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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.


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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.


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Shoulder Wounds No. 6

The theme of my reading the last few weeks has been: Sometimes all you come away with from the experience of reading a novel is how you viscerally react to it.

I can’t tell you why I loved Scott Von Doviak’s CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, only that I did, that, as I posted on Twitter, each page was a greased pan of pure reading pleasure. I’ve read largely laudatory reviews that expertly broke down what makes the novel work, and I agree with them, but somehow I was unable to form the sentences that spelled out CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL’s success with the mechanics of plot, structure, character, pacing and prose style.

The story cuts between stories set in 1946, 1986 and 2014, each loosely connected to a series of killings connected to the theft of some priceless paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston (the author cleverly appropriated the real-life 1990 incident into his 1946 story) and its lingering connection to the Charlesgate building, a residential structure with a fascinating, haunted boom-and-bust history.

While Von Doviak clearly loves Boston and loves history, he never gets bogged down in them to the point that he forgets to tell a story. And this is a story about character, and to the extent that I can articulate my good feelings about the novel, I can say that the characters are a fascinating blend of good and bad, bright and stupid, and brave and weak, and never feel contrived from a checklist of craft-guide characteristics. They have that real, blind-spotted, complicated-but-simple feel of lives that have been semi-comfortably slept in, that can only be created by a writer with a core confidence in what they’re doing, who have lived these people in their heads for so long that when they come out into the world, they’re walking and talking and strutting like kids ready to rule the playground.

Tommy Donnelly, the central character of the 1986 story, for example: he’s a clever, fun, hardworking student who stumbles on an interesting mystery. We root for him to put together the clues and get the loot and get the girl he lusts after. But he doesn’t really have what it takes to get to the finish line, and he freezes up in the face of true evil when its shadow falls across his beer glass. And I found I liked that better than a more conventional character arc. You will too, trust me.

More I will not say, because I cannot say, other than CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL just plain works, and I felt constantly caught between my desire to race through it and my desire to savor it in little bites and save it up for days like a child’s dessert. Not a very critic thing to say, I know, but it’s honestly all I’ve got.


The next novel in my queue was Amy Stewart’s GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, the first of four novels (so far) about the Kopp sisters of New Jersey, set in the years of World War I. And damned if I didn’t have exactly the same experience. Each page was a slice of pure pleasure, and I’ve been thinking about why for more than a week, and I just don’t have the answers in any way I can articulate.

It’s partly that Constance Kopp, the point-of-view character, is a total original in my reading experience. She’s a strong woman, yet she’s the product of women-need-to-be-protected-and-diminished culture of her time, and she’s not necessarily looking to upend the social order. She’s smart and yet constantly doubts herself because that’s what she’s been conditioned to do since birth. She’s defiant and yet seems to be constantly seeking permission to defy.

And she’s clearly born to be a police detective, and she’s clearly the last person to see it or appreciate it. Or accept it.

The story: When the Kopp sisters run afoul of a politically powerful silk-factory owner, they find themselves the target of a sustained campaign of harassment, to the point that Constance and her younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are nearly driven to leave their isolated family farm and accept their loving subjugation of their older brother. Nearly, and yet they can’t quite accept the idea that three women alone can’t take care of themselves, and Constance can’t quite keep herself from asking uncomfortable questions about how certain men treat certain women that draw her closer to truths that few people are prepared to see exposed to the light.

The more I thought about GIRL WAITS WITH GUN and CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, what I decided they had in common was an infectious high-spiritedness that never came across as goofy, implausible or manic-pixie-dream-like. Both novels speak to the person in all of us that craves adventure, craves disruption of the ordinariness we in many cases have worked so hard to bury ourselves within. None of the characters in either books are heedless or reckless or ridiculous, yet they can’t help but find themselves leaning into a mess even as it gets messier, heeding a true calling being broadcast on a frequency they can’t yet identify.

Near the end of GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, Norma Kopp, whose whole life is dedicated to making it as small and manageable and safe as possible, finally gives up on hoping Constance will be the same: “You’ve had such a high time running around playing detective. Why don’t you become one of those?”

And what’s more exciting, and relatable, than that?


The visceral-reaction thing cuts both ways, too.

I first read the next book in my queue thirty years ago. In 1988, I was in my early twenties, close to the end of my college career, and desperately eager to assert myself to the world as not just a grownup, but an alpha-male adult. I desperately wanted women and I desperately wanted women to want me, to want to defer to me, to want to be rescued by me.

The first sign that I was not destined to be that kind of man came while reading THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, the first of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-detective novels. Elvis Cole was everything I thought I wanted to be, only he made what I thought I wanted to be seem like the most repellent thing in the solar system.

Elvis Cole is a man. A man’s man. A ladies’ man. A man who grabs asses without invitation, who talks down to women, who seduces them so casually you aren’t even sure it actually happened. He’s full of sub-Catskills snappy patter and stiletto judgments, and is apparently supposed to be sympathetic despite all of this because of coy, leg-baring hints of a tortured past rooted in Cole’s Vietnam service. (I guess Crais forget to make him an alcoholic as well, and I’m surprised the critics didn’t ding him for inadequate trope adherence.)

The women he meets? They fall mostly into three categories: shrews, simpletons and sexpots, all paralyzed with displays of facile psychoanalysis and over-the-top flights of unsolicited knight-errantude. As a result, Elvis Cole comes off as a completely cartoonish avatar of male aspirationalism, as frontloaded and overloaded a “hero” as Spenser or Stone Barrington or Lucas Davenport.

No wonder THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT was a runaway success at the time — it was as loud and aggressive as Gordon Gekko wearing a screaming yellow power tie in a room full of Robert Bork supporters. Also, I should add, it’s a good novel, well-written, more than competently plotted, and achieves what it sets out to accompish.

But.

I closed the book in 1988 with one clear thought: I don’t want to be anything like this asshole. If this is the way to get women, I’d just as soon go Full Metal Celibate. And so I guess my 1988 self should thank Crais for helping disabuse me of this moronic Reagan-Republican idea of male exceptionalism and starting me down the road toward being what I hope, three decades later, has been something better.

I’m reliably assured by many friends in the crime-fiction community that the series eventually got a lot better, that Crais became a better author and Cole became a better character, and that I should give those subsequent novels a shot. I reread THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT with the intention of doing that, to see if time had mellowed my memories of my 23-year-old’s mindset.

But, two things:

One, I don’t want to spend another minute inside this misogynist’s mind. It was a genuinely unsettling and unpleasant place to be.

And two, with so many crime-fiction series openers just waiting for one-one-thousandth of the attention that the Cole/Pike novels have gotten, why give a second chance to someone who so thoroughly shit the bed the first time? The second first chance was bad enough.

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 Unlawful Acts.

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Shoulder Wounds No. 5

Last week, as I was reading the new George Pelecanos novel, THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN, I came across a passage in which one of the story’s main characters, a prison librarian named Anna Kaplan, recommends to a male inmate a series of novels by a male author about a female thief with the words: “He gets women right.”

And I was struck a male author using a female character to promote a male author writing a female character to a male character, citing the authenticity of the female voice. On Twitter, I called it “Peak Mind Pretzel.”

It was only later that I was struck by the fact that a male writer (me) was pointing this out, possibly through not consciously on behalf of women, which would make a mansplainer. Which would seem to be Even More Peak Mind Pretzel.

And all this on top of some recent controversy involving Pelecanos, who did a “By The Book” Q&A with The New York Times in which he cited only male authors and their novels as inspirations and recommendations, and took a needless swipe at a female author, Harper Lee. That drew a swift rebuke from author Lauren Groff, and a few female crime-fiction authors. Said M.J. Rose, on Groff’s thread: “(So) damn typical. So many men have similar lists and I’m sick of it.” But, by and large, crickets from the some of the loudest voices in the crime-fiction community, which is often paralyzed by the notion that speaking ill of others is tantamount to exile from publishing (I’ve already accepted that). It’s as if most of the members of the crime-fiction tribe stood silently in the same room, looking fleetingly and self-consciously at one another, faces wrinkled in “who farted?” expressions.

And the “By The Book” brouhaha came on top of a recent Men’s Journal feature on Pelecanos so drenched in retrograde manly-man tropes that it reads for all the world like a 1960s Esquire-tinged tongue-bath of Norman Mailer. It opened with the recounting of an incident in which a teenage Pelecanos shot his friend in the face, and the writer makes it seems like the coolest thing ever, a badass launching point into bad-boy crime writing. (And here I thought it was shoulder wounds that made a man.) And it gets more cringe-inducing from there: “Stefanos, in his free time, spars with a friend at a junior-high gym and, after a night of drinking, jumps rope while blaring the Replacements to sweat out the alcohol—details taken almost straight from Pelecanos’ life.”

I should make clear that I’m not criticizing Pelecanos, who by most accounts is an honest, hardworking great guy, as much I’m taking aim at the male-driven machine that seems bent on making him into an avatar of the Male Resistance to the Female Takeover of Crime Fiction, in somewhat the same way bad male actors are trying to push their way past #MeToo and back into the spotlight they feel they deserve after all-too-short periods of cultural exile.

As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino put it, sardonically: “Women have had their ‘moment,’ their unprecedented time in the spotlight of cultural favor. The gravitational pull of male power is exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”

I’m reminded too of a powerful piece in Slate by Lili Loufbourow on the conservative pushback against Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. These words struck me, in my abject dudeitude, as painfully true:

It’s as if men and women have different pain scales emotionally as well as physically. Of course men believe they suffer more, and many women—having spent their lives accustomed to men’s feelings mattering more than everyone else’s—will agree with them. Most of us have been socialized to sympathize with men, the troubled geniuses, the heroes and antiheroes. They’re the protagonists. And this meritocratic American dream stuff (which, let’s face it, is 100 percent pitched as male) has a poetry that encourages pity. If men on that journey experience a setback, their plight scans as injustice (the American dream does not reverse!). Their suffering must, therefore, be more acute.”

In the crime-fiction world, the best encapsulation of where things stand at this moment, in my opinion, can be found in a fuck-this-I’m-fed-up declaration by author Laura Lippman.

In a recent exchange on Goodreads with Alice Bolin — the author of DEAD GIRLS: SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION, a well-received collection of essays that pushes back, hard, on the crime-fiction trope that pushes women off the page to make room for male brooding about them — Lippman made what I thought was the clearest statement on the current uneasy state of affairs between men and women in crime fiction:

“It’s long been my observation that a lot of crime writing, even very good crime writing, can be summed up this way: a beautiful girl dies, and a man feels bad about it. Maybe he’s a mourning husband/father/brother/lover. Maybe he’s falsely accused. Maybe he did it, but he has, you know, REASONS. And now we’re seeing more and more female writers asserting for their ownership of crime fiction, and it’s very exciting.

“But, dammit, women ARE the readers. Why shouldn’t we own this genre? I mean, I know the NFL makes pink T-shirts and is happy to have female fans, but I don’t see them worrying that football isn’t female-friendly enough. Well, it’s great that lots of men read crime fiction, but I don’t think we need to cater to them. And the next step is making crime fiction a lot less white/heterosexual.”


THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN is, on its own merits, a terrific novel. It’s rich in setting, sharp with character, and chockablock with convincing twists. It’s also an excruciatingly masculine novel. One of its main POV characters is Anna Kaplan, the prison librarian, but she’s the kind of character who couldn’t pass a Bechdel Test if her life depended on it. Her existence is defined entirely by men — the man she’s married to, the jail inmates she guides toward redemptive literature, and the released inmate she becomes at least a little infatuated with.

And then there’s the books Anna recommends, a list heavy with the works of male authors. True, she also recommends works by Sara Gran, Gillian Flynn, Nora Roberts and Lisa Lutz, but the time spent on each amounts to the time that Anna and a male inmate spend shitting on Carson McCullers’ THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. Contrast that to the lingering, loving attention given to novels by Elmore Leonard, Willy Vlautin, Don Carpenter and others. One gets the sense that’s where Anna’s heart is because it’s where Pelecanos’ heart is. And one wonders how those men might have benefited from an introduction to Kinsey Millhone or Lou Norton.

Is any of this really a problem, you might ask, in world in which possibly our next Supreme Court justice might be an attempted rapist? In which the president who nominated him bragged about the power he derives from grabbing women between their legs?

That might not be for me to answer, apart from saying that the question ought to be asked more publicly within the crime-fiction community. It’s a community which often goes to great lengths to paint itself as one big happy tribe of authors who genuinely want to see everyone within it succeed.

But that’s an image that occasionally springs a leak.

At the most recent Bouchercon, author Kellye Garrett — winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel — made clear in her acceptance speech that the community has a long way to go in making comfortable places for writers of color. Her sentiments were greeted with nothing but applause within the tribe, as if the problem was strictly with people who work in and with the publishing houses—you know, those pencil-pushing others.

But publishing choices are a merely a mirror of what people write and read — publishers are just as much taste reflectors as taste makers, if not more so — and some of the you-go-girl types are authors who write white characters for white audiences and will keep on doing so because it benefits the bottom line of everyone in their personal and professional ecosystem to do so. Nobody wants to rock the boat too hard for fear of falling off the rail from the SS Next Contract, or so it seems.

And, just two weeks after Bouchercon, that conversation about diversity in publishing crime fiction already feels like it’s receded into the background. At least on Twitter, which seems like ground zero for such conversations.

And all I’m saying is that maybe these conversations ought to continue a lot longer. And a lot more uncomfortably (aka, honestly and loudly). And in a lot more female-led way. I strongly identify with guys in novels and guys who write novels (though even I’m sick to death of knight-errant tales), but right now, I feel that women have more to teach me, on and off the page. (And I’m truly sorry that it took me getting to Brett Kavanaugh’s current age to fully find my way to that.)

And with that, I’ll shut up now. And listen.


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.


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Shoulder Wounds #4

There’s few stories more American and appealing than the myth of exceptionalism — the tale of a person who believes they are uniquely and solely qualified to take on a high-stakes challenge. (Recall that Donald Trump soared to presidential victory on the strength of his conviction that “I alone” can “make America great again.”)

What makes such stories work takes something exceptional as well — namely, the author’s ability to let their characters tell their story, and not give into the temptation to intrude and clear the way on their behalf by constantly telling us in narrative how good and wondrous and virtuous and strong and noble the POV characters are. (And what POV characters are not.)

In my reading experience, not many crime-fiction authors are able or willing to get out of the way of their point-of-view characters, choosing instead to color the narrative with bits of background detail meant to tilt the reader’s sympathies (a huge problem in cozies, especially, where ugly people are bad and pretty people are good). Smart authors let characters develop sympathy on their own, based on their words and actions, and let readers decide for themselves if that sympathy is earned rather than forced upon them.

Mindy Mejia is such a smart author. And Maya Stark, the antiheroic heroine of Mejia’s second novel, LEAVE NO TRACE, is such a character, and a convincing one. Because of her damaged background, which includes a long-missing mother and a murder (of sorts), Maya — a teenage mental patient who graduated to speech therapist at the same hospital in which she was confined — believes that she alone can unlock the mystery of current mental patient Lucas Blackthorn.

Lucas, who may or may not have murdered someone, was captured after spending a decade in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Area with his survivalist father — who’s missing, and, according to Lucas, is sick and in danger of dying as winter closes in. And, speaking of exceptionalism, he’s convinced he’s the only one who can find his father.

Maya, whose geologist mother was least seen in the same area at about the time Lucas and his father disappeared, is an unreliable narrator. What makes this work — and not just as a gimmick to jerk around the reader with intrusive twistiness, a device that seems to be in vogue right now — is Maya’s awareness of her own unreliability. She knows she’s a hot mess, and is probably not deserving of the trust that’s been placed in her by her doctor-mentor.

While she’s doesn’t fully own up to her attraction to Lucas, just four years younger, she is able to go as far as admitting her attraction to his dark side, and to all dark sides, as she plots to “kidnap” Lucas from the hospital — flushing her future in the process — and help him find his father. “The truth is,” Maya says, “I’m not comfortable unless something’s on fire or someone’s having a meltdown. I don’t know what to do with things that aren’t broken.”

Mejia is the author of EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, one of my favorite thrillers of 2017. Like LEAVE NO TRACE, that novel took the best aspects of high-stakes psychological suspense, usually found in slick, sleek urban settings, and transported them to appealing rural Midwest locales that are less aspirational but more relatable for most of us. LEAVE NO TRACE is more of a pure flyover-country story, where open space can be just as menacing as secure walls.

Not to be overlooked is Mejia’s standout instinct for characterization, for creating characters that are more relatable than likable. As a result, I found myself thoroughly infuriated by the end of LEAVE NO TRACE — and thoroughly satisfied. That means my emotions were as fully engaged as my intellect all the way through, and I can think of no higher praise for a novel.


A cool, cold heart beats slowly and steadily through the heat and heart of the night in Ronald Colby’s NIGHT DRIVER. This dark tone poem to 1970s Los Angeles is full of hustlers and whores and drugs and cigarettes and cauterized pain. And the kind of leering, thumping music that can—and often does—drive men on the make to murder.

In NIGHT DRIVER, it’s 1976, and once darkness falls, Nick Cullen prowls the freeways and streets of LA from behind the wheel of his taxi cab. He picks up despondent people and druggies and disco habitues and dark passengers with dead eyes. But his real work is trying to get a line, however thin and frayed, on the three men who murdered his wife and baby in a home-invasion robbery that turned into a horror movie.

Night after night, Nick smokes, drinks, takes drugs, takes propositions, deals with death dealers and his own demons, driving, driving, driving under blue lights and buzzing neon signs. He stops only for a few hours of fitful sleep and to get in the face of the police detective who shares his frustrations but isn’t willing to go as far as Nick is to find the killers.

The killers themselves? They don’t even think about it. They’ve moved on, to other towns, other scores, other hustles. But LA always pulls them back. That’s their salvation, or so they think. All it takes is one break. One tiny break. And when it comes, everybody involved senses that their world is going to break wide open.

It’s no wonder that Colby first tried to make it in film before shifting to fiction, as NIGHT DRIVER is shot through with cinematic sensibilities. Imagine TAXI DRIVER meets NIGHT MOVES meets AMERICAN GIGOLO meets THE DRIVER meets THIEF, a story full of sinister shadows and searing heat and smoke curling around sweaty bodies. Sweaty from sex, from guilt, from insensate need. Imagine if Paul Schrader and Michael Mann and Monte Hellman and Charles Bukowski had collaborated on a coherent, cold-as-switchblade-steel, super-cool screenplay. Then you’d get the dark, pulsing vein of NIGHT DRIVER.


Michael Pool

I was not an admirer of Michael Pool’s novella DEBT CRUSHER, primarily for one reason: nearly nonexistent characterization. The antihero had no interests, no opinions, no past, no personality quirks, and seemed almost chemically leached of color. He was nobody to which a reader could form any kind of emotional attachment.

I’m pleased to say that characterization is a particular strength of Pool’s first novel, TEXAS TWO-STEP, which is flat-out terrific — a frothy, finely plotted blend of heart and hardboiled fuckstickery.

Cooper and Davis are a couple of Colorado-by-way-of-Texas hippies pushing thirty, and pushing up against the limits of growing and selling stellar but illegal weed in the legal-cannabis era. When Cooper’s girlfriend turns up pregnant, he promises her he’ll cash out of the life and go legit after he gets rid of his current supply.

The only buyer they can find, however, is a coked-up Texas cowboy named Sancho, who partners up with Bobby Burnell, a Heisman Trophy winner turned drugged-out burnout and bottom-feeding crew member of a murderous crime family. But Sancho is in the crosshairs of a vengeful Texas state senator who is using Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick as his one-man army against the dealer who sold his grandson a lethal dose.

Throw all of then in a blender, hit a random button, and watch the wackiness splatter the walls.

While the plotting has the crisp pearl-button-snap of plausible perfection, it’s the rich character notes that really lift TEXAS TWO-STEP above the merely pretty good. Cooper and Davis care about each other, and care about being better than they are. Sancho has no real menace in him, and Bobby doesn’t want to see anyone hurt either (except maybe his rageaholic crime-boss uncle). Kirkpatrick’s heart is elsewhere as well. All he wants at first is a Caribbean vacation. Then he meets the female deputy of a corrupt sheriff, who goes after his sexist assumptions, then goes after his ass in the happiest possible way.

TEXAS TWO-STEP holds up well alongside other bawdy-with-a-body-count books, like Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard stories, Johnny Shaw’s Jimmy Veeder Fiascos, Jeffery Hess’s Scotland Ross tales, and virtually anything by Steve Brewer, Eric Beetner and Elmore Leonard. This is the first of a series, and Michael Pool is one to watch.


I’ve previously voiced my disdain for frontloaded characters — characters who are introduced to us as sympathetic based on past sufferings, and as such rarely bother to earn sympathy by what they actually do once the story gets going.

And I’ll be honest — I thought that’s where LAND OF SHADOWS, the first of four Elouise “Lou” Norton police procedurals from Rachel Howzell Hall — was headed when I learned in the first few pages that Lou a) grew up poor in the projects; b) lost her older sister when she was a child; and c) is being cheated upon by her ridiculously rich video-game-designer husband. (And, d) of course, all the fellas lust after her.)

But practically in the same breath, I learned that Lou allowed her husband to buy off her anger and pain with a $90,000 Porsche, and I thought: Whoa. Suddenly she’s not so sympathetic after all. She’s something more complicated, more real. And came to see that the contradiction Lou embodies — good instincts as an L.A. homicide detective, bad instincts in her personal life — is the hot oil that makes the gears of her story go.

That, and she’s got one of the best narrative voices I’ve ever come across. LAND OF SHADOWS is almost insanely quotable, and it’s hard to pick just one line. But this is one that strikes me as the ultimate Lou Norton thesis statement:

“I’m sassy, but not Florence-the-Jeffersons’-maid sassy. Nor am I ultrareligious. I’m sure as hell not an earth mother, so there’s that to remember, too. Actually, you’d be better off seeking comfort from that palm tree across the street before coming to me. Also, I hate watermelon but I love chicken. I can say ‘nigga’ but I will break every bone in your face if I hear you say it.”

I could listen to Lou Norton bust my chops all day long.

The story: When Monique Darson, a teen girl, is found murdered in southwest L.A., Lou sees uncomfortable parallels to the 25-year-old disappearance of her big sister, Tori. And soon she can’t ignore the very real possibility that the person who took her sister and the person who killed Monie are one and the same.

Beyond incredibly witty writing full of drop-the-mic social truths, Howzell Hall shows herself to be a rock star with plot. She does a masterful job of keeping the reader deliciously off-balance by setting up no fewer than half a dozen characters as plausible suspects, always circling back to each, never completely ruling them out or committing to them as suspects until the very end. Lou has the gift of committing to the Holmesian method of investigation, following the clues where they go, while letting herself her lesser self fantasize about short-cutting, and crushing each suspect based on her easily triggered but well-earned personal dislikes.

I sometimes fantasize about spending a few years in prison just so I can catch up on all the great crime fiction out. LAND OF SHADOWS is a case in point. It came out in 2014, and I got to it only four years later, and now I want to squeeze in the next three novels right away with time I don’t have. But somehow I suspect I’ll manage, because I like having Lou’s voice inside my head. And that’s a must for any successful series.

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 Unlawful Acts and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds.

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Shoulder Wounds No. 3

“Men love women who hate themselves. And most women do. We’re taught to from the age of nine or ten: you bleed, you’re weak, ick, ack, you’re disgusting. A great many women fight their self-hate, though, by hating other women more.”

Rainy Cain is just about the world’s most self-aware teenager, to the point that referring to her as a girl seems like an insult considering how much she’s packed into her seventeen years. In Gina Wolhsdorf’s BLOOD HIGHWAY, Rainy has a long list, beginning with her beginning as the product of bank robbers, one of which went to prison and one of which went crazy. When Sam Cain breaks out of prison in pursuit of hidden robbery loot in the millions—money that Sam is convinced Rainy knows how to find—it’s time for Rainy to say goodbye to her fragile façade of a normal teenage life in Minnesota and hit the road. But not only does Sam want her, so does a creepily solicitous young cop, and it’s an open question as to who ultimately represents the bigger threat to Rainy.

Wohlsdorf knows how to keep the pages turning, not just with plot but with Rainy’s deliciously acidic (and accurate) observations about men: “My appearance had conferred its usual set of advantages and disadvantages: adult male meets adolescent girl with big lips and a lot of hair and is titillated, so he’ll be nice out of shame but he’ll also fight a flare of anger, sweetmeat he knows he won’t get to taste.”

That wild momentum sometimes cuts against the grain of the voice. Rainy drifts from her unreal reality to flights of fever dreaminess, and it takes a more careful read than the story encourages to be sure of what’s actually happened—and what’s happened only in Rainy’s overtaxed mind. That’s a small quibble, though about this unflinchingly violent and uncomfortably truthful novel.

I got onto the on-ramp of BLOOD HIGHWAY with a lot of hesitation. A previous Algonquin Books dip into crime-fiction waters, Tim Johnston’s DESCENT—a kidnapped-girl thriller mostly concerned with the inert, cigarette-smoking brooding of the manly men in her family—was one of the worst “literary” crime novels I’d ever read, pretentious, pandering and paternalistic in equal measure. I’m pleased to say that BLOOD HIGHWAY is much better, if only because it takes the seemingly radical step of letting a snatched girl tell her own story. I still can’t believe that such things still need to be specially noted in 2018.


I went into Randy Kennedy’s debut novel PRESIDIO with a lot of ambivalence, and emerged with the same, and, well … I didn’t regret the effort it took to get there.

I was intrigued by Lee Child’s review of it in The New York Times, in which he praised the authenticity of its early 1970s Texas noir and its intriguingly alienated main character, an itinerant motel dweller and car thief who does what he does for survival more than profit. And I was annoyed by the review, which seemed to say that its blurbs from a couple of noted Texas literary heavyweights were reason enough to read the book, which to me strays outside the bounds of a reviewer’s scope. Every once in a while, A-listers come together to lift up an author, having decided on their own that the author’s time had come for promotion into their elite, and in my view the books they chose were usually not the right vehicle for it (i.e., the worthy Steve Hamilton and the less worthy THE SECOND LIFE OF NICK MASON, which read to me like the quickie novelization of a story created to be a screenplay).

Also, PRESIDIO stumbles out of the gate with its split structure: half narrative and half extended epistolary matter. The latter renders the novel so heavy with italics that you may find yourself racing past things you need to know just to get back to a typeface that doesn’t piss off your eyes.

Another alienating early feature is PRESIDIO’s occasionally overreaching prose, which reads like that of an uneducated small-town Texan scamming his way into the Iowa Writers Workshop and seemingly desperate to assert a place among its overweeners: “Sometimes I sit in a hot bath, one leg crossed over the other, thinking about the world at work while I watch the pulse of my heartbeat in the hollow of my ankle.” Ugh.

But, well … there’s something more there. Something that works in spite of the sluggish interiority and the soggy but apparently mandatory meditations on the sparse south Texas landscape. For me, that something is Troy Falconer, the main POV voice of PRESIDIO, a man of equally profound and pointless alienation, a man who lives in cheap motels and steals cheap cars not so much because he’s bad but because he’s good at it, and doesn’t want to do anything else even as he’s dimly aware that at some point he probably should.

Maybe because I’m sort of a solo drifter on the margins myself, lines like this really stuck the landing for me: “My real profession is the careful and highly precarious maintenance of a life almost completely purified of personal property” and “He had an uncommon capacity for two things: lying and enjoying his own company.”

The plot is somewhat beside the point, and it shows in PRESIDIO’s rushed and uninspired ending. But it’s sturdy enough to keep readers on the hook: Troy and his brother Harlan undertake a road trip to find Bettie, a woman of intimate history with both men who stole Harlan’s money. Troy steals one car after another to keep them moving, and one—a station wagon belonging to a mother in a grocery store—turns out, hours after the theft, to contain a young girl half in and half out of the Mennonite world. Troy, who usually operates well below law enforcement radar, is suddenly a major target.

PRESIDIO isn’t as good as its A-lister praise would suggest. It’s a novel that demands more of the reader than, as a debut, it’s earned the right to ask, in my opinion. But if you hook on to what’s good about it, as I managed to, you might be glad that you did. After I read a book, I always ask myself: “Would you read the next book by this author?” And despite my ambivalence, the answer is an unequivocal yes.


THE CYCLIST is billed by Anthony Neil Smith, long a respected dweller in the hardboiled underground, as his bid for entry into the mainstream thriller market. It succeeds at the thriller basics—putting its characters in an unholy mess and making you burn through the pages to see who survives and how—but it takes what sometimes feels like a needlessly wobbly ride to get there.

The story: Judd, a failed Marine unhappily stuck in a Minneapolis office-drone job, finds escape online in the form of Catriona, a seemingly adventurous young woman in Scotland. Their longings become reality in the form of a planned bicycle trip through the Scottish Highlands, but what Judd hoped would be a fresh chance at happiness is soon thwarted by folks with darker agendas.

I wasn’t prepared for—nor could easily stomach—a hard and unsignaled turn off the paved path into the thickets of torture-porn. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) And I found the prose lumpy for a thriller, a subgenre whose entrants usually traffic in the sleek, smooth simple declarative. Short emotional bursts of run-ons and fragments are interspersed with long sentences waylaid by parenthetic asides and nested clauses, making this literary bicycle trek a less comfortable ride than it could have been.

(An example: “They passed an ancient-looking hotel and pub, this one very much alive, and several newish [let’s say nineties] storefronts on buildings from long ago –cafes, an Indian takeaway, a small grocer, more pubs.”)

Smith is a standout storyteller, and he’s got some fine work in his backlist and likely better stuff in his future, but THE CYCLIST is, to my mind, not the ideal showcase for gaining a mainstream-thriller audience. As a gut-clenching tale to pass the time, however, it more than gets the job done—I never stopped caring about who would survive, and how and why, no matter how splattery the story got.


Half the fun of re-reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is its retro ridiculousness. The twenty-five novels are set in the 1980s, and as real time increasingly separated from Kinsey Time, that was a smart move, because they couldn’t have possibly taken place any later, not for a private detective who succeeded at her work by doing what she couldn’t possibly do today.

Kinsey gets the clues she needs by talking apartment managers into letting her rummage through the units of missing people, by getting cabbies and hotel clerks to spill private, proprietary info about possible suspects, by getting chatty clerks to hand over confidential customer and patient records. Can you imagine a PI being able to work that way today in an era of paranoia, of HIPAA and histrionic cybersecurity? (Do apartment managers even live on-site any more?) You find yourself wistful for a time when people could talk to people without first assuming the worst of them as a measure of basic self-protection.

The things that are annoying about Kinsey are there as well. Funny how a character who is held up as a feminist icon is so hatefully judgmental about almost every woman she meets. (Examples: “She was chunky through the waist. What is it about middle age that makes a woman’s body mimic pregnancy?” and “She was small, with a dowager’s hump the size of a backpack. Her face was as soft and withered as an apple doll and arthritis had twisted her hands into grotesque shapes, as though she intended to make geese heads in shadow on the wall.”) What is a “dowager’s hump”?

Her physical descriptions are often bitingly funny, but also shot through with what I see as a deep self-loathing disguised as second-wave feminism and uncommon comfort with herself. There’s just something a bit sad and un-self-aware that undercut assertions like “I’d rather grow old alone than in the company of anyone I’ve met so far. I don’t experience myself as lonely, incomplete, or unfulfilled, but I don’t talk about that much. It seems to piss people off—especially men.” (Maybe I think that because I sometimes say things like that and know I’m semi-full of shit.) Though as a man I find it is a malicious sort of fun to watch Kinsey and her contemporaries consistently talk about men as faceless, replaceable entities who exist to be used and discarded: “I figure guys are like Whitman’s Samplers. I like to take a little bite out of each and then move on before the whole box gets stale.” (Maybe because I wish I’d be used like that more often.)

Also, B IS FOR BURGLAR takes place just two weeks after the events of A IS FOR ALIBI, and the second novel harks back to the first just enough for us to know that a) Kinsey’s still struggling with having killed someone, and b) she chooses to make no mental room or time for the struggle.

It’s that shadowy glimpse of Kinsey’s hidden self that keeps readers on the hook for the series, much more than the sturdiness of the plots, which are mere scaffolding for the entrancing and elusive study of Kinsey’s character. There’s nothing cozy about this series: Santa Teresa is a town of transition and turmoil, and Kinsey Millhone is a heroine who is in turmoil primarily because she resists transition.


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 Shoulder Wounds at Unlawful Acts.

 

 

 

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Shoulder Wounds No. 2

James Scott Bell, one of my favorite teachers of crime-fiction craft, says that every passage and page of a story should thrum with what he calls “pleasurable uncertainty.” That’s a sense I’ve never felt in the four novels by Lori Rader-Day, and especially her latest, UNDER A DARK SKY.

Nobody dies until a fifth of the way into the novel, and until then, we’re sunk into the soggy ruminations of Eden Wallace, who decided to keep her husband’s reservations for a guest house at a “dark-sky park” in rural Michigan, even though her husband died several months before. There’s no sense of high stakes or imminent danger as Eden meets the six sharp-edged twentysomethings who also have reservations at the house for a curiously strained reunion.

Things don’t particularly pick up after one of the six is found with a screwdriver in the side of his neck, and UNDER A DARK SKY suffers under Eden’s suffocatingly self-loathing voice as she is forced to become more deeply involved with her increasingly erratic housemates under circumstances that strain plausibility. It was the sort of novel I forced myself to consume in small bites, like bits of Mom’s overboiled spinach, until I finally gratefully collapsed at the end of its silly, shrieky, too-neat-set-piece finale.

Like Rader-Day’s other novels, for me anyway, UNDER A DARK SKY suffers from a sustained failure to lift off the ground and generate the sort of tailwind that makes the pages turn. And that makes its uncertainties less than pleasurable, as evidenced by a number of lines like this: “I had learned something but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. ‘Nothing,’ I said. And that was the strange thing, perhaps. Sam was too much nothing, and that was something.” 


Another suspense novel with a character with a flat character arc is A.J. Banner’s latest, AFTER NIGHTFALL.

In this time of complicated female point-of-view characters who are complicit to varying degrees in the crimes piling up around then, is there really much of an appetite for a pure-victim “heroine” whose only crime is loving or trusting the wrong people? Seems hard to believe, and yet here’s Marissa Parlette, who is little more than the target of a seemingly sustained gaslighting campaign from almost everybody in her life, including the former best friend who is found at the beach at the bottom of a cliff on her fiancé’s property. There’s enough furtive text messages, cryptic conversational foreshadowing and late-night disappearing acts to fill an ID channel episode of Someone You Thought You Knew.

At least the twists are plentiful and the pages do turn, in between heavy slatherings of Brigadoon-level lifestyle porn: “I inhale the salty air, listen to the soft rush of the sea. We’re fifteen minutes beyond the outskirts of Tranquil Cove, a sleepy town of ten thousand residents, west of Seattle on the shores of Enchanted Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula—a protected, curved inlet meandering in from the Pacific Ocean. Idyllic, peaceful.” I live in a place that should be like that, and like every other place like that, it’s nothing like that.

