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What to Pack on Your Summer Vacation By: David Forsmark
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 13, 2008

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 bureaucrats.

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 ex-cop father.

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.

Custer's Comeback?

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 ardent buff.

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 for Lambs.

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. 

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