Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Reads of 2012

I read 62 books this year; four more were started, but not finished. It was a good year, so I’m not going to bother with naming the ten best, or five best, or twelve best. These are the books I’d be happy to recommend to anyone looking for a good read. (Books are listed in each category in the order in which I read them. No qualitative ranking should be implied.)


Tumblin’ Dice, John Mcfetridge – The Saints of Hell play more of a supporting role in this entry in the continuing saga of the biker gang gradually taking over organized crime in Canada, but their presence looms over everything that happens. A rock band gets together for a reunion tour on the casino circuit and proves you can’t always get what you want. (It’s not only Mcfetridge who can quote Stones’s titles.)

Falling Glass, Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe makes a cameo here, though, as above, his presence affects everything that gets done. The most Irish of McKinty’s crime fiction, Falling Glass probes a little deeper and lingers a little longer on societal and interpersonal relationships without losing any of its momentum.

Wolf Tickets, Ray Banks – Now he’s showing off. Tells the story in first person, from the points of view of two alternating characters. Far from taking the reader out of the story, the technique gives insights into both characters, foreshadowing issues in the flow of thoughts instead of hitting you over the head with them. A fast and fascinating read.

The Bone Polisher, Timothy Hallinan – The more I read of Hallinan’s Simeon Grist novels, the more I like them; maybe I picked the wrong entry point. Here Grist fills in the gaps far-flung small town cops would never be able to coordinate to solve Los Angeles murders.

Cleansing Eden, Ben Sobieck – I don’t like serial killer novels, and generally avoid them. Sobieck adds a twist to make this psycho far more believable—and thereby creepier—in a story with overtones of the Washington sniper killings of ten years ago. An exceptional debut.

Mafiya, Charlie Stella – The poet laureate of mob fiction brings in the Russians, both the mob and an OC cop, in what might be Stella’s most compelling story.

Breaking Cover, J.D. Rhoades – The twist comes early, so I can’t say what makes Breaking Cover different from most “hunted man” thrillers. Rhoades has a knack for redneck noir, and never have the necks been redder in one of his stories. He also stays away from the pat and expected ending, which earns major points.

The Fear Artist, Timothy Hallinan – The latest Poke Rafferty thriller involves Poke in Thai terrorism and a ghost from the Vietnam War’s Phoenix program. Uses the broadest cast of all the Rafferty stories to good effect, and needs them all. I spent a day of my summer vacation reading the whole thing in virtually one sitting. Had my bladder been twenty years younger, one sitting would have done it.

Fire Season, Jon Loomis – Let’s hope some publisher figures out how to market Loomis. He’s writing a series of what should be borderline best sellers and hardly anyone knows about it. Provincetown MA detective Frank Coffin and the usual crew of LGBT accomplices combine for another tale that will keep a smile on your face until you laugh out loud, but never trivializes the violence.

Rough Riders, Charlie Stella – A bit of a change, moving away from New York to North Dakota. Rough Riders picks up the story from Eddie’s World but is not really a sequel, as a retired NYPD detective follows a trail looking for the man Eddie Senta disfigured in self-defense, who now wants revenge. Throw in some local and federal law enforcement, and a heroin ring operating out an air force base and you have Stella’s most complex and multi-layered story.

A Choice of Nightmares, Lynn Kostoff – The story of a second-rate actor and third-rate person who allows himself to be drawn into a drug smuggling conspiracy thanks to his own lack of introspection and impulse control. The fact this could happen to a lot of people if they don’t pay attention makes the story even more compelling.

Slaughter’s Hound, Declan Burke – Burke goes Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie one better in this maniacal story of what happens when Eightball Boogie’s Harry Rigby gets out of prison and goes straight. Funny, terrifying, and disturbing, this is Burke’s most accomplished work to date, though definitely not for the faint of heart.

Skin Deep, Timothy Hallinan – The first Simeon Grist book, published third (this is the strangest business in the world, except for movies), and the best. Grist is hired to babysit a thoroughly contemptible TV star long enough not to queer a syndication deal. None of the characters live in the American mainstream, but you’ll feel like you know them all by the time you’re finished reading. Nice twist to the ending, where payback is a bitch.

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut – Yes, it took me over fifty years to read Player Piano. It’s just as well. Vonnegut was either remarkable prescient or things haven’t changed as much in this country as we like to think, as his dystopian idea of the logical consequences of mechanical efficiency may be even more disturbing now than when he wrote it in the 50s.

