Sunday, June 24, 2012

Madman's Thirst

Jake Scarne is back and author Lawrence De Maria has concocted another one of his potent mixtures of mystery, murder, finance and corruption in an entertaining tale involving the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl, a shadowy real estate magnate and an indomitable private eye with gourmet tastes.

A longtime journalist, De Maria seems to have saved his juiciest stories for his fiction, and this one once again steps behind the scenes of a big city's power brokers -- an influential financial magazine and a local newspaper on the media side against greedy business interests and the best politicians money can buy on the other side.

Scarne, who first appeared in Sound of Blood, is still recovering from the hard knocks he took in that novel but is drawn into this case when the teenager's murder rocks Staten Island and information comes to light that it may not have been a random burglary gone bad but a targeted assassination to get her newspaper editor father off an investigation into some suspect property deals in the borough.

De Maria has a real flair with bad guys. As in Elmore Leonard's gritty novels, the villains here have personalities and preoccupations of their own. They are by and large not very bright, but some even have their own twisted integrity and professional pride. The really irredeemable bad guys usually meet an appropriately grisly end, so justice does prevail. But some others -- those with the redeeming qualities -- at times can even be allies for Scarne as he picks his lonely way through big-city corruption to solve his case.

De Maria inserts a number of novel twists and turns into the plot, and comes up with an attempt on Scarne's life as innovative as any bizarre situation ever faced by James Bond. (No spoilers, but it involves a deadly machine run amok.)

Scarne is still recovering from his white-hot romance in the earlier book, so his ongoing dalliance with Emerald Shields, scion in a media family eerily similar to the Forbes clan, lacks the passion of his previous romance. It doesn't stop him from being mildly flirtatious with other women his investigation brings him into contact with.

The pace is good, though there is perhaps still too much detail about what Scarne eats and drinks. It's not really all that interesting and rarely germane to the plot. Likewise, we sometimes spend too much time with characters who are not integral to the action. These by-plays may add to the overall texture of the novel, but in a book that needs to be a little bit shorter, some of them could have been sacrificed.

But these are quibbles with what is an overall very satisfying trip once again into that De Maria-land (a third novel, Capriati's Blood, explores the same milieu with a different hero) that is probably much closer to reality than we would like to think. There's thrills, there's spills, and the good guys mostly win. What's not to like.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Solomon Effect

I'm not a fan of paranormal fiction, or at least I've always thought I wasn't. I'm not sure remote viewing counts as paranormal, but since it is a psychic phenomenon it probably does. However, this novel by C.S. Graham, the pseudonym for Steven Harris and Candice Proctor, is an excellent thriller by any measure, with remote viewing playing a relatively minor role.

The writing is crisp and sophisticated, with vivid descriptions and deft narrative. The plot is ingenious, and the settings in Kaliningrad, Germany, Beirut and the U.S. are all brought to life. One of the most winning aspects is the banter between October Guinness and her sometime partner Jax Alexander, which, perhaps because it is a husband-and-wife writing team, manages to convey some real chemistry between the two.

I don't usually like to cast the characters of a book with real actors, but by coincidence I happen to be catching up on two series with actors that would be ideal for the main roles. Tobie is easy to imagine as Mireille Enos, the diminutive strawberry blonde from "The Killing," while Matt Passmore from "The Glades" has the laconic insouciance to play Jax.

The authors are great at instilling sympathy for the good guys -- you really care about Tobie and Jax and Stefan, the young Russian kid who is an important witness to help our heroes unravel the plot, which involves a deadly cargo recovered from a sunken World War II German submarine -- the Sword of Solomon that gives the book its title. The villains, by contrast, are two-dimensional and hard to take seriously. Relying on Nazi evil is a little shopworn for a modern thriller, but the authors find a novel twist to freshen it up. The depiction of a post-Cold War rivalry with Russia is more original.

I've actually been to Kaliningrad and the authors capture its unique situation well -- the former prestigious capital of East Prussia, Koenigsberg, ravaged by war and Soviet occupation, is a historic and geographic anomaly as today's Russian exclave. It is a great setting for this type of thriller. But another anomalous location, Beirut, also comes vividly to live in the novel and even the brief trip to Bremen seems firsthand.

