Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, 1956

I crossed to the switch and used my knuckle again, got out my handkerchief to open the door and pull it shut after me, took an elevator down to the lobby floor, found a phone booth and dialed a number. The voice that answered belonged to Fritz. I told him I wanted Wolfe.

He was shocked. "But Archie, he's at dinner!"

"Yeah, I know. Tell him I've been trapped by cannibals and they're slicing me, and step on it."

It was a full two minutes before Wolfe's outraged voice came. "Well, Archie?"

"No, sir. Not well. I'm calling from a booth in the Churchill lobby. I left the clients in the bar, went up to Karnow's room, found the door unlocked, and entered. Karnow was on the floor, dead, shot with an army gun. The gun's there, but it wasn't suicide, the gun was muffled with a wad of towels. How do I earn that five grand now?"

"Confound it, in the middle of a meal."

If you think that was put on, you're wrong. I know that damn fat genius. That was how he felt, and he said it, that's all.
--- (pages 86-87)

The Nero Wolfe series is one of the most delightfully structured universes in mystery fiction. Wolfe's scheduled life is as predictable as his quirky passions, which consist of beer, orchids, food, solitude and crime. The colorful cast of supporting characters revolve around Wolfe and life in the brownstone like planets circling the sun. Stout's formula may be cast in stone, but it's a formula that's absolutely perfect for a mystery series. Into the orderly world of Wolfe's New York, a crime and a group of suspects is introduced. Archie will interview those involved, do some legwork, take--and give--a few punches; Wolfe will sit at home, like a fat spider at the center of a web, and eventually solve the baffling case to the astonishment of the NYPD, as personified by the cigar-chomping Inspector Cramer, the Lestrade to Wolfe's Holmes. Though there are plenty of mysteries that are smarter, darker and richer than Rex Stout's, very few are as totally enjoyable and satisfying.

The novella is the format that best suits the series; the novels tend to get overly complicated, but the plots are not quite straightforward enough to make a good short story. Three Witnesses, like many of the Wolfe books, contains three novellas, all of them excellent examples of what makes the series so appealing.

"The Next Witness," the first novella and my personal favorite of the three, is the most atypical in the collection. Wolfe never sets his foot in the brownstone and he spends most of the novella on the run from the law with Archie. This is enough to make "Witness" a pretty big departure from the usual formula, but it also has a more complex plot than the typical Wolfe whodunit. Suffice it to say that finding the actual murderer is not the main goal here; it's unraveling an ingenious little conspiracy. It's a puzzle that's more like Doyle than Christie, whose influence with Stout is usually stronger. The gambit that Wolfe uses to unmask the conspirators is masterful, a terrific venue for Wolfe's smugness and superiority to shine through. To top it off, the story revolves around old-timey telephone operators, a career with which I have always had a really weird fascination--I think it's a job I would personally excel at, in the unlikely event that I ever time-travel back to the 40s (yeah, I know, I'm strange).

"When a Man Murders. . ." is a more typical Wolfe mystery: limited number of suspects, a universal motive, Wolfe as the armchair detective. I appreciated the fact that the story unfolded at a pretty leisurely pace: the case at first appears to be nothing more than an odd three-way marriage (a device that would only work in Stout's New York, since a simple divorce and remarriage would solve the whole problem in today's day and age). Ultimately, the love triangle storyline is shunted offstage in favor of a less interesting murder mystery plot, which has some nice characterizations, a fine bit of authorial misdirection and a reasonably satisfying conclusion. There's nothing here that isn't done better elsewhere in the canon, although the telephone conversation between Archie and Wolfe, quoted above, is pretty much solid gold.

The last novella, "Die Like a Dog," has the best opening, but like its immediate predecessor, quickly devolves into a fairly simple whodunit with a small cast of suspects. The bizarre little comedy of the abandoned dog is priceless. The awkward way both Archie and Wolfe desperately try to keep the dog while trying to remain casual and indifferent is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. I just love that Wolfe, a man with no patience for frivolity, mess or affection, is so completely taken with an eager-to-please black Lab that he'll solve a murder just to be able to keep him. The murder plot isn't as much fun as the dog-related interludes; it relies on the tired device of a small group of possible murderers and the coat-switching deus ex machina that allows Wolfe to crack the case is too far-fetched, even for Stout. It doesn't help that the unravelling is virtually identical to the one at the end of "When a Man Murders. . .," right down to the crucial misdirect and Inspector Cramer and Purley Stebbins looking on in astonishment. The dog subplot definitely stands out more than the main storyline.

Three Witnesses, like most entries in the Nero Wolfe series, doesn't shake up the accepted formula much, and that's fine by me. I've only read a relatively small segment of the series (there are seventy-three books, after all) and the books' dependability is one of their charms. I hope that at some point Stout puts his considerable talent into doing something mind-blowing, but you know what? Sometimes I don't need my mind blown. The Wolfe novels are really well-written comfort food, and even though Stout's rhythm is offbeat, it's easy to drop back into once you're used to it. Despite a certain lack of originality, Stout can spin a very fine story, and, like Doyle, he's created a pair of characters whose strange partnership is endlessly entertaining.

NEXT UP: The conclusion to the Inheritance Cycle, the aptly titled Inheritance .

Friday, November 25, 2011

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, 1994

"Damn court hearings are a waste of time," Earling said. "I'm seventy-six years old. You think they're gonna send some seventy-six-year-old guy to prison because he flashed his stuff around?"

I sincerely hoped so. Seeing Earling naked was enough to make me turn celibate. "I need to take you downtown. How about you go put some clothes on."

"I don't wear clothes. God brought me into the world naked, and that's the way I'm going out."

"Okay by me, but in the meantime I wish you'd get dressed."

"The only way I'm going with you is naked."

I took out my cuffs and snapped them on his wrists.

"Police brutality. Police brutality," he yelled.

"Sorry to disappoint you," I said. "I'm not a cop."

"Well what are you?"

"I'm a bounty hunter."

"Bounty hunter brutality. Bounty hunter brutality."

I went to the hall closet, found a full-length raincoat, and buttoned him into it.

"I'm not going with you," he said, standing rigid, his hands cuffed under the coat. "You can't make me go."

"Listen, Grandpa," I said, "either you go peaceably or I'll gas you and drag you out by your heels."

I couldn't believe I was saying this to some poor senior citizen with a snail dick. I was appalled at myself, but what the hell, it was worth $200.
--- (pages 266-267)

Stephanie Plum is in trouble: she's been laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer, the repo men have taken her car and her rent is almost due. In desperation, Stephanie calls on her cousin Vinnie, the owner of a bail bond firm in Trenton, New Jersey. Thanks to a little blackmail, Stephanie now has a new job: bounty hunter. With no experience and no idea how to gain any, she has to track down Joe Morelli, a local cop accused of murder. Stephanie has a history with Morelli, but she assures herself that it's just business. She gets ten grand if she can arrest Morelli in a week--and stay alive on the mean streets of Trenton, amongst criminals, cops, hookers and one very nasty prizefighter.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series has, over the last ten years or so, become hugely popular despite getting relatively little critical attention, either negative or positive. She's one of those authors (like James Patterson or Nora Roberts) who's pretty much ubiquitous on the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves. Her Stephanie Plum series has a cool premise and a devoted fan base, so I zipped through the series' first volume, One for the Money.

I didn't expect much, but I was mildly surprised. The novel is a little dopey in places, the beginning is sort of terrible and Evanovich's writing is just okay, but overall it's a surprisingly solid blend of chick lit comedy, romance novel and mystery/thriller. A shaky start notwithstanding, Evanovich is good enough at the three main areas of interest to put together a highly readable novel that introduces a series that could be a lot of fun.

