2010 was a banner year for crime fiction. The final installment of Stieg Larsson's seminal Girl trilogy continued raising the genre’s status and the film release of Winter’s Bone opened millions of eyes to crime’s literary underground, where virtuosos like Daniel Woodrell, Jim Nesbit and David Peace — today’s Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Poe – write crime as high art, but whose works are often obscured by the formulaic claptrap of bestsellerdom.

Here, in my lowly opinion, are the top ten crime novels of 2010. Please Note: I don’t claim to have read every novel in which crime plays a central role published last year – daddy needs to keep his day job – but I sure as hell tried. So throw the quick-lime and shovels in the trunk, get your gloves on and masks up, and let’s get gritty ...

Truth by Peter Temple

If last year’s Broken Shore earned Peter Temple a seat at the table with crime’s heavy-hitters, Truth should ensure he doesn’t get stuck with the check. It’s the story of Homicide Chief Steve Villani’s internal and external struggle to expose a young woman’s murderer and sift the ashes of his past to salvage relationships with his father and three adult children. Set in a scorching Australian summer in which two impending catastrophes threaten to erase Villani's past (a raging forest fire headed for his boyhood home) and future (a ministerial election that could destroy his career), Truth hums with tension from page one. Villani's attempts to investigate the murder of a prostitute in an upscale high-rise development are met with stiff resistance by a pack of politicians, powerbrokers and police brass who wish the case to remain unsolved. Meanwhile, Villani’s father refuses to evacuate his home before the fire and his youngest daughter slips down the rabbit hole into Melbourne's druggie underground. Villani’s grim determination to unravel this tapestry of violence, guilt and regret make for a powerful tale that announces the arrival of literary crime’s new heavy-hitter.

Do They Know I'm Running by David Corbett

One of 2010's most memorable and timely works of literary crime offers a harrowing look at issues dominating the news (illegal immigration, human trafficking, PTSD, south-of-the-border gang violence, etc.) through the eyes of a young man touched by them all. When Roque Montalvo's uncle is deported to El Salvador, his outlaw cousin strikes a deal with über gang, MS-13, to buy his passage home. Roque heads South to accompany his aging uncle on the treacherous journey - one made even more risky when they find they’re to be accompanied by a beautiful young girl being shuffled from one abusive gang-leader to another and an Arab man with mysterious motives for entering the US illegally. Soon this unlikely foursome is on the run, relying on each other to survive the predators who feed on the flow of defenseless immigrants, including gangsters, cops and a crooked Mexican general. Running is a panoramic novel of breadth and insight from a writer who has a gift for breathing life into his characters and the savage, beautiful world they inhabit.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Years before Mystic River made him a household name; Dennis Lehane was revered by mystery readers for creating one of the most consistently enjoyable PI series' in decades. It starred Patrick Kenzie and Angela Genarro, an on-again, off-again couple of Boston PIs perpetually getting in over their heads to help society's underdogs find justice or some semblance thereof. It's been 11 years since the series’ last installment, and Lehane fills its comeback with everything that made it so memorable in the first place: a fluid narrative; a plot that seamlessly incorporates current events into an intriguing mystery with an ethical dilemma at its core. Lehane peoples his books with interesting characters who have enough humorous insights and witty dialogue to keep things moving without feeling forced. Moonlight Mile marks the triumphant return of mystery's most beloved couple since Nic and Nora.

Expiration Date by Duane Scwierczynski

Duane Scwierczynski is one of the modern crime’s most talented, consistent writers and Expiration Date is one of his most imaginative books yet. When out-of-work reporter Mickey Wade moves to his comatose grandpop's apartment in the downtrodden Phillie neighborhood he long ago escaped, he discovers a strange bottle of pills that send him back to the year he was born, where he’s soon racing to unravel the mysteries surrounding his father’s murder. Scwierczynski doesn't waste time on the mechanics - he lays down the ground rules quickly and gets on with the story. And what a story. Shady government experiments, a serial killer with links to Mickey's past, and a man given the chance to see – and perhaps alter – the events that shaped his life. Expiration sat unread on my shelf for months (the time-travel angle made me hesitant), but Scwierczynski’s incapable of writing a bad book. The kind of writer you never regret giving the benefit of the doubt. He could write about paint drying and it'd be exciting, hilarious and poignant. That's just how he rolls.

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith

Like his debut, Roger Smith's sophomore effort is not for the faint of heart. Once again, Smith leads us down the cracked sidewalks of a chaotic Cape Town, where classic noir themes (greed, lust, vengeance, etc.) lead a large cast of disparate and desperate characters to scheme, steal and kill their way through a series of convulsively violent interactions leading to the inevitable Grand Guignol finish. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Smith creates characters who are simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic - from a greedy gold-digger and a meth-ruined gangbanger to a killcrazy convict whose turn-ons include brutal sex, ominous brooding, and opening people up from crotch to clavicle. Smith’s recipe mixes incongruous beauty and human frailty with jarring violence and unrelenting grimness – he slowly brings it to a boil and serves it up sizzling off the page like hell's own master chef. If Roger Smith is neo-noir’s future, I see dark days ahead.

The Deputy by Victor Gischler

For the past decade, Gischler's been churning out entertaining, genre-bending fiction good for single-sitting reads. Spastic tales of hit men, pistol-packing poets and fiendish go-go girls replete with comic dialogue and cartoonish violence, they're the literary equivalent of a roller-coaster that's all loops. With The Deputy Gischler dials it down a notch without losing the exhilarating momentum his readers have come to expect. Toby Sawyer, our badge-carrying protagonist, is a champion loafer who spends his time mourning his inability to escape his shithole hometown and ignoring his crumbling marriage to a deceitful she-devil. That all changes the night Toby accidentally discovers that his seemingly-pulseless town is a stop on a domestic slave route. To survive, he'll have learn how to use his trigger finger for more than mining his nasal cavity and his long-neglected brain to tell his friends (nobody) from his foes (the rest). The Deputy is more than a fun read - it's a satire of wit and precision, a fight song for generation slack-ass.

Collusion by Stuart Neville

In Collusion, we return to post-Troubles Belfast, where resentments simmer beneath the surface and two communities divided by years of bloodshed maintain a fragile peace. In 2009's Ghosts of Belfast, ex-paramilitary Gerry Fegan returned from prison to hunt and kill the Republican thugs who once gave him marching orders. Along the way, he formed a bond with a woman named Marie – who was shunned by her Catholic family for having the child of an Ulster policeman – and her daughter, Ellen. Collusion begins where Ghosts left off - only this time the hero is Jack Lennon, the same detective who abandoned Marie when she was pregnant. Now Jack’s determined to find Marie and Ellen, but learns they went into hiding after Fegan’s killing spree made them targets for paramilitary thugs looking for revenge. But they didn’t hide deep enough. Jack’s investigation reveals the mother and daughter are being held as bate by a partisan crime intent on luring Gerry Fegan into the open. To rescue Marie and the daughter he never knew, Lennon forges an uneasy alliance with Fegan. Collusion is exhilarating and powerful -- a white-knuckled ride through a country that’s out of the news, but not the woods.

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

With the American release of The Devil's Star, Nesbo’s finally getting the attention Stateside he enjoys in Europe. Of the three books released in the U.S. starring Nesbo's surly, alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, Devil's Star is the strongest yet. Not only does it include a devious serial killer who seems to disappear at will - it features Harry's showdown with Tom Waaler, the sociopathic cop who's sabotaged Hole's life and career. Nesbo's prowess is on display from the intro, in which a bead of water from an overflowing sink in a murder-victim's apartment works its way through cracks in an old house, eventually dropping onto the downstairs neighbor's dinner. If you're already hooked on Nesbo, just wait 'til you get your hands on his next two English translations - The Snowman (which Knopf is bringing out in 2011) and The Redeemer. If you haven’t yet been inducted into the Harry Hole fan club, Devil’s Star is a good place to start.

Savages by Don Winslow

Winslow is one of the unsung masters of modern crime. His panoramic masterpieces have garnered critical acclaim - yet he somehow seems to just miss best-of lists like this one. Savages returns to a subject Winslow examined in his epic The Power of the Dog – cross-border drug trafficking and the lives it destroys. While Savages doesn’t go as deep as Dog, it's a hell of a lot more fun to read. Starring a likeable trio - two lifetime buddies turned marijuana kingpins and their girl friend/girlfriend – Savages’ narrative is spare and powerful, with a plot that moves at a brisk clip, building the characters enough to make us care without slowing the action. The strongest point here is the spot-on, often-hilarious dialogue. Hopeless do-gooder Ben and his cynical, war-hardened partner Chon run a pot empire that's made them rich, but when they run afoul of the Baja cartel, the stakes suddenly get higher than they were prepared for. When they refuse to become a cartel franchise, Ophelia, the girl they love like a sister (and a little more), is kidnapped and held for ransom. To get her back, Ben and Chon will risk their lives and (in Ben's case) their naïve altruism. If Savages represents a new direction for Winslow, he might finally start seeing the readership his books deserve.

No More Heroes by Ray Banks

In the 70+ years since Spade and Marlowe, thousands of writers have tried and failed to create PI series’ that feel fresh. That’s what makes Ray Banks’ Cal Innes series such a remarkable achievement, and Heroes continues the winning streak. When emotionally-stunted and nihilistic ex-con Callum takes a job evicting tenants for Manchester’s worst slumlord, he ends up rescuing a young boy from a house fire and becoming a local hero. Soon he’s scouring the political fringe to track down the arsonist before he sparks tensions seething barely under the surface into a full-blown race riot. Set in a stark Northern England where young men without futures use anger and violence as a means of escape, Heroes careens forward with unstoppable momentum, fueled by Cal’s growing dependence on painkillers and peppered with so much Northern slang and casual violence it feels like a continuation of Clockwork Orange. Catch this series while it's still got its newly-stolen car smell.

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

This year's standout period mystery is a rip-roaring ride through the smoke and sin-filled streets of 40's era San Francisco. When private detective and ex-prostitute, Miranda Corbie, witnesses the brash murder of a Japanese numbers runner on a crowded Chinatown street, she seems the only one interested in finding his killer. Unable to find help from the police, Miranda decides to seek justice on her own. She sets out through the vibrant city using her wits, charm, and underworld familiarity to track down the triggerman and uncover his motive. Filled with period detail and set during Chinese New Year, City of Dragons brings us back to the roots of noir and detective fiction with a confident tour guide and a brash new heroine we'll surely be hearing more from in coming years. Right now, über-talented Megan Abbot is the alpha-female of hardboiled noir. But if Stanley can keep the momentum, she might soon provide some competition for the queenpin.

Okay – so that was 11. Like I said, banner year. Honorable mentions: Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti, William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, Simon Lelac’s A Thousand Cuts, Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and many, many more. Stay tuned for a sneak-peak at some upcoming 2011 releases that are sure to be the biz.

view /BigDime2010
Wednesday, January 19, 2011 08:07 pm
Garrett Kenyon

The last decade has brought a massive infusion of new talent to crime fiction and its sub-genres. Brilliant young writers all over the world are brushing off stale literary conventions and using their formidable skills to write stories in which things actually happen. And with these guys – they’re usually very bad things.

Carrying the torch are James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen – the unholy trinity of modern crime. But coming up fast from the shadows is a fierce new breed of gifted writers. They’re bringing a new level of violence and linguistic excellence to the craft and giving life to some of the darkest visions put to paper since Poe was found floating in a Baltimore gutter.

These are the 10 to look out for the next time you’re out after dark:

1. Charlie Huston writes ultra-violent pulp so fluid it cuts out the middleman and projects itself straight to your brainpan in digital HD. Huston always delivers, but the 3-part Henry Thompson series is a great place to start. It starts when Henry, a typical NY bartender with a coulda-been-a-contender story stumbles into the crosshairs of the Russian mob. By the end, he’s a rusty, pill-popping hitman submitting to indentured servitude to keep his parents alive. Along the way, he discovers a knack for killing and leaves a trail of bodies leading to a Grand Guignol finale that kicks like a tweaker on Cops. Warning: Don’t start a Huston book unless you’re ready to forego unessential activities (like bathing and sleeping) for days. His work is best described as paper crack.

2. William Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy is one of the most disturbing things ever written. And completely brilliant. It begins when Phineas, a schizophrenic, drug-addled ex-cop fresh out of a padded cell, meets a hot little number in a hotel bar and wakes up in a bathtub missing a kidney. His memories of the previous night are as unreliable as a Saturday night special – his thoughts a swirling broth of hallucinations, drug fog, traumatic memories and sudden snaps of cold, sharp reality. When Poe sets out to find the shady lady who made off with his kidney, he descends into a rabbit-hole full of dubious characters that may be figments of his fevered imagination. If the DNA of Dante and Jim Thompson were combined to create a child raised by H.R. Giger and a string of deranged ex-prostitutes, it would write stories like Baer. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, but if you’re ready to take one of fiction’s darkest journeys, he’s the perfect guide.

3. I was a Duane Swierczynski skeptic until I picked up The Wheelman, which starts with a botched bank job and gets increasingly complicated as the enigmatic protagonist unties a Gordian knot of Russian and Italian gangsters, crooked cops, double and triple-crossers and a mysterious government agent as unrelenting as Robert Patrick’s cyborg in Terminator 2. What unfolds, as in all Swierczynski books, is an ampthetamine-fueled symphony of violence with more shoot-outs and car chases than a John Woo film festival. Swierczynski is a master conductor. He parses the gunplay with enough sharp dialogue, intriguing characters, interesting trivia and deft descriptions to make you actually care about the outcome. Within minutes of finishing The Wheelman, I bought Swierczynski’s entire oeuvre. Having read them all, I must say I’m sorry for doubting Duane.

4. South African Roger Smith’s first two novels (Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead) are masterpieces of modern crime. They’re set in Cape Town – a noir playground where the where well-fed Afrikaners and wealthy ex-pats in the tony Ridge District look down (literally) on the sprawling Cape Flats, a Boschian slum that makes the worst American ghetto look like Norman Rockwell prints. Both novels explore what happens when morally ambiguous men and women at the top of the Cape Town’s food chain clash with those desperately clawing their way up from the bottom. Smith’s Cape Town is a city of extremes – one where immense mansions with sublime ocean views sit like fatted calves on display before the post-apocalyptic Flats, where the only order is the line that separating predator from prey. All this is handled with an élan rare for a new writer, making Roger Smith one of noir’s newest all-stars.

