Page Turners

Mr. Mercedes and Stephen King’s Experiment In Noir

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Hey everyone, guess what time it is? Time to venture back into the twisted world of Stephen King! And we have a very interesting example of his work to look at today. Obviously, King is most known as a writer of horror. But that’s not all that he produces. Like anyone, King doesn’t seem to want to be boxed in to just one genre. He famously created an alter ego named Richard Bachman to write stories that leaned more toward dystopia and social commentary. And in more recent years he seems to have realized that he can really do whatever he wants. As long as he pumps out a horror novel every couple year he seems to have carte blanche to do whatever sort of genre experimentation he desires. There’s of course the more fantasy-tinged Dark Tower series as well as the time-travelling thriller 11/22/63. And recently he seems to have gotten a certain interest in noir. A few years ago he wrote an interesting little novel called Joyland about a murder-mystery in an amusement park that I quite enjoyed. So when I learned that King had created a trilogy of novels that leaned even closer to noir than Joyland, I was intrigued. And while the beginning of this trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, may not have delivered exactly what I was looking for, it was still a very interesting and enjoyable story.

Mr. Mercedes tells the story of a man named Bill Hodges. Hodges was a prominent detective for the police department of an unnamed city, but is now retired and searching for meaning in his life. Well, that and obsessing over an unsolved case that case about at the end of his career. On a misty morning a mysterious man wearing a clown mask stole a Mercedes from a local rich woman named Olivia Trelawney and rammed it into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair. The man then abandoned the vehicle with absolutely no clues to his identity, and disappeared. Hodge spent the dregs of his career trying to find the killer, with no luck. Eventually Mrs. Trelawney committed suicide, and Hodges retired, hoping to put it all behind him. Until one day Hodges gets a letter. A letter claiming to be from the Mercedes killer. It’s a vicious letter trying to convince Hodges to kill himself, and gives him a link to an anonymous chat website where he can presumably talk to the Mercedes killer. However, the letter does not have its intended effect. In fact, quite the opposite, because now Hodges has a new purpose in his life. Investigating the letter and finding Mr. Mercedes.

Hodges then begins investigating. He heads around the town, talking with his old partner, getting help from a young man named Jerome who’s good with computers, and checking in on the estate of Mrs. Trelawney. Which is when he meets Trelawney’s sister Janey, who has a bombshell. Trelawney also received a mysterious letter, and was driven to suicide by Mr. Mercedes. So Janey hires Hodges to find the killer and bring him to justice. And who is that killer? Why, we know for most of the story, and also get to meet a sullen and horrible man named Brady Hartsfield. Brady is Mr. Mercedes, and he’s one of those terrible 4Chan scumbags who thinks that he’s the smartest, most misunderstood person in the world, and who is being unfairly treated by the universe. So he’s lashing out at it, trying to prove that he’s better by killing innocent people, and driving Trelawney and Hodges to suicide. Hodges however remains very stubborn to this. He continues tracking down Brady, doing everything he can to stop the killer from enacting a new plan to detonate a homemade bomb during a concert. Hodges finds new purpose, and new loss, and develops a bit of a new family by the end of the novel, deciding to continue helping people.

I’ve probably become a bit of a noir snob over the years, so my standards for them are a tad high. Which may explain why this novel didn’t thoroughly scratch my noir itch, while still being an interesting story. I really enjoyed the mystery that was presented in Joyland, and was interested in seeing King really give a shot at a noir. Which really wasn’t what we got here. It was more of a procedural police novel, just one where the officer wasn’t an active member of the force. We’re still treated to an interesting mystery, and Stephen King is still a great writer, so it’s still a well-crafted story. We just weren’t given that traditional noir, with Hodges going all around the city, meeting people from all sorts of strata of society, and being lost in a miasma of plot. It was a more cut-and-dry story of a detective tracking down a killer. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with that. I was pleasantly surprised with the book, and very glad that it never took a supernatural bent. King is clearly trying to branch out and try new things, and I think that should be applauded. Any weird disappointments I have with the novel most likely stem from me expecting a different type of story. As it stands, Mr. Mercedes is an interesting novel that really shows that despite the genre, King is a hell of a writer.

Mr. Mercedes was written by Stephen King, 2014.

Page Turners

Blood Rites: Succubus Revenge Is Rough

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Well, look what time it is folks. Time to check in on our favorite professional wizard/private eye Harry Dresden! This is the sixth book in the Dresden Files series, and the third one that I’ve discussed here on the site. I’m a huge fan of this series, having fallen in love with it’s weird mashup of urban fantasy and hardboiled noir. And we’ve got another interesting installment to discuss today. While maybe not as enjoyable as the previous entry, Death Masks, our sixth book in the series is still a lot of fun. We get a fun case for Harry to work and also plenty of additions to the overarching plot that the series has been building, including some huge revelations into Harry’s personal life. There was maybe a little too much world-building and not enough stand-alone case for my taste, but it’s still a lot of fun, and another worthy addition to the series.

Blood Rites picks up the narrative chains that the last few books in the Dresden Files series have been making, with Harry and the entire world of wizards at war with the various Courts of vampires. But we do learn quite a bit more about the vampire world in this novel, and get into the three Courts that comprise them. We’ve already seen plenty of the vicious and hate-filled Red Court, but this book we learn far more about the monstrous and Stoker-esque Black Court, and the mostly neutral White Court with their succubus’ and emotion draining vampires. We’ve already met a man named Thomas Raith, who Harry is sort of friends with, and who is a member of the ruling family of the White Court. Thomas opens the book giving Harry some help, offering him a job to help him survive financially while dealing with this vampire threat. And it certainly is a unique job. Thomas introduces Harry to a friend of his, a man named Arturo Genosa, a pornography mogul who is afraid that he’s been cursed. Several women who were close to him have died, and he’s convinced that someone is out to get him, and ruin his attempt at creating a new porn company. And after a bit of poking around Harry realizes that Genosa is indeed being cursed with a powerful spell, piquing his interest and causing him to pose as a production assistant on Arturo’s latest porno, hoping to catch the culprit.

But, in true Dresden Files fashion, this isn’t the only plot going on. We’re also dealing with Harry’s continued war with the vampires, specifically the appearance of a powerful member of the Black Court named Mavra who seems out to get Harry. So, making room in his busy schedule Harry decides to create a team of vampire hunters to try and take down Mavra and her cronies. He picks his friend on the police force Karrin Murphy, the amoral and mystical assassin he dealt with in the previous novel Kincaid, and his mentor and father-figure Ebenezer McCoy. The group begins hunting Mavra while Harry deals with an assault from the White Court in the form of a woman named Lara Raith, Thomas’ sister and the daughter of the leader of the White Court, Lord Raith. Harry also has to deal with the revelation that the reason he’s been getting so much help from Thomas is that they’re half-brothers. Harry’s mother was once held captive by Lord Raith, and bore him a son. So, Harry has a brother, as if that wasn’t enough to juggle. Harry manages to investigate the curse, fight off the Black Court, and deal with the influence that Lord Raith is putting on him and Arturo’s porn empire. And, at the end of the day, things more or less fall into Harry’s favor. He closes the case, saved some lives, temporarily pushes the Black Court out of Chicago, finds new allies, makes some new enemies, and generally just continues living his life.

I liked this novel quite a bit, like I have the entire series, but I will say that this was a weaker entry than the last couple have been. And I think that the main reason for that is that the larger Wizard vs Vampire meta-plot that’s been building the last few books was too prevalent in this book. I first got into the series because I loved the juxtoposition of the fantasy and the noir, and the idea that Harry was just taking cases and dealing with magical crimes was what hooked me. And while I think the idea of Harry trying to help a cursed porno production that’s being targeted by jealous succubi is an interesting one, it’s really sidelined for the vampire stuff. Which I suppose could really pay off in the future, as the books get closer to some sort of closure on the larger war plotline, but I’m not exactly thrilled to see the war taking a bigger and bigger role in the novels, pushing the cases aside. This could be an outlier, since the last few novels have typically been two thirds case and one third war, while this one was more half and half, if not leaning towards the war. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the new normal, and that these books will start fazing out the cases to just have Harry fight vampires over and over, but it did give me some pause. Regardless of that though, this was another fun and weird entry to a series that I like quite a bit, and I still enjoyed myself quite a bit, and can’t wait to see the further adventures of Harry Dresden.

Blood Rites was written by Jim Butcher, 2004.

Page Turners

God Save the Mark and the Incompetent Detective

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I think it’s safe to say that I was…less than pleased with the last novel I talked about on here, Mercury Rises, so I figured that I should probably pick something up to treat myself a bit. So I flipped through my Kindle and found a book that’s been sitting on there for quite a while, and that had come highly recommended to me. Now, I’m not quite sure if Donald Westlake is an overly well-known author, but in certain circles he certain is. Even though his most popular creations weren’t published under his own name. Some authors play around with a pseudonym or two, but Westlake somehow juggled more than a dozen pseudonyms, most writing very different kinds of novels. He had several ongoing series’, including what’s probably his most famous, the exploits of an amoral criminal named Parker. But despite all of the variety in his names and tones, there was one theme that was prevalent in his work. Crime. Thieves, detectives, con-men, and all manner of criminals were the fascination of Westlake, and he’s considered one of the masters of the genre. But despite his stature in the genre I haven’t had much experience with the man’s work. I’ve really only read some of his Parker novels, which are certainly enjoyable, but also very dark and gritty. But he also seems to be interested in doing comedic, almost farcical crime stories, which is something I’m very interested in. So I decided to check out his novel God Save the Mark, and folks, it’s terrific.

The novel tells the story of a man named Fred Fitch, the self-described most gullible man on the planet. Fred lives alone in New York, quietly working as a freelance researcher, and falling for every single conman in the city. It’s gotten to the point that his only real friend is a policeman named Reilly who works on the Bunco squad, catching the various criminals who screw Fred over. And Fred’s whole life gets thrown upside down when something ridiculous happens. He actually inherits a fortune from an uncle he never knew he had. He was obviously a little suspicious about this, but it turns out to be true. Fred inherits a fortune and even gets his uncles amazing apartment. He also seems to inherit his uncle’s girlfriend, a bombastic former stripper named Gertie Divine, who fills Fred in on his uncle Matt’s life. Turns out Uncle Matt was a swindler himself, who may have gotten his money by screwing over some mobster. The very same money that is now in the possession of Fred, the most gullible man on the planet.  Which just makes him and even bigger mark for conmen than before, basically becoming Fred’s absolute worst nightmare.

What follows is Fred’s attempts to avoid being screwed over by basically everyone in his life. He has to avoid neighbors, family members, random people on the street, and really anyone and everyone who is aware of his recent inheritance and who thinks that they have a shot at carving some out for themselves. But then things get even crazier. Because when Fred is walking home one day there’s a sudden attempt on his life by a drive-by. Which is when Fred decides that he needs to start investigating the mysterious death of his uncle to see who may be after him. Because it turns out that while Matt was about to die of cancer, he was murdered, which is rather suspicious. So Fred begins going around town, meeting with all sorts of ridiculous people, trying to piece together the cause of Matt’s death in the hope that he can figure out who is trying to kill him. He deals with a vaudeville pair of murder detectives, Reilly’s earnest and idealistic girlfriend, Matt’s partner Professor Kilroy who may or may not be real, Matt’s doorman at the fancy apartment, and a diminutive man who may be Gertie’s pimp. Throw in a kidnapping, a couple more assassination attempts, a car-chase, and a high-speed bike ride through a crowded park while being chased by vindictive children, and Fred finally figures out just what the hell is happening in his life, which has become far more eventful and confusing than he ever intended.

