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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. . .

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Greg Barth’s Bad Girl Selena is Back

By Greg Barth
228 pages
(All Due Respect Books, March 31, 2016)
e-Book issued by Amazon

Greg Barth, author of Bona Fide Jobs and Where Moth and Dust Corrupt, wrapped up the saga of Selena, the homicidal hooker, in Suicide Lounge, the third and ostensibly last book of his Selena trilogy.

Author Greg Barth
I read the book in two middle-of-the-night binges, shutting off my Kindle at five each morning.  If my e-Book had pages to turn, my fingers would be calloused from going through this fast-paced, brutal story.

Was it any good? Consider this: I would happily read Selena 4, 5, 6, etc.

Book One introduces Selena, a drug and alcohol abusing prostitute who is a physical wreck after she inadvertently swipes a CD full of credit card information that is the property of an organized crime group.

She requires extensive surgery for broken bones, a crushed eye socket, damage to her reproductive system and a variety of other injuries at the hands of the criminals. Pulling herself together, she takes temporary shelter with her child molesting father in Kentucky and becomes a crack shot with a pair of sawed-off twelve gauges.

The remainder of volume one details how Selena gets revenge against the sadistic gangsters who savaged her.

Book two, Diesel Therapy, tells how Selena is given the bus treatment by an assistant U.S. Attorney who wants chapter and verse about her underworld contacts. She is driven half mad by the Bureau of Prison goons who are supposed to be her warders, but escapes and goes underground with the assistance of Pete, a gang boss who is her secret benefactor.  

Freed from her confinement, she seeks 
revenge on her father and his cronies, a petty gang of child molesting hillbillies who run an underage white slavery racket.

In volume three, Suicide Lounge, Selena has turned up under a new name, working for Enola, a lesbian who runs a whore house and dope den that is thinly disguised as a lap-dancing bar.  The lesbian, we quickly learn, is really fronting for Pete, Selena’s gang boss protector.

 When a sadistic drug dealer named Mozingo has Pete killed in prison and then moves on Enola’s territory, she is forced to take control of the lesbian’s gang and prepare for all-out war with the knife-wielding sadist, his gang members and an allied group of outlaw bikers.

This may sound odd, but Selena is a totally admirable character, a true friend to her friends and a bitter enemy to those who would cause them harm.

There is relatively little introspection or philosophizing in any of these three books. Barth fills in the back story through his sharply sketched characters, the dialog they speak and the actions they take.

For example, after Selena overdoses on Demerol, the physician treating her asks her about her sex life. Her reply shows you her toughness, cynical attitude and sense of humor.

“Are you promiscuous?” Dr. Addington said.
“You mean sexually, right?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“On a scale of what?”
“How many sexual partners have you had?”
“In my whole life? You mean just men? And me being a willing participant?”
“Sure,” the doctor says. “Just men. And only when you were willing.”
I thought for a moment. It was no use. “I have no idea.”
 “Really, Amanda? Ballpark?”
“No. Jesus. Way less than a ballpark. Shit. I’d say small auditorium max. And I don’t mean, like, an arena either. I’m thinking one of those school assembly auditoriums, but, you know, smaller than that even.”

Barth’s protagonist is characteristically blunt and honest. When a drug supplier in Las Vegas agrees to provide “product” for Selena and her crew, he sets a condition: first she must kill a rival gangster while posing as a hooker.

 “You’re asking me to murder a mobster?” she asks.
“That bother you?”
“Nah. It’s kind of what I do these days.”

Late in the book she confronts Bob “Crowbar” Crowe, a turncoat in her crew who twice tried to kill her with drug overdoses. The man thinks he can talk his way out of the situation because, he says, “you’re just one of Ragus’s whores.”

When she tells him who she really is, he comes unglued with fear.

“Selena, please. Just… please… don’t… don’t…”
“Drink, Bob. You have to drink.”
Tears pooled against his lower eyelids. They overfilled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks.
“No,” he said.
I looked him dead in the eye. “You have to drink.”
He picked up the glass, looked at the clear liquid, and pressed the glass to his lips. He leaned back in his chair and drained the glass in one gulp. I fired the shotgun. He took the full blast in the chest. The chair flipped backwards, spilled him onto the floor. The smell of burnt gunpowder stung my nostrils. My ears rang from the blast.
I got up and hobbled around to the other side of the table. Crowbar lay on the floor on his back. His unfocused eyes open, seeing nothing. “Know who you’re fucking with now, don’t you old boy,” I said.

