Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Summer Reads: A Vulgar Masterpiece and a Slick SoCal Crime Thriller

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston

We all learned in school that when we read a novel we must suspend disbelief.  Sometimes, to enjoy a work of art, we have to suspend disapproval.  In this case, we have to suspend our disapproval of people who punctuate almost every utterance with one or more obscenities.   Can you do it?  If you can, and you have a ken for crime novels -- there's a little mystery here, but it's mostly a crime novel -- pick up this number.

The voice is that of Web, a wiseass slacker, but turns out Web wasn't always a guy who cleans up what's left of one after one passes over (or, frequently, in this novel, is unnaturally killed).  He used to teach school; his father is a famous writer.  Too much more than this I don't want to reveal, except to say that (1) the death-scene cleanup business is fiercely competitive, (2) his best friend, roommate, and sometime employer is a tattoo artist, and (3) things get immeasurably worse for him when he tries to accommodate a hot chick whose father has committed suicide.  Seriously, who among us can't identify?

The particular brilliance of this fine novel is in the razor-sharp, and frequently hilarious dialogue.  Doubtful that too many readers of this blog hang out with guys like Web, but we all know smartmouths who can hardly express themselves other than in ironic asides.  It rings true.

And despite the gruesome subject matter, the text is not utterly drenched in blood.  (See the next novel for that.)  In fact, this is a real novel.  The protagonist grows and changes, and we like it, because we care about him. 

If you think you can get past the violence of the language (and violence to the language) and you have a natural affinity for the genre, this is one you should check out.

Continuity complaint:  At one point, Web points out a constellation to the toxic hot chick.  The constellation he points out is Corvus, the Crow, which is a rather obscure constellation and somewhat low in the sky when it appears, and I am doubtful that anyone could see it, much less identify it to someone who didn't know the night sky, from a moving car in the light-drenched Los Angeles night.

(P.S.:  I have seen news accounts that Mystic Arts is going to be made into an HBO series.)


The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow

I lived in the San Diego area so I'm a sucker for the novels of T. Jefferson Parker (who, thankfully, is one of our more wonderful crime fiction writers).  Don  Winslow paddles out into the same surf.  This one is a peach. 

One of my book-review rules is not to give away any of the plot -- at least not any of the plot that doesn't appear in the first few pages.  This baby doesn't really get rolling until some ways into it, but you know, you just know, something is about to pop.  When the cover of the book displays a sinking boat and the name "Frankie Machine," and your main character Frank Macchiano is a pillar of the Pacific Beach recreational fishing community and a meticulous businessman, the pleasant rhythms of his daily routine are unlikely to continue.  And when it starts to pop, it doesn't stop popping until the final page. 

A lot of that popping comes from .38 caliber instruments. 

This book reminded me just a little of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, featuring a hero -- such as he is -- who never seems to be at a loss for the right thing to do.  Oh, he runs into a spot of trouble here and there, but Frank always seems to have an appropriately violent solution.  

Let's put it this way:  When I was reading this, I thought DeNiro should play this guy in a movie, and whaddya know?

One more thing:  This novel moves easily through the Cosa Nostra underworld of Southern California.  Almost every major character is recognizable as a thinly-disguised real-life thug to those who have done much reading in Mafia history.  You will find Jimmy "the Weasel" Frattianno, Frank "Bomp" Bompensiero, Jack Dragna, Allen Dorfman, Allen Glick, Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, and several others, all committing crimes looking very much like the crimes of their real-life doppelgangers.

Lotsa killing of bad men.  Highly satisfying.  Could not put it down.

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