Entertainment options get pretty
thin this time of year. So once you've seen The Dark Knight defend the
terrorist surveillance program and argue that terrorists — not the
authorities who pursue them — are responsible for killing innocent civilians,
here are some prime choices for whiling away the remaining lazy summer nights.
Cops Vs. The Law
After the Rodney King incident
and subsequent riots in Los Angeles, the feds installed a passel of bureaucrats who
are supposed to protect civilians' civil rights. Instead, contends Joseph
Wambaugh, what resulted kept the LAPD from doing real police work. In Hollywood
Crows (Little, Brown, $26.99),Wambaugh -- the godfather of the modern
cop story with such novels as The New Centurions and The Choirboys --
goes to the mattress against the racial bean counters and CYA federal
The novel, a sequel to the
outstanding Hollywood Station (2006), is Wambaugh at his best. He hasn't
been this productive and fired up since the dark days of the 1970s, when the
radical chic chanted "pig" when refering to the "fascist"
police who were an "arm of oppression" in the inner city, Through his
stories, Wambaugh -- then an LA cop himself -- helped turn the cultural tide.
Crows is even more episodic than Station,
but it retains every bit of its predecessor's social punch. Some of the
characters from Station, having become frustrated by federal obstacles
to good policing, have become Community Relations Officers (CROws) who take
nuisance complaints. But it's not the refuge they seek.
The main "plot" -- if one
dares to use the term -- concerns an Arab strip club owner and his former
employee wife as they manipulate the cops in various ways against each other
with potentially deadly results. But this is only the main event in a 30-ring
circus of incidents ranging from sexually indeterminate street hustlers dressed
as cartoon characters and superheroes engaging in street battles,to a Muslim
honor killing among Somali immigrants.
Hollywood Crows will definitely not get the PC
patrol's badge of approval, but it will earn citations from readers looking for
literate, relevant and wildly entertaining fiction.
A friend's wife described Richard
Price's Lush Life, (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26) as "like
outtakes from The Wire," and she meant it as a compliment.
Like George Pelecanos, Price's fellow writer on HBO's brilliant take on the
American inner city, veteran novelist Price comes off his stint of working with
David Simon of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire with his
best novel yet.
Like many of his books, Lush
Life is set in New York City and concerns a crime with racial
implications. The novel, however, if far less heavy-handed with Social
Significance than Price's previous works. When a black mugger fatally
shoots a young white aspiring screenwriter in a newly gentrified
street , politicians, preachers, media types, bystanders and friends all vie
for ownership of the story and its Meaning.
Only the family and a dogged cop seem
to care about trying to keep the political storylines and urban celebrity
legends from getting in the way of the truth.
The comparisons to Tom Wolfe's
classic Bonfire of the Vanities, are overblown, as Price keeps the focus
to one neighborhood. Like David Simon's best work, however, there is a feeling
that Price is following real people around with his reporter's notebook in this
convincing and affecting novel with what particularly shallow newspaper editor
in The Wire might call "Dickensian" depth.
While presumptive Democratic
presidential hopeful Barak Obama claims to be a post-racial figure, he can't
resist falling back on the race card when pressed. Lush Life is a
hopeful sign that in literature, even writers with impeccable liberal
credentials may have progressed to a point where race is a factor in the mix,
but racism is no longer the default setting for an easy catch-all culprit.
Meanwhile, in Child 44
(Grand Central, $24.99), one of the season's most promoted thrillers, debut
novelist Tim Rob Smith almost lives up to hype. The pitch for this book
undoubtedly called it "an Orwellian mix of (Martin Cruz Smith's) Gorky
Park and (Thomas Harris') The Silence of the Lambs. While it might
not reach those lofty heights, this is an arresting thriller with an
uncompromisingly harsh view of Soviet communism.
Leo Demidov is an MGB agent in
Stalin's Russia, circa 1953. He is ideologically devoted to protecting the
"workers paradise" until two incidents shake his foundations. First,
a man he arrests, then proves to be innocent, is tortured and executed merely
because the state can not admit fallibility.
But Leo really goes off the rails
when he discovers that a killer is targeting young boys. Even investigating
such a thing is a crime against the state, as it is officially impossible that
Soviet utopia could produce such a monster. To his horror, Leo discovers that
the totalitarian power of the state has corrupted everything in his life,
including his marriage.
Child 44 isn't a perfect thriller, but it
certainly establishes Tim Rob Smith as an author to watch, and its unambiguous
statement on the evil of communism is striking.
Thrillers You Can Believe In
Globalism comes to Manhattan and
adds to the criminal melting pot in Colin Harrison's dazzling new thriller, The
Finder (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25).
The book gets off to a unusual —
and stomach-churning -- start as two illegal Mexican maids are mistakenly
killed by homegrown Italian mobsters using a sewage truck. The goombas'
intended target was their employer, Jin Li, a Chinese businesswoman who used
her paper-shredding company as a means to steal industrial secrets from a
pharmaceutical company for her brother, a gangster in mainland China who uses
the information to manipulate stocks. This affects a Master of the Universe
type, who is heavily leveraged in Good Pharma but can't afford the scrutiny
that a legal response would entail.
Li's only hope is her boyfriend, Ray
Grant, an ex-firefighter who mysteriously disappeared from sight after barely
surviving the terror attacks of 9-11 but is back in town to care for his dying
The Finder is what summer reading is all about.
Seek it out.
Chris Stewart, a record-holding B-1
bomber pilot turned techno-thriller writer, returns to the skies in spectacular
fashion in The God of War (St. Martin's, $24.95). This genre has
fallen on hard times lately, with the of Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown
spinning ever wilder scenarios; Stewart is one of the few who has adapted well
to current events.
That fact Stewart's premise has much
in common Robert Kagan's thesis that Islamofascism is the immediate threat to
America, but the longer-term threat is from China and Russia is a nice side
benefit; but The God of War is worth the cover price because of
thrilling action. This all out thriller has much in common with Craig
Thomas's air combat classic Firefox, as the American military races to
recover a superweapon stolen from the Paris airshow; a laser-armed stealth
fighter designed to restore the balance of power in the Pacific.
Read The God of War,
then check out Stewart's four other fine military thrillers.
Robert Crais' PI hero Elvis Cole
explicitly rejects the Lynne Stewart/William Kuntsler Kunstler notion that
criminal defense is about collaborating with evil in his latest, Chasing
Darkness. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95)
When it appears that a loner that
Cole cleared of murder was actually a serial killer, Cole is baffled and
guilt-stricken since two of the murders happened after his part in the case.
But the more he looks at the new evidence, the more he is convinced another
killer is at work.
As popular as Robert Crais has
become, he is still somewhat underrated. Like fellow Californian Michael
Connelly, Crais has earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence with
such greats as Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.
For 132 years, Gen.
George Armstrong Custer has been held up Exhibit 1 of white American
imperial arrogance. The indictments are handed down not just from Ward
Churchill-types liberal wienies but also from from such solid traditionalists
as Louis L'Amour.
But historian James Donovan thinks a
more nuanced picture is in order. Donavan, whose illustrated book, Custer
and the Little Bighorn, has been considered by many to be the classic
on the subject, now does himself one better with A Terrible Glory, Custer
and the Little Bighorn: The Last Great Battle of the American West.
(Little, Brown, $26.95), a comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining account of
the infamous battle that will satisfy both the casual reader and the most
Custer is easily lampooned as a
preening incompetent because he first gained attention when his horse ran away
with him in battle, and his last battle was … you know. But Donovan reminds us
that Custer stopped Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg and possibly saved the day and was
a good tactical cavalry commander throughout the Civil War.
And if you think generals
second-guessing strategy and playing politics in the media during wartime is
something new, wait until you read Donovan's account of partisan sniping in the
Eastern papers. A potent combination of the Indian wars and Grant
administration scandals made for poisonous politics, and Custer was in the
thick of it -- and it perhaps fatally delayed the start of his final campaign.
A Terrible Glory is not quite the classic as
Nathaniel Philbrick's recent sensation Mayflower,or as powerful as
sweeping as Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder; but people who enjoyed
those new looks at iconic American stories will find it more than satisfying.
A Terrible Two
Some conservatives are shilling
pretty hard for Brad Thor's latest potboiler, The Last Patriot
(Atria, $26). This is sort of a DaVinci Code of Muslim extremism, and
while there is much to admire in Thor's thesis (laid out in long rants that
bring the book to a screeching halt) that the current incarnation of
Islamofascism is merely an uptick in a thousand-year war, this is an extremely
poorly written and silly thriller.
Those who promote this tripe make it
harder to criticize the left for promoting such agitprop as Robert Redford's Lions
On the other extreme is Lee Child's
latest Jack Reacher thriller, Nothing to Lose. (Delacorte, $27),
which, judging from the reactions on Amazon, is losing Child a healthy chunk of
his fan base. The heretofore apolitical Reacher, all of a sudden begins ranting
like Michael Moore in this anti-Iraq War screed. Perhaps the worst slander in
the book is that wounded veterans are "garbage" to the US military,
but that's at the head of a long list.
The gimmick of the series is Jack
Reacher is a loner hero, a drifter who never stays long in one place. This
may explain his common ground for the appellation MoveOn.org, but his abrupt
switch to its political views may have readers moving on, themselves.