Thursday, May 23, 2002

Review - The Disappearing Body by David Grand

David Grand's second novel, The Disappearing Body, is an intriguing, well-written piece of 1930s crime fiction. It's a tale of murder, union busting, corruption and chaos on both sides of the law. It has everything you would expect in a post-Prohibition crime story set in fictionalized New York City: busty beautiful women, crooked newspapermen, grizzled tough guys, the politician with a shady past threatening to surface, hard-nosed detectives on both sides of the law, drugs, guns, mysterious voices on the phone, murders passed off as suicides, and unfortunate losers who are surprised by days when they aren't beaten up or shaken down.

There is also the daughter following in her reporter father's footsteps. She is drawn into a story that turns out to be the same story her father was researching when he ended up eating a bullet 20 years ago. She never felt he could have committed suicide, even though he left her a note, and now with the help of her father's old source she can learn the truth, if she can evade the bad guys long enough.

The storylines move right along and nothing is predictable. It's somewhat like a boxing match-when you think the story is going to go left, it goes right; when you're confident of a knockout, you get an unexpected twist.

The novel opens with a two-page list containing 47 character names and a brief description of each character. Scary stuff. This almost persuaded me to put the book down. If an author has to list the characters and describe them before chapter one there are probably too many characters. (I did need to refer to the list to get my bearings after having put the book down for a period of time.)

There are two disappearing bodies in the novel. One is a staged disappearance. The other is a Russian painting called "The Disappearing Body" that surfaces in the art world after having disappeared from a crime scene many years before. The painting is the image of the painter's suicide. He painted how he was going to kill himself and when the portrait was done, he didn't waste any time bringing the scene "to life." The person who removed the portrait from the crime scene is now in the United States trying to sell it.

There are violent scenes in the story that sometimes sneak up on the reader without preamble: physical beatings, torture, and painful deaths.

The Disappearing Body has interconnected storylines presented from various points of view, and each character within each storyline is somehow related to or affected by at least one character in another storyline. The reader is always in the action thanks to Grand's clean prose, which makes the reader feel like she is walking along with the characters or looking over someone's shoulder, always eavesdropping. Grand attended NYU's Creative Writing Program where he was awarded the Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction. His first novel, "Louse," published in 1998, launched into the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, the New York Times Notable Books, and the Los Angeles Times Best Books of the Year.

The Disappearing Body is a great read if you like mysteries, mobsters and surprise twists. The novel flows well with continuous action and exciting characters. Don't expect another book like this from David Grand, at least for a while. He isn't ready to choose a niche yet. Grand's next work is about the 1950s movie studio system censors that made up the Motion Picture Association's infamous Production Code.

Title: The Disappearing Body
Author: David Grand
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385500340
Pages: 416
Price: $24.95

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Review - First Light: The First Ever Brady Coyne and J.W. Jackson Novel by Philip R. Craig

First Light is an entertaining collaboration between two crime novelists who know Martha's Vineyard well. It is a slow-paced novel but a quick read if you don't get confused by which character is narrating. The first-person narration alternates between the two protagonists for the entire book. Their voices are similar, and a few times I had to refer to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking, because the timeline between chapters shifts. One chapter does not necessarily pick up where the last one left off.

Author Philip Craig lives on Martha's Vineyard, as does his character J.W. Jackson. The character and the setting have been in 13 previous Philip Craig novels. Author William Tapply of Pepperell, Mass., has written 18 Brady Coyne novels. This is the first collaboration between these two authors.

Retired cop J.W. Jackson lives on the Vineyard with his wife and their two children. In First Light he's been asked to look into a year-old missing person case that a reputable investigation agency has been unable to solve. J.W. isn't looking for work, but the amount of money he is offered persuades him to at least see what he can find out about the missing woman. J.W. is so uninterested in working that he has to keep reminding himself he has a case to solve. He squeezes questioning in between his real priorities of building a tree house with his kids, fishing in the annual Vineyard derby, and helping his wife run the house.

Boston lawyer Brady Coyne is his fellow protagonist in "First Light." Brady plans to mix the business of preparing a will for an elderly client with the pleasure of fishing in the annual Vineyard derby for the first time. Like Jackson, his mind is more on fishing than business. But when Coyne's client has a debilitating stroke two days after he arrives, his business with her must wait; Coyne doesn't call into his office for four days because he's enjoying the late night/early morning fishing and sleeping late into the day.

If you love mysteries and fishing, First Light is for you. J.W. prefers surfcasting, while Brady is a strict fly-fishing fan. J.W. catches fish for meals, while Brady enjoys the sport and does not keep his catches. The contradictions are entertaining and keep the friendship interesting. Fishing at four in the morning sounds on the edge of crazy, but when you realize how beautiful and calming it is to be on the water's edge at "first light," you can at least appreciate the attraction.

First Light is a mildly suspenseful soft crime novel. The mystery of who did it and why lasts for most of the book, because working isn't either character's main focus. I finished the book feeling like I had spent more time with people fishing than solving a mystery. The tale is not edge-of-your-seat gripping, but it's a great way to see Martha's Vineyard without fighting the crowds.

Title: First Light: The First Ever Brady Coyne and J.W. Jackson Novel
Author: Philip R. Craig and William G. Tapply
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 978-1932112399
Pages: 352
Price: $20.99