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. . .

Friday, May 30, 2014

Knock, Knock -- Who's there? Farrell and Kearns, Crooks Beware!

Sean Lynch
384 pages
( Exhibit A Books (a subsidiary of Angry Robot Press), April 29, 2014
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Last year, Sean Lynch hit the sweet spot with Wounded Prey, a swell little thriller that introduced Iowa Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Kearns and retired SF cop Bob Farrell.

The pair may not have followed the rule book -- though, heaven knows, Kearns tried -- but they still outmaneuvered the FBI nicely and managed to stop a very nasty serial killer in the process.

That was Lynch's first novel. I am delighted to say that Farrell and Kearns are back in The Fourth Motive, his most recent book, and they are after another cold-blooded killer, a man named Ray who has failed at just about everything important he has done in his life.

Ray lives with his drunken mother in a house that is ironically located near police headquarters in the island city of Alameda. He initially has only one target in his sights: Alameda County Deputy D.A. Paige Callen, whose father is a politically powerful Superior Court judge who has raised a fortune through shrewd investments.

The plot is fairly twisted but relatively easy to follow: Ray's motive involves a sexual assault and slaying that took place years earlier. To say much more about the story would risk spoiling it, because the real mystery here is not whodunit, but why.

Remarkably, Lynch accomplishes one of the most difficult things in crime fiction: by the end of the book, he has given us enough of the villain's back story and thinking to make the reason for his crimes understandable. Mind you, his reasoning is twisted and his actions are reprehensible, but at least the reader finishes with a clear notion of what has driven him to kill repeatedly.

Though the villain plans to make Callen suffer for something that occurred in the remote past, he runs up a remarkable body count in the process, killing four key characters at various points in the story and narrowly missing three others. Kearns, through good luck and excellent physical conditioning, avoids becoming one of those victims on three occasions.

The story is told in a stylish fashion, with plenty of local geographical references that should keep Bay Area residents happy. The investigation goes by fits and starts, largely because none of the major characters have a clue why the murderer started this crime spree.

We eventually find out. In the process we get a number of surprises, such as learning about a character's  villainy that Lynch does an excellent job of concealing until the book's conclusion.

And yes -- the touches of humor that made "The Wounded Prey" such a pleasure to read are present in this sequel. In the first book, for example, Farrell tries to win Kearns over and get him to join him as a private eye by repeatedly comparing their partnership to other notable duos:

"We belong together," Farrell said in one of those exchanges. "We're a team, you and me. Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Holmes and Watson."

"More like Gilligan and the skipper," Kearns said.

He does the same thing in The Fourth Motive: "That's the spirit," Farrell says toward the end of the book. "Don't forget: we're a team you and me . . . like Cisco and Pancho."

"More like Dracula and Igor," Kearns muttered.

Farrell, who has cast-iron genitalia and can break into a place looking for evidence like Raffles the gentleman thief, has spent his career watching evil-doers get away with it because of the imperfection of the law, so he thinks nothing of taking it into his own hands. He shows little hesitation in administering corporal punishment, though he takes no pleasure at dispensing his own form of rough justice.

After all, he and Kearns are the only barrier between their client and a psychotic killer who has been planning his wrongdoing for decades. With few exceptions, the police in this book are inept or twisted, sadists who shield their use of violence with their badges or use their authority to rob the taxpayers they are sworn to protect and serve.

Ex-cop Sean Lynch writes a solid thriller with a touch of humor.

 The only flaw in the book is Lynch's propensity for repetition. In the first novel, he frequently has key characters say they want to catch the bad guy because their earlier failure to do so allowed him to kill again. In this one, Farrell keeps mentioning the incompetence of the police and how they are hamstrung by rules, regulations and the law. We get the point the first time around; it doesn't need reiteration.

But the average reader will blow right past these repetitive passages because Lynch keeps the action coming hot and heavy.  It reads like New Year's Eve in East Oakland: every time the reader turns around, somebody else is firing shots.

This is definitely a five-noose special, and at only $1.99 for Kindle, it would be hard to imagine a better buy!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

That's the Way the Boo Bounces!

304 pages
(Tyrus Books; Jan. 18, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1440557675
ISBN-13: 978-1440557675
E-book via Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Bill "Boo" Malone and his buddy, "Junior" McCullough, grew up in an orphanage together, fighting off juvenile predators like a pair of musketeers. From this rough start they bonded and eventually became bouncers who run a business -- 4DC (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap) -- in Boston.

4DC isn't a private detective agency, security company or repossession outfit; basically the firm provides guided muscle to club owners who are anxious to keep the riff-raff from running a riff on their racket. 

In other words, 4DC cracks skulls and shows unwanted guests to the door. On occasion, it even throws guests through it.

We are literally talking a seat of the pants operation here, as you will see every time there is vomit, feces or blood to fall into: Malone and Junior still keep in touch with clients by beeper. Their office is in the basement of a seedy nightclub not far from Fenway Park. Like the Danny Trejo character, "Machete," They don't text. They also don't tweet or Facebook, and have to go to a brainy friend who did time with them at the orphanage to even use a computer.

Under normal circumstances, chucking out the trash is enough to keep them more than adequately busy and a week or so away from food stamps. But much to their surprise, when the local District Attorney's daughter runs away from home they find themselves hired to track her down.

The job means big money: $25,000 plus expenses, depending on how fast they work. There are two conditions, however: they aren't supposed to go to the cops and they are absolutely supposed to keep a lid on the girl's disappearance; the D.A., it turns out, is running for higher office and is worried that his wild-child daughter may queer his chances for election.

Keeping the story out of the prints may not be possible: the girl, Cassandra, has disappeared into the rabbit hole of kiddy porn, snuff movies, drugs and the Irish mob.

While our less-than-dynamic duo is looking for her, heads are cracked, some of them permanently; shots are fired, some of them fatally. Our heros are threatened, rousted by cops, worked over by crooks and hassled by pretty much anybody who walks by with an axe to grind.

They find there are really only two hard and fast rules in the missing persons business: (1) watch out for the bad guys; and (2) watch out even more carefully for the good guys, because they are going to turn out to be bad guys, too. 

The Hard Bounce is a first novel by Todd Robinson, the editor and impresario at Thuglit, an online mag that specializes in "writing about wrongs."

Todd (Big Daddy Thug) Robinson
It's a classic of its type, told in first person by Malone, a tough-guy's tough guy who can dish out punishment like Frank Castle, but takes it like any of the rest of us might: with copious quantities of blood, long periods of convalescence, gaping gunshot wounds and a skull that seems likely to shatter with the next gorilla's love tap.

Robinson, who is also known for his short fiction in such publications as All Due Respect # 1,and Danger City, offers plenty of hardboiled action in this first novel, as well as the kind of wise-ass dialog that always puts a grin on my face.

For example, of himself and his partner, Malone comments, "We were less bouncers than babysitters with a combined weight of 470 pounds (mostly mine) and about ten grand in tattoos (mostly Junior's)."

In describing an aimless game of after-work pool ("Fewer people got as much as we did for our four quarters. If one of our matches ended in less than a half-hour, we were unusually hot."), he notes "Junior viciously smacked the cue ball off the nine ball. With a hard clack the nine and the cue bounced off the rails and both dropped . . . Not only did he scratch, but he was playing solids."

Later he mentions a bartender at the club where he and Junior maintain their office: "Big, loud and with more brass than your average marching band, Audrey was something of a local legend."

And in recounting the drive to a meeting, he says "In case you didn't already know, Boston's streets are a wheel man's wet dream. Unlike in cities that were actually designed, Boston's planners simply paved over the old horse trails. There's never a simple route from point A to B. To get to B, you have to turn toward point N, bear left, head north past point square root of 173, back to N, then ask directions."

I don't want to mislead you: for a Boston crime novel, this is not on the same level as the best of George V. Higgins (see, for example, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) or Dennis Lehane's hair-raising Gone, Baby, Gone.

But it stands up quite nicely next to a lot of Robert B. Parker's Spenser stuff, which ain't too shabby. 

The criminals are interesting, the protagonists are both fun and funny, and the mayhem occurs frequently enough to satisfy the Raymond Chandler dictum, "when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." I'd give Robinson's first a four-and-a-half on the noose-o-meter. 

