MP Review: A MAN WITHOUT BREATH by PHILIP KERR

A Man Without Breath is Philip Kerr’s ninth book featuring Bernie Gunther, the left leaning sometimes private/sometimes police investigator in Nazi era Berlin. Kerr merges social history with the noir detective genre, with one pushing the other past their expected norms. This book is one of the best examples of how he delivers thrilling hard-boiled entertainment with bitter truths.

The novel starts out with cynical irony, Bernie having found a place for himself working as an investigator for Germany’s War Crimes Bureau. It’s a month after Stalingrad and morale is low. When news that the Russians have massacred over a hundred Poles in the Katyn Woods is received, he is sent to the nearby city of Smolensk to put a professional polish on a discovery they hope will break the Western alliance with Stalin.

The ground is too frozen to dig up the bodies, so Bernie is forced to wait. However, another case comes his way when the bodies of two signalers are found with their throats slit. While it’s assumed that partisans are involved, the crime scene tells Bernie it could be a fellow German. What he discovers could earn him more enemies from The Reich, including Hitler himself

As usual, Kerr gives us a reflection of people in an extreme political climate. Here it is when the German knight is dying in his armor. Those in high command doubt the Fuhrer, but few know who they can safely express those doubts too. Still, as the Reich begins to crumble, its bureaucracy survives; creating a cold hypocrisy that obliterates any common decency. However, an experienced civil servant like Bernie can negotiate it to pull him out of a jam as many times as his pistol.

The book also focuses on the German aristocracy of the time. Smolensk is an enclave for the Prussians who run the Werchmacht, a group of intermarrying upper-class barons for whom Bernie doesn’t hold his contempt. We’re reminded that not only is he navigating the Second World War but also is a survivor of the first, which was brought about by these types. Now they scoff at Hitler after they stop to refuse his ascent. As Bernie says, “You can’t expect the aristocracy to save society, when they’re concerned about little more than themselves.”

Even Bernie himself doesn’t escape a cold hard look, not that he ever does. I’ve always questioned if he truly is a hero, as someone who tries to do what right he can without trouble, but refuses to seriously go up against the establishment, since it would be suicidal. There is a point in A Man Without Breath where a great reveal is given. Bernie gets the information because a character believes he is the one to set things right. The passage is funny, dark, and ultimately heartbreaking as Bernie explains why this should be under wraps and why he doesn’t like to be burdened with it. After reading enough books in the series, you realize Bernie is a hero, but the backdrop he’s placed in demands him to be a survivor, making him something more complex and, if the reader is willing to admit, more relatable. He is the citizen who carries the sins of his country.

A Man Without Breath further proves the series’ brilliance in balancing suspense, character, period, and politics. It is a well-crafted genre tale using the idea of the tarnished knight on a quest of truth. The art that Kerr applies is the meaning of that quest in a place where truth is manipulated all the time. It’s what gives the modern contemplation to his historical fiction.

 

MP Review: HELSINKI BLOOD by James Thompson

Review by Chris Mattix

James Thompson has slowly but surely made a name for himself as an author to watch in the world of crime fiction. His series character Kari Vaara, a man who seems to get a little rougher around the edges with each novel, has quickly become one of my current favorites. In Thompson’s latest novel, Helsinki Blood, Vaara is even more battered and bruised, and the end result is a surprisingly action-packed story about redemption and the need to protect the ones we love.

Helsinki Blood picks up right where Helsinki White left off. Kari Vaara is still recovering from the gruesome events that concluded the last novel. His wife, Kate, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after killing a man to save Kari and his friends, and because of this she has run off with their child. In Helsinki White Kari was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery to fix the problem, leaving him emotionally flat. He is still recovering, both emotionally and physically, when we meet him at the beginning of Helsinki Blood.

In his fourth novel, Thompson forgoes the tried and true formula of a mystery-driven plot and instead opts to flesh out the emotional fallout caused by Kari’s job as head of a secret police task force. He made a lot of enemies because of his work, and now those enemies are rallying against him and his colleagues; Milo and Sweetness. Because of this Helsinki Blood reads more like Helsinki White version 2.0 than a standalone novel, but that’s not a bad thing.

