Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Three Crime Novels

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, is a crime novel, no question about that. It’s more literate than novels in the genre tend to be, and it’s more accessible than anything he’s written since his youth, but it fits the formula. Man comes across dead drug dealer with satchel of money. Man takes satchel. Drug dealers come after man because they want their money back.

It’s hard to know how to judge the novel though. If one chooses to compare it to McCarthy’s best, it’s a slight work, and the theme couldn’t be more hackneyed. It’s that this country is going to hell in a hand basket, the lament of so many people as they get older. On a superficial level, this seems to be true for the baby boomers. However, one has to look at things in historical context. Ever since the end of WW2, this country has seen increasing urbanization, as well as a steady decline in the job prospects and standard of living for those in the bottom strata, especially blacks and Hispanics. In the pre-WW2 era life was every bit as nasty and violent in the slums of the big cities like New York as they are anywhere in America today but, as cities all across the country have exploded in population, they have come to experience the same sorts of problems that were present in those few isolated areas. It isn’t a question of a moral rot or any such nonsense, but of sociology. Put people together in an urban environment with little money and few prospects and you’re going to get the kinds of problems that McCarthy’s protagonist bemoans.

Those who have read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while recognize the Judge in the figure of the assassin Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men. As such he in is a Satan figure, damned near invincible and, at the end of the novel, he isn’t killed or apprehended, he just sort of disappears and no one knows where he went. So the problem with this country to McCarthy’s way of thinking is that the Devil is lose upon the land. Sounds like a damned evangelical, but what the hell. I chose to judge the novel as a crime thriller and, as such, I enjoyed it.

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett is a lot of fun. It takes place in Krung Thep, Thailand, better known to Westerners as Bangkok. The detective protagonist is a half-breed, Thai and American, fathered by an American GI on leave during the Vietnam War. The book is entertaining and funny. The locale is so exotic that it feels like sci-fi at points, but it does provide some interesting insights on the country.

The police there are hopelessly corrupt. They take money to let people off on all kinds of crimes. They confiscate drugs and sell them. They take kickbacks from people in the sex trade. The Police Colonel who heads the precinct in which the protagonist works is involved in the drug trade in a big way and has become rich as a result. From the American point of view it’s despicable, but it’s not as simple as all of that. On one level this practice represents a transfer of rural tribal values to an urban environment. The cops in the precinct function like a tribe. The Police Colonel is the chieftain, who takes good care of his men, and all are expected to contribute to the communal good. The protagonist is a devout Buddhist and refuses to take bribes, which irritates his fellows because they don’t feel that he is contributing his share. Here in the US, corruption is all about individualism, but apparently not there. The individual profits, of course, but he’s expected to look out for the communal good as well. It’s a nice read if you’re looking for some light entertainment with a few laughs.

I can’t recommend The Black Angel by John Connolly. I picked it up on impulse at the library. The strange thing about the book is that it’s a signed first edition and, if you can believe it, there’s a music CD in the back, containing songs that the author feels goes with the novel. The CD was still unopened and I wasn’t tempted to break the seal, but this is so odd on two points, that a library would be circulating a signed first edition, and that the author would include a CD. For some reason, the latter smacks of hubris of me, especially considering how bad the novel is. Not only that but he has a bibliography in the back. Of course, when one of the books listed is by the cultist Elizabeth Clare Prophet, it’s hard to take too seriously. The sad thing about the book is that Connolly, who is a journalist, has a real gift for writing. It shows through in his prose, though it’s obvious that he’s just banging the book out. There are occasional passages that are striking. Here’s one for example. The protagonist is talking to his grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s which he says is “...like ink clouding clear water and turning it to black, claiming all of his memories for its own.” Now, that’s really nice and damned descriptive. Unfortunately there’s not enough of it and the plot is ridiculous.


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