Sit down and enjoy it with a bottle of Sam Adams or a Narragansett Ale. It would be a good way to spend a few hours over this long labor day weekend.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Phnom Penh Swarms with the Ghosts of the Killing Fields in Aussie Thriller

335 pages
ISBN: 1484013735
Snubnose Press, Aug. 20, 2012
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

In Ghost Money, Andrew Nette's first novel, ex-cop Max Quinlan is caught between two worlds -- the one in which he was born, Southeast Asia, and the one where he was raised, Australia. It's a precarious place to be stranded, since the one world is filled with crooked politicians, brutal cops and Khmer Rouge thugs while the other's run by Aussies who have written Quinlan off due to his bungling of a Thai drug case.

The one thing both worlds have in common is "Ghost Money." On the Southeast Asian side, it is scrip that is printed to be burned when the dead are buried to clear up their survivors'  outstanding obligations to them. On the Australian side, it is a planeload of gold that crashed during the Vietnam War and is now avidly being sought by gangsters, corrupt officials and the raggedy remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Quinlan, the son of an Australian soldier and a Vietnamese woman, left the police in Australia after his screw-up in Thailand. He now works as a private detective, tracking down people "who don't want to be found," as he tells an associate.

But Quinlan is something of a ghost himself: his experience investigating the Thai drug market led to the hideous death of his partner, a Thai police officer. His psychic scars from the incident have left the former cop saddled with crippling guilt and unable to commit to much of anything.

He is hired to look for a man named Avery by the fellow's sister. Avery, he eventually learns, is an Australian businessman who fled to Thailand and Cambodia after stealing most of ten million in start-up cash for a fraudulent mining operation. But during the collapse of his gemstone business, Avery stumbled across clues to the whereabouts of the missing gold plane.

What's more, Quinlan is not the only person looking for the businessman. A drug dealer named Ray Mainwaring and his vicious Cambodian bodyguard, Vuth, are after the fugitive and so is a woman from the Australian security service named Rachel Hazard. Critical time factors are in play, bumping up the tension level: the old Khmer Rouge responsible for Cambodia's "killing fields" is falling apart, and if the gold is not salvaged before the coalition collapses, it may not be recoverable at all.

Quinlan needs to find Avery first in order to grab the gold for a pair of Cambodians, Sarin and his sister, Rachana, who need the money to escape from their war-ravaged country.  He also needs the psychological boost that bringing the case to a successful conclusion will give him. Without it he is doomed to continue his ghost-like existence, haunted by his brutal memories of the past.

Andrew Nette
Nette, one of the editors of Crime Factory, a cracking Australian magazine of noir and hard-boiled fiction, paints a picture of steamily exotic Indochina that will have the sweat pouring from your brow and your clothing plastered to your body. He does an excellent job of bringing Thailand and Cambodia into sharp focus without using a word that doesn't move his narrative forward.

The landscape he creates is populated by chiselers and crooks who are quick on the trigger-finger and heedless of how many innocent bystanders they mow down while trying to kill Quinlan and intimidate the few souls willing to help him.

Nette's economy at sketching a scene is remarkable. At one point he is recruiting a shady fellow named Bloom to assist his inquiries in Phnom Penh, and he comments on the men prowling the city for prostitutes:

"'Check out those two,' Quinlan motioned to his left where two Caucasian men in tight acid wash jeans and T-shirts were talking to a couple of bar girls, large backpacks at their feet. 'So keen to get laid they haven't even checked into a hotel yet.'"

At another juncture, he follows a pair of gangsters to a nightclub where they are going to meet some Khmer Rouge ruffians.

"Quinlan had no idea where the Las Vegas Club was, but the first [foot cab driver] he hailed did. It was a large building on Sihanouk Boulevard, another of the city's main thoroughfares. Four-wheel drives and motorbikes cluttered the footpath out front. A large notice at the entrance informed guests no guns, grenades, knives or cameras were allowed on the premises."

Sounds like a fun place to while away your leisure hours, doesn't it?

