Andrew Vachss, Reads at Borders, Fri 7 pm, 708 SW 3rd, free
(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Most people read fiction with the hope they'll discover something about themselves in it. Most people read pulp/crime fiction for the opposite reason: total detachment. That takes a bit of pressure off the author. Some authors take this sense of relief as an excuse to write a shitty story. Some pulp authors, like Andrew Vachss, don't.
In Vachss' The Getaway Man, Eddie is a getaway man. That's all he's wanted to be his whole life. Unlike so much modern fiction where it's totally unclear what the protagonist is after, it's obvious what Eddie wants. And we know when he begins to stray from that goal there will be consequences. Though Vachss' character doesn't have a whole lot of depth, he is an interesting construction. Eddie exists somewhere in between stupidity and common sense, passion and obsession, innocence and guilt. He is a car thief, and an accessory to several armed robberies and murders. And yet, he never seems in the wrong. His passion simply involves criminal activity; the usual gains made from crime are of little interest to him.
Getaway Man ends with the genre's requisite twist, which doesn't seem obvious or painfully constructed. It's a quick read that doesn't ask too much of the reader. Only that you enjoy the ride. M. WILLIAM HELFRICH
The Ticket Out
Like any smart first-time novelist, former film critic (and wife of thrill-master James Ellroy) Helen Knode has stuck with what she knows best. Her pulp debut is a crime thriller about a female film critic named Ann Whitehead. Cynical and bored of film reviews, Whitehead jumps at the opportunity to turn investigative reporter when she finds a young woman dead in her bathtub after a party. She begins to explore the woman's background, and, predictably, gets tangled up in a web of intrigue. Soon, Ann is fighting for her own life, not to mention getting it on with the local homicide detective.
The journalist-in-over-her-head premise is cliche, but fun, and Knode could have done a lot with Whitehead's transformation from a film critic to a hardcore reporter. Obviously, there is a slight transition to be made between the two positions. But instead, Knode blesses Whitehead with natural dirt-digging instincts, and also makes her as tough as any Raymond Chandler character to boot. Ann punches hitmen out, fires guns, and gets the holy shit beaten out of her without blinking an eye. It sounds fun, but with such qualities already in place, there's no character development to go along with it, and so Whitehead becomes a blob of thriller protagonist cliches in a female form. The idea of a female film critic-turned-investigator is a good one, but surely something more could have been dragged from it than this. JUSTIN SANDERS
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
John Coglin is a clean-as-a-whistle cop with some seriously misguided views. After accidentally killing a black teen in self-defense, he's looking at a charge of murder and a lengthy prison term. He reacts with bewilderment, and the passing of blame--to ANYONE but himself. He blames the media, the black community, and Rodney King, but never the sullied institution of policing itself.
This kind of attitude makes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead a tough read for the first few chapters. But happily, instead of Coglin fighting to save his sullied reputation, author Michael Ledwidge presents a surreal, gritty noir where our "hero" simply gives up and surrenders to a life of crime.
Coglin's uncle talks his nephew into skipping out of court to join his gang on a smash 'n' grab jewel heist. Everything goes according to plan... until everything goes horribly wrong. While pulling the job, the gang runs into the last person one would expect, and a tragedy ensues which sends the cops, the Feds, and most of New York City in a crazy, bloody chase after our flawed protagonists.
Though Before the Devil gets off to a slow, shaky start, Ledwidge develops a nice page-turning pace, successfully keeping the reader off balance with a number of Jim Thompson-esque twists of the surreal, while still maintaining a sense of believability. He somehow even manages to bring Coglin's original problems to a satisfactory conclusion, and make him likable--not an easy job, considering he started out as some kind of jerk. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY