About Me

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Michael Connelly's "Switchblade" Doesn't Quite Cut It

By Michael Connelly
Print Length: 72 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (January 14, 2014)
Sold by: Hachette Book Group

Switchblade, a cold case story by Michael Connelly, the creator of LAPD detective Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, leaves a reader feeling disappointed. Not because the story is badly written. Not a bit.

It disappoints because it is too single-minded, too direct and too darned short.

This is a “story,” not a novel, and it is advertised as such, one of Amazon’s 99 cent specials. Actually it is more of a novella than anything else: a bit too short to be considered a novel, but much longer than your average short story.

The plot centers on a stabbing death that has languished for two decades among the Los Angeles Police Department’s cold cases – homicides in which no suspects were immediately found but the evidence was preserved against the day when a second look might lead to a solution.

The victim, Billy Ratliff, was a teenage street hustler who committed petty crimes to keep his head above water. His perforated corpse was found in the ruins of the old Brown Derby restaurant after the joint was destroyed in the 1992 L.A. riots.  The weapon used: a cheap switchblade knife purchased in Tijuana.

That’s where Harry Bosch, Connelly’s “cold case” expert, enters the picture.

Emily, a woman who sorts cases for Bosch’s “open-unsolved” homicide unit, gets an anonymous call that identifies Ratliff’s killer as a Patrick Seward – who happens to be doing time for a similar murder. She passes the tip on to Bosch and the game is afoot. 

Except that in this case it is only about ten inches.

How Harry relates the two cases and pulls them together sufficiently to take to the district attorney, takes up the majority of the slim 72 pages Connelly has written. There is a twist ending to the story that a dedicated fan might figure out ahead of time, but Connelly does a good job of holding back his cards so that the surprise development should really surprise most readers nicely.

L.A.P.D. "Cold Case" investigator Harry Bosch
is the creation of crime novelist Michael Connelly. (Photo courtesy of MichaelConnelly.com)

Though the story is shorter than the usual Harry Bosch thriller, Harry is still Harry, and the police procedure Connelly walks him through is credible and involving. There are only a handful of other characters in the tale, but all of them are sketched fully, if briefly, as the tale unfolds.

If there is a problem with the story – and I feel that there is – it lies in the fact that Switchblade is too brief for those of us who normally look forward to a Harry Bosch yarn.

In the average Bosch tale readers get the requisite central case to chew over, but they also get a lot more. For one thing, Bosch has a frequently uncomfortable relationship with David Chu, his normal partner, who feels Bosch looks on him as a relative lightweight that Bosch has to work around instead of as a partner and equal. This fractious relationship is frequently at the foreground in a full-length Bosch thriller.

There is also Bosch’s teenage daughter, Maddie, who serves as a foil to the detective, and a reminder of his mortality. Finally, Connelly populates his novels with a squadroom full of other minor and major characters, most of whom have made repeat appearances in the Bosch novels.   

All of these people add a realistic texture to the Bosch series, but they also supply concurrent story lines and cross-plots that keep the books lively and entertaining. Frankly, Switchblade, because of its narrow focus and less complicated plot, lacks the density and richness of the novels.

In other words, for a buck, Switchblade gives a good hour or so worth of entertainment, but it fails to rise to the fully first-rate quality of a Bosch novel. I believe that others have commented on this as a failing of Connelly’s shorter works before – specifically Suicide Run, a collection of three of his short pieces that was published in 2011.

To me it also raises questions the new Harry Bosch television series that is in development by Amazon.com. As most readers are aware, a short story is the ideal length narrative for development as a film or one-hour TV show: it generally lacks the complex story line, expanded time frame and larger cast of characters of a novel, which makes it easier to translate into a short film. 

That means the material that will form the basis for the individual Bosch television shows will probably be shorter pieces like Switchblade.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  But Connelly’s legion of Bosch fans may find the results a little disappointing. 

You can judge for yourself, though: the television series' pilot has been scheduled for release in February, and the finished product is now available on your own TV screen by way of Amazon Instant Video.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Charlie Huston's Protagonist Finds Himself in a Skinner Box

By Charlie Huston
(403 pages; Mulholland Books (Little, Brown and Co.) July 2013)

In my experience, there are too many suspense novels floating around with characters who lack character, locales that seem indistinguishable and plots that are either as full of holes as a chunk of Emmenthaler or so obvious you see the twists coming ages before they occur.

Skinner, Charlie Huston's last suspense novel, a spy yarn with a number of refreshing differences, is absolutely not among them.

Huston is a veteran writer and one of a number of crime novelists who, like Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, have done pulp-style material for comic publishers: he has written a half-dozen comics for the Marvel imprint, including two stories in the Wolverine series and a Punisher book featuring Frank Castle, the vigilante whose family was wiped out by gangsters and who has dedicated his life to tracking down and "punishing" organized crime figures by killing them.

Charlie Huston (photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

He also wrote the trilogy which focuses on the misadventures of Henry Thompson, a professional criminal who superficially resembles Donald Westlake's characters "Parker" and "Alan Grofield." In addition, he is the author of the Joe Pitt Casebooks, a series of noir novels about a vampire operative who works for blood-sucking clans that operate much like New York crime families.

Skinner features two of the most original characters I had encountered in a thriller: one of them is Jae, a drug-and-alcohol-addicted female nerd who specializes in divining the meaning that underlies any series of phenomena -- essentially an obsession in finding the God-like order behind cause and effect; the other is Skinner, an autistic bodyguard who specializes in protecting his "assets" by making sure that anyone and everyone who causes them harm dies a horrible violent death.

This unlikely pair works for Kestrel, a mercenary firm that specializes in security and espionage -- a subcontractor to the U.S. National Security Agency and CIA that performs the dirty work -- murder, abduction, counter-insurgency and asymmetrical warfare -- that U.S. agencies have lost the capability and stomach for. But the man, Skinner, has gone to ground following an assignment that nearly resulted in his death. His whereabouts are known only to one person, his mentor Terrence, the shadowy eminence who founded Kestrel.

As the novel opens, Terrence throws Skinner and Jae together as a team -- she is the "asset" Skinner is assigned to protect -- to figure out who surreptitiously broke into the U.S. information grid, shut down an electric power plant and caused a number of deaths.

There are complications: our two protagonists are not only being stalked by teams from other mercenary organizations, but also by people from Kestrel, itself. In addition, Terrence is almost immediately slain by an unnamed attacker whose identity is not revealed until the final pages, leaving Jae and Skinner only with the information on a USB drive to guide them.

Despite these roadblocks, the data analyst and her bodyguard make their way from the U.S. to Europe to India where they encounter anti World Trade Organization revolutionaries who may or may not be part of the grid disruption; meanwhile, an engineering genius in the slums of Bombay has forged an alliance between unlikely allies in order to build a mysterious device that could be a nuclear weapon or something entirely different.

There are physical confrontations, hairbreadth escapes, a global chase, crosses and double-crosses. Ample violence occurs -- how could it not, since murder is Skinner's forte? An atmosphere of paranoia pervades that at times seems close to suffocating the reader.

At the very end of the novel there are a number of highly satisfying twists that make perfect sense given the rest of the story as well as an ending that is . . . well, different, to say the least. 

There are some weak spots in the book. Some of the early explanation of the "asset" concept as developed in the book is more complicated than it needs to be and ends up confusing the reader. And the following passage made me wonder if I had accidentally picked up one of those Tom Clancy pot-boilers that seems to consist of a series of Big Five sporting good product descriptions:

"She returns the binoculars to the case dangling off a strap looped around the glove box handle. Checklist time. She checks the laces of her trail boots, making sure they're tight. She checks the pockets of her safari vest, confirming that they hold her Garmin GPSMAP 62, Motorola Brute cell phone, a Uniden GMRS Two-Way radio with thirty-six-mile desert range, a Leatherman Skeletool, three twenty-four-hundred-calorie food bars, a solar blanket and a 3.1-liter CamelBak hydration pouch clipped to the shoulder rings. Julbo Micropores PT sunglasses on her face and jungle hat on her head. Hair and fingernails clipped to utilitarian lengths. Underwear mostly clean."

Such a massive amount of product-placement comes across as jocose, whether intentionally or not.  It is almost like spending an hour browsing the shelves in REI;  I couldn't help but think of cowboy-suited Ralphie's daydream fantasy of defeating Black Bart and his gang when the comically costumed outlaws threaten his family in the movie, "A Christmas Story;"

"Good thing I've got my official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock," he says, patting the gun's stock affectionately while he reels off this perfect non-sequitur.

Fortunately, there are only a few of these clangers in the text. For the most part, Huston's novel is a smooth read that sticks to the job at hand: telling a suspenseful story with relatively few missteps.

