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Dead Heat with the Reaper by William E. Wallace

I picked up William E. Wallace’s Dead Heat with the Reaper (All Due Respect Books) because different writers and publishers whose work I liked noted Wallace’s recent passing. Unfamiliar with Wallace’s work, I wanted to rectify that as soon as possible. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake I made a few months ago when Ed Gorman died. Yes, I need to read Gorman soon.

Dead Heat with the Reaper contains two novellas by Wallace, Legacy and The Creep. When I read Legacy and I found out about the money, I knew what was going to happen. What I didn’t realize until a few days after finishing reading both novellas was that Wallace’s work shined with the depth of his characters.

Legacy is the story of Frank Task who finds out near the start of the book that he is going to die like all of us, but he’s going to die a lot sooner. My assumptions about Trask were way off from Wallace’s development of the story and character. The idea the first impressions are often wrong is a theme in these two stories. In the second novella, The Creep, multiple characters relied on their first impressions of the eponymous character and had to break their prejudices or have their prejudices break them.

As she turned the blind corner on the fourth floor landing, a cockroach racing over the riser distracted her so much that she almost ran into the man who lived in the studio directly above hers. He loomed out of the shadows like a very substantial ghost.

“Oh my God,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you coming.”

It was the first time she had encountered her neighbor since he moved in three weeks earlier. Her neighbor Mrs. Riley had mentioned him, but Mrs. Riley mentioned a lot of things. Susan tended to ignore most of them.

[snip]

His footsteps were heavy on the bare wood, as if his bag contained more than a batch of bottles. The droop to his shoulders, his slow trudge, the creak of the steps under his weight— they made it seem like he was lugging a lifetime of regret. Susan half turned as he disappeared into the darkness above.

“Christ!” she whispered to herself, realizing she had been holding her breath during the encounter. The man’s scars— those she had seen, anyway— were frightening, like something from a horror movie.

She flew down the remaining three flights of stairs with her heart in her throat and was still trembling when she reached the Claymore’s front entry.

What I found, unsurprisingly considering the praise I was reading, is that Wallace was an excellent writer with plenty of work for me to enjoy over the next few years. I’ll leave you with some words about Wallace by Ron Earl Phillips, the publisher of Shotgun Honey:

William, or Bill as his friends called him, was the kind of guy who played the cards he was dealt, face up regardless. We knew he had terminal cancer, and he fought it, endured it with more courage and grace than most, but prepared or not we weren’t ready.

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Hardway by Hector Acosta

Supposedly the best time of your life is when you were a teenager, the reality is that being a teenager sucks — I speak from living through these years twice, once myself and once with my son. A teenager lives through seemingly unbearable disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, and an inexplicable horneyness. In Hardway (Shotgun Honey / Down & Out Books), Hector Acosta nails the psychological landmines of the teen years in a crime novel no less!

Too often in crime fiction, we are inundated by the similar cover art over and over again. Hardway is different and Bad Fido has done a fantastic job creating something different.

One of the big drawbacks of writing coming of age novel is that writer needs to know when to include and exclude the parents. For example, Stranger Things did that extremely well with Winona Rider’s character but blew it with the cluelessness of the parents who unknowingly had a young girl living in their basement. Even though Hardway is about a group of teenagers spending the summer trying to fight off boredom, Acosta knows when to leave out the parents and when to bring them into the story.

If you read anything about Hardway, one of the big takeaways is that the book centers around backyard wrestling. While that might be true, the strongest focus is on the relationship between two teenage brothers who were once close and are now drifting apart.

Familiar pangs of jealousy and betrayal creep up Spencer’s spine like tiny spiders as he watches his brother open the refrigerator door and pour himself some juice. Last year, right around the time their mother left them, his brother discovered their father’s old weight set. It didn’t take long before Billy was skipping out on their usual Friday nights of eating burgers and playing videogames, preferring instead to spend his time with newfound friends and chasing after girls.

At least they still had wrestling. Spencer can still remember sitting cross-legged next to Billy on the carpet of their parent’s old bedroom, staring in awe at the television and watching giants trek across a blood-stained ring, punching each other for the approval of the crowd. His father would occasionally chime in and name whatever move the wrestlers did, while their mother rolled her eyes and reminded him for the hundredth time how Billy and Spencer were too young to watch so much violence. This was before she became sullen and closed off to the world, long before she packed up and left.

It was also before their father’s company got outsourced to India and he had to start working at the new call center. Before Billy shed sixty pounds, joined the football team, and started to ignore Spencer any time they crossed each other in the school’s hallways.

Spencer’s other antagonist is Eddie Tornado who heads an opposing backyard wrestling show, the Woodlawn Terrace Federation (WTF).  In one wrestling scene,  Eddie Tornado wears “red and yellow tights and black wrestling boots which add two inches to his height. His mohawk stands at full attention, his chest glowing in the sun …”. He’s everything that Spencer is not. As the teenagers begin to spiral out of control, Hardway becomes something more than a coming of age story, it becomes a crime fiction novel without losing any of its original credence. Acosta has written a remarkably true book about growing up. Don’t miss it.

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Two Crime Writers And A Microphone

At some point a few months ago, the Two Crime Writers and a Microphone podcast came across my Twitter feed through random retweets. I ignored them. Then Adrian McKinty appeared on the podcast and, god, there were more tweets, a lot more tweets. You know the meme #shepersisted, for me, it was #hefinallygavein and I decided to give the podcast a shot. Adrian McKinty turned out to be funny and a great listen. The other two blokes, hosts Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste, would require a few more listens.

The basic premise of Two Crime Writers and a Microphone is for Steve and Luca to bullshit for a bit, talk about literary book news, comment on best sellers, and then kind of interview an author and a book blogger. During the McKinty show, blogger Kate Moloney talked book recommendations. This part was great except now I’ve added Steve Hamilton to my TBR list. Bill Beverley and Dan Winslow were already on the list.

The show after Adrian McKinty featured Keshini Naidoo, an associate publisher at Bookoutre, and blogger Liz Barnsley who recommended John Connolly and Peter Laws. On my way to work this morning, I listened to the Mason Cross episode which covered being a fake American, Batman, and 80’s action movies. No book recommendations other than I have to add Mason Cross to my TBR list.

After listening several episodes, I found Two Crime Writers and a Microphone to be funny as well as informative — imagine Cartalk but where you learn how not kill animals in your novel and other mundane matters. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to Two Crime Writers and a Microphone, please do so. I understand Steve and Luca have a money-back guarantee. Me? I’m going to start listening to their older episodes.  The first episode queued up is an interview with Ian Rankin.

Podcast: iTunes Podomatic

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Too Many Crooks by Paul D. Brazill

It took me a few pages of Paul D. Brazill’s Too Many Crooks (Near to the Knuckle) to settle into Brazill’s style — a Tarantino humor with Leonard’s directness. And, who names one of the main characters McGuffin? Either you’ll laugh at this joke or not. I laughed and I think you will too.

This McGuffin thing is a literary easter egg, if you will, and  Brazill sprinkles many others throughout Too Many Crooks. There is a family of characters name Rhatigan — I presume named after Chris Rhatigan, a crime fiction writer and editor. The novel’s title even comes from a British movie comedy of the same name “about a bunch of inept crooks who kidnap the wrong woman.” Hell, even some of the chapter titles are jokes that I got. What other jokes and references will you find?

Too Many Crooks moves quickly between London and Warsaw and back again as well as criminal to criminal. Like all good crime books, it begins with a murder.

Ted Singh had really had enough of Bobby Jake’s incessant whining and he was more than somewhat relieved when Ziggy eventually shot the annoying fucker in the back of the head, spraying blood and gunk down the front of Jake’s previously pristine white Fred Perry t– shirt.

Ted’s guts churned. Although he certainly had no qualms about the moral aspects of murdering Bobby Jake, he didn’t really have the stomach for the gory stuff. He never had, truth be told.

“Hold onto this for me,” said Ziggy, handing the Glock to Ted whose hands shook as he took the gun.

The novel might actually have too many crooks, but don’t worry, that’s why the criminals carry firearms. The felonious herd is thinned out repeatedly and with great effect. But nasty killings are not the only things you will find in Too Many Crooks, Brazill’s writing is fast-paced and humorous which makes this one-sitting novel a lively read.

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With the Right Enemies by Rob Pierce

Rob Pierce’s latest novel, With the Right Enemies, is a worthy sequel to his 2015 book, Uncle Dust, both of which appear on All Due Respect Books. I say worthy because I enjoyed Uncle Dust immensely (review). Unlike most detective series where each book is its own encapsulated story with some lead characters moving through all of them, these two books are more serial in nature, actions in the first book reverberate throughout the second book. (Hint, you should read the Uncle Dust first. I promise you will not be disappointed.)

With the Right Enemies opens with an introduction to Vollmer, a fifteen-year-old criminal surviving on the streets. If you thought Dust or Rico from the first book were tough guys — and they were — Vollmer out does them in spades. The only fictional character who comes close to Vollmer’s savagery and callousness might be The Wire‘s Marlo Stanfield played so brilliantly by Jamie Hector.

Other men didn’t want the work Vollmer got, and Vollmer didn’t want the work other men got. Funny that Rico called it dangerous. Wasn’t dangerous for Vollmer. Dangerous for anyone who got in his way.

The only potential flaw that Vollmer had, other than being a sociopath, was his love for the prostitute and drug addict Yula.

Vollmer came up the ranks fast. In an industry of square-jawed men he was angular, athletic. He still saw Yula but she didn’t stay with him. Didn’t matter if he had money, she had to whore those streets and she had to shoot that junk. He worked different streets now, streets where there was more money, but none of the girls on those money streets looked as good as Yula. Or fucked as good.

He still wanted Yula, but she went the way he knew she’d go. She stopped being beautiful, got to where you could find the pretty features but they were beneath everything else. Junk. Fuck junk. Dealers weren’t the problem, they were guys with jobs and their bosses worked for Vollmer’s boss, it was all making money. It was people, fucking weak people. Vollmer left Yula behind and he knew this weird part of him loved her, loved what she was, knew that feeling should be in the past and knew it would never leave him.

With the Right Enemies tells the story of a group of criminals searching the streets of Berkely and Oakland for another criminal who has a death wish — he stole money from a mob boss and was now on the run.

The vast majority of With the Right Enemies takes place within a 24-hour period, a dangerously fast-paced whirlwind with plenty of threats and beatings and bullets flying. If a character isn’t scared shitless that means that character is frightening the hell out of another. With the Right Enemies is a brutal noir novel filled with violence and unforgiving thugs, just the way I like it.

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Coney Island Avenue by J.L. Abramo

Every morning when I walk by Dunkin Donuts at the train station there is a line of people buying coffee. I’m not a fan of their coffee but considering they sell over 30 cups of coffee per second, many are. I walk past and go to one of the several small cafés or even the ubiquitous coffee shop of Pequod’s first mate. As I was reading J.L. Abramo’s upcoming release, Coney Island Avenue (Down & Out Books), I realized that this book wasn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean that others would not enjoy it.

The novel is a continuation of Abramo’s Gravesend which is set in the Homicide Division of the 61st Precinct of the New York City Police Department.  Set in the summer, a young couple is executed in a Coney Island apartment. As the detectives begin to investigate these gruesome murders, more dead bodies get discovered.

In telling the story of Coney Island Avenue, Abramo’s chooses to use rapid fire segments of only a few paragraphs in length. I found this narrative style which focuses on jumping between many plot lines confusing. Did I mention there are characters?  Abramo even begins Coney Island Avenue with a “Cast of Characters” — there are 58!

But to mangle my metaphor from the start of this review, even though Abramo’s book might not be my cup of tea, it could easily be yours.

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Uncle Dust by Rob Pierce

If you have raised a child, you know how difficult it is. Now imagine you come by a kid because you are fucking his mother and your day job is robbing banks, welcome to the world to Rob Pierce’s Uncle Dust (All Due Respect Books).

To put it bluntly, Dust is an asshole. Pierce presents Dust with all his flaws  — drinking, huge commitment issues, and money. Dust does have a few good qualities like keeping his business world separate from his personal world and having a small spot for Theresa’s 10-year-old son.

It ain’t like I like kids. Mainly I don’t like people running around batshit when I’m trying to think. Theresa, for all her great fuckable qualities, didn’t have a clue what a boy needs. Mainly, out of the tiny fucking apartment. Don’t isolate him from the rest of the world, he does that too much without your help. Don’t make him afraid of where he has to live.

Any affection that Dust may have for a kid or a woman can suddenly disappear because what Dust loves the most is robbing banks. If he’s not robbing banks, he’s in a dormant state, a monster prowling the city streets, drinking heavily to dampen the missing rush — no feelings are better than any feelings.

It was Saturday, and I needed a bank. I knew Rico could get me work, but it wouldn’t be as safe and easy as collecting, and it wouldn’t give me the rush I wanted. There was nothing like a good solo heist, the teller’s fear mixing with mine, the rush of escape—freedom.

Then the wind-down, isolation somewhere, knowing I was as safe as I could get, and I might be dead if I felt safe at all. Every sense alert, not trusting anyone, ready for whatever came along. Whoever. Maybe that was another reason I needed this. I’d been with Theresa too long, it was time to hide away a while. She wanted some of what I had, but she wanted a safer version, a version with the edge off. She wanted me cool. I needed to burn.

Uncle Dust is a howl of a book filled with energy, drinking, fucking and crime. This is the first volume of Pierce’s unnamed series about the lives of men who flourish in felonies and get off on their lawlessness. Pierce’s writing is just as ferocious and unrelenting as the men he depicts. As Dust puts it he is trying “to find a rush then try to find the next; don’t slow down, don’t come down.” Uncle Dust never comes down.

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Lightwood by Steph Post

If you think of Florida as the Holy Trinity of Tourism: Orlando, Miami and Key West, then Steph Post’s Lightwood (Polis Books), a backwoods crime fiction novel set in northern Florida, will be a bit of a surprise.

Lightwood begins with Judah Cannon released from prison and no one is there to pick him up, not his on-again-off-again wife or his cohorts in crime — his father and brother. As Judah begins the long walk to his hometown, it is time for that “first cigarette as a newly released man” that he would hopefully find as “remarkable.”

Nothing. It didn’t burn. The world didn’t appear clearer, didn’t make any more sense. A pickup truck with a bed full of teenagers screamed past him. An empty Coors tallboy landed on the pavement five feet ahead of him accompanied by an insult to his mother. Judah exhaled. The cigarette tasted the same as the last one he had just smoked standing out in the prison yard. As the last one he had smoked before walking into the courthouse for sentencing. The last one he had smoked after his daughter was born. After he had won his first midnight drag race. Lost his virginity. Kissed a girl. Stolen his first pack of cigarettes. It was the same. It was the same. His brother had been right. Getting out of prison was just another day of getting on with life.

Judah is immediately brought back into the family business with a simple job of robbing the motorcycle gang, the Scorpions. As with any good crime story, things go pear-shaped from there. As Lightwood progresses, we are introduced to the preacher Sister Tulah and the Last Steps of Deliverance Church of God as well as the members of the dilapidated motorcycle gang, the Scorpions. Post develops all her characters fully whether it is from Judah to his life-long friend, Ramey, or the sinister Sister Tulah to her tortoise-collecting idiot nephew, and even the president of the Scorpions, Jack O’ Lantern, with his rather large orange head.

As one would expect from a novel set in Florida, the weather has a strong presence throughout Lightwood.

The air conditioner in Ramey’s Cutlass had been broken since last summer. Even with all four windows rolled down, it was sweltering inside the car. The sun seemed to radiate off the black vinyl interior and dash, intensifying the stifling heat. They were driving down Highway 18, taking the back way up to Kentsville, and Judah had cautioned Ramey not to exceed the 35 mile an hour speed limit. The last thing they needed was to be pulled over by the police on their way to stake out the Scorpions’ clubhouse. Consequently, however, there wasn’t much of a breeze.

Lightwood is great noir filled ravaged dreams and brutish crime. If you are a fan of crime fiction, you should do yourself a favor and read Lightwood — you’ll be recommending it to your friends soon enough.

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Tenderloin by Court Haslett

 The 70s was a strange decade. Maybe no stranger than other decades but any journey from the 60s counter culture to the decade of Reagan and Thatcher would surely rank high as one of the most bizarre decades in human history.

Court Haslett’s Tenderloin (280 Steps) takes place in San Francisco during the Summer of 1978. Yeah, we are knee-deep in the 70s, but life is much different than you imagine as Haslett’s outstanding novel in San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Here is the novel’s main character describing the T.L., as the locals call it:

Archie made me consider the Tenderloin. The T.L. was always the place where San Francisco’s outcasts gathered. Criminals, ex-cons, alcoholics, hookers, castoffs, hard-luck cases, and straight-up weirdos. These people were my people. People with unfixable flaws who, more often than not, lose whatever battles they’re fighting.

