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. . .

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Top CrimeFic from One of the Best Cyberpulp Pubs on the Market

Consider this a late starter, just like down at the track:

Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan consistently produce one of the best crime fiction magazines on the 'Net -- one that is such a keeper you will want to buy the paperback editions so you can lend them easily to friends -- really good friends.

Last month, the Respect crew published an anthology that serves as an excellent sampler of what you find every quarter in their E-mag.

Edited by Rhatigan, the author of one of the best noir stories I have read this year -- The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other -- this anthology, drawn from the pages of the mag, features some of my absolute favorite writers: Alec Cizak, Joe Clifford, Patti Nase Abbott, Chris Leek, Mike Monson, Tom Pitts, Ryan Sayles and others, all working at the top of their form.

Editor Chris Rhatigan: His antho is The Real Deal!
Accept no substitutes: this is the real deal.

If you are looking for lurid tales crawling with grifters, gats and gun-molls, this is what you want to have in your hands and in your head. The paperback is currently out of print, but the Kindle edition is available for .99 cents -- cheaper than a pack of smuggled smokes from a Bodega in the East Brooklyn rat's nest known as "The Hole."

Make a spot on your nightstand for this little gem. Once you crack it, you'll find it hard to sleep.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Attack of the Cyber-Pulp Magazines!

Looking for lurid tales? Dark stories calculated to disturb your sleep with nightmares? Grisy yarns in which bad things happen democratically – to good people and bad people as well?

Check the links above, then. You won’t regret it.

Each leads to the latest edition of a magazine that is the product of what I call the “New Pulp” or “cyber-pulp” movement:  namely, the kind of genre fiction that used to appear in magazines like Black Mask, Argosy and Saga.

The three publications described below are anthology style collections that are designed to give you hours of reading pleasure. All were released this month, and all are very much available for purchase through the links above.

These are not literary magazines, mind you. You’ll not find any stories here that leave you scratching your head and wondering exactly what the writer was getting at. The pieces in these mags are as blunt as a sap to the skull, as gritty as the little white chunks you find in your mouth after somebody smashes your teeth with a savage uppercut.

All three are full-featured genre platforms – a mix of non-fiction articles (reviews, essays, interviews) and fiction that ranges from the shortest of short stories all the way up to mini-novels that are being serialized over a period of months.

I’ve mentioned these three specific titles before, mainly to point out – with justifiable pride – that each contains a story I wrote. After nearly forty years as a professional journalist I am now producing fiction and these three publications feature some of the first stories I’ve had published in my secondary career as a novelist and short-story writer.

But there is much more to all of them than the three stories I wrote. They feature gritty crime narratives, the darkest of noir and a variety of “speculative” fiction – horror yarns, fantasy tales, stories of terror and the paranormal, and adventures on strange worlds unlike our own. All are aimed at tickling the reader’s imagination and firing what sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback termed our “sense of wonder.”

Take Joseph Myers’ excellent speculative story set in a world of the not-to-distant future, “A Shot in the Dark” in Crime Factory # 16, an Australian publication edited by Cameron Ashley. The story concerns the misadventures of a woman “mechanic” (unlicensed doctor) who makes her living selling coffee – or the artificial gunk that passes for it in this dystopian world of the future.

She is awakened in the middle of the night by a smuggler chum and two college students who ask her to medically assist a critically injured man found in the alley behind her shop.

It turns out the man is beyond treatment, but is holding enough high-grade real coffee beans to bring a King’s ransom on the black market. The woman and the smuggler scam their way into the dead man’s apartment looking for the rest of his stash. They run into resistance and hijinks ensue, leading to a conclusion with a satisfying twist.

This, like most of the pieces in Crime Factory # 16, is terrific stuff: terse, tough and funny without being farcical. Myers’ dystopic world is well thought through and neatly delivered, complete with a credible vocabulary that helps to sell the futuristic setting in which the action unfolds.  For example, the two teens who find the dead man in the alley are described as “jugsoaked and covered in filth,” and lower-class people live in the “wards” but dream of moving up to “the district.”

There’s even a believable explanation for the exorbitant cost of actual food – the kind millionaires savor, not the garbage eaten by the hoi polloi: “Finding anything to eat or drink these days that isn’t some sort of synthetic substitute or a soy knockoff is damn near impossible,” Myers writes. “There’s just too many people for that to be an option.”

This is good writing. There’s a lot of it in Crime Factory # 16. In “Dog City” by Michael Asprey, a driver picks up a young Thai woman hitchhiking alongside a highway through the Australian outback: “The Datsun was puttering fine, traffic was light, the freeway stretched ahead, a white line between dynamited sandstone.”

A lot of the stories have that razor-edged brightness that is honed by telling a story in as few words as possible. Check this marvelous beginning of “I Just Want to Love You” by E.A. Aymar:

“‘It’s time to tell your wife about us,’ Rebecca said. My mind worked slowly and deliberately, like a fat man wading through a pool as I tried to accept that, after a few months of sleeping together, Rebecca had lost her shit. I needed to get her off my couch and out of my house before Emily came home with our kids.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody summarizing a bad situation any more clearly or economically: you’ve got your adulterer, your illicit romance, your needy and self-absorbed lover, jealous spouse, dependent children and desperation, all wrapped up in an introductory three-sentence paragraph that is only 62 words long.

There’s more: stories by Ly de Angeles, Christopher Long, J.M. Taylor, Andrew Rhodes and Deborah Sheldon, and articles by Ashley, Harvill Secker, Addam Duke, Benjamin Welton, Liam Jose and John Harrison.

Check it out; it’s chock full of damned nice writing.


Mike Monson

The same is true of the latest issue of All Due Respect, the tough, no-nonsense magazine edited by Michael Monson and Chris Rhatigan. The latest issue leads off with a story by Hilary Davidson, a wonderful author who tells us about Sarah, a woman who is dying of a terminal disease and is contemplating suicide when she meets a female police officer who literally changes her life.

The story is a stunner, with a surprise at its end that I honestly did not see coming. Actually, the climax is a pair of surprises that leaves the reader with a wry smile on his or her face. Sometimes there is justice in this dark and dreary world.
Hilary Davidson
Then there’s “Tote the Note” by Michael Pool, a story about Karl, a businessman for whom life has become the kind of burden he can only ease with drugs and booze. A grifter who has been stealing from his car dealership for years, he is on the cusp of discovery by a tax auditor:

“Karl thought about all the cash payments he’d erased from the dealership’s system and pocketed, what must have been tens of thousands of dollars,” Pool writes. “He felt sure he hadn’t spent all of it on booze, cocaine and pills, that at least some of it must have been used for the good of his family. But somehow it had been spent.”

The tale is set on a night when he gets drunk, smokes crack, argues with his wife and exchanges blows with his older son. Sheer mayhem results and Karl is left staring at the ashes of a life he has burned through like an arsonist armed with a barrel of gasoline.

Or consider CT McNeely’s excellent “Up Cripple Creek,” a tale about Chuck, a handicapped rural gangster whose attempt to protect his turf from outsiders ends in a savage brawl that pits him against the two able-bodied thugs who are trying to push him aside. The melee has a jaw-dropping conclusion:

“Chuck closed his eyes,” McNeely writes. “He was so fucking tired. He imagined Georgia-Lynn, all bloody and scared. He thought of his brother Johnny, hooked up to all those wires and shit, not even looking like hisself anymore. Chuck stood up. He had to put every bit of his weight on the crutches to keep from busting his ass on the floor. Every part of him hurt more than it had in years.”

By the end of the tale, Chuck is up the creek, armed with a paddle that’s intended for skull-crushing, not canoe wrangling.

