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

December 26, 2011

A VINE IN THE BLOOD by Leighton Gage

In the wake of the recent kidnapping of a major-league baseball player in Colombia, comes this timely mystery -- only I read the ebook last spring, so maybe 'timely' is the wrong word; perhaps I should have said 'prescient.'

Brazil's (and the world's) finest football player loves his mother very much. When she's kidnapped, he's more than ready to pay the ransom. Problem is, the kidnapping occurs just prior to the beginning of World Cup play. Could this be the work of rival countries hoping to destroy Brazil's chances of winning? Could the mind behind it be the player's own fiancee, a beauty with grasping hands and a heart of "cold"? Could the mastermind be the team owner, who desperately needs money? Or the mobster who wants to crush the team owner? The servants? The imprisoned criminologist who moonlighted as a kidnapper? The kidnap and ransom plans were designed by someone who has carefully planned each step, every tiny detail. Except one, and that single misstep leads to double murder.

It's always a treat when Mario Silva's team of federal investigators work a case. The characters are defined mostly by their dialogue, something that was more common among mystery writers of old (Erle Stanley Gardner, for example, and the great Dashiell Hammett), and author Gage makes that dialogue sparkle. While the repartee among the investigators, or between the investigators and the witnesses/suspects entertains the reader and furthers the story, it also does much to reveal the characters' underlying natures. From 'Baby Face' Goncalves to (my favorite) Silva's aide, Arnaldo Nunes, from incidental characters like shop clerks and park rangers to major players like the football star's fiancee and the criminologist, each character is so well-defined by his dialogue that physical descriptions are rendered almost unnecessary.

The story, as with all of the books in this series, moves along at gallop. I love that the author, while allowing his team to make use of forensics, never lets the story's pace or tension droop due to technical or scientific explanations. Forensics support the story; forensics are NOT the story, praise be! And Mario Silva and his team don't let any grass grow under their feet, but at the same time, each of them seems very human. No superheroes here, just cops getting the job done, cops with wit and personality.

With each book I also have the pleasure of learning more about Brazil. Gage does a great job of weaving this information so tightly into the threads of the story that it never feels pedantic or confusing, but is a fascinating and fundamental part of the story. If you haven't tried this series yet, it's okay to start here, with this book, because these books are easily read out of order. But read them, yes, I urge you. Read them now; thank me later.

On sale: 12/27/2011

December 25, 2011

HEADSTONE by Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor gets a small headstone in the mail. Well, he's the kind of guy that would happen to, isn't he? But when his friends -- he still has one or two -- receive similar items and then are subject to brutal assaults, Jack has to start sitting up, drinking down, and paying attention.

Is there any encomium I have not yet bestowed on Ken Bruen? If so, it's been a drastic oversight on my part. Bruen's writing goes from strength to strength. His ability to twist a plot is masterful; his pacing is precise; and his characters fairly leap from the page in all their rage.

Rebounding from his recent encounter with one kind of devil, Jack finds himself in the position of making deals with another. Body and soul, Jack will not come away from this case unscathed, nor will his friends, and even some of his enemies will be affected by the fallout. HEADSTONE may well be the most surprising -- shocking is not too strong a word --  story in the Jack Taylor series since THE DRAMATIST, and I think it is one that reveals Jack's conflicted soul better than any other.

As with virtually every book by Ken Bruen, HEADSTONE is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

December 22, 2011

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS by Gianrico Carofiglio

Guido Guerrieri is hired to look into a missing person case. Not to investigate it, he's a lawyer after all, not a detective, but the parents of the missing young woman are afraid the police are about to close the case, so they ask Guerrieri to go over the details to see what the police might have missed. But he doesn't think they missed anything and he dreads having to tell his clients that he can offer them no hope. Instead he begins to interview the woman's friends and the few witnesses available, and slowly the imaginative Guido begins to unravel a tale of dark deceit.

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS is not only the title of the book, it is the theme of the book, those moments of perfect happiness that we cling to as we live them but can barely recall as little as 24 hours later. But Guido remembers them in vivid detail, and author Carofiglio fills the story with Guido's reminiscences, temporary perfections (for only what is temporary, says Guido, can be perfect), each of which not only fulfills the theme but shines a brief light on the way Guido puts together the puzzle of the missing woman.

As a result of Guido's pauses to remember, the pace of the book is easy, as the lawyer gently teases out the facts of the case, but not dragging. Every moment spent in Guido's company is fascinating because he is a fascinating character. He's a successful attorney, a failure at relationships, and those two attributes should make this character just another of the same in a long line of such in contemporary crime fiction. Guido is different because he is literate, insecure, compassionate; in short, he's the kind of man most women would love to get to know but never will because he thinks of himself as Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character. When Guido makes a misstep it isn't because he is stupid or careless. He is not a stupid or careless man. His missteps occur because he is lonely and fallible. But those same two characteristics also provoke rewards that he sometimes sees and appreciates, and sometimes does not.

Carofiglio has crafted a poignant, witty, and literate mystery in this his fourth book in the Guerrieri series. The complexities and quirks of the Italian criminal justice system are made readily comprehensible, with no strain on the reader. The emphasis is on reasoning and the understanding of the human condition, so don't expect Guido to suddenly imitate Jack Reacher -- Guido is a warmer personality, and although he is a creditable boxer, the author does not use that skill as a device to put Guido in the position of being a physical hero. Instead, Guido's punching bag acts as a friend to him, a sounding board for his emotions and ideas. Credit translator Antony Shugaar for keeping the translation smooth, never using a misplaced idiom or a word that jars the reader into a state of disbelief. I'm looking forward to finding the earlier books in this series and spending more quality time with Guido.

Here's an excerpt that may help you understand why I find the introspective and well-read Guido so engaging:

It was just then that I realized something. A couple of hours earlier, I had assumed that when I read the file, I wouldn't find any new clues. And in fact, reading the file had only confirmed my suspicions. But I also assumed that I would then report my findings to Fornelli and the Ferraros, return their check, and get myself out of an assignment that I had neither the skills nor the resources to take on. It would be the only right and reasonable course of action. But in that two-hour period, for reasons I could only vaguely guess at and that I didn't want to examine too closely, I had changed my mind.

I told myself I'd give it a try. Nothing more. And the first thing I'd do would be to talk to the non-commissioned officer who had supervised the investigation, Inspector Navarra. I knew him. We were friends, and he would certainly be willing to tell me what he thought of the case, aside from what he'd written in his reports. Then I'd decide what to do next, what else to try.

As I walked out onto the street, with a studied gesture I pulled up the collar of my raincoat, even though there was no reason to do so.

People who read too much often do things that are completely unnecessary.


November 28, 2011

EL GAVILAN by Craig McDonald

EL GAVILAN is a fascinating thriller about three law enforcement officers who collide over the issues stemming from illegal immigration: Tell Lyon, a former border-patrol officer, whose tragic past follows him from the border to central Ohio, as he takes up the job of police chief in a small town with limited resources; Able Hawk, the title character, is the unorthodox county sheriff Tell must rely on for additional resources; and Walt Pierce, a neighboring-county sheriff with a screw-the-world, by-the-book-and-by-the-balls mentality. The sadistic rape and murder of a young Latina sets these characters, and others, in explosive motion, sliding and caroming off each other as the facts surrounding the murder come to light. Adding to the fireworks are gangbangers and a reporter who at best can be described as weasely and egocentric. If it's true that the main character in a good novel will always be a changed character by the end of the book, then EL GAVILAN is a great novel, because every character in this book is forever changed by the events that unfold.

