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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, April 19, 2016

Greg Barth’s Bad Girl Selena is Back

By Greg Barth
228 pages
(All Due Respect Books, March 31, 2016)
e-Book issued by Amazon

Greg Barth, author of Bona Fide Jobs and Where Moth and Dust Corrupt, wrapped up the saga of Selena, the homicidal hooker, in Suicide Lounge, the third and ostensibly last book of his Selena trilogy.

Author Greg Barth
I read the book in two middle-of-the-night binges, shutting off my Kindle at five each morning.  If my e-Book had pages to turn, my fingers would be calloused from going through this fast-paced, brutal story.

Was it any good? Consider this: I would happily read Selena 4, 5, 6, etc.

Book One introduces Selena, a drug and alcohol abusing prostitute who is a physical wreck after she inadvertently swipes a CD full of credit card information that is the property of an organized crime group.

She requires extensive surgery for broken bones, a crushed eye socket, damage to her reproductive system and a variety of other injuries at the hands of the criminals. Pulling herself together, she takes temporary shelter with her child molesting father in Kentucky and becomes a crack shot with a pair of sawed-off twelve gauges.

The remainder of volume one details how Selena gets revenge against the sadistic gangsters who savaged her.

Book two, Diesel Therapy, tells how Selena is given the bus treatment by an assistant U.S. Attorney who wants chapter and verse about her underworld contacts. She is driven half mad by the Bureau of Prison goons who are supposed to be her warders, but escapes and goes underground with the assistance of Pete, a gang boss who is her secret benefactor.  

Freed from her confinement, she seeks 
revenge on her father and his cronies, a petty gang of child molesting hillbillies who run an underage white slavery racket.

In volume three, Suicide Lounge, Selena has turned up under a new name, working for Enola, a lesbian who runs a whore house and dope den that is thinly disguised as a lap-dancing bar.  The lesbian, we quickly learn, is really fronting for Pete, Selena’s gang boss protector.

 When a sadistic drug dealer named Mozingo has Pete killed in prison and then moves on Enola’s territory, she is forced to take control of the lesbian’s gang and prepare for all-out war with the knife-wielding sadist, his gang members and an allied group of outlaw bikers.

This may sound odd, but Selena is a totally admirable character, a true friend to her friends and a bitter enemy to those who would cause them harm.

There is relatively little introspection or philosophizing in any of these three books. Barth fills in the back story through his sharply sketched characters, the dialog they speak and the actions they take.

For example, after Selena overdoses on Demerol, the physician treating her asks her about her sex life. Her reply shows you her toughness, cynical attitude and sense of humor.

“Are you promiscuous?” Dr. Addington said.
“You mean sexually, right?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“On a scale of what?”
“How many sexual partners have you had?”
“In my whole life? You mean just men? And me being a willing participant?”
“Sure,” the doctor says. “Just men. And only when you were willing.”
I thought for a moment. It was no use. “I have no idea.”
 “Really, Amanda? Ballpark?”
“No. Jesus. Way less than a ballpark. Shit. I’d say small auditorium max. And I don’t mean, like, an arena either. I’m thinking one of those school assembly auditoriums, but, you know, smaller than that even.”

Barth’s protagonist is characteristically blunt and honest. When a drug supplier in Las Vegas agrees to provide “product” for Selena and her crew, he sets a condition: first she must kill a rival gangster while posing as a hooker.

 “You’re asking me to murder a mobster?” she asks.
“That bother you?”
“Nah. It’s kind of what I do these days.”

Late in the book she confronts Bob “Crowbar” Crowe, a turncoat in her crew who twice tried to kill her with drug overdoses. The man thinks he can talk his way out of the situation because, he says, “you’re just one of Ragus’s whores.”

When she tells him who she really is, he comes unglued with fear.

“Selena, please. Just… please… don’t… don’t…”
“Drink, Bob. You have to drink.”
Tears pooled against his lower eyelids. They overfilled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks.
“No,” he said.
I looked him dead in the eye. “You have to drink.”
He picked up the glass, looked at the clear liquid, and pressed the glass to his lips. He leaned back in his chair and drained the glass in one gulp. I fired the shotgun. He took the full blast in the chest. The chair flipped backwards, spilled him onto the floor. The smell of burnt gunpowder stung my nostrils. My ears rang from the blast.
I got up and hobbled around to the other side of the table. Crowbar lay on the floor on his back. His unfocused eyes open, seeing nothing. “Know who you’re fucking with now, don’t you old boy,” I said.

With a minimum of verbiage, Barth turns every scene into a three-dimensional location. Here is his description of the warehouse where the bikers have secreted to money and drugs they stole from Selena and friends during a vicious gunfight:

It was dark inside. It smelled of grease, gasoline, and sawdust. They stepped in and closed the door. The large room had a concrete floor. Shadows absorbed all but the faintest of details.

This is a particularly effective bit of description. You can smell the odors; feel the hard cold flooring under your feet. My favorite part, however, is the bit where “shadows absorb all but the faintest of details:” I immediately could see a gloom so pervasive that it sucked the light out of the room, a shade that simply drowned the other items there as if they were disappearing into a pool of quicksand. That gloom is a tiny reflection of the overall darkness of the story, and of Selena’s own grim view of the world.

Suicide Lounge finishes the Selena trilogy with a flurry of punches and kicks, a knockout combination that left me smiling with satisfaction. It is raw, gritty and believable. I believe in Selena, and wish I had a kick-ass friend like her to back me up in a dangerous situation.

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