Review Of Culprits edited by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips

Culprits: The Heist Was Just the Beginning Cover ImageIt is hard for me to resist a heist novel or film. A bunch of sharp professionals with an even sharper plan that somehow goes sideways can always hook a reader or writer no matter how formulaic. Writers Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips found a handful of fellow writers in love with the big score to give it a fresh take with Culprits: The Heist Was Just The Beginning.

Both Gary and Richard write the first chapter together, featuring a unique target. Hard case heist man O’Conner gathers a group of smooth criminals to steal an illegal slush fund off a wealthy right-winger’s Texas ranch. A double cross happens with the pilot who was supposed to fly them out, leaving each member on the run with their split of the take. That’s when the other writers take over.

Each author takes a character and writes about them dealing with the fall out of the heist. Zoe Sharp and Jessica Kaye respectively take the inside players, the power broker’s trophy wife and her penny-ante thief lover, delivering well executed double and triple crosses that ripple through the book. Joe Clifford taps into the hard fatalism of a classic Manhunt magazine story, telling us the fate of “Eel Estevez.” Gar Anthony Haywood gives another side to the turncoat with “I Got You.” David Corbett gives us a slow burn suspense tale featuring the financier of the heist. Brett Battles and Manuel Ramos also deliver great contributions. Richard and Gary come back at the end with the climax.

The movement from each author’s story to the next is fluid. While each works individually as a short story, when placed in sequence each story shows its relationship to the previous. Since each chapter is from the point of one of the criminals, the various author voices never become incongruent.

Like master heist men themselves, Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips gathered their crew together and pulled off a perfect hard boiled job, though nothing went sideways. Most “shared novels,” even the best, come off as little more than an interesting experiment and a fun way to get writers together. This was the first time I felt a seamless story was being told with one. If I was going to join a gang of criminals, I’d want Gary and Richard to be the leaders.

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A Little Bit of Blues and Trouble

Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.

Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.

BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.

After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.

So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.

My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.

The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.

Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.

3 Picks for April

Bottom Feeders Cover ImageBottom Feeders by John Shepphird

The cast and crew on location in a small, low budget cable movie gets picked off one by one with arrows. It could be anyone from an angry local to the mobsters who invested. Shepphird, a man who has directed his share of low budget enterprises, captures the microcosm of filming while giving us an engaging whodunnit. You can meet him and Billy Bush (The Oaxcan Kid) on May 5th, 2PM, at BookPeople.

 

 

High White Sun Cover ImageHigh White Sun by J Todd Scott

Scott continues his South Texas crime saga, following The Big Empty. Chris Cherry, now the sheriff after killing the corrupt former one, investigates the murder of a river guide putting him and his deputies against the Aryan Brotherhood. A gritty, often grim novel that mines lone star life and legend for some strong story telling. J. Todd Scott should be an author on the rise.

Greeks Bearing Gifts (Bernie Gunther Novel #13) Cover ImageGreeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Bernie Gunther returns, although under a different name, working as a Munich insurance adjuster in 1958. A claim takes him to Athens, where there is still no love for Germans, and he becomes involved in plot involving war criminals, stolen gold, and a few murders. Kerr continues Bernie’s saga with historical insight, and tragic fallout of Hitler’s plan, tempered by noir humor. Kerr, of course, passed away last week, and we are saddened by that news.

Pick Of The Month: A Perfect Shot by Robin Yocum

Readers of this blog have likely noticed the diverse tastes reflected by its contributors, so it’s rare that 2 of us will agree on one of our year-end Top 10 selections.  Robin Yocum made it happen last year with A Welcome Murder, so there was a bit of a tussle when the ARC for his latest, A Perfect Shot, arrived in our offices. This writer prevailed, and was definitely not disappointed—the ride was just as wild, with twists and turns that made it a blast.

A Perfect Shot Cover ImageNicholas “Duke” Ducheski is probably the best-loved citizen of the eastern Ohio steel town of Mingo Junction.  Some 20 years earlier, he orchestrated what is remembered to this day as “The Miracle Minute”; in a span of 63 seconds, Duke put up enough points to propel the Mingo Indians’ high school basketball team to the state championship. Hardly a day passes that someone doesn’t want to talk about “the game,” and you can replay the recording on local jukeboxes.

But Duke’s pushing forty and thinks it might be time to leave his high school glory days behind. He decides to capitalize on his popularity by opening a restaurant he christens “Duke’s Place.” Things are popping until disaster strikes—“Little Tony” DeMarco (a known mob enforcer who just happens to be Duke’s brother-in-law) comes into the restaurant and murders Duke’s oldest friend. DeMarco thinks he’s untouchable, but Duke has other plans—he thinks he’s found a way to take DeMarco down, but it would mean leaving Mingo Junction (and his identity as the town hero) behind forever. And if he’s not the Duke of Mingo Junction anymore, then who would he be?

Fans of Yocum’s work will recognize similarities between Mingo Junction, Briliant, and Steubenville (settings of his previous novels). It’s an area Yocum knows well, and the reader senses his deep love and respect for this hard luck region of the country. These towns saw better days when the steel industry was booming; most of its natives have moved off for jobs, and those who stay behind often struggle to get by. For many of them, high school was about as good as it got; in Duke that created a yearning for something more. And when circumstances conspire to keep Duke down, he has to figure out just how far he’ll go and how much he’ll give up to become who we wants to be.

