The Adjustment by Scott Phillips

Best known for his first novel The Ice Harvest, which was adapted for the screen, Scott Phillips has at last brought The Adjustment, his first novel since 2003. I’ll tell you right off the bat that I think it’s at least as good, if not better, than The Ice Harvest.

The gutsy move here was to have a very unlikable main character, a guy who’s also the narrator. Wayne Ogden is macho, self-centred and a bigot and is married to a gorgeous and kind woman. Yet he still feels the need to sleep with other women as often as humanly possible--and in Ogden’s case, it is very often. To him, men can be business partners, clients or enemies; women can cook for him, go to bed with him or shut up.

The story takes place in the late 1940s, in Wichita, Kansas. It opens with Ogden freshly returned from overseas after WWII: “And now I was back in my hometown, with a wife who looked like a movie star and a job that entailed more boozing and carousing than actual work.”

In Europe, Ogden had been a supply sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps. What he was supplying, while stationed in London then Rome, was much more than the usual stuff required by soldiers. He specialized in essentials needs that others couldn’t provide, and that made his black market operation very profitable; but he didn’t always end up with satisfied customers. Back in Kansas, Ogden starts receiving threatening letters. The anonymous sender is seeking bloody vengeance for something that happened overseas.

While Ogden tries to discover the identity of his new pen pal, his full-time job is to protect his boss, Everett Collins, from being replaced at the head of Collins Aircraft. The boss is a wealthy man but his extravagances (drinking and whoring) are too much for the board members. Ogden’s job is to foil the plans of the board by keeping Collins under control, or at least out of the newspapers. Problem is, Ogden acts as if he’s still overseas, running his own secret operation, and taking decisions as if he’s beyond the law. Violence and blackmail are on the menu, blood is spilled, lives end. Could there be some post-traumatic stress disorder in Ogden? Most probably, but that diagnosis didn't exist at the time.

So what makes The Adjustment a good book, you wonder? Well, it’s like the cliche about driving by the scene of an accident: you can’t help it and you do look, right? In Scott Phillips’s story, you do the same. Sensitive readers beware there is some hardcore sex and some graphic violence, but also lots of good laughs, sometimes even during the sex. At first you kind of like Ogden. He’s a man with a drive, with a focus, with ambition. He’s cunning and funny and intelligent. And he does love his wife. But because Ogden doesn’t care for limits-- or maybe isn't aware of them--he crashes through. When you think he’s gone as far as he can and that he’ll finally burn, he goes farther.      

While reading the book, I often thought of Lou Ford, from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Ogden does have some of Ford’s characteristics but he’s less depraved and he’s not a serial killer. As with Ford though, Ogden also believes that there’s a good reason behind everything he does: if he drops his pants with a woman, if he blackmails someone, if he beats up or kills another; in his mind, he’s always right to do it. 

Like Jim Thompson with Lou Ford, Scott Phillips successfully manipulates the reader via Wayne Ogden. He forces you to stop on the side of the road, to look at the crash and then to get out of your car to inspect every tiny details of this twisted wreckage of a man named Ogden. 

The Adjustment is hardboiled, hardcore and hard to put down.

October 2011
(previously posted at Crime Fiction Lover's website)
I owe thanks to Garrick Webster for the editing. 



(UPDATE: the 2012 edition will be held from October 25 to 27)
QuebeCrime Festival 2011 
October 28-30
Quebec City
(IMPORTANT UPDATE regarding the schedule, see below)
We can finally announce most of our events for this first crime festival in La Belle Province. Co-founded by Guy Dubois (owner of La Maison Anglaise et Internationale Bookstore) and by yours truly, Jacques Filippi (The House of Crime and Mystery)

We have an official website that is still going through some daily modifications, but you can access it to consult our schedule of events, order tickets (418-654-9523 or, read about the authors, etc. You’ll find this here: QuebeCrime Festival   

The QuebeCrime Festival is held in collaboration with the Morrin Centre, the gorgeous venue for our Saturday and Sunday events. The Friday event will be held at St. Andrews Church, the oldest Scottish church in Canada. The Morrin Centre, built in the 1700s, is a national treasure and sits in Old Quebec. 


IMPORTANT UPDATE: We are sorry to announce that Kathy Reichs has had to cancel her presence due to professional obligations. She was scheduled for the Sunday evening event.
We will hold three main events (one per evening) and two panels. Here’s what the schedule looks like for now:

Friday, Oct. 28th
7.00 – 8.30 pm:  Readings/Talks followed by signings
John BRADY, Anne EMERY, Denise MINA, Louise PENNY, and Ian RANKIN

Saturday, Oct. 29th
1.30 – 2.50 pm:  One-hour panel with moderator Tom Henighan, plus a 20-minute period of questions from the audience, followed by signings
Lawrence BLOCK, John BRADY, Hilary DAVIDSON, Craig McDONALD, Andrew PYPER, and Daniel WOODRELL

7.00 – 8.30 pm:  Readings/Talks followed by signings
Lawrence BLOCK, Hilary DAVIDSON, Craig McDONALD, Andrew PYPER, and Daniel WOODRELL

Sunday, Oct. 30th 
1.30 – 2.50 pm:  One-hour panel with moderator Tom Henighan, plus a 20-minute period of questions from the audience, followed by signings

7.00 – 8.30 pm: Readings/Talks followed by signings 

We will also have a permanent interactive exhibit at the Morrin Centre for the duration of the festival. More about that soon.

And in case you want to plan ahead, the second edition of the QuebeCrime Festival will be held from October 25 to 27, 2012. We've already started booking authors and it looks like we'll have more great names to announce. 

We hope to see you in Quebec soon!

With special thanks to Rachelle Gagnon, who is a tremendous help!

George Pelecanos's THE CUT

This is a book that I had read back in April, lucky enough was I to receive an advance reader’s edition. I liked the book so much that upon its official publication, last week, I decided to re-read it, too jealous was I of those who would be experiencing it for the first time.

I wrote ‘experiencing’ because reading The Cut felt like, to me, being driven around in town by someone who knows every place and every one; we're cruisin' without hurry or worry. There’s music playing of course, maybe a Morricone soundtrack or maybe just the soundtrack of the city and its citizens. The temperature, although a bit warm and humid, gets freshened up by a soft cool wind as we drive into the night. And the air is thick with possibilities, both good and bad. But we’re ready. We ain’t in a hurry. Something will definitely unravel.

And it does.

The Cut makes a realistic observation on what is going on in the lives of American veterans. Pelecanos puts some focus on the limited choices and opportunities that many of them have to face in their after-military years, and about what they will decide to do or not do.  

One of them, Spero Lucas, is 29 years old, fresh out of the Marine Corps. He fought in Iraq for 10 years after September 11, 2001. “A sobering decade. A decade that stole his youth.” While Spero was still in Iraq, his father died. His loss is made greater by the fact he didn’t get to say goodbye to his dada, so he visits the grave regularly, leaving a dozen roses every time. Fortunately, Spero has a great relationship with his brother Leo, who teaches in a high school, and with his mother, who still copes with the loss of her husband. The love of a family helps Spero adapt to his new life. Something not every veteran can rely on. For some, it gets worse if there’s no job either. When overseas, they were used to taking orders and knew what they were supposed to do. Here, there’s often nothing to do. “Lucas and Marquis had been lucky to find something. Most did, eventually. The ones who couldn’t were in for some long hurt.”

That’s only the ones who come back without any major physical injury.
The job Spero Lucas had been lucky to find was investigating for a D.A., in Washington. Or as he explains to Constance, his girlfriend, he finds things for people, he retrieves their lost or stolen items. Sometimes money. And now, Spero is hired by Anwan Hawkins, a drug dealer serving time in the D.C. Jail. Hawkins wants Spero to find packages that were stolen from his street employees, or to retrieve the money if the drug has already been sold.   

The Cut has more maturity and less rage than earlier Pelecanos stories (the Stefanos books for example) and at times there’s even a zen-like quality to it. The Cut is a story about unselfish sacrifices, about trust, about family and about friendship. As in most Pelecanos novels, it is also about choices, about life in general, and about how choices influence that life. In an interview he gave to journalist/writer Craig McDonald, Daniel Woodrell said that he saw his books as "slices of life stories". This is exactly what Pelecanos does: he gets you right in the middle of people's lives, at a point where they have a full baggage of experiences behind them and more in front.

The Cut doesn’t stay away from social issues (it’s a Pelecanos book, what were you expecting) and the author certainly doesn’t put rose glasses on. Here, Pelecanos doesn’t need to make a social commentary; his description of the inside of the school where Leo teaches says it all: “Millions of feet had travelled heavily over these steps since the building had opened almost a century ago, rendering the stone concave. Leo’s classroom windows were covered in iron, heavy-mesh screens, allowing fractured, dim sunlight to enter. The room’s sole computer, donated years earlier, was ancient; its printer did not print. Pencils were hard to come by. Some of the desks and blackboards looked more than fifty years old. Leo didn’t think too hard on the lack of supplies, the missing ceiling tiles, the bathrooms with no doors on their stalls, the stopped-up toilets, the grim, barely-lit halls…”

Pelecanos knows that this represents the situation in (too) many schools and that not many readers will be surprised by his description. But schools are often the only hope of a better future for these kids. So what message are we sending if that’s how we prepare those who are supposed to build that future?

There’s also the matter of the state of the prison system: Hawkins explains one aspect of it to Spero “When I was a kid, the majority of people in lockup was in for violent crime. Now most of the people in prison are in for non-violent drug offenses.” And there’s also the issue of how the media deals with the coverage of criminality today “A notable decrease in violent crime in the District made the murder of young black men and women more newsworthy than it had been in the past, meriting front-page placement.” Although it doesn’t seem the same for everyone “The Post continued to routinely bury the violent deaths of D.C.’s young black citizens inside the paper, telling its readership implicitly that black life was worth less than that of whites, and that policy, apparently, was never going to change.”

