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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. . .

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Taking Your Inspiration from The Boss

By  Dennis Lehane, Hilary, Davidson, Chris Holm, Todd Robinson, Les Edgerton, Jen Conley, et. al.

Edited by Joe Clifford
(248 pages)
(Gutter Books/Zelmer Pulp Press, Fall 2014)

When you turn it over in your mind, Bruce Springsteen is one of the contemporary masters of noir: his songs are alive with desperate people up against the odds, their futures blighted by their own bad choices, their mistakes and their passion.

For proof, just look at "The River," a track about the travails of a young couple who live in a declining burg on the edge of nowhere in Springsteen's eponymous 1980 album. It has a tremor of foreboding in the first verse ("they bring you up to do just like your daddy done"), then brings it home at the beginning of the second, relating a mistake that destroys their dreams and robs them of their youthful innocence:

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote;
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a winter coat.  
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest:
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress.

By the last verse, the couple is trapped in a loveless marriage, numbed by the bitter turn their life has taken and how conditions outside their control made things worse. As the song ends, the reader can't be sure that the singer -- the male half of the couple -- isn't desperate enough to dive into that river for the last time:

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?
Or is it something worse,  
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry.
That sends me down to the river tonight...

No Jim Thompson story was ever sadder or more hopeless than this song, which tells the bleak tale of how this young couple became trapped and isolated in a way that bleeds them of emotion as surely as a box knife blade across the carotid.

Springsteen's catalog is laden with this type of noirish material: "My Home Town," "Youngstown," "Lost in the Flood," "The Ghost of Tom Joad." These are desperate lyrics about desperate people living in desperate times. Some, such as "Nebraska," which was inspired by the Midwestern crime spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, have been open in their outlaw themes. Others are less overt.

So it only makes sense for Springsteen's music to inspire an anthology of crime fiction heavily slanted toward the transgressive darkness of pulp fiction and the blackest of noir

Fortunately, this idea occurred to two people in positions to make it happen, Chris Leek (Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em) of Zelmer Pulp, a small imprint that specializes in hard-edged fiction, and Joe Clifford of Out of the Gutter Online and Gutter Books, another publishing operation that specializes in gritty crime stories.

The product of this collaboration is Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of 50 stories by some of the top writers working in contemporary crime fiction -- people such as Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island); Hilary Davidson (Blood Always Tells and 2011 Anthony Award winner The Damage Done); Lynne BarretSteve Weddle (Country Hardball), Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce), Chris F. Holm (the Collector trilogy), and Tom Pitts (Hustle, Piggyback).

A portion of the net proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to The Bob Woodruff Foundation, an organization that helps injured veterans and their families thrive after they return home by finding and funding innovative programs that assist them.

The book is edited by Clifford, whose own work has been spotlighted here in recent weeks. As he puts it in the book's forward, "I've been a fan for years, but I had no idea so many other crime writers loved the Boss as much as I did.  Makes sense, though. Bruce, like the best pulp fiction, champions losers and loners on lost highways, those seeking last shots at redemption."

The anthology starts with a bang. First up is Lehane's offering, "State Trooper," a full-bore short story about a drug courier who is trying to get things back together after a run of bad luck that apparently started when he was born.

Dennis Lehane (courtesy Wikipedia)
The driver, piloting a stolen Honda with a cargo that is never seen but is almost certainly pharmaceutical in nature, has done everything by the numbers: he is clean and sober, driving a car so dull it might as well be invisible, pulling the speed limit and doing nothing erratic. Still he manages to capture the attention of a late night statie hopped up on adrenaline and looking to nail somebody on his shift -- And. The. Man. Simply. Won't. Let. Go.

Lehane's yarn is one of the most brilliantly engineered pieces of fiction I have read in years. He tells the reader almost nothing, but implies every critical detail of his protagonist's life -- his emotionally wounded ex-, his little son, his furtive, fearful brother.

He never tells you outright that the character is black, but lets you infer it from the man's reaction to the droning talk radio commentators he keeps channel-checking on his car's tuner. The drones make it clear that the driver's "type" has no place in their America.

I'm not a racist, one of them tells his legion of mouth-breathing listeners. I'm just someone who loves the English language. I'm just a man who wants the English language to stay the language of kings, not the language of a bunch of do-rag lovin' homies can't tell the difference between crystal and Cristal, Know what I'm saying, yo?

And there is no way the reader can escape the conclusion that at least part of the reason why the cop keys in on him in his clapped-out nondescript gray Honda is racism. One big hint is the fact that the trooper's name is Whitman. Another is the fact that, because the courier is a black man on the Interstate in the middle of the night, he obviously must be doing something illegal, right?

"State Trooper" is a postgraduate class in how to build suspense and a sense of menace in a story without being obvious. Despite the fact that no violence occurs in his tale, Lehane lets us know that the potential is there, almost from the first sentence, and grows ever stronger as the story proceeds. That all hell is finally about to break loose is obvious as the tale rolls to its conclusion and the courier puts his hand on the snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver next to his seat.

Cool. Understated. Brilliant.

Other standout stories include Hilary Davidson's "Hungry Heart" in which a beer-joint Lothario picks an inopportune time to tell the woman he hopes to go home with that he was previously married and has two children. She takes his forgetfulness unkindly, and when he tries to force his affections on her anyway, she puts a bullet through his brisket.

Hilary Davidson (courtesy of Twitter)

"Don't worry. I'll call 9-1-1," she tells him as he lies dying. "Just as soon as you bleed out."

Lynne Barrett weighs in with "Dancing in the Dark," in which a woman hires a crew to help her do yard work while her police officer husband recovers from an on-the-job injury. The crew's leader makes advances to her and she accedes -- then ends up killing him when he shows up in the middle of the night unexpectedly. 

The story takes a wicked turn in the last few hundred words -- the kind that leaves you shaking your head while wearing a bemused smile.

How the hell did she think of that? you'll wonder.

Les Edgerton gives us "The Iceman," a story about a man whose wife thought she knew everything there was to know about him -- everything except the most important thing. Tom Pitts tells us about a "Local Hero" who forgets that his glory days are behind him until an old rival reminds him in a particularly rude way. 

Tom Pitts (courtesy of Amazon.com)

And speaking of "Glory Days," in his yarn by that name, C.S. DeWildt gives us a reunion between Stimpy and Lindsay, a pair of high school lovers that ends a bit differently than Stimpy was expecting.

There are long stories and short -- with Swill Magazine editor Rob Pierce's "Rosalita" winning the prize for brevity at only 29 words. There are funny stories, like David James Keaton's surrealistic tale "The Ghost of Jim Toad." There are sad stories like Richard Brewer's "Last to Die." There are stories like Court Merrigan's "Promised Land," in which a long-planned revenge offers a new career to a young woman fresh from a stint in a state prison. And there are stories like Eric Beetner's "Open All Night," which is set in a 24-hour diner where several murderous subplots come together as messily as a dropped flat of restaurant eggs.

When Trouble in the Heartland is released in the near future, we will announce it here, on my twitter feed and on my Facebook author page. Do pick up a copy. You will be supporting a worthwhile cause, and you will find it so full of amazing goodies you'll want to throw the Boss on the box and do a little dancing in the dark, yourself.

Sorry, though: you'll have to find your own Courteney Cox to pull up on stage with you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cold Shot

By Joe Clifford
357 KB; 218 pages
ISBN: 0615782957
( Battered Suitcase Press, April 5, 2013)
(e-Book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

So, you're looking for a light summer read, something cheerful, humorous: a crime novel, maybe, with a twisted plot, a grand caper, a huge score and interesting characters. A book that ends with the perps, free and clear, making off to the Balearic Islands with their ill-gotten swag.

You want interesting characters, car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs featuring automatic weapons, and bodies stacked up like cordwood. The equivalent, in fact, of those popcorn matinees crowded with teens on any Saturday between June and September.

If that's what you're looking for, bunkie, all I can tell you is, stay the fuck away from Junkie Love, Joe Clifford's semi-autobiographical novel about his strung-out years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Yeah, there's crime in the book. But it's the kind of sordid chickenshit that junkies do to scrape together enough cash for a fix: dumpster diving for something saleable, kiting checks on non-existent bank accounts, identity theft, petty rip-offs from hardware stores and from other dope fiends' stashes of broken tape decks, dirty underwear and obsolete black and white television sets.

And the plot is twisted, in large part because the star of the show really had no idea what he was doing. His concerns were limited to getting loaded and screwing the junkie chicks who drifted through his world like dying fish in a turgid stream.

But the perps never escape, not to the Balearics or anyplace else someone would actually want to be. The closest they ever come is stints in rehab, or the medical lockup at the county hospital, usually not from any desire to get clean but because they have run out of money for drugs and are too sick and tired to hustle more.

Admittedly, the characters in this book are interesting. They come by it honestly: most are howling-dog crazy, driven insane by the drugs they use or the demons that made them addicts in the first place.

There's no car chases -- just a seemingly endless series of yo-yo trips from one end of the country to the other in a desperate effort to outrun addiction. The fist fights are stumble-bum maulings like the drunken brawls between alcoholics in an alley outside a beer joint. And there are no shoot-outs -- just shoot ups.

Squarely in the center of the action is Clifford, literally the star of his own screenplay. Figuratively, too, when it comes to that.

Readers of Pulp Hack Confessions should be familiar with Joe by now: he and his lovely wife produce Lip Service West: True Stories, a series of readings by East Bay authors. He is one of the editors of Out of the Gutter Online , an electronic magazine that specializes in pulp fiction, and Gutter Books, a small book publishing house. He has written two other novels (one of which, Lamentation, is due out in October and was previewed here on July 19), and is the author of a host of short stories published in Thuglit, and Pulp Ink 2

Joe Clifford: I'm becoming convinced he doesn't know
how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad book.

Junkie Love is a mildly fictionalized gloss on Clifford's life as a user of a pharmacopeia of substances forbidden by local, state and federal law.

By his account, practically the only thing you find in a drug store that he didn't shoot during this period is Preparation H. Frankly, that surprises me: I guess it's too hard to heat the stuff up in a tablespoon and load it into a syringe.

It's hard telling how much of the book is an accurate depiction of Clifford's life in the lower circle of junkie hell and how much is fantasy. He admits he isn't certain himself. As he puts it in his foreword:

Over the years, I've published several excerpts in literary magazines, journals, e-zines and quarterlies, giving readings in bookstores, at festivals and fairs, on NPR. People seem to like it. But the question is always the same: Is this story true?

And the answer is . . .I don't know.

I don't either, but it seems pretty damned true-to-life to me.

Perhaps Junkie Love substitutes artistic truth for the factual variety. God knows Clifford is blunt enough about the years he spent hustling and committing petty crimes to get his next fix that it is impossible to dismiss the book as a vanity job. 

There is little to admire about Clifford as he lies, steals and cheats his way through life, even to the point of swiping OxyContin from his dying mother.

There is little to admire as he has casual and not so casual sex with drug-addled women who seem to think only about dope and shooting gallery rutting -- except when they are obsessing about the government agents, devil worshippers and Masons they are convinced have them under 24-hour-a-day surveillance.

"In rehab, I am a rock star," he says in one passage. "A guy like me only needs two things to pick up girls on the inside: candy and cigarettes. Junkie girls going through withdrawal crave the sugar and there isn't much to do in between groups on proper nutrition, emotional triggers and relapse prevention except smoke."

In segments like this, the book reads like a how-to manual for emotional judo, complete with instructions to "use manipulation and take a person's inherent goodness and generosity and use it against him to get what you wanted."

Clifford makes it clear that he thought what was driving him into this lurid existence was his desire to emulate writers, musicians and artists he had read about, turning his vicarious understanding of how their genius was shaped by drugs and alcohol into first-hand experience.

