The Self-Made Detective: IQ by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe Ide

Published: October 18, 2016
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hours and 8 minutes

Joe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, won’t revolutionize the detective genre, but it does tell an entertaining story about well-drawn and complex characters. It wasn’t the most exciting crime novel I’ve ever read, but I’d be happy to follow the future exploits of Isaiah Quintabe wherever they lead.

Isaiah – IQ for short – is a smart, talented guy whose life changed tragically when a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Marcus, right in front of his eyes. Before his brother’s death, Isaiah might have gone on to college and great things, but that all fell apart in an instant.

After the accident, Isaiah withdrew into himself, living alone in the apartment he’d once shared with his brother and hoping that social services wouldn’t come for him. When his money ran out and it reached the point that he might lose the apartment, he offered a room for rent to a kid named Dodson in a moment of desperation. Their uneasy friendship would soon have wide-reaching affects on both of their lives.

IQ jumps back and forth between 2005, when Isaiah and Dodson take up a life of crime that escalates with deadly results, and 2013, when Dodson brings Isaiah a case to solve the attempted murder of a dissolute rapper by a hitman with an enormous pit bull.

The best parts of IQ are the characters and the world they live in. Isaiah and Dodson are friends first by necessity, but as they try to solve a case together as adults, it becomes clear that their friendship runs deeper than their youthful robbery spree.

The actual case feels a bit low-stakes because the potential victim is an asshole burnout rapper doing his best to alienate everyone he knows. It’s hard to have much sympathy for a millionaire too doped out of his mind to think straight. That said, the villain is definitely creepy, and the unique detail of having him breed and train pit bulls is off-kilter in a particularly LA way.

Isaiah is a bit of a DIY detective, almost entirely self-taught after he dropped out of high school. When he solves a mystery, it doesn’t feel like another example of the Smartest Guy in the Room throwing his weight around. Instead, he uses inductive reasoning and makes his best guesses at likely outcomes, not always with perfect results.

IQ is a quick, entertaining read, and the audiobook has an excellent narrator. I enjoyed the book, and I’ll probably pick up the sequel, but it isn’t at the top of my list.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to the audiobook from Audible.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Insert Gritty Reboot: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Written by: Anthony Del Col
Art by: Werther Dell’Edera
Published: November 28th 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Digital
Length: 162 pages

Maybe Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie would have resonated for me a bit more if I’d ever read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Instead, I’ve only ever seen their cover illustrations and imagined the sort of squeaky-clean peril they might get themselves into. I think, though, that I still wouldn’t have gotten much from this too-serious gritty reimagining of the classic teen mysteries.

The introduction to The Big Lie admits that it takes inspiration from the revelatory Afterlife With Archie, a series that thrillingly juxtaposes familiar Archie characters with zombie horror to great effect. The problem is that The Big Lie only suffers by comparison.

Where Archie subverts familiar characters and tropes without losing the essence of the originals, The Big Lie tells a dour modern-day noir that slaps Hardy and Drew names on bland, interchangeable characters. It isn’t subversive because there isn’t enough substance there to subvert.

Instead, it confuses a grim, serious tone with maturity, suffers from some serious holes in logic, and hangs it all on a boilerplate storyline about corrupt cops, drug dealers, and unexpected murderers. I didn’t care about or relate to any of the characters, and I also didn’t much like the art.

If I was going to write a modern noir update of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy mysteries, I think I would ground it in story where they’re all still crime-solving kids, but the mystery has higher stakes. You could still flash-forward and show them as adults, but the core has to be about something that happened when they were kids.

Although I do like the idea of rebooting classic stories from a fresh new angle, I can’t recommend The Big Lie. It misses the mark in so many ways and delivers something both bland and uninteresting.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Neither is True: Grand Passion by James Robinson

Grand Passion by James Robinson

Art by: Tom Feister
Colors by: Dave Curiel
Letters by: Simon Bowland

Published: September 6, 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Grand Passion doesn’t begin to live up to its title. Instead, it tells a small-scale story that ends up feeling a bit dull.

The main characters are a cop and a bank robber who (we’re told) fall in love at first sight. Really, though, they fall into bed together and then get caught up in a shootout.

