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

February 18, 2010

Review: WAKE UP DEAD by Roger Smith

First sentence: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."

And for Roxy, it's all downhill here from there. Driven by an anger she didn't know she possessed, she makes a decision that sets in motion a chain of events that leaves blood and body parts strewn across Cape Town as a string of deadly characters enter her life: There's the mercenary, Billy Africa, who wants the money Joe owed him. There are the two low-level gangbangers who are after Roxy for a lot more than the Mercedes Benz they took the night of the hijacking. The prison escapee who is determined to reunite with his "wife," one of the gangbangers. The cop, Eddie Maggott, who's after Roxy because he thinks she had more to do with the hijacking than she's admitted. The Ukrainian whore is lusting after the designer contents of Roxy's closet, and her cannibal friend wants to get back some money he turned over to Joe just before the hijacking. And out on the fringes is a murderous drug dealer who's after the gangbangers for reasons of his own. Roxy would gladly give up the money to save her life and get the hell out of Dodge, but there's just one problem. She's stone broke.
Wake Up Dead is not for the faint of heart. No, seriously. If you think Hannibal Lector is as bad as it gets, walk away now. But if you like a thriller that rides like a rocket, if you like unsympathetic characters that get under your skin like a dirty needle, stop reading this and go get a copy of this book right now. Me? Loved it. Loved it. This is a dark, brutal, and altogether satisfying thriller.

Part of the wonder that is Wake Up Dead, is that Smith works in backstory for each of his characters without any slowdown in the pace, enabling the reader to see motive and emotion behind the actions of even the most vile and irredeemable monster. When the motives and emotions morph into action, the characters become human bumper cars, slamming into and caroming off each other with no regard for life or any of the finer human attributes such as compassion and mercy. 

In simple, evocative prose Smith reveals the appalling underbelly of Cape Town with its racism, its sharp division between the haves and the have-nots, and the systematic tolerance of illegal drugs that allows for the sweeping under the rug of human life when it is not white and moneyed. And Smith exposes it all without any pedantry or patronization or rallying cry to a cause. He simply hands the reader a photograph, that's all. One that definitely won't lure the reader into daydreams of traveling through the tourist-friendly geographic and ethnic realms of wondrous African beauty; no, the Cape Flats is a place where you're more likely to Wake Up Dead. In fact, Roger Smith may just be a one-man wrecking crew for the South African tourist industry. But don't be surprised if he becomes a pillar of support for the South African publishing industry.

Here's a brief excerpt in which mercenary Billy Africa has just arrived back in Cape Town from Iraq:
Billy's journey down memory lane was interrupted when a car sped out of Vulture Street -- Dark City side -- nearly collecting him before it shot off down Main. It was a new BMW 7 series, sporting extras like fat tires, louvers, mud flaps, and a feature that definitely didn't come standard: a man tied to the rear bumper by his ankle, bouncing as he was dragged, leaving a strawberry smear on the dusty blacktop.

On the sidewalk a group of schoolkids, in the grip of the munchies after visiting their dealer, bought cotton candy from a one-legged simpleton. The kids pointed at the Beemer. Laughing fit to puke. The simpleton danced on his good limb -- empty trouser leg flapping -- clapping and whistling through his missing front teeth, enjoying the free entertainment.

Whoever said there's no place like home had got it one hundred percent fucken right.

February 15, 2010

PRINT THE LEGEND by Craig McDonald

Just a reminder that this terrific book goes on sale tomorrow, February 16. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy.

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.

February 14, 2010

Short stops #5

I never heard of googlewhacking before Katherine Tomlinson wrapped a story of random chance around it in Dangerous Chartreuse. This story is #282 at Powder Burn Flash.

Over at A Twist of Noir, Jimmy Callaway's Night Train to Mundo Fine begs the question, if you could go back in time would you go for a lap dance? You might, if you knew what the future held.

Sometimes no revenge is the best revenge, as Sandra Seamans' gardener finds in Glory in the Flower. And of all places to find a short work of crime fiction: not in a webzine dedicated to such stories, but in the Texas Gardener's Seeds, a weekly newsletter for, you guessed it, gardeners. But that makes sense in a way, because gardeners are notoriously good at killing (weeds, moles, aphids, etc.) and they have all manner of weapons, from blunt instruments to poisons, tucked away in those potting sheds.

Craig McDonald is best known for his Hector Lassiter series, blending history and literature into his own unique brand of crime fiction. But in Devil's in the Details, McDonald delivers hardcore gore and a twist you won't see coming in this story that predates the publication of his novels. You can read or listen to the podcast (Episode 43) at

February 3, 2010

I've got those garage band blues...

My iPod, the 30-gig shuffle, is loaded. That's a lot of music, so some of it rarely comes up, especially since I listen mostly to my playlists. But today I just let the 'Pod shuffle through everything and so I got to hear some songs I haven't listened to since, well, probably since I loaded the device four years ago.

Case in point. The Fifth Order. You never heard of them, trust me. They were a local band, my favorite back in the day, the day being mid-to-late 1960s. They played local clubs where I couldn't go; I was too young to be admitted. But they also played at places like auto dealerships and roller rinks and at fairs. Along with many another band, they were sometimes the live entertainment on a local version of American Bandstand called Dance Party with Jerry Razor. Dance Party could occasionally come up with some nationally known bands as well, which made it "must see TV" for me: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition; The Lemon Pipers (woof); maybe The Buckinghams, but that may be a false memory.