Perfect Hatred, Leighton Gage – Ha! The rest of you won’t get to red this until February, when I’ll have a full review to accompany release. The electronic ARC I read shows Gage taking his game up a notch, weaving together stories that pull Chief Inspector Silva in different directions while pushing him between them at the same time. All the things that make the Silva series so good are here, plus a new level of complexity and danger.

The Adjustment, Scott Phillips – Talk about books that aren’t for everyone. Wayne Ogden may be the most selfish character ever written, yet I couldn’t stop reading about him. Only Phillips can get me to read about such a person and like it.

Sacrifice Fly, Tim O’Mara – Excellent debut about a former New York cop turned schoolteacher who treads the line between cops and civilians in the search for a missing student. Well-drawn characters, great dialog, and an unexpected plot direction make this a book that will get O’Mara another contract if there is any justice.

Notable re-reads:

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley – I didn’t like it much when I read it the first time, but continued to hear so much good about it I gave it another chance. What can I say? I was bedridden with mononucleosis the first time, not in the best condition to render objective reading opinions. It’s as good as they say.

Dead I Well May Be, Adrian McKinty – Another book I gave short shrift when I read it the first time, though without illness as an excuse. The best of the McKinty’s Forsythe books, getting inside Michael’s head as he evolves from criminal gofer to bad motherfucker.

The Guards, Ken Bruen – Originally read the same week as The Last Good Kiss, with the same original results and re-evaluation after the re-reading.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – I don’t have anything to add to what I and others have said before. Quite possibly the greatest piece of crime fiction ever written.

Non-Fiction (since it’s not really fair to compare it directly with fiction):

Making Story, edited by Timothy Hallinan – Essays from twenty-some published authors on how they put their books together. Includes plotters and pantsers and everything in between. Highly recommended for all writers, if only to show you can’t be doing it wrong if there is no right way.

Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke – Over a hundred authors pick books they think are important in the crime fiction oeuvre, writing essays on each. A must have for any serious reader or writer of crime fiction. I guarantee you’ll find something, or someone, new here.

Gang Leader For a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh – Graduate thesis research takes a SoCal boy to the most notorious housing project in the country, Chicago’s late Robert Taylor homes. A fascinating story, not unlike David Simon’s The Corner, but more from the gang’s point of view.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sacrifice Fly

It’s not often I discover a new author because he asked for the shirt off my back. Happened exactly once, at the bar during this year’s Cleveland Bouchercon. Ordering my drink and I hear, “I want that shirt.” Okay, he didn’t actually want mine; he wanted one exactly like it. (The shirt is question is a tasteful black tee shirt, with WWASD stitched over the left breast, and “What Would Al Swearengen Do?” on the back, a Christmas gift from The Beloved Spouse several years ago.)

Turns out the guy’s name is Tim O’Mara, a New York schoolteacher with a book due out right after the conference. Tim’s a nice guy, we’re both seamheads, and a pleasant conversation ensued, during which we exchanged cards. I then went home and placed his book on the list with the other hundred or so I’d like to read. Good luck.

Couple of weeks later I noticed the book (Sacrifice Fly) getting some love on a blog I frequent. Another few weeks down the road I saw a brief piece by Tim in the Criminal Element blog that was intriguing enough I bumped Sacrifice Fly up the list and bought a copy.

Well done, me.

Sacrifice Fly is the story of former cop and current schoolteacher Raymond Donne. Donne pulled a few strings to get student Frankie Rivas into the local Catholic high school on a baseball scholarship, but the kid can’t go unless he graduates middle school, and he can’t graduate middle school unless he starts showing up, which he hasn’t done for several days. Donne takes it upon himself to get Frankie tightened up and discovers he’s no longer staying with his grandmother, but with his father, who can charitably be described as a ne’er-do-well. Donne follows up and finds Frankie’s father dead and Frankie and his younger sister in the wind.

Sacrifice Fly does so many things well, it’s hard to know where to start. Donne left the police force after a serious injury. He doesn’t miss it—normally—but searching for Frankie draws him so close to Job he can’t help crossing the line. His internal debates always ring true, and O’Mara has done us the courtesy of not making Donne fight the demons of alcohol or drug abuse. He’s a guy, like any guy, who wants to do the right thing. He also has some skills and experience that will serve him well as he treads a little farther over the line with each episode.

The supporting cast is introduced and used judiciously and to good effect. There are quite a few characters, all so well delineated you’ll have no trouble keeping them straight. They also have a convenient combination of skill sets, but not so convenient they feel like cut-outs. It’s more a matter of Donne knowing a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. His job is knowing who to call for what, and when.

Most of the story takes place in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which is a nice change from the general “New York = Manhattan” vibe too many books put out. It’s a neighborhood—true, a changing one—but the people care about it and each other without becoming mawkish.

The plot is paced and organized perfectly. O’Mara understands suspense is the sense that something is going to happen, and knows how long to make you wait before the law of diminishing return kicks in. No outrageous surprises complicate things, but there are plenty of complications. Nothing that doesn’t make sense, but there are things you have to wonder about until the reveal makes them seem inevitable. Everything comes to make sense and he never hurries. Many writers never learn to do either.

The dialog sounds like people talking, especially when Donne is talking to other men. This must be harder to do than people think, because hardly anyone does it well. More straightforward than George V. Higgins, O’Mara’s dialog still creates the feeling you’re eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a speech.

This is a lot longer than my standard review, frankly, because Sacrifice Fly delivered a lot more than I expected. I have high expectations for books written by authors whose work I already know, and who have receive a lot of acclaim, not for guys I meet in bars. Maybe I need to spend more time in bars. O’Mara is working on another book. I’ll read it, too.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

 Another year? Well, holy cow,
That sure did fly by quick.
We were not too adventurous
And no one got real sick.

 The biggest news, as usual,
Was wrought by The Sole Heir,
Who spent five weeks in France to learn
How doctors do it there.

She’s interviewing now to find
A med school to attend,
So when the old man falls apart
She’ll give advice to mend.

Memorial Day the clan convened
In Jersey (where there’s bears),
Extended families combined
With memories to share.

 In May a deal by Dana signed,
A book will be in print,
It won’t come out till oh-fourteen;
The process is no sprint.

 Accompanying Dana to
This annum’s Bouchercon
Gave Corky her first chance to meet
The writers he dwells on.

 (Oh, Bouchercon’s a mys’try fest,
The largest on the Earth,
Where writers and their fans can share
A few pints and some mirth.)

Apart from that, a quiet year,
No surgeries or floods,
The days rolled through from one to next
Some triumphs, fewer duds.

 The timing good for such a year,
As next one will be busy,
Two graduations and a trip
Will keep us in a tizzy.

We wish you many happy days,
Both holi- and routine,
And hope too much time will not pass
Before by us you’re seen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Adjustment

Everyone has a writer about whom they say, “No one else writes like this.” Excepting the times the phrase is used as a meaningless platitude (which is too often), this means the author in question has gotten off the main trail and is finding his or her own way and no one is likely to follow because it’s scary down there. No light, no handholds, forks and switchbacks that can get you lost in a heartbeat, never to be heard from again. Sheer rock wall to your left, a thousand-foot drop on your right, and the path is a foot-and-a half wide. Then there’s the bridge across the Gorge of Eternal Peril, where if you fail to give the right answers, your bones will join the others strewn about, the careers of writers who lacked the courage of, and confidence in, their convictions. They should have turned back a long time ago.

James Ellroy’s name comes up a lot in such discussions, with good reason. My personal favorite is Scott Phillips.

In The Adjustment, Phillips builds his story around a thoroughly unlikeable character (Wayne Ogden). Ogden is a true sociopath, a small-town version of Warren Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example.” Wayne’s greedy and he’s angry and he doesn’t care who he crosses. He likes to have a good time, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. Really. Times two.

It’s not that Ogden is amoral. He knows what the right thing to do is most of the time, and is willing to do it, so long as it doesn’t interfere with what he wants or feels like doing at the time. He puts up with his pregnant wife’s abysmal cooking because he feels bad when he hurt her feelings one time, then goes out a sleeps with pretty much whoever will have him. He’s a strong advocate on condoms, though it’s primarily because the clap will keep him from getting laid as often as he’d like. This is 1946, so AIDS is not an issue for Wayne. Pregnancy is an issue, but only for his partners.

That’s an unappealing picture, and Phillips does nothing to soften Ogden’s aura. Writing in the first person, no apologies are made for Ogden’s actions or attitudes. He is what he is and you can take him or leave him. Ogden’s okay either way, and he’s too busy to talk you into anything. It’s the matter-of-factness that makes the book so readable, that and Phillips’s wit, which is considerable. By “wit,” I don’t mean what passes for wit in popular culture today, Judd Apatow least common denominator cleverness (which, admittedly, can be quite funny), but the dryness present in Thurber or Robert Benchley. Not that either Thurber or Benchley would touch a character like Wayne Ogden with a cattle prod. You’ll read the description of an unsavory, heavy R-rated action through Ogden’s eyes and find a smile growing at the same time your conscience is stripping off its clothes, looking for a place to burn them.

