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Three Kinds of Fool by Matt Phillips

It doesn’t take long in Matt PhillipsThree Kinds of Fool (All Due Respect Books), for regret to set in on the main character, it takes two paragraphs.

Jess Forsyth took the same freeway exit as Mikey Watt— it was east of the city— and powered his black Nissan mini-truck past a smattering of half-assed mobile homes flanked by dirt lots and rusted swing sets. Up ahead, Mikey’s taillights flashed red at a four-way stop and Jess slowed for a moment, watched Mikey through the yellow cab’s rear window as he looked both ways and punched the gas.

Jess said to himself, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Three Kinds of Fool is the story of an ex-con who has gotten his shit together by leading a somewhat normal life of cleaning pools and surfing. But Jess doesn’t always make the best decisions and it doesn’t help matters much that he likes drinking in dive bars frequented by old criminal associates. Jess meets up with Mikey and they head out to a beach house ostensibly for an introduction to a man who has a job for them to do, a job that would entail a little bit of trouble. The reader finds out quickly that Jess has gotten himself neck deep into some serious shit.

Phillips’novel is part history, how Jess became a convict and his friendship with the store owner he held up, how Jess attempts to dig himself out of the mess Watt go him into, and  will Jess ever be able to get back to his newly established boring life. I quite enjoyed Three Times of Fool.

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Rumrunners by Eric Beetner

Eric Beetner‘s Rumrunners (Down & Out Books) accomplished two firsts for me: this is the first book I’ve read by Beetner and the first book I’ve read from the publisher, 280 Steps. This was followed quickly by the fact that I will be reading more books by Beetner and 280 Steps in the near future.

Rumrunners opens with an old man at a donut counter where Calvin McGraw gets into an argument with the hipster-donut-slinger about electric cars.

“What’s wrong with electric cars?”

Calvin rolled his eyes. He wanted to sit and watch his cars in silence. Longing and regret about the past was a solitary hobby.

“Nothing other than everything. They’re fuckin’ stupid.”

“I happen to drive a Prius.”

“Of course you do.” Calvin swiveled on his stool. He wasn’t sure if the skinny guy was being bold because Calvin’s age made him feel safe, but he was sure the guy had no clue who he was dealing with.

The hipster didn’t and, as Rumrunners progresses, neither does anyone else who encounters the McGraws.

Beetner’s novel is the story of two Iowa crime families, the Stanelys who are trying run Iowa City, and the McGraws who do the Stanely’s smuggling. These two multi-generational families square off between lies and betrayal, as the McGraws have to stay ahead of the threats and bullets of the Stanleys using the only thing they know, good old Detroit-made cars. Rumrunners is a great American road drama filled with speed, drugs, murder and treachery. The prequel, Leadfoot, comes out tomorrow and I’ll be reading it.

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The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The unnamed character in Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief (Soho Crime) is a savant at picking victims as well as picking pockets. He skirts through existence drinking canned coffee, riding trains, and lifting wallets. But this thief has his own troubles, the first of which are images of towers that have plagued him his whole life, “When I was young, there was always the tower in the distance.” Several times throughout The Thief different images of the tower come to him whether “… an enormous iron tower flashed by me with a loud roar” or “When the tower appeared in front of me, the dirty black plastic moved into clearer focus. I stared at the pathetic, flesh-like trash.”

Towards beginning of the book, the ant-hero comes across a young boy, the son a of prostitute.

I noticed a mother with her child and I stopped. The woman, her damaged hair tied in a ponytail, touched the boy lightly with her knee. At that moment he slipped a packet of fish fillets into the Uniqlo bag he was carrying. A towel had been placed inside and by shaking the paper bag the stuff was hidden. My heart skipped a beat and I was annoyed with myself. The child was seizing the items earnestly, as though trying to live up to his mother’s expectations. He was skillful, and he seemed determined that even if he were caught his mother wouldn’t be blamed.

It is apparent that the boy reminds the thief of himself at a young age, though he consistently denies this to himself. The boy quickly attaches himself to the thief and becomes his second problem as our anti-hero doesn’t know what to do with him: ignore the boy, teach the child the craft, make the mother take better care of her child, or turn the boy over to the authorities.

The last of the thief’s troubles is that he, by way of a friend, is unwillingly recruited for a home invasion/burglary. The leader of the gang that recruited him is a bit tough —”They say a couple of people have run away from him and ended up dead. He’s relentless, I hear.”

The action is quite limited in Nakamura’s novel, but the despair is not as The Thief is filled with sadness.. The novel is more in line with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than with Hammett, Thompson and others. Even though a constant pathos that permeates through all the characters, The Thief was a worthwhile read.

