Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Death’s Sweet Song (1955) by Clifton Adams

“Strangely, I felt nothing. I stood there and the pale sky became suddenly bloody as the violent sun lifted into a widening sky.”

American Pulp writer Clifton Adams (1919-1971) is primarily known for a long list of westerns written under several pseudonyms, but he also wrote a few noir titles. This brings me to Death’s Sweet Song–my copy comes in one of Stark House’s double releases along with its sister title Whom Gods Destroy which I’ll be writing up shortly.

Death's sweet songDeath’s Sweet Song is set in Oklahoma, and it’s the story of Joe Hooper, a WWII veteran who’s now back in the poky town of Creston, Oklahoma trying to squeeze a living from a gas station and 5 drab little cabins located at the back of the property. That iconic highway–Route 66–runs right in front of Hooper’s mortgaged property. Location was probably a selling point, but ironically now it’s a point that rubs a festering, open sore in Hopper’s mind as he watches the tourists drive by in a steady stream on their way to … somewhere else. The 5 crude cabins that he imagined he’d fill with tourists, stand empty and unrented, and with the endless flow of traffic passing by, it’s as though Hooper’s life is draining away along with all of his broken dreams.

The thermometer on the east side of the wash rack had reached an even hundred. I opened a bottle of Coke and stood in the doorway, watching the endless stream of traffic rushing by on the highway. License tags from everywhere–Nebraska, California, Illinois…. Where do tourists go, anyway, in such a hell of a hurry?

Depending on tourists for business is a particularly depressing prospect. As they drive by on the road to somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, the lack of business is just another painful reminder that there’s a big, bright world out there that Hooper’s not a part of. Is Hooper’s luck changing when a well-dressed couple in a blue Buick pull in and ask for a cabin for the night? Hooper can hardly believe the request:

There were five cabins behind the station and they were all vacant. Most of them would remain vacant, even during the tourist season. That’s the kind of place it was. I wondered about that while I put gas into his car. Here was a tourist with a new car, wearing expensive clothes, so why should he want to put up in a rat trap like mine when there were first-class AAA motels all along the highway?

The tiny, shabby cabins with their “cracked linoleum” cause the pouting blonde from the blue Buick to open her mouth in protest, but her complaints are ignored, and the couple, Karl & Paula Sheldon remain.

Hooper is right to suspect why this well-dressed couple should want to stay in one of his cabins when much more appealing accommodations are just down the road. In spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it) that he has a long-term, patient girlfriend in town, he’s drawn to the ripe, skimpily-dressed, elusive blonde with the bone china skin. After another boring, predictable date with his girlfriend, Hooper finds himself creeping around the Sheldons’ cabin trying to get a glimpse of the hot blonde. He overhears Karl and another man planning a heist, and while Hooper initially plays with the idea of calling the sheriff, he decides, instead, that this is his opportunity to get ahead, and get the blonde in the process.

There are two ‘stories’ or examples that bolster Hooper’s decision to rehabilitate his life through crime–one example is Hooper’s father, a local doctor who’s worn down by work, all night house calls, and very little money to show for his labour. The other example is Herb, a local man who took tremendous financial risks, but eventually hit $5 million in oil. These two characters sit on opposite sides of the see-saw inside Hooper’s head. He doesn’t want to have a life like his father and he wants to hit the big time like Herb.

Death’s Sweet Song is written in a plain unadorned style–it’s the sort of book you could read and then imagine is easy to write, but there’s real skill in the way Clifton Adams develops his character of Joe Hooper. At first we make the mistake, as we’re meant to, of measuring Hooper’s character by his circumstances, but as events unfold, and the layers of well-known local small businessman fall away from Hooper, we see the simmering, bitter resentment seething underneath the surface. Oklahoma native Adams also reproduces the monotony of small town life in convincing ways while reinforcing Hooper’s boredom and festering desperation. Every time Hooper meets someone or talks to someone on the phone, they ask him ‘how’s the tourist business?‘ For Hooper, this is a particularly painful and ludicrous question which he avoids with trite answers, and yet the sense is conveyed that every encounter Hooper has with other locals just digs deeper into that festering sore of resentment that exists in his brain. Another recurring question–an unspoken one this time–is when is Hooper going to marry the very decent, sweet and understanding, Beth. Hooper’s relationship with Beth is another sore spot as far as he is concerned as everyone in town knows his business–how long he’s been dating Beth (too long), where their dates are (at the movies), and that Hooper isn’t playing fair by not popping the question (too bad).  Another interesting small-town tidbit included here is that Hooper knows that outsiders underestimate the locals, and yet he does the same thing himself.

Hooper is a perfect noir character–bitter, bored and trapped in a mundane life, he’s propelled into the undertow by the resentment of the respectable working life which has brought him nothing, and he’s fueled by his desire for an evil woman, and plenty of money to fund a new start. While the recently read German crime novel Silence is an exploration of guilt, Death’s Sweet Song is an exploration of the justification of crime & murder, and Hooper’s 1st person narrative gives us a ringside seat into one man’s dead-end life in which an opportunity to escape, a sex-lined exit appears–except that exit takes him straight to hell.

The out-of-the-way roadhouse is an iconic noir staple, and there’s just a slight variation here which reminds me of the setting of They Don’t Dance Much from James Ross. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank was the man who walked into Cora’s life and set the chain of tragic events into motion, but it was a chain of events that were waiting to happen. The day Paula Sheldon showed up changed Hooper’s life, but similarly  it was a fate that was waiting for Hooper. He just didn’t know it.

The one word that kept hitting me was “murder.” To me it didn’t have the usual meaning. It was like thinking of cancer or TB. You get yourself branded with it and it kills you, only with murder you die in the electric chair instead of in a bed.

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No Strings by Mark SaFranco

“You know how it is. You hatch an idea, then grind it in your brain until it makes perfect sense. Until all the pieces fit–like when you finish off a big, elaborate jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re not playing a child’s game.”

No Strings from American author Mark SaFranco is a tightly focused claustrophobic tale which places us in the mind of a sociopath. 40-year-old Richard Martzen is married to the much older Monica, has a teenage daughter and lives in New Jersey. When the novel begins, would-be writer, Richard who works as a consultant with an ad agency, bored with his life, and fed up with looking at the cellulite on his wife’s legs, is planning on having an affair, but instead of just going out and actually doing it, Richard stages his plan. See the main problem is that Richard doesn’t want to put his cushy life with the very-wealthy Monica at risk. Trips to Europe, a swanky tudor-style mansion, and a black BMW convertible are some of the perks of being married to Monica, and Richard, the son of a dirt-poor coal miner from Pennsylvania, isn’t about to “downsize” by depriving himself of the goodies. First he deliberately “run[s] up the red flags of infidelity” and then after his wife’s suspicions are proven unfounded thanks to the efforts of an expensive PI agency hired by Monica, he strikes out on the internet. Using a fake name he places an ad for a ‘no strings’ relationship in Personal Connections, a “high-end, semi private newsletter that circulated throughout the entire metropolitan area.” Then he waits for the babes to reply with photos. The responses pour in…

It quickly got to the point where I could spot the mental cases a mile off, and right then and there I shredded their letters and pictures. The fatties and the anorexics, they went too.

Out of the stack of replies, Richard makes his top five choices, and then using a new e-mail address, he makes contact with his first choice, Gretchen–a looker who’s married to a much-older, wealthy Long Island estate attorney. To Richard, the set-up is prefect. Gretchen just wants hot sex and doesn’t want to lose her sugar daddy, and Richard wants afternoon adventures with no repercussions. What can go wrong?

No stringsThe single biggest problem with this novel is that Richard is so slimy, no downright nasty that the unpleasantness of being in his mind challenges the reader’s desire to read the story. He’s an absolute narcissist, self-focused, and repellent. The shell provided by Monica’s dough–fancy clothes, expensive wheels and the best address in New Jersey barely covers the machinations of this lowlife opportunist. For this reader, I knew Richard was going to get what he deserved, so I was committed to the ride. All of Richard’s self-congratulatory bragging about how clever he is in arranging for this ‘no-strings’ affair only builds the comeuppance we know awaits this slimeball.  The author never loses sight of Richard’s rock-solid-rottenness and so embellishes the tale with loads of darkly humorous details. Here’s a quote from Richard concerning Gretchen:

The last thing I wanted was a high-maintenance model on my hands full-time, and judging from her wardrobe alone, she required the best of everything. Good old Leonard was doing a better job of seeing to Gretchen’s needs than I ever could.

And here’s Richard, who perpetually sees himself as the victim of women, on why he can’t get published:

That’s what American editors and agents seemed to go for–foreigners. “Fresh voices,” they liked to call them. I guess that’s why I’d never gotten anywhere with my work–I was stale. I was white. I was American. I was a male. Publishing was run by women. Women were the agents. Women were the editors. Women were the readers.

Reminiscent of the works of Jason Starr, and written in a natural, straight-forward style, this was a quick read which slid along. In these days of the mega blockbuster Gone Girl (which annoyed me) and Before I Go To Sleep, both domestic thrillers which have been turned into films, No Strings, capitalizing on the visuals should make the Big Screen too.

Review copy

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A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook

When I first came across a book from the author Thomas H Cook, I read that he is known for writing cerebral crime novels. That description got my attention, for while I thoroughly enjoy a good crime novel, I prefer my crime reads to be a little off-the-well-beaten track with more time spent on the why rather than the how. A Dancer in the Dust, my third Cook novel so far, concerns a murder that takes place in New York, and the novel begins with its narrator, Ray Campbell, returning to the African country of Lubanda as part of an unofficial investigation. Decades earlier, Ray, an idealistic Aid worker lived in Lubanda and fell in love with Martine, a female farmer. We don’t know the details of what happened, but we do know, within a few pages, that the western-supported president of Lubanda was deposed in a bloody coup led by the psychotic Abbo Mafumi who called himself “the Lion of God and Emperor of All Peoples.” Ray left his idealistic past far behind wrapped up in his memories of Lubanda, and now he works as a New York based risk management consultant. Ray lives in a “risk aversive world,” but all that changes when he’s contacted by Bill Hammond, a man he knew in Lubanda who now runs a charity trust.

He was now at the top of the heap, the Mansfield Trust being a kind of holding company for a large number of charitable institutions and NGOs. At its recommendation, billions in aid might or might not pour into an particular country.

With the death of Mafumi, Lubanda is again about to start receiving billions in aid money, but before Bill makes his decision to begin sinking money into Lubanda, there’s a “loose end” that bothers him. He’d been contacted by Seso, a refugee from Lubanda, now an African street vendor in New York. Seso asked for a meeting with Bill, but before that takes place, Seso is tortured and murdered Mafumi style. Bill asks Ray to assess the risk of giving money to the newly established Lubanda government by investigating the death of Seso, who was Ray’s employee in Lubanda twenty years earlier….

a dancer in the dustSo here we have our crime, the murder of a penniless African that takes place in New York. In due course, Ray finds himself on a plane back to Lubanda and all the painful memories he’s shoved aside come flooding back.

Everything had gone wrong. The three Cs of devastation: corruption, crime, chaos. Add the rampant spread od AIDS to that mix and the road to hell was fully paved. Of course, it was easy to lay all this at the foot of that fourth demonic C, colonialism.

The death of Seso is just the first crime in the book. Other crimes include reference to the atrocities of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo (Martine is of Belgian descent), and of course there’s also the bloody takeover of Lubanda by a psycho dictator who unleashes his frenzied army on the entire population. But at the heart of the novel is the story of yet another crime–Ray’s betrayal of Martine. Martine was born in Lubanda and so she considers herself Lubandan, yet when the political climate in the country shifts, Martine, who is white, is in the crosshairs of both the government that wants to grab her land, and the forces of Mafumi who want to see her destroyed. Ray is told to persuade Martine into accepting the government demand that she abandon growing crops that support the local economy and culture, and instead move to a crop that is supported by western aid.Ray’s best intentions lead to a horrific chain of events, and in a world in which there’s no room for principles, Ray spies on Martine and reports back her activities while Martine stands her ground and takes the ultimate risk.