Often times authors in the crime genre write characters who seem invincible, but Thompson is happy to dive head first into the psychological issues that plague ordinary people who have faced extreme circumstances. All of this works to deepen the scope of the characters. By the end of Helsinki Blood you feel as though you really understand the motivations behind the actions. Each character is given care and attention, which humanizes them on a level few writers ever reach.

It’s a shame that Thompson isn’t a bigger name, because his novels tell stories in a fresh and unique way. For now, he is one of those authors whose name is dropped by others working in the genre, but don’t be surprised if you start hearing it more frequently. The appeal of the Kari Vaara series is broad enough for fans of all types of crime fiction. I picked up Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels, on a whim and now I eagerly await new material. If you give him a chance, Thompson will make a believer out of you as well.

MysteryPeople Review: SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT by Max Allan Collins

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Review by Chris Mattix

If you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for comic books. I grew up reading comics and, as such, they hold a very special place in my heart. When powerhouse publisher Hard Case Crime sent me a copy of the latest Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition, Target Lancer novel I was pretty stoked, and then I read the description. Hot damn! This book is about comics!

Seduction of the Innocent is a Private Eye novel set during the 1950s witch hunt aimed at comic books and their questionable content. That’s right folks, those floppy little books most people think are just for kids were at one point considered a very real threat to the safety of America’s youth. Collins novel, while borrowing from the actual events of that time, is a fictionalized version–so don’t go quoting it as fact. The novel’s protagonist, Jack Starr, works as an investigator for Starr Syndication, a company who syndicates comic strips to newspapers. When a pop-psychologist is found dead after accusing Starr’s company of warping young minds, Jack finds himself in the midst of a crisis where everyone seems guilty and no one cares about the departed doctor.

Seduction of the Innocent is classic Collins. It’s punchy, funny, and fast-paced. It’s the kind of book you can’t help but finish in one sitting, and that’s what makes it so satisfying. Collins really hits the pulpy nail on the head. His characters are perfectly drawn, the violence is outlandish and nail biting, and the atmosphere is spot-on. The story takes place in New York City and Collins goes to great lengths to transport his readers there; using cross streets, landmarks, and cafes, Collins does the equivalent of dragging that little dude from the side of google maps and drops you right into the streets of old New York.

If you are a fan of comic books, PI stories, or just want a fun little mystery to spend an afternoon with, then you need to grab a copy of Seduction of the Innocent. It takes off like a rocket from the very first page and will having you grinning ear-to-ear until its clever conclusion. I really can’t say enough good things about Collins’ work here (and everywhere else for that matter). Get this book, grab an ice-cold coke (preferably in a bottle), and enjoy the hell out of Seduction of the Innocent.

MysteryPeople Review: EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES by Hilary Davidson

Evil in All Its Disguises by Hilary Davidson

Review by Scott Montgomery

Evil In All Its Disguises has solidified Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore as one of my favorite series heroines. Her books have all the trappings of an elegant thriller, that Davidson applies a gritty edge to, with the highs and lows of the locations she chooses, and the dark secrets her characters carry. What really keeps me reading is her engaging protagonist.

In Evil In All Its Disguises Lily’s job as a travel writer is the catalyst for the plot. Sent on a journey to Acapulco, a place that has a history with her favorite actress, Ava Gardner, Lily finds herself with fellow travel writers in a hotel that has seen better times. Davidson uses her own background in this field to delve into the different personalities in this occupation; providing much of the book’s humor. It does get serious however, when one of her colleagues, Skylar, disappears after she tells Lily she’s working on an expose’ that will bring someone in the travel industry down. As Lily looks into the disappearance, things become more dangerous, especially when her unscrupulous ex-boyfriend, Martin Sklar, becomes involved.

As with all her books, Davidson uses the setting as a supporting character. From its luxurious resort areas, to drug cartel run streets, Acapulco comes off live an aging once glamorous femme fatale who can turn on you at any time. She creates an interesting tension with the hotel that first serves as a sanctuary from the streets, but soon reveals as many creepy secrets; enough to rival Stephen King’s Overlook, as it soon turns into a prison.

When it comes down to it, it’s the character of Lily that makes the book an involving read. Davidson realizes that her fans know Lily has the ability to pull herself together and find strength in times of trouble, and she uses this to move the plot. What Lily is mainly confronted with are emotional wounds that haven’t fully healed. While the book can be read as a standalone, there will probably be more books featuring Lily in the future, it serves as the end of a trilogy for Lily by getting her to a certain point in her life. Davidson achieves this in a way both unexpected,  and yet in the only way the character could find that moment of grace.

Evil in All Its Disguises is a pairing of plot and character. It has all the the trappings of a Hitchcockian thriller, with the gritty tone and dark psychology to rival your tougher noir. But any way you look at her, Lily Moore is a character I root for and hope to see more of in the future.

 

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: DONNYBROOK

Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Frank Bill announced his presence in 2011 with Crimes In Southern Indiana, a collection of connected short stories that take place in a meth ravaged Midwest town. His terse prose, blood soaked violence, and colorful characters who live on the fringes were a literary punch to the gut. With his first novel, Donnybrook, he proves there’s no slowing down.

Much like Crimes In Southern Indiana, Donnybrook connects the lives of several characters. However, these characters all have a single destination, Donnybrook, a three-day bare-knuckle boxing competition held by a Midwest gangster; where the last man standing wins $20,000. The book starts with one fighter, Jar Head, robbing his local gun store for the thousand-dollar entry fee. Ned Newton is paying for his by stealing a batch from a crank cooker, Chainsaw Angus, with the help of Angus’s sister Liz. Now Ned has to contend with Chainsaw as well as lawman Ross Whalon and Fu Xi, a debt collector with some martial arts skills and few scruples, who are already after him. These and a few more red neck ne’er do wells travel a strange, rollicking, funny, often violent road to get to the fight and when they get there, Bill ups it in a great convergence of a conclusion.

Everything great about Crimes In Southern Indiana goes double for Donnybrook. The dialogue pops and the characters are defined through extreme yet believable actions. Bill gives Elmore Leonard a run for his money when it comes to criminals who aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. He’s also gotten to be someone who writes one hell of an action sequence. The violence has a visceral feel and each fight is written in detail; each is specific to the two characters that are fighting, the situation and emotion. When talking with hard-boiled writer, Christa Faust about the book, she said, “Frank writes fist fights like John Woo directs gun fights.”

Donnybrook proves Frank Bill is one of the great emerging talents out there. Like Joe R Lansdale, he captures the voice of his region, turning it into a literary voice of his own and he delivers a rush that’s often more associated to cinema than to books. I’m already waiting for his next one.

MysteryPeople Review: THE HEROIN CHRONICLES

The Heroin Chronicles by Jerry Stahl et al.

~Post by Scott

Of all the illegal drugs, heroin seems to have the most dangerous aura. Pictures of track marks and junkies over-dosing in ghetto hallways litter the public consciousness. It also has an odd allure: no one uses the term “meth chic”. It comes as no surprises that Akashic Press would tackle the dragon for the third installment in their drug anthology series with The Heroin Chronicles.

As with all Akashic anthologies, The Heroin Chronicles has a wide array of talent. There’s a mix of crime and general fiction writers, both established and new, males and females, and various ethnic backgrounds represented within this volume. It also includes work by former users, like editor Jerry Stahl.

The book starts with an unsettling tale, “Fragments Of Joe,” by Tony O’Neill, the author of great heroin novels like Down And Out On Murder Mile and Sick City. Two addicts meet in a support group, which obviously fails when they find themselves in the middle of a fatal score and that’s just the beginning. With a twist I won’t reveal, O’Neill shows how limitless addiction can be. If you can get through this one, you can handle the rest.