5. Allan Guthrie, the premier writer of Scottish noir, writes hyper-brutal one-offs starring men and women for whom violence comes as naturally as breathing. His two best, Slammer and Savage Night, are bleak-to-the-bone examinations of the human psyche pushed over the edge. Slammer stars Nick Glass, a weak-kneed guard at a Scottish prison who falls victim to the machinations of the scheming cons who surround him. He bounces like a pinball from one tormentor to the next until his psyche shatters – triggering a bloody downward spiral that haunts your memory long after you finish the book. Savage Night contains more humor and triple the body count. While Guthrie’s characters are often complex, his plots are direct and his style razor sharp, making his books connect with the impact of brass-knuckle uppercuts.

6. Anthony Neil Smith is one of crime’s least recognized and most talented new scribes. His latest two, Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, are pure hardboiled heaven for the dark at heart. Both follow the violent exploits of Billy Lafitte, a crooked cop plucked from Louisiana (over some shady Katrina shenanigans) and dropped into rural Minnesota’s remote Yellow Medicine County where he uses his badge to bed local coeds and his viciousness to carve a slice of the local meth pie. Yet somehow, just Nabokov made us sympathized with an oily Humbert Humbert, Smith gets us rooting for Lafitte when he discovers a terrorist plot unfolding under his nose. By Hogdoggin’, Lafitte’s lost his badge and is riding with an outlaw biker gang. But no matter how far he roams, he’ll eventually have to return to Yellow Medicine to attend to some unfinished business and kill a whole lotta people. If you like your fiction dirty and lethal, this is one homecoming you don’t want to miss.

7. In 2008, Dave Zeltserman released Small Crimes, the first of what he calls his “bad-ass out of prison trilogy.” This dark tour-de-force, described by the Washington Post as “a piece of crime-noir genius,” stars ex-cop Joe Denton, who finishes a 7-year bid for a vicious assault that left the local D.A. with a ruined face. Joe returns home shunned by all sides, and his plans to go straight sour when his former boss, the crooked local sheriff, pulls him into middle of the unfolding local drama. It seems the town’s cancer addled area mob boss is considering a deathbed confession to the same D.A. Joe tried to kill 7-years earlier. Now Joe’s given a choice...of which one to kill. The plot that unfolds from there was described by Ken Bruen, as “Pure magic of the blackest kind.” The next two books in the trilogy, Pariah and Killer, while not quite the masterpieces Small Crimes was, are easily strong enough to earn Zeltserman a spot in the front ranks of modern crime stars.

8. David Peace is scary. If it’s darkness you crave, fiction doesn’t come blacker or bloodier than his critically acclaimed Red Riding Quartet. Set in a Northern England rendered in shades of gray and black, the books (1974, 1978, 1980 and 1982) concern a series of gruesome murder-sprees linked by the men and women pulled into their bloody orbit. The protagonists are cogs in the dark machinery of a deeply corrupted police force and a complicit press establishment, who struggle with the crimes and their own personal demons against a backdrop of sex, graft and nostalgia. Peace proves himself a literary stylist par excellence, employing a clipped-to-the-bone style reminiscent of Ellroy, but seasoned with a haunting mixture of repetition, song lyrics and thought fragments. As a fully desensitized child of the 80’s, I’m nearly impossible to shock, but Peace’s books stayed with me long after I’d clapped off my bedside lamp, haunting my dreams like a late-night pepperoni pizza. Peace’s series sets a high-water mark for disturbing crime fiction that’ll be hard to top.

9. Jo Nesbo is one of the finest writers you’ve never heard of. If you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, or spent time with Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, then Nesbo’s series starring the chronic misanthrope Harry Hole, is right up your alley. In my humble opinion, the wave of Scandinavian crime fiction finds its peak in Nesbo’s work. His books have all the grim moodiness of the others, with an added sense of immediacy and a heightened level of conflict. The Redbreast (the first Nesbo release in the US) is a sleek literary voyage into dark waters that has Hole looking for a mysterious killer of aging Nazi collaborators. He works alongside Tom Waller, a crooked cop who soon reveals a capacity for cruelty that makes him a truly compelling and frightening foil. Devil’s Star is the latest Nesbo released in the US, and it’s a compelling read. But the next two coming down the pike are even better. By the time you read The Snowman you’ll understand why Nesbo is at the pinnacle of the thriving Scandinavian crime scene.

10. Adrian McKinty doesn’t write crime fiction. He produces stark explorations of the darkest realms of the human heart, masterfully executed with poetry and precision. His latest, 50 Grand, follows a Havana detective who smuggles herself into the U.S. to find and execute the yanqui who left her estranged father dead at the scene of hit-and-run in a chic Colorado resort town. Mercado is by turns dangerous and vulnerable, full of self-doubt and unwanted sympathy for her quarry, and yet humming with a bloody-minded intensity. Like all McKinty’s books, 50 Grand is an epic journey steeped in lyrical wordplay, biting wit and a protagonist so real she seems to sit beside you, whispering her story softly into your ear. In McKinty’s deft hand, an ultraviolent tales of corruption and vengeance become literature of the highest order. Bar none one of the best writers of this or any era.

view /Crimestars
Monday, November 8, 2010 11:32 pm
Garrett Kenyon

You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn't want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I've read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.

Reason two is a tad more subjective: I've noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly's mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn't have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.

Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

This masterful Swedish crime novel examines one of today's most pervasive evils, human trafficking, in the stark light of day. The systematic and brutal process used to turn young girls into throwaway sex slaves is portrayed in graphic detail without being exploitive or cheap. At its heart, Box 21 is a meditation on loss and truth. Surly Stockholm detective Ewert Grens struggles to accept the loss of his lover 25 years ago in a moment of senseless violence and a young Lithuanian woman, Lydia Grajauskas, is consumed with rage after losing her freedom to three years of forced prostitution. Each flounders under the weight of their loss, and when they collide, the impact rips the lid off years of lies and police corruption, opening a chasm beneath Ewert Grens' feet. One of Box 21's authors, Börge Hellström, is a self-described ex-criminal. Whether it's because or despite of this, this portrayal of human beings living on the razor edge is intensely compelling and believable.

1974 by David Peace

The English language, eloquent and expressive as it is, contains only two words that accurately convey my reaction to this book: holy shit. David Peace's 1974 shot right past my 2009 list and on to my list of favorite crime novels of all time. This is the first installment of the groundbreaking Red Riding Quartet, and the first to be published in the US. It's a story about a Yorkshire crime journalist who follows the gruesome trail of a serial killer right down the rabbit hole into a world of sadism, corruption and greed where no one can be trusted and most should be feared. Peace employs a staccato style that's similar to Ellroy at the peak of his game, mercilessly chopping each sentence down to its essence, mimicking thought and frantic action so convincingly it's unnerving. Unrelentingly dark and truly frightening, 1974 is a book that hard-boiled fans will worship.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø is undoubtedly one of the freshest, most inventive voices in mystery/crime today. His protagonist Harry Hole is a gifted Oslo detective, battling his own demons while hunting down Norway's most dangerous criminals. Nemesis finds Hole investigating a string of brutal bank robberies and joining forces with an arch-crook to find the culprit. Before the investigation gets off the ground, Hole finds himself accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Problem is, he can't remember if he did it or not. If that sounds familiar, never fear. Nesbø has a way of surprising you, even when he's telling a story you think you've heard before. Nemesis is my least favorite of the three Harry Hole's I've read (including the masterful The Redbreast, and the utterly addictive Devil's Star), but it's still heads and tails above 95% of the cheap juvenilia masquerading as mystery nowadays.

Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser

My other favorite Scandinavian crime author is Swedish scribe Håkan Nesser. Inspector Van Veeteren, Nesser's leading man, is that rarest of finds in crime fiction: a unique character. He's philosophical, self-effacing, and ultimately relentless, but with a playful attitude that contrasts with the serious crimes he investigates. Think of an idiot savant whose skill is finding guilty parties. It's endlessly entertaining watching Van Veeteren take in all the information surrounding a murder, shake it around, and then let it marinate in his brain -- subconsciously exploring multiple scenarios and possibilities -- until the answer pops out of his mouth. There are some much-needed light moments to be had watching the other, more normal, characters, relate to Van Veeteren's eccentricities. Mind's Eye is the first novel starring Van Veeteren, though it was the fourth one released in the US. It's a perfect place to start, and a nice preparation for the even-better Borkmann's Point.

Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy

What can I say about Ellroy that hasn't already been said? The man is an institution. And love him or hate him -- you can't deny that he is the premier crime author still sucking wind. Each Ellroy book is a like a submarine, plumbing the depths of the 50's and 60's, sifting through layers of dirt and grime left out of the history books. Like most of Ellroy's books, Blood's features a potent mix of high political intrigue and street-level dirt, focusing on the smoky backrooms where the two meet -- a place where powerful politicians and bent cops shake hands with infamous mobsters and two-bit pimps and everybody but everybody is on the take. Though I still prefer the L.A. quartet (particularly the middle two installments, The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential), Blood's a Rover, the final book in the mammoth Underworld USA trilogy, still ranks as one of the best crime novels of last or any year.

Spade and Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon by Joe Gores

In lesser hands, this book would have been an utter disaster. From trillions of fan-fiction sites catering to obsessed weirdos who just can't accept that Buffy and Xena are make believe, to more high-falutin' attempts to modernize or prequel-ize classic works of literature -- when you hear that someone other than the original author has created a prequel or sequel to a masterpiece, it's hard to take it seriously. That's why Joe Gores had nothing to lose with the prequel to The Maltese Falcon. And why he totally pulled it off. Spade and Archer gives us a better understanding of Spade's motivations and the events that led to the icy tension between the title characters in Falcon. The language is entirely legit -- you'll feel like you're back in the pulp-era where rhythmic back and forth was a hallmark of any great detective narrative. If you've got a place in your heart for Spade or Hammett, you'll love it. If you don't - try a defibrillator.

The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

It’s always cool when an author whose bag of tricks you’ve committed to memory pulls something new out of the hat. The Long Fall is the best thing Mosley’s written in years. Leonid McGill is a surly Private Investigator struggling to “go from crooked to only slightly bent” in a city not known for granting second chances. At the beginning of the book, McGill is completing a seemingly simple assignment: track down four men and deliver their whereabouts to an Albany PI. Even though his spidey sense is tingling, Leonid hands over the information. When the men rather predictably start turning up dead, Leonid tracks down the Albany PI for answers. Unfortunately for Leonid, dead men rarely have the answers. But the condition of his previous employer does tell Leonid one thing: he’s probably next on the list. The pleasure in this book lies in Leonid’s internal monologue as he tries to navigate through a brutal world of treachery and greed without getting his hands too dirty. McGill is a throwback, a strong, silent type who talks with his fists and always gets the girl –- the kind of guy you want on your side in a barroom scuffle. Think Mike Hammer with more melanin and less self-regard. I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting his next appearance.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

This is the swan song of one of mystery's most beloved protagonists, Scottish Inspector John Rebus. Rankin's books breathed fresh life into the genre at a time when it was sorely needed. By focusing not only on the crimes his hero is trying to solve, but on the hero's personal life and internal struggles, Rankin creates a character who feels three-dimensional. This has the effect of tightening the tension when Rebus finds himself in a dicey situation. Exit Music is a fitting end to a series that will long hold a place of prominence in the annals of detective fiction.

Lush Life by Richard Price

For those who hadn't already added Richard Price to their list of most talented urban crime writers, Lush Life should have sealed the deal. I'm sure bookstore owners have a hard time deciding whether to put Price's works in with literary fiction or mystery -- and the truth is, he's the perfect mix of both. Price's dialogue is so real, his descriptions so apt, his wit so sharp, the scenes feel more like something you witnessed through an open window than something you read off a page. Lush Life is not so much about a murder as it is about the repercussions of that murder, how they ripple outwards, inexorably changing the lives of those who knew the victim and those accused of the crime. Price is hands-down one of the most promising voices in urban crime fiction today -- and Lush Life just might be his masterpiece.

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

I'm about to admit to something shocking here, so tighten your monocles and cover the top of your champagne glass: I don't care for Stieg Larsson. Yeah, I said it. Bring on the hate mail. I welcome the inferno. Seriously, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a pretty good book. Pretty good. But from the hype, you would have thought Larsson was the second coming of James Joyce, writing about Swedes instead of Dubliners, murders instead of funerals. By page 250 I was starting to wonder if anything of note was ever going to happen -- and my wait wasn't over by a long shot. Shocking Admission Number Two: I didn't finish The Girl Who Played with Fire. I know, I know...blasphemy, right? I was about 20 pages in when I got fed up with learning about the history of mathematics and the ancient lives of its pre-eminent practitioners. At that point, I dramatically flung the book against the wall (something I've always wanted to do) and said, in my best Rhett Butler voice, "Frankly, Stieg, I don't give a damn!" If I want to read history, I'll read history. If I want mystery, thrills, suspense, I sure as hell won't pick up a book whose author seems determined to cram every interesting fact he's ever heard into each book. That said, I'm including Played with Fire on this list because it's had a major impact on the mystery/crime genre. Any book that brings thousands of more readers into the fold earns a spot on my list.

That's my list. Feel free to disagree, to tell me what I missed, to send hate mail to or to list your own favorites below. The illustration is by Clayton Douglas.

view /BestMystery2010
Monday, March 8, 2010 04:22 pm
Garrett Kenyon

Yeah, of course Blueprint is my number one hiphop album of the last ten years. It's not like it was a very hard choice (and it's not like a few of you didn't guess it). I already wrote about why I love the album so much here.

I don't like to repeat myself, so I'm going to refer to the above article for my rationale. Beyond the autobiographical angle I focus on there, I'd also like to point to the sly humor of "Takeover", probably the most definitive beef track of all time, and mention the unusual fact that Jay seemed not peeved but proud when Nas, his target and one-time hero, took Jay's insults as a kick in the ass and came back hard with "Ether". Jay's positive reaction to Nas's subsequent career revival showed a lot of character (and I consider myself very lucky to have been at the concert where Jay and Nas surprised the hiphop world by ending their bitter battle onstage in 2005).

Blueprint is the album I think I'll always remember when I think about the past decade, not only because I listened to it so damn much but also because it's a "message record" that inspired me and gave me strength during some of the tough years at the beginning of this decade that I describe in my memoir. If he wasn't a rapper, Jay could have written self-help books. He probably could have even called them Blueprint, Blueprint 2, etc.

