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Shoulder Wounds #8

Maybe it’s the darkening of the days, or the drawdown to Election Day, or the deepening unease I feel about my coming cross-country drive (Seattle to Gainesville, Florida) on a death-march budget, but I’m been doubling down on comfort-food reading.

For a week, I listened to nothing but actress Laura Linney, my crush to end all crushes, reading the first several Nancy Drew mysteries on Audible. Then I powered through all eight Great Brain books, favorites ever since I was a fifth-grader in Toughskin jeans and Farrah-feathered hair that frequently got tangled up not in blue but in headgear braces. And I realized that they could easily categorized as crime novels, given that Tom Fitzgerald is an incurable con man, and that his crimes are mitigated only by his occasional solving of crimes by others.

Then I read several volumes in the Chet-and-Bernie detective series by Spencer Quinn. And as I do every time I read one of these books, with their cutesy-typeface, punny titles, I remember that cozy mysteries are not usually my jam, and then I remember that Spencer Quinn — a.k.a. Peter Abrahams, who’s written many dark thrillers for many decades — has adamantly argued that these novels, told from the POV of Chet, the dog, are not cozies. And I decide, as always, that they’re both cozies and not cozies, and then I decide, so what, because they’re fun, and dammit, what’s wrong with fun? Especially these days, at this particular time of year?

The genius of the Chet-and-Bernie series is in their baked-in conceit, in which the work of the hardboiled detective is softened by the “I sort of get what’s going on but sort of don’t, and here I am, doing something dramatic or hilarious but always plot-advancing while everybody else is standing around contemplating the guns in their pockets, and why is that man’s bloody leg between my teeth” voice of Chet. And when you think about it, how else would a dog look on the world, but with a bemused mix of befuddlement and repetition-driven wisdom? Quinn/Abrahams is too much of a stone pro to let this silliness over-season the storytelling, which is always sturdy and salted with pleasurable uncertainty in all the right spots.

If you are a fan of Peter Abrahams’s work — THE FAN, which became a film with Wesley Snipes and Robert DeNiro, is his best known; and END OF STORY, a pocket master class in literary suspense, is his best — you’ll see his signature darkness in these books. But if you take your crime fiction straight with no comedic chaser, you might decide these aren’t the kind of bones you’d chew on. My admiration of Abrahams is such that I’ve found my way with the dog days of his career, a phase that extends into spinoff series for younger readers that are just as fun in their way as the Great Brain stories. If so, start with the first in the series, DOG ON IT, and continue through every eye-rolling cozy-not-cozy pun title.

The collision of comedy and crime also comes into play when considering the career of Ross Thomas, a cult figure of admiration for his colorful Cold War caper novels. Occasionally someone online, like crime author and critic Sarah Weinman, talks about their love of Thomas’s work, which began in 1966 and ended with the author’s death in 1994.

I am a Ross Thomas admirer too but I understand why he’s been left behind while new generations of crime readers find and fall in love with the likes of Elmore Leonard. As much as I enjoy the hell out of novels like THE FOOLS IN TOWN ON OUR SIDE, from 1970, Ross Thomas is 9,000 percent of his time, which is always heavily informed by pre- and post-WWII mores, cultures and politics. As is, unfortunately, his John D. MacDonald attitudes toward women, which almost always paint females as sex kittens, shrews, scolds, saints or shrieky-sobby simpletons. (Elmore Leonard rarely gets credit for this, but I’m convinced that part of the reason he endures today is that he created women it’s impossible to not admire.) If the Cold War was a sinking ship, Ross Thomas is the lifeboat that couldn’t quite escape the suction. He’s strictly a nostalgiagasm for me.

That said, THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE is first-rate Thomas, full of audacious schemes, stiletto-edged dialogue, and secret pockets of sentimental depth. It’s also quotable for days. One example, from a scene in which a man has taken a precocious eight-year-old under his wing as they flee wartime China on a roundabout route to the United States: “Okay, let’s agree that you’re smart. You can shill a crap game, pimp for a whorehouse, speak six or seven languages, roll drunks and hustle the rubes. But you can’t read or write, and you’re goddamn well going to learn how.”

It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away the pleasure, but imagine being asked to take a corrupt American city the size of, say, Spokane or Schenectady, and make it even more corrupt for the benefit of a powerful few who have decided they can never be powerful enough. It’s all tremendous fun, but I can’t imagine recommending it to someone raised on today’s terse military-guy thrillers or operatic-pitched domestic suspensers.

Speaking of operatic-tinged domestic suspense, I recently read Nic Joseph’s THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, a much-praised new work of psychological suspense that hails from the trendy “twist-a-minute” school. And it is the rare novel sunk by its very first page. Prologues are a high-wire act to begin, easy to screw up and leave the reader stranded at the gate. And for that reason it’s only occasionally done, and even more occasionally done well.

This prologue, which begins with the words “I decided early on that telling the truth — the whole truth — was out of the question,” is annoying on two levels. One, it announces its intention from the get-go to jerk around the reader, all but saying “Look how fashionably unreliable I am! Awesome, right?” And two, it fails to follow through on its promise of twisty unreliability. Paula Wileson, the narrator, attempts to blackmail a pop-music star cheating on his wife, and her ham-handed efforts to get closer to him collide with a murder of a woman who lived in The Other Woman’s building. Paula, a rideshare driver whose efforts are driven by an attempt to raise money for a surgery that may enable her husband to walk again, has reason to be circumspect and even coy with the cops. But she turns out to be a much flatter and more conventional character than the prologue promised, and the novel’s failure to develop the other characters undermines its big reveals.

Paula is an intriguing character until those last chapters, and Joseph is canny enough to keep us invested in how this well-meaning Chicago woman keeps getting herself into and out of trouble she can’t quite handle. But Paula is nowhere near as devious or unreliable as those first pages portend, and in the end THE NIGHT IN QUESTION turns out to be like dozens of books in its genre — well-crafted but unable to convincingly get out of the corner it paints its characters into. (I’d also dock it another star for going to the bother of creating a pop star with complicated motives and failing completely to find extra dimensions — or page space — for him.)

Altogether different is Nick Kolakowski’s latest hardboiled tale, BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB. (I moderately admired his first novella, A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS.) I give him points for being a New York City author who takes on — and pulls off — the challenge of realistically setting a novel in Idaho. Would that more authors made similarly audacious leaps out of their comfort zones.

Points, too, for writing a pretty good novella, if one for all its audacity with setting, is composed of fairly familiar parts. Jake Halligan is a bounty hunter and ex-soldier with two primary human assets — his almost-not-quite-ex-wife Janine, and his sister Frankie, the local badass-bitch-on-wheels gun runner with a private army and a propensity for creative violence. When they run afoul of the local powers-that-be, the three find themselves the objects of a Most Dangerous Game run by every right-wing rich-guy stereotype you can think up.

It’s all good fun as far as it goes, if a tad light on character depth. It also has a tendency to whipsaw uncomfortably between low-key domestic scenes and high-voltage, high-body-count blowups.

But the real takeaway is Kolakowski, a writer who in my mind seems to be building up to a breakthrough novel that will get him broader notice. In BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB, his considerable chops are on full display: crisp pacing, light-on-its-feet action, a deft touch with snarky dialogue, and considerable powers of narrative observation. (“She wore as much black clothing and eyeliner as a high school Goth, and nobody made jokes about it, because she liked to do things like shove pens through necks.”) I get this funny back-of-the-neck feeling that, like Lou Berney, who followed up two conventional plot-in-a-blender novels with the exquisite and enduring THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE, there’s a quantum leap in similar quality lying in wait for us from Kolakowski.


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.


Categories
Books

Shoulder Wounds No. 7

Shoulder Wounds

When we last saw Chelsea Farmer, in Alec Cizak’s DOWN ON THE STREET, she had come to the end of the worst week of her life, as a call girl who was beaten, raped, drugged and enslaved in the course of that short career.

But just because that career came to an end doesn’t mean that Chelsea’s life got any better. In fact, every week since has been progressively worse. In a sort-of-sequel, BREAKING GLASS, Chelsea has traded in sex for drugs, and the opening pages find her living in a filthy hotel room with a pseudo-family of fellow losers who scrape by via home-invasion robberies in Indianapolis’s nicer neighborhoods.

In one of those neighborhoods, Chelsea thinks about who she was before opioids took her over. She could have married her high-school prom date, now a pharmaceutical executive, she muses. But she didn’t, and now, “he’d gone on to become a cyber-security specialist for Eli Lilly and now lived in one of those houses on Meridian Street Chelsea sometimes robbed with Heather and the boys. In a different world altogether, she never got hooked on dope, never moved in with her junky friends and, certainly, never got so broke that she had to steal other people’s stuff to get through the night without feeling like bad spiders had placed a thousand fishing hooks in her body and threatened to rip them out at the same time.”

BREAKING GLASS is a character-first, plot-last novel, but it’s worth noting that Chelsea gets a brief taste of the good life when her estranged mother seeks her out because she’s married rich, and is able to help her get back on her feet, into rehab, maybe back into school. Chelsea wants it, but she’s wise enough to know that the opioids want her more than her mother does. And that the cost of that epiphany will almost certainly be a high body count.

In 2018, it’s not an easy thing to be a man writing into a female point-of-view, but Cizak succeeds marvelously at this high-risk undertaking for two simple reasons: 1) he clearly knows what it’s like to be enslaved by drugs; and 2) he bypasses the usual male temptation to paint women as sexual beings. In fact, because Cizak knows opioids so well, he knows that they kill the sexual part of being. Chelsea has no interest in even the most transactional of sex, and therefore you won’t see her even acknowledge herself in terms of attractiveness, or lack thereof. That world is beyond her and beneath her at the same time.

BREAKING GLASS is essential reading for anybody with any interest in understanding the opioid crisis that’s gripping America on a human level and not just a statistical one. Which should make it essential reading for everyone. It succeeds on every level. The prose is energetic and raw yet supple in a way that only a polished talent can produce. Every page thrums with pleasurable uncertainty, keeping the reader wondering just what will become of this young woman and who will have to be sacrificed on the altar of her screaming needs. This novel deserves a place in the growing canon of addict literature, and Alec Cizak deserves a bigger megaphone for his barbaric yawps.


Speaking of screwed-up young women, meet Samantha Holland, the antiheroic heroine of Ava Black’s debut novel THE BUG JAR: “Normal is a state of mind that sane people disregard. They shouldn’t. I’d do anything to be normal, but I’m not. I’m a lipstick salesgirl who hopes she didn’t kill a kid.”

Samantha, like Chelsea, is a former college student in her early twenties. But for her, drugs are a wobbly source of salvation: she’s mentally ill and weaves between a medicated semi-zombie state and a lively but horrendously messy hypomanic mode. The latter manifests itself in reckless, self-destructive affairs with two men: Richard, a serially philandering rich man on the fast track to being the next mayor of Chicago, and Mark, a backwoods-Wisconsin redneck who loves Samantha, gives her anything she wants, and is desperate to pin her down into marriage and a life of mechanic’s wife. (Guess which one Samantha wants, and perhaps might even kill to have?)

THE BUG JAR sometimes wobbles as much as Samantha. For one, the characters tend to whipsaw all over the place, from friendly to scalding to weak, seemingly acting more out of the plot’s needs than their own. (For instance, the grease-monkey boyfriend’s love for Samantha seems guileless and sincere, yet he exhibits hints of menace and manipulation in her presence that seem at odds with his infatuation.) And two, any suspension of disbelief for the jam-packed plot requires the reader to buy into a shopworn thriller conceit: that one person is willing to invest enormous amounts of time, energy and money into a complicated gaslighting campaign aimed at another individual.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ava Black writes well, and she’s got that thing that literary agents say they value more than almost anything else: a crackling voice. THE BUG JAR is full of colorfully acidic observations that give this nimbly paced novel an extra shot of glide: “You’re probably thinking that I have sex with anything that moves, and that all the people around me wind up dead, but that’s not true. I reported his death to the sheriff and called the detective. This morning I took meds.”

