The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 31, 2009

Online Indie Bookstores

Mystery Lovers Bookshop

The Poisoned Pen

Powell's Books

Skylight Books

Vroman's Books

Warwick's Books

Second Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

Another year has come and flown and it's time once again to distribute the Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction. Here are my caveats and disavowals once again: These awards are based solely on what I have read and enjoyed (or not) during the year. Not what someone else read, not what sold well, not what won at Bouchercon. These are the books that got caught in my hydraulic backwash, so to speak. The list of eligible books is in a separate post here. Eligible does include books published prior to this year and advance copies of books not generally available until next year. Naturally this leaves lots of room for someone to argue that I didn't consider one of their favorites as the 'best' or 'worst' in some category. Too bad. Convince me to read your nominee next year and let the chips fall where ever the cookie crumbl

And now, the awards:

The Give a Dam Award was created to honor the best work of classic crime fiction I've read this year. The cutoff year for 'classic' is an arbitrary choice made by an impartial observer: me. A book must have been published at least 30 years ago in order to be eligible. I didn't read as many older books as I might normally have done, as my focus this year was on new and debut novels, as well as short stories. So although the competition was slim, this year the award goes to an already acknowledged classic:
The Long Goodbye (1953) by Raymond Chandler. Okay, maybe this isn't my favorite book by Chandler: the pacing is slower than the other titles of his I've read, and the tale just isn't as twisty-turny, but - it's still got all of Marlowe's cynicism mixed with a portion of misplaced knight errantry, and the atmosphere is Chandler at his best.
The Water Over the Dam Award, honors the best work of crime fiction recommended by another blogger, website, bookseller, reader or madman on the street. This award is shared by both author and the recommender. I picked up on some really solid recommendations this year. (Yes, I really do keep track of those recommendations that I follow.) If you don't think this is a competitive category, here are some titles that didn't even make it to the edge of the winner's circle: Beat the Reaper, American Rust, Jack Wakes Up, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But I have to give the nod to:
Gonzalo B (whose blog is Sweet Home Alameda) for his comment on Crime Fiction Dossier in July of '08 that caused me to add Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes to my reading list for '09. As you all know, I've been drooling over Zeltserman's books ever since.

An Honorable Dam-ention goes to Michael at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for providing me with TWO titles that made the short list for this award: Money Shot by Christa Faust and The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty. These books are well worth your time and cash. A second Honorable Dam-ention goes to author Dave Zeltserman as a recommender, for generously pointing me toward Roger Smith's Mixed Blood, a stellar debut.
The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award is given for the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction, while the Dam Your Eyes Award goes to the book I most anticipated and least enjoyed. For the first time I'm giving a single title more than one award, something I am loathe to do, but Andrew Grant's Even easily outpaces every other book this year to take both of these awards. Even proves that writing a good thriller is not a genetic gimme. I no longer trust the opinions of those authors who wrote such flattering blurbs for this one. The book has poor character development, hammy dialogue, and a barely comprehensible plot cobbled together by desultory prose. And if life doles out its usual irony, you can bet that Grant will go on to become the next Dan Brown in bestsellers.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that, while it runs a trifle closer to the cozy niche than to my generally preferred brand of edgy crime fic, has a strong message about the mental health system and wraps that message in a gentle, whimsical tale of murder. The Body in the Record Room, by Joe Barone, tells the story of a mental patient who thinks he is Roy Rogers and is investigating a murder within a mental institution. Barone never treats his characters as characters, something far too many cozy and traditional mysteries do. Instead they are people of dimension, people with stories and problems and goals, and he writes them with grace and with respect for their humanity, their strength, and their frailty.

The Dam Skippy Award honors the best short crime fiction story I've read this year. And boy, did I read a lot of short stories this year, easily more than three times the number I set as my goal  last January. I gained a renewed appreciation for the form and how difficult it is to succeed in/at/with.

There were several extremely tasty short morsels I nibbled on: Marcus Sakey's The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away; Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find; Horse Laugh by Donald Westlake; and Going, Going, Gone by Peter Blauner. For most of the year there was one story that, for me, stood out from the others: Free With This Box! by Harlan Ellison. It's about a little boy who just can't wait to get the prizes in the cereal boxes. It's a straightforward story that provides not a twist at the end, but rather a punch. Great, great story. You'll find it in the Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction.

For months I was pretty sure the Ellison story was going to be my choice for the Dam Skippy Award. I just couldn't imagine another story that would poleaxe me the way that one had. Suddenly, right in mid-December (and this is why my awards aren't determined before December 31), a copy of Craig McDonald's fabulous short story, The Last Interview, was dropped into my lap. This is the story that gave birth and death to Hector Lassiter. Saying even one word more would be to ruin the story for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. So The Last Interview just nudges past Free With This Box! to win the award. Allow me to recommend all of these stories for they are indeed all excellent and they differ vastly in style and approach. Every fan of crime fiction is certain to enjoy at least one of them.

Choosing a winner for the Hot Dam Award, awarded to the overall outstanding work of crime fiction, gave me serious heartburn again this year, just as I was running low on Prevacid. I was tempted to cop out by just listing all my favorites, the most recent of which is Don Winslow's superb The Gentlemen's Hour. To read Winslow is to become an instant addict to his storytelling, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael A. for making this book, not yet published in the USA, available to me.

The other favorites? Well, some fine reading was provided via Richard Lange's This Wicked World. I'll be watching for his next book for sure.And the same goes for Paul Tremblay. His debut novel, The Little Sleep, creates a unique interior landscape for his PI that compares favorably with any geographic depiction by any writer you care to name.

Also among this year's favorites was another debut, one I mentioned earlier as being recommended by Dave Z.  Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith, turned out to be devastating, jaw-clenching noir.

You can argue that Ken Bruen's Sanctuary or Declan Hughes's The Price of Blood should receive the award and I could support such an argument. Then there was Olen Steinhauer's heart-shredding story of cross and double-cross in The Confession, and the thrill ride of laughs and chills provided by Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment, and the wonderful coming-of-age adventure of David Benioff's City of Thieves.

And could there be any finer noir ever, at any time, than Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes and Pariah? Those titles deserve universal recognition. Zeltserman is an early front-runner for the yet-to-be-created Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame.

Like Zeltserman, Craig McDonald may have to go straight into Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame, as soon as that shrine is built, because I've yet to see anything from him that does not deserve the highest accolades, including the forthcoming Print the Legend.

And I feel like a complete heel for not handing the Hot Dam Award straight to Robert Crais for his soon-to-be-released Joe Pike novel, The First Rule, because it so far exceeded even this fan's hyper-anticipation.

I hate not having awards for each of those books, and I hope/expect that they will all garner their share of those in other, more prestigious places. All of these books floated above the others I read, but there was one that, after long and careful consideration, I thought floated just that tiny fraction higher. So the Hot Dam Award goes to:
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty. Since Mr. McKinty and I hold vastly differing opinions on The Beatles, it is greatly to my credit that I was able to overlook this deficiency in the author and see the worth of his work -- although I continue to marvel at how McKinty can fail to properly appreciate The Beatles' version of Please Mr. Postman and yet have enough poetry in his soul to write a book as remarkable as Fifty Grand. This book is as much about freedom and socio-ethnic-economic perceptions as it is about solving a murder. Wrap all of that in an edgy, sometimes staccato, darkly lyrical prose and I think you'll find that Fifty Grand is worth its title and more.
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all of the authors for their collective talent, diligence, and (so very important) their tolerance of and generosity towards amateur critics.

