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, December 4, 2010

A Job for the Chinaman

By Bill Wallace

When crimes get planned on Bottom Street, the planning usually takes place at the Blue Door. It isn’t because the bar is a spot that inspires some felonious muse; it just happens to be the place where the biggest crooks in the Tenderloin hang out.

On the night Noddy Bauman pitched the arson for Wayne Fong, the head of Asian organized crime in San Francisco, the tavern was a virtual hiring hall for thieves: no less than seven of the Tenderloin’s biggest crooks were there to consume alcoholic beverages and tell each other lies. Representing San Francisco’s sexual services sector were pimps Aloysius “Ace” Jeter and Jimmie “Rabbit” Culpepper, while Angel Goodwin and Kelly Martin were present on behalf of the city’s illicit drug industry.

The Bottom Street scammers in the crowd included Ray Campos, LaVonne Walker, Nick Dolman and Eli Jones; Only Peter Boskovitch and Phil Bagwell were missing.

Noddy, who acted as a hiring agent for some of the bigger lawbreakers in Northern California, had no sooner mentioned that Fong was looking for talent than Angel Goodwin started to complain.

“C’mon, man, it’s a fucking job,” Noddy said plaintively.

“Yeah? Who for?” Angel said. “It’s another job for the fucking Chinaman. I’ll bet it’s another fucking microchip warehouse takeover. Nobody makes shit off those—they’re like working at a square job. Wong takes the chips to his Vietnamese guy in Elk Grove and he hooks up with the other guy, that slopehead in San Gabriel. And everybody has to wait like, what? Six weeks for him to unload the shit? Screw that, man. Baby needs shoes right now, not six fucking weeks from now.”

Eli Jones, who had nurtured a low opinion of Angel for the eight years he had known him, figured that Goodwin had never actually done any work for the Chinatown gang boss. Eli pushed his way into the conversation, more to shut Angel up than because he wanted any piece of Fong’s action.

“So, what’s the gig, Noddy?” he asked.

“It’s a torch job, man. Firebuggin’. You got to burn down a house for the guy.”

Noddy didn’t explain why the house needed incineration. People who made a living by contracting out illegal services rarely give unnecessary details about the purpose of those services. Not surprisingly, those they hired rarely asked for those details. The less anybody knew about anybody else’s business, the better for everybody involved.

But anybody who read the local papers knew that Fong ran a whore house out in the avenues that had been hit by the feds a few weeks earlier. The raid was largely fronted by agents from ICE, because the basic beef was that all the women turning tricks were illegals from Korea, most of whom had been lured to the U.S. to work at supposedly straight jobs.

Eli frowned. “What the fuck do you know about arson, Noddy?” he said. “I never heard of you hiring anybody for fires.”

Noddy shrugged. “What a person need to know?” he said. “You go in, throw something in-flammatory on the flo’, drop a match and get the fuck out. The fire do all the heavy liftin’.”

Eli remained skeptical. “What’re you paying for this butt-simple torch job?”

Noddy grinned. “This cat, Fong, he payin’ five large for the fire, upfront,” he said. “He got insurance that going to cover, total loss. Get him out of a shitload of debts with money left over.”

In fact, Fong had offered Noddy ten grand for the job. He was willing to pay extra because his lawyer had been given a copy of the return from the search and the paperwork showed that the agents who raided the operation had failed to find the “trick book” that Fong’s business manager kept stashed behind a wall air intake for the central heating unit on site.

That book was poison: it held the names of a half-dozen state and federal office holders who regularly visited the place, including a state appeals court justice and a deputy U.S. attorney. Collecting the insurance on the cathouse was secondary; what Fong was really buying was a fire that would eat that trick book up before the feds came back and found it.

But Noddy low-balled the amount Fong would pay because he had already pocketed half of it. That guaranteed Bauman a clear profit regardless of what happened to the dipshit who actually torched the building.

When Noddy told Eli what the pay for the job was, Angel got the look of a kid on Christmas Eve. He dropped his earlier bitching about working for Fong, shifting gears so fast that everybody in the room got little carsick.

“Hey, I got this one, Noddy,” he said before anybody else could speak. “I done this kind of thing before. Piece of cake.”

Noddy eyed him. “So, you in, Angel?”

“Yeah,” Angel said. “All I need is somebody to muscle up a jerry can of gas. I can handle it.”

Eli turned his skepticism on Angel. “You done arson before, Angel?” he said, surprised.

Angel grinned. “Who you think burned down the gym at St. John’s Prep? Sure as fuck wasn’t Smoky the bear.”

LaVonne whistled. “Man, that was seven, eight years ago,” he said. “You must have been, what? Fourteen years old?”

