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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, March 27, 2015

A Tough but Funny Novel about Money, Murder -- and Daughters, Both Wanted and Unwanted

Gunning for Angels
(The Fallen Angels series)
By C. Mack Lewis
382 pages
(Cathleen A McCarthy; First edition July 29, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0990610802
ISBN-13: 978-0990610809

Private eye Jack Fox has a problem. He just can’t seem to keep his business end inside his pants, and winds up flopping into the sack with just about every female he meets.

But his overactive libido isn’t Jack’s real challenge. The thing that is turning his life inside out is the fact that Enid, the daughter that resulted from one of those one-night stands sixteen years earlier, has run away from her alcoholic mother and taken the Greyhound to Phoenix looking for the father she only recently learned she had.

For his part, Jack didn't even know Enid existed.

This is the situation at the beginning of Gunning for Angels, a fast-moving detective yarn by Lewis, a New Jersey native transplanted to Scottsdale, Arizona, who deftly juggles plot twists, humor and mayhem in this enjoyable debut novel.
The story involves unwanted children and a few that are wanted far too much for comfort.

Author C. Mack Lewis has written a private eye novel that is both tough and funny.

Lewis's character, Jack Fox, is a solo operator working out of a hole-in-the-wall office staffed only by his secretary receptionist. 

A Lothario from the get-go, Fox is described by Lewis as "not handsome enough for Hollywood but too handsome for his own good." Practically the only women in the story he doesn't get between his sheets are his daughter and the receptionist.

This lust-struck peeper is between clients when Enid, the result of his blast in the past, walks into his office, coat-tailing on a woman who wants to hire him to identify her birth mom.

The wannabe client thinks Enid is with Jack; Jack thinks she is with the client. In the confusion that results from this first meeting of father and daughter, Enid quarrels with Jack and ends up biting a hole in his arm before dashing off.

Eventually the two enter into an uneasy alliance. Jack, who was rejected by his own birth father, a cop and bigamist, can’t seem to work past his guilt at having a teenage daughter he’s never met. Enid, who is used to cleaning up her drunken mother’s messes, is distraught by her abandonment. 

Despite their mutual distrust and fear, they join forces and struggle to come to grips with what seems to be a simple parental abandonment case but turns out to involve trafficking in child prostitutes, pedophilia and fraud.

Oh, yes: and murder; lots of murder.

If this basic story line rings somewhat familiar, there’s a good reason: Ross MacDonald, author of the Lew Archer novels (The Chill, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Drowning Pool) made a career of writing books in which the mistakes of the past come come crashing up against the present in nasty and often lethal ways. 

MacDonald set his tales in Southern California; Lewis places them in Arizona. But like MacDonald’s The Moving Target, The Wycherly Woman and The Far Side of the Dollar, Lewis's novel, Gunning for Angels follows the time-honored rule of noir fiction: if you’ve done evil in the past, you can’t correct the problem or conceal it by doing more in the present.

The basic plot of Lewis’s book is pretty grim stuff, but she manages to serve it up with dashes of wit that leaven the violent and gruesome nature of the story. Just when you are beginning to think that Fox is a competent investigator and all-around cool guy, he hits a banana peel and does a pratfall – usually with his newly-acquired daughter looking on.

Case in point: in one scene Jack is boffing a client while Enid who has managed to sneak into the bedroom before him, hides in the closet, trying to keep from blowing her lunch. Good times!

And unlike the female partners in many detective yarns, Enid doesn’t exist just to be menaced by the villains. She is manhandled, abused and subjected to violence in the novel, but manages to escape on her own. In fact, she does at least as much to solve the mystery and obtain justice as her gumshoe dad does.

The characters in the book are all colorful and neatly rendered, particularly Jack and Enid. The action is plausible and the detective work described by the author seems reasonable – probably due to Lewis’s own past employment as a skip tracer, tracking down debtors who had fallen behind in their payments.

If I had to cite a negative, it would be that the relationship between the chief police detective in the novel and his rather shrewish wife seems a bit overdrawn; on the other hand, I have known couples who had some of the same types of disputes as this pair does – they simply were quieter about it.

Like many novels these days, there is also a tendency toward repetition in some passages. For example, at the beginning of the book, a death scene is described in which a “baby’s fist spasmodically beat[s] against the dead woman’s face, splattering rips and reams of blood in every direction of the tiny kitchen.”

Nearly three quarters of the way through the book, Jack finds the corpse described in the initial passage and picks up the infant, whose “tiny fists beat against him, splattering rips and reams of blood across his face as she wailed at full volume.”
I like the phrasing, but that’s a few too many rips and reams of blood being splattered for my comfort.

These are minor points, however. Offsetting them is the fact that Lewis has laced her novel with really fine writing that shows her eye for the telling detail and a facility for original language. It would have been easy to sketch the plot in a series of clich├ęs, using tired metaphors hundreds of other authors have used before. Instead, Lewis opted for originality and flare.

For instance, only a couple of sentences into her novel she gives us:

“Eyes full of empty stared upward as she lay sprawled out like some grotesque pin-up girl. An all-American beauty served up on cheap linoleum, a Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood spatter.”

“Eyes full of empty;” “A Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood splatter;” Now that’s writing. An author capable of turning two phrases like that in a single paragraph knows what she’s doing. What’s more, Lewis does it over and over again in spinning out her story.

She’s on top of things from the very beginning. I’m looking forward to her next novel already.

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