It's no secret that I'm an unabashed admirer of author Craig McDonald's Hector Lassiter series. What he's done with his first standalone novel is something very different from his Lassiter series. EL GAVILAN is more mainstream contemporary fare than the Lassiter books, but no less intriguing. Where the Lassiter books are full of both overt and sly historical references, and pop-culture head games (ahem), EL GAVILAN requires the reader to fully engage with characters whose diverse opinions on controversial topics such as illegal immigration sometimes contradict their actions, and yet when examined in depth seem not to be contradictory at all, or not entirely. What this book has in common with the Lassiter series, aside from stellar writing and storytelling, is the author's finely drawn separation of what is legal, what is just, and what is right -- those three things are seldom one and the same -- and depicting the differences with all-too human characters, both admirable and despicable, as well as those who occupy the middle ground.

In this standalone, McDonald deftly handles the twin reins of pace and tension, moving the story toward a dynamic confrontation, yet creating circumstances that complicate any possible result of that confrontation. This is must reading for anyone who thinks the topic of illegal immigration begins and ends somewhere other than his own backyard. The author's small town setting is fictional, but there are recognizable places and incidents from my own city. And central Ohio isn't usually the first place people think of when the topic of illegal immigration arises.Without preaching or pandering to the extremists on either side of this divisive issue, McDonald makes the reader intimately aware of the causes and effects, and manages to tell a damn fine story at the same time.


Note: B&N and amazon both list this book with a release date of 12/18, but B&N is shipping already.

November 3, 2011

Review: A KILLER'S ESSENCE by Dave Zeltserman

NYPD Detective Stan Green's life is spiraling out of control. His devotion to the job has cost him his marriage; his failures as a parent have made his children despise him; he's in a financial sinkhole, his partner is in the hospital, and the new woman -- young and beautiful -- in his life wants more time and money than he'll ever have. He's getting pressure to lend his authority to a shady nightclub owner, to shade his testimony in favor of a pair of Russian thugs, and he's got a murder case that promises to turn into a string of murders, with no clues to help find the killer. Stan does  have one eyewitness, a man who suffered a head trauma that left him unable to bear looking at other people. But that man, Zachary Lynch, sees so much more than anyone suspects.

One of author Dave Zeltserman's great gifts is taking a trope and turning it on its head. Here he takes the police procedural/serial killer tale and spins it into a poignant, psychological study of a man whose impulses and decisions are isolating him from humanity. The author also shoots a pair of small, well-aimed darts at egotistical writers and merciless reviewers, and calls to this reader's mind a line penned by the immortal Robbie Burns:
"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!" 

It's enough for me that Zeltserman sees his characters as they are, warts and all, for he enables the reader to blush for, cringe from, pity, and ultimately root for Stan Green.

September 22, 2011


I'll try to make up for a shocking oversight on my part earlier this month, when Allan Guthrie's SLAMMER was issued for Kindle, by reviving Corey's review of same. I could never improve on Corey's take of this terrific twisty and psychological tale, but I will add that the character of Nick Glass is worth examining in fine detail. Nick is one of those guys that people later say, "He always seemed like such a nice guy." 

SYNOPSIS: Prison guard Nick Glass is new to the job, and he's completely unsuited to it. He's an obvious mark for both the hardened cons and the veteran guards alike. When his wife and child are threatened, Nick agrees to do one favor for the cons. Of course, one favor turns into many and soon the pressure of trying to hold together and protect his family, as well as do his job, pushes Nick closer to his breaking point and a chain of events that no one, least of all Nick Glass, could have predicted.

REVIEW: After reading the synopsis, you may think you know what this book is about and you may even think you have some idea of how it will progress. You'd be dead wrong. In fact, this isn't even a prison story in the usual sense of that term. 'Slammer' isn't just about a physical prison; it's about all the prisons, external and internal, that confine a young man who suffers bullying and abuse and extortion. While some events occur within the prison where Nick works, Nick himself becomes the figurative prisoner of more forceful characters, and he's also a prisoner to those he loves. This is a dark jigsaw-puzzle of a book where mirrors and memories are not to be trusted anymore than Nick can trust the prisoners out to take advantage of his weaknesses.

Author Allan Guthrie does a staggering job of creating a Nick Glass who is irritating in his weakness but is also pitiable and likeable, a man as fragile as his name. Nick has murky depths beyond his primary character flaw, and Guthrie irrevocably adjusts, sometimes violently and sometimes indirectly, the lights and mirrors to reveal what's swimming in those depths. To say more would be to give away important elements of the story, and this book is too good to mistreat.

Adding to the vise-like pressure of Nick's situation are the claustrophobic scenes occurring either within the confines of the prison or the small house Nick shares with his wife and child. Nick becomes a black hole of pressure, where tension goes in but cannot be released. The author doesn't so much raise the level of tension as he compresses it around and into Nick personally, and the scenes begin to feel more and more confined until it's as if everything that is happening is entirely internal to Nick.

Readers should be prepared to give Nick's story full time and attention because events move quickly and there are time shifts. Casual references made early assume greater significance as the book progresses. Even so, expect moments of 'oh, I see!' mingled with sharp sadness. Nick Glass is an unforgettable protagonist and Guthrie has placed him in a darkly tragic, poignant, and ultimately satisfying psychological thriller.
Available on Kindle and Nook.

September 9, 2011


In general, The Drowning Machine publishes only winning fiction resulting from our annual Watery Grave contest. But some little while back, David Cranmer (aka Edward A. Grainger) promised me an original story to be published here first. Who would say 'no' to that offer? Like his fictional heroes, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, David is an honorable man, and his word is his bond. He is also the author of the bestselling Kindle collection, The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. I am extremely proud to present here his excellent new Cash Laramie story, a tale about blind justice, Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye.

Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye

Edward A. Grainger

“Marshal, you want more?” the pockmarked lad asked.
Through glazed eyes, Cash Laramie tried to remember the waiter’s name. Was it Jim—or Jerry? He wasn’t going to recollect, and he didn’t really care. He settled on nodding then watched the kid pour whiskey in his glass and set the bottle down next to it. Jim, or Jerry, moved to a nearby table where two cowboys sat.
Cash looked in the jewel-toned liquid and saw distorted burned-out cinders in blue orbs staring vacantly back at him. Startled, he looked up at the mirror behind the bar where he met his likeness: tired eyes, week-old stubble on a square jaw, a dusty black Stetson tilted high on his head, and an Arapaho arrowhead dangling on a leather thong around his neck. He swirled the drink and then took a swig, wondering how long he would continue to recall that man—another name he couldn't remember—and that day.
He watched the waiter pouring ale into a mug as one cowboy tossed some coins on the table.
Silver. That was the man's name. How could he have forgotten? Wanted for horse thieving.
A full year had passed since he tracked Silver to a cabin in Upton, Wyoming. As Cash rode up on Paint, the man stood at the cabin door aiming a Henry rifle at him. “I ain’t going back. They mean to hang me, but I’m innocent.”
“You have no choice, Silver.”
Cash slid off his mount on the left, stepped away and pulled a Winchester rifle from the scabbard in one sleek movement.
Silver raised the barrel, firing lead over Cash’s head, and then retreated inside, slamming the wooden door closed. The gun barrel reappeared through a slot centered in the door.
Cash slapped Paint away with a stern “git” and then, ripping off rifle slugs at the house, he darted behind a wagon next to the well. He flinched as potshots rained down from his right, splintering the wagon inches above his head. A puff of gray smoke drifted from the barn loft about two hundred yards away.
He targeted the bushwhacker’s outline in the shadows and triggered his weapon. The slim figure in over-sized dungarees dropped in an ungainly heap to the ground.
A shout rang out from the cabin as the door flung open again, Silver charging hell-for-leather toward the barn, yelling, “Jamie!
Cash drew a bead on the running mark, and Silver stumbled as the bullets punched him to the ground. He slipped cartridges in his Winchester when abruptly Silver sat bolt upright, firing shots that split the air beside the marshal’s ear. Cash palmed the rifle in his left hand while yanking the Colt holstered on his right hip free and blasted the horse thief, hitting him in the gut.
Silver gasped, dropped the Henry, and kissed the earth again.
Cash pouched his iron and sprinted to the barn. He hadn’t come with the intent to kill.
He slowed as he approached the body and then stopped and angrily kicked the dirt. A young woman lay contorted on the ground with an arm stretched out, blood trickling in parallel. Could have been the man’s daughter. Could have been a much-younger wife. Didn’t matter. She nearly killed him.
He found a shovel and buried the woman in the field behind the barn, marking the shallow grave with a wooden cross.
Paint stood several hundred feet away at the edge of the clearing. He walked over, replaced the Winchester and then led the pinto back to the homestead.
Cash went in the cabin, scouring the rooms for any sign of next of kin. All he turned up was several letters from Arden V.S. Thompson, Esq. from Boston stacked on the table. He pocketed them and left for the barn.
As Cash stood in front of a stall gate, two horses whinnied and stomped their hooves. He identified the chestnut-colored horse as the stolen mare and the other as Silver’s. He bridled each and led both out to the yard where Silver still lay. Cash draped the body over Silver’s horse, binding the man’s wrists and ankles underneath, and then tethered the two horses together behind Paint. He mounted up and they ambled off.
Several miles into the hard trail to Casper, he dug into his vest pocket and pulled out a black cheroot. He scratched a Lucifer to life off his leather belt and fired up the end of his cigar.
A muffled noise came from behind. Cash dropped the match as he swiveled around in the saddle.
Silver’s left eye looked wearily at the ground and his shoulder squirmed under taut ropes. Cash slid off his mount, and strode back to the corpse that seemed to have come back to life.
He bent down and listened as the man sputtered, “Ja…mie.”
“She’s alive,” Cash lied. How in hell this owlhoot was still breathing baffled him.
A faint smile lifted the corner of Silver’s mouth as he spotted Cash’s arrowhead. “You must be the outlaw marshal. Thought you were a bounty hunter. After twenty pieces of silver, eh?” He cackled. “Am … I … gonna … make it?”
They were about fifteen miles from Narrow Creek, where Cash knew a sawbones who might patch up Silver, but that was fifteen miles out of his way and he had no desire to waste the time on a no-good horse thief who would be hanged anyway.
“Wouldn’t you like to think so?” Cash’s teeth clamped down on the cheroot. He grabbed the man by the head and twisted with force, snapping Silver’s neck.

As Cash swished the liquid back and forth in the glass, he knocked over the whiskey bottle the waiter had set on the table.
“Disgrace,” the curly-haired cowboy said.
“Sure is,” the pointy-nosed amigo agreed.
Eyes red-veined with anger, Cash surged out of his chair, smashing his glass across Pointy’s head and throwing Curly a quick hard left that landed on the cowboy’s chin, knocking him sideways to the floor. Curly came up to brawl but was held back by Pointy, his head shaking. “Don’t do it.” Curly hunkered on his heels next to his partner with a sour, pinched look.
Cash removed his badge, sliding it into his shirt pocket. “Got some grit in ‘ya now?”
Both men looked at each other and held their heads low as Cash staggered between them.
“Fuckers,” Cash muttered, tossing a half dollar on the table. He looked to the startled waiter. “I’m paying for these yellow-bellied shits, too.”
The wide-eyed lad nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Cash snagged the whiskey bottle as he angled past his table and out the saloon’s batwings. His boots thudded with a hollow resonance as he walked down the uneven boardwalk. He stepped into the street and untied the pinto’s reins from the hitching post. Placing a shaky boot into the stirrup, he paused as he spotted a smiling couple leaving the Mercantile General. His mind jumped back to a meeting with Chief Marshal Devon Penn not long after he brought Silver’s corpse in.
Cash, remember the Upton man wanted for horse thieving?”
Turns out he was innocent.”
What? He and that woman tried to cut me down.”
That woman was his wife, and her grandfather is Arden Thompson, a big shot lawyer from Boston. He came to Wyoming to clear their names of theft. What had happened was another fellow stole Silver’s mare, stamped his brand on it. When Silver went back for it, he got accused of stealing his own horse. Certainly, drawing on you warranted the action you took. Odd that Silver didn’t take his chances in a court of law, huh?
Yeah, odd,” Cash said.
He swung up into the saddle and watched the couple move hand in hand to the next store. Cash glared at the trifling amount of whiskey remaining and then nudged his horse across to the mercantile where he’d buy more rye. A lot more.


 Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye will be published in the forthcoming ebook, The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, Vol. II. Watch for it at

August 19, 2011

The 411 on PULP INK

Okay, full disclosure: I have a story in the PULP INK anthology. Presumably this creates a conflict of interest in any attempt on my part to review it. Well, hah! I say, and hah, again! (I'd say something stronger, but I save those words for my stories and close friends. And politicians.)

Sure, this means I'm not likely to say bad things about the anthology. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the good things I'm about to say regarding PULP INK are thereby false. In fact, you can strap me to a lie detector and test my veracity: There are some exceptionally fine stories in this collection. Were that not the case, I would go to some lengths to pretend I had no part in this whole scheme, instead of parading the fact that I got a story placed in the same book as -- ahem! -- Allan Guthrie. As Reed Farrel Coleman. As Hilary Davidson. As Gary Phillips. Not to mention a host of other excellent writers whose names are not (yet) so well-known.

I'm not going to beat you over the head with details on each and every story. There are 24 of them, for crying out loud, and I can't sit here holding your hand all day long. So these are my very most ultra-favorites in this collection. Each of them alone, I promise you, is worth the $2.99 USD price of admission:

  • ZED'S DEAD, BABY by Eric Beetner. I've already said it in other places around the 'Net, and it bears repeating: This is a terrific story: fast-paced, tightly written, sharply focused. The protagonist, an enforcer type, is on the hunt for Zed, to do a little, uh, enforcing. But everyone says Zed is dead. Everyone has a reason to lie, too. But it isn't really enforcement until someone loses a finger, is it? This one will have you grinning wickedly and will make your thumbs ache. And not because you're using an e-reader with poor page-turning features.
  • YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW by Allan Guthrie. Oh, the lengths little Masie will go to prove to her love for young Billy. May lightning strike her down if she's lying. Nobody does personality disorders quite like Guthrie. Scary good with that, he is.
  • YOU NEVER CAN TELL by Matthew C. Funk. Nina's baby is near to saying his first word. Nina's husband is near to killing his fourth man in this perfect tale of revenge and genetic redemption. Possibly my favorite of all of Matthew's stories, and that's saying something: This guy has a Spinetingler win under his blotter.
  • A WHOLE LOTTA ROSIE by Nigel Bird. You can have a good laugh with Rosie. You just can't laugh at her. This one has a sad, skewed feel, and is written in Bird's signature style of short, brisk strokes that imply more than they say.
  • CLOUDS IN A BUNKER by David Cranmer. A hostage stand-off in which a WWI bomb expert threatens to take out himself and the missus. What kind of killer puts the police negotiator on hold while he sees to the teakettle? For anyone who thought Cranmer's best work was the Western tales done under his Edward A. Grainger pseudonym, have another think while I just go and check that bloody teakettle.
  • THE WIFE OF GREGORY BELL by Patricia Abbott. Here's a story Rod Serling would have jumped all over for his Twilight Zone series. Every time Gregory's beautiful and beloved wife goes on a business trip, Greg indulges in a little criminal activity. And each time he does, his wife comes home with a new and bigger flaw in her looks. But that can't have anything to do with his bad behavior. Can it?
  • THE OCTOBER 17 ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE MEETING by Chris Rhatigan. A reporter writes himself into a corner. Then illustrates his stories with a shotgun. This may be the one time he doesn't really want to make headlines, but it's a little too late to do the 'write' thing now. 
  • THIS LITTLE PIGGY by Hilary Davidson. A foot massage can go too far. Especially when it doesn't go far enough.
  • THE ONLY ONE WHO COULD EVER REACH ME by Matt Lavin. Willie has the world's worst job, with the worst co-worker. And the most dangerous of employers. After all these years, why would he risk their wrath now.? A poignant take on the old story of, the old glory of love.

 And if you go so far as to read all of those, you might as well spend a couple of minutes and read my story, too. Triple-dog dare ya!

      August 16, 2011

      REVIEW: TWO-WAY SPLIT by Allan Guthrie

      Ex-concert pianist Robin Greaves has been off his meds for sometime when he discovers his wife, Carol, is cheating on him with friend Eddie. Except cheating doesn't include actual sex. Robin wants Eddie dead, but first this eccentric trio has to pull off a robbery. They get the money all right, but in the process Robin kills a woman whose son, a vengeful ex-con named Pearce, is not content to sit and grieve. So Pearce is after Robin, who has the money, is after Eddie, who is after the money. What Carol wants, who knows? But there's one more character, the wildly unpredictable Don, who may be the most dangerous of them all and who personifies the book's title. Turns out splitting the money is the least of anyone's worries. Coming out alive will be a winner-takes-all game.

      Author Allan Guthrie is a successful writer, agent, and editor. What he doesn't know about crime fiction as an art and as a business probably isn't worth knowing. Too often that kind of intimate knowledge about writing and the business of writing can make for somewhat sterile reading as a kind of "checklist for a successful story" comes into play. Not so with this canny Scotsman. TWO-WAY SPLIT has the snappy, hardboiled feel of having come straight from the old pulp publishers' boiler rooms, but with time enough for a few laughs along the way. Dark laughter.

      This is a fast-moving, blackly comic action tale, occurring over less than 48 hours, with character scene-splits occurring sometimes only moments apart. As with Guthrie's other works, this one left me wishing he were more prolific. TWO-WAY SPLIT was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger award and went on to win the Theakston's Crime Novel Of The Year in 2007 (besting books by the likes of Stuart MacBride, Michael Jecks, and Christopher Brookmyre).

      Amazon Kindle: $0.99

      Amazon, Paperback

      August 15, 2011

      Pulp Ink will tattoo YOU.

      PULP INK has arrived. Twenty-four stories of highly diversified pulp from authors as well known as Reed Farrel Coleman, Allan Guthrie, and Hilary Davidson; and as unknown as, well, yours truly. I'm thrilled to have a story resting cheek by jowl with theirs. (Okay, really, my story is sandwiched between Richard Godwin's and Jimmy Callaway's, and what's that say about me, I'd like (or not) to know?)

      And because I worked hard on this story and someone damned well ought to read it, I'm giving away THREE copies (from amazon Kindle or from Smashwords). And even if you don't like my writing, you must read Eric Beetner's story, Zed's Dead, Baby. If you don't like that one, better check your own pulse to see if it's any stronger than Zed's.

      The first three people to email me at mentioning PULP INK will win these freebies! Good luck! 
      John Kenyon, Brian Lindenmuth, and Brad Green have each won a free copy of PULP INK. Congratulations, guys, and thanks for playing!

      July 24, 2011

      KATJA FROM THE PUNK BAND by Simon Logan

      Katja wants to get off the island much more than she wants the vial of chemical. So much so that she shot her boyfriend, Januscz, when she found out he was planning to take the vial and leave her on the island. But Katja must have that vial to even stand a chance of getting off the island, and she recruits a useless junkie named Nicolai to help her. Katja also needs to avoid her parole officer, Anatoli. Nicolai needs to avoid a thug named Kohl, to whom he owes money. Kohl's boss, Szerynski, has designated Kohl to get that vial. Kohl designates Nicolai. Anatoli needs to sell the vial for the money that will allow him and his lover to flee the island. Anatoli's lover is the wife of one of a drug lord named Dracyev. Dracyev is Szerynski's competitor. The precious vial belongs to Dracyev.

      Are we all clear on that? Don't worry, author Simon Logan has constructed his novel so that you'll never be confused about who's doing what and why. And yet the infrastructure of this novel is anything but simple. Sliding time-shifts, back and forward; alternating points of view; and an alt-world brushed in the broadest of strokes. The alt-world could be now, could have been the 80s, could be in the future, could be on another planet. Doesn't matter when or where, only the moment matters in this book. Logan makes it all work.

      Stylistically, the book evokes early William Gibson, but instead of Gibson's Sprawl of neon and chrome, Logan provides a rusting industrial set-piece: dark, dirty, and restrictive. Those who prefer character-driven pieces, as opposed to atmospheric tales of action (imagine if Gibson and Swierczynski co-authored a book) might not take to Katja and her foes; but even those readers will want to know, at book's end, what happens next for Katja. Fortunately for Katja's fans, and I include myself in their number, the author will soon bring a sequel.

      KATJA FROM THE PUNK BAND is a welcome break from the usual round of serial killers and angst-ridden, alcoholic-loner protagonists. And you won't believe what all she can do with a guitar.

      Order from ChiZine Publications for 30% off the cover price. Also Available in eBook From:

      Or in Trade Paperback From:

      July 9, 2011


      It's no secret that Spinetingler has joined the e-publishing world under the Snubnose Press moniker and with an aggressive publishing schedule of a book a month. Their first offering: Speedloader, six stories of murder and mayhem that also are of the usual high caliber (see what I did there?) presented by the good folks at Spinetingler.

      • You Dirty Rat by Nigel Bird
      • Plastic Soldiers by W.D. County
      • Cuffs by Matthew C. Funk
      • Mori Obscura by Nik Korpon
      • Herniated Roots by Richard Thomas
      • Crash & Burn by Jonathan Woods
      These stories are well worth the time and money, but I don't really need to say that. The Spinetingler affiliation speaks to the quality without any added endorsement. And some of these writers will be familiar to many readers of online crime fic already.  But I do want to take the time to highlight one of these stories by a writer whose output has not been so prolific that he's become a familiar name -- yet.

