Saturday, November 21, 2020

#19-- A Covid Fall's Reading

 So, what's been worth my reading time during the past 6 months? Some old and some stunningly new. The 2014 debut novel in British author Mick Herron's self-titled Slow Horses series introduces the inhabitants of MI5's castoffs into London's Slough House. These men and women are the failures within the government intelligence service who screwed up an operation, crossed up an ambitious superior, became too dependent on alcohol or drugs and are now sent to quit the service or be bored into quitting with unending menial tasks. But a video of a young man being threatened with beheading on social media fire the Slow Horses into action utilizing their various, underappreciated skills. This series won the CWA Gold Dagger and is best read in order.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was best known for his radio show on Chicago's WFMT.   Talking to Myself: a Memoir of My Times, is great introduction to this late, lamented treasure. Terkel is laconic, wry, sometimes baffling. He needs his tape machinery, his Sony and his Uher.  He will reveal himself only as refracted through interviews with others, only in anecdotal banter. We learn in this memoir, a raggle-taggle patchwork, that Terkel was raised in his mother's Chicago hotel for transient men; where he learned to listen and to wait for the unforeseen moments when people reveal themselves. He worked as a poll watcher for some of Chicago's more entertaining and crooked politicians and knew Al Capone. His memoir is a lot like his radio shows, a wealth of interesting sidelights hidden in plain view of his story.

John Harvey 1938- is the prolific British author who introduced Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick of the Nottingham Police in Lonely Hearts in 1989. Resnick, a divorced loner with four cats named for his beloved jazz musician heros , is assigned a case involving a murdered woman whose last boyfriend was just released from prison and was heard to threaten her. Open and shut!  Not so as other, similar murders are happening as the suspect is held in jail. This debut was judged one of the 100 best mysteries of the 20th century.

So, What's New?    Among the new books I've enjoyed recently is Scott Phillips That Left Turn at Albuquerque which has zero to do with New Mexico, but a lot to do with corrupt people. Douglas Rigby, a lawyer in  LA has his back to the wall when he steals $200,000 from his last remaining client to do a cocaine deal that goes very wrong. Rigby cheats on his wife,a realtor who cheats on him, and who is poised to exercise her pre-nup that will bankrupt them both. Rigby concocts a scheme involving the last client, art forgery and subrosa sale to Russians of a painting but all ends in chaos and murder. Phillips, author of the classic The Ice Harvest, is one of the best noir authors, doesn't do heros, and apparently hates lawyers. What's not to like?

On the face of it, Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby is one in a long list of books riffing on a popular theme: the career criminal who wants just one last bite at the cherry, one last job to set him up for peaceful, affluent retirement. Beauregard “Bug” Montage however, is an African American man in the rural south, which leaves him a few steps behind the starting line when it comes to getting ahead. Bug  lives in the hills of North Carolina,is a responsible family man with a wife who brooks very little silliness from him, 2 sons, and is a small business owner of an auto repair shop with an employee who relies on him.Bug also owns and drives a Plymouth Duster 340 ci. that he inherited from his father and that he drag races along the Piedmont and never loses. An associate brings an opportunity to drive a stolen car from a jewelry store stickup but the action turns very wrong and puts Bug into a very evil crime syndicate revenge theft involving platinum. The book is stunningly well-written with a plot that hums on all 8 cylinders.

My final book under scrutiny is The Chain by Adrian McKinty which needs a little introduction. McKinty, born in Northern Ireland in 1968 during The Troubles, has been writing mystery novels for more than a decade, winning many awards including an EDGAR, a Ned Kelly in Australia, a McCavity, but making no money from his writing. He and his wife and child were about to be evicted from their home in Australia when word got to several big time American authors about his situation. He was contacted and connected with an editor/agent who asked if he had anything written with a US setting. McKinty replied he had a short story written almost a decade before called The Chain, and when sent to and read by the editor/agent who was stunned by it, the publishing wheels turned and the novel was released in 2019. 

The story presents a parent's worst nightmare, a phone call saying that a daughter is kidnapped from her school bus stop and will be murdered unless the mother can send an enormous Bitcoin ransom to an anonymous address and then identify a target child she has to kidnap, hold for ransom, and keep the Chain going. Rachel Klein is the Boston area mother, a single parent, cancer survivor who gets the call and must pull it together to get her daughter back. To say the book is "compelling" is a gross understatement as Rachel has to deal with a totally evil situation that police help isn't an option and all of her phone calls, computer activity, activities are monitored by The Chain. OK, so maybe the characterizations are a little thin and the book's conclusion is way past stunning, the concept is perfectly carried out by McKinty and if you want to give up control for 4 or 5 hours, read The Chain.

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