Book Reviews

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2012) is a devastating and important book. Alexander’s thesis will be difficult for well-intentioned people to accept: our 30-year “War on Drugs” and the resulting mass incarceration of African-American men is “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Whether the drug war was purposely designed to immiserate African-Americans is not clear. Racist intent would be almost impossible to prove today; in our “color-blind” society, racists do not explicitly announce their motivations as they once did. I tend to be cynical about such things, but at this point the legislators’ intent hardly matters. Even if the mass incarceration of black men is an innocent, unintended consequence of the anti-drug crackdown, it is now an accomplished fact. It doesn’t matter how we got here; we are here now. The question is what to do about the problem. Acknowledging that the problem exists is a necessary first step.

I admit I was skeptical about Alexander’s conclusion. I still don’t buy all of it. But the statistics are overwhelming. I am a former prosecutor, I am not naive about the court system, but I was shocked by the numbers.

  • Since the War on Drugs was declared in the 1980’s, “the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million.”
  • “There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.”
  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”
  • “In seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison,” according to one study from 2000.
  • “In Washington, D.C., … three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”
  • “African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.”
  • Actual drug crime does not explain the racial disparities in our criminal justice system: “People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.”
  • There is no evidence that locking up non-violent drug offenders has made us any safer: “violent crime rates have fluctuated over the years and bear little relationship to incarceration rates — which have soared over the past three decades regardless of whether violent crime was going up or down.”

That the criminal justice system does not treat African-Americans equally is not news. It is the scale of the injustice that is so shocking, and the fact that the problem has gotten so much worse so recently. Go back, read those numbers again.

We like to think that history equals progress — that over time, things get better. In many ways, of course, they do. But progress is never guaranteed and never uniform. The New Jim Crow is a sobering reminder of that, particularly at a moment in our politics when wisdom and compassion seem to be in short supply.

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“The Year of Lear”

Shakespeare became a god long ago. He exists outside history, eternal, unconfined by any particular historical moment. He is literally timeless. In The Year of Lear, James Shapiro swats away all the writer-god stuff and plunks us down with Shakespeare in grubby, plague-ravaged, terrorized London in 1606. It is probably as close as we can come to glimpsing the man himself; too little is known about Shakespeare’s life to reconstruct a proper biography. And for a writer like me, it is stirring to see Shakespeare grapple in his plays with the obsessions and anxieties of Jacobean England — fear of a bloody succession battle, the hunt for Catholic recusants, the Gunpowder Plot (the 9/11 of its day), witchcraft, demonic possession, on and on. Just a working writer at his desk, in a dirty, day-old shirt, his thoughts tossed around like all of us. It’s a great read.

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“Madame Bovary” translated by Lydia Davis

Postcards showing Ry, France

Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary is terrific. With my klutzy high-school French, I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the translation (Julian Barnes does that here). All I can say is I enjoyed the book on this rereading much more than I have in the past, when reading it felt like swimming upstream. It may be that I was simply too young for the book on my first, joyless read. This time I loved it.

Davis’s version of the novel feels quite contemporary in style. Of course, part of the credit for that goes to Davis, herself a graceful fiction writer. But the larger point is that, in September 1851 when he sat down to begin writing Madame Bovary, in his second-floor study using a quill pen, Flaubert envisioned something radically new — what we recognize now as the modern realist novel. Like the old joke about the fish who cannot see the water all around him (“What water?”), it is hard for contemporary readers to see what Flaubert is doing in Madame Bovary that is so innovative. As Davis explains in her foreword to the new translation, the novel “is now viewed as the first masterpiece of realist fiction. Yet its radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see; its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.” Realism — the mimetic, naturalistic depiction of human experience — is the water that all of us, writers and readers, now swim in.

It is too much to say that Flaubert invented realism with Madame Bovary, but he has a pretty good claim as the author who envisioned it most clearly and actually captured it. His intent in writing Bovary, in the words of biographer Frederick Brown, was to “[make] the world materially present through language — [to abolish] the space between words and what they represent.” He wanted to capture life as it is actually experienced, without commentary or embellishment. “No lyricism, no reflections,” Flaubert declared in a letter, “the personality of the author absent.”

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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Matthew Price reviews Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, whose “subject is ‘political mass murder’ and the 14 million mostly civilian victims — women, children, the elderly — who were variously shot, starved, and gassed by the Germans and the Soviets between 1932 and 1945.”

At the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, a team of only 12 Soviet secret police kills 20,761 people outside of Moscow in 1937 and 1938, burying them in pits. “On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire,” Snyder tells us. And few readers are likely to be acquainted with the plight of Belarusians between 1941 and 1944. As the Germans rampaged through Belarus, they waged a war, in effect, against civilians. The death toll was staggering. Of 350,000 people killed in the anti-partisan campaign, some 90 per cent were unarmed. The Germans also killed half a million Belarusian Jews. “By the end of the of the war,” Snyder notes, “half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.”

Now and again, a voice of one of the perpetrators breaks through, to horrific effect. “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it,” a German policeman writes to his wife about his first experience shooting Jews. “Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.”

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No such thing as a bad review

A study uses negative book reviews to test the old saw that “all publicity is good publicity.” The result: for the most part, it is better to be trashed by the Times than ignored by it.

A crucial factor, they concluded, is how familiar a brand or product or other entity was before the negative publicity. Crunching data that cross-matched book sales against critics’ appraisals in The New York Times Book Review, they found that negative reviews of a new book by an “established” author hurt sales. “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect,” increasing sales by 45 percent over their expected sales trajectory, they write. Evidently this boils down to increased awareness: the mere act of introducing something to a broader public — even by saying that it stinks — increases the chances that more members of that public will want it anyway.

Follow-up studies pointed out that as time passes, we may not remember the context in which we heard of something (a pan); we just know it’s familiar.

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“Next”

I do not review many novels on this blog. I do not like to criticize authors. I know all too well how difficult it is to write a novel. I know the author’s anxiety — as David Remnick has described it,

the sense of dread, a self-lacerating concession that the book is not so much finished as abandoned and that positively everyone will see all the holes that are surely there, all the illogic, the shortcuts, the tape, the glue.

To point these things out — the tape, the glue, the flaws — feels a little cruel to me. And unnecessary, since we have no shortage of self-appointed book critics armed with blogs and Twitter feeds and what-all. So generally, when it comes to reviewing one another’s work, I think we writers ought to do as our mothers told us: “if you can’t say something nice…” At the same time, I do see flaws in most every book I read, if only small ones. I can’t help it; I’ve been doing this awhile myself. So what can I say? Nothing, usually. That is why I don’t mention most of the books I read.

There is another problem, too. You are as apt to make a fool of yourself raving about a book as trashing it. In my experience, the euphoria of finishing a novel that feels special usually sours pretty quickly. I tend to ruminate about things, and if you think about any novel long enough, if you flyspeck it and worry it and turn it over and over, then yes, inevitably you will find flaws. You can talk yourself out of loving anything. It’s not just books, either. Very often the things I fall in love with — the band that sounded so cool when I first heard it on the radio, the movie I raved about as I walked out of the theater, the woman who looked so beautiful at first glance (yeah, yeah, back when I was single) — all these things tend to lose their magic as I think about them. And think about them and think about them… So I have learned not to trust my first instincts when I love a book. Wait a couple of days, I tell myself. Let it cool.

The net result of all this overthinking is that, when I do truly love a book, I hesitate to say so.

I am feeling that sort of hesitancy now, because what I want to say, honestly, is that the book I just finished — Next by James Hynes — is one of the best novels I have ever read. Over the next few days, I’m sure I will begin to hedge. I will wish I was more temperate in what I wrote here. But right now, with the last few paragraphs still ringing in my ears? I can’t think of a novel I have enjoyed as much or been as deeply moved by. Certainly it’s been a long, long time since I had an electric reading experience like the last twenty or thirty pages of this book.

