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280 Steps

Gunshine State by Andrew NetteAs I mentioned in my last post, 280 Steps was one of the first small presses of crime fiction I came across. I like their books. I guess now I should say that I liked their books as they are closing up shop. Of the 59 reviews I have written over the past year, nine of them were published by 280 Steps. The only publisher that I have reviewed more books from is All Due Respect Books. Yeah, you could say I have a crime fiction type.

The first thing that strikes anyone with 280 Steps is the covers. They were bold with hard-edges that bring back the spirit of Saul Bass’ movie posters such as Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder. These 50s/60s designs hint at noir, outlaws, and femme fatales. Digging through the internet I found two graphic designers (there are probably more) that worked on 280 Steps covers, Risa Rodill and Eder Rengifo. Rengifo designed my favorite cover for Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State.

After getting past the striking artwork, the reader is left with only the words and 280 Steps had all the words, all the fantastic words. I read Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street when it was in between publishers. Hinkson was my introduction to 280 Steps and then 280 Steps introduced me to Eric Beetner, Andrew Nette, and others. And these authors introduced me to works by Angel Luis Colón, Marietta Miles, Rob Pierce, Paul D. Brazil, Paul Heatley, Iain Ryan and more. There was talent everywhere! I was not going to be held hostage to the mystery novels of the big publishers.

As a reader, my immediate reaction when I heard 280 Steps was disappearing was a sadness that this friend would no longer be recommending me books. But as the day wore on, I realized that some of my favorite authors were losing a part of their voice, their books were disappearing.  I hope all find a home for their books soon. Given the ending of 280 Steps and Blasted Heathens closing their doors recently, I hope a new crime fiction publisher will emerge soon.

I will still go through the unread 280 Steps books on my Kindle.  I was planning on reading Eric Beetner’s Devil series in preparation for the third and final volume to be released this Spring. I think I will read these anyway as Beetner’s prose is crisp and quick and he tells a damn good story. There are other 280 Steps authors that come to mind I have to get to like Ro Cuzon, Eryk Pruitt, and Christopher Irvin.

280 Steps was an important independent voice in crime fiction, but I will remember 280 Steps my gateway to some wonderful crime fiction voices.

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Trouble No More by Court Haslett

Small crime fiction presses like prequels, at least two of the publishers I enjoy do. 280 Steps published Eric Beetner’s Rumrunners (review) back in May 2015. They followed with Beetner’s prequel Leadfoot (review) in November 2016. There’s also Chris Rhatigan’s A Pack of Lies published by All Due Respect Books in November 2014 which was followed by Rhatigan’s prequel Squeeze published in April 2016, both reviewed here. And now we have Court Haslett’s Trouble No More (280 Steps) which is a prequel to his book Tenderloin (280 Steps) (review) which was published earlier this year. I’m not saying this is a trend of any sort, but I  find it an interesting coincidence probably only because I have reviewed all six books.

The book at hand is Haslett’s Trouble No More which takes place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district the year before Haslett’s Tenderloin. The narrator in both books is Sleeper Hayes, a man who thinks all problems can be better solved with alcohol and if that doesn’t work then you haven’t drunk enough alcohol to attack that particular issue.

Trouble No More gets started as one of Sleeper’s tenants gets beaten up by some Chinese mobsters because her brother has skipped out of town owing a bookie money. Sleeper is the manager of a small apartment building and since it’s the Tenderloin upkeep on the building is not much, so Sleeper has free time. He’s sort of a neighborhood PI who subsists on gambling, alcohol, music and pot, the order of which depends on the moment.

Haslett’s novels are set in ’77 and ’78, and pop culture references are scattered subtlety throughout. Whether it is Jim Jones, the demise of the hippie movement, or Elvis, their existence within the novel come naturally from the characters rather than forced by the writer.

It wouldn’t have bolstered my tough-guy bona fides to tell him I’d spent hours pinpointing the exact dividing line between soft rock and soul music. That song is “Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton. I think it belongs on the soul side of the line. Maggie disagreed. Any song with birds chirping, she argued, deserves to be played in an elevator. I reconsidered briefly until Nelson weighed in on my side, definitively settling the issue. “Why, who do you listen to, tough guy?” I asked.

