About Me

My photo
I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pick A Target Between the Eyes

Maybe I Should Just Shoot 

You in the Face

By Paul Brazill (editor), Brian Panowich, et. al.

  • 84 pages
  • Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
(Zelmer Pulp Press, Oct. 9, 2014)

This fine collection of stories should provide the reader with a couple of hours of pleasure but a wise aficionado will ration the tales and stretch the book out as long as possible.

The slim book was edited by Paul Brazill, author of Guns of Brixton, Roman Dalton, Werewolf P.I. and A Case of Noir. Brazill writes an introductory essay that neatly summarizes noir in a few deft phrases:

"Noir, for me, is all about mood," Brazill writes. "And a dark mood at that because, as Otto Penzler once said, 'Noir is about losers.' ”

If you're looking for losers, you'll find them in these pages. And if it's dark you're after, this is your popcorn shack, friend.

Featured here are some of the top writers working in the neo-noir genre today, folks like Chris Leek, Benoît Lelièvre, Brian Panowich and Ryan Sayles. 

The tales they tell are dark, even when the protagonist emerges victorious. But victory is alien to these characters and most of them are skirting the edge of the world, ready to tumble off and whirl away into the void.

In "Last Exit," Leek, an editor at the Zelmer Pulp implant, writes about a cop looking for revenge against the man who killed his lover. His search is brutal and the justice he extracts when he finds the villain is cold and ruthless.

Chris Leek
The story could simply be dismissed as a dark revenger, but the writing in it is so fine that it is much, much more than that. For example, when a tipster suggests a place where the killer might be found, Leek's protagonist greets the information with a policeman's equivocal attitude:  "A direction wasn't a destination but it was a start."

Later his search leads him to a seedy 24-hour laundromat. "The yellowing sign on the door said: We Never Close. In this town, that worked just as well for old wounds as it did for fresh laundry."

In "Once Upon a Time in the Woods," his first-rate story about a kidnapping gone sour, Brian Panowich writes a mash-up: a crime story with an eerie undercurrent of the supernatural.

Brian Panowich
I've written this type of story myself -- a tale in which the bizarre and inexplicable takes place against a backdrop of the normal -- and these kinds of yarns are not easy to pull off. Panowich does an exceptional job, hinting at the inconceivable that is going to eventually overtake the story without ever giving it away completely. 

When the story rumbles to its eventual grotesque conclusion, the reader is left in stunned silence, still uncertain about what has actually happened; or why; or even how. If the purpose of short form fiction is to make the reader want more, this piece works perfectly.

Or consider Chuck Regan's excellent "Taking Flesh," a story about a photographer who is always looking for the perfect shot, the reputation maker, the photo that will lead to fame and fortune.

It is the plainest and most direct of all the neo-noir stories in this volume; it is also one of the most haunting.

Chuck Regan 
"I've had the same dream for twenty years: I am 14 years old, snapping photos of a carousel. Gold, cream, and blue antique horses waltz around a gaudy calliope as it brays vaudevillian dirges. When I stop to load another roll of film, I drop my lens cap and it rolls under the ride.  I duck down under the guard rail to retrieve the cap but I am pulled back by rough hands. The skull-tattoo carny from the photo breathes a rotted-teeth-and-cigarette breath onto my face and says, “You don't belong here.”

When he finally takes the perfect shot, he doesn't even notice it -- until sales soar for the book that contain the picture  and his agent calls him to let him know several magazines have contacted her to reproduce the photo for their covers.

When he mentions the uptick in sales, a friend says ""Maybe it's because of that kid who died."

" 'What kid?' " I asked. A teenage boy had died on a carnival ride in Maryland. I had to dig out the model-release form to confirm his name. It was the boy I had photographed at the ring toss. He was the cover photo to my book. My thesis had proven itself true. The carnival was an active ritual space, and every ritual needs some kind of sacrifice. That boy on the cover became a sacrifice to the carnival, and my sales spiked because of it."

In other words, the perfect photograph was one of death.

This is that rarest of all literary accomplishments -- a story that you find yourself thinking about just before you fall asleep for the night.

If "Taking Flesh" serves as an example of the quiet side of noir, Ryan Sayles yarn, "The Roach Motel Reputation" gives you the savage side -- a tale so hard-boiled it would bounce off a cement floor. 

Ryan Sayles
It involves child rapists, a pederast bar, underground raves, drug dealing and an ex-cop turned beat-up-artist for hire who's been retained to find a man who committed murder. The following passage makes the nature of the storytelling genre clear:

"Thomas looks at his supposed friends, back to me, back to them and then me. He realizes in a microsecond he is without quarter now. A naked fool in a house of razors. Vulnerable."

Thomas, in case you didn't notice, is in deep shit. He will enter a new world soon after this encounter: a world of excruciating hurt.

There are seven stories in this collection and each of them is a peach. I can't recommend Maybe I Should Just Shoot You in the Face highly enough.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Winning Hand: A Pair of Aces

By Pablo D’Stair and
Chris Rhatigan
98 pages
ISBN: 1500931942
(All Due Respect Books, Aug. 22, 2014)
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Ever wonder what two different authors would do with characters that are in the same basic situation?

