Shakespearean Crime Fiction

Macbeth: William Shakespeare's Macbeth Retold: A Novel by [Nesbo, Jo]Title: Macbeth (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Author: Jo Nesbø
Genre: Literary Crime Fiction?
Pages: 446
Rating: 4 of 5

The Hogarth Shakespeare series asks popular novelists to retell Shakespeare’s works with their own twist (e.g. Othello as a schoolyard conflict, The Tempest in a prison, The Taming of the Shrew without the Stockholm syndrome). I have been impressed with (or at least entertained by) the ones I have read so far, including this one.

Jo Nesbo reimagines Macbeth as gritty crime fiction. The setting is an unnamed, vaguely located (Scotland? Norway?) coastal city with rather contrived geography and a major drug problem. The central conflict revolves around control of the city with most of the main characters appearing as members of the police force that is trying to shake off its corrupt past.

Nesbo plays up the “Hecate and Weird Sisters as manipulators” aspect/interpretation of the story and finds lots of clever ways to work in well-known lines and situations from the original. In fact, it might be good to read/reread the original before diving into this so that you can catch all the allusions, not just the big obvious plot points.

Obviously, you shouldn’t expect a happy story when you read any version of Macbeth. Nesbo ratchets up the darkness beyond the original level, and might occasionally be a little “over the top” in terms of action. I saw a review that compared this to a Quentin Tarantino movie, and while I might not go that far I can totally see it. Overall it was an interesting take on a classic tragedy that kept me turning the pages just to see where he was going with it.

Three Pulps

Ever since stumbling across Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at a library book sale six or seven years ago, noir/hardboiled pulp  has become one of my favorite escapist genres (especially the stuff written from the 1920’s-50’s). I already reviewed a couple noir tales this year – here are three more:

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: A Novel by [Woolrich, Cornell]Title: Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Audiobook Narrator: Angela Brazil
Genre: Psychological (Supernatural?) Thriller
Pages: 256
Rating: 4 of 5 for the story / 2 of 5 for the narration

Cornell Woolrich doesn’t rise to quite the same level as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but I would probably place him in my top five pulp authors. He tends to use odd descriptions  that are more weird or unintentionally humorous than atmospheric (e.g. “her hand closed on the bill like a voracious pink octopus”), but those aside he can plot a brooding, paranoid crime story with the best of them.

This book differed a bit in subject matter from other Woolrich stories I have read. The same dark paranoia pervaded the plot, but the subject matter centered around prophecy and fate. What do you do when the date of your death is foretold by a man who has repeatedly predicted the future with perfect accuracy? Is there really something supernatural at work or is it some sort of scam? The book was perhaps a bit overlong for extended brooding on this theme, but overall it was an interesting psychological thriller (and had fewer of his weird similes and metaphors than usual).

The narrator of the audiobook I listened to was not great. I think she was trying to affect a cynical, world-weary tone, but it mostly came off obnoxiously flat and slow. Shatnerian pauses added to the painfulness and I ended up listening to it at 1.5X speed to get it up to a more normal reading rate. Avoid the Audible version!

Title: The Getaway
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Fiction
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for bringing seedy, nasty criminals to life. He plays on readers’ interest in reading about the underworld but without making the criminals into likeable, sympathetic people. His criminals might have a lot of charisma, but he fully portrays their self-centered exploitive destruction of themselves and the innocents around them.

I have previously read his treatment of con men in The Grifters and a serial killer in The Killer Inside Me. In The Getaway we are treated to an inside look at a husband-and-wife pair of bank robbers. The downward spiral to destruction is typical well-written Jim Thompson, but the ending detours into an unusual dystopian setting. There is an odd shift in tone, but I think it worked very well and rounded out the story satisfactorily. If you like crime noir, this one is well worth reading.

Zero Cool: A Novel by [Crichton, Michael, Lange, John]Title: Zero Cool
Author: John Lange (Michael Crichton)
Genre: Action Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 2.5 of 5

While he was in med school Michael Crichton earned money by writing under the pseudonym John Lange. According to some things I read, these books were meant to be cheap, trope-y pulp thrillers completely lacking in originality. If that was truly the goal…bullseye.

