Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers: An Analysis of Book and Movie Reviews

For a book or movie review to have any credibility, there has to be some balance. In other words, no review should be completely negative or positive. Even if the reviewer absolutely loves what he is reviewing, there must be some criticism, and some call for improvement. Otherwise, the review is tacitly claiming that the book, movie, television show, or anything else that is being reviewed is flawless.

On the other hand, a sneering, lopsided attack is rarely warranted and is usually an excuse for the reviewer to spew some venom and show off how clever he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, the state of reviewing today would lead you to believe that there is an awful lot of perfection out there. Unwarranted praise, low standards, and an unwillingness or inability to thoroughly critique are some of the main problems. Why is this so?

First, there are an awful lot of people out there--mainly online--who have no idea what they are talking or writing about. They have basic emotional responses to what they read and see. Without any knowledge of character development, narrative, or any other aspect of writing or film-making, they simply have nothing worth saying. Their comments are no different than a 12 year-old's description of a movie. When you can't articulate exactly why you have an opinion on something, your comments lose credibility.

Second, numerous reviewers offer up their views as a brazen quid pro quo. They may be getting paid to shamelessly provide a favourable review. Or they simply review positively because they want to maintain access to those who give interviews, provide admission to various junkets, or otherwise make the life of a professional reviewer worthwhile. If those individuals are writing for high-profile media outlets, their opinions can influence others.

Third, as time goes by, there are fewer opportunities for paid reviews in the world of newspapers and magazines. The demise of Kirkus Reviews is another example of that. When reviewers are paid for their time to write a well-researched review backed up with relevant and insightful comments, the quality is generally better.

Finally, there is no accounting for taste. It is hard to fathom the rubbish that is embraced by so many people. This is not so much an indication of the lack of good reviewers as the fact that numerous individuals simply have different standards, and like different things.

The average length of reviews must surely be taking a hit as well. Pithy reviews that are hardly more than a synopsis and a rating are becoming the norm. But all is not lost. Though the amount of worthless garbage on the internet is unlimited, the overall availability of good information on books and movies continues to increase.

In the online world, some of the best and most thorough reviews can be found on Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the vast online universe, to find those reviews, you will have to wade through a lot of dross. Disingenuous tripe that has been planted by those associated with the work that is being reviewed is also a problem.

One of the best high-profile professional movie reviewers remains Roger Ebert. The most well-known and "successful" person in any field, especially one in which writing is the medium, rarely is the most thorough, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Ebert is an exception. He still makes the effort to provide reviews that are entertaining in their own right, and often extrapolates and riffs off the themes in the movie he is reviewing. And if you're a regular reader of Ebert, you are sure to read references to other movies, books, and even great music related to whichever film is the focus of the review.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett

Little Caesar W.R. BurnettSo you read this old, relatively obscure crime novel--Little Caesar. It's got that kind of hipster cachet that comes from the fact that not many people have read it. But at the same time it's often hailed as the first real crime noir novel. It's about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s, and a movie based on the book was made in the 1930s.

You start reading the book and it doesn't really grab you at first. Sure, there's cool slang from the era. Like a gun is called a "gat" and gangsters say things like "I don't wanna get my neck stretched" (i.e., get done for murder and sentenced to death--they still hanged people in most states back then).

Almost everyone has a nickname. Some gangster's girlfriend is called Seal Skin, and someone else is called Big Boy, there's a Scabby, a Blackie, and a Killer Pepi. And even the main character, Rico--that isn't his real name. You don't find out until near the end of the story that his real name is Cesare Bandello.

But you keep reading because the book really isn't that long. And generally when people say good things about a book, you tend to take note and think that there must be something to it.

The book creeps up on you. You realize that it's written in a way that isn't as easily accessible as today's crime novels. That doesn't mean it has dense sections with long sentences. In fact, it's very straight forward with sparse writing and tight dialogue. It has a kind of rhythm that might take readers of today a while to get accustomed to. It's just that W.R. Burnett wrote things that writers of today don't write.


What about the story? It's about a group of mobsters in Chicago. It focuses on an up and comer named Rico who grabs the leadership after he has been around for a while and he helps pull off this caper, see? So Rico, this bird who's the boss on this caper, pops a bull, and then takes charge of the gang in Little Italy. Then the noose slowly starts tightening on him as he realizes that as soon as you're at the top there are going to be others gunning for you. And you can never rest. Just as quickly as he make his move, he is on the run after one of his gang turns soft and gives it up to the bulls, see? He doesn't want to get his neck stretched, so he moves on to get away from the heat.


It's about the protracted lives that criminals of that sort lead. The fact that they know that the end could come at any moment, but there's nothing else to do but keep living like that. It is also about how different characters deal with the reality of the life they have chosen, and how they react when the heat is on and the prospect of life behind bars or the death penalty looms.

A grim kind of fatalism comes through in how different characters face down the inevitable: some choose to die in the streets in shoot-outs with the police, others would rather run and try to begin again in another city, while others have had enough and accept that they are going down.

The dialogue and the characters are the book. There aren't many descriptive passages here. And aside from the mobsters there isn't any real sense of the Chicago of the 1920s in which the novel takes place.

Rico--Little Caesar--is everything those around him are not. He's disciplined--doesn't drink, doesn't fall for dames--while most everyone else has an obvious vice. Though he isn't without weakness: he's quick on the draw and quick to put a bullet in someone. Maybe that too is overcompensation for his appearance, not what you would expect in a feared gangster:
He had none of the outward signs of greatness. Neither the great strength and hairiness of Pepi, nor the dash and effrontery of Ottavio Vettori, nor the maniacal temper of Joe Sansone. He was small, pale and quiet.

Gangster Patois

The gangster patois really sings:
"Gonna stick to your dago buddy, are you? Well, he's got the jack. But what're you gonna do when you need a guy that's got the guts?"

This was too much for Rico. He said:

"What do you know about guts? I guess you ain't so tough or they wouldn't've run you out of Chi."

"Will you listen to that!" said Red. "All right, buddy, you said your piece and you sure spoke out of turn. Why, dago, where I come from you wouldn't live five minutes. Now I'm gonna show you how they treat smart dagos in Chi."

Red made a motion towards his coat pocket, but Rico beat him to it. He pulled his gun from the holster under his armpit and covered Red.

"Red," he said, "in Chicago I wouldn't let you rob filling-stations for me."

Red stood with his hands up, looking from Rico to Chiggi.

"Don't bump him, Louis," said Chiggi.

"I wouldn't waste a bullet on him," said Rico; then glaring at Red he went on: "You been getting away with this rough stuff too long, Red. I'm Cesare Bandello!"

A decent book, most memorable because of the long-gone, seemingly authentic world that it depicts, and because it was the first of its kind.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

the scarecrow by michael connellyWhen a skilled writer gets lazy, the result is a novel like The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly.

When you have built up a solid fan base and are guaranteed a fat payoff for every book you are commissioned to write, it must be tempting to churn out a top-of-the-head, subpar effort that is full of clichés.

The plot is basic here. A sexual deviant, who also happens to be a skilled hacker, butchers women and frames up other people using his computer skills. Planted evidence on other people's computers, and hacked e-mail and credit card accounts are some of the tricks he uses. A journalist, Jack McEvoy, becomes a major part of the story after he and a new reporter discover that the suspects taking the fall for these crimes are innocent.

In the first sign of pure laziness on the part of the writer, we have that at-first omnipotent bad guy, who can do absolutely anything to anyone because of his computer hacking skills. But we are never told how he does all these things. A criminal hacking into e-mail and credit card accounts, planting evidence on other people's computers, and accessing other personal information stored online is, of course, plausible. But at least give us a semblance of an explanation as to how this is being done. Here there is nothing of the sort.

No Character Development

The major problem with this book is that the characters are paper-thin. As a reader, you give not a damn about what happens to them, because you have absolutely no sense of who they are. There is no character development, of either the good guys or the bad guys.

Oh wait, there is a few paragraphs-long, laugh-out-loud bit of tripe that is supposed to inform us about why the central creep does the things he does. Pure, well-used cliché here—the individual's mother was a stripper. Take a wild guess what the result is—yep, he hates women and starts butchering them.

Books with a serial killer of some sort always hinge on the fact that everything the killer does has a significant meaning which then allows the cops (or journalists) to cleverly figure everything out due to the references that the killer drops along the way. As if the killer really wants this to be a cat and mouse game, and/or wants to give the cops a legitimate chance to find him. This is something that readers of crime fiction put up with to a degree. But when there are so many other weaknesses in a novel, this kind of boiler-plate becomes even more annoying.


Connelly is either aware of the third-rate book he is offering up to his readers, or he subconsciously lets on through the words spoken by the characters. There are numerous "tells" in the book in which the characters try to head off the inevitable reactions that readers will have.

"It was strange, sometimes, how life worked out." Strange too how a line like that will make an implausible plot twist easier for readers to swallow.

"She said it so matter-of-factly. There was probably nothing in this world that surprised her or horrified her any longer." The flat, meaningless reaction of this character to the discovery of a corpse just doesn't wash. That's what happens when characters aren't developed. The things they say sound strangely inappropriate and unbelievable.

In the section that attempts to give the killer some back-story: "He wondered what had made him go down the hallway to look. He knew the answer was tangled down deep in his darkest roots. In a place no one could go." And in a place that no reader will go, because there is no reasonable insight into his personal history or psyche, and hence no understanding about why he turned into a killer.

"I didn't know exactly where I was going but I drove with subconscious purpose, as though the hands on the wheel and the foot on the pedal knew what my brain didn't" I.e., a meandering, unfocused arc to the book that indicates a lack of planning.

"This doesn't sound like a plan, Jack. It sounds like you're making it up as you go along."

Other Weaknesses

A huge hole in the plot appears as the two main characters, McEvoy and his FBI agent girlfriend Rachel Walling, head to the organization where the killer works. At this point in the book, the story about the serial killer has received huge publicity, with McEvoy's name part of the story, his face on CNN etc. Yet they blunder in to the office and use their real names.

Another major absurdity involves the FBI agent first being fired and then reinstated.

Another failing, and what brings so many books down, is the lack of resistance that is developed in various situations. Things just happen without the requisite opposition from situations or characters.

And in another crime novel cliché, there is the false ending, where the journalist and cop believe that the case is wrapped up but the real killer is still on the loose. As a reader, it is unlikely you will care at this point.

The book isn't a total write-off: there are some reasonably interesting passages. However, these sections involve McEvoy and Walling discussing the case and telegraphing the main plot twists. Another sign of a weak novel.

Are there any themes at play in this novel? I doubt it. And even if there were, they wouldn't salvage this substandard effort.

There is no flesh on the bones of The Scarecrow. Save yourself some time, and give this book a miss.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

In Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon details the time he spent with detectives in the homicide division of the Baltimore police department and takes readers inside numerous murder investigations in one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

Simon does a great job of avoiding the sycophantic and lopsided treatment that many crime reporters give to the police forces that they cover. A desire to maintain access and the inevitable bias that comes from hearing about the scum of the earth that the police have to deal with generally gets most reporters onside.

But in some ways, coverage of a homicide department allows a more nuanced take and the potential for less speechifying and political rants. While the crimes are some of the most brutal, the police officers who become detectives and work in homicide are the best of the best. Sure, there is the opportunity for homicide detectives to stitch up an innocent person. But absent a false confession beaten out of a suspect, the necessary legwork has to be done, a suspect caught, and sufficient evidence collected before a prosecutor will take the case to trial and a jury will convict.

Fans of the TV's Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was based on this book, will recognize many of the detectives Simon writes about. Simon was also the creator of The Wire, and many of the characters from that show draw from the real-life situations and people that he writes about here as well.

As Stupid as They Come

Police deal with the scum of the earth, the most deviant pieces of filth on the face of the earth. And despite the well planned murders that we often see in books and cinema, stupidity from the small-time punks and hoods who slaughter each other is more common in the real world. As well as being sociopathic, nasty individuals, the murderers we read about here are some of the most brain-dead individuals on the planet.