This novel is a whole lot of fun. I love crime stories, and I specifically have a serious affection for silly crime stories. This novel honestly reminded me of the work of the Coen Brothers more than anything else, that perfect blend of terrible crimes and slapstick humor works wonders on me, and this book was full of that. I had heard that the novel was primarily about conmen, which didn’t necessarily turn out to be true, but I was in no way disappointed. Because while I would have loved to have seen the book be primarily about Fred dealing with more and more conmen trying to scam him out of his inheritance, I was more than pleased to see this book slowly transform into one of my favorite types of stories. The incompetent detective. I’ve been a fan of detective stories for quite some time, and I certainly love the classic hardboiled detective tropes where the protagonist is the most competent person on the planet who is able to tie together a jumble of disparate plot threads and make it seem logical. But when you read enough stories about people being good at their jobs, it becomes a lot of fun to see someone be bad at it. That’s one of the fundamental reasons that The Big Lebowski remains one of my all-time favorite movies. Seeing a person being tossed into an elaborate noir plot without the capabilities to understand it is a delightfully goofy premise, and one that works fantastically. And seeing Fred Fitch do his best, and largely fail, to understand what the hell is going on with his Uncle Matt and who exactly is trying to kill him, was a lot of fun.

God Save the Mark was written by Donald Westlake, 1967.

Page Turners

Mercury Falls Desperetely Wants to Be Christopher Moore

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Satire has always been one of my favorite genres of novel. When done correctly it can be he most enjoyable type of story out there, taking a premise or a genre and simultaneously telling a story in that genre while also lovingly poking fun at it. Honestly I feel like telling a satiric story can be harder than doing a traditional story, because you have to both tell a believable story and make it humorous. And luckily there doesn’t seem to be any chance that I’ll run out of fun satire stories, because people sure love writing them. So I’m always on the lookout for some fun new satire books to check out, and a while back I began noticing a series of books popping up on Amazon, being recommended to me. The Mercury series created five novels and a novella, all of which follow the exploits of a sarcastic angel named Mercury, and his adventures on Earth. And while Christianity has never been a particularly engaging topic for me, the idea or a satire about the Apocalypse seemed to have enough potential to save that. And, well, I’ll get to that later.

The novel follows two central protagonists, the previously mentioned Mercury, and angel who is living on Earth and keeping tabs on the impending Apocalypse, and Christine Temetri, a journalist who typically covers Doomsday cults for a religious newspaper. But after yet another disappointing cult failing to predict the end of the world, Christine decides to do something different and goes to interview an Israeli general who is knee-deep in a new war. However, after meeting with the general there’s an attack, and he’s killed, but not before giving Christine a mysterious metal case that he says belongs to a man named Mercury. Christine had heard of Mercury, who seemed to be a burnt out hippie running a cult in Berkeley, so Christine heads over to meet Mercury. And immediately Mercury reveals that he’s not a cult-leader, he’s an angel whose job is to observe the Apocalypse and prod it along. Christine is then thrown headfirst into the complicated and bureaucratic world of angels and demons. Apparently Heaven is an incomprehensibly layered organization of committees, laws, and treaties, and it’s about time for the agreed upon Apocalypse to begin.

Christine is obviously not thrilled with the knowledge that her entire reality is about to end, and begins working with Mercury to perhaps stop this destruction of the world. And along the way we meet the apathetic Antichrist Karl who won a contest and several other angels who are constantly stabbing each other in the backs, trying to gain the upper hand. They eventually find out that Lucifer is attempting to ruin the terms of the Apocalypse contract by assassinating the Antichrist so that things can’t progress the way they’re supposed to and Lucifer can destroy the Earth as revenge. So Christine and Mercury run around Earth, Heaven, Hell, and everywhere in between, running into the editor of Christine’s newspaper/prophet, the author of a series of novels that are clear parodies of Harry Potter, and a whole gaggle of incompetent angels, trying to find some way to keep the world safe from the Apocalypse. And after a lot of work, several double-crosses, and a couple coincidences, they manage to avert Lucifer’s plan and convince the powers that be to hold off on the Apocalypse for a while.

So, I did not care for this novel. Which kind of puts me in an odd place. I really like to keep positive on this site, and haven’t really ever written up a novel that I didn’t enjoy. I don’t really like to rag on other people’s creative expression. But yikes was this book weak. The central premise of a renegade angel helping a skeptic save the world from a bureaucratic Apocalypse is pretty solid, and really should have led to a more engaging novel  than we got. But things were really bogged down by the fact that this book was written with a ridiculous sense of comedy that fell flat time and time again. One of the better writers of breezy satire working right now is Christopher Moore, who has written some truly great books, including a couple that tackle the ideas of Christianity. And it’s pretty obvious that Robert Kroese was desperate to be Christopher Moore. The only problem is that Christopher Moore has a flair for comedic writing. And Robert Kroese…does not. The jokes were strained, hacky, and ridiculously repetitive. But beyond the fact that this was a lethally unfunny book was the fact that it wasn’t very well-structured. Robert Kroese clearly had a whole lot of ideas, but no real idea on how to get them across. Parts of this novel dragged interminably, with characters just spinning their wheels, and at other times they would breeze right through what little character development there was. Characters would give multiple page-long monologues of exposition, just dumping information at the reader until you glaze over. It’s pretty disappointing, because there are some good ideas in this novel, but it becomes painfully clear that Kroese was told one too many times that he was the funniest guy in his Bible-study group and let that notion distract from actually creating a book that’s enjoyable to read. Clearly people enjoy his work and he seems successful, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

Mercury Falls was written by Robert Kroese, 2009.

Page Turners

Heart-Shaped Box and the Ghosts of Your Past

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Horror has never quite been my genre. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve almost always had an overactive imagination, and feeding that with horror typically lead to a lot of sleepless nights. But there was one outlier to that aversion. Good old Stephen King. My aunt adored Stephen King, and got me hooked on his books pretty early on, and I’ve always had a place in my heart for King’s work. I’ve been following King’s work for quite some time, so I of course became intrigued when it came out that an up-and-coming horror writer named Joe Hill was his son. That’s a little lousy of me, not being interested in someone until I learned they were the son of a famous writer, but that’s what happened. I first read his work from the absolutely terrific comic book series Lock and Key, which really convinced me that Hill had some serious chops, and a very unique perspective on horror stories. But it isn’t just comics that Joe Hill has an interest in, because he’s also produced a handful of very well-regarded and beloved horror novels that I’d had recommended to me several times. I think by now I have all of Hill’s novels sitting on my Kindle, and I decided that it was finally time to dip my toes into his prose, and I checked out my first of Hill’s novels, and coincidentally his first, Heart-Shaped Box.

This novel tells the story of an aging rock-star called Judas Coyne and his live-in girlfriend Marybeth. The two live out on a farm in upstate New York with Jude’s assistant Danny, where Jude putters around, recording music and collecting a menagerie of macabre artifacts. He has snuff films, a witch’s confession, and used nooses. So when Danny gets a message of a person selling a suit on the internet that in theory contains the ghost of her step-father, Jude has to snatch it up. The suit then arrives, folded into a heart-shaped box, and Jude is eager to add it to his collection and forget about it. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem possible, since that very night Jude is visited by the ghost of an old man, wearing the black suit and using a pendulum that ends with a razor, whose eyes are a blacked out mess. The ghost then begins following Jude around, harassing him and terrifying him. And this scares Jude more than he thought possible, causing him to panic and demand that Danny gets him in contact with the seller of the suit. Which is where things get complicated. Because it turns out the seller of the suit was the sister of a former girlfriend of Jude’s named Anna. When Jude broke up with Anna she went back home to her family, and ended up committing suicide. It appears that Anna’s sister and step-father have blamed Jude, and sicced the step-father (Craddock)’s ghost on Jude.

With this knowledge Jude begins trying to find a way to rid himself of the ghost, which becomes more pressing when Craddock begins stepping up his menace. He drives Danny insane, and begins trying to convince Jude to kill Marybeth and them himself. This causes Jude and Marybeth to flee the farm, along with Jude’s dogs Bon and Angus who seem to be able to hurt Craddock, and they start driving to Florida, where Anna’s sister lives. Jude, Anna, and the dogs then flee south, trying to stay one step ahead of Craddock and his ghostly truck. They stop off in Georgia to meet with Marybeth’s grandmother and attempt to contact Anna’s spirit with an Ouija board. This does not end up being very productive, so they keep heading on the road until they get to Anna’s sister’s house. And this is where things start getting twisted. We learn that Anna’s suicide may not exactly have been a suicide, and that Craddock’s vengance is actually a little different. Turns out that Craddock was a pedophile, and had been molesting Anna and her sister for their whole lives. Anna’s sister was fine with it, and became Craddock’s disciple, and they killed Anna when she threatened to expose them. They were worried that Anna had told Jude too much, and that’s why they send the ghost after him. So with this knowledge Jude and Marybeth lead Craddock out into the middle of nowhere Louisiana to the farm Jude grew up on, and defeat the ghost, at risk of much personal harm to themselves.

This was an incredibly effective and creepy novel. When I went into it I wasn’t really expecting it to be that frightening. Honestly, most of Stephen King’s novels are just kind of spooky, and that same part of me that was only interested in Hill when I learned he was King’s son made me think that his writing style would be similar. Plus, I’ve never really thought the idea of ghosts were particularly horrifying. But Joe Hill has proved me wrong. His descriptions of Craddock have really stuck with me, and proved to be utterly terrifying. There’s also the fact that he used Craddock and all of the other spirits present in the novel to represent everything you did wrong in your life helped. Yes, Craddock imposed a real and tangible threat, and his motivations did end up being a little different, but for most of the novel he seemed to be a metaphysical representation of everything Jude did wrong in his life. Which is a very relateable and terrifying idea.  We all have baggage, and things that we wish we could change about our lives. And the last thing you would ever want was a physical reminder of it, following you around. This novel really worked wonders for me, so I look forward to checking out what else Joe Hill has up his sleeve.

Heart-Shaped Box was written by Joe Hill and published by William Morrow, 2007.

Page Turners

The Nix and the Cycle of Parenthood

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First novels can often be a bit of a crap-shoot. Sometimes you get staggering works that were clearly being tinkered with for the author’s whole life, and come off as works of genius, and other times you can tell that things aren’t quite polished yet, but hopefully there’s some sign of talent that could be cultivated in the future. The later is more common, and it’s always a joy to find one of the former. Which I have. I first heard about the Nix when it was being featured on basically every “Best Novels of 2016” list I came across, and I figured that this was something worth checking out. Plus, not to be a cliche, but that cover is very intriguing to me, and certainly helped spur me onto checking this novel out. And I’m very glad I did, because this is a terrific novel, and one that will force me to eagerly await any future projects from Nathan Hill, because if he can sustain this level of craft, he’ll be destined for greatness. Because anyone who can spin this many plates, make it all come together and seem worthwhile, while also creating a fully realized world has some serious talent.

At it’s heart, the Nix is the story of a mother and a son. And it all pivots around one crucial moment in their life, when Faye Andreson-Anderson abandoned her husband and adolescent son Samuel. This exact moment is barely examined in the novel, but it’s what everything before it lead to, and what everything after caused. A large portion of the novel is told in the semi-present of 2011, when Samuel Anderson is an English professor at a small college, trying to distract himself from his failure of a life, when he’s suddenly brought back into his mother’s life. Which happens when Faye is caught on camera attacking an ultra-conservative presidential candidate, and arrested for assault. Her lawyers hope that Samuel will be able to provide some character testimony to show the court that Faye isn’t a monster, and hopefully aid her sentencing. However, Samuel still feels quite a bit of resentment for the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, so he instead starts working against his mother, trying to get enough information about her past to write a tell-all book about her, riding on the coat-tails of her accidental fame.

But when Samuel begins digging into his mother’s life, trying to figure out what exactly it was that spurred her to abandon her family, and trying to make sense of the fact that she was apparently involved in the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, a detail of her life he’d never known and can barely believe. And that starts Samuel down a rabbit hole that eventually gives us plenty of flashbacks to Faye’s younger life. We learn that Faye grew up in rural Iowa, being told that her life had to be just like everyone else’s, and that her thoughts and opinions didn’t matter. So she ran away to Chicago to go to a liberal college, where she got swept up in the counter-culture of the time, and was eventually thrown directly into the protests, getting involved in the riots and police brutality that was spawned by them. This brief taste of freedom terrified Faye, and she ended up going back to Iowa, marrying Samuel’s father, and trying to live the life that was told she was supposed to, until she couldn’t take it anymore, and had to split. Samuel learns the truth about his mother, she learns what kind of man he’s become, and the two have to reconcile what’s going to happen from there. Along the way we also learn about a depressive gamer who is friends with Samuel and spends all of his time playing a World of Warcraft-esque video game, a slacker student that’s trying to destroy Samuel’s career, the lives of a pair of twins that Samuel knew when he was a kid who became his best friend and his greatest love. These stories seem superfluous on the surface, but they end up contributing to the rich tapestry that Hill is crafting, and end up feeling very necessary to the novel.

I really loved this book. Basically from the get-go I was hooked, finding myself drawn in by Hill’s writing style, character choices, and dialogue. It was a fascinating book that jetted around several different time-periods, featured dozens of actualized characters, and a fully lived-in world. Which is no easy feat. It’s kind of stunning that this is Hill’s first novel, because it has a level of craft that’s usually reserved for more prolific novelists. And naturals. Which is what we appear to have in Hill. Which does give me some slight pause, mainly in fear that we may have an Infinite Jest on our hands, a towering achievement that took Hill ten years to write, and which he may never top. Your first novel tends to be something you’ve been working on your whole life, and encompasses basically all of your creativity. Hopefully the well isn’t dry. Especially because this novel feels so deeply personal, to the point that by the end I was second-guessing myself over the fact that this may have been mostly true to life, and basically auto-biographical.

But the thing that really was interesting about this novel to me, and the theme that stuck with me the most, was how it looked at parenthood. I am not a parent yet, but it’s one of those universal themes that come up in art, and something that is pretty hard not to be familiar with. As the novel begins you assume that this is going to just be a book full of mommy-issues, following Samuel as he reconciles with the fact that his mother wasn’t very caring, and who eventually abandoned him. I’m sure the loss of a parent, especially a voluntary one, is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person, and an event that’s rife with dramatic potential. But the novel didn’t end up being a hatchet-job on Faye. Instead, we got a peak into her own life, and saw that her parents weren’t exactly caring and loving either. Faye had a domineering father who was never satisfied with her, and who belittled her at every turn. And it’s almost certain that Faye’s father didn’t have a stellar father either. Because parenthood is a cycle. No one is perfect, and if you have any problems with the way your parents raised you, you can almost certainly find out about their childhood and figure out why it was that way. No one really knows what they’re doing, they carry their own baggage from their childhoods, and they’re just trying to do a better job than their parents did. And that cycle of parenthood, and the effects that your whole familial history can have on your own development, is what took this already terrific book and made it essential reading for me. The Nix is a spectacular novel, and one that I hope everyone will give a chance. And I look forward to what Nathan Hill has up his sleeve next.

The Nix was written by Nathan Hill and published by Random House, 2016.

Page Turners

Thunderstruck Doesn’t Quite Get Out of Its Brother’s Shadow

thunderstruck

I’m not really sure what has spurred on America’s recent fascination with true crime, but it has led to some tremendous work. All of a sudden we’re being inundated with quality documentaries, podcasts, series, and books. And it’s been a blast. I’ve always been a big fan of crime and true crime in particular has been a consistent source of fascination for me. And if you have an interest in true crime and books, it’s inevitable that sooner or later you’re going to come across Erik Larson’s truly wonderful book The Devil in the White City. It’s a monumentally enjoyable book that tells two stories that end up becoming linked. We learn about the men behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the killings of notorious serial killer H H Holmes, who built himself a veritable murder-hotel that operated during the Fair. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend that everyone who is interested in crime check it out. Because, if you’re like me, I think you’ll be shocked at how fascinating the World’s Fair side of things are, and not just the H H Holmes story is. I was shocked to finish that book and find that I was equally fascinated with stories of architecture and Fair planning as I was with a man designing a building specifically so he can efficiently kill and dispose of strangers. It’s a great book and Larson is a skilled writer, so after quite a bit of time dragging my feet I decided to check out another of Larson’s books, specifically the direct follow-up to Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck.

The thing that first strikes you when you read Thunderstruck is probably incredibly similar it is to Devil in the White City, from a structural point of view. Both books examine a lurid crime while simultaneously educating the reader about something else that becomes involved with the crime. In Thunderstruck’s case these two stories collide on board a ship called the Montrose that was traveling across the Atlantic in 1910. Aboard the ship were two people, Dr. Hawley Crippen and Ethel le Neve, both of whom were wanted by Scotland Yard in connection for the disappearance and presumed death of Crippen’s wife Belle Elmore. Crippen was a depressed snake-oil salesman who was in an incredibly unhappy marriage with Belle, a rambunctious and mean woman who treated Crippen horribly. And just when Crippen met a young woman named Ethel and started an affair, Belle happened to vanish. Crippen told the police that she had finally left him and gone to America, like she’d threatened for years, and promised that everything was on the level. He then promptly fled the country with Ethel, having her dress like a boy and concoct a false identity. Which is made even more suspicious when the police find a mutilated human body buried under Crippen’s house. And thus Scotland Yard were on a manhunt for Crippen and le Neve, who seemed to completely vanish.

But the thing that finally caught them, aboard the Montrose, and the thing that made this fairly run of the mill murder story so sensational and well-known, was the work of Guglielmo Marconi. Which brings us to our other story, that of the tinkerer Marconi who ended up, more or less accidentally, creating radio. Marconi wasn’t a trained engineer or scientist, but just seemed like a natural, and he ended up messing around with available technology until he created a form of telegraphy that was able to transmit without wires. We then follow Marconi as he continues to improve his technology, increasing its range and accuracy while also struggling to form a viable business out of this new procedure. We learn all about the obsessive Marconi, and his seemingly never-ending struggle to transmit a message across the Atlantic Ocean. We see him work and work, and mostly fail, but never give up his dream that eventually becomes an all-encompassing obsession. And it just so happens that when the Crippen murder occurs, the only way that they were able to find the doctor and le Neve was when the news of crime was picked up by the Montrose over the Marconi, and the captain recognized them. This then got the police on Crippen’s trail, and they boarded a ship that managed to overtake them and beat them to Quebec, where they were able to arrest Crippen. And in the process they proved that radio was a viable means of communication, and the story became the first sensational tabloid murder that was able to enrapture the whole world, because they were able to keep everyone updated instantly, over the air.

Like I said earlier, this book felt extremely similar to the Devil in the White City. Which certainly makes sense. Both are the stories of a murder mixed in with another story that becomes linked. And after the massive success of Devil in the White City it stood to reason that Larson would take that formula and run with it. However, I will say that while I greatly enjoyed this book, it didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor. Both stories were certainly engaging, and it was well-written like Devil in the White City, but there was just something about it that didn’t work as well for me. Just like the previous book I was shocked to find that I left the book being more engaged by Marconi’s struggle than the story of Dr. Crippen, but in this case I find it a little less shocking. The story of H H Holmes is an absurd one that would seem unrealistic if it was in a movie, and yet it’s fully true. And yet I read that book and was enthralled with the quest to make a World’s Fair. This time I found both stories less compelling. Marconi’s quest to create a legitimize a new form of communication isn’t really the type of story that I would actively seek out on its own, but it still managed to be the most interesting part of the book, since the story of Dr. Hawley Crippen was so very run-of-the-mill. Which seems like an absurd thing to say, but it basically just boiled down to a crime of passion. Thousands of murders like this happen in a year, and there wasn’t anything particularly novel about it, except for how they were caught. The use of Marconi’s technology and the world-wide media circus that it instilled are really what make this story, and it only comes up in the last section of the book. It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare this book so heavily against it’s predecessor, but when the two books are so similar, it’s hard not to. This is by no means a bad book, both stories were engaging and interesting, but if you have a choice between them, pick up Devil in the White City. 

Thunderstruck was written by Erik Larson, 2006.