BEING A READER, Crime books

Bumping into Paco Ignacio Taibo II

It wasn’t a bit like the time I ran full-tilt into singer José Feliciano. There he was, a blind man trying to cross a foreign airport terminal and some kid comes crashing into him. I still feel bad about that. No, I’ve never encountered Paco Ignacio Taibo II in the flesh. Nor, for that matter, had I met any other Paco Ignacio Taibo – number one, three or whatever.

I didn’t even know PIT II, as he apparently refers to himself, existed until I sort of bumped into him by accident.

What happened is this: I wandered into a library over lunchtime and saw they had some old books for sale – three books for two dollars. Almost straightaway, I spotted two books I wanted. But taking only two seemed like a waste, so what to do about a third?

I looked through the names, but nothing rang a bell. I was running out of time. Never one to say no to a cheap crime novel, I ended up taking one marked with the library’s gun-sticker, the icon they use for crime stories – No Happy Ending by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I could always throw it away if it’s useless, I thought.

When I finally started reading the book, I was completely unsuspecting. I was just going to read a bit to see if it grabbed me.

Many books, I must confess, don’t pass the first sentence test for me. Others I stay with for a paragraph or a page or a chapter and if I still haven’t felt that frisson of excitement – either because of style or content – that’s it. Some I return to later, when a different mood or mindset might make me more susceptible to whatever the book has to offer. Others never see me again.

This one started with direct speech: “There’s a dead Roman in the bathroom.” Turned out to be a Roman centurion in full regalia. This in Mexico in what is presumably the late 1970s.

Okay, so now I’m interested. On top of that, the writing has a certain nonchalance, an authentic style, which in itself is a rare enough thing.

About 170 odd pages later (and yes, they are odd), I want to fling the book down. The hero just died…

This is upsetting in the extreme. Heroes don’t die, not in entertaining crime novels. But then, this one is called… No Happy Ending. A bit of a clue, that.

Apart from the fact that this is one awesome little book, the incomparable Paco Ignacio Taibo II then wrote a sequel. Yup, a sequel. Not a prequel, a sequel. As in set after the events of No Happy Ending. Featuring the same detective who died in the first book…

How he does it? Sheer genius. I bow down, overawed.

BEING A READER, Crime books

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s best book isn’t a crime book

To some, Elmore Leonard is famous for writing Get Shorty. To others, he’s the cool crime writer who leaves out the parts readers usually skip. Some may even remember him for his early Westerns like Hombre. Not many will equate his name with a book that is neither Western nor crime story.

It is called The Juvenal Touch or sometimes simply Touch. It is the story of a religious man with healing powers. There is some nefarious goings on, but that’s not the focus of the story.

An example to illustrate: “I was up north.” Not giving anything away.It has all the other hallmarks of vintage Leonard though. The sparse writing that makes him arguably the easiest of all writers to read. The cool, smart characters. The crackling dialogue, often followed by interpretive phrases that wouldn’t pass muster on MS Word spellchecker. (The dreaded “Fragment” fault.)

In fact, Touch is a more typical piece of Elmore Leonard writing than at least one of his full-on crime books, Split Images. If I haven’t read all of Elmore Leonard’s books, I’ve read nearly all, and Split Images is the most ambitious structurally and darkest in tone of the lot. It’s the only one that ends on a downer. Truth be told, it reads like all of it was written by a man on a downer.

The Juvenal Touch is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s an uplifting book. It is the book of a hopeful romantic, without the tough veneer that seemingly comes with the territory in crime stories. (Here’s a thought: Can anyone think of a tender crime story?)

If I had little time to live and could only reread one Elmore Leonard book, Touch would be it.

Of the many others, I’d probably pick something written from Stick to Get Shorty, skipping anything set in historic times or outside the US. Not that they’re bad – it’s just that Leonard is at his most appealing in modern Detroit or Florida settings.

If you’re not a reader of crime but are interested in the craft of writing, you should try to read at least one Elmore Leonard book. Get Shorty could be the easiest to like, but I find the inexplicably little-known Touch hardest to forget.

