Archive for category Urban Fiction

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

thegivendayIf you haven’t read a novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s likely you’ve seen a movie adapted from one of his books: The literary gems Mystic River and Shutter Island are two of the most noteworthy. Lehane also wrote episodes for a pair of acclaimed HBO crime dramas, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. (In Season 3 of The Wire, the show paid homage to Lehane by having Mayor Carcetti’s wife read a paperback copy of Shutter Island during Episode 10.)

While Boardwalk Empire wasn’t based on The Given Day, which was published two years before the series first aired on HBO, they both take place around the time of Prohibition and feature plot and character similarities, as well as fictional characters mixed with historical figures.

Published in 2008, The Given Day is set during 1918 and the main character is Danny Coughlin, a member of the Boston Police Department. Baseball plays a key role in the book after Babe Ruth, then with the Boston Red Sox, has a chance encounter with the other main character, Luther Laurence, the star of a local Ohio Negro League team.

Lehane does an excellent job examining Danny’s difficult relationship with his family — both parents are Irish immigrants and his father is a veteran police captain. He looks deeply into Danny and Luther’s friendship, as well as the daily challenges faced by Laurence. And Lehane meticulously chronicles Coughlin’s role as a beat patrolman and budding union organizer during a period that includes a police station bombing, a flu epidemic and rising ethnic, racial and political tensions.

But my favorite scenes are the ones involving Ruth. Lehane does an incredible job going inside the jumbled mind of the 23-year-old unworldly truant/budding superstar known as Babe, which he prefers or Gidge, which he hates. In several scenes, Ruth unwittingly becomes involved in the course of history, but he would rather play baseball, drink and chase women — and not necessarily in that order. (Similar to Boardwalk Empire, The Given Day foreshadows the Black Sox Scandal that involved the Chicago White Sox throwing/intentionally losing the 1919 World Series.)

In the fabulous prologue, The Babe is on a train carrying both the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox back to Boston for Games 4-7 of the 1918 World Series. The train breaks down during a stop in Columbus, Ohio and while killing time, Ruth stumbles upon a baseball game between local teams who happen to be black. A year before the birth of Jackie Robinson, Ruth — a notoriously bad student — learns a very important life lesson.

When it comes to historical fiction, Lehane takes a Ruthian swing with The Given Day. And he connects.

Ken Bruen 12: Vixen

There’s nothing like a good dose of Ken Bruen every now and then — especially if that dose includes a big helping of Brant. In Vixen, we follow Brant and his police cronies as they investigate a series of bombings perpetrated by a beautiful Vixen and her two underworld cronies. The investigation goes as one would suspect, but it’s the “police work” outside of the investigation that sets this author — and his character Detective Inspector Brant — apart from the others. When a new muscle-bound pimp starts roughing up the girls, they turn to Brant to take care of him — much to the delight of the London cop and his steel-tip boots. As a token of their thanks, the hookers throw him a party. Brant, of course, brings his boss, Chief Inspector Roberts, who has a bloody good time in Brant’s world, where a badge is simply a shield for a thug. It’s a world that I’ll keep turning to, one where it’s not about the plot but rather the story and the characters who are all characters with a story.

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Ace Atkins 2: Leavin’ Trunk Blues

I read Crossroad Blues, the debut novel by Ace Atkins, several years back and even though I know little about music — and even less about the Blues — I really enjoyed the musical mystery starring ex-New Orleans Saint turned Blues historian Nick Travers. Since then, I’ve discovered that not only did Atkins play football at Auburn, but he also was pictured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated issue commemorating the perfect ’93 season by the Tigers. And, most recently, it was announced that Atkins would continue writing the legendary Spenser novels following the death of prolific author Robert Parker. After reading Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Atkins’ second novel, both of those accolades come as no surprise. The story begins in New Orleans before moving to Chicago — both cities, of course, are Blues meccas — as Travers looks into a murder from the 1960s that has kept a famous female singer in prison for the past 40 years. As Travers tracks down several musicians from that time period — now in their 60s — he runs into a pair of female assassins working for mysterious mob leader and enforcer Stagger Lee. Atkins’ portrayal of Lee, a former pro wrestler from Memphis — another Blues city — reminds me of street fighter turned mixed martial arts fighter Kimbo Slice. (In an interesting coincidence, legendary pro wrestler, The Junkyard Dog, wore a mask and was known as Stagger Lee during a period in the 1980s. This character was widely known in the South during a time when both Atkins and his character Travers would have been teenagers living in that region.) In Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Atkins delivers with a combination of mystery and music history — along with a dash of romance — that will leave you Wantin’ more.

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Robert Parker 11: The Widening Gyre

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.

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Richard Price 4: The Breaks

In the fourth novel by Richard Price, The Breaks, we meet Peter Keller, a recent college graduate who tries to figure out what to do with his life after not being accepted into law school. He moves back to New York City and lives at home while working various jobs, before returning to his college town, which has changed in the couple of years since he left. At first, this book reminded me of the early George Pelecanos series featuring Nick Stefanos, who was also a young adult trying to figure out what he was going to do in life. And while some of the urban New York City scenes featuring drugs and alcohol were Pelecanos-esque, to me the book hit the breaks in the middle when Keller entered a relationship with the ex-wife of a colleague and pal. After reading previous Price novels featuring gritty urban action, I expected more of the same. But Price, like Keller, seems to searching for his identity as he matures. The Breaks is similar to this review: Decent, but could have been better.


Ken Bruen 11: The Magdalen Martyrs

Having been to Ireland and driven through Galway, I take particular interest in Ken Bruen’s novels featuring Jack Taylor, a Galway private investigator in a town that doesn’t really have any gumshoes. What the town does have is a seedy underbelly, one which Taylor knows very well. In The Magdalen Martyrs, Taylor is “hired” by crime boss Bill Cassell to find an old Magdalen woman. He’s also hired by the son of a dead man who thinks his stepmother killed his father. Taylor responds by sleeping with her. Finally, Taylor cleans up his act and learns the truth about both the old women he was hired to find and the younger women he has befriended. Let’s just say that the ending is typical Bruen. If you haven’t read him before, you likely won’t see this one coming. If you’ve read the 10 previous books by Bruen, you’ll just shake your head as you close the book. In The Magdalen Martyrs, the master urban storyteller has done it again and it’s a joy to read.

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Ken Bruen 10: Blitz

Bad-ass old school British cop Brant is back in Ken Bruen’s ninth novel, Blitz, and this time he’s chasing a cop killer. A cop killer who, not surprisingly, was roughed up by Brant several years earlier. The premise of this book is simple: As the cop killings continue, Brant and his mates track down the suspect and some heads — both good and bad — get cracked in the process. Let’s face it, if you are looking for an elaborate police procedural, this is not it. In fact, if it was any author other than Bruen, I’d rip him for the lack of detective work and the crazy coincidences that lead to leads. But since we are talking Bruen, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the rugged characters and the wonderful urban dialogue as the story unfolds. There’s not much more to say, other than if you haven’t read one of Bruen’s books featuring Brant, you’re in for an interesting treat, one akin to the Club Milk biscuit he is so fond of.

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Ken Bruen 8: London Boulevard

In Ken Bruen‘s eighth installment, London Boulevard, we are once again introduced to a main character who is an ex-con. Since Bruen specializes in urban fiction set in the British and Irish underworld, it would almost seem wrong if we weren’t following the exploits of a convict. This time it is Mitchell, who spent three years in the clink for an assault that he doesn’t remember. We pick up the story as his jail term ends and he immediately is recruited back into the criminal life. Mitchell doesn’t seem to mind the illegal stuff, it’s just that he doesn’t want to be forced into committing crimes. His troubles begin when he makes a stand against a crime boss and instead takes a job doing handyman work for a famous actress. Her butler has a past as equally as questionable as Mitchell and they wind up involved in some rough stuff. Mitchell also breaks some laws with his former gang and does some solo vigilante work, including seeking revenge against a young soccer star who is known for wearing a Beckham jersey. Like all Bruen books, Mitchell lives in a world where it’s an eye for eye and there aren’t any happy endings — at least not in the storyline. And like his American urban crime-writing counterpart George Pelecanos, the ending always seems to build violently. You know it’s coming, but you can’t help but enjoy the carnage you witness as the story comes to a powder keg of a ending.

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Richard Price 3: Ladies’ Man

Richard Price returns again with another gritty portrayal of New York City in the 1970s. In Ladies’ Man, the main character is Kenny Becker, a door-to-door salesman with a golden tongue and a gift for relationship problems. We follow a week in Kenny’s life as he tries to repair one relationship while looking for others in various different Big Apple nightlife scenarios. Kenny visits singles bars, peep shows, massage parlors and even ventures down to Christopher Street — home of the seedy alternative lifestyle bars — but the most memorable locale may be Fantasia, which was the scene of a talent contest and reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about famous Studio 54 nightclub. While in line for Fantasia, Kenny meets a cat named Jackie di Paris, who is described as: “A big solid blond dude….He’s built like a fullback and wore a black vinyl, lightweight, wet-look jacket over a floral body shirt open to the sternum. He had enough chest hair for a national park and six strands of gold chains were crisscrossing under his collarbone….His dark brown chest fur clashed with his metallic blond hairdo.” While 70s retro may be cool in today’s movies, there’s just no topping Price’s narrative on the 70s people and places that he wrote in the 70s. Like Price’s first two books, Ladies’ Man is an eye opener when it comes to the seedy side of the city, and once again, the main character comes to the realization that he needs to grow up and escape the temptation of the Big Apple.


Richard Price 2: Bloodbrothers

Similar to The Wanderers, Richard Price‘s first novel that was later made into a movie, Bloodbrothers is another intense and somewhat graphic look at a New York City teenager from a working-class family, this time set in the mid-1970s. As you can tell from his name, Stony De Coco is a rugged 18-year-old, torn between following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrician or following his heart and working with kids in a hospital. Why the soft spot for children? Well, it turns out Stony’s eight-year-old brother, Albert, is anorexic due to physical and emotional abuse from his mother. Stony’s job is to protect Albert and helping children comes to natural to him. Stony is also a natural when it comes to adapting to the adult lifestyle, as he already smokes and drinks, often with his father and uncle Chubby, who is also an electrician. Scenes involving the trio often show the seedy side of the Big Apple. Times Square porn shops, hookers and muggers in Spanish Harlem are all on display, as well as typical old-school things everyone remembers from the ’70s such as large Afros, platform shoes, kung fu and even a discussion of who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Shaft. Another interesting aspect of the book is the portrayal of the construction site. If you’ve seen the Soprano’s, this is a very similar construction site, minus the mob. A lot of money is being made and very little work is being done. Thanks to his old man, Stony gets into the union but if he gives up his apprentice job, he may not get another chance. Similar to his first novel, the language used by Price’s characters can be course, obscene and often racist. There is also a hearty dose of sex in the book and none of the characters seem to have much in the way of morals, which makes this another gritty, urban novel that is enjoyable but also eye-opening at times.


George Pelecanos 16: The Way Home

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.


George Pelecanos 15: The Turnaround

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.


Richard Price 1: The Wanderers

I’m a huge fan of the HBO series, The Wire, and a writer friend recently loaned me a couple of books by Richard Price, one of the show’s magnificent writers. Since George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane are two of my favorite novelists, and since those two also wrote episodes of The Wire, it seems to reason that I will also like the works of Price. So far, things are looking promising. Several years ago, I saw the movie The Wanderers and thought it was decent. As is usually the case, the book turned out to be better than the movie. Was it a masterpiece? Many will say yes, although I don’t normally read “urban” fiction and my bias toward mystery and espionage leads me to label the book as pretty good, especially for a first novel. Similar to Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.) and Lehane (Boston), Price writes about a city he grew up in and knows intimately, in this case the Bronx borough of New York City. Set in 1963, the book follows the everyday lives of several members of The Wanderers, a teenage street gang. Disturbing at times, the book’s raw sex, extreme violence and often racist dialogue can be eye-opening and not surprisingly, the movie was toned down a bit. (Speaking of movies, for some reason I kept thinking of A Bronx Tale, set in the same time period.) Naturally, the book features gangs fighting each other. But the toughest battle for The Wanderers — and all of their rivals — seems to be gang cohesion as members mature and ultimately leave the group. As Price becomes a more seasoned writer, I can’t wait to read some of his later books, including Clockers, which was made into a movie by Spike Lee.


