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

February 16, 2012

HIGH ADVENTURE by Donald E. Westlake

Pilot Kirby Galway is having a bad week. He has two different customers (for the Pre-Columbian artifacts he smuggles) show up at his home in Belize at the same time. That wouldn't be so bad except that each customer thinks he is the exclusive customer. They also think those artifacts are real. If that's not enough to give Kirby a headache, along comes a fiercely honest, Junoesque archaeologist named Valerie Green. Valerie ("despoliation!" is her watchword)  is positive there is an undiscovered Mayan temple right -- there. Yes, there. Right where Kirby and his band of merry Mayan pranksters have created a fake temple on his land. Government official Innocent St. Michael -- a sorely misnamed individual -- knows very well there is no temple on Kirby's land because Innocent sold him that land. Suckered him on the deal, in fact, because the land is worthless. But Innocent was never one to let a fast dollar or a beautiful woman get by him so he's very curious as to all the shuckin' and jivin' going on out Kirby's way. Vernon, Innocent's right hand man, is hell bent on bringing down the Belizean government, and that may involve kidnapping and murder if he can withstand the ulcer-inducing stress of simply imagining those events. And in between making fake antiquities, keeping his customers satisfied, drumming up new customers, staving off both the government and the rabid archaeologist as well as reporters and Guatemalan terrorists disguised as -- wait for it -- Ghurkas, Kirby still has to complete his usual rounds of smuggling marijuana into the US.

Now having said all that, do I really need to tell you what a delightful confection this book is? There is no weight to the book at all, despite Westlake's wryly humorous reflections on government corruption, academic corruption, and the general ineptitude of the human race. The story is a charming bonbon, aiming solely to amuse the reader, and it succeeds admirably, though the book does not quite rise to the levels of hilarity achieved in the author's Dortmunder series.

Westlake rounds out all of his characters, finding as much humor in their assets as in their liabilities, and he sets up scenes worthy of the finest screwball comedies in which to mentally torture his characters with their misinterpretations of situations and identities. There is one particularly funny scene in a hotel restaurant in which Kirby's various customers and the archaeologist are all trying to have dinner, trying not to be recognized, and everyone in confusion (and no small amount of fear) as to identities and motives. That the scene plays out with very little in the way of dialogue is testament to Westlake's skills of characterization and the third-person point of view.

Besides being a master of the plot twist -- Westlake's mind was positively labyrinthine -- the author also wrote fine prose, full of imagery, often beautiful yet lacking any pretention. For readers familiar only with his Parker novels and their lean style of prose, this book is a real change of pace. Fans of Westlake's Dortmunder series will find much to enjoy here, but will still miss the crazy gang in that series.


On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Hard Case Crime will release THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, probably the last we will see of Westlake's previously unpublished works.

February 10, 2012

ABIDE WITH ME by Ian Ayris

Johnny and Kenny are 10-year-olds living across the street from each other in London's East End. Neither family has much money but these boys' lives couldn't be more different. Kenny, vacuous and obese, with his relentlessly brutal father and his doormat of a loving mother; and football-mad Johnny, with two loving parents with excellent work ethics and a little princess of a baby sister. Despite Kenny's hygienic deficiencies and passive demeanor, the boys become friends and remain so until Kenny's passivity cracks one day and he is sent, as Johnny says, "to the nutter." The years, then a decade rolls by. Consumed by a family tragedy, Johnny makes some bad decisions for which he pays a heavy price. Just when Johnny is finally ready and able to try to correct the course of his life, Kenny reappears, still dirty, still vacuous, and now getting his food from trash bins. And Kenny's also in a world of trouble with the local mobster, and so is Johnny's mother. The pressure is on Johnny to help the mobster deal with Kenny. If Johnny tries to help his old friend, neither he nor his family will live to see another sunrise.

ABIDE WITH ME, by Ian Ayris, is a remarkable first novel. It is so very good -- and it's almost scary to say this author has the potential to be even better -- that even though I was familiar with the quality of Ayris's short stories, I was poleaxed by both story and writing in ABIDE WITH ME. Writing in the first person of Johnny, and in the East End vernacular, the author admirably maintains the voice of the character while allowing him to age and mature -- or not -- over the ten or so years of the story. The character is street-wise but not callous; occasionally daring but by no means fearless. Ayris guides his narrator through the pre-teen and teen years with a keen eye for the self-absorption and animal instincts of youth. Ayris' particular talent, though, is in defining and revealing the small, quiet tragedies in the lives of the less-than-affluent. And the book just shines when he juxtaposes those private griefs against public shame and personal pride.

I'm not ashamed to say that the story of Johnny's and Kenny's friendship moved me to tears. Although good arguments can be made that the themes include what it means to be a hero or an exploration of one's place in a community, the overriding theme surely is what does it mean to be a friend. Throughout Johnny's narration, as we see his narrow world through his young eyes, we come to think as Johnny does: that he is a steadfast friend to the hopelessly and uselessly blank, somewhat repellent Kenny. But it is Kenny who, by story's end, exemplifies what it means to be a friend, as well as what courage and gratitude can be.

I'm going to startle more than a few of you, possibly even the author, by saying this book stands comparison to books by Liza Cody and -- ready? -- Ken Bruen. No joke. No exaggeration. ABIDE WITH ME has the same clarity of voice, the same dark humor, as well as a poignancy that wrenches and moves the reader. Ayris may even go a bit further in capturing a vivid slice of life that rings true to this Yank. This is not a book for those who like a bit of bloodletting in the library with their tea and crumpets. This is a gritty, altogether human story of tragedies both quiet and public, in a world where paradise means your football team is in the finals and where getting out and up never even crosses the mind.

Here's an excerpt in which a shaken-to-the-core Johnny has just endured tea, for the first and only time, at Kenny's house, and there witnessed the abrupt and terrible violence Kenny and his mother suffer as a matter of routine.

And that was tea at Kenny's. I didn't tell Mum nothing. Said I pissed meself on the way home from school. She says not to worry, and gives me a kiss on the head. That's when I started bawlin me eyes out.

Come night time, I'm lyin in me bed. Can't sleep. Been tryin to close me eyes for ages, but soon as I do, I see Kenny's old man cryin his heart out and Kenny shufflin about the floor pickin up jam sarnies, and all over there's the sound of his old girl screamin.

Mum and Dad's downstairs. Mum's laughin. Probably something on the telly or Dad's told her one of his stupid jokes, something he'd picked up in the factory or out the boozer. Becky's movin about in her cot like she can't sleep neither. She's breathin heavy, sort of two at a time, like she's cryin. But she's not. It's just how she gets sometimes.

Can't get Kenny out of me head still, thinkin about him across the road, tryin to get to sleep. And I'm thinkin what I'd do if I was him. I know I wouldn't fuckin be puttin up with it, that's for fuckin starters. I'd be workin out how to have it away on me toes first thing, like that Dick Whittinton geezer. I'd do the old man in before I went, an all. Get a gun or something. Blow the bastard's head off.

The stairs start creakin. Door opens. Mum comes in to check on Becky, and I squeeze me eyes tight shut. I can hear Mum whisperin to Becky and singin soft, probably strokin her hair and her cheek, an that. She's right gentle, Mum. Then I can hear her footsteps comin over to me. I close me eyes even tighter. Don't wanna talk about what's in me head, you know, doin away with Kenny's old man. Mum feels me forehead, and gives me a kiss there. Then she gets a tissue and she's wipin me eyes and she's wipin the tears off me face. She cups her hand round me cheek, and I know she's lookin right into me. Gives me another kiss on the forehead and I know I'm cryin now cos I can hear it in me throat. But I won't open me eyes, not even for Mum. I'm willin for her to go. And when she does, when the bedroom door shuts tight and the lights go out, I want her back all over again, just so she can stop the screamin in me head.

As for Kenny, next day at school, all week, I got an empty fuckin chair sittin next to me.