September 2009


Author Rating: B+

Full Cleveland (read 9/30/09) Recommended

This is, I believe, the second of Les Roberts’ detective novels set in Cleveland Ohio and featuring private investigator Milan Jacovich. Apparently a “Full Cleveland” is a polyester suit, white belt, clashing shirt and tie. In this story, it’s the outfit worn by Buddy Bustamente, a hood who, at the request of an interested mobster, accompanies Jacovich as he searches for Greg Shane who is believed to have stolen money from the mob, among others.

The library had quite a number of novels by Roberts and I chose this one because it was the earliest they had. It’s reasonably entertaining and reasonably well written, but one of the most amusing things about it is how firmly rooted it is in the 1980s. How jaded we have become by the 21st century!

Author Rating: A

King Jesus (re-read 9/27/09) Recommended

This is a historically based, although fictional, life of Jesus. I first read it back in 1981 when it was first published (or republished?) in paperback, and thought I’d give it another read. It is not as “readable” as I remembered but still quite fascinating.

I, Claudius (1/6/11) Recommended

Written in the form of an autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius, this historical novel covers the period from Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC to Caligula’s assassination in AD 41. Roman history can be difficult to follow because of all the variations in spellings of proper names. While this is an interesting and entertaining read, I enjoyed the 1976 BBC adaptation more.

Author Rating: A+

Travels With My Aunt (read 9/16/09) recommended

Absolutely wonderful story. Amazingly — to me — this is the first Greene novel I have read, and I will most certainly go looking for more.

This one is about a stodgy bank manager who has his life turned upside down by his elderly aunt, who may in fact be his mother.

First published in 1969.

Our Man In Havana (read 11/20/09) recommended

James Wormold is a British vacuum cleaner dealer in Havana, Cuba. Business isn’t very good because the electric service is becoming unreliable, and he’s worried because he has a 16-year-old daughter to provide for. When a British secret-service agent offers him an opportunity to supplement his income by acting as a spy, he accepts, but what does he know about being a spy?

Another terrific novel from Graham Greene. First published in 1958.

The Shipwrecked (read 11/20/09) recommended

Oh, my word. I am left gob-smacked at the end of this, Greene’s fourth novel. In it, Greene demonstrates how we are all shipwrecked in life. Anthony Farrant’s twin sister Kate, personal secretary to a Swedish industrialist named Krogh, tries to rescue him by bringing him to Stockholm and getting him a job with her boss, but Anthony’s desire to go back to London unleashes a storm that proves his undoing.

The first half of the book has an unusual narrative style that sets the emotional stage for the rest.

Author Rating: A

The Grifters (read 12/24/11) Highly recommended

J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet explains why The Grifters is one not to be missed:

I know Jim Thompson is a crime writer, though after re-reading one of his books, you wonder. Most of the requisite ingredients are there–guns and blood, cops and criminals, explications on the social habits of the wicked and dispossessed. But you can’t help thinking that Thompson only picked the genre as the most expedient route to his actual goal, which was to delve unblinkingly into the casual depravity of your everyday sociopath.

Of course, The Grifters (originally published in 1963) is first-rate noir, which is where it clearly fits within the contemporary taxonomy of crime fiction. Darkly engrossing and fast-moving, with writing that lacerates when it isn’t being lyrical. It’s a brief trip into the netherworld of the professional con, where fleecing suckers is less an adventure than a routine occupation, complete with its own operating manual–unwritten–and its own lexicon.

The screenplay for the 1990 movie adaptation, which received four Academy Award nominations and was named best picture of the year by, among others, the Los Angeles Times, was written by Donald E. Westlake.

It really is a terrific read.

Author Rating: A+

Hard crime thrillers written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym (Richard Stark.” All are recommended. Those I have read are so indicated.

* The Hunter (read 7/10/09)

Holy smokes! The Hunter (1962) was Westlake’s first hard crime novel published under the pseudonym Richard Stark and is the first of many featuring thief and all-around tough guy Parker. It was made into a movie in 1967 titled Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn which I haven’t yet watched, but the book is brilliantly done, full of action and suspense. The Parker novels written in the ’90s are not nearly as violent and corpse-strewn as the early ones from the ’60s.

Mal Resnick, one of the guys working a heist with Parker, pulls a double-cross and steals Parker’s woman, leaving him for dead, so Parker has to make things right.

* The Man With the Getaway Face (read 7/12/09)

Picks up where The Hunter left off. Parker has had plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable but the Mob — calling themselves “The Outfit,” have tracked him down and set a hitman on him. Having earlier lost the recovered $45,000 stolen by Resnick in The Hunter, Parker agrees to take part in an armored-car heist. While setting up and executing the heist, Parker has to deal with Stubbs, the former chauffeur of the doctor who gave Parker a new face, who is looking for which of the doctor’s last four patients killed him, as well as work around another double-cross by one of his companions.