Other authors use heroin in their stories to look at the nature of addiction itself. Stahl’s “Possible Side Effects” is a character study of a high functioning user who writes side effects jargon for different companies. It’s black comedy about how we’re all addicts. Eric Bogosian gives a tone poem with “Godhead,” equating addiction with religion. The piece comes off like a denser version of The Velvet Underground’s song, Heroin.

We also get some straight up crime tales. “Gift Horse” is a slice of Compton criminal life with author Gary Tervlov echoing Donald Goines. One of the standouts, “Black Caesar’s Gold” by Gary Phillips, has a rich nerd obsessed with a legendary gangster finding his inner Superfly when confronted with real bad men. In “Monster,” John Albert uses a man looking to score on a violent LA day in order to give a poignant look at failure in life.

Humor is pervasive in many of the stories. Lydia Lunch makes seedy living funny and Michael Albo gives us an addicts shaggy dog explanation of how a duck ended up dead on the freeway. As a whole The Heroin Chronicles conveys the sentiment that a life of heroin addiction is a human comedy, but it will usually end in dark or, even worse, banal tragedy.

Not Quite the Parker on the Page

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About a month ago, I made some remarks about the fan reaction to Tom Cruise being cast as Jack Reacher, saying it was not that big of a deal. Now I am challenged by one of my all time favorite series characters, Parker, being questionably cast. While there are several adaptations of Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake) hard as nails heist man, this is the first time the actual name Parker is used. Lee Marvin played him with the name Walker in Point Blank, Robert Duvall as Macklin in The Outfit, and Mel Gibson used the name Porter in Payback. However it is British actor Jason Statham who must prove himself worthy of the Parker name.

My doubts set in at the beginning of the movie, with hints that the producers were going to soften our anti-hero. Right before a robbery at a state fair, Parker helps a little girl win a stuffed animal. Then during the heist, he eases the nerves of a security guard in a friendly manner. It can be argued that he’s doing what’s necessary for the job, but neither is in the book and they could have presented situations that expressed something closer to the character. They even make the relationship with his girl Claire, who is more of a moll in the books, more domesticated.

Plot wise, the film remains close to Stark’s Flashfire (the film’s source material). After the heist, the crew he’s been put with ask Parker to throw in his $200,000 cut to help finance a score in Palm Beach that could net everyone two million each. When Parker refuses, they try to kill him in an intense shootout inside an SUV. As in several of the Parker books, he is left for dead, then recovers, and, by using his criminal skills, finances his way back to those who set him in order to set things right. Unfortunately, many of the robberies he commits in Flashfire, where we really see what kind of person Parker is are not in the film.

It seems that the methodology for both Parker and the rival crew was removed to flesh out the character of Leslie, a real estate broker played by Jennifer Lopez. Leslie blackmails Parker into being a partner, even though we really don’t see what she does. She mainly seems to be a device to show the sweeter side of Parker. It also doesn’t help that in many scenes Statham has Parker passing himself off as a Texas oilman with an accent that got laughs from the Austin audience I saw it with: if this were a Dortmunder adaptation, that might have worked.

Other than that accent, Statham is fair as Parker. He carries the character’s coolness under pressure in the heists and his martial arts training skills work in the fight scenes, which are rough at times, even though they show less of Parker’s efficiency and brutality. The one thing Statham lacks is the quiet presence that Marvin and Duvall could tap into to make the character work.

What mainly hurts Parker is the pace and tone. The first half is pretty tight. It’s when they bring in “character development” where things start to get bogged down. They didn’t realize it’s the cold professionalism of the character and the no fat narrative that make this series so appealing. By “humanizing” the story the sparseness is gone. Parker veers from stone-cold tough guy one moment to good-hearted the next. The film adaptations that got the starkness (pun intended) of Parker and his violent world, Point Blank and The Outfit, are considered minor classics. Parker, it seems, will be forgotten by next weekend.