Tag Archives: series PI

The Will to Kill: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

Where there’s a will …

In The Will to Kill, Mike Hammer is back in a tightly-woven PI tale of greed, dysfunctional siblings and a legacy of millions of dollars. When the novel opens, it’s past midnight and Mike Hammer has a quiet moment watching the Hudson River. A slab of ice caught by the pier carries strange cargo–half of a body. Hammer asks himself “what was it about me that attracted death? What turned a reflective moment at the waterfront into a damn crime scene?”

The half-a-body is identified as Jamison Elder, a bachelor and a butler in his sixties. The official story, according to his employers, the four wealthy Dunbar siblings, is that Jamison’s sister was ill, and he left the family estate near Monticello, to rush to her side. Somewhere along the way, his car ploughed into a snow bank, and then the story gets blurry. Police speculate that somehow or another Jamison fell into the river and suffered extensive injuries that caused his death.

the will to kill

Captain Pat Chambers, Mike Hammer’s old friend, finds Jamison’s death suspicious. Add that to the death a few years earlier of Jamison’s employer, ex-cop turned inventor, millionaire Chester Dunbar. Chester Dunbar was Chambers’ precinct captain when Chambers graduated from the academy, and now Chambers feels a sense of moral obligation to investigate both Dunbar and Jamison’s deaths. Since the case is outside of Chambers’ jurisdiction, he hires Hammer reasoning that “if Mike Hammer can’t sniff out murder, nobody can.”

Hammer contacts the four Dunbar siblings who live together at the family estate. There’s Wake and Dex adopted by Chester Dunbar when he married their widowed mother, and Dorena and Chickie, Dunbar’s own children. According to Chambers, “two are bums, one’s beautiful and one’s a congenital idiot.” All four Dunbar offspring are waiting for their generous inheritance which only comes their way as they each turn forty.

Hammer stays at the estate, and curiously the three eldest Dunbar offspring welcome an investigation into the death of their father while 20-year-old Chickie is too busy playing with his toys to have an opinion. There’s a lot of dirt and scandal under the surface of the Dunbar estate. Wake is married to a beautiful gold-digger, and Dex is a compulsive gambler. Dorena, a budding playwright, seems to be the only normal one of the bunch, but with millions of dollars at stake in the will, Hammer reasons, “no wonder there’s murder in the air.”

Although this tale is lean, Hammer’s observations, always laced with a bitter humour, give a strong sense of time, place and character. Here he is meeting the Dunbar family lawyer in a low-rent diner:

I went down and slid in opposite him in a high-backed booth, tossing my hat on the table. He had what must have been a sturdy frame before time and pie–he was halfway through a piece of coconut crème-caught up with him. His charcoal worsted would have been too good for the place if it hadn’t looked slept in. The black-and-white silk tie seemed fresh enough

The tale, full of snappy dialogue and Hammer’s wry, cynical wit, rips along with very little down time as Hammer moves from one corpse to another, meeting a number of beautiful, seductive women along the way. A Will to Kill is another product of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished work now seamlessly completed by Max Allan Collins who inherited Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts upon his death. As usual, it’s impossible to tell where Mickey Spillane ends and Max Allan Collins begins, so fans should be pleased.

review copy

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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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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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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Christopher Finch

Does anyone else have the impression that there’s more crime fiction being published these days? I’ve no idea if that is true or not–perhaps my impression is totally wrong, but there are so many new names, so many new series, and a lot of it is a load of crap. As I’ve said before, the term ‘crime fiction’ is an umbrella term which covers many sub-genres. I tend to avoid cozy crime as it’s just not dark enough for me, and I’m also completely burned out with books about teenage girls being kept captive as sex slaves by some crazed pervie. In fact, books that focus on sex torture crime or cases sparked by random body-parts and cryptic messages sent to the coppers are out completely, and I’m getting to the point that I’m a bit reluctant to try new names as I’d prefer to read vintage noir or crime along with old favourites. This brings me to Christopher Finch’s novel Good Girl, Bad Girl, the first in a new PI series.

The Heartland Credit Union Building was an anonymous structure that attracted tenants seeking anonymity–unfrocked dentists, myopic eye doctors, low-life lawyers, assorted quacks, polyester-suited real estate shysters, vodka-soaked teachers of English as a Second Language, masseuses and manicurists with interesting sidelines. My hutch was on the third floor. If you cracked the solitary window open, you were overwhelmed by the aroma of sweet-and-sour-pork deep friend in peanut oil that should have been thrown out before Mao set out on the Long March.

