Tag Archives for " crime novel "

From Timothy Hallinan, a very funny crime novel set in Hollywood

funny-crime-novel-king-maybe-timothy-hallinanKing Maybe (Junior Bender #5), by Timothy Hallinan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Junior Bender is the most ethical burglar you’ll ever meet (assuming you ever meet burglars). You’re just as likely to find him declining to steal something he knows the owner truly loves, because he really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Mostly he steals from other criminals.

Junior operates in Los Angeles in a comic universe populated by such characters as Stinky Tetweiler, “the San Fernando Valley’s top premium-swag fence,” and Louie the Lost, an erstwhile getaway driver who once went the wrong direction following a heist and now makes his way through life as a source of sensitive information of special interest to crooks. Louie’s the guy who asserts that “Kings . . . are just crooks with better hats.”

King Maybe, a character at the center of the story in Hallinan’s novel of the same name, is “the most powerful man in Hollywood.” He’s a producer with options on every worthwhile project in sight, and he sits on them to keep everyone else in suspense. He’s also a thoroughly rotten SOB. Junior is forced to deal with King Maybe as a way to avoid being killed by several hitmen, most of whom appear to be pursuing him because he has stolen a postage stamp worth a quarter-million dollars from their boss, who is himself a hitman. (No, that doesn’t make sense to me, either.)

There’s no point summing up the plot of King Maybe. It’s a cockamamie story, of course. But it’s very, very funny.

Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender series, has an unsurpassed way with words. Here he is describing Junior’s one-night accommodations in flight from a hitman: “. . .the Dew Drop Inn was a dump, worthy of three stars in The Masochist’s Guide to Sleepless Nights. The carpet, which had apparently been shampooed with petroleum jelly, made an alarming little blown-kiss sound every time I lifted my shoe. The wallpaper was in the midst of a long and acrimonious divorce with the walls; it had developed big, unsettling blisters, as though something gelatinous, something straight out of H. P. Lovecraft, were trying to bloom its way through.” And here he is commenting on a neighborhood where the Dew Drop Inn would never have been built: “We were in a neighborhood where even the weeds were expensive.”

Timothy Hallinan has written nineteen novels to date. King Maybe is the fifth of the six novels in his Junior Bender series. In two other series, he features an L.A. private eye (Simeon Grist) and a travel writer living in Bangkok (Poke Rafferty), where Hallinan spends half of each year.

I reviewed Crashed, the first of the books in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. For links to my reviews of other series of crime novels, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. The second novel, Little Elvises, in the Junior Bender series is at A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob. The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is at A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley.

The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Norwegian crime novelThe Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some 4.6 million Norwegian-Americans live in the United States, about half of them in the Upper Midwest. Nearly 900,000 can be found in Minnesota alone. These numbers compare with the total of 5.3 million people who live in Norway proper. Oslo, the capital, is home to only some 650,000 people—far fewer than the number of Norwegian-Americans who live in Minnesota. So, maybe it’s understandable that a novel awarded the title “best Norwegian crime novel” should be set in Minnesota. In fact, the state is the setting for three novels, the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl. The Land of Dreams, the first, was described by Dagbladet, the country’s second largest tabloid newspaper, as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. Imagine that!

The Land of Dreams introduces us to Lance Hansen, his family, coworkers, and neighbors in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Hansen thinks of himself as a “forest cop.” He’s a 46-year-old police officer whose beat is the sprawling Superior National Forest near which he lives. Hansen lives in the town of Tofte, which was “one of those places where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” Though he’s divorced from an Ojibwe woman who now lives on a nearby Indian reservation and is the father of their active seven-year-old son, his life is generally uneventful.

Then Hansen stumbles across the badly beaten body of a young Norwegian man in the forest. The FBI has jurisdiction, assisted by a Norwegian homicide detective flown in to assist them. Hansen himself is not officially involved in the investigation, but his curiosity moves him to press his friends in law enforcement for details and to look into the circumstances of the murder himself. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother, Andy, must be considered a suspect. Out of love for his brother and fear that he might actually be guilty, Hansen conceals from the FBI the evidence of Andy’s possible guilt that only he knows about. Meanwhile, to discover whether the young man’s murder was the first ever to take place in the region, he digs deeply into the historical archives he maintains—and discovers that a distant relative may have been murdered locally more than a century earlier. Hansen suspects a connection of some sort between the two killings.

