*****Best American Mystery Stories – 2018

reading
(Pedro Ribeiro Simōes, cc license)

Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies, and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring Sanders).

Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful. Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.

Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with “Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad choices and the men who exploit them.

Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).

The selected authors found clever and creative ways to deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).

A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,” in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.

This talented collection of authors fills their stories with great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone so you don’t get in trouble.”

If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for (and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).

Which publications brought these stories to light in the first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published four of the stories, Mystery Tribune (two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar and Snowbound) produced a pair of them.

Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

Creative Commons License

Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

*****Wrecked

razor wire fenceBy Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones –Joe Ide is a master at conveying distinctive personalities and subcultures, and Sullivan Jones brings them vividly to life. In his newest book, Ide deftly weaves together his principal plotline and engaging subplots into a masterful tale of escape, revenge, pursuit, and retribution.

As in Ide’s previous two books, IQ and Righteous, the story centers on East Long Beach investigator and righter-of-wrongs Isaiah Quintabe and his sometime friend—and in this book, new business partner—Juanel Dodson. Isaiah is called IQ not only because those are his initials, but also because he’s a brilliant strategist, who saves situations with brainpower more often than firepower.

Neighbors in his low-income community need a burglar caught or an ex-husband warned off? Isaiah’s their man. A school club needs help with a bully? Isaiah again. Unfortunately, these clients pay him in roof repairs, cakes and pies, and a promised handknit reindeer sweater. Once, a live chicken. These exchanges do not pay the bills, and Dodson plans to change all that. The slivers of insight Ide provides about the East Los Angeles community create an almost tangible sense of place.

In front of the local art supply store, Isaiah spots the woman he’s attracted to—Grace Monorova. Tongue-tied, he lets his gray pit bull Ruffin make the initial contact. Grace is great with the dog, but her reaction to Isaiah isn’t nearly as warm. Unexpectedly, she calls him one night to ask for help finding her mom, Sarah, missing for a decade. She pays him with one of her paintings, to Dodson’s disgust.

It emerges that Sarah is the target of a trio of ex-military who participated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison and the CIA operative who egged them on, Stan Walczak. Bad as the photos were that documented the depraved treatment of Iraqi prisoners, there are worse photos out there, and Sarah has them. She’ll sell them to Walczak for a million dollars. He has that kind of cash, but his scorched-earth modus operandi won’t let him buy them back. He wants her dead. Grace too, if necessary. And, if he interferes, Isaiah.

Meanwhile, Isaiah’s business partner Dodson decides to take care of a different situation himself, without putting Isaiah wise. The old case involves the 21st century Malaprop of hip-hop, Junior, “who sounds like he swallowed a dictionary sideways” and brings Dodson’s former girlfriend Deronda into the story in full whackdown mode. Dodson’s reactions to new fatherhood and his live-in mother-in-law left me grinning. Jive-talking, slick operator though this father is, baby Micah has obviously seized control of the household.

While author Ide captures the sometimes skewed thought processes and humor of all his characters and Jones delivers them with spot-on narration, Dodson may be the sentimental favorite of them both.

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****Broken Windows

Los Angeles, Hollywood

James Gubera, creative commons license

By Paul D. Marks – Paul Marks’s second Duke Rogers PI thriller is a follow-up to the recently reissued White Heat, a Shamus award-winner, recently reissued. Rogers, principal narrator of this entertaining tale, has the sly humor of a modern-day Philip Marlowe and a similar penchant for attracting trouble.

Maybe it’s something about Los Angeles—too much sun, too much tinsel, too many people trying too hard, too much too much—that makes it the perfect setting for so many great noir novels. The prologue describes a quintessential Los Angeles move: the suicide of an aspiring actress who takes a dive off the iconic Hollywood sign. Her death hangs out there, disconnected, waiting for PI Rogers to reel it into the story.

Rogers is a famous guy around LA, famous for a detective, anyway. He’s the one who solved the murder of up-and-coming starlet Teddie Matson, recounted in White Heat. The frequent acknowledgements of his success rub salt in a wound that has not healed. Though he caught Teddie’s killer, people don’t know that it was he who mistakenly told the killer how to find her.

Out for a stroll with his new dog, Rogers encounters the neighbor’s housekeeper walking her employer’s Yorkies. Marisol Rivera is young, pretty, Mexican, and illegal. And she has a problem. Her brother’s been found dead. The police say un accidente, but Marisol believes it was murder. She thinks they’re reluctant to invest time and effort in the case because Carlos, too, was undocumented.

Eventually Rogers persuades Marisol to let him help her, but wading into a highly charged political swamp is a good way to encounter alligators, and soon there’s a second body to account for—this one a man high in the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. When he turns up dead shortly after visiting Rogers, the local police figure him a person of particular interest.

Marks writes with an easy style that carries you through the story and creates engaging characters to spike your interest. His Los Angeles is familiar and believable. He softens Rogers around the edges by giving him a new dog needing care, a friend who has earned and receives unswerving loyalty, and a woman he would like to reconnect with. She’s the sister of the dead starlet Teddie Matson, and his guilt over Matson’s death keep him from picking up the phone. Yet he obsesses about her. Perhaps a bit too much.

Marks places this story in the broader political context of California Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative aimed at curbing the flow of illegal immigrants into the state and denying them public services. Characters in the story represent various stakeholder groups and positions that resonate with today’s vicious public policy debates.)

But this is, of course, not a political essay, but a mystery, and, in the quest for Carlos’s killer, Rogers must peel back the masks worn in public by these various elected officials and community leaders. It’s always a treat to see hypocrisy stripped bare, and Rogers finds that what these stalwarts say to their constituents about immigration is more a reflection of self-interest than principle.

Part of the story is told from the point of view of Eric Davies, a disbarred lawyer whose downward spiral has landed him in a cockroach-infested apartment in Venice, California. He is out of luck and out of prospects unless someone answers his desperate advert saying he will “do anything for money.” Someone does. The writing of Eric’s chapters is very close in. You are inside his addled, frustrated head, and hope that when the time comes, despite all indications to the contrary, he will do the right thing.

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Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.

*****Broken Ground

Scottish Highlands, thistle

usameredith, creative commons license

By Val McDermid—There’s a reason readers around the world look forward to a new book by the “queen of crime,” and her legions of fans will not be disappointed with this one! Val McDermid’s new police procedural is her fifth crime thriller featuring Edinburgh police cold case detective Karen Pirie, who’s not above putting her faith in the value of her work above the priorities of her superiors.

Pirie and her trusty ally, Detective Constable Jason Murray, and her untrustworthy new detective sergeant, “that utter shitehawk Gerry McCartney”—sent by the new Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie to spy on Pirie, she’s sure—try to unravel three different cold cases.

They’re tackling the first, a series of brutal 30-year-old rapes, with recently obtained information about a vehicle that may have been involved. In the second, they’re flouting the rules to stay involved in a current-day situation: Pirie has overheard two women in a coffee shop planning to confront a hostile estranged husband. It’s a poor strategy with a strong potential for violence, and Pirie tells them so—advice not received as kindly as it was intended. It’s a testament to McDermid’s narrative skills that the pursuit of these two cases, subplots, really, are every bit as engaging as the team’s biggest and much more tangled investigation.

In an opening scene set in Wester Ross, Scotland, in 1944, two friends bury a pair of large crates in a peat bog. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of them returns to the Highlands to claim her inheritance. Using her grandfather’s map to the hiding place, she and her husband approach the local crofter, Hamish Mackenzie, a handsome fellow who might have swaggered out of the pages of Outlander. He agrees to help them dig.

The excavation proceeds smoothly. One crate up: in it, a pristine (I won’t say what; I’ll let you discover this treasure for yourself). They unearth the second crate, but it seems to have been disturbed, perhaps by the dead man lying on top of it. The body is remarkably well preserved, due to the peculiar characteristics of peat bogs. However it came there, it wasn’t recently, which means the investigation is in the remit of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit.

