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May 7th, 2009
An Idle Word: Summer mystery reading

An Idle Mind: A column
by BILL CUNNINGHAM

With the weather starting to heat up for summer, those of us who still read are casting about for our summer escapist reading, which in my case means mysteries and crime novels (also fall, winter and spring reading).

After my shortcomings as a rock critic were either corrected or savaged (depending on the commentator last week), I feel safe returning to what I know best and thought now would be a good time to endorse some good readings for those who want to stockpile.

Several of the best-selling names have books forthcoming in the next month or so I’m skipping over the big names (the crime lover will know them anyway). But I will point out that Michael Connelly has a new book due out shortly. It’s not part of his Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch series but even Connelly’s standalone novels are well worth your time.

Also due out shortly is the new one by George Pelecanos, master of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. noir, while his colleague in writing the greatest TV series ever The Wire, Dennis Lehane already has a new book on the shelves.

Lehane, best known for writing “Mystic River” made into Clint Eastwood’s movie which won Sean Penn his first Oscar, has written an epic novel “The Given Day” about the events leading up to the 1917 Boston police strike. Not strictly a crime novel or up to par with of “Mystic River,” it is still a fat juicy read filled with numerous historic personalities and well worth the read.

But there are still some great up and comers in the field who are worth seeking out for summer reading and herewith are five of them. Most should be available in paperback by now and easily available either from booksellers (preferably independent) or, of course Amazon.

1.THE SWEET AND THE DEAD, Milton Burton, 2006—When Steve Davis, Rollo Newsom and I were releasing our anthology of Texas crime writers, I was interviewed by the book editor of Texas Monthly, who wanted to know why we had left Milton Burton out. The answer was simple. He had not released his first book by the time we submitted the manuscript.

Burton is a 60-yearold Tyler resident who began his writing career after stints as a cattleman, college teacher and political consultant. His first book, “The Rogue’s Game” was a Jim Thompson-like evocation of the post World War II West Texas oil patch with a seeming grifter who comes to town with a scheme to bilk some of the leading citizens. It was good, very good.

“The Sweet and the Dead” is even better. It’s about a Dallas cop who is recruited to go undercover in Biloxi, Mississippi and infiltrate the “Dixie Mafia.” But like his earlier novel, not all is as it seems, some of the underworld denizens of Biloxi are sympathetic and some of the pillars of cleaning up their state are…just read the book.

In a recent phone conversation, Burton told me his characters are just based on people he’s known. He’s certainly led an interesting life if so.

2. WHITE SHADOW, Ace Adkins, 2006—Another Deep South mystery, this one set in 1955 Tampa—another Southern sin city– and based on history, the murder of retired crime kingpin Charlie Wall. Adkins evocation of 1950’s Tampa is masterful –think James Ellroy in a white linen suit—with political repercussions far beyond the bootlegging and gambling overseen by Wall and extending into changes that still challenge American foreign policy.

Adkins followed this up with “Wicked City,” another historical crime novel based on the murder of a crusading attorney in Phenix City, Alabama, another Southern underworld mecca which was once labeled by Life Magazine as “the Wickedest City in America” and he has a new one just out, “The Devil’s Garden” about the Fatty Arbuckle rape-murder scandal in Hollywood. “Wicked City” is almost as good as “White Shadow” and “Devil’s Garden” is on top of my pile for books to read next.

3.THE BETRAYERS, James Patrick Hunt, 2007. —The machine gun murder of two patrol cops in St. Louis appears to be a random crime, pulling over the wrong driver at the wrong time. But the motive is more sinister.

It’s loosely based on the real life case involving Boston mob boss Whitey Bugler and the incestuous relationship that can develop between law enforcement agencies and their informants (the same story that along with the Chinese movie “Infernal Affairs,” inspired Crosse’s Academy Award winning movie “The Departed—Nicholson played the Whitey Bulger character).

4. TOROS & TOSOS, Craig McDonald, 2008—McDonald has written two collections of interviews with leading American crime writers and this is his second novel, both featuring Hector Lassiter, a colorful pulp fiction writer who gets caught up in his own work.

His first novel, “Head Games” was nominated for an Edgar as best mystery of the year and featured Lassiter coming into possession of Pancho Villa’s skull and trying to keep it out of the grasp of the Skulls and Bones Society (yes, the Bush fraternity family fraternity), racketeers and intelligence officers, who believe it to hold the key to a hidden fortune.

“Toros and Torsos” is even better, much better. It sprawls from a killer hurricane in the 1935 Florida Keys to the Spanish Civil War to the Black Dahlia murder in L.A. to the early days of Castro’s Cuba.

Lassiter’s drinking companion, Ernest Hemingway, is a major player and real life personages such as Orson Wells, Rita Hayworth, the avant-garde photographer Man Ray and others show up as Lassiter continually crosses paths with a serial killer throughout his adventures.

It also features the “fatal-est” of all femme fatales. The most mind-bending novel I’ve read since discovering Ellroy.

5.THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, Don Winslow, 2006—Saving the best for last, I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a crime novel more. Scorsese optioned the movie rights and then sold them to Robert DeNiro, who’s scheduled to play the title character in a 2010 release.

Frank Machianno is a late middle-aged owner of a San Diego bait shop. Everyone loves Frankie the Bait Guy. Even the FBI agent, who used to pursue him in his earlier incarnation as a legendary hit man for the West Coast mob, so proficient he was nicknamed “Frankie Machine.”

But Frankie’s left that life far behind him or so he thinks. Then, a small favor for one of his old associates turns into an aborted assassination attempt and Frankie realizes that for reasons totally unknown to him, powerful forces want him dead.

He goes on the run not only in his present setting but also into the past to try and ferret out why anybody would want him dead now. The answer when its comes is that he may hold the key to the most audacious organized crime power grab in half a century.

Frankie Machine is a wonderful character and, without being a spoiler, I can tell you this book has the most satisfying end of any book I’ve read. I’ve already read it a second time, it’s that good.

If you’re looking for great writers not on the bestseller lists, try these five out.

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Overall response to comments on last week’s “Idle Mind” on the new Bob Dylan album. It drew more comments than any other column so far so the good news is that Dylan is just as relevant as ever. The bad news is that, as two commentators, pointed out, I’ve spent all these years misunderstanding the opening lines of “Tombstone Blues.” Makes me wonder if my life would have turned out different. Well, at least, I didn’t think that Jimi Hendix sang “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” or John Fogerty, “there’s a bathroom on the right.” Such are the joys of being a rock snob.

And to the commentator, who said Dylan never made any sense and still doesn’t, break out Pat Boone.

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One thought on “An Idle Word: Summer mystery reading

  1. Good reviews; one or two there that I must definitely read.

    Have you come across “Murderous Passions” by B. R. Stateham? It’s a first-person narrative – a distinctive voice but very much in the Hammett-Chandler tradition – that combines a classic whodunit scenario with a realistic portrayal of the massive and messy caseload of a pair of modern-day city homicide detectives. At just over 200 pages it’s tightly compressed and a quick read. Despite a few typos and stylistic flaws I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I can’t resist quickly plugging my own book, “Perilaus”, which has just been released by Eloquent Books. Maybe it would prove too British for your taste, but having seen some of the reviews you write I’d love to see your opinion of it!

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