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

December 31, 2010

"What shall we hang first? The holly or each other?"*

A JOYOUS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL!

Each holiday, each year, contains its joys and woes. Joy I have in plenty, as well as blessings. If I have a woe this season it is that my benefactor and predecessor is absolved of carrying on a tradition he initiated, that of the annual Lowhead Dam Awards, this being the third instance of these dubious pronouncements. I struggled with the idea of discontinuing the LDAs and simply producing a top-ten list, but Keith Rawson (Crime Factory) has asked for a collection of those lists from the online community and as I prepared one of those for him, the LDAs will live on here for another year.

And following Corey's edict that the winner of the Give a Dam Award should honor a classic crime tale published at least three decades ago, I scanned my reading list for the year, and Donald Westlake's name appears repeatedly in the 'classic' category. Much as I long to honor him beyond the reading of his books, the award this year must go to a book that few fans of crime fiction can quibble about, certainly not me: James Crumley's THE LAST GOOD KISS. Here's the deal: you simply cannot claim to be well-read in either noir or PI novels until you've read this book. The story of hard-drinking PI C.W. Sughrue is essential reading for fans of crime fiction. Devoted fans know the opening sentence by heart.

The Water Over the Dam Award honors both a book and the person who recommended it. Unlike Corey, I can't say that I keep close track of where I find recommendations. I promise to do better in future. Off hand, I recall two recommendations this year in particular, one of which was Liza Cody's BUCKET NUT, recommended by Mr. Singh, of The Sleuth of Baker Street bookshop in Toronto. He didn't recommend the book to me personally, I was just guilty of eavesdropping. So what? This book takes the award anyway. Cody's voice is distinct; her main character is both memorable and sympathetic. There is no lag in this book, not one wasted word, and there's a hell of a good story.

Now for a pair of negative awards, the kind no author wants. The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award goes to the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction. I was tempted to hand this one to Michael Connelly's 9 Dragons, just to watch the fur fly. But there was another book that received uniformly good-to-great reviews that was even less deserving and so gets the award: Susan Hasler's INTELLIGENCE. What didn't I like about it? Mostly that it was clear that Hasler has the chops to write something more than chick lit with a dash of politics and a thin layer of insight into CIA administration, but she didn't use them. My intelligence wasn't insulted, but I didn't have to use it when I read this book either.

The Dam Your Eyes Award goes to the book most anticipated and least enjoyed. And now the fur will fly, because Michael Koryta is one of the young lions of crime fic. Talented he certainly is,  and his prior books stand as testimony to that fact, but I spent most of SO COLD THE RIVER in mid-yawn. No chills, no thrills for me in this supernatural tale; the motor was slow to rev up and the denouement was hardly worth the drive. But will I read Koryta's next book? To quote someone I'd rather not, "You betcha."

Now back to the sunny side of the street.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that caught me off guard. I thought I was getting a PI story, and as is the current fashion, a PI with a defect, said defect being total recall of everything the PI has ever heard. I expected the book would be amusing and if I was lucky, with just enough of a gloomy aspect to the PI to lend weight to story. Ah, but what I got was R. Scott Bakker's DISCIPLE OF THE DOG. PI Disciple Manning labors under the burden of perfect memory. He isn't much of a PI, more of an ex-soldier-slacker-con man-womanizer. Presumably there isn't much to like about him, but like him I did. (A couple of early references to Remington Steele didn't hurt any.) Much of the book digresses from the case (about a young woman who vanished from a cult compound) into Disciple's take on societal beliefs and conventions. The action doesn't really kick in until the second half of the book as the PI spends much quality time with a doobie while replaying conversations in his head and milking them for every bit of inflection, supposition, hidden commentary, and motives. This isn't a book to read for plot so much as for character and for the sharp witticisms and skewed aphorisms that abound, to wit:
   In the absence of conscience, there's pretty much always some kind of crime. Nine out of ten presidents agree.

   Now I know you like to think you're like me but you're not. Not if you're reading this, you're not...Everyone but everyone knows that readers are pussies.

   The cheapest way to save face is to scar another.

All righty then. The Dam Skippy Award. Somehow, after reading hundreds and hundreds of short stories, I'm supposed to name THE ONE. And when I think of all the stories I didn't even get to read yet, it feels presumptuous to even expand the list. But I'm going to name three Dam Skippy winners, one each for online, digital, and print , and then next year, this category gets blown all to pieces and put back together in a new shape (think anthologies & collections, online/print/digital -- so many variations!).

There were so many online crime stories I enjoyed this year. Just a handful: Keith Rawson (60+ and Cheryl's Whims) and Paul D. Brazill (The Tut and The Friend Catcher) are reliably good reads. W.D County impressed me (My Name Is Priscilla).  I never walk away from a Patricia Abbott story feeling unsatisfied, and her Raising the Dead raised the hair on my neck. And Nigel Bird continues to amaze (Taking a Line for a Walk). Yet The Dam Skippy Award (Online) goes to newcomer Ian Ayris for COLD, published at Pulp Metal Magazine. COLD isn't about brutal, biting external cold. It's about the slow, creeping interior cold that one day takes us all. I recommend reading not only these stories, but more by these authors and others you'll find at the many excellent crime fic webzines.

I wish I could say I had read more digital short stories (there was that Nook problem, remember?), but there have been excellent tales from Chris F. Holm, Allan Guthrie,  Libby Fischer Hellman, Stephen D. Rogers, Stuart Neville, and Dave Zeltserman. It is the last who receives The Dam Skippy Award (Digital) for his smoothly creepy tale, VIEW FROM THE MIRADOR, in his digital collection, 21 Tales. It's a story about that dark side of the human race, the side that wants to see just how bad the accident is that happened to someone else. Only Mr. Z takes it further and creates a vile character who yearns for the accident to happen.

It's no easier to select just one outstanding story from the many that appeared in print that I read this year. Hey, there were classics from Hemingway and Roald Dahl to consider, if that tells you anything about how hair-pulling this process was. Just a few excellent examples that I considered for the award: The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared, by Libby Fischer Hellmann, from her Nice Girl Does Noir, Vol. 1, collection; Mirror Image, by Sarah Weinman, published in Needle, Issue 2; Craig McDonald's limited-issue chapbook, Colt; The Teacher, from Paul Tremblay's powerful collection, In the Mean Time. Then there were the stories in Between the Dark and the Daylight, from Tyrus Books: a wonderfully bitter pair from the Abbott family, Megan (Cheer) and Patricia (The Instrument of Their Desire), and last of all, the winner of The Dam Skippy Award (Print), Tom Piccirilli's title story, BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT. The word I initially used to describe this story was 'harrowing.' And that it is, as well as haunting. From the first word to the last, Piccirilli had me reeling from vertigo. Tastes differ, of course, but I can't believe that any of these stories would disappoint.

Look down there at the bottom left of this page, under '2010 - The Drowning Machine Recommends' caption. See those graphics? Those are my favorite reads (in book, ebook, or audio-book form) for this year. As far as novels go, and only novels are considered for The Hot Dam Award, there are perennial favorites (Ken Bruen, Craig McDonald, Dave Zeltserman, James Lee Burke, Donald E. Westlake); those on the verge of being perennial favorites (Dennis Tafoya, Paul Tremblay, Don Winslow, Roger Smith, Leighton Gage, Megan Abbott); and even a newcomer or two (Charlie Newton, Stuart Neville). After much agonizing, I at last whittled my long list down to a short list of three, then more or less gave the award based on a blindfold-and-dart measure.

Let me say that no one is more surprised than I that Don Winslow's SAVAGES did not run away with this award. It's a sophisticated, ultra-contemporary noir with an ending no reader could foresee yet is inevitable. The book has drawn justifiable comparisons to Ken Bruen's work. It's slick, looks effortlessly written when it can't have been, and drops on the reader like a feather then explodes like the Death Star.

Dave Zeltserman (yeah, him again. What can I say? He's just that talented.) created a classic crime/horror tale in THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD. I suspect that long after book blogs become merely something that everyone's grandparents used to do, this ambiguous tale of suspense and sacrifice will still be finding new fans and will be used to instruct students on themes and issues in literature -- that is, unless the book falls victim to fascist school boards.
You may be wondering what book I could possibly favor (even slightly) over so many other terrific books I read this year. I was a bit surprised myself to find that I was leaning not toward one of the younger, edgier writers, but toward a seasoned veteran who it's just expected will always turn out a great book. And often does just that. For his lyrical, evocative prose; for illustrating his themes through vivid characterization and dialogue; and like Winslow and Zeltserman, for having matters of substance to discuss, yet saying them in a voice that could belong only to James Lee Burke, this year's Hot Dam Award goes to THE GLASS RAINBOW. The honorable Mr. Burke has a unique gift for leaving the reader staggering from the emotional conflict of pain, laughter, beauty, guilt and redemption. This book made me feel as if my soul had indeed been 'washed in the blood' and come out sparkling clean.
My thanks to all of the writers who shared their stories and books this year. Your tolerance of the inexpert opinions expressed in this blog is greatly appreciated.

* Henry II in The Lion in Winter

December 19, 2010

Overdue books

At what should be the busiest time of the year, I am finding enough free time to finally begin catching up on reading and posting. I've a long way to go still, but I'll begin with comments on some of the reading I was able to accomplish in the past several weeks.

If you're into digital reading, give a look to Chris F. Holm's terrific collection of stories, 8 Pounds. Not only are the stories stellar but you get all eight for only 99 cents. Seven Days of Rain, a superb story about an old crime that just won't stay buried, won a Spinetingler award, while The Big Score, a Derringer Award finalist, evokes images of Bogart in Key Largo or To Have and Have Not with its tale of fishing trawlers and gun deals and tough guys. And if the events in A Better Life don't result in your freaking out the next time you hear a mouse in the house, it's time to take your Sensitivity Zone in for an oil change.


Frank Zafiro has produced Dead Even, a print collection of River City stories, based on characters from his novels which are set in the same locale (a fictionalized version of Spokane). By and large, the stories are police procedurals and are grouped by main character. The author is a police officer in Spokane, and River City is a fictionalized version of that city. Thus he lends a gritty credibility to his stories, though I could wish for greater tension throughout.

The End of Marking Time by C.J. West has an intriguing set up: What if jails were outlawed by the courts, and felons were instead monitored via electronic tracking 24/7? What if they had to undergo "re-education" but had lost all their rights? What if that one second chance was all a felon got, and any further offense resulted in the ultimate penalty? The book begins well, the main character is a fascinating blend of narcissism and self-reliance, but halfway through the overly-detailed plot eventually drags down the tension. The writing is good, and the main character is wonderfully developed, but in the construction of a novel this is a case where less plot would be more. That aside, West asks some interesting questions about the criminal justice system and its future that make this book worth the while.


Benjamin Whitmer's Pike is not for readers who like their death and violence with tea and crumpets, or who insist on having a 'good guy' as a hero. The story revolves about Pike, his granddaughter, and a corrupt cop who displays an odd interest in the little girl. Whitmer has a distinct voice, tells a gripping tale, creates well-drawn, conflicted, streetwise characters with deep resources of anger. Yet ultimately I found the story unsatisfying, more surface than substance. While I'm not as enamored of this book as other reviewers whose opinions I respect (here, here, and here), I'm convinced that Whitmer has the chops to knock me off my critical block with some future book.


Well worth the time just for the fascinating main character, is R. Scott Bakker's Disciple of the Dog. There are an abundance of PI novels, particularly the PI-with-a-defect sort, so this book might have a hard time finding an audience. And it would be too bad if there isn't a series to come of this one. PI Disciple Manning has total recall of everything he's ever heard. If you think that makes him a good detective, bzzzzt! and thanks for playing. Neurotic, self-absorbed, womanizing slacker - that pretty much sums up Diss. The case revolves around a woman who disappeared from a cult's compound, and although the plot is anorexic, the character of Disciple, from his irreverence to his fearlessness, as well as Bakker's sharp pen and sharper observations, keep those pages turning.

November 28, 2010

REVIEW: EVERY BITTER THING by Leighton Gage

The son of a high-ranking Venezuelan politician has been found dead, shot in the abdomen and brutally beaten, in an apartment in Brasilia. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Federal Police is called to investigate, and the pressure is on to bring the case to a quick resolution: Find the killer and keep the baying politicians at, well, bay. But Silva is too wily a politician himself, and too good a detective, to allow the pressure to get to him. A good thing, too. Within 24 hours Silva has found the same MO used in four other murders, each occurring in a different city. The only link between the victims is that each was aboard Flight 8101, Miami to São Paulo, on the same day four months earlier. Then Silva discovers two more victims, one killed using the same MO as the others but who was not on that flight; and a 15-year-old boy who was on the flight but died of a head injury in a jail cell within hours of his arrival in Brazil. Silva and his team of detectives have their hands full collecting evidence and testimony from all over Brazil and Miami, as well as warning possible future victims. But the killer isn't waiting around for them to do their jobs. The killer keeps killing.

I confess to being a tad fussy about crime fiction whose locales are non-Anglo countries. It isn't that I won't read such books -- I love Roger Smith's books set in South Africa, and Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic mysteries, and so on -- but only that I often find an author will drench the reader in this other culture and land at the expense of story and characterization. A reader can spend more time trying to adjust to cultural nuances and sorting out names and locations than in simply enjoying a good story.

I'm happy to report this is not the case with Every Bitter Thing, by Leighton Gage. And yet Brazil is not simply an incidental setting; the reader will still enjoy a good taste of the Brazilian landscape and culture. But Gage weaves these things into his mystery so that they are truly a part of the story's fabric, all of it necessary, intriguing, and sometimes funny.

Told in third person, with limited subjectivity, what the reader learns about Silva and his team is only what is displayed on the job. We are not treated to their home lives and personal woes except insofar as they are referred to on the job. The team is just that, a team. They have a camaraderie born of experience and a mutual desire to get the job done, and done right. Honorable and upright, they disdain the corruption, laziness, and brutality they see throughout much of law enforcement. The team is: Arnaldo Nunes, a smart-ass of the first degree; nimble of wit but not an infallible interrogator. Haraldo 'Babyface' Gonçalves, he's thirty years old and looks a sweet and innocent twenty. Women tell him everything, but he's probably the most superstitious cop in the country. Hector Costa, Silva's nephew and a rising star in law enforcement, Hector heads up the Federal field office in São Paulo. And Silva himself, unflappable, far-sighted, and possessing the intangibles that make for great leadership, including a good sense of humor.

