Thursday, August 22, 2013

Grave Diggers & Wild Hogs

The Thicket
by Joe R. Lansdale

4 out of 5 stars

(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley.)

At the tail end of the cowboy days in East Texas, sixteen year old Jack Parker and his sister Lula have a helluva bad week.  After their parents die in a smallpox epidemic, their grandfather is murdered by a gang of bank robbers who kidnap Lula.  The only help that Jack can find is a grave digging black man with a drinking problem named Eustace and the midget bounty hunter Shorty.  Along with a giant hog, they set out to rescue Lula.   Jack tries to hold to his Christian beliefs that the gang should be caught and tried, and he is horrified at Shorty and Eustace’s willingness to kill and ignore common decency in the name of a greater good, namely their own.

As they meet more victims of the gang along the trail and see how cruel they truly are, Jack starts to realize that there’s no way to get Lula back without getting blood on his hands and that his traveling companions may have a better understanding of the world than he does.  His young puritan ways are also tested when he meets Jimmie Sue, a hooker with a heart of gold who takes a liking to him.

There are elements of this story that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has read or seen one of the two film versions of True Grit with a young person venturing into a hostile wilderness with some salty frontier types, but Lansdale also adds some bizarre and violent turns that feel more like Django Unchained at times.

My favorite part was the character of Shorty.   He may be the smallest member of the posse, but he’s the smartest and hell on wheels with a gun in his hand.  He’s also a misanthrope who came by it honestly after a lifetime of dealing with people who treat him like a freak or a child, and he gets most of the best lines in the book.

It’s also got all the hallmarks of Joe Lansdale with a profane sense of humor that provides plenty of action but with a sense of responsibility about the damage done by all the violence.  In fact, my one complaint about the novel is that it’s a little too Joe Lansdale.

If you’ve read his Hap & Leonard series, then a lot of this will seem somewhat familiar in that you’ve got some characters who while being ‘the good guys’ are perfectly content to dish out punishment if they feel it’s been earned while someone provides a softer hearted conscience that urges some compassion.  In fact, this isn’t even the first Lansdale book to feature a midget involved in a vicious pistol whipping along with a strange wild animal bonding with people since he worked similar stuff into Rumble Tumble.

However, if the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s a typical Joe Lansdale story, then you know you’re still getting an entertaining tale.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Didn't These Guys Ever See Fargo?

Out of the Black
John Rector

4 out of 5 kidnapped stars.

(I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley.)

Matt Caine must have crossed a black cat’s path before walking under a ladder and opening an umbrella indoors while breaking a couple of mirrors because he is one unlucky son-of-a-bitch.

His wife was killed in a car crash that badly injured and traumatized their daughter, and Matt had to take out loans against his house to pay the medical bills.  When the banks threaten to foreclose, Matt borrows money from his old buddy Murphy who dabbles in loan sharking, but he can’t find steady work and the interest on the debt is piling up.   Murphy doesn’t want to hassle Matt, but it’s bad for business to let someone slide and his partners are getting antsy.

Matt’s in-laws are making noises about taking his daughter away because his grief and a case of PTSD from his time in the Marines have left him unfit and unable to provide for his daughter.  When his friend Jay starts talking about a foolproof plan to kidnap the wife of a wealthy man for a payday that would solve all his problems, Matt knows that it’s a bad idea, especially since Jay is an untrustworthy junkie.  As his options dwindle, he eventually convinces himself that it’s his only way he can keep his daughter.  The kidnapping plan goes about as well as you’d expect as Matt’s lucky streak continues.

In John Rector’s The Cold Kiss, he took the old crime story scenario of someone finding a bag of money and trying to get away with it and made a fresh story out of it.  He does a similar thing here with the idea of a decent guy forced by circumstances into taking part in a crime in which things go screwy.  It’s a fast-paced story with a relatable main character and some good twists and turns along the way.

I wish a bit more about Matt’s history as a Marine had been explained because other than a comment from his mother-in-law about his wife had told him about his nightmares, we don’t get much more than that.  While he knows his way around a gun, there’s nothing in the action stuff to suggest that he’s been in combat before.  There’s also a cute neighbor who is a little too good to be true that loves his daughter and is always available to babysit when he needs her to.  Of course, she’s also attracted to Matt who is too conflicted about his dead wife to act on it.

I’m focusing too much on the flaws here and nitpicking this more than I meant to. It really is a solid story with good action and a fast pace to it that should make any crime fan happy.

Also posted at Goodreads.