Monday, May 25, 2020

Review: Blacktop Wasteland

Blacktop Wasteland Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

You know how some cars have a handhold mounted above the doors on the interior, and you hear people call them the “Oh-Shit-Handle” because if you’re a passenger and something crazy happens you might find yourself clutching it while screaming expletives?

This book should come with an Oh-Shit-Handle because it’s that kind of ride.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage was a professional criminal whose planning skills were second only to his driving abilities. However, he left that life behind to be a husband and father, and he started his own automotive repair shop in rural Virginia. Unfortunately, business has gotten slow, and the bills are piling up. That’s when an old associate who burned Bug on a previous heist shows up with the promise of an easy score. Feeling that he has no other options, Bug decides to do the job even though he has grave concerns about who he’ll be working with.

What could possibly go wrong?

I wrote about how S.A. Cosby came to my attention at the 2019 Bouchercon in my review of his first book, My Darkest Prayer and with his second book he continues to deliver.

The idea of a former criminal trying to go straight who takes one last job has certainly been done before in crime fiction. Cosby hits all the familiar beats with the planning, the heist, the twist, all the other elements you’d see in a Richard Stark novel, and he does them well. As just a crime novel this makes for a helluva page turner.

Where the book hits the next gear (Get it?) is in the character work done with Bug, and it’s all about the relationships. First, there’s the daddy issues with Bug being haunted by his unresolved feelings for his father, a criminal who vanished at a critical moment in Bug’s youth. Then there’s the hateful dying mother he feels obligated to support. Finally, there’s the wife and kids he dearly loves and is trying to make a brighter future for.

Like many a character in a crime fiction like this, Bug claims he’s doing it all for his loved ones, but there’s a part of him that also loves the outlaw life. It also fits his violent tendencies better than being a family man, and one of the key things that Cosby digs into here is the notion of a person split between two conflicting lifestyles that are fundamentally opposed. In the end the book is really about Bug coming to terms with who he really is, who he wants to be, and what kind of damage he’s already done to the people he loves.

In addition to all this, the writing just absolutely cooks. There’s great action, gritty violence, humor, heartbreaking moments, and while reading there were some driving sequences where I found myself pressing my foot on the floor as if I could stomp the brake to slow the car down. I grew up in a rural area, and I may have broken a few speed limits on country roads in my youth so Cosby’s descriptions of what that rush is like really hit home for me,

It’s a fantastic follow up to his first novel, and it makes me more sure than ever that Cosby is a writer to watch.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Review: Dead Girl Blues

Dead Girl Blues Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

This is a great book, but also a fairly tough read.

That’s not because there’s a graphic account of a shocking crime in the opening chapter although anyone who picks this up should be aware that they are in for one dark ride. And it’s certainly not because of the writing because this is Lawrence Block we’re talking about it, and that guy could make a lawnmower maintenance manual a page turner.

What makes it uncomfortable is that it asks some tough questions. Like does committing one terrible crime make a person evil even if they go on to be an upstanding citizen for the rest of their life? I suspect that a lot of people would be inclined to chalk it up to youth or one bad decision made in the heat of the moment.

The wrinkle here is that the first person narrator isn’t holding back, and we know exactly just how much he enjoyed the act as well as how he continues to fantasize about it for years afterwards. There’s no guilt, nor any empathy for the victim. In fact, it seems like the main reason he doesn’t do it again is that he feels like he was lucky to get away with it once so deliberately holds himself in check.

However, it isn’t exactly as black and white on the part of the main character, and the tricky thing that Block pulls off here is putting us in this guy’s head for an entire book so that you understand him. I’m not saying that you sympathize with him. That’s nigh on impossible after that first chapter. Yet, you do get a feel for how he’s just one of those people who has a head full of bad wiring, and there’s something to be said for his self-awareness that makes no excuses or rationalizations. While he originally drifts onto the path that becomes his new life as an average Joe, he also deliberately makes choices to make that happen and is careful to avoid putting himself in a position where he may not be able to help doing it again.

So again, while we’re dealing with a monster, he knows he’s a monster, and he’s not giving in to his worst impulses. Does it matter that his reasons for behaving himself are still driven by self-interest?

If you ask that question then you also need to consider how many seemingly decent people only obey the rules out of fear of getting caught. The narrator discusses many other crimes he sees in the news, and one that catches his attention is the story of a man who killed a woman years ago and went on to live a seemingly normal life and never did it again. So it makes you wonder just how many people you see walking around your neighborhood who may have left a body in a shallow grave in the woods.

Block also makes good use of some recent resolutions of real cold cases to add in a feeling that the curtain is coming down on the main character after decades of getting away with it. His thoughts and plans about what he might do if he feels like he’s finally caught are bone chilling and go in a surprising direction that add more uneasiness about what so-called average people might do in similar circumstances.

The only quibble I have with the book is that I’m not entirely sure that the timeline holds up if you start thinking about the age of the narrator and other characters in relation to him at certain points, but that’s minor nitpicking in an otherwise fascinating book.

Again, this might not be for all crime fiction fans because there are parts that are tough sledding. It might not even be for all Lawrence Block fans. He seems to be very aware of that, and he posted an interesting account of how he came to write and publish this one. It certainly shocked me at the start, and then surprised me even more with different direction the book takes after that. In the end it’s a meditation on dark impulses and trying to live with them that is going to haunt me for a good long while.

Some people have already noted that this is one of Block’s best books, and you can add me to that list.

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Review: The Winter of Frankie Machine

The Winter of Frankie Machine The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Reread update. I'm pleased to report that Don Winslow has become much better known and respected since I originally wrote this review in 2010.**

“It’s a lot of work being me," Frank Machianno often thinks, and he’s got a point. Despite being in his early sixties, Frank is the slightly fussy owner of several small businesses that keep him hopping. Among them is the bait shop on San Diego’s Ocean Beach Pier where Frank is a local fixture, and he still makes time for the Gentlemen's Hour when several old timers gather to surf. Since his daughter just got into medical school it looks like Frank is going to be busy for the foreseeable future to pay those bills, and that's just fine with him.

But Frank isn’t just a hustling businessman. He once was known by the nickname Frankie Machine by the local branch of the Mafia that he worked for, and his name is still respected and feared. Even though he left that life behind years ago Frank reluctantly gets roped into doing a favor for the boss’s son. Things aren’t as advertised and both the mob and the feds are soon after him. Frankie Machine is going to have to confront old friends, old enemies, old grudges, and a new generation of mob wannabes to figure out who is gunning for him and why.

Don Winslow is one of the modern crime writers who started with a series, but then shifted into more character based stand-alone novels, kind of like what Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos have done. Even though he’s very talented, it doesn’t seem like he’s getting the same amount of attention as Lehane and Pelecanos are getting for similar work, and that puzzles me because Winslow definately belongs to be mentioned among the best of the modern crime authors.

Winslow has used the San Diego surf culture as a setting several times now, but he’s really created something unique with Frankie Machine. Surfer, former Marine, Vietnam vet, Mafia hitman, father, bait salesman, businessman, opera fan and civic minded local hero seems like a lot to roll into one character, but Frank is a fascinating figure.

The novel also uses a lot of flashbacks to explain Frank’s complex history, his life as a gangster and his ultimate disillusionment with organized crime. Frank lived through a lot of ups and downs as a mob guy from the peak of 70’s era Vegas to the hard times of the ‘80s as the feds finally started tearing traditional organized crime apart. There’s plenty of realistic action, but the heart of the story is Frank’s thoughts of his past and the conclusions he draws about his life of violence.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Review: The Darkling Halls of Ivy

The Darkling Halls of Ivy The Darkling Halls of Ivy by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Lawrence Block has gone back to school. Just like Rodney Dangerfield only there is no Triple-Lindy.

Block’s introduction explains how despite him being a college dropout he somehow ended up as writer-in-residence teaching at a college which then led to him compiling this anthology of stories with an academic theme. Unfortunately, that’s the only LB writing we get in this collection, and while there are some good stories in it there aren’t really any great ones, and there a few I found to be outright duds.

Sticking with the positive side of things – The first story Requiem for a Homecoming by David Morrell has an interesting structure in which a screenwriter is a guest of honor at his old college, and he has an interest in an old murder that occurred when he was a student. Joe R. Lansdale provides a bit of futuristic sci-fi tale that takes a horrifically funny look at what the college experience could be in the future. Goon #4 by Tod Goldberg was my favorite story about a guy who retire from international security/thug work to go back to school and finds himself applying some of his skills and philosophy to college life. It’s got a great sense of deadpan black humor that takes a nice twist in the end.

There’s some skippable stories, but enough quality to make it worth a look.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Review: Broken

Broken Broken by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Broken is one of those rare books with six novellas offering something something different in each for crime fiction fans.

Do you want a dark and bloody tale about the cost of revenge? The title story Broken will cover that. How about a cat-and-mouse game between a slick professional thief and a dedicated cop hunting him? Crime 101 is what you’re looking for. Looking for a few laughs? The San Diego Zoo features a cop dealing with a chimpanzee with a revolver that has several hilarious lines and moments. Sunset is about trying to track down a bail jumper, but it’s also a reflection on aging, friendship, and loyalty. Another morality tale features some good hearted pot dealers screwing up Paradise despite their best intentions. Finally, The Last Ride uses a ripped-from-the-headlines plot that asks hard questions about what’s going on in America at the moment when disobeying the law might be the only way to be a decent person.

Like most writers Don Winslow’s style has evolved over the years as well as his subjects. He can write a more humorous and low stakes story based in San Diego surf culture, or he can dig into the gory details of Mexican drug wars. While there’s generally a conversational tone to his writing that feels like somebody is telling you a story, each one feels like it’s a different person in a different setting. For example, Broken has the same in-your-face cop attitude that was like his novel The Force so that seems like some wiseguy New Yorker is telling it to you over a shot and a beer in a dive bar. Yet others like Paradise have a more laid back SoCal feel so that one feels like you’re talking to a surfer at a beach party.

There’s also a feeling that this a retrospective of Winslow’s career with most of the surviving major characters from his previous books showing up throughout the stories. Seeing these older characters pop up and learn about their fates was a pleasure, and it gave me the urge to reread most of Winslow’s books.

It isn’t just about Winslow’s past though because we also get a couple of great homages to crime writing legends Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. The San Diego Zoo is dedicated to Leonard and most definitely feels like one of his novels while Sunset is kind of a surfer based remake of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

It’s a fantastic set of long stories that I’d rank among Winslow’s best work.

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