Latest King stories about twilight, not darkness
(AP) - For a generation, we have associated Stephen King with darkness, or at least with an absence of light. He is the national summoner of darker instincts, darker thoughts, darker realities bleeding into our own.
But perhaps we have missed the point a bit.
‘‘Just After Sunset’’ (Scribner, 367 pages) by Stephen King.
“Burn Out” (Grand Central Publishing, 309 pages) by Marcia Muller.
“The Paris Enigma” (Harper/HarperCollins. 244 pages) by Pablo De Santis, translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem.
‘‘Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners’’ (Random House. 445 pages) by Laura Claridge.
‘‘Once Were Cops’’ (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 294 pages) by Ken Bruen.
If you take a more lingering look, the most powerful tales spun by King are about not darkness itself, but twilight - that gray, uneasy land that lies between the prosaic texture of human days and the unending desolation of our nights. Think ''The Green Mile'' or the two novellas that gave us the movies ''Stand By Me'' and ''The Shawshank Redemption.''
For this reason, King's latest anthology of short stories, ''Just After Sunset,'' is quietly dazzling. It is a snapshot of his ability to erode that membrane between light and dark, to make us believe that any of us, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, could slip into somewhere that's not quite right.
Weird things happen in these stories, but they are not necessarily horrifying things. The main characters are people living, sometimes unawares, on the edge of reality. It's the part of King's inner workings that is neither H.P. Lovecraft nor Peter Straub, but Rod Serling.
So this happens: King's unfortunates tumble into strange pockets and find themselves unable to get out. Or the opposite happens: Redemptively, they manage to flee against all odds and reclaim normality, or at least a tenuous substitute.
They don't always die. That's because a positive undercurrent runs through King's shorter works of fiction, a sense of control amid the lack of it. Sure, people in his 100,000-worders sometimes survive, but here survival seems like one of several options, and in short stories each choice really matters.
''Just After Sunset'' does this even better than King's previous anthologies. The unsettling ''Willa,'' set in a Wyoming railroad station, is the closest thing to an original ''Twilight Zone'' episode to come down the pike in years. ''The Things They Left Behind,'' a post-9/11 meditation, is sad and weird but not at all menacing.
''Harvey's Dream'' is a parent's worst nightmare, viewed in slow motion. ''Rest Stop,'' also with nothing supernatural about it, revisits the author-pseudonym duality that King explored in ''The Dark Half.'' ''A Very Tight Place'' is a claustrophobic tale about an ugly dispute and a port-a-potty.
''The Gingerbread Girl,'' a harrowing almost-novella, anchors the book and bridges the inner-psyche thrillers of King's 1990s work with his more recent stories. A story of abuse, psychosis and loneliness, it is physically exhausting to read - an astounding thing to say for a short work of fiction.
An interesting inclusion in the collection is a brief story from King's early days called ''The Cat From Hell.'' While fun - and gross - it is the exception that proves the rule, a benchmark from the 1970s that isn't all that deep and illustrates the extent to which King has matured.
In ''N.'' - one of the most powerful and, stylistically, most unorthodox pieces in the collection - King meditates about our relationship with death. ''We see the faces of the dead as a kind of gate,'' he writes. ''It's shut against us ... but we know it won't always be shut. Someday it will swing open for each of us, and each of us will go through.''
That's what Stephen King is about these days - the gates between us and them, between here and there.
Muller's 'Burn Out' shows a few signs of fatigue
(AP) - Private eye Sharon McCone is feeling burned out after narrowly escaping the bombing of her safe house during a high-profile investigation. She retires to her husband's ranch to recover from depression and figure out whether a career change is in order.
But McCone is quickly sucked into a new case that starts with a young girl being tossed out of a truck by a small-town, small-time drug dealer shortly before the girl's sister is shot and killed in the man's rundown mobile home.
The sisters and their troubled mother are Native American, forcing McCone to confront her still unsettled feelings about her own Native American heritage and adoption by a white family.
