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. . .

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll -- and Anarchy -- in a Nation in Decline

The Triangle
By J. Buck Williams
221 pages
(Gutter Books; April 3, 2015)
eBook:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: The Triangle didn’t blow up the Pike Place Pig. Buck has his suspicions about who did, but the evidence is largely circumstantial.

On the other hand, there’s no question the band was responsible for the arson fire at The Rocket, Seattle’s premiere rock dive. And they blew up the millionaire’s yachts at the Anacostia Marina just outside D.C.  And helped spread trimethyl-L-triptophan 47, the illegal drug known to users as “Zone.” And they did shoot down the National Guard helicopter in Cleveland and destroy the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The band's cryptic logo: an equilateral triangle happy face smoking a spliff, , , 

Let’s see Nirvana beat that. It’s not a bad record for a four-member punk group from Seattle – almost as good as Nevermind!

The Triangle is a book about the exploits of the group and its rise from anonymity to . . . well, to anonymity.

The band’s middle-aged leader, Buck (he just happens to have the same name as the book’s author, J. Buck Williams) has held a variety of jobs, but keeps returning to music as his first love, despite his lack of success as the front man, singer and lyricist for a variety of groups.

Author Joe Buck Williams
He despises those he knows who have adopted dull middle-class lifestyles with the requisite SUV in the driveway, the pool in the back yard and the kids underfoot. He will either succeed on his own terms or fail so spectacularly he will at least become a footnote in musical history.

“All at once, I saw my choices laid out in front of me,” he says at one point in the book. “You could sell out and end up with enough money to want more, but never enough to be at ease. You could maintain your dignity and toil in poverty for the rest of your life. Or you could pick your fight and be so loud that they couldn’t ignore you. I decided I’d be the loudest of them all.”

Through sheer luck, he finds himself thrown together with several much younger musicians. At least two of them appear to have more raw musical talent than Buck. As an aggregate, the quartet has the kind of sound that catches the casual fan’s ear while firing the serious fan’s imagination. 

The band becomes a huge – if unlikely – hit. Its success is pointed up by the fact that the country is quickly flooded by bootleg copies of its first set: a low-fi recording of its performance at an anarchist gathering in Seattle’s Pikes Place Market that turns into a disastrous riot.

The Triangle’s involvement in the riot and a subsequent series of violent acts not only puts the group on the music lover’s map, but also squarely on the FBI’s radar.

The band makes its way to Southern California, the desert of the Southwest, Texas, the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. On the road, they meet rowdy roadies, band chicks, dope dealers, cookers and lifestylers and a group of drug-addled followers who seem a lot like Deadheads – if Deadheads all had felony rap sheets. Even a group of mercenaries hired to provide the band with security ends up in the shit by trading in illicit firearms.

At the same time, Buck’s anti-establishment lyrics aim to foment red revolution: The Triangle’s music is a scathing critique of consumerism, conventional politics, corporate culture and the one percent.

Despite the hijinks, the rather open criminality and the front man’s downer political prognosis, The band’s popularity and notoriety grow steadily. The tour comes to a head in Cleveland, where an unadvertised Triangle concert is surrounded by police and federal agents, National Guard helicopters buzz the crowd and all hell breaks loose.

To say anything more would be the spoiler to end all spoilers.

Don’t get me wrong: The Triangle doesn’t simply consist of one grim incident followed by another. Williams recognizes that even the most depressing message is more likely to stick with a reader if it is served up with a smile or two.

The smiles offered by the book are plentiferous.

At one point, for example, Williams counts off the various instruments and the contribution they can be expected to make in the hands of the right musician.

“A bass is limited by the low register it’s stuck in and its necessary role as a bridge between
the other instruments. A drum kit may be more or less elaborate, but it always sounds exactly as good as the person playing it, with no way to hide insufficient practice or talent. A sax sounds like a sax. A cello sounds like a cello. Keyboards sound like limp dick unless they were manufactured before 1983. Bagpipes sound like hell. Ask Bon Scott.”

Later, Buck’s ex-wife Anastasia recognizes his voice when he and his crew sweep a group of imposters from the stage at a nightclub and take over. Knowing the band is wanted for blowing up the Pike Place Pig, she threatens to turn him in unless he writes a song about her and records it. He does, but it isn’t exactly a romantic serenade:

She’s the only woman that I ever knew
who could smile even when she was crying.
She hated her nose and she hated her hair,
but she never ever gave up trying.
We slept in the same bed for five long years;
it was meaningless, shallow, and blunt.
She always washed her hands before mixing a drink,
my beautiful Campari Cunt.

