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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. . .

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An American Even Uglier than the One Burdick and Lederer Wrote About

By Lisa Brackmann
311 pages
(Soho Press; 2012)
ISBN 978-1-61695-071-2

Michelle Mason is taking a break from clearing up her late husband’s messy business affairs in Puerto Vallarta when she meets Daniel, a fellow American who says he flies charters for rich clients. A romance blooms and she is in the sack with her new friend when two masked thieves attack.

This is the set-up for Getaway, a novel about narcotrafficantes, crooked cops and the American enablers who make the multi-billion dollar drug trade possible.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Michelle’s husband was a crook who ripped off his real estate development clients and pissed away the cash he stole. We learn about America’s direct involvement in drug imports and the unscrupulous agencies responsible for it. We are educated in the flagrant corruption of the Mexican authorities – and the ways in which U.S. officials encourage it. 

And we find out Michelle’s new boyfriend, Daniel, is a player of some sort in the drug smuggling business and has run afoul of another sketchy American, Gary, who either gives him his orders or works for those who do.

Out of thousands of books about drug trafficking, there are two things that put Getaway in a class by itself. One of them is that it places American officialdom at the center of the illegal international drug market.

Most novels set in the world of drug dealers make Americans the good guys: earnest boy scouts out to end narcotics trafficking forever; in Getaway, however, the Americans are enablers and participants in the drug trade. Gary, the éminence grise of the novel, works for an unnamed U.S. agency and is trying to keep the jaded and reluctant Daniel in the narcotics racket.

He clearly has ties to government officials inside and outside the U.S. and is capable of inserting himself into the most delicate personal affairs of the Americans he meets. 

Brackman, the author of Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, both set in China, lets us know that Gary is involved in the drug world right up to his eyeballs, which means that at one level, at least, U.S. policy favors the brutal savagery of the cartels. 

He uses his shadowy connections to have Michelle arrested for drug smuggling, manipulates her personal finances to control her movements and actions, and has her passport seized by the authorities. He also cunningly warns her against telling the U.S. consulate about her situation and subtly uses force to blackmail her into spying on Daniel and others

The book is reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film in which a common citizen must battle a complex conspiracy he or she doesn’t understand. If Michelle doesn’t learn who is doing what and why, she will either end up in a Mexican prison or dead in the Puerto Vallarta landfill.

Brackmann makes it clear that no one cares about Gary’s activities or involvement in international crime. Unspoken is the fact that he is operating with the connivance of both U.S. and Mexican authorities. 

Author Lisa Brackmann

In the average drug thriller, dope dealers are brutes and American officials are trying to wipe them out; in Getaway, the Americans are at least as vicious and unprincipled as the narcotics smugglers and the corrupt Mexican officials that protect them.
The disconnect between American ideals and practical action is made even more disturbing by the fact that Gary is neither a monster nor some mindless fascist bureaucrat who is "just following orders."

Instead he is portrayed as a capable and intelligent fellow: an excellent judge of human character and a man with a sense of humor -- though possibly a little twisted in his concept of what is funny and what isn't. 

He is, in fact, the kind of American contractor who wins praise from his supervisors for demonstrating initiative under challenging circumstances. Let's just forget that sometimes -- think Blackwater, here -- those contractors don't follow the Boy Scout credo.

Carefully hidden in this novel’s plot is a real life history lesson: Brackmann makes it clear that the U.S. government has been involved in international drug smuggling at least since the Indochina conflict. She does a first-rate job of bringing that involvement forward to the present, including a neatly delivered summary of how in the 1980s the Central Intelligence Agency helped smuggle Central American cocaine to finance illicit arms sales to the government of Iran.

To her credit, she finds a way to make this backstory medicine go down without effort, largely by having a specific character impart critical information about it to Michelle during a key conversation that sets up later developments in the plot.

Aside from its willingness to examine American drug trafficking, the other thing that sets Getaway  apart from many similar adventure yarns is the grit of the main female character, Michelle. The woman, plunged into a perilous situation, is beaten, attacked and abandoned in a garbage dump littered with drug war corpses, threatened with guns and subjected to a variety of other horrors that would frighten the average person into silence. Still she finds the gumption to fight back.

