You can divide Jason Starr's novels pretty easily into his early work and his later, more commercial work. His earlier novels are noir stories of doomed characters who are painfully oblivious to their own inevitable destruction, while his more recent work has been more slick and commercial, even if he hasn't quite been able to bring himself to write a happy ending yet. Fake I.D.(Hard Case Crime, 2009) is Starr's third novel, coming between Nothing Personal, and the award winning Hard Feelings, the novel that put Starr on the map. It definitely belongs to Starr's early period.
Fake I.D., which has never appeared in the U.S. before, has a lot in common with Hard Feelings, but it's not quite as accomplished. Tommy Russo is a bartender who wants to be an actor and has a gambling problem. When he is approached by an acquaintance about joining a syndicate to purchase a race horse, he jumps at the chance. Only, Tommy doesn't have the ten thousand dollars needed for the buy in. To get it, he will betray everyone who trusts him.
Russo, unlike Richie Segal in Hard Feelings, does not garner any sympathy from the reader. In Hard Feelings, Segal's downward spiral is precipitated by a face to face encounter with an old acquaintence who molested him. Russo, on the other hand, is narcissistic to a frightening extent without any mitigating factors. He is so repellant that he may make some readers uncomfortable, which is not a criticism, so much as it is a recognition of the fact that Starr is really very good at getting inside the heads of abberant individuals. It's not too difficult to see why this novel would have made U.S. publishers squirm.
Anthony Neil Smith’s last book, Yellow Medicine, never quite came together, with its mix of half-assed terrorists who, for some godforsaken reason, wanted to control the meth trade in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota, rockabilly music, and bad cop and southern transplant Billy LaFitte, it seemed like Smith had thrown a bunch of disparate ingredients in a blender, hit puree and ended up with a bit of a mess. His latest novel, Hogdoggin’ (Bleak House, 2009) brings back many of the characters from Yellow Medicine,but improves upon the first novel in every respect.
Hogdoggin' is the novel Yellow Medicine could have been if Smith hadn't decided to go with terrorists over bikers.Hogdoggin' finds LaFitte acting as sergeant-at-arms for a biker gang run by a man named Steel God. He's trying to stay of the radar, but FBI agent Franklin Rome, humiliated by the beating LaFitte handed out at the end of Yellow Medicine, is putting the squeeze on LaFitte's mentally unstable wife in an effort to flush him out of hiding. Rome's actions work, to an extent, and LaFitte takes off on a turquioise chopper to ride to the rescue of a woman who wants nothing to do with him. While Yellow Medicine was told in first person from LaFitte's point-of-view, Smith decided to go with third person for Hogdoggin', which gives him the opportunity to get inside the head of Rome, as well as LaFitte and other characters. The choice works well, and the characters are more fully realized than they seemed in Yellow Medicine. It's nice to see what makes these characters tick, even if they all are, on some level, monsters. Smith writes monsters pretty well.
The Billy LaFitte saga shares a lot in common with Charlie Huston's Hank Thompson novels, where a garden variety loser gradually turns into a dangerous man, except LaFitte is a dangerous man who is becoming more dangerous, and it's harder to feel sympathy for him than it is for Thompson, although it is possible to feel some empathy for poor Billy because every time he tries to be nice, at least in relative terms, it tends to blow up in his face. The only time things ever seem to go his way is when he gets really nasty. Of course, seeing bad people do nasty things to each other is part of the fun, even if you can't quite bring yourself to pull for any of them.
After reading The Disassembled Man (New Pulp Press, 2009), I was pretty sure the author, Nate Flexer was a pseudonym. (Nate Flexer is a pseudonym for John Basoff, proprietor of New Pulp Press. My instincts were right See comments). His author’s bio identifies him as a high school English teacher, and I’m pretty sure The Disassembled Man isn’t the type of book your typical school board member would take to bed with them. Flexer doesn’t appear to be a pseudonym, however, so maybe he teaches at a private school or has tenure or is married to the school board chairman or something because this is the sort of book that would make your average local politician go crazy.