Angel shrugged. “April 13, 2001,” he said. “It was Good Friday. I was 15. I was transferred to St. John’s a year earlier. Man, I always hated that fucking place.”

The mention of St. John’s seemed to wake up Mokie Travers, the slow-minded kid who worked at the American CafĂ© down the street and enjoyed hanging out with the guys at the Blue Muse. “Hey, Ang!” he said, his face showing surprise. “I didn’t know you went to Catholic School. I thought you was at Mission High, like Eli.”

Eli displayed that wise-ass smirk that pissed so many people off. “He was after he got thrown out of St. John’s,” he said.

Angel darted Eli a look that warned him to shut up.

LaVonne had a confused look on his face. “So did you get thrown out of Catholic School for burning down the gym?” he asked.

Angel shook his head. “Naw, they never figured out I was the one who did the gym.”

Eli cut in, ignoring another glare from Angel.

“Angel got tossed because he got caught shaking down kids for lunch money,” he said. “That got him his first trip to Youth Guidance Center. By the time he got back from juvie, the nuns figured out he had been doing it for more than a year. The kids who were getting ripped off ratted him out when he was at the center. They also found out he had been taking money from the collection box on the Sundays when he worked as an usher at St. John’s Chapel. That’s what got his ticket punched at St. John’s Prep.”

Mokie gave Angel a glance. “What’s a prep school, Ang?” he asked.

Before Angel could answer, Eli, whose quick mouth sometimes entered the room a couple of minutes ahead of his brain, cut in again.

“It’s supposed to prepare you for an institution of higher learning, like a college or something,” Eli said, his smirk bigger than ever. “But the only prep school Angel ever graduated from was YGC. When he finished up at juvenile hall, he was ready for Deuel Vocational Institution.”

The vein on the right side of Angel’s forehead was standing out enough to throw a shadow. “You got a big mouth, Eli,” Angel said hotly. “You seem to know a lot of shit. Maybe you want to tell them how I got to Deuel, you being such a smart motherfucker and all?”

Eli’s wiseass smile began to fade as he realized he might have gone too far by taunting a dangerous lunatic . “Hey, no need to get all mental, Ang,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to piss you off.”

There was silence for a moment. Mokie broke it.

“Well, how did you get to Deuel?” he asked, still struggling to understand why the sisters would boot a guy for stealing lunch money. He thought everybody did that.

Angel kept his eyes on Eli. There was a smile on his face now, but there wasn’t anything humorous about the set of his mouth.

“There was a guy named Walt Kipling used to needle me all the time at Mission,” Angie said. “He had a big mouth just like Eli, here. One day he was riding me about something while me and some other guys were sharing a fifth of Everclear. I threw that shit on him and set his ass on fire. Isn’t that right, Eli?”

Eli, who had been two years ahead of Goodwin at Mission, said nothing. His wiseass smile was completely gone. He had passed by Kipling in the street two months ago and Walt still had scars all over his face from that fire.

Angel turned back to Noddy. “So you can see that I’m completely checked out on burning shit,” he said. “Five grand sounds pretty fucking good to me. I’ll pay five hundred to somebody who’ll tote the gas. That’s a pretty easy payday for a little bit of labor.”

Noddy showed the gold incisor on the left side of his grin. “You got it, champ,” he said. “You going to come up with the toter or you want me to do it?”

Angel smiled. “I’ll use my buddy, Mokie,” he said, clapping Travers on the shoulder in a friendly way. “He can use the money, I’m sure.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Radar and the Rabbit

By Bill Wallace

Some days you get the short end of the stick, on others, you get a chance to whack somebody with it. While on hooker patrol in the Mission, Kerry Sullivan had one of those days where you get a two-fer . . .

Normally, San Francisco Patrolman Kerry Sullivan would’ve been riding shotgun with his partner Jerry Damonico on the day he caught a runaway rabbit with his bare hands.

But the mayor had promised the people who lived near Cesar Chavez Street he would do something about speeders, which meant his partner was working solo radar duty in the “Two-car” on Chavez. Meanwhile, Sullivan was on foot patrol, hassling hookers at the corner of Capp and 25th streets.

When they were together the pair was busy all shift with robberies, burglaries, larcenies, dope busts, domestic violence calls and hot car beefs–meat and potatoes for cops in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Today, however, Jerry had a radar gun in his hand, tagging motorists who drove by at more than 35 miles an hour–as if anybody but a flaming moron would pass a parked black-and-white going faster than the posted speed.

Meanwhile, Sullivan was bothering prostitutes.

