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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, September 1, 2014

Bite Harder: Sid the Homicidal Helper Monkey Takes on the Mexican Mafia

  • Bite Harder
  • By Anonymous-9
  • 163 pages
  • (Blasted Heath; September 1, 2014)
  • E-book sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • ASIN: B00M49DRDM
have to admit: I used to feel about monkeys the way many people feel about clowns: sure, they can be entertaining, but there also is more than a whiff of the horrific about them; they are, after all, little misshapen homunculi, twisted simulations of humankind. 

I cringed at the nasty little fellow who created so much mayhem as the mascot of the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean. I detested the cousin who seemed constantly to thwart security guard Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum.

Carl Hiaasen didn't knock me out with the bad monkey who played such an important role in his last book, Bad Monkey. I didn't even think much of Cheetah in the Tarzan flicks -- and that chimp's highjinks seemed restricted to clapping and doing back flips while grinning maniacally.

Note that I said I "used to" feel that way. That was back in the days before I met Dean Drayhart, Anonymous-9's marvelous wheelchair-bound vigilante, or his sidekick and abettor, Sid, the homicidal helper monkey.

It gives me great pleasure to report that Dean and Sid are back and better than ever in Bite Harder, A-9's wonderful sequel to her hilarious crime novel, Hard Bite.

As you will recall, Dean was horribly maimed and his daughter killed when they were crushed by a hit-and-run driver while visiting Knott's Berry Farm. Left crippled and one-handed by the collision, Dean is seeking vigilante-style revenge by engineering a series of slayings that target gutless vehicular killers who flatten and then flee.

Sid, meanwhile, is his "trigger-monkey," there to help Dean get from one crime scene to another and to administer the coup de jaw when necessary -- hence the titles, Hard Bite and Bite Harder.

In Bite Harder, Dean has been unmasked as a serial murderer by the cops. As if the police weren't enough, he has also become the target of a murderous Mexican Mafia family after dispatching its only member who wasn't a drug dealer: Ambrose Malalinda, a divinity student who fled to avoid punishment after killing a man with his Mustang.

When last we saw them, Dean was awaiting trial under lock-down in L.A. County Jail while Sid was being spirited out of Los Angeles by Cinda, Dean's sex-worker lover and partner in crime. 

All three were being sought by the murderous Malalinda Family -- particularly its psychotic doyen, Orella, who was already half mad with grief over the loss of her son, but lost her few remaining marbles after her nose was accidently shot off during a scuffle with Sid.

Cinda and Sid take it on the lam. Dean is the target of an unsuccessful jailhouse murder attempt and a kidnapping by the Malalindas.

Divulging more details would ruin the book; suffice to say that the action is hotter and heavier in Bite Harder than it was in the first book and Anonymous-9 conjures up another platoon of low-life characters to goose the story along, with a chase that ranges from Humboldt County to the San Bernardino Desert community of Adelanto.

Think about that for just a moment: here are two books packed with action, flight from cops and killers, gunplay and violence even though their protagonist, Dean, is a man with only one arm, whose head lolls without support, who can't walk and can barely sit upright without assistance. Drayhart goes way beyond the limits of any normal action hero. In fact, you could just as easily call him an "inaction" hero. The only part of his body that seems to still work normally is his brain.

And, frankly, he seems to outgun and over-match everybody else in these two books when it comes to the equipment inside his head.

It isn't giving too much away to say that Orella engineers a confrontation with the cripple and his monkey that has to go down as one of the most bizarre attempts at vengeance in all crime fiction -- a confrontation that will either leave you laughing hysterically or stunned into gob-smacked silence by its utter and complete weirdness! 

A pair of books about a handicapped vigilante that makes you laugh? You may think I am joking. I'm not, believe me. But much of the time, A-9 most definitely is.