In another location, Quinlan observes a retail market in commercial lust. "He'd never seen sex sold so publicly or on such a scale. [Rue Pasteur] was one long open air brothel, shopfront after shopfront of beer bars and karaoke clubs, crude partitions visible to the rear, women -- many in pyjamas -- sitting on chairs out front. . . Father of bacteriology, Louis Pasteur, was no doubt spinning in his grave at having had his name bestowed on a street where germs were exchanged on a nightly basis with such impunity."

Nette handles the history of the wartime period neatly, letting various characters fill in the past by telling each other portions of the back story, just as they would in normal conversation. This keeps the historical material in digestible chunks while using it to maintain the flow of the narrative instead of bogging it down. The result is a story that winds on at a steady clip, explaining everything that needs to be clarified while giving readers more than enough grisly action to maintain their interest.

But Nette's real triumph is in filling his novel with a group of unique characters that are vivid and interesting, not one-dimensional mannequins that seem to melt together when the reader closes the book. Even minor characters who have few spoken lines -- none of which are in English -- come up off the page as living, breathing beings. It is a remarkable achievement.

Much crime fiction is geographically rooted, giving a sense of a particular area and the people who live there. The worst of the genre unfolds in settings that are so vague and indistinct the action could be happening just about anywhere.

Nette has managed to put his reader into the steaming and humid cityscapes of Thailand and Cambodia, a setting that most Americans would have difficulty imagining on their own. That alone would make Ghost Money worth reading. Add a solid and credible plot and a roster of villains for whom violence is second nature and you have a book that is truly remarkable.

Top it off with a hero who truly stands out from the crowd and you have something extraordinary. That's Ghost Money, a first-rate read that you would never guess was a first novel.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Splendid Novella About a Hold-up Man in the Mold of Don Westlake's Parker

By Mike Monson
130 pages
ISBN: 0692207252
Out of the Gutter Publishing; April 21, 2014
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

"In one scorching hot June afternoon Phil Gaines lost his wife, his partner and nearly $80,000."

Thus starts The Scent of New Death, a thriller by Mike Monson. If you can read that first sentence without going on to the next, you've got way more will power than I do.

Either that or you're a flat liner, waiting for the postmortem to begin.

If you decide you have to keep turning the pages, get ready for a shot of chalk in that fat vein on your left bicep: Gaines is a first cousin to Parker, the violent and obsessive heist artist created by master crime writer Donald Westlake. 

You know this Parker cat: Lee Marvin played him in Point Blank, the 1967 crime flick made from Westlake's novel, The Hunter; Mel Gibson repeated the role -- sort of -- in the 1999 version, Payback.

Parker is a robber and a damned good one, but the people he picks to work with almost invariably screw him out of his cut and try to kill him in the bargain. It's a big mistake: Parker has a rigid code of ethics -- screw him and he will track you to hell to get his share. And then he'll kill you.

If you like Parker, you are going to fucking looooove Phil Gaines.

Gaines is a bank robber -- and not the kind whose score consists of an exploding dye pack tucked into a few hundred bucks worth of marked bills.

Phil is a consummate big ticket thief: his scores are major, he doesn't leave traces and he doesn't get caught.

Despite the superficial similarities to Parker, author Mike Monson, a transplanted Central Valley resident who now lives in Hawaii and edits All Due Respect, a hard-boiled crime fiction journal, has created a truly original character in Gaines: a plain-Jane middle-aged thief who dresses like a schlub, looks as tame as a gerbil and could sit next to you on a Greyhound bus without you even noticing him.  

Author Mike Monson has created
a truly original character in Phil Gaines.
Monson's stick-up man has a good thing going, using Modesto, California as a base for robbing banks with his wheelman, a local crook named Jeff Sweet who gets his jollies whacking speed freaks.

Why Modesto? Simple: it's a middle-sized city big enough to hole up in without drawing attention, but not so large to have a load of cops. Also, while it looks like small town America, right down to the sign across the main drag that says "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health," it has its own criminal underclass -- gang members, motorcycle outlaws, crank cooks and thieves.

Modesto: Main Street U.S.A., but with speed freaks and outlaw bikers.

For Gaines, life is good.