True Crime at Its Finest: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

True crime isn’t something we feature often on MysteryPeople, and yet it is a craze and a phenomenon that has been popular much longer than people have acknowledged.  The tradition of the true crime book and its incredible fandom goes back many years, but it’s difficult to place a book that is as popular or widely read as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  Lost Girls is special for many reasons, covering the Long Island Serial Killings of recent years.  It is popular mostly for its ability to portray the real lives of the women (who did mostly work as sex workers) and how real their plights were, and how effective and ultimately destructive their deaths were.

I first read Kolker’s Lost Girls a year or so ago, but returned to it recently when I needed some comfort. Kolker’s writing style provides that, not just through lyrical sentences and beautiful construction of images and ideas, but largely through the compassion Kolker feels toward these women.  If watching movies and tv shows made and developed by men who have turned out to be sexual predators depresses you, you might find solace in Kolker’s brilliant and wonderful understanding of the human mind—and the female mind—in this great book. Kolker does not focus solely on the hunt for the serial killer (or, perhaps, serial killers?). Of course, it is an unsolved mystery to this date, and we may never know the truth about these women’s deaths, as unfortunate as that is for the victims and their families.  But that is where Kolker strikes gold in our hearts: he concentrates on the victims, their lives and their hearts, and what made the veins in their bodies pulse as opposed to what eventually ceased all life in them all together.

Kolker somehow remains both neutral and empathetic, showing how sex work is necessary for many individuals who cannot make ends meet, or may seek out the profession for many other reasons (even, perhaps, enjoying the work).  The author is nonjudgmental and as fair with the story as he can be, acknowledging the fallacies in people’s own stories and arguments, and meanwhile struggling to uncover the truth for these women. There is definitely a sense that Kolker wants to champion these lost girls, as the title states, long after their deaths, and have them remembered for the brilliant but complicated lives they lived.

Of course, there is a twist.  In fact, there may be more than one, but I can’t really tell you that.  Why would I spoil what Megan Abbott has claimed is the greatest book of this decade? (Yes, you heard me correctly, she actually said that.) I have purposefully avoided giving details because you need to pick up a copy of this book and give it a try, and you need to reach out to family members and friends and show them the work of Robert Kolker.  This is not solely to appreciate the life and work of Kolker himself, but also to remember the women lost to brutality and an America that only cares for privileged women who can be viewed as “victims,” not lost girls.

Scorching Love: Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope.  These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman.  Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways.  Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league.  And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman.  This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver.  John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.

Me in hat.jpgI was hesitant in beginning this book.  OK, that may be a lie.  I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review.  The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy.  There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears.  There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.

Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book.  Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style.  They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking.  I wanted more.

This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers.  We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning.  This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it.  Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again.  It needs to be appreciated as such.

The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume.  The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style.  It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings.  They come to life on the page.  They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.

Perhaps they should start a club.

Review: Walter Mosley is back at it with DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA

Walter Mosley is one of the most prolific mystery writers working today — this is his 53rd book. Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery reviewed his latest ahead of his event here Saturday, March 3rd, at 6pm

No matter what genre or subgenre Walter Mosley brings to us, you can always expect it to be smart and have a voice. His use of style conveys emotion and thought to connect the individual protagonist with his larger society, connecting the reader to it all. With Down The River Unto The Sea we get a new detective and different style, but the voice is there.

Joe “King” Oliver operates a little one man agency in New York with his teen daughter Aja acting as a gal Friday. Two cases come his way. One involves getting an activist known as The Free Man off death row for killing two police officers. The other ties to his past, connected to a woman who helped frame him for a sexual assault charge that got him bounced off the force.

This may all sound familiar, but Mosley weaves it into a prescient novel. King appears to be the least angst ridden of Mosley’s detective heroes, resembling more of Hammett’s Sam Spade than Chandler’s world weary Marlowe who his Easy Rawlins often reflects. Even the tighter prose style reflects Hammett, making it even more effective when the character drops some knowledge at the end of a paragraph. Oliver’s attitude and actions beautifully entwine, particularly when they seem to run counter to each other.

As always, the author uses setting perfectly, though it is different from the shadow societies created by the people the mainstream has pushed to the side. King inhabits an increasingly gentrified New York with unwashed nooks and crannies in the form of diners and dive bars he ducks into for information and salvation. While races mingle it is on tectonic plates that could shift any minute.

 

In this book, Mosley tries to hold out on the theme until the climax, or at least appears to. As he uncovers the mystery and the deeds of his former fellow boys in blue, he faces harsher truths, 

and the reader is presented with harsher questions about living in today’s world. He is driven to make a decision that asks how far we will go in correcting an injustice when it is perpetrated by institutions that are supposed to provide justice. While King’s decision provides a satisfying arc that doesn’t betray the character, Mosley still asks us to question it.

Mosley takes many tried and true tropes of the detective genre and molds them into a tale for our times. When we feel a need to mobilize with the oligarchs gaining more ground, he asks us how far are we willing to take the fight. We may need that tarnished knight errant to go down those mean streets more than ever.