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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. . .

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dean Drayhart and Sidekick Sid Take a Bite Out of Crime

182 pages
Publisher: (Blasted Heath; Dec. 5, 2013)
E-book by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: 0985578645

I don’t know about you, but when the first five words of a novel are “I like to kill people,” somehow I feel compelled to read on.

Those are, in fact, the first five words in Hard Bite by Anonymous-9 (the pen name of L.A.-based crime  writer Elaine Ash). Hard Bite introduces Dean Drayhart, a wheelchair-bound vigilante who is one of the slickest characters to ever appear in a hard-boiled thriller.

Anonymous-9's Hard Bite: funny and brutal, with sufficient
detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end.
(photo courtesy of Anonymous-9.com)

The book is funny and brutal, with sufficient detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end. It also offers enough bitterly acute insights about the life of a handicapped man to fill a half dozen books.

Hard Bite is a first-person revenger in the classic mold. Imagine Frank Castle, the Punisher, if he fell on a fragmentation grenade that wrecked his body. Do you seriously think a little thing like quadriplegia would stop Castle from doing everything he can to rid the world of gangsters, terrorists and other human vermin?

Fuhgeddabaht it.

In Hard Bite, a former insurance executive named Dean Drayhart is our crippled Castle. He is also the speaker of those five words above, and much of the book is about how the quadriplegic man became a no-nonsense Punisher-style vigilante.

Drayhart is definitely a man who likes to kill people: the kind of people who run over people with their cars and flee the scene.
You see, one of those drivers mowed Dean and his daughter down in a Los Angeles crosswalk, killing her outright and crippling him. Dean has vowed to track down and kill as many of them as he can.

“I whistle along, taking it easy on the curves,” he says early in the novel. “Vigilante Cripple Man — rolling justice across Los Angeles one hit-and-run driver at a time.”

It’s not an easy task. Drayhart can’t walk or stand without assistance, is missing a hand and is paralyzed almost everywhere but between his legs.

(His sexual plumbing still functions, as he puts it, “proof for me that there is a God and he has a sense of humor.”)

Of course, a man who is essentially quadriplegic is limited in his ability to rid the world of the scourge of hit-and-run drivers. For one thing, his only means of moving around is a specially-equipped handicapped van that he cannot legally drive.

He also has limited use of his remaining hand and the prosthetic hook that’s replaced his missing one.

For anybody else, those handicaps would be a deal-breaker; they are not a problem for Dean Drayhart, however. Dean has something better than working legs, arms and hands: he has Sid, the homicidal capuchin monkey who is his partner in crime. Sid helps Dean drive the van, find the bad guys and eliminate them.

Ruthlessly. Also efficiently.

Dean doesn’t even need a gun – one “hard bite” to a major blood vessel from Sid’s razor sharp fangs and the bitee bleeds out in just a few minutes.

In Hard Bite, Dean and Sid are just beginning their campaign to rid the Los Angeles area of unwanted human vermin. In quick succession, the pair eliminate a man who ran down a father of four and a pit bull trainer who is in the process of killing dogs who are insufficiently savage for his barbaric sport. A day later, Dean and Sid kill a small-time actress who has also had a fatal “accident” while driving her car.

But their first target turns out to have been connected to the Mexican Mafia and a Sinaloan drug cartel, and Sid and Dean find themselves targets for gangland murder. They also are being tracked by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective who is both smart and imaginative enough to connect the dots between the sudden rash of hit-run driver deaths.

Dean and Sid find themselves being pursued by disparate enemies who could halt their do-it-yourself justice campaign just as it is getting underway. On their side is Dean’s interfering nurse practitioner – a woman whose signature he needs to get the funds necessary for financing his vigilante activities – and his girlfriend, a street prostitute named Cinda who tends to his sexual needs and seems to really care about him.

The chase ranges all over Los Angeles, as far north as Humboldt County and as far south as Sinaloa. It criss-crosses through the hills that split L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, the beaches of the Southland, a chop shop near Venice, an apartment complex in Cerritos and the slice-and-dice suite at the L.A. County Coroner’s office.

Anonymous-9 has conjured a platoon of characters who are finely drawn and completely unique.  She includes enough technical detail in this yarn to make it seem plausible, even though she has to fall back on devil coincidence a couple of times to keep her dramatis personae in play.

