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

January 31, 2011

REVIEW: OUTSOURCED by Dave Zeltserman

Tag line: "Most workers who lose their jobs review their resume. These guys plan a heist."

Take four middle-aged software engineers: Dan, Joel, Gordon, and Shrini. Now take away their jobs, just outsource those babies to India. Next, make sure they know that at their age the only employment they're likely to find will be McJobs. Then make sure that as their pride drifts away, so do their families. This is a recipe for desperate men. Desperate men make extreme decisions; theirs is to rob a bank. When the Russian and Italian mafia get involved, not to mention a smart cop who knows how to play a hunch, they might wish they'd settled for those McJobs.

Author Dave Zeltserman is perhaps best known for the lone sociopaths found in his "man out of prison" trilogy (Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer), but in Outsourced he also displays a remarkable talent for delineating group dynamics, particularly when the group is under pressure. Jealousy, revenge, greed, deceit, bullying -- adult groups don't differ much from children's, but the adults in this story never see that. The author accurately applies those tense dynamics to families as well as criminal conspirators.

Zeltserman is always at his best when applying the turn of the screw, which he does here relentlessly. Plot twists arrive - and they arrive frequently - through people working at cross-purposes, through the misconstrued situation, hidden motives and actions, and the careful peeling back of layers of emotion. Any little thing can, and does, tip the balance of lives into abrupt violence. Following different characters at various checkpoints, the character threads are all neatly brought together by story's end, but not too neatly. The ending itself is a perfect moment of ambiguous noir, when doom isn't a bullet from out of the shadows or a cop at the door, but is instead as simple as living alone with one's own sins.

In only a couple of years, Dave Zeltserman has become one of my favorite "must read" authors. Outsourced, although written four years ago and just now being published in the US, proves not only that the man has talent, but consistently delivers a slam-bang story full of real-world complications. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

January 26, 2011

REVIEW: OTHER EYES by Barbara D'Amato

The opening three chapters of this book may be the most thrilling opening chapters I've read in the genre. Period. Full stop. The story's premise, that an international management organization for the world's drug cartels is taking down anyone who has the potential to significantly hamper their profits (such as a politician ready to push for the decriminalization of marijuana), is a good one. In particular, this organization is seeking to kill an archaeology professor, Blue Eriksen, whose studies in the use of hallucinogens in ancient religions appear to be leading to a cure for drug addiction.

But the hit man gets it all wrong and kills Eriksen's husband, leaving her toddler to wander through the cat flap, then through a hole in a chain link fence, and out on to the Kennedy Expressway. These first pages, cutting between the danger to the child and a teen-aged driver skipping out of school early to attend a Cubs game, are mesmerizing. They are the essence of what makes a thriller: danger and taut suspense.

This book is never less than interesting, delving as it does into the archaeological processes and some extinct cultures of South America and the Middle East, but the author details much of that interesting material at the expense of the tension and thrills one expects. There are entire chapters that, were I an editor, would have been cut. They added much to the color and impact of the archaeological digs, but did nothing to move the story forward. There is a feeling that these were the parts of the book that the author cared most about, because the hit man who started out so very dangerous ends up being more of a lampoon of a hit man, so ineffectual is he. In fact, I felt as though I could have killed the professor a dozen times before the hit man even made his second -- and ill-thought out -- attempt on her life. And the third attempt doesn't bear mentioning.

Another problem is that a significant character, or would seem to be significant, is not introduced until almost two-thirds of the way into the story, and then two chapters are spent watching this character at work. This would seem to imply that how good he is at his job -- investigating art theft -- would have something to do with the main storyline, but in fact the character brings little to the story, fascinating though he is (and would be worthy of his own book).

The author has spun the threads of a great thriller and while she weaves them into an interesting book, it falls short of being a great one. D'Amato's writing has a flow that really pulls the reader into the story. With greater adherence to the main storyline and a more plausible hit man, I think this book could have been a breakout bestseller; it has that kind of unrealized potential.

January 24, 2011

REVIEW: SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE by Libby Fischer Hellman

Dar Gantner is fresh out of prison, having admitted to taking part in a 1969 bombing that killed two people at the height of student protests in Chicago. Dar contacts a couple of friends from the bad old days, who in turn contact more old friends. And suddenly old friends start dying. Lila Hilliard's father and brother are among the dead, killed in a house fire, but Lila knows nothing about this group of people who were friends before she was born. When someone tries first to shoot her, then tosses a grenade into her condo, she has to find out what decades-old secrets her father was keeping that might cost her her life.

This book is constructed in three parts. The first and last sections occur in the present day, while the middle section takes place during 1968 and 1969. The first section throws a lot of characters at the reader very quickly with virtually no explanation as to who most of them are or their relationship to each other. Nevertheless, the reader learns enough about Dar and Lila - who've never met - for the tension to be tightly coiled and for the delicious twist at the end of the section to have a thwacking great wallop.

The mid-section is more leisurely paced, and the reader gets to know the many characters introduced earlier, who made up a self-styled collective during one of the most socially turbulent periods in American history: Dar, the activist leader; Payton, the firebrand; Teddy, scion of a politically conservative family; Casey, the 'connector,' the guy who brought people together; Rain, the photographer and free spirit; and beautiful Alix, the naive daughter of wealth, who is loved by both Dar and Casey.

The tension in this section is built on character conflicts rather than on the kind of life-threatening action scenes that typify a thriller. Hellmann gives the reader a tour of the major events of the late '60s (the war in Viet Nam and the student protests against the war; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the Democratic National Convention; the Chicago Seven; the Black Panthers, SDS and the Weathermen; the Chicago Seven; the shootings at Kent State), and how her characters were either a part of or were affected by the events. The political passions and the desire to change the world for the better are what brings these disparate characters together and eventually, these are the things that tear them apart. Oh, and a bomb, of course.

The final section of the book resumes precisely where the first section leaves off, as Dar and Lila must come to an understanding and an alliance if either of them is to survive. Here the author throws another twist at her main characters that ratchets up the tension.

Hellmann clearly knows the hippie era well (except that Ringo's birthday is July 7, not July 8, and a certain song by The Byrds is misidentified). I couldn't help grinning when one of my favorite expressions, FFO, was used. And she understands and conveys the very real passions and the conditions that drove so many young people to take to the streets in protest. She also lets the "establishment" voices have their say. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is both a thriller and a historical novel, replete with a cast of memorable, often moving, characters.

January 14, 2011


Occasionally -- as often as once a year if I'm lucky -  a kind of quiet excitement comes over me, an excitement caused by a magic blend of character, prose, setting, pace and story, all created by an author I'd not previously read. This silent bubble of joy usually indicates that I've just discovered a new favorite author to add to my growing collection. I had that feeling the first time I read books by Don Winslow, Robert Crais, Craig McDonald, Earl Emerson, Dave Zeltserman, Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman, and Ken Bruen. Each of those authors has more than surpassed any hopes and expectations I had after first reading their work.

And now, courtesy of The Influence Peddlar, in a column he penned for Mulholland Books last year, I've felt that quiet excitement once again. In that column, Bruen mentioned John Straley in the same virtual breath as James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell. Heady company, that, but I'd never, ever heard Straley's name. But here's what Bruen said that made me add Straley's name to my TBR list:
James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell, John Straley, ostensibly in the mystery genre, are beyond any category. They write of the human condition in poetic, stunning prose. And do they engage in the debate as to what genre they belong? No, they just keep writing absolute gems of novels that will be read in fifty years’ time, fully appreciated.
When Ken Bruen says 'jump,' a knowledgeable reader's response should be to do just that: JUMP out of the easy chair and hie to the nearest bookstore. Okay, so it took me a few months, but today I finished John Straley's debut novel, which won the 1993 Shamus Award for Best First Novel, THE WOMAN WHO MARRIED A BEAR.

Marry the best of Raymond Chandler with that of Tony Hillerman; add a setting (Alaska) that is raw and seedy, racist and beautiful, and thread the story with symbolism. Toss in the articulate narrative of PI Cecil Younger, the black-sheep alcoholic son of a beloved judge. And every good PI has a sidekick, right? But I'd never met one like the emotionally and possibly mentally challenged Toddy. Mix this fine prose and the intriguing main characters into the culture of Alaska, its haves and have-nots, the macho hunters, the strong women, and the subcultures of Alaska's native peoples. Then add in the murder of an Indian hunting guide, a convicted killer who admits to the murder but who also hears voices, the suicide of the only defense witness, and the victim's bizarre, dysfunctional family. The result is a compelling, poetic tale that cuts closer to noir than to hardboiled detective fiction, and slices with a keenly honed edge. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Here's an excerpt that gives a feel for Straley's talent for description and eye for irony:
There are some questions so graceful that they should only be asked, because at some point it becomes interruptive to try and answer them.
One of the most time-consuming questions asked in this part of the country involves where the "real Alaska" is. Most of the people living north of Haines consider southeastern Alaska to be a suburb of San Francisco, inhabited by drug-addled phoneys and bureaucrats, with a few loggers and fishermen holding on against all odds. The phoneys and the bureaucrats have an image of the modern white resident of the north as a 400-pound Oklahoma building contractor with a 50-pound gold-nugget watchband and an antebellum attitude toward the darker races. Anchorage falls in the middle of this mess.
Anchorage grew up too fast to keep pace with its ability to dress itself. Today its buildings mostly resemble monumental subarctic toasters, all reflective surfaces to steal the beauty of the surrounding landscape. 
Anchorage is hip deep in the twentieth century. In a downtown bar you can find a deranged redneck watching a Rams game on the wide-screen TV alongside an arts administrator who is working on a production of 'Waiting for Godot'' to tour the arctic villages. Both of them will walk around the Eskimo man bundled up asleep on the sidewalk, but the arts administrator will feel an ironic sense of history.

January 13, 2011


I'm about to pay Simon Wood a very great compliment. His work reminds me of Roald Dahl's short stories. As a rule, comparing one author to another is odious, particularly as such a comparison seems to carry an inference that one author is trying or should be trying to be more like the other. Well, get that nonsense out of your head. Wood is not mimicking Dahl, nor do I think he should make the misguided effort to do so. What I'm saying is that Wood's ability to spin the commonplace into the quirky and then into the deadly puts me in mind of Dahl's gift for the same. That kind of talent will always draw me back to an author's work.

In Wood's newest collection of short crime fiction, ASKING FOR TROUBLE, he delivers eight stories built around the idea that a crime always begins with a decision -- the wrong decision. But not every bad decision is made by someone of a criminal bent. In Making Ends Meet, the bad decision arises when Richard, a very ordinary man, cannot face the idea of supporting his spendthrift, mooching in-laws for the rest of his life. But Richard cannot say no to his wife, so what's a guy to do? The character of Richard is so sympathetic, his in-laws so not, that the reader is impelled to support Richard's bad decisions. But bad decisions are called that for a reason. They have a way of rebounding upon the decision-maker.

Just how could wanting to turn one's life around, to get onto the straight and narrow, how could that be a bad thing? Just ask Matt, the protagonist of The Taskmasters. Matt has a tendency to get into bar brawls, and even he knows that if he continues down that path, the end won't be good. But The Taskmasters aren't your usual Twelve-Step group. They've got a unique spin on how to get your act together, and they make cults look like a good idea.

In The Hooker, a bridegroom and his best man turn one bad decision into a never-ending string of such, and the groom learns a lot about his darker nature along the way. Dinner for Toby offers a pretty good reason why experiencing everything at least once is an obsession to be avoided. And in A Gun in the House, when Leah decides that not even a persistent intruder can force her to move from her beautiful but isolated house, it becomes a decision that will cost her more than the house.

Simon Wood is an Anthony Award-winning author who is also a licensed pilot and a former racecar driver. ASKING FOR TROUBLE is available in ebook for only $2.49 USD from Smashwords.

January 11, 2011

Recent reading

A new book from Robert Crais is always welcome, and in THE SENTRY, the third in the Joe Pike series, the author continues to open windows onto Joe's soul. Here, Joe finds himself with feelings for a woman who -- like so many of Crais's characters -- may not be exactly what she seems. The pace may not be as relentless as in the previous book (THE FIRST RULE), but readers who've been longing to see a more romantic side of Joe will get their wish -- sort of. Let's just say that Pike is not a guy you'd want to cross, in love or war.

BLIND JUSTICE was the first in a mystery series built around the character of Sir John Fielding, a real-life 18th-century jurist who presided over London's Bow Street court. Fielding is blind and relies on the story's narrator, 12-year-old Jeremy Proctor, to aid in the investigation of the murder of a lord. Fans of historical mysteries should enjoy this one, for although the plot is not altogether original, the author depicts the era vividly and comprehensibly for the modern reader. Alexander completed eleven books in the series before his death in 2003.

Ken Harmon's debut novel, THE FAT MAN: A TALE OF NORTH POLE NOIR, is charming. Gumdrop Coal, the Christmas elf in charge of delivering the bad news, in the form of coal, to naughty children, gets himself fired by Santa. Or was he framed? Gumdrop is no goody-two shoes, he's two-and-a- half feet of kickass. But if Santa is such a great guy himself, how could he be so cruel to the toys of Misfit Island? Kringle Town is being divided into factions. Someone is out to get Santa, and Gumdrop is looking like a pretty good fall guy. There's no detail of the American Christmas tradition, from carols and films to poetry and myth, that author Harmon doesn't twist to his own purpose, played against the tropes of the hardboiled detective story to often-hilarious effect. For a book that is billed as noir, it's got a solid feel-good ending, and I recommend reading it, as poet Eugene Field wrote, "jest 'fore Christmas."