Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Review: "Half Crime" by Rusty Barnes


Half Crime
by Rusty Barnes
Redneck Press, 2024


Rusty Barnes’s Half Crime collects nine original stories about small crimes, human frailties, and sorrow. The tales lean into noir with their bleak rural Pennsylvania settings, harsh portrayals of poverty, and protagonists (often pushed by circumstance) making a last bad decision. In “Bad Old Boy,” Crate Lang is trying to support his family working a low-paying blue-collar job, but a batch of medical bills sends him looking for an extra payday. He approaches an old friend, Dexter Moore—a guy Lang used to run on the wrong side of the law with—looking for a one-time low-risk job. Dexter gives Lang a package to deliver in Syracuse, New York, but, of course, it goes wrong and Lang is on the hook with Dexter now, too.
     “Wish for Winter” tells the sorrowful story of Carl Stevenson. A milk truck driver living with an angry sister, and a girlfriend with a wandering eye. But everything gets worse for Carl after a hard night of drinking leads him into an accident while picking up a load of raw milk. “The Power of Positive Drinking” is about lost potential, fallible love, and drug addiction. It is parts sad, parts angering, and entirely thought-provoking. “Ampersand” is the sweetest tale in the collection with an ending somewhere damn close to happy. Jared’s wife left with their daughters, but things begin to change when he is set-up with Ellie. And it just keeps getting better and better, in that low-key realistic way it happens in our own live action world.
     The stories in Half Crime can be difficult to read—they are melancholy, realistic, and without an easy solution for the underlying cultural problems—but each is worthy of being read. This passage from “Bad Old Boy”—

“Opioid epidemic my ass, Crate thought. What it is is a pain epidemic, and no way for most people to deal with it.

—aptly captures the essence of what Half Crime is about. A hopeless and decaying rural America self-medicating its ills with a slurry of addiction. Do yourself a favor and get Half Crime today. It is a collection with meaning. And yeah, it is literate and stylish, too.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Review: "Tin City" by David Housewright

 Tin City
by David Housewright
Minotaur Books, 2005


Tin City is David Housewright’s excellent second mystery featuring unlicensed private eye Rushmore McKenzie. When asked, McKenzie readily agrees to help his late-father’s best friend, the beekeeper Mr. Mosley, investigate what is killing his bees. It seems like a simple favor, but McKenzie quickly changes his mind when the doctoral student he hired to collect and analyze samples around Mosely’s property, looking for bee-killing toxins, is shot at by Mosely’s new neighbor, Frank Crosetti. And things turn uglier when an execution-style murder upends McKenzie’s simple favor.
     It seems obvious Crosetti is the villain, but before McKenzie can confront him, Crosetti disappears. In a hurry, McKenzie discovers Frank Crosetti is a man without a past. In fact, his name is borrowed from a former New York Yankees shortstop. A hovering FBI agent and, as McKenzie keeps investigating, a warrant for his, McKenzie’s, arrest makes it appear Crosetti is being protected by the feds. To keep out of jail and in the hunt, McKenzie goes into hiding and follows the clues to a quiet suburban trailer park where the investigation heats up.
     Publishers Weekly said David Housewright, in Tin City, “[channels] Raymond Chandler with tongue-in-cheek humor,” which is an apt comparison because McKenzie is a sharp and witty observer with a wicked, smart-alecky tongue. His observations, which are more numerous in Tin City than the other books I’ve read so far, are brief and fit nicely into the story. My favorite of the lot, probably because I agree with it so much, is about libraries:

“I’ve always loved libraries, the very idea of them. They’re citadels of peace and quiet and intellectual freedom and civilization—commodities that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. They are, in a word, the most ‘democratic’ places on earth, although they’ve been finding it harder to remain that way.”