It was one of the first uncomfortably hot days of the year–one of those May mornings when a tropical front breezes into town unannounced, like that cousin from Miami you hoped had lost your address.

To be honest, I thought Good Girl, Bad Girl was a stand-alone, and I wouldn’t have read it if I had realized that this was the beginning of a new series. With a stand-alone, you enter one door and exit the next. You are done. But with a series, you enter inter-connected rooms and the first one, often the weakest, leads you to all the others. I have so many unfinished series I want to get back to, I didn’t want to start another. I wasn’t expecting much from Good Girl, Bad Girl, but after the above quote, I knew I was in for the ride. Low-rent PI Alex Novalis describes his pathetic little office in the opening of Good Girl, Bad Girl as he begins another morning. He receives a call summoning him to the apartment of real estate Gabriel Kravitz.

“Mr. Novalis, I understand you were fired from your position as an investigator with the DA’s office?”

No argument from me.

“Possession of marijuana. I presume you’re clean now?’

“Whiter than the driven snow,” I said, taking another hit.

That quote should give you a sense of Novalis’s wise-ass style, and if you like the style then chances are you’ll like the book. It’s 1968. The Warhol crowd dominate the avant-garde art scene in New York and America is at war in Vietnam. Novalis is hired by Gabriel Kravitz to find his missing daughter, 18-year-old Lydia. Lydia was attending Teddington, an exclusive girls’ college when she met, and became involved with predatory pretentious artist & egotist, middle-aged Jerry Pedrosian.

One of Pedrosian’s happenings involved the audience being taken into an industrial refrigerator hung with sides of beef, while a girl in leathers revved the engine of a Harley till the noise was deafening.

No wonder Pedrosian’s career is on the skids.

good girl bad girl Kravitz and his wife objected to their daughter’s relationship with Pedrosian, and after a fight with her parents, Lydia disappeared. Novalis’s job is to find Lydia without making any noise. He’s considered the perfect man for the job as he once specialized in art fraud and knows his way around the quirks of the art world. Novalis knows that there’s a lot he’s not being told–after all, Lydia is 18 and can do as she pleases. One of the leads Novalis has is Andrea Marshall, Lydia’s best friend. Andrea, a sexy little brunette, at first claims she knows nothing about Lydia’s disappearance, but it seems that she’s not quite telling the truth.

Author Christopher Finch plays with the good-girl-bad-girl dynamic, and Novalis is never quite sure just who is the bad influence here–Andrea or Lydia. Lydia “had the face of a Piero della Francesca angel,” and yet as Novalis digs into the case, Lydia clearly has a secret life that not even her best friend knows about. While the 60s atmosphere works most of the time, there are a couple of instances when it doesn’t. At one point, for example, Novalis says that Andrea “looked about as comfortable as a poodle in a cage full of pit bulls.” The simile didn’t work as the reference to pit bulls yanked this reader out of the 60s.

For the most part, this was a fun, not-too-serious trip into the 60s art world complete with the tasteless homes of the filthy rich, a squalid, filthy tenement, and Max’s Kansas City where the rich, the famous, and the trendy go to “see and be seen.” The bottom line secret punch with Lydia is all too familiar, and the novel’s strengths are the narrator’s sardonic sense of humour and some good characterizations. Strongly flavoured scenes with neglected politician’s wife, Mrs. Baldridge who is also Pedrosian’s sister, and Pedrosian’s tenacious old radical, Aunt Ida are very funny. Since this is the first in a series, we are given some interesting glimpses into Novalis’s messy personal life, and the art world backdrop lends a novel quality to the PI tale. The missing person case comes second in this book which obviously is part homage to the hard-boiled PI novels of the 40s and 50s. At one point, Novalis even tells someone “Trouble is my business,” and while Novalis’s audience doesn’t get the reference, author Christopher Finch, no doubt, hopes that we do.  Review copy

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Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

I’m a Donald Westlake fan, but it’s been some time since I read one of his books.  I don’t know about all the other readers out there, but when I return to an old favourite after a significant gap of time, I am reminded all over again why I like a particular author, and then I ask myself why it took me so long to return to a writer who is practically a ‘sure bet.’ Specifically, I’m talking about Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death which is the first entry in the Mitchell Tobin mystery series originally written by Westlake using the pseudonym Tucker Coe. Westlake, who died in 2008, was an extremely prolific author, and to be honest I’ve lost track of just how many names he used over his long varied career. I was delighted to come across another series character, and fans of Westlake will understand what I’m talking about when I say that readers of this author’s novels become die-hard fans of  Westlake’s series characters.

