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, December 16, 2012

Higgins Hitman Jackie Cogan on Film and in Print


Cogan's Trade
By George V. Higgins
(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; Reprinted Nov. 2011)
Kindle edition, 226 pages.
ISBN:  030794722X



When you run a business and problems pop up, you have to retain specialists to deal with them. Say you operate a restaurant and your dishwasher breaks down; you have to bring in a plumber to fix it. Your business uses computers to keep track of inventory and your server goes down? Chances are you are going to have to hire an IT expert.

So it is with organized crime: if an enterprise goes off the tracks, somebody has to fix it – particularly when the way it goes awry frightens off  the customers the business depends on. Thus, when a trio of numbskulls robs a Mafia-protected illegal gambling operation in Boston in 1974. The mob turns to Jackie Cogan to manage the repair job.

Fixing the damage is crucial: since the robbery, all the ther mob-connected card games have shut down and the Mafia is losing a fortune in tribute the games’ operators pay to remain in business. The success of one robbery has raised the prospect of copycats, so the perpetrators must be found and dealt with quickly:

“Shit, we’re gonna have kids waiting in line, knock them fuckin’ games over, they open up again,” Cogan tells the mob lawyer who acts as his intermediary. “You got any idea how many wild-ass junkies there are around? If he (the organizer) gets away with this, well, we might as well just forget it, once and for all, just quit.”

Cogan is a specialist in fixing this type of problem by a judicious application of violence. It is, in fact, his profession:  Cogan’s Trade, as it is styled in the original title of the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins that has been turned into the motion picture, Killing Them Softly.

To sensibly review the movie, however, a few words about the original novel are in order.

Any thoughtful person who has read one of Higgins’ books knows that action is not his métier. Higgins, who died in 1999, cut his teeth on organized crime, first as an assistant district attorney, then an Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the federal Organized Crime Strike Force, and finally as a newspaper reporter and columnist.

Rather than focusing on mob big shots like Mafia Don Raymond Patriarca, or middle-level gangsters like Vincent Teresa, Higgins’ early novels, starting with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in 1972, concentrated on the world of small-time wise guys who were strictly ham-and-eggers: lunch-pail criminals that have more in common with the blue collar workers who build the skyscraper than the architect who designed it or the board of directors that commissioned it.

For these working class criminals, life is an unending procession of tedious days spent working at secondary jobs or running small businesses that cover for their illegal activities. 

They deal with unsuccessful marriages, wayward children, pushy mistresses (who resent their secondary status) and dim-witted colleagues. Hours are spent during which nothing of substance is achieved: just a lot of meetings in parked cars, business offices and local taverns, engaging in aimless talk about proposed crimes that never come to fruition.

Higgins knows these losers. He spent hours listening to Title III wiretap intercepts of their conversations, deciphering their peculiar underworld slang, hashing out their schemes, hearing the dull repetitive monotony of their lives, all in their own words. 

The real treat in a Higgins novel is his dialog, which captures the cadence, scansion and vocabulary of the cheap crook with dead-bang accuracy.  In a Higgins novel, you hear criminals talking to each other the way they actually do – stripped of any glamour or imposed literary devices.

And because these criminals are mental lightweights, their plots often go astray. They engage in risky break-ins seeking valuables that, it turns out, have been removed to a bank’s safety deposit box a few days earlier; they shoot the wrong person; they rob the wrong store.

Or, in the case of Cogan’s Trade, they steal $53,000 from a Mafia card game at gunpoint, assuming they will get away with the theft because the game’s operator robbed it himself several years earlier and was never punished for his treachery.

This, then, is the basic outline of Cogan’s Trade. The plot mechanics consist of Jackie Cogan figuring out who did the job, then setting things back in order.  On the way, we hear various criminals – including Cogan himself – bitch about their bosses, reminisce about previous capers, and discuss the minutia of their lives.

Some of their dialog is hilarious, but it is hilarious in an unintentional way, not because they spout glib wisecracks like Philip Marlowe, but because of the fact that they approach their professions with deadly earnestness, and express themselves in the lurid language of petty criminals.

For example, while two thugs are waiting to “interrogate” Markie Trattman, the operator of the card game that was robbed, they end up discussing Trattman’s remarkably active sex life and seeming ability to bed a woman who is a total stranger every night: “I think the guy’s afraid, there’s some broad some place inna world that’s gonna fuck, and he’ll die without asking her. That’s what Jackie said. ‘Guy gets more ass’n a toilet seat.’”

The action in the novel is relatively minor. Three people are killed, quickly and efficiently. One man is savagely beaten.  And that’s it. The amount of mayhem, given that the novel is 224 pages long, is really rather minor.

But action is not what Cogan’s Trade is really about. The novel is a short, trenchant case study of a unique form of American capitalism. In it, Cogan is portrayed dealing with his own untrustworthy subordinates, resolving a dispute with a subcontractor he has hired to perform a murder, and dickering over work-related expenses with the reluctant, bean-counting attorney who serves as the intermediary for the Mafia boss who has hired him. 

In the end, he finds that he has been cheated on his fee for resolving the problems caused by the original card game heist.

Although this capitalistic subtext is not ladled on, it clearly underlies the entire novel.  A perceptive critic has pointed out that Higgins doesn’t actually write crime novels – he writes social histories, among which are studies of criminals.  Cogan’s Trade is clearly one of these: a microeconomic study of the criminal subclass at work and play. Only the most willfully ignorant reader will miss this underlying message of this novel.

