Joe Denton, a bad cop fresh out of prison, never has the chance to even try to go straight. His wrecked life is waiting for him in the persons of Sheriff Dan Pleasant (a former partner in crime) and District Attorney Phil Coakley (the victim of the attempted murder that put Joe in prison). Phil is on the verge of having evidence that will put Dan and Joe in prison for a long stretch, so Dan works to force Joe to solve this problem by whatever means necessary. There is no shortage of plot in Small Crimes, but the narrative is driven moreso by the characters. Sheriff Dan and D.A. Phil are no mysteries, but Joe is a more challenging personality to understand, as are several of the supporting characters in the book: Joe's parents; dying crime boss Manny Vassey; and, most of all, Charlotte Boyd, a nurse in the hospital where Manny is dying. Grade: B+
In one type of Gold Medal PBO, the protagonist finds himself plunged into a crime-driven crisis: Perhaps he is accused of a crime that he did not commit, or perhaps he chooses to participate in a seemingly harmless crime that goes horribly wrong, or perhaps there is some other scenario involving crime and the protagonist's life spiraling out of control. In any case, such plots can make for compelling reading, as Charles Williams and his Gold Medal stablemates showed over and over again (for Williams, see A Touch of Death and Hell Hath No Fury). But Go Home, Stranger deviates from this general formula in a crucial way: It is not the protagonist, Pete Reno, who is caught up in a crime; rather, it is his sister, and she stays off stage for virtually the entire book while Pete runs around playing amateur detective and trying to prove her innocence. The result is remarkably bland; instead of a character desperately trying to extricate himself from a nightmare, we have a character trying to solve a puzzle that does not involve him, which is not nearly as interesting, even if someone is trying to kill him to prevent him from discovering the truth. Grade: C
Jack Cox, an American expatriate living in Tijuana, is a man without a country, but if he will murder political militant Bruno Lazar, he will be given a fresh start: $50,000 and citizenship in a new country. Wade Miller keeps Cox's past misdeeds vague enough so that he can emerge as a sort of Everyman as hired assassin. What we see of Jack we like, and we root for him to succeed--though it is unclear whether that means killing his target or walking away without even making the attempt. There are, of course, a pair of women in the mix, the most important being Dorlisa Weber, who is working to protect Lazar while Cox is working to romance her and gain her confidence so that he may defeat her. Well worth seeking out. Grade: B+
One of my interests is Japanese noir, though I occasionally find these novels tough going due to the sometime inscrutability of Japanese culture. To help make these things more scrutable, I try to mix in a few nonfiction works on Japan, and I have just read a really great one: Mark D. West's Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, Statutes (2005). Using methods largely from economics, West examines the intersections between laws and social norms as they affect Japanese culture in seven areas, including the management of sumo wresting and the handling of karaoke noise complaints. Probably the most noirish chapters are those dealing with love hotels and debt-suicides. Academic but highly accessible. Witty, too.
A: Excellent. I intend to read it again. B: Good. I might read it again. C: So-so. I didn't mind reading it. D: Bad. I resented reading it. F: Atrocious. I finished it only because I'm compulsive that way.