Thursday, January 29, 2015

Film Pairings — Two More You Might Have Missed

Unless you are of a certain age, you may not remember the times, but I do.  In the ‘50s, you would go to a major movie theater to see a popular new movie, maybe the Guns of Navarone starring Gregory Peck and David Niven. If you cared to stick around, you could watch a second film free.  It would probably be in black and white and star someone like Dennis O’Keefe or Richard Denning, not that there’s anything wrong with them.  I usually enjoyed these lower-budget second films.  Then again I wasn’t that particular.  All movies were magic.  The two films paired today are both second features.  They are not in black and white, but they are movies that either weren’t intended to be box office bonanzas or simply didn’t fully succeed.  Even so, they provide an evening more interesting than back-to-back episodes of “Mike and Molly.”

Paranoia —It’s an interesting, but not novel set up, pitting two aging, empire-building  computer mega execs against each other. It would be like watching Larry Ellison and Bill Gates at each other’s throats.  In this case, Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are the dueling corporate heads and Liam Lambert is the hunky, supposedly brilliant pawn they maneuver to achieve their evil ends.  The film was directed by Robert Luketic and was based on the book of the same name by Joseph Finder. It’s always great to see Ford and Oldman, as well as Richard Dreyfuss who is also featured in this film you’ve seen before. Even so, this is a pleasant if somewhat mindless diversion.

Good People — Just a touch of greed. The tenant in a run-down home of a struggling young couple (James Franco and Kate Hudson) dies, leaving behind a pile of dangerous dough, residue from a double double-crossed dope deal.  The criminal doesn’t appear to have a next of kin and the cops have cleared his abode without discovering the stash. After a brief wait, the couple, (nice kids) decide to keep the money.  After all, what cold possibly go wrong? As it turns out there are two gangs who had been screwed over, and the police have more than a professional interest. There’s really no way they can do the right thing once things get going. Again, the plot is not exactly new.  Most plots aren’t. What we’re interested in here is how can two ordinary people deal with all the powerful and evil forces mounted against them and each other.   There is a certain amount of suspense.  However I kept thinking about Home Alone and how much more effective Macaulay Culkin was in his dealings against his home invaders.  Tom Wilkinson adds a more realistic dimension to the action, but this film, like Paranoia, wasn’t really ready for the big screen.  But again, while you will not be forced into hours of distressed thought about the meaning of life, the goodness or badness of humanity, there are entertaining moments. Good People was directed by Henrik Ruben Genz and based on a book by the same name, written by Marcus Sakey.

Both films were released in 2013 without fanfare and not much in the way of box office receipts.  As an accompaniment, maybe a Kalua and coffee or just coffee to provide that extra boost of energy.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Confession – Slipping Off The Path To Immortality, Or Slouching Toward Dusty Anonymity

There is a quote that appears near the St. Clair Street entrance to the Indianapolis Central Library.  The other day I received a note from Charles Chigna a celebrated writer of children’s and young adult literature saying “great quote.” It was with trepidation that I accepted the compliment.  I’ve seen the quote before in various places credited to me. I was puzzled, but  I wasn’t concerned. I went on about my business,figuring it was a fluke on the Internet. It was no big deal until someone, a real person, complimented me. Suddenly I wondered if I were a scoundrel and plagiarist.  Or, did I write it?  That might seem strange to you. How could I not know if I wrote it.

Periodically, I Google myself. (And the truth is, it can be painful.)  I check to see if my novels still appear and what, if anything, is being said about the sixteen or so in print. This is how I first discovered the above quote was attributed to me and why, until now, I considered it no big deal. The reason was maybe, just maybe, I wrote it. I have periodically written the lyrics of a fictional song in order to avoid going through the bureaucratic rigamarole of getting permissions to use a real one.  I have also written poetry to put in a fictional character’s diary.  I’ve written fictional news stories to be read by fictional characters over a fictional breakfast — all to establish character or move the plot along. A quote with the above sentiment is consistent with stories of my aging private eye who regularly finds the things he loves disappearing from his life. But, did I write these quotable and surprisingly popular lines?