Other fiction contributors to All Due Respect include Christopher Irvin, Stephen D. Rogers, Michael Cebula, Travis Richardson. Non-fiction articles – among which is a first rate interview with Davidson – are provided by Benoît Lelièvre, Rhatigan, Monson, Vince Darcangelo, Rory Costello, Louis Bravo, Shaun Avery, Bruce Harris, Steven Belanger and Lawrence Maddox.

Be sure to take a look at that story by McNeely – his guy, Chuck, offers a completely different take on someone who is physically disabled from Dean Drayhart, the protagonist in Anonymous-9’s novels Hard Bite and Bite Harder. I could get used to seeing stories about ol’ Chuck; McNeely’s handicapped anti-hero is unquestionably one cold-blooded badass.


Speaking of McNeely, he and his wife Emily are the masterminds of Dark Corners Pulp, the third of these cyber-pulp publications worthy of a look.

Dark Corners, which launched as a quarterly this month, is definitely no-holds-barred pulp: it has lurid crime yarns like “Off, Park and Up” by Martin Zeigler, in which a man obsessed by movies and all the little rituals he associates with them allows himself to forget the one thing he should have remembered: the highly incriminating evidence  he has stashed inside his car’s trunk.

Martin Ziegler

 It also has western tales, including “Pups and Hounds” by Chris Leek, a story of revenge set in the post-Civil War West. Leek’s fine yarn pits a priest living in a rat’s nest village in the wasteland of America’s Southwestern desert against a man who could easily be a stand-in for the Prince of Darkness. The story is sharp, well-written and ends on a horrific note that will stick with the reader for days.

There is also an interview with Leek, an article about his publishing outfit, Zelmer Pulp, and a review of his novella, The Gospel of the Bullet.

Chris Leek

In addition to mash-ups like the two stories mentioned above, Dark Corners also features straightforward fantasy narratives, including McNeely’s own “The Burning Lungs of Avalloch.” In it Logan Pike, a tough guy from our own era,  finds himself transported to . . . well, I’ll let Logan explain it in his own words:

“It was oppressively cold and damp wherever he was. Wherever he was, he was sure that he was not in California anymore. Logan had never seen a place like this before.”

There’s lots more, including tales by Alec Cizak, Angel Luis Colon, Joseph Goodrich, Scott Grand, Andrew Hilbert, Gary Robbe, Chuck Turpentine, Ryan Sayles, Mark Rapacz and Bruce Harris, and non-fiction pieces by Greg Barth, Chris Rhatigan, Dyer Wilk, McNeely and others.


I think I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a trailer full of lurid novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, oaters like Robber’s Roost by Zane Gray, and pulp magazines like Argosy, True and Saga.

My personal taste ran to horror, science fiction and fantasy, and I exhausted those sections of public libraries in Pollock Pines, Placerville and Vacaville. I mined for gaudy, gory jewels like William Gaines and Al Feldstein’s great EC titles, Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, Robert Howard’s King Kull, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Shops of Isher and just about anything Andre Norton put on a sheet of paper.

It was a silver age of pulp fiction (the Golden Age had been in the 1920s and 1930s when writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett dominated newsstands all over the country and the cheap binding and paper of mass-produced magazines featuring mystery, fantasy, cowboy and romance tales first gave the genre the title, “pulp.”)

For 35 cents you could buy an Ace Double that contained two complete novels, printed literally back to back. Publishers put out cheap science-fiction paperbacks that contained gripping tales by C.S. Lewis, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Lieber, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

By the time I got out of the Navy in 1971, the pulps were on the way out. Mass circulation magazines were in trouble, their readers siphoned off by series television programs that features the same sorts of heros and villains. The price of ink and paper rose steadily. By the end of the 1980s, only a handful were still being produced.

Around the same time, however, something new had emerged: the personal computer, which was quickly becoming as ubiquitous as television or radio. And, like most forms of mass communications, the device was quickly adapted as a mechanism for telling stories.

The personal computer led to the portable, and the portable to the laptop. Eventually computer notebooks emerged – and soon afterward, electronic readers like the Nook and Kindle.

