James Grippando. Last Call. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
This read went very fast; after some familiarity with Jack Swytek's world, it must be that easy to adapt. As always, the plot jumps into action almost immediately and as always, friend Theo is bang in the midst of it. He has friends in low places. No, not really friends: those guys in the orange jumpsuits. Uncle Cyrus the musician plays more of a role here, although it strains credibility at times to reconcile his love and care for the nephews with his once drug-addled past.
From kids in gangs to prison 'culture' to extortion and property development fraud, the two friends try to unpuzzle the past to get a handle on who is shooting whom. Meanwhile Jack tries to sort out the women in his life. One is at hand in the FBI; the other commutes from Africa. Smacks of spinning the thread for some time to come.
Cyrus reflects on the underside of Miami life:
Funny thing was, Cy had played his sax so much better when he was high. Or so he'd thought as a much younger man. The owners who fired him from the hottest clubs downtown, the managers who banned him from the big hotels on Miami Beach, the musicians who refused to play with him again—they were all racists or Uncle Toms trying to keep the black musicians down. He kept moving from one gig to the next, drinking, sniffing, snorting, popping, shooting along the way, burning bridges everywhere he went. Eventually he couldn't find work anymore—except in a place like Homeboy's, that dive of a joint where Theo's mother used to hang out. Night after night, he watched her, stoned and stumbling from from one bar stool to the next in search of a twenty-dollar trick. When those pockets were emptied, she'd turn to the streets. Everyone knew that story's ending. (190)
No, the overall story is not that depressing. Grippando is on a roll.
Charles Cumming. A Foreign Country. London, UK: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2012.
The back cover said Egypt and Tunisia and south of France, so that did it. Never heard of the author despite the usual embedded plaudits. I suspect it was a selection from the remainder bin at my favourite World's Biggest Bookstore on Elm Street. No offence here; some of the best authors get remaindered. It's about spies, see? As it turns out, British and French agents are at each other's throats with only a few token Arabs. I'm sure I stayed at one of those hotels in Gammarth!
Rather slow in starting, the novel sees Thomas Kell observing an odd, secret detour in the life of MI6's chief in waiting. He does a sort of travelling stakeout. A family mystery revealed early becomes the focal point around which all action turns. The intricate tactics of spying, watching, following, hiring assistants, reporting, are interesting enough. Alert mystery lovers will spot a few loose ends and moments of disbelief. My burgeoning thought was: this novel needs editing or maybe restructuring; there is so much unsaid, no smooth transitions from one scenario to another. Then whoa! About page 250 (of 429) the suspense gets unbearable. What seemed to be so pedestrian at first became better than a movie at runaway timing. I wouldn't read any of his earlier novels but I'll watch for him again.
The seasoned spy:
In the early years of his career, coming home had always given Kell a buzz. He might have been returning from a meeting in Vienna or Bonn, or from a longer operation overseas, but always there was the same slightly elevated sense of his own importance as he touched down on British soil. Passing through Heathrow or Gatwick, he would feel like a superior being among a rabble of lesser mortals, gliding invisibly through passport control on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Such arrogance, such hubris, had long since ceased to form a part of Kell's makeup. He no longer felt anointed or conferred with special status; he was conscious only of being different from all the rest. Toward the end of his time with SIS, he had envied the uncomplicated lives of the men and women of his own generation with whom he came into contact. What would it be like, he wondered, a life without lies, an existence free of the doublethink and second-guess that was a permanent feature of his clandestine trade? (259-260)