Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

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Canary: Duane Swierczynski

Set in author Duane Swierczynski’s native Philadelphia, Canary is a topical, tightly written crime novel that explores and questions the ethics of using civilians as undercover confidential informers in the violent world of narcotics. And if anyone thinks that the scenarios in the novel may seem to push credibility, they don’t. The use of untrained confidential informers (CIs) is largely unregulated and considering the risks taken and the skill of duplicity required, highly dangerous. News stories weaved into the plot about murdered CIs and corrupt cops are true, and author Swierczynski repeatedly mines the dark history of some of Philadelphia’s crisis neighborhoods as background for this latest explosive crime novel.

canarySarie Holland, an Honours student, a serious, intelligent girl, a self-professed “lightweight,” who stays away from alcohol binges and drugs, attends a party the night before Thanksgiving and then finds herself giving a lift to a fellow student named D. Turns out that D is on a drugs run in South Phillie to his supplier, a winner known as Chuckie Morphine. Thanks to information from confidential informants, undercover narcotics officer, Wildey has Chuckie’s place of business under surveillance.

But a snitch swore that a guy at this address is doing a lot of slinging with college kids. Word is he’s a midlevel caseworker who calls himself “Chuckie Morphine” and specializes in small-time trappers who work the universities, sometimes doing direct sales to kids who are leery of driving to the Badlands or Pill Hill. Years ago this whole neighborhood–Passyunk–used to be solid working class, maybe a little sketchy in places. Wildey remembers those days. But now it has gastropubs and consignment shops and pop-up restaurants and all that other hipster catnip. Kids feel safe popping down here.

Things go wrong, and while D does a runner, Sarie is picked up by for questioning by Wildey. Sarie, caught with D’s drug stash, is threatened with being charged with possession, and takes the offer to “work off the charges.”

–Okay, then there’s the other way this can go. We can’t just let you walk out of here, not with what you had in your car. The good news is, you can work off the charges. Work hard enough, as a matter of fact, and it’s like this never happened.

–What, do you mean, like, intern with the police?

Both cops turn to smirk at each other, not even trying to hide it. I feel my cheeks burn. Fuck you both.

–No not an intern, Honors Girl. You can help us another way.

–How?

–You can become a confidential informant, and help us catch the scuzbags who sell drugs to your classmates.

–A confidential what?

They explain it to me. They want me to become a CI–a confidential informant. Only Wildey and his boss would know my identity. In short, they’re asking me to be a snitch. In Philadelphia. Where snitches are killed on a regular basis.

Sarie’s naiveté along with reluctance to have her freshly widowed drug counselor father dragged into the police station, lead her to take the deal, thinking that she can still attend her classes, and keep her father out of the picture. But soon the pressure is on for Sarie to produce dealers, and while she tries to outsmart the cops, Wildey, whose other confidential informants are disappearing off the streets, turns up the heat on Sarie.

For about 70% of Canary, the plot, initially presented in the form of a letter of explanation to Sarie’s dead mother, seemed fairly standard, and by that I mean not Swierczynski’s usual fare. This is an author whose solid comic book roots appear invasively in his earlier work. Take the Charlie Hardie trilogy (Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, & Point & Shoot), for example–a story of an overweight, guilt-ridden, former police consultant, now house-sitter who takes a gig in S. Cal only to find that he stumbles into a scenario created by violent Hollywood Star Whackers. As the trilogy progresses, Swierczynksi pushes the reader’s imagination with conspiracy theories, power brokers and increasingly bizarre scenarios, and if we allow our paranoias free reign, all this might just be possible.

Duane Swierczynski is a master of pulp, and yet Canary initially seemed to be a fairly standard, although good, crime yarn fused with topical real-life cases of bent cops and dead confidential informers who habituate the shady world of the Badlands. Sarie seems to be a regular Honors Student caught between law enforcement and the dangerous world of drug dealing. In other words, Canary seemed to be minus that Swierczynski spark–that exotic, exciting fusion of crime and pulp which raises his books from the zone of the ordinary to the archetypal. The last section of Canary, however, ambushes in its explosive intensity, for as the story progresses, Sarie morphs into a fabulous, unexpected heroine–just the type of character I’d expect from this author.