kinds of Love kinds of deathThe protagonist of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is a disgraced former New York police officer, Mitchell Tobin, fired from the force, and now unemployed. His wife, Kate works at a local five-and-dime and her meagre wages along with their diminishing savings keep the family afloat. Meanwhile, Tobin is using his energy to build a wall at his home. It’s back-breaking work, and there’s the sense that it’s both a physical punishment and a mindless distraction. Where did Tobin’s life go wrong? Now 39, he was a  member of NYPD for 18 years before being kicked out. In his 14th year as a police officer, he met Linda, the wife of a burglar named Dink:

But the story tips itself right there, doesn’t it? On first seeing Linda’s name in print you know that I am destined to go to bed with her, knowledge that did not come to me until over a year later, when Dink had already been tried and convicted and was in the process of serving a term that at its shortest must last fifteen years. But it is impossible for me to communicate the knowledge to you as it came to me, in slow revelations, in tiny sunbursts of awareness, in gradual dependence and increasing need and a feeling that developed so slowly it was there long before either of us was fully aware of it, a feeling of inevitability. None of the rationalizing mist which so delightfully blinded me is available now to blind you; you must see it in a cold harsh light, a cheap and nasty bit of adultery with the most tasteless and degrading overtones.

I won’t spoil the story by giving any more details of what went wrong in Tobin’s life, but here he is, still with his wife, Kate and their only child, feeling a crippling sense of guilt. Tobin is busy working on the wall when he’s approached, through a lowly intermediary, about a job for gangster Ernie Rembek, an “amiable czar in a two hundred dollar suit.” It’s ostensibly a bit of detective work, but Tobin doesn’t have a PI license. Rembek who  “needs somebody to do a cop-type job,” wants to employ Tobin for his detective skills and also there’s the  unsavoury, unspoken idea that, since the case involves adultery, perhaps Tobin is the perfect man for the job. Tobin would like to tell Rembek to get lost, but Rembek makes an offer that Tobin is in no position to refuse. Tobin feels awkward working for a gangster, so he sets some hard and fast rules which lay the ground work for how he’ll treat his client and the case. Tobin may be a disgraced ex-cop, but he’s heavy on integrity:

Years ago I gave up being bitter about the comparative incomes of successful crooks and successful cops; it’s a cheap and irrelevant comparison anyway, since wealth is the goal of the crook but presumably something else is the goal of the cop.

Tobin is hired to find Rembek’s mistress, Rita Castle, a bit-part actress who’s flown the love-nest taking a large chunk of Rembek’s cash for her trouble. She’s left behind a cruel note to her ex-sugar daddy, but Rembek, still smitten, wants her back. Since there’s every reason to believe that she’s run off with someone Rembek knows (and that means another member of “The Corporation” ), whoever investigates needs to ask delicate questions and keep his mouth shut about the answers. That’s where Tobin comes in.

I studied my reactions to the job I’d been offered. The job itself required no study; if it contained no elements other than those already described to me, it was a plain and honest piece of work. I might or might not be capable of handling it, but legally and morally I could have no qualms about it.

No, it wasn’t the job that was complicated, it was my reaction to it. To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along, I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it.

This quote gives a taste of the sort of narrator Mitch is. He knows that he can never repair what happened in his past, and painfully honest about his errors and responsibilities, Mitch partly wants to be punished and remain in a state of disgrace. The job with Rembek offers some tantalizing possibilities that go far beyond the generous monetary compensation; the job is also a way to gain back some self-respect, and Tobin, who’s too hard on himself to allow for any self-pity or self-delusion, knows that he owes it to his family to do something about the mess his life has become.