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Man Out of Time: “The Disenchanted” by Budd Schulberg

F. Scott Fitzgerald is easy to iconize. His story so neatly tracks his times: in the Twenties, he had a Jazz Age party; when America crashed, he cracked up; in the Depression, he was down and out. In The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s novelization of the Scott-Zelda tale, an older, lightly fictionalized Fitzgerald is painfully aware of the symmetry:

It seemed almost too damned easy to think of himself and the Twenties as going smash together, as if he were unconsciously acting out the Twenties in some ghastly charade, and yet here he was in the first year of the Depression with his money gone, his wife nearly gone, his reputation going. What had Hank said? He didn’t know how to keep his distance.

The Disenchanted is partly a response to all the images and associations that built up around Fitzgerald. It strips away the dreamy illusions and portrays instead an older Fitzgerald who is all too human. Not the glamorous idol of the twenties, but the broke-down, post-crackup Fitzgerald of 1939 — ravaged by alcoholism, forgotten by the reading public, near dead at 43 years old. Schulberg’s depiction is so unforgiving that Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s partner at the end of his life, never forgave him.

But the novel is not just about Fitzgerald’s decline. It is also about young Budd Schulberg’s own disillusionment when he discovered the Fitzgerald myth was just that, a romantic fantasy. It turned out, Fitzgerald’s story ended the same way everyone else’s does. No Daisy or Zelda, no green light, no “riotous” parties. Just the inevitable grinding-down of time. Even Scott Fitzgerald grew up then grew old. To a 25-year-old Fitzgerald fan, there is no drearier news.

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“Matterhorn”

It has been reviewed everywhere already, so I won’t blather on about it. But Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is great. Original, authentic, and heartfelt. Highly recommended.

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“Wolf Hall”

The reigning Booker Prize winner hardly needs my seal of approval, but I’ll give it anyway: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is wonderful.

The bravest — and most exciting and troubling — aspect of the book is the decision to heroize Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell, steeled by a brutal childhood and an apprenticeship on the continent as a mercenary and then a merchant, is a true man for all seasons. Early in the book, he steps onstage a sort of sixteenth-century James Bond:

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. … It is said that he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin … His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

He is never at a loss for words, out-bantering the cleverest courtiers even as he out-maneuvers them. He is sophisticated and well traveled, in an England that is still a small, grim island. Most of all, he has a modern sensibility. He alone understands that the true source of power is trade and finance — money — of which he is a master.

The world is run … not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

As if all that were not enough to send readers swooning, Mantel’s Cromwell is warm and sympathetic. He takes in orphans and stray cats, and treats women with respect. He is “unfailing in his amiable courtesy.”

Even his voice is seductive to a modern reader. The story is told in a close third-person: we see through Cromwell’s eyes, we hear his thoughts, but the narrative voice is not the campy faux-Tudor pastiche of costume dramas. Mantel finds a perfect tone — “robust modern English but with a slight twist,” she has called it. The language is salted with just enough anachronism and period detail to keep the reader convincingly in Henry’s England, while at the same time making Cromwell’s voice familiar and accessible. This Cromwell is a man we can understand. He does not sound so different from, say, Dick Cheney: amoral, yes, but also cool, supremely capable, a man of reason. If he tortures, it is only because he must, for king and country.

In fact, the only indications of Cromwell’s cruelty come from others. His stepson worries that Cromwell might drown him: “He thinks you would do anything.” The king says he is “as cunning as a bag of serpents.” But we, the readers, rarely see it firsthand and never quite believe it.

The sainted Thomas More, on the other hand, is the king’s zealous torturer-in-chief, in Mantel’s telling. Sir Thomas personally supervises the racking of heretics at the Tower. Even in his own home, according to rumor, he “keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them: the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books into England.” More wears a hair shirt next to his skin and flagellates himself daily. If not a villain, exactly, he is certainly not the hero Robert Bolt described, the modern, the man of conscience.

It is not hard for me to imagine More as Mantel has drawn him, but it is worth noting how bold her portrait of Cromwell is. The traditional view is that Cromwell was not James Bond but Darth Vader.

… one of the most ruthless and powerful operators ever to dominate the politics of [England].

His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison.

He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies.

In a reign of unadulterated terror against the Church, he masterminded the dissolution of the monasteries and the biggest land grab since the Norman invasion of 1066 — seizing one-sixth of the nation’s wealth and turning it over to his master, the King.

One comes away from this brilliant, utterly convincing novel with the disturbing impression that Thomas Cromwell is our “man for all seasons,” he is the slippery sort of hero we deserve. Mantel has denied that Wolf Hall is an allegory of contemporary politics. In fact, she has been nursing the idea for this novel, apparently, since the 1970s. But her Cromwell obviously resonates today, as Robert Bolt’s idealized vision of Thomas More did fifty years ago. Then — after two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cold War — we dreaded government tyranny and we lionized the lone steadfast man who resisted it, who laid down his life for the idea of principle over expediency. Now the enemy is not a government. Our bogeyman is a hair-shirted religious fanatic willing to die for his faith. And we raise up the amoral strongman and tactician, the ultimate government insider who will use any weapon to protect us. In an era of “enhanced interrogation” and “my country right or wrong,” Thomas Cromwell is our man. One generation’s villain is another’s hero, I guess.

Image: Detail from Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, painted around 1532-33 (and Photoshopped here). Holbein himself appears in Wolf Hall as a friend of Cromwell, and this painting is mentioned several times. Toward the end of the novel, Holbein finally delivers the picture to his patron. Cromwell remarks that it makes him look like a murderer. His son responds, “Did you not know?” The painting now hangs at the Frick in New York, along with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

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“Little Dorrit”: Dickens’ Teeming World

I’ve just finished Dickens’ Little Dorrit and my first thought on closing the book is how big and sprawling it seems next to our own spare, miniaturist novels.

Not all of today’s novels are written this way, of course, but scan the Times bestseller list and you will see that generally the Raymond Carver/New Yorker style — lean, controlled, underpopulated, understated — has won the day. Young writers today are drilled in restraint. Be subtle! (“Show, don’t tell.”) Be concise! (“A rifle hanging on the wall in act one must be fired by act three” — must!) Cut, cut, and cut some more! (The novel, as Hemingway would have it, owes its “dignity of movement” to being like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden under the surface.)

The result of all this decorum is that there is an artificial, circumscribed quality to a lot of our storytelling. Realism just doesn’t feel like reality.  John Updike once noted, “People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.” Real life is crowded, overstimulated, harried, sprawling, noisy, messy; realist fiction generally is none of these things. It is Art — oy.

Dickens breaks every rule of modernism, of course. His iceberg floats proudly above water. Yet at 152 years old, Little Dorrit feels more alive than most of those Times bestsellers. Why?

One reason is that Dickens employs a much larger cast than modern writers typically do. Whole brigades of characters swarm the stage. Dickens manages the crowd by a familiar set of tricks. He has a gift for making a character come alive with a single gesture briefly described. One unnamed character is seen at the dinner table “wiping some drops of wine from his mustache with a piece of bread,” and in that moment the character lives and breathes. Also, Little Dorrit is politically engaged. (But no less relevant: it is hard to imagine Mr. Merdle without being reminded of Bernie Madoff.) And of course, to prevent the whole invented world of Little Dorrit from spinning apart, Dickens contrives connections and coincidences that, to a modern reader, feel bogus and melodramatic.

