If this summer's heavy rains and record-breaking cold temperatures (even in Al Gore's hometown of Nashville and the Obama’s political hometown of Chicago) are forcing you to spend an unplanned amount of time indoors on your vacation, some of our best popular fiction writers offer options that don't require your brain—or your values--to go on holiday for you to have a good time while you wait for global warmng to kick in.
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
Before he became the greatest mystery novelist of his generation, Michael Connelly was a terrific crime beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Probably his best known book to not star LAPD detective Harry Bosch is The Poet, about a LA Times reporter haunted by a serial killer with a literary bent.
Conelly’s latest superb thriller, The Scarecrow, (Little, Brown, $27.99) once again stars Times reporter Jack McEvoy on the trail of a killer; but it’s as much about the death of the newspaper business as it is about the murders of the young women by the title’s predator.
McEvoy has been told by his McNews bosses, you have two weeks to take your journalism prizes and hit the road, and oh yeah, train your green j-school grad who will work for peanuts replacement on the way out.
But when covering the story of a young black man accused of gruesomely slaughtering a prostitute, the attractive cub reporter triggers a trip wire that brings her to the attention of the real killer, a computer whiz who runs the websites and records storage of a large number of major law firms.
As in the last season of The Wire, Connelly weaves his typically suspenseful and unpredictable mystery with a strong thread of bitterness at what his former profession has become. However, he is also honest about some of the old tricks of the trade that may have turned readers against the press in the first place.
In a revealing episode, McEvoy calls an Al Sharpton type who gives reliably good quote to spice up his story, and interject the idea that the investigation into the killing is racially motivated because the woman was white and the suspect is black. That this is done as a matter of routine as part of the “old journalism” keeps things in perspective. The newspaper which recently excoriated its readers for voting against tax hikes in California has always followed a liberal template. The bias was always there, now without the cover hard news content it is more exposed than ever.
The Way Home by George Pelecanos
Speaking of The Wire, since his stint as a writer for David Simon’s all time great television series, Washington D.C. crime novelist George Pelecanos has elevated his game. Pigeonholing what George Pelecanos is doing right now into a crime or noir fiction genre is like comparing John Grisham to Tom Wolfe because they are both from the South. George Pelecanos is writing great American literature. Period.
As on the show, Pelecanos tells intensely human stories by focusing on the individuals who live in urban chaos rather than using stock characters to represent supposedly victimized groups. In his last two books in particular, Pelecanos shows that the ultimate social program is also the ultimate individual enterprise—fatherhood.
In The Way Home, (Little, Brown, $24.99) tells the story of Chris Flynn, a rebellious white teenager who finally gets in enough trouble to do a stretch in an infamous juvenile prison, much to the disgust of his blue collar father and the sorrow of his long suffering mother. After his release, Chris works for his dad’s carpet installing company; and even though his father goes out of his way to help young black men Chris did time with, tension between the two remains high, fueled by disappointment and resentment on both sides.
When Chris and a former inmate co-worker find a stash of money hidden in the floor of a foreclosed house they are working in, Chris leaves it alone, thinking “I’ve seen this movie.” Unfortunately, trying to avoid trouble isn’t enough, and he becomes the focus of some vicious thugs.
The Way Home is a story of redemption, but it’s no Hallmark Card. Its achingly and frustratingly human characters blunder their way to the truth, saved only by a foundation of love and faith that is sometimes buried so deep it seems irrecoverable. The suspense in this story comes not so much from the threat of violence, as our dread that something will push the characters so far that reconciliation becomes impossible.
Pelecanos got a lot more love from the mainstream press when he wrote novels that better fit their template about what ails urban America. But few writers tell the story of working class people struggling in the midst of urban decay with the empathy and honesty Pelecanos does.
Marine One by James W. Huston
Back in the late 90s, when most writers of military yarns were of the “technothriller” variety, positing theoretical clashes between the world’s major powers, James Huston burst on the scene with the terrific Balance of Power, the first in a prescient series of books that centered around the constitutional conflicts and ideological battles a war on terror would present, from Presidential war powers to waterboarding.
In his latest novel, Marine One, (St. Martins, $24.95)Huston, a former Top Gun F-14 pilot, takes good advantage of his current day job as a hotshot trial attorney in a fast-paced legal thriller. When the brand new Presidential helicopter Marine One goes down in a storm, attorney Mike Nolan, a former helicopter pilot who represents the company that made the chopper, knows he has his work cut out for him.
Typically, aviation crash cases come down to aircraft failure or pilot error. But there is nothing typical about this case, and the deck is stacked against Nolan as the government seems determined to rule out sabotage. To add to his PR nightmare, the pilot was a much admired war hero, and the helicopter manufacturer is a foreign manufacturer that controversially underbid American companies—and just to top it off, the company is French.
