Tango Down by Chris Knopf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sam Acquillo is a hard-drinking, smart alecky, tough guy private eye with a resume that’s a little too good to be believable. Kid from the Bronx , former pro boxer, MIT graduate who became engineering V.P. of a major corporation, and by the time of this book anyway, a cabinetmaker and sailboat owner in ritzy Southampton, N.Y. This is the 9th Sam Acquillo mystery, but my first, so I’ve no doubt left out a lot of the backstory.
The homeowner for whom Sam is making cabinets is murdered by way of blows to the head from a golf club. The police arrest Ernesto, a Colombian immigrant in charge of the construction crew. His fingerprints are on the murder weapon. He claims the victim was teaching him to play golf and loaned him the club. Of course Sam believes him to be innocent and sets forth to prove it. Jackie, Sam’s friend and nominal employer is Ernesto’s attorney and Amanda, Sam’s beautiful neighbor, is Sam’s main squeeze. The rest you can work for yourself. the book is all about style, not plot, fortunately, because the former is quite good while the latter, not so much. The repartee is at least B+ quality. For a tough guy mystery the book is refreshingly free of the excessive gore, swearing, and lurid debauchery that typifies the style. It was not until about page 100 that the F-bombs started flowing, and even then it was merely a trickle. Needless to say, Sam figures things out before the local police, the FBI, and the CIA, all of whom get entangled, but as a former G-man I appreciated the fact that the author didn’t make any of them look corrupt, ill-intentioned, or incompetent, just not as smart as Sam. Sam can handle himself in a fistfight, of course, and there’s an excursion to Latin America so the title and cover image can be wedged preposterously into the story line. The very pedestrian solution doesn’t arrive until the last four or five pages, but it didn’t matter since as I said it was all about enjoying the style. Sam gets to cruise around the Little Peconic Bay on his sailboat with a beautiful half-naked woman drinking vodka and enjoying the sunset and seabirds when he’s not out beating up the evil-doers of the world while exchanging witty bon mots with his interlocutors. Enjoy it for what it’s worth.
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As I sit here typing, I can smell and see the smoke from the Mendocino fire about 130 miles north of here. The sun rose with an eerie red tint. Despite this, the weather people say the air quality is good. The smoke, at least the dangerous part, is too high to affect the ground level badly. The fire is the largest in state history and only about 35% contained, so it’s a bad one. So far there’s been no loss of life on this one that I know of. It’s located near Clear Lake, the setting for much of my fourth Cliff Knowles novel, Death Row.
In my last post I complained about needing to fill my time with more reading and having trouble finding good stuff to read. In the last twelve hours I’ve started and given up on three books, two of which were audiobooks: The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer (too artsy-fartsy and weird), The Crack in the Lens, by Steve Hockensmith (audiobook reader had horrible hokey Southern+Western accents, a sort of cross between Gomer Pyle and this narrator of Huckleberry Hound), and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (an author reading her own work is usually a mistake).
So what’s next? I joined a fantasy football league. I’m no pro football fan, although I often watch the local team, the 49ers. I record the games and don’t bother to finish watching if the Niners are losing badly. I joined the league for two reasons: I like analyzing data and it gives me an opportunity to do that, and a good friend and my son are both in this league, so it provides and activity to share with them. I don’t care about winning or losing as long as I get a season’s worth of entertainment. I just looked at several websites ranking players for fantasy football purposes and I’d never heard of about 98% of them. I also don’t have much idea of strategy beyond what the pros say (yes, there are fantasy football pros), but the point scoring system for my league is different from the standard one, so that strategy may not be of much use. Still, I’ve got my spreadsheet going already. By the way, in case you’re wondering, my research indicates that the league I’m in is legal in California – skill required and no rake – so it’s not considered gambling.
I’ve posted seven book reviews in the last three weeks. That’s a record for me, and must be a personal record just for reading that many books in that short a time. There was also one other book I started and gave up on quickly because it was so bad (Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer). It just goes to show how much free time I need to fill. TV fare is so bad I watch news three times a day and even watched some daytime TV – old B movies. Then there are the crosswords and computer games I’ve been devouring. Thank heavens my son and his wife came over to visit Friday and we had a fun evening after a good Mexican dinner. When I’m not writing a book I crave something to occupy my time. Maybe I’ll think of a plot for the next one soon. When the books are good, the reading is really enjoyable, but when I hit a streak of losers as the last few have been, it gets me down. One bright spot: Welcome to the Family, a “Netflix original” (meaning they found a TV series in another country that they retitled in English and stuck subtitles on. It’s a wacky comedy entirely in Catalan! Try it.
The Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of an unnamed man who has just been injured in a bomb blast in Grand Central Station, New York. It’s told in the first person. The second, told in the third person, is from the viewpoint of Julia Swann, a suburban housewife living near Philadelphia. The man has head injuries and doesn’t know who he is or what happened to him. His only tie to the real world is his briefcase clutched tightly in his hand. Inside it he finds identity documents and phone for Michael Swann. He only knows he wants to get home. He begins his journey, his flight, to Philadelphia. Julia, meanwhile, realizes Michael was in or near Grand Central Station when the blast occurred. In fact, he was on the phone to her at the time. She begins her separate attempt to find him. Local law enforcement at all levels tries to help. This is yet another in the current fad genre of “unreliable narrator” stories.
That’s a great set-up for a story. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from there. Nobody in the story does anything remotely believable after that. Some of it is physically or legally impossible. The “big twist” at the end is totally predictable from soon after the blast. I certainly knew it was coming. The writing is tortured trying to keep it from the reader until the end. As a retired FBI agent I’m always sensitive to police procedure, and this book gets almost nothing right in that respect. I managed to get through it, so I got my hours of “entertainment” if you want to call it that, so I can give it a couple of stars but I can’t recommend it.
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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This translation of a German novel about post-wartime Germany is engaging but ultimately left me with a feeling that it could have done more. Michael, a teenager, falls for an older woman in his neighborhood and she proceeds to satisfy his lust, playfully at first as though he is her boy toy. It develops into a real relationship of sorts, although Michael is not sure if she feels about him the way he does for her. When it stretches beyond a mere sexual relationship, they spend a weekend together. She likes his voice and asks him to read to her. He obliges. This continues for some time. Then one day she ends it cold. It turns out she has a secret. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers.
I listened to the audiobook, which was well acted by the narrator. The translation is excellent, too. As I listened, I didn’t know it was a translated German novel, although I suspected it. The book is somewhat dark, but not overly so. I think it resonates better with Germans than it could with most Americans, including me. In the end, I felt lukewarm about it. There was a movie made of it, but I never saw the film.
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