Evanovich's main success is definitely her protagonist. Stephanie Plum is the kind of character that a lot of romance novels are built around (plucky, sarcastic, secretly vulnerable, just quirky enough to be interesting, Everygirl enough to be relatable). Mysteries and thrillers, however, usually have darker, moodier heroes, which is why Stephanie is so much fun to read about--think Kinsey Millhone with less experience and more lip gloss. She's the kind of comfortable character that a book like this needs to center it. Her progression from novice bounty hunter to gun-wielding badass is, for the most part, pretty believable and there's usually enough balance between her competent moments and her doofus ones to be satisfying.

Stephanie's motives are more problematic than her characteristics. Evanovich works hard through the first fifty pages to convince us that Stephanie is truly desperate and the only reason she takes the bounty hunter job is for the money. Evanovich never really sells the idea that an ordinary woman would risk her life repeatedly for a mere ten thousand dollars, and then keep working as an apprehension agent even after she is shot, beaten, attacked, bombed and almost raped. Obviously, for story purposes Stephanie has to keep working for Vinnie, but the motivation and circumstances seem highly contrived, especially during the beginning chapters, where Evanovich tries to make way too many implausibilities sound reasonable.

The series' humor is probably its most-hyped element, but Evanovich seems unlikely to topple Helen Fielding or Terry Pratchett any time soon. Humor and wit is a central part of the novel's appeal (most of it because of Stephanie's wisecracking narration), but for the most part I found it more charming than hilarious. Evanovich seems to be at her funniest when she's breezy and not trying too hard; the sequences that are calculated displays of sitcom-y madcappery, like the Plum family's inappropriate behavior, or Grandma Mazur accidentally shooting a turkey at the dinner table, feel kind of forced.

The romance-with-Morelli plot is not the novel's strongest point, either. Again, we have contrivances that are very old and tired, like the man and woman who supposedly hate each other working together. It's a device that still succeeds sometimes, but Evanovich plays it pretty straight. It's a good thing for her that their dialogue is genuinely amusing, and that Morelli walks the line between being a nice guy and being a real jerk. It's an agreeable storyline, but not a highly compelling one. My favorite moment is near the end, when Stephanie grows tired of Morelli's condescension and one-ups him in a highly satisfying way. I'm less enthusiastic about hints that a love triangle will develop between Stephanie, Morelli and Stephanie's bounty hunter mentor, Ranger. The will-they-won't-they thing is already hackneyed enough.

Better than the romance is the mystery/thriller element. Due to the emphasis on the series' comedic and romantic angle, I expected a flimsy, lightweight main plot. Evanovich instead delivers a pretty well-constructed story that's equal parts whodunit mystery and action thriller. Despite the book's overall light tone, the book's Big Bad, Benito Ramirez, manages to be fairly scary, injecting a real sense of danger in what otherwise have been more of a romp. The whodunit mystery segments are weaker overall than the more action-oriented parts-- it's not too hard to guess the evil mastermind, though the whole dastardly plot is a little more difficult to piece together. In any case, the main plot provides a terrific frame for everything else to rest on.

Perhaps the book's most impressive achievment is its ability to balance the seemingly opposing parts of the story. For a mix of comedy and thriller to work, there has to be a succesful blend of the light and the dark. Too much light, and there's nothing at stake. Too much dark, and the light elements seem uncomfortable and awkward. For the most part, Evanovich nails the tone, finding a happy medium between the extremes. While One for the Money is not shooting to the top of my list of favorite guilty-pleasure novels, it's definitely a smooth, entertaining read with a memorably unusual heroine.

NEXT UP: A trio of Nero Wolfe novellas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald, 1964

I am tall, and I gangle. I look like a loose-jointed, clumsy hundred and eighty. The man who takes a better look at the size of my wrists can make a more accurate guess. When I get up to two twelve I get nervous and hack it back on down to two oh five. As far as clumsiness and reflexes go, I have never had to use a flyswatter in my life. My combat expression is one of apologetic anxiety. I like them confident. My stance is mostly composed of elbows.