The action in The Land of Dreams advances at a slow pace. There is suspense, but it’s muted. The book is a murder mystery, but it’s better thought of as literature. Sundstøl dwells at length on the history of Norwegian immigration to the area and on his protagonist’s troubled inner dialogue. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.

About the author

Vidar Sundstøl wrote the Minnesota Trilogy “after he and his wife lived for two years on the shore of Lake Superior,” according to the note about the author at the back of the book. An interview in the blog Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation explains the background and the circumstances to Sundstøl’s stay in the U.S. (For starters, he met and married an American woman.) He is the author of six novels to date.


My 56 favorite authors of mysteries and thrillers

favorite authorsOK, I admit that number 56 is a little over the top. Well, maybe a bit more than a little. How could I have 56 different “favorite” authors, much less in a single genre? Well, a little arithmetic tells the tale.

Since January 2010, nearly six and a half years ago, I’ve been reading an average of more than 100 books per year (more than 150 over the past three years or so). Mysteries and thrillers constitute more than one-third of those books. Call it 250 or more all told. In addition to those books, I’ve dipped into a fair number of others that I couldn’t finish reading, much less feel comfortable reviewing—certainly more than 50, maybe 100. So, perhaps I can be excused for claiming 55 “favorite” mystery and thriller writers.

If you scan the list below, you may notice that a number of familiar names are missing. Just for example: James Patterson, Agatha Christie, David Baldacci, P.D. James, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Daniel Silva, Robert Crais, Dan Brown, and Dean Koontz. (There are a lot more.) It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with their work. It’s that I don’t like it. Of course, there are many more authors whose work I haven’t yet read, or read enough of, to judge.

In the list below, divided by category, the authors’ names or pen names (with real names in parentheses) are followed by the featured character or characters in their books. If most of the action takes place within a particular locale, that’s indicated within parentheses.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering whether I have any individual favorite books among the hundreds written by these authors, here goes: Ross Thomas’ brilliant send-up of politics, The Fools in Town Are on Our Side; Gillian Flynn’s mystifying thriller, Gone Girl; Jack Higgins’ classic spy story, The Eagle Has Landed; and Olen Steinhauer’s panoramic five-book cycle that illuminates the history of Communism in a fictional Central European country, the Ruthenia Quintet.

Spy thrillers

The innumerable spy thrillers written by the eight authors listed below tend to shift from one protagonist, and one locale, to another. Only Alex Berenson’s once and former CIA agent, John Wells, is the exception.

Alex Berenson—John Wells

Charles Cumming

Joseph Finder

Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

John Le Carre (David Cornwell)

Olen Steinhauer

Ross Thomas

Edward Wilson

Private detectives

For the most part, the private detectives featured in the books of the four authors listed below tend to operate close to their home bases.

Cara Black—Aimee Leduc (Paris)

Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)—Cormoran Strike (London)

Sara Paretsky—V. I. Warshawski (Chicago)

George Pelecanos—Spero Lucas (Washington, DC)

Police detectives

For reasons that should be obvious, most crime fiction involves detectives who work for the police. These 21 authors have brought to life a passel of brilliant investigators whose work spans the world from Moscow to San Francisco.

Elizabeth George—Inspector Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers (London)

Jussi Adler-Olsen—Department Q (Oslo)

Michael Connelly—Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (Los Angeles)

Donna Leon—Commissario Guido Brunetti (Venice)

Henning Mankell—Kurt Wallander (Ystad, Sweden)

Deborah Crombie—Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James (London)

Louise Penny—Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (Three Pines, Quebec)

Jo Nesbo—Harry Hole (Oslo)

John Sandford (John Roswell Camp)—Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers (Minneapolis)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—Martin Beck (Stockholm)

Ian Rankin—John Rebus (Edinburgh)

James Lee Burke—Dave Robicheaux (New Iberia Parish, Louisiana)

Martin Cruz Smith—Arkady Renko (Moscow)

Joseph Wambaugh (Los Angeles)

Peter Lovesey—Peter Diamond (Sussex, England)

Tana French—Dublin Murder Squad (Dublin, Ireland)

John Lescroart—Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky (San Francisco)

William Ryan—Captain Alexei Korolev (Moscow)

Camilla Lackberg—Ericka Falck and Patrik Hedström (Fjällbacka, Sweden)

Karin Slaughter—Dr. Sara Linton, Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, and Will Trent (Atlanta and rural Grant County, Georgia)

Johnathan Kellerman—Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis (Los Angeles)

Historical crime fiction

For a history buff such as me, crime fiction set in historical times is often the most rewarding—so long as the author has undertaken thorough research. To the best of my knowledge, these 11 writers have done so.

