Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wrapping up January: Three suspense novels

January's Reading List

1. My Father Is A Book, Janna Malamud Smith. Memoir
2. Literary Life, Larry McMurtry. Memoir
3. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens. Fiction
4. Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls. Fiction
5. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. Fiction
6. Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich. Fiction
7. The First Rule, Robert Crais. Fiction
8. Rizzo’s War, Lou Manfredo. Fiction
9. The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton. Fiction

Nine books in January. A sub-standard effort if we're going by numbers alone, but a nice month if the quality of the books are what we focus on. I closed out January reading three suspense novels and February is going to be devoted largely to that genre. These three were terrific.

First, The First Rule, the long-awaited Joe Pike novel by Robert Crais. Every novel from Crais is long-awaited. I'm already anticipating his next book. I confess, I'm a fan and The First Rule only solidifies that standing.

The First Rule features Joe Pike, the sidekick to Elvis Cole, World's Greatest Detective. As a sidekick, Pike was limited to the novelistic equivalent of a cameo. He'd enter a scene, say little, kick some butt and exit a few pages later. But Crais, yielding to his own good judgment and reader requests, gave Pike his own book in The Watchman. Let's just say it went well, and Pike is back in his own novel once more.

There's a missing baby, a cache of automatic weapons and a two warring Serbian crime lords. None of that matters. Not really. It's all an elaborate framework to showcase Pike. The driving factor in The First Rule is that a man who once served alongside Pike as a mercenary is brutally murdered, along with his wife and two children, early in the novel. To the Serbians, they were mere collateral damage. To Pike, their deaths represent a wrong that must be set right.

The Serbians have a set of rules that guide them; an actual written code and the punishment for violating it is death. Pike has his own code -- take care of your own -- and it is Pike's relentless drive to satisfy the tenents of his unwritten rule that gives the novel its title.

Pike is larger than life. A force of nature with more in common with a couple of Marvel superheroes than most characters in the current crop of suspense novels, except Lee Child's Jack Reacher. And that's fine. Fans know what they're getting -- a hugely entertaining novel.

Here's another rule: Pike is a former sidekick now. There will be a third novel featuring Joe Pike. And many more to follow.


Lou Manfredo's bio on the jacket flap of Rizzo's War says he "served in the Brooklyn criminal justice system for twenty-five years." I'm not certain what Manfredo's complete resume looks like, but he was a cop. And Rizzo's War is a book only a cop could write and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

Rizzo's War is the story of two Brooklyn detectives -- a veteran and his ambitious young partner. Manfredo gets the tone exactly right; the hours of tedium and paperwork punctuated by brief interludes of sordid crime. Sordid, but mundane: a young woman horrified by a wienie wagger and a burglar who cruelly murders an old man's dog fill the early pages of this novel.

Manfredo doesn't dismiss these crimes. Instead, he writes, these are the crimes that scare people the most:

. . . they get scared because when they hear about something like that, they worry about their kids, their wives, their husbands, or their old parents. That's what scares people and that's what I -- what we -- do. The little crimes have the biggest effect on most of the people. It's like a cancer eating away at the quality of their lives. Me and you, we're their chemotherapy. We fight the cancer, keep it at bay. We may never win, not completely, but we're all these people got.

But Manfredo is striving to capture something serious here. The veteran unveils his career philosophy early to his new partner -- nothing is ever right or wrong, it just is. About that time the two are enmeshed in a case that tests this homespun philosophy and that can make or break their own careers. A city councilman's daughter has run away and the detectives are asked to find her. Beyond her own emotional illness, there is a reason this young woman has fled her home.

Rizzo's War is a novel painted in shades of gray. What's right? What's wrong? Cops make choices every day in which they cross the line. A discount on dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Escorting that same restaurant owner to the bank at the end of the day. These are mild infractions, but larger ones await. Can a cop -- even a clean one -- ever truly avoid violating the network of policy and laws drawn up to guide them?

And does the end ever justify the means? After all, chemotherapy kills cancer cells.

This is a powerful and promising debut novel by Lou Manfredo.


The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton has one of the most engaging protagonist and inventive concepts of any suspense novel I have read in some time.

Michael is scarred by tragedy. He's in prison when we meet him and he doesn't -- he can't -- speak. Michael is a boxman, a safecracker of unusual skill. He doesn't use drills or explosives, but a Zen-like calm and an almost eerie ability to hear and feel the inner workings of any safe he touches.

How Michael becomes a boxman while still in high school and how he later ends up in prison is the subject of The Lock Artist. We also discover the horrible secret of his past. Why he no longer speaks and why that's going to change when he is finally released from prison.


And finally a shout out to Shel who called me a few weeks back and said I had to read Rizzo's War and The Lock Artist. He had that right.

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