Books I read in 2009

* The Gentlemen's Hour by Don Winslow
* Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
* The First Rule by Robert Crais
* Or She Dies by Gregg Hurwitz (b)
* The Gift of Murder: An Anthology of Holiday Crime Stories to Benefit Toys for Tots; John M. Floyd, Editor
* Get Real by Donald E. Westlake
* Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein (ab)
* The Violet Hour by Daniel Judson (b)
* Rizzo's War by Lou Manfredo (ab)
* Death Notice by M.S. Karl (b)
* Rough Country by John Sandford
* City of Thieves by David Benioff (b)
* Eight Ball Boogie by Declan Burke
* Bad Karma by Dave Zeltserman
* Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas
* Bad Thoughts by Dave Zeltserman
* This Wicked World by Richard Lange (b)
* 36 Yalta Boulevard by Olen Steinhauer
* The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
* A Bad Day For a Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (ab)
* Flood by Andrew Vachss (bc)
* Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood (b)
* Dark End of the Street by Ace Atkins (bc)
* Slammer by Allan Guthrie
* Death Of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet (b)
* Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. (b)
* Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (b)
* The Big Empty by Declan Burke
* Money Shot by Christa Faust (b)
* The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta
* Many and Many a Year Ago by Selcuk Altun (b)
* Mixed Blood by Roger Smith (ab)
* Every Dead Thing by John Connolly (bc)
* Port Tropique by Barry Gifford (bc)
* Awakening by S.J. Bolton (b)
* Saturday's Child by Ray Banks
* The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (c)
* The Fourth Man by K.O. Dahl (b)
* The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie by Alan Bradley (b)
* Hickey and Boggs by Phillip Rock (b)
* Dark Horse by Craig Johnson
* The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes (b)
* The Last Gig by Norman Green (b)
* Sworn To Silence by Linda Castillo (b)
* Hard Man by Allan Guthrie (b)
* Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by John McFetridge (b)
* Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
* Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
* Pariah by Dave Zeltserman
* Wicked Prey by John Sandford
* Presumed Dead by Hugh Holton (bc)
* The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald (bc)
* 13 Things That Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks (b)
* The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (b)
* The Venus Death by Ben Benson (bc)
* Mating Season by Jon Loomis (b)
* Sucker Punch by Ray Banks (b)
* Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya (ab)
* Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg (ab)
* Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry (b)
* Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty
* Death at Bishop's Keep by Robin Paige (b)
* The Confession by Olen Steinhauer
* Fright by Cornell Woolrich (c)
* Hit and Run by Lawrence Block (c)
* Safer by Sean Doolittle
* American Rust by Philipp Meyer (ab)
* The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli (b)
* Lullaby Town by Robert Crais (Audio Book)
* The Renegades by T. Jefferson Parker
* Brother by James Fredericks (ab)
* The Devil In the White City by Eric Larson (b)
* Tempest Rider by Saundra Crum Akers (bc)
* Even by Andrew Grant (ab)
* Cape Disappointment by Earl Emerson
* Down In the Flood by Kenneth Abel
* Sanctuary by Ken Bruen
* Rogues Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life by Craig McDonald
* Spade & Archer by Joe Gores (b)
* When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (b)
* The Body In the Record Room by Joe Barone (b)
* The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey
* O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor (bc)
* Good People by Marcus Sakey
* Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson (c)
* Super in the City by Daphne Uviller (b)
* Runner by Thomas Perry
* Fatal Impressions by Wayne Warga (bc)
* The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (b)
* Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (c)
* L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker
* Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (ab)
* The Case of the Deceiving Don by Carl Brookins (b)
* Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman (b)
* The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
* A Likely Story by Donald E. Westlake (c)
* Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs (bc)

December 22, 2009

THE NIGHT MEN by Keith Snyder

I'll just say it right up front, okay? I loved this book.

Why? Because you get three crime stories all neatly fitted one inside the other, just like a set of those Russian nesting dolls. And each story is worthwhile, scratch that, each story is terrific in its own right/write. (Shades of a John Lennon book title!)

The smallest, innermost story is told in the form of a crime novel called "The Night Men," very much an old pulp-style detective story, all about a man trying to save a mute child from the bad guys. Think Philip Marlowe, only tougher. Maybe Mickey Spillane stuff.

In the middle story, that novel is being read/shared by three teenage boys in Los Angeles. Each of these boys has in some way become severed from his family, either physically, emotionally or both.. The  three of them band together in a nightly watch to protect one of them from his violently anti-Semitic neighbors. The book becomes their road map to manhood: Everything they know about honor and manning up, they either know instinctively or they learn from this book's 'mean streets' character.

What happened to those boys is then recalled, bit by bit, in the outermost story when two of those boys, now adults, agree to keep watch all night in a Brooklyn music store that has been vandalized in what may have been a hate crime against the store's gay owners.

Snyder has crafted wonderful, fully realized characters here. They are bright and unique, even down to the minor characters, but the two leading characters, Jason and Robert, will have men everywhere recalling the angst of their teen years and the ultimate face-offs with their dads. Jason and Robert will also have women readers wanting to mother the intelligent, misunderstood, scared-but-brave boys they once were. The closest he comes to any kind of cliche is in the character of Thomas Carter, the protagonist of the pulp novel the boys are reading. It's easy to see that in those sections Snyder did not simply lapse into cliche, but instead faithfully wrote in the style he was imitating. It's as if the reader is witnessing three smart kids getting turned on to "I, the Jury." Or watching them as they begin to understand Sam Spade's dictate that when a man's partner is murdered, a man is supposed to do something about it.

As if these three stories aren't enough, Snyder also takes Jason and Robert on a magic-mushroom trip of an investigation into who vandalized the store, called the Magic Music Shop. Their journey takes them not only from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, but from contemporary times to the psychedelic '60s. And what's especially cool, is that Snyder gets it right. When he introduces a character from the heyday of psychedelia, it's not some buffoonish Cheech-and-Chong opportunity to poke fun at the hippies. That character is a real person, with his own history and presence and effect on the world he lives in.

You want more? Okay, as well as being a writer of no mean talent, Snyder is also a composer, and his Jason character is a musician. In a music shop, there's bound to be music, and even though this was not an audio book, Snyder made me hear Jason's music and made me appreciate those rare and special moments when a group of players fall into a zone where the art takes over and the music is a presence that creates and defines itself. Sort of like Snyder's writing.

Disclosure notice: I bought this book at retail. This is my opinion of the book. I don't get any money or gifts for saying what I think.  I guess I could never cut it as a Congressional representative.

December 17, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Boone Daniels divides his time between surfing and private investigating. He'd much rather be surfing full time but he has to work two cases, neither of which he wants: A buddy wants him to find out whether said buddy's wife is cheating on him; and Boone is also looking into the open-and-shut case against a spoiled rich kid who admits to killing one of the most admired men in San Diego and a personal hero to Boone and his surfer friends. It's the latter case that is costing Boone the trust and life-long friendships of the Dawn Patrol, the men who surf the early morning hours at Pacific Beach, but it's the former case that may cost Boone his life.

How many crime fiction authors can you name in relation to Southern California? Several, right? Several ranging to perhaps too damned many. Because after you've read Chandler, Crais, Connelly, and Parker, where are you going to find a writer who brings something new to the SoCal crime fiction genre?

Look no further than Don Winslow. Remember that name: Don Winslow. His name is probably the best kept secret in crime fiction, and that's a damned shame.

One of the things that Winslow does differently than those other very talented writers is to place his protagonist in a world of close-knit friends. How is that different, you ask? Well, if Harry Bosch joined Facebook, how many friends would he have? That's right, zero. He's got loads of acquaintances, no friends.

How about Elvis Cole? Yeah, he's got Joe Pike and Lou Poitras. Exactly two friends; you wouldn't really call Lucille Chenier a friend to Elvis, would you? And heaven knows Phil Marlowe wasn't tripping over friends every time he left the office, while Parker's latest cop lead, Charlie Hood, doesn't exactly have a posse either.

But Boone Daniels has many friends. For starters, he has the entire Dawn Patrol, a half-dozen or so guys who surf together, hang out together, and have each other's back come what may. Right up until Boone starts working for Corey Blasingame's defense lawyer. Corey didn't kill just anybody, he killed a guy who was a surfing legend. Killed him for no reason and confessed. There are witnesses: Corey's fellow gang members and a couple of bystanders. Everyone says Corey did it. Hell, Corey, a budding neo-Nazi, says he did it. But Boone doesn't buy it, he thinks Corey has neither the guts nor the physicality to have committed the crime, and he begins to dig into Corey's life.

And this is the one thing that all of Boone's friends cannot and will not accept. By even trying to find mitigating circumstances for Corey, Boone has betrayed his friends, the community, and worst of all, the victim. Because the victim wasn't just one of them, the surfing crowd, he was the best of them. Best on the board and the best in life. Not only that, but if Boone does find anything the cops missed, it's probably going to put paid to any career hopes that Johnny Banzai, Boone's oldest and best friend, has in the police department.

This falling out among friends couldn't come at a worse time for Boone, as his other case, the marital infidelity case, erupts in murder and Boone is on the spot for it, either as the trigger-man or as an accessory to murder.

And it is this complex overlay of work and friendships that is one of the major points of difference between this book and most other SoCal crime fiction. The only other book I know that thoroughly works this particular complication is Crais's LA Requiem, and if a book can stand comparison to that particular classic then you know you've got your mitts on one heckuva story.

Add in that Winslow knows surf jargon and uses it judiciously; add in a sense of humor that leavens the darker sides of this story (Boone trying to decide how to dress for what may or may not be a booty call is hilarious); add in minor characters with major story effects; add in the maturation of the lead character without losing any sense of what that character has always been about; add in that Winslow writes in an unpretentious yet unabashedly masculine style that never crosses the line into buffoonery; add in well-executed pace and tension, and the sum total is a terrific story that will get its hooks into you and cause you to grieve, as Boone does, for the deteriorating world not only of the surfers but of everyone who ever lived by a code of honor and respect. Say adios to Moondoggie and Gidget; the skinheads have staked a claim to the beaches. And what land the skinheads aren't fighting over has already been forfeited to the real estate developers. What Winslow says about that latter group and their hand-in-glove corruption with local officials, well, he may not be saying anything new but he sure says it with force and conviction.

I have to address one last crime in regard to this book. The last time I checked, The Gentlemen's Hour was not available for purchase in the US, and won't be until 2011. Now that's criminal. Try the UK if you don't want to or can't afford to wait that long. And the only positive thing I can say about the idiocy of waiting so long for a US release is that it gives unaware readers a chance to pick up the first of Winslow's Boone Daniels books, The Dawn Patrol. Good as that book is, it is but an appetizer for the reading feast that is The Gentlemen's Hour.

(For those who might be interested, Dick Adler has a recent post at The Rap Sheet that has some interesting info about what Winslow is up to these days.)

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was loaned to me by a friend. I get no remuneration from writing about this book. But if the enjoyment I received from reading this book could be translated into dollars, I'd be as rich as any of those Wall Street fat cats.

Bah, humbug, anyone?

I received a pair of books for Christmas from my southernmost sister and what with every other blogger sharing lists of books about crime at Christmas, I figured I might as well chime in with my take on one of these books. It isn't strictly about crime, although there are some near-murders and illegal drug activity sprinkled on a few pages.

This delightful book that takes the wind out of the holiday sails is The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Michele Clark and Taylor Plimpton. It's a malicious/delicious anthology perhaps not best suited for the very young, it being neither warm-hearted nor child-like. But certainly hilarious and occasionally tragic.

Perhaps it is revealing that my reading of the book began, not with P.J. O'Rourke's introduction, but with Mark Twain's amusing installment -- certainly the sweetest and gentlest of those I've read so far -- and then I moved on to Charles Bukowski's darkly hilarious -- and oh-so-real to those of us with inner-city roots -- chapter on Christmas and Women. What does that say about me?

Speaking of women, as writers they aren't particularly well-represented in this anthology and the one I have read thus far, Chris Radant's Home for the Holidays: A Survivor's Frightening Account, reflects the popular notion that the modern woman finds her parents intolerably provincial. Not popular with me, but Hollywood seems to like the idea.

If Jay McInerney's The Madonna of Turkey Season is like watching a holiday trainwreck, one can only imagine the emotional pain prevalent at the McInerney holiday dinners. I staggered away from his story and went directly to James Thurber's struggle with the mountainous dilemma of Christmas cards in Merry Christmas. It didn't quite wash away the angst of the McInerney clan but it helped. Still to read: Hunter S. Thompson, John Cheever, George Plimpton (whose chapter I shall probably save for last), David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and many more.

If, like me, you're prone to the holiday blues because everything is supposed to be merry and bright but rarely never is, this may be just the reading material that will help you to realize you are not alone and that while it ain't all bubble lights and snowflakes, life still beats the alternative. And for an intelligent review of this book, as opposed to me just burbling on, check out James Yeh's post at The Faster Times.

December 14, 2009

Santa Dave has an elf...

And that elf dropped off a copy of Dave Zeltserman's Killer today. Bliss... You all know what I'll be reading on Christmas Day.

December 10, 2009

Dear Santa,

Well, it's been a while, I know, since I last wrote to you. Years. But you've always been a forgiving kind of guy. I mean, I've been dumping change and bills into your kettles every Christmas and you've never once taken the opportunity to reproach me about being a poor correspondent...

...Sorry. It's just that old America song popped into my head. You know the one, Sister Goldenhair?

Anyway, it's not like I've ever even had a postcard from you in return. How've you been? Working hard or hardly working? How's the missus? You two still take that Caribbean cruise every January?

So. I reckon it's still okay to send you my Christmas wish list, right? Don't worry, I'm not going to ask for world peace or more time or perfect happiness. If you could handle those things it would be great, but I know lots of people have already asked and come away disappointed.

But I do want some gifts for other people, okay?

I want book critics everywhere to start genuflecting when they hear Craig McDonald's name.

I want every major NYC publisher to get on their collective knees and kiss Dave Zeltserman's tush before offering him a 50-book contract. In fact, let me amend this wish to just having all the major publishers get their heads out of their... well, Santa, old pal, I suppose if I finished that sentence I guess you'd put me right back on the naughty list. Again.

I want Declan Burke to sell a million books of his own creation.

I want Robert Crais to live forever and never get too old or too tired to write about Elvis and Joe.

I want to see Don Winslow in that little red dress, surrounded by bestsellers bearing his name.

I want Andrews Vachss to win an unconditional surrender in the war against the monsters who abuse children and animals.

I want Donald Westlake's family to find a secret stash of Dortmunder books ready for publication. (OK, this one really is a gift for me, but I'm willing to share it with others.)

I want Ken Bruen to be canonized so that we all can go ahead speak of him as St. Ken, since we already think of him that way. And I'd like a St. Ken medal, please, in the shape of a hurley.

I want Jen to win the next 100 annual BBAWs for best book blog.

I want UCLA to win the Pac-10 football championship next year for Michael's son; and free audiobooks for life for Michael.

I want Naomi to get paid for her short stories. You might consider sprinkling that wish around to the other web crime writers, too.

I want publishers to give indie bookstores a fighting chance against the chain stores and mass merchandisers. Oh, wait. I already made that wish earlier about the publishers. That wish should cover this one.

I want more support for libraries and literacy efforts.

Last of all, I want people to read more. And I want them to want to read more.
Well, good buddy, guess it's almost time for the mail carrier's visit so I better get the envelope made out. You take care up there, get plenty of vitamin D, and don't work the elves too hard.

Your friend,

PS Say, man, you never have said what you would like for Christmas. What'll it be?

December 9, 2009

THE BLACK PATH by Asa Larsson

The body of a woman has been found in an ice-fishing hut in Sweden. No one knows who she is, so it's difficult to determine who might have tortured and stabbed her. Prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson is trying to piece her life and her sanity back together after nearly being murdered herself, but she jumps eagerly into another murder case. If this summary sounds a bit disjointed, consider it a reflection of the book.

The Black Path has atmosphere to spare, a hallmark of Swedish crime fic, and the characters are thoroughly developed. When I say thoroughly I mean to the point that the details of every character's life, past and present, drag the pace down to NASCAR (National Association of Snail Crawling and Roundaboutation) speed. Larsson doesn't appear to have that rare gift of limning characters in short, swift indelible strokes; instead they are all illustrated at Tolstoyesque length, from the moment of tragic birth through collegiate peccadilloes. The reader comes to know all of the characters and to understand their motivations, and yet when the book is closed, none of them linger in the mind.

The POV is constantly shifting from one character to another, and some authors do this so well they make it look easy. Larsson isn't bad at writing those transitions, but although the characters have widely differing upbringings and motives and flaws, they none of them seem to have individual voices. They all talk and walk the same, and in the end they all become one anonymous blur.

The motivations for murder, having to do with intricate corporate finances and overseas mining ventures and funding third-world revolutions, make for an interesting premise but the execution is delivered with too much exposition, making it all fairly colorless. An unlikely blood bath as the climax combined with what seemed a brief and pointless interjection of romance at novel's end, all left me unmoved. If that was the light at the end of a dark Swedish winter, I'd just as soon save on the electric bill.

From the first page, I was made to feel that I would have benefited by having read the prior books in order to understand some of the dynamics between recurring characters. The plot gets doled out just a bit in the opening pages and then en masse near the end, while in between is mostly the characters moaning on about how rough each has it or has had it, or what the problem is with the other characters. Tension sags and then falls away completely when the plot is exposed more through exposition than through dialogue or action. The revelation of incest comes across as ho-hum. Even in the action scene at the end, there is a regrettable lack of tension and a little too much built-in coincidence.

On the plus side, the author doesn't get overly graphic with the murder and torture, but at the same time the reader never develops an empathy with the murder victim or what she endured, nor with the two women - cop and prosecutor - who lead the investigation. And neither the cop nor prosecutor develops that empathy, being instead pretty much consumed by their own interior lives. A far cry, this, from the Harry Bosch mantra that "everybody counts or no one does."

The story takes place in a cold climate and leaves the reader feeling those icy temps but, paradoxically, with no hint of a chill.

I'm supposed to add a disclosure notice to pacify the Feds. Okay, here goes. I bought this book with my own money. I'm not making any money or getting anything in return for either promoting it or dissing it. Life sucks that way.