Rennie Airth—John Madden (London)

Benjamin Black (John Banville)—Dr. Quirke (Dublin, Ireland)

Rebecca Cantrell—Hannah Vogel (Berlin)

Alan Furst

Joseph Kanon

Tom Rob Smith—Leo Demidov (Moscow)

Philip Kerr—Bernie Gunther (Berlin)

Robert Goddard

Charles Todd (Charles Todd and Caroline Todd)—Inspector Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford (London)

Charles Finch—Charles Lenox (London)

Jacqueline Winspear—Maisie Dobbs (London)

Mysteries in faraway locales

Some of the most engaging crime fiction is set in places that are unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. These five authors have written some of the best.

John Burdett—Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Bangkok, Thailand)

James Church—Inspector O (Pyongyang, North Korea)

Stan Jones—Nathan Active (Native Alaska)

Alexander McCall Smith—Precious Ramotswe (Gaborone, Botswana)

Peter May—Fin MacLeod (Outer Hebrides, Scotland)

Other mysteries and thrillers

From the lurid thrillers of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, to the baffling puzzle of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Donald Westlake’s hilarious adventures of his favorite criminal, some of the most enjoyable crime fiction doesn’t fall neatly into any of the subcategories I’ve listed above. These seven writers prove the point.

Gillian Flynn

John Grisham

Dennis Lehane

Elmore Leonard

Donald E. Westlake—John Dortmunder (New York)

Stieg Larsson—Lisbet Salander and Mikael Blomqvist (Stockholm)

Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis—Nina Borg (Copenhagen)


Something’s rotten in Denmark

denmarkA review of The Boy in the Suitcase (Nina Borg #1), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

I’ve been wondering something about all this Nordic crime fiction that keeps creeping onto bestseller lists around the world. Since Scandinavia has one of the lowest rates of crime of anywhere in the world, do all those murder mysteries and thrillers from the region tell more stories about crime than there are actual crimes in those five little countries? After all, we’re talking about Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, with an aggregate population of 27 million people, which is roughly the same as that of Tokyo.

Well, it’s just a thought.

Outstanding crime fiction from Scandinavia

Whatever the answer to my question might be, there’s no denying the reality that Scandinavia has been producing some of the most outstanding crime fiction written in recent decades. For starters, think of Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander), Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole), Stieg Larsson (Lisbet Salander and Mikael Blomkvist), Peter Høeg (Smilla Jaspersen), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Martin Beck), Camilla Läckberg (Patrick Hedström and Erica Falck), and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Carl Mørck). I’ve read and enjoyed many of the books by these outstanding writers, in several cases all of them. Now I have an addition to the list: Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, the gifted co-creators of the engrossing Nina Borg series.

Murder and mayhem in Denmark

Nina Borg is a troubled young woman who flees from her husband and children from time to time to work as a nurse in refugee camps for the Danish Red Cross. Here are the authors describing Nina: “She was always busy telling herself that she was the only one who didn’t fit in, while everyone else was one big happy community. And she was also an expert at making herself believe that she was the only one who could save the world and put things right, while others were too busy buying flat-screen televisions and redecorating their kitchens and making bistro coffee and being happy.”

All of which is to say that, when Nina receives a panicked call from an old friend to pick up a package from a locker at the train station in Copenhagen, it’s no surprise that, however reluctantly, she agrees to do it. The trouble starts there, of course. She discovers a three-year-old boy drugged and crammed into a suitcase in the locker. When at length he becomes conscious, the boy speaks an unfamiliar language. Nina’s effort to identify the language and discover his identity takes her on a perilous flight through the city and into the suburbs. The ensuing tale is fraught with danger for Nina and suspenseful to the end. The Boy in the Suitcase is an outstanding example of Nordic Noir — and it’s just the first of three novels in the series.