Not only is Michelle tough and resilient, but she has a first-rate brain. She retains her skepticism about everyone who fails to earn her trust, despite her desperate circumstances.  She moves through the novel with both eyes open, leery of everyone around her, watching for snares and traps that could put her and her family’s lives at risk.

The suspense builds from page one, the characters are crisp and sharply drawn and the plot, while labyrinthian, is plausible and riveting. Even better, Brackmann has a penetrating eye for the sharp detail that sells a character or setting, helps to build tension or does all three at once. 

For example, shortly after Daniel is assaulted, Michelle realizes their cell phones may have been switched by the intruders. She goes looking for him and obtains his apartment address through a bit of clever detective work. When she finds his flat, she enters, fumbling her way through the gloom.

Her eyes adjusted. It wasn't really dark. There was enough light seeping through the curtains, from the open door.

The living room. This was the living room. It was simple, hardly anything in it. A couch. A chair. A television. A coffee table.

On the coffee table was something dark, an oval shape with protrusions she couldn't make out. The thing almost seemed to shimmer, as though its lines were mutable, fluid, shifting ever so slightly.

She approached the table and a cloud of flies rose from the object.

A head.

The greater the pressure Gary, drug dealers and Mexican police bring to bear, the sharper Michelle’s tongue becomes. By the last third of the book, her anger at being used as a spy and cats-paw is palpable.  As a consequence, the book’s denouement is swift and violent, though not in a way the reader might have expected.

I heard author Brackmann at a Left Coast Crime forum last month on the growing role of crime novels as a vehicle for exploring social problems. 

The discussion was fascinating, but when the main presentation was over, I found myself wondering why crime writers concentrate on trailer trash, penny ante crooks and drug abusers as major characters in their books instead of writing about big-time corporate and government criminals like the people who poison the environment, corrupt our political system and rob our retirement funds with obvious frauds like the “derivative” schemes that nearly destroyed the economy in the early 2000s.

When I posed that question to the panelists, it seemed to take Brackmann aback. “That’s who I write about,” she said.

At that point I knew I had to give Getaway a try. And Brackmann, it turns out, is just as good as her word: she writes here about U.S. government corruption clearly and convincingly, focusing on criminals who are often overlooked because they are simply following our country's official policies. 

Getaway is a first-rate novel -- crisp, sharp and full of disturbing action sequences that will give you pause before you mail that check to the Internal Revenue Service next week. If you decide to hold onto your money, however, be sure not to buzz it around; you could end up the victim of some duplicitous bastard like Gary, facing trumped-up criminal charges or an anonymous grave in a Mexican garbage dump. 

In other words, you might wind up another example of our tax dollars at work. . . 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mosh it Up! This Slam-Dance is a Slam Dunk for Readers Who Like Characters with Flair, Originality and a Gift of Gab

Mosh it Up!
By Mindela Ruby
236 pages
(Pen-L Publishing; Oct. 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1940222702
ISBN-13: 978-1940222707

Let’s get this straight from the Jump: Mosh it Up!, Mindela Ruby’s terrific first novel, probably really doesn’t belong among the hard-boiled, noirish novels I normally review because it really isn’t a book about crime.

Not unless you count the child molestation; the rapes; the sexual battery; the DUIs; the hit-and-run; the credit card fraud; the drug abuse; or the grand theft auto.

The book is actually a novel Dorothy Parker might have written had she still been alive in the late 20th Century and deeply into the North Oakland punk scene.

Mosh it Up! is all about a 23-year-old can of macadamia nuts named Dickenson Park whose friends (and enemies) call her Boop. In it, we learn:

  •                  Boop is a scatterbrain.
  •                  Boop is a flirt (and how).
  •                  Boop is irresponsible to the nth degree and seems determined to stagger through life in a haze of tequila fumes, casual drugs and low blood sugar.
  •                  Boop is a whole hell of a lot smarter than she realizes, but is so unfocused that she seems ditzy.
  •                  Boop is cute – a male friend tells her late in the book that she “cleans up nice” – but lacks confidence and has so little self-esteem that she wastes her considerable charms and ready wit trolling for violent meatheads who should be sitting on a porch in some Southern backwater, drooling toothlessly while they pluck on a five-string banjo.

