Tag Archives: american crime fiction

The Way We Die Now: Charles Willeford (1988)

“That’s my life’s ambition, to grow old and be a burden on someone.”

In The Way We Die Now, Hoke Moseley is back for the fourth and final (sob) novel. This is a phenomenal, hard-boiled crime series from Charles Willeford, and The Way We Die Now is the darkest, most violent and bleakest of the novels. Hoke’s world vision hasn’t improved with the years spent with Miami homicide. His career has spanned some incredible changes in Miami: gentrification of Miami neighbourhoods, inflation and the influx of Cuban refugees. But the changes have also been personal for Hoke: first a female partner, Alita Sanchez in the second novel, New Hope for the Dead. Then his ex-wife departs for California with her new husband and dumps Hoke’s two daughters on his doorstep. Professionally, affirmative action begins in the workplace and Hoke rolls with all the changes, but the hardest of all … laws about cigarette smoking.

The Way We Die Now finds Hoke still working cold cases. When the book opens, he’s chewing over the cold-case murder of a doctor. 3 years ago, the doctor’s garage door opener was stolen, and about a week after that, the doctor was shot as he exited his car. The murder seemed like a professional hit, and the case quickly grew cold. But the doctor’s widow married one of her husband’s partners, and that, to Hoke, seems to point towards motive. On the personal front, Hoke is still living with Alita Sanchez, her baby son, and his two daughters. Trouble arrives in the form of a convicted murderer who, thanks to a technicality, has been released after serving just a fraction of his sentence. The man, Donald Dutton, who was accused, tried and convicted of murdering his brother, swore to get even with Hoke, the homicide detective on the case. In the time that has passed since Donald’s conviction, Hoke hasn’t aged well. He’s lost most of his hair, all his teeth, and he has a paunch. Donald, on the other hand, is dashing and loaded. When Donald moves in across the street from Hoke, you know that revenge is brewing.

As with all Willeford novels, nothing is ever predictable, so what happens with Donald blindsides Hoke. Plus he’s too busy working homicide and going undercover as a favour to Major Brownley investigating missing Haitians who worked picking melons in a remote area. The novel begins with horrific violence which is then connected later to Hoke’s explosive undercover gig. Hoke discovers the hard way what happens when you are dropped in rural Florida with just a few dollars, tatty clothes, no gun and no teeth. As for what happens to Hoke, think those banjoes in Deliverance and you’d just about have it. Mention is made earlier in the tale about burglars who break into empty homes that are tented for termites and then drop like the cockroaches thanks to the poisonous fumes. This tidbit of valuable information seems random, but again it ties into Hoke’s undercover gig later.

In the earlier novels, Hoke had an anemic sex life, and at one point in The Way We Die Now, he’s offered a hand-job by a trailer park hooker. He turns down her offer. His reply: “If I wanted a hand job, I could do it myself. Women don’t do know how to do it right anyway” And somehow this mirrors Hoke’s narrow, meagre sex life which has declined and become increasingly difficult as the series continues. Hoke is an incredible creation: overweight, balding, no teeth and as we would say these days, a fashion victim, but he’s an excellent detective.

The humour in this dark, gritty novel comes partly from Hoke’s conviction that anti-smoking laws and fines in the workplace will never work. But since Charles Willeford died in 1988, at age 69, the year this novel was published, the anti smoking rifts were not meant to be funny. This is only in hindsight. But there’s other humour: Willeford twisted humour: I’ll call them Hokeisms: from yuppies, parenting, voting, marriage, and women. Also there’s the continuing saga of Hoke’s false teeth which he must part with due to his undercover gig. The trailer park hooker keeps a small coke-drinking handicapped child stuffed in a box in a cupboard inside her trailer. At one point, Hoke calls in a favour to have the child removed. Thank god, you think as a reader. But then Hoke follows the request with his opinion that the child is ruining his mother’s life. That’s a Hokeism for you. The World According to Hoke. … There are some loose ends in the novel, and yet there’s also the sense of an ending. Sadly this is the last we see of Hoke and his bleak outlook on life.