Sleeper might be an unofficial PI, but the mystery of the book is a backdrop character development. Haslett’s writing has made Sleeper, who is the narrator of the novel, exist outside the pages. Sleeper is a loner not by choice, he does yearn for human connection, he realizes that he probably is not the best companion for anyone other than Johnnie Walker.

Enlisting their help was the least I owed Maggie after neglecting to tell her about Ryan with the strippers. I rationalized my silence a number of ways— that it wasn’t my business, that men will be men, that Ryan might have been telling the truth, that Maggie had ordered me out of her life. Any of them worked at the time because they all contained an element of truth. None of them worked now.

The real reason I didn’t tell her was that I didn’t want to bring any more pain into her life. I’d done enough of that when we were married. No example is more excruciating than our final break-up. It was August 8th, 1974. I wish I remembered the date because I was the romantic type. The truth is I remember it because it’s the day Nixon resigned from office. She had noticed a lump in her chest the week before and I was supposed to meet her at the doctor’s office.

The good news: it was only a cyst.

The bad news: I didn’t show.

I told her I got caught up in the Nixon thing, that I knew the lump was no big deal, and look I was right! I didn’t expect that to fly and it didn’t. Instead of acting like a man and ending the marriage when I knew it was broken, I forced her to be the bad guy. Like always, she complied.

I needed a strong jolt to clear my head of this memory. I went back to the Nite Cap, the place where I last saw Ryan, and ordered a Johnny Red on the rocks with chaser of Johnny Red on the rocks.

Trouble No More is quite funny too, but not in a slapstick or overly comedic way, the humor effortlessly comes through the characters and situations.

“Meet me over here at Central Station in an hour and I’ll take a walk around the block with you. I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy you want to talk to, though.”

“Better than nothing.”

“Don’t be so sure, hombre,” he said and hung up.

I immediately committed myself to start calling people hombre.

Like writers who often believe that the last thing they wrote is their best work, readers have a similar problem — at least I do. Trouble No More is better than Tenderloin which I enjoyed the hell out of. I now know that Court Haslett is a damn fine writer and that I will read anything by him in the future.

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Tenderloin by Court Haslett

 The 70s was a strange decade. Maybe no stranger than other decades but any journey from the 60s counter culture to the decade of Reagan and Thatcher would surely rank high as one of the most bizarre decades in human history.

Court Haslett’s Tenderloin (280 Steps) takes place in San Francisco during the Summer of 1978. Yeah, we are knee-deep in the 70s, but life is much different than you imagine as Haslett’s outstanding novel in San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Here is the novel’s main character describing the T.L., as the locals call it:

Archie made me consider the Tenderloin. The T.L. was always the place where San Francisco’s outcasts gathered. Criminals, ex-cons, alcoholics, hookers, castoffs, hard-luck cases, and straight-up weirdos. These people were my people. People with unfixable flaws who, more often than not, lose whatever battles they’re fighting.

But the T.L. wasn’t only a wasteland of losers. It was also a place to have some fun. The neon lights of the Tenderloin’s hotels and bars were as recognizable to locals as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Black Hawk Lounge on Hyde and Turk used to host all the jazz greats, from Billie Holiday to Johnny Mathis to Charlie Parker; Polo’s and Original Joe’s still served food with style; and whatever your sexual proclivities and predilections, the Tenderloin had a bar for you.

Lately, though, the T.L. was becoming a touch more desperate, a bit more violent. Every year a few more homeless panhandled, a few more murders occurred, and a few more dope fiends overdosed. The fun was slowly seeping out, and more and more I found myself looking over my shoulder when I heard footsteps behind me late at night.

Haslett’s novel follows Sleeper Hayes, a man who lives and thrives in the T.L., not as a criminal, but as a gambler, drunk, a caretaker, and a friend to many, well, except for maybe the cops considering one of them wants Hayes dead. A few chapters in, one of Hayes’ friends is murdered and Hayes starts looking into the death for a T.L. john.

Simon sized me up. “Alright. Let me know what you learn,” he said, slapping a $100 bill on the bar. “Remember,” he whispered, “I’m your first call.”

Uh oh. When a pimp gives you money it can mean one of two things: you’re either the john or you’re turning the trick. Either way, somebody is getting screwed.

As the reader experiences the T.L. with Hayes, we also get to know Haslett’s other dynamic characters who live on society’s periphery, some by choice and others by need. Haslett’s writing makes these characters much more than bums, drunks, prostitutes and drug addicts. Consider Nelson, a “crippled, dope-smoking guru of a best friend”, who lives in Hayes’ apartment building.

