Monday, May 30, 2016

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart [...]"

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is without doubt a classic novel, one that has won wide acclaim and has been frequently placed on various lists of best American novels of the 20th century. Thus - since I do not share this universal awe about the book - it must mean that either all these professional critics and millions of readers are wrong or that I am wrong: guess which one is more likely. But let's clarify: I actually like the novel and recommend it without reservations - it is just that I think it is quite far from a masterpiece.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, reviews of One Flew available on the Internet: summaries, synopses, digests, analyses, studies, some of them sleek and neatly packaged products directly addressed to clueless or dishonest students - as the book is often used in the literature or writing classes - who are unable or unwilling to write essays or term papers on the subject of the novel. My writing of a full-fledged review would thus be pointless: I don't have any professional qualifications and I will not discuss most of the obvious themes and motifs of the novel - mental illness, rebellion vs. conformity, authority, power games, etc. - and will instead limit myself to one particular interpretation of the text, one that resonates with me the strongest.

The novel is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a half-breed Native American from a tribe that had once resided near The Dalles on the Columbia River until the area was taken over by government for construction of a hydroelectric dam. The Chief is a resident of a "mental institution", a hospital for "the insane" in western Oregon. Many patients are there voluntarily: they are not really mentally ill, and not in the slightest insane - they are simply not well adjusted to life in the society, the life on the "Outside". They prefer to stay "Inside", which provides safety of the easy-to-follow routine. The ward is ruled with the iron fist by Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, who is the sole authority on every single issue, no matter how big or small. One of the reasons that she succeeds in being omnipotent is that she skillfully keeps appearances of patients participating in the decision making.

The novel is a powerful satire on democracy. The patients in the hospital seem to participate in making decisions about various aspects of their "therapies". Yet, they really are not given any choice as they are skillfully manipulated by the Big Nurse, who - at least until McMurphy arrives and throws things out of whack - always succeeds in ensuring that the patients vote exactly as she wants them to. Exactly the same happens on the "Outside", in the real society, where the citizens - great majority of them naive, uneducated or otherwise unable to understand the political manipulations - exercise their right to vote and elect for all levels of offices people who will diligently work against the interests of the very voters who have elected them. Nurse Ratched epitomizes the "Combine", the totality of forces that control everything, both "Inside" and "Outside." Today, in the world of massive disinformation overflowing from the Internet, the world where everybody is able to post whatever baloney they please, the message of Mr. Kesey's novel is particularly astute: people's influence on their future is an illusion, democracy is just a word, and we are all controlled by forces that thrive on our conceit, naiveté, greed, and stupidity.

(By the way, Thomas Frank explains the mechanisms that lead citizens to vote for politicians and policies that will ensure those very citizens' permanent powerlessness and often poverty in his magnificent What's the Matter with Kansas .)

My main gripe about One Flew, the flaw that prevents me from considering a four-star rating for this good novel, is that the events in the plot have been selected and sequenced solely for one purpose - to make a great story. Mr. Kesey does not worry about plausibility or psychological realism of the dynamics of conflict between McMurphy and the Big Nurse; he is just bent on producing a "great American story", with a beginning, the middle and the end, one with a lesson and a message, deep but not too deep, seemingly sad, yet eventually leading the readers to smile through their tears: oh yes, the forces of good do in fact prevail!

Finally, a disclaimer is needed: I may be biased by having watched (twice) the very good movie adaptation by Miloš Forman that in 1975 won several Oscars. Forty years ago, when I watched the movie, I was extremely irritated by Jack Nicholson's cheap shtick (for which he won one of the Oscars!) in the role of Randle McMurphy. I am afraid that Mr. Nicholson's low-grade theatrics might have prejudiced me a little against the novel.

To sum up: a great story, yet full of cheap manipulation of readers' emotions and not so great a novel.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Man on the Balcony (Martin Beck, #3)The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The very idea of militia comprises a far greater danger to society than any single criminal or gang. It paves the way for lynch mentality and arbitrary administration of justice. It throws the protective mechanism of society out of gear."

The Man on the Balcony (1967), the third novel in the Sjöwall and Wahlöö's acclaimed "Martin Beck" series of police procedurals, follows the excellent Roseanna , which I reviewed here two weeks ago, and The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, still waiting on my shelf.

The plot begins almost exactly 49 years ago, in early June of 1967 in Stockholm. Gunvald Larsson is handling the case of a mugger who brutally attacks women in city parks, but the attention of police force is diverted from that investigation when a body of a nine-year old girl - who has been sexually assaulted - is found in a park. Martin Beck heads the team of detectives and when another rape and murder of a young girl occurs virtually all of the Stockholm police force are involved in the case and the city residents are on a high alert. The investigation stalls until a connection with the mugger case is discovered, but even then the solution would not be found without Martin Beck's hunch: he finally remembers the thought the memory of which has been nagging him for several weeks.

Like Roseanna The Man on the Balcony is a riveting procedural, with most characters vividly drawn and full-bodied. The well-written interrogation scenes provide highlights for this captivating read. In addition to Beck, Kollberg, and Melander, all known from Roseanna, the cast of characters now includes Gunvald Larsson (who performs his trademark feat - using his body to force a locked door) and Einar Rönn. Also, the unforgettable duo of Kristiansson and Kvant of the Solna radio police make their appearance. On the negative side we have a lamely didactic passage about shortage of police officers and some baloney about "profiling".

This is my return to the novel that I read for the first time over 30 years ago and while it is a really good procedural I am most impressed by the quote - shown in the epigraph - about the evils of citizens' militia, a view that I unreservedly subscribe to. I also like the fragment (shown below) about disarming the police force: how I would love to live in a society where police would not carry weapons! These two passages are the main reason that I am eventually rounding my half-way rating up.

Three and a half stars.

"Kollberg was unarmed. Even with the growing gangster mentality and the steadily increasing brutality of crime, he was one of those who urged that the police should be disarmed entirely, and nowadays he carried a pistol only in case of extreme need and then only when directly ordered to do so."

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the LocustMiss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This slim volume includes two classic works by Nathanael West, one of the most important American writers of the 1930s, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). I am curious - not that it is of any importance - why both works are marketed as novels rather than novellas which they clearly are: would it be to increase the sales? Being too old to have time to read regular-sized novels I love novellas but I am guessing that most people prefer longer works. Anyway, two separate mini-reviews:

"Pain, pain, pain, the dull, sordid gnawing, chronic pain of heart and brain."

"Miss Lonelyhearts" is the pseudonym of an advice columnist for a New York paper. Each day he receives many letters from the "sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent", from readers signing themselves as "Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned". They all ask for advice what to do about their pain and Miss L. himself gets depressed with the enormity of human suffering. Although he tries various avenues to seek solace and strength to help others - art, love, sex, religion - everything fails and even a deeply spiritual episode he experiences does not bring deliverance. All this is happening with the darkest times of the Great Depression in the background, amidst raging poverty and hopelessness.

It does not sound like a comedy, does it? Yet Miss Lonelyhearts is a black comedy, one of the blackest I have ever read. It is very funny, albeit funny in the same way as the rictus smile on a corpse's face or the jerky dance of muscle convulsions in a person dying a violent death. Not only are we served the full cruelty of human fate, but the author also masterfully manipulates the reader's discomfort in several sickening vignettes, like the cruel sequence of dinner at the Doyles juxtaposed with Miss L's spiritual revelation.

The novella must have been considered a groundbreaking work when it was published 83 years ago. Despite the top-notch dark humor, several virtuoso passages and bravura pieces of writing, we the readers have gotten so accustomed to depictions of human suffering that we may not see anything particularly noteworthy in Miss Lonelyhearts. Yet it is still a very good novella, and I am recommending it highly. By the way, I would love to know what Mr. West meant when he wrote "Mussolini of the soul."

