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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. . .

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Noted in Passing: These were worth poring over for great writing

A few days ago on Facebook, just off the top of my head I posted a list of the ten books that gave me terrific pleasure during the last year. As I put it:

"These aren't necessarily the ten best books of the year, but they are the ones I liked best." They were:

1. Selena and Diesel Therapy by Greg Barth
 2. Concrete Angel by Patti Nase Abbott
 3. Getaway by Lisa Brackmann...
 4. Mosh It Up by Mindela Ruby
 5. Hashtag by Eryk Pruitt
 6. Jesus Saves, Satan Invests by Todd Morr
 7. Rumrunners by Eric Beetner
 8. Knuckleball by Tom Pitts
 9. The Triangle by Joe Buck Williams
 10. Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal



That's ten -- eleven. actually, counting Selena and it's sequel. I am probably missing something good, but these are what I can remember right now. Were they good? Absolutely."

In this blog post, I want to offer some passages in these books and a few others I read that really stuck with me. I may be missing some great stuff -- for example, all of Joe Clifford's Lamentation and Mike Monson's What Happens in Reno were so good that it wasn't really possible for me to break out the parts that seemed best -- but these passages have kept coming back to me time and again.
Then there are things I had already read last year that I ended up going back to -- dialog that struck a particular chord with me, including some that simply plucked a sardonic note I found hilariously funny, sad or a combination of the two.
Some of those are listed here, too.

* * *

Sometimes, it was a slam bang start that set the mood that grabbed me most:

When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours.
(Patti Nase Abbott,
Concrete Angel
Polis Books, 2015)

This is a perfect example -- short, zingy and memorable. It reminds me of one of my favorite bits of writing: the opening paragraph of Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks -- a neatly pieced together word poem that establishes the nature of the story you are about to read, offers observations about key characters and does both without clogging the story with a lot of extraneous detail that isn't needed.
I love the jarring effect of "shot" and the plebian phrase "soda pop salesman." The time element fills out the equation; you are warned to expect the bizarre, the self-absorbed, the unexpected, all in a brief period of time. If you can read this passage and then put the book down, you are either too easily distracted or much too jaded to get much out of Abbott's fine novel.
Sometimes it was a little description in the middle of the book that made me stop and re-read it, like this brief commentary in Uncle Dust by Rob Pierce:

I hadn’t been to Sparks in months but it was exactly how I remembered it. Grunt workers straight off eight- or ten-hour shifts sitting near the door, like they couldn’t make it any farther, putting down everything as fast as they could and if a fight came their way, they wouldn’t mind it. I’d never seen a fight in Sparks, though. Unless you wanted one there was no reason to talk to those guys and they only talked to each other.
I was looking down the bar at the grunts and I turned back to look at Rico and he must have been looking down there too. We both grinned. If we wanted, we could clear that end of the room in a couple of seconds. So dumb, thinking about shit we didn’t even want to do. We both laughed and I waved to the surly surfer [a bartender Pierce has described earlier] for another round.

(Rob Pierce,
Uncle Dust
All Due Respect books, 2015)

Or this seemingly offhanded exchange between two of the characters in Tussinland, Mike Monson's examination of the drug-addled underclass in Modesto, California:
They were lying in bed in Logan’s room in his adopted parents’ house in North Modesto. Logan stabbed a spot next to his right big toe with a syringe full of heroin. Miranda only snorted the shit occasionally and so far hadn’t even developed much of a habit with the drug. She needed to hold off today because she still had to edit the Mark and Tina murder video. Plus she had a lot of shit to do all day. She moved the mouse with her index finger, switched over to a window containing a photo album of her and Logan fucking.

"What’s your favorite?" Miranda stared at the screen. She clicked through the pictures. "What’s like, the best one?"
"That is so hard to say, dude."
"I know."
"It’s probably the anal one, right?"
Miranda clicked backwards four or five times.
"This one?"
"Naw. One more."
"This one?"
"Yeah. That one’s a keeper."

(Michael Monson
Tussinland,
All Due Respect books, 2015)
When you reread that passage, you realize how carefully strung together it is. It tells you so much more about those two characters than could be summarized in straightforward exposition;half of what it has to say is only hinted at: the way the male character calls the female "dude," the fact that they are so closely aligned psychically that she knows almost exactly which "sexted" photo he is talking about before she even clicks back to it in the camera.

Then there is this little bit of forced sexual horseplay between Odie, the protagonist, and his lascivious boss, Maggie, in the inimitable Eryk Pruitt's new novel, Hashtag:


Maggie fancied herself something special. Something refreshing for a woman in her early fifties. She loved the outdoors and thought herself something of a rebel by running her own restaurant in gym shorts and sweatbands. Her body was slick, toned, and defined. Odie thought she looked like Richard Simmons.

The key here is the clash between what Maggie thinks of herself and her Richard Simmons image to Odie, who sees coupling with  her as tantamount to oral surgery without an anesthetic. Unbeknownst to her, she is not emitting the glamorous and sexy image she hopes, despite her black lingerie. 
A few lines later, Pruitt picks up Odie's unwanted tryst:
The dinner rush ended and one by one, Maggie had him send home the rest of the employees. First, the counter girl, then the high school boy who looked after the ovens, then finally the dishwasher. In no time, they were alone and Odie’s stomach fell into fits.
She waited for him in the walk-in cooler. He’d gone in to put away the onions and bell peppers and found her atop the cases of tomato sauce, trying to maintain her seductive pose despite the blasted chill. She’d rustled up a black, frilly camisole and smuggled it in under her clothes, but now resorted to her discarded britches as covering from the cold. All the same, she struggled like the dickens to compose herself as Odie opened the cooler door. He had no recourse. He never did. She was his boss. She told him what to do and he did it, as he had done every inventory night for the past five years, since back when he was only seventeen.
(Eryk Pruitt,
Hashtag
280 Steps Press, 2015)
Writing a hard-boiled manuscript that is spattered with wiseacre comments like blood stains on an abattoir wall is easy. Having those comments actually fill in the characters' back stories and move the plot forward is much, much tougher.
Todd Morr kept surprising me with wisecracks that opened up the action and moved the plot forward by filling in the characters in his novel, Jesus Saves, Satan Invests.


Dig this:

With Camp Pendleton sitting on the northern border, Oceanside was a military town. The city council may not have liked Hub’s places, but plenty of young men training to defend the country did. Hub made a lot of money, just a bonus. He did not open this nightspot for profit, he opened it because he loved naked women and drinking. Other than maybe rock star, not too many jobs afforded him the opportunity to indulge in what he loved. Since Hub had no musical talent, owning the club was perfect.
[Hub] liked grabbing lunch at the strip club, which featured a businessman’s lunch special. Apparently some guys like to eat while watching naked woman dance. As much as he liked the girls, eating with naked people struck Hub as sort of gross, so he always took lunch in his office.
(Todd Morr
Jesus Saves, Satan Invests
Spanking Pulp Press, 2015)
Tom Pitts manages the same kind of prestidigitation in his novella, Knuckleball, a tale that springs directly from the urine-soaked alleys of San Francisco's Mission District. It plays out against the background of an S.F. Giants season, and, despite the novella's name, throws sheer heat, not junk:
Oscar Flores hated his brother. He knew it may even be a sin, to hate your own brother the way he did, but the way he saw things, it could be no worse than the sins his brother committed. This way, it was a wash. Oscar hated Ramon from as far back as he could remember. He couldn’t recall a warm moment shared between them. Ramon was a sadistic son of a bitch. Except his mom wasn’t a bitch; she had to deal with Ramon, too.
Note the semi-apologetic way Pitts has his character back away from the son-of-a-bitch comment. It has the same psychic rhythm as a penitent Catholic dropping to his knees during confession and being assessed a "hail Mary," for his critical comment about his sibling:


Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.
Later, Pitts describes how, like most bullies, Ramon was really a coward whose gang-banger schtick was intended to keep strangers at an arm's length.
Everyone in the neighborhood thought Ramon was a tough guy. Oscar knew better. He knew Ramon was a chicken-shit. He could remember when their father used to beat Ramon. First he’d have to catch Ramon, and then, when he began to administer the punishment, Ramon would flail and wail like an infant. Their father left seven years ago, when Oscar was eight years old. That was the last time Oscar heard Ramon cry.

(Tom Pitts
"Knuckleball"
One-Eye Press singles, 2015)

* * *
If Eric Beetner were any more prolific, there wouldn't be enough shelf space in the U.S. Library of Congress to hold everything he churns out.
Sometimes Beetner manages to hook the reader like a catfish merely by usual an unexpected turn of phrase:
The first time I died it came as a hell of a shock.
(Eric Beetner,
The Year I Died Seven Times
Beat to a Pulp press, 2014)

But sometimes Eric has to work a little harder. In the following passage, his protagonist in Rumrunners, which was released this year, has to give his grandfather, Calvin, some bad news: Tucker's father has gone missing, and a shipment of contraband is gone with him, leaving Tucker on the hook for its value. Watch how the old man seems ga-ga at the beginning of the dialog but clamps down on the salient issues before it ends:


"Tucker who?”

“Your grandson. Your only grandson.” Granted, Calvin hadn’t spoken with Tucker in at least three years, but to not even recognize his only grandchild’s name?
“Oh, shit, yeah. How the hell are you, boy?”
Calvin came across the line from Omaha clear as lake ice. The gravel in his voice only faked his age. That rough road of a voice box had been that way for decades.
“Dad’s gone missing.”
“Who’s dad?”
“My dad. Your son. Webb.”
“You don’t say?”
Tucker slapped an open palm to his forehead. “I do say, Granddad, and the Stanleys say too. They came around here asking me to pay for something he stole on his way out of town.”
“Stanleys, you say?”
“Yeah. The Stanleys.”
“Sons a bitches. Been using us McGraw men like slaves for eighty years. Never once looked on us as any more than chauffeurs and errand boys. Fuck ‘em.”
“Well, granddad, I can’t exactly eff them. They want money from me. And I don’t know where Dad is. Have you heard from him?”
“Not in a few weeks. Stole something you said?”
“Yes. A delivery he was making.”

“Bullshit. No McGraw would ever steal cargo. Hold tight. I’ll be right there."
(Eric Beetner
Rumrunners
280 Steps Press, 2015)
In Selena and its sequel, Diesel Therapy, Greg Barth underscores the brutality and violence of his story using the same sort of understatement.
Selena, who has unknowingly glommed a CD Rom full of data skimmed from credit card transactions, is captured by gangsters who want the data for use in their credit scams and identity theft schemes.
But first, they want to punish Selena for interfering in their affairs:
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.
(Greg Barth,
Selena
All Due Respect books)
Sometimes, a carefully constructed sentence sticks with you for hours, even days after you have read it. Consider the following passage in Tiffany Scandal's excellent Jigsaw Youth:
I quit the diner after I caught the owner jerking off into a bowl of pancake batter.
(Tiffany Scandal
Jigsaw Youth
Ladybox Books, 2015)

On occasion, a snippet of description or an unguarded action by a character tells you more than fifty pages of back story.
There was an open bottle of Two Buck Chuck on the counter. I reached for it, wanting to pour out the remnant. A small cloud of fruit flies escaped. Even at arms length the wine smelled of pure vinegar.
“Hey!”
Hope tripped over discarded clothing on the floor and went after the bottle in my hand.
“You probably shouldn’t drink –“
She took a swig. Dark reddish-violet fluid dripped from the sides of her mouth, down her chin. She made a bitter face, then smiled, picking something off her tongue.
“Mmmmm. I love Merlot.”
(Tiffany Scandal

Jigsaw Youth
Ladybox Books, 2015)
Then there is the skillful change of point-of-view, always good for a grabber. Elaine Ash (AKA Anonymous-9) is a grand mistress of this technique. She shuttles back and forth between her paraplegic hero, Dean Drayback, and his homicidal helper monkey, Sid, with amazing dexterity, making each into a clear and distinct character with a fully-formed personality, hopes and aspirations.
Here is Sid after his fateful escape from Mexican Mafia gangbangers during a shootout with sheriff's deputies in the desert outside Los Angeles:

“Are you hungry, munk? Ready for more water?”
The boy holds the bottle out again. In the other hand he has half a banana. He holds that out, too.
Sid sits up, pleased that the boy catches on so quickly.
“Mom has more in the house. I’ll go get some but we can’t tell her, ‘kay?”
Sid gives his winningest smile. Talk about landing ass-deep in monkey clover. This place is going to be easy street.


(Anonymous-9 (Elaine Ash)
Bite Harder
Down and Out Press, 2015)

When a character's life is devoid of meaning, even the drugs he uses to maintain his zombie-like existence are meaningless. Is he accomplishing anything? Is anything worth accomplishing?
That is the question confronting a glue-sniffing, squirrel-hunting private eye who scrapes together what assignments he can from the hicks who surround him in the rural community of Brownsville:

In front of the apartment complex someone laid on the horn as they passed and the sound pulled Neil [Chambers]free from his toxic dreams as he took the glue-soaked rag from his face, the burning fumes arousing defensive tears.
It was two in the morning and Neil had no intention of calling it a night. Real sleep had eluded him as long as he could remember, the glue usually tucked him for a time, but he kept no regular hours and that irregular rhythm of rest allowed him to spread his work thin over the twenty hours a day he was more or less conscious, spread it thin like the shoddy concrete job on the parking lot outside.
Work was all that kept him going, but the work had dried up. That was a symptom of being a snoop in a small town like Brownsville: alienation, enemies. Neil figured he made two enemies for every client he served. People don’t appreciate being checked up on. They don’t forget.

(C.S. DeWildt
Love You to a Pulp
All Due Respect Books, 2015)

   For sheer alienation, Chris Rhatigan is one of the best writers around. A Camus for the 21st century, his stories are cesspools of anomie that call into question the very existenz of existentialism -- the nature of reality and the possibility of meaningful human life.
In "Pessimist," his half of you don't exist, Chris's protagonist, a businessman on a boring commercial trip, becomes involved with a criminal affair that he neither understands nor wants to. All he knows is that he has come into possession of a bagful of cash -- and the psychic weight of his accidental acquisition drives him mad.
Pullman went inside. Moline might be the most depressing airport he’d seen. When you went to O’Hare or JFK or Miami, you arrived there. Big airports with dozens of coffee chains and bustling crowds and important people going to important places. Moline was more like a bus stop.
After he checks into a seedy hotel, Pullman checks the bag he has picked up in the airport's luggage claim check. It looks like his suitcase, but is . . . wrong, somehow.

He hefted the bag onto the bed. He unzipped it a few inches. Zipped it back up again. He blinked.
The painting on the wall was still of a covered wagon crossing the plains, back when America had shit like bison and muzzle-loading rifles. The book in the nightstand was still the bible. His sneakers were still soggy with snow and ice. The floorboards were still stained the color of rust from some mysterious leak. So he wasn’t hallucinating. He unzipped the bag— this time in one fluid motion, all the way open.
And again he found it packed with bundles of cash. Bundles and bundles and bundles and bundles of cash.
(Chris Rhatigan
you don't exist
All Due Respect Books, 2015)
Chris does a real Camus turn in the kind of friends who murder each other, another masterpiece of alienation and anomie in which the protagonist, a clerk in a convenience store, conspires with two friends to commit murder, then ends up eliminating his former crime partners.
He was starting to turn around and say something when I stabbed him below the shoulder blade. His left shoulder blade, if I recall correctly. I still get confused when I try to think about right and left from somebody else’s perspective, doesn’t come naturally, like breathing underwater, but considering I’m right handed, it must have been his left shoulder blade as I moved across my body and stabbed his.
He fell to the floor, flopped around, tried to reach around and grab the knife, a brave and stupid move – he only pushed the knife in farther. I thought  it might pop through the other side like he was a piƱata. This would have made me laugh but it didn’t happen and I didn’t laugh.
(Chris Rhatigan
the kind of friends who murder each other
Kuboa press, 2013)

Let me wrap this up with something by Joe Clifford:
Yeah, yeah. I know Lamentations is the real deal and December Boys, due out next year, is the cat's meow.


But I think my favorite piece by Joe is "A Bad Run," a short story that appeared in All Due Respect, Edition #4 last year:
I woke when I heard the front door slam. My buzz had worn off and my temples thundered. Lisa didn’t stir from the seat where she’d passed out, snoring. I pulled up my pants and tried to button my shirt. When he walked in the kitchen and saw me, he barely registered a reaction, other than to ask, “You the cable guy?” Then, “Where’s my wife?” Lisa snuffed back to life, and if I’m being totally blunt, I have to say, she wasn’t looking so hot. Her husband, Schwartz, panned to her, then to me and then back to her, and the dim bulb finally lit. “You fucked the cable guy?”
“I’m not just the cable guy.”
“What do you care? Not like you touch me!” Lisa reached for the whiskey on the table.
“Don’t, darlin’,” I said. She growled like a cornered coyote stuck in a mine. Schwartz stepped to me. I wasn’t worried. I was three times the runt’s size. “This is what you do, huh? Go around, making house calls, fucking other guy’s wives, like some… boogie van gigolo? That it?”
“I love her,” I said.
“Jesus Christ! How long has this been going on?”
“He’s crazy,” she said. “I just met him today.”
Schwartz balled his fists. “Just met him?”
I strained to think of how to bring her back to me. It felt like I was losing her all over again. The longer I stared at her eyes, the less I knew her.
“I think you better leave,” Schwartz said. “And don’t think I won’t be calling your supervisors!”
 I extracted the tabbed picture I kept in my wallet, and thrust it up for both to see. I thought maybe if I presented undeniable photographic evidence, she couldn’t so easily betray our love. This was my last chance.
 “What the hell is that?” Schwartz snapped.
“Me and Lisa. In love, long before you. Pyramid Lake. Summer of 1988—”
 “1988?” Lisa spat. “I was seven years old.”
 I dropped in the chair and looked up at Schwartz. “What’s her maiden name?”
“Huh?”
“Your wife’s maiden name?!” “Potts. What do you care?”
“But… but she knew my name.”
I grabbed Lisa’s hand. “You knew my name!”
“How hammered are you?” Schwartz said. “It’s stitched on the front of your shirt, numbnuts.”
I plucked at the fabric of my chest, clumsily trying to read my own name. Stitched in red, like my bleeding heart.
(Joe Clifford
"A Bad Run"
All Due Respect magazine, # 4)

I could go on quoting from stuff I loved this past year -- fewer than half the books  on my list are represented here. But I think you get the point.
I just hope that the things I get a shot at reading in 2016 are half as good.
If they are, I will face the flames of hell a completely happy man.

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