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is the first of 5 Mitch Tobin novels, and it’s an extremely strong start (could Westlake do anything less?). Westlake creates an incredibly strong and interesting protagonist, a troubled man immersed in his own tangled problems–a man who’s thrown a lifeline from an improbable and questionable source. Tobin, of course, takes the job, as we knew he would, and he proves to be an excellent detective. He learns that the men in “The Corporation” had “wifey time,” and this means public events they attended with their wives, but then there’s the rest of the time when the gangsters trooped out their expensive mistresses and partied. While Rita Castle acted like the “original dumb bunny” and seemed to be little more than a “feeble-minded” dumb blonde out for whatever cash from whichever besotted middle-aged admirer she could hook, Tobin begins to suspect that Rita Castle was not what she appeared. One look at the bookshelf next to her bed tells Tobin that Rita was anything but dumb. She was sharp and manipulative coming on to Rembek’s acquaintances,  employees and business associates whenever Rembek’s back was turned. According to the chauffeur she was “dangerous,” and according to another gangster, Rembek couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else:

When a man buys something new and shiny, and he loves it very much, you don’t tell him he got a lemon.

Anyway, I’m hooked, and I’m in for the series

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

Murder Among Children

Wax Apple

A Jade in Aries

Don’t Lie to Me

review copy

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Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal

In 2012 I read The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub), and here to follow-up is the second novel in the series, Dogstar Rising. The first novel in the series introduced us to Makana, a down-on-his luck PI, former policeman, a refugee from Sudan who now lives in Egypt. Dogstar Rising finds Makana, who’s a bottom feeder in Egypt society, still having trouble making ends meet, still mulling over his past life in Sudan (which ended with the loss of his wife and only child) and taking a case for the owner of Blue Ibis Tours. The case comes to Makana via Talal, the son of an old friend from Sudan. Talal is courting ‘Bunny,’ the daughter of the man who owns the tour company.

Blue Ibis flew tourists down to the Valley of the Kings on whirlwind tours of the hot and dusty resting places of long-dead pharaohs. They took them on camel treks  into the Sinai Desert in the footsteps of Moses, before depositing them on a beach by the Red Sea where they could roast nicely for a few days and feed themselves on lavish buffets or dive in clear blue water among coral reefs. The nights shook to the uninhibited pulse of dance music that provided them with the hedonistic lifestyles they associated with being on holiday. They ran them up and down the Nile in luxury boats with belly dancers and live folklore shows every evening. The food was all prepared to European standards so that nothing as inconvenient as indigestion might come between those and their once in a lifetime experience.

That passage gives a good sense of the author’s slightly sardonic tone–along with the implication that tourists float on the surface of Egyptian life and rarely see what is going on underneath the fabricated veneer of the lavish holiday experience.

Dogstar risingThe owner of Blue Ibis Tours, a very harassed character, Mr Faragalla, has received what he perceives to be a threatening letter which contains a quote from the Quran. To Makana the quote seems harmless, but to Faragalla, the quote is a threat for bringing foreigners into the country–foreigners who “drink wine and beer … and throw off their clothes and display themselves publicly.” Although Makana doesn’t see much harmful in the letter, he takes the case, posing as an efficiency expert who’s been hired to pull the struggling company out of the red.

In another story thread, the bodies of young mutilated boys appear in the city, and the victims are from the thousands of homeless children living on the street. They appear to have been kept captive and tortured over a period of time. The deaths stir religious fervor, and in a country divided by intense feelings, the murders become a rallying call for Sheikh Waheed, a “controversial iman” who blames the city’s minority Coptic community. While there’s a political value to be gained from stormy rhetoric regarding the callous murders of homeless children, there’s also something extremely poignant about the fact that these children are murdered in obscurity. No one claims them–no one except a priest who seems to have known all the dead boys at one time or another as they sheltered temporarily at his church.

Religious fanaticism doesn’t just concern the case of the dead children. Makana makes friends with Meera, an employee of the Blue Ibis Tour company. She seems somehow out of place amongst the disorganized mess, and she too is a victim of religious intolerance. Makana, whose early life was marred and permanently shaped by fanaticism, knows just how dangerous it is to become an object of retaliation, and yet he seems powerless to stop forces determined to stir hatred.

Bilal brings Cairo alive, and his interpretation of social, religious, and political life in Egypt is fascinating, and in this second book in the series, the introduction of a dying tourist business meshed very well with the idea of minority integration. If you like your foreign crime to reflect the particular turmoil of the country in which it’s set, then the Makana series is for you.  The first book in the series The Golden Scales (and I suggest reading this first as the second volume contains several repeat characters) managed to balance Makana’s private life with the case he investigated, and some of this private life included scenes of his past in Sudan. Any series character needs to have a private life to keep us interested and reading, and I’ve read books in which the balancing act of private life vs. investigation has been perfect while in others the private life of the series character dominates or even stagnates. In Dogstar Rising, there doesn’t seem to be enough quite forward motion in Makana’s private life. He still lives in the same place and has the same friends (and that’s all very enjoyable), and while there’s a major development regarding Makana’s past, somehow it’s not quite enough.  It’s a problem: Makana is a widower, haunted by his past, and tormented by his decisions. This results in his inability to move on, and yet, Makana, as a character, will have to move on and develop. It’s a challenge, and one I hope the author tackles in his next entry in the Makana series.

