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?"*


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.