Monday, September 29, 2008

Christa Faust - Control Freak & Hoodtown

The first book by Christa Faust that I read was Money Shot, her most recent. I wrote about it at Revish. It is a terrific read, a hard-boiled crime story about a woman wronged and told first person by her.

Faust's two earlier novels, Control Freak and Hoodtown, are have female characters who are tough, comfortable with themselves, and live outside of normal society.

Control Freak 1998.

This is Christa's first novel.

Caitlin McCullough inherited some money which has allowed her to write hard-boiled crime stories without requiring her to have a job to live. Her money is starting to run low and she is thinking that she needs to find something that pays better. She is seeing a NYPD detective, Mike Kiernan, who is considerably older than she. They have great sexual chemistry but she is not looking for love. Mike might be.

She finds out about a gruesome murder including sexual mutilation in the meat packing district from Wilson, a hacker friend. Her friend Mike has just started investigating the same crime. True crime might turn out to be her ticket and with information supplied by her friend, Caitlin figures she can get the jump on any competitors.

The victim is Eva Eiseman and Caitlin learns that she was involved in the sadomasochistic society of New York City. Caitlin begins her investigation at the House of Absinthe, an SM club. Unexpectedly, Caitlin finds herself not unwillingly pulled into the society and, even more so that she appears to be a natural Domina.

Control Freak is explicit about SM and the people who embrace the culture. I would not recommend it for anyone not comfortable exploring alternate lifestyles. I did enjoy it. Faust created interesting characters, situations, and story lines. I'm not going to have myself fitted for leathers and chains but I wasn't bothered reading about people who do.

Faust does get a bit carried away with her similes and descriptions at times but her first novel holds together quite well.

Computers play a part in the story but the book was written before the Internet as we know it. Younger readers might not have heard about bulletin boards (BBS) which predate web sites and blogs. Still, with a minor bit of editing Control Freak could be easily modernized.

Hoodtown (2004)

Hoodtown is a very different story with the exception of another strong female character. Hoodtown is an inner-city neighborhood where the culture is derived from lucha libre, Mexican style wrestling. Everyone is hooded beginning at infancy. Residents are know by the style (gimmicks) of their hoods. The hood is everything and no one would be caught dead without their hoods. Except now they are. Someone is murdering Hoodtown prostitutes and leaving them unmasked. X is a former luchadora who left the ring under a cloud and she decides that she is going to investigate. She has no faith that the Skin detectives are going to put any effort into finding the killer.

Someone wrote that they couldn't get into the story because they couldn't buy into a society where everyone wore hoods and had the legal right to do so. I didn't have that problem, perhaps because I also enjoy fantasy. As with Control Freak, Faust works considerable detail into the story. She goes into the intricacies of always wearing a hood. Want to know how the residents of Hoodtown sleep or wash their hair, it's covered.

In style, Hoodtown is a hardiboiled pulp detective story with snappy dialog and fights built on wrestling techniques. I appreciated the glossary of Hoodtown slang she included since it allowed her to keep the narrative flowing without having to explain terms.

I found the book a lot of fun though I'm not sure who I would recommend it to. If I'm ever near a lucha libre event I'm going to do my best to attend.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Deceived, Brett Battles

I'm not sure how I learned about Brett Battles' The Cleaner, his first Jonathan Quinn novel. It might actually be one of the few that I got from a newspaper review. In any case, I'm glad it happened.

If you haven't read The Cleaner, you should start there. I wrote about it here. Here is a bit of background. Quinn is a cleaner. His job is to clean-up messes. It might be disposing of a body or sussing out a situation to see if anything needs to be covered up. He sometimes works for a black ops intelligence organization called simply The Office.

The Deceived picks up after the events in The Cleaner. Quinn continues to train his apprentice Nate in his craft. Quinn takes a job to dispose of a body in a shipping container. Quinn recognizes the body as Steven Markoff, a CIA agent and friend who saved his life. Quinn completes the job because he is a professional but he wants to know who killed his friend. Quinn tries to contact Markoff's girlfriend Jenny who works for a high profile senator but she's "not available" and the senator's office is less than helpful. What's going on? Conspiracy?

Quinn launches his off the books investigation in earnest. Soon, while crisscrossing the country he finds himself trying to figure out what to do with Tasha, Jenny's friend, who wants to help find her. Orlando, his beautiful, brilliant, computer genius friend joins the team and they head to Singapore where all the clues lead.