Some of the personal crises explored on this CD appear to have even taken the rapper himself to the edge of uncertainty. The album builds up to a high point (following the just awesome "Never Change" and "Heart of the City") with "Song Cry", a confessional about a broken-up love affair that cuts deep enough to require a few layers of misdirection and sarcastic dismissal ("Sounds like a love song", the track begins). I have no idea what the personal circumstances behind the song are. It's not the words but the tone of the voice that lets us know it's real.

Some bemoan the fact that Jay's more recent work seems to slip into self-imitation (though, let's be honest, even Kingdom Come and Blueprint 3 sound great). I say he's given us enough. If the next decade of hiphop is anywhere near as good as the past decade, it's not hard to guess where the blueprint will have come from.

Hell, even Barack Obama cites Jay-Z as an inspiration. That says a lot. Blueprint, indeed.

* * * * *

So, the Literary Kicks Top Five Hiphop Masterpieces of the Past Decade list is complete. But I know what you're saying: what about D-Block? What about Lil' Jon, and Mike Jones, and Fat Joe, and Eminem, and Luda, and Weezy? And why is my list so insular -- why did I pick three albums that came out of the Roc-A-Fella factory and two from Death Row? And why are my choices so commercial -- where's the underground and the indie scenes? I can't answer these questions. Blame my ears.

Other readers of this series may not care why Houston and Atlanta don't show up on my list, but instead want to know why a literary site should afford any respect for the messy traditions of hiphop in the first place. All I can say there is that I deeply wish the popular novelists of the past decade had managed to be anywhere near as original as Jay-Z and Dr. Dre and Kanye West and 50 Cent and Cam'ron (or, for that matter, Jadakiss and Nas and Slim Thug and Akon and ... okay, I'll stop).

I don't know which books from the 2000s will be appreciated a hundred years from now. But I just told you about five albums that definitely will be.

Hiphop isn't the smoothest fit for the LitKicks readership, but I enjoyed writing this series, and I hope some of you enjoyed it too. I may follow up with the Five Hiphop Masterpieces of the 1980s and the 1990s, if anyone's interested in hearing about it.

Five Hiphop Masterpieces from the 2000s

#5: Cam'ron: Come Home With Me

#4: 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin'

#3: Kanye West: Graduation

#2: Dr. Dre: 2001

#1: Jay-Z: The Blueprint

view /Hiphop2000sOne
Thursday, February 18, 2010 04:10 pm
Levi Asher

As we near the top of the Hiphop Masterpieces of the 2000s list, a common thread begins to emerge: business. How to succeed in a cutthroat business environment has always been, to a surprising and largely unrecognized degree, one of hiphop's core lyrical themes. Inspired by films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, following the early lead of EMPD and Q-Tip (who advised that "record company people are shady"), rappers have aligned their egos with their management skills, taking pride in their abilities to compete and win in the rap game (which, Nas famously pointed out, has a lot in common with the crack game). Like the novels of Horatio Alger, modern hiphop offers inspirational stories about working hard, focusing on goals, avoiding traps and pitfalls, coming out on top.

But boasting about business skills offers too many openings to shallow pretenders with no real experience or staying power. This is why Cam'ron mocks a newbie rapper, flush with his first advance, on the track "Let Me Know":

Got thirty thou, now your action's begun?
Actin' all fun? After taxes, you're done.

It might surprise people who don't know much about hiphop to learn that the best artists rap about taxes. But nobody in the field has the authority of Dr. Dre, architect of N.W.A.'s seminal career in the early 1990s, arguably the most talented beat designer of all time, and the mastermind behind the careers of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. Dre would be a legend even if he weren't a powerful storyteller with a distinctive voice of his own and a whole lot of opinions and emotions to share. But he greeted the new millennium with an album so definitive that it may outrank everything else he's ever done. 2001, a massive achievement, is a comedy record and a collection of outrageously good club-bangers, but it's also an autobiography, taking us back to where it all started:

Back when Cube was rolling with Lorenzo in a Benzo
I was banging with a gang of instrumentals
Got out the pads and pencils, got down to business
but sometimes the business end of this shit can turn your friends against you

We hear him struggling with past opponents on one track after another, sometimes to come to terms with them and end the beef, sometimes to take the beef to a new level. An atmosphere of thoughtful reckoning and timeworn reflection pervades the work.

I got more class than most of 'em
ran with the best of 'em
forgave the less of 'em
and blazed at the rest of 'em

It's not completely clear what the fabulously wealthy Dr. Dre has to be angry about when he wrote these songs, but defiance is the album's top note, even though Dre usually laughs off his opponents and critics:

Ladies, they pay homage
but haters says Dre fell off
My last album was 'The Chronic'

This is a hilarious line because The Chronic (another masterpiece, to which 2001 is often seen as the sequel) came out in 1992. But that's Dre, clocking at his own pace, ignoring the world outside as much as he wants. The Chronic began with some premium beef tracks (directed at Eazy-E), but 2001 begins in dead seriousness with "The Watcher", a proclamation as sincere and personal as hiphop has ever heard:

I moved out of the hood for good, you blame me?
Niggas aim mainly at niggas they can't be
But niggas can't hit niggas they can't see
I'm out of sight, now I'm out of their damn reach
How would you feel if niggas wanted you killed?
You'd probably move to a new house on a new hill
And choose a new spot if niggas wanted you shot,
I ain't a thug, how much Tupac in you you got?
I ain't no bitch neither
It's either my life or your life, and I ain't leaving
I like breathing
Nigga, we can go round for round
Clip for clip, shit, pound for pound
If you really want to take it there we can
Just remember that you're fucking with a family man
I got a lot more to lose than you
remember that when you wanna come and fill these shoes

Dre walks us through the mistakes he's made, pausing to dwell on them to teach us a few lessons we might need:

I done learned a lot, seen a whole lot
Top notch nigga, I'm fiendin for that spot
Now peep game on what Six-Deuce told me
"These niggaz is after your paper, Dr. D.R.E."
"And these punk-ass hos is lookin for dough
You gotta watch your homeboys, cause a nigga never know
Oh, they'll be around, but when your paper get low
Just like Master P said, there they go, there they go"

But, again like a Horatio Alger story, Dre's words are meant to inspire. A peaceful mood of proud achievement lies beneath every smooth drumbeat and synthesized orchestra blast on this album, and no song is happier than the mellow single "Still D.R.E.", a sweet moment of satisfaction from a person doing exactly what he wants to do, nothing more and nothing less:

Still puffing my leaf
Still fuck with the beats
Still not loving police

2001 is a great album but not a perfect one. Some of the skits are funny, some pointless. I wish the album were less misogynistic, and I will never understand why a person as wise and people-smart as Dr. Dre appears to be would spew so much hateful invective towards women. This is hiphop's problem, not just Dre's, but 2001 would be a better work if it could be fully enjoyed by self-respecting women as well as by men. That's all I can say about this; hiphop's harsh sexism is a syndrome I just don't understand.

