The Manhattan Beach Project by Peter Lefcourt read by Tom Weiner

An all but dead movie director, inspired by a creative CIA operative, flies to Uzbekistan to shoot a reality show about a mafioso war lord in the post soviet territories with problems. “Wife is bitch on wheel. Son wants to join fuckink Taliban. Daughter like pussy.” A perfect formula for good reality television in Central Asia.

Their suite at the Intercontinental resembled the vegas highroller suit relocated to Riyadh: the bathrooms were marble tiled with gold gilt faucets.. there was a sunken tub, a dozen white fluffy towels, and inlaid mosaics featuring jinns floating over mosques.
“We’re flying to Nukus tomorrow afternoon.”
“Where is Nukus?”
“About a thousand kilometers from here… on the way to the Aral Sea. It’s located in Karakalpakstan which is supposed to be an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan but isn’t. It’s run, if you could call it that, by the Uzbeck government. It’s hot, ugly, polluted — used to be the location of a secret Soviet chemical weapons factory, which for all we know is still toxic. They’ve got dazed camels wandering around wild on the outskirts of town. The best hotel looks like a rundown Ramada in Utah. They got running water only 6 hours a day. The only place to eat is a Korean noodle restaurant where you got about a 50/50 chance of not getting ptomaine poisoning. And the whole town smells from rotting cotton and chemicals.”
“Sounds great.”
“You don’t find warlords in places with five star hotels.”

When they land in Nukus, which looks like a deconstructed Stalinist version of Tuscaloosa, without traffic or traffic lights, Charlie Berns (the not so dead director) hires a Polish lesbian camera woman, who falls in love with the warlords daughter. The warlords wife never leaves her tent so they write her into the script as recovering from plastic surgery in Tashkent, the warlord’s son rebels against his father to join the Taliban so they write him up as running away to law school, to escape the family business… The show becomes a hit, and is stopped only when the entire crew of Entertainment Tonight, along with the warload’s private army, the line producer and the CIA operative are held in seige in a bar in Turkmenistan by heavily armed America-hating religious fanatics, staging a jihad against profane reality television.

Another nifty look at the Hollywood sausage factory, read by Tom Weiner who sounds like he has a piece of fatty lamb Kebob swimming in his mouth.

Going to Bend by Diane Hammond read by Hilary Huber

Even if you buy all your clothes at Walmart’s, even if you never finished high-school and you still collect Happy Meal toys, even if your little girl never saw her father, who thinned out after a while, like smoke, you can still write a recipe book. Then someone with Aids, who drives an old Peugeot, can market you and the kitchen you cook them in. “When the people of Sawyer tucked into a meal or a snack, 72% selected a Pepsi product to go with it…” This was one of Schiff’s contributions to the universe, to Oregon, because Schiff, who grew up hungry and insulted by his mother, was a magician when it came to marketing. …

A House Divided by Mike Lawson read by Joe Barrett

Again, we have Washington with its burials and its laudations betrayals become elegy — where the ones praising the dead are also their executioners.

A Roman tradition carried brightly on by moral gamesmen, whose empires are supported by three rhetorical questions:

  • Is it ethical for men in power, men entrusted by their countrymen with that power, to go outside the law if the situation demands it?
  • Is it reasonable to expect the average citizen to understand what needs to be done?
  • Is it logical to expect self-serving politicians to act on what needs to be done?

Moreover, there was no way that 16 divergent and competing intelligence agencies, “agencies staffed by bureaucrats who protected their rice-bowls more fiercely than any tigress ever protected a cub, would give up their authority, their autonomy, or their budgets for the sake of ‘cooperation'”. The spineless reports of fat blue ribbon commissions are produced for citizens only.

For gentlemen spies, political heirs of the original gentleman spy, Bill Donovan, positioned in between bureaucrats assigned to defend an agency’s dwindling budget, and ‘managers’ who, in line with current American management practices, did not really understand what they managed and hence had no idea what their technical or human instruments were overseeing, security overrides legality.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon read by Joe Barrett

Imagine yourself in every drawing room of mature Washingtonian society, amidst the pouffy hair, the polka dot dresses, the over-used jokes, and the starchy  defensive hawkishishness of 1973. The wives, too, are overused. Pat Nixon is brittle; Dorothy, wife of the ex CIA agent and Watergate burgler E. Howard Hunt, is venomous, and Alice Longworth, the grand dame of political salons, is too old to fail, having known everything and outlived everyone.

Indeed, in a Washington where the only thing that glitters are Mrs. Longworth’s yellow teeth, “like the ruins of the ripples at twilight”, the political plotting is staged as a vague shadow dance of female opinion. Nixon’s confidante, Nixon’s wife, Nixon’s secretary position the dark, vague heavies surrounding the President along their personal moral continuum.

Nixon is, for Alice Longworth, “the darkest of dark horses”, a

…misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession, able to succeed from cunning and a talent for denying reality at close range.

For Rose Mary Woods, who never wanted anything but “what Ann Whitman, Ike’s head girl, had once had,” Nixon’s downfall began in the elevator of the Waldorf the morning after the ’68 election.

Riding down to his press conference, the boss had told her that Haldeman would control all access to him after the inauguration. She’d practically seen stars when he said it, ….he never budged from the structure Haldeman had sold him on, a chain of command that made sure he never had to hurt anyone’s feelings at least face-to-face…

This is why by 1972, the White House is

crawling with a second generation of admen and junior executives… good-looking dumb-bunnies like Magruder who provided Richard Nixon with a whole new cloud of insulation, like those little Styrofoam peanuts Rose’s mail-order knick-knacks came packed in.

House Justice by Mike Lawson read by Joe Barrett

Mike Lawson is very very good. He is even better read by Joe Barrett.

De Marco is a ‘bagman’ with a law degree, who even passed the Virginia Bar but never practiced law, whose happy aunt or godmother got him a job working for the fat, charming, lecherous, Speaker of the House whom he hates, respects, and obeys. De Marco has an office in the sub-basement of the capital, a lineage in the sub-basement of the Mob, and a salary that is off the books of the politician who employs him; he is a “left-hand man” (see Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga) who leaves no fingerprints.

In House Justice, he investigates the leak of classified information leading to the death of a CIA agent in Iran. And he knows where to go to get his information.

In any prison movie ever made there’s a guy called a scrounger. The scrounger can get you anything you want:

De Marco figured all the good prison scroungers had been New York hotel concierges, before they got sent up the river. You want tickets to a show? No sweat. Seats behind homeplate at Yankee Stadium? Piece of cake. A girl? Well, I don’t know nothin’ about no girls, pal, but for fifty bucks I’ll bet a blonde named Tiffany comes knockin on your door at 10:00.

Tony, the concierge, gives de Marco lots of information. Later, Tony gets motivated to give up his information to a less diplomatic thug who pushes him behind a dumpster…
.

..so he was eye level with a line of graffitti that read: Jesus Loves You. Tony’s first thought was: if he loves me so much why is there a gun stuck in my back? But his next thought was that he hadn’t been to confession in years…

See, this is street smart, thug-happy, punchy, yes, punchy dialogue that moves plot… , typically a Washingtonian plot involving some kind of treachery by the bad guys in government, which, given the political sympathies of the author, are typically Republicans.

In Lawson-land, when Democrats are tainted by naughtiness (House Secrets), they are dosed with a predictable erotomania.

The party spin is sentimental, near-sighted and dopey.  In House Rules, perfectly innocent men and boys of the Muslim faith are forced into terrorist-like acts by American social prejudice, unjust racial profiling, and bent Republican Congressmen. Acha. Coming installments will no doubt re-stage evil, bumbling Republicans in villainous acts of wiretapping, election-fixing, and Floridian Arithmetic.

Wait for it.

The ExPats by Chris Pavone read by Mozhan Marno

Do you really want to hear a book about a woman who lies to her husband as a part of her job? About a wife who makes herself lovable by pretending not to know where Luxembourg is, and then insisting that it doesn’t exist, and then bitching about its size? All in the first trial chapter, downloadable from Audible for Free. Gratis. For Nothing.

Nemesis of the Dead by Francis Lloyd read by Gordon Griffin

A jolly, fat, overcurious middle aged caterer, and her homicide detective husband are off to Catastrophus for a long delayed honeymoon. There they are told by Charon, the boat operator, that there there is no way on or off the island for two weeks. A series of demi-tragic catastrophes follows, comically distributed among 7 fellow tourists: Diana, a beautiful unashamedly lusty wife of a fanatic (Every time you tear a lettuce leaf it screams…) botanist; Sidney, a likable plumber; Sky, a trained, embittered nurse; a pair of sappy vapid young lovers who dress in matching outfits, an ill-mannered, unpleasant, nasty brutish husband and his submissive, pliable, apologetic middle aged wife.

A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner read by Jeffrey Kafer

Big sisters play dirty. So do cops, wives, mothers. So do cities… like Memphis. As always the best mysteries revolve around the murder of a city. And this is one of the best: gritty, angry, twisted…Mississippi Noir.

The giant A & W Root Beer mug shimmered over the rooftop of a roadside stand. The sign’s brown paint, chipped by the weather, left silver patches gleaming in the sun. Broken neon tubing dangled. The mug rocked against sagging guidewires. The sign was a lot like Memphis, seductive, old, with hints of grandeur and an aura of risk.

