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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. . .

Monday, September 8, 2014

Shayne Youngblood's "Shoot in the Head" is a Real Shot in the Arm

By Shayne Youngblood
82 pages
(E-book sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

In his first book, A Man from Rio, Shayne Youngblood painted a picture of a Brazil neatly divided between crooked cops and vicious gangsters. Our unnamed hero’s girlfriend has disappeared with a group of friends during a cross-country trip. He sets out in search, but all he finds is violence, dead bodies and the enmity of narcs and their drug-dealing adversaries.

It’s Best to Shoot in the Head is a prequel of sorts to Youngblood’s Rio-based book. Its action is set some years before his protagonist shows up in Rio and explains the reason why he is living there.

The story – propelled by bad decisions in a setting where they can easily be fatal -- is relatively simple: our hero is living in Belgrade, Serbia and has married into a Balkan organized crime family. He runs a restaurant and nightclub that is barely breaking even, but despite the fact that it is not a success, he has managed to steer clear of the “family business,” a panoply of rackets ranging from stolen cars to drugs.

He adores his beautiful wife. But a moment of weakness allows himself to tarry with another gang member’s spouse. This is a big mistake that returns to haunt him later in the book.

His immediate problem, however, is that a rival gang is encroaching on the territory controlled by our hero’s family. A series of confrontations take place including a bloody shoot-em-up at a boutique owned by his wife. Pretty soon a full-fledged gang war is underway – a gang war our protagonist wants nothing to do with.

But fate intervenes and he ends up killing a member of the other organization – with unexpected  results.

Its Best to Shoot in the Head gives us a look at the Balkans in the 1990s, a criminal’s paradise much like Youngblood’s Brazil – only without so many crooked cops.

The book is well written – possibly even better than Youngblood’s original novel. The dialog is strong and well-crafted. Youngblood gives us just enough description to bring the story to life, but not so much as to bog it down in unnecessary detail.

Shayne Youngblood: Shoot in the Head may be even
 better than A Man From Rio (photo courtesy of Amazon.com).

He describes the operation of the Balkan gangsters nicely. Early in the book, for example, he outlines the operations of a high level loanshark in a clear and concise fashion:

“Beginners made mistakes,” he says of the need for a balance between violence and menace in collecting the debt. “Delivering too much damage could result in a debtor’s inability to pay due to one simple fact: he’s dead. Sometimes, of course, damage was necessary. Still, one shouldn’t cross the line and deliver irreparable damage. But on some rare occasions, even irreparable damage was necessary. Like right now, for example. Mika had to shoot a man’s kneecap before he coughed up the money.”

Youngblood handles violence well, conveying the pain it involves without gouts of blood or excessive gore. Consider this scene in which gunmen have just sprayed a pizza parlor where a gangster is having lunch:

“Nikola ‘The Pump’ Pumpalovic suddenly lost his appetite. Maybe it had something to do with a burst of bullets shredding the place apart while he was lying under the table— or maybe the pizza was just bad. Pump’s business partner lay right next to him. They had two things in common at the moment: both motionless, both not breathing. The only difference: Pump did it because he didn’t want to draw any attention from the shooter. His business partner did it because high caliber bullets had drilled a couple of holes in his lungs.”

Damn, Pump thought. You can’t do business anymore in this city. Due to situations like this, the concept of the business lunch was rapidly dying in the city. Literally dying.”

What makes passages like this work is the understated but very dark humor Youngblood sprinkles throughout his narrative. The laughs help leaven the otherwise grim story: Serbia in the 1990s was not a pleasant place to visit, let alone conduct business: the region’s underworld consisted of some of the most vicious criminals in the world, and our protagonist moves easily – though a little nervously – among them.

There are also crooked politicians in the background of this story, not to mention sadistic and cunning Serbian intelligence officers. In short, just about every type of menace a discerning reader could ask for.

Best of all, you get the entire package for only $2.99.  And it’s a nice fast read – just long enough to last from Seattle to Los Angeles by jet.

What are you waiting for?

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