With a minimum of verbiage, Barth turns every scene into a three-dimensional location. Here is his description of the warehouse where the bikers have secreted to money and drugs they stole from Selena and friends during a vicious gunfight:

It was dark inside. It smelled of grease, gasoline, and sawdust. They stepped in and closed the door. The large room had a concrete floor. Shadows absorbed all but the faintest of details.

This is a particularly effective bit of description. You can smell the odors; feel the hard cold flooring under your feet. My favorite part, however, is the bit where “shadows absorb all but the faintest of details:” I immediately could see a gloom so pervasive that it sucked the light out of the room, a shade that simply drowned the other items there as if they were disappearing into a pool of quicksand. That gloom is a tiny reflection of the overall darkness of the story, and of Selena’s own grim view of the world.

Suicide Lounge finishes the Selena trilogy with a flurry of punches and kicks, a knockout combination that left me smiling with satisfaction. It is raw, gritty and believable. I believe in Selena, and wish I had a kick-ass friend like her to back me up in a dangerous situation.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Love That Dares Not Speak its Name: Homicide!

By Mike Monson

63 pages

(All Due Respect Books; January 28, 2016)

Ebook distribution by Amazon Digital Services LLC

ASIN: B01B6Z97C4

A recurring archetype in noir fiction is the remorseless killer, a moral black hole who murders when and where he feels like it. I’m speaking here of characters like Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley and the rest of the Ripley series), Patricia Highsmith’s murderous con man, or Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Jim Thompson’s psychopathic sheriff’s deputy.

Lancaster Messier, the protagonist in Mike Monson’s novella, A Killer’s Love, fits this pattern perfectly. Like Ford, Messier is a nonpareil sexual predator, vicious enough to use violence to score with both  male and female victims; But, like Ripley, he is a thief and scammer who is always looking for a chance to profit from victims with valuable worth stealing. The name of this 63-page novella, in fact, is a tip of the hat to Thompson and his famous character, Ford.

Author Mike Monson

When we first meet Messier, he is cleaning up the gore from his latest triumph, a woman named Florence Hanratty that he has killed in a six week campaign, minced into disposable chunks and wrapped neatly in plastic bags. Here is his attitude toward homicide in a nutshell:

For Lancaster Messier, the killing was always the easy part. Want to kill a bitch? No problem. It’s just a couple simple steps. Get a real sharp knife, come up behind, pull her head back by the hair and then commit. Fully commit to making the perfect deep, long, ear-to-ear cut. That’ll do it. Every time.

Next, drop Helen or Amber or Nadine or whoever the fuck, and walk away. Just let go. If you’ve done it right, if you’ve fully committed and employed the proper technique, by the time you’ve walked to the nearest sink and cleaned off your knife, the little cutie will either be slowly bleeding out, or dead already. . .

After slitting Florence’s throat and cleaning off and putting the razor-sharp buck knife in his jeans pocket, he began loading up her Ford pickup with every valuable item in the house. The first couple of times he walked through with a load of gold and diamond jewelry, or a flat screen TV, or a laptop Apple computer, he checked on Florence. The first two times, she seemed to be still breathing, which he was pretty sure meant she was slowly bleeding to death. Lancaster didn’t think this was such a bad way to die. He’d researched it and found out it was just like slowly falling to sleep—and never waking up. Before he’d developed his technique, he saw a lot of deaths that looked quite painful, especially if the poor fuck seemed to be drowning in his or her blood. (That’s right, he killed dudes too. All part of the killer-thief lifestyle.) When he went into the kitchen to get the china and the nice silverware, he checked again and she was finally dead, thank god.

On his way to dispose of Hanratty’s body parts, Messier stops to meet a fence who is going to take her valuables off his hands. The fence goes sideways, however, and Messier shoots him in the head, then robs him of more than $2,000 in buy money that the man is carrying.

That’s two grisly deaths and $20,000 worth of larceny in only 13 pages. As Messier puts it, “Not bad for six weeks work.”

The deaths of Hanratty and the fence are the last times in the book that things go the way Messier planned. He travels by bus to California, where he attempts an act of selfless altruism – simply for his enjoyment, it seems – and winds up being swindled by a down-and-out family of grifters. He loses his getaway bankroll and finds himself penniless and furious.

