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. . .

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Near to the Knuckle Goes "Rogue!"

By Craig Douglas, Darren Sant, Ryan Bracha, editors
266 pages
(Gritfiction (England); May 29, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1782805249
ISBN-13: 978-1782805243

By now it probably comes as no surprise that I am inordinately fond of stories about criminals that are chronic underachievers.

I suppose it has something to do with the true-life crime magazines that were stacked around our 8 by 35 foot trailer house by my parents when I was growing up. You know the kind of periodical I’m talking about: the sort in which every detective is intrepid and insightful and each female victim is described as a gorgeous babe, regardless of how butt-ugly she seems to be in the photographs accompanying her story.

It also may be related to the real criminals I wrote about during the 30-odd years that I worked for daily, weekly and fortnightly magazines and newspapers, including Saga, Argosy, The Berkeley Barb and The San Francisco Chronicle. There’s no question those mokes were the stars of their own screenplays, but the scripts they followed were so thin they wouldn’t have even made a decent YouTube video, let alone a 90-minute “B” feature or a half hour television drama.

Whatever the reason may be, I am attracted to the cheap and sensational criminality that occurs in rural redoubts like back-country Arkansas, Texas and Indiana. I like my criminals to be members of the broken chromosome brigade, sort of the way the guys from Dumb and Dumber would be if they had the aptitude to get their photos stapled up on post office walls.

So take this as gospel: if you are anything like me, Rogue, the first-rate antho that is being released this week by the editors of Near to the Knuckle, the on-line pulp magazine, will give you enough brain-dead criminals and hapless capers to keep you busy for many hours.

Craig Douglas

Darren Sant and friend
Ryan Bracha

In his foreword to the collection, Mark Wilson, the author of Head Boy (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), deftly sums up the operating principals of the Near to the Knuckle crew: “Producing quality literature without constraints, or middle-management foibles, or decisions based on what will appeal to this demographic of best reflect that group.”

It is, as he says, a middle finger aimed squarely at the nervous Nellies who run today’s focus-group driven, largely gutless publishing industry. Wilson is right on the money when he calls Rogue “raw, uncompromising stories . . . by a group of writers, writing in a spectacularly diverse myriad of styles at the very top of their game.”

Rogue contains 22 exceptional stories. Most of them have English settings and characters, though a few, like “Old Times” by Benedict J. Jones, track through the darker parts of the American wasteland.

Some of these yarns, like “Route 66 and All That” by Paul Brazill, are lightweights aimed at drawing a graveyard chuckle from readers like me who enjoy tales about the misadventures of petty felons so inept that if called upon to get out of their own way, they would probably end up in hospital.

Paul D. Brazill
Others – like the aforementioned “Old Times” are as dark and grim as the Winter Solstice in Helsinki. Still others, including “The Brat Snatcher,” Craig Furchtenicht’s novel spin on O. Henry’s classic, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” serve violence up with a side order of laughs – or vice versa, depending on how you look at them.

In it’s own way, each tale is as hard-boiled as one of the pickled eggs Howie White “would murder” in Brazill’s hilarious tale. All are a treat to read, filled with gritty dialogue, raw descriptions and an ear for the spoken word.

Consider Tess Makoveski’s “Singing from the Same Song Sheet,” a story about a man who believes the adage, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” but readily lends the Almighty a helping hand when the need arises. At one point in the tale, Makoveski’s protagonist tracks down a gangster whose relationship with the Lord requires ministration:

He doesn’t have a front door on the street like the rest of us. He has gates, and a long winding drive through conifer– dotted grounds. Never believe that crime doesn’t pay. It pays all right, just not in ways I like or understand.

I loved Makoveski’s story; it is splendidly crafted to mislead readers about who the protagonist is and what he does for a living before kicking them in the gut with the truth at the end.

Or ponder this snippet from “The Wedge” by Keith Nixon, in which two hard boys show up in a seaside resort looking for the woman who botched a robbery at a neighboring community’s bookmaking parlor:

To his left, white-capped waves rolled out a seaweed strewn beach beneath a lead grey sky, the sun levering itself over the horizon as if a drunk were getting out of bed. To his right was the multi-colored flicker of the amusement arcades. They were like a faded tattoo on an aged prostitute’s arm, marking far better days long gone.

A nice noirish touch there – one that fits perfectly with the tone of the rest of the story.

In another terse passage, here’s Brazill introducing one of his low-watt low-lifes from “Route 66:”

Mikey Mike Calloway was so far up his own arse he could give himself an enema.

Or how about this passage, in which Brazill describes the location where a caper is being planned?

The pub looked even gloomier and more wan during the daytime than it did at night. Even though the smoking ban had been enforced for years, the King John’s Tavern still had a nicotine sheen and the beige carpet was more than somewhat frayed; as were most of the customers, who seemed to be old school friends of Methuselah.

One of my favorite stories is Godwin’s “Doing Prince,” in which Mandy, a lesbian who formerly danced at a strip club, runs into a series of complications after she is hired to steal a lascivious painting from a yegg’s living room wall. At one point, her employer attempts to force sex on her, only to be interrupted by his bisexual wife, Lucy. After he retreats, Lucy hits on Mandy, herself:

“Did he threaten you?” Lucy inquires.

“He wants to screw me.”

“Well, that’s cause he ain’t getting much out of me. He has hookers round while I’m out, you see, mutual convenient arrangement.”

“Thanks for coming when you did.”

“I haven’t tonight, that’s why I couldn’t sleep," adding, slyly, "Think you could help me out?”

Later Lucy tells Mandy, “I used to swing both ways.”

“And now?” Mandy replies.

“I think my door’s jammed when it comes to men.”

That's the kind of writing I find myself thinking about hours or even days later. Grab a copy. It’s $7.99 in softcover – and worth a good deal more.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pitts Throws A Knuckleball In the Zone

By Tom Pitts
128 pages
(One Eye Press; March 24, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0692370773
ISBN-13: 978-0692370773

The classic knuckleball is thrown with the outside of the pitcher’s fingernails tucked against the horsehide of the ball. The technique makes the ball’s path almost impossible to follow for the batter, and a pitch that initially seems to be inside the strike zone often ends up far outside.

Tom Pitts’ excellent novella, “Knuckleball,” is the same type of pitch: so deceptive that it takes the reader by surprise, inducing him to swing at a phantom while the ball sails by unscathed.

Author Tom Pitts

Pitts is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online and the author of one of my favorite novellas, “Piggyback” (Snubnose Press, 2012). 

He also wrote the astonishing Hustle, a grim and bloody story about two rent boys’ attempt to shake down an elderly criminal defense attorney.

He spins Knuckleball with audacious skill.

To summarize the plot, a policeman, Hugh Patterson, is gunned down in uniform while watching a Giants game in a Mission District taqueria. The cop’s partner, Vince Alvarez, is some distance away when the shooting goes down, trying to raise his wife on his cell phone.

The shooter, a young Latino in a hoodie, a Giants team shirt and dark clothing, disappears into the crowd while Vince struggles to return to the scene. Despite a spate of rumors that emerge afterward – all of which are untrue – there is no clear motive for the crime.

Hugh’s murder convulses the city. Patterson, an obscure patrolman of no particular note, becomes a hero overnight solely by virtue of his inexplicable death. A reward raised for his attacker’s capture is quickly increased several times. He is memorialized on the giant Jumbotron scoreboard at AT&T Park, his 60-foot-high image rendered literally larger than life. The city is plastered with his photo, and the news of his death makes page one in both papers.

Meanwhile, Vince is guilt-ridden over his absence when the shooting occurred and lies about where he was when the shots were fired. Homicide detectives are baffled by his inability to give more than a vague description of the killer and grill him repeatedly about the shooting.

A few days later, Oscar, another young Latino man, identifies his sadistic, depraved brother Ramon as the gunman. He and a Mission District wino pick the brother out of a police lineup. Vince reluctantly goes along with the identification, even though he had not seen the shooter and had no idea who he was.

All this happens in the first third of the novella. The remainder of Pitts’ slim book concerns how the various conflicts work themselves out – or fail to.

The book drips with doom from the opening pages.

Pitts describes Patterson as the ideal police officer, a cop who “loved his uniform, loved his beat. Twice a week he and his partner were required to walk the 24th Street corridor. Only twice a week, Hugh lamented. They would take their time strolling from General Hospital all the way to Guerrero Street, stopping to hand out SFPD stickers to kids, to tell the older men to pour out their beers, and to gather intelligence, what his dad had called street smarts. You have to know your beat, Hugh would tell his partner.”

We hear of Patterson’s halting and only partially successful efforts to speak to Mission residents in their own tongue, his concern about poor and downtrodden residents, his reluctance to collar people for minor infractions, choosing instead to tap them for information that might lead to bigger, more important arrests.

A law enforcement officer so honest, open and responsive to the citizenry he serves can’t last long. Sure enough, Patterson is killed only a few pages into the book.

Pitts’ terse descriptions of the Mission are as clear and accurate as his treatment of the Tenderloin in Hustle.

In the latter book, you could almost smell the sour scent of human piss in the alleyways, the mildew aroma of the vagrants sleeping off a midday drunk in doorways, the reek of Lysol used to mop the cum from the booths in adult bookstores.

In Knuckleball, you can smell the decaying fruit from the bodegas, the spilled beer in the plaza at 16th Street BART, the pungent fat of carnitas cooking in the taco stands and the skunky odor of ganja drifting from the alleys.

This brief novel is classic noir that turns on transgressive behavior: characters screw up, then compound their original mistake while trying to conceal it. Pitts makes it clear that no good deed goes unpunished. In the wake of Patterson’s murder, Alvarez is subjected to hostile questioning by colleagues. Oscar is confronted by a petty criminal for snitching off his violent and despicable sibling while his mother, who cleans up a beauty salon to support the two young men, ignores his complaints about Ramon’s monstrous nature.

Looking back over the storyline, some of the plot developments seem inevitable. But Pitts manages to keep the reader plowing along, driven in large part by the questions: “What makes these people tick? Where is this book taking me next?” That is the nature of true psychological suspense – not a series of cliffhangers designed to artificially push the reader to the end.

At roughly 123 pages, Knuckleball is exactly the right length: Pitts does more in this slim volume than “art literature” authors can manage in an entire shelf of books.

The book starts with one murder and ends with a second; sandwiched between them is enough pain and stress to fill a psychological treatment manual. Knuckleball is a hell of a story.