The Adjustment is not for everyone. (Including, I believe, Phillip’s agent at the time.) You may find yourself smiling at things that are only funny from Ogden’s perspective. The writing will bring the smile, but any self-aware reader will be unable to escape what an unsavory narrator he is. If you enjoy atypical novels written with understated panache and don’t mind spending time with a main character who will screw your wife and piss in your drink while you’re in the bathroom, you really ought to check it out.

Friday, December 14, 2012


The Supreme Court has ruled gun ownership is an individual right under the Second Amendment. That’s settled law and will not be debated.

Here are a few things we can do that might keep some guns out of the hands of those we have already agreed can’t have them, and make those who own them a little more responsible:

Enforce the three-day waiting period for background checks on all gun sales. The purpose of the check is to ensure those who should to have weapons don’t get them, and to provide a cooling off period for those who might be having violent impulses. It’s an imperfect system, but the best we have; some money for staff and database support might help. The gun show exemption defeats the purpose, and the only reason for it is convenience. The Second Amendment does not specify a level of convenience. Check everyone.

Register all firearms. The NRA doesn’t want to hear this, as it will allegedly make it too easy for the government to come for your guns if it wants to. Goddamn right. If anyone who owns a gun later commits any action that would bar him from buying another, round up the ones he has.

More accountability for gun owners. It’s your right to own a gun. With rights come responsibilities. If your gun is ever used in the commission of a crime, you own a piece of that, too. If your gun is stolen, report it right now. If you lend it out, be aware you’re lending more than the gun. You know where your car is and would report its theft in a heartbeat. Being able to account for your most dangerous possession is not asking too much.

No fully automatic weapon sales to individuals. I’m not even going to bother to explain this one. Modifying a semi-automatic weapon to full auto will cost you some prison time and a bar to owning a gun in the future.

No outsized clips or magazines. When this was last raised, the argument against was small magazines were an inconvenience to target shooter, as they have to stop to reload too often. To that I say, fuck you. Your convenience does not justify leaving the door open for someone else to shoot large numbers of people.

I write this without knowing the details of today’s Connecticut shooting, except that twenty children are dead. How he pulled it off doesn’t matter. What I mentioned here won’t solve the problem, but it’s worth a try as a start. I’ve never been against gun ownership per se, but I can’t let this kind of thing go on and accept it as the cost of living in this country any longer.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Resurrection Mall

It’s been over a week since I posted. (Amid great rejoicing.) I’m stuck for a post, mainly because the new book is starting to flow and any stray synapses have been occupied with what comes next. So, with the new book on my mind—working title Resurrection Mall—here’s…

Chapter One.

A lot colder at midnight than when Greg Twardzik pulled into the lot at Allegheny Casino at quarter to eight. Greg shoved his hands into his coat pockets and hoped his gloves were in the car. The breeze drilled a small hole dead center of his forehead and the hair in his nose was freezing together. It smelled cold, like when he worked summers at A&P and had to re-stock the ice cream freezer. All the bullshit going around about global warming, and he had to put up with this? It was cold enough to freeze a fart.

Tonight was Greg’s monthly run to the Allegheny. A true grind joint—slots and a bar, shitty restaurant, they didn’t want you sticking around if you weren’t gambling—no real competition for The Rivers down by The Point in Pittsburgh or the Meadows in Washington County. Greg saved his spare change each month like a geezer saving stale bread, except Greg fed the slots instead of the birds. “Spare change” was charitably defined in Greg’s mind. Stop at Sooki’s for a beer, beer cost two and a quarter, pay with a five. Tip Frankie a quarter, the other two-fifty becomes spare change. Next beer, another five. Take the kids to McDonald’s on his weekend with them, use a twenty to pay for twelve bucks worth of food, eight bucks spare change. Saved up ninety-two seventy-five that way in January, rounded it up to a hundred.

He came out the wrong door. Again. All the entrances looked the same once he was inside. He’d get turned around looking for a likely slot, lose track of where he came in by about the second scotch, walk out the wrong door. He at least remembered his Pontiac was in the Horseshoe lot, looking directly across Leechburg Road at Wendy’s. He came out on the Rabbit’s Foot side, by the big fences with ivy or kudzu or whatever growing on them, a barrier between the casino and the residential neighborhood that butted up against it.