True to his character, he commits a murder that pays for a shellfish dinner at a shorefront restaurant. There he meets Carla, a wealthy woman with a beach house who takes him in solely for sex. The time they spend together is idyllic:

He kept squeezing, kept fucking her faster and deeper, and when he finally let go of her throat she came and came and he could feel her pussy clasp and unclasp at him tighter and faster and her orgasms went on forever and ever and time stopped and she was his angel his sweet sweet angel. His Carla.

He settles into his new life as a human sex toy and seems to lose his interest in killing.

This is where the title of the novella comes into play. During his sojourn with Carla, Messier repeatedly wonders whether he is falling in love with her, though he is reluctant to connect the word with the “strange happy feeling— the other feeling that seemed like it might be love.”

His reluctance makes sense. He eventually realizes that his “love” for her is no such thing:

Carla snuggled close to Lancaster. “Really?” she said. “Do you still love me?” “Yes,” Lancaster said, but he wasn’t telling the truth. He’d never loved her.

To say more about the plot would spoil it. Instead, simply know that a twist of fate leads Messier to resume his crime spree and his story culminates in a twist ending that will probably surprise the average reader.

Monson specializes in tales about people who have few redeeming qualities. His characters run the gamut of human amorality: grifters, cough syrup junkies, professional bank robbers, dope dealers, murderers, men and women who cheat on their mates. A Killer’s Love fits the pattern perfectly. The one thing they have in common is that all of them are transgressive: even the victims have violated normal ethical codes.

The action in this short book is brutal. The following passage covers Lancaster Messier’s meeting with a cross-dressing prostitute after the grifters rip him off for his car and wind money:

Gem pulled off the wig and set it next to her tube top. “Turn around.” She turned. Her black hair was just long enough for Lancaster to get a good enough grip with his left hand to cut her throat with the knife in his right hand. The cutting was passionate, deep, and angry. He dropped her and she fell on the bed. There was a sink in the kitchenette and Lancaster walked over to wash his knife. Above the sound of running water he heard gurgling from the bed. Shit. He looked over, and Gem was writhing and clutching at her throat with both hands.

He’d fucked up. Gem’s trachea was severed and she was suffering horribly. He grabbed her by her feet so he wouldn’t get blood on his clothes. He dragged her into the bathroom and put her body into the tub, then walked out and closed the door behind him. Good. He could no longer hear her pain.

A Killer’s Love is short and punchy. I didn’t like it as much as What Happens in Reno or Tussinland, two books that set the gold standard for nihilistic noir and cold-blooded violence. I suspect the reason is that both those books were actually novels, not novellas, and the additional length allowed Monson to explore his characters more completely.

But even a “B” list book by Monson is better than a lot of writers’ “A” list work. A Killer’s Love is nasty and violent. It is definitely worth a read.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Appalachian Darkness with a Heartbreaking Noir Twist

Route 12 
By Marietta Miles 
178 pages 
(All Due Respect books; February 15, 2016)
 Ebook distribution by Amazon for Kindle
 ISBN-10: 1523847921
 ISBN-13: 978-1523847921

If you like the grisly grand guignol of Vicki Hendricks’ Southern Gothic or the lurid aimlessness of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Midwestern nihilism, you are going to love Route 12, a pair of dark novellas by Marietta Miles.

Miles first came to my attention through her short stories in publications like Out of the Gutter Online (“Alice,” June 17, 2013; “You Never Know,” August 16, 2015), Thrills Kills and Chaos (“Virginia,” August 13, 2013) and in anthologies like Dangerous Dreams (“Firefly Eyes,” Thirteen Press, March 29, 2014). Her shorter pieces are riveting, but when she has the space to open up a tale – as she does here – she makes her words sing.

Route 12, the lead-off novella, is a beautifully crafted story about three disparate lives coming together fatally under a hunter's moon and an awning of damp holly trees and forsythia. The primary character is Theresa White, a grammar school student who is sent to live with her aunt in a trailer in the woods after her mother commits suicide.

A subsidiary character is Cheryl Prejean, a girl crippled by a bad polio vaccination. Cheryl’s mother was left destitute by a boyfriend who ran off with all her money and now is forced to take in boarders and do laundry and ironing to make ends meet.

The two girls, both kindly by nature, become fast friends when they are thrown together by fate.