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The Family Plot: Megan Collins

In The Family Plot by Megan Collins “Our family was unnatural,” a phrase spoken by Andy, one of the four Lighthouse siblings, is a vast understatement. The Lighthouse children, Charlie, Dahlia (our narrator), Andy and Tate, are all named after murder victims, so it’s obvious from page one that all the members of the Lighthouse family are obsessed with the subject of murder. But perhaps that makes sense as their mother’s parents were brutally murdered during a home invasion in Connecticut at the family estate. Following the murder, she moved to Blackburn island, to their summer home, a “drafty, secluded mansion,” where their father, Daniel, “indulged her eccentricities, and did not protest as she turned the mansion into something of a mausoleum.” A mausoleum for murder victims. Add to that the fact that the Lighthouse children are homeschooled, and … the main focus of the curriculum … you guessed it … is murder. Making those murder dioramas must have been so much fun. Let’s pile on that the disturbing fact Blackburn Island has a serial killer of its own, and the killer has never been caught. The Lighthouse home is nicknamed the Murder Mansion by the locals and the family members are considered weird. No wonder these kids are screwed up.

When the novel opens, the children, now adults, understandably are scattered, (I’d have changed my name,) and Dahlia returns to the island after an absence of 7 years. She has returned only because her father died, and this reunion isn’t going to be any fun. Tate is an artist, Charlie is an actor, Dahlia is the narrator, and Andy… well he went missing at age 16, and it was assumed that he ran away (not that anyone could blame him). The loyal family employee, Fritz, is busy digging a grave for Dad (yes, he’s being buried on the island) when he discovers a body in the plot that was saved for dear old dad. As to what happened to missing brother Andy, well the mystery is solved. He’s been lying 6 feet under in the back garden all this time. But who killed him?

The premise of the book sounded interesting with its underlying theme that those touched by murder are never the same, and the internet is full of stories about people who become obsessed with murders and then go off the rails in various interesting ways. But for this reader, the entire setup was hard to swallow. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s just plain cuckoo. I stopped many times, put the book down and asked myself whether or not these damaged people, raised in this toxic environment would have kept acting like idiots? It’s understandable that mummy is a nutjob: her parents were murdered and then her whole life became murder, but even with that in mind, I couldn’t accept the plot. Wouldn’t you at least wonder what the hell happened to your twin brother, a teen who was clearly unhappy at home? Wouldn’t you ask yourself why you never heard from him again, and why your parents moan a bit but then quickly move on? The family members are all freaky weird but in the first pages after finding Andy’s body in the grave, there they are all in the kitchen eating cookies. No one is saying WTF, packing their bags and hightailing it off that miserable island.

With many books, willing suspension of disbelief is engaged, albeit this tacit agreement by the reader may be fragile, or challenged, but in The Family Plot the willing suspension of disbelief must be resuscitated repeatedly. I found it impossible to accept the behavior of the characters, so if you are about to embark on this book, be prepared to toss your disbelief out the window and then watch it bounce back. I just went with the plot and then I found myself saying things such as “what sickos,” or “as if,” “oh come off it” and even “wtf.” That said, it’s an easy, quick read that keeps you barreling along to the last page. Some readers loved the book, so perhaps I’m in the minority here.

Review copy.

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Lady in the Lake: Laura Lippman

Once again set in Baltimore, Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is a crime novel inspired by the 1969 death of Shirley Parker, a woman who worked at Baltimore’s Sphinx Club. Turning to fiction, the Lady in the Lake is Cleo, a black woman with a chequered past, who is initially a missing person until she turns up dead in a fountain in Druid Hill Park.

At the heart of the story is Maddie Schwartz, a well-to-do married woman in her 30s who leaves her husband, Milton, son, Seth, and affluent lifestyle to start a new life. There’s nothing really wrong with the marriage, but Maddie feels “as if she had been living in one of those shoebox dioramas” children build. It’s a ‘perfect’ life in many ways; it’s certainly the type of life that’s expected of her, but Maddie wants more. After leaving Milton and her comfortable life, Maddie receives a small allowance from her husband, sets up in a grotty flat, and she quickly discovers that “post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.” She tries to sell a ring to raise cash, and this act leads to her illicit relationship with black patrol cop, Ferdie.

When Maddie finds a murdered child during a search, she capitalizes on her social skills and inside knowledge of the case in order to get a start in journalism. Having gained some exclusive information (bedroom talk) she trades this for a minor job assisting the Helpline columnist of the Baltimore Star, a man named Don Heath. Once in this job, Maddie becomes involved in the Cleo Sherwood case, and ambition drives Maddie onward.

