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.

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.

SOMETHING EQUATING THE TRUTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH IAN RANKIN

Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring John Rebus, In a House of Lies, has the now retired inspector drawn into an old missing persons case he was involved in that has turned into one of murder when the body is finally discovered and assigned to his former partner Clarke. The question is, is he trying to help or throw her off since police corruption is connected to officers he worked with. Ian was kind enough to take some questions from us about the book and his main character.

In a House of Lies (A Rebus Novel) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for In a House of Lies come about?

Ian Rankin: A magazine in the UK published a piece about a real-life private eye who had been ‘executed’ in a car park three decades back.  He had been investigating alleged links between gangland and high-ranking police officers. Well, that got the cogs turning in my mind…

MPS: Clarke and Fox’s investigation gives doubts about Rebus’ reason for his involvement in the case. As someone who doesn’t outline before he starts, did you have your doubts about his motives in writing it?

IR: I always have doubts about Rebus and his motives.  Whose side is he really on? How committed to morals and ethics is he?  How far will he push against legality? Back in the 1980s, cops in real life had fewer qualms about bending and breaking the rules – mainly because there was less chance of them getting caught!  Rebus belongs to that generation…but he’s trying to be good.

MPS: Much of the the book deals with possible police corruption or malpractice. What did you want to explore about the subject?

IR: I’m interested in the past and how it connects to and is different from the present day. Policing has changed radically. There’s a lot of new technology around. Ways of tackling a murder case have changed.  I like to place a question in the reader’s mind: things are different these days, but are they necessarily better? If rules or laws had to be broken before you could get justice, would you want that to happen?

MPS: To me the theme of the book is the relationship between facts and the truth with different lines of investigation and points of view effecting the conclusion each investigator comes to. Do you see a difference between facts and the truth?

Image result for ian rankinIR: There’s maybe a seminar’s worth of discussion in that question!  Heck, maybe even a semester of moral philosophy, social and political theory, class structure, belief systems, et cetera!  But in a nutshell: we live in an age of fake news and distorted commentary. Maybe those were always with us, but we are more aware of them now when they happen (I think/hope).  Back in the day, it was easier for organizations such as the police to control the narrative. But they cannot hope to control what goes on in social media/online these days. There are competing stories, and somewhere buried within those stories lies something equating the truth.  That’s what a detective is always doing: sifting competing narratives or versions of what happened to try to end up with knowledge and closure. And along the way, self-knowledge may also arise.

MPS: What have you enjoyed the most about writing for “retired” Rebus?

IR: I was worried about Rebus in retirement.  The challenge was: how does a ‘civilian’ inveigle his way into criminal cases?  But that challenge keeps me on my toes and also keeps Rebus on his toes. His health is another consideration as he gets older, and he no longer knows many of the (young) detectives with whom he comes in contact.  So he’s having to work harder. But that makes him fun for me to write: he hasn’t grown stale; he is always evolving.

MPS: During part of her investigation Clarke has to watch a film called Bravehearts Vs. Zombies. Any chance you’ve considered pitching that to a studio?

IR: Bravehearts versus Zombies would be a fun B-movie, no doubt about it.  I’ve not pitched it yet, but who knows…

 

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SWINSON

The MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Trigger, is the final installment of David Swinson’s trilogy featuring Frank Marr, a private detective who is also a drug addict. We find Frank trying to quit when he is given the job to help clear his former D.C.P.D. partner from an alleged bad shooting. Another part of his past comes into play when he has to work with Calvin, a young black man he mistreated when he was a cop. It is a gritty crime novel with few easy answers but a lot of humanity. David was kind enough to take some questions from us.

Trigger (Frank Marr #3) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Did Frank Marr’s attempt at kicking his habit inform the tone of the book?

David Swinson: Yes, since it’s written in first person, present tense, Frank’s voice had to change. Being high on cocaine all the time hid a lot of the real Frank, and I tried to bring more of his true character out in Trigger.

MPS: In the opening chapter I felt that Frank was putting his life more at risk now that he was off drugs and what he was replacing the rush with, than when he was using. Is that a legitimate feeling?

