Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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T. Jefferson Parker & Henry Chang

Two novels for American eyes only

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker I jumped at the chance to pick up a 'new' T. Jefferson Parker novel when I was at the airport in New York recently, and as it turns out, it was a good thing I did, because neither the book I bought, L.A. Outlaws, nor his subsequent Renegades, has a UK publisher. This strikes me as being both unjust and amazing, because Parker's had a string of impressive standalones (and the three Lucy novels) published here, most notably 2005's California Girls, which was one of the two or three best crime novels of that year. What interests me most about Parker is the way he's willing to take risks; Fallen could've been extremely gimmicky, but managed to avoid that fate, and I have a similar feeling about Outlaws.

Allison Murrieta is a masked bandita who performs small armed robberies and gives the proceeds to charity; she's claiming to be the descendant of the legendary outlaw Joaquin Murietta, beheaded by a posse in 1853. In reality, she's Suzanne Jones, a gorgeous school teacher who lives in the countryside a long way from downtown LA. One night, about to take down a sale of jewels, she witnesses an ambush and shootout which leaves the stones with her, and a bad gangster on her tail. Also on her tale is sheriff's deputy Charlie Hood, who is bedazzled by Suzanne Jones and her muscle cars, and soon suspicious as well.

Where Parker shines is in characterisation, and he does it here by alternating between Suzanne/Allison in first person, and Charlie Hood in third, which makes it easier for the reader to be carried away by the pace of Suzanne's life of crime. You need to be carried away a little, as Charlie himself is, because otherwise you might ask yourself how, in the modern era of surveillance cameras and computers, she's able to keep Charlie bamboozled enough to keep the rest of the force off her back. But because the pace of the story is so good, and the character so compelling, most readers will relax and go with the flow.

Of course it gets complicated: there are too many greedy people involved, as is usually the case in jewel thefts, and Murietta may be in over her head. Charlie is certainly in over his. But it is also to Parker's credit that he resolves things with some flair, including a bravura set-piece in a junkyard, but the ultimate resolution is the kind of downbeat thing that smacks of realism, and more than justifies whatever suspension of disbelief you may have felt necessary to indulge Murietta's career. It's a superior piece of high voltage action writing, a suspense thriller worthy of any on the market, and it seems amazing to me that this is the book British publishers would choose to leave untouched. By the way, Renegades brings back Charlie Hood, who's an interesting study in down-to-earth, not super-hero, cop, and I'm already looking forward to that. It would be nice if I didn't have to go to America to read it!

Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang Meanwhile, another American writer as yet unpublished here is Henry Chang. I picked up Chinatown Beat through the mail after a fulsome review by Ron Rosenbaum, much of whose journalism I admire, but whose literary hyperbole I shall take with a grain or two of NaCl in the future. Actually, that's unfair to Chang, whose book is an interesting take on police procedural, and has a fascinating setting, but whose strongest point is actually his femme fatale character, a Chinese black widow worthy of any in hard-boiled fiction. But what works best in Chinatown Beat are mostly familiar elements: the cop alienated from his childhood friends, the lone cop fighting an indifferent police force, the inscrutable workings of the old Chinese tongs and the extreme violence of the boys coming up.

Chang tries to take us deeper into Chinatown, but much of the time that seems to consist mostly of using Chinese words and phrases, quickly translated. He often seems to back off his best confrontational scenes, and to some extent his characters often seem sketched in, as if with a calligraphic brush, rather than painted more deeply. This is true particularly because, although this is the story of Mona, abused mistress of Uncle Four, and her plans of revenge and getaway, the story's suspense builds from her use of the chauffeur, Johnny Wong, aka Wong Jai or Kid Wong. And, as is usually true in such tales, it is the character of the male, the victim with the half-track brain and the one-track mind, which is the crucial one, and it is here in particular that more depth would help. The rest of the problem is that Mona never gets to play face to face against the main character, who is Chang's Chinese detective.

Jack Yu is an interesting detective, but the blossoming of his own romance somehow seems at odds not only with the story but with the characters, not as much him as the lawyer lady he befriends. This was the first in a series by Chang, and with Yu transferred out of Chinatown as the story ends, there is more opportunity for conflict with the world of the gwailo, or white devils, within the department as well as in the wider world. He's a character who can be developed further, and perhaps with a more confrontational, if less interesting, villain, he will be.

LA OUTLAWS by T. Jefferson Parker, Dutton (US) 2008, Signet (US paperback) 2009

CHINATOWN BEAT by Henry Chang, Soho Press (US) 2006



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