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

January 28, 2010

SHOT TO DEATH: 31 Stories of Nefarious New England by Stephen D. Rogers

A part of the joy in reading short stories is that they are, well, short. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, as Shakespeare noted, it is attractive in its own write, er, right. A bite or two of a truly tasty short story is often more satisfying than a five-course meal of been-there-read-that novel.

There's a high percentage of tasty morsels to be found in Stephen D. Rogers' SHOT TO DEATH, an anthology of crime fiction tied together by locale. My closest brush with New England was in the form of watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote, so I was expecting lots of laconic New Englanders in these stories. Lots of "ayehs" and lobster fisherman. Rustic atmostphere. Colonial past looming over the present.

I'm delighted to report that my expectations missed the mark by a significant margin. I don't think there's a single "ayeh" in the book. The stories may occur in New England, but these are stories about people more than place. Take Raising the Bar, in which the mother of a toddler is agonizing over the damage done to her son's face, quite by accident, but for which maternal guilt is reshaping her every thought. Her angst is building into action, and Rogers wisely stops short of giving the reader the details. This story could be happening to any mother in the world, not just a New England mother. The same is true of Breakdown, in which a father who harmed his little girl no longer trusts himself to be around her and takes himself out of her life. From the act of inadvertently, but not accidentally, harming his child springs all his future decisions, major and minor, right down to whether or not he wants fries with his order.

A nice change-up from these noirish parents and ominously unresolved endings, is The Big Store, an amusing tale of three none-too-bright con artists who plan their scam in a diner, using their outdoors voices. The conversation between these three geniuses reminds me of the kind of nonsensical discussions carried on by the patrons of the OJ Bar & Grill in Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series. Another story on the lighter side, and one of my favorites, is Custody Battle at Red Creek. What that title may imply and what the story proves to be about -- vastly different. It's a cat-and-mouse tale about two competing private investigators who can't stand each other and their methods of expressing that mutual hatred.

To be sure, out of 31 stories, not every one is a winner. For example, the ending of High Noon, about a bankrobber left behind, lacks the punch and polish of C.O.D. about a sleep-deprived homeowner who takes matters into his own hands when law enforcement officials refuse to do anything about the repeated vandalism of his mail box. But the majority of these stories are worth your time.

How much time? Well, in general these are very short stories, clocking in at an average of roughly 2,000 words per. So depending on how fast you read, that's maybe 5-10 minutes per story. What's remarkable is that stories so brief usually have to focus on situation while character often gets understated, but there are a number of stories here in which character dominates. This is when Rogers is at his best.

Shot to Death
Mainly Murder Press
Release: February 15, 2010
Trade paperback ISBN: 9780982589908

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the author at no charge to me. I make no money from reviewing this book, nor gain anything more. Do we really have to go through this every time I read a book?

January 21, 2010

Would you want his job?

Even in the world of crime writers, it isn't often that one gets to meet and interact with someone like Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon, but about two dozen people, including yours truly, had that rare pleasure today.

Dr. Smalldon is a forensic psychologist, in private practice since 1990. He is the son of a career FBI agent, so he grew up with criminal behavior as a frequent topic of conversation around the house. He has provided consultation in more than 150 capital murder cases. If you keep up with this kind of thing, and you're an Ohioan, you might recognize the names of Jerry Hessler, Jeffrey Lundgren, Thomas Lee Dillon, Alva Campbell, and more recently (like, say, yesterday) James Mammone III. All of them are cases on which Dr. Smalldon has consulted. I suspect he would have been called to consult on Anthony Sowell's case, but Sowell has changed his plea from 'not guilty by reason of insanity' to a simple 'not guilty.'

Besides the influence of his father's career, Dr. Smalldon stated that his interest in forensic psychology dates back to 1982, when two women he worked with at (then) Riverside Methodist Hospital (Columbus, Ohio) were brutally -- and that may be a colorless adjective in this case -- murdered on the job, just after Christmas. No arrest was ever made in that case. It is, however, interesting to note that the husband of one of the victims was William Matix. If you're old enough to remember the famous 1986 shoot-out in Miami between FBI agents and two bankrobbers, then you may also remember that Michael Gross played the role of Matix in the made-for-tv movie, In the Line of Duty: The F.B.I. Murders.

As a supervisor of the murdered women, Dr. Smalldon had met Matix after the murders, to express his condolences, and today he described the Matix he met as being soft-spoken, articulate, and an active church-goer.

Well, you can see how such events, and the conflict between apparent personality and opposing behavior, would naturally lead Smalldon to a life-long interest in forensic psychology. But the interest was there even before the terrible events at the hospital. In the 1970s, while an English major in Indiana, he corresponded with Charles Manson and many of the Manson "family" members, after reading Helter Skelter left him wondering 'why?'. Smalldon met twice with John Wayne Gacy, and has correspondence from him as well as from the Manson group, Thomas Lee Dillon, and other serial killers.