I was especially impressed with her handling of Detective Doug Coltson, the sheriff’s investigator, a critical figure in the tale. In the hardboiled genre, it is highly tempting to either make cops stupid, brutal and corrupt or give them a pristine character and remarkable deductive powers. Coltson is no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He’s a lunch-bucket guy with a wife he loves (and who loves him), a backstory intriguing enough to make him interesting, and enough brain to solve a murder simply by keeping his eyes and his mind open.

But each of Anonymous-9’s characters have their own spark of life: Orella Malalinda, the head of a Mexican drug ring; Dr. Klanski, Dean’s reproving physician; Marcie Blattlatch, his attending nurse; Cinda, his paramour and assistant a la mort; even Marty Hatchfield, an unemployed screenwriter who meets Dean under the worse possible circumstances.  In his brief appearance in the novel, Anonymous-9 gives Hatchfield the same careful treatment as the more important players. 

Even Sid the Capuchin is a finely etched character with individual quirks, an oddly human sense of humor and a glowing intelligence that makes him a perfect "other half" of Dean Drayhart's personality. 

Anomymous-9 knows that the thing that makes a book as dark as this one work is a menagerie of characters capable of eliciting readers’ sympathy – or at the very least holding their interest.

She wraps these characters with black humor, investing her narrative with enough bitter comedy to keep a smile on the reader’s face for almost all of its 182 pages.

For example, she has Drayhart make the following comment about Sherryl Lynn Hastings, an actress he suspects of dragging an elderly woman to her death in a fatal hit-run in West Los Angeles:

“You can spot wannabe actresses in L.A. with deadly accuracy. They’re the ones who spend all their energy looking fuckable; meanwhile they haven’t had sex since Aretha sang at the inauguration—and then it was probably with a close relative.”

She has Drayhart discuss his own injuries and convalescence at one point, briefly and humorously explaining how he ended up on his vigilante mission:

“I went from noun to action verb riding a year-long bed of pain. After flirting with suicide, which lost its appeal contemplated deeply, a fresh start in rough justice sounded right. Why settle for cripple when you can be crippling?”

And in another section, a television bulletin tells the female head of the drug cartel about a massacre she herself had ordered at a body and fender works:

“Blood and tacos splattered floor to ceiling. There seems to be no motive, no robbery, no reason— with ‘gang-related’ written all over it.”

I particularly enjoyed this brief reference.  “Blood and Tacos,” of course, is the name of Johnny Shaw’s humorous magazine that serves up violent but comical stories in an ersatz “pulp” format. It often features mustachioed men – like the drug boss’s sons – engaging in bloody gunfights using automatic weapons, grenades, rocket launchers and so on.

Hard Bite is grim stuff, but funny, nonetheless...

Admittedly, this is grim stuff; but it’s funny, nonetheless.

I enjoyed Hard Bite thoroughly and I am looking forward to getting my copy of its sequel, Bite Harder, when it comes out on Sept. 1. In fact, I have already ordered the darn thing.

Let’s hope I don’t end up wheelchair-bound with a broken funny-bone when I read it...

Twist Upon Twist Characterizes Starr's "Twisted City," A Novel With Hardly Any Sympathetic Characters

(Vintage, 2014)
E-book by Amazon
ISBN-10: 1400075068
ISBN-13: 978-1400075065

David Miller is a complicated character. You don’t really like him in Jason Starr’s latest novel, Twisted City: he is simultaneously wimpy yet aggressive, a man who lets his employer boss him around, tolerates his leech-like female roommate and repeatedly, heedlessly, inserts himself into dangerous situations.

He almost immediately establishes his total lack of character by irresponsibly trashing a company in a libelous article he writes for the business magazine that employs him, stretching some of the facts he has dug up and concocting others completely.

His reason? The man who signs his paycheck has an idiotic rule that reporters write favorable stories about businesses they cover no more than twice in a row and Miller has already used up his quota.

As a former reporter, I can tell you his unethical behavior in this case alone would get him fired from almost any publication I can name – including trashy ones like the Weekly World News.

As the book unwinds, Starr lets us in on Miller’s other distasteful traits: that he previously worked for the Wall Street Journal but was fired for job abandonment; that he boorishly rates every woman he meets for attractiveness and allows the psychopathic hanger-on who shares his apartment to treat him like a flunky and a human teller machine.

"Twisted City" author Jason Starr (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 These foibles seem somehow to be related to the death of his sister some years earlier. Miller has an obsession with the dead woman that seems to rule his life. The reason is nicely concealed until the end of the novel, though a perceptive reader will probably figure it out long before then.