"Burn Out" is Marcia Muller's 26th McCone mystery in a little more than 30 years. During that time, McCone has gone from a one-person operation sharing low-rent space with a group of lawyers to the owner of an investigative firm with enough employees to confuse a new reader.
Like many successful entrepreneurs in their 40s, McCone finds herself at a crossroads: Does she sell the firm, take the money and run? Or is there a way she can continue to find meaning in her work?
In previous novels, Muller has excelled at making McCone's inner turmoil as gripping as the crimes she solves. But in this story, her description of McCone's depression falls a bit flat, and the speed and ease of the private eye's recovery ring hollow.
The reader is led to believe that one good case can do the trick.
Muller also relies on plot techniques she has used before: Characters have multiple identities, and the key to the present crime lies in the victims' past. The solution is apparent too early, and when the loose ends are tied up, there are few surprises.
It begs the question of whether Muller is also feeling a bit of burnout? While she undoubtedly remains one of today's best mystery writers, her latest work shows a few signs of fatigue.
'The Paris Enigma' is complex whodunit
(AP) - This is a whodunit that provokes thought as well as entertainment, on subjects from waterproof shoeshine cream to ancient Greek physics.
It fires multiple, intense bursts of crime stories at the reader, some only a page or so long. And it climaxes with serial murders that tie into the building of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris World's Fair of 1889.
It's the first book to appear in English by Pablo De Santis, the first winner of the new Casa de America Prize for best American novel. Another by De Santis, "Voltaire's Calligrapher," will appear in 2009. A prominent Argentine writer, he used to be editor-in-chief of Fierros (Brands), a Buenos Aires magazine devoted to comics.
"The Paris Enigma" is based on the exploits of a cartoonishly improbable club called The 12 Detectives. It's an almost priestly brotherhood - "the most elite detectives in the world," the book calls them. Membership consists of a private sleuth from each of a dozen countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Argentina. Publisher HarperCollins compares it to the Justice League, a fictional DC Comics superhero team that included Superman, Batman Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.
The detective from Buenos Aires and co-founder of the club, Renato Craig, publishes an ad inviting young people to a course on solving crime - he's looking for an assistant. Club members' assistants are called acolytes, a term that brings to mind: devoted, innocent-looking altar boys in long vestments. And the acolytes, with one exception, do turn out to be less violent than their fiercely competitive masters. The American detective's acolyte is a taciturn Sioux warrior who can speak excellent French when he wants to take the trouble.
Among those who reply to Craig's ad is the narrator of the novel, Sigmundo Salvatrio. His father, a shoemaker, had regularly given him jigsaw puzzles of increasing complexity for his birthday. They may have helped cause the young man's addiction to detective stories. Sigmundo eagerly joins the course, becomes Craig's acolyte and is sent to Paris for a meeting of the club, to represent his ailing master.
The French member of the club, Louis Darbon, has a rival for the Paris post: an expatriate from Poland, Viktor Arzaky. Darbon is killed, apparently murdered, by a fall from a platform of the Eiffel Tower.
Arzaky asks Sigmundo to work for him. Sigmundo accepts, and remains with Arzaky until the detective dies at the hands of the one violent acolyte - the late Darbon's.
Where does ancient physics come in? The Greeks believed there were just four elements in nature: earth, air, fire and water. The scholarly detectives associate this lore with the serial murders in Paris. Did Darbon die from his long fall from the tower through the air, or from hitting the earth at the end of it?
The shoeshine cream? Sigmundo's father, the shoemaker, gave him some of his concoction that was also said to be effective against wounds. Traces of the cream are found on the corpse of an actress who was apparently Arzaky's lover. But it failed to prevent her death during her stage performance, which included a naked dive into a pool of icy water.
That makes three of the four Greek elements: air, earth, water.
The story is a lot more complicated than that.
The forces that shaped the etiquette goddess
(AP0 - The last time your mother tried to tell you how or how not to act, did you wonder what made her believe she was right? Therein lies one of the chief enticements of ''Emily Post,'' the new biography of the etiquette goddess from noted biographer Laura Claridge.
Emily Price Post was born into the debutante life when being a debutante was a serious business and offered access to those who would become leading characters in history books. As Claridge points out, however, the family of the young Emily Price was not completely accepted into what she would later call ''Best Society.'' This, and her Southern roots, gave her a more democratic (with a small D) approach to social advice that appealed to the middle and immigrant classes. Claridge takes the reader back and tells the story of how a young American socialite came to dominate the market for etiquette advice - and wield a powerful influence on American culture in the process.
Among the more formative events of Post's life was the painful, tabloid-soaked failure of her marriage to the aristocratic Edwin Main Post. It left Emily Post headed down a path to writing the tome that gave many Americans the foundation of their sense of how to act, how to host and how to, well, be.
Claridge's credentials as a biographer are imposing, and the book certainly delivers on the promise of a story rich with historical context and telling detail. More casual readers might wish for more about Emily's emotional life, but the lack may be less a shortfall of the writer than an indication of Post's somewhat closed-off nature. She seemed to keep most people, even close family members who she loved dearly, at a comfortable distance.
Claridge also writes of Post's predilection for documenting minutiae. She makes lists of household expenses, the contents of a season's wardrobe, lists of flowers she planted in her garden, lists of pretty much anything that could go into a list. She even wrote on the box of jigsaw puzzles the date that she finished them and how long it took. This reader couldn't help but feel annoyed about Post's methodical personality and wonder whether she was too much a rules-follower to have done even more with her life.
Those who wonder about the actual rules of etiquette prescribed by Emily Post should skip this book altogether and just read the ''little blue book'' itself. Very little of the actual etiquette advice makes it into Claridge's book, which is just as well since even Post herself seemed to grasp for a connection between etiquette and ethics to give the former topic more intellectual heft than many accord it.
'Once Were Cops' brilliantly told, pacing intense
(AP) - Michael O'Shea, a young member of the Irish Guard, longs to become a police officer in America because the cops there get to carry guns instead of batons. So he blackmails his way into a police exchange program and soon finds himself working the Manhattan South precinct in New York City.
There, O'Shea gets paired with Kurt Browski, nicknamed Kebar after the heavy metal rod he keeps up his sleeve. Kebar is a brutal cop, and he prefers to work alone.
At first, Kebar figures his new partner for a greenhorn and treats him with disdain. But he soon discovers O'Shea can teach him a thing or two about brutality.
O'Shea tells it this way:
''He no longer gave me grief and Jesus, asked my opinion on stuff, like if we were going into a crack house, he'd go,
''How d'you want to play this . . . partner?'
''Even he seemed stunned by his behavior, as if he'd lost his way and was floundering.''
Together, the new partners wreak havoc on the streets. But Kebar harbors a secret. He's on the take to the mob.
That's bound to cause friction with his partner because O'Shea hates dishonest cops. It's not money O'Shea cares about. It's the power to hurt people.
O'Shea has a secret of his own. He likes to seek out women with long, swanlike necks, wrap his green rosary beads around them, and choke the women until they are dead.
That's the set up for ''Once Were Cops'' by Ken Bruen, the author of more than 20 crime novels, most of them set in his native Ireland. The book is one of the darkest portrayals of policing since James Ellroy's ''LA Confidential'' (1990.)
The novel's tone somewhat resembles ''The Shield,'' an FX TV series in which Michael Chiklis plays Vic Mackey, the leader of a gang of ruthless cops. But viewers of the show find themselves rooting for the anti-hero. It is impossible to develop a rooting interest in either Kebar or O'Shea. Both are irredeemably evil.
But, as the reader will eventually discover, they aren't even the most vile characters in the book.
Bruen tells the story brilliantly. The dialogue captures both Irish and New York accents. The pacing is intense. And the prose is at once vivid and as tight as anything this side of a haiku.