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. . .

Monday, September 14, 2015

Trailer Trash Femme Fatale: A Dame to Die From

By Greg Barth
452 pages
( All Due Respect Books; June 12, 2015)
Language: English

Selena is the type of woman who wakes up naked in a stranger’s bed, her skin as sticky and sour smelling as a porn theater’s floor. She’s a thief, a junkie, a titty bar waitress who sells drugs on the side, and a hooker who will go all the way for two measly Franklins.

And those are just her good points.

She also has a variety of flaws. Selena lacks self esteem, for one thing: she is such a cheap date that if she light-fingers $480 from a sleeping John’s billfold, she isn’t sure she deserves it.

In addition, she picks the wrong partners: guys who like to have a woman pull the train, one car at a time  – and leave her looking like she was run over by one.

Greg Barth
In Serena’s case, the train wreck is the result of a commercial sexual liaison gone horribly wrong.
Barth sets the scene with marvelous brevity in the beginning of the first chapter, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks:

“I awoke to pain,” he writes, setting up the narrative from Selena’s point of view. “It was the typical hangover headache, a dull throb at the base of my skull accompanied by an icepick through the left temple.


“My mouth was dry and tasted like a sewer.  Bourbon, cigarettes, and something else.   Something organic.

“I squinted an eye open.  Not my bed.   Not my room.

“Okay, I thought.   I opened my other eye, and I gave a minute for my blurred vision to focus.

“I didn’t recognize the guy lying next to me.   His back was to me, but I could see well enough to realize that I did not know him.   He looked like he was deep asleep.   Good.”

Selena rips her sleeping John off for his loose bills, cigarette lighter, a partially consumed bottle of  bourbon and a T-shirt, and then steals one of his CDs on her way out.

Big mistake. When she tries the disk on her player at home, all she gets is hiss. She leaves it in the machine and goes to work.

It turns out the disk actually contains information skimmed from tens of thousands of credit cards. It’s worth way more than $480, and a gang of hard guys that uses the data in scams wants it back enough to kill for it.

A crew from the gang shows up at the bar where Selena works and intercepts her trying to slip out the rear. They beat her to a pulp but fail to recover the data.

That is just the beginning of her nightmare: a savage beating that leaves her crippled and unrecognizable and a brutish rape that tears her open so badly it takes months for her to heal.

Here is Selena as the leader of the gang prepares to screw her half to death for taking the CD:

“He dropped his pants and readied himself with his hand. I had seen bigger dicks before. Mostly at the zoo. Things got bad after that.   I don’t want to tell you all that happened, but it was bad.”
Here’s Selena undergoing rehabilitation for her injuries:

“Then they put me on the walker.   Oh god, that torturous little therapy bitch named Heather.  Hashtag fucking-sadist.   I wanted to stay in bed.   Hell, wouldn’t you?   But Noooooo.   You gotta waaaaalk Selena, you gotta get beeeeeetter Selena, you gotta take more steps Selena, you don’t wanna stay in bed forever do you Selena.

“I wanted to fashion a shank out of my toothbrush and stab her in her kidney.”

Here is Selena convalescing in the trailer where her father had sex with her  when she was a teenager:

“How do you like your eggs,” he said.

 “Fertilized, full grown, breaded, and fried.  Then puked up in a nice slimy puddle.  How do you like yours?”

“Okay.   No eggs.”

Selena is so tough she could drive a ten penny nail through a four-by-four with a glance, then use her teeth to pull it back out again.

She eventually recovers from her injuries, totally unrecognizable, an expert in using a pair of sawed-off shotguns, and consumed by only one desire: revenge.

She goes back to the man she originally stole the CD from. Taking advantage of the fact that he doesn’t recognize her, she hooks up with him and slips him roofies to make him docile and submissive. While he is helpless, she winnows out what was on the CD and why the gang wants it. 

Serena is like something from Argosy . . .
Afterward she gives him the most pleasant death of anyone in the book: she injects him with a narcotic that simply puts him to sleep forever.

You’d think that killing the man who turned you over to torturers would be enough, but not for Serena. She returns to her apartment and can’t kick the stress and anxiety she feels. And then she realizes what it is that has her so keyed up:

“The hunger I felt was the overwhelming urge to kill the rest of them. That was it. Only their deaths would satisfy my deepest-felt need.”

Selena manages this breakneck pace for all but a handful of its 400-plus pages. The pages of the novel practically tear themselves out of your fingers and turn themselves for you. It is a little like watching the Coast Starlighter derail, scattering mutilated bodies along the rail bed: the spectacle is hideous, but you cannot look away.

Barth’s novel is a barn-burner – an old-fashioned tale suitable for Black Mask or Argosy, the premier mags of the pulp era. The only difference? Selena is tougher and leaner than most of the stuff that appeared in those rags. It is better written, too.

. . .Or Black Mask, only tougher. . .
Barth intends this to be the first volume in a trilogy. The remaining two volumes will also be published by All Due Respect, a small independent imprint that advertises itself as a purveyor of “Low Life Literature.”

Life doesn’t get much lower than it does in Serena.

It also rarely gets as nasty, brutish and short.

Friday, September 11, 2015

On the Road with a Suicide Girl

By Tiffany Scandal
99 pages
( Ladybox Books; March 23, 2015)
Publication Date: March 23, 2015

Tiff Scandal’s thematic collection of short  stories, Jigsaw Youth, is sort of like an On the Road for women – if Sal Paradise was a lesbian named Ella who waitressed in a sleazy Portland diner and played a Telecaster in a punk rock band.

Unlike most of the books we review here, Scandal’s array of a dozen-plus stories is less about desperate people forced into desperate crimes by their loneliness and alienation than it is about desperate people who find themselves forced into desperate lives.

The story unfolds at a sedate pace, fueled by fast food and cheap wine. Ella bounces from Oregon to California to the Ozarks to New York and then back again, traveling a trail of dreams and hopes littered by bare-breasted photos of her and her suicide girlfriends.

Romances are forged and abandoned; friendships are made and cast aside. Ella has the ego of Dean Moriarty, but lacks his self absorption. Unlike Dean, she is not looking to fuck and flee; she wants to love and be loved; she is not consumed by the desire for new highs, new sensations. She pines for human connection.

Tiffany Scandal (image courtesy of www.tiffanyscandalsucks.com)

The book has some splendid writing in it – seriously good language, dialog that rings true, images that pop back into your head long after you close its pages.

For example, Ella becomes the target of little jabs from high school classmates after she blackens both her eyes on a stranger’s elbow in a concert mosh pit: “Kids at school point and laugh almost every time they pass me in the hallway,” she writes. “Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time? What do you say to a girl with two black eyes? Nothing you haven’t already told her twice.”

This absolutely has the verisimilitude of actual high school sarcasm -- the snide tone that kids use in “cutting” sessions when they are trying to put someone else down.

Similarly, while Ella is hanging out with her best friend, Mensa, they find Mensa’s brother “making out with his girlfriend on the couch. Mensa smacks the back of his head and calls him a cochino. He blindly throws a pillow at us and gets back to swapping spit.”

Swapping spit. The image is disgusting but somehow perfect.

Mensa is a key figure in Ella’s sketchy biography. The two girls are besties, but Mensa seems to be the only person in the world who doesn’t recognize her Sapphic bond to Ella.  Even her cochino brother picks up on it:

“Are you guys really Lesbos?” Mensa’s brother’s girlfriend asks from the couch.

“They say they aren’t. They totally are.” Her brother responds without even looking.


They resume kissing.

“Actually,” Mensa pointing at her brother on the couch. “That’s so gross.”

She pretends to stick her finger in her mouth and makes retching sounds.

The only one remotely as obtuse about her lesbianism is Ella.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being queer,” she says when it finally dawns on her that she is attracted to women, not men. “”I felt ridiculous, almost stupid for not thinking it was a possibility.”

Mensa is a good deal less upbeat about the notion. When Ella blurts that she thinks she is gay, her best friend drops her like a used condom.

“Everything had turned upside down, seemingly overnight. It hurt that she rejected me. She was my best friend, someone I told everything. We’d even look at pictures of women together and talk about the ones we liked and why. Now that she knew what that meant, she didn’t want anything to do with me.”

Another turning point in Ella’s story occurs when she allows Christian, a man she has met, to spend the night on her couch. To show his gratitude, he rapes her. The scene is described in a low-key manner, with minimal brutality and physical violence (aside from the rapist holding Ella down when she struggles). But the off-handed nature of the assault – Christian seems to think forced intercourse is a normal perk for a man sleeping on a woman’s sofa -- makes the sequence even more horrifying.

“I sat on my bed, trying to process what just happened, staring at my sweats and underwear around my ankles,” she says after driving off her attacker. “I felt sore. I got changed, suddenly feeling very cold. I stuffed my clothes in the trash . . . . The only thing I could manage, after the fact, was to ask, ‘What the fuck?’”

If the rape complicates Ella’s view of men – and it does – it plays hell with her romantic connection to women. After Ella runs into Hope, a former girlfriend, the two end up making love.

“When I wake up,” Ella says, “I find myself remembering what Christian did to me. The bruises. I run to the bathroom and vomit. Hope knocks on the door, asking if I’m okay. I tell her I’m fine, I just had too much to drink.”

Ella’s life is complicated and confusing. Yet she struggles to find meaning in it – and a modicum of happiness. The book does not end on a Pollyanna-ish note, with all her problems solved and an infinity of Maxfield Parrish sunsets in her future; that would be phony and inauthentic. Let’s just say that for Ella, life goes on – albeit in a way that promises things may get easier.

The final pages describe her efforts to reconcile her relationship with her long absent father. A writer with less confidence in her art and her ability than Scandal might have wrapped things up neatly – a tearful meeting, quiet words of mutual regret for the lengthy separation, perhaps a heart-warming hug served up with the closing dialog. It is, after all, a work of fiction.

But an ending like that would be inauthentic, and authenticity is what Jigsaw Youth is all about. A phony closing coda would cheat Scandal's readers as well as her sharply crafted characters. She understands this. So this first-rate collection of stories ends with uncertainty about where these characters are heading and what they will face when they get there.

This is where the resemblance to Kerouac’s book is most striking. As Sal puts it early on, the task is “How to even begin to get it all down without modified restraints and all hung up on, like, literary inhibitions and grammatical fears.”

Scandal has managed this task very well, indeed.