Review copy

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Skin by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“Somebody had a seriously screwed-up upbringing.”

Last year I read and throughly enjoyed the hard-boiled crime novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, from authors Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Mickey Spillane is best remembered for his iconic bad-ass anti-hero, Mike Hammer (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick), and when Spillane died in 2006, he left several unfinished manuscripts along with the instructions that they should go to his long-time friend, Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition). The good news for Hammer fans is that Max Allan Collins, Spillane’s natural successor, has put those manuscripts to good use, and as a result new work is surfacing: Kiss Her Goodbye, The Goliath Bone, Dead Street, The Consummata are all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Skin, a short story is the latest work to appear. Mickey Spillane apparently began the story in 2005, and chronologically it places Hammer in one of his last cases before retirement. It’s a slight work in comparison to the other, weighty novels in which violent action slams down hard on the heels of more violent action. Still for fans, Skin, which runs at round 41 pages, brings back Hammer, and I for one am always glad to see this character. Yes, he’s labeled with a lot of very PC-unfriendly words, but for this reader, he’s also a breath of fresh air.

The story begins with Hammer and Pat Chamber, captain of Homicide staring at a mangled pile of flesh that looks like “roadkill” located just off the side of the road. This is Hammer’s grisly find, and it’s an incident which underscores the idea that Hammer is a trouble-magnet.  Along with the unidentifiable flesh is one intact hand, and that hand belongs to missing Broadway producer, Victor King.

Hammer meets King’s wife who also happens to be the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance. She’s not exactly ruffled by her husband’s disappearance:

The next morning around ten, I was sitting in the lavish living room of Victor King’s penthouse apartment on upper Fifth Avenue, with a view on Central Park. The furnishings were vintage art deco and what wasn’t white was black, and what wasn’t blond wood was chrome, and everything had curves. Including Mrs. King, who was also blond. As expected, she was a very lovely twenty-five or so; the stark red of her silk pajamas matched her finger-and toenails, jumping out at me  like the devil against the white of the couch, her legs crossed, a hand caressing a knee. Her mouth was similarly red, but her eyes were baby blue with blue eye shadow and a sleepy look, like a cheerleader on her third  beer after the big game.

I couldn’t imagine any man wanting to sleep with her, unless he was heterosexual and had a pulse.

So the grieving widow puts Hammer on retainer and he takes the case….

Since this is a short story, and an action-packed one at that, there isn’t much down time and the scenes seem to spin through at warped speed. Soon Hammer has a good idea of what kind of monster he’s hunting, and he delivers his own special Hammer-style justice which has very little to do with judges and courtrooms.

The gristly, hyper-violent Skin places Hammer close to retirement, and in this story, he clearly knows his physical limitations. He hasn’t changed, but he has aged, and so the story’s title has several meanings. Hammer still feels strong sexual attraction to women, but now he’s at the point that he’s not going to take the bait. Instead it’s all business, and Hammer doesn’t believe in leaving loose strings behind.

Review copy from the publisher.

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The Girl in a Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

“She preferred dumpster diving in corporate espionage cases over divorce cases. The slime from the dumpster came off in the shower.”

I’ve wanted to try a Laura Lippman novel for some time, so when The Girl in The Green Raincoat fell my way, I grabbed the chance to read it. It’s one episode in the life of Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, and this is the 11th novel in the series. It didn’t seem to matter much that I was jumping into the middle of Tess’s life, and at this point in her career, she’s a high risk pregnancy at age 35 and stymied on forced bedrest.

Bored to tears, one Sunday, Tess finds herself staring out of the window at dogwalkers lucky enough to walk their dogs (her own dogs, Esskay and Miata, are elsewhere in the house). Her attention is drawn continually to a young woman in a green raincoat, and why is she so noteworthy?  Her dog, an Italian greyhound, sports a matching raincoat. Well if you see a woman and a dog wearing matching raincoats, it’s going to make an impression:

Her eye was drawn to a miniature version of Esskay, a prancing Greyhound, a true gray one, whereas Esskay was black with a patch of white at her breast. The little dog wore a green jacket belted around its middle and moved with the cocky self-confidence of someone used to being noticed. As did its human companion, in a tightly cinched celery-green raincoat that was a twin to the greyhound’s. Hard to tell the woman’s age at this distance, but Tess could make out sleek blond hair, a wasp-waisted figure. She was the kind of pretty woman who would be called a girl into her forties. She ignored the other dog owners, cradling what appeared to be a cell phone against her ear.

But after watching the dog owner and her dog for several days in a row, on Friday the woman isn’t there, but that night Tess sees the Italian Greyhound running around the park with a celery-green leash dangling from his collar.

Tess is convinced it’s a case of foul play, and so from her bed, she organises an investigation of the woman’s disappearance. It doesn’t take too much digging to discover that the missing woman is Carol Epstein, and that her husband, Don,  is a modern-day Bluebeard. The women in his life haven’t fared well, and it doesn’t look good for his latest wife, Carol either. Epstein, who owns a chain of check-cashing outlets, is a real piece of work, and he claims that his wife isn’t missing at all–she’s just away on business.  

A lot of the book’s fun comes from the frequent allusion to film scattered throughout the book. The basic plot is lifted right out of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, of course, and while this is noted early in the book, it’s also a reason why people don’t listen to Tess’s concerns at first. But as the dirt from Don’s past comes to light, Tess gets support for her theory that Carol Epstein met foul play. She rallies her staff and recruits her friend Whitney to go undercover to date this deadly Casanova:

Don Epstein dressed atrociously, in a style Whitney thought of a Bad Florida. Bright patterned shirts worn untucked, slip-on loafers in sherberty colors. And the jewelry! Epstein wore two large rings, not counting his wedding ring, an ID bracelet, and occasionally a gold chain around his neck.

Originally serialised in New York Times Magazine, The Girl in  the Green Raincoat is a speedy, humorous, addictive read. My impression about Lippman books (before actually reading one) is that they are something along the lines of Kate Atkinson, and after reading this novel, I no longer see the comparison. Since this is my first Lippman novel, I can’t judge the rest, but I can say that The Girl in the Green Raincoat has more in common with a cozy than hard or even soft-boiled crime. Any series detective novel must, by necessity, spend a portion of the book on the life of its protagonist since over time readers develop a relationship of sorts with that fictional character; we are interested not only in the crime but in the life and personal problems of the series detective or PI (Andrea Camilleri’s creation Inspector Montalbano’s long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Henning Mankell’s Wallender and his father with Alzheimer’s). Here it seems about 50-50 crime and Tess’s personal life–although the end of the book (a quick read at 170 pages) tilts 100% towards Tess’s life & pregnancy. Given the emphasis on the dilemma of career vs family, child-rearing vs crime investigation, The Girl in the Green Raincoat will probably have more appeal for female readers.

My copy of The Girl in the Green Raincoat came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on my Kindle.

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Started Early Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

High praise goes to Kate Atkinson’s novel, Started Early Took My Dog. It’s the fourth novel by Atkinson to feature PI Jackson Brodie, and in my typical fashion, I am only now just getting to this author. This means I have some catch-up to do because after reading this one, I know I want to read all the earlier novels. I’m not going to write a full review. For that, go to Mostly Fiction.

Instead here’s the novel in brief: the two main characters are “butch old battlexe” Tracy Waterhouse, in her 50s, a retired Detective Superintendent from the West Yorkshire Police Dept  and PI Jackson Brodie. Tracy, bored to tears in retirement, is now Head of Security at a local shopping centre. Tracy, who has never married, becomes mixed up with the fate of a badly neglected child, and this sends her life into a tailspin. She’s also about to run into Jackson Brodie who’s been employed by an adopted girl in New Zealand to find her real parents. Clues lead to Tracy and an old murder case from 1975.

The novel goes back and forth between 1975 Yorkshire “awash with serial killers” and the present, and several threads regarding lost girls (kidnapped, missing, murdered) run throughout this simply marvellous story. This is not primarily a crime novel–although the action is built around several crimes; instead this is a superbly built story of several characters whose lives are shaped by crime. These characters make spilt-second decisions that haunt them for a lifetime, and this leads to crimes or sometimes serious errors in judgment. As the novel slips back and forth between 1975 and the present, we enter a time warp of attitudes. Tough women are either “butch” or “lezzies” and prostitutes ‘had it coming.’ Atkinson shows us that some attitudes have improved while others have just submerged and morphed into new pathologies. A strangely poignant tale with dense characterisation, this is a novel that may convince some readers to dip into a genre they normally avoid.

