Friday, August 18, 2006

Welcome to the Bookhouse

(this is a floating post)
Welcome to the Bookhouse of The Crime Spree's Bookhouse Boy. Here you can read about, discuss and maybe even purchase the very best of crime culture. Everything is organized to the right.

Please use the comments section to discuss the books and films below, if you'd like. And if something you haven't read yet tempts you, please use the link to buy it from Amazon.

And please check back often: I haven't even begun to scratch the surface here.

Note: A word about the style here: These reviews are brief almost to a fault. However, I'm looking more to catalog these things than explicate them. I also don't want to spoil anything at all. If you have a question, leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Italian Job

The Italian Job
starring Michael Caine

This movie is so close to greatness, it hurts. Michael Caine is as cool as they come as the master thief planning a multi-million dollar heist, and the mid-60s fashion is top notch. The plan is ingenious. So what's the problem?

The problem is that there is hardly a moment of tension in the film ... hardly a point where Caine's success doesn't seem certain. They devise their plan, have a tiny little bump with the Mafia that is barely resolved, and then the execute their plan ... ta da! Then, at the end ... a (literal) cliffhanger! Certainly worth watching, The Italian Job violates many of the central rules of the heist film. Rules aren't always meant to be broken.

Monday, September 19, 2005

How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time
by Ann Marlowe

The most intelligent drug memoir I've read, Ann Marlowe's first book is subtitled "Heroin from A to Z." This is literal, as Marlowe eschews a conventional linear memoir in favor of an alphabetical list of short essays on different aspects of the junk life ("city," "dark,""withdrawing"). Marlowe's reasoning for this has to do with her rather complex ideas on what she calls our "digital culture," but for the reader what it does if free Marlowe's observations from the predictable chronology of your common drug tale (dabbling, addiction, low point, redemption). This is a fiercely individual book, and Marlowe refuses to demonize or romanticize her drug of choice. It was fun, it seems, and it worked for a while, but it's finally not worth the price: that's drugs in a nutshell.

A petty gripe: Marlowe has that annoying habit of Ivy League grads of working in far, far too many references to her hallowed alma mater, considering she took up drugs in her thirties. Perhaps poor old state school-educated me is overly sensitive.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Staircase

The Staircase
directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

(note: this is a review I originally wrote for the New Times newspaper chain, but was cut for space reasons)
It must have been hell waiting weeks between episodes of The Staircase when it originally aired on the Sundance Channel. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (who won an Oscar for his documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning), this thrilling doc chronicles the murder trial of Michael Peterson (the other Peterson case), the North Carolina novelist accused of murdering his wife on a set of stairs in 2001. The twists and turns around each corner propel you from one episode to the next; I watched all eight -- six and a half hours' worth -- in a single sitting. By the end, you still may not feel certain whether Peterson is a killer or his wife was the victim of a horrific accident. But the astonishing access the filmmakers were given to Peterson gives you a deep look into our justice system. The focus on the defense’s side of the story leaves out some important facts that could have changed your mind, but hold off on any outside research until the series is through. The extra features, from a more recent interview with Peterson and a long and boring chat with de Lestrade, won’t leave you feeling any closer to the truth. Highly recommended.

The Run of His Life

The Run of His Life
by Jeffrey Toobin

This perhaps most definitive book on the OJ Simpson case, written by the man who covered the case for The New Yorker. It establishes a number of things, all ugly:

OJ Simpson is a murderer.
He is also vain, narcissistic, semi-literate, cruel empty shell of a man.
His lawyers, particularly Johnnie Cochran, were cynical beyond belief, willfully inflaming anti-police and anti-white sentiment to gain the freedom of a man they knew to be a vicious killer.
The prosecutors were incompetent and arrogant in a way that allowed the prosecutors to dictate the tone of the case.
Black people are as capable of racism as white people.
The specific jurors were not just ignorant, which is excusable, but also stupid, racist and malicious, the type of people who seemed to believe that a white woman who dated a famous black man deserved death.
The judge was a starfucker who let the high-profile attorneys take over his courtroom.
The police were overly wary of dealing with a celebrity suspect, and compounded the error by refusing to admit it.
Mark Furhman is a disgusting racist human being, and may represent more of the LAPD than anyone would want to believe.

Sigh. Trial of the Century, indeed.

Discussion Question: Why does everyone suck?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors
directed by Woody Allen

A far cry from the usual escapist fare reviewed here, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a deep, penetrating look into morality in a godless world. A very rich and powerful doctor, played with bottled passion by Martin Landau, chooses to kill a woman rather than allow her to reveal their affair. If the "eyes of God" are upon him, then why are there no consequences to his actions? Or, to ask the question another way, if you murder someone and there is no one to see it, did you commit a crime? Given Allen's famous atheism and the fact that the voice of God in the film, a rabbi, is going blind, the answer the film comes up with are suitably bleak.

People like to bag on Woody Allen these days, but the fact is that he's made thirty five films, some of them great. This is one of them.

Discussion question: Theists often argue that with no God there is no morality. While this is a very weak argument for the existence of God (the fact that it might be beneficial for a god to exist is not an argument to suggest that he does), Allen's response in this film is "That's very true, and very frightening." What's more scary: the fact that someone could murder you, or that you could kill with no consequence?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Twin Peaks Season One

Twin Peaks Season One
created by David Lynch and Mark Frost

As I've said before in the blog, season one of Twin Peaks is a contender for the best television ever. David Lynch being forced into a linear plot does wonders for him, and the series has some truly interesting characters, tons of dark humor and just enough of a soap-opera plot to keep you hooked. Agent Cooper is a character both unique and almost archetypical in its purity: a snow-pure federal agent with a mind like a steel trap and a deep faith in the mystical. And he looks damn good, too. Kyle Maclachlan is so good in this show that it doesn't matter that he was a part of the pool sex scene in Showgirls, aka perhaps the funniest scene in cinema history.

And, yes, the show also features James Hurley, fiction's greatest dipwad. If you've never seen this show, drop everything and immerse yourself in the strange little town of Twin Peaks. Who killed Laura Palmer? Who cares? This is good TV.

Please note that the pilot episode, which is essential viewing, is not included in the box set. I had to order my copy from Hong Kong.

Discussion question: Has any show ever jumped the shark so totally? Did it have to happen?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
directed by Guy Ritchie

This film, which came out during the late-90s film renaissance (one that will get its due in a few years), often gets derided as derivative, especially now that Ritchie is better known as the husband of Madonna than as a director. But the film is is just as wildly inventive as The Matrix or Pulp Fiction, two other films that mish-mash cultural pastiches for mind-numbing effect. Yes, LSATSB couldn't exist without Pulp Fiction, but think of all the movies that Fiction owes just as much.

It's a funny, funny film with a laticework plot and plenty of sharp dialog. It also marks the debut of Jason Statham, who is on his way to becoming a star right now with Transporter 2.

Discussion Question: Am I just nostalgic for the time I came of age, or was there not a real bump in the quality of thrillers in the mid-to-late 90s?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Perfect Husband

A Perfect Husband
by Aphrodite Jones

Aphrodite Jones is a good reason that I don't read a lot of the kind of "true crime" that other people do. She's an awful writer who takes unforgivable liberties with her subjects (just because Truman Capote interjected thoughts into dead people doesn't mean you can. Truman Capote was a genius and you are not).

However, A Perfect Husband is still a good read to give you the other side of the story after you've watched the fantastic The Staircase. After doing both you'll be in a better place to judge for yourself the guilt or innocence of Michael Peterson. I'm not talking too much about it here, since I think the less you know about the case, the more you'll enjoy The Staircase. After you've watched it you can pick up this book.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fresh Blood

Fresh Blood
edited by Mike Ripley and Maxim Jakubowski

The first in a series of books documenting the new wave of crime writers who sprung up in England in the last decade, Fresh Blood showcases something that's just damn hard to find in the States: well written crime fiction. Not mysteries, not detective fiction, not true crime, but gritty tales of criminals living the criminal life. Mark Timlin's "Nowhere to Run" is a blast of a short story, and editor Jakubowski's "Blood and Guts, Goodge Street" is creepy if overwritten. Overall, it just goes to show the dearth of this genre in the United States, where short crime fiction pretty much doesn't exist.

Discussion Question: Why doesn't crime fiction have as much of a nitche in this country?

A Rip in Heaven

A Rip in Heaven
by Jeanine Cummins

April, 1991: three teenagers, Julie and Robin Kerry and Tom Cummings (the author's cousins and brother) are assaulted, the girls raped and all three tossed off the old Chain of Rocks Bridge into the Mississippi River. Tom manages to drag his way out of the Mississippi and get help. Days later, he is the main suspect. Through it all the teens' family is dragged through just about every level of hell you can think of.

A Rip in Heaven is written far better than most first person accounts of crime. Jeanine Cummins may be involved in the story, but she also went on to study journalism and acquits herself very well. You can forgive her for spilling over into sentimentality that you wouldn't tolerate from an impartial observer. Most of all, it's a book that focuses on the victims of crime instead of the criminals, and that's always a welcome reminder for those of us who spend a lot of time on the dark side.

Bully

Bully
directed by Larry Clark

Based on a so-so true crime book, Bully is the highlight of Larry Clark's career. A sickening and enthralling look at soul-dead teens in South Florida, Bully follows a group of worthless (yet notably sexier than their true life counterparts) teens who take drugs, have sex and, eventually, commit a murder breathtaking not only in its savagery but also in its immense stupidity. Clark is a commiserate voyeur, and he clearly cherishes lithe young bodies even as they do horrible things. While most of his films seem nihilistic and morally blank, this one plays out more like a tragedy. Good music, too.

Discussion Question: How stupid are these kids to think that they could get away with this murder? Or are they just to worthless to care?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mystic River

Mystic River
by Dennis Lehane

As I've said elsewhere, a cheesy book can be made into a great film. While I would hesitate to call the film Mystic River great, or the book cheesy, it is the breakout work for a man who has written some pretty standard stuff in the past. Mystic River, which deals with the fallout from one horrible crime committed in the 1960s, has moments that play false, and one narrative trick that I find cheating: if you are in the head of a character for large portions of the book, it's unfair to your reader to hold back portions of their thoughts that are extremely relevant to the story. In small doses you can do that to build suspense, but the way Lehane goes about it feels cheap to me.

What Lehane does well is explore the total grief of a family that experiences a huge loss. Some of the chapters can be hard to read because of this. And, with the exception noted above, the three central characters are wholly formed. The book ends well: even though all the questions are resolved, I'd love to read about what happens next. Sequel?

The Untouchables

The Untouchables
directed by Brian DePalma


Kevin Costner's best film! Okay, that's not much of a marquee, but it certainly isn't the best film by Brian DePalma (Scarface), screenwriter David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner) or co-stars Robert DeNiro (I can't even pick) and Sean Connery (Goldfinger, duh). The story of the men who captured Al Capone, The Untouchables is a feast of period clothes and style, and a has some good, gory gunfights as well. Wooden as always Costner makes you want to root for the bad guys, but DeNiro is so grossly good as Capone that you have to root for the good guys by default. Includes a few famous speeches, including the "baseball" scene, the "that's the Chicago way" speech, and the famous epigram "isn't that just like a wop to bring a knife to a gunfight." Pithy stuff like that finally earned Connery his first Oscar.

Discussion question: Remember when Kevin Costner was the biggest star in America? What the hell was that all about?

Crime Classification Manual

Crime Classification Manual
by John E. Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess and Robert K. Ressler

You simply don't have a crime library unless this is on your shelf ... sort of like Gray's Anatomy in a medical library. The result of a ten year project by the F.B.I. to, um, classify crime, this book will explain the difference between, say, spontaneous domestic homicide and staged violent homicide, or revenge motivated arson (personal retaliation) or revenge motivated arson (group retaliation). It may not explain the criminal mind, but it certainly let's you see them through the FBI's eyes. This book isn't just recommended, its mandatory.

Discussion question: Recently, the FBI has found that its profilers have been very wrong in attempting to profile certain killers. Has the mechanics of profiling put blinders on the feds?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross
directed by James Foley

Al Pacino. Jack Lemmon. Ed Harris. Alec Baldwin. Alan Arkin. And the unknown-at-the-time Kevin Spacey. Has there been a better cast anywhere in motion picture history? Add to the mix the play that made David Mamet into David Mamet and you're talking about a ride on the testosterone express. Hard dialog delivered even harder and withering assaults performed verbally, Glengarry Glen Ross is less the story of realtors/con men as it is a metaphor of the warrior as businessman. When Pacino calls Spacey "you child!" ... awesome. Awesome.

Discussion question: No, really, can you beat this cast?

Cracker: Series 1

Cracker: Series 1

You probably know Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, or perhaps from another of is slightly comic character turns. But nothing will prepare you for the amazing acting job that Coltrane puts out in this electric BBC series. An alcoholic gambling addict first and psychologist second, the character of Fitz is just as interesting (if not more so) than the crimes he helps solves. I'm still making my way through the later seasons, but this is truly must-see TV.

Discussion question: Are there any non-anti-heroes left?

Chinatown

Chinatown
directed by Roman Polanski

When Roman Polanski decided to remake film noir, he didn't take the cheap way out and film it in black and white. The colors of Chinatown are saturated and gorgeous, befitting the sunny LA environs that fill the film. Jack Nicholson is at his best as the flatfoot. Based on a true story, the plot of this private eye caper is so convoluted that you might want to watch it with a pad and pencil this first time around. But there's no mistaking the theme of this true classic: power corrupts, corruption's in power and the powerless are ... powerless. It's Chinatown, Jake.

Discussion Question: When is noir not noir anymore? (Also, can you say that five times fast?)

Boyz In The Hood

Boyz in the Hood
directed by John Singleton

I came of age during the gangsta era, so the first criminal culture I turned to for entertainment was the one created by Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. Boyz in the Hood, starring Ice Cube (and unleashing Cuba Gooding Jr. on the world) and named after an Eazy-E song, is one of the high water marks of that culture. Less of an exploitation flick than Menace II Society, Boyz in the Hood spends more time exploring the hood in all its crimey, malt-liquor-soaked glory. This stuff was all new to middle America at the time, and the film made quite an impact. It's aged better than expected thanks to the solid performances and the continued prevalence of gangsta rap in America. And the violence that finally arrives at the end of the movie is heartbreaking. Great stuff.

Discussion question: What the hell is up with Ice Cube these days? Don't you wish he'd make a good movie again, and maybe do the soundtrack with Dr. Dre? Wouldn't that be cool?

Dopefiend

Dopefiend
by Donald Goines

With heroin back in the news, it's time to re-read Donald Goines' most depressing work, Dopefiend. The tale of a sweet young thing who devolves into a, wait for it, dopefiend, the book is more a catalog of hell than a novel. How bad is heroin addiction? Is forced coitus with a dog bad enough? No? Well, wait until you get to the part with the dead (censored) falling out from its (censored)(censored) while our heroine slips in the (censored) below. Now, that is bad.

Donald Goines, along with Iceberg Slim, rose up from the ghetto to tell these hardboiled tales. Goines was murdered at his typewriter at the age of 37, still fighting his own heroin addiction.

Discussion Question: Does someone need to be a heroin addict like Goines to truly write about addiction?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I, the Jury

I, the Jury
by Mickey Spillane


Mickey Spillane books are hilarious. I mean drop-dead funny. You have some truly great writing, usually when describing some violence that Mike Hammer is committing against some poor sap. But the solutions to the crimes, particularly in this, the first Hammer novel, read like Agatha Christie on steroids. And then there's this strange mix of sex and prudery, such as this "sex scene:"

I had my arm around her shoulders and my hands fastened in her hair, crushing her to me. Never before had I felt like this, but never before had I been in love. She took her mouth away from mine and lay in my arms, limp, breathing heavy, her eyes closed.

"Mike," she whispered, "I want you."

"No," I said.

"Yes. You must."

"No."

"But, Mike, why? Why?"

"No, darling, it's too beautiful to spoil. Not now. Our time will come, but it must be right."

Riiiiiight. No, seriously, Mike Hammer "makes out" with I don't know how many women in this book. And never once has sex. No wonder he boils over with violence.

Out of Sight

Out of Sight
by Elmore Leonard

It's time to come clean: even though I claim to be a true lover of crime culture, I do not like Elmore Leonard books. I find most of the ones I have read to be overly cute, overly glib and facile. Even when I do enjoy one of his works, such as Out of Sight, it's with reservations. Yes, he writes very clever dialog. But that's the problem: it's too well written, usually. When a good filmmaker gets a hold of his stuff and puts the words into the mouths of actors who make you believe people could talk like this (as in the excellent film Out of Sight), it works.

It's a good story: a on-the-run bank robber and a US Marshal with an inexplicable attraction to each other, chasing and being chased. Is there any accounting for taste?

If you've never read Elmore Leonard, then Out of Sight is a good place to start. On the other hand, I may be the wrong person to ask. Leonard fans can leave better suggestions in the comments below.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Blood Simple

Blood Simple
directed by the Cohen Brothers


A triumph of independent filmmaking, Blood Simple is the film that launched the Cohen Brothers' careers, and rightfully so. From its eerie piano-line theme to the final, gory ending, Blood Simple is an old-fashioned thriller that doesn't break new ground but isn't a witless homage, either. A man sleeps with another man's wife. A sleazy detective wanders on the scene. People start dying. And who can be trusted?