About the authors

Lene Kaaberbøl writes both children’s fantasy and adult crime fiction. She is the author of 19 novels to date. Three of those books feature Nina Borg in a series she co-authors with Agnete Friis, who also works as a journalist. Both are Danish.



From Ian Rankin: a new novel featuring John Rebus, Malcolm Fox, and the city of Edinburgh

EdinburghA review of Even Dogs in the Wild (John Rebus #20), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

What can a writer do when the star of his long-running series ages into retirement? Henning Mankell took a cue from nature to solve that problem: Kurt Wallender fell prey to Alzheimer’s disease and proceeded to die a quiet death after twelve books, as did the series of detective novels featuring him.

How to replace a hero?

By contrast, consider Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus. No sooner has Rebus been forced into retirement than he manages to worm his way back into the Scottish national police in a “consultative” role. And no wonder. Rebus’ old nemesis, Malcolm Fox, formerly of “the Complaints” — what we in the U.S. know as Internal Affairs — is emerging as Rebus’ unlikely successor on the force. In fact, Fox has already been featured in two previous novels along with Rebus as well as in solo performances in two others.

The problem with this strategy is that the successor needs to be worthy. Malcolm Fox doesn’t measure up — and herein lies the fault in Even Dogs in the Wild, the twentieth novel in Rankin’s Rebus series and the fifth spotlighting Fox. Sadly, Fox is a far less engaging character. What saves this novel are Rankin’s complex plotting and the lesser characters who populate the Rebus novels: Detective Inspector (formerly Detective Sergeant) Siobhan Clarke and everybody’s favorite gangster boss, Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.

Edinburgh in a starring role

In some ways dominating them all, a character in its own right, is the city of Edinburgh in all its gray, overcast glory. Any one of the city’s half-million residents will recognize the streets, parks, and landmarks that lie in the background in all the Rebus novels. I know this because whenever I mention Ian Rankin or John Rebus to someone who lives there, the immediate response is a broad smile. A traveler planning a trip to Scotland might do well to read Rankin’s work to gain a fuller appreciation of the place.

A complex plot that fascinates to the end

In an earlier era of crime fiction, writers tended to content themselves with formulaic plots, offering up a long list of “suspects” in a murder case that the hero-detective managed to solve after many false starts. Rankin, and other contemporary mystery writers that aspire to attain the heights of the genre, never settle for such simplicity. In Even Dogs in the Wild, for example, Rebus, Fox, and Clarke all pursue separate lines of investigation. There is not one mystery but two — or more; the number becomes clear only well into the book. Suspense reigns, and the pace of action steadily picks up to a crescendo at the end.

About the author

In addition to twenty novels starring John Rebus and two featuring Malcolm Fox, Ian Rankin has written nine standalone novels and numerous other works as well as scores of short stories, more than two dozen of them featuring Rebus. He has probably won as many literary awards as anyone else on the planet. As Wikipedia reveals, “Before becoming a full-time novelist he worked as a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist, college secretary and punk musician in a band called the Dancing Pigs.”



Gruesome murder and engaging cops in Minneapolis

MinneapolisA review of The Bitter Season (Kovac and Liska #5), by Tami Hoag

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In The Bitter Season — the biting cold days in the run-up to Thanksgiving in Minneapolis — the news is dominated by the gruesome home invasion murder of a university professor and his wealthy wife. The homicide detective assigned to the case, Sam Kovac, is a veteran of the police force for whom “the big five-oh was looming large on the horizon.”

Liska and Kovac are a mismatched pair who have worked together successfully as partners on the Minneapolis police force for a number of years. Liska’s ex-husband, also a cop, appears to have the emotional maturity of a seventeen-year-old himself, leaving Liska to raise the boys with little support.

To replace Liska, Kovac has acquired a promising young rookie as his partner, a former MP. “He didn’t want a new partner. He was too old and cranky to break one in.” And as the story unfolds, Kovac proves himself right.

Meanwhile, the force is abuzz with the creation of a new cold case unit, and Liska has opted to join it in hopes she can avoid round-the-clock investigations and spend more time with her two teenage sons. However, against her will she is assigned to a quarter-century-old case that she believes to be unsolvable. And, as luck would have it, the investigation requires far longer hours than she’d hoped.