The night started well. Hit for about fifty bucks half an hour in. He should have put the fifty in his pocket—that was the plan—play until the hundred was gone and leave with the winnings. That was a loser’s mentality so early in the night. Hit that fast, he knew there’d another one. There were two. Eight bucks within half an hour—big night brewing—then sixteen at eleven o’clock, about the time he started to wonder how much he had left. He’d hit the cash machine on his way to get the third drink and took out fifty—no, it was a hundred. He had twenty left. So he came with one hundred dollars, won seventy-four that was supposed to go in his pocket soon as he won it, and walked out down one-eighty, not counting the seventy-four of house money he’d blown. At least he had a good time.

He walked up the aisle facing Wendy’s, his car should be on the right, about three-quarters of the way back. He didn’t see it yet. Probably blocked by the Ford Expedition he remembered squeezing into the space next to him, left wheels dead on the line. But it wasn’t.

Must be the wrong row, but how many of those big goddamn Expeditions could there be in this part of the lot? Greg turned his back on the Ford to face ninety degrees from the casino and Wendy’s, capture his bearings. Pointed at Wendy’s and blinked his eyes. Coffee might not be a bad idea. He only nibbled the fourth drink, but he’d heard rumors there had been some drunk driving damage and the local cops might be cracking down. He’d get the car, then get some coffee. He turned slowly and pointed at the Horseshoe entrance. This was the right row. Had to be. So where the hell was his car?

It occurred to him this might not be the same Expedition he’d parked next to. That one could have left, another pulled in one row off in either direction. True, he’d lined himself up on Wendy’s and the casino entrance, but four hours and five drinks later he believed he could be off a row, either way.

First he tried a row to his left, then a row to his right. All the while thinking about what else he’d heard standing at the bar waiting for that sixth drink—the one for the road—the barmaid telling him to be careful, the locals might be cracking down on DUIs, a guy to his right bitching about something. Security. About cars being stolen right out of the casino lot and how the local cops didn’t do a goddamn thing. Greg almost asked about it, didn’t. Why would the guy still come here, he was so sure cars were being stolen?

It was on his mind now, walking a little farther up the aisle each time. Trying the aisle he thought it was, then an aisle on either side, then two aisles on either side until he realized the guy at the bar wasn’t just some jagov blowing smoke. Care were being stolen out of the Allegheny casino’s lot, and his was one of them.

Son of a bitch.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Next Thing I Hope Doesn’t Suck

Friend of the blog (and a pretty dandy PI writer his own self) Jochem vanderSteen tagged me to participate in the current writers’—meme? Chain letter? I’m a little reluctant to use the official title (“The Next Great Thing”), but I am grateful to Jochem for thinking of me.

So, here you go:

What is the working title of your next book?

Resurrection Mall.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This is the first thing I’ve ever tried to write based on no more than a title. I was looking for story ideas to re-start a PI series I had set in Chicago. When I heard Dixie Square Mall—where the famous chase scene in The Blues Brothers was filmed—was finally to be demolished, I had the idea of a preacher buying the shell and rebuilding it as a religious-themed mall. Hence the name.

What genre does your book fall under?

Crime fiction, primarily a police procedural.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Timothy Olyphant would do well as Ben Dougherty, the lead cop. Easy-going on the surface, dry sense of humor, not as country as Raylan Givens.

I have to credit The Beloved Spouse for the others. George Dzundza (Law and Order, The Deer Hunter, Crimson Tide) would be great as either police chief Stush Napierkowski or Detective Willie Grabek.

Kevin Spacey would be great as retired spook / former PI / casino head of security Daniel Rollison. Of course, Kevin Spacey is always great

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A televangelist opens a religious-themed mall as a counterweight to a small town’s casino and finds small towns are more dangerous and complicated than he thinks.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

There is no contract at this time. If I don’t get one, I’ll self-publish.

How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?

I’m about halfway through, so I estimate three to four months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I consciously try to avoid such comparisons, even with myself. I steal borrow from a lot of people.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was originally intended to be a character study for a PI series I was working on. I got halfway through that first draft and realized the story was better suited for a fictional small town I also have involved in a series.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Small-town crime is, I believe, an underappreciated venue, except in cozies. This book is definitely not a cozy. There are layers of things going on, and life around the citizens—especially the cops—is changing faster than anyone is comfortable with.