Tag Archives: Las Vegas

A Justified Bitch: H. G. McKinnis

The crime novel, A Justified Bitch from H.G. McKinnis is set in Las Vegas. It’s not a cozy, and it’s not dark and gory. Instead, it’s a look at mental illness and how two very different sisters are swept up into a murder case.

a Justified Bitch

Helen Taylor, a widow, who makes a marginal living at a local swap meet, lives in a quiet Las Vegas neighbourhood. Helen has mental health issues which started after the climbing accident that killed her husband, Bobby. Now Helen lives alone in squalid conditions, and she shares her hoarder home with innumerable cats. Helen still ‘talks’ to Bobby, and in spite of her unkempt, dirty appearance, Helen manages, barely, to function. Helen’s life comes crashing to a halt when her prostitute neighbour, Bebe, is murdered right next door.

The police think that Helen holds the clue to the identity of the murderer, but can’t get a sensible word out of her.

She wished she could remember what happened, but as usual, when she absolutely needed to recall something, it hid away inside the cracks and fissures of her brain.

Helen’s functioning sister, Pat, arrives from Arizona to help Helen, and what was supposed to be a short few days stay, turns into something else. Pat is horrified by Helen’s condition and so with the help of her teenage son, Jordan and Helen’s son Marc (who has lived with his Aunt Pat for years), they clean out Helen’s house while Helen stays at a mental health facility. But when Helen goes AWOL, another body turns up….

I liked the Vegas setting, and the ambiance of Helen’s neighbourhood where the dress code was “worn and tatty.”

The Las Vegas heat shimmered off the patched asphalt, giving an opaque and eerie quality to the air. Sitting on her porch, Helen stared into the afternoon sky, rocking and humming quietly. The corner lot gave her an exceptional view of the neighborhood. Through the wire-enclosed backyards, she had an unobstructed view of the cluttered expanse all the way to the next corner. In the opposite direction, long-abandoned treasures lay baking in the sun: old cars. worn-out furniture, and less-well-defined objects–maybe toys, maybe tools–all of them showing signs of exposure to the harsh desert environment. 

Across the street, beyond a car tagged with an orange tow-away sticker, she tried to decipher the hieroglyphics of the new graffiti spray-painted across the front of the Sanchez house. No message there. 

While I was initially annoyed by the whole Helen-talking-to-her-dead-husband thing, I warmed to Pat and the dilemma she faced when she came to Vegas. Helen was not going to be an easy, quick fix, and the author nailed Pat’s situation, and the difficult choices she had to make.  Yes, it’s a murder mystery, but it’s clouded and complicated by mental illness. The title seems a misnomer, but it is attention grabbing.

Review copy

 

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Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 […]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

Review copy

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The Way You Die Tonight by Robert J. Randisi

Any book on the history of organized crime in America needs at least a chapter devoted to Las Vegas. It’s an incredible place–not that I’d want to live there as I’m not thrilled by desert living, and neither am I attracted to living in its artificiality. I’ve been there, of course, and it’s quite an experience–a decadent Disneyland for adults–what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sin City,  and all that. The Vegas setting of Robert Randisi’s novel The Way You Die Tonight sounded attractive…

The Way you die tonightThe Way You Die Tonight is an entry in the Rat Pack Series, and while this is the first Rat Pack novel I’ve read, it didn’t seem necessary to have read the previous titles.

It’s 1964, and the protagonist of the tale is Eddie Gianelli (Eddie G.), a pit boss at the Las Vegas Sands hotel. He’s a fixer of sorts, so his boss, hotel owner Jerry Entratter, asks Eddie G to host Edward G. Robinson who’s coming to Vegas to research his upcoming role in The Cincinnati Kid.  It’s a request straight from Frank Sinatra, and Eddie G., who admires Edward G. Robinson, is only too happy to comply.  In addition to showing Edward G. Robinson Vegas and high stakes poker games, Eddie G. is approached for information by a very eccentric, and well-guarded Howard Hughes who’s in town to buy some casinos.

“Vegas is your town,” Hughes said. “I need somebody who knows this town in and out. That’s you.”
“Is that what you’ve been told?”

“It’s what I know from all the information I’ve gathered,” Hughes said

But when Jerry’s secretary, Helen Simms is murdered (suicide according to the cops), Eddie G. starts investigating on his own with help from Vegas PI Danny Bardini and pal, Jerry Epstein (all three hail from Brooklyn). Gradually the portrait of Helen Simms, known to be a quiet, modest woman, is replaced, and instead Helen seems to have been a woman who led a secret life.

The murder mystery, along with the characters of Jerry, Danny and Eddie G,  for this reader, are the most interesting aspects of the book, but the crime jostles for space with Eddie G’s job hosting Robinson. Any crime novel which features a series character spends time on the crime and time on the protagonist’s personal life; it’s a delicate balance. While interesting information and history about Vegas is folded subtly and carefully into the story, for this reader, the references to real life people–Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson etc, big stars who dropped into the frame with their own scenes, began to feel like over-kill name-dropping and overwhelmed the rest of the tale. Vegas and its casinos present a rich backdrop for crime and murder; the fictionalization of real icons from the period seemed too much, but then their presence is the point of the series. The Rat Pack Series is very popular with a solid fan base, so I appear to be a minority opinion.

Review copy

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The Errol Flynn Novel by Geoff Nicholson

We both deserved more, something more difficult, more special. How much do you know about sadomasochism?”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and if you didn’t know already, it’s Geoff’s 60th birthday next month. This read-a-thon is a way for me to say ‘thanks’ to one of my favourite authors who’s given me a lot of laughs over the last few years. Always grateful to authors who make me laugh and if they throw a little obsession and perversion into the mix, well so much the better, right?

the errol flynn novelThis time, I’m writing about The Errol Flynn Novel, a book I first read a few years ago and a book that was rather difficult to track down at the time. I loved it and immediately recommended it to several people who didn’t like it at all. So take that as a warning for what it’s worth. One of the complaints I read about the book is that it isn’t really about Errol Flynn. Actually, while that isn’t strictly true, I can see why this book, in common with other Nicholson novels didn’t get the right audience. Other readers appear to be offended by what is written about Errol Flynn. Well you can’t please all the people, etc., so suffice to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this strange tale.

So what’s it about?

The story concerns a failed actor named Jake who’s all but given up the idea of ever making the big time. This explains why he’s working in a photocopying shop when the story opens. Jake admits that he “wanted excitement, drama, money, love” so this is one of those ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenarios. By the novel’s conclusion, Jake has far more excitement than he wants, lots of drama and some strange sexual encounters. Shortly after the novel begins, Sacha, an attractive girl from Jake’s drama school days walks into the shop. She’s making a career out of edgy art films, and Jake is initially not thrilled to see her as his loser life is in stark contrast to her acting career which seems to be a series of good moves. Jake is then rather surprised by Sacha’s offer to introduce Jake to Dan Ryan, an American who’s making a film about the life of Errol Flynn. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and if Jake weren’t so desperate to have that elusive acting career, he’d probably have smelled a rat at this very first meeting:

“Look,” Ryan continued, “this is not going to be an expensive movie. we’re only talking about a few million dollars or so. Okay, that means we won’t be hiring Robert Redford, but it also means we can be free in a way Hollywood never dreamed of. We can be outrageous. We have the freedom to be weird. It’s important that you know what kind of director I am, Jake. I’m not a David Lean. I’m sure as hell no Dickie Attenborough. I’m more Andy Warhol meets David Lynch meets Peter Greenaway. Is that okay by you?”

“That’s fine by me,” I said.

” And look, in the end it may not be a movie about Errol Flynn at all, not the Errol Flynn who actually lived. It may be about ontology and iconography, and sensuality, and fame, and myth, and, of course, death. And you know what it’s going to be called? The Errol Flynn Movie.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be a bit nervous about that speech–a speech which rather uncannily is a mirror image of the novel itself. Jake certainly is a little uncomfortable with Ryan, but he’s also never been in a film before. Perhaps all directors are nuts. While his concerns are mostly silenced by a large cheque, Jake does have the wit, however, to ask to see the script. There isn’t one. Well, at least not yet, but Ryan’s harried, slightly neurotic wife, Tina is desperately trying to produce one. To Jake’s astonishment, he lands the leading role, and armed with Errol Flynn’s biography, film stills, videos, recording and a gossip mag, he begins to ‘discover’ the man he’s supposed to portray in the film.

Naturally since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, things go downhill from here. Ryan not only wants to make a film about Errol Flynn’s life, but he seems determined to live parts of it. As the film is made, things spiral increasingly out of control until… well … until they devolve completely.

One of the frequent themes in Nicholson’s novel is obsession, so in The Errol Flynn Novel, we see a multi-layered obsession with Errol Flynn. Director Dan Ryan is so obsessed with the exploits of this iconic star  whose life is wrapped in myth, scandal and rumour, and Ryan wants to make the ultimate film, an ‘interpretation ‘of Flynn’s life, yet where does fact and fiction end? And where are the demarcations of reality and fiction in Ryan’s head? Can Ryan be so gregarious, such a larger than life personality that his actions mask  … insanity?

Throughout the making of the film, Jake of course must act and dress like Errol Flynn, so this involves no small number of costumes and feats of daring (which are very funny if you’re not Jake). Jake has researched his subject, and so the novel is full of Errol Flynn trivia as well as Jake’s inevitable comparisons with his own pathetic life.

No don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of sexual inadequate. I have had my fair share of sexual partners, although you could debate whether or not it was a fair share. I am not one of those men who feels he has to make a lot of conquests, and I certainly don’t see why you would want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with you, and I’m definitely liberal enough to believe that women are entitled to say no and be believed. On the other hand I do wish that rather fewer women had felt free to say no to me over the years than actually have.

Nicholson excels in creating these peculiar situations that spin out-of-control and morph into total whackiness, and in this humorous novel, a film that’s supposed to be a bio-pic of Errol Flynn becomes a formless homage of the very worst aspects of Flynn’s life and a vehicle for Ryan’s obsession. Insane scene after insane scene is shot by a devoted cast while Tina, Ryan’s harried wife attempts to churn out a script. Eventually Jake sniffs that there’s something fishy afoot, but he has no idea just what he’s got himself into….

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