Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Worst Enemies by Dana King

Worst Enemies, the last book I read before the close of the year, is on my short list of best reads of 2018.

It is the first book in Dana King’s Penns River series and introduces Detective Benjamin “Doc” Dougherty and the other cops in this fictional city in western Pennsylvania.

Doc and his partner, Willie Grabek, a slightly burned-out detective close to retirement, are called to the scene of a brutal homicide. A woman was killed in her home during a burglary gone wrong. Or, so the cops think.

The identity of the killer is revealed in the first chapter as Tom Widmer, a knucklehead who, while boozing in a strip joint, meets Marty Cropcho. The two share their problems and Marty comes up with a great plan to solve them. He tells Tom they should each kill the other’s wife in a Strangers on a Train type plan, and no one will ever connect them because no one knows they are acquaintances. Evidently these two never read the Patricia Highsmith novel or saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie.

With complete instructions on how to get into the house and just what to steal to make it look good, Tom Widmer goes first. But Widmer quickly learns it is not easy to kill a person. Marty Cropcho’s wife puts up one hell of a fight for her life, but loses in a brutally graphic scene.

The detectives soon have Widmer in custody when author Dana King pulls the rug out from under everyone. The case goes off in an unexpected direction. His story zigs and zags and speeds along following Doc as he tries to untangle a mystery that seemed so clear cut in the beginning.

King also provides a look into Doc’s personal life – his love life, his folks whom he visits every Sunday to watch the Steelers play football on TV, and his somewhat empty home life.

At times, the book feels like non-fiction thanks to King’s natural, realistic-sounding dialogue and the unusual surnames of many of his characters, including one police officer nicknamed Eye Chart.

The small city of Penns River comes to life as clearly on the page as any real place, complete with its wealthy suburb, a crumbling poor neighborhood, local taverns, chicken wing joints, and a veterans’ hall where old timers shoot pool and drink tap beer.

There are two more novels in the Penns River series, Grind Joint and Resurrection Mall, and Dana King just announced a fourth book, Ten-Seven, due out this month.

Friday, January 4, 2019

FFB: Bury Me Deep by Harold Q. Masur

New York City lawyer, sleuth and sometime tough guy Scott Jordan, the hero of a dozen books by Harold Q. Masur, was first introduced in the 1947 novel Bury Me Deep.

The year 1947 also saw the publication of Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, which introduced Mike Hammer. Masur may have been influenced by Spillane, or perhaps he was just writing to the tastes of the times.

While crafting a Perry Mason-like mystery, Masur peppered his story with sexy dames for Scott Jordan to encounter and a few thugs for Jordan to square off with. But Masur falls short of matching either Spillane or Erle Stanley Gardner.

The story begins with a scene that could be the first line of a joke. Jordan opens his apartment door to find a beautiful, nearly naked woman reclining on his sofa. The girl soon winds up dead and coincidentally turns out to have been a witness in a big inheritance case.

There are a lot of coincidences in Bury Me Deep. Too many.

Harold Q. Masur (1909-2005), was a lawyer, but unlike Gardner, did not give Scott Jordan nearly the legal acumen or cunning personality of Perry Mason, nor was Jordan as tough and entertaining as Spillane’s detective.

Bury Me Deep is a book I looked forward to finding and reading, but, instead of going on, I will send you over to others who enjoyed Masur’s work a lot more than I did, and you can read their takes here and here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Down on the Street by Alec Cizak

In Down on the Street, Alec Cizak tells a truly noir story of a guy living too close to the edge, falling for the wrong woman and winding up in more danger than he ever dreamed.

How does an average Joe – his name is actually Lester – get himself into so much trouble? As Mickey Spillane might answer, “It was easy.”

Getting himself out of trouble becomes nearly impossible in this tense, gritty novel.

Lester is a city cab driver barely making it. He resides in the meanest, crummiest apartment house where there is only one bright spot – at least it is bright to him – Chelsea, a young woman living across the hall. Chelsea is a nasty sexpot who gives Lester a tumble one night, but rejects him the next day. He eats his heart out for her as he witnesses a nightly parade of men tramping in and out of her place.

Neither Lester nor Chelsea can make a go of life until Lester gets the bright idea to go into partnership with her. Their business is the oldest profession, with the ineffectual Lester as her pimp and protector.

Hey, what could go wrong?

Only everything.

Cizak’s novel will raise a reader’s anxiety level into the red zone. His writing makes it impossible to stop reading.

The story of these two people reminded me in many ways of Charles Willeford’s 1955 noir novel, Pick-Up (reviewed here), with a touch of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”

Down on the Street, which came out in 2017, is a frightening, nerve jangling tale.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Skull Meat by Tom Leins

Last summer, I read Tom Leins’ astonishing novella, Skull Meat, and found myself at a loss for words. This short book has a driving pace and vivid descriptions. It also has some revolting, even horrifying passages.

So the question is: How do I recommend this?

With high praise.

And with a yellow and black hazmat sign slapped on it, warning readers they better have strong stomachs before opening this one.

Skull Meat is the story of Joe Rey, who might charitably be called a private investigator, but who is really just a guy who takes money to do dirty work. Joe is hired by a gangster to mess with a rival called “Swollen” Roland. And, as usually happens in noir novels, nothing goes according to plan.

The story is over-the-top harsh, brutal, violent, ugly, and yet amazingly readable.

Leins’ writing is magnetic, you cannot tear your eyes away from it no matter how awful the scene. And all of his scenes are an assault.

He told David Nemeth, “I wanted it to be a raw, nasty blast of dirty noir.” Skull Meat is raw. It is nasty. And he more than achieved his goal.

This is a new kind of noir.

In the old noir, readers went down mean streets under the safe guidance of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and even Mike Hammer.

But in the noir of Skull Meat, there is no safety. Joe Rey will not protect you. Follow him at your own risk. But once you step into his world, Leins will have you following him right to the end.

I bought the Kindle version, and when it landed on the device I took a quick look. I did not set it aside until I finished the story. Others around the Web had similar reactions. Read the reviews by Colman Keane, Paul D. Brazill, Marietta Miles, and the Grim Reader.

Tom Leins set the story in the English seaside city of Paignton, which is also his hometown. After his seedy, sleazy, scary description of the place, it is a wonder the good folks of Paignton did not tar and feather him, and run him out of town a fence rail.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Lie Catchers by Paul Bishop

The reason I got so little done around the house last weekend was the fault of Paul Bishop. I started reading his recent crime novel, Lie Catchers, and could not put it down.

The book is more than just a crime novel, it is a behind the scenes look at how witness interviews and suspect interrogations work, how the police read the body language and subtle tics that tip them to whether a person is lying or telling the truth.

Lie Catchers is the story of Detective Jane Randall, a 12-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose career may be over due to a severe bullet wound to the leg. Her captain gives her a second chance, if she will agree to work with Detective Ray Pagan, a man great at getting the truth out of people, and great at pissing off just about everyone.

Jane, who wants to keep working, becomes partners with Ray and learns he wanted her as his partner. Ray noticed Jane’s special gift for detecting lies. He also has a gift for sensing the emotions of others and using those feelings to get to the truth.

The first case Randall and Pagan catch is actually two cases which may or may not be related. The six-year-old daughter of a tough, rap-record producer is kidnapped from his mansion leaving no clues behind. The same night as the kidnapping, miles away, a six-year-old boy disappears from the home of a well-to-do, straight-laced family. The people involved could not be more different, and yet the circumstances are way too similar to be a coincidence.

Lie Catchers is a fast read thanks to Bishop’s skill as a wordsmith. The cases are a puzzle, the action is quick and packs a punch, and the characters, situations, and work of detectives rings true, thanks to Bishop’s many years on the force. Paul Bishop is a retired LAPD detective.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

FFB: Guns of Brixton by Paul D. Brazill

It is hard as hell to be funny in print – just ask anyone who ever sent a supposedly humorous text only to have it backfire.

But Paul D. Brazill makes funny writing look easy in his crazy crime novel, Guns of Brixton.

Fast paced, this 2014 book is filled with odd, weird, violent, and often hilarious characters.

Two dim goons are sent out to retrieve a lost briefcase for their gangster boss, and manage to screw things up at every turn, including a side trip to rob a jewelry store while dressed in drag.

They kill a man, hide him in the trunk of their car, then crash into the Mercedes-Benz of a young executive who is far tougher than they ever expected, and on and on.

In the meantime, the big boss sends others out to clean up the mess, including a killer priest.

Brazill loads up his story with bizarre twists and some of the most laugh-out-loud writing I have encountered in a long time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

“Bohemian Rhapsody” the movie

Despite the reviews, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not a bad film. What it is, is a safe film.

This biography of the band Queen and its lead singer Freddy Mercury is slick and well crafted with a lot of the group’s hits, one outstanding performance by Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, and a faithful recreation of the band’s set at the 1985 Live Aid concert (although anyone interested can see the real thing on YouTube).

It is a pleasant evening’s viewing. And that is too bad. It seems the producers sanded off any rough edges on a film that could have been edgy and terrific.

Making movies about celebrities is a risk, and it is especially risky when there is so much original footage about a person or group. Watching actors (and Malek really is very good) portray extraordinary people, just reminds viewers of how talented and charismatic the original subjects were.

After watching “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I made a short list of rock films about actual rock bands and came up with a few I thought were well done. See if you agree.

“Control” about Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division;

“Love & Mercy” about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys;

“Backbeat” about the Beatles’ early days playing in Hamburg;

“Purple Rain” this may be cheating, but it is a good film with Prince playing Prince;

And my all time favorite, “A Hard Day’s Night,” with the Beatles played by the Beatles.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Orson Welles’ Ghost Story

Halloween is this week, so it is a good time to shine a spotlight on a dark, little-known movie.

In the early 1950s, while Orson Welles was in Europe filming his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” he also helped his friend, Irish actor Hilton Edwards, by starring in Edwards' eerie short film, “Return to Glennascaul,” which is also called “Orson Welles’ Ghost Story.”

The 22-minute film was shown in 1953 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best two-reel short of that year. (It lost to Walt Disney’s “Bear Country.”)

Here is a link to Edwards’ movie on YouTube.

And here is a link to an introduction to the film by Peter Bogdanovich.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

FFB: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are Dashiell Hammett books I’ve read and re-read over the years. But I don’t think I’ve opened his 1931 novel, The Glass Key, since college. It was time for another look.

Between the covers is a good murder mystery and great character study.

Main character Ned Beaumont is a part-time gambler and a full-time political operative working for Paul Madvig, a power broker who runs a small American city.

Madvig also owns a club that offers illegal gambling and booze (the story is set at the end of the Prohibition era). Since Madvig has control of everything in town, the police leave him alone. But he has a problem. The son of a U.S. senator is found dead, murdered, just down the street from Madvig’s club. All of Madvig’s people are up for re-election, including the senator. Madvig cannot have this unsolved murder hanging over them. The opposition will eat them all alive.

Ned Beaumont, who found the body, sets out to clear things up. But the harder he works, the more complicated things get and higher the stakes grow.

A bigger mystery than finding the killer is trying to understand Beaumont’s actions. He will walk right into dangerous situations, and at one point takes a hell of a beating from the guys working for the gangster who is trying to oust Madvig.

Beaumont keeps his cards close to his vest, also keeping his plans and reasons for them a secret from the reader until he springs into action.

Madvig himself throws Beaumont several curves that lead to their splitting up professionally and ending their long-time friendship.

Ned continues to work on the murder case, because more is at stake than Madvig and his political pals.

As always, Hammett’s lean, tight prose style and cooler-than-cool main character make The Glass Key a pleasure to read – and re-read.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Darktown is a Book to Read

In 1948, the Atlanta Police Department, under political pressure, hired its first African-American officers.

Eight men were sworn in and sent out to enforce the law in a community where they were viewed with suspicion by some and hatred by others. Their follow white officers resented them, did not consider them real cops, and would not allow them in their station house. A separate office was set up for the eight black officers in the basement of a YMCA. (The Butler Street Y building still exists in Atlanta.)

Author Thomas Mullen takes readers back to that time and place in his 2016 novel, Darktown.

Just three months on the job, new officers, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (Mullen’s fictional characters), encounter a drunk, middle-age white man who crashed his car into a light pole. The passenger in the car is a young black woman who appears beaten up. The driver ignores Boggs’ request for his license and drives off.

Later, the young woman is found dead. When the detective squad shows no interest in solving the murder, Boggs and Smith start digging. This could get them fired or worse, killed, as they uncover corruption in the police department and local politics.

Mullen blends fact and fiction into a violent and suspenseful crime story.