This April has been throwback month for me. Stephen King’s Later is the first entry on the list. While it was set in the present, as noted, the title is part of Hard Case Crime. The next read is Baldacci’s latest, the second instalment in his Aloysius Archer series. The work takes place in 1949, with retro cars, outfits, and landlines. Finally, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines rounds out this month’s finds. The classic transpires in the Australian outback and once again reaffirms Chatwin’s status as a revolutionary writer. For the uninitiated, this travel book was published in 1987. This volume is notable for utilising a hybrid style.
- Later (Stephen King). The prolific writer’s latest offering is part of Hard Case Crime, a series of hard-boiled detective crime novels evoking the pulp fiction of the fifties. The protagonist, Jamie Conklin, could see dead people. His mother, Tia, owns a literary agency and they lived in chic Park Avenue. However, the global financial crisis hit them hard. She supports his Uncle Harry, who stays in a retirement home. Precedently, the latter owned the agency. Jamie’s gift was a secret between him and his mum. However, Liz – who was his mum’s lover – becomes privy to the mystery.
Regis Thomas has been the duo’s lone saving grace, with his Roanoke series. However, he suddenly drops dead while working on the climax of his series. His mother then instructs Jamie to pluck the story from the dead man. She then proceeds to ghost-write the finale. Liz was there at the scene as they coaxed the plot from Mr. Thomas. The book was met with acclaim and becomes a bestseller. Liz, having learned of Jamie’s uncanny knack, ‘abducts’ him to seek out Thumper, a dead bomber. Liz never gets the credit she so craves but leaves a pesky ghost to haunt Jamie. The latter gains the help of a former neighbour, Mr. Burkett, who instructs him to perform the Ritual of Chud. While the rite works, Mr. Burkett dies before Jamie spills the details face-to-face.
Life is peachy for the Conklin’s, with Liz and her dodgy dealings out of the picture. However, the latter blackmails Jamie one fine afternoon. She convinces him to force the massive baron to point out the details of a major shipment. While out of cards in the executive’s house, Jamie evokes the ghost of Thumper, who saves the day before bedtime but not before unleashing a horror within. There is one final twist before the plot ends. The book gets its title from the author’s proclivity in using the word ‘later.’ This is a worthwhile introduction into Hard Case Crime. With 69 sections over 248 pages, a bibliophile may only need two full days.
- A Gambling Man (Baldacci). Aloysius Archer returns in another period thriller. Following the events in Paco City, Archer – the wannabe detective – travels west. He stops at Reno, Nevada, where he meets Liberty Callahan, a lass who dreams of making it in Hollywood. Archer wins big at the casino after betting correctly and parlays his earnings into purchasing a vintage sportscar. After running into some trouble in Reno, Archer and Callahan agree to drive to California. Along the way, they meet riffraff who joined them from Nevada. Despite the setback, they trudge on.
Archer is intent on reaching Bay Town, where he yearns to be a shamus. His former associate in Paco City had recommended Willie Dash, who is a private detective. The aspiring mayor, Douglas Kemper, hires them to keep an eye on his enemies. Meanwhile, Liberty tries out at Midnight Moods and seems to be a natural. However, as Archer’s investigation gets under way, the murders begin. A dancer at the club and Kemper’s campaign manager are both killed. There is also a mysterious island three miles out that figures into this mayhem. Dash and Archer continue asking questions, which lead to more slayings, this time a doctor and the elevator sentry. The dynamic duo gets closer to unmasking the truth. They realise that the town’s kingpin, the man whose family built the pueblo, may be the biggest villain of all.
Baldacci crafts an evocative piece that pays homage to post-war America. For the most part, he gets the description, objects, and feel. At times, he focuses on attires and could be illustrative. He could be superficial in Callahan’s dialogues. How Archer manages to gain new friends so swiftly is likewise surprising. In this budding series, the author has shown a penchant of nonchalantly killing off key characters in quick succession. This is reminiscent of The Departed, Oscar Best Picture in 2006. However, the captivating story fuels the book. Most of the action takes place around Bay Town, specifically Midnight Moods and the characters’ home and workplaces. Furthermore, the corruption, inequality, and greed of the townsfolk bear similarity to its predecessor, One Good Deed. As usual, he employs short chapters and full players. I recommend this novel to anyone searching for a high-octane, undemanding period thriller.
- The Songlines (Chatwin). In this text, the author wanders through central Australia in search of the titular creation. Russian-Aussie Arkady accompanies him for the first third of the book. They drive through the country, meeting a motley of elders, kids, and artists. He learns more about songlines and Aboriginal culture. In particular, the traveller is drawn to the Dreaming. The latter is difficult to describe; one needs a paradigm shift. The dreaming is at the heart of their culture, the way ‘things came to be’, how life started. The dreaming is both lore and ethics, land and fauna. Regardless, painters are forbidden to draw their own Dreaming. I surmised that the Indigenous peoples find home in their traditions and poetry, as opposed to material wealth. They mark their territory through verses. They are also incredible storytellers, complete with re-enactments.
After a fairly engrossing 160 pages, Chatwin then refers to his moleskin notebooks. The next fifty pages are full of trivia regarding man’s search for relevance. The rest of the chapters also incorporate these pieces. The writer asserts that man are primal beings and that he derives satisfaction through the journey. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of these vignettes. I admit that I had to skip some of them. The book is not very accessible, mainly due to the trivia. Indeed, as one blogger propounded, they are closer to poetry. However, I gleaned from these bits that Chatwin has travelled far and wide. He’s been to places as disparate as India, Saharan Africa, Pico, New York, and the Serengeti. He’s climbed mountains, ate with nomads, witnessed tribal initiations, and spoke with experts.
The Songlines is much more than a book about Australia. The title is about a worldview, about reason and inculturation, stories and artwork. Having lived these experiences himself, the plot delves into the hopes, dreams, and struggles of a nation. As ancient as the land per se, the first peoples are forced to adapt. We live in strange times. I would add here that Chatwin has a propensity for embellishing; he dresses up his prose for maximum effect. This was true with In Patagonia and more so in this one.
Chatwin gives gripping, first-hand accounts of stories that will live on. Moreover, I would have to reiterate that the author has a wide vocabulary. The text is peppered with foreign words. There is even the odd French phrase. I prefer In Patagonia over this one due to the shorter sections. I had to skip less pages with that one, too. Realise though that this effort remains one of the late writer’s most famous works. In all honesty, I believe though that the book is overrated. The title tries to pack too much.