In one passage, Simon details how all suspects being interviewed are clearly advised of their rights. Told in plain English that they have nothing to gain by talking and have the right to a lawyer. And then those same detectives spin a narrative in which they give an out to the simpleton sitting in front of them. The detectives tell the suspect, about whom they have no real evidence but know from experience, body language, and common sense that this is their man—they tell him that they sympathize with him. They know he had no choice because he was disrespected by the fool that he then had to murder.

And more times than you might expect, this appeals to a mulish bravado in the suspect and he agrees with what the detectives are saying. He gladly admits to the murder, confident that he has the respect of the detectives interviewing him. Sure, he's now going down for life, but he was punked! What's a brother to do? In the street narrative voice that Simon uses to great effect throughout the book, he perfectly summarizes the wasted lives and the absurd mentality behind the violence:
Get used to small rooms, bunk, because you are about to be drop-kicked into the lost land of pretrial detention. Because it's one thing to be a murdering little asshole from Southeast Baltimore, and it's another to be stupid about it, and with five little words you have just elevated yourself to the ranks of the truly witless.

Superb Writing

Simon brings detectives, perpetrators, and victims to life with a few deft strokes. And like all the best non-fiction books, the prose often reads better than most crime novels. The nastiness of the crime scenes are sketched out in dispassionate detail, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity. The dreary inner city landscape of Baltimore comes through in gritty passages in which Simon details the final resting place of numerous victims.

Simon also shines the light on the kind of gallows humour that police officers use to deal with the gruesome nature of their job. Marveling at the nasty ways that the human body can decompose, the detectives who come upon recent murders usually offer up a good one-liner or engage in some desultory banter that verges on the absurd.

That's one aspect of the great observations and details that Simon offers up—and just the kind of things that readers of true crime and crime novels will love to learn about. We also learn about the competitive aspect of solving crimes—not just between individual detectives, but between the different squads that work homicide. It's a sad glimpse at the fact that getting at the truth is not always the most important factor that drives an investigation forward.

The Weirdness

Remarkably strange occurrences surround many of the murder investigations. As the detectives track down the person who murdered a young black child, they come across what might be a lead in the case. They find a fingerprint on the library book that was found in the young girl's book bag. And, amazingly, they get a hit on the fingerprint in the database that contains thousands of prints of criminals who have been fingerprinted in the past. They get a hit on someone who had shoplifted the day before the fingerprint from the book was fed into the system. Had it been a day earlier, there would have been no return on the fingerprint.
Eight days after a police computer took his name in vain, Kevin Lawrence is brought down to the homicide unit, where he tells detectives that he knows nothing about any girl named Latonya Wallace. He does, however, remember a book about black American heroes with the title of Pioneers and Patriots. Shown the text itself, he can even recall the school report he prepared long ago using that same book, which he had borrowed from the Eutaw-Marshburn school library. The paper was on great black Americans and, as the young man recalled, it earned him an A. But that he says, was more than ten years ago. Why are they even asking about it?

The investigation that exonerates Kevin Lawrence is still wrapping up when Pellegrini returns to duty. But by luck or mercy or both, the primary investigator is allowed to watch from the periphery as other detectives slam into a wall. He is, in a very real sense, spared the anguish of seeing a precious piece of physical evidence reduced to fantastic coincidence—a fingerprint that sat undisturbed on a book for more than a decade, waiting for a million dollar computer to give it life enough to taunt a few homicide detectives for a week and a half.
In another surreal incident, two detectives seek the exhumation of a body from a paupers cemetery on the outskirts of Baltimore. It's part of an investigation into perhaps the most insidious individual who populates the gallery of freaks and killers in this book: a nasty, aging hag who for years convinced men to sign life insurance policies with herself as the beneficiary, and then later had them killed to collect.

Only after the autopsy on the exhumed body do they realize that it's not the person they were looking for. The feckless individual who operates the cemetery admits that he dug a mass grave and bulldozed in a few dozen bodies. The unreal aspect is that the body that was mistakenly exhumed had the same name as a suspect one of the other homicide detectives had recently arrested for a murder. The exhumed body was the father of the suspect. A bizarre and ghoulish coincidence.

