Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

13 February 2008

theoverlook.jpgHarry Bosch has been around a long time now, but doesn’t seem to change much. In The Black Echo (1992) when Michael Connelly first introduced him to us, we learned that Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch had been a Vietnam tunnel rat, that his prostitute mother was murdered and he had been institutionalised for most of his childhood, and that he has a lot of trouble with bullies, senior management and the FBI (although he does get close to several female agents). In other words, a typical man who goes down the mean streets but is not himself mean and operates by his own strict code.

In The Black Echo Harry is described like this:

Harry was not a big man. he stood a few inches short of six feet and was built lean. The newspapers, when they described him, called him wiry. Beneath the jumpsuit his muscles were like nylon cords, strength concealed by economy of size. The gray that flecked his hair was more partial to the left side. His eyes were brown-black and seldom betrayed emotion or intention.

By the time of The Overlook (2007), Harry looks at himself in the mirror and sees:

At 56 years old he was trim and fit and could even stand to add a few pounds while other detectives his age were getting round in the middle…The gray had not yet chased all of the brown out of his hair but it was getting close to victory. His dark eyes, though, were clear and bright and ready for the challenge awaiting him at the overlook.

In most of the eleven books in between, Harry doesn’t stray far geographically or morally, or in terms of behaviour. He has a number of partners, he gets offside with the brass and seems to be pulled off cases, suspended, fired, brought back, shot, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. But throughout the books, great plots and good writing use Harry’s attention to detail and ability to link information to bring us a one of the great crime series. Mind you, I don’t think I’d want to read too many of these books in one sitting – might get seriously affected by deja vu, since they do tend to follow a pattern.

In The Overlook, Harry Bosch is called out to a murder victim found at an overlook off Mulholland Drive. It turns out that the victim had access to lethal chemicals, which naturally brings in the Department of Homeland Security and their obsession with potential terrorism – if put in the water supply the chemical could do serious damage to Los Angeles. Among the Feds on the case is Rachel Walling, an old squeeze of Harry’s. Anyway, after the usual red herrings and wrong turnings Harry works out what really went down, pursues killer, gets shot, killer’s got, case closed.

The book ends with Harry musing:

But, Bosch thought, it didn’t really matter if you died cornered in a butcher shop or on an overlook glimpsing the lights of heaven. You were gone, and the finale wasn’t the part that mattered. We are all circling the drain, he thought. Some are closer to the black hole than others; some will see it coming, and some will have no clue when the undertow grabs them and pulls them down into darkness forever. The important thing is to fight it, Bosch told himself. Always keep kicking. Always keep fighting the undertow.

Well, long may Harry fight the undertow, and the killers, and the brass, and the Feds.

The Overlook by Michael Connelly; Orion paperback 2008; ISBN 13: 9780752882734; Wikipedia entry for Michael Connelly

Other books by Michael Connelly:

Harry Bosch –The Black Echo (1992), The Black Ice (1993), The Concrete Blonde (1994), The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997), Angels Flight (1999), A Darkness More Than Night (2001), City Of Bones (2002), Lost Light (2003), The Narrows (2004), The Closers (2005), Echo Park (2006), Suitcase City (2008)

Other novels – The Poet (1996), Blood Work (1998), Void Moon (2000), Chasing the Dime (2002), The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)

Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

30 January 2008

thewatchman.jpgRobert Crais has been writing excellent crime novels for twenty years now. Most of them have featured Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike, a former cop, former marine and former mercenary who plays the really hard guy who often as not gets Elvis out of trouble and generally watches his back. But this book concentrates on Joe, and its Elvis who is the support player.

This story has Joe Pike returning a favour by taking on bodyguard duties for Larkin Barkley, a Paris Hilton-style heiress rich girl, who saw too much at a car accident and is now targeted, by someone. The action is about how Joe, with help from Elvis and others, decides to take the action to the pursuers, to find out who they are and why they are targeting Larkin. Needless to say there are plenty of plot twists, lots of shootings and bodies, and justice is done in the end without much recourse to the legal system. Also, the inevitable happens and Joe falls for the girl – well that was so predictable that it doesn’t really reveal anything you couldn’t have guessed up front.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Joe Pike’s past as a boy growing up in a violent household, as a rookie cop (origin of the favour he’s returning in this book), as a Marine and as a mercenary – all of them violent. But Joe is not really mean, he has a code and he sticks to it. What I get out of this is that this book is intended as an explanation of Joe Pike and the kind of character that he is – the plot is simply the backdrop for Joe’s story. This means that the balance between biography and crime is tilting towards the former, possibly to the detriment of the book, but at least you’ll have a better awareness of what makes Joe tick when he appears in future Robert Crais novels.

As always, the writing is crisp, and we can accept the combination of forensics, street awareness, deduction and human understanding that keep driving the story forwards. The characteristic humour is there – not necessarily through Pike, who seems a bit bereft in that direction, but Elvis contributes his bit, as does criminalist John Chen.

The Watchman by Robert Crais, published by Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster), (2007), ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6169-9, ISBN-10: 1-4165-6169-2

Other books by Robert Crais:

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike – The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), Stalking the Angel (1989), Lullaby Town (1992), Free Fall (1993), Voodoo River (1995), Sunset Express (1996), Indigo Slam (1997), L.A. Requiem (1999), The Last Detective (2003), The Forgotten Man (2005)

Other – Demolition Angel (2000), Hostage (2001), The Two-Minute Rule (2006)

Review: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

4 November 2007

tapping_the_source1.jpgTapping the Source was written in 1984 and marked the beginning of Kem Nunn’s “surfing noir” novels. The others are The Dogs of Winter, previously reviewed, and Tijuana Straits. I was pleased that I did persist with Kem Nunn, and I can see why this book was a National Book Award First Fiction finalist. It is much better than its successors, with a plot and characters that are more sustainable.

The story is about a young man’s search for what all young men seek – his self. Ike Tucker leaves his life as a motorbike mechanic in the California desert to look for his sister. The only clues to where she might be come from a young surfer who says she was at Huntington Beach, went to Mexico with three men – Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs and Frank Baker – but didn’t come back. Ike sets off for Huntington Beach. He meets Preston, a former gun surfer, now a biker, who teaches Ike to surf and tries to steer him away from his quest (since, of course, he is bound up in it). Ike finds Hound Adams and the rest, and gets sucked into the violence, sex, drugs, porn and surfing scene of Huntington Beach. It turns out that Preston and Hound used to own a surf shop together, using the brand “Tapping the Source” on their boards for a while, but they made some bad moves, and bad friends, things went wrong, at least two girls died. Ike is heading downhill, but meets Michelle, and begins to realise that there is more.

It all comes together as the events reach a tragic climax – Ike recognises something about life and himself, and he finds the key that conclusively links his sister to the events that are unfolding:

It struck him this morning that what he was doing was not separated into different things. Paddling out, catching rides, setting up. Suddenly it was all one act, one fluid series of motions, one motion even. Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source, but of the source.

At this point, Ike recognises the wreckage of the dream that Preston and Hound had once had, but also that there is hope:

And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed as hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost and it was one great bummer, one long drop with no way back over the top. It was plain now, plainer than it had ever been before, what Preston had wanted him to see here. And he did see it. Preston had been right. There was something here, in this moment, that was worth hanging on to, that was worth building a life around. And he could see it within reach, if he could only break away now, if he could only go and take Michelle with him.

Ike does survive, thanks in part to having a tattoo, people die, not all of them nasties, and he starts to put his life back together, having resolved his quest. To my mind the writing is better than the later books – the magic of surfing is there in all of them, but in Tapping the Source the action is better conveyed and the focus on Ike to convey it makes for a better structure and more tension.

It would be possible to get all analytical and to draw parallels and extract metaphors from this novel about the way in which people screw up themselves and the world, but I think its best left as a good example of a coming-of-age novel, which first novels often are, and to recognise that its a good and effective example. With sufficient nastiness in it to make it noir.

Details: Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-808-7 ISBN-10: 1-56025-808-X

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits.

Film Review: La Vie en Rose

14 October 2007

Edith PiafLa Vie en Rose (La Môme) is the story of Edith Piaf as told by director Olivier Dahan, and lead Marion Cotillard. This is certainly Piaf behind the scenes, chronicling a childhood of being constantly separated from the people and places she gets to know, to a life as a street singer, before being discovered and making the big time. In the end, living her life for the moment catches up with her, and the moment is passed at only 47.

In a way this could be just another drugs, sex and rock and roll movie, albeit with some nice period touches – Paris, New York and California in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But what makes it different is its quality, whether it is the acting, the writing, or their realisation on the screen.

Marion Cotillard brings us Edith as an impatient, troubled woman, who looks to St Therese de Lisieux to help her through life, with support from lots of alcohol and drugs. Edith’s first rescuer, nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) is murdered and she is suspected of complicity but is acquitted. However, this was a setback to her career until she came under the wing of Raymond Asso, and the rest is history.

After the war, Edith Piaf toured the USA, where she met the love of her life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan. The importance of this relationship to her is illustrated through a fantasy scene when she learns of his death in a plane crash. After that, it seems to have gone downhill on the relationship side, even if the career was taking off big time. In the end the drugs and rehab, the booze, and the car crashes, all took their toll on the body, including the liver, and the end is inevitable.

