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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. . .

Friday, August 8, 2014

There’s No Place Like Home




By Patricia Abbott
188 pages
(Snubnose Press; March 7, 2013)
E-book by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B00BR2PHG2

I don’t think there has ever been a group of fictional characters as unwholesome as the Batches, the shiftless Philadelphia family that populates Patti Abbott’s wonderful “novel in stories,” Home Invasion, like the inmates of a prison or mental institution.

Abbott’s premiere novel chronicles the family’s misadventures from 1961 through 2005. The Batches are responsible for an entire penal code volume of crimes: burglary, forgery, petty and grand theft, kidnapping and murder. None of these capers are particularly noteworthy; in fact, they are almost entirely the crimes of losers -- people who break the law because they are too lazy and self-absorbed to be honest.

With few exceptions the family's members are dipsomaniacs, liars, swindlers and thieves; the only one who doesn’t fit into at least one of those categories meets an untimely end.

Despite their larcenous nature, however, there is something to like about each member of the family.

Kay, the matriarch of the group, is basically selfish, hateful and repellent, but we later learn that her twisted character is partly due to a bad marriage to an alcoholic even less likeable than she is – a man who was so incapable of meeting the challenge of family life he ran off. Despite her unpleasant personality, she is devoted to her new husband, Mickey.

Patti Abbott: a terrific novel with vivid,
memorable characters and a first-rate story.
(Courtesy of Mysterypeople.wordpress.com)

Billie, Kay’s daughter and one of the focal points of the book, seems to have had the potential to be a decent human being, but took a bad turn someplace along the line. She, too, makes a bad marriage and becomes a great deal like her mother as a result: self-absorbed, lazy and estranged from both her children and her con-man jailbird husband, Dennis.

Still others, such as Billie’s son Charlie, seem to be truly lost souls who tiptoe on the edge of immorality, teetering over from time to time only to pull themselves back before they have gone too far and end up serving long sentences in the state pen. They want to have a normal life, but what is normal in this family is abnormal to everyone else.

Ironically, Charlie, who has a core of decency and a modicum of sympathy for his victims, is one of two members of the family who actually pays for his wrongdoing with a stint in prison.

Filling out this universe of misshapen souls are a variety of hangers-on who seem to play to the main characters’ personality flaws: Ron, Charlie’s thuggish friend and accomplice in a housebreaking racket; Melissa, Charlie’s sort-of girlfriend; and a variety of co-workers, lesser relatives, acquaintances and friends who play greater or lesser roles in the action.

Abbott gets the eras exactly right in this book, dropping a telling detail on almost every page that pins the yarn perfectly to the year the action occurs. Her eye for clothing, make-up, seemingly insignificant housewares and other minor elements is precise, but she doesn’t dwell on minutia that would clog her story and slow the pace of the narrative.

She also has a gift for giving her characters distinctive voices that makes each one an individual with unique turns of phrase, regional idioms and other verbal idiosyncracies. She manages to get a lot of mileage from each well-crafted phrase, such as in this passage when her new boyfriend Dennis tells her about a flirtation he has had with a woman that morning.

“You seem to meet more women than I do, working at a wig counter,” she responds.

“Sorry. Some bad habits, I guess,” he replies. “Actually, the woman was my landlady – asking me to fix a leak in her bathroom,” he said, backtracking a bit. He threw his still-folded napkin down on the table. Ï always thought landladies were supposed to fix my plumbing."

In that one 63-word exchange she tells you that Dennis is a braggart, thinks with his glands and not his head, exaggerates in an effort to impress his listener and falls back on humor when he is caught out. And she manages all that without having her narrator say any of it directly.

Although most of what transpires in this slim novel is grim to the Nth degree, Abbott still manages to drag a chuckle or two from the reader. For example, when Billie visits her runaway father in his new home in the Midwest, she finds out he is a recovering alcoholic who is drawing most of the nerve he needs for rehabilitation from Jimmy Hart, a dubious preacher who has taken him under his wing. At one point she arrives at Hart’s run-down mission while he in the middle of a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, castigating his fold for their penny-ante acts of evil.

His congregation seemed strangely thrilled by the accusations flung at them, Billie thinks as she surveys the scene. She could feel an electric charge pulsing through the room as people called out their agreement with the worst of his charges, seemingly glad to be evil rather than just dull.

Even the men of God in this book have an evil inner core. Hart later rapes Billie, then threatens to toss her father out of the congregation if she tells anybody about it.

Later, during a “date” with Dennis, a grifter who eventually marries her, she notes his preoccupation with sex.

It was pretty strange to hear a man talk about women as much as Dennis did, she thinks to herself. Billie thought only teenage girls and Doris Day gave so much thought to the opposite sex.

Stories like this often depend on non-stop violence to engage the reader and keep him or her turning pages a la Raymond Chandler. Not Home Invasion: the book soft peddles the bloodletting boasted by most pulp crime fiction, but when action occurs – as it must, given the propensity for wrongdoing of the Batch family – it is breathtakingly unexpected. 

For example, at one point near the end of the novel, a shooting takes place so suddenly that nobody in the room is initially certain what has happened. Adding to the misdirection is the fact that the shooter is the person present who would seem least likely to pull the trigger.

But Abbott’s light hand with violence serves her story well.  The reserve with which she turns to action underscores its importance and makes more of an impression on the reader than a novel consisting of more than 100 pages of death and dismemberment.

I first encountered Abbott through her short stories in publications like Thuglit, Crime Factory, and Spinetingler. She has published more than fifty stories in e-Zines and traditional crime magazines, and so far every tale that I’ve read has been a winner. 

Home Invasion is one of them. It’s a terrific novel with vivid, memorable characters and a first-rate story. I can’t recommend it enough.







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