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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.

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The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

Five years before Michael Connelly began his Harry Bosch series, James Lee Burke started Dave Robicheaux series. Set in New Orleans and environs, Robicheaux is a detective of the New Orleans police force. A Vietnam vet, a recovering alcoholic and a divorcee, Robicheaux’s list of demons is long and one that he constantly battles. The part of Robicheaux that is true is his police work — he is a good detective.

The Neon Rain starts as thus:

The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary.

Burke’s writing is more poetic than most police procedurals, but the character and action are still plentiful and exciting. Along with his fluid prose, Burke’s Robicheaux is a character that is still developing; the detective is far from being a complete man.

On Robicheaux’s visit to the state penitentiary, he finds out there may be hit on him. He is unsure to believe it or not, but with his partner, Cletus Parcel, go to invesitigate with a lot of intimidaiton.

Potts’s eyes were small and hot and staring straight ahead.

“Lighten up,” Cletus said. “You’re a businessman, you pay taxes, you’re reasonable. You just got diarrhea of the mouth and you been spreading rumors around, and we want to know why you been doing that. It’s no big deal. Just straighten us out about this strange stuff we heard, and you can get back to entertaining the perverts. Look at the material you got here. This is classy stuff.” Cletus began to bang through the film cans on the wooden rack. He picked up one in both hands and looked at the penciled title with a critical eye. “This one is state-of-the-art porn, Dave. In one scene a guy kills a naked broad with a nail gun. She screams and begs, but the guy chases her around the house and staples pieces of her all over the woodwork.” Cletus opened the can, held on to one end of the film, and dropped the reel bouncing on the floor. He held the film strip up to the light. “The funny thing, Wes, is sometimes a John goes apeshit and tears a hooker up, and I get the feeling that maybe the guy just finished eating popcorn out there in your theater. What do you think?”

The investigation takes them into the world on Latin American gangsters who basically have everyone scared, even the bad guys. If the Robicheaux series is half as good as The Neon Rain that will give me plenty of reading to do over the next few years.

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High Priest of California by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California is not a book for everyone, maybe hardly anyone. The writing is crisp and the plot moves along page by page, but Willeford’s anti-hero Russell Haxby is a scoundrel, a scoundrel is the most despicable way. Set in San Francisco in 1951, Willeford’s first novel tells the story of Haxby’s sexual pursuit of Alyce Vitale.

The woman was good-looking but her personality was blah. Still, with a figure like she had there should certainly be something there. I might look in the next day, but then that was tomorrow and it would depend upon how I felt.

Most anti-heroes do despicable things, but they have some redeeming qualities. Willeford’s Haxby does not. For instance a typical anti-hero may rob a bank, but usually they only shoot at when shot at first. Yes, even Han Solo shot first, but he wasn’t looking for trouble, he was cornered and he had no way out. Haxby has none of this. He’s a successful used-car salesman and while not lying to womenm he is busy ripping customers off.

If you can bear with this creep Haxby, the writing is great, though the overall story is much to be despised. It seems as though Willeford has several books in sexual conquest genre (yeah, I didn’t know this either), instead I’ll probably focus on his Hoke Mosley series.

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9 Dragons by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch sat at his desk. He waited. Bosch needed to be moving, working a case, bringing a murderer to justice. The pursuit of a criminal was just as vital to Bosch’s well-being as food and water are to other people.

Now he saw the approaching lieutenant and he instinctively knew that his partner wasn’t going home early. Gandle was holding a piece of paper torn from a notepad and had an extra hop in his step. That told Bosch the wait was over. The call out was here. The fresh kill. Bosch started to rise.

This is what those of us who read the Bosch books what for; this is what we enjoy. The pursuit begins.

The case looks like a no-brainer as a Chinese liquor store owner is shot dead in his store that is located around 70th and Normandie near where the 1992 LA riots took place. But with any Bosch story, it is never as simple as it looks. As Bosch investigates, the case takes into the world of the triads and even to Hong Kong as his daughter mysteriously disappears.

This the twenty-first book of Connelly’s that I have read. Yeah, I am a bit of a fan boy. With 9 Dragons, Connelly continues to write fast-paced police procedurals that are exciting and well-plotted. Connelly’s LA universe was exactly what I needed after the debacle of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. I could easily read the rest of Connelly’s books one after another, but I will slow down and read a few other books before I move on to my twenty-second book of Connelly’s, The Reversal.

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The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

As I said in my review of Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon, I was out looking for other mystery writers to read other than white men. One female writer who came up time and time again was Megan Abbott. So I grabbed The End of Everything since it was a past read of the Pulp Fiction community on Goodreads. Usually I don’t pay attention to the Goodreads’ ratings as I find them a bit inflated, considering my average rating for books is 3.27 out of 5 while most of the Goodreads friends are somwhere above 4.  The End of Everything came in at a 3.37, the lowest Goodreads ranking of a book I read.

But it was not that I was ignoring the numbers, rather I paid no attention to them and set forth Megan Abott’s 2011 novel. A couple of days later and I was perplexed with all the praise for Abbott. I was half-way through The End of Everything and only one thing had happened, the abduction of the narrator’s friend. Meanwhile there are too many passages like this one:

There was something here, something that might mean something. Something found, something that put an aha catch in my throat, but I can’t reckon it now. I can’t hold the ends together and lift it to my eyes.

I stumble around to the back of the house, stubbing my toe three times, the last time feeling a hot push of blood under my toenail.

Something’s there, wedged beneath my foot.

I bend down and look upon it.

The fluorescent bend of the garden hose, the spike from its hard nozzle.

But it reminds me. It puts form to that hovering thought.

If these passages were less frequent, maybe my reading of the second half of the book might have been more attentive.

Maybe I don’t get this whole “domestic noir” scene lead by Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, neither of which I have read, but Abbott’s The End of Everything is not helping on the decision to pick up these books.