One Bite at a Time




Monday, January 30, 2017

Enough is as Good as a Feast

A while back I discussed the often overlooked benefits of Facebook. Today we look at another: free blog fodder. A couple of weeks ago Sam Wiebe left the post below. I commented at the time, but said even then this deserved a whole blog post.

Here is Sam’s “inciting incident:”

Insomniac question: which of these would you choose and why?
1. Would you rather make a lot of money doing something you dislike...
2. ...or a 'comfortable' amount doing something you don't mind/kind of enjoy...
3. ...or a slightly above subsistence level doing exactly what you want?

There was a time when my answer would have been—and was—Option 3. In my trumpet days I was perfectly happy playing what gigs I could get and teaching. I would never have made more than I needed to live on—I wasn’t that good—but I would have been happy.

For a while.

Number 3 is okay if you don’t have other obligations and don’t mind working until you die because you don’t have enough saved—and may not have paid enough into Social Security—to feel comfortable retiring. Even had I not sought more permanent employment when The Sole Heir™ came along, my days as a musician were numbered. I need some idea of where and when my next paycheck is coming. I need to know I could meet my obligations. I was fortunate to be married to a woman who didn’t mind (too much) that I wasn’t really pulling my weight financially. I did what I could to be a decent house husband to pick up some of the slack, but it was an untenable long-term position for someone of my disposition.

It took me a while to drift into Option 2, but that’s where I belong. I have a good job now, saving for retirement. The Sole Heir™ is a grown woman. The house almost paid for. The job takes a consistent 40 hours a week, but I work almost exclusively at home, so there’s no commute. No waking at the crack of dawn, no fighting traffic. The work is usually interesting. I enjoy and respect the people I work with. It’s also not so draining that I’m not ready to write in the evenings, nor am I too tired to read for at least an hour before turning in. It’s a perfect situation for me. I might not have chosen Option 2 when I was young, but experience is a wonderful teacher for those who pay attention.

Option 1 is the one slot I’ve not filled, and yay, me. Even when I was too young to know better I understood that was not the way to go. Life is too short, and we only get one. Americans too often live to work, pushing everything else to the background and rationalizing it by buying things or hoarding money. Employers say, “Your family will just have to understand.” I say, “You have to understand. The only reason I’m here is for my family.”

An old Russian proverb says, “Enough is as good as a feast.” While my eating habits clearly haven’t internalized that message, I’ve always been pretty good with it. All my bills are paid, home maintenance is pretty well up to date, I’m saving money, I have time to spend on the things I care about most, and I’m not getting my balls broken on a daily basis. People I respect respect my writing and I enjoy the process.


Yeah, I’m in a pretty good place. Good thing, too. I’m too old for the rest of that shit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Conversation With Todd Robinson

In an effort to keep everyone from being bored with this blog (including me). Today marks the first installment of a new feature. I’ll still do some Twenty Questions interviews, but those are really only good one time around. Once people have answered them, there’s not a lot left, even though I make an effort to swap out the questions from time to time.

A good interview should be more of a conversation, so that’s what we having here today. And not just some boring conversation with some droog off the street. The break the cherry of this new feature, we got Todd Robinson, founder and editor of the late, lamented Thuglit, and internationally published author of the The Hard Bounce and its sequel Rough Trade. Most of you already know Todd, at least by reputation. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure…well, there’s a lot I could tell you, but it’s better to hear it from Big Daddy Thug himself.

You’re a Boston boy through and through. How’d you end up in Yankeeland?
 
A series of bad decisions. Add on another twenty years of bad decisions, and I'm still here. New York is that unforgiving kind of town that grants a person enough of a living to stay here without allowing the means to accumulate enough to fucking leave. It's insidious.


But at this point, my boy is here, so I'm here. I'm raising a New Yorker, so the best I can do is accept a lifetime with a Mets fan.

Needless to say, he is being raised with the concrete belief that the Yankees represent all that is wrong in the world.


Thuglit was considered by many to be the premier neo-noir outlet in the country. A lot of now big names were published there before they became big deals. What gave you the idea to start it up?

I got tired of the shitty longstanding magazines tendency to publish bland crime lit suitable for Nana. They weren't representing the kind of writing I was doing, and they sure as shit weren't representing the shit I liked to read.

What do you like to read? Not necessarily who, but what keeps you going through a book and what will bring you back for more?

I'm reading a bunch of different stuff. As much as I love crime fiction, I'm a little burnt out after eleven years of reading submissions for the magazine. It's important for me both as a writer and a reader not to burn out any further on a single genre. I just finished Birdbox (horror) by Josh Malerman, Deer Hunting With Jesus (current affairs/non-fiction) by Joe Bageant, and just cracked open Utu by Caryl Ferey (crime fiction).

I have to admit my reading focuses a lot—maybe too much—on crime. What is it about crime fiction that drew you in originally? Is it the same as what keeps you there?

What drew me in was that I recognized the characters and lives as reflections of the world I lived in. I recognized the desperation and the lack of societal care for people who were hurting and how they lashed out in a fashion that was sometimes criminal. And I also recognized the humanity underneath the surface of the people others might classify as damaged.

I write about my people. I like stories that relate to those experiences and emotions. Sure, I take those characters and scenarios down some fantastical roads, but do my damnedest to keep the innate truths about the people themselves intact.

I hear you’re going back to France for another tour. Who’s your French publisher and how did you get hooked up with them?

Gallmeister Editions publish my books in France. They have a unique way of finding authors. They find an author they want to publish, then ask that author who they think they should look at—someone that they might not have heard about. This is how they've gotten their fingers on so many authors who are considered "underground" here, and help them find a broader audience in France. Their stable includes some of the bravest and most ferocious writers in neo-noir...and then there's me.

Benjamin Whitmer recommended me into the company. I owe that man at least a steak.

Are French author events different from those you’ve been to here in the States?

Yes. People show up.

Forgive me for this, but I don’t get out much and live vicariously through my more successful friends, and I have a question I’ve wondered about since your first trip to France. Are the events in French or English? If French, do you speak French, or is there a translator?

The events are in French with an interpreter. God help me if I didn't have one. I learned some key phrases to engage people, and apparently my accent was convincing enough for them to sometimes believe that I was a naturalized speaker—perhaps one who'd suffered a recent head injury. Nevertheless, often people would just continue the conversation in French...at least until they saw the panic in my eyes as I frantically searched the room for my interpreter.

Here’s the big thing I wanted to talk about today: You’re a respected voice in and for noir fiction. The late Roger Hobbs referred to you as “the most important name in contemporary American noir.” I’ve read all three of your books (Dirty Words, The Hard Bounce, and Rough Trade) and, while I find many of the short stories to be noir (especially “Peaches,” which I consider one of the handful of best short stories I’ve ever read), the novels strike be as black comedies not unlike some of Shane Black’s films, such as Kiss Kiss Bang and The Nice Guys. What does “noir” mean to you, and how noir do you think you are?


Meh. Noir has become such a malleable term so as to become almost meaningless. It just sounds good because it's French. How noir am I? Who the fuck knows? I'm just telling stories how I want to tell them. Some darker, some with more of tongue-in-cheek sensibility. I call my own style Idiot Noir. And I'm sure there are some who'd argue that what I do isn't classically noir at all, due to the humor. That said, my French publisher has included me in their Neo-Noir collection, so there's that. And those beautiful bastards coined the term. Ergo, the noir purists can suck it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

The holidays are my busy season for movies. Not that I actually leave the house. That’s crazy talk. There are plenty of other options these days. I’m not hopelessly old-school about everything.