The story is told through a host of characters. With any crime, stories narrow down to victim and perpetrator. We tend to forget that many lives are irrevocably altered by a murder. Sweeping in all the people impacted by Cleo’s death (as well as sundry others) Lippman captures the sensation of the ripples from Cleo’s death. However, while some voices added a great deal to the story, others seemed superfluous. I liked seeing Maddie through the eyes of other characters, and while I was never quite convinced by Maddie’s drive to leave her cocooned life with Milton, other characters’ impressions of Maddie helped fill out her character. Maddie is a privileged woman whose social position opens doors, and she seems to be a bit on the powder puff side, yet the stunt she pulls with her ring reveals a hard side, and it’s clear that Maddie is going to have a career, a good career as she’s extremely ambitious. Maddie’s ambition is nicely contrasted against many other characters whose lives are sad and disappointing. There’s reporter Bob Bauer who compares his private life to a Baltimore version of Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball, yet Bauer’s wife is severely incapacitated by MS. Then there’s Don Heath who knows that he cannot outrun dementia.

I don’t think anyone lives long enough to imagine his next decade accurately. You get to thirty and you think you know what forty will be like, but you don’t, then comes fifty and boy does forty look good. I’m fifty-eight now and I’m not going to pretend I have a clue what my seventh decade will be, other than disappointing. Because every decade so far has been less than I hoped; why should the next one be different?

Not Lippman’s best; the story is too fragmented for that, but Lady in the Lake breathes life into the Baltimore world of the 60s, rife with racism and sexism.

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Sideswipe: Charles Willeford (1987)

“Being without a wife gave a man a whole different way of looking at the world. And it looked even better now that he had a car to drive again. If it came to a toss-up, car or wife, most men, or at least the ones Stanley had known in Detroit, would certainly give up their wives.”

Sideswipe, Charles Willeford’s third Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective under incredible strain, personally and professionally, and he decides to quit the force. While Hoke’s pals on the force, his very pregnant partner, Sanchez, and Bill Henderson, cover for Hoke and file for medical leave, Hoke decides he wants a simpler life. Yeah, right. He accepts a job managing his father’s apartment complex in Riviera Beach, and while Hoke initially imagines he’ll be on the beach and little troubled by tenants, the job soon turns into one annoying interruption after another.

But Hoke’s life is in the background, and in the foreground is a violent crime, still in the embryonic stages. …

Retired Michigan auto worker Stan and his wife Betsey moved to Florida a few years earlier. Betsey isn’t thrilled with the move and wants to be back in Michigan. There’s not exactly war afoot between them, but Betsey doesn’t like Stan under her feet all day, and the two of them lead separate lives. A terrible misunderstanding involving a neighbourhood child leads to Stan spending the night in jail, and here he meets a glib, smooth-talking career criminal, Troy Louden. Troy gives Stan a few tips, and in exchange, Stan promises to do a ‘favour’ for Louden. When Betsey departs for Michigan, Stan, feeling alone and betrayed by his wife and family, allows Troy to stay. One favour leads to another until Stan becomes an accomplice in a vicious armed robbery. Willeford’s brilliantly conceived creation of the psychopath, Troy Louden, adds a layer of dark humour. Troy is vicious, sick, and twisted–a shitshow about to happen. Using a handful of characters, Willeford shows us how Troy successfully dominates his pathetic criminal crew–a painter, a stripper and finally Stan. Troy Louden isn’t educated, and arguably isn’t that intelligent, but he possesses the psychopath’s understanding of how to manipulate:

I’m a professional criminal, what the shrinks call a criminal psychopath. What it means is, I know the difference between right and wrong and all that, but I don’t give a shit. That’s the official version. Most men in prison are psychopaths like me, and there are times when we don’t give a shit when we act impulsively. Ordinarily, I’m not impulsive because I always think a job out very carefully before I get around to doing it.

While the artist and disfigured stripper (wonder how that happened??) recruited by Troy comply with his demands out of fear, Troy seduces Stan into criminal activity:

I’m a criminal psychopath so I’m not responsible for the things I do.

Does that mean you’re crazy? You don’t look crazy, Troy–I mean John.”

Robert.”

“Robert. Of course, pulling that pistol on that man–“

Let me finish, Pop. I don’t have time to into all the ramifications of my personality, it’s too complex. I’ve been tested again and again, and it always comes out the same: Psychopath. And because I’m a criminal, I’m also a criminal psychopath. You follow me?

Yeah I think so, but if you aren’t crazy, what are you?”

It’s what I told you already. I know the difference between good and bad, but it makes no difference to me. If I see the right thing to do and want to do it, I do it. If I see the wrong thing and want to do it, I do that, too.

