Book review: A Song to Die For by Mike Blakely

Creed Mason had come so close. He’d had a top ten country hit with his partner Dixie Houston and their band Dixie Creed, and their future looked bright. But then he’d been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he saw some horrific things, killed a man, and ended up with a gruesome bullet wound that got him sent first to Japan for a long recovery and then to Texas, USA.

It’s now 1975. His old partner Dixie has gone on to huge solo success and wants nothing to do with him. Creed is trying to make it on his own in the burgeoning Austin music scene as part of the nascent Outlaw Country movement. Willie Nelson (just called Willie here, but it’s Willie Nelson) recommends Creed for a plum gig–band leader and lead guitarist for Luster Burnett, a country music legend who vanished entirely from pubic life many years prior but who is now eyeing a comeback.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the innocent niece of a Vegas mafia kingpin witnesses her uncle and his psychotic son Franco murdering one of their henchman who had fallen out of favor. She flees to Austin, hoping to get help from one of her former University of Texas sorority sisters. However, both end up dead as Franco tries to tie up loose ends.

Trying to find answers in these deaths is Texas Ranger Hooley Johnson, a curmudgeon approaching retirement age who nonetheless is deeply affected by the waste of two innocent lives with so much potential. Hooley is begrudgingly partnered with Mel Doolittle, a young, black, intelligent but wet-behind-the-ears FBI man from the Vegas office.

 A Song to Die For is neat–these two tales, the two musicians trying to make a comeback and the crime story, run parallel with no crossover until very late in the book. For most of it, it’s like reading two entertaining novels in different genres simultaneously, keeping the reader wondering and guessing about when and how the two paths will cross.

The fun is enhanced by Blakely’s writing style. He does not spend a lot of time describing things. Does a scene take place in a honky tonk? He’ll give enough detail to add some character, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Everyone who hasn’t been in one has seen them on TV or in movies and knows what they look like–why describe every spiderweb or initial carved into the bar? This efficiency helps the pages go by quickly, with a lot more action packed in than one would expect even in a book that crosses the 400-page mark.

The story is not always realistic, but Blakely’s exercise of his artistic license is well-deployed. It’s doubtful that a crackerjack band could come together as quickly as it does here, and Blakely knows this because he’s a musician himself with several albums to his credit, but it’s necessary to keep the two stories in sync, and who wants to read about months of practice?

It was fun for me to read about my town of Austin back in the ’70s, which was a pretty legendary time around here–I wasn’t around but people still talk about it. (It’s also nice that for the most part the geography is rendered correctly!) I’d like to see Blakely, who primarily writes Westerns and is a Spur award winner, tell a few more tales about my town in that time. He’s got plenty of good characters who could appear in another music story, another crime story, or another combination of the two.

A Song to Die For is an under-the-radar gem that lovers of music and/or crime fiction will enjoy, and those who know Austin will get an extra kick out of it. Worth checking out.

By the way: “Written in the Dust,” Creed Mason’s one hit song, is based on one of Mike Blakely’s own songs. I caught a couple of other Easter eggs, and I’m sure there are some I missed.

News for week ending 2018-01-05 (open thread)

This week I went off-topic, launching what I hope will be a fun new place for me and anyone else to hang out. Also:

At Trent goes off-topic

The Westlake Review marks a milestone

I’ve promoted it on several occasions, and it’s linked in the sidebar, but it’s possible that some of you here aren’t familiar with The Westlake Review.

Fred Fitch (totally his real name) set out to read and review all of Donald Westlake’s novels, with the exception of pseudonymous sleaze titles. And as of shortly before the end of 2017, he has, along with a passel of Westlake’s nonfiction and short stories.

Fred’s style is very different from mine. While I typically start with a plot teaser and then write just a few paragraphs on the book, he goes for in-depth analysis of the characters, themes, and how everything fits into the larger Westlake canon. His pieces aren’t really book reviews, but essays on the books. As a general rule, it’s better if you’ve read the book before you’ve read the piece on it.

If you haven’t bookmarked The Westlake Review yet, you should. As with VWOP, the posts often don’t age much as the books we write about were published some time ago, so there is oodles of great reading material in the archives.

So if you haven’t checked out The Westlake Review, you should. If you have, go back over there and say congratulations!



Trent goes off-topic

Greetings, all!

This site started out as a list of books on Geocities. It has evolved and grown, year after year (or most years, anyway), and eventually, for blog fodder and my own amusement, I started adding reviews and some coverage of crime fiction and film beyond things directly related to Parker or Donald Westlake. But everything added was at least in the same universe as these subjects if I squinted a bit. And people seemed to enjoy these digressions.

However, I frequently found myself with the urge to write about things that it was impossible to rationalize squeezing in here. I think what finally set me off was Paperbacks from Hell, my favorite book of last year, which is a great, beautiful, and hilarious look at horror paperbacks of the 70s and 80s. I tried to come up with an angle by which I could allow myself to cover it–lots of crime fiction novels are published as paperback originals! But I just couldn’t come up with a way that would make sense within the already-stretched boundaries I have established here, even though I think most of our readers would really enjoy the book.

So I decided to launch a side blog for things that are off-topic. It is called Trent Goes Off-topic. It will mostly be book, movie, and music reviews. It will be a considerably less formal affair than VWOP–I want to have fun writing for it, and I don’t want it to become a massive time-suck. (I have fun working on VWOP, but it most definitely is a massive time-suck.) I might post there daily. I might post there weekly. I might post there monthly. I’m not going to be too concerned about it.

I have two posts up so far, an introductory post and a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which I finally saw last night. I do not yet have a review of Paperbacks from Hell up. I’ll need to reread that first, which will be a pleasure.

I’ll probably link to new posts there within the weekly roundup post here.

Anyway, I hope you’ll drop by the new digs and say hello. If you forget the URL, it’s linked in both the top menu and the sidebar.

Also: Now is a great time to remind everybody that co-blogger Nick also has another site, Existential Ennui, where he mostly covers books but has occasional forays into other media. His site is also linked in both the top menu and the sidebar, and I will also probably start linking to his new posts when I do the weekly roundup.

Levi Stahl on Parker and Donald Westlake on the White Rocket Podcast

Levi Stahl, as many of you know, is the man responsible for getting the Parker and Grofield novels back into print at the University of Chicago Press, as well as the brains behind the The Getaway Car, an anthology of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction writings. This past week, he appeared on the White Rocket Podcast with Van Allen Plexico to discuss The Getaway Car, Parker, and Donald Westlake. It’s a fun discussion, so give it a download and a listen!

You can get the episode here.



Book review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia is the first volume of the Second L.A. Quartet. The L.A. Quartet–The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz–covers the years 1946 to 1958 in Los Angeles. The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy–American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover–covers 1958 to 1972, on a national scale.

The Second L.A. Quartet places real-life and fictional characters from the first two bodies of work in Los Angeles during World War II, as significantly younger people. These three series span thirty-one years and will stand as one novelistic history.

–James Ellroy, Perfidia

The event that kicks off Perfidia, the first novel of James Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, is death, which should surprise no one familiar with Ellroy’s other works. On the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bodies of a Japanese family are discovered, with a mysterious note apparently left by the patriarch possibly indicating foreknowledge of the Day Which Will Live in Infamy. While the family appears to have committed the act of Japanese ritual suicide known as harakiri or seppuku, there are enough oddities at the crime scene to spark doubts in the mind of Hideo Ashida, a brilliant Japanese-American police chemist.

However, for political reasons related to the swiftly-ramping-up internment program for people of Japanese descent, the Mayor’s office and the LAPD want the investigation wrapped up quickly, either ruled a suicide or Jap-on-Jap homicide.

In the aftermath of the bombing and US entering World War II, the citizens of L.A. go a bit mad, as if the world is ending soon so earthly pleasures must be indulged in as much as possible before the Japanese subs off the coast and planes in the air pulverize the city into dust. No one is sleeping (except for with each other), most definitely including LAPD officers Capt. William H. Parker and Sgt. Dudley Smith.

Parker, the sometimes-tarnished conscience of the LAPD is locked in a mostly-undeclared cold war with Smith, the sometimes-saintly representative of the corruption of the institution, often without either of them realizing it.

Caught up in the current of both the metaphoric war and the real one are Dr. Ashida and Kay Lake, the latter a young bohemian brimming with the urge to tap into the excitement of the day, whatever that is. The three cops and the young lady will see and experience more before January 1, 1942 than many will in a lifetime.

James Ellroy thinks of himself as more of a writer of historical fiction than as a crime fiction novelist these days, but readers of his previous works need not fear on that count. Perfidia, named for a popular song of the era, translates as “perfidy.” The murder, intrigue, corruption, betrayal, and shifting alliances of an Ellroy epic are all here.

However, Perfidia has a number of problems. As Scott Timberg notes about Ellroy tying his vast canon all together, “Reading Ellroy can be overwhelming in any setting, but the new novel might be incomprehensible without some sense of his earlier books.” As chronologically, this is the first, there is no need for this, but the reader is subjected to a torrent of names, often without context. The quote that opens this review precedes the Dramatis Personae at the end of the book. It says something about the book that it needs one.

Ellroy is also constantly dropping in references to obscure pop culture figures and sticking in foreign phrases. I think of myself as pretty culturally literate, but I was using Kindle’s X-ray and translate features constantly.

Characters frequently talk like no human would, the worst example being Kay Lake, with Dudley Smith sometimes a close second.

But the biggest problem is that the events seem too small for such a big book. Those expecting an epic like L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid are likely to walk away saying, “Is that all there is?”

Which isn’t to say the book is bad or boring. I found myself reasonably enthralled with the twists and turns and gave no thought to putting it down. But of the books in this continuity (I’ve read all but The Big Nowhere and White Jazz), Perfidia is easily the least. Longtime fans of Ellroy will want to check it out anyway. New readers should start elsewhere (Underworld U.S.A. should be read chronologically; it does not matter for the first quartet). I do fear that because this one is the first chronologically, readers new to Ellroy may start here and go no further. They would be missing out on some of the best American fiction, crime or otherwise, of all time, so let us hope that doesn’t happen.

Related Posts:

Review: American Tabloid by James Ellroy

Review: The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

Review: Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

“Perfidia” by Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra


The Second L.A. Quartet

The First L.A. Quartet

Underworld U.S.A.

Help I am Being Held Prisoner to be re-released 2/18

It isn’t easy going to jail for a practical joke. Of course, this particular joke left 20 cars wrecked on the highway and two politicians’ careers in tatters – so jail is where Harold Künt landed. Now he’s just trying to keep a low profile in the Big House. He wants no part of his fellow inmates’ plan to use an escape tunnel to rob two banks. But it’s too late; he’s in it up to his neck. And that neck may just wind up in a noose…

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but the actual release date snuck up on me and it’s soon. Help I am Being Held Prisoner will be back in print on February 13, 2018, as the cover says, for the first time in thirty years.

Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai mentions this as one of his favorites, and it’s one I haven’t read yet, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Here is the page for it from the official Donald Westlake site.


News for week ending 2017-12-22 (open thread)

We’re a little late this week due to Christmas. We’ve got a couple more Portuguese-language covers this past week, and by all means, don’t miss our Christmas story by Donald Westlake!

  • New blog post: A review of Bust, by Ken Bruen & Jason Starr, first in the Max & Angela series from Hard Case Crime:
  • A review of The Rare Coin Score, the ninth Parker novel, at the Gaping Blackbird blog:
  • Frothy Ruminations blog – Upcoming film Trouble Is My Business gives noir a good name.

Nackles: A Christmas story by Donald Westlake (2017 repost)

Note: I believe this story to be in the public domain. If it is not, please let me know and I will remove it from the site.

Merry Christmas!


By Donald Westlake (writing as Curt Clark)

Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1964

Did God create men, or does Man create gods? I don’t know, and if it hadn’t been for my rotten brother-in-law, the question would never have come up. My late brother-in-law? Nackles knows.

It all depends, you see, like the chicken and the egg, on which came first. Did God exist before Man first thought of Him, or didn’t He? If not, if Man creates his gods, then it follows that Man must create the devils, too.

Nearly every god, you know, has his corresponding devil. Good and Evil. The polytheistic ancients, prolific in the creation (?) of gods and goddesses, always worked up nearly enough Evil ones to cancel out the Good, but not quite. The Greeks, those incredible supermen, combined Good and Evil in each of their gods. In Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda, being Good, is ranged forever against the Evil one, Ahriman. And we ourselves know God and Satan.

But of course it’s entirely possible I have nothing to worry about. It all depends on whether Santa is or is not a god. He certainly seems like a god. Consider: He is omniscient; he knows every action of every child, for good or evil. At least on Christmas Eve he is omnipresent, everywhere at once. He administers justice tempered with mercy. He is superhuman, or at least non-human, though conceived of as having a human shape. He is aided by a corps of assistants who do not have completely human shapes. He rewards Good and punishes Evil, And, most important, he is believed in utterly be several million people, most of them under the age of ten. Is there any qualification of godhood that Santa Claus does not possess?

Continue reading Nackles: A Christmas story by Donald Westlake (2017 repost)

Added to the cover gallery: A Portuguese edition of The Score

Rififi (Portugal) (19??)

Rififi (Portugal) (19??)

Title translation: The Cake. VWOP Portuguese-language correspondent Carlos explains: “Bolo” is also used in Portuguese as slang for the pile of money accumulated in the middle of the table in a card game (the betting money). The equivalent of the “pot” in poker games.

Cover text translation: “Twelve assault an entire city – one of them is Parker.”