December 4, 2009

Monsieur Malaprop et fille

Everyone has that one relative, don't they? Maybe that relative is noted for his (or her) bad timing and puerile humor, like choosing to loudly pass gas just as the maestro lifts his baton. Is there any family who cannot lay claim, however remotely, to a hothead who ruins the restaurant meal for everyone by abusing the server for bringing toast one shade darker than ecru? There's certainly a maniac driver in every family; how else to account for all the road rage? And some families have that one relative who doesn't suffer from dementia but does carry eccentricity to extremes: the uncle who has to Armor All the tires in a certain order, on a certain day, with a certain cloth that must be folded just so; the cousin who takes apart toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms, just to make sure the paper all hangs in the "right" direction. And from what I've seen in restaurants, everyone has a relative who was raised in the barnyard, and lacks any vestige of acceptable table manners.

But I have this brother-in-law. His name is Jeff. Okay, his name is Robert, but we all call him Jeff. Jeff is the dearest, gentlest bear of a man. A sweetheart, the kind of guy you can pour out all your troubles to and be certain of a sympathetic yet pragmatic ear. Married to my elder sister for 38 years, he's been a stellar husband, father and provider. Good table manners, too. Courteous and considerate of others. You can pretty much take him anywhere. But one of these days he's going to show up in one of my stories.

Jeff is not a reader. No books, magazines, newspapers, nada. He glides through life, never listening to any news more current than the weather report. In all the decades I've known him I have only once, outside of church, seen him with a book in his hands: He was reading Goldilocks to his great-niece, sort of. That is, he was turning the pages and she was telling him the story punctuated frequently with her favorite word: Why?

And I think it is this lack of close contact with the English language in print that has caused Jeff's vocabulary to become a thing of curiosity and a joy forever. Whether he chooses the wrong word or makes up a new one, he manages to twist the meanings of his sentences in ways unique and startling.

Once Jeff was explaining scuba diving to me. A diver has to pause on his way to the surface, he informed me, in order to decapitate. And here I always thought divers were supposed to stay calm and not lose their heads.

At a family gathering before the death of my father, Jeff wanted to get a photo of the clan. This was, he assured us, a kodiak moment. Another of those moments was probably the picture my face made when he told me the VA would give him radioactive pay for his disability. Yeah. That one took me a few seconds to translate.

I promise you, he is blissfully unaware of the impact of these declarations. As in the time when Jeff said he could never have been an office worker, as I once was. He said he couldn't stand to be cooped up all day in one of those pubicles. Well. Who could blame him? Some time later I was amazed  to learn that the word 'pubicle' has entered our vocabulary and it refers to a bathroom that has been made into an office. Nope, can't say I'd care to spend nine-to-five in a pubicle either. But somehow I don't think Jeff was ahead of the curve when he said that word.

Not only does he not care to work in a 'pubicle,' but he's decided that he doesn't really want to visit Scotland because all the men there wear (drum roll, please) stilts. When his daughter wanted to go to the store to get some balm for her sore muscles, he protested the necessity of doing so when he had some perfectly good embalming cream in the medicine cabinet.

You can only imagine what he does to song lyrics. As his wife and I are both life long Beatlemaniacs, we don't go long without hearing their music. Do you know the words to Let It Be?
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me...

Try singing along with Jeff:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Nature calls to me...
We were pretty sure he did that one on purpose, but he certainly acted innocent when we called him on it. Because of another incident later on we decided he was innocent, and we also decided his daughter, Amanda, the wide-eyed recipient of the "embalming cream," had inherited his verbal malady. Looking over the menu at a Chinese restaurant, Mandy was startled -- as we all were -- to find Human Chicken on the menu. And she wasn't half as amused as I was when she discovered that her flight home was scheduled with Pinochle -- sorry, that's Pinnacle -- Airlines. Those slips could have been merely coincidental but one day as Mandy sang along to The Beatles' Help!, we realized her condition was a genetic reflection of her father. Her version of that famous song?
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down,
And I do appreciate your feelin' 'round.
What's that old t-shirt slogan? "The gene pool could use a little chlorine." Well, if you're at all concerned about the gene pool, you may be relieved to learn that as of this writing, Amanda -- an only child herself -- has not replicated.

December 2, 2009


Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
Minotaur Books
February, 2010
ISBN 978-0-312-55437-8

1965. In Ketchum, Idaho, the last residence of Ernest Hemingway, a perfect storm is brewing. A conference of Hemingway scholars has descended on the small town, each of them frenetically eager to espouse and gain support for his own opinions on Hemingway's work, his life and especially his death. Among the scholars are Professor Richard Paulson and his pregnant wife, Hannah, a budding writer. The alcoholic Paulson has somehow gained the inside track to write a book with the widow, Mary Hemingway. Paulson, whose career is in a slump, believes Mary killed her husband and he will do anything to secure a confession from her and get his hands on the treasure trove of unpublished papers Hemingway left to Mary. But Mary has her own agenda, and Paulson's wife is on it. And she guards her late husband's work with murderous tenacity. But there are more sinister forces at work than a pack of self-absorbed, backstabbing Papa-wannabes. Hannah is certain that she and Richard are being followed. The Hemingway house is overflowing with wiretaps and listening devices, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. A cold killer named Donovan Creedy is even more hellbent than the scholars to get his hands on the Hemingway papers and destroy all literary and popular respect for Hemingway. At the center of this perfect storm is Hemingway's long-time friend, Hector Lassiter. Lassiter has a clear mission in mind: Protect his late friend's legacy from the bastards who would destroy it, and while he's at it, he might as well make them pay.

REVIEW: I had a great deal of difficulty trying to review McDonald's last novel, Toros & Torsos, because of its scope, depth, style, and complex plot. Right up front, I'll tell you: the man hasn't missed a step in this third episode of the life and times of Hector Lassiter, the crime writer who "writes what he lives and lives what he writes."

Hector is 65 years old now, far beyond the years allowed for the generic fictional he-men of the 21st century. But Hector is a rare breed; he's "the last man standing of The Lost Generation." He's a man of letters who carries a Colt, a two-fisted intellectual, and age has not diminished him. McDonald stays true to the character we saw in the first two books while developing Hector further. Hector is still a romantic in some ways, but he's also learned a degree of caution in his more intimate relationships. His anger can still escape his control, and when that happens Hector's reaction is extreme. He will stare into the face of the American criminal justice system, with all of its power and minions, and not blink.

The character of Donovan Creedy bears a strong resemblance to the notorious E. Howard Hunt in that both are right-wing nuts, CIA/FBI shadow ops agents, and mediocre (at best) crime novelists. Creedy has a string of pulp novels to his name in this story, as did Hunt in real life. (Remember the scene in All the President's Men when Woodward and Bernstein found out Hunt wrote spy novels? That always struck me as something worthy of fiction, and McDonald has neatly taken care of that.)

Other characters such as Paulson, Hannah, Mary Hemingway, are all so deftly drawn that one feels that it would be entirely possible for any of them to show up on Larry King Live to defend their motivations. Hannah in particular is a fascinating creature, a short story writer and a keen observer, but she is also one of the several bazillion women who are much stronger than they realize, until they are put to a crucial test. Hannah passes her test of strength and character with flying colors, and in sharp contrast to how her husband, Mary, Creedy, and even Hector face their own trials. I'd love to tell you how Hannah did it, too, because she put McGyver to shame. He would never have thought of something so simple.

Action? Yep, there's plenty of that and plenty of suspense. There's murder and there's attempted murder. There are threats and there are warnings. There are the evil and the weak, the good and the strong, the selfless and the self-absorbed. There are illegal drugs. Plane crashes. Ambushes. Beatings. Even one orgy. For those who just want action and heroes and villains, you won't go wrong with this book. But you'd be cheating yourself if you didn't look even just a little deeper. There's a rich, liquid quality to this book, in characterization and in plot, that leaves me thirsting for more. And the historical facts used to frame and enhance the fiction are mesmerizing even without any help from the author.

As McDonald played his small surrealistic mind games in the text of Toros & Torsos, here again he has seamlessly blended fact and fiction until my head was in a whirl. I kept one hand on the book and one hand on Google while I was reading. While McDonald's text of Toros &Torsos is actually told in third person as it follows Hector over several decades, in Print the Legend, that book is being written by Hector (still in third person) about himself, treating biographical facts about himself as fiction. Okay, treating fictional biographical facts about himself as truth. No, as true fiction. I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here? McDonald writes it so that I know what he's doing but I can't even describe it. It's history and fiction tied up in one neat Möbius strip. When Hannah gets a sneak peek at Hector's manuscript, she is astounded that it "transcended any notions of genre writing."

