****Crazy Rhythm

gumshoe, detective

photo: Jason Howell, creative commons license

By T.W. Emory If you need a break from serial killers and world-at-risk mayhem, TW Emory’s Gunnar Nilson mysteries may be a perfect, lighthearted alternative. Crazy Rhythm is entertaining, engaging, and written with tongue in cheek and a big tip of the grey fedora to Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking private eyes.

PI Gunnar Nilson lives in the rain-soaked northwest United States. In the current era, he’s a resident in the Finecare assisted living facility in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, recuperating from a broken leg. But in his early 1950s heyday, he was a private eye in the city itself. He has stories to tell, and what’s even more gratifying for an old man, attractive Finecare staff member Kirsti Liddell, aged about 20, wants to hear them.

This is the second book having this set-up, and author TW Emory moves you smoothly back to the post-WW II era with its ways of talking and living. Nilson, the detective, lives in a heavily Scandinavian boarding house with his landlady, Mrs. Berger, a former fan dancer with the photographs to prove it, and two other single men.

In the story he tells Kirsti, years ago Rune Granholm, the younger ne’er-do-well brother of an old friend wants Nilson to attend a meeting with him where a significant amount of cash will be exchanged for an expensive Cartier watch. The whole set-up sounds fishy to Nilson, but he agrees to go out of loyalty to his dead friend and an understandable dab of curiosity. When he arrives at Granholm’s apartment to meet up prior to the exchange, he finds Granholm shot dead.

He is soon distracted from looking into Granholm’s death by a potentially lucrative case dropped in his lap. He’s asked to investigate threatening phone calls a wealthy heiress has been receiving. Delving into this woman’s complicated past reveals, well, complications.

Nilson is soon embroiled in more than one tricky situation involving beautiful women who seem rather more ardent than informative. At these points, Kirsti breaks in to remind Nilson that her mother, to whom she relays their conversations, finds his many supposed romantic conquests entirely unbelievable.

Some blood is spilled – Granholm’s certainly – but the whole effect is more charming than nail-biting. Nilson’s evocation of Raymond Chandler is also entertaining, such as, “…it was guys like Rune who eventually got me to believe that the human race was for me to learn from, when I wasn’t bent over laughing at it.”

Nilson is never wrong-footed as he pursues his investigations of various colorful characters, and it’s fun to watch him in action. Writing a pastiche of an author as revered as Chandler is brave, and Emory carries it off in a style aptly embodied in the novel’s title. A fast read—perfect entertainment for a long airplane flight!

****The Long Goodbye

$5000 bill

“The Madison” (photo: wikimedia.org)

By Raymond Chandler – This hardboiled detective story from 1953 is one of Chandler’s last featuring detective Philip Marlowe, and all the usual appeal is here—Los Angeles riffraff, a complex plot, and the sly, ironic first-person tone of wiseass Marlowe, who narrates. Although the prose conjures the voice of the ultimate Marlowe interpreter, Humphrey Bogart, the movie version was on ice for two decades, awaiting the deft touch of Robert Altman, with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. (FYI, the Rotten Tomatoes critics give this one a 96% rating, so it’s now on my Netflix list!)

Lots of alcohol gets sloshed in this story, written at a period when Chandler—an alcoholic himself—was at a serious low point (his wife was dying) and discouraged about his writing. It was late in his career, and he wanted to be taken more seriously. A few plot elements don’t quite hang together, and “the Madison” (a $5000 bill a client sent him) is not the unbelievable windfall it was in 1950, yet the writing propels you forward from sentence one: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

Keep reading, and you’re rewarded with thrilling descriptions (“His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect.” “On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn’t any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.” A metaphor that probably says as much about how Chandler—and Marlowe—were feeling at that moment as it does about how the fictional bee may have felt.) Of course, Chandler was equally observant and precise in his descriptions of people: “There was the usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar . . ., the kind that reach very slowly for the first one and watch their hands so they won’t knock anything over.” Oh yeah.

In a crime fiction anthology published in 1995, mystery writer Bill Pronzini called The Long Goodbye “a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.” Contemporary novelist Paul Auster wrote, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” A pity Chandler didn’t anticipate that the critics’ unwavering praise of him ultimately would extend beyond genre borders.

If the books leave you wanting more, take the awesome Esotouric Raymond Chandler Tour or get the map of his Los Angeles settings, described in this popular post from last fall.