They discover that something much, much larger than they suspect is going on and the truth is staggering.

The Deceived is a straight-up action thriller and very entertaining. I admit to being a sucker for conspiracy stories and a hero that doesn't have to worry about money and identification, who can acquire weapons anywhere, and who has incredible tools that could have come from Q himself. Think of Quinn as a freelance James bond Quinn's assistants, Nate and Orlando, provide a good balance.

The book ends with a nice setup to future books and a plot line that Battles can return to as needed.

Excellent escapist novel - I liked it very much and recommend it if you like this genre.

Kent Harrington

I love indie book stores, particularly ones that specialize. You have a staff that knows the subject, knows their customers, and more often than not, knows many of the authors. I might not have learned about Kent Harrington were not for Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, New York City. One of the partners, Megan I think, observed the books I was selecting and steered me toward the $10 specials and Dia de los Muertos by Kent Harrington. She described Harrington as one of the best writers she has read and if I read and liked it I would also want to read The Good Physician. I bought it, read it, and called the shop and ordered The Good Physician as soon as I finished.

From Partners & Crime I also learned about Dennis McMillan Publications. They specialize in limited first editions of noir and hard-boiled fiction. I think they limit their runs to one to two thousand copies and place them mainly in independent book stores.

Dia de Los Muertos

Vincent Calhoun is a DEA agent stationed in Tijuana with a major gambling problem. Aided by his partner Castro, a corrupt Mexican judicale, he supplements his income as a coyote, smuggling very wealthy people across the border. On the Day of the Dead he is shocked when a woman gets off a prison bus and he recognizes her from his past, a past not very pleasant. His luck begins to leave him: debts he can't pay; a time limit rapidly running out; a smuggling commission he really doesn't want to carry out. Regarding the reluctant commission, Harrington came up with one of the most grotesque and repulsive characters I've encountered in a while.

The Good Physician

Colin Reeves is a doctor who has rejected the good life he could have if he went into practice with his father in the U.S. Instead, he studied at the London School of Tropical Diseases and works in third world countries. His is also a CIA officer, recruited after 9/11, now working out of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The Head of Station at the embassy is alerted to a plot by Islamic extremists who may have smuggled something very dangerous into Mexico for use against U.S. interests. Colin finds himself in a situation and asked to do things that run counter to his idealistic nature. Colin's life is further complicated when he is asked to treat a female tourist with whom he falls in love.

Vince Calhoun is older, jaded and a cynic. Colin Reeves is young and and a romantic idealist but they have something in common. A woman comes into their lives bringing both hope and fear. The women are not used to represent the downfall of men but to bring out unexpected emotions. Both Calhoun and Reeves are well developed characters and the reader gets to know them intimately.

The story in ...Muertos is closer to a straight thriller than The Good Physician. There is a steady pace to it with episodes of violence. By contrast, The Good Physician takes its time. With a theme of the War on Terror, Harrington gives the reader a lot to think about and the time to do it.

Harrington is a real artist with language and there is a flow and elegance that makes him a joy to read.

I can't speak to all of Harrington's books but these two both have a gold colored image embossed on the flyleaf. In Dia de los Muertos there is a scarab (dung) beetle. With The Good Physician it is a scorpion. These images have meaning within the context of the story and are a nice and attractive touch.

Harrington is a terrific writer and I highly recommend him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Adrian McKinty's Dead series

The three books in Adrian McKinty's Dead series are more that I learned about from blogs. McKinty didn't like a review of The Bloomsday Dead in The Irish Times, posted about it, and there was some discussion on other blogs whether it is wise to respond.

It was enough to get my interest. I couldn't find them in local bookstores but did find that Dead I May Well Be, The Dead Yard, and The Bloomsday Dead are available from Audible and downloaded them.

So this was a listen rather than a read. Gerard Doyle's reading is terrific. If anyone reading this knows Irish accents I'd like to know what you think. It won't affect my enjoyment of Doyle's narration but I am curious how well he does distinguishing Dublin and Belfast accents.

Dead I May Well Be

It is the early 1990s in New York City and Michael Forsythe has had a bit of trouble in Ireland and and it was expedient for him to take a job working construction for Darkey White. Darkey is the head of an Irish gang and Michael becomes muscle on one of Darkey's lower level crews. It becomes obvious that Michael isn't some goon. He's well read (though not formally educated) and articulate though he keeps his thought to himself. He distinguishes himself and seems to be on the way up in the organization until he begins a secret relationship with Darkey's girl friend, Brigit. Darkey sends Michael's crew to Mexico to buy drugs but it is actually a set-up that lands them in a Mexican prison. Betrayal, survival, revenge.