In some ways the story structure put me in mind of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, as Gage rarely strays into the private lives of his cops, and yet makes fully-fleshed characters of each of them. The dialogue is snappy but not just for the sake of it. The snappiness is a result of the team's experience with each other and with other cops and citizens, and the dialogue either moves the plot forward or reveals something about the character speaking. Gage never becomes overly graphic or too lovingly dwells on the violence, nor does he involve the reader in tedious forensic explanations. The pace is quick, the atmosphere slightly hardboiled but leavened with cop humor. The reader may guess the killer's identity mid-way through the book but that won't make the team's procedural search any less entertaining, and the epilogue has such an eyebrow-raising twist that the reader is forced to stop, say 'whoa,' and completely reevaluate Silva and his team. I enjoyed this book so much that I've started back at the beginning of the series, and now have only one more title to read. I'm going to hate waiting another year or more for another book from Gage.

In the following excerpt, Silva and Arnaldo Nunes have arrived at the scene of the first murder. A civil cop, homicide detective Walter Pereira, is to fill them in on what the police have found so far but Pereira wants to talk about Silva's incompetent boss, Sampaio:
"What's with you," Arnaldo asked.

"Your goddamned boss is what's with me," Pereira said. "He's doing his dog and pony show as we speak. There's a television in one of the bedrooms. Want to have a look?"

"Not on your life," Arnaldo said.

Silva bent over to look at the damage to the apartment's front door.

"Perp did this?" he asked.

Pereira shook his head. "We did."

Silva studied the floor. A trail of blood stained the carpet.

"Let's not get off the subject," Pereira said. "Your goddamned boss–"

Silva waved a dismissive hand. "You don't have to tell me, Walter. I work with the man."

"The way I heard it, the filho da puta doesn't work at all. The way I heard it, you guys do all the work, and he takes the credit. He is, by the way, currently positioning himself to do just that. He's live on Channel Five."

"Of course he is," Arnaldo said. "His public demands it."

"His public doesn't know shit. They think the blowhard is a twenty-first-century Eliot Ness. What kind of a background does Sampaio have in law enforcement anyway?"

"None whatever," Silva said. "He was a corporate lawyer. He made a substantial contribution to the president's election campaign. The rest, as they say, is history."

"Watcha got?" Arnaldo asked.

"Just answer me this: is he, or is he not, a filho da puta?"

"He's a filho da puta of monumental proportions," Arnaldo said. "Watcha got?"

Pereira finally broke into a grin. The teeth under his mustache were movie-star white.

"I got it solved, is what I got," he said.

EVERY BITTER THING by Leighton Gage
ISBN 978-1-56947-845-5
Publication date: December, 2010
Soho Press

One more note: Leighton Gage is a regular contributor to the Murder Is Everywhere blog. His co-contributors include Timothy Hallinan, Cara Black, Dan Waddell, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and the writing team of Michael Sears and Stan Trollip, aka Michael Stanley.

November 18, 2010

Review: BURY ME DEEP by Megan Abbott

Marion Seeley is an innocent in a strange city. At first sheltered, then abandoned by her older, physician husband, and struggling to find her way in a Depression-era world wholly unlike anything she's ever experienced, she makes two good friends: Louise and Ginny. Through these women, the parties they hold, the corrupt and faithless men they entertain, Marion meets and falls hard for Joe Lanigan, a businessman and rising politico who charms all, high and low, men and women. But there's more to Joe than hair pomade, a flawless tuxedo, and an invalid wife; and he slowly wraps the trusting Marion in a web of drugs, deceit and murder.

Much of the publicity around this book has to do with the Winnie Ruth Judd case as its inspiration. That seems to do a slight disservice to the book, as though without that knowledge the reader might not appreciate the story. Au contraire, the reader need have no knowledge of the Judd case to enjoy this fine tale and its deft prose. The author reveals the passion, fear, jealousy, and rage of true noir but paints her characters and their motives with the delicate flicker of an eyelash. Revelations occur between the lines as tension mounts and finally bursts into betrayal and violence. Just read how the author paints both isolation and desire in brief depth:
At work again, walking down long clinic hallways, spinning carbon paper and willowy onionskin around the feed roll, jamming keys under fingernails, taking long dictations, crying in the ladies' room, tearing tissue into long curls around her fingers.

What glamour might I cast, she wondered, to embed needs under this man's skin, make him crave me so deep like the deepness of something that goes through the blood, goes through the blood and bursts soft or swells hard in the brain?
A thread running through the story is disease: the clinic where Marion works, the tubercular Ginny, the invalid wife, the drug-addicted husband. And also the diseased souls, most notably Lanigan's but also many of the men with whom the women come in contact: doctors, businessmen, politicians; not riff-raff or lowlifes, but respectable types whose sicknesses are hidden and treated with money and power, all the while they act as carriers of contagion and corruption. This might be a description of the clinic, or it might be a description of Joe Lanigan:
She said hello, Mr. Lanigan, and nearly curtsied, seeing him as she had, three days before, under a sugared skein of girl-pink champagne, under the heavy weight of parlor heat, thick on their skins, thick with their own energies, own high spirits. And now here like this, in the cool, bleachy hallways of the blasted-brick clinic, didn't it look so innoculated? Yet it was a pox, vermin in every sweating pore, sputum lining every crevice no matter how swabbed and brush-scoured it was.
The best noir is more than simply crime or mystery. It is a pulling back of the veil covering dark emotions and twisted spirits. Bury Me Deep is the most impressive work of pure noir I've read since James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and is just as dark, sexy, and riveting as that classic.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

October 31, 2010

REVIEW: BEAT TO A PULP: Round 1

The heart of pulp – the cheap paper and glue product, the boiler-room atmosphere of authors cranking out novels on a weekly basis – may be dead, but the soul, ah, the soul – those fantastic stories of action, adventure, mystery – lives on. And not solely at events such as PulpFest, where past pulp glory is continually redistributed.

In Beat to a Pulp: Round 1, David Cranmer and Elaine Ash have made a dedicated and informed effort to keep flowing a font of new stories in the finest pulp tradition. Kudos to them, for in this tasty and tasteful collection are stories of crime, mystery, noir, nautical adventure, western action, SF, horror, and even – are you ready for this? – an intergalactic western. So true to the soul of pulp is this anthology there is even a previously unpublished western (The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce) by the late Paul S. Powers, a notable pulp writer during the 1930s and '40s. (And this story is even more intriguing when set alongside Craig McDonald's short story, Colt, and Ambrose Bierce's own short story, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, neither of which is in this book, but would be worth your while to read.)

The collection is so huge, 27 stories plus a history of pulp, that the book could very well be used to do what the title suggests. A few of the stories, like the very fine Hard Bite, by Anonymous-9, were originally published by Cranmer and Ash at the Beat to a Pulp webzine, while many others were written just for this "round." The credentials of the authors known to many fans of crime fiction: Charles Ardai, Robert J. Randisi, Hilary Davidson, Sophie Littlefield, Patricia Abbott, Jedidiah Ayres, James Reasoner, Stephen D. Rogers,  lends deserved credence to names that may not be quite so familiar to readers who don't regularly visit short-fiction webzines and anthologies: Nolan Knight, Chris F. Holm, Jake Hinkson, Kieran Shea, Andy Henion, and the man with a brand new book deal, Frank Bill.

