Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’

‘The Cold Six Thousand’ (2001)- James Ellroy

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 30/10/2012 at 16:53

The Cold Six Thousand (2001) is the second part of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. The trilogy covers American from the 50s to the early 70s, but it’s full of Ellroy’s bias that everybody is corruptible and that the mob rules all. The Cold Six Thousand kicks off right where the first book, American Tabloid (1995), left off with the assassination of President Kennedy. The first part of the novel concerns the cover-up that follows. Then we follow the next five years – Vietnam, Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, civil rights protests – ending with two big assassinations.

The three main characters are Ward J. Little, a former FBI man now mob lawyer; Pete Bondurant, something like a mercenary; and the new character Wayne Tedrow Jr. I was glad of a new main character because he was sympathetic and reluctant to kill, which is a big contrast to the rest of the cast of characters. But, no surprise, that doesn’t last long, soon he’s off torturing and cooking heroin.

The big thing to mention with The Cold Six Thousand is that Ellroy makes his sparse style even more minimalist. The tight, short, sharp sentences work well in American Tabloid, given the title it fits that the prose feels like headlines. But in The Cold Six Thousand Ellroy cuts the prose down the absolute minimum and, at times, seems like somebody parodying his style. After a few hundred pages the repetition becomes infuriating. The ‘simple’ style does not make the novel easier to follow, in fact it makes it harder, as Ellroy has several plot-threads and subplots on the go it becomes hard to untangle them and really understand what’s going on. By the end I felt like I was only vaguely aware of the choices the characters had made that led them to where the story ended.

I read this book quite soon after finishing the first one. I really liked American Tabloid, even though the characters did some dark things, and if you know Ellroy’s work you know how far he likes to push his characters. But what worked in American Tabloid was that it followed contrasting fall of one character and the rise of another. In The Cold Six Thousand a similar thing happened but the contrast never seemed as sharp as in the first book. In pretty much every aspect I did not like the second book as much as the first.

The style, lack of character development, and overly complicated plots make The Cold Six Thousand a very tough read and not a rewarding one. Perhaps if I get round the last part of the trilogy, Blood’s A Rover (2009) it’ll make the second part worthwhile, but right now I’m truly glad to be finished with The Cold Six Thousand and I think I need to take a long break before I pick up any James Ellroy again.

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‘The Wounded and the Slain’ (1955)- David Goodis

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 11/09/2012 at 15:07

David Goodis is an author I only heard about recently in the context that he is the forgotten great of noir fiction (and at the moment I can’t get enough noir). It took a while to get a copy of The Wounded and the Slain (1955) from the library, and all his other books have gone missing. But after reading the novel, do I think that Goodis is up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? In short, I’d have to read another one of his novels to truly find out. While The Wounded and the Slain is not a bad novel, there were things about it I really disliked.

Describing the plot is a difficult thing. To make it sound interesting I’d have to give away the twists that comes two-thirds in the story. But on the other hand the basic outline doesn’t really sell it. The Wounded and the Slain is about the Bevans, an American couple on holiday in Jamaica. James Bevan is an alcoholic, heavy on the self-pity; Cora Bevan is his frigid, beautiful wife. The plot kicks off a third of the way through the book, and then it slows down, then picks up, then slows down again, and repeats all the way till the end.

The first thing I have to say is that I struggle with alcoholic characters when they manage to be as witty and articulate as James Bevan. I get frustrated at how much forgiveness for drinking that David Goodis gives the character, and I can’t help wondered if Goodis is writing this through experience. It seems that we the readers are expected to forgive James Bevan because his wife is so frigid it drives him to frustration and drink. Their relationship follows the pattern of an alcoholic- pleasant in the morning, argumentative in the afternoon, abusive in the evening.

One quotes that adorns the book calls David Goodis the Kerouac of noir. I can kind of see what he means, the prose is almost free flowing. But in the old ‘Show, don’t tell’, Goodis is on the side of telling. His narration frequently goes into internal monologues that really slow the story down.

Despite all this, the novel has some great scenes. Every now and again there’s a flash of something really interesting. There’s a flashback chapter set in New York that I think really works well, suggesting, perhaps, Goodis works better on home ground.

If I had to name check Goodis against another author it’d be Fyodor Dostoyevksy. The Wounded and the Slain reminded me a little of Crime and Punishment (1866) in the way it progressed in the last third. And like Dostoyevsky, despite all his flaws, Goodis’ writing has a strange power to it. Goodis isn’t quite as powerful as the Russian, but he’s certainly got something.

I’d like to read another David Goodis, just to see if he really is a fogtotten master. Anybody who can recommend which of his to go for next, let me know in the comments.

Summer Reading Challenge 2012

In American, Canadian, Literature, Miscellaneous, Welsh on 31/08/2012 at 11:16

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries have a summer reading challenge for children. They have to read six books over the summer and get stickers, medals, etc. I blogged about this last year. As I was volunteering to help out again this year, I did the challenge myself. My six books aren’t as eclectic this year, but that’s because I’ve been on a crime/noir binge.

1)         The White People and Other Weird Stories (2012)- Arthur Machen: I spent ages trying to track down any copy of Machen’s stories. I couldn’t even find his books in his home country of Wales. I ordered this book from America. In some ways I prefer Machen to H.P. Lovecraft, but he does have a tendency to go very Victorian (one story has a paragraph that lasts about twenty pages!)

2)         Tigana (1990)- Guy Gavriel Kay: I don’t read fantasy all that often. I picked this up because I’d heard about it on Sword and Laser’s youtube show. It was a good read, some interesting characters and themes. The story is about a city with a spell on it that nobody (except those born there) can remember its name. I don’t much about the world of fantasy fiction, but I imagine Tigana is in the literary end of things.

3)         Drive (2005)- James Sallis: I’ve heard this book called an existential crime novel, but, truth be told, I didn’t quite get it. I watched the film afterward and that didn’t strike me too much either. In the novel there is a lot of non-linear narrative, while I like flashbacks, I’m not a fan of a plot too much out of order. This books gets a lot of good press and I know I’m in the minority but, as always, this comes down to personal taste.

4)         The Goodbye Look (1969) Ross MacDonald: Lew Archer is a private eye hired to recovered some missing jewellery. I’ll admit, I get a real kick out of noir and private detective fiction. I went on to read another Lew Archer novel called The Galton Case (1959) and I preferred that to this. Still, it was a lot of fun to read.

5)         When the Women Come Out To Dance (2002)- Elmore Leonard: This was a great collection of short stories. In each the dialogue, plot and characterisation were masterful. The story ‘Fire In The Hole’ was quite possibly my favourite due to the slightly unconventional protagonist of Raylan Givens.

6) The Big Nowhere (1988)- James Ellroy: This is the second in Ellroy’s LA Quartet, followed by LA Confidential (1990). This is a compelling book, but it has to be one of the most brutal, nasty stories I’ve ever read. There are a lot of good things about it- it’s well written and I like Ellroy’s prose style, dialogue and characterisation, but it’s the world of the story that troubles me. I have a strong stomach when it comes to violence and bleak worldviews, but The Big Nowhere pushed me to my limit. I read the last third of the book as quickly as I could because I didn’t want to be carrying around that world in my head for any longer than I had to. I like flawed characters, but the there was nobody in this book who really, truly, had any kind of redeeming feature. I’ve read Ellroy before and I remember it been strong stuff, but not this bleak and nihilistic.

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