I’m rejoining Unlawful Acts as a reviewer in a different format, with weekly roundups of what I’ve read recently. Some are old novels, some are new. Some are from small presses, some aren’t. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Hopefully I’m able to steer you to something you haven’t yet read, or make you think about something you have read in a different way.
Either way, I pledge to:
- Show my work; and
- Never pull my punches out of political considerations; and
- Not be an asshole. Or;
- A sycophant.
If this approach costs me friends and publishing opportunities, so be it.
She Was the Quiet One, Michele Campbell
A well-designed house is of no value if the foundation is made from cheap materials that reveal rot upon inspection, and the same is true with well-crafted thrillers whose holy-shit twists are built upon a premise that can’t be believed.
I’m irresistibly drawn to stories set at boarding schools, having graduated from one myself—not a posh New prep academy in New England like the one in this novel, but a Seventh-day Adventist school in the Pacific Northwest populated across the economic spectrum—and this one largely did not disappoint. The characters are well-developed, the pacing is perfect, and the happy thrum of pleasurable uncertainty propels the pages forward.
It’s not easy to summarize She Was the Quiet One, but suffice to say that it involves bullying, social media, sex, gaslighting, power politics, reputational histrionics, a lot of suspicious late-night texting and, of course, murder. All rendered almost exclusively within the halls of one girls’ dormitory at a New Hampshire prep school whose students are as obsessed with who’s screwing who as who’s getting into what college.
The only problem is that its premise is rotten: there’s just no way, in 2018, in a time in which we’re hypersensitive about imbalances of sex and power between men and girls, boys and women, that a prep school as obsessed with image as this one is would place a devastatingly handsome young man in charge of the “slutty” girls’ dorm. It’s so implausible that it fatally undermines everything follows, and everything in this novel centers around Heath Donovan.
Once suspension of disbelief has been suspended, there’s no getting it back, at least for me. No matter how good everything else about the story turns out to be.
I’m a big fan of Beetner, a self-described “pulp hack” who puts out some of the smoothest, sharpest hardboiled crime fiction around.
But the problem with this trilogy of middle-aged-hitman-hits-the-bloody-highway-with-teen-girl tales is somewhat the same as the fatal flaw in She Was the Quiet One: I’m being asked to accept a premise I can’t quite believe. In this case, it’s that hitman Lars, who sometimes fucks up but never freezes up in the course of his wetwork no matter how existentially adrift he feels, freezes up inexplicably during a hit nearly two decades in the making. And that freeze-up is what throws him together with Shaine, the victim’s teen daughter. I’ve read the trilogy twice, and I can’t get past the idea that this is a plot contrivance that undermines Lars’s established character.
That said, these three novels are full of cheerfully zippy mayhem, with Lars and Shaine settling into a semi-familial mentor-apprentice relationship as they carve a complicated cross-country swath through the mob connections that mark Lars’s personal and professional history. The prose rides shotgun with the Tarantino-esque splattergasms to standout effect: “He tried to step around the larger pieces of gore and squishier spots on the carpet, the unknown fluid like some combination of stomach acid and skunk spray” and “She never imagined hope would smell like the inside of a corpse” are lines fairly representative of the three novels. (I could have done without the second-novel storyline of a crazed mobster who refuses to dispose of the bodies of his slain parents—ostensibly out of respect—as they bloat and putrefact, but at least it’s something I’ve never seen before.)
The other flaw, in my eyes, is the obvious reluctance to develop Shaine as a fully dimensional character. Every time Shaine seems ready to shake off the trauma of almost being killed, over and over, and take a step into living an age-appropriate life, Beetner bends her back into the pureé-intensity-level plot. I came away feeling like there was a lot more about Shaine I should have been able to get to know.
I’ve long felt Beetner, one of the great hard workers in small-press crime fiction, is deserving of the wider audience that a major publisher could bring his way. But I also feel the Devil trilogy, frothy fun that it is, is not his best calling card for making that case. He’s done better work—his Criminal Economics and his two Rumrunners novels, for instance—and he’ll do better work in the future.
Split Images, Elmore Leonard
When Dutch died in 2013, the internet was carpet-bombed with lists of “Ten Best Elmore Leonard Novels,” and Split Images turned up on very few of them. I get that; he wrote a lot of novels, and very few of them were subpar, and as with Edgar Award nominations each year, a lot of worthy work is going to get short shrift.
But Split Images, from 1982, merits reconsideration. It neatly balances Leonard’s two favorites locales—Detroit and Florida—in a light-on-its-feet tale of a rich man who’s discovered a taste for murder, the retired cop who signs on as his advance scout, and the current cop who figures out the scheme but isn’t sure how to put a stop to it.
And the best part isn’t even that—it’s the surprisingly uncynical love story that gives Split Images its heartbeat. Detroit police detective Bryan Hurd and freelance crime writer Angela Nolan really, really love one another, from the moment they set eyes on one another in a coutroom, and for once, Leonard neither winks or nudges at the reader as he allows those three magic words to be spoken.
The effect is quietly astonishing, and then we’re back in the funky, jivey, slouchy crime story, wondering as always in a Leonard novel who’s going to screw over who and who’s going to be standing at the end. And, of course, who’s going to be telling the weirdest little semi-non-sequitur stories while waiting with someone to do something, the way we often spend much of our lives but rarely see rendered in fiction. And we’re still a little happily stunned by these two smart, sweet, street people who are happily stunned to find that they found their forever person. Even if forever falls short of that.
Cold Cuts, Steve Brewer
Someday some smart someone is going to smartly reissue select Steve Brewer titles, Black Lizard-style. Though he’s not a high stylist or a stylish nihilist, Brewer, for more than two decades, has put out one or two crime novels a year, and they’re never anything less than well above average—tightly plotted, lightly dark, slyly funny, packed with characters you can’t help but care about despite their lack of conventionally sympathetic qualities. The man just never misses, and how many authors can you say that about?
Brewer’s latest, another set in his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, is a case in point. Though it ostensibly centers on the smuggling of bologna across the Mexican-American border (build that wall!), it’s really a character study in plotted clothing. Chief among the cast of memorables is Lucky Flanagan, a lifelong loser and competence-challenged criminal who takes on the sketchy smuggling job so he come up with the funds to finagle his way back into the hearts and home of his ex-wife and daughter. I also really liked Inez, a state meat inspector who misses nothing in her job and everything in her life, because she’s (possibly) on the autism spectrum.
There’s plenty of bad guys and satisfyingly high stakes, but this is at heart the story of semi-lovable misfits with semi-colliding agendas. What a shocker: Steve Brewer does it again.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by and reading Jim Thomsen’s first of many Shoulder Wounds.