DS: I think Frank put himself more at risk while using. He wasn’t hundred percent. He thought cocaine made him one-hundred percent, but it put him more at risk, both emotionally and in certain situations like hitting a dealer’s house, all because of the powerful need for the drug. Cocaine always comes first so that makes it more dangerous. He’s more calculated now, even tests himself. That, and alcohol is his new high. Still risky, though.

MPS: The main plot deals with Frank getting information to absolve his former partner from a bad police shooting. As someone who is a former police officer, what did you want to convey about those situations that the media reports and debates, but doesn’t fully examine?

DS: I want to show the audience that things aren’t always clear cut. There is a lot of gray. I wanted to touch on that, and try to show the reality of both sides, in particular, what a good cop goes through. Also, that smartphones have changed everything because a lot of officer-related shootings are now caught on camera for everyone to see. That’s not a bad thing, just like I don’t think body cams are a bad thing. The difference is that smartphones catch shootings that the media wouldn’t otherwise know about, and justified or not they are put out there for everyone to see. Every case is different. Some are obviously criminal, but most of them are not. It’s hard for the public to understand that, though, because any shooting that involves serious bodily harm or death is a terrible thing.

MPS: I picked up more humor in this book. Where do you think that came from?

DS: Much of it came from the awkward relationship between Frank and Calvin. I also think Frank sees things a bit differently being off cocaine.

MPS: You’ve said these books were planned as a trilogy. As a writer what did you enjoy most about Frank Marr?

DS: Being able to write about a character that is outside of myself. Before I sat down to start writing The Second Girl, I  took tons of notes. Frank Marr was already in my head, but during the course of writing The Second Girl he took on a life of his own, changed a lot. I always knew who he’d be, but the trick while writing was to figure out how to make him likeable. That I think was the most fun.

MPS: You’ve had several different and varying occupations. Any idea of what you’d being doing now if you weren’t a writer?

DS: Since my teens, I have not imagined myself being anything other than a writer. I knew I’d have to work a job because I wanted to pay bills, but being a writer was always there. I can’t imagine not writing because it has been with me for so long – the desire. I suppose that if I didn’t have the desire, I’d remain happily retired (hopefully), spending time with my family like I do now, but with more time on my hands.

 

Meike Reviews THE BOOK ARTIST

The Book Artist: A Hugo Marston Novel Cover Image

Mark Pryor will join us at BookPeople on Saturday, February 9th at 6pm to discuss The Book ArtistCheck out our review and join us! 

All of us at MysteryPeople are huge fans of Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston series and we agree that his latest—The Book Artist—is the best one yet.

Hugo Marston is a former FBI profiler who works as head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. The book takes its title from the opening scenes when Hugo’s boss, Ambassador Bradford J. Taylor, strongly encourages Hugo to attend an art exhibition at the Dali Museum. Hugo is initially reluctant–art isn’t really his thing, he’s more of a bibliophile–but he’s drawn to the exhibition when he learns that it involves sculptures created from rare books. (The fact that the artist is an “indescribably beautiful” young woman doesn’t hurt either.) When a museum guest is brutally murdered, Hugo jumps to help the police find the killer. And when they arrest someone Hugo believes is most certainly not the killer, he feels an even deeper urgency to bring the real culprit to justice.

Meanwhile, Hugo’s best friend Tom is getting himself into a spot of trouble in Amsterdam. In their former lives, Hugo and Tom were responsible for sending a man to prison. That man has been released, and Tom believes he may have traveled to Europe to seek revenge. As the pursuit unfolds, the avid Hugo fan finally learns some hidden truths about Hugo and Tom’s shared past.

It’s difficult to delve much further without divulging any spoilers, because there is one twist after another in The Book Artist. Pryor seamlessly weaves the disparate plot lines together, and his voice demonstrates a new level of assuredness.

Pryor’s characters have become old friends to this series devotee, and the long-time friendship between Hugo and Tom is just so much fun to witness. The hard-drinking, womanizing Tom is the perfect foil to the more serious and straight-laced Hugo. Underneath Tom’s relentless teasing one can sense his deep admiration and love for Hugo, and the affection runs both ways. In The Book Artist we finally get a glimpse into their shared past and learn how they ended up leaving their former employers.

And any discussion about the series has to include the setting. Pryor clearly loves Paris, and his detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods, the restaurants, and the people makes the reader feel greatly tempted to hit up Expedia for the next jet to the City of Light. If your budget won’t allow for that, at least pick up a croissant and fix yourself a café au lait to enjoy while you delve into The Book Artist!

