Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Monster in the Box - Ruth Rendell

The Monster in the Box
(2009) is the twenty-second book in Ruth Rendell’s twenty-four-book Inspector Wexford series. The Wexford books were published  over an almost-fifty-year period (1964-2013), so there is a noticeable shift in style and character development in the Wexford books as they progress over the years. The earlier books have a bit of an old-fashioned feel to them today, and Wexford and his cohorts do not always feel particularly real. This is particularly noticeable to me, I suppose, because I have just read the fourth Wexford novel, The Best Man to Die (1969), and The Monster in the Box almost back-to-back. 

As it turns out, The Monster in the Box is my favorite of the fifteen Wexford novels I have read so far. Not only does the plot involve two intriguing mysteries that need solving, one of the mysteries (because it involves a man Wexford has believed to be a murderer for decades) allows Rendell to show what kind of young policeman, and man, Wexford had been at the very beginning of his career. Much of the book involves Wexford contrasting, mainly to himself, all the cultural changes that he’s observed during his long career without, I think, realizing just how much he himself has changed over the years. And that limited self-awareness on Wexford’s part will serve as the perfect set-up for the little surprise that Rendell throws into the end of this one.

It was while investigating his very first murder case that Wexford first encountered the muscular little man wearing a scarf and walking his dog along the street outside the victim’s home. The man seemed intent on sending Wexford a message by staring so unflinchingly directly into Wexford’s eyes before he continued his walk past the home. When Wexford began running into the man so often, sometimes near the scenes of other murders, he began to feel that this Eric Targo was toying with him, almost daring him to prove Targo’s guilt if he could. And then the man disappeared.

Now, after all these years, Wexford spots Targo on the streets again, and even though he has never mentioned his suspicions to anyone before, he decides now to share his fears with his old partner, Mike Burden - who listens patiently, but just isn’t buying Wexford’s theory much at all. About the same time, Burden’s wife starts to worry that a local Pakistani family may be in the process of arranging the forced marriage of — if not even the honor killing — of Tamima, their teenaged daughter who has been seeing a boy they do not approve of. In what begins as simply a favor to his partner’s wife, Wexford assigns someone to look into what is happening in the Rahman family, but when it turns out that no one in Tamima’s extended family can account for the girl’s current whereabouts, the police start wondering if they are searching for a corpse instead of a girl who may have been forced into an unwanted marriage.

Bottom Line: The Monster in the Box ticks all the right boxes. Longtime fans of the Wexford novels are certain to enjoy such an extended look at Wexford’s early years as he reminisces about his first girlfriends and what he learned from those relationships. The two mysteries are interesting, and they come complete with all the twists and turns that mystery readers enjoy so much. Then, when the two plots begin more and more to intertwine (as they almost always do in mysteries), the climax that follows is a completely satisfying one — especially with that little surprise Rendell tosses her readers at the very end. Too, watching the Kingsmarkham police tiptoe around the Rahmans, a Muslim family, in an attempt not to offend them even while suspecting them of a possible murder, is a reminder of how difficult it is to walk the fine line of political correctness these days — and this novel was written a dozen years ago. In the end, the Rahman family was more offended by all the tiptoeing around than anything else.

Ruth Rendell

Friday, June 11, 2021

Twitter Is Fixable...Facebook Not So Much

I spent a few hours this week eliminating some of the aspects of the internet that can always be guaranteed to ruin my mood, if not my whole day. I love the internet in many ways, and I can't imagine daily life without it, but certain apps and many, many people I run into on the net are no longer worth my time or patience. For that reason, I've been doing a lot of internet spring cleaning this week. 

I started with Twitter...not all of Twitter, though, only the people who go there just to use a hit-and-run technique to viciously smear those who are not "woke" (I hate that word) enough to suit them. Now, I enjoy the "book people" on Twitter a lot, most of them anyway, so I started blocking everyone who says anything nasty - or just stupid - about others in order to make themselves look good (the kind of "virtue signaling" we've all heard so much about). "Blocking" is a relatively easy process on Twitter, and after having blocked almost 450 accounts, I now have a fine-tuned Twitter feed that is all about books, college sports, and jigsaw puzzles. Sadly, not all "book people" made the cut, though, because a few prominent authors are among the most self-absorbed virtue-signalers on the planet. But now I can actually look forward to clicking on Twitter to see what the chatter is all about.

I wish it were that easy with Facebook, but the powers-that-be who run Facebook are so obsessed with censorship of viewpoints they disagree with that I've grown tired of the whole Facebook experience. I deleted my Facebook account on Monday, and my only regret is that I've lost my Book Chase Facebook page in the process of deleting my main account. Facebook censors (who call themselves fact checkers) decide not only what "truth" is, they decide how much exposure your posts are going to receive, and what posts (even from friends) you will be allowed to see. But I don't have to worry about that anymore because now I won't be seeing anything posted to Facebook or adding to even the book-conversation there anymore. And I feel as relieved about that as if I had just yanked a splinter out of my thumb.

I'm tired: tired of political correctness, tired of "wokeness," tired of cancel culture, and tired of having to work so hard not to offend a bunch of morons on both sides of every argument. It's just all gotten too silly for me to bother with anymore. So it's goodbye to Joyce Carol Oates, Don Winslow, Stephen King, Greg Isles, Rebecca Makkai, Attica Locke, Tim Hallinan, and Brad Thor, among over 400 others who refuse to stop displaying their own brand of group-hate to the world so regularly. The "400 others" include every politician or news person on Twitter who makes it to my Twitter feed because I no longer trust a one of them to tell me the truth, and I don't want to hear about their books anymore.

I don't need Twitter or Facebook for "the news." I get my news from multiple sources from all over the world so that I can compare "facts" and interpretations of those facts from varying viewpoints. The "Twitter Books" app I've created for myself turns out to be a pretty good app. Twitter and Facebook...not so much. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Another Kind of Eden - James Lee Burke

Another Kind of Eden
is the second book in James Lee Burke’s Aaron Holland Broussard series, following Broussard’s introduction in the 2016 novel The Jealous Kind. Burke fans may remember that Burke first started writing about the Holland family in 1971 with his first Hackberry Holland novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield - although he did not add a second Hackberry Holland novel until 2009. In the meantime, Burke began his Billy Bob Holland books, the first of which, Cimarron Rose, won the 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. In addition to these, Burke has now written two Weldon Holland novels and the two featuring Aaron Holland Broussard. All told, novels featuring these four branches of the Holland family now total twelve. 

The Jealous Kind, set in 1950s Houston, although he barely survives it, is Aaron Holland Broussard’s coming-of-age story. By the time that Another Kind of Eden opens in early 1960s Colorado, a lot has happened to Aaron, and he has the emotional scars to prove it. Aaron is an unpublished novelist who has taken to jumping in and out of boxcars and working odd jobs to sustain himself. In Trinidad, Colorado, Aaron finds both the farm work he is seeking and the young woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Joanne McDuffy is a college student and a talented artist who does waitress work to afford the basic lifestyle she allows herself. Aaron does not have a doubt in his mind that she is the only woman meant for him.

It is obvious that the attraction is mutual, but as Aaron and Joanne will learn: there are always monsters among us. In this instance, the monsters come in the form of the disgusting professor who is intent on taking advantage of Joanne in every way imaginable and the drug-riddled cult that the older man brings into her life. If that were not bad enough, a powerful businessman and his son, both crazed by their own brand of hatred, take special delight in making Aaron’s life as miserable as possible. 

All Aaron wants to do is get his novel published, convince the woman of his dreams to marry him, and earn enough money to live on until his dreams finally come true. But it will not be that simple because Aaron is a man with emotional problems of his own. He suffers from the aftermath of the terrible things that have already happened to him, and he has to endure the memory blackouts that have stolen much of his past from him. He knows that when driven to a rage, he will find it hard to stop the violence until someone, maybe him, is dead. But he never expected to end up in Hell itself.

Bottom Line: Another Kind of Eden continues the Holland family saga, but (much as with Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels) the stories are getting darker and darker. This one requires a substantial suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but  readers who can manage that level of disbelief-suspension are going to enjoy this one a lot. 

James Lee Burke

Review Copy provided by Publisher Simon & Schuster 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Indian Killer - Sherman Alexi

Sherman Alexi’s 1996 novel, Indian Killer, is a first rate serial killer novel that is almost certain to intrigue any fan of that crime fiction subgenre. But it is so much more than that. 

First, the book’s title is, at first glance, a little misleading. From its title, most readers would assume that Sherman Alexi has written a book about someone who is choosing Native Americans as his crime spree victims (as in the sense that Custer was an “Indian killer”), but exactly the opposite is true here. Instead, this is a story about a Native American, an Indian-killer, who is terrifying Seattle by randomly murdering and scalping his white victims. 

Second, author Sherman Alexi is himself a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexi’s insight into what could motivate a main character such as this particular one to become the coldblooded killer he turns out to be makes the story all the more terrifying because it is all so logically crazy (if logical craziness is even possible).

 Third, using primarily his secondary characters, Alexi shares a frank look with his readers about how many, if not most, Native Americans still feel today about what happened to their ancestors and the people responsible for the genocide they all too often suffered over the centuries. What Alexi’s characters have to say about all the Indian “wannabes” out there, those people who want so desperately to claim that they carry Indian blood for reasons of their own, is particularly damning. It is reminiscent, although it predates it by more than two decades, of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s embarrassing exposure as a shameless fraud who claimed to be a Native American entirely for her own personal gain. 

