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, July 12, 2014

The TV Show Has it All Wrong: Noir is The New Black, Not Orange . . .


By Tom Pitts
265 KB
112 pages
(Publisher: Snubnose Press; Oct. 14, 2012)
eBook sales by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B009QS4DBE

A few weeks ago in our review of his first novel, Hustle, we made it clear we consider Tom Pitts to be a first order practitioner of dark crime fiction. He knows his dealers, he knows his junkies and he knows the wannabes and hustlers who lurk along the fringes of the dope world, looking for an opportunity to score righteously -- or at least enough to get through another day of crawling through the gutter.

Tom Pitts: A first-order practitioner of noir.
(Courtesy Tom Pitts)
In Piggyback, Pitts gives us a short tale about a dumb-fuck dealer who loses three duffle bags of grass to a group of snot-nosed suburban kids. The youths who highjack the load are smoke-heads that don't realize the dope doesn't belong to the people they have stolen it from. They have no idea that behind the scenes is José, a Latino drug lord who not only wants his pot back, but also the five keys of cocaine that he has secretly piggybacked onto the load of marijuana.

The kids don't know about that, either.

Paul, the man who lost the load, enlists the assistance of an acquaintance in the drug trade named Jimmy, a successful middle-level dealer smart enough to trace the thieves and ruthless enough to do what is necessary to recover the load. But by recruiting Jimmy, Paul has opened the gates of hell. Together, Paul and Jimmy go looking. It is not a pleasant trip for anybody involved, least of all Paul, who soon realizes he has tried to correct his original mistake by making things much, much worse.

By the end, dead bodies are stacked like cord wood and the reader has witnessed enough violence to fill a hospital emergency room with trauma cases.

Like Michael Monson's terrific novella, What Happens in Reno, Piggyback looks black-hearted and nihilistic, but that surface appearance is a deception: in fact, it is a little morality tale, noir served straight, no chaser, by a master of the genre who writes about drugs and junkies with complete authority and confidence.

Almost nobody in this book is remotely likeable and Pitts lets you know it in terse, tough-guy prose without wasting a syllable.

Here is Jimmy watching Paul, the moron who sought his assistance, nervously light a cigarette:

Paul opened the pack, mumbled a thank you, and stuck one into his mouth. There was the slightest tremor in his right hand when he tried to light it. He noticed Jimmy watching him and rolled up the window to steady the flame.

"Those'll kill you too," said Jimmy, "but not as quick as José. Cancer'd be more fun, too."

Here's a conversation between Jimmy and José, the drug lord:

"Hello, my friend." José called everybody his friend. Everybody knew that José had no friends.

Here's the father of one of the girls who stole José's drugs:

Damon LaFleur . . . wasn't worried about his wife. Not in the traditional sense. She'd left hours before, drunk as usual, behind the wheel of their Lincoln navigator. The odds that she'd have gotten pulled over were nil, she had that kind of luck. The odds of her getting into a crash and dying were also nil; that was the kind of luck he was stuck with."[emphasis added]

Jimmy may be the most sympathetic character in the book: at least he knows the score, and not just the one Paul has lost. The fact that he is a borderline psychopath who enjoys using violence to extract information from unwilling informants tells you how unpleasant this story's characters are. Everybody else is clueless yet arrogant. Everybody is trying to get over on somebody else. Everybody has dreams, the kind that come out of a crack pipe, the kind there is no hope of realizing. Almost everybody gets exactly what they deserve in the end.

Best of all, even those still standing when the gunplay, pistol-whippings, stun-gun shocks and shootings are through have a bleak future. When the drug lord catches up to them, they will almost certainly die, and in a lingering, painful fashion that could form the basis for another complete novella.

As I said, it's pure, like Ivory soap. Nobody has stepped on this shit with baby laxative, not even once.




By Chris Rhatigan
102 pages
(Publisher: KUBOA; April 30, 2013)
ISBN-10: 061581039X
ISBN-13: 978-0615810393


If Piggyback is a book about a dope deal gone bad, Chris Rhatigan's excellent The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other is about three dopes -- Simon, Slade and Mackey -- who go bad and turn on each other.

The action begins during one of their regular Wednesday night bowling sessions. They aren't the greatest bowlers in the world -- Slade is the only one who regularly breaks 150-- but the get-togethers give them an opportunity to get drunk and enjoy a sort of unfriendly camaraderie that is more like detente than an actual friendship.

On this particular night, however, getting wasted together, a harmless pastime for the most part, just isn't happening.

"We were not drunk enough," says Simon, the convenience store clerk who narrates this 96-page gem, "not nearly drunk enough. . . another pitcher was pointless, none of us were going to get drunk, just wasn't possible not on that particular night, we could swim in alcohol and still be sober."

Unbidden, Mackey abruptly shares a secret with his two bowling chums -- that he breaks into people's homes and watches them sleep.  Simon volunteers that he once beat a guy to death with a tire iron, apparently for no real reason. Slade, shelling and eating peanuts nonchalantly, tells the other two that he hit a kid in his car once, and then backed over his body just to see what it would sound like.

"I thought it would make a crunching sound, but it didn't, just a dull duh-dun, like I'd hit an opossum." He pronounced it ob-possum.

After they have made these clumsy mutual confessions, Slade realizes that the bowling alley's bartender may have been listening in on their conversation, and may decide to take these admissions to the police. Maybe. Apparently, not one of the three realizes that this kind of third-hand information has no value in a court of law, and in this case, it wouldn't even provide probable cause to have them brought in for questioning. At their next meeting, totally without warning, Slade pulls out a gun and shoots the bartender twice.

Now they are really in the shit, with a real dead body, a real gun and real guilt.

This short novella unfolds a little like Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith's great psychological suspense novel that was made into a grim movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Except for the fact that nobody in Rhatigan's book is a stranger and there is no train; what he is really exploring in this terse thriller is the notion of shared guilt and trust, the consequences of immoral actions, the way in which the mere observation of a serious crime can make the observer -- however innocent -- feel like a direct participant.

Chris Rhatigan: Strangers on a Train
without strangers or a locomotive.

(Courtesy Chris Rhatigan)
And eventually become one.

Friends is written with a breathless flow that is the opposite of the short declarative sentence style of Ernest Hemingway, but has its own brilliant authenticity. It reminds the reader of the statements blurted by a winded man who has finally been stopped after racing through city streets to avoid an arresting police officer.

Simon is one of the most anomic, out-of-control individuals I have encountered in a work of fiction; in a number of ways, he reminds me of Meursault, the alienated protagonist in Camus' novel The Stranger, who, responds with apathy to his mother's death and winds up murdering an Arab man who earlier had assaulted one of his friends.

Rhatigan's main character seems to be equally burdened by his own indifference to his situation -- and by his paranoia (he thinks the cops are onto him and his chums; he begins to believe a flirtatious girl who stops in the convenience store for cigarettes is a police informant).

His internal narration shows the conflict clearly:

More I paced, more nausea set in, more room spun, went off-kilter, reality on a lazy Susan, nothing in proper perspective, he says about two-thirds of the way through the book, when his derangement is beginning to take control. Thought I had a fever, touched my forehead, felt hot, but it's hard to tell, was it hot in relation to my hand? Was I anticipating that it would be hot and therefore it was? I never touched my forehead unless I thought I had a fever, so was this how hot my forehead was normally? I raided the bathroom cabinets looking for a thermometer, went through a bunch of little drawers, bandages, cotton balls, an old crusty tube of toothpaste, no luck.

In another part of the book, Simon says:

I sat across from him, ordered a coffee, insisted on paying for it, turned down his offer to share his chocolate chip pancakes slathered in butter and syrup, Rhatigan has Simon say at one point --   a collection of seeming sentence fragments strung frantically together, the way they might occur to a man who was unhinged by his situation and unable to control the words spewing from his mouth.

After an encounter with a leering beat cop who gives Simon the impression he knows about his part in killing the bartender, Rhatigan has his agitated character say: But maybe he was just having a few laughs at my expense, doing it because he could, because he knew I couldn't do anything and soon enough he'd pull the rug out from under me.

And in yet another place, his paranoid delusions are symbolized by the way he feels he is being victimized by the clock:

I put back on the shoes I had just taken off, went to the kitchen sink, drank down a plastic cup of water, blew my nose with a dish rag. Blue digits on the microwave said it was six-thirty-one, early but not as early as I had thought, but it never was, time perpetually grinding me under its fist.

The impression left by this verbal style is marvelous. It gives the reader a clear sense of Simon as a man who is losing his grip because of his own self-loathing, the mood swings of his companions and the weird reactions he seems to incite in those around him.

Although Friends is superficially a book about low-life criminals, describing it that way is like saying Crime and Punishment is a murder tale, or Les Miserables is a police procedural. What Rhatigan's book actually is a tale of a man trapped in a classical existential quandary -- how to act authentically in a world in which objective right and wrong are obscured and may not even exist.

The task, unfortunately, proves beyond Simon's capabilities, and the path he chooses turns out to be arbitrary and pointless.

Friends is simply a terrific read.  


By Court Haslett
482 KB
267 pages
(Publisher: The Rogue Reader; May 2, 2014)
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B00K3D9B3G

Remember People's Temple? Jim Jones? George Moscone?

If you do, you are probably going to like Court Haslett's novel Tenderloin, which puts his sleuth Sleeper Hayes in the middle of a swirl of historic events that occurred in San Francisco during the late 1970s.


Court Haslett:
A historical hardboiled set in the 1970s.

(Courtesy Amazon.com)
And if you don't remember all those people, you will probably like the book anyway: it is engaging, exciting, fun and fast paced -- pretty much everything a reader wants in a crime novel.

Hayes is a former hippie who lives in an apartment building where he acts as the custodian and caretaker. He is also a half-assed detective who is not fettered by a badge or license and a good man to have at your back when you are in trouble.  In Tenderloin, he finds himself looking into the death of a hooker who defected from Jim Jones' notorious "Church" with a bunch of files detailing the lunacy that Jones and his colleagues engaged in behind its doors.

The cops and her pimp think the hooker was killed by a union heavyweight with close ties to city hall. Former Temple members think she was murdered by the Temple's own hit squad, "The Angels." There seems to be some evidence for both points of view and it falls to Hayes to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense and looks like justice.

In the process, he uncovers a plot to throw a key prize fight, gun-runners supplying arms to religious fanatics, political corruption and enough bent cops to keep a chiropractor busy for a decade.

The characterization is lively, the plot plausible and the action comes hot and heavy, with shootings, stabbings, clubbings and at least one use of a taxi cab as a vehicular weapon in an ingenious manner.

Hayes finally dopes everything out, but not until he has been shot, slashed, bitten on the finger, punched, kicked and abused in a variety of ways familiar to fans of hardboiled fiction.

I did some stringing for New West and the Washington Post during the period when this story takes place so I am familiar with many of the characters portrayed in Haslett's book. (I even did some of the reporting on the deaths of Al and Jeannie Mills, though I might take issue with Haslett's afterward comment that their murders have never been solved.) 

As somebody who lived through that period, I can attest that Court's reconstruction is pretty solid.

The book does have some minor flaws, however: in one section Hayes suffers a "tinge of foreboding." A tinge is a very light color; what you suffer with foreboding is a "twinge," not a "tinge."  Haslett refers to San Bruno as a prison but it is actually a jail (prisons are state institutions for state inmates). One of the female characters is described as having done two years in Valley State Prison. That particular prison wasn't built until 1995, nearly twenty years after the events described in the book; the character in Haslett's book would have done her time in Frontera, which was the only women's penal institution in California until 1987.

But nitpicking over factual details is a waste of time; Tenderloin is not a history text, though Court Haslett has clearly gone the extra mile to make it as accurate as possible. It's a work of fiction -- and a damned good one, to boot.


By Jim Giugli
213 KB
59 pages
(Publisher: Jim Guigli; Jan. 15, 2013)
eBook sales by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B00B1T6FX0

I love a story with a gimmick and Bad News for a Ghost, a "semi-noir" novella by Jim Giugli, has a slick one: his sleuth, ex-Berkeley-cop-turned-Sacramento private-detective Bart Lasiter, has to literally go underground to solve a series of commercial burglaries in Old Sacramento, the historic district fronting on the river that gives the city its name.

Note the term, "semi-noir."  I use it not because this story is bleak or laden with doom like traditional noir stories, but because Lasiter seems to be based in part on the hardboiled detectives who are the protagonists in them.

Jim Giugli: A "semi-noir" set in
Sacramento and starring a former Berkeley cop.

(Photos courtesy of Jim Giugli)


You see, Lasiter is not the world's most successful investigator, at least in the economic sense: he essentially lives in his minuscule office in Old Sac with his cat Agamemnon, surviving on burritos and the all-too-infrequent lunch paid for by the even more infrequent client. So he is delighted when he is visited by Marti Planker, a local television newswoman who has been riding a small ratings surge while digging up exclusives on the string of thefts.

Planker plunks down $300 -- her own money, not her station's -- for Lasiter to help her solve the mystery of the burglaries. Her motivation is fairly transparent: she hopes to parlay a solution into a job at a bigger station in a larger market.

Lasiter's motivation, on the other hand, is even clearer: he hopes to use the money from the case to pay his bills; when you are barely scraping by in the gumshoe game, money may not be the most important thing in the world but it's way ahead of whatever's in second place.

He also hopes for a modest public relations bounce from solving a case that has the local cops pulling their hair --  and he wouldn't turn down an opportunity to get closer to the attractive TV woman.

This is a short piece of fiction and detailing any of the twists it takes would necessarily serve up a spoiler. Suffice to say that it is well worth the 99 cents you'll pay for this neatly served up tale, so go ahead an spring for it -- it will give you an hour or so of easy summer reading pleasure.

At the risk of giving away a major plot point, however, I will share that Lasiter is forced to dig deep to crack the case, and the solution dates back to the Gold Rush era when the Sacramento frequently overran its banks, flooding shops in Old Sac and forcing the young city to reconstruct its waterfront to minimize the damage. Giuli has done research into this aspect of the plot -- a significant one -- and the background work adds an additional bit of satisfaction to his story.

Jim Giuli checks out Sacramento's unique "underworld."

So is it the ghost of a 49er our detective hero confronts? Buy the book and excavate the answer for yourself.


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