Friday, May 29, 2009

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, Penguin Books have republished five of his novels in hard backed editions, with original covers; “The Big Sleep", "The Lady In The Lake", "The Little Sister", "The Long Goodbye” and "Farewell, My Lovely".

“Farewell, My Lovely” is set in Los Angeles in the late 1930’s .Philip Marlowe PI is working on a case in Central Avenue when he comes across a rather large well-dressed man standing outside a dine and dice emporium. The man, whom we later learn is named Moose Molloy, has spent the last eight years in prison. He is only just released and has returned to the emporium looking for his girlfriend who was employed as a singer there. Marlowe is literally dragged into the case and after Molloy’s initial enquiries which leave one man dead decides to investigate further.

Philip Marlowe though rises above all the grubbiness he sees about him. He is a former employee of the Los Angeles DA who was sacked for questioning his employers. He operates under his own moral code. He is an alcoholic, a loner who is bitter at the direction the good and the great have taken Los Angeles. When dealing with the police Marlowe treats them to a procession of contemptible wisecracks.

With ease he can see right through society’s facades. He has little time for falsehood and ineptitude and for Marlowe virtue itself should be its own reward. Marlowe is in no way a starry eyed idealist. He knows the manner in which the rancid system works.

However Marlowe is not some hard as nails superman. Twice toward the end of the novel he describes himself as being frightened and in one instance starts babbling. Finally piece by piece through a series of ingenious detective work and pure grit the case is solved, though for the philosophical Philip Marlowe the result is far from satisfactory.

Throughout the case Marlowe encounters a whole range of police officers. The inept that don't really care, those who want to change the system from within and other naturally good but who find themselves constantly written out of the picture.

By the standards of today parts of the novel can in now way said to be pc. For instance a black man is murdered and the official police response is noncommittal to say the least. Also several derogatory names, which would be unacceptable now are used when describing racial minorities, though this should in no way detract from the readers overall enjoyment and appreciation of the novel.

Chandler's writing will constantly amaze and beguile the reader. For instance here Marlowe describes one character in the case "He looked as nervous as a brick wall". Or his commentary on justice and its relationship to money in Los Angeles "Law is where you buy it in this town". Or finally when travelling by night through the mountains "Far off the sea flickered. Darkness prowled slowly on the hills".

Marlowe’s character and his force of personality drives the novel. His quest for justice and the travails he endures make us sympatric to his cause and the reader is left willing him toward a rewarding conclusion to the case. Detective Philip Marlowe is unique in the literary world and in him Chandler has created a template which others have imitated time and time again. With a fictional character as memorable as Philip Marlowe, combined with writing as sharp as the LA night, "Farewell, My Lovely" is guaranteed to retain it enduring popularity.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Like Swallowing A Stone, Surviving the Past In Bosnia by Polish journalist Wojciech Tochman chronicles the plight of survivors of the 1992-95 Bosnian war as they struggle to come to terms with the peace which followed. In particular it focus’s in on the search by family members often women for the remains of their loved ones.

Tochman introduces the reader to Dr. Ewa Klonowski a Polish born member of the American Academy of Forensic Science. Dr. Klonowski is working in Bosnia helping to discover, disinter and reunite the remains of the victims of war with their loved ones. One of Dr Klonowski’s assistants is Bosnian woman Mejra Dautovic, a former resident of Prijedor, who herself searching for the remains of her children murdered during the conflict.

The author openly takes no sides. He travels to camps which are home to Serbians who when Bosnian was partitioned after the war, choose to live in the Bosnian Serb Repeublic. We learn that Serbian men, for the most part, are reluctant to be photographed and that they claim to have been cooks in the army for the duration of the conflict.

The lives of Bosnian women many of whom lost husbands, brothers and sons but who have chosen to return to their former homes is laid bare for observation. In a few sentences Tochman takes us to the heart of a group of women who have come together work their farmsteads, so as to salvage their future from their bleak and desolate past.

By the end of the account there is no ambiguity as to where the sympathies of the author lie. His non involvement allows the victims to tell their story. Tochman is reduced to being an unobtrusive recorder of women who are attempting to come to terms with their shattered lives.

Although less than 200 pages “Like Eating A Stone”, is an horrific account of people who have survived their terror of war with humanity and dignity. It will both captivate and haunt the reader.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

“American Skin” opens with the scene of a chilling car chase followed by a gruesome murder of a young family. A character is introduced as dark and as gruesome as any that has stalked the pages of a crime novel.

The plot of the novel involves a bank heist has gone terribly wrong. One bank robber is dead, another, the hero Stephen Burke, has fled the country while a third, Stapleton an unstable IRA man, has gone into hiding. Later he will emerge hell bent on retrieving his share of the spoils.

With relative ease the novel moves back and forth both in place and time. Flashbacks drive the story on rather than hinder it. The author at first leads us on a merry dance as the novel is not told in strict chronological order. Layer by layer is striped away until all is revealed for the reader to gaze at in wide eyed horror.

Aficionados will recognise the integral ingredients of a Bruen novel, music and literature. Musical references are scattered throughout, Tammy Wynett, Tom Waits, The Pogues and Grechen Peters. Writers also make an appearance with mention of fellow crime protagonists James Lee Burke and Andrew Vachss, not to mention literary giants Kate O’Brien and Charles Bukowski.

In the past Ken Bruen, has set sections of previous novels in America, but in “American Skin” you get the feeling that here, at last, is his long awaited homage to all that is wonderful about the country. At times it is almost as if the country itself is a protagonist in the tale. The title “American Skin” comes courtesy of Bruce Springsteen. You can’t get any more American than that.

Bruen is at his best when he portrays the psychotic American drifter Dade. From the beginning of the novel Dade portrays a real sense of menace and the reader get the feeling that this is one particular character they would not like to meet under any circumstances.

Dade though is just one of a number of psychotic American characters who operate on the wrong side of the law. Juan, a New York gangster and drug user and Shelly his unstable wife are two individuals well written, dangerous and intriguing.

However when describing Stephen Burke, Bruen tends to overdose on the sentimentality. In particular when Burke recalls the decline and eventual demise, of his unstable friend Tommy. But then again this is noir and that sentimentality may very well be the point.

“American Skin” is written in the classic noir tradition and is a must read for those readers who like their fiction pitch black.


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