Next Monday, December 1, at 7 pm, the 7% Solution Book Club will be discussing Lawrence Block‘s modern mystery classic, When The Sacred Ginmill Closes. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month at 7pm on BookPeople’s third floor. We read and discuss mysteries of all shapes, flavors and sub-genres. Our selection for January’s meeting is Barry Lyga‘s young adult mystery I Hunt Killers. This past month, we read Lori Rader-Day‘s magnificent debut novel, The Black Hour.
Lawrence Block is one of the most renowned and prolific authors writing today, making him to modern America what Georges Simenon was to mid-century France. Block is best known for two series in particular; one starring the hard-boiled private eye Matthew Scudder, and the other focusing in on the exploits of gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr.
Matthew Scudder, over a long series, is a constantly evolving character. In Block’s first few novels with the character, Scudder plays pretty much the same part – alcoholic ex-cop earning a living from doing “favors for friends” and drinking heavily each night. Block’s fifth Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, breaks the pattern, with Scudder introducing himself at an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting as the novel’s conclusion. Scudder’s struggle with his alcoholism and his involvement with AA remain major themes throughout the rest of Block’s work in the series, and Scudder never touches another drop.
When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, like The Long Goodbye, is a novel about friendship before it is about murder, and about alcohol long before it is about friendship. Like Block chose to write When the Sacred Ginmill Closes as a flashback novel, told from the perspective of a recovered alcoholic about a case from his drinking days, and this lends the novel an aura of nostalgia that makes the book feel timeless. The novel opens with Scudder describing his favorite watering holes, and both cases Matthew goes on to solve involve either drinking buddies or bartenders.
In the course of the novel, Scudder takes on two cases. One of Matthew’s friends, a regular at the same bar, asks him with help investigating his wife’s murder, while another friend, a bartender, enlists his aid recovering some stolen goods. Scudder works hard on the case in between drinking bouts, and the novel draws to a complex and satisfying conclusion.
Block’s style is smooth; his characters speak eloquently and timelessly. The book may have been written in 1986, but it takes place in Anytime Noir New York. His dialogue is stylish and snappy, and his characters can as easily talk philosophy or folk music as kill a man – that is to say, it is easy for them to do both.
Come to BookPeople’s third floor next Monday, December 1, at 7 pm, for a discussion of this excellent read. We will also have a free wheeling discussion of Lawrence Block and his works in general. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month. Copies of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
In Sometimes The Wolf, Urban Waite returns to Bobby Drake, one of the characters from his debut novel, The Terror of Living. In Waite’s debut, Drake carried the weight of his father’s prison sentence on his shoulder for much of the novel. Urban looks at their relationship once the father, who was the former sheriff where Bobby is now a deputy, gets out of prison. His release sparks a series of violent events that soon entangle Bobby’s grandfather as well. Mr. Waite was kind enough to talk to us about the book, his approach to writing, and some of his favorite authors.
MysteryPeople: When writing The Terror of Living did you know you were going to return to Bobby Drake and confront the relationship he has with his father?
Urban Waite:The quick answer here is no. The long answer is I never really know what I’m going to do. I don’t believe in outlines or planning ahead. I have a general idea I’m thinking of when I start out on a project but as far as knowing where I’m going… well, it wouldn’t be any fun if I did. For me the adventure of writing novels has always been taking an opening and expanding on it, seeing where and what my characters can get into.
MP: The idea of family runs all throughout Sometimes the Wolf. What did you want to explore about the subject?
UW: I don’t believe in the idea of ‘write what you know’. It applies here, but only in a sort of abstract way. I add things into my novels that go through my head, or impressions I take from the world around me. The way a pine forest smells, or the sounds up high of wind moving through the trees—those types of impressions. But when it comes down to the heart of the story I don’t want something I’m familiar with. I want something completely foreign that I can explore through my writing. Novels that transport me out of my sphere of understanding have always been the ones that interest me the most. And so when it comes down to writing about family in Sometimes the Wolf, I took concepts that were familiar to me, like loyalty, love, and legacy. And then I used those concepts to look at a family very unlike my own—a family with a history of violence, criminal in many ways. A family that I did not understand at the time, and only came to understand by writing about them in Sometimes the Wolf.
MP: It appears that the older the Drake men, the more accepting they are of people and circumstances. Do you think that is more a reflection of their age or experience?
UW: I think age and experience go hand in hand. In many ways you cannot have one without the other. You’re certainly right to say that the older the Drake man the more accepting they are of the world around them. They have to be. I think when you’re young there is a definite sense that life is unlimited, you can do anything, you can be anything. And at thirty-two years old that is one of the major hang-ups Bobby Drake feels. He lives in a state of regret for all the things he could have done with his life had he not been born into such a criminal family. While on the opposite end, Bobby’s grandfather, Morgan, has lived eighty some years, and he looks back on life now with just as many regrets as his grandson. But instead of living in the past, he chooses to look at the present. And I think that is one of the most important lessons he can pass onto his grandson.
MP: You show a side of the Pacific Northwest we don’t always see. What did you want to convey about the area to people who have never been there?
UW:I’m not sure I wanted to convey anything. I just see it as one might see their own skin. It’s just there, a part of you. I grew up here and many of my weekends were spent hiking in the Cascade Mountain forests, or over in Eastern Washington in the prairie/grasslands. I think maybe that separation of lush forest and arid grassland is something a lot of people don’t understand about this part of the country. It’s one of the most diverse places on the planet and certainly in the US.
MP: Do you have any influences as a writer?
UW:Lots. I started out with Hemingway as many do. But I really think he had only four good books. The rest just fell flat for me. But you know a lot of that is on me. Sometimes you pick up a book and if you’re just not in the right mood, or you’re hungry, or it’s sunny outside, etc—you just don’t fall into it the way that you should. When I was in my early twenties I loved The Bone People by Keri Hulme. It’s a beautiful book with a lot of imagination paired with a healthy dose of reality. I remember reading a collection of stories by Hannah Tinti that were so wonderfully diverse and inventive. Each story breaking the mold the last had set forth. I love me some Graham Greene as well. He’s right there with Hemingway, a lot of his stuff is very good, but others just don’t hit the same way. I also read a lot of the southern writers. I’d say guys like Tom Franklin, Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, and William Gay have had the biggest influence on me in recent years. One of my favorite memories will always be sitting out on a porch in Tennessee with Tom Franklin and William Gay, listening to Gay tell me the story behind the story of The Paperhanger, while watching Gay sip from a tall-boy of beer. His passing a few years ago was a real loss to world.
MP: You’re a writer with a lot to say and explore. What makes crime fiction the right canvas for you to explore it on?
UW: This goes back to some of the earlier questions. What makes writing enjoyable for me is working with characters and situations I’m not familiar with.
In life I try to keep an open mind. I don’t judge people based on their history or their appearance. My belief is that we’re all cut from the same cloth. No matter who you are. We all share that human experience. And so when it comes to writing I’m trying to push characters into the unknown. I identify with them because I see them—good or evil—as simply human. What would I do in this situation? How would I survive? What would I say? Who would I go to for help?
Adding the criminal element strains the human experience all that much more. And for me that is a very good thing.
Copies of Sometimes the Wolf are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Our last Noir At The Bar of 2014 (happening tonight, November 24, at 7pm at Opal Divine’s) has us going out with top talent. The line up is composed of first offenders and hardened felons. We’ve got both rural and southwestern noir authors and a guy who mashes up so many genres that we don’t know what the hell to call him. And of course, we’ll be joined by our own Jesse Sublett
C..B. McKenzie is the recent winner of the Tony Hillerman award for Bad Country. The book introduces us to cowboy-turned-private eye Rodeo Grace Garnett. McKenzie gives a rough and tumble feel to an unromanticized American west.
Glenn Gray’s The Little Boy Inside And Other Stories has been getting great buzz. The tales, which range from crime (especially involving illegal steroid use) to sci fi to body horror, are almost always funny and disturbing. Don’t eat while Glenn reads.
Matthew McBride instantly became a MysteryPeople favorite with his gonzo hard boiled debut Frank Sinatra In A Blender. He has received more rave reviews for his intense rural crime novel A Swollen Red Sun. The book deals with the repercussions of corruption in a Missouri county overrun by meth and violence.
Austin author and musician Jesse Sublett will perform some of his murder ballads, as well as reading (his latest is Grave Digger Blues) and everyone will be on hand to sign books afterwards. Before you’re put upon by holiday cheer, join us at Opal’s and celebrate the noir side of life.
- Post by Molly
In 2004, Akashic Books published Brooklyn Noir, their first collection of original noir short stories, set in Brooklyn and written by a combination of local authors and writers from all over. Since that time, Akashic has released collections for almost every major American city and region (including, for Texas, Lone Star Noir and Dallas Noir) and, after covering much of the United States, has moved on to collections set in cities around the world.
Akashic’s motto is “Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World.” Some collections profile the fraught and violent underbellies of some of the world’s most prominent centers of tourism and business. Others focus in on the humanity and humor within a place already possessing a reputation for violence. Whatever the setting, Akashic, in their noir series, succeeds admirably at this goal. Akashic releases new collections faster than I can read them, and alas, I am now woefully behind on my world noir anthologies, but two recent releases from Akashic particularly stood out to me: Belfast Noir and Singapore Noir.
Belfast has always had a rather noir reality, but over the past decade or so, Northern Ireland has also become known for an incredible outpouring of noir fiction, dubbed the “new wave” of Irish crime fiction. Belfast Noir draws upon two of my favorite authors from the region in editing the collection: Adrian McKinty, author the Troubles Trilogy and many other novels, and Stuart Neville, author of The Ghosts of Belfast, Collusion, Ratlines, and most recently, The Final Silence, and includes original crime fiction from many more.
McKinty and Neville, as editors of the collection, have crafted a fine introduction, distilling the past several hundred years of bloody history and a relatively recent economic resurgence down to three pages and a minimalist map. They chose to organize the collection into four sections to reflect Belfast’s changing narrative, post-Troubles: City of Ghosts, City of Walls, City of Commerce, and Brave New City. Each section includes stories by authors as varied as the times and city they represent.
It would take far too long for me to write and you to read a description of what I liked about each story, so I’ll describe just a few. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, tells the story of a young boy whose mental illness leads him to embrace the motto “Free Ireland” to dangerous levels after his uncle spends a little too much time telling his nephew about the glorious old days of the IRA. In “Belfast Punk Rep,” Glenn Patterson teaches us that not only is Belfast the noirest city in the world, but even the punks of Belfast are a bit more hardcore than anywhere else as well. “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, blends ghost story, murder mystery, and cross-generational smack-down at a wedding for a perfect Northern Irish celebration gone awry.
Steve Cavanagh‘s “The Grey” uses electric meters to tell us a story of love, revenge, and consequences, while Claire McGowan, in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” writes about teenagers reenacting the high drama of the Northern Irish Troubles in a very, very petty way. Eoin McNamee, in “Corpse Flowers,” structures the story of a young girl’s murder entirely through images seen through cameras, a poetic twist on the surveillance state. Each story, layered on top of the rest, provides another nuanced viewpoint with which to construct a portrait of Belfast today – perhaps not a complete portrait, but a beautifully complex and ever-growing one.