One of the things I particularly liked about the novel is the way in which the plot explored characters haunted by past experiences or by poor decisions they made. Here’s Tracy looking back over her career:

Tracy had a sudden, unexpected memory of the endless, thankless task of indexing cards during the Ripper investigation. The police had people out taking down registrations of cars in the red-light district, spotting ones that turned up regularly, triple sightings in Bradford, Leeds, and Manchester. Sutcliffe was one of those, of course–interviewed nine times, exonerated. So many mistakes. Tracy was still naive, no idea how many men used prostitutes, thousands from all walks of life. She could hardly believe it. Gambling, drinking, whoring–the three pillars of western civilization.

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An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“After all what self-respecting film noir detective would share an office with a sewer expert, an upholsterer, and a plumber?”

While An Easy Thing is not the first novel from author Paco Ignacio Taibo II to feature PI Hector Belascoaran Shayne, the novel is Taibo’s American debut. And it’s in this novel that the detective, who’s already survived six attempts on his life, loses an eye.

Taibo’s marvelous fictional detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne is based in Mexico City. He lives in a tiny apartment in the Roma Sur and shares a “grimy” office with a plumber, an engineer and an upholsterer. Belascoaran used to be an engineer by trade, but after gaining a “certificate in detection from a Mexican correspondence school,” he now makes a marginal living solving the bizarre cases that come his way. The novel is set in 1977, and Belascoran’s Irish mother has just died. As Belascoran and his siblings Elisa and Carlos discover, her death opens up secrets about their long-dead father.

While Belascoaran struggles with personal problems–the death of his mother, new knowledge about his father, and the occasional letter from a woman he may or may not love, Belascoaran takes on no less than 3 PI cases. The first case involves the murder of an engineer at the Delex factory, the second involves the daughter of a sexy soap opera actress, and the third case involves an investigation into rumors that Zapata was not killed in 1919. Each case reflects some aspect of Mexican society. The Delex factory, for example, is in the middle of an ugly labor dispute, and Belascoaran sniffs that the management wants to frame workers for the engineer’s death. The soap opera star, Marisa Ferrer has risen to stardom on her looks and the liberal use of her gorgeous body, and Belascoaran notes that her clothing shrinks as her fame grows. And the detective’s pursuit of the rumors of Zapata’s escape reiterates the legends created when any great revolutionary is murdered, and “Wild rumors [are] produced in desperation by a people deprived of their leader; it was a natural defense against an enemy that controlled both media and myth.”

Since Belascoaran was an engineer before he became a PI, the Delex case hits a chord with memories of his past life as a bourgeois husband with a wife whose “foremost thought was to get a new carpet for the dining room.” Solving the Delex case and making sure that innocent workers aren’t framed for the crime becomes a matter of importance for the detective:

“It was a debt that came out of his willing submission to the status quo, his disdain for workers, all the times he’d driven through a disaster zone. He needed to go back to where he’d come from and prove to himself that he’d changed.”

Juggling the cases with his personal life, Belascoaran recruits his office mates as unpaid detectives, and as usual Belascoaran adopts unorthodox methods to solve his cases, often using a shotgun approach to flush suspects out into the open. In this novel, Belascoaran spends many lonely nights with his “nocturnal” office mate sewer expert El Gallo Villareal who shares his philosophy on sewers. In one great scene the detective and the sewer expert spend an evening calling in over 100 threats to dynamite hotels, and El Gallo, who turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing,  becomes increasingly animated and inventive with each call.

Scarred and one-eyed Belascoaran is a marvelous, intriguing literary creation and certainly deserves a place in the fictional detective Hall of Fame. In some ways he reminds me of Sam Spade: laid back, living in a tatty office, not getting excited about too many things, disdainful of authority, and a man who believes living independently means more than making a fortune. Belascoaran is all these things, but he also has a self-deprecating humour, is vulnerable and has very human faults (his sweet tooth manifests itself in his addiction to Mexican soda pop, and he also makes a lot of mistakes). He’s not a ‘tough guy’ in the traditional sense, and he’s certainly not a methodical detective. But in spite of his faults–or perhaps because of them–he’s an endearing and enduring character.

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Filed under Taibo, Paco Ignacio II