Kerry could imagine the Mission District D.J.s sarcastically spinning:

Write a whore a tag and
Put her in the bag;
No sense in jailin’ ‘em,
The lawyer’ll be bailin’ ‘em.
Quick as a snap and
They’re back down on Capp.

In disgust, he spat in the street, right in front of a 19-year-old crack whore who took it personally and gave him a vicious glare.

Suddenly the earpiece of Sullivan’s PIC radio hissed to life.

“Company D units, be aware, 211 in progress,” the dispatcher said. “Two-car reports strong-arm subject westbound on Cesar Chavez from Shotwell at this time.”

Sullivan snapped to attention. A “211” is the penal code section for a robbery and he was only a block or so away. The day suddenly seemed much brighter.

“Suspect tentatively identified as Jimmy Culpepper, black male adult, white hoodie sweatshirt with 49ers logo, now turning north onto Capp Street,” the dispatcher continued.

Sullivan grinned. The perp was heading his way!

Jimmy Culpepper, known on the street as “Rabbit,” was the fastest purse snatcher in San Francisco, maybe the entire U.S. He had been hanging in the breezeway between two apartment buildings, smoking a $5 rock, when he spotted the old lady walking out of one building, a handbag dangling from her shoulder.

Culpepper followed her about 100 feet, dragging his butt to keep pace as she used a cane to pick her way along the sidewalk to Chavez. When she turned toward Mission, Culpepper took off like his namesake. He spun the old lady like an old time DJ changing vinyl, peeling the purse from her shoulder at full tilt and leaving her sprawled behind him.

Unfortunately for Culpepper, Jerry Damonico was sitting in the two-car on Chavez, watching him. Damonico, as bored running radar on passing motorists as Sullivan was hassling whores, pointed the gun at the fleeing purse snatcher out of curiosity, hit “reset,” and ran the clock.

A heartbeat later, Damonico, still staring at the gauge in disbelief, called the robbery in. Such are the moments that fill the Guinness Book of World Records.

Within seconds of Damonico’s call, Sullivan spotted Culpepper headed toward him where Capp hooks back off Chavez. The Rabbit was in full sprint, arms tight and legs up, motoring down the street-sweep lane and moving inches to the right or left to narrowly miss hookers spilling off the sidewalk.

Sullivan, a former tackle at Bishop O’Dowd High School in the East Bay, was used to running down meat on the hoof. He gave chase, following Culpepper up a driveway and over a six-foot chain link fence.

Culpepper cleared thirty feet to the next property line in three steps and went over the redwood fence there almost without a pause.

Sullivan, adrenaline flowing, almost grabbed Culpepper’s ankle when he hit the next fence, an aluminum rail job overgrown with Algerian ivy.

The fourth fence, another chain-link special, was what put “Rabbit” in the stew. Winded, the purse-snatcher couldn’t quite make it over. He gasped and his back arched as a massive cramp seized his right leg. The pain made him yelp with agony and topple backward into the yard, where he sprawled on his back, gasping for air.

Maybe smoking a pack of Marlboro Lights a day isn’t a good idea for somebody who has to run for a living, he thought as he listened to his heart pound.

Sullivan, also winded, reached him in three steps. Weary from a chase more like running an obstacle course than a foot race, Sullivan pulled out his handcuffs, kicked Culpepper over onto his stomach and knelt on the small of his back as he cuffed him up.

“Rabbit, you’re under arrest,” Sullivan gasped. “You run again and, swear to God, I’ll shoot you!”


It wasn’t until Sullivan was called in by the station chief two days later that he realized what he had accomplished.

“What’s the problem, skipper?” he asked as he fidgeted before Captain Jack Rodriguez, the officer-in-charge at Mission Station. “Does Culpepper claim I used unnecessary force?”

Rodriguez shook his head. “Did you see the initial incident report on your collar?” he asked.

Sullivan shook his head.

“Well,” the captain said, “Your pal Damonico, was the one who originally called this one in. He used his radar gun to time Culpepper and clocked him at a radar-verified 29 miles per hour as he turned down Capp.

“In other words, Culpepper was running six miles an hour faster than the current world record in the 100 meters,” the captain added, looking up at Sullivan with a smile.

“So I’m not in trouble then?” Sullivan asked, unsure why the captain was telling him this.

“Hell, no!” the captain said. “We’re putting you in for a medal – for running down the fastest robbery suspect in department history!”

“And we’re not just charging Jimmy Culpepper with strong-arm robbery,” Rodriguez added, waiting for the news to sink in. “He was running four miles an hour faster than the limit posted on Capp. We’re also writing him a ticket for speeding!”


This flash short story is another excerpt from my crime-novel-in-progress, "Bottom Street."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Damage Control

By William E. Wallace

               “What can I bring you tonight?”

               The waitress was cool, a redhead: she seemed friendly enough in that distant sort of way people in the service industries often are, but her eyes let me know that her smile was strictly professional. That was okay with me;  I would rather have indifference than the phony intimacy a lot of people who sling drinks and food think passes for good service. 

               I had been planning to order a glass of chardonnay, practically the only thing on the drinks menu I could actually afford but I decided for no good reason to indulge myself.

               “Bring me a Stolichnaya, over,” I said. “No – make it a double. With lime, please.”

               When she left, I surveyed the crowd. Even though it wasn’t quite five o’clock, the joint was already full; mostly young people, drinking cocktails with names I could only guess at.

               You get parochial when you do most of your drinking in shot-and-a-beer places.  There’s something to be said for wanting an alcoholic beverage that’s carefully thought through and lovingly crafted. It shows a degree of sophistication, a cosmopolitan attitude.

               Me? I just want a drink that gives me a good hard right in the solar plexus and then starts clouding everything up a half hour later. That’s why I drink in bars where most everybody is looking for brand-name hooch with a piss-poor but intoxicating back like Pabst Blue Ribbon.

               The waitress came back with my Stoli, solo, on her tray.  She put it on the table and cleared her throat quietly, waiting for me to pay.

               I couldn’t pretend I didn’t notice her, not and pick up the drink, anyway. “Can I start a tab?” I asked. “I’m waiting for two . . . business associates.  They should get here in a minute or so.”

               I didn’t really like calling Spilf and Carmody “business associates,” though I suppose the term fit them as well as anything else would. The term suggested that they were friends of mine, which they weren’t.  “Business antagonists” might have been a better fit, though I wasn’t actually in a business where they could antagonize me anymore.

                She had apparently spotted me for a deadbeat from the jump, however, and she wasn’t inclined to test her judgment by trusting me.

               “I can start a tab, but I need a card to give the bartender,” she said, so coolly that she frosted my eyelashes. “Do you have a card?”

               She didn’t pose the question in an accusing way, but she gave it enough of an edge to let me know she was serious.

               “Tell you what?” I said smiling and putting a Jackson in her tray. “I expect to spend some time with these gentlemen talking about a business arrangement.  I’ll let them give you a card, later, while we’re chatting.  For now, I’ll pay my own way.”

               She gave me a smile as thin as orphanage gruel and disappeared with the bill.  I sighed. Until my unemployment insurance arrived at the end of the week, that twenty and three others with Washington’s mug on them were all I had in my billfold. I hoped she would bring me some change.

               When she returned, she had a five and two ones on her tray and I groaned inwardly. I was going to have to make it through Thursday and Friday with only ten dollars.  I could barely afford two Happy Meals.

               Fortunately, Carmody and Spilf chose that moment to show up and the first thing Spilf told the waitress was “keep the liquor coming and bring us a bar menu, honey.”

               She looked at him warily. “Do you have a card?” she asked with obvious skepticism.

               He tossed one onto the tray with a smile that seemed to say he could hardly wait for her to ask.  It was an Amex platinum.   


               “So Cyrus,” Carmody said, settling into a chair. “How’s retirement?”

               I gave him a sneer. “I didn’t retire,” I said. “I got canned along with 35 other people, almost all of whom were making at least a hundred a week more than Guild scale.  When you retire, they give you a watch and a speech.  We just got the shaft.”

               “Found anything new since you left the paper?”

               I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “I get a nibble here, a nibble there, but nothing seems to gel.”

               “How’s your money situation?” Spilf asked.

               My exasperated expression should have told him all he needed to know but just in case he didn’t get the hint, I added, “It sucks.”

               He and Carmody exchanged glances that looked like they had been practicing them all day long.  I could almost imagine them working it out in that columbarium Carmody occupied at City Hall.

               “I’m sure it breaks what you two have that passes for hearts to hear how well I’m doing,” I said. “So are you finished gloating over how I got screwed? Have you got something to propose or did you just arrange this meeting so you could catch me at my low point?”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with mock surprise.  “Do we look like the kind of guys who would kick a guy when he’s down, Cy?” he asked. “I mean, come on now. Really.”

               “Yeah, Cyrus,” Carmody tossed in with a perfectly straight face. “I thought we were just three old acquaintances getting together for a drink or two.”

               “Can the bullshit, guys,” I said. “The last time I had contact with you two assholes, you were trying to spin your way out of the laundered campaign contributions your guy Petrovsky got from the garbage company in the mayor’s election. That was nearly four years ago. We aren’t exactly big buddy fuckers, are we?”

               My story had cut Petrovsky’s lead by nearly 20 percent, but he won anyway, primarily because he was running against a field of opponents who couldn’t find their way out of a pay toilet with a road map and a compass.

               “The only reason you would want to meet with me is if you thought I could do something for you,” I said. “But I don’t have a paper any more and I don’t have a job.  So there must be something else you think you can get out of me.”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with a grin. “He’s not as stupid as you always said he was, Bob,” he told his partner with a chuckle. Turning back to me, he continued: “Yeah – we have a job to offer you, and its right up your alley.  Let’s have drinks, steaks and a bottle of wine or two while we line things out for you and see whether you are interested. You get drunk and eat well whether you say yes or no, okay?”

               I smiled for the first time since they had appeared. “I’m here to listen boys,” I told them. “Can you throw me a little raw meat right now though.  Are you going to ask me to do something illegal?”

               Carmody laughed. “No,” he said. “It’s legal. Mostly anyway. What we want you to do is real simple and basically on the level.”

               I waited for it.

               Spilf had the zinger: “You know the guy running against Petrovsky this time? We want you to destroy his reputation.”


Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Serious Over-Reacher

Jack Reacher

Paramount, 2012

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Screenplay by McQuarrie based on a novel by Lee Child

Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall

If you put a welterweight into the ring with a light heavyweight, the chances are, he is going to get his ass kicked. Yet supersleuth Jack Reacher (as portrayed by all 5’ 7” and 147 pounds of actor Tom Cruise) beats down five goons outside a bar without breaking a sweat in the film Jack Reacher (based on the novel One Shot by Jim Grant, writing under the pen-name, Lee Child). 

A short time afterward, the unarmed Reacher takes out a pair of heavyweights equipped with a crow bar and an aluminum baseball bat while searching a run-down Pittsburgh house – even though the thugs get in the first lick, a shot to Reacher’s head with the bat that is solid enough to draw blood. He then disarms a third man who gets the drop on him with a semiautomatic pistol. 

Toward the end of the film, he takes on an entire construction crew packing fully automatic assault weapons with nothing more than a large rock.

You may be starting to see the main problem I had with the movie: the diminutive Cruise is simply not tall enough, heavy enough or muscular enough to do the kind of physical damage that Reacher does to the thugs in this film.

Aside from his stature, Cruise makes a pretty fair Reacher.  He doesn’t waste a lot of words, gets off some cracks that had me laughing out loud (probably to the annoyance of the handful of other viewers sitting in the nearly empty theater where I saw the movie) and is fairly convincing as a street-smart investigator who spots clues missed by the cops in an apparently open-and-shut mass murder case.

And the film is certifiably entertaining. It is fast-paced,  well photographed and edited, with sharp, classy intercutting – and none of the cheap shaky-cam effects that have become so popular in action movies. The plot is developed nicely and only a couple of the characters are superficial enough to be dismissed as stereotypical.

Here is the set-up: five people are killed in broad daylight by a sniper in Pittsburgh. A suspect is apprehended quickly after police turn up a sizeable body of evidence that points directly to his guilt.   

The suspect, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former U.S. Army sniper, is confronted by the lead homicide investigator (David Oyelowo) and the DA (the obiquitous Richard Jenkins) and offered a choice: life in prison or the death penalty.

Cryptically, Barr scribbles a note that says “Get Jack Reacher,” before he is attacked by other inmates and beaten comatose while being moved to detention before trial.

The authorities believe that Reacher is Barr’s friend; but it turns out he is actually the military police investigator who put together a similar spree murder case against Barr in Iraq that never came to trial because the victims were all covert U.S. agents engaged in wrongdoing themselves. Reacher makes it clear he considers Barr a psychotic killer and is convinced he committed the Pittsburgh shootings.

Despite this, Reacher is hired to make sure by Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), whose father conveniently happens to be the district attorney, setting up an intergenerational father/daughter conflict to sweeten the plot. As he looks into the case, he begins to notice that the evidence against Barr is not just good – it’s too damned good.

He begins to believe somebody else is really behind the mass shooting and becomes more convinced when he discovers he is being tailed and becomes embroiled in a series of confrontations that are clearly designed to take him off the case.

He figures out who the real killers are and the actual motive for the multiple shootings about ten minutes before the film’s end, clearing the path for a violent denouement in which the body count reaches James Bondian levels and he gets an opportunity to show off his unique approach toward meting out justice.

While Cruise as Reacher may be miscast from a physical standpoint, the Reacher character he portrays is scarcely more believable.

He has a photographic memory so sharp that he can recall every detail of all the evidence he has examined in a criminal case – including the serial number of the murder weapon – without taking or reviewing any notes.  He is a world-class target shooter who can put three shots inside a bullseye, one after another, with an unfamiliar rifle from 700 yards.  He appears to be an expert far beyond the black belt level in mixed martial arts.

So armed with this skill set, what does Reacher do for a living? Apparently, as hit man Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction would say, he is like Cain in the old Kung Fu TV series: “he walks the earth . . .  walking from place to place, meet[ing] people and get[ting] in adventures.”

As we learn in the movie, Reacher abruptly left the Army and has been living off the grid for a number of years without leaving any traces whatsoever, subsisting solely on his retirement, which is direct deposited into a bank and drawn on by means of electronic fund transfers. 

Nobody knows where he lives or how to get in touch with him. The reason for his isolated existence is never really made clear; instead it is shuffled away in this snatch of dialoq:

Look out the window.Tell me what you see. You see the same things that you see everyday. Well, imagine you've never seen it. Imagine you spent your whole life in other parts of the world, being told everyday that you're defending freedom. Then you finally decide you've had enough. Time to see what you've given up your whole life for, everything. Get some of that ‘freedom’ for yourself.”

An investigator who could do any of the Reacher does would have an exceptional advantage over the average cop or prosecutor, not to mention the run-of-the-mill crook. Reacher’s abilities put him on a fantasy plane with Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Steig Larsson’s Millenium triology.
In fact, what I would like to see is the computer-hacking, kickboxing Salander face off with the bruising, eidetic Reacher in an epic detectathon, going after some truly worthy opponent – like, for example, Professor Moriarity or Hannibal Lechter. Or the people who stole everybody in the country’s retirement plans during the directives Ponzi scheme of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Instead, Reacher is up against Zek Chelovek (played by Werner Herzog), a Russian gangster of some sort who has engineered this entire scheme for what seem to me to be essentially pedestrian reasons. In other words, just another crook, albeit a particularly vicious one who is scarred as the result of extended internment in a particularly brutal Russian gulag.

What a dreadful waste.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Intensive Care

By William E. Wallace
(An excerpt from a story in progress)

Red came to in a room that was white-on-white: all tile, enameled walls and stainless steel fittings. He was lying in a hospital bed with the upper end elevated slightly and he had more wires and tubes in him than the big Motorola radio he listened to as a kid.

He must have been loaded with morphine because he was barely conscious of being gut shot more than once and taking a slug in his chest as well. His right wrist was handcuffed to a reinforced steel bar welded to the side of the bed, so there was no way he could walk out without taking the damned thing with him. The handcuffs didn’t matter though: as drifty and weak as he was, he wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.

Tully was sitting in a chair alongside, still wearing his hat, his feet propped up on the rails and his hands folded across his stomach.

“Hullo, Red,” he said with a slight smile.

“Hullo, Inspector,” Red said, licking lips that were dry and cracked. He was surprised at how hard it was to speak.  “Where am I?”

“You’re in the county hospital, intensive care unit of the detainee ward. How do you feel?”

“Like something the dog wouldn’t bother to drag home. So this is the ICU, huh? I thought nobody was allowed in those but nurses and doctors. If they let you in to talk to me, I must be in pretty bad shape.”

Tully nodded. “The only way you could be in worse shape is if you already had a tag on your big toe.”

Red thought about that. 

“I could really use a cigarette,” he said, finally.

Tully shook his head. “Not unless you planned to burn the hospital down,” he said. “This place is full of pure oxygen. That’s what’s coming out of that tube stuck in your nose. If you lit up, first thing you’d do is burn your nose off. Then you’d set the bed on fire. Then the rest of the place. I’m surprised they’re not pumping it into you with a mask.”


“You’re operating on less than a lung, my friend. The one the bullet went through is flat. No way it’s gonna hold air again – the slug hit a rib and the bone chunks ripped the sonofabitch all to hell.”

“What about the holes in my belly?”

Tully shook his head again. “You’d probably recover from the stomach wound, but those shots took out most of your liver and one of your kidneys.”  He gave Red a thin smile. “You’re a mess, Red. I’m surprised you’re able to talk.”

“How did Quincy make out,” Red said. “When the shooting started, he went down first.”

Tully heaved a sigh. “Your brother didn’t make it, Red. He didn’t get hit as many times as you, but one bullet was all that was needed.”

Red closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Those fucking Colby twins,” he said bitterly, his voice barely a whisper. 


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Down and Out in David Goodis' Philadelphia

Shoot the Piano Player (Down There)
By David Goodis

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (October 3, 1990)
  • (Originally Published 1956)
  • Language: English

(Read: Nov. 20, 2012-Jan.4, 2013)

If you are a follower of film noir, you hear a lot about Shoot the Piano Player, arguably one of Truffaut's best-known films following his breakthrough, The 400 Blows.

But I hate to admit that until my friend and former journalism student Steve Pham pulled my coat, I had never heard of Down There, the terse noir novel it is based on, or its author, David Goodis, even though Goodis had written the book Dark Passage on which one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films was based.

I read the Black Lizard paperback edition of Down There, which has been renamed Shoot the Piano Player. The book is noir fiction in a nutshell, hitting on just about every note the genre is known for.  It has an alienated protagonist, the hopelessness of his attempt to steer clear of trouble, the frustration of his inability to make basic relationships work, and a completely understated aura of violence that makes the entire thing work.

In brief, the book and the movie are both about a man named Eddie, a renowned concert pianist who dropped out after his wife commits suicide because of her shame at being trapped into an unwilling sexual liaison with Eddie's agent.

Now Eddie lives in a run-down flat, scraping by playing honkey-tonk for drunks in the Hut, a Philadelphia gin joint. He is withdrawn, cool and without affect. His dealings with people are at arm's length. His only desire is to avoid involvement.

Unfortunately, Eddie's past comes back to haunt him: his brothers, petty crooks who have been working as hired muscle for a Mafia-style crime syndicate, have robbed their employer and are being sought by a pair of  mob hit-men.

One of the brothers chances across Eddie in the Hut. Eddie intervenes  when the killers catch up to his sibling, but the hit-men immediately turn their attention to Eddie, realizing that he can lead them to his brothers and the missing swag. 

Lena, a waitress in the Hut, is attracted to Eddie and has figured out his past as a concert musician. Eddie finds himself falling in love with her, despite his desire to remain aloof and unattached. The romance is  complicated by the fact that the Hut's bouncer wants Lena, too.

The hoods make a move on Eddie and Lena but the pair slip through their fingers. Lena figures out that the bouncer has told the two gunmen where to find Eddie and, when they return to the Hut, she confronts him. A brawl ensues and Eddie unintentionally kills the bouncer with a knife.

Now a fugitive from the law who also is wanted by the mob, Eddie has Lena drive him to his family homestead in South New Jersey, then tells her to go away, fearing for her safety if she is drawn into his brothers' criminal lifestyle. She leaves but returns and the two gunmen shadow her to South Jersey where the tragic denouement of the novel takes place.

I watched Truffaut's film before reading Goodis' book and I have to say the novel is quite superior to the movie. Truffaut slips a number of false notes into his film and adds a younger brother who does not appear in the novel, unnecessarily complicating the plot and making the two mob killers more bungling and buffoonish than they are in the novel.

The novel also is more effective at developing Eddie's back story, and explaining why it is so easy for him to slip into unthinking violence. In my opinion, the novel is also better at conjuring a pervasive atmosphere of doom.

Primary characters are sharply drawn in Goodis' novel and even minor players are rendered in a memorable fashion. The descriptive passages, are first rate at creating an aura of doom and alienation:

"Three years, and aside from the music he made, [Eddie's] presence at the Hut meant nothing. It was almost as though he wasn't there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer. He had his back turned and his eyes on the keyboard, content to draw his pauper's wages and wear pauper's rags."

The dialog is terse and realistic, free of the frequent wise cracks that are so common to other noir specialists such as Raymond Chandler, but better for it, because Goodis is trying to create a world of people who are down, desperateand unable to see much humor in the bleak world they inhabit, let alone joke about it.

The violence, though understated, is brutal -- which is appropriate because the lives of the main characters is brutal, too.

Whether it is under the imprint of Shoot the Piano Player or Down There, this bleak little novel is well worth reading.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This is the city. . . Los Angeles, California. . .

L.A. Noir
by John Buntin
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Broadway;  first edition April 6, 2010
ISBN-10: 0307352080
ISBN-13: 978-0307352088
(Read from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, 2012)

If you are a noir fan, this book serves up nearly three-quarters of a century of the history of the Los Angeles underworld, spelling out the background behind the Zoot Suit riots, the "Bloody Christmas" melee that forms the centerpiece of L.A. Confidential, and the gambling and prostitution rackets that are the treacherous undercurrent running through most of James Ellroy's novels. 

Many of the real-life characters whose stories are explored in this non-fiction offering pop up undisguised in books such as Clandestine and The Black Dahlia, while thinly disguised versions of others can be found in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

Buntin does an excellent job of contrasting the stories of the "dapper little gent," Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William Parker, Cohen's nemesis and the man who built the Los Angeles Police Department into one of the best-known law enforcement agencies in the world. 

He explores Cohen's role in the changing face of organized crime in the Southland and chronicles Parker's battle against corruption in his own department and the influence of such rivals as J. Edgar Hoover, who saw Parker as a threat to his position as director of the FBI.

The book is populated with colorful characters on both sides of the law, including LA Mayors Frank Shaw, Fletcher Bowron, Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley, President John F. Kennedy, playright and Cohen confidante Ben Hecht, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown and gangsters Louis and Jack Dragna, Frank Costello, Bugsy Siegel and Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno. 

It is well worth a read for anyone who wants to know the seamy Los Angeles that helped to shape the hard-boiled thriller before and after World War II.

I rate LA Noir a whopping five nooses!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

All The King's Horses. . .

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
by Philip K. Dick 
Hardcover: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books 
(Originally published 1986; 
Second edition 2007)
ISBN-13:  9780765316905
Read Aug. 15-19, 2012

To the average reader, Philip K. Dick is a science fiction writer, the celebrated creator of the books on which the popular films Blade RunnerTotal Recall and Minority Report were basedNever mind that all those films bear only a passing resemblance to the Dick novels that supposedly inspired them; suffice to say that Dick has probably been credited with more film plots that he had nothing to do with than just about any other author, living or dead.

But Dick didn't just write science fiction stories that Hollywood doesn't understand. He also wrote a handful of mainstream literary novels that had limited success and appear to have been as obscure to traditional publishers as his science fiction stories were to Hollywood.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is one of these. The novel, which appears to be in part based on A Time for George Stavros, an earlier Dick manuscript that has been lost, reads like a Jim Thompson Black Lizard tale crossed with a reminiscence by Charlie Bukowski. 

The main characters are Jim Fergessen, the elderly owner of an Oakland automobile garage whose heart ailments have led him to sell his business and retire. Fergessen's immanent retirement threatens Al Miller, a young, unsuccessful mechanic who rents shop space from him and will be left with no place to run his shoestring business once the garage closes. 

Miller is a young hapless schmuck who, despite pressure from his wife to make something of himself, is going nowhere fast. On the other hand, Fergessen, too, is a hapless schmuck, only older. Although the garage owner is basically unhappy, he has managed to convince himself that he is doing very well.

In an effort to get out of his money jam, Miller takes a stab at blackmail, but hasn't the moxie to follow through. His criminal scheme falls short in part because the man he attempts to extort, Chris Harman, a shadowy record producer who deals in pornographic recordings, is himself a master scammer. 

Harman, a character on the periphery of the main story line, would probably be the central figure in a real Jim Thompson novel. Here, however, he is injected into the plot primarily to torment the two protagonists. 

Miller's half-hearted attempt to scam Harman, though unsuccessful, eventually comes back to haunt him. In the process, the deep strain of paranoia that infects much of Dick's work comes into play. Has Miller been set up from the start? Is he the target of a complex conspiracy? Is his wife a co-conspirator? 

In typical Dickian fashion, various characters seem to transform and mutate as the story proceeds, and the reader is left wondering whether Miller and Fergessen were really the victims of a complicated plot or whether much of what has happened is simply a twisted fantasy on Miller's part.

What gives the book the Thompson feel is the fact that everybody in it is on the make and greed seems to be the engine that drives the story. 

What I liked best about Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, however, was the bleak portrayal of the East Bay's biggest city in the late 1950s. Since Oakland is the setting for some of my own fiction, I love seeing San Francisco's poor relation across  the Bay get the limelight for a change.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is quite different from most of Dick's novels and short stories, though it includes some of the basic philosophical and psychological underpinnings of his best know work. 

The book is a downer that doesn't quite jell in some ways. Perhaps its biggest weakness is Dick's inability to maintain the authenticity of his characters' voices: his dialog is fine when non-ethnic characters are talking, but he is slightly off-target when he has a black character in the story speak, or renders the dialog of Fergessen's Greek-born wife. Dick seems to realize these people have a slightly twisted syntax, but his ear isn't good enough to render it with verisimilitude.

By the same token, there isn't much in the way of action in the story, and the confrontations between the main characters are enervating rather than exciting.

Nonetheless, this novel has a gritty noirish atmosphere I found enjoyable. And the aimless, out-of-control quality of the narrative seemed oddly appropriate to me, and gave the book part of its charm.

If you are looking for a traditional crime novel that concludes with the loose ends wrapped up and good triumphant over evil, I'd advise you to skip this book. 

But if you like Phil Dick -- and I do -- give Humpty Dumpty in Oakland a try. I give it four nooses.