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The Lionel Kaspar Novellas by Chris Rhatigan

Before reading and reviewing Chris Rhatigan’s wonderful Race to the Bottom, I read two of Rhatigan’s earlier novellas, A Pack of Lies and Squeeze. These two books focus on Lionel Kaspar, a community newspaper reporter who is more interested in drinking, gambling and figuring out ways not to do work — not always in that order.

A Pack of Lies is part of Two Bullets Solve Everything (All Due Respect Books) that features novellas by Rhatigan and Ron Sayles. The Sayles’ contribution is Disco Rumble Fish, a mid-70s  novella about SWAT team.

A Pack of Lies begins with Kaspar trying to shake down a new developer in a suburb in central Connecticut. The developer, Len Gray, laughs off the attempted extortion with, “I was just curious. You’re trying to sell coverage in a suburban newspaper? Seriously? The fuck is wrong with you?”

Kaspar writes his retribution.

I wrote about twelve inches on why Len Gray was a know-nothing shithead and how he was going to ruin Wallingtown with a project that would destroy the environment, cause a never-ending traffic jam, and make the neighborhood a ghetto. Constructed as many half-truths as I could devise. All wrapped in the detached, objective reporter jive that I spouted like it was my first language.

Between Kaspar’s attempt to strong-arm kickbacks, his never-ending drinking, and some real bad gambling decisions, his life begins to go seriously bad.

Published a year later, Squeeze (All Due Respect Books) is a prequel to all the shit that went down in Kaspar’s life in A Pack of Lies. Rhatigan opens ups Squeeze with Kaspar as a low-level government hack at a Public Health Department. Besides leaking information to a local journalist, Kaspar is already drinking like a professional and beginning on the road of becoming a degenerate gambler. Luck shines on Kaspar as a local reporter recommends him for a job with the local newspaper. If you think you don’t like to work, you don’t have anything on Kaspar — he makes sloths look energetic. Once getting the reporter gig, Kaspar works on two scams: writing fake human interest stories and extorting money from public officials in return for suppressing embarrassing stories.

Tired of being shown up by Kaspar’s success, a competing reporter begins investigating Kaspar’s fictional stories. Though Kaspar has already put in place everything for his life to deteriorate, the rival writer just gives it all a big push.

I enjoyed reading Rhatigan’s take on his characters’ self-induced despair and subsequent decline whether it is in the Lionel Kaspar novellas or Race to the Bottom. The whiskey I drank while reading these tales of descent goes down a bit slower as I quietly hope I won’t end up as a character in a Rhatigan story.

I stumbled home, cursing with each soggy step, my head already throbbing with a hangover, the sourness of too much beer swirling around my mouth. The day had been clear and crisp in the morning, but clouds rolled in during the afternoon and the temps plummeted. At one point, I sat in the shrubbery in front of a one-story home—cars rushing past, wind whipping around, a group of black kids rolling by on bikes—put my head between my knees, huddled in my thin blue jacket.

Amazon: Two Bullets Solve Everything AU CA UK US
Amazon: Squeeze AU CA UK US

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Ridgerunner by Rusty Barnes

Since the 2016 US Election, most people now know that Pennsylvania is much more than Philadelphia and its suburbs. Between the City of Brotherly Love and Pittsburgh, there is a vast land filled with farms, forests, mountains and, yes, even Harrisburg. Set in north central Pennsylvania, Rusty Barnes’ Ridgerunner (280 Steps) is a novel about the clash of two families, one that is sort-of law-abiding and another, not so much.

The Pittmans are a family of poachers and hillbilly hoodlums where the boys “were born, bred, and mature criminals by age sixteen”. The Riders are rednecks figuring out how to get by within the confines of society as the land around them is being forever changed by fracking. Ridgerunner opens with Matt Rider, a part-time game warden for the Commonwealth, following two of the oldest Pittmans, Soldier and Jake, through the woods and hills. Pursuing the Pittmans is one thing, capturing them is another. Matt is shot and then subsequently falls into an abandoned well. After Matt is rescued, the chase begins, though which family is doing the chasing changes several times throughout the book.

Barnes, who grew up in northern Pennsylvania where much of Ridgerunner takes place, has a precise attention to geographic detail, whether the characters referring to Pennsylvania as PA — pronounced letter by letter, not as Pa (father) — or how the ATV and animal trails vein through the woods. And then there are guns, lots of guns. The amount of guns that Matt owns is not an exaggeration; guns are tools for those that live in the country, different guns for different purposes whether it is for work, deer hunting or ridding one’s property of squirrels.

I broke down and cleaned the .40 first, awkward as hell with one hand, as it had survived the bottom of a well and deserved better treatment than I usually gave it. Then I lovingly took care of the 9mm Glock 19 and my .22 . I wrapped the .22 in its holster and deposited it on top of the fridge out of reach of any prying hands. The .40 went back with the uniform, and the 9mm on my bedside table. I left them all loaded. Then I took the plug out of my shotgun, loaded it, and set it with a box of shells by the back door.

