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

December 30, 2013


The fourth installment in the Department Q series finds police detective Carl Morck in the emotional throes stemming from new evidence in the case in which he lost one partner and another was left a quadraplegic. And his pangs may be more than emotional since much of the evidence damningly points at his involvement in the shootings.

And this is merely a subplot. The main plot has two branches, one of which grows from the cold case files Morck's team (comprised of the dangerous, mysterious, and oft hilarious Assad, and the multiple-personality plagued Rose) manages. Rose and Assad begin finding links between several missing-person cases: people who disappeared on the same day, people of differing occupations who came from different parts of Denmark but who all were in or were bound for Copenhagen when last seen, people who did not know each other but most of whom were known by an elderly, reclusive widow. The second branch of the plot involves a doctor, Curt Wad, whose medical ethics the reader will recognize as stemming almost directly from those of Josef Mengele. The less-than-good doctor is one of the founders and mainstays of the Purity Party, whose growing membership is chockful of right wingnuts, bigots, and extreme nationalists. Like the early Nazi party it so closely resembles, the Purity Party is secretive, elitist, and very, very dangerous.

The author does an admirable job of connecting the many disparate characters while sliding back and forth across more than four decades of story, though the backstory process goes on at some length and at the expense of the more sympathetic main characters. For such serious topics as eugenics, forced abortion and sterilization, rape, and murder, the story is fortunately leavened with a good deal of humor to offset the depressing banality of evil. That's good, yes, but the humor leans less on character and situation than in prior books, and more on basic bodily functions. An instance or two brings a smile to the reader, but after a time one begins to hope (in vain) for no further scatological revelations.

If this book has a serious flaw it is in the many villains the reader encounters. Dr. Wad is certainly a fine villain, and the primary example. He is cold, callous, intelligent while being obtuse, and horribly cunning. Yet the focus is continually pulled away to one of the many other villainous characters who, although evil enough in their own right, lack the mesmerizing quality of the inhuman doctor. I've long held that one single superb villain makes for a better story than a dozen such characters, and this book supports my argument.

Despite this, what makes the book an overall winner is the very nifty twist in the denouement, a Hitchcockian twist that this reader did not see coming, but should have as the author very fairly provided all the clues. And yet I have not felt so blindsided since the ending of the film, The Sixth Sense. The ending, plus the way the author made me feel that, no matter how populated the world is with evil, there is still hope; that as bad as things may be,  as wrong and unfair as the world can be, there is always, always hope - these things prompt me to RECOMMEND this book.

November 8, 2013

Robert E. Bailey, 1947-2013

The first check of my Facebook news feed today brought word of the passing of Robert Bailey, one of my favorite authors. I, and others, are deeply saddened by our loss. To Bob's wife, Linda, my deepest condolences. May the dear man rest in peace.

In memoriam, I am reposting an interview Bob granted this blog shortly after his initial diagnosis of glioblastoma in the summer of 2011.
Hatchets, Fish & Detonics: An Interview With Robert E. Bailey

Robert E. Bailey is the author of the PI Art Hardin series. When Bob writes about PIs, he knows of whence he speaks: he did the job for twenty years, before the profession turned into little more than computer record searches. A Vietnam-era draftee, he retired from the military as a reservist and a field-grade officer. Bob's also an award-winning combat pistol shot. Guess I'm glad I only have good things to say about his books! Which, by the way, were all recently released in ebook format. You'll find the links below. You'll also find my review of PRIVATE HEAT here.

It's been my pleasure to correspond casually, off and on, over the last few years with Bob. I also had the great pleasure of meeting him in 2007 at the annual Ann Arbor Book Festival. Not only was he charming and funny, like his books, but he took the time to tour the festival with me, answering candidly every question I asked.

 In August, 2011, Bob was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of malignant brain cancer.  He underwent surgery in late August and is on his third round of chemotherapy. He has some mild aphasia but continues to work on a new novel. And if you know what aphasia is, you know what a struggle that must be for anyone, but especially for a writer. Still, you might never guess it from his responses to some questions I recently put to him.

