Nightstand: What Scholars & Rogues is reading

Mike Sheehan:

I’m reading Marty Beckerman’s Dumbocracy (Disinformation, 2008). Beckerman, who proudly boasts that Hunter Thompson called him a “morbid little bastard,” is an engaging, sharp, equal-opportunity ballbuster who revels in taking to task extremists of the “loony left” and “rabid right” infecting American sociopolitics. Armed with factoids, anecdotes and amusing personal experiences (such as his brief encounter with Rev. Jerry Falwell), he gleefully skewers self-righteous ignoramuses on both sides from his perch in the middle.  While his distracting sexual braggadocio and gratuitous profanities betray his age (he’s in his mid-20’s), he’s clearly on his way to becoming a top satirist.  One to watch.  His official site: Marty Beckerman.

Sam Smith:
I’m about halfway through Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, 1995), the groundbreaking graphic novel that some fairly reputable sorts call one of the greatest works of fiction in history. It’s certainly an interesting story, although the hype gives it credit for a great deal more maturity of narrative craft than I’ve seen so far. Can’t wait to see how they’re going to handle the movie.

Chris Mackowski:
The Shack by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2008) — A grief-stricken man gets a note from God inviting him back to the abandoned shack where his ten-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, raped, and murdered. I haven’t gotten to the “life-affirming” part of the book yet, but it’s supposed to be in there somewhere. The novel is a theology lesson of some sort, but so far, the theology is pretty well hidden by the story. The prose, while pedestrian, reads cleanly and clearly in a no-nonsense kind of way. A priest friend of mine recommended the book to me and said, “THAT’s the God I believe in” — while also admitting that some Church officials have suggested the book is full of heresies. Sounded too intriguing to pass up.

[The Shack has received over 1,400 five-star reviews at Amazon. –- Ed.]

Brisingr (Inheritance, Book 3) by Christopher Paolini (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008) — This is the third book in a series that began with Eragon and continued with Eldest. Total pap. Total popcorn — but like popcorn, it’s hard to stop eating, even after the salt has scorched your tongue and the butter has clogged your veins.

The series, about a young dragonrider who must save his world from an evil lord, tries SO hard not to be a Lord of the Rings derivative, but every time Paolini comes up with something original, he also makes up a bunch of lame crap that lacks any of Tolkien’s richness (and frequently sounds like a Tolkien knock off even though it’s painfully obvious that he’s trying not to knock off Tolkien).

There’s also a bit of teenage-dork wish-fulfillment in the book: Loner teenage boy becomes savior-like hero who has the coolest pet in the world and beautiful, strong women swooning over him. Paolini thinks he has talent writing about political intrigue (he doesn’t) or lessons of great wisdom (he doesn’t), but his action writing is credible and the thin plot is just interesting enough to keep the popcorn edible.

Russ Wellen:
Upon first learning about its existence as a young man, I was intrigued by the idea of the “hard-boiled detective novel.” Thus began my search for a series that lived up to my hopes. No police detectives, thank you, since I grew up in the sixties when the police were one of them. I needed the kind where the protagonist was a private eye, invariably one, as I learned during my search, who had been a former cop who chafed at or broke the regulations.

I’d read and admired some of Raymond Chandler’s work, as well as James M. Cain’s classic Double Indemnity. But my search failed to yield a detective series I could warm to.

About ten years ago, I read that, to succeed critically and commercially, the modern crime writer needed to transcend the genre and write not just a potboiler, but an actual novel. To someone like myself whose background was literary, that was encouraging news. But upon sampling that period of crime novels — in part, through lots that my cousin, who was an occasional judge for mystery awards, passed on to me — I found that by literary they meant sophomoric self-consciousness.

Then my wife turned me on to James Lee Burke, but the protagonist of his main series, Dave Robicheaux, is a police detective. Besides, he’s more of a literary writer — one of the best in America on any given year, in fact — who seems to have just fallen into crime writing.

As for a certified hard-boiled detective writer, it wasn’t until May of this year that I finally discovered — 60 novels into his career, which began in 1976 — Loren Estleman. He too is a top-ranking American novelist, whose insights into human nature astonish. Meanwhile, with an eye for detail stemming perhaps from his artistic background, his descriptions dazzle. But he’s a crime writer first. I’ve read seven of his novels, am about to start the eighth, and during that time have yet to evince an interest in reading a novel by anyone else.

His detective, Amos Walker, is the first I’ve come across whose dialogue is “hard-boiled” in a way that isn’t camp. In fact, without drawing attention to itself, it’s cleverness often flies right by you. You can expect to pause on a regular basis to re-read his ironic lines before they detonate in your brain. I’m reluctant to excerpt them because they’re context-dependent.

The Amos Walker series is not exactly noir — Estleman doesn’t do mood. Nor is there anything glamorous about its setting, Detroit, its suburbs, and exurban Michigan, all of which he knows like a historian. (Presumably, like Hurricane Katrina did for Louisiana-based James Lee Burke, the car companies’ troubles will provide further fodder for future novels.)

Nor is there much sex. In an interview once, when asked why his character seldom, if ever, seemed to score, Estleman replied, “I’m not his pimp.” Integrity like that on the part of the character’s creator only adds to Walker’s charm.

Estleman writes other series, including, like Elmore Leonard used to, Westerns. Another revolves around Peter Macklin, a hit man who’s retired, but who keeps finding himself in situations that call for him to revive his old trade. I’ve just finished my second in that series, Something Borrowed, Something Black (Forge Books, 2002).

Written in the third person, unlike the first-person Walker series, it’s rife with authorial observations that reveal the depth and breadth of Estleman’s knowledge of crime. Here he writes about a retired policeman:

He’d been happy to have gotten out just as DNA testing was coming in. It was such a delirious success it made the cops giddy, dumping decades-old homicide cases back onto the table like Halloween candy and gorging themselves on dried blood and old semen and bits of hair and epiderm, closing files right and left that had lain open since Jimmy Carter.

Estleman is a crime writer for the reader who isn’t attracted to genre novels because he or she thinks they don’t give your sensibility much to chew on. Much as I’ve tried to resist calling Estleman the thinking man’s — or perhaps, since he’s averse to plot legerdemain, the thoughtful man or woman’s — crime writer, it’s inescapable. A good place to start is his most recent Amos Walker book, American Detective (Forge Books, 2007).

4 replies »

  1. Sam, I started “Watchmen” last month but put it down after the first chapter. I mostly found it hard to get into the format — I guess graphic novels just might not be for me. I’d like to give it another shot before the movie comes out, though.

    Instead I just picked up “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which I realized I’d never read before. After that for me will be, “The Ladies of Grade Adieu,” which is a short story follow up to Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell,” which I couldn’t put down.

    Also just ordered, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” My reading list is so long, though. Who knows when I’ll actually get to everything on it. 😉

  2. Josh: Midnight was sort of a case study for writers, I thought. To put it directly, the author had NO IDEA how badly he was being played by all those nice, helpful Southern folks who apparently had no problems at all opening up for the gay Yankee Jew boy.

    For those of us who know a thing or two about Southern class culture, it was an entertaining read, although not in the way it was intended….