You mean you can’t help yourself then?”

Certainly I can. I’ll put it another way. I can help myself, but I don’t give a damn.”

And because you don’t give a damn, you’re a criminal psychopath, is that it?”

You’ve got it.

But why?”–Stanley made a sweeping movement with his arm–“don’t you give a damn?”

Because I’m a criminal pyschopath. Maybe when they give you some tests, you might could be one too.

Sideswipe is a marvellous entry in the Hoke Moseley saga. One of my favourite literary (or film) themes is how someone can lead a perfectly respectable life, never taking a step wrong, but then fate intervenes and suddenly that person, that life, is derailed. And it’s at that point, things always get interesting…. So derailment or sideswipe. … Stan’s moral seduction by Troy Louden is a perfect example of how one staid, retired, older man, once pried loose from his respectable life, spirals into an unfamiliar world. We follow Stan’s increasing, initially naïve involvement with Louden and also Hoke’s attempts to live a civilian life away from Miami Homicide. The violence, when it comes, is explosive and shocking. As I read this, there was one point when I asked myself if I found Stan’s actions credible. My initial response was ‘no,’ but Willeford had very carefully seeded a quirk in Stan’s behaviour which gives a glimpse at a pathological aspect of Stan’s personality. On the surface, we have this highly responsible citizen, an older man who has never put one foot wrong in his life, and yet he meets a career criminal and is so seduced by this man’s rhetoric that he abandons his way of life and goes to the dark side. So in the final assessment, yes, I could accept Stan’s choices and bad judgment–given his wife and son’s rejection, and that nasty quirk.

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New Hope For the Dead: Charles Willeford (1985)

Charles Willeford’s New Hope For the Dead, the second Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective called to a suburban home with a dead body inside. The body is, was, Jerry, a young junkie whose tracks on his scrotum supports the presenting evidence that he died of an overdose. But there’s something about the case that doesn’t quite add up for Hoke. Sanchez, Hoke’s Cuban partner likes Jerry’s stepmother, Lorrie Hickey, as a possible murder suspect, but Hoke, who picks up on Lorrie’s sexually ravenous nature, in spite of her grief stricken state, doesn’t think she’s guilty. After all Lorrie is a businesswoman, the owner of a florist shop, but Jerry’s father is a lawyer whose business focuses on drug dealers.

Miami Blues is an introduction to Hoke’s spartan lifestyle. As he has to hand over half his paycheck to the X, he subsists on the remainder. He lives in a 3rd rate motel exchanging rent for ‘private security’ services, services which includes arranging for the dead bodies of the mostly elderly tenants to leave during the night. Also in Miami Blues, Hoke’s long-term homicide partner, Bill Henderson moved on, and Hoke now works with Sanchez. He doesn’t ‘get’ Sanchez at all. She’s smart, has a great figure, but has no sex appeal for Hoke.

A lot of the novel’s humour comes from Hoke who’s slowly moving out of the Dark Ages and waking up to the fact that he can’t send his female partner for coffee all the time. Hoke, (in his 40s?) comes from a different time, and that is underscored by the novel’s focus on Miami gentrification and the shifting dynamic of the Miami population. Hoke seems very much a man of the 60s. In this novel, Sanchez has a personal crisis which she keeps to herself, but Hoke notices her “quiescent moodiness” which he initially chalks up to Sanchez’s period.

Having a female partner in the car wasn’t the same. Maybe he should let Sanchez drive the car once in a while but that didn’t seem right either. The man always drove not the woman, although when he and Bill had been together, Bill had driven most of the time because he was a better driver than Hoke and they both knew it.

As in any series novel, we have the crime at hand (what appears to be an overdose of a junkie) and also the main character’s personal life. In Miami Blues, Hoke was given warning that he had to move into his precinct and that means moving out of the motel, but given his lack of funds, finding a place to live is proving to be a challenge. At one point, he tries to get a house-sitting gig, and the first place he looks at comes with an amorous Airedale. In this second book in the series, Hoke, a divorced man, with no regular girlfriend (the woman he left his wife for tossed him out), a father who never sees his kids, ends up living with three females. You have to read the book to find out how that happens. Also in this book, Hoke and Sanchez are given a special assignment to solve cold cases at record speed in order for the boss, Major Brownley, to have a shot at a promotion.

