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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 16, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Taken; Idol, Voice, and X; Harper's

Any chance you get to read a Robert Crais novel, you really ought to do it, not because it's a duty, or it will elevate your mind, or give you something to talk about at parties, but because it's always going to be a fascinating, rewarding read.

Crais's latest, Taken, is one of his best, in part because it is about both Elvis Cole, wise-cracking LA private detective, and his friend and partner, mercenary sidekick Joe Pike.

There's a long tradition of sidekick characters in mystery fiction, like Watson with Sherlock Holmes and Archie Goodwin with Nero Wolfe. In that older tradition, the sidekick is the narrator, there to tell the story so that the brilliant eccentric detective doesn't have to tell about his own exploits. And because the sidekick doesn't know what the Great Man is thinking, the solution to the mystery can come when the Great Man reveals it, not when he first thinks of it.

Also, the sidekick is there to be assigned to run mysterious errands whose purpose even he doesn't know. Very entertaining.

But recent mystery novels have used sidekicks very differently -- as the violent person who will do the morally questionable things that need doing, so the noir hero never has to dirty his own hands.

In other words, the sidekick does the Jack Bauer jobs.

Here's a happy little list, with author, sleuth, and violent sidekick.

Robert B. Parker, Spenser, Hawk.

Walter Mosley, Easy Rawlins, Mouse

Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Plum, Ranger

Robert B. Parker, Sunny Randall, Spike

Robert Crais, Elvis Cole, Joe Pike

Not that every detective has a violent sidekick -- Kinsey Milhone and Harry Bosch do their own dirty work, by and large. And in Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels, Milo Sturgis isn't actually the sidekick -- in many ways, he's the actual sleuth and Kellerman is the extremely insightful sidekick.

Nor are the violent sidekicks all alike. For instance, Sunny Randall's VS, Spike, is a gay bouncer at a bar. Stephanie Plum occasionally sleeps with her VS, Ranger, and she has a second possible sidekick to do morally questionable stuff, in the form of her mafia-family-member boyfriend.

There's another kind of sidekick that is even more common: The computer-savvy friend. CSFs exist so that information can be obtained without having to waste the reader's time on the tedious process. It is the modern equivalent of sending Archie Goodwin out to run errands.

The trouble with the VS is that he is in many ways more attractive than the sleuth. That's why it's important to leave him mysterious and distant, so he pops up when he's needed, but otherwise stays out of the way so he doesn't steal every scene.

Except that sometimes the writer is so intrigued with the VS that he gets some time in the spotlight. Mosley has done that with Mouse, but Robert Crais has dived in with both feet.

After many years as the VS, in 2007 Joe Pike got a novel of his own, The Watchman. Officially it was because Elvis Cole was recovering from wounds received in a previous novel. In fact, though, I think Crais was happy to have an excuse to explore Pike and make him deep and real.

This is a tendency that has marked Crais all along. At first, Elvis Cole was the typical brash wise-cracking noir detective, a first-person narrator in a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler/Ross MacDonald tradition. But Crais was not content with superficiality and took the plunge into giving his sleuth an actual life.

Now he's doing the same for Joe Pike. Yes, we lose a bit of the mystery about him, but it's all to the good, because there are reasons for Pike's eccentricities, and while his rules are different from Elvis Cole's, he still has them.

With Crais's latest book, Taken, he uses both Cole and Pike just about equally. In fact, Taken is, for a mystery, unusually complicated. We begin with an engaging young couple, Jack and Krista, who are out with friends in the desert of southern California, where they hang out at the site of an old plane wreck.

They're surprised, though, to get caught up in a strange and vicious hijacking of a truckload of illegal immigrants. It seems that there is a breed of criminal that grabs illegals by killing the coyote who is transporting them, then holding the illegals for ransom.

Since the illegals are far from rich, the profits come from volume. They hit up family members in the U.S. or abroad for ransoms of $500. If they have no family, or the family won't pay, or they run out of money, the illegal is murdered; when they're all dead, the kidnappers move on to the next batch.

Here's where Crais takes some risks as a writer. The story is told all out of order. Some of it is from Pike's point of view, and Pike isn't searching for Jack and Krista. He's searching for Elvis Cole.

So we know right from the start that somehow, in the process of searching for these two kidnapped kids, Cole is going to become a captive himself.

To further complicate things, the sections about Cole are told in first person by Cole, while the sections from Pike's and Jack's viewpoint are told in third person, which is just weird.

But this is Robert Crais. Even when we think we already know what's going to happen, it doesn't work the way we expect. There are other characters we come to care about along the way. People die. Yet amid the ugliness, friendships develop and deepen, and people reveal who they really are.

It's one of Crais's best books, and that's saying a lot. I listened to it narrated very well by Luke Daniels (he takes great pains to make sure he can pronounce the many foreign languages); but I also bought it in hardcover because I couldn't stand to read it in order (suspense makes me too upset), and you can't easily cut ahead with an audiobook.

So I listened to about two-thirds, skipped to the end and read that, then stayed up really late to finish the whole book, reading every word. (You don't read that way? Cool. I do. Live with it.)

For me, that means the time order was even more disarranged than Crais intended. But it's a strong enough book to withstand even my eccentric reading style. He brought off a difficult ending, and then gave us an epilogue in which we don't so much understand the relationship between Cole and Pike as merely observe it and realize that there's more to this friendship than long memories. It's a beautiful ending to a powerful thriller.

*

As American Idol begins its eleventh season, I think it's better than ever.

Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and Randy Jackson are the best panel of judges the show has ever had. They actually think and talk like professionals, and you never get a sense that they're grandstanding the way Simon Cowell always did.

Instead, they actually offer intelligent suggestions which, if followed, will help the singers.

I thought I'd miss Cowell. I don't. On the contrary, the show has a much better, more entertaining vibe than it did when he was there, because it's not about the judges, it's about the performers.

Furthermore, this year the "walking tragedy" auditions were kept to a minimum, and they never descended to cruelty. I didn't have to fast-forward through anything (I refuse to watch them exploit people with self-blindness images). That's saying something -- a real turnaround.

If you watch the Idol tryouts in order to mock and jeer at the most absurd candidates, then I suppose this was a terrible year for you. But for me, looking for talent, hoping for somebody who'll really be wonderful, this has been a terrific year so far.

Even on group night, when singers traditionally either come together or collapse into chaos, nobody was set up as the goat, the person we are all supposed to hate. Yes, there were people who didn't realize they do not play well with others (they always think it's the others' fault), but the show wasn't poisoned by it.

I think American Idol is maturing into a show that develops talent into a series of stunts. Their track record is solid. Even the winners who turned out not to have huge careers were still wonderful at what they did, and even being an also-ran on this show can be a great start for a career.

But there's competition now.

I only watched a couple of episodes of Simon Cowell's new show, The X Factor, and I couldn't stand to stay with either episode for the whole time, even with fast-forwarding. It's awful, and most of the awfulness comes from the hideous overproduction of all the numbers.

Where Idol showcases the singing, X Factor hides it. There's so much smoke, lights, and blaring accompaniment that you're hard-pressed to hear what the singer is actually doing.

And when I finally did, it wasn't much. These were voices that would not have made it into the top ten on Idol in recent years. It made me wonder if the producers didn't realize that X Factor didn't have good enough contestants to compete with the other talent shows, and so they decided to overproduce their numbers to conceal the fact.

And the judges? Empty. Nothing.

There's another show, though, that holds its own. The Voice takes a very different approach, in which the judges are actually vocal coaches. In the audition period, selected singers -- no real losers among them, this is not train-wreck television -- sing to the four judges ...

Whose backs are turned.

That's right. Adam Levine, Cee-Lo, Blake Shelton, and Christina Aguilera, representing four very different types of pop music, sit in chairs with their backs to the performers so they really are judging on voice alone.

And the production is set up to support but never overshadow the singers. We get a chance to see them at their best and judge for ourselves. Meanwhile, the judges have to decide, not whether the singer is good enough, but whether the judge wants to take on this performer and coach him or her through the rest of the competition.

They aren't really judges at all. They're coaches, and what they're doing is picking their teams.

So as they listen, their hands hover over a button. If they press it, their chair spins around and a sign on the base lights up, saying "I want you."

Here's the danger: There's no turning back. If they turn around and see that the voice is coming out of an obnoxious person, they can't change their minds.

If a coach is the only one who picks that singer, then that's it -- they're bonded for as long as the singer is on the show.

But if two or more coaches spin around for the same singer, then the singer has to choose. It's a cool format.

Yes, there's a bit too much banter between coaches, and it sometimes gets nasty, but in an artificial way, so you might suppose they're pretending to feel more hostility than is actually there. I hope they lay off that needless fake conflict, because it isn't necessary.

Anyway, the format is intriguing, but it only works because all four judges are smart, entertaining, and take it all quite seriously. I like them. I like the show.

So if you are into talent shows at all, we've got two good ones -- American Idol and The Voice -- and one stinker, The X Factor, that is worth recording just so you can have the pleasure of deleting it unwatched.

*

When I found out that the excellent restaurant Zink American Kitchen in Charlotte was run by the same people who operate Harper's Restaurant in Friendly Center, I was surprised.

Harper's has been there approximately forever -- ever since we first moved to Greensboro, anyway. We're not sure why we never tried it. Maybe it's an innate bias against any restaurant with "restaurant" in the name. (Though I suppose that's better than "eats" or "fine dining.")

Maybe in the days of smoking in restaurants, when people in Greensboro seemed to regard it as an act of charity to provide lots and lots of exhaled smoke for the benefit of nonsmokers, Harper's was one of the restaurants we walked away from because when we came near the front door, we were confronted by that impressive Wall O' Smoke that says, "Hold your breath, all ye who enter here."

But for all we remember, we simply never thought of going there, and continued not to think of it until now.

Well, either Harper's has gotten way better, or we were unfortunate in our stubborn ignorance. Because we quite enjoyed our meal there.

Now, Harper's is not Zink; it has more of a casual dining atmosphere, and it's not expensive.

The menu offers many delights (excellent pulled pork, for instance, and good salmon cooked exactly to taste); and the night we came, our tableside guacamole was prepared by a self-proclaimed Cuban waiter who knew that it's not really guac without cumin. He had flair; he took pride in his work, and it was a perfect guacamole. The chips were so thin you could use them for spectacles, if the prescription happened to be right. Delicious.

So we've missed nearly thirty years of eating at Harper's. We'll make up for it.


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