Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sad news from the book world

As many of you already know, Bonnie and Joe at New York's Black Orchid Bookshop have decided to close their doors this September after 13 years in business.

In addition to being one of the best independent stores in the country (for which they won a well-deserved Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America last year, and got a standing ovation at the Edgars banquet), Black Orchid also served as a gathering place and nexus for dozens of writer. As the site of their annual pre-Edgar and mid-summer parties, the store often hosted an amazing collection of disparate authors, who could often be found milling about on the sidewalk outside. I made many friends there, not the least of whom were Bonnie and Joe themselves, who were always warm and welcoming (on only my second visit to the store - and my first time meeting Bonnie - she lent me $20 so I could get dinner nearby without having to go to a cash machine first).

And boy, if they liked your books, you were in clover. Their love of the genre made them the ideal booksellers, and their enthusiasm - and dedicated clientele - formed the essence of what's commonly known as "handselling." I can't count the number of times I've heard from people who first became aware of my books via a recommendation from Joe and Bonnie.

Black Orchid will always have a special significance for me personally as well. It was the first bookstore I ever walked into as an author. In February 2003, the week THE BARBED-WIRE KISS was released, St. Martins had me hit all the N.Y. stores one day to sign stock and meet the various booksellers (accompanied by the lovely and talented Rachel Ekstrom, then a publicist for SMP). Our first stop was at Black Orchid, and although Joe wasn't expecting us that day, when I walked in the door, Bruce Springsteen's THE RISING was playing over the in-store speakers (the exact song was "Mary's Place" if I remember correctly). And I knew there couldn't have been a more auspicious omen than that.

I've been back to the store dozens of times since, sometimes as a customer, but that February day will always be locked into my memory. Because while I was talking to Joe and signing books - with Springsteen singing in the background - it was the first time I actually *felt* like a writer. And the Black Orchid felt like home.

More on the store, and Bonnie and Joe in the future. In the meantime, it's good to know they're still having their annual party Aug. 16, which will not only commemorate the anniversary of the store, but also Joe's (and my) birthday two days previous. This will be a sad one though, and it'll be tough to walk away from that place for the last time.

So if you have a chance, come by Aug. 16 (81st St. betw. First and Second), say hello, buy some books. Cliche or not, there's no other way to put it - it's the end of an era.


And finally, it's hard to believe that today is 30 years to the day since these events took place. It's a strange world, and it moves much too fast.

Monday, July 16, 2007

One Book and beyond: Vol. 2

It may seem odd to qualify any of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels as overlooked or underappreciated, considering the amount of attention he generally gets, but his 1993 novel THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD has never been granted the status I think it deserves. It is, in my mind, the ne plus ultra of the Scudder books and maybe one of the ten best private eye novels ever.

It starts with Scudder investigating a seemingly random street killing - a man shot dead at a payphone - and ultimately turns into a meditation on death, friendship, infidelity and New York itself. As Scudder tries to uncover the motive for the murder, his own personal life is in upheaval. And though his relationship with his ex-hooker girlfriend Elaine is deepening, he finds himself inevitably drawn to the murdered man's young widow. At the same time, an old lover of Scudder's has discovered she's terminally ill and makes a final request of him - get her a gun so that she can end it herself when the pain becomes too much to take.

Storywise, as far as the Scudder novels go, DEVIL is relatively low-key. It has none of the violent intensity of the two books that preceded it - A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES - or the intricate plotting of some that followed. And though on the surface the subject matter may seem grim, in the end the book is oddly life-affirming. We're all looking for comfort in the night, Block seems to be saying, and we should take it where we find it, because the whole carnival might just end at any minute, and more than likely before we're ready.

The climax of DEVIL is a quiet one - there's no action, no last-minute danger Scudder has to think or fight his way out of. And the resolution of the mystery is simpler than we ever expected it to be. But at the same time, in its closing pages, the novel attains a sense of almost cathartic release. And along the way Block gives us - as usual - some of the best dialogue anyone's ever written anywhere. This one's a keeper.

Monday, July 09, 2007

One Book and beyond ...

Back in May, the Rap Sheet launched its One Book Project, soliciting more than 100 novelists, critics, and fans to choose one crime/mystery/thriller novel that was “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.” My choice was David Bottoms’ terrific 1987 novel ANY COLD JORDAN (one of only two he wrote, the second being EASTER WEEKEND, which is just as good. These days, Bottoms is better known as Georgia’s poet laureate).

ANY COLD JORDAN wasn’t a difficult choice. It’s beautifully written and all too well fits the definition of “unjustly overlooked.” But it also started me thinking about the other books that would have made my shortlist. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to sing the praises of a few of them. Some are in print, some aren’t, but all are great in their own way and worth seeking out.

Leonard’s Gardner’s 1969 novel FAT CITY would have been my first choice for the One Book Project, except it’s not really a crime novel. What it is is a beautifully etched portrait of the underside of American life, as told through the stories of two men in Stockton, Calif., in the late 1950s. Billy Tully is a punch-drunk fighter who fears his career and his life are over – at age 29. Ernie Munger is an 18-year-old service station attendant with a pregnant girlfriend and not much of a future. He’s a fighter too, an up and comer with some skill, who nonetheless soon discovers he’s in way over his head.

Billy and Ernie meet in the first chapter – during an impromptu sparring bout at a YMCA – and then go their separate ways for much of the novel. Gardner follows their painful arcs through alcoholism, domestic strife and just pure bad luck. It’s not even that they’re trying to escape their grim existence – it’s almost as if they’re denying to themselves that any other way of life exists. The novel is populated by those who were once full of promise, people who keep making bad decisions and then punish themselves – sometimes brutally – for making them. But they just can’t seem to stop.

Gardner, a Stockton native, fills the novel with sparse but evocative descriptions of his hometown, and the bleak vista that awaits those who live there. At times, it’s like a Tom Waits song come to life, vivid and almost lyrical in its bluntness. And every sentence is just about perfect.

Here’s Gardner’s description of Tully’s transient hotel room, from the very first page of the novel:

“His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.”

Seventeen words and you’re there, in that room, in that world. By the time this short novel comes to a close, nothing earthshaking has happened to its protagonists, no sudden glimpses of clarity or last-chance shots at redemption. Instead, they just keep on keeping on. When we last see Tully, he’s in yet another hotel, finally surrendering the little ambition he has left, until “hearing the sounds of the street, he drifted in the darkness with his loss.”

FAT CITY is maybe best known for the excellent 1972 film John Huston made from it, starring Stacy Keach as Tully and Jeff Bridges as Ernie, with a screenplay by Gardner. It’s been in and out of print over the years and is currently available as part of the University of California Press’ “California Fiction” series (which also includes the late A.I. Bezzerides’ THIEVES MARKET, which became the Jules Dassin film THIEVES HIGHWAY). FAT CITY may not be a crime novel, but it’s as noir as they come.