But even a smart bank robber has an Achilles heel, and Phil's is Paige, a pothead cocktail waitress he runs into at a local supermarket. Paige's nipples get hard when she finds out Phil robs banks for a living, and Gaines falls for Paige in a major way, showering her with hooker get-ups and tying the knot after a courtship as short as a sidewinder's temper.

Unfortunately, Paige wants to be Bonnie Parker, sticking up banks with guns blazing and then gambling, snorting and smoking up the swag in Vegas. To Gaines, a good time is sitting zazen for several hours and meditating, the way he learned during his twelve-year jolt in the joint.

Things go sour when his new bride meets Sweet, a psycho who lives the type "A" criminal lifestyle Paige craves. The getaway man and adulteress immediately begin an affair as hot as Valley Fever. They not only cheat Gaines out of the money from his next bank job, but set a snare designed to leave him dead in the middle of a suburban slaughter for which he'll be blamed.

The couple's plan turns out to be long on hormones and low on IQ. A cat and mouse game unfolds in which Paige and Sweet try to trap the middle-aged bandit while he calmly plots to exterminate them like the nasty cockroaches they are.

The Scent of New Death is deftly paced, sucking the reader along in its slipstream like a kid on a ten speed being passed by a supercharged Camaro. The violence is quick and dirty and corpses pile up like cord wood as Phil matches wits with his antagonists.

The contest isn't remotely fair.

Although Gaines is nominally the hero of the book, these are all seriously bad people. The only innocents in the volume are an aging porn star, a teenage girl Sweet and Paige kidnap, and the clueless sheriff who is left to figure it all out.

But compared to the other no-goodniks, Phil is a saint: he kills only when necessary and takes no particular pleasure in letting blood. He also has no objection to it, and proves it without hesitation.

My one quibble is, Scent is billed as a novella. Weighing in at 130 pages, it looks, walks and smells like a full-dress novel to a guy who used to scarf down Dollar Mystery Guild hardbacks by the case load and rarely saw one much longer than Monson's.

But no matter. It's a pleasure to see illegal activity being practiced by people who are serious about it, and the characters in The Scent of New Death fill the bill nicely. This book will be a delight for real crime fans, and I am already looking forward to reading Monson's novella, "What Happens in Reno." 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Speed Kills -- And So Do the Streets of San Francisco

By Tom Pitts
321 pages
ISBN: 1496048873
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Snubnose Press, March 28, 2014
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

If you are a "chicken hawk" looking for a cheap lay, you hit up the Polk Gulch in San Francisco: youthful male prostitutes congregate in doorways and alleys, looking for cruisers with cash who want to pound a tight asshole or get their Johnson mumbled around in a young runaway's mouth.

Most of these rent-boys are on the hook, easing the misery of their pathetic existence by smoking crack or its blue-collar counterpart, methamphetamine, shooting smack or doing multi-drug doses like the cocaine-heroin speedballs that turned John Belushi into 200 pounds of inedible meat.

They lie, cheat and steal to get their daily fix. Some try to blackmail the marks they screw, looking for a big payday. Others work their Johns on a regular basis, seeking the modicum of security offered by a steady "date" who will give them enough to pay their rent and buy their dope.

Donny, the central character in Tom Pitts' excellent first novel, Hustle, is one of them.

Donny and his buddy, Big Rich, are Polk Street tricksters who are sick of The Life. Donny is tired of sucking wealthy commuters for rent and dope money; Rich has a wife and daughter in Oregon. Both want out, but can't figure a way to leave.

As Pitts puts it, "Donny and Rich's lives ground on in a short cycle of copping, getting high, turning tricks, hiding from the world, then getting sick. Their time was marked by hours, not days."

Author Tom Pitts
Their ticket out is a long-shot at best: Rich has an elderly sugar daddy named Gabriel Thaxton, a wealthy criminal defense lawyer who pays Big Rich to masturbate on him. Rich wants Donny to secretly shoot smart phone vids of Gabriel during one of these sessions and blackmail the lawyer for the money he needs to get off the street. 

Donny is dubious but has no better idea. Together, the pair prepares to hustle the older man.

But the two street boys, although shrewd and duplicitous, are bumblers who couldn't find their way out of a porn store video booth with all the lights turned on. They don't realize that Gabriel is already being blackmailed by a vicious psychopath and cold-blooded serial killer named Dustin.