Three and three fourth stars.

"The man in the checked cap was making a fatal error. Mont St. Jean was unfinished. The paint was not yet dry and all the struts were not in place. [...] It was the classic mistake [...], the same one Napoleon had made. Then it had been wrong for a different reason. The Emperor had ordered the cuirassiers to charge Mont St. Jean not knowing that a deep ditch was hidden at its foot to trap his heavy cavalry."

One would hesitate to call The Day of the Locust a comedy, yet it has its share of very black humor as seen in the quote above. This classic book is widely considered the best "novel" about Hollywood, not a much exaggerated claim. The universal (and inexplicable) phenomenon of people's fascination with the world of movies is shown with insight and ridiculed as deserved. The properly sparse plot is well known, partly because of the very good 1975 movie adaptation by John Schlesinger, so I will just mention that the three main characters are Tod Hackett, a young painter employed in a Hollywood studio, Homer Simpson (sic) who came to California on his doctor's advice, and Faye Greener, a beautiful young woman, a forever aspiring actress, with whom most everybody falls in love.

One can view the novella as a series of vignettes, some of them absolutely unforgettable: Homer Simpson watching a lizard trying to catch flies, the drunk dancing scene after the quail hunt and feast, the extremely brutal cockfight sequence, and - of course - the most powerful scene of all, the stampede of movie fans waiting to see the stars at a movie premiere. The madness of thousands of individual people combines to form a powerful tornado that can destroy everything in its path. The novella was published in 1939 and the atmosphere in Europe had undoubtedly influenced the author.

I do not find the male characters particularly convincing - especially Tod does not quite seem a real person. On the other hand, I feel I have known Faye all my life: "[...] she refused his friendship [because] he has nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her." Faye is a tireless manufacturer of cliché dreams; could any occupation be better in Hollywood, the ultimate cliché factory?

One problem I have with the novella is a reflection of my main literary pet peeve: strong dislike of artists explicating the meaning of their work. An artist's work should stand on its own, without any commentary. Books should speak for themselves, without the authors telling us "what they wanted to say." The authors have failed in their job if they feel the need to explain. The Day of the Locust would be an outstanding book if not for four long paragraphs towards the end that crudely clarify "the point." So much great stuff wasted!

Three and a quarter stars.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

The Barbarous CoastThe Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them. I was a long way from solving that one."

I have found this magnificent quote on page 87 of my old paperback edition (1975 printing) of Ross Macdonald's The Barbarous Coast (1956), the sixth novel in the famous Lew Archer series which I am currently re-reading. The quote and some cool passages notwithstanding, this is not one of the better books by Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name), and in fact it may be the weakest so far in my re-reading project.

George Wall, a young journalist from Toronto is pestering Mr. Bassett, the manager of an exclusive Malibu beach club: Wall's wife had left him and had been seen with a member of the club before she disappeared. Bassett wants to hire Lew Archer to stop the harassment, but it is eventually Mr. Wall who hires the detective to find his wife. There are apparent connections with organized crime and Archer summarizes the situation, "A girl leaves her husband, takes up with a washed-up fighter who runs with mobsters." Indeed boxers and gangsters are some of the main characters, but we also meet "important" people like the owner of a Hollywood movie studio and the usual halfwits who populate the top levels of management. Archer learns about an unsolved murder from the past and travels to Las Vegas (ah, Vegas from the 1950s! How I would love to see it!). The plot delivers more bodies and one of them is introduced in the unforgettable style originated by Raymond Chandler and perfected by Macdonald: "He wore a plaid evening jacket and midnight-blue trousers and dull-blue dancing-pumps, but he wasn't going anywhere. He lay on his back with his toes pointing at opposite corners of the ceiling."