Lew, faithful dog, wanted it over right now. He hooked with both hands, chin on his chest, snorting, starting the hooks way back, left right left right. He had fists like stones and they hurt. They hurt my elbows and forearms and shoulders, and one glanced off the top of my shoulder and hit me high on the head. When I had the rhythm gauged, I counter punched and knocked his mouth open with an overhand right. His arms stopped churning and began to float. I clacked his mouth shut with a very short left hook. He lowered his arms. I put the right hand in the same place as before and he fell with his mouth open and his eyes rolled up out of sight.
--- (pages 128-129)

John D. MacDonald, while an accomplished writer of standalone crime noir novels, is best known for his Travis McGee series, a loose cycle of mystery/thrillers with a hard-edged, philosophical Fort Lauderdale beach bum/private eye as the central character. Travis McGee (who could be The Continental Op's son and Jack Reacher's father) tangles with a colorful rogue's gallery of freaks, killers and evildoers (and saves more damsels in distress than James Bond), all while waxing poetic about Florida and life in general. The series is a great vehicle for MacDonald's talents and McGee is a terrific character, as offbeat and quirky as the villains he goes up against.

Although The Deep Blue Good-By is chronologically the first in the series I've read others and, like Lee Child's books, there's not too much continuity. Other than an uncharacteristically awkward little saga sell in the first chapter, there's no sign that Good-By is the first book in the cycle. MacDonald jumps right into things as though Travis McGee has been having adventures in print for years.

One night, while relaxing aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush, McGee has a visitor in the form of a scared young dancer with a problem. Her father, a WWII veteran, left an unspecified treasure hidden on her family's property when he died in prison. Now his psychotic cellmate, a "smiling man" named Junior Allen, has absconded with the loot. She wants McGee to retrieve it for her. Ever the knight in shining armor, McGee enters into a dangerous game with a sexually twisted opponent who uses his new found wealth to prey on women.

The basis for the series is clear from the start: McGee as the reluctant, somewhat reclusive hero with a kind heart and a harsh sense of justice. From a basic description, his character sounds like most of the crime-fiction heroes of the last sixty years, but MacDonald makes him a strange and compelling figure. He's not invulnerable, not invincible, capable of making rash decisions and bad mistakes. It's not really clear why he pulls away from the world the way he does, but he seems happy that way. His trademark bursts of impassioned and wordy commentary do take some getting used to, and at first they seem unnatural coming from someone who's supposedly a rough-and-tumble private eye. After a while though, they just become part of McGee's off-kilter charm.

Good-By has a pretty bare-bones plot, even for a John D. MacDonald novel. There aren't a lot of conceptual twists or complexity, just a simple crime story that uses familiar tropes. There's only one villain, one McGuffin, one central quest without subplots or discursions. What sets it apart from the crowd is MacDonald's twin gifts for creating suspense and generating rich, evocative prose.

Before the praise begins, I have one big criticism, which especially applies to the book's first half. MacDonald is a pretty flagrantly sexist author and he has an exhausting habit of creating paper-thin female characters that literally throw themselves at McGee in droves. None of his female characters have any real characteristics of their own; they exist to provide McGee with someone to talk to and go to bed with. Most of them are whimpering victims who need his protection; the rest are slutty imbeciles who have no control over themselves. MacDonald describes all of his female characters with loving, sexualized detail, and after a while it gets incredibly tiresome and exaggerated to the point of interfering with the story.

I'm not saying MacDonald was a horrible person and I'm not saying there aren't a few female characters in his whole body of work with a little more complexity, but in this particular book the constantly sexualized imagery and characterization is wearying. This probably says more about the time the book was written in and the target audience than anything else, but it's one of the only aspects of MacDonald's writing that I'm not crazy about.

