Tag Archives: mystery

Quirky Characters and Karmic Mishaps: The Comic Crime Novels of Donald E. Westlake

31 Oct

Thieves' Dozen

Last year, for the very first time, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Inspired by some books I love very dearly, I hammered out a first draft of a heist novel in sixteen days. Whilst I don’t know if I’ll have the time to do NaNoWriMo again this year now that I work full-time, I do want to share those books I adore so much with all of you!

The author of the books in question is mystery novelist Donald E. Westlake, who was incredibly prolific and wrote a number of different series and stand-alone novels, often under pseudonyms (the most notable of these being Richard Stark). You can borrow many of Westlake’s books as ebooks or digital audiobooks from Hoopla. His books vary in tone, but the genre Westlake had the best handle on was the comic crime novel, and that’s where the books I’m talking about fall. Whilst he’s probably best known for writing (as Stark) about hardened criminal Parker, his most genius works, at least in my opinion, come from a completely different take on that character. Westlake came up with a scenario involving Parker having to steal the same object multiple times, but decided it was too silly to throw Parker into and thus created a new character to take on the job instead.

Thus, in 1970, the world was introduced to John Archibald Dortmunder and his equally endearing but incompetent partners in crime, and in my opinion the literary world is a much better place for it. These are seriously some of the single funniest books I’ve ever read in my life, and I’m a noted comedy enthusiast. The premise is relatively simple: the Dortmunder novels are 14 books about the world’s unluckiest criminal mastermind, John Dortmunder, and his weird compatriots (who are really more like friends) as they attempt to steal things and generally fail miserably or have some sort of misadventures along the way. The NYC-based crew generally targets people who deserve it, so you’ll be firmly on their side, especially since they never use weapons (it’d be a heavier charge if caught, and they’re just not violent people). Dortmunder’s plans are brilliant, and they’d work just fine if he wasn’t incredibly unlucky. Usually by the end of the book things have worked out in some way or another and the crew is safe and ready to heist another day and their enemies have suffered some sort of karmic mishap (either at their hands or fate’s hands). You’ll meet all sorts of odd people in these books because they’re set in and around New York City and that’s just how things are here.

For a general idea of how these books work, in the first one, The Hot Rock, the gang is tasked with stealing a valuable emerald belonging to one country back from another. There are five attempts to steal the emerald in the 287-page book, only one of which is permanently successful, and at the end, the government stiffs the team when they return the emerald, so they steal it back and swap it with a fake. That’s basically how these books tend to go. There are fourteen full books in total, as well as a bunch of short stories, many of which are collected in an anthology called Thieves’ Dozen. I can’t recommend these books highly enough right now since they’re the sort of thing so sorely needed in these times – funny books that involve awful people often receiving their comeuppance at the hands of a bunch of competent but horribly unlucky thieves who are as quirky as they are lovable.

Hoboken and other NJ state library card holders can access biographical information, reviews, and career overviews about Westlake from Literary Reference Center. If you’re into crime novels on any level, there’s probably a Westlake book that fits your style perfectly since he wrote in so many varying styles, but the Dortmunder novels are such a delight that I have to recommend them specifically. Definitely give them a go if you need something lighter in trying times!  If you want more books featuring charismatic criminals check out this previous Staff Picks post.

If you are working on writing your own novel check out the Hoboken Public Library’s monthly writers group where you can get helpful input from other writers on your work.  This month’s meeting is Monday, November 12 at 6:30 PM.  Email hplwriters @ gmail.com for more information.

Written by
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian
When she’s not obsessing over comedy, she’s probably watching baseball, playing video games, or serving the every whim of her 22-lb cat Murphy. An earlier version of this blog post appeared on her personal Tumblr account in August 2017.

LGBTQ Urban Fantasy Series: The Sleepless City and Kate Kane, Paranormal Investigator

2 Sep

Here are two compelling series with LGBTQ characters that will appeal to fans of Tanya Huff’s Smoke Trilogy, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series.  Since they are both available as ebooks they are just a click away for our Hoboken Library Resident Cardholders.  So check them out now for an enjoyable Labor Day Weekend read or put them on your wish list for October when Halloween and Coming Out Day (October 11) make it the perfect time to read about some out and proud Vampires, Werewolves, and Witches.

The Sleepless City by Anne Barwell and Elizabeth Noble

shades-of-sepia
The Sleepless City is a gay paranormal romance series, written by Anne Barwell and Elizabeth Noble, available to our resident Hoboken Library cardholders through eLibraryNJ.  The series revolves around several roommates and friends, some of whom are vampires.  In the mythology of The Sleepless City vampires have one true soulmate, but just because someone is your soulmate doesn’t mean there is an instant happily ever after and as each of the vampire main characters of the book finds their romantic partner they must navigate relationship issues as well as some suspenseful supernatural dilemmas.  Much like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire series, there is a lot of mystical trouble in the small town of Flint, Ohio.  Besides vampires Jonas, Declan, and Simon, aficionados of werewolves will enjoy the character of Lucas Coate.  I’m usually more a vampire fan myself, but I found Lucas to be one of my favorite characters from the series.

Rather than co-write each book, the authors alternated books in the series.  Barwell wrote the first book Shades of Sepia and the third book Family and Reflection.  Noble wrote the second book Electric Candle and the soon to be released fourth and final book tentatively titled Checkmate.  I was unsure if the series might feel disjointed by having two authors, but I found it had the beneficial effect that their slightly different styles helped delineate the different characters they were focusing on.  If you become a fan of the series you might find yourself wanting to binge read to find out what happens next to the well written and interesting characters.  Although The Sleepless City series ends after book four, the authors will each be working on two separate spinoff series.  The Sleepless City is published by Dreamspinner Press, who specializes in Gay romance titles, some of which are also available to our Hoboken Library Resident Cardholders through eLibraryNJ.

Kate Kane, Paranormal Investigator by Alexis Hall

iron-velvet
There are two books so far in Alexis Hall’s Kate Kane lesbian urban fantasy mystery series including Iron & Velvet and Shadows & Dreams.  A third book Fire & Water is planned.  I found myself so immersed in the world of the first book Iron & Velvet that I finished it in two days.  Kate Kane is a terrific character, a half fairy private eye with a biting wit who tries to fight against letting her powers derived from her mother, The Queen of the Wild Hunt, take over her life.  There are so many other wonderful characters in the world including Julian Saint-Germain, an eight hundred year old lesbian vampire prince; Tara Vane-Tempest, the upper class model who is also an alpha werewolf; Nimue, Kate’s ex and a Witch Queen; her assistant Elise, a golem-like “living statue;” and informant Jack who is a part of “the Multitude,” a gestalt mind made up of rats!  Although cleverly original, the book also satirizes some tropes of both the noir mystery and the urban fantasy genre.  Kate has a vampire ex who she met in high school biology class who creepily liked to watch her sleep, is overprotective, and bears other traits that seem reminiscent of a certain sparkly vampire.  LGBTQ publishers Riptide Publishing also have several other series by Alexis Hall including Prosperity, a steampunk series, which is available through Hoopla.  Some of Riptide’s other books are also available there and on eLibraryNJ.

-Written by Aimee Harris, Head of Reference

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