Q: Your first book (PRIVATE HEAT) reads like a seasoned writer at the top of his game. Great pacing, characterization, and story arc. Is it true you had to be shot in order to get you to write this book? And did you consciously emulate any other writer? If not, what crime writers (if any) would you claim as your influences and/or favorites? 

Bob: I was injured working on an undercover job in so stupid a manner that I am embarrassed to tell you! I had to move my van, and running down the sidewalk, I broke my knee and ankle stumbling over a wheelchair ramp. I wish there was a better story! (I survived the better stories.) I was in a wheelchair before I could get back on my feet, and that took about a year. Hence, the first novel.

Thank you for the wonderful compliments. For the first novel, I was writing an homage to all the old writers that I enjoyed, specifically, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. I think Robert Parker deserves his own mention. My story was meant to thank them for all their great stories. Interestingly enough, PRIVATE HEAT was rejected twenty-three times by publishing houses, who said they had read it all before and we didn’t need another one.

Q: I've just finished rereading PRIVATE HEAT. There's a lot of humor and a good bit of action, yet there are many details that seem very authentic. Is it all fiction or did you draw on some real-life events? I'm thinking especially of the hatchet attack on PI Art Hardin by the woman he's been hired to protect. Anybody ever take a hatchet to you?

Bob: No one ever took a hatchet to me. I can remember certain folks armed with baseball bats, various lengths of pipe, and wooden beams, boards, and sign poles. Usually I didn’t allow angry people to get that close to me. Some mob types did shoot up my vehicle while I was in it.

Q: Say what?

Bob: I was pulling into a drive and a fellow put one 9mm in my windshield, one into my radiator, and one in my oil filter. Lucky for me a first bullet ricocheted off the window as I was driving upwards from the street.   The next two bullets were good but stayed in the engine.  Instead of stopping, I nailed the gas and the shooter departed in a pickup truck.  I chased him but I couldn't figure out why my car kept going slower and slower. While this happened thirty-five years ago, many of the men involved are still in the Detroit "business." We have made a peace of sorts.

Q: You have had an interesting, not to say exciting, career in government and private security. Would you care to fill in the details, and tell me which job was your favorite and why?

Bob: I liked undercover work, being close and working as one of the bad guys. (Maybe I liked that too much!) I usually got arrested with the criminals that I pretended to be. In court, they were usually surprised to find that I was a detective. I did surveillance in the Army and as a private detective. I worked as the director of security operations at Great Lakes Sugar and Warehousing. While I was there I also worked with World Investigations and Security Engineers, filling in on a part-time basis. When they tore down the Sugar Shack, I took a full time position for WISE as the supervisor of their western Michigan office in Grand Rapids. After I left WISE, I opened my own agency, and did film surveillance around the state for the government as a contractor as well as working for hire by private businesses. I really liked everything I did.

Q: Karen Smith, the young woman Art Hardin is hired to protect in PRIVATE HEAT, is a great character. She's a wonderfully funny mix: kind of street smart, kind of dumb, kind of cynical, kind of naive. A lot of heart to her. I was delighted when she reappeared in DEAD BANG (the third Art Hardin book). Where'd she come from?

Bob: Karen’s character reminded me of young ladies that I met in college and business. She is parts of many people that I knew. They could be very, very smart, but sometimes use their hearts instead of their heads.My next novel is close to being finished. It’s called Déjà Noir. It’s not about Art Hardin. It does involve a PI, together with cops and crooks. Each chapter is told in first person, from the point of view of a different character. Misty’s chapter will warm the hearts of Karen’s fans. This time you get to talk with the character personally.

Q:  Okay, other heroes carry Colts, Kimbers, Barettas, Smith & Wessons. Art Hardin is the only character I know about who carries a Detonics. I had never heard of the brand (even though Sonny Crockett carried one in a leg holster on MIAMI VICE). Why choose that firearm for him?

Bob: The Detonics Combat Master is small, and easier to conceal. And it’s still a .45. It’s a wonderful weapon for a pistolero, but not so good for the inexperienced shooter. I had one of the first Detonics they made. I always said it took two men and a small boy to lock and load.

