Book Review – When Evil Came to Good Hart by Mardi Link

 

  • When Evil Came to Good Hart – “an up north Michigan cold case”
  • by Mardi Link 
  • Publisher – The University of Michigan Press
  • Copyright 2008
  • 159 pages

Rating – 5.5/10

Review – For several years, I’d wanted to read When Evil Came to Good Hart. When I found a decently-priced ($7) copy online from the Goodwill in Traverse City, Michigan, I placed an order. Yesterday (Christmas Day 2015), I started reading and I finished the 159 pages in about 24 hours.

Can’t-Miss Story

The Good Hart story has so many hooks, that it seems like a “can’t miss” for the true-crime fan. In June 1968, the six members of the prosperous Robison family from suburban Detroit headed north to their second home, a beautiful cabin in bucolic Good Hart, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Robisons intended to stay the summer, but something went horribly wrong. In late June, all six family members (mother, father, three sons, and one daughter) were shot and killed inside the cabin. Police didn’t find the bodies until about a month later.

The investigation led to an employee of Mr. Robison’s Detroit-area advertising agency. The police found that the employee – a Harvard dropout – had been embezzling from Mr. Robison’s business. Apparently, Mr. Robison discovered the theft just before the murders. And the embezzling employee was a firearms expert.

What Works

There’s a lot to like in Good Hart. Author Mardi Link captures the town of Good Hart, which is still a vacation destination for urbanites who want to “get away.” Link describes Good Hart’s small-town charm and its residents in a vivid way that makes one want to visit – despite the murders.

The book also does a good job of describing the police investigation into the killings. Link had access to the original police reports and uses them to good effect. The reader feels the excitement and frustration of the police as they try to bring a murderer to justice.

As with the best true crime, you get a close-up view of the underworld without having to leave your easy chair. One part of the case took investigators to a convicted bank robber at Leavenworth prison who claimed to know who murdered the Robisons. The convict’s story took the police to an Alabama foundry (where the murder weapons supposedly had been “melted down”) and to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where the bank robber’s accomplice was serving time. True-crime fans will enjoy the seamy “Leavenworth” material.

What Doesn’t Work

One major issue is that – even @ just 159 pages – Good Hart has far too much “padding.” The interesting material is – at most – 100 pages or so. Rather than doing more research on pertinent aspects of the case, Link includes lots of filler – a dull chapter on a book club, another chapter on the local gun culture, etc.

The padding is particularly frustrating because what Link does not tell the reader. She included almost no information on the background of the Robison family or of their alleged killer, Joe Scolaro. You don’t even get basic biographical information on the Robisons. (Given the Robison’s prominence, surviving family must have run obituaries in some newspaper. Why couldn’t Link track down them down for background on the victims?). Likewise, the reader wants to know more about Scolaro. For instance, why did he leave Harvard? What happened to Scolaro’s wife and children after the murders?

Link does make good use of the police reports on the case. Also, she references some old newspaper articles. But I found myself wondering if she’d done much original research. Did she track down those involved in 1968 or their surviving relatives? If so, you don’t hear about it. All of these “holes” in the story leave you thinking that Link left too much of the tale untold.

Final Words

I saw a special on YouTube about the Good Hart case. While I prefer reading to watching, I have to admit that the YouTube video was better. It was to the point and didn’t meander down unrewarding tangents. For this reason, my copy of Good Hart will be heading to a local Goodwill very soon.

When Evil Came to Good Hart is worth a look. The case is interesting and Link provides enough good material to outweigh the bad. However, the reader has to enjoy Good Hart for what it is and not spend time thinking about its unrealized potential.

 

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Book Review: Kill the Irishman by Rick Porrello

  • Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia
  • by Rick Porrello
  • Publisher – Pocket Star Books
  • Copyright 1998 
  • 264 pages

Rating – 8/10

KilltheIrishman

Review – If Stokely Carmichael was right, “violence is as American as apple pie.” In that case, the mafia qualifies as one our bedrock institutions. “Wise guys” certainly get our attention. For authors and readers, all of the prior stories of violence, greed, and intrigue set the bar pretty high. Many of us have enjoyed so many mafia tales that it’s difficult to come up with anything new to say.