(aka Elaine Ash)

Why is this author smiling? (courtesy of Anonymous-9.com)

She serves up her clearly preposterous plot twists with exactly the jolt of humor that makes Dean Drayhart and Sid seem a plausible crime fighting team. The second book, like its predecessor, is full of passages like this one when Cinda checks into a hot-sheets hotel while hunting for Sid back in the Southland:

The film -student desk clerk asks no questions and avoids her eyes. He's not a bit fooled by the way she's dressed or by anything she could say. A young woman around his own age checking into a room at night. No ID. Paying cash. She's a sex
worker.His employer rents rooms to sex workers. There's a good-sized elephant in the room but they get around it by pretending each other doesn't exist. Kind of like Mormons running into one another at the medical marijuana dispensary.

I dare you not to laugh at such wittily well-crafted prose!
I am already looking forward to Drayhart III. A word, however, to Anonymous-9: Puh-leeze don't monkey around with your winning formula! Just keep on doing what you have been and you will have me eating out of your paws -- all four of them! 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dean Drayhart and Sidekick Sid Take a Bite Out of Crime

182 pages
Publisher: (Blasted Heath; Dec. 5, 2013)
E-book by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: 0985578645

I don’t know about you, but when the first five words of a novel are “I like to kill people,” somehow I feel compelled to read on.

Those are, in fact, the first five words in Hard Bite by Anonymous-9 (the pen name of L.A.-based crime  writer Elaine Ash). Hard Bite introduces Dean Drayhart, a wheelchair-bound vigilante who is one of the slickest characters to ever appear in a hard-boiled thriller.

Anonymous-9's Hard Bite: funny and brutal, with sufficient
detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end.
(photo courtesy of Anonymous-9.com)

The book is funny and brutal, with sufficient detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end. It also offers enough bitterly acute insights about the life of a handicapped man to fill a half dozen books.

Hard Bite is a first-person revenger in the classic mold. Imagine Frank Castle, the Punisher, if he fell on a fragmentation grenade that wrecked his body. Do you seriously think a little thing like quadriplegia would stop Castle from doing everything he can to rid the world of gangsters, terrorists and other human vermin?

Fuhgeddabaht it.

In Hard Bite, a former insurance executive named Dean Drayhart is our crippled Castle. He is also the speaker of those five words above, and much of the book is about how the quadriplegic man became a no-nonsense Punisher-style vigilante.

Drayhart is definitely a man who likes to kill people: the kind of people who run over people with their cars and flee the scene.
You see, one of those drivers mowed Dean and his daughter down in a Los Angeles crosswalk, killing her outright and crippling him. Dean has vowed to track down and kill as many of them as he can.

“I whistle along, taking it easy on the curves,” he says early in the novel. “Vigilante Cripple Man — rolling justice across Los Angeles one hit-and-run driver at a time.”

It’s not an easy task. Drayhart can’t walk or stand without assistance, is missing a hand and is paralyzed almost everywhere but between his legs.

(His sexual plumbing still functions, as he puts it, “proof for me that there is a God and he has a sense of humor.”)

Of course, a man who is essentially quadriplegic is limited in his ability to rid the world of the scourge of hit-and-run drivers. For one thing, his only means of moving around is a specially-equipped handicapped van that he cannot legally drive.

He also has limited use of his remaining hand and the prosthetic hook that’s replaced his missing one.

For anybody else, those handicaps would be a deal-breaker; they are not a problem for Dean Drayhart, however. Dean has something better than working legs, arms and hands: he has Sid, the homicidal capuchin monkey who is his partner in crime. Sid helps Dean drive the van, find the bad guys and eliminate them.

Ruthlessly. Also efficiently.

Dean doesn’t even need a gun – one “hard bite” to a major blood vessel from Sid’s razor sharp fangs and the bitee bleeds out in just a few minutes.

In Hard Bite, Dean and Sid are just beginning their campaign to rid the Los Angeles area of unwanted human vermin. In quick succession, the pair eliminate a man who ran down a father of four and a pit bull trainer who is in the process of killing dogs who are insufficiently savage for his barbaric sport. A day later, Dean and Sid kill a small-time actress who has also had a fatal “accident” while driving her car.

But their first target turns out to have been connected to the Mexican Mafia and a Sinaloan drug cartel, and Sid and Dean find themselves targets for gangland murder. They also are being tracked by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective who is both smart and imaginative enough to connect the dots between the sudden rash of hit-run driver deaths.

Dean and Sid find themselves being pursued by disparate enemies who could halt their do-it-yourself justice campaign just as it is getting underway. On their side is Dean’s interfering nurse practitioner – a woman whose signature he needs to get the funds necessary for financing his vigilante activities – and his girlfriend, a street prostitute named Cinda who tends to his sexual needs and seems to really care about him.

The chase ranges all over Los Angeles, as far north as Humboldt County and as far south as Sinaloa. It criss-crosses through the hills that split L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, the beaches of the Southland, a chop shop near Venice, an apartment complex in Cerritos and the slice-and-dice suite at the L.A. County Coroner’s office.

Anonymous-9 has conjured a platoon of characters who are finely drawn and completely unique.  She includes enough technical detail in this yarn to make it seem plausible, even though she has to fall back on devil coincidence a couple of times to keep her dramatis personae in play.

I was especially impressed with her handling of Detective Doug Coltson, the sheriff’s investigator, a critical figure in the tale. In the hardboiled genre, it is highly tempting to either make cops stupid, brutal and corrupt or give them a pristine character and remarkable deductive powers. Coltson is no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He’s a lunch-bucket guy with a wife he loves (and who loves him), a backstory intriguing enough to make him interesting, and enough brain to solve a murder simply by keeping his eyes and his mind open.

But each of Anonymous-9’s characters have their own spark of life: Orella Malalinda, the head of a Mexican drug ring; Dr. Klanski, Dean’s reproving physician; Marcie Blattlatch, his attending nurse; Cinda, his paramour and assistant a la mort; even Marty Hatchfield, an unemployed screenwriter who meets Dean under the worse possible circumstances.  In his brief appearance in the novel, Anonymous-9 gives Hatchfield the same careful treatment as the more important players. 

Even Sid the Capuchin is a finely etched character with individual quirks, an oddly human sense of humor and a glowing intelligence that makes him a perfect "other half" of Dean Drayhart's personality. 

Anomymous-9 knows that the thing that makes a book as dark as this one work is a menagerie of characters capable of eliciting readers’ sympathy – or at the very least holding their interest.

She wraps these characters with black humor, investing her narrative with enough bitter comedy to keep a smile on the reader’s face for almost all of its 182 pages.

For example, she has Drayhart make the following comment about Sherryl Lynn Hastings, an actress he suspects of dragging an elderly woman to her death in a fatal hit-run in West Los Angeles:

“You can spot wannabe actresses in L.A. with deadly accuracy. They’re the ones who spend all their energy looking fuckable; meanwhile they haven’t had sex since Aretha sang at the inauguration—and then it was probably with a close relative.”

She has Drayhart discuss his own injuries and convalescence at one point, briefly and humorously explaining how he ended up on his vigilante mission:

“I went from noun to action verb riding a year-long bed of pain. After flirting with suicide, which lost its appeal contemplated deeply, a fresh start in rough justice sounded right. Why settle for cripple when you can be crippling?”

And in another section, a television bulletin tells the female head of the drug cartel about a massacre she herself had ordered at a body and fender works:

“Blood and tacos splattered floor to ceiling. There seems to be no motive, no robbery, no reason— with ‘gang-related’ written all over it.”

I particularly enjoyed this brief reference.  “Blood and Tacos,” of course, is the name of Johnny Shaw’s humorous magazine that serves up violent but comical stories in an ersatz “pulp” format. It often features mustachioed men – like the drug boss’s sons – engaging in bloody gunfights using automatic weapons, grenades, rocket launchers and so on.

Hard Bite is grim stuff, but funny, nonetheless...

