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, July 24, 2016

The Sin Tax: Preston Lang’s little foray into the confederacy of creeps

By Preston Lang
166 pages
(All Due Respect Books; June 30, 2016)
Electronic version through Amazon

It’s easy to like a crime story that begins with a convenience store supervisor threatening to fire a clerk solely because he was robbed at gunpoint.

In Preston Lang’s latest, The Sin Tax, that’s exactly what happens.
The book opens with an initial exchange between counterman Mark reviewing a video of a robbery that occurred earlier in the evening with his edgy, arrogant boss, Janet:

“If you get robbed again, you’re fired,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“If it happens again, you are fired. That’s all.”

“I had a man stick a gun in my face, then you make me watch [the security video of it] twice, and now you’re telling me I’m fired?”

“You’re not fired. You’ve still got your job. But if it happens again, you are gone.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.

“Let me ask you a question: why was there 240 dollars in the register?”

“Because I didn’t have a chance to put the extra cash in the—”

“You didn’t have a chance? You want me to wind it back so we can look at video of you standing at the counter reading for half an hour with 240 dollars sitting in your reg?”

“That was a mistake,” he said.

“Fine, it was a mistake. If it happens again— you’re fired.”

Mark looked at the screen. He could see the back of the thief’s sweatshirt, stained and fraying with a yellow number 44 ironed on the back; and he could see himself, looking useless and defeated.

“Next time I’ll risk my life to save a few Milano cookies,” he muttered.

“What’s that?”


Mark and Janet's less than cordial relationship is at the center of the book. It turns out that both are scammers, looking for a shot at the brass ring. Mark, a Slovenian immigrant who is also an ex-con, is a small-timer who has been getting by on nickel-dime jobs, waiting for opportunities to score, largely through ripping off the illegal cigarettes (smuggled from other states, stolen from shipments) that seem to be the lifeblood of every mom-and-pop store in New York.  

Janet has a bigger prize in mind: the fortune in cash that her boss, Rosa, the owner of a chain of convenience stores, has socked away in a safe deposit box.

In fact, everybody in this tightly written, gripping noir thriller is involved in some sort of confidence game: 
* Mark’s “friend,” Slider, is also his accomplice in the cigarette heist racket; 

*Rosa is dealing hot cigarettes and looking for criminals who traffic in them for a lower price to supply her chain of cheesy businesses;

 * Luka and his brother, Herman, are a pair of street-wise but dumb-assed Slovenians dealing cigarettes stolen on pallets from legitimate dealers; 

* Even Rosa’s buddy Lou, a penny-ante gangster, is a dipshit. When she asks him to provide backup for the transaction, Lou “protects” her with a pair of lames who couldn’t find their way out of an IRT station if they were standing under the exit sign.

These people run absolutely counter to the ironclad writer’s rule that you have to give readers somebody with whom they can sympathize or they will put your book aside. As Bart Simpson would say, Au Contraire, mon frere! I couldn’t take my eyes off this damned book even to tap a kidney.

Every person is unlovable; hell, they aren't even remotely likeable. They are all the kind of people who you shake hands with on meeting then immediately check how many fingers you still have.

When each body drops, the only question you'll face is: how the fuck did this asshole manage to last even this long? He should have been trussed up by an undertaker and shot full of formaldehyde a couple of chapters back!

At the book’s end, only one of these losers is still alive. And broke. Even that protagonist is forced back to square one as one of the nameless, faceless toilers in a sleazy convenience store.

It's a reversal of fortune somewhat like the one in William Gresham's great novel, Nightmare Alley, in which Stan Carlisle, a fake psychic who climbs to the top of the fortune-telling racket, ends up an alcoholic geek in a carnival sideshow. 

It may be better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, but to serve in hell? Not so damned much.

I can only think of one other recent noir novel that features such a collection of unsympathetic creeps and losers: Mike Monson’s darkly satisfying What Happens in Reno

Lang’s little foray into the confederacy of creeps is just as excellent.

If you like fiction so dark and nihilistic that you finish it feeling like you have a pair of welding goggles super glued to your face, The Sin Tax is exactly what you are looking for.

I loved it. I think you will, too.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Young Americans vs. Hillbilly Crime Lords and La Causa Nostra

By Josh Stallings

288 pages

( Heist Publishing; October 30, 2015)

ISBN-10: 0996948007

ISBN-13: 978-0996948005

The estimable Josh Stallings has pulled off something remarkable in his newest crime novel, Young Americans: he has managed to write a story set solidly in the mid 1970s that is utterly tone perfect. The language spoken by the characters, the set-up, the settings and not least of all, the music: all exactly right for the period.

On top of that, it is a delightful read.

