Category: Crime

I often like to imagine my life having a theme song at any moment, and my past love of creating mixtapes that matched my current mood only speaks of my most pretentious music inclinations. When I went to NYC for my interview for the internship, my theme song was LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” because if there is a better hipster/indie anthem then I don’t know what it is. When I returned to America at the end of my first trip to Italy, we flew in to Logan International Airport, and of course, classic rocker’s Boston were blasting from my headphones. Despite my own personal agnosticism, when I dated an extremely conservative Christian girl during the summer before college began, my theme song was “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (one of my top five love songs of all time and it fit the relationship perfectly). Right now my theme song should be Amy Winehouse’s (in retrospect) darkly accurate “Rehab” because I have an addiction to Star Wars: The Old Republic and “I don’t want to go to rehab. So I said no, no, no!” It’s a problem. Ever since it came out, if I’m not at work, I’m playing it. It’s more addicting than Skyrim was (although I would argue Skyrim is still a much better game). Anyways, if readers are wondering why my writing has slowed to a crawl, my awesome Zabrak Imperial Agent/Sniper named Yoqeed is the reason why. Anyways, time for a review in a day that I have set aside as being for absolutely no video games.

Dennis Lehane is a hot property in so many different worlds right now. He wrote several episodes of the single greatest television program of all time, The Wire. His novel Mystic River was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film that would have likely won Best Picture had it not been up against the Oscar juggernaut The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone even more than Mystic River, and Martin Scorsese left his directorial comfort zone to direct the psychological thriller, Shutter Island, another of Lehane’s novels (though I’ve yet to see the movie). If you want intelligent and morally challenging crime fiction, you don’t have to look much further than Mr. Lehane who has made a name for himself as arguably the premier crime novelist of the 2000’s. I bought my little sister all of the Lehane novels I mentioned earlier for Christmas one year and she ate them up like candy. I haven’t had a chanec to read any of them yet (until now), and I can say that his delirious and mind-bending Shutter Island makes me very excited for something in a genre that Dennis Lehane is more accustomed to working in. As much a gothic horror story as a frenetic whodunit, Shutter Island managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and guessing even though it’s big climax had been partially ruined for me by unintended spoilers from the film version.

Shutter Island is set in the 1950’s and follows the investigation of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule as they investigate the disappearance of a mental patient from a secure room in an experimental mental hospital on the remote titular island off the Boston coast. A veteran of World War II and one of the best Marshall’s in the service, Daniels has been called in because every inch of the island has been scoured and the patient, a woman named Rachel Solando who murdered her children and then placed them at the dinner table like dolls, still hasn’t been found even though it should have been physically impossible for her to escape her cell in the first place. It doesn’t take long on the island for Teddy and Chuck to realize that something isn’t right. All of the doctors and orderlies seem like they have something to hide and one of the key doctors left the island around the same time as the patient escape. It also looks like potentially illegal and Nazi-esque techniques are being used on the patients and not to cure them but for the sake of experimentation. When it’s revealed that Teddy may have had ulterior motives for accepting this mission in the first place and a connection between one of the patients and the murder of Daniels’ wife years ago, the tale journeys further down the rabbit hole until it reaches its shocking and truly brilliant climax.

I can’t talk about the one thing I thought was the most brilliant about this book without giving away its ending, and if you’ve somehow managed to not see the movie or read the book yet and no one has ruined the twist for you, I have to avoid any spoilers out of good conscience. So without wanting to ruin anything, let me simply say that form most definitely follows function and for those of you who have read it, you know just how deftly Lehane foreshadows the books climax if you read it with an eye for what’s coming ahead. Most endings like this books are cheap but if you pay attention, Lehane lets you know its coming at least half-way through  and its great just how intimately Lehane is able to get the reader into the head of the protagonist. This is a psychological thriller at its finest, and while I haven’t heard as many great things about the film adaptation, this book almost reminds of a David Lynch film except for the fact that the ending is rather clear compared to Lynch’s more ambiguous works. Let us just say that this is a taut and thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked til the final moments.

