I’m rejoining Unlawful Acts as a reviewer in a different format, with weekly roundups of what I’ve read recently. Some are old novels, some are new. Some are from small presses, some aren’t. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Hopefully I’m able to steer you to something you haven’t yet read, or make you think about something you have read in a different way.
Either way, I pledge to:
Show my work; and
Never pull my punches out of political considerations; and
Not be an asshole. Or;
If this approach costs me friends and publishing opportunities, so be it.
A well-designed house is of no value if the foundation is made from cheap materials that reveal rot upon inspection, and the same is true with well-crafted thrillers whose holy-shit twists are built upon a premise that can’t be believed.
I’m irresistibly drawn to stories set at boarding schools, having graduated from one myself—not a posh New prep academy in New England like the one in this novel, but a Seventh-day Adventist school in the Pacific Northwest populated across the economic spectrum—and this one largely did not disappoint. The characters are well-developed, the pacing is perfect, and the happy thrum of pleasurable uncertainty propels the pages forward.
It’s not easy to summarize She Was the Quiet One, but suffice to say that it involves bullying, social media, sex, gaslighting, power politics, reputational histrionics, a lot of suspicious late-night texting and, of course, murder. All rendered almost exclusively within the halls of one girls’ dormitory at a New Hampshire prep school whose students are as obsessed with who’s screwing who as who’s getting into what college.
The only problem is that its premise is rotten: there’s just no way, in 2018, in a time in which we’re hypersensitive about imbalances of sex and power between men and girls, boys and women, that a prep school as obsessed with image as this one is would place a devastatingly handsome young man in charge of the “slutty” girls’ dorm. It’s so implausible that it fatally undermines everything follows, and everything in this novel centers around Heath Donovan.
Once suspension of disbelief has been suspended, there’s no getting it back, at least for me. No matter how good everything else about the story turns out to be.
I’m a big fan of Beetner, a self-described “pulp hack” who puts out some of the smoothest, sharpest hardboiled crime fiction around.
But the problem with this trilogy of middle-aged-hitman-hits-the-bloody-highway-with-teen-girl tales is somewhat the same as the fatal flaw in She Was the Quiet One: I’m being asked to accept a premise I can’t quite believe. In this case, it’s that hitman Lars, who sometimes fucks up but never freezes up in the course of his wetwork no matter how existentially adrift he feels, freezes up inexplicably during a hit nearly two decades in the making. And that freeze-up is what throws him together with Shaine, the victim’s teen daughter. I’ve read the trilogy twice, and I can’t get past the idea that this is a plot contrivance that undermines Lars’s established character.
That said, these three novels are full of cheerfully zippy mayhem, with Lars and Shaine settling into a semi-familial mentor-apprentice relationship as they carve a complicated cross-country swath through the mob connections that mark Lars’s personal and professional history. The prose rides shotgun with the Tarantino-esque splattergasms to standout effect: “He tried to step around the larger pieces of gore and squishier spots on the carpet, the unknown fluid like some combination of stomach acid and skunk spray” and “She never imagined hope would smell like the inside of a corpse” are lines fairly representative of the three novels. (I could have done without the second-novel storyline of a crazed mobster who refuses to dispose of the bodies of his slain parents—ostensibly out of respect—as they bloat and putrefact, but at least it’s something I’ve never seen before.)
The other flaw, in my eyes, is the obvious reluctance to develop Shaine as a fully dimensional character. Every time Shaine seems ready to shake off the trauma of almost being killed, over and over, and take a step into living an age-appropriate life, Beetner bends her back into the pureé-intensity-level plot. I came away feeling like there was a lot more about Shaine I should have been able to get to know.
I’ve long felt Beetner, one of the great hard workers in small-press crime fiction, is deserving of the wider audience that a major publisher could bring his way. But I also feel the Devil trilogy, frothy fun that it is, is not his best calling card for making that case. He’s done better work—his Criminal Economics and his two Rumrunners novels, for instance—and he’ll do better work in the future.
When Dutch died in 2013, the internet was carpet-bombed with lists of “Ten Best Elmore Leonard Novels,” and Split Images turned up on very few of them. I get that; he wrote a lot of novels, and very few of them were subpar, and as with Edgar Award nominations each year, a lot of worthy work is going to get short shrift.
But Split Images, from 1982, merits reconsideration. It neatly balances Leonard’s two favorites locales—Detroit and Florida—in a light-on-its-feet tale of a rich man who’s discovered a taste for murder, the retired cop who signs on as his advance scout, and the current cop who figures out the scheme but isn’t sure how to put a stop to it.
And the best part isn’t even that—it’s the surprisingly uncynical love story that gives Split Images its heartbeat. Detroit police detective Bryan Hurd and freelance crime writer Angela Nolan really, really love one another, from the moment they set eyes on one another in a coutroom, and for once, Leonard neither winks or nudges at the reader as he allows those three magic words to be spoken.
