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. . .

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Dark Money and Deep Government Infest Lisa Brackman’s Excellent New Thriller


By Lisa Brackman
384 pages

(Soho Crime; July 5, 2016)

ISBN-10: 1616957247

ISBN-13: 978-1616957247

I can’t dole out enough praise for Lisa Brackmann: she not only writes page-turning thrillers as well as anybody in the business, but her stories invariably spin off the populist strain I have dubbed “red noir,” a type of hard-boiled fiction that focuses on the real criminals in our society: crooked politicians and police, corrupt governmental agencies and the huge corporations that pull the strings to get with they want, without regard to what the public needs.

Lisa Brackmann
Go-Between, Lisa’s latest, is up to its throat in the rats that infest modern American society and the rest of the post-industrial world. It is absolutely gripping and deserves a spot on the bookshelf right next to Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, two of the most noteworthy entries in this subgenre.

The novel will not officially be released until July, but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy for review. After reading it, all I can say is: mark July 25 on your calendar or preorder a copy now – I certainly have!

It’s no spoiler to say this book picks up with the major characters in her similarly excellent crime novel, Getaway, only with an intriguing twist.

If readers remember, after her husband’s death, Michelle Mason, the protagonist of Getaway, discovered that the real estate empire he operated was a sham, mired in fraudulent transactions and wholesale debt. Facing the end of his money – and her posh Beverly Hills lifestyle – she has taken a pre-arranged trip to Puerto Vallarta to regroup and figure out her next step.

On her last day, she meets Danny Finn, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who now operates a charter business. They spend an afternoon and evening in alcoholic carousing and become at least temporary lovers.

But Danny, it develops, ferry’s drugs into the U.S. as a contract employee of a crooked and sadistic CIA man named Gary. Gary forces Michelle to spy on a Mexican drug lord to avoid prison on trumped-up charges.

The book features Michelle being exposed to a variety of menaces, and she and Danny escape by means of her grit, keen intelligence and resourcefulness.

Go-Between picks up her story a couple of years later. She and Danny have changed their names and moved to Arcata, California, where she operates an upscale restaurant and he is a fire-fighter, albeit one who keeps his hand in the clandestine world of drug running by transporting pot.

Danny gets nabbed by the DEA in Texas while bringing in a load, and Gary reappears from the past to use Danny’s arrest and incarceration as a wedge to force Michelle into another unwanted spying mission: acting as the appointment secretary and girl Friday for Kaitlin O’Connor, a depressive and dipsomaniacal Texas millionaire who is the figurehead of a crime victims’ advocacy group.

The details of what occurs in the novel are too complex to quickly summarize. Suffice to say that Michelle finds herself squeezed between the shadowy U.S. black ops establishment, conservative businesses that profit hugely from the war on drugs and concomitant prison boom, and the drug dealers who, for ingenious reasons, secretly finance the anti-crime group. As the novel unfolds, she finds a way out of her predicament, prevents an assassination and meets with gangsters, a dowdy murderess, a drug legalization advocate and clueless lawyers who have been roped into the scheme without knowing the actual stakes.

The politics of the book are marvelous from my perspective. Instead of focusing on the activities of some penny ante hustler or cheap street crook, Brackmann takes on big business, the role of dark money in politics, the behind-the-scenes political maneuverings of law enforcement agencies and the secret manipulations of fundamentally corrupt organizations like the CIA.

These are gigantic targets that have far more impact on the average citizen than the stick-up artist who plunders $1600 from the till in the typical commercial robbery.

Michelle Mason is a marvelous heroine. Beaten, sexually assaulted and left to die in a Puerto Vallarta garbage heap, she was rather helpless in Getaway. Since then, however, she has beefed up, learned some self-defense techniques and become a cool-headed markswoman with a handgun.  Not that she is going to give a real trigger-happy badass like Greg Barth’s Selena a run for her money, but she is at least more competent at staving off an attacker than she was in her first appearance.

And it isn’t her dead eye with a .38 caliber revolver or her martial arts skill that gets her through tight spots, anyway; it’s her cool head and wicked intelligence. It becomes clear that Gary may be a step or two ahead of her in the early going but she is a fast study and an adept at mental judo – using her opponent’s arrogance and cunning against him.

