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. . .

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pitts Throws A Knuckleball In the Zone

By Tom Pitts
128 pages
(One Eye Press; March 24, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0692370773
ISBN-13: 978-0692370773

The classic knuckleball is thrown with the outside of the pitcher’s fingernails tucked against the horsehide of the ball. The technique makes the ball’s path almost impossible to follow for the batter, and a pitch that initially seems to be inside the strike zone often ends up far outside.

Tom Pitts’ excellent novella, “Knuckleball,” is the same type of pitch: so deceptive that it takes the reader by surprise, inducing him to swing at a phantom while the ball sails by unscathed.

Author Tom Pitts

Pitts is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online and the author of one of my favorite novellas, “Piggyback” (Snubnose Press, 2012). 

He also wrote the astonishing Hustle, a grim and bloody story about two rent boys’ attempt to shake down an elderly criminal defense attorney.

He spins Knuckleball with audacious skill.

To summarize the plot, a policeman, Hugh Patterson, is gunned down in uniform while watching a Giants game in a Mission District taqueria. The cop’s partner, Vince Alvarez, is some distance away when the shooting goes down, trying to raise his wife on his cell phone.

The shooter, a young Latino in a hoodie, a Giants team shirt and dark clothing, disappears into the crowd while Vince struggles to return to the scene. Despite a spate of rumors that emerge afterward – all of which are untrue – there is no clear motive for the crime.

Hugh’s murder convulses the city. Patterson, an obscure patrolman of no particular note, becomes a hero overnight solely by virtue of his inexplicable death. A reward raised for his attacker’s capture is quickly increased several times. He is memorialized on the giant Jumbotron scoreboard at AT&T Park, his 60-foot-high image rendered literally larger than life. The city is plastered with his photo, and the news of his death makes page one in both papers.

Meanwhile, Vince is guilt-ridden over his absence when the shooting occurred and lies about where he was when the shots were fired. Homicide detectives are baffled by his inability to give more than a vague description of the killer and grill him repeatedly about the shooting.

A few days later, Oscar, another young Latino man, identifies his sadistic, depraved brother Ramon as the gunman. He and a Mission District wino pick the brother out of a police lineup. Vince reluctantly goes along with the identification, even though he had not seen the shooter and had no idea who he was.

All this happens in the first third of the novella. The remainder of Pitts’ slim book concerns how the various conflicts work themselves out – or fail to.

The book drips with doom from the opening pages.

Pitts describes Patterson as the ideal police officer, a cop who “loved his uniform, loved his beat. Twice a week he and his partner were required to walk the 24th Street corridor. Only twice a week, Hugh lamented. They would take their time strolling from General Hospital all the way to Guerrero Street, stopping to hand out SFPD stickers to kids, to tell the older men to pour out their beers, and to gather intelligence, what his dad had called street smarts. You have to know your beat, Hugh would tell his partner.”

We hear of Patterson’s halting and only partially successful efforts to speak to Mission residents in their own tongue, his concern about poor and downtrodden residents, his reluctance to collar people for minor infractions, choosing instead to tap them for information that might lead to bigger, more important arrests.

A law enforcement officer so honest, open and responsive to the citizenry he serves can’t last long. Sure enough, Patterson is killed only a few pages into the book.

Pitts’ terse descriptions of the Mission are as clear and accurate as his treatment of the Tenderloin in Hustle.

In the latter book, you could almost smell the sour scent of human piss in the alleyways, the mildew aroma of the vagrants sleeping off a midday drunk in doorways, the reek of Lysol used to mop the cum from the booths in adult bookstores.

In Knuckleball, you can smell the decaying fruit from the bodegas, the spilled beer in the plaza at 16th Street BART, the pungent fat of carnitas cooking in the taco stands and the skunky odor of ganja drifting from the alleys.

This brief novel is classic noir that turns on transgressive behavior: characters screw up, then compound their original mistake while trying to conceal it. Pitts makes it clear that no good deed goes unpunished. In the wake of Patterson’s murder, Alvarez is subjected to hostile questioning by colleagues. Oscar is confronted by a petty criminal for snitching off his violent and despicable sibling while his mother, who cleans up a beauty salon to support the two young men, ignores his complaints about Ramon’s monstrous nature.

Looking back over the storyline, some of the plot developments seem inevitable. But Pitts manages to keep the reader plowing along, driven in large part by the questions: “What makes these people tick? Where is this book taking me next?” That is the nature of true psychological suspense – not a series of cliffhangers designed to artificially push the reader to the end.

At roughly 123 pages, Knuckleball is exactly the right length: Pitts does more in this slim volume than “art literature” authors can manage in an entire shelf of books.

The book starts with one murder and ends with a second; sandwiched between them is enough pain and stress to fill a psychological treatment manual. Knuckleball is a hell of a story. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll -- and Anarchy -- in a Nation in Decline

The Triangle
By J. Buck Williams
221 pages
(Gutter Books; April 3, 2015)
eBook:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: The Triangle didn’t blow up the Pike Place Pig. Buck has his suspicions about who did, but the evidence is largely circumstantial.

On the other hand, there’s no question the band was responsible for the arson fire at The Rocket, Seattle’s premiere rock dive. And they blew up the millionaire’s yachts at the Anacostia Marina just outside D.C.  And helped spread trimethyl-L-triptophan 47, the illegal drug known to users as “Zone.” And they did shoot down the National Guard helicopter in Cleveland and destroy the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The band's cryptic logo: an equilateral triangle happy face smoking a spliff, , , 

Let’s see Nirvana beat that. It’s not a bad record for a four-member punk group from Seattle – almost as good as Nevermind!

The Triangle is a book about the exploits of the group and its rise from anonymity to . . . well, to anonymity.