In the final pages, Buck tries to summarize why rock is important. The passage goes on for most of three pages and ends with this: “You think it’s about vinyl. Sex. Fashion.
Drugs. Death. Bombs. Guitars. Love. Rockets. Amps. Candles. Triumph. Warfare. Excess. Mayhem. Chaos. Disorder. Anger. Loudness. Bass. Guitar. Drums. More guitar. Always more guitar! You can never have too much guitar.”

While the descriptions of the band, its life on the road and its followers are frequently humorous, it is clear that author Williams has wrapped them around a serious analysis of a U.S. society in utter decline.

As he says in his prefatory remarks, “I wrote this book in 2008 and 2009, when it seemed like the country was collapsing. Things aren’t quite as dire as they were then, but for most of us, the world hasn’t changed all that much. The middle class is still hollowed out and suffering, even though company profits have returned to record highs. The economy is still crummy, despite a lower unemployment rate (caused in part by so many discouraged workers giving up). Politicians are still useless, bordering on hostile. We’re not exactly at war in Iraq any more, but things are heating up in the Middle East again and you’d have to be a fool to assume we’re going to sit on the sidelines.

“These are the themes I set out to describe and explore, and sadly they’re just as relevant today as they were then.”

Maybe when you set aside Buck’s anarchy, his critique of corporate culture and his conviction that Twentieth Century life is empty and meaningless, the book’s message is really very simple. As Buck puts it, “There are people in this world, in your world, who do not live for anything else. Playing rock and roll music is all we want to do, and all we can do that makes sense to us. It’s beyond desire, beyond addiction.”

Williams has written a righteously enjoyable book here. There is enough criminal activity in it to satisfy a hard-boiled fan, enough cynicism about the social structure of the U.S. to fuel a rebellion and enough humor to tie the other ingredients together into a satisfying whole.

Take it from me, if you like rock ‘n’ roll, ever played in a band good enough to tour, spent any time in a recording studio or ran from the feds, you should like this book.

Hell, the only instrument I play these days is an iPod and I thought it was swell.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An American Even Uglier than the One Burdick and Lederer Wrote About

By Lisa Brackmann
311 pages
(Soho Press; 2012)
ISBN 978-1-61695-071-2

Michelle Mason is taking a break from clearing up her late husband’s messy business affairs in Puerto Vallarta when she meets Daniel, a fellow American who says he flies charters for rich clients. A romance blooms and she is in the sack with her new friend when two masked thieves attack.

This is the set-up for Getaway, a novel about narcotrafficantes, crooked cops and the American enablers who make the multi-billion dollar drug trade possible.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Michelle’s husband was a crook who ripped off his real estate development clients and pissed away the cash he stole. We learn about America’s direct involvement in drug imports and the unscrupulous agencies responsible for it. We are educated in the flagrant corruption of the Mexican authorities – and the ways in which U.S. officials encourage it. 

And we find out Michelle’s new boyfriend, Daniel, is a player of some sort in the drug smuggling business and has run afoul of another sketchy American, Gary, who either gives him his orders or works for those who do.

Out of thousands of books about drug trafficking, there are two things that put Getaway in a class by itself. One of them is that it places American officialdom at the center of the illegal international drug market.

Most novels set in the world of drug dealers make Americans the good guys: earnest boy scouts out to end narcotics trafficking forever; in Getaway, however, the Americans are enablers and participants in the drug trade. Gary, the éminence grise of the novel, works for an unnamed U.S. agency and is trying to keep the jaded and reluctant Daniel in the narcotics racket.

He clearly has ties to government officials inside and outside the U.S. and is capable of inserting himself into the most delicate personal affairs of the Americans he meets. 

Brackman, the author of Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, both set in China, lets us know that Gary is involved in the drug world right up to his eyeballs, which means that at one level, at least, U.S. policy favors the brutal savagery of the cartels. 

He uses his shadowy connections to have Michelle arrested for drug smuggling, manipulates her personal finances to control her movements and actions, and has her passport seized by the authorities. He also cunningly warns her against telling the U.S. consulate about her situation and subtly uses force to blackmail her into spying on Daniel and others

The book is reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film in which a common citizen must battle a complex conspiracy he or she doesn’t understand. If Michelle doesn’t learn who is doing what and why, she will either end up in a Mexican prison or dead in the Puerto Vallarta landfill.

