Thursday, May 29, 2008

The books we missed: 2007

As ever, 2007 was a year where we ended up playing Catch Up and missed out on some reviews we wished we’d got round to sooner. Here’s our selection of novels we wish we hadn’t missed reviewing in 2007:

When One Man Dies by Dave White, Three Rivers Press, 978-0307382788, $13.95

Jackson Donne is an ex cop, looking for the quiet life, spending time as a PI in New Jersey. He doesn’t expect to be there when a drinking buddy gets smashed in a hit and run, and he sure doesn’t expect the chaos that ensues when he decides to get involved.

Dave White may be a newcomer to the novel format, but he’s hardly a new voice to those who follow the genre closely. His short stories have been nominated for several awards and won at least one of them. So it’s a treat to see him move onto the novel form with this brisk, complex and entertaining debut.

White respects the traditions of the PI genre while simultaneously adding a modern thriller twist to proceedings. There’s an element of the old-school PI writers in White’s voice, a nod to those who have gone before. But White wisely tries not to overdo this and his voice owes as much (perhaps moreso) to writers like Michael Connelly and Jeffrey Deaver as it does to past masters such as Ross McDonald and Robert B Parker. It’s a mixture of the wise-ass and the everyman that helps keep the reader on Jackson’s side, creating a protagonist who could easily grow to become a fan-favourite.

Indeed, its character that sticks in mind here. Having explored Jackson Donne in previous short stories, White knows this character well enough to keep the reader involved and intrigued by his narration. And with Donne’s past life increasingly intruding on the present, his character evolves as the novel progresses. Donne looks like he could shape up to be an intriguingly complex protagonist over the course of a proposed series; indeed the second novel is due out in the next few months.

White manages to clearly and effectively delineate his twin point of view characters highlighting contrasts and similarities effectively. Of course, the narrative switch from first to third person – alternating as it does between Jackson and his possibly sociopathic ex-partner – is still occasionally jarring, despite the fact that both Jackson and his nemesis (who will, no doubt, continue to deteriorate as the series progresses) are equally intriguing characters. The flow in Jackson’s narration works better than the third person technique in the second narrative, perhaps because White is more accustomed to Jackson’s voice.

When One Man Dies is a damn fine read, a hell of a debut with a heart and soul that bodes very well indeed for future instalments in the series, and more importantly for White’s versatility as an author. It is a welcome addition to the reawakening (if it was ever asleep in the first place) PI genre (that’s two very promising series from ’07, now, beginning with Sean Chercover’s first Ray Dudgeon novel and continuing here) and a thriller that’s set to grab the attention of fans of Robert B Parker, Lawrence Block and Dennis Lehane.

Baby Sharks Beaumont Blues by Robert Fate, Capital Crime Press, 978-0977627622, $14.95

Robert Fate’s second entry in his Baby Shark series picks off where Baby Shark left off, with Kirsten Van Dijk settling firmly into her new role as a PI in 1950’s America. It’s a bold move setting a female protagonist in that era of America’s past, particularly one so young.

But it’s a move that this reviewer feels isn’t properly explored in either of the first two BabyShark novels, which is a shame because it would give the novels a new and different kind of edge. Robert Fate is a strong writer and his characterisation works well, but what is missing – and possibly required – from this series to push it over from good read to fantastic is a stronger sense of place and time.

James Ellroy wrote of noir being “history and politics” and its something this reviewer subscribes to strongly in the case of any historical novel. The weakness of the Baby Shark series that Fate has the opportunity to explore a hardboiled 1950’s setting through a female protagonist, but fails to properly use this in a dramatic sense. There is very little, aside from a few cultural references – the lack of modern technology and the gentlemanly courtship of local cop Lee – that truly marks the era throughout both Baby Shark and Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues.

Which sounds like a big gripe, but Fate makes up for it all with an extremely strong narrative drive, a compelling voice and an intriguing set of characters placed at the forefront of the novel. Kirsten herself, being our point of view character, is a resiliently moral character who isn’t afraid to break a few heads. Again, slightly odd for a 1950’s setting, but with her need for revenge being set up in Baby Shark, by now you’re ready just to fly with it, to see her take on the bad guys. Like Kirsten’s PI mentor, Otis, there’s something pleasingly simple and old fashioned about the series with its strongly delineated characters, a definite moral core (although the good guys can walk in the shadows, there is no question of their ultimate goodness in a world which could rot them through) and a straight-ahead narrative that showcases Fate’s background in making movies. There is a very filmic sense of pacing, designed to keep you turning pages. And it works.

