Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Forever and a Death

Forever and a Death Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Westlake...Donald Westlake.

This is one of the more intriguing back stories to a novel being released years after an author’s death that you’ll ever hear. Back in the ‘90s Donald Westlake worked up an outline to a James Bond movie that would have been the follow up to Goldeneye, but for various Hollywood reasons the studio went in a different direction. Westlake then reworked those basic ideas into a novel he stuck in a drawer that Hard Case Crime is now publishing almost ten years after his death.

The book focuses on a dastardly plot put in motion by Richard Curtis who made a fortune in Hong Kong when the British ruled it, but who was pushed out in the cold when the Chinese took over in 1997. An engineer named George Manville has been helping Curtis by developing a brilliant technique to clear land, but he doesn’t realize Curtis’ true intentions for his work until an accident involving a young woman diver working for an environmental group brings his plan to light.

Once you know the background it’s very easy to pick out the elements that could have been used in a Bond flick. A powerful man with an elaborate scheme is the most obvious piece, and he employs a couple of henchmen in the book who you could certainly see as the heavies going against 007. The characters move through several countries like Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong over the course of the book. There’s even a segment where Manville is held hostage in very posh circumstances instead of being handcuffed to a chair or just killed outright which is another very Bondian thing.

However, it’s also clear that Westlake was working very hard not to get sued because there’s actually no James Bond character in this. Manville seems like he might be the guy for a while, but over the course of the book it turns into more of an ensemble story with multiple characters playing important roles. So while it seems like he thought his general idea was good enough to use on it’s own he didn’t go the cheap and obvious route of just creating a knock-off version of Bond to use as the hero.

There’s also a great afterwords by Jeff Kleeman who was the production company executive and Westlake fan who brought him onto the Bond project originally. He provides a very interesting account of the whole story as well as why it didn’t come to pass which was mainly due to nervousness about basing a story on the Hong Kong handover which had some tricky political ramifications. Maybe the most interesting bit of trivia that comes out of it is that Donald Westlake apparently was actually in a Bond movie once as an extra riding in a car during a chase scene in Live & Let Die which filmed in New York back in the early ‘70s.

Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining story although it’s far from my favorite thing that I’ve read by him. Westlake couldn’t quite bring himself to go all in on his comic book premise, and the rest of the book reads more like one of his standard novels so it’s got a bit of an odd tone to it. Kleeman points out in the afterwards that it seems like if the story had shifted a bit in one direction it could be a Parker novel, or if Westlake had gone a slightly different way it could also be one of his Dortmunder farces.

That keeps it from being one of Westlake’s best books, but it’s certainly an entertaining curiosity and well worth a look for any fans of his work or the Bond franchise.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Fallen

The Fallen The Fallen by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a free advance copy of this from Goodreads.

Quinn Colson is back in office as sheriff, and he’s got no shortage of problems to deal with. A crew of ex-military combat vets have started robbing banks. Two underage teenage girls have gone missing, and Quinn’s born again sister is obsessed with finding them. The lady who owns the local strip club is as crooked as a dog’s back leg and has connections to the bank robbers as well as the Dixie Mafia. A miserable old bastard of a politician has vowed to make Mississippi great again by turning back the clock to the days when everyone went to church and segregation was still the law of the land. And a childhood friend of Quinn’s has returned to town leading him to a new romance even as she’s still waiting for her divorce to be finalized.

Tibbehah County definitely isn’t Mayberry.

This is the seventh book in the series, and Ace Atkins has built this world up to the point where it’s now got it’s own internal logic and rhythm to it. The basic idea of a ex-military bad ass returning to his old home town to clean it up sounds like the plot of an action movie. However, rather than make his ex-Ranger straight-talking straight-shooting hero into the focal point that all the other characters orbit around Atkins has been content to let Quinn be like the leading man of a TV show with a great supporting cast. The action usually involves him eventually, but he doesn’t need to be in every scene. This lets the whole thing play out as a crime story that has room to explore other aspects, and we end up spending as much time with the owner of the strip club and the bank robbers as we do Quinn. That makes everyone feel like real characters and not just targets to be shot or arrested.

Recent political events have added an interesting undercurrent to this one. The developing situation with the politician demanding a return to his version of the good ole days as a populist hook to get people on board with his agenda lurks throughout the book. This feeds into a larger plot about large scale corruption taking the form of hypocritical old rich white men who line their pockets while feeding the rubes lines about factory jobs coming back as soon as we have a return to decency. The guys robbing the bank may be dangerous thrill seeking criminals who wear Donald Trump masks, but at least they’re honest about what they’re doing.

It’s another very strong crime novel from Atkins who continues to resolve some stories while leaving some things up in the air to be part of future books. When I finish one book about Quinn Colson and Tibbehah County I’m always anxious to get the next one, and this has a final scene that will make it a long year waiting for the next installment.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review: Peepland

Peepland Peepland by Christa Faust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re an adult who reads comics then you probably know at least one person who gives you grief about it. “Oh, you still read funny books? How old are you? Ten?” This still happens even after Hollywood is dominated by superheroes, and there have been about thirty years worth of feature articles about how comics aren’t just for kids anymore. If you’ve got one of those people in your life just hand them a copy of Peepland, and then watch with satisfaction as their goddamn heads explode.

The story revolves around the Times Square sex trade in 1986 when a porn producer is on the run because he has a video tape that implicates a rich kid in a shocking crime. The producer stashes the tape in the peep show booth where Roxy is working, and after he’s murdered she retrieves it. This kicks off a chain of events that impacts a variety of people like the sex workers, crooked cops, thugs, a punk rocker, an innocent kid accused of a crime, and a shitbag real estate developer with a ridiculous hairstyle.

This is one the new series of comics that Hard Case Crime has started doing, and the results are exactly what you’d expect from a company with that name. It’s a gritty noir tale that doesn’t skimp on bloody violence, and of course with a story set in this world there’s plenty of sex and nudity, too. What’s refreshing is that this doesn’t veer into the territory of a cartoon blood bath with tough guy dialogue like a Sin City. This reads like a story happening in a real time and place with characters that you can legitimately sympathize with or hate.

There’s also a very matter-of-fact nature to the portrayal of the sex trade that comes from co-writer Christa Faust’s background as a peep show worker, and her afterward makes it clear that this was in part a love letter to a sleazy Times Square that doesn’t exist anymore. The artwork fits the tone of the story and gives you the vibe of it in the same way that a great ‘70s crime movie like The French Connection can make you feel like you’re walking the streets of New York back then.

A brief personal story about how I met the authors Christa Faust and Gary Phillips: (I’ve recounted this once before in review of Choke Hold.) Back in 2011 at Bouchercon in St. Louis I was talking to Mr. Phillips when Ms. Faust walked up and asked him if he was going to come to her next panel on sports in crime fiction. She said that they were going to talk a lot about boxing, mixed martial arts, and wrestling in particular, and being a smart ass I asked if there would be any actual wrestling going on. Without missing a beat she launched into an extended pro wrestler style spiel about how she was gonna get Gary Phillips in the ring and hurt him bad.

It was a very funny moment, but I wish I’d known then that the two of them would partner up to write a crime comic this good so that I could have thanked them for it in advance.

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Review: Choke Hold

Choke Hold Choke Hold by Christa Faust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yet another 2011 Bouchercon story about how Kemper-Met-An-Author….

Christa Faust was one of the speakers at a panel on sex and violence that was being held later than any other discussions, but there’d been some kind of snafu and the room wasn’t set up ahead of time. It was Miss Faust who took charge, ascertained that somebody had screwed the pooch, led the effort to commandeer another room, and essentially had moved everyone down the hall and got the whole thing going within about ten minutes. And she did all of this while wearing a dress tight enough to kill most mortals. After watching her in action, I was pretty sure that if zombies had burst into the convention hall, Miss Faust would have whipped off her high heels to use as skull impaling weapons against the undead and led us all to safety.

The next day, she walked up while I was chatting with another author to see if he’d be attending her next panel about fighting sports like boxing and crime fiction. When I asked if there would be actual fighting at the panel, she launched into an imitation of a professional wrestler ranting about all the ways she was going to destroy everyone in the room.

Later on, Dan had accompanied me to get some books signed by her, and she admired the Hard Case Crime shirt he was wearing while showing off her own HCC tattoo, and then she did a hilarious bit about how she’d been forbidden from using the profanity she wanted in the Supernatural tie-in novel she’d done.

In other words, Christa Faust is the shit.

And by the way, she writes a pretty mean hard boiled crime novel, too.

In her previous HCC book Money Shot we met Angel Dare, a retired porn star who was now an agent for others in the adult entertainment industry. Poor Angel got mixed up with some very bad people, and the ensuing events left her life in ruins. Now she’s hiding out and working in a diner under an assumed name in Arizona. Angel gets a shock when a former boyfriend and fellow veteran of the porn industry Thick Vic walks in. A few minutes later she gets an even bigger surprise when a gunfight breaks out in the diner.

Angel ends up on the run with Vic’s son Cody as they flee from a local gangster. Cody is a mixed martial arts fighter whose big break is waiting for him in Vegas in a few days if he can make it there alive. Along with Cody’s trainer, a punch drunk former fighter, Angel will have to confront some very dangerous men as well as her own past.

Angel is a unique character to base a crime novel around. As a former porn star, she wields her body as an asset to be used, and seemingly doesn’t let trading sex for favors bother her. However, she also uses the sex as a way of distancing herself from her own emotions. She’s tough and capable, but she’s not an ass kicking super woman.

The plot doesn’t end up anywhere near where I thought it was going, and I was genuinely surprised by the ending. Christa Faust doesn’t pull her punches, and Angel’s story here is as painful and brutal as a swift jab to the nose.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Since We Fell

Since We Fell Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is going to be one of those pain in the ass books to review because you can’t really talk about it without spoiling it, and the things that really need to be discussed all happen later in the plot. Yet there’s so much wrong that I really want to get into all of it. It’s quite a dilemma.

Here’s what I can safely tell you: Rachel Childs’ mother refused to tell her who her father is which leads to a troubled childhood and rebellious teenage years. After her mother’s death Rachel follows up on various clues as she finishes school and becomes a rising star in TV journalism. While reporting in a disaster zone she experiences some terrible events that lead to the derailment of her career and crippling panic attacks that leave her a shut-in almost completely unable to deal with the world outside her apartment. Then some other things happen…

This really seems like two different books. The opening sentence tells us immediately that Rachel is headed for big trouble, but then it jumps way back to her childhood. We spend a lot of time with her growing up and being obsessed with tracking down her long lost father. This goes on for so long that it fools you into thinking that the book is more of a character drama/romance type of thing instead of a straight-up mystery/thriller, and I was actually enjoying this part.

After the turn we know is coming happens it seems like we’re in the territory of a Lifetime movie, but the book still had its head above water at this point. That’s when this plot which had been looking like a psychological suspense thriller turns into something else completely which stretches the suspension of disbelief way past the manufacturer’s recommended limits, and it shatters completely.

I yelled "Oh, bullshit!" so many times during this second part that I sounded like someone walking across a cow pasture wearing his best shoes. (view spoiler)

I’m a huge fan of Dennis Lehane so this is really disappointing. Now I know how a teacher feels when their favorite student hands in a rotten paper, and they have to give it an F. I suspect that a lot of readers will find the first half boring and pointless compared to the second half, or like me, they'll be more intrigued by the character based first part and think the rest is complete nonsense.

Lehane just got way too cute for his own good here as well as not seeming to have a good handle on what kind of book he was doing. While the writing itself is solid and Rachel is a pretty decent character it’s like he tried to make a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich, and the results taste about as good as that sounds.

Any untagged spoilers in the comments will be deleted.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games

Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This marks the end of the run for these Darth Vader comics, but all good things must come to an end…. Uh, I mean Darth Vader isn’t good, of course. Guy’s a Sith Lord after all. But this was a generally good title so I’m sad to see it go.

This provides a satisfying end to the plot, and overall it ends up being a solid story of what kind of shenanigans Vader was up to in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It also provides some interesting context to his relationship to the Emperor as well as how he reacted to finding out that he had a son. It doesn’t succeed as well at making us sympathize with Vader despite some attempts to give us a glimpse into what the guy behind the mask is feeling.

It’s worth reading for the murderous droids Triple-Zero and Beetee who are the best part of the series, and this features of a side adventure they have that also functions as the origin story of how two robots ended up so blood thirsty.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Unsub

Unsub Unsub by Meg Gardiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

You know a book is in trouble when it’s about a crazy maniac slaughtering people left and right, but you find yourself yawning a lot while reading it.

Back in the 1990s a brutal serial killer known as the Prophet terrorized the San Francisco area, and Detective Mack Hendrix was unable to catch him. Hendrix’s obsession with the case eventually destroyed his career and his family, but his daughter, Caitlin, has grown up to be a cop despite seeing what happened to him. Now the Prophet is back again, and Caitlin is on the team trying to find him despite Mack’s warning that she should stay away from the whole mess.

Familiar is the word that best described this book for me because almost every aspect of it seems drawn from other works. The whole thing about detectives having to think like a madman to catch one at the risk of their own sanity is straight out of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. A young lady detective driven by the tragic fate of her cop father to track down a terrifying bad guy is from that other Harris novel Silence of the Lambs which also got turned into a movie you may have heard of. The elaborate ritualistic killings as punishment are pure John Doe in the film Seven including both bad guys having the same source of inspiration. David Fincher comes up again because he also directed the excellent Zodiac based on the real unsolved case, and that was obviously another big element with a killer who terrorized the Bay Area and loved the limelight. (To be fair, the book was drawing from actual events so similarities between this and Fincher’s movie may just be from them both using the same true crime case, but it still seems like the film was a huge influence on it.)

A serial killer story is almost inevitably going to incorporate some tropes just as any other genre work will so it’s not a cardinal sin if you’re reminded of something else while reading one, but unfortunately that’s all this book did for me. It never seemed to have anything new or original to say, and the clich├ęs piled up fast. 

It’s all stuff we’ve read and seen in the works I cited before as well as countless others, and what it boils down to is that it’s just another bland lead character with a troubled past trying to track down a murderous Insane McGenius who is constantly a step ahead of the cops and whose intricate schemes that depend on perfect timing almost always play out exactly as planned. I was also supremely angered by the ending which employs one of my least favorite plot twists. 

It’s disappointing because I’ve heard good things about Meg Gardiner, and I had high hopes for this. The writing is decent enough to keep it from being complete trash, but it’s just a generic serial killer thriller that runs over the same old worn ground. Most of her effort seemed to have been centered on coming with all kinds of gruesomely elaborate ways to murder someone, but again, Seven did it first and better.

I'm not surprised to see that it’s been bought by CBS as the basis for a potential TV series because it seems exactly like what their brand is built on in the form of a procedural crime story we’ve all seen a thousand times before.

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