Zero Cool features your basic “random guy gets caught in the middle of criminal shenanigans” pulp plot. He hits all the tropes of femme fatale, bizarre Bond-style villains, a mcguffin, amazingly convenient coincidences, etc.. The dialogue in this sort of book is seldom realistic due to smart-mouthed, quippy characters, but Lange/Crichton’s dialogue settled for stilted instead of snarky. This was definitely on the very low end of the pulp fiction scale and probably not worth your time unless you’re a big Michael Crichton fan who is curious about his earliest work.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

Grifters & Fools

Image result for Grifters book coverTitle: The Grifters
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Pulp Noir
Pages: 190
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for writing sleazy characters who provide a glimpse into the thoughts and lives of the corrupt and criminal. In The Grifters we get to meet a con man who is skilled in the short con; his estranged, manipulative, criminal mother (only 14 years his senior); his trampy femme fatale mistress; and a sweet nurse with a dark, traumatizing past.

Some books and movies about con men present them as likable anti-heroes (The Music Man, Oceans 11, 12, 13). However, this book gives us a more believable look into the paranoid life of “grifters,” filled with loneliness, danger, and destruction (of self and others). By the end of the book the only likable character is Carol the nurse, though you may feel a touch of pity for some of the others.

The plot is a fairly standard downward slide into tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Overall, I’d say that this is well-written and perceptive in regard to human nature, but it’s the kind of pulp that leaves you feeling a bit gross at the end.

I am using this for my Classic Crime Story over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Rise & Fall of a NYC Mafioso

Image result for I mobster gold medal bookTitle: I, Mobster:
The Confession of a Crime Czar
Author: Anonymous (Joseph Hilton Smyth)
Genre: Crime/Noir, Historical Fiction
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Mafia tropes, historical references, and self-justification abound in this fictional memoir. It’s all pretty straightforward; no high action or dramatic plot twists, just a matter-of-fact description of the rise and fall of a New York City mafioso in the 1930’s-40’s. Our protagonist/narrator, Tony (what other name would you give a fictional Italian mobster?), interacts with real-life mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter during the events leading up to and following the formation of “The Commission” and Thomas E. Dewey’s time as prosecutor and DA of NYC.

Throughout the book we are treated to Tony’s view of the absolute corruption of “law and order,” justification for his own actions (and the existence of the mafia), pride in his cleverness and accomplishments, and feelings of being trapped and forced into this life. It reminded me a bit of a much less literary version of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God (just with the mob instead of the Roman Empire). It’s worth a read if you’re into crime/noir.

Crime on the Moon

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5
Upcoming Publication Date: November 14, 2017 – thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!

Like many (most?) people interested in this book, I decided to read it because I enjoyed the author’s The Martian. I think that any author’s next work after a wildly popular book (especially if it is not a sequel) has a hard time living up to the hype, and that is certainly the case with Artemis. The adventures of a petty criminal drawn into dangerous intrigue in the only city on the moon has its good points, but it didn’t wow me.

The edge-of-your-seat pacing of the criminal plots that drive the story was excellent and is what kept me reading. The pace only lets up when the author/characters describe the science behind what is going on (whether everyday life in the moon colony or the most recent criminal shenanigans). Personally, I love this aspect of Weir’s style, but those who aren’t into science might find it annoying.

Most chapters ended in a cliff-hanger way where you could almost hear *dun-dunDUN* suspense music, which was maybe a bit cheesy but kept me interested anyway. Some of the action, especially during the final crime and its aftermath, ranges into the unbelievable, but that’s par for the course in a criminal caper kind of book so it didn’t bother me.

What did bother me was the characterization. The protagonist/narrator was just not a pleasant person. She is an immature, angry, foul-mouthed, self-loathing petty criminal with a huge chip on her shoulder. Even though she is 26 she interacts with everyone as if she were a sullen teenager and continually makes monumentally foolish decisions even though she is probably a mechanical genius and apparently a criminal mastermind. Most of the other characters are pretty flat, and the way most people react to the final caper once the dust settles is not very believable.

Overall, this is probably worth reading if you like Weir’s style (and don’t mind quite a bit of profanity), but don’t expect the same quality as The Martian.