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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, August 23, 2014

Dean Drayhart and Sidekick Sid Take a Bite Out of Crime

182 pages
Publisher: (Blasted Heath; Dec. 5, 2013)
E-book by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: 0985578645

I don’t know about you, but when the first five words of a novel are “I like to kill people,” somehow I feel compelled to read on.

Those are, in fact, the first five words in Hard Bite by Anonymous-9 (the pen name of L.A.-based crime  writer Elaine Ash). Hard Bite introduces Dean Drayhart, a wheelchair-bound vigilante who is one of the slickest characters to ever appear in a hard-boiled thriller.

Anonymous-9's Hard Bite: funny and brutal, with sufficient
detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end.
(photo courtesy of Anonymous-9.com)

The book is funny and brutal, with sufficient detail to keep you suspending your disbelief until the very end. It also offers enough bitterly acute insights about the life of a handicapped man to fill a half dozen books.

Hard Bite is a first-person revenger in the classic mold. Imagine Frank Castle, the Punisher, if he fell on a fragmentation grenade that wrecked his body. Do you seriously think a little thing like quadriplegia would stop Castle from doing everything he can to rid the world of gangsters, terrorists and other human vermin?

Fuhgeddabaht it.

In Hard Bite, a former insurance executive named Dean Drayhart is our crippled Castle. He is also the speaker of those five words above, and much of the book is about how the quadriplegic man became a no-nonsense Punisher-style vigilante.

Drayhart is definitely a man who likes to kill people: the kind of people who run over people with their cars and flee the scene.
You see, one of those drivers mowed Dean and his daughter down in a Los Angeles crosswalk, killing her outright and crippling him. Dean has vowed to track down and kill as many of them as he can.

“I whistle along, taking it easy on the curves,” he says early in the novel. “Vigilante Cripple Man — rolling justice across Los Angeles one hit-and-run driver at a time.”

It’s not an easy task. Drayhart can’t walk or stand without assistance, is missing a hand and is paralyzed almost everywhere but between his legs.

(His sexual plumbing still functions, as he puts it, “proof for me that there is a God and he has a sense of humor.”)

Of course, a man who is essentially quadriplegic is limited in his ability to rid the world of the scourge of hit-and-run drivers. For one thing, his only means of moving around is a specially-equipped handicapped van that he cannot legally drive.

He also has limited use of his remaining hand and the prosthetic hook that’s replaced his missing one.

For anybody else, those handicaps would be a deal-breaker; they are not a problem for Dean Drayhart, however. Dean has something better than working legs, arms and hands: he has Sid, the homicidal capuchin monkey who is his partner in crime. Sid helps Dean drive the van, find the bad guys and eliminate them.

Ruthlessly. Also efficiently.

Dean doesn’t even need a gun – one “hard bite” to a major blood vessel from Sid’s razor sharp fangs and the bitee bleeds out in just a few minutes.

In Hard Bite, Dean and Sid are just beginning their campaign to rid the Los Angeles area of unwanted human vermin. In quick succession, the pair eliminate a man who ran down a father of four and a pit bull trainer who is in the process of killing dogs who are insufficiently savage for his barbaric sport. A day later, Dean and Sid kill a small-time actress who has also had a fatal “accident” while driving her car.

But their first target turns out to have been connected to the Mexican Mafia and a Sinaloan drug cartel, and Sid and Dean find themselves targets for gangland murder. They also are being tracked by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective who is both smart and imaginative enough to connect the dots between the sudden rash of hit-run driver deaths.

Dean and Sid find themselves being pursued by disparate enemies who could halt their do-it-yourself justice campaign just as it is getting underway. On their side is Dean’s interfering nurse practitioner – a woman whose signature he needs to get the funds necessary for financing his vigilante activities – and his girlfriend, a street prostitute named Cinda who tends to his sexual needs and seems to really care about him.

The chase ranges all over Los Angeles, as far north as Humboldt County and as far south as Sinaloa. It criss-crosses through the hills that split L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, the beaches of the Southland, a chop shop near Venice, an apartment complex in Cerritos and the slice-and-dice suite at the L.A. County Coroner’s office.

Anonymous-9 has conjured a platoon of characters who are finely drawn and completely unique.  She includes enough technical detail in this yarn to make it seem plausible, even though she has to fall back on devil coincidence a couple of times to keep her dramatis personae in play.

I was especially impressed with her handling of Detective Doug Coltson, the sheriff’s investigator, a critical figure in the tale. In the hardboiled genre, it is highly tempting to either make cops stupid, brutal and corrupt or give them a pristine character and remarkable deductive powers. Coltson is no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He’s a lunch-bucket guy with a wife he loves (and who loves him), a backstory intriguing enough to make him interesting, and enough brain to solve a murder simply by keeping his eyes and his mind open.

But each of Anonymous-9’s characters have their own spark of life: Orella Malalinda, the head of a Mexican drug ring; Dr. Klanski, Dean’s reproving physician; Marcie Blattlatch, his attending nurse; Cinda, his paramour and assistant a la mort; even Marty Hatchfield, an unemployed screenwriter who meets Dean under the worse possible circumstances.  In his brief appearance in the novel, Anonymous-9 gives Hatchfield the same careful treatment as the more important players. 

Even Sid the Capuchin is a finely etched character with individual quirks, an oddly human sense of humor and a glowing intelligence that makes him a perfect "other half" of Dean Drayhart's personality. 

Anomymous-9 knows that the thing that makes a book as dark as this one work is a menagerie of characters capable of eliciting readers’ sympathy – or at the very least holding their interest.

She wraps these characters with black humor, investing her narrative with enough bitter comedy to keep a smile on the reader’s face for almost all of its 182 pages.

For example, she has Drayhart make the following comment about Sherryl Lynn Hastings, an actress he suspects of dragging an elderly woman to her death in a fatal hit-run in West Los Angeles:

“You can spot wannabe actresses in L.A. with deadly accuracy. They’re the ones who spend all their energy looking fuckable; meanwhile they haven’t had sex since Aretha sang at the inauguration—and then it was probably with a close relative.”

She has Drayhart discuss his own injuries and convalescence at one point, briefly and humorously explaining how he ended up on his vigilante mission:

“I went from noun to action verb riding a year-long bed of pain. After flirting with suicide, which lost its appeal contemplated deeply, a fresh start in rough justice sounded right. Why settle for cripple when you can be crippling?”

And in another section, a television bulletin tells the female head of the drug cartel about a massacre she herself had ordered at a body and fender works:

“Blood and tacos splattered floor to ceiling. There seems to be no motive, no robbery, no reason— with ‘gang-related’ written all over it.”

I particularly enjoyed this brief reference.  “Blood and Tacos,” of course, is the name of Johnny Shaw’s humorous magazine that serves up violent but comical stories in an ersatz “pulp” format. It often features mustachioed men – like the drug boss’s sons – engaging in bloody gunfights using automatic weapons, grenades, rocket launchers and so on.

Hard Bite is grim stuff, but funny, nonetheless...

Admittedly, this is grim stuff; but it’s funny, nonetheless.

I enjoyed Hard Bite thoroughly and I am looking forward to getting my copy of its sequel, Bite Harder, when it comes out on Sept. 1. In fact, I have already ordered the darn thing.

Let’s hope I don’t end up wheelchair-bound with a broken funny-bone when I read it...

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