Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

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Fugitive Red: Jason Starr

“Choosing another path in life doesn’t necessarily solve your problems–sometimes it just leads to a new set of them.”

Forty-four-year old real estate agent Jack Harper, a recovering alcoholic, is in a rut. His professional life is at an all-time low, and his marriage to Maria is stale and sexless. He hasn’t landed any sales in some time, and when Rob, a former bandmate, flies in from California looking to buy a two million dollar Manhattan penthouse apartment, Jack’s failure is rubbed in his face. Rob, a practiced womanizer, sniffs Jack’s failure and lords his success over his old friend’s head, but more significantly, he mentions that he uses an online dating app called Discreet Hookups, a “Cheating site” which is “the best thing for married men since Monday Night Football.” While Jack feels disgust at his old friend’s behaviour, there’s another part of him that envies Rob’s brash confidence and material success.

Late one night, bored and restless, Jack logs onto Discreet Hookups, the website whose logo is: “people marry for companionship, cheat for happiness.”  Jack tells himself he’s led by curiosity, but he has a past of addictive behaviour, so it’s just a very short step until he has an online profile and connects with a wealthy married woman who calls herself Fugitive Red. …

Jason Starr’s Fugitive Red takes an insightful look at the perils of online relationships, adeptly navigating the narrative of Jack’s rapidly unraveling life. Online, we can be anyone we want to be, and when sex and/or money enter the picture, things go downhill fast. Most of us know people who have had exploitative disastrous online relationships, and Jack is a great fictional example. Soon he’s accused of murder, and while Jack thought his life was bad before his exposure to Discreet Hookups, he finds out how bad gets worse. With his life spiraling out of control, he still imagines he has options which have long since been removed from the table. There’s a morbid sense of humour at work as we watch Jack, who can’t quite accept that things are as bad as they are, missteps repeatedly in the quicksand of a murder investigation.

The plot, peopled with colourful characters, explores the hazards of misinterpreting virtual life on the computer as reality, and there are times when Jack has insight into his own ego and addictive behaviour, but these times are alternated with his blind spots. Here’s Jack being grilled by the detective who will soon become his arch-nemesis:

Then he added,” I don’t want to say you’re gullible, Mr Harper, but okay, I’ll say it–you’re gullible. I mean, you meet some chick online, she says she wants to screw around, and you think she’s telling you the truth?”

“She wasn’t ‘some chick,’ ” I said. “She was a sweet, sincere woman, and yes, I believed her.” 

“Just like you believed it was her first time meeting a guy online.”

Jason Starr’s novels often include some reference to New York housing, and how outrageous costs impact life and relationships, so here we find Jack living in a 580 sq foot apartment and wondering if he should have moved to the ‘burbs. I thought I knew where Fugitive Red was taking me, but it had more twists than I anticipated, and since it’s Jason Starr, these twists are laced with deviant behaviour.

The book synopsis includes a reference to Gone Girl, and if you arrive at this book expecting another Gone Girl, you will be disappointed. This is classic Jason Starr, which means a different set of things from Gone Girl, and I wish publishers would stop referencing this book as though it’s the bible of suspense. Frankly while Gone Girl was highly readable, by its conclusion, I was annoyed at the plot devices.

Rant over.

If you are a Jason Starr fan, you will not be disappointed. There’s a lot to appreciate here in the insights into human behaviour: the lies we tell ourselves, the types of horrible relationships we endure, the disappointment of how our lives turned out, and how tricky, deceptive and seductive online ‘relationships’ can be–and yes those online relationships just happen to slot into all of life’s shortcomings.  Psychologists argue that first impressions take just a few seconds. How does that translate to online relationships? Jack’s impressions of Fugitive Red are formed and sealed before he meets her, and that proves to be a deadly mistake.

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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The Last Stand: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

“You on your lunch break?”

Her eyebrows lifted. “If so, I’m drinking it.” 

Hard Case Crime continues to mine gems from some of the greatest names in detective fiction. March 2018 brought a two-fer: A Bullet for Satisfaction and The Last Stand. A Bullet for Satisfaction was edited and completed by Max Alan Collins, Spillane’s long-time friend, while The Last Stand is Spillane’s final novel.

A Bullet for Satisfaction‘s appropriate title follows disgraced, ex-cop Dexter as he digs deep into the dirt surrounding the  murder of a married politician in a hotel room.

Mayes Rogers was a big name in politics around here-he’d made it to the top, and on the way ruined quite a few. A lot of people would have liked to see him put underground, and maybe they had good reasons.

I pulled out a cigarette, stuck the flame of my lighter to it, and drew in the smoke.

We’re in solid Spillane territory here. Dexter meets the grieving widow and her shapely sister, and offends local politicians as he investigates a case that stinks of corruption. Spillane books, for fans of the hard-boiled detective fiction, are great fun but then there are also watershed moments of brief, sudden brutality: those instances when we are jerked from our enjoyment into the reality of the darker side of human nature.

The Last Stand, written at the end of Spillane’s long writing career, has a completely different pace, with an adventure-focused plot. Pilot Joe Gillian finds himself stranded in the desert when he’s forced to make an emergency landing in his ancient plane. The tale involves Native Americans, the FBI, with a few gangsters thrown into the mix. Naturally, there has to be a beautiful woman–in this instance it’s a Native American wincingly named,  Running Fox.

Of the two, I preferred A Bullet for Satisfaction. I’m much more comfortable with hard-boiled detective tales of the 40s and 50s, and perhaps a great deal of that enjoyment comes with the idea that Spillane’s pugnacious male characters drank hard liquor for lunch and breakfast, fought crime and corruption to the bitter, bloody end, and loved women with lingering regret and the knowledge that they’d already moved on. Maybe it’s a Bogart thing.

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Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.

sunburn

And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy

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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

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Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

“I walked out and piloted the agency heap out to my rooming house, feeling like the tail end of a misspent life.”

Almost a year ago, I reviewed The Knife Slipped, the first second Cool and Lam novel written by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A Fair). Turn on the Heat is the second third in the series (see JJ’s comment below), and what a treat it is to see this novel back in print.

Turn on the heat

A Mr. ‘Smith’ employs Bertha Cool Confidential Investigations to find a missing woman. Decades earlier a Dr and Mrs Lintig lived in the small town of Oakview.  According to Mr Smith, who doesn’t explain his interest in the case, a scandal took place, and Mrs Lintig disappeared back in 1918. Obviously there’s a lot more to the case than Mr. Smith is willing to explain, and when Bertha Cool’s operative, Donald Lam arrives in Oakview, he finds out that he’s not the only person who’s looking for Mrs. Lintig.

Digging through old newspapers, Lam discovers that Dr. Lintig sued for divorce in 1918 citing mental cruelty. Then accusations followed from Mrs. Lintig that her husband was having an affair. Dr. Lintig signed over all his property to his wife, and then they both … disappeared. The judge and the lawyers involved in the case are all now dead, but questions remain: where did Dr. Lintig and Mrs Lintig disappear to? Who is Mr Smith and why is he so interested in tracking down a woman who disappeared decades earlier? And who else is looking for Mrs. Lintig?

Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder tangle the Lintig case in knots, and Donald Lam, on his usual shoestring budget from his boss, Bertha Cool, must solve the case without finding himself in the electric chair.

While the case under scrutiny in this fast-paced crime novel makes for entertaining reading, the real fun here lies in the toxic, sinewy relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha Cool “profane, massive, belligerent and bulldog,” is a woman who’s used to getting what she wants, but in Donald she’s met her match. He likes his independence, and she likes to keep control of the reins. There’s no glamour here in the PI business, and Donald Lam, who gets beaten up more than once, can’t be described as a tough guy. Bertha Cool, who talks about herself in the third person, mostly emasculates Lam, describing him as a “half-pint runt,”  handing him the bare minimum to run his case while she, a gigantic, majestic battleship, may well be eating all the profits.

Of course, there’s a beautiful reporter, and a visit to a strip joint:

I found a table back in a corner and ordered a drink. An entertainer was putting on an expurgated version of a chemically pure strip tease. She had more clothes on when she’d finished than most of the performers had when they started, but it was the manner in which she took them off that appealed to the audience: a surreptitious be-sure-the-doors-and-windows-are-closed-boys attitude that made the customers feel partners in something very, very naughty.

Review copy

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Hard Feelings: Jason Starr

“I ordered a Scotch and soda. I put the glass up to my lips and paused, asking myself, Do you really want to do this? Myself said, You bet.”

Hard Feelings follows its first person narrator, Richie Segal as his life slides out-of-control. Richie is a salesman, once a top salesman of computer networks, but when the book opens, he’s in a slump. Sales call after sales call lead to bleak days at work, and to Richie’s boss hinting about termination. Something’s off with Richie. Perhaps it’s the alcohol. Perhaps it’s the pressure. Or perhaps it’s because he catches a glimpse of Michael Rudnick, an old neighbour from Brooklyn. ….

