S.C. Perkins won the St. Martin’s Malice domestic award for her debut Murder Once Removed. Her amateur sleuth Lucy Lancaster holds the profession of a genealogist, allowing her to touch many of the themes the mystery genre explores. In this first outing, Lucy contends with a murder in the past to solve one in the present and prevent another in the future.

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageA wealthy senatorial candidate hires her to look into his family’s history. The discovery of a daguerreotype and a journal leads Lucy to the possibility that one of his ancestors was murdered in 1849 by a relative of his opponent. When the friend and former employee of Lucy who was holding the daguerreotype is murdered and the picture is stolen, Lucy uses her skills to find the killer . Her search leads her into a conspiracy of land grabs, political assassination and old ghosts.

Perkins uses Lucy’s profession to every advantage. She gives us great detail in how one traces ancestry and the actual art and science that is in involved. The skill plays beautifully into reoccurring themes of the mystery, such as identity and the effects of the past. Perkins also uses it to have fun with Texas mores and pride in ancestry. Lucy’s bread and butter is a site called “How Texan Are You?”

Murder Once Removed is a debut that promises great potential for an amateur sleuth series. Lucy Lancaster proves to be a smart, believable and resourceful heroine. While far from  hard boiled, it avoids steps into being cozy cute. Plus her skill at genealogy allows us to believably take on many different trends in mystery fiction. I look forward to what sordid history Lucy will find in the future.

PICK OF THE MONTH – METROPOLIS BY PHILIP KERR

It is difficult reading Philip Kerr’s Metropolis and not seeing it as a swan song for his series character Bernie Gunther, a pre- and post-war private detective in Berlin, and his creator Philip Kerr. Kerr wrote the novel knowing he had inoperable cancer and this would be his last work. Whether intentional or not, the book becomes a summing up of Bernie and his era by going back to the beginning.

Metropolis (A Bernie Gunther Novel #14) Cover ImageKerr reintroduces us to Bernie as a police detective in Kripo, just being promoted to the Murder Squad. It is the Wiemar era, 1928. Berlin is both decadent and suffering from reparations from The Great War. A killer roams the streets, taking scalps of prostitutes. When homeless, disabled veterans turn up murdered, Bernie believes it to be the work of the same man.

The case weaves Bernie through the culture and corruption of his time and place. Angerstien, a major player in one of Berlin’s crime rings whose daughter was murdered by the killer, assists Bernie and offers to give up the arsonist of an infamous fire if he catches the killer. When Bernie decides to disguise himself as a legless vet, he is assisted by Bridgette, an alluring makeup artist working on Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera as it debuts. Bernie constantly mocks the show and its music. He even acts as a technical adviser for screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who is developing a thriller with her husband Fritz Lang about the hunt for a murderer. A viewing of M is a must either before or after reading.

Kerr gets to the core of Bernie by looking at him between the wars. He has already developed his cynicism having fought in the trenches of The Great War and working Vice, yet he still believes that justice is not an elusive thing. He has already developed his sardonic sense of humor. Some of his best quips are in here. However, we see what may be his last chance at real love with Bridgette, before he takes on the trope of the lonely private eye.

Angerstein asks a question to Bernie, foreshadowing of things to come. “When you’re the last honest man in Berlin, will anybody care?”

I couldn’t help but think that Kerr knows how we, the readers, have cared about what we know Bernie will go through, even if everyone in his world doesn’t.

Metropolis looks at Bernie and Berlin when both had a lot in common. they’ve been though a lot, think they’ve seen a lot, but have no idea what is in store. By ending at the beginning, we reflect on the dark, harrowing, insightful, yet entertaining journey Bernie’s and his creator took us on.

Thanks for the trip, Phil.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST: YOU’LL GET YOURS BY WILLIAM ARD

William Ard is an author mainly known to only the most avid genre followers. Dead from cancer by age thirty-seven in 1961, he wrote over forty books in the last ten years of his life. The fact that many of them were under pen names doomed him to further obscurity. Recently Stark House reprinted one of them, You’ll Get Yours in the Black Gat line. It may have originally been under the name Thomas Wills, but the story is pure Ard.

You'll Get Yours Cover ImageIt was the first of two books he wrote about New York private eye, Barney Glines. A publicity agent hires Barney to be the go between to return some stolen jewels from his clients, starlet Kyle Shannon. Barney soon discovers that this is the cover for a blackmail plot and as he gets in deeper he is framed for the murder of a burlesque dancer. There are few people he can trust , including the the ones who hired him.