      I first noticed W.D. County's name when I read a story of his at Spinetingler called My Name Is Priscilla. The quality and originality of that story, with its special brand of heartbreak, made me keep County's name in mind but I just wasn't finding his (I know the correct personal pronoun now) work anywhere. And then here comes the debut publication called Speedloader. And right there on the cover, under the names of Nigel Bird and Nik Korpon (who also turned in fine stories) and above Matthew Funk's name (ditto on the fineness), is the name of W.D. County.

      County's story, Plastic Soldiers, is a tale of stark courage about a boy who receives inspiration and guidance from the toy soldiers in his pocket, even under the most horrific circumstances. County's middle initial should be H, for Heartbreak, instead of D. It's a brilliant story.

      And at only 99 cents, from Smashwords and amazon, this is the most affordable Speedloader on the market.

      June 27, 2011


      Thirteen-year-olds Lizzie and Evie are neighbors and best friends in the 1980s. They look like sisters, they dress alike, but they are closer than that superficiality implies. They share everything: hopes, dreams, emotions, as well as clothing, books, toys. They do everything together, from school to sports to vacations. Only one day after school, Evie disappears. Convinced that her heart would tell her if Evie were dead, Lizzie starts to live in the lap of Evie's family, begins exploring the yards and houses of her neighbors, looking for clues to Evie's whereabouts, why she left, and who she might have gone with. Lizzie is convinced that if she can bring Evie home, everything will be just as it had been.

      Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING is bound to draw comparisons with Alice Sebold's LOVELY BONES, but the basic premise of these stories -- the disappearance of a young girl -- is the only thing that ties them together. Rather than relying on narration from a dead-and-gone-to-heaven victim, Abbott's Lizzie narrates a tale of wonderment, joy, dread, and dark revelations, sometimes all within the same paragraph. Young Lizzie is perspicacious and naive at once, as only girls-on-the-verge-of-becoming-women can be. Wisely innocent.

      Lizzie is a magnificent narrator, wanting to be the center of attention and wanting not to be, deriving clues and evidence surrounding Evie's disappearance as much or more from how she reads a glance and interprets a sentences, as she does from facts and logic. Lizzie is imbued with a voice that mimics the child-adult so very accurately that one is left wondering how did so much about those emotions, that youthful worldview , that sexual innocence dawning on yearning, how is it that it was all forgotten? And how is it that Megan Abbott remembers it all with such perfect clarity?

      The characters of Evie's family, her parents and magically beautiful sister, Dusty, are all explored by Lizzie in the manner of an Impressionist painter: from a distance they make a pretty, well-defined picture; close-up, as Lizzie longs to be to them, they seem all blurred edges and colors without definition.

      The author has penned a delicious psychological thriller that never gets it wrong by going for the cheap thrill or easy answer. The reader may feel bruised but never slapped, and Lizzie is always there to offer solace to the reader as well as to Evie's family. Evie's disappearance and the events surrounding it all work to lay bare the relationships and conflicts not just within Evie's family but within Lizzie herself. As much as Lizzie is able to read emotion and motive in others, she is almost blind to what drives her from her own family's side to spend evenings with Evie's anguished father, beautiful sister, and nearly invisible mother. The one thing Lizzie is certain of is that when Evie vanished, it was indeed the end of everything -- if 'everything' is Lizzie's innocence.

      The author does a stellar job of foreshadowing without being obvious, of misdirecting without misleading, of instilling dread without removing hope, and revealing without judging. Readers of Abbott's more traditional novels of noir should find this newest work fascinating, as her considerable talents tackle more mainstream subject matter here without sacrificing one jot of the style and insight that has garnered her previous books so much praise. THE END OF EVERYTHING is a haunting and moving story about losing and finding and losing again those intangibles, those nearly inexpressible things we most treasure.


      The first three chapters of THE END OF EVERYTHING are available for reading at Facebook, and I recommend you go read them right now. Following is just a brief excerpt from chapter two, for those too lazy to click a mouse button:

      The next day, Evie and I are standing in front of the school, tapping our sticks against each other in time. The dream from last night is hovering in my head, and I think I might tell Evie about it, but I keep stopping myself. No one ever really wants to hear your dreams.

      Anyway, we are having a day of no talking, just being, walking together, tapping our new hockey sticks and yanking our sweaty shirts from our chests.

      Still, I can't keep my eyes off the violet stain flaring over Evie's temple. It looks like it could move without you, get up and go. It's like a purple butterfly, I tell her, flitting from her face.

      She puts her fingers on it and I can almost feel it pulsing on my own face, a gentle throb.

      "What did your dad say?" I ask, and I imagine Mr. Verver's wrinkled brow, like when I slipped on their stairs, running way too fast in my stocking feet, skidding down three steps, and making brush burns all up my calves.

      "He bought me a raw steak at Ketchums to put on it," she says. "Mom said it cost more than their anniversary dinner."

      It sounds like Mrs. Verver, who says everything with a yawn.

      "All night," Evie says, a grin creeping, "he kept calling me Rocky."

      We both roll our eyes, but we love it. When the boys tease, you don't want it to be you, but with Mr. Verver, his teases are like warm hands lifting you.

      Evie thrusts her hockey stick out in front of her like Zorro. "Dusty said I looked more like a battered wife on a TV show," she says.

      Then she tells me how, after dinner, her dad took her for pecan pie at Reynold's, the good kind, gritty-sweet on your teeth. The waitresses felt sorry for her and gave her an extra scoop of ice cream.

      I think of sitting with Mr. Verver, gooey pie plates between us, and how the waitresses probably always give him extra scoops. Waitresses were always doing that with Mr. Verver, just like the mothers who buzzed around him at the PTA meetings, filling his plate with sugared cookies and inviting him to their book clubs.

      I wish Evie would have invited me to Reynold's. Like other times, with Mr. Verver dabbing Cool Whip on my nose.

      Out of the blue, my ankles feel itchy and I wish I could take off my gym socks.

      I look down the street, which has that four thirty hush. The summer heat seems early, hovering above the asphalt.

      "Where's your mom taking you?" Evie asks, watching a car flutter upward at the speed bump in front of the school.

      "The mall," I say. "Are you going to wear your sister's old dress?" I remember the lavender Laura Ashley with the gored skirt that Dusty wore to her own middle school graduation. All those ringlets dangling down her back and her face bright with achievement—it wasn't something you forgot.

      A maroon car shimmers out of nowhere and glides past us quickly.

      "I don't know," Evie says, kicking her shoe toe into the pavement.

      Squinting, she looks down the street. "I think I see her."

      We both watch as my mom's tan Tempo floats before us on the horizon.

      "We'll give you a ride," I say.

      "That's okay," she says, twirling her hockey stick over her shoulder. I hear the stutter in my mom's car as she pulls up.

      The moment stretches out, I'm not sure why.

      Evie is looking past my mother's car, down the street.

      "Someone's lost," she says.

      "What—" I start, but then we both watch as the same maroon car drifts past us again soundlessly. Something in my head flickers, but I can't place it.

      I turn back around and there's that Evie face, cool and orderly, the line for a mouth and her smooth, artless expression, like a soft sheet pulled fast, hiding every corner.

      I twirl my stick around and clatter it against hers.

      "Call me," I say, turning toward the idling car. My mother is looking at us from behind big sunglasses, smiling absently.

      I open the door and lean in. "Mom, can Evie come with us?"

      But when I turn around, Evie's gone, slipped behind the tall hedgerow, behind the stone columns of the old school.

      Do I see it in her expression, as she looks at me, as she pulls her face into blankness? Do I hear her say, in some low register, a creeping knowingness always between us? Do I hear her say, This is the last time, this is the last time?

      This face, my face, gone forever.

         Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, Little, Brown
         Publication Date: Available now.
         ISBN-10: 0316097799
         ISBN-13: 978-0316097796
         Order on Indiebound or Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and lots of other places.

      June 23, 2011

      REVIEW: DUST DEVILS by Roger Smith

      South African journalist Robert Dell, his wife and two children are all headed off on a holiday, when a black pickup truck runs them off the road. Dell's family is killed and he is framed for their murders.

      If that sounds anything like a typical thriller, please, just hold the phone a sec. Because you haven't read anything like this book. No, you haven't. No, it's not like that book or that one or any of the thrillers you'll recall right offhand, and that's because Roger Smith isn't just any writer. In the span of just three books, his prose has gone from spare and evocative to darkly lyrical. His characterizations are masterful, his POV treatment is impeccable. And thematically, where once he was just pretty damned good, he now soars.

      DUST DEVILS is a brilliant work, revolving around five major characters: Dell, a pacifist wrought by his grief and also by his sense of justice in a world that has none, into waging personal war on the men who killed his family; Inja, a corrupt, murderous cop and Zulu chief, a man dying of AIDS and looking to superstition instead of science for help, he will kill anyone who gets between him and his 16-year-old bride-to-be, Sunday, because he believes that sex with her will cure him. Sunday wants only not to have to marry Inja. She, as much as anyone, knows him for the cold killer he is. And then there is Disaster Zondi, an ex-cop as a result of having principals in a time and place where those things have no cash value. The author spins these characters and more through a space-time continuum where personal interactions go repeatedly nuclear. Oops, I said five characters, didn't I? South Africa is the fifth one. The varying cultures, the extremes of power and wealth matched again helplessness and poverty, places where AIDS harvests one out of three people thanks to neglect, superstition, and ignorance. Where news events don't begin to tell the depth of the stories.

      Along the way, the reader gets a mini-education in the behind-the-scenes politics of South Africa as that country moved from apartheid to... whatever one calls it today, because freedom hardly seems the right word. Unless one is remembering the old song lyric from Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

      Thematically, where other authors would simply push the characters examining their past sins toward a search for redemption or atonement, Smith takes his characters beyond and into a stark cultural landscape where the wages of sin don't include the possibility of redemption, and where careful preservation of innocence is futile because innocence was long ago the first victim of sin. Harshly violent, the book is a broken window onto the cultural indifference to massive suffering, but more pointedly -- and poignantly -- Smith highlights the effect of the neglect by those powerful enough to relieve such suffering, who make such suffering more intense and widespread through corruption and indifference. The story's end is a sorrowful angel, breathtakingly cinematic on one level, and on another so personal that the reader's heart bleeds. A brilliant work.


      April 7, 2011

      REVIEW: CRYING BLOOD by Donis Casey

      Welcome to day four of Moonlighting for Murder, sponsored by Jen's Book Thoughts. This week The Drowning Machine is celebrating amateur sleuth Alafair Tucker, the star of a five-book (so far) series by Donis Casey.

      Just a reminder that each day I'm posing a trivia question, and each correct answer will earn you a chance in a drawing (which will be held on Saturday, April 9) for a copy of the newest book in this series, Crying Blood, as well as a $25 gift certificate from Warwick's, a fabulous indie book store. You still have time to answer Tuesday's and Wednesday's questions, and you will find today's question at the bottom of this post.


      Oklahoma, 1915. Shaw Tucker and his sons, along with Shaw's brother James and James's two sons, are on a hunting trip. When one of the dogs brings in a boot full of old bones instead of a quail, the trip goes south for Shaw in a hurry. The bones belong to an old skeleton that has a bullet hole between the eye sockets. Things begin to happen that no one witnesses but Shaw: snakes out of season, moccasin-clad feet moving through the camp at night, and a voice on the forest wind that twice calls Shaw's name. Shaw isn't a believer in superstitious woo-woo, but he doesn't like to think he's losing his mind either. But when an enigmatic young Creek boy who calls himself Crying Blood is murdered in Shaw's stable -- his locked stable -- Shaw is determined to find the killer. Because Crying Blood isn't really a Creek name, it's a condition of life being out of balance until the dead receive justice.

      At the heart of this book are the issues stemming from the treatment of Indians, or Native Americans if you prefer. The lack of humanity that led to the Trail of Tears is well known, but the manner in which land was later allotted to individual Indians in Oklahoma is less familiar. Casey lays it out in simple terms and, without once climbing on a soapbox, reveals the land allotments were either a legal attempt to destroy the communal nature of the tribes, a way of forcing the Indians to live more like the whites, or that that was the unintended consequence.

      Although my amateur sleuth for Moonlighting for Murder is Shaw's wife, Alafair, she has a more limited role in this book than in the four previous. Her fans will find her presence sufficient so that no one will suffer withdrawal, but this book really belongs to Shaw. He's been present in the other books, but was not as sharply defined as here, where the reader sees more of his temper, learns more about his childhood, and discovers that he can be pushed to cross legal, possibly even moral, lines in pursuit of justice. Even rough justice.

      As always, the author highlights a bygone way of life that calls forth for the reader a nostalgia for simpler times, as well as a deep gratitude that few of us have to do our own hog butchering or many of the other labor-intensive chores of 1915.


      A very popular doll was created in 1915 and is still marketed by Hasbro today. This doll has been the basis of books, comics, movies, a tv series, and in 2002 this doll was inducted into the National Toy  Hall of Fame. The doll's brother later joined her there in 2007. What's the name of this doll?

      Each correct answer earns a place in Saturday's drawing, so be sure check out the other trivia questions this week. And a reminder once again that Jen is running a comment contest all her own for Moonlighting for Murder, and here's how it works:  Each comment left at any of the theme week posts by the participating bloggers by Friday at midnight (Eastern) enters you into her drawing for a book prize pack. The prize pack will include at least a bag, two books, a small notebook and a bookmark. Other various goodies may also be included as surprise items. So: comment here often, at Jen's Book Thoughts often, and at all the participating blogs.

      March 19, 2011

      REVIEW: FALL FROM GRACE by Wayne Arthurson

      Leo Desroches is a hardened journalist, but he's been hardened by more than just the job. Leo is a gambling addict. He's lost his wife and children, his home, and his career to his addiction. But Lady Luck sometimes pays off, though never as much as one bets overall, and Leo at last has a job on a newspaper again. He's through living on the streets and is determined to stay clear of the casinos. But he's still addicted to playing the odds against enormous risks. Given the opportunity to write an investigative piece on the murder of a young native woman, Leo begins to find evidence of a serial killer at work for many years in Edmonton. The streetwalkers know it's true. The police staunchly deny it. When Leo gets his hands on a decades-old police file that could bring down the entire police command structure, he has to decide whether the odds on living much longer are in his favor.

