Dead Aim, by Joe R. Lansdale / **** ½

imagesI’ve really come to feel that Joe Lansdale is all but incapable of writing a truly bad book, and that rule might just be doubly true if it’s one of his “Hap and Leonard” books. With a conversational style, an incredible ear for dialogue, beautifully noir plotting that never overshadows the characters, and humor that keeps everything feeling light even as the material goes dark, the series has been a treat throughout its run, and that streak remains intact for Dead Aim, a novella that follows the characters on a “simpler” case not long after the events of Devil Red.

The plot, as usual for Lansdale (and for noir), starts simply enough: Hap and Leonard are asked to help a woman who’s having some issues with a violent ex. From there, of course, everything gets complicated, as characters show up dead, motivations get questioned, and betrayals abound – in other words, it’s a typical noir story, with double-crosses and uncertainty everywhere. And as usual, Lansdale has a way of taking unexpected turns, or of taking familiar elements in unusual directions; here, while it’s not a surprise that the boys are being played, the reasons for it are more heartfelt and interesting than you might expect.

But really, the reason you read Hap and Leonard books isn’t for the plots; those are the hook that draws you in, sure, but it’s Lansdale’s rich world and fantastic characterization that you really come for, and Dead Aim provides. I could read Hap and Leonard banter and verbally spar for hundreds of pages and never get bored, and the same goes here; there’s a lived-in feel to the characters and their friendship that’s hard to explain, but undeniably present throughout. Moreover, Lansdale manages to bring all of his characters to the same life; yes, everyone in these books has a bit of a smart mouth, but Lansdale makes them all stand on their own, giving each their own personality, even in a short page count. From the wronged woman who may be using those around her to a malevolent hulking man who may be misjudged, Lansdale sketches in his characters quickly and efficiently, bringing them to life so effortlessly that it’s easy to ignore how good he is at it.

Being a novella, Dead Aim by necessity feels a little slighter than the best “Hap and Leonard” books (Bad Chili, for me, holds that title), but in some ways, it’s also a gift for readers, who get something richer than a short story that still holds all of Lansdale’s gifts for pacing, storytelling, humor, and style. And the fact that I get to pick up a bunch of these novellas for a cheap price? That’s a steal for the amount of enjoyment these books bring me. A great read, whether or not you’ve read Hap and Leonard before – and if you haven’t, get on it.

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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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The Fell Hound of Adversity, by Parker T. Geissel / ***

514mc52eclI’m on the record as loving books that blur together genres; there’s something invigorating and exciting about reading a book that doesn’t quite fit into any known categories, and whose outcome seems far more in question than your typical read. But at the same time, I’m the first to admit that defying genre boundaries is a high risk maneuver. Even setting aside the question of readers (many of whom prefer their books easy to categorize), the bigger problem is that such blurred lines require a high amount of skill to pull off correctly – a confidence and grace that many authors can’t quite pull off.

Which brings to to Parker T. Geissel’s original, ambitious The Fell Hound of Adversity. Part pulp fiction throwback, part supernatural tale, part parable, part romance story, Geissel writes his book like an author who wants to let his world develop in whatever way he pleases. And while that can be exciting at times, the ultimate result is that the book feels less wild and imaginative and more overstuffed, with plotlines and characters that feel underdeveloped and unexplored, and a storyline that feels incomplete and frustrating at times.

Geissel has created a great world to play around in, though, plunging readers into the city of Adversity, where IRS agents from the Capital have arrived in an effort to crack down on the corruption that’s been plaguing the city. But once they arrive, they find their efforts continually thwarted by a series of brutal murders, anarchists and revolutionaries, and a stonewalling by local officials. And into that mix we throw our protagonist Rudimental Quince, a line cook who gets himself involved in all of this against his better judgment.

