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


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.


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

Thanks for stopping by and reading Unlawful Acts.

& The Rest

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

Thanks for stopping by and reading Unlawful Acts.


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

Thanks for stopping by and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds at Unlawful Acts.