Last Saturday (17 October), my family and I were in my local Dollar Tree. I saw a copy of Kill the Irishman, which had been on the back of my reading list for some time. Figuring you can’t go too far wrong for a dollar, I bought the book. By Sunday evening, I had finished it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Two Tales Under One Cover

In Kill the Irishman, Rick Porrello has written a winner about Cleveland’s mafia in the 1960s and 70s. This is the true story of Danny Greene, an Irish tough guy who challenged the Italians who controlled much of the crime in Cleveland. Greene was a school dropout from a dysfuntional family. Starting with a menial job on Cleveland’s docks, he became a violent player in organized crime.

On one level, Kill the Irishman is a standard true-crime story told well. True, it’s not In Cold Blood, but Porrello’s prose is quite good. On another level, the book is one of a kind. Initally, the book focuses on Greene, a hood with chutzpah who chose to live “a life less ordinary.” The problem with the David (Greene) versus Goliath (the mafia) aspect of the story is that Greene wasn’t any more likable than were the hoods he challenged for control of Cleveland. It’s difficult to find anyone to cheer for in this one.

On another level, Kill is a tale of the police’s assault on Cleveland’s mafia. Toward the latter part of the story, the focus shifts to the investigation and the cops and gangsters who were involved in it. Greene disappears from what had been his story up to that point. While both sections of the book are interesting, this shift blurs the book’s focus.

Cleveland is the Star

Porrello deserves much credit for crafting such a readable book. Cynics often suggest that true-crime books are little more than “prose junk food.” All too often, that’s the case. But it doesn’t have to be.

As a Cleveland-area resident, Porrello has an insider’s feel for the community and a writer’s ability to convey that feel to the reader. Consider his description of Cleveland’s longshoremen –

“Longshoring is a small but furious world of winches, crates, pallets, lifts, cranes, and diesel smoke. If a ship ports during the night, longshoremen may have to work in foggy, damp weather. Often workers are transients with questionable backgrounds, but there is a strong camaraderie among these often foulmouthed, tough-talking, bluest of blue collar workers. … [During a shift] the greenhorns drop into the holds of a ship to strap and chain giant containers of cargo. Cowhides are the worst for the men in the hold because maggots and salt fall on them as the loads are being raised” (p. 33).

Pulled Punches – Weaknesses

While Kill is good, there are drawbacks. For one, Greene doesn’t emerge as a person. At book’s end, you know he’s a thug with a lot of ambition, but you don’t know much more about him. Another issue is that the story – while always interesting – is disjointed. Porrello tacks several addenda on the book’s end, but they don’t mesh well with the rest of the book. A final gripe is that the pictures contain spoilers that detract from your interest in the story.

But don’t get me wrong – this is a good story. How can yo wrong with true stories of Mafia members who were moles for the cops? Or stories of rubouts and the Cleveland mafia’s shortage of “made men?” You can’t make this stuff up.

Final Returns

So, I have my gripes. But anyone considering reading Kill the Irishman probably isn’t looking for Hamlet or War and Peace.  Danny Greene isn’t likable and Porrello struggles a bit with a story that doesn’t have a simple beginning-middle-end narrative. But that’s nonfiction. Real people and real events are messy and open to interpretation.

My father often reminds me that in life it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Kill the Irishman’s kind of like that. If you want to learn a bit about Cleveland’s underworld – and the colorful characters who lived in that world a few years back – you’ll enjoy the book. Just don’t expect a simple story.

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Book Review: Of Goats and Governors by Steve Flowers

  • Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories
  • by Steve Flowers
  • Publisher – New South Books
  • Copyright 2015
  • 263 pages

Rating – 7/10

Review – From boyhood, Steve Flowers wanted to be a politician. He served as a page in Alabama’s legislature, attended Youth Legislature, and got involved in student politics at the University of Alabama. At age 30, he was elected to the first of four terms in Alabama’s legislature. Since he chose to leave office, Flowers has become a “talking head,” a political commentator on Alabama politics in a variety of media – television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet.

As an avid spectator of Alabama politics, I was excited when I read on Flowers’ website that he was writing a book of Alabama political stories. The book took a while to appear in print, but – after its publication – I immediately asked my wife to buy a copy for me as a birthday gift.

In the Arena – An Inside Look

When Flowers discusses his political experiences, Of Goats is terrific. When Flowers was a boy, he caught the eye of his local representative, Gardner Bassett. Bassett took Flowers under his wing, bringing Flowers to Montgomery so that Flowers could see the legislature up close. Bassett also introduced Flowers to Governor George Wallace, telling Wallace that Flowers would eventually take Bassett’s place in the Alabama House of Representatives. And indeed, when Bassett retired roughly 20 years later, that is precisely what happened.

For political junkies, the “inside” stuff in Of Goats is like catnip to a cat. Another nice section concerns Flowers’ first term as a legislator (1983-1987) when George Wallace was in his last term as governor. Wallace and Flowers were particularly close because they had known each other for 20 years (since Flowers had been a page). Moreover, Flowers represented Wallace’s home county (Barbour), which allowed Flowers to benefit when Wallace sent loads of pork back home.

Flowers recounts how Wallace liked to call legislators into his office and “work on” them. Of Goats describes Wallace as the consummate politician, using his failing hearing to control these meetings by forcing legislators to repeat themselves. Wallace could also flatter; Flowers says that at one point he was eating dinner at the governors mansion more often than he ate at home.

Lesser Knowns

Some of the best stories concern lower-profile figures. One is William “Shorty” Price, a perennial political candidate and rabid University of Alabama football fan. Flowers and Shorty both hailed from Barbour County and both loved politics, so it’s no surprise that they knew each other. In Of Goats, Flowers recounts the time that he ran into Shorty at an Alabama football game –

I was a freshman at the university. Shorty even in his drunken daze recognized me. I had a beautiful date whom I was trying to impress, and meeting Shorty did not impress her. He pranced up the aisle and sat by me. Shorty might not have bathed in two months. His daily black suit had not been changed in probably over a year. He reeked of alcohol and body odor and my date had to hold her nose. After about 20 minutes offending my date, Shorty then tried to impress the crowd by doing somersaults off the six-foot walls of Legion Field. He did at least three, mashing his head straight down on the pavement. On each dive, I thought Shorty had killed himself with his somersaults. His face and his head were bleeding profusely and he was developing a black eye. The alcohol must have saved Shorty that day. Fortunately, Shorty left my domain and proceeded to dance with Alabama cheerleaders, as bloody as he may have been (p. 241).

The “Shorty” section is only 2-3 pages long, and short vignettes are the norm in Of Goats. The short sections make it easy to pick up and put down and keep the book from “bogging down.”

Pulled Punches – Weaknesses

Fans of politics – particularly Alabama politics – will enjoy Of Goats and Governors. But it would be Clinton-esque (or Nixonian, if you prefer) for me to give this book unqualified praise. Unsurprisingly, Of Goats suffers from one of the most-common shortcomings of politicians’ memoirs – there are a lot of pulled punches. Flowers flatters almost all of the politicians whom he discusses, particularly those who are still in office. I came away with the sense that he may have left some of his best stories untold.

A bigger problem is that too much material is “old hat.” For instance, he discusses the Nixon administration’s attempts to defeat George Wallace in the 1970 gubernatorial race. (Nixon hoped Wallace would lose so that Wallace would not be a factor in the 1972 presidential election). This is an oft-told story and Flowers has nothing new to say about it; in fact, most of his coverage is quoted from old books by two other Alabama political figures – Bob Ingram and Oscar Harper.

Some of the other material is little better. For example, in separate sections, Flowers details the political careers and hometowns of Alabama’s recent governors. He provides some analysis, but these sections are dull. Anyone with an Internet connection could have found this information and Flowers adds little beyond the basics.

Final Returns

Flowers doesn’t always seem to recognize that his story is the best tale that he has to tell. A co-author might have helped make Of Goats even better. Still, this is a good, solid book and those who like Alabama politics will enjoy it. I close by noting that I enjoyed reading Of Goats  – which is the highest praise that I can give any book.

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Book Review – Prime Green by Robert Stone

  • Prime Green – Remembering The Sixties
  • by Robert Stone
  • Publisher – ecco
  • Copyright – 2007
  • 229 pages

Rating – 6/10

Review – About fifteen years ago, I read Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. It is a rarity – a successful attempt at a “big book” that captures the zeitgeist. In Dog Soldiers Stone conveys the disillusionment and rootlessness in the U.S. after our failure in the Vietnam War. More surprisingly, Dog Soldiers also succeeds in telling an entertaining story – about an ill-fated attempt to smuggle drugs from Vietnam to the U.S.

From Brooklyn to Stanford

Stone – who was born in 1937 – was a bit older than most of the sixties hipsters. Moreover, he was not the typical, upper-middle class dropout. Instead, he was raised under difficult circumstances in Brooklyn. Eventually, he quit high school and joined the U.S. Navy. The 1950s sections are some of Prime Green’s best material. Stone had some nice adventures while traveling the world in the Navy.

Eventually, the scene shifts back to the U.S. Stone spends time in New York and New Orleans, drifting from job to job and working on the novel that became 1966’s A Hall of Mirrors.  Though Stone had no academic credentials, he eventually won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. At Stanford, he became associated with Ken Kesey and many of the 1960s “big names.”

An Oft-Told Tale

Strangely, the closer Stone moves to the heart of the counterculture, the less Prime Green interests the reader. So many writers have dissected the sixties. So many aging hippies have recounted their youthful misadventures. Finding a fresh perspective on those years is difficult, and Stone – for the most part – doesn’t do so.

I don’t want to be too negative. Prime Green has some nice stories:

  • In 1964 Stone journeyed across the U.S. on a Grayhound Bus. Due to his beatnik apperance, a group of U.S. Navy sailors terrorized Stone, who took a severe beating in Highspire, Pennsylvania. (Stone points out the irony – he had been a Navy sailor). This scene is perhaps the best in the book – tense and dramatic.
  • A bit later, Stone worked for a tabloid in New York City. He interjects humor into Prime Green by describing the fabricated stories that he wrote. (Among the headlines were “Armless Veteran Beaten for Not Saluting Flag” and “Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds”). Unfortunately, Stone lessens the section’s impact by not naming the publication and by using pseudonyms for his coworkers.
  • During the early 1970s, Stone went to Vietnam. Once there, he saw the Nixon administration’s attempt to turn the war over to South Vietnamese while withdrawing U.S. troops. Stone describes the imploding U.S. war effort and the mushrooming drug culture. The reader gets a good idea of Stone’s source material for Dog Soldiers.

What’s Prime Green?

The title of the book was a mystery as I read. Eventually, Stone reveals its source when recounting his time in Mexico with Ken Kesey. At the time, Kesey was “on the lam” from a California drug charge. Stone’s explanation encapsulates his take on the 1960s:

What I will never forget is the greening of the day at first light on the shores north of Manzanillo Bay. I imagine that color so vividly that I know, by ontology, that I must have seen it. In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun’s rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows. Then the silence would give way, and the jungle rose to blue heaven. Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but they made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo (p. 153).

Moving On

There’s really nothing wrong with Prime Green. Stone was a talented writer who was at the heart of the 1960s counterculture. Prime Green never bores the reader, but it never “catches fire,” either.  The book simply isn’t a “must read.” So much has been written about the sixties that the bar is pretty high for counterculture memoirs. If you’re looking to read something about the decade, you can do much better. For those with an interest in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is a much better place to start.

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Book Review – How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
• by Paul Silvia
• Publisher – American Psychological Association
• Copyright – 2007.
• 132 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

Review – My wife and I are both academics. Early in adult life, both of us focused on earning our academic credentials and starting our careers. Then we had kids. Our first daughter arrived in 2009 and the second was born 13 months later. Life changed – a lot. Pre-kids, we never had any trouble finding time to pursue our research agendas; post-kids, it’s been “a whole ‘nother story.”

Way back in 2009, we attended a scholarly conference & Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot caught my wife’s eye.  She bought a copy, read it, and became an instant fan. A few months later, daughter #1 arrived. With the start of fall classes this year, we both resolved to rejoin the scholarly race. I decided that reading Silvia’s little book would help keep me on track.

Short, with Much Wisdom

By Silvia’s admission, the point of his book is very simple. He advises scholars who want to be productive to set a writing schedule – and stick to it. Silvia states that – the title notwithstanding – one does not have to “write a lot.” Rather, he says that you should regard writing time as an “appointment with yourself” to do your research. He points out that – after all – scholars don’t miss our classes due to other commitments; he suggests that we apply the same committed mindset to our research.

The crucial portions of the book deal with the need to set goals and keep track of one’s progress toward them. (Silvia backs his position by citing the relevant psychology literature). Silvia uses an SPSS (spreadsheet) file to keep track of his daily progress. My wife and have both made our own files (using Excel) and they have helped keep us on track during the inevitable rough patches in our research.

Style to Spare

Silvia is an engaging writer. One way that he maintains interest is by giving readers glimpses into his writing life. Silvia states that each weekday he gets up, flips on the coffee pot, and works from 8 to 10 a.m. on his research. That’s it – he doesn’t work on the weekends or at other times. The reader can picture Silvia working away, based on the book’s descriptions of his Spartan writing area that is covered in coffee stains.