If the high cost of paper, ink and gasoline killed the pulp fiction industry for pulp magazine and paperback publishers, small computers and e-readers has resurrected it. Hundreds of thousands of electronic copies of books, short stories and novellas can be produced for the cost of a very small paper press run. It no longer requires a massive staff or a sizeable fortune to publish a magazine: electronic editions allow them to be produced by a skeleton crew for a minimal cost and make a profit even if they fail to gain real mass popularity.

I, for one, am grateful. I missed my pulps for a period there in the mid to late 1980s, but electronic publishing has brought them back. These three magazines are ample proof of that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Stories in Print as of October 11, 2014

OK, we're friends, aren't we? All right, all right: maybe we aren't actually buddies who would go out drinking together or loan each other money, but at least we follow each other on Facebook and Twitter, right?

(Don't hesitate like that before answering. It makes me nervous.)

Since we're at least virtual pals, I'm going to ask you for a favor: I currently have three pieces that are available in fine modern magazines, and because we are friends you really should buy them to show me you support my efforts.

They are: 

All Due Respect, Issue Number 4, now available through Amazon for Kindle ($2.99). 

A fine publication that specializes in lurid tales of hard-edged crime, including marvelous stories in the noir tradition.  This wonderful magazine's most recent edition, released earlier this month, features my story "The Bust-out," a tale about a group of misdirected criminals whose attempt to pull off a million-plus dollar caper goes just far enough awry to get them to their chins in the proverbial shit. 

Dark Corners Pulp, available in eBook ($3.99) and paperback ($8.09) through Amazon.

This fine publication, the product of C.T. and Emily McNeely, Steve Gallagher and others, is a brand new anthology that not only contains stories by some of the best dark crime, horror and fantasy writers currently at work in this country, but also offers reviews of classic and contemporary pulp fiction, interviews with authors and biographical sketches of featured writers. 

Among the stories in the current issue is the first installment of a serialized novelette that I wrote, "Witch's Hat Trick" which is about a modern day sorceror who becomes the target of a Russian organized crime boss -- a sort of mash-up of crime story and urban fantasy, if you will. Future issues will take the story through to its conclusion.

Dark Corners Pulp is brand new, so for a limited time you have the opportunity to pick up its premiere issue. Consider it a first edition; this is your chance to add a real collector's item to your library. Just think of what it will be worth in the future!

Crime Factory # 16, Kindle edition $1.99, paperback version $8.09, available through Amazon. 

The latest issue of this great Australian eZine is on sale and features a story about my real-life run in with the Japanese Yakuza when I was stationed in Japan in the 1960s. The story has rats, gangsters and a pair of intrepid American electronic intelligence experts -- what more could you ask for!

Now run out and buy at least one of these magazines now, you hear? Don't make me get down on my knees and beg! (Getting the grass stains out of my corduroys is a real pain in the ass!)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Broken Mirrors Can Bring Bad Luck

Crashing Through Mirrors
By Anonymous-9
(81 pages)
(Elaine Ash; Oct. 4, 2014)
Ebook sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

If Elaine Ash pens a first-person account of a unicorn that lives in a submarine off the coast of Denmark and subsists on a diet of pink cotton candy, I will take her book seriously.

More to the point, I will buy the damned thing and enjoy it -- even though I despise  unicorns and find cotton candy repulsive.

Author Ash, who writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Anonymous-9, not only makes you believe in her characters, but also accept the situations she puts them in.

Elaine Ash (AKA Anonymous-9)
If you don’t believe she is capable of this sort of magic, try reading either of her novels about paraplegic Dean Drayback, a vigilante with a difference: he is trapped in a wheelchair and depends on his helper animal, the Capuchin monkey Sid, to help him settle scores with hit and run drivers like the one who left him crippled and killed his daughter.

In Ash's expert hands, you find yourself believing that Dean can train a monkey to kill, that Sid is smart enough to outwit other animals and even humans and that nobody notices that a handicapped man has taken up murder as part of his psychological rehabilitation. Through a sheer effort of imagination, she creates a universe in which the impossible becomes possible and the motivations that drive the central figures are totally credible.

