Thursday, October 11, 2018

Double Wide Is A Triple Threat To Reader Boredom

When a story opens with a dismembered human hand, the reader and the protagonist both know that trouble lies ahead. There's something else that lies in wait for the reader...a great story with a narrator who has a wry, understated sense of humor and a strong desire to seek justice for the death of a close friend.

Double Wide, by Leo W. Banks, is a simple story well told. The narrator, Prospero Stark, is a former major league star pitcher fallen on hard times. He runs a trailer park populated by a collection of characters you'd expect to find in a David Goodis novel, with one important difference. They're down on their luck, but not desperate. Indeed, they often have more faith in Stark than he has in himself. With their help, and some assistance from a ruthless TV reporter who is hungry for a good story, Stark uncovers a scheme by a famous baseball agent to break the rules for his prospects.

It's a con that worth millions of dollars, and could be the key to learning what happened to Stark's friend, who was a promising catcher until he disappeared. Whoever left that hand for Stark to find wanted to reveal the truth, but now that witness is dead, murdered by Mexican drug runners. Stark has just one shot to break open the case, if he can face some personal demons, get back on the pitching mound and prove he still has the power to face down a batter. He still has the name recognition from his glory days, but it may not be enough if his arm can't back it up.

Leo Banks paints a vivid portrait of the southwest that would impress Georgia O'Keeffe. The setting and the characters are absorbing. It's a gripping tale of friendship, the things we lose as we age, and the redemption we gain when we face our worst fears. That's a lot to pack into 352 pages. And you may not notice all that because you're too busy turning the pages, engrossed in the story. But later, when you're done, you'll wake up in the middle of the night and mutter under your breath, "Wow." Then you'll reach for the book, because you'll want to read it again.

Well done, Mr. Banks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book your next vacation to Gangster Nation

Sal Cupertine, a mob hit man, screws up and kills some FBI agents by mistake. Now every cop in the country is looking for him. There's no way out, right? So naturally, he does the only thing left to do...he heads for Las Vegas, gets some plastic surgery and takes on a new role as...a Rabbi?

This is the implausible premise behind Gangster Nation, by Tod Goldberg. Hard to believe? But then I read the book. And somehow, by hook or by crook (or by some damn fine writing) he makes it work. Meet Sal Cupertine, aka Rabbi David Cohen. With the help of another Rabbi with ties to the mob, he gets a gig at a synagogue and school in Vegas. It's appropriate since Vegas is the city where nothing is real. Sal fits in by hiding behind the glitter and polish.

When he's not dispensing advice from the Torah to his congregation, he's helping to dispose of rival gang members at the local cemetery, and making a fast buck at the same time. His long term plan is to reunite with his wife and son once the heat cools down. That may take a while, seeing that the reward for his capture is a half million bucks. While he waits and stashes cash in several safety deposit boxes in town, we learn his background and begin to understand what made him the killer he is. As a kid, he sees his father tossed out of the window of a skyscraper and splatter on the pavement. Who wouldn't be traumatized by that? His brother heads a crime syndicate in Chicago, so Sal enters the family business.

But he's had enough. He doesn't want the same future for his own son. Soon, he'll have enough money to make his escape, maybe to South America. But then, Sal makes a mistake. He kills a woman who'll be missed, and comes to regret it. Not only was she not the threat he suspected, her death alerts an ex-FBI agent who was the partner of one of Sal's victims. As Sal, aka Rabbi Cohen, prepares to go under the knife once more to rebuild his botched plastic surgery, an accumulation of bad decisions by him and his family threaten to expose his secrets. The writer doesn't reveal the shocking conclusion until the very last line.

Tod Goldberg is a craftsman from the old school, a man who knows how to tell a story. He makes you sympathize with a main character who has killed dozens of people, which is not an easy task. As a writer, I'm still trying to figure out how he does that. But don't concern yourself with my problems. Just buy his book. It would be a crime not to read it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Girl In The Window should be The Book in Your Hand

I look forward to starting a new series because, if I like the main character, I know I'll have more great books to read. And I just found a good one. The Girl In The Window was nominated for a Barry Award and though it didn't win, it's well worth a read.

The protagonist, Inspector Samuel Tay works for the Singapore police investigating crimes of murder. A fascinating character, he's been solving murders longer than any normal human being should. Fortunately, he not quite Singapore's standards, anyway. He's a bit cynical, but does his job well in a country that has become more and more determined to sanitize it's streets, its image and even the way people think. But these are minor problems when Inspector Tay is asked to work with Singapore's Internal Security Division and join the hunt for an international terrorist. Tay's boss warns him that ISD may simply want to set up the police for the blame in case things go wrong. And wrong they do go.

