Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

What is this, be kind to a fuck-up week?”

The protagonist of Charlie Stella’s wonderfully entertaining novel, Eddie’s World is a man who lives on the border between the straight life and a life of crime, and he “resisted impulses to drift too far one way or another.” He works occasionally as a data operator, but that’s just a job that checks the box ‘respectable citizen’ if the cops or the IRS come sniffing around. Eddie’s main source of income is loan-sharking and what he collects is enough to live on. He’s a wannabe–not a made man, but a man with connections. Eddie’s second wife Diane, a senior marketing executive makes a lot more money than her husband, and when the novel opens, their marriage is in trouble. She wants a baby, but having another child is the last thing Eddie wants–he already failed at fatherhood with a son from his first marriage; he doesn’t want to repeat that mistake. So while Eddie juggles the criminal world and the straight world, he also tries to find a balance between marriage, his obligations to Diane and his need for independence.

“Hey, we only knew each other a couple months when we got married,” Eddie said. “We both thought it was the right thing to do, you know. Like it was magic or something, I don’t know. We got along. I liked her flakiness. I know she was intrigued with me, with us, what we do. Brother, did that rub off fast. Now she was wants a kid. Her eyes get wet every time she sees one. Scares the shit out of me.”

“I know the feeling,” Tommy said. “My old lady sees a kid, her eyes get all fucking big, and I want to catch a flight across the country. They just don’t get it, some broads.”

Discontented and bored, and possibly trying to get a reaction from Eddie, Diane, using the screen name BeigeThong has turned to internet chat rooms and virtual sex to spice up her life. At the same time, Eddie, according to Diane and her therapist, is in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Eddie's worldWhile Eddie’s personal life is going down the toilet, he’s planning a heist with his friend Tommy to steal $15,000 cash in a simple smash and grab job. He’s received a tip from an alcoholic named Sarah, “one of life’s losers,” who wants revenge on her slimeball boss for his extracurricular demands, and so she’s given Eddie the tip that there will be $15,000 sitting in a desk, ripe for the picking one weekend. Eddie doesn’t need the money, but he needs the thrill, “a spark of life.” It will be a three-way split and Tommy who’s heavily in debt thanks to gambling losses, badly needs a score…

The problem is Sarah has terrible taste in men, and when she picks up freshly released ex-con Singleton, suddenly there’s just not action to go around. Eddie finds himself set up for the fall.

Author Charlie Stella makes wonderful use of dialogue. It’s realistic, sharp, witty, and occasionally crude. Here’s Sharpetti, “longtime captain of the Vignieri family” longing for the good old days:

Used to be you had to be Sicilian. Then both of your parents had to be Italian. Then just the father. Pretty soon, things keep going the way they have, we’ll be making anybody ate a slice of pizza.

Part of the novel’s humour comes from these mob men trying to live in a PC world where men are supposed to be more sensitive and receptive to the needs of the women in their lives. So you have 62-year-old Sharpetti, who has a vicious side, complaining about his much younger girlfriend who now runs a gym “the business she always dreamed of.” Now that it’s ‘her’ business, she doesn’t want to keep her end of the bargain, and she complains about fulfilling the sex part of their agreement and also tells Sharpetti, who’s watched by the FBI, to stay away from ‘her’ gym.

Sharpetti sipped some orange juice, coughed up some phlegm and yawned loud. “Her business,” he said. “I take her useless ass off a strip stage and put her in here, in her fucking name, and all she does is show up in tight clothes, and work out, and now it’s her business. She ever wakes up and just tells me out right, she don’t wanna suck my dick, I think I’ll tell her, Oh is that what you’re doing? I couldn’t tell.”

While there is a lot of humour here, there’s also some hard-boiled action, and because it follows the humour, the swift violence is shocking and reminds us that while these people kid each other and make jokes about their lives and their women, they’re ready to kill in order to save their skins or to protect their families. Also under scrutiny here is Eddie Senta’s decision to straddle both worlds–the straight and the criminal life. During the course of the novel, Eddie finds himself in deeper than he anticipated when he planned this minor job, and he is forced to call in favours from Sharpetti. Eddie has managed to balance his life so far–never going too deep into crime, but he’s also not harnessed by a 40 hour week job. The fallout from this crime may change all of that forever in a world in which connections become liabilities.  If you are a fan of Donald Westlake (his humourous crime novels) or Elmore Leonard, then chances are that you’ll like the novels of Charlie Stella.

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Grave Descend by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

Hard Case Crime just added several early Michael Crichton novels to its canon, written between 1966 and 172 when Crichton was attending Harvard Medical School and moonlighting with these thrillers written under the pseudonym John Lange. And here’s a list of those titles:

Odds On (1966)

Scratch One (1967)

Easy Go (1968)

Zero Cool (1969)

The Venom Business (1970)

Drug of Choice (1970)

Grave Descend (1970

Binary (1972)

Zero Cool and Grave Descend are both re-issues for Hard Case Crime, while the other six titles are new to this publisher. Crichton was re-editing the Lange titles and preparing them for Hard Case Crime at the time of his death in 2008.

Grave descendAt 166 pages, Grave Descend is a slim thriller, a quick read that demands little from the reader and with very little down time. The story’s central figure is 39-year-old diver James McGregor who’s hired by a shady insurance company representative to dive off the coast of Jamaica, into hammerhead shark country, and retrieve a safe and a statue from a sunken yacht. The name of the yacht … Grave Descend.

McGregor, who’s lived in Kingston for 14 years, gets a call from a guest at the prestigious Plantation Inn located at Ocho Rios.

McGregor hated Ocho Rios. Once a beautiful and elegant strip of coastline, it was now a long succession of gaudy hotels, ratty nightclubs, stud services and steel-band discos, all patronized by hordes of vacous tourists who were seeking something a little more expensive but no different from Miami Beach.

I don’t know about you, but I always find it a bit creepy when tourists hang out in a luxury resort with guards posted at the entrance to keep out the natives. But it’s to this resort that McGregor drives in order to meet Mr. Wayne, an insurance representative  who flew into Kingston following the news that the yacht Grave Descend sank with little warning near to a reef, three-quarters of a mile off-shore. Luckily the six crew members, and a female passenger, Monica Grant survived. The plot thickens with the news that Monica is the mistress of the yacht owner, Robert Wayne, the brother of the insurance company representative, and that the yacht, insured for over 2 million dollars, appeared to sink after an explosion.

A few simple questions lead McGregor to the conclusion that no-one is telling the truth, but curious and also happy to earn a generous finder’s fee, McGregor agrees to dive with his partner down to the yacht, right in hammerhead country….

With brief scenes of ratty bars and desperate middle-aged tourists looking to score at the island’s many tacky nightspots, the book does a nice job of showing the two worlds: sharks in the water and sharks above. Which way do you choose to go?

He waited a moment, the upended, kicking down, following the narrow beam of the flashlight, which was yellow near the source but faded to green and the blue as it went deeper. In the light of the lamp, the thousands of undersea microcreatures shone like dust beneath the water, scattering the light.

As he went down, the water turned colder; he checked his gauge; it was twenty-five feet. His beam had still not reached the bottom. He went down, with the receiver around his neck beeping louder and louder.

The ocean around him was noisy. It was something you noticed on a night dive–the sea was alive with night creatures, eating and clicking with a strange, almost mechanical sound, like a bank of electronic relays far off.

While it is undoubtedly a coup for the publisher to land these 8 titles, I would like to see Hard Case Crime return to crime–resurrected vintage or fresh, lean and mean. I’d put Grave Descend more into thriller territory than crime–although of course there are crimes aplenty here, but they’re surrounded by adventure, sharks, diving, explosions, double crossing, and a couple of bikini-clad babes.

Review copy.

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Lady Afraid by Lester Dent

While American author Lester Dent (1904-1959) is best remembered for his Doc Savage novels, he tackled a number of pulp genres, including, of course, crime. Lady Afraid was published in 1948.  This is the story of a young, widowed career woman whose tragic past comes roaring back with murder, kidnapping, dirty business dealings, and a double cross.

Lady AfraidThe novel opens with 26-year-old Sarah Lineyack, a yacht designer, who’s just reached an important moment in her career. In a field devoid of women, she’s designed a stunning yacht for lawyer, Mr. Arbogast. The yacht, named Vameric, now finished, was built by her employer, the Collins yard. It’s been expensive so far, over $168,000, and Mr Arbogast, although wealthy, a man she considers “should be displayed only on soft velvet,” seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for a luxury yacht.

Well, she had thought, there is a difference in the way of people and their money. Some have it in a mellowed, aged-in-the-wood fashion. On others it is a shiny varnish. Mr. Arbogast was definitely the first type, cured-in wood, or at least thoroughly saturated with it so that he had what the wine fanciers called bouquet  and body and flavor. It was something that wasn’t developed in a single generation.

Sarah doesn’t particularly care for Arbogast–there’s something creepy about the man, but since he’s writing the checks, she always makes an effort to be polite. The Vameric  commission “was her first noteworthy chance at designing a really fine deep-sea racer,” and if the yacht pleases the right people, Sarah’s career will be made. “Lo, a new genius, and a woman at that!”  Arbogast has hired the legendary Captain Most to sail the yacht, and that in itself is a good sign because Most is picky about which yachts he’ll sail.

While this is an important moment in Sarah’s career, she’s distracted by her troubled personal life. Years before, she was married to Paul, the only son and heir of the fabulously wealthy Lineyack family. Paul’s parents weren’t thrilled by the marriage, and after a car accident that killed their son and left Sarah in hospital, they blamed her for the accident and seized their grandson. Sarah has tried to fight back, but the Lineyacks, claiming that she is an unfit mother, managed to adopt the child and she has been unable to see her son in years. Out of desperation, Sarah hires the shady  Calvin Brill, a slimy “gaudy” lawyer who assures her that if she kidnaps her son, this is the best channel of winning him back permanently. Sarah’s instincts tell her not to trust Brill “but his brash, foxy self confidence must have sold itself.” And besides that, Brill comes recommended from a trusted source….

Lady Afraid has not aged well. On one hand author Lester Dent gives us a female trailblazer for a heroine–an unusual woman who designs yachts, and yet the novel is peppered with generalized statements that while they attempt to show Sarah as a unique woman, effectively brand the rest of the female sex in unfortunate ways.

Now with an urgency driving her, she showered and dressed and did it as rapidly as a man would have done. She had, in many of her ways, the directness of a man.