The reward is the very scale of the story. Little Dorrit’s capacious, complex, multi-thread plotting — its bigness — conveys some of the complexity and interconnectedness of Dickens’s world in a way that today’s slimmer novels simply can’t.

It is interesting that this sort of sprawling multi-thread, multi-character drama still thrives on TV. Some of my favorite shows, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, are crowded ensemble pieces. The Wire, in particular, has often been called “Dickensian” and for good reason: it uses a big canvas because it is trying to capture a big subject, an entire city, just as Dickens did. Multi-thread storytelling was a brief fad in movies, too (Pulp Fiction, Traffic and, less successfully, Crash) but the trend seems to have petered out, lamentably.

I am not suggesting we go back to Dickens’ style of plotting. Today’s readers don’t have the attention spans for big Victorian novels, or the interest. But if the complaint about novels is that they feel less vivid, three-dimensional and immersive than “new media,” then maybe we should consider that some of the smallness is in our storytelling style. In a world that feels increasingly speeded-up, hyperlinked and complex, a style that is hermetic and spare feels badly out of tune.

This is not a new idea. The internet is not the first threat the novel has faced. Confronted with a similarly disruptive technology, film, John Dos Passos tried to mimic the jangled feeling of his time using a montage of styles and characters in his U.S.A. trilogy. I have even used a multi-thread plot myself in The Strangler, and for a reason similar to Dickens’s: to create a more panoramic view of a vast, complex place.

I have a fantasy that I will write a big, shaggy Dickensian novel myself one day. It would weave multiple threads from various parts of Boston to capture the sprawl and intricacy of a vast, living city. For now, though, my Big Book will have to wait. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, and who reads Big Books anymore, anyway?

“Tamburlaine Must Die”

Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die is a short, atmospheric, brisk novella to be consumed in a single sitting. It is the story of the final days of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe, whose murder in 1593 is one of the great unsolved historical mysteries beloved by conspiracy theorists. (Google it, you’ll see.) The book is narrated by Marlowe himself in the form of a final written testimony dashed off on the eve of his murder, which he fully anticipates.

In Welsh’s version of events, someone has pasted a blasphemous poem to the door of a church and signed it “Tamburlaine,” a character from Marlowe’s most famous play. Now, with rumors flying that Marlowe himself is the heretic, he has just a few days to find the real “Tamburlaine” or face the gruesome death of an apostate in the religious police state that was Elizabethan England, to be hung, drawn and quartered before a bloodthirsty mob.

At barely 140 liberally spaced pages, Tamburlaine Must Die is too short to work as a mystery. There just isn’t enough space for Welsh to fill in the details of the many intricate, shadowy conspiracies she hints at. The story rushes along too quickly to get bogged down in perfunctory details of who, what, where, why. The dramatic question of the book is Who killed Christopher Marlowe? Welsh’s somewhat unsatisfying answer: Who knows?

Or, more exactly, Who cares? Welsh is not interested in telling a suspenseful man-on-the-run mystery. Her Marlowe is not Jason Bourne in period drag, so she can afford to slight the usual devices of thriller novels. What engages Welsh is not Marlowe’s death but his world.

And when she describes the streets and people of London in 1593, the book soars. Here is the crowd at a public execution:

Wild-eyed masks, red-faced and spittle spattering, some with appetites so awakened they stuff themselves with pies, meat juices glossing their chins, pastry cramming their mouths, even as they call for the coward to be cut down and quartered.

In the streets we meet “muscle-armed” milkmaids and a “skelfy” jailer whose skin has “the transparent gleam of a white slug.” The agents of the police state are everywhere, spies and informers, torturers, inquisitors. One is always a careless word away from a shiv to the gut or, worse, the Tower and the rack. It is a vivid, menacing dystopia that reminded me of Philip Kerr’s Berlin trilogy, even of Orwell’s 1984.

