First an announcement and a free book giveaway contest, then seven book reviews (six of them new books):
In June of 2011, I interviewed young British mystery novelist and poet Nikki Dudley for Spinetingler. I also reviewed her first novel, the gripping thriller Ellipsis. Read the interview and review here.
From Nikki Dudley's Web site: In this thrilling sequel to Ellipsis, Richard Mansen embarks on a desperate search for his missing cousin, Thom. Whilst Alice attempts to rebuild her life, she is haunted by Richard's suspicion and the secret that Thom has taken with him.
If you still haven't read Ellipsis, read more about it HERE!
NOIR(ish) As an homage to Noir, Evan Guilford-Blake’s new mystery, NOIR(ish), is absolutely ingenious. The author must have read the entire body of work of both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to create just the right genre phrasing and ambience. Los Angeles in the summer of 1947 is the perfect setting. The mystery’s gumshoe hero is Robert Grahame, an Indiana native and Word War Two veteran who moved out West, first to Frisco where he apprenticed for Sam Spade, before setting up a PI shop of his own in downtown LA. We first meet him about a year after he has broken up with the love of his life, and he’s hitting the bourbon a little bit too hard.
The plot centers on characters that may or may not have been involved with the murder of the notorious gangster, Bugsy Siegel. Every stock noir character appears in the story, each depicted brilliantly by Guilford-Blake. All characters have names with noir references. For example, the woman police lieutenant is Lauren Stanwyck. Even our hero’s cat has is called Greenstreet. Every noir fan will enjoy this conjuring up of the genre’s icons.
Readers may or may not find the story's conclusion satisfactory, subtle, or consistent; but that's noir anyway, no? Overall, an excellent book.
Vengeance, by Benjamin Black, Henry Holt and Co. (August 7, 2012)
These novels set in the still staid and parochial Dublin of the 1950s feature Garret Quirke, a hard-drinking hospital pathologist. The book opens with a suicide at sea. Victor Delahaye, a prominent businessman shoots himself on his pleasure craft, accompanied by Davy Clancy, the son of his business associate, Jack Clancy. Although the Protestant Delahayes and the Catholic Clancys are partners in a successful garage business for three generations, it is clear that the Clancys don’t feel like equal partners. This perceived inferiority in the partnership leads to financial shenanigans on Jack Clancy’s part, which ultimately lead to his murder.
Also complicating matters between the two families is the romantic entanglement between Davy Clancy and Mona Delahaye, the promiscuous second wife of Victor Delahaye. Toss in Maggie Delahaye, the grief-stricken spinster sister of Jack. Add the playboy identical twins of Victor from his first marriage, the naïve James, and the sinister Jonas. And for seasoning toss in a dash of Sylvia, the long-suffering wife of Jack Clancy’s infidelities and the Delahaye-Clancy stew thickens.
Quirke, with the aid of Detective Inspector Hackett, tries to sort things out. If this is your first read in the Quirke series, you might like to know a little more on the pathologist’s past and possibly more on the details and mood of Dublin in the 1950s. Yet few authors today write crime tales with the elegance and grace of Benjamin Black.
In my opinion, his prose elevates a genre (noir) often characterized by clipped and staccato writing. Fans of noir and mystery in general will delight in reading Mr. Black’s work.
About the reviewer: Richard Reeder recently published his first book, Chicago Sketches. He is an instructor in the Oakton Community College Emeritus Program. He also runs the site A Literary Reeder.
One review by Alan Michael Wilt
Jimmy the Stick, by Michael Mayo, MysteriousPress.com/Open Road (October 16, 2012)
Start with a narrator who introduces himself on page one as “a thief, a bootlegger, a bagman, and the proprietor of one of New York’s better gin mills.” His name is Jimmy Quinn. He’ll get around to explaining why he’s called Jimmy the Stick. But first, even while his girlfriend Connie tries to tempt him back to bed for an encore, the view from his window in the Chelsea hotel prompts him to run downstairs to the telephone, and minutes after he hangs up a Mob hit occurs at the drugstore next to the hotel.
It’s 1932. Prohibition is on. The Lindbergh baby has been kidnapped, and Walter Spencer, an old friend and partner-in-crime who has married well into the Pennyweight family, gone straight, and now runs the Pennyweight oil business, calls on Jimmy for some help. While he goes out of town to scout a business prospect, Spence needs some protection for his wife and infant son at the palatial New Jersey estate his marriage has yielded him.