Skinner is a fast-moving tale that grabbed my attention very quickly. I am looking forward to reading more Charlie Huston.  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

One Villain in the Latest Grippando Courtroom Thriller is Modeled on the Star of Headline News -- But Lacks Her Grace

(342 pages; HarperCollins, 2013)
ISBN: 978-0-060210984

I detest almost all of the pundits that fill the airwaves with what passes for discourse in this country and perhaps none is as loathsome and disgusting to me as Nancy Grace, the former prosecutor who offers legal affairs commentary as a star of the Headline News network.

If the law is somehow supposed to be about justice, Grace apparently never got the memo: she convicts the subjects of her reports before the first witness has given testimony and works her viewers into an electronic mob more interested in vengeance than due process of law.

All in the name of television ratings -- eyeballs on the screen. There can't be any other reason: if she sincerely cared about crime and punishing those responsible for it, she would spend her hours in front of TV cameras trying to put bankers, defense contractors, crooked politicians and corrupt business oligarchs behind bars.

As you can see, I am not a Grace fan.  That's why it gave me such pleasure to see her ridiculed and outmaneuvered by Jack Swyteck, the fictional Miami defense attorney who has been the protagonist of half of James Grippando's thrillers since the publication of his first novel, The Pardon.

In Blood Money, Grippando's latest, she is thinly disguised as Faith Corso, "a tough former prosecutor turned TV personality" who is the top draw for the BNN (Breaking News Network), an equally thinly disguised HLN TV look-alike.

As the story begins, Corso has whipped the public into a frenzy over Sydney Bennett, a party girl whose daughter died under mysterious circumstances. Bennett herself is a look-alike, closely patterned after Casey Anthony, who gained notoriety when she reported her daughter missing -- 31 days after she disappeared.

The Bennett and Anthony case correspond closely: Grace dubbed Anthony "Tot Mom" during her saturation coverage of the case; Grippando has Corso coin the nickname "Shot Mom," and obsessively follow the case with the same sort of cynical calculation earlier shown by Grace, whose TV ratings soared 150 percent during the course of the trial.

When the jury returns a verdict of not guilty (the forensic evidence does not clearly establish that the child was murdered), Corso turns her vituperative acid on Bennett's lawyer, Jack Swyteck. 

She suggests Swyteck hired a double to lure away the unruly crowd outside the jail where Bennett has been held during the trial and is responsible for the double's injuries when a member of the mob puts the girl in a coma. Later Corso implies that Swyteck bribed a member of the jury to obtain a not guilty verdict for his client.

Neither allegation is true, but the damage is done, anyway. Swyteck ends up in legal trouble with two judges; Thousands of the mouth-breathing morons who watch Corso's television program end up harrassing him, choking his office telephone lines with crank calls; even the court clerks he must deal with end up despising him.

Meanwhile, the man who choked out Bennett's double and put her in the hospital spirits Bennett away after her release, kills a doctor who is providing Swyteck with information for a lawsuit against Corso's network and physically attacks the lawyer and threatens to harm his loved ones.

The mysteries pile up in an untidy mess as Swyteck approaches a court appearance in which the acquittal he worked so hard to obtain is threatened by the bribery allegation.  

In order to save his client, Swyteck must find the mysterious interloper, learn who was behind the bribe and solve the death of Bennett's child. All of this is made more difficult by the fact that Bennett, fearing for her life, has gone into hiding.

By the end of the novel, Grippando manages to pull all the loose threads of the case into a satisfying conclusion, but only after Swyteck's aged grandmother is threatened, Bennett falls into the hands of the sociopath and Swyteck's FBI agent fiancé trades shots with an armed assailant who has already killed twice.

Blood Money is the kind of book that rivets a reader from beginning to end: a single evening's read that is part courtroom drama and part whodunit. The characters are lively and entertaining, the plot is plausible and well realized and the pace is suspenseful.  It is definitely worth a look.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Policeman's Lot is (Sometimes) Not a Happy One. . .

When a felon's not engaged in his employment (his employment)
Or maturing his felonious little plans (little plans)
His capacity for innocent enjoyment (his enjoyment)
Is just as great as any honest man's (honest man's)

-- William Schwenk Gilbert / Sir Arthur Sullivan, 
“Pirates of Penzance,” 1879

There is probably nothing in the world as pathetic as a lawman that has turned his back on his chosen profession and become a common criminal. 

Consider, if you will, the case of Carl Edward Washington, who spent the better part of two decades making his living as a legislative assistant, state Assemblyman and division chief in the Los Angeles county department of adult probation, only to throw it all away for $193,661 in fraudulent loans from three different Southern California financial institutions.

Carl Edward Washington,
Once a Lawman, Now a Law Breaker 
Washington, 47, is a resident of Paramount, a former agricultural community just east of Compton that is probably best known as the home where the Zamboni ice rink maintenance machine was invented.  He was indicted last year on bank fraud and identity theft charges after an investigation by the FBI’s Public Corruption Squad. 

Forget the Zamboni. Now Washington is the one who is on ice. 

According to the indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in 2012, Washington “knowingly and with intent to defraud, executed and attempted to execute a scheme to defraud First City Credit Union, Farmers and Merchants Bank, and L.A. Financial Credit Union, and to obtain money and property from the victim banks by means of material false and fraudulent representations and promises, and the concealment of material facts .”

To do this, he applied for credit cards with the three institutions, which used his credit score to calculate his eligibility and the maximum line of credit he could obtain.  Washington then ran up large bills on the cards, paying the balance at first, but eventually ignoring his outstanding bills and allowing them to pile up.

At the same time, he filed police reports with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department claiming he had been the victim of identity theft and asserting the unpaid balances on the cards were racked up by scammers on accounts they had opened fraudulently, using his social security number, name, date of birth and other purloined information.

Washington then sent copies of the false police reports to Experian, a credit reporting agency, and requested that the information relating to the credit cards and loans that he obtained from the financial institutions be removed from his credit report, including information that negatively impacted his overall credit score. Once Experian removed the bad credit information on his credit history, Washington would apply for new credit cards, essentially repeating the process. 

Of course, he never mentioned his past unpaid debts or prior claims of identity theft on the new applications.

He managed to follow this pattern from 2007 until 2011, using the fraudulently obtained credit cards to purchase airline tickets, hotel lodgings, car rentals, dry cleaning and food, among other things.  

In short, he used the fruits of his scam to finance a lifestyle far more luxurious than he otherwise could have afforded. In all, he filed five police reports claiming he had been the victim of identity theft.

Like most frauds, Washington’s scheme was simple and effective enough to be successful – for a while. 

What eventually led to his discovery was his attempt to refinance two auto loans through L.A. Financial. When the credit union examined Washington’s credit report, it discovered that the auto loans it had previously issued did not appear on it. 

L.A. Financial subsequently learned from Experian that Washington disputed he had earlier sought to refinance his auto loans and that he claimed to be a victim of identity theft. Because L.A. Financial knew Washington’s claims were false, it froze Washington’s credit card account and reported him to authorities.

Washington’s four-year run of fraud followed an otherwise exemplary record of public service. Although his background shows he has a highly developed capacity for hypocrisy, there is little else to suggest Washington would end up a lawbreaker.

Born in Littlefield, Texas on Jan. 25, 1965, Washington is a Baptist and has served as a minister since 1983. According to the California Blue Book, he is married and has two children.

Washington served as a deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke from 1992 to 1996 when he left to run for a seat representing the 52d District of the California Assembly as a Democrat. He won the primary with 7.4 percent more votes than his nearest opponent and went on to win election by scooping up nearly 85 percent of the total ballots cast.

His career as a state legislator – like most of his 119 colleagues in the Capitol -- was rather undistinguished. He is best known as the author of a 1999 measure that provides grants of $5,000 per school or $10,000 per district to improve school safety.

His real reputation was built as a community conciliator who worked with teenage gang members in an effort to turn them away from – you guessed it – participating in crime.

Washington easily won reelection two more times before he termed out in 2000, then took a run for a seat on the L.A. city council in 2001 He placed second to his top opponent Jan Perry. In the general election, he did better, but still lost to Perry by nearly 15 percent.

During his stint in the legislature, he took a job in governmental relations with the Probation Department, a position that not only requires involvement with law making, but also law enforcement.

Ironically, as a probation officer, Washington is officially a cop of sorts, trained by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) and having the power of arrest. He remained in that position at least until he entered his guilty plea. 

(Pulp Hack Confessions will be occasionally augmenting its regular features based on fictional crime by running items about real criminal cases in the future. Our primary material, however, will remain excerpts of work in progress and reviews of films, television shows and motion pictures about crime).