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. . .

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Nick Gillis’s Spiraling Descent into Hillbilly Hell

Kill ‘Em With Kindness
By C.S. DeWildt
142 pages
( All Due Respect Books; May 30, 2016)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

A year ago, C. S. DeWildt served up a fine novel about a quirky glue sniffing detective in Love You to a Pulp, his first full-length piece of noir. He has outdone himself in his latest, Kill ‘Em With Kindness, a twisted tale of love, hate, psychotic sex, violence and revenge.

C.S. DeWildt
Meet Nick Gillis, a pot grower with a green thumb. Check that; as his flakey space-case chum, Hobo says, “Forget about thumbs; you’re green to the shoulder.”

Nick’s life has been rocky lately: he was thrown out of college, lost his wife to suicide and got fired from his job as head man at the golf course. He lives a solitary, guilt-wracked life in Horton, a tiny corrupt community, and gets by peddling his high-grade grow through Hobo.

It’s a bleak existence. But things get even bleaker when Nick does a good deed for Kimmy Flynn, local crime strongman Chad Toll’s girlfriend. Nick is sitting in a local beer joint, Nate’s, when  Kimmy enters. He  is stunned at her appearance: it’s clear that Chad has beat the hell out of her, leaving her with facial contusions, cuts and a skull held together by a metal band secured in place with screws.

Kimmy takes only a few minutes of sucking down vodka and orange before she is shit-faced drunk.

When she attacks an eye-candy blonde Chad and his posse brought to the bar before retiring to a secret room downstairs to talk business, Nick hustles her out of the place and takes her home, staying only long enough to make sure she is secure for the night.

His good Samaritan effort, unfortunately, turns out to be a grotesque mistake.

Nick finds himself in the local jail run by a crooked cop, The Chief, facing charges of rape. When he is released, Chad Toll and his bone-dumb sidekicks pick him up and force him to join their crew, committing petty crimes and terrorizing the citizenry.

The source of Toll’s leverage is Nick’s good deed in driving a drunken woman home.

Chad holds the rape charge over Nick’s head. In addition, there is the constant threat of his animals, two “drooling Caucasian Mountain Dogs that went with him everywhere, black as the night and each of them easily over two hundred pounds.” Early in the book, the dogs’ menace is amply demonstrated: Chad forces Nick to watch as Hobo is literally eaten alive by the mindless brutes.

It’s the beginning of a spiraling descent into Hillbilly hell.  

As his primary responsibility to the small town gang leader, Chad orders Gillis to be Kimmy’s driver and errand boy. But he warns him not to make a move on her, offering an anecdote about his gangster father shooting a man through the head for engaging in an act of bestiality with one of Chad’s animals: “‘You can’t let a man fuck your goat,” he tells Nick. “It’s not that he’s fucking it, some men just can’t help themselves. It’s that the goat he’s fucking is yours.”

“This [his father’s slaying of the man] is what happens when you fuck a man’s goat: the man is put down,” Chad says  without a trace of humor. “And the goat, too, because while innocent victim maybe, ruined is fucking ruined, right?”

Their relationship is cat and mouse, and Nick is the unlucky rodent. “What had been a tolerable stagnation of body and soul was about to become something new," DeWildt writes  early in the story. "It was easy to think that with a little luck, the something new would work out and everything would be okay. Easy to think if you were a fucking moron.”

Nick Gillis is a marvelous creation: diffident, passive, gnawed by guilt over his dead wife’s suicide and the loss of the child she was carrying. DeWildt’s protagonist is a perfect noir hero; a schmuck who has no control over his fate or much of anything else. Battered by conflicting demands from Kimmy, The Chief and Chad, he is a pawn in everyone’s game. His one desperate Rube Goldberg attempt to free himself goes ludicrously astray, killing Chad’s two oafish underlings, but leaving him at the mercy of the infuriated Toll, himself.

Despite his aimlessness and ineptitude at extricating himself from his entanglement, Nick grabs the reader with his first action, his decent attempt to help a woman in distress. He continues to display that innate decency throughout the narrative, while all the other characters – except the unfortunate Hobo – show various levels of depravity and viciousness.

Almost by default, the reader hopes for Gillis to find a way out of his quagmire. But Nick’s pessimism and guilt seem to doom him. For example, Nick has a well-maintained Russian Makarov nine millimeter he acquired from a classmate before he was kicked out of college for dealing weed, and he begins carrying it for protection after hooking up with Chad. But he literally lacks the nerve to pull the trigger. Turning the principle of "Chekov’s gun"* upside down, when Gillis finally fires the pistol, it is at an animal – which he fails to kill.

The book is extraordinarily well-written. DeWildt’s dialog is crisp, with a backwoods twang that is not overdone and a fine ear for a unique turn of phrase. His descriptions are as direct as a punch to the face and help move the narrative forward as well as maintaining the novel's ominous tone. 

For example, When Nick drives Kimmy to her family home so she can visit her daughter, DeWildt writes:

“Nick saw no driveway until he was on it, no more than a narrow break in the tall green corn that dominated the area. He pulled into the rutted dirt drive and the car was immediately swallowed up whole by thick stalks. The long, straight gravel drive was dark, shaded with little slashes of sunlight that ripped through narrow breaks and turned the corn stalks into shadowy fingers that bad-touched everything that dared come close.”

Later, Kimmy has Nick help her inspect a small fortune in coins she has secreted in a hidey-hole:

“Nick dug and she watched. The ground was soft and it made for easy work, but the easy added up and soon Nick was wet with sweat, standing in his hole with a growing pile of “easy” behind him. Waist deep in the hole he wiped his brow and looked at Kimmy and wondered if he was actually digging something up or preparing a grave.”

The book’s plot is first rate. All Gillis wants is to stay alive, but he finds himself in a dance of jealousy, hatred, brutality and treachery, with each partner – Chad, Kimmy, The Chief and Chad’s oafish sidekicks – seeming to jostle him toward extinction. Several twists in the story line -- not to mention its resolution -- will leave the reader smiling with surprise. Kill ‘Em With Kindness is one of those books that is difficult to set aside, even temporarily, and when the details of the twisted story fade, the pervasive atmosphere of anomie and gloom persists. It is a terrific summer read.

* Chekov's gun: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Tough Love Story in Plainclothes Police Drag

Texas, Hold Your Queens
By Marie Crosswell
87 pages
(One Eye Press; June 13, 2016)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: Marie Crosswell’s novella, Texas, Hold Your Queens, is something different: a hard-as-nails love story tricked out in police procedural drag.

Ostensibly, Crosswell’s novella is a textbook tale about how two veteran cops, El Paso Detectives Mason Page and Farrah Tyler, track down a rapist murderer. 

Author Marie Crosswell
But the mystery angle is superficial (in fact, the identity of the perp is revealed in the first 6,700 words of this tight 90,000 word novella); the police procedure, though skillfully recounted and totally believable, is secondary to the yarn’s real focus.

What the book is really about is the tortured relationship between Page and Tyler, two women who are forced apart by circumstances and realize they simply can’t live without each other.

Setting the scene, the two detectives – the only women in the El Paso Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, are dispatched to investigate what happened to a nameless Mexican woman found near the Texas-Mexico border, the victim of a sexual assault and savage stabbing.

The case appears routine but extraordinarily hard to solve: the woman’s identity is unknown, it is unclear how long she has been in the United States and there are no witnesses to her death.

Crosswell tells the story well, intercutting the hunt for the killer and how finding him affects the two detectives. At first, the somewhat jumbled order of events confused me, forcing me to go back and reread some key passages. But eventually I recognized there is a sort of genius in avoiding a linear narrative.

The police procedural part of the story is the patient, methodical way they put the case together.

As the investigation proceeds, however, we undergo a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that spell out the relationship between the two women, a love affair that is almost utterly sexless based on their isolation within a largely male police agency and aching loneliness.

The best lead Page and Tyler unearth is from the county medical examiner, who finds a partially digested hamburger and fries in the victim’s stomach during his postmortem examination.

Following up the meal clue, they are able to track down the waitress who served the victim her last supper, the prostitute who bought it for her and the desk clerk who rents the hooker her hot-sheets motel room.

Still they are no closer to the perpetrator of the crime. Despite the lack of substantive clues, the two female detectives slowly put together a picture of the victim they both find haunting. The evidence that turns the investigation toward solution, however, is not the product of their dedicated police work; instead it is a positive hit on the perp’s DNA.

With an ID in hand, Page and Tyler begin to really work the case, interviewing the suspect’s warders at a prison in a neighboring state, his family members and an ex-girlfriend. Page even interviews his prior victim, a woman who has moved to Truth of Consequences, New Mexico, and who nurtures a simmering resentment toward and hatred of the perpetrator.

It is during this road trip that the central conflict of the story is revealed:

“Mason and Farrah had agreed in the car on the way there that they wouldn’t say anything about Gabler serving for rape and assault in New Mexico. Reviewing his record, those charges did stand out as a new development, the rest of his rap sheet an assortment of drug possession, DUI, drunk and disorderly, parole violations, and petty theft. They hadn’t talked about it, but they had both been thinking the same thing: he progressed from violent rape and assault to murder, after a seven year stint inside. He got worse, not better.”

“This wasn’t someone who could be reformed, and if he didn’t serve life for Reina’s murder, he’d get out and do something just as bad again.”

So what do you do with an incorrigible criminal who becomes more violent and dangerous with each crime? This is the key issue the two cops are forced to face.

Their search for the fugitive eventually culminates in an incident at a flophouse in Odessa, Texas. There the story takes a wicked turn, one which the reader realizes he or she has been expecting for some time because of the way the tale has unfolded. It is no less shocking when it finally occurs, however, and the remaining question is how it will affect the two detectives.

Crosswell has done an expert job of bringing these characters to life. She manages the tender ache of Tyler and Page particularly well, and the rift between the two women over the incident in Odessa will break any reader’s heart. The incidental characters – the earlier rape victim, the suspects’ relations, the motel desk clerks, waitresses and so forth – are also invested with fully developed personalities and physical tics to make then unique.

The dialog in this short book is equally sharp and convincing. The detectives keep their comments  terse; witnesses who are “in the life” like Tammy, the prostitute, emit the vibe of people reluctant to talk with cops; the killer’s relatives sound disgusted at the evil he has done.

The emotions of speakers are not the focus of their remarks: they act them out by what they do with their hands, how they stand during questioning, the way they smoke (almost everyone in this short book smokes like a five-alarm fire).

Most important of all, cop lingo can be easily overdone; Crosswell avoids that trap by having her investigators use very few terms specific to the trade and none that require translation into everyday English.

The novella is steeped in the loneliness of the two investigators and the weariness of their daily skirmishes against villainy. The war is eternal and Sisyphean, and the reader ends up with a bone-grinding feeling of cop burnout after finishing the last page.

I feel fortunate recently to have read some marvelous stories by fine female crime writers, including Lisa Brackmann, Jen Conley and Marietta Miles. I am looking forward to the latest from Sarah M. Chen and Patti Nase Abbott.

Marie Crosswell’s novella is a fine addition to the pack. I can’t recommend it enough.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Deadlier Gender: Conley’s Crime Tales are as Bleak And Tough as Those by Goodis, Cain or Thompson

By Jen Conley
266 pages
(Down & Out Books; April 25, 2016)
ISBN-10: 194340223X
ISBN-13: 978-1943402236

Lots of crime fiction fans suffer under the delusion that women who write about the underworld prefer to have their villains use poisons – preferably from plants grown in their own gardens – and work out their plots during downtime from knitting tea cozies, doing scrapbooks and sipping cup after cup of Earl Grey dressed with milk and sugar.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many woman crime writers fashion stories as bloodthirsty and nasty as their male counterparts. A goodly number do work that falls under the aegis of noir – bleak tales of doomed people who can’t seem to make a good decision, no matter how hard they try. 

The female of the crime writing species is every bit as good at doping out the psychology of a serial killer, figuring the motivation of a scammer or turning the tables on a two-timing husband or boyfriend as any of her male counterparts. Think of Patricia Highsmith, Leigh Brackett, Dorothy B. Hughes or Margaret Millar, all acknowledged mistresses of gripping psychological thrillers.

Oh, yes: Add another to the list, if you will; Jen Conley, whose day job teaching elementary school kids at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in New Jersey belies her tough-as-nails and often violent prose.

Author Jen Conley: Ready to Join Other Masters of Lipstick Noir

For years Conley, one of the editors at the red-blooded crime magazine, Shotgun Honey, has been writing short stories for publications such as Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, and Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.

Now she has brought forth a collection of 15 of her wonderful stories: Cannibals.

All are set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a desolate and mysterious region Conley seems to know very well. They feature troubled protagonists and villains who are plunged into situations far beyond their control.

Consider “Pipe,” a terse tale about Tyrell Colton, a bullied high school kid who plots revenge against his teen-aged tormentor. As he heads off to school on the day of his vengeance, “The morning sky was heavy with mean, gray clouds. Icy drizzle flecked against his face as he hiked down the street, his stride quick, the pipe hidden in his jacket, the one end tucked into an inside pocket while the rest rose underneath his coat and against his torso until it reached his shoulder blade.”

As the story unfolds we learn that a week earlier, Colton was throttled by Mark Horak, a vicious classmate in French class. Only the intervention of the school’s vice principal postponed a serious beating and Colton is told that Horak, who was suspended three days for attacking him, is planning to beat him up when he returns.