Ken Bruen 3: Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice

Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice, the third novel by Ken Bruen, is more of the same from Bruen: A rugged, main character straight out of the seedy London underworld. On this go-around, we meet Cooper, an ex-con who did his time for grievous bodily harm. Cooper and one of his former cellmates called Doc — due to his penchant for Doc Marten boots — put their criminal skills to use as both repo men and bank robbers. The first is on the up-and-up and makes good money, but the two keep getting drawn to the second and its adrenaline rush and enormous cash windfall. Things are going well for the bandits until Cooper meets a crazy American woman named Cassie. With Cassie in the picture, Cooper and Doc start to have personal and professional issues. Similar to the main character in the previous books, Cooper is long on brawn and short on brains, although Cooper’s choice of a Subaru Impreza as his everyday vehicle is a smart move according to this WRX owner. And similar to the other two books, we see Cooper on the run and attempting to hide in a London full of nooks and cranny’s. All-in-all, another gritty and enjoyable urban novel by Bruen, who seemingly atones for a mistake he made in The Hackman Blues — he mentions The Untouchables again, and this time he correctly says Kevin Costner played Elliott Ness.

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Ken Bruen 2: The Hackman Blues

As you may know by now, I love reading Ken Bruen. When it comes to urban fiction set in the United Kingdom, there is no one better — at least that I’ve found. And The Hackman Blues is another spectacular, gritty story. Unfortunately, there are a couple of slight issues. In Bruen’s previous book, Rilke on Black, the main character was a thug who got involved in a kidnapping plot. One book later, we’ve got the same exact plot. But what saves things this time are the twists — Tony Brady is not only a thug, but he’s one who battles manic depression. And Brady has an even larger flaw when it comes to the underworld — he lives an alternate lifestyle. But what really struck me were a couple of factual mistakes that an American proof reader would have caught but a British one didn’t, obviously. Bruen talks about the Chicago mayor who was arrested for drugs and then re-elected. He meant D.C. mayor Marion Barry. Bruen also talks about Kevin Kline’s role in The Untouchables. He meant Kevin Costner. Errors aside, it was still a damn good book. Brady is a sleazeball playing relationship Russian roulette, but neither he nor Bruen apologize for it, although there are consequences. And again we are shown the seedy underbelly of London and learn terms such as rent boy, which is British slang for a male prostitute. British gangsters and thugs again come to life and if you enjoy authentic urban fiction, The Hackman Blues is worth checking out.

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Ken Bruen 1: Rilke on Black

On the cover of Rilke on Black, American author George Pelecanos lauds the work of British author Ken Bruen. I have to say it’s fitting since Pelecanos is my favorite American author and Bruen is my favorite British author. The reason, of course, is quite simple. When it comes to gritty, noir fiction filled with wonderful dialogue, excellent characters and a realistic dose of drugs, sex and violence, these two are the best in the business right now. Rilke on Black is Bruen’s third novel, but since the first two are out of print, for my purposes, we will call this Book No. 1. The story is told in first person by Nick, a massive bouncer short on smarts who lists “Thuggery” as his occupation. We are introduced to Dex, a psychopathic neighbor who gets saved from a beating by Nick, and Lisa, a saucy black woman who Nick picked up in a bar. This odd trio decides to commit a crime and, as one would suspect, things start to unravel in the aftermath. The book is damn entertaining once you get accustomed to Bruen’s unique writing style and the Queen’s English, and my only complaint is that the book is a bit short. (Lisa gets Nick hooked on drugs and he goes into a slide, but things move so quickly it fails to make an impression.) Brevity aside, as Pelecanos says — and I second — if you like realistic crime novels, Bruen is the one to read.

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