At times I had problems with Matt’s motivation as he goes through the novel with a “hold my beer and watch this” mentality. But in order to enjoy Ridgerunner, one must realize that the character’s deep-seated hatred of cops, a liberal use oxy, and redneck revenge fantasies, fuel the character’s impulses.

Amazon: AU CA UK US

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Race to the Bottom by Chris Rhatigan

I know that Chris Rhatigan’s Race To The Bottom  (All Due Respect Books) will bring back nightmares of working retail, dreams of the endless standing, moving product from shelf to shelf and back again, and the questions, the goddamn mother-fucking stupid questions. If anyone ever says that there is no such thing a dumb question, you know that they never worked retail.

Rhatigan’s novella tells the story of Roy, a drunk that’s been kicked out of his girlfriend’s place and ends up on the couch of a drug dealer who, oddly enough, doesn’t sell drugs. Roy’s addiction to whiskey and cigarettes, usually Ten High and GPCs, is supported by a shitty job at a retail chain, the not-so-deceptively-called Bullseye.

Though Rhatigan writes well about Roy’s constant emptying of liquor bottles, it is Rhatigan’s understanding of  what it is like to be part of the working poor, having one’s life ruled over by petty people, that stands out.

He went back to the front staircase, sat down, and smoked. Okay, he had to cough up $300 a month for rent. Banksy didn’t say anything about bills and Roy would fight him if he did. He wanted to charge that much to use his couch, fine, then that’s all he gets.

He figured about $200 a month on food and booze, leaving him with about $650 each month to play with. Well, about $135 would go toward meeting his credit card minimums. And the government was getting up his ass about the student loans he’d taken out for those two-and-a-half semesters he’d attended college. Not to mention that his car broke down every few weeks with a problem that always cost him north of $400. He could sell the car for a few hundred. Then he’d be back taking the bus.

That meant waiting in the rain, in the cold. That meant being late to work, as the bus never followed the schedule.

He ground out the butt on the staircase. Can’t think about this shit. Not getting him anywhere good.

He glanced at his watch. 2:30. Guess he wasn’t getting that shower or change of clothes. Time to go to work.

***

Roy hated every part of his job. But the part he hated most was walking into the store at the beginning of a shift.

Race to the Bottom is broken into three story lines: Roy’s minimum wage job that he clings to hoping that he won’t get fired, his constantly failing friendships, and a crime or two. All of these story lines are soaked in bad whiskey, stale cigarettes, and reckless decision making. Rhatigan’s writing in Race to the Bottom excellently tells the sad but believable story of a man deteriorating page by page, bottle by bottle, till his world comes to an end in a pathetic whine.

Amazon links: US CA UK AU

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Route 12 by Marietta Miles

Route 12 by Marietta Miles (All Due Respect Books) opens with a hulking deputy banging on the door of an apartment while inside the darkness of the apartment, a young boy holds his hands over his ears until the deputy gives up and goes away. The two novellas of Route 12 are the stories of the accidents of humanity, not in a sense of benevolence, rather a descent into our species’ collective maliciousness. Page by page, the reader witnesses the confusion and humiliation that the characters endure from the foulness of the people close to them.

Even though I physically looked away in discomfort while reading Miles’ novellas, putting my Kindle down and taking a breath, the quality of the story and the writing forced me to read on. Miles focuses on the small things that the characters experience, not just the fear and the pain. The boy we met at the beginning of Route 12 is now in a foster facility. In the dead of night, he is dragged by the guards to a senseless beating, but instead of a clichéd description of screams and physical flailing, Miles writes, “Percy smells the thick, greasy smell of Royal Cream.”

But I read on telling myself that nothing more hideous can happen and I am wrong, so wrong. We are with Theresa, a pubescent girl, who is being moved from one family relation to another. Again, it is the writing.

Theresa slides out of the truck while Ricky grabs her train case and suitcase. She stares at the tall house. The cold night air stings her nose. With both of her bags tucked under one arm, he finds a house key on top of the doorsill and lets her in the foyer. He sets her suitcases inside and looks at her awkwardly.

“They’ll be asleep, so find your way upstairs.” He pauses. “Your grandparents will be alright to you.

“Well, goodbye girl.” He pulls the door to and locks the bolt. She listens as he returns the key to the doorsill. The truck sputters to life and chugs away. Standing in the dark, cold house alone she hears the tick tock of a clock echoing.

As the first novella came to an end, I gave myself a few days to recuperate and knowing the second, Blood and Sin, could be nowhere as abhorrent or, more importantly, as good. Again, I was wrong on both counts. Marietta Miles’ Route 12 is devastatingly remarkable both in the stories it tells and her writing.

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Drainland by Iain Ryan

Drainland by Iain RyanThis is the second book I’ve read that has taken place near and around the coast of Australia’s Queensland – for those of us unfamiliar with this area of Australia imagine the beaches of Florida and the casinos of Las Vegas all mixed in with crime, a lot crime and on both sides of the law. This first book was Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State (280 Steps) which I reviewed in the beginning of November.

Throughout the fall, I saw a lot of Iain Ryan’s Drainland (self-published) on the internets. This can mean two things: either that Ryan is doing a great job self-promoting the book or other readers were recommending the book. Turns out it was both.

Ryan’s Drainland takes place on Tunnel Island, a fictional place where all the cops are as honest as Vic Mackey. When we first meet Laura Romano, we find out she is a cop who has friends in all the wrong people. With a drug problem that includes anything that can be snorted or popped in her mouth, things come quickly crashing down on her as she is finally arrested. But she is offered a life-line as a spot on the Tunnel Island police force just opened up.

When we arrive on Tunnel Island with Romano, both the reader and Romano are trying to get their bearings on what is exactly happening in this decadent resort island. Throwing a not-so recovering drug addict who washes down pills with booze on an island filled with lackadaisical policemen, drugs, gambling and more drugs is a cluster fuck in the making.

Ryan has built an incredible corrupt world filled with dangerous criminals and equally dangerous cops. His writing on the Romano’s constant downfall is incredibly detailed as well as her battle to remain a cop.

Laura Romano looked like hell up close. Her eyes had a creamy red hue to them and seemed to elude focus. A ginger crop of her fringe lay greased to her forehead with sweat. She moved slowly, but was well trained. As soon as she stepped inside she went into cop mode, scanning.

Ryan has several other books on Tunnel Island with Harsh Recovery just out. And with a quick subscription to Ryan’s newsletter, he will give you the prequel, Four Days, gratis. If any of these books are half-as-good as Drainland, I will have some good reading in my new future.

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Leadfoot by Eric Beetner

There is something comforting about getting into the passenger seat of a hot rod driven by Calvin McGraw. You can hear the sound of the pistons; the car shakes and rattles, and the tires rumble over the roadway as corn fields whip on by. It’s like baseball and apple pie made into a book.

Eric Beetner’s latest novel, Leadfoot (Down & Out Books), is a prequel to his wonderful book of this summer, Rumrunners. Set in 1971, Calvin is a much younger man than the one we met in Rumrunners. While Calvin is torn between making runs for the Stanley family or making an honest living teaching stock car racers how to drive, he is showing his son, Webb, the ropes of the McGraw legacy and what it means to be an outlaw..

Like Rumrunners, Beetner masterfully takes us for a ride with Calvin as he tries to outrun the competition from Nebraska, the Cantrells. Beetner also makes us the passenger for the 19-year-old Webb’s first run, picking up a package in St. Louis – a package that happens to be a young woman that the boss Hugh Stanely wants back.

Calvin watched his son pull out of the driveway. He hadn’t told him of his own assignment. The boy didn’t need anything clouding his head on his first solo run. As Calvin watched the Mercury fade away he thought of all the things he didn’t tell his boy, like don’t fuck the girl. Women in the shotgun seat always came with a side of trouble. He also should have given him a lesson in how to talk— or not to say a goddamn word— to the men he was picking up the package from. Show up, drive the car, get the cargo and go. But shit, this was all stuff Calvin had been educating the boy in since the day he took to two wheels on a bicycle in the park.

Calvin watched with pride. His boy was a man today. He was a McGraw.

Beetner’s Leadfoot is filled with the darkness of dangerous drives that evoke the thrill of the road, much like Bruce Springsteen’s earlier music. Past the stylings and engines of American muscle cars, Beetner’s Leadfoot exposes a world of outlaw freedom and outlaw justice.

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Histories of the Dead by Math Bird

Histories of the Dead by Math BirdMath Bird’s Histories of the Dead (All Due Respect Books) is a collection of crime stories set in Wales, all published over the last four years. If the characters are not directly involved in crime, their lives are skating along the periphery of lawlessness. The book opens with the eponymous short story about a man dealing with his friend’s murder. Should he try to get revenge or not?

The realizaiton that Stevey is dead returns to me in flashes. Like a rotten tooth, it suddenly strikes a nerve and throbs inside me. It’s nothing anyone says that brings it all back. It’s these old Beatles songs he used to love. They keep playing them on the radio.

In “All the Hungry Ghosts”, a scar-faced underling on an old boss not only has to deal with his boss’ demands, he has to stomach the outrages behavior his boss has towards the boss’ new mail-order bride.