The Frustration of Unsolved Murders

During the time that Simon followed the detectives in the homicide department, he was able to see some major cases develop and go to trial. He was also able to see the frustration mount regarding cases that weren't solved, and subsequently never solved years later. When a case can't be solved, there aren't hints at a criminal mastermind who managed to pull off the perfect crime. It is normally drug murders—the hardest of all murders to solve because they often take place outside, in a neutral location nowhere near the victim's or the perpetrator's homes. And because the body is outside, often at a different location than where the murder took place, there is no physical evidence. Those kinds of cases are a source of frustration for the detectives, simply because they bring down the department stats.

But when the victim is an innocent bystander or a child, a cold wind of frustration and despair blows as it becomes apparent that numerous factors conspired to allowed the perpetrator to get away with murder. The unknown perpetrator becomes a phantom who will often haunt a detective until the end of his days. Such is the case with the tragedy of Lantonya Wallace, whose killer was never found. It is when writing about the sad case of that little girl that Simon's writing is most effective:
It is the illusion of tears and nothing more, the rainwater that collects in small beads and runs to the hollows of her face. The dark brown eyes are fixed wide, staring across wet pavement; jet black braids of hair surround the deep brown skin, high cheekbones and a pert, upturned nose. The lips are parted and curled in a slight, vague frown. She is beautiful, even now.

She is resting on her left hip, her head cocked to one side, her back arched, with one leg bent over the other. Her right arm rests above her head, her left arm is fully extended, with small, thin fingers reaching out across the asphalt for something, or someone, no longer there.
Simon sketches out the characters in the real-life dramas that he witnesses as skillfully as great writers of fiction. And because of that, you empathize and get to know the detectives and feel for them when the pieces don't fall into place.

Within the police and crime reporting category, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is truly one of the great ones.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

The Way Home by PelecanosI suppose that it was inevitable: a weak effort from George Pelecanos. The Way Home is the first book I have read by Pelecanos that did not succeed in creating a memorable world full of interesting characters and a fast moving storyline.

The Way Home is maudlin and disappointing. It would likely not have been published had it been submitted by a first-time writer. But Pelecanos has built up a solid fan base and loads of credibility, and can get away with the occasional clunker.

Pelecanos has never been a great writer in much the same way that many of the famous noir writers were not great writers. A solid, entertaining story teller? Absolutely. But skewed syntax and more than a few strangely constructed sentences always stand out in a book by Pelecanos. But it usually doesn't matter, because he has that talent for putting together believable characters in a few deft strokes and then pushing the narrative forward to an explosive if somewhat predictable conclusion.

His most recent effort, however, takes the speechifying that has started creeping into his novels as of late to a whole new, utterly tiresome level. The characters here are flat and will elicit barely any empathy from readers. And the main premise around which the book is built blasts away the suspension holding up any semblance of belief.

We have a father who has always been hard on his son, and the son who predictably goes off the rails, starts using drugs, and gets locked up in a juvenile detention home. Flash forward about eight or nine years, and dear sonny boy is out in the world working for his father's carpet installation business. The classic bag of money that has been at the heart of so many crime novels makes an appearance here. But the way that things play out just isn't likely.

Every plot twist seems to be introduced for the sole purpose of allowing more clichéd pablum to flow from the gobs of the characters. We don't even really get to see the protagonist in action except for a petty juvenile crime that originally landed him in reform school in the early part of the book. Too much effort is devoted to the cause that the author is championing.

We get it: Pelecanos believes that the way young offenders are locked up is wrong. That's the whole problem. It comes across as a book-long rant upon which a weak story is hung. As opposed to a theme that is smoothly woven into the storyline.

Not only is it a weak effort, but it made me look back and reassess some of the other books that Pelecanos has written. Perhaps a similar storyline played out numerous times was not something to criticize at the time because the results were so entertaining. But when none of the elements that make so many of Pelecanos's books enjoyable are present, the same revenge ending with two individuals tooling up to commit justifiable murder falls flat.

Why exactly does a writer like Pelecanos produce a book like this after so many effective efforts? Perhaps he just ran out of the creative juice that spurred him on for so long. Maybe it was a rush job for a paycheque. Maybe the success from his work on The Wire and his energy being taken up elsewhere didn't allow him to put in the necessary time.