Yet until page 55 I could not believe I was reading a Ross Macdonald novel: sloppy writing, implausible situations, bad dialogue, convenient coincidences, etc., would belong in a contemporary bestselling mystery but not in a classic of the genre. Maybe Mr. Millar was testing the readers: are they patient and dedicated enough to stay with the book despite the horrid beginning? Then suddenly, at about one third of the book, everything changes: we have realistic situations, acutely observed psychology, great characterizations and interesting dialogues, in addition to biting satire on the power structure in a movie company. I could not put the book away even for a moment at that phase. Alas, the good parts end rather quickly and the plot and even the writing gradually deteriorate to culminate in a stagy, overdone ending that includes mentions of mental illness and contains unnecessary twists of the plot.

This 60-year old novel feels a little bit dated, which is not all bad. For instance, Archer uses the telephone answering service: what a wonderful thing it must have been! Just imagine: in order to find out who called when one was not available to pick up the phone, one calls the answering service and talks to an intelligent and friendly operator who not only gives provides the needed information but also chats about this and that.

To sum up: The Barbarous Coast is quite far from a good novel but has some good parts. And the quote is unforgettable!

Two stars.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing - who knows - into winning?"

With Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959) Philip Roth had debuted on the U.S. literary scene on which he remained a major presence until 2010, when his 31st book, Nemesis was published. I very much liked his Portnoy's Complaint , a widely acclaimed novel, even considered a masterpiece by some critics, and I quite like Goodbye, which I had first read over 40 years ago, but it has lost some of its appeal to me since then.

The title novella is a love story: Neil falls in love with Brenda when she asks him to hold her glasses so that she can dive into the pool. Neil works in a public library and is three years out of Newark Colleges of Rutgers, an institution serving mainly non-traditional students, while Brenda is at Radcliffe, which at that time is the country's most prestigious liberal arts college for women. Brenda owes the much higher social standing to her father being the proprietor of a successful business, "Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks." Brenda's family tolerates Neil's presence but does not find him a suitable boyfriend. Most literary critics promote the story as an illustration how the differences in social status, class (whatever that means), or unequal degrees of assimilation in the non-Jewish culture can destroy love between two people. I disagree. As the author says himself, Neil is in love with Brenda only because he has told himself he is in love. Many first loves end like this one, particularly when the young lovers are separated for a longer time, and often the tragedy is not that they end, but that they end in a dreadful marriage. So let's cheer for the "unhappy" ending.

Great writing! The hilarious scene of dinner at Patimkins and the account of Ron's wedding are spectacularly vivid and rich in details: they exude authenticity and realism more than any documentary would be able to. The enchanting thread with the black boy and the Gauguin album provides a strong counterpoint to the main story. Most characters are full-bodied and compelling and I can easily find a bit of my long gone young self in Neil.

The five stories are a mixed bag. I quite like the first one, The Conversion of the Jews. It strikes a wonderful balance between humor and depth: Ozzie cries out "You should never hit anybody about God-" and scores a goal for wisdom against orthodoxy. Lighting the Shabbat candles is a moving passage. Epstein story is totally hilarious: we witness the dire consequences of the title character developing a rash. Alas I have been unable to appreciate the other three stories, which is - as usual - probably my fault. I recommend the collection, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as I would have in the 1970s.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Roseanna (Martin Beck, #1)Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a quick, indifferent look at the photographer, her face calm and relaxed, out of the picture to the right. A quick turn. Roseanna [...] from the back, with her elbows on the railing, the weight of her body resting on her right foot, on her toes, scratching her left ankle with the right hand."

The current craze about Scandinavian mystery and crime novels ("Scandi thrillers", "Nordic noir", etc.) is not altogether a new phenomenon. Over half a century ago Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple of Swedish authors (and partners in private life), began publishing the so-called Martin Beck series of novels about detectives from the Stockholm homicide division, arguably the best series of police procedurals ever written. Roseanne (1965) is the first novel in the series and with it I embark on yet another of my "re-read great mystery and crime novels" projects. I read all 10 books between 30 and 45 years ago and I considered at least two of them masterpieces of the genre. We will see what I think about them now that I am all grown up.

