Thursday, August 30, 2018

She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper’s violent debut novel

All the praise heaped on Jordan Harper’s 2017 novel, She Rides Shotgun, is deserved. It is a hell of a book.

A large, muscular, tattooed man, just released from prison arrives at a Southern California middle school, puts a little girl into the stolen car he is driving and zooms off with her.

The man is Nate McClusky and the girl is his daughter, Polly.

While in prison, Nate seriously pisses off the head of a powerful gang. The leader puts out an order for members on the outside to track down and kill Nate – and his family.

The gang gets to Nate’s wife before he can save her. But Nate reaches Polly first and they are off on a high-speed road trip.

Nate realizes there is no safe place. The gang has eyes and ears everywhere. He and Polly elude them, and, to protect the girl, Nate teaches her how to fight and survive. Polly learns fast and changes from the quiet, immature schoolgirl who was bullied, into a confidant, self-sufficient young woman.

Despite her increasing toughness, Polly has a good heart. That heart is the bright spot in this dark, suspenseful book.

Harper does a fine job of telling this rocket-propelled story, and more impressive, it is his first novel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Brutal “Shot Caller” is a Movie to Watch

The 2017 prison film, “Shot Caller,” is not like the old movies where Jimmy Cagney found himself in the big house, nor is it like the men-behind-bars exploitation flicks of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Shot Caller” is a whole new, ultra-realistic look at the violent world behind the walls of American prisons.

Jacob, a successful businessman with a nice family, causes a deadly accident which lands him jail. He is put in with violent criminals and quickly learns the code of survival: Either become a victim at the mercy of the predators, or become a warrior. Jacob chooses the later and as if being sent to jail was not life-changing enough, needing to choose sides in the gang-run prison yard changes his entire being.

Affiliation with the gang not only means participating in drug smuggling, riots and murder, it also means a lifetime membership extending beyond the wire cages when Jacob is released.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an actor I have seen before in small roles, does a superb job as Jacob. His transformation from the hard-charging executive to the hard-bitten convict is quite a performance. Also excellent in the picture are Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Emory Cohen and Benjamin Bratt. I could go on naming the players in this movie because everyone did a fine job, most portraying some of the most convincingly tough inmates seen on screen.

Ric Roman Waugh, who knows more than most about prison life, wrote and directed the movie.

“Shot Caller” is a tough, terrifying and terrific film.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

FFB: Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die is the fifth novel in Lawrence Block’s mystery-crime series featuring alcoholic ex-cop, Matthew Scudder, and it is a terrific read.

In this book, Scudder is approached by a call girl who wants out of the life but is afraid to confront her pimp. She pays Scudder to break the news to the pimp and to see that he lets her go.

Surprisingly, the pimp agrees with little argument. But a couple days later, Scudder reads in the newspaper of the gruesome murder of the prostitute.

The cops have too many crime reports to handle and cannot devote much time or effort to the call girl’s murder. Strangely, the pimp wants the murder solved, and he pays Scudder to investigate. The pimp says his reputation is on the line and his other girls don’t feel safe. Scudder wonders if the pimp is using him to take the heat off himself as the obvious prime suspect. This is just one of many paths Scudder must go down as more angles to the murder are uncovered.

Block is one of the few novelists who can weave a complicated mystery together with a personal story – Matthew Scudder’s rocky road to recovery. The side trips to bars and AA meetings is never distracting or dull – just the opposite. Scudder’s dual struggle to solve the mystery and fight his urge to drink create a good deal of tension in this book.

Published in 1982, Eight Million Ways To Die takes place in New York City when the Big Apple was in the economic dumps, and Matthew Scudder has to navigating those mean streets. It is also a time before laptops and cell phones, and a reminder of what now seems like the distant past when Scudder has to look for a phone booth to make a call.

Eight Million Ways To Die is a well constructed mystery with plenty of clues for readers to play detective along with Scudder. But, perhaps due to the age of the book, I was on the right track to the killer earlier than I expected. Still, there are enough twists and turns to keep those pages turning.

Some friends have reviewed this book with slightly different takes on it. Col, at Col’s Criminal Library, wrote here, and Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, reviewed the book and the movie here.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

“Fort Bliss” is a Movie to Watch

A fine film I missed when it came out in 2014, but caught up with on video, is “Fort Bliss.”

The title comes from an actual U.S. Army base. It and the West Texas suburbs around it are the setting for the story of Sgt. Maggie Swann, a combat medic, returning home after two years in Afghanistan.

She has a bitter ex-husband who is remarried and who has been taking care of their small son while she was deployed. He does not want to send the boy home with Maggie, although that was their original agreement. Two years in the life of a pre-schooler is a very long time and the boy does not remember Maggie.

Maggie has a hard time adjusting to civilians who do not obey her commands and to a little boy she cannot order to love her.

This is a good story, extremely well told by director Claudia Myers. Myers, who came out of documentaries, including films with returning veterans, wrote the script, and this drama has a strong sense of reality.

All the performances are first rate, particularly that of Michelle Monaghan, who plays Maggie. (Where were the Academy members when it was time for the 2014 Oscar ballots?)

Also in the film were Oakes Fegley as her son, Manolo Cardona as the new man in her life, Ron Livingston as her ex-husband, Emmanuelle Chriqui as his new wife, and Freddy Rodriguez, Pablo Schreiber, Gbenga Akinnagbe as fellow soldiers, each with their own sets of problems.

Friday, August 3, 2018

FFB: The Double Take by Roy Huggins

Last year, I posted a piece about Roy Huggins’ 1949 novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me (here), and hoped this week to post another positive review of one of his books.

But, The Double Take, from 1946, Huggins’ first book, was not as enjoyable as Lovely Lady...

Private detective Stuart Bailey is hired by a public figure to investigate his wife. Recently married to a younger woman, the man received an anonymous phone call vaguely threatening blackmail over something shady in the woman’s past. The man wants to know what it is and Bailey investigates.

There is more than a little Raymond Chandler influence in this story, but Bailey is no Philip Marlowe, and readers have been down these mean streets before.

Huggins (1914-2002) wrote three crime novels in the 1940s and then went on to a successful career in television creating shows like Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

If his character, Stuart Bailey, sounds familiar it is because Huggins created the TV series, 77 Sunset Strip, in which Bailey was played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

There is one more Huggins novel in my TBR pile, 1947’s Too Late for Tears. With one hit and one miss, I am hoping I like this next book more than The Double Take.

(For more posts on books, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)