Not likely.

Indianapolis Central Library
Mr. Ghigna sent along a photo of that quote. It was carved in stone.  I asked him where the photo was taken.  He replied that it was the Indianapolis Central Library.  Made sense in a tangential way.  The library was a hangout of mine. I lived behind the library in the Ambassador apartments for a few years. The library was my second home. In fact, I used the grand old library as a setting for scenes in various books. But a quote of mine carved in stone? Again, not likely. First, even as a Hoosier writer, I don’t come close to having the literary stature. Second, that area of the library was constructed in 1917, the year of my father’s birth. That means I couldn’t have written it.  How did I end up with the credit? The truth had to be that the verse appeared in one of my novels.  Which one? Did I take it and not give credit? I don’t have all my early books in digital format. Searching therefore was a boring, manual task. I could narrow it to one of the Shanahan private eye novels because of the Indianapolis connection. So all I had to do was sort through 600,000 words.

I thought for sure it had to be in Nickel-plated Soul.  The book is about those things that slowly, sneakily disappear before we do. Homes, family, careers, friends, loves, optimism. Little things too.  A favorite restaurant, maybe. A movie theater. A magazine, a tree, even a candy bar, not to mention memory itself. And Nickel-Plated Soul is about a man’s heroic or foolish refusal to accept a loss.

I was right that it was in a Shanahan book.  Going through them one by one, I finally found the passage in Concrete Pillow.

“…. She had to see him, but she was frightened just the same.  This meeting would be anything but casual.  She looked back to the doors she had just gone through as if to make sure they hadn’t closed behind her.  Above the entrance was a poem chiseled into the base of a huge clock:


There was no credit line in the actual inscription. If there were I would have used it. In my novel, written 20 years ago, I merely described what was there, apparently.  And also, apparently, someone gave me the credit because I wrote the book in which the poem was printed. Repeated searches using the lines of the poem yielded nothing that would lead to the real author of it. Instead, my name kept popping up.

My guess is that those aggregating quotes for their web sites were content to copy from one another. Someone mistakenly credited the lines to me and the misappropriation was multiplied through the ubiquity of the Net. As Tolstoy said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
All this is timely: The poem comes back to haunt me now when it has deeper relevance, when so much is slipping away and as I spend endless hours sorting through old letters, photographs and other papers.

Now for the obvious — perhaps the first call a good private eye would have made given this question would have been to the library. When that finally dawned on me, I contacted the friendly librarians in Indianapolis. They didn’t know. After some scurrying, huddling and laughter, they found it.  This quote, immortalized by chisel below a large clock at the beautiful and now exquisitely expanded downtown Indianapolis library, is from a 1779 hymn by John Newton, who also wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Incidentally, John Newton’s personal story is extraordinary and alone well worth the effort I took to solve the mystery.

 I’ll do my best to contact the various quote-oriented web sites to see if I can correct the self-perpetuating error. Meanwhile, any thought that in the reference books full of eloquent quotes the name Tierney will not appear between Thoreau and Tolstoy.  Drat!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Commentary — Why Do We Kill, And Why Are We So Fascinated With Those Who Do?

Why do people kill each other? It’s a question that I think about, perhaps too often. Greed, jealousy, revenge?  To solve a sticky relationship problem — such as unwanted spouses who won’t go away on their own.  Or maybe to end a loved one’s suffering?  For the greater good? The crowded lifeboat debate.  But the other question is why are so many others so curious about the subject? It’s not really a pleasant subject.

I know that eating too many Pepperidge Farms Chesapeake cookies is unhealthy and that to outsmart myself I must never buy more than one bag at a time.  I feel similarly about my diet of crime fiction, especially on Saturday when, because I’m an anti-social curmudgeon, I binge on true crime as served by “48 Hours,” “Dateline,” and “20/20.” The long, drawn-out dramas chronicling human sadness cannot be that healthful for the brain.  But just as carrots and kale cannot satisfy certain hungers, neither can mind-improving or soul-lifting drama cure the apparent need for the seamy side of life. 

