I’m conscious that I did not do a post on my top 10 reads at the end of last year, as is my usual habit. To make up for this, here is a quick update on what I’ve been getting into, reading-wise, over the first half of summer in Melbourne.
Shore Leave, David Whish-Wilson
Shore Leave is the fourth book to feature the character of ex-Perth cop turned PI, Frank Swann. This latest instalment is set largely in the Perth seaside suburb of Fremantle. Swann is battling poor health from a mystery ailment and is involved in a variety of complications arising from a US aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, that has docked in town. These problems include the disappearance of a cache of M16 rifles from the ship that may have found their way into the hands of a local neo-Nazi group, and the murder of two women by what could be a serial killer among the crew. To top things off, as has been the case throughout the entire series, Swann has to deal with problems arising from his chequered past as a cop. Nothing in Shore Leave has dissuaded me from my oft stated opinion on this site that Whish-Wilson is the most underrated crime writer working in Australia today. Good hard boiled action intersected with a fascinating and razor-sharp depiction of the sights, sounds, and smells of 1980s Perth and the criminal political economy of the author’s home state. Highly recommended.
A small Town in Germany, John Le Carré
As I discussed in a recent post on this site, 2020 saw me work through much of Le Carré’s Smiley series (I am currently half-way through Smiley’s People). Published in 1968, A Small Town in Germany does not feature the dour but sharp-witted George Smiley. Rather is a stand-alone that features as its main character a ruthlessly efficient fixer from the British Foreign Officer, Alan Turner, who is dispatched to the West German capital of Bonn to investigate the disappearance of a minor British embassy functionary, Leon Harting, and the secret files that are missing with him. Essentially 300 plus pages of Turner interviewing various individuals connected to Harting, I can’t say I found this Le Carré’s most gripping novel. But there is still a lot to like about it. In particular, the authors perceptive take on the British expatriate diplomatic scene and the way in which he weaves into the fabric of the story West Germany’s turbulent politics of the time, with a resurgent right wing facing off against an increasingly militant left.
O.K. You Mugs, edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson
A recommendation from my former PhD supervisor and author in his own right, Peter Doyle, the book features 26 essays analysing famous (and not so famous) actors, their careers, what it is they have that lures us to them. Not surprisingly, the essays I enjoyed corresponded to the actors I like. But the book was worth its price alone for critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito’s stunning essay recounting his teenage years, in which he spent time with his father, a bar tender in LA’s fabled The Coast and Horse Tavern, and helped faded actress Barbara Payton pen ‘I am Not Ashamed’, her tell all biography for the pulp sleaze publisher, Holloway House. Payton’s light had well and truly faded by that time, from starring opposite James Cagney in the 1950 noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, to being an alcoholic sex worker, and Polito’s light touch telling of his brush with her is absolute gold.
Vida, Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy has been somewhat of a hit and miss author for me. I simply adored her 1970 novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, but was so-so on what I know is her big hit, Woman on the Edge of Time. Originally published in 1979, Vida is the story of Vida Asch as she starts to hit middle age and racks up nearly a decade on the run from the authorities for her role in a group of student radicals turned urban guerrillas, who bombed corporate headquarters and army recruitment centres in the early 1970s. As members of her network are plucked off one by one by the police and the political tide well and truly turns against her, not only is her life a harsh day to day struggle to avoid capture.,she has to contend with an existential crisis in her beliefs. Vida, like everything I have read of Piercy’s is beautifully written. But what really brought this story to life for me is how eerily similar aspects of the student radical milieu she depicts are to the one I experienced in 1980s Melbourne. I actually found my edition of Vida, with this visually amazing cover (released by my publisher PM Press), in a box of books left by a roadside. In the words of the late Abbie Hoffman, ‘steal this book’.
No Room at the Morgue, Jean-Patrick Manchette
No Room at the Morgue is the latest English edition of French noir writer Jean-Patrick Machette’s work to be released through the NYRB Classic Literature series. The main character, Eugene Tarpon, is an ex-cop, kicked out of the police for accidentally killing a demonstrator at a left-wing rally. He spends his days drinking and running a failing PI business. Just as he thinks his life has reached rock bottom, an attractive woman engages his services to investigate the brutal murder of her female flatmate. This fast-paced read sees Tarpon sandwiched between the activities of radical leftists on the one hand and Mafia killers on the other, in addition to finding himself a police suspect in the crime. All fairly standard territory for Manchette. Not his strongest book – not a patch of Nada for example – but average Manchette is still pretty damn good.
What have you been reading over summer?