This is an easy read but at the same time the pacing is absolutely top notch, and I was left dissecting the myriad ways Lehane’s story bowled me over hours after I finished the book. I knew how it ended (but not necessarily the exact details) and the ending still managed to have me saying “Wow.” and “holy crap” to myself over and over again and it made putting the puzzle of the novel together while reading even more enjoyable than the shocking twist would have been had I gone in cold. It’s simply a great book. Not perfect by any means but Lehane is a top-rate novelist, and I’m excited for seeing the rest of his library. I’m torn as to whether I want my next Lehane novel to be Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River. I know which movie I prefer, but Nicole (my sister) says neither book is like the film. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them both quite a bit.

Final Score: A-

Killing Pablo

I finished this book on Tuesday at work, and I’ve been putting off actually reviewing it because I’ve gotten incredibly side-tracked with Skyrim (again). I want to spend the rest of my evening reviewing music from 2011 because I have a big interview in NYC on Tuesday with music journalism website called about an editorial internship for the spring, but I really need to get this review out of the way (as well as my review for this week’s Glee which I’ll start on as soon as I finish this). Hopefully, after these two reviews, I’ll have time for one more album, and then I’ll be able to go to bed with a clear conscience. Back to my review. When I first started out college, I was originally a double major in political science as well as criminology & investigations. A fan of The Wire in high school (and not yet aware [because I was a moron or something] that the basic message of the show was that the war on drugs was a waste of time), I wanted to work in the FBI’s anti-drug division or to get a job with the DEA. I’m a big fan of true crime novels, and they generally serve as interesting history lessons/parables. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter remains the definitive work on Charles Manson. I bought Mark Bowden’s (Black Hawk Down) Killing Pablo many years ago, and I never got around to reading it until last week when I finally started it for the first time. While it was certainly an interesting tale, I was often put off by Bowden’s comfort level with some of the atrocities that were committed in the eventual murder of Pablo Escobar as well as his inability to immerse the reader in the culture the book was centered on or to help the reader come away with any insights into one of the most intriguing manhunts in human history.

Killing Pablo is the story of the circumstances surrounding the eventual manhunt and murder of notorious Columbian cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. At the height of his wealth, Pablo Escobar was one of (if not the) richest men in the world with an income rumored to be in the billions (all estimates by outsiders are considered extremely conservative). Having amassed several lifetimes of fortune through the booming cocaine industry, Pablo Escobar was an international icon for the cocaine industry. Using a system known as plomo o plato (silver or lead), Pablo either bribed all of the politicians, cops, and judges to ignore his legal trespasses or he killed the one’s who wouldn’t take his money. Pablo’s ambitions got the better of him (as they do almost all criminals), and his political aspirations finally brought the unavoidable attention of Columbia’s legal system. Pablo waged a systematic war against the state of Columbia killing thousands of individuals, injuring countless more, and doing millions upon millions of dollars in property damage. With the help of U.S. special forces, the Columbian government conducted one of the most expensive and thorough hunts in the history of man while facing untold public corruption, the constant threat of assassination by Escobar’s hitmen, the introduction (though likely helped by the Columbian police) of brutal vigilante groups that were murdering Pablo’s family and associates in the streets, and constant last-second failures and escapes.

