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.

A MURDEROUS FEAST: A REVIEW OF ROB HART’S TAKE-OUT

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime Cover ImageRob Hart is one of those rising voices of crime fiction who deserves all the praise he gets. he melds his well learned craftsmanship with a gift of delivering the hard boiled tropes with a fresh and human take. Take-Out a collection of his short work with several new stories, acts as evidence for his talents, allowing you to view his story sense  in smaller models and see how he tackles scenarios.

The stories carry a common thread, some on thin technicality, of an intersection of crime and food (sometimes drink). Hart finds meals as a source of odd bonding, like the history of a relationship between and bagel shop owner and a mobster, and often as a sideways approach to weave both suspense and misdirection at the same together as he does in the final story, “Have You Eaten” (Which can be read here- https://mysterypeople.wordpress.com/2019/03/29/crime-fiction-friday-have-you-eaten-by-rob-hart/). Often, as captured in “Confessions Of  A Taco Truck Owner” and “Bhut Jolokia” it is the source of all out combat. He taps into the emotions, economics, and sociology that swirl around food and restaurant life, with stories forming a crime fiction version of Anthony Bourdain essays.

Many of the stories are also an examination of his city, New York. “Creampuff”, possibly my favorite story, about a bouncer at a trendy pastry shop is a bittersweet ode to the sense of a borough’s community as he pokes fun at its pretension. “Knock-Off” centers on a Time Square Elmo (or “Almo’ to avoid lawsuits) who works as a drug courier and allows Hart to act as a twenty-first century Damon Runyon as he looks at the city’s colorful street characters. It also serves as a prime example of how he uses the city’s identifiable sites, bars, and corner establishments as benign fronts for its darker underbelly.

“Butcher’s Block” can be used as a course in story craft. Nova, chef and partner in a small restaurant, finds herself in a game that is a cross between Top Chef and Saw. The M.C., “The Butcher” announces the sins that brought each contestant to his kitchen from hell intermittently as they are forced to take on cooking challenges where they can sabotage the other. Hart entwines the suspense for nova’s physical survival with our curiosity of how this seeming innocent got here. Both fuel a drive to a climax and both pay off in their reveals and turn what starts out as a broad satire and makes it human.

It is that depiction of humanity that serves as a key to Rob Hart’s work. It’s the indelible mark in all these stories and his larger work. He uses it to provide a narrative drive that can deliver humor, believable plot reversals, horrifying violence, and poignancy all together in less than twenty pages. Food for thought.

 

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.

Reviewing Clifton Adams

Clifton Adams is an author more people should know of. When his name does come up, it is usually associated with one of the many westerns the back to back Spur award winner wrote. I was introduced  to his work when author Craig Johnson gave me a copy of Stranger In Town as a gift. However he wrote five hard boiled crime novels in the fifties that, along with his tales on the dark frontier, made him into and influence to writers in both genres.

Stranger in Town Cover ImageDonald Westlake cited his gem of a western, The Desperado, as an influence on his Parker heist novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. ” . . . it first introduced me to the notion of the character adapting to his forced separation from normal society.”

In many ways the book comes off as the forming of a Parker in the west. Adams gives us a map of wrong timing and bad choices that turn rancher’s son Tall Cameron into a hardened outlaw. The violence is swift and always carries consequence, with little romance to life on the trail. Noose for the Desperado, a rare sequel from Adams, is practically a heist novel in western dress. Tall rides into an outlaw town and gets involved with a heist, while also spotting his one chance at redemption. Whom Gods Destroy Cover Image
In at least three of his crime novels, reprinted from Stark House, the leads demonstrate few redemptive qualities. Roy Foley in Whom Gods Destroy returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral and decides to stay and become a bootlegging kingpin, since Oklahoma was still stuck with prohibition until the late fifties. The story becomes Scarface in the heartland, depicting Roy’s climb to the top through the operation and how it works. Adam’s detail for the boot legging trade is very much like Don Winslow did for the narco trade in his Cartel trilogy.

While money plays a big part in Roy’s game, he’s mainly out for revenge. He has it out for the town that kicked him around when he was on the other side of the tracks. In particular is the woman who shunned him in high school who is now married to a politician he’s out to control. This lands a strong noir emotional drive to the gangster tale.

The protagonist in Death’s Sweet Song is less complex in motivation, but no less in relationships. Joe Harper owns a failing gas station and motor court. The rare customer arrives with his platinum blond wife. Joe discovers him to be a safe man out to heist the local box factory with the local hood. Joe, a former employee who knows the factory layout pushes  his way into the job to get his piece of the pie. He also wants the blond. You can presume the crime doesn’t go off as planned, but that’s just the start.

Never Say No to a Killer (Black Gat Books #13) Cover ImageRoy Stuart may be Clifton Adams’ most ruthless crime fiction bad man in Never Say Know To A Killer. He murders a guard in the first chapter during a prison break. He’s supposed to meet his old cell mate on the other side but finds his widow instead. The couple ran a blackmail ring and a mark got violent with a cell mate and took him out and is gunning for her. Roy agrees to take care of the guy as long he becomes her partner. When another woman enters into their business, it goes bad.

There is little to like any of these three men. They often carry a chip on their shoulders for not having grabbed that brass ring and often live in the shadow of their fathers. Adams doesn’t use either as an excuse, but simply a means of motivation into dark territory. They rarely have an epiphany or find their way to Heaven with a redemptive sacrifice. These men have put themselves on a fast track to Hell. Adams understood the crime fiction fans didn’t want sermons, they wanted to follow nasty people doing nasty things.
Adams used the familiarity with his Oklahoma home as an advantage. The small town settings prove to be a trap or challenge for his protagonists criminal goals, since everyone knows or recognizes him. It also allows him to punch holes in the myth of small town mores. He often did this in his westerns as well .
He often used interesting ways to evoke mood. His sparseness played into his description of towns, often with a jaundice eye. Few writers used sound as effectively. He uses the tension of approaching horse hooves to open The Desperado.
The Desperado / A Noose for the Desperado Cover Image
I awoke suddenly and lay there in the darkness, listening to the rapid faraway thud off hoofbeats. The horse was traveling fast, and occasionally the rhythmic gait would falter and become uneven, then catch and come on again in the direction of the ranch house. It was a tired horse. It had been pushed hard and for too long. I could tell by the way it was running.
Pa had heard it too. I heard the bedsprings screech downstairs as he got up. The old wall clock began to clang monotonously. I didn’t bother to count the strokes, but I knew it must be twelve o’clock. The hoofbeats were getting louder now.
 
Clifton Adams was one of those great genre writers who came out of World War Two. He served as a tank commander, and one of his other books, The Long Vendetta, deals with a man who served in the same capacity being stalked by someone who may be connected to a tragic mistake he made in war time. He told stories of little sentimentality and unsensentionalized violence. While fun reads, they also give us an interesting view of the era he wrote in, showing that not everyone in the greatest generation was that great.

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.

Three Picks for March

Run Away Cover ImageRun Away by Harlan Coben: A few months ago, Simon Greene and his wife Ingrid made the difficult decision not to go after their drug addicted daughter Paige when she ran away to her abusive boyfriend Aaron. One morning Simon sees Paige in Central Park, a shadow of her former self, playing guitar for tips, but when he tries to talk to her Aaron intervenes. Countless cell phone cameras are there to record their encounter, and the resulting video of a privileged white man who tries to accost a young woman and then beats the homeless man who comes to her aid quickly goes viral. A few months later Aaron is dead and Paige is missing, and Simon is drawn into the dark underbelly of the New York drug scene to try to find her. You just can’t turn the pages fast enough. – Meike

 

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself Cover ImageA Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle: The incredibly funny yet tough novel follows a mob widow and retired porn star thrown together through fate involving family dysfunction, bad men, and stolen mafia cash. Boyle works the humor toward the characters instead of the other way around and never lets it mute the danger these ladies are in or the people they are. Instead it serves as a way to explore female friendship. Major actresses over forty should be fighting over the film rights. – Scott

 

 

 

The American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel Cover ImageThe American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear: When a young American correspondent named Catherine Saxon is found murdered in her London apartment, Maisie is called in to investigate her death. She’s asked to work with Mark Scott, an American agent from the US Department of Justice–and the man who helped Maisie get out of Hitler’s Munich in 1938. While the blitzkrieg rains terror and destruction on London, Maisie is torn between the need to find Catherine’s killer and the need to love and protect her young ward Anna–and the pull of her feelings for the American agent. – Meike

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST – THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH BY DAN J. MARLOWE

The Name of the Game Is Death is considered one of the hardest of the hard hard boiled. It’s right up there with Paul Cain’s Fast One, packed with action, tough guy dialogue, and dangerous dames. What really makes it quintessential to the genre is the hard case at the center of it.

The Name of the Game Is Death / One Endless Hour Cover ImageA bank robber going by the name Earl Drake, admitting it’s not his real one, is introduced to us in the middle of one of the most exciting robberies put on paper. The job goes haywire when the getaway driver loses his cool. Earl gets shot in the arm and tells the only other survivor, Bunny, to take the money and send it to him in thousand dollar increments. When the cash quits coming, Earl goes to the return address in Hudson, Florida under the guise of a tree surgeon to find out what happened to Bunny and the loot. While digging he gets involved with the local barmaid and later on a blond post mistress tied to a sociopathic sheriff’s deputy who apparently climbed up from the Jim Thompson novel below on the spinner rack. The result is a hard boiled masterpiece that leads to an ending that could only be in a fifties or sixties crime paperback and sets us up for the even more violent sequel, One Endless Hour.

Earl Drake or whoever he calls himself at the given moment is the perfect anti-hero narrator. Like a shark he constantly moves through the story and we’re always aware how dangerous he is. He has a talent for trouble, no respect for the law, and outside of animals, little love for anyone. Even his back story from childhood up to the day of the fateful robbery is told at a quick clip and wrung of any sentimentality. However, Marlowe provides just enough human shading to avoid his falling into a tough guy parody. His narration provides the book’s drive as well as observations like “I’ve been around x-ray machines that couldn’t see as deep into a man as a woman’s eyes.”

Stark House Publishing has put out The Name of the Game Is Death in an omnibus with One Endless Hour with an introduction by Marlowe biographer Charles Kelly who tells us about the author’s own amazing true life story. Both crime novels are tight and terse with tough guy personality to spare. Dan J. Marlowe and his man Earl Drake are tarnished angels taking you to hard boiled Heaven.