At 389 pages, the book is a trifle long. There's perhaps too much back-and-forth among the various levels of villains, and Tobie and Jax could take a slightly less circuitous route to solving their mystery. The writing is good enough that the reader stays with it, but I think the book would have had more impact had it been a little more taut.

In any case, I'm ready to read more from C.S. Graham and from C.S. Harris, Proctor's other pseudonym.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This of course is not a book but a film by Roland Emmerich about the true author of Shakespeare's plays, Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford. The movie got mixed reviews and predictably met a lot of resistance from people who simply don't want to hear it.

It doesn't matter obviously who actually wrote the plays. Whoever it was is dead, and the treasure for mankind is the corpus of literature this author left behind. And yet, curious minds want to know and we always look for further meaning in works of literature by trying to get to know the author's mind better.

This is really the point of Mark Anderson's Shakespeare by Another Name, which I bought the day after viewing the film on DVD. He traces the main details of Oxford's life and notes the overlap in the plays, and it truly does give insight into the work. It was like going to the presentation by Simon Mawer at Politics & Prose the other night and having him explain that his new book, Trapeze, was inspired by his WAAF mother, who actually knew someone like his protagonist, a woman parachuted into France as an agent during the war, and by his father, a pilot who flew missions to drop these agents.

I've been an "Oxfordian" for some time actually. When I went on my fasting cure at a spa on Lake Constance in the late 1980s, I had a lot of time to read and spent much of it reading Charlton Ogburn's The Mystery of Shakespeare. It opened my eyes to the controversy that has been brewing for centuries over the authorship because the idea that the historic Will Shakespere of Stratford-on-Avon was the author was so patently improbable.

As Derek Jacobi intones in a "prologue" in the movie, the fact that Shakespeare died many years after the last play appeared and had no books or manuscripts to bequeath alone is suspicious. He made no mention of any writings in his will and the sole documentary evidence we have of his existence largely deals with his activity as a grain merchant.

The academic establishment nonetheless vehemently defends his authorship. As the torturous Wikipedia article notes, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were from a similarly un-aristocratic background, and we just happen to know more about them because of, er, their education and their manuscripts. Imagine!

Can anyone really believe that a writer whose worth was widely recognized by contemporaries could die such an obscure death and leave so few traces behind? It's not only Marlowe and Jonson, we know more about Dante and Chaucer and virtually every minute of Goethe's life has been documented. The historical record for this 16th century writer is virtually as thin as it is for Homer or the historical Jesus.

The movie itself is quite good, I thought, though too hard to follow because of all the backward and forward in time. Vanessa Redgrave puts Judi Dench and her eight-minute Oscar to shame with her portrayal of Elizabeth and Rhys Ifans transforms himself into a completely different person to portray Oxford. His sensitive depiction of Oxford's devotion to the power of words make the achievement of the plays freshly memorable. The awe of the other playwrights hearing the magic of this poetry for the first time is infectious.

I'm toying with the idea of embarking on a "Shakespeare project" -- namely, to read the Anderson book, the recent book by Kurt Kreiler and perhaps re-read the Ogburn book (I still have it!) while re-reading or reading the plays themselves. It might be fun to experiment with the functionalities of ebooks while reading -- highlighting, notes, bookmarks. I've already downloaded the Complete Shakespeare (for $1.99!) and will experiment with the Signet annotated editions. If this actually materializes, I may create a separate blog and Twitter account for it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tender Is the Night

It seemed like a good idea to pick up a masterpiece from one of America's greatest writers and immerse myself in some deathless prose and this new effort to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's second-best known work had its rewards.

For instance: "Amiens was an echoing purple town, still sad with the war, as some railroad stations were:--the Gare du Nord and Waterloo station in London. In the daytime one is deflated by such towns, with their little trolley cars of twenty years ago crossing the great gray cobble-stoned squares in front of the cathedral, and the very weather seems to have a quality of the past, faded weather like that of old photographs. But after dark all that is most satisfactory in French life swims back into the picture--the sprightly tarts, the mean arguing with a hundred Voilas in the cafes, the couples drifting, head to head, toward the satisfactory inexpensiveness of nowhere."

But Fitzgerald is famously a captive of his times and his racism and anti-semitism are rude and offensive. Since I'm not a student who must finish the book, I'm abandoning it about halfway through after a "nigger scrap" resulted in a dead "Negro" who is mostly viewed as an embarrassment.