So, there is already a lot packed into Indian Killer that readers will want to consider. And that’s even before the realization that an Indian is stalking white men sparks an all-out race war in Seattle. As the search for the killer goes on and on, tensions are high on both sides. Seattle’s Native Americans are nervous about leaving the reservation, and those who live in and around the city are mostly keeping their heads down. White hotheads, possibly as much to disguise their own nervousness and fear as much as anything else, are starting to mouth-off at any Indians they see on the streets. Seattle’s homeless Indian population is in particular danger from the nasty retaliation that occurs after each white victim is discovered.

Throw into the mix a novelist who badly wants people to believe his claim that he is an Indian; a bigoted radio talk show host who keeps his listeners on the verge of anti-Indian violence at all times; and a young Indian college student who leads campus protests about the  bigotry she believes is directed at Indian students like her, and the city is sitting on a powder keg. 

Bottom Line: Indian Killer is a memorable novel that only a Native American would have had the real credibility to write. There is almost as much in between the lines of this one as there is in the plot itself. It is a well written, fast-paced thriller with a message, a book that I recommend for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.  

Sherman Alexi in 1996

Monday, June 07, 2021

"Bullet Points" - Wastelands: The New Apocalypse (Story 1)

This is the first in what may become a series of “Apocalypse Monday” posts featuring short stories from Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, each of which are set during or after an apocalyptic event. I’ve been a fan of, and have read, stories like these all my life, and I still love them as much as I did when I was a boy.  I’m also a huge fan of short stories, generally,  because short story anthologies allow me to sample and learn about so many writers I would otherwise never experience. So, this may quite possibly turn into the first 34-week, 34-part, book review I’ve ever written, one in which I feature every short story in the collection. 

Elizabeth Bear’s “Bullet Point,” the lead-off story in Wastelands, is told from the point of view of a young woman who believes she may be the last person on Earth…or at the very least, the last person in Las Vegas. The funny thing is that there are no dead, decaying bodies anywhere to be found, only empty homes, stranded automobiles, and all those empty casino/hotels the city is known for. If there was indeed a Rapture of some sort, our narrator seems to be the only one in town who didn’t make the cut. 

And then one day as she’s riding down the Strip on her bicycle, Isabella spots a guy on the street. She knows better than to get too close to him, but over time he wins her trust and convinces Isabella that he represents no threat to her safety. The two of them start living together even though Isabella senses that he needs her company more than she needs his — and that’s when his cracks begin to show.

So now, the question for you, the reader, to think about is this one: what would you do if the only other person left on Earth (as far as you know, anyway) is your total opposite in every core belief you hold about yourself, the ones that makes you, you? How much could you, would you, or should you tolerate from someone you can’t stand being around even if they may be the only other person left on the entire planet? 

Bottom Line: “Bullet Points” is an amusing tale about the end of the world in which the “last woman” on Earth and the “last man” on Earth turn out to be a bad match — and what happens next. The seventeen-page story was published for the first time in 2019’s Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, a collection of thirty-four short stories with apocalyptic themes written between 2013 and 2019. 

Elizabeth Bear, author of some thirty novels and over one hundred short stories is a Massachusetts-based writer who can claim the prestigious Hugo award among the awards she’s won.  

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Best Man to Die - Ruth Rendell

The Best Man to Die
(1969) is the fourth novel in what would turn out to be Ruth Rendell’s twenty-four book Inspector Wexford series. The twenty-four novels were written between the years 1964 and 2003. Rendell, who died in 2015, may be best known for the Wexford novels, but the prolific author also wrote numerous standalones and short story collections under her own name or using her Barbara Vine pseudonym. All told, Rendell produced near eighty books.

The Best Man to Die begins with a stag party held in the Kingsmarkham and Districts Dart Club, one of the pubs in Inspector Wexford’s own stomping grounds. A small group of friends has gathered to boozily celebrate the next-day marriage of one of the men. They have been there for a while — and it shows — when the last of the group finally shows up and starts flashing a wad of cash around as he buys several make-up rounds for the others. The men only stop celebrating, and drinking, when the pub closes down for the night.

The next morning, while walking a dog his adult daughter has brought with her on a visit to her parents, Wexford himself discovers the dead body of the man who had been bragging about all the cash in his wallet. It all appears simple enough. The man has been bashed in the back of the head, stripped of his cash, and tossed into the river…a typical mugging of a man with too big a mouth for his own sake. Wexford, however, will soon learn that this is not just a mugging gone bad. Charlie Hatton’s is, in fact, just one murder in a string of murders that, according to the book’s jacket, involve “small-time gangsters, cheating husbands, and loose women.” 

So where does Charlie Hatton fit in, and who wanted him dead?

Bottom Line: The Best Man to Die is a solid murder mystery, one that gets surprisingly complicated considering that it is barely 200 pages long. But what surprised me most about it is how different this 1969 novel is in style from the style Rendell later developed. This one has a rather old-fashioned feel to it that is exaggerated by the period in which it is set. Looking back, the 1960s do not seem all that long ago, but this novel is a reminder that, for many, life was still much as it had been in the 1940s and 1950s. It is also a reminder of how rapidly the world was already changing. 

Ruth Rendell