Tay's longtime partner is killed during an undercover operation. Tay must not only handle his grief but hunt down the very terrorist they were seeking, a man who appears to getting protection from some very powerful people. To prevent himself from being drummed out of a job and catch the killer, Tay must draw on some longtime contacts with shady backgrounds. What he doesn't yet know is how a mysterious witness fits in. The girl in the window, whom he sees for a moment just before his partner is gunned down, may be key to solving the crime...if he can find her.

Singapore makes for an interesting setting for a crime novel, even if the people who run it make it hard to enjoy a good smoke and a cup of coffee. Sam Tay refuses to give up the two things (caffeine and nicotine) that fuel him through the day (and the Irish whiskey that soothes him as he sits in his garden in the evening). As an ex-smoker and still coffee drinker, I can relate. Tay doesn't fit in with the changes that have swept over modern Singapore. He longs for a better time, when the character of the place he calls home hadn't been demolished, scrubbed, and covered over with modern architecture that lacks humanity. His humorous thoughts on food, women and government planning are not only funny, but pretty accurate. I wouldn't mind joining him in his garden with a tumbler after a tough day. For now, I'll just have to seek out the rest of this series.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Writers Born Today - Mickey Spillane Born 100 Years Ago

It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Morrison Spillane, born March 9, 1918 in Brooklyn. The creator of Mike Hammer, his writing had a huge impact in the publishing world. Readers loved his novels, but critics despised them.

Spillane's father, an Irish bartender, gave him the nickname "Mickey". He developed a knack for story helped him avoid beatings by older kids in his tough neighborhood. By the end of high school, he had sold his first story to a pulp magazine. After some college he got a job writing comics. World War II interrupted his literary pursuits and with scant success in the comic trade, Spillane turned to writing novels using Mike Danger, a P.I. hero he created for the comics. He renamed the character Mike Hammer, and churned out the first novel with this hero in just three weeks. The publisher, E.P. Dutton, didn't think much of the writing, but bought it anyway, in part as a favor to Spillane's agent. It would change how people thought of the detective novel.

I, The Jury sold a respectable 10,000 copies in hardcover, but when released in paperback, sales exploded, literally. Over a million copies were sold, and Spillane churned out half a dozen more novels in the next few years featuring his hard hitting and often brutal hero. Spillane's timing was perfect. Paperbacks were cheap and fed the public's postwar demand for action and adventure filled stories.

Literary gems they were not. A new Mike Hammer novel brought enormous sales, but also scathing reviews from book critics. Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of I, The Jury ,"so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school."  The Saturday Review of Literature was more succinct. "Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid"

But Spillane didn't let the bad reviews bother him. "I don't give a hoot about readin' reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks," he said. And the checks poured in, not just from print, but from television, radio and movie rights. One of the most successful screen adaptations was the movie Kiss Me Deadly, which starred Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer.

Spillane created other protaganists, including spies Tiger Mann and Mako Hooker. He even wrote a few children's books and won a Junior Literary Guild award for one of them, The Day The Sea Rolled BackIn real life, Spillane bore little resemblance to his hard as nails characters. He was a Jehovah's Witness, and neither drank nor smoked.

By the time he returned to writing Mike Hammer novels in the 60s, his literary reputation was improving. In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America gave him their Grand Master, the highest award in the mystery field in recognition of his lifetime achievements as a writer.

To date, his novels have sold over 200 million copies.

"Mike Hammer drinks beer because I can't spell Cognac."

- Mickey Spillane

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mystery History - Ann Savage Born Today

It's the birthday of actress Ann Savage, born February 19, 1921 in South Carolina. She gained fame in the 1940s as a sultry femme fatale in more than a dozen low budget noir films. She grew up in Los Angeles and had her first screen test at the age of 17.  She studied acting with the famous director Max Reinhardt. After signing a contract with Columbia Pictures, she was cast in several crime films, including One Dangerous Night and After Midnight with Boston Blackie.

Most of her roles were simply window dressing. As she said once, "The actresses were just scenery. The stories all revolved around the male actors; they really had the choice roles. All the actresses had to do was to look lovely, since the dialogue was ridiculous."

All that changed in 1945 with her most famous role as Vera. A hitchhiker picked up by Al Roberts in the film Detour, Vera discovers a deadly secret about Al and uses this knowledge to extort money from him. Her venomous performance and cutting dialogue earned her high praise and elevated the film to cult classic status. After the film entered the public domain, it began to receive more attention and was shown on television and made its way to VHS. During the 70s, critics began to recognize its important status in film noir history.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the film: "This movie from Hollywood's poverty row... filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."

The movie's revival encouraged Ann to attend numerous film festivals, where she began to attract a new generation of fans, including film director Steven Spielberg. Time magazine named her as one of film's "Top Ten Villains" in 2005. In 2007, she was cast as the mother in the critically acclaimed movie My Winnipeg.

