I grew up watching Spenser: For Hire on TV and it wasn’t until many years later that I started reading Robert Parker‘s Spenser novels. I have no idea why I waited so long since I have a soft spot in my heart for novels featuring rugged detectives. The Widening Gyre, Parker’s 11th novel and 10th featuring Spenser, finds the rough-and-tumble Boston gumshoe investigating the blackmail of one of his state’s candidates for U.S. Senate. Similar to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, which I also watched as a kid and read years later, Spenser uses his considerable brawn and fists as he works his way through the case, which predictably takes him from Beantown to the Nation’s Capital. (My small criticism of the book is that Parker messes up a couple of D.C. street names and has Spenser correctly driving the wrong way down a one-way street.) In addition to some fisticuffs, the book includes small doses of sex and drugs to go with a hefty helping of food and drink. We also catch a glimpse of Spenser’s friend and enigmatic partner, Hawk, a bad-ass character reminiscent of John Shaft. In typical Parker fashion, the book is short and the read is quick and entertaining. Sadly, Parker passed away last year, but another one of my favorite authors, Ace Atkins, will carry on the tradition of the Spenser series.
Posts Tagged D.C.
Every now-and-then, I find a book that takes months to read — I struggle through the first part, before finally hunkering down and finishing it. The debut novel by former intelligence officer Joseph Finder, The Moscow Club is one of those books. It’s not a bad book — it’s far from that — it’s just a very heavy book. It has the furious action scenes that are reminiscent of Robert Ludlum and international intrigue that will remind you of Frederick Forsythe. But it also has a slow, methodical and often scholarly feel to it when it comes to the historical and political and Cold War aspects, both Russian and American. As someone who is a huge fan of Cold War novels, it took some time to warm up, but once things were in motion, I really started to enjoy it. Unfortunately, if you have not read John le Carre or Forsythe or Daniel Silva and don’t appreciate the art of the espionage and counter-espionage storyline, this 500-page story may be a little much for you. But then again, if you are curious about the Cold War or world politics near the end of the Cold War or Russia during the time of Gorbachev, this novel would be of great interest to you.
Several months back, I read The Faithful Spy, the Edgar Award winning debut novel by Alex Berenson, and I have to admit, I was torn. Part of me really liked the book, but another part of me — the part that loves espionage master Frederick Forsythe — couldn’t help but thinking of Forsythe’s 1994 novel The Fist of God and Forsythe’s 2006 novel The Afghan while reading Berenson’s 2006 novel The Faithful Spy. In The Fist of God, a British officer in the Special Air Service named Mike Martin — who grew up in Iraq, looks Middle Eastern and speaks Arabic perfectly — is embedded in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. In The Afghan, Martin is sent into Afghanistan to impersonate an Afghani freedom fighter held in captivity in Guantanamo Bay and infiltrate al Queda. After reading those two spectacular books, I was a bit skeptical about an American farm boy from Montana, named John Wells, who is now a devout Muslim and member of al Queda, in The Faithful Spy. While Forsythe may have done the Arab infiltrator bit a little better, Berenson still delivers. Especially in the scenes in the U.S. as Wells must defend his birth country from terrorists with a similar Muslim devotion. And at the same time, Wells must convince his CIA superiors that he is on their side after all that time in the Middle East. Forsythe is still the best, but for a first novel, Berenson is one to watch.
A friend recently gave me a Kindle for my birthday so naturally the first “e-book” I purchased was that of my favorite author, George Pelecanos, and his latest novel, The Way Home. Once again, Pelecanos delivers. And he does so using the same, simple formula he uses in just about about all of his books. We meet the main character and his friends and family. Then we meet the bad guys. Then there is a build-up to an eventual confrontation between the main character and the bad guys. While the premise sounds basic, it always seems to work. My only criticism, and a small one at that, is that as a long-time reader, you may anticipate the direction and eventual outcome of certain things. But the story is good and the dialogue is so crisp that it really doesn’t matter. The Way Home focuses on Chris Flynn, a troubled teen who winds up in a Washington, D.C. juvenile detention facility. As one of the few white inmates, Flynn faces some serious challenges, but he also develops some surprising friendships. We then fast forward several years and check up on Flynn and some of his pals from juvie as they are in their mid-20s and trying to sort out their lives and make a living. In true Pelecanos form, his characters drink, they smoke and several do drugs. In fact, marijuana usage is a staple of this book just as smoking a joint is an everyday urban occurrence rarely depicted in print. But the point is also made that the myriad legal problems faced by Flynn can be directly traced to his recreational pot use as a teenager. (Similar to the consequences of war shown in The Turnaround, Pelecanos also shows the perils of drinking and drunk driving.) Another Pelecanos trademark is his extensive knowledge of people, places and things in D.C. In this case, one of his locales is the U.S. National Arboretum, which I had never heard of. Ben’s Chili Bowl also gets a mention in the book, but in uncharacteristic Pelecanos fashion, Murry’s is mistakenly called Murray’s. Food faux pas aside, The Way Home was a worthy first addition to my Kindle. It wasn’t the best Pelecanos book, but still damn good and a notch above the standard fare out there.
After the unfortunate closing of my favorite Chinese restaurant in the Northern Virginia area, Hunan Lion, I’ve been on a quest to find my next go-to Chinese place. After two recent trips to Chinatown in Washington, D.C., I’ve been satisfied but not blown away. Two weeks ago, I visited Tony Cheng’s Restaurant. The beef with green peppers dish I had was pretty solid. I guess that’s more than I should have expected considering I ordered the dish in the upstairs “Seafood” section of the restaurant. Tonight was another trip to Chinatown and another pretty good meal. This time the location was the New Big Wong (insert your own joke). Instead of one of the glamorous restaurants, this one is located in a basement stoop. Be warned: If you’re looking for ambiance and friendly service, this is not the place. The lights were so bright, I wish I had worn sunglasses. A guy off the street paid a dollar to use the bathroom. And every time a customer left, a squeaky cart was brought out and the table was cleared with as much noise as humanly possible. But when the food came out, I forgot all about the issues with the atmosphere. The Wonton Soup came in a small bowl with only two wontons, but I was pleased with the taste. Not the best I’ve ever had, but it was up there. My girlfriend had the Hot and Sour Soup and she also approved. Next was The Shredded Pork, Szechuan Style and it was prepared just the way I like it. The shredded vegetables were crisp and the dish had a small kick. She had the Beef Chow Foon and I also liked this dish. The beef was tender and the portion was huge. Will I come back here the next time I visit Chinatown? Maybe, maybe not. Although if I do return, I’ll know exactly what to expect. New Big Wong rating: Slight thumbs up
Back in the late 1990’s, I read a Washington City Paper cover story about this cool local author named George Pelecanos, who wrote noir fiction that took place in the District. I searched and searched, but I just couldn’t find any Pelecanos novels in area bookstores. Finally, I went the mail order route, and purchased the Nick Stefanos trilogy: A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go, which had been published in Great Britain of all places. I’ve been hooked on Pelecanos ever since. In the genre of “urban fiction,” it just doesn’t get any better. Except when Pelecanos cranks out a new novel, which always seems to be a little better than the last one. The Turnaround is a prime example. Based upon a fictional racial incident in the ’70s, Pelecanos picks up the story some 35 years later in modern D.C. As always, Pelecanos features a cast of characters that are not just good and bad, black and white, but good and bad folks who happen to be white and good and bad folks who happen to be black. But what ultimately sets Pelecanos apart from other authors is his ear for conversation. Sure, Pelacanos nails the speaking parts of his trademark Greek character Alex Pappas. But where Pelecanos takes it to another level is the dialogue of his inner city characters. Brothers James and Raymond Monroe — who were New York Knicks fans back when D.C. didn’t have an NBA team — are brought to life in the book, as are young drug dealers Deon Brown and Cody Kruger, and old school felon Charles Baker. Pelecanos also works two of his passions, cars and music, into the story, which — as always — features various doses of drugs, alcohol and violence. (The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is also a topic, but instead of Pelecanos making a political statement, he simply has a couple of his characters emotionally tied to soldiers, both dead and wounded.) The Turnaround is ultimately about family, friends and second chances. In typical Pelecanos fashion, the book will make you laugh and it will also bring a tear to your eye. And once you finish, you’ll realize that you just read a damn good, feel good novel.