Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Novel Economics

Sometimes you are glad you read books. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them on sale. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them used. And sometimes you are glad you read them and even gladder the only money you paid is whatever portion of your sales tax goes to support your local public library. The latest Virgil Flowers novel from John Sandford, Deadline, is an excellent example.

Virgil, a roving investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, stops by his friend Johnson Johnson's hometown to look into a dognapping ring. He begins to see the ring has links to some local methamphetamine dealers, but before he can dig too far into the case a reporter for the local newsweekly is murdered. Since he was also a drug abuser, there could be some ties into the crimes Virgil is investigating, or it could be linked to an entirely different set of crimes. Is Virgil following the trail on his own, or is he being led by others away from a far more serious matter? It's not really a question, as the dust jacket tells us who wanted the reporter dead and how they decided on it. Deadline is not a whodunit so much as a "Will Virgil catch whodunit?"

The Flowers novels have sort of become Sandford's Dortmunder series. Donald Westlake wrote some serious crime novels with seriously bad people in them, and then he also wrote some comedic crime novels with the hapless Dortmunder and his crew almost but not quite managing to pull off a big score. Parker (whom Westlake wrote as Richard Stark) celebrated hard-boiled crime fiction while Dortmunder satirized it and poked a little fun at its conventions. Lucas Davenport in Sandford's "Prey" series is a sometimes not-so-well-contained Loose Cannon Cop Who Will Cut Corners to Get the Bad Guys. Flowers, even though he investigates crimes just as serious, does so with an eye towards the silliness of that trope and with storylines that graft them into some of the more amusing elements of the small towns where they happen. The resolution of the dognapping case, for example, contains several elements and players who would make Westlake proud.

But while the Dortmunder novels popped up infrequently enough to stay fresh (with two exceptions, Westlake wrote them with a 3-5 year gap between them starting in 1970), Virgil arrives every year and Deadline as the eighth novel in the series is showing the wear in the tread. Virgil trades witty barbs with his colorful cast of friends and acquaintances (such as the aforementioned Johnson Johnson), name drops favorite authorial bands, gets backup help (and an upping of the fratboy bro atmosphere) from fellow investigators Jenkins and Shrake, goofs up, gets it right, and so on. Much of this is entertaining, but none of it is new, especially the Virgil-Jenkins-Shrake interactions. The first couple of dozen times they're amusing, the next few they're skippable and after that they're like fire ants that think they're funny: They keep coming and biting even though no one's laughing.

Maybe the best thing for the Flowers series would be a vacation in 2015. It probably won't happen, and I'll probably read whatever comes out with the series name on it. But that's what a library is for.
And then there are the books where you resent every tuppence, farthing, ha'penny or copper shaving that's in any way transferred from your possession on account of you choosing to read it. Welcome to Andrew Vachss' 2014 Urban Renewal, the second in the series about Cross and his crew of mercenary Chicago criminals.

Cross and his crew are investing in real estate, buying some available property with an eye towards making some semi-legal money off of it. So they'll have to run off some gangs that occupy the nearby area. And they do some other crimes, and we flash back to how the crew began, when Cross met Ace in a juvenile prison and then included the immense Rhino. And we have a drag race, and some fights, and just about every hard-boiled cliché and stereotype Vachss can cram between two covers before his publisher said, "All my editors will quit if you don't stop now."

Seriously, Vachss wastes pages showing us how an old-school pimp dying of tuberculosis teaches his nephew how to make actual money in the real criminal world of pimping, piling lecture on lecture from the older man before killing the younger pimp, and not even "onscreen" in the book, in order to protect a hooker that a dancer at their strip club has brought in to escape his abusive behavior. Then Cross and crew murder the pimp's other hooker because she has enough money that she might hire a private detective once she decides he's missing, and wind up murdering both the hooker they'd tried to rescue and the dancer who brought her in because someone said the rescued hooker worked for the FBI. And after mocking the dancer for being stupid enough to believe them when they said they would let her go. Tons of fine crime stories have criminals as antiheroes that we wind up rooting for because the writer built the story around interesting people who happen to be tough-guy crooks. Vachss has built the Cross stories around people who are less tough guys than they are bullies with a mean streak. You might complain that I have spoiled some of the book, but that would be incorrect. It was spoiled as soon as the ink hit the page.

Vachss, who has never been one to underestimate his own prophetic voice, would probably counter that the world of the Cross books is so bleak because it represents the lives of too many people used by a predatory part of society and cast off by the indifference of the rest. Perhaps. But telling me what made the people I'm reading about become such mean-spirited bullies doesn't tell me why the story they're in wanders all over the place while managing to go nowhere doing it.

Vachss knows how to write, and he knows how to construct a storyline with characters you'd rather see make it to the end of the book instead of die early so you could get rid of what they came in and wash your hands repeatedly. He did so several times in his Burke series, and he wove his philosophical points into the story in ways that showed what he wanted to say instead of telling it. So there is simply no reason for half-assed re-hash like this to go out with his name on it. And no reason for anyone to either spend money acquiring it or time reading it.

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