Tag Archives: George Pelecanos

Good Poh-leece

16 Jun
Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Growing up in Chicago I had many occasions to witness the Chicago Police Department in action. From corruption scandals to the infamous Red Squad to the police riots in August of 1968 to the murder of Fred Hampton and a number of personal interactions in between, I formed an inchoate sense of police and no coherent thoughts about how policing big cities should be undertaken. Add to this pastiche, my long standing appreciation of crime stories by the likes of Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Ed McBain and others and after all these years I am beginning to grasp some of the intractable dilemmas attached to crime and policing and the mine field that is US law enforcement. Not to dwell on this at the moment but these conundrums are what make crime stories so rich in drama…

The second season of True Detectives has two very high benchmarks with which it competes. One being, its first riveting season and the second,the universally lauded and extolled urban drama set in the cauldron of Baltimore’s racial divide , The Wire— especially now that the new blu ray edition has stimulated new conversations about its lofty literary status. One understated notion that is regnant in the Wire is that of being “good police” as in the statement that He/She is good police.” And we observe that in the case McNulty among other of the detectives one can be an alcoholic, ruin their marriage and exhibit numerous signs of dysfunction but obsessive focus on solving cases trumps almost everything.

Having watched the first three episodes of True Detective 2, its hard not to think of the genius pairing in the 1st season of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detective partners—which is not how the new narrative unfolds.In the new 2nd season, the three poh-leece who meander into the main plot and central crime (one loses count of all the felonies committed by everyone from the street up to corporate suites and city hall offices. In this case Colin Farrell is Ray Velcoro a detective in the City of Vinci (even I know that ‘vinci” is latin for I conquered),Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective and Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh a motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol. Toss in Vince Vaughn as a latter day Macbeth and you have the drama’s main players. It should not go unmentioned that the Mayor of Vinci is played with great gusto by Richie Coster in scene stealing moment, he rivals a riveting scene in Bugsy where Harvey Keitel playing the LA mobster Mickey Cohen goes off Warren Beaty’s Bugsy Seagal.

I suppose ahead of the imminent HBO broadcast of True Detective‘s 2nd season on Father’s Day (a holiday I would still like someone to explain to me), gainfully employed typists are doing their jobs by announcing and opinionating on Nick Palazotti’s new creation. From where I watched, the story continues to spotlight the damaged and troubled men and women tasked with solving our society’s most awful crimes—many that sink way below even the Reptilian.As always a vision from which it is difficult to turn away…

The Best List of 2011

23 Nov

Russell Banks Copright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

As you are being besieged by the predictable onslaught of seasonal and year-end commercial and media gestures, rest assured that my list is no mere journalistic contrivance but more in the spirit of Umberto Eco’s catalogue of civilization. There is, of course, no such thing as a best list but employing such a fiction to get your attention seems reasonable to me. No?

Anyway, in no particular order:

Luminarium-Alex Shakar(Soho)
Men in the Making– Bruce Machart(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Sisters Brothers– Patrick Dewitt (Ecco)
The Barbarian Nurseries -Hector Tobar (FSG)
Doc– Mary Doria Russell (Random House)
Remembering Ben Clayton -Steve Harrigan (knopf)
Galore– Michael Crummey(Other Press)
The Lost Memory of SkinRussell Banks (Ecco)
Love and Shame and Love-Peter Ormer (Little Brown)
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self-Danielle Evans (Riverhead)
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal (Little Brown)
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente -Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)
Bin Laden’s Bald Spot-Brian Doyle (Red Hen Press)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard (Knopf)
Broken Irish-Edward Delaney (Turtle Point Press)
Once the River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (WW Norton)
Rules of Civility-Amor Towles(Viking)
Chango’s Beads and Two Toned Shoes-William Kennedy (Viking)
Conquistadora– Esmeralda Santiago (Knopf)
The CutGeorge Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)

Serial Fictionists

7 Sep

Except for a novitiate’s enthusiasm for John D McDonald’s Travis MCGee, I have not been enamored of crime store series as I discovered more and more irresistible crime story writers. I tried to stay with Robert Parker’s Spenser and early on and lost interest. Lawrence Block’s Scudder became agonizingly involved with 12 Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous. Andrew Vachhs’s Burke was compelling, especially since he so skillfully lived off the grid but you can only get so much mileage out of amorality.Thomas Perry’s Jane whitehead seemingly became a vehicle for various of her pyrotechnics. For a time, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins progressed convincingly—Mosley kept moving through the decades to good effect. Even highly regarded Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch became tiresome —I would maintain that Connelly’s one-off, The Poet, was his best book. In fact, both Dennis Lehane and Robert Parker most absorbing stories were the one-offs they wrote set in a Boston of the past.

Elmore Leonard has done himself proud with a long skein of fine stories but even he has, of late, succumbed to the temptation of reprising a powerful and enthralling character e.g. Raylon Givens, Karen Sisco and Jack Foley. George Pelecanos’s early stories were a series of sorts but his recent books have been woven whole cloth each time out. Reportedly though, his fine new novel, The Cut featuring a young Iraq war vet is the beginning of a string.

Under varying circumstances I have recently had cause to return to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series(a chat), Michael Dibdin’s Zen stories (Masterpiece Theater series), Bernard Black’s Quirke (another chat)(I am tempted to propagate the New Yorker‘s erroneous assignment of a first name to Black’s hero—but no), Richard Stark’s Parker(Banville’s recommendation), John Lawton’s Inspector Troy ( joyful discovery and John Harvey’s Charley Resnick(an old and goody).

Interestingly,when I spoke to Kerr he shrewdly observed that series writers usually write one or two too many—citing Raymond Chandler as an example. I am pleased to report that that Kerr, Lawton, Stark and Harvey and, to some degree, Black have managed to enliven the ongoing stories of their heroes.

That’s good news.

Currently reading Nightwoods Charles Frazier(Random House)


11 Jan

Crime story writers don’t get a lot of respect (but they sure do sell books) from the literary critical mob. Though, it is a situation that has improved in the past decade or so with the canonization of Elmore Leonard and the great good work of writers like George Pelecanos, Thomas Perry, Chuck Hogan and a few others. Okay, Michael Connelly also.

Andrew Vachss, whose biography is as interesting as some of his characters, established a successful franchise with his Burke novels (which I devoured when I still read series and has continued to write gripping and taut thrillers with a moralizing bent ( the gist of which is people who abuse children deserve no mercy).

The Weight (Pantheon) which introduces Sugar, a professional thief, who is faced with the DA’s offer—give up his partners in a recent jewelry heist and walk, or plead a rape he didn’t commit with a gun charge thrown in. Sugar takes the rape charge which on paper alibis him for the robbery.

Sugar does his prison bit (also known in crime argot as the weight, hence the book’s title) and comes out realizing he is still not out from under the robbery’s taint. Which leads to some necessary havoc and subtle mayhem. Vachss is especially good (in the same way Thomas Perry is) explaining the survival tactics and existential chicanery of life on the wild side.

I expect there will be more Sugar stories —he’s too good a character for Vachss to leave behind. And I expect to overcome my resistance to series to have a look