Charlie Hardie is a tongue-in-cheek name for a hero who gets impaled on a microphone stand and zapped with 50,000 volts yet soldiers on, caked in blood, after encountering a team of assassins in Hollywood Hills.
He’ll endure far worse before Duane Swierczynski brings his manic thriller “Fun and Games” crashing toward its feverish crescendo.
A washed-up lawman from Philadelphia, Hardie has drifted into work as a professional house sitter following the revenge killing of his partner’s family. Flying into Los Angeles to mind the $3.7 million home of a film-music composer, he intends to drink bourbon and watch old movies. His plans are scotched by an unhinged squatter -- a B-list starlet who swears she’s hiding from hit men bent on making her death look accidental.
Swierczynski hints at his own storytelling strategy with a quotation from Alfred Hitchcock: “A far-fetched story,” said the director, “must be plausibly told, so your nonsense isn’t showing.” It’s a high bar -- one this zigzagging plot clears, even when the bad guys strut beneath the Hollywood sign in broad daylight.
The tale packs enough indestructible villains to satisfy a “Die Hard” fan, and each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. I hesitate to add details lest I spoil a single surprise. Written in deadpan sentences and funny as can be, this first installment of a projected trilogy left me greedy for more.
“Fun and Games” is from Mulholland (286 pages, $14.99).
A tycoon with his head blown off is a crime-novel cliche. What sets the trope apart in “A Death in Summer” is how his blood and brains have splattered a picture window “like a giant peony blossom.” It’s a macabre color scheme straight out of a James Ensor painting.
The writer is literary author John Banville, masquerading under his noir pseudonym, Benjamin Black. The gory floral simile, deftly inserted after “a bit of jawbone and a few teeth and a bloodied stump of spine,” assures us that Banville is going to give us more than a clever plot.
The place is Ireland. The time, a sweltering June in the 1950s. Alvis autos prowl the streets and Lucky Strikes are an exotic extravagance from America. Newspaper proprietor Richard Jewell -- a.k.a. “Diamond Dick” -- has been found corkscrewed across his desk, a Purdey shotgun in his hands. A suicide? Dublin pathologist Quirke has doubts.
Jewell had enemies, notably Carlton Sumner, a Canadian-bred buyout artist who has been accumulating shares in the newspaper chain with hostile intent. Jewell’s half sister, Dannie, is a svelte bundle of jitters in jodhpurs, while his French wife, Francoise, seems all too calm in her gray silk dress and stilettos.
Yellow sunlight glares off floors and tables. It falls in “a slab,” “a patch” and descends as “two burly pillars” from the clouds, suggesting that Banville has been dawdling before Baroque canvases. Yet the mood grows ever more claustrophobic as Quirke becomes enmeshed in a skein of scheming and violence.
The book clogs in the middle with social and sexual wheels within wheels. Come the last third, though, the machinery meshes with pleasurable precision.
Years have passed since Gretchen Lowell, a diabolical Aphrodite, hammered a nail into Archie Sheridan’s ribs and carved out his spleen. With Gretchen now behind bars, the Portland police detective seems less besotted and more down-to- earth in Chelsea Cain’s new thriller, “The Night Season.”
The same can be said of Cain herself.
In the earlier novels, Cain treated readers to an over-the- top mixture of the creepy and the camp: Eyeballs bobbed in a toilet tank, hearts were packed in lunchboxes. Gretchen, a sadist with perfect skin, extracted one victim’s small intestine with a crochet hook, inch by inch.
This time, the greatest menace appears to be Mother Nature. Snowmelt and rain engorge the Willamette River, threatening to flood the city. Several people have died in the churning waters, presumably by drowning, until a medical examiner finds evidence that they were poisoned. Is a new serial killer on the loose?
Newspaperwoman Susan Ward, her hair now dyed a color called Deadly Nightshade, joins the chase. Before long, she’s also following a lead on the mysterious skeleton of a man who might have died some 60 years before, during another great flood.
Drawing on a real disaster that swept away a neighborhood on Memorial Day in 1948, Cain produces an atmospheric backdrop and characters of greater depth. Though some of the storyline stretches credulity, her pacing and good humor teased me all the way to the satisfying denouement.
“The Night Season” is from Macmillan’s Minotaur imprint in the U.S. (322 pages, $24.99) and from Macmillan in the U.K. (12.99 pounds).
(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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