Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of July 23rd, 2007

Richard Aleas’ Songs of Innocence (Hard Case Crime, $6.99) is smart and snappy as good pulp has to be—and what’s more, it’s a thoroughly New York novel. The sleuth (reluctant, as always) is an administrative assistant in the writing program at Columbia, and he chases up and down Manhattan like a yo-yo trying to find out who caused the death of his gorgeous friend Dorrie, a writing student who prostitutes herself (erotic massage, with extras) to pay the rent. Richard Aleas is the anagrammatic pen name of Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime, an appealingly retro series from Dorchester Publishing. Some of the Hard Case novels are reprints, some, like Songs of Innocence, are neo-pulp; all have comically suggestive covers featuring curvaceous dames. If you read your way through the entire series, you’ll be well primed for November’s massive dose of the real thing: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulp (Vintage, $25), a 1,000-page omnibus of crime stories from the first half of the 20th century, all plucked from magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Gumshoes galore!

However incisive his literary criticism (see review page 17), it’s still his novels that make J.M. Coetzee one of the most compelling writers alive today. And another brilliant one, it seems, is on the way. The excerpt in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (July 19, $5.50) of Diary of a Bad Year, which Viking will publish in January, is intriguingly schizophrenic: Mr. Coetzee has spliced a provocative, radically skeptical disquisition on the state, politics, democracy and terrorism with brief reports from a “crumpled old fellow” who’s nurturing a growing preoccupation with a beautiful young woman he meets in the laundry room of his building. The morsel we’ve been fed isn’t really a story that can stand on its own—it’s just a teaser, but it sure works.

I wasn’t aware that I needed to know how Mort Zuckerman plays tennis, but Nick Paumgarten, in his long New Yorker profile “The Tycoon” (July 23, $4.99), filled me in anyway. Even if his “effective defensive slice” weren’t a revelation, there would still be two good reasons to read the article. One is to discover that Mr. Zuckerman admires Dick Cheney. The other is to hear the billionaire owner of the Daily News declare that being immersed in journalism and public policy “is like a lifetime of chocolate sundaes.” Many an ink-stained wretch feels exactly the same.