* The Outfit (read 7/14/09)

The third Parker novel, published in 1963, picks up where we left off in The Man With The Getaway Face. The heist a success and the doctor’s murderer found and dealt with, Parker turns his sights back to The Outfit. Parker is David to The Outfit’s Goliath and pulls out all the stops to force them to lay off him. Parker is implacable and inexorable.

* The Mourner

* The Score (Parker and Grofield) (read 8/09)

* The Jugger (read 8/09)

* The Seventh

* The Handle (Parker and Grofield)

* The Damsel (Grofield)

* The Rare Coin Score

* The Green Eagle Score (read 8/09)

* The Dame (Grofield) (read 8/09)

* The Black Ice Score (read 8/09)

* The Sour Lemon Score

* Deadly Edge

* The Blackbird (Grofield)

* Slayground (read 8/09)

Parker and some of his pals, including Grofield, heist an armored car but run into some trouble as they’re getting away. Parker winds up in a closed amusement park with the bag of money and a bunch of mobsters and cops who want him dead. After leading his pursuers on a chase through the park, he gets away but has to leave the money hidden in a fun house.

* Lemons Never Lie (Grofield) (read 8/08)

* Plunder Squad

* Butcher’s Moon (Parker and Grofield) (read 11/8/09)

This is the last Parker novel (published in 1974) until 1997 when Westlake revived Richard Stark for another run, and it is phenomenal!

You don’t want to piss off Parker, or steal from him. Parker goes back to the amusement park where he left the loot in Slayground but it’s not there, so he pays a visit to the top mobster in town and tells him to give it back. Lozini says he doesn’t have it but Parker knows someone in the organization took it and uncovers a scheme to unseat Lozini which has been partly funded with Parker’s loot. When the mobsters refuse to give him his money and shoot Grofield in a double-cross, Parker calls in some of his pals for a night of mayhem in which five or six mob businesses are robbed. The $250,000 take is the payoff for the gang assisting Parker in rescuing the badly injured Grofield who is being kept alive as a bargaining chip and teaching the mobsters a lesson they will never forget.

This is Westlake at his best.

* Comeback (read 8/08)

* Backflash (read 8/08)

* Flashfire (read 8/08)

* Firebreak (read 8/08)

* Breakout

* Nobody Runs Forever (read 8/08)

* Ask The Parrot

* Dirty Money (read 5/5/09)

The money has already been stolen (Nobody Runs Forever) but it’s very hot and Parker and his crew have to retrieve it from the location where it was hidden and try to unload it. This is the last Parker novel as Donald E. Westlake died December 31, 2008.

For excellent coverage of the novels of Richard Stark, be sure to visit The Violent World of Parker.

Eric at The Edge of the American West has a post up asking for people’s recommendations of underrated historical novels. There are quite a few that I had not heard of but should be added to my TBR pile. What I particularly appreciate about the suggestions is that they range far outside of my narrow, parochial idea of historical novels.

SEK has an interesting follow-up post discussing the definition of “historical novel.”

One frequently mentioned in the comment thread is Gain by Richard Powers. It’s a novel of more modern history, looking at capitalism and its less pleasant results.

I was glad to see a shout out for Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I read this incredible book when I was in high school, or some time shortly thereafter, and it took my breath away. To say simply that it is “about a retired historian who researches and writes about his pioneer grandparents” does not begin to do it justice.

Others mentioned include:

Kazuo Ishiguro’s WWII-era An Artist of the Floating World

Declare by Tim Powers, described as a “supernatural suspense thriller” that supplies “a plethora of geopolitical and theological history, and a big serving of A Thousand and One Nights.”

The Crater by Richard Slotkin is set during the American Civil War, is “a vast, detailed portrait not only of the Battle of the Crater, but the whole spectrum of mid-19th-century American society.”

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, about the BBC during WW2.

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, “a fable of Latin American revolutionary history, an unforgettable story of passion, violence, and the devastation that follows from fanaticism.”

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde is based on the “true story of the West Indian slave Tituba, who was accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, arrested in 1692, and forgotten in jail until the general amnesty for witches two years later.” The person who recommends this in the thread, Buster, says that it is “more a fictional meditation on myth and history than a straight-up historical novel.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West is described as “a perverse, picaresque Western about bounty hunters for Indian scalps near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s.”

Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon sounds like a lot of fun: “A sprawling, complex, and comic work from one of the country’s most celebrated and idiosyncratic authors, Mason & Dixon is Thomas Pynchon’s Most Magickal reinvention of the 18th-century novel. It follows the lifelong partnership and adventures of the English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (of Mason-Dixon Line fame) as they travel the world mapping and measuring through an uncharted pre-Revolutionary America of Native Americans, white settlers, taverns, and bawdy establishments of ill-repute.”

There are many others that I do not list here so you should visit the comment thread to read the rest of the recommendations, and perhaps add one or two of your own.