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. . .

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pick A Target Between the Eyes

Maybe I Should Just Shoot 

You in the Face

By Paul Brazill (editor), Brian Panowich, et. al.

  • 84 pages
  • Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
(Zelmer Pulp Press, Oct. 9, 2014)

This fine collection of stories should provide the reader with a couple of hours of pleasure but a wise aficionado will ration the tales and stretch the book out as long as possible.

The slim book was edited by Paul Brazill, author of Guns of Brixton, Roman Dalton, Werewolf P.I. and A Case of Noir. Brazill writes an introductory essay that neatly summarizes noir in a few deft phrases:

"Noir, for me, is all about mood," Brazill writes. "And a dark mood at that because, as Otto Penzler once said, 'Noir is about losers.' ”

If you're looking for losers, you'll find them in these pages. And if it's dark you're after, this is your popcorn shack, friend.

Featured here are some of the top writers working in the neo-noir genre today, folks like Chris Leek, Benoît Lelièvre, Brian Panowich and Ryan Sayles. 

The tales they tell are dark, even when the protagonist emerges victorious. But victory is alien to these characters and most of them are skirting the edge of the world, ready to tumble off and whirl away into the void.

In "Last Exit," Leek, an editor at the Zelmer Pulp implant, writes about a cop looking for revenge against the man who killed his lover. His search is brutal and the justice he extracts when he finds the villain is cold and ruthless.

Chris Leek
The story could simply be dismissed as a dark revenger, but the writing in it is so fine that it is much, much more than that. For example, when a tipster suggests a place where the killer might be found, Leek's protagonist greets the information with a policeman's equivocal attitude:  "A direction wasn't a destination but it was a start."

Later his search leads him to a seedy 24-hour laundromat. "The yellowing sign on the door said: We Never Close. In this town, that worked just as well for old wounds as it did for fresh laundry."

In "Once Upon a Time in the Woods," his first-rate story about a kidnapping gone sour, Brian Panowich writes a mash-up: a crime story with an eerie undercurrent of the supernatural.

Brian Panowich
I've written this type of story myself -- a tale in which the bizarre and inexplicable takes place against a backdrop of the normal -- and these kinds of yarns are not easy to pull off. Panowich does an exceptional job, hinting at the inconceivable that is going to eventually overtake the story without ever giving it away completely. 

When the story rumbles to its eventual grotesque conclusion, the reader is left in stunned silence, still uncertain about what has actually happened; or why; or even how. If the purpose of short form fiction is to make the reader want more, this piece works perfectly.

Or consider Chuck Regan's excellent "Taking Flesh," a story about a photographer who is always looking for the perfect shot, the reputation maker, the photo that will lead to fame and fortune.

It is the plainest and most direct of all the neo-noir stories in this volume; it is also one of the most haunting.

Chuck Regan 
"I've had the same dream for twenty years: I am 14 years old, snapping photos of a carousel. Gold, cream, and blue antique horses waltz around a gaudy calliope as it brays vaudevillian dirges. When I stop to load another roll of film, I drop my lens cap and it rolls under the ride.  I duck down under the guard rail to retrieve the cap but I am pulled back by rough hands. The skull-tattoo carny from the photo breathes a rotted-teeth-and-cigarette breath onto my face and says, “You don't belong here.”

When he finally takes the perfect shot, he doesn't even notice it -- until sales soar for the book that contain the picture  and his agent calls him to let him know several magazines have contacted her to reproduce the photo for their covers.

When he mentions the uptick in sales, a friend says ""Maybe it's because of that kid who died."

" 'What kid?' " I asked. A teenage boy had died on a carnival ride in Maryland. I had to dig out the model-release form to confirm his name. It was the boy I had photographed at the ring toss. He was the cover photo to my book. My thesis had proven itself true. The carnival was an active ritual space, and every ritual needs some kind of sacrifice. That boy on the cover became a sacrifice to the carnival, and my sales spiked because of it."

In other words, the perfect photograph was one of death.

This is that rarest of all literary accomplishments -- a story that you find yourself thinking about just before you fall asleep for the night.

