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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, April 19, 2014

A Suburb Full of Squares So Twisted They Could Be Called Parallelograms

The Warlord of Willow Ridge
By Gary Phillips
340 pages
(Dafina; Oct. 2, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0758203853
ISBN-13: 978-0758203854

If you like pulpy crime fiction -- and I am guessing that you do, otherwise, why in hell are you reading this blog? -- I wholeheartedly recommend Gary Phillips' latest novel, Warlord of Willow Ridge. It has just about everything you might want in a hardboiled story about the underworld:

Rape; Murder; meth cookers, dealers and users; money laundering; counterfeit designer goods; outlaw bikers; Mexican gang-bangers; armed robberies; an armored car heist; theft from commercial businesses.

Not to mention assault with a deadly weapon. Several deadly weapons, in fact: knives, a weed-whacker, a cricket bat, shotguns and semiautomatic pistols. At one point, the insecticide Chlordane is even brought into play with telling effect.

The action revolves around Phillips' anti-hero, a professional badass named O'Conner (his first name is never disclosed, but his friends call him Connie), whose police-auction motorcycle peters out on him as he is tooling to a caper in the Bay Area from L.A.

He ends up in Willow Ridge, a gated community that has fallen on hard times courtesy of the bank-engineered crash of the U.S. economy. Many of the houses have been abandoned by their former owners because of the credit meltdown. Connie ends up squatting one of the repos, using it as a temporary headquarters while he rebuilds his bike and prepares to be "in the wind."

As a newcomer to Willow Ridge, Connie is met with reserve by the not-so-solid citizens who remain. For one thing, he is big, strong and violent -- surprisingly so for a man of advanced years; for another, he is black, while most of the community's residents aren't. He is tight-lipped about his past and intentions, but the residents of the Ridge get the impression his life hasn't exactly been on the up and up.

No worries; a lot of these suburbanites are more than a little bit twisted themselves.

His neighbors quickly realize that Connie is living in a house to which he has no legal title -- which also makes them nervous. But after he breaks a menacing biker's jaw with the previously mentioned cricket bat, several of them decide to live and let live.

Welcome to Willow Ridge, neighbor! Want to borrow a cup of sugar? A cricket bat, maybe?

Besides, the folks who remain in the community have bigger problems than termites and crabgrass: Mas Treces, a Mexican drug gang, has set up a crank kitchen in one of the abandoned homes and is dealing meth to all and sundry in partnership with an outlaw motorcycle club, the Vandal Vikings. 

Both groups come and go as they please, scaring the neighbors and menacing small animals: the gated community's gate may remain operational, but the guards who previously patrolled it are long gone. What's more, the local sheriff's department places a low priority on answering minor complaints from Ridge residents: it seems that county taxpayers in less exclusive settings need assistance, too.

Bikers and dope peddlers are not the only parasites at Willow Ridge: a resident who is a real estate broker is running a Ponzi scheme on the side, suckering a group of the residents into an investment that will put them all further in the red; meanwhile, another member of the community is peddling phony designer purses, shoes and other knock-offs to suckers who think the products are legit, despite their ridiculously low prices.

This may sound like an awful lot of ground to cover in a 288-page book and there is no question that stories with this many plot elements can be a mess. Trust me: this one isn't one of them.

Phillips, an ex-community organizer, the former director of a political action committee and head of a pair of non-profit organizations, is one of the new breed of neo-pulp writers who are resurrecting the old form with a Twenty First Century sensibility. 

Neo-pulp author Gary Phillips
(photo courtesy of Thalia Press Authors Co-op)

He has done several stand-alone pulp thrillers and two series: a pair of novels featuring Martha Chainey, a former Las Vegas showgirl who works as a courier for casinos, and three featuring badass private eye Ivan Monk.

He is also one of the writers for Stark Raving press, an e-book publisher that specializes in short form pulp novellas -- the kind of story that used to be the featured piece in the Mike Shayne, Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery mags.

Phillips works that pulp fiction magic here, with tough guys, sexy gals and plenty of action (to quote Raymond Chandler in his Black Mask days, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand").

His dialog manages to tell you a lot about his characters without wandering into boresville. For example, at one point, he tells us that O'Conner and a crime partner are in a stolen car: "He and Reynolds were parked across the street from the strip mall at a Taco Bell. They crunched away on the hard-shell tacos, sitting in a new model Mustang that didn't belong to either of them."

When characters do meth, they refer to it as "Tina:" "The four sparked up and lazed on the large couch," he says, conjuring the scene with a doper's phrase for smoking drugs. Earlier an associate named Maeline mentions a woman named "Sheila:"

"'Sheila?' O'Conner frowned. 'The one who put the knife in the head of that boyfriend with the false leg?'"

"'Uh huh.'"

"'They around these days?'"

"'The old man's doing a bid in Mule Creek,' Maeline says, referring to the tough state prison that contains serial murderer Herb Mullin among others. "'And as for Sheila, I don't know and won't be finding out."

In another sequence, Phillips has O'Conner warn the head of Mas Trece not to pee in his empty swimming pool again. The 'banger -- soaring on grass and vodka -- is so surprised by Connie's in-your-face manner that he isn't sure how to respond:

"[Chan, the Mas Trece jefe] could get all up in this chump's grill, but stomping on the home owners was off-limits unless necessary. There wasn't much of a law presence and the homeys needed to keep it that way. But this dude was straight challenging him without directly sounding like he was challenging him. Like a motherfucka who done time, he concluded."

Only two of his new neighbors seem completely square. Both are unreserved in their appreciation of Connie: a retiree named Stan Yamashira takes an immediate liking to the big man's no-nonsense attitude and enormous heart; and single mom Gwen Gardner, the owner of a chain of auto repair shops, is just as quickly attracted to an even more massive part of his anatomy.

As for Connie, what's an enterprising thief to do? The squares in Willow Ridge are bent enough to be trapezoids and the professional criminals, geometrically speaking, are plane dumb. He smells a big score: debts are pleading to be called in and alliances put to the test. The only question is, can all these loose threads be gathered together and tied up in a way that gives our protagonist enough green to get him to his next job?

Perhaps more to the point: is O'Conner cleaning up his twisted little community so completely he'll be tempted to go straight himself? He's just starting to get used to the little house he's liberated when he gets a letter from the bank telling him to quit the premises or deputies will evict him; he begins to fantasize filling that empty swimming pool with water and settling down for a life of backyard beer, barbecue and boffery with Gwen.

When visions of roses growing along a picket fence start to crowd out reality, a man can drop his guard long enough to end up with a bullet in the body mass. Can O'Conner keep his edge long enough to stay alive?

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