For the most part, I’m not talking about wars or terrorism, or even the collateral damage of an armed robbery, though understanding the murderous psyche might help us there, but murders of a personal nature, where, in some fashion, victim and perpetrator know each other or in instances when the driving force behind the murder is mysterious in and of itself.

Murder. Movies are made of this. True-life murders are a staple of small-screen, low-budget, but often riveting productions. They show how dilemmas in the ordinary lives of ordinary people ratchet into irretrievable acts of violence. The big-screen nonfiction dramas are usually about people we all know because the media was obsessed with the crime or the people involved, or because it reflects a larger theme.

From the film, Swoon
The court proceedings for two young men, Leopold and Loeb, for the murder of a young student Bobby Franks in 1924, was billed as the “trial of the century.” The kidnappers and victim were children of exceedingly wealthy parents.  Loeb, obsessed with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, had latched onto an interpretation of the “superman principle,” that if you are smart enough, you are not bound by the laws designed for ordinary humans.  Loeb thought of himself smart enough and convinced Leopold, follower and lover, to commit the perfect crime. It wasn’t perfect, apparently. The boys were on their way to an almost certain death penalty. The most famous American attorney of this or any time, Clarence Darrow represented the defense. Scandalous for its homosexual overtones, the trial of he century was also one of the nation’s mot important trials because of the capital punishment implications as well as its philosophical “superman” backdrop. The Leopold & Loeb trial was made for the cinema. The story inspired three major films — Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Compulsion with Orson Welles, and Swoon, which had spelled out the story’s gay component, intentionally downplayed in previous versions.

From the film, Reversal of Fortune
Later, actor Jeremy Irons portrayed the social climbing Claus Von Bulow in another torrid trial concerning the death of Von Bulow’s wealthy, high-society wife, Sunny. Von Bulow was successfully defended by celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and was made into the movie, Reversal of Fortune. The film was was a hit and Irons earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the ice-cold Von Bulow, who had well more than his 15 minutes of fame.

In the 1950s, the murder of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s pregnant wife dominated the media. The surgeon claimed he was struck and knocked unconscious, but that he saw the murderer in a long coat leaving the scene of the crime. The story was splashed all over the tabloids and the mainstream media followed.  Sheppard was eventually acquitted with help of media favorite attorney, F. Lee Bailey.  Though no one claimed it was Sheppard’s story there is little doubt the crime and the mystery surrounding it inspired the incredibly popular film, The Fugitive, and the successful TV series also bearing that name.

From the TV series, The Fugiive
There are other films based on real-life murders. The lesser known Prick Up Your Ears a film based on the book of the same name— tells the story of naughty British playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and sometimes writing partner, who hammered Orton to death before killing himself in their claustrophobically tiny apartment, a room almost too small for one.

Why has always been the most important question of the journalistic “w’s” for me. I’m told I drove my elementary school teachers crazy with that question.  I continue.  Again, I’m not talking about wars, revolutions or drive-bys. That’s a good question as well. But mine is:  Why do people kill people one-on-one? Is there any unified theory explaining why people do this?  They seem to rarely get away with it. Perhaps there is no simple answer. However, I’d like to propose one.

Self-preservation.  Not necessarily self-defense as we understand it; but self-preservation in the broadest sense. Preserving the self can include doing what’s necessary to preserve one’s perception of self or pursuing the self as one wants to perceive it or be perceived by others. In the case of Von Bulow, we have a fellow who grew up in the shadow of wealth and privilege, yet always dependent upon another for his station in life. His family served the wealthy.  He served Jean Paul Getty as an assistant.  He married into wealth and privilege, but was always privilege’s husband. He was acquitted of attempted murder by insulin injection, (his wife lived on in a coma).  The young, handsome, respected Dr. Sheppard was about to have a child, which would have inhibited any choice to live a more adventurous life perhaps an alternate fantasy during a mid-life crisis to that of a quiet, reserved family man, bound by the conventions of that status.  After acquittal, the good doctor became a professional wrestler.

