Wednesday, January 31, 2007

HOLLYWOOD STATION by Joseph Wambaugh

Quercus, 2007, ISBN 9781847240248, £14.99

It’s been a long time since we saw anything from Wambaugh, and even longer since he had such a strong presence in UK bookstores. But Quercus – quickly emerging as one of the strongest new publishing houses out there – have really pushed his new book hard and it deserves this confidence: Hollywood Station is one hell of a novel.

Wambaugh’s sardonic sense of humour remains intact and, it seems, his dialogue has somehow got even better during his absence. The book opens with pure dialogue: two cops discussing the game of “pitbull polo” which certain mounted officers may play in the projects. The thing is, at first this game sounds ludicrous, but then as you’re pulled into Wambaugh’s world you realise the desperate truth that the work of HollyWood PD may be even darker and more ludicrous than you ever suspected.

Wambaugh – like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain – is at his best when he is least concerned with “plot” and setting his characters up like pinballs to play against each other. The best example of this is, of course, Wambaugh’s most famous novel, The Choir Boys against which Holly Wood Station plays extremely favourably. At first all the different strands seem unconnected, but soon everyone’s on this beautifully charted collision course and while there’s no “grand finale” exactly, this only adds to the heightened sense of reality. Really, it’s a pleasure getting lost with these guys on the nightly trawl through Hollweird.

There are a number of writers have attempted this kind of novel in recent years. But no one tells it like Wambaugh, because he never condemns or condones his characters. He simply lets them be. Even his criminals can have an odd kind of dignity or a quiet and empathetic desperation to them. And the cops are never less than human. Even the most heroic are frayed at the edges, hanging on in the job as best they can and dealing with the shit they see and can only sometimes understand.

One of the best moments occurs later on in the novel when two female cops go out with vice to bust guys looking to hook up with prostitutes. It starts out as darkly amusing, with some of the saddest and most desperate Johns displaying such pathetic enthusiasm – even after being busted – and then takes a beautifully timed turn for the worse, making it hard not to cry out like the whole scene just happened in front of you.

And that’s Wambaugh’s power – making his world seem absolutely real. For all the absurdities (the wonderful scene where Batman mugs Spiderman outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the only witnesses are the Elvises) there’s an absolute grounded reality to the way the cops try and control the world about them and the way that they are in turn controlled by that world. There is no desperate “end of the world” plot here, no artificial ticking bomb. Wambaugh shows us that character and situation trump “high concept” any day.

In his dedication, Wambaugh thanks James Ellroy for encouraging this “return to LA roots” and if that’s the case, we should all be thanking him, because Hollywood Nights is a fantastic novel and a reminder – if we ever forgot – of just how good the police procedural can be when handled by someone who truly understands the power and nature of the form.

Russel D McLean for, 31/01/07

THE STRANGLER by William Landay

Bantam Press, 2007 ISBN 9780593049538, £12.99

Landay’s second novel, following the award-winning Mission Flats, takes place in Boston just after the death of President Kennedy and in the height of the mysterious killings committed by a man known only as The Boston Strangler.

But all of this is merely backstory, motivation to move the real story of three Irish brothers who, despite their familial bond, have turned out remarkably different and morally fluid. There’s the older child, Joe, a cop caught up in the casual corruption that has permeated the force. The middle child, Michael, is a lawyer who specialises in parking tickets but finds himself moved to the Strangler Case. And then there’s Ricky, the youngest, who makes his living as a professional burglar.

In all honesty, the familial setup seems overly familiar and perhaps even a little trite. The Boston connection and the Irish family seem very familiar and even if there wasn’t that fraternal bond, there’s an atmosphere to the story that seems similar in some ways to Dennis Lehane’s superb Mystic River. These three are bound by a tragedy, too. In this case, the death of their father.

But Landay’s convincing historical setting and his economical yet effective prose serve to pull the reader into this unfortunately familiar setup. And as the novel progresses, we see past these apparent limitations as Landay’s portrayal of characters- both as individuals and as family members – gives us concise yet convincing psychological portraits. These people become important to us and, as convincing as the backdrop is, they are finally more important than the “larger” events that surround and affect them.

