February 2009

Evolution of the book, east corridor. Manuscript book / J.W. Alexander, artist.  Photo of mural in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building depicting a monk illustrating a manuscript, with two monks in background.  c1896.

Evolution of the book, east corridor. Manuscript book / J.W. Alexander, artist. Photo of mural in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building depicting a monk illustrating a manuscript, with two monks in background. c1896.

When its doors opened to the public in 1897, the Library of Congress represented an unparalleled national achievement, the “largest, costliest, and safest” library in the world.

Its elaborately decorated interior, embellished by works of art from nearly fifty American painters and sculptors, linked the United States to classical traditions of learning and simultaneously flexed American cultural and technological muscle.

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of Mystery of Broadwalk Asylum at the Hollywood Playhouse.  California : Federal Art Project, between 1936 and 1941.

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of "Mystery of Broadwalk Asylum" at the Hollywood Playhouse. California : Federal Art Project, between 1936 and 1941.

Author Rating: D

I’ve been on a mission to find writers of crime capers and/or mysteries as good as Donald E. Westlake and it has been proving something of a fruitless effort.

To try to condense the search, I got The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (First Annual Edition) out of the library.

I will now list, in the order their stories appeared in this murderous tome, 24 truly dreadful authors based on my reading or, in many cases, scanning one short story by each, all published in 1990:

  1. Clark Howard
  2. Bill Pronzini
  3. Faye Kellerman
  4. Michael Gilbert
  5. Andrew Vachss
  6. Edward D. Hoch
  7. Ruth Rendell
  8. Lynne Barrett
  9. James Kisner
  10. William Bankier
  11. Robert Barnard
  12. Henry Slesar
  13. Joe R. Lansdale
  14. Lawrence Block
  15. Peter Lovesey
  16. Max Allan Collins
  17. Marcia Muller
  18. Sara Paretsky
  19. Joan Hess
  20. Charlotte MacLeod
  21. Jeremiah Healy
  22. Sue Grafton
  23. John Lutz
  24. Nancy Pickard

The last story in the book, a sci-fi mystery, A Time For Every Purpose, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, shows promise. While not the finest fiction I have ever read, her story was engaging enough to actually read and did not, like most of the others, make me want to stab my eyes out with a pencil, sharp or otherwise.

Rusch appears to have something in common with Westlake — she’s writes different kinds of fiction, not just mysteries, as well as non-fiction. I will in all likelihood give one of her novels a shot.

Illus. from childrens books: Witch Winnies Mystery, 1891

Illus. from children's books: Witch Winnie's Mystery, 1891

I am astonished (though I guess I shouldn’t be based on other similar experiences) at the extraordinarily low standards for mysteries. Many of these appalling authors are currently quite popular with the reading public and, even at the time of publication of this collection, were recipients of numerous mystery awards. I can only conclude that mysteries are the dime novels of the current age.

I rejected the excuse that maybe these are early examples of these authors’ work. If they had any talent for storytelling it should be obvious out of the gate. Donald Westlake’s earliest works are among his best. No, the truth is these people are hacks.

The bad news is I suffered through 24 hacktacular short stories. The good news is I may have found another author — Kristine Kathryn Rusch — to add to my list of people to read.

Donald E. Westlake — the gift that keeps on giving — wrote The Fugitive Pigeon in 1965, still fairly early on in his career as a writer but it should be ranked up near the top of the list.

Anthony Boucher of the New York Times Book Review described The Fugitive Pigeon as a “comedy of peril.” An excellent description.

Charlie Poole is innocently working for his mob-affiliated uncle Al, running a lightly-trafficked bar in the Canarsie section of the Bronx, until he suddenly finds himself the center of some decidedly undesirable attention — two mob hit men want to kill him!

Charlie’s efforts to figure out how such an error could have occurred and correct the mistake are classic Westlake. The adventure rolls from Canarsie into Manhattan, to Staten Island and Long Island and Queens.

For some reason all of Staten Island, even the most expensive parts like Princess Bay, has a faintly grubby look, as though everyone had given up years ago in the attempt to keep the place looking bright and cheerful. The most fiery red, exposed a brief while to the aura of Staten Island, fades into a pedestrian tone, modest and a little grimy. The Island, from end to end, has the same feeling as the ferries that service it.

Huguenot Avenue has this aura, in buckets. I walked along past just slightly seedy homes, and past just slightly scuffy fields and copses, and now and then a stretch of farmland, sometimes with dead cornstalks in faded cream rows. A couple of times i passed dirt roads, with rural delivery mailboxes on poles at the edge of the road.

Rural deliver mailboxes, in New York City!

I do not know whether Westlake was a fan of P.G. Wodehouse but there is much about this book that reminds me of Wodehouse.

Funny, well paced, with well drawn characters, it is indeed a “comedy of perils.”

Author Rating: A D

Fragile Things (read 12/8/12) NOT recommended

I’ve had this growing irritation with Neil Gaiman for a long time but it’s finally reached the point where I cannot read his work. I still think Anansi Boys and American Gods are top-notch, but Gaiman isn’t interested in really being a good writer, he is strictly in it for the fame and recognition. This book of short stories is the perfect example. If you suffer through the TWENTY-FIVE-PAGE-LONG introduction, you will have learned about all the UNEXPECTED AWARDS Gaiman has received for the stories and that in spite of how hard he tries to fail everything just keeps coming up roses!

After being thoroughly annoyed by the introduction, I threw the book aside after barely starting to read the first story. This is not excellent writing, it’s bells and whistles.

Anansi Boys (read 7/07; recorded book 2/16/09) Recommended

In my opinion Anansi Boys, published in 2005, is the best of all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. It is the story of Fat Charlie Nancy and his brother Spider, sons of the spider Anansi, trickster and spinner of tales.

Fat Charlie and his brother, separated at a young age, meet again, long after their mother has died and shortly after their father has died. Spider causes all kinds of problems for Fat Charlie, but when Charlie tries to make his brother go away he finds that there are worse things than a trickster brother.

Half of the world Gaiman creates in Anansi Boys is that of gods and myths going back to before man had tools, the other half in London, Florida and the island of Saint Andrews in the Caribbean.

It is wonderfully written. The sound of the island accent is strong and well done. The line between reality and magic artfully smudged. I highly recommend this book to you.

I have just finished listening to Anansi Boys in recorded-book form, read by Lenny Henry, a British actor with whom I was familiar through his role in the 1990s British sitcom Chef! Henry does an absolutely brilliant reading. He does great justice to all the characters — Anansi, the four old ladies, Spider and Fat Charlie, Charlie’s fiancee Rosie, Tiger, Bird, and all the others, each one distinct and individual from the rest.

The recorded book is made up of eight CDs of approximately an hour’s length each.

Whether you read it yourself or allow Lenny Henry to read to you, make time in your life for the experience. You will be glad you did.

Neverwhere (read 7/07) Agnostic

Compared to other books by Gaiman, this was a disappointment.

American Gods (read 7/18/07) Recommended


Coraline (read 3/6/08) Agnostic

As compared to some of Gaiman’s others, this is disappointing. He’s trying a little bit too hard, it seems to me.

Good Omens (Read 8/18/07) Recommended

Written with Terry Pratchett. I have always been a bit leery of co-authored books, Gaiman and Pratchett really pull it off. At the time I finished reading I noted, “Definitely worth locating a first edition.”