Thursday, October 20, 2005

Good reads

The past few weeks have seen a bevy of new books by some of my favorite authors. Here are some quick comments.

School Days is the latest in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and it may be the best Spenser book in fifteen or more years. In this one Spenser's lady friend Susan is away at a convention and Hawk is off doing who knows ahat, so Spenser is on his own for a change. By paring away the supporting characters (who we all know and love, but -- let's face it -- have become a bit of a crutch in recent books), Parker brings Spenser closer to the way he was written in the early books in the series. The plot also echoes earlier books like God Save the Child and Ceremony, in that Spenser's case takes him to a small-town high school -- in this case, to investigate the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting. The plot has an actual mystery for a change, and while I miss the Hawk and Susan banter (I could read an entire book of nothing but Spenser, Susan, and Hawk conversing over a gourmet dinner), Spenser is wittier and the action is grittier for not relying on the tired old cliches. Perhaps the best Spenser book since 1987's Pale Kings and Princes.

Cinnamon Kiss is the latest in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, about a part-time black detective in 1960s Los Angeles. There's nothing extra special or unique about this entry, which doesn't lessen its readability; Mosley does his usual superb job of painting a picture that provides a vivid sense of place and time. And it's a good mystery, to boot, this one taking Easy up to San Francisco for awhile, then back to south central L.A., in a quest to find a missing woman and a briefcase full of valuable bonds. Additional tension is provided by the illness of Easy's adopted daughter, Feather; Easy is under particular pressure to solve the case and collect a handsome reward, in order to afford Feather's necessary and expensive medical treatment. All the familiar characters turn up, including Jackson Blue, Saul Linx, and Easy's homicidal friend Raymond "Mouse" Alexander. As with all of Mosley's books, this one is a very satisfying treat.

War at Home presents us with another part-time black detective, in the form of Kris Nelscott's Smokey Dalton. In her Smokey Dalton novels (this is the fifth book in the series), Nelscott has used the conventions of the genre mystery to detail race relations and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, by tying her plots with key events -- Martin Luther King's assassination, the 1968 Democratic convention, and, in this book, the burgeoning anti-war movement. In this book Smokey, his "son" Jimmy, and street-smart friend Malcom Reyner travel from Chicago to Connecticut and New York City in search of teacher Grace Kirkland's missing son, Daniel. The search brings Smokey into contact with a group of anti-war radicals, in the fashion of the real-life Weathermen, and a plot to bomb various establishment fixtures. What I find amazing is that this convincing and engrossing view of what it meant to be a black man during that turbulent era is written by a young white woman from Oregon. (I must admit, I had very mixed feelings when I discovered, about three books in, that the author was both female and white; I'd just assumed that Kris was a male name and that "he" was a black man, just like Walter Mosley, author of the similar Easy Rawlins books -- although, interestingly, both Nelscott and Mosley got their start writing science fiction, not mystery books.)

The Colorado Kid is Stephen King's first paperback original in what, forever? -- as well as his first true mystery (not horror) novel. It's published as part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, which specializes in hard boiled noir fiction, both reprinting early works from established writers such as Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block and publishing new works from younger authors. King's entry is bound to confuse both his traditional audience and loyal Hard Case Crime readers, as it's more soft boiled than hard. It is a mystery of sorts, told completely as a book-length conversation between the crusty old editor of small-town Maine newspaper, his equally crusty right-hand man, and a young female reporter. Though the book was nothing like what I expected, it was pretty good -- King is a very talented writer, after all. It's also a very quick read, more of a novella than a novel, easily finished in a single setting. In any case, I'm glad to see King try something new, and for him to lend his name to an up-and-coming imprint like Hard Case Crime. It's a quick, cheap read -- definitely worth the money.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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