I’m not going to say a great deal about the plot as to reveal much more would spoil the experience for the potential readers out there. But I will say that once again I was tremendously impressed. Swierczynski crafts a story that initially seems to be taking one path, and yet as the plot progresses, Sarie, yes I know, a character in a book, seems to grow a life of her own apart from the already established plot; she becomes an awesome heroine who refuses to be defined by the role assigned to her by Wildey or the drug dealers she must fool. It’s almost as though Sarie grows and develops beyond the author’s original design, but that simply can’t be true, as by the end of the novel, we realize that the narrative arc was created well in advance.

Finally a note about the author’s characters. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the author’s characters: Jamie DeBroux from Severance Package, Charlie Hardie (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone, Point & Shoot), and Sarie Holland are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but that’s not true. These are extraordinary characters who are masked by ordinary hum-drum lives, and when the unpredictable erupts, these formidable characters rise, refuse victimhood, and fight back with whatever means necessary. The extraordinary human masked by blandness, even weakness (in Sarie’s case, her weakness appears to be her privilege and her naiveté) taps the subliminal archetypal dream we all harbor, and this is an extremely potent weapon in Swierczynski’s authorial arsenal. It’s in these character creations that Duane Swierczynski mines those comic book roots. Charlie Hardie can’t be described as anything close to a comic book super hero–he’s an over-weight, out-of-shape, middle aged, washed-up piece of human wreckage, but when placed in extraordinary circumstances, he shirks off that seeming ordinariness and rises to meet the challenge of survival, subverting his victim status as he fights back. In Sarie’s case, as a young college student she’s an unknown quantity, a blank page. As the plot progresses and Sarie’s nature slowly evolves into her new circumstances, we realize that she is a formidable human being–yes hampered by youth and inexperience, but all that’s about to change. Sarie, as the theoretical weakest link in the drug-enforcement chain, is primed to be eaten alive–either by the powers who desire to control her (the cops) or the dark world of narcotics that she is about to infiltrate. Sarie, who really should be outclassed by both the cops and the dealers, is yet another character who eschews victimhood, and we find ourselves cheering for this spunky heroine as she navigates her new role. Swierczynski’s impressive plot development shows incredible imaginative skill, and some seeds sown early and innocuously at the beginning of the novel, rear to powerful significance at the conclusion.

The Civic speeds past some of the most depressing vistas Philadelphia has to offer Abandoned fields of industrial much and a few struggling refineries. Burst of fire in the distance. Smoke. Weedy swamps and dump sites. Must be a shock to the tourist when they land and hail a can to the City of Brotherly Love and feel like they’re pulling into the set of Bladerunner.

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Little Black Lies: Sandra Block

I read out loud to them: ” ‘patient voices regret over her past actions. States she would like to visit Children’s Hospital, or become a Big Sister to help other children. Her dream is to become an elementary school teacher or social worker to help troubled kids, as she feels she was not helped.’ Is that not unbelievable? She’s acting like Mother Theresa, and he’s falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

Little Black Lies a first novel from neurologist Sandra Block introduces damaged psychiatry intern, Zoe Goldman. For regular readers of this blog, you already know that I have a fascination with books set in asylums/mental hospitals and plots either written by or featuring psychiatrists/therapists. Since Little Black Lies focuses on psychiatry resident Dr. Zoe Goldman who is assigned a patient newly transferred to her care, I was, naturally intrigued. Plus .. book two featuring Zoe Goldman : The Girl Without a Name has an ETA of 9/15 … sign me up.

little black liesThe plot takes place over just a few months, but reaches back into the shadowy past of the protagonist, damaged Zoe Goldman. Zoe who’s in the middle of a long-distance relationship with a Frenchman, works in the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she sees and treats many “frequent flyers:” those with the “usual circuit: emergency room, psych ward, rehab, streets, and repeat. A cycle destined to continue until interrupted by jail, death, or less likely, sobriety.”

The book begins with daily rounds and Zoe’s latest assignment, a ‘new’ patient– 36-year old, Sofia Vallano who’s been institutionalized since age 14 for the murder of her mother. After the closure of another hospital, Sofia has been transferred for “further treatment and evaluation,” and of course the underlying question is: can Sofia be released into society or does she still represent a danger to others? Compared to the other patients in the psych ward, Sofia seems much more controlled. There are no violent outbursts, she is on no medication, and, rather conveniently, she claims to remember absolutely nothing about the death of her mother.

And there is Sofia Vallano, perched on the bed, reading a magazine. I’m not sure what I expected. Some baleful creature with blood dripping from her eyeteeth maybe. But this is not what I see. Sofia Vallano is a stunning mix of colors: shiny black hair, royal blue eyes, and opera red lips. Something like Elizabeth Taylor in her middle years, curvaceous and unapologetically sexual. They say the devil comes well dressed.

Zoe juggles a number of personal problems with the demands of her professional life. While she performs well at work (in spite of constant friction from her boss) she really is a bit of a mess and takes three different medications: Adderall “So I keep my mouth shut most of the time,” Lexapro “So I don’t jump off the Peace Bridge,” and Xanax “So I can sleep.” Plus she’s in therapy. Zoe used to suffer from horrendous nightmares, and when those nightmares return, she begins to question her past. While holes rapidly develop in the constructed history of her childhood, Zoe hits a stumbling block when she tries to question her adoptive mother who now suffers from dementia.

The fragility of memory is a central theme of the book. On one hand there’s “model patient,” Sofia, who murdered her mother as a teenager, and now under Zoe’s supervision, she conveniently claims to remember a vital component to the crime. With Sofia’s imminent release on the table, Zoe isn’t buying Sofia’s sudden surge of memory or her professed desire to turn her life around. While trying to get to the bottom of Sofia’s story, in a parallel quest for the truth, whatever that truth may be, Zoe tries to uncover details about her own past–initially through therapy and then through some good, old fashioned detective work.

While I guessed the book’s central secret, this was an entertaining read that explores the ephemeral nature of memory. So much of our early memories become a construct for our adult selves, but what happens when that construction is fabricated? While Little Black Lies is an eminently readable book, complex therapy options including hypnosis, day residue and dream rehearsal enter the plot. Interesting secondary characters are included in Zoe’s support network: an adoptive brother and two workmates: idiom obsessed Thai Dr A. and Chinese-American Jason (the dialogue between Zoe and her fellow doctors is energetic and feels authentic) . If this is indeed the first in a new series, then it’s a good start. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the author takes her main character. Will she remain focused on hospitalized patients or will she branch out into her own practice? The subject matter offers a wide range of possibilities, and for therapy junkies (like me) Sandra Block’s Zoe Goldman promises an interesting new series.

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The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

With the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January on my watchlist, I moved the novel to the top of the TBR pile. I haven’t read a great deal of Highsmith, and I’ve yet to get to the Ripley novels, but Strangers on a Train was a fantastic read as well as being my favourite Hitchcock film. So I began The Two Faces of January with some high expectations which weren’t quite met.

Rydal Keener is a law school graduate, the son of a Harvard Law professor who’s spending a small inheritance idling in Europe “as long as it lasted.” Now 25, he’s been away for 2 years, and not even the death of his controlling, perfectionist father has persuaded him to return home. Rydal is the black sheep of the family, and with a very unpleasant incident involving a 15-year-old cousin in his past, Rydal is in no hurry to return to America. It’s as though he’s waiting for something to happen. …

The two facesFate throws Rydal into a collision course with married couple: Chester and Colette MacFarland. Middle-aged Chester, a con man whose lucrative specialty is stocks, is in Greece hoping that the heat in America will cool down in his absence. He wants to show his young wife, Colette, on her first trip to Europe, a good time, and he’s stifled her complaints with a “new set of luggage and a mink jacket.

After a few days in Greece, Chester found that he breathed more easily. He enjoyed the strange meals at the tavernas, the little oily dishes of this and that, washed down with ouzo or a bottle of wine that usually neither of them liked, though Chester always finished it. Colette bought five pairs of shoes, and Chester had a suit made of English tweed in a fraction of the time and for less than half what it would have cost him in the States. Still, it was a habit, a nervous habit, for him to glance around the hotel lobby to see if there were anyone who looked like a police agent. He doubted if they would send a man over for him, but the F.B.I had representatives abroad, he supposed. All they would need was a photograph, the collected testimony of a few swindled people, and, by checking with passport authorities, they could discover his name.

Rydal becomes swept up in MacFarland’s affairs when a man is killed. Since Rydal speaks fluent Greek and has plenty of contacts, he helps Chester and Colette with new, forged passports and an escape….

Colette is attracted to Rydal, and the feeling is mutual, so to Chester and even outsiders (the police, Rydal’s friends), Rydal’s involvement is easily explained, and so a triangle emerges with Colette in the middle of a young man she’s attracted to and her much older father-figure of a husband.

Men whom she looked at usually felt transfixed and fascinated by her gaze; there was something speculative in it, and nearly every man, whatever his age, thought, ‘She looks as if she’s falling in love with me. Could it be?’

Highsmith makes it quite clear that this is not a standard love triangle. While Rydal appears to be drawn to Colette (and it’s true that there’s an attraction), she seems to be just another means of resolving Rydal’s past, but primarily she’s an object that ‘belongs’ to Chester with little intrinsic value of her own. We know, from Rydal’s thoughts, that Colette reminds him of his cousin Agnes and the unresolved relationship he had with her years ago, but also, and much more significantly, Chester is almost a mirror image of Rydal’s father. But whereas Rydal’s father was the epitome of self-righteous respectability, Chester is a smarmy con man, and Rydal is drawn to Chester in order to resolve and relive his relationship with his father on a different playing field.

We know almost immediately that Chester and Rydal play games with fate. Chester pressed his luck when he began selling “Walkie Kars,” and “something–temptation, bravado, a sense of humour? had compelled him to try peddling the damned things” even though he had no supply. Rydal is a game player, and allows his choices to be dictated by random events. Rydal’s life was shaped by his domineering father, and Chester’s life took a specific turn after his father’s bankruptcy:

the girl he had been engaged to, had broken the engagement–instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy–so that the shock of his father’s situation and the loss of Annette had seemed a single, world-shattering catastrophe. Chester had left school and tried to apply what he had learned of business administration to the saving of an artificial-leather factory up in New Hampshire. He hadn’t saved it. Flat broke, he had sworn to himself he would get rich, and fast. So he started to operate, more and more shadily, he could see it now, though when he had started out, he hadn’t intended to get rich by being crooked. It had been a gradual thing. A gradual bad thing, Chester knew. But now he was stuck with it, really deep in it, hooked on it like an addict on dope.

In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith drops remarks about the two main male characters, Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” yet there are also times when they seem to be two halves of the same person. Shades of that sort of strange chemistry exist here in The Two Faces of January, but it’s much less successful. The father-son dynamic is seen through Rydal’s relationship with his father and also in his relationship with Chester, but at the same time there’s the feeling that just as Chester took the road to crime after bitter adversity, Rydal is also capable of making the same sort of poor choices. And in fact that’s just what Rydal does when he becomes involved with the MacFarlands. Could Rydal become like Chester in another 15 years or so?

No shock here since this is Highsmith, but this is a psychologically complex tale. A great deal of the plot is a story of flight as Rydal organizes and arranges escape for the MacFarlands. Unfortunately, for this reader, in spite of the fact that these characters are on the run with the police in hot pursuit, there’s remarkably little tension until the novel’s excellent conclusion. The idea of the plot is good: three characters thrown together by fate who connect for reasons that are both obvious and not so obvious, but the execution lacks tension in spite of the high stakes situation.

The title evokes the image of the two-faced god who looks to the future and the past. When we first meet Rydal, he’s at a crossroads in his life–a phase of non-action that he’s spun out as far as he can, and, while he’s in no hurry to reconnect with his past, he is about to finally return to America. Chester has fled from his past to Europe. Both Chester and Rydal have murky pasts and their futures, whatever futures they may have, are connected. While Chester reminds Rydal of his father, both Chester and Rydal’s father are, in a sense, men with two faces: Chester appears to be an affluent man but in reality, he’s a cheap con man running out of steam, and Rydal’s father, the eminently respectable law professor leaves a monstrous impression on the reader.

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Woman with a Gun: A novel by Phillip Margolin

“Any picture you’ve seen do not do her justice. She is every teenage boy’s wet dream and she also has a very high IQ. That’s a perfect combination for a gold digger. I assume you know what a leech is.”

American author Phillip Margolin has a large fan base, and a long backlist of published novels, but for some reason I’d never heard of him. The eye-catching cover of his latest book, Woman with a Gun demanded attention, and since a brief look at the plot yielded the possibility of a femme fatale, I was in for the duration.

Woman with a Gun is a story within a story, moving backwards and then forwards in time but always centered on various characters connected to the unsolved murder case of a millionaire. The plot begins with would-be novelist, Stacey Kim who has relocated from the Midwest to Manhattan. She took a job as a receptionist in a legal firm thinking that the mind-numbingly boring job would give her time to ‘think’ about the great novel she intends to write, and opportunities to mingle with law clients and cherry pick through their “witty comments.” One lunch time, she heads to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and once there she finds herself at an exhibit of photography by Kathy Moran. There’s one photo that dominates the exhibit: Woman with a Gun. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, taken ten years before back in 2005 and depicts a woman in a wedding dress facing the ocean but holding an antique “long-barreled, six-shooter” behind her back. Stacey is intrigued by the photo, and certain there’s a story behind the strange setting, she “vowed to discover it.”

woman with a gunThen it’s back to 2005 and “the Cahill Case.” This section introduces one of the main characters, Jack Booth, employee of the Oregon Dept. of Justice District Attorney Assistance Program who is called to the crime scene at the cliff top Pacific Palisades mansion owned by now dead millionaire businessman, and renowned collector, Raymond Cahill. Cahill was married just the day before to Megan, the former wife of a professional football player. Now Raymond is dead, beaten and shot, and the vault housing his collection has been plundered. Meanwhile his bride, Megan, is found on the beach, still in her bridal gown, staring at the ocean, murder weapon in hand and with a head injury which could explain her complete loss of memory for the event…..

Local photographer, and former attorney, now waitress Kathy Moran captured the moment of Megan’s disorientation of the beach, and while that photo went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the case was never solved–although to Jack Booth, Megan, the person who benefitted the most from her husband’s death– a gorgeous woman who, according to her ex-husband’s divorce attorney is nothing less than an extremely intelligent and manipulative gold digger, was the main suspect.

Then it’s back to a third time zone: this time it’s 2000, and we’re back in Jack Booth’s past as a hot shot prosecutor of murder cases and the episode that “marked the end of Jack’s ascent in the district attorney’s office” when he prosecuted a vicious criminal named Kilbride–“the type of guy who’ll take a few punches and give up. Then he’ll set your house on fire.”

Of course all these time periods: 2000, 2005, and 2015 are connected. Stacey Kim dumps her job and travels to the scene of the Cahill murder in order to gather research for a novel based on the crime. Her present day interest in the murder of Raymond Cahill wakes up the sleeping, unsolved murder case.

In spite of the time shifts which were not complicated and are clearly delineated, this was a quick easy read. I’ll admit that I was annoyed on page one by the description that Stacey “toiled” from 9-5 at the law office, for as tedious as it may be answering phones all day long, it’s not exactly the same as slaving in the mines. The choice of verb was unfortunate and threw me out of the novel almost immediately. Author Phillip Margolin is a New York Times Best-Selling author and taking a look at Goodreads, there are a number of loyal fans there who enjoy his work. Woman with a Gun is a page turner, no argument there, and while it’s well plotted the earlier sections of the book involving Jack Booth in 2000 & 2005 are riveting, so dropping those sections and picking up the story in the present cost the plot a great deal of momentum. Unfortunately the sections with Stacey Kim poking around town and stirring up memories were much weaker. Stacey is a shallow and not a particularly interesting character, and yet she’s required to pull 15 years of history and several unsolved murder cases behind her. Jack Booth, Megan and particularly Kathy Moran are much more interesting and flawed characters, and shifting the focus to Stacey–a character whose depth does not match the others–weakens the novel overall.

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Whom Gods Destroy by Clifton Adams

“The Blue Star was one of those cement-block and stucco buildings that you seen thrown up along highways around towns like Big Prairie. In the daytime they look like misplaced chicken houses, but at night, with their neon trimmings and their tinted floodlights bathing false fronts in soft blues and purples, they take on a kind of cheap glamour.” 

Death’s Sweet Song, is the story of Hooper, a WWII vet saddled with a mortgaged gas station and five cabins which theoretically are supposed to be filled with tourists. Many people would envy a man who owns his own business, but to Hooper, the gas station is a trap which threatens a lifetime of hard work and very little recompense. When a man and his blonde sexy wife drive into the station, Hooper throws himself headlong into a life of crime, hoping that he can escape to the type of life he longs for. After reading, and thoroughly enjoying Death’s Sweet Song, I quickly turned to Whom Gods Destroy as both novels come in a double-bill from Stark House Press.

Death's sweet songWhom Gods Destroy, also from Clifton Adams is an examination of the corrosive nature of hate and revenge as seen through the rise and fall of Roy Foley, a man who returns home to Oklahoma following the death of his father. Foley, born in an Oklahoma slum in the small town of Big Prairie, once had dreams to attend college on a football scholarship and become a doctor or a lawyer, but taunted by wealthy teen beauty, Lola, Foley ran off rather than face his humiliation. When the novel opens, Foley is working as a cook in some hash joint when he gets the news of his father’s death.

I was in Bakersfield, California when the news came. It was the busiest part of the lunch hour and I was slicing tomatoes to go with two orders of cutlets when the Western Union kid came back to the kitchen and said, “You Roy Foley?”

I said I was and he handed me the telegram and a pad to sign.

Somebody was dead. I knew that much because, in my family, that’s the only thing a telegram can mean. For a moment I held the envelope in my hand, looking at it, knowing what was in it, and feeling absolutely nothing. Not even curiosity. The orders were piling up and it seemed more important to get those orders out than to see what was in the telegram.

So I went ahead and fixed up the two orders of cutlets and dished up the vegetables and put the two platters in the service window. Then there was a little breathing spell so I took out the envelope and opened it. It said; “George passed away today. Funeral Friday.” It was signed “May Lou Smothers.”

So help me, it took a full minute or more before it finally came to me that “George” was my old man.

About that time Charley Burnstead, the counter man, put his head in the  service window  and said, “Burn two on one!”

I put the two hamburgers on the grill and split the buns and put them on to toast. That was the way I  got the news.

Foley sells his car and heads back to his small hometown of Big Prairie, Oklahoma where he reconnects with Sid, a man who once lived in very similar circumstances. Now Sid, although almost perpetually drunk, has managed to climb the rungs to success. He drives a flashy car, lives in a nice house, and appears to have hit the big time. His secret…Prohibition. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, Prohibition was not appealed in Oklahoma until 1959, and when Foley meets up with Sid, Sid is making sure that the voters keep Prohibition alive and well in Oklahoma. Hell, it’s good for business!

Foley takes one good hard look at boozed-up Sid and decides that if this idiot can make it, so can he, and he expresses interest in learning the bootlegging business. Sid is only too happy to throw a carrot his friend’s way. Soon Foley, starting at the bottom of the ladder as a humble runner, is learning the business and plotting to take over the town.

While Death’s Sweet Song is the story of a heist, Whom Gods Destroy is the story of how hate and revenge fuel one man’s rise and fall. Foley arrives in Big Prairie and decides that he wants some of the sweet money action for himself, but he’s initially a powerless punk. He makes a grab for a higher rung on the ladder but continually finding himself thrown out of the game, he scrambles to find a way back in in an ever-repeating cycle of creating bargaining chips. In Death’s Sweet Song, there were two women on opposite ends of the decent-rotten scale. The two women in Whom Gods Destroy,  Vida married to Sid and Lola now married to the county attorney, aren’t so easily defined. Foley has a love/hate thing for Lola, and those two feelings are so twisted together, they can’t be separated.–at times his desire for her blinds him to all other considerations, and it seems as though with his obsession to ‘show’ Lola he can’t make a move without being reminded of his humiliation, back in high school, at Lola’s hands.

Just as Hooper in Death’s Sweet Song lays bare his raw justification for murder, Foley painfully, and unsparingly rolls out his humiliations and the rage that carries the seeds of his own destruction. Lola is the first and most significant person to humiliate Foley, and then the novel comes full cycle when he learns just what a coward he is in an incident involving Vida. In between these two events: Lola at high school, and much much later with Vida, a lifetime has passed. Foley has beaten and murdered his way to the top, but what has changed? Absolutely nothing, and that is the moral abyss that faces Foley–not what he has done, but what he failed to do. I can’t praise this little known noir novel enough.

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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.

Review copy/own a copy.

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