If “Rudimental Quince” and “Adversity” seem a bit too precious as names, you might want to brace yourself for the slew of affected names in The Fell Hound of Adversity, which includes characters like Rudi’s brother Lenient Quince, Blazing Buck Cortez, Colonel Dashenka Ivanaovna Stavrogin, Killer Hrapp, Injal Skube, Chairman Tinpot, Mayhew Cue, and more. If you’re into the book, you may enjoy the colorful names, which plays into Geissel’s colorful, larger than life world; for me, the names felt like an affectation, a dose of weirdness and color for its own sake that distracted from the book rather than helping to build the world or tell the tale.

That tale can be a fun one, but it’s also massively overstuffed with twists, reveals, and secrets, many of which Geissel doesn’t feel the need to explain. Which, again, can be fun at time, but here feels like he’s either telling the story badly or just being coy to draw us in. And here’s the thing about noir tales like this: you can play fast and loose with specifics, but backstories and characters matter. (The choice, for instance, to put a critical incident from the book only as an appendix after it ends is a bewilderingly bad one, and it leaves the reader confused and annoyed for much of the book – only to be more annoyed when you get the answers long after they quit mattering and you quit caring.)  And Geissel ultimately plays too fast and loose with some of his main principals, letting his labyrinthine plot take the foreground and hoping it’s enough to keep us going.

And for a while, it is. Geissel has a lot of plates he’s spinning here, and he keeps them all going for a lot longer than you might think, as his story of corruption starts spreading into realms of supernatural horror, romance, espionage, and political maneuvering. But at a certain point, Geissel overcommits himself, and plot becomes so overly complicated – and the characters not involving enough – that I got frustrated with the whole thing.

For all of that, The Fell Hound of Adversity isn’t wholly bad. Geissel’s world is compelling, and he’s got the ambition and imagination to write something spectacular in him at some point. And while I don’t think this book entirely works, and that it ultimately collapses under its own weight, I feel like there’s some promise in here – a lot of talented sections, some strong ideas, and a refusal to be hemmed in by genres and boundaries. And if his reach exceeds his grasp, well, I’d rather read something overly ambitious that doesn’t quite work than read another bland, forgettable best seller any day.

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

51ceg9jotjlThe more modern noir I read, the more I often think that much of the best work in the genre revolves around a grip on its environment. James Ellroy and L.A.; Dennis Lehane and Boston; John Connolly and Maine; Raymond Chandler and California…the list goes on and on, but in almost every case, it’s hard to picture the stories working half as well without their world to draw off of, to be its own character in the complex story. And in the best noir, the environment is the story in no small part – for instance, look at how Ellroy draws off of the underside of L.A. to drive his sordid tales.

But rarely have I seen that idea used as effectively and powerfully as it is in The Devil’s Detective, a book whose setting is original, unforgettable, and inextricably linked to its characters, its plot, and its mood. Because its setting is Hell, and in that blasted, hopeless landscape, author Simon Kurt Unsworth crafts a piece of noir unlike just about anything else I’ve read.

Because, here’s the thing about Hell: how do you make a mystery set in Hell? How do you tell a story about a murder in a place where torment is constant, where torture is everywhere, where nightmares live and breathe and the entire point of existence is to live in regret and pain? And more than that, when an environment is shaped around a lack of hope, how can any crime ever be solved – because wouldn’t that offer hope and justice in a place defined by their absence?

Rather than dodge those questions, Unsworth bakes them into the DNA of his book, following Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – a sinner himself – who finds himself doing something he’s never done before: actually investigating a crime. To be sure, this is an unusual crime – not only was a human murdered, but his soul was reaped from his body – but Fool’s investment in the crime, and his dedication to understanding it, feels like a slow, seismic shift in Hell. And his interest – his insistence that this soul matters, that even Hell must have rules – indeed changes everything around him, and throughout Hell. And that change becomes as much a part of the story as the investigation itself.

