Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Serialist

The Serialist is one of the most unusual and entertaining books that I've read in a long time. The protagonist and narrator is Harry Bloch, an aspiring writer who barely eeks out a living by grinding out pulp novels in a variety of genres under various pseudonyms. One of his most successful is a vampire series that he writes under his mother's maiden name, Sybilline Lorindo-Gold. Harry gets his mom to pose for the author photo and then, when his mother dies, he has no choice but to don a wig, put on his mother's clothes and begin posing for the photos himself.

Harry supplements his income by writing term papers for wealthy students he is supposed to be tutoring. This aspect of his career is managed by a precocious and very appealing teenage girl named Claire who was the first student to be tutored by Harry and who conceived the idea of expanding the enterprise. Before long, Claire is managing most other aspects of Harry's life and doing a much better job of it than Harry had done himself.

Then, apparently out of the blue, Harry get a chance to take a gigantic step up in the writing biz when serial killer Darian Clay, who is a little more than eighty days away from being executed, asks Harry to ghost his memoir. Given Clay's fame, and the particularly sensational nature of his crimes, the book would doubtless be a huge best seller with all sorts of ancillary benefits. Harry has some reservations about accepting the offer, but Claire beats some sense into him and Harry begins visiting the prison to meet the brutal killer and get his story.

As the price for his cooperation, though, Clay demands that Harry visit some of the women who have been writing him in prison. Harry must then craft stories for Clay's amusement, describing the sort of lurid sex that Clay would have with the women if only he were free. Slimy as the task is, Harry agrees, but then the women he visits begin turning up dead, murdered in the same gruesome manner that was Clay's signature.

Harry now finds himself caught up in an enormously creepy and dangerous mystery. His own pulp novel detective hero would naturally break the case without breaking a sweat. But this is real life and Harry hasn't a clue as to how to proceed. The only thing he knows is that needs to come up with an idea ASAP or he may well become the next victim of a very disturbed killer.

It's impossible, really, to convey in a review the full measure of this very clever and appealing novel which is, as the cover suggests, a love letter to books and especially to genre fiction. The author, David Gordon, sprinkles through the book sample chapters of Harry's genre novels which are absolutely hilarious. Through Harry, he also has some very wise things to say about the reasons why so many readers love these books.

At one point, Harry notes that, "In its tropes and types, genre fiction is close to myth, or to what the myths and classics once were. Just as a century or two ago, one could refer to Ulysses or Jason and hid a deep vein of common understanding in your reader, now we touch that place when we think of a lone figure riding in the desert, or a stranger in a long coat and hat coming down a corridor with a gun, or a bat wheeling above the city at night. Reduced to their essence, boiled down, the turns and returns of genre unfold like dreams, like the dreams that we all share and trade with one another and that, clumsy and unrealistic as they are, point us toward the truth."

This book was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and is sure to delight anyone who can easily lose an afternoon or stay up half the night devouring a genre novel.(

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Two Minute Rule

Robert Crais is best known for his series featuring L.A. private-eye Elvis Cole and Cole's partner, the inscrutable Joe Pike. But while I like those books, this stand-alone, originally published in 2006, remains my favorite of Crais's novels.

Two thugs named Marchenko and Parsons are stricly amateur, if brutal, bank robbers. They do not know the Two Minute Rule, which holds that a robber only has a two minute window to be in and out of a bank before the law is almost certainly going to be on the scene. The two get lucky long enough to score almost $17 million in a string of robberies, but their luck runs out when they walk out of their last bank into a hail of police bullets.

Max Holman is, or was, a professional bank robber who knew and scrupulously observed the Two Minute Rule. But in a moment of weakness, he broke the rule and was arrested in the middle of a robbery by a team led by FBI agent, Katherine Pollard. Ten years down the road, Max is finally being released from prison and his dream is to be reconciled with his son, Richie, who in rejecting his father has gone all the way in the other direction to become an L.A. cop.

Just as Max is being processed out, though, he receives the worst possible news imaginable: Richie has been murdered, along with three other police officers. The detectives investigating the killings quickly pin the crime on a gangbanger who then conveniently commits suicide, closing the case--at least as far as the cops are concerned.

A devastated Max, thinks the whole package is all too neat. His cursory inspection of the murder site convinces him that the killings could not have occurred as the police have theorized and he is determined to find the truth. For help, he turns to Katherine Pollard, the agent who arrested him. Pollard has left the Bureau and is now a widow with two small children. Reluctantly, she agrees to assist Max and it quickly becomes apparent that their efforts to discover what really happened the night of the murders is stirring up the proverbial hornets' nest. The cops and the Feebs insist that Max and Pollard step down and accept the police version of the crime. When the two refuse to do so, they suddenly find themselves in very grave danger with no apparent way out.

This is a book with well-developed characters and a fast-paced plot that seems perfectly believable. Readers who have enjoyed Crais's Cole/Pike books will certainly want to look for this one.(