Bowden assuredly writes with evocative detail, and after reading the book, you may feel as if you know the countryside of Columbia and the slums of Bogota and Medellin as well as Delta Force, but the book raises far too many moral questions that Mark Bowden only passingly deals with by the book’s end. While I’m a firm believer in the decriminalization of drugs (after I finally got what The Wire was actually about and for other more libertarian reasons), Pablo Escobar wasn’t a businessman. He was a terrorist and one of the most accomplished mass murderers in history that wasn’t involved in racial cleansings or world wars. Yet, the Columbian government often acted in ways so brutal and merciless that they came across nearly as bad as Pablo. Whenever the Search Bloc (which was the Colombian police unit in charge of the hunt for Escobar) found one of Pablo’s men, they would summarily execute him even if he surrendered rather than offering him a trial (because by their logic, their legal system was so corrupt that he would just walk). The Search Bloc fed information to Los Pepes (the vigilante group that was committing gruesome murders of innocent family members of Escobar) so that they knew Pablo was constantly on edge to make him more likely to make mistakes. The U.S. government, especially the D.E.A., knew all of this was happening and yet we still supplied the Columbian government with tech support and occasional manpower (even though assassinating foreign figures that we aren’t at war with is illegal by our own laws). Bowden often exhibited the same type of “ends justify the means” mentality as many of the people in the book, and it’s upsetting that there wasn’t more moral outrage about the loss of the moral high ground in the hunt for this criminal.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled too much by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but this book was just too cut and dry for me. It was almost like a text-book, and this situation is so interesting and there are so many ethical quandaries that arise that you really just expect Mark Bowden to have put more work into delving deeper beyond the surface of what happened and beyond the facts and instead get to the soul of the issue. Yes, I now know much, much more about Pablo’s rise to power and the way he muscled himself into the cocaine business. I know about his sexual appetites and the way that he thought of himself as a man of the people (or at least projected that image to get their support) and that it was this same desire to be visible and respected that cost him everything. I was able to form my own opinions about the many lines that the Columbian and U.S. governments crossed in the hunt for Pablo, but none of that came across in the tone of the book. Those realizations came because of my natural political leanings and my belief in an honest and true legal system, not the sham that Columbia had which became criminal in order to catch a criminal and in the process simply traded Pablo Escobar’s regime for that of the Cali cartel which was allowed to exist because it wasn’t engaging in full-blown warfare against the state. When I finished The Electric Kool-Aid Test, I felt like I had ridden the bus and Tom Wolfe had crafted a magical mystery tour that captured the essence of the 60’s. Mark Bowden doesn’t achieve anything similar for the era when coke was king.

Maybe, I’m crazy, but the picture above this paragraph really says it all. If you’re the kind of person that can take a visceral pleasure in a “by any means necessary” tale of revenge, then you’ll love this book. Mark Bowden will give you that machismo, action fix that you need. For the rest of us who believe that in order to have any moral imperative to decide when someone has crossed the line and become a criminal you have to follow your own rule of law, then you may be incredibly disturbed by what you read. Pablo Escobar was a terrible person and something had to be done to stop his rampant acts of terrorism. However, President Obama proved with the capture of Osama Bin Laden that you don’t have to sell your soul to stop the bad guys, and I wish that Mark Bowden simply had more to say on that subject. The book is upsettingly incomplete without that kind of commentary.

Final Score: B

The Lost Symbol

My freshman year of high school, one of my best friends recommended that I read Dan Brown’s mega-seller The Da Vinci Code. The book had remained on the New York Times bestseller list already for a year at that point, and so I gave the book a try. While I was instantly fascinated with the way that Brown combined a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of art and history with elements of an Elmore Leonard thriller, age hasn’t done the book many favors, and it’s obvious now that much of the book’s fame comes from its now infamous theories concerning the Holy Grail and that Brown will never be a master of strong characterization or even plotting that makes any sense once you’ve put any thought into it. Angels & Demons was a notable exception to this rule (though Deception Point and Digital Fortress had more in common with The Da Vinci Code structurally). For once, Brown was able to forge a stunning and engrossing thriller that didn’t rely on some shocking claim or unbelievable contrivances to propel the book forward. It was packed with twists and turns, but they all made sense within the context of the story and trying to stop the destruction of the Vatican by legitimate potential science felt more natural than a main character of The Da Vinci Code being a descendant of Christ (the non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail handles the whole Sang Real stuff much better than Brown ever could). While nothing will ever stop Robert Langdon from being Dan Brown’s own personal walking box for endless exposition with little personality of his own, there is no denying how much fun and educational it was to read Angels & Demons. Brown’s last book, 2009’s The Lost Symbol, manages to be a step backwards from the already uneven The Da Vinci Code and every aspect of Brown’s writing that critics tend to dismiss is put on full display. While the book certainly kept me engrossed, I was once and for all forced to confront Brown’s myriad weaknesses as an author.