And:

She frowned at the powdered whiteness, for she was equipped with–as most woman aren’t, but nearly all men are–a distaste for untidiness in the bathroom.

And:

She denied herself also the leisure for the normal female dither about what to wear today.

Well, you get the point. Of course this is 1948, and attitudes were different, and when you read vintage books, you come to expect it, but in Lady Afraid, Dent’s efforts to show the singularity and hard grit attitude of Sarah Lineyack condemns the rest of the sex. While vintage crime and noir often shows dated attitudes to race and sex, some tales are downright subversive in the way women are seen as unhappy with the lives mapped out for their sex and are ready to commit crime to break free. Black Wings Has My Angel, one of my all-time favourite noirs, is a great example of a vicious, deranged woman who can’t sustain the dutiful little housewifey role for long unless it’s a prelude to a crime.

The plot of Lady Afraid comes with twists and turns–some of which you see coming and some you do not. This is not Dent’s best effort, but fans of vintage crime may not be able to resist in spite of the novel’s shortcomings.  Given the subject matter–the drive for a mother to be with her child, no matter the cost, this is not hard-boiled crime but a marshmallowy woman-in-peril tale. Too bad some 40s film director didn’t pick this up at the time as it would have made an excellent film.

review copy

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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Christopher Finch

Does anyone else have the impression that there’s more crime fiction being published these days? I’ve no idea if that is true or not–perhaps my impression is totally wrong, but there are so many new names, so many new series, and a lot of it is a load of crap. As I’ve said before, the term ‘crime fiction’ is an umbrella term which covers many sub-genres. I tend to avoid cozy crime as it’s just not dark enough for me, and I’m also completely burned out with books about teenage girls being kept captive as sex slaves by some crazed pervie. In fact, books that focus on sex torture crime or cases sparked by random body-parts and cryptic messages sent to the coppers are out completely, and I’m getting to the point that I’m a bit reluctant to try new names as I’d prefer to read vintage noir or crime along with old favourites. This brings me to Christopher Finch’s novel Good Girl, Bad Girl, the first in a new PI series.

The Heartland Credit Union Building was an anonymous structure that attracted tenants seeking anonymity–unfrocked dentists, myopic eye doctors, low-life lawyers, assorted quacks, polyester-suited real estate shysters, vodka-soaked teachers of English as a Second Language, masseuses and manicurists with interesting sidelines. My hutch was on the third floor. If you cracked the solitary window open, you were overwhelmed by the aroma of sweet-and-sour-pork deep friend in peanut oil that should have been thrown out before Mao set out on the Long March.

It was one of the first uncomfortably hot days of the year–one of those May mornings when a tropical front breezes into town unannounced, like that cousin from Miami you hoped had lost your address.

To be honest, I thought Good Girl, Bad Girl was a stand-alone, and I wouldn’t have read it if I had realized that this was the beginning of a new series. With a stand-alone, you enter one door and exit the next. You are done. But with a series, you enter inter-connected rooms and the first one, often the weakest, leads you to all the others. I have so many unfinished series I want to get back to, I didn’t want to start another. I wasn’t expecting much from Good Girl, Bad Girl, but after the above quote, I knew I was in for the ride. Low-rent PI Alex Novalis describes his pathetic little office in the opening of Good Girl, Bad Girl as he begins another morning. He receives a call summoning him to the apartment of real estate Gabriel Kravitz.

“Mr. Novalis, I understand you were fired from your position as an investigator with the DA’s office?”

No argument from me.

“Possession of marijuana. I presume you’re clean now?’

“Whiter than the driven snow,” I said, taking another hit.

That quote should give you a sense of Novalis’s wise-ass style, and if you like the style then chances are you’ll like the book. It’s 1968. The Warhol crowd dominate the avant-garde art scene in New York and America is at war in Vietnam. Novalis is hired by Gabriel Kravitz to find his missing daughter, 18-year-old Lydia. Lydia was attending Teddington, an exclusive girls’ college when she met, and became involved with predatory pretentious artist & egotist, middle-aged Jerry Pedrosian.

One of Pedrosian’s happenings involved the audience being taken into an industrial refrigerator hung with sides of beef, while a girl in leathers revved the engine of a Harley till the noise was deafening.

No wonder Pedrosian’s career is on the skids.

good girl bad girl Kravitz and his wife objected to their daughter’s relationship with Pedrosian, and after a fight with her parents, Lydia disappeared. Novalis’s job is to find Lydia without making any noise. He’s considered the perfect man for the job as he once specialized in art fraud and knows his way around the quirks of the art world. Novalis knows that there’s a lot he’s not being told–after all, Lydia is 18 and can do as she pleases. One of the leads Novalis has is Andrea Marshall, Lydia’s best friend. Andrea, a sexy little brunette, at first claims she knows nothing about Lydia’s disappearance, but it seems that she’s not quite telling the truth.

Author Christopher Finch plays with the good-girl-bad-girl dynamic, and Novalis is never quite sure just who is the bad influence here–Andrea or Lydia. Lydia “had the face of a Piero della Francesca angel,” and yet as Novalis digs into the case, Lydia clearly has a secret life that not even her best friend knows about. While the 60s atmosphere works most of the time, there are a couple of instances when it doesn’t. At one point, for example, Novalis says that Andrea “looked about as comfortable as a poodle in a cage full of pit bulls.” The simile didn’t work as the reference to pit bulls yanked this reader out of the 60s.

