by Sukey HowardJune, 2009
Contaminated waste, wasted lives
When Commissario Guido Brunetti sat across from Franca Marinello at an elegant dinner party at the home of Count Falier, his titled father-in-law, he had no idea that this charming woman, married to a much older, wheeler-dealer businessman, would become a major figure in one of his nastier cases. At the time, he just enjoyed their shared love of Cicero and Virgil and wondered at her mangled face-lift. That same day, an officer working for a special environmental branch of the Carabinierie had come to see Brunetti about a murder, probably linked to the illegal transport of toxic waste from the garbage-filled, Camora-controlled South to areas in the Veneto. About Face, ably read by David Colacci, Donna Leon’s 18th novel starring Commissario Brunetti, the gently determined detective with a passion for justice, begins with these two disparate threads. And when it ends, Leon has skillfully twisted them into in a nuanced tale of corruption, contamination and coercion. As always, she’s combined a good Italian police procedural (well, Brunetti would probably call it a non-procedural), set in the real Venice tourists never see, with cogent commentary on contemporary problems.
A darker shade of noir
Even though there’s a lot of violent action and fast dialogue, a mesmerizing torpor hangs over Nobody Move, Denis Johnson’s homage to noir pulp fiction. Will Patton’s narration is so true to the mood, so evocative, that you’ll feel like you’ve smoked a pack of Camels and swallowed a fifth of cheap vodka by the time it’s all over. There are no good guys here, no wisecracking private investigator with a shapely secretary, just a pack of lowlifes heading lower. Right after Jimmy, a compulsive, small-time gambler in hock to some very unpleasant dudes, shoots the enforcer in the leg, he meets a dazzling, alcoholic divorcee, who’s just been dumped by her lawyer husband and framed for embezzling $2.3 million. This not-very-dynamic duo, hoping to get their hands on the dirty dough, end up in the hands of the bad guys and everyone, almost, gets hurt. If you’re a fan of this hard-boiled genre that can’t help poking fun at itself, Johnson’s grim, gritty, darkly funny walk on the wild side will be right up your alley.
To lighten your load, elevate your spirit and escape the daily grind—just listen to the knock-knock and light bulb jokes, really good “bad” Unitarian, lawyer, blonde and dog jokes in Even More Pretty Good Jokes. This collection includes the best selections from four “A Prairie Home Companion” joke shows, recorded live in St. Paul. All are told (and sung) by the show’s usual suspects, along with special guests including Roy Blount Jr. Guaranteed to generate giggles, chortles, smiles and grins.
Way before movies, big-screen celebrities, TV, YouTube and Twitter, there were superstars. And Charles Dickens was the unrivaled literary superstar of his day, with a vast audience who waited with more than bated breath for every installment of every book and who battled for tickets to his public readings. When Dickens died in 1870, he left his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished and his fans hungry for a finale. The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl’s third and, I think, best period novel, plunges us into that era and turns the mystery of “The Mystery” into a terrific historical thriller-diller, replete with duplicitous rogues, murderous opium traders, book-pirating rascals (a big deal at that time), cutthroat publishers, fevered chases, fervent romance, an all-American hero and a remarkably accurate, well-documented portrait of Dickens and his entourage. In turn, Paul Michael’s faultlessly paced, pitch-perfect reading, with a range of convincing voices and accents, turns the book into exciting audio entertainment.