Ash has accomplished this sort of sleight of hand again in her novella, Crashing Through Mirrors, a story in which a pop musician is brutally robbed and raped in an abandoned parking lot after a gig. The assault leaves our protagonist, Bern Aldershot, a basket case who is unable to trust or interact with friends and colleagues, and incapable of playing his signature bass lines. 

He is simultaneously consumed with rage and depression at the violation and is on the cusp of suicide when he discovers that he is not alone: his vicious assailant has attacked, raped and killed a host of other victims using an identical MO.

With the help of London, a 16-year-old female fan who wants him to teach her how to play the bass, Bern dedicates himself to tracking down the homicidal stranger. On the way he encounters musicians, parking lot attendants, sound engineers – even a gang of violent bikers who take offense at the motorcycle he is temporarily using to get around.

Worst of all, his psychopathic assailant is playing a game of cat and mouse with him that puts Bern and his new friend London in mortal danger.

Ash has managed the unlikely in this slim 81-page novella: with even less breathing room than she had in Hard Bite or Bite Harder, her two full-length novels about Dean Drayback, she has managed to breathe life into her main characters. 

Even her psychopath – the kind of baddie authors often render haphazardly, solely to move the plot forward – is invested with sufficient personality to become an actual character and not simply an element of plot mechanics.

The bio blurb for the story says in putting Mirrors together Ash drew on her years as a touring musician and her familiarity with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. This expertise is critical because a couple of key plot points in the story involve paparazzi and the difficulty a celebrity faces in maintaining any sort of personal privacy.

She writes about the music business with authority, but still manages a light touch. The sequences in which her protagonist is attacked are so grueling they convince you she has been garroted by an assailant herself.

In her webpage, Ash says she had originally intended to try selling this novella to one of the Big Five publishers, but decided to self-publish it in order to get it in circulation prior to this year’s Bouchercon conference in Long Beach.

Personally, I am glad it is available sooner rather than later. This is a short book that takes an hour or so to read, and the Kindle edition costs less than a dollar. If you haven’t enjoyed Ash’s fiction previously, Crashing Through Mirrors is a hell of a good place to start. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wasting Away in Tussinland...

By Mike Monson
173 pages
(All Due Respect Books; October 6, 2014)
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English
ASIN: B00O9E6192

I just spent most of the day with a simpleminded smile on my face while I enjoyed Mike Monson’s newest offering, Tussinland. Those who know me are aware I have a twisted sense of humor – the kinds of things that bring people to teary distress or jaw-clenching rage just make me laugh inappropriately.

Maybe it has something to do with my basically perverse view of the world; I am like the character Bill Murray played in the movie, Tootsie: when the Dustin Hoffman character whips off his wig at the film’s climactic moment, revealing himself to be a man and ad libbing a show-stopping ending for the soap opera in which he has been portraying a female medical center administrator, Murray smiles puckishly and says “That’s one nutty hospital!”

Monson’s Modesto in Tussinland is exactly like the hospital in Tootsie – completely nutty: the novel is populated by the most hopelessly fucked up collection of creeps and weirdos to appear in a novel since Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

It has hypocritical clergymen, a sex-crazed cop, a grandma who can’t schtup often enough, a psychotic Bosnian emigre and his trailer trash gun moll, a heroin dealing car salesman, a real estate hustler who is over her head because her properties are so far under water, and our protagonist – a hopeless loser who is strung out on Robitussin cough syrup.
This isn’t a cast of characters: it’s a bloody freak show.

The plot, stated briefly, is this: Paul Dunn is a hopeless schmuck – a failed high school teacher, temp worker and short order cook. He is constitutionally incapable of holding down a job or preserving a personal relationship. His last marriage fell apart when his wife, Tina, took up with Mark, a small time smack dealer who runs a used car business with his gang-banger high school chum, Jorge.

Dumped for a heroin dealer; now that is the epitome of pathetic!