Miller’s unattractive personality is the least of his negative features. He is also capable of alarming violence on short notice. He commits one brutal murder in Starr’s novel – though he rationalizes it as self-defense -- and comes close to two others; he ineffectually hides evidence, dumps a dead body where any passerby can see it, and lies compulsively to police, his friends and his aunt.

He's not only a criminal; he also isn’t very good at it.

Miller is is one of the least sympathetic fictional characters I’ve run across in years. But, like a particularly nasty train wreck, you just can’t seem to look away. You find yourself eagerly turning pages just to find out what stupid, reckless behavior he will engage in next.

In classic noir fashion, Miller finds himself beset by a host of problems that could ruin his life: he flubs a beer-joint pickup by clumsily trying to manhandle a woman he met a short time earlier, has his wallet stolen by a pickpocket team, then ends up committing a serious life-in-prison felony when he attempts to recover it.

Each attempt he makes to extricate himself from the mess makes things worth. Soon he comes under police scrutiny – while trying to get out from under a blackmail scheme and evict his psycho roommate from his apartment.

A series of plot twists simultaneously seems to bring Miller closer to ruin, but delays delivering him to his fate: he discovers that a woman involved in the extortion scheme has been killed, at least temporarily keeping his crimes from discovery; a suicide occurs that initially looks like murder; a meeting with his blackmailer in a Manhattan park ends with his hospitalization for a point-blank gunshot wound.

In short, everything that can possibly go wrong does; by rights, Miller’s last name should be Murphy.

The book has no happy ending, unless you consider cosmic irony a happy conclusion. A final jaw-dropping plot twist offers an unhappy resolution that is oddly satisfying; for one thing, it suggests that there is some sort of justice in the world that punishes people who botch their lives so thoroughly and completely. At the same time, it reveals the secret about Miller’s past that is hinted in the preceding pages.

Twisted City is only $2.99 in the Kindle edition. If you like stories in which the main character is a loser who can’t get out of his own way, this is the book for you. You’ll wear off your thumbprint turning the pages to follow David Miller’s misadventures.  Keep going to the end: I certainly didn't see that coming!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Laugh a Minute With the Funniest Serial Killer Novel I’ve Ever Read

By Eryk Pruitt
200 pages
ISBN: 1938750039
(Immortal Ink Publishing, LLC; April 3, 2014)
E-book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Dirtbags is sort of like a book about a serial murderer written by Carl Hiaasen, only a lot darker -- and without a hero who will bumble his way into catching the bad guy.

It is unquestionably the funniest serial killer novel I’ve ever read.

Mind you, I am making an exception here, because I am usually not a fan of serial killer fiction. I tend to avoid reading books or seeing movies about sexual psychopaths who bump people off because it makes their nipples hard. Even when I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle doing stories about the Zodiac, “Trailside Killer” David Carpenter, “Vampire Killer” Richard  Ramirez and “Bunker Killer” Charles Ng, I found those guys boring.

On the other hand, give me an insurance fraud artist, strong-arm robber, dope dealer or extortionist and I am happy as a pig in shit. There is money to be made off those crimes, so the motivation is easy to understand.

But perps who kill people because it gets them off? Meh.

I can’t see why anybody would take that kind of risk without the possibility of scoring some serious cash. Killing people in quantity gives the bad guy exactly zip in the way of profit. In fact, the fool generally has to spend his own money to stalk and dispatch his victims.

To put it concisely, serial murder just doesn’t make economic sense to me.

That’s why I like Pruitt’s serial wannabe Calvin Cantrell: Calvin is a man with a plan: he wants to rack up a sizeable body count then offer his talent to high-rollers as an assassin for hire.

Dirtbags author Eryk Pruitt (courtesy of
 Pruitt's author page at Amazon.com)

He doesn’t fit the serial killer psychiatric profile: He didn’t start out as a child by stepping on bugs and work his way up through the vertebrate ranks to make his bones; he actually has a personal connection to many of his victims: he pitches directly in, eliminating members of the human race from Jump Street.

He has spent his entire life building a resentment against scores of people who have put him down or stood in his way, dreaming up ways to kill them all when the time is right. And he sees a way to make money doing it.

Now that’s my kind of serial killer.

I have to admit, Calvin also appeals to me as an individual: he is a down-and-outer, a loser who can’t hold a job. He lives in a trailer, spends all his time researching past serial killers and reading comic books and trying to figure a way up and out of the hole he has dug for himself. He has managed to score a hotty of a trailer park wife, but only because she was looking for a way to escape servicing the redneck lap-dancing  club proprietor she was working for, not because he is so suave or charming himself.

"The scene in which they consummate their relationship, schtupping while he maintains his Johnson by calling out the names of famous and obscure female serial murderers, is worth the $2.99 price of the Kindle edition all by itself."

The scene in which they consummate their relationship, schtupping while he maintains his Johnson by calling out the names of famous and obscure female serial murderers, is worth the $2.99 price of the Kindle edition all by itself.

Best of all, for a psycho who literally murders by-the-numbers, he is surprisingly soft-hearted; in fact, he bungles his first kill by falling in love with his intended victim, a rehab counselor at a Texas drug treatment center who is one of the few actual innocents in the book.

What makes Calvin enjoyable is the fact that all the people he murders in the 200-pages of Dirtbags are worse assholes than he is. There is not a single likeable person among Calvin’s victims.

Certainly not Tom London, the man who sets the killing spree in motion by originally hiring Calvin to murder his ex-wife. As Pruitt describes him, London is a grade “A” shithead who stiffs everyone he meets and even tries to cheat the contract killer he has hired. London cares only about himself. He boffs  every cosmetologist in town, runs up unpaid bills with his restaurant’s suppliers, lies to his young son and screws the woman who manages his restaurant – who also happens to be Calvin’s wife.

Pruitt gives us similar insights into most of the other people that populate his witty and entertaining book.

Thus, London’s wife, Reyna is portrayed as shrill and heartless, as mean-spirited as a snake; the county sheriff’s chief assistant, Deputy Shackle, is a bent lawman who takes money from vice operators and has a shoebox full of cash in his bedroom; Phillip Krandall, Calvin’s original partner in crime, is a vengeful little rat who has been looking for a way to extract revenge against the world that has shunted him aside for years; Bubba Greene, the dance club proprietor who dabbles in virtually every type of vice practiced in Calvin’s home town, is a vile-tempered brute who extracts sexual favors from the “dancers” who lure local peckerwoods to his club for parking lot prostitution.

Even the local Bible thumping judge, who has his own hypocritical reasons for wanting the hillbilly dance parlor closed down.

Selfish and heartless to the core, each of Calvin’s targets is somebody who richly deserves to die.

Each has his or her weaknesses exposed as neatly as the rubberized plumbing of a toad in a high school biology lab. For instance, when London is informed he is suspected of complicity in the death of his ex-wife, “He walked slowly at first toward the kitchen, then picked up the pace a bit. Once in the kitchen, he rushed to the sink and vomited, chucking up everything he’d eaten that day and perhaps the day before and, for all he knew, everything he’d ever eaten in his entire life.”

London blames everybody else for his woes; but the real reason his life is a mess is that he is a pure-bred shit heel. For example, the restaurateur is sucking down ethanol in practically every scene where he appears, and ends up passing out in a booth at his steak house when he is is thrown out by his social-climbing wife, Reyna. Despite his rampant dipsomania, he absurdly tells one of his female sex partners that his relationship with Reyna is troubled because of her drinking problem:

“It’s because Reyna is an alcoholic.” London says as he rattles ice cubes in his recently emptied vodka glass. “She’s not stable. I can’t live with someone like that. She runs hot, then she runs cold. You have no idea the pain I’ve been in.”

Others get a similar dissection: for instance, in introducing London’s lawyer to the reader, Pruitt observes that “The Law Offices of J.B. Baird and Associates was modern back in its heyday. Heydays went south a while back. To be more specific, they went to India or China or some shit. Jobs don’t grow on trees, so folks ran short on money. One type of person survives when heydays move on; J.B. Baird was one of them.”

With a character like Calvin at center stage, it would have been easy for Pruitt to simply mail it in; instead he produces one plot twist after another that keep us riveted to the page (I started the book at ten p.m., figuring I would spend two hours reading then go to sleep. I ended up finishing the damned thing at two a.m. and ended up getting up to write because I was too charged up to sleep).

He leavens the horror of Calvin’s murder spree by tossing in enough dark humor to make the reader laugh. For instance, at one point late in the narrative he says of Calvin’s wife, “Rather than deal with the disappointments of having an attuned bullshit detector, Rhonda Cantrell figured it good and well to simply shut it off. . . It was a skill she learned [lapdancing at the club] where, if she ever took note and focused, there wasn’t a single human being worth a glass of water should they suddenly catch flame.”

Dirtbags is fun and horrific at the same time, certainly one of the better crime reads currently on the market; as Calvin might say, I recommend it with nary a qualm.