Brackmann makes it clear that no one cares about Gary’s activities or involvement in international crime. Unspoken is the fact that he is operating with the connivance of both U.S. and Mexican authorities. 

Author Lisa Brackmann

In the average drug thriller, dope dealers are brutes and American officials are trying to wipe them out; in Getaway, the Americans are at least as vicious and unprincipled as the narcotics smugglers and the corrupt Mexican officials that protect them.
The disconnect between American ideals and practical action is made even more disturbing by the fact that Gary is neither a monster nor some mindless fascist bureaucrat who is "just following orders."

Instead he is portrayed as a capable and intelligent fellow: an excellent judge of human character and a man with a sense of humor -- though possibly a little twisted in his concept of what is funny and what isn't. 

He is, in fact, the kind of American contractor who wins praise from his supervisors for demonstrating initiative under challenging circumstances. Let's just forget that sometimes -- think Blackwater, here -- those contractors don't follow the Boy Scout credo.

Carefully hidden in this novel’s plot is a real life history lesson: Brackmann makes it clear that the U.S. government has been involved in international drug smuggling at least since the Indochina conflict. She does a first-rate job of bringing that involvement forward to the present, including a neatly delivered summary of how in the 1980s the Central Intelligence Agency helped smuggle Central American cocaine to finance illicit arms sales to the government of Iran.

To her credit, she finds a way to make this backstory medicine go down without effort, largely by having a specific character impart critical information about it to Michelle during a key conversation that sets up later developments in the plot.

Aside from its willingness to examine American drug trafficking, the other thing that sets Getaway  apart from many similar adventure yarns is the grit of the main female character, Michelle. The woman, plunged into a perilous situation, is beaten, attacked and abandoned in a garbage dump littered with drug war corpses, threatened with guns and subjected to a variety of other horrors that would frighten the average person into silence. Still she finds the gumption to fight back.

Not only is Michelle tough and resilient, but she has a first-rate brain. She retains her skepticism about everyone who fails to earn her trust, despite her desperate circumstances.  She moves through the novel with both eyes open, leery of everyone around her, watching for snares and traps that could put her and her family’s lives at risk.

The suspense builds from page one, the characters are crisp and sharply drawn and the plot, while labyrinthian, is plausible and riveting. Even better, Brackmann has a penetrating eye for the sharp detail that sells a character or setting, helps to build tension or does all three at once. 

For example, shortly after Daniel is assaulted, Michelle realizes their cell phones may have been switched by the intruders. She goes looking for him and obtains his apartment address through a bit of clever detective work. When she finds his flat, she enters, fumbling her way through the gloom.

Her eyes adjusted. It wasn't really dark. There was enough light seeping through the curtains, from the open door.

The living room. This was the living room. It was simple, hardly anything in it. A couch. A chair. A television. A coffee table.

On the coffee table was something dark, an oval shape with protrusions she couldn't make out. The thing almost seemed to shimmer, as though its lines were mutable, fluid, shifting ever so slightly.

She approached the table and a cloud of flies rose from the object.

A head.

The greater the pressure Gary, drug dealers and Mexican police bring to bear, the sharper Michelle’s tongue becomes. By the last third of the book, her anger at being used as a spy and cats-paw is palpable.  As a consequence, the book’s denouement is swift and violent, though not in a way the reader might have expected.

I heard author Brackmann at a Left Coast Crime forum last month on the growing role of crime novels as a vehicle for exploring social problems. 

The discussion was fascinating, but when the main presentation was over, I found myself wondering why crime writers concentrate on trailer trash, penny ante crooks and drug abusers as major characters in their books instead of writing about big-time corporate and government criminals like the people who poison the environment, corrupt our political system and rob our retirement funds with obvious frauds like the “derivative” schemes that nearly destroyed the economy in the early 2000s.

When I posed that question to the panelists, it seemed to take Brackmann aback. “That’s who I write about,” she said.

At that point I knew I had to give Getaway a try. And Brackmann, it turns out, is just as good as her word: she writes here about U.S. government corruption clearly and convincingly, focusing on criminals who are often overlooked because they are simply following our country's official policies. 

Getaway is a first-rate novel -- crisp, sharp and full of disturbing action sequences that will give you pause before you mail that check to the Internal Revenue Service next week. If you decide to hold onto your money, however, be sure not to buzz it around; you could end up the victim of some duplicitous bastard like Gary, facing trumped-up criminal charges or an anonymous grave in a Mexican garbage dump. 