The third main figure is Percy Caito, whose mother is arrested by county authorities and institutionalized as unfit. Caito, is placed in a reform school where he faces a universe of cruelty and sadism and comes to manhood raised as a criminal. On his release, Percy “is eighteen, a full-grown man, neither healed nor happy,” Miles writes. The young man begins to extract his revenge on the world, acquiring a handgun, killing an elderly man for his pitiable possessions and adopting his victim’s last name.

He moves into the spare room Cheryl’s mother is renting in Belle Gap, a town Miles describes as “a deep dark hole. An iron bridge to the east side, a deadly, rapid river to the west, the black mountains with sheer, severe cliffs of shale above and below. The Gap, as locals call it, rests in the womb of the mountains.”

Miles describes the sights and sounds of the tiny community masterfully: its oily smell, empty storefronts, and deteriorating homes. When Theresa spots a bird in distress on the ground during a walk around her new home, an act of feline sadism foreshadows the grim events to come and points the way toward the novella’s denouement:

A huge, matted tom darts from a nearby drainpipe. The cat growls viciously, hissing and spitting. In a violent, gruesome instant, the neighborhood predator is crashing over the bird. He paws the chick to the ground, clamping slick teeth around the fragile, hollow neck, and runs back to the pipe. Theresa releases a small, alarmed cry. She stands still as a statue, dazed. The sound of the bird screeching rings in her ears. The terrible growl of the cat is in her head.

The die has been cast. Given their sad past histories, a happy ending is simply not possible for these three young people.

Miles choses her words carefully and doesn’t waste a single sentence in sketching the story’s plot and characters. Even minor actors – such as Percy’s first victim or the art instructor under which the two girls study – are given sufficiently complex treatments to lift them up off the page.

In a dark twisted story like this, it is tempting to write so tersely that the story seems monochromatic. That is not Miles’s style; consider the note of melancholy Miles conjures in describing the home of the sickly man Percy murders: 

He steals into the tidy house while the woman is busy. It feels worn and soft inside, a place well lived in, with tired furniture and threadbare rugs. On nearly every surface rest small, senseless statues: Cupid carrying a giant red heart, a porcelain bride and her groom smiling at each other with red, embarrassed cheeks, and still another figurine with a teddy bear holding a sign, “Love Bear.” Small framed pictures of children and old people span the faded gray walls. On a desk is a black and white 8x10 of a handsome young marine in his dress uniform.

This is perfect. Anyone who has ever intruded where they don’t belong will recognize the eerie sensations that drive burglars even more than the loot available: the broken furniture tucked against the wall, worn rugs, threadbare upholstery. They will recall the peculiar taint of mildew, fading perfume or cologne, cooking odors in the kitchen, the slight rot of untended garbage, and the stale tang of urine around the toilet in the bathroom.

And Miles is not only masterful at recreating a scene with a few deft strokes. She also knows making her characters into real human beings can increase her readers’ interest and keep them turning pages better than the cleverest plot twists.

It was this complexity of character that I found most compelling about this novella: despite the purity and kind-heartedness of the two victims and the sadistic depravity of their tormentor, it is possible to feel a degree of sympathy for all three. Theresa is the victim of a family tragedy that leaves her feeling guilty and shameful; Cheryl is crippled through no fault of her own, but is treated like a freak by her classmates.

Even Percy is the victim of institutional indifference, surrounded by thugs and subjected to regular beatings and psycho-sexual torture by authority figures. Nobody can stop the brutal acts that bring the story to a close. It is the inevitability of the ending that gives it its noirish twist.

Miles’ second novella, “Blood and Sin,” is just as well put together and equally sad. In it, Sherry, a rather dim woman in a small town in North Carolina, finds herself pregnant. She wants to keep the child, but doing so isi out of the question in the South of the 1970s: Sherry is white; the baby inside her is black.  Seeking assistance, she goes to her clergyman, the Pastor Friendly. Unbeknownst to her, however, Friend, however, is a homicidal sadist running a baby mill that sells  unwanted newborns to the highest bidder. 
To tell more would spoil the story. Suffice to say that Naomi, another deeply disturbed young woman who, like Sherry, is the victim of an abusive upbringing, plays a major role in balancing the scale, Meanwhile, the sanctimonious Friend meets a sort of cosmic justice – one that doesn’t involve policemen, prosecutors or courts.

These are two really fine novellas. They offer a pair of stories that another author might take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to unwind, and they do it economically and efficiently, leaving the reader with a feeling of deep satisfaction.

If you are looking for a read as grim and dark as midnight in an Appalachian coal mine, this pair of short novels is for you!