September’s Pick of the Month: Land of Wolves by Craig Johnson

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The Land of Wolves by Craig Johnson
The latest in Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series, Land Of Wolves, rewards readers who have followed the big man with the bruised heart ever since his debut in The Cold Dish. It contains echoes of that book and several others as Walt finds himself at an uncertain place in his life, yet feeling a touch of deja’ vu as well. The events from the previous book, Depth Of Winter, have left him with physical and psychic wounds with a mystery that has him facing a mystery with possible international implications, a renegade wolf, and himself.

The book even begins with Walt and deputy Vic Moretti out in Wyoming back country discussing how they’ve been here before and wondering how that turned out. They’ve been brought in due to the disappearance of sheep; the investigation leads to a large wolf prowling the area, who Vic dubs Larry after Lon Chaney Jr.’s character in The Wolfman, and a shepherd hanging from a tree. The man, Miguel Hernandez, worked for the Extepares, a Basque sheep herding family who was responsible for blowing off the leg of Walt’s predecessor, Lucian Connally. Hernandez was also a political dissident in Chile with reasons and people at home and abroad to kill him.

Larry also plays a major part in the story. Much like his Universal Horror namesake, the town is after him. There are several questions about who he is and where he came from. Walt’s Cheyenne pal, Henry Standing Bear, believes the animal is connected to Virgil White Buffalo, the Vietnam veteran Crow Indian who has served as a spiritual guide for Walt in times past. Walt has doubts, but less than he usually does, yet wonders what he’s trying to say.

Walt is in one of his most fragile states. In Mexico, he pulled out a darker side he’s having difficulty contending with now. A fugue state has taken over him and he finds himself disconnected from those he loves, particularly his daughter Cady. He fears he is returning to that person who shut people off after his wife died and he doesn’t want to go back to to that. The title comes form the Basque proverb “A land of strangers is a land of wolves.” Walt has returned to a land of strangers he knows.

If this all sounds depressing, the book is far from it. Vic gets many great moments, particularly  when being forced into the role as Walt’s life coach. Fans of Dog will be happy to see he gets a lot of attention on the page, including one with Walt trying to get him into the bullet that is both funny and poignant. There is also the subplot with Ruby and the deputy’s teaching him to use the desktop computer forced on him, something he fears will lead to a phone.

Land Of Wolves allows Craig Johnson to do what he does best. He is able to to take his time, take in Walt’s friendships and the lay of the land. The result is the reader taking in the life of a survivor and see the benefits and price of being one.


You can purchase Land of Wolves from BookPeople here now.

PICK OF THE MONTH: END OF THE OCEAN BY MATTHEW MCBRIDE

Matthew McBride is a crime fiction voice I always look forward to hearing. Not only is it fresh and unique, it carries a great range. His first book, Frank Sinatra In A Blender, was a satiric, ultra violent, stylized masterpiece while his follow up, A Red Swollen Sun delivered a brooding rural noir gem. His third, End Of The Ocean, gives us an introspective South Seas ballad with a perfect balance of humor and dread.

End of the Ocean Cover ImageThe tale plays on the interaction of three people. At the center is Sage, a hard luck guy, who has traveled to Bali to drink his wounds away from a rough divorce. He falls for Ratri, an island woman whose culture blocks them from being together. Sage also strikes up a friendship with Wayne, a questionable businessman plugged into the country. When Sage realizes the only way out of his dilemma requires a lot of cash, Wayne offers him a job. It involves a run to Thailand for him, a country where drug smuggling is punishable by death and that may be better than being thrown into their prisons.

McBride takes his time building these relationships and this seemingly simple plot in entertaining fashion. He wants us to know these people and the country they move through. We experience Bali and Ratri like Sage, with his romance unfolding for both in a heartfelt way only a damaged man can feel. Wayne’s point of view provides the initial plot and suspense as we watch him hustle and gather a network of people to work for him. He could be one of the Miami hustlers from an Elmore Leonard novel forced to leave the country. We never know how much is talk and how much is the real thing, however like Sage, we want to trust him even though we probably shouldn’t.

When Sage takes the risk, we are in and it’s tense. The plan has more than a few hiccups. One of them lands him in a jail we pray he gets out of. We are so invested in these characters, we cringe at every obstacle in Sage’s path. He then delivers an ending that dovetails beautifully with its theme  to punch us in the gut.

End Of The Ocean continues Matthew McBride’s chain of stand out crime novels that demonstrate the breadth of the genre. Questioning the nature of love, it is also his most personal. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long to see what’s next from him.