The hour we had with Dr. Smalldon, which he graciously provided pro bono, stretched into almost 90 minutes, and even then several of us cornered him to talk further. My suggestion to him was, "You have to write a book." And clearly the idea appeals to him, but he said that his work now keeps him far too busy to tackle such a task.

Knowing how curious his audience would be, the good doctor provided us with some fascinating, albeit chilling, handouts, and my set is even now sitting right next to my keyboard. With his permission to do so, I'm providing you a scan of one of the notes he received from one of America's most infamous serial killers. See if you recognize him. Enjoy.

January 2, 2010

REVIEW: KILLER by Dave Zeltserman

SYNOPSIS: Leonard March did some bad things for which he has just spent 14 years in prison. But Leonard committed crimes much worse than that for which he was imprisoned -- like a couple of dozen murders for which he did no time at all. That's because he traded his mob boss, the notorious Salvatore Lombard, for a lighter sentence before the DA realized that Leonard was a lot more than just a small-time hood.

Through strength, cunning, and some luck, Leonard survived prison and the attempts at retaliation by Lombard's mob. He doesn't expect to survive being outside though. The mob still wants him dead. The whole world hates him. He's an old man now, and he has no money or resources. His children don't want any contact with him, his wife died while he was in prison, and as for friends, rats don't have any. He can't leave town because he has to appear in court to face civil suits filed by the families of his victims. And then there are the debilitating headaches that won't go away. Leonard has no health insurance, so he just eats aspirin like it's Pez. It's not easy for Leonard to look ahead when he has to spend so much time looking over his shoulder to see who might be gaining on him.

REVIEW: To put it simply, Killer is a brilliant character study that will rip the literary rug right out from under the reader's tightly-curled toes.

As with the previous two entries in Zeltserman's "man-out-of-prison" trilogy, the author has created a memorable protagonist, and in this case, one more sympathetic than the sociopaths the author depicted in Small Crimes and Pariah.

Killer reads like a grotesque, mesmerizing biography as Leonard March tells his story in first person. The chapters alternate between his present circumstances and earlier life, leading the reader through March's childhood, then his willing descent into mob hitman, and later still, his increasing isolation from his family as he seeks to keep the filth of his job from spilling over onto the wife and children he really loves.

Strange though it sounds, it's hard not to be sympathetic to Leonard when the people he killed were the kind of people most of us wish didn't exist in the first place. He doesn't like to dwell on what he did. He's just trying to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. He would make himself into wallpaper if he could. But he won't give himself a moral whitewash either. He knows the nature of his many crimes.

And so he commits himself to his job as a night janitor, humble as it is. He scrubs office toilets at night and in the wee hours returns 'home' to his seedy, narrow apartment, which is all that he can afford. You don't find many hitmen willing to scrub the toilet, or settling for a used recliner complete with stains and tears in the fabric. Leonard manages the few dollars he has with great care. No frills. He tries to contact his now-grown children who make it painfully clear how much they want nothing to do with him. And although Leonard wouldn't mind a little non-judgmental human contact, he goes out of his way to avoid people who hold out the promise of wealth in exchange for a book deal. He shows up in court to face those families of his victims who have filed wrongful death suits against him, even though he has no money for a lawyer and his presence means that the Lombard mob will  certainly find him. He even prevents a robbery, not that anyone wants to believe that Leonard is capable of both decency and courage.

The story of Leonard March's return to society is not an action story. The mundane events of his days and nights echo the lives of the marginalized and the dispossessed everywhere, with the added suspense of wondering which day will be Leonard's last. And even though Leonard has done nothing in his past to merit better treatment, the reader can't help hoping that this old man doesn't end up being tortured and murdered, that somehow he finds a measure of peace in whatever is left of his life. Or at the very least, that whatever has gone physically wrong in Leonard's head takes him out before the mob does. Between a society that despises him, crippling health issues, and a pair of younger Leonard Marches looking to take him down, his chances aren't looking good.

Zeltserman packs a lot of insight into the human psyche in the character of Leonard March, surely the world's most candid hitman. He also manages to flip the story on its side and roll it when the reader least expects it, forcing one to reevaluate all that came before.

Killer is a more suspenseful story than the previous books in this trilogy and less action-oriented, at least on the surface. But don't go thinking that Zeltserman has lost his touch. He has, in fact, refined it. Killer is the crown jewel of his trilogy, a story that builds tirelessly towards an unforeseen inevitability that will jolt the reader right out of his socks. If you've read Small Crimes and Pariah, and you think you know what this author is capable of, allow me to say this: You ain't read nothing yet. This book is the perfect way to start the new reading year.
Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent, or the author) at no charge to me without stipulating or receiving from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.