Books: Independent choice - American crime writing
Saturday 01 November 1997
The fourth in a series featuring Washington homicide detective Alex Cross, Cat and Mouse is an off-the-shelf serial killer story, the old "who's the hunter and who the hunted?" one. It contains no element of originality in plot, villain, hero or style; worse, no attempted originality. Shootings and stabbings are interspersed with banal, made-for-TV scenes of family life. The author shoves irritating folk sayings into the mouths of whoever happens to be speaking: the nearest he gets to characterisation.
Headline's publicists boast that "No other hardback launch has been so powerfully marketed". They should be ashamed. There are undoubtedly more good thriller writers active today than at any previous time, and no excuse for wasting vast sums on a book as unremittingly ordinary as this one. The ending, incidentally, is a cynical, corny teaser for the next instalment in the series.
The only way to read James Crumley is to surrender yourself to the rough- bearded, booze-breathed poetry, the belligerent sentimentality, the not always pleasant but impressive spectacle of rednecked men exposing themselves to themselves. On about page 20 I lost track of the plot of Bordersnakes (HarperCollins, pounds 15.99) - some kind of revenge-fuelled odyssey thing - and by page 21 I just didn't care. The jokes are funny, the sex and violence even funnier. The dialogue rolls like a river: only genuine gut-writing can produce such slick fluency without sacrificing the abrasiveness of the characters.
This book brings together Crumley's two private eyes, Milo Milodragovitch and C W Sughrue, avoiding death around the Tex-Mex border. "Shit happens" is their philosophy; and "Anybody who speaks badly of revenge ain't never lost nothing important". If you've ever wondered what happened to the Western, here's your answer. It has claimed a new territory inside crime fiction.
Another example of the New Western is Joe R Lansdale's Bad Chili (Gollancz, pounds 9.99), latest in what is becoming one of the decade's great crime series - despite its potentially corny "odd couple" premise. While Hap's away on an oil-rig, best friend Leonard loses his job as a bouncer for urinating on a troublemaker's head. United, the boys fight a rabid squirrel. When Leonard's boyfriend turns up, murdered, he's the obvious suspect. The book is full of country satire, earthy and brutal. Watching daytime TV, Hap notes: "I could have told those people quick-like why they were having so much trouble with their lives. They were dumb shits and proud of it." Lansdale perhaps comes closer than any other writer to achieving the mystic union of rock and roll, comedy and cri-fi. His barkingly funny dialogue and robust simplicity of characterisation make this the kind of book you read with your ears.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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