Thursday, December 30, 2010

Steph's Favorite Reads

In the tradition of end-of-the-year retrospectives, our friend Stephanie Patterson, an avid bibliophile, has made a list of the books she most enjoyed reading in 2010. We offer here, excerpted from the list, her favorite crime novels. I'm particularly delighted that she was kind enough to include mine.

Portobello, by Ruth Rendell
Eugene Wren, owner of an antiques shop, wishes to marry his physician girl friend, but how will he explain his addiction to candy lozenges that he can’t resist? He discovers an envelope containing 115 pounds and his fiancee becomes entangled with the rather disturbed young man who claims the money. Add in a petty thief and the born again uncle with whom he lives and you have all the ingredients of the sort of book Ruth Rendell does so well. (Thanks to Harvey Spikol for lending me a copy even before it was available in this country).

Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr
This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a while. It’s a sendup of the noir novel of the 1940s and 1950s. A middle-aged business man seeks to get rid of his wife and marry his much younger, sexier secretary. Alas, the secretary introduces her IRA boyfriend into the mix and there are murder plots, crosses and double crosses galore. This book will probably be funnier to readers who are familiar with the conventions of noir mystery (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity).

Free Reign, by Rosemary Aubert
Ellis Portal is a former judge who becomes homeless because he can’t keep his anger in check. He loses everything and ends up living on the streets. His observations on the differences between life among the privileged and life on the streets are fascinating, and while the powerful judge to homeless person premise originally struck me as a stretch, Ms Aubert made me a believer.

De Kok and the Somber Nude, by A. C. Bantjer
Inspector De Kok is an Amsterdam policeman whose approach to his cases may actually please all those fans of Scandanavian mysteries. DeKok does a decidedly low tech investigation of a missing young girl who, with her sister, owns a flower shop. Fans of Jan Willem Van der Wettering and Georges Simenon’s Maigret series may enjoy this as well. While the clues are interesting, it’s the personality of the sleuth and the setting that make the story most enjoyable.

Innocent, by Scott Turow
A willing suspension of disbelief is definitely required here. Could a man we’re told is a brilliant attorney be so breathtakingly stupid twice in his life? Well, if the answer is “No” then we don’t have a novel. However, if you can accept the stupidity you have yourself a good read. And Turow, who still practices law, does very fine courtroom scenes.

Nobody’s Angel, by Jack Clarke
Mr Clarke evidently self-published this initially and sold it to people who rode in his cab. Eddie Miles is the cabbie who tries to figure out why his savvy--and now dead-- fellow cabbie, Lenny, would go to the notoriously dangerous Cabrini-Green projects in the wee hours of the morning. Miles solves the mystery, but the pleasure of the book is his evocation of the life of a cabdriver and his observations about Chicago.

The Edge of Ruin, by Irene Fleming
Irene Fleming is the nom de plume of the effortlessly amusing Kate Gallison. These mysteries take place in the early 20th century during a time when movies were made in New Jersey (mostly by Thomas Edison). Emily Weiss’ husband, Adam, sells everything in order to go into the movie business in competition with Mr. Edison. The suspense and great wit of this novel are a result of that resolve.

Murder is My Business, by Brett Halliday
This novel, written during WWII, is a perfect noir piece of the period. Here we have great alcohol consumption (though not every character feels the effects), sex, and corruption among the wealthy and powerful. Noir novels are wonderful to read. The prose is tight, the atmosphere is seedy and whodunit is rarely the issue. The plot usually concerns losers in a downward spiral and the reader comes along for the descent.

Cracker Bling, by Stephen Solomita
Just minutes out of jail, Judson Two-Bears Hootier hooks up with the reliably unstable Bubba, a ex-con once headed for a pro basketball career. Rather than go home. Hootie joins forces with Bubba and his unusual girlfriend, Amelia. The movements of these three are being tracked by Chigorin, an NYPD cop known as “The Russian.” While the publisher is selling this as a noir novel, it doesn’t really fit the bill (Neither I nor my husband were filled with despair when I finished the book). Solomita does a great job with just four characters and an eye for the quirks of human behavior.

The Wounded and the Slain, by David Goodis
James and Cora Bevan are trying to liven up their dead marriage during a vacation in Jamaica. Alas, it’s not working. James is just another doomed sucker whose life is spiraling out of control while he drinks. The portrait of parts of Jamaica that tourists aren’t meant to see and Goodis’ stripped down prose are well worth the read.
The novels of George Pelecanos (for a complete listing see the website
I read all of Pelecanos this year. He writes about Washington, D.C. (and I don’t mean Capitol Hill). Best known as one of he writers and editors of “The Wire,” he has written these novels over about 20 years. His bad guys are very bad and his good guys are very flawed. He was honored at this year’s Noircon and during an interview there (conducted by Laura Lippman) said he could think of nothing more noir than being doomed by where you were born. The books are brutal, depressing and wonderful. And every life, no matter how ghastly, seems to have a soundtrack.

--Stephanie Patterson

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