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, January 20, 2016

Thirteen Lurid Tales of Crime and Street Justice

Hangman's Dozen
By William E. Wallace

Release Date: January 20, 2016
Pages: 154
ISBN: 978-1523336814
Print: $7.50
eBook: $2.99

William E. Wallace is serving up bare-knuckle stories in old-school style.

Superstitious criminals down on their luck, junkies with trigger fingers, mysterious driftersthese are the kind of characters you’ll meet in this collection of lurid tales.

"(Wallace) is a master at building scenes, characters, layering dialogue and description, and filling in back-story with no interruption to the momentum of the story." Greg Barth, author of Selena and Diesel Therapy

"The best of William E. Wallace’s work revolves around the concept of justice. . . I’m talking the big, broader cosmic sense. Judgment. Reckoning. Down in the filth and garbage of the street, it’s all street justice." Joe Clifford, author of Lamentation and December Boys

"It is not easy to combine humor, characterization, and persuasive action but here it’s done well. These stories will make you a Wallace fan." Patti Abbott, author of Concrete Angel

"Wallace is quite simply a brilliant writer." Will Viharo author of Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me

Sunday, January 17, 2016

McEnroe is All Aces, Game, Match and Set

Dragon Day
By Lisa Brackmann
(Soho Publishing; 2015; 2013; 2010)

ISBN-10: 1616953454
ISBN-10: 1569475403
ISBN-10: 1616952342
I like a lot of the hardboiled female characters I have read by women crime writers in the last couple of years:  Gran Batch or the twisted grifter Melissa in Patti Nase Abbott’s terrific Home Invasion; Eve Moran, the psychotic mother in Abbott’s novel,
Concrete Angel; Sherri Parlay in Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purity; Cinda, the streetwalker girlfriend of handicapped vigilante Dean Drayback or Orella Malalinda, the crazed Mexican Mafia doyenne who has targeted Dean and his simian helper, Sid, in Elaine Ash’s Hard Bite and Bite Harder.
Not that the tough, no-nonsense women created by male writers are inferior. Most are quite good–Selena by Greg Barth, Sweet Melinda Kendell in Eryk Pruitt’s Hashtag, Janet, the gun-toting dead-eyed blonde in Todd Morr’s Jesus Saves, Satan Invests. All are as capable, cool and daring as their male counterparts—and some are ready, willing and able to maim, torture or even kill.

But for a badass chick, you really want that woman’s touch. Female authors somehow add that little something that brings their protagonists right up off the page. These are femmes that are almost invariably fatale.

One of the best female crime authors working in print right now is Lisa Brackmann, whose three books featuring ex- G.I. Ellen (Ellie) McEnroe kept me turning pages like a salt-deprived alcoholic downing beer-nuts with Qingdao and well bourbon.
Here a bit of back story is required:
Ellen is a former National Guard medic who fell for a schmuck intelligence officer while stationed in the red zone of Iraq. The romance went as sour as the war did, but not until Ellen got blown up while trying to help Iraqi prisoners survive brutal interrogation by her boyfriend and other red-white-and-blue thugs.

She recovers at an Army hospital in the D.C. area and the two get married. He becomes contract muscle  for a private contractor that collects intel for U.S. spy agencies then drags her with him to his new posting in Beijing.

There she finds him in bed with a Chinese girl and the two are splits Ville. The husband, Trey, wants a divorce. Ellie stubbornly refuses to sign the paperwork he needs to get one.
She becomes adept at dodging her ex, and spends her time traveling, learning Chinese and becoming involved with Chinese artists.

Some of those artists are sincere activists who support freedom of speech and action, criticize Chinese society under the new capitalism and openly create whatever their consciences dictate. Among them is Lao Zhang, a father figure within Chinese art circles. Ellie becomes one of his trusted friends and eventually his agent—which makes her a target for multiple spy agencies including the contract hooligans who employ her husband.
Many others, however, are sell-outs looking for enrichment in the emerging oligarch economy, selling mediocre work to millionaires and foreigners. 

Ellie’s problem is trying to figure out who is real and who is fake—while staying ahead of the posse of alphabet soup agencies that are watching her every mood, tracing her Internet visits, reading her email and ransacking her home and personal effects.

Brackmann does a good job of putting herself in Ellie’s shoes, drawing on her own extensive visits to China for the kind of detail that breathes verisimilitude into her stories. She makes Ellie a little crude, less a Chinese culture expert than an ex-G.I. with a sense of humor, even under dire circumstances.
For example, in Rock, Paper, Tiger, Ellie hides out from pursuers in a farmhouse, wearing borrowed clothing. Just before some of the villains appear, looking for her, she uses an outhouse to relieve herself. As she takes a dump, one of the farmers’ pigs peeks through a hole and the building’s side and helps itself to some of her excretion.

“Pigs eat shit.” Ellie thinks to herself. “Who knew?”

While trying to learn who killed a waitress doubling as a prostitute during a decadent party held by a billionaire's kids in Dragon Day, Ellie visits an artificial town where costume dramas are filmed.

One of the suspects, an American who helps the wealthy children launder money in violation of Chinese law, offers her a bit part in a film his client is making.

“You want a part? I’m supposed to have a wife?" he asks. "She’s dreadfully unhappy and addicted to opium. I bet you’d kill it.”

“I don’t tell him to go fuck himself,” Ellie thinks. “And people say I have no self-control."
McEnroe is not Wonder Woman. Ellie knows no martial arts and often finds herself on the verge of tears in the face of danger. When she falls under the control of some of China’s vast army of spies, she is sensible enough to be afraid for her safety but snarky enough to bait her captors and take whatever punishment they may administer.

She may not be a female Liam Neeson, but as the novels progress, we learn that she is familiar with firearms, took her Army training seriously and, like any other G.I. whose primary Military Occupational Specialty is infantry, she can shoot with accuracy and a cool head. But Ellie is not rough trade: her main assets as a protagonist are her nerviness and her ability to read the personalities of those she encounters. 
These three books show McEnroe’s progression as an adopted “China hand,” resisting government bureaucrats, the ultra-wealthy among the country’s parasitic oligarch class, run-of-the-mill police and all manner of security men. As was the case in Getaway, her thriller set in the narcotraficante-ridden world of Mexican drug cartels, the most brutal thugs she encounters are Americans.

Brackmann is masterful at conjuring a paranoiac atmosphere in which even those who win her trust are not completely trustworthy.  While her heroine has no training as a detective and little ability in self defense, there is plenty of action in these three volumes—Ellie gets kidnapped, imprisoned, roughed-up and chased through a variety of locales, including shabby restaurants and karaoke joints, the homes of the super rich, run-down neighborhoods, out-of-the way tourist stops and all-but-deserted “new cities” that are more like ghost towns than real communities.
And her path is littered with dead bodies.

Are Brackmann’s books thrillers in the classic “Mask of Dimitrios” or “Third Man” sense? Not exactly. For one thing, Lisa is far to the left of classic conspiracy-oriented thriller writers. Her stories have a populist flare and an optimistic attitude about people that is unusual for someone whose fiction tilts toward the paranoid.
They aren’t traditional noir tales, either, though there is plenty of transgressive guilt in her plot lines and a thin vein of nihilism that runs through all three books.

Mainly they are sharp-edged reads with an immensely likeable heroine, some really repulsive villains and a host of major characters whose personalities and motivations are as opaque as marble. These are less “whodunits” in the classical sense than they are “who-are-they-working-fors.”
Like the best of John Le Carre, Brackmann’s stories are steeped in betrayal. At their core is the police state mentality of the Chinese authorities—people who decide you are a threat then look for a reason why.

Ellie’s history is threaded through the three novels like gold silk embroidered in the accent band of an expensive silk Qipao. Read all three novels, one right after another in the order published. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with many hours of enjoyment. This is gripping stuff.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Murder Fugitive Stumbles on a Trunkful of Trouble in Beetner's Latest

Nine Toes In The Grave
By Eric Beetner
126 pages
(All Due Respect Books, Oct. 30, 2015)

In Nine Toes in the Grave, the ultra-prolific Eric Beetner’s latest, Reese, our protagonist, is having a bad day.
He’s framed for murder, tricked into a crooked car repossession racket and stuck with a dead drug trafficker and the dealer’s stash.  All he needs to make things perfect is a run-in with corrupt cops. Needless to say, he gets one.
Eric Beetner writes so many stories, novels and novellas, he
will soon need his own wing in the Library of Congress
Reese is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but circumstances won’t let him. He is boxed in by a series of murders, including two he commits himself despite his best effort to steer clear of crime. Nothing and no one can be trusted. Opportunities are illusory. What seems to be genuine is either fiction or a trap.
He runs, with no goal in mind but getting at least 50 miles away. That’s just enough breathing room to figure out what to do next.
The problem is, nobody will let him. Those 50 miles may as well be one thousand. Everything Reese does gets him in more trouble. Every step gets him nine times closer to the grave in the book’s title. A seemingly meaningless phrase that is as random as the events that put Reese in jeopardy.
In some ways, Beetner’s book bears a passing resemblance to The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain’s noir masterpiece.  
The main difference is that Beetner’s book is more violent by far, and his protagonist’s future is bleaker. There is a brutal twist to the story that gives it a hardboiled edge Cain’s tale lacks. The reader may see it coming, but it is satisfyingly perverse nonetheless.
This is a non-nonsense noir with an existential edge. The story is told in a terse, straightforward fashion that moves right along. The language is raw and tough, right from the second paragraph in which Reese says, “I was working in a diner, the kind they used to call a greasy spoon. We had the greasy fork and knife, too. But it was no sweat to me—I didn’t own the place.”
When the first violent death occurs--and it happens so suddenly and unexpectedly it will take your breath away--it sets his flight in progress. As he flees, you can smell Reese’s fear along with the stale reek of his dishwasher’s funk. You can feel the sweat that plasters his T-shirt to his back, the tremor of his knees as he tries to outrun his fate.
This is good stuff—maybe as good as it gets. Nine Toes in the Grave is a perfect way to kick off 2016.