Sunday, April 16, 2017

Coupla Reads

Donald Westlake's taciturn thief Parker meets Tom Lindahl one afternoon when the latter is out for a walk in the woods. Of course, Parker's in those woods because he's on the run from a police net that's hunting him and two other men who've just pulled off a robbery and he's more or less completely cornered when the rifle-toting Lindahl sees him climbing a hill.

Lindahl offers Parker a way out of the net and a place to hide for awhile -- but he has an agenda of his own. His racetrack employer did him wrong and he yearns to hit them back where it hurts by stealing their money. He didn't quite know how to go about doing that but now that an experienced thief has shown up he knows who to ask. For his part, Parker needs money that can't be traced to him or his recent job and even though there are a hundred complications and an amateur's clumsy fingerprints all over this one, he hasn't got many choices.

The 2006 Ask the Parrot is part of the "comeback Parker" set of novels Westlake wrote between 1997 and his death in 2008. This second group is sometimes faulted for having less of the bare-bones simplicity of the first set of Parker stories from 1962 to 1974, and while Parrot has a lot of virtues it shares some of that lack of focus. Westlake's pseudonymn "Richard Stark" matched the Parker stories well, in that they lacked the kinds of frills and whistles common to some other tough-guy tales set on either side of the law. A reader learned about Parker or others in the stories the same way they learned about each other -- by watching the action.

We see Lindahl's bitterness painted that way, alongside Parker's usual cool competency, but there are complicating characters and backstories that dissipate and slow down the linear progress of the main narrative. We do what we always do with Parker, which is get from point A to point B in a solid, entertaining fashion that wavers neither left nor right, but we spend a couple of beats too long glancing to the side while we're doing so.
While some authors will stay with a series characters for far too many novels until they become little more than exercises in pressing the "Ctrl + V" keys, mystery writer Reed Farrell Coleman has taken the more challenging course of exploring different characters rather than just cashing checks by going through the motions with proven commodities. Best-known for his Shamus award-winning Moe Prager series, Coleman branched out in 2016 to introduced Gus Murphy, an ex-Long Island police detective whose life was broken by the tragic death of his son.

We meet Murphy in his second outing having achieved some fragile measure of peace with a new girlfriend and a friendship with his co-worker Slava. That'll be broken when Slava's mysterious past crops up at their backwater Long Island airport hotel and Murphy's old friend introduces him to a man who wants answers in the death of his adopted granddaughter. Neither case is as simple as it seems, both reveal unexpected deadly inner layers and their intersection in the person of Gus Murphy is pretty much nothing less than a target on Murphy's back in the 2017 What You Break.

One of the problems of the first Murphy novel was the unrelieved bleakness of his outlook and situation. No one who's never lost a child can know the hurt of those who have so it's tough to find resonance with someone who has. Coleman keeps the fact front and center in Murphy's life -- which is probably where it is for people affected by that kind of loss -- but it creates a barrier to connecting with him that never goes away. That story, Where It Hurts, offered some steps forward for Murphy but What You Break walks them all back. Into this unrelieved gloom Coleman tosses two separate characters with backgrounds of hideous atrocity and an assortment of "twists" to his main storylines that really aren't too surprising. Gus's depression and heartbreak may be natural, but all of the rest is Coleman's own choice to wallow in gray misery.

Where It Hurts offered readers a reason to say, "Well, we'll see" about an established author's new series, a new voice and a new cast of characters. What You Break says, "Well, we saw. And nope."

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