Whatever THE BUG JAR’s faults, Samantha Holland never fails to be less than utterly compelling company, even when the novel dives into the blacker shades of dark. Much of the third act of the novel takes place in a mental hospital, and what happens there would make a reader shit a stack of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST sideways. (Ava Black knows crazy like Alec Cizak knows addiction.) THE BUG JAR is the rare flawed novel that I recommend, as a showcase for Ava Black’s enormous talent and upside, which I can’t wait to see married to a better sense of watertight storycraft in her subsequent novels.


Greg F. Gifune is best known as a horror novelist, but his DANGEROUS BOYS is firmly rooted in the grit and grime and grease of the temporal world. Comparisons to Dennis Lehane and MYSTIC RIVER are inevitable, given the similarities of the knife-edged city streets and the knockaround young men that populate this novel. But DANGEROUS BOYS is much lighter on its feet, bucking up under its weighty themes without losing a step in its deceptively brisk pacing.

The story: In 1984, Richie, closing in on twenty, spends his days getting into fights, committing petty crimes and generally preparing himself for a long life in prison or a short life, period. But, much like Gordie Lachance in Stephen King’s THE BODY, a growing love of literature has given him the ability to dream of a life beyond the one he seems destined for. But can’t see ever turning his back on his friends, who see escalating their criminal pursuits as the only way of elevating their lifestyles above the street.

Aldo, the leader of Richie’s pack and nephew of the neighborhood mob boss, spells it out to Richie in a few brutal strokes: “Problem with you, man, is you think you got options. You don’t. You ain’t gonna work some stupid job, and even if you do, you won’t last. Know why? Because guys like us ain’t got the temperament for crap, and it’s only a matter of time before you’d fuck it up. Why wind up a petty criminal, out there on your own, when you could work for Uncle Lou instead? Don’t make no sense.”

It’s familiar literary territory, yet you won’t be thinking of predecessors or influences when you read DANGEROUS BOYS. All you’ll be thinking about is, what do you do when the guys you’ve been best friends with all your life — the ones who have your back no matter what, the ones whose bonds make no room for the women in their lives — are the ones who will almost certainly bring you down? For Richie, it will take the planning and execution of a big-time crime — one that will almost certainly come with a terrifying body count — to arrive at his answer.

And it’s an answer you will be desperate to know and unable to guess, making DANGEROUS BOYS a coming-of-age page-turner of the first rank.


There are some things I could criticize about CITY OF GRUDGES as a crime novel. It’s heavy on exposition and, until its final pages, light on incident. Its cast sometimes seems too wide and its members tend to tiptoe in and out of the narrative in too-tidily stage-managed intervals, and many of the most-named folks rarely appear on stage at all. The lengthy history lessons sometimes feel like the languid monologues of a drunk at the end of a bar.

And the novel goes out of its way to portray Walker Holmes, the scrappy investigative reporter/editor/publisher of a scrappy independent weekly with a crusading bent, as a loner outside the local power structure — but for a loner, he’s got an awful lot of friends.

I could criticize, but I won’t, because somehow the whole succeeds despite the parts, which form a plot too complicated to unpack in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that it involves corruption at the highest levels of Pensacola, Florida’s private and public sectors, a suicide that probably isn’t a suicide, and blood feuds that mostly go back decades.

I suspect that CITY OF GRUDGES aims less to be a commercially slick crime novel than a charmingly cockeyed love letter to the author’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida. (It comes as no surprise to learn that author Rick Outzen is the editor and publisher of Pensacola’s alternative weekly newspaper.) And at that it succeeds marvelously.

CITY OF GRUDGES, like its journalist author, is an exceedingly competent piece of work — and no more so than when it makes Pensacola a lead character of sorts. Whatever else your takeaways are from this novel, you’ll know Pensacola — both as its own cheerfully corrupt creature and as an avatar of cheerfully avaricious Southernness — and you’ll be better for it.


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.