Mercy is a pastry chef with a  bad scar on  her left cheek, an alcoholic mother, a bitch-sister; she has come back to Memphis to re-visit with family.

Billy is a cool white cop  who grew up singing in black choirs:  poor but good. He protected women who scrubbed their old oak floors with lemon wax, kept their door transoms shiny, and got beaten: weekly, on schedule.

Billy understood what the house meant to a woman like her. She was the same as the women he’d known growing up on the back roads of Mississippi. Hard work, little money, poor education. Not a single step in their lives made easy. She wanted a few nice things in her life and some respect.

His partner, Lou, is an angry 61 year old superhero on the Memphis Homicide Squad. He lives in a hovel which is empty except for “a lawn chair, a TV and a lamp made from a bronzed figure of a nude woman with a clock in her belly.” His refrigerator contains “Wonder Bread, Velveeta, grape Jelly.” Jack Daniels is under  the sink. When Lou  ends up in the Mississippi River after a storm, Billy finds out that his partner wasn’t a very nice man. And that Memphis wasn’t a very nice city.

No, the South, this South is not a nice place, not a pretty place, nothing like sweet tea and charity balls. Its conversations are short and ugly. Its humor is nasty. Its favoritism is thick, and propped by greed, not family values. There is enough hurt to go around and everybody gets seconds…

Special heads up to Jeffrey Kafer who brings back Frank Muller with a vengeance. Thanks.

 

Escape by Robert Tanenbaum read by Mel Foster

On the sidewalk outside of The Kitchennette on West Broadway, the old men are debating the apologetics of New York Liberals bending over to receive  Islamic sensitivity training.

One famous lawyer takes out the day’s NYTIMES,  which reports that: “The Islamic Society of America is complaining that television shows portray Moslems as ‘the bad guys’. …”

“Oh, please…” moans the former US attorney for the Southern District of New York: “It’s not like we’re at war with Blonde Swedish Catholics. I haven’t noticed any Episcopelian Icelanders becoming suicide bombers and charging into any synagogues….”

“They claim to be Islamic to a man and they are terrorists therefore they are Islamic terrorists….

“Bullshit!”, exclaimed Saul Silverstein, an ex-Marine who survived Io Jima, and then made a fortune in women’s apparel. “Six months after a bunch of terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam murdered a few thousand people in the World Trade Center, Columbia University held a one day in service training center for more than 100 NYC high school teachers… its like we’re apologizing because some of their fellow Moslems declared war on us…. ”

This is The Sons of Liberty Breakfast Club and Girl Watching  Society, which meets to haggle over the politics, the rumours, the news … and of course.. the pretty girls walking past, with and without summer dresses.   This is as good as Paris in the 1920s, except that the intellectuals are lawyers, not artists,   they’re chewing  peach pancakes, not brioches… and they’re probably not smoking.

 

A Friend From England by Anita Brookner read by Cherie Lunghi

Rest, it seems, is a peculiarly English thing. Restfulness in all its timorous, melancholic glory cushions the indoor lives of Oscar and Dorrie Livingstone, in a peculiarly English way. Not as the accidental sidebar of an otherwise busied existence but as an aspiration, a calling, a rigorous end in itself.  Oscar is

…a bulky soft-voiced man with beautifully cared for hands. Something about him broadcasting the resignation of a schoolboy who has to submit to an inspection before he is allowed to leave the house.

All in all they are a placid wistful couple, resigned and melancholy by themselves and for each other. Well fed, well napped, well sheltered they form a restful destination for the nervous, ambitious, insecure and disinclined Rachel Kennedy who would have liked to see herself in this pink shell of kinship and central heating. Miss Kennedy takes up a remote and impassive alliance with Heather, the passive offspring of this mildly inert, mildly well off couple who accommodates her parents imagination by pretending to manage her own clothing shop in London, a Daisy Miller with short hair, unexcitable and worrisome.

She would glide from virginity to matronhood with no sense of a change in her condition. She would duplicate her mother, succeed her, and no doubt become the center of the family circle in her own home with the full approbation of that mother whom she planned so closely to copy… As she sat there emotionless and smiling in the midst of this agitated assembly,  she looked like the bride in a Breughel painting, as if she were already at her own wedding breakfast.

Rachel Kennedy lives a perfectly balanced and satisfyingly sombre life, too glad to come to rest at the Livingstone family home, to inhabit the functionary role of ‘friend’, to perform the duties of that functionary, like a glum, gloved observer at a greenhouse of rest. Here she studies English life, exacting a micro-analytics of personality and sensibility and mood as meticulous as a clinical formula.