Noirvember 2019 #11-12: Modern Hard-Boiled (Anti-)Heroes

BloodStandardIt really shouldn’t be a surprise that Laird Barron can write straight-up crime fiction; after all, in his short fiction, Barron has shown a love of mixing hard-boiled noir with Lovecraftian horrors on numerous occasions. So why not take on crime, free of cosmic horror, but with plenty of focus on the evil in the hearts of men? All of which gives us Blood Standard, Barron’s first hard-boiled noir novel, and his first starring half-Maori former mob enforcer Isaiah Coleridge, a literate, hulking man capable of dishing out (and taking) brutal harm but attempting to figure out his own moral code.

If you’ve read Barron before – and really, you should have, if you’re into horror at all – it’ll be no surprise that what you get in Blood Standard is beautifully written and crafted prose, with a literary feel that never becomes pretentious, but a willingness to go brutal and bloody when the story demands it. What’s fascinating, though, is the way that Barron has created a character that contains all of those same contradictions and complexities, incarnating the perfect representation of Barron’s prose and worldview. Here’s a character raised with a deep love of literary classics (Roman myths, Beowulf, etc.) but also a brutally violent Mafia enforcer. A man hardened by life in Alaska but also a man whose devotion to his dog has shaped his emotional life forever. A man capable of inflicting brutal, horrifying pain on another human being without so much as a sliver of guilt, but also one who finds himself trying to save a girl from her fate for fear that he can’t live with the consequences. Coleridge is an archetypal hard-boiled noir hero in so many ways – capable of anything, but with a decent core that he may not even be aware of – but in Barron’s hands, he becomes wholly his own creation, one that stands out from the crowd.

And that’s good, because while the story of Blood Standard is an effective one – dealing with Coleridge’s separation from the mob and his sudden plunge into something like detective work – in its broad strokes, it’s fairly traditional fare. The daughter of a couple who’s taken him in has gone missing, with most of the signs pointing towards some shady characters, and Coleridge is attempting to save her. Nothing groundbreaking, and while the ultimate resolution is an interesting one, this feels more like Barron trying something more akin to a traditional formula before branching out. That’s maybe most notably proven by some of the strange edges around the borders of the story, like a brief sojourn into a Nazi bar, or an encounter with a fearsome mother who proves that she’s not to be trifled with in no uncertain terms. It’s in these moments that we best see what Barron is capable of, stretching the boundaries of genre while respecting all of the things that make it appealing in the first place.

But even with some of those more cautious first steps, Blood Standard is a great read, one with all of the myriad pleasures Barron brings to readers, all with the added bonus of watching as he tries on a new genre and shows off his skills there as well. This may be only his first step into this world, but he’s already far beyond what so many others have done years in – so bring on more Isaiah Coleridge!


9780805093995Originally, Richard Price planned on releasing The Whites under the pen name “Harry Brandt,” saying that he wanted to separate the novel’s more commercial, plot-driven aspects from his usual writing. It’s a decision he didn’t stick with, obviously, and has made numerous jokes about, remarking in one interview that he realized that the novel would be just “another damn book by me” too late into the process.

All of which is to say, it’s not surprising that The Whites feels like an uneasy union between a traditional hard-boiled police procedural and Price’s more thoughtful, internally driven novels focused on social factors. The hook is pulpy enough – an NYPD detective named Billy Graves starts realizing that numerous “white whales” (hence the title) that have gotten away with horrible crimes on various technicalities keep turning up dead, and starts investigating – and once you mix in the way that another officer begins slowly stalking and terrorizing Graves and his family in payback for a long-ago crime, you’ve got a pulpy setup for revenge and hard-boiled retribution.

But that’s not really entirely Price’s style, and while The Whites gives us a good mystery to hang onto and some tightly paced thrills, Price keeps turning the novel into something more complex and introspective, making us understand not only the appeal for revenge but turning it into a question that touches on religion, divine purpose, and a lack of justice in the world. And while Price never comes across as pro-vigilante justice, he never forgets the way that grief can impact people and tear apart families, leading to victims not only of the original crimes, but victims of the rippling consequences that spread out from them. And, as if that’s not complicated enough, Price realizes that you can’t take on the idea of murdered suspects without taking on questions about police brutality, racial profiling, and more, and while The Whites never quite dives into those aspects fully, they undeniably linger around the edges of the novel, informing the debates and shaping characters’ reactions to what’s going on.

With all of that thrown into the mix, as you might imagine, The Whites turns from a pulpy revenge thriller into something far more complex, and that juxtaposition doesn’t always entirely work. Price’s work often works best when he lets his characters drive the story, keeping the plots simple and allowing internal monologues and psychological complexities be the hook for our story. Here, The Whites sometimes struggles to hold up under the weight of its characters, as though Price really wanted to deliver a nasty noir novel and instead couldn’t help but turn it into a character study in which these people’s decisions are rendered in all of their complexity and nuance.

That all may make for an uneasy marriage of elements, but it also means that The Whites is a rich, engrossing novel, even if its one that feels like its story is holding it back some. (For instance, it’s worth noting that the novel’s best scene involves an interrogation sequence which has no bearing on either of the main plot threads, and yet whose emotional impact has stuck with me for many days, long after I finished the book.) But maybe that’s the best thing about The Whites; what you’re expecting is a lurid noir tale, but what you get is something more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more complicated, giving us not archetypes but people, not bloodless murders but awful crimes, not easy motivations but complex reasoning, and not easy answers but instead an awful uncertainty. Maybe that’s what makes it a better book than you’d expect it to be.


Ratings

  • Blood Standard: ****
  • The Whites: ****
Amazon: Blood Standard | The Whites
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Noirvember 2019 #3-4: Iconic Pulp Authors

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range that spans 90 years.


Jim Thompson is one of the undeniable masters of the noir genre, one whose work casts a long shadow, and yet one whose books feel like nothing else. Thompson’s meandering, conversational narrations mask a complex understanding of human nature and our darkest natures; more than that, the disconnect between his cheerful, calm protagonists and the dark actions they undertake often makes for riveting portraits of sociopaths and criminals, giving us stone-cold classics like After Dark, My SweetThe Getaway; and my personal favorite, Pop. 1280.

NothingMoreThanMurderAnd at first, Nothing More than Murder, Thompson’s third book, feels like an interesting variation on what we’re used to from him. The story of a small-town movie theater owner named Joe Wilmot, Murder follows Joe as he attempts to fake the death of his wife and run away with his new girlfriend, all while staying on top of the movie business in his small town. But it becomes clear very quickly that Joe is less the mastermind in this book and more of the rube being played, and that his darker impulses are only setting him up to be manipulated by the smarter operators all around him.

That’s a neat variation on Thompson’s usual amoral criminals, with Joe straddling the line between schmuck (the fake murder plot with a very real corpse at its core) and shark (his ruthless domination of the theater business). And it’s undeniable that Thompson, even three novels in, already had a gift for narration, giving Joe an “aw shucks” sensibility that occasionally opens up to reveal something wholly else underneath. Mix that with a deep dive into theater operations of the 1940’s, and you should get a knockout, right?

Sadly, this early in his career, Thompson hadn’t quite nailed the balance of narrative character-building and thriller screw-turning that he would master later on, and the result is that big chunks of Murder are, to be frank, a real drag. The second half of the book picks up quite a bit, as the fake crime begins unraveling, but the movie theater business gets to be byzantine and dull as it unfolds, detracting from everything else that’s far more engaging. And while the book definitely tosses out a solid reveal in the final pages, it’s not really enough to make the book something I’d recommend unless you’re a Thompson devotee. It’s an interesting enough look at Thompson’s early style, and it’s got all of his usual great ear for dialogue and narration, but all of the various elements haven’t quite coalesced yet. (Of course, his next novel was a little book called The Killer Inside Me, so he was awfully close to nailing it.)

RedHarvestOn the other hand, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest? This one will absolutely blow you away, nearly a century old or not.