But, oh, that investigation. This is a labyrinthine case, make no mistake about it, and one that feels heavily indebted to Chandler and Hammett along the way; like those authors, Unsworth follows his detective through a slew of encounters with citizens from all over Hell, through seedy environments and upper class “suburbs” (of Hell), through high-level politics and through abused citizens. But Unsworth makes it all his own, giving us a Hell unlike any other that I’ve read – a Hell that has left behind the torture and nightmares of Dante and resembles nothing so much as a hopeless, bleak industrial society, an inner-city where brutality and violence are just part of the day-to-day life. And as Unsworth dives into the life of Hell and its occupants, his world continues to flesh out, and we start to see just how much his characters – and these crimes – are a function of this world, and not a recent addition. And once that link becomes clear, the story becomes richer, because it’s about more than just one crime – it’s about our hero, and about life in Hell, and about this bizarre, dark world that Unsworth has crafted for us.

Make no mistake, though: this is a dark world. Much of what makes Unsworth’s novel work is that he allows Hell to be every bit as nightmarish and disturbing as it should be. The demons are horrific, and their relationship with humans is brutal and upsetting. The violence is shocking and constant; the atmosphere bleak; the world unforgiving. And the cost is high, and that matters here, because as soon as you care about the world and have hope, it can be taken from you. And that’s the nature of Hell.

And yet, even with all of that, The Devil’s Detective never becomes nihilistic. Instead, it gives us a rich, compelling hero in Fool, who becomes a crusader for lost causes, a lone light in the darkness, and a hope in a world without it. That’s heady material, and makes Fool’s quest all the more engaging, and his development as a character all the more rewarding, as he finds himself becoming noticed by Hell…and then respected by Hell. It turns a noir detective something richer and more profound, and its constant evolution as a book only makes it work all the more.

In short? I loved this book, plain and simple. I loved its complicated, incredible world, and the astonishing array of characters. (I haven’t even touched on Unsworth’s most fascinating character, The Man of Plants and Flowers, who defies all characterization.) I loved its complex story, which uses the framework of a noir tale as a starting point and turns it into something wholly else. And I loved Fool, whose noble quest in the face of horrors becomes as gripping and important as solving the murder that starts it all. I loved the world, the story, the ideas, and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what else Unsworth has in him to come.

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The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville / ****

515jvth5w9lThere’s a lot of things that can draw you into a book. Sometimes it’s the author; sometimes it’s the plot description; sometimes, it’s something as simple as an intriguing cover or title that draws you in. In the case of The Ghosts of Belfast, it was the pull quotes. More specifically, it was the authors of two of those quotes, each of whom raved about the book, calling it an incredible debut, and a great – and unsettling – piece of crime fiction. Those two authors? James Ellroy and John Connolly, two men who rank among the finest craftsmen working in the genre today. So when you get their praises, you’ve got my attention. But in a way, those two names can tell you everything you need to know about this book.

The Ghosts of Belfast (originally titled The Twelve) focuses on former (more or less) IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, a man haunted – perhaps literally – by his crimes. Neville’s novel is set after the worst of The Troubles, as Ireland works on an unsteady path to peace – a path that means men like Fegan are out of their place and time. As the novel opens, Fegan is drinking – something he does quite often these days – and trying to ignore the twelve spectral visions which haunt him day and night. Maybe they’re only in his head; maybe they’re real. But whatever the case, each represents someone he’s killed. But when Fegan kills a man to appease one of the visions, and the vision disappears, he becomes a man on a new mission – one of vengeance.

The connection to John Connolly seems obvious for anyone who’s read the Parker series. A hint of the supernatural, dark men with dark motives, a penchant for violence, and, of course, the Irish worldview that permeates the book. And yet, to focus too much on the ghosts – which may or may not exist – is to miss the point of the book. Indeed, even though both titles the book has had imply that the book centers on these figures, instead, this is a novel about guilt, and violence, and shame. It’s a book that’s about the scars left behind in the wake of the Troubles, yes, but also the scars left behind by the men who fought for their independence, and who’ve done horrific, brutal things in the name of that fight.

