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Best of 2018

All the regular caveats and such. You’ll notice several short story collections and two books from 2017 I finally caught up with. But first, the Book of the Year.

Book of the Year

The rest of the Best listed alphabetically.

grant jerkins

Here are some books from 2018 that are worthy of your money as well and, again, listed in no particular order: “Know Me From Smoke” by Matt Phillips, “Welcome to HolyHell” by Math Bird, “The Science of Paul” by Aaron Philip Clark, “Fast Bang Booze” by Lawrence Maddox, “Down the River Unto The Sea” by Walter Mosley, “Accidental Outlaws” by Matt Phillips, “May” by Marietta Miles, “Knuckledragger” by Rusty Barnes, and “Breaking Glass” by Alec Cizak.

Here’s my 2017 list if you’re interested.

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Books

Record Scratch by J.J. Hensley

After being more than delightfully surprised by “Bolt Action Remedy”, I was looking forward to reading “Record Scratch”, Hensley’s second Trevor Galloway book. And I came back from this endeavor equally pleased. If I was able to write a good quip, I might try something like, “Not since the Brill Building’s heyday, has someone written hit like this!” But, alas, I’m not.

Storytime. At Bouchercon, I stopped by a policing panel hoping for some insights into one of the problems in crime fiction and mysteries: unrealistic police procedurals. From cops tasting drugs on the scene to detectives warrantlessly entering a home, these types of egregious mistakes take me right out of the story and, well, hate on the book and the author. Imagine my dismay when writers said either, “I don’t know about policing, I make it all up” or “I don’t know about policing, I just read other fictional police procedurals”. Yup, so I got up and walked out of there.*

This is NOT a problem with a Hensley book. Hensley gets it right or seems to get it right enough for this mystery reader. Women in heels are not chasing suspects and good guys try opening the door before kicking it in. Hensley does two other things even better: he can tell a good story and he can write well. 

“Record Scratch” takes place a few months or so after the ending of “Bolt Action Remedy”. Galloway is hired by a woman to look into the death of her brother, a famous rock star, and thereby also retrieving a missing a one-off vinyl edition of his latest record. And with that, “Record Scratch” is off and running.

Galloway suffers from PTSD and has hallucinations caused by the PTSD. Since Hensley got the policing so right, as a reader, I’ll accept that Hensley has gotten the psychological makeup of this character right. “Record Scratch” is quite a bit more violent than “Bolt Action Remedy” and even when Hensley goes full Tarantino, I’m still there enjoying every word.

One of the things you see in badly written mysteries is the repetitive beat at the end of a chapter that hooks you into reading the next chapter. Hensley has nothing to do with that. But when he decides to end a chapter with a bang, he does it such that you have to put the book down and pause to collect yourself. Hensley writes in a quick literate style that makes these books fast and entertaining reads.

I  don’t think it’s necessary to read “Bolt Action Remedy” before reading “Record Scratch”, the reveals from the previous novel seem more subtle than in most series books, but I would recommend that you do read “Bolt Action Remedy” first. I think the series is that good; it’s worth your time. The Trevor Galloway series is not the standard police procedural, it’s more of an unlicensed PI procedural–is this even a thing?–, but if you’re a fan of police procedurals you’ll like both of these books. Hell, even you don’t like this genre, you should give these books a chance.

In re-reading this review, I noticed focused quite a bit about what police procedurals do wrong and what Hensley does right. I think this is important as I don’t believe I’m the only one who has soured on the police procedural genre. Hensley gives me hope that the police procedural is not dead. I know you’ve got a lot of choices out there on what to read, but I’ll give this endorsement: after reading the eARC, I bought the paperback. I liked it that much. You can’t go wrong reading Hensley, you really can’t.

Buy: Amazon


* Future Bouchercon organizers: There are enough ex-cops in attendance that you could have multiple panels on how to write accurate police procedurals.  Not only are these types of panels needed, I think they’d be a hit.

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Reading and Diversity

Reading & Diversity

Reading books about criminals, thugs, and lowlifes is an escape for me. Hell, reading books about people like me acting in complete desperation is even an escape, an odd one I will grant you that. I also enjoy reading books by authors that are different than me, an old white straight guy.  I try to search out for these authors, but given my choice of genre is dark crime fiction, the pickings are slim in the small press world.

So I branch out in the mystery genre to the more popular stuff like serial killer thrillers, cozies, psychological thrillers, police procedurals, and PI book. And when I read these, I am usually disappointed. Hell, I’m even more disappointed when I read these books published by the Big 5, look at my reviews of Meg GardinerCJ Tudor, and Steve Hamilton as proof. The way many of these books resuscitate old worn tropes I find tiring and lazy, but many readers do find pleasure in them.

Here’s my problem. If I don’t try are read books outside of what I like, the authors I review will skew 85% male and 15% female, 85% white and 15% writers of color. I know this because those were my stats from last year. Not only is that an issue for readers of this blog, but most importantly this is an issue for me as a reader. Reading over a large pool of writers gives me an opportunity to hear voices that I would not normally be acquainted with and I like that.

So I continue my search of books in the expanded mystery genre that includes many writers who I am unfamiliar with in hopes of finding something good, something I enjoy. And, boy, do I like finding them.

For example, the only reason I picked up Marietta Miles’s “Route 12” was that it was written by a woman and I’m more than happy I read it. “Route 12” has stuck with me these past two years like no other book and it is one I believe that should be in the canon of contemporary crime fiction. Seriously, it’s that good.

I’ve also been lucky a few more times in my search of the mystery genre with JJ Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy”,  Leye Adenle’s “Easy Motion Tourist”, Stephen Mack Jones’s “August Snow”, and Lilja Sigurdardóttir’s “Snare”.  Even with all the crap I have to sort through, these are the books and writers that make it worthwhile to read outside my comfort zone.


This post started as a review of Carol Wyer’s “The Birthday” (Bloodhound Books), but it changed drastically as I wrote. “The Birthday” wasn’t for me at all, but if you dig the typical police procedural that is out there today, this may be for you. Buy: Amazon


Thanks for stopping by Unlawful Acts and reading this article.

Reading & Diversity
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Books

Bolt Action Remedy by JJ Hensley

When I first picked up J.J. Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy” (Down & Out Books) it was going to be one of those courtesy things, give it a few pages, tell myself I tried, and then pat myself on the back for trying. I’m mean come on now, Hensley is an ex-law enforcement officer—yeah, I know, we all come with assorted prejudices—, how good could it be?

Throw into the mix that “Bolt Action Remedy” is a mystery/thriller about an ex-cop hired to look into a year-old homicide case. Two things “Bolt Action Remedy” has going against it for me: the thriller and police procedural formats. I find contemporary thrillers are usually badly written with the addition of massive plot holes. I’ve been let down so many times with thrillers that are not worth the pages they are printed on. One also has to not mind the plethora of coincidences in thrillers, for example, three high school friends, one who is a serial killer, another who served time for murder and the other a cop tasked with chasing the serial killer down. If you’re okay with this sort of thing, more power to you.

The whole ex-cop thing sent me warning signs too. Police procedurals are great if you enjoy fascism. Like to see a cop walk all over the rights of citizens, then police procedurals are your thing. My distaste for Michael Connelly books has grown over the last several years as Bosch repeatedly behaves as if he is above the law. It’s scary how Connelly’s readership is fine with that. (And don’t get me started on the ridiculous names he chose: Hieronymus Bosch, J. Edgar, and Irvin Irving. Is Stan Lee writing this stuff?)

Finishing, let alone liking, Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy” had much stacked against it, but I thought I’d give it a shot and, after a few pages, I would shelve it basically untouched. Turned out I was wrong, very wrong.

The most notable thing about “Bolt Action Remedy” is that Hensley can write. Hensley shows that an author who writes with care is smart enough to bypass the pitfalls of plot holes, outrageous coincidences, and unbelievable plot twists. Is this not thriller heresy?!

Hensley isn’t Nabakov or Morrison nor is he pretending to be, but building believable characters and interactions among them is a skill set that should not be ignored. His characters behaved and talked like normal people. Hensley also had me laughing out loud on several occasions.

A part of “Bolt Action Remedy” focuses on the biathlon and Hensley is able to give us the required information without burdening us with long, boring info dumps. One of the ways he does this is by breaking up his fact delivery into multiple segments whether it’s the protagonist Trevor Galloway reading about it on the web, a conversation with biathletes, and watching a race or two.

An issue that follows Galloway, a former Pittsburg narcotics detective, is his periodic hallucinations brought on by a recent heroin addiction. Hensley treats these scenes with care and gets the reader into the angst that Galloway faces as he continues his battle in recovery.

It was also quite refreshing to see cops and ex-cops treat their work as an actual 9 to 5 job. There was some obsession, but not the up-all-hours-skulking-the-dark-streets kind of obsession. A police scene that stood out was when Galloway and the local police chief (it was a small township) searched a hotel room. It felt true and, damn, if I didn’t learn something. More refreshing was reading about cops who respected people’s—yes, even suspect’s—constitutional rights. Shocking! There were also no old girlfriends, best friends or mentors of Galloway in the group of suspects he was looking at. Let that sink in a bit. No coincidences with the suspect pool. Is that even possible?

J.J. Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy” was a fantastic thriller rooted in a reality that stretched to the dark border of crime and murder. If like me you tire of the latest thrillers that get all the tweets and love leaving you only to walk away in disappointment, Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy” is a thriller you will enjoy. Guaranteed.

Hensley has a new Trevor Galloway book, “Record Scratch”, coming out in late October on Down & Out Books.

Buy: Amazon