But Tin City isn’t a dry, preachy tome. There is plenty of action, fisticuffs and gunplay both. A solid mystery that is sensible and with enough surprises to keep it interesting. The Twin Cities, Minnesota, setting is a major player in the narrative and McKenzie makes certain it is known he is from St. Paul rather than Minneapolis. The plotting is concise and McKenzie, flaws, ego, and all, is a damn likable character. The sort of guy we—all of us juvenile-minded males—wish we could be.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Review: "In for the Kill" by John Lutz


In for the Kill
by John Lutz
Pinnacle, 2007


There was a time not so long ago when serial killer police procedurals were everywhere. From film to television to fiction. Perhaps it began with the success of the film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), inspired by Thomas Harris’s novel, and continued with James Patterson’s early Alex Cross bestsellers—Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, etc. Whenever and whyever the serial killer craze began, one of its best practitioners was John Lutz.
     Lutz’s first serial killer romp, Final Seconds with David August, arrived in 1998 and over the following 17 years he wrote another 15 slash and burn procedurals about detectives chasing demented killers through labyrinthine urban landscapes. Lutz’s thrillers resemble Lawrence Sanders’s Deadly Sins books more than Thomas Harris’s Hanibal Lector and those titles I’ve read have made a standard plot new with a dash of nuance, sprinkle of humor, and a wheel-barrel full of tension.
     His 2007 novel, In for the Kill, the second (of ten) Frank Quinn outings, is a wonderful example of Lutz’s serial killer thrillers. Like all his others, it was published as a paperback original by Pinnacle. Quinn is a rough-edged, at times brutal and others charming, retired NYPD detective with a knack for catching killers. When a new killer dubbed “The Butcher” begins working New York City—he prefers attractive brunettes, downing them, draining their blood, and dismembering them before stacking them neatly in the pristine bathtub where they died—Quinn is brought in by his old boss, Deputy Chief Harley Renz, to find the killer.
     Quinn in turn gets his old pals Detective Fedderman and Officer Pearl Kasner, an attractive brunette Quinn had a relationship with and he is still harboring feelings for, onto his team and soon realizes The Butcher is playing games with him. The first letter of the first five victims’ last names spell: Q-U-I-N-N. What Quinn doesn’t know is his relationship with the killer will burn closer to home than he wants.
     In for the Kill is a brilliant guilty pleasure with non-stop pacing and a flash-bang climax. The interplay between serial killer and detective could be silly, but Lutz’s smooth style and his skill at ratcheting tension—without ever going splatterpunk gory—allows the reader little time (or desire) to question the story. The detectives’ relationships, including Harley Renz, provides low-key and much needed humor to an otherwise bleak tale. If you like this kind of fiction, In for the Kill is about as good as you will find.

Click here for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Monday, March 18, 2024

From Ed Gorman's Desk: Richard Neely

from ED GORMAN’S Desk

Richard Neely
Nov. 10, 2005


The first time I ever spoke to Richard Neely, suspense novelist extraordinaire, he kept trying to place my name. “It’s so damned familiar—wait a minute, you’re the guy who called me the de Sade of crime fiction.”
    Loose lips sink ships. So can old reviews. I figured that our business would sink if he ever remembered that long ago review. But he laughed. “I think I was just ahead of my time.”
     Actually, I’d meant that remark as a compliment because I was pointing out that Neely, despite the Irish name, took a very French approach to the psychological machinations of sex in his books. Two of his books became French movies. Somebody apparently agreed with me.
     Neely, a very sleek and successful advertising man, is gone now and so, undeservedly, are his books. The Walter Syndrome, his bestselling suspense novel, was almost ruined for me when I guessed the ending on page two, something I never do. But I pressed on and it was well worth it. This was a take on Psycho set in Thirties and the storytelling is spellbinding. The voice is worth of Fredric Brown at his best.
     I was thinking of Neely last night because I was finishing up his novel The Plastic Nightmare, which became an incomprehensible movie called Shattered. Neely loved tricks as much as Woolrich did and Plastic is a field of land mines. He even manages to spin some fresh variations on the amnesia theme. It’s as noir as noir can be but mysteriously, I’ve never seen Neely referred to on any noir list. My theory is that his books, for the most part, were presented in such tony packages, they were bypassed by mystery fans.
     The Damned Innocents became a fair French flick. What it missed was the sorrow. Neely always caught the sorrow of sexual betrayal with a kind of suicidal wisdom. While his books aren’t kinky by today’s measure, they’re dark in the way only sexual themes can be. Love kills, baby.
     Not that he didn’t have a sudsy side. He wrote a couple of big sexy workplace novels that I could never plow through but he also wrote The Ridgeway Women which was SUPPOSED to be a big sexy workplace book that was undermined in a good way by the riveting neuroses and desperation of all his best books.
     A Madness of the Heart suffers from a style Neely seemed to have invented from scratch for this particular novel. It’s another dazzler—a really convincing story about a rapist and the human debris he leaves in his wake—but the cadence of the prose gets in my way every once in awhile. It isn’t that it’s fancy-schmancy, it’s just that it gets in the way sometimes and seems to fall short of its purpose.
     I liked Neely, man and writer, and I liked his books, too. Somebody should bring him back. He’s my kind of noir writer—down and out in the dark underbelly of the success-driven American middle class, like non-Trav John D. MacDonald only doomed without hope of salvation.

Stark House Press has recently released The Plastic Nightmare, in a collection with Neely’s While Love Lay Sleeping. Click here to see Stark House’s Richard Neely collection on Amazon, or click here to see it at Stark House’s website.

This article originally appeared on Ed Gorman’s blog, Ed Gorman Rambles, Nov. 10, 2005. It is reprinted here by permission. Ed wrote dozens of novels in a variety of genres, but his most popular work (and my favorite of his work) was in the crime and western genres. His ten Sam McCain mysteries—set in the fictional Iowa town of Black River Falls during the 1950s, ’60, and ’70s—are suspenseful, mysterious, and often funny excursions into small town America. The New York Times called Sam McCain, “The kind of hero any small town could take to its heart” and The Seattle Times called McCain “an intriguing mix of knight errant and realist…”

But Ed was also a tireless reader and promoter of other writers’ work. His blogs—there were three, none of them operating at the same time—are treasure troves for readers of crime, horror, and western fiction both old and new. Ed died Oct. 14, 2016.


Click here to check out Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain novels on Amazon.


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Review: "Top Secret Kill" by James P. Cody (The D.C. Man)


Top Secret Kill
by James P. Cody
Brash Books, 2024


Top Secret Kill—originally published as a paperback original by Berkley-Medallion in 1974—is the first of four titles in the short-lived series, The D.C. Man, by the pseudonymous James P. Cody. Brian Petersen is a Washington, D.C. lobbyist-turned-troubleshooter that describes himself as a “former college football bum, former Army intelligence type” that found contentment with a “domesticated” life. Petersen’s happiness is shattered when his young daughter and wife are killed in an automobile accident that sent him to the Florida Keys on a six-month bender. At the coaxing of his father-in-law, a former senator, Petersen sobered-up, returned to the District, and reopened his lobbying office.
     But, as Petersen explains, his work “started to drift into other, nastier and less public, services for clients, services you wouldn’t want anybody to know about.” Which is where Top Secret Kill begins. First with Petersen warning off a blackmailer for a congressman and then—the real meat of the narrative—his full-throttle investigation into the identity of the person leaking classified intel from a Senate committee developing cost estimates for specific types of military conflicts. It is a big job for a solo act like Brian Petersen, but a job befitting his unrestrained, sometimes violent, and always secretive style.
     Top Secret Kill is a cool thriller. It reads like a hybrid of men’s adventure and a private eye yarn; perhaps 75-percent of the former and 25-percent of the latter. There is a little mystery, including a calculated murder that sets Petersen on a vengeance trail, a bunch of Cold War paranoia, a touch of commentary about the D.C. of the 1970s, and a solid stream of action. With that said, the opening third of the book is slowed by Petersen’s backstory, but stick with it because it picks up in a hurry and by the midway mark the narrative sparks and slams home with a satisfying bang. Top Secret Kill will appeal more to readers of men’s adventure—think Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan—than general mystery readers, but it is a cut (or two or three) above the standard in that too often (and usually unfairly) maligned genre.