Wonderfully effective, workmanlike filmmaking. That's a smart way to begin a film career, youngsters.

A Better Tomorrow

A Better Tomorrow
directed by John Woo



One of the three great John Woo/Chow Young Fat films, A Better Tomorrow is one of the most influential action films of the last few decades. Until The Matrix set the new tone, so reliant on CGI, that now dominates, Woo was the director that people copied. And The Matrix itself borrowed from this film: every sweeping shot of a leaping gunman with two pistols is going to have a little Woo in it. Heavy on sentiment that would be laughable in a western film, and taking the buddy film ethos to a nearly homoerotic extreme, A Better Tomorrow still has enough thrilling setpieces to make it a classic.

The Spanish Prisoner

The Spanish Prisoner
directed by David Mamet

David Mamet's best film, The Spanish Prisoner, is a perfectly constructed thriller ... there are no red herrings or extraneous elements: every single person, thing, or idea introduced in the first half comes back and is connected in the second half. Steve Martin is good as a mysterious millionaire, Campbell Scott is good as a young inventor, and, hey, there's Ricky Jay, awesome as always. Which ones of them are making a play for the valuable "Process" (a perfect MacGuffin)Yes, Rebecca Pidgeon's acting style is infuriating, as it is in every other Mamet film she's appeared in. It's clear that she's not a bad actress, but that she just makes almost inexplicable choices with her roles. But the film, widely unseen, is a classic.

Discussion Question: So, what's up with Rebecca Pidgeon, anyway?

White Jazz

White Jazz
by James Ellroy

White Jazz follows LA Confidential in Ellroy's LA Quintet. It's the final book, and the one where you can finally see the end of the shadowy villain. After the wide, epic expanse of Confidential, White Jazz burns like a focused torch. It's still plotted to such an extreme that you might want to take notes, but this time the action stretches out over a few weeks, not decades. It might be the last Ellroy novel you can get through without going insane. Quite a ride.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Carlito's Way/ After Hours

Carlito's Way/ After Hours
by Edwin Torres



(please note that these books were authored by Judge Edwin Torres, not bad poet Edwin Torres)

Turned into the not-so-bad (but totally overshadowed by Al Pacino's other Hispanic drug dealer performance in Scarface) film, these are some of the best written crime novels I've ever read. Told in Carlito Brigante's idiot savant patter, the books create a likeable character who lives by his balls and damn everything else. Often funny, sometimes sad, it is remarkable that these novels about a Puerto Rican drug dealer were written by a sitting judge. The language is Spanglish mixed with jive (there's an invaluable glossary in the back) and is a clear root for James Ellroy's style. Why these books have faded into obscurity is beyond me.

The Other Hollywood

The Other Hollywood
by Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osbourne

Subtitled "The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn film Industry," The Other Hollywood delivers exactly that: a sometimes gross, sometimes sad and sometimes horrifying glimpse into the world of hardcore pornography, told by those who lived it. From the Betty Page shorts to the Wonderland murderers to the mob ties to the cocaine to the size of John Holmes' penis (one male actor memorably describes looking up at John's penis and being reminded of the opening shot of Star Wars), every salacious detail of the life is on display here. It's a hefty read, and sometimes your eyes glaze over, but if you want to learn about the truth behind Boogie Nights, here you go.

Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing
directed by the Cohen Brothers

The most overlooked of the Cohen Brothers films, Miller's Crossing combines the sensual visual feast of the gangster period as well as The Untouchables did, and pairs it with a twisting plot and some great dialog:

"So I suppose you think you've raised hell."
"Sister, when I've raised hell you'll know it!"

Fine performances from Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro ... why is this movie so overlooked?

True Romance

True Romance
directed by Tony Scott

One of the most under-rated films of the 90s, True Romance looks as good on paper as it does on film: written by Quentin Tarentino just before his ship came in, with folks like Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel Jackson, Val Kilmer and Christian Slater (who's not bad) starring. It's got some great performances: Pitt plays a stoner roommate with maybe six lines so well he's one of the most memorable characters in the film. Oldman's "black pimp" is pitch-perfect. And the scene between Walken and Hopper is one of my favorite moments in cinema. Seriously. It doesn't end as well as it begins, and has a few weak moments, but is a great crime fantasy.

Sin City

Sin City
directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller


Whoo-hoo! Sin City is pure, unadulterated pulp fun, from the almost-immoral heroes to the almost gravity-defying heroines. The most faithful comic-book adaptation so far, Sin City washes over the eyes in gorgeous black and white with streaks of color (often red). It's also filled with loosely connected tales of absolute violence and revenge, with huge names like Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba. As much fun as I've had in a theater this year, it's now available on DVD (with weak bonus features that suggest a special edition is not far off).

Shella

Shella
by Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss is one of the great hardboiled stylists working today. The sentences themselves are boiled down to their essence, making Vachss the king of writing violence. Of course, he also has silly plots and what you could kindly called an obsession with child abuse as the root of all evil. The story of a nameless, and insane, hitman searching for the one person who he has ever felt emotion for, Shella starts off great before branching off into the totally unrealistic. It comes back home for a good ending, so it's worth a slog through the silly parts.

The Westies

The Westies
by T.J. English

The most infamous gang of Irish killers in America's history roamed Hell's Kitchen in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Westies! A great name ... and one that the gang itself never used. English reveals that most of what we know about the Westies was more myth than fact. They were brutal, yes, and favored chopping up their victims to help conceal them. But they also don't come off as particulary powerful, especially compared to the Mafia they join forces with. And, of course, in the end they turned on each other and ratted and killed, and without the formal structure of the Mafia, the gang seems to have pretty much vanished. Of course, the yuppie invasion of Hell's Kitchen didn't hurt ... unless you ask some locals who seemed to think that dismembered corpses were better than fern bars. I guess they keep property values down.

Pimp

Pimp
by Iceberg Slim

Perhaps the most famous piece of black crime fiction, Iceberg Slim's Pimp is the foundation for the pimp as a mythological figure in our culture. As recently as Hustle & Flow we have seen the Pimp, pimpin', tricks and hoes emerge as a central character of our crime mythos. Of course, it's also an ugly tale. I opened a page at random:
"Bitch, you can work it forever just so you don't get cancer of the cat or lockjaw. Bitch, if you don't get outta my face I'm going to get the chair for slaughtering you. Get your clothes on. Get in the street and hump some scratch."
And it doesn't end well. Like the other famous black crime author of the same period, Donald Goines, Slim was lucky enough to realize his (admittedly not genius level) gift for storytelling to help him rise above his past. But he also knows he got lucky.

Read this book to understand the culture behind most popular music today.

The Man with the Getaway Face

The Man with the Getaway Face
by Richard Stark

This book would be a bookhouse classic just for the name if it wasn't also such a great book. The second Stark novel about Parker, the amoral but honorable thief with over twenty books in his series. After taking on the Outfit, Parker's got a new face ... but no cash. So he takes on an armored car job even though he knows that there are crosses and double-crosses in the plan. Of course, a few double crosses aren't too much of a problem to Parker, perhaps fiction's biggest badass.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith

Much better than the movie it inspired, Ripley not only gets inside the head of a sociopath, it makes you root for him. In the world of crime fiction, or any fiction for that matter, has there ever been such an anti-hero as Tom Ripley? Murderous, conniving, prone to putting on airs, closeted and lazy ... yet we truly hope that in the end he gets away with the muder of innocent people so that he can continue his high-style life. That Highsmith is able to not only create this character but turn him into a series hero is a tribute to her considerable skills.

The Big Con

The Big Con
by David Maurer

A true classic of the true crime genre. David Maurer was a linguist who spent years studying and hanging out with con men. The resulting book brought forth the vocabulary of crime that most of us are familiar with today. Bankroll (the verb), to have a beef, bilk, the blow-off, a boodle, a bum rap, a C-note, to cool out, the fix, heat (as in law enforcement), the shill, the mark ... all these terms and more are in the glossary of this amazing book first published in 1940. My favorite term is probably the "cackle-bladder": a balloon filled with chicken blood kept in the mouth, used to give the illusion that the man has been shot. No true crime library is complete without it.

The Godfather

The Godfather
by Mario Puzo

Why didn't they put the vagina-tightening scene into the movie? Puzo's book, the inspiration for the greatest two-film cycle of all time, is a trashy book filled with bad writing, cardboard characters and a whole lot more weird sex than made it into the film. On the other hand, the seeds of a masterpiece are here, mostly in the form of its lead characters who would go on to be immortalized on celluloid.