For the most part, this was a fun, not-too-serious trip into the 60s art world complete with the tasteless homes of the filthy rich, a squalid, filthy tenement, and Max’s Kansas City where the rich, the famous, and the trendy go to “see and be seen.” The bottom line secret punch with Lydia is all too familiar, and the novel’s strengths are the narrator’s sardonic sense of humour and some good characterizations. Strongly flavoured scenes with neglected politician’s wife, Mrs. Baldridge who is also Pedrosian’s sister, and Pedrosian’s tenacious old radical, Aunt Ida are very funny. Since this is the first in a series, we are given some interesting glimpses into Novalis’s messy personal life, and the art world backdrop lends a novel quality to the PI tale. The missing person case comes second in this book which obviously is part homage to the hard-boiled PI novels of the 40s and 50s. At one point, Novalis even tells someone “Trouble is my business,” and while Novalis’s audience doesn’t get the reference, author Christopher Finch, no doubt, hopes that we do.  Review copy

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Stranger than Truth by Vera Caspary

The editorial department was a garden of nepotism. Poor relations blossomed all over the place.”

There’s a great deal of Vera Caspary’s professional life in the crime novel Stranger than Truth, and so the title which could reflect the author’s experiences may have more than one meaning. This is the story of a murder and its solution, but the author takes a different approach, so that the crime, told through a range of voices, isn’t solved by the police or by a PI. Originally published in 1946, Stranger than Truth is back in print for the kindle after almost disappearing from the radar. Vera Caspary was a fascinating woman who lived through some interesting times, so for those who’d like to know more about Caspary, her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups is highly recommended. The blurb for the recently released kindle version calls Caspary’s autobiography “captivating,” and that’s really no exaggeration. But if you’re read Laura and Bedelia and you want to delve a little deeper into Caspary’s body of work, then that brings us to a lesser work,  Stranger than Truth.

stranger than truthJohn Miles Ansell works for Barclay-Truth Publications. Millionaire Noble Barclay owns this large firm which publishes many different magazines, including Truth and Crime, Truth and Love, Truth and Health, and Truth and Beauty. When the novel opens, John, the new editor of Truth and Crime is rushing to meet a publication deadline, when he receives notice that his story concerning the murder of a man named Warren G. Wilson, a middle-aged recluse with an unexplained income stream, has been rejected.

I had recently become editor of Truth and Crime, and was still new enough to believe I could improve the magazine. Truth and Crime was just another of the fact-detective magazines, filled with hashed-over newspaper stuff and old police-blotter cases, served up with sensational titles and pious crime-does-not-pay endings.  The Wilson story has no ending, so I decided to use it as an Unsolved Mystery of the Month.

John doesn’t understand the reason behind the rejection–after all he was hired by Barclay at $125 a week to “lift the magazine out of its present rut,” and that’s just what John is trying to do.  Truth and Crime selects one unsolved crime for each issue, and John, rather than follow the regular format of rehashing a well-known cold crime, has written the piece on the recent murder of Wilson. John is intrigued by the story as Wilson is a bit of mystery man, “no criminal,” and yet a man who died violently, and curiously, a man who, according to the IRS does not exists. The story was pending approval for weeks, and now at the last minute, it’s rejected which leaves John angry for an explanation. This anger leads to John confronting Noble Barclay and his right hand man, the very creepy Edward Everett Munn. There’s the definite sense that Munn, in spite of his nice suit and job title, is there to perform any dirty work that his boss Noble Barclay wants. And as for Noble Barclay, the Guru of Truth, he may appear to be a very reasonable man, but behind that façade of benign, charismatic pleasantry, lurks a Totalitarian.

Noble Barclay is a self-made man, a millionaire who reinvented himself, wrote the inspirational book self-help, My Life is Truth and created an immensely successful publishing empire after a successful battle with alcohol. There’s something a little false about Barclay’s mantra about seeking the truth, and for a man who swears by speaking the truth, he’s much happier throwing distractions at John than explaining why the story was rejected.

After a close brush with death, John is offered a large raise and a promotion as the editor of Truth Digest, “truth in tabloid.” John takes the job and the raise but he’s still determined to discover the truth behind the Wilson murder. In the meantime, he finds himself becoming involved with Barclay’s daughter, Eleanor–a girl unhealthily devoted to her father. And what on earth happened to Eleanor’s mother?

One of the best characters in the book is Lola Manfred, a one time-poetess whose hair is “dyed the color of a Christmas tangerine.” Lola now works in Truth and Love, swigs whiskey hidden in a milk bottle, and despises “the modern Messiah,” Noble Barclay and Truth Publications. Lola and John find they share common ground as they both refuse to drink the Barclay-Truth Publishing cool-aid, yet in spite of Lola’s criticisms of her employer, she understands his mass appeal, and his apparent sincerity when it comes to his “formula for health and happiness” which he is ready to roll out to any listener if given the slightest conversational opening. Lola argues that Noble Barclay isn’t motivated by sincerity but by self-promotion and self-interest.

We are surrounded by people who can believe in anything sincerely as long as it brings them a good living. Fascists believe in Fascism, don’t they, especially the big ones whose attitudes pay a profit? There’s nothing in the world, my friend, so sincere as self-interest.