Here's an anthology that really does offer something for every one, from Nazis to vampire fish, from shoot-outs to smuggling. I loved Ed Gorman's Killing Kate, about a man who could never bring himself to harm his unfaithful wife; and the Paul S. Powers story, which I've already mentioned. Then there's Chap O'Keefe's The Unreal Jesse James, about a time-traveler who robs trains in the Old West. And Charles Ardai's A Free Man, about where mid-life crisis can lead a man, is brilliant; as is the creepy little tale of wedded bliss in Sophie Littlefield's Fangataufa. And Cullen Gallagher's A History of Pulp is not to be missed. Pripet Marsh, Stephen D. Roger's story about a World War II soldier who just follows orders.There are just so, so many excellent stories here. I know I'm hardly the first to say it, but Beat to a Pulp: Round 1 is an absolute knock-out. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Contents:
Foreword: Bill Crider
1. Maker’s and Coke Jake Hinkson
2. A Free Man Charles Ardai
3. Fangataufa Sophie Littlefield
4. You Don’t Get Three Mistakes Scott D. Parker
5. Insatiable Hilary Davidson
6. Boots on the Ground Matthew Quinn Martin
7. Studio Dick Garnett Elliott
8. Killing Kate Ed Gorman
9. The Ghost Ship Evan Lewis
10. The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce Paul S. Powers
11. Heliotrope James Reasoner
12. The Wind Scorpion Edward A. Grainger
13. Hard Bite Anonymous-9
14. Crap is King Robert J. Randisi
15. The All-Weather Phantom Mike Sheeter
16. Pripet Marsh Stephen D. Rogers
17. Ghostscapes Patricia Abbott
18. Off Rock Kieran Shea
19. At Long Last Nolan Knight
20. A Native Problem Chris F. Holm
21. Spend it Now, Pay Later Nik Morton
22. Spot Marks the X I.J. Parnham
23. Hoosier Daddy Jedidiah Ayres
24. Anarchy Among Friends: A Love Story Andy Henion
25. Cannulation Glenn Gray
26. The Unreal Jesse James Chap O’Keefe
27. Acting Out Frank Bill
A History of Pulp Cullen Gallagher

October 30, 2010

Gonzo goings-on

A GONZO NOIR, Declan Burke's latest novel, is finally on the print publishing horizon. Though a print run of only 500 copies is planned, should the run sell out, the net profit will all go to the Children's Hospital in Tallaght, where Burke's daughter spent some time last year.

For anyone not familiar with Burke's novels, just allow your mind to contemplate these two words: screwball noir. Burke doesn't admit to it, but it's possible he's the literary love-child of Preston Sturges ('A pratfall is better than anything.') and James M. Cain ('I want to see that fin. That black fin. Cutting the water in the moonlight). With Tom Stoppard ('I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.') as godfather. I'll be keeping tabs on a pub date. Who knows, maybe at that time we can lure DB over to The Drowning Machine and get his feet wet.

In the Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues department,  the January issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine arrived yesterday. It appears the good folks at EQMM begin celebrating their 70th year in 2011. Hats off to them, that's a great run. And may it continue for another 70.

Of particular note in this latest issue, is a new story from Liza Cody, MR. BO. Cody only popped up on my reading radar this past summer, and I've since been tracking down copies of as many of her novels as I can find. I turned directly to this story and got sucked right into the world of a single mom struggling to make ends meet just as her long-lost affluent sister swans into her world and turns it upside down. This story should win many new fans for Ms. Cody, and I won't be surprised if it's listed among EQMM's reader favorites at the end of '11.

Talk about getting sucked into a story. I just started Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP, and the first chapter is ultra-humbling for us wannabe-a-writers. Here's a small sample:
Thrill parties every night over on Hussel Street. That tiny house, why, it's 600 square feet of percolating, Wurlitzering sin. Those girls with their young skin, tight and glamorous, their rimy lungs and scratchy voices, one cheek flush and c'mon boys and the other, so accommodating, even with lil' wrists and ankles stripped to pearly bone by sickness. They lay there on their daybed, men all standing over round, fingering pocket chains and hands curled about gin bottle necks. The girls lay there on plump pillows piled high with soft fringes twirling between delicate fingers, their lips wet with syrups, tonics, sticky with balms, their faces freshly powdered, arching up, waiting to be attended to by men, our men, the city's men. What do you do about girls like that?

October 15, 2010

REVIEW: IN THE MEAN TIME by Paul Tremblay

If I had not read and enjoyed Paul Tremblay's two novels about his narcoleptic detective, The Little Sleep and No Sleep till Wonderland, I doubt that this new collection of short stories from him would have caught my eye. And the loss would have been mine, for as much as those novels engaged me, delighted me, and touched me, I believe that it is in the short story form that Tremblay's talents are most fully appreciated.

The most difficult task facing the short story writer is deciding what to leave out, how to create those gaps in the story or character that best reveal the story or character; what to resolve and what should remain ambiguous. After reading these stories I am convinced that Tremblay is a master at evoking images by using shadows, at creating worlds by ending them. His prose is indelibly vivid nonetheless: Starkness is drawn in bold strokes, while plenty is shaded in transparent lines. There is a certain wonderful rhythm to his prose as well, that both pushes and pulls at the reader.

These are not crime fiction stories, although occasionally a crime occurs. If a label is required, speculative fiction will do as well as any other, but writing of this caliber requires the dismissal of categories and genres in favor of simply saying, "yes, read this." Each story becomes a lesson in dread as the author finds the reader's nerve bundles and presses lightly, casually, just letting you know the damage he could do if he wanted. These stories are less about horror than they are horrifying. But in a gentle, subtle way that really gets the lizard brain screaming danger, danger!

I was floored by the very first story, The Teacher, about a hip teacher and his special class in American History, and the effect of that class on one student in particular. No praise I can heap on this story will do it justice, so do yourself a favor and click here to read this story for free. But the leaps of imagination that occur from story to story, the unspoken human entanglements, the deft exposure of great mysteries in small moments -- you will need to read the entire collection to fully appreciate Tremblay's gifts. Check that, you may need to read some of these stories more than once, so nuanced are they.

The Blog at the End of the World is a story perfectly so attuned to how we communicate today, that one could almost search and find such a blog about a medical panic. The End of the Marlborough Man is a brief self-defeating moment of victorious anarchy. And then there's Growing Things, a heartbreakingly irresolute tale about two little girls in a cabin surrounded by plants -- this story should be read alongside Zeltserman's The Caretaker of Lorne Field, for a study in compare and contrast. And it makes me wonder, since both authors dwell up Massachusetts way, what the hell are they drinking up there and could I have some, please?


Charles Tan has written an excellent review of IN THE MEAN TIME at Bibliophile Stalker. I could not say better than he what is so remarkable about this collection:
"With Tremblay, there’s no dramatic music to clue you in that this is the part where you’re supposed to scream. In fact, most of the text is a gradual revelation and it’s only in retrospect that you come to realize hey, this is genuinely creepy stuff."
The readers of this collection are akin to frogs about to be cooked: Toss us in the boiling water and we'll jump right out of the pan. Toss us in cold water, turn on the heat and let the water come to a gradual boil, then we frogs will happily allow ourselves to be cooked and eaten. And, brother, Tremblay makes a meal of us.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

October 11, 2010

REVIEW: CHRISTMAS AT THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP edited by Otto Penzler

The first story in this delightful collection of Christmas mysteries just might be the best gift I'll receive this holiday season. Give Till It Hurts is one of the comical John Dortmunder stories by the much-missed Donald E. Westlake. Dortmunder, for those not familiar with the character, is a thief. He's a good thief, which is to say that he's good at his job, not that he is a good man. But things seem to happen to Dortmunder; things no thief, however proficient, can plan for.

