About Me

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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, September 27, 2016

Stories So Dark You Need Night Vision Goggles to Read Them!

By Rob Pierce

216 pages

(All Due Respect Books; August 30, 2016)

EBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC


"Thanksgiving 1963" is probably one of the best short stories I have ever read. 

Set at a family party in Dallas six days before Thanksgiving and one day before JFK was murdered, it is a tale of drunkenness, family discord, misplaced Texas pride and shrewd commercial opportunity.

The narrator and his brother-in-law, Billy, despise their other kin and use whisky to insulate themselves against them. They are prepared for a week of debauchery leading up to the great Turkey Day chow down. In the midst of the party, they plan to line up along the parade route and watch the president drive by.

Then word filters out that Kennedy has been shot. First he is rushed to a local hospital. Then the coroner is called in. The narrator and his family return home and redouble their drinking.

Early in the story it becomes clear that Billy is secretly glad the president has been killed -- after all, it leaves a Texan in charge of the country.

The narrator is certainly no liberal (for one thing, he owns four gun shops), but he clearly considers himself an American first and a Texan second. He and his wife consider the assassination repellent and despicable:

"What kind of man," she says on hearing the news, "Would shoot the president?"

An early verbal dust-up between the two men sets the tone for the eventual confrontation:

"The best part of today," I said and took a drink, "was the hangover."

"Well," Billy raised his glass, "you can have a new one tomorrow. And at least Kennedy's dead."

"You shouldn't say that," I said.

"No one in this room but you and me," Billy grinned. "I wouldn't say it on the news if that's what you mean."

I knew Billy liked LBJ, but . . . I just shook my head. "He's the President," I said.

The family dynamics in the story, though disturbing, ring as true as anything in literature. The narrator and his brother-in-law Billy get plastered soon after Billy and his wife Kaye arrive and stay that way through the Thanksgiving meal. All the rest of the men get drunk, too, eager to take advantage of the cases of Jack Daniels that Billy has brought along.

If I had a dollar for every Wallace family party I have attended that shook out the way this one does, I would be one wealthy son-of-a-bitch. Nothing like a house full of drunks working out long-standing grudges to make for a merry and often bloody celebration.

The denouement of the story involves a Thanksgiving Day football game between the Aggies of Texas A&M and the University of Texas Longhorns. 

As the narrator drunkenly observes, "Maybe that's it. . .Lose your President and play a game. Don't seem right."

The incoherent whisky-soaked crowd of men gather around the narrator's television to cheer for A&M, occasionally breaking into chants of "LBJ, LBJ!"

In Pierce's skillful hands, the intercutting between the tightly contested game, the assassination and the growing enmity between the narrator and his brother-in-law, Billy, is artfully interwoven to end in an unredeemable act of violence over Thanksgiving dinner. It is clear that nothing in this family will ever be the same again.

I have to be honest: I am a long-time fan of short stories because I am simply too lazy to dive deeply into one novel after another. I need the short breaks anthologies afford.

Having said that, however, I still think some miniaturized tales are worth perusing at length because the mood is so skillfully conjured or the language so brilliantly rendered. "Thanksgiving 1963" is definitely among them.

The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet is worth buying for "Thanksgiving 1963," alone, but the book contains much more. 

Between its pages are more than 20 other tales that are equally excellent, including "Broken Window," a short yarn about a burglar who runs into the business end of a collegiate baseball bat; "Mud People," a Lovecraftian story of transformation and death, and "The Real Thing," a perfect example of how the things Pierce loves will kill him yet.

Pierce, who wrote the Thanksgiving story for Pulp Modern, an online mag, is probably best known for his novel Uncle Dust, his editorship of Swill Magazine and his work as an editorial consultant for All Due Respect Books.

Author Rob Pierce (No -- despite the subject's appearance, he isn't a deranged wombat!) 
This is Pierce at his twisted best in a fine collection of yarns so dark you need night vision goggles to read them: their subjects are bizarre crimes, nightmarish revenges, barren and solitary lifestyles and romantic liaisons that are anything but.

Any reader looking to sample Pierce's wares before plunging on Uncle Dust or his novella, "Vern in the Heat" should consider taking The Things I Love for a test spin.

