Book Reviews by Howard McEwen, author of The Hard Man Novels

Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly: A Writer, a Murderer and a Story of Obsession - May 4, 2021

Several years ago, I tried to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s the granddaddy of the New Journalism/ficitionalize non-fiction killer book. I hated it.

Capote obviously had a crush on one of the killers. Maybe not a sexual crush but he was fascinated. The victims were virtually ignored. It’s understandable in a movie where you have ninety minutes to scare people but in a novel you can at least make the dead human. So half way through, I stopped reading that book. I rarely read many murder-y books.

But I did listen to the audiobook of The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe. There was no reason except it was recommended to me and I was tired of podcasts and I needed something I could drop in and out of.

Rowe’s book hooked me. The woman can write. She’s a bit flowery by today’s standards but today’s standards are flat as drywall. Read her slowly and, if not listening to the audio book, maybe read some of the passages aloud. They’re nice, they’re poetic.

Rowe does not ignore the victims of the serial killer. You know the names. You know their mothers and how they ended up where they did. You learn about their rust belt blue collar town and how it influenced them and nudged them into the hands of their killer. Yet, she doesn’t excuse them either. The victims were prostitutes. Rowe knows that there are some people that can’t be helped, no matter what their mother or sister or father does. No matter how many times they are arrested or what the kindly cop or social worker does. Rowe knows this because she sees the same instincts in herself. She writes about this without turning the book into a confessional, she touches on her own problems without drawing the reader’s attention away from the true victims, the eight women who were strangled by Kendall Francois.

As far as Francois is concerned, she treats him as human but, unlike Capote, she never forgets what he is. She retraces his life from childhood, investigating and describing his abusive childhood but noting that other children had it just as bad and never turn to beating and killing hookers. She looks for answers with the cops who knew him, with teachers, friends and family members. But like all serial killers, there are no answers.


Herman Koch's Summer House with Swimming Pool - April 30, 2021

Herman Koch writes characters who question society’s norms. Sometimes those people are called complimentary names. Mostly those people are called assholes.

In Summer House with Swimming Pool, he again brings us the latter. They make for great reading. Not because assholes are great people to spend time with but they will often say things that others won't. They serve the same function court jesters did in medieval times. They say things to the king that others won’t, making him see the truth. This is often called being politically incorrect. Note, it’s not called lying because it’s not. It’s just impolite to speak the truth.

So when Koch’s physician lead character spends time laying out his role as a general practitioner in a socialized medical system which include humoring patients, delaying their treatment, and keeping them from expensive specialist, doing what he can to keep costs down or when he talks ad nauseum about how disgusting the human body is, readers get ruffled.

Don’t let it ruffle you. I’m sure there are plenty of examples in your own life of behavior you tolerate that is far worse. The friend who has kids he doesn’t see, that uncle who does that, the cousin you see who kids popping out kids she can’t pay for. Maybe reading about them will expand a bit of empathy.

Koch’s skill as a writer is stringing along events, acted out by these terribly human characters colored by his acute observations of humanity. He holds them in such glorious tension that you are compelled to keep reading, fearful of when that tension is going to snap. And when it does, it does so in a way that you will not foresee.

As with his other novels The Dinner and Dear Mr. M., the break in Summer House with Swimming Pool occurs when you’re not looking - or rather - where you’re not looking. He performs an authorial act of misdirection I found satisfying. He then does not treat his novel like a genre piece but lets his read use his own intelligence to reach some conclusions on the whys and the hows. You aren’t left dangling but you are left pondering.

It’s a good novel for a group read, to talk about after you finish over some beers.


Herman Koch's Dear Mr. M. - April 19, 2021

After reading The Dinner, Herman disappointed me with The Ditch. I’m glad I decided to carry on with him and read Dear. Mr. M.

I like Koch’s misanthropic authorial voice. Especially since much of it is aimed at his own country of the Netherlands. It’s not that I have any animus toward that country but when so many in this country want to praise the Benelux and Nordic countries for this Democratic Socialism, it’s great to hear that they have problems too from some of their own.

But that’s no reason to read this book, just an extra feature.

One reason to read it is the best use of the second person voice I’ve ever read. In fact, it’s the only good use of the second person voice I’ve ever read in a novel format. It’s not the entire novel – maybe 30%. It’s done well and is not a gimmick. It gives a haunting insight to one of the main characters.

Koch’s use of the second person dovetails in with another reason to read Dr. Mr. M. While it’s a mystery, the writing (or maybe it’s the translation) is of a literary quality. You don’t have to check your brain at the title page to enjoy Herman’s books. I don’t enjoy most thrillers or mysteries for this reason. There’s a certain dumbing down that occurs for books to hit the shelves of Costco or Wal-mast or the top of the Amazon algorithm. Not with Herman’s books. You got to bring a bit of your brain to the party if you want to enjoy them.

Finally, as with The Dinner, his plotting and the final revelation was a surprise and satisfying. Such a difference from The Ditch…I hated the ending so much!

Go read and enjoy Dear Mr. M.


Herman Koch’s The Ditch - April 6, 2021

Oh, Herman!?!?

After fan-girling over Herman Koch’s The Dinner, I immediately downloaded another of his novels. I didn’t look at reviews, I just rouletted the five that he has that are in English and landed on (or in) The Ditch.

It wasn’t a lucky spin of the wheel if you like plot to resolve with clarity.

If, however, you like wry insight and a jaundiced, contrarian outlook that pokes holes into contemporary culture and some politically correct sacraments, you’ll enjoy this book. The lead character, the sixty-year old mayor of Amsterdam, suspects his wife is having an affair. There’s no proof really, just a husband’s suspicion about the way his wife laughs at another man’s joke.

So he begins to keep an eye on her. We know she’s a foreigner – not Dutch. She’s unaccustomed to their cold, passionless ways. Is she Muslim? Eastern European? Greek? We don’t know, he never tells us. She comes from an earthier part of the world, he says, where things like marriage and adultery are taken more serious that in the progressive Netherlands.

On top of this, he has to deal with an alderman who wants to scar the city with windmills, and a father who wants to euthanize himself and, oh, a physicist best friend who is going to do an experiment that may end the world.

And it all just peters out at the end of the book without an clear resolution.

But alone the way, there are these great bon mots and astute observations that made my grumpy heart smile. Are they worth the trip? I’ll have to say, grudgingly, yes.