Nothing to Sneeze At

In the LA Times Book Review today Eugen Webber, always on the dull edge, reviews Robert Parker’s COLD SERVICE and a bunch of other books that came out six months ago.  But I’ll give Eugen the benefit of the doubt and assume that the paper held his column until now. They should have kept on holding it.  The man’s reviews are cliche ridden and border on incoherent. Judge for yourself:

"Cold Service," the title of Robert B. Parker’s latest, refers to revenge, said to be a dish best served cold. Hot, cold or lukewarm, revenge is urgently called for, because Spenser’s buddy Hawk has been shot in the back and seriously injured by Ukrainian mobsters who crept into our country yearning to breathe free at someone else’s expense. Now the thugs and those behind their deviltries have to be punished. Not by agencies of the Law, which are as capricious as the Law itself, but by Hawk, once he recovers, aided and abetted by Spenser and the old gang. That alone will satisfy our friends, if not the lawbooks.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth someone or other. Vengeance is illegal, sayeth the Law: Society exacts it in hygienic, compassionate, politically correct ways. But Hawk is not convinced that murderous and greedy perps will be brought to book before they perp some more. In Hawk’s script, ruthless retribution for ruthless crimes is laconic and swift. Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan intellectual, described revenge as "a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought the law to weed it out." But Bacon was a corrupt casuist, and his thoughts do not impress Hawk. Nor Spenser either. Yet Spenser’s resolve is tested by Susan, his longtime ladylove, and their exchanges color Bacon’s argument.

Scragging Ukrainians and their allies may satisfy, but so do many trivial indulgences liable to raise our cholesterol level. Official justice, on the other hand, just like the wild variety, veers according to money, power, lies, deceptions and self-deceptions. Rancor reflects no higher moral imperative than legal or prudential prescriptions. Pending resolution of portentous questions, Spenser, Hawk and Susan will handle their quandaries deftly. Their high-velocity patter does not age. Violence is concise, alcoholic intake moderate, wrangling warmed by wit and smoothed by stimulants. Proof that Parker is near the top of his form, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Nothing to sneeze at? C’mon. Is this a joke? What’s next… "Elmore Leonard’s prose is nothing to shake a stick at?" "Michael Connelly once again sends Harry Bosch up a creek without a paddle?" "For Kinsey, this time finding the killer is like looking for a needle in the haystack." Doesn’t Eugen have an editor? The rest of his column is just as bad. He has this to say about George Pelecanos’ DRAMA CITY:

"Melodrama City" might be more to the point, but what matters is that Pelecanos is the foremost chronicler of our urban wastelands. His prose serves up vivid versions of them that we won’t find in tourist guides: drink, drugs, slaughter, random callousness, casual kindness, tuna sandwiches, sounds that currently pass for music and the rest.

These aren’t reviews. I’m not sure what the heck they are except, collectively, another dramatic example that it’s time to replace Eugen with a real mystery critic, someone with knowledge of the genre, who is respected in the field, and who can actually write coherently without resorting to cliches.

The LA Times doesn’t have to search any further than a few pages earlier in the same issue, where Dick Lochte reviews John Shannon’s latest Jack Liffey novel. Lochte’s knowledge and appreciation of the genre is deep. His opinions are respected. He’s also open to new authors who reinvigorate the mystery writing field with unconventional approaches to standard formulas. Dick is the guy who should be writing the mystery review column.

While I’m on the subject of the LATimes Book Review, would someone please tell them that readers don’t appreciate it when reviewers not only give away the entire plot of the book, but the surprise plot twists as well? That’s exactly what Jane Ciabattari does in her review of ENVY. I wasn’t planning on reading the book but still, thanks a lot, Jane.

Wasserman is gone, but the LATBR still sucks.

UPDATE (7-11-05) My brother Tod has a "conversation" with Eugen and Sarah Weinman considers Eugen as an example of how NOT to review books.

9 thoughts on “Nothing to Sneeze At”

  1. He “reviews” Daniel Silva’s latest (a book that came out in February) in 3 paragraphs, but the only part that really rises to the level of critique is the last sentence: “Silva’s intricate plot hurtles along; the goriness never relents.” The rest is all turgid plot summary.
    If I wrote like that, I think I’d be out of a job.

