The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

October 26, 2009

REVIEW: The Gift of Murder

The Gift of Murder: An Anthology of Holiday Crime Stories to Benefit Toys for Tots; John M. Floyd, Editor.
Wolfmont Press.
ISBN-13: 978-1-60364-010-7
Available now.

In plenty of time for the holiday season comes a welcome anthology of short, holiday-related crime fiction from some notable authors. This is the fourth annual anthology from Wolfmont Press. The proceeds from these anthologies benefit Toys for Tots.

Nothing too gruesome, nothing too saccharine, these stories combine to evoke the holiday spirit while still sending chills down the spine. From hardboiled detective angels ('Grace on the Case' by Sandra Seamans) to werewolves ('The Werewolf's Christmas' by Bill Crider) to murderous Kindles (yes, you read that right; 'The Kindle Did It' by Gail Farrelly), the stories entertain and occasionally move the reader, all the while keeping to a holiday theme (Christmas, Hannakuh, Kwanzaa). Other contributors whose names you may well recognize include Elizabeth Zelvin, Austin S. Camacho (of the Hannibal Jones PI series), Peg Herring -- I have to interrupt to say how much I enjoyed Herring's 'Gift of the Margi' because I've often wanted someone to give me the gift of killing off my enemies.

This is the perfect book for that harried, too-busy holiday season, when there's little time to devote to a novel but enough time between bouts of shopping, baking, and wrapping to devote to short crime fiction. And Barb Goffman's 'The Worst Noel' may even give you some criminal ideas about how to doctor that holiday baking so that this will be the last Christmas you have to deal with that one obnoxious relative...

And remember, all proceeds from the book benefit children who would otherwise have no toys at Christmas. Now THAT would be a crime.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 21, 2009

REVIEW: TOKYO VICE by Jake Adelstein

As much as I am a fan of crime fiction, I am not a fan of true crime books. No doubt the problem lies deep within my psyche and my need for escape from reality. But having said as much, once I delved into Tokyo Vice, I was engrossed in Adelstein's personal story of life as a gaijin crime reporter in one of the world's great metropolises.

Adelstein begins his story with how he first came to be employed by the Yomiuri Shinbun, the most influential and respected newspaper in Japan. In doing so, he allows the reader to come up to speed along with him on cultural differences (never wear a black suit to a job interview in Japan) and also to become enlightened - or perhaps burdened is the correct word - as he learns the nature and depth of corruption in that most polite and courteous of civilizations. What's truly wonderful about this book is the very natural voice Adelstein uses to describe the 80-hour work weeks, the justice system, and the intense dedication and competition of investigative journalism in Tokyo. By natural, I mean that Adelstein's prose reads like he's talking to you, the reader, explaining and conversing instead of just transcribing notes.

And for every mobster, every monster, every depraved character the author encounters, he reveals something of his own nature, as every good writer must if his story is to find its way to the reader's heart. Because for every villain, there is a victim. The heartbreaking story around the disappearance of Lucie Blackman needs no purple prose, the kind often found in true crime tales, prose designed to titillate the reader's sense of horror. No, Adelstein tells the events of that case in good reportorial fashion, and the facts alone level a dramatic impact sufficient to wring our emotions.

Every good story, fact or fiction, has many layers, and Tokyo Vice has those layers. From cultural adaptation to an expose of crime, corruption, and social decadence, to personal moral and ethical dilemmas, Adelstein's story covers ten years of his life; ten years that made his life, in a world few Americans can ever hope to see or understand. And while the author is justifiably proud of his journalistic accomplishments, he does not even spare himself when it comes to getting the truth down on paper. Tokyo Vice isn't a book where the reporter goes home with a Pulitzer and writes his memoirs. It's a story where the reporter sits down, looks in a mirror and asks himself the really hard questions. And he won't always like the answers.
Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 17, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Cal Rakowski is an auto mechanic, and a good one. He's young but he's suffered so much loss in his life that he just lives inside his boss's garage and tries to maintain a routine existence. But now he has a guest hiding out with him, a pregnant friend on the run from her rich, abusive husband. Cal's life suddenly becomes very complicated and non-routine when a beautiful assassin tries to kill Lebell, Cal's friend and co-worker, and Lebell disappears. The assassin and some other very nasty people, including the FBI, start thinking Cal may be able to help find him. With a lot of people looking for Cal, and not to help him, he suddenly has to start learning skills far more different, and deadly, than auto repair.