Which brings us to the Ellroy connection. The men of Ghosts of Belfast are fighters. They’re revolutionaries, freedom fighters – and, with all the emotional heft that comes with the word, “terrorists.” And even the closest thing we get to a hero turns out to be a deeply broken one, a man who may have lost any sense of a moral compass in an effort to stay alive and stay safe. In other words, they’re the exact sorts of men that Ellroy writes about: men capable of anything, as long as the cause – or the money – is right. And as the book’s focus widens beyond the mission of Gerry Fegan, we see that the book is about more than one man’s guilt; it’s about the uneasy new status of Ireland, the complex new morality and balance that’s giving Ireland a new lease on life.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a complex novel, and not an easy one to pigeonhole. In some ways, it’s a bleak revenge novel; at other times, it’s a complex, nuanced look at a politically difficult period in Ireland’s evolution. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling look at corruption and crime; other times, it’s a painful dissection of guilt and violence. Sometimes, it’s a book about what it takes – and what it’s worth – to maintain peace. And other times, it’s simply about brutality and what men do to each other in the name of the greater good.

All of that makes it a difficult book to describe, and hard to figure out sometimes. And yet, it’s also that same complexity that makes it so rewarding, and so unlike much else out there. To read Ghosts of Belfast is to dip your toes into a very different world, one that’s utterly foreign to many Americans, and one where lines are far blurrier. And if the book sometimes feels uneven, or full of odd juxtapositions, or a bit bumpy…that’s okay. Because there’s something refreshing about a book that feels this ambitious and different, and when it works, it really, really works.

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Inherent Vice / **** ½

inherent_vice_ver4To say that Inherent Vice may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s weakest movie is to undersell its many pleasures. Yes, Inherent Vice is shaggy, meandering, and more than a little sprawling, and trying to follow its plot is a bit of an exercise in futility. But the fact that it’s Anderson’s weakest has less to do with the film – which offers far more pleasures than the above comments might imply – and more to do with his incredible filmography. When your films include The MasterThere Will Be BloodMagnoliaBoogie Nights, and more, failing to crack the top few isn’t really as much of an issue as it might be with someone else. (It’s basically the same problem Hail Caesar! has – by Coen standards, it’s lesser, but on its own, it’s a joy.)

Mind you, I’m probably predisposed to enjoy Inherent Vice, given that it resembles nothing so much as Paul Thomas Anderson doing The Big Lebowski. Both films are basically homages/parodies of the Raymond Chandler style Los Angeles mystery, complete with sprawling, labyrinthine motivations, colorful supporting characters, rambling private eye, and observational narration. More than that, both do all of these things with a sense of humor, poking holes in its own grandiose story while winking at the audience and allowing a slew of character actors the freedom to bring their characters to life.

But while Lebowski is laid-back and passive to the point of being meandering, Inherent Vice finds a focus and motivation in its main character, Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a fantastic, enjoyable performance. Unlike the Dude, Doc is a legitimate private detective, one who’s keenly interested in getting to the truth. And when an ex shows up at his house worried about a man she’s involved with, Doc can’t help but start digging. Add into that a client who asks him to track down a friend from prison, and Doc slowly finds his way into a massive conspiracy involving smuggling, dentists, missing musicians, informants, drugs, insane asylums, the LAPD, and more.

Let’s get this part out of the way: following the story of Inherent Vice is a fool’s errand. To call it “sprawling” is an understatement; at various points, there’s so much going on, so many feints and bluffs, that you find yourself just drifting along and enjoying the vibe of the film – a laid back, somewhat mournful look at Los Angeles, people’s reactions to the past, and more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, there’s the infamous murders in The Big Sleep that no one knows who committed. No, a complicated plot is forgivable as long as the film itself is enjoyable, and Inherent Vice delivers on that front and then some. The cast is uniformly excellent, and wonderfully deep, with great performances by Michael Kenneth Williams, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short, just to name a few.

But even with the great cast, it’s worth taking the film to single out Josh Brolin as LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Playing the straight man to Doc’s medicinally-induced ways, Brolin makes a perfect foil for Phoenix, and any scene between the two men is wonderfully hilarious to watch unfold – and that’s before Bigfoot starts yelling at the cooks at a diner, or we start seeing his home life. It makes for a great variation on the “police” presence in movies like this, and allows Brolin another chance to add to the highlight reel that is his recent career.

Ultimately, the biggest knock against Inherent Vice is the sense that it’s not quite “about” anything. Yes, it’s about families, and love, and LA, and guilt, and all those sorts of things, but ultimately, it’s a film about mood and the performances. And yet, I can’t complain too much about it, not when it’s all done this well, provides this many great moments (including one scene that’s the hardest I’ve laughed in a very long time, involving nothing more than Phoenix’s reaction to a picture), and engages you so well with its style and mood. No, it doesn’t hold up against There Will Be Blood…but so what? That doesn’t make it any less of a joy to watch, and another gem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic, flawless career.

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World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane / *****

worldgonebyfinal1A few years ago, Dennis Lehane published Live by Night, the story of gangster Joe Coughlin and his rise to power in the Tampa/Cuba mob. It was a fascinating take on gangster stories, one that hadn’t been told before, and it felt fresh and exciting in a way that many gangster stories can’t, simply by virtue of being familiar. But by the end of that novel, Joe was stepping away from the life, moving towards something calmer.

So it’s unexpected, in some ways, to have a sequel to that book. And yet, here we are. World Gone By picks up nearly a decade after the end of Live By Night. Joe is mostly a legitimate businessman, but serves as the consigliere for his friend Dion – his name still carries a lot of weight, as does his business sense and ability to make money. He’s trying to raise his son, Tomas, on his own. And he’s wary of the ongoing fight in Europe – as is everyone around him – not just for fear of the Nazis, but also for what it means for his business.

And then, through a complicated series of events, Joe finds out that someone is trying to kill him. And while he knows the date, he doesn’t know who, and no one seems to know why.

That’s about all of the plot you should know about World Gone By, which unfolds from there, following Joe as he seeks to figure out this threat on his life, protect his son, and maintain his balance between his past and his efforts to be a better man. It’s a rich plot, one filled with fascinating characters, shocking violence, infinite shades of morality, and no easy answers – in other words, it’s exactly what you would expect from Dennis Lehane, who is one of the great masters of modern noir. While Lehane could have made World Gone By its own book, making it a sequel to Live By Night feels appropriate – this is the outcome of Joe’s life, and the book’s theme – that, in some ways, this is the world Joe created, and one which he deserves – is all the richer for us having seen his ascent to the top.

More than that, though, to read World Gone By is to read one of the great modern writers at the top of his game. There are chapters here that feel like nothing Lehane has done before, and succeed beyond your wildest imagination. The book’s prologue, for instance, follows a newspaper writer as he notices some pictures from a society charity event a few months, and realizes just how many of those people would die in the months following that picture. It’s a beautiful, and oddly bittersweet, way to open the book, and gives Lehane a fascinating way to get into his story. We know that violence is coming; we know that these people – well, many of them – won’t survive the book.

And yet, that still doesn’t prepare you for what Lehane does as he transitions into the party and Coughlin’s perspective, as he sees a most unique visitor to the party. It starts a compelling, strange thread in the book, one that reaches its climax only at the very end, and one that feels not only like Lehane trying something new, but pays off in a beautiful, haunting way by the end.

Even with all of this said, I don’t think I’ve quite done World Gone By justice; I haven’t even touched on the nightmarish scenes with King Lucius, or the perfect relationships between fathers and sons that fill the book, or Coughlin’s complicated relationship with a local woman. Suffice to say this: when I finished Live By Night, I thought it was Lehane’s best book to date. Now, World Gone By elevates that book, working together with Live By Night to make a pair that’s more than the sum of its parts. I can’t recommend it enough; as it is, I was heartbroken to get to the end, and to realize that I had no more pages left.

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