Thursday, March 28, 2024

Winter's Favorite Reads

 Brown’s Requiem, James Ellroy. His first novel and a first-rate debut. Fritz Brown has enough resemblance to a traditional private eye for readers not to be made uncomfortable by some of his unorthodox activities. Ellroy’s style is not the staccato, scandal rag voice of his more recent work, but it ain’t Chandler, either. I’ve been thinking about going back to his earlier works for years, but my dissatisfaction with his last couple of books put some urgency to the idea. I’m glad I did. I’ll mine this vein for a while now.


The Delta Star, Joseph Wambaugh. I know I’ve said this about several writers, but here I go again: Not his best, but Wambaugh is so good even a pedestrian effort by his standards is still better than ninety percent of what else is out there. No one has ever conveyed how cops think and react better.


The Detective Up Late, Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy is back, and the world is a better place for it. A Catholic detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles, Duffy is assailed and mistrusted from all directions and has to fight to carve out his own niches of justice, or as close as he is allowed to get. McKinty’s writing is as good as ever and several years away has not diminished his ability to make Duffy’s saga compelling. The book reads as if it could be the end of the series, though the door is ajar for more should the author feel the impulse. Let’s hope he does.


Baseball Obscura 2024, David Fleming. Fleming wrote for the Bill James web site until James shut it down last fall. Fleming responded with the closest thing I’ve seen to James’s Baseball Abstracts since James wrote the Baseball Abstracts. The writing and analysis are predominant over the numbers and Fleming’s writing is up to the task. Early editions had too many typos, but my understanding is that corrections have been underway. Probably not of much interest to those who are not seamheads, but there’s a lot here for those who are.


And Every Man Has to Die, Frank Zafiro. Book Four of the River City series, and Zafiro keeps right on rolling. Each book so far has looked at different aspects of the police by using different characters, so the setting is truly paramount here. All the books read well as standalones, though I am enjoying going through them in order for the context provided.


Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, Elizabeth Bruce. I’ve been a fan of Bruce’s writing since we were in a workshop together in 2002. Her novel, And Silent Left the Place, is among my favorites through several re-reads. Every story in this collection begins with “One dollar,” but where she goes from there is unique each time. Bruce has a gift for dialog and capturing emotions without beating the reader over the head to make sure they get it. A delightful and insightful collection.


Mucho Mojo, Joe Lansdale. The second Hap and Leonard has all the things people like me enjoy in Lansdale’s writing: humorous dialog, tongue-in-cheek descriptions, and plenty of action. The middle of this one is a little slow and I can live without some of the philosophical discussions the boys engage in, but this is a solid series I’m sure to return to.


The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley. This book gets better every time I read it. The story meanders and what the case is about doesn’t become clear until late, so if you like instant gratification, keep reading for the exquisite writing, which never becomes self-indulgent. The reveal of what’s been going on is jaw-dropping. Ross Macdonald never wrote a sicker family dynamic more beautifully.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

 Last weekend marked the annual Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in the Suffolk Conference Center at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront in Suffolk, Virginia. You should be able to retain the “Suffolk” part by now, so I’m going to refer to it as SMAF from here on.


This was my fourth SMAF, though the first two were virtual, thanks to the pandemic our president at the time assured us would only affect fifteen people, tops. The Beloved Spouse™ joined me last year when we were first able to attend in person and we both looked forward to this year’s event.


The previous organizer left for another job around the first of the year, but the transition was seamless and this year’s festival didn’t miss a step. It’s always a remarkably well-organized event, and no one takes better care of authors than the folks at SMAF. They order your books for you and donate any that don’t sell to local organizations. The swag they provide is also exceptional. The hotel couldn’t be more convenient—it’s in the same building—and the staff go out of their way to be helpful.


This year’s Special Guest Headliner (SGH to insiders) was Donna Andrews, so you know the opening interview, conducted by Art Taylor, was a lot of fun. This was followed by three hour-long panels:

Woman of the People: Inspiring Female Characters.