The Dead Yard

It is several years after the events in Dead I May Well Be. Michael has a price on his head and is in the witness protection program. He takes a vacation to a Spanish island and gets caught up in a football riot. The Spanish authorities are threatening to put him in prison and/or extradite him to Mexico. The British intelligence agency MI6 offers to get him out of his situation if he will infiltrate an Irish terrorist cell, the Sons of Cuchulainn, lead by two old school, hard core, ex-IRA. They oppose the peace accords that have just been signed and hope to get noticed by the Real IRA. Michael joins the cell. The leader has a daughter who Michael falls for. Michael again finds himself in a fight for survival.

The Bloomsday Dead

It is twelve years after the events in Dead I May Well Be. Brigit, Darkey White's fiance, has been trying to have Michael killed but finds she needs him when her daughter is kidnapped in Belfast. She offers to clear the slate if Michael will come to Ireland and help find the girl. Against the advice of the FBI, Michael agrees; he has never gotten over Brigit and wants to help her. He arrives in Ireland on June 16, Bloomsday in Dublin, commemorating the events in James Joyce's Ulysses. I have a feeling that there may be parallels between what happens to Michael and Ulysses but not having read Joyce's work I don't know. A London bookstore ran a contest to find the literary references and I hope to find the results. Members of Brigit's gang still want Michael dead for what he did to Darkey's gang, no matter what Brigit promised. Michael begins his search leaves a trail of violence along the way. I'm not about to give any spoilers at this point so you'll need to read or listen to the story to find out what happens.

I try not to read reviews before I put down my thoughts about a book but I did scan a couple of editorial reviews and saw Michael described as a hit man. He isn't. He is a man who finds himself in situations where he has to act decisively to survive. Frequently that requires violence, often fatal.

He is self-educated, witty, and sardonic. The stories are told in first person narrative and McKinty frequently has Michael engaging in lengthy, often lyrical, descriptions and introspective discourses. Some might that this unnecessarily breaks up the action but I liked it. It builds up a picture of the kind of person he is. You feel you know him as a person. McKinty has Michael going from exposition to staccato, almost stream of conscious, firing of words, e.g.
Yawn. Stand on tiptoes. Roll my head. Lazy stretch.

I want to give an an example of Michael's way of describing scenes and people. This one from The Bloomsday Dead isn't the most typical but I am a librarian so I had to select it.

The reading room was a charming little affair with old book tables, neat shelves and a tidy Georgian appearance. Various oddball types reading magazines, newspapers and books. The more stereotypical iron-faced librarians with horn-rimmed glasses and a capacity for unspeakable deeds patrolled the reference area enforcing the strict rules on silence, shelving, and pencils only.

...capacity for unspeakable deeds... said about librarians makes me laugh every time and I'd like to work it into my job description somehow. The comment about pencils is true, by the way. In special collection libraries, pens are not allowed.

I don't have a print copy of Dead I May Well Be in front of me but McKinty is able to have Michael describe everyday matters in most remarkable prose, his apartment in Harlem and his war with the vermin that share it with him, for example.

Lean dialog, exposition that reached lyrical heights at times, putting the reader inside a characters mind - it all pulled me into the story.

McKinty is also a very skilled writer when the action turns violent. Events turn to Michael's favor no matter how desperate the situation which gains him the reputation of someone who can't be killed. The violence is graphic but I wouldn't call gratuitous. I'm pretty sure I could justify Michael's actions in all cases.

I enjoyed all three books though my favorite is probably the first because that is where we see the beginning of Michael's change from a 19 year old to the underworld legend he becomes.

This is a terrific series and I intend to add paper copies to my library as soon as I find them in trade paperback editions. McKinty is definitely on my watch and wait for list.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Big O by Declan Burke

I'll be wandering and babbling a bit before I actually get to the book so feel free to jump ahead.

The Big O by Declan Burke is an example of a book that I would not have known about were it not for blogs. The reason I mention this is because I'm tracking where I learn about books. This is prompted by a post on Declan's own blog, Crime Always Pays. In a September 15 post he wonders "about where crime fiction itself is going, and what blogs and sites can do to help it get there." I think blogs can do much.

