Bel Canto : Donna Leon – “Death at La Fenice” (Commissario Guido Brunetti # 1)

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ABOVE: “Mi senti ora?”

(Picked up mostly for Italian inspiration.) Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books are  a long-running cozy series set largely in Venice. The debut, “Death at La Fenice,” finds the likable Brunetti, (who’s practically a transplanted Maigret) investigating the murder of a German conductor who is poisoned halfway through a production of “La Traviata” at the (real life) Phoenix theatre. Brunetti is an instantly engaging character, sardonic but moral, and his family, (wife Paola and  two rascally kids) are just as likable as he is. The setting is great, of course: it has all of the sights of Venice, none of the smells. Less distinguished is the plot that fulfills the basic needs of a whodunit but goes no further than that.

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ABOVE: “What’s opera, doc?” I feel like I’ve used this every single time opera comes up.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

Shell Bound : Masamune Shirow – “Black Magic”

ABOVE: Planetary

A fully-decked warrior points out to his comrades in arms, who are about to be deployed from a military helicopter: “We’re soldiers, not philosophers.” That’s from Masamune Shirow’s  1983 debut,”Black Magic.” It’s the standard intro to any number of action scenes  in movies, novels, and graphic novels: assorted mercenaries bantering and bonding over the noise of the chopper’s rotors. But it exemplifies the essential tug at the heart of Shirow’s influential work ( his classics include “Appleseed,” “Dominion Tank Police,” and “Ghost in the Shell.”)

Shirow is half-entranced by weaponry and bellic technology, (which he draws and describes in Tom Clancy-esque detail), and half-lost in ponderous philosophical musings about duty, identity, religiosity, and the meaning of a mechanical life. “Black Magic,” his first work, has many amateurish character designs, (he would improve) but already shows his love for throwing machines and religion into a crucible. Here, Zeus is some sort of computer creature that oversees life on planet Venus, where Greek mythology apparently permeates the names of things. That doesn’t stop Shirow from also including (a year before Akira Toriyama’s “Dragon Ball”) an alien monkey named Sohn Gokou, in homage to the Buddhist “Journey to the West”… Or from freely sprinkling the already melty mix with  Mesoamerican concepts: the city of Teotihuacan figures prominently as a center of operations. Depending on your level of generosity as you pick up the volume, this is all either the promising seed for future, better developed material – or a near incomprehensible mess.

RATING : SHRUG

L. A. Noir : Ross MacDonald – “The Moving Target” and “The Drowning Pool”

I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.” – Lew Archer, in Ross MacDonald’s “The Moving Target.”

It has been said that Kenneth Millar, a. k. a. Ross MacDonald, wrote the same novel over and over again, but it was such a good novel that no one could hold that against him. It’s true that Lew Archer, the tough-but-fair detective that first made it big with 1949’s “The Moving Target” and 1950’s “The Drowning Pool” would “go through the motions” in many subsequent novels. A client calls him in to take care of a seemingly simple situation, (a disappearance in the family, a routine blackmailing) and Archer goes on to get tangled in (and find a way out of) a thick, sticky web of deceitful criminality.

ABOVE: Don’t drink and shoot! You will spill your drink!

 

ABOVE: There were TWO blondes in California? That stretches believability…

 

The plots ARE highly complicated and surprising, but they are always highly complicated and surprising according to the same scheme. Few mystery series writers have escaped this accusation- but few have been praised by the literary establishment like MacDonald, (Eudora Welty was a friend, vocal fan, and maybe hook-up, according to the wagging tongues.)

It’s not the satisfying-but-repetitive plot mechanics that make MacDonald third in the original noir trinity, (after Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.) And it’s not even the “psychology,” although people will point at the increasingly Freudian ruminations of the series as the reason why the Lew Archer series “transcends genre” – apologies for an embarrassingly lazy phrase that serves only to hint at a critic’s ignorance of a ‘genre.’ If there is a transcendence of genre in MacDonald’s work, it’s the way in which he goes beyond fiction into poetry. If Robert Frost had been tasked by a tyrannical muse with the plotting of whodunits, they might have sounded like “The Moving Target” or “The Drowning Pool.” Nowhere is this poetry better than when depicting the external and internal landscapes of Archer’s “Santa Teresa,” which are shown to us in concise, lucid lines that get at the truth behind things. (MacDonald lived in Santa Barbara all his life, and “Santa Teresa” is the alter locus; curiously, his wife, Margaret Millar, a renowned writer on her own, also used Santa Barbara as locale- except she called it “Santa Felicia.” Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s alphabet-loving P. I., would eventually move to “Santa Teresa” herself.)

RATING: MASTERPIECES!!!

P. S.:

ABOVE: I don’t want to harp on this, but…

 

Paul Newman played Lew Archer in two movies based on “The Moving Target” and “The Drowning Pool.” (one good, one mediocre) Or rather, Newman played “Lew Harper,” because I guess there is some rule that makes it so that any Hollywood adaptations of literary material must include a variety of pointless, preferably detrimental changes. Like, say, deciding that “Harper” was a married man. Or that he must work in Louisiana instead of California. Or that he should be 5’2 and 140 lbs. instead of 6’5 and 250 lbs. Wait, now I’m thinking about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Still, same concept.

 

 

 

 

Baby Steps : Bentley Little – “The Revelation”

ABOVE: “Poetry?? I came for the murders, not the poetry!”

Reading Richard Laymon’s “Beware!” and Phony McFakename’s “The Gym” reminded me of how much I love that particular subgenre of horror in which supernatural mayhem intrudes upon the supposed normalcy of rural or suburban communities; those books also reminded me of how little I’ve read of Bentley Little’s work, an author who excels in the form. (“The Association,” in particular, has stuck with me through the years.)  Stephen King has referred to Bentley Little as “the horror poet laureate” and I know this because I’m reading it right now; it’s in the cover to “The Revelation,” Little’s breakthrough novel and a winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best First Novel.

“Poet” is way too much; there isn’t a whole lot of “poetry” in evidence here- what Bentley Little does do well is linking likeable stock characters in decently-crafted horror plots. Here, the small Arizonan town of Randall looks like it might be the setting for a forthcoming Rapturous confrontation between Good and Evil, as evidenced by all the prophetic dreams, all the exsanguinated goats, all the crudely vandalized church facades, and all the gory miscarriages in the area. In short, it’s not a good time for horror-writer Gordon Lewis and his wife Marina to learn they’re about to have a baby of their own… And things get worse when the trade-marked deranged Bible-thumping preacher jumps into the narrative to holler about lakes of Hell. But remember, kids- just because the preacher is crazy, doesn’t mean he’s WRONG.

I could go without mentioning the novel’s big selling point, and its big spoiler; but I won’t. In fact, don’t consider it a spoiler, consider it a trigger warning, because it’s the decisive factor that will determine whether you should dig into “The Revelation” or stay far, far away:

How do you like the idea of an army of demonic killer fetuses?

RATING: COOL! and/or GROSS!

P.S.: “The Revelation” may not make a lot of sense on the final sum,  but it does a lot of other things right, and one of them is the vivid picture it paints of  the Mogollon Rim, the escarpment that provides a solid horizon for a lot of Arizona. The Hopi artist Dan Namingha is referenced in the novel; Namingha’s wonderful paintings, (particularly his geometrical suggestions of mesas) are a fine model for Bentley Little’s moments of geographical contemplation – the closest Little gets to “poetry.”

ABOVE: Hopi and Glory

Flex Appeal : Phony McFakename – “The Gym”

Hell is other people looking fit in “The Gym.”

ABOVE: I see through you, ‘Stranger Things’ font!

Jerry is a recently divorced man whose less-than-successful adventures on Tinder lead him to question his state of flabbiness. He decides to try the newest Gym in town- which before long becomes the ONLY Gym in town. The Gym, as its authoritarian, monolithic name might suggest, is an institution that is deadly serious about the fitness business. Its members become marvelously sculpted advertisements in record time- but of course, there is a high membership fee to pay:  As the bizarre events involving the Gym become impossible to ignore, Jerry, his friend Ben, and his ex-wife Becky try to get at the bottom of the mystery- before they all “thin out” for good.

Phony McFakename (who ought to come out of incognito some time soon) is known for punchy humorous deconstructions. “The Gym” is slightly different. While it is not McFakename’s first “serious” story (and it’s not even that “serious” most of the time), it IS the one that most adapts to the modern shape of a “serious” thriller. The apparent models are Bentley Little’s novels of modern life turning nightmarish by degrees, (novels with titles like “The Mailman,” “The Store,” “The Association,” and “The Policy”) as well as Troma movies that smoosh gore and humor. Oh, and by the time Jerry picks up a chainsaw to fight a creature that I cannot discuss due to a non-disclosure agreement, you’ll be flashing  back to Ash. Not the Pokémon Ash, the “Evil Dead,” chainsaw-for-hand Ash.

In that sense, it may be the most satisfying of McFakename’s books yet, particularly because it works as more than a humorous, outlandish horror tale; it also offers thoughtful satire, and not just the obvious digs about our conformist fascination with ‘perfection’, but also a much more subtle commentary about the powerful pull of totalitarian belief systems – and the book doesn’t necessarily reach the easy conclusions you might expect.

But mostly “The Gym” is fast, slim, slick fun.  As the tagline puts it : “Drop in, Work Out, Drop Dead.” Get it here, at Amazon.com

RATING: COOL!