Book World review of Ken Bruen's 'London Boulevard'
Monday, December 21, 2009
By Ken Bruen
Minotaur. 250 pp. $24.99
The prolific Irish crime novelist Ken Bruen writes books that are by no means profound, but are violent, cynical, irreverent, often hilarious and always fast-moving and fun. In his new "London Boulevard," Bruen makes an interesting departure by combining his usual bloody crime drama with the plot of Billy Wilder's 1950 movie classic, "Sunset Blvd." Briefly, a London criminal, the charming but lethal Mitchell, is released after three years in prison and is soon in trouble with various gangsters, whereupon he takes refuge in the mansion of the fading stage actress Lillian Palmer, who is modeled on Wilder's Norma Desmond. Like Desmond, Palmer has a mysterious butler, called Jordan here, who is in fact her husband and is dedicated to keeping alive her fantasies of renewed stardom. ("The West End shall hail my return.")
One major difference between the two versions of the story is that in "Sunset Blvd." sex between Desmond and the young screenwriter Joe Gillis was only hinted at; this was, after all, 1950, when sex had barely been invented. In "London Boulevard," the sex between the 40-something ex-convict and the 60-something actress is not left to the imagination, not at all.
Another difference is that most of the drama in the movie takes place within Desmond's mansion; Gillis's life elsewhere in Los Angeles is only briefly glimpsed. Bruen reverses that balance. Most of his novel takes place on the streets of London, where Mitchell and various gangsters confront, threaten and kill one another. The star's mansion is his refuge -- until, inevitably, violence follows him there. That leads to another innovation. Desmond's butler/ex-husband is a strong-minded man but not a violent one. In the novel, Jordan proves to be quite handy with a gun and becomes Mitchell's partner in dealing with the villains who unwisely invade the actress's gloomy home. I lost track of the killings in the novel but they number around 10, and that's not counting the soccer player who pays a high price for offending Mitchell: "I had the Glock out and pumped both his knees from behind."
Bruen's prose is often a delight. Here Mitchell sits down to dinner with a gangster: "He had arrogance and contempt finely mixed. Plus, he was an ugly bastard. Prison has its share of them. . . . They're the wardens." Here he finds himself falling for a lovely Irish woman: "She was feeding me the most treacherous poison of all: hope." He starts out lusting for the well-preserved actress but soon finds her insatiable demands "about as appealing as a prison breakfast." The author also likes to play games with typography by making each word a separate line, as with Mitchell's summary of one encounter with Lillian:
on the floor