Jimmy’s task seems straightforward enough, but in the Pennyweight mansion doors don’t always lead where you think they should, and it’s possible to come and go without being noticed. Every time you think you know where Jimmy and his plot are going, the trail that seemed so true goes suddenly false. Or, perhaps, not. Like the maze of a mansion in which much of the novel takes place, each supporting character adds to the texture and complexity of the story. All of them—from Connie to Spence’s wife and mother-in-law to the staff of the Spencer home (especially another Connie, the maid) to bungling and lustful lawmen—hold the promise of being the key that turns the novel. Or, perhaps, not.
With all this taken together, the reader never really gets a chance to relax. There is always something or someone coaxing you through what is likely to be the wrong doorway. While he ostensibly protects the Pennyweight baby from a copycat Lindbergh kidnapping, Jimmy becomes slowly aware that all is not as straight as it seems in the Pennyweight world.
Amid his tale of 1932, Jimmy Quinn tells also of his youth and his introduction to the New York City crime world. His immigrant parents long gone, Jimmy is raised by the saintly sinner Mother Moon. A schemer and a madam, she also takes care of a gang of kids who have no one else and picks Jimmy out for his potential on the schemey side of things. Work for Lansky, Luciano, and Rothstein initiates him deeply into the life from which, by the time the novel opens, he is trying to distance himself. Far from being a distraction from Jimmy’s adventures in New Jersey, these New York chapters provide both counterpoint and comparison with regard to what were, in the early 1930s, distinctly different places with widely divergent styles. Or, perhaps, not.
About the reviewer: Alan Michael Wilt is a writer and editor in Massachusetts. His novel The Holy Family will be published in October 2012.
Reviews by Kristofer Upjohn:
Fred Zackel's "Angel Noir" is a lethal mixture. It's a delicious potion concocted of extreme horror and hard, bleak crime writing. Both blunt and smooth, Zackel's prose quickens the character of Earl Dolan. As the story's most noirish element, this central character is an anti-hero. At best.
Really, this is a story without a hero. The villain of the piece IS the central character, rather than the antagonist of a more traditional tale's hero. Dolan is a compelling figure, an atypical sociopath. He is extremely self-aware, understands his own psychological make-up. If you called him crazy, he wouldn't kill you because you called him crazy--he'd kill you because you knew.
He doesn't follow a modus operandi. He ruminates over his evil side. He doesn't keep trophies from murders--he steals from the dead to make a living from his hobby. It is best, after all, if you love what you do. And Dolan loves what he does. The novella starts out as a night-in-the-life-of story. A peek into a typical night of murder for Earl, though "typical" is a broad term, indeed, given that Dolan is mercurial in method, always changing, improving, and, very important, leaving behind no pattern.
Besides, what starts as a (relatively) typical night of prowling for a victim slowly bends into the most unusual kill of Dolan's career. Right from the start he senses something is different; his instincts warn him away. Find a different victim! But Earl is drawn in by his own prey, compelled. But tonight, murder is only the beginning. Zackel's style is gritty and piercing. Elements of the story we have seen elsewhere, but not put together like this. It's a twist on twists, if you will. It's both psychologically harrowing and physically grisly.
Angel Noir begins with a grim tone and only gets darker from there. It's nihilistic spiral and gut-wrenching denouement are among the story's most effective elements. It's the darkest of horror and the meanest of crime, all wrapped up in a relentless, insightful (hence all the more horrifying) descent into doom.
For the stout of heart and open-minded only, Angel Noir is an excellent foray into the shadow and id, an artist's expression of our universal dark side.
The Gemini Virus, by Wil Mara, Forge Books (October 2, 2012)
Art, as Georges Braque said, is meant to disturb. Wil Mara's The Gemini Virus is a thriller about a virus that spreads as fast as the reader turns pages. Every once in a while you find a book that hooks you so hard you're yanked through its pages so fast that when you finally breathe and look at the little numbers up in the corner you're bona fide SHOCKED at how far into the book you already are. And at a lean less-than-300 pages, that makes The Gemini Virus burn as hot as the fevered characters who endure the wrath of this most horrid of new bugs. This one's almost ebola meets smallpox on steroids.
Mara manages a multi-layered story in the relatively short page count and juggles a complex plot and equally complex ensemble cast of characters. Much praise so far, but here is where I do get to play my reviewers' Insert Gripe card. Among the subplots/character arcs are: (A) Beck, of the Center for Disease Control, and Porter, a viral scientist, race to find the origins of and cure for, respectively, the Gemini Virus; (B) the political intrigue, tension mounting between countries as the possibility of terrorist involvement is pondered; (C) the story of an everyday family--they even have a pooch--on the run from the virus. There's lots afoot but those are the three main storylines--other than the general mayhem caused by an uber-deadly virus snuffing lives with a quickness. It's that last subplot that got on my nerves just a little. But that's just me. While I felt it was unnecessary--the political storylines served as sufficient breathers between scenes of Beck and Porter, etc.--many readers might connect with the all-American family caught in a horrid ordeal bigger than them and beyond their ability to control. Besides, their tale connects with the overall sweep of events in a most interesting twist.
Speaking of such, The Gemini Virus packs enough of those and pulls some clever, exciting and surprising denouements out of Wil Mara's hat of writing tricks. It's King's The Stand (minus the supernatural) filtered through the streamlining effects of Michael Crichton, with a bit of Koontz' humanity--and love for dogs.
Lest I leave you thinking this is a warm and fuzzy virus thriller, I'll note that this is among the gorier virus on a rampage novels I've consumed. Mara, though, while delivering grue slick as snot and blood, isn't lurid about it. His move-along writing delivers vivid imagery without over-the-top graphic prose. The Gemini Virus is a must-read for any fan of infectious books.
Resurrection Express, by Stephen Romano, Gallery
Books (September 18, 2012)
Forgive me if I deliberately avoid plot discussion--other than in the broadest of ways--for Resurrection Express. Take my word for this: The book moves like the second half of its title. As for the first half, well ... If I'm not going to spill (spoil!) the beans about the stack of plot twists that keeps this novel barrelling from action sequence to action sequence, I'm certainly going to leave you curious about just what "Resurrection" is.
Let's do our arithmetic here: Action plus pacing plus twists equals (already) one helluva list of ingredients. But the twists should point in your mind to the fact that there's plenty of story here with the action. A lot of it, and layered like a ginormous wedding cake. Besides the copious gunfights (complete with weaponry descriptions that have me thinking somebody's read their Mack Bolan), fistfights, explosions, brutality and so on, there is an intricate web of characters (along with their arcs) and mysteries crammed into enigmas packed to full in a big ol' box of holy freakin' crap!
Romano gives the reader no chance to find any footing. The plot persistently veers and curves like a mad Manhattan taxi driver, left turns with no blinkers keep the story simultaneously coiling in upon itself and unraveling, opening like a lotus flower to reveal more and more levels of a plot that goes deep. Way deep. The whiplash jerk-snap of the winding plot that packs not just guns but high tech hackerism, lending a (non-science fiction) cyberpunkish component to the novel.
The central character, Elroy Coffin, hardcase and computer whiz all in one package, is freshly freed from prison (through tenebrous means) and out to find his stolen wife. He finds MUCH more. Elroy is as much a victim of the hurricane of events with the bang-bang-bang and all the surprises as the reader. He's manipulated and harassed, chased and shot at. Romano puts Elroy through the same grinder as the reader, dishing out more hell on his head than that piled upon actor Bruce Campbell in director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead franchise. Resurrection Express is out of the gate like a rockethorse and the speed of the proceedings is relentless right up to the final page. The surprises, too, keep hammering away at you with no end in sight until the end - the very last @#^%# page! - of the book itself. I also appreciated the withering grimness that infuses Resurrection Express, a novel that is both intensely personal (Elroy's quest for his wife) and epic. Harrowing as any roller coaster slapped together minus a few bolts by a wicked carnie, the novel is a sucker punch of a book, laying on the blows from beginning to aaaaalllll the way to the END end, a boxer bound to take you down.
The Rustling of Leaves: An Adventure of Recovery, by Frank Costanzo, Writer's Showcase Press (August, 2000)
From the book's subtitle, you might be wonder what it's doing here at Noir Journal. This is, after all, a site devoted (mostly) to crime. It's not the homepage for a 12-step recovery program. But The Rustling of Leaves is more than just a twelve-stepper's Step Five put down in print. The Rustling of Leaves is part confessional, part spiritual reflection--and part real-life legal drama.
Writing from inside Folsom Prison, Frank Costanzo shares more than his substance abuse recovery and spiritual self-discovery, he also gives outsiders and insider's look at life in prison. On that level alone, the book is a valuable first-person document of behind-bars existence. That a man busted for relatively small-time white collar crimes ended up at Folsom Prison, of all places, points to another aspect of Costanzo's deeply personal memoir.
Costanzo's case is a touching and infuriating account about how one man began his own self-destruction and how a court of law nearly helped finished the job. It's also about finding darkness in the light. It's a multi-tiered book told in plain language. Costanzo is not a professional writer; he is a human being with a real story and it's one told in his own words and I can think of no one more qualified to do the telling. His down-to-earth style brings us vividly into not only Costanzo's life, but also his mind and spirit.
<Thanks to all the authors, publishers, and publicists for the review copies.>