Thursday, June 29, 2017


James Elroy frames this neo-noir novel around an actual murder case: the never-solved 1947 Los Angeles murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed by the press the Black Dahlia. Using that as a starting point, Elroy follows the fictitious police investigations, focusing on one detective who comes to be obsessed with the victim. However, this is not a police procedural novel in the usual sense. In true noir fashion, many of these cops are as corrupt as the criminals, and often equally as depraved and violent.

Raymond Chandler was most surely an influence on Elroy, because this novel features the same kinds of twists and surprises and the same kinds of sexual intrigue and the same kinds of amoral people, both with a hero who has his own share of faults. Both authors rise above their contemporaries in the genre. Elroy's writing style is a bit more spare and his dialogue is not as vibrant as Chandler's.

Recommended for those who appreciate a stylish look at the dark underbelly of life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


It is always a disappointment when a reader expects great things from a book, only to find those expectations unfulfilled. Graves's mock memoir I, Claudius is extraordinary and has been one of my favorite historical novels. It is the always-interesting and totally believable account of the life of the man who became Emperor of Rome by pretending to be a fool, thus escaping death at the hands of his power-hungry relatives. It ends when he is proclaimed Emperor following the assassination of the infamous Caligula. This sequel is also a fictional memoir, which follows Claudius from his ascendancy to the title until his assassination. But while the first book is fascinating in its characters and political maneuvering, this one is often very heavy going indeed, particularly in the lengthy descriptions of the campaign to subjugate Britain. In my estimation, it reads more like a history than a novel and as such would probably be very interesting to a student of that subject, as it is reportedly very accurate as to events. However, reading detailed information about engineering projects undertaken, festivals celebrated, subjects rewarded and/or punished, and similar activities becomes repetitious, with the people and events all tending to blur together. The only plot suspense provided is the question of when Claudius will finally discover the infidelity of his wife Messalina and how he will finally be assassinated and which one of his relatives will do it.

Claudius the God is well done and seems a believable account, but its effectiveness as a novel to be read for entertainment is limited.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


It is impossible to read The Long Goodbye without visualizing Humphrey Bogart and hearing his voice in your head, even though he never starred in a movie version of the book. His depiction of the detective Philip Marlow in the movie made from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep was so spot-on perfect as to be unforgettable. Though cynical and flawed, Marlowe is a romantic at heart with his own code of right and wrong. He frequently pursues a case without pay when he senses an injustice. He distrusts most of the police force, with good reason. He has a quick mind and a witty comeback in every situation. Though not handsome, he is sexually attractive to women. Bogart as Philip Marlow was perfect. What a pity a film of this book was not made until the 1970s; it starred Eliot Gould (what?).

This case begins when Marlowe comes to the rescue of Terry Lennox, a drunken stranger who has been abandoned by his lady friend in front of a nightclub. After the two become off-and-on friends, Lennox shows up at Marlowe's house one night in need of a ride to catch a plane to Mexico because he is in some kind of trouble. Marlowe obliges, asking no questions. That's when his troubles start, because it turns out that Lennox's wife has been murdered. The cops are on his tail, a mobster shows up with threats, rich people offer him bribes, and the body count rises.

Chandler puts most other writers of detective fiction to shame. His books are so stylish and well done that they cross the genre into literary fiction. In particular, his dialogue shines. He paints a dark picture of the world, but then that's what noir fiction is all about.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes a suspenseful story with twist and turns.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


The Sport of Kings has at its core an inventive novel about family dynamics and race relations in the South, using the breeding of Thoroughbred race horses as an unusual metaphor. It tells the story of the Forge family, centering on Henry Forge and his only child, Henrietta, with flashbacks to previous generations. The are wealthy Kentucky aristocrats who have come to be obsessed with breeding a superhorse to rival the legendary Secretariat. When Henrietta impulsively hires a young black man with a criminal past as a groom and the two begin a sexual relationship, the family's pride of heritage and dark secrets are threatened.

All of that would ordinarily be enough for a bang-up of a story, but Morgan has chosen to add more. This is a novel of excesses. We are given excerpts from Jockey Club information about horse breeds and from Henrietta's notebook of random facts. We are given flights of overblown prose wherein the author channels her inner Faulkner, or perhaps it's Melville, to inform us in three pages that the sun set. We are given extensive background stories of many secondary characters. We are given a black jockey serving as the devil's advocate who proclaims in Shakespearean language. We are given rape, incest, random indiscriminate sex, arson, murder, and suicide. The greatest excess of all is the overwrought melodrama, wherein the most unlikely dramatic events occur with regularity.