But in the end, all the skillful plotting in AFTER NIGHTFALL can’t cover up the fact that the central character is an empty set of clothes. Marissa Parlette does little that isn’t in reaction to something that someone else does, and like other Banner heroines, she has no reason to grow. She’s just fine as is; it’s everyone else who insists on torturing her for no reason other than her shining goodness. Small wonder that “Marissa” is close to “Mary Sue.”


One of the great discoveries of the year for me has been the under-promoted THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER, a debut tale from Gale Massey. Unlike UNDER A DARK SKY, this one thrums with tension from the opening page. And unlike AFTER NIGHTFALL, 19-year-old Jamie Elders is a fascinatingly complicated character, with one foot in the criminal underworld of her grubby small town in upstate New York and one foot on the interstate to nowhere and everywhere:

“If there was a window to escape, it was closing fast. Right here at the underside of twenty, there was an opening, maybe a month, and it might be the only time she’d be able to leave, find her way to some city where there were real jobs, where winters weren’t so fucking cold, where no one would ask her to help move a dead body in the middle of the night. Somewhere she’d have half a shot, before she got in too deep and this town pulled her under. Like it was doing right now.”

There’s almost nothing more relatable than the desire to be free from one’s stultifyingly ordinary circumstances and escape into the hope, illusory or otherwise, of a better life. Especially after you’re conscripted to help get rid of a body that may turn out to be dead weight shackled to your ankle.

Jamie isn’t an innocent. She does various low-level tasks for her uncle and his friend Judge Keating that she’s sure aren’t entirely legal. She smokes weed, flunks out of college, has an ill-advised affair with an older married man. But she knows that she doesn’t want to be a small-town, small-time grifter, that she wants to give her angry, impulsive younger brother a shot at getting out of Blind River as well, and she wants to see what she can do with her poker-playing skills beyond playing online and in rigged games around town.

THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER is not the kind of twist-riddled, pulse-pumping, superjacked-adrenaline thriller that’s dominating crime fiction these days. Instead, it has the courage to operate at a steady slow-burn pace, unspooling its reversals and rising stakes with a sure touch that gives subtle character shadings all the room they need to cast a spell on the patient reader. Will Jamie make it? The question will haunt you to the final page.


Few things annoy me more in private-eye novels than front-loaded heroes: knight-errants who are ridiculously attractive, financially secure, and morally uncomplicated if personally messy.

That’s why I’ve always loved Stephen Dobyns’ series of Saratoga, New York-set novels featuring ex-cop Charlie Bradshaw, an overweight man with “a nose like a grape” who dresses in stained, worn clothes and Hush Puppies with crushed heels. He falls behind on his bills, can’t fix his own toilet, and doesn’t always get the girl. His perpetual hangdog demeanor belies a stubborn nature that sees him through a case even when everybody—even members of his own family—carpet-bombs him with disregard and disrespect.

The series began in 1976 and resumed, after a 19-year hiatus, in 2017, and I’m not sure if there’s more in the tank from Dobyns, a renowned poet who turned 77 this year. I recently reread the series, and suggest SARATOGA SWIMMER (1981) as a starting point.

In this novel, the second of eleven in the series, Charlie is a horse-stable guard with little official standing. As such, he annoys everybody from the police chief down by poking at the edges of the investigation into his boss’s murder. At the same time, he’s pursuing a romance with a waitress who we know will break his heart in a way that’s refreshingly realistic. She’s no duplicitous bitch; she likes Charlie well enough, but just isn’t as into him as he is to her. Who hasn’t been there?

Like all the Saratoga novels, SARATOGA SWIMMER deftly balances plot with rich character notes. The novels are filled with little gems like this: “All that he minded about his current bad reputation was that he could no longer coach Little League baseball, which for Charlie, standing by third base on a warm summer evening and urging some little kid to slide, was what life was all about.”

 

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 Unlawful Act’s and Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shoulder Wounds No. 1

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:

  1. Show my work; and
  2. Never pull my punches out of political considerations; and
  3. Not be an asshole. Or;
  4. 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.


The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, When The Devil Comes to Call, The Devil at Your Door (a trilogy), Eric Beetner.

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.

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Walk in the Fire by Steph Post

walk-in-the-fire-by-steph-postOne of the interesting things about Steph Post, to me, is that she’s gone through much of her growth as a writer in public. Her debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, established her gift for place and for scraping its grit onto the page, but I felt it suffered from having an undercooked, largely offstage antagonist.

Lightwood represented a monster leap forward-definitely no problem with all manner of colorful antagonists and antagonism there-and was even more rich in the blood-and-booze-soaked red clay of north-central Florida. My only quibble with it was that the central character, Judah Cannon, prodigal son of a small-time crime clan, was a soft-focus cipher in comparison to the sharply drawn cast of crazies and crackers cuffing him around in all directions.

Walk in the Fire, Post’s third novel and the second in the Cannon saga, arrives as a fully formed story full of fully realized characters, Judah included. With his domineering father and older brother out of the picture, Judah must act rather than react, must plan and execute for the long haul. The central conflict for Judah is quickly established: Will he step up and seize the reins of the Cannon’s second-rate shakedown empire as everyone expects? Or will he honor his promise to the love of his life, Ramey, and leave their hometown and its malignant pull behind?

You know the answer as well I do. But, oh, how that answer spools out, as suspensefully as a man trying to reel in a game fish that might have more fight in it that anyone reckons. Judah’s best intentions get him pulled into a power struggle that involves not just Sister Tulah, the power behind the Pentecostal-on-PCP church that fronts for a criminal empire even more ambitious than that of the Cannon family, but a host of holy-shit others.

There’s Everett Weaver, a force of gun-crazed nature that abhors a criminal vacuum, who has a personal grudge against the Cannons. There’s Benji, the little Cannon brother whose injuries suffered during the events of Lightwood have left him bitter, impulsive and dangerous. There’s Shelia, the not-as-dumb-as-she-sounds knockaround girl whose conscience won’t quite leave her be. And there’s Brother Felton, who’s taken some baby steps back from his Aunt Tulah but can’t quite break away from the dominant figure in his passive existence.

My personal favorite is ATF Special Agent Clive Grant, a collection of colorful complications that only begin with being a black man with a badge in Crackerville USA. Post does an amazing job of making him into a man whose righteous obsessions run neck-and-neck with his remarkable ability to come up just short of justifying his presence, let alone establishing himself as an intimidating one.

Imagine a federal agent with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who lacks guile but also lacks an innate sense of how career games are played and how career cases are made. Rarely do federal agents get portrayed with such nuance; usually their “complexities” are rolled out as tropes: a violent past, an agitated relationship, a private sense of victimization by cardboard antagonists, etc. Grant, by comparison, is a stunning original.

But besides Judah, who finally makes some hard decisions independent of Ramey, Walk in the Fire is largely Sister Tulah’s show, and her show is a stunner. Another of Post’s great gifts is for filling pages with entertainingly over-the-edge ersatz evangelism that’s so distant from any form of Christianity we’d recognize as to create doubt over whether what Tulah believes in is even a Christian deity at all.

At a weekend getaway for her and her fellow nutjobs, we’re treated to pages of this:

Tulah looked at each of the Angels in turn. Like the Watchers, they wore long robes, though theirs looked as though they had been dipped in blood, and copper masks crowned with seven horns. Whereas the visages of the Watchers’ masks were featureless, the Angels’ each bore the likeness of the Spirit that had descended upon them. The radiant faces of an Ox, a Lion, an Eagle and a Man all beamed at Tulah and each Angel nodded to her in turn. She stepped to the Throne and held the sickle over the fire. The flames popped and spit, licking her wrist, but she couldn’t feel her flesh burning. Tulah dropped the sickle into the bowl and bowed her head.

I imagine Post cackling with mad glee as she created this perverted Pentecostalism. As much as I was cackling with mad glee as I read it.

Walk in the Fire is full of similarly inspired moments, and sumptuously crafted plot threads wrapping themselves around her sumptuously crafted characters like kudzu vines until they, and we, can scarcely breathe. Everything makes sense, and everyone surprises. It represents the intersection of Steph Post’s abundant talent with her growing command of story and character craft. It’s damned close to a perfect novel, and closes by dropping a damned-close-to-perfect cliffhanger in the next chapter in the Sister Tulah-Cannon saga. I, for one, cannot wait.

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“A Map of the Dark” and “May”: Two Sides of the Same Coin

35605410Sorry I’ve been away from writing reviews for the last month. Part of it was the annual slog through the sunless swamp of low winter in the Pacific Northwest and part of it was that my way of dealing with the black-afternoon blahs was to retreat to the comfort-food reading that got me through a lot of long lonely nights in Christian boarding school: John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Williams, Peter Abrahams, Stephen King, etc.

But I’ve been doing a lot of other reading, too, of more current work.

I’ll start catching you up on those with a question: Is it fair to judge a book by the established standards of its genre, or should it simply be judged on its own merits? I admit I tend toward the former since most readers of crime fiction read, well, a lot of crime fiction, be it P.I. novels, or procedurals, or cozies, or hardboiled tales.

But I always think about the question every time I read a new book.

I ask because A Map of the Dark, by “Karen Ellis,” a pseudonym for Katia Lief, is basically a standard-issue supermarket-checkout-lane suspenser with a surface layer of sophisticated prose—run-on sentences are oh so like totally literary!—that brings to mind a novel-length New Yorker story.

Like the wretched Descent by Tim Johnston, an obnoxiously overpraised “literary thriller” from a few years ago, it pays slavish homage to the tropes that most readers of domestic suspense and law-enforcement procedurals will recognize. In this case, an FBI agent with a haunted past; missing teenage girls; a hot partner with an undercurrent of personal appeal, etc. etc.

But, despite its cut-above-convention pretensions—Elsa Myers, the FBI agent in question is a surreptitious skin cutter, a female analogue of sorts to Frank Marr, the drug-abusing ex-cop from David Swinson’s two novels—it’s really just the same old story you’ve likely read dozens of times before from Catherine Coulter or Alison Brennan or J.T. Ellison or any of the many mass-market FBI-fetishist authors out there.

And it’s done competently but with no special skill: its two big twists are telegraphed far too obviously for them to have much impact on anyone who has read more than a few missing-girl or FBI-agent thrillers.

(I had the same experience with the even-more-hyped pseudo-Hitchcockian The Woman in the Window, by man-pretending-sort-of-to-be-a-woman “A.J. Finn,” which I disliked so much that I don’t trust myself to review it dispassionately.)

The flip side of the question for me came in my reading of May, from Marietta Miles.

When I first read it, I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t more of a cat-and-mouse thriller in its final act, given how skillfully it isolated three people with colliding agendas on a storm-swept North Carolina coastal island. Imagine that: I wanted it to hew to the tropes of the crime genre.

Then I relaxed and realized that May’s heart lay elsewhere, that it isn’t a plotted crime novel so much as a novel that stumbles across crime in the course of peeling back the cover of how real people live when they live close to the ground. May, at heart, is an utterly compelling character study of a wounded woman trying to stumble her way clear of complete shutdown, and of two teenage boys whose compulsive needs put them on a collision course with her need to be needed.

May is the sort of novel I’ll revisit simply because it’s much more than plot twists and pulse points. It’s a nuanced immersion in quiet, almost dignified brokenness, and in time and place (the narrative is split between the early 1970s and 1987, and Louisiana and North Carolina). A perfect mirror moment at about the novel’s halfway point:

May doesn’t think she has what other women have. The way of a mother. When she visits with Linda and her boys she sits next to them on the couch or even in one of their little chairs, working at making them smile. She is also breathless for the duration, knowing something bad will happen and sure it will be her fault because babies are so weak and breakable.

It turns out that May is wrong, that she has what it takes to care for someone more broken than she, and the great pleasure of MAY is in finding out how she finds out. May would never be an FBI agent, nor want to be, but under all that storm damage in her soul is a strong instinct for setting things right. Right enough to live with, anyway.

May by Marietta Miles
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A Map of the Dark by Karen Ellis
Amazon: US
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