Stranger than Truth, in spite of a couple of stiffs and a poisoning, lacks tension. What’s interesting here is Caspary’s presentation of a different type of crime embedded into the phenomenally successful echelons of Truth Publishing, the way one man through the poor man’s psychoanalysis” creates and controls a workplace environment, and the sly references to the author’s early career in correspondence schools and advertising. Stranger than Truth was written several years after a disillusioned Vera Caspary left the Communist Party. Was Stranger than Truth, in its portrayal of a workplace environment in which employees were indoctrinated into a specific way of thinking, a metaphor for life under Stalin?

*The vintage cover shown is of an abridged version, but the e-version is not abridged.

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Others of My Kind by James Sallis

“The past is what we are, even as we’re constantly leaving it.”

After The Killer is Dying, Drive and Driven, James Sallis returns with a complete change of pace with Others of My Kind, a thoughtful, deeply troubling look at the long-term effects of a heinous crime. Following the phenomenal success of the film Drive, Hollywood must have its eye on this author’s work, but I’m not sure if anyone will touch Others of My Kind without significant revision due to its controversial elements.

others of my kindSet in the not too-distant future, we find a troubled America in turmoil. Jenny Rowan, a single woman who works as a video editor for a Washington DC television station returns home one day to find Jack Collins, a young detective from Violent Crimes waiting for her. Collins is there for help.

Look, I’m just gonna say this. I spent the last few hours up at the county hospital, Maricopa. Young woman by the name of Cheryl got brought in there last night. Twenty years old going on twelve. Way it came about was, the neighbors got  a new dog that wouldn’t stop barking. They didn’t have a clue, tried everything. Then, first chance the dog had, it shot out the door, parked itself outside the adjoining apartment and wouldn’t be drawn away. Finally they called nine-one-one. Couple of officers responded, got no answer at the door, had the super key them in.

Inside the apartment was a young girl stuffed in a closet, obviously the victim of some sexual sadist.  Now in hospital, Cheryl, damaged and traumatized has simply stopped talking. No one knows who she is, where she came from, or how long she’s been kept a prisoner. Perhaps she’s suffered from “sensory deprivation,”  and someone else speculates that she’s “retarded.” According to Collins, she just stares  “like she was behind thick glass looking out.” Jenny understands Cheryl’s reaction because when she was eight years old she was kidnapped by a child molester, and kept imprisoned in a box under his bed for two years.

I’m not sure I was much more than a doll for him. Something he took out to play with.

Jenny Rowan has reinvented herself from a past in which she has only a few fractured childhood memories before she was taken from the Westwood Mall. later, known as the “mall girl,” she grows up in the child-care system.  How does anyone ‘recover’ or deal with a past like this? Jenny never sees herself as a victim, and instead she builds an independent life, but she’s always a little ‘different.’ Valuing her privacy and finding comfort from isolation, Jenny is still, according to one friend, in a “box.” Several things change that–Jenny’s relationship with Cheryl, a relationship with a group of squatters, and even a relationship that reaches into the White House. Perhaps part of Jenny’s growth comes from the knowledge that other people reached out and gave help to her, and now it’s time for her to do the same.

In Days in the History of Silence, a book I read recently, the main characters opt for silence rather than discuss some of the more painful incidents in their lives. That novel asks how we cope with the negative, the darkness in our lives. Do we pretend it never happened or do we allow it to consume us? In Others of My Kind, Jenny has taken a very different approach to her darkest experiences. She understands that they are part of the mosaic which forms her character. Those years are not shoved out of her memory; they’re part of who she is. It’s ironic, really, that Jenny’s work life is spent editing video down to form a desirable narrative. Life isn’t that easy–although we typically shed memories we’re rather forget and shape others in our favour.

Jenny is an unusual combination of characteristics. She doesn’t need people around and enjoys distance in her relationships, and yet she’s not afraid to let people in her life. Her initial reaction to Jack Collins was to invite him in and offer him half of her dinner. How many of us could be that unwary, that generous? Then add Jenny’s past to the equation, and we see a rare young woman who has reached some sort of acceptance about what happened to her. Here she is with Jack Collins:

There’s no anger in you, is there, Jenny? None at all. I don’t understand that.”

“Who would you have me be angry with?”

“Your parents?”

“I never knew them.”

“The man who abducted you.”

“Danny? He was just being true to what he was, being Danny. He couldn’t help himself. And that was many and many a year ago–”

“In a kingdom by the sea.”

“Exactly. There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.”

“Society, then–for allowing this to happen.”

“Way too big a bag to haul around, on such a short trip.”

According to Jenny, Jack wants answers and everything black and white.

“You want it all to make sense, don’t you?” I said. “Our lives, the world. Clear reasons. Explanations. Even when you know better than most how untidy the world and all our lives are.”

What makes some people survive and others crumble with despair? To Jenny, it’s a decision. As she tells Cheryl:

At some point, we realize that it’s not just going to happen, that we’re going to have to make the decision to become human and out some effort into it. Most start young as a matter of course. Others, people like you and me, we have good reason for being late starters. But the struggle’s the same. We work at making a self for most of a lifetime. only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.