The Hunger Games (2012). Young adults deserve better than two-dimensional characters
designed for the sole purpose of manipulating the audience’s emotions, plot devices that basically allowed the creators to do whatever they want, and technologically created firestorms and hellhounds. All that was missing were the Fire Swamp and Rodents of Unusual Size. Adding insult to injury, at the end you realize it’s not a movie, it’s an episode. (Yes, I know about the sequels. Usually the first one is supposed to at least pretend to be a standalone. Think Star Wars.) Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who deserves all her accolades, plays essentially the same character she played in Winter’s Bone, except that movie actually made sense. I realize I’m not the target audience for this franchise, and I’m delighted.

The Gambler (2014) Good, but after sleeping on it not as good as the sum of its parts. The
acting is uniformly excellent, notably John Goodman. (When are people going to recognize he’s one of the great actors of his generation?) Mark Wahlberg is as believable as possible in a tough role, as a man so self-destructive he only bets ever everything at a time. The college scenes are well done, the film is stylish, but one gets to the end and wonders what we were supposed to take away here.

A Christmas Story (1983) The annual viewing with The Beloved Spouse. It’s a sweet movie,
with Jean Shepherd’s subversive commentary keeping it from becoming saccharine. Some timeless set pieces. (Anyone who’s ever seen it will never forget the lamp scene.) Perfectly cast, with Darren McGavin owning The Old Man the way few others have ever matched up to a role. These kinds of movies aren’t usually my cup of tea—my idea of Christmas fare runs more toward Bad Santa and The Ice Harvest—but this one is well worth its annual viewing.

The Santa Clause 2 (2002) Christmas is when you watch Christmas movies, right? The Beloved Spouse likes the occasional kids movie and not only doesn’t mind me picking at the plot holes, but will do so herself. Tip to Santa: don’t let Chet be one of the lead reindeer until he’s ready.

Bad Santa (2003) The second half of our Christmas Eve doubleheader. No one—no one—
plays these kinds of roles better than Billy Bob Thornton. As laugh out loud as any Christmas movie ever made, so long as you leave large chunks of your conscience in another room. As I always say sometimes, a better person wouldn’t have laughed at a lot of this, but no better person was available.

Holiday Inn (1942) This is one of those movies some will point to and nostalgically say, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Good. One-
dimensional characters who are, frankly, kind of amoral, and will do or say anything to advance the story, which is kind of disreputable and definitely unbelievable itself. (The only line of defense for such a plot is, “You’re not supposed to take the plot seriously. It’s a comedy.” Then it should have been funnier. See Bad Santa, above.) Oh, and a blackface routine. For those who might want to defend the blackface bit with “Things were different in 1942,” I say, “and good riddance.”

Confidence (2003) An underrated gem. Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, leader of a confidence crew who accidentally take off a vicious LA criminal known
as The King (Dustin Hoffman). Vig and his crew sell The King on the idea of ripping off someone even bigger that The King has personal issues with. After that you’re never really sure who’s working with who or how things are going to shake out. Burns is perfect as Vig, and Hoffman gives one of my favorite of his performances. An excellent supporting cast is led by Rachel Weisz and Paul Giamatti. If you’re into caper films with an edge and sharp dialog, you really ought to see this one.

The French Connection (1971) Damn, this is a great movie. Watch it too often and too close together and some plot holes appear, but the story holds up, as does everything else.
Contemporary when filmed, it now views like a period piece. The famous chase scene serves two roles: great excitement (duh), especially for the time; and it condenses Popeye’s obsession into seven minutes, so everything those else he does makes sense. There are a dozen or so crime films I look forward to watching repeatedly. This is one.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) No one makes more visually beautiful films than Francis Ford
Coppola, and this is no exception. Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins steal the show as Dracula and van Helsing, respectively, though the competition was less than fierce. Winona Ryder is all right, but there must have been fifty English actresses who could have done at least as well. As for Keanu Reeves? Really? Had to be at least a thousand British actors who could have handled this better. Overall, the film holds up. Close to Stoker’s novel, it plays as a love story and works well. Seeing this one again only makes me wonder even more why people feel they need to break the vampire rules to make the stories more appealing. They’ve been popular for a long time for a reason.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) First movie of the birthday double feature and one of a handful of my guaranteed to succeed comfort movies. Just a wonderful film on so many different levels that I’m not going to go into them all. If you haven’t seen it recently, do so. Going on 50 years old and still solid in every regard.


L.A. Confidential (1997) The nightcap of the birthday double
feature. To me, one of the top five crime films ever made, along with The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The French Connection. Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland make a masterpiece of James Ellroy’s glorious mess of a book, hitting all the right notes in the doing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

People With a Mission

We suffered a loss here at The Home Office over the holidays when The Sole Heir’s uncle died way before his time at age 44. I didn’t know Shawn all that well. He came on the family scene well after TSH’s mother and I separated and I only saw him at family functions. What I saw was a gregarious and easygoing man who adored his family. I never had less than a pleasant experience with Shawn—his Ravens fandom notwithstanding—and I’m sorry we didn’t spend more time together. (We’re not going down that road. The list of people an introvert wishes he’d spent more time with is substantial.)

This post is less to talk about Shawn than his funeral. He was a highly-respected sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department. “Everyone is ‘highly-respected’ at their funeral,” you’d say, and you’d be right. Compliments and platitudes flow like water off a steep hill at such occasions. The BPD put its money where its mouth was. Shawn’s funeral was an hour north off Baltimore. The commissioner, two chiefs, a lieutenant made noteworthy by the fact he was a supervisor in David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and a retired sergeant who flew in from Colorado for the event, all spoke. Shawn’s first assignment was the Western District in the days when the Western built the reputation that moved Simon to use it as the setting for The Wire. The chief who’d commanded him back in the day said he would have referred to Shawn as a gentle giant, except too many drug dealers feared him. For that many people to go that far out of their way puts to rest any thoughts of kind words as platitudes.

We’ve all seen police funerals on the news. An officer dies in the line of duty and cops from all over the country show up. Shawn died at home from heart failure. Still, he was on The Job even though off-shift at the time, and about a hundred officers of every rank showed up in dress uniforms and white gloves to send him off. A piper played them in, several spoke—along with Shawn’s grandfather and son, and a preacher everyone could have lived without—and the piper played Amazing Grace as Shawn’s remains were replaced in the hearse. Many of the cops shed tears while standing at attention while the pall bearers placed the casket in the hearse. Men—and women—one could be sure had busted their share of heads in their time and would do so again. The scene was touching beyond words, and I’ll not attempt to find any.

The words I can find have to do with the obvious bond cops feel toward each other. Their brother officer ended his journey with those he cared about and who cared about him in return. I doubt those of us who have not been either first responders or in military combat positions have a true understanding of what it means to know someone has your back like that. No breast-beating. More than a few smiles. A solemnity overhung everyone there as the cops’ respect and affection extended to all who’d come to pay their respects to their fallen comrade. Every civilian-police interaction I saw that day had a bit of it.

This is a difficult time in civilian-police relations. It is not a whitewashing to remember cops are the people who run toward trouble when the rest of us can’t get away fast enough. They’re the ones who listen to our bitching when they don’t get there as fast as we want them to. They’re not perfect except in how they reflect the greater community they serve, for better or worse. Cops come from the community at large. Much of the friction felt between cops and civilians may be due to the fact that cops respect their peers better than we respect our own.


Speaking of showing respect, Mission BBQ more than holds up its end. Shawn’s funeral was early in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. Good luck arranging for a caterer on a few days’ notice. Not only did the York Mission BBQ step up, they donated everything for the meal, providing food for 150 guests, including delivery and set-up. It’s a standard service they provide for first responders. If you’re out and about and hungry, give them a try. The food is good and though it may be a little more expensive than some other places, remember where that money goes. (And they pay their employees a living wage. It’s a no tipping restaurant.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Twenty Questions With Frank Be Blase

A brief bio of Frank De Blase doesn’t do him justice. For now, let just say he likes the twist in the plot and the twist of the knife. He takes delight in chaos, entropy, and the wrong turns his characters make. His stories are pure pulp noir told in a language that is alliterated, obliterated, and visceral. He’s madly in love with the femme fatale.