Well, hell, Hannah, welcome to the club. I take pride (the I-told-you-so variety) in noting in my review of Toros & Torsos that the book 'exceeds and expands the genre.' Should I be wondering at this point if McDonald is Hector made flesh and reincarnated? In my haste to praise and deify McDonald's talent have I actually underestimated the caliber of his work? Can I get an amen, somebody?

Still don't believe me about the mind games? Well... In Print the Legend, one Hemingway scholar is observed to have stolen the title of his book from one of Bud Fiske's volumes of poetry. Don't know who Bud is? Google him; read his poetry. Better still, read Head Games, the first in the Hector Lassiter series, then read Bud's poetry.

Is it a coincidence that the spook following Lassiter around has the last name of Langley? Or that chapter 22 is titled Art in the Blood? When Creedy accuses Lassiter of "chasing post-modernism" by using himself as a character in one of his own books, one has to wonder what he would make of what McDonald is doing: biting post-modernism on the ass?

What really happened on that July morning in Idaho? The book ends with a delicious mixture of resolution and ambiguity. While studying the ripple effect of Hemingway's life and death, McDonald has created his own ripple effect. Long may he wave.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

November 4, 2009


SYNOPSIS: When Frank Meyers, ex-mercenary turned husband-father-businessman-upstanding citizen, is murdered along with his wife and children in a home invasion, Joe Pike takes strong exception. The dead man had been one of Pike's men during his professional soldier days. And Meyer wasn't just another soldier; he was the one man all the other soldiers thought had a real chance at a normal life. And Frank was succeeding - or was he? Pike will do whatever he must to find and bring down the killers, and learn the truth about his friend.

REVIEW: Robert Crais has two persistent themes throughout his books: that people are rarely what they seem, and the nature of father-son relationships and their outcome. Both themes permeate this newest Joe Pike story. Matter of fact, they permeate Pike himself in this story. To provide more detail would be criminal, because as good as the first Joe Pike book (The Watchman) was - and it was a winner - The First Rule outclasses it in every way.


For starters, The Watchman was dominated by the action. Crais neatly layered in some very subtle touches about Pike's true character, but a first-time reader of his books might have overlooked the author's deft handling by being so focused on the action. While there is plenty of action in The First Rule, being the hunter this time around rather than the hunted allows more space to get inside Pike's head, to see what he sees, and to get some inkling of what he's feeling. For Pike is no violent automaton as some of his critics have charged, and there are things, events, people that can actually sway him from his chosen course. Pike, like so many of Crais's characters, is not always what he seems. And yet, Pike is always true to that part of his nature that Crais has revealed in previous books.

Secondly, because Pike's involvement in this case is personal right from the beginning, the reader develops an empathy with him and his mission. That was a little harder to do in The Watchman when Pike took the job of bodyguard solely to repay a favor and because the object of his protection was initially so unlikeable. But in this newest story, right from the time Pike learns of his friend's death, the reader discovers some of Pike's hidden nature. Don't get me wrong, this story never gets maudlin. (Pike would have to kill somebody if that happened, right, Mr. Crais?) But all along the way, as the search for the killers narrows and as new twists arise to confuse or thwart Pike's path to retribution, thin seemingly-contradictory layers of the Pike persona are revealed. No one doubts that Pike can, will, and does kill. That the reader can then also come to believe in his capacity for an exquisite tenderness is due to Crais's magical gift for characterization. And as a result, instead of a generic action-thriller with a cardboard superman, the story carries an emotional wallop that resonates long after the last gun is fired.

Fans of the John Chen and Carol Starkey characters may feel a little shortchanged by how little face time Chen gets with Pike, and Starkey has no presence at all. Chen always provides wonderful comic relief as well as assisting with evidence to help move the story forward. But Chen and Starkey shouldn't be missed much since Crais naturally and wisely brought back the Jon Stone character, another of Pike's merc buddies. Stone is a highly vocal, less disciplined and more obviously passionate guy than Pike, but that his skills are almost as deadly does not come into question. Stone's the kind of guy who could sip whisky and laugh at a dirty limerick while he's slicing out someone's gizzard. As for Elvis Cole, in the exchanges between Cole and Pike, we see Cole becoming more and more concerned about Joe's actions, because Joe - as all Pike fans know - is only concerned with what is right, not what is legal. And it's not that Cole cares so much about what's legal; he cares about Joe and the damage he could do to himself.

For readers wondering whether to try a Crais novel for the first time, certainly you should but don't start with The First Rule. That would be cheating yourself. To fully appreciate the character of Pike, his friendship with PI Elvis Cole, his stoic nature, and his lethal skills, start back at the beginning with The Monkey's Raincoat. For Crais's fans who've been keeping up to date with Elvis and Joe, open The First Rule and dive in head first. It's been a long, long wait for this book, but it's been worth it.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 26, 2009

REVIEW: The Gift of Murder

The Gift of Murder: An Anthology of Holiday Crime Stories to Benefit Toys for Tots; John M. Floyd, Editor.
Wolfmont Press.
ISBN-13: 978-1-60364-010-7
Available now.

In plenty of time for the holiday season comes a welcome anthology of short, holiday-related crime fiction from some notable authors. This is the fourth annual anthology from Wolfmont Press. The proceeds from these anthologies benefit Toys for Tots.

Nothing too gruesome, nothing too saccharine, these stories combine to evoke the holiday spirit while still sending chills down the spine. From hardboiled detective angels ('Grace on the Case' by Sandra Seamans) to werewolves ('The Werewolf's Christmas' by Bill Crider) to murderous Kindles (yes, you read that right; 'The Kindle Did It' by Gail Farrelly), the stories entertain and occasionally move the reader, all the while keeping to a holiday theme (Christmas, Hannakuh, Kwanzaa). Other contributors whose names you may well recognize include Elizabeth Zelvin, Austin S. Camacho (of the Hannibal Jones PI series), Peg Herring -- I have to interrupt to say how much I enjoyed Herring's 'Gift of the Margi' because I've often wanted someone to give me the gift of killing off my enemies.

This is the perfect book for that harried, too-busy holiday season, when there's little time to devote to a novel but enough time between bouts of shopping, baking, and wrapping to devote to short crime fiction. And Barb Goffman's 'The Worst Noel' may even give you some criminal ideas about how to doctor that holiday baking so that this will be the last Christmas you have to deal with that one obnoxious relative...

And remember, all proceeds from the book benefit children who would otherwise have no toys at Christmas. Now THAT would be a crime.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 21, 2009

REVIEW: TOKYO VICE by Jake Adelstein

As much as I am a fan of crime fiction, I am not a fan of true crime books. No doubt the problem lies deep within my psyche and my need for escape from reality. But having said as much, once I delved into Tokyo Vice, I was engrossed in Adelstein's personal story of life as a gaijin crime reporter in one of the world's great metropolises.

Adelstein begins his story with how he first came to be employed by the Yomiuri Shinbun, the most influential and respected newspaper in Japan. In doing so, he allows the reader to come up to speed along with him on cultural differences (never wear a black suit to a job interview in Japan) and also to become enlightened - or perhaps burdened is the correct word - as he learns the nature and depth of corruption in that most polite and courteous of civilizations. What's truly wonderful about this book is the very natural voice Adelstein uses to describe the 80-hour work weeks, the justice system, and the intense dedication and competition of investigative journalism in Tokyo. By natural, I mean that Adelstein's prose reads like he's talking to you, the reader, explaining and conversing instead of just transcribing notes.

And for every mobster, every monster, every depraved character the author encounters, he reveals something of his own nature, as every good writer must if his story is to find its way to the reader's heart. Because for every villain, there is a victim. The heartbreaking story around the disappearance of Lucie Blackman needs no purple prose, the kind often found in true crime tales, prose designed to titillate the reader's sense of horror. No, Adelstein tells the events of that case in good reportorial fashion, and the facts alone level a dramatic impact sufficient to wring our emotions.

Every good story, fact or fiction, has many layers, and Tokyo Vice has those layers. From cultural adaptation to an expose of crime, corruption, and social decadence, to personal moral and ethical dilemmas, Adelstein's story covers ten years of his life; ten years that made his life, in a world few Americans can ever hope to see or understand. And while the author is justifiably proud of his journalistic accomplishments, he does not even spare himself when it comes to getting the truth down on paper. Tokyo Vice isn't a book where the reporter goes home with a Pulitzer and writes his memoirs. It's a story where the reporter sits down, looks in a mirror and asks himself the really hard questions. And he won't always like the answers.
Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 17, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Cal Rakowski is an auto mechanic, and a good one. He's young but he's suffered so much loss in his life that he just lives inside his boss's garage and tries to maintain a routine existence. But now he has a guest hiding out with him, a pregnant friend on the run from her rich, abusive husband. Cal's life suddenly becomes very complicated and non-routine when a beautiful assassin tries to kill Lebell, Cal's friend and co-worker, and Lebell disappears. The assassin and some other very nasty people, including the FBI, start thinking Cal may be able to help find him. With a lot of people looking for Cal, and not to help him, he suddenly has to start learning skills far more different, and deadly, than auto repair.