Belfast, with it’s long history of violence and division, and its more recent history of capitalism run rampant, seems to be an obvious setting for Akashic to have chosen. Singapore’s darkness, however, rests a little more below the surface. As S. J. Rozan writes in her story “Kena Sai,” “Singapore, it’s Disneyland with the death penalty. Jay-walking, gum-chewing, free-thinking: just watch yourselves.”
Many of the stories in Singapore Noir structure their narrative around this contrast between appearance and reality, particularly emphasizing the contrast of luxurious and poverty-stricken settings; the corruption and organized crime behind the facade of democratic government; the city of expats and migrants within the city of Singaporeans. Singapore Noir is edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Singapore native and current New Yorker, who describes Singapore as “the sultry city-state,” and if this description brings to mind the cutthroat Italian city states of the Middle Ages, you’re not far off.
The voices included in this collection are as diverse as the residents of Singapore itself. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s story, “Reel,” tells a story of heat and lust set in the kelongs, old fisheries on stilts, while Colin Goh’s tale “Last Time” takes place in the glittering high rises of the city and involves international pop stars, corrupt businessmen, and powerful mafiosos. Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho, in his story “Detective in a City with No Crime,” tells the story of an ordinary policeman stuck in a world of interchangeable people, where he can aspire only to lust, and never to love.
Philip Jeyaretnam’s “Strangler Fig” uses the natural environment of Singapore to structure a story of obsession and possession, while Colin Cheong’s “Smile, Singapore” uses a murder mystery to represent all of the frustrations of modern Singaporean society, and also fufill’s Chekov’s adage that if you introduce a gun in act 1, you had better use it by act 3. Each story is more poetic than the last, and Singapore Noir, like Belfast Noir, once again proves that Akashic Books’ noir series is better than any travel guide.
You can find copies of Singapore Noir and Belfast Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
This weekend many of us crime fiction fans are in Long Beach, the site for the 2014 Bouchercon, the international mystery conference. This Crime Fiction Friday gives a nod to the conference with this story set in Long Beach by L.A. writer Gary Phillips. Phillips is one of our favorite writers here at MysteryPeople. The story first appeared in Akashic’s Mondays are Murder series.
“You’re it, Hank. Who the hell else could I lay this burden on?”
Mark coughs up more blood and I do my best to comfort my dying friend. He’s dressed in a suit I’m quite sure costs more than my parish generates in two months. His leaking blood creates a Rorschach test gone awry on his light blue shirt.
“The ambulance is coming.” I say this even though I don’t hear a siren. Which is ironic, given there’s always a peal around here, in the neighborhood where Mark and I grew up.
He smiles up at me with his red-stained teeth. “We both know that they’ll be too late. Sit me up, will you, and reach into my pocket.”
John Connolly comes to BookPeople Tuesday, November 18, at 7 pm, and we’re looking forward to having him back at the store. His latest Charlie Parker novel, The Wolf in Winter, has the Maine PI tracing a missing woman to a town with a dark secret. We talked to John about the book, myth, history, and some of his favorite writers.
MP: A town with secrets seemed perfect for you, since it is an archetype for both detective fiction and horror. What did you want to do with the idea?
JC: I’m not sure I think of ideas in those terms. It suggests that I’m much more organized than I actually am! I suppose the starting point was really the Green Man mythos, which is very European in origin, and has ties to folk and pagan beliefs. (For those not familiar with the Green Man, it’s the name given in Britain to a face formed of leaves and branches that adorns some very old churches, a link between the new Christian religion and a much older mythology.) Then a lot of stuff encroaches in quite random ways: the proliferation of gated communities, which keep the wealthy separated from the poor, both in the US and, for example, South Africa, where my other half is from, and the mindset that goes with that kind of separation or exclusion. And you’re right: there is a point at which that notion of an enclosed community lashing out against its enemies, perceived or otherwise, offers a point of crossover between the mystery novel and supernatural fiction, and that blurring of the lines has always interested me, especially because the two genres have much more in common than conservative commentators on both sides – but the mystery side in particular – might care to admit.
MP: Several homeless characters play an important part in the book and you depict their lives in an honest way. What did you want to get across to the reader about people who live on the street?
JC: I had no interest in preaching. No reader wants to hear the sound of the apple crate being drawn up, and the author clearing his throat. But mystery fiction does have an engagement with the real world, and I was conscious that in Portland, Maine – which provides a focal point for many of the books – there was a debate going on about the city’s obligations to its homeless people and whether, by providing them with shelter during winter, the city was in some way encouraging homelessness, which is a very odd way to look at the situation. The reality in Maine is that if you don’t give the more vulnerable people a place to sleep during winter – even if it’s just a chair in a lobby, as is sometimes the case in Portland – you’ll find them dead on the streets the next morning. Now there are those who seem relatively content to let that happen – to discourage the others – but I certainly don’t want to live in that kind of society, and nobody I respect wants to either.
MP: This book has some of the best Louis and Angel dialogue in the series. What has made you keep them as supporting characters?
I think they’ve become more important to Parker as the books have proceeded, and therefore their presence is more obvious. At about the time of The Black Angel Parker was presented with a kind of choice between domesticity and a new family, represented by his girlfriend Rachel and their daughter Sam, and being able to confront wrongs and evils – and to release some of his rage, all of which was represented by Angel and Louis. The two urges are incompatible, and so he chose the latter, and they came more to the fore as a consequence.
MP: One of the things I admire about Charlie is he seems to have carved out a life with all of the tragedy and darkness around him. What allows him to cope and live?
JC: Ultimately these are novels about hope, particularly the belief that by acting in the service of good, the world can be improved slightly, even if it is at some personal cost. The Irish writer Edmund Burke once said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The kind of mystery fiction that I read, and write, examines the implications of that statement.
MP: Like with a lot of your books, The Wolf In Winter, the story is connected to an involved history. Are most of these histories based on something factual?
JC: Well, the Green Man mythos is real and, of course, the idea of people of a particular religious persuasion fleeing to the New World to escape persecution. But, as with the line between mystery and the supernatural, I find it interesting to blur the distinctions at the edges, so people aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is invented, which I hope adds an additional element of unease to the books.
MP: In Books To Die For you wrote an essay on both Ross MacDonald and Michael Connelly. Is there any traits from those authors’ works you’d like to have in your own?
JC: Well, Macdonald is the great poet of empathy in the genre, and he was also a gothic writer at heart in the sense of his novels being examinations of family histories, so I see his influence in my own novels. Michael does something very different from me, and I wrote that essay primarily as a fan, although we have a point of connection in that we are both outsiders writing about an adopted place – his is Los Angeles, mine is Maine. I just think The Black Echo may be one of the finest first novels in the genre. He was brilliant from the start.
John Connolly will speak and sign his new book Tuesday, November 18th, at 7 pm, on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of The Wolf in Winter on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Can’t make it to the event? Pre-order a copy to be signed and we’ll get it signed for you!
Syndicate Books is a new independent publisher, dedicated to bringing back the works of great and influential crime authors back in print. They started this fall by bringing out British author Ted Lewis’ hard as nails Jack Carter Trilogy. Jack Carter And The Mafia Pigeon, the third book in the trilogy, appears in the U.S. for the first time. We talked with Syndicate head and founder Paul Oliver about his endeavor, Ted Lewis, and legacy publishing.
MP: How did the idea for Syndicate books come about?
PO: It goes back to when I owned a bookstore in the Philadelphia area. We sold used books as well as new and in the process of handling all of those second hand books you encounter some interesting things. It could be an author you’ve never heard of and is utterly out of print, yet they have a run of blurbs from incredibly famous writers on the dust jacket. Or recognize that the translator is someone who worked on the most imminent books of the day. Little things like that. I’d take those books home and give them a read. Sometimes they were out of print because they weren’t very good or were particularly dated. But sometimes, not often, I’d read something really good that for whatever reason had slipped through the cracks. I wanted to publish those books.
2. Was there a particular reason Ted Lewis’ Get Carter Trilogy came out first for Syndicate?
PO: I learned about Ted Lewis from Max Allan Collins. At the time, in a former life, I was working on the reissues of Derek Raymond’s excellent Factory Novels and I thought they might be up Max’s alley. I wrote to him and somewhere in my email I described Derek Raymond as “The Godfather of British Noir.” All caps. Max was gracious enough to write back and explain to me that if I wanted to talk about “The Godfather of British Noir” then I needed to be talking about someone named Ted Lewis. Ted’s books were thoroughly out of print and very expensive, a hundred or so dollars for a mass market paperback, and knowing two of the three movies (yes, there is a third movie—titled “Hitman”—starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier) I thought it was worth investigating. I was in the process of reading Lewis and scheming about starting Syndicate when I moved to Soho Press. It didn’t take long before Stuart Neville, one of our most acclaimed authors at Soho, shared that he was a huge admirer of Lewis. I knew I had to do it.
That’s the long answer. The short one is: GET CARTER. There’s not many cooler book/movie combos going.
MP: For those who only know Jack Carter from the Michael Caine film, what are they missing that are in the books?
PO: I think the Carter in the novels is a little more human. Caine’s Carter is colder, if not more ruthless, but in the end as much interested in preserving his own name as he is avenging his brother. I think Caine’s Jack Carter evolves in the final scenes where his fiery need for personal satisfaction burns off his own ego and leaves a genuine need to avenge his brother’s death. The Jack Carter of Lewis’ novel has sincere misgivings about how he was with his brother from the start of the story. Notice that I didn’t say he has misgivings about who he was or who he had become. Carter is a villain. He is a gangster who is proud of what he has achieved but at the same time very much in conflict over how he treated his brother in life. Some of the novel’s best writing occurs in an extended flashback of Jack and Frank as kids and the moment where they went down separate paths.
MP: What makes Ted Lewis’ books important to crime fiction?
PO: He is uncompromising. It’s the most remarkable trait among his many gifts. Lewis wrote incredible dialogue and described the English postwar society with remarkable nuance and, well, disdain. But his characters were all villains and that’s what is really neat to me. In his most notable novels they are not merely people on the wrong side of the law but thoroughly bad people. Jack Carter is a high level enforcer for a London-based organized crime family (read: Kray Brothers) and he is very good at his job. These are hard tales about bad people doing bad things to other people to maintain their standard of life. In a word: crime. A lot of writers want to do this but either come up short on experience or nerve. It takes a lot of both to write a character like Jack Carter or George Fowler (the protagonist of the forthcoming novel, GBH).
If you wanted to find a literary blood brother to Jack Carter you’d only find a handful. Maybe only one: James Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant from the USA Underworld Trilogy. As Max Allan Collins writes in the introduction to Jack Carter’s Law, “Carter makes Parker look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” And it’s true. Donald Westlake’s Parker would despise Jack Carter and that’s why Ted Lewis created something remarkable and, for lack of a better word, true.
MP: Each Carter book has an intro by a filmmaker or author who admired the author. Do you plan to do that for all Syndicate Books?
PO: I do. When you’re making the argument that a writer that has fallen out of print or somehow slipped out of the crime fiction canon deserves to belong there, you need a spokesperson. It’s also a very sincere process. Sometimes blurbs or intros are about money or currying favor. Ted Lewis is dead. The people who wrote those intros and blurbs stand to gain very little by doing so and I think that makes the whole thing a little more interesting.