Richie and his wife, Paula, are a childless New York couple who live paycheck to paycheck. Their short evenings after work are composed of selecting which takeout to order, watching TV and walking the dog. It’s a daily grind, with the possibility of children and life in the suburbs the rewards at the end of the rainbow. Tensions exist between Richie and Paula, and at first it isn’t quite clear why Paula doesn’t want children. Perhaps it’s because her career is on the rise and she makes more money than Richie, or perhaps she’s having an affair. Richie, as our unreliable narrator, never quite tells the entire story. ….

Hard feelings

Richie’s sighting of Rudnick coincides with his career and marriage slump. Soon, he can’t stop thinking about Rudnick and how Rudnick molested him years earlier. Rudnick is now a successful lawyer, but Richie, reeling from bad memories mixed with booze, wants to make Rudnick pay.  Obsessed with Rudnick, suspicious that Paula is cheating on him, Richie’s life spirals out of control.

Richie Segal is a typical Jason Starr protagonist, a working man who’s pressured to breaking point by bills, work and relationships. The author creates a believable character, an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds he can’t cope with life and only violence seems to let off pressure. As an unreliable narrator, at first we just get slivers of problems between reality and life as Richie sees it, but these moments become more obvious as the narrative continues.

Finally, my new workstation was ready. I organized myself and got to work as quickly as possible. I was so embroiled in what I was doing I almost forgot that I was sitting in a cubicle, until Joe from Marketing came over to me and said, “This really sucks, man.” Joe was a nice guy and I knew he meant well, but I still felt patronized. To everyone in the office I was a big joke now. They were probably whispering about me in the bathroom and by the water cooler: “Did you hear what happened to Richie Segal? He got kicked out of his office today.” Jackie, a young secretary, passed by and said “Hi, Richard.” When I had an office, she used to say “hello, Richard.” But now that I was a fellow cubicle worker she obviously felt comfortable and informal enough around me to say “Hi.” 

With Richie as the narrator, the story, of course, is filtered through his perception. So at times Richie doesn’t understand what his wife, Paula’s problem is or why the dog, Otis, cowers when Richie comes through the door. It’s a very human tendency to tell a story from our own slant, but this sort of character is Jason Starr’s specialty. Starr is not a stylist but his strength lies in getting into the heads of his male protagonists and following their twisted thoughts to the bitter end.

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Hoodoo Harry: Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale’s novella Hoodoo Harry is one in the entry of Bibliomysteries (“a series of short tales about deadly books by top mystery authors”). Hoodoo Harry features Lansdale’s much-loved fictional duo Hap and Leonard, and since it’s a short trip with these two, I’d recommend it for fans rather than newbies.

For those unfamiliar with Hap and Leonard, they live in East Texas, outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Later in the series, they work at a detective agency run by Hap’s girlfriend, Brett. Hap and Leonard’s close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple. Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions.

Hoodoo Harry

In Hoodoo Harry, Hap and Leonard are on a fishing trip when a bookmobile barrels towards them:

As we came over the hill. the trees crowding in on us from both sides, we saw there was a blue bus coming down the road, straddling the middle line. Leonard made with an evasive maneuver, but by this point the trees on the right side were gone, and there was a shallow creek visible, one that fed into the private lake where we had been fishing. There was no other place to go. 

Hap and Leonard survive the accident, but the driver of the bookmobile van doesn’t. Turns out the driver, am orphaned boy named James, had been “couch surfing,” and picking up odd jobs in Nesbit–a town with an ugly history. Hap and Leonard are troubled by James’s death, and although his death was caused by a horrendous accident, they feel responsible. The fact that James was covered with cigarette burns and had clearly been tortured before his death indicates that he was running, terrified from some awful fate. And then there’s a question about the bookmobile. It disappeared 15 years ago along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, otherwise known as Hoodoo Harry. This was a cold case until the perfectly preserved missing bookmobile plows into Hap and Leonard.

Where has the bookmobile been for the last 15 years? Where is Hoodoo Harry and why was a runaway child at the wheel of a vehicle he couldn’t handle?

Anyone familiar with Hap and Leonard, who typically take on the cases of the disenfranchised, can guess that these unlikely best friends will investigate the case and find the answers. Race issues, as always, float to the top of the tale. Hap and Leonard operate in East Texas and Nesbit is one of those out-of-the-way unpleasant little towns where everyone appears to know everything about all the mostly unsavory residents.

The tale also includes Lansdale’s signature style and that is occasionally crude. It goes with the territory:

When I came to, I was lying on the ground on my side by the edge of the creek. I was dizzy and felt like I’d been swallowed by a snake and shit down a hole. My throat was raw, and I knew I had most likely puked a batch of creek water. 

For Lansdale fans, this tale is a short, fun trip, but it’s probably not the best place to start if you’re new to the Hap/Leonard team

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Filed under Fiction, Lansdale Joe R