Frankie Avicious has a pretty lousy life. He has a job slitting cows' throats at a slaughterhouse. He's in love with a stripper. His wife is fat, and her dad is rich, but he won't kick loose with any money. He's also a raging alcoholic who pukes more than a supermodel (there is more vomiting in this book than in any other book ever written). When Frankie receives a visit from a mysterious old acquaintance, he decides to get his life together. Instead of enrolling in community college, however, Frankie decides to kill his father-in-law for the inheritance. From there, it's off to the races, as the body count mounts, and Frankie's tenuous grip on reality becomes even more tenuous.
The Disassembled Man is a little rough around the edges, but it's a first novel, so roughness around the edges is to be expected. Flexer's main character is a little bit of a mystery, though. For a character with a bad (and I mean bad) background who has no education or interest in self-improvement, he's remarkably articulate. The fact that he's deeply, deeply crazy and has trouble keeping in touch with reality doesn't help either. It's entirely debatable, in my mind, if the last third of the book happens anywhere outside Frankie's head.
The Disassembled Man is remarkable for its ugliness. It's hard to think of a book with a character as despicable as Frankie Avicious. It turns out he has valid reasons for being as twisted as he is, but his unapologetic homicidal mania may be difficult for some to stomach. This Jim Thompson on mescaline story is not for the faint of heart.
This isn't my only bookshelf, but it is my biggest one, and the image isn't tilted, the bookshelf is. I'm going to have to get something a little more heavy duty than Ikea offers obviously. I'm expecting it to collapse any day now.
Stark House Press, known up till now for its reprints of hard boiled fiction, is venturing into publishing originals, having picked up the rights to Charlie Stella's novel, Johnny Porno. According to this blog post the novel is about New York in 1973, when the infamous Deep Throat found a wide audience (scroll down). From the description:
"It's the summer of 1973 and John Albano is a former construction worker with child support and rent payments he can't keep up with by driving for a Brooklyn car service, but then it's his quick hands and honorable nature that ultimately place him squarely in the middle of a perfect storm of danger.
Albano is just trying to make ends meet when he takes a weekend stint counting heads and collecting the take at illegal screenings of the recently banned porno film Deep Throat for Mafioso Eddie Vento. But a devious ex-wife, her more devious ex-husband, the wiseguys behind the film (including one obnoxious wannabe with a frenzied beef for Albano), the Fleetwood Eldorado used in the opening scene of the porno film and a host of cops (both good and bad-including the deranged one Albano punched out) snowball into an often humorous, sometimes violent, action-packed page turner loaded with the masterful dialogue that earned Charlie Stella six *starred* reviews and countless comparisons to such masters of the genre as Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, Donald Westlake and Mario Puzo over the course of his six contemporary crime novels."
Sounds promising, and it's good to see Stark House stepping out and taking a chance on new fiction. Hopefully, JP will do well enough that Ed Gorman and company will do it again.
John Lutz is one of the few authors in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, of whom I had never heard. Turns out he's quite prolific, and if his story "Tough" is any indication, he's also pretty damn good. I think this is my favorite story in this collection thus far. It's about three casino robbers who hole up in an old hippie commune that's inhabited by a reclusive Korean War vet. There's the standard conflict, with the old man fighting the gangsters to protect his turf, but Lutz pulls the carpet out from under the reader in a spectacular fashion. I'd go into more detail about this one because it's worth looking at for the story as well as the technique, but that would ruin the fun for those of you who haven't read it yet. Well played Mr. Lutz. Well played.
(You can download "Tough" from Audible.com for about 7 bucks, which is kind of steep for a short-story, but it's a good story.)
The new Plots with Guns is now live. It's a special sci-fi issue, so expect a lot of pew! pew! pew! lasers, as opposed to bang! bang! bang! bullets. It includes a story from Fred Zackel, and the most curious entry would appear to be an illustrated tale by Pinckney Benedict, author of this forgotten book. I'll have to really sit down and check it out after work.
Welcome to the Indie Crime Blog. As the name implies, this blog is dedicated to reviews of crime fiction published by independent presses. There are many books published every year that seem to be ignored for a variety of reasons. The books sections of newspapers are getting smaller. Bookstores give more shelf space to more established authors. I could go on, but you get it.My intent is to review books both old and new in the hopes that some deserving writers and worthy publishers will gain some exposure. I can be emailed at IndieCrime-at-gmail-dot-com