REVIEW: As thrillers go, I often become annoyed by the old premise of an innocent suddenly thrust into a world of intrigue and violence. That's because the author allows his innocent to make poor decisions that get other characters killed for the sake of moving the plot forward. I'm happy to say that Judson didn't do that to his readers in The Violet Hour.

Cal may be young, but he attacks trouble the way a good mechanic diagnoses engine trouble: He's organized, and he understands cause and effect. He plans accordingly, and adapts with his findings. The character of Cal is the linchpin for this story. Judson draws him as a sympathetic, somewhat repressed young man, and it is only when his friends are faced with danger that we see how much strength and resolve is in Cal. That might not come off as credible except that Judson also has drawn a careful back story for Cal's life, a story of unexpected loss and loneliness.

The pacing of the novel is wonderful, with rapid fire action scenes and moments of poignant characterization. No other character is as fully developed as Cal, but this is his story. The changes he undergoes as the action progresses are more profound and lasting - and maybe even a little scarier - than one usually finds in a thriller.

The weakest aspect to this book lies in the editing. In the early chapters there are some minor annoyances such as the use of "till" rather than "until" or "'til." Saying "upper-scale" rather than "up-scale." And too often using modifiers such as "nothing if not" or "no less than" when a more direct statement would be stronger. Small things like that, but they are frequent in the early going, almost as if there was a lack of confidence in the prose. But that's only in the first couple of chapters - or else I just got so sucked in by the rapidly evolving plot that I didn't notice the problems anymore.

Again, that's just quibbling on my part. The Violet Hour is an absorbing thriller, and it's easy to see why Judson has two Shamus Awards to his credit.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 11, 2009

REVIEW: RIZZO'S WAR by Lou Manfredo

SYNOPSIS: NYPD Detective Mike McQueen has had his gold badge exactly three weeks when he is partnered with veteran Detective Joe Rizzo. Rizzo has a case clearance rate so outstanding that he is clearly the right guy to teach the younger man the ropes. A clearance rate so outstanding that he should have been promoted out of Brooklyn long ago. The partnership between the clean-cut newbie and the grizzled veteran has not fully solidified when they get an off-the-books assignment to find the runaway daughter of a city councilman. The daughter is not a minor, no crime has been committed, so how are two honest cops supposed to keep the investigation on the QT, get the mentally disturbed young woman back home, and not break any laws? Oh, wait. Maybe, just maybe, one - or both - of these detectives isn't as honest as he could be.

REVIEW: Okay, if you're looking for serial killers, gore, shoot-em-up-bang-bang action, go read a different book. If you're looking for a story with a complex web of moral and ethical dilemmas layered with gritty, tenacious police work, then open the pages and enjoy Lou Manfredo's debut novel.

The reader gets to know only two characters well, the wet-behind-the-ears McQueen and the wily Rizzo, and then we really only get to know them on the job. We see that they have private lives, but on the job is where they really live. Police work isn't what Rizzo does, it's what he is. McQueen has had a small taste of success, getting his detective badge via serendipity rather than getting it the old-fashioned way of earning it, and this has awakened his ambition to make it out of Brooklyn and into an office at One Police Plaza. Watching these two disparate men work toward a relationship of trust and understanding while coping, or trying to cope, with the constant moral and legal ambiguities of the job is really what this book is all about.

The structure of this book is an interesting one. Fully the first half of the book is episodic, as the two detectives tackle case after case: Burglary, assault, attempted rape, suicide. The reader is riding along, learning as McQueen learns: How to observe a crime scene, what crimes to expect - and when to expect them - in certain neighborhoods, that it's better to grant favors than ask them. Especially that last item. Rizzo holds markers all over the city, which is just as well because halfway through the book, when the detectives finally draw the no-win case involving the councilman's daughter, Rizzo is going to need every single favor he can swing, even from the likes of the Hell's Angels. And that still may not be enough to save his and McQueen's careers.

Manfredo plays no tricks on the reader. No time shifts, no alternating first-person POVs. The prose is straightforward, with dialogue that sounds like natural cop talk but avoids annoying and mystifying jargon. Thus it becomes very easy for the reader to slip into McQueen's or Rizzo's shoes and ask himself, 'What would I do if I were faced with these situations? What's the right thing to do?' And that's what young McQueen is always asking, both of himself and Rizzo: What's the right thing to do? And Rizzo's answer is consistent: There is no right, there is no wrong, there just is. Read this book and see if you agree with Rizzo.

Here is the author, at Otto Penzler's store in New York City, discussing the people who helped shape the novel and get it published:

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 1, 2009


SYNOPSIS: During the siege of Leningrad in January, 1942, two young men face a daunting task. In a city of starvation, they must find a dozen eggs so that a Russian colonel's beautiful daughter can have a cake for her wedding. They have five days to find and bring back the eggs, and if they fail, they will be shot by the police, NKVD. The search for eggs will bring them face to face with everything that is both good and evil in humankind, and they will test the truth of what they believe about themselves.

REVIEW:Set during a relentlessly grim time and place, one might expect the same to be true of the story. Instead, Benioff has crafted a coming-of-age adventure tale that is by turns poignant, charming, frightening, and enlightening.

The adventures are not wholly unpredictable but are made fresh by the delightfully developed characters. Lev, only 17 and the son of a poet who was himself 'disappeared' by the NKVD, was accused of looting. His companion on the search is Kolya, 20, a soldier in the army. Kolya was accused of desertion. The two young men met for the first time when they landed in jail. They are both guilty as charged and yet neither of them has a criminal bent. Lev, the Jewish narrator, has spent his whole life knowing himself to be a physical coward. Kolya may have wandered away from the Army, but he is fearless to the point of stupidity. Kolya is also possessed of good looks, charm, and some higher education.

The author never makes the mistake of minimizing the suffering of that time, he faces squarely the violence and degradation of a place where survival is moment to moment. Yet he also understands that even in the direst circumstances, people can retain their sense of humor and can have dreams that are go beyond the basic needs of food and shelter. Lev longs to lose his virginity. Kolya is planning to write a great Russian novel. Each must learn to trust and rely on the other for survival, and their often childish bickering serves to distract them from their hunger, cold and fear.

From the monsters hiding among normal people inside the city, to beautiful women prisoners and resistance fighters and Nazi death squads beyond the front lines, the search for eggs takes Lev and Kolya into the heart of darkness and the spirit of light.

City of Thieves is fine entertainment, and no one could regret time spent in Lev and Kolya's company. In the following excerpt, Lev and Kolya have met a boy who tells them a wild story about a man who keeps chickens on top of one of the buildings in the city. This awakens Kolya's scatological fascination.
"The old man can't stay in the coop all the time," I told the boy. "He has to get his rations. He has to get water and use the toilet. Someone would have grabbed the chickens months ago."

"He pisses off the roof. When it's coming out the other side, I don't know, maybe that's what he feeds the chickens."

Kolya nodded, impressed by the old man's clever means of keeping the birds alive, though I was convinced the kid was making this up as his lips moved.

"When was the last time you had a shit?" Kolya asked me, abruptly.

"I don't know. A week ago?"

"It's been nine days for me. I've been counting. Nine days! When it finally happens, I'll have a big party and invite the best-looking girls from the university."

"Invite the colonel's daughter."

"I will, absolutely. My shit party will be much better than this wedding she's planning."

"The new ration bread hurts coming out," said the curly-haired boy. "My father says it's all the cellulose they're putting in."

"Where do we find the old man with the chickens?"

"I don't know the address. If you walk toward Stachek Prospekt from the Narva Gate, you'll pass his building. There's a big poster of Zhdanov on the wall."

"There's a poster of Zhdanov on half the buildings in Piter," I said, getting a little irritated. "We're going to walk another three kilometers to find a bunch of chickens that don't exist?"

"The boy's not lying," said Kolya, patting the kid on his shoulder. "If he is, we'll come back here and break his fingers. He knows we're NKVD."

"You're not NKVD," said the boy.

Kolya pulled the colonel's letter from his coat pocket and slapped the boy's cheek with it.

"This is a letter from an NKVD colonel authorizing us to find eggs. What do you think about that?"