The characters in this novel are all completely realized and jump off the page, even those who have relatively minor parts in the story like Danny’s mysterious “friend,” Sam, or Gary’s frumpy but lethal henchwoman, Carlene.

Though the clues that turn out to be critical for Michelle appear in a fashion that seems a bit deus ex machina in some ways, their discovery is neatly worked into the plot with total believability. Aside from this relatively minor point, the book cobs along at a rapid pace (I read it in two short sittings, even though it is more than 370 pages long) and it ends in a satisfying way that signals us this marvelous character may have additional adventures in the future.

I, for one, would be delighted to see them. Like Ellie McEnroe, the heroine of Brackmann’s series set in post-Mao China (Rock, Paper, Tiger; Hour of the Rat; Year of the Tiger; Dragon Day), Michelle Mason has become one of my favorite literary characters, and Lisa Brackmann one of my favorite authors.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Greg Barth’s Bad Girl Selena is Back

By Greg Barth
228 pages
(All Due Respect Books, March 31, 2016)
e-Book issued by Amazon

Greg Barth, author of Bona Fide Jobs and Where Moth and Dust Corrupt, wrapped up the saga of Selena, the homicidal hooker, in Suicide Lounge, the third and ostensibly last book of his Selena trilogy.

Author Greg Barth
I read the book in two middle-of-the-night binges, shutting off my Kindle at five each morning.  If my e-Book had pages to turn, my fingers would be calloused from going through this fast-paced, brutal story.

Was it any good? Consider this: I would happily read Selena 4, 5, 6, etc.

Book One introduces Selena, a drug and alcohol abusing prostitute who is a physical wreck after she inadvertently swipes a CD full of credit card information that is the property of an organized crime group.

She requires extensive surgery for broken bones, a crushed eye socket, damage to her reproductive system and a variety of other injuries at the hands of the criminals. Pulling herself together, she takes temporary shelter with her child molesting father in Kentucky and becomes a crack shot with a pair of sawed-off twelve gauges.

The remainder of volume one details how Selena gets revenge against the sadistic gangsters who savaged her.

Book two, Diesel Therapy, tells how Selena is given the bus treatment by an assistant U.S. Attorney who wants chapter and verse about her underworld contacts. She is driven half mad by the Bureau of Prison goons who are supposed to be her warders, but escapes and goes underground with the assistance of Pete, a gang boss who is her secret benefactor.  

Freed from her confinement, she seeks 
revenge on her father and his cronies, a petty gang of child molesting hillbillies who run an underage white slavery racket.

In volume three, Suicide Lounge, Selena has turned up under a new name, working for Enola, a lesbian who runs a whore house and dope den that is thinly disguised as a lap-dancing bar.  The lesbian, we quickly learn, is really fronting for Pete, Selena’s gang boss protector.

 When a sadistic drug dealer named Mozingo has Pete killed in prison and then moves on Enola’s territory, she is forced to take control of the lesbian’s gang and prepare for all-out war with the knife-wielding sadist, his gang members and an allied group of outlaw bikers.

This may sound odd, but Selena is a totally admirable character, a true friend to her friends and a bitter enemy to those who would cause them harm.

There is relatively little introspection or philosophizing in any of these three books. Barth fills in the back story through his sharply sketched characters, the dialog they speak and the actions they take.

For example, after Selena overdoses on Demerol, the physician treating her asks her about her sex life. Her reply shows you her toughness, cynical attitude and sense of humor.

“Are you promiscuous?” Dr. Addington said.
“You mean sexually, right?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“On a scale of what?”
“How many sexual partners have you had?”
“In my whole life? You mean just men? And me being a willing participant?”
“Sure,” the doctor says. “Just men. And only when you were willing.”
I thought for a moment. It was no use. “I have no idea.”
 “Really, Amanda? Ballpark?”
“No. Jesus. Way less than a ballpark. Shit. I’d say small auditorium max. And I don’t mean, like, an arena either. I’m thinking one of those school assembly auditoriums, but, you know, smaller than that even.”

Barth’s protagonist is characteristically blunt and honest. When a drug supplier in Las Vegas agrees to provide “product” for Selena and her crew, he sets a condition: first she must kill a rival gangster while posing as a hooker.

 “You’re asking me to murder a mobster?” she asks.
“That bother you?”
“Nah. It’s kind of what I do these days.”

Late in the book she confronts Bob “Crowbar” Crowe, a turncoat in her crew who twice tried to kill her with drug overdoses. The man thinks he can talk his way out of the situation because, he says, “you’re just one of Ragus’s whores.”

When she tells him who she really is, he comes unglued with fear.

“Selena, please. Just… please… don’t… don’t…”
“Drink, Bob. You have to drink.”
Tears pooled against his lower eyelids. They overfilled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks.
“No,” he said.
I looked him dead in the eye. “You have to drink.”
He picked up the glass, looked at the clear liquid, and pressed the glass to his lips. He leaned back in his chair and drained the glass in one gulp. I fired the shotgun. He took the full blast in the chest. The chair flipped backwards, spilled him onto the floor. The smell of burnt gunpowder stung my nostrils. My ears rang from the blast.
I got up and hobbled around to the other side of the table. Crowbar lay on the floor on his back. His unfocused eyes open, seeing nothing. “Know who you’re fucking with now, don’t you old boy,” I said.

With a minimum of verbiage, Barth turns every scene into a three-dimensional location. Here is his description of the warehouse where the bikers have secreted to money and drugs they stole from Selena and friends during a vicious gunfight:

It was dark inside. It smelled of grease, gasoline, and sawdust. They stepped in and closed the door. The large room had a concrete floor. Shadows absorbed all but the faintest of details.

This is a particularly effective bit of description. You can smell the odors; feel the hard cold flooring under your feet. My favorite part, however, is the bit where “shadows absorb all but the faintest of details:” I immediately could see a gloom so pervasive that it sucked the light out of the room, a shade that simply drowned the other items there as if they were disappearing into a pool of quicksand. That gloom is a tiny reflection of the overall darkness of the story, and of Selena’s own grim view of the world.

Suicide Lounge finishes the Selena trilogy with a flurry of punches and kicks, a knockout combination that left me smiling with satisfaction. It is raw, gritty and believable. I believe in Selena, and wish I had a kick-ass friend like her to back me up in a dangerous situation.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Love That Dares Not Speak its Name: Homicide!

By Mike Monson

63 pages

(All Due Respect Books; January 28, 2016)

Ebook distribution by Amazon Digital Services LLC

ASIN: B01B6Z97C4

A recurring archetype in noir fiction is the remorseless killer, a moral black hole who murders when and where he feels like it. I’m speaking here of characters like Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley and the rest of the Ripley series), Patricia Highsmith’s murderous con man, or Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Jim Thompson’s psychopathic sheriff’s deputy.

Lancaster Messier, the protagonist in Mike Monson’s novella, A Killer’s Love, fits this pattern perfectly. Like Ford, Messier is a nonpareil sexual predator, vicious enough to use violence to score with both  male and female victims; But, like Ripley, he is a thief and scammer who is always looking for a chance to profit from victims with valuable worth stealing. The name of this 63-page novella, in fact, is a tip of the hat to Thompson and his famous character, Ford.

Author Mike Monson

When we first meet Messier, he is cleaning up the gore from his latest triumph, a woman named Florence Hanratty that he has killed in a six week campaign, minced into disposable chunks and wrapped neatly in plastic bags. Here is his attitude toward homicide in a nutshell:

For Lancaster Messier, the killing was always the easy part. Want to kill a bitch? No problem. It’s just a couple simple steps. Get a real sharp knife, come up behind, pull her head back by the hair and then commit. Fully commit to making the perfect deep, long, ear-to-ear cut. That’ll do it. Every time.

Next, drop Helen or Amber or Nadine or whoever the fuck, and walk away. Just let go. If you’ve done it right, if you’ve fully committed and employed the proper technique, by the time you’ve walked to the nearest sink and cleaned off your knife, the little cutie will either be slowly bleeding out, or dead already. . .

After slitting Florence’s throat and cleaning off and putting the razor-sharp buck knife in his jeans pocket, he began loading up her Ford pickup with every valuable item in the house. The first couple of times he walked through with a load of gold and diamond jewelry, or a flat screen TV, or a laptop Apple computer, he checked on Florence. The first two times, she seemed to be still breathing, which he was pretty sure meant she was slowly bleeding to death. Lancaster didn’t think this was such a bad way to die. He’d researched it and found out it was just like slowly falling to sleep—and never waking up. Before he’d developed his technique, he saw a lot of deaths that looked quite painful, especially if the poor fuck seemed to be drowning in his or her blood. (That’s right, he killed dudes too. All part of the killer-thief lifestyle.) When he went into the kitchen to get the china and the nice silverware, he checked again and she was finally dead, thank god.

On his way to dispose of Hanratty’s body parts, Messier stops to meet a fence who is going to take her valuables off his hands. The fence goes sideways, however, and Messier shoots him in the head, then robs him of more than $2,000 in buy money that the man is carrying.

That’s two grisly deaths and $20,000 worth of larceny in only 13 pages. As Messier puts it, “Not bad for six weeks work.”

The deaths of Hanratty and the fence are the last times in the book that things go the way Messier planned. He travels by bus to California, where he attempts an act of selfless altruism – simply for his enjoyment, it seems – and winds up being swindled by a down-and-out family of grifters. He loses his getaway bankroll and finds himself penniless and furious.

True to his character, he commits a murder that pays for a shellfish dinner at a shorefront restaurant. There he meets Carla, a wealthy woman with a beach house who takes him in solely for sex. The time they spend together is idyllic:

He kept squeezing, kept fucking her faster and deeper, and when he finally let go of her throat she came and came and he could feel her pussy clasp and unclasp at him tighter and faster and her orgasms went on forever and ever and time stopped and she was his angel his sweet sweet angel. His Carla.

He settles into his new life as a human sex toy and seems to lose his interest in killing.

This is where the title of the novella comes into play. During his sojourn with Carla, Messier repeatedly wonders whether he is falling in love with her, though he is reluctant to connect the word with the “strange happy feeling— the other feeling that seemed like it might be love.”

His reluctance makes sense. He eventually realizes that his “love” for her is no such thing:

Carla snuggled close to Lancaster. “Really?” she said. “Do you still love me?” “Yes,” Lancaster said, but he wasn’t telling the truth. He’d never loved her.

To say more about the plot would spoil it. Instead, simply know that a twist of fate leads Messier to resume his crime spree and his story culminates in a twist ending that will probably surprise the average reader.

Monson specializes in tales about people who have few redeeming qualities. His characters run the gamut of human amorality: grifters, cough syrup junkies, professional bank robbers, dope dealers, murderers, men and women who cheat on their mates. A Killer’s Love fits the pattern perfectly. The one thing they have in common is that all of them are transgressive: even the victims have violated normal ethical codes.

The action in this short book is brutal. The following passage covers Lancaster Messier’s meeting with a cross-dressing prostitute after the grifters rip him off for his car and wind money:

Gem pulled off the wig and set it next to her tube top. “Turn around.” She turned. Her black hair was just long enough for Lancaster to get a good enough grip with his left hand to cut her throat with the knife in his right hand. The cutting was passionate, deep, and angry. He dropped her and she fell on the bed. There was a sink in the kitchenette and Lancaster walked over to wash his knife. Above the sound of running water he heard gurgling from the bed. Shit. He looked over, and Gem was writhing and clutching at her throat with both hands.

He’d fucked up. Gem’s trachea was severed and she was suffering horribly. He grabbed her by her feet so he wouldn’t get blood on his clothes. He dragged her into the bathroom and put her body into the tub, then walked out and closed the door behind him. Good. He could no longer hear her pain.

A Killer’s Love is short and punchy. I didn’t like it as much as What Happens in Reno or Tussinland, two books that set the gold standard for nihilistic noir and cold-blooded violence. I suspect the reason is that both those books were actually novels, not novellas, and the additional length allowed Monson to explore his characters more completely.

But even a “B” list book by Monson is better than a lot of writers’ “A” list work. A Killer’s Love is nasty and violent. It is definitely worth a read.