To say these thrillers are fast reads would do them a definite disservice. They are breakneck reads. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. The action is immediate and visceral. Readers are inside the story before they know what hit them. There is no way out but to finish the page, the chapter, and ultimatetly, the book.
The plots center around the precarious fortunes of a former CIA agent who had been a member of the Special Activities Division named Court Gentry. After his ties with the agency are severed by mutual consent, but with each side having their own differing reasons, he becomes an agent, sometimes assassin, for hire. He is given the name, The Gray Man, when agencies and organizations around the world cannot stop him or even find traces of him. He is given credit for numerous jobs where there are no other explanations for how the deeds could have been accomplished.
Court is almost as good as his legend. It is the almost part which makes these books so thrilling and enjoyable. Plausible might be an exaggeration as Greaney himself admits he isn't attempting to relate events of actual history, but rather possibilities. As truth is often stranger than fiction, the reader doesn't feel duped by going along on Court's wild rides.
Another thing which makes Gentry so intriguing is his growth and maturation as person. He is well-trained and exceptional at his craft, but he struggles with having to make moral and ethical decisions on his own without superiors to blame or ideologies to fall back on. As the books progress, we also learn bits and pieces about Court's upbringing and life before he became the Gray Man. These will need to be collated by the reader and with any luck, supplemented by the author is future books in the series, for us to bring the Gray Man into better focus.
In the meantime, you can't go wrong reading and re-reading this excellent action-packed trio of novels.
Some of My Favorite Books:
All Over But the Shoutin', Rick Bragg
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Bangkok Haunts, John Burdett
The Big Blowdown, George P. Pelecanos
Breakheart Hill, Thomas H. Cook
Canyons, Gary Paulsen
Chinaman’s Chance, Ross Thomas
Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly
Dancing Carl, Gary Paulsen
Dark Rivers of the Heart, Dean Koontz
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
Early Autumn, Robert B. Parker
The Empty Chair, Jeffrey Deaver
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins
Evidence of Blood, Thomas H. Cook
Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Christopher Moore
Jolie Blon's Bounce, James Lee Burke
Kill Fee, Gary Paulsen
Listening Woman, Tony Hillerman
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Lucky You, Carl Hiassen
Mean High Tide, James W. Hall
The Monument, Gary Paulsen
Mortal Memory, Thomas H. Cook
Moves Make the Man, Bruce Brooks
Names of the Dead, Stewart O'Nan
Neuromancer, William Gibson
Organ Grinders, Bill Fitzhugh
Pest Control, Bill Fitzhugh
The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow
River of Darkness, James Grady
Riverview Murders, Michael Raleigh
The Stone Veil, Ronald Tierney
Sweet La La Land, Robert Campbell
A Ticket to the Boneyard, Lawrence Block
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Tourist Season, Carl Hiassen
Trail to the Buddha's Mirror, Don Winslow
The Ultimate Rush, Joe Quirk
Under the Beetle’s Cellar, Mary Willis Walker
Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Lawrence Block
My All-Time Favorite Writers:
(They make me laugh. They make me cry. Sometimes at the same time or in the same story. And they always make me care.)
Robert Wright Campbell
Thomas H. Cook
Some of My Other Favorite Writers:
James Lee Burke
Wayne D. Overholser
Robert B. Parker
George P. Pelecanos
Bob Sloan (not the Kentucky outdoors writer)
(My apologies to the many favorite authors I have inadvertently left off the list. They will be added when they come to mind.)
Previous Featured Authors:
"Down these mean streets" – but those street don't have to be Los Angeles or even in America. Raymond Chandler described the setting where his detective, a man who was not himself mean or tarnished, had to make his way, and it became a metaphor for the setting of all hard-boiled fiction throughout the United States for decades, but these mean streets are not limited to this country alone.
Recently, I have become a fan of the works of Ken Bruen and Martin Waites. These fine writers do neo-noir better than most of their American counterparts, and have convinced me that there are truly mean streets in Galway, Ireland and Newcastle, Northumberland.
Ken Bruen: Martyn Waites:
Their fiction is less about the hard-boiled style and more about the mean streets themselves. Bruen has developed a clipped, fragmented style which is often arranged on the page like poetry. Waites employs a more traditional approach, but in contrast to the traditional sparseness of sentiment in hard-boiled noir, he is often too much on the nose but what's expressed is honest and real.
What is also real is the emotion which permeates both authors' works. Like open wounds, raw and unrelenting, these stories are not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. These boys can reach into your chest and pluck your heartstrings while reaching into your mind to play havoc with your equanimity.
Their protagonists are truly vulnerable men. Not big tough guys, not some types waiting to bust some heads but they are not the guy getting sand kicked in his face either. Both have wicked tempers they must work hard to contain. They are aware of the cost of violence and willing to pay it only as a last resort.
Bruen's Jack Taylor is a former police officer, known as guards (short for An Garda Síochána, the Irish national police force), suffers from the effects of hurling injuries from his youth and the effects of bouts of depression and alcoholism. Waites' Joe Donovan is a former journalist, aging and off to seed, trying to bounce back from months of dissolution and mourning for a last son who may not be dead, but truly lost or abducted.
Another thread common to both authors is an affinity for constructing each novel around volatile, touchstone issues troubling their countries if not everywhere in the world. Nothing is off limits, child trafficking, racial and religious turmoil, devil worship, government corruption, and the clergy, always someone is not who they seem and always with some power to prey upon the weak.
Martyn Waites also writes two other excellent series, the Stephen Larkin series about a tabloid journalist, and in collaboration with his wife as Tania Carver.
Ken Bruen also has a series of books about an Inspector Brant, several of which have been made into movies by the British television. He also has some stand-alone thrillers including Blitz which was a major motion picture starring Jason Statham.
John's first novel, Every Dead Thing, introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. In subsequent novels in the series, his wife and daughter haunt Parker. To warn him? To assist him? To remain with him? He is never quite sure. Their appearances unsettle him. They do not help him move on or forget. They haunt Parker in much the same way Connolly's novels haunt the reader. The books stay with you, and they do not let you forget them.
The other books in the Charlie Parker series include: Dark Hollow, The Killing Kind, The White Road, The Black Angel, The Unquiet, The Reapers, The Lovers, and The Whisperers. John's first stand-alone novel was the thriller, Bad Men. He has since published The Book Of Lost Things and The Gates, his first novel for younger readers.
He's Irish, but the books are heavily oriented to the northeast United States, especially Maine. Because his books often have some semblence of the supernatural, Connolly is occasionally likened to Stephen King, another prominent Maine author. Although both are inventive plotters, they share little in common in subject matter, style, or tone. Connolly's work is less about the verisimilitude of Maine and more about the veracity of the human nature of his characters.
One of the things I like best about Connolly's books is I never know what to expect. I am at a loss to capsulate or to explain them even to myself. Not a good thing when you are trying to recommend a series or an author. I only know they move me. The stories connect on a genuinely emotional level even though I have no connection to the settings or situations. The resolutions are legitimately persuasive, a superb bonus for a series which has been this exemplary for this long.
On why an Irish-born author sets his books in the United States: "I read Ross Macdonald for the first time, and he, along with James Lee Burke, became a huge influence on me. I loved the compassion and sense of justice that I found in Macdonald, the belief that women, children, the poor should not be allowed to suffer simply because they didn't have power. I had always found British crime fiction lacking in compassion for the victims, and peculiarly reluctant to question the society in which the novels were set."
"Parker is a human being who has ascended from violence and despair to become a compassionate, empathetic man, who realizes he must forgive himself as well as others if he is to make reparation for his failings," he says about his main character.
There is a line in the third novel, The Killing Kind: "Reparation is the shadow cast by salvation."
In a recent interview for a documentary about him, he points out his beliefs about the motivations of his antagonists: "Evil is the absence of empathy."
Lisa Gardner's books are a tasty, heady brew which go down smooth and engaging until the reader is both intoxicated and satisfied. When I open one of her books, I know I'll look up a few hours later wondering how I got half-way through it without even trying. Like all excellent writers, she finds a way to make me care about every character from the protagonist to even the foulest villain.
I believe it was SAY GOODBYE which prompted me to finally feature Lisa Gardner's books. This is a captivating, scary, moving story. It features Kimberly Quincy, a character from a couple of her earlier novels, but, in this case, there is really no necessity to have read them to enjoy this great book. You won't be sorry if you read them as well:
These books are not for the faint of heart or those looking for a charming cozy mystery. They deal with imperfect characters dealing with their own demons while they attempt to stop vivid, frighteningly real, warped individuals from continuing their pathological pursuits. These seriously damaged folks are so horrifying because they are believable, smart, and blend into the mix of humanity so thoroughly they pass for normal.
I thought I was keeping up with her output, but I see she has a new novel out already featuring some of the characters from previous novels.
Somehow, she was a best-selling author before I'd even heard of her so she has many excellent books to choose from. I would recommend them all. Some are better than others, but that will run to taste. I would find it hard to believe you could find a bad one.
To me, she seems to be getting better with each one. None were better or scared me as much SAY GOODBYE, but then I hate, but am unable to keep from being fascinated by spiders.
Robert Campbell: In And Out Of La-La Land
When I began to write this short piece on Robert Campbell’s Whistler series, one of my personal favorites, I thought I was doing another laudatory retrospective of another apparently dead series. However, a little research brought me the sad news that what I would really be writing about was a dead author. Robert Campbell, sometimes known as R. Wright Campbell for his stand-alone thrillers and his award-nominated screenplays, passed away on September 21, 2000. He was the author of three different series of mystery novels, the Whistler series, about a Los Angeles private detective; the Jake Hatch series, about a railroad detective; and the Jimmy Flannery series about a Chicago district boss which won Campbell an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for the first, “The Junkyard Dog.”
His Whistler series has always been a personal favorite, with SWEET LA-LA LAND (1990) being one of my all-time favorite novels of any kind. The mysterious main character, with his single name, a pseudonym to hide an embarrassing past, often seems like a bit player in his own series, and nowhere is that more exemplified than in “Sweet.” Unlike the faceless narrator of the 1940s who shares his name and seemed to be the Rod Serling of his time bringing radio and film audiences the spooky stories of other people, this Whistler does figure into the solution or, at least, leads us to the solution in all his books.
Whistler is as close to an autobiographical character as Campbell ever created. Like Whistler, Campbell was an actor with few prominent credits who admittedly succumbed to the solace of alcohol. Both take a harsh existential view, seeing the world as openly hostile, or at least, totally oblivious to the individual. However, both eventually decide upon a life of sobriety; Whistler because he feels he must in order to help those around him, the unlucky, the unfortunate, the children, and the naïve who cannot help themselves; Campbell because it was the only way he saw to fashion a life for himself, not simply a living.
Over his career, Campbell was lauded for his vivid, sympathetic characters and for his uncanny ear for dialogue. Indeed, these two elements combine in the Whistler series to hook the reader and keep the pages turning. Campbell could make you believe and care about the wants and desires of even the most minor characters. In fact, as Campbell himself was quoted, “In my books, I take the view that there is a compensatory fate waiting for such people if my hero just gives it a little nudge.”
Although a good case might be made for reading the books in strict chronological order, my preference would be for a new reader to start with SWEET LA-LA LAND (New York, Poseidon Press, 1990). For two reasons, first it is the best of the series, and it actually exists out of time with the other novels anyways. It introduces all the key characters without filling in too much back-story.
Next, I would try IN LA-LA LAND WE TRUST (New York, Mysterious Press, 1986), and once again I should caution that, although the books are not needlessly graphic, they are not for those easily offended or who prefer the generally wholesome settings of cozy mysteries. TRUST introduces the reader to another prevalent player in the series, the porn industry, but once again, not even the so-called legitimate porn industry, but rather the underground porn business of snuff films, kiddie porn, and bestiality tomes. The ending to this one is worth the price of any two books.
ALICE IN LA-LA LAND (New York, Poseidon Press, 1987) is a fascinating mystery exploring the essence of gender and the effects of parenting, good, bad or indifferent on the young. Campbell may not be the best when it comes to plot in all his books, but he hits the mark in this one.
THE WIZARD OF LA-LA LAND (New York, Pocket Books, 1995) comes much later, for both Campbell and for Whistler. The book is filled with even more bitterness and resignation. It seems almost too late for Whistler and his friends.
In conclusion, I ran across this passage which closes the book which he often said meant the most to him:
"It's dark now, the day is done. There is a different quality to the dark
that comes after the setting of the sun and that which precedes the rising
of it. Perhaps there are sounds and smells left over from the day that
alter it. Perhaps a different texture to the winds. Whatever the case, one
is sensed as a beginning and the other as an ending."
-- from the epilogue to WHERE PIGEONS GO TO DIE (New York, Rawson Associates, 1978; reissued Flights of Fancy, Publishers 1999) by R. Wright Campbell
With a movie based on one of his books (The Death and Life of Bobby Z) scheduled for release in late 2007 and another just optioned (The Winter of Frankie Machine) by Robert DeNiro, it may seem like Don Winslow isn't in need of more attention, but I still find his name rings few bells in the mainstream. It is only just recently that I, myself, can say his name without adding "of the Navy." (It's a trivia thing, an old radio character.)
Power of the Dog is one of the best books I have read in years. It is a sprawling novel mixing fact and fiction to tell the history of the so-called "war on drugs" as told primarily through the perspective of DEA agent Art Keller. Winslow employs a unique rapid-fire present tense similar to screenplay narration to push the story to a wallop of a conclusion.
I actually became a Don Winslow fan when I discovered his Neal Carey series. Attentive readers might discover his Trail to the Buddha's Mirror listed as one of my favorite books.
If you are looking for something a little different, try
The mystery novels of John Burdett following the adventures of Thai police detective and part-time bar owner, Sonchai Jitpleecheep , are an amazing mixture of puzzle, philosophy, and culture clash. At their heart, the novels pose complex questions of morals, gender, ethics and the nature of spiritual well-being as seen through a prism of multiple cultures. If they were merely a juxtoposition of Eastern and Western thought or a comparison of Thai and American values, the novels would be as intriguing, but without the depth and feeling conveyed through the lives of the characters and their stories.
Burdett, in his own words, chose Thailand as the setting for his new series because it was third world exotic and had not been the setting for very many books of popular fiction, but soon found himself under its many influences:
I had visited Thailand dozens of times before I decided to write a thriller based in Bangkok. I thought I was simply looking for an exotic location which had not been "done," or at least not overdone (how many detective thrillers have you read that are not based in New York, or LA, or London or Paris?). I had found my exotic location, but the nature of the difference was more than I had bargained for. How could I, a Western man who didn't speak much of the local language, put himself in the shoes of a Thai? I didn't have an answer, but I did realize that I was starting to see the world somewhat in the Thai way and decided to let things develop without reference to my original plan.
Then one fine morning, about a year after my arrival, I found myself writing a story narrated in the first person by a Thai cop who was half western by blood, who was a passionate meditator, whose mother was a whore and who had grown up amongst those very young women and katoeys (transsexuals) with whom I spent my evenings chatting. I didn't need to think about "voice," it was there every morning, nagging, persistent and quite indifferent to all those rules about novel writing I had so conscientiously studied.
Although the elements of the classic mystery novel are all present in Burdett's Bangkok novels, they are unlike any others I have read. What was most intriguing was how Sonchai shares the same goal as the classic Western detective. He must solve the mystery. The obstacles are unusual to us because of the cultural, political, and procedural differences between Thailand and English speaking nations, but I was struck by how, at their core, they are much the same. The political and bureaucratic corruption is more overt, but no more obstructive than what Harry Bosch or Dave Robicheaux might encounter. Religion is pervasive, but not practiced the same or by all citizens. Sonchai desires to be true to himself, but not necessarily in the same sense as the Chandleresque macho man alone against the mean streets.
The Hundredth Man
What a fine first novel! Kerley has created a truly unique protaganist with a twisted full-blown backstory and an ominous villain who remains hidden in plain view until the very last moment.
Actually, I was hooked when in the first chapter, the partner of the main character, Detective Carson Ryder, is telling the world's greatest joke which illuminates both the title and the main character:
“The dog walker asks the man if he’s lost something. Man says, ‘Yeah, my contact lens popped out.’ So the dog walker ties Fido to a phone pole and gets down on his hands and knees to help. They search up and down, back and forth, beneath that light. Fifteen minutes later the dog walker says, ‘Buddy, I can’t find it anywhere. Are you sure it popped out here?’ The man says, ‘No, I lost it over in the park.’ ‘The park?’ the dog walker yells. ‘Then why the hell are we looking in the street?’”
Harry gave it a two-beat build.
“The man points to the streetlamp and says, ‘The light’s better here.’”
Harry laughed, a musical warble at odds with a black man built like an industrial boiler. His audience tittered politely. An attractive redhead in a navy pantsuit frowned and said, “I don’t get it. Why’s that the world’s greatest joke?”
“It has mythical content,” Harry replied, the right half of his mustache twitching with interest, the left drooping in disdain. “Given the choice of groping after something in the dark, or hoping to find it easily in the light, people pick the light ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”
Peterson lofted a prosecutorial eyebrow. “So who’s the hundredth guy, the one always groping in the dark?”
Harry grinned and pointed my way. “Him,” he said.
The Death Collectors
Another fantastic Carson Ryder -- Harry Nautilus novel.
Jack Kerley captivates and scares the bejesus out of me. This one deals with a legendary artist/cult leader who is shot to death during his sentencing for murder by one of his followers. Decades later, his artworks, the stuff of specualation and legend, begin to appear near a string of homicides.
Garden of Vipers
Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus race to a crime scene to find a young reporter who’s been brutally murdered. The case, seemingly the work of a lone psychopath, widens to include a poisoned convict, a dead psychiatrist and a teacher slaughtered four years earlier.