I learned about The Big O from the flogging Declan himself gave it on his blog (is flogging a pejorative expression here? I don't mean it to be) and it sounded like a book I wanted to read. Unfortunately it was only available in the UK and unless I deprived the cats of their premium food it was out of reach. When I found it was going to be published in the U.S. and available for advanced order on Amazon I immediately ordered a copy. Bless Amazon, they shipped it well in advance of the September 22 U.S. release date so I've had a chance to read it.

The blurb on the book jacket describes Declan as "Elmore Leonard with a harsh Irish edge." I would also add a bit of Donald Westlake (think a Dortmunder caper) with profanity and violence and some Carl Hiassen with his talent for creating interesting characters and putting them in darkly humorous situations.

The Big O falls into the humorous caper category but there are also aspects of the hardboiled school of crime writing so it is covering several of the crime sub-genres.

    We have:
  • Karen who is a receptionist for a plastic surgeon who supplements her income with armed robbery.

  • Karen's ex boyfriend Rossi is out on parole and looking for his motorcycle, .44 automatic, and his money, all of which he thinks Karen has.

  • Ray wants to get out of the kidnapping business. His job is to mind the kidnapped until the insurance company pays the ransom. He is also falling in love with Karen

  • Frank is a plastic surgeon with money trouble and also Karen's boss

  • Frank's almost ex-wife, Madge who is also Karen's best friend.

  • Anna who you need to meet in the book. I will say no more.

  • Assorted other characters who contribute to the craziness.

Frank figures that the only way out of his money predicament is to have his ex-wife kidnapped before the insurance policy expires. Ray gets subcontracted to hold Madge until the ransom is paid. Ray and Karen team up and the caper moves into high gear.

The story is told in alternating sections from the viewpoint of the major characters. A character many have several pages or a few paragraphs. This is a nifty approach that I enjoy. You get bits of back story and unfolding plot elements as the path of the characters weave in an out, sometimes crossing, and finally intersecting. Burke does this skillfully. The only downside to this style for me is that I think I can stop reading any time because there are break points so close together. The reality is that I decide that I can read just one more bit since it isn't that long, not like a chapter. I stayed up much too late over two work nights.

You know how there are television shows where the cast is perfect and they complement each other - Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Shield, The Wire, shows like that. That's the way I felt about the characters in The Big O. I liked many of them but was interested in all of them.

Earlier I described this book as a humorous caper. Humorous doesn't mean comedy. It means that there is much sharp, witty, and snarky dialog and narration. There is nothing slow or ponderous here. Burke makes frequent use of short statement, rapid fire dialog/observations that propel the story along. Hmm, that isn't phrased well. I need to study reviewer lingo a bit more.

All in all it is a cracking good story told well and I don't regret springing for the hardcover.

I would like large numbers of people on this side of the Atlantic to purchase this book so the folks at Harcourt will be inclined to publish Declan's next book simultaneously in the US so I won't have to wait for months.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Seth Harwood's Crime Podcasts

If you think you would enjoy listening to crime fiction then I'd like to steer to toward three of Seth Harwood's projects. I've been a fan for a while and, besides being a nice guy, Seth's a very talented writer and podcaster (except when he does the voice for Momma Ponds).

CrimeWAV is a nifty concept. Crime writers read their short stories. Episode 12 just got posted and it features Megan Abbott reading Cheers. Megan recently won an Edgar for Queenpin. The other authors so far are Vickie Hendricks, Jason Starr, Christa Faust, Gary Phillips, Dave Zeltserman, Mark Coggins, Charles Ardai, Tim Maleeny, and Reed Farrell Coleman. This is an outstanding lineup and I've enjoyed hearing their stories and their voices.
Promo for CrimeWAV

Seth came on the podcast scene with the first Jack Palms story, Jack Wakes Up. Jack is an ex-actor and ex-drug addict. Since then there have been two more Jack Palms stories and Seth is starting to appear in print. The Jack Palms stories are hard boiled stuff, lots of violence, and immensely entertaining. He does his own narration.
Promo for Jack Palms Crime

Jack Wakes Up included a drug dealer named Junius Ponds. He was a popular character and Seth decided to give him some back story. Young Junius starts with Junius a teenager (16 yrs old?) in the Boston projects. When I listened to the first episode I was reminded of The Wire and in a good way.
Promo for Young Junius

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New TBR and LibraryThing

I'm experimenting with pulling in covers from LibraryThing. You may not see an image. Tim Spalding says that LT has to figure out what the *best* cover for a given ISBN should be.

My TBR stack has been refreshing itself at a pretty fair rate these days. I was fortunate to score all four volumes of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet from one of Declan Burke's "Best things in life are free" giveaways. This series deals with the Yorkshire Ripper but also deals with police corruption and I'm not sure what else. I'd been salivating over these books since I heard of them.

Michelle Gagnon sent me an IM in Second Life about a discussion with the Athena Isle Writers. Turns out she was being interviewed. I couldn't make the event but I did learn that she is the author of Bone Yard, a novel about serial killers. By all reports it is a good read and the first couple of pages have grabbed me. If you look for this book in Barnes & Noble, check the general fiction section. Border's puts it in the mystery section.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two blog posts on crime fiction that have me thinking

Declan Burke over at Crime Always Pays has an interesting post on the lack of critical evaluation of crime fiction and the role of blogs. My library has a pretty good collection of books about crime/mystery fiction and I've found many interesting journal articles but not much recent material. I've come to rely on blogs and web sites. It is nigh to impossible to select nuggets from Dec's post since the whole thing is spot on but here are a couple of selections
By the same token, many mainstream commentators have suggested that the blogging format doesn’t lend itself to the quality of commentary available in mainstream media. To a certain extent, this is true. The blogging paradigm lends itself to shorter, more direct forms of communication than that of the traditional mainstream press. Further, most bloggers are not being paid to read and review books, and are for the most part doing it as a labour of love in their spare time. Another factor involved is that to be a ‘successful’ blogger – i.e., to achieve the kind of exposure that makes your time and effort worthwhile – it is necessary to blog on a regular basis, or at least far more regularly than the traditional media reviewer needs to review. For all these reasons, and more, the on-line community lacks the resources (but mainly space, time and money) that has allowed the more literary community build up a corpus of critical work on literary novels.
... the critical work on crime fiction needs to develop of and through its own metier, that the Johnsons of the crime / mystery community require their Boswells, and that I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work.
I think blogs have the potential to provide the kind of critical commentary Declan suggests. There have been discussions on blogs that blogs might be a better than print journals for scholarly publishing because of their immediacy and because the author and readers can have an active dialog. In fact, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an assistant professor at U.C. San Diego, used blog comments to peer review his book. Read about it here.

I hope Declan's challenge is taken up by bloggers. There are tremendously talented bloggers and very astute readers in the blogosphere and critical commentary is very possible.

The other post that I've been thinking about comes from Petrona. It isn't the clarion call of Declan's post. It's personal - What I like in a book. Maxine nicely articulates what she likes in crime fiction. The reason it has me thinking is that I don't really consider the elements of what I like in a book. I devour books but why do I drop some after the first chapter, skip to the end of others to see if I want to keep reading, and stay up much to late on a work night to finish others. I think I'm going to keep pen and paper handy the next time I start a book note what stands out, good and bad.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Life is Good in the Area of Crime Entertainment

Lots of stuff showed up at the same time. I might need to take another week off.

The Shield's final season premiered last night. Wow! Not an episode for those with a delicate constitution. Shane Vendrell got a real work-out. New female character was introduced, Olivia Murray, who works for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I think that is what ICE stands for). She and Vic are eying each other. Definite interest there. Vic got a 30 day stay on his forced retirement. Don't call me Tuesday's between 10 and 11 p.m.

Amazon is shipping Declan Burke's The Big O early and my copy should be here on Sept. 5. This will help satisfy my need for more Irish crime fiction. Here is a review of The Big O at Crime scene NI and another at Euro Crime.

Speaking of which, through Declan's Blog, Crime Always Pays, I learned about Adrian McKinty. His "dead" books are available from Audible and I downloaded Dead I May Well Be, The Dead Yard, and The Bloomsday Dead. I'm about 3 hours into Dead I May Well Be and it is a terrific story with a great reader, Gerald Doyle. More on this series later.

Sweetheart, Chelsea Cain's sequel to Heartsick is currently near the top of of my to-be-read stack. When I picked it up at Borders last night the salesperson asked me if I had read Heartsick. He thought I should know that Heartsick was graphic in its presentation of violence. I guess he didn't want me to be shocked with Sweetheart.

Finally, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen's latest collaboration, The Max, finally arrived. I guess you can call it a series since there are now three books with continuing characters - Bust, Slide, and The Max. They are immensely entertaining. More later on these books.
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