The movie flashes around Edith’s life, beginning with a collapse on stage, going back to her childhood, and then working its way backwards and forwards to the end. The effect is successful. It illustrates and emphasizes the nature of her life and the relationships in it, including that with her half-sister, Simone. Although names are dropped, e.g Cocteau has her in a play, and we see Marlene Dietrich drop by at New York club, most of the action is with Edith’s circle.

Marion Cotillard becomes Edith Piaf, and while the big-eyed look is perhaps overdone, her performance is extraordinary, and she carries the movie with her. She uses the whole of her body – the damaged walk of later years, the arm gestures, and the joyfully bad manners – to give us the character. In the end, this is a very good movie, because it explains something to us about a life that has become a legend and a symbol.

For more details go to the IMDB site for this movie. To see a great review, and links to YouTube videos of Edith Piaf, go to Roger Ebert.

Review: The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

8 September 2007

The Dogs of Winter

On the basis of John Williams’ descriptions, as described in a previous review, I put Kem Nunn on my list of authors to look for. This led me first to Tijuana Straits and then to his earlier The Dogs of Winter, which are the second and third in a trilogy of surf novels beginning with Tapping the Source which, not unexpectedly, John Williams describes as “surfing noir”.

The story is about Jack Fletcher, a clapped-out surf photographer, who is given a last chance to capture shots of a legendary surfer, Drew Harmon, and a mystical surf break – Heart Attacks – in the cold, isolated and shark-ridden waters of Northern California. The magazine funding the venture sends along a couple of younger surfers, to help the saleability of any shots. The tale of the journey north from Los Angeles reflects the change from a known world to a place that is murky, uncomfortable and confused, climatically, physically, socially and morally. In this world Indian tribes feud over fishing rights and are at odds with the white man, preferring to deal in drugs, violence and memories of past traditions. At the heart of the action is a past murder, and it is the responses of Drew and his wife Kendra to this event, and the consequent impact on Jack Fletcher, and Travis, who works for the Indian Council, which drives the story. This involves other deaths, some leading to guilt and consequences, all leading to pain.

I’m not sure where I am on Kem Nunn. This book ends with a six-line sentence:

But then, he had come to the belief that all things were so ordered, from the steps a man took in time, to the tracks of a storm, the likes of which came with the season, exchanging their energies with that of a frigid and turbulent sea, and thereby raising waves as if they were themselves some variation on God’s erring Wisdom and so able to labor their passion into matter.


There are also some egregious errors in syntax – “wretched” when he means “retched”; “throws” for “throes”, etc.

There is the requisite mindless violence and cruelty that makes us despair about human beings. There is a lot of going to and from A to B to C in remote and difficult places, that does seem to go on a bit. But in due course, the bits do all come together – after a fashion – and the characters do end up in a different – and possibly better – place by the end.

However, when he’s writing about the waves and the sea, Nunn is powerful and compelling in conveying the magic and challenge that keeps surfers going back (and I don’t mean the turgid prose quoted above). Other kinds of magic are hinted at as the denouement is reached and the moral dilemmas resolved – sort of.

Tijuana Straits has a lot of similarities in the plot and character (and killer break) – old surfer has another chance, meets girl, helps girl deal with very nasty men, and by doing so helps himself – but its in a warmer climate. Whether he gets the girl, in either book, I won’t say, but remember, this is “noir”.

So, if I see another Kem Nunn I’ll probably read it, but he’s not up there at the top of my list.

Details: Publisher: Scribner ISBN-10: 0671793349 ISBN-13: 978-0671793340

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, Tapping the Source, Tijuana Straits.

Review: Echo Park by Michael Connelly

5 August 2007

Michael Connelly gets better and better. This latest in the Harry Bosch series has a great plot, with lots of twists, plus a suitable set characters, many of whom we have met before. The action is driven by Bosch’s attachment to a case from 1993 that he couldn’t solve then, even when he thought he knew who his most likely suspect was. When a killer arrested on other charges offers to cough for the cold case in exchange for his life, and leads the police to the body, it looks like a slam dunk. But this takes us to only half way through the book so you know that its not quite that simple, especially when there’s a lot of politics involved.

A risk that a lot of series writers face is making sure that their books are not too formulaic and that their fascination with their character and his development (or lack of it) doesn’t take over the story. Many of those characteristics are here – cop partner loyalty, protagonist inability or unwillingness to address issues thus pushing away those who want to get close, uncooperative and bureaucratic police hierarchies, amazingly smart and well-read serial killers etc, etc – but they don’t get too much in the way. So provided you don’t get too frustrated with Bosch’s obsessions, he’s a good illustration of Chandler’s vision of the hero of crime fiction:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1944