De Blase writes as a music critic every week for Rochester City Newspaper, contributes frequently to Crimespree Magazine, writes a monthly column for Skin & Ink Magazine, and photographs pin-up models for several men’s magazines. He likes to sing the blues.

He lives is Rochester, New York with his wife, Deborah and two cats, Rocco and Dixie. His new book is A Cougar’s Kiss, which we’re discussing today.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about A Cougar’s Kiss.

Frank De Blase:  Frankie Valentine, the lead character in A Cougar’s Kiss has appeared in several short stories and my debut novel Pine Box for a Pin-Up and I thought it might be smart to give some background as to Frankie’s first exposure to photography, girls, and photographing girls. A Cougar’s Kiss stars Valentine as a horny teenager and as an adult who still may be a horny teenager at heart.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
FD: I guess I just write what I like to read. Without relying too much on formula, I tend to have the twist, the detour, the surprise already established before I begin. I also love to write dialogue and often rely on the story idea as merely a framework to hang it from. I’m not necessarily tripping over ideas, but when it’s a good one, it won’t leave me alone.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write A Cougar’s Kiss, start to finish?
FD: A year, give or take a few.

OBAAT: Where did Frankie Valentine come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
FD: I get this question all the time. Yes, the character is based loosely upon me. I’ve worked as a photographer for several men’s magazines over the years --- Swank, Leg World, Leg Show, Ultra , Retro Lovely --- and I’m a bit of a wise ass. But Valentine is darker than I care to be and he doesn’t shy away from violence. I also use Valentine’s sidekick, Mickey Miller, to vent the darker urges and borderline behavior that even Frankie doesn’t truck with. They’re like the proverbial angel of virtue and devil of temptation on my shoulder; however in this case they’re both devils vying for my attention.

OBAAT: In what time and place is A Cougar’s Kiss set and why was this time and place chosen?
FD:  My stories are almost exclusively written between V-J Day and JFK DOA Day for two reasons: first of all I love the culture, the social optimism, the flexing of sexual taboos in post-war America, it serves as a swell backdrop and undercurrent for duplicitous dealings and sinister scenes. Secondly, back then, you just needed to be a good liar. The advent of DNA technology disarms lies. And phones no longer go unanswered with everyone having a cell phone in their mitts. A Cougar’s Kiss is set in Rochester, New York because it is where I live and it’s an interesting place, it’s not too big and it’s not too small. It’s serves as sort of a character as well. I find it easier to blend in reality and real places in my fiction, it gives an added plausibility.

OBAAT: How did A Cougar’s Kiss come to be published?
FD: Down & Out Books published my first two books. Editor Eric Campbell is a righteous cat. I owe it all to my friend and mentor Charles Benoit who introduced me to Noircon’s Lou Boxer in Philadelphia who in turn introduced me to Campbell who signed me up after two phone calls.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
FD: I primarily read hard-boiled fiction. Besides the obvious classics, some of my favorite writers are Richard S. Prather, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block, Christa Faust, and James Ellroy.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
FD: Somebody said I could make more money in writing than girlie photography and music. Seriously though, I’ve always been fascinated with wordplay and parlance and syntax. Words are my monkey bars. I love building characters simply out of the way they talk.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
FD: Well, I’ve never been arrested or shot but I’ve had some dark urges. I’ve definitely been done wrong a time or two.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
FD: The endless possibilities, the creative freedom, the groupies.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
FD: Film maker Russ Meyer and guitarist Link Wray. Though couched in social commentary, Russ Meyer’s name is synonymous with the Double D cup and the often violent, sexified sexpots that routinely spill out of it. He frequently filmed and photographed these top-heavy, cantilevered cuties from low angles to accentuate their dominance and celebrate — and accentuate — the gonzo, jaw-dropping busty-ness of it all. There are obvious literal references to Meyer when I describe the desired female victim, villain, or vixen. And like Meyer, I try to balance objectification and worship as both are desirable and dangerous, perfect for setting up the male character who can’t tell the difference. Link’s primal rhythms echo a femme fatale’s strut: swivelin,’ swingin,’ sexy and capable of causing a riot. His guitar is the sound of the getaway car, the five o’clock shadow on a killer’s face, it’s bullets ricocheting down the alley.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
FD: Honestly it’s a precarious cocktail of the two. When I write an outline, it’s generally vague, covering the major plot points. When I dive right in it allows for more spontaneity and if I’m not careful, confusion.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
FD: I generally try to get the semblance of a first draft banged out. Then I begin the polishing, re-tooling, and tweaking. That’s where the real writing begins, s’far as I’m concerned.

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
FD: I generally don’t like happy endings. I do like endings that hint at more to come. And just because it may leave you laughing, that doesn’t necessarily make it “happy.”

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
FD: I suppose dark-humored, hard boiled, film noir fans like me are an obvious demographic, but I’d like to go beyond preaching to the perverted and win over new fans for my stuff and the genre as a whole.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
FD: Write every day. Enjoy the ride. Don’t try too hard.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
FD: Narrative ---- the most important component. If you can’t tell a story in a compelling way --- your own way --- the rest are meaningless. The narrative is the writer’s voice. I make it a point to keep it conversational. I write like I talk.

Character ---- the characters share and help propel the narrative. There’s room for quirks and humor here. This is where I call upon people and incidents in my real life for added color.
 
Story/plot ---- what the narrative conveys. If you’ve got no story then you’ve got nothing.

Setting ---- affects how characters work with, within, and around it as silent component to the narrative. Here I try to personify and give life to the inanimate, for example “The sky cried as cars roared angrily by.”

Tone ---- the sum of all the parts if utilized correctly. And yet you can’t control tone. Every book has tone --- good or bad. This is where the magic and sweat and creativity all align.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
FD: Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury… it’s what lit my spark, some 40 odd years ago.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
FD: Spending time with my wife, photographing musicians and scantily clad women, eating barb-b-que.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
FD: A yet to be titled follow up to A Cougar’s Kiss, another collection of short stories, a graphic novel of some of the aforementioned short stories, and an album of my beat-inspired poetry performed with the jazz combo Busted Valentines. It’s anyone’s guess in what order this will all get done…

Piqued your interest? Learn more about Frank here:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Best Reads of 2016

I read 67 books in 2016; started and failed to finish nine more. Below are my ten favorites, though not necessarily released in 2016 (I think only two were). I’m not saying they were the best books. These are the ten that stuck in my mind as the best reading experiences. (Listed alphabetically by title.)

A Detailed Man, David Swinson. Often neglected in the well-deserved buzz that surrounds The Second Girl, A Detailed Man deserves attention on its own merits. The story of a burned-out cop as he decides how badly he wants to rebuild his career (or not) and the various vicissitudes of having no regular gig in a police department.

Flash Boys, Michael Lewis. The stock market may have been intended as a way to create fluid capital and bring buyers and sellers together, but the people making the big money have nothing to do with any of that. They think of it as a casino and Lewis’s book described how they filter the skim for themselves.

King Maybe, Timothy Hallinan. The first of two Junior Bender adventures this year continues the series in good form, in part by returning Junior more to his roots as a burglar who gets by more on his wits than on hardware.

LaBrava, Elmore Leonard. Among the few Leonard novels I hadn’t read, ad from his prime crime period. As good as I’d heard it would be. True, his characters and plots have a lot of similarities, but they’re similar in good ways and just different enough you don’t mind. Besides, no one reads Elmore Leonard for the plots.

The Lost Detective, Nathan Ward. Maybe the best book I’ve ever read about a writer.

The Long and Faraway Gone, Lou Berney. Deserves all the acclaim. A departure from Gutshot Straight and Whiplash River, though the elements that made both of them so good are here, as well as an added layer. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

The Martian, Andy Weir. The biggest surprise read of the year. It’s been a long time since I read a book I enjoyed more.

Once Were Cops, Ken Bruen. Snuck in under the deadline to remind me how good Bruen is, even with awkward material.

Rain Dogs, Adrian McKinty. Book Five of the Troubles Trilogy shows why McKinty didn’t stop at three. He had a lot more for Sean Duffy to say and do.

World Gone By, Dennis Lehane. Sequel to Live By Night, and I liked it better.

Honorable Mention

The Hunter and Other Stories, Dashiell Hammett. A good cross-section of Hammett’s shorts.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Finally got around to reading this, thanks to David Swinson. I see why it’s such a big deal, though it probably would have moved me more had I read it in school.

L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy. A big, glorious mess of a book. If you’re into Ellroy’s writing for the sake of the writing, read it. If you have a mission to read the entire LA Quartet, read it. Otherwise, see the movie.

The Long Good-Bye / Bay City Blues, Raymond Chandler. One of the Big Three Chandler novels, and one of the best shorts.

One or the Other, John McFetridge. The Olympics came to Montreal in 1976, and Eddie Dougherty was there. Take a look at how the Olympics affects a major city from the ground up.

Rumrunners, Eric Beetner. No one writes books that lend themselves to movie treatments better than Beetner. Unlike many others, his are outstanding books, too. Picture Harry Dean Stanton as the tough as nails old man here.

Rough Trade, Todd Robinson. Boo and Junior are in over their heads again, and Robinson gets them out in a way only he can.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

December's Best Reads

What can I say? The year went out with a bang and I haven’t even gotten to the Christmas gelt yet.

The Reversal, Michael Connelly. Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch working together. What’s not to like? Great story, expertly told. The only problem I have with Connelly is his journalism roots show in each book, as the writing rarely sings.

The Four Last Things, Timothy Hallinan. Reaching back to Hallinan’s original series featuring PI Simeon Grist. He could start writing these again and I’d pick right up on them. I think the whole series is now available for cheap on Kindle, which is how I scored the first three. Well worth the time.

Unloaded, Eric Beetner, editor. All anthologies—all of them—have the curse of unevenness. Combining different authors guarantees some stories aren’t as good as others. (I often fill this role.) Having acknowledged that, this is as well-conceived and well-rounded an anthology as I can remember—including some of the “Year’s Best” efforts—with no story containing a gun. Proceeds go to a gun control organization. Even if the motive was pure, unbridled avarice, this is a worthy collection that has earned all its accolades.

Dove Season, Johnny Shaw. I finally broke my Johnny Shaw cherry after falling in love with his work at Bouchercon Noirs at Bars. Not as wacky as his readings there, Dove Season is a remarkably diverse book that runs the gamut. The first half is borderline goofy in a Carl Hiaasen way, Jimmy Veeder tasked with finding a particular Mexican prostitute for his dying father. (The story of his first reconnaissance mission to Mexicali is worth the entire price of the book.) The story takes a couple of hard turns after that to remind me more of Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone in its ability to mix drama and comedy. Shaw’s in the rotation for sure now.

Fields Where They Lay, Timothy Hallinan. I try to spread my reading of a single author out more than this, but it’s a Christmas story, and it was Christmas week and it was on my shelf and so what I’m an adult and can read whatever the hell I want. The newest Junior Bender has Junior almost on the right side of the law—almost—working security for a disreputable, run-down mall at Christmastime. All the things you’ve come to expect from Junior, with a holiday twist.


Once Were Cops, Ken Bruen. Bruen’s one of the authors I have to be sure not to let fall through the cracks, as he’s so uniformly good it’s easy to take him for granted. This is no exception. Not a Jack Taylor story—though he makes a cameo appearance—this is the tale of a Galway cop who dreams of moving to New York and has his wish come true. That it comes true in no way implies the wish is altruistic, as Shea is as mean and sick a fuck as you’re likely to encounter. Bruen’s work is Irish through and through and gives a wee hint of what James Ellroy might have sounded like had he come of age across the sheugh.