While this is the story of how one man made some really bad decisions, in many ways  in his relationship with Martine, Ray is a symbol of western colonialism and exploitation of Africa. He wants Martine and is capable of doing some very underhand sneaky stuff to get his way, all in the name of the ‘best intentions.’  In the final analysis, he doesn’t understand Martine at all, and his desire for her blinds him to everything else. Ray’s self-serving plans backfire and lead to destruction. While he wants ‘what’s best’ for Martine, we can’t forget that this is a white American putting himself into the voting position of deciding what is best for Lubanda & what is ‘best’ for Martine when his stake in the country’s future is non-existent; he’s just a man passing through while Martine’s family has owned the farm for over 50 years. The morally complex plot examines many issues and on a meta level, the novel questions the well-worn model for African aid which breeds a system of unhealthy dependence.

A Dancer in the Dust has an elegiac tone laced with regret and memory. The novel questions the risk we take when taking a moral stand, and yet compromise is also not without risk. In spite of the fact that Ray is obviously damaged and never recovered from the decisions he made in Lubanda, he’s hard to like. There’s something a bit slippery about Ray and his actions, and while the novel doesn’t overwork this aspect of the plot, it’s there beneath the surface. The plot is occasionally heavy on metaphors & similes which weigh the novel down unnecessarily–the slow style conveys the moral heft of Ray’s decisions, and the metaphor/simile embellishments make the narrative voice sound pompous rather than sincere–although this may be the author’s intention. Ray, a morally rubbery man has managed to live with his actions and feels guilty about his choices while somehow skirting the essential core of desiring Martine so much, he was willing to destroy her.

Review copy.

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Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

“I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.”

Cold in July is a novel from American crime author Joe R. Lansdale’s backlist. Its release is in conjunction with the film version which features Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. After reading the novel, I don’t need to read the cast list to see who plays which role; it’s easy to guess.

The book’s premise is simple: Richard Dane lives with his wife and small son on the outskirts of the small East Texas town of Laborde. One night Richard’s wife, Ann wakes up after hearing the sounds of someone breaking into their home. Dane grabs his .38 and in an act of self-defense, kills the armed burglar. This should be the end of the matter, and local police Lt. Price reassures a troubled Dane that he had no choice but to shoot. The man is identified as Freddy Russel, a small time crook with a history of incarceration. Dane’s house is cleaned, and the remnants of the crime are washed away, but Dane is troubled, in spite of the fact he knows he had no choice but to kill the burglar.

Trouble begins when Freddy’s violent father, Ben, just released from Hunstville comes looking for revenge….

cold in julyLansdale’s crime novels frequently place the individual on a lonely path, seeking justice, vigilante style, without the aid of legal channels. The individual, outside of the boundaries of the law for various reasons then rounds up loyal friends, people he can trust, and then with a team in place, the action begins. It’s a throw-back to the Western idea of the posse, and Lansdale novels seem to tap into monumental archetypes. That scenario emerges here as Dane learns that he cannot trust the police, and seeking the truth, he forms an uneasy alliance with Ben Russel, an ex-con whose explosive temper is fueled by guilt.  They join with unorthodox PI Jim Bob Luke and a speedy investigation takes them right to the Dixie Mafia.

On the down side, there’s the sentimentality of saving the home and hearth which some readers may not mind, but the main issue is that there are just too many implausibilities which occur simply to move the plot along (the phone book? really?…) . I can’t give the examples I’d like to give as that would reveal too much of the plot, but I can add that one of the first implausible points that annoyed me was Dane as the owner of a marginal frame shop with two full-time employees in a town of 40,000. This just hit me the wrong way. He lives too well, doesn’t worry much about money (orders new locks, windows, a paint job & a couch without blinking), and then leaves the work to two employees as he takes off to pursue his investigation with a PI he hires for $300 a day.

But that brings me to the best part of the book–the character of the PI, Jim Bob Luke, a man who drives a blood-red Cadillac named the Red Bitch:

About two-thirty an ancient blood-red Cadillac about the size of a submarine pulled up directly in front of the door to Russel’s room. There were baby shoes hanging off the mirror along with a big-yellow, foam-rubber dice, and on the windshield was a homemade sticker that had six stick-figure humans and three dogs drawn on it and there was an X through each of them. The car had curb feelers and they were still wobbling violently when the driver got out and slammed the door and stretched.  

The entrance of the seeming laid-back Jim-Bob to the book added a lot of zest. He’s a well-developed character, always fully into his role, and that includes some racist comments.  He looks like a “washed-up country and Western singer,” complete with a “worn straw hat with a couple of anemic feathers on it.”  Here’s some dialogue to give a sense of the book’s style:

Jim Bob ordered steak and baked potato and all the trimmings, and when he took his first bite of steak he waved the waitress over and told her, “Honey, take this cow on back and finish killing it. Set the little buddy on fire for about three more minutes and then bring it back to me.”

While Jim Bob waited on the steak, he and Russel talked about old times, and laughed. Ann and I felt a little limp, as if we had gone to the wrong party.

When Jim Bob’s steak came back he thanked the waitress and ordered a Lone Star Light. “Got to watch my girlish figure,” and he went at his food with gusto, saying “Brain food.”

“Then you better eat plenty of it,” Ann said.

I looked at her. Russel looked at her. Jim Bob looked at her and laughed. “Ain’t that the damned truth,” he said. “Pass that salad dressing. The one that looks like someone threw up in the bottle.”

I’m a long-time fan of Lansdale, but this is not his best book. IMO the Leonard & Hap series is the best of Lansdale. That and Bubba Ho Tep, of course.

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

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The Man Who Loved His Wife by Vera Caspary

In Vera Caspary’s wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, she detailed her interesting life, her struggles and her mistakes with intelligent sensitivity and just a touch of humility. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups after reading both Laura (the book she’s most remembered for) and Bedelia. Like Laura, Bedelia was also made into a film, but while Laura makes many of those top-film lists, the film version of Bedelia has almost faded from view. Bedelia, incidentally, a wonderfully pathological tale of a female serial killer, is the book that convinced me to read Vera Caspary’s autobiography. And this brings me to The Man Who Loved His Wife, the story of a married couple whose life together changes drastically after the husband is diagnosed with cancer.

Fletcher Strode is a virile, affluent confident married wealthy businessman, at the prime of life at age 42 when he meets and falls in love with beautiful photographer’s model, Elaine Guardino, 19 years his junior. They meet by chance in a restaurant, fall in love, and three weeks later, Strode asks his wife for a divorce. His marriage wasn’t exactly on the rocks before he met Elaine, but it’s more or less a sham marriage with his wife and daughter living in the New Jersey suburbs while Strode leads a bachelor life (with other women) in New York. Strode marries Elaine 24 hrs. after getting a divorce.

the man who loved his wifeEveryone predicts doom for Strode and his new wife. Could be that age difference or perhaps it’s the whirlwind romance, but it’s initially a very happy marriage, full of passion, sex, and money, and then 5 years later, Strode is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Strode’s larynx is removed, and he’s told that if the disease is discovered early, and treated aggressively, chances of survival are excellent. Unfortunately, Strode doesn’t grasp the physical and more importantly the psychological impact of the surgery. With his body still whole, Strode mentally minimizes the effects of the operation:

The loss of his vocal apparatus would be compensated for by different mechanics of sound production. His voice would be stilled for a time, but when the wound was sufficiently healed, he would learn to control a different set of muscles and would be able to speak in an altered voice. Examples were quoted to him, statistics read, stories told of patients who had overcome trauma and gone on with their work, enjoyed sports, eaten heartily, and made love to women.

During the mute period after the operation, he had been eager and positive that he would soon acquire a new voice. A breezy, self-confident man entered his hospital room to tell him, hoarsely, that many of those who had suffered the same operation had been able to return to work within a few weeks. This man, who had lost his voice box several years earlier, promised that with practice and patience, Fletcher would be able to speak as well as he did. Hell, I’ll do a lot better, Fletcher told himself. Thinking of the success he had achieved in business, the money he had made, the obstacles overcome, he knew himself the better man. He was both contemptuous of and amused by those sympathetic friends who, visiting him at the hospital, shouted at him or whispered, using their lips extravagantly as though he were deaf.

I’ll show them.

After he left hospital, optimism collapsed. There were too many changes. Smell and taste returned slowly and were never as keen as they had been. He had to breathe through a hole in his neck, a wound that could never be allowed to close now that his windpipe had been removed, there was no connection between the mouth and the nose with the lungs. He had to cough, sneeze, and blow his nose through this opening. There would be no more swimming for him, nor could he step into the shower carelessly. His loud and boisterous laugh was silenced forever. Every action required adjustment. Encounters with old friends left him morbid. Strangers appalled him. Going out became a nightmare.

Ironically, this is a situation in which Strode’s money works against him. If he needed to make a living in order to put food on the table, perhaps he would have pushed himself, made the best of a bad break, and got on with his life, but his amassed fortune allows him to stop working. He lacks the patience for voice therapy, and can’t stand this new social arrangement with him the student while others–healthy, full-bodied people he despises, teach him how to make sounds.

Fury and frustration robbed him of what little voice he had acquired. When he forgot himself and tried to shout in the old, authoritative manners, he could utter nothing but a string of unintelligible sounds.

He sells all of his business concerns, leaves New York, and with Elaine, moves to California.

It doesn’t take long before Strode’s marriage becomes more and more toxic. Elaine, still in her 20s, married a vigorous, passionate, energetic man, but now he’s resentful of the healthy, has become a recluse, and has a hair-trigger temper. Sinking into depression, Strode hates his new self, and obsessed with thoughts that Elaine, still young, beautiful, and whole, will find new lovers and remarry after his death, he begins a diary in which he pours his twisted thoughts. This is a diary of his suspicions and also his darkest fantasies; it’s in this diary that he relates his version of events and also his fantasies that Elaine will make his murder look like suicide….

The novel’s premise is extraordinary and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith for its claustrophobic toxicity. The plot captures, with intense psychological insight, this rat-trap of marital circumstance, diminished expectations, and twisted resentment. Those marriage vows include the ‘sickness and in health’ provision, yet when Elaine married Strode, he was a completely different human being able to offer her a glamorous, romantic life. We bring our character and personality to any illness and disease; some people sink to their worst selves when faced with their morality, and this is the case with Strode.

The characters in the novel are mostly unpleasant, and the secondary characters could have benefitted from a little subtlety; there’s the feeling, from certain sentences, that Caspary couldn’t stand those secondary characters even as she shows empathy for Strode’s tortured psyche.  Strode’s selfish, immature daughter from his first marriage, Cindy, and her ne’er-do-well, sly hanger-on of a husband, unemployed lawyer Don arrive in California and move in for an extended vacation.  These two characters are so vicious & superficial, they just manage to veer away from caricature. The novel’s premise is extremely clever and unfortunately the very necessary characters of Don and Cindy (& Sgt Knight) don’t match the level of the subtle, sophisticated plot. They didn’t need to be quite this overtly venal, so transparent, or in the case of Sgt. Knight, so one-dimensional, and if their characters had been toned down a notch, they would be more appropriate to this otherwise fascinating book.

 

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King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“You’re lucky you’re a Fed,” I said. “Putting a bullet in you isn’t worth the red tape… Let’s have those hands up.”

Mike Hammer, that ultra-tough, individualistic PI is back in another Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins collaboration, the unabashedly primal, King of the Weeds. This hard-nosed tale of long-delayed revenge is set against a challenge to both the capabilities of the aging Hammer and also to the career of Hammer’s long-time pal, Captain of Homicide, Pat Chambers.

Spillane intended King of the Weeds to be the final Hammer novel, and according to an intro by Max Allan Collins, it’s the sequel to the 1996 Black Alley, the last Hammer novel published by Spillane before he died. Max explains that Spillane set aside King of the Weeds in order to write The Goliath Bone. After Spillane’s death, his widow gave Max all of her husband’s unfinished manuscripts; this was Spillane’s wish, and now Max Allan Collins has finished six novels for grateful fans. There’s always buzz about whether or not unfinished novels should stay that way, but in this case, it’s a definite: hell, no!

king of the weedsKing of the Weeds finds Hammer in his mid 60s, slower, older, and not fully recovered from bullet wounds taken the year before. He’s engaged to Velda, his savvy, sexy and tough secretary. Retirement is just around the corner, but before Hammer can file his PI license for the last time, the past comes back with a vengeance. It’s a near miss for Hammer when an assassin hunts him down early one morning:

When you suddenly realize you’re about to be killed, all your mind does is tell you that you were dumb. You had the experience, you had the physical abilities, you had the animal instincts.

But you were dumb,

Maybe you had played the game too long. Maybe that last round of injuries had left a deeper wound than you thought.

The little man in the tailored navy blue suit, a raincoat draped over his arm, was waiting on my floor when the elevator opened and I stepped out. He never raised his head to look at me, the brim of his pale blue hat even with my nose. He smelled faintly of too-strong aftershave. I thought nothing of it, but did wonder why that raincoat was dry on a rainy morning like this.

So I got off and began to walk away, knowing–just a stupid fraction of a second later than I should have–that he was a killer and I was the target, and I jerked my head around to see the face of the bastard who would take me down. He was just inside the elevator, his foot holding the door open while he aimed the silenced gun at me from six feet away, the weapon emerging for a good look at me from under that draped raincoat, and both of us knew there was no hope for me at all, because it was six-thirty in the morning and no one but me would be on the eighth floor this early.

This is the book’s opening paragraphs, and if you like the tone, the voice, and the pacing, then you’ll enjoy this rugged tale which pits an aging Mike Hammer against someone who wants him dead. During his checkered career, Hammer has made more than his share of enemies, and the list of those who would be happy to see him dead is so long, it’s not worth wasting the paper. Hammer suspects that the attempted hit may have something to do with 89 billion dollars of stashed mob money or then again perhaps the hit was placed by slimy Rudy Olaf, a man Hammer and his old pal, Pat Chambers put away in Sing-Sing forty years earlier for a string of robberies and brutal murders targeting gay men, known as the Bowery Bum slayings. Seems that a certain lowlife named Brogan, a “crony” of Olaf’s has decided to step up on his deathbed and confess to the crimes. Rudy Olaf is about to be released as a man who served a wrongful imprisonment, and he’s certain to harbor a grudge against Hammer and Chambers. But is the grudge big enough to propel a hit man Hammer’s way?

Hammer tries to discover who wants him dead while juggling the decades old Rudy Olaf case with the mystery deaths of New York cops who are dropping like flies in mysterious circumstances. Some of the deaths appear to be natural; other cops just seemed to be in the wrong place at the right time, but others are slaughtered in a “serial killing by coincidence” way.  According to Chambers, the chances of this number of cops dying in such a short period of time are “about ten times the likelihood of winning the Irish Sweepstakes.” With no clues why the ranks of the NYPD ranks are being decimated, Pat Chamber’s career on the line, and with both the mob and government after Hammer to spill the location of $89 billion in mob money, it’s up to Hammer to tie together all the connections between these problems.

This is a hard-hitting, fast-paced Hammer tale, and while Hammer may be in rocking chair territory, in this novel, Hammer’s aging actually works for him. With his low-rent office, he’s always been easy to underestimate, and that’s the mistake his enemies make repeatedly. He may be gray, he may be a little heavier and slower, but he’s still intelligent, aggressive, and with a savagery just beneath that laid-back façade–a PI whose sense of justice has no place within the confines of an institution.

Review copy

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The Lady in the Morgue by Jonathan Latimer

Solomon’s Vineyard is the entertaining, witty story of PI Karl Craven whose job to track down a missing rich dame is complicated by the fact she’s living in a well-guarded cult. Craven is a flawed character; he’s always on the lookout for the next meal, the next woman, and the next brawl. In The Lady in the Morgue, PI Bill Crane is also hunting for a mystery blonde, but in this case, she’s may already be dead. Screenwriter and author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983) wrote a total of 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)

So here I am reading the series out-of sequence.

LADY IN THE MORGUEThe Lady in the Morgue opens in Chicago with the morgue attendant receiving a crank call for a Miss Daisy Stiff, who according to the attendant can’t come to the phone as “she’s downstairs with th’ other girls.” Crank calls are obviously a regular occurrence with this job, and the attendant has fun with the caller and with the two newspaper reporters sitting in the waiting room. An unidentified blonde, who checked into a “honky-tonk” hotel under the name Alice Ross has been listed as a suicide, and the reporters, along with PI Bill Crane are waiting in the morgue for someone to show who can identify the dead woman. There’s already an aura of mystery surrounding her death, and the waiting reporters speculate about the reasons why someone this beautiful would end her life. It’s an eerie, uneasy scene in the middle of a heat wave set against the maniacal  “feverish” cackles of a drugged  “crazy dame” in the nearby “psychopathic hospital.” Then Crane and the reporters decide to play a tasteless game and place bets on the contents of each vault.

Brilliant white light from a long row of bulbs on the ceiling of the room made their eyes blink. Their nostrils sucked in the sweet, sharp sickening antiseptic smell of formaldehyde. Icy air caused their shirts to stick clammily to their flesh. The steel door shut with a muffled thud, and all three of them momentarily experienced a feeling of being trapped.

While the game is a great excuse to pass time, and more importantly to eye the stiffs in the vault, it’s also a perfect scene which shows both the atmosphere and the callous behaviour of the reporters. Then there’s Crane using his opportunity to eyeball the mystery woman. The people in the vaults are no longer human; they’re just a sideshow, and the beautiful blonde suicide is the prize exhibit:

The attendant was looking at the girl’s body. “I wonder how long a guy would live if he had a wife as swell as that?” He ran a yellow hand over her smooth hip.

“You’d get used to her after a while,” said Crane.

“I’d like to try.” The attendant’s yellow face was wistful. “I’d be willing to trade my wife in if I could get a model like this.”

Crane has been hired by his employer, Colonel Black, to ascertain the identity of the young woman, and while two men show up to ID the blonde, someone else steals her body from the vault….

With the disappearance of the corpse, the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Courtland, the scion of a wealthy east coast family turns up as a representative for his relatives who are concerned that the corpse may be a well-heeled heiress. But there’s another claimant, an unhappy gangster who is looking for his runaway wife, and in the wings there’s a third man also on the hunt for the gangster’s wife. With his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, Crane is determined to recover the corpse and discover her identity. His investigation involves feuding gangsters, a snobby, wealthy matriarch, a sleazy hotel, a dance hall that’s little better than a bordello, and even a little grave robbing.

While Crane, with stubborn tenacity wants to solve the case, he’s not exactly the type that sticks to the rule books. Strongly individualistic, he’s not the sort to be hampered by rules or status., and when it comes to his cases, he brags “I solve ‘em, drunk or sober.” He’s the type of man who appears to be easy-going, but in reality his seeming easy-going nature is a just a mask for doing things his way, at his pace. And above all, he’s going to enjoy himself in the process. Once Crane learns that he’s working for a wealthy family, he decides to cash in on the old expense account, and he rents a very nice room in a decent hotel, and then takes advantage of room service.

He even thought up an additional reason for taking the suite. It had windows on two sides of the hotel, he explained, and that gave you variety. You could look at the City Hall, or you could look at the Ashland building. Or, if you wanted to drop bottle, you had a choice. You could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Randolph Street, or you could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Clark Street.

Crane also likes to knock back whiskey with his breakfast, and at one point he decides to question a woman who works at a club:

O’Malley shook his big head. “You don’t want anybody to go with you. That’d be foolish. Two persons would make them suspicious. They’d think it was the cops, and everybody’d close up like clams.

“No, I thought about that.” Crane took a long, reflective drink of whiskey. “They won’t think we’re cops if we get drunk enough, not if we get blind drunk.” He waved an arm at Courtland. “that just goes to show you nothing is wasted, not if you’re wise. You and I have been drinking all day. If we were to go to bed it’d all be wasted. yes, sir, every drop, Every sweet little drop.” He sampled his own drink to show what he meant by a sweet little drop and continued. “But I’m wise. You think I just drink for amusement?”

Then he asks his buds “well, gentlemen,” Crane demanded; “which one of you are willin’ to sacrifice your integrity and get drunk so’s you can come with me?”

Bill Crane, a complete reprobate, is an amusing anti-hero, the typical sort of PI, low-rent and unimpressed by status markers. While he doesn’t appear to take the crime seriously, this is just his style. While there’s never any doubt that he’ll solve the mystery, the fun comes from reading his tactics: sleeping in, consuming huge breakfasts, and generally enjoying himself when he can. There are a few scenes between Crane and the female sex, and Crane isn’t exactly much of a gentleman. The Lady in the Morgue is highly recommended for fans of vintage crime novels

Lady in the morgue2Review copy.

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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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