“It’s cold in Minneapolis”

This being fiction, and genre fiction at that, you won’t be surprised to learn that eventually the two cases prove to be related. But the path from here to there is full of surprises.

The Bitter Season features two engaging protagonists with a colorful, bantering relationship; not one but two fascinating murder mysteries; exotic background information; plus a couple of bad cops, two key characters who are unspeakably obnoxious, and running dialog among the cops that is worthy of Elmore Leonard.

This is not a morality play. As Liska notes, “No heroes in this story . . . Just humans, good, bad, and otherwise.” Amen to that.

About the author

If you check out the New York Times bestseller lists from time to time, as I do, you’ve probably noticed the name Tami Hoag. As Wikipedia notes, “She has had thirteen consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including five in a 20-month span.” Hoag wrote some two dozen romance novels before turning to writing thrillers, many of them standalone titles. The Kovac and Liska series of (now) five books is one of several short series of crime novels. Hoag was raised in Minnesota but now lives in California and Florida.

Three sisters, a marriage, and a gruesome crime

sistersA review of Pretty Girls: A Novel, by Karin Slaughter

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Pretty Girls is the story of three sisters, a marriage, and a gruesome crime. The characters are pretty. The story isn’t.

The fulcrum of this tale is the long-ago disappearance of nineteen-year-old Julia Carroll, the oldest of three beautiful blonde sisters. The sheriff and police believe she ran away, but no one in the family believes that. Her disappearance has upended both her parents’ and her sisters’ lives, leading to the suicide of her father, the drug addiction of her youngest sister, Lydia, and the escapism of her mother. There are reverberations of this tragedy that extend to the present.

Now, twenty-four years later, another attractive teenage blonde woman, Anna Kilpatrick, has disappeared. The parallel is obvious, but there is nothing whatsoever to link the two cases. Meanwhile, Julia’s younger sister, Claire, is with her husband, Paul Scott, when he is brutally murdered in an alleyway in Atlanta one evening. Now there are several cases to solve. Of course, there are connections among them — this is a crime novel, after all — but absolutely nothing is obvious, and the story about those connections is suspenseful to an extreme. Chances are, you’ll be kept guessing almost to the bitter end. Every one of the central characters has a secret, and they’re all likely to surprise you.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the author, Karin Slaughter, is also blonde and pretty. More to the point, she is an internationally bestselling author (30 million books sold) who is best known for fifteen excellent novels about crime and punishment in Georgia, featuring Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and/or Dr. Sara Linton. Pretty Girls is her twentieth book.


Murder in Sicily? What else is new?

murderA review of The Shape of Water (Inspector Montalbano #1), by Andrea Camilleri

@@@ (3 out of 5)

There’s little of that celebrated Italian charm in The Shape of Water, the first in Andrea Camilleri’s widely-read series of crime novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. The book is set in the town of Vigata in Sicily, where corruption reigns supreme and murder is nothing out of the ordinary. In this quaint but unpleasant setting, the incorruptible Inspector Montalbano routinely finds his work to be rough going. He’s frequently described as charming. But the story isn’t.

The body of the region’s political boss is discovered in blatantly compromising circumstances, setting off a chain of puzzling political juggling acts. There is pressure from all sides on Montalbano to close the case quickly. It seems that everyone insists the old man died a natural death. Montalbano doesn’t believe it. He doggedly sets out to understand what happened and finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and betrayal that tax him to the limit. Corrupt judges, a political hatchet-man, the Mafia, and a gorgeous six-foot Swedish blonde (as well as a gorgeous young gay man, also blond) all figure in the story.

Given the stereotypes of Sicily so popular in literature as well as the news media, it’s tempting to think that Camilleri’s picture of the place is fitting. To my mind, though, this stretches the imagination.

I thought Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti mystery was awful. Perhaps I just can’t wrap my mind around anything Italian. My one visit to the country was unpleasant, too. So it goes.



Definitely one of the 100 best mysteries of all time

100 best mysteriesA review of The Fools in Town are On Our Side, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

For extended periods over the past several decades, I’ve been reading mysteries by the carload. I thought that by now I’d be reasonably familiar with the best writers in the genre. Somehow, I missed Ross Thomas, who penned twenty-three crime novels between 1966 and 1994 and passed away in 1995. I came across The Fools in Town Are on Our Side in a list of someone’s idea of the 100 best mysteries of all time. I don’t know about many of the other 99, but this one surely belongs on that list.

Published in 1970, The Fools in Town relates a tall tale about municipal corruption set during Richard Nixon’s first term, while the Vietnam War spilled over into Laos and Cambodia. The title comes from Huckleberry Finn: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” According to an introduction to the Kindle edition I read, Thomas reputedly wrote his books from a standing start, without any sense of how they might end. That’s easy to believe about The Fools in Town. In fact, it’s easy enough to imagine that Thomas came across that passage in Huckleberry Finn and decided to write a novel to fit the title!

Lucifer C. Dye — one of several characters in the novel with Dickensian names — is a multilingual former American intelligence operative fired by his agency (not the CIA!) after causing an enormous clusterf**k in Singapore. Soon after he returns to the States he is offered a job for an enormous sum of money by a mysterious young man in a hotel room: Lucifer is to travel to a moderate-size Southern city which is already afflicted by outsized corruption — and corrupt the city even more, so that the good citizens of the town will vote in a reform slate and toss the bums out. Not exactly simple but logical, right? It is, except that Lucifer quickly discovers that the prominent citizens on the so-called reform slate are, if anything, even more corrupt than the bums now in charge.

While the action unfolds as Lucifer gets to work in earnest, his backstory is revealed in alternating chapters. We learn how it came about that he screwed up so badly in Singapore, and why he is so cynical about life that he’s willing to immerse himself in such a questionable enterprise. Improbable, but it all hangs together. The plotting in this novel is a wonder to behold — and so is the writing, especially the dialogue.

If you read crime novels and haven’t yet discovered Ross Thomas, treat yourself to The Fools in Town are On Our Side. It’s one of the most delicious send-ups of small-town politics I’ve ever come across.



A classic novel of guilt and corruption

corruptionA review of True Confessions: A Novel, by John Gregory Dunne

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

True Confessions, first published in 1977, is widely regarded as a classic American novel. Set in Los Angeles in 1948 and based on the notorious, never-solved Black Dahlia murder case, the story plumbs the depths of guilt and corruption — in the L.A.P.D., the Catholic Church, the construction industry, and in the relationships among them. Like the film Chinatown, which came to the screen three years before the novel, True Confessions illuminates the dark underside of Los Angeles at a time when corruption ran rampant and seemingly without shame. The book’s stature as a classic is underlined in an introduction by the brilliant novelist and screenwriter George Pelecanos, who writes of the author, “with True Confessions, he achieved what most novelists can only hope for. He left behind a work of art.”

Indeed. True Confessions works on many levels: as a crime novel, as humor (the story is often laugh-out-loud funny), as an example of masterful writing style, as an emblematic tale of a great American city, and as a novel that explores the human condition with sensitivity and deep understanding.

True Confessions revolves around the often testy relationship between two Irish-American brothers, Tom and Des Spellacy. Tom is a lieutenant in the L.A.P.D., a clever detective with a past history of corruption. Tom’s brother, Des, is a Catholic priest risen to the rank of Monsignor and the role of fixer and hatchet man for the aging Cardinal, whom he hopes to succeed. The two brothers come into conflict over their clashing agendas for a corrupt construction mogul who is one of the city’s richest and most powerful men. They have drastically different ideas about how to deal with the man.

The author writes with compassion. For example, describing bystanders in a poor neighborhood, he writes, “They weren’t bad people. Just too-little, too-late people. Has-beens, never-weres, never-will-bes.” The novel is rife with unsympathetic characters, but none of them can be viewed as evil.

The story opens and closes in the 1970s, when Tom and Des are old men, reviewing the wreckage of their careers. In between, two plots intertwine: Tom’s investigation of the shocking murder of a young woman, and Des’s attempts to strengthen the Church while scheming to position himself as the successor to the Cardinal.

The late novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne — he died in 2003 at the age of 71 — came naturally to writing. He was the younger brother of the writer Dominick Dunne and was married for nearly forty years to Joan Didion. True Confessions was adapted into a movie in 1981 starring Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall as the brothers.

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