All four of The D.C. Man books are back in print from Brash Books. These new editions include an Introduction, written by Tom Simon, detailing his excellent work uncovering the identity of James P. Cody—a former Roman Catholic priest named, Peter Rohrbach.

 Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, March 11, 2024

"I Was Meant to be Heavy" — Bill Conrad of Cannon, 1973



Did you say, Cannon? Yeah, I did, and this sweet write-up about William Conrad appeared in the December 16, 1973, issue of TV Week, included in the Salt Lake TribuneWhile it’s not exactly an endorsement for the show, Cannon had its moments. Cannon aired for five seasons (1971 – 1976) on CBS. If you’ve never seen Conrad throw a clothes-line, you need to remedy it.


[Click the image for a larger view.]

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Review: "The Sleeping City" by Marty Holland


The Sleeping City
by Marty Holland
Stark House, 2023



The Sleeping City is a hardboiled novella-length crime tale by Marty Holland originally published in the Fall 1952 issue of Thrilling Detective. Holland, born as the very feminine Mary Hauenstein, has a knack for capturing the post-World War 2 male tough guy persona; which is on steady display in this nicely executed undercover cop / heist story. Wade is a sergeant with the Gangster Squad in an unidentified, but likely LAPD, police force. When Jim Cox, an habitual criminal from Chicago, is nabbed by the police and admits he is in town to participate in a heist, Wade’s boss, Captain Roberts, assigns him to go undercover as Cox.
     All Cox knows about the job—since his partner Les Ties, who was murdered days earlier in Chicago, set it up—is how to contact the crew pulling the job. So Wade says goodbye to his fiancĂ©, takes a deep breath, and heads to meet Cox’s contact at the White Lion Club. Wade finds is an over-the-hill gangster, Louie Thompson, and a handful of toughs planning a risky armored car heist worth a cool million. What Wade doesn’t count on is falling for Thompson’s beautiful and hard-as-nails girl, Madge.
     The Sleeping City has all the best elements of mid-century crime fiction: concise, tight plotting, bitter and desperate criminals, a hard-tongued and beautiful moll, and a hero with a dilemma. And what a dilemma! $200,000 and a gorgeous and poison dame or Wade’s settled and quiet life. A dilemma that could easily twist into noir, as is foreshadowed by an early passage where Wade is wondering about moths and flames: “…what screwy quirk of nature attracted them [moths] to light—to the point that it killed them.”
The heist is revealed slowly, as slowly as Wade’s dilemma tightens around his guts, and those last dozen pages pop and sizzle with action. The Sleeping City is an above average pulp story featuring some fine writing. A couple passages that really crackled:

“But then I knew that we both realized that last night couldn’t be repeated. To go on meant hanging on to a straw in mid-ocean.”

“Everybody in the world should be a cop, I thought wildly! Everybody should know the elation of turning some poor weak bastard over to the law! Or a dame—a dame that somehow had crawled into your blood stream, a dame that was afraid of the dark.”

     If you enjoy these old crime stories, you will like The Sleeping City.

The Sleeping City is the second half of Stark House Press’ The Glass Heart / The Sleeping City, by Marty Holland (2023).

here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.
Click here to purchase The Glass Heart / The Sleeping City and other titles by Marty Holland at Stark House’s website.

Monday, March 04, 2024

"Introducing the Author... Edmond Hamilton" — from Imagination



This autobiographical essay by science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton appeared in the April 1956 issue of Imagination alongside Hamilton’s novella, “The Legion of Lazarus”. It’s fun to think of Hamilton as a fanboy, which is exactly what he sounds like when describing the magazines, stories, and authors he read as a boy. His and Leigh Brackett’s Ohio home sounds enticing, too.

Click the Image for a larger view.