Past Presents of Christmas
As the title suggests, Jeff Fleishman’s great new novel, Last Dance, unfolds like a dangerous and captivating dance through the sun-splashed underworld of Los Angeles. But it also feels like the jazz music that his cultured and solitary protagonist, LAPD homicide Detective Sam Carver, plays on the piano in the wee small hours of the morning. In Fleishman’s world, everyone’s always riffing: the cops, the criminals, the witnesses, the bystanders, the author himself. This book paints vivid and elegant word pictures of big ideas–art, love, death, nostalgia, obsession—and pleasingly precise details—the right way to make an espresso, the infernal glow of wildfires in the Southern California night. Jeff’s books are as much about mood, images, character and landscape as they are about the mystery itself. (In this case, the suspicious death and subsequent corpse-napping of a Russian ballerina that may or may not intersect with all kinds of geopolitical mayhem and skullduggery.) That’s why I like them. Here’s a great way to spend a pandemic holiday season: hunker down with the Sam Carver series, Last Dance and its predecessor, My Detective. My boy Fleishman knows what he’s doing.
An American story.
My brother Carlo is an American Studies professor at Boston College. In his case, that means he gets to prowl around out in America reporting and writing brilliant books and articles about boxing, literature, neighborhoods, television shows, and all manner of music and musicians. His latest piece in this Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (edited by the great David Rowell, a formidable author himself) is an insightful and amusing portrait of Midland, a Texas country band that, as far as I can tell, is both retro and nouveau. I don’t have Carlo’s knowledge of or enthusiasm for country music, but I like this band! They remind me of both the Eagles and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. And they come off as hard-working, down-to-earth, high-powered artists with a badass style. Watch out for Midland and that Rotella kid. They are going places.
Mystery Readers Journal had an excellent idea: an edition dedicated to crime fiction set in Italy. From Sciascia to Camilleri to Donna Leon, rich and fertile terrain! And they graciously invited me to contribute a piece about Rip Crew, my latest novel, which takes place partly in the region around Naples and on the island of Lampedusa. It was great fun writing about arancini, ferry boats, my Italian crime-fighter friends, and the experience of my father’s Sicilian immigrant family as well as African migrants in Italy and the other odysseys I’ve chronicled in journalism and fiction. The edition is available online and the old-fashioned way too. Tante grazie, Mystery Readers Journal. Cari saluti and a very happy Fourth of July from an author whose family lived the American Dream…
My friend Ivy Pochoda has many talents. A poetic voice, haunting characters, an understanding of human nature at its best and worst. She’s particularly good at weaving a narrative from the multiple perspectives of characters moving on the urban grid. Each story is like an elaborate dance, a multidimensional chess game. Ivy’s new novel, These Women, is a tour de force. This is crime fiction at one level, but it is much more. It’s about monsters and angels and ghosts, about grief and memory and obsession. I am reminded (with a few modifications) of Ross MacDonald’s line about Raymond Chandler: Ivy writes “like a slumming angel” and has a remarkable sense of “the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles” and the people who live and die on them.
We hunker down and hope and wait. And worry about our loved ones. I’m working hard as usual on the journalism and fiction fronts. The response to this catastrophe (for once that word is not hyperbole) has to be creativity, solidarity and, to the extent possible, good cheer. All of which are summed up admirably by the work of my new musical heroes: Stay Homas. I like them partly because they are from Barcelona, one of my ancestral hometowns. But mostly because they’re so good! Check them out and make the most of El Confineo…
I recently had the pleasure of attending a book presentation by David Zucchino, my friend and former L.A. Times colleague. Dave is one the finest journalists I know: a courageous reporter who can talk to just about anybody, a gifted writer who makes even the most prosaic feature sing, and a generous, warm, old-school gentleman. His new book is Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy. It recounts a fascinating and little-known tale about a massacre in North Carolina. The acclaim has come pouring in from the New York Times Sunday Book Review and many others. You can read more about him and the book here. In his previous books, Myth of the Welfare Queen and Thunder Run, Dave showed his intrepid ability to explore harsh terrain, whether inner-city Philadelphia or the battlefields of Iraq, find compelling characters, and tell their stories. In Wilmington’s Lie, he turns his talents to history. The result is an important and powerful work. I recommend it highly.
It’s not a book, but it took months of hard work. In partnership with ProPublica, the New York Times magazine published today The Saudi Connection, a piece with my esteemed colleague Tim Golden about the secret history of the 9/11 investigation.
Happy New Year, readers and friends. Between journalism by day and fiction-writing by night, I haven’t had much time for posts recently. I hope to pick up the pace in 2020. For the moment, I thought I would venture into the zone where fact and fiction converge (one of my favorite zones). I’d like to share two items that come to mind because of recent events related to Iraq and Iran.
The first is an article I wrote in 2012 about Iranian intelligence and terror networks around the world, and the nature and nuances of the threat they pose. I thought it might offer some useful context and background as we enter a period of geopolitical tension and uncertainty.
The second is an excerpt from my novel The Convert’s Song. (For those who haven’t read the novel: spoiler alert!) The Convert’s Song was published in 2014. I think it’s fair to say there’s some resonance with the remarkable story of the death last week of General Soleimani of the Iranian Quds Force…
“Pescatore had spent hours reading and listening to briefings about the brigadier. The combined might of several spy agencies had produced few pictures. None was more recent than the photo in Bolivia six years before. Ali was fifty-three now. His shoulders and neck were meaty and powerful in a collarless shirt of gray silk. He had a slight and solid belly. His short, well-groomed beard had acquired tinges of gray. His hairline had receded farther, a narrow rampart cresting above the middle of his forehead. He had thin hard lips bracketed by indented lines descending from his nostrils. He wore a designer watch. When he stared intently, he lowered his narrow chin, raised his eyes, and tilted his head—the coiled pose of a world-class chess grand master who played on a board piled with corpses and cash. A high-rolling gangster general.”
The three of them sat down at a table. There were plastic cups and a large bottle of water. Pescatore drank like a man who had been crawling through the desert. They were sitting and drinking in silence when they heard an explosion in the distance. They felt it too: a low resounding thump.
Pescatore closed his eyes.
“Hel-lo,” Malone said.
“Hello, Hellfire,” Stockton said.
Pescatore opened his eyes. Malone and Stockton bumped fists. Malone extended his arm across the table. Mechanically, Pescatore bumped the big fist.
On the edge of the city, a plume of smoke rose toward the sun.
The planners had counted on the fact that the Quds Force simply did not believe the U.S. government would do a drone strike in Baghdad. Too politically delicate, too diplomatically volatile. Although the Iranians were correct in theory, Brigadier Ali was a special case. He had crossed too many red lines. Washington had decided to send a message. If the Iraqis and the Iranians didn’t like it, tough shit.”