Whether you like to mull over short fiction at a leisurely pace or glom it down in hasty chunks while lying in bed or commuting, this book is perfect. I couldn't recommend it more.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Corrupt Judge, Blackmailing Private Corrections Firm and Crooked Cops Give a Hard Wintery Feel to Joe Clifford's Latest Jay Porter Book

By Joe Clifford
300 pages
(Oceanview Publishing; June 7, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1608091716
ISBN-13: 978-1608091713

Jay Porter is one of my favorite fictional characters – despite his infuriating single-mindedness, occasional lapses into boneheaded stupidity and tendency to misjudge people badly.

Jay is the protagonist of December Boys, Joe Clifford’s second entry in the Jay Porter series. Not the hero; just the central figure. He is too complicated to be called a hero, even though some of the things he does at least border on the heroic.

He’s a complicated guy with simple desires: to watch his son grow up, patch up his relationship with his estranged wife, Jenny, earn his daily bread at a job that is not too mentally challenging and find some way to expiate the guilt he feels at the death of his junkie brother.

As he tells a friend, early on, “This is all I wanted, man. Jenny and my son. The three of us together. A family. And now that I have it, every move I make just seems to make things worse. Even when I manage to do something right . . . Maybe it’s not meant to be.”

“What?” the friend asks.

“Jenny and me. A contented regular life. Peace.”

In Clifford’s first Porter novel, Lamentation, Jay is clearing the homes of dead people for estate sales, working hard with his head down and trying to stave off the demands of his brother, Chris, a former star high school wrestler who hustles for the money he needs to survive and score drugs.  Through his junkie brother, Jay discovers a dark secret about the town’s wealthy and respected Lombardi family, but Chris is murdered in the process, sparking multiple crises for Jay and changing his life forever.

Joe Clifford: His protagonist, Jay Porter is at war with himself and everyone else.

December Boys, set shortly after Lamentation, finds Jay working in a new job he hates, trying to reconcile with Jenny. The new job involves claim investigation for a two-bit insurance firm, and the central conflict of the story unfolds from his discovery that a teenage boy was the actual driver of the car his mother ostensibly crashed.

The teen is arrested for fraud and Jay gets plaudits and a promotion from his boss, but feels like a rat for getting the kid in trouble. When the boy’s panicky mother tells him that her son is on the fast-track for incarceration for his minor crime, Jay stops by the courthouse to check his status and stumbles into a complex plot involving crooked police, a corrupt judge, and a private prison company that is shaking down the parents of the youthful malefactors it is supposed to “rehabilitate.”

All these machinations seem to lead back to the Lombardi family, which Jay learns is involved in a real estate scam connected to the private prison movement.

There are crosses, double crosses and even a triple cross. Jay is forced to meet with a hit man, and a  femme fatale and a corrupt newspaperman enter the picture. In a desolate area, Jay’s life is put at risk at the hands of a pair of vicious goons. His survival seems anything but assured.

To say more would require coughing up spoilers, which I have no intention of doing. Suffice to say that by the end of the story, Jay is basically back at square one with a new job, trying to heal his relationship with Jenny. He has really made no progress reaching any of those goals mentioned above.

In other words, it’s classic noir.

The entire 300-page narrative is written in first person and the internal observations are Porter’s own. The style, which can be problematic in the hands of a lesser writer, works well for Clifford. He lays the story out neatly, tightening his sentences at critical moments to help build tension and suspense.

When I am reading a book for review, I generally tend to mark examples of excellent writing to mention in my blog but I had to stop sticking Post-its ™ in December Boys after only 57 pages: there was so much good stuff to mark that I would have ended unable to find the best quotes, anyway.

Clifford doesn’t lace the story with unnecessary quips – a commonplace failing of writers dealing with dark, cynical material – but inserts enough humor to lighten the somber,  slightly paranoid mood of the novel.

For instance, in one passage where he is trying to escape a pair of murderous cops, Porter muses as follows:

I couldn’t go home. I realized I was headed back to Ashton [his hometown] without consciously making the decision to do so. Like a moth drawn to the firelight. Or bug zapper. I needed off the grid. Somewhere with a secure line. I had to talk to Nicki [a former temp clerking in the juvenile court who initially tipped him to the pay-for-prison scam and is now on the run, herself]. How hard was it to return a goddamn phone call? Where do the invisible go when they have to disappear?

This is great stuff.  The plot is strong, the characters well drawn, the dialog brisk and believable. As someone who grew up in rural communities like Ashton where high school athletes were local rock stars and big-shot developers twisted the political system, I can honestly say December Boys gives readers a solid sense of place and time.