Which brings us to Killing Them Softly, which would appear to be a perfect match for its Cogan’s Trade source material.

Appearances can be quite deceiving. 

Andrew Dominick, director and screenwriter of The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, has assembled a cast that, for the most part, is terrific: Brad Pitt is Cogan, Ray Liotta is the game operator Markie Trattman, James Gandolfini as Micky, a hitman hired by Cogan for a secondary job, and veteran character actor Richard Jenkins is the lawyer serving as Cogan’s liaison with his Mafia client.

One could quibble with some of the film’s deviations from the book that appear to have nothing to do with moving the plot along more quickly or simplifying the action. For instance, the nationality of one of the card game robbers, Russell, has been changed from American to Australian, and key lines have been cut from his dialog that render nonsensical his later comment that he would rather be back in Vietnam  than pursued by a Mafia assassin because at least there he had the ability to shoot back.

Another inexplicable change has Cogan use a semiautomatic pistol from the passenger side of the front seat of a car to kill one of his victims, while in the book he used a semiautomatic rifle from the rear seat.

But these are minor points that are negligible considering the major faults of the film.

Dominick, who gave himself credit as screenwriter with Higgins on this film, apparently doesn’t feel Higgins’ novel was clear enough in its critique of capitalism.  Although he keeps the basic plot and characters and uses much of the dialogue from the novel without alteration, he has taken the liberty of updating the action, such as it is, to 2008 to coincide with the collapse of the world economy due to the unsecured lending crisis.

As a result, the film has a variety of anachronisms – such as Russell’s service in Indochina, even though he is clearly in his late 20s or early 30s – that appear ridiculous.

 In addition, the film has been larded with visual references to the 2008 financial collapse, televisions in bars spouting stories about the crisis and spewing sound bites from George W. Bush III, Barack Obama and John McCain commenting on the future of the U.S. in light of the collapse of key industries, massive unemployment and the destruction of billions upon billions of dollars in personal savings. As a consequence, the film takes the subtle comparison of organized crime and legitimate business made in the novel and rubs it in the viewer’s face with neither wit nor sophistication.

In the event this ham-handed revision does not make the point obvious enough for even the densest viewer, Dominick inserts a lengthy and gratuitous speech by Cogan at the film’s end in which the Mafia enforcer says something along the lines of “America is a business. . . now pay me.” This entire speech is utterly leaden and so completely out of synch with the character of Cogan carefully developed earlier in the movie that the viewer might be forgiven for thinking a reel from another film had been accidentally substituted.

Cogan’s Trade remains a book worth reading, nearly 40 years after its first publication. Unfortunately, Killing Them Softly falls far short of its superior source material. The real tragedy here is that Killing is the first adaptation of a Higgins novel since The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released 39 years ago.

Because of its signal flaws, it will probably be the last until 2051.

Cogan's Trade earns a full complement of five nooses.



Unfortunately, Killing Them Softly receives only three nooses from this reviewer:



Saturday, December 1, 2012

Piracy -- In the Low "C's"



Djibouti
By Elmore Leonard
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: HarperLuxe; 
October 12, 2010
ISBN-10: 0062008315
Read Oct. 15-19, 2012


Elmore Leonard is like Longfellow’s little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when he’s good, he's very, very good.  

But when he just mails it in, as he does in his 2010 offering, Djibouti, Leonard is . . .Well, not exactly horrid, but pretty disappointing.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Leonard is the winner of a Grand Master Edgar for mystery fiction, a Peabody for his FX television series, “Justified,” and lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards in 2012. A prolific writer straight out of the old pulp magazine mold, his work has been made into a number of popular films including 3:10 to Yuma (twice), Hombre, Joe Kidd, Get Shorty, 52 Pick-up, and Mr. Majestyk.

His most recent novel is Raylan, which will be the subject of a future review. Djibouti immediately preceded it.

In brief, Djibouti is the story of Dara Barr, an Oscar-winning documentary film maker who sets out with her friend and assistant, Xavier LeBo, to make a movie about the pirates that prey on merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia. 

She finds a suitable subject for her film, Idris Mohammed, and begins shooting, but a collection of the usual quirky Leonard characters keeps popping up to make the job more complicated.

There’s Billy Winn, a Texas millionaire and self-styled anti-terrorist, and his fashion model girlfriend, Helene; there’s Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, the shadowy representative of a group of African nations that want to stop piracy; and there’s Jama Raisuli, AKA James Russell, an armed robber and low-level drug dealer from Miami who studied the Koran in prison and later joined Al Qaeda as a terrorist.

What brings these folks together – besides Dara’s film project -- is a plot to blow up a massive natural gas tanker taken by Somali pirates when the vessel makes port in Djibouti, a dusty hub of intrigue where African pirates come to spend their ill-gotten money.  But, as is often the case in a Leonard tale, the floating bomb is simply a plot point around which the action is arranged.

Leonard has written dozens of novels that follow this same basic formula: a semi-smart crook goes after something of value and gets stymied by a hero – or heroine – who is just a little smarter and quite a bit luckier than the crook. 

Sometimes the hero is a cop; sometimes it’s another crook who happens to be more charming and less evil than the villain; sometimes it’s just an average person who is shrewd enough to stay ahead of the action and sidestep the bad guys at a key moment in the story.

Most of the time these books work because Leonard’s strength isn’t the complicated plots he comes up with, or his ability to keep readers in the dark about what is going on until the final reveal; rather, it’s the characters he draws and the way they relate to each other, usually in sharp-edged dialog that draws the reader in. 

Think of Chili Palmer, the leg breaker for a Miami loan shark in Get Shorty, or Raylan Givens, the itchy trigger-fingered U.S. Marshal in Pronto, Riding the Rap and the television series, Justified.

Unfortunately, sometimes Leonard is off his game.  To a certain extent this is the case with Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty that puts Chili Palmer in the L.A. music industry, and in Road Dogs, the sequel to Out of Sight: in both these novels, the central character seems to be going through the motions; the plotting is perfunctory; the dialog tends to fall flat.

Djibouti falls into the latter category. The story unfolds episodically, as if it was written originally as a serialization. Some characters aren't fully developed (for example, we're never really given a convincing reason why Raisuli became a terrorist, nor do we know why Bakar, the supposed anti-piracy agent, hangs around with the leader of a group of Somali pirates). 

Leonard seems to lose interest in some of the people he introduces early in the story, abruptly dropping them out of the action. And luck and coincidence are major mechanisms for moving the plot forward, which is usually the sign of a writer who is tired of his story and is simply trying to wrap things up.

The end of Djibouti, when it finally comes, is so sudden that readers may find themselves turning the last page to make sure the story is really finished.

Trust me: it is.

I have to admit that, despite these flaws, I kept reading. But I did so partly because Leonard is one of my favorite authors.  And he rewarded me by occasionally throwing something into the mix that had a little of the edge I have come to expect from his work; however, those little gems didn’t materialize frequently enough for me to recommend Djibouti.

I give the book three nooses. There were things in it I liked, but not enough of them to make it really first-rate Elmore Leonard.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dragons and Hornets and Fire, Oh My!




The Millennium Trilogy
By Steig Larsson
Hardcover:  465 pp., 503 pp., 563 pp.
Publisher: Alfred Knopf
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) (ISBN: 0307269752)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009) (ISBN: 0307269981)
(Read during August 2012)

I received all three Millennium books as presents and ended up taking them to The Friends of the Library when I gave up on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 40 pages in.

I just couldn’t believe that a novel this clunky and flat could be so popular, or that it could conceivably form the basis for not just one runaway hit movie, but a runaway hit movie that had almost immediately been remade as a second runaway hit that gained an even wider audience!

Then I got sucked in by things I read about the books and was surprised to learn how Larson's live-in and co-author, Eva Gabrielsson, got screwed out of any of the vast quantities of money the trilogy earned. So I ended up checking all three books out of the library (I just love irony) and ripped through them one after another during a week or so of intense page-turning.

After two tries at reading the darn trilogy, I am here to say that it is not a classic like Crime and Punishment.  In fact, it isn't even a really first-rate thriller like The Big Sleep or L.A. Confidential.

Nonetheless, there is something about Larsson's trio of overwritten, under-characterized novels that keeps attracting readers. But more about that below. . .

The story(s) in brief: super computer hacker Lisbeth Salander teams up with investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist to (1) solve a decades-old disappearance in a remote part of Northern Sweden. 

In the process the pair (2) uncover a serial murder case dating back a generation, (3) expose a crooked billionaire after siphoning off most of his ill-gotten gains into a Swiss bank account, and (4) clear Blomkvist’s reputation, thus saving his investigative news magazine, a shoestring operation edited  by his sometime lover.

And that all happens in just the first book!

In succeeding installments the duo ferret out links between the Swedish intelligence services and a corrupt former KGB man, decimates the leadership of a motorcycle gang, unmasks a crooked publisher's conflicts of interest, eliminates another serial killer and exposes corruption in the Swedish government and the country’s conservatorship laws.

Delivering a first-rate novel with such an intricate plot would be quite an accomplishment even for a masterful author.  Sure as hell, Larsson falls considerably short of the mark.

The mechanics of his plotting are clunky and the plot is so full of holes you could use it to grate Parmesan.  Most of the characters are one-dimensional, including Blomkvist, the trilogy’s putative central male figure and the one man in Salander’s world who isn't a brutal, assaultive, murderous son-of-a-bitch.

The entire thing needs serious editing and about half the characters who weave in and out of the interlinked stories could easily have been trimmed out.

One of my pet peeves is the way the trilogy handles Salander’s expertise in computer hacking, phone tapping, bugging and other types of electronic spying. I dislike books that raise technical procedures just to gloss over them because the author is too lazy to actually research how they work. 

(You may criticise Tom Clancy for his "Popular Mechanics" style of exposition, but at least he gives the impression he actually knows how the gadgets he includes operate. Larsson apparently doesn't; when Salander or her friends tap a phone or hack a computer, it is as if they had waved a magic wand.)

If the flat characters weren't bad enough, the narrative is undermined by leaden prose like this passage, in which Blomkvist licks his wounds after being convicted of criminal libel for a bungled story about a crooked billionaire:

"What hurt most was the humiliation. He [Blomkvist] had held all the trumps and yet he had lost to a semi-gangster in an Armani suit. A despicable stock market speculator. A yuppie with a celebrity lawyer who sneered his way through the whole trial."

Where to begin? The contract bridge metaphor ("he had held all the trumps") that goes nowhere? The use of the archaic slur "yuppie?" The flaccid compound word, "semi-gangster?" The gratuitous product placement of "Armani suit?"

But that isn’t to say that I hated the books. I didn’t.


To me, what has garnered the Trilogy such a vast number of fans is Lisbeth Salander, herself. Salander is not only the most interesting character in the Trilogy, but one of the most fascinating in recent crime fiction. 

As a character, she has integrity: the violent antipathy she has toward most men holds up consistently through the book, and her actions – though often insane – are perfectly in keeping with the personality and back story with which Larsson has burdened her.

What's more, Salander is one of the few terse characters in these three novels. Her bluntness saves her from the excessive verbiage, aimless metaphors and turgid dialog many of the other characters spout. For example, after she has magically peered inside the billionaire's hard drive and learned his financial secrets, she tells Blomkvist: 

"Wennerstrom is a gangster . . . He works with everybody from the Russian Mafia to the Colombian drug cartels."

No discursive explanations. No existential angst. No tortured attempt at wisecracks. Just a simple, straightforward, on-point declaration -- the kind most readers want in thrillers.

Besides the remarkable Lisbeth Salander, the books have a paranoid subtext that appeals to me: in the world of the Millennium Trilogy, institutions are corrupt or corruptible, authority figures are mostly evil or as thick-headed as a triceratops, and the only thing standing between citizens and the unchecked power of corporate and government officials are individuals like Salander with unshakable ethics.

But given the multiple failings of the trilogy, Salander's personality and the stridently anti-capitalist undercurrent of the books aren't enough to make the Trilogy really good. 

I’d give Dragon Tattoo three nooses because it works better than the other two books in the trilogy. And I would give the other books two nooses each; Fault my math if you will, but to me, the whole package is worth two and a half nooses.






Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Burned" by Second-Rate Carl Hiaasen


By Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Vintage (June 30, 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375700684
ISBN-13: 978-0375700682
Read between Oct. 31 and Nov. 10

In Powder Burn, a Carl Hiaasen thriller that was originally released at the height of Southern Florida's “Miami Vice” drug revolution in the 1980s, Chris Meadows is an architect who enjoys building things. 

He does, anyway, until the day he watches in horror as a former lover and her little girl are accidentally killed by a Cuban hit man chasing a car full of cocaine dealers.  At that point, Meadows decides that it’s time to do a little demo work – on the hit man’s organization and boss.

What follows, however, is nearly 300 pages of “vacation reading” in the worst sense of the term: this revenge-fueled thriller only holds together if your brain goes on vacation for entire chapters at a time.

Powder Burn is one of Hiaasen’s earlier books, apparently written before he had the confidence to unleash the outrageous sense of humor that brought us such memorable characters as Skink, the former Florida governor who now lives in the glades and subsists on roadkill, or Chemo, the scarred killer who loses a hand to a barracuda and has his stump fitted with a weed-whacker. 

There are moments of humor in Powder Burn, but they are few and far between.

Instead, what Hiaasen and his co-author give us is a rather unremarkable suspense novel that turns on a series of  unbelievable coincidences. If your basic Hiaasen is like Elmore Leonard on laughing gas, Powder Burn is more like Dutch on one of those days when he mails it in (Stay Cool, Road Dogs, Djibouti, etc.).  It is readable, but it isn’t the sort of party a Hiaasen yarn normally offers.

The characters are uniformly flat: they include such tired standbys as the apparently bent Cuban-American narc, his by-the-book white-bread partner and a battalion of muy estupido drug henchmen who seem as faded and familiar as the décor in a Motel 6. Meadows’ current squeeze Terry – an unlikely combination of bush pilot and fashion plate – serves as the sole Smurfette character.  She plays such a marginal role in the action that she doesn’t even get to be decently menaced by the bad guys.

Meadows, the hero of the piece, and his nemesis, Jose Bermudez, a billionaire banker who schemes to split the drug business with his elderly Colombian counterpart, then eventually nudge the Colombian aside, have the worst failing characters in a Hiaasen novel can have: they are boring.

We know the banker is evil, not because he does things that are particularly evil, but because Hiaasen tells us he is; we know Meadows is heroic because . . . well, because he does a lot of really stupid things but survives anyway. Only a hero could get away with being such a doofus.  

The one really original character in the entire novel is Meadows’ occasional chess partner, Arthur Krim, and in him you can see traces of the kind of interesting and amusing people that populate Hiaasen’s later – and much better -- tales.

If you are out of good Hiaasen – which I was when I picked this up – by all means give Powder Burn a look.  Sure, it has an idiot plot, but the pace is rapid enough that you don’t notice the gaping holes until you are done. In the meantime, it’s a readable enough time-waster, all things considered. 

But first-rate Hiaasen can be extraordinary, while there are lots of other hacks out there that can write just as good a thriller as Powder Burn. So why not give your hard-earned money to one of them instead of the guy who is slumming? Rewarding the slacker would be the biggest burn of all.

Personally, I rate Powder Burn only three out of a possible five nooses.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gone . . . But Unforgettable!


By Gillian Flynn
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Crown; First Edition June 5, 2012
ISBN-10: 030758836X
ISBN-13: 978-0307588364
Read from October 12 to 15, 2012


Nick Dunne has a problem:  his wife, Amy, apparently the victim of foul play, has disappeared on their fifth anniversary.  Making things worse, it looks like she’s been murdered and Nick has no alibi.


This is the set up to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, as slick a little thriller as you are likely to run across.  Is Amy dead? Did Nick kill her? All the clues seem to point that way, but still. . . By the last of its 419 pages, Nick and the reader have gone through more changes than a runway model in a Paris fashion show.

I finished “Gone Girl” at 4:30 a.m. on October 15 after a rare all-night reading session. That gives you some idea of how much I liked it. The book is very well plotted, has good character development and as as many twists as a backroad in Missouri, the place where the action takes place.

As a bonus, it has an ending that, while not completely unexpected, still manages to give you a mild surprise.

If you are the type of reader who wants to see justice done in a whodunit, Gone Girl is probably not your cup of tea. If you, like me, don't mind seeing bad people get away with bad things, check it out. I rate it four out of five nooses:


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Burnout

There was no explosion . . . just the roar of 9,000 tons of aircraft ripping a quarter-mile trench through school buildings and the terrified screams of 263 children and 187 adults. . .

By William E. Wallace
(Excerpt of a work in progress)

Life is hard. And then you find out time doesn’t have any particular meaning.

Whatever it was that happened, it happened everywhere on earth at 11:37 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time. But nobody would realize that for at least several days. Even then, the moment they believed was crucial wasn’t quite correct, because all clocks on earth had started slowing down shortly before they reached that specific moment.

#

In California’s Central Valley, the chain-link fence Billy Tyndall had been thinking about all afternoon was more than seven feet high, but it was his only hope today of beating the kids from the Norden Street projects that had been stealing his lunch money and anything else of value he carried when he headed home after class. 

Still, Billy hoped to avoid any sort of trouble; climbing that fence was dangerous: he had been warned at least a half dozen times that if he got caught doing it, the defense department cops who patrolled the Army Depot it surrounded would send him to juvie at the very least, and his fingerprints would permanently go on file in Washington, D.C.

 As it turned out, the decision was taken out of his hands: the Norden Street gangsters spotted him as soon as he came out of the library at Emanuel Sanchez middle school and started moving toward him immediately. Tyndall, 11, had just finished his fifth period homeroom and had no other reason to stay at Sanchez.  He felt he had no choice but to give the fence a shot.  

Billy took a deep breath and then sprinted at top speed across the school yard and past the baseball diamond behind the gym, making the most direct path he could toward the Army Depot.

His minuses outweighed his plusses in dealing with the Norden Street boys, though he had been unable to get his parents or any of the teachers or administrators at the school to recognize them: members of the gang were between four and ten years older than he was, and the smallest of them, Clyde Turnbridge, was six inches taller than Billy and outweighed him by twenty five pounds.

Perhaps more to the point, the Norden posse showed a great deal less deference toward civil authority: Ray Maxim, the oldest member at 21 years, had two stints in juvenile hall on his record and had served a twelve-month stretch in the California Youth Authority for a near fatal assault on a sixteen-year-old who refused to give him his bus pass; Maxim’s youngest disciple, Kent Freedon, 17, already had done six months in juvie, and had been warned the next time he got picked up for a felony, he would be tried as an adult. 

The other three members of the group shared arrests for vandalism, possession of drugs, aggravated assault and attempted murder. 

Their social workers and juvenile hall defense attorneys called them “troubled youths;” the cops and their juvenile probation officers called them “thugs,” and fully expected all of them to reach the mainline in a state prison eventually.

Billy didn’t call them anything. He was too busy using every cubic centimeter of air in his lungs to run for the Army Depot fence, his legs pumping frantically as if Satan himself were dogging his footsteps.

He may have been smaller, younger and less violent than the Norden posse, but Billy did have one advantage over the housing project gangsters: he was sufficiently quick and agile that his middle school PE teacher had been trying to recruit him to the track and field team, specializing in sprints, long distance running and the high jump. With the worst of the Norden crew thundering along behind him, Billy hit the afterburners and left most of them behind. 

The one who managed to keep up, unfortunately for Billy, was the gang’s leader, Maxim. Despite smoking two packs of Marlboros a day, Ray was still the fastest member of his crew – how else to explain the fact that he had been the only one who hadn’t been caught by pursuing police officers during six smash-and-grab jobs in the last 15 months?  

He plunged after Billy with the single-minded dedication of a sinner chasing a ticket that would lodge his immortal soul in heaven, despite his crimes.  His frenzied pursuit was spurred in large part by a desperate desire to keep his gang underlings from thinking he was the kind of wuss who could be outdistanced by some skinny, underage middle school kid. 

When he reached the fence, Billy gave a mighty leap without hesitation, hitting the screen about five feet up the wire and scrambling frantically.  Maxim managed to grab the coarse mesh about a foot lower and almost hooked Billy’s ankle with his hand as the eleven–year-old dragged himself over the single strand of barbed wire at the top, springing away and looking the gang leader in the eyes for a split second before pivoting and racing on.

Maxim dragged himself over, tearing the front of his T shirt on the barbed wire as he cleared the top and sprang to the ground behind, spots of red appearing on his pasty chest.  He took only a second to catch his wind and then plunged after Tyndell, licking a blob of blood from the back of his hand and more determined than ever to catch the middle-school student and make him pay for his defiance.

For his part, Billy had injured his leg when he jumped off the fence and it was starting to throb with deep pain as he ran on, his steps faltering due to his injury.  He wasn’t sure how much farther he could go with his rapidly swelling ankle, and he glanced around in desperation, hoping to spot a jeep driven by two of the navy-blue uniformed civilian guards who patrolled the depot.  Better to fall into the hands of the security force than those of the Norden gang, he thought breathlessly as he staggered forward, his ability to flee fading with every painful step.

None appeared, however, and Maxim, himself quite winded, caught up to Tyndall in less than a minute.  The bigger youth slammed into his prey’s back, knocking him to the ground.  Billy, gasping for air, rolled over as Maxim pulled a Buck knife off his belt and flicked the blade open with his thumb.

“You miserable little prick,” he said as he moved toward Tyndall, who was scooting backwards frantically in an effort to get away. “All we wanted was your fucking money, but you had to try to show us up.  Because of that, I’m going to open your gullet up from your belly button to your ribcage and leave you here in the middle of this fucking field. . .”

Just as Billy lost control of his bowels and filled his trousers with watery feces, Maxim  stopped in mid-threat, staring up at the sky with his mouth hanging open.  The knife, its blade catching the rays of the sun and sending a glint of light into Billy’s eyes, fell from Maxim’s now limp hand as he continued to stare, his jaw beginning to tremble uncontrollably.

Billy rolled to his side and looked up.  There in the sky, seemingly hanging directly above the Army Depot, was a massive commercial airliner.  It made no sound whatsoever – Billy couldn’t even hear the rush of air over its fuselage.  The plane seemed to be only a few hundred feet above the ground, so close that it looked like Billy could reach out and touch it with his hand. Yet it moved forward with surprising speed.   

The silent aircraft’s descending arc made it appear it would hit the ground someplace close to Emanuel Sanchez.  And less than a minute later, that is exactly where it came to earth without throwing a single spark, a tendril of smoke or a flicker of flame: dead center in the middle school’s cluster of buildings.

There was no explosion as the plane plowed into the school yard teeming with students who had just finished class; just the mechanical roar of 9,000 tons of aircraft ripping a quarter-mile trench through school buildings, playground equipment and dozens of cars in the faculty parking lot. The deafening noise of the impact was not the only sound, however: for the rest of his life, Billy Tyndell would remember the terrified screams of 263 children and 187 adults as the aircraft mangled them beyond recognition.

#

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Severance Kill Marks a Home Run for Tim Stevens




Severance Kill
Tim Stevens
Nov. 21, 2012
Smashwords: 80,583 words (approximately 179 pages)
ISBN: 9781301795628

 I will be checking Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com)  very carefully in the future. I recently finished the first novel I bought there, and was pleasantly surprised: in his spy yarn, Severance Kill, author Tim Stevens knocks the ball right over the deepest part of the left field fence.

The book’s hero is Martin Calvary, the most secret kind of secret agent that exists in spy fiction: a guy who works for a British agency, The Chapel, that is so obscure even the people in British intelligence have never heard of it.

Calvary is sent to Prague to assassinate a retired MI6 hand named Ivor Gaines who is suspected of selling out the Brits to the old Soviet Union. This task is made more challenging because Gaines is kidnapped by a Czech organized crime group before Calvary can terminate him.

The spy has to spend most of the rest of the novel trying to track Gaines down, a hunt complicated by the fact that his agency is not the only one looking for the suspected mole: also on the chase are the Russian secret police, who have made Gaines a top priority target for some “wet” work of their own.

The pursuit occurs at breakneck pace, with violent episodes aboard a Czech passenger tram, a bookstore, a café, a hospital, a public park and a half dozen other sites. Calvary remains steadily one half step behind his opposition, but the guy is so good at mayhem that the fact he is playing catch up throughout the book hardly seems to be a disadvantage.

In the background is always the open question: what will Calvary do when he finally does catch up to the suspected mole? Will he kill Gaines?  Turn him over to the Russians?  Let him go?  To Stevens’ credit, he manages to make the outcome uncertain until the very end of the book.

Severance Kill has everything you want in a spy novel: plenty of exotic atmosphere, political cynicism, a menacing aura of menace, automatic weapons, high speed vehicular chases and a body count large enough to have changed the outcome of the Vietnam War. There is even a hint of romance between Calvary and a young Czech woman who becomes enmeshed in the action.

In addition to the frantic pace and high-stakes violence, the novel is driven by a series of subplots and back stories that add just enough intrigue to augment the action.  How did Calvary come to be recruited by The Chapel? Who really is the double agent?  Will the plucky activists trying to publicize the Czech underworld succeed or will they be wiped out by the gangsters beforehand?  What drives the aging female Russian intelligence bureaucrat who is trying to grab Gaines and rub Calvary out in the process?

 And last but not least, will Calvary succeed in making this “one last job” his means to escape from his unscrupulous and underhand Chapel bosses?


The Russians are cold-blooded, the gangsters are vicious and barbaric, the activists dedicated and pure, and our hero is cynical and world-weary. Mercifully, there are no ejection seats in Aston-Martins, no briefcases with tear gas bombs, and no other gadgetry more complicated than pair of radio tracers and a hand drill (don’t ask how it comes into play – believe me, you need to know that like you need a hole in the head!)

Severance Kill is a real throwback – an old-fashioned page-turner filled with chills, thrills and suspense with a minimum of psychoanalysis and a blessed absence of bedroom scenes.  It is short, sweet and to the point, and offers a perfect diversion for the armchair espionage fan who wants to spend a few highly enjoyable hours reading a tightly-plotted adventure yarn.

A couple of writing quirks gave me pause, including Stevens’ reference to bullet holes “spackling” the windows of automobiles (every definition of “to spackle” I could find involved filling holes, not making them). But the book is remarkably free of bad writing and editing, which made it a pleasure to sit down and wolf through like a hungry man eating a blood rare T-bone steak.

Author Tim Stevens
Stevens, a doctor for the British National Health who lives in Essex, has a blog called, appropriately enough, “Dead Drop.”  He has written two earlier spy novels featuring an agent named John Purkiss that I look forward to reading.


Severance Kill can be purchased from Smashwords or for Kindle from Amazon. This is not exactly John Le Carré  but for what it is, it gets a full five nooses from this reviewer.






Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fully Loaded

By William E. Wallace 

(Excerpt of a work in progress)

            Sullivan was too cheap to spring for first class or even pay $10 extra for early check-in. Instead, Marcus Briggs always ended up cramming his six-seven, 265-pound body into a seat designed for someone five-ten and a hundred pounds lighter.
        Marcus had complained about it to Sully numerous times. In fact, he had mentioned it again that morning before he left for his L.A. run.

            “Man, why do you always do me like this?” he’d said. “I can see you putting Sam or Slow Joe in the cheap seats because they’re both just little guys, but doing it to a former NFL nose tackle borders on criminal.”

            Sullivan used his teeth to move the stub of his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. “You should have stayed in the fucking NFL then, Marcus. In this outfit, nobody gets treated any different from anybody else. Since Mickey, Slow Joe and Sam all fly coach, so do you.”

            Briggs groaned.

            “Besides,” Sullivan added, removing his cigar from his mouth long enough to point it at Briggs for emphasis. “Mickey should be the one complaining. That nigga weigh 350 if he’s a pound. The only way he can catch a break is if they’s nobody in the seat next to him and he can put up the arm rests.”

            Briggs was about to point out that Mickey almost never flew anywhere because Sullivan had him work the long-term parking at Oakland and SFO. Mickey could ride BART to those airports and catch the shuttle to the lots in the passenger drop-off zone in front of the terminals.  But he didn’t get a chance to make that point because Sullivan put his cigar back in his mouth, signaling that, so far as he was concerned, the conversation was officially over.

            So, nearly three hours later, Briggs carefully extracted himself from the window seat on Flight 1952—stooping over to avoid bashing his head on the overhead luggage compartment—and edged himself out into the flow of passengers working their way off the 737 and into the chaos of Los Angeles International Airport.
            It seemed he was halfway to baggage claim before the cramps in his legs from the miserable hour and a half flight from Oakland completely faded. His little rollaway was already waiting for him and he scooped it up to head for the shuttle buses to long-term parking. Now came the part of his job that Briggs actually enjoyed: picking up his ride back to Oakland.

            He never bothered checking the indoor garages or Park One, the lot just north of the 96th Street Bridge. Those lots, much closer to the terminals, were for short term parkers and cost from two to three times as much as the long term lot, Lot C, just northeast of LAX on Sepulveda. 
            In Briggs’s experience, the kind of guy who drove around in an expensive luxury rig would take it to the airport rather than doing the sensible thing and using a shuttle service. And those high-rollers might spend sixty or seventy grand on a set of wheels, but they were almost always too cheap to pay as much as $30 a day to park it.

            So he jumped on the shuttle to Lot C and grabbed a seat at the right rear. Within ten minutes, he had spotted his vehicle: a shiny 2011 Cadillac CTS-V coupe. He got off at the next shuttle stop, gathered his rollaway and dismounted from the coach’s rear about fifty feet from the car.
            The sedan was loaded: it had the wood trim package, sunroof, performance seats, and 19X9 wheels polished to a satiny gleam. The steering wheel even had the suede finish, a detail Briggs found sort of corny but one that jacked up the car’s resale value by at least a couple hundred bucks. Peering inside, he was pleased to see the lot entry tag tucked under the sun visor, right where he expected it to be.

            He allowed himself a grin. Those Recaro seats would crank back to give him plenty of leg room for the 400-plus mile drive back to the Bay Area.

            “Sweet!” he murmured as he unzipped the top of the rollaway and fished through the rings of dealers’ keys stashed inside. The Caddy keys were close to the top, right under the rings for Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars, all the big-selling luxury wheels that Sullivan wanted his crewmembers to make their top priority.
            It took two tries to find one on the ring that would open the CTS. Briggs temporarily stowed his rollaway in the back seat; he could always open the trunk later, once he was on the road. He slid behind the wheel, adjusted the seats and mirrors and put the right key into the ignition on the first try: the 556 horse supercharged V-8 came to life with a roar. He shifted it into drive and moved more than two tons of primo Detroit iron toward the cashiers’ booths.

            “How was your trip?” the cashier asked in a friendly way when Briggs handed him the parking tag he’d pulled from the sun visor.
            Briggs laughed bitterly. “It was the shits,” he said. “I’m too big for economy seating and my boss is too cheap to pay for first class.”

            The cashier grinned. “I heard that, man,” he said. “I came back from Desert Storm in the belly of a C-130 when I mustered out of the Army. I spent more than 20 hours with my feet propped up against a blown jet engine they were taking back to the States to rebuild. It took me a month to get the kinks out of my legs. You want a receipt?”

            “Yeah, thanks,” Briggs said. “My boss won’t reimburse anything without paperwork, the cheap bastard.”
            “Say, you look kind of familiar to me,” the cashier said as he handed him the receipt and change from two twenties. “Didn’t you used to play football or something?”
 
          Briggs smiled. It seemed that most white people he met guessed he was a former athlete because he was big, fit-looking and expensively dressed. They could only imagine a black man making serious money through sports, music or selling dope.
              Musicians generally weren't his size and gang-bangers tended to dress like they were planning to stick up a Seven-Eleven, not go to a Fortune 500 board meeting. That left sports.

           In fact, Briggs had been a pro athlete. But his NFL career had been so short, there was no way this parking lot attendant would have seen him play unless he went to USC home games. 
         “No way, man,” he said anyway, just to cover his tracks. “Sports are too damned rough. A person could get hurt playing football.”