Nelson was always my sounding board when life became overwhelming. Years of nearly constant smoking had slowed and slurred his speech. Some people mistook this for a slowness of the mind. It’s true that Nelson’s logic wasn’t always straightforward, nor his delivery articulate, but his take on any topic was always unexpected and enlightening.

I knew his counsel wasn’t for everyone, though. If you’re the conventional type, then his steadfast belief in sterilizing the very rich and the very poor wouldn’t spin your top. Nor would you believe his claim that he and Yuri wrote the outline for the SALT treaty. But if you were looking for weed, a fresh opinion, and a laugh, like I always seemed to be, then Nelson was your guy. I considered him my personal, stoned, black Buddha.

Not only does Haslett’s story have a detailed and almost character-like affection for the Tenderloin, the Peoples Temple also has deep roots in the novel just as it did in San Francisco politics in the 70s. Haslett does not bog us down with a boring history of the cult, his writing about its leader Jim Jones becomes an intrinsic part of the story. Tenderloin is as dark as the alleys of the neighborhood and as glorious as the City by the Bay itself.

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The Neon Lights Are Veins by Nolan Knight

Nolan Knight‘s The Neon Lights Are Veins (280 Steps) opens at Pink’s, a hot dog joint in Los Angeles. Mongo, a transvestite, and Alvi, tats covering his face and neck, talk about Gabby leaving town, “She was swallowed by the streets on Good Friday, searching for a dream that wouldn’t have her.”

Everyone knows the Los Angeles of delusions, but Knight’s Los Angeles is more complicated than that. Though he explores a world of drug addicts, prostitutes, dealers, transvestites, Hollywood hanger-ons, criminals, and the men that exploit all of them, Knight’s Los Angeles is a Grimm tale that his characters exist in, participating in a larger story that is destined to forget them.

Real places are alive throughout the book whether it’s Hotel Lafayette, the Frolic Room, or Wilshire Boulevard. Alvi begins his search for Gabby though he is more unsure of his motivation than his friends are. The quest for Gabby gives Knight the ability to introduce us to a score of characters who populate the city of forgotten tales while turning tricks or snorting rails of Xanax.

While Alvi searches for Gabby, Knight also tells us the story of Rocco, a young man forced to dump bodies for his mobster uncle. There are big plans for Rocco as well as Ray Satin’s criminal gang though Rocco’s plans are a bit different than cornering the prostitution and drug trade in LA. Different ambitions, same results.

After a character turns her first trick which involved balloon fetishists, Alvi takes her on a tour of his favorite neons of Los Angeles.

The Mercedes cruised down Caesar Chavez, looping first through Chinatown so Faye could see radiant pagoda rooftops; dragons snarled here and there. All the while, he carried on about the Museum of Neon Art and their salvaging of derelict city signage. She sat in wonder, imagining the modern downtown in its original glory. Only a tarnished glimpse remained. Alvi continued, pointing out odd illuminations, rarely acknowledged by the living. Most of them were burnt out, rusted, clinging to rooftops like Harold Lloyd.Broadway beamed lonesome letters of once gaudy words. Arrows flickered— all pointing to perdition. He told her when the neon boom hit, this stretch harbored more luster than Times Square. They gazed at blue and white diamonds, winking out jewelry store windows. Theaters,

Broadway beamed lonesome letters of once gaudy words. Arrows flickered— all pointing to perdition. He told her when the neon boom hit, this stretch harbored more luster than Times Square. They gazed at blue and white diamonds, winking out jewelry store windows. Theaters, bars and eateries blitzed from all angles. The busted string of radiance was superb, fluttering high above bleeding streets. They took in the soundtrack: a single saxophone wailed under a dingy marquee, charming flotsam from one crime to the next.

Like the neon of Los Angeles, Knight’s writing is sometimes dark but always satisfyingly alluring. The Neon Lights Are Veins gives us a city which we all can claim a certain amount of knowledge of, but this isn’t Harry Bosch’s LA or even Bukowski’s. Knight’s prose has created new and poetic Los Angeles of intense ultraviolet lights that ultimately attract the characters to their doom.

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Ridgerunner by Rusty Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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Gunshine State by Andrew Nette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.