PICK OF THE MONTH-CONVICTION BY DENISE MINA

Denise Mina is mainly associated with dense, dark crime novels that delve into society’s ills. Her last novel, The Long Drop, was a chilling portrayal of a true crime and trial in fifties Glasgow. In her latest, The Conviction, she follows the Monty Python saying, “And now for something completely different.”

Conviction Cover ImageShe introduces us to Anna McDonald, though that is not her real name. Living as a trophy wife with children, she turns to true crime podcasts for her daily escape. Soon her life will become one.

Her husband reveals he has been having an affair with her friend Estelle, and the two of them are leaving with the kids. Her latest podcast, Death On The Dana, interrupts her suicidal despair. It tells of how millionaire Leon Parker and his children died on their yacht. The ships cook was convicted, but the podcast host believes Parker did it. Anna disagrees, since she knew Parker in her former life and doesn’t believe he would have been capable. By the time she decides to look into the crime to get her mind off of her crumbling life, Finn Cohan, Estelle’s anorexic former pop star husband is at her door. With as little to live for as Anna, he joins her in her quest for the truth, doing a complimentary podcast to reignite his fame. Their search leads to revelations that are also connected to Anna’s secret past and brings out a group of killers hired by  someone who wants everything to stay covered up.

Mina delivers many of the trappings of a modern thriller. Our odd investigators travel across Europe, hounded by hitmen, dealing with secrets. She taps into a woman finding her courage and conviction under the threat of her life. She even has a quirky sidekick.

She takes all of that and goes deep. As the plot grows grander in scope, it becomes more intimate with our heroine. A chapter with a Russian killer after them becomes a short story inside the book, with humor and pathos. When Anna’s true identity is revealed, it is devastating information that has us rooting even more for her. Mina is able to hit many of her known themes of class and media, seen from a different angle as she celebrates the power of damaged people.

Her humor is used to standout effect. While we know of her ability to use it, particularly in her Patty Meehan series, she’d never had a subject that allowed her to fully draw it from her literary palette. She uses it in her love-hate relationship with Anna and Flynn and as a crutch to deal with their personal pain.

Conviction is not only proof of Denise Mina’s talent, but of her range. It’s her David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, a possibly more accessible piece that will hopefully draw a larger audience that doesn’t compromise her artistry and themes. She provides the quintessential summer read with a forward momentum driven by it’s broken and bickering leads. I hope she can come up with another case for these two to crack.

 

Pick of the Month: Night Watch by David C. Taylor

David C. Taylor is fast becoming a go-to author—along side Max Allan Collins and James Ellroy—for crime fiction set in the post-war era. His Michael Cassidy, an NYPD  detective in the the fifties whose back ground allows him to be familiar with high society as well as the street, proves to be a complex hero who finds himself caught up in his country’s shadow history. Both author and character have solidified their standing in the latest novel, Night Watch.

This third story takes place between the first and second, Night Life and Night WorkCassidy catches a double homicide that has a precise and unusual M.O. Before he gets any chance to work it, a mysterious assassin is out to get him. His search for both killers involves the CIA and a real government program linked to the days after World War Two.

Night Watch Cover ImageTaylor has created Cassidy as a cross between, Sam Spade, The 87th Precinct’s Steve Carella, and James Bond. He’s a smart, capable cop, who is a bit of a wise-ass (only for those who deserve it), who works well with his fellow detectives. His good looks, charm, and elegance that come from being born into wealth (His father is an immigrant who made his fortune as a Broadway producer.) allow him to move in circles your average street cop can’t and bed many a beautiful women. However the war seems to have affected him. He has an attitude with authority, particularly at the national level, and seems to be in search of a purpose.

Another character that stands out in the series is the New York of that era, and Taylor goes deeper with this story. He gives us the gritty barrios and ghettos that have echoes of early Sydney Lumet films like The Pawnbroker as well as penthouse parties where Gershwin plays. That and everything in between gives off the feeling of the crowd and noise, depicting New York as the center and provider for its country’s culture for that period. If Cassidy believes in anything outside his family, it is protecting his town.

With Night Watch, David C. Taylor has proven the reliability of of the Michael Cassidy series. There is a confidence and clean voice to the writing with a hero who can go in several intriguing directions in plot, history, and his own character journey. Taylor balances both sides of Cassidy and his world, resulting in one hard boiled cop tale with a touch of class.

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.

INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM BOYLE

I’ll be very surprised if William Boyle’s A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself is not on my Top 10 at the end of the year. This humorous and at times harrowing look at a mob widow and retired porn star who connect over a stolen Impala, a bag full of mob cash, and some very bad men is one of the most unique and entertaining crime novels in some time. Boyle steadily building his reputation and in a perfect world, this would put him over the top. Bill was kind enough to take some questions bout it.

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Rena and Wolfstein are such unique characters. How did they come into mind for the book?

William Boyle: A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself started for me when my neighbor in Brooklyn told my mother and me a story about being invited over to our other neighbor’s house on the corner. When she got over to his house, he put on a porno movie and made a move on her. She left immediately, rushing home to her apartment. My brain was lit up with what ifs. What if she’d lashed out at him? What if she was a former mob wife, now a widow, who had felt protected her whole life but no longer had that sense of safety? My brain went there because the apartment she now lived in, the same one I had grown up in, was where the gangster Gaspipe Casso lived for years. What if, on top of that, she was intensely lonely, estranged from her daughter and granddaughter? That’s how Rena Ruggiero came to be.

The character of Lacey Wolfstein grew out of my desire to explore someone who was the polar opposite of Rena in so many ways: someone who had depended on friendship her whole life, someone who had lived hand to mouth, who had flown by the seat of her pants, who had been daring and wild and who could teach Rena to see the world in new ways. I’d always been fascinated by adult film star Lisa De Leeuw, who faded into obscurity and then disappeared, the legend being that she’d used dying of AIDS as a cover to assume a new identity and exist off the grid. I wanted to imagine an alternate history for someone like her, someone who had struggled after being spit out by the adult film industry and then thrived.    

MPS: The thing that sets them apart from most crime fiction heroines is that they are over fifty. What did you want to explore with women of that age?

WB: I love noir about older characters. Louis Malle’s Atlantic City comes to mind. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is when Burt Lancaster’s Lou looks out and says, “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.” It allows you to do reflection and nostalgia in a different way, to really dig deep with regret. I wanted to explore the mythology of New York City from the perspective of women who know how to survive.

MPS: Your first two novels were a bit more somber. Did you set out to write something funnier?

WB: I like depressing stuff a lot, but I wanted to write something more in line with Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys or Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob and Something Wild. Those films are main go-tos, and they bring me a lot of joy when I’m feeling unsure of things. So, yeah, I wanted to write something that—to me, anyway—was funny. I just didn’t know if it’d be funny to other people.

MPS: What I like about the humor in the book is that it plays to the characters instead of the other way around and it is grounded in some very harsh realities in these people’s lives. Can you tell us how you approach humor with the people you write about?

WB: Thanks! That’s a great compliment. I don’t know if I really have an approach of any kind. There’s a lot of humor in the way people talk to each other, for sure. That comes from people I’ve known, my grandparents, my mother, all this drama in the little things. My mom’s not generally a very funny person (I love her, but that’s just not who she is), but one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard is when a light bulb blew out in her kitchen and she said, “Nothing ever works out.” I laughed my ass off. My grandfather and grandmother were both hilarious. As a teenager, there was nothing I enjoyed more than coming home and have my grandfather recap what he’d watched on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that morning: “Mr. Rogers took us to the crayon factory today,” or whatever. My grandmother was just fun and lighthearted, even when she was worried as hell. I think much of my sense of humor comes from them, this kind of mix of pessimism and joy.   

MPS: Was there a particular reason to set the story in the early two thousands?

WB: Part of the book is set in a Bronx neighborhood where I lived for a couple of years. My wife’s family is all from there. We moved there in 2006. So, for practical reasons, I thought it’d be good to set the book in 2006 since I haven’t been back to that neighborhood since we left in 2008. It’s also a time when not everyone had cell phones yet (I got my first flip phone late in 2006), so I was glad not to have to account for that and still exist a bit in what was left of the old city: getting lost with no map, needing a payphone, whatever. The city’s changed so much in the last thirteen years. It had already started before then, but things really amped up by the late aughts.    

MPS: Your mobster characters have a great feel of authenticity. How do you approach them?

WB: I was really fascinated with mobsters as a kid. Of course, I loved Scorsese movies. I read and watched anything I could get my hands on. I listened to neighborhood stories. As I was writing this book, I reread Jimmy Breslin’s The Good Rat to get me in the right head space. But, ultimately, I was just making stuff up, having fun, building off of the sorts of legends I’ve heard my whole life.

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.