Most of the story takes place in a handful of locations over a very short amount of time, and everything wraps up at the end in a neat little bow. Of course, the ending only gives one of the characters what they want. The other has to make do with pretending to be someone else for the rest of their life.

Not only do we not get to know these characters before their story ends, we’re asked to believe that they have such incredible sexual chemistry that they are willing to forgo a lot of baggage to be together. I didn’t believe it for one second.

To top it all off, an unseen character who speaks in a distracting country dialect narrates the entire story. The author lays it on so thick at times that I wasn’t always sure what the narrator was saying.

The art is decent enough, but the story is totally forgettable. Grand Passion is the sort of crime narrative that Ed Brubaker could pull off in his sleep, but the execution here is uninspired.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Good Behavior: Good, Not Best

Good Behavior by Blake Crouch

Published: November 15th, 2016
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 5 hrs and 46 mins

Good Behavior is simultaneously the definitive collection of Letty Dobesh stories by Blake Crouch and no longer the definitive story of Letty herself.

These stories were originally published as three separate novellas over the course of a few years. As of 2016, they are also the basis for a TNT series starring Michelle Dockery in her first post-Downton role in an ongoing series. This volume collects the stories along with author commentary.

However, unlike other book adaptations, I think I might recommend watching the show before reading Good Behavior. These stories read a hell of a lot like the rough draft of the show, and might best be appreciated with that in mind.

Crouch’s commentaries reinforce this impression. He discusses how he and the show’s co-creator adapted and cannibalized each story for the show, and it’s obvious that he thinks the adaptation is an improvement.

He points out more than once how the stories as written didn’t match the tone of the show or how tweaking events and characters for the adaptation opened things up in new and exciting ways.

As I listened to the audiobook, I oftentimes found myself thinking “Letty wouldn’t do that” or “this isn’t a Letty story”. Michelle Dockery’s portrayal is so compelling that I couldn’t picture the character any other way.

That said, I did enjoy reading Good Behavior. That’s especially surprising after I gave up on Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy after two books. I just couldn’t work up the energy to care about the finale, and I barely enjoyed the second book.

It helps that Letty is a much more interesting and likable protagonist than the main character in Wayward Pines, who spends most of his time hitting his head and blacking out. Also, it felt like Crouch had a better handle on style and language in these stories. He pulls off a few clever turns of phrase here and there that add a nice noir flavor.

Ultimately, I do recommend picking up Good Behavior, but only as supplemental material for the show and not a true standalone work. In fact, this collection is entertaining enough that I’m willing to give Crouch another chance, especially since he had a hand in writing the show.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to the audiobook version.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

That Familiar Darkness: Criminal, Volume 1

Criminal, Volume 1: CowardCriminal, Volume 1: Coward

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Val Staples

Published: February 10th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.

Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.

I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.

Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.

I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.

I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

The Fade Out: Dark Stars

The Fade OutThe Fade Out, Volume 1: Act One

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Published: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Noir, Mystery, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

The Fade Out is a tale of bad old Hollywood, when studios covered up all varieties of crime and young actresses faced near-constant sexual assault on the ladder to stardom. It definitely made me wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since the 1940s, when this story takes place.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter with a few dark secrets who wakes up one morning after a debauched party to discover a promising young actress, Valeria Sommers, strangled in her own home. Charlie decides to get himself the hell out of there – hiding any evidence of his presence before he leaves – but when the movie studio he works for spins the murder as a suicide, Charlie’s guilt and horror only increase.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips love a good noir. I haven’t read all of their work so far, but The Fade Out is one of their most grounded stories. It’s an unflinching look at the seamy underbelly of classic Hollywood, led by a conflicted non-hero who struggles to figure out what to do. The book also particularly focuses on the ways women were horribly mistreated during that time period, both in and outside the film industry.

Brubaker’s dialogue crackles, Sean Phillips’ character designs are bold and spare, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are the perfect accent that brings it all home. Charlie views the world through thick round glasses that dwarf his face. His writing partner, Gil, slumps his way through every scene, rumpled and dissolute. Valeria and Maya, her lookalike replacement on the picture, both have fresh, open faces and expressive mouths that make it easy to imagine them as long-lost Hollywood starlets.