Nerve Shredders: Crime Fiction to Keep You Up At Night.

Cozy Does It: The Quirky Small Town Detective.


All three were first rate and ably led by Shawn Reilly Simmons, E. A. Aymar, and Grace Topping, respectively, though Mr. Aymar appeared to be emotionally, physically, and (especially) intellectually drained after his effort.


SMAF is not a conference so much as a true festival, where readers have an opportunity to meet authors informally and chat as much as they want, as the schedule is not such that everyone is kept running. A reception before the SGH interview allows folks who paid a premium to nosh while chatting with the authors, and these readers deserve great credit for their ability to suppress their revulsion over most authors’ hygiene and eating practices.


Everything wraps up at 6:00, after which the authors and their personal guests are treated to a dinner better than what is typically considered a banquet at most hotels. The bar remains open, is in “free,” until nine..


SMAF is a treat for both authors and readers. Interested authors can check them out online and ask to be included when invitations go out, usually late in the fall of the previous year.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Off the Books Available Today

Today is the “official” release date for the sixth Nick Forte novel, Off the Books. I say “official” because I could have made the book available anytime I wanted, it being self-published and all. I picked a date not quite at random, as I’ve been rebranding the previous Forte novels at a rate of one per month, generally on the third Friday, and saw no reason to change.


It's been six years since Bad Samaritan and Forte has not mellowed. The things he’s seen, the things he’s had to do—and let’s be honest, some of the things he’s chosen to do—have worn on him. The hardness at his core has become harder and he’s quicker to go to it, with daughter Caroline serving as the sole leavening influence in his life.


His detective agency has fallen apart in the aftermath of the events in Bad Samaritan and Forte keeps the lights on and the mortgage paid doing background checks out of his home office. He pays for the finer things in life by taking cash gigs for which there are no contracts and nothing to tie him to the job. These activities aren’t necessarily illegal—he’s not breaking legs or accepting contracts—but he spends much more time in the gray areas than he did before.


What bothers him most in his new arrangement are the people he works for. Respectable businesses require contracts and don’t want him to do anything that might sully their reputations. People less accountable with their money have their own motives for hiring Forte and may prefer not to have anything linking them to whatever needs to be done.


Allan Worthington wants his missing daughter found, but on the down low because the girl might be an embarrassment to his business associates. Donald Bower’s wife witnessed a fender bender in a small town that ended with a drunk driver brandishing a handgun; Bower wonders why the local police seem uninterested.


Forte travels to Lundy, Illinois to look into Bower’s case and stumbles onto something he didn’t expect and can’t ignore. (I’d tell you what it is but that’s kind of the key plot point in the story and it would be a spoiler. Even though I am not a financially motivated person, I would like to sell some of these books.)


He finds himself on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to fix this situation and making those responsible pay for what they’re doing. Forte being Forte, he sometimes has trouble prioritizing. Mayhem ensues.


How much mayhem? More than Forte bargained for, and he doesn’t always come out on top. Witness this excerpt:


This time it was five guys in civilian clothes waiting for me in my room. One in each chair, one in the hallway that led to the bathroom, one leaning against the wall nearest the door, and one stretched out on the bed with his hands behind his head like he was watching a ball game Sunday afternoon.

The one on the bed took charge. “Shut the door.”

Running wasn’t an option. I closed the door and positioned myself with my back to the corner.

Jefe sat up on the edge of the bed. A big man with a round, hard belly. His hair had receded back even with his ears to leave his forehead with a pronounced hat line. His hands were rough and callused. He wore a denim shirt outside his jeans over a gray tee. “You were told to stay out of Lundy.”

We wouldn’t be talking if they’d come to kill me. I was about to catch a beating sure as the sun was coming up over Indianapolis about now. The trick was not to provoke them and still hide the fact my sphincter was up around my Adam’s apple. “I’m not in Lundy.”

Jefe laughed. Said, “Pete” and the one nearest the door hit me under the floating ribs like he wanted to see his fist come out the other side.

No point pretending it didn’t hurt. Best I could hope for was to let on I’d seen worse and wasn’t about to roll up in a ball and cry for mommy.

They gave me all the time I needed to be able to speak. I put as much resonance into my voice as I could. “We’re all working men. I know you’re just doing your job here. So was I, and I’m about finished. Came back to get my stuff and go home. How about you rough me up a little so you can tell your boss you did and we’ll call it even?”

Jefe smiled again. I appreciate a good-natured heavy. “The only part about that you got right was when you said you were finished.”

“I said about finished.”

Jefe shook his head. “Trust me. You’re altogether finished.”

A gnawing doubt grew in the back of my mind. Maybe in Lundy they did bullshit with people they were about to kill. I’d been wrong before. “You won’t respect me if I roll over too easy.”

Someone had to say it. “We don’t respect you now, asshole.”

Jefe stood. “Let’s go outside.”

Deal breaker. Whatever was going to happen had to happen here, where there was a chance someone might notice. “Uh-uh. Say your piece, do what you’re gonna do, and we’ll go our separate ways. I’m not leaving with you.”

Jefe nodded. His colleagues each took a step my direction. I drew the .45 from its holster at the small of my back. “Here’s my counteroffer: you five go outside and hit the fucking road. I see you’re gone, I’ll load up the car and drive home.”

Jefe shook his head maybe half an inch in each direction. Said, “Boys” and the other four had guns in their hands faster than a teenage girl can whip out a cell phone.

This had to become personal for someone other than myself. I thumbed the .45 to full cock. Took a step toward the boss. Leveled the old Army Colt square between his eyes. “I can’t take everybody, but I can take you. How sure are you I won’t kill you with a reflex even if they get me with a head shot?”

He must have been pretty sure. I only had time to hear the sap swish through the air on its way to the back of my head before it dropped me through a hole in the floor I hadn’t seen before.


Off the Books is available on Amazon. Paperbacks are $8.99 and the e-book is $2.99. That’s not a typo. An honest-to-Bantam paperback original, six inches by nine, for only $8.99. I’ll still make a few bucks and you don’t have to take out a mortgage to read a story.


Who loves you, baby?



Thursday, March 7, 2024

Off the Books Available for Pre-Order


Next Friday, March 15, marks the publication date of the sixth Nick Forte private eye novel, Off the Books. Here’s the short and sweet:

 Nick Forte has lost his detective agency and makes ends meet doing background checks and other paperwork. He pays for everything else through jobs he takes for cash and without any written contract. What starts out as a simple investigation into a traffic accident exposes Forte to people who have truly lost everything and have no viable hope of reclaiming their lives. That doesn’t sit well with Forte, leading him and his friend Goose Satterwhite to take action that ends more violently than anyone expected.

 Some luminaries weighed in with their opinions:

 “The return of Chicago private detective Nick Forte, the tough protagonist of two Shamus Award nominated novels, is well worth the wait. Nick’s latest escapade Off The Books—the first in nearly six years—will surely earn additional praise for the acclaimed series.”

-J.L .Abramo, Shamus Award-winning author of Chasing Charlie Chan.

 "Nick Forte reminds me of Robert B. Parker's Spenser: a PI with a finely tuned sense of justice who doesn't take anyone's s***. Any fan of hardboiled detective fiction is in for a helluva ride."

--Chris Rhatigan, former publisher of All Due Respect Books

 "Six years since his last appearance, the return of Dana King's no-nonsense Nick Forte is cause to celebrate for fans of Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Loren Estleman's Amos Walker. As tough and unsentimental as Forte himself, Off the Books delivers all the action, acute observations, and wise-cracks required to satisfy that old-school PI itch. Now we just need King to not make us wait so long for the next one!"

--James D.F. Hannah, Shamus-winning author of Because the Night and Behind the Wall Of Sleep

 That’s right, Jimmy, it’s been six years since Forte had his own book, though he did make a cameo in last year’s Penns River novel. I had so much fun writing his scenes in The Spread I started thinking about getting into his POV again; Off the Books  is the result, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

 Off the Books is available for $8.99 in paperback, $2.99 for Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The Kindle version is available for pre-order. The paperback drops March 15.