This is the story of a skilled thief and safe cracker, Sam, and her Mensa-level little brother Jacob.  Sam was brought up to a life of crime by her father and grand dad. She can use a set of picks to open any deadbolt in under two minutes. When she graduates to safes under the tutelage of her gramps, she can crack a four pin model inside three.

Jacob is a typical sophisticated kid of the seventies. He is slated for enrollment in a good quality college, smokes a little dope, plays around with his equally bright chums and adores his older sister.

Sam split the Bay Area for Seattle sometime before the action begins. When she ran out of money on her way to the north she ended up a dancer in a Humboldt County strip bar, “Rapunzel’s.”  The joint caters to a rough crew and a few adventurous students from the college up the Interstate. It also serves as a front for drug sales and prostitution. Its owner, a dubious fellow named Breeze, is a sleaze ready to stab a friend in the back if there is profit in it.

And he does, trust me.

The action of the book centers on a double cross by Breeze that forces Sam to rob a San Francisco disco owned by a made Mafia member.  There are crosses and double crosses – even a triple cross by my count – as Sam struggles to satisfy her former boss while keeping her family – including her brother – alive.

In addition to a gripping account of the heist, the book features a pair of Breeze’s half-witted associates who spell trouble for the young Americans, a gay bodyguard and leg breaker who is as big as a horse, a couple of near misses by assassins and an undercover DEA agent who is almost as bent  as the actual crooks.

I’m here to tell you that the story is completely authentic. I’ve spent some time in the Cannabis Crescent of Northern California and Stallings is dead-bang about the twisted relationship between hillbilly dealers and the dope trade in the 1970s. 

Author Josh Stallings
I also polished adjectives for Bay Area newspapers during the time in which the story takes place and Stallings has the Bay Area down pat. He does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of that period, the drug scene, even the music featured by local venues. Example: the robbers plan their heist for a night when Sylvester and the Hot Band are scheduled to play at the Mafioso’s disco-night club. Few people today know anything about Sylvester – the openly gay singer who emerged from the gender-fuck cast of The Cockettes to become a disco superstar – but Stallings remembers.

One element of the book is the disbelief among the major characters that a Mafia member would run a nightclub that caters to homosexuals, let alone be queer himself.

Young Americans can be so naïve!

One of the first investigative stories I did for the San Francisco Chronicle was a look into a nightclub, Studio West, that was constantly being busted for drug trafficking. When I back-tracked the club’s records, I discovered it was owned by Henry and Carmine Vara, two alleged members of the Patriarca crime family in New England. A third partner, Frank Cashman, was suspected of burning down a rival’s club in Atlanta, though investigators from that city’s arson division could not find enough solid  evidence to win his indictment.

Young Americans is definitely a two thumbs up for me. Stallings not only tells a story that will have the reader biting his or her nails, but he does it so smoothly that his audience stops looking for anachronisms after about three pages because they simply can’t be found.

This is a fine book.  Give it a read – you won’t be sorry.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

50 Shades of Zane Grey in E.A. Cook's Thriller, "Taconite"


By E. A. Cook

77 pages

(Rogue House Publishing; February 4, 2016)

eBook by Amazon Digital Services


I admit a degree of tardiness in getting around to E. A. Cook's fine adventure story, but I bought it when it first appeared in February then promptly lost track of it in my 260 book Kindle library.

Recently I finally got a chance to crack it, and I am glad I did.

This is good old-fashioned western action set in the early raw days of the Minnesota Iron Range. It  reminded me of novels by Zane Grey, with their vivid descriptive passages and true-to-life dialog.

In brief, the time is 1893, only seven years before the turn of the century. Lucient Robinuex, the head of a New Orleans-based detective agency, is called to his family's long abandoned homestead in Minnesota to investigate the murder of a pair of miners.

When he gets there, he discovers that the investigative assignment was a ruse intended to bring him to the area so an evil brother and sister can kill him and steal his family's land. It turns out that the parcel is located in the right of way of a planned railroad line that will serve a huge iron mining company.

The sister, Colette Luzon, a beautiful but twisted woman, engineers a swindle to seize control of the property. Her brother and crime partner, the psychotic, Antoine Gasparilla, attempts to blow him up with an improvised bomb.

The Luzon-Gasparilla couple have a long history with Robinuex's family: Their father murdered his own. Confronting them is a dangerous business but Robinuex has little choice if he intends to salvage some of the value of his stolen property.

Robinuex survives the bomb attack, but is knocked unconscious into a wild river by the blast and barely escapes his pursuers. He is wet, cold and wounded, but he is also determined to turn the tables on his enemies:

"Lucient was disgusted, disappointed, and mad clean through. He been played like a violin by enemies he didn't even know he had. He wanted to live out the rest of his years here and had been conned, swindled, and shot in just three days."

The remainder of the book  details how he uses his brain, experience and pure good luck  to rectify the situation. 

The book is sprinkled with characters both savory and unsavory and moves forward quickly. You have your gun thugs, an appearance by the Pinkertons, a dependable sidekick who is almost as able as Robinuex, unscrupulous mining bosses and a stalwart hero who is quick with his fists, sharp-eyed with a gun and comes across as both noble and eminently likeable.

Of course, during all the action he meets a good woman and takes a romantic shine to her.

The plot is crisp, the characters well defined, the good guys larger than life and the villains reprehensible.

E. A. Cook
All I had previously read by E.A. Cook was a turn of the century novella called Rusk about another member of the Robinuex family.
The tale revolved around a former French foreign legionnaire who once fought as a mercenary and now drives one of the few motorized taxis in New Orleans. The story involves an abduction, a cross-country pursuit, gun fights and the love of a beautiful and talented woman.
Rusk was good, but short -- so short I felt cheated when I reached the end.
Taconite is also a short book, but one that is definitely worth sinking your teeth into. If you like western novels with fisticuffs, gun battles and an enjoyable hero, I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Cleaning Up Finn" Would Take a Truckload of Disinfectant

By Sarah M. Chen
160 pages
(All Due Respect Books; May 13, 2016)
eBook for Kindle by Amazon Digital Services LLC
ISBN: 1532902298

Finn Roose is one of those assholes who can fall into a big tub of shit and somehow comeout smelling like a bouquet of gardenias. He’s a college dropout, a drunk and loser who somehow plugged into the favor bank with Porter, a successful chum, years before and has been leeching off him ever since.

Finn is also an unscrupulous horn dog who uses his position as a manager at a popular chain restaurant to drop the hammer on every woman who has a hole, two tits and a heartbeat.

He’s the kind of guy you hate on sight. You don’t even need a reason.

But Finn finds himself up to his asshole in trouble after he fast talks a good-looking customer into a moonlight sex cruise on his buddy’s sharp yacht, complete with wine and expensive hooch.  He and the girl get snot-slinging drunk during the trip and she passes out. 

Too drunk to carry her to his borrowed sports car, Finn – who is damned near unconscious himself – leaves her in the grass near the boat’s moorage and goes home to pass out.

The girl vanishes and in the aftermath Finn learns she is underage and has ditched her parents for a visit to California’s sun-kissed South Coast.

His dalliance with the missing girl would have been bad enough by itself, but it also costs Finn the only real friendship he has  ever had:

“Porter held up his hand. ‘I’m not done.’ He hesitated as if gauging his thoughts. ‘You’re like a brother to me, Finn. We’ve known each other how long?’

“Finn cleared his throat. ‘Twenty-eight years,’ he said softly.

“ ‘Twenty-eight years.’ Porter paused. ‘We’ve been through a lot, Finn.’  

Finn waited, a sickening feeling growing in his gut.

“ ‘And I know you’d do anything for me,’ Porter continued. ‘Shit, you proved that already.’ ”

“Finn met Porter’s eyes. He felt himself nodding.

“‘I think about it every day. How I would have none of this if it weren’t for what you did.’ ” He

sighed. ‘But it’s got to stop, man. No more boat. And no more Ferrari. You’re on your own with your love trysts and hook-ups or whatever. I’m done.’ ”

He belatedly tries to track down the missing girl but finds himself trapped by his own lies and lax ethics. He lies to the police and a private eye and is in danger of losing his job in a way that will almost certainly leave him permanently unemployed.

When go bad, they march Roose lockstep right to the edge. His former friend is murdered, Finn finds himself being blackmailed and the humorless private dick becomes his personal Javert, trailing him night and day. He is starting to come apart at the seams when the entire plot takes a sudden wild left turn that puts his life at risk.

With his misadventures piling up to the point where they seem utterly beyond repair, he decides to turn over a new leaf.

“He was through with picking up women, through with being a selfish prick,” Chen writes. “No more hotel rooms, fast cars, and yachts. What good came of it besides thirteen stitches in his thigh and five more in his head? And of course, the unrelenting guilt.”

Unfortunately, the leaf he turns over is poison oak, and he instantaneously reverses his vow to go straight.

You have to read it to believe it. Some people really never really do learn from their mistakes.

Sarah M. Chen
 Sarah Chen has written many short stories I have really enjoyed, for publications ranging from All Due Respect to Plan B to Crime Factory, but in Cleaning Up Finn she gets an opportunity to open up the tale  and really get inside her main characters.

It’s a terrific short novel, well worth every penny it costs.