Clockers, by Richard Price

The stories of two men alternate here. The first, Strike, is a lieutenant in Rodney Little’s drug kingdom in Dempsy, NJ. Strike oversees clockers selling bottles from the benches outside the Roosevelt Homes, trying to teach them sales skills but too often disgusted with their lack of common sense. His sense of responsibility is both a strength and a weakness. He’s also hampered by a stammer and an ulcer that seems to be getting worse every day.

He has an instinct for commerce, gauging factors like the weather, the lateness of the hour, the day of the week to determine how many more bottles to get in the next re-up. It was his idea to move the sales out to the benches, reasoning that their white buyers were afraid to come into the projects. Yet he has dropped out of high school, lured by the money to be made on the street and by the reassurance of Rodney’s powerful presence, and as a result is estranged from his law-abiding mother and brother who live in the Homes.

Rodney brings teens in off the street to work in his store where he tries to train them in how to survive as part of his crew. they shouldn’t flaunt their wealth in ways that attract the notice of the police. Rodney himself drives a rust-colored Cadillac with six Garfields stuck to the windows. In fact, Rodney encourages them not to blow all their money on shoes and gold jewelry but to keep reinvesting it. Strike is one of the few who understands Rodney’s lessons and, as a result, has twenty-five thousand dollars stashed away in several safe houses. When he has enough, he plans to leave this life and buy himself a better one, but what is enough?

The second man is a Homicide investigator named Rocco who equally longs for a better life. He loves his wife and baby daughter but sees almost nothing of them, spending long hours on the job, often handing around watching tv even after his shift ends. He and his partner Mazilli work together smoothly, with a long-standing division of labor and an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As the story opens, Rocco is leading around an actor who’s researching a movie role as a Homicide investigator. Tired of the street, Rocco becomes obsessed with visions of Hollywood and a more glamorous life.

Rocco and Mazilli catch a murder, Darryl Adams, hard-working manager at Ahab’s, a fast-food place near Rodney’s store. Besides being found with a roll of cash in his pocket, Darryl used to work for Rodney, so Rocco suspects he might have been dealing drugs out of Ahab’s. It is this murder that drives the book. Who did it? Why?

The writing here is terrific. Price has an eye for the detail that shocks a scene into life, such as one young man caressing his stomach under his shirt as he talks—how often have I seen that in the kids lounging outside school? However, my first reaction was that the book is too long, nearly six hundred pages in my trade paperback edition. There’s a lot of repetition: Strike is doubled over with stomach pain or ordered into the car by Rodney and others so many times I couldn’t keep them all straight; policemen repeatedly break up gangs of drug dealers outside the Roosevelt and O’Brien projects with taunts and body searches. Granted, part of Price’s theme here is the Sisyphean nature of life in the hood, for both clockers and cops. Granted, too, the writing is so good that I kept at it. Still, I thought it too long.

As I mused about what scenes I would cut, I realised that I was looking at the book all wrong. Of course, it reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s brilliant tv series set in Baltimore. Price was one of the writers for the show, so I was not surprised by the similarities of diction, mannerisms, even anecdotes. One of the things I liked best about The Wire (besides the writing, directing, acting, and so on) is that the story arc spans the entire season. True, each episode has its events and minor climaxes; some stories go across several seasons. But the main unit of the story is the season.

And that’s what Price is doing with this book. It is episodic, with small epiphanies, wins and losses, but the book as a whole is like a season of shows. There has to be a certain amount of repetition, since viewers tend to forget details from one week to the next, but given a whole season to play with, Price can allow the story to spread out and sprawl across a lot of real estate. Once I let myself adjust to his pace, I enjoyed the book a great deal.

Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

This is the first book in Leon's series set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. A world-famous conductor is found dead in his dressing room at the end of the second interval, apparently poisoned, and Brunetti catches the case. There's a lot of wry humor in Brunetti's attempts to keep the political constraints from interfering with his investigation.

The first Donna Leon book I read (several years ago now) disappointed me. I think this was because I had hoped to feast on the enchantment of the setting in Venice, but instead found a police procedural with little enchantment but much insight into the human spirit, as well as into corruption in the government and within the police force.

My friend, Warren, encouraged me not to give up on Leon’s books. I read more books in the series and acknowledged that they gave me a better understanding of the Venice behind the touristy postcards. Then I remembered a talk I once heard by mystery writer Nevada Barr about how she prepared to write her first mystery. She took a handful of mysteries that she admired and took them apart, looking at structure, pacing, and suspense. Her efforts paid off: her first book blew me away, winning all kinds of awards, and subsequent books have been equally good.

I had not previously thought much about basic patterns of mysteries. I knew that there were a number of categories—cosies, police procedurals, hard-boiled, etc.—the definitions of which vary somewhat from one source to another. Here, though, I'm talking about the patterns inherent in the book, their structure. Basically, most of the modern-day mysteries that I enjoy have certain common characteristics:

a. an accelerating suspense that culminates in a life-threatening crisis: Nevada Barr and William Kent Krueger handle this especially well.
b. a detective who grows and changes in each book: Rebus in Ian Rankin's books is an excellent example.
c. a place that is almost another character in the books: Look at Baltimore in Laura Lippman's books or Boston in Robert B. Parker's.
d. a puzzle that challenges my intellect: P.D. James is the best.
e. psychological insight: Peter Robinson's insight into his characters enables him to make even the most damaged people seem real, not inexplicable monsters.

There are some older mysteries that I've enjoyed tremendously that don't fit this pattern or have only one or two of the characteristics. For example, John Franklin Bardin’s three novels of psychological suspense (The Deadly Percheron, The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly) may not have all of the characteristics listed above, but they plunge the reader into a fascinating, dark maelstrom of shifting realities, questionable identities, and murder. Also, Wilkie Collins, whom I blogged about in June, 2007, is a master of suspense without needing a shoot-out or car chase for a climax.

Once I thought about all this, I realised that my disappointment with the Donna Leon book was caused by the lack of driving suspense. There is suspense but it is quieter, trying to work out who did what and why, wondering if Commissario Brunetti will be able to negotiate the labyrinthine politics of the Venetian police force. Leon's books are a gradual unfolding of plot and motive. Here it's the puzzle that keeps me reading, not the adrenaline rush of a car chase or some looming danger that threatens either the detective or other characters.

Not only do I find Leon's puzzles intriguing, but the description of the bureaucratic forces Brunetti faces make me shake my head in rueful recognition. Other things that I like about Leon's series is the way she brings even the most minor characters to life. Every character in these books—victims, suspects, police officers, families—has a depth and complexity that make the story compelling. I also like the way she placed Brunetti’s decisions within a larger context of ethical and societal concerns. I’m very glad Warren encouraged me to continue with this series and recommend it to readers who are willing to try something different.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

In my blog about Office of Desire I mentioned wishing more books were set in offices, and Steve kindly recommended this book. It is all that I wanted and more.

Set in an ad agency on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Ferris’s first novel captures the nuances of office life, from the race to get the stale cookies in the break room to the personal email mistakenly sent to the entire company. His office dwellers play pranks on each other to ease the daily boredom and fight over office chairs left behind by a departing employee. They have their own version of Celebrity Death Watch, betting on which co-worker will die next.

Ferris perfectly describes the shifting alliances, the secret crushes, and the surprising friendships that tie a workgroup together. Their interactions are hilarious and all too familiar. The subtle hierarchies are very well done: each person is desperate to move up to the next level, from Art Director to Senior Art Director to Associate Creative Director, even as they realise that the new job title “came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny”.

Where Ferris really shines, though, is in the relationship between workers and management. Lynn Mason, the partner they work for, has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer according to the office rumor mill. Caught between sympathy and excitement, they spend hours—hours when they are supposedly working—comparing notes about Lynn’s health and picking apart shreds of information. Their affection for Lynn coexists with not only respect but also fear of her and for her. Somewhere in the middle is Joe Pope, a man who bikes to work regardless of the weather and holds himself aloof from the group, refusing to get involved in the rumor-mongering and petty spats. Joe is trusted by Lynn and used by her as an intermediary, thus earning the group’s envy and inevitable hazing.

Best of all, Ferris has written the story in rare first person plural—”we”—which is a terribly difficult point of view to keep interesting. He succeeds brilliantly. And what could be more appropriate for a story about a herd of office workers? He makes it work by shocking us with the unexpected but completely accurate detail: “Karen Woo always had something new to tell us and we hated her for it.”

Individuals do emerge, such as Tom Mota who wants to throw his computer against the window when he finds out that he’s been laid off, but doesn’t because it would be too embarrassing if the window didn’t break. Or Benny Shassburger, the storyteller of the group, who comes and lounges in the doorway when he’s bored. Among the copywriters, Hank Neary is working on a “failed” novel and Don Blattner writes unproduced screenplays. When Don finally gives up on his dream of becoming a famous writer, the group is dismayed: “We took back all our ridicule and practically begged the man to continue . . .”

As Steve said in his recommendation, the book is especially timely now because it is set in a company caught in an economic downturn and starting to lay off employees. Instead of inspiring them to work harder, the threat of being laid off increases the amount of time spent gossiping in the hallway or over long lunches. All the little games to avoid working continue. But then a curious thing happens. They finally start to work on a project, determined to outdo each other, but as they work they begin to take ownership of the project, to care about the quality of the end product, and—however enviously—applaud the good work done by others. I laughed; I cried; I was moved. This is simply a terrific book.

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

Another book club read, Loving Frank is a fictionalised account of the scandalous love affair of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, a housewife and mother who abandons her family to run off with the famous architect.

We follow Mamah, already in love with Frank as the story opens, having gotten to know him when he was building a home for her and her husband, Edwin. The timing in the first few chapters is a bit confusing because one flashback is not resolved into the “present” of the story before we are thrust into another flashback and then another. Even after reading it twice, I cannot pin down the chronology of events. The pair become lovers, and eventually Mamah takes the children and goes to stay with her friend, Mattie, who is about to deliver her first child. Mamah hopes that the time away from both Edwin and Frank will help her decide what to do.

It is a first novel, so perhaps much can be forgiven. The dialogue can be clunky, particularly when it is used to convey undigested lumps of back story. Also, at times the language is a bit florid, like something out of a romance novel, though I admit that finding a fresh way to describe being in love is dreadfully hard.

My biggest problem with the book, however, is that the characters do not come alive for me. Curiously, some of the minor characters seem most real, such as Mamah’s unmarried sister, Lizzie, who chastises Mamah at the end of the book for leaving her to raise Mamah’s children, effectively precluding any chance she might have had for living her own life. What this says to me is that Horan is adept at characterisation when freed from factual constraints.

Mamah does begin to emerge as a more rounded character in the middle section of the book, when she is in Italy with Frank and later in Germany by herself. I especially enjoyed the section in Germany when Mamah meets a circle of avant-garde artists. She learns Swedish and begins translating into English the work of Ellen Key, a leader in the Woman Movement. I recognise that it is difficult to portray a feminist, even one from this first wave, without sliding over into stereotypes. Perhaps if I were new to feminism and had not spent decades working out my own answers to these questions about women’s roles, I might have found Mamah’s soul-searching more interesting and felt more sympathy for her struggles.

Frank himself never becomes a real person. Granted, I tend to dislike novels that use real people as characters. One reason is that it seems to me unethical to make up stories—this is fiction, after all—about someone who is not alive to defend himself. The second reason, which also applies to novels using someone else’s characters (e.g., the recent plethora of books starring Sherlock Holmes), is that it seems to me that the author is taking a shortcut, assuming that the reader already knows the character, so the author doesn’t have to bother describing him or her. Finally, although I know it is done all the time, it doesn't seem to me quite fair for an author to trade on someone else’s celebrity, at least without the person's consent. I doubt this book would ever have been published if it had not featured Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s simply not good enough to stand on its own merits.