Pick of the Month – TRIGGER By David Swinson

David Swinson’s Frank Marr has become one of my favorite private eyes. A functioning drug addict with a lot of dysfunctional relationships, he is just as likely to go looking for a fix before a suspect. In Trigger, reported to be the end of the Frank Marr trilogy, he takes a case that could lead to redemption or send him spiraling to oblivion.

Marr has quit using, but he doesn’t appear much better. He still raids drug houses, but flushes down the contraband he finds, using the rush as a replacement for the narcotics. The fact that he downs a lot of alcohol throughout the book is also suspect. He walks a razor’s edge asking to get cut.

Leslie Costello, the attorney he works for who is also his ex, gives him a job that hits close. She’s representing his former D.C.P.D. partner Al Luna who is accused of a bad shooting. Al swears he saw a gun, but none can be found at the scene. Frank’s work for the defense has him working with Calvin, a young black man who was at the wrong end of his abuse of authority in his police days. Their search for answers puts them in the middle of a drug war with shifting sides.

Swinson pulls no punches in his depiction of Frank. He follows the hard boiled school of the reader taking the protagonist on his own terms. If you haven’t read the previous books, The Second Girl and Crime Song, you may have difficulty in liking him at first. He is responsible for his own faults and has become a prisoner of them. We root for him to get past his sins and mistakes, allowing the decent man who is in there to fully come to form.

The plot itself also may be challenging to the reader. It almost works inverse to most mysteries, with more understanding, facts, and truth leading to more ambiguity. It reflects the right and wrong of the streets becoming more abstract from what Frank and Calvin learn from one another. It also ties into our concern we have for Frank returning to drugs for the dark confusing world the case leads him through.

If Trigger’s world is dark, it finds light in many of the characters, especially in its lead. His code provides an anchor for his soul on the rough, cold seas. He and others show that an ability to reach out to one another and share perspectives makes the streets easier to navigate. Frank Marr’s life may be harrowing, but there is hope if he can trust others for help.

Meike reviews Last Woman Standing

MysteryPeople contributor Meike Alana has reviewed Amy Gentry’s new novel, Last Woman Standing. Gentry will be in the store Tuesday, January 22nd, at 7pm to discuss her book and sign copies.

Last Woman Standing Cover ImageAmy Gentry wowed us with her debut novel, Good as Gone, and her latest suspense novel is every bit as thrilling. Last Woman Standing introduces us to Dana Diaz, a Latina stand-up comic from Amarillo struggling to make it in a comedy scene dominated by men and rife with sexual harassment. Dana has recently returned to the Lone Star State from LA after a split from her childhood friend and writing partner. She’s grown accustomed to expect little from an industry where she’s continually reminded that a woman (particularly a woman of color) has little value, but her frustrations have reached a critical point. What she has told no one is the real reason she left LA—she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a well-known comic she idealized during a meeting purported to be about discussing her future.

One night during her set she aptly fends off a vulgar heckler. Computer programmer Amanda witnesses the encounter and offers to buy Dana a congratulatory drink. One drink turns to several, and the two women bond over their shared experiences of injustice and misogyny. Soon they strike a kind of Strangers on a Train deal—each will seek revenge on the other’s abuser. Revealing more would be crossing over into spoiler territory, but the ensuing plot twists make for a riveting tale of deceit and paranoia.

There is a definite #MeToo vibe to the book, and Gentry shines a harsh light on the myriad injustices that women face every single day. The novel examines the issues of sexual harassment and assault from a variety of angles, including the confusion that a victim can experience. Dana doesn’t even know how to put words to what happened to her—she knows it was “bad” but doesn’t initially realize that the episode qualifies as assault. When she describes her experiences to her male best friend, he’s dismissive and tells her she’s overreacting–an all too often experience for survivors of these encounters. As she comes to recognize exactly how deeply she’s been violated, she also realizes that a long-buried event from her past qualifies as rape. When she’s finally able to express her anger, Dana is shocked at the level of rage she feels as well as the violence she may be capable of. After all, there never seem to be any repercussions for the male perpetrators—so perhaps women need to take matters into their own hands.