This feels like a first novel to me, although it is Morgan's second. It would seem to include too much to be as effective as it could have been. It's as if she had to strain to make her point, and so tried everything. It was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, so my opinion is of little consequence.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


If I had lived in Missouri back in the 1800s, I would have been stuck there all my life, despite the unhealthy climate. I would never have been as adventurous and brave as the folks in this novel who traveled in covered wagons across half a continent to reach a promised land in Oregon, facing dangers from Indians, treacherous terrain, and uncertain weather all along the way.

Guthrie focuses here on one such family, but also includes others accompanying them in the wagon train, to provide a complete picture of the westward migration. The account seems so completely true to life and representative of the kinds of people who would undertake such a journey that one could even believe that he had experienced the journey himself. Some among the travelers are generous and principled, some are power hungry, some are vengeful, and some are simply totally unprepared for the hardships that had to be endured.

Guthrie's writing is extraordinary, by turns realistic and poetic. The Way West won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1950. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


This satirical, dystopian novel was written in 1971, but it sounds surprisingly current, with a few divergences. The two US political parties here are called the Left and the Knotheads, the term "knotheads" being assumed by the right-leaning in response to an insult from the Left, much as some Republicans proudly call themselves the Deplorables in response to Hillary Clinton's comment. The focus of the Knothead's fear is that the black population will rise up against them. Of course, in today's world the right-leaning focus of fear has been expanded to include Muslims, Hispanics, and homosexuals.

The plot's antagonist in this divided world is a non-political, lapsed Catholic, unrepentant Lothario scientist, who has invented a kind of stethoscope of the human soul with the potential to cure mankind's spiritual malaise. When his device is wrested from him and used to exacerbate violent tendencies, all hell breaks loose, literally. It seems to be the end of the world.

This is black comedy, and as such is very, very funny. Percy strikes just the right balance between ridiculous farce and a bleak reality to make tragic human actions and events humorous. That's not easy to do, and so many miss the mark and end up with a depressing account which is actually intended to be satirically comic.

I highly recommend this book, particularly in light of today's political environment.

Monday, June 12, 2017


In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State, was drugged and kidnapped and taken to the South, where he was sold as a slave. He wrote this account of his twelve years of captivity following his rescue and return to his wife and three children. It joins other first-hand accounts by former slaves to give voice as to the degradation, suffering, and powerlessness endured by those of Negro blood who were considered to be less than human, subject to being bought and sold.

For those readers who might discount the truthfulness of this memoir, twentieth-century historians have verified the traceable details. Also noteworthy is the fact that Northup does not condemn all of his slave "masters," even providing some explanation as to how men who otherwise exhibited kindness and conscience could countenance one man owning another. He writes of one of his owners, who was kind to him: "The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery....Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different."

The main of this harrowing account concerns the "master" whom Northup served for ten years, whose cruel actions included capricious beatings for the most minor of perceived transgressions and the repeated rape of one of the women. The food of the slaves consisted of bacon, which was often wormy, and corn meal, which they had to prepare themselves after a full day's work, which often extended to midnight. Even their brief hours of sleep were not restful, because they knew that they would be whipped if they were not in the fields before sunrise, and they were fearful they would oversleep. They had even more to fear when their master came home in a drunken state. The slaves' only respite from backbreaking work and fear of punishment came for a few days at Christmas.

One aspect of the account that especially stood out for me was the almost universal belief among white Southerners that a black man was a beast, a valuable animal on par with other farm animals, more valuable only because he could understand directions.

Near the end of the book, Northup makes this prophetic statement: "They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come--it will come, if his prayer is heard--a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy."

This book should be required reading, especially in the South, where some still wish to fly the Confederate flag and celebrate their "heritage."

Saturday, June 10, 2017


I am going to be so presumptuous as to be critical of Tolstoy's other lauded novel, which some consider to be even better than War and Peace: Anna Karenina is often very boring. The parts about Anna, the married woman who leaves her husband and child for her lover, are engrossing and accomplish the difficult task of making her a pitiable character instead of a heartless villain. The problem is that the character Levin in the secondary plot is more prominent than Anna, and his story is very reminiscent of Pierre's story in War and Peace, so much so that the climax is entirely anticipated. In addition, much space is given to his constant search for the answers to questions about the relationship between agricultural production and the peasantry and to his questions "What am I?" and "What am I here for?" Even a cursory knowledge of Tolstoy's life and beliefs provides the awareness that Levin's search was also Tolstoy's search and that the conclusions Levin reaches were also Tolstoy's conclusions. In that respect, the information about the progression of Levin's ideas is intellectually interesting, but in the middle of a novel they become tedious interruptions.

Though shorter than War and Peace, this is a very long novel (968 pages in paperback). I would not recommend it for a general reader, though the chapters dedicated to Anna's story near perfection. For scholars interested in Tolstoy's life and philosophy, I believe it would be invaluable.