It was the butt-end of a dull day. Otto Penzler, the mastermind behind Mysterious Press, slouched into my office. He was dressed to the nines, armored in Armani, hoping to hide his penchant for pulp and need for noir. “Got a job for you,” he muttered, “big job. I’m resurrecting Black Mask, putting the best of it on audio for the first time.” BLACK MASK! The apotheosis (yeah, a tough P.I. knows some fancy words, too) of American crime fiction, the iconic mag that first published Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald. I was thrilled. I’d be there for Penzler as he made the cut, picked out the classic hard-boiled sleuths and their crafty, curvy dames. It could get rough, but somebody had to do it. Now, Penzler has done it and we have four volumes of unabridged stories, read by top-notch performers. The latest, Black Mask Stories 4: The Parrot That Wouldn’t Talk, is out now. Black Mask Stories 5 will be out next month and there are six more in the Penzler pipeline.
GOING TO WAR
It took Karl Marlantes 30 years to write Matterhorn, his highly acclaimed Vietnam War novel, but he wrote What It Is Like to Go to War more quickly. Perhaps, after all those years of pondering and analyzing his experience in Vietnam, he was able to distill the essence of what he had gone through into a cogent portrayal of what a soldier feels and thinks and how, after a day or a decade, he processes combat. Marlantes both describes and prescribes. He offers a vivid account of his own feelings of “deep savage joy” and despair, and shares his considered ideas on how to prepare young men to become warriors with a moral compass, to deal with chaos and violence, to come home with their psyches less ravaged. This should be required listening for everyone touched by war—and that’s all of us.
TOP PICK IN AUDIO
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s much-lauded debut novel, gamely read by Holter Graham, is as satisfying as a bases-loaded homer and executed with all the craft of a triple-play. It’s a great baseball novel, the kind that conjures up the excitement of the game so accurately that I found myself holding my breath, praying for a hit, a catch, a tag. Then I realized that that same involvement extended to all the non-baseball situations as well, that I really cared about all the characters, those who play ball and those who don’t. Harbach writes about friendship, growing up, dependence, independence, strength, vulnerability and love with as much insight and skill as he writes about fielding a ground ball. The book is set at a small college in Wisconsin, and centers, sort of, on the rise and fall and rise of Henry Skrimshander, a small, skinny kid from South Dakota who can play shortstop with errorless, feline grace, who lives for baseball and who discovers, as do his complex and appealing comrades, that missteps are part of life, that they have consequences and that you can play through them.