Monday, September 22, 2008

The Big O by Declan Burke

I'll be wandering and babbling a bit before I actually get to the book so feel free to jump ahead.

The Big O by Declan Burke is an example of a book that I would not have known about were it not for blogs. The reason I mention this is because I'm tracking where I learn about books. This is prompted by a post on Declan's own blog, Crime Always Pays. In a September 15 post he wonders "about where crime fiction itself is going, and what blogs and sites can do to help it get there." I think blogs can do much.

I learned about The Big O from the flogging Declan himself gave it on his blog (is flogging a pejorative expression here? I don't mean it to be) and it sounded like a book I wanted to read. Unfortunately it was only available in the UK and unless I deprived the cats of their premium food it was out of reach. When I found it was going to be published in the U.S. and available for advanced order on Amazon I immediately ordered a copy. Bless Amazon, they shipped it well in advance of the September 22 U.S. release date so I've had a chance to read it.

The blurb on the book jacket describes Declan as "Elmore Leonard with a harsh Irish edge." I would also add a bit of Donald Westlake (think a Dortmunder caper) with profanity and violence and some Carl Hiassen with his talent for creating interesting characters and putting them in darkly humorous situations.

The Big O falls into the humorous caper category but there are also aspects of the hardboiled school of crime writing so it is covering several of the crime sub-genres.

    We have:
  • Karen who is a receptionist for a plastic surgeon who supplements her income with armed robbery.

  • Karen's ex boyfriend Rossi is out on parole and looking for his motorcycle, .44 automatic, and his money, all of which he thinks Karen has.

  • Ray wants to get out of the kidnapping business. His job is to mind the kidnapped until the insurance company pays the ransom. He is also falling in love with Karen

  • Frank is a plastic surgeon with money trouble and also Karen's boss

  • Frank's almost ex-wife, Madge who is also Karen's best friend.

  • Anna who you need to meet in the book. I will say no more.

  • Assorted other characters who contribute to the craziness.

Frank figures that the only way out of his money predicament is to have his ex-wife kidnapped before the insurance policy expires. Ray gets subcontracted to hold Madge until the ransom is paid. Ray and Karen team up and the caper moves into high gear.

The story is told in alternating sections from the viewpoint of the major characters. A character many have several pages or a few paragraphs. This is a nifty approach that I enjoy. You get bits of back story and unfolding plot elements as the path of the characters weave in an out, sometimes crossing, and finally intersecting. Burke does this skillfully. The only downside to this style for me is that I think I can stop reading any time because there are break points so close together. The reality is that I decide that I can read just one more bit since it isn't that long, not like a chapter. I stayed up much too late over two work nights.

You know how there are television shows where the cast is perfect and they complement each other - Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Shield, The Wire, shows like that. That's the way I felt about the characters in The Big O. I liked many of them but was interested in all of them.

Earlier I described this book as a humorous caper. Humorous doesn't mean comedy. It means that there is much sharp, witty, and snarky dialog and narration. There is nothing slow or ponderous here. Burke makes frequent use of short statement, rapid fire dialog/observations that propel the story along. Hmm, that isn't phrased well. I need to study reviewer lingo a bit more.

All in all it is a cracking good story told well and I don't regret springing for the hardcover.

I would like large numbers of people on this side of the Atlantic to purchase this book so the folks at Harcourt will be inclined to publish Declan's next book simultaneously in the US so I won't have to wait for months.