Wonder no longer. In you don’t exist, two grimly paranoid novellas by All Due Respect’s Chris Rhatigan (The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other) and Pablo D’Stair (I Poisoned You), each ends up going to a different place and getting there by a different route.

The jumping off point is that classic standby of noir – found money: the protagonist in each story accidentally comes into possession of a large amount of spendable cash – so much of it, in fact, that it clearly was generated by some sort of dishonest activity that took place before these stories began.

Rather than turning the money in to the authorities, however, the characters in these short novels hold on to it and take steps that compound the error of keeping the cash in the first place. In the one case, the protagonist destroys evidence of a murder; in the other, he defrauds an inn-keeper, tries to purchase an illegal gun, and hides part of the money.

Though the starting point of each story is similar, D’Stair fills his tale “Bleed the Ghost Empty” with paranoia from the beginning, portraying his character as a traveler on a lost highway, the occupant of a world in which initially no other people exist – just an endless road to nowhere.

Pablo D'Stair
“Apparently, I’d wound up further from the highway than I’d thought,” D’Stair writes. "I was under the impression I’d been running parallel to it, keeping a straight line, that at worst I might have to back track half a day’s drive, but the reality seemed so much more dreadful. I wasn’t even nowhere, I was just somewhere I couldn’t identify, and there seemed to be no one else there with me.”

He tells a policeman he encounters that he is fleeing the breakdown of a relationship with a girlfriend. This is inherently incredible; no one but a lunatic would drive through the night mapless in an unfamiliar area simply because they had split up with a lover.

But our protagonist is a classic unreliable informant who seems to lie about everything. It is not clear whether we can believe him about even this seemingly harmless fact. In fact, we’re not certain he believes the things he tells himself.

While the road he travels is lonely and deserted at the beginning of the tale, after he finds the money, it seems to become crowded with people he does not trust: a passing motorist, a policeman who seems too friendly by half, a motel operator. 

The character has secrets of some sort he is trying to keep hidden. We never learn what they are, but the way D’Stair has written his story encourages our imaginations to run wild.

The novella creates an atmosphere of imbalance, irrationality. His protagonist’s words tumble into and out of his head in a panicky rush, their disorder creating a sort of weird order despite themselves. 

When he discovers a dead man’s body in an abandoned and badly hidden car, for example, the reader is sucked along by the energy of the character’s panic, bumping along in the wake of his blurted thoughts.

“I started thinking I should open the trunk, this suddenly making me breathe heavily,” the character thinks. “Pounding, knowing I needed to get back to my car— I was having some fit, wasn’t thinking, couldn’t think, needed to get on the road, even if just to drive until my tank heaved dry.”

It slowly becomes clear that our main character is seriously mentally ill – he seems convinced he is ensnared in some sort of trap by the money he has uncovered, but he continues to obsessively hold onto it, even after he has decided it poses a danger to him.

We never are able to determine whether he is, in fact, being followed, why the money was left at the scene of the murder – even where the main character is. The only thing we are sure about is that the money exists. Fearful it might be discovered, D’Stair’s protagonist has taped it into the wheel well of his car, and it remains there the last time he checks.


Chris Rhatigan
As ambiguous as D’Stair’s story is, Rhatigan’s is even murkier: by the time you reach the last page of “Pessimist,” you are no longer even certain that the cash that he found really exists.

In Rhatigan’s tale, the protagonist is a lowly municipal bureaucrat who picks up the wrong bag in the luggage carousel at a small airport. The duffel bag he grabs contains a large amount of bundled bills the bureaucrat is sure was generated by drug sales or some other criminal activity.

On the spur of the moment our main character decides to take the money and run. He, too, believes he is pursued by evil-doers intent of getting back the cash.

As can be seen by the novella’s title, the character in Rhatigan’s story sees the glass as a lot more than half empty and a man who always expects the worst is seldom disappointed. Our character, Pullman, demonstrates his grim outlook at the story’s outset, imagining what might happen if it crashes:

“You will burn to death,” Pullman thinks to himself. Yet you are no one. You have lived thirty-seven years, but have done nothing. No one will mourn your death. Will there be a funeral? Maybe they have to have funerals for people who die in plane crashes. Like the FAA requires it or something. Then it would just be a chaplain and one FAA guy. The chaplain saying the Nicene Creed and the FAA guy texting the whole time. Doing their job, honoring your flaccid corpse. They forget to bury you. And they move on, but you remain in that plain, pine box, staring at the sky, wide fucking awake even though everyone thinks you’re dead. Because you can’t die if you’re nobody in the first place.”

In Rhatigan’s story, Pullman hides part of the money, tries to buy a gun illegally from a licensed dealer, rents a storage locker to stow most of the dough, and hires a private eye to keep him under surveillance in case someone tries to get the money back. Eventually he even reports the cash to the police.