 Six years away has not softened Forte any, as this excerpt shows:

 The diner didn’t serve alcohol and a couple of beers would help me sleep. I didn’t keep beer around the house anymore and wouldn’t buy any for the motel room because people who drink alone are alcoholics and I had enough problems as it was. Rusty’s Lounge was only a small detour on my way to bed.

The inside would be right at home in a relatively decent local hotel. The bartender wore a white dress shirt, no tie, with striped garters. The tables were two- and four-seaters with candles, the ambient light forgiving without creating a trip and fall hazard. Several couples shared tables. The bar was about half full, with a two-to-one ratio of men to women.

No seats where I’d have room on both sides, so I slid in between a man on my left and a woman on my right, both already engaged in conversation with members of the opposite sex. I ordered a Leinenkugel’s draft and looked for a television set. The Cubs were on, but I watched it, anyway.

I’d sucked the foam off my second beer when the man talking to the woman on my right excused himself to go to the john. She moved away to make room for him just as I shifted forward to dislodge a knot in my boxers. We bumped. Her fresh drink spilled, but my shirt and pants kept most of it from ending up on the floor.

We went through the standard ritual of mutual apologies. I volunteered to make things right. “My drink is intact. Let me replace yours. It’s only fair.” Continued before she got the wrong idea. “You’re here with someone, and I’m only going to finish this before heading out.”

Her shields came down. I waved to the bartender, a guy who looked like he’d been here a while and still hadn’t got used to the idea of having to wear shirt garters. He brought her drink and I paid about half what I would expect to in Chicago.

The woman nodded in my direction. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure. I’m clumsy enough to make sure people don’t mind too much if it happens again, but not so clumsy it’ll bankrupt me.”

She gave as much of a laugh as that deserved. Middle thirties was my guess. Average build with dark hair pulled away from her face and down to her shoulders. She had a quick and happy smile, but the fatigue in her eyes implied she’d seen enough of nights and bars like this.

Her companion returned, passing behind me to get to his seat. She said, “And now it’s my turn” and adjusted her stool to stand. I made a show of giving her as much room as space allowed. She smiled and nodded in appreciation and went on her way.

I resumed my seat in time to see the man she was with jerk away from her glass. I pinned his other hand to the bar. “What did you put in her drink?”

His face gave him away. “What the hell are you talking about?”

I waved for the bartender. “Do me a favor. Keep this glass safe behind the bar and call the police.”

Took him only a couple of seconds to put it together. Eyed the other man with disgust and reached for the glass. Romeo darted his free hand to spill everything across the bar.

“Oops.” He half smiled.

I let go of his hand. Grabbed a handful of hair and slammed his face into the bar.

He turned toward me. Said, “Asshole.” Not the response I had in mind, so I did it again. Harder. Liquid sloshed from both our glasses. He put a hand to his face and stayed down. Blood dribbled from his nose to the bar.

The bartender engaged. “Enough of that or I’ll call the police.”

I raised my hands shoulder height, palms out. “Call them, anyway. It might be nice to have this jagov on file in case something like this comes up again.” The barman hesitated until I told him I would if he didn’t.

It happened so quickly no one else noticed until a woman three seats down looked over and saw Bleeding Man’s face. That prompted the inevitable gasp and pointing but no general tumult.

The bartender handed Bleeding Man a towel as the woman returned. She ran the last few steps. “What happened?”

I kept my voice low and even. “He put something in your drink.”

“Like hell I did. He wants to take you home himself.”

I raised an eyebrow. “So I…what? Broke your nose and called the police? How’s that supposed to work?”

The woman looked from me to him as if trying to decide which of us had evolved a spinal column. Started to speak, pulled it back. Glared at a spot between the bartender and me. “Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just have the damn thing sewn shut.” People made room on her way out.

Then I made another mistake. I waited for the cops. Again.