Here we go again. Noir Journal's second annual Book Review Marathon. In Part 1, we'll present these four reviews from Noir Journal's senior reviewer, Ann Snuggs:
Hard Bite, by Anonymous-9
Trinity Game, by Sean Chercover
The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain
Driven by James Sallis
Hard Bite, by Anonymous-9, Blasted Heath (October 20, 2012)
Dean Drayhart is a wheelchair-bound serial killer who uses a trained monkey to kill. This is a spoof, right?
Wrong. Our protagonist is a man with a mission. A hit-and-run driver put him in the chair, along with killing his daughter, so he is out to rid the world of as many of these scumbuckets as he can. He tracks them down like a bounty hunter.
Even though Dean admits that he loves to kill--as long as he feels that it's an execution--it's hard not to be on his side.
Admit it. Few, if any, people can claim to have never had the thought that the world would be better rid of certain people. Often it's a bigoted reaction to an ethnic category or political leaning, but this guy is acting on his vigilante convictions--from a wheelchair, no less.
The action kicks off with Dean and Sid--the monkey--heading out into the after-midnight Los Angeles drizzle to meet another hit-and-run killer on the pretext of selling a passport. It moves into high gear as the intended target backs off and Sid has to go into attack mode.
It turns into a messy night.
It is also the beginning of his undoing. Phrasing it to avoid as many spoilers as possible, the man he killed was not the man he thought he killed. Soon powerful forces in the underworld are hot on his track.
His apparently random killings didn't make the police radar but now certain powerful, felonious people are out for his blood.
Aided and abetted by his girlfriend Cinda, a lady of the night who finds him just what she needs for her personal relationship, Dean dodges his pursuers. But for how long?
For a short novel, Hard Bite is rich in complexities. Told by the killer, it grabs the reader from the first page. The characters--from the killer and his cohorts to his adversaries to the detectives mired in trying to untangle the web of information and misinformation--are well-drawn and vivid. The pace is excellent. The ending satisfies.
Using the adjective "delightful" for a noir tale seems discordant, but this book is quirky, dark, definitely noir, offbeat and utterly delightful in its uniqueness.
Personal note: When I read the synopsis of Hard Bite--wheelchair killer with monkey--I said, "Oh, please!" But after reading the first few pages that changed to, "Please let me review this one." I was not sorry. It's a re-reader. I can't wait to read it one more time to seek out nuances I may have missed the first time around.
The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain, Hard Case Crime (2012)
James M. Cain's murky tales are a cornerstone of the noir genre. He died in 1977, leaving one unpolished novel to thrill his faithful fans. Thanks to Hard Case Crime, now The Cocktail Waitress is on the shelves, allowing devotees of the dark side one last chance to wallow in the mire of Cain's nasty characters' lives.
Poor Joan Medford. Pregnant and married at 17. A widow at 21. Her husband's family blames her for his accidental death. A police detective questions the circumstances of the accident. Her sister-in-law wants to steal her child. What's a poor girl to do but find any strategy that will bring her son back into her home and her arms?
Can she help it if the best job immediately available to a hungry young widow is that of a cocktail waitress? Or that she has a body that draws the attention of men?
Joan narrates the account. She's tired of taking the blame when everything that happened was bad circumstances. She wants to put down for the record the details of all that happened. If she was portrayed in a bad light, it was because others slanted the story. She wants to set it right. Now it's up to the reader to decide where the truth lies.
Cain gives Joan a plausible voice. Young girls can often be caught up in situations they fail to understand and find unexpected repercussions rippling through their lives. Is Joan an innocent caught up in the whirlpool and way in over her head? Or is she a conniving, scheming gold digger, using her body to gain her greedy aims?
Whatever Joan may be, Cain used his talents to create a tangled tale, sucking the reader into her story, no matter what conclusions may be drawn at the end.
And speaking of the end, there is a terrific, wicked noir twist in the last pages, easily grasped by older readers who remember the mid-1970s but possibly lost to younger readers. No court could ever punish with the harshness of this possible aftereffect. Any reader not immediately recognizing the consequences of Joan's actions should read the Afterward by Charles Ardai to understand the next crisis Joan may face.
The Cocktail Waitress is another gem for Cain fans - and all lovers of classic noir. Thanks, Hard Case Crime.
The Trinity Game, by Sean Chercover, Thomas & Mercer (2012)
Father Daniel Byrne is a man with unresolved issues. His parents died when he was born. His uncle who raised him was a Bible-thumping con man. Discovering that, at thirteen he ran away. The Catholic priests who took him in taught him boxing to release the tensions within. When he went into the priesthood he left behind newsgathering, dedicated reporter, Julia Rothman, the love of his life.
Now he seeks miracles. As an investigator for the Vatican's Office of the Devil's Advocate he travels extensively to examine claims of miraculous demonstrations of the presence of the Lord on Earth. In his years of doing this he has yet to find the true miracle he seeks to confirm his faith.
Now he has been sent to investigate the uncle he abandoned. It seems that Brother Tim Trinity has begun speaking in tongues with a hidden message. No longer is his gibberish simply garbled syllables. When the recordings are played backwards and sped up one-third they are prophesies. AND they are coming true!
The Catholic Church must have this man discredited.
