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. . .

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stupid Criminal Tricks: Pot Farmer Stones Out in a Grow House; Hilarity Ensues!

Stinking Rich
By Rob Brunet
  • 335 pages
  • (Down & Out Books; September 1, 2014)
  • EBook sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • ASIN: B00N89UJ1A

Rob Brunet, a mild-mannered fellow who lives near Toronto, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would know much about dim-witted outlaw bikers, folks who steal cars faster than a Dane gloms a two-wheeler through Bycyklen, or people who live with their vicious Rottweiler mix mutts in trailers too tiny to stand in without bumping their forlornly empty heads.

No -- Rob seems like a normal kind of person, clean cut, middle-class, hard-working, well-educated. The thought of him hanging with bikers, burglars and trailer trash would never cross your mind.

Rob Brunet
(courtesy www.robbrunet.com)
But check out his new novel, Stinking Rich, and you will soon see that he is intimately familiar with low-life criminals, fuzzy-minded dope dealers and hot-prowl artists looking for the main chance. 

In fact, people of just that ilk are crammed into his novel like drunk tank habitués after a three-day weekend.

I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Brunet on a brief stopover at San Francisco's Green Arcade bookstore during his recent tour promoting the novel. The occasion was a reading featuring Rob and Anonymous-9, author of Hard Bite and Bite Harder, two of the most relentlessly entertaining crime novels I have enjoyed reading this year. 

After reading dinner at Zuni with Terry Shames, Anonymous-9,
Richard Kelly, Rob Brunet and yours truly.

The evening was billed "Razor Sharp -- Crime & Black Comedy." As Rob put it in his invitation: "Join me with Anonymous-9 . . . as we probe criminality for its comedic content.”

For his selection, Brunet read a passage from Stinking Rich, his debut novel released two months ago.

Good choice!

Among other things, Stinking Rich is the story of Danny Grant, a high school drop-out who is hired to tend a pot growing operation for a backwoods biker. The biker, a member of an outfit called The Libidos, is a crook's crook: a thug who can't get out of his own way and who plans to double-cross his gang by cutting them out of the profits from selling the weed.

A series of missteps, however, end with an unexpected police raid on the grow house, its destruction, and the loss of $750,000 in cash that another group has scraped together to make the buy.

To give more details would ruin the story. Suffice to say Grant ends up being pursued by the Canadian police, the bikers, his unscrupulous former lawyer -- who smells money and can't wait to fill her pockets with it -- and a part-time vigilante who sells him a bus ticket at a rural Greyhound station.

Along the way, a couple of people are killed and a penal code textbook's worth of offenses are committed, including burglary, petty theft, grand theft auto, kidnapping, bribery, trespassing and felonious mopery with intent to lurk.

Most of the people in the book turn out to be hustlers looking to cash in. In fact, Grant is one of the few relatively honest characters in the story -- one who literally sees the error of his ways and wants to make amends for his misdeeds.

However, even our hero is no saint: Danny accidentally kills a drinking partner while trying to recover a carton of cigarettes the man has glommed, then poisons the dead man's dog so he can bury them together.

I realize this sounds like pretty grim stuff, but Brunet serves it up with such diabolical good humor that it generates a laugh a minute. 

Consider the sequence during which the biker who is running the grow operation holds a business meeting with the dope's buyers at a Mexican restaurant in the boondocks. The menu Brunet describes has to contain more items than any three Mexican restaurants I've ever eaten in, each one more volcanically hot than the last.

The dope-dealing biker, Perko Ratwick, consumes too much of the greasily toxic chow and finds himself suffering unbearable digestive distress as the deal goes down:

"A few minutes later, bouncing through the forest, he finally gave in to intestinal revolt: it was time to do what bears do in the woods. He stopped, found a fallen tree limb to squat over, and fought to undo his belt buckle. Then he remembered his leather leggings. His stomach did somersaults as he struggled with the extra straps. In the pitch dark, it felt as though the chaps’ belt was somehow hooked through the loops on his jeans, and the more he tried to pull it loose, the tighter the noose around his belly became. Finally, he belched loudly and simultaneously farted. His stomach pain vanished and he felt light as a balloon. He lit a cigarette and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He figured he could last until the farmhouse where he’d be able to see what was going on around his waist. Not to mention he’d rather use a real toilet."

Almost immediately, the grow operation is raided by the police. Ratwick is arrested and it is quickly clear that the biker's ornate buckskin chaps, club jacket and the rest of his clothing are loaded with his excrement; in his digestive torment, the biker has passed a hell of a lot more than gas:

“Hey, Ainsley, watch out he don’t scalp you,” one cop says as he eyeballs Ratwick's wild west outfit.

Officer Ainsley snapped back: “I’m more afraid he’ll crap on me. He’s a Libido, for sure, but that bulge in his jeans is something entirely different.”

“You been checking out his package, Ainsley?” 

“What I’m saying, gentlemen, is this poor slob just shit his pants worse than a two-year-old having a tantrum. I found him in the woods by smell alone. Thought something had died in there.”

The novel is laced with hi jinx and unforgettable characters: a pet iguana that seems to communicate with Danny via ESP at moments of stress, a Skink-style loner who dwells in the woods like a human Bigfoot, an overly excitable Lhaso Apso, a blind man who gardens on his hands and knees, an obese yet amorous prison inmate who needs a warehouse full of Lifebuoy soap. All make appearances that move the story forward in gales of laughter.

For people who hear the word "Canada" and immediately think of Wayne Gretsky, Cirque de Soleil or Bryan Adams, Stinking Rich will be an eye opener: in it, you'll find that parts of the Great White North are just as full of twisted losers as a U.S. trailer park full of intermarried second cousins.

