Thursday, June 7, 2012

Off the rack (addendum)

Because someone asked, here’s a list of a dozen thrillers published or reprinted in the past decade or so – easily-found books – that I enjoyed and recommend.

Not all qualify as ‘off the rack’ – the Dent, the Lange (a Michael Crichton pseudonym), and the Schow are from the small publisher Hard Case Crime (‘bespoke,’ if you will); the Littell brushes up against Quality Lit (without, however, skimping on its duty as a page-turner).

Nearly anything by Abrahams or Perry is a satisfying read; to my mind, Perry is the best thriller writer of my era, so he gets two titles here.

Hopefully, a reader predisposed to the genre will find these books niftier than the latest offerings from the cyborgs that bottleneck the top of the bestseller lists.

Lights Out, Peter Abrahams
Man of the Hour, Peter Blauner
Honey in His Mouth, Lester Dent
The Second Saladin, Stephen Hunter
Black Cross, Greg Iles
Grave Descend, John Lange
Vicious Circle, Robert Littell
The Butcher’s Boy, Thomas Perry
Death Benefits, Thomas Perry
Gun Work, David J. Schow
Missionary Stew, Ross Thomas
For The Dogs, Kevin Wignall

Friday, June 1, 2012

Off the rack

I did not look forward to summer the way I believed most children did.

My family lived in the same house for all of my school years, and it was not within walking or bicycling distance of town, or much of anything else. There was a cornfield across the street. There was a Catholic seminary a mile down the road in one direction, and – no fooling – a prison one-quarter mile in the other direction.

There were six or seven other children close in age in the houses along the road, but most were deemed, by my parents, too unpredictable to play on our property, and the few exceptions would grow restless, as I did, trying to keep my wheelchair-bound brother amused, playing with action figures in the shade while the open spaces beckoned.

I missed the social aspects of school during the summer. Also, I had to work.

We had enough property that the job of mowing the lawn, which fell to me at a young age, could be finished, if the weather cooperated, just in time to start all over again. We had a vegetable garden, taking up about one-sixteenth of an acre, which needed to be tilled and planted and watered and hoed. We had neighbors who needed their horses fed during some busy time in their lives, or help masking a muscle car they were going to paint, and my parents made me available to them.

During the final weeks of the school year, I’d feel the haze and the isolation approaching, and have only one goal: I had to get to the Rexall drugstore, buy two or three paperback thrillers, and try to make them last all summer.

The newsstand at the Rexall was good for a Jack Higgins, a Dick Francis, an Alistair Maclean; John Jakes and Irwin Shaw (for grownups); the latest Travis McGee novel; the latest in numbered action series like “The Executioner” or “The Destroyer”; quickie Pocket books about sensational news stories of the day, like the Patty Hearst case, or quickie biographies of sports phenomenons like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych; a novelization of an R-rated movie I wasn’t allowed to see (but reading the book was okay), like Magnum Force, or a tie-in to a TV show, like “The Rockford Files.”

The Rexall was where I bought Black Sunday, Funeral in Berlin, Coma, Mortal Stakes, The Boys From Brazil – books I picked very carefully, because I knew I would wind up reading them more than once before the summer was over. (Without them, I would have spent all of my free time bouncing a hardball off the well house, like Steve McQueen in solitary confinement in The Great Escape.) 

For my classmates, summer may have meant Little League or the swimming pool, but I needed the cities of the world, mistaken identity and pursuit, the Fourth Reich, and underwater knife fights.

I went on to read more widely, but there’s still nothing that compares to choosing some crappy-looking mass-market off the rack at a pharmacy or a hospital gift shop or an airport bookstall.

Most popular thrillers today are nowhere near as reliable as the ones of my youth. For starters, they’re padded: Ira Levin’s entire career output would fit inside the pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They don’t leave you feeling wised-up, the way a really great thriller can. Most conclude with the opening chapter of the next book in the series, a hateful practice – oh look, the protagonist survives! – that reeks of publishers conceding, in a way, that television-watching is now the equal of reading. Eight out of every ten are (*still?) about genius serial killers. At the very worst, they can be riddled with business-action-verbs, and their plots might hinge on grand left-wing conspiracies. (“My God, they’re planning to…not torture Muslims!”)

Luckily, it doesn’t take much poking around to figure out what to avoid.


I’m starting the summer with Black Light, by Stephen Hunter (fifty cents; public library sale); Savages, by Don Winslow (movie tie-in mass market; CVS Pharmacy); and The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (UK edition, received in mail from a friend; receipt from Amsterdam airport newsstand enclosed)…will debrief as necessary.

*I loved Black Sunday, and thought Red Dragon was even better, and I looked forward to Thomas Harris publishing one great thriller every five or six years, completely different in subject matter than the previous book, with a color in the title; The Silence of the Lambs broke my heart a little.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baseball books

In the spring, following a trip to Scottsdale to see some Cactus League games, I stockpiled books about baseball – books expressly (Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry), literarily (The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth), or tangentially (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King) about the game – for my summer reading.

This was a stupid idea, of course. I’ve spent more time with my nose in the handy digest Who’s Who in Baseball 2012, easily consulted during a game without missing a pitch, than with any of these books. There’s just too much baseball to watch, and too much entertaining sportswriting to read, competing for one’s time; the more fanciful, baseball-adjacent reading endeavors have to wait for November (or, at least, the All-Star break).

That said, before my book-reading attention was pulled elsewhere, I made it halfway through Bottom of the 33rd (by page count; it’s only the 10th inning) and entirely through The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, by Josh Wilker.

Bottom of the 33rd is New York Times columnist Dan Barry's account of the longest professional baseball game yet played, an 8-hour International League contest in Pawtucket in 1981 that ended at three in the morning on Easter Sunday.

The entire book’s structure is reminiscent of the opening chapter of Don Delillo’s Underworld, as Barry roams the field and the stands, picking up the stories of the assorted minor leaguers, ballpark employees, and fans, before and during the game and, in some cases, thirty years later.

If Barry presses too hard for the mythopoeic in the early going, he settles down nicely long before the extra innings, and I look forward to picking up the book again.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a twenty thousand-word monograph on the first of the universally-dismissed sequels to the classic Walter Matthau-Tatum O’Neal comedy. It’s part of the intriguing “Deep Focus” series from Soft Skull Press: vest-pocket long-form critical views of crappy, secretly-great flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s. (Other books in the series cover Death Wish, Heathers, and They Live.)

The author, Josh Wilker, is the proprietor of the terrific blog Cardboard Gods, documenting his obsession, then and now, with the baseball cards of his youth. He takes a similar, then-and-now look at the movie – what it meant to him at the time of its theatrical run, when he was a Little Leaguer himself, and throughout more critical viewings as an adult.

He also makes an interesting case for the movie as an unknowing vessel for the feeling in the country during the transition from Jimmy Carter’s America to Ronald Reagan’s. Cheap genre entertainments, like children, will absorb what’s in the air:

“Everyone best knows what his or her nation is as a kid because when you’re a kid, you feel it. Later on, as an adult, you have a better intellectual understanding, maybe, but the feeling isn’t as direct.”

This is an example of the sort of simple truth that woolgathering about the national pastime leads one to. It’s also precisely the sort of thing that sports fans who hate baseball hate baseball for, but who cares? No one writes books for those jerks.