Unknown to the Church, two international organizations - competitors - with tentacles reaching into Catholicism as well as the offices of governments throughout the world, know of Trinity's accuracy and they to want to stop or perhaps use him.
Meanwhile others are discovering this phenomenon. Brother Tim predicts weather and accidents on the freeway, sure, but he also throws in a few sports scores and horse racing results. Now organized criminal elements that control gambling recognize him as a threat.
Is there anyone not after this man?
Daniel's first step is to contact speech pathology experts. How would a person learn to do this trick? How many recordings would it take to perfect this charade? Can't be done, they tell him and then set out to prove it.
Confronted with this evidence, Daniel has no choice but to go face-to-face with the uncle he never wanted to see again. What he learns takes him on a high speed quest for the truth. On the way he discovers things in his uncle's history he never could have imagined, reconnects with his one and only love, revisits the sites of his early years and grows in the faith via unexpected paths.
With unique and interesting characters, fast-paced page-turning, a plot chock-full of twists and shifts, The Trinity Game is fascinating and hard to put down. Sean Chercover has created a great read - and maybe a great RE-read.
A word to the wise: The book will not be for everyone. Conservative religious readers might feel some parts tinge on blasphemy. Anyone who gets caught up in the con elements of Brother Tim may do an occasional eye-roll. (Those who think he's over-the-top have no familiarity with the Southern preacher/con man circuit.)
To enjoy this book to the fullest, it's important to remember that this is Daniel Byrne's story. Yes, a LOT of characters with attention-grabbing qualities are in these pages but the bottom line is: If they weren't contributing to Daniel's life situation, they wouldn't be in this book. He's a wonderful, complicated character. I'm glad I met him.
Driven, by James Sallis, Poisoned Pen Press (April 3, 2012)
When James Sallis' novel, Drive, first appeared in 2005, critics called it "perfect" . . . "a masterpiece" . . . "essential" . . . and a host of other superlatives. It's hard to challenge any of the praise.
This story of Driver--like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns he has no name - has layer after layer of depth built into it. The sparse, lean prose suits the protagonist. Driver is laconic, focused on what he does--drive --and has little concern for the niceties of life.
Placed in foster homes when his family disintegrated - read book for details--Driver discovered as a teen what he did best--drive. He raced a few cars but escaped his last foster home to run to L.A. There he found a new use for his talent - stunt driving in films. As a sideline he also took on a little criminal driving.
A heist gone bad takes him deeper and deeper into the dark side. He is caught in a web that requires more of him than just driving in order to survive--yet survive he does.
Seven years later Sallis presented the waiting world with a sequel to Drive--Driven.
Driven begins six years later in Driver's life. He has put the world of crime behind him, developed a success business in Phoenix and is moving toward marriage with the woman he loves.
His past comes back in a rush, out of the blue, when one Sunday morning he and Elsa are attacked. He kills both the attackers but not before they kill Elsa. It soon becomes plain that something from his previous life has come after him. Driver just doesn't know what or why. Unless he can unravel the wherefore and who, he may not get out of this one alive.
Using his ability to live with the bare necessities and the help of a few good friends he manages to stay a step or two ahead of his pursuers.
Both Drive and Driven give the reader fast action and a tangled tale to weave through.
However, read Drive first. Though it is possible to follow the action in Driven without reading Drive, part of the picture is missing. Much of the back story is fleshed out in Drive.
For this reviewer, much of the appeal was in the compactness of the narrative. Drive--with all its action, complexity, flash backs , and philosophy--took less time to read than the run time of the film based, - VERY loosely, on the book.
And there's a caution. Anyone who thinks, "I saw the movie. Why should I read the book?" is far off the mark. Buddy, you don't know what you're missing if you skip the print.
These books are riveting. The little nuggets of philosophical comment tucked amid all the fast action are intriguing. Existentialism? You bet. In spite of the feeling of constant movement and rapid pace, there is a rich, thoughtful texture that makes them a real pleasure to read - with one little complaint.
Driven has one of those "write the details yourself" endings--always a bit annoying. A book is the author's story, not the reader's. From this viewpoint, an author has not completed his job if he does not present the reader with his unabridged vision.
And one last picky comment from a noir purist: Though these have been categorized as noir, they don't meet a purist's criteria. It seems that nowadays any dark crime tale gets dumped into the noir bin, but pure noir requires certain elements. Driver has an almost tragic aspect in his persona. He is what he is and reacts as he does because he is what he is. He can no more alter this than Antigone could let her brother lie unburied. (Character essence is what makes the difference between melodrama and tragedy.) While there can be an element of tragedy in noir, pure noir must also contain a moral facet. Drive and Driven are definitely not morality tales.
For all who want skip the philosophy and just cut to the chase--nice suitable phrase here--go read these books. You won't regret it.
About the Reviewer
Ann Snuggs has written everything from advertising copy to poetry; newspaper columns to novels. She wrote her first novel, Donovan's Trail, a number of years ago; but it is available to the public for the first time this year, in Kindle format. Currently, Ann is working on memoirs with child star of the 1930s Dick Jones and is editing a second novel for Kindle.
Thanks to all the authors, publishers, and publicists for review copies of these four novels and many more.
Coming soon: Book Review Marathon, Part 2.