If you've heard that Pelecanos is a very good crime writer, you should still believe it. Just don't start with this novel. In fact, give The Turnaround a miss as well—his most recent novel before The Way Home also suffers from some of the same problems. Start with one of his classics, such as Hard Revolution or The Big Blowdown. Let's hope this trend doesn't continue and Pelecanos gets back to writing the great crime novels that made him so popular in the first place.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

The Sociopath Next DoorSociopathic behaviour is familiar to anyone with an interest in crime and crime fiction. The cold-blooded, unfeeling monster shows up with regularity in the world of fiction and in stories on the evening news.

Anyone with a modicum of observation skills has likely pegged someone as a sociopath at least once in their lives. Like the chronic liar who is always creating melodrama and wreaking havoc with other people's lives. Many seem inextricably drawn to such human wrecking machines, if only for the bit of excitement they temporarily introduce into their otherwise dreary lives.

In a world where the word "greed" has almost fallen out of our lexicon, where virtually any tactic employed in business is hailed as shrewd and cunning so long as it further enriches people, and where the slaughter of thousands is still a regular occurrence, the world must be teeming with such reptilian, blood thirsty, self-serving freaks.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, deconstructs the mind of the conscienceless amongst us, offers up some narratives that detail their nastiness, poses some interesting questions on what causes the condition, and provides some insightful and believable theories in response.

The book employs a few different methods to deliver information. First, the author uses composite characters in fictitious narratives to describe how sociopaths play their twisted games. These scenarios are based on the years that she has spent as a clinical psychologist analyzing people who have suffered at the hands of sociopaths.

Unfortunately, the first two scenarios used in the book are the least effective. The first example is utilized as a way to help the readers get their heads around the idea of conscience. The second example presents a fairly hackneyed rendering of the developmental trajectory of a sociopath, replete with the abuse of animals, the manipulation of family, and successes in the business world. All accomplished using ruthless tactics aided by a complete lack of conscience. Of course, it is contrived, but that's exactly how it feels.

For example, a chapter about a fictional character named "Skip" is intended to demonstrate how deviant and insidious he is but parts of it just come off as odd and slightly amusing:
Then he would hurl the corpses as far out into the lake as he could, yelling at the dead frogs as they flew, "Too bad for you, you little fuck-face froggy!"

However, the attempts at showing the reader just how unfeeling these creeps are get better as the book moves along. A third narrative describes a more nuanced situation in which a vindictive social climber tries to destroy her rivals.

There's also a handful of real-life situations described in the book, gleaned from the hundreds of individuals the author has helped over the years. She tells the story of these damaged individuals and how they were manipulated and used, and in the process we better understand how sociopaths operate. These vignettes have more impact than the other story-telling examples used in the book.

Amongst the fictional and real stories are psychological explanations on how these misfits tick. Stout references numerous studies and findings as she paints a picture of the mindset of the sociopath. Of course, not all these lunatics are the violent sort, and most manage to fly under the radar while manipulating and intimidating their way through life.

However, I found some of the descriptions of sociopaths and their behaviour leaned towards the black and white. Perhaps the mantra, repeated numerous times throughout the book, that "they can do anything at all" (the italics are always added) is used to gin up the fear just a tad so that the prescriptive sections of the book are more effective.

Surely there must be some of us in the rest of the 96% in society who stray into sociopath territory on occasion. And even within that supposedly beast-like minority of four percent, there must be the occasional individual who feels a smidgen of compassion, does something that isn't completely selfish, or even exhibits a pattern of behaviour that casts doubt on all the literature surrounding the topic.

Still, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and compelling information provided. For example, what about the differences between western and Asian countries? Does the collective nature of many Asian countries result in fewer and qualitatively different sociopaths? It appears so, and the related passages are intriguing and seem plausible.

And one of the litmus tests for sociopaths also has a ring of truth to it:
When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given. A person whose behavior includes both of these features is not necessarily a mass murderer, or even violent at all, but is still probably not someone you should closely befriend, take on as your business partner, ask to take care of your children, or marry.


I'd never really considered the possibility that product placements exist in books just as they do in film and television. It makes perfect sense, of course, and you can't blame the author for making a few extra bucks. I may have even read books where advertisers had paid to have their wares mentioned in an ostensibly natural way.

However, this is the first book in which I have ever noticed the phenomenon. It is a jarring and highly distracting aspect of this book, and one that, for me, detracts from its credibility. In films, you may not even notice the product placements simply because of their fleeting nature. Here, however, they are in your face and one effect is to attach an annoying stigma to the products in question.

Another problem was some of the vaguely propagandistic elements. This book was published in 2005 but no doubt much of it was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There are more than a few references to the event, and the underlying assumptions attached to many of those passages could be highly annoying to many readers. The author insinuates that anyone who would dare to target the U.S. must be a sociopath, yet never offers any proof.

Odd that the simpering moron who rode the U.S. into the ground never comes under scrutiny, especially in light of numerous sections like this which could raise his image in many readers' minds:
In a confusing irony, conscience can be rendered partially blind because people without conscience use, as weapons against us, many of the fundamentally positive tools we need to hold society together--empathic emotions, sexual bonds, social and professional roles, regard for the compassionate and the creative, our desire to make the world a better place, and the organizing rule of authority.

Later in the passage she mentions Saddam Hussein and a handful of other notable nasties from the history books but the grinning chimp's name is nowhere to be seen. A few pages later, Stout states,
In fact, one of the more striking characteristics of good people is that they are almost never completely sure they are right.

A trademark of George W. Bush is that together with his arrogance, hubris, and incompetence, the fool never doubted himself or dropped that moronic smile for an instant, even as the country came down around him. But alas, such sacrilege wouldn't sit well with most of this book's intended audience. And it surely is aimed at the talk-show crowd who like their books light and the themes simple and reassuring. That is really my main criticism of this book. It really didn't go far enough or offer any alternative or contrary theories. It's simply too short for such a compelling topic and could easily have been twice its current length.

I often ask myself three questions regarding a non-fiction book: was it entertaining, did I learn something, and will I try to impress friends with snippets and factoids from its pages?

The answers here are yes, yes (learning this word alone was worth it), and yes. A decent read, with a few reservations, regarding a fascinating subject matter.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Book Review: The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill

The Red Hot TypewriterJohn D. MacDonald was one of the most prolific crime writers to ever put pen to paper. MacDonald published more than 70 novels (not all in the crime genre) and 500 short stories during his lifetime. Probably best known for the 21 Travis McGee novels he wrote, MacDonald spent most of his adult life banging out millions of words of prose at home in Sarasota, Florida. A biography by Hugh Merrill entitled The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald, chronicles the life of one of the most popular crime writers who ever lived.

Some biographies are mind numbingly thorough in chasing down every living person who ever interacted with the individual in question. Such weighty tomes ensure that no stone is left unturned and no detail left unexplored. Thankfully, The Red Hot Typewriter is not one of those biographies. That may be a disappointment to some, but others are just as likely to welcome a lighter, more readable volume. Perhaps Merrill was attempting to emulate the lean writing style that MacDonald was known for in many of his Travis McGee novels.

Neither are there any lengthy interviews with family members or friends of John D. MacDonald. The book is based mainly on letters that MacDonald wrote, and observations and opinions of the author. There are, of course, the requisite passages devoted to the childhood of MacDonald, but things quickly shift to his writing years.

As the lives of some of the past century's greatest writers go, MacDonald's certainly can't be classed as dramatic or overly interesting. But when you churn out so many books and short stories, how much time do you have to get up to real-life adventure? For that reason, the book probably won't appeal to those readers who aren't fans of MacDonald. But Merrill himself clearly is a fan, and his narrative style results in an entertaining and enjoyable book despite the fact that MacDonald led a relatively low-key and conservative life.

The biography rightly focuses on MacDonald's writing but we also discover other aspects of the great crime writer's life. His lifelong concern for the environment, his love of cats, and his battles with property developers in Florida are just a few of the things that kept MacDonald occupied when he wasn't writing.

Despite their wealth, MacDonald and his wife didn't lead extravagant or flamboyant lives. One of their greatest shared passions later in life was going on boat cruises.

MacDonald was such a faithful and committed husband that he was overwhelmed with regret at engaging in a "tryst" that consisted of exchanged glances at cocktail parties and a few emotional conversations. MacDonald dutifully admitted his lapse to his wife and was quickly forgiven. Merrill writes briefly about the non-scandalous, non-affair but MacDonald's life didn't lean towards sleaze, and the biography doesn't seek out gossip or make innuendos.

The most interesting part of the book for many readers will be the passages that discuss the development of MacDonald as a great writer. The advent of Travis McGee came about almost by accident, as Fawcett books contacted MacDonald after one of their most popular crime series writers jumped ship to another publisher. MacDonald had initially decided to name the character Dallas McGee but changed it to Travis after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. At that time, MacDonald didn't want to use the name that could have other associations in the minds of readers. Merrill writes regarding the decisions that went into developing the series:

Once he had a character, he had to decide how to distinguish one McGee book from another. He didn't want to number them, because then a reader might feel compelled to read them in order. MacDonald discussed this problem with friends on a trip to New York.
"Musical terminology, days of the week, months of the year, varieties of gemstones--all of these were discarded, and I believe it was Knox Burger, who edited all the early ones, who suggested colors."

The repeated attempts by movie studios to bring Travis McGee to the big screen also make for interesting reading. MacDonald was torn by the idea, at once not wanting to lose control of his creation but also craving the enhanced legacy that a well-made film could have brought. The unique elements of the McGee novels meant that a successful transition to film was never made.

MacDonald also discusses his hopes and fears in many of the letters that Merrill references in the book. We find out that MacDonald could never wrap his head around the whole race issue that was gripping the U.S. during much of the 1960s and 70s and he never worked the theme into his books in any convincing way.

MacDonald was a drinker for most of his life but it was never a major problem. However, together with his smoking habit and overall sedentary lifestyle, it probably contributed to his death in 1986 at the age of 70.

After reading The Red Hot Typewriter, you will probably have a greater appreciation for John D. MacDonald as a writer and will likely also see him as a reasonable and decent person.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Blue Good-by: by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-byThe Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 Travis McGee novels by the late, great John D. MacDonald.

McGee is a nihilistic, misanthropic loner who lives on his boat, The Busted Flush, which is docked in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has largely dropped out of mainstream life and only works when he runs low on cash.

In the opening chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, a female character queries McGee about what he does for a living, rephrasing a "job description" McGee had apparently offered up earlier:

"You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

McGee accepts this version and thus the reader has an idea of what kind of character they are being presented. He is a sort of private eye, but not exactly. However, like most of the well known hard-boiled private eye novels, this McGee story is a morality play. And like most of the hard cases who came before him in the pulp fiction world, behind the tough talking, fearless forays into dangerous situations, McGee is also someone who genuinely cares about the people he tries to help.

It’s almost as if MacDonald fashioned McGee as a combination of the hardened crime novel detective and the sensitive new age man who was gaining prominence at the time (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964). The typical sleuth/lothario, McGee comes across his share of attractive and troubled tarts. He rebuffs some, sleeps with a few, and feels regret at leading others on.

Through it all, McGee riffs on various things he loathes about the modern world. In The Deep Blue Good-by, a recurring theme is the women he deals with and the limited opportunities they have in life. In one classic rant, McGee muses:

"The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhaustive quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel.”

These philosophical asides (and later in the series, conversations with a character named Meyer) became one of the trademarks of the McGee novels. They are one of the aspects that fans of the novels like the most but probably one reason the books were never successfully adapted to the big screen.

The book is written in the first person using simple, lean sentences that move the action forward. The plot is almost secondary here. McGee’s observations, monologues, and dialogue with other characters are the driving force behind the story. Not that there isn’t any plot or action.

McGee tracks down the nasty piece of work who has abused and cheated the two main female characters. While McGee is a nuanced individual who doubts himself and doesn't always play by the rules, the villain is pure evil. The action builds to a brutal showdown in which all does not end in a pat, satisfying way.

A taut, sparsely written novel that is the first in the classic Travis McGee series.