Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

From Page to (Sound) Stage

A book that authors especially may find intriguing is Fallen Angels, from 1993. I found it sitting on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf just waiting for me to pounce. It’s a collection of six original noir stories by the masters, each followed by a half-hour script developed from it that aired on Showtime almost 30 years ago (still available on YouTube).

You’ll see from the directors and cast members involved that this was an ambitious project, with Sydney Pollack as executive producer. The hallmarks of noir—jazzy scores, cigarette-smoke veils, shoulder pads—they’re all there.

James Ellroy’s preface explains the stories’ appeal this way: “Hard-boiled fiction, spawned in the violent and flush 1920s, began as a prophecy: This country will most likely crash and burn. If it doesn’t, the price of the political accommodations and human sacrifices made in order to retain a corrupt system will be very, very high. Hard-boiled fiction is about that price.” Something to think about.

The Stories

“I’ll be Waiting” by Raymond Chandler. The teleplay by C Gaby Mitchell clarified some ambiguity in the original, adding significant detail at the end. Tom Hanks directed, and it starred Bruno Kirby as a hotel dick with a deadly dilemma.

“The Frightening Frammis” by Jim Thompson, teleplay by Jon Robin Baitz and Howard A Rodman. Directed by Tom Cruise, it featured Peter Gallagher and Isabella Rossellini. Con artists and grifters lock horns, and the two stories play out differently. I liked the original story better, but the ending might have seemed too pat.

“Dead-End for Delia” by William Campbell Gault, teleplay by Scott Frank. Phil Joanou directed with Gary Oldman, Meg Tilly, Gabrielle Anwar, and Paul Guilfoyle in the leads. A cop’s estranged wife is murdered, and he strikes out with an investigation of his own.

“Murder, Obliquely” by Cornell Woolrich, teleplay by Amanda Silver. Alfonso Cuaron directed stars Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, and Diane Lane. This story of a relationship gone bad was about twice as long as the preceding ones. To fit it into the half-hour format, a lot of cuts were needed. It was interesting to see how they focused on the main event–what stayed and what didn’t. A nice exercise in concision.

“The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig, teleplay by Howard A Rodman. Steven Soderbergh directed. Joe Mantegna played a dirty cop and Bonnie Bedelia his equally larcenous partner. This story was about half the length of the others, so had to be drawn out. But it lost no dynamism in the process.

“Since I Don’t Have You” by James Ellroy, teleplay by Steven Katz. Gary Busey plays a Hollywood fixer who serves two masters—real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (James Woods) and Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson). Inevitably, this work “had to produce what lawyers nowadays would call a ‘conflict a’ interest’ Of course it was over a woman” (Aimee Graham). Meeks is from small-town Oklahoma, and the teleplay gives him “country yokel” diction, which the original story did not have (nor need).

If you’ve ever thought about seeing your stories make the leap from page to stage or screen, here’s a chance to see that process in action.

The Quiet People

In award-winning author Paul Cleave’s new crime thriller, Cameron and Lisa are crime writers based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a string of successful books behind them. They’re also parents of seven-year-old Zach who is, euphemistically “a little different.” More bluntly, he’s a terror—unpredictable, badly behaved, uncooperative. You know Cameron wants to be a conscientious father, but it’s hard, and one morning, Zach is gone.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her new partner DI Ben Thompson are in charge of the investigation and follow the usual playbook. There’s a shortage of physical clues, and everything Cameron says works against him. He narrates much of the story, which enables a deep look into his psyche, in the manner of a psychological thriller. Chapters about the police work, by contrast, are in third-person, and read more like a police procedural.

A short prologue reveals that Zach and another boy are in the hands of a known pedophile named Lucas Pittman, which, for readers, justifies Cameron’s frenzy and makes the police’s painstakingly slow progress all the more frustrating.

At a too-hastily assembled news conference, Cameron loses his temper on live television. Now the circus really starts. The police suspect the distressed parents; growing crowds incited by social media picket the house, yell at the couple from the street, and call Cameron a child killer. As each new piece of evidence comes to light, the crowds and wild accusations grow.

The news coverage is disastrous. Old footage of Cameron and Lisa giving talks at writers’ conferences making jokes like “we kill people for a living” are shown out of context. An arrest seems inevitable and imminent.

At this point, you might think Cameron has hit bottom. Oh, no. Things get much worse and in surprising ways. It’s a testament to author Cleave’s skill that, as Cameron becomes increasingly unhinged, he has become such a compelling and believable character that you’re ready to follow him along a quite dark path. Meanwhile the bad calls the police have made are precipitating a crisis of conscience for Detective Kent. 

There’s much more to come, and while many books are promoted as “page turners,” for me this really was one! The most chilling aspect was the vitriolic and insensitive behavior of the crowds that felt as if it could spill over into violence any second. It’s a scenario all too believable as another dark side of social media. (In a true story reported by Katherine Laidlaw in the October issue of Wired, “Last year in a small bayside town in Nova Scotia, 3-year-old Dylan Ehler vanished, leaving nothing but two rain boots. In the following days, thousands of online sleuths descended on Facebook groups to help with the search. Then they turned.” On the parents.)

That’s what happens when all “facts” are equal, and there’s no incentive to distinguish true from false, but rather, to coast through life on a tide of emotion and outrage. Cleave well describes how Cameron and Lisa were at risk of drowning in it.

Blood Like Rain

By Albert Tucher – In Al Tucher’s latest Big Island Mystery, Hawai`i County police detective Errol Coutinho has his hands full from the first page. He’s called out on a homicide case and discovers the victim is his wife’s best friend, Eleanor Swieczak. He wasn’t crazy about the woman, but his wife will be devastated.

Coutinho and his partner, Harlan Kim, have a lead suspect: Eleanor’s new boyfriend, Jerry Wyatt. Not only does he have a murky past, he’s disappeared along with Eleanor’s Mercedes. Coutinho’s wife Lucy is the best crime lab technician the department has, and she really wants to dig into this one. Over the course of the story, her science and her insights about her friend prove invaluable.

Coutinho and Kim suspect a connection to the drug trade. Pakalolo—Hawaiian weed—believed by many to be the world’s finest. At the top of the island’s significant pakalolo enterprise is a well-established drug entrepreneur named Morrison, in his late middle age. If Wyatt’s involved, Morrison will know. But he seems to have cleared out too. Rumor has it that he and another drug lord—the violent but elusive Trondheim—are waging a war off the coast.

These rumors are substantiated when a body washes ashore on the once-lovely Kamilo beach. It’s now caught in the gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the area’s unique currents deposit a constant stream of trash there. A volunteer cleanup crew discovered the body atop a pile of plastic garbage.

Author Tucher’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Hawaiian Islands comes constantly into play in these novels. They aren’t stories that could happen just anywhere, and he does a great job weaving the unique settings into his plots. A body on a garbagy beach is just the start. A breakneck trip down the steep and narrow road into Waipi’o Valley is enough to give you vertigo.

Was Eleanor’s death the first indication of a new drug war? Or, was her death a one-off, a car-theft gone wrong? The pieces start to look like they’ll fit together when she’s tangentially linked to the deaths of two reporters investigating the pakalolo business some twenty years earlier. The murders have started up again, and, as their investigation proceeds, Coutinho and Kim have an increasing number of bodies in the morgue that attest to the continuing trail of violence.

So, Coutinho and Kim are trying to figure out an organized crime drug smuggling operation with ties to the mainland, reopening a double homicide everyone had given up on, and, getting back to the original subject, attempting to explain the death of Lucy’s friend Eleanor.

Tucher has a knack for creating interesting characters, and may go a bit overboard here, with several sets of siblings and an improbable number of twins. Even a former wife of Coutinho’s makes an unwelcome appearance. She is, of course, a twin. Family feuds are always the worst and seeing how the several families tangled up in this story treat each other, it will make you grateful if you’re an only child.