[After all, DeQuincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Coleridge: all of those guys were dopers, right? And if he hadn't been a lifelong heroin addict who killed his wife, William S. Burroughs would hardly have had anything to write about.]

In a section describing the rock musicians he hung with on Belvedere Street in his early days in San Francisco, Clifford even invokes Hemingway:

When Hemingway was living as an expatriate in Paris in the '20s, he wrote how lucky he was to be in a city teeming with such raw artistic possibility. That's how I felt about San Francisco and the Belvedere Boys -- like something important was going to happen. This was our moveable feast.

But by the time he enrolls in his final rehab program, he confronts the fact that his search for an artistic breakthrough by means of drugs was just a sham:

I've told myself that I live for art and beauty, that I've thwarted the conventional for the sake of higher principles and have endured years of torment with the belief that a big payoff would justify the misery. It is clear to me now that no such moment is coming. I am full of shit.

His real breakthrough comes when he cleans himself up with this final rehab stay. Toward its end, he has a conversation with his therapist, Dr. Stevens, in which it is clear to both men that he has turned the corner and is ready to move on.

"I guess it's time you get out of here, anyway," Dr. Stevens says. "They're [the rehab facility] running out of gold stars."

"Funny guy."

"You know, when you first came in, I wasn't sure you'd make it through the night."

I wait. "Neither was I."

Junkie Love is not exactly an amusement park ride, full of thrills, spills and excitement. Despite this, it's a hell of a book -- and a hell of an accomplishment.

Yeah, it's depressing; but it also has passages that are laugh out loud funny, while others will make you cringe at what Clifford went through.

And it is beautifully put together; I am becoming convinced that Clifford doesn't know how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad paragraph, story or book.

People who have no idea what addiction is about could use this book to get some useful knowledge. Those who know -- or who think they do -- should read it anyway; particularly if they've ever rolled their eyes smugly at a tweaker's paranoiac speed rap, or sneered at a junkie, needle still sticking out of his arm, nodding off in some Tenderloin alley.

Though he would probably laugh bitterly at the notion, it seems to me that Joe Clifford got a lot from the time he spent in junkie hell.

Best of all, he got out alive.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Gritty Story About Brotherly Love

By Joe Clifford
(310 pages)
(Oceanview Publishing; Oct. 7, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1608091333
ISBN-13: 978-1608091331

Full disclosure: my brother was a junkie like Chris, the protagonist's sibling in Lamentation, Joe Clifford's new novel. My sibling Tony was ten years younger than me; despite this, I spent my 58th birthday putting him underground.

He was a needle-sharing speed freak who couldn't stay out of trouble and ended up spending time in jail and at least two California prisons. I stopped by the jail in Placerville to visit Tony when our father died, but he refused to leave his cell; he said he was ashamed to have me see him dressed in county orange.

He didn't die of an overdose. Like a lot of needle-sharers, he used contaminated spikes and became a Hep C victim.

My point is, I think I know a little something about being the straight brother of a crank shooter. And from that perspective, I can tell you Clifford's book gets it exactly right: my brother may have been a dope fiend like Chris, but he was still my brother -- with all the heartbreak, love and disappointment that entails.

Lamentation is told from the perspective of Jay, Chris's younger brother. The novel is set in the fictional community of Ashton in rural New Hampshire and revolves around Jay's attempts to deal with Chris's addiction and protect him after he becomes a "person of interest" in the murder of another doper, Pete, with whom Chris operates a rag-tag computer recycling business. 

Jay has had a love-hate relationship with his older brother since their parents were killed in a car wreck. When they were younger, Jay attempted to get Chris into rehab, to clean him up and help ease him back into society; but after Chris repeatedly lapsed back into drug abuse, Jay all but wrote him off as a dope fiend and loser.

Superficially, at least, his assessment is valid: Chris is essentially homeless, augmenting his meagre earnings from the computer business by turning tricks at a local truck stop, and pulling in enough occasional income to take a room at a sordid truck stop motel that specializes in rentals by the hour.

Not that Jay is exactly a success story, himself: he makes a hand-to-mouth living clearing houses whose occupants have died, boxing up dead people's furniture and knick-knacks for his boss to sell to area antique dealers. He has a two-year-old son, Aidan, by a woman named Jenny that he is deeply in love with, but he's messed their relationship up so completely that his ex- has shacked up with a former motorcycle outlaw rather than go on living with him. His social circle consists of one really close friend -- even though he lives in the kind of pissant town where everyone knows everybody else and no one ever leaves -- and a big night out is a couple of beers at a local pub while a Bruins game flickers on the TV.

It's a lot like Placerville, California, the burg where I was born and spent my teenage years. Spend a year or so in a place like Ashton or Placerville and you stop wondering why people get strung out on drugs.

As bad as things are, they take a turn for the worse when Chris and his partner get hold of a computer hard-drive that contains compromising information someone wants buried. First Pete, the partner, is murdered, his body dumped in a pool of storm runoff. Chris tells his brother about the drive, but Chris's frequent paranoid delusions make Jay skeptical.

Then Chris goes missing, the squalid shack Jay lives in is ransacked and Jay gets his head cracked by an intruder. The responsible younger brother soon finds himself searching for his irresponsible sibling in a world populated by biker gang members, skanky truck-stop prostitutes, crooked politicians and incompetent police.

Despite its no-nonsense, hardboiled veneer, Lamentation is surprisingly tender. While the novel is essentially a crime story, at its core is the uneasy relationship between the two brothers, a relationship so fraught with doom that it colors everything else in their lives.

Renaissance man Joe Clifford (courtesy of joeclifford.com)

Clifford is the author of two other novels, Junkie Love (which will be reviewed Sunday, July 20) and Wake the Undertaker. He has written numerous short stories, is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online, and produces Lip Service West: True Stories, a regular series of readings by local authors.

He is deft in his use of description to bring his characters to life. He succeeds in making each major figure in the book unique and believable, even relatively minor ones like the local county sheriff, or the former biker who is living with Jay's ex.

And he serves up some delicious Chandleresque writing in the process. While visiting his friend Charlie's house, for example, he paints the scene indelibly:

"Charlie hadn't redecorated since his mom died, and the house retained that old-lady feel, all decor left over from the 1970s -- paisley print sofas and wagon-wheel coffee tables, shitty paintings that you could buy for a quarter at any garage sale up here because at one time or another every retiree in New Hampshire tries their hand at painting."

In another section, he describes the cheap homemade version of methamphetamine available in New England as "a science project for sleep deprived zombies," concocted from a laundry list of toxic ingredients that includes "gun bluing and industrial strength ammonia, miner's coal and jet fuel, corrosive chemicals you find under a sink. Basically, the very last kind of ingredients you want to put in your body, and this had been my brother's primary diet for years. No wonder his brains were oozing out his ears. In a few years he'd be draped in garbage bags and talking to beer cans at the bus station."

In describing Ashton, the tiny town where he lives, Jay notes that the place has legitimate businesses like Jiffy Lube and Best Buy, but adds "in between all the department outlets and national chains were still the places no one really wanted to be: cheap motels, dollar stores, military surplus shacks, knickknack and consignment shops, The Salvation Army, fast food drive-throughs, all-night gas stations."

I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of really good stories by new authors working in the neo-pulp tradition this year and Lamentation is one of the best: the writing is crisp, the plot sufficiently complex to hold the reader's interest and keep him or her off-balance, and the characters believable and fully-developed.

There is even enough mystery about what is actually going on that most the book functions as a legitimate whodunit, and the actual motive for the mayhem is not revealed until the story is nearly over.

But while Clifford's novel is a crime thriller, it is really much, much more: it is a truly excellent story of the troubled relationship between brothers, a topic that gives it additional value outside its literary genre.

Lamentation is a treat. This was one of those books I was sorry to see end.