Violence seems to sharpen Louise Welsh’s prose, a vice I share with her and thoroughly approve. We share other things, too. I won a prize once for my first novel that Welsh had won the year before, both for gritty crime novels set in our home towns, Glasgow for Welsh, Boston for me. For our second novels we both chose famous unsolved murders in fairly accurate historical settings. Why? Maybe the escape into the pseudo-reality of historical fiction frees the imagination from the pressure to duplicate an early success, or deflects the expectation that you will continue to represent your city “authentically” in book after book — to become some sort of arch Glaswegian or Bostonian. In choosing Marlowe’s London for her second novel, Welsh traveled further from home than I did. It was a pleasure for a couple of hours to go there with her.

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“This Is Where I Leave You”

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is a terrific novel. The emotionally repressed Foxman family of Westchester County gathers to sit shiva for their dead father, and over the course of a week the four siblings and materfamilias work through a lifetime of suburban traumas, grudges, and neuroses. A comedy of manners has to maintain such a fine balance. The action has to be broad enough to be funny but realistic enough to be affecting. Tropper pulls it off beautifully. This Is Where I Leave You is smart, raunchy, touching, keenly observed, and very funny. The last few days I found myself missing my subway stop, lingering too long over my morning coffee, and worst (or best) of all reading Tropper’s novel when I should have been writing my own. Highly recommended.

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“City of Thieves”

David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves is a great speed-read. Fast, smart, cinematic. Loved it.

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The Definitive Boston Crime Novel: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Yesterday I wrote about the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think is the best movie ever made about Boston. Today, over at the Rap Sheet, my review/appreciation of the George V. Higgins novel is up, part of the Rap Sheet’s “Book You Have to Read” series highlighting forgotten classics. Here is a clip:

Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”

Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only eight when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.

Read the rest here. Of course calling any book or movie the best of its type is a good way to start an argument, but I did it yesterday so why stop now? The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel I’ve ever read.

Oprah’s Mystery Reading List

In over a dozen years of her “book club,” Oprah has never recommended a straight mystery or crime novel. Now, for the first time, Oprah has published a summer reading list of mystery novels, which is very good news for those of us who till that field. The list is quirky and very interesting. It includes classic mystery authors (Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels) and current bigfoots (Walter Mosley, Ruth Rendell), but also authors not usually associated with mystery or crime novels (Denis Johnson, T.C. Boyle) and several I’ve never heard of at all. It looks like a terrific list. (Hat tip: The Rap Sheet.)

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“The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon

An older friend of mine went to high school in Newark with Philip Roth, Weequahic High School class of 1950. For obvious reasons, I grill my friend about Roth whenever the opportunity presents itself, and in one of these interrogations I learned that Swede Levov, the “steep-jawed insentient Viking” who is the hero of Roth’s American Pastoral, was based on a real classmate at Weequahic.

I should not have been surprised. Roth has been playing peekaboo with his readers for years, inserting himself to varying degrees into his fictions. It has become an ongoing theme: like the silhouette of Hitchcock in old movies, we seem to recognize Roth — or aspects of Roth — in all his books, particularly in the flawed writers, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman, even a character named “Philip Roth.” They are all plainly Roth, the reader understands, and they are all invented too. The point of all this line-blurring is to get beyond fictional realism and closer to reality, to the actual lived human experience. Roth’s novels have a vivid, confessional quality not just because Roth is an extraordinary writer (though obviously he is), but because his books pretend to be more than fictions — they sometimes are more than fictions.

A similar fission occurs whenever a writer’s face seems to hover behind the pages. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway all are recognizable in their stories. Even in a fantasy like The Great Gatsby, the reader’s experience is influenced by the knowledge that Nick Carraway shares much of his creator’s biography: Midwestern boyhood, Ivy League education, witness to “riotous” Jazz Age parties. Nick is the thinnest mask for Fitzgerald. When we read Gatsby, we understand that the voice and the sensibility are Fitzgerald’s own. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron goes a step further, all but stepping onstage himself, undisguised, inside the story. Continue reading →

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