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, May 17, 2014

A Splendid Novella About a Hold-up Man in the Mold of Don Westlake's Parker

By Mike Monson
130 pages
ISBN: 0692207252
Out of the Gutter Publishing; April 21, 2014
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

"In one scorching hot June afternoon Phil Gaines lost his wife, his partner and nearly $80,000."

Thus starts The Scent of New Death, a thriller by Mike Monson. If you can read that first sentence without going on to the next, you've got way more will power than I do.

Either that or you're a flat liner, waiting for the postmortem to begin.

If you decide you have to keep turning the pages, get ready for a shot of chalk in that fat vein on your left bicep: Gaines is a first cousin to Parker, the violent and obsessive heist artist created by master crime writer Donald Westlake. 

You know this Parker cat: Lee Marvin played him in Point Blank, the 1967 crime flick made from Westlake's novel, The Hunter; Mel Gibson repeated the role -- sort of -- in the 1999 version, Payback.

Parker is a robber and a damned good one, but the people he picks to work with almost invariably screw him out of his cut and try to kill him in the bargain. It's a big mistake: Parker has a rigid code of ethics -- screw him and he will track you to hell to get his share. And then he'll kill you.

If you like Parker, you are going to fucking looooove Phil Gaines.

Gaines is a bank robber -- and not the kind whose score consists of an exploding dye pack tucked into a few hundred bucks worth of marked bills.

Phil is a consummate big ticket thief: his scores are major, he doesn't leave traces and he doesn't get caught.

Despite the superficial similarities to Parker, author Mike Monson, a transplanted Central Valley resident who now lives in Hawaii and edits All Due Respect, a hard-boiled crime fiction journal, has created a truly original character in Gaines: a plain-Jane middle-aged thief who dresses like a schlub, looks as tame as a gerbil and could sit next to you on a Greyhound bus without you even noticing him.  

Author Mike Monson has created
a truly original character in Phil Gaines.
Monson's stick-up man has a good thing going, using Modesto, California as a base for robbing banks with his wheelman, a local crook named Jeff Sweet who gets his jollies whacking speed freaks.

Why Modesto? Simple: it's a middle-sized city big enough to hole up in without drawing attention, but not so large to have a load of cops. Also, while it looks like small town America, right down to the sign across the main drag that says "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health," it has its own criminal underclass -- gang members, motorcycle outlaws, crank cooks and thieves.

Modesto: Main Street U.S.A., but with speed freaks and outlaw bikers.

For Gaines, life is good.

But even a smart bank robber has an Achilles heel, and Phil's is Paige, a pothead cocktail waitress he runs into at a local supermarket. Paige's nipples get hard when she finds out Phil robs banks for a living, and Gaines falls for Paige in a major way, showering her with hooker get-ups and tying the knot after a courtship as short as a sidewinder's temper.

Unfortunately, Paige wants to be Bonnie Parker, sticking up banks with guns blazing and then gambling, snorting and smoking up the swag in Vegas. To Gaines, a good time is sitting zazen for several hours and meditating, the way he learned during his twelve-year jolt in the joint.

Things go sour when his new bride meets Sweet, a psycho who lives the type "A" criminal lifestyle Paige craves. The getaway man and adulteress immediately begin an affair as hot as Valley Fever. They not only cheat Gaines out of the money from his next bank job, but set a snare designed to leave him dead in the middle of a suburban slaughter for which he'll be blamed.

The couple's plan turns out to be long on hormones and low on IQ. A cat and mouse game unfolds in which Paige and Sweet try to trap the middle-aged bandit while he calmly plots to exterminate them like the nasty cockroaches they are.

The Scent of New Death is deftly paced, sucking the reader along in its slipstream like a kid on a ten speed being passed by a supercharged Camaro. The violence is quick and dirty and corpses pile up like cord wood as Phil matches wits with his antagonists.

The contest isn't remotely fair.

Although Gaines is nominally the hero of the book, these are all seriously bad people. The only innocents in the volume are an aging porn star, a teenage girl Sweet and Paige kidnap, and the clueless sheriff who is left to figure it all out.

But compared to the other no-goodniks, Phil is a saint: he kills only when necessary and takes no particular pleasure in letting blood. He also has no objection to it, and proves it without hesitation.

My one quibble is, Scent is billed as a novella. Weighing in at 130 pages, it looks, walks and smells like a full-dress novel to a guy who used to scarf down Dollar Mystery Guild hardbacks by the case load and rarely saw one much longer than Monson's.

But no matter. It's a pleasure to see illegal activity being practiced by people who are serious about it, and the characters in The Scent of New Death fill the bill nicely. This book will be a delight for real crime fans, and I am already looking forward to reading Monson's novella, "What Happens in Reno." 

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