good as what you can get out of them. As Roy makes his way through women (always somehow comparing them to his mother), or as Lilly cold-bloodedly manipulates everyone around her, we get the sense that these people could care less about the world around them, and feel like empathy and compassion are for the weak.

As usual with Thompson, plot is almost beside the point here, maybe to a fault for a novel about con artists; yes, there’s a thread about Roy beginning to question this lifestyle after a con goes bad, and Lilly struggling with a very different bad situation, but both of those are far less integral to the book than you might expect. No, Thompson specialized in creating his worlds and immersing his readers into the minds of his characters, and The Grifters features that in spades. From walking you through dice cons to seeing how they react to human kindness, from careful manipulation to instinctive self-preservation, Thompson’s writing excels at creating characters and depicting their thoughts, no matter how fundamentally broken they may be.

And it’s there that Thompson makes his bid to be considered among the all time greats. It’s not his stories, which are thin and more about the internal decisions of the characters. No, it’s his unflinching, unapologetic look at cruel, heartless, despicable characters cut loose in a world that’s unprepared for them, but deserves whatever it gets. That’s what noir is at its best, and trust me, just about any Thompson is among that category. The Grifters maybe isn’t as good as Thompson’s best (for my money, of the ones I’ve read, Pop. 1280 runs away with that) – it could use a little more complexity, just a tad more fleshing out – but it’s still a lean, nasty, pulpy, fantastic read.

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The Wrong Side of Goodbye, by Michael Connelly / *****

9780316225946I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series for nearly 20 years at this point, a fact that’s driven home not only by each new book, but by the character himself, who has aged in more or less real time along with the series. What’s more, Bosch has continued to evolve over time, not just as a character, but as a policeman; indeed, over the course of the last couple of books, Bosch finally retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, leaving him to find a new way to define himself. Because what is Harry Bosch without the need to pursue justice and right wrongs?

And so, in The Wrong Side of Goodbye, which is not just a great Harry Bosch novel, but just a plain great police procedural by one of the best in the business, we find Harry working for the San Fernando Police Department part-time, helping a smaller community with its more minor issues, assisting in clearing some older cases, and picking up occasional side gigs that call for investigatory work. What that means is that, at any given point, Harry Bosch has quite a bit going on – in this case, a private gig helping a business legend track down a possible illegitimate heir, an active police investigation into a serial rapist, and his private life as a father. And once you add into this the way that the private gig means diving back into the memories of Vietnam for Harry, that complicates things even further.

In lesser hands, this could easily feel overstuffed or cluttered, but Connelly makes it work, turning Bosch’s juggling of all of these threads into part of the text, and (thankfully) resisting the all-too-common urge to make them all connected to each other. Yes, some of the stress from one can bleed into the other, but this isn’t one of those thrillers where the serial rapist is secretly working against the heir or something; instead, it’s a book about police work, as Bosch runs down his leads carefully and methodically, talking to witnesses, running the tapes, and checking his evidence, and using his experience to help him read the situations. It’s easy to forget how satisfying that can be as a read – just the act of following someone as they do their job running down a case – and The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a reminder that Connelly hasn’t been a bestseller for all these years for no reason whatsoever. Indeed, The Wrong Side of Goodbye is one of the best books he’s written in a while, given how it plays with the cold case aspects of the recent books, dives into Harry’s emotional past, immerses you in police work, and lets each play out in an intelligent and interesting way.

The result is a great read, by any standards; the search for the heir plays to the “cold cases” aspects of the series that were so gripping, to say nothing of seeing the long shadows of Vietnam casts over even the second and third generations out. The rapist section of the book is gripping and fascinating, diving into complex police work and showing how a simple intuition can turn everything around, and giving us some nice dramatic reveals along the way. And Bosch’s personal life, as always, is a joy to read, as we see this lone wolf who’s become the parent of a college-age woman. Add to that Connelly’s gift for tapping into the zeitgeist – here, playing with racial politics both personal and economic – and you have a truly great entry in the series. How many authors could be on their nineteenth book in a set and still have it be this good?

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I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh / **

i-let-you-go-pbI Let You Go, the debut novel by British author Clare Mackintosh (whose resume of police work is more than enough to impress), came to me with no small amount of praise, most notably for the twist it apparently delivered. I didn’t really know much else about the book – to be honest, I somehow had gotten the idea that it was more of a thriller than a crime novel for some reason, and so was a little surprised when it became clear that, at its core, this was a mystery novel, albeit one with some interesting themes and ideas. The problem is, except for that twist (which I’ll talk around – I won’t spoil), there’s not much of interest or substance to I Let You Go; what you have is perfectly fine, at best, but without much of note to recommend it as particularly great.

The hook is simple, revolving around a hit-and-run accident in which a small child is hit and killed by a car whose driver immediately flees the scene, leaving the child to die. Half of the book follows the police detectives Ray Stevens and Kate Evans as they work to track down the driver; the other (done in alternating chapters) follows the grieving mother Jenna Gray, reeling from the accident, as she moves to the Welsh coast in an attempt to rebuild her life. That’s not a bad concept for the book in of itself; the Gray chapters allow the book to explore the grieving process, as well as what it’s like to survive trauma and to let down one’s walls; meanwhile, Mackintosh’s police experience shows through as she tracks the case over time, following up slim leads and trying to keep the brass interesting in moving the case along.

All of this is fine; Mackintosh keeps things moving at a good pace, and more importantly, she invests her time in her characters, especially when it comes to Jenna and the pain she’s going through. The problem, though, is that it’s never really more than “fine”; it’s all adequate, sure, but there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before. That’s doubly true when it comes to the relationship between Ray and Kate, which feels like the tossed-in romance subplot of so many generic detective stories (to say nothing of almost any popcorn film). And while Jenna is well-fleshed out, there’s a sense of wheel-spinning to her story…up until the halfway point of the book, when Mackintosh draws her two threads together in a fairly surprising reveal.

In an ideal world, that twist (which, again, is pretty good, if not the jaw-dropper I had been hearing) would kick off a great second half of the book; now that the cards are on the table, Mackintosh should be able to really move the story into more interesting, complex territory. Instead, the book gets increasingly silly, building to another big reveal that’s so ludicrous that it ruined whatever goodwill the story had built up, giving me an absurd moment that takes the interesting material Mackintosh had been handling and makes it all silly and theatrical. What’s worse, Mackintosh starts treating difficult, intense subject matter – most notably, psychological and physical abuse – in an increasingly “suspenseful” way, moving away from the sobering reality of trauma that she had been dealing with, and turning it into thriller-movie supervillainy. It feels cheap and in bad taste, even before the ridiculous epilogue that throws whatever depth she had managed out the window in the name of an eye-roller of a cliffhanger.

There are books that can survive a bad ending; unfortunately, I Let You Go isn’t really one of them. The first part of the book isn’t interesting or compelling enough to survive the bad taste that the book’s climax will leave in your mouth, and even setting all of that aside, there’s little here that hasn’t been done elsewhere – and done better. There are some neat ideas at work, and Mackintosh’s interest in following the emotional aftermath of horrific crimes is worthy. But with its generic police detectives and increasingly absurd plotting, there’s just not much here to recommend beyond one pretty neat reveal that’s certainly not going to change your life.

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A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly / **** ½

71mvwmg4azlThere are basically two ways to review A Game of Ghosts: one is by comparing it to just about any other thriller out there, and the other is by comparing it to the rest of the Charlie Parker series. On the former scale, as usual, John Connolly reminds you that he’s one of the greatest thriller writers working today, and blows just about any of the others out of the water; on the latter, it’s a solid, engaging entry, but not among the best of the series.

As usual for the Parker series, A Game of Ghosts blurs the lines between the crime genre and supernatural horror; while the book opens with Charlie Parker being tasked with tracking down a missing private detective, it doesn’t take long before the story spirals outward into a malevolent cult whose female members are in touch with vicious, dangerous spirits. And, as usual, Connolly doesn’t just deliver gripping action set pieces and a complicated crime saga; he’s also genuinely terrifying throughout, giving even the hardiest readers chills and unease as he plunges deeply into what he’s called “the honeycomb world”. As for the question as to whether his supernatural entities or his villains are more evil and horrifying…well, that’s up for debate.

A Game of Ghosts is the 15th novel in the Parker series, and it’s not an ideal spot for new readers to come in, even though the plot is entirely self-contained. But the best parts of A Game of Ghosts come as Connolly adds to the complex ongoing mythology of his world, whether it’s the increasingly odd aspects of Parker’s daughter Sam, his tenuous and uneasy relationship with federal authorities, or some unexpected developments with regard to that strange, tobacco-stained figure only known as The Collector. Even better, though, are the character beats; while the ongoing saga draws me in, the horror unsettles me, and the writing moves me, it’s the characters that I love, and that wonderful trio of Parker and his friends Angel and Louis continue to bring out life and friendship in wonderfully strange, dark ways.

For all of that, though, A Game of Ghosts often feels like Parker barely needs to be in the book; indeed, near the end of the book, Parker makes the comment that he feels like he’s constantly playing catch up with everything that’s going on. It reminds me of the earlier entry in the series The Whisperers, which again felt as though Parker was merely an observer – or maybe “witness” is a better word. Much happens here, and there’s little denying that Parker is a central part of it all, but it almost feels as though he’s reduced to a passive role in the novel rather than driving the story along. That this is perhaps intended by Connolly (and, given that Parker frequently comments that he feels that much is being kept from him in all of this, it seems likely) doesn’t quite stop it from being a bit frustrating.

Even so, A Game of Ghosts is a Charlie Parker book by John Connolly. And what that means is that it will be riveting, darkly funny when you least expect, intense, morally complex, terrifying, and disturbing – often all at the same time. And while all of that is happening, you’re also getting beautiful writing, complex characterization, and fantastic plotting. In short, it’s another brilliant read by one of the best authors that a lot of people aren’t reading. And if it’s not quite my favorite in the series, that’s okay; I’d still read even the weakest Parker book multiple times, and hold it up as a knockout.

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The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

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The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

27209225A few months ago, I stumbled across The Devil’s Detective, which told the story of Thomas Fool, a damned soul doing his best to investigate murders in Hell. It was a book that completely caught me off guard, and blew me away, creating an astonishingly vivid world, and truly committing to its premise – after all, how could you solve murders in a place designed around suffering? Unsworth’s novel embraced that question, turning it into a book in which Fool’s quest for hope and answers is as much a defiance of Hell as it is a murder mystery. It was an incredible, beautifully written book that I loved, and one that I was eager to see followed up.

Now comes The Devil’s Evidence, the second (and hopefully not last) Thomas Fool novel, which picks up some time after the first book. Fool’s stature has continued to grow, but what that means for Hell – which seems to have embraced the idea of Information Men – remains to be seen. Is Fool just a pawn in Hell’s games, or his own man? But before he can deal with that question too much, or work on the series of fires that are breaking out across Hell, he’s drafted into accompanying a delegation of demons into Heaven. And once he arrives, he starts to realize that he’s been brought here to exercise his particular skills all over again – because something horrible is happening in Heaven.

Just as he did in The Devil’s Detective, Unsworth makes his book work by embracing his environment, creating a take on Heaven unlike anything else out there (much as he did with Hell). Unsworth’s Heaven is a beautiful place, but a strange one, with joyful souls in constant waking dreams, and angels unable to perceive anything that might leave them questioning the perfection of their world. It’s a rich, strange world, and as viewed through Fool’s eyes, one that’s both beautiful and utterly alien, both appealing and wholly wrong. More than that, it’s a deeply strange place, much like Unsworth’s Hell; in both places, the idea of religion, sin, or forgiveness feel almost absent and abstract, as though they barely matter at all to the final product.

Once again, though, it’s Unsworth’s rich prose and storytelling skills that make this such a knockout, though. As Fool begins to investigate the horrific crimes throughout Heaven, Unsworth keeps the pressure building, introducing off-kilter angels, ratcheting up the tension between Fool and the demons who resent him, and escalating the stakes far beyond these original murders. Through it all, Unsworth keeps us invested in Fool’s fate – not only his life, but his emotional stakes, his sense of purpose, and his efforts to find something resembling happiness in a horrific life. And once again, that quest for meaning and understanding becomes important as an end unto itself, with knowledge serving both as its own reward and its own curse.

The Devil’s Evidence is a worthy sequel in every way, and that’s no small feat, given how much I loved The Devil’s Detective; it avoids the problem of repetition by letting the story, the world, and the characters evolve and grow, expanding Unsworth’s odd cosmology in the most logical way. And the result is every bit the book that Detective was, working both as horror novel and detective story, as neo-noir and dark fantasy, as bleak crime novel and surreal Barker-esque horror. It’s a wonderfully unique novel, and one that leaves me eager for more Thomas Fool to come.

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