Incident Report

Incident Report No. 87

Photograph by Dacian Dorca (CC BY)

The Incident Report No. 87 features highlights from the Small Crimes posts I run almost every day. If you don’t have the time to read the daily missives then this might just be for you.

Several months ago, Chris Rhatigan, publisher of All Due Respect Books, asked if I’d like to help out his plan on resurrecting the All Due Respect zine. The idea was simple: we would publish hard-as-nails crime fiction with a touch of drinking money sent to the writers. I was already used to reading a slush pile. Years ago I use to read the slush pile for a literary magazine in Boston but reading so many stories again was definitely eye-opening with what makes or breaks a short story.

Luckily for y’all, over at Do Some Damage, Rhatigan lays down some guidelines that could be followed when writing short stories.

You don’t need a twist to construct a good short story. In fact, one of the most common mistakes I see is writers constructing stories that are built around a twist. In other words, the first three-quarters of the story seems to express, “wait for it, wait for it, the twist is coming!” Every part of a story should be engaging—not just the end. A related problem is that twists are so common that the law of diminishing returns kicks in. I would imagine most readers have seen plenty of twist endings. 

Simple plots that are handled with expert care and focus on a natural progression of events tend to make stronger stories.

Throughout Rhatigan’s “One Approach To Writing Short Stories”, he also recommends some great examples by Tom Pitts, Paul D. Brazill, and Stephen D. Rogers.

Over at LitReactor, Max Booth III wrote about trigger warnings in horror fiction and, not surprisingly, there’s a lot of carryover to the crime fiction genre.

Imagine the following scenario: You are lounging on the couch wanting nothing more than to chill out with a cool-ass horror book. You are enjoying everything going on in the story until—whoa wait what the absolute fuck suddenly—you’ve come across a random rape scene, and now instead of having a good time you are reliving a past traumatic experience from your own life. Your entire goddamn day is ruined. Replace “rape” with “suicide” and it’s the same outcome. All you can think about now is a lost loved one who took their own life or perhaps the long struggle you faced overcoming personal suicidal ideations. Or, to continue with one more example, imagine reading a book where a young child dies in a gruesome manner soon after losing your own child. No way are you in any mental state to possibly continue reading. Shit like that is very likely to wreck you.

I feel I’m giving this essay short shrift, but it’s quality especially given Booth’s wearing of multiple hats in the horror genre: writer, editor, publisher, reviewer, and fan.

The fifth book of Dana King’s Penns River series, “Pushing Water” (Down & Out Books), recently came out, and King has been busy. There’s his Do Some Damage article about writing police procedurals which is quite informative.

It bothers me that so many people think what they “learn” in cop and courtroom novels and shows are how things really are. It creates unhealthy ideas of how law enforcement works, or doesn’t. To feel one has to choose between realism and entertainment is a door to lazy writing. There’s no reason the story can’t be both.

Then King’s off to be interviewed by Dietrich Kalteis at Off the Cuff.

I read cop memoirs to get an idea of how they think. I still leaf through Connie Fletcher’s books of cops’ stories. Adam Plantinga’s books 400 Things Cops Know and Police Craft are wonderful resources. Ask some cops how cases get solved and they’ll tell you it’s usually because someone talks.

But wait there’s more!

King interviewed Tom Pitts on the eve of his upcoming release Cold Water (Down & Out Books). Pitts talked about his new book.

I think the Everyman facing insurmountable odds is a powerful theme, and very relatable. I wanted to write something akin to Joe Lansdale’s Hot in December or Cold in July, but my own version. And in Northern California. And I wanted it to play out in a few locations, not just San Francisco. I think the suburban sprawl is under-represented in fiction. Gentrification has made the big cities so banal. Where’s the hunger, where’s the struggle, where’s the passion? In the burbs, baby.

Other Articles

Adam Scovell on reading crime fiction during the pandemic (3:AM Magazine)

Alex George on letting it all burn, “Why Do Some Writers Burn Their Work” (Lit Hub)

“The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor” by Chantel Hamilton (Jane Friedman)

“Author Spotlight: Andrew Davie” by Scott Cumming (Eight Million Books to Read)

Rachel Howzell Hall and Alex Segura discussed crime fiction (Writer’s Digest)

“The Origins of Scandinavian Noir” by Wendy Lesser (The Paris Review)

Book Reviews

“This Letter to Norman Court” by Pabo D’Stair (All Due Respect Books) (Col’s Criminal Library)

“Love is a Grift” by Graham Wynd (Fox Spirit Books) (Sonia Kilvington)

“We Need To Do Something” by Max Booth III (Perpetual Motion Machine) (Dead End Follies)

“Dead Man’s Mistress” by David Housewright (Minotaur) (Kevin’s Corner)

“Blacktop Wasteland” by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron) (So Much To Talk About)

“Sordid: Five Crime Stories” by Harry Hunsicker (Kevin’s Corner)

“Broken Dreams” by Nick Quantrill (Fahrenheit Press) (Ian Ayris)

“The Waiting Rooms” by Eve Smith (Orenda Books) (Crime Fiction Lover)

“Rock and a Hard Place Issue #2” (Eight Million Books to Read)

Featured Books

“Shotgun Honey Presents Volume 4: Recoil” edited by Ron Earl Phillips (Shotgun Honey)

“Throwing Off Sparks” by Michael Pool (PI Tales)

“The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men” by Tom Leins (All Due Respect Books)

“We Need To Do Something” by Max Booth III (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing)

“Nightmare Asylum and other Deadly Delights” by Sonia Kilvington (Close to the Bone)

“The Brooklyn Trilogy” by Robert J. Randisi (Down & Out Books)

Thanks for stopping by to read Incident Report No. 87. If you’d like to read more posts like this, please click here.


Delinquents, Reading, and Finding Bodies

Throwing Off Sparks by Michael Pool  | Delinquents, Reading, and Finding Bodies

“Delinquents, Reading, and Finding Bodies” features Rachel Howzell Hall, Alex Segura, the problem with reading in a pandemic, book reviews, and much more.

Conversation: Rachel Howzell Hall and Alex Segura discussed crime fiction (Writer’s Digest)

Article: A neuroscientist on why it may be difficult for you to read (Vox)

Short Story: “A World Full of Strangers” by Stephen J. Golds (Bristol Noir)

Book Review: “Love is a Grift” by Graham Wynd (Fox Spirit Books) (Sonia Kilvington)

Book Review: “We Need To Do Something” by Max Booth III (Perpetual Motion Machine) (Dead End Follies)

Book Review: “Dead Man’s Mistress” by David Housewright (Minotaur) (Kevin’s Corner)

Book Review: “Blacktop Wasteland” by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron) (So Much To Talk About)

Film: K.A. Laity watched “The Party’s Over”, directed by Guy Hamilton (Punk Noir)

Photographs: Dave Jordano (Fragments of Noir)

Book: “Throwing Off Sparks” by Michael Pool (PI Tales)

Thanks for stopping by Unlawful Acts and reading “Delinquents, Reading, and Finding Bodies.: For more Small Crimes, click here.


Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall

Another police procedural that I dug? Have I descended into an alternative universe? Rachel Howzell Hall’s 2014 “Land of Shadows” is a police procedural but there’s Howzell’s voice that makes it different than anything I’ve read. Told mainly through first-person, the protagonist Elouise “Lou” Norton, a thirty-something detective who grew up and works in the Jungle in South Los Angeles, is part of what makes “Land of Shadows” succeed.

I picked up Howzell Hall’s “Land of Shadows” for two reasons. First, Jim Thompson recommended it highly in one of his Shoulder Wounds columns and regardless of what some people think blog reviews do matter. The second was that as an old white guy, it is quite easy for me to be set in my ways, read what I find comfortable, you know other white guys. Once again, regardless of what some may think, reading outside one’s sphere to get a different perspective is important and sometimes even fun. And Howzell Hall’s “Land of Shadows” was an entertaining read.

As far as police procedurals go, “Land of Shadows” has its fair share of tropes: for instance, there’s the missing or dead relative trope. But there’s something different this time around. Norton’s sister has been missing since the 80s,  presumed dead, and Norton knows her sister’s case inside and out. Heck, Norton’s missing sister may even be the reason she became a cop. Unlike the typical missing child trope, missing children are actually a bigger problem in the African American community than the white community. As Roxanne Jones writes in a CNN essay, “about 35% of missing children are black, and another 20% are Latino”. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how a trope is not a trope.

What makes Howzell Hall’s “Land of Shadows” work is the voice of Norton, a smart young black woman filled with her own doubts and skilled in her chosen field. Today the police procedural is a cookie-cutter genre which is probably that’s why so many enjoy it and why I have such a problem with it. What I need and what I think all readers deserve is a hook or viewpoint that twists the genre around, makes it something new. The first book in Rachel Howzell Hall’s “Land of Shadows” does this and grabbed me such that I plan on reading the rest of the Detective Elouise Norton series.

Buy: Amazon

& 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 #4

There’s few stories more American and appealing than the myth of exceptionalism — the tale of a person who believes they are uniquely and solely qualified to take on a high-stakes challenge. (Recall that Donald Trump soared to presidential victory on the strength of his conviction that “I alone” can “make America great again.”)

What makes such stories work takes something exceptional as well — namely, the author’s ability to let their characters tell their story, and not give into the temptation to intrude and clear the way on their behalf by constantly telling us in narrative how good and wondrous and virtuous and strong and noble the POV characters are. (And what POV characters are not.)

In my reading experience, not many crime-fiction authors are able or willing to get out of the way of their point-of-view characters, choosing instead to color the narrative with bits of background detail meant to tilt the reader’s sympathies (a huge problem in cozies, especially, where ugly people are bad and pretty people are good). Smart authors let characters develop sympathy on their own, based on their words and actions, and let readers decide for themselves if that sympathy is earned rather than forced upon them.

Mindy Mejia is such a smart author. And Maya Stark, the antiheroic heroine of Mejia’s second novel, LEAVE NO TRACE, is such a character, and a convincing one. Because of her damaged background, which includes a long-missing mother and a murder (of sorts), Maya — a teenage mental patient who graduated to speech therapist at the same hospital in which she was confined — believes that she alone can unlock the mystery of current mental patient Lucas Blackthorn.

Lucas, who may or may not have murdered someone, was captured after spending a decade in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Area with his survivalist father — who’s missing, and, according to Lucas, is sick and in danger of dying as winter closes in. And, speaking of exceptionalism, he’s convinced he’s the only one who can find his father.

Maya, whose geologist mother was least seen in the same area at about the time Lucas and his father disappeared, is an unreliable narrator. What makes this work — and not just as a gimmick to jerk around the reader with intrusive twistiness, a device that seems to be in vogue right now — is Maya’s awareness of her own unreliability. She knows she’s a hot mess, and is probably not deserving of the trust that’s been placed in her by her doctor-mentor.

While she’s doesn’t fully own up to her attraction to Lucas, just four years younger, she is able to go as far as admitting her attraction to his dark side, and to all dark sides, as she plots to “kidnap” Lucas from the hospital — flushing her future in the process — and help him find his father. “The truth is,” Maya says, “I’m not comfortable unless something’s on fire or someone’s having a meltdown. I don’t know what to do with things that aren’t broken.”

Mejia is the author of EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, one of my favorite thrillers of 2017. Like LEAVE NO TRACE, that novel took the best aspects of high-stakes psychological suspense, usually found in slick, sleek urban settings, and transported them to appealing rural Midwest locales that are less aspirational but more relatable for most of us. LEAVE NO TRACE is more of a pure flyover-country story, where open space can be just as menacing as secure walls.

Not to be overlooked is Mejia’s standout instinct for characterization, for creating characters that are more relatable than likable. As a result, I found myself thoroughly infuriated by the end of LEAVE NO TRACE — and thoroughly satisfied. That means my emotions were as fully engaged as my intellect all the way through, and I can think of no higher praise for a novel.

A cool, cold heart beats slowly and steadily through the heat and heart of the night in Ronald Colby’s NIGHT DRIVER. This dark tone poem to 1970s Los Angeles is full of hustlers and whores and drugs and cigarettes and cauterized pain. And the kind of leering, thumping music that can—and often does—drive men on the make to murder.

In NIGHT DRIVER, it’s 1976, and once darkness falls, Nick Cullen prowls the freeways and streets of LA from behind the wheel of his taxi cab. He picks up despondent people and druggies and disco habitues and dark passengers with dead eyes. But his real work is trying to get a line, however thin and frayed, on the three men who murdered his wife and baby in a home-invasion robbery that turned into a horror movie.

Night after night, Nick smokes, drinks, takes drugs, takes propositions, deals with death dealers and his own demons, driving, driving, driving under blue lights and buzzing neon signs. He stops only for a few hours of fitful sleep and to get in the face of the police detective who shares his frustrations but isn’t willing to go as far as Nick is to find the killers.

The killers themselves? They don’t even think about it. They’ve moved on, to other towns, other scores, other hustles. But LA always pulls them back. That’s their salvation, or so they think. All it takes is one break. One tiny break. And when it comes, everybody involved senses that their world is going to break wide open.

It’s no wonder that Colby first tried to make it in film before shifting to fiction, as NIGHT DRIVER is shot through with cinematic sensibilities. Imagine TAXI DRIVER meets NIGHT MOVES meets AMERICAN GIGOLO meets THE DRIVER meets THIEF, a story full of sinister shadows and searing heat and smoke curling around sweaty bodies. Sweaty from sex, from guilt, from insensate need. Imagine if Paul Schrader and Michael Mann and Monte Hellman and Charles Bukowski had collaborated on a coherent, cold-as-switchblade-steel, super-cool screenplay. Then you’d get the dark, pulsing vein of NIGHT DRIVER.

Michael Pool

I was not an admirer of Michael Pool’s novella DEBT CRUSHER, primarily for one reason: nearly nonexistent characterization. The antihero had no interests, no opinions, no past, no personality quirks, and seemed almost chemically leached of color. He was nobody to which a reader could form any kind of emotional attachment.

I’m pleased to say that characterization is a particular strength of Pool’s first novel, TEXAS TWO-STEP, which is flat-out terrific — a frothy, finely plotted blend of heart and hardboiled fuckstickery.

Cooper and Davis are a couple of Colorado-by-way-of-Texas hippies pushing thirty, and pushing up against the limits of growing and selling stellar but illegal weed in the legal-cannabis era. When Cooper’s girlfriend turns up pregnant, he promises her he’ll cash out of the life and go legit after he gets rid of his current supply.

The only buyer they can find, however, is a coked-up Texas cowboy named Sancho, who partners up with Bobby Burnell, a Heisman Trophy winner turned drugged-out burnout and bottom-feeding crew member of a murderous crime family. But Sancho is in the crosshairs of a vengeful Texas state senator who is using Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick as his one-man army against the dealer who sold his grandson a lethal dose.

Throw all of then in a blender, hit a random button, and watch the wackiness splatter the walls.

While the plotting has the crisp pearl-button-snap of plausible perfection, it’s the rich character notes that really lift TEXAS TWO-STEP above the merely pretty good. Cooper and Davis care about each other, and care about being better than they are. Sancho has no real menace in him, and Bobby doesn’t want to see anyone hurt either (except maybe his rageaholic crime-boss uncle). Kirkpatrick’s heart is elsewhere as well. All he wants at first is a Caribbean vacation. Then he meets the female deputy of a corrupt sheriff, who goes after his sexist assumptions, then goes after his ass in the happiest possible way.

TEXAS TWO-STEP holds up well alongside other bawdy-with-a-body-count books, like Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard stories, Johnny Shaw’s Jimmy Veeder Fiascos, Jeffery Hess’s Scotland Ross tales, and virtually anything by Steve Brewer, Eric Beetner and Elmore Leonard. This is the first of a series, and Michael Pool is one to watch.

I’ve previously voiced my disdain for frontloaded characters — characters who are introduced to us as sympathetic based on past sufferings, and as such rarely bother to earn sympathy by what they actually do once the story gets going.

And I’ll be honest — I thought that’s where LAND OF SHADOWS, the first of four Elouise “Lou” Norton police procedurals from Rachel Howzell Hall — was headed when I learned in the first few pages that Lou a) grew up poor in the projects; b) lost her older sister when she was a child; and c) is being cheated upon by her ridiculously rich video-game-designer husband. (And, d) of course, all the fellas lust after her.)

But practically in the same breath, I learned that Lou allowed her husband to buy off her anger and pain with a $90,000 Porsche, and I thought: Whoa. Suddenly she’s not so sympathetic after all. She’s something more complicated, more real. And came to see that the contradiction Lou embodies — good instincts as an L.A. homicide detective, bad instincts in her personal life — is the hot oil that makes the gears of her story go.

That, and she’s got one of the best narrative voices I’ve ever come across. LAND OF SHADOWS is almost insanely quotable, and it’s hard to pick just one line. But this is one that strikes me as the ultimate Lou Norton thesis statement:

“I’m sassy, but not Florence-the-Jeffersons’-maid sassy. Nor am I ultrareligious. I’m sure as hell not an earth mother, so there’s that to remember, too. Actually, you’d be better off seeking comfort from that palm tree across the street before coming to me. Also, I hate watermelon but I love chicken. I can say ‘nigga’ but I will break every bone in your face if I hear you say it.”

I could listen to Lou Norton bust my chops all day long.

The story: When Monique Darson, a teen girl, is found murdered in southwest L.A., Lou sees uncomfortable parallels to the 25-year-old disappearance of her big sister, Tori. And soon she can’t ignore the very real possibility that the person who took her sister and the person who killed Monie are one and the same.

Beyond incredibly witty writing full of drop-the-mic social truths, Howzell Hall shows herself to be a rock star with plot. She does a masterful job of keeping the reader deliciously off-balance by setting up no fewer than half a dozen characters as plausible suspects, always circling back to each, never completely ruling them out or committing to them as suspects until the very end. Lou has the gift of committing to the Holmesian method of investigation, following the clues where they go, while letting herself her lesser self fantasize about short-cutting, and crushing each suspect based on her easily triggered but well-earned personal dislikes.

I sometimes fantasize about spending a few years in prison just so I can catch up on all the great crime fiction out. LAND OF SHADOWS is a case in point. It came out in 2014, and I got to it only four years later, and now I want to squeeze in the next three novels right away with time I don’t have. But somehow I suspect I’ll manage, because I like having Lou’s voice inside my head. And that’s a must for any successful series.

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 Unlawful Acts and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds.