Friday, February 28, 2020

Review: City of Margins

City of Margins City of Margins by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this for review.

Back in the ‘90s, Donnie Parascandolo was a disgraced ex-cooooooppppppp….

And now I offer my sincere apologies to Bojack Horseman, Grouplove, and William Boyle.

Starting over.... In a Brooklyn neighborhood during the ‘90s a group of people impact each other in various ways. Donnie was a dirty cop whose son committed suicide, and his wife Donna left him in the aftermath. As part of his grieving process Donnie once hit Mikey Baldini with a baseball bat for trying to hook up with the underage Antonina, and then later when Donnie went to collect a gambling debt from Mikey’s father, Donnie ended up killing the man. A few years after that Mikey has dropped out of college and lives with his clingy mother, Rosemarie, who is still grieving her husband. Donnie has been fired from the cops and works for the local mob guy. Ava is another neighborhood widow living with her alcoholic son Nick who works as a high school teacher but dreams of being a writer.

A couple of chance encounters bring a few of these people together, and the results are….not great for everyone.

As you can tell from that description there’s a lot going on in this book. Even though it’s not that long the characters and their backstories make for a dense story that explores how these people have already been connected, and how them making new connections with each other triggers a string of unintended consequences. The strong character work makes you understand everybody’s behavior and choices even if those decisions are frequently bad.

Grief is a big factor here with several characters mourning a dead loved one, and their reactions are varied. Donnie has lost his job as a cop and seems to content to live on booze and cigarettes in his increasingly filthy house. His ex-wife, Donna, has retreated to a shabby apartment where she spends most of her time listening to her record collection and rereading her son’s suicide note. Mikey is completely adrift with no idea of what to even try to do even as his mother is torn between wanting him to get his act together vs. wanting him to stay as her needy son. Ava has become all about her work at a nursing home although she doesn’t enjoy it, and she worries about Nick who seems to have come down with a terminal case of arrested development in the way that he is content to stay with her.

All of this character work is done extremely well by William Boyle, and like his other books, there’s an incredibly rich sense of place and the people. You feel like you know this Brooklyn neighborhood as well as its residents by the end of the book, and he also did a great job with the ‘90s setting by making it seem familiar to someone who lived throughout without ever descending to the nostalgia porn levels. I also caught a few connections to his other books so this feels like getting more history on a place I’ve visited before.

Overall, it’s the epitome of what I look for in a character based crime novel. After reading his three previous books I’ve said that Boyle was quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, and now he sits high on that list.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Strange Planet

Strange Planet Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this collection of humorous drawings so I have posted this message on the part of the computer network known as Adequate Eye Scans. It is owned by the same large company from which I purchased the collection so that they might sell more of them and become even larger. I am mildly uncomfortable about this process.

I also am aware that if other beings disagree with me assessment of the drawings, they will tell me in rude tones that I am incorrect.

Ah, but seriously folks...

I find Nathan Pyle's cartoons of aliens going about their daily lives wildly funny. There's just something about how he uses language to describe common things that makes me laugh. For example, instead of teeth, they are your mouthstones, and most of us fail at the recommended daily task of pushing string through them.

Reading his cartoons on social media every day are the closest thing I get to that old feeling when I'd crack open a newspaper and read the comics so I was happy to support him by buying this. It's not long, but it put a smile on my face.

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Review: Atlanta Deathwatch

Atlanta Deathwatch Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from the publisher for review.

I knew I was in for a good time when I saw this warning at the start of the book:

“Publishers note: This book was originally published in 1974 and reflects the cultural and sexual attitudes, language, and politics of the period.”

That’s right, baby! It’s 1974 so let's get sleazy!

Jim Hardman is an ex-cop who now makes his living in Atlanta as an off-the-books private investigator, and he supplements his income by occasionally transporting narcotics. Hardman is doing what seems to be a simple job of following a young college girl for her father, but a thorough beating from some thugs get him to drop the case.

Unfortunately the girl is then murdered and a black gangster known only as The Man hires Hardman to find the killer. This is a little odd since it was The Man who had Hardman scared off the case originally. Investigating her death results in increasing carnage all around him, but fortunately Hardman can count on his best friend, a former NFL player named Hump Evans, to back him up and let him sleep on his couch when Hardman is afraid to go home.

I got interested in checking out this series after attending last year’s Bouchercon and hearing author/publisher Lee Goldberg talk about how he had become obsessed with this mostly forgotten series and had made it a mission to reprint the books in order to make sure that Ralph Dennis wasn’t forgotten. You can read all about that here.

After finishing the book, I’m very glad that Goldberg got these out here. Dennis was a far better writer than the original publication of these as ‘men’s action adventure paperbacks’ would indicate. In his introduction of this edition, Joe R. Lansdale credits these books as being an influence on his creation of Hap & Leonard so I think it's fair to say that the Hardman & Hump partnership was one of the pioneers of the whole detective-character-with-bad-ass-friend dynamic that a lot of modern PI novels use.

The morally flexible Hardman becomes a fairly complex character over the course of the book. He isn’t operating on some kind of strict moral code like a Marlowe or a Spenser, and he lacks the polish of a Sam Spade. Overall, Hardman comes across as a good guy who once got a raw deal and is now just doing the best he can.

The ‘70s factor might be a plus or a minus depending on each reader’s own preferences. I loved the whole grimy atmosphere of the book in which Hardman and Hump think splitting a pint of booze in the car while tailing someone is just standard operating procedure. If this book was scratch & sniff the odor would be of an old shag carpet filled with cigarette ash and spilled Pabst Blue Ribbon.

There are some things that come across as cringe-worthy in terms of race and sexism, but overall Dennis’ writing isn’t nearly as dated as you’d expect from a book of this genre written in this era.

I had a lotta throwback fun with this, and I’ll be checking out more of the series.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Review: Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze Deep Freeze by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review. Reposted after reading again.

I got sneak preview of this one last spring when I made a long drive to attend a John Sandford signing, and he told us about the current book he was fighting a deadline on that he was going to have to spend the evening working on when he got back to the hotel. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but it makes John one of the best and most productive thriller writers on the bestseller list.

It’s another hard Minnesota winter in the small town of Trippton, but there’s a spot near the sewage treatment plant where the river doesn’t freeze. That’s where the body of the lady who owned the local bank pops up, and soon state cop Virgil Flowers is on the job. Virgil is familiar with Trippton because his fishing buddy Johnson Johnson lives there, and he also worked another case there just a few books back.

Complicating the murder investigation is the side gig his bosses want Virgil to help with that involves a ring of the locals adding sound chips to Barbie dolls that make it sound as if their having orgasms and selling them on the web. The Mattel corporation has no sense of humor about these aptly named Barbie-Ohs and has dispatched a private detective to serve cease-and-desist orders, but the hard boiled lady gumshoe is having no luck tracking down the people involved. Virgil isn’t happy about such a silly distraction, but he finds out the hard way that times are so tough in this struggling small town that the people involved are desperate to keep anyone from interfering with the income they make from selling the dolls.

This is pretty typical Sandford in a lot of ways. Virgil gets a case in a rural Minnesota town, and he tries to solve it using his sneakily low key way of chatting up people and tapping into local gossip. Like most of his books we know right from the start who the killer is, and the tension comes from the cat-and-mouse game between the cop and criminal. Sandford often holds back some info from the reader that is a critical part of how the bad guy will be found and figuring that out provides the mystery element to his books rather than a straight-up whodunit. He adds a new wrinkle to that in this one because while we know who killed the woman we also know that he left the body in her house after trying to make it look like an accident. One of the interesting aspects in this one is that the killer is as confused as we are as to how she wound up in the river.

There is also all the typical Sandford stuff about Virgil having funny conversations with people, and one of the better running gags in this one is that everyone he asks about the leader of the Barbie-Oh gang acts as if they’ve never heard of her though he knows damn good and well that every one of them knows exactly who she is.

There’s one potential problem here with a big unresolved plot point. Sandford doesn’t always wrap everything up neatly, but even if the cops don’t know everything by the conclusion the reader always does. It’s also possible that he’s leaving a loose thread for a future book, but that's not really his style so it’s odd that it isn’t even mentioned in the wrap-up as a loose end. It really does seem like something that Sandford just forgot to address, but his plotting is usually air tight so it really made me scratch my head at the oversight.

Overall, it’s still another satisfying thriller from a writer whose casual readability masks how intelligent, well conceived, and executed his books really are.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Mystic River

Mystic River Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought a hardback copy of Mystic River when it first came out, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know who has the slightest interest in crime fiction ever since. Oddly enough, it’s been almost 20 years since I first read the book, and I’d never revisited it until now. I love it, but there’s just so much Lehane-style depression that a fella can take.

In a working class Boston neighborhood during the mid-‘70s,three young boys encounter a couple of child molesters pretending to be cops. One of the kids, Dave Boyle, ends up being taken by them and endures several days of abuse before managing to escape. Twenty-five years later Dave still lives in the same old neighborhood with his wife and son. Jimmy Marcus didn’t get in the car with Dave. He went on to become the leader of a crew of thieves, but a stretch in prison and caring for his young daughter, Katie, set Jimmy straight. Now he runs a corner grocery store in the neighborhood. Sean Devine also avoided the pedophiles, and he’s grown up to be a homicide investigator for the state police while trying to cope with his crumbling marriage.

When Jimmy’s daughter Katie is brutally murdered, it’s a shock to the neighborhood. As Sean investigates the crime Jimmy has to deal with his grief. Dave was one of the last people to see Katie alive when she was out at a bar with some girlfriends, and he had no reason to hurt her. Yet, his wife Celeste knows that he came home late that night covered in blood…

A recurring theme that Lehane explores is the damage done by crime and violence, and that’s the thing that lingers over this book and makes it great. Jimmy is convinced that something in his own past was the reason Katie was killed even as he spent years trying to be ‘good’. Sean’s career as a policeman has made him misanthropic, thinking that the world is filled with stupid people killing each for stupid reasons, and it’s soured his personal life. Both of them are also haunted by how close they came to sharing Dave’s fate, and Dave himself refuses to talk about what happened to him even as many who know what happened consider him ‘damaged goods’.

Lehane takes all of these factors and adds a few more like what gentrification was doing to their old neighborhood to create one of the ultimate character driven pieces of crime fiction. The ultimate resolution and what happens both because of Dave getting in that car as a young boy and Katie’s murder seem like tragedies that beget more tragedies in a long string of unintended consequences.

Considering the ending and reading this now, nearly 20 years after it was first published, made me think that there could be another story by now. If Lehane went back now and told us what happened next, I’d want to read that book.

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