            Within twenty minutes he was on the 405 heading north to the Santa Monica Freeway. The tank on the Caddy was nearly full so he didn’t even have to stop for a fill-up. The crystal red paint job was a little flashy and would make the car easy to spot, but the drive to Oakland on I-5 would take only about seven hours if he set cruise control for a casual 65 hours per hour.
            Judging by the stamp on the ticket he’d turned in to bail the car out of the lot, if the Caddy’s legitimate owner was going to be out of town for as little as three days, it would be another twelve hours before he even knew that his Caddy had been whacked. By that time, Sullivan would have the rig boxed up and on its way to a customer in China, probably some big Party honcho or one of the new Chinese “entrepreneurs” who were getting filthy rich by using slave labor to knock off legitimate American products for cheap bastards in the U.S. to buy at Wal-Mart.

            The coupe would probably go for better than a hundred grand, Sullivan’s own personal attempt to counter the U.S. foreign trade imbalance. Sully’s costs were negligible: he had put out about $150 bucks for Briggs’s airline ticket and would give Briggs $2,500 for driving the car back to Oakland. The caddy had been sitting in the long-term lot for two days so the parking tab only added another $24 to the cost of stealing the car.  Even if Briggs bought a hundred dollars worth of gas during his return trip, Sullivan’s costs would be less than $3,000. Sully would realize a 97 percent profit off the Cadillac.
            Briggs smiled. He fucking loved capitalism.

            The best thing about working for Sullivan was its safety and dependability. Briggs hadn’t been hassled by the cops once in the six years he had been stealing high-end wheels. He didn’t have to know anything about the cars except their approximate value: Sully provided the keys and a list of the kinds he wanted stolen. All a member of his crew had to do was walk up to the vehicle like he actually owned it, get in and drive it away.
            Briggs knew that from the time he walked off the plane that morning until he left long-term parking, he had been videotaped by security cameras no less than a dozen times; that was such a given that he didn’t even bother to think about it. Those photos would all be long shots anyway, so as long as nobody got a really good look at him, all they would be able to tell the cops was that the car thief had been a tall, well-built black man in a business suit and tie. That description and a couple of bucks would treat the cop to coffee and a donut but it wouldn’t give him enough evidence to make an arrest.

            Even if he got pinched, Sullivan fronted all the expenses and took care of any legal problems that might crop up. But Briggs didn’t remember ever hearing about any of Sully’s crewmembers being popped for stealing cars.
            And today’s grab had been the cakewalk he had predicted it would be.  No muss, no fuss, no bother. He had collected a $100,000 set of wheels within 90 minutes of landing at LAX and drove it away without so much as a second look from anybody.

            Beats being an NFL lineman all to hell, he thought with a grin. At least in this racket, nobody is trying to kill me.
            Later in the day he would remember having that thought with more than a trace of irony.
§

             Evgeni Klyuchenko was not having as good a day as Briggs.  First of all, his partner, Sergei Ivanov, had been ten minutes late to their rendezvous, a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard not far from La Brea. Then the barrista at the shop had given Evgeni a regular latte with whole milk and the full dose of caffeine, even though he had clearly ordered a double decaf low-fat; by the time he realized the order was wrong, they were too far behind schedule to get it replaced. Finally, they had run into a traffic jam on the 405 where it meets the Santa Monica Freeway, and the delay had made them another ten minutes late getting to LAX.
            The last straw came when they pulled into Parking Lot C and couldn’t find the red Cadillac that was supposed to be waiting there for them.  Klyuchenko had Ivanov make two complete circuits of the lot while he looked but the car simply wasn’t there.

           That, unfortunately for Klyuchenko and Ivanov, meant that the two matching suitcases in the Caddy’s trunk weren’t there, either.  Each suitcase contained more than 40 pounds of high-quality Cali cocaine worth a half-million dollars at the current U.S. market rate. Klyuchenko’s boss might be willing to write off the loss of a missing $80,000 Cadillac: the damned thing had been stolen off a fleet delivery truck in Dearborn, Michigan, in the first place; but Igor Polkovnikov, the man the FBI’s organized crime division called “The Colonel,” would never willingly walk away from more than a million dollars worth of drugs.

            “Fuck my mother, military style,” Klyuchenko muttered angrily.  He hadn’t slept well last night to begin with and all the morning’s irritations had combined to give him a nagging low-grade headache. Now, faced with the missing Caddy and dope, it threatened to become a full-scale migraine.
            “Nu, Evgeni,” Ivanov said. “So what do we do now?”

            “We find the fucking car,” Klyuchenko spat out.  He opened the briefcase on the floor between his calves, pulled out the GPS locater and switched it on. “We were stupid enough to let Morales and his fucking Colombians talk us into leaving the Cadillac in an airport parking lot for pick up, but we weren’t stupid enough not to have them put a tracking device in it.”
            He stared at the little screen, picking up the path of a bright dot heading north a mile or two from where they were stopped. “Ah,” he said. “There the motherfucker is.  It looks like he is heading for the Ventura Freeway.  We’ll catch up to him and follow him until he pulls over somewhere.”

            Ivanov handed the lot attendant a bill and turned out onto Sepulveda, heading for the nearest on-ramp.
            “What then?” he asked as he maneuvered the car through traffic and hit the freeway, dropping the hammer until their Lincoln Town Car was cruising at a couple of miles per hour over 65.

            Evgeni smiled for the first time that day.  “We recover the car and the dope,” he said, raising his shoulders in a shrug of indifference. “And then we kill whoever it was that took them.”
(End excerpt)