Dre may truly hate women. If he does, it's his problem rather than mine, and I can enjoy his brilliant work regardless. He certainly can collaborate with other men. Eminem and Snoop Dogg are all over 2001, along with countless local rappers and producers. Dre is generous: one of the record's best tracks is Some L. A. Niggaz, and you don't hear even Dre or Snoop or Eminem on it. MC Ren from N.W.A. makes an appearance, and the snappy beat is just infectious, even if you don't know who's rapping. It's just a voice from the street, just some guy who tells us:

Now in my younger days I used to sport a rag ...

Hiphop doesn't get much more epic than 2001. A couple of years ago a follow-up album called Detox was announced, but this was followed by the tragic news of Dre's 20-year-old son's death, and we haven't heard anything about the follow-up to The Chronic and 2001 since. Dre will put the record out when he's ready, and not till then. That's the way he works.

Five Hiphop Masterpieces from the 2000s

#5: Cam'ron: Come Home With Me

#4: 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin'

#3: Kanye West: Graduation

#2: Dr. Dre: 2001

#1: ?

view /Hiphop2000sTwo
Friday, February 12, 2010 12:17 pm
Levi Asher

Many music critics placed Kanye West's first album College Dropout near the top of their best-of-the-decade lists. That was an excellent record, featuring his lyrical breakthrough "Through The Wire", but for the LitKicks Best Five of the 2000s I'm going with Ye's third album Graduation, the conclusion of his college trilogy.

Graduation is more consistently listenable than his previous records, partly because it avoids the dumb jokey skits about college education that mar the first two, and also because two hit songs from Dropout and Late Registration ("Jesus Walks" and "Golddigger") were overplayed beyond the point of repair. There's no one big hit on Graduation, but it's packed with strong tracks like the visionary "Everything I Am", a song so good it must be quoted in full.

I'll never be picture-perfect Beyonce
Light as Al B or black as Chauncey
Remember him from Blackstreet?
He was as black as the street was
I'll never be laid back as his beat was
I never could see why people'll reach a
fake-ass facade they couldn't keep up
You see how I creeped up? You see how I played
a big role in Chicago like Queen Latifah?
I'll never rock a mink coat in the winter time like Killa Cam
Or rock some mink boots in the summertime like
Let me know if you feel it man
'cause everything I'm not made me everything I am

Here we go again
Everybody saying what's not for him
But everything I'm not made me everything I am
Here we go again
People talk shit, but when the shit hits the fan
Everything I'm not made me everything I am

And I'm back to tear it up
Haters, start your engines, I hear 'em gearing up
People talk so much shit about me in barbershops
they forget to get their haircut
Okay fair enough, the streets is flaring up
'cause they want gun talk or I don't wear enough
baggy clothes, Reebok's, or Adi-dos
can I add that he do spaz out at his shows?
So say goodbye to the NAACP award
Goodbye to the India-dot-Arie award
They'd rather give me the N-Nigga Please award
But I'll just take the I Got a Lot of Cheese award

Here we go again
Everybody saying what's not for him
But everything I'm not made me everything I am
Here we go again
People talk shit, but when shit hits the fan
Everything I'm not made me everything I am

I know that people wouldn't usually rap this
But I got the facts to back this
Just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets
Man, killing's some wack shit
Oh, I forgot, except for when niggas is rapping
Do you know what it feel like when people is passing?
He got changed over his chains, a block off Ashland
I need to talk to somebody, Pastor
The church want tithe, so I can't afford to pay
the slip on the door, cause I can't afford to stay
My 15 seconds up, but I got more to say
"That's enough Mr. West, no more today"

............. Damn!
Here we go again
Everybody saying what's not for him
But everything I'm not made me everything I am
Here we go again
People talk shit, but when the shit hits the fan
Everything I'm not made me everything I am

Loudmouth, wise-guy, comedian, activist and street philosopher, this gifted young MC specializes in "did he just say that?". If it's Kanye we're talking about, yeah, he probably did just say that. Unabashedly intellectual, political and pop-culture obsessed, he seems to have made it his core principle to never censor himself, neither on grounds of offensiveness nor of triviality. This can get him into trouble, as when he grabbed a mic from Taylor Swift last year at a televised awards show and declared that Beyonce should have won instead. Picking on a teenage girl didn't turn out to be a smart career move for Kanye, but the syndrome he exhibited was nothing new. He criticized himself for it on Graduation long before the Taylor Swift incident occurred:

I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do? Act more stupidly

I saw Kanye in concert after Graduation came out, before the Taylor Swift fracas. It was an unintentionally disturbing show. The concert was staged as a massive ego trip, a highly synchronized multimedia career showcase that also felt like a ghostly self-portrait of a lost soul. Kanye was alone on a large sculpted stage for over an hour; his isolation and confusion as to where to go next with his stellar career were absolutely clear. His beloved mother's death during a plastic surgery procedure clearly haunted him, and his fourth album 808s and Heartbreak would eventually reveal that major love problems were beguiling him during this period as well.

The hiphop genius who owned the 2000s had begun the decade as an eager unknown sound engineer from Chicago, then invented an improbable rap career for himself that took even his closest collaborators by surprise. By the end of the decade he reached the far limits of celebrity success, and he's currently taking a break from public appearances (he didn't even show up at last week's Grammy Awards, to the relief of many), hopefully to calculate the comeback phase of his career.

Graduation was the culmination of his bright first phase: Kanye at the top of the world, simply bragging, "you can't tell me nothing!". Another track on the album toasts "The Good Life", and another one declares (with Nietzsche) that whatever doesn't kill him makes him stronger. Nothing's killed him yet, so we have a lot to look forward to.

Five Hiphop Masterpieces from the 2000s

#5: Cam'ron: Come Home With Me

#4: 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin'

#3: Kanye West: Graduation

#2: ?

#1: ?

view /Hiphop2000sThree
Thursday, February 4, 2010 04:51 pm
Levi Asher

Now Peter Piper picked peppers, and Run rocked rhymes
I'm 50 Cent, I write a little bit but I pop nines ...

Oh, he was so authentic. 50 Cent feels like a cartoon character lately, because his last three albums were weak and nobody wants to hear over and over again how much money he has, how big his house is, how far he's removed himself from the street. Get Rich or Die Tryin' was 50's first album. He still had everything to prove when he recorded it, and the story he told was as real and as common as yesterday's newspaper.

So many pussy niggas putting money on my head
go on get your refund, motherfucker, I ain't dead
I'm the diamond in the dirt that ain't been found
I'm the underground king, and I ain't been crowned

Of course, 50 let it be known that the story was true, that somebody had once been paid to shoot him. It happened in front of his grandparents' house in South Jamaica, Queens, and he somehow came through with just a scar on his cheek and damage to his mouth:

From the last shootout, I got a dimple on my face
That's nothing, I can go after Mase's fan base

It became the basis of 50's legend that he not only survived the shooting but took the opportunity to capitalize on it, turning his misery into alchemy. But he still sounds mad on his first album, and when he boasts we feel the pain behind the hubris. Somehow it's less thrilling today, three mediocre massive-selling albums later, to hear about how successful he is. But you've got to admire somebody who believed so much in himself when nobody else did.

You're thinking about shitting on 50, save it
My songs belong in the Bible with King David

The album plays like a novel, or a memoir -- a tale of suffering and deliverance, a lesson in living with purpose. "I'm focused, man," he says. The results speak for themselves.

