The Choirboys are no angels

The Choirboys in blue carry billy clubs like this one.

Author Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He worked 14 years for the Los Angeles Police Department until, with two novels and a nonfiction book to his credit, he quit to write full time.

The Choirboys is a about five sets of partners working the LAPD night shift. They are an oddly-assorted bunch, including military veterans, college graduates, do-gooders and do-others-first types.

They have nothing in common except the shared misery of doing a thankless job directed by incompetent supervisors for a public that hates their guts — and choir practice.

Choir practice is what the boys in blue call their weekly booze and broads bacchanals in MacArthur Park.

Officially, choir practice doesn’t happen because nothing LAPD officials refuse to admit happens, happens.

The guys in the patrol cars are on their own with disastrous results.

Less a novel than a collection of episodes, without Wambaugh’s frequent references to the shooting that would happen later The Choirboys would hardly pass for a novel: 10 main characters are about eight too many.

Wambaugh gets the details right, though. The topics of conversation and the language remind me of working the police beat as a newspaper reporter—and of why I hated working the police beat.

Cops are not choir boys.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Delacorte Press ©1975 346 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Looking for Mr. Goodbar: A powerful depressant

The woman’s position is decidedly uncomfortable.

Theresa Dunn is nobody you’d particularly notice. She’s an average looking girl with average intelligence who teaches first grade in a New York City school.

One of five children, Terry like millions of others attended parochial schools and like thousands of others was paralyzed by polio in the decade after World War II.

Polio made Theresa different.

That and the accidental death of her beloved elder brother who was more like a father to her than her father.

Hospitalization warped Terry.

Afterward she yearns for love and fears its impermanence.

In the sixties, she slips into the drug culture, looking to booze, marijuana, and sex to fill the hollow left from childhood.

Novelist Judith Rossner’s rendition of the vibe of Terry’s childhood trauma felt right to me: I survived a far less serious case of polio.

Whether Terry’s childhood trauma predestined her to adult misery and led to her murder is open to debate — and in today’s opioid epidemic is worth debating.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a slender novel on a serious topic, quickly read but not easily forgotten.

It is, however, a profoundly depressing novel.

Ready your preferred drug—good chocolate, hot tea, or a copy of Pollyanna—for a chaser.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner
Simon and Schuster ©1975 284 p.
1975 bestseller #4. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Curtain: Poirot’s last case

In Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot mystery, novelist Agatha Christie takes Poirot back to the setting of the 1920 novel that began the series: Styles Court.

That’s a mustache under  the Curtain.

As then, Poirot is joined by Captain Hastings. Unlike then, Poirot is now old, deformed by arthritis, using a wheelchair.

Styles Court is now a guest house. Poirot has persuaded Hasting’s daughter, Judith, and the Franklins, who are her boss and his wife, to come to Styles Court.

There are other people staying at the house, Poirot and Hastings have never met.

Poirot has asked Hastings to come to help him investigate the guests and prevent a murder which he is sure is going to be committed.

Poirot has already identified five seemingly unrelated murder cases in which no one doubted who the murderer was. Yet Poirot believes the person responsible for all five of the murders was someone else—a person who is at Styles Court.

With Poirot confined to a wheelchair, it’s up to Hastings to do the legwork.

Poirot fans will appreciate this unexpected end to the 55-year series.

For those who don’t know him, Curtain is not a good introduction to the little Belgian with the mustache.

Curtain by Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead [1975] 1st ed. 238 p.
1975 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Moneychangers gives good value

If you’ve read Hotel, Airport, or Wheels, you’ll be familiar with Arthur Hailey’s technique of merging a fictional story with exposition of how large organization works.

The O in the word Moneychangers holds a man in in front of a bank vault.
The Moneychangers is about who gets access to a bank vaults.

The Moneychangers applies that formula to the operation of a big bank but, since banks have changed less since the mid-20th century than airports or the auto industry, Moneychangers has more contemporary feel.

The story opens opens with Alex Vandervoort and Roscoe Heyward competing for the presidency of First Mercantile American Bank.

The two men have very different assessments of what banks should do. For Roscoe, it’s all about shareholder profits; for Alex it’s about making reasonable profit while serving communities.

Split evenly between the candidates, the bank board puts one of its members in the presidency, leaving Alex and Roscoe as vice presidents.

