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"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some Recent Reads

Been meaning to post about a bunch of recent reads, but I was fighting to beat out a few deadlines. Now that I've finished up a couple of projects, let me tell you all about some first-rate books that have recently hit:

BAD MOON RISING by Ed Gorman. This is Ed's latest Sam McCain novel. Chronologically, about ten years has passed between the first McCain novel THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED and this one, which brings us up to the late 60s and the collision between Black River Falls, Iowa's middle class mores and the influx of the hippie movement. While a local hippie commune outside of town keeps some of the more staunch white bread citizens in an uproar, the larger number of townsfolk don't seem to mind the bohemians much. Not until the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in town is found murdered on commune property and an unstable Vietnam vet becomes the prime suspect. The always sympathetic attorney and PI Sam McCain takes the case that nobody else wants, and soon finds himself butting heads on all sides of the political and social issues exemplified by the curious circumstances.

As is his forte, Gorman knows how to vividly portray his characters as they become swept up into a hurricane of historical importance. Small town America is portrayed honestly, filled with just as much darkness, bitterness, and long-standing secrets as there is apple pie, quaintness, and civic charm. Gorman writes with an emphasis on poignancy and pathos. You feel for these people as they try to navigate their way through turbulent times, trying to protect loved ones, understand complex politics, and stay friendly with nearly unrecognizable neighbors.

THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER'S FARM (STRAW DOGS) by Gordon Williams. Rereleased by Titan Books (www.titanbooks.com) to coincide with the recent movie remake, Gordon Williams's original novel that inspired both versions of STRAW DOGS proves exactly why it's the perfect source material for powerhouse filmmaking. American professor George Magruder rents Trencher's Farm in his wife, Louise's, isolated hometown of rural Dando parish, Cornwall. Cornwall is one of those small villages where you're considered an outsider no matter how many decades you might live among the people. If you're not born in Dando, you're not one of them. George doesn't seem to mind much as tries to finish his definitive study on an unknown eighteenth-century diarist. The fact that he and Louise have been drifting farther apart hardly seems to break his focus. Nor does the general rudeness of the local men even as he clumsily tries to befriend them. As Louise grows more and more discontent, George withdraws further into his work and his mannered, bumbling persona.

But when George accidentally runs over a mentally handicapped convicted child killer, Henry Niles, and the vicious locals set out to lynch Niles, George finds it within himself to defend the man and his own home from trespassers. Here, on Trencher's Farm, all the Dando men are outsiders, and George is soon fighting not only for the life of a guilty man, and the safety of himself and his own family, but for some innate sense of blood debt.

Williams has not only written a gripping novel that manages to show all sides to an oddly complicated set-up in the black, white, and gray area of morality, but he does so by stressing realism. The confused reasoning of George, the perplexing nature of his and Louise's relationship, the curious nature of the brutal Dando men, all lends itself to thoughtful and profoundly affecting themes. We're really not sure who to root for, who might be considered sympathetic, who are the innocents, and who is the guilty or mad. It's provocative storytelling at its finest.

NOIR AT THE BAR edited by Jedidiah Ayres & Scott Phillips. A first-rate crime fiction charity anthology designed to help out the beloved St. Louis indie bookstore SUBTERRANEAN BOOKS (http://store.subbooks.com/). Very few anthologies manage to hit on all cylinders, but this is one of those rare ones where there's not a dud to be found. Tales by Sean Doolittle, Laura Benedict, Jonathan Woods, Derek Nikitis, Frank Bill, and Anthony Neil Smith all win over the reader. These are dark, brutal, inventive, sharply-wrought, grabbing stories that will hopefully invite audiences to seek out more work by everyone listed in the table of contents. I'm honestly ashamed that I wasn't already familiar with more of the authors within and that I hadn't read more short fiction by those I was. If I had to choose a couple of faves, I think I'd go with Dennis Tafoya's "Doe Run Road," a cleaved to the bone narrative about a gut-shot loser trying to make it home just so he can face his hated mother once again; and Pinckney Benedict's "Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life," about a powerhouse burnt-out cop who should've been born in the savage dark ages, who manages to discover an odd form of grace while watching a carny motorcycle act where the riders whip around the inside of a wooden cylinder. Both tales offer even-handed subtleties even while they offer up hard left hooks to your heart. Go, order now.

CHICAGO LIGHTNING by Max Allan Collins. The short stories featuring Collins's classic private eye Nathan Heller have finally been collected by Thomas & Mercer. This is an excellent companion piece to the recent Heller novel BYE BYE BABY, featuring Heller's involvement with solving the Marilyn Monroe case. The Heller tales offer up terrific historical PI fiction. Heller's career spans practically the entire history of American crime. In the short stories we meet up with the likes of Frank Nitti, Mickey Cohen, Eliot Ness, Thelma Todd, all involved with real cases of the 30s and 40s that Heller always winds up in the middle of.

Collins's does his homework. These pieces read like actual historical documentation, the eras and famous personages taking on a real and authentic sense. The pieces are vivid, have depth, and traverse the arena of mystery fiction from noir to hardboiled to police procedural. Heller also grows as a protagonist, his past shaping him as he goes along from one piece to the next.
I missed a lot of these tales on their first publication so I was thankful to finally get a chance to check out those I hadn't seen before, as well as the revamped "The Perfect Crime," a tale that was originally written for a Philip Marlowe compendium that was rewritten to become an even more entertaining Heller piece. My fave might be "The Blonde Tigress," a smart, fun, playful, twister of a mystery that's put together in such a way that you'll reread it immediately just to see how smoothly it was done.

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