Hoke is a dogged homicide detective. He’s not corrupt. Exactly. But he waves that badge a lot. In this book, he pulls a trick that is unethical and even Hoke questions himself about his actions. Somehow I think his actions will come back to haunt him. While a lot of the humour comes from Hoke’s archaic attitude (and the author is aware it’s archaic), some of the humour comes from Hoke’s version of being a father; that includes a rapid sex ed. conversation and his plans that his daughters get jobs:

“First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”

“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said looking at her fingernails.

“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”

Also, black humour simmers in the off-the-wall reactions of the characters. These are characters who have seen it all, and nothing seems to have shock value. A great example of this is the real estate agent who isn’t so much worried about the Airedale’s sexual needs, as how long it takes.

Hoke is a unique creation. He’s definitely a man of his times and he’s a good, although unorthodox detective. Standard morality is a not a suit Hoke wears. In fact he can’t give up those leisure suits!

Here’s Hoke, called into his boss’s office for a meeting.

“Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leusire suit. Where’d you find it anyway?”

There’s a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only 50 bucks on 2-for-1 sale. I like the extra pockets, with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

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The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)

 

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A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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The Evil Days: Bruno Fischer (1973)

In Bruno Fischer’s crime novel, The Evil Days, a married couple are on the Straight and Narrow until a bag of jewels introduces greed, sex and sin into suburbia. I love the theme of respectable citizens so easily derailed as it argues that honesty and decency exist simply due to lack of alternatives. One whiff of opportunity and morality, ethics, whatever are tossed to the curb.

Caleb Dawson, associate editor for a New York publisher, has the very typical life of a married suburbanite. Years earlier, Caleb and his sexy, avaricious, discontented wife Sally moved to the suburbs where they now live in a dull little tract home with their two dull little children. The move was a decision based on affordability, and no doubt that ever-elusive ‘quality of life’ issue was wrapped up in there somewhere too:

We lived in one of fourteen ranch-style houses lined up on both sides of the street. The houses were not quite identical. Some had garages on the right and some on the left; some had fixed black shutters on off-white shingles and some had white shutters on gray shingles. All had three bedrooms, and a dinette that merged into the living room, and an up-to-date kitchen wide enough for two skinny people, and a cement-block playroom in the basement. In the six years since we had bought it for more than we could afford, taxes had doubled, and in another twenty-four years (when I would be sixty-two), the mortgage would be paid off.

Every morning Caleb takes the 7:52 commuter train. And every evening Sally drives their sole vehicle, a station wagon, back to the station to meet Caleb from the 5:27 pm train. Life is a treadmill, and that makes Caleb either the hamster on the relentless wheel or a prisoner: you choose.

One day is exactly like another until the evening Sally starts acting weird, nervous and jumpy. At first she won’t tell Caleb what’s going on, but soon she confesses that she found a bag of jewelry outside of the bank. While Caleb’s first impulse is turn in the jewelry to the police, Sally persuades Caleb to delay–arguing that they should at least profit from a reward. Caleb, as village trustee, is in a unique position to monitor a theft/loss report, but things become far more complicated when he discovers that the jewelry belongs to his boss, Mr. Martaine’s wife, Norma.

Of course there are many questions rooted into the basic plot. How did Mrs. Martaine manage to lose her jewelry? How on earth are the Dawsons going to claim a reward without revealing that they have held on to the gems? Things are complicated enough but all hell breaks loose with the murder of a local playboy/poet. Suddenly, this boring little corner of suburbia is a hotbed of riotous sex, peeping toms, and voracious housewives.

The novel flings around some interesting numbers that reflect the cost of living and wages during the ugliness of the 70s. Fischer manages to slide in some criticism about the publishing industry through Caleb who fumes over his relatively low standard of living in relation of others in the work force. I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t find them particularly interesting. The fun here is the way in which Fischer deftly shifts gears from boredom, routine and dissatisfied domestication to sex, greed and murder in the suburbs. The possibility of newfound wealth unleashes both Caleb and Sally, and there’s the underlying idea that the Dawsons each buried some of the more unpleasant aspects of their respective natures–at least from each other for years. With the jewelry adding temptation, wage slave Caleb finds that his resentments float to the surface and that Sally has hidden depths–none of them are good:

Then she began to move and turn and undulate like a belly dancer, watching herself all the time in the mirror. There was something quite unfamiliar about that familiar body, a hothouse lushness that seemed to have changed it in subtle ways–something unfamiliar about the sensuous smile directed at her naked image. And she was different. She had never before had a quarter of a million dollars of jewels on her flesh, and the erotic effect they had on her in the mirror reached out to me at the window.