"You got another one from Stalin, authorizing you to wipe your ass?"

"He'll have to authorize me to shit first."

I didn't stay long enough to learn how the conversation ended.

September 28, 2009

REVIEW: PARIAH by Dave Zeltserman

In two days, Dave Zeltserman's Pariah hits the bookstores. As a reminder, and because I think this is a terrific book, I'm bringing to your attention this review I wrote last May.

After eight years in prison for a bank robbery he most definitely was part of, Kyle Nevin is a free man. Not on parole, not on probation. Free. Free to search out and destroy the mob boss who ratted him out and set him up for the ambush. Fueled by a consuming need for revenge, for status and instant wealth, Kyle plans to attain all of these through a kidnapping. Of Irish descent, Kyle should have applied Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will, especially when there's always someone willing to rat you out. Never mind. He's smart enough, strong enough, and more than ruthless enough to beat, shoot, burn or even charm his way through all the problems. Nothing stands in Kyle's way, certainly not any of the finer feelings. He has other tools: intimidation, manipulation, deception, and a blinding rage always ready to boil over into violence. With these tools, he can do anything he wants - except see himself for the monster he is.

REVIEW: This book just sucked the air right out of me. It's more than great noir. This book's got teeth that bite and claws that catch, and it's a masterpiece. If you're looking for a hero or even an anti-hero, you won't find one here. Kyle Nevin is pure, unwavering psychopath, and the most finely drawn such creature since Charles Willeford put Junior Frenger on paper. If Jim Thompson's Lou Ford and James Cagney's Cody Jarrett (White Heat, 1949) are watching somewhere from the halls of twisted fiction, they are pouring out their warped blessings on Kyle Nevin.

All of the characters are well-drawn, no mean feat since the story is told from Kyle's point of view. Getting past his self-absorption and lack of empathy for others to see real 3D characters should be a chore for any author, but Zeltserman uses another attribute of psychopathy to reveal and create empathy for Nevin's victims: Nevin's merciless exploitation of their personalities. Virtually everyone who comes in contact with him becomes his victim in one way or another. The way Kyle systematically takes apart his struggling brother's life is like watching a wreck on the highway: you don't want to look but you can't resist the compulsion. It would have been very easy to make Kyle almost an evil superman, as he is completely unlikeable and irredeemable, a kind of noirish Gary Stu, but the author wisely found and manipulated the cracks in Kyle's armor. He does have psychological weaknesses - his vanity, his need to control, a craving for power and adulation - that manifest themselves in the physical, but Zeltserman walked a fine tightrope here, making the character fully rounded without ever giving the reader any reason or opportunity to empathize with him. Unlike the Joe Denton character in Small Crimes (my review here) whose full character wasn't truly understood even by himself until the very end of the book, the reader has no doubt from early on just what sort of vile anti-human Kyle is. Kyle may have some idea of what he is but that will never be something that troubles him. Just don't let anyone else mention it.

The setting is primarily Boston and its Southie section, with some brief forays into other locales. More than any other novel I've read, Pariah comes closest, scarily so, to breathing life and death into the news stories I've read about mob boss Whitey Bulger and the culture of murder, drugs, suicide and silence so prevalent in Southie then and probably to a great degree even now. Cultures and organizations with such hardened rules don't just change overnight, it takes years to eradicate or even just shift the old mindset.

While the general plot as I've described it in the synopsis may sound like something you've read before, I have been careful, I hope, not to write any spoilers, because this story takes Kyle down a far stranger, and yet more realistic, road than that brief summary would indicate. The author has both imagination and cojones by the boatload. He not only tackles the Southie history and culture of crime and violence, but he manages some truly sharp stabs at the publishing industry, specifically those kinds of publishers willing to pay huge money to OJ for that If I Did It book, while rejecting worthy but unknown authors simply for being unknown. Along those lines, there is a scene between Kyle and a struggling writer that is priceless. But don't think the stabbing stops at the publishing industry; the satire also lacerates the American fascination with and reverence for celebrity criminals.

The structure of the book is generally linear, and the reader gets clued in on Kyle's backstory as naturally as if the two of you were having lunch and chatting casually. When the character is this complex, it's good to keep the structure simple, no time shifts, no POV shifts. And no flights of fanciful prose here, this is Kyle Nevin telling you his story and he's not real big on poetry. He's direct. Not necessarily straightforward but still direct. While Kyle is always on the verge of or actually engaged in violence, he never gets too lovingly involved in graphic details, lending credence to his cold indifference to others.

The pacing of the book is a remarkable accomplishment. Pariah is moved along not so much by pace or tension as by torque. Definition time: torque is a measure of how much a force acting on an object causes that object to rotate. Zeltserman has put his objects - Kyle and the other characters - in motion and applies varying amounts of force to them. In turn, they apply force to each other, especially Kyle, and everybody starts to spin, carom, collide. The closer the reader comes to getting at the core of Nevin's character, the greater the torque, until something has to give. I don't think I breathed for the last 30 pages of this story.

Ken Bruen has written an elegant paean to this book and I want to share just one sentence of that well-deserved song of praise: 'Pariah is all I know of bliss and lament... bliss at reading a superb novel and lament at knowing that Dave Zeltersman has now raised the bar so high, we're screwed.'

If you revere the dark tales of Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, add Dave Zeltserman's name to your list. I promise you that in years to come, when those first three names are mentioned, so will the fourth.

Pariah by Dave Zeltserman. Serpent's Tail, © October, 2009.
ISBN 9781846686436 (trade paperback), 273p.

WGI 1st Place: Beast by Hilary Davidson

BEAST by Hilary Davidson

Kelly didn’t see the devil tattoo until the man was half-naked. She’d already admired the ornate dagger on his forearm and the dragon whose tail encircled his wrist. Those, she’d noted before they’d left the nightclub together. Back at her apartment, as they’d shed their clothes, she’d seen inked barbed wire around one bicep, a clock face without hands on the other. But this tattoo was different.

“What is that on your shoulder?”

“Numbers,” he said.

“It has horns and it says 6-6-6.” That earned her a dead-eyed stare. “Isn’t that, like, the Antichrist or something?”

“Number of the Beast. Do we have to get into this now?” He unbuttoned his jeans.

It had been years since Kelly had been inside a church, let alone a confessional, but this guy was creeping her out. “You know, I’m feeling a little funny.”

“You look good.” His voice was almost a growl.

She was suddenly conscious that she was sitting on her bed in nothing but a lacy black bra and thong. They were a treat she’d bought for herself after she and Richard had broken up, a reminder that someone else would find her hot and not ditch her for some stupid junior associate at his law firm. But she didn’t like the look in this guy’s eyes. She was looking for a new boyfriend, not a mauling from a Satan-worshipper.

“Maybe you should go.” What was his name again? And what the hell was she doing with him? Sure, she’d hooked up with guys in college, but they were friends, or friends of friends. Then she’d been with Richard for two years. She’d never invited a total stranger back to bed with her, until now, and she already regretted it.

“You’re not serious?” His face was handsome, though Kelly would have liked him better if his hair hadn’t been shaven off. He had blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a full mouth, which was twisted in confusion or frustration. “I’ve got condoms,” he added.

“I have to get up early for work in the morning. I’m really tired.”

He grabbed her with one beefy hand and pulled her to her feet, pressing her body against his. “You have to go to work... tomorrow?”

She pushed him away. “Just go. Please.”

“What are you, some kind of head case?” He shoved her back onto the bed, not hard enough to hurt her but with enough force that her fingers inched towards her phone. But he pulled on his jeans and grabbed his shirt and shoes, muttering to himself all the while. Bitch, she heard him grunt. It was only when he turned to leave the room that she saw the swastika on his back.


“It freaked me out,” Kelly told her friends at work the next day. “Who gets tattoos like that? Hitler?”

“666 and a swastika,” said Marietta. “That’s creepy. Beyond creepy. Eww.”

“Crazy,” Lori chimed in. “He must be a white supremacist.” She bit into a chocolate bar. Lori ate chocolate all day long and never gained an ounce, while Kelly starved herself to stay thin. Lori was engaged, too, and the big rock on her finger taunted Kelly. It wasn’t fair. “Why did you bring him home?” Lori added.

Kelly rolled her eyes, but the question bothered her. The night before, she’d wished her ex would come into the club and see her grinding against this guy who was so much bigger and stronger than he was. Richard, while a rising star at his law firm, would look like a geek by comparison. Kelly had seen him with other girls since they’d broken up, and she wanted to prove she was still a babe.

“Lucky you got him out of your apartment before he went all CSI,” said Marietta.


“You know, hacked you up into little pieces,” Marietta clarified. “Like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“It’s like there are no good men out there anymore,” Kelly said. “All of them are psychos.”

