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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. . .

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Tough Love Story in Plainclothes Police Drag

Texas, Hold Your Queens
By Marie Crosswell
87 pages
(One Eye Press; June 13, 2016)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: Marie Crosswell’s novella, Texas, Hold Your Queens, is something different: a hard-as-nails love story tricked out in police procedural drag.

Ostensibly, Crosswell’s novella is a textbook tale about how two veteran cops, El Paso Detectives Mason Page and Farrah Tyler, track down a rapist murderer. 

Author Marie Crosswell
But the mystery angle is superficial (in fact, the identity of the perp is revealed in the first 6,700 words of this tight 90,000 word novella); the police procedure, though skillfully recounted and totally believable, is secondary to the yarn’s real focus.

What the book is really about is the tortured relationship between Page and Tyler, two women who are forced apart by circumstances and realize they simply can’t live without each other.

Setting the scene, the two detectives – the only women in the El Paso Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, are dispatched to investigate what happened to a nameless Mexican woman found near the Texas-Mexico border, the victim of a sexual assault and savage stabbing.

The case appears routine but extraordinarily hard to solve: the woman’s identity is unknown, it is unclear how long she has been in the United States and there are no witnesses to her death.

Crosswell tells the story well, intercutting the hunt for the killer and how finding him affects the two detectives. At first, the somewhat jumbled order of events confused me, forcing me to go back and reread some key passages. But eventually I recognized there is a sort of genius in avoiding a linear narrative.

The police procedural part of the story is the patient, methodical way they put the case together.

As the investigation proceeds, however, we undergo a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that spell out the relationship between the two women, a love affair that is almost utterly sexless based on their isolation within a largely male police agency and aching loneliness.

The best lead Page and Tyler unearth is from the county medical examiner, who finds a partially digested hamburger and fries in the victim’s stomach during his postmortem examination.

Following up the meal clue, they are able to track down the waitress who served the victim her last supper, the prostitute who bought it for her and the desk clerk who rents the hooker her hot-sheets motel room.

Still they are no closer to the perpetrator of the crime. Despite the lack of substantive clues, the two female detectives slowly put together a picture of the victim they both find haunting. The evidence that turns the investigation toward solution, however, is not the product of their dedicated police work; instead it is a positive hit on the perp’s DNA.

With an ID in hand, Page and Tyler begin to really work the case, interviewing the suspect’s warders at a prison in a neighboring state, his family members and an ex-girlfriend. Page even interviews his prior victim, a woman who has moved to Truth of Consequences, New Mexico, and who nurtures a simmering resentment toward and hatred of the perpetrator.

It is during this road trip that the central conflict of the story is revealed:

“Mason and Farrah had agreed in the car on the way there that they wouldn’t say anything about Gabler serving for rape and assault in New Mexico. Reviewing his record, those charges did stand out as a new development, the rest of his rap sheet an assortment of drug possession, DUI, drunk and disorderly, parole violations, and petty theft. They hadn’t talked about it, but they had both been thinking the same thing: he progressed from violent rape and assault to murder, after a seven year stint inside. He got worse, not better.”

“This wasn’t someone who could be reformed, and if he didn’t serve life for Reina’s murder, he’d get out and do something just as bad again.”

So what do you do with an incorrigible criminal who becomes more violent and dangerous with each crime? This is the key issue the two cops are forced to face.

Their search for the fugitive eventually culminates in an incident at a flophouse in Odessa, Texas. There the story takes a wicked turn, one which the reader realizes he or she has been expecting for some time because of the way the tale has unfolded. It is no less shocking when it finally occurs, however, and the remaining question is how it will affect the two detectives.

Crosswell has done an expert job of bringing these characters to life. She manages the tender ache of Tyler and Page particularly well, and the rift between the two women over the incident in Odessa will break any reader’s heart. The incidental characters – the earlier rape victim, the suspects’ relations, the motel desk clerks, waitresses and so forth – are also invested with fully developed personalities and physical tics to make then unique.

The dialog in this short book is equally sharp and convincing. The detectives keep their comments  terse; witnesses who are “in the life” like Tammy, the prostitute, emit the vibe of people reluctant to talk with cops; the killer’s relatives sound disgusted at the evil he has done.

The emotions of speakers are not the focus of their remarks: they act them out by what they do with their hands, how they stand during questioning, the way they smoke (almost everyone in this short book smokes like a five-alarm fire).

Most important of all, cop lingo can be easily overdone; Crosswell avoids that trap by having her investigators use very few terms specific to the trade and none that require translation into everyday English.

The novella is steeped in the loneliness of the two investigators and the weariness of their daily skirmishes against villainy. The war is eternal and Sisyphean, and the reader ends up with a bone-grinding feeling of cop burnout after finishing the last page.

I feel fortunate recently to have read some marvelous stories by fine female crime writers, including Lisa Brackmann, Jen Conley and Marietta Miles. I am looking forward to the latest from Sarah M. Chen and Patti Nase Abbott.

Marie Crosswell’s novella is a fine addition to the pack. I can’t recommend it enough.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Deadlier Gender: Conley’s Crime Tales are as Bleak And Tough as Those by Goodis, Cain or Thompson

By Jen Conley
266 pages
(Down & Out Books; April 25, 2016)
ISBN-10: 194340223X
ISBN-13: 978-1943402236

Lots of crime fiction fans suffer under the delusion that women who write about the underworld prefer to have their villains use poisons – preferably from plants grown in their own gardens – and work out their plots during downtime from knitting tea cozies, doing scrapbooks and sipping cup after cup of Earl Grey dressed with milk and sugar.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many woman crime writers fashion stories as bloodthirsty and nasty as their male counterparts. A goodly number do work that falls under the aegis of noir – bleak tales of doomed people who can’t seem to make a good decision, no matter how hard they try. 

The female of the crime writing species is every bit as good at doping out the psychology of a serial killer, figuring the motivation of a scammer or turning the tables on a two-timing husband or boyfriend as any of her male counterparts. Think of Patricia Highsmith, Leigh Brackett, Dorothy B. Hughes or Margaret Millar, all acknowledged mistresses of gripping psychological thrillers.

Oh, yes: Add another to the list, if you will; Jen Conley, whose day job teaching elementary school kids at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in New Jersey belies her tough-as-nails and often violent prose.

Author Jen Conley: Ready to Join Other Masters of Lipstick Noir

For years Conley, one of the editors at the red-blooded crime magazine, Shotgun Honey, has been writing short stories for publications such as Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, and Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.

Now she has brought forth a collection of 15 of her wonderful stories: Cannibals.

All are set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a desolate and mysterious region Conley seems to know very well. They feature troubled protagonists and villains who are plunged into situations far beyond their control.

Consider “Pipe,” a terse tale about Tyrell Colton, a bullied high school kid who plots revenge against his teen-aged tormentor. As he heads off to school on the day of his vengeance, “The morning sky was heavy with mean, gray clouds. Icy drizzle flecked against his face as he hiked down the street, his stride quick, the pipe hidden in his jacket, the one end tucked into an inside pocket while the rest rose underneath his coat and against his torso until it reached his shoulder blade.”

As the story unfolds we learn that a week earlier, Colton was throttled by Mark Horak, a vicious classmate in French class. Only the intervention of the school’s vice principal postponed a serious beating and Colton is told that Horak, who was suspended three days for attacking him, is planning to beat him up when he returns.

All the elements of noir are here: a loner alienated from his peers, an original transgression that sets the plot in motion, a violent response that is wrongheaded, an ally in which the protagonist has mistakenly placed his admiration and trust and the betrayal that ultimately dooms him. The story is atmospheric, tightly written and crackles with authenticity, packing an entire morality play into a 3,800-word package.

Or consider “Home Invasion,” a 4,900-word yarn about a heist in which the three thieves – one of them 19-year-old Keon Dell, doing “his very first and only burglary” – are surprised to find the elderly woman who owns the place is still at home.

The trio terrorize the woman, steal her petty valuables, then, because she is a teacher who once had Keon as a student, abruptly kill her:

“He (Ramone, the trio’s ringleader) grabbed the pillow from Keon, put it against Mrs. Mullins head, and with his other hand, pulled out his gun, sticking it against the pillow. She screamed and shook horrendously, but she did not try to get away. She only pleaded for her life, her voice desperate, her pitch high and frantic: “No! No, please! Don’t! I love my grandchildren!”

“Ramone tilted his head and gazed at Keon. Keon opened his mouth to— do what— stop the motion? But Ramone returned his focus to the task before him and, simply, fired.

“Her body buckled and collapsed. White stuffing dotted with red floated in the air. Ramone threw the pillow next to the body. Blood and pieces of gray seeped out of her head and onto the floor, a greenish carpet with swirling gold designs. Keon and Ramone stared at the body.

What’s haunting about the story is the fact that, after this sordid murder, life goes on pretty much as it did before.

In other words, the power of the story is that nothing more happens. Keon joins the Army and is sent to Iraq after 9/11.  He initially has nightmares about the slaying but eventually conflates its memory with his other dreams. Conley cleverly alludes to the myth of the Jersey Devil – a wive’s tale that haunted Keon as a child – in her recounting of how his horrific remembrance of the murder fades over time:

“Now that he was a combat soldier, the blood and brains of his kills got all mixed with Mrs. Mullins . . .  and sometimes, on a good night, all that evil confused him. And for a brief moment, when he was sitting up, wide awake, breathing hard, getting his bearings, the last traces of the dream breaking up and dissolving, it was like he was a kid again telling himself that the Jersey Devil was just a story.

“For a brief moment, after waking from the dream, mercy would fall upon him, and he would tell himself Mrs. Mullins and her bloody death never actually happened.”

Not all of Conley’s stories are crime tales, mind you. “Cannibals,” the story the collection takes its name from, is more of a horror yarn. It is disturbing and not to be read on a dark, storm-riven night, but no crime is actually committed in it. It turns on psychology, not the supernatural, and is as intense as salt in a gash.

The same is true of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” “Kick” or “Debbie, the Hero.” All are really slice of life stories – tales of people who are up against it, who have run out of options. People stuck in dead-end lives, facing a future as bleak as a winter squall blowing up out of the Atlantic.

Make no mistake, however: all of them are as intense as “Home Invasion” and “Pipe.”Some have the anarchy and blank nihilism of Hubert Selby Jr. – they are bleak and aimless. Several reminded me of Selby’s masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn.

An excellent example is “Metalhead Marty in Love,” in which a shy and self-deprecating rock guitarist with a potential for artistic greatness makes the mistake of romance with a thug’s hand-me-down girlfriend. When the thug finds out about the union, he and his goons take revenge in a violent turn so shocking that even the bully has to recognize it. The story’s ending takes a melancholy twist that leaves the reader thinking about it hours after closing the book.

If there is a weakness to this volume, it lies in the stories called “Howling,” “Circling,” and “Angels.” Each involves a police officer, Andrea Vogel, and an incident that occurs when she is working her beat in the communities just outside the Pine Barrens. One is a rape, one is an investigation of a reported noise in the piney woodland. A third is the tale of Vogel’s protection of a man with extreme gambling debts – a man she once dated before she married.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with these stories; the villainy is minimal, the characters keenly observed, the dialog true to life; the situations are totally believable, not melodramatic clashes with evil personified.

The problem is, when I finished Cannibals, I wanted more stories about Vogel, her job, her private time after she knocks off for the day. I fell in love with this character. She is a little like Marge Gunderson, the police chief in the Coen Brother’s terrific movie Fargo, only a great deal more interior and philosophical than the woman Frances McDormand played. I hope that Conley is thinking about an entire novel about Officer Vogel.

Cannibals is a sensational piece of work. Jen Conley can proudly take her place with such amazing writers as Patti Abbott, Vicki Hendricks and Bonny Jo Campbell, her sisters in the field of dark crime.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Thrill a Minute in Vic Valentine's Latest Caper

Hard-Boiled Heart

By Will Viharo

 254 pages 

(Gutter Books LLC; November 29, 2015)

ISBN-10: 1939751195
ISBN-13: 978-1939751195

It’s hard to say whether Will Viharo’s series peeper Vic Valentine is a private dick who moonlights as a booking agent for strippers or a booking agent that follows clues and solves crimes as a sideline. 

Whichever it is, the guy is a blast and a half in both occupations -- though not exactly a world-beater in either.

In fact, Valentine is more of a “wood” worker than a detective or impresario: at moments of sexual stress, he grabs for his pole more often than a second-story fireman. And Vic suffers a lot of moments of sexual stress.

Hard-Boiled Heart, Valentine’s latest caper, finds him drowning in a sea of troubles with an actor chum, Charlie, who floats the idea of making a picture based on some of Vic’s adventures.  This proposal – which seems more talk than concrete proposal – appeals to the dick, whose private investigation license  is two years out of date and whose burlesque artist connections have – pardon the term – petered out.

“To tell the truth, I didn’t even know why I was still in this racket at my age,” Valentine confides to the reader. “I knew I was a loser, at least according to the metric applied to your average person in today’s celebrity-conscious society. I no longer harbored any ambition for anything beyond mere survival, because that was the most I thought I could accomplish.”

Did I mention Vic is perpetually depressed and anxious for any way out of his daily grind? To a guy in those circumstances, becoming the focus of a real-live motion picture – maybe even its hero – has to sound pretty damned good.

The only problem is, a burlesque queen is cacked at the strip joint where Vic and the actor are meeting, and Vic finds good time Charlie, drunk on his ass, standing over her body.

Vic hustles him away and they split town to avoid the cops, Charlie because he is too drunk to know any better, Vic because he figures his movie deal is blown if Charlie gets busted for murder one. 

They end up in Seattle, where the brunt of the action takes place. En route, there are more murders, gorgeous babes of the strip-joint variety, physical assaults on Vic and some of the most colorful characters since James Cameron created the blue-skinned Na’vis of Pandora for his movie “Avatar.”

Viharo plays a lot of the book for laughs and Hard-Boiled Heart has more wise cracks than the steam room bench at the Mensa Club gymnasium. Some examples:

* The very first lines in the novel are: “I wear my heart on my sleeve, like a broken cufflink. I’m glad it’s there. It reminds me I’m still alive.”

 * When Vic first meets Charlie, he asks the actor if he has won any awards. Charlie says, “I guess you haven’t followed my career too closely.” 

“For a detective, I’m pretty bad at following anybody,” Vic replies. “One reason I’m semi-retired.”

* “I like to drink,” Charlie tells Vic at one point, “immediately furnishing evidence of this declaration by downing three shots of whiskey in a row, chased by a pint of beer. Only it wasn’t much of a chase. Charlie and his booze weren’t going anywhere soon.”

You get the drift.

Nobody in this book is as much fun as Vic Valentine. He gets to be the narrator of his own story, telling the tale in first person. He gets spurned by the hottest women, gets beat up by the worst bad guys and even gets the choice lines.

Let me tell you, buddy: most of those lines will at least make you smile or chuckle. A lot of them are laugh-out-loud funny.

A particular treat is mining the story line for inside jokes based on popular culture.

Viharo is a film buff and is righteously hip to music, books and art. Hard-Boiled Heart shows this in spades: the first corpse we encounter is Sophie Starfire, a burlesque performer whose real last name is Chinaski -- the pseudonym that poet and storyteller Charles Bukowski used in several of his first person tales.

In another section, Vic and Charlie scarf Voodoo Donuts while passing through Portland; there is a reference to “Godfather III” in one sequence; a bloody homicide on Seattle’s Space Needle brings a quip about “The Parallax View”; Even “Angel Heart,” the Mickey Rourke satanic noir flick, gets its name dropped.

The novel gives you are real sense of time and place as well. The initial action is in San Francisco’s Bimbo’s 365 Club, a storied night spot that served as a background location for Chris Isaak’s Showtime comedy program in 2001. It proceeds through numerous locations In California, Oregon and Washington state, and specific sites are mentioned with sufficient detail to give the reader the feeling he or she has visited there.

Author Will "The Thrill" Viharo

Viharo has turned out a novel that delivers a good time to anyone in the mood for some absurdity and a lot of humor. For these and Viharo’s other titles – including another Vic Valentine novelLove Stories are too Violent for Me, and the book with my favorite title in the entire world, A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge – check his website.