Marine One may be the most furiously paced courtroom drama I’ve ever read, with enough twists in the plot to give the reader whiplash. Nolan not only has to do battle with one of the nation’s most flamboyant and unethical trial attorneys, he has to contend with the Secret Service, the FAA, and spooks from mysterious agencies—and he’s not even sure his investigation will prove his client is not at fault.
But while this may not be a terrorist thriller (note that I say “may” not be) Huston still raises typically smart points about national security and constitutional processes, not to mention truth, justice and the American way.
Check out Marine One, then go back and read Huston’s excellent military thrillers. Balance of Power may be 12 years old, but in the Age of Obama, its tale of a the crisis caused by a pacifist President who refuses to respond to terrorist attacks seems fresher than ever.
Relentless by Dean Koontz
It will be no surprise to anyone who’s read him, that mega-selling suspense writer Dean Koontz thinks there is a culture war going on. In his latest thriller, Relentless, Koontz presents a story in which that is not a metaphor, but an actual physical conflict.
Bestselling author Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich knew it probably wasn’t a great idea to respond to an unfair and inaccurate review by Shearman Waxx , the nation’s most influential book critic, by pointing out that Waxx could not have actually read the book. But he just couldn’t stop himself, and it felt good.
Soon, however, he and his family are terrorized and on the run, dodging bullets and bombs. Cubby can’t go to the police, sure that no one will believe his story that he is being hunted by a nebbeshy columnist who is determined to stamp out any literature that promotes faith, hope or love.
(In my review of Koontz’s The Darkest Evening of the Year, I noted that his “commentary” rankled the New York Times’s Janet Maslin; but if her review bothered Koontz it would be that not because Maslin was inaccurate, but that she revealed a major plot surprise in her snarky review.)
Relentless starts out as though it is going to be all-out satire with some very pointed and funny jabs at the publishing business; but then abruptly takes a gruesome turn. The climatic battle contains elements that come out of nowhere and might have worked better with a little more preparation. Fans will find much of the book familiar. Koontz has done the family on the run better in Mr. Murder, handled murderous arguments over publishing feuds in False Memory, and for a sense of paranoia, nothing beats his Dark Rivers of the Heart.
I loved Koontz’s assertion that deconstructionist nihilists could not have done more damage to the culture if they had employed actual assassins to enforce their dictates; but Relentless is a bit loopy in its execution and far-fetched even by Koontz standards. However, it certainly lives up to its title, and not one page of it bored me. That’s worth a lot.
Assegai by Wilbur Smith
Culture wars are not mere metaphors for internationally bestselling author Wilbur Smith. Smith is a native of Rhodesia whose parents where the type of rancher that Marxist thug Robert Mugabe later drove out of the country; and his big scale adventure novels, set mostly in Africa, have covered everything from the colonization of the continent, two world wars, and the fights over apartheid and communist insurgencies.
The unfailingly politically incorrect Smith even exposed the terrorist tactics of Nelson Mandela’s ANC in two novels, all the while decrying apartheid, himself. Smith’s major contribution is in pointing out that the whites in Africa are as tribally divided as the blacks; and that the clash between the British and German empires is largely ignored by a western media which boils everything down to black and white. Whatever the faults of the British Empire, Smith maintains African tribes fared much better under it than when Germans wielded power.
Smith’s latest, Assegai, (St. Martins, $27.95) (the title refers to the short fighting spear of the Masai tribe) once again pits the two empires against each other in Southern Africa in the period after the Boer War and leading up to World War I.
Smith brings his two famed family sagas together-- the Courtneys of South Africa and the Ballantynes of Rhodesia. The focus is young Leon Courtney, a soldier longing for adventure and chafing at military discipline, and his uncle, Colonel Penrod Ballantyne, who we last saw fighting the Muslim hordes at Khartoum alongside General Gordon. After Leon fights his way out of a Zulu-like massacre, Penrod offers his nephew a chance to follow his dream. Leon will serve an apprentice to a famous big game hunter whose clientele (entertainingly) includes Teddy Roosevelt.
But his real mission is to spy on rich German aristocrats like aviation pioneer and altogether nasty piece of work, Graf Otto von Meerbach. Herr Otto has a plan to reignite the defeated Boers to help Germany win the war in Europe-- and of course it’s up to Leon, who is desperately in love with Otto’s wife, to save the day.
True, over his 5-decade career, Smith may overused his Biblical plot and character templates, as each generation seems to follow a Cane and Abel, Jacob and Esau, or King David parallel, but most of the time it works splendidly
The Courtneys and Ballantynes are to Africa what Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts are to the Old West—and then some. They fight like Sacketts, have capitalist ambitions as big as any James Clavell hero, their romances make Gone With the Wind look like a bleak Scorcese movie, and they make H. Rider Haggard’s great white hunters look like members of PETA.
With pharmaceutical commercials bombarding TV sports fans with the question, “Do you have low T?” doctors should consider a lower cost approach to hormone therapy: Prescribe a few doses of Wilbur Smith.