What I am crazy about is MacDonald's use of language. His rhythm is offbeat, but once you're used to it his prose just pops off the page. A bootlicking assistant answers the phone in "a young, hushed and earnest voice." A man is "hunched, seamed, cadaverous [. . .] with dusty-looking black hair[.]" One of McGee's contacts is a "jouncy, leathery little man who punctuated each comment with a wink and a snicker, as if he had just told a joke." At one point in the action, while surrounded by "[d]apper little fellows. . . making shrill little cries of consternation[,]" McGee "grabbed the nearest handful of silk blazer and lifted it onto its tippy toes[.]" There's something unique and delightful about MacDonald's writing, something that elevates the novel well above typical pulp fiction.

He's also a master at creating suspense and tension. Like all the best storytellers, he knows how to pace and how to set up a story that whizzes like a roller coaster to a big finale that pays everything off. MacDonald gets a lot of mileage out of Good-By's relatively simple story just by keeping Junior Allen off-stage for most of the book. As we hear more and more about his depravity and animal cunning, he becomes more intimidating without showing up until just before the climax--which, I must add, is everything a thriller climax should be. MacDonald, of course, follows up the action finale with one of the sad, deflating revelations that he does so well. The novel is more than just a breezy tale of adventure; there's a little depth here, a little soul, as there always is with MacDonald and McGee.

NEXT UP: Janet Evanovich's One for the Money.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The Godfather by Mario Puzo, 1969

Hagen had taken the call in the kitchen, with Mama Corleone bustling around preparing a snack for the arrival of her daughter. He had kept his composure and the old woman had not noticed anything amiss. Not that she could not have, if she wanted to, but in her life with the Don she had learned it was far wiser not to perceive. That if it was necessary to know something painful, it would be told to her soon enough. And if it was a pain that could be spared her, she could do without. She was quite content not to share the pain of her men, after all did they share the pain of women? Impassively she boiled her coffee and set the table with food. In her experience pain and fear did not dull physical hunger; in her experience the taking of food dulled pain. She would have been outraged if a doctor had tried to sedate her with a drug, but coffee and a crust of bread was another matter; she came, of course, from a more primitive culture.

And so she let Tom Hagen escape to his corner conference room and once in that room, Hagen began to tremble so violently he had to sit down with his legs squeezed together, his head hunched into his contracted shoulders, hands clasped together between his knees as if he were praying to the devil.

He was, he knew now, no fit
Consigliere for a Family at war. He had been fooled, fake out, by the Five Families and their seeming timidity. They had remained quiet, laying their terrible ambush. They had planned and waited, holding their bloody hands no matter what provocation they had been given. They had waited to land one terrible blow. And they had. Old Genco Abbandando would never have fallen for it, he would have smelled a rat, he would have smoked them out, tripled his precautions. And through all this Hagen felt his grief. Sonny had been his true brother, his savior; his hero when they had been boys together. Sonny had never been mean or bullying with him, had always treated him with affection, had taken him in his arms when Sollozzo had turned him loose. Sonny's joy at that reunion had been real. That he had grown up to be a cruel and violent and bloody man was, for Hagen, not relevant.--- (page 236)

Few 20th-century novels have become ingrained in cultural consciousness as quickly as The Godfather. Most of its popularity is due to the wildly successful and highly lauded film adaptation, but the book is where all of the indelible images and ideas come from: "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." The horse's head in the bed. Don Corleone's awesome power and influence. The bloodbath in the diner. Michael's journey to taking over his father's business. Even though I've never actually seen the movie (yes, I know, it's embarrassing), I had a rough idea of what to expect from Mario Puzo's original novel, storywise. But I didn't know what to expect from the actual storytelling, and the novel ended up surprising me with its uninspiring prose and meandering narrative.

The Godfather begins on the day of Connie Corleone's wedding. Don Vito Corleone, one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in New York, is a brilliant, ruthless leader tactician. Two of his sons have joined him in the "family business," but the youngest, Michael, is a peaceful college graduate who only wants to marry his girlfriend. On Connie's wedding day, events are set in motion that will result in carnage and bloodshed: an up-and-coming underworld businessman offers the Don a risky deal, which he refuses, setting off a vicious Mafia war that will ravage the Family and set its members on a violent date with destiny.

The plot is absolutely bursting with possibilities from the start, and if nothing else, Puzo has come up with a killer premise. The hidden world of the Mafia, the unshakable Family loyalty, the power structure, the constant danger and double-crossing: it's a setting that just cries out for a story. Puzo has created an incredibly compelling world; it's no wonder that the novel has gripped the public imagination so feverishly (even real-life gangsters are reputed to have been influenced by the book and film's portrayal of the Mafia). The novel's central structure is equally solid. Michael's journey from innocent bystander to ruthless Don is the stuff classics are made of. There's a Shakespearean feel to his arc that Puzo, to his credit, sells.

My main problem with the book is simple. Puzo may have come up with a wonderful premise, but he's not the right writer to carry it out. His prose is actually rather bad--flat, stilted and awkwardly oscillating between pulp-novel purple prose and an inept literary style. He's an inveterate violator of the show-don't-tell rule, which makes many passages feel like colorless exposition. His dialogue is not terrible, just a little tin-eared at times and, in the tradition of a lot of 1960s-era novels, the characters talk a bit too much to be believable. Puzo does believably capture an Italian accent and Italian diction without going over-the-top, though.

His characters are mostly interesting (at least in theory), but for the most part they're inadequately drawn, exhibiting fairly one-dimensional personalities. Don Vito, I have to admit, is a memorable creation: prickly, cerebral, subtly eccentric. It's a shame that the other figures in the book aren't better-realized. In the hands of a subtler and more accomplished author, this is a cast that would offer incredibly rich and layered characterizations. I'm guessing that this is probably an area the movie improves on. Characters like Sonny, Kay, Fredo, Tessio and Sollozzo would benefit a lot from closer attention.

One of the oddest things about the novel, to me, was the stagnant pacing, frequent discursions and lengthy, useless subplots. Puzo has storytelling gold in his hands in the form of the main plot, yet he wastes huge chunks of time on baffling side-plots. One of them involves Hollywood star Johnny Fontane, formerly a singing sensation, now a has-been with a throat condition. It's just an odd story, strangely distant from most of the goings-on, and not highly interesting in of itself. Likewise, the story of Lucy Mancini, Sonny's ex-lover with the genital birth defect, is seemingly added to provide padding to a novel that definitely doesn't need it. Puzo's main story is way too strong for this kind of device to be necessary, and the fact that the subplots are both mildly boring doesn't help.

Considering the fact that the Godfather was written as pulp fiction, the pace is hardly fast. The first hundred pages move fairly steadily, but there are big sections with little forward momentum or relevant action. Puzo is not a good enough writer to justify some of the meandering segments and he seems largely uninterested in delving into the emotional and moral lives of his characters. I would have liked to know how the various members of the Corleone family justify their crimes, how they live every day with the knowledge of the atrocities being committed for their sake. Puzo does dip into these themes towards the end of the book.

Although I was surprised by the book's messiness and lack of narrative drive, there are unquestionably some moments of pure inspiration. Moments like Sonny's murder by tollbooth, or the Don making a false peace with the Five Families, or the masterfully choreographed revenge plot that serves as the novel's climax. Puzo's writing may lack polish and finesse, but there's a strong imaginative force behind his storytelling that almost makes up for it. The world he's created and the characters that live in it are somehow indelible, one of those feats of creativity that has grabbed the imagination of millions. Conceptually, The Godfather is a work of genius. It's the execution that's somewhat lacking.

NEXT UP: John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-By.