She discussed her acting career in an rare interview which you can watch below.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Wicked Wednesday Villains We Love - Michael Lister's Gauge

"Did you just take a picture of me?"

The voice is not hostile. In fact, it's friendly and even a little whimsical. But that doesn't last long. Remington is in deep trouble. He discovers this when he attempts to take another picture of the man behind that voice, and a rifle slug nearly takes his head off.

"I'm tired of having my picture took." As Remington flees into the woods the words of the murderer echo in his head..."It's the end of the line, partner."

But it's not the end of our encounter with Gauge, the killer in Double Exposure. It's just the beginning.

Michael Lister's suspense novel, Double Exposure, places his hero in mortal danger early in the story. Remington retrieves his camera trap from deep within the Florida wilderness and discovers a series of photographs that could make his reputation as a photographer. That's the good news.

The bad news? Those photographs could also get him killed.

The photos expose the murder of a woman and the man who murdered her. Remington has to get out of the woods and to the police. Unfortunately he's not alone, as he discovers when the camera trap is triggered and the flash goes off. And a voice from the dusk asks a question. "Did you just take a picture of me?"

Gauge is one of the most disturbing villains in crime fiction, because he's so damn likable. I haven't encountered a villain quite like this in crime literature since I first read The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

Even after being shot at, Remington finds himself talking to the very man who is hunting him, courtesy of a walkie talkie he lifted from one of Gauge's friends, called in to help hunt Remington down. Remington had to kill the man in self defense, and Gauge uses this knowledge to his advantage.

"You out there killer?" he says over the airwaves. He plays with Remington's emotions, pointing out the similarities between them. Both men have killed, both in order to defend themselves. At least that's the story Gauge feeds to Remington as he tries to create self doubt in the young photographer's mind. This self-rationalization has only one purpose, of flush out Remington, kill him, and destroy the evidence. The soothing voice of the devil could be the man at the corner diner having breakfast with you before a deer hunt.

What do we know of Gauge? He's an employee of the Florida Wildlife Dept, as evidenced by the patch on his uniform. He knows the woods as well, perhaps better than Remington, who grew up in them. He comes from the same background, the same culture. And we also know that he has killed a woman, and buried her in the Florida woods. Remington has the pics to prove it, and Gauge can't allow him to leave these woods alive.

The author described him in these words: "Gauge is a character I feel like I "met" or was introduced to far more than one I created. He seemed to arrive fully formed to do only what he wanted to do. I view him as a charming shark, a sociopath. He is honest and practical and as cold as you'd expect someone without a soul to be. He doesn't have a conscience and he doesn't believe he's missing out on anything. Unburdened by empathy, he has decided to try and have fun during every immoral act he commits."

We see what Michael Lister means as the novel progresses and the night deepens. Gauge continues to talk to Remington, even flattering the young man. He's giving Remington odds on his survival. They started at 20 to 1. They're now down to 12 to 1.

"I'll take a piece of that. Put me down for twenty," Remington says.

"You got it," Gauge replies.

The reader gets the impression that Gauge is actually an OK guy. But the illusion doesn't last when Gauge strikes out at the person Remington cares most about. I never saw it coming. Neither will you.

It's easy to create a protagonist you can admire. It's a lot harder to create villains with sympathy who aren't two-dimensional. Michael Lister does both. And it's a pleasure to read. If we're lucky, we'll never meet Gauge in person...or someone like him.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Hail Storme is a Pounding Thriller

Ex-NFL player Wyatt Storme is bow hunting in Missouri when he stumbles across a huge marijuana field in the middle of the woods. He manages to subdue the guard dog and it's handler, but his discovery sets off a chain of disasters that Wyatt feels compelled to put right. The sheriff he alerts is shot dead the next day, and other people drawn into the investigation face danger from a drug conspiracy far bigger than just a few dozen acres of illicit weed. In the rural town of Paradise, some powerful businessmen have plans to mass produce a new drug called Dreamsicle that will make the crack epidemic of the 1980s look like a cozy tea party. Wyatt is determined to stop them before everyone he cares about is killed.

He teams up with Charles (Chick) Easton, a bounty hunter who's after the chemist who has concocted this new drug. Both men are Vietnam veterans and have seen more than their share of killing. They quickly bond as only battle hardened soldiers can. As Wyatt puts it, "He would be difficult to avoid liking." I liked him. You will, too. In fact, Chick is so likeable, he steals the scene in several chapters. Perhaps the author will give Easton his own series someday.

In the meantime, check out Hail Storme.  It has snappy dialogue and a story that keeps the pages turning. It's a great start to a excellent series, by W. L. Ripley.