Continuing the story of Robert Langdon, professional symbologist and amateur survivor of endless attempts on his life, set forth first in Angels & Demons and next The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol takes place years after the end of The Da Vinci Code (with absolutely nothing said as to what happened to Sophie Neveu). Back to teaching at Harvard and having remained mum on the events in Paris, Langdon is summoned to Washington, D.C. by his old friend and benefactor, Peter Solomon. Solomon is a rich and powerful philanthropist who also happens to be the highest ranking Mason in America. When Langdon arrives in Washington, he discovers the severed hand of Peter Solomon in the Capital Rotunda and that he was called to Washington not by his old friend but by a mysterious man known only as Mal’akh, a shadowy figure intent on finding a legendary Masonic Pyramid in Washington, D.C. which legend states hides secrets that will unlock the untapped power inside of humanity. As Langdon rushes to decipher the many codes and puzzles at the heart of the Masonic legends and rescue his friend, he eventually meets up with Solomon’s younger sister Katherine, a scientist in the growing field of noetic sciences (the study of the ability of human though to have a tangible effect on the world). Langdon and Katherine must outrun the CIA and the machinations of one of the most brilliantly evil villains in the series before time runs out.

Brown has some of the most clumsy prose this side of Stephenie Meyer. Real people do not speak the way the characters in his book do. While he certainly has an elaborate eye for detail when he’s discussing architecture and art, that could possibly be the most positive thing you can say about his actual writing style. Chapters are almost never more than a couple pages long, and though this gives the book its fast-paced and can’t put down feel, it also forces Brown to rush and muddle plot points that should have a little more time to develop and begin to make sense. As supposedly brilliant and perceptive Robert Langdon and Katherine Solomon are supposed to be, they seem especially apt to fall for the exact same kinds of tricks and traps that have plagued Langdon since he was first sent out to the Vatican all those years ago. If Brown lavished the sort of detail and attention to his actual plotting and artistry of his prose that he did on every little meaning in some painting or building, these books could be undeniable classics. Instead, it feels like you’re attending an entry level lecture in art symbolism with some artificial and forced plot thrown in. My favorite parts of these books are the non-fiction and educational aspects, and at times, I just wish that Brown would go ahead and write a non-fiction book because making art seem intriguing is his specialty. Instead, we’ve now had three books filled with a main character who is almost without personality and who seems so boring in comparison to the Pope’s Camerlengo from Angels & Demons and the mysterious Mal’akh of this novel.

Even more than in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown falls prey to some very New Age and psuedo-scientific principles to form the central core of his story. The main mystery of the novel is unraveling the Ancient Mysteries of the Masonic order which only the truly enlightened can find. To say that the end of this book is a cop out, would be like saying that the Season 1 finale of Lost was just a conventional cliff-hanger. Combining some very circumspect notions on the organized religions of the world with nonsense taking straight of Jungian philosophy (there’s a reason why Karl Jung is the only classic psychologist given less respect than Sigmund Freud in today’s academic circles), Brown will make anyone with even the slightest background or familiarity with science and physics nauseous with the way he bandies around his so-called science as fact. While noetics is certainly an interesting field and if it ever develops to the extent that Katherine Solomon pushed it in The Lost Symbol, then maybe I won’t be so skeptical. But as it is, Brown unnecessarily added some science fiction but mostly fantasy elements to a story that was otherwise centered in the real world. People have accused him of remarkable scientific and historical inaccuracies in the past, and what’s on display in The Lost Symbol, is about as egregious as it gets.

Before you think I completely hated this book, don’t get that impression. When I read it at work, I was glues to the pages, and the final twist of the book concerning the identity of the main villain was very shocking and I didn’t remotely see it coming. I learned a lot about the Freemasons and I walked away from the book with a renewed respect for their order (although once again, without wanting to ruin anything, I’m not sure that the national security threat the CIA saw in this book was nearly as serious as the book made it out to be). I don’t think this book is remarkably different than any of the other books that Dan Brown has written. It’s just that I’m now able to recognize his writing for what it is for the very first time. Having read other authors like Neil Gaiman who are able to combine mythology and history into their works while maintaining a high level of artistic ambition, it just makes Dan Brown seem depressingly conventional and stale. While I still think very highly of Angels & Demons, I do wonder how it would stand up against another read at this point in my life. If you’re fans of Dan Brown, this is more of everything you love about him. If you’re not, this book won’t change your mind.

Final Score: B-