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Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson

With books published by New Pulp Press, BEAT to a PULP, and Crime Factory Publications, it was no wonder that I had never heard of Jake Hinkson before. (Yeah, I’m new to this, but learning fast.) The classic noirs seem to get all the press. Since Hinkson’s book, Hell on Church Street, was the July selection of the Pulp Fiction Group at Goodreads, so I felt obliged and I am glad I did.

Hell on Church Street (280 Steps) has the guts of Jim Thompson, the storytelling of Joseph Conrad and a sprinkling of Nabokov’s Lolita. Hinkson begins the book with an unnamed narrator, a man with a short temper, on the run from the law, and looking for an easy mark to roll. The mark he finds is a fat man name Geoffrey Webb, but this robbery is not going to be as easy as he thought. Even with a gun pressed to the back of his head, Webb, the “victim”, was going to be robbed his way and he had a story to tell first.

The new narrator, Webb, talks of his abusive father without any excuses and then how the church may or may not have saved him.

I’m not an intimidating man. Believe me, I know. But I’m not talking about being intimidating. I used to be the safest man you could imagine. At one time, years ago, so many people loved me and trusted me you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve known the kind of trust that few people are ever afforded. And I betrayed it. So now I guess I deserve the termite life I’ve been living. I deserve to die the way I’m going to die. I betrayed everyone who ever trusted me, and God saw fit to cast me down with the termites. No amount of forgiveness or understanding will change what I’ve done.

At it’s simplest, Hell on Church Street, is the story of an awkward man hired as a youth minister. He has a fine porn collection and attracted to his minister’s 15-year-old daughter. Set in modern times, though prior to the internet, Hinkson’s novel spins the decline of a decadent man and his lame-ass attempt at redemption. I can only say that Hell on Church Street is good, real good; it may even be great, but that is something some that comes with time and multiple re-reads.

Originally posted on September 02, 2016. Updated on October 30, 2016.

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Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game is the first book from the publisher Hard Case Crime which as released some must-read books: Max Allen Collins’ Quarry series, two Stephen King books, early works by Michael Crichton, and many others. (They are woefully shy in publishing work by women and people of color.)

Grifter’s Game opens up in the Ben Franklin Hotel in Center City Philadelphia. Our anti-hero is David Gavilan, a con man who wanders from city to city seducing rich women. The difference between Grifter’s Game’s anti-hero and the one in Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California is one of conscience. Gavilan has one, Russell Haxby does not.

Set in the late 50s or early 60s, Gavilan has run out of time on his hotel bill and is the time to run out of town as well. We soon learn that Gavilan is not his really Favilan either, it could be “ … Joe Marlin. That was my name, before it was David Gavilan, before it was Leonard K. Blake, before a lot of names. Do names matter? They never did.” A many with many names and no names.

His journey takes him to Atlantic City, where the newly anointed Leonard K. Blake has stolen some monogrammed LKB luggage and he is setting up shop in the Shelbourne. Soon, our anti-hero meets Mona, the femme fatal of this particular story. He also discovers a briefcase full of heroin that belonged to the luggage’s previous owner.

Block’s writing is straightforward and the action comes at us repeatedly. A lust-filled crime novel, Grifter’s Game is an enjoyable read.

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Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

One of the things I noticed when I started reading crime fiction (especially old noir books) is that the authors and the characters are very white and very male. There are femme fatales but the stories are mainly told from white man’s point of view. I knew there was a need for diversity in my reading list. Though reading Walter Mosley might have been partly a diversity pick, it was more because Mosley’s books are highly rated and respected within and outside the mystery community. But I needed to get out of my rut of reading books by white men, so, yes, diversity helped push Mosley up to the top of my To Be Read list. Nothing wrong with that, especially after reading Devil in a Blue Dress.

The first paragraph introduces us to Easy Rawlins:

I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore and off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped from the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not the color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.

This sets a tone which reminds us of different black and white worlds of Los Angeles are in the late 40s. Easy, an out-of-work mechanic, is offered a job to find a woman, a white woman who frequents the black bars in Los Angeles, places that the white man normally cannot visit. Easy’s instincts have him say no, but upcoming house payments and the lack of work in the foreseeable future makes him say yes.

