The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John LeCarre
Most spy thrillers are way too mechanical, plot heavy/character light and in some ways predictable to please me.. And when I finish a book like that, I generally feel as if I’ve been suckered out of a few hours of precious time.
LeCarre is a mighty refreshing exception. His characters are full blooded, endowed with recognizable traits both appealing and off-putting. And his plotting, while every bit as rich as any of those lifeless books I mention above, is in no way predictable. On the contrary, it’s both exquisite and tough to crack.
Here’s a clip I stole from a nifty readers’ resource called FictFact: “It would be an international crime to reveal too much of the jeweled clockwork plot of Le Carré’s first masterpiece (third book in the George Smiley series), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But we are at liberty to disclose that Graham Greene called it the ‘finest spy story ever written’ . .
And if you haven’t read Graham Greene, you must.
The Far Side of the Dollar by Ross Macdonald —
Whenever I don’t feel compelled to read something else, I return to the ones who always keep me not only awake, but alert. Ruth Rendell, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith and, most often, Ross Macdonald.
Part of my fondness and admiration may be our shared geography, but most of all, it’s motivated by the honesty and trust that Lew Archer is searching for complete answers, not only who did the crime, but why and where that motive came from.
The Far Side of the Dollar is vintage Macdonald, beginning with a runaway teenager and growing into the catalog of sins of commission and omission that inevitably get visited on the children. 9/13 KK
The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald —
Having read all Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, I can’t remember being disappointed by any of them.
Lately I got the urge to lose myself in Lew Archer’s world, which for the most part runs along the coast of southern California between the late ’40s and the early ’70s.
I found a deal on a hardcover of The Goodbye Look, the plot of which I only vaguely remembered. And now, more than ever, I agree with William Goldman, whose review of the novel included: “The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”
MacDonald knew all the tricks of suspense and used them so well that I can feel abused when sleep or some other responsibility calls me away from a novel of his. And he rewards us readers with characters whose actions and emotions we understand, sometimes too well. Even if they are more damaged than us, we can’t help seeing in them who we could be, but for fortune.
The Goodbye Look may be MacDonald at his best. The way the good guys reveal their badness and the bad guys find their piece of redemption, and even the lesser characters play crucial parts in the intricate story of the wages of sin multiplied by family secrecy–only a true master can create such as world. 9-13 KK
The Idiot, by Feodor Dostoyevski
When people ask my favorite writer ever, I usually say it’s Feodor Dostoyevski. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov have entertained, enraptured and enlightened me more than any other work by a single author.
The Idiot, which I recently reread after a couple decades, certainly entertained but in an entirely different way. It’s essentially the portrait of an innocent attempting to live an honest and honorable life in the midst of a sophisticated and jaded culture. It often struck me as more like a Jane Austen novel than like a Dostoyevski masterpiece. By that, I mean no insult, as I love Jane Austen. But a story in that mode, though it offers brilliant and memorable insights about human nature and how corrupted most of us civilized folks are, is simply not what Dostoyevski did best.
Still, I recommend the book and will no doubt read it again.
BY MY FRIENDS
Shoot to Kill by Wade Miller — On September 30, 2012, the mystery community lost a giant, Robert Wade, alias Whit Masterson, Will Daemer and (with Bill Miller) Wade Miller, collaborator on 33 of his 44 novels.
Bob’s mysteries have sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages. Six of his novels were adapted to the screen, the most famous being Orson Welles “Badge of Evil” (based on the Wade Miller book “Touch of Evil”). A number of his books were also adapted for the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
Bob was born in 1920, in San Diego, where he chose to remain. His love of the city was often featured in his books. One of his recurring characters was San Diego private eye Max Thursday (created well before Joe Friday).
Bob attended San Diego State University, but didn’t graduate. He was the editor of the college newspaper, and he and Bill Miller wrote an editorial denouncing the U.S. government’s wartime interment of Japanese-American citizens. The college administration objected to the article. Rather than back down, they chose to be expelled. Soon thereafter, they enlisted in the military. Bob’s service took him to North Africa where he was an infantryman before he worked in counterintelligence and served as a correspondent.
For many years, Bob wrote the Spadework mystery reviews for the San Diego Union Tribune, always without stooping to deliver harmful judgments. If he didn’t appreciate a book, he simply didn’t review it.
Bob was a generous, gifted yet humble man, who always showed up at events accompanied by Jeanne, his beautiful and gracious wife of more than 60 years. He is survived by Jeanne, two sons, and two daughters. If I were asked to offer an example of a life well-lived, Bob’s might be my choice.
Lately I shopped for a book of his I hadn’t read and came upon a hardback of Shoot to Kill, a Max Thursday mystery by Wade Miller. When it arrived, I was delighted to find it dedicated to Jeanne, published around the time of their marriage. One of the early scenes featured the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, an old haunt of my friend Alan Russell, who was also a friend and fan of Bob Wade’s.
I may note in my will that Shoot to Kill should go to Alan, if he doesn’t sue me for plagiarism on the grounds that his Alan’s article for the North County Times was the source for some details given above.
Any mystery reader who appreciates both wit and craft should follow my lead, search out a book by one of Bob’s aliases, and enjoy.