Q: The last Art Hardin book, DEAD BANG, was published in December, 2006, so you've been out of the publishing world for several years now. Whatcha been up to? Your books are set in Michigan but I know that you moved south some time ago.

Bob: DEAD BANG ended up hidden in a drawer at the publisher, and my writing profession was stuck in there with it. They wouldn’t print DEAD BANG and would not take any more Art Hardin stories. The fact that I used Middle Eastern terrorists after 9-11 upset some people, who were afraid to print what I said in that book. My agent suggested that I write something else, but my wife, Linda, had died. I launched myself into rebuilding my house outside Grand Rapids — and sold Art’s house.

In 2006, my publisher was sold to Rowman & Littlefield, and DEAD BANG was taken out of the drawer. It was a little harder for me to get started writing again. I moved to Richmond [Virginia], and back among my writing friends, and started writing, but slowly. I worked for an armored car company, which took a lot of time. I married my second wife, Linda, too, in a bookstore! Linda and I have written a screenplay about an armored car robbery. Would love to see that one on the screen!

[Besides working on the new novel, Déjà Noir] I do have a new Art Hardin short story out, The Small Matter of Ten Large. It is available on Nook and Kindle, for 99 cents. I also found the first Art Hardin story that I ever wrote, which I wrote sitting on a surveillance in 1979! I would love to see that in print. If I get a chance I will go back to the fourth Art Hardin novel, which I had started and been unable to finish when my wife died. It’s called A Tisket, A Casket.

Q:  I know that recently your health has been in jeopardy. Is that something you care to talk about? 

Bob: While I was working on Déjà Noir, my words began to disappear. Within ten days, they were gone. Linda took me to her doctor — I didn’t have one — and her doctor sent me to the emergency room. I had a malignant tumor right in the speech and language area of my brain. I had a five-and-a-half-hour craniotomy on August 17, 2011. To many peoples’ surprise, I woke up and could walk and talk.

Q: I, and I know your other fans, too, wish you all the best. I am amazed and heartened by your spirit. How has your writing been affected by all of that? And is it hard to recapture Art's voice after so much time has passed since we last saw him in print? 

Bob: Writing was a little harder. I had to learn to read and write words that everyone else understood. For instance, you need to use a “cup” to order coffee. I spent half an hour writing “cup” over and over, trying to fix that word back in my brain. Some of the harder words took longer. Most interesting is that all of those words are in my head, but just don’t want to come out. Sometimes the wrong word comes out, like, these days, “fish” for any type of meat. And I don’t even like fish! Right after radiation I couldn’t read or write at all, and had trouble speaking for about two months. My spelling is still not what it once was. A page and a half takes me about four hours to write now. That’s a page and a half of work, but ten pages of rewriting! The book I’m working on is not about Art, but I think it would be easier to recover Art’s voice than to do the characters I am now writing.

Q: Your wife is also a writer. Do you give each other advice and criticism? And do either of you take it? 

Bob: Linda and I are the first persons to read each other's work. This is not always a happy discussion. Sometimes I may disagree tonight, and the next morning change my mind. Linda says that she is always happy about my critique. Sometimes this is not the truth; sometimes we bang heads. (I can only bang on one side now.) There is no point of discussion if we didn’t have sincere disagreement. Only that moves the work forward.

Q: The industry has changed significantly since your last book. Will you shop Déjà Noir to a publisher or will you take it straight to ebook yourself?

Bob: Linda and I have discussed what was best to do. I don't know that I will have two years to march the novel to publisher — and it's a year to get it printed. It seems that the best plan would be to go direct to ebook. We are thinking about it — first thing I have to do is get it done.

Thank you, Bob. If humor is a sign of grace, you have it in abundance. For those interested in reading more about Bob and his work, his blog is The Trials of an Aphasic Writer. For those who want to read his Art Hardin series, PRIVATE HEAT, DYING EMBERS, DEAD BANG, and The Small Matter of Ten Large are all available in Kindle format at amazon and in Nook format at Barnes & Noble.

January 13, 2013

THE ESSAY by Robin Yocum

Your name is Hickam. That's synonymous