The band’s middle-aged leader, Buck (he just happens to have the same name as the book’s author, J. Buck Williams) has held a variety of jobs, but keeps returning to music as his first love, despite his lack of success as the front man, singer and lyricist for a variety of groups.

Author Joe Buck Williams
He despises those he knows who have adopted dull middle-class lifestyles with the requisite SUV in the driveway, the pool in the back yard and the kids underfoot. He will either succeed on his own terms or fail so spectacularly he will at least become a footnote in musical history.

“All at once, I saw my choices laid out in front of me,” he says at one point in the book. “You could sell out and end up with enough money to want more, but never enough to be at ease. You could maintain your dignity and toil in poverty for the rest of your life. Or you could pick your fight and be so loud that they couldn’t ignore you. I decided I’d be the loudest of them all.”

Through sheer luck, he finds himself thrown together with several much younger musicians. At least two of them appear to have more raw musical talent than Buck. As an aggregate, the quartet has the kind of sound that catches the casual fan’s ear while firing the serious fan’s imagination. 

The band becomes a huge – if unlikely – hit. Its success is pointed up by the fact that the country is quickly flooded by bootleg copies of its first set: a low-fi recording of its performance at an anarchist gathering in Seattle’s Pikes Place Market that turns into a disastrous riot.

The Triangle’s involvement in the riot and a subsequent series of violent acts not only puts the group on the music lover’s map, but also squarely on the FBI’s radar.

The band makes its way to Southern California, the desert of the Southwest, Texas, the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. On the road, they meet rowdy roadies, band chicks, dope dealers, cookers and lifestylers and a group of drug-addled followers who seem a lot like Deadheads – if Deadheads all had felony rap sheets. Even a group of mercenaries hired to provide the band with security ends up in the shit by trading in illicit firearms.

At the same time, Buck’s anti-establishment lyrics aim to foment red revolution: The Triangle’s music is a scathing critique of consumerism, conventional politics, corporate culture and the one percent.

Despite the hijinks, the rather open criminality and the front man’s downer political prognosis, The band’s popularity and notoriety grow steadily. The tour comes to a head in Cleveland, where an unadvertised Triangle concert is surrounded by police and federal agents, National Guard helicopters buzz the crowd and all hell breaks loose.

To say anything more would be the spoiler to end all spoilers.

Don’t get me wrong: The Triangle doesn’t simply consist of one grim incident followed by another. Williams recognizes that even the most depressing message is more likely to stick with a reader if it is served up with a smile or two.

The smiles offered by the book are plentiferous.

At one point, for example, Williams counts off the various instruments and the contribution they can be expected to make in the hands of the right musician.

“A bass is limited by the low register it’s stuck in and its necessary role as a bridge between
the other instruments. A drum kit may be more or less elaborate, but it always sounds exactly as good as the person playing it, with no way to hide insufficient practice or talent. A sax sounds like a sax. A cello sounds like a cello. Keyboards sound like limp dick unless they were manufactured before 1983. Bagpipes sound like hell. Ask Bon Scott.”

Later, Buck’s ex-wife Anastasia recognizes his voice when he and his crew sweep a group of imposters from the stage at a nightclub and take over. Knowing the band is wanted for blowing up the Pike Place Pig, she threatens to turn him in unless he writes a song about her and records it. He does, but it isn’t exactly a romantic serenade:

She’s the only woman that I ever knew
who could smile even when she was crying.
She hated her nose and she hated her hair,
but she never ever gave up trying.
We slept in the same bed for five long years;
it was meaningless, shallow, and blunt.
She always washed her hands before mixing a drink,
my beautiful Campari Cunt.

In the final pages, Buck tries to summarize why rock is important. The passage goes on for most of three pages and ends with this: “You think it’s about vinyl. Sex. Fashion.
Drugs. Death. Bombs. Guitars. Love. Rockets. Amps. Candles. Triumph. Warfare. Excess. Mayhem. Chaos. Disorder. Anger. Loudness. Bass. Guitar. Drums. More guitar. Always more guitar! You can never have too much guitar.”

While the descriptions of the band, its life on the road and its followers are frequently humorous, it is clear that author Williams has wrapped them around a serious analysis of a U.S. society in utter decline.

As he says in his prefatory remarks, “I wrote this book in 2008 and 2009, when it seemed like the country was collapsing. Things aren’t quite as dire as they were then, but for most of us, the world hasn’t changed all that much. The middle class is still hollowed out and suffering, even though company profits have returned to record highs. The economy is still crummy, despite a lower unemployment rate (caused in part by so many discouraged workers giving up). Politicians are still useless, bordering on hostile. We’re not exactly at war in Iraq any more, but things are heating up in the Middle East again and you’d have to be a fool to assume we’re going to sit on the sidelines.

“These are the themes I set out to describe and explore, and sadly they’re just as relevant today as they were then.”

Maybe when you set aside Buck’s anarchy, his critique of corporate culture and his conviction that Twentieth Century life is empty and meaningless, the book’s message is really very simple. As Buck puts it, “There are people in this world, in your world, who do not live for anything else. Playing rock and roll music is all we want to do, and all we can do that makes sense to us. It’s beyond desire, beyond addiction.”

Williams has written a righteously enjoyable book here. There is enough criminal activity in it to satisfy a hard-boiled fan, enough cynicism about the social structure of the U.S. to fuel a rebellion and enough humor to tie the other ingredients together into a satisfying whole.

Take it from me, if you like rock ‘n’ roll, ever played in a band good enough to tour, spent any time in a recording studio or ran from the feds, you should like this book.

Hell, the only instrument I play these days is an iPod and I thought it was swell.

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. . .