Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, reviewed by E.F. Sweetman

Bad Boy Boogie
Thomas Pluck
Down & Out Books
352 pages
Reviewed for TOUGH by E.F. Sweetman

If dark crime thrillers of persecution, personal justice, and payback are your thing, Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie has them all, and more in this wild story of an ex-con’s return to his small hometown. When Jay Desmarteax comes back to Nutley, New Jersey to restart his life after serving 25 years for killing ruthless high school bully, Joey Bello, he finds that his folks have disappeared, his old friends want him gone, and his enemies want him dead.

Nutley is a small town outside of Newark, and is also, in Jay’s words,“a place to grow up, rich or poor. Parks to roam, ponds and streams to fish in, a pizzeria in every neighborhood…but a little too proud, a little unfriendly to outsiders….”

It is a narrow-minded place with close-minded people; full of secrets, and layers of corruption simmering just beneath the calm and ordered surface. The cruel aspect of being an outsider carries a lifetime sentence from which you can never really recover. What is more unjust, his best friends who remained in Nutley, end up with the same small-town mentality. They see Jay as a reminder of a past they want to forget.

The town and its people did not want him when he was a kid, and is not happy to see him back from his stint in Rahway State prison. His taxi home is intercepted by the Chief of Police with this message. “You never belonged here. We’d like to go back to living like you never existed. You’re a stain we scrubbed out of the mattress.”

Although Jay knows he should drive south, start a new life, and pick up the trail of his adoptive parents, Mama Angeline and Papa Andre, the chief’s warning is anything but a deterrent. Jay has served his time, he is back, and he does not care what anyone thinks. “I just want to find my folks, but now I’m curious why everyone wants me gone so bad. Feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know the punch line.”

In the true spirit of crime thrillers, when Jay Desmarteaux finds he is dealing with shady small-town politics, and a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself, he is unable to follow the advice of his old mentor, Okie Kinkaid: “the best revenge [is] living well”.

In returning to Nutley, Jay is rendered cynical by an unending cycle of violence and deceit. The rejection releases Jay’s tremendous grudge against the people and the town who left him to carry the entire blame for a crime he did not commit alone. Instead of retreat, Jay’s fight back begins with returning to his childhood home. Ultimately he is going to find his parents, but he wants answers first.

“Walking through his old house now inhabited by strangers felt like the impossible reality of a dream. The carpets replaced with polished hardwood, paneling torn out for bright pastel paint. Here and there the house he knew shined through...He padded upstairs to the master bedroom. (Papa) Andre had built a platform bed with a sunburst maple headboard, and the new owners either appreciated its massive beauty, or couldn’t be bothered dismantling it. Jay pressed the panel by the headboard. The wood eased in, then popped open to reveal a hideaway. Jay blinked at what lay inside the cubby. Two of the few things Jay had been forbidden to touch. The tomahawk Andre had taken home from Vietnam, and the combat knife with the finger grooves cut in the handle... Jay hefted the Lagana war hatchet’s worn hickory handle with reverence, his reflection warped in the hand-hammered blade, the edge scratched from field sharpening. A worm turned in his stomach, as if he could smell his parents’ fear. They had left everything…. He gripped its smooth wooden handle like he was squeezing Papa Andre’s hand.”

What Jay is really seeking is revenge. An antihero with a rough and jaded attitude, he has been used, terribly abused, abandoned, scapegoated, and cast aside. He was handed a life sentence for murder, and lost 25 years because his friends remained silent at his trial, all for “Joey Bello, a no-good rapist son of a bitch who needed killing.”

Pluck’s smooth writing style cuts to the bone, and he has created in Jay Desmarteaux a larger than life, a saw-toothed, scored-earth, sometimes humorous, sometimes lewd defender of street justice accountability. When a friend tries to talk him of taking revenge with reminding Jay that “you can’t fight those kind of people. It’s like banging your head against the wall. Only feels good when you stop.” Jay’s response is, ‘I got a pretty hard head’… and rapped his knuckles on his skull.”

Bad Boy Boogie deals with dark and disturbing matters, but it carries an equally satisfying amount of justice, because stories of revenge are fulfilling. The impulse to strike back against corruption and cruelty is wired deep-we can’t help but glorify an avenger who answers brutality with Jay’s level of ferocity, especially on issues of child abuse. His retribution is swift and thorough, and feels valid. Pluck’s tough-guy action is balanced with unexpected humor.

“‘They fixin’ to kill me Chrissie?’ The tremble in his eyes said enough. Jay threw his body into a liver punch, follow it by two more. Chris dry-heaved, face bent to the steering wheel. Jay stomped the accelerator and jerked the wheel toward the Benz. Oscar and Paul snapped their heads up as the truck veered their way. Paul waddled like Costello…Oscar did a funny little dance, stuck in place until the truck crumpled the Benz like tinfoil and punched it and him into the waves.”

Jay’s non-linear back story provides glimpses of his childhood that give disturbing insights into what has driven Jay to this high-octane level of retribution.“The taut clothesline ran from his swollen purple ankle to the leg of the sofa. The boy huddled under the sofa’s stained yellow arm. There he didn’t have to look at her. He dug at the knot with the carrot peeler. Crusted with blood. He had to get free before the Gator man came. Water dripped in the sink and tortured his dry throat. There was a warm glass of flat Coke on the other side of the sofa but he couldn’t reach. Not without crawling on top of the Witch.”

Bad Boy Boogie’s title is a tribute to the band AC/DC. “Back in Black”, “Problem Child”, “Live Wire”, “TNT”, and “Highway to Hell” title each section. In a guest post for Pulp Curry, Pluck wrote, “My favorite AC/DC songs work like noir tales.” And like the band’s lyrics, Bad Boy Boogie is on point; humorous, rowdy, loaded with working-class antagonism and pride. Pluck employs the same raw ideology in his story as AC/DC applies to their music.

This is not the last we will see of Jay Desmarteaux. Jay gets around. Pluck calls him “the walking Cajun shitstorm” who has appeared in several short stories, and will return in a follow-up novel where he will search rural Louisiana for his parents.

E.F. Sweetman is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in MicrochondriaFunDead's horror anthology, and Switchblade Magazine, as well as upcoming issues of Broadswords and Blasters, and Econo Clash Review. She reviews noir, crime and thriller novels for both TOUGH and SPINE. Follow her on Twitter @EFSweetman.

Monday, December 24, 2018

My Darkest Prayer, by S.A Cosby, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

My Darkest Prayer
S.A. Cosby
Intrigue Publishing
224 pages
reviewed by Rusty Barnes

S.A. Cosby's My Darkest Prayer is a solidly-written and compelling journey into the backroads and sin joints of Virginia. Our guide on this journey is Nathan Waymaker, a funeral home assistant.

Waymaker is a man between worlds, middle-class and biracial, in a rural county, he's developed a reputation as someone who can do certain things for you. A former Marine and sheriff's deputy, he's been forced to the wayside of his small-town life, because of the  department's failure to investigate the tragic deaths of his parents, a failure he blames on both race and class.. When a couple of nice church ladies hire him to look into the death of Reverend Esau Watkins, Waymaker gets embroiled in corruption that eventually encompasses the department he's left behind, as well as other members of the small community.

Cosby paints deft portraits of all the characters, providing tragic backstory and mordant humor in equal parts. Waymaker's is a compelling point of view; he's quick-witted and quick-fisted, but always in service to the right. Cosby excels at and revels in the small-town atmosphere. Everyone knows everyone else's business and no one is immune to the social politics of the situations they find themselves in.

The two old women sitting across from me were studies in dignity. They held their gray heads up high. I didn't want to burst their bubble, but I didn't have a good heart. My heart had been shattered the day my parents died. Since I'd quit the sheriff department , I had done some odd jobs for some folks in the counties, earning a reputation as a man who could help you on the down low. Do things the cops couldn't or wouldn't do.

Waymaker reminds this reader of Spenser and Hawk combined,  a street-wise and occasionally brutal practitioner of fisticuffs and hard drinking in a world that welcomes neither.  Cosby provides an engaging love interest in the adult film actress Lisa Watkins, daughter of the murdered minister. She's a woman blowing through town like a whirlwind to do her duty and no more, as she and her daddy did not, as they say, get along. The often funny nuances of Waymaker's relationship with Watkins serve only to complicate his life, as she gets drawn into the novel's main action despite Waymaker's best efforts.

“But you went out and bought him some clothes?” I asked. Lisa sucked at her teeth. Her right foot was tapping out a staccato rhythm.

“I didn't want to go up to the house. So I just bought some stuff. Is that gonna be okay?” she asked.

“As long as you didn't get him a sun dress and Spanx we should be fine. Unless that's what he wished to be buried in,” I said. She fought the smile that was trying to creep across her face. Finally, she gave in and put her hand over her mouth. That kind of modest behavior seemed out of character for a porn star.

“You funny,” she said. A few seconds passed. The silence didn't seem awkward. It felt expectant. I forced myself not to stare at her body but gazing into her eyes was just as dangerous. At last, she broke the spell. “So we good?” she asked.

“Oh. Yeah, sure. We are all good.”

If there's a fault in this book, it's that the locus,  a megachurch and its denizens, is a touch convenient. No one expects any less than hypocrisy from these people.  Nor do we expect more from the small town that depends on this church and ones like it for spiritual sustenance and social standing: it's the way the con works. But that's a small criticism in the face of a strong novel that builds on the mystery tradition of the detective sucked into a web of corruption and greed. One hopes this is only the beginning of impressive things from Cosby.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Texas Two-Step by Michael Pool, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Texas Two-Step
Michael Pool
Down and Out Books
April 2018
280 pages

Reviewed with a pre-release eARC provided by the publisher

Texas Two-Step, the debut novel from Texas native Michael Pool, is a slow-burn heady bong hit of a novel that builds on the initial promise of Pool’s first novella, Debt Crusher, but uses its expanded length to find its own odd tune. As rich with characterization as it is with drugs and violence, it could be tempting to compare Pool to Texas crime writing legend Joe Lansdale, whose east-Texas-set capers also involve larger-than-life characters working through their various deadly plots and plans, but Pool’s tone and tune are different from our traditional understanding of Texas-set crime fiction, and Texas Two-Step will ultimately be embraced by readers who find themselves willing to step in line with the book’s unique music.

The story revolves around a last-minute deal set up by two small-time marijuana growers from Denver, Cooper and Davis. These dealers, who came up in the weed game by growing their own crop and selling it in parking lots outside jam- band shows across the country, are expert cultivators, but the definition of amateurish criminals, and while that in some ways provides them an advantage--their method for transporting the weed from Colorado to Texas is ingenious, and an example of the kind of creative problem- solving more crime writers should include in their work--they’re also in way over their heads, and their amateurishness causes them to miss every chance to identify the shit they’re swimming in until it’s too late (and there are several). This becomes especially clear when their Texas-based broker, a coked-out party boy from Austin named Sancho, is introduced, and turns out to be even sloppier than Cooper and Davis feared.  Throw in a Johnny Manziel-style professional football burnout named Bobby Burnell, a Texas Ranger, Kirkpatrick, working a borderline unethical case he really doesn't want to be associated with at the insistent prodding of a state senator, a corrupt county sheriff, and Bobby’s uncle Troy, a hormone-infused MMA meathead with absolutely no compunction about killing, and you have all the ingredients for a violent, double-crossing ride through the piney woods of East Texas, even before Cooper’s personal stake in this one last job is raised considerably by the news that he’s about to be a father.

It would be normal, I think, for someone to read the above description and imagine a novel in which the stakes are continually raised, in which characters are betrayed not just once, but several times throughout the course of the novel, but Texas Two-Step’s unique tune becomes apparent in the way it pulls these characters together then pulls them apart again, hinting at what is to come but consistently slowing things down once the inevitable appears just over the horizon. There’s a conscious delay in the novel that begins to evidence itself starting even in the first third of the book, and while I think some readers will see the delay as too long or too protracted (there’s a part of the book where, in the course of four chapters, there are three separate scenes of characters playing pool), it’s undeniable that this continual delay is something that Pool is doing on purpose, structuring Texas Two-Step not as a traditional crime thriller, but instead like a song from one of the jam bands Cooper and Davis are always name-dropping, laying the groundwork and letting the middle parts play out before a big finish. Whether or not that works for some readers may very well depend on their familiarity with jam bands and their willingness to indulge texture and character over straight-ahead plot, but by the start of the last third of the novel, after another delay, it’s become obvious that Pool  is more interested in exploring the areas between crime fiction and the drug-addled anti-narrative of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than anything more straightforward or conventional.

Speaking of one of the great American drug books, another area exhibiting Texas Two-Step’s unique tone is in its depiction of drugs and drug users, particularly the slang used to capture the ins and outs of the most dedicated marijuananauts: Too many novels toss off slang or suggest methods of ingestion that are clearly more influenced by television than any particular kind of experience, but Pool has filled his novel with the kinds of details that only come through lived immersion or heavy research, and the novel is better for it, especially as the drug use and the accompanying mental toll that use creates crescendoes at the climax of the novel. The prose around the characters and their smoky interactions are a little less colorful, however, with most of the book presented in a workmanlike simplicity that goes out of its way to remain unobtrusive, instead focused on clarity of action and character.
Kirkpatrick crossed the street and went into the bar. The place was dark inside, with original brick walls down one side and stained concrete floors. A long wooden bar ran across the left side of the place, then beyond that a hallway to the bathrooms, and across from the bar a door out onto the porch, which occupied a space between buildings that had to have been a building itself at one time or another. 
The above is from a section in the middle third of the book. The writing is fine, perfectly clear and readable, but it is odd that, in such a musical novel, the prose doesn’t quite sing. In the scene above, where a cop is tailing a group of suspects into a darkened bar, the language used doesn’t work to add any additional tension or ambiance to the scene. For some readers, this won’t be a big deal, but Pool is clearly a talented enough writer that, while I appreciated the clarity, I missed what he could have done to wring more tension out of the novel, especially as its elongated delay pulled these characters closer and closer together.

If there are disappointing elements to Texas Two-Step, they’re only evident because so much else is done so well. Throughout, the main characters, Cooper, Kirkpatrick, and Burnell show unique, oddly-faceted sides to themselves that make them seem like real people, but in every instance they’re paired up with other characters whose flatness is especially obvious when compared to the roundness of the leads. Most of the time a supporting character like Davis wouldn’t be a disappointment --ultimately, he does what he needs to do --but compared to how fleshed out Cooper is, Davis is barely able to hold his presence on the page.  Most of that can probably be attributed to the third-person-limited structure of the chapters, but there are other characters like Troy who rise above that limitation without issue. Also somewhat disappointing is a particular plot thread involving the corrupt sheriff that  ends without resolution; once someone that ruthless is introduced, we expect them to either be brought low or, in a noir, grimly triumph. In Texas Two-Step, neither really happens, which mars an otherwise damned solid ending.

One of the biggest themes in Texas Two-Step is how terrifying it can be to go straight, to give up the road life and the smoke in your eyes in favor of something more conventional. Ultimately, it’s not just a theme, but the basis for the whole plot; Cooper has lived his own odd life, and while it doesn’t seem like a life many of us would be particularly interested in living, Cooper doesn’t think he can settle down with something more ordinary. There’s a lot of honesty in that, and an acknowledgement that staying true to yourself requires a willingness to risk it all.

Texas Two-Step grows out of that exact sentiment. It’s unique and unwavering in its commitment to being different. To offering something unique. Texas Two-Step is not a book you’ve seen before. It’s a book that doesn’t care about crime fiction convention, but instead wants to get stoned and dance in the parking lot. It’s not a book trying too hard to give you a downer ending or thrill you with ultraviolence, it’s a book made up of those moments in long songs when you feel like the ending is just around the corner and god damn is it going to feel good when it gets there. It’s not a book interested in the philosophies of criminals or the thin line between cops and robbers, it’s a book that’s asking if you want a puff, and if not, no big deal, but it’d be a lot more fun if you came along for the ride.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals

Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the '50s Through the '90s
Rick Ollerman
Stark House Press
Eureka CA
August 4, 2017
295 pages

I knew I was in for a good time when Ollerman described in his introductory essay how Harlan Ellison's,collection An Edge in My Voice, impacted Ollerman's life and writing career. Ellison modeled not only a way to write about important topics, but also a way to respond to the world.

[Ellison's] writing had such power and clarity, whether he was talking about his car or his dog, his early life in Ohio or his more recent time in Hollywood. And these were essays, those drab kind of things you had to write in school to try to show teachers you weren't just copying multiple choice answers from your neighbor's answer sheet from the desk next to yours.

Who knew?

Ellison never suffers fools or liars gladly. Ollerman recounts a story Ellison tells about working a single day for a company that did not treat its workers well. The young Ellison realizes this, tosses his work into the air, and leaves, never to return, The young Ollerman picked up on this. "Ellison showed me I didn't have to keep a bad taste in my mouth and work for bad people just because I was afraid not to have a job. I could always get others, and I did." One of those jobs, good for those of us who like noir and the PBO era, is writing for Stark House Press. These essays and introductions cover a great deal of territory in his felicitous prose, mentioning many authors only fellow crime writers and students of the genre remember, and brings them alive for the length of the essay, writers like Charles Williams, and in particular, Peter Rabe.

In a couple essays, Ollerman discusses Rabe's series characters, Daniel Port and Manny DeWitt, as well as his standalone books. In a ready-for-reading style, conversationally humorous and extremely well-read, the essays take on the books with no little aplomb and a great deal of insight. Like today's troubled noir protagonists, "to one degree or another [Rabe's] characters tended to have a moral ambiguity to them, conflicted and torn on the inside, not knowing what it took to get what they wanted."

Also, in a job I don't envy, Ollerman goes as far as to edit and prepare a Rabe manuscript for posthumous publication. Trying on another writer's voice outside of parody is a tough task under any circumstance, but when it's a writer with Rabe's reputation, issues arise.

The hardest part was that first chapter. I tried a number of different strategies, all trying to stay as close as possible to the actual words Rabe himself had used. First I took out all of the things from the chapter that did not have anything to do with the rest of the book, including characters, names of places, everything. Using what I had as a template, I tried to write in Rabe's voice and recreate what I'd left as the events in the first chapter.

Ultimately, Ollerman succeeds in getting together the Rabe books for publication with Stark House Press. A success story, in the end, and one I'm grateful for.

The best reason to get this book, though, is a 35-page biographical statement and evaluation of the well-known novelist Charles Williams, a writer with 22 novels and many films adapted from his work. Williams is among the very best-selling of the Gold Medal authors, yet is oddly unknown to today's reader. Ollerman does justice to the man and his stories, spending a good deal of time tracing out what little is known of the writer's life, and giving us an almost book by book accounting of exactly what it is that makes Williams' novels worth your time. Discussing his third novel, River Girl, Ollerman writes:

This is Williams' first real "crime" novel, and it retains its rural elements but moves the thrust of the action into an actual city.His archetypical male and female characters are present, as well as the PBO trope of love at first sight, but another Williams technique continues to emerge here: the perfect crime that turns out to be not quite so perfect. Oh, it seems so for much of the book but then someone yanks on a thread, and almost before the reader is aware of it, the thread begins to unravel the bigger, complicated tapestry that makes up what just a short while ago seemed like a genuinely foolproof scheme.

This is where the Ollerman collection turns, from a very good book into a great one. The Williams essay is lodged near the center of the book and provides a measure of the collection as a whole. Halfway through the essay collection, working with little background on the writer and only a bit more criticism, Ollerman creates an entertaining and succinct account that gives Williams his due without resorting to excessive claims or fashionably negative critique. He acknowledges where the novels succeed and where they fail, tracing Williams early successes like his million-selling Hill Girl through the middle ground of caper novels and nearly comedic ones, into the seagoing-centered novels that make up what most people point to as his most successful books.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the connective tissue Ollerman provides for the collection too, mini-essays which introduce conflicting ideas or provide additional insight into the main essays. He channels Harlan Ellison again, who uses the same techniques to introduce individual pieces in collections of his own work, and adds the increased insight that distance from the subject matter often provides. In the prefatory material to the Williams essay, Ollerman sizes up his own work:

In any case, I tried to put out a piece that explained Charles Williams in a way that I hadn't seen done before, at least not in the English language. Much of it is almost an inventory of his oeuvre, pointing out a possible reason why Williams may not be as popular as many people feel he deserves--he often re-uses the same or similar elements in many of his books (not that he's alone in this; Frank Kane would famously re-use whole passages of nearly identical text from book to book).

Ollerman covers much ground in this collection. In addition to Rabe and Williams, there are essays long and short discussing the duo that comprises Wade Miller as well as Jada Davis, John Trinian, Ed Gorman, W.R. Burnett, and more. They all succeed, f only because we know so little about the PBO period. If one could quibble about anything in this fine gathering of essays, it's that it fairly begs for Ollerman, or some other like-minded soul, to do full-scale biographical/critical editions of some writers from this era. I, for one, would look forward to a book-length Ollerman take on a PBO author. I think the readership of the world is ready for it, too.