Thuglit magazine's Big Daddy, Todd Robinson, has said Stinking Rich reads like Carl Hiaasen if he were Canadian. The comparison is spot on. Those who like a fast-moving crime novel populated by characters that will have them chuckling for hours should check this one out. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Pastiche of Tales Which Have only One Thing in Common: How Uncommon They Are . . .

(Paper: 280 pages)
( Comet Press; May 1, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1936964376
ISBN-13: 978-1936964376
(Kindle edition: $4.99)

Once again a writer with a severely twisted sense of humor has me staying up late at night laughing my fool head off while everybody else in my house is sensibly trying to sleep.

The offender this time? David James Keaton, whose novel, The Last Projector, was released last week.

But I am not here to talk about The Last Projector. I will review that at another time. I am here to talk about a good lead-in to Keaton’s novel, his collection of weird but entertaining short stories, Fish Bites Cop!
David James Keaton (Courtesy of Amazon.com)

It’s not a new release. Fish was published in 2013, but I never ran across it until last week  when I won a paperback copy while participating in an impromptu quiz on Keaton’s Facebook page.

The anthology defies characterization: I couldn’t tell from its cover whether the tales the book  contains were going to be real life misadventures of cops, deputy sheriffs, scout troop leaders and other authority figures, or whether they were going to be fictionalized stories offered strictly for readers’ entertainment.

As it turned out, the latter is the case: the stories this antho contains include western yarns, crime tales, prison stories, horror, fantasy and a few that are kludged together from all these genres.

And the book’s subtitle is a little misleading; authority figures in some of these fables do, in fact, get a whupping worthy of a “Fight Club” pairing; but so do run-of-the-mill schmucks who lack the clout to flatten an éclair.

The reader is the beneficiary in both cases.

From his prefatory remarks in the book’s introduction, you know you are in good hands. Keaton’s introductory “Open Letter to Assholes Allergic to Turn Signals,” based on an incident in which the writer was stopped by an underdressed traffic cop for shooting through a yellow light signal, explains that Keaton’s malefaction occurred because he was following a motorist who abruptly turned without signaling his intention.

“This is why I bombed through the red light, I tell [the cop]. Because you, in your piss-yellow 4X4, slowed down to turn. But I had no idea what you were doing and the light still had a splash of mustard on it, so just like you, I zipped on by.”

This leads to Keaton warning an imaginary K-9 unit dog to ignore “the signals flying off your master up there. That’s just sweat and confusion. Your master thinks everyone is guilty. He got a shitload of C’s in high school. So he’s wrong 80 percent of the time. Oh, yes he is! Who’s wrong 90 percent of the time? He is! You’re a good boy! Good boy!”

You get the drift? Keaton writes in a clever amalgam of third- and first-person stream of consciousness, tough guy patter, keenly observed detail and comments aimed directly at the reader. He ignores some of the ironclad rules of narrative writing – or bends them so wickedly that they no longer have the power to constrain his imagination.

And what an imagination. In “Bad Hand Acting,” he offers a vignette about a hospitalized man who has suffered a stroke after a run-in with a mob of bloodthirsty cops over some minor infraction. “Inside this room is Ron Flowers, soon to be ’39-year-old Ronald J. Flowers from Fort Knox, Kentucky,’ and all over the news for soaking up about 35 Taser barbs, a half-gallon of pepper-spray and a dozen blue-sleeved forearms sunk deep into his throat. . .”

“Why . . . would he resist [arrest] like that? Only a guilty man soaks up enough electricity to power a city block, pulling fishhook after fishhook of Taser wire from his torso, all while cuffing any cop that got too close with fists half the size of Thanksgiving turkeys. A man only does this when he knows justice has caught up with him.”

The story goes on to make it clear that Flowers has down nothing to earn this thrashing except fail to show sufficient deference to the battalion of sadistic blue jackets who have taken him down. And, more to the point, Keaton makes it clear that the entire incident was instigated by “two cops a little different than the rest. One big. One little. . . The janitor [who witnesses this scene] knows immediately, just by being alive on this planet past the age of 18, any clear physical distinction between partners means they will be the worst of all.”

A gift for hyperbole is not the only thing that makes these stories a rare treat. Keaton has a true instinct for the bizarre and sordid in his fiction. Take his story “Killing Coaches,” which details the activities of a serial murderer with an MO that sets him apart from the average sexual psychopath.  Or “Greenhorns,” which features a brand new take on the zombies that have taken the entertainment world by storm in recent years. Or “Three Ways Without Water,” which offers a parable about climate change that masquerades as an occult western tale.

Then there’s “Schrödinger’s Rat,” set in a penitentiary that is utterly unlike any other. For one thing, it defies the laws of physics: there is a steady influx of new inmates – but none of the old ones ever seem to leave.

At least, not alive.

Some of Keaton’s stories are gruesome throwbacks to the kind of grisly literature that was the mainstay of the old Educational Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Others at least superficially seem to be conventional hardboiled crime yarns. A few are mash-ups of both narrative styles that seem to fit in their own peculiar niche.

All, however, share a core of grimly savage humor that puts them in a category all their own.

These stories are populated by strange people, black rats, white cats, clams, three foot giant mantises, and homicidal burning cars. The images remain in the reader’s brain like grimly threatening figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting viewed in a fun-house mirror.

Don’t worry, though. Eventually they will fade.

Except for the ones that don’t. Those are the ones you are going to have to watch out for. . . 

Fish Bites Cop! is relentlessly entertaining. Get it and read it. It will do a good job of preparing you for The Last Projector.