Paul is living with his sex starved mother, Mavis, while he recovers from an on-the-job injury at a chain restaurant. He becomes the focal point of a circuitous scheme that involves a couple million dollars’ worth of heroin, the creation of a nascent militia organization, and a pair of ghastly murders in which Paul is the primary suspect.

Two things will keep the reader turning those pages: first, it is not clear until the last twenty pages of the book exactly who has dreamed up the goofy scheme that envelopes Paul or why; and second, every time the reader begins to think he or she knows what will happen next, Monson rolls another hand grenade through the doorway.

About two-thirds of the way to the book’s end, the reader simply throws up his hands and says “go for it!” Better to sit back and enjoy the ride than try to figure out the ultimate destination.

Like I said, this is one nutty hospital.

Monson, along with his partner Chris Rhatigan, is one half of All Due Respect magazine and the mag's new publishing arm, All Due Respect books. This is one of the new imprint's first offering. You are going to want to make room on your bookshelf for others -- this guys are putting out some great stuff.

Mike Monson -- Writer of dark and creepy stories...

The characters in this tale are not all as vicious and depraved as those in What Happens in Reno, the long novella Monson released earlier this year in which there wasn’t a single likeable individual. And there is a more directly humorous feeling to Tussinland than Monson’s other seriously hard-boiled 2014 offering, The Scent of New Death.

For much of his latest  book, Monson is going for laughs. Not laugh-out-loud belly laughs:  just a twisted, sardonic smile and the cavernous chuckle of a gravedigger.

Trust me – he ends up getting them, too.

Still, discussing the story’s various twists and turns would spoil Tussinland, so the less I explain, the better. Don’t worry – you are in good hands with Monson; the man knows what he is doing.

The electronic version is available now at Amazon for only $2.99 and the softcover version will be coming out shortly. Drop three bucks for a full day’s entertainment, then sit back, let the pages turn themselves and enjoy yourself. You will be glad you did.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Classic Review of a Book that is Destined to Become a Classic

(Today, October 7, 2014 is -- more or less -- the official release date for Joe Clifford's terrific book, Lamentations. To mark the occasion, Pulp Hack Confessions is running its original 7/19/2014 advance review of the novel . . . )

By Joe Clifford
(310 pages)
(Oceanview Publishing; Oct. 7, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1608091333
ISBN-13: 978-1608091331

Full disclosure: my brother was a junkie like Chris, the protagonist's sibling in Lamentation, Joe Clifford's new novel. My sibling Tony was ten years younger than me; despite this, I spent my 58th birthday putting him underground.

He was a needle-sharing speed freak who couldn't stay out of trouble and ended up spending time in jail and at least two California prisons. I stopped by the jail in Placerville to visit Tony when our father died, but he refused to leave his cell; he said he was ashamed to have me see him dressed in county orange.

He didn't die of an overdose. Like a lot of needle-sharers, he used contaminated spikes and became a Hep C victim.

My point is, I think I know a little something about being the straight brother of a crank shooter. And from that perspective, I can tell you Clifford's book gets it exactly right: my brother may have been a dope fiend like Chris, but he was still my brother -- with all the heartbreak, love and disappointment that entails.

Lamentation is told from the perspective of Jay, Chris's younger brother. The novel is set in the fictional community of Ashton in rural New Hampshire and revolves around Jay's attempts to deal with Chris's addiction and protect him after he becomes a "person of interest" in the murder of another doper, Pete, with whom Chris operates a rag-tag computer recycling business. 

Jay has had a love-hate relationship with his older brother since their parents were killed in a car wreck. When they were younger, Jay attempted to get Chris into rehab, to clean him up and help ease him back into society; but after Chris repeatedly lapsed back into drug abuse, Jay all but wrote him off as a dope fiend and loser.

Superficially, at least, his assessment is valid: Chris is essentially homeless, augmenting his meagre earnings from the computer business by turning tricks at a local truck stop, and pulling in enough occasional income to take a room at a sordid truck stop motel that specializes in rentals by the hour.

