Thursday, December 30, 2010

(No.129) Nasty times in America (with Donald Westlake, Lee Child et al)

The United States has produced (and continues to do so) some of the very best English language novelists in what is variously referred to as the genre of mystery/private detective/crime/police procedurals. As I have written in previous columns American authors share the top spots on my favourites list with today's gritty British writers in this genre. My next column on (No.130) will look at some of the latest from the Brits.

Donald Westlake was a prolific novelist, 100+ books written under his own name as well as several pseudonyms ( see "American Crime Fiction", column No.121 on He died on Dec.31, 2008 at age 75 after a long and very successful career.

One of his series involved a group of minor league crooks in New York City led by a sombre chap named John Dortmunder. The books in this series are funny and what turned out to be his last one Get Real (2009) is now out in paperback. It involves the gang being approached to be the subject of a television reality show about criminals planning and executing a crime.

This is the story of a caper told as well as any have been by Westlake. I will miss reading new Westlake novels.

James Swain started writing novels, seven so far, featuring a leading character (Tony Valentine) an ex-New Jersey cop who is expert at detecting and catching casino cheats (see, for example, Grift Sense ). His other series, one begun more recently, involves a Florida private detective named Jack Carpenter, another ex-cop but one who left under a cloud his job as the head of the Broward County Police Missing Persons Unit.

The latest of Swain's three Carpenter novels, The Night Monster (2009), has the central character discovering a connection between an early and unsolved case of his own and the current disappearance of his daughter's friend that involves serial killers.

I have not enjoyed the Carpenter series as much as I have the Swain novels featuring Tony Valentine set in the gambling world. Nor as a writer of crime/mystery novels is Swain yet in the premier league but his stories are an entertaining and satisfying read.

Another fairly new American entrant in the 'detective' genre (at least new compared to Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard) is Chris Knopf. Several crime/mystery novels set on Long Island New York (in particular that part of the island called 'the Hamptons') have a former engineer/big business executive Sam Acquillo as the central character [see The Last Refuge].

In his latest volume, Short Squeeze (2009) a heretofore peripheral character in the Acquillo novels -- lawyer Jackie Swaitkowski -- takes centre stage. Neither the new central character nor this plot ring as many bells for me as did the Acquillo mysteries. But the book is worth a read.

Lee Child is an Englishman now living and writing novels in the U.S. His books feature a nomadic and extremely tough ex-soldier named Jack Reacher. Thus far Reacher has wandered through 15 novels in a bestselling series, the latest two -- both published in 2010 -- being 61 Hours and Worth Dying For .

On occasion, if the reader pauses to think about it, the Reacher character seems too improbable: a former U.S. Army brat who becomes a tough as nails military policeman and detective. He left the army as a major and under a cloud. He eschews all permanence and travels the U.S., usually hitchhiking, with (literally) no more than a toothbrush and the clothes on his back (lately an ATM card and passport has perforce been added to this short list of possessions).

Reacher is not a superhero but he is a large man highly skilled in weapons and physical combat. These skills and related characteristics combined with his wandering lifestyle facilitate use of different locales and plot points for Child's novels and are among the keys to their considerable appeal.

All the Reacher novels are worth reading with interesting plots, although some are more absorbing than others. These latest two volumes in the series are particularly good.

As a character Jack Reacher most reminds me of the professional criminal named Parker in the series created by Donald Westlake writing under the name Richard Stark. It is also a series I have enjoyed very much.

Yishai Sarid, an Israeli lawyer and journalist, has written his second novel Limassol (2010, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav). It is a rather dark look at the life and activity of an Israeli secret service interrogator. His marriage is going pear-shaped while he tries to get Arab detainees to divulge information that will allow identification of suicide bombers before the bombs go off.

The core of this novel involves the sending of this lead character on an undercover assignment, one he tries to refuse, to set up a terrorist leader for assassination in the town of Limassol in Cyprus.

This is a novel with a very different tone, setting and perspective than many of this genre that customarily make American bestseller lists.


Alastair Rickard