Barney Glines is very much a detective in the Ard vein. Unlike many writers chasing the popularity of Mike Hammer in the fifties, Ard, like some of his contemporaries, Thomas B Dewey and Ross MacDonald, created a sensitive and more socially aware detective. He could still handle his own in the streets, but he carried sympathy for many he met on them. This liberal empathy allowed the author to tap into the melancholy tone of the genre at a perfect pitch.

His view of women is also more sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of women. Much of what drives the plot is Barney’s love for Kyle and the need to rescue her from the men exploiting her. He also shows a great depth of understanding for the life of the murdered burlesque lady as well. This aspect of his work allows for a heart-breaker of an ending.

You’ll Get Yours is a great way to discover William Ard. I hope Stark House finds a way to publish the other Barney Glines book, Mine To Avenge. Both author and detective prove you can be hard boiled and have heart.

 

REVIEW: A FRIEND IS A GIFT YOU GIVE YOURSELF BY WILLIAM BOYLE

William Boyle is steadily making a name for himself  in crime fiction. He looks at the working and criminal class of his native Brooklyn with both an unflinching and sympathetic eye. In his latest, A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, he demonstrates his range with that talent.

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself Cover ImageRena Ruggerio, a mob widow of “Gentle” Vic Ruggerio, defends the advances of her elderly neighbor Enzio with an ash tray to the head. When he hits the floor and there’s blood everywhere, she panics and takes off in Enzio’s classic Impala to the Bronx where Angela, the daughter she hasn’t seen since she discovered she was involved with Richie, Vic’s right hand man. Angel turns her away but she meets up with her granddaughter, Lucia, at the house next door occupied by Wolfstein, a retired porn star who supplements her income scamming men. Lucia wants to live with Rena, because her mother is hooking up with Richie. Due to Richie’s slaughter of several crime family members, an old mark showing up at Wolfstein’s house, and a bag packed with mob money they end up with the three ladies hitting the road in the Imapala to Wolfstein’s freind Mo in Florida with Richie and a killer named Crea behind them. Oh, and Enzio is still alive and wants his car back.

This book differs in some ways from Boyle’s first two, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, that both carried more somber tones. They showed the effect of isolation and how people become trapped in their lives and behavior. This story starts that way, with Rena contemplating how anything past her block is foreign to her. However when circumstances pull her with the brasher and more outgoing Wolfstein, she sees a larger world and place for her in it. Boyle tells a believable story of connection, particularly the female variety, and the give and take that plays out in it.

There are a lot more laugh out loud moments than you may be used to in Boyle’s work, but the humor services the characters instead of the other way around, which often happens in books of this type. In fact there is a touch of melancholy to some of it as is Rena and Wolfstein choose to laugh instead of cry at what is dealt to them. These women refuse to be punchlines and he respects that.

A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself  is a look at female friendship up against the worst men can produce. It’s funny, thrilling, and scary at times. Boyle may have broadened his canvas, yet keeps that tone grounded and his characters real. If this one won’t get you to love him, I don’t know what will.

PICK OF  THE MONTH – THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE BY JOE R. LANSDALE

When it comes to straight up entertainment, few authors can hold a candle to Joe Lansdale. His working class East Texas voice provides both a perfect and unique bed for action and humor, and few characters are as entertaining as liberal redneck Hap and his gay, black, Republican buddy Leonard. The two have been in more scrapes and exchanged more quips than both the real and fictional Butch and Sundance. Joe’s latest foray with the boys, The Elephant Of Surprise, proves to be one of the most entertaining in the series.

The Elephant of Surprise (Hap and Leonard) Cover ImageThe story is stripped down and simple. Hap and Leonard are trying to get home before a storm hits and comes across an Asian American woman with her tongue sliced halfway through with a short kung-fu expert and a big guy who’s good with guns after her. Since they’re good guys and Texans, they help the lady and soon have more bad men after them. Things escalate from chase, siege, more chases, and a showdown in a bowling alley as the storm builds.

In many ways, this is Joe getting back to basics.With the exception of a couple of calls Hap makes to his wife Brett and their deputy pal Manny helping out, any of the usual supporting characters only appear in the last chapter. Joe keeps the plot simple, although he makes us wonder how the damsel in distress’s story is on the up and up. It allows for a great amount of forward momentum with danger escalating as they get more and more outnumbered. Lansdale taps deeper into the pulp and fifties paperback roots of the earlier books in the series.

The Elephant Of Surprise is like a master blues man’s acoustic set. It’s taking everything to its bad ass bare essentials. Joe Lansdale shows that’s all he needs to rock.

Mark your calendars to join us April 3rd at 7pm when Joe is here to speak and sign copies.

SCOTT’S TOP FIVE CRIME FICTION SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS PART 2 – ANTHOLOGIES

To continue celebrating short stories for a short month, we’re moving to some of my favorite anthologies. Anthologies are a great way to discover new talent and enjoy your favorite authors at the same time. All the ones I picked here have a theme or challenge each author had to adhere to and some help support good causes.

Lone Star Noir (Akashic Noir) Cover ImageLone Star Noir edited by Bobby and Johnny Byrd – I might be biased since it covers my adopted state, but this gives a great overview of the the great crime writing talent we have in Texas as well as grabbing a few writers who normally write outside the genre. Joe Lansdale riffs off the movie Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Jesse Sublett pulls an Austin heist man’s revenge, and George Wier’s “Duckweed” is a fun yarn with a man on the run. Lisa Sandlin’s story lead to her wonderful PI story The Do Right. The Byrds even unearthed a story by the late great James Crumley. This is a great example of the Akashic Noir anthologies.

Trouble In The Heartland: Crime Fiction Based On The Songs Of Bruce Sprinsteen edited by Joe Clifford- Being a Springsteen fan makes me biased again. Whether playing off the song title or playing close to the lyrics, these stories capture the working class pathos of The Boss. Dennis Lehane kicks it into gear with his take on “State Trooper,” then Jordan Harper plants his own flag, using “Because The Night.” Hilary Davidson takes a dark haunting look at “Hungry Heart” and Les Edgerton gets you into the mind of a cold blooded “Ice Man.” If you can handle a lot of stories with brutality give this one a shot. Proceeds go to The Bob Woodruff Foundation for veterans.

In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper Cover ImageIn Sunlight Or In Shadow edited by Lawrence Block – Block had each auther pick a Dennis Hopper painting and write a story behind it. Jeffery Deaver used “Hotel by The Railway” for a spy yarn, Stephen King shows “The Room In New York” is less serene than it appears, and the editor’s interpretation of “The Automat” is haunting. All of the stories show how great art and an artist from one medium can spark creativity in ones from an other.

Wall Street Noir edited by Peter Spiegelman – Speigelman, a former programmer on Wall Street took the Akashic Noir idea of stories centered around a certain place and expanded it to the reach of that place, starting with the street, New York City, then U.S., and finally internationally. Megan Abbott looks at crime and finance in Harlem, John Burdette looks at business and sex in Asia, and Peter Blauner gives a story about a broker, his psychiatrist, and the movie The Godfather.

The Highway Kind: Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers, and Dark Roads: Original Stories by Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, C. J. Box, Diana Gabaldon, Ace Atkins & Others Cover ImageThe Highway Kind edited by Patrick Milliken – A great collection of stories of crime and automobiles. George Pelecanos uses a muscle car as a meditation on rage, death, and change in “The Black Ford Cuda.” Joe Lansdale (who is in three of these anthologies) creates a Depression-era Tom Sawyer-like romp with “Driving To Geronimo’s Grave”, and Wallace Stroby puts us on a desolate highway with a tense encounter with a motorist and a biker in “night Run” that carries echoes of the Richard Matheson classic “Duel.”

SCOTT’S TOP FIVE CRIME FICTION SHORT STORY COLLECTION PART 1 – AUTHOR COLLECTIONS

With BookPeople celebrating short stories for this short month of February, I thought I’d share some of my favorite collections. First is author collections. Many of these authors have written  some wonderful novels, but their craft really shines in short fiction. In all these books, not one writer has a weak one in the bunch.

The Big Book of the Continental Op Cover ImageThe Big Book of Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett – The punk rock of detective fiction. Fast, hard, and from the proletariat. Hammett, a former Pinkerton operative, tore apart the gentility of the drawing room detective and made him a working class hero. His story “The Tenth Clew” is practically a dismissal of the Sherlock Holmes story.

Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – Every tale in here is a fine if tarnished gem. Each is a violent portrait of a decaying Midwest where the gun culture has met the drug culture. A story reminiscent of the Maltese falcon, but with a coon hound replacing the black bird, has a great last line.

Love and Other Wounds: Stories Cover ImageLove And Other Wounds by Jordan Harper- It’s as if Harper took Hammett’s rough and tumble hard boiled style and expanded on it for this century. All of these are edgy tales with that views many of it’s survivors and criminals on the fringe with a beautiful dark romanticism.

Cannibals: Stories From The Edge Of The Pine Barrens by Jen Conley- Conley delivers a wonderful empathy to her characters whether they be a single barmaid trying to make the best choice for her grandchild for a different life than her or her daughter’s, small time crooks, or her reccurring police officer Andrea Vogel.

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime Cover ImageTake Out by Rob Hart – Hart finds intersection of crime and food (or sometimes drink) in these well crafted tales that often explore his home of New York City as well. The story “Creampuff” about a bouncer at a designer pastry shop is worth the price alone. Hart shows there can be a lot of humor and humanity in hard boiled.