Buy the hardcover: it’s well worth the price stamped on the spine. You’d pay as much to get into some IMAX potboiler like Batman versus Superman, and you couldn’t take it home with you. Or at least, you shouldn't want to. December Boys is better written and a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Sin Tax: Preston Lang’s little foray into the confederacy of creeps

By Preston Lang
166 pages
(All Due Respect Books; June 30, 2016)
Electronic version through Amazon

It’s easy to like a crime story that begins with a convenience store supervisor threatening to fire a clerk solely because he was robbed at gunpoint.

In Preston Lang’s latest, The Sin Tax, that’s exactly what happens.
The book opens with an initial exchange between counterman Mark reviewing a video of a robbery that occurred earlier in the evening with his edgy, arrogant boss, Janet:

“If you get robbed again, you’re fired,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“If it happens again, you are fired. That’s all.”

“I had a man stick a gun in my face, then you make me watch [the security video of it] twice, and now you’re telling me I’m fired?”

“You’re not fired. You’ve still got your job. But if it happens again, you are gone.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.

“Let me ask you a question: why was there 240 dollars in the register?”

“Because I didn’t have a chance to put the extra cash in the—”

“You didn’t have a chance? You want me to wind it back so we can look at video of you standing at the counter reading for half an hour with 240 dollars sitting in your reg?”

“That was a mistake,” he said.

“Fine, it was a mistake. If it happens again— you’re fired.”

Mark looked at the screen. He could see the back of the thief’s sweatshirt, stained and fraying with a yellow number 44 ironed on the back; and he could see himself, looking useless and defeated.

“Next time I’ll risk my life to save a few Milano cookies,” he muttered.

“What’s that?”


Mark and Janet's less than cordial relationship is at the center of the book. It turns out that both are scammers, looking for a shot at the brass ring. Mark, a Slovenian immigrant who is also an ex-con, is a small-timer who has been getting by on nickel-dime jobs, waiting for opportunities to score, largely through ripping off the illegal cigarettes (smuggled from other states, stolen from shipments) that seem to be the lifeblood of every mom-and-pop store in New York.  

Janet has a bigger prize in mind: the fortune in cash that her boss, Rosa, the owner of a chain of convenience stores, has socked away in a safe deposit box.

In fact, everybody in this tightly written, gripping noir thriller is involved in some sort of confidence game: 
* Mark’s “friend,” Slider, is also his accomplice in the cigarette heist racket; 

*Rosa is dealing hot cigarettes and looking for criminals who traffic in them for a lower price to supply her chain of cheesy businesses;

 * Luka and his brother, Herman, are a pair of street-wise but dumb-assed Slovenians dealing cigarettes stolen on pallets from legitimate dealers; 

* Even Rosa’s buddy Lou, a penny-ante gangster, is a dipshit. When she asks him to provide backup for the transaction, Lou “protects” her with a pair of lames who couldn’t find their way out of an IRT station if they were standing under the exit sign.

These people run absolutely counter to the ironclad writer’s rule that you have to give readers somebody with whom they can sympathize or they will put your book aside. As Bart Simpson would say, Au Contraire, mon frere! I couldn’t take my eyes off this damned book even to tap a kidney.

Every person is unlovable; hell, they aren't even remotely likeable. They are all the kind of people who you shake hands with on meeting then immediately check how many fingers you still have.

When each body drops, the only question you'll face is: how the fuck did this asshole manage to last even this long? He should have been trussed up by an undertaker and shot full of formaldehyde a couple of chapters back!

At the book’s end, only one of these losers is still alive. And broke. Even that protagonist is forced back to square one as one of the nameless, faceless toilers in a sleazy convenience store.

It's a reversal of fortune somewhat like the one in William Gresham's great novel, Nightmare Alley, in which Stan Carlisle, a fake psychic who climbs to the top of the fortune-telling racket, ends up an alcoholic geek in a carnival sideshow. 

It may be better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, but to serve in hell? Not so damned much.

I can only think of one other recent noir novel that features such a collection of unsympathetic creeps and losers: Mike Monson’s darkly satisfying What Happens in Reno

Lang’s little foray into the confederacy of creeps is just as excellent.

If you like fiction so dark and nihilistic that you finish it feeling like you have a pair of welding goggles super glued to your face, The Sin Tax is exactly what you are looking for.

I loved it. I think you will, too.