But the T.L. wasn’t only a wasteland of losers. It was also a place to have some fun. The neon lights of the Tenderloin’s hotels and bars were as recognizable to locals as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Black Hawk Lounge on Hyde and Turk used to host all the jazz greats, from Billie Holiday to Johnny Mathis to Charlie Parker; Polo’s and Original Joe’s still served food with style; and whatever your sexual proclivities and predilections, the Tenderloin had a bar for you.

Lately, though, the T.L. was becoming a touch more desperate, a bit more violent. Every year a few more homeless panhandled, a few more murders occurred, and a few more dope fiends overdosed. The fun was slowly seeping out, and more and more I found myself looking over my shoulder when I heard footsteps behind me late at night.

Haslett’s novel follows Sleeper Hayes, a man who lives and thrives in the T.L., not as a criminal, but as a gambler, drunk, a caretaker, and a friend to many, well, except for maybe the cops considering one of them wants Hayes dead. A few chapters in, one of Hayes’ friends is murdered and Hayes starts looking into the death for a T.L. john.

Simon sized me up. “Alright. Let me know what you learn,” he said, slapping a $100 bill on the bar. “Remember,” he whispered, “I’m your first call.”

Uh oh. When a pimp gives you money it can mean one of two things: you’re either the john or you’re turning the trick. Either way, somebody is getting screwed.

As the reader experiences the T.L. with Hayes, we also get to know Haslett’s other dynamic characters who live on society’s periphery, some by choice and others by need. Haslett’s writing makes these characters much more than bums, drunks, prostitutes and drug addicts. Consider Nelson, a “crippled, dope-smoking guru of a best friend”, who lives in Hayes’ apartment building.

Nelson was always my sounding board when life became overwhelming. Years of nearly constant smoking had slowed and slurred his speech. Some people mistook this for a slowness of the mind. It’s true that Nelson’s logic wasn’t always straightforward, nor his delivery articulate, but his take on any topic was always unexpected and enlightening.

I knew his counsel wasn’t for everyone, though. If you’re the conventional type, then his steadfast belief in sterilizing the very rich and the very poor wouldn’t spin your top. Nor would you believe his claim that he and Yuri wrote the outline for the SALT treaty. But if you were looking for weed, a fresh opinion, and a laugh, like I always seemed to be, then Nelson was your guy. I considered him my personal, stoned, black Buddha.

Not only does Haslett’s story have a detailed and almost character-like affection for the Tenderloin, the Peoples Temple also has deep roots in the novel just as it did in San Francisco politics in the 70s. Haslett does not bog us down with a boring history of the cult, his writing about its leader Jim Jones becomes an intrinsic part of the story. Tenderloin is as dark as the alleys of the neighborhood and as glorious as the City by the Bay itself.

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Swann Dives In by Charles Salzberg

I have places in my home where I like to read. Another place to watch television. My wife and I have our favorite pub probably because they know our beer orders. Contentment is important. Is this why the mystery genre is filled with so many book series? These sets of books give us the satisfaction of the known, they give us the comfort of characters and the familiarity of setting.

After reading Charles Salzberg’s first novel about Henry Swann, Swann’s Last Song, I was ready to read the second in the series, Swann Dives In (Down & Out Books). The novel starts a few months after Swann solved the case in Swann’s Last Song, but we find that Swann is no longer a poor man’s PI, a skip chaser. He’s now installing cable in New York City, “a foot-soldier in the war against double and triple image ghosts and out of season, non-meteorological snow-storms.” But huffing it up five flights of stairs in Hells Kitchen gets tiring real fast.

A few pages into Swann Dives In, Salzberg does what the expect: an old friend/client reaches out to Swann to do him one last solid — take a case. Swann protests saying he’s out of the game and quite content being in the “entertainment business”. But Swann acquiesces and does one last skip trace for his friend “for old time’s sake. And for the money, naturally.”

Swann Dives In was exactly what I expected from the Swann series, a good PI novel with a believable mystery. Salzberg weaves a fast-paced plot based on the simple premise of Swann searching for a man’s daughter who doesn’t want to be found. When I finished Swann Dives In, I was left with one question: will Swann continue being a skip tracer in book three, Swann’s Lake of Despair? I don’t know, but I aim to find out.

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