Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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The Dead Stand-In: Frank Kane (1956)

Following on the tail of Richard Deming’s Kiss and Kill comes Frank Kane’s The Dead Stand-In–the second novel in Armchair Fiction’s  two-fer. At just over 70 pages, this tale rattles along with very little down time. The novella’s protagonist is Kane’s series character, PI Johnny Liddell. While the story has nothing new to add to the genre, and has the usual tropes, it’s entertaining, and with a colourful cast of characters, it’s a lively, if somewhat predictable read.

the dead stand in

Johnny Liddell fits a general image of the 50s low-rent PI. He has a red-headed secretary, no clients and a mountain of bills, so when he gets a note telling him that there’s $500 up for grabs if he goes to the Savoy Grill, he takes the bait. When the mystery note writer fails to show, Liddell thinks he’s been stood up, but then he gets a call from a woman (naturally with a “sultry” husky voice) who refuses to identify herself. She hires Liddell to look into the death of hitman Larry Hollister who was shot to death by police a few weeks previously. The official version is that Hollister was a “gun-crazy hood who was burned down resisting arrest.” Liddell thinks the case is a waste of time but with a $500 fee dangling, he takes the case. It doesn’t take much digging before Liddell sniffs a rat. …

The tale has a few interesting twists, and it’s loaded with the PI tropes. Liddell is a tough guy who gets help from his woman–Muggsy. There are some low-life gangsters, a shady nightclub and a platinum blonde singer who’s “hard, cold, and expensive.” As I said, there’s nothing new here but The Dead Stand-In, a pulp read, has its entertaining moments.

The redhead got up from her chair, brought her glass over to the coffee table. She picked up a cigarette from the humidor, chain-lit it from the one in Liddell’s mouth. “I’ve bumped into him around, but I never knew him too well. He wasn’t exactly my type.” She blew a stream of feathery smoke at the ceiling, squinted through it. “He was the kind of a guy that asked for killing, I guess. Everybody hated him, but most of the people he dealt with were too afraid of him to show it.”

“Women?”

“By the carload. He practically had them working in shifts.”  

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Kiss and Kill: Richard Deming (1960)

“We sort of drifted into the business of murder.”

When crime writer Richard Deming (1915-1983) penned Kiss and Kill, a few Lonely Hearts killers had made the headlines. Wikipedia has a page devoted to such crimes–men and women who placed ads in the lonely hearts newspaper columns, courted (briefly) and murdered their prey. While the killing duo in Kiss and Kill doesn’t quite fit any real life characters, this lean crime tale, highly readable at 136 pages, feels like an intimate retelling of a crime spree.

I suppose in any profession you grow with experience. I know I did. When I think of my crude planning in the early years, and the chances I took, it makes my hair curl. Time and time again I blundered past disaster by pure luck.

Our narrator, Korean war veteran Sam, who uses several surnames during the course of the novel, picks up the story when he’s working in California as a grifter, working a con that needs an accomplice. The perfect woman walks into his life–Mavis–a girl from Chicago, inspired by the grandeur depicted in film, who’s eager to learn and willing to take Sam’s bidding. They make a great team, but in between scores, they whoop it up, living lavishly, and this spending creates a boom-and-bust cycle. Eventually when they exhaust their old scam and their “sucker list,”  Sam and Mavis move onto murder and the lonely women who advertise through the lonely hearts columns. They learn from each kill, finessing their techniques, taking no chances.

We had learned a lot from the Houston job. The most important thing we had learned was to lower our sights and never again try for such a big score. The more money people leave when they die, the more speculation there is about their heirs. It was safer to pull small jobs regularly than to try to clean up with only an occasional big one. We concentrated on marks whose passing would leave only the faintest ripple of public comment.

The Houston job also taught us never again to try to operate on the mark’s home ground. In small towns, where we found it safest to operate, the death of a newcomer excites not nearly as much interest as the death of a lifelong resident. So we avoided women with deep roots in their own communities. If they weren’t willing to move off with me to some new town after marriage, we bypassed them.

There are indications that Mavis wants to settle down, and after all, since she has to sit on the sidelines while Sam courts, marries and has sex with his victims, Mavis has arguably the most uncomfortable part to play. Not according to Sam, however, who finds it hard, apparently, to have sex with a series of demanding women. Mavis turns him on, and Sam complains about the fat or bony women he must sleep with in order to seal the numerous marriages. Poor Sam. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it:

“I had to,” I said roughly. “There was no other way to loosen her up. I’m not going to pass up twenty grand just because you’re jealous. You think I like making love to a fat, middle-aged slob.”

Moving from score to score, Sam and Mavis are lucky, but sooner or later, luck runs out….

kiss and kill

The tale follows Sam and Mavis through various cycles as they spend thousands of dollars and then when they’re down to just their stake money, they begin a hunt for the next victim. Sam isn’t interested in retiring, saving or settling down. He kills in order to fund a decadent lifestyle of casinos, hotels, and Monte Carlo. Years after beginning the Lonely Hearts scam, he is no farther ahead financially. He is living an unsustainable life. As the victims pile up, Sam seems to worry less about courting and more about opening that joint checking account. Impossible to tell if this is a flaw of the novel or a sign of Sam’s vanity going to his head.

Anyway ladies: if you are a women of means, you meet some man, and he wants you to marry him and move away, I’d advise CAUTION.

Kiss and Kill made me think about the criminal life. Sam’s a criminal because he can’t see the point of working a subsistence job for the rest of his life. I’m currently watching an Italian crime series which concerns a group of gangsters who are all motivated by different things but as their wealth increases, they don’t seem any happier–just more violent, more unpredictable and most of the profit seems to go towards funding various vices. Scenes show opulent homes decorated in astonishingly poor taste, and then I thought of Scarface and the gangster lifestyle. What to do with all that loot?

scarface

Kiss and Kill is part of a two-fer published by Armchair Fiction reminiscent of the old Acedouble novel.” (And they have a entire Sci-fi line for those interested).

 

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Revolver: Duane Swierczynski

“She gets the eerie feeling that this it it-that Philadelphia has lured her back home to trap her, like one of those fly-eating plants.”

Revolver, written by Duane Swierczynski, goes back and forth through three separate timelines to follow three generations of a Philadelphia Polish-American family through a narrative of disturbingly unsolved crimes. In 1964-1965, white police officer, Stan Walczak, teamed with black officer George Wildey during race riots, unknowingly triggers the attention of some powerful people when he begins helping Wildey with an investigation of heroin use in the city. In 1995, Stan’s son, Jim Walczak, haunted by the unsolved murder of his father, has an opportunity for revenge, and in 2015, Jim’s adopted daughter, Audrey, struggling to finish her thesis in forensic science, begins reinvestigating the unsolved murder of her grandfather, Stan Walczak.

revolver

The author takes us into the lives of the Walczak family through their ties to the Philadelphia PD. The book opens in 1965 with officers Walczak and Wildey waiting in a North Philly bar for a snitch who never arrives. It’s a powerful beginning which then segues to 1995 and picks up with homicide detective, Jim Walczak. It’s through Jim’s discussions with his son, that we know that Stan Walczak was murdered, and that the crime remains, officially, unsolved. Jim Walczak is about to investigate a case which will haunt him–the rape and murder of a young female journalist.

In the third timeline, 2015, Jim Walczak is retired, but his two sons, Cary and Stas, are both police officers. Audrey, the black sheep of the family, studying to be a forensic scientist, flies into Philadelphia to attend a memorial ceremony for her long-deceased, grandfather, Stan Walczak. Estranged from her family, Audrey hasn’t been home in years, and when she decides to start digging into her grandfather’s unsolved murder, she very quickly discovers that the established narrative about the crime is fundamentally untrue….

Swierczynski novels, and regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of this author, are always highly readable. I read this is a couple of sittings, juggling timelines and unsolved crimes in my head. The novel argues that the present is impacted by the past, and that is certainly true in the case of the Walczak family. Moving back and forth through time, we see how the male police officers in the Walczak family sacrifice home life–not for career concerns but due to the sheer dark weight of the crimes they investigate. Some scenes show the Walczak males coming home at night after facing scenes of horror, and then they have to switch gears and pretend to be ‘normal’ for their wives and children who, wrapped in a cocoon of safety, are largely oblivious. Jim Walczak copes with the two vastly different areas of his life by understanding that there’s an “Outer Jim,” and an “Inner Jim.” But that doesn’t stop him from wondering how his father coped with juggling police work and family life.

He wishes he could ask his father how he did it. The whole family thing. Granted, his pop was a career patrolman. He wasn’t obsessing over homicides. But even towards the end of his career, when they assigned him to the worst district in the city, Stan Walczak was there. He was present. Drinking tomato juice and laughing with Jim before school in the morning. Waking up before he got home from school to fix him a snack. Taking his boy to the Phillies games. (When was the last time you took your kids to a ball game?) His pop never talked about cases. Somehow he left it all in the squad car.

Written in the author’s inimitable style, tension blended with relaxed humor, over the course of this story of power, corruption and duty to crime enforcement, the history of three generations of the same family unfolds. We see sons who identify with their fathers; sons who want to be involved and solve the crimes their fathers can’t. It’s in this fashion that three generations of Walczaks, tied to the past, pay a price for their commitment to the police department.

As an aside, the author dedicated this book to his relative Philadelphia police officer, Joseph T. Swierczynski, “who was gunned down by a gangster” in 1919. So the echoes of crimes in the past and how they impact the present continue in a real-life domino effect. Once again, as in Swierczynski’s fantastic novel, Canary (and there’s a connection between Canary and Revolver,) the plot is firmly set in the author’s native Philadelphia, so the plot is steeped in history–the good and the bad sides of a city that Swierczynski obviously cares about.

This author has an intuitive knack of creating fiction that reflects the pulse of modern America. Revolver addresses, through the lives of its troubled characters, the very personal cost of serving as an undervalued cop in society. For this reader, Swierczynski is one of the most exciting names in American crime fiction. Always unpredictable, he never churns out old plots with new titles, and you can never guess where his next book is going to take you.

Review copy

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The Exiled: Christopher Charles

The Exiled, from Christopher Charles, opens at the scene of a horrendous murder at the Wilkins ranch, a place owned by an older married couple. This is not the sort of crime usually found in the sparsely populated deserts of New Mexico.

death here seemed governed by natural law. What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban, something from what Bay had called Raney’s past life, something that would have made sense on the basement of a Lower East Side tenement.

Raney, a former New York narcotics detective, is the sole homicide investigator covering an area over 200 sq miles, and he’s used to cases “that solved themselves.” The blood and carnage he finds at the Wilkins ranch echo scenes from Raney’s past when his life as an undercover cop derailed with horrible consequences.

The exiled

The Wilkins ranch, “over a thousand acres of pinon-dotted slopes,” is owned by a husband and wife well known to Bay, the local sheriff who oversees the small nearby town. Inside a bunker on the ranch, there are three dead bodies along with the telltale signs of a major cocaine operation. The cocaine, approximated at ten kilos, is gone, and the widow Mavis Wilkins, who doesn’t even bother to pretend she cares, professes she knows nothing about her dead husband’s drug activities or the identities of the two other victims who have connections to a major Mexican drug cartel.

Their search of the house turned up nothing-no drugs, no ledger, no hint of who Wilkins bought from or sold to–nothing but the portrait of a relationship that had long since become something less than a marriage.

While Sheriff Bay takes Mavis Wilkins’s story at face value, Raney, who has much more experience in the world of narcotics, knows that she must be involved. Mavis Wilkins owns an art gallery in the nearby town, and yet the local economy hardly seems likely to support such an improbable business venture. Raney gets a tip to track down a man with a bad toupee, and that brings Raney to the local Indian casino. It’s here that Raney spots some signposts to help him solve the case. As he delves into the complex investigation and Mavis’s shady past, the body count savagely rises, and Raney realizes that he’s chasing someone who’s looking for revenge.

The case, for its violence and its drug connections, opens a window to Raney’s past, and the book goes back and forth between the Wilkins case and Raney’s life as an undercover narcotics cop. Interestingly, there’s an 18 year gap between Raney’s exodus from New York and the Wilkins case. We know little of his life in that time; permanently damaged by events in New York, he’s stayed single and has no relationships.

Raney’s past bleeds into his present and his future, and it feels as though Raney could become a series character. While the author creates two distinct, violent worlds and starts very strongly indeed, a plot twist involving revenge seemed a little implausible to this reader. The New Mexico terrain, however, certainly adds a flavorful dimension to the tale; the sleepy little town has just one “commercial street” and tries to maintain its “pioneer charm.” But there’s an ugly side to the town that even the locals seem blissfully unaware of, and that ugliness comes bubbling to the surface in the wake of the Wilkins Ranch murders.

review copy

 

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Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes

 

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.

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Honky Tonk Samurai: Joe R. Lansdale

the front windshield collapsed like a Baptist deacon’s morals at a strip club.”

Honky Tonk Samurai is the eleventh book in author Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. For those who are unfamiliar with this excellent series, Hap and Leonard are an East Texas pair, who live surrounded by rednecks and racism, are unlikely friends and consider themselves brothers. While the two aren’t exactly itinerants, they are content to live outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Their close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, blood brothers if you will, at other times, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple.

Honky Tonk samurai

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 for his opinions. 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. In all the Hap and Leonard books, somehow or another they are dragged into crime–not that they go looking for trouble; somehow trouble always looks for them. Sometimes it’s a returning ex that heralds trouble (Savage Season), and sometimes it begins with a friend asking for help.

I don’t think we ask for trouble, me and Leonard. It just finds us. It often starts casually, and then something comes loose and starts to rattle, like an unscrewed bolt on a carnival ride. No big thing at first, just a loose, rattling bolt, then the bolt slips completely free and flies out of place, the carnival ride groans and screeches, and it jags and tumbles into a messy mass of jagged parts and twisted metal and wads of bleeding human flesh.

Honky Tonk Samurai finds Hap and Leonard aging and working part-time for a detective agency. Not far into the tale, Hap’s long-term girlfriend, Brett, decides to give up nursing and takes over the company, and the first case appears in the shape of a crotchety, foul-mouthed, sinewy old woman who looks like a “retired hooker.

“You’re Hap Collins, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said. “Do we know each other?”

“No, but when I was forty I’d like to have. You and me could have burned a hole in a mattress then. Course, you may not have been born. But you might want to lose a few pounds, honey. You’re beginning to chub up.”

“He’s taken,” Brett said, “Pounds and all.”

The old lady studied Brett. “Aren’t you the Southern belle? I bet you could earn a pretty penny on a Louisiana shrimp boat and never have to cast a net.”

“Listen, you old bag,” Brett said.
“Either say what you want or I’m going to stick that cane up your ass and throw you down the stairs so hard the dye will come out of your hair.”

Turns out the old lady, Lilly Buckner, is the first client of the Brett Sawyer Detective Agency, and she wants Hap to find her missing granddaughter Sandy. Sandy, who graduated with a journalism degree and “found that the newspapers and magazines that did hard news had gone the way of the dodo bird and drive-in theaters” ended up working at a “high-end” used car dealership, but one day she just disappeared. Five years have passed and the case is cold. Hap and Leonard go undercover as potential car buyers at the high-end dealership and discover that the business is selling more than just cars….

On the hunt for Sandy, Hap and Leonard stir up trouble in the form of a biker gang and a mysterious hitman known as the Canceler who has a habit of collecting trophy testicles. Cheap hustlers, petty cons, thugs and psychos populate Hap and Leonard’s colorful world, so expect some old familiar faces (including Jim Bob and his car, the Red Bitch), and some new weirdos. I haven’t read the entire Hap and Leonard series; I read a few of the early books and a couple of the later books, so I’d recommend that if you come to Honky Tonk Samurai you should also have at least Vanilla Ride under your belt.

As always with series characters, the adventure/case runs parallel to developments in the personal lives of the main players. In this instance, Leonard, who never baulks at using violence, is deeply torn over the behaviour of his lover, John who’s struggling with guilt for being homosexual. Hap and Brett face a surprise development when Hap’s past arrives on his doorstep.

It was a pleasure to read Hap and Leonard’s latest adventure. Author Joe R. Lansdale is clearly fond of these characters, and it shows. This is another excellent entry in an excellent series. It’s no surprise that someone finally saw the sense of picking up this unlikely crime fighting duo for a TV series, and I’m certain that this will brings Lansdale a new audience of fans.

Review copy

 

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Expiration Date: Duane Swierczynski

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski, and with the arrival of 2016, it seemed like a good time to attack those bookshelves and get to his backlist, and that brings me to Expiration Date, a novel which clearly shows this author’s comic book roots.

expiration date

Set in the author’s native Philadelphia, this is a tale of unemployed journalist, Mickey Wade who finds himself, at 37 years old, with just over a $100 to his name, moving into his hospitalized grandfather’s run down apartment in Frankford, “one of the busiest drug corridors in the city.” Mickey thinks he’s hit rock bottom.

Slumming is one thing when you’re twenty two and just out of college and backed up by a deep-pile parental checking account. But moving into a bad neighborhood when you’re thirty-seven and have exhausted all other options is something else entirely. It’s a heavy thing with a rope, dragging you down to a lower social depth with no easy way back to the surface.

Waking from a hangover, Mickey opens his grandfather’s padlocked medicine cabinet and finds a “oversized vintage jar of Tylenol with a worn and cracked label,” stamped with an expiration date of 1982. Mickey takes four, goes to sleep, and wakes up in 1972….

Going back to the past is an intriguing idea. At first Mickey just takes disturbing trips for nostalgia and curiosity, but then realizes that something much deeper is afoot when he digs through papers and medical reports in his grandfather’s apartment which link these pills, and the things he sees on his various journeys, to the brutal, senseless slaying of his father that occurred decades earlier. The big question becomes, ‘can Mickey change the past?’

The more I practiced, the better my aim. The human mind is capable of all kinds of amazing tricks. Like telling yourself the night before that you want to wake up at a  certain time in the morning. more often than not, you wake up at that time–even beating the alarm clock you set as a backup.

So whenever I popped a pill, or the sliver of a pill, I started thinking hard about the date I wanted.

February 24.

February 28.

March 10.

March 30.

And so on.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go back beyond the day I was born–February 22, 1972. This seemed the default line, and it was disappointing. The journalist in me had fantasies about going back to November 22, 1963, staking out the grassy knoll in Dallas and putting that nearly fifty-year-old story to bed. Dear Oliver Stone, my e-mail would begin….

But nothing doing. If I concentrated on February 21, 1972–or any day preceding it–I ended up back in February 22, 1972, by default.

I also couldn’t go back to a time I’d already visited. Maybe this was a built-in protection feature to prevent me from ripping open the fabric of reality , or something.

It worked.

The story includes a mental asylum, sinister secret government experiments, astral projection, but the pills, as Mickey discovers, have different results depending on who’s taking them….

Mickey Wade’s gnarly old grandfather may be lying in his hospital bed hooked up to numerous tubes and monitoring machines, but that doesn’t stop him from being a major player in this tale. Mickey’s mother, defeated by life’s disappointments, and now living with an ambulance chasing lawyer, Whiplash Walt, also makes an appearance.

Whiplash Walt was in rare form. Touching my mom’s shoulders, her back, her waist–like he was planning on killing her later and wanted to place as many fingerprints as possible, just so the Philly PD would be extra-clear who’d done it.

I’ve read a number of Swierczynski novels–all crime, all the time, so this book, with the time travel ‘butterfly effect‘ twist, was quite different from the others I read, but then again, when I think about what happened to Charlie Hardie, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. As always with this author and his seemingly casual, lightly humorous style, this was a fun read. The novel certainly serves to showcase this author’s range, and the illustrations by Laurence Campbell underscore the author’s comic book roots.

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Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.

[…]

Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

Review copy

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