MP: I also love the covers, they draw a nice connotation to the period in which they were originally published without being anachronistic. Can you tell us about the artist and how you both approached the look?
PO: Thanks for that. I love them too. The artist is Katherine Grames and she was incredible to work with. Carter is a very stylish man. He’s kitted out in a mohair suit and monogrammed cufflinks, and very detailed about his gear. This is the height of the Mod 60s and Carter is kind of a Mod superman. Katherine loves fashion and loved the idea of designing these books. You’ve seen her design on some of Soho’s most prominent titles: Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series, Kwei Quartey’s Murder at Cape Three Points, and one of my favorites, the redesigned Station Series by David Downing. Basically she’s great.
MP: It seems lately that legacy publishing has been reserved for online publishing, but there’s been some resurgence this year of bringing some of the authors back into physical print to be sold in stores as well. What makes you see the larger market for them?
PO: It’s not that ebooks are regressing, because they’re still an incredibly large portion of a publisher’s business. But two years ago on a subway car in New York you saw a lot of tablets and reading devices. These days you’re seeing books again. Books are a rugged technology that will be hard to replace and it will be even harder for electronic books to replace the alchemy that exists between the design of a book, its contents, and a reader.
MP: Is there anything you can tell us about future endeavors for Syndicate?
PO: I’m thrilled to say Syndicate has its second project. There’s still plenty to be done with the rest of Ted Lewis’ novels, including the publication of what many consider his final masterpiece, GBH, but I’ve also gone ahead and lined up our next project. And it is a coup. In 2015 Syndicate Books will publish the complete works of Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster and crime fiction legend, Margaret Millar. Millar was a two-time Edgar-winner (literally receiving the honor of “Grandmaster”) and a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” In life she was more famous than her fellow crime author husband, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) but for one reason or another her books have fallen out of print. She’s tremendous and like Lewis (or any great crime writer) she was interested in the bad wood beneath the veneer of society. It just so happens that she was writing about the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
Paul Oliver is founder and head of Syndicate Books. They have so far released all of Ted Lewis’ previously out-of-print Jack Carter Trilogy, and their upcoming releases include Lewis’ novel GBH and the complete works of Margeret Millar. You can find all volumes of the Carter Trilogy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
The White Van, Patrick Hoffman‘s debut novel, is hard to define in subgenre. It shares the pace and plotting skill of a Jeff Abbott or Meg Gardiner thiller, but has a grittier style. Both heroes and villains in Hoffman’s masterful work would feel comfortable in the worlds of James Crumley or Andrew Vachss. One thing is certain, this is one effective book.
In the first chapter we’re introduced to Emily, a somewhat functioning drug user in San Fransisco. Her addiction leads her to follow a man to his hotel for a hit. The drug she takes knocks her out. When she awakes, others are in the room.
We feel Hoffman’s skill immediately, through a series of lucid moments Emily has between black outs. Hoffman keeps us in suspense; we are as off balance as the character. Her captors attempt to manipulate Emily into partaking in an identity theft scheme in return for a cut. It’s too late when she learns it is a bank robbery and she’s been framed to be the suspect. With money in her hand,having come to her senses, Emily takes off.
We then meet Leo, a cop with more than questionable ethics. After his behavior gets him and his partner into a jam that only a lot of cash can solve, he hears of the robbery and Emily’s description. Now she has the honest cops, the outlaws, and the corrupt cops all after her.
Hoffman could have titled the book ‘desperation.’ Every character is in over their head. When we learn the circumstances of the people who set up Emily, we even feel for them a little. If the definition of ‘noir’ is one bad decision leading to a series of other decisions that are even worse, then The White Van is the epitome of noir. For Hoffman, a fast pace isn’t a goal for turning pages but a way to immerse us in the relentless situation his characters are in.
Like the rest of the novel, the ending has a unique feel. We take inventory of the people we’ve gotten to know through their trying and violent time. We are not sure if we have changed our minds about them, but we feel a deeper connection. Like Elmore Leonard, we have gotten to know Patrick Hoffman’s shady characters. Through these people we get the chance to see a shadow San Fransisco; one which rubs up against the work-a-day one. Will Patrick Hoffman’s next novel take the same approach on an international level? Wherever he wants to take the reader, I’m ready to go.
Copies of The White Van are available on BookPeople’s shelves and via bookpeople.com.
For this month’s Murder In The Afternoon Book Club, meeting Tuesday, November 18th, at 2 pm, we get to discuss the book with the author. Janice Hamrick is one of our favorite writers. Her series featuring Austin high school teacher Jocelyn Shore consistently entertains us with light, humorous mysteries. Hamrick’s novels avoid being cute with with a truthful look at human nature and a bit of an edge. We’ll be reading the first book in the series, Death On Tour.
Death On Tour introduces us to Jocelyn and her extroverted (to put it mildly) cousin, Kyla, as they take a vacation on a discount tour to Egypt. When a member of the group falls to her death from a pyramid, Jocelyn is swept up in a plot involving an old necklace, a new love, and murder. The book has the plot of a mystery, the pace of a thriller, and the style and approach of a good romantic comedy.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will meet on Tuesday, November 18th, at 2 pm on BookPeople’s third floor. Janice will be joining us through conference call and you’ll find her as funny and as entertaining as her books. Come for the discussion, stay for the laughs.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 pm. Please join us Tuesday, November 18th, as we discuss Death on Tour, by Janice Hamrick and, for this special occasion, with Janice Hamrick. Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club members receive 10% off of their purchase of their monthly book club title.
We have the honor of hosting Rob Brunet with Terry Shames this Monday, November 10th. His novel Filthy Rich is getting great buzz as one of the best debuts of the year, combining crime and comedy brilliantly. In this story, originally a part of the anthology Down, Out, & Dead, serves as a prequel to Filthy Rich.
By Rob Brunet
Perko Ratwick needed a change in plans like he needed hemorrhoids. He rocked his Harley onto its kickstand and walked to the water’s edge where a man stood fishing.
“Biting today?” he asked.
The man grunted and looked at the white bucket beside him. Perko peeked in and saw what had to be half a dozen scaly creatures, gills flapping on the top ones.
“These good eating?” Making conversation when he’d much rather knee-cap the fisherman. Four months of planning, a twenty-thousand-dollar down payment so this bugger could set up a suburban grow op, and now he calls to say the deal’s off? No explanation?
“Free food.” The man finished reeling in his line, shook a clump of weeds from its green and yellow lure, and cast again.
Perko didn’t get it. Nghiem had to be worth a couple million, maybe more. He’d arrived from Vietnam a decade ago and was running at least six grow houses in the suburbs north of Toronto, one of which was supposed to supply Perko. Surely he could afford dinner. “We coulda met in a restaurant,” said the biker. “I’d a picked up the tab.”
Nghiem said, “Sense of obligation. No need.”
“So what’s the deal? Your message said something changed.”
“I said no deal. Go find new grower.”
Perko said, “I don’t understand. You’re saying—”
“What so hard? NO GROW FOR YOU.”
Perko watched as he tugged and reeled, pulling the lure through the shallows. Nghiem’s plain white van sat forty feet away, backed in off the road. With cars passing every minute or so, there was no way to drag him over without being seen. Besides, chances were the guy had a couple goons inside the van in case their boss needed help delivering bad news.
“I’ve already lined up the sale,” Perko said.
Nghiem’s rod bent suddenly. He let a little line run out then started reeling again, still smooth and slow. “Cops busted two houses. One guy third time. He’s not coming out soon.”
The Vietnamese grower ran a straightforward game. Buy a nondescript house on a quiet street, grow three or four cycles of skunk weed. Fresh coat of paint, and sell the house to some sucker who wouldn’t know it was full of mold until long after the check had cleared. Toughest part of the guy’s operation was finding people fool enough to live in the houses while tending the plants, yet straight enough to fit in.
“What happened,” Perko asked.
“They get nosey?”
“Kid got lonely. Had a barbecue.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“Cost me crop, both houses. Now I have to pay lawyers.”
The Vietnamese sighed. “They are the breaks.”
“Them,” said Perko. “Them’s the breaks.”
“Problem is, my down payment.”
“House is a crime scene. No can sell. Have to wait.”
“Waiting ain’t my specialty.”
“I pay. Five thousand a week. You have in no time.”
“I’d rather the weed. We had a deal.”
“Your money.” Nghiem nudged the white bucket with his foot. “Take it.”
“There’ll be interest.”
“See you next week. No problem?” The man grinned, mouth full of yellow teeth. Perko imagined yanking them one by one with a set of pliers. Nghiem glanced over his shoulder to the white van. No question he had backup. His rod bent double, and he started reeling fast. Perko looked at the dying fish piled on top of one another. He tilted the bucket on its side to reveal a sliver of pink plastic bag. Pinching it between his thumb and two fingers, he tugged. As it pulled free, two fish started flopping, slapping his forearm, making it slick with slime.
He walked back to his bike and wiped his hands and the bag in the grass. He watched Nghiem land a rock bass, bang its head against the ground, and drop it in the bucket. Driving away, Perko was relieved to find the fish smell disappeared in the wind.
Bad enough Nghiem’s screw-up messed with Perko Ratwick’s plans to move a few hundred kilos of high grade pot. Business was business and the biker had talked his way out of worse corners before. The New York buyers would still be there once he found a new supply. It wasn’t about one deal, though. Perko had a real shot at making Road Captain in the Libidos Motorcycle Club. Launch himself into the big leagues—a guy who brokered deals between rival gangs and lined the Libidos coffers without taking on real exposure. Kind of like an investment banker, only quicker. And less paperwork.
He set a meet with a guy named Frederick who wanted into the Libidos in a bad way.
“Maybe it’s a good thing the gook fell through,” Perko said.
“Maybe I been coming at this wrong.”
The men were sitting at a picnic table in dead quiet downtown Bobcaygeon. The ice had barely broken up and the locks wouldn’t be operational for a few weeks yet. Perko said, “These locks run, what, five months a year?”
“’Bout dat,” said Frederick.
“And when they do, they’re only open something like eight, ten hours a day?”
“So, the water never stops flowing.”
“’Course not,” said Perko. “They control the water level, but they don’t kill the flow.”
Frederick looked from the locks to Perko and said, “What you mean?”
“Do I gotta paint the whole picture? Instead of waitin’ for some other guy to deliver supply, I could be growin’ myself. Year-round. Much as I like.”
“So you take on more risk.”
“Not if I do things right. Arm’s length,” Perko said. “That’s where you come in.”
“How come me?”
“You wanna patch Libido some day? Earn your stripes. Couple things I need you to do.”
Frederick nodded slowly.
“First, find me a grower,” Perko said. “Make sure he’s no fool.”
“And the other thing?”
“It’s a little more complicated,” Perko said, and told him about Nghiem’s rate of pay.
Perko decided to go all pro. Thinking about Nghiem’s lonely grower and the barbecue, he wasn’t about to put his own name on the deed for some suburban shack on a street full of busybodies. Besides, once he got the gig going, he’d need two houses, then four. Before he knew it, he’d be back begging product from the fish-frying bastard. Never mind how many growers he’d wind up hiring. The more he thought about it, the less his plan felt risk-free. The Libidos would let him run with it, take their cut, but his ass would be hanging way out there. No, what Perko needed was a large-scale operation. Leverage.
He found a farm.
Mildred Perrigrew owned the farm and had lived on it for nearly sixty-five years, starting when she married Orvus Perrigrew the week she graduated from Grade Ten. Orvus was twenty-two at the time and had only stayed in school himself until Grade Six, dropping out to work the farm with his uncle until the elder Perrigrew passed away. When Orvus inherited the land, he immediately looked around for a mate. Marrying Mildred was a real coup: he got himself a young wife as well as a capable bookkeeper, since Mildred had taken both accounting and typing classes for the two years she was in high school.
All of this Perko Ratwick learned from Mildred herself when he responded to her ad in the Peterborough Examiner:
FARM FOR RENT
Good barn. Better house. Not much of a woodlot, but good water and some apple trees. $3,000 monthly. Cash only. Contact Mildred at Hillview Retirement Residence, Peterborough.
Perko tried telephoning, but the attendant said Mildred had left strict instructions that she intended to meet potential renters in person.
“You can tell a lot about a man from looking in his eyes, my daddy always told me,” Mildred said to Perko over a cup of coffee in the Hillview sun room. “Did I already say ‘Thank you’ for the donuts? Well, thank you, kindly, anyway. What a nice young man you are.” Perko had brought a dozen Krispy Kremes. Between the two of them, he and Mildred had already eaten half the box.
“I gave Orvus four children, don’t you know,” Mildred said. “Two girls and two boys, before I lost Orvus during childbirth.” She paused and watched Perko pick up flakes of dried honey from the table top with his fingertip. She gave a little shrug and continued: “It happened when I went into labor with Jeremy. Orvus sent our eldest, Marianne, to fetch the doctor. Doc Grainger lived about five miles up the main road. Marianne was only nine at the time, but we were used to trusting her with important errands. She was pretty independent and knew how to handle a horse.”
“Right. So, do I gotta give the rent money to this Marianne or to you?” Perko asked, scratching his chin.
“To me, young man. It’s my farm, not the children’s.” She squinted at him and stuck out her lower lip. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I told Orvus, go get some hot water and clean towels. And step on it, I said, ’cause you know that number four is like as not to come along even faster than number three did. So Orvus tells Baxter—he was six, no, seven years old—to build a fire in the woodstove. Baxter ran straight out to the woodshed to get some logs. Then, don’t you know it, Greta—she was barely two and a half—well she decides she wants a bottle, and she started to cry.
“‘Don’t you be worried about me, Orvus Perrigrew,’ I told him. ‘You just give Greta her bottle and then come back with some water for me to drink. The doctor will be here soon enough. Besides, it isn’t as if I’m new to childbearing.’
“So off he goes and leaves me in the bedroom, and Greta follows him out to the kitchen. There was a jug of milk left from breakfast because I always made sure we kept enough for the afternoon. I guess Orvus must have been pouring the milk into a saucepan to heat it on the stove, because I heard Greta get all excited. I figure she was hanging on his pant leg the way she liked to do some times, because I heard Orvus say, ‘No sweetheart. We can’t play airplane right now. Poppy’s got to take care of Mommy.’
“The next thing I hear is Baxter shouting out as he stomped back in the kitchen: ‘Here’s the wood, Poppy.’ I figure the door must have struck Orvus on the backside because, well, Baxter told me later, Orvus just spun around, with Greta hanging onto his pants for dear life. I heard her shrieking, but it was for joy, you know, the way babies do. Baxter stumbled and I heard the logs he was carrying spill onto the kitchen floor. Baxter told me Orvus’s feet flew out from under him when he stepped on one of the rolling logs. He landed flat on his back. That was one very loud crash, mercy me. I jumped right out of the bed, labor or no labor, and walked across the bedroom so I could see into the kitchen. The saucepan had flown out of Orvus’s hands and clattered down beside him. There was milk everywhere. Greta was bouncing up and down on Orvus’s belly and shrieking, ‘Again, Poppy! Again! Do fly-fly again!’
“Orvus wasn’t moving and I figured he must have smacked his head on the corner of the stove.”
“So, was he dead?”
“Dead? Dear me, no! It would take more than a knock on the noggin to do in Orvus Perrigrew. He was fine stock, my husband.” Mildred reached for another donut, took one bite and then licked her fingers as she passed it back and forth between her hands. Perko sighed and scraped some dirt from under his thumbnail.
“After just a moment or two, Orvus’s eyes fluttered open and he said, ‘I better get some more milk.’
“Well, it was early in the day to be milking a cow for the second time, but Orvus wasn’t about to leave his baby girl without her bottle, so he picked up the milk jug and headed out to the barn. And that’s the very last I saw of him.”
“So he just took off on you? Left you with the kids? End of story?” Perko asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Of course not! What a silly question. He would never do such a thing. Besides, like I told you, Orvus died during childbirth.” She paused to eat half the donut. Perko grabbed one himself and shoved it whole into his mouth, pushing the last bit in with his thumb and wiping his fingers on his jeans.
“See, I got the pains again right after he left the house and so I made my way back to the bedroom. Baxter did his best to take care of me, and Marianne arrived with Doc Grainger soon enough. No one even noticed Orvus was missing until after Jeremy was born, cleaned up, and in my arms. Except Greta, of course, but her crying didn’t get a whole lot of attention once my pains began in earnest, and I was making all my own noises and such.
“Then Doc Grainger said to Baxter to go get his pa so he could meet his new son, and Baxter went out and came back white as a ghost two minutes later. He said, ‘Poppy’s under Bessie’—she was our cow—‘and he don’t look too good at all and he’s not talking or nothing.’
