BFD feels that life is too short for chick lit, and that there’s all manner of things to read. From older titles that never really get old, such as Jack London’s Call of the Wild, or anything to do with the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 to new goodies, such as Black & Decker’s Complete Guide to Wiring, and then there’s everything in the middle—John Wesley Powell: His Life and Legacy, for example, or Calvin Trillin’s Family Man.
Plus there’s fishing, bike riding, softball league games and car and lawn maintenance we have to get to. Dudes can’t waste time: we need a VERDICT!
This month BFD’s special feature highlights award-winning Hillerman (1925-2008); not only was he a masterful writer of detective novels and nonfiction, he also earned a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and a Silver Star for his service in combat during World War II.
Galloway, Gregory. The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand. 2013. Dutton. 272p. 9780525425656. $17.99. F
Save for his inability to remain dead after he commits suicide, 17-year-old Adam Strand is a completely unremarkable loser; he has tried 39 times, mostly by jumping off bridges, tall buildings, and cliffs. But he reanimates every time. His first attempt is as a ten-year-old, who describes the urge as “a low murmur,” from inside himself, “a tone, an enveloping note…that almost shook me as it emanated inside me.” Other than enjoying the sensation of the jump, the crisp, cold air tasting “like a tart apple,” readers get bupkes about Adam’s incredibly provocative condition. Galloway (As Simple as Snow, 2005) similarly shuts down other ways for readers to find gratification. For instance, early in the book Adam and some friends find a dead cow stuck in the river where they spend all day fishing. Rotten and being gradually stripped to bone, the cow is a potent symbol for Adam’s life; it’s going to take something big to dislodge him from his spot. Unmotivated and gloomy, Adam’s shocking lack of initiative and acts of malicious selfishness commonly found in people who claim to be bored make him the most unlikeable protagonist since author Townsend’s Adrian Mole. VERDICT Life is short, don’t bother with Galloway’s nihilistic little game.
Greaves, Chuck. Hush Money. Minotaur. 2012. 326p. ISBN 9781250005236. $24.99. F
Reminiscent of Steve Martini’s Paul Madriani novels is Greaves’s legal thriller, starring a hands-on lawyer. When the titular, bazillion-dollar horse dies under shadowy circumstances, the insurance company refuses to pony up (Ha!)—especially since the owner’s prior boss died the same way with a fat settlement check following. Checking in on the situation is Jack MacTaggart, a lawyer pinch-hitting for the firm representing the owner. MacTaggart is full of awesome; he’s energetic, smart, and (ahem) cocksure. Greaves’s writing is such that these traits will quickly infect dudes reading the book. Beware, wives and coworkers of Our Great Nation, for the forthcoming uptick in sassy smart mouthing and confident street smarts amid our diligent hard work. Greaves also provides the just-right level of detail to remain interesting (e.g., how equine show jumping works) without sacrificing the brisk pace or becoming distracting. One of Mac T’s other cases shows a big hearted streak: he works on behalf of a terminally ill trash collector trying to get his insurance to cover a procedure. When the fraud case turns deadly, Mac T is spit into the path of the police and the killer. Despite a few spots of implausibility (e.g., breaking into guarded premises), this is a dynamic first novel, and the entire staff of the BFD Empire hopes for many more from M. Greaves. VERDICT An excellent choice for fans of legal/crime fiction and/or Robert B. Parker’s early Spenser novels.
Hillerman, Tony. Skinwalkers. Harper. 2011. 336p. ISBN 9780062018113. $9.99. F
Just because a book is a little older doesn’t diminish its Dude Appeal. Originally published in 1986, Skinwalkers was the 7th of Hillerman’s 18 well-received novels in the “Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn” series, though chronologically first. Each book reinforces the others by strengthening existing threads and weaving in different ones. Jim Chee is a young, college-educated Navajo, a professional cop and a novice Navajo priest. He works for Joe Leaphorn, the long-serving Chief of the Navajo Tribal Police, who is completely devoted to his job and his wife. Both are great guys who anyone would be glad to have on their side in a fight. Like in so much western fiction (see Ace Atkins’s excellent The Broken Places), the rugged terrain and climate of the 4-Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona feature as importantly as any character or plot device. After an unknown assailant takes a shot at Chee, he and Leaphorn make the link between that incident and some unsolved murders on the Reservation. They’re hoping it’s not the work of a witch (witches are called Skin-walkers in the Navajo language). Though parts of the book are inexplicable (one strange example is that this is a culture that does not wash its cars) the stories are rewarding, as when readers learn about how Navajo tribal names work. Skinwalkers won the 1988 Anthony Award for “Best Novel”—when you were probably still in high school, son. VERDICT Hillerman is a master. Much like in Ed McBain’s masterful “87th Precinct” series procedurals, characters are painted with broad brush strokes, fine details added as needed. Used as directed, Hillerman is an effective deterrent to The Blues because his Good Guys always win.
Hobbs, Roger. Ghostman. Knopf. 2013. 321p. ISBN 9780307959966. $24.95. F
A ghostman is a fixer who “disappears” criminals—and all that pesky evidence of their crimes—without trace. Hobbs’s remarkable debut features a ghostman so capably disappeared that he doesn’t even have a name, though you can call him Jack. He lacks a phone number, an email, even fingerprints. He has no friends, relationships, or family. He can become invisible so that he can use a toy badge to lift evidence from a crime scene. While such a life might take the fun out of bowling night, Jack’s tactical senses make him the right man to correct a failed armored-car robbery in Atlantic City. To settle a debt with a former employer, Jack needs to find a missing block of $1.2M in cash before a timed detonator destroys the take. It’s a tremendous read in which the driving plot is supplemented with details about assorted life-of-crime nuggets (e.g., why the Mazda MX5 is the best getaway car). Jack juggles his hunt while playing cat-and-mouse with a flirty FBI agent and fending off a local honcho nicknamed “the Wolf.” Jack is also haunted by a botched job in which his infatuation, Angela, played a large role. Certainly, some readers (ahem: females) might not like Jack. He’s sardonic, even hollow. Still, reminiscent of Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake) Parker stories, this is way too good to be a first novel. Even more impressive is the author is like, 12 (ok, maybe 23 years old) —keep writing, kid! VERDICT An emphatic “yes!”
Kerr, Philip. A Man without Breath. Putnam. 2013. 480p. ISBN 9780399160790. $26.95. F
It’s amazing what one can learn from well-written fiction. Who knew the Nazis had a war crimes bureau? Or that many Prussian officers in the World War II German Army also supported the German Resistance? Or that the Gestapo had Jewish officers? The prolific Kerr (Prague’s Fatale) knew, that’s who. Set in Nazi Germany just after Stalingrad, March, 1943 (the beginning of the end), this title reprises Kerr’s German gumshoe Bernie Gunther, an ex-Kriminalpolizei (police) now working for the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau doing grunt work and taking depositions from witnesses. Likeable and personable, Bernie is German, but he’s no Nazi. Readers will have a hard time not thinking of him as a straight-shooting Yank from NYC. He calls the Brits “sanctimonious bastards” even as he complains that “there wasn’t one of us in the city—Jew or German—that couldn’t have used a square meal.” Kerr’s direct, workmanlike writing style matches Bernie well. When Bernie is sent from hometown Berlin to the Eastern Front to investigate a mass grave of Polish officers in Smolensk’s Katyn Forest, the German propaganda mill pressures him to blame the Russians. While finding evidence and witnesses, Bernie is distracted by a brutal killer who really, really doesn’t like German soldiers and hangs out with the aforementioned Prussians who’ve had it right up to here with Hitler. Superbly blending historical events, fictional characters, and detective work, Kerr also shows how empty a slogan like “duty, honor, country” can be to a cynical, perceptive hero who is on the wrong side and knows it. VERDICT Reminiscent of Alan Furst’s novels, this is both an admirable work of fictive writing and an immensely enjoyable read.
Matthews, Jason. Red Sparrow. Scribner. May 2013. 448p. ISBN 9781476706122. $26.99. F
Debut author Matthews proves himself a capable narrativist in this Euro-centric spy vs.spy tale of tradecraft. Engaging, intelligent, and interesting, the novel depicts both sides of present day dance of United States and Russian politics with spooky alacrity. After a ruckus involving a high-level Russian “asset” (spy), unlikely CIA agent Nate Nash is almost fired and lands at Finland station. There he goes mano a womano against Dominika, a former ballerina SVR agent trained as a lastochki (or “sparrow”). These agents are trained to seduce and “elicit information during conversation.” This fascinating woman is a “…synesthete—a person who perceives sounds, or letters, or numbers as colors,” and is fiercely determined to use her considerable smarts to prove herself more than a mere honey trap. The two waltz around Helsinki, Rome, and Athens trying to outwit, seduce, and recruit each other all the while gleaning intelligence. Villains populate throughout, like Dominika’s rival Zyuganov, “a creature that was not content unless he had prey,” and Matthews’s genuine ear for dialog helps make clear the sometimes murky motivations of the clandestine organizations. The main characters’ authentic humanity helps alleviate the lack of emotion in the intelligence game, even for the biggest payoffs. VERDICT An excellent read with a continuously propulsive plot; Mathews’ 33-year career in the CIA informs this with asskickingly real espionage details. Those craving LeCarre style, cloak-and-dagger, cat-and-mouse realism will enjoy this and clamor for more ASAP.