McDermid is much-praised for her brilliant evocation of the places, mores, and culture of Scotland, as well as the procedures and rivalries within Police Scotland. As a result, the atmosphere she creates is believable down to the last wisp of mist. Introducing Hamish Mackenzie as a potential love interest for Pirie adds a bit of Celtic spice.

Although the cases Pirie works on are old, the investigation methods brought into play are fascinatingly up-to-the-minute. DNA analysis, deployed in the rape case, is only one of them. Rapid reconstruction of the bog corpse’s appearance is another. Analysis and enhancement of cell phone contents is yet a third. McDermid, who has a great interest in forensics, likes to get these technologies right, and she gives Pirie a pair of worthy confederates: her friends River Wilde, a forensic anthropologist, and Tamsin, head of a laboratory in Police Scotland’s Gartcosh Crime Centre. They, like she, believe families should not have to wait one day longer than necessary to learn the fate of their loved one.

Though Pirie occasionally missteps, mostly by treading on the toes of other police officials, and especially ACC Markie, McDermid never puts a foot wrong. Her prose is so clear and engaging, this is a book that will keep you turning pages. Like Pirie, you will be hungry for just that one more bit of evidence.

****The Skeleton Road

Having read the six books I took to Sicily, I raided my last hotel’s shelf of abandoned books and picked up this 2014 thriller by McDermid, which entangles Pirie and Murray in a case of long-ago war crimes, revenge, and distorted justice. The eight-hour airplane ride flew by!

 

Vacation Reading, Italian Style

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Seventeen days out of the country, two eight-plus hour air flights, how many books should I pack? Always the burning question. This time, it turns out, not enough. I packed six and had to raid the hotel guest discards shelf for the return flight. Picked a good one too.

Here are quick reviews of five of them:

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – The nearly 200 pages of this bi-monthly is like reading an entire book, one where you sometimes meet old literary friends, as in:

  • J.Rozan’s tale about the quick-wittedness of an elderly Chinese woman in “Chin Yong-Un Helps a Fool.” One of Chin’s previous escapades garnered Rozan a 2018 Edgar Award nomination.
  • Doug Allyn’s Dylan LaCrosse from Valhalla, Michigan, P.D. in another entertaining story steeped in the ethos of the Upper Peninsula.
  • Richard Helms’s Pat Gallagher, an unlicensed P.I. who roams New Orleans’s French Quarter, toting his cornet and stumbling into trouble. And
  • Lou Manfredo’s Sgt. Joe Rizzo, dealing with a “Brooklyn playboy murdered.”

**The Third Act, by John Wilson – This book which turned out to be YA, I hadn’t realized, blew an interesting premise. An Ohio drama program director writes a concluding act for an unfinished play by the program’s most illustrious graduate. The play is set in China at the time of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and the scenes in China create the sense of reading a play—little scene description, a few gestures. But the modern-day framing story is weak, and its grim conclusion sends an unsuitable message for young audiences, in my opinion.

****Faithless Elector by James McCrone – This is a look at one of the ways the U.S. Electoral College might be manipulated to propel a losing candidate into the Oval Office—entertaining and bone-chilling at the same time. Well-written with a bit of a logic stretch here and there. Particularly unnerving (and plausible) is that the conspiracy was discovered only by a fluke.

*****Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill – I love these evocative Posadas County Mysteries, which are fine-grained police procedurals. In this one, Undersheriff Bill Gastner takes great care investigating the apparently accidental death of an unexceptional old woman whose death (and life) law enforcement might tend to write off, and that makes all the difference.

****Half a Chance by John Perrotta – A quick read, this book is steeped in the action and lore of the thoroughbred race track. Someone’s playing fast and loose with big wads of cash, and can he keep all his financial transactions afloat while he rides out of town with the greenbacks? Lots of fun, strong characters, some redemption, and a fine evocation of horse-racing’s arcane world.

Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.