Did Leopold and Loeb have to prove to themselves that they were smarter than anyone else to justify their belief they occupied a rarefied space superior to that of ordinary mortals? It wasn’t a matter of preservation of the body, the physical self, but that special place they thought they occupied. They failed miserably. The irony is that if they had achieved or were deserving of the “superman,” or “overman” label as Nietzsche defined it, they would never have sought it or felt the need to prove it.  The death of Bobby Franks was completely senseless. The trial itself wasn’t one of guilt or innocence. The evidence was clear. The boys confessed. No perfect crime for them. Darrow’s job wasn’t easy but the goal was simple: to prevent the two self-proclaimed geniuses from being sentenced to death. He did, though Loeb was stabbed to death in prison. Leopold was eventually paroled and surprisingly made serious contributions to humanity in ways Nietzsche might have actually recognized as the work of the Overman he described.

From the film, Prick Up Your Ears
Why did Halliwell kill Orton? They were partners/lovers, co-conspirators in life.  Because their identities were intertwined and for Halliwell interdependent.  Orton’s success pulled his friend into the spotlight.  Soon it was not Orton and Halliwell, but Orton and his increasingly nameless friend, and then Orton. Only Orton.  Orton further threatened their shared identity by going his own way not only as a writer, but by eventually finding another lover.  What did that leave Halliwell?  They died together, within moments of each other. Was Halliwell not trying to protect himself despite the fact he was the man with the hammer and the overdose? For Halliwell, perhaps it wasn’t murder-suicide, but only suicide. Hadn’t he, in his perception, only killed himself for his failure to achieve a self?

Certainly self-preservation is built in. We will do everything we can to save our own lives.  Most would do all they can to save the lives of loved ones. One can make the case that we could not live with ourselves if we didn’t.  I think that instinct, at least for us humans who are self-conscious and who try to create meaning for why we live, is basic to understanding why we kill.  On the surface, it may be that someone disrespected us, stole from us, had something (money, position, love) that we felt was necessary for our survival that provides motive. But the base need always relates to survival of the self as we define it or understand it to be.  At least that’s the theory.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blatant Self Promotion And Slightly Subtle Celebration — 25 Years With Deets Shanahan

Last Shanahan, May 1 Release

My new book, Killing Frost won’t be released until May 1.  The good news is that Amazon and B&N are offering pre-release discounts on advance orders.  Some bookstores might do so as well if you place an advance order through them. This is good for collectors, I suspect.  So too is the fact that this is the last Shanahan novel and also celebrates the veteran detective’s 25th anniversary in print.

It’s a fairly big deal for me. The first book, Stone Veil made a good impression back in 1990 when it launched, and the reviews of all 10 published so far — Killing Frost being the 11th  — have encouraged me and its publisher, the UK’s Severn House, to keep the Shanahan books coming. Some writers say they don’t read reviews. That’s probably true in some cases.   I won’t pretend I don’t care about reviews. I do care.  I eagerly and anxiously await them for this new book as well, understanding that just because I believe it is one of my best doesn’t make it so. But I do believe it is.

Why is this the last in the series?

The First Ten Shanahans
There have been discussions about how many books are reasonable for any given series. The authors of the excellent Martin Beck novels said that ten was enough. Writers disagree.  So do readers. Agatha Christie wrote 33 Hercule Poirot mysteries and 12 featuring Miss Marple.  There were 75 novels in Georges Simenon’s Maigret series. Robert B. Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels. His series, like Mickey Spillane’s legendary Mike Hammer, continues beyond the creator’s death.  Other writers stepped in (good ones, thankfully), pushing for an endless series of each – immortality of sorts. 

But Shanahan was 69 when he first appeared (don’t try to do the math) and I was very interested in the aging process as part of his character and perspective on the times.  I knew there weren’t that many stories. I can’t be sure what I would have done if Shanahan had achieved the status of some of the other fictional private eyes.  Even so, there is a kind of emotional satisfaction having come full circle, having finished what I started, being able to wrap it up myself.

First Shanahan, 1990
When I heard about the authors pulling Beck after ten, I was ready to do the same.  I did some tidying up at the end of Bullet Beach, my tenth novel about Shanahan and his love, Maureen.  However, I had spent a couple of decades writing about the elderly detective, when at his fictional departure, I began to personally experience what age really does to our ability to function. After all, I began writing about the 70ish private eye when I was in my forties. I’ve now caught up with my aging protagonist.  I wrote a novella to incorporate this new perspective. But the unexpected continued to intrude and there was a separate, more substantial novel brewing even as I finished the novella. The novel became Killing Frost.

As the Shanahan years end, I continue to write. In May Killing Frost will appear. This fall, the novella, Blue Dragon, will be released by Raven Books, an imprint of Canadian publisher, Orca. This marks a focus on different people and different places as well as different approaches to the mystery genre. And all this brings with it a kind of excitement that my aging gray matter could use.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Writing — Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, but Words Can Only Drive Me Crazy

There are better grammarians and more knowledgeable entomologists (or etymologists if we pay attention to detail). Certainly there are those who know more than I do about the use and evolution of the English language, even the version used in the USA. But as someone who has, I promise, written a few million words in the last 70 years, many of them in the proper order, I have thoughts about how words are used, misused, lost and invented.

As an overall philosophy I believe that language is, whether we like it or not, an evolving process.   Words die because of irrelevancy, redundancy or both. People simply stop using them.  We no longer use “amongst” or “whilst. Though some may mourn the loss, “among” and “while” do just fine.  We do not use the word “thither.”  And we do not use its bff, the word “yon.”  They went thither and yon. It’s sad.  They went everywhere together. There are wonderful, colorful words that had their days in the sun and have nearly disappeared.  “Aghast,” not to mention “flabbergasted” and such sounds of surprise or shock as, “gadzooks” and “egad.” However, in my increasingly brief exposure to what’s going on outside my small apartment, I’m seeing the return of “Yikes!” It brings me pleasure to come across it. “Hipsters” are back, it seems. And I sincerely hope “dude” is gone forever.

Every year the news media makes a big deal about which new words have been accepted by the authorities.  Lately, most are related to technology and or social media. Makes sense to me.  For example, the word, “text” is now also a verb.  The only time I really object to change is when a perfectly good word is misused and is confused with another perfectly good word with a different meaning.  “Notorious” and “famous” are different words. They are related.  If one is notorious he or she is probably also famous.  The reverse need not be true, and the words are not interchangeable.  The worst violation is the mistaken notion that “anxious” and “eager” mean the same thing, though continued misuse will make it so. It’s conceivable one might be “anxious” and “eager,” but they have separate, though possibly related, meanings. “Anxious” brings with it a little fear or nervousness, certainly anxiety.  I am eager to taste the pecan pie. It’s doubtful that I am secretly frightened of it. Though I probably should be.

I’ve also witnessed the emergence of referring to those too well acquainted with poverty as “the poors,” suggesting a group not unlike the earlier and usually hostile reference to “the gays.”  The gays found it funny and used it freely, just as they defanged “queer.”  Now I’m hearing about “the elderlies.” It’s amazing how many official groups to which I suddenly belong. “Here come the elderlies.”

Aside from misuse, I’m not frightened of the language evolving even though I am a bit anxious about my ability to keep up with the changes originating with eight-year-olds.  However I’d like to point out that evolution has not yet solved a recurring problem with English. 

The issue that bothers me is how we deal with gender, an existing problem made more important given the changes in social values and growing awareness of our grand diversity.  The “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her” pronouns are at once mechanically difficult for fluid prose and socially inappropriate.

Earlier in this post I wrote: “If one is notorious he or she is probably also famous.” Why must I write he or she or he/she or any such abomination in order to convey that a gender reference is not necessary to complete the thought?  Substituting either “they” or “it” is misleading.  You might think this is no big deal.  We’ve lived with this awkwardness for a long time. That’s true. Sort of.  At one point we simply used “he” when the gender was unknown. People of a certain gender finally and properly objected. Now we go through that ugly “she and/or he “ construction. 