“Seems somehow Orvus must have tripped up Bessie while trying to milk her, or maybe she was real upset at getting milked a second time so early in the day. Whatever the case, Bessie’s leg was broken and all fifteen hundred pounds of her were laying on top of Orvus. Baxter said he had an awful grimace frozen on his face. Like he knew he was done for when it happened—and just how much Bessie was worth to our family. But there isn’t a whole lot a soul can do when a cow lands on you.”
Mildred quietly finished her donut and licked the honey off her fingers once more. She fixed Perko Ratwick in the eye and said, “So that’s how come I raised my children all alone on the farm. And maybe having to work so hard while they were growing up is why one by one they left the land as soon as a better opportunity came along—not that I blame them—and now I’m just too old to live out there but still I can’t bring myself to sell it because, well, you know, you just never know, do you. Maybe one of the grandkids will want to revive the farm. Or maybe they’ll just sell it once I’m in the ground, but that will be the kids’ decision, not mine. Now, what did you say you wanted to do out there, Mr. Smith?”
Perko shoved the last donut into his mouth, took a gulp of coffee and resumed staring at Mildred with his best attempt at an interested look. Half a minute passed before it dawned on him that the old biddy had stopped talking.
“Mr. Smith? I say, why is it you want to rent my farm?”
“I’m a…ahem…a painter,” he said. “I’m looking for a place where I can get close to nature. I especially like plants.” He paused and blinked slowly. Mildred stared at him like he was speaking in a foreign tongue. “Some of my canvases are really big, so I figure I’ll set up my operation in your barn.”
Mildred continued to stare. She asked, “Couldn’t you just rent an apartment or something? What do you need with a farm?”
“It’s real important to me to find peace and quiet. Money’s no object where my creativity is concerned.”
“You do realize the hayfields have already been rented to the neighbor.”
“I just need the barn.”
“It comes with the house, too.”
“Fine by me.”
“I’d feel better if you had a look at it first. I don’t want any landlord-tenant headaches at my age.”
“No really, I—”
The look in Mildred’s eye made Perko shut up and listen. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been put in his place quite so firmly. She said, “Here’s the key. You go have a look around and come back and tell me what you decide.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She pushed herself to her feet and shuffled across the room to where a game of Snap was getting started. She gave him one last look, jerked her chin toward the door, and said, “Deal me in.”
Perko sat in the bow of the fishing boat wearing a floppy hat bedecked with lures. Using the electric motor, Frederick navigated close to the rocky shore. The water was deep enough he could have used the outboard but a silent approach was critical. They got within twenty feet of Nghiem before he even realized he had company. He smiled, waved, and cast his line in the opposite direction. When he noticed the boat was nosing up against the causeway he warned them to watch out for the bottom. Even when Perko jumped in the knee deep water and scrambled across the zebra mussel-encrusted rock, it was clear the Vietnamese took him for just another fisherman until he got a good look at his face. By then it was too late. Perko clocked him with a paddle and Frederick leapt ashore to help drag him into the boat. Frederick insisted on snatching the white pail full of fish. It wasn’t until he fired up the outboard and buzzed out onto the lake that there was any sign of movement from the white van facing the road. If Nghiem’s bodyguards did fire their guns, they missed. Perko couldn’t hear a damn thing over the two hundred twenty horsepower engine’s roar.
Drifting in the middle of the lake, Perko prodded Nghiem with his foot and splashed water on his face. “Scream and I’ll cut you some gills,” Perko said.
The man just lay there on his side in the boat’s hull, his eyes blinking like a bass.
“You’re gonna make a phone call,” Perko said. “My cash gets delivered, with a ten thousand kicker, before morning. All of it. If it don’t, the rest of your houses are going down, and we’ll find out how well you swim with your hands tied to your feet.” Perko asked him what number to dial then held the phone to his ear.
Frederick baited a hook and dropped a line off starboard.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise, Mr. Smith,” Mildred said, flipping open the fresh box of Krispy Kremes.
Perko Ratwick remained standing. There were plenty more donuts where those came from, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear about life—nor death—on the farm he was about to rent. “Everything checks out,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
“Do sit, Mr. Smith. Tell me about your paintings.”
He leaned in close and said quietly, “I noticed a little unconventional wiring in a couple of the outbuildings. Mind if I clean that up while I’m out there?”
She nibbled a donut and looked as though she hadn’t heard.
“Mrs. Perrigrew, I’d like to rent your farm.”
“Like the ad said, it’ll be three thousand dollars a month, in cash, and I would very much like it if you brought a box of these donuts with you each time you come to pay me.” Perko offered Mildred his hand and she shook it. “You know, you do smell rather like Orvus did. A real manly smell. Have you been fishing?”
Forcing a smile, Perko took a thick wad of bills out of his jacket pocket. Mildred’s eyes sparkled wide when she saw the money, then narrowed again suddenly. “First and last month’s rent, of course,” she said.
Perko grinned and nodded. It wasn’t like he’d be coming back any time soon.
“And did I mention that there would be a damage deposit? I can’t very well be chasing after a young buck like you at my age, now can I?”
“Here’s the first eight months rent,” he said, thumbing a stack of bills and laying them on the table. “And other five grand damage deposit.”
Mildred’s eyes darted left and right as she swept the money off the table and tucked it into a large pocket on the front of her frock. She seemed satisfied nobody had witnessed the transaction.
“Well, now, that’s mighty thoughtful of you, Mr. Smith.”
As Perko turned to leave, she said, “Mr. Smith, could you do me a favor?”
He forced his shoulders to relax and pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face. “What?”
“On your way out, kindly tell that nice young man at the front desk I will be taking the bus to the Horned Owl Casino this evening, after all.”