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After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman

“Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.”

63 -year-old retired Baltimore homicide detective ‘Sandy’ Sanchez now works on cold case crimes for the city. The pay isn’t great, but it keeps him busy and gives him the semblance of a life. With his wife dead, and his only son institutionalized, Sandy understands that solving cold cases brings some sense of meaning to his life.

There are no shortage of cold case crimes, but when the book opens, Sandy selects the unsolved murder of Julie Saxony for his attention. Although Sandy prefers to work on the cases of elderly victims, there’s something about the Julie Saxony case that catches his interest. Julie, a one-time stripper, cleaned up her act when her married boyfriend, Felix Brewer, who was facing a long term prison sentence, disappeared in 1976. Rumour has it that Julie helped Felix flee the country. Rumour also has it that Felix left her a wad of cash. While Bambi Brewer, Felix’s wife, floundered with no income stream, Julie morphed from stripper to coffee shop owner once Felix skipped town. Ten years later, in 1986, Julie was on the verge of opening an upscale inn complete with restaurant when she disappeared off the face of the planet. Many people assumed she’d finally joined Felix in exile, but when Julie’s body was found in 2001, that rumour was laid to rest.

After I'm gone

So Sandy begins digging into Julie’s murder which is, of course, connected to Felix’s flight so many years earlier. Reading the files, Sandy concludes that with this case, with this victim, there are  “really two stories, parallel universes.” On one hand here’s Julie Romeo, stripper, and then years later, Julie “respectable business owner.” As he works through the evidence, Sandy encounters a range of people who knew Julie in both of her lives; there’s her sister who’s not telling the whole story, and Julie’s former chef who swears Julie never mentioned Felix and yet he knows a lot of details. There’s also Julie’s friend, a stripper turned housewife, and Felix’s bail bondsman, Tubby Schroeder, who now lords it over the ladies in assisted living.  Tubby is a slippery character, and he obviously knows more than he’s saying. Yet he doesn’t entirely clam up either:

He didn’t answer. He was a smart guy. Smart enough not to talk to a cop at all, if it came to that. But something–Sandy’s not-quite-cop status, Tubby’s boredom in his plush nest–made him want to play this game. More challenging than bridge with a bunch of wistful ladies. 

Sandy is a great character–a man who feels that he failed his wife and son and clings to the detective work he’s good at. He’s calm, non-confrontational and as he talks to these witnesses about a decades old crime, Sandy learns that sometimes it’s not what people say, but how they say it, or what they leave out. 

She knew something. He wasn’t sure what it was, or if she even realized she had something of significance to share He’d prefer that she be a liar, actually. You could break down a liar. 

Sandy also questions Felix’s wife, Bambi, a beautiful trophy, a high-maintenance woman abandoned by her husband. With no money (and yes what happened to Felix’s money btw?), Bambi brings up their three daughters alone, convinced that her philandering hubbie left his mistress every rotten penny. Bambi’s three daughters grow up with memories of a larger-than-life man who apparently adored them yet who easily abandoned them, severing ties completely. 

I’m a Laura Lippman fan, and After I’m Gone written with great sensitivity, is one of her best IMO. Just as Sandy finds that there are two parallel universes in Julie’s life, there are two sets of characters–those who knew Julie in her stripper life and those who knew of her from their cushier nests. These rich, three-dimensional characters leap off the pages almost as though they were waiting for Sandy to come and ask the questions that went unanswered for so long. Some of those questioned by Sandy had things to hide when Julie first disappeared; others held back information as it didn’t seem relevant or they were protective of Julie. Others have had a shift in attitude as the years ground on or simply no longer have anything to lose. There’s Bambi’s best friend, a lawyer’s pampered wife, Lorraine, living in a home of “ruthless perfection” who reveals she knew more about Julie than initially discovered, and then there’s Julie’s best friend whose loyalty has been honed into a searing honesty.  As Sandy moves around Baltimore digging up the past, he confronts his own memories and demons.

Felix appears in the first pages before he does a bunk, and even in his absence, as the book goes back and forth in time, Felix dominates the story.  His abandonment and disappearance force his daughters and his wife to confront the uglier aspects of his life–that his stripper mistresses “were like Cadillacs to him.” “He drove them for two to three years and traded them in.” 

How did this selfish, self-focused man get so many women to love him? His disappearance left a huge void in the lives of those women, and it’s sad as quite frankly he wasn’t worth a tear.

There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit.

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