Devil in a Blue Dress takes us through black City of Angels with some frightening stops for Rawlins in white sections. It’s a journey through a time and place, we thought we knew. Though the backdrop of Devil in a Blue Dress is very important, the writing of Mosley and the mystery are equally enjoyable. I look forward to reading the rest of the Easy Rawlins series as well as other books by Mosley.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

There are spoilers in this review. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

When reading noir/hard-boiled books, the reader must remove oneself from our politically-correct world and embrace the world you have chosen to read. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the first of his Philip Marlowe private eye series. One bit of difficulty when reading Chandler’s book is that Marlowe is the narrator so I only heard Humphrey Bogart’s voice in their head. I guess it is better than hearing Peter Lorre’s voice narrating.

Marlowe gets a call to visit General Sternwood at his large estate in Los Angeles where there are remnants of Sterwood’s oil wealth still visible. Before he meets the General in his orchid garden, Marlowe runs into the youngest of Sternwoods daughters, Carmen.

She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

After Marlowe gets his assignment from Sternwood, he meets the other daughter, Vivian Regan née Sterwood.

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at.

Two femme fatales and one simple blackmailer to track down and payoff. Set in the late 1930s, Marlowe takes us on his journey through the darkside of Los Angeles filled with lies, gambling and murder. After finishing The Big Sleep, I believe I understand its importance for the hard-boiled detective genre, though much of the book and Chandler’s popularity are due to the film that came out a few years later.

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The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe

What a ride! By the second paragraph, Earl Drake has killed a man and, eight words later, Drake is robbing a bank. And then Dan J. Marlowe’s 1962 book, The Name of the Game is Death, really begins as the bank robbery has gone horribly wrong, Drake’s been shot and the gang has split up. A few weeks later, Drake stops hearing from his partner and he decides to go looking for his partner and his money.

But The Name of the Game is Death is more than just an action story, Marlowe builds Drake’s character wonderfully and gives us glimpses of his childhood. A boy is his school unleased his dog on Drake’s cat, killing it. But the young Drake took his revenge on the boy again and again. Below is the fourth beating Drake gave the kid, but his non-response to the minister is even more telling.

The next afternoon at school I had to chase the fat boy from the schoolyard clear over to within a couple blocks from his house before I caught him. It didn’t help him when I did.

Later that night the minister came to our house. He talked to me for a long time. All about the unexplainable things that happen in life, and the necessity for understanding. I understood, all right. What was all the talk about? I understood. I listened to him, though. I was polite. I wasn’t going to give them a chance to call me surly or bad-mannered. When he was tired talking, the minister went away. I don’t think even he thought he’d accomplished much.

The Name of the Game is Death is like an action movie that never pauses to breathe. If you are looking for a hard-boiled thrill, this is just the thing.

In his essay, The Wrong Marlowe, Charles Kelly writes:

Marlowe hadn’t written much for years by the time he died, but he had already written books good enough to captivate future generations of hard-boiled aficionados. In dedicating his 2005 novel “The Colorado Kid” to Marlowe, Stephen King called him “hardest of the hard-boiled.”

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Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade and The Continental Op; four timeless characters created by one writer, Dashiell Hammett. His first novel, Red Harvest, tells the tale of Hammett’s unnamed private eye known as The Continental Op, a private eye in the employment of The Continental Detective Agency out of San Francisco. The Op has been summoned to Personville by the newspaper publisher, Donald Willsson, but before the Op can even meet up with Willsson, the newspaper man is murdered. The Op is quickly hired by Willsson’s father to clean up the town.

A few pages into the book, the Op begins his newest assignment.

My destination was a gray frame cottage. When I rang the bell the door was opened by a thin man with a tired face that had no color in it except a red spot the size of a half-dollar high on each cheek. This, I thought, is the lunger Dan Rolff.

“I’d like to see Miss Brand,” I told him.

“What name shall I tell her?” His voice was a sick man’s and an educated man’s.

“It wouldn’t mean anything to her. I want to see her about Willsson’s death.”

He looked at me with level tired dark eyes and said: “Yes?”

“I’m from the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. We’re interested in the murder.”

“That’s nice of you,” he said ironically. “Come in.”

Red Harvest is set in a mining town during Prohibition, In Personville, everyone is corrupt from the dead man’s father to the police chief; around every corner and in every shadow, someone is looking to score. The Op is a tough guy in a town that is equally as tough — the locals call it Poisonville. The Op is ready to break some rules and even break some heads to get his job done. Hammett’s dialog is quick and full the colors of the street.

As Time magazine said, when adding Red Harvest to its list of Top 100 English-language Novels: “With the Continental Op, a detective he had been developing for years in short stories, Hammett created the prototype for every sleuth who would ever be called ‘hard-boiled.'” Red Harvest is an important book and a great read as well.