But I would have walked miles, literally, to see The Fifth Order. Along with The Dantes, I would say they were the most popular of the local garage bands in central Ohio at that time. The rhythm guitarist and second vocalist was Jeff Fenholt, who later starred in the title role of the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ, Superstar. Fenholt had a strong voice at that time and he was capable of conveying great passion. Whenever he went into his rendition of James Brown's Try Me, I melted into a teenage puddle of hormones.

And yet Fenholt wasn't the lead vocalist. That position was held by a skinny guy named Billy Carroll. He had long hair that was usually in motion when he sang, so I really don't have a clear memory of what he looked like. I only remember what he sounded like, and I loved his voice. Looking back, Fenholt probably had the greater range and power. What Billy had was what every entertainer wants: charisma. He could sell a song like nobody else in town. They were a great cover band, they could play anything, and play it well, and at some venues they pretty much had to.

And The Fifth Order were smart. They always seemed to be on top of what was new and "happenin'." Hip, definitely hip. I took several musical cues from them. If they played a song I had never heard, I had to buy that record (or get my older sister to do so). The first time I heard Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Billy Carroll was singing it. I was never satisfied after that with The Buckinghams' version because Billy was a lot more soulful than Dennis Tufano. First time I ever heard Purple Haze, the Fifth Order did it. I sure never heard it on AM radio. So okay, The Fifth Order weren't a patch on Hendrix musically, but they were here, and Hendrix was somewhere else. When you're 14, that counts for a lot.

The band was popular enough that they eventually went into the recording studio. Not New York though. Cincinnati. Yeah. I don't know whether the band ever wrote any of its own music, but it's for sure they didn't record anything they'd written. The songs they got handed to them were meh. None of the songs they recorded really allowed the personality of the band to show through. None of them were ever going to get picked up nationally; even the band must have known it at the time. If I knew it, they had to know it. Even so, the two singles that were released did, I believe, top the local radio charts for WCOL-AM, the one rock'n'roll station in Columbus at that time.

Fenholt's life after Broadway has been unusual to say the least. Last I heard he was a televangelist on the small scale. I heard rumors that Billy went to California years ago and that drummer Muff Comfort died. The other, Jim Hilditch and Jeff Johnson: no clue as to their destiny. I hope they are all well and happy. So what if they didn't have as much influence on my life as The Beatles? Their music made me happy on more than one Saturday afternoon as I danced in front of the TV or in the parking lot at Dick Clifton's Rambler Land ("Columbus's dealingest dealer!"). And their music made me happy again, and even a little bit young again, today.

February 2, 2010


For Mark Genevich, Boston PI, things couldn't be much worse. His narcolepsy is as bad as ever, what with the hallucinations and catalepsy. His business is failing; he has no friends, and he's so depressed that he can't even be bothered to clean his apartment once in a while. To make matters worse, on the last case he had -- to follow some CEO's wife to find out if she was cheating -- he followed the wrong woman and the whole case went downhill from there. Litigation is pending. As if all that wasn't enough to make him near-suicidal, his mother has strong-armed him into going to group therapy. The one bright spot in the therapy sessions is another attendee, Gus, a real charmer who wants to be both friend and client. Only one thing (fire) leads to another (corpse), and Gus suddenly does a disappearing act, leaving Mark holding the bag of amphetamines that the police are curious about.

There are sweet and savory characters in the crime fiction kitchen. Mark Genevich is a savory. Despite the wealth of wit and dark humor that author Paul Tremblay has lavished on his main character, Genevich is first and foremost a man whose life is endless torture. The auto accident, from which his narcolepsy dates, has left him limping and disfigured. Life is full of "can'ts" for Mark: He can't run down the bad guys; he can't even stay awake when they start thumping on him. He can't drive. He can't stay awake for client interviews. Sometimes he can't tell reality from dreams. What he can do, what he does do with as much dignity as he can muster albeit with little grace, is endure. Every day is a new day, sure, but Genevich may get half a dozen new days every day. For him the new gets old pretty damned quick.

Told from a first-person, present-tense point of view, the reader gets to be Mark Genevich with all his fears and frailties, his needs and wants, his wit, his perserverance, and also an utter loneliness unlike any other I've encountered. The very condition that has reduced this PI to an isolated existence is the same condition that produces dreams which remind him of what he has not got in reality.
"A narcoleptic is the ultimate cynic, left with nothing to believe in, least of all himself, because everything could simply be a dream, and a lousy, meaningless one at that. Have at it, Freud."

The prose is masterful and vivid. It's loaded with literary and pop-culture references (note the title), from Kafka and Dickens to The Beatles and B.B. King, and all of it tossed off in casual harmony with the story and character. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the first Genevich story, The Little Sleep, I wasn't sure that the narcoleptic detective would be as convincing in a second book. No worries. This second book is even better, with more weight and a tighter plot. And better still: No Sleep Till Wonderland goes on sale today. You can be sure of finding it at these online retailers: