Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips

At the end of last year, I finished reading Matt Phillips’s back catalog with “Redbone” and “Bad Luck City”. The reason being was that I had read “Three Kinds of Fools” in 2016 and I knew Phillips had a book coming out in December 2017 called “Accidental Outlaws” which I needed to get to. This should tell you that I’m either a glutton for punishment or I enjoy Phillips’s books. It’s the latter. So I was excited when I found out Phillips had a book come out in August 2018, “Know Me From Smoke” (Fahrenheit 13).

It took me a bit to get into this book as it did the alternating chapters between the two main characters thing, but the book didn’t dwell in that repetition for long. The two main characters of “Know Me From Smoke” are Stella Radney, a lounge singer with a bullet in her hip from a robbery gone bad that killed her husband some 20 years ago, and Royal Atkins, an ex-con just released from prison back home to San Diego. 

But the further I read into Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” and saw how good it was, the more I realized that the two books I had recently finished had put me in a reading funk. I blame George Pelecanos’s “The Man Who Came Uptown” for that. What I needed was a palate cleanser before I picked up “Know Me From Smoke”, but Phillips is a good enough writer that he pulled me through my reading distress to the malaise the gripped Stella and Royal. I love malaise in my reading.

Phillips sets us in modern-day San Diego, but it could have easily been unearthed from a 1940s manuscript, not because it’s littered with noirish metaphors and similes, rather Phillips creates a mood that drips with the shadows of meaningless and crime.

I don’t want to go deep into the story but one of the themes of the story is that of being caught in the cages of society. Royal comes early to this line of thinking.

Royal sat there on the bed, his feet tired from walking and his eyes adjust to the soft glow of evening light through the windows, the way it stacked up in some places and left shadows in others. Here I am, Royal thought, I went from one prison to another. One looks better than the other, but it’s still like I have chains around my ankles. And those steel bracelets around my wrists. 

He reclined into the bed and closed his eyes.

Stella, however, is in a cage of her own making. Though as tragic as it is that her husband was murdered, she let’s this one moment define her entire existence. The sorrow and pain feed her soul like alcohol and food replenish her body. And then there’s Phoenix, an ex-con living in the half-way house with Royal, who is creating his own cage of crimes to encircle Royal.

Matt Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” is Noir AF. I thought Phillips’s “Accidental Outlaws” was something, but “Know Me From Smoke” is something else. If you are looking for modern day noir, look no further than this book with its atmosphere of loneliness and constant struggle. I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel good after reading “Know Me From Smoke”, but I know you’ll feel good that you read it.

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Crack, Apple & Pop by Saira Viola

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy when it comes to reading. When I open up a book, I want to like it, maybe even love it. I hope a new book will enthrall me, but, if not, as long as it’s good, I’m good. I had read Saira Viola’s previous release on Fahrenheit Press, “Jukebox”, and though I wasn’t the biggest fan, I knew from “Jukebox” that Viola had the skills to put out a good book. Sadly, “Crack, Apple & Pop” was not that book.

Viola’s new release opens with Tony (T) getting the crap beat out of him by some skinheads in London. He’s rushed to a hospital which happens to be where his mother is a nurse. She breaks down wailing, stays with him and vows that “he would never be a victim again.”

On arrival at St. George’s hospital, he had already been resuscitated three times. Lying on the gurney, an oxygen mask by his side, his mother, Elizabeth, an A & E nurse, stopped by to make a routine check on new admissions. As she peered closer her face shrunk with fear.

I felt it all a little too melodramatic being resuscitated three times and his mother, a qualified nurse, just abandoning her training. But at this point it’s only Chapter One, so I move on. Chapter Two begins win T getting boxing lessons and ends with him on his way to being a contender for a boxing title. A bit preposterous.

T was beaming. He felt good. He wasn’t a try-hard any longer, he was a contender.

Every day it was the same routine. Up at five with a three-mile jog to the gym and a six-hour training session. He would fuel his body with whole grains, yams and beans overdosing on chicken and tuna, eggs and steak. A protein shake during exercise bouts added to the general gash-and-mend body regime he had adopted. He would eat six small meals a day and run solid, a deluxe build up for the Southern Counties Heavyweight Tournament. In the shadows of Ali, Tyson and Lewis, T was on his way to championship glory.

So I’m thinking these two chapters which were laden with clichés and background information should not have been included in the book, but there they were. Forever the optimist, I hoped the book would pick up.

Chapter Three: T goes into a boxing match and his career ends quicker than it started and that’s saying a lot. Chapter Four: T is recruited by a gangster who tells him his entire criminal enterprise as if the police never listen in on conversations. And then by my last chapter of reading, Chapter Six, Tony becomes a rousing success at drug dealing.

The coke profits paid for more than his rent, sundries and upwardly mobile lifestyle – they paid for social acceptance and a plausible identity. From now on T was no longer a boxing dead-beat, he was an entrepreneur, a record producer, a promotions dealer, and low-level investor. He had a prime appetite for success and the Einstein precocity in Bernie was particularly impressive.

Could Viola’s “Crack, Apple & Pop” have gotten better after I put it down? Possibly. However, I’m good with my decision.

Buy: Amazon


The TV Detective by Simon Hall

Simon Hall’s The TV Detective opens with us meeting Dan Groves, an environmental TV reporter, roughly pushed into being the station’s crime reporter as there is a slasher killing prostitutes and no one to cover it. Then a powerful local businessman is shot dead by a shotgun blast to the heart, off the page of course, and that’s when The TV Detective kicks off. Groves finagles his way to shadow the team investigating the death of Edward Bray, hated in the region more than Henry F. Potter of Bedford Falls. Bray is so hated even his father has stopped talking to him. As the suspects are identified, Groves starts driving for Detective Inspector Adam Breen as he’s learning the ins and outs of detective work.

The TV Detective drips with Englishness as this is a classic who-done-it with the requisite number of red herrings. There were a couple of little hiccups throughout like Breen sampling a white powder substance but given the intended audience of The TV Detective, it will be passed over.

What made The TV Detective work for me was that it was well-written and didn’t slow down too often, though one description of how to put a TV story together would have been enough. Sometimes I forget why they’re called cozies and reading Simon Hall’s The TV Detective was a good reminder as I felt at ease throughout and was never taken out of my comfort zone. Reading The TV Detective was like eating a meal at your favorite restaurant, in a few weeks you might not remember what you ate, but you knew it was quite pleasant. Sometimes that’s all we need and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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This review is part of a blog blitz for Simon Hall’s The TV Detective organized by Emma Welton of and the publisher Fahrenheit Press. Other bloggers participated as well and the graphic below can point you to other reviews of Hall’s book as well as interviews and such.



Speed of Life by James Pate

Speed of Life by James PateIn the back of the van were two men, both naked except for their underwear and the burlap bags over their heads and the handcuffs on their wrists. Liz drove the van south through a night so black and dense only the stretch of space in front of the headlights was visible.

James Pate’s Speed of Life is a lot of things. With its downscale Memphis and New York settings, and a villain fond of cheerfully—and literally—crucifying her victims, it’s often boiled harder than Gulf shrimp. With its amateur detectives—dropout rock star Oscar and his cousin Juanita—it’s a private-eye procedural with a whiff of the cozy mystery. Given that it’s set in the late 1970s, it’s a period piece. And, without giving anything away, it crosses occasionally into the realm of the paranormal.

Most of all, it’s a calmly confident, sturdily crafted work of crime fiction. Speed of Life is just as distinguished by what you won’t find it as what you will. You won’t find any try-too-hard prose. You won’t find any over-the-top action sequences. You won’t find much testosterone splatter or Tarantino-type dialogue.

You’ll just find a good story stitched together in an original way from familiar parts.

It’s 1978, and Oscar, whose hit-making days as the singer and songwriter of two Memphis bands are behind him even though he’s not even thirty, learns that his former bandmate Tommy, the McCartney to his Lennon, has died of an apparent heroin overdose. Oscar’s Uncle Frank puts Tommy’s time and place in perspective:

“You know, it’s getting harder not to run with a bad crowd these days. It’s like the spine of the country got broken and we’re all running around trying to find our little cubbyholes before the whole goddamn thing stops breathing.” He took another sip of his beer. “Everyone has a gun these days. Everyone is aiming at each other.”

Oscar insists on tracing the path of Tommy’s descent after the two bitterly fell out over the usual artistic differences that break up most bands. His poking about starts from a spasm of guilt over having gotten hold of his drug problem and not being there to help Tommy through his. But when he discovers that the drug dealers Tommy was involved with have been stretch the boundaries of their schemes into political blackmail, Oscar and Juanita realizes that what started as a grief purge is becoming a murder probe—for which they’re ridiculously underqualified:

She eyed them skeptically. “If you two are playing detective, shouldn’t you all be writing this down? Isn’t that what they do in the movies?”
Oscar looked at Juanita. He mouthed, “I don’t have anything to write with.”

Juanita went through her purse. She took out a memo pad. She dug around further into her purse.

“All right, I guess I’ll help you out,” Grace said. There was a mason jar of pens and pencils setting next to the coffeemaker. She took a pen, she handed it to Juanita.

Their ham-handed questioning brings them in their sights of Liz, a cheerfully fat, sociopathic middle manager in the Memphis crime world who likes to break the will of her competitors by nailing their hands and arms to planks in the deep woods of Choctaw County, Mississippi. She has a soft spot for Oscar because she’s a fan of his music, but when it becomes clear that Oscar won’t give up in his search for Tommy’s killer, business comes first, and leads to a bloody showdown in New York’s Chelsea Hotel.

James Pate’s previous work is unknown to me, but I note that he’s an English professor with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and Speed of Life appears to be untainted by that experience—there’s no fussy, Richard Ford, no-hair-out-of-place prose here. Speed of Life feels like it could have been written by a talented autodidact who’s lived on his belly and emerged with his mind intact. For the most part the storytelling is straightforward as the prose craft, and once in a while a serendipitous bit of Southern elegance emerges:

“In my day we courted by taking river boats along the Mississippi,” Frank said, stirring his drink with a fork. “We would wear straw hats and someone on board always knew how to play the accordion. It would be hot as blazes but the ice in our drinks never melted.”

In short, there’s something to please every crime-fiction lover here. While Speed of Life deals with dark themes, it treads through them on cat’s feet, wearing its weighty burdens lightly. That’s tougher to do that it seems.

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All Things Violent by Nikki Dolson

Originally Nikki Dolson’s All Things Violent had a release date of May by 280 Steps but then the publisher suddenly shut down in March. Luckily, the book and writer managed to rise from the ashes and found a home in the burgeoning Fahrenheit Press. Who knows how many books have been lost by the 280 Steps debacle but it is nice to see several books like Dolson’s All Things Violent, Eric Beetner’s Rumrunners and Leadfoot, and Mark Rapacz’ Boondoggle getting published.

Dolson’s All Things Violent is the story of Laura, a twenty-something-year-old woman who is just starting her career as a hired assassin. She is also in love with her boss, Simon, a career-minded narcissist running a private investigation firm in Las Vegas. Training Laura is another one of Simon’s specialized assassins, Frank, whose training methods and criticisms are harsh and, at times, life-saving. But it’s the distinct point of view of a young black woman in an overwhelmingly white man’s game that keeps the reader’s interest engaged. In the opening scene of All Things Violent, the perfume of their target is what engages Laura, not something a male character might latch on to.

Evelyn Bright was gone. Only the faint scent of vanilla remained to prove she’d been there at all. I smelled it before when I searched her house. The scent clung to her clothes, lingering in the master bedroom and bathroom, fainter in the other rooms. I smelled vanilla again when Frank and I caught up with her husband and his mistress. In the car they were driving, it was slowly overwhelmed by the mistress’s own flowery scent— a mixture of hairspray and cheap perfume.

All Things Violent is a good character study of how a young woman deals with the savagery of her chosen cut-throat trade. Told through the first person of Laura, I found All Things Violent enjoyable except for the one jarring chapter towards the end of the book which switches into the third-person omnipresent point-of-view. I realize there was some information that the reader needed to know but there probably was a less distracting way to do so. (But then again this might be an inside baseball complaint.) Dolson reveals to us Laura’s history and motivation during her various assignments. Throughout All Things Violent, Dolson shows she has the writing chops and some great story-telling talent. Not only did I enjoy All Things Violent, I am looking forward to reading her next book.

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Jukebox by Saira Viola

Saria Viola’s Jukebox (Fahrenheit Press) assaults the reader in the first sentence, ” ‘‘Screw you, you fucking Jew!’ ” Make it past this — you can do this, I have the utmost confidence in you — and you’ll be rewarded with a kaleidoscope of criminals and artists existing on the fringes of London.

Jukebox is ostensibly about Nick Stringer, a trainee solicitor, who, along with his big-time law firm, get hired by his mobster uncle, Mel Greenberg. Stringer has dreams of being a rock ‘n’ roll god, but lawyering keeps hounding him. Greenberg loves the con, long or short, he doesn’t care. And if you get in his way, he has people for that.

These two are not the only colorful characters in Jukebox, Viola created some wondrous ones. There’s Matt, Nick’s friend and guitarist, “strumming his days away on a toxic blend of Facebook fiction and bottles of Jack.” Or the eclectic Buddha Christ Mohammad, though he is better known as BCM. Matt first witnessed BCM at the scene of an accident.

BCM and the bleeding boy remained unaffected, as if cocooned from the chaos. BCM reached into his bag, removed a stick of sage and calmly asked a bystander to light it and hold it for him. He slowly took the child’s hurt leg with his left hand as he used his right to cover his own eyes, tilting his head to the skies. You could see the agony on the child’s face. Then, all at once, BCM cried out, ‘Shem de la Shem de le shog!’ Matt had watched as a gentle equilibrium coddled the boy. With a white cloth from his satchel, BCM had stopped all the bleeding before the medics had arrived, and beyond all reason the suffering child lay in the street exuding a rosy peace. BCM leaned in close saying something to the child that made him laugh. There, in the middle of a crash scene, surrounded by raised voices and emergency sirens, BCM had somehow managed to erase the child’s pain and shelter him from darkness. Then he picked the child up, carried him to the pavement and sat by his side until the ambulance finally arrived. The child was saved.

Is it possible to con a violent con man? Stringer thinks so. The young lawyer’s girl happens to be a reporter investigating Greenberg and using his Achilles heel: Greenberg’s love for a transvestite showgirl. There are many fantastic characters and an equal amount of coincidences that drive the plot in Viola’s Jukebox. But this is where I probably diverge from many readers as I prefer a simpler book with fewer characters, so if Jukebox sounds like it is something you might be interested in, don’t let my reservations hold you back.

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Boondoggle by Marc Rapacz

When I first started reading Mark Rapacz’ Boondoggle (Fahrenheit Press), I did not have a good feeling. I did not want this book to go all cliché on me — if I wanted something like that I’d watch an Angelina Jolie movie. But it didn’t take Rapacz to show me that wasn’t going to happen. Note: I should have a little more trust in the publisher 280 Steps.

Mack, the main character, has joined a company that kills mosquitos in Minnesota. He is an aimless twenty-something, grieving over his father’s sudden death and he lives with his mother who has been stuck in housecoat shock for months since the death of her husband. Rapacz opens Mack’s inner dialogues to the reader as we learn of his anxiety about . . . well, everything.

He was always reminded of that when he and his parents went southside to visit his uncles on his mother’s side. He couldn’t even keep up with those men. They all had blue-collar jobs, spoke blue-collar ways, and hand opinions about sports, politics, and women. Mack didn’t have opinions about any of that. He knew his uncles thought he was soft, thought he was too rich, living in that rich neighborhood, with a dad who had a rich job and friendly face and who seemed to get along with everybody.

It was all weakness to them. The only thing that protected Mack from his uncles was his mom and his aunts. They all adored him. He was their Little Mack. Sweet and quiet and when he was young, the cutest kid in the room. He grew up, sort of. Got to be about an inch taller than his aunts, which seemed manly enough. His uncles were all six-foot something. His dad was also six-foot something. Mack didn’t know how he missed out on that.

Boondoggle focuses on a few mosquito-killing teams who bust “their ass so folks could comfortably roast pig parts.” But then they discover a body of a young woman in the swamps off the interstate — it’s not the first and it won’t be the last. Even though they helped the police, they knew there was something amiss, they knew they were in deep shit. As one co-worker said, “It’s the forbidden triangle of the corrupt. Mob. Government. Corporation. And we’re the pawns. Don’t you see it? We’re the henchman.”

Boondoggle could have gone down the road of a New York Times Best Seller, but it did not. It was better than that. Rapacz has written a wonderful character study of a man who has difficulties in connecting with society though he continually tries to do so.


Sparkle Shot by Lina Chern

Waiting at a diner for a friend to join you for breakfast is a common enough experience for many of us. But when your friend is just getting off of work from the strip club across the street, yeah, that’s a bit different.

Lina Chern’s Sparkle Shot (Fahrenheit Press) is a great slice of life crime fiction that tells the story of Karma, the stripper, and Mara, her post-graduate friend, as they try to get a hold of a confusing situation involving a hooker, an aging strip club owner, an Eastern European pimp dreaming of being an Old West gunslinger, and an attractive drug dealer who hangs out by the back door at the strip club. Seriously, what other reasons do you need to read this book?

Chern has a knack for writing some wonderful dialogue between characters giving the novel a dose of reality. Her use of flashbacks during the few hours of the story is always well done.

The first girl Rusty sold was to a tubby VP of Business Development who reeked of BO and pretended to confuse the US state of Georgia with Alavidze’s homeland. He milked the joke all night and Rusty laughed every single time. He charged the man three times the going rate, telling him he could settle for some snaggle-toothed slut, or he could have a sweet young virgin, fresh as a Caucasus mountain flower. He told the man to wait in his hotel room while Rusty went home, woke his sister Nadya, told her to put on the black dress Aunt Zina had sewn for her for New Year’s Day, and come to a job interview.

I am looking forward to reading more from Chern as well as from the publisher Fahrenheit Press.

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