Saturday, May 15, 2010

Southern Blizzards and Sweet Tea

Despite the presence of “North” in its name, North Carolina is undeniably a part of the U.S. better known, collectively, as “The South”. As such, the name tends to conjure up certain, predictable mental images: that of graceful antebellum mansions; huge old trees laden with heavy flowering branches, swaying gently in the warm summer breeze; and tall glasses of sweet tea (or perhaps something with a bit more kick, like Mint Juleps) being sipped by persons seated calmly on wooden swings or rockers, out on their sweeping outdoor verandas with views of the wide, quiet, sun-dappled streets. Always accompanying this pleasant picture of gracious Southern gentility are the mellifluous tones in slow, measured cadences of the local folks as they converse. One no more associates cold weather and blizzards with North Carolina than one would brownstones, Redwoods, deep-dish pizzas, or clipped Yankee accents.
It came as the most delightful sort of surprise, then, to find that Michael Malone’s Uncivil Seasons takes place in the middle of a bitterly-cold and snowy January, complete with a white-out blizzard... in North Carolina. The very unexpectedness of the setting immediately piqued my curiosity and my interest. 
Of course, Malone’s first paragraph hooked me all on its own, beginning thusly: “Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow and we hardly ever murder one another...” (In case you’re wondering, the answer to the inevitable questions are “yes” and “yes”; there is certainly a lot of snow--as well as multiple murders--in the 300+ pages which follow.) More importantly, though, what follows is a fantastically well-told tale--full of interesting (and tormented) characters with twisted, intertwining relationships and strangely-mingled histories; all manner of hatred, bigotry, and jealousies; and tense race relations as well as differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. There’s a certain degree of seaminess, as the redneck underbelly of the town collides with the poshness (and implied “betterness”) of the blue-blood set. There are recurring echoes of troubles past, including war traumas (Vietnam--the story is set in the early ‘80s), sanitarium stays, and different degrees of “crazy”. There is industrial espionage, and there are labor issues and abundant political concerns. There is even, meandering through it all, a soupçon of love. (Granted, some of the latter falls under the heading “sick and twisted” or “unhealthy”, but... still.)
Malone’s protagonist-duo, which heads a motley cast of characters, is one of the best pairings I’ve come across in a long while. Lt. Detective Justin Savile (The Fifth, as his mother is always quick to amend--with capital letters, no less), comes from a couple of very, very long (influential, wealthy, entitled, proud, etc.) lines of original settlers to the Piedmont area. A recovering alcoholic, Justin is unhappy with himself and with the way his life is turning out, so he spends his non-work hours engaged in such pursuits as an affair with a married woman, acting in Shakespearean productions, playing the blues on his old piano... and constantly fighting off both the urge to drink as well as the demands placed on him by his family and peers to be more like them (which sends Justin straight back to the bottle in a vicious cycle).
Lt. Detective Cudbert “Cuddy” Mangum is Savile’s diametric opposite; where Justin is suave, handsome, and well-turned out, Cuddy is gangly, wears polyester suits bought at lower-end chain stores (and usually bearing the stains somewhere on them of that day’s lunch), and brash. (In a wonderful comic twist, the divorced Cuddy is also quite the romantic, wanting desperately to get hitched again, and hopefully to see his good friend join the ranks of all those enjoying connubial bliss. Cuddy takes great pleasure in bad-mouthing “Lunchbreak”--his nickname for Justin’s married girlfriend, whom Justin frequently meets right about the time of said repast...) Despite their outward differences--and those born of their upbringings and experiences--these two smart guys have become good friends as well as an effective working pair with complimentary strengths.
It is in their official capacity--as well as a familial one, for Justin--that they find themselves on a new case: solving the murder of middle-aged socialite Cloris Dollard--semi-wealthy heiress (of her first husband’s estate), plus state-senator’s wife (to Justin’s mother’s brother). Things are hardly cut-and-dried with the case, though. (Yes, despite the unassailable fact that these folks “rarely ever murder one another”.) Mrs. Dollard wasn’t just killed; someone really made sure she was good and dead. Certain well-hidden items are missing. The “usual suspects” all have alibis, and Mrs. Dollard wasn’t exactly the sort of woman anyone would want/have any reason to kill, anyway. 
When some of the missing items turn up in the bathtub of an alleged wife-beatin’, petty-theft-committin’ redneck (who had coincidentally just been shooting off his gun, in his home, effectively killing one or two of the several TVs he had stashed in his living room), well... the town is relieved; the case is solved! (Right?) Well, no. Justin and Cuddy are firmly convinced that the dimwitted redneck gunslinger has actually been cleverly railroaded into jail, and that he didn’t/wouldn’t have committed such a heinous act (let alone had the requisite brainpower to time everything so perfectly)--meaning the guilty party is still at large.
Meanwhile, the reclusive (and psychic!) daughter of the town’s wealthiest benefactor returns... with predictions and visions (and a few issues of her own). More deaths, disappearances, plus a couple of highly-colorful domestic disputes ensue. New females catch the eye of both Justin and Cuddy. Illness, devils from the past... and some of the worst weather Hillston, NC has seen in a very long time further obfuscate the issues. It takes considerable thought, reasoning, and a bit of luck for Justin and Cuddy to unravel everything.
This book is, obviously, a mystery... but it is really so much more than that. It reads like fine, classic Southern literature; Malone has a truly wonderful way with words-- in his descriptions, his depictions of the locals, and his sense of spoken language via its diction and pacing, there is such a lushness of prose, and it is a joy to read. In fact, this book took me longer to finish that a book of its length normally should have done; there were many instances when I found myself rereading a passage I’d just read--not because of a lack of understanding, but because I wanted to spend more time going over a group of words, wanted to savor the almost-tactile feel and rich sound of them as they rolled around my tongue and coursed through my brain. 
Fortunately, Malone wrote additional books in the series, so further visits to this little community, with its fascinatingly-quirky characters, all described in Malone’s honeyed words, is not only a possibility, but a certainty. Oh, yes, I’ll be visiting again--and you probably will be, too. 
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible) 

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

Perhaps Jack Reacher and I would get along smashingly, were we to meet through some twist of fate in an out-of-the-way diner... two people who happened to be eating solo, until we happened upon a more pleasant way to pass the time by munching our burgers or grilled cheese together, chatting companionably in a vinyl-covered booth. Or maybe we’d be standing next to each other in a dimly-lit, down-on-its-heels bar one evening, waiting to catch the sullen bartender’s attention, and we’d strike up a friendly discussion about the poor service--only to find the conversation turning naturally to other things, and continuing in just such a convivial manner for the next few hours. We might talk of mutual interests, or about places we’d been or people we’d met... or maybe we’d just be content to ramble on about nothing much at all. Yes, it pleases me to think that this fascinating, enigmatic man and I would be able to while away a little idle time together, in such a way that left each of us with warm fuzzies about the chance meeting, with nice little memories to tuck away in the recesses of our minds.
For that, you see, is the kind of thing that happens all the time to Jack Reacher, self-styled loner--a Caine bent on walking the Earth (or at least a goodly portion of the U.S.); he’s used to the random crossing of paths with complete strangers, which generally leaves an indelible, if perhaps small, impression.
I’ve been reading Lee Child’s thrillers featuring intelligent action-hero Jack Reacher for several years, now, but he’s still a pretty big mystery. (And yes, “big” has dual meanings here; the man is 6’5” and tops out at 250 lbs.) “Pretty big mystery” is just the way Reacher, ex-MP (retired as a major from the Army), likes it, though; his current mission is to be little more than an enigmatic stranger, always on the move, experiencing life as he comes across it.
At least, that’s what he always tells people--that he’s just passing through, and that he’s on his way to the next place--which is rarely a firm destination, but rather, a vague “somewhere” down the road. The problem is that Reacher is never quite able to manage that “just passing through” bit; his sense of justice and desire to see wrongs made right always seem to find him, instead, sticking around just a little bit longer in whatever place he’s recently landed, be it a major metropolitan area or Podunk, USA.
Reacher certainly makes the right motions for someone constantly on the move; just as the proverbial rolling stone shall gather no moss, the always-on-the-move Reacher shall remain unencumbered by worldly possessions. His travel kit consists of the clothes on his back, some cash, a collapsible toothbrush, and an expired passport--period, that’s all. No rucksack with a change of clothes (he just buys new, utilitarian ones when the ones he’s been wearing are past their prime); no credit cards (with ATMs on nearly every corner, he rarely finds himself unable to access the money in his bank account); and no keys (he owns neither vehicle nor house). After so many years of living within a rigid system and following a specific set of rules, Reacher has chosen a life for himself in which he answers to no one and makes any rules he sees fit to make as he goes.
In Child’s twelfth Reacher novel--Nothing to Lose--we find Reacher passing through a pair of small towns in Colorado. His first stop is Hope, a neat and tidy little hamlet, which puts me in mind of a modern-day Mayberry. Pleasant, but nothing much to see or do, and no reason to stick around. The next day, he plans to go through the neighboring town of Despair, about 16 miles away, before continuing westward. 
His first hint at something odd is when he can’t hitchhike from Hope to Despair... not because none of the passing cars will stop for him, but because there aren’t any cars passing him. And it only gets stranger once he reaches the downtrodden little town (after having walked the entire distance), which seems to be the polar opposite of tidy Hope. He finds a cafe, thinking to have some lunch, but the waitress refuses to serve him, and the other customers let him know in no uncertain terms that he's not welcome. Then the muscle shows up--a couple of beefy guys, about half of the Despair PD. Things do not go well; there’s a confrontation, Reacher puts one of the officers out of commission, and winds up in the back of a police car on a short trip to the Despair jail. He gets a “hearing” in front of the local judge a few hours later, only to be deemed a vagrant and banned from town, as part of their no-vagrants mandate. An officer drives Reacher to the mid-way point between Despair and Hope--the place where one township ends and the other begins--and drops him off, right there, in the middle of the road. Within a few minutes he’s met by a Hope police officer--who'd been courtesy-called about Reacher’s arrival back within the Hope limits--to escort him back into Hope, and she tells him that this sort of thing happens with some frequency. Despair, it seems, has become quite serious about maintaining a strict no-visitors policy.
Unfortunately for the not-so-fine people of Despair, they have just aggravated (and kicked out of town) the absolute wrong man. Reacher is the sort of guy who has to know why things happen; it is simply impossible for him to walk away from such bizarre treatment without getting to the bottom of it. He soon finds--via surreptitious return visits back to Despair (his Army training always serves him well) and from questioning (even, occasionally, beating the answers out of) the people he encounters there--that there are some very strange things going on, indeed. Reacher stumbles across a dead body... which later disappears without a trace. The enormous recycling plant--employer to 99% of the residents of Despair--has a surprising amount of security, and they seem to be guarding a number of secrets. A small plane flies out of the recycling plant each evening, only to return in the wee hours of the morning. Just down the road from Despair, in the opposite direction, an active military outpost has been set up to guard... something. And young women keep showing up in Hope, anxiously waiting for their young men to return from Despair. None of it makes sense, but Reacher knows that somehow, in the end, it all must. He'll stick around until he pieces together the truth and has done all he can to mete out justice as he sees fit.
I didn’t see most of the answers coming; as usual, Child does an excellent job at crafting a complex tale which takes considerable effort on Reacher’s part to figure out. The connections he eventually made between seemingly disparate pieces of information, and the conclusions he finally comes to, are fascinating. 
There are always a couple of guarantees when cracking open a new Reacher book--one, that a ride which is equal parts exciting and smart from beginning to end awaits, and two, that Reacher will do the best he can to fix just a little bit more, before moving on down the road, to the next town, and the next adventure.
Meanwhile, think I’m gonna hold onto that cool little dream of meeting Jack Reacher someday, on the road to somewhere. The tales he could tell...
GlamKitty rating: 4.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)