It helps that Curtis Jackson is just plain funny. "I love you like a fat kid loves cake", he sings on "21 Questions". The most laughs are on "Back Down", a beef song directed at Ja "Jeffrey Atkins" Rule so wonderfully hilarious that it has continued to define Rule's entire career. No shabby rapper himself, Ja Rule eventually hit back with "New York", also featuring Jadakiss and Fat Joe, and Fat Joe almost equaled "Back Down" with "My FoFo" ("I see MJ in the hood more than Curtis"). But beef is 50's game and these attacks barely touch him, while Ja Rule's career has never recovered from the damage delivered by 50 Cent's first album.

The great Dr. Dre produced this record, inventing a whole new sound to fit 50's style -- none of Dre's signature swooping P-Funk keyboards, just a lot of tough, sinewy guitar lines, mechanical drums and throbbing bass. The production is brilliant -- listen to the quiet chunka-chunka guitar that doesn't start until exactly one minute into "In Da Club", and then disappears at 1:54 (you can hear this song a hundred times and never notice this guitar line, but it makes the whole track work). Dre also knew which of 50's biographical details to frame: gunshots are used as a percussion instrument on "Heat".

Dre also masterminded Get Rich or Die Tryin's clever and very successful marketing rollout, featuring two separate versions of "In Da Club". The clean version was bright enough for every radio station in the world, causing smiles among anyone who knew about the backroom sex and club drug references in the complete lyrics. Once this song hit, 50 was done. He'd never be poor again, but his best songs were about suffering. It's eight years later and he still hasn't figured out what to do next.

Five Hiphop Masterpieces from the 2000s

#5: Cam'ron: Come Home With Me

#4: 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin'

#3: ?

#2: ?

#1: ?

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Friday, January 29, 2010 05:04 pm
Levi Asher

(Here's a list for the ages. The first decade of our new millennium will be remembered for many things, but during these years there has been no creative form more alive, more original, and more attuned to a unique sense of craft than hiphop. Born in the late 70s, exploding with raw talent in the mid-90s, classic hiphop (like jazz and blues, an American original) reached a new level of artistic maturity and expression in the 2000s. Some may not be aware of the value of 2000s-era hiphop, but genius must never be ignored, so Literary Kicks is honoring the past decade with a countdown of its five greatest hiphop album masterpieces. We'll profile one album a week, for five weeks, beginning here with #5. -- Levi)

Some records don't fully deserve their greatness. Come Home With Me by the Harlem wordsmith Cam'ron and his Dipset crew (including Juelz Santana, Freaky Zekey and Jim Jones) is so sexually offensive in parts that one might want to hate it. But Come Home With Me is that good. Have you heard this record? On a purely sonic level, beat for beat, sample for sample, it's probably the only hiphop album from the 2000s on a level with Paul's Boutique or The Chronic. The album's ecstatic explosion of musical delight might have been sparked by the young production talent on the record -- a newcomer named Just Blaze and another newcomer named Kanye West, who were auditioning here not only for Cam'ron but for Roc-A-Fella's Dame Dash and Jay-Z (who put out the record).

Just Blaze made his name with Come Home With Me's biggest single, "Oh Boy". This entire song was built around a one-word sample (that word being "boy") from a dusty old Rose Royce track. The architecture behind the track is itself fascinating, as Cam and Juelz Santana paint watercolor washes of rhyme to illustrate the beat:

Hit me when you wanna get rammed in, I'll be scramblin
With lots of mobsters shop for lobsters
Cops and robbers listen every block is blocka-blocka
But she like the way I diddy bop you peeped that
Mink on Maury kicks plus Chanel ski hat

Just Blaze also produced the album's most haunting track, "Losing Weight Part 2" (strangely, a sequel to a track from Cam's earlier album called "Losing Weight" that isn't nearly as good). The song begins with a spoken segment, some drama between two guys working on a shady deal ("weight" refers to bricks of coke or heroin). There's a good brother and a not-so-smart brother, a classic setup, with Cam'ron and Juelz Santana playing each role:

You wanna be a hero, snuff me, do it, rush me, do it
Shit, like I ain't been through the scars and bruises
Like I ain't been through the bars, seen the Sargeant Trooper
Look at my body, I lost so much weight
Cops raiding my spot, I done lost so much weight
I'm tellin Poppy, front me a brick, let me owe that cake
He tellin me, he ain't got but so much weight
He been waiting for his connection to come
I'm like "at least give me a half, I'll compress and stretch it to one"
I'm on the block as usual
With that block that you chop and the rocks as usual
Watching for the cops that's moving through
Me and my soldiers know the rules
We use cakes to get by, buy the dudes in blue
Keep your mouth locked, screwed and glued
Or shots from the Ruger circle round your body like hula-hoops

The song is about extreme stress ... about how it feels when you've run out of good options and you know you're about to choose a bad one. The plot is indistinct, but the emotions are clear. If it were a movie, Scorsese would direct it and Steve Buscemi would have a role. It's the same story Bruce Springsteen told in "Meeting Across the River". You know the heroes are probably losers, and there's a good chance they aren't going to win whatever game they're trying to play. But you get caught up in their struggle and you want to see them get through.

Come Home With Me also features the bubbly "Hey Ma", containing some of the best rhyming dialogue and piano riffs since A Tribe Called Quest, the powerful post 9/11 tribute (the album came out in May 2002) "Welcome to New York City" (featuring Jay in a cameo from up high, before he and Cam began beefing), the crude but excellent "I Just Wanna" and the dead-on fucking hilarious "Stop Calling", which you just have to hear.

The infuriating thing about Cam the rapper is his inconsistency. On Come Home With Me he is white hot, but he sounds lazy and over-satisfied on his later work, and he's also let his great Blaze/Kanye/Juelz/Jim Jones team dissipate to the winds. No matter. The collision of the Dipset crew and Roc-A-Fella records left behind one album that will be studied by graduate students in musicology a thousand years from now, and Come Home With Me is that album.

view /HipHop2000sFive
Thursday, January 21, 2010 07:38 pm
Levi Asher

(Once again, a word from our crime/noir genre specialist Garrett Kenyon. -- Levi)

Christmas is the perfect time for true crime. You have to deal with members of the family you only see once a year, eat dry turkey and drink poxy eggnog, and pretend to be excited about the new shirt you’ll be returning next week. All this while dealing with a gaggle of kids excited about an overweight, glorified second-story man who’ll be reverse-burglarizing your home when the lights go out.

If you’re like me, and you’d rather hear a clip full of shell casings from a silenced .22 hitting the ground than the sound of jingle bells -- these books should help get you through the holiday celebration and winter of discontent beyond. Put ‘em on your list and pass it along with a threatening stare and some egregious knuckle-cracking and soon you’ll be reading about some of the most engaging bad men and women who ever lived.

1. Herbert Asbury - The Gangs of New York (1928), The Barbary Coast (1933), The French Quarter (1936) and Gem of the Prairie (1940)

Asbury described his work best when he labeled it “an informal history of the underworld.” Each book describes the seedy underbelly of a different city (New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago, respectively) from the 19th to the early 20th century, introducing readers to the gangsters, crooked cops, lowlife politicians, cut-throat streetwalkers and punch drunk thugs who laid the foundations of what we now so euphemistically call “the game.” And while their various schemes might seem passé compared to today’s high-tech criminals, the old-timey villains had a certain panache that today’s average skell could never muster. Asbury records all the lurid details in the purple-prose style that was so popular at the time, making either four of these books a damned fun read.

I recommend starting with Gangs of New York*. Asbury acts as a genial guide, leading you confidently into notorious slums like the Bowery and Five Points, where you’ll pass through Murderer’s Alley for a tour of the Old Brewery, a den of vice and depravity unequaled in American history; spend time in blind pigs and dancehalls with names like The Bucket of Blood and McGurk’s Suicide Hall; and meet men like Monk Eastman, Bill the Butcher, Baboon Connolly and a couple hundred more colorfully-named thugs who’ll make the bubble-coated gangsters currently hanging out on your block look like powdery-bottomed prep-school boys.

*Which has very little to do with Scorsese’s film.

2. Jack Black - You Can’t Win (1926)

This little-known book gets my enthusiastic vote for the best autobiography ever. It’s the story of introspective hobo and itinerant lowlife Jack Black, who falls in with some old school bindle stiffs as a boy and spends the rest of his life riding trains back and forth across Gilded Age America. On his travels, Jack robs general stores, jewelry shops and post offices, gets broken out of jail at least three times, becomes addicted to, and then kicks, opium in a Canadian boardinghouse, has run-ins with killers, whores, thieves, fences and cowboys and even Wild West legends like Bat Masterson and Judge Fremont Older. The story is told with a wry, self-deprecating voice that leads you seamlessly from one adventure to the next as Jack grows from a scared runaway to a veteran member of the Johnson family*, mastering the art of survival-by-wit. You Can’t Win was a particular favorite of the Beats. Recent editions feature a foreword by William S. Burroughs, who explains how important this book was as a blueprint for their literature. I recommend You Can’t Win for anyone who can read. It not only offers a glimpse of a post-Civil War America left out of the history books, but it gives you tons of old-timey one-liners like “I’m so broke – if it was raining soup I couldn’t afford a tin spoon!” And who can’t use a few more lines like that in their arsenal?

*Read the book.

3. Edward Bunker - Education of a Felon: A Memoir (2000)

If you still haven’t read Bunker, you’re in for a treat. America’s premier prison writer, Bunker has perfected giving guided tours of the criminal mind. When he leads you inside the dolorous grey walls of the big house, he makes you feel the razor-sharp paranoia that comes from being surrounded by thousands of violent men, all fighting to be king of the jungle. Bunker never reached the level of appreciation he deserved in the States – but the Europeans saw him for what he was – a world-class writer who also happened to be a habitual criminal. In Education we get to see just how he got that way – and what a story it is. Rarely does Golden Era Hollywood come to life in such glorious detail – at least not the grimy side left off the glossy brochures. Try reading this book and not going online immediately to find out the rest of what happened to Bunker – it’s almost impossible.

4. Jay Robert Nash - Bloodletters and Badmen (1972 with revised editions in '92 and '95)

The ultimate encyclopedia of low-down scoundrels. Chronicling America’s villains “from pilgrims to present”, Bloodletters has enough gangsters, serial killers, bank robbers, hitmen, vigilantes, confidence men, black widows, mass murderers and gun slingers to satisfy any outlaw enthusiast. But it’s not the baddies that set this encyclopedia above the rest – it’s the writing. The passages are witty, concise and informative, and Nash has a sharp eye for those little details that bring a story to life. I’ve lost many nights to this book – picking it up in the evening to read a few passages, and not stopping until the birds are chirping and my eyes bleary. One of the best features of Bloodletters is how, at the end of each bad guy’s story, Nash lists the other criminals they crossed paths with during their career. Since the passages are so well written, you feel compelled to go on and read the bios of those criminals. This way, it’s possible to work your way up from the Old West black hats, through the 20’s and 30’s Tommy-gun-toting fedoras and into the crazy-eyed 70’s long-hairs, following an unbroken trail of blood and bad influence from past to present. Bloodletters and Badmen is a crown jewel in any crime lover’s collection.

5. Jeff Guinn - Go Down Together (2008)

If you’re like me, you have a soft spot for the golden-age gangsters – men like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly, who terrorized Depression-era lawmen and became national heroes for an entire generation of beat-down Americans. But perhaps no characters from the Public Enemy era have garnered as much fascination as Bonnie and Clyde – doomed lovers blazing a one-way path to hell across the Southern States and into the history books. Guinn does an admirable job of looking beyond the legend and making Bonnie and Clyde real people again. Despite the current fashionable view on Bonnie and Clyde (that they were a couple of bloodthirsty, lowlife amateurs), there is a humanity and honor about them that is undeniable. Bonnie was a self-conscious drama queen who fancied herself a poet and preferred to be the center of attention ... but when she had a valid reason to leave Clyde behind (her leg had been literally burnt to a crisp in an automobile accident), she chose to stay with her man until the bitter end they both knew would come shortly. Clyde risked everything to break a man out of jail that he particularly disliked; not because it would get him anything – but because the man had been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and it was the right thing to do. While they weren’t nearly as talented as Pretty Boy or as charismatic as Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde earned their legend with blood, tears and bullets. Not a bad couple to spend a few days with.

The 5 Other True-Crime Titles I Would Have Added if I Weren’t So Lazy

Lowlife by Luc Sante
The Corner or Homicide by David Simon
American Brutus by Michael Kauffman
The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow
Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed the World by Erik Larson

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Thursday, December 17, 2009 10:31 pm
Garrett Kenyon

1. S. A. Griffin, a Los Angeles poet, actor, beatnik and longtime friend of LitKicks, is going to be filling the shell of a bomb with pages of poetry and touring the USA with it in 2010.

2. Here's another bombshell: the conglomerate that publishes Kirkus, a book review magazine, has been unable to sell it and will shut it down instead. Kirkus has a big presence within the book industry because it publishes early capsule reviews of many books, and is only known to most readers as the source of countless back-cover blurbs. It's unclear where publishers will now go to fill this back-cover blurb space. Here's more on the Kirkus shutdown from one of their freelancers.

3. Yet another bombshell is going to drop on December 29: True Confections, an outrageous comic novel by Katharine Weber. I'll be interviewing the author live at the new and exciting Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on January 11. I'll also be writing more about this book once it's out.

4. Yes, Weber's book is coming out December 29, after all these Best Books of 2009 lists have been published. So what are these list compilers going to do with True Confections? This is a serious problem that the listmaking industry must confront. Anyway, Dan Green is obviously getting tired of these endless best-of lists, and so is the New Yorker and Ed Champion.

5. Styles P aka "The Ghost" of the excellent hip-hop crew known alternately as D-Block or the Lox is publishing a novel with Random House.

6. A new Quarterly Conversation includes Barrett Hathcock on The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and a roundup of books that should be translated into English but haven't been yet.

7. Jane Austen gifts. Sans zombies.

8. Arthur Sullivan's voice, following a rendition of his mysterious Lost Chord composition, recorded at a "phonograph party" in 1888 (via @sarahw).

9. World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is now talking about raw data.

10. A Belgian librarian named Paul Otlet once created an analog World Wide Web, only to see it destroyed by the Nazi invasion of Belgium during World War II.

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Monday, December 14, 2009 07:14 pm
Levi Asher