REVIEW- NOVEMBER ROAD BY LOU BERNEY

November Road: A Novel Cover ImageLou Berney’s third book, The Long And Far Away Gone, proved him to be a major talent. He took two poignant mystery stories, tied them through theme, and deftly examined his characters through use of the detective story. With his latest, November Road, Berney uses the gangster thriller, tying two souls together through an American tragedy.

The story unravels the week after the JFK assassination. Frank Guidry, a Cajun fixer for New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello, realizes the murder is tied to the car he was asked to drop off at Dealy Plaza. Knowing he is a loose end Marcello has to cut, he hits the road to Vegas where Carlos’ rivals may help him.

Along the way, he meets Charlotte Roy, whose car has broken down. Charlotte took her two daughter and the dog and left her alcoholic husband. She yearns to make a life where she is more than a housewife. Guidry offers to drive all of them to California, since they will provide great cover. The situations both are escaping and the time on the road leads to an intense relationship, while a mob hitter, Barone, closes in.

Berney plays the plot, period, and each character like  jazz instruments in a melancholy ballad. We spend several chapters with both Guidry and Charlotte so we understand who they are and where they are coming from. Both want the exact opposite of what the other wants, yet embody that desire of the other. The relationship is both believable and bittersweet. The fact that it takes place during a national tragedy lends to the emotions. it also reinforces the story’s theme of fate. Berney looks at how each character faces fate and asks if it can be shaped. He then has Barone turns up in chapters like a steady beat of death growing faster faster. Berney even creates him with care, presenting something more than just a cold professional killer.

November Road is a thriller that taps into honest emotions that enhance the crime thriller it presents. By tying his characters into the JFK assassination, Berney examines loss, evolution, and human connection. In a way it becomes a reverse Casablanca, saying the lives of two people do at least mean a hill of beans. However, there is still an understanding of needed sacrifice.

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IN HER BONES by Kate Moretti

In Her Bones: A Novel Cover ImageI’ve been really excited about the resurgence of the psychological thriller—while I read all over the crime fiction genre, I especially enjoy reading about authentic women trapped in desperate situations (of their own making or not)—but they can occasionally be formulaic. The reader brings certain expectations, and for me those were blown out of the water with Kate Moretti’s latest, In Her Bones.

The story revolves around 30-year old Edie Beckett—a state employee with just a tenuous hold on sobriety and an unhealthy relationship with her brother.  The latter is the only one who knows that their shared history includes a mother who lives on death row, the convicted killer of 6 women. As Edie tries to exist outside the spotlight of her mother’s infamy, she fights a growing obsession—an unhealthy fascination with the families of her mother’s victims. One night she crosses a line and a man ends up dead—and suddenly Edie has become the prime suspect for his murder, with the detective who arrested her mother (and who has taken a keen interest in Edie) hot on her trail. She decides to go underground to find the real killer and clear her name but as she runs into dead ends, she starts to question whether perhaps she has more in common with her mother than she thought, and wonders if she too might be capable of murder.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that you could change your hair color, throw on glasses and different clothes and go underground. I’m also fascinated by the amount of information you can dig up on the internet –it’s truly disturbing how little privacy we have. Moretti takes these concepts and weaves a twisted tale of a young woman trying desperately to escape a childhood of trauma. This was one of those page-turners that kept me up way past my bedtime (but only for the one night it took to finish!)

Kate Moretti is the New York Times bestselling author of 6 previous novels, most recently the critically acclaimed The Blackbird Season. Her style has been compared to that of Ruth Ware and Megan Miranda, so anyone who likes the darker side of the domestic thriller won’t want to miss this one.

 

PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LINE BY MARTIN LIMON

A sign of a crime fiction series’ maturity is that the stories tend to get looser and in a very good way. There is less emphasis on plot and more faith put into character. The author provides stories for the protagonists to breathe, banter, and live as well as solve the crime. A prime example of this is The Line, Martin Limon’s latest to feature George Sueno and Ernie Bascome two Army CID cops stationed in South Korea during the early seventies.

Limon drops them into one of the best openings of the year. The two are called to investigate a body discovered on the demarcation bridge between North and South Korea. George and Ernie find the crime scene investigation touch and go, caught between the potential crossfire with the North Korean and U.S. Army pointing rifles at one another and the situation escalating.

The shaky political situation hounds them as they try to get proper justice served. They discover the victim to be Noh Jong-bei, a South Korean who is a soldier connected to the U.S. Army. The initial evidence leads to a private, Teddy Fusterman, a friend of Noh’s who was also seeing his sister, something the family didn’t approve of. While Sueno and Bascome believe in his innocence, the army is still more than willing to prosecute, to seemingly cool things down, and assigns them to locating a missing officers wife. The search leads them to the darker parts of Seoul and a possible link to Noh Jong-bei’s murder.

Both mysteries weave skillfully together. Limon places the reveals and reversals like the veteran professional he is and gives many of them emotional resonance. Together both stories give depth and range in the army and Korean society at the time, subtly examining the roles of women in both.

Limon also knows that the main reason we return to these books is because of George and Ernie. He gives them room to argue, discuss army life, women, and each other. We see how each complement the other without over statement and how they’ve developed a bond as brothers for justice in a system that sets that as a low priority. As much as they battle the army, though, it has become their home.

The Line strikes a perfect balance between plot and character. In doing so, it develops themes that are both deep and subtle. The story and the people in it reflect off of one another, creating an engaging mystery with a lot to say about the two clashing cultures it moves in. More importantly, it gives us two heroes we care about and wish we could share a beer with.

MEIKE’S REVIEW OF GREEN FEES

Green Fees: A Merit Bridges Legal Thriller Cover ImageAustin attorney Manning Wolfe has brought her considerable legal expertise to the crime fiction genre, and the result is a smart, fast-paced thriller series featuring Texas Lady Lawyer Merit Bridges.

In her latest, Green Fees, Wolfe spins a story of lies and treachery that reflects the perfect blend of humor and chills.  Austin is terrorized by a serial killer named The Enforcer who continues to elude law enforcement, but Merit is distracted when her predilection for younger men leads her to  become involved with the much-younger golf pro Mark Green. When Mark accepts help to pursue his PGA dreams, he becomes indebted to the wrong person—Russian loan shark Browno Zars—and comes to Merit for help. She uses every legal trick she can think of to loosen Zars’ grip on Green, not realizing that her actions have brought her to the attention of The Enforcer. As she’s captured and held against her will, facing certain torture and death, Merit has to dig deep within to confront pure evil.

The award-winning Wolfe strikes all the right notes with this series. Merit is surrounded by complex, relatable characters–like Betty, Merit’s colloquialism-spouting, Ann Richards-hairdo sporting office manager. Merit is mostly serious (she has an illustrious legal career and is a devoted mother to her dyslexic son Ace), but she also knows when to let her hair down and just go after that young man while sipping on some fine red wine. There’s a satisfying variety of characters that operate on all points of the spectrum spanning right and wrong. And as a bonus for those of us here in Austin, Wolfe’s deep love for the city shows in her meticulous and glowing descriptions of our town’s scenery.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST: ANGEL’S FLIGHT BY LOU CAMERON

If not integral to classic crime fiction, jazz at least has a strong relationship to the genre. Whether it be a mob-owned club or evidence of how hip the detective is, jazz is the primary background music to the writing. My own love of the music can be traced to my love of jazz. Because of this, I was intrigued about Stark House reprinting Angel’s Flight, a noir novel that covers the thirty years when jazz was the music of America.

Angel's Flight (Black Gat Books #10) Cover ImageThe book follows the feud between two musicians. Ben Harper plays bass for Daddy Holloway and his Hot Babies, an integrated band led by a genius behind the piano. He butts heads with Johnny Angel, an ambitious kid living with their gay drummer for lessons. Angel finagles his way into the band and through stealing the daughter of Big Daddy’s heart, steals the band. Ben fights him as they both rise in the industry, until World War Two takes him overseas.

After the war things escalate. Ben finds himself in Hollywood helping score a film so Angel doesn’t take the work away from a friend. This leads to his discovering a red-headed beauty with a killer voice, causing yet another battle between him and Johnny. After a nightmare USO tour in Korea, Ben gets leverage on a “dirty” record producer who gypped him and starts his own company that competes with a larger one owned by Johnny Angel. This leads to  final fight involving a senate investigation and murder, coming full circle with poetic noir irony.

Lou Cameron tells the story with the pace and style of a good Benny Goodman number. It covers three decades non-stop under three hundred pages. It is dense and tight. The jazz lingo gives it style, a subtle dark romanticism circles around the story like a breezy horn section, with a cutting cynicism serving as percussion. As it keeps moving, Cameron’s style becomes a major part of the story.

Cameron fills the tale in with detail. We get the drudgery of life on the road, the business of making dirty records and the dirtier business of payola that leads Ben to go up against the the mob and Angel. He also explores the race and sexuality in the scene as well as is other denizens. His definition of a hipster is worth the price alone.

Angel’s Flight gives us a rough and tumble tour through the jazz subculture at it’s peak, carrying the fate of two men, one foolish enough to think he can control it. Cameron plays it with style but with little nostalgia. He gives us an an art and business that can take the lives that exist in it and even worse, their souls.

DAVID CORBETT’S THE LONG-LOST LOVE LETTERS OF DOC HOLLIDAY SHOWS THE WEST CAN STILL BE WILD

The American West has returned as a hot spot for crime fiction. Revived by the likes of Craig Johnson and C.J. Box, sheriffs now square off with meth dealers instead of train robbers, instead of the cavalry, Indians fight crime and politics of the reservation, and a game warden can become an unlikely hero, fusing modern crime fiction with the classic western. David Corbett swaggers into this territory with the fresh and inventive The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday.Join us this evening, August 27th, at 7pm to hear Corbett speak about the book. 

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday Cover ImageHe gives us a unique protagonist in Tuck Mercer, a former rodeo rider and western art forger who became a western artifact appraiser after a stint in prison. The man is Sam Elliot with a touch of slick salesman thrown in. His time for a big payoff occurs when he comes into possession of the correspondences between the infamous gunfighter Doc Holliday and his sweetheart Mattie. He enlists Lisa Ballermo, and arts attorney with a crush on him, to sell them. News of the letters comes to a shady judge who will do anything to get his hands on them, including the use of a local militia group. Soon there is enough gunfire to give Tombstone in the 1880s a run for its money.

Corbett studies several facets of the west. Tuck and Maria have to maneuver through the neuvo-rich who both live and profit from cowboy fantasies, as they search for a buyer. They also encounter the sons of the pioneers who have lived there for generations living the values the history has instilled in them. Others have twisted those values like other terrorists have done with the Qur’an, and turned them into something xenophobic and bullying. He frames all of it by weaving in the correspondences between Doc and Mattie, creating an elegant counterpoint of the old west to the raucous new one.

The Long Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday uses it’s story and characters to paint a vivid landscape of the American west. Corbett melds action thriller, courtroom drama, and Elmore Leonard-style crime novel to explore the territory that defines our culture and how we define it with legend, lore, and fact colliding together. Thank God a literary prospector like David Corbett was the one to come along and mine it.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.