****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

Crime and Thriller Beach Reads!

photo: klarinette71, creative commons license

Here’s your beachbag packing list: sunscreen, bottled water and Bai drinks (a local product!), organic non-GMO snacks, and, most important, half a dozen books, plus one. From my past year of book reviews, many of which are beachbag-worthy, I’d recommend:

  • I.Q. by Joe Ide – the banter among the characters will keep you laughing all the way to where you parked the car, wherever that may be.
  • Maisie Dobbs – if 21st century mayhem is a bit much for a beach holiday, try one of Jacqueline Winspear’s charming books, set in England between the wars. This is the first.
  • The Never-Open Desert Diner – by James Anderson. Now is where I have to confess a bit of a crush on his half-Indian, half-Jewish protagonist Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile route across the high Utah desert, serving his customers, most of whom live far from civilization for a pretty good reason.
  • Kompromat by Stanley Johnson – In real-life an EU official and father of one of the Brexit proponent Boris Johnson, this hilarious roman a clef explains the two baffling political cataclysms of the past two years: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
  • Back Up by Belgian author Paul Colize – a murder mystery that begins in 1967, when all the members of the rock band Pearl Harbor die mysteriously, except for one. Are they still after him?
  • Paper Ghosts – Janet Haeberlin’s novel requires you to believe a young woman would knowingly embark on a cross-Texas road trip with the man she thinks killed her sister. Get past that, and it’s a page-turning cat-and-mouse game.
  • Beside the Syrian Sea – a spy thriller with an unexpected hero. Does this bumbler have a plan to rescue his father from mid-East terrorist or not? No one knows. And you won’t either. Funny and surprising.

*****Righteous

photo: Telstar Logistics on Visualhunt, creative commons BY-NC license

By Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Second in Joe Ide’s series about Isaiah Quintabe, a young black man living in tough East Long Beach, California, who’s really good  to have around if there’s trouble. Not that he’s a crack shot or a kung-fu warrior. Quintabe gets people out of jams large and small by sheer brainpower.

If you’ve read his earlier book, IQ, you’ll happily see the return of a number of its characters. None is more welcome than Quintabe’s sometime partner Juanell Dodson. The fast-talking, wise-cracking Dodson is forever hoping yet failing to outthink the younger man. Ide writes the Dodson character with much humor and affection and gives him girlfriends with attitude. With impending fatherhood, he’s adopted a veneer of responsibility that crumbles under the slightest pressure.

Quintabe was seventeen in the first book when his adored older brother Marcus, killed in a hit-and-run, left the teenager on his own. This book takes place eight years later, and he’s still a solitary soul, alone except for his dog, and emotionally isolated. His neighbors gladly call on him to help him solve their problems—missing jewelry, a threatening ex-husband—which helps him make ends meet, barely.

He gave up his obsessive search for the car that killed Marcus some years ago, but in a short prologue, he finds the car and with the few clues inside, rethinks the events of that deadly afternoon. His conclusion? Marcus’s death was not a random traffic fatality, it was a hit. But why? And who?

Las Vegas strip

photo: Mariamichelle, creative commons license

In Las Vegas,  a young Chinese woman and aspiring DJ Janine Van and her deadbeat boyfriend Benny are gambling away money they don’t have. He’s behind on the vig with some rough characters more than willing to hurt him and Janine too. Benny is a whiner, and not very appealing, though the sassy Janine loves him. As a flavor-enhancer, here’s her exit line after jockeying a club set: “Whassup my people! This is your queen kamikaze, the heat in your wasabi, the gravy train in the food chain, the champagne in the chow mein, I’m DJ Dama, baby, that was my set, and I’m gettin’ up outta heeerre, PEACE!”

Out of the blue, Quintabe is contacted by Marcus’s ex-girlfriend, Sarita, now a lawyer at a high-priced law firm. Quintabe had quite a crush on her, still does, and she wants to meet. His hopes raise (the one illogical thought he pursues), but what she wants is for him to find her younger half-sister, in trouble in Las Vegas where she hangs out with her screw-up boyfriend. You guessed it, Janine and Benny.

What sounds like a simple rescue operation becomes terrifyingly complicated, as Ide deftly sets several crisscrossing plots in motion. Quintabe has a run-in with a Mexican gang, the Sureños Locos 13, and they’re out to get him. Janine and Sarita’s father seems a respectable business man, but somewhere in the background are human trafficking, prostitution, and the murderous Chinese triads. The ethnicities vary but the characters are alike in their mastery of the entertaining verbal insult.

And Quintabe still searches for his brother’s murderer. His prime suspect is Seb Habimana, a dangerous East African man who lost a leg in the Hutu-Tutsi wars. He uses a cane he made from the legbone of the man who maimed him.

As with the previous book, Sullivan Jones’s narration of all these muticultural, crosscultural and anticultural characters is flawless. You get Benny’s whine, Dodson’s jive, his girlfriends’ attitude, and the Chinese black-gangster rifs. Jones hits every comedic and ironic note, making music out of it all, and never missing a beat.

****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.

In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.

Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.

The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.

Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.

This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.

Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.

Disappointment on Screen and on the Page

Bang, gun

photo: Kenneth Lu, creative commons license

If you’ve read a few of my book and movie reviews, you’ll have noticed I generally praise these creative efforts. Maybe you’ve thought I’m not very critical (my family members will gladly disabuse you of this notion). No, I end up reviewing mostly good stuff, because I don’t read a book or go to a movie that promises not to be pretty darn good. Life is short. In the past week, though, I’ve had two disappointments—one book and one movie that defied expectations.

The Scarpetta Factor

Patricia Cornwell’s forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta has many devoted fans. Somehow, I’d never read one of these books and scooped up this one at a book exchange. I won’t read another, even though I suspect this was a sub-par entry in the long-running series.

First of all, it was almost 500 pages long. To demand that much commitment of precious reading time, a book has to meet a high bar. Second, it could have been 300 pages, or anyway, 350. Sooo much tedious backstory clumsily dropped in that I kept thinking, can’t we get back to this story? Annoying repetition, repeatedly, over and over, as if the author tried three different ways of saying something, planning to go back in the editing process and eliminate the two weakest. Then didn’t.

Naming three characters Berger, Bonnell, and Benton was an invitation to reader confusion, which I accepted, most ungraciously. I never could get them straight. Did I mention plot holes? Hundreds of pages in, the story is building to a climax that was more like a gun that shoots a message saying “bang.” So much else had gone on, I had no interest at all in her villain (show, don’t tell his perfidies).

So, if you’re tempted to read one of Cornwell’s thrillers, check online reviews carefully—“not one of her best” is a giveaway—and maybe try one of the early ones. This was number 17 in the Scarpetta series, and perhaps she’d run out of steam.

P.S. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d remembered that she’s the author who keeps trying to prove the cockamamie theory that Jack the Ripper was the English painter Walter Sickert.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke, First ReformedWriter-director Paul Schrader’s new film about an upstate New York Dutch Reformed minister’s apostasy can’t be faulted for the acting (trailer). Ethan Hawke as the desperately unhappy Reverend Ernst Toller (Earnest, get it?) is spectacular, as always. He’s a drinker and, believe it or not, that doesn’t help. Perhaps that’s why his character can’t see trouble coming every time he encounters his pregnant congregant with the heavily symbolic name, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. I especially liked Cedric Kyles, as the head of the local megachurch, Abundant Life.

The polar opposite of Abundant Life, Toller’s tiny First Reformed congregation is merely an archaic satellite of the larger church, kept alive more for historical value—its 250th anniversary approaches—than for its contribution to the spirit and economics of the parent enterprise.

The problem for me was the plot. Where is this story going? Is it an exercise in consciousness-raising about the environment? Is it about one man’s spiritual journey? The point must have flown by on wings of song (the singing is good), and I missed it. Perhaps it all boils down to the theme first expressed by Mary’s husband, a depressed environmental activist—“Will God forgive us?” And maybe that question applies equally to Rev. Toller’s personal quest as well as to our worldwide environmental depredations. Plus, the ending is strange, with two different interpretations in our household. (See the movie and tell me your, please.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 95%; audiences: 72%.

Writing about Risky Encounters

woman with groceries

photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The Gift of Fear is a two-decades old book about recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer—whether of a spouse, a girlfriend, or a mass shooting—people say, “We had no idea he’d . . .” This book, like the FBI report released yesterday, says baloney to that. There are signs. People just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime writer, I hoped those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement on ways to prevent violence and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the grating “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying bags up to her apartment. He followed her inside, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

American Animals

American AnimalsIn writer-director Bart Layton’s entertaining new film (trailer), four bored college students plot to steal priceless works from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. Is this a daydream, or will they go through with it? Should they do more than watch old heist films to prepare?

A vivid demonstration of Murphy’s Law, their wildly inadequate scheme is both hilarious and tension-filled. Yet, as far-fetched as it may seem, the film is based on a real episode from 2004 and includes fourth-wall breaking interviews and current-day reflections of the actual would-be thieves and their parents. Using his skills a documentary filmmaker, Layton cleverly meshes their different perspectives on events (who decided what when), and his energetic recreation of their misbegotten enterprise is “singularly fascinating” says Cary Darling in the Houston Chronicle.

The four criminal masterminds are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The librarian they must disable is played by Ann Dowd (if you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll recognize her voice before you even see her).

Drifty art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants something to happen in his life. The idea of the theft comes to him as a kind of vague “what if?”, but when he shares it with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), he’s found someone with the single-minded enthusiasm to turn it into a sort-of reality.

Have you ever pursued an idea long past the moment when it makes any sense? Then you can understand how the four students got carried away, trapped by their own momentum. What starts out as an especially brazen prank by privileged college students has a long tail of consequences, and at times the former students’ articulate silences express their belated second thoughts. A visual theme based on the paintings of John James Audubon—one of the works they plan to steal is his Birds of America—recurs throughout, adding grace notes to a tawdry episode.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85% ; audiences: 91%.

*****Paper Ghosts

photographer

photo: Chris Dorward, creative commons license

Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.

Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.

The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.

Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.

Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.

Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.

Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.

This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.

This is the third missing-sister book I’ve read recently, all strong. The others were Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl and Chris Whitaker’s All the Wicked Girls.