However, I believe it could have been with just one more revision cycle. While obviously my experiences and biases color my opinion of this book, most of the problems I have with it result from typical hazards that entrap novice fiction writers—using dialogue as narrative, confused plot sequencing, inadequate characterisation—crimes we’ve all been guilty of; well, I have certainly. Another revision could have fixed these problems. I also think that in writing this book Horan set herself some very difficult challenges, ones that would test even an experienced novelist.

Perhaps my expectations were raised too high by the rave reviews and the “New York Times Bestseller” banner splashed across its cover. Certainly some members of my book club found it absorbing. There is much promise here, and I look forward to Horan’s next book.

His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s trilogy— The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the U.K.), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass —resist categorisation. At first glance, they appear aimed at readers of Young Adult (YA) fantasy adventure stories, a group which has grown tremendously due to the Harry Potter books, although Pullman’s first two books predated this publishing phenomenon. And they can certainly be read that way. But there is much more going on here, and not just the slyly amusing character names that Rowling uses in the Harry Potter books to reward a well-read adult’s attention. No, Pullman draws on particle physics, theology, history, and literature from Milton to Tolkien to examine fundamental questions, not just of good and evil, but free will and predestination, democracy and totalitarianism, innocence and experience.

With a nod to the Narnia books, the story is set in motion when a girl hides in a wardrobe. From her hiding place, Lyra eavesdrops on a meeting of the scholars of Jordan College, the pre-eminent college in Oxford, as the mysterious and powerful Lord Asriel presents his findings from a mission to the Arctic and requests funds for a further mission. What he reveals to the startled scholars is proof of the existence of Dust, a mysterious substance that appears to accumulate on adults but not children, a substance whose properties are unknown and whose very existence is denied by the Magisterium, the organisation that runs this world.

Lyra’s world is similar to ours, but different in ways consistent with a slightly different history, a past where the battle between the Enlightenment and theocratic forces determined to suppress it turned out differently. In the first book, Lyra is presented with a simple quest: to rescue her friend Roger, who has been stolen by the Gobblers and carried into the North. She is pursued by the truly terrifying Mrs. Coulter, but finds comrades to help her: a great white bear, an aeronaut who travels by balloon, and the Gyptians, like Gypsies a nomad tribe living in narrowboats and led by their king, John Faa, a name which tickled me no end, obsessed as I have been with the tune to the ballad Johnny Faa as played by Laura Risk and Jacqueline Schwab (available from Dorian, DOR-90264).

The second book opens in our world, our Oxford, but these are not the only parallel worlds. Young Will, whose name and friend Mrs. Cooper refer to the wonderful Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, stumbles into the world of Citta’gazze, apparently a crossroads between many worlds. There he meets Lyra and helps her regain her alethiometer, the golden compass of the first book, despite the machinations of Mrs. Coulter. In the third book, the two find and move between multiple worlds, seeking Will’s long-missing father and caught up in the war being waged by Lord Asriel against the Magisterium.

I’ve left out much which is fun about these books: daemons and zeppelins, witches and harpies. What I loved about Lyra in the beginning was what a brat she was: rude and untutored, leading gangs of children in glorious battles in the mudflats or devious pranks against the Gyptians. Manipulative, dishonest, and not particularly bright, she finds that she has an extraordinary talent for working the alethiometer. Unfortunately, Pullman allows this promising start to be overwhelmed by the adventure. As Michael Chabon noted in his essay on the books, the exigencies of plot and theme take precedence over character development, until it begins to feel as though the characters only exist to move the plot forward and illustrate the theme.

My other quibble with the books is that I found Pullman’s anti-church agenda as distracting as C.S. Lewis’s pro-church (or at least pro-Christianity) agenda in the Narnia books. While sympathetic to the preference for imagination and intelligence over obedience and orthodoxy, I thought the portrayal of the Magisterium could have been handled with a bit more subtlety.

However, these are very minor quibbles indeed. I enjoyed these books, gobbling them up in the course of just a few days, and highly recommend them. They sent me back to Paradise Lost, which I hadn’t read for many years, and set me thinking again about those big questions. Can’t ask for more than that.