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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.

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