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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, September 4, 2016

A Corrupt Judge, Blackmailing Private Corrections Firm and Crooked Cops Give a Hard Wintery Feel to Joe Clifford's Latest Jay Porter Book





By Joe Clifford
300 pages
(Oceanview Publishing; June 7, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1608091716
ISBN-13: 978-1608091713


Jay Porter is one of my favorite fictional characters – despite his infuriating single-mindedness, occasional lapses into boneheaded stupidity and tendency to misjudge people badly.

Jay is the protagonist of December Boys, Joe Clifford’s second entry in the Jay Porter series. Not the hero; just the central figure. He is too complicated to be called a hero, even though some of the things he does at least border on the heroic.

He’s a complicated guy with simple desires: to watch his son grow up, patch up his relationship with his estranged wife, Jenny, earn his daily bread at a job that is not too mentally challenging and find some way to expiate the guilt he feels at the death of his junkie brother.

As he tells a friend, early on, “This is all I wanted, man. Jenny and my son. The three of us together. A family. And now that I have it, every move I make just seems to make things worse. Even when I manage to do something right . . . Maybe it’s not meant to be.”

“What?” the friend asks.

“Jenny and me. A contented regular life. Peace.”

In Clifford’s first Porter novel, Lamentation, Jay is clearing the homes of dead people for estate sales, working hard with his head down and trying to stave off the demands of his brother, Chris, a former star high school wrestler who hustles for the money he needs to survive and score drugs.  Through his junkie brother, Jay discovers a dark secret about the town’s wealthy and respected Lombardi family, but Chris is murdered in the process, sparking multiple crises for Jay and changing his life forever.

Joe Clifford: His protagonist, Jay Porter is at war with himself and everyone else.

December Boys, set shortly after Lamentation, finds Jay working in a new job he hates, trying to reconcile with Jenny. The new job involves claim investigation for a two-bit insurance firm, and the central conflict of the story unfolds from his discovery that a teenage boy was the actual driver of the car his mother ostensibly crashed.

The teen is arrested for fraud and Jay gets plaudits and a promotion from his boss, but feels like a rat for getting the kid in trouble. When the boy’s panicky mother tells him that her son is on the fast-track for incarceration for his minor crime, Jay stops by the courthouse to check his status and stumbles into a complex plot involving crooked police, a corrupt judge, and a private prison company that is shaking down the parents of the youthful malefactors it is supposed to “rehabilitate.”

All these machinations seem to lead back to the Lombardi family, which Jay learns is involved in a real estate scam connected to the private prison movement.

There are crosses, double crosses and even a triple cross. Jay is forced to meet with a hit man, and a  femme fatale and a corrupt newspaperman enter the picture. In a desolate area, Jay’s life is put at risk at the hands of a pair of vicious goons. His survival seems anything but assured.

To say more would require coughing up spoilers, which I have no intention of doing. Suffice to say that by the end of the story, Jay is basically back at square one with a new job, trying to heal his relationship with Jenny. He has really made no progress reaching any of those goals mentioned above.

In other words, it’s classic noir.

The entire 300-page narrative is written in first person and the internal observations are Porter’s own. The style, which can be problematic in the hands of a lesser writer, works well for Clifford. He lays the story out neatly, tightening his sentences at critical moments to help build tension and suspense.

When I am reading a book for review, I generally tend to mark examples of excellent writing to mention in my blog but I had to stop sticking Post-its ™ in December Boys after only 57 pages: there was so much good stuff to mark that I would have ended unable to find the best quotes, anyway.

Clifford doesn’t lace the story with unnecessary quips – a commonplace failing of writers dealing with dark, cynical material – but inserts enough humor to lighten the somber,  slightly paranoid mood of the novel.

For instance, in one passage where he is trying to escape a pair of murderous cops, Porter muses as follows:

I couldn’t go home. I realized I was headed back to Ashton [his hometown] without consciously making the decision to do so. Like a moth drawn to the firelight. Or bug zapper. I needed off the grid. Somewhere with a secure line. I had to talk to Nicki [a former temp clerking in the juvenile court who initially tipped him to the pay-for-prison scam and is now on the run, herself]. How hard was it to return a goddamn phone call? Where do the invisible go when they have to disappear?

This is great stuff.  The plot is strong, the characters well drawn, the dialog brisk and believable. As someone who grew up in rural communities like Ashton where high school athletes were local rock stars and big-shot developers twisted the political system, I can honestly say December Boys gives readers a solid sense of place and time.

Buy the hardcover: it’s well worth the price stamped on the spine. You’d pay as much to get into some IMAX potboiler like Batman versus Superman, and you couldn’t take it home with you. Or at least, you shouldn't want to. December Boys is better written and a hell of a lot more entertaining.

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