Books

To Everything, There Is a Season

Roger Holland

Roger Holland looks at three new paperbacks from crime lit's biggest names -- Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and Linda Fairstein.

REFERENCED BOOKS


The Closers
by Michael Connelly
Warner Books
February 2006, 464 pages, $7.99






Fleshmarket Alley
by Ian Rankin
Little, Brown
February 2006, 576 pages, $6.99






Entombed
by Linda Fairstein
Pocket Star
January 2006, 528 pages, $9.99





The best crime writing is as good as anything else in the literary canon, and right now crime writers around the world are confronting society's deepest problems, worries and uncertainties in a way the 'literary' novel sometimes avoids e in the literary canon, and right now crime writers around the world are confronting society's deepest problems, worries and uncertainties in a way the 'literary' novel sometimes avoids
-- Ian Rankin


Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin have been two of the very best writers working in (or out of) their chosen genre of crime for many years, and they have both built outstanding bodies of work based primarily around a single captivating lead character. The Closers is the 11th outing for Connelly's Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, while Rankin has been even more prolific: Fleshmarket Alley is his 16th tale of Edinburgh-based Inspector John Rebus.

Unfortunately, both for the writers themselves and for their readership, it seems as if both men are now beginning to lose their form. At the very least, it seems likely that they're nearing the end of the road with their signature characters.

In The Closers, Connelly ends Bosch's three-year retirement from the LAPD, and slips him painlessly into the department's cold case squad where, to nobody's surprise, he is immediately paired with his old partner and occasional romantic interest, Kizmin Rider. Although The Closers is mechanically sound, it's a sad pale shadow of the best of Harry Bosch. Returning his protagonist to the politics and procedures of the LAPD strongly suggests that Connelly is running out of ideas for Bosch. While largely ignoring the complex depths of Harry's psyche implies he has forgotten just what made Bosch such a popular character in the first place.

Fortunately for Connelly fans, when he has strayed away from his staple series, the writer has delivered a set of compelling and dark novels, including The Poet, Void Moon and Blood Work, which was adapted as movie by Clint Eastwood in 2002. His new novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, is his first legal thriller. However, Bosch has a habit of haunting and infiltrating most of Michael Connelly's work. In The Narrows, he becomes involved in the FBI's hunt for The Poet, the serial killer who first appeared in a non-Bosch novel. In A Darkness More Than Night, Bosch links up with the hero of Blood Work. And in The Lincoln Lawyer, criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller is none other than Harry Bosch's half-brother. For the sake of his writing, and his readers, I think it might be time for Connelly to cut Harry Bosch loose.

Ian Rankin's Rebus is suffering similarly. Clearly, Rankin is intrigued by the big themes, and Fleshmarket Alley takes on subjects that include illegal immigration, a modern-day slave trade, political asylum, and racism, casts a heavily jaundiced eye towards the way bureaucracy deals with these issues, and comes close to suggesting that society's treatment of the tired, the poor and the huddled is scarcely less criminal than the way in which they are exploited by organized crime.

It's unclear whether it's Rankin's focus on the issues rather then his story line that causes Fleshmarket Alley ultimately to disappoint, but disappoint it does, His engaging characters are somehow suffocated beneath the complexity of his narrative and in the end the fact that even the nasty little side street of title comes to resonate with meaning and morality is just a little too overbearing. Given that Rankin says his next Rebus story will take place against the backdrop of 2005's G8 meeting in Scotland, it seems possible that he too is now on a slippery downwards slope.

If indeed Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin are beginning their inevitable falls from grace, they can at least take one consolation. There will be plenty of soft warm flesh waiting at the bottom to break their fall. Personally I hope they both land on Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs.

Linda Fairstein's Entombed fairs better. Taking full advantage of Cornwell's complete inability to recognise the plot and Reichs' positively Cornwellesque self-love, Fairstein is currently taking her heroine, sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, to the forensic heights that Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta once dominated. Entombed is something of a big bad gothic concept album of a story dominated by the shade of Edgar Allen Poe. And for all the unfeasibility this implies, Entombed works. The relationships between the three lead characters, and their relationship with the history and geography of New York City, make for an enjoyable and frequently good-humored ride. The detective process seems authentic and methodical. And the twists and turns are never too labyrinthine for credulity.

But will Fairstein continue to do such good work in future? There is one black bird of ill portent lurking in the background. Cooper and the highly likeable detective Mike Chapman have long enjoyed a sexual chemistry made safe by their involvements with others. During Entombed, Fairstein seems to be clearing the decks for the pair. If so, I fear for her future work too.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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