In other words, you might wind up another example of our tax dollars at work. . . 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mosh it Up! This Slam-Dance is a Slam Dunk for Readers Who Like Characters with Flair, Originality and a Gift of Gab

Mosh it Up!
By Mindela Ruby
236 pages
(Pen-L Publishing; Oct. 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1940222702
ISBN-13: 978-1940222707

Let’s get this straight from the Jump: Mosh it Up!, Mindela Ruby’s terrific first novel, probably really doesn’t belong among the hard-boiled, noirish novels I normally review because it really isn’t a book about crime.

Not unless you count the child molestation; the rapes; the sexual battery; the DUIs; the hit-and-run; the credit card fraud; the drug abuse; or the grand theft auto.

The book is actually a novel Dorothy Parker might have written had she still been alive in the late 20th Century and deeply into the North Oakland punk scene.

Mosh it Up! is all about a 23-year-old can of macadamia nuts named Dickenson Park whose friends (and enemies) call her Boop. In it, we learn:

  •                  Boop is a scatterbrain.
  •                  Boop is a flirt (and how).
  •                  Boop is irresponsible to the nth degree and seems determined to stagger through life in a haze of tequila fumes, casual drugs and low blood sugar.
  •                  Boop is a whole hell of a lot smarter than she realizes, but is so unfocused that she seems ditzy.
  •                  Boop is cute – a male friend tells her late in the book that she “cleans up nice” – but lacks confidence and has so little self-esteem that she wastes her considerable charms and ready wit trolling for violent meatheads who should be sitting on a porch in some Southern backwater, drooling toothlessly while they pluck on a five-string banjo.

Mosh it Up! is really about Boop’s struggle to escape the wreckage of her past, learn what she can from it and move forward. It’s like body surfing the crowd at a punk performance, getting banged around in the slam-dancing area that gives the novel its name, sucking up the excitement of the experience, but emerging relatively intact when the music stops.

I’m a crime guy by preference and, despite the various illegalities and hijinx it contains, Ruby's book is not about crime per se. There's no murders, no capers, no getaways or tense interrogation by the cops in a darkened squad room fitted with a two-way mirror. Because of the lack of felonious behavior, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first got a copy of Mosh it Up! 

I needn’t have worried: the novel turned out to be a complete delight to read.

The book unfolds in first person with Boop herself as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Ordinarily I am not crazy about stories about counterculture characters because nothing becomes pass√© faster than contemporary slang. Usually when one of those obnoxious phrases like “you GO girl!” slips into a piece of prose, it tells me a hell of a lot more about the author than about the character who is supposed to be saying it. What’s more, none of what it tells me is good.

Ruby doesn’t put 1990s slang in her characters’ mouths. Boop speaks in puns and wisecracks, spinning out her characters’ comments in fully rounded sentences that seem like normal speech until you realize she is twisting words, serving up Spooneresque renderings, Malapropisms and other jokes aimed at people who have a functioning brain and some understanding of the larger world beyond their doorstep.

She not only does this well, but disguises the fact she is doing it. She is like a skilled magician who manages to pull endless scarves out of her sleeve. It isn’t until you put her book aside that you realize the reason Boop’s words sound wholly fresh and original is because they actually are!

For example, during a visit to an associate’s apartment toward the novel’s end, she asks the man she finds living there to feed the cat. In response, “Steve’s friend drops his smoke in a beer bottle and ring-tabs a Feline Feast can open.”

“Ring-tabs?” A verb I’d never heard before! It describes an action familiar to anyone who has ever fed a cat (or opened one of those belchy cans of American fizz-water Anheuser Busch insists is beer), but does it in a distinctive way. This sudden appearance of a familiar action described in a unique manner forces the reader to visualize the act, making the narrative cleaner, stronger and more memorable.

The pages of Mosh it Up! are peppered with these creations. Ruby sneezes out so many of them I eventually stopped trying to keep track:

“With my shades on, it’s dark-and-a-half outside.”

“When we got there, the scene looked poky, and Bridgit wanted to leave. But after paying thirteen bucks, I said let’s see if this party improvifies.”

“Networking, baby. Wait ’til we’re the indie chart toppers with people falling all over themselves to meet us. I’m keeping a list of the ignoranuses that blow me off. When my chance comes, I’ll deep-freeze them.”

(I’m particularly fond of ignoranus, a compound of two words that communicates a meaning clearer and better than either of its components. I plan to start dropping it into conversations myself – particularly those involving elected officials in Washington D.C.)

Mindela Ruby: A new Dot Parker?
Her playful way of using language isn’t the only thing about Ruby that reminds me of Parker; her mordant humor is another, particularly when she is writing about her character’s frequently unfortunate sexual escapades. When Boop talks about sex and the men she pairs with, a lot of the words Ruby puts in her mouth are just laugh-out-loud funny.

Not that her liaisons are a laughing matter. She is a magnet for truly awful men – brutes and morons with a sadistic edge. One cretin she picks up in a bar nearly breaks her nose during a “romantic” interlude and later knees her in the crotch during another rut-fest. As she puts it succinctly, “Even though I’ll be sorry afterward, I let the prick I’m with do anything for a thrill.”

In an effort to avoid these unsatisfying and frequently violent unions, Boop joins a twelve-step group for sex addicts, but finds most of her fellow glandular obsessives boring, crazy or annoying. One of the latter is a hapless schnook named Dales, who turns his “confessions” about his hyperactive genitalia into thinly disguised boasting.

After one session in which Dales complains of an inability to get enough poon, Boop lapses into reflection  about the loathsome Lothario’s physical appearance.

“His face reminds me of a crotch— pubic-y whiskers, receding chin,” she says of this compulsive wanker. “Bowing his head, he could kiss his own neck. He should. Someone here said we need to be gentle with ourselves.”


"It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word."

Another of her step-mates is Samuela, “a beady-eyed brunette with a morbid aura hanging over her like polder fog.”  Ruby’s description of Samuela’s witness during a sexual addiction meeting had me laughing so hard I awakened my wife sleeping next to me:

“She must be wearing a wig since— Lord, have mercy— the pelt jolts like a hank of fake fur each time she scratches her eyebrow,” Boop cattily observes. “The poor girl’s sweating prayer beads, trusting you’ll hear her pleas— Higher Power, Allah, Jehovah, Big Kahuna, Jesus, whoever’s up there. Obviously, she thinks about you all the time, the way love junkies obsess about stankie,”

Boop drily adds, “She’s awaiting your coming.”

Shaking the Serta with hysterical guffaws at three in the morning is definitely NOT likely to endear you to your bed mate!

Boop appears incapable of concentrating on anything but glands and bands – particularly her own. It is clear early on that the group she manages, “Up the Wazoo,” is going nowhere but Boop keeps trying to resuscitate the act.

“They’re looking for excuses to 86 me, aren’t they?” she says of the group in a moment of uncharacteristically self-aware reflection. “The one person who wants them to be real with the music! Isn’t that why they threw me out?”

Later Boop reflects on her rejection – by the band, her friends and her latest loutish paramour. “I felt completely unwanted,” she says. “Up the Wazoo, Stoney, Randolph, Tiny had pushed me away in succession.”

The Nation Magazine once described Dot Parker’s poetry as “a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity." As these examples should show, Ruby’s prose has a similar luster.

If Boop, alone, was the only character Ruby brought to life this way, Mosh it Up! would still be well worth reading;  but she isn’t. Ruby gives Boop an elderly female neighbor to care for: Sada Pollard, a kindly but acerbic soul who happens to be dying from a degenerative disease that slowly squeezes the air from her lungs. Sada is as sharply drawn as Boop, with her own speech patterns, mannerisms -- even a strange clucking sound she makes when she struggles to breathe.

Stoney, the promoter who books “Up the Wazoo,” for a big show, is given similar treatment, as are Emmie and Roxanne, two women Boop meets at a twelve-step gathering. Even Bridgit, Tess and Angie, the three snarky punk rockers Boop “manages,” are fully developed characters.

Ruby spices her novel with enough description to keep the reader racing through the narrative, but not so much that it bogs the story down. The tale is actually fairly straightforward and simple, the kind of thing that could be summarized in a sentence or two. But Ruby’s fine writing stretches out the reader’s enjoyment for more than 200 pages.

It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word.

To maintain the breakneck pace and goad the reader to continue, she has pieced the overall story together like a scrapbook, with shopping lists, scenes from an imaginary cable TV movie about Boop’s life, collections of fun facts – even a newspaper clipping. It’s the sort of stuff you might find on Boop’s mostly empty refrigerator, held in place by a Siouxsie and the Banshees magnet.

I enjoy a lot of the stuff I read and review for this blog, but books that I actually find exciting are rare enough to surprise me. Mosh it Up! is definitely one of them.  Buy it. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.