Dustin, it turns out, is working his own scam to rip off the elderly attorney and won't let anything or anyone stand in his way. With Gabriel as his hostage, Dustin disappears.

The two rent boys end up reluctantly joining forces with a former outlaw Biker, Bear, who once was one of Gabriel's clients. Together, the trio explore the underbelly of San Francisco searching for the missing lawyer. The hunt leads them to drug houses, dope dealers, thieves and vermin-infested hotels that cater to the down-and-out.

It is a world that is interwoven, populated by low-life criminals whose lives revolve around drugs. As Pitts puts it, writing from Bear's point of view, "All these fucking tweakers seemed to know each other. Maybe they had clandestine union meetings at some dumpster in an alley someplace."

I spent more than 20 years covering crime in San Francisco for the morning daily, a lot of them in the Tenderloin. I've covered hustlers like Donny and Big Rich, killers like Dustin, dope dealers like "Doctor" Johnny Watson, bikers like Bear and criminal defense attorneys like Gabriel.

I can tell you from personal experience that  Pitts has written a book in which he gets everything exactly right; not only that, but he manages to make each of the characters in his story a distinct individual with his own figures of speech, philosophical outlook, back story and personality.

For example, when Rich raises the idea of blackmailing Gabriel, Donny expresses skepticism and the following exchange takes place:

"I thought you said it was a bad idea [Donny said]. That it never worked out."

"Aah," Big Rich held up his finger, "this time we do it right. We get in-convertible evidence. So it's not just my word against theirs."

"Incontrovertible," said Donny.


"Incontrovertible, that's the word."

"Bullshit. That's not how you say it."

"It is. Convertibles are cars."

The hustle that Donny and Big Rich attempt seems credible, as does the scam that psycho killer Dustin is working. The violence in the story is believable. Pitts does a good job of breathing life into his two dope-fiend hustlers and when the story shifts to the point of view of the elderly defense attorney Gabriel, he actually captures the attitude and fear of a much older man.

The novel is steeped in an atmosphere of menace and the pacing is just about perfect: I read more than three-quarters of the story in one three-hour stretch, riveted to my Kindle, unwilling to quit until I reached the very end.  

And the ending is perfect, offering just a trace of optimism while making it clear our central character is probably going to screw up again, despite his desire to live a normal life.

Hustle is one of the best noir novels I have had an opportunity to read in recent years. I am looking forward to Pitts' next book with excitement.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Pulp Fiction That's Damned Hard to Beat

Beat to a Pulp, 
Edited by David Cranmer

Before I got hired by the San Francisco Chronicle, I spent a year writing for Argosy and Saga, two of the old-fashioned men's pulp magazines that dated back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Growing up in a Kitt mobile home as a blue collar kid, I read a lot of the articles and short stories those two mags (and their counterparts True, Male and Cavalier) served up each month.

I used to call them, "hairy-chested men's magazines" to differentiate them from "bare-breasted men's magazines" such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler.

Their cover art and general orientation was consciously aimed at the testosterone brigade and often featured rugged fellows in khaki using machetes to hack their way through jungles or tricked out in SCUBA equipment and spear guns to face impossibly large tiger sharks.

But if you actually read their contents carefully, the main thing that set these titles apart from Reader's Digest, Colliers the Saturday Evening Post and Look was the square jawed artwork and masculine topics they explored.

They actually ran general interest fiction -- western stories, crime tales, the occasional horror yarn and science fiction piece -- that wasn't exclusively oriented toward men; they did travel articles that, once you removed the superheated prose that made a visit to Denmark sound like a cruise up the Zambezi, could have appeared in the Sunday rotogravure section of your daily newspaper.  

All of which is a long-winded way to say they were pretty much like the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And, in the case of Cavalier, Saga, True and Argosy, they were actually their direct descendants.

I have just spent three weeks digging through examples of the electronic pulp publications that have appeared in the last few years, courtesy of the E-book: 

*Thuglit, a cybernetic mystery magazine most like the Black Mask of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Hughes; 

*Blood & Tacos, which satirizes knuckle-dragging pulp heros such as The Destroyer, the Death Merchant and the Executioner of the 1970s and 1980s; 

* Beat to a Pulp, which we review this week.

In addition, I have been looking at anthologies of stories from Shotgun Honey and Crime Factory, two other electronic pulp publications. I conclude, based on what I have been reading, that the pulp tradition is alive and well.

Of these 'Zines, Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled is the closest to the pulps I wrote for. The three "hardboiled" issues I examined have two western yarns ("Hard Time" by Tom Roberts and "The Wicked" by Edward Grainger, a nom de plume for BTAP editor David Cranmer), a space opera ("Down, Down, Down, Burns, Burns, Burns" by Jedidiah Ayres), a couple of Vault of Horror style tales of terror ("It's Coming" by Jen Conley and "A Small Thing at the Devil's Punchbowl" by Kent Gowran), and several violent hillbilly thrillers (e.g.: "Black Eyed Susan" by Thomas Pluck and "Gunpoint" by Fred Blosser).

In addition, Volume One contains what I consider to be one of the best essays on the pulp sensibility I have read, "Introduction: Hard Times," by Ron Scheer, himself a writer of Noir Westerns.

Scheer notes that the initial rise of pulp corresponds with the collapse of the progressive movement and the onset of World Wars One and Two. These societal shifts gave rise to public cynicism about democratic institutions, the legitimacy of governmental and corporate authority, and the undermining of traditional moral strictures.

"The new order now revealed in fiction [was] corrupt, hypocritical and complacently indifferent to the consequences," he writes. "The bleakness of that vision found expression in a break from literary styles that had served the past. Others no doubt preceded them, but Hemingway's and Hammett's influence was profound and is still felt today."

The terse, tough and anomic style has enjoyed a renaissance, Scheer says, because the conditions that gave rise to the original pulp fiction are back.

"Government and the media are unduly influenced by big corporations," Scheer writes. "We hover on the brink of economic collapse. International relations are confounded by terrorism and loose nukes. Public trust is abused right, left and center. Our government, we're told, is broken, while the rich get super-rich and the poor get poorer."

"Reading hardboiled fiction written today . . . we see reflected the same conditions that gave birth to hardboiled fiction almost a century ago. No surprise that hardboiled has found a renaissance among a new generation of writers. Like its antecedents, it is partly escapist and tongue in cheek. But read the news, and try to believe it's not a fitting response to the new normal."

David Cranmer

Almost all the stories contained in these volumes demonstrate Scheer's point. The main characters -- even the protagonists -- operate outside the traditional moral code. Authority figures are corrupt. The actions they take are dark and cynical, shrouded in an atmosphere of doom. The language is blunt and sometimes crude, as befits the underlying philosophy it expresses.

For example, in "Vengeance on the 18th" by Beat to a Pulp editor Cranmer, the owner of a golf course takes revenge against a close friend for sleeping with his wife. Unfortunately his shot ends up in a bunker -- and there are no Mulligans in this match.

".38 Special," a terse little tale by Amy Grech, author of The Art of Deception, is a nice piece about a man who's lucky at love and even luckier at Russian Roulette. He shoots his load, then his lover shoots hers -- with lethal results.

In Garnett Elliott's "The Tachibana Hustle," a pair of Yakuza who work for an aging Japanese mob boss try to hijack a warehouse filled with the PAC Man machines that are putting their Oyabun out of business.

There is an excellent showdown in which one of the Kobun (underlings) parallels the action in the videogame while fighting off several foes, complete with a pit stop for narcotic and methamphetamine "power pellets" that give him the ability to overcome his rivals.

When the dust settles, of course, the Oyabun's plan to monopolize the PAC man video game business goes awry.
These stories are all excellent. Much of the writing is as good as anything produced by the historical masters of the pulp genre. Thus, "The Speed Date" by Kieran Shea, author of the hardboiled sci-fi mash up Koko Takes a Holiday, is as breezy as the hook-up it takes its name from, and ends with a slick twist that will leave you with a sadistic smile on your face.

And "Doe in Headlights" by Patricia Abbott, author of Home Invasion, has some truly memorable lines, including this one:

"The same night they had sex for the first time. She could still smell Ruthie on his sheets. And it wasn't perfume since Ruthie didn't wear any. Ruthie on the Sheets, as she thought of that scent, was soon replaced."