From Hell

From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


From Hell isn't just one of the top five or so comic books of all time, it's also the best historical novel I've ever read, an endlessly fascinating conspiracy theory brought to life and contains lectures on architecture, myth and the human condition. Simply a masterpiece, From Hell uses the most interesting (if also the most untrue) Jack the Ripper theory that the murders were a royal plot to hide the common-born love child of Prince Eddie. Moore (whose endnotes are almost as much fun to read as the book proper) is painstaking in his research, making sure everything mentioned has a source, even if the source is certainly false. It gives the comic a deep resonance, a mythic feel, and elevates the murders of some street women into works of universal importance. You must read this.

Underboss

Underboss
by Peter Maas

Poor Sammy "the Bull" Gravano! He was such a swell guy: a hard worker who was loyal to a fault. Even when he whacked someone he felt really bad about it. If it wasn't for that no good John Gotti, what with his gambling and disloyalty, the Bull would still be in New York just being an all-around swell guy.

One of the silliest, most self-serving autobiographies I've ever read, Underboss should have Peter Maas feeling a little ashamed of himself. What's it feel like to clean up the prose of a murderous gasbag, Pete? On the other hand, Underboss is must-read stuff for its inside baseball (however biased) as well as its glimpse into the self-centered mind of a gangster.

Talked to Death

Talked to Death
by Stephen Singular


The murder of Alan Berg, a shock talk DJ in Denver, brought together a strange mishmash of cultural icons: a rabid, abrasive DJ and a group of white supremacists who were gearing up for full-tilt racial revolution. The sad fact that Berg was chosen almost at random as their victim makes Talked to Death a jarring read ... it's like reading a combined biography of John Lennon and Mark David Chapman. The Order, which became one of the most notorious white power enclaves in America's history, gets its story told pretty well in this book, which simply makes the sections on Berg's rather sad life seem a little dull. Still, this is the authoritative book on this famous crime that led to the making of the film Talk Radio.

The Grifters

The Grifters
By Jim Thompson

Made into a pretty good movie, The Grifters is the tale of three hustlers of various tactics and skills. Lilly Dillion is an old-school rackets gal, cutting odds at racetracks for the mob. Her son Roy is a short con man running games in LA. And Moira is the woman in his life, maybe just a small time hustler ... and maybe more. A story told with breakneck speed (as almost all of Thompson's books are) with heavy psychosexual undertones and plenty of interesting details about the con game. (However, anyone who has read The Big Con will see where Thompson did his research).

It's my personal favorite Thompson book, and a great introduction to mid-century's master of crime fiction.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter
by Vincent Bugliosi

Bugliosi was the DA who prosecuted the Manson Family for the Tate/LaBianca murders. Maybe you've heard of the case. There's no reason to wonder how Manson and the gang got convicted once you read the chainmail-wove case Bugliosi builds during the book. Although he occasionally overstates his case, and more than occasionally toots his own sax, this book will stand as the book on Manson. You can read other books on the subject, but you must read this one.

Monster: Autobiography of an LA Gang Member

Monster: Autobiography of an LA Gang Member
by Sanyika Shakur


Monster is the most problematic book I own. Sanyika Shakur, under the moniker of Monster Kody Scott, did horrible things as a member of the Eight Tray Crips. He is a murderer. Scum. Yet reading his book is thrilling in a way I hate to admit. Although Shakur has repudiated his violent past, he is able to describe it in a way that almost makes it read like an action novel. There is a famous argument made by Francois Truffaut that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, as watching war is always exciting. This is how I feel about Monster. I wish I could tell you to read it as a cautionary tale. But I read it for the thrill.

Our Guys

Our Guys
by Bernard Lefkowitz



Not what you call a barrel of laughs, Our Guys is the true story (you might remember when it made the news) of a bunch of high school jocks who sexually molested a retarded classmate. Even though Lefkowitz's distaste for the right-wing culture that spawned these kids sometimes causes him to overstate his points, there is no doubt that the gang of kids who did this were amoral and extremely cruel to women. By the end of the book you're just sick to death of the whole thing, but it is a truly sickening book. Not beach reading.

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Rush

Rush
by Kim Wozencraft


Turned into a decent movie, Rush is the tale of two undercover narco agents who get in way, way over their heads. Wozencraft, a former narc busted for lying under oath, contends with the novel that the whole system of undercover narcotics operations is poisoned: it is, she contends, impossible to effectively do the job without using small amounts of drugs to gain the trust of dealers. The narcs' bosses know this and look the other way. But a life of hanging out with druggies and using small amounts of drugs is an easy way to turn into someone who hangs out with druggies and does large amounts of drugs. This is what happens in Rush and, we assume, to Wozencraft in real life.

This is Wozencraft's first novel, and it suffers from a bit of a lack of plot. But the details, so unquestionably authentic, of the narc's lifestyle makes this a truly gripping read.

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Killing Pablo

Killing Pablo
by Mark Bowden

Pablo Escobar made Tony Montana look like a piker ... and Pablo was the real deal. While Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down) focuses on the trials of the international task force set on assassinating Columbia's biggest drug lord, it is the details of Pablo's life that really hook you. A man who, when he went to jail, built his own prison staffed with his own men is a man not to be trifled with. Men like Escobar live big and then die big. Is it worth it? Check out the book then decide for yourself.

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Fletch

Fletch
by Gregory McDonald

The Fletch series is the only set of true mysteries I've ever followed, and it has everything to do with the character of Fletch. Forget Chevy Chase; the real Fletch of the books is a whole lot darker, a whole lot smarter and considerably more fun. (I do enjoy the first Fletch movie quite a bit. But the second one is a travesty. With close to a dozen Fletch books to choose from, they create a whole new story for the film. A very, very stupid story). In the first Fletch novel, we meet Irwin Fletcher, a man with no sense of journalistic ethics (and no sexual ethics either) but with a very strong moral center. The steps he takes to solve the mystery of a murder he is supposed to commit are just plain fun, and his playful sense of adventure carries the story. While you may love the "bring me a cup of hot fat" lines of the film, if that is all you know, then you don't know Fletch.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Blue Blood

Blue Blood
Edward Conlon

Cops, as we all know, spend their days shaking down drug dealers and their nights in gunfights. At least, that's how it works in most of the books I read. Edward Conlon's Blue Blood, however, is a wholly believable look at the mundane yet strange life of a cop. A memoir that stretched from days of walking a beat up to become a homicide detective, Colon's first book is a little long-winded but on the whole enjoyable. And some parts, such as his battle with a crazed housecat, are surreal and hilarious.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential
by James Ellroy

If you thought the film was a bleak epic, wait until you read the book. Spanning years, delving into every perversion, addiction and act of violence you can think of, L.A. confidential is big, bad and smart ... the Suge Knight of crime fiction. A killer who slices up kids to build monsters, pounds of heroin, whores cut to look like movie stars, blood-orgy porn, massacres and three cops who are only half-lost: this blood swells like an overstuffed blood sausage.

Written before Ellroy took his style to an almost maddening extreme, it's almost surely the apex of his career. Read it now.

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Party Monster

Party Monster
by James St. James

Decadence gets such a bad rap these days. It seems like every tale of good drugs and bad sex has to end with the partiers amoral ways spinning into murder. Lesson learned: eat your vegetables.

Well, while the true story in Party Monster (originally titled Disco Bloodbath) ends with amoral club kids hacking a drug dealer into chunks, author James St. James isn't repenting. "I had a wonderful time," he says of the period that ended with his best friend becoming a murderer. It's this refreshing point of view that makes Party Monster such a great read. Yes, St. James is horrified by the murder, and he knows how bad his drug problem was, but he still obviously revels in being the even queenier Oscar Wilde of his demimonde. Very funny and the essential text for the club kids story, Party Monster is a must-own true crime book.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Where The Money Is

Where the Money Is
by William J. Rehder and Gordon Dillow


William Rehder spent 33 years in the FBI fighting bank robbers in LA (the bank-robbery capital of America). Where the Money Is follows both cops and robbers though every type of bank job you can think of: sad geeks who walk in with an empty bag and walk out with a grand or two, tunnelers (for whom Rehder can't help but show some respect), strong-arm gangsters and inside jobs. The final chapter even details the careers of the Heat-inspired maniacs who used bullet-proof vests and heavy lead to blast their way out of their final job.

Rehder is a fun-and-facts filled tour guide through this world, and sometimes even he cannot help but get caught up in our American notion that robbing a bank isn't the worst crime in the world (he has no love for the violents criminals, however). Read this book and you'll come out knowing two things: it would be an absolute blast to rob a bank, and then, you will go to jail.

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