Workers find the naked body of a young woman while dredging the canal leading to Lake Boren, near the city of Motala in southern Sweden. The local police detectives - despite their dedication and hard work - are unable to determine the identity of the woman and Martin Beck and his team from the Swedish national police are called to help. Through tenacity, patience, meticulous work, and co-operation of a detective in another country - but also owing to Beck's inspiration - they discover who the woman was and what brought her to the lake region. Eventually the identity of the murderer is established as well and when the only thing that remains is getting the proof Martin Beck finds an unusual way of obtaining it.

Roseanna is indeed an extraordinarily successful police procedural, showing the arduous, painstakingly slow process of assembling clues from little available evidence. Even more interestingly, the reader learns about the detectives' work on building a compelling psychological portrait of the victim. The characters of the detectives - Martin Beck, Lennart Kollberg, and Fredrik Melander (Einar Rönn and Gunvald Larssen will appear in later books in the series as will detective Stenström, alas in a different role) - are convincing: we deal with real people not just paper-thin clichés. Observations of the deterioration of Beck's marital life serves as a prime example of the authors' skill.

The vivid portrait of the victim is developed through various means but the crucial ingredient is the interview with the woman's ex-boyfriend. While interviews and interrogations are the high points in Roseanna - the reader will likely not forget the interviews with the suspect and his ex-girlfriend - the most powerful scene is the account of the detectives watching an amateur movie showing the victim in the days and hours before her murder. The tension is palpable, and the reader joins the detectives and police officials in focusing on the last images of Roseanna.

Missing in the novel are social observations and commentary, so prominent in the later installments of the Martin Beck series. Still, Roseanna is an outstanding crime novel and a great beginning of the series.

Four stars.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (Charlie Peace, #9)The Killings on Jubilee Terrace by Robert Barnard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, which sometimes [...] get caught up in extraordinary events."

This definition of a TV soap comes from Robert Barnard's The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (2009), a mystery novel whose plot is set among the cast, directors, and scriptwriters of a fictional soap opera on British TV, called Jubilee Terrace, a not-so-subtle allusion to the long-lived Coronation Street series. The Killings is not a good book and, in fact, I was more than once about to toss it when struggling through the first 20 or so pages (and I am not a tosser: in my recent memory only two books out of well over a thousand infuriated me enough not to finish reading). The beginning of the novel takes a lot of goodwill to get through: the author introduces all 17 characters in short, intermingled snippets of prose and dialogue. Eventually the plot emerges, but it is quite boring until almost the end, when it momentarily picks up, only to get tangled in preposterous twists at the very end.

DI Charlie Peace from the Leeds CID appears at about one fifth of the novel: he is investigating an anonymous letter regarding the death of one of the actors in the show. The letter implies that the death that had been thought accidental might have been a murder. The plural in the title of the novel suggests further killings and indeed, they are delivered as promised.

The psychology is infantile and cartoonish: not a single character feels like a real person; they all are tired clichés. Mr. Barnard attempts to add a value to the novel by exploring the phenomenon of soap actors confusing their own lives with those of the characters they play but he is unconvincing in trying to portray the merging of their real personae with the TV ones. The effect is ludicrous: while the author lampoons the implausibility of the show's plot he manages to get even more implausible in his own plot. If he planned it this way, I am too obtuse to enjoy his subtle joke.

Close to the end of the novel, one can find two interesting passages: one is just a few sentences long and concerns the Romanian-born wife of one of the main characters. This is the only fragment of the novel that I have found realistic. The other interesting passage refers to a rather rare sexual deviation, but - although captivating - the theme does not match at all the light, chatty tone of the novel. About a page worth of interesting material in a 250-page novel is a rather low yield.