“I’m so lucky I’m engaged,” Lori said through a mouthful of chocolate.

Kelly swallowed hard. The three worked at the same collection-agency call center, and somehow Lori — the tomboyish one with the bad skin — had snagged a handsome banker who went rock-climbing with her. Before Kelly could shoot back with something snarky, Marietta broke in.

“I hope they’re not all crazy,” she said. “I’ve got a date Saturday with the guy who took me out last week.”

How could Marietta get anyone to out with her until she lost 20 pounds? Kelly was prettier than either of her friends, so why did they met normal guys and she found freaks? She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t being left behind, but she knew she was eating their dust.


Over the next several weeks, Kelly was haunted by what she came to think of as her close call with the Nazi. What had she been thinking, bringing him home? No one was going to marry her if she slept with him right off the bat. Not that she wanted to marry that guy. Still, it was a tough meat market out there. How was she going to reel one in for good if she didn’t put out some bait?

Confused, she went to William Ashley, the opulent china shop on Bloor Street where every elegant Toronto bride-to-be went to register before her big day. The store was a temple to domestic bliss. While there, Kelly gawked at Lori’s wedding wish list. Tacky stuff, proving Lori had no taste anywhere but in her mouth. Kelly knew what looked good.

“I’m thinking of setting up a registry,” she told a saleswoman.

“Of course.” The saleswoman glanced at Kelly’s hand. No engagement ring there.

“What is your wedding date?”

“Oh. I, um, just got engaged.”

The saleswoman smiled. “We need to have a date. Perhaps you could just look around for now and get some ideas, for when you’re ready.”

Red-faced, Kelly slipped across the street to Holt’s, where she bought more lingerie. It never hurt to be prepared.


The next time Kelly had after-work drinks with Lori and Marietta, she had a shock. She’d been looking forward to complaining about men and all the things that were wrong with them, but Marietta cut in with the news that she and her new boyfriend were planning a vacation together. To Italy.

“Since when do you have a boyfriend?” Kelly snapped. Italy? That was where she was going on her honeymoon. “You’re taking a trip with a total stranger?”

“We’ve been going out for eight weeks, but we’ve been friends for four years,” Marietta answered.

Kelly felt as if she were melting away into the background. She stared at her friends, evaluating their skin, their hair, their bodies, as they yipped about Italy like stupid puppies. They had nothing on her. Why was she the one who was alone?

She slipped out of the booth, went outside, and dialed Richard’s number from memory. She’d deleted it from the phone when they’d broken up, but she called it now and then, curious whether some other woman’s voice or name would come up on his voice-mail.

“Hi, Richard, it’s me,” she said when he answered.

There was a pause. “Kelly?”

A rush of warmth hit her. “How are you doing, Richard?”

“Okay. Um, yeah, okay.” An awkward pause. “How about you?”

“I think we should talk,” she answered.

It was just curiosity, she told herself on the way to his apartment. What had he been up to for the past six months? She walked to his place. His two-bedroom condo in Liberty Village was just as Kelly remembered it. So was he: brown hair, receding slightly, brown eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, and a lean body that showed he worked out. He looked better now than when they’d been together.

They hugged an awkward hello. Things relaxed a little when Richard went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of champagne and a pair of fluted glasses. He’d always been thoughtful about things like that.

“To seeing you again,” Richard said. They clinked glasses and drank. “I’ve missed you.”

By the time they got into his king-sized bed, they were both slurring their words. Richard had always been quick to pounce, but this time Kelly hadn’t even gotten her bra off before he jumped her. It was a pretty pink thing with red polka dots and strategic underwire to boost cleavage, but he didn’t seem to notice. Afterward, while he snored beside her, Kelly wondered how long it would take to put together a really beautiful wedding. Lori’s wasn’t until next June. Maybe she could have hers before then.


Two weeks later, Kelly left her doctor’s office, her hands clutching some pamphlets. “Herpes and You” read the cover of the top one. It wasn’t bad enough that Richard had never called her after she’d slept over at his place. No, he had to give her a lasting souvenir. The blisters made every step painful for her. She’d called him repeatedly, but he wouldn’t answer the phone.

“You need to tell any sex partners you have that you have herpes, because it can be spread even when there are no blisters,” her doctor had cautioned. Sex partners? Kelly couldn’t imagine ever letting anyone touch her again.

She waited for Richard outside his building. She stood at the corner of the block, her eyes on both exits. He appeared at 12:04, predictable as ever.

“Richard!” she called.

He turned around, not quite bothering to hide his distaste. “Sorry, I’m busy right now.” He nudged the colleague beside him. “We’re going to a meeting. I’ll call you later.”

That was a lie, of course. Kelly went back to work and then home. She repeated the cycle. No call. Meanwhile the blisters itched and burned. There wasn’t a moment of the day she didn’t think about Richard. The pain kept her up at night. He wasn’t going to get away with doing this to her.

On Friday, she skipped work and went to William Ashley instead. She’d always felt comforted by its vision of domestic bliss. Fine crystal for dinner parties. Bunnykins china for babies. Silver picture frames for all the good memories. Even now, as she wanted to wriggle out of her own skin, she allowed herself a moment to look around and drink in the sight of pale bone china and polished silver. This was what she’d wanted her life to look like, but now it would never fit her vision. Unless...

After she looked at Lori’s registry and made her purchase — Lori might not have any style, but she was practical — Kelly took a cab south to Richard’s office building. The security guard smiled and waved. They still remembered her around here. That was nice. At law office upstairs, a receptionist with bottle-blonde hair and lavender contact lenses told Kelly that Richard was in a meeting. “Which way is the bathroom again?” Kelly asked. She unwrapped the pretty William Ashley box in the privacy of a stall. She shouldn’t really have let the store wrap it, but their gift boxes were so pretty it was impossible to say no. The sleek gold paper and ribbon fell away, and she tucked them into her purse, along with the gift.

By the time Kelly came out of the bathroom, Richard was standing in the reception area. So much for the meeting he was supposed to be in. “Kelly. What a surprise.” No surprise in his voice.

“I need to talk to you, Richard.”

He folded his arms. “Sure.”

“Um, can we have some privacy?” Kelly asked. “Why don’t we go to your office?”

“Sorry, confidential papers, you know.”

“Oh.” She saw him turn his head. Did the receptionist just wink at him? Had he winked at her? Kelly’s hand dug into her bag.

“I don’t have much time,” Richard said. “What do you want?”

He knew what was up, the bastard. That was why he didn’t want to be alone with her. Richard always slunk away when confronted. The only reason he’d come out to reception was to head her off at the pass. He knew Kelly wouldn’t raise her voice in public.

“You have to marry me,” she whispered. Her hand clenched around a stainless steel handle.

“What?” Richard’s jaw fell open. He recovered, shaking his head and smiling. “Have you lost your mind? Even if I wanted to get married now — and I don’t — it wouldn’t be to you. Leave me alone, or I’ll get a restraining order.”

He made eye contact with the receptionist, as if to say Can you believe this loser? So that was it. Kelly lifted the knife out of her purse and as Richard’s eyes flicked back at her she dug the blade into the side of his neck. A geyser of blood rained over her arm. Richard tried to yell, but only a sad gurgling grunt came out of his mouth. Kelly pushed the knife in harder, feeling flesh and tissue give way. The knife was a Wüsthof, eight inches long. The salesman at William Ashley had said the oval indentations in the steel blade would make the knife slice into anything. Kelly remembered suddenly that Richard had told her that he had eight inches before they’d slept together. Boy, he’d thought she was dumb.

The receptionist screamed. Richard sank to his knees. It was almost how Kelly had pictured him proposing, except for all the blood.


At the police station, she waited in an interrogation room. A cop sat with her, drumming his fingers on the table. Then a second cop came in.

“I don’t fucking believe this.”

Kelly blinked at him, confused. Then it came to her. The shaved head, the blue eyes, the high cheekbones. “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” she said, suddenly embarrassed. There she was, covered in her ex-boyfriend’s blood, and she was face-to-face with a guy she’d almost slept with. “You’re a cop?”

“Used to work undercover in gangs.” He didn’t blink. It was almost as if he were in a trance. “Now I’m in homicide.”

“You know this woman?” asked the other cop, half-turning in his seat.

“We met a few weeks ago. I went home with her. Almost slept with her.” He shook his head. “I could’ve been sliced and diced.”

“You want to sit this one out?”

The big cop nodded. “Yeah. I’m going around the corner, light a candle. Fuck. It’s like your whole life passes behind your eyes, you know.” He shook his head and moved out the door, as Kelly watched him go. “That was a hell of a close call.”