      Leo Desroches is an original. Not giving any spoilers here, but his unusual coping mechanism to keep himself out of the casinos is not one that will have people cheering for him, but it will keep readers on their toes. By the end of chapter three, Leo had me reeling and I knew I had to know all there is to know about this character. Leo is an ethnic blend of Cree and French-Canadian, but the Cree doesn't show up in his face. He knows next to nothing about his native heritage, and is uncomfortable with any effort to alter that, although he has some curiosity about it. The author explores his conflicted character in a way that stops well short of yawning angst, yet gives a fully developed portrait of Leo, his strengths, his weaknesses, and the out-and-out flaws that would make him impossible to live with. But in the course of his investigations, Leo finds in himself two dichotomous traits he may not have previously been aware of: mercy and retribution. (He's treacherous, too, as so many reporters are, but he's known that for a while.) Whether, at story's end, Leo has done right or wrong is almost irrelevant. What he does is true to his character: he plays the odds. The greater the risk, the more of himself he invests. And Leo bets it all, every time.

      The author uses Leo's job and his heritage to touch on many issues throughout the story: how native people are portrayed in the media; the discrepancy in the depth of official investigations of the murders of whites versus a more shallow approach to the murders of natives are but two. Although he shines a light on official police tolerance of their own crimes, he fairly acknowledges the presence of the many good cops. Happily,
      Leo's character never stretches into Super-Reporter. What Leo gets, he gets through old-fashioned scutwork or by being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Maintaining the authentic image of the daily grind of a newsroom while writing to a story arc is difficult to achieve, but Wayne Arthurson has done an excellent job. Leo is a fascinating character and Edmonton has much to offer as a new landscape for lovers of crime fiction.

      Although Leo, in first person, occasionally wanders off into some light exposition, it's never for long (unlike a certain late Swedish reporter-turned-novelist). Action and dialogue and intriguing plot turns swiftly follow. FALL FROM GRACE is the first of at least two Leo Desroches books, so the style should become even smoother as the writer gains comfort in the long-fiction form.


      March 15, 2011

      REVIEW: THE LOST SISTER by Russel D. McLean

      PI J. McNee was last seen nursing his grief and a crushed hand in THE GOOD SON. In the newest book, THE LOST SISTER (out today), McNee is still grieving but is slowly becoming a bit more involved in the world around him. When the case of a missing teenage girl, an only child, is put before him, he really doesn't want to know, not until he learns that the girl's godfather is a mobster, the same nasty piece of work to whom McNee owes thanks for that crushed hand. All along McNee's instincts tell him that his client, a highly temperamental fellow from out of town, isn't quite on the up-and-up. But every time our hero tries to back out of the case, his own curiosity and his desire for a little payback on the mobster suck him back into the search. This won't be the hardest case McNee will ever crack, but it may well be the bloodiest.

      The idea of dysfunctional families is hardly a new notion in crime fiction (The Big Sleep, Savages) but because family dynamics can be twisted into so many different pretzel shapes, it's one that a good writer can always find ways to exploit. Author McLean does just that, eyeballing the extreme behavior people will display for their children, for their siblings, and for themselves. And no extreme is greater, of course, than that which McLean's characters will go to for themselves, no matter how much they tell themselves (and McNee) that they are doing these things for someone else.

      Without beating the reader over the head with the questions, without taking sides with his characters, McLean leads one to ponder: Is maternal love a good enough qualification to make a woman a mother? What separates love from possession or even obsession? At what point must self-love trump the love for another?

      As with his first book, there are no words or trees wasted in the telling of this bleak story. The author never displays an overfondness for the appearance of his own words on paper, never gets himself between McNee and the reader. The entire story has the bitter ambiance of a "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." all over it. Is it noir? Well, if everyone is wrong going in, and they're wrong or dead coming out, I think that qualifies.


      March 8, 2011

      REVIEW: ONE TRUE SENTENCE by Craig McDonald

      Paris, 1924. The "Lost Generation" is busy losing itself in wine, writing, and love affairs. But not everyone is lit up in the City of Lights: the publishers of small, literary magazines are being systematically murdered. When one of the murders occurs a bit too close to home -- right at home in the midst of one of Gertrude Stein's salons -- the imposing Ms. Stein gathers the local mystery writers and charges them with finding the killer. But it's not that easy to find a killer who may actually be legion. And it's all too easy for the hunters to become the hunted.

      As with the previous installments in the Hector Lassiter series, author Craig McDonald's fictional characters interact seamlessly with historical figures: Stein, Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, Ford Madox Ford, et al. The author draws them with a breathtaking, at times unflattering, accuracy. Nevertheless it is the fictional character of mystery writer Brinke Devlin who steals the spotlight, or rather, joins Hector Lassiter in it. A writer of similar talent as the late Craig Rice, but with, as McDonald describes her, the visual appeal of actress Louise Brooks (photo, above right)  Brinke is a woman with a mysterious past that comes forth to complicate her romance with Hector. Only 24, Hector has yet to write his first novel, but Brinke is challenging him to expand his writing horizons. Brinke's own style, the reader will find, will become Hector's: Write what you live; live what you write.

      As in previous books, the author ties the story to an artistic/philosophical movement. (Who could forget the ultra-creepiness of the surrealists in TOROS & TORSOS?) Here the nihilistic underpinnings of Dadaism are exposed (and perhaps the author is setting the stage for the coming of existentialism?) as post-war rhetoric gone seriously off the rails.

      The author seems to enjoy breaking the rules that his own characters lay down. For instance, when Brinke declares, "Killers simply don't kill for the complex or arcane reasons that they do in mystery novels," McDonald promptly proceeds to prove her wrong -- and yet, because this is fiction (and because McDonald can't resist playing - ahem! - head games (nor should he)), he also proves her right.

      Hector and Hemingway are not the only familiar faces from previous books. Characters that play larger roles in other books in this series also make cameo appearances here (Donovan Creedy from PRINT THE LEGEND; Quentin Windly from TOROS & TORSOS), helping the reader to visualize Hector's life as a whole, not merely as episodes. In the same way that certain people appear, vanish, then reappear in one's own life, the same way those people sometimes have great, then little impact or influence in our lives, this is true for various characters of Hector's acquaintance.

      The essence of young Hector's character is on more prominent display in ONE TRUE SENTENCE than in other books: his charm, his sexuality, his knight errantry, his 'do-it-myself' attitude, and especially his romantic side, his vulnerability to the woman he loves, are all revealed in greater depth. Hector is not quite yet the rugged, intellectual crime-writer readers have come to love but, under Brinke Devlin's influence, the metamorphosis is underway.

      When reading a novel by Craig McDonald, the reader can take nothing for granted. Especially not the notion that one book will read much like the next. Where HEAD GAMES was wildly action-oriented, PRINT THE LEGEND was steeped in creeping paranoia. For all it's written in third person, ONE TRUE SENTENCE has almost the feel of a memoir but overlaid with -- or cloaked by -- a traditional mystery of its time period. While the events of TOROS & TORSOS sprawled across decades and continents, ONE TRUE SENTENCE occurs over one week, in one city. If you've read the previous books in this series, you may think you have some idea of what to expect from McDonald. You don't. He's getting more sly (and funny) about his inside jokes. And if you don't think so, I'll leave you with one character's alias: Elrond Huppert.


      February 19, 2011


      JACK AND THE GIANT is a retelling by P2P of the classic fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. P2P is a group of British school-children with an average age of six. The retelling came about when the children learned from the 'Keeper of the Stories' that 'Storyland' had disappeared, and it was up to them to rebuild it.

