Shocking True Story, by Gregg Olsen / *** ½

924159492There’s something inherently fun about the idea of a true crime author like Gregg Olsen writing a fictional novel about a true crime author whose personal life becomes tangled up in the true crime case he’s researching. (Did everyone follow that?) It’s an easy hook for a novel, and a fun one at that – and that’s before Olsen essentially begins writing two books at once, alternating between the story of Kevin Ryan, struggling true crime writer, and the white trash love story turned violent that’s the subject of his latest novel.

And that’s all before the two start overlapping in messy, bloody ways, giving the book a great hook.

For all of that, though, Shocking True Story left me with a sense of “is that all?” by the end of it. That’s not to say that it’s not a fun read – I tore through it, and Olsen’s direct writing style and twisty plotting made that easy. And it’s not that the conceit doesn’t work, because it does, even without Olsen’s clever way of turning Ryan into a self-involved narcissist without ever coming out and being explicit about it. (Such a choice also allows Olsen to lampshade some of the concerns and criticisms of true crime, all while creating a character that represents both the best and worst sides of the genre.)

But ultimately, by the end of it all, Shocking True Story feels empty – as though what plot there was wasn’t enough to sustain the book. Even with essentially two books in one here, neither one ever comes to much of anything; the “true crime” story feels incomplete and insubstantial, and the murder plot that Ryan finds himself part of ultimately comes to a standard (and unsurprising) big reveal that sort of fizzles out. Indeed, even the possibility that Ryan is in danger of losing something or being blamed for it all doesn’t last long, as though the book didn’t have the patience to invest in that storyline. (Incidentally, this is one of the rare books where one of the red herrings Olsen presents would have been a far more interesting payoff than the one we got – always something you have to worry about with those.)

I didn’t hate Shocking True Story – it’s entertaining and fun, and it’s an easy read – but I definitely ended it feeling like what I got could have been a novella and lost nothing, or even better, extended and fleshed out into something much better. As it is, it’s a fine enough read, but one that won’t stick with you in any real way. Ask me in a week, and I’ll struggle to remember all that much about it.

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The Outsider, by Stephen King / ****

36124936In some ways, Stephen King’s The Outsider is the logical follow-up and continuation of what he began doing as a writer with Mr. Mercedes. With that book and the rest of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King started writing crime novels – well, crime novels a la King, which aren’t quite the same thing. But what it showed was that King was just as capable of playing in other genres, and in many ways, all the things he does so well – great characterization, superb pacing, excellent tension-building – were things that were also needed for a great thriller.

Now, as the Bill Hodges books continued, King started to bring more of his supernatural and horror elements into the books, with mixed results. The Outsider continues that trend, but by virtue of having been designed as a crime/horror hybrid from the get-go, the resulting novel feels smoother and more cohesive than, say, End of Watch, which felt a bit bumpy.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that The Outsider starts so incredibly well, alternating between the very public arrest of a beloved small town figure with the unquestionable evidence that ties him to the brutal murder of a child. And in that early going, King manages a notable feat, keeping the audience constantly uncertain as to whether what we’re reading is an innocent man being framed or a nightmarish killer’s facade of innocence. By sliding constantly between the police and the accused, doling out information carefully and methodically, King is near the top of his game, giving us one of his most enthralling first halves in a long, long time, all culminating in a setpiece that plays to all of his strengths.

It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the second half of The Outsider doesn’t measure up to the first. That’s not to say that it ever becomes bad, mind you; the introduction of an old friend of Constant Readers gives the book a nice second wind, and there’s something satisfying about how King applies his mystery-writing strategies to a supernatural event (even if that old friend gets used in some deus ex machina ways). But the answers we get are disappointingly bland, especially given King’s unique take on so many horror tropes, and while there are aspects of the finale that are interesting – more the implications and hints conveyed during that sequence than any true revelations – it doesn’t soar in the way that the best King climaxes can.

Mind you, I still absolutely devoured The Outsider, and couldn’t put it down. No, it may not be among the top tier of King novels, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom – for whatever blandness and iffiness along the way, it’s more consistent and focused than End of Watch, and more gripping and propulsive than Sleeping Beauties. And if nothing else, there’s nothing like King for books that are so easily and constantly readable, and allow me to lose myself so deeply in their pages.

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Bibliomysteries by Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman

Sometimes, nothing scratches a reading itch like a good short story, and what better hook could you have than to have mysteries about books? That’s the premise of the Bibliomysteries series, which started life as an anthology, but now has been released as a series of digital shorts, letting readers pick and choose the best of the series, or just finding the work by that author you love. For me, I picked two – an author I was curious about, and one I already loved – and got pretty solid results.


17163066I had never read anything by Laura Lippman before reading The Book Thing, which finds a young woman trying to help a local bookstore figure out how and why its stock keeps disappearing. Lippman’s got a great reputation as a writer, and while The Book Thing wasn’t really what I expected, that didn’t keep it from being a great read. It’s set in Baltimore, and Lippman brings every element to life, from the wandering man everyone knows to the business of an independent bookstore, and does it with heart and warmth.

The mystery element of The Book Thing is no great shakes; suffice to say, most readers will figure it out quickly, but so do the characters, if we’re being honest. Instead, Lippman is more interested not in what’s being done, but in why it’s being done, and that gives The Book Thing an empathy I didn’t really expect. No, as a mystery, it may let you down a bit, but as a compelling little read and a nice piece of short fiction, it’s satisfying indeed, and has me curious to try out more of Lippman’s work. Rating: ****


35432735Anyone who’s read this blog long enough knows my love of Joe Lansdale in general, and his Hap and Leonard series more specifically. (You can find all my reviews of them here.) Suffice to say, I deeply love Lansdale’s Texas drawl, and I love even more Hap and Leonard, whose friendship is deep, even as their banter and smart-alecky nature makes me laugh and drives each of them up the wall.

So it’s no surprise that I loved Hoodoo Harry, in which our heroes are nearly run down by a runaway bookmobile that seems to be being driven by a young child. The child dies in the accident, which is bad enough, but what’s strange is that the bookmobile in question has been missing for years. So where was it? And why is it back now? The mystery here is deeply satisfying, despite the short length of the story; Lansdale has a way of conveying the past of things quickly and easily, and his lived-in world is full of subtext, complicated racial pasts, and more. Hoodoo Harry is no exception, as a quest to figure out where a bookmobile comes from stumbles across some dark secrets – and a lot of missing children, maybe.

As always with Lansdale, he has a way of handling dark material smoothly, bringing a crackling wit that can lighten the mood without ever disrespecting the grim nature of his stories – and trust me, this one gets dark. Even so, Lansdale makes it all work, giving us a rich mystery, a complex world, and all of the great character work he’s known for, only this time its in a small, easily digestible package. In other words, it’s business as usual for Lansdale. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: The Book Thing | Hoodoo Harry

First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan / ***

3526A few years ago, I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a truly incredible book that pretty much floored me on every imaginable level. Ever since then, I’ve been curious to check out more of McEwan’s work, to see how it compared to that modern masterpiece, and learning that First Love, Last Rites was a collection of short stories sounded like a great place to start – it would give me a bit more of a sampling of his work, a wider array of experiences that McEwan could create.

Now, I didn’t realize when I picked it up that First Love, Last Rites actually represented McEwan’s first published writings, and that they largely represented the author’s attempts to experiment and find his voice. Had I known that, I doubt I would have jumped in here; I’d probably have gone with something more polished, or something closer in his career arc to Atonement, at least chronologically. As it is, First Love, Last Rites is a pretty far cry from Atonement in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the grim, disturbing subject matter. At the time, McEwan had the nickname “Ian Macabre,” and it’s not hard to see why – this is a collection of horrors, from incest to sexual abuse, from rapists to murder, almost always told from the point of view of the criminal. And, as he did in Atonement, McEwan immerses himself deeply in the characters’ perspectives, which means that there’s no moral judgment, no sense of justice or morality. These characters often get away with their actions, without even a sense of guilt, and that can make these hard to take. (That the eBook version I read opens with the story “Homemade,” which involves a confident, amoral teenager’s efforts to rid himself of his virginity through deeply upsetting means, didn’t help me to get adjusted into the book quickly; indeed, it almost put me off reading the rest, just because I wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting myself into, and because the story’s perspective is so vile.)

And yet, in a lot of ways, you can see many of the same skills that McEwan would put to work in Atonement getting their trial runs here. His empathy and ability to truly step into someone’s mind; his knack for watching events unfold without introducing morality or judgment into the writing; his insistence that the reader interacts with the text to unpack some of the meaning. And at times, as repulsive as his characters are, McEwan still knocks you out; my personal favorite is “Conversation with a Cupboard Man,” a long confession by a deeply damaged man whose mother infantilized him to a toxic degree and left him barely able to function in the real world – it’s a story that reminds me of the depth and nuance that someone like, say, Thomas Harris would bring to a similar character.

There’s little way to walk away from First Love, Last Rites and not feel like you need a bit of a shower. The actions depicted here are toxic, and even if McEwan is accurate in the way masculine drives and the demands of society so often push them in horrible directions, that doesn’t make the collection any more pleasant to read all in a batch like this. But there’s no denying the talent that McEwan was bringing to bear even here, in his earliest work, and it’s to his credit that the stories are as engaging as they are, even as they disturb. They’re not perfect by any means – the title story gets too pretentious with its symbolism for my taste; “Cocker at the Theatre” really only has the advantage of being short; several feel like experiments in amoral perspectives more than they feel like full stories – but they’re fascinating glimpses as to some of what would make Atonement great. I still think my next taste of McEwan will be something more modern than this, though.