George Pelecanos writes like a friend who sees what's wrong with us and knows he needs to point it out, even though he's aware that it can (and probably will) hurt us, but he does it in our best interest, knowing we’ll probably thank him later for it. We accept this because he also possesses the gift of uncovering beauty in the darkest of places: after showing us the flaws of our society, a few paragraphs or pages later he highlights the brighter sides, either in describing a neighborhood, in underlining simple life pleasures like having a drink, talking about this and that, or making love. Pelecanos’s strong but simple dialogues reveal more human emotions than many writers can convey in entire books of trying to analyze their characters.  

The Cut is not a book for readers who need the adrenaline rush of a thriller-ride, page-turner, heart-attack giver or hair-raising story of a crazy serial killer/kidnapper/or whatever. This is a book that you read while sipping a good red wine, sitting comfortably in your favorite chair under a soft lighting and the sounds of the city around you, or while drinking a cold beer on the porch with a background of crickets cricketing and dogs barking at kids laughing and running. You read and you don't worry about tomorrow. But you do worry about Spero, Leo, Constance, Ernest and others too; you don't get a heart attack brought on by too much adrenaline, but you can get heart-broken just the same; we all know this can be almost as painful, if not more.

The title of the book, with its different meanings, fits perfectly: it is Spero’s 40% cut when he retrieves lost items; it is the complicated and painful cut between combat life and life back at home for veterans; it is the non-physical cut suffered through pains like mourning a loved one, being heart-broken from a love lost or from being abandoned by a parent, and it is the cut that needs to be made in dilemmas, by taking a difficult decision when choices will inevitably impact on your life. It can also be the writer’s cuts that produce these “slices of lives” that Woodrell mentioned.

The Cut is all of this, and more.

Here’s a work of love, vintage Pelecanos, by the author who shows us the reality of every day America from a D.C. perspective. While revisiting some familiar themes, Pelecanos doesn’t repeat himself and he expertly keeps stretching the boundaries of the crime genre. Don’t be fooled by the tag of crime writing because this is simply a great novel.   

September 2011 

Review of LOW TOWN & Interview w/ Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky is the author of Low Town (Doubleday) the first book in a trilogy that successfully combines two genres: fantasy and crime. Fans of fantasy will love this book; fans of classic crime and mystery will also enjoy it if they keep an open mind. I didn’t know what to expect, not having read many fantasy novels myself aside from some classics of the genre, but it sounded interesting and, especially, different.

Polansky has not only created an original and believable world, The Thirteen Lands, but also a rich history to go with it. The book starts approximately 15 years after what is known as the Great War that transformed the 17 territories into what is now the Thirteen Lands. Inside the great city of Rigus, there’s a neighborhood called Low Town where prostitution, drug trafficking and violence dominate daily (and nightly) activities. Even killing is pretty much business as usual.

Until children start disappearing and the chaotic order is threatened; it might be what will push the citizens of Low Town to start a revolt.  

In the Thirteen Lands, you might find parts reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the street corners of The Wire all mixed-in together, but it is definitely an original Polansky creation. You’ll meet richly detailed and complex characters like the narrator, a man only known as the Warden, who controls the drug trade. He’s a war hero and a former agent with Black House, the secret police that is managed by a sociopath known as the Old Man.  

When the Warden finds the corpse of a missing girl, he decides to investigate, knowing that no one in Low Town will talk to the official law. A fairly simple investigation should follow but this is not a simple world; things are further complicated when a dark evil, born out of powerful sorcery, “a creature from the outer emptiness”, is unleashed in Low Town.   

Right from the start, you are drawn into this world and intrigued by the story. The voice of the Warden, along with the mental baggage of a past that has scarred him deeper than any physical wounds could, are raw and direct. The plot is peppered with some spicy humor, which helps lighten the mood once in a while. The characters who revolve around the Warden, the ‘good ones’ as much as the ‘villains’, all bring substance and depth to the story; they are strongly developed and interesting. Here are a few of them: the boy Wren, impetuous but with many resources and a deep knowledge of the streets; the towering barkeeper Adolphus, who's also a friend of the Warden; the Duke of Beaconfield, nicknamed “The Blade” for good reasons that I won't reveal here; and different characters from Black House, like the Warden's nemesis special agent Crowley, the Old Man, and an old friend and former colleague Crispin. 

One of my favourite of Polansky's creations are the scryers whose "duties include the inspection and anatomization of dead bodies"; a sort of forensic psychics who sometimes "get impressions, images or sense memories, bit of datas" from a corpse. As the Warden explains, these scryers "have no ability to effect the physical world, but rather a sort of passive receptiveness to it, an extra sense the rest of us lack." Scryers are employed by Black House to help the agents in their investigations.

Low Town is almost a genre by itself, a tough and dirty crime story staged in a world of sorcery. It comes with its own vocabulary, colourful expressions, and sharp dialogue. Low Town could be a big hit for Daniel Polansky who wrote a hell of a first novel. Intense, darkly magical and original.  

You can find a guide to the world of the Thirteen Lands, Rigus and Low Town on Polansky's  website .
And if you'd like to know a bit more about the author and Low Town, click on 'read more' for my interview with Daniel Polansky.