When you spend 36 hours in the air and about half that many driving to airports and waiting around at the gate, you find plenty of time to read. During my just-completed trip to South Africa, I rolled through numerous books I had packed and have recently finished a few more I picked up during our time in Cape Town. TVFury is committed to promoting literacy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise and, honestly, some of our competitors are actually anti-literacy.
To that end, we bring you a little book time. Follow along, visit your library or buy the books yourselves, because I will be expecting detailed book reports on the following selections.
Put a bunch of old Nazis in a thriller or a mystery and there’s a decent chance I’ll cough up $9.99 for a copy of the book. It’s been nearly 70 years since the Allies defeated the Nazis but Hitler and his evil cronies remain go-to villains for countless books. In a way it’s sort of strange, as Nazis in fiction are almost cartoon-like characters at this point.When you read about some old Nazis getting the gang back together in an attempt to take over the world again or at least Europe, you can almost forget that these weren’t just made-up villains. You can almost forget the real horrors. To bring those nightmares home, where they belong, you almost have to read nonfiction accounts of World War II.
Yet as I said, put them in a thriller and I’ll probably pick it up, primarily because they do remain the perfect bad guys. In Cape Town, while attending a cool fair with games, food courts and bad karaoke filled with tributes to the late Whitney Houston, I picked up a used copy of a book called The Day After Tomorrow, a 1994 novel by Allan Folsom. I had never heard of the book until I bought it, even though when it originally sold it went for an amazing $2 million – Nazis still sell. The book has nothing to do with the movie about melting ice caps and Dennis Quaid’s desperate search for Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s about a plastic surgeon whose father was murdered decades earlier. The surgeon spots his dad’s killer in Paris, chases him and becomes involved in an extraordinarily convoluted plot involving old Nazis trying to again take over the world, with, perhaps, a bit of help from cryogenics. The book is 700-plus pages yet I knocked it off in a week, even though it’s impossible to read about cryogenics without thinking of poor Ted Williams’ head.
Staying with the Nazi theme, I also picked up Robert Harris’ Selling Hitler, a nonfiction account of the 1983 scandal that saw a forger convince a German magazine that Hitler had a secret diary. The magazine spent millions buying the diaries, which were complete fakes. Selling Hitler came out in 1986, you can probably only get used copies of it today online. Highly recommended. Every few years – or maybe every year – we read about a journalism scandal that leaves everyone thinking, how could that happen? Doesn’t matter if it’s Stephen Glass making up stories about hackers for The New Republic, Jayson Blair trying to destroy the New York Times with his creations or, most recently, Mike Daisey’s flawed, false report on This American Life. None of those really compare to the Hitler diaries scandal, when a forger named Konrad Kujau convinced a reporter for the German magazine Stern that a plane crash from 1945 led to the discovery of Hitler’s old papers. The reporter believed the diaries came from that stash but they simply came from Kujau’s imagination and pen. Stern bought diary after diary and never really had them properly analyzed by historians. Rupert Murdoch pursued the newspaper rights, Newsweek clamored for the diaries, book publishers fought for them.
When real historians looked at the paper of the diaries and the contents, they revealed the fraud in a matter of days. Harris reveals all the seedy details and the bizarre cast of characters.
If you read thrillers or mysteries, you have to accept that 97 percent of the offerings will feature a main character who’s a tough-talking cop or a private detective who used to be a detective but still talks tough or a sensitive FBI agent who is great at cracking terrorist plots but terrible with women. The sharp, acidic, brave, witty, sarcastic investigator – whether still on the police payroll or on their own – has been a staple of thrillers for decades and I must read a dozen of them a year.
Michael Kelly, the main character in Michael Harvey’s book The Chicago Way, falls into the private-eye-who-used-to-be-a-detective-until-something-bad-happened category. I had never heard of Harvey until discovering his book in a used book warehouse in Cape Town but after I finished Chicago Way, his first book, I instantly searched for his other works (he can use that as a blurb, if he desires). I loved Kelly from about the second page and by page 50 I started wondering if I had what it took to become a private detective. I’ve never been a cop and never fired a gun. My crime-solving ability begins with cracking the twist in a Law & Order episode at the 20-minute mark and ends with spotting the true killer in a Cold Case episode 30 minutes in. But I feel like I could be a loner, help some dames, crack wise, avoid danger and expose big-city corruption. If I never become the starting 2-guard for the Lakers, that’s what I’ll fall back on.
I finished one of my South African books shortly after finishing a meal on the plane ride home, which was something of an error, since Primal Cut by Ed O’Connor tells the story of a butcher who’s a fine small business owner but also a cannibal. Primal Cut features a…damaged detective. Alison Dexter is the main character and she’s sort of in hiding after originally busting the people-eating, cow-chopping villains. Dexter’s a good character but the book doesn’t compare to Harvey’s or John Sandford’s Prey books or Lee Child’s Reacher books. Still, the book is creepy. Brain-chowing butchers are usually creepy.
One day a few years ago, probably as I talked about the writing life and writing another book, my wife told me, “Write a best-selling thriller.” Okay. Still haven’t. But if I ever do, you can almost guarantee the plot will center around a tough-talking former detective with a string of failed romances in his past who’s now a private eye who’s caught up in a hunt for a serial killer who turns out to be the son of a former Nazi leader. Will you buy it?
The last book on my South African reading list didn’t involve any police officers or serial killers. The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, is the story of a loser named Milo Burke, who works in a New York City university, has a small kid, a wife who’s sleeping around on him and an old friend who’s popped back into his life for mysterious reasons. It’s hard to describe the book beyond those basic terms. On the back of the paperback, where they list the reviews, words like “Off-kilter and hilarious,” “A biting, bilious, and often brilliant book”, “Uproariously cruel” and “brutally witty” are used. I don’t disagree with any of those assessments.
Lipsyte writes sentences you wish you had written, ones you want to repeat to the drunk middle-aged woman sitting next to you on an 18-hour flight. At least I did. Your audience might vary – your reaction probably won’t.