With the cops hard on his heels, Dortmunder passes himself off as a guest in a Christmas poker game, sitting in for the missing "Don," who can be no other than Westlake himself, of course. This poker game takes place after hours at The Mysterious Bookshop, with participants including the likes of "Larry" (Lawrence Block?), Justin (Scott?), and the proprietor of the bookstore himself, Otto Penzler. I found myself chuckling because Dortmunder was still so very -- Dortmunder; I found my eyes welling up because I hate the idea of a world without the possibility of more of Westlake's wicked sense of humor. This is the very essence of a Christmas gift: something unexpected that brings joy and also touches the heart.

As a result, I find myself deeply grateful to Otto Penzler for sharing these stories with the rest of the world. You see, Penzler personally commissioned each of these 17 stories, one a year since 1993, from writers whose names alone inform the reader of the quality within this book: Westlake and Block, of course, but also Ed McBain, George Baxt, S.J. Rozan, Edward D. Hoch, Charles Ardai, Mary Higgins Clark, Rupert Holmes, Anne Perry, Jonathan Santlofer, Michael Malone, Andrew Klavan, Jeremiah Healy, Ron Goulart, Lisa Atkinson, and Thomas H. Cook.

Penzler's requirements were that each work must be a mystery/ crime/suspense story, that it be set during the Christmas season, and that at least some of the action must take place in The Mysterious Bookshop. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present. I am mighty sorry that I have not been a customer right along, but Penzler clearly has a forgiving nature since he now makes these stories available to anyone with the price of admission.

Westlake's story is followed by Schemes and Variations by George Baxt, wherein his snarky detective, one Pharaoh Love (I kid you not), is on the trail of a killer who has already done in three book dealers in the search for a rare Dashiell Hammett manuscript. Indeed, missing, stolen, or rare manuscripts play a role in several of these stories, as does Otto Penzler himself, but the reader is pulled along by the sheer charm and ingenuity of the writers. The name-dropping alone is staggering, and evoked a very real, very unChristian envy in me for those who have the privilege of dropping in at Penzler's store whenever they choose.

Generally designed to be lighthearted mysteries, there is yet a darker gem of a story by Ed McBain (who comes in for some good-natured joshing by some of the other writers for his vast collection of pen names). His I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus reveals the sinister side of the jolly holiday season. Lawrence Block chips in with As Dark As Christmas Gets, a clever homage to Nero Wolfe, while Jeremiah Healy introduces The Holiday Fairy, wherein one might note a slight resemblance to a famous Agatha Christie story but to which Healy has added a certain poignancy and imbued with far greater affection than any of the Dame's characters were wont to possess. And Mary Higgins Clark closes out the collection with What's in a Name?, an Algeresque tale for perennially rejected writers.

As a holiday gift for mystery lovers, I highly recommend this collection. But you know, people will say, 'Oh, I got her a book last year. She has lots of books, she must get so tired of receiving them,' and then they'll go out and buy you some overpriced bath salts or too-small house slippers or an Air Supply cd, and you won't get this (or any other) book. You'd better just buy it for yourself.

October 10, 2010

REVIEW: DEATH NOTICE by Todd Ritter

Just in time for Halloween comes Todd Ritter's debut novel, DEATH NOTICE.

Small-town police chief Kat Campbell doesn't have a lot of experience with serious crimes. There aren't many in Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania. So when a local farmer is murdered in a mysterious and rather grisly manner, Kat is happy to accept help from the state Bureau of Investigation. The state investigators suspect a serial killer dubbed The Betsy Ross Killer, for his rather fine sewing technique. The serial killer is caught and confesses, and everyone lives happily ever after.  Except for the next victim. And the next...

The author creates some interesting characters which offset the cliched serial killer situations. Chief Campbell is the single mother of a child with Down's Syndrome. The mysterious Henry Goll, who writes the obituaries for the local paper and becomes a key figure in the investigation, is badly disfigured and so rarely seen, even by his co-workers, that he's been dubbed Henry Ghoul. The lead detective for the state, Nick Donnelly, spends his vacations going around the country to interview killers. There are some nice red herrings, and although the reader may guess the killer's identity, it won't happen early enough to ruin the story. The prose is workman-like, and the pace and tension could be improved upon, but the climactic encounter with the killer is gruesome enough to win over fans of the hardest-core horror films (I may wear a neck brace until my fear wears off. Not to mention avoiding funeral homes.). Fans of Linda Castillo's Silence series should enjoy this one immensely.

September 29, 2010

A pair of reviews

In VELOCITY, this third in Alan Jacobson's Karen Vail series, the FBI profiler is looking for her missing boyfriend, possibly the victim of foul play at the hands of a serial killer who has been shot and is in a coma. And yet, new victims of the killer keep cropping up in public places. Is this copycat / student of the original killer playing games with the cops? Does he/they have anything to do with the missing boyfriend? And what does of any of this have to do with Mexican drug cartels?


The pace of the book certainly matches the title, but the story seems to pick up in the middle of things, without ever providing a clearly defined backstory. To add to my confusion, there are more characters than at a family reunion, none of whom are well-defined. I couldn't even keep track of who was a local cop, who was FBI, ATF, or DEA. And sometimes I couldn't figure out why all those alphabet soup organizations were involved. And that much, I suspect, is realistic, in that anytime the Feds get involved to that degree, mass confusion is the one certain result. I felt like I had arrived 45 minutes late to a movie, not knowing who the characters are or able to relate to any of them. However, the prose clips right along, and I suspect this story will have mass appeal for fans of James Patterson's Murder Club series. Those interested would benefit by reading the series in order.

SAMURAI CODE is the fourth in Don Easton's Jack Taggart series. Taggart is a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, an undercover agent extraordinare, and in this story he is following the trail of illegal gun dealers, from the streets up. This leads him and his partner to a powerful Asian organized-crime mob. The author uses this story to highlight the difficulties covert agents face in trying to infiltrate organized crime, but never sacrifices action for the sake of argument. Some of the action scenes had the feel of being scripted with a movie in mind, and in the early parts of the book, there were a few instances of the "had I but known" school of crime writing. Again, I would recommend this book to fans of James Patterson, but in this case the book did stand on its own without requiring that the reader tackle the series in order.

September 28, 2010

BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT - Edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg

BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year

I have sometimes opened an anthology of short fiction, scanned the table of contents, noted two or three authors whose names I recognized, and wondered 'who are all these other writers and why haven't I heard of them?' Sadly, sometimes after reading the stories I know the answers. It took me years to understand that by their very natures, anthologies are often of uneven quality. Yes, even the annual 'Best American Mystery Stories' series has been known to publish some stories that have made me question the editors' capacity for alcohol.

I'm happy to report that such is not the case with Between the Dark and the Daylight. Whether you recognize all the names or not, you won't find one dog of a story in this book, starting with Father's Day (an L&O-ish Harry Bosch tale by Michael Connelly) right through to the melancholy horror of Sack of Woe (John Harvey).

In between those excellent bookends, you'll find the Edgar-winning Skinhead Central (T. Jefferson Parker) and the Macavity and Anthony nominated A Sleep Not Unlike Death (Sean Chercover), the latter of which is a must read for Chercover's fans who want to know more about his enigmatic character, Gravedigger Peace.

