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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 8, 2014

Shayne Youngblood's "Shoot in the Head" is a Real Shot in the Arm

By Shayne Youngblood
82 pages
(E-book sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

In his first book, A Man from Rio, Shayne Youngblood painted a picture of a Brazil neatly divided between crooked cops and vicious gangsters. Our unnamed hero’s girlfriend has disappeared with a group of friends during a cross-country trip. He sets out in search, but all he finds is violence, dead bodies and the enmity of narcs and their drug-dealing adversaries.

It’s Best to Shoot in the Head is a prequel of sorts to Youngblood’s Rio-based book. Its action is set some years before his protagonist shows up in Rio and explains the reason why he is living there.

The story – propelled by bad decisions in a setting where they can easily be fatal -- is relatively simple: our hero is living in Belgrade, Serbia and has married into a Balkan organized crime family. He runs a restaurant and nightclub that is barely breaking even, but despite the fact that it is not a success, he has managed to steer clear of the “family business,” a panoply of rackets ranging from stolen cars to drugs.

He adores his beautiful wife. But a moment of weakness allows himself to tarry with another gang member’s spouse. This is a big mistake that returns to haunt him later in the book.

His immediate problem, however, is that a rival gang is encroaching on the territory controlled by our hero’s family. A series of confrontations take place including a bloody shoot-em-up at a boutique owned by his wife. Pretty soon a full-fledged gang war is underway – a gang war our protagonist wants nothing to do with.

But fate intervenes and he ends up killing a member of the other organization – with unexpected  results.

Its Best to Shoot in the Head gives us a look at the Balkans in the 1990s, a criminal’s paradise much like Youngblood’s Brazil – only without so many crooked cops.

The book is well written – possibly even better than Youngblood’s original novel. The dialog is strong and well-crafted. Youngblood gives us just enough description to bring the story to life, but not so much as to bog it down in unnecessary detail.

Shayne Youngblood: Shoot in the Head may be even
 better than A Man From Rio (photo courtesy of Amazon.com).

He describes the operation of the Balkan gangsters nicely. Early in the book, for example, he outlines the operations of a high level loanshark in a clear and concise fashion:

“Beginners made mistakes,” he says of the need for a balance between violence and menace in collecting the debt. “Delivering too much damage could result in a debtor’s inability to pay due to one simple fact: he’s dead. Sometimes, of course, damage was necessary. Still, one shouldn’t cross the line and deliver irreparable damage. But on some rare occasions, even irreparable damage was necessary. Like right now, for example. Mika had to shoot a man’s kneecap before he coughed up the money.”

Youngblood handles violence well, conveying the pain it involves without gouts of blood or excessive gore. Consider this scene in which gunmen have just sprayed a pizza parlor where a gangster is having lunch:

“Nikola ‘The Pump’ Pumpalovic suddenly lost his appetite. Maybe it had something to do with a burst of bullets shredding the place apart while he was lying under the table— or maybe the pizza was just bad. Pump’s business partner lay right next to him. They had two things in common at the moment: both motionless, both not breathing. The only difference: Pump did it because he didn’t want to draw any attention from the shooter. His business partner did it because high caliber bullets had drilled a couple of holes in his lungs.”

Damn, Pump thought. You can’t do business anymore in this city. Due to situations like this, the concept of the business lunch was rapidly dying in the city. Literally dying.”

What makes passages like this work is the understated but very dark humor Youngblood sprinkles throughout his narrative. The laughs help leaven the otherwise grim story: Serbia in the 1990s was not a pleasant place to visit, let alone conduct business: the region’s underworld consisted of some of the most vicious criminals in the world, and our protagonist moves easily – though a little nervously – among them.

There are also crooked politicians in the background of this story, not to mention sadistic and cunning Serbian intelligence officers. In short, just about every type of menace a discerning reader could ask for.

Best of all, you get the entire package for only $2.99.  And it’s a nice fast read – just long enough to last from Seattle to Los Angeles by jet.

What are you waiting for?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chris Leek's Short Story Anthology Smokes the Competition

By Chris Leeks
93 pages
(Chris Leek, May 5, 2014)
E-book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Got two bucks? You could piss them away on a big Coke, a bag of chips or a mediocre fast food burger, but all you’d end up with is diabetes, high blood pressure or gas.

Here’s a better idea: get yourself a copy of Chris Leek’s stylish anthology of short stories, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em.  No calories, no carbs, no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Just 93 pages of entertaining writing served up in a classy fashion that will put a smile on your face for many hours.

Leek is one seventh of Zelmer Pulp, one of the neo-pulp imprints that have popped up in the burgeoning field of electronic specialty press operations, and an editor of The Big Adios, a quarterly journal of western fiction. He writes a blog called, “Nevada Road Kill” that is entertaining and informative. 

He also happens to be an Englishman whose prose doesn’t read like it was written by an Englishman at all. In fact, it sounds more like it was cranked out by a peckerwood born in the cab of a 1947 GMC ton and a half truck.

Author and editor Chris Leek (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Think what a Charlie Bukowski story might sound like if Henry Chinaski had been raised in an Airstream 20-footer in a trailer park outside Provo, Utah; got your brain wrapped around that image? Good.

His tales are classic rural noir, agrarian hardboiled yarns about hardscrabble folk in bleak, unforgiving landscapes living hand-to-mouth in single occupancy hotels, motor courts and trailer parks. People who drive pickup trucks in preference to passenger cars. People who measure the distance from one shit-kicker burg to the next in six-packs consumed en route.

Their crimes are many and invariably petty -- except when, backs against the wall, they are driven to kill.

Leek’s prose is rich and authentic. Lots of English writers get American slang wrong: they can’t pick up the rhythm, with its polyglot ethnicities, its complex traces of jazz, folk and rockabilly. They get the rural twang wrong, mess up the mechanical undertones of American urban dwellers. 

If you don’t know what I mean, read something by Agatha Christie that has an American character in it, or look at the dialog spoken by Quincey Morris, the wealthy and cowboyish westerner in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You’ll get it.

Not Leek. He may have been born in England and he may live in Cambridge but he kicked around the southwestern U.S. long enough to get the cadence and vocabulary right. His use of rural working class idiom is a pleasure to read. In fact, the characters running their mouths in his stories are as much fun as the twisted plots he concocts.

Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em is as full of barbs as the razor wire fence around a county work camp. Some of Leek’s characters are kind-hearted souls filled with good intentions. Others are rotten SOBs only fit for a cell in isolation. All of them, however, are as twisted as a coil of cheap plastic rope.

In a story called “Jacks, Queens and Evens,” here’s Leek on how his protagonist, a dealer at a Las Vegas casino, is greeted by co-workers when his girlfriend dies after taking tainted cocaine:

“Entering the lunchroom was like walking through the saloon doors in an old western movie; conversations would stop mid-sentence and everyone became suddenly fascinated by their shoes. All that was missing was the fucking piano player.”

A little later, the protagonist is working a table when he is tipped who dealt his girl the poisoned dope: “There were four other players on base, all of them waiting for a ticket that would never hit the felt. I dropped the shoe like a fat girl on prom night and made for the door.”

In a tale called “The Johnny Cash Killer,” Leek’s anti-hero once “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” The victim – if you can use the term and keep a straight face – was an ex-con who had raped his girlfriend.  

“I wanted to tell him, to scream ‘I’m Pete Jones, motherfucker’ in his face, making sure it was the last thing he heard before his organs shut down and he shit his designer jockeys. But my name wouldn’t mean a damn thing to him and neither would hers. He didn’t stop to ask it when he dragged her off the street and into the backseat of his beat-up Pinto. Names didn’t matter; names were for toe tags and arrest warrants, not for revenge.”

“Names were for toe tags and arrest warrants” is unquestionably my favorite line of the day.

Leek doesn’t just grace us with stylish language and a keen eye for detail in longer passages like these. He gives attention to smaller details, too. For example, in a grim little yarn called “The Cutter,” his main character watches the gum-ball on top of a state trooper’s car as the cop “swept the interior of my car with his disapproving flashlight.”  The “disapproving flashlight” sells the scene, adding a touch of style and surrealism to what could have been a ho-humburger description of any routine roadside traffic stop.

Because the passage begins the tale, the surrealism serves the reader well, because it signals that the story, itself, is going to be more than a little surrealistic. Later, when the central character picks up a female hitchhiker, “She dug in her pocket and pulled out a crushed pack of Kools, lit one up and drew on it before answering. ‘I guess you know there’s a finger on the floor,’ she said in a matter of fact kind of way.”

This is another deft touch that gives the story a slightly off-center skew that underscores its nightmarish quality. The understatement of the outrageous is a time-honored technique for slapping the reader in the face and making him or her pay attention – in much the same way that a man speaking quietly makes the listener lean forward and attend his words in a way that a man who yells never can.

Another example: in a story called “The Honeymooners,” a man fleeing from an entanglement with the law is T-boned by a semi rig while leaving the parking lot of a cheap motel. The accident knocks him out temporarily. Leek has him awakened by a cop investigating the collision who yells, “Hey you, you alive in there?”

“I can’t swear to it,” Leek’s protagonist answers back as he peers from the cab of his ruined pickup.

“I could just make out a metal nametag called Gonzalez and another badge that read Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department,” Leek writes. “There was a pretty good chance they had a lawman pinned to the back of them.”

It’s the understated wit of lines like that last one – terse, tough, authentic – that give Leek’s stories their power and vitality.

Reading them is a treat. And at $1.99 a copy for Kindle, the thrills come amazingly cheap.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

This Old Boy is Not Somebody that You'd Want to Mess Around With!


Director: Chan-wook Park

Writers: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (manga).
Stars: Min-sik Choi (as Dae-su Oh), Ji-tae Yu (as Woo-jin Lee) and Hye-jeong Kang (as Mi-do)

I just watched Oldboy last night -- the original Korean version with subs, not the knockoff with Josh Brolin. It is surrealistic, violent and strange, but oddly satisfying. Scenes have been going through my head all day long.

Briefly, this is the plot: a man named Dae-su Oh is detained by the police when he becomes drunk and obnoxious while on his way home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. This entire opening sequence is used to establish that the man is self-centered, impulsive, rude and given to bursts of verbal and physical violence. His character is key to the rest of the film.

While the friend who bails him out of custody is talking to his wife in a pay telephone booth, Dae-su Oh disappears. During a lengthy exposition sequence afterward, we learn that he has been imprisoned by an unknown abductor, held in a prison apartment, fed a diet of dumplings that almost never varies and subjected to drugs and hypnosis.

He is imprisoned for 15 years. He learns from TV reports that he is being sought for the murder of his wife. His daughter, he is told, has been adopted by a Swedish foster family and now lives in Stockholm.  He is completely alone: his only contact with fellow humans is the nameless, faceless guard that pushes his meals through a slot in the apartment door and the television in his “cell.”

Eventually he is put to sleep with gas and awakens on the roof of his prison, free but unable to contact his family. He has five days to learn who has done this to him and why. His search, which is being manipulated by his captor and tormentor,  leads him down a number of dead ends and it isn’t until the last half hour of the film that the viewer slowly discovers why everything has happened.

The movie is adapted from a Japanese graphic serialization that appeared in Weekly Manga Action from 1996 to 1998. The eight volume graphic version contains 79 chapters that were released in Japan in 1997 and 1998.

The story is set in Japan in the original version and all the characters have Japanese names. The setting was changed to South Korea when Park adapted the comic version into a film script in 2003.

Two years later, Dark Horse Comics bought the rights to make an English translation of the book for its customers worldwide.  
If you like stories in the noir tradition that are long on doom, this one has it in spades. Almost everyone in the film meets a bad end, and those who survive do so despite grueling physical and psychological torture.  

Dae-su Oh, himself, meets a terrible fate and the film makes it clear that someone who lives through a horrible series of events may not necessarily be a survivor.