REVIEW: As thrillers go, I often become annoyed by the old premise of an innocent suddenly thrust into a world of intrigue and violence. That's because the author allows his innocent to make poor decisions that get other characters killed for the sake of moving the plot forward. I'm happy to say that Judson didn't do that to his readers in The Violet Hour.

Cal may be young, but he attacks trouble the way a good mechanic diagnoses engine trouble: He's organized, and he understands cause and effect. He plans accordingly, and adapts with his findings. The character of Cal is the linchpin for this story. Judson draws him as a sympathetic, somewhat repressed young man, and it is only when his friends are faced with danger that we see how much strength and resolve is in Cal. That might not come off as credible except that Judson also has drawn a careful back story for Cal's life, a story of unexpected loss and loneliness.

The pacing of the novel is wonderful, with rapid fire action scenes and moments of poignant characterization. No other character is as fully developed as Cal, but this is his story. The changes he undergoes as the action progresses are more profound and lasting - and maybe even a little scarier - than one usually finds in a thriller.

The weakest aspect to this book lies in the editing. In the early chapters there are some minor annoyances such as the use of "till" rather than "until" or "'til." Saying "upper-scale" rather than "up-scale." And too often using modifiers such as "nothing if not" or "no less than" when a more direct statement would be stronger. Small things like that, but they are frequent in the early going, almost as if there was a lack of confidence in the prose. But that's only in the first couple of chapters - or else I just got so sucked in by the rapidly evolving plot that I didn't notice the problems anymore.

Again, that's just quibbling on my part. The Violet Hour is an absorbing thriller, and it's easy to see why Judson has two Shamus Awards to his credit.

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 11, 2009

REVIEW: RIZZO'S WAR by Lou Manfredo

SYNOPSIS: NYPD Detective Mike McQueen has had his gold badge exactly three weeks when he is partnered with veteran Detective Joe Rizzo. Rizzo has a case clearance rate so outstanding that he is clearly the right guy to teach the younger man the ropes. A clearance rate so outstanding that he should have been promoted out of Brooklyn long ago. The partnership between the clean-cut newbie and the grizzled veteran has not fully solidified when they get an off-the-books assignment to find the runaway daughter of a city councilman. The daughter is not a minor, no crime has been committed, so how are two honest cops supposed to keep the investigation on the QT, get the mentally disturbed young woman back home, and not break any laws? Oh, wait. Maybe, just maybe, one - or both - of these detectives isn't as honest as he could be.

REVIEW: Okay, if you're looking for serial killers, gore, shoot-em-up-bang-bang action, go read a different book. If you're looking for a story with a complex web of moral and ethical dilemmas layered with gritty, tenacious police work, then open the pages and enjoy Lou Manfredo's debut novel.

The reader gets to know only two characters well, the wet-behind-the-ears McQueen and the wily Rizzo, and then we really only get to know them on the job. We see that they have private lives, but on the job is where they really live. Police work isn't what Rizzo does, it's what he is. McQueen has had a small taste of success, getting his detective badge via serendipity rather than getting it the old-fashioned way of earning it, and this has awakened his ambition to make it out of Brooklyn and into an office at One Police Plaza. Watching these two disparate men work toward a relationship of trust and understanding while coping, or trying to cope, with the constant moral and legal ambiguities of the job is really what this book is all about.

The structure of this book is an interesting one. Fully the first half of the book is episodic, as the two detectives tackle case after case: Burglary, assault, attempted rape, suicide. The reader is riding along, learning as McQueen learns: How to observe a crime scene, what crimes to expect - and when to expect them - in certain neighborhoods, that it's better to grant favors than ask them. Especially that last item. Rizzo holds markers all over the city, which is just as well because halfway through the book, when the detectives finally draw the no-win case involving the councilman's daughter, Rizzo is going to need every single favor he can swing, even from the likes of the Hell's Angels. And that still may not be enough to save his and McQueen's careers.

Manfredo plays no tricks on the reader. No time shifts, no alternating first-person POVs. The prose is straightforward, with dialogue that sounds like natural cop talk but avoids annoying and mystifying jargon. Thus it becomes very easy for the reader to slip into McQueen's or Rizzo's shoes and ask himself, 'What would I do if I were faced with these situations? What's the right thing to do?' And that's what young McQueen is always asking, both of himself and Rizzo: What's the right thing to do? And Rizzo's answer is consistent: There is no right, there is no wrong, there just is. Read this book and see if you agree with Rizzo.

Here is the author, at Otto Penzler's store in New York City, discussing the people who helped shape the novel and get it published:

Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.

October 1, 2009


SYNOPSIS: During the siege of Leningrad in January, 1942, two young men face a daunting task. In a city of starvation, they must find a dozen eggs so that a Russian colonel's beautiful daughter can have a cake for her wedding. They have five days to find and bring back the eggs, and if they fail, they will be shot by the police, NKVD. The search for eggs will bring them face to face with everything that is both good and evil in humankind, and they will test the truth of what they believe about themselves.

REVIEW:Set during a relentlessly grim time and place, one might expect the same to be true of the story. Instead, Benioff has crafted a coming-of-age adventure tale that is by turns poignant, charming, frightening, and enlightening.

The adventures are not wholly unpredictable but are made fresh by the delightfully developed characters. Lev, only 17 and the son of a poet who was himself 'disappeared' by the NKVD, was accused of looting. His companion on the search is Kolya, 20, a soldier in the army. Kolya was accused of desertion. The two young men met for the first time when they landed in jail. They are both guilty as charged and yet neither of them has a criminal bent. Lev, the Jewish narrator, has spent his whole life knowing himself to be a physical coward. Kolya may have wandered away from the Army, but he is fearless to the point of stupidity. Kolya is also possessed of good looks, charm, and some higher education.

The author never makes the mistake of minimizing the suffering of that time, he faces squarely the violence and degradation of a place where survival is moment to moment. Yet he also understands that even in the direst circumstances, people can retain their sense of humor and can have dreams that are go beyond the basic needs of food and shelter. Lev longs to lose his virginity. Kolya is planning to write a great Russian novel. Each must learn to trust and rely on the other for survival, and their often childish bickering serves to distract them from their hunger, cold and fear.

From the monsters hiding among normal people inside the city, to beautiful women prisoners and resistance fighters and Nazi death squads beyond the front lines, the search for eggs takes Lev and Kolya into the heart of darkness and the spirit of light.

City of Thieves is fine entertainment, and no one could regret time spent in Lev and Kolya's company. In the following excerpt, Lev and Kolya have met a boy who tells them a wild story about a man who keeps chickens on top of one of the buildings in the city. This awakens Kolya's scatological fascination.
"The old man can't stay in the coop all the time," I told the boy. "He has to get his rations. He has to get water and use the toilet. Someone would have grabbed the chickens months ago."

"He pisses off the roof. When it's coming out the other side, I don't know, maybe that's what he feeds the chickens."

Kolya nodded, impressed by the old man's clever means of keeping the birds alive, though I was convinced the kid was making this up as his lips moved.

"When was the last time you had a shit?" Kolya asked me, abruptly.

"I don't know. A week ago?"

"It's been nine days for me. I've been counting. Nine days! When it finally happens, I'll have a big party and invite the best-looking girls from the university."

"Invite the colonel's daughter."

"I will, absolutely. My shit party will be much better than this wedding she's planning."

"The new ration bread hurts coming out," said the curly-haired boy. "My father says it's all the cellulose they're putting in."

"Where do we find the old man with the chickens?"

"I don't know the address. If you walk toward Stachek Prospekt from the Narva Gate, you'll pass his building. There's a big poster of Zhdanov on the wall."

"There's a poster of Zhdanov on half the buildings in Piter," I said, getting a little irritated. "We're going to walk another three kilometers to find a bunch of chickens that don't exist?"

"The boy's not lying," said Kolya, patting the kid on his shoulder. "If he is, we'll come back here and break his fingers. He knows we're NKVD."

"You're not NKVD," said the boy.

Kolya pulled the colonel's letter from his coat pocket and slapped the boy's cheek with it.

"This is a letter from an NKVD colonel authorizing us to find eggs. What do you think about that?"

"You got another one from Stalin, authorizing you to wipe your ass?"

"He'll have to authorize me to shit first."

I didn't stay long enough to learn how the conversation ended.