Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ripping Great Adventure!

Never, I repeat, NEVER, begin a Preston/Child book in the late evening on a work night.

Riptide by my favorite adventure author duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, swept me away. These guys are always edge-of-your-seat great, but this little gem kept me up late on a night I really needed to be in bed. I kept thinking I would come to a place where I could put a bookmark in it and return to it the next evening. Wrong!

From its sinister beginning to its eerie denouement and explosive climax, this account of the search for and salvage of a cursed treasure hoard holds the reader breathless. Such is the creaft of the authors, that they could take the telephone book and sell it for a movie.

The plot is predictable: Lonely island surrounded by fog on which a booby-trapped labyrinth of tunnels, pits, and sinkholes hides an immense pirate treasure which attracts the greed of an expert salvage team in possession of a secret code which will enable them to defeat the "curse" and become obscenely rich.

The characters are stock: Computer nerd, sexy foreign archealogist, angst-ridden hero, fanatically-crazed preacher, the girl who got away, rich treasure hunter who stops at nothing, slavish sidekick who does the dirty work.

But when Preston and Child toss all the ingredients together, the results are always fresh and evocative. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

I will never forget the sounds the island makes as the sea comes in--or the island itself--poor, doomed character that I know will die and take all with it (except of course, the hero who always survives). The island with its mantle of fog and its nether world that does not accept the rules of modern technology reminds me of the island in King Kong and takes me back to that simple morality tale where all of man's might fails when nature moves.

The difference is, Kong was subdued, the island is not.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Play It Again Bernie

I love Lawrence Block. I don't know why. He's like a male Evanovich without the sexual angst, though he doesn't quite have her timing. Nonetheless he makes me laugh and that's a special thing in these somewhat somber days.

In The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, Block brings back his gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr what? Solve a case? Fall in love? Commit larceny in a lovable way? Who cares? I don't read Block for the mystery or the romance or because I have any latent philosophical affinity for crime. I read him for the fun and he never disappoints.

In this parody of old mysteries, I finally stopped trying to keep up with the convoluted plot and just followed Bernie to the Bogart film festival he attends every night with his newest romance, Ilona, a mystery woman from Anatruria. He is hired to steal documents, his employer is murdered, the suspected murderer is murdered, Ilona disappears then reappears with a boyfriend who is the heir to the throne on Anatruria and in need of the documents Bernie was to steal. (I think.) There's a fat man and a midget and a punk bodyguard and Raffles the cat and, always in the background, the many characters Bogie played in his lifetime in film.

Forget the plot--Block weaves Bogart's dialogue in and out of the conversations, Bernie begins to become Bogie, and the fun is all in revisiting those wonderful old Bogart classics and reliving his characters in a savvy new way. The author obviously had fun writing the book and I appreciated the joy of reading it.

Mr. Block, I love your writing. "Here's lookin' at you, kid."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Thunderstruck, But Not Quite Electrified

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson is not one of those grip-you-by-the-collar books that causes your kids to scream and kick your shins because you haven't fixed breakfast, lunch, or dinner and midnight looms, but it is a good read. Uncharacteristically, I spent four leisurely nights with Mr. Larson, enjoying the carefully crafted plot of this nonfiction tale.

As he did in The Devil in the White City, he tells two stories and moves them toward an intersection that creates a single unified whole. In Thunderstruck, Marconi is the inventor who can't seem to get his concept of wireless transmission off the ground (no pun intended, but I'll let the sentence stand.). Dr. Crippin is the kindly, well-liked physician who has murdered his domineering, abusive wife and run away with his typist.

Marconi's struggle to market wireless and Crippin's attempt to escape the law culminate in a surreal ocean voyage in which the Captain of Crippin's vessel is using his wireless to transmit information about the fugitives back to Scotland Yard and, via the newspapers of the day, to the world. As the Law races to catch the ship and board, the Captain is sending out daily tidbits that include conversations with the fugitives, their manner of dress, their reading material for the day, and other intimate details of the voyage. Worldwide, the public snapped up every morsel transmitted, and Wireless became the fad of the day. Marconi was saved even as Crippin was damned.

Larson is at the top of his craft in using information gathered from letters, transcripts, newpapers and other sources to create dialogue of such immediacy that the reader believes he has slipped into fiction. But his true master stroke comes in withholding details of the murder until after he has created a sympathetic picture of Crippin and his sweetheart. Therein lies the doubt. Crippin insisted he was innocent even as he went to the gallows. The readership of the day was uncertain, and Larson places us, today's readers, in their place.

Great read for cold nights by the fire.