How to Write a Lot is that rare academic book that one wants to read. Silvia has a great sense of pacing and doesn’t allow things to bog down. Consider the following passages –

  • On a scholar’s place in the writing world – “Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement” (p. 45).
  • On the mindset that scholars should have regarding rejections – “To write a lot, you should rethink your mental models of rejection and publication. Rejections are like a sale tax on publications: The more papers you publish, the more rejections you will receive. Following the tips in this book will make you the most rejected person in your department” (pp. 100-101).

A Big Can of Worms – Disappointments

While I really enjoyed this book, I had a few frustrations with it. How to Write a Lot’s strength is its brevity. But that can also work against it. Chapter 5 – titled “A Brief Foray Into Style” – is simply too brief to provide much value. Style is crucial, but becoming a stylish writer is a book (or a series of books). No one – Silvia included – can begin to do it justice in a chapter. (Fortunately, Silvia provides a fantastic bibliography that will help readers who want to explore the issues raised in the book in more depth).

I didn’t get much from Chapter 4, either. That material concerns starting a writing group to help encourage you to stay on pace with your research. There’s nothing wrong with this material – it’s just not the way that I work. However, other readers might have entirely different reactions.

Silvia is pictured below.

Summary – So Far, So Good

In research – as in politics – it’s always dangerous to read too much into “early returns.” But after six weeks of constant work, my wife and I are both enjoying our newfound research productivity. We would recommend How to Write a Lot to any scholar seeking to improve his or her research output.

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Book Review – Wallace by Marshall Frady

• Wallace: The Classic Portrait of Alabama Governor George Wallace
• by Marshall Frady
• Publisher – Random House
• Copyright – 1996 (The original edition appeared in 1968).
• 304 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

Review – For better and (mostly) for worse, no figure in Alabama politics looms larger than George Wallace. From his first unsuccessful 1958 gubernatorial run, Wallace dominated state politics until ill health forced his retirement in January 1987.  During that time, Alabama progressed but remained at or near the bottom in comparisons of the 50 U.S. states. (This helped create the old joke that Alabama’s motto should be, “Thank God for Mississippi”).

But state governance has little to do with the continuing interest in Wallace. Instead, it is his four runs for the U.S. presidency from 1964 to 1976 that make him a political player worth remembering. By becoming a factor in those races, Wallace shocked the pundits and sent a clear signal that conservatism was on the rise.

In Wallace, journalist Marshall Frady uses his extraordinary access to Wallace to craft an intimate portrait of a man whose political ambitions controlled every aspect of his life. Frady openly states that Wallace is Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark come to life. More precisely, Frady’s Wallace is pure demagogue, a man who forms his stands on the issues soley for political expediency.

Praise

Frady’s timing was perfect. By the mid-60s, it had become apparent that Wallace was a force. At the time of Wallace’s original publication, Wallace had convinced Alabama’s voters to make his wife, Lurleen, the governor in 1966. (At the time, Alabama governors were not allowed to serve consecutive terms, so George was ineligible to run). Also, Wallace was gearing up for his 1968 run for president, which would confirm his mass appeal. In short, Frady catches Wallace at the height of his political powers, just as his wave was starting to crest.

But the strongest aspect of the book is Frady’s prose. The “new journalism” of participant observation was just coming into vogue in the mid-60s. I’ve always thought that this was a feast-or-famine technique – it’s great if the writer has the chops to pull it off, but it’s miserable if the writer is mediocre or worse.  Fortunately, Frady meets the challenge. He captures the elusive Wallace out on the stump, interacting with voters, the press, and fellow politicians. Frady, a Southerner, also has a great feel for Alabama and its people.

I once read some advice from the famed writing instructor John Gardner. He said that great, insightful writing makes the reader say to him- or herself, “Yes, that’s the way it is.” I had that feeling reading Frady.

Finally, and this may be Wallace’s most-important quality, it’s a book that you want to read, a page turner. I checked it out from my local library late on a Saturday morning and was done by Sunday night.

Disappointments

While I enjoyed Wallace, the book isn’t perfect. One irritant is that Frady often repeats details. I tired of descriptions of Wallace’s cheap suit, oily hair, smelly cigars, and butchered pronunciations of the same words. (Over 300 pages, Frady’s decision to spell Wallace’s dialogue phonetically is like a toothache that gets worse with time. This device would have been more effective had Frady confined these spellings to an introduction or a conclusion).

I was also let down by Frady’s follow up to the original 1968 edition. At the end of the original book, Wallace is just “feeling his oats” as a potential national figure, considering his possibilities as a candidate for 1968 and beyond. The story of the 1968 election and what came after it have much potential. But Frady swings and misses on this opportunity. His postscript seems tacked on and other authors have offered more insight on this phase of Wallace’s career. Twenty-twenty hindsight says that it was Frady’s access to Wallace that made the original book special; without that intimate perspective, his follow up is flat.

Summary

With the exception of four years “abroad” in other U.S. states, I’ve lived in Alabama since 1977. It requires no great insight to say that the damage that Wallace caused to Alabama continues to this day. Prior to reading Frady’s Wallace, I had already enjoyed several books on “The Governor”:

  • Stephen Lesher’s George Wallace: American Populist,
  • Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage,
  • Jeff Frederick’s Stand Up for Alabama,
  • Michael Dorman’s The Wallace Myth,
  • And several others.

Frady’s book is the best of the bunch. The vivid portrait of the public and private Wallace, Alabama and its people, and a lost point in time make this the place to start.

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Book Review: Be Cool by Elmore Leonard

• Be Cool
• by Elmore Leonard
• Publisher – Dark Alley
• Copyright – 1999
• 275 pages

Rating – 5.5/10

Review – Elmore Leonard “sends up” the entertainment industry again in Be Cool. In the finest Hollywood tradition, Be Cool is a sequel to Leonard’s successful novel, Get Shorty. As with Get Shorty, Hollywood adapted Be Cool into a movie (in 2005).

The Return of Chili

Even if the book didn’t have a blurb on the back cover, fans would recognize that Be Cool was a sequel right away. Once again, the spotlight is on Leonard’s Miami-loan-shark-turned-Hollywood-insider Chili Palmer. For those who missed Get Shorty, Chili is a “stock” Leonard character – an ever-cool, hustler with a gift of gab. At the beginning of Be Cool, Chili’s star has risen and fallen in Hollywood as his latest film flopped.

In Be Cool circumstance thrusts Chili into the music industry, which – if anything – proves to be even shallower and meaner than was the film industry. Chili falls in with a band of wanna-be rock stars named Odessa and tries to help their career. At the same time, he’s dodging some violent, low-life criminals who are tracking him with some bad intentions.

Pretty Good Leonard

There’s nothing wrong with Be Cool, but there’s nothing great about it, either. It’s fine piece of fluff, easy reading about not-too-bright characters playing for high stakes. Be Cool would make some nice, lightweight beach reading if you wanted simple escapism.

But Leonard has written much-better books. While Be Cool has some of Leonard’s trademark, snappy dialogue, there aren’t many great lines or passages. Those who read Get Shorty have already experienced Chili’s cool-guy rap, so his lines in Be Cool just don’t have the same punch. (Chili’s love interest, Elaine, has some witty, tongue-in-cheek lines: “Tell you the truth… I’m smoking more now since I quit” p. 232).

The plot is only mediocre. Leonard’s characters have always seemed more interesting than his plots, and Be Cool doesn’t make the reader care about what happens. Be Cool also suffers from one of Leonard’s persistent weakness – the tendency to shift abruptly from laid-back, semi-comedic storylines to graphic violence. The effect is jarring and – while I like Leonard’s writing – he has a cavalier disregard for horrible, violent death. For instance, in Be Cool one character begins wearing a little black dress as an ironic statement after her husband is murdered by a hit man who shot him in the head outside a restaurant.

A final quibble is that Be Cool seems like, slick “Hollywood” version of Leonard. One touch that I particularly disliked was Leonard plotting to his characters “hang out” with real-life celebrities (such as Aerosmith). It reminded me of TV’s The Simpsons continually using celebrity guest stars to inject life into the show. Also, over the years, many of Leonard’s characters became increasingly cartoonish. For instance, Be Cool features a gay, 6-foot-5, part-Samoan, part-African American killer and aspiring entertainer. You get the idea.

Whatever Leonard’s motives, Be Cool is a far cry from Leonard’s gritty tales of low-life nobodies stuck in dead-end cities. (For some terrific Leonard, try 1976’s Swag, which is set in Detroit).

Summary

Be Cool is a fine, lightweight novel. While it doesn’t have any fatal flaws, it’s well below Leonard’s best and that keeps me from giving it more than a lukewarm review.

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