Life and Death in America

Killings by Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2017. 9780399591402.

In the introduction to this expanded reprint of essays originally written for The New Yorker, Trillin writes about how he could cover stories of murder in a very different way than a newspaper could. His column inches weren’t dictated by how important the editor decided the victim was. He wasn’t writing for the paper of record, so he wasn’t required to cover every significant news item. He could write about people who were ordinary without having to justify the reader’s interest with “what reporters call a “nut graf” (“The Iowa murder is a part of a growing national trend toward vaguely disreputable people in small towns killing each other”).” Writing essays on death allowed him to capture moments in time and see the details of lives and communities that would ordinarily be hidden.

Unlike his more famous essays about his family or food, Trillin keeps himself out of these. He sets the scene, delves into the people involved, then tells the story of a death and its aftermath in a way that is never sensationalized. His writing is expert but never feels artful. There are occasional moments lightened by Trillin’s dry wit, but his precise style and elegant reconstruction of events gives each lost life the requisite gravity and respect.

I also like Tony Murchison

Control written by Andy Diggle and Angela Cruikshank, art by Andrea Mutti. Dynamite, 2016. 9781524102685.

A detective who’s made enemies in her department because of her dogged pursuit of the truth? I’m in love. And she looks like Sue Perkins in a Versace pantsuit? Sign me up, like, yesterday.

Detective-sergeant Kate Burnham and her partner Mitch, responding to a report of officers down, find an attempted murder that was supposed to look like suicide. Mitch is killed going after the suspect and Kate is left to follow the trail of the perpetrator. She finds connections to a powerful senator sponsoring a privacy bill and to a media empire that gathers both gossip and blackmail material through hacking and other “Dark Arts” in a department called The Black Room. As more people involved in both the bill and the investigation are killed or silenced, Kate has to risk her job and make alliances outside the force.

I loved that the women in the book had complex motivations. The pace was nonstop, and the conspiracy was delightfully complex. This book is a lot of fun with just enough darkness.

Totally Killer

The Killer Volume 1 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386448. 128pp.

The Killer Volume 2 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386561.  176pp.

Gene: The Killer Volumes 1 and 2, my pic for our book club!
Sarah: Do you want my first reaction?
G: Yes!
S: I went to an exhibit on Martin Scorcesse and there was a little thing in there about a film he directed for Roger Corman. (Many great directors directed a film for Corman because he would hire you before you were well known.) And apparently Corman said “You can rewrite the script however you want as long as there’s nudity every 15 minutes.” So I felt like this was one of those movies.
G: Ow!
S: There was murder, there was darkness, and there was nudity every 15 minutes.
G: Well it’s about a killer for hire, he’s French.
S: The whole book is so French! They translated the words in the word balloons but not the sound effects.
G: The book was originally published in French. It’s very hard to translate sound effects because they’re part of the image — changing them would require the art to be redrawn. It’s easier to change the letters in the balloons because they’re isolated. That’s why in manga you usually see sound effects in Japanese.
S: Good to know!
G: I love the coloring of these graphic novels so much. It’s subtle and amazing. It’s from the mid 1990s so I’m not sure whether it was done digitally, but probably not.
The story starts with the killer waiting to shoot a doctor from an apartment where he’s holed up. The guy doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, so the killer reminisces about other jobs he’s done. He thinks about a job he had three months earlier, another rich guy who he killed next to his swimming pool. There’s a picture of the guy sitting next to the pool with his hand on a drink and you don’t realize until you flip the page that the guy is dead already. Loved that.
Continue reading “Totally Killer”

I also like the Kaiju swears

Kaijumax Season Two: The Seamy Underbelly by Zander Cannon. Oni Press, 2017. 9781620103968.

I had to quit watching Orange is the New Black after a season and a half — I decided I was too sensitive to watch a prison drama. I was constantly worried about what would happen to the characters. It turns out that I needed the inmates to be the giant city-stomping monsters of Kaijumax Season One instead of human women to really enjoy it. Season two of Kaijumax means I don’t have to watch The Wire: Electrogor escapes and goes on the lam, hiding out with other criminal monsters, trying to get back to his kids.

Cannon writes in the afterword that he didn’t start out intending to write social satire. He’s careful to keep the real-life parallels vague so he can write an homage to monster, prison, and crime films (and be thought-provoking, too) without comparing a particular group of people to Godzilla. It’s a delicate balance and he pulls it off. I’m already looking forward to season three.

(And if you already like Kaijumax, check out the Anne Hathaway movie Colossal. It’s really good.)

Dark Dollhouses

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corrine May Botz. Monacelli Press, 2004. 1580931456.

Sarah: So in the 40s and 50s there was a woman who was born into money, an heiress — this is a true story — she got into forensic criminology and then used some of her money to sponsor forensic criminology classes and a department at Harvard. She ended up working for a police department, training police officers. To do that she made incredibly detailed 1/12th scale dollhouse murder scenes.
G: What???
S: This book is The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which was the name of her project.
G: (flipping through the book) Oh my God.
Continue reading “Dark Dollhouses”

Blood and Roses

Sexcastle by Kyle Starks. Image, 2015. 9781632153005.

Last week, I found myself in need of a new, good B-movie. Unfortunately I don’t think this post apocalyptic nightmare or this R-rated headshot montage is going to cut it.

Wandering my local bookstore’s graphic novel section I came across a copy of Sexcastle and knew it was time to reread this homage to 80s action films and the great quips in them.

Shane Sexcastle, fresh from prison for killing the Vice President of the United States, gets a job at a florist’s and tries to leave murder and mayhem behind. But he can’t. After helping his new boss stand up to local thugs, the top 9 killers from the Assassins Union come for him. (They’re lookalikes for the better known action movie stars of the 80s and 90s.) Then: violence.

The mid-book sex scene is amazingly gratuitous. The dialogue is at times spectacular: “I’m gonna beat you into a fine red mist…I’m going to make a blood humidifier out of you.” And it features the best pair of demonic nunchucks ever drawn.

The other way I get my B-movie fix is replaying levels of Broforce. (Its playable characters are also stand-ins for action movie favorites, though the video game, unlike Sexcastle, had the sense to include a few brought to the screen by the great Christopher Lambert.) Each characters has a unique attack, and if you misuse it you can not only kill yourself, you can destroy so much of each level that you can’t win. It’s chaos. You can play online with your friends. (If you email me, maybe you can play it online with me.)

Shaken Not Stirred

Richard Stark’s Parker: The Martini Edition by Darwyn Cooke. IDW, 2011. 9781600109805. 360pp.

Contains the previously published adaptations of The Hunter and The Outfit, as well as the short “The Man with the Getaway Face,” and a new short, O. Henry-esque adaptation for this volume, “The Seventh”, and lots of extras.

I was having a crappy day yesterday, and somewhere in the back of my mind I must have remembered that this book was about a crook having a few bad days of his own.

The Hunter opens in 1962 as Parker is walking back into New York City. His wife shot him at the end of a recent heist, and then she took off with his partner on the job, Mal Resnick. They assumed Parker was dead. He tracks her down. Then he interrogates the man bringing her an envelope of cash to find out where that’s coming from. Then he tracks that guy down and keeps working his way up the chain of command. Resnick used the money from their heist to buy his way back into the mob. But the mob, instead of protecting Resnick, wants to see him deal with the problem he’s created: Parker.

I won’t tell you how it resolves, but I will say it’s the first in a long line of Parker novels, and at the end of The Hunter Parker needs a new face to hide from the mob (they prefer to be called The Outfit). That’s all covered in “The Man with the Getaway Face.” Then in The Outfit, after Parker survives getting fingered by an informant, he heads out to make peace with the mob by making things tough for them when he and his friends start hitting their operations. It’s beautiful. And all three of those books form one long story.

This is a deluxe, oversized collection of these previously published books. The duotone art looks fabulous on the thick, cream paper, and the larger pages really let the art sing. (Plus I didn’t need glasses to read the print.) There’s a conversation at the front of the book between Tom Spurgeon, crime writer Ed Brubaker, and Cooke, and a ton of extra art by Cooke that includes portraits of Parker, Westlake, and a portfolio of images inspired by the Parker films and others. There’s a drawing of Michael Caine in Get Carter (based on the excellent novel by Ted Lewis) that I just may have to cut out and frame.

These graphic novel adaptations have lead me to track down some of the original novels by Stark (a pen name of Donald Westlake). The original prose is spare, no nonsense, and tough, without the over-description and sentimentality that ruins too many modern mysteries for me. Parker isn’t ever nice or easy, and he doesn’t flinch from difficult and dangerous work, but he’s not stupid. No one could draw a 60s tough guy like Cooke, and the cinematic quality of his art makes this a better adaptation than any of the films — it enhances and clarifies the novels without changing them. (If, like me, you read this and want to see Parker on film, try Point Blank starring Lee Marvin or The Split starring Jim Brown (with Donald Sutherland, Gene Hackman, and Ernest Borgnine). Both Marvin and Brown feel like Parker. But don’t even bother with the latest film adaptation starring Jason Statham — it’s unforgivable even for a Statham fan like me.)

That Skinny Guy

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. Vintage, 1989. 9780679722632. 208pp.

Sarah: So I texted you when I was part way through this book because you recommended this as the next detective book for my mystery reading series. You said to read the book and then watch the movie, that it’s the best movie adaptation ever because it captures the feeling of the book.
Gene: Yeah. The pace and the dialogue are really similar.
S: And I picked it up and started reading and texted you that the writing was so good I wanted to punch things. Its beautiful, spare language is so evocative. You can see there’s a huge talent behind how little there is on the page.
G: It’s the couple, too. It’s Nick and Nora Charles. They have a great back-and-forth banter. Continue reading “That Skinny Guy”

Innocent Murder

Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovály, translated by Alex Zucker. Soho Crime, 2015. 9781616954963.

Helena, the only first person narrator, has managed to land a job as an usher at a movie theater in Communist era Prague after her husband was arrested for espionage. The other characters’ interactions away from Helena are narrated in the third person, as if the author didn’t want to get too close to these often disagreeable people. One married woman is tired of her philandering spouse, and offers to offload him onto the party girl he’s sleeping with. Another usher’s genteel poverty is an act. A police informant is goaded into becoming a provocateur, and very nearly a procurer of sexual favors. Possibly the creepiest of all the characters is the silver-haired State Security operative who’s fixated on cracking Helena’s husband, and who also wants to incriminate Helena. Meanwhile, an actual spy ring is using the theater to pass microfilm between couriers. All of these folks would probably not wish to draw any attention to themselves, but murders nearby prompt police investigations.

Most mysteries have one big reveal during their climax. Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street starts with a murder committed and solved in the first chapter. After that, revelations continue over the course of the book as Helena, her coworkers, cops, creeps, and spies interact. With two and a half murders, a suicide, and a malefactor too powerful to be brought to justice, this is closer to a tragedy than it is to mystery or thriller. It is also a tribute to how confusingly complex a good book can be when written by someone who’d lived through confusingly complex decades.

This book is also, in many ways, an artifact of the early Cold War. The author’s son Ivan Margolius’ introduction gives useful background, including apologetic paragraphs explaining what motivated his father to join Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party after World War II, his family’s disgrace, and his father’s execution in the wake of the 1952 Slansky Trials.  (Kovály emigrated to the United States in 1968, in the wake of the Prague Spring.)

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest book review!

The Thief Thief

Thief of Thieves Volume 1: I Quit by Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, and Shawn Martinbrough. Image, 2012. 9781607065920.

thief-of-thieves-1Contains Thief of Thieves #1 – #7.

Thief of Thieves Volume 2: Help Me by by Robert Kirkman, James Asmus, Andy Diggle, and Shawn Martinbrough. Image, 2013. 9781607066767.

Contains Thief of Thieves #8 – #13.

Thief of Thieves Volume 3: Venice by Robert Kirkman, Andy Diggle, Felix Serrano, Shawn Martinbrough.  Image, 2014. 9781607068440.

Contains Thief of Thieves # 14 – #19.

Thief of Thieves Volume 4: The Hit List by Andy Diggle and Shawn Martinbrough. Created by Robert Kirkman.  Image, 2014.  9781632150370.

Contains Thief of Thieves #20 – #25.

Redmond, the greatest thief of his generation, retires on the eve of a 9-man job that is set to be the heist of the millennium. He’s just successfully sued the FBI for harrassment. He tells his ex-wife that he wants their old life back. But their son Augustus is a bit of an idiot, as well as a poor thief who trades on his father’s reputation. He’s just been arrested in the middle of a drug bust. Will the feds get him to give up his father? Can Redmond make the case against his son go away? What about the debt Augustus owes to the drug cartel for the job he f-ed up?

Of course he can’t retire. Of course Redmond has to pull that big heist, the Venice job. And of course it looks like everything is going to come apart around him.

Smart, violent, and very entertaining, these were the perfect graphic novels to read after my computer crashed last week — I was in a foul mood and needed a distraction while waiting and waiting and waiting for the repair. I haven’t rooted for the “bad” guys this much since Heist

thief-of-thieves-2  thief-of-thieves-3  thief-of-thieves-4