I may never be able to fully untangle the degree to which the woodeness of some Japanese mystery novels is a function of (1) poor translations, (2) the Japanese language itself, (3) Japanese cultural norms (in particular, those governing politeness in speech), and/or (4) the conventions of the Japanese mystery novel (including the conventions of serial publication). In any case, I am learning to take this woodeness as a given, and it interferes less and less with my enjoyment of Japanese mysteries. Points and Lines is an enjoyable though fairly wooden (surprise!) police procedural centering on one man's alibi that he has built, in part, on being seen on trains and in train stations. Was it possible for him to have been at the scene of an alleged "love suicide" while also traveling as he appears to have traveled? According to the note on Seicho Matsumoto's life, the tremendous success of Points and Lines set off a "Matsumoto boom" in Japan. This fact perhaps says less about Points and Lines than it does about Japanese readers and their love of railroad timetables. Grade: B-
The Little Sleep might as well come with a questionnaire stapled to its cover asking you to compare it to The Big Sleep, so I will oblige the marketing campaign by looking for connections: The settings have little in common (1930s Los Angeles vs. 2000s Boston), and there is a superficial plot connection (a daughter or two with a powerful father, pornography, and blackmail figure in the events of both books). But when you come to the novels' protagonists, things get interesting. The most obvious connection between Philip Marlowe and Mark Genevich is their preferred mode of communication: sarcasm. In general, the writing style of author Paul Tremblay is almost a parody of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled voice: the world-weary wisecracks and noir metaphors (categories that sometimes overlap) come in an unrelenting stream. There are so many of these touches in The Little Sleep that some are bound to fall flat, but the novel's strategy is to overwhelm: Readers will barely have time to smile or roll their eyes at a writerly flourish before the next one comes along.
The important thing, though, is that The Little Sleep deals with more than solving a mystery and cracking wise, as did The Big Sleep before it. As a writer of mysteries, Raymond Chandler was plain awful. Critics excuse (and sometimes even praise) his convoluted plot lines because the critics are dazzled by the creation of Philip Marlowe, who ranks as perhaps the most fascinating character in the history of the detective genre (Sherlock Holmes notwithstanding). Similarly, the real attraction of The Little Sleep is Mark Genevich. Paul Tremblay's plot is mercifully simple compared to the messes that Raymond Chandler cooked up, but what kept me turning the pages of The Little Sleep was "Mark Genevich, narcoleptic detective" (as he is billed on the back of the book). I had expected that his narcolepsy would be played for laughs, but The Little Sleep is too smart for that. Genevich's struggles with his condition are of a piece with his Marlowesque voice: Like his hardboiled predecessor, Genevich is a damaged man with an arsenal of (mostly sarcastic) defense mechanisms, and he does not give up his secrets easily. So I will read the next Mark Genevich mystery for the same reason that I read the Philip Marlowe mysteries: not because I want to read a mystery but because I want to spend time with a fascinating character. Grade: A-
The saddest revenge story ever written? Johnny Marr, an almost anonymous young man in middle America (think Our Town), must find the man who killed his fiancée and make the killer suffer as he has suffered. But there are five possible killers, so they must all suffer. The plots that Johnny executes against them require near-omniscience on his part. Never mind that Johnny could have identified the actual killer much more easily--for better or for worse, Woolrich demands that you grant him absurdities. Grade: A-
Generally, noir plots are not particularly believable, so the noir writer must be skillful enough either to make you believe in spite of it all or to make you not care whether you believe in the first place. (Jim Thompson specializes in the former; Cornell Woolrich specializes in the latter.) This time, Bruno Fischer did not quite succeed in making me believe. Fools Walk In is an example of transgressive noir, the subgenre in which the protagonist, presumably someone not much different from the reader, crosses over to the noir side. Usually the protagonist is driven by financial temptation, but in Fools Walk In, Larry Knight is motivated by the simple desire to escape his miserably unexciting life.
When the novel begins, Larry is driving home to New York from Kentucky, where he has been visiting his brother, George. Larry lives with his sister--a shrill, self-pitying, dominating old maid--and he had hoped to convince George to take her. Of course, he had no such luck. Add to this the fact that Larry is toiling in the world's most pathetic job--he's a high school English teacher, for God's sake!--and he is ripe to transgress when he picks up a gangster's moll who is on the run with $20,000. Larry soon finds himself in hiding with gangsters of the sort who talk earnestly about "capers," and, for a high school English teacher, he proves to be unaccountably attractive to gangster women. If only all English teachers had such latent powers! Grade: C
I file this one under noir because it is the story of a helpless soul not unlike what one might find in Gil Brewer or Cornell Woolrich. But rather than a weak man against an Evil Woman (as in Brewer) or a powerless man (or woman) against Implacable Fate (as in Woolrich), here we have a woman (a new bride) against a traditional, multigenerational Japanese family, and it is this added cultural dimension that makes this book more than just another trip around the same old block (Rosemary's Baby, Rebecca, etc). Appreciation of this novel requires at least a bit of knowledge about the history of the Ie system of families in Japan; otherwise readers may find the apprehensions and behaviors of the protagonist more inscrutable than they ought to be. Grade: B
The guest editor changes from year to year, but the book stays pretty much the same: Consistently entertaining nonfiction crime essays from The New Yorker (always), plus nods to the likes of The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire, but also to more obscure publications--this time, The Cleveland Free Times and OC Weekly make the cut--just to keep things a little bit honest. Most years, I find that once particular essay makes the book worth its price of admission. This time, it's Malcolm Gladwell's "Dangerous Minds" (fromThe New Yorker, natch), which argues that John Douglas and other FBI criminal profilers are charlatans who operate like cold-reading psychics. For anyone who has ever enjoyed Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs or true crime in a similar vein, it should be required reading.
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.