  2. I was about to write that clich├ęs don’t bother me in book reviews, but then I thought I should think about why not before I posted. Then I realized it’s because I don’t bother much with book reviews.
    Really–what would be the point? The only thing reviews are good for is moving more books than would have moved otherwise. Does anyone really put that much stock in them? From what I’ve seen, they’re only starting points for rants or conversations. In the aggregate, a lot of great reviews can propel a book someplace new, but just one? Does that really happen?
    Maybe I’m in too rarefied a bubble, up here with all my author friends–or maybe I’m just stupid for not caring more–but I can’t remember that last time I got the feeling anybody took a review seriously as an indication of literary merit. As a career step or ego validation? Sure. As an actual assessment of worth? Not in my perception.
    So while I admire competence and insight in any endeavor, and I’d prefer to see the competent and insightful rewarded as a general rule, I can’t get as worked up about a stupid review as I once might have.
    And anyway. Parker’s going to sell the same number of books he would have without this one.

  3. With the names being bandied about as potential replacements for Wasserman, you have to think that anyone coming in from outside of the Times — like David Kipen or David Ulin (though Ulin does quite a bit of writing for the paper, but I believe he’s freelance) — that they’re going to want to put their own stamp on the reviewing & reviewers, especially since they aren’t blind to what the rumblings have been. Weber is totally incomprehensible and anyone who regularly reads the review can tell you that, much less someone gunning for the editor’s job.

  4. I Just Can’t Wait

    I want to give Mark his chance to say all the things he normally says in his LA Times Book Review thumbnail, but I just can’t wait… What the fuck is Eugen Weber talking about? I’ve read his piece backwards

  5. Keith, Pauline Kael thought that a critic was most effective in showcasing great movies that would not otherwise get a lot of recognition. I think the same could be applied for books.
    Otherwise, the only reason to read a reviewer would be for the quality of the review itself. Dottie Parker’s long gone, but I still have her reviews on my shelf, and I’ve read and re-read them far more often than her short stories and poetry.

  6. Dear Lee,
    I am very pleased that you continue to go after the review section of the Los Angeles Times. I believe that academics and critics, with the best intentions in the world, have over the last three or four decades just about destroyed American fiction. How? It has been their deepest desire in classrooms and literary forums to refine the tastes of students and the public; to introduce them to what academics believe is high literature, and to wean them away from the grubby world of commercial fiction, including the genres. By now, thanks to the lofty standards of these people, the tastes of two or three generations of college-educated people have been permanently altered.
    The problem is that literary fiction is largely bloodless and dull. It is an acquired taste, rather like learning to enjoy lima beans. Your mother may say that lima beans are good for you, but they are still mushy and devoid of taste, and cannot even be improved with salt. So it is with literary fiction, literary lima beans. It used to be that literary novels dealt with the larger world, including the world of ideas, while commercial fiction was confined to less important things. But that has been reversed. Literary fiction is largely devoted to relationships, the kitchen, bedroom and backyard, while commercial novels explore the whole world in all its savagery and beauty, including ideas and ideologies. It is a stark fact of life that many, maybe most, commercial novels are better written than literary fiction.
    What is the net effect of this great effort by critics and scholars to refine America’s taste? Many have quit reading. the more “refined” their tastes, the less they read. They dutifully read the latest literary novel, find it dull, know that commercial fiction is somehow beneath them, so they stop buying books. I consider this great academic effort over the past forty or fifty years or so to refine our reading tastes to be the ruin of American fiction, and we won’t see people reading novels again until there is serious consideration of popular fiction, and celebration of the abilities of those who write it. In short, the Times’s book review is one of those engines of destruction of American literature and one of the reasons fiction is now in grave straits.

  7. I Just Can’t Wait

    I want to give Mark his chance to say all the things he normally says in his LA Times Book Review thumbnail, but I just can’t wait… What the fuck is Eugen Weber talking about? I’ve read his piece backwards


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