BEING A READER, Crime books

Five American crime writers to read before someone bashes your head in

You can start with Edgar Allan Poe if you like, but for me the story of American crime writing starts with Dashiell Hammett, who laid the egg that became the hard-boiled detective. Also he has such a dashing name, was by all accounts a noble (though often drunk) man and partner to Lillian Hellman. All good things.

Despite his historical importance, Hammett doesn’t make this list, I’m afraid. We’ll start with his first great disciple instead, the man who put crime back on the streets where it belongs, but took the prose to the stars.

Raymond Chandler

The thing with Chandler is his style. The plots ramble and there’s at least one unexplained body in his novels. He wrote very few novels and they’re all worth reading, except The Poodle Springs Story, which was started by Chandler and finished by Robert Parker decades later. Ignore that one. Start with The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely.

One request: Please, please don’t then turn around and try to write like him. Too many have done that already. The world doesn’t need another hard-drinking cop/detective who lives alone with his cat.  Poor old Philip Marlowe nearly suffered death by a thousand copies already. And we don’t need another crime writer wracking his brain to shoehorn an outlandish simile into every second sentence. Chandler pretty much created the style of 20th Century crime fiction, but it’s best read in the original.

Ross Macdonald

In one of Chandler’s letters, he savaged Macdonald for daring to say a car was “acned with rust”. So maybe his prose isn’t quite up to Chandler’s standard. But his plots hang together far better, his insights into the dark side of family life is second to none and his protagonist is sufficiently different to Chandler’s. Where Marlowe is hard as nails, Macdonald’s Lew Archer has a soft side – he loves art and so on.

Also, Macdonald wrote many more books and managed a very consistent standard. An incredible body of work, actually. Interestingly, he seemed to tweak onto environmental issues earlier than most. In essence, his books are family dramas of which the crime is only the culmination.

Jim Thompson

Now hold tight, here’s a writer with incredible talents… and too many books. He even sometimes copied himself – The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 being essentially retellings of the same story.

He’s classic hard-boiled, but with a incredibly dark side that can make some of the books hard to take. I guess you can say Jim Thompson’s books are more hard-luck than hard-boiled.

Now I’m going out on a limb here and making a big statement: Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 is my candidate for the greatest pulp crime novel out there. Period. (I slip the word “pulp” in there to avoid competing with The Brothers Karamazov.) Pop.1280 is a masterpiece of sustained first-person narrative. It’s awesome, okay? Read it.

Then read The Grifters and The Getaway. After that, you’re on your own. The books can be patchy, but there are some very good ones out there.

Charles Willeford

Late in his life, Charles Willeford wrote a book that changed his reputation. It was called Miami Blues. Here, finally, publishers had a book with bestseller potential from someone who had hitherto displayed ample talent, but less commercial appeal. They asked him to write a sequel. He came back with a manuscript in which the hero of Miami Blues, detective Hoke Moseley, kills his two daughters…

Noooo, went the publisher, this is not what we had in mind! That book was never published, to the best of my knowledge. Instead, Willeford went off and wrote three more Hoke Moseley books. Taken together, they are the best detective series since Chandler. Read Miami BluesNew Hope for the Dead (what a title!), The Way We Die Now and Sideswipe.

The last is the best (a book of masterful dread in which the detective hardly does anything), but reading them in order adds a nice dimension as you see Hoke Moseley’s private life develop.

Then seek out the gems among Willeford’s earlier work.

K.C. Constantine

Here’s a rare writer who’s kept his true identity a mystery. Unfortunately, his books are also too much of a mystery to the reading public – not enough people know about them. Constantine writes police procedurals, sometimes with smalltime events. But, oh, the characters!

K.C. Constantine is in the league of George V. Higgins when it comes to using dialogue as plot exposition and character revelation. The later books in the Rocksburg series read like radio plays, all talk. And they are often brilliant.

Bottom-Liner Blues I found too self-absorbed, with the author’s personal history and issues becoming too prominent at the expense of narrative drive. But all the others I’ve managed to get my hands on are exceptional reads. The early books focus on police chief Mario Balzic, but lately Constantine has begun to give other characters the limelight, reinvigorating the series. But start with the early ones.

* If this had been a list of seven, I would’ve added the names of Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard.