Black Sunday – 3/5
This is the first novel by Thomas Harris, of Hannibal Lecter fame, and it’s a weird one. The logline, especially if you’ve seen the movie, is that a madman is trying to blow up the Super Bowl with a blimp. And that’s kind of right. Instead of it being a madman, we’re in the middle 1970s and novels about terror groups is all the rage. I am thinking specifically of books like Day of the Jackyl, which while mostly about an assassin, is also very much about a rightwing terror group hiring that assassin. We also get books like the Martin Beck mystery series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, which definitively tapped into the political consciousness of the time period for the crimes. Even Network, the 1976 film that came out near when this book did involved a separatist terror group (leftwing, ostensibly, this time). Anyway, a disaffected Vietnam vet whose life has been entirely defined by his anger issues, his wartime events, and especially a love for airships has been removed from command (his whole unit was disbanded) and this leads him to reaching out to a Palestinian terror group that this novel connects to the 1972 Olympic Park murders in Munich asking them for their help securing more than half a ton of plastic explosives (it’s called plastic over and over again). They have been working in the US through a sleeper cell and they have the perfect femme fatale to meet with the man, check his bona fides and go from there. The plan will be to strap 1200 pounds of C4 to the blimp that will be flying over the Super Bowl in New Orleans (played at Tulane stadium as the Superdome is not yet complete), and fill the blimp with fleshettes (damage-seeking shrapnel) and turn the blimp into the biggest claymore mine in history as a symbolic act of terror for the vet (I read this on Veteran’s Day by coincidence) and kill as many of the tens of thousands of people in attendance as possible. Including the president! (Sorry Gerry.)
The plan is being hunted down first and foremost by a Mosad agent who is trying to work in the US against all kids of redtape (love a good fascist detectice) and stopped the plan. The problem really comes down to the fact that until the last 25 pages of the whole book, no one knows the plan except the terrorists!
So this is a silly, violent, book with plenty of sexism and racism to bear, so a Thomas Harris book, but excellent tension and plotting.
Cecile is Dead – 3/5
This detective begins with our main character Maigret tooling around the office. The office is abuzz with word that Cecile is returned. People are poking their heads out of doorways to get a look at her, walking by the office, and otherwise getting involved to see her. There’s lots of jokes that Cecile has a crush on Maigret. We find out that Cecile is a woman in her late twenties that recently (in the last few months) had been stopping in repeatedly to ask Maigret to come by her apartment. Strange occurrences have been happening that suggest someone has been breaking in, but not robbing them. It’s led her to think there’s some kind of stalking or nefarious purpose behind all this, but she’s not sure. They’ve sent officers to take a report, to check things out, but in the absence of specific things and crimes, there’s not much they can do. This is frustrating because she knows something is going on, but what can you do, the novel suggests, with the information given them? Then Cecile ends up dead, alongside her older aunt, and Maigret begins to wonder what he could have done, as he works to solve the case.
So of course I am sorry to report that even in France in 1935, the situation that still happens today was also happening then.
Maigret and the Gangsters – 3/5
One of the tropes of detective fiction that I like sometimes and don’t like other times is the presence of a foil-like bumbling version of another detective. It’s nice to have contrast and have a mode of comparison. I like in books when someone describes a small amount of money in order to allow for the comparative analysis between that sum and later sums of money. So if someone is going to receive 1000 pounds annum, let me know how much that will carry them. That’s analogy. In Holmes, we get Watson and Lestrade to always provide a good comparison for the detective. In Poirot, we get Capt Anderson and so forth. Here we have Lognon, who is not just bumbling, but downright pathetic at times. I have to say I otherwise don’t recall a ton of the mystery.
Maigret at Picratt’s – 1/5
Sigh. For all the talk I made in previous posts about how the series tends to be generous and sympathetic toward the underworld, I really wasn’t ready for this one. I think about the ways in which books from the past represent certain people and it’s of course no secret or surprise that older books are often deeply misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic. A lot of time, you might just simply roll with it or try to carefully understand it in terms of how the book is handling it. I try not to make the mistake that a book discussing and showing racism is the same thing as being racist, and I also try not to make the mistake that a book being sympathetic toward members of an oppressed group isn’t also contributing to that oppression in its own way. Two examples that I think about are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. Both are attempts (to some degree) to show sympathetic representations and critique systems of oppression, and both do that, while also committing their own versions and contributing to those systems.
This book cannot particularly be said to do that. In one way, it does. This book is about the murder of a woman who did sex work and the case and investigation in sympathetic to the world and life that led her there. The book also involves a few straight up torture scenes in which police detectives (whose side we’re meant to be on with no real complication) interrogate a gay man who hustles and who is addicted to heroin. And it’s rough. I don’t usually feel this way and I tend to sort my thoughts out pretty easily in the face of books like this, but this one is rough.
Suffer the Children – 3/5
John Saul is one of those authors who I would see tons of books at used bookstores but never really got interested in them. He started publishing in the late 1970s, in the heyday of the popular horror boom — a few years Stephen King, but alongside King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Tom Tryon, Anne Rice etc.
That’s most definitely what this book, his first is all about tone-wise.
We begin with a scene from the late 1800s where a young girl is taken to the woods and savaged. Cut to the present tense, and we find out that were on the family estate in the small town of Port Arbello. A scene similar to the past scene has occurred in the recent past, but the child was not physically harmed. She has, it seems suffered some trauma, because it was her father, in a blackout drunk who was found beating her. He claims he doesn’t remember the details and that seems to be true (and he’s not really blamed — it’s the 70s, man) and so she’s been sent to a special school in town where she can be among other traumatized and special needs students. He’s drinking a lot, and he and his wife are fighting. New neighbors move in that provide new wrinkles, and lots of little bad things keep happening. What it seems is the case is that the ghost of the old kidnapper has returned to continue the violence. What’s less clear is whose body is he inhabiting?
The book is a mess plot-wise, but the writing is perfunctory enough.