I have to commend the editors, Ed Gorman and Martin Greenburg, because their selection is flawless. I wish I had time to talk about all 28 stories but I'm going to limit myself to just three more, the first of which is the title story, Between the Dark and the Daylight (Tom Piccirilli). There's one word for this story: harrowing. Maybe it's because I have an overwhelming fear of heights and this story involves a runaway balloon. Maybe it's the helpless child in that balloon. Maybe it's the four men dangling from ropes, trying desperately to save the child. And maybe it's all of that and more. Because that's just when the author is getting started.

Two more from this remarkably fine collection, and they come from the one-two punch of mother and daughter, Patricia Abbott and Megan Abbott. Megan's story is Cheer, about a nasty little squad of privileged cheerleaders who will never out-nasty their coach. This one left me reeling.

Patricia's story, The Instrument of Their Desire, stands out even among so many other great stories. It is a deeply wrenching story of family loyalty and perceived betrayal and decades-old secrets, and is my favorite out of a terrific bunch of stories. This story delivers an atmosphere of abject poverty without ever dwelling on the details, but only the results of such desperate need, and Abbott does a superlative job of bringing her small cast of characters to vivid life. Yes, I cried. So sue me.

Other authors in this collection include Brett Battles (Perfect Gentleman is a perfect jewel), Gary Phillips, Martin Limón, Charles Ardai, Bill Pronzini, and the incomparable Bill Crider. And yes, there are more and you do know their names: Oates, Pickard, Harris, Robinson, etc, etc. Although the editors consider this a "best of" collection for 2008, I would stack these stories against any other "best of" collection, from any year, they are all that good.

September 20, 2010

THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD by Dave Zeltserman

Jack Durkin would love to quit his job, but that's not possible. It's not the money; the money is lousy and he could do better. It's not that he has a rotten boss. He's basically his own boss, although his hours and duties are clearly outlined in his employment contract. No, Jack can't quit his job because if he does, life on this planet will end. So Jack works hard every day, saving the world.

What this superhero does is pull the weeds in Lorne Field. Everyday, from can-see to can't. Well, those weeds aren't really weeds, they just disguise themselves as weeds. They're really a nasty, bloodthirsty bunch of monsters called Aukowies, that must be pulled from the ground and burned every day. Left unchecked, they would grow so fast, become so unstoppable, they would destroy the world in a matter of weeks. So Jack pulls the weeds and burns them.

Jack is the ninth generation of Durkins to work this field. That's roughly 300 years the Durkins have been saving the world on a daily basis. And people used to revere Jack's family; they took care of the Durkins and paid them well. People used to understand that the Durkins gave up most of life's pleasures so that we could all stay alive. Used to. Nowadays everyone thinks Jack is just a crazy man. Including his wife, a woman worn beyond her years, a woman who wears her bitterness with a kind of twisted pride. Though misunderstood, ridiculed, and persecuted, the gentle Jack lets nothing sway him from the job. And then one day, his wife decides that the contract must be broken, setting in motion a wheel of tragedy and horror.

I read several reviews of The Caretaker of Lorne Field, wanting to see if other readers had a similar experience with this book as I did. It quickly became clear to me that this is a book no two people will see in exactly the same way. Some reviewers saw it as strictly a horror story. Several reviewers called the book "darkly funny" or thought it a mix of horror and humor. I found this story layered with dread and unease, and not funny at all. Mostly I found it sad and poignant, an expose of just how callous and mean we are. Not "society," not "people." Us. That's how on-target are the characters in this book, how very ordinary they are in their selfishness, in their reliance on conformity, and their intolerance of whoever and whatever does not conform.

Some reviewers thought there were underlying parallels to fascist politics, either modern or historical. I saw religious parallels, a morality play. Jack Durkin is in many ways subjected to the physical and emotional hammerings as Job of the Old Testament. Like Job, Jack endures but at enormous cost to himself and to those he loves. And in some ways, Jack is a Christ-like figure: Every weed Jack pulls is a sin forgiven, and sins must be forgiven because otherwise, the wages of sin are death. Like Christ, Jack intercedes, again at great personal cost and risk, to save an ungrateful humanity. Jack is persecuted and arrested for crimes he has not committed.

Or has he?

Is Jack really just a (pardon the pun) garden-variety maniac? Is he the kind of lunatic who would cut off his son's thumb to prove the existence of creatures who really only exist in his mind? Is Jack so deeply obsessed, so much a monster himself that he would murder to protect his delusions? Or was it the Aukowies who committed these crimes? Are they smart enough to know just how best to weaken their enemy?

The author provides plenty of evidence for arguing either side of the case, setting up an ambiguous suspense that is at the heart of the story. If Jack is lying, why would the town have contracted such a job, and in such detail, and maintained that contract for 300 years? Why would Jack work like a dog, deprived even of the simple things in life others take for granted? But if Jack is telling the truth, why does no one else ever witness the presence of the Aukowies?

The reader will ache for Jack's wounds and losses, and like his wife, will start looking for an easy out. Instead, the narrative creates a spiral of dread, a vortex that is broad and easy at the top, but with a flow and forces that spins down faster and narrower and faster and darker, toward a black hole from which there will be no escape. At book's end, the reader must close the cover, face himself alone and ask, "Do you believe, or don't you?"

This is just the kind of book that someday will be on high-school reading lists, and this is the kind of thought-provoking book that will then be challenged by both parents and church leaders, possibly even banned in some ultra-fundamentalist communities. But every reader, and particularly fans of Stephen King, should take a peek into this odd, sad fable. What you find there will forever be a secret between just you and Jack Durkin.   HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

September 16, 2010

Tom Llewellyn, a guest blogger? Here? Are you kidding me?



Yes, here. No kidding. It's long past time that The Drowning Machine suffered endured presented proudly presented our first-ever guest blogger. And in scouring about to find just the right first guest, it occurred to me that securing a world-famous bestselling writer of crime fiction would be a too obvious thing to do, having already been done to perfection, more than once, by Jen Forbus. So I cast my eyes about for someone a tad less famous, someone who could do funny, sassy, irreverent, and inappropriate on demand. And didn't have an ego. Out of the flood of responses one can expect to milk from a craigslist ad in search of such qualities (at least before that website shut down its Adult Services Section), one bit of cream floated to the top.

Please welcome Tom Llewellyn, YA author (The Tilting House), book blogger (but not in the usual sense of that term, as you will learn), and guerrilla letterpress artist (a whu--?). His mind is kind of -- skittery, but really, he's harmless enough. I think. Take it away, Tom:



I wrote a book recently. A kid mystery novel called “The Tilting House.” Drowning Machine reviewed it in June. After months of constant whining and badgering, Naomi was kind enough to let me shill my wares here, because, to quote “Hustle and Flow,” “It’s hard out here for a pimp — err, author.”

On writing kids’ books containing dead bodies:

I recently read The Book of Genesis, as illustrated by R. Crumb. The words are straight from the Bible, unabridged. I was shocked by how jam-packed with sex and violence the story was. I realized that for most of my life, I’d been ripped off by the Sunday school version of the story, which stripped out all the murders and such. No wonder kids don’t want to go to church.

Kids’ mystery books often do the same thing. They take out the precise parts of the books kids want to read, leaving behind all the parts that parents assume are good for children. In other words, the boring parts.

That’s why I was so happy when Publishers Weekly reviewed my debut novel, The Tilting House, and declared it, “A cross between Goosebumps and Twin Peaks,” and said “Llewellyn's debut is inventive, gripping, and shot through with macabre details.” “Macabre” and “details” are two of my favorite words! And PW is right. The second chapter of the book is about revenge. The fourth chapter includes the suspicious death of a main character’s stepdad. The fifth chapter is just one big amputation story—who doesn’t like a good amputation? And the overarching mystery is about a body buried in the crawlspace.

Is the book too creepy for kids? Hell, no! I’ve given author talks to at least a couple of hundred elementary age kids who’ve read the book and they all love the parts I just mentioned. Why? Because kids, just like grown-ups, deal with the same fears as the rest of us. They fear the dark. They’re afraid of dead bodies and murder. And we all know that, within our human brains, the flip side of fear is fascination. Hence, crime novels for grown-ups and books like this for kids.

On consecutively working within three levels of publishing technology:

Level one: moveable type

One obsessive side project of mine is called Beautiful Angle, where my co-founder and I create letterpress posters, using wood and lead type and a circa-1950s hand-crank printing press. Our distribution method is purely local—we staple and paste the posters on telephone poles and buildings around town. What has it taught me about writing? Limitations are your friend. With letterpress, we can only write words we have letters to print. When we run out of E’s, we need to change the words. But a smaller sandbox often makes for greater creativity.

Level two: traditional publishing

It took me four years, from submission to release, to get The Tilting House into stores. Once done, it was exhilarating. Along the way, my primary thoughts were fear and frustration. But the process—all the revisions and all the guidance of my talented editor, the esteemed Abigail Samoun—certainly resulted in a better final product. I learned that writing is not a solitary process. Editors make a huge difference.

Level three: blogging

In a desire to speed up the process, I decided to write a book via blog: Letter off Dead. Soon I was averaging over 10,000 unique visitors a month. I loved getting words directly to an audience with no middle man. I loved the immediate feedback from followers. I had no idea how to make a dime off the thing — after 10 months of Google ads I’d cleared eight dollars. But in the end, my publisher picked up the work and offered to publish it traditionally. So the only way I could figure to make a buck off a blog was to get it published the old-fashioned way.

Thank you, Tom, for sharing your kattywompus path to publishing your second book. And in case anyone is too busy/lazy to click on that link to Beautiful Angle, or you somehow managed to resist the impact of that fabulous graphic at the top of this post, take a peek here at just a couple more of my favorite posters Tom has co-created. This guy has a created whole new sub-sub-genre: Poster Noir.
 

September 12, 2010

REVIEW: THE THOUSAND by Kevin Guilfoile

Canada Gold has a neurotransmitter implanted in her body to control the disturbing behavior she exhibited as a child. That device was recalled though, as it had never been intended for use in children with ADHD. There are people who want that device for their own purposes, who want to surgically remove it from Nada, as she is called. And then there are people who just want Nada dead.

And that's to put the plot in the tiniest possible nutshell, because the plot of The Thousand is not easily summed up. To wit, Nada's father, a brilliant composer and maestro, had narrowly escaped conviction on a charge of brutally slaying his mistress only to be shot by his mistress' father two weeks after the trial ended in acquittal. Her father's killer then committed suicide. But how it that years later, the gun used to kill Nada's father is then used to kill the doctor who implanted the neurotransmitter in Nada? And what does any of this have to do with two commercial airliners crashing just after take-off at Fort Lauderdale, a missing musical masterpiece, a sheik, a casino owner, a math professor, a Las Vegas prosecuting attorney, a deranged artist, a business tycoon, and a prolonged black-out in Chicago at the height of summer?

The magnet that draws the reader is the notion that "everything in the universe apparently can be described or predicted with a mathematical equation," and that a small number of people - The Thousand - are privy to that information, withholding it from the general population for reasons generally stemming from greed, power, and fear. But of course, there are people who know the information is out there, don't have it themselves, and will kill to get it.

For myself, this aspect and the many characters involved are less riveting than the single character who acts out of selfless love for Nada. Framed for a double murder, Wayne Jennings is a casino worker and he is certainly no Jack Reacher. Nevertheless, Wayne begins a grueling cross-country journey -- Las Vegas to Chicago, and some of it on foot. His goal is to find and save Nada, even though he has reason to believe her feelings for him are transitory at best. Deprived of money, wanted by the law, betrayed at every turn, and facing death in the desert, the beleaguered Wayne becomes the character we root for. We root for Nada, too, but as the book goes on, we pull for her more for Wayne's sake than for her own. God forbid he should go through seven kinds of hell only for her to end up dead.

Fans of arcane conspiracy theories (can you say Dan Brown?) will enjoy author Guilfoile's tapestry of lies, paranoia, rumor, innuendo, betrayal, and power-mongering. Not to mention action and murder.

September 4, 2010

Gimme Five! Contest

We all have our favorite authors. The Do-No-Wrong gang whose books we'll always buy, check that, whose books we'll pre-order on the first possible day. And somewhere in your personal Do-No-Wrong gang of scribes are bound to be some authors who are not all that well-known to the rest of the reading hordes.

Now that's who I'm after: Five authors who you believe are an unfairly guarded secret. The ones that if you could, you would make everyone read at least once. The ones for whom you scarcely, if ever, see a review or even simple praise. More than names, I want one title to go with that name, the one title that if I only ever read one book by that author, it should be that book. Five authors, one title each, got it?

Oh, wait. One more condition. No matter how the author is usually (if ever) marketed or branded, the books you select must be works of crime fiction. I'll leave it to your discretion to determine whether your choices meet that criterion.

Everyone is eligible to enter, but please enter one time only.

In return, if you have posted your High Five in the comments by 8 am EST on Wednesday, September 8, your name will be entered into a random drawing. The person whose name is drawn will get a free book of his own choosing, with a value up to $25. (Well, let's be reasonable - I'm not springing for a 1st edition, signed copy of a Raymond Chandler title for anyone but me. And not for me either.) And I will also purchase for myself one title from the winner's list. I consider this a win-win contest.

Want to convert me into a fan of your unknown favorites? Then get ready - set - GO!

September 1, 2010

To the point: NEEDLE #2

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you right now that I had the privilege of editing a few of the stories in the latest issue of NEEDLE (#2). The first two stories I was assigned to read for this issue pretty much left my jaw on the floor: Ray Banks' The Great Pretender, and Sarah Weinman's Mirror Image. Ray has received deserved acclaim for his novels featuring Scottish PI, Cal Innes, while Sarah is, well, yeah, she's that Sarah Weinman: LA Times book critic whose word carries major weight. As does, I assure you, her fiction.

The Great Pretender takes the Kris Kristofferson lyric, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," a step beyond: When you've nothing left to lose, well, brother, that's when you're in danger of losing it, period. And Mirror Image spins a web of morbid self-fascination that left this reader feeling claustrophobic in her own skin.

These two stories alone would make NEEDLE #2 well worth the price of admission, but it's a fact that the other ten stories will leave you sitting in your easy chair with your hair looking like it was styled using a can of cheap hairspray and a 90-mile-an-hour wind. Stephen Blackmoore (who, I'm happy to say, becomes a part of the NEEDLE editing family beginning with the next issue) spins a murder mystery with a journalist and brother/cop trying to find a drive-by shooter, in For the Children; while The Waiting, by Allan Leverone (whose first novel will be published by Medallion Press in February), features a gang of thieves whose group dynamics leave them more involved in cross and double-cross than in the heist.


In John Stickney's Spending Light, you can spend the day with an aging Northern Ohio mobster who is just as concerned about his Viagra intake as he is about the daily take from his numbers racket. But one of those two things is more deadly than the other. Julie Summerell unveils her first crime fiction story, Under the Rug, wherein someone is going to have to explain the dead guy in the apartment -- and that child molestation yarn probably isn't going to hold up.


David Cranmer's stories always provide their own reason for being, and The Sins of Maynard Shipley is no exception. After all, Maynard is providing a public service, isn't he, getting rid of all those old folks who are such a burden to their families and to the state? 


Mike Sheeter's name was new to me, but after reading Going Downrange, I'll make a point of seeking out more of his work. This story clues the reader in to just how binding are the ties of military comradeship. Semper fi, indeed.


Nigel Bird's original voice is heard in three incarnations in Beat on the Brat, the winner of this year's Watery Grave Invitational. (And if you haven't been keeping up with Nigel's 'Dancing with Myself' series of interviews on his blog, you've been missing out on the fun.) And Chris F. Holm delivers The Hitter, a novella about an unusual hit man whose unrequited love is also an unconditional love. If you're not familiar with Chris's work, let me clue you in: his credentials include a Derringer nom, a Spinetingler win, and stories published in both Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I want this guy for a mentor.


And then there's Tip the Barkeep (Nolan "think fast" Knight) and Cold, Hard, Love! (Frank "just-got-a-book-deal" Bill) to round out the issue. I look at the quality of this anthology as a whole and of the individual stories, and my feeling is one of profound regret that NEEDLE does not (cannot, by MWA rules) carry MWA eligibility at this time.


NEEDLE #2 (and #1 also) is available in print format only at lulu.com.

August 24, 2010

REVIEW: WORKING STIFFS by Simon Wood

With a wicked sense of humor and a deft hand with the plot twist, Simon Wood makes Working Stiffs, a collection of six short stories and one novella, a delight from beginning to wild, wild end. The stories are tied together with a workplace theme, and collectively convey a new understanding of just how dangerous the job can be.

In Old Flames Burn the Brightest, a renowned mystery writer finds himself boxed into a murderous corner not of his own writing.

In My Father's Secret, young Vincent helps his dad out in the hardware store until he discovers his father is moonlighting. And what Vincent knows could get his father killed. This story won the 2007 Anthony Award at Bouchercon for Best Short Story.

Sam just can't resist a pretty woman. It gets him A Break in the Old Routine, not to mention the job interview of a lifetime.

Parental Control puts a whole new spin on the concept of 'tough love' when Preston refuses to stand by as his son makes poor life choices. When Preston decides to apply the same kind of 'touch love' to the workplace, he finds it a much happier place to be. But you might not want to be his boss.

Kenneth Casper, aging and decrepit CEO of a major corporation, seeks out a Chilean shaman for a healing that will enable him to lead his company with renewed vigor, in The Real Deal. But of course, some people would just as soon see Kenneth retire.

When a street hood takes beat cop Webber's gun away from him and nearly kills him, in Officer Down, Webber has to take some time off the job to get his head straight. But he can't get his head straight until he gets that gun back. And once he does that, should he keep it?

The Fall Guy is a freewheeling five-part novella that begins with Todd working a dead-end job. Trying to avoid being late -- again -- Todd has the misfortune to back his POS car into a Porsche Boxster, breaking a headlight on the expensive vehicle. In order to pay for the damages, Todd explores all kinds of job skills he wasn't even aware he possessed, like safecracking and grave digging.. The job perks include traveling the country with six keys of coke and a corpse not of his making -- at least not directly. Crime hasn't been this much fun or unpredictable since the time second-story man John Dortmunder squeezed himself into a dishwasher. You can sample a small portion of part one of this novella by clicking here.

Working Stiffs is available in paperback, as well as in a $2.99 ebook format at:

August 19, 2010

REVIEW: THE GLASS RAINBOW by James Lee Burke

Detective Dave Robicheaux has an ugly case on his desk. Seven young women brutally tortured and murdered. But one of them doesn't fit with the others. Six of them were addicts, prostitutes, runaways. Throwaway lives in today's world. One young woman was a high school honor student with a college scholarship awaiting, and no connection to the streets. Another victim, a runaway down from Canada, had been tortured so viciously that she had actually sweated blood. Dave's only lead is a pimp named Herman Stanga. When Stanga fails to cooperate, Dave's best friend, Clete Purcel, a PI and all-around loose cannon, administers a brutal public beating -- the cell-phone cameras were clicking away -- to Stanga. Clete's freedom, his whole life, is really going down the tubes this time.

Just in case a sadistic psychopath isn't enough for Dave to worry about, he has to stand by as his daughter, Alafair, gets engaged to a wealthy author, Southern scion Kermit Abelard. Said scion has been keeping a-leetle-too-close quarters with a literary ex-con beloved by the reading world. Not so beloved by Dave though, who loathes the historical Abelard family values and the literary ex-con alike.

The Glass Rainbow
is a highly-charged, evocative thriller packed with the author's musings on the end of life. There can be little need to describe the beauty of Burke's prose to anyone who has read any of his work, and there is no let-down or backing away in this book. In the first paragraph alone, Burke paints a word picture of  misty shadows that readily conveys the book's atmosphere from the outset. When it comes to juxtaposing light and shadow, Burke is a verbal Rembrandt. The depth of his characters is revealed in every action, every line of dialogue, and the overarching theme, facing one's mortality, is handled spiritually, symbolically, and with a great tenderness. This is a story both fearsome and moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Instead of a single excerpt from The Glass Rainbow, I'd like to share just a few of my favorite sentences:
  • "There are instances when the exigencies of your life or profession require that you ingratiate yourself with people who make you uncomfortable, not because of what they are but because you fear their approval and the possibility you are more like them than you are willing to accept. I kept believing that age would one day free me of that burden. But it never has."
  • "The vagueness of the term 'homeless' is unintentionally appropriate for many of the people inside this group. We have no idea who they are, how many of them are mentally ill or just poor, or how many of them are fugitives. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of them were dumped on the streets or refused admission by federal hospitals. The mendicant culture they established is still with us, although our problem of conscience regarding their welfare seems to have faded."
  • "To try to control the lives of other people is a form of arrogance."
  •  "A time comes when the loudest sound in a room, any room, is the ticking of a clock. And the problem is not the amplified nature of the sound; the problem is that the sound is slowing, each tick a little further away than the one that preceded it."
  • Describing the fat cats at a fundraiser: "They were porcine and sleek and combed and brushed, and they jingled when they walked."
  • And a conversation between Sheriff Helen Soileau and Dave, where the reader gets a rare glimpse of Helen's rage: 
    • "You know how many unsolved female homicides there are in Louisiana?"
    • "No."
    • "That's the point. Nobody does. Not here, not anywhere. It's open season on women and girls in this country. You bring that asshole in. If he falls down and leaves blood on the vehicle, all the better. His DNA becomes a voluntary submission."
  • "The dead carry a special kind of passport, and they go anywhere they want."
  • "Don't let anyone tell you that age purchases you freedom from fear of death."
  • "It has been my experience that most human stories are circular rather than linear. Regardless of the path we choose, we somehow end up where we commenced -- in part, I suspect, because the child who lives in us goes along for the ride."