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

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


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 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