All his efforts come to nothing, however: the gun dealer punches him out and takes his wallet; the shamus thinks he’s an idiot and abandons him after pocketing his retainer, and the police believe he is lying about everything that happened.

By the end of the story, you don’t know whether there was really any money or not. You only have Pullman’s word it existed and he, like the nameless protagonist in “Bleed the Ghost Empty,” is hardly a reliable informant.

What you are sure of is the atmosphere of dread, of paranoia, of hopelessness thick enough to spread like peanut butter:

“A glance in the rearview mirror revealed only the vague lights of the parking lot and the inky black night swallowing him— no cars behind him,” Rhatigan writes. “Maybe they had turned off their lights. Maybe they planted someone in the trunk of his car. Maybe they were already ahead of him. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he had never lived.”

As noir, these two stories are classic: major character, confronted with a choice between right and wrong, makes a bad decision. He makes more bad decisions to try and correct the effects of the first one. He experiences physical harm or is threatened by it. His attempted solutions lead him further into a morass of guilt, regret and immoral conduct.

The best noir leaves the reader with the feeling that he or she is the transgressor -- the person whose misbehavior has brought consequences that cannot be escaped. A first-rate noir story puts the reader in the protagonist's shoes.

These two stories do exactly that.

They aren’t the type of tales you are likely to seek out if you are feeling blue or depressed. They are too grim for that.

But if you aren't in a suicidal state of mind and enjoy fiction firmly rooted in the darkest type of human behavior, you will be riveted by you don’t exist.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Cool eBook about a Hot Redhead and her Boy Toy Caught up in a Dish Best Served Cold

By Phil Beloin Jr.
(92 pages)
ISBN: 1502899639
(Publisher: All Due Respect Books, Oct. 29, 2014)
Ebook sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Phil Beloin’s novella, Revenge is a Redhead, is a perfect example of the so-called New Pulp: a long story that could easily have appeared in Black Mask, Argosy or one of the other pulp magazines that dominated newsracks in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

It is colorful, lurid and violent, coupling a sinister and cynical world view with a transgressive type of justice that is meted out vigilante-style by the book’s first-person protagonist, Rich.

And it does it in a terse narrative that pulls up a few pages short of novel length.

The only real difference between Beloin’s tale and, say, a Black Mask Continental Op story by Hammett or a Dime Detective John Dalmas yarn by Raymond Chandler is the fact that it is  tricked out with the New Pulp technology – as an eBook, the 21st Century equivalent of the cheap pulp paper periodicals of the 30s, 40s and 50s.

It features a corrupt milieu, an exotic villain, and enough tough talk to provoke a dozen barroom fights. Best of all, the book has plenty of raw action: Beloin has studied at the knee of writers like Chandler, who once said whenever an action writer can’t think of what to do, he should send a man through the door with a gun in his hand. His advice is still serviceable more than fifty years later.

Also like many of the Old Pulps, Beloin’s story has a wise-ass streak as wide as the Mississippi.

For example, Beloin goes Chandleresque on our asses when he introduces Cherry Pop, a sexy female who is menaced by the baddies, but – as a prostitute and stripper – understands the world of crime well enough to guide the book’s clueless but game protagonist through it.

Author Phil Beloin, Jr. goes Chandleresque
on our asses...
“You see some [exotic dancers] that are real skanky, man, not worth a dollar for nothing, but the redhead up there had something the others didn’t. Her skin was popping with freckles, the legs stretching long and hard, and that chest was mocking Sir Isaac.”

The description has just the right tone: the “real skanky” line is grounded solidly in the underworld Rich ends up groping through; the double negative (“not worth a dollar for nothing”) marks him as a working class hero – or at least someone unconcerned with how much his language influences those he encounters. 

Yet the reference to Newton makes it clear Rich is not a dummy – he at least is familiar with Sir Isaac’s theory of gravitation.

Similarly this one brief passage leaves the reader with an image of the heroine that tells us she’s not just another kooch artist. Her freckles make her seem younger and more innocent than the other dancers, but her other features portray her as highly attractive in the sexual sense.

Beloin’s writing is simple but brilliant in its way. It packs what could be a lot of expository prose into a single sentence stylishly, and in a fashion that pulls the reader into the story.

The plot develops in an unusual fashion. Rich has been tossed out of the apartment he shares with his father, an alcoholic cop. He is down to his last few pennies, so broke he can’t take Cherry up on her offer of commercial sex.

Instead he goes to a local mission to find a bed for the night, is attacked and escapes, but finds that his car has been stolen. At a diner he chances to meet Cherry again and she offers him a bed for the night. As the night rolls on, they raid the shelter where he was assaulted, uncover a body-parts theft artist, a mammoth meth lab, unmask the mastermind behind the phony homeless shelter and chance upon a considerable amount of money.

Like most hardboiled crime fiction, the novella lacks an ending that is conventionally “happy,” but there seems to be some hope that Rich and Cherry will emerge from their night-long ordeal better off than they were when it began.

While the story is rather savage, Beloin keeps the reader entertained by splashes of humor to lighten his story’s darkness.

For example, while running from his attackers, Rich momentarily considers seeking shelter in a motel. The desk clerk, however, looks almost as evil as the men he is trying to evade:

“He was a heavily tattooed metal head, probably had more hardware under the counter than what a SWAT team carried into a madman’s house,” Beloin writes. “I read his gaze. He was daring me to come in—dude, I haven’t seen any action in awhile. Let’s get it on, you stupid bastard. Try stealing yourself an energy drink and the drawer. Yeah, I’ll give both…barrels in the face, asshole. I kept on going. I thought I could hear him sigh through the glass. I had ruined his shift.”

And wait until you read how Rich eventually resolves his relationship with his father! It is hilariously perfect.

Considering how short this book is, Beloin manages to load it up with action, enjoyable plot twists, memorable characters and more than a few sepulchral laughs. It’s a perfect introduction to the New Pulp and it only takes a couple of hours to read.

This is one of the maiden titles by All Due Respect Press, the independent publishing house operated by Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan, the publishers of one of the best crime mags on the market, All Due Respect. Monson (author of Tussinland) and Rhatigan (who wrote The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other) are no slouches when it comes to cranking out pulpish noir themselves. If the rest of their offerings are as good as Beloin’s tale, All Due Respect is going to satisfy a lot of crime fiction fans.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stupid Criminal Tricks: Pot Farmer Stones Out in a Grow House; Hilarity Ensues!

Stinking Rich
By Rob Brunet
  • 335 pages
  • (Down & Out Books; September 1, 2014)
  • EBook sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • ASIN: B00N89UJ1A

Rob Brunet, a mild-mannered fellow who lives near Toronto, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would know much about dim-witted outlaw bikers, folks who steal cars faster than a Dane gloms a two-wheeler through Bycyklen, or people who live with their vicious Rottweiler mix mutts in trailers too tiny to stand in without bumping their forlornly empty heads.

No -- Rob seems like a normal kind of person, clean cut, middle-class, hard-working, well-educated. The thought of him hanging with bikers, burglars and trailer trash would never cross your mind.

Rob Brunet
(courtesy www.robbrunet.com)
But check out his new novel, Stinking Rich, and you will soon see that he is intimately familiar with low-life criminals, fuzzy-minded dope dealers and hot-prowl artists looking for the main chance. 

In fact, people of just that ilk are crammed into his novel like drunk tank habitués after a three-day weekend.

I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Brunet on a brief stopover at San Francisco's Green Arcade bookstore during his recent tour promoting the novel. The occasion was a reading featuring Rob and Anonymous-9, author of Hard Bite and Bite Harder, two of the most relentlessly entertaining crime novels I have enjoyed reading this year. 

After reading dinner at Zuni with Terry Shames, Anonymous-9,
Richard Kelly, Rob Brunet and yours truly.

The evening was billed "Razor Sharp -- Crime & Black Comedy." As Rob put it in his invitation: "Join me with Anonymous-9 . . . as we probe criminality for its comedic content.”

For his selection, Brunet read a passage from Stinking Rich, his debut novel released two months ago.

Good choice!

Among other things, Stinking Rich is the story of Danny Grant, a high school drop-out who is hired to tend a pot growing operation for a backwoods biker. The biker, a member of an outfit called The Libidos, is a crook's crook: a thug who can't get out of his own way and who plans to double-cross his gang by cutting them out of the profits from selling the weed.

A series of missteps, however, end with an unexpected police raid on the grow house, its destruction, and the loss of $750,000 in cash that another group has scraped together to make the buy.

To give more details would ruin the story. Suffice to say Grant ends up being pursued by the Canadian police, the bikers, his unscrupulous former lawyer -- who smells money and can't wait to fill her pockets with it -- and a part-time vigilante who sells him a bus ticket at a rural Greyhound station.

Along the way, a couple of people are killed and a penal code textbook's worth of offenses are committed, including burglary, petty theft, grand theft auto, kidnapping, bribery, trespassing and felonious mopery with intent to lurk.

Most of the people in the book turn out to be hustlers looking to cash in. In fact, Grant is one of the few relatively honest characters in the story -- one who literally sees the error of his ways and wants to make amends for his misdeeds.

However, even our hero is no saint: Danny accidentally kills a drinking partner while trying to recover a carton of cigarettes the man has glommed, then poisons the dead man's dog so he can bury them together.

I realize this sounds like pretty grim stuff, but Brunet serves it up with such diabolical good humor that it generates a laugh a minute. 

Consider the sequence during which the biker who is running the grow operation holds a business meeting with the dope's buyers at a Mexican restaurant in the boondocks. The menu Brunet describes has to contain more items than any three Mexican restaurants I've ever eaten in, each one more volcanically hot than the last.

The dope-dealing biker, Perko Ratwick, consumes too much of the greasily toxic chow and finds himself suffering unbearable digestive distress as the deal goes down:

"A few minutes later, bouncing through the forest, he finally gave in to intestinal revolt: it was time to do what bears do in the woods. He stopped, found a fallen tree limb to squat over, and fought to undo his belt buckle. Then he remembered his leather leggings. His stomach did somersaults as he struggled with the extra straps. In the pitch dark, it felt as though the chaps’ belt was somehow hooked through the loops on his jeans, and the more he tried to pull it loose, the tighter the noose around his belly became. Finally, he belched loudly and simultaneously farted. His stomach pain vanished and he felt light as a balloon. He lit a cigarette and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He figured he could last until the farmhouse where he’d be able to see what was going on around his waist. Not to mention he’d rather use a real toilet."

Almost immediately, the grow operation is raided by the police. Ratwick is arrested and it is quickly clear that the biker's ornate buckskin chaps, club jacket and the rest of his clothing are loaded with his excrement; in his digestive torment, the biker has passed a hell of a lot more than gas:

“Hey, Ainsley, watch out he don’t scalp you,” one cop says as he eyeballs Ratwick's wild west outfit.

Officer Ainsley snapped back: “I’m more afraid he’ll crap on me. He’s a Libido, for sure, but that bulge in his jeans is something entirely different.”

“You been checking out his package, Ainsley?” 

“What I’m saying, gentlemen, is this poor slob just shit his pants worse than a two-year-old having a tantrum. I found him in the woods by smell alone. Thought something had died in there.”

The novel is laced with hi jinx and unforgettable characters: a pet iguana that seems to communicate with Danny via ESP at moments of stress, a Skink-style loner who dwells in the woods like a human Bigfoot, an overly excitable Lhaso Apso, a blind man who gardens on his hands and knees, an obese yet amorous prison inmate who needs a warehouse full of Lifebuoy soap. All make appearances that move the story forward in gales of laughter.

For people who hear the word "Canada" and immediately think of Wayne Gretsky, Cirque de Soleil or Bryan Adams, Stinking Rich will be an eye opener: in it, you'll find that parts of the Great White North are just as full of twisted losers as a U.S. trailer park full of intermarried second cousins.

Thuglit magazine's Big Daddy, Todd Robinson, has said Stinking Rich reads like Carl Hiaasen if he were Canadian. The comparison is spot on. Those who like a fast-moving crime novel populated by characters that will have them chuckling for hours should check this one out. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Pastiche of Tales Which Have only One Thing in Common: How Uncommon They Are . . .

(Paper: 280 pages)
( Comet Press; May 1, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1936964376
ISBN-13: 978-1936964376
(Kindle edition: $4.99)

Once again a writer with a severely twisted sense of humor has me staying up late at night laughing my fool head off while everybody else in my house is sensibly trying to sleep.

The offender this time? David James Keaton, whose novel, The Last Projector, was released last week.

But I am not here to talk about The Last Projector. I will review that at another time. I am here to talk about a good lead-in to Keaton’s novel, his collection of weird but entertaining short stories, Fish Bites Cop!
David James Keaton (Courtesy of Amazon.com)

It’s not a new release. Fish was published in 2013, but I never ran across it until last week  when I won a paperback copy while participating in an impromptu quiz on Keaton’s Facebook page.

The anthology defies characterization: I couldn’t tell from its cover whether the tales the book  contains were going to be real life misadventures of cops, deputy sheriffs, scout troop leaders and other authority figures, or whether they were going to be fictionalized stories offered strictly for readers’ entertainment.

As it turned out, the latter is the case: the stories this antho contains include western yarns, crime tales, prison stories, horror, fantasy and a few that are kludged together from all these genres.

And the book’s subtitle is a little misleading; authority figures in some of these fables do, in fact, get a whupping worthy of a “Fight Club” pairing; but so do run-of-the-mill schmucks who lack the clout to flatten an éclair.

The reader is the beneficiary in both cases.

From his prefatory remarks in the book’s introduction, you know you are in good hands. Keaton’s introductory “Open Letter to Assholes Allergic to Turn Signals,” based on an incident in which the writer was stopped by an underdressed traffic cop for shooting through a yellow light signal, explains that Keaton’s malefaction occurred because he was following a motorist who abruptly turned without signaling his intention.

“This is why I bombed through the red light, I tell [the cop]. Because you, in your piss-yellow 4X4, slowed down to turn. But I had no idea what you were doing and the light still had a splash of mustard on it, so just like you, I zipped on by.”

This leads to Keaton warning an imaginary K-9 unit dog to ignore “the signals flying off your master up there. That’s just sweat and confusion. Your master thinks everyone is guilty. He got a shitload of C’s in high school. So he’s wrong 80 percent of the time. Oh, yes he is! Who’s wrong 90 percent of the time? He is! You’re a good boy! Good boy!”

You get the drift? Keaton writes in a clever amalgam of third- and first-person stream of consciousness, tough guy patter, keenly observed detail and comments aimed directly at the reader. He ignores some of the ironclad rules of narrative writing – or bends them so wickedly that they no longer have the power to constrain his imagination.

And what an imagination. In “Bad Hand Acting,” he offers a vignette about a hospitalized man who has suffered a stroke after a run-in with a mob of bloodthirsty cops over some minor infraction. “Inside this room is Ron Flowers, soon to be ’39-year-old Ronald J. Flowers from Fort Knox, Kentucky,’ and all over the news for soaking up about 35 Taser barbs, a half-gallon of pepper-spray and a dozen blue-sleeved forearms sunk deep into his throat. . .”

“Why . . . would he resist [arrest] like that? Only a guilty man soaks up enough electricity to power a city block, pulling fishhook after fishhook of Taser wire from his torso, all while cuffing any cop that got too close with fists half the size of Thanksgiving turkeys. A man only does this when he knows justice has caught up with him.”

The story goes on to make it clear that Flowers has down nothing to earn this thrashing except fail to show sufficient deference to the battalion of sadistic blue jackets who have taken him down. And, more to the point, Keaton makes it clear that the entire incident was instigated by “two cops a little different than the rest. One big. One little. . . The janitor [who witnesses this scene] knows immediately, just by being alive on this planet past the age of 18, any clear physical distinction between partners means they will be the worst of all.”

A gift for hyperbole is not the only thing that makes these stories a rare treat. Keaton has a true instinct for the bizarre and sordid in his fiction. Take his story “Killing Coaches,” which details the activities of a serial murderer with an MO that sets him apart from the average sexual psychopath.  Or “Greenhorns,” which features a brand new take on the zombies that have taken the entertainment world by storm in recent years. Or “Three Ways Without Water,” which offers a parable about climate change that masquerades as an occult western tale.

Then there’s “Schrödinger’s Rat,” set in a penitentiary that is utterly unlike any other. For one thing, it defies the laws of physics: there is a steady influx of new inmates – but none of the old ones ever seem to leave.

At least, not alive.

Some of Keaton’s stories are gruesome throwbacks to the kind of grisly literature that was the mainstay of the old Educational Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Others at least superficially seem to be conventional hardboiled crime yarns. A few are mash-ups of both narrative styles that seem to fit in their own peculiar niche.

All, however, share a core of grimly savage humor that puts them in a category all their own.

These stories are populated by strange people, black rats, white cats, clams, three foot giant mantises, and homicidal burning cars. The images remain in the reader’s brain like grimly threatening figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting viewed in a fun-house mirror.

Don’t worry, though. Eventually they will fade.

Except for the ones that don’t. Those are the ones you are going to have to watch out for. . . 

Fish Bites Cop! is relentlessly entertaining. Get it and read it. It will do a good job of preparing you for The Last Projector.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Top CrimeFic from One of the Best Cyberpulp Pubs on the Market

Consider this a late starter, just like down at the track:

Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan consistently produce one of the best crime fiction magazines on the 'Net -- one that is such a keeper you will want to buy the paperback editions so you can lend them easily to friends -- really good friends.

Last month, the Respect crew published an anthology that serves as an excellent sampler of what you find every quarter in their E-mag.

Edited by Rhatigan, the author of one of the best noir stories I have read this year -- The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other -- this anthology, drawn from the pages of the mag, features some of my absolute favorite writers: Alec Cizak, Joe Clifford, Patti Nase Abbott, Chris Leek, Mike Monson, Tom Pitts, Ryan Sayles and others, all working at the top of their form.

Editor Chris Rhatigan: His antho is The Real Deal!
Accept no substitutes: this is the real deal.

If you are looking for lurid tales crawling with grifters, gats and gun-molls, this is what you want to have in your hands and in your head. The paperback is currently out of print, but the Kindle edition is available for .99 cents -- cheaper than a pack of smuggled smokes from a Bodega in the East Brooklyn rat's nest known as "The Hole."

Make a spot on your nightstand for this little gem. Once you crack it, you'll find it hard to sleep.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Attack of the Cyber-Pulp Magazines!

Looking for lurid tales? Dark stories calculated to disturb your sleep with nightmares? Grisy yarns in which bad things happen democratically – to good people and bad people as well?

Check the links above, then. You won’t regret it.

Each leads to the latest edition of a magazine that is the product of what I call the “New Pulp” or “cyber-pulp” movement:  namely, the kind of genre fiction that used to appear in magazines like Black Mask, Argosy and Saga.

The three publications described below are anthology style collections that are designed to give you hours of reading pleasure. All were released this month, and all are very much available for purchase through the links above.

These are not literary magazines, mind you. You’ll not find any stories here that leave you scratching your head and wondering exactly what the writer was getting at. The pieces in these mags are as blunt as a sap to the skull, as gritty as the little white chunks you find in your mouth after somebody smashes your teeth with a savage uppercut.

All three are full-featured genre platforms – a mix of non-fiction articles (reviews, essays, interviews) and fiction that ranges from the shortest of short stories all the way up to mini-novels that are being serialized over a period of months.

I’ve mentioned these three specific titles before, mainly to point out – with justifiable pride – that each contains a story I wrote. After nearly forty years as a professional journalist I am now producing fiction and these three publications feature some of the first stories I’ve had published in my secondary career as a novelist and short-story writer.

But there is much more to all of them than the three stories I wrote. They feature gritty crime narratives, the darkest of noir and a variety of “speculative” fiction – horror yarns, fantasy tales, stories of terror and the paranormal, and adventures on strange worlds unlike our own. All are aimed at tickling the reader’s imagination and firing what sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback termed our “sense of wonder.”

Take Joseph Myers’ excellent speculative story set in a world of the not-to-distant future, “A Shot in the Dark” in Crime Factory # 16, an Australian publication edited by Cameron Ashley. The story concerns the misadventures of a woman “mechanic” (unlicensed doctor) who makes her living selling coffee – or the artificial gunk that passes for it in this dystopian world of the future.

She is awakened in the middle of the night by a smuggler chum and two college students who ask her to medically assist a critically injured man found in the alley behind her shop.

It turns out the man is beyond treatment, but is holding enough high-grade real coffee beans to bring a King’s ransom on the black market. The woman and the smuggler scam their way into the dead man’s apartment looking for the rest of his stash. They run into resistance and hijinks ensue, leading to a conclusion with a satisfying twist.

This, like most of the pieces in Crime Factory # 16, is terrific stuff: terse, tough and funny without being farcical. Myers’ dystopic world is well thought through and neatly delivered, complete with a credible vocabulary that helps to sell the futuristic setting in which the action unfolds.  For example, the two teens who find the dead man in the alley are described as “jugsoaked and covered in filth,” and lower-class people live in the “wards” but dream of moving up to “the district.”

There’s even a believable explanation for the exorbitant cost of actual food – the kind millionaires savor, not the garbage eaten by the hoi polloi: “Finding anything to eat or drink these days that isn’t some sort of synthetic substitute or a soy knockoff is damn near impossible,” Myers writes. “There’s just too many people for that to be an option.”

This is good writing. There’s a lot of it in Crime Factory # 16. In “Dog City” by Michael Asprey, a driver picks up a young Thai woman hitchhiking alongside a highway through the Australian outback: “The Datsun was puttering fine, traffic was light, the freeway stretched ahead, a white line between dynamited sandstone.”

A lot of the stories have that razor-edged brightness that is honed by telling a story in as few words as possible. Check this marvelous beginning of “I Just Want to Love You” by E.A. Aymar:

“‘It’s time to tell your wife about us,’ Rebecca said. My mind worked slowly and deliberately, like a fat man wading through a pool as I tried to accept that, after a few months of sleeping together, Rebecca had lost her shit. I needed to get her off my couch and out of my house before Emily came home with our kids.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody summarizing a bad situation any more clearly or economically: you’ve got your adulterer, your illicit romance, your needy and self-absorbed lover, jealous spouse, dependent children and desperation, all wrapped up in an introductory three-sentence paragraph that is only 62 words long.

There’s more: stories by Ly de Angeles, Christopher Long, J.M. Taylor, Andrew Rhodes and Deborah Sheldon, and articles by Ashley, Harvill Secker, Addam Duke, Benjamin Welton, Liam Jose and John Harrison.

Check it out; it’s chock full of damned nice writing.


Mike Monson

The same is true of the latest issue of All Due Respect, the tough, no-nonsense magazine edited by Michael Monson and Chris Rhatigan. The latest issue leads off with a story by Hilary Davidson, a wonderful author who tells us about Sarah, a woman who is dying of a terminal disease and is contemplating suicide when she meets a female police officer who literally changes her life.

The story is a stunner, with a surprise at its end that I honestly did not see coming. Actually, the climax is a pair of surprises that leaves the reader with a wry smile on his or her face. Sometimes there is justice in this dark and dreary world.
Hilary Davidson
Then there’s “Tote the Note” by Michael Pool, a story about Karl, a businessman for whom life has become the kind of burden he can only ease with drugs and booze. A grifter who has been stealing from his car dealership for years, he is on the cusp of discovery by a tax auditor:

“Karl thought about all the cash payments he’d erased from the dealership’s system and pocketed, what must have been tens of thousands of dollars,” Pool writes. “He felt sure he hadn’t spent all of it on booze, cocaine and pills, that at least some of it must have been used for the good of his family. But somehow it had been spent.”

The tale is set on a night when he gets drunk, smokes crack, argues with his wife and exchanges blows with his older son. Sheer mayhem results and Karl is left staring at the ashes of a life he has burned through like an arsonist armed with a barrel of gasoline.

Or consider CT McNeely’s excellent “Up Cripple Creek,” a tale about Chuck, a handicapped rural gangster whose attempt to protect his turf from outsiders ends in a savage brawl that pits him against the two able-bodied thugs who are trying to push him aside. The melee has a jaw-dropping conclusion:

“Chuck closed his eyes,” McNeely writes. “He was so fucking tired. He imagined Georgia-Lynn, all bloody and scared. He thought of his brother Johnny, hooked up to all those wires and shit, not even looking like hisself anymore. Chuck stood up. He had to put every bit of his weight on the crutches to keep from busting his ass on the floor. Every part of him hurt more than it had in years.”

