Saturday, October 04, 2008

LUSH LIFE by Richard Price

My guest blogger today is a good friend, Geoffrey R. Hamlin. He shares some thoughts on mysteries, literature and Richard Price.

There is a never-ending, but thoroughly enjoyable argument as to whether “mysteries” (now crime fiction) can be deemed worthy of consideration as literature. I am firmly in the camp of Raymond Chandler who not only practiced “literature” himself but argued forcefully in his Atlantic Monthly essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that there were good and bad mysteries, just like there were good and bad novels, short stories and plays. The top tier of these all share characteristics that qualify them as literature.

Among today’s crime fiction writers, James Lee Burke and Richard Price can both be considered creators of literature. Mr. Burke because he grapples with big themes, including Good and Evil in cosmic proportions. Mr. Price’s writing offers even more.

Mr. Price is a master of place. His work, like that of George Pelacanos, not only gets the “hood” right down to its grimiest details, but also successfully contrasts it to the area surrounding it and the world at large. Lush Life is set in the lower East Side of New York, a neighborhood in a state of flux, inhabited by old ethnic populations, newer ethnic poverty and the early beachheads of the upwardly mobile. Price not only conveys the details and essence of this area but also shows how influential it is upon the actors and outcome of the story. The neighborhood almost becomes a character itself in Lush Life.

Then there is his word choice. In his book The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein wrote that Beethoven’s genius lay in choosing exactly the right note. Mr. Price is a composer of dialogue displaying the same sort of genius. This skill is regularly commented on by others (Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, for one). It is evident in his movies (Sea of Love, The Color of Money) and television work (The Wire, CSI). And it is displayed at the very top of his form in Lush Life. One reviewer (James Wood in the New Yorker) has commented to the effect that if Price’s words sometimes do not accurately portray the way cops and bad guys really talk, it is something even better. The fact that each of these reviewers seizes on different passages to illustrate their point shows how consistently right the language in Lush Life is.

Next is the story itself. In Lush Life, we are treated to a very detailed account of the events surrounding a neighborhood mugging which resulted in a fatal shooting. The lead investigator is presented with conflicting evidence and initially concludes that he cannot rule out one of the two men who were accosted as actually committing the murder. He decides to hold him for further questioning to see if he can break down this man’s story. The consequences of this small decision have a major impact on the lives of all the novel’s players - the suspect, the policeman, their families, the family of the murdered man, the actual killer and all those around them.

Finally, there is meaning. After this rich novelistic meal, we are left to consider and digest the message that although we live in a society where alienation and loneliness are rampant, nonetheless the decisions we make every day and our smallest actions still have a significant impact on many people around us, even people of whom we are not aware. Perhaps, we should take a little more time and care with our decisions.

For these reasons, I believe that Richard Price has produced a work of literature in Lush Life. For the same reasons, I believe that his Clockers and Samaritan would also qualify. Lush Life is the best of the three and I expect that it will probably be the best book that I read this year. (And I read a lot of books.)

Guest blogger Geoffrey R. Hamlin is a reviewer for and the Tampa Tribune.

A comment from the BookBitch: Dennis Lehane is the author that has been generating a lot of buzz about this melding of mystery and literature recently. The author of the mystery Mystic River and the thriller Shutter Island, along with a mystery series, released his latest book that was several years in the making. The Given Day, if one needs to categorize it, would most appropriately be called historical fiction, as the story is set in the early part of the twentieth century. It is fine literature, but to me, so were Mystic River and Shutter Island.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Ann Littlewood, author of NIGHT KILL, a “zoo-dunnit”, is graciously adding a guest post to the blog today. Here's what she has to say about why she writes mysteries set in zoos:

Let’s assume—why not?—that you intend to write a mystery. Among the daunting number of decisions and choices you need to make is the locale. Where, exactly, are your characters going to enact that fantastic plot that’s almost clear in your mind? Be warned, you’re going to live in this place for at least a couple of years and probably never escape it entirely.

For me, it was an easy call. I abandoned zookeeping for a corporate cubical and I missed it, missed the animals and the people and all that biology. A zoo is a rich source of ways to die (tigers, elephants, pythons, dart pistols…) and great terminology (prĂ¼sten, flehmen, lek, “shit” as a technical term) as well as plenty of births, illnesses, injuries, and deaths. I can populate it with any animals I want (the research is the most fun ever); I get to name it after a stellar Northwest conservationist—William Finley, and name my human characters after biologists. And half the characters are critters. What better place to pack up and move my mind to?

I don’t have to share the place with a divorce-wracked detective drinking unto oblivion in a grubby bar, the vicious cop who decided to fight for justice after all but still has to pay for past sins, a serial killer hacking up a woman after a fun evening of sex torture… Nope, I chose the smell of zebra manure over stale beer, a male mandrill monkey terrorizing females half his size over a john punching out a prostitute, a quarantine room with rare frogs over a police station interrogation room. No need to keep it to sweet cooing and gentle cheeping—plenty of opportunity for the ground to shake when a rhino whirls and charges, the sound of lion jaws crushing a femur, or the smell of guts when a carcass is ripped open.

And what about those characters? Some times they show up round and full, ready to roll. Sometimes I start with somebody real and then warp and subtract and expand until I find who I’m looking for. Of course I need to understand what this character wants and how he or she intends to get that. But the most fun for me is trying to see through a character’s eyes, and my characters, some of them, see through a different lens. I reach back to my twelve years as a card-carrying zookeeper, after a college degree in behavioral psychology. Immersion in natural history and animal behavior changes how you react to other people, changes what you see and hear, changes how you raise your child. Plenty for a writer to work with there, especially when zoo characters, human and otherwise, think in terms of dominance hierarchies, social alliances, and survival instincts.

And plot? Not to deny our humanity, our wonderfully deviant DNA, but we really are just a great ape that’s gotten a little ahead of itself. Yeah, sure, we create Roundup Ready corn seed, artificial heart valves, ginormous dams, and the iPod, but we can’t resist our innate love of fat and sugar, we are suckers for addictions, we haven’t a clue why we make the choices we do, and we’re largely blind to the consequences of our own actions. That disconnection between our flashy modern cortex and our hidden, recalcitrant, intuitive ancient brain is the stuff of conflict, and conflict is the blood and bone of fiction.

So that’s why I write mysteries set in zoos.

Ann Littlewood was a zoo keeper in Portland, Oregon for twelve years. She raised golden cats and raccoon dogs, an orangutan and mandrill monkeys, as well as parrots, penguins, lions, and tigers. And not to forget a multitude of native mammals and birds. She was bitten by young lions, wolves, seals, barn owls, and Canada geese, scratched by bears and cougars, and once cornered by a terrifying domestic pig. These experiences were distilled into a new mystery series set in a fictional Northwest zoo.

The financial realities of raising primates (two boys of her own) led Ann to exchange a hose and rubber boots for a briefcase and pantsuit in the healthcare industry. Ann has maintained her membership in the American Association of Zookeepers and has kept in touch with the zoo world by visiting zoos and through friendships with zoo staffers.

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