      The luscious cover illustration of JACK AND THE GIANT may hint at the events within its pages but the tranquility of the art is in direct opposition to this excellent stripped-to-the-bones crime story, in which the good guy may win but the reader is left wondering just how good of a guy is Jack really.

      The children of P2P have succeeded in doing what I wish so many short story writers would do: eliminate the unnecessary. Here we are not subjected to repeated invasions of the giant's territory by Jack as per the usual fairy tale version. In the capable hands of the P2P kids, Jack is more in the way of being a second-story man. He gets in, grabs the loot, and gets out.

      Readers who want to sympathize with the giant -- who, after all, had been minding his own business -- must remember that had the giant caught Jack, there would have been no call to the police. Jack's mum would never have known that her boy had been made over into a giant's version of Soylent Green. P2P safely keeps the reader's sympathies with young Jack, who is acting out of the desperation created by poverty.

      According to this version of the classic tale, Jack is impulsive, quick to make a decision. Look at how fast he handed over a valuable and beloved cow for five beans! That's five beans, folks; it hardly amounts to a mouthful of food for Jack and his mum, when they could have been having steaks and oxtail soup and hamburgers. And Jack is just as hasty about deciding to climb the beanstalk, steal from the giant, and making his getaway.

      Jack's mum plays a thankless but crucial role. When Jack yells for an axe to chop down the beanstalk, she immediately supports her son. She never delays, never once says, "What do you want with an axe? You'll chop a hand off, you will! Axe, my -- uh, axe." She just gets the axe, chop-chop, and life is good again. Even though she thought Jack may have made a mistake in trading the cow for beans, she still trusted him enough to help him when he needed her.

      For readers who don't mind having "Fee-fi-fo-fum" blathered at them repeatedly, until the giant is merely boring rather than terrifying, go on back to the version by the (aptly named) Grimm brothers. Readers with a taste for edgy crime fiction and rousing adventure, will prefer this sleek new version from P2P. Truly discerning readers will appreciate the subtle presentation of a moral dilemma stemming from socio-economic realities.

      P2P will be donating all proceeds from the sale of this story to charity, so that poor children like Jack will not have to steal.

      JACK AND THE GIANT is published by Sea Minor (the brains behind which is the inimitable Nigel Bird) and is available in digital format only, for the equivalent of only five beans:  $0.99 USD at: Smashwords and amazon.

      February 6, 2011

      REVIEW: DISCOUNT NOIR - Patricia Abbott & Steve Weddle, Editors

      When I purchased DISCOUNT NOIR, which is available only as an ebook, it was as much with the idea of supporting the many writers whose stories I've enjoyed for free on the web as it was with the idea that I would also enjoy more of their work. I didn't envision that I would feel compelled to write a full review of this anthology, and for that I most humbly apologize to all of those who contributed to and edited the work. I, of all people, should know better than to underestimate the talent pool out there.

      The project that eventually became this anthology began by Patricia Abbott issuing a flash-fiction challenge in 2009, "Megamart: I Love You." Writers were asked to contribute a story of about 800 words, set or partially set, in a mass-merchandise store. On November 30, 2009, some 30 stories were simultaneously published on various blogs. The anthology includes those stories and a few more.

      I rarely read an anthology in its entirety, nor in the order the stories are printed. I like to seek out favorite authors first, then intriguing titles. But I began at the beginning with DISCOUNT NOIR and found myself loathe to skip around. Why? Because by the sixth or seventh story I found myself impressed by the range of emotion, and by the originality displayed in these very short works. Laughter, tears, fear, paranoia, and rage permeate these stories of love, murder, revenge, hardboiled, noir, mafia, zombies, homelessness, child endangerment. and more. One story would leave me chuckling and the next would wring my heart. So I read every story -- 42, in case you're wondering -- and in order. With so many stories, inevitably there are a couple of non-starters. But the vast majority are entertaining and highly original.

      The authors themselves represent a mix of traditionally published and not; those who mostly write in the short form versus those better known for their novels. Easily recognized names include Ed Gorman, Bill Crider, James Reasoner, Dave Zeltserman, Sophie Littlefield, Chris Grabenstein, Toni McGee Causey, Anne Frasier, and others. Names well known to those of us who haunt the crime fiction webzines include Keith Rawson, Albert Tucher, Patricia Abbott, Steve Weddle, Sandra Seamans, Kyle Minor, Kieran Shea, Chad Eagleton, Eric Beetner, and many, many more. And yes, there were some names that were new to me although they may have been published online or traditionally for all I know: Fleur Bradley and John Weagly among others.

      My favorite stories alone in this anthology would constitute excellent value for the money ($4.50), so for those of you who are still looking for fine, fun reading to download to that new ereader you got for Christmas, be sure to check out DISCOUNT NOIR. Here are some of my favorite stories:
      ACCEPTANCE by Cormac Brown: The story of a small-businessman and grandfather who goes toe-to-toe with the massive retailer -- and wins.

      THIRTY-ONE HUNDRED by Loren Eaton: Romance and zombies at the Megamart.

      HOUSE NAMES by James Reasoner: Beware of authors rearranging the book displays at the Megamart.

      MONDAYS AND THURSDAYS by Donna Moore: Planning the perfect murder entails some carefully-planned shoplifting at the Megamart.

      CRACK HOUSE by Anne Frasier: A secret room in the Megamart provides shelter for a homeless woman.

      HAVE YOU SEEN ME? by J.T. Ellison: A desperate mother with a dying daughter recognizes a face from a milk carton.

      And my very favorite: DISCOUNT PRIMROSE by Todd Mason, an outstanding story of a future in which there is no need to ever leave the Megamart store.


      January 31, 2011

      REVIEW: OUTSOURCED by Dave Zeltserman

      Tag line: "Most workers who lose their jobs review their resume. These guys plan a heist."

      Take four middle-aged software engineers: Dan, Joel, Gordon, and Shrini. Now take away their jobs, just outsource those babies to India. Next, make sure they know that at their age the only employment they're likely to find will be McJobs. Then make sure that as their pride drifts away, so do their families. This is a recipe for desperate men. Desperate men make extreme decisions; theirs is to rob a bank. When the Russian and Italian mafia get involved, not to mention a smart cop who knows how to play a hunch, they might wish they'd settled for those McJobs.

      Author Dave Zeltserman is perhaps best known for the lone sociopaths found in his "man out of prison" trilogy (Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer), but in Outsourced he also displays a remarkable talent for delineating group dynamics, particularly when the group is under pressure. Jealousy, revenge, greed, deceit, bullying -- adult groups don't differ much from children's, but the adults in this story never see that. The author accurately applies those tense dynamics to families as well as criminal conspirators.

      Zeltserman is always at his best when applying the turn of the screw, which he does here relentlessly. Plot twists arrive - and they arrive frequently - through people working at cross-purposes, through the misconstrued situation, hidden motives and actions, and the careful peeling back of layers of emotion. Any little thing can, and does, tip the balance of lives into abrupt violence. Following different characters at various checkpoints, the character threads are all neatly brought together by story's end, but not too neatly. The ending itself is a perfect moment of ambiguous noir, when doom isn't a bullet from out of the shadows or a cop at the door, but is instead as simple as living alone with one's own sins.

      In only a couple of years, Dave Zeltserman has become one of my favorite "must read" authors. Outsourced, although written four years ago and just now being published in the US, proves not only that the man has talent, but consistently delivers a slam-bang story full of real-world complications. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.