Although The Fade Out starts with a murder mystery, it seems content to wander through old Hollywood, introducing a slowly expanding cast of characters without pushing Charlie into his ostensible role as citizen detective. It seems clear Brubaker is playing a long game and enjoying the scenery along the way.

My only criticism is that the third issue features so much female nudity that it verges on the exploitative. It’s clear that Brubaker is criticizing a system that puts women into situations that force them to use their bodies as currency, but the amount of naked flesh on display begins to undermine his point.

Even still, The Fade Out is an excellent slice of noir from creators working at the top of their game. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Episodic Fascism: Judge Dredd Volume 1 by Duane Swierczynski and Paul Gulacy

Judge Dredd, Volume 1Published: April 23, 2013
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

My only exposure to Judge Dredd is the 2012 movie starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby, which I understand stays true to the comic while telling a pretty badass little crime story. I only watched it a week or so ago, so it seems appropriate that I finally got around to reading this collection of Dredd stories by Duane Swierczynski. Swierczynski quickly became one of my favorite authors after I tore through his excellent novel Fun and Games. I picked up this volume hoping for more of the same, although I haven’t read any of his other comic book writing.

This volume collects several short stories, some of which tie together into a larger case and some of which are one-off side stories that break up the main plotline. The larger thread focuses on malfunctioning robots, but there is also a story about kidnappers threatening clones of famous people and a judge who has the mind of a killer living inside his head. The stories are generally short and to-the-point, but instead of making the book brisk and action-filled, it feels like Swierczynski is always rushing to the next plot point. The result just comes off as shallow and repetitive.

Additionally, there isn’t much characterization to go around. It feels like this is probably appropriate for the universe – Dredd also didn’t have much in the way of characterization – but it doesn’t help that the dialogue is occasionally stilted or campy. Judge Anderson had more depth in the movie, but here she felt like nothing but a handy plot device. I was also regularly distracted by the use of made-up swear-words, which I’m sure fits with the series as a whole, but just felt silly here.

Ultimately, I felt like the episodic structure undermined this volume, and I would have preferred to see a longer, more developed storyline set in the Dredd universe. I might try to track down some of the older Dredd books for comparison’s sake, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

Stealing Hearts and Paintings: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist SocietyPublished: February 9th, 2010
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins

First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.

Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.

The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.

My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.

However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Audible | Amazon | Indiebound

Bright, Bloody and Intense: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsPublished: June 4th, 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

Lauren Beukes first came to my attention thanks to William Gibson or maybe Cory Doctorow. Some great author who recommended her on Twitter. I picked up her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, and read Moxyland a few years ago. I liked it, but it definitely felt like Gibson’s sensibility filtered through a South African setting. On the other hand, The Shining Girls, her third novel and first for Mulholland Books, reads like Beukes striking out on her own and making a name for herself. The result is stunning, harrowing and immensely readable.

The Shining Girls follows the interlocking lives of two characters: Curtis Harper, who discovers a mysterious house that lets him travel in time as long as he murders the “shining girls” mapped out on the bedroom wall, and Kirby Mazrachi, one of Harper’s attempted murder victims who manages to survive and devotes her life to tracking him down. We are also treated to heartbreaking vignettes of the women Harper kills throughout the 20th century; every woman he murders is full of endless potential that he snuffs out by torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.

Although time travel is part of the narrative, The Shining Girls feels more like a crime thriller than a scifi story. It helps that the story all takes part in the past – Kirby’s “present day” is the early nineties. The speculative elements exist mostly as plot devices and a way to build tension, and Beukes doesn’t spend much time explaining how Harper is able to do what he does. Beukes has a background in journalism, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into this novel. The women we meet throughout the story span multiple social classes, decades and races, and each one is carefully drawn in the short moments before she dies terribly.

My only criticism of the novel is that it feels like Kirby discovers the truth very late in the story, and after that point everything kicks into high gear until the ending. I would have liked to see a bit more of Kirby exploring the strange world of the house and its dangerous inhabitant. If nothing else, Beukes left me wanting more at the end, which is definitely a positive thing. My hope is that The Shining Girls is just the first of Beukes’ forays into crime/thriller writing. It’s a genre that suits her well.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound

Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore LeonardPublished: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version)
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes

Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.

That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.

Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.

Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.

The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.

My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Audible | BookPeople | Indiebound