All the elements of noir are here: a loner alienated from his peers, an original transgression that sets the plot in motion, a violent response that is wrongheaded, an ally in which the protagonist has mistakenly placed his admiration and trust and the betrayal that ultimately dooms him. The story is atmospheric, tightly written and crackles with authenticity, packing an entire morality play into a 3,800-word package.

Or consider “Home Invasion,” a 4,900-word yarn about a heist in which the three thieves – one of them 19-year-old Keon Dell, doing “his very first and only burglary” – are surprised to find the elderly woman who owns the place is still at home.

The trio terrorize the woman, steal her petty valuables, then, because she is a teacher who once had Keon as a student, abruptly kill her:

“He (Ramone, the trio’s ringleader) grabbed the pillow from Keon, put it against Mrs. Mullins head, and with his other hand, pulled out his gun, sticking it against the pillow. She screamed and shook horrendously, but she did not try to get away. She only pleaded for her life, her voice desperate, her pitch high and frantic: “No! No, please! Don’t! I love my grandchildren!”

“Ramone tilted his head and gazed at Keon. Keon opened his mouth to— do what— stop the motion? But Ramone returned his focus to the task before him and, simply, fired.

“Her body buckled and collapsed. White stuffing dotted with red floated in the air. Ramone threw the pillow next to the body. Blood and pieces of gray seeped out of her head and onto the floor, a greenish carpet with swirling gold designs. Keon and Ramone stared at the body.

What’s haunting about the story is the fact that, after this sordid murder, life goes on pretty much as it did before.

In other words, the power of the story is that nothing more happens. Keon joins the Army and is sent to Iraq after 9/11.  He initially has nightmares about the slaying but eventually conflates its memory with his other dreams. Conley cleverly alludes to the myth of the Jersey Devil – a wive’s tale that haunted Keon as a child – in her recounting of how his horrific remembrance of the murder fades over time:

“Now that he was a combat soldier, the blood and brains of his kills got all mixed with Mrs. Mullins . . .  and sometimes, on a good night, all that evil confused him. And for a brief moment, when he was sitting up, wide awake, breathing hard, getting his bearings, the last traces of the dream breaking up and dissolving, it was like he was a kid again telling himself that the Jersey Devil was just a story.

“For a brief moment, after waking from the dream, mercy would fall upon him, and he would tell himself Mrs. Mullins and her bloody death never actually happened.”

Not all of Conley’s stories are crime tales, mind you. “Cannibals,” the story the collection takes its name from, is more of a horror yarn. It is disturbing and not to be read on a dark, storm-riven night, but no crime is actually committed in it. It turns on psychology, not the supernatural, and is as intense as salt in a gash.

The same is true of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” “Kick” or “Debbie, the Hero.” All are really slice of life stories – tales of people who are up against it, who have run out of options. People stuck in dead-end lives, facing a future as bleak as a winter squall blowing up out of the Atlantic.

Make no mistake, however: all of them are as intense as “Home Invasion” and “Pipe.”Some have the anarchy and blank nihilism of Hubert Selby Jr. – they are bleak and aimless. Several reminded me of Selby’s masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn.

An excellent example is “Metalhead Marty in Love,” in which a shy and self-deprecating rock guitarist with a potential for artistic greatness makes the mistake of romance with a thug’s hand-me-down girlfriend. When the thug finds out about the union, he and his goons take revenge in a violent turn so shocking that even the bully has to recognize it. The story’s ending takes a melancholy twist that leaves the reader thinking about it hours after closing the book.

If there is a weakness to this volume, it lies in the stories called “Howling,” “Circling,” and “Angels.” Each involves a police officer, Andrea Vogel, and an incident that occurs when she is working her beat in the communities just outside the Pine Barrens. One is a rape, one is an investigation of a reported noise in the piney woodland. A third is the tale of Vogel’s protection of a man with extreme gambling debts – a man she once dated before she married.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with these stories; the villainy is minimal, the characters keenly observed, the dialog true to life; the situations are totally believable, not melodramatic clashes with evil personified.

The problem is, when I finished Cannibals, I wanted more stories about Vogel, her job, her private time after she knocks off for the day. I fell in love with this character. She is a little like Marge Gunderson, the police chief in the Coen Brother’s terrific movie Fargo, only a great deal more interior and philosophical than the woman Frances McDormand played. I hope that Conley is thinking about an entire novel about Officer Vogel.

Cannibals is a sensational piece of work. Jen Conley can proudly take her place with such amazing writers as Patti Abbott, Vicki Hendricks and Bonny Jo Campbell, her sisters in the field of dark crime.