Ultimately, Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues is a fast paced thriller with a kick-ass protagonist. I would hope that future instalments might explore the period in more detail, but for a damn fine read, Fate delivers the goods, with strong character work and a fast paced narrative perfectly befitting his heroine.

Heroes often Fail By Frank Zafiro Aisling Press, 978-1934677162

The second novel in Zafiro’s River City series focuses on a missing girl and the attempts by cops to find her. An ex cop himself, we’ve already noted that Zafiro has a good handle on investigative techniques and as he finds his feet with this second novel, his world of cops begins to feel more grounded and believable.

The case itself is intriguing enough, a way of holding together Zafiro’s otherwise disparate cast, although there is still a feeling that perhaps the pages are still a little overcrowded with cop characters vying for attention and sympathy and as such there are no standouts, which does to depersonalise the affair just a little. Although it is clear that characters like Detective Kopriva are itching to take centre stage. That is, if he’s around any more after the climactic – and, dramatically speaking, rather risky – events that spark the conclusion of Heroes Often Fail.

Its hard to explain the ending of Heroes often Fail without going into spoiler territory, and a large part of what makes the ending work is the fact that it is as surprising as it is inevitable. It is an everyday sense of tragedy that marks Zafiro’s background as an ex-cop; The Job is a struggle against odds that can often seem utterly

The missing girl scenario, being big and far-reaching in an emotional sense, is more important here to the reader – and therefore more compelling – than the stick up artist who plagued the cops during the first novel. There is less of a feeling of dissociation between various characters and their goals; everyone is united in what might be a hopeless cause – finding this girl alive. This lends the novel a greater weight, and helps marks out Kopriva as the character to watch. Zafiro uses him as an anchor for the frustration the police must feel in a case that demands emotional attachment and that distracts from an ordered, levelled form of investigation.

However, some of this emotional resonance feels as though it is being held back by the decision to play out the girl’s abduction – from her point of view – alongside the police investigation. Although some of these sequences are undeniably powerful – with implication rather than explication showing us the terrible nature of this crime – they ultimately water down the tension for the reader – we are aware of where the girl is and what is happening to her – and finally dilute the emotional pay off of the cop’s investigation when we are aware of what has happened long before they discover the truth.
We're still waiting for Zafiro's voice to start singing, to truly separate itself from other procedurals, but there is a great deal of promise and here we can see Zafiro stretching himself further as a writer, although there is a sense he is still holding back, focussing too much on writing rather than letting his voice sing out loud from the page. But his confidence and versatility is growing, and there are moments where the novel takes off, especially as the climax roars into view.

Heroes Often Fail rousingly trumps Under a Raging Moon; a solid, effective and occasionally affecting novel from a writer who knows not only the job, but the gruelling toll certain cases can take on the victims and those charged with upholding law and order.

On The Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith, St Martin’s Minotaur, 978-0312372880, $12.95

Hockensmith strikes gold again with his second tale featuring the amiable (and often amazing) Amingleyer brothers, Big Red and Old Red, who fancy themselves as somewhat of a western Holmes and Watson. On The Wrong Track is a blistering adventure for the brothers who find themselves charged with protecting the trains that run across the old west and in the midst of a dangerous predicament when they tangle with bandits and, even worse, in what for me is one of the defining sequences of the novel, a deadly African snake.

What strikes home most with Hockensmith’s work is the extremely powerful narrative voice. You can hear Old Red clear as a bell narrating in a downright friendly manner as he imparts on the often alarming matter of his brother’s deducifyin’ business. Yeah, it may be that Hockensmith fella’s name on the front, and he may have tidied up the narrative somewhat, but this is the work of Otto Aminglmeyer through and through.

So what with the voice and the sheer joyful nature of the enterprise, this is a book that can most definitely be described as a romp. But don’t be fooled by any of it because the real trick lies in the very tone of the tale. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but the reader is never laughing at the characters so much as the situations they find themselves in. The boys may get in some stupid situations, but they themselves are never actually stupid. Far from it, they come out of the affair with dignity intact and that’s what makes this series so darn intriguing and addictive, the fact that the characters are so deeply drawn in a series that could have been all about the surface elements and little else.

On The Wrong Track is one of the most original and enjoyable novels of 2007. It plays off a premise that could be one note, creating an unexpectedly rich and fascinating narrative from something that, in the wrong hands, could have quickly become a stale joke. Hockensmith is a talented editor for Otto Aminglmeyer’s fascinating tales of the Old West, and together they have created one of the most quirky, original, amusing, surprisingly human and – most importantly – damnably entertaining new crime series of the past few years.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08