The Beat to a Pulp anthologies are excellent starter fare for those interested in hardboiled crime fiction and noir. The tales are lively, well-plotted and entertainingly written; since the collections range in price from only 99 cents to $2.99, they are as inexpensive as any first-rate electronic literature currently available.

Best of all, they give you a chance to sample a host of new writers without getting bogged down in novels that you may end up disliking. That was the case for me -- after reading their short pieces, I ended up buying longer books by Chris Holm, Abbott and Hilary Davidson.

Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled, is hard to beat, Pick up one of these collections and you will see why. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Rio" Has a Hero with a Hard Heart and a Harder Head

A Man From Rio
By Shayne Youngblood
Approximately 94 pages
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

To paraphrase Rod Serling, imagine if you will, a country in which criminals control entire neighborhoods, narcotics are the basis of financial transactions, the police are corrupt and venal, and normal people survive by trying their damnedest to ignore the rampant criminality around them.

No -- we aren't referring to the United States, although the description could easily apply to a number of communities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

We are talking about Brazil, a nation in which the national obsession is soccer, the national preoccupation is cosmetic surgery, criminality is a way of life and poverty exists alongside luxury like nowhere else on earth.

It is the setting for A Man from Rio, Shayne Youngblood's excellent bit of noir, in which the central character searches fruitlessly for his young lover, a college-age Brazilian woman who has disappeared during a road trip through the Amazon back country.

Shayne Youngblood

Youngblood's book is one of those rarities -- an international thriller that gives the reader an actual feeling for its foreign setting. It is not likely to be offered by the nation's Tourist and Convention Bureau as an advertisement for a "Visita o Brasil" campaign, however.

The author, who has spent time in Brazil, uses his first-hand familiarity with the country to paint a grim picture of shanty towns in which the primary industry is vice, splattered across a background of gleaming beaches, high-end bars and a steaming jungle perfect for concealing evidence.

A Man from Rio is like a Ralph Steadman caricature of tour-group Brazil, only with blood in the splatters instead of black ink.

Like all first-rate noir, an atmosphere of doom pervades the novel. The novel begins with our hero -- whose background is sketchy and whose name seems to change depending on who is trying to murder him -- being assaulted for his cash by a street thug.

A short time later he encounters a teenage pickpocket who robs him.

Our protagonist runs the youth down, lectures him and then, in a moment of weakness, buys him lunch. When they part, he realizes the kid has taken his wallet, anyway.

Soon afterward, the protagonist is enlisted by a friend to ride shotgun while the man tries to find the body of his murdered brother. The mission ends when he is clubbed senseless by crooked policemen who want the dead to remain undiscovered.

The incidents serve as a metaphor for the amorphous omnipresence of Brazilian evil and the futility of trying to do anything about it. By the end of the book, the reader realizes there is no herbicide for the weed of crime, even though our anti-hero seems to think one is possible.

Youngblood's book gave me a headache: every time his protagonist turns around, some thug cracks him in the skull with a hard, blunt object. If he isn't being knocked out, he is being chased, cut or beaten like timbales during Carnival.

The action is hot and heavy, almost in the form of a collection of vignettes organized into a coherent story-line by the anti-hero's efforts to hustle some cash and his search for the missing woman. 

Youngblood is a practitioner of a form of literary minimalism, in which he sketches scenes briefly and suggestively and lets the reader fill in the blanks:

Flav said, "If you need a plastic surgery, it's free for you. I need practice."

Flav'd studied plastic surgery, hoping to get rich by pumping silicon in butts in his father's cosmetic and reconstructive surgery clinic.

"I need a boob job, I let you know."


After lunch and a few drinks, Daniel said he was taking a group of tourists on a favela tour. He wanted me to come along.

"It's been pacified."

"Pacified" meant that, instead of drug lords, the favela was now controlled by crooked cops.

The book ends much as it began: abruptly and violently, without clear resolution. The doomed loser who is the book's central character survives, but barely, and his future looks bleak. 

What is clear is that the brutality that surrounds him will go on, whether he does or not.