As more of us are coming to understand some of Nature’s creatures are born with indeterminate gender. Some are presented with features of both.  It is also known that merely being born with one set of genetalia doesn’t mean the person’s brain is in full agreement. Also, increasingly it seems, there are people who wish not to be identified by the up-to-now commonly accepted definitions of gender. Some prefer not to have a gender identity at all. Given the gray areas of masculinity and femininity I wonder why we spend so much time trying to force everything into one gender basket or another anyway. In terms of gender being attached to words, it could be worse.  We could be writing in French.

I am reminded of the Yogi Berra story. When he was asked the gender of the streakers at a ball game, the famed catcher reputedly replied. “I don’t know. They wore bags over their heads.” The point is that unless you want a baby or identify a naked criminal with the highest level of specificity, what difference does it make?

To ameliorate the grammatical and social awkwardness, without disturbing much else, can’t we come up with one neutral, short word to replace both “him” and “her” and another for “he and she?”

It might be a little frustrating at first, but we can do a global “find and replace” command just as some of us have to do to eliminate one of the two spaces we type after a period.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Film Pairings — Two You Might Have Missed

Getting in over your head is the theme that makes The Counselor (2013) and Easy Money (2010) a natural pair in the noir genre. What I particularly like is the sense of reality the filmmakers establish. While there is violence and suspense, nothing is over the top. A sense of “this could happen” permeates the atmosphere. 

The Counselor has the help of genuinely heavy hitters in the talent department. Ridley Scott directed the story created by Cormac McCarthy. Primary roles were filled by Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Barden, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, some of them giving better than usual performances.  Supporting roles were also given to serious talent — Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Reubén Blades among them.

The story, largely set in Mexico, involves a huge shipment of cocaine. The smuggling is ingenious, and certainly profitable.  Everyone could walk away from a cleverly planned drug deal with a nice piece of the action and live happily ever after.  However one guy thinks he has a better idea, and greed — sin or not — turns out to be as deadly as people say it is.

In Easy Money, the cast is Swedish.  This may be why we don’t have to overcome the celebrity that is so prevalent in The Counselor.  The acting is just as good.  And we in North America are becoming somewhat familiar with the talented Joel Kinnamen. (He was in a remake of Robocop and in “The Killing.”)  The Kinnamen character is living above his station but longs to be accepted by a snobbishly rich clique. His expensive role-playing is difficult to maintain on the income of a part-time taxi driver.  He decides to step up his income by engaging in cocaine trafficking and then, because he is quite clever, he helps a Yugoslavian mob boss launder the profits.  He almost finds a way to fit in with those born into wealth. And he believes he’s indispensible to the drug lord he serves. But he’s as much out of his league with the long-landed gentry as he is with professional thugs.  As it turns out he’s a decent guy, a quality that hinders his full access to the worlds he wants to enter.  Daniel Espinosa directed Easy Money, based on the novel of the same name by Jens Lapidus.  Matias Varela and Dragomir Mrsic co-starred. On a funny but all too-true note, one critic praised the Swedish film for not including a “tired old inspector” in the cast of characters.

For an accompaniment to the evening, you can choose something to enhance the warm climate of Mexico.  Tequila perhaps or a Corona.  If you are more inclined to think Swede, why not have Sweden’s vodka, Absolut?  Or some cider?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Notes — Fuminori Nakamura, Metaphysical and Magic

Three of Fuminori Nakamura’s novels have arrived on American bookshelves recently. These translations of the 37-year-old author’s work have been met with dozens of awards, and he has been welcomed with an explosion of new fans. Nakamura is the cover story in Mystery Scene magazine’s most recent issue. There is good reason. He is giving readers a different but dark look at an increasingly popular, already dark sub genre — noir. It is also fair, I think, to say his work will be part of the continuous discussion of what is genre and what is literary fiction, if, in fact, there is a distinction to be made.