By the end of the tale, Chuck is up the creek, armed with a paddle that’s intended for skull-crushing, not canoe wrangling.

Other fiction contributors to All Due Respect include Christopher Irvin, Stephen D. Rogers, Michael Cebula, Travis Richardson. Non-fiction articles – among which is a first rate interview with Davidson – are provided by Benoît Lelièvre, Rhatigan, Monson, Vince Darcangelo, Rory Costello, Louis Bravo, Shaun Avery, Bruce Harris, Steven Belanger and Lawrence Maddox.

Be sure to take a look at that story by McNeely – his guy, Chuck, offers a completely different take on someone who is physically disabled from Dean Drayhart, the protagonist in Anonymous-9’s novels Hard Bite and Bite Harder. I could get used to seeing stories about ol’ Chuck; McNeely’s handicapped anti-hero is unquestionably one cold-blooded badass.


Speaking of McNeely, he and his wife Emily are the masterminds of Dark Corners Pulp, the third of these cyber-pulp publications worthy of a look.

Dark Corners, which launched as a quarterly this month, is definitely no-holds-barred pulp: it has lurid crime yarns like “Off, Park and Up” by Martin Zeigler, in which a man obsessed by movies and all the little rituals he associates with them allows himself to forget the one thing he should have remembered: the highly incriminating evidence  he has stashed inside his car’s trunk.

Martin Ziegler

 It also has western tales, including “Pups and Hounds” by Chris Leek, a story of revenge set in the post-Civil War West. Leek’s fine yarn pits a priest living in a rat’s nest village in the wasteland of America’s Southwestern desert against a man who could easily be a stand-in for the Prince of Darkness. The story is sharp, well-written and ends on a horrific note that will stick with the reader for days.

There is also an interview with Leek, an article about his publishing outfit, Zelmer Pulp, and a review of his novella, The Gospel of the Bullet.

Chris Leek

In addition to mash-ups like the two stories mentioned above, Dark Corners also features straightforward fantasy narratives, including McNeely’s own “The Burning Lungs of Avalloch.” In it Logan Pike, a tough guy from our own era,  finds himself transported to . . . well, I’ll let Logan explain it in his own words:

“It was oppressively cold and damp wherever he was. Wherever he was, he was sure that he was not in California anymore. Logan had never seen a place like this before.”

There’s lots more, including tales by Alec Cizak, Angel Luis Colon, Joseph Goodrich, Scott Grand, Andrew Hilbert, Gary Robbe, Chuck Turpentine, Ryan Sayles, Mark Rapacz and Bruce Harris, and non-fiction pieces by Greg Barth, Chris Rhatigan, Dyer Wilk, McNeely and others.


I think I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a trailer full of lurid novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, oaters like Robber’s Roost by Zane Gray, and pulp magazines like Argosy, True and Saga.

My personal taste ran to horror, science fiction and fantasy, and I exhausted those sections of public libraries in Pollock Pines, Placerville and Vacaville. I mined for gaudy, gory jewels like William Gaines and Al Feldstein’s great EC titles, Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, Robert Howard’s King Kull, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Shops of Isher and just about anything Andre Norton put on a sheet of paper.

It was a silver age of pulp fiction (the Golden Age had been in the 1920s and 1930s when writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett dominated newsstands all over the country and the cheap binding and paper of mass-produced magazines featuring mystery, fantasy, cowboy and romance tales first gave the genre the title, “pulp.”)

For 35 cents you could buy an Ace Double that contained two complete novels, printed literally back to back. Publishers put out cheap science-fiction paperbacks that contained gripping tales by C.S. Lewis, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Lieber, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

By the time I got out of the Navy in 1971, the pulps were on the way out. Mass circulation magazines were in trouble, their readers siphoned off by series television programs that features the same sorts of heros and villains. The price of ink and paper rose steadily. By the end of the 1980s, only a handful were still being produced.

Around the same time, however, something new had emerged: the personal computer, which was quickly becoming as ubiquitous as television or radio. And, like most forms of mass communications, the device was quickly adapted as a mechanism for telling stories.

The personal computer led to the portable, and the portable to the laptop. Eventually computer notebooks emerged – and soon afterward, electronic readers like the Nook and Kindle.

If the high cost of paper, ink and gasoline killed the pulp fiction industry for pulp magazine and paperback publishers, small computers and e-readers has resurrected it. Hundreds of thousands of electronic copies of books, short stories and novellas can be produced for the cost of a very small paper press run. It no longer requires a massive staff or a sizeable fortune to publish a magazine: electronic editions allow them to be produced by a skeleton crew for a minimal cost and make a profit even if they fail to gain real mass popularity.

I, for one, am grateful. I missed my pulps for a period there in the mid to late 1980s, but electronic publishing has brought them back. These three magazines are ample proof of that.