Mosh it Up! is really about Boop’s struggle to escape the wreckage of her past, learn what she can from it and move forward. It’s like body surfing the crowd at a punk performance, getting banged around in the slam-dancing area that gives the novel its name, sucking up the excitement of the experience, but emerging relatively intact when the music stops.

I’m a crime guy by preference and, despite the various illegalities and hijinx it contains, Ruby's book is not about crime per se. There's no murders, no capers, no getaways or tense interrogation by the cops in a darkened squad room fitted with a two-way mirror. Because of the lack of felonious behavior, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first got a copy of Mosh it Up! 

I needn’t have worried: the novel turned out to be a complete delight to read.

The book unfolds in first person with Boop herself as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Ordinarily I am not crazy about stories about counterculture characters because nothing becomes passé faster than contemporary slang. Usually when one of those obnoxious phrases like “you GO girl!” slips into a piece of prose, it tells me a hell of a lot more about the author than about the character who is supposed to be saying it. What’s more, none of what it tells me is good.

Ruby doesn’t put 1990s slang in her characters’ mouths. Boop speaks in puns and wisecracks, spinning out her characters’ comments in fully rounded sentences that seem like normal speech until you realize she is twisting words, serving up Spooneresque renderings, Malapropisms and other jokes aimed at people who have a functioning brain and some understanding of the larger world beyond their doorstep.

She not only does this well, but disguises the fact she is doing it. She is like a skilled magician who manages to pull endless scarves out of her sleeve. It isn’t until you put her book aside that you realize the reason Boop’s words sound wholly fresh and original is because they actually are!

For example, during a visit to an associate’s apartment toward the novel’s end, she asks the man she finds living there to feed the cat. In response, “Steve’s friend drops his smoke in a beer bottle and ring-tabs a Feline Feast can open.”

“Ring-tabs?” A verb I’d never heard before! It describes an action familiar to anyone who has ever fed a cat (or opened one of those belchy cans of American fizz-water Anheuser Busch insists is beer), but does it in a distinctive way. This sudden appearance of a familiar action described in a unique manner forces the reader to visualize the act, making the narrative cleaner, stronger and more memorable.

The pages of Mosh it Up! are peppered with these creations. Ruby sneezes out so many of them I eventually stopped trying to keep track:

“With my shades on, it’s dark-and-a-half outside.”

“When we got there, the scene looked poky, and Bridgit wanted to leave. But after paying thirteen bucks, I said let’s see if this party improvifies.”

“Networking, baby. Wait ’til we’re the indie chart toppers with people falling all over themselves to meet us. I’m keeping a list of the ignoranuses that blow me off. When my chance comes, I’ll deep-freeze them.”

(I’m particularly fond of ignoranus, a compound of two words that communicates a meaning clearer and better than either of its components. I plan to start dropping it into conversations myself – particularly those involving elected officials in Washington D.C.)

Mindela Ruby: A new Dot Parker?
Her playful way of using language isn’t the only thing about Ruby that reminds me of Parker; her mordant humor is another, particularly when she is writing about her character’s frequently unfortunate sexual escapades. When Boop talks about sex and the men she pairs with, a lot of the words Ruby puts in her mouth are just laugh-out-loud funny.

Not that her liaisons are a laughing matter. She is a magnet for truly awful men – brutes and morons with a sadistic edge. One cretin she picks up in a bar nearly breaks her nose during a “romantic” interlude and later knees her in the crotch during another rut-fest. As she puts it succinctly, “Even though I’ll be sorry afterward, I let the prick I’m with do anything for a thrill.”

In an effort to avoid these unsatisfying and frequently violent unions, Boop joins a twelve-step group for sex addicts, but finds most of her fellow glandular obsessives boring, crazy or annoying. One of the latter is a hapless schnook named Dales, who turns his “confessions” about his hyperactive genitalia into thinly disguised boasting.

After one session in which Dales complains of an inability to get enough poon, Boop lapses into reflection  about the loathsome Lothario’s physical appearance.

“His face reminds me of a crotch— pubic-y whiskers, receding chin,” she says of this compulsive wanker. “Bowing his head, he could kiss his own neck. He should. Someone here said we need to be gentle with ourselves.”


"It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word."