Admittedly, this is grim stuff; but it’s funny, nonetheless.

I enjoyed Hard Bite thoroughly and I am looking forward to getting my copy of its sequel, Bite Harder, when it comes out on Sept. 1. In fact, I have already ordered the darn thing.

Let’s hope I don’t end up wheelchair-bound with a broken funny-bone when I read it...

Twist Upon Twist Characterizes Starr's "Twisted City," A Novel With Hardly Any Sympathetic Characters

(Vintage, 2014)
E-book by Amazon
ISBN-10: 1400075068
ISBN-13: 978-1400075065

David Miller is a complicated character. You don’t really like him in Jason Starr’s latest novel, Twisted City: he is simultaneously wimpy yet aggressive, a man who lets his employer boss him around, tolerates his leech-like female roommate and repeatedly, heedlessly, inserts himself into dangerous situations.

He almost immediately establishes his total lack of character by irresponsibly trashing a company in a libelous article he writes for the business magazine that employs him, stretching some of the facts he has dug up and concocting others completely.

His reason? The man who signs his paycheck has an idiotic rule that reporters write favorable stories about businesses they cover no more than twice in a row and Miller has already used up his quota.

As a former reporter, I can tell you his unethical behavior in this case alone would get him fired from almost any publication I can name – including trashy ones like the Weekly World News.

As the book unwinds, Starr lets us in on Miller’s other distasteful traits: that he previously worked for the Wall Street Journal but was fired for job abandonment; that he boorishly rates every woman he meets for attractiveness and allows the psychopathic hanger-on who shares his apartment to treat him like a flunky and a human teller machine.

"Twisted City" author Jason Starr (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 These foibles seem somehow to be related to the death of his sister some years earlier. Miller has an obsession with the dead woman that seems to rule his life. The reason is nicely concealed until the end of the novel, though a perceptive reader will probably figure it out long before then.

Miller’s unattractive personality is the least of his negative features. He is also capable of alarming violence on short notice. He commits one brutal murder in Starr’s novel – though he rationalizes it as self-defense -- and comes close to two others; he ineffectually hides evidence, dumps a dead body where any passerby can see it, and lies compulsively to police, his friends and his aunt.

He's not only a criminal; he also isn’t very good at it.

Miller is is one of the least sympathetic fictional characters I’ve run across in years. But, like a particularly nasty train wreck, you just can’t seem to look away. You find yourself eagerly turning pages just to find out what stupid, reckless behavior he will engage in next.

In classic noir fashion, Miller finds himself beset by a host of problems that could ruin his life: he flubs a beer-joint pickup by clumsily trying to manhandle a woman he met a short time earlier, has his wallet stolen by a pickpocket team, then ends up committing a serious life-in-prison felony when he attempts to recover it.

Each attempt he makes to extricate himself from the mess makes things worth. Soon he comes under police scrutiny – while trying to get out from under a blackmail scheme and evict his psycho roommate from his apartment.

A series of plot twists simultaneously seems to bring Miller closer to ruin, but delays delivering him to his fate: he discovers that a woman involved in the extortion scheme has been killed, at least temporarily keeping his crimes from discovery; a suicide occurs that initially looks like murder; a meeting with his blackmailer in a Manhattan park ends with his hospitalization for a point-blank gunshot wound.

In short, everything that can possibly go wrong does; by rights, Miller’s last name should be Murphy.

The book has no happy ending, unless you consider cosmic irony a happy conclusion. A final jaw-dropping plot twist offers an unhappy resolution that is oddly satisfying; for one thing, it suggests that there is some sort of justice in the world that punishes people who botch their lives so thoroughly and completely. At the same time, it reveals the secret about Miller’s past that is hinted in the preceding pages.

Twisted City is only $2.99 in the Kindle edition. If you like stories in which the main character is a loser who can’t get out of his own way, this is the book for you. You’ll wear off your thumbprint turning the pages to follow David Miller’s misadventures.  Keep going to the end: I certainly didn't see that coming!