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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, June 21, 2014

Two by Mike Monson

By Mike Monson
99 pages
(Stark Raving Group; March 17, 2014)

By Mike Monson
72 pages
 (Independently published by Mike Monson; Nov. 11, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

The Family that Preys Together Decays Together

Matt Hodges is a drunk and ne'er do well, a schemer and dreamer whose career as a businessman has been a disastrous failure. His wife, Lydia, is a slut who works for a cheesy law firm and spends her spare time balling just about any passing male, but particularly Hunter Manning, the professional criminal who gives the firm most of its business.

Tanner, Lydia's son by a previous marriage, is . . . well, he's Tanner: good-looking, belligerent and arguably psychotic.

The Hodges are at the center of Mike Monson's nifty noir novella, "What Happens in Reno," as bleak a piece of fiction as you are likely to read. 

Author Mike Monson -- he knows his genre
and is damned good at pulling it off
The good news is, Matt is about to score some serious cash by selling off the shabby 1700-square foot house he grew up in, his inheritance from his recently deceased mother.
The bad news is, Lydia wants most of the swag so she can get more plastic surgery.

The really bad news is, Manning wants the cash to pay the IRS back taxes from his criminal activities. Unlike either of the Hodges, he's willing to take it by force if necessary.

Too many people fighting over too little money: it's an old story, and you know it's going to end badly for one or more of these people by the time you turn the last page.

"What Happens in Reno" is noir to the bone. Monson and his associate Chris Rhatigan edit All Due Respect, a quarterly e-Zine that specializes in grim and gritty transgressive fiction. Mike knows the genre and is damned good at bringing it off.

Almost every character that turns up in this book's pages is despicable -- including some who initially appear to be innocent bystanders. Matt and Lydia manage to briefly show a hint of decency, of human kindness, but by the time they do it's much too late to redeem them.

This is Monson at the top of his form. As was the case in his short novel, A Scent of New Death, the characterizations are sharp, the plot deceptively simple looking, and the ending, while jaw-droppingly unexpected, is satisfying and "right," given the grim material that precedes it.

Monson's sparing use of description does exactly what is needed: it conveys a clear sense of time and place to the story and brings these unhappy characters up off the page in a fully realized form. Monson keeps the ratiocination internal as it should be and uses sharply drawn dialog to fill his characters in and move the narrative forward. In this he follows the advice of Elmore Leonard, the old master of hardboiled himself: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Love Among the Underclasses

In addition to What Happens in Reno and Scent of New Death, there is more of Monson's perversely violent fiction available for fans of hardboiled literature: the former Modesto resident serves up 22 primo doses in his anthology, Criminal Love And Other Stories.

These pulpy yarns have exactly what you're looking for in hardboiled and noir: tattooed badasses, skanky women on the make, Mafiosi trying to avoid subpoenas and enough speed-freaks with missing front teeth to put an orthodontist's entire family through Harvard.

Take the title story, a tale about a wannabe dope dealer who has the bad luck to run into a wannabe hit man. One of these wannabes is lucky enough to have the skills and aptitude for the job. The other ends up dead meat.

How about Mona, the central figure in "Altar Call?" She's one of those girls Cyndy Lauper sang about who "just want to have fun:" "Her first stop with the $24.39 in her pocket was to see Wilson, a guy that would sell her oxy at a good price," Monson writes. "Ten dollars plus a blow job for four 10 mg pills."

All by itself, the beginning of "Central Valley Swingers" is enough to pull you in like a Broadway pitchman selling lap dances outside the Condor: "I decided to take a little break from beating in the face of [Cheryl's] new husband. You know, wash the blood off, inspect the damage to my knuckles -- have a smoke. This also gave me a moment to really stop and savor watching my new friend Harold fucking Cheryl over and over and over in the most disgusting ways possible."

Nice people, eh?

Not that every character in these stories is a crook or a thug. Jake, the protagonist in "Service of Process," is a process server, somebody who hands a summons to people who are being sued, or serves subpoenas on those who are supposed to give evidence. Jake has a square job, relatively speaking. But even Jack the Bear occasionally needs a little trickery to get by.

Or consider "Not Lost," a short-short about a family en route to a vacation; its members take a wrong turn somewhere and end up in hell. In less than one thousand words, Monson conjures a blistering Central Valley summer that sucks the air from the reader, sends sweat trickling down his sides and plasters  the upholstery of a clapped-out 1990 Nissan Sentra to his ass.

To me, not every tale in "Criminal Love" is a home run. A few come close to being vignettes that leave the reader wondering "is that all there is?" But the ones I didn't care for -- like "F on F," a single unpunctuated paragraph that briefly recounts the violent fantasy of a worker in an office building -- appear to be experimental.

The point of an experiment is to try something new, so even though I didn't care that much for "F on F," Monson was pursuing something different when he wrote it. I find that easy to live with -- a lot easier than reading the repetitious glop churned out by big ticket publishing superstars like Tom Clancy, James Patterson or Lee Child, who seem to write the same damned story every time they sit down behind a  word processor.  

In any case, the Monson stories that I deemed missteps are few and far between. Most in this book are grabbers that I will probably return to time and again. I particularly recommend "Hot Cups," "The Price of Doing Business" and "An Evening in Sin City." The last two stories have nice twists at the end that are textbook examples of irony.

As he does in his longer stories, Monson keeps it simple and straightforward here. His bad guys are seriously bad, and his good guys -- well, they're bad, too; they just have better teeth.

Monson's stuff is brutal, gritty -- and utterly fascinating. As long as he keeps churning out stories this good, I am going to keep reading them.

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