A disclaimer is needed: I am enormously biased against TV programs, in particular against TV shows, and in most particularly particular against soap operas. Only reality shows are farther from reality than soaps.

One and a quarter stars.

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Blood Salt Water (Alex Morrow, #5)Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Lucy and Morrow smiled at each other, not warmly, just an acknowledgement that they were both there and both human."

I love Blood, Salt, Water (2015). Denise Mina's outstanding prose still holds its own against even the most accomplished "real" literature. The unremarkable The Red Road was just a temporary failure and Ms. Mina is back to the brilliance of The End of the Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts.

Although the novel begins with the brutal murder of a woman on the Loch Lomond dunes, this murder is not the main focus of the plot. DI Alex Morrow is working on the disappearance of a Spanish woman, Roxana Fuentecilla, who had set up a business in Scotland, and is under investigation by the Met and the Serious Fraud Office. The police are hoping to retrieve a significant amount of money and thus relieve some of their budget pressures.

To me, the most interesting thread in the plot - one of the most compelling I have encountered in quite a long time - concerns the mysterious behavior of a woman who comes back to Scotland after a long stay in the U.S. Susan Grierson, in her late middle age, is the focal point of several crucial developments in the novel. The virtuoso scene where under the influence of cocaine she provides sexual favors - with a delicious twist! - to another main character is unforgettable. All threads seamlessly merge at the end and the neat solutions to the mysteries are convincing and plausible.

Blood, Salt, Water is not a book that one reads to relax and leisurely pass the time; one can't just let the eyes glide over the pages. Reading this book requires work, but the effort pays off fabulously. The psychological portraits of the characters are absolutely convincing and the reader can learn a lot about the motives of human behavior. The depiction of Helensburgh (an actual seaside town northwest of Glasgow) and the characterizations of the local residents are so vivid that I feel I have known the town and its people for a long time. Ms. Mina has a perfect ear for dialogue and she captures exactly how people talk. Particularly stunning are the two conversation that DI Morrow has with Ms. Fuentecilla's children and - later in the novel - with Hester Kirk's daughters.

But by far the best thing about Denise Mina's prose is that she understands that weakness is the defining feature of us humans, that all of us are weak in one way or another, that utter stupidity, vanity, envy, and all ways of greed are the most natural human traits. Ms. Mina does not condone weakness but neither does she condemn it. She understands. She knows. The stunning sentence that I used for the epigraph sounds awkward as a quote, but it is one of the best sentences I have read in a long time: "an acknowledgement that they were both there and both human."

This extremely well written novel transcends the mystery genre, yet it also works great as a mystery. I have been toying with the idea of rounding my rating up to the five-star level reserved for literary masterpieces, but the novel is probably not as uniformly magnificent as Ms. Mina's Garnethill.

Four and a half stars.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Find a VictimFind a Victim by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The sky turned lime-white all along its edges, then flared in jukebox colors. The sun appeared in my rearview mirror like a sudden bright coin ejected from a machine. The chameleon desert mocked the sky, and the joshua trees leaned crazily into the rushing dawn."

Find a Victim (1954) is the fifth novel in the Archer series (I am still in the author's early period in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project). The plot takes us to central California, to the fictional city of Las Cruces, which would be situated somewhere in the area between Bakersfield and Fresno, not far from the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. One of the last scenes happens on the Nevada border, in the desolate regions northeast of Death Valley. Find a Victim might be the only novel in the series where the geography of California plays some role.

Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento and we later learn that he is carrying a load of several hundred marijuana cigarettes (one needs to read the novel to find out how it is possible that his delivery is fully legal in those supposedly "clean" times of the early 1950s). On his way - as promised by the title - he finds a victim, a man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch. Archer arranges help and accompanies the dying man to the hospital. But the help is too late and Archer stays in Las Cruces to assist in solving the murder, partly because he feels he owes this to the man whom he almost saved and partly because he gets interested in some people met there.