Robert Wade and William Miller, who together became Wade Miller and Whit Masterson, were lifelong crime writers, and masters of, especially, the private investigator genre. Shoot to Kill, featuring PI Max Thursday (created prior to Joe Friday), written sixty years ago, exemplifies their art and craft. While the story delivers us to another time, in a long gone San Diego, the characters are alive, as complex as a mystery allows, and the themes and concerns are as vital as ever. 9-13 KK
The team’s most-acclaimed novel Badge of Evil, was made into a 1958 Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil, generally considered one of the best crime movies ever.
Blossom by Donigan Merritt — Set in the rural south prior to and during the Civil Rights action of the early 1960s, Blossom ought to be required reading for anyone who doesn’t fully grasp how ugly and vicious people can be.
Don is an old friend and a fine story craftsman who graduated from the University of Iowa Master of Fine Arts program. His books should charm anyone looking for thoughtful stories told in a rich and graceful style. 9-13 KK
The Blue Hallelujah by Andy Straka —
Like Ross Mac Donald, Straka doesn’t stop with offering the solution and bringing the villain to justice. He also gives us the whys and shows just how the sins of the fathers are visited upon future generations.
Andy Straka is a thoughtful, journeyman mystery writer. Please consider adding him to your must read list.
St. Nick, by Alan Russell
Having spent most of 2013 downgrading my view of the goodness in human nature, I opened St. Nick in a skeptical frame of mind. And when characters performed acts of kindness, I hesitated before accepting them as authentic, even in a fictional sense.
But as the story moved along, and more and more characters, major and walk-on, responded to others and events in loving ways, the armor shielding my heart opened a bit and I became smoothing of a believer.
Provocations by Soren Kierkegaard, Charles E. Moore editor
Of all the enlightening ideas I have encountered, a few special items never go far from my mind. One of them is the position Soren Kierkegaard took in regard to churches. He considered them dangerous, essentially because Christ called people to live in opposition to the ways of the world, which arise out of human nature. But churches long ago became and continue to be collaborators with the world. To survive, they need to compromise with the ways of the world, and that compromise negates the Christian message.
Feodor Dostoyevski offered an extreme presentation of the church gone awry in “The Grand Inquisitor,” and close observation of most any contemporary church will offer evidence to back up the position.
Kierkegaard is about as pure an idealist as I can imagine. He is willing to compromise not a word of Christ’s message. So, regarding Christ’s command to love our neighbor and his use of the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that our neighbor is everybody, Kierkegaard insists that the message is: we are commanded to actively love ,a nd to love everyone without distinction.
Provocations is a collection of the heart of Kierkegaard’s work, a most valuable introduction to his brilliance and idealism. The text is, in many cases, edited for clarity, as the originals are often dense and difficult.
My suggestion to people new to Kierkegaard would be to read provocations first, then proceed to the originals, such as Works of Love. 9-13 KK
A Bright and Guilty Place by Richard Rayner —
I write novels set in California, some of them during the early years of the 20th century. So I read lots of books about that period. One of the best is Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place.
Rayner tells the life stories of an investigator and a lawyer, both employed by the District Attorney’s office. One of them is heroic, one deeply flawed. Through their exploits and antics, Mr. Rayner exposes L.A.’s rampant and systemic corruption, the endemic collusion between government, law enforcement, and capitalists of all sorts including crime bosses.
What’s more, if we stop to think, we may realize how universal is this social structure, which is rigged so that a select and avaricious few wallow in privilege and abundance while the rest serve as pawns and star-struck voyeurs.
At that point, some of us might pause and go for a drink, or mumble, “Damn, I don’t think anything’s changed.”
A Bright and Guilty Place should be required reading for all who vote. It’s that enlightening, as well as being a compelling story.
BOOKS OF MINE, which I won’t boast about except to note that if I didn’t love them, I would’ve written them differently.
Tom Hickey’s California :
The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles: L.A., 1926. A dear friend gets lynched and the police don’t appear to care, so Tom Hickey becomes a detective. San Diego Book Awards Best Mystery
The Good Know Nothing: L.A., Yuma, and Tucson, 1936: A clue sends Tom on a search for his father and up against novelist B. Traven, the Sundance Kid, and tycoon William Randolph Hearst. (Coming in August 2014)
The Venus Deal: San Diego, Mount Shasta, and Denver, 1942. To save a young artist from committing murder, Tom sets out to expose the leader of a spiritualist cult and bring down a notorious hit man.
The Loud Adios: San Diego and Tijuana, 1943. As an MP assigned to the Mexican border, Tom discovers a band of Nazis plotting to seize control of Baja California. Best First PI Novel
The Angel Gang: Lake Tahoe and San Diego, 1950. Wendy, Tom’s wife, vanishes while pregnant. To rescue her, Tom takes captive a kingpin in the Nevada casino mob.
The Do-Re-Mi: Rural Northern California, 1972. Clifford Hickey arrives at a folk festival and finds his adopted brother Alvaro, whom he intended to meet there, accused of murder. Best PI Novel finalist.
The Vagabond Virgins: Baja California, 1979. A heavenly vision appears in rural Baja and preaches a gospel of revolution. Meanwhile, the daughter of a Nazi officer who fled from Germany to Mexico engages Alvaro Hickey’s services and beguiles his heart.
You can find the Hickey novels and other books of mine here.