The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 22, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Nice Jewish boy turned mob hit-man turned federal witness turned doctor is found out by one of the patients, a mob man from the not-so-good doctor's past, at the Manhattan hospital where he works. Violence ensues.

REVIEW: This book is sharp, funny, cynical, original, well-paced, and there's also graphic violence for those who relish it. There are many good things to say about this book, which has garnered praise-blurbs from the likes of Crais, Winslow, Coben, Connelly, et al, and created a small buzz among crime fic book bloggers.

Ultimately however, for me, Beat the Reaper was not an altogether satisfying read. Don't get me wrong; I understand the buzz about this book. It keeps your attention. But for every hilarious and keenly observant comment, there is a footnote that drags the reader out of the flow of the story. Yeah, footnotes. Not something I really like to see in a novel. There's some interesting info in those footnotes but they are distracting. For every well-choreographed martial arts scene, I also felt the pull on the suspension of my disbelief. The protagonist, Dr. Peter Brown (uh huh, that's his witness protection name; his real name is Pietra Brnwa. 'Nuff said.), out-Bonds 007 in martial arts, weaponry, smarts, and pretty much any area you care to name. And he does it all without sleep and while high on 'scrips. What with Brown's superhero fighting skills combined with his doctor-as-god smarts, the character grated on me. Brown isn't too good to be true, he's a hit man after all, but he is too much to be true. By the time I got to the climactic scene in which Brown does the most amazing, gross, and entirely unbelievable thing to save his life, I was well past caring. (Still, it's a scene that ought to be read because what kind of mind could think that sort of thing up? Scary.)

The construction of the story is perhaps a little ambitious for a debut novelist, as it alternates between Brown's ongoing dilemmas with mobsters and patients, and his back story. It's a good idea, even though the writing isn't quite strong enough to make it work. The back story was the place where the reader should develop some sympathy for the main character so we can root for him in his current predicament. For me that never happened; I simply never developed any sympathy or identification with Dr. Brown. Contrast that with, say, the back story of Frank Temple II in Michael Koryta's Envy the Night. In that book, Temple also was trained in the art of killing from an early age, and the reader is both horrified by his skills and pity the man he becomes. The reader relates to his humanity. When Peter Brown displays humanity it feels less like true compassion for his patients than merely the fulfillment of an obligation he has made to render such service. Medicine is what he does, not what he is.

BTW, does anyone think that a hit man who lived and worked among the northern New Jersey mob would, after enrolling in the Federal Witness Protection Program, be placed in a Manhattan hospital for work, instead of, oh, say, a hospital in Topeka?

For all my dissatisfaction with the protagonist, Bazell is unquestionably very talented, and once he stops trying to cram all his good ideas into one book and learns to genuinely develop his characters, his stories could be breathtaking. This book is closer to the style of Swierczynski's Severance Package than to a Ken Bruen book, and if you were a fan of Severance Package then you should love this book also. For me, the most riveting scenes in the book are not the ones where Brown is dealing with his would-be killers, it's the scenes where he's dealing with his co-workers and patients. Here's one of my favorites, in which Brown's co-worker (the ID guy) has just accidentally stabbed him in the arm with a hypodermic needle containing a sample from a patient who may have an infectious disease:
I snap the needle off and drop it into the drawer of a sharps box on the wall behind me. Then I take hold of the front of the ID guy's scrub shirt and drop the hypo chamber into his pocket. "Scrape what you can out of this and analyze it," I tell him. "Take the Path guy with you."

"I don't even know what I'm doing here," the Path guy whines.

"Don't make me hurt you," I tell him.

"Dr. Brown," the Attending says.

"Yes, sir?" I say, still looking at the ID guy.

"Give me a five-minute head start?"

"You left ten minutes ago," I tell him.

"You're a mensch, kid. Cheers," he says as he leaves.

Everyone else stands frozen.

"Stat, you fucking assholes!" I tell them.

I'm almost out of the room when I realize something's wrong. Something else, I mean.

Duke Mosby's bed is empty. "Where's Mosby?" I say.

"Maybe he went for a walk," one of the med students says, behind me.

"Mosby's got bilateral pedal gangrene," I say. "The guy can't even hobble."

But apparently he can run.

January 12, 2009

REVIEW: SMALL CRIMES by Dave Zeltserman

SYNOPSIS: Joe Denton is fresh out of jail. Crooked cop, cokehead, world's worst gambler, lousy husband, father, and son; Joe's just your every day, basic, all-around useless guy. Joe just wants to make amends for some of his bad acts, but nobody wants him to stick around long enough to do that. Except for those people who want him around long enough to (a) kill the local mobster, or (b) kill the local DA. In between making that no-win decision, Joe bides his time getting shot at, beat up, coked up, kicked out of his parents' house, shut out by his ex-wife and kids, nearly busted for rape, assault, and cocaine use... Yeah, Joe's keeping so busy he missed that appointment with his parole officer. But he's got his good buddy, the county sheriff, to lend a hand. Yeah, a hand that wants to push Joe right into a coffin. But, hey, none of this is Joe's fault. Right?