If "Taking Flesh" serves as an example of the quiet side of noir, Ryan Sayles yarn, "The Roach Motel Reputation" gives you the savage side -- a tale so hard-boiled it would bounce off a cement floor. 

Ryan Sayles
It involves child rapists, a pederast bar, underground raves, drug dealing and an ex-cop turned beat-up-artist for hire who's been retained to find a man who committed murder. The following passage makes the nature of the storytelling genre clear:

"Thomas looks at his supposed friends, back to me, back to them and then me. He realizes in a microsecond he is without quarter now. A naked fool in a house of razors. Vulnerable."

Thomas, in case you didn't notice, is in deep shit. He will enter a new world soon after this encounter: a world of excruciating hurt.

There are seven stories in this collection and each of them is a peach. I can't recommend Maybe I Should Just Shoot You in the Face highly enough.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Winning Hand: A Pair of Aces

By Pablo D’Stair and
Chris Rhatigan
98 pages
ISBN: 1500931942
(All Due Respect Books, Aug. 22, 2014)
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Ever wonder what two different authors would do with characters that are in the same basic situation?

Wonder no longer. In you don’t exist, two grimly paranoid novellas by All Due Respect’s Chris Rhatigan (The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other) and Pablo D’Stair (I Poisoned You), each ends up going to a different place and getting there by a different route.

The jumping off point is that classic standby of noir – found money: the protagonist in each story accidentally comes into possession of a large amount of spendable cash – so much of it, in fact, that it clearly was generated by some sort of dishonest activity that took place before these stories began.

Rather than turning the money in to the authorities, however, the characters in these short novels hold on to it and take steps that compound the error of keeping the cash in the first place. In the one case, the protagonist destroys evidence of a murder; in the other, he defrauds an inn-keeper, tries to purchase an illegal gun, and hides part of the money.

Though the starting point of each story is similar, D’Stair fills his tale “Bleed the Ghost Empty” with paranoia from the beginning, portraying his character as a traveler on a lost highway, the occupant of a world in which initially no other people exist – just an endless road to nowhere.

Pablo D'Stair
“Apparently, I’d wound up further from the highway than I’d thought,” D’Stair writes. "I was under the impression I’d been running parallel to it, keeping a straight line, that at worst I might have to back track half a day’s drive, but the reality seemed so much more dreadful. I wasn’t even nowhere, I was just somewhere I couldn’t identify, and there seemed to be no one else there with me.”

He tells a policeman he encounters that he is fleeing the breakdown of a relationship with a girlfriend. This is inherently incredible; no one but a lunatic would drive through the night mapless in an unfamiliar area simply because they had split up with a lover.

But our protagonist is a classic unreliable informant who seems to lie about everything. It is not clear whether we can believe him about even this seemingly harmless fact. In fact, we’re not certain he believes the things he tells himself.

While the road he travels is lonely and deserted at the beginning of the tale, after he finds the money, it seems to become crowded with people he does not trust: a passing motorist, a policeman who seems too friendly by half, a motel operator. 

The character has secrets of some sort he is trying to keep hidden. We never learn what they are, but the way D’Stair has written his story encourages our imaginations to run wild.

The novella creates an atmosphere of imbalance, irrationality. His protagonist’s words tumble into and out of his head in a panicky rush, their disorder creating a sort of weird order despite themselves. 

When he discovers a dead man’s body in an abandoned and badly hidden car, for example, the reader is sucked along by the energy of the character’s panic, bumping along in the wake of his blurted thoughts.

“I started thinking I should open the trunk, this suddenly making me breathe heavily,” the character thinks. “Pounding, knowing I needed to get back to my car— I was having some fit, wasn’t thinking, couldn’t think, needed to get on the road, even if just to drive until my tank heaved dry.”

It slowly becomes clear that our main character is seriously mentally ill – he seems convinced he is ensnared in some sort of trap by the money he has uncovered, but he continues to obsessively hold onto it, even after he has decided it poses a danger to him.

We never are able to determine whether he is, in fact, being followed, why the money was left at the scene of the murder – even where the main character is. The only thing we are sure about is that the money exists. Fearful it might be discovered, D’Stair’s protagonist has taped it into the wheel well of his car, and it remains there the last time he checks.


Chris Rhatigan
As ambiguous as D’Stair’s story is, Rhatigan’s is even murkier: by the time you reach the last page of “Pessimist,” you are no longer even certain that the cash that he found really exists.

In Rhatigan’s tale, the protagonist is a lowly municipal bureaucrat who picks up the wrong bag in the luggage carousel at a small airport. The duffel bag he grabs contains a large amount of bundled bills the bureaucrat is sure was generated by drug sales or some other criminal activity.

On the spur of the moment our main character decides to take the money and run. He, too, believes he is pursued by evil-doers intent of getting back the cash.

As can be seen by the novella’s title, the character in Rhatigan’s story sees the glass as a lot more than half empty and a man who always expects the worst is seldom disappointed. Our character, Pullman, demonstrates his grim outlook at the story’s outset, imagining what might happen if it crashes:

“You will burn to death,” Pullman thinks to himself. Yet you are no one. You have lived thirty-seven years, but have done nothing. No one will mourn your death. Will there be a funeral? Maybe they have to have funerals for people who die in plane crashes. Like the FAA requires it or something. Then it would just be a chaplain and one FAA guy. The chaplain saying the Nicene Creed and the FAA guy texting the whole time. Doing their job, honoring your flaccid corpse. They forget to bury you. And they move on, but you remain in that plain, pine box, staring at the sky, wide fucking awake even though everyone thinks you’re dead. Because you can’t die if you’re nobody in the first place.”

In Rhatigan’s story, Pullman hides part of the money, tries to buy a gun illegally from a licensed dealer, rents a storage locker to stow most of the dough, and hires a private eye to keep him under surveillance in case someone tries to get the money back. Eventually he even reports the cash to the police.

All his efforts come to nothing, however: the gun dealer punches him out and takes his wallet; the shamus thinks he’s an idiot and abandons him after pocketing his retainer, and the police believe he is lying about everything that happened.

By the end of the story, you don’t know whether there was really any money or not. You only have Pullman’s word it existed and he, like the nameless protagonist in “Bleed the Ghost Empty,” is hardly a reliable informant.

What you are sure of is the atmosphere of dread, of paranoia, of hopelessness thick enough to spread like peanut butter:

“A glance in the rearview mirror revealed only the vague lights of the parking lot and the inky black night swallowing him— no cars behind him,” Rhatigan writes. “Maybe they had turned off their lights. Maybe they planted someone in the trunk of his car. Maybe they were already ahead of him. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he had never lived.”

As noir, these two stories are classic: major character, confronted with a choice between right and wrong, makes a bad decision. He makes more bad decisions to try and correct the effects of the first one. He experiences physical harm or is threatened by it. His attempted solutions lead him further into a morass of guilt, regret and immoral conduct.

The best noir leaves the reader with the feeling that he or she is the transgressor -- the person whose misbehavior has brought consequences that cannot be escaped. A first-rate noir story puts the reader in the protagonist's shoes.

These two stories do exactly that.

They aren’t the type of tales you are likely to seek out if you are feeling blue or depressed. They are too grim for that.

But if you aren't in a suicidal state of mind and enjoy fiction firmly rooted in the darkest type of human behavior, you will be riveted by you don’t exist.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Cool eBook about a Hot Redhead and her Boy Toy Caught up in a Dish Best Served Cold

By Phil Beloin Jr.
(92 pages)
ISBN: 1502899639
(Publisher: All Due Respect Books, Oct. 29, 2014)
Ebook sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Phil Beloin’s novella, Revenge is a Redhead, is a perfect example of the so-called New Pulp: a long story that could easily have appeared in Black Mask, Argosy or one of the other pulp magazines that dominated newsracks in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

It is colorful, lurid and violent, coupling a sinister and cynical world view with a transgressive type of justice that is meted out vigilante-style by the book’s first-person protagonist, Rich.

And it does it in a terse narrative that pulls up a few pages short of novel length.

The only real difference between Beloin’s tale and, say, a Black Mask Continental Op story by Hammett or a Dime Detective John Dalmas yarn by Raymond Chandler is the fact that it is  tricked out with the New Pulp technology – as an eBook, the 21st Century equivalent of the cheap pulp paper periodicals of the 30s, 40s and 50s.

It features a corrupt milieu, an exotic villain, and enough tough talk to provoke a dozen barroom fights. Best of all, the book has plenty of raw action: Beloin has studied at the knee of writers like Chandler, who once said whenever an action writer can’t think of what to do, he should send a man through the door with a gun in his hand. His advice is still serviceable more than fifty years later.

Also like many of the Old Pulps, Beloin’s story has a wise-ass streak as wide as the Mississippi.

For example, Beloin goes Chandleresque on our asses when he introduces Cherry Pop, a sexy female who is menaced by the baddies, but – as a prostitute and stripper – understands the world of crime well enough to guide the book’s clueless but game protagonist through it.

Author Phil Beloin, Jr. goes Chandleresque
on our asses...
“You see some [exotic dancers] that are real skanky, man, not worth a dollar for nothing, but the redhead up there had something the others didn’t. Her skin was popping with freckles, the legs stretching long and hard, and that chest was mocking Sir Isaac.”

The description has just the right tone: the “real skanky” line is grounded solidly in the underworld Rich ends up groping through; the double negative (“not worth a dollar for nothing”) marks him as a working class hero – or at least someone unconcerned with how much his language influences those he encounters. 

Yet the reference to Newton makes it clear Rich is not a dummy – he at least is familiar with Sir Isaac’s theory of gravitation.

Similarly this one brief passage leaves the reader with an image of the heroine that tells us she’s not just another kooch artist. Her freckles make her seem younger and more innocent than the other dancers, but her other features portray her as highly attractive in the sexual sense.

Beloin’s writing is simple but brilliant in its way. It packs what could be a lot of expository prose into a single sentence stylishly, and in a fashion that pulls the reader into the story.

The plot develops in an unusual fashion. Rich has been tossed out of the apartment he shares with his father, an alcoholic cop. He is down to his last few pennies, so broke he can’t take Cherry up on her offer of commercial sex.

Instead he goes to a local mission to find a bed for the night, is attacked and escapes, but finds that his car has been stolen. At a diner he chances to meet Cherry again and she offers him a bed for the night. As the night rolls on, they raid the shelter where he was assaulted, uncover a body-parts theft artist, a mammoth meth lab, unmask the mastermind behind the phony homeless shelter and chance upon a considerable amount of money.

Like most hardboiled crime fiction, the novella lacks an ending that is conventionally “happy,” but there seems to be some hope that Rich and Cherry will emerge from their night-long ordeal better off than they were when it began.

While the story is rather savage, Beloin keeps the reader entertained by splashes of humor to lighten his story’s darkness.

For example, while running from his attackers, Rich momentarily considers seeking shelter in a motel. The desk clerk, however, looks almost as evil as the men he is trying to evade:

“He was a heavily tattooed metal head, probably had more hardware under the counter than what a SWAT team carried into a madman’s house,” Beloin writes. “I read his gaze. He was daring me to come in—dude, I haven’t seen any action in awhile. Let’s get it on, you stupid bastard. Try stealing yourself an energy drink and the drawer. Yeah, I’ll give both…barrels in the face, asshole. I kept on going. I thought I could hear him sigh through the glass. I had ruined his shift.”

And wait until you read how Rich eventually resolves his relationship with his father! It is hilariously perfect.

Considering how short this book is, Beloin manages to load it up with action, enjoyable plot twists, memorable characters and more than a few sepulchral laughs. It’s a perfect introduction to the New Pulp and it only takes a couple of hours to read.

This is one of the maiden titles by All Due Respect Press, the independent publishing house operated by Mike Monson and Chris Rhatigan, the publishers of one of the best crime mags on the market, All Due Respect. Monson (author of Tussinland) and Rhatigan (who wrote The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other) are no slouches when it comes to cranking out pulpish noir themselves. If the rest of their offerings are as good as Beloin’s tale, All Due Respect is going to satisfy a lot of crime fiction fans.