The effect is quietly astonishing, and then we’re back in the funky, jivey, slouchy crime story, wondering as always in a Leonard novel who’s going to screw over who and who’s going to be standing at the end. And, of course, who’s going to be telling the weirdest little semi-non-sequitur stories while waiting with someone to do something, the way we often spend much of our lives but rarely see rendered in fiction. And we’re still a little happily stunned by these two smart, sweet, street people who are happily stunned to find that they found their forever person. Even if forever falls short of that.
Someday some smart someone is going to smartly reissue select Steve Brewer titles, Black Lizard-style. Though he’s not a high stylist or a stylish nihilist, Brewer, for more than two decades, has put out one or two crime novels a year, and they’re never anything less than well above average—tightly plotted, lightly dark, slyly funny, packed with characters you can’t help but care about despite their lack of conventionally sympathetic qualities. The man just never misses, and how many authors can you say that about?
Brewer’s latest, another set in his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, is a case in point. Though it ostensibly centers on the smuggling of bologna across the Mexican-American border (build that wall!), it’s really a character study in plotted clothing. Chief among the cast of memorables is Lucky Flanagan, a lifelong loser and competence-challenged criminal who takes on the sketchy smuggling job so he come up with the funds to finagle his way back into the hearts and home of his ex-wife and daughter. I also really liked Inez, a state meat inspector who misses nothing in her job and everything in her life, because she’s (possibly) on the autism spectrum.
There’s plenty of bad guys and satisfyingly high stakes, but this is at heart the story of semi-lovable misfits with semi-colliding agendas. What a shocker: Steve Brewer does it again.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by and reading Jim Thomsen’s first of many Shoulder Wounds.
Eric Beetner recently releasedThe Devil at Your Door, the third and final book of his Lars and Shaine books published by Down & Out Books. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be reviewing the entire series starting with the first installment.
The Devil Doesn’t Want Me is the fourth book I’ve read of Eric Beetner and I finally feel as if I’m getting into the meat of his work now. Not that I haven’t liked the previous book, no, I’m feeling like a Beetner veteran now.
In the first of the Lars and Shaine books Beetner keeps the action coming with Gatling speed but writing has the precision of a sniper’s bullet.
Lars emphasized his point by clicking off the safety on his gun. It rested in his hand, not aimed at Trent but ready to go. Trent’s 9-millimeter still napped against his thigh like a Chihuahua.
It’s like this all the way through: shit’s happening but the language and images are spot on.
With The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, Beetner takes us to the American Southwest where Lars, a hitman for the mob, has been hunting Mitch the Snitch for 17 years. The mob boss’ son is getting ready to make his move on his daddy’s empire, so he sends out a young whippersnapper by the name of Trent to find Mitch faster and then kill both Mitch and Lars. While Lars is methodical and principled – as principled as an assassin can be – Trent is everything but. A dozen plus years younger than Lars, Trent’s inferiority complex knows no bounds as he kills a random guy in a box store’s bathroom just to increase his own body count. When Trent and Lars finally catchup to Mitch everything goes pear-shaped and if you weren’t having fun yet – which I don’t believe – Beetner shifts The Devil Doesn’t Want Me into fifth gear.
Reading Beetner is like snorting rails of coke off of a stripper in a VIP room, lots of fun, but do you really want to do it every night? “Hell, yeah!” I say as I cannot wait to pick up the second book, The Devil Comes To Call. Word of advice, when you sit to to read this book, hell, any Beetner book, make sure you’re comfortable because you will most likely read it in one sitting.
Reading an Eric Beetner book is lots of fun in that they are original, dark, fun, and there are plenty of them to choose from. Beetner’s Criminal Economics (Down & Out Books), which is a reissue of sorts, tells the story of two bank robbers who escape their prison transport during the height of a hurricane hitting the shores. Slick, a big guy with an ugly mug, hates his partner, Bo, who ratted Slick out less than 24 hours after their successful bank robbery. The prisoners go their separate ways and Beetner’s Criminal Economics follows their journeys over the next 48 hours.
Their haul from the bank robbery was never recovered, so both Bo and Slick chase after the more than half-a-million dollars that is being watched over by Slick’s girlfriend, Emma. But bad news for the guys as Emma has decided to take the money and run. Also on the tail of Slick and Bo is Detective MacKaye, a good-looking cop hunting down fugitives and a bit of a horn dog.
Having read only three of Eric Beetner’s twenty-some-odd crime novels and even with this tiny sample, I can see a humor beneath the darkness. Beetner doesn’t write jokes, his humor lies with within the situation and his character’s subsequent actions. In the opening chapter of Rumrunners (Down & Out Books), an old man drinks a cup of coffee at a donut shop where everything is wrong from the donuts to the guy behind the counter. The first chapter of Rumrunners ends with the old man breaking the finger of the donut man and walking out with his cup of coffee. The fact that this reviewer finds this funny should tell the reader much.
A hardboiled novel, Beetner’s Criminal Economics seeps with blood and laughs. In one chapter, Slick holds up a diner and things get dark as shit real fast, but Beetner makes the reader chuckle before all hell breaks loose.
The walk back down the two-lane highway was so hurricane-wet Slick may as well have been swimming. He saw what he wanted. A diner with nothing else around it and only a few cars in the parking lot stood getting as soaked as he was. Red neon rimmed the top of the metal and glass building. Deep ruts in the gravel of the parking lot collected muddy water deep enough for a midget to take a bath.
Slick picked up his pace despite gaining a few pounds of mud on his boots as he neared the entrance. Shotgun in hand, still empty but he’d never tell, he kicked through the glass door, rattling dusty venetian blinds and cracking the glass as he did.
“Hands up motherfuckers! Now, which one’s got the best car?”
Originally published in a limited run of 100 back in 2013, Criminal Economics has finally come out for everyone to enjoy its craziness. As Slick and Bo search for their money and Emma tries to leave town with it, Beetner takes on this weird and bloody journey where no one is safe. After I finished this madhouse of a novel, I posted the following tweet. I could try and fail to throw more superlatives on Beetner’s Criminal Economics, but saying “It’s Beetnerific!” is all the praise it needs.
I listen to three podcasts on a weekly basis: Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste’s Two Crime Writers and a Microphone (review) and Greg Barth’s Noir on the Radio (review). The third podcast, Writer Types, is newer to the scene as is hosted by Eric Beetner and S.W. Lauden. While the first two podcasts might be more freewheeling, Beetner and Lauden have created a podcast that could best be described as high and tight.
Now that Writer Types has completed three episodes, we have a good idea of what Beetner and Lauden are trying to accomplish. If you are familiar with the other two podcasts I have mentioned — and you should be — Beetner and Lauden eschew the kitchen sink approach and edit Writer Types to deliver only the essential information.
Each episode of Writer Types is overflowing with crime fiction authors. The first episode had appearances from Megan Abbott, Lou Berney, Steph Post, Eric Campbell, SG Redling, Gary Phillips, and Jay Stringer. That same one episode includes reviews by Dan and Kate Malmon and a reading by Nick Kolakowski. That’s not one episode, that’s a minimum of seven episodes for any other podcast. And amazingly enough, each Writer Types episode is about 40 minutes long. Jesus, what’s wrong with these guys?
My biggest issue with Writer Types is that my TBR list grows exponentially after every listen. Seriously, guys, I have enough problems keeping up and Beetner and Lauden are not helping. Writer Types delivers a brisk and compact podcast that is an essential listen if you read today’s crime fiction.
There is something comforting about getting into the passenger seat of a hot rod driven by Calvin McGraw. You can hear the sound of the pistons; the car shakes and rattles, and the tires rumble over the roadway as corn fields whip on by. It’s like baseball and apple pie made into a book.
Eric Beetner’s latest novel, Leadfoot (Down & Out Books), is a prequel to his wonderful book of this summer, Rumrunners. Set in 1971, Calvin is a much younger man than the one we met in Rumrunners. While Calvin is torn between making runs for the Stanley family or making an honest living teaching stock car racers how to drive, he is showing his son, Webb, the ropes of the McGraw legacy and what it means to be an outlaw..
Like Rumrunners, Beetner masterfully takes us for a ride with Calvin as he tries to outrun the competition from Nebraska, the Cantrells. Beetner also makes us the passenger for the 19-year-old Webb’s first run, picking up a package in St. Louis – a package that happens to be a young woman that the boss Hugh Stanely wants back.
Calvin watched his son pull out of the driveway. He hadn’t told him of his own assignment. The boy didn’t need anything clouding his head on his first solo run. As Calvin watched the Mercury fade away he thought of all the things he didn’t tell his boy, like don’t fuck the girl. Women in the shotgun seat always came with a side of trouble. He also should have given him a lesson in how to talk— or not to say a goddamn word— to the men he was picking up the package from. Show up, drive the car, get the cargo and go. But shit, this was all stuff Calvin had been educating the boy in since the day he took to two wheels on a bicycle in the park.
Calvin watched with pride. His boy was a man today. He was a McGraw.
Beetner’s Leadfoot is filled with the darkness of dangerous drives that evoke the thrill of the road, much like Bruce Springsteen’s earlier music. Past the stylings and engines of American muscle cars, Beetner’s Leadfoot exposes a world of outlaw freedom and outlaw justice.
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.