The Switch – Elmore Leonard

Read Feb 2016

Elmore Leonard is a brilliant crime writer. Reading him is like reading a Tarantino movie. Great dialogue. Great plot. Menacing and fun characters. It’s surprising how few people write like him. Early George Pelecanos, maybe, but few others capture the reckless and entertaining violence of his books.

The Switch is the best of his novels I’ve read so far. *Spoiler alert* He tells the story of Mickey, an overlooked wife of rich but corrupt husband, Frank. Newly out of jail, Ordell and Louis decide to kidnap her and hold her to ransom. They are dodgy, but relatively harmless criminals, though unfortunately enlist the help of Richard, a psychopathic Nazi.

The kidnap itself goes as planned, but less so when they contact Frank to demand $1 million as ransom.Frank has just decided to divorce Mickey, and so doesn’t want to pay up. Eventually the blackmail fails and they let Mickey go, though not without crazy Richard causing problems that result in a shoot-out with the police.

But when Louis says she is free, Mickey doesn’t want to go home! In the best scene of the book, she hangs out for the day with Louis, drinking and smoking grass, letting herself go in a way she never does and determining to not go back to being the brow-beaten tennis mom Mickey.

After confronting Frank she ends up back with Louis and Ordell and – the final twist, the final switch – together they plan to kidnap Frank’s mistress, Melanie, and hold her to ransom ….

The Switch, more than anything, is great reading, great entertainment. But having said that, the characterisation is so strong. He captures, through dialogue rather than introspection, Mickey’s sense of being trapped and squashed by Frank, and Frank’s utter indifference to Mickey, in a way that many more ‘literary’ writers would struggle to do.

First class.

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Little Green by Walter Mosley

Read January 2016

Another classic in the Easy Rawlins series, in Little Green we join Rawlins as he comes out of a coma caused by an alcohol induced crash at the end of the last book.

He immediately ends up on a case brought to him by his hard-man friend, Mouse. It’s a typically twisting Mosley plot, with racism and justice, capitalism and hippies, drugs and lowlifes. The lot.

As well as a really great idea – a young man wakes from a five day acid trip with hazy memories of violence and brothels, and a bag full of money next to his bed – what Little Green gives us is more insight into Rawlins and Mouse’s characters – their friendship, their histories, their worries.

Rawlins remains the cool PI but with more depth, and that makes Little Green one of Mosley’s best novels. 

Walter Mosley – Little Scarlet

Read Oct 2015
For such a plot-driven genre, often the most interesting elements of hard boiled crime fiction tend are the characterisation and social critique. 

This is absolutely the case with Little Scarlet, one in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels – a hard boiled private detective series with the fundamental twist that Rawlins is black.

The twisting plot, as always in this genre, is constantly shifting. It’s the LA riots, it appears that a white man killed a black woman at the tail end of the riots, and the police ask Easy to look into it. It gradually transpires that the white man was not involved and it’s a serial killer called Harold who is killing young black women, driven by his Mum’s history as a black woman who tried to to pretend she was white.

It’s a strong plot, written in classic hard boiled style. But what matters most is the characterisation and the social critique.

Easy Rawlins is a powerful protagonist. He does everything you want from a PI in a novel like this – he’s terse, he’s a loner, he’s prone to violence, and he struggles between the woman and family he loves and his desires for others.There is a moral ambiguity to Easy, who wants to do the right thing, but often that clashes with his desires on the one hand, and with what society – and the law in particular – thinks is the right thing, on the other. Hard boiled heroes are often drawn with this kind of stereotyped masculinity, and although Easy fits the category, it’s hard not to like him. 

The social critique in the Rawlin’s series is what makes Mosley stand out. Easy is black and the ongoing theme running through the series is the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans in mid-twentieth century US. It’s present in the police force, of course, and their treatment of people, but also evident in the politics and social life throughout the novels.

What Mosely does really well in Little Scarlet in particular is highlight the anger and emotion that racial inequality leads to, and the way it manifests itself as major events like the LA riots and ongoing incidents of ‘resentiment’ – where suppressed and sometimes unarticulated feelings occasionally burst out – that are part of the everyday lives of many of the African Americans that feature throughout the book.

Racial injustice plays a causal role in everything from the race riots and the killer’s motives right through to the way Easy is treated by the police and the life chances of a young woman that Easy falls for.

It’s this – the combination of plot, character and critique – that makes Mosely a powerful novel.

George Pelecanos – Right as Rain

right as rain

Read Nov 2014

The story: private detective Strange is asked to look into the death of black cop (Wilson) who was killed off duty; he hooks up with the white cop (Quinn) who killed him and they end up working together, uncovering a drug operation that resulted in Wilson’s sister (Sondra) becoming an abused drug addict. Quinn did kill Wilson but it turns out that he was a pawn in bigger game. In the end Strange and Quinn take down the drug killers and rescue Sondra in a big showdown.

Right as rain is a good book as far as it goes – it’s kind of like The Wire, but without the depth, and a Quentin Tarantino film, but without the cool. The story is good, kind of makes sense, and as always George Pelecanos does dialogue and realism really well. And he tackles big issues like inequality, racism and drug use.

But, but, but . . . I can’t help feeling it’s all so formulaic now. Not just the plot but the characterisation, the heroic but flawed main character who saves the day but is plagued by insecurities stemming from a dark and difficult past that he tries to overcome everyday. Pelecanos’s Nick Stefanos novels and the DC Quarter felt fresh, but the more recent novels, less so.

PD James – Death in Holy Orders

death in holy orders

Read May 2014

It’s an ITV drama! In fact, I think it might have been!

This is a classic middle England detective story. An isolated Church of England retreat house with a small number of trainee clergy is the scene. First a trainee commits suicide and then, when a senior clergy person visits with news that it must be closed, he is murdered. A number of other murders follow, apparently to cover up the first.
A senior Scotland Yard inspector, Dalgleish (the protagonist of many PD James novels), knows the place from his youth and so agrees to visit. Eventually it transpires that the murderer is one of the senior clergy there who has a secret adopted son who will benefit from the centre’s swift closure.

It’s quite a gripping book but left me a little cold: not only didn’t I care about the people (that’s hardly a requisite of a good book) but I couldn’t relate to the whole set-up. It felt far-fetched, fabricated and like the book was giving us an upper middle class rural England that never existed before telling us that morally there’s something very wrong with it. Zizek would have a field day!

Elmore Leonard – The Hunted

the hunted

Read May 2014

It’s hard to read Leonard without thinking about interviews with him saying that the reason he writes books is to get a film deal. It spoils it a little, whilst also making you visualise it in the style of Quentin Tarantino. But once you put that behind you – and the fact that it’s no literary revelation – The Hunted, like other books of his, are great: interesting characters; ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, plots; engaging dialogue; very readable. It’s about a guy who had done witness protection being tracked down by people wanting to kill him. They pursue him around Israel, where the book’s set. The guy teams up with an ex US marine and a female ex Israeli Defence Force as they try to defend themselves, all ending of course in a big violent showdown. Utterly gripping at the time; almost instantly forgettable.