Another of her step-mates is Samuela, “a beady-eyed brunette with a morbid aura hanging over her like polder fog.”  Ruby’s description of Samuela’s witness during a sexual addiction meeting had me laughing so hard I awakened my wife sleeping next to me:

“She must be wearing a wig since— Lord, have mercy— the pelt jolts like a hank of fake fur each time she scratches her eyebrow,” Boop cattily observes. “The poor girl’s sweating prayer beads, trusting you’ll hear her pleas— Higher Power, Allah, Jehovah, Big Kahuna, Jesus, whoever’s up there. Obviously, she thinks about you all the time, the way love junkies obsess about stankie,”

Boop drily adds, “She’s awaiting your coming.”

Shaking the Serta with hysterical guffaws at three in the morning is definitely NOT likely to endear you to your bed mate!

Boop appears incapable of concentrating on anything but glands and bands – particularly her own. It is clear early on that the group she manages, “Up the Wazoo,” is going nowhere but Boop keeps trying to resuscitate the act.

“They’re looking for excuses to 86 me, aren’t they?” she says of the group in a moment of uncharacteristically self-aware reflection. “The one person who wants them to be real with the music! Isn’t that why they threw me out?”

Later Boop reflects on her rejection – by the band, her friends and her latest loutish paramour. “I felt completely unwanted,” she says. “Up the Wazoo, Stoney, Randolph, Tiny had pushed me away in succession.”

The Nation Magazine once described Dot Parker’s poetry as “a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity." As these examples should show, Ruby’s prose has a similar luster.

If Boop, alone, was the only character Ruby brought to life this way, Mosh it Up! would still be well worth reading;  but she isn’t. Ruby gives Boop an elderly female neighbor to care for: Sada Pollard, a kindly but acerbic soul who happens to be dying from a degenerative disease that slowly squeezes the air from her lungs. Sada is as sharply drawn as Boop, with her own speech patterns, mannerisms -- even a strange clucking sound she makes when she struggles to breathe.

Stoney, the promoter who books “Up the Wazoo,” for a big show, is given similar treatment, as are Emmie and Roxanne, two women Boop meets at a twelve-step gathering. Even Bridgit, Tess and Angie, the three snarky punk rockers Boop “manages,” are fully developed characters.

Ruby spices her novel with enough description to keep the reader racing through the narrative, but not so much that it bogs the story down. The tale is actually fairly straightforward and simple, the kind of thing that could be summarized in a sentence or two. But Ruby’s fine writing stretches out the reader’s enjoyment for more than 200 pages.

It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word.

To maintain the breakneck pace and goad the reader to continue, she has pieced the overall story together like a scrapbook, with shopping lists, scenes from an imaginary cable TV movie about Boop’s life, collections of fun facts – even a newspaper clipping. It’s the sort of stuff you might find on Boop’s mostly empty refrigerator, held in place by a Siouxsie and the Banshees magnet.

I enjoy a lot of the stuff I read and review for this blog, but books that I actually find exciting are rare enough to surprise me. Mosh it Up! is definitely one of them.  Buy it. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Tough but Funny Novel about Money, Murder -- and Daughters, Both Wanted and Unwanted

Gunning for Angels
(The Fallen Angels series)
By C. Mack Lewis
382 pages
(Cathleen A McCarthy; First edition July 29, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0990610802
ISBN-13: 978-0990610809

Private eye Jack Fox has a problem. He just can’t seem to keep his business end inside his pants, and winds up flopping into the sack with just about every female he meets.

But his overactive libido isn’t Jack’s real challenge. The thing that is turning his life inside out is the fact that Enid, the daughter that resulted from one of those one-night stands sixteen years earlier, has run away from her alcoholic mother and taken the Greyhound to Phoenix looking for the father she only recently learned she had.

For his part, Jack didn't even know Enid existed.

This is the situation at the beginning of Gunning for Angels, a fast-moving detective yarn by Lewis, a New Jersey native transplanted to Scottsdale, Arizona, who deftly juggles plot twists, humor and mayhem in this enjoyable debut novel.
The story involves unwanted children and a few that are wanted far too much for comfort.

Author C. Mack Lewis has written a private eye novel that is both tough and funny.

Lewis's character, Jack Fox, is a solo operator working out of a hole-in-the-wall office staffed only by his secretary receptionist. 

A Lothario from the get-go, Fox is described by Lewis as "not handsome enough for Hollywood but too handsome for his own good." Practically the only women in the story he doesn't get between his sheets are his daughter and the receptionist.

This lust-struck peeper is between clients when Enid, the result of his blast in the past, walks into his office, coat-tailing on a woman who wants to hire him to identify her birth mom.

The wannabe client thinks Enid is with Jack; Jack thinks she is with the client. In the confusion that results from this first meeting of father and daughter, Enid quarrels with Jack and ends up biting a hole in his arm before dashing off.

Eventually the two enter into an uneasy alliance. Jack, who was rejected by his own birth father, a cop and bigamist, can’t seem to work past his guilt at having a teenage daughter he’s never met. Enid, who is used to cleaning up her drunken mother’s messes, is distraught by her abandonment. 

Despite their mutual distrust and fear, they join forces and struggle to come to grips with what seems to be a simple parental abandonment case but turns out to involve trafficking in child prostitutes, pedophilia and fraud.

Oh, yes: and murder; lots of murder.

If this basic story line rings somewhat familiar, there’s a good reason: Ross MacDonald, author of the Lew Archer novels (The Chill, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Drowning Pool) made a career of writing books in which the mistakes of the past come come crashing up against the present in nasty and often lethal ways. 

MacDonald set his tales in Southern California; Lewis places them in Arizona. But like MacDonald’s The Moving Target, The Wycherly Woman and The Far Side of the Dollar, Lewis's novel, Gunning for Angels follows the time-honored rule of noir fiction: if you’ve done evil in the past, you can’t correct the problem or conceal it by doing more in the present.

The basic plot of Lewis’s book is pretty grim stuff, but she manages to serve it up with dashes of wit that leaven the violent and gruesome nature of the story. Just when you are beginning to think that Fox is a competent investigator and all-around cool guy, he hits a banana peel and does a pratfall – usually with his newly-acquired daughter looking on.

Case in point: in one scene Jack is boffing a client while Enid who has managed to sneak into the bedroom before him, hides in the closet, trying to keep from blowing her lunch. Good times!

And unlike the female partners in many detective yarns, Enid doesn’t exist just to be menaced by the villains. She is manhandled, abused and subjected to violence in the novel, but manages to escape on her own. In fact, she does at least as much to solve the mystery and obtain justice as her gumshoe dad does.

The characters in the book are all colorful and neatly rendered, particularly Jack and Enid. The action is plausible and the detective work described by the author seems reasonable – probably due to Lewis’s own past employment as a skip tracer, tracking down debtors who had fallen behind in their payments.

If I had to cite a negative, it would be that the relationship between the chief police detective in the novel and his rather shrewish wife seems a bit overdrawn; on the other hand, I have known couples who had some of the same types of disputes as this pair does – they simply were quieter about it.

Like many novels these days, there is also a tendency toward repetition in some passages. For example, at the beginning of the book, a death scene is described in which a “baby’s fist spasmodically beat[s] against the dead woman’s face, splattering rips and reams of blood in every direction of the tiny kitchen.”

Nearly three quarters of the way through the book, Jack finds the corpse described in the initial passage and picks up the infant, whose “tiny fists beat against him, splattering rips and reams of blood across his face as she wailed at full volume.”
I like the phrasing, but that’s a few too many rips and reams of blood being splattered for my comfort.

These are minor points, however. Offsetting them is the fact that Lewis has laced her novel with really fine writing that shows her eye for the telling detail and a facility for original language. It would have been easy to sketch the plot in a series of clichés, using tired metaphors hundreds of other authors have used before. Instead, Lewis opted for originality and flare.

For instance, only a couple of sentences into her novel she gives us:

“Eyes full of empty stared upward as she lay sprawled out like some grotesque pin-up girl. An all-American beauty served up on cheap linoleum, a Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood spatter.”

“Eyes full of empty;” “A Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood splatter;” Now that’s writing. An author capable of turning two phrases like that in a single paragraph knows what she’s doing. What’s more, Lewis does it over and over again in spinning out her story.

She’s on top of things from the very beginning. I’m looking forward to her next novel already.