The Thief * —Words and sentences are razor slices, forceful.  Quick and short.  Tough as well as elegant as they are, the minimized narrative and terse dialogue deliver surprisingly full-bodied, fully textured inner and outer worlds.  As a reader I was involuntarily swept along. Later, backing off a bit and looking at it as a writer, I wanted to understand the brush strokes of his work.  I wanted to know how he packed so much feeling into this brief, unsentimentally written book.

The story is not complex. My take is that it is a story about a man who chooses to live in a world he carefully carves out for himself and one he has, perhaps until now, controlled. We might find his life sad, tawdry, but it is not without meaning for him.  It has value here and there.  His pickpocket profession brings a measure of fulfillment. He has talent, enjoys challenges, and appreciates in a modest way his professional accomplishments.  He is not propelled by ambition or greed.  One could easily conclude that his profession is his art and his life.

One mistake. He allows others to enter his sphere — and we can argue fate and free will if we choose.  Or we can say that this is Noir.  One mistake. The main character’s fatal flaw is that he became human, or humane if only for a moment. And his world, so carefully kept in balance, rolls over him. One mistake, one slip. That’s all you get.

Evil And The Mask — Perhaps because Mr. Nakamura’s The Thief was so good and so successful, I expected this one to stay close to home. But in this novel, that single narrative voice and the compact world it created has been invaded.  The world is no longer seen through a peephole. We now have colors, emotion, vivid descriptions, multiple dimensional characters with backstories. The entire central story is told against a larger backdrop, in this case as both medical and moral metaphor. Nakamura constantly asks the main character and the reader to contemplate and weigh moral consequences. It is not that The Thief was too simple.  In my view, it is a masterpiece of minimalism. Its ability to communicate with such sparseness of language is close to incomparable.  But this is something else, altogether. Nakamura’s vision remains unblinkingly dark. We still have one narrator who, unlike the pickpocket, shares his pain with reader. He is a boy groomed by a self-consciously evil father to be a cancer on society The individual story mirrors none too subtly the corruption of society, putting along side each other the notion of personal murder for gain alongside the profitable war business in which his family is also engaged. We go to war for oil, to sell weapons, to rebuild what has been destroyed by bombs and mortars and to provide the essential services to support armies — all in a vicious, violent, profitable circle. War (evil=cancer) is good for the economy. Nakamura, in this one, continues to create a dark world with the requisite sex and violence. In Evil and The Mask, Nakamura shows how the dystopian world others write about, can come into being, if it’s not here already.

Last Winter We Parted — This novel continues the author’s willingness to change the form of the narrative. While he has returned to a more frugal use of words, he expanded the number of point of views.  Here we have the story told by the person arrested for a vicious crime and a reporter who is supposed to interview him to get the real story. While Nakamura’ constructs uncomplicated, short sentences at a rapid pace, this not the way of the story itself. There are no straight lines as the plot folds back upon itself and the person we presume is the protagonist might not have been as honest with us (and himself) as we presumed.  So too the villain.

Identity is a theme that is woven through all three books. And Nakamura plays with it.  In The Thief the main character seems absent any identity aside from his craft.  In Evil And The Mask, plastic surgery — a new identity — plays a significant role.  And here in Last Winter We Parted, there is sleight of hand and stand-ins real and manufactured to confuse or amuse us. As in all three of these Nakamura’s novels, there are murders with which to contend, but again there is a larger fabric against which the drama is set.  

As readers we are not merely voyeurs. Nakamura asks questions. If you reveal yourself to another, have you lost part of who you are?  When we care passionately (hate or love) about another does that mean we are less ourselves?  If someone recreates you in another fashion — photographs, dolls perhaps, or just in his or her own perception – have you been diminished or changed?  There is a code noir seems to follow. After all is written, the only message is: “Life is crap and then you die.” Nakamura certainly follows this tradition.  He also creates a fine mystery that unfolds in a context larger than the plot.

* Comments regarding The Thief were posted earlier on this blog. Comments on Evil And The Mask and Last Winter We Parted are new.