REVIEW: PAPER SON BY S.J. ROZAN

The return of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith is great news to many private eye fans. Lydia, a first generation Chinese American, and Bill, a former Navy man, operate out of New York, trading off points of view with each book. The unique pairing allows them to travel through many of the sub genres and crime and detective fiction. Now after close to a decade long hiatus, the two are back in Paper Son, a novel that drops them in a different environment.

Paper Son: A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel Cover ImageLydia’s mother, who has never been proud of her profession, shocks her by telling her she needs to help a family member Jefferson Tam, arrested for killing his father. She’s even more surprised when she learns she has relatives in Mississippi. Her mother insists she take “the white baboon”, so Bill tags along.

They are met by Lydia’s uncle, Captain Pete, a professional gambler who definitely looks like a relative of Lydia’s, but who could out southern Strother Martin. Pete acts as a guide through the territory and Mississippi Chinese culture. When he takes them to the grocery store Jefferson runs with his father, they find it ransacked. Soon they get word Jefferson has broken out of jail.

The book is an exquisite work of craftsmanship dealing out two different kinds of information. A seasoned pro in the genre like Rozan can lay down the clues, misdirections , and piece meal dirt with an organic ease moving the plot forward at an ever accelerating pace. Here she gives us a southern potboiler involving on line gambling, meth dealers, race, and politics. She also unearths a little known part of Chinese American life in the delta and their place in the state’s economics and racial tensions, facts that become as intriguing as the fiction they are presented in. She skillfully dovetails both in a climax involving where the story gets it’s title.

Paper Son provides a wonderful return for Bill and Lydia, ranking as one of the best in the series. The banter between the two of them is like comfort food with a Chinese barbecue rub provided by Captain Pete’s interjections. It also serves the function that a great mystery can take you into another culture. Welcome back, you two.

WAR IS OPPORTUNITY: A REVIEW OF  JAMES ELLROY’S THIS STORM

6-26_ThisStorm.jpgJames Ellroy never does anything half way. He plunges you into the dark American soul to its twilight depths, reader be damned. At times his books can be disorienting, but they are never boring. No modern writer is ambitious as him. He puts all the chips in on his latest, This Storm, both a sequel to Perfidia and the second  book in his second L.A. Quartet. At over 600 pages it is a mammoth story, sprawling on plot, cohesive on theme and character.

Ellroy said that he wanted to get across the idea of war as opportunity and we follow several home front opportunists at the beginning of 1942. Ellroy’s go to demon, Dudley Smith drives most of the entwining plot strands. The police sergeant, his cops, and his women are on lurid quests for a rapist, an old murder case, stolen gold, and fifth columnists in Mexico. All of them driven by ulterior motives or to cover up smuggling drugs or cheap labor.

Two other LAPD members figure prominently. Japanese American forensics expert Hideo Ashida returns under Dudley’s thumb to avoid an internment camp stay. Hillbilly cop Elmer Jackson takes on a larger role than he had in Perfidia, tracking down a case from a discovered decomposed body that  could be tied to an old unsolved arson that killed his brother.

Ellroy also brings his female characters up to the forefront. Joan Conville, who played a part in The Underworld USA trilogy is a young Navy nurse forced to work with Ashida to avoid manslaughter charges from a drunk driving accident. Kay Lake, from The Black Dahlia, proves to be both enemy and ally to her. Even Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia herself, also makes an appearance.

Everyone is scheming, murdering, backstabbing, and forming alliances for profit, survival, and politics. Sex and desire also fit in. Many get caught up in their sins, even Orson Welles, but few are innocent.

Ellroy embraces the dark heart of his characters. He pulls us in through the heady seduction of their sins. They are addicts to their behavior. He takes it up a notch in this quartet to the turn on of fascism, something were fighting abroad, while many embrace at the home front. It is exemplified in Dudley Smith who has taken up a swastika embossed gold bayonet as a favored weapon.

This Storm is not for the timid, for both its violence and vision. Its staccato  style burns through those 600 pages, outracing the reader at times. You don’t fully grasp the novel until days after reading. Ellroy takes us on a freewheeling rip through Hell brought to you by The Greatest Generation. Buckle up and trust no one.

REVIEW OF A RISKY DEVELOPMENT FOR LORETTA SINGLETARY

When it comes to writing small town crime fiction, Terry Shames is one of the masters. With Jarret Creek Texas, protected by the brought out of retirement Chief Of Police Samuel Craddock, she has created a believable community. In her latest. A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary, a significant member of the community goes missing.

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary: A Samuel Craddock Mystery (Samuel Craddock Mysteries) Cover ImageNoticing it’s been awhile since Loretta has stopped by his house with her cinnamon rolls to gossip, Samuel goes over to her house. He finds out that she had packed as well as left dirty dishes in the sink. He soon discovers Loretta was meeting a man through a singles website. Further poking around takes Deputy Maria Trevino, and him through the darker side of online dating. They also pick up ties to the Baptists Church wanting to sponsor the goat rodeo with the Catholics.

This is self assured crime fiction writing at its most entertaining. Shames has a clean and direct style and knows her characters. She knows her readers understand the friendship between Samuel and Loretta and relies on that understanding to develop tension as Samuel grows grumpier and more concerned over her. His frustrations with the goat rodeo controversy and the shenanigans of two dim bulb brothers become obstacles that hinder the investigation. Even a tryst with his girlfriend Wendy is bittersweet, as Samuel knows it’s just a respite from getting out of bed to face his worst fears about Loretta’s fate.

A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary is a prime example of Terry Shames as master craftsman. She juggles humor, suspense, character, and setting to whip up a narrative drive that keeps you reading and caring. She once again gives us a welcome return to Jarret Creek.

Shotgun Blast from the Past: The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

The Real Cool Killers (Harlem Detectives Series #2) Cover ImageChester Himes is so much more than the first major African-American crime writer. With his own take on Harlem that heightens both its vibrancy and violence, he was a master at world building. He was also one of the first writers to introduce absurdity into the genre. Both of these characteristics are on grand display in his 1958 novel, The Real Cool Killers.

It opens with a great depiction of Harlem life that turns into raucous violent comedy that would be at home in a Tarintino movie. The denizens at a local tavern, enjoying the drink and badass R&B. The author describes it so well, you can hear the music and smell the sweat. When The Greek, a white regular, drops in, he gets the ire of a customer who comes at him with a knife. The man loses his knife and hand to the bartender and his meat cleaver. The Greek runs out and is chased down the street by Sonny Jenkins, a local drunk with a pistol. Sonny fires and The Greek droops dead.

That’s when Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Johnson, Hime’s black Harlem cops, hit the scene. They attempt to arrest Jenkins, but The Real Cool Moslems, a street gang in robes and turbans, descends on them. One tosses a bottle of perfume at Coffin, thinking it is acid, something that scarred his face before, and guns down the youth. The gangs runs off, taking Sonny with them. It becomes more complicated when they discover Sonny’s gun only fires blanks. If that isn’t enough, Coffin’s daughter is in with the gang.

With Coffin sidelined for the shooting, Gravedigger is on his own in the search for The Real Cool Moslems and Sonny. He hits the streets, questioning hookers, shaking down hustlers, and not above resorting to pistol whipping or gunplay in his urban hunt. He works more with his white brothers in blue than he has in the previous books. This allows the character to confront the notions whites have of both blacks and Harlem.

As in most of Hime’s Harlem Cycle, it feels like the story will burst from its tight plot and short page length. He packs it dense with lively verbs and detail to express the neighborhood and its people. He sets the bar for setting, taking what most authors use as local color and creating an unwieldy, living, breathing organism that’s dangerous. It’s somewhat ironic, since Himes never lived there.

Humor is prevalent throughout the book. It is often tied to the violence and casual attitude toward it. The dialogue pops and dances. everyone has a justification for their actions and it’s usually hilarious. Himes said he used absurdity because that is the daily experience of a black man in white America.

The Real Cool Killers shows Himes Harlem as fast and colorful, full of sex, violence, and humor. It moves to hot jazz and low down blues. It’s entertaining to read about, hell to survive.

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.