Not that Jay is exactly a success story, himself: he makes a hand-to-mouth living clearing houses whose occupants have died, boxing up dead people's furniture and knick-knacks for his boss to sell to area antique dealers. He has a two-year-old son, Aidan, by a woman named Jenny that he is deeply in love with, but he's messed their relationship up so completely that his ex- has shacked up with a former motorcycle outlaw rather than go on living with him. His social circle consists of one really close friend -- even though he lives in the kind of pissant town where everyone knows everybody else and no one ever leaves -- and a big night out is a couple of beers at a local pub while a Bruins game flickers on the TV.

It's a lot like Placerville, California, the burg where I was born and spent my teenage years. Spend a year or so in a place like Ashton or Placerville and you stop wondering why people get strung out on drugs.

As bad as things are, they take a turn for the worse when Chris and his partner get hold of a computer hard-drive that contains compromising information someone wants buried. First Pete, the partner, is murdered, his body dumped in a pool of storm runoff. Chris tells his brother about the drive, but Chris's frequent paranoid delusions make Jay skeptical.

Then Chris goes missing, the squalid shack Jay lives in is ransacked and Jay gets his head cracked by an intruder. The responsible younger brother soon finds himself searching for his irresponsible sibling in a world populated by biker gang members, skanky truck-stop prostitutes, crooked politicians and incompetent police.

Despite its no-nonsense, hardboiled veneer, Lamentation is surprisingly tender. While the novel is essentially a crime story, at its core is the uneasy relationship between the two brothers, a relationship so fraught with doom that it colors everything else in their lives.

Renaissance man Joe Clifford (courtesy of joeclifford.com)

Clifford is the author of two other novels, Junkie Love (which will be reviewed Sunday, July 20) and Wake the UndertakerHe has written numerous short stories, is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online, and produces Lip Service West: True Stories, a regular series of readings by local authors.

He is deft in his use of description to bring his characters to life. He succeeds in making each major figure in the book unique and believable, even relatively minor ones like the local county sheriff, or the former biker who is living with Jay's ex.

And he serves up some delicious Chandleresque writing in the process. While visiting his friend Charlie's house, for example, he paints the scene indelibly:

"Charlie hadn't redecorated since his mom died, and the house retained that old-lady feel, all decor left over from the 1970s -- paisley print sofas and wagon-wheel coffee tables, shitty paintings that you could buy for a quarter at any garage sale up here because at one time or another every retiree in New Hampshire tries their hand at painting."

In another section, he describes the cheap homemade version of methamphetamine available in New England as "a science project for sleep deprived zombies," concocted from a laundry list of toxic ingredients that includes "gun bluing and industrial strength ammonia, miner's coal and jet fuel, corrosive chemicals you find under a sink. Basically, the very last kind of ingredients you want to put in your body, and this had been my brother's primary diet for years. No wonder his brains were oozing out his ears. In a few years he'd be draped in garbage bags and talking to beer cans at the bus station."

In describing Ashton, the tiny town where he lives, Jay notes that the place has legitimate businesses like Jiffy Lube and Best Buy, but adds "in between all the department outlets and national chains were still the places no one really wanted to be: cheap motels, dollar stores, military surplus shacks, knickknack and consignment shops, The Salvation Army, fast food drive-throughs, all-night gas stations."

I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of really good stories by new authors working in the neo-pulp tradition this year and Lamentation is one of the best: the writing is crisp, the plot sufficiently complex to hold the reader's interest and keep him or her off-balance, and the characters believable and fully-developed.

There is even enough mystery about what is actually going on that most the book functions as a legitimate whodunit, and the actual motive for the mayhem is not revealed until the story is nearly over.

But while Clifford's novel is a crime thriller, it is really much, much more: it is a truly excellent story of the troubled relationship between brothers, a topic that gives it additional value outside its literary genre.

Lamentation is a treat. This was one of those books I was sorry to see end.