Amazon

Blue Ruin / **** ½

blue20ruinI wanted to see Blue Ruin even before I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, his follow-up and all around incredible film. Indeed, as much as I loved the claustrophobic tension of Green Room, the fact that Blue Ruin sounded so Coen-esque – a murder story that escalates – had me even more intrigued. But what I got was something more interesting and substantial (though no less well-made) than I expected; while Blue Ruin handles some of the same themes as other revenge films – primarily, the question of whether or not revenge is worth the blood that it spills, or the violence that sometimes blows back upon the avenger – it does so by creating something more complicated and mundane than most revenge films. This is Coenish in the “regular folks getting in over their heads” feel that it creates, but rather than using it for black comedy, as the Coens so often do, it’s used to increase our unease, our tension, and the emotional impact of the movie.

Much of Blue Ruin‘s impact has to be laid at the feet of Macon Blair, who has to carry so many scenes entirely on his own, without dialogue or any other actors to play off of. Even from the film’s opening notes, where we’re introduced to Blair as a homeless, unkempt drifter, the film lets his performance tell the story, as he wanders around, gets food, and eventually finds himself brought in by a police officer who wants to let him know that someone is being released from prison. Saulnier fades the audio here, prolonging the mystery, but Blair’s face tells us all the story we need – there is some deep tragedy here, and it’s how this man ended up where he is. To some degree, that sets up the recurring theme of the film: the way that violence ripples out far beyond its original target, leaving far more devastation in its wake than a single act might suggest.

Yes, Blue Ruin is a revenge film, but it’s not the one you expect; indeed, Blair’s act of revenge doesn’t end the film so much as it kicks it off, leading to a chain reaction of escalating violence that leaves plenty dead, more wounded, and the damage both emotional and physical hard to quantify. Saulnier stages it all perfectly for tension and unease, constantly reminding us how over his head Blair is, but also how broken he is – how little he has left in him beyond this quest to even the scales, no matter what it takes. And while there’s a lowkey comedy to some of the proceedings, Blue Ruin feels more like a tragedy than anything else – not just in terms of Blair, but in all of the participants in what follows.

None of this might make Blue Ruin sound as good as it is, or as tense; as he did in Green Room, Saulnier stages things expertly, extending the tension until it’s unbearable, using gore and violence for maximum impact, and investing us in these characters so that their fates matter to us beyond the machinations of a plot. Much of this comes down the performances, but also Saulnier’s control of the film; especially given how little this film gives us in terms of exposition, the fact that we’re never lost as to what’s going on is remarkable. But the way each setpiece unfolds slowly and horribly makes for some truly gripping viewing; yes, these are undeniably the acts of an amateur, but that only makes them more emotionally affecting and desperate, investing the film with even more power.

Blue Ruin‘s Coen brothers comparisons are understandable on a number of levels, but they don’t really prepare you for the film, which feels more like a very violent drama than a true revenge thriller or crime caper. It’s a film about violence that doesn’t flinch from it – similar to what Saulnier would do with Green Room – but it’s also about what these acts can do to a human being, both as a perpetrator and a victim. It’s a pretty stellar entry into the film scene, and bodes well for years of Saulnier films to come.

IMDb

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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Don’t Torture a Duckling / *** ½

220px-don27ttortureaducklingAfter a few stumbles with the works of Dario Argento, I began to wonder if Italian horror just wasn’t for me. But it wasn’t long after that that I was introduced to the work of Lucio Fulci, whose tendencies towards excess, gore, and an admittedly high level of grime all somehow made Italian horror click for me in a way that Argento never has.

Now comes my exposure to the film that put Fulci on the map outside of Italy, as well as the one which found him exploring gore and horror for the first major time in his career: the giallo crime film Don’t Torture a Duckling, about a series of brutal child murders in a small Italian town and the resulting hysteria that arises. All the usual Fulci staples are on display; bad dubbing, excessive gore, a fixation on eyes, and some (gratuitous) seediness. What’s not quite there is the sheer excess of his horrors; the grounded nature of the film, which is more of a traditional horror fil½m than the unchained horrors of The Beyond or Zombie, keeps it from hitting those splattered peaks that Fulci would attain later.

The result isn’t bad, especially if you’re a Fulci fan; while it’s nowhere near the magnificent mood and tension of his best works, Don’t Torture a Duckling compensates by having some of the more interesting ideas of the Fulci films I’ve seen. This is a movie that anchors itself in small town paranoia and judgment, using that to deliver a nightmarish sequence where the town citizens decide to dole out justice on their own terms. There’s also the film’s choice to grapple with religious fervor and mania – a choice that caused no small issue on the film’s release, but also gives it a punch that simple giallo didn’t usually manage.

For all that, though, it also feels like a director dipping his foot into a genre and realizing that it’s too narrow for his ambitions and ideas. Don’t Torture a Duckling feels like Fulci is trying on the giallo film for size, but pushes back against the restrictions and ideas of what it’s doing, and starts figuring out his own interests along the way. It’s not a bad film at all, but it’s more interesting as a stepping stone to better films than it is on its own, despite a few great moments and some intriguing choices along the way.

IMDb