At 128 pages, Others of My Kind is a novella which explores isolation and includes some big questions and covers some disturbing territory. This is a not a traditional story, and instead Sallis opts for an unusual narrative trajectory which as the story winds down, swallows up the passage of time in just a few pages. For this reader, the strength of the novella is rooted in Jenny’s character, her damage and her strength. As Jenny’s life expands beyond herself and Cheryl, the novella lost some momentum even as time sped up, and the story shifted from an intensely interesting character study to something, for this reader, slightly less successful and much more allegorical in meaning.

One problem I had with the book is a minor point, but one which niggled nonetheless. Jenny is introduced almost immediately as a vegetarian but then shortly thereafter, she’s eating salmon.

Review copy

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The Rip-Off by Jim Thompson

After reading seven Jim Thompson novels, I didn’t think I’d find an eighth a disappointment, but I did. Initially rejected by Sphere Books, The Rip-Off was published posthumously in an “heavily edited serial” in The New Black Mask Quarterly in 1985. The novel was published in 1989. In Savage Art, discussing the novel, Thompson’s biographer, Robert Polito writes “the radical chic title couldn’t resuscitate the creaky double-indemnity insurance scam story or the spent Thompson shtik.” It’s hard for this fan to admit that it was a struggle to finish the book, and that the narrative felt tired and forced. Still you know how it is, even when you’re advised that a book is less than stellar, sometimes you just have to read it for yourself….

The Rip-offThe book’s structure is a little clumsy. It starts in a sleazy motel with Britt Rainstar, the last surviving member of a once illustrious family, post hot sex, pinned down by a huge dog. Then the novel moves back in time to reveal how Britt met and became involved with Manuela Aloe, the crazy, sexually-rapacious niece of Patrick Xavier Aloe, the head of a shady corporation known as PXA. Their initial meeting is prefaced by Manuela bitch-slipping a screaming female victim–not a good sign, and the bad signs keep rolling in. Manuela borders on the deranged, and then just how did her first husband die? After catching us up on the plot, then we’re back in the present and move forward through Britt’s numerous weird encounters and brushes with death.

Heavily in debt and the family fortune gone, Britt, leads a drab existence with a drunken housekeeper in the dilapidated family mansion. He’s married to a nasty piece of work named Connie, a woman he met and bedded briefly before being shanghaied into marriage by her enraged father. A brief miserable married life ended with Connie injured and left crippled thanks to Britt’s driving. Now separated, with Connie refusing a divorce, Britt is constantly harassed to send his nagging wife money, and since he doesn’t have any, there’s constant friction and threats. So when Manuela and her uncle offer Britt a ludicrously well-paid job at $35,000 a year writing ecological pamphlets, he thinks all his problems are solved. After sex, Manuela frequently tosses $2,000 “bonus” checks Britt’s way, and it seems more likely that these checks are for the sex than for the pamphlets. Britt soon gets the message that he’s being lined up for the full-time, exhausting job as Manuela’s next husband, but there’s a problem; he’s already married….

Thompson has a gift when creating women from hell. Here in The Rip-Off, there are three women you wouldn’t exactly want to turn your back on: hot but insane Manuela, red-headed nurse Kay, and wife Connie, described, in poor taste, by Britt:

Who am I to kid around about poor Connie and her over-stretched snatch? Or to kid about anyone, for that matter. It’s one of life’s saddest pranks to imbue the least sexually appetizing of us with the hugest sexual appetites. To atone for that joke, I feel, is the obligation of all who are better endowed. and in keeping that obligation, I have had many sorrier screws than Connie. I have received little gratitude for my efforts. On the contrary, I invariably wind up with a worse fucking than the fucking I got. For it is also one of fates jokes to dower superiority complexes on girls with the worst fornicating furniture. And they seem to feel justified in figuratively giving you something as bad as they have given you literally.

So there you have it, late Thompson.

The fuzzy plot centres on who is trying to kill Britt Rainstar and why, and cop Jeff Claggett steps into the fray to discover just who is behind all the attempts on Britt’s life. Probably the best thing would be to lock Britt up in a monastery somewhere in Tibet for safekeeping, but Britt can’t leave women alone, and by his own behaviour invites danger into his home. Britt is a weak man and always takes the path of least resistance, so he’ll gladly fall into bed with any female that pushes him onto the sheets. True to form, he’s also a passive victim of his thieving, drunken housekeeper.

The other Thompson novels I’ve read so far are all darker and much more violent while The Rip-Off is more of a romp with sexual crudity thrown in. Thompson’s psychopaths in their various forms ring true, and Thompson enters their minds, exploring and exposing their pathologies, but we don’t get that level of psychological  insight in The Rip-Off–the characters are two-dimensional and more types than fully fleshed people. Britt, for example, doesn’t make a particularly interesting main character. The novel is also cruder in shape and content than the other Thompson books I’ve read. It feels much more modern, for example,  when Connie calls Britt a “pile of shit,” but other aspects of the story have a 50s feel. Britt hints that his father was ruined by his stance against the House on Un-American Activities and the insurance double-indemnity aspect to the story harks back to decades earlier with the result that there’s a sort of an uneasy dissonance to the novel.  I’m glad this wasn’t the first Thompson I read, and I’m also pleased that I didn’t follow chronological order and leave this for last. Thompson (1906-1977) wrote The Rip-Off when his career was in decline. He suffered from alcoholism and cataracts and was mired in financial difficulties. Apparently, at the time of his death, all of his novels were out of print in America.

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer

“I began to think about how it would be to live in Mexico. I had nearly four grand. That would last for a while. The trouble was, they didn’t have many redheads in Mexico.”

solomon's vineyardAuthor and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard comes with more than a little notoriety, but prior to perhaps his most infamous novel, Latimer (1906-1983) wrote 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

Solomon’s Vineyard was published in England in 1941, but it didn’t appear in America until 1950 in an expurgated version and under a different title, The Fifth Grave. Therefore, if you, dear reader, wish to seek out this amazing piece of vintage nastiness, complete with a religious cult, S&M, a little necrophilia, a whorehouse and small-town corruption, make sure you seek out Solomon’s Vineyard as it was originally written. And here’s how it begins:

From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and brother, those are the things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and walked after her along the station platform.

She walked towards the waiting room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples. Every now and then, walking, she’d swing a hip until it looked like it was going out of joint and then she’d throw it back in place with a snap, making the buttocks quiver under this dress that was like black skin. I guess she knew I was following her.

The libidinous narrator is private detective Karl Craven who’s hired to rescue (or kidnap) an “emotionally unbalanced” heiress who’s living in a religious cult living at Solomon’s Vineyard on the outskirts of the small town of Paulton.  The cult leader, a “prophet” who called himself Solomon  died 5 years previously, and his body is kept in state inside a temple while his crazed followers wait for his return. Craven arrives in Paulton to join his womanizing partner who’s already been there for a few weeks on a re-con mission. Checking into one of the town’s hotels, Craven has several indications that this town is rotten; there’s debris blowing in the street, and an unshaven cop watches disinterestedly as a car flies through a red light. Pretending to be a hardware salesman, Craven noses around town trying to find a way to get close to the heiress, and earn the big cheque (he’s already spending) paid for her safe return. Craven is ready to admit that “religious cults are the hardest nuts to crack.”

There’s a wry sense of humour in the story emanating from Craven’s narration. Part of the tongue-in-cheek humour comes from Craven’s style of action and his habits, and the fact that he refuses to take anything too seriously. But there’s also a shade of humour to be found in how Craven views himself vs how he is viewed by others.

I got out of my clothes and put my revolver in a bureau drawer. On my way to the shower I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door and stopped to look at my belly. The knife wound was healing fine. There would be a scar, but what the hell! What’s a scar on the belly? I saw I was getting bigger. Every time I looked at myself naked I saw that. It wasn’t all fat; the flesh seemed hard enough but it still kept coming.

But since he’s called “fatso” in the story, we can imagine that Craven is more heft than brawn. Early in the story, Craven admits that there are “only three things” he likes in the “world; food, fighting  and… women.” He ogles soft porn mags, reads Black Mask, wonders why J. Edgar Hoover isn’t on to the killer methods of a fictional G-Man, craves rare meat, is excited by the sight of blood, knocks back bottles of bourbon, and while he prefers blondes, he doesn’t hesitate at a redhead if she has curves in the right places. He consumes ridiculously huge breakfasts consisting of large amounts of booze & meat (6 double lamb chops is one example), chases a nightclub singer named Ginger until he pisses off her boyfriend, hood Pug Banta, and has several fights throughout the course of the story–including a shoot-out in a Turkish bath. It doesn’t take Craven long before he’s mixed up in the town’s politics, and he learns how the cult, run by “the Princess,” a blonde whose perfume makes him think of “black lace underwear” gets its money: “Liquor, and dope and immorality.”

Solomon's Vineyard 2Craven is a reprobate and a heel to use the language of the times. Speaking of the times, the story reflects gender and race attitudes of the period, so women are dames, and the staff at several of the hotels and houses are black but called “negro” and employed in demeaning roles as bellboys and doormen. Craven establishes a relationship with one such character, and sends him out frequently on various vice errands. While Craven is morally unscrupulous, he sticks it to the bad guys, but there are one or two rusty principles buried deep down. His initial plan was to work undercover, but since he’s too obviously interested in the heiress, he decides to stir up action instead. He blunders into the lives of the town’s key players, whipping up a shit storm in his wake and using his cynical knowledge of human nature to pit various people against each other. While some of the consequences of Craven’s actions are expected and desired, some of his plans cause collateral damage, but Craven doesn’t exactly waste time worrying about consequences; he understands that people are cast into roles in life and act accordingly. He gets the job done, doesn’t worry too much about appearances of the finer points of ethical behaviour, and has definite ideas about women, including the belief that if you spend something on a dame, you get something in return.  He’s also rather curious about Solomon’s Vineyard due to the orgies they hold and their secret ceremonies which involve sex.

Craven offers his philosophy about life at several points, and while he’s a tough guy, he’s also partly bon vivant, and time after time he lists the meals he eats–whole peach pies & three hamburgers, four pound steaks and raw eggs. This is a man, a former football player gone to seed, of large appetites: booze, food and women. Tagged a hard-boiled crime novel,  Solomon’s Vineyard, with its humorous touches, leans towards pulp and that is helped, of course, by the whole religious cult scenario. But what’s so marvellous here is Craven’s narration.

I didn’t belong to the school of thinkers who held all whores had hearts of gold and would give you their last two bucks to keep some guy from starving. All the whores I ever knew, and brother, I knew plenty, would get you drunk and jack-roll you if you gave them half a chance.