I haven’t read much Hammett – really, only The Maltese Falcon, and that back in high school – so I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Red Harvest. I knew it more for the films it inspired – Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars – but beyond that, I didn’t know how well Hammett’s hard-boiled prose would hold up all these years later.

But, man, did I not need to worry. An absolute knockout of a novel, Red Harvest hits the ground running, never slows down, and does it all with a rat-a-tat prose that’s so hard-boiled you could bounce a coin off of it. The story of a Pinkerton-style detective (often called The Continental Op) called into a small town to deal with a labor dispute, Harvest turns into a bloodbath as our “hero” starts playing all of the town’s factions against each other to clean up the town in a hail of bullets and blood, using their avarice and paranoia to maximum effect and neatly ducking any pesky questions about “morals” and “laws”.

Now, if you’re like me and assumed that Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars were more or less unauthorized adaptations of Red Harvest, that’s not really entirely the case. Indeed, having read Hammett’s novel, it’s more like Kurosawa read the back of the paperback, or knew the basic premise, and took that and ran with it. Hammett, on the other hand, dives hard into the criminal underworld here, giving us a town filled with schemers, ruthless gangsters, hulking henchmen, and a femme fatale for the ages. Everyone in Red Harvest is out for money, and is willing to do anything to get it – except maybe our hero. Maybe.

Red Harvest ends up feeling like the seamy underbelly to its contemporary, The Great Gatsby; both are stories about the dangerous appeal of money, the corruption it brings along with it, and the ruthlessness that it inspires. But where Fitzgerald found a story of love – well, “obsession” might be the better word, but whatever – to give it all a civilized patina, Hammett has no use for a pretty cover on things. The Op is ruthless and cold-blooded, and views the carnage he’s unleashing as no worse than exterminating bugs. The gangsters are without morals and as obsessed with success and its trappings as anyone else. And the rest of the town either tolerates it or looks the other way if they know what’s good for them, because this is no world for good people – they get used, if they’re lucky, or more likely, hurt.

Like a lot of hard-boiled staples, Red Harvest gets convoluted by the end, but it never bothered me in the least. This is a story of corruption, greed, and violence, delivered in a rapid-fire style that’s responsible for every hard-boiled writer to come for a century and more. I absolutely couldn’t put it down for a second, and I don’t care how old it is – it holds its own against any crime novel I’ve read in a long, long time.


Ratings

  • Nothing More than Murder / ***
  • Red Harvest / *****
Amazon: Nothing More than Murder | Red Harvest

Noirvember 2019 #1-2: Two by Michael Connelly

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range that spans 90 years.


TwoKindsofTruthOn a recent book tour, Michael Connelly talked about his decision, very early on, that Harry Bosch would age more or less in real time as his series continued. It was a way for him to allow the books to reflect the world around him, he explained, even though he conceded that he didn’t really think about how that would probably lead to some issues as Bosch – intentionally crafted as a Vietnam veteran – continued to be popular and work into the 2010’s.

Nevertheless, in so many ways, that choice to have Bosch age and the series unfold in real time is one of my favorite thing about Connelly’s Bosch novels, and one of the things that most sets them apart from the other crime series going today. Thirty-ish books into the series, Bosch continues to evolve, slowly adjusting to technology, political and social trends, his role as a father, and his own relationship to the cities he watches over. But somehow, even after so many books, Two Kinds of Truth shows that Connelly can write just as well as ever, and that Bosch is still one of the most compelling, wonderful detective characters in fiction today.

Connelly’s choice to shift Bosch into a sort of elder statesman role, working at a small police department outside of Los Angeles, pays off beautifully in Truth, allowing him to both be the consultant for a department that’s in way over its head, as well as letting him follow his pet cause of long abandoned cases ignored by the world around them. As he’s done for a few books now, Connelly follows Bosch as he handles a variety of cases, ranging from the murder/robbery of a young pharmacist to the death row appeal of a killer that Bosch put away decades ago. And while a lesser author might go for the obvious strategy of letting all of these cases link together as some master plot, Connelly instead allows the cases to simply be separate facets of Bosch’s life, showing us how police officers’ lives aren’t always neat and orderly and focused on just one case. (That’s not to say the cases don’t impact each other; indeed, the way the consequences of each slam into the other is part of the book’s plot. It’s just that Connelly avoids the easy tropes of the “overarching master plot”.)

But while Connelly’s plotting remains satisfying (to say nothing of his ability to tap into modern anxieties, with a strong focus this time out on the opioid crisis and society’s inability to reckon with the supply that’s available and feeding addictions), the book is most enjoyable as a chance to catch up with Harry Bosch. Over the course of twenty-plus years, Bosch has changed in some ways, while never changing in the most important ones – even after all these years, he’s a dogged investigator, a pragmatist to his core, an old-fashioned police detective. But he’s getting older, and while he refuses to let go of his quest for justice in the world, Truth shows us a Bosch that’s settling into the role of a mentor, trying to guide a generation of officers that will have to take up his mantle one day all too soon. It’s more subtext than text in Truth, but there’s little denying that Bosch is getting older, and that he’s a man who’s still so focused on his missions in life that he sometimes doesn’t think about what’s best for him as a person, so much as what’s best for justice in the world. Is it true to Bosch the character, though? Undeniably, from the risks he takes to the certainty he shows to the refusal to let go of a woman he feels like he has to safe at all costs. But we as readers – and Connelly, as an author – are all too aware that Bosch is a man who’s no longer the young man he once was

DarkSacredAll of which helps set up Dark Sacred Night, which finds Connelly uniting Bosch with Renée Ballard, Connelly’s newest character (introduced in 2017’s The Late Show). Even without Connelly’s statement at the aforementioned book tour stop that Night was a bit of a “passing of the torch” book, it’s clear that Connelly has been thinking about who could fill Bosch’s shoes. Night more than makes its case for Ballard, while also making clear both how alike and, more importantly, how different these two characters are from each other.

When I read The Late Show, I commented that it made for a good debut for Ballard, as well as investing me in her character, but also that she often felt a bit too similar to Bosch. Directly contrasting the two of them, as Connelly does in Night (with alternating sections of the book focusing on each character) allows Connelly to address that nicely, slowly making us see both how these two characters could see the other as a kindred spirit while also driving home that Ballard isn’t Bosch; she’s just got some of his dogged, dedicated spirit to her. But in Night, Ballard comes a bit more to life as a person, and not just a female version of Bosch; what’s more, now that Ballard is more established as a character, we get a chance to see her as a police officer/investigator first, and a woman second, albeit one whose gender defines so many of her interactions with both the world and her department, just as Bosch’s own past experiences inform his own dealings with everyone around him.

What makes Night work better than most of Connelly’s other “meet up” books (which have generally ranked among my least favorite of his) is that, instead of having Bosch and Ballard at odds, he has them working together. In other words, rather than a contrived set of circumstances designed to make us question the motives of a character we already like, we get to see these two both through their own eyes and through the eyes of a partner, allowing us to see them in a new light, but also as complementary pieces that work well together. Yes, at its core, Night is a mystery – again, Connelly has a number of spinning plates here, but the primary hook involves a cold case murder Bosch discovered during the course of Truth – but more than that, it’s undeniably a chance for Connelly to begin the segue from Bosch novels to Ballard novels.

I don’t think that any of this means that we’ve seen the last of Harry Bosch or anything like that; indeed, there’s so much to enjoy about the tension and rapport between Ballard and Bosch (down to a final choice that so much underlines the differences between the two) that I’m hoping we get a lot more of these pairings for a while. But what it does show is how capable of a novelist Michael Connelly really is – because how many other authors working today could have written more than 30 entries over the course of two-and-a-half decades and still find fresh, engaging takes on the material?


Ratings

  • Two Kinds of Truth / **** ½
  • Dark Sacred Night / *****
Amazon: Two Kinds of Truth | Dark Sacred Night

 

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