Hailey does his usual thorough job explaining banking operations while telling a story. And he keeps the subplots exciting and relevant.

The leading characters are each well-developed, individually interesting. They argue about the future of banking, including about how long it will be before the American economy collapses under its weight of debt, and about ethics.

And they make the arguments matter.

Thus, The Moneychangers manages to be both easy reading and valuable reading.

The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday [1975] 436 p.
1975 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ragtime: America without nostalgia

Told by an omniscient narrator, Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller, focuses on a New Rochelle, NY, family who he identifies by their roles, and a handful of characters outside their social group whose paths cross and mingle with theirs.

Ragtime shows a less than star-spangled America.

Father goes off to the Pole with Perry. He returns, physically weakened by the experience.

Mother, who previously had done nothing but run the house, has been running his flags-and-fireworks company competently in his absence.

If that weren’t change enough for one family, Mother finds an abandoned newborn baby in the yard, finds the black woman who abandoned it, and takes both mother and baby into the family’s home.

The baby’s father, black musician Coalhouse Walker, comes to win Sarah back.

Coalhouse introduces the family to ragtime music, which with its syncopation and black associations evokes the unsettled feeling of pre-WWI America.

Coalhouse also introduces the family to New York as blacks experience it.

Doctorow mingles his fictional story with stories of real people, from J. P. Morgan to Henry Houdini.

Doctorow’s omniscient narrator, rather than distancing the characters, seems to lay them right before readers, rather like paintings from which they may see what they will.

Ragtime is short, easy reading, and easily worth re-reading.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Random House [1975] 1st ed. 270 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fan Club: Another name for rape

Depending on your gender, Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club is either about the ultimate high or the worst degradation.

The Fan Club acts out its fantasies.

An interview fabricated by Sharon Field’s PR agent reveals Hollywood’s “Love Goddess” longs for an ordinary man to love her.

Adam Malone, a part-time grocery clerk and wannabe writer, enlists three other  equally ordinary, and equally gullible men to kidnap Sharon believing if she meets them, she’ll willingly have sex with them.

The four agree if Sharon won’t willingly participate, they’ll release her.

Once they have Sharon in an isolated mountain cabin, Adam’s quixotism is trampled by his three accomplices’ sex drive.

The men tie her down and rape her.

One beats her.

Using her dramatic skills and retentive memory, Sharon fights back.

A less skillful writer than Wallace would have reduced the kidnappers to stereotypes. Wallace makes each of them distinct individuals whose behavior is as plausible as it is despicable.

He also makes clear that when sex is used to sell entertainment, the entertainment industry must accept some blame if people believe the stories they’re told.

Wallace blows his superb plotting with what may possibly be the most implausible ending on any 20th century novel.

The Fan Club by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster [1974] 511 p.
1974 bestseller #10. My grade: B.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Seven-Percent Solution: 100% fun

Sherlock with his pipe,hat, and tweed coat
Detail from David K. Stone’s cover illustration for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a twentieth century addendum to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, written by Dr. Watson with “editing” by Nicholas Meyer.

After he marries, Watson doesn’t see much of Holmes. One evening in April, 1891, when Watson’s wife is away, Holmes drops in, looking ill, behaving oddly, talking wildly.

Watson rightly suspects Holmes is addicted to cocaine.

Hearing that a Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna might be able to help, Watson invents a tale that lures Holmes to Vienna where Freud breaks Holmes of his addiction.

Holmes and Watson go along when Freud consults on a case of an attempted suicide.

Under hypnosis, the woman says she’s Nancy Slater Von Leinsdorf, wife of the recently deceased munitions king, Baron Von Leinsdorf. Holmes deduces she’s been held captive by the Baron’s no-good son and heir.

Under suspicion, the dastardly new Baron grabs his stepmother, shoves her in a trunk, and takes off by train for Germany.

Holmes foresees millions killed if the new Baron isn’t prevented from selling arms to Germany, so he Watson, and Freud commission a special train and steam off in hot pursuit.

It’s all delightful fun, even for those who are not Sherlock Holmes fans.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution:
Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of
John H. Watson, M.D.
By Nicholas Meyer
W. W. Norton ©1974 [paper] 221 p.
1974 bestseller #9. My Grade: B+.

Cover illustration by David K. Stone on plastic-encased library copy of The Seven-Percent-Solution did not photograph well. As the saying goes, the book is better.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni