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. . .

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Love That Dares Not Speak its Name: Homicide!

By Mike Monson

63 pages

(All Due Respect Books; January 28, 2016)

Ebook distribution by Amazon Digital Services LLC

ASIN: B01B6Z97C4

A recurring archetype in noir fiction is the remorseless killer, a moral black hole who murders when and where he feels like it. I’m speaking here of characters like Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley and the rest of the Ripley series), Patricia Highsmith’s murderous con man, or Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Jim Thompson’s psychopathic sheriff’s deputy.

Lancaster Messier, the protagonist in Mike Monson’s novella, A Killer’s Love, fits this pattern perfectly. Like Ford, Messier is a nonpareil sexual predator, vicious enough to use violence to score with both  male and female victims; But, like Ripley, he is a thief and scammer who is always looking for a chance to profit from victims with valuable worth stealing. The name of this 63-page novella, in fact, is a tip of the hat to Thompson and his famous character, Ford.

Author Mike Monson

When we first meet Messier, he is cleaning up the gore from his latest triumph, a woman named Florence Hanratty that he has killed in a six week campaign, minced into disposable chunks and wrapped neatly in plastic bags. Here is his attitude toward homicide in a nutshell:

For Lancaster Messier, the killing was always the easy part. Want to kill a bitch? No problem. It’s just a couple simple steps. Get a real sharp knife, come up behind, pull her head back by the hair and then commit. Fully commit to making the perfect deep, long, ear-to-ear cut. That’ll do it. Every time.

Next, drop Helen or Amber or Nadine or whoever the fuck, and walk away. Just let go. If you’ve done it right, if you’ve fully committed and employed the proper technique, by the time you’ve walked to the nearest sink and cleaned off your knife, the little cutie will either be slowly bleeding out, or dead already. . .

After slitting Florence’s throat and cleaning off and putting the razor-sharp buck knife in his jeans pocket, he began loading up her Ford pickup with every valuable item in the house. The first couple of times he walked through with a load of gold and diamond jewelry, or a flat screen TV, or a laptop Apple computer, he checked on Florence. The first two times, she seemed to be still breathing, which he was pretty sure meant she was slowly bleeding to death. Lancaster didn’t think this was such a bad way to die. He’d researched it and found out it was just like slowly falling to sleep—and never waking up. Before he’d developed his technique, he saw a lot of deaths that looked quite painful, especially if the poor fuck seemed to be drowning in his or her blood. (That’s right, he killed dudes too. All part of the killer-thief lifestyle.) When he went into the kitchen to get the china and the nice silverware, he checked again and she was finally dead, thank god.

On his way to dispose of Hanratty’s body parts, Messier stops to meet a fence who is going to take her valuables off his hands. The fence goes sideways, however, and Messier shoots him in the head, then robs him of more than $2,000 in buy money that the man is carrying.

That’s two grisly deaths and $20,000 worth of larceny in only 13 pages. As Messier puts it, “Not bad for six weeks work.”

The deaths of Hanratty and the fence are the last times in the book that things go the way Messier planned. He travels by bus to California, where he attempts an act of selfless altruism – simply for his enjoyment, it seems – and winds up being swindled by a down-and-out family of grifters. He loses his getaway bankroll and finds himself penniless and furious.

True to his character, he commits a murder that pays for a shellfish dinner at a shorefront restaurant. There he meets Carla, a wealthy woman with a beach house who takes him in solely for sex. The time they spend together is idyllic:

He kept squeezing, kept fucking her faster and deeper, and when he finally let go of her throat she came and came and he could feel her pussy clasp and unclasp at him tighter and faster and her orgasms went on forever and ever and time stopped and she was his angel his sweet sweet angel. His Carla.

He settles into his new life as a human sex toy and seems to lose his interest in killing.

This is where the title of the novella comes into play. During his sojourn with Carla, Messier repeatedly wonders whether he is falling in love with her, though he is reluctant to connect the word with the “strange happy feeling— the other feeling that seemed like it might be love.”

His reluctance makes sense. He eventually realizes that his “love” for her is no such thing:

Carla snuggled close to Lancaster. “Really?” she said. “Do you still love me?” “Yes,” Lancaster said, but he wasn’t telling the truth. He’d never loved her.

To say more about the plot would spoil it. Instead, simply know that a twist of fate leads Messier to resume his crime spree and his story culminates in a twist ending that will probably surprise the average reader.

Monson specializes in tales about people who have few redeeming qualities. His characters run the gamut of human amorality: grifters, cough syrup junkies, professional bank robbers, dope dealers, murderers, men and women who cheat on their mates. A Killer’s Love fits the pattern perfectly. The one thing they have in common is that all of them are transgressive: even the victims have violated normal ethical codes.

The action in this short book is brutal. The following passage covers Lancaster Messier’s meeting with a cross-dressing prostitute after the grifters rip him off for his car and wind money:

Gem pulled off the wig and set it next to her tube top. “Turn around.” She turned. Her black hair was just long enough for Lancaster to get a good enough grip with his left hand to cut her throat with the knife in his right hand. The cutting was passionate, deep, and angry. He dropped her and she fell on the bed. There was a sink in the kitchenette and Lancaster walked over to wash his knife. Above the sound of running water he heard gurgling from the bed. Shit. He looked over, and Gem was writhing and clutching at her throat with both hands.

He’d fucked up. Gem’s trachea was severed and she was suffering horribly. He grabbed her by her feet so he wouldn’t get blood on his clothes. He dragged her into the bathroom and put her body into the tub, then walked out and closed the door behind him. Good. He could no longer hear her pain.

A Killer’s Love is short and punchy. I didn’t like it as much as What Happens in Reno or Tussinland, two books that set the gold standard for nihilistic noir and cold-blooded violence. I suspect the reason is that both those books were actually novels, not novellas, and the additional length allowed Monson to explore his characters more completely.

But even a “B” list book by Monson is better than a lot of writers’ “A” list work. A Killer’s Love is nasty and violent. It is definitely worth a read.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Appalachian Darkness with a Heartbreaking Noir Twist

Route 12 
By Marietta Miles 
178 pages 
(All Due Respect books; February 15, 2016)
 Ebook distribution by Amazon for Kindle
 ISBN-10: 1523847921
 ISBN-13: 978-1523847921

If you like the grisly grand guignol of Vicki Hendricks’ Southern Gothic or the lurid aimlessness of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Midwestern nihilism, you are going to love Route 12, a pair of dark novellas by Marietta Miles.

Miles first came to my attention through her short stories in publications like Out of the Gutter Online (“Alice,” June 17, 2013; “You Never Know,” August 16, 2015), Thrills Kills and Chaos (“Virginia,” August 13, 2013) and in anthologies like Dangerous Dreams (“Firefly Eyes,” Thirteen Press, March 29, 2014). Her shorter pieces are riveting, but when she has the space to open up a tale – as she does here – she makes her words sing.

Route 12, the lead-off novella, is a beautifully crafted story about three disparate lives coming together fatally under a hunter's moon and an awning of damp holly trees and forsythia. The primary character is Theresa White, a grammar school student who is sent to live with her aunt in a trailer in the woods after her mother commits suicide.

A subsidiary character is Cheryl Prejean, a girl crippled by a bad polio vaccination. Cheryl’s mother was left destitute by a boyfriend who ran off with all her money and now is forced to take in boarders and do laundry and ironing to make ends meet.

The two girls, both kindly by nature, become fast friends when they are thrown together by fate.

The third main figure is Percy Caito, whose mother is arrested by county authorities and institutionalized as unfit. Caito, is placed in a reform school where he faces a universe of cruelty and sadism and comes to manhood raised as a criminal. On his release, Percy “is eighteen, a full-grown man, neither healed nor happy,” Miles writes. The young man begins to extract his revenge on the world, acquiring a handgun, killing an elderly man for his pitiable possessions and adopting his victim’s last name.

He moves into the spare room Cheryl’s mother is renting in Belle Gap, a town Miles describes as “a deep dark hole. An iron bridge to the east side, a deadly, rapid river to the west, the black mountains with sheer, severe cliffs of shale above and below. The Gap, as locals call it, rests in the womb of the mountains.”

Miles describes the sights and sounds of the tiny community masterfully: its oily smell, empty storefronts, and deteriorating homes. When Theresa spots a bird in distress on the ground during a walk around her new home, an act of feline sadism foreshadows the grim events to come and points the way toward the novella’s denouement:

A huge, matted tom darts from a nearby drainpipe. The cat growls viciously, hissing and spitting. In a violent, gruesome instant, the neighborhood predator is crashing over the bird. He paws the chick to the ground, clamping slick teeth around the fragile, hollow neck, and runs back to the pipe. Theresa releases a small, alarmed cry. She stands still as a statue, dazed. The sound of the bird screeching rings in her ears. The terrible growl of the cat is in her head.

The die has been cast. Given their sad past histories, a happy ending is simply not possible for these three young people.

Miles choses her words carefully and doesn’t waste a single sentence in sketching the story’s plot and characters. Even minor actors – such as Percy’s first victim or the art instructor under which the two girls study – are given sufficiently complex treatments to lift them up off the page.

In a dark twisted story like this, it is tempting to write so tersely that the story seems monochromatic. That is not Miles’s style; consider the note of melancholy Miles conjures in describing the home of the sickly man Percy murders: 

He steals into the tidy house while the woman is busy. It feels worn and soft inside, a place well lived in, with tired furniture and threadbare rugs. On nearly every surface rest small, senseless statues: Cupid carrying a giant red heart, a porcelain bride and her groom smiling at each other with red, embarrassed cheeks, and still another figurine with a teddy bear holding a sign, “Love Bear.” Small framed pictures of children and old people span the faded gray walls. On a desk is a black and white 8x10 of a handsome young marine in his dress uniform.

This is perfect. Anyone who has ever intruded where they don’t belong will recognize the eerie sensations that drive burglars even more than the loot available: the broken furniture tucked against the wall, worn rugs, threadbare upholstery. They will recall the peculiar taint of mildew, fading perfume or cologne, cooking odors in the kitchen, the slight rot of untended garbage, and the stale tang of urine around the toilet in the bathroom.

And Miles is not only masterful at recreating a scene with a few deft strokes. She also knows making her characters into real human beings can increase her readers’ interest and keep them turning pages better than the cleverest plot twists.

It was this complexity of character that I found most compelling about this novella: despite the purity and kind-heartedness of the two victims and the sadistic depravity of their tormentor, it is possible to feel a degree of sympathy for all three. Theresa is the victim of a family tragedy that leaves her feeling guilty and shameful; Cheryl is crippled through no fault of her own, but is treated like a freak by her classmates.

Even Percy is the victim of institutional indifference, surrounded by thugs and subjected to regular beatings and psycho-sexual torture by authority figures. Nobody can stop the brutal acts that bring the story to a close. It is the inevitability of the ending that gives it its noirish twist.

Miles’ second novella, “Blood and Sin,” is just as well put together and equally sad. In it, Sherry, a rather dim woman in a small town in North Carolina, finds herself pregnant. She wants to keep the child, but doing so isi out of the question in the South of the 1970s: Sherry is white; the baby inside her is black.  Seeking assistance, she goes to her clergyman, the Pastor Friendly. Unbeknownst to her, however, Friend, however, is a homicidal sadist running a baby mill that sells  unwanted newborns to the highest bidder. 
To tell more would spoil the story. Suffice to say that Naomi, another deeply disturbed young woman who, like Sherry, is the victim of an abusive upbringing, plays a major role in balancing the scale, Meanwhile, the sanctimonious Friend meets a sort of cosmic justice – one that doesn’t involve policemen, prosecutors or courts.

These are two really fine novellas. They offer a pair of stories that another author might take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to unwind, and they do it economically and efficiently, leaving the reader with a feeling of deep satisfaction.

If you are looking for a read as grim and dark as midnight in an Appalachian coal mine, this pair of short novels is for you!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

For McBleak, Noc Brenner and Luke Warfield, It's Their Way or the Hard Way!

By Gary Phillips

312 pages

 (Down & Out Books, Feb. 8, 2016)

Ebook: Amazon Digital Services LLC

ISBN: 1943402132



True pulp aficionados have probably read their share of books in which the hero has a team of sidekicks who help him fight off evil-doers and save the world as we know it from falling under their control.

If you enjoy these heroic “teams” and their exploits, you should check out Gary Phillips’ collection of novellas, 3 the Hard Way.

Phillips is a modern master of the pulp milieu, an unreconstructed master of the genre pioneered in pulp rags like Weird Tales and Argosy and brought to its highest state in the dead-eye paperback novels of the 1960s and 1970s. Think Remo Williams, or Matt Helms.

Pulpmeister Gary Phillips
In these three he harks back to the teams organized by the superheros of the 1930s and 1940s – Doc Savage, the Shadow and The Spider.

Each features a slick and shrewd lead character who is an expert marksman with great martial arts skills backed by a group of specialists that come up with ingenious inventions, crack just about any internet connection and get through any security equipment with ease.

Sound familiar? We are talking about a long-standing subgenre of superhero fiction such as Clark “Doc” Savage, the character created by Henry W. Ralston and John L. Nanovic for now-defunct pulpsters Street and Smith.

Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five
Savage worked with a group of technical experts, “The Fabulous Five:” Chemist “Monk” Mayfair, legal eagle “Ham” Brooks, construction engineer “Renny” Renwick, electrical expert “Long Tom” Roberts and geologist “Johnny” Littlejohn.

The Shadow, who was featured in radio dramas, magazine fiction, books, films and comic strips, had a similar team of “agents” and “operatives” that performed much the same function. The Shadow’s sidekicks included his girlfriend, Margo Lane, his cab driver and chauffer Moe Schrevnitz,  newspaper reporter Clyde Burke, auto gyro pilot Miles Crofton and physician Rupert Sayre.

More recently, the writers of the parody pulp adventure story “Buckaroo Banzai,” a 1984 film, created the Hong Kong Cavaliers, a team of super scientists to support the title character (played by Peter Weller) who is a particle physics expert and neurosurgeon.

One-upping the old pulps, Buckaroo Banzai even threw in secondary assistants such as The Blue Blazer Irregulars, the Rug Suckers and the Radar Rangers.

Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers
Look for the same pattern in these three Gary Phillips nail biters.

In “The Extractors,”  Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston -- alias McBleak – an expert safe cracker and thief – works with a team that includes Bunny Sawyer (a metal fabricator who specializes in covert surveillance gear), Crosscut (guided muscle) and Elza Raffendon and her art forger partner, Rebecca Woodbridge. Together they engineer a scam that wipes out an evil businessman while opening up a path to a secret trove of stolen art works.

In  “The Anti-Gravity Steal,” Ned “Noc” Brenner, an extreme sports athlete with a photographic memory and physical skills good enough to make him a top professional in everything from mixed martial arts to motorcycle racing, must use all his abilities to prevent a criminal cartel from obtaining the SK-19, an assault tank developed for the Pentagon that is propelled by an anti-gravity device still under development.

Brenner is a genius himself, but in this novella he works with an organization called the Vigilance Initiative, which provides a ready source of technical and financial assistance. Among its members are Ella Navarro, a martial arts expert, and a man named Koburn who can change his face and voice at will.

In “Ten Seconds to Death,” Luke Warfield – aka The Essex Man – must save Los Angeles from a dirty nuclear explosive that an enemy intends to use as part of a criminal scheme.

Like Brenner and McBleak, Warfield is assisted by a team of multidisciplinary specialists that includes Maurice “Smokestack” Desmond (a criminal with extensive underworld contacts),  Critch Duling (a martial arts expert) and Topaz (an attractive woman who is a getaway driver for Desmond).

With their assistance, Warfield, a philanthropist with a black operations background, takes on another black ops specialist he once served with overseas – a villain with ties to terrorists and Russian nuclear arms experts who killed Warfield’s father.

No need to worry about character exposition and multiple back stories slowing the pace of these short novels. In each, the action begins almost immediately and works its way through fist fights, gun battles, high-speed auto chases and explosions.

In “The Extractors,” for example, McBleak is casing a location when he is accosted by a street goon interested in his $500 loafers. McBleak dispatches the muscle head, who is accompanied by an edgy pit bull mix, with nothing but a fountain pen:

“You ain’t a cop,” he concluded. “Them shoes are too good for a po-po, even vice,” his new acquaintance observed. He squinted as if seeking to shake off the effects of the beer reeking from him. Suddenly, he blurted, “Brunoris. Them some Brunoris.”

They were.

“Look about my size too.” He grinned at McBleak then looked at the dog then back to him. “Am I right?”

“What about this?” McBleak had withdrawn a fountain pen from his jacket’s inside pocket. He held it by its tip for the other man to see. The cap and barrel were finished in silver filigree.

 “This is a Waterman, an antique in fact. I restore them. It involves close work, precision. Steady hands, clarity and focus.”

Man and dog gazed at the pen. The owner asked, “It’s worth something?”

McBleak unscrewed the cap and removed it, exposing the nib. “Probably fetch three or four thousand at auction. This one was said to belong to Dorothy Parker.” The other one sneered. “Probably go good with them shoes.” Before he could issue a command to his dog to lunge, McBleak struck.

He jabbed the tip of the pen in the tattooed man’s neck and simultaneously, got his opposite arm around his neck.

The dog was barking and snarling but was still held on the leash. McBleak had also thrown himself and his temporary prisoner backward against a chain link fence, cutting off a rear attack by the dog, he hoped.

“If you don’t want me to gash open your neck, homes, tell your dog to be cool.” Blood trickled onto McBleak’s hand and the Waterman. The nib had broken the skin, and he worked his hand back and forth, digging it into the flesh.

Threat eliminated!

In the above anecdote, neither McBleak not his would-be shoe-jacker are seriously injured, but sometimes the violence in these yarns is both gory and lethal. In the Luke Warfield novella, for example, the Essex Man, trying to get a line on who killed his father,  is just extracting a key clue from a witness when gunmen try to cut him down outside a watering hole:

Warfield also got up and they left the dingy Magambo bar, the bartender giving them the once over as they exited. “My truck is across the street,” he said, pointing at it parked at a meter.

“Okay,” she said and they stepped off the curb, about to jaywalk across the wide thoroughfare of Imperial.

Coming slow around the corner from a side street was a lowered, tricked out ’65 Impala. Its movements were too deliberate as far as Warfield was concerned and he grabbed at Tristy who was slightly ahead of him.

“Get down,” he warned, his hand on her arm, seeking to get her and himself behind an older Lincoln with suicide doors parked on their side of the street.

“Oh shit,” the woman said, her knees now wobbly with fear as automatic fire tore from the vehicle. Panicking, she didn’t go in the direction Warfield was pulling her but pulled away.

Her body jerked and got spun around just as she reached the sidewalk. The rounds ripped into her, bursting out windows of cars and storefronts as other bullets zeroed into the brick and stucco of the buildings.

Warfield had a gun on him and returned fire as the car sped off. He’d flattened out right before the shooting, diving behind the Lincoln. He got over to the wounded woman to see if there was a way to save her.

“Delxkor,” she coughed, blood gurgling in her mouth and throat from destroyed lungs. “Funny...funny how the name popped into...my head now,” she said and died.

The action is just as fast and furious in the other novella – and in “Murder by Remote Control,” a bonus short story that Phillips has included in the set. This is good stuff, folks. If you enjoy this type of story, you can’t go wrong with 3 the Hard Way.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Heat is on in Oaktown; Vern -- Rob Pierce's Latest Badass -- is the One Bringing It!

By Rob Pierce
113 pages
(All Due Respect Books; February 28, 2016)
Ebook: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Forget your exotic locales and high-maintenance bad guys. Rob Pierce's Vern in the Heat is set in Oakland, California -- San Francisco's tougher, grittier sister on the other side of the Bay Bridge.
Score it another fence-clearing dinger from All Due Respect, the new publisher that specializes in crime fiction so hard-boiled that it bounces when you fumble taking it out of the sauce pan.
Rob Pierce -- Vern is another wall-clearing
dinger for All Due Respect Books
 The novella – at 113 pages, it’s short enough to consume in one setting, but good enough to re-read immediately afterward -- is as dark as anything All Due Respect has published.
It’s a helluva good read. Each character is sharp-edged enough to jump off the page and slap your face until it bleeds. There are no good guys, just professional criminals who look, act and sound like they should be leering out of a poster on a post office wall.
Vern is a sort of glorified delivery man for an organized crime figure in Oakland, California. A bartender girlfriend, Deria, unknowingly sets him up to take the blame for a drug money rip-off engineered by a faction of a rival gang. Vern figures out the scam and finds a way to turn it against his rivals.
In the process he kills several people, beats the hell out of at least one and ends up in a pool hall shootout in which Deria plays a critical role.

If there is a weakness in this tight little yarn, it lies in the fact that we never learn more about Vern’s partner, a guy named Turman. He plays a pivotal role in the story, but by the time we finish the tale, all we really know about him is his name.

I, for one, would like a little more back story on this character – how he came to work with Vern, his relationship with Vern’s boss, Keene, pretty much anything.

But that’s a minor quibble and Vern in the Heat works fine even without the additional details.
Oakland has rarely been grittier than it is portrayed in this lean, tersely written tale.
In the opening section of the book, Vern is going to face down a Chinese gang-banger in Possum's, a tough pool room run by a former biker.
“Vern figured Chen was a loner if he liked to shoot pool in a white man’s bar," Pierce writes. "There were plenty of Chinese bars to choose from. Of course, Possum’s might have been a little more comfortable for a badass, but it wasn’t like Oakland didn’t have badass Chinese bars. Oakland had badass everything.”
In another section, Pierce tautly explains how East Bay residential areas deteriorate as you move toward Oaktown.
"They weren't really in Deria's neighborhood anymore, but it was close enough that Joey Lee and Keene would still look for them here. The businesses were about the same but the people were different. This neighborhood was worse than Deria's, as each neighborhood would be from here until they reached Oakland. Once in Oakland, it wasn't neighborhoods anymore: each block was judged by who was on it that night."
At a critical juncture, Vern and his unwilling companions are driving a rental to a rendezvous:
"The term deathly quiet had never seemed so apt. The car rolled smoothly down Oakland streets as though they'd been repaved by a city with a real budget."
And Vern, the lead character, is just as tough as Uncle Dust, the central figure in Pierce's eponymously named debut novel.
Stopping in a trendy bar for a beer while making a drug money drop, Vern looks around the place with distaste.
"[Vern] supposed everyone in a place like this thought kicking back was a lifestyle," Pierce writes.
"That pissed him off. He also supposed they would be scared if he showed his .38. That made him smile. Not that Vern would rob a joint like this or shoot anyone during a robbery. A murder rap could take up all of a man's time."
Vern uses violence like a carpenter uses a crosscut saw: as a tool no well-equipped craftsman should be without. Embellishing a story about a past caper by stretching the facts, he explains to Deria the importance of responding immediately to the first sign of danger:
"There's a lesson in that story," Vern tells her.
"What lesson?"
"Don't hesitate," Vern said. "Don't hesitate, don't get shot."