Las Cruces is a provincial town where everybody knows everybody else and where most families are connected in some way, by birth, marriage, business, corruption, or crime. While the local sheriff distrusts Archer and wants him out, Archer has reasons to suspect that the sheriff himself is involved in crime activities. The sheriff's sister-in-law disappears, further murders happen, and the plot gets more complicated although not as much as in some later novels by Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name).

The best aspect of the novel is the author's ability to convey the sense of place and his wonderful prose portraying the country of Sierra Nevada's west slopes and the bleak and barren landscapes of the desert terrain near the California-Nevada border. I have been traveling a lot in those places during the last 33 years, and I easily recognize the characteristic vistas described by the author. Like Archer over 60 years ago, I also stop in Barstow for lunch and in Baker for coffee and I also love the uncharted backroads in the desert.

Yet Find a Victim is not one of the better books in the Archer series. I have little right to criticize a great writer, but I think that in this novel the plot drives the characterizations, and - perhaps except for Archer - the people in the book do not feel real. Moreover, several passages are highly implausible; particularly the very long conversation between two central characters, overheard in its entirety by Archer, reads like a cheap trick.

Two and a half stars, rounded down.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Drowning Pool (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Existentialism, they said. Henry Miller and Truman Capote and Henry Moore. André Gide and Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes. And sex - hard-boiled, poached, coddled, shirred, and fried easy over in sweet, fresh creamery butter. Sex solo, in duet, trio, quartet; for all-male chorus; for choir and symphony; and played on the harpsichord in three-fourth time. And Albert Schweitzer and the dignity of everything that lives."

This overlong quote - where Lew Archer describes conversations at a party that he attends - is so uncharacteristic for Ross Macdonald (the literary pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) that I had to include it in its entirety. This biting satire about the emptiness of party conversations sounds quite contemporary, especially the sex bit, and could happen at any "high-society" gathering in 2016 as well, even though The Drowning Pool, the second novel in the Archer series, was written in 1950.

Archer is hired by Mrs. Slocum who has intercepted an anonymous letter addressed to her husband: the letter accuses her of having an affair. The husband, retired and comfortable thanks to the wealth of his mother, spends time performing as an actor in an amateur theatre. Other main characters are the Slocums' 16-year-old daughter and the local chief of police, a friend of the family. The plot takes place in Quinto, a fictional town on the Pacific Coast, north of Los Angeles, and in nearby - also fictional - Nopal Valley, which is undergoing an oil boom. Archer spends some time in the Slocum's residence and the author is skillful in conveying the tense atmosphere of something just about to happen. And indeed, we soon have a murder, with Archer even briefly being a suspect. I have found the plot very interesting, perhaps because it is less complicated than in most other books by Mr. Macdonald , and the book - to use an awful cliché - is almost unputdownable.

There are three dramatic scenes in the novel: the first, a shooting scene, is horribly dated: to a contemporary reader it rings as false as the hard-to-watch scenes with James Cagney overacting in the 1930s and 1940s movies. But then, incongruously, the novel offers two fresh and truly great scenes. One depicts an ambush on a California highway that ends in a gruesome murder; not many authors of contemporary thrillers can write that well. I am unwilling to divulge the details of the other powerful scene, which the author calls - sarcastically yet aptly - hydrotherapy. Strong stuff, and the accomplished prose gives the whole scene and its aftermath a distinctly nightmarish quality.

I love the references to police corruption and ruthlessness of businessmen who will do any heinous deed to satisfy their avarice. With respect to greed and corruption things have not changed at all in the 66 years since the novel was published. I do not particularly like the ending because of a painfully macho scene, but overall The Drowning Pool is a very readable book, and a pleasant surprise as it much exceeds my expectations about the 1940s and early 1950s noir.

Three and a half stars.

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