You can read Tucher’s novels for their complicated plots or for characters you’ll come to enjoy—Coutinho and Kim are solid partners, you’ll like their boss, Lieutenant Tanaka, and a young female officer, Jenny Freitas, who “had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

What Blood Stains Tell Us

Lisa Black, a guest of honor at the recent Killer Nashville conference, is not only the popular author of several crime series, she’s a certified crime scene analyst. She began her talk about blood stains by reminding us that blood accounts for about eight percent of a person’s body weight, about 5-6 liters for men and 4-5 liters for women. In real numbers, this is about 1.2 to 1.5 gallons. A lot to clean up. 

If you’re writing about a crime scene and want to fling some blood around, these are the types of blood stains Black noted (here’s a good article for more detail and some pictures):

  • Passive stains, or drips. A droplet’s size will depend in part on what kind of surface it dropped onto (absorbent or not) and how far the drop fell.
  • Transfer stains—that is, swipes or wipes. People (or, conceivably, pets) get blood on themselves and transfer it from the place of origin to another surface—the bloody handprint by the door kind of thing. I once had a housepainter with a long ponytail, which was constantly getting in the newly painted surface. When he’d whip his head around, I got transfer stains on my furniture, woodwork, and everything else!
  • Projected or impact stains—a bloodstain cause by arterial blood may show an up-and-down pattern due to the pumping of the heart; a castoff stain comes from swinging a bloody object, possibly the weapon, and can reveal information about the object as well as the number of strikes (the first strike is “free”—the weapon isn’t bloody yet); splash or drip patterns of a liquid dripping into another liquid; and the very fine droplets of high-velocity spatter.

As blood flies around your crime scene, the tail on the droplet tells investigators which direction it was traveling and, therefore, which direction it came from. Investigators painstakingly recreate in three dimensions the “area of convergence,” using the shapes and tails of all the drops to calculate angles. This may be a little hard to visualize (the best pictures I found appear to be copyrighted), but at this link, which is full of useful information, you’ll find an illustration of convergence under the heading “Examination of a bloody crime scene is a slow and methodical procedures.” Amen to that!

If your character doesn’t see any blood, never fear. There are tools to bring it into view. Amido black is a general protein stain that makes fingerprints, footprints, and other patterns visible. Anyone familiar with Gone Girl came to appreciate the magic of Luminol, which is specific to blood, and especially useful in detecting minute amounts after attempted clean-ups. It works through a reaction with the iron in hemoglobin.

One last tidbit from Black that might come in handy as you write: Bleach destroys DNA. Plus, as Oyinkan Braithwaite began her award-winning novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.”

Foreign Entanglements

The Foreign Girls

Sergio Olguín’s The Fragility of Bodies was one of my favorite books of 2020 (review here). His new one, The Foreign Girls once again features the sexy trouble-magnet, journalist Verónica Rosenthal. When I refer to the books as “new,” bear in mind that these are books in translation and have been out several years already in Olguín’s home country, Argentina. But neither one has lost any of its freshness in the interim.

Verónica has deserted Buenos Aires for the countryside, hoping to put the traumatic events at the conclusion of Fragility behind her. She hooks up with two young European women and they travel together for a while, and stay at her cousin’s remote vacation home with pool. What should be a sun-drenched idyll becomes a compelling noir adventure.

One night after a party at a rich man’s home, the foreign girls are missing. What happened to them and who is responsible consumes Verónica. Even though she’s supposedly not working, she knows how to dig out a story and does it without regard for her own safety.

Both of Olguín’s Verónica Rosenthal books were expertly translated by Miranda France, and published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Order it here from Amazon or here from your local indie bookstore.

The Basel Killings

Swiss author and playwright Hansjörg Schneider’s first Inspector Hunkeler mystery, translated by Mike Mitchell, has already won the Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award. Like Olguín’s story, the book was first published in German a few years ago and is newly available in English.

Peter Hunkeler, a Basel police detective, is feeling old. His prostate bothers him, he’s tired, his girlfriend is on an extended stay in Paris, and he’s past wanting to deal with his superiors in the police department and prosecutor’s office who want him to play according to their rules.

Walking home from a bar one dreary November night, a season as dark as this story, he spots a man he knows sleeping on a park bench, but the man isn’t asleep, he’s been murdered, and the earlobe where he always wore a diamond earring has been slit open, the earring gone.

To Hunkeler, the crime is too similar to a case he’s investigating, the murder of a prostitute, whose ear also was slit open. The pearl that was always there, gone. Coincidence? But when a young girl from the gypsy camp outside town is attacked, strangled, and her ear cut, he realizes he has a serial killer on his hands. What do these three very different victims have in common?

Hunkeler has an interesting low-key approach to investigating, and uses his farmhouse in Alsace as a retreat from the city, a place to think more clearly. Like many books by European authors, Schneider’s writing is barebones and straightforward, more Hemingway than Faulkner. Yet I found the characters he created here eminently believable.

Order it here from Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

Kiss the Detective

This is the first book I’ve read by Élmer Mendoza, who’s thought of as “the godfather of narco-lit,” translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and the third book in this series. Mendoza has a distinctive writing style, and I’m guessing it’s “love it or hate it.” Definitely, it takes a little getting used to, but well worth it to experience his compelling story and memorable, entertaining characters.

Mendoza, omits quotation marks, “he said” and “she said” some of the time, as well as paragraph changes when the speaker changes at other times.

After a few pages I got the hang of this, and for the most part, I could track the conversations pretty easily (artful writing and excellent translation!). Where I couldn’t—say, when two gangsters of fairly equal power are talking—knowing for sure which one is speaking actually matters less than I thought it might. It’s as if Mendoza submerges you in a river of dialog that sweeps you along through his intriguing plot.

Operating in Culiacán, Sinaloa, police homicide detective Edgar Mendieta is well acquainted with Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel. The story opens with an operation against Valdés that offers enough firepower and double-dealing to conjure Don Winslow’s The Border. No time to wait for an ambulance, her crew drives her to the nearest hospital, where she’s in intensive care.

As the cartel members keep their own watch, nervous Mexican army troops and federal police surround the hospital, waiting until she’s well enough to travel, when they’ll transport her to a military hospital in the capital. Word is, they’re coming down on her hard. Still, perhaps the greatest immediate risk she faces is the professional assassin hired to finish her off. And Mendieta too.

The Pacific Cartel fiasco technically belongs to the police department’s narcotics unit. Mendieta has his hands full, anyway, with two unrelated murders: a snappily dressed young fortune-teller whose body was found with fifteen bullets in it; and a small-time crook killed clutching a woman’s purse he’d just snatched.

Mendieta can’t resist some hospital visits to see how Valdés is faring and whether her people know anything about his two cases. In exchange for this information, he agrees to help smuggle her out of the hospital. There’s no going back from this decision. His standing in the police is jeopardized, not to mention his safety.

A call from Mendieta’s ex-wife in Los Angeles further raises the stakes. Their son Jason has apparently been kidnapped by an unknown party, no ransom demanded. Now not only are the Mexican authorities out to get him, he has to negotiate with the FBI as well. The spectre of betrayal lurks everywhere, as Mendieta is pushed into a tighter and tighter corner.

While Mexico’s President Obrador may have declared the war on drugs to be over, Mendieta sees the bodies that keep piling up. Yet, despite threats to his career, his family, and himself he keeps going, finding himself a new girlfriend, sharing beers with friends, holding his head up, a (mostly) honorable man in a dishonorable world. Whose side are you on, Edgar? At times the sides are hard to tell apart.

The book helpfully provides a list of the many characters, which I made good use of. If you give Mendoza’s unusual approach to telling a story a chance, you may find his lively, honest writing refreshing, and Fried’s translation reads beautifully.

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).