Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Reviews: A Walk Among The Tombstones, The Age of Selfishness

A Walk Among The Tombstones
by Lawrence Block
This is listed as a crime thriller but is really more of a mystery novel. It was originally published in 1992 so many of the technological references and even some plot points are now dated but not so much so that these things would interfere with your enjoyment of the story. As it turns out I recognized the lead character's name. I did some checking. I believe that I read an earlier Scudder story by Block way back in the seventies or eighties. Go figure. This is a very leisurely read at just over 408 pages in paperback format. Although some gruesome horrors are detailed because the bad guys are very bad indeed, for the most part with a few notable exceptions there's not too much gore. It's mostly offpage and/or left up to the reader's imagination. But when a shock does occur it punches you right in the gut, suddenly and with extreme force. Being a private eye in American fiction is sort of like being a ronin, a samurai with no master, or being that gunfighter with no name. The private eye often fights for the side of what's right, but he may need to break laws to do that. He's often no Boy Scout. He may have his own demons to face which prevent him from being the best man he can be. In some cases the private eye is only on the side of good by accident. He may have the same urges the bad guys have but was trained or raised differently. Change one or two things and the private eye could just as easily be on the other side of the good: evil divide. Well Matthew Scudder isn't quite walking the fine line between good and evil. He's probably not (at least in this book) anything even close to being a bad guy. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but he's willing to occasionally stretch the law or look the other way. He's not a naif. Scudder's an alcoholic and former cop. He knows the wrong that people do. Usually unless it involves hurting other people he tries not to judge. He has his own pain to process from the apparent destruction of his former marriage and relationship with his children. I'm not sure what the status of his relationship is with his ex and children or even if they are still alive as Scudder doesn't talk about it. I'm not sure you could say that Scudder accepts evil as indeed he ends up struggling against it. But I do think that you could say that Scudder is under no illusions that he's going to make a huge difference in the overall scheme of things or that evil will ever be permanently removed from the human condition. No matter what Scudder does, the world is going to keep on turning. There is both horror and joy in that fact.

Scudder's best friend is Mick Ballou, a thief and gangster. The two are opposites in many respects. Scudder's primary street contact is a black teen named T.J. who always seems to know the right people for whatever job Scudder is undertaking. And Scudder's lady friend is Elaine, a call girl who has Scudder's love and returns it in kind even if each of them is so far unwilling to take that penultimate step towards commitment and move in together or at the very least verbally agree that no one else will provide either one's nookie.
This book opens with the sort of every day horror that you read about but never think will happen to you. Francine Khoury, the vibrant young wife of Kenan Khoury, is kidnapped off the streets of Brooklyn. Her husband receives insulting phone calls telling him to leave a sum of money if he ever wants to see her alive again. Desperate, Kenan does what he can to raise the money in a very short period of time. He gets the money and leaves it at the assigned drop. But when he goes to the place where he's supposed to pick up his wife, he finds that the kidnappers have reneged on the deal to leave her alive. At this point, or even long before this point, most people would have called the police or the FBI. But Kenan can't do that. He's a drug dealer, or to be more accurate a drug importer/wholesaler. He can't have the police sniffing around his business. Given his career path who's to say they would even take this murder seriously or not just assume that he did it. So he calls Scudder. Kenan's no tough guy, nor does he have a whole crew of savages ready to wreak bloody revenge. No. But he does want Scudder to find the people who did this and then look the other way as Kenan gets medieval on them.

With the exception of the introduction, almost all of this book is told in the first person. I liked the realistic(?) depiction of how detective work has relatively few "EUREKA" moments but instead plenty of slow plodding connecting of data points, interviews of eyewitnesses, and trying to find evidence, no matter how fragile, that links someone to a certain place and time. There are no supermen or superwomen here. People get tired and irritable. They make mistakes. There were a number of false hints and a few real ones about the identity of the killers or how they knew about Kenan. There's a lot of dialog in this book, maybe a little too much sometimes but that's often the case with first person tales. Kenan makes a superficially convincing argument that his business is not any worse than selling someone cigarettes or guns. He doesn't appear to have any guilt or regret about the creation of junkies, even those who might be very close to him. This was turned into a film starring Liam Neeson which I suppose I will watch sometime soon. 

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis
by Darryl Cunningham
The problem with these sorts of books is that they are mostly impressive to those who already share many of the author's assumptions about life, morality and economics. If you happen to come at things from the polar opposite point of view, this book might well leave you cold. However facts are facts and for what it's worth I happen to think that Cunningham did a bang-up job of linking the philosophical musings of a Russian Revolution refugee to the increasing Social Darwinian turn of the right wing and the Republican Party. Many modern conservatives and libertarians alike have found sustenance in the writings and world view of one Alissa Rosenbaum, who became better known of course as Ayn Rand. Rand was the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism, which, at its essence, and I'm trying to be fair, was the belief that individual rights were not only important but were the only way by which we could measure what is good. Selfishness is indistinguishable from independence and rationality. A rational person lives for himself and not for others. Any limits on this moral selfishness were immoral and quite likely the result of jealousy expressed by less intelligent or less skilled people. Again, NO ONE had the right to demand that you labor for other people or place their good above your own. From Rand's point of view the only legitimate functions of government were armed service, police and courts. Everything else was theft carried out by corrupt parasites who were too dumb to realize that their intellectual and moral betters were the people who made everything work. As you might imagine,this philosophy probably came out of Rand's negative experiences during the Russian Revolution, when her father's pharmacy and family home were seized by the communists. Rand didn't like talking about this time in her life, perhaps finding it needlessly reductive but the Revolution pretty clearly had a negative impact on her and her family. Cunningham divides this cartoon book in three sections. Section One examines Rand, her philosophy, her novels, her time in Hollywood, her out there personal life and her heading of what would today obviously be recognized as a cult. In later years one smart fellow by the name of Alan Greenspan became a devotee of Rand. This would not be of note but for the fact that as head of the Federal Reserve, Greenspan took the opportunity to put many of Rand's ideas into practice, with predictably bad results.

Section Two dives a little deeper in the economic crisis of 2008-2009. It explains in pretty clear English what happened, why it happened, what's still happening and how the basis for the crisis had its genesis in bad assumptions about human nature and pure greed. It gives the best description/explanation of derivatives and rating agencies which I've seen in a while. You won't look the same at banks or financial institutions in the same way. Section Three is to me the most interesting portion. It examines, Rand aside, the very different moral assumptions behind American "conservative" and "liberal" thinking. Although in some cases each group thinks of the other as lacking any sort of moral foundation or clarity, in fact quite often different groups simply give different importance to different moral values. There may be another post on this shortly as some recent news showed how liberals and conservatives can look at the exact same news and reach entirely different and equally valid conclusions about the moral worth of a government program. Section Three also examines how liberals are almost by nature much more accepting of difference and how this is not always a good thing while conservatives are much more comfortable with conformity and how this is not always a bad thing. This hardcover book is a little over 200 pages. It is essential reading for someone who wants a quick and easily understood explanation of what caused the financial crisis, how corporations have become so powerful and why liberals and conservatives see things so differently. There are numerous footnotes as well a helpful financial glossary at the end for those of us who don't have our grad school "Principles of Corporate Finance" textbook handy. You should get this book.
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