Usually, Wales is just a detailed backdrop to Bird’s stories, but in “This Land of the Strange”, the countryside becomes a player in helping or hindering the escape of the main character from the pursuit of two London criminals.

Jernegan marched towards the trees, then stepped into the woods. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet smell of pine. He carried on walking, following the trail, his feet squelching in the mud. Occasionally, he gazed up at the sky, at the huge grey clouds drifting over him. He hoped the rain would lead them here, running for shelter, like two lambs to the slaughter.

I only had problem with the reading on one story and that was “The Devilfish” which is told from the point of view of a woman with dementia. This is most likely more problem in my reading and not the writer’s issue. The moments of Bird’s Histories of the Dead that stuck with me the most were honest looks at people on the fringes of society.

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The Motel Whore by Paul Heatley

Motel Whore by Paul HeatleyI came across Paul Heatley‘s The Motel Whore (self-published) via Paul Brazill’s review of the book calling it “sad, brutal and completely enthralling.” Shit, I cannot disagree with him at all, though I might add to it by calling in a minor masterpiece — minor in that The Motel Whore is just a novella.

We witness more or less one day in the life of Joanie as she exists in the motel, servicing both customers and her motel-owning pimp. Heatley’s descriptions of Joanie’s life are overly depressing as she tries to compartmentalize her life using her room and bathroom.

The bathroom shines, painfully clean. Bottles of bleach sit half-empty on the linoleum floor next to the toilet. The showerhead leaks, but it gleams. It is used often, to wash, to wash the waste of customers from between her legs or inside her mouth or from upon her chest before she moves on to the next. Not all of them will wear a condom. She never forces the issue. Pregnancy is not a concern. Pregnancy is impossible, a womb destroyed by cheap, careless abortions. Diseases are not a concern. Diseases are cast from her mind. Life is the disease. She has the life. She can’t shake the life.

But she cannot escape the stench. Even a brief foray to a diner gives her no respite. The Motel Whore is not a redemption story, Heatley just gives us the facts of Joanie in bleak descriptive prose. The Motel Whore is a stunning work.

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Gunshine State by Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette‘s Gunshine State (280 Steps), as the author put it The Rap Sheet is “a quintessentially Australian take on the heist-gone-wrong novel.” Actually, as Nette called it an attempt, though I thought he quite nailed it.

The novel begins with Gary Chance helping out with a small-time heist, a heist that goes terribly wrong. Chance has to get out of Port Pirie, South Australia, fast and, ten hours later, he finds himself in Surfers Paradise, Queensland — the Gunshine State. This time a new heist as a hired hand, but he hoped that things would go better.

He could think of half a dozen holes in the plan. He always could. Even supposedly fool proof plans something could always go wrong. But he liked the relative simplicity of what Curry had proposed, the absence of too many moving parts. With a bit of luck it could work.

But as you probably already know this heist will go upside down too. Nette does a great job of having us follow Chance pre- and post-heist as he tries to figure out what went wrong, how he can fix, and, most importantly, how he can get revenge.

In the article, Nette wrote for The Rap Sheet, he talks of influences on the novel:

There are several literary influences behind Gunshine State. I am, for instance, a big fan of the Crissa Stone books by Wallace Stroby (Shoot the Woman First, The Devil’s Share). I was also conscious that what I was creating could be viewed as a darker version of Australian writer Garry Disher’s Wyatt novels, which are already pretty hard-boiled. But my most obvious inspiration—and one of my favorite crime-fiction protagonists ever—is the master thief known as Parker, created by Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake.

I haven’t read Stroby or Stark, but I guess they are moving up on my To-Be-Read List. Equally as important, I’ll need to take a gander at two other books by Nette: Ghost Money and his collection of short stories, Crime Scenes.

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Cleaning Up Finn by Sarah M. Chen

Cleaning Up Finn by Sarah M ChenFinn Roose likens himself as a player as he hits on female customers of a chain restaurant that he manages in Sarah M. Chen‘s Cleaning Up Finn (All Due Respect Books). Chen does not paint an appetizing picture of Finn’s despicableness and even though he is somewhat a likeable loser, he thinks much more of himself.

Finn’s latest target is Rhonda Havemeyer aka Ronnie.

Finn flashed his most charming smile. Oh boy, a college student. How he did love the college students. They were at that ideal age, the perfect combination of naïveté and bold self-assurance. Eager to try anything.

The only catch was, after their date, she disappears and the police suspected foul play. Chen’s novel retraces Finn’s last five days as he tries to figure out what happened. Cleaning Up Finn also looks at Finn’s past on how he got to be managing a restaurant, how he went to jail, and his strained relationship with his best friend from high school. Finn isn’t someone you’d want to bring home to meet Mom and Dad; shit, he isn’t even someone you would want to have a few beers with. But to Chen’s credit, she creates a character that most would despise, you do find yourself rooting for him now and then.