25 April 2009

From the prairie

Nancy and I just enjoyed our latest Netflix video, Scotland, PA (second viewing). It's a film we found unexpectedly when it was new in 2001. It's a contemporary rendition of Macbeth done, as the director said, for those kids in high school who read the Cliff Notes version while getting high. Most ot it works pretty well for those of us who read the real thing while straight. It's worth checking out.

But, it's over and I'm still awake on Saturday night.

Bird Loomis, just in from Baghdad and soon to be off for Jarkarta, wrote from Lawrence, KS. (Bird might have grown up near Scotland, PA.)

One of my great pleasures is to read mysteries (and all fiction) with a strong sense of place. K.C. Constantine's Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, is outstanding, as is Steve Hamilton's Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I've never set foot. Likewise, C.J. Box's Wyoming, and so forth.

This becomes relevant, in that Dennis Lehane's recent The Given Day offers up his usual wonderful depictions of Boston with a twist - it's the city of 1919 that provides the setting for a novel based on the police strike of that year.

As a reader, I'm a sucker for first-rate historical fiction; it's a “two-fer” that delivers both lots of easily digested information as well as a compelling story line. My personal favorite here is Gore Vidal's Burr, which offers a highly persuasive analysis of the tangled Burr-Hamilton relationship, wrapped in a truly entertaining fictional package. Lehane's tale may not rise quite to the significance, literary achievement, or the pleasure of Vidal's work, but it's close.

Over the years, Lehane has moved from writing a series of highly competent crime novels to producing a superb stand-alone crime novel (Mystic River) and a mediocre thriller (Shutter Island). With the exception of this last effort, his work uses blue-collar Boston as a richly detailed venue.

More than most crime writers, Lehane brings his characters to light through their links to place. Indeed, they're often prisoners of their personal geography, albeit willingly so on occasion. Lehane possesses a cinematographer's eye, so it's little wonder that Mystic River won an Academy Award and that both the book and the film transcended the crime genre. In many ways, the under-rated Gone, Baby, Gone may be the equal of Mystic River as a film, and it served as a transition for Lehane between his crime writing and his more recent fiction.

For all his development as a novelist, however, Dennis Lehane had given little indication, at least with his long-form fiction, that he was ready to produce a major historical novel. But that's just what he's done. Lehane begins his story with a wonderful set piece - of Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox traveling east during the 1918 World Series. Their train requires repairs, and first Ruth, then a number of other players, happen upon a pick-up baseball game among a group of talented black amateurs. This thirty-page short story, while complete in itself, is tied into one story line that is reminiscent of Ragtime in addressing the racism of the day.

Just as Ruth is headed for Boston, so is the story, with a rich mix of first and second generation Irish grappling with issues of duty, unionization, and various pecking orders, both social and economic. Dennis Coughlin, a young, talented police officer and son of a much-admired captain, finds himself torn between his loyalty to the force (along with his ambitions) and an increasing recognition of the plight of most police officers, who suffer on low wages and insulting working conditions.

The 700-page book also includes a racial subplot, some romance, and the appearance of a young J. Edgar Hoover, a stiff and officious Calvin Coolidge, the revolutionary John Reed, and of course, the Bambino, who ends the book, riding with Coughlin to New York, where they will both begin new lives in 1919.

Dennis Lehane knows how to write dialogue that keeps the narrative moving, as well as edging up to the line of improbability without crossing it. I have no clue whether he'll go back to crime novels, or head to ward even more unfamiliar ground. But he's demonstrated both his adventuresome nature and his substantial talent, and one would hope that his ambition continues to move him in new directions.

Brief extension.
Ian Rankin and Lee Child are among my favorite crime writers. Rankin's John Rebus, an Edinburgh police detective [played by John Stott at left], and Child's Jack Reacher, an ex-military loner, are predictable characters in their own ways, and one doesn't look to either for great surprises. Rather, one hopes that Rankin and Child will deliver the goods.

After reading ten or so Rankin novels and six or seven Child books, I find that I'm not at all tired of Rebus, the phlegmatic Scot, who can be downright unpleasant, but never uninteresting. Reacher, on the other hand, is pretty much a one-trick pony, although his trick - winning against all odds, then walking away, is often a compelling one. Still, in two recent books, Rankin's A Question of Blood entertains at a high level. Indeed, Rankin is as good a crime writer as any writing today.

Lee Child surely does continue to entertain, but in Nothing to Lose Jack Reacher seems, to me, to be going through the motions as he seeks to understand the strange politics of the twin Colorado towns of Hope and Despair. It's not quite as corny as this set up would suggest, but the humor in the names eventually peters out. [Lee Child portrays Jack Reacher in a New York Public Library mock trial at right.]

For those who have read neither Rankin nor Child, they're both first-rate, but for the long haul Ian Rankin's John Rebus is by far the more compelling character. With Child, the sequence of the books is not too important, but the Rankin volumes are best read in order. That way you have to wait a bit, and become familiar with Rebus, before reading the best of the series - Redemption Men. It's well worth the wait.

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