REVIEW: Maybe it's cheating but the easiest review to write for this book is simply to say, if you're a fan of Jim Thompson's brand of psychotic noir then you're gonna fall dead in love with Dave Zeltserman.

There is a simplicity to Small Crimes that is reminiscent of Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It's only in the first-person POV and the linear construction of the book, along with the unravelling personality of the protagonist, that harkens back to Thompson though. In all the ways that matter, Zeltersman made the story darkly original, fierce, and occasionally funny; and he populated it with characters both sympathetic (Joe's parents, the DA) and fearsome (Sheriff Dan Pleasant, the mobster's son), and some that are more than a little offbeat (Nurse Charlotte Boyd).

The plot is nicely intricate, and Zeltserman does a fine job of never letting the pace either get scorched or go slack. By the end of chapter three, the tension is starting to ratchet up and no matter what Joe does from there on out, he's boxed in and the box is only going to get smaller. Way tiny. Coffin close.

Fact is though, good as the plot and pace are, this book is all about one character: Joe Denton. Joe is a fascinating guy, all right, not that you'd ever want to be a pal of his or anything. Most people see Joe for what he is, it's only Joe who doesn't quite get the picture. And since the reader sees everything through Joe's eyes, then you'd be correct in thinking that I had a touch of myopia myself regarding Joe. His sins, his attempts at redemption, even some acts of heroism, none of these compare to Joe's self-betrayal. And since he's pretty much the only guy on his side anyway, you know things are going to get ugly. And ugly, as we all know, makes the best noir.

Zeltserman's next book is Pariah, out this month in the UK, and Ken Bruen has written a paean to it. I don't think I can wait for a US publication.

January 10, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Mickey Halloran, the lawyer Connelly introduced in the "The Lincoln Lawyer," returns to practicing law after a year spent fighting drug addiction. Instead of having to struggle to rebuild his practice, Mickey gets an easy gift of 31 clients when the lawyer who handled those cases is murdered. One of the clients is the high-profile type, Walter Elliot, head of a major film studio, and Elliot is going on trial for the murders of his wife and her lover. So there are two murder mysteries going on here, and as in any of today's standard thrillers, you know that somewhere along the line those two murders are going to get linked up.

REVIEW: This was to be my last Michael Connelly book. I've not been entirely satisfied with any of his books since the magnificent 'Angels Flight,' and with each successive book it's become less about satisfaction and more about irritation. The culmination of my disenchantment came with 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' a book I consider to be highly overrated (but I've felt that way about the last several Harry Bosch titles as well). That's the last Connelly book I paid for; 'The Brass Verdict' I retrieved from the library, and my expectations could not have been lower.

Maybe that was all I needed to do, was to lower my expectations because while I don't think 'The Brass Verdict' ought to win any awards, it's a pretty good thriller. Yes, Connelly still has those twists and turns that have patently obvious explanations (did any reader really not know what his intentions were regarding Eli Wyms and the GSR tests? Did any reader really not know who was behind the 'killer' who came after Mickey in the garage?); yes, he eschews character development other than the protagonist's; yes, I still wonder why he's considered a great writer when any debut author would be excoriated for producing sentences such as: "Bosch smiled glibly and shook his head." Smiled glibly? Can you say 'yanked from my suspension of disbelief?' I am more charitable about the reason for the constant misuse of 'preemptory' when Connelly means 'peremptory.' Presumably that will be corrected in later editions. Nevertheless, it's distracting and it's difficult to place the author in the company of truly great writers when I encounter these things in his work. On the plus side, not once did I trip over any of the purple prose that disgusted me in 'The Closers.'

Missing from this book is the ambience, the atmosphere of a dark LA that Connelly internalized so wonderfully in the early Harry Bosch character. But it's hard to create ambience when the action is the interior of a Lincoln, eh? Unless you're writing porn anyway. What Connelly nails to perfection is the way Halloran handles his cases, his legal reasonings, his cold pragmatism when it comes to throwing indigent clients into the 'dog pile.' And the pacing? Stellar, with only one small breakdown in the latter portion of the book and from which Connelly quickly recovered.

Some readers expressed unhappiness for how small a part Harry Bosch played in this book, but that's one area in which I disagree. This is not a detective story, it's a legal thriller, and Bosch did play a pivotal role. However, it could just as easily have been a new character rather than Bosch, because other than the gimmick of Bosch and Halloran being half-brothers, there was no need for the cop role to be filled specifically by Bosch. It was that gimmick that got me to read the book in the first place, because I was pretty much done with Connelly. Now, I'll probably read the next one but I'm not ready to start sinking my hard-won dollars into his titles again. Not yet. Why not? Because Connelly cheated the reader, just a little, but it was still a cheat, when he let Mickey use information in the denouement, information that had not been made available to the reader. That I had guessed early on who was behind the jury tampering is beside the point. I've come to know Connelly's tricks too well. And tricks, rather than plot devices, are what they seem like to me.

Overall, this is one of those books that many people would characterize (or damn) as a good beach read. It's a fairly good thriller that comes close to earning that prized descriptor, 'page turning.' Has it won me back into the ranks of the Michael Connelly fan club? Does it put him back at or near the top of my list of favorite crime fiction writers? No, but it does give me hope that one day he will find his way back to the quality of his earlier books.