The book’s last line which nails Craven’s personality made the book. I won’t write it here, but for fans of the genre, do yourself a favour and check out this detective novel. The Black Mask edition of this title is the unexpurgated version.

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Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook

My introduction to the crime novels of Thomas H. Cook came late in his career with The Crime of Julian Wells. For obsessive readers, it’s always exciting to ‘discover’ a writer who already has an impressive backlist, but before I could get to that backlist, here’s Thomas Cook back again a  year later with another unusual crime novel. We’ve all seen films that fall into that ‘courtroom drama’ category,  and the novel Sandrine’s Case takes place mainly in the courtroom–either through the scandalous murder trial that takes place, or in the mind of the man accused of murdering his wife as various witnesses give their testimony. Sandrine’s Case hits some buttons for me–this is a very cerebral crime novel, an unusual combination, so there’s no violence and a crime may or may not have been committed. Of course, there are crimes that break the law and for which people are caught and imprisoned, but there are other ‘crimes’ too–moral crimes, or moral transgressions if you will, frequently committed against those we supposedly love, and this are the two territories Cook explores in a parallel fashion during the murder trial.

sandrines caseThe book opens on the first day of the murder trial of English and American Literature Professor Samuel Madison who is accused of murdering his wife, a “much -loved” professor of history, Sandrine Madison, and then staging her death to look like a suicide.  While the court case determines whether or not Professor Samuel Madison murdered his wife, as the narrator, Samuel’s flashback memories provide us with a painful glimpse into their marriage. The court case, of course, provides a strict structure for the narrative, but in comparison, Samuel’s thoughts are in freefall. This juxtaposition allows us to see the barebones of the case and then moves us into the mind of the man accused of murder as he recalls the circumstances surrounding the testimonies given by various witnesses.

As the story unfolds, hints about Samuel’s guilt or innocence begin to appear. Did he or didn’t he murder his wife?  With each subsequent witness, Samuel’s memories float to the surface effectively bringing Sandrine back to life, so that a portrait of the dead woman emerges. Through the course of the trial, Samuel begins to realize that he didn’t know his wife nearly as well as he thought he did. Sandrine was a complex woman deeply satisfied with her professional life while her husband Samuel is embittered by the fact that he never wrote the ‘great novel’ he intended to write, and neither did he have the stellar career he thought he deserved. Both Samuel and Sandrine taught at a small college in Georgia, and while Sandrine loved her job and, according to Sam showed “unaccountable devotion” to her students, to Sam, the students are all dull and “uninspiring,” not worth the slightest effort on his part. Sam’s arrogance extends to his colleagues:

I’d endlessly scoffed at my fellow professors. I always thought them a mediocre gaggle of academics waylaid in an inconsequential terminus at the end of the academic line.

Of course, if all your colleagues are “mediocre” twerps, what does that make you? One of the herd or vastly superior? Testimony from witnesses and Sam’s unfolding memories show how two people can view the same town, their friends and their neighbours through two entirely different lens. Sandrine loved her job, her students and her community, but for Sam, none of it was ever good enough. Sam isn’t a very nice man, and his arrogance does him no favours. As a narrator, he’s initially hard to peg and impossible to like. He spends part of the trial deriding the intelligence of the jury and the witnesses and also believes that he’ll be found guilty simply because he’s an intellectual and privileged. Sam finds it “odd” that 12 people, the very sort of people he’s made fun of now sit on the jury about to decide his fate.

In addition to the dreadful things I’d done to their children, the people of Coburn no doubt resented the fact that I’d done it while living a very privileged life, at least some of it paid for by the exorbitant tuition required to send their children to Coburn College. But this hostility had remained more or less mute before Sandrine’s death. After it, the media had gone on a feeding frenzy, the result of which was that by the first day of my trial I’d become a person much despised in this little town. To them, I was a man who had a great job, if you could even call it work, what with summers off and sabbaticals at full pay and holidays for every religion known to man. I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was  a free ticket to a carefree and semi luxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired–so the locals assumed–no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and to each other. A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lied high on the hog by  … talking.

When Sam whines about how the rest of the world treats him, going on about how everyone thinking he’s elite and privileged and then bolsters that self-pity with himself vs the plebs and their worthless offspring, the very whining illustrates how Sam sees himself as privileged and ‘different.’ That snobbery works against him during the year-long investigation that led to the trial.

As the story weaves back and forth in time, the author infuses his story with regret and tenderness, and while an image evolves of Sandrine, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, Samuel is clearly too bitterly detached to feel much of anything, but as the trial continues, revelations cause him to revise many of his opinions. The plot also explores the issue of protracted illness along with the accompanying fact that disease takes us on a lonely road. Empathy and love will lighten that solitary journey, but it’s a path that must inevitably be endured alone.

I really enjoyed the book’s structure, and even though I thought I knew where the story was taking me, I did not. Cook took some risks here in creating such an insufferable narrator–a self-focused man incapable of thinking about but himself, but since I always enjoy reading about nasty people, I thoroughly enjoyed Sam’s thoughts. The novel includes a postscript which took the story into sentimentality and rather ground home the point. IMO, the book would have been better without it. Apart from that flaw, Sandrine’s Case is a thoughtful novel which explores the idea of punishable crime which society holds us accountable for vs. the elusive culpability of the moral transgressions we have to live with.

Review copy

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