Yeesh, this was so promising – Hairdressing Confidential from a queer would-be post-punk superstar. But while Elias has lived through interesting times (Detroit’s punk scene, beauty school, New York in the 80s, Rikers Island, the world of high fashion, shooting galleries) she has a bad habit of telling rather than showing. She’s a really talented musician, and a brilliant hairdresser too, we’re told over and over, but there’s precious little of substance devoted to either subject. Mostly, this is the story of a woman who managed not to ruin her life with a massive drug habit. But addiction memoirs can’t just rely on a laundry list of hits scored and dirty deeds done cheap. This is too drab a read to live up to the juicy subtitle. I’d recommend Kristen Johnson’s compelling Guts in its place as a story of a creative outsider who almost blew it all but saved herself. I’m sure Elias makes for great company but her book wilts on the page.
This latest—and likely last—of the Harry Hole series by the renowned Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is very intense, very dark, very depressing, and an impressive thriller. Like the other Hole books, it takes place on the seamy side of Oslo, where a new highly-addictive drug called “violin” has moved heroin out of the arena and taken its place. All we know for sure is that other drug crews have been raided, arrested, or run out of the city, and that a phantom dubbed “Mr. Dubai” has taken over the trade with the synthetic “violin”—in Oslo and throughout Norway–and is moving into exports abroad.
In addition to having infiltrated the Oslo police force, Dubai has a small army of young addicts dealing his stuff across the city and raking in millions, and one of these is Oleg, the teenaged son of Harry Hole’s once and former love Rakel, who forced Harry out of their lives three years earlier because his relentless and obsessive pursuit of serial killers was dragging her and her son into the abyss. When one of the young violin dealers is found murdered and all evidence points to Oleg as the killer, word gets to Harry in Hong Kong, where he has been hanging—and drying—out. He returns to Oslo to try to prove Oleg’s innocence and free him, and is immediately targeted by Dubai’s killers for elimination.
Harry is soon in the thick of things, getting beaten up, stabbed, shot at, nearly drowned, and all the while managing, barely, to keep the deadly allure of alcohol at bay. Oleg is refusing to accept Harry’s help out of anger over his apparent abandonment of the boy, and nearly gets killed in prison before Harry is able to prove the weakness of the evidence against Oleg and gets the boy released. The plot thickens every chapter or two, with the introduction of a very creepy femme fatale, a wannabe police chief with a corrupt soul, a tattooed assassin with a mystical knife, a mysterious street priest named Cato who strolls in and out of Harry’s life, a vulnerable young woman trapped in the violin maelstrom, and a chemistry genius with a dark secret.
Nobody and nothing is as it seems, though, and Nesbo’s “bad guy/good guy” shell game kept me guessing nearly to the end. What Nesbo excels at is not only dizzying plot twists, but also his characterizations of what makes people tick. No one is ever a cartoon villain or hero—certainly not Dubai and certainly not Harry Hole—and no one is ever truly an innocent. Nesbo’s Phantom contains multiple parallel tales of father/son relationships that are as stirring as are his revelations of the horrors of addiction to drugs, alcohol, even sex. And his use of a rat as witness to slayings at the beginning and end of the book is as creative as his use of alternative narrative voices throughout the book, including interspersed musings by the young dealer dying in the opening pages, which slowly reveal the whodunit in parallel to Harry’s own investigation.
There are serious weaknesses in the book, to be sure, such as Harry’s repeated improbable escapes from certain death, which belong more to the realm of Jason Bourne than to a middle-aged recovering drunk. Similar is Harry’s insistence on always placing himself without any backup in the cross-hairs of his enemies, the same lone-wolf scenarios which unfortunately plague all of Nesbo’s novels and render them somehow less memorable than they would otherwise be. Perhaps weakest of all, though, is Phantom’s ending, which is at once both shocking and poorly conceived. I can say no more because it would be a terrible spoiler, except to note that Harry Hole deserved better and so too did Oleg.
Another in the brilliant detective series authored by Rankin and featuring Scottish Inspector John Rebus, The Hanging Garden takes place in the city of Edinborough and is a roller-coaster of a ride through gang feuds, white slavery and prostitution, drugs and weapons trafficking, old Nazis, and even the frightening Japanese Yakuza (mafia).
Rebus is an old-school detective who frequently breaks the rules to right wrongs as he sees them, and then pays the price time and again. He is divorced after years of being more wedded to his job than his wife, he is an alcoholic fighting a daily battle to recover from his addiction, and he is a father who despairs of connecting to his daughter. But his moral compass is true and, as such, he is our hero. This time, he is trying to determine whether an old man was actually a vicious Nazi killer during WWI as people in high places attempt to bury the case. While pondering the question raised by the case of whether justice delayed is still justice, Rebus stumbles across a prostitution ring involving young Bosnian women blackmailed into sex slavery by a slick up-and-coming gangster who is challenging an imprisoned crime boss for control of Edinborough’s seamy underside, and perhaps beyond. When Rebus tries to protect one of the enslaved women, his daughter ends up in a coma–the victim of a hit-and-run–and Rebus fears it is retaliation for his involvement in the prostitution case. He is ineluctably drawn into the gang warfare.
The story escalates rapidly from there, as Rebus painfully pieces together the multi-sided plot of who is doing what to, or with, or against whom, with its repeated surprise twists and turns. In truth, the novel has its weak points: two apparently disparate cases—the Nazi and the prostitution ring—converge a little too conveniently; the turning point in solving the case hinges a little too easily on guesswork, even the friendship that evolves between Rebus’ ex-wife and current girlfriend at his daughter’s hospital bedside was a bit too contrived for my tastes. And yet, Rankin manages to put together an extremely complicated story with satisfying suspense, politically challenging themes, and a complex protagonist with whom we share the frustrations of bureaucracy, the pain of addiction and loneliness, and the lonely business of trying to do the right thing.
Okay, so a few weeks back I’m drooling at the visually stunning sights of glossy, crisply embossed books on display at the downtown Books-A-Million store: those tantalizing, sixty-five & seventy-tastic-percent-off shelves and bins; the gathered variety of heady aromas emanating from multitudes of perfectly erect, disciplined rows of hard- and soft-back binders, the faux-leatherbound tomes that I at once want to both caress and squeeze with abandon; thrillers, romances, inspiring biographies and masterful home-repair books; all intensely mingling, tightly and forcefully in surrounding cavities of the vast warehouse of wonder: as one barely containable, orgiastic collective betwixt their dominating, unyielding bookends of cuckolded pressure… and then the intoxicating aromas my olfactory senses begin to experience- nostrils squeezing to capture the seductive musk of pure, silky-white, unopened layers of compressed pulpweed-cum-paper, their factory-bred, tree-raped scent making me giddy with possibilities of liberating the finest, most perfect literary delights, spreading out their– okay, we’ve all been there..
…and only after I’ve prematurely blown my wad over half a dozen slimy, brazenly anonymous literary lizards- that is, impulsively paying out serious money I shouldn’t be ‘blowing’ on new books I haven’t looked over more thoroughly, or at least read some reviews of beforehand (I made that ‘blowing the wad’ part clear, right?) – WELL, now this leaves me awkwardly trying to remove myself from what I call one of those ‘should have known better’ books. It’s a hazard when searching out some narrowly-defined subjects, I imagine.
I thought this one would be different, that we might really connect, you know?? I am not so vapid as to judge a book by its cover, which I know you’re all thinking and I refuse to even go there – but come. on. : this slut is putting it aaalll out there with that hot provocative subtitle and that dangerously curvaceous, ‘look-at-me’ font, like it knows things I couldn’t begin to imagine.
But then we get home, the prologue alone begins to bore me, and then it’s all like, ‘Well, you didn’t mind pinchin’ on my thick bibliography when you was thumbin’ through my back pages at the store now, did you?’ So, being starved anyways for some new reading on a now-ancient subject, which by the way is the ONLY reason I’ve maintained my ‘Rolling Stone’ subscription – any articles related to rock music less than 35 years old are ripped out & trashed – I reluctantly bend myself to the book-bitch’s will for the time being and try gving it a go – there have been some great books with amazingly crappy beginnings.
A good historical author should be aware that writing a compelling history, on any subject, requires much more than simply repeating facts. Disappointingly, that’s virtually all Case does in this thing; he doesn’t come close to delivering what his title promises, rather maintaining a wholly uninteresting redundancy throughout that amounts to not much more than rattling off a list of rock artists and the drugs, hallucinogenics and/or formidable amounts of alcohol they indulged in, nothing that a thousand other authors haven’t already done, and in way more entertaining and informative approaches. Case demonstrates a total lack of insight as to how, say, these legendary musicians’ addictions affected their creative process (or obliterated it completely). There are no recollections of wild, joyous release and defining moments of a heightened awareness shared by the generation that first turned on.
Most criminally, however, virtually the only perspective, single and far removed the actual time he dispassionately rambles on about, is from Case alone: no other interview pieces, reflections, or recollections, or even anecdotes from any actual rock stars – he’s not writing about Mozart or Charlie Parker, but artists that are still living and have all of this history to share. You read Steven Tyler’s book, or Keith Richards’ Life, and you know that they know what they’re talking about.
The people who grew up with and loved classic rock already know who the alcoholic, drug-addicted (or recovering) rock stars are, or were; we know how getting high affected their careers and relationships, and how a lot of those times are looked back on fondly by many; and we sure as hell knew then, even more immediately now, when their tripping asses get busted by “The Man” for various indiscretions their respective vices more likely than not contributed to, and their unfortunate discovery for the world to read about.
The closest Case comes in this book is an admittedly wonderful and detailed description of the Great “Summit Meeting” between Dylan and The Beatles, when the folk rock troubadour had the distinct honor of introducing the Fab Four to the herb that literally would change their life in “oh so many ways” (from ‘Help!’, a movie they’d started filming shortly after, where they were stoned throughout the entire production).
I mentioned a bibliography above, but it’s not “thick” at all – it has most of the highlights (Guralnik’s brilliant 2-book Elvis bio, Steven Davis’ Hammer of the Gods). But this makes nary a difference to George Case, ’cause he didn’t learn a damn thing from any of them.
And I slogged through 240-plus pages to see the ‘textbook’ example of NOT HAVING A CLUE about “Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off” – this writer’s only achievement was in completely harshing my buzz.