The Strangler is at once an excellent evocation of a time and place that is now infamous in history, a convincingly creepy story of the search for a serial killer (and the Strangler is handled perfectly here; nothing too grand giugnol and yet still convincingly unsettling) and an exploration of family and the connections between people.

Landay is a talented writer, and The Strangler is more of a historical exploration than a historical crime novel. There is more in common here with the kind of historical crime practiced by Ellroy (although, naturally, it is nowhere near as stylised or bleakly noir as Ellroy’s work) than the usual “stick a standard mystery into a historical time of your choice” approach taken by many writers. No, this is a novel about a time and place that happens to hang on the shoulders of a crime. And this makes it all the stronger, closer to what this reviewer believes the best crime stories are about. In fact, the strongest and most affecting resolutions are the personal ones and even after the apparent mystery of the Strangler seems to reach a resolution, there are still a few more – even more shocking – revelations to be made. And these are the ones that truly affect the reader.

Despite its occasional lapse into familial clich├ęs, The Strangler is a powerful, evocative novel from a writer who understands the power of the crime novel and is unafraid to use it. With an excellent feel for the period and the paranoia invoked by the stranglings during that long, hot, Boston summer, The Strangler uses the trappings of the crime novel to explore not only a significant era in modern history, but also ideas of family and responsibility against a backdrop of fear.

Russel D McLean for, 31/01/07

Sunday, January 07, 2007


TICO Publishing, January 2007, $26.95, ISBN 0977768899
Sandra Ruttan’s debut, Suspicious Circumstances doesn’t mess about with obscure titles. The opening scene, with a woman flinging herself from a rocky outcrop, certainly qualifies as suspicious. Moreso because the whole event was caught on video. And the woman seems to be jumping backwards. How many suicides do that?

Its just one of the many questions reporter Lara (pronounce it “Lay-ra”) Kelly has about the tape. Questions that will lead her and her unwilling partner, local cop Tymen Farraday into the heart of a small town conspiracy that will unsettle everything they thought they knew about their quiet little town.

Ruttan’s style owes a great deal to a more British than American style of storytelling. There’s a more relaxed approach to the story, taking time to ease itself into the plot and laying the groundwork for the action to come. There are multiple plot strands that can seem disparate at times, but ultimately move together as the climax gallops into view. The narration is gripping, but not insistent, and while Ruttan us unafraid to get down and dirty, there is a definite moral compass here that is more common in British novels. The echoing voices of McDermid and Billingham are present, but while they clearly influence Ruttan’s style, she has a voice of her own: a voice that one suspects could easily tell a variety of stories and styles.

What particularly helps Ruttan here is the spark between her two leads. Call it the Moonlighting effect. Two protagonists who spark off each other but are never allowed to spill that over into a forced romance. In fact, without Ruttan’s character work, the novel would never take off. The large cast is held in check by believable motivations and an empathic sense that keeps the reader interested in events which, as with every novel worth reading, are about character in motion.

Without the character work, novels such as this are a failure. While Ruttan clearly understands the machinations of small town politics and the small newsroom atmosphere in which her heroine makes a living, without characters that come to life, all of that is useless. And Ruttan’s characters are rounded enough to hold interest and intrigue, providing credible motivations to keep the plot and the local conspiracies moving along.

Although, undoubtedly, cosy fans will be crying out bloody murder as Ruttan tackles some unpleasant scenarios, there is still a sense that the author is holding back slightly, that she could take us into darker territories than she does here and perhaps that adds a slight air of conservatism to the novel in terms of structure and resolution. But, as an excellent example of the procedural novel, Suspicious Circumstances not only ticks the boxes, but does so with a style and enthusiasm very much the author’s own.

What keeps Ruttan’s impressive debut moving is the strength of writing, quality of character and atmosphere that is created. In dealing with an entire community, Ruttan has a great deal to cope with and manages to not only sift through what the reader needs to know, but never shies away from or forgets the important details. This is a big novel, with a large cast and multiple motivations, but it’s written clearly and plotted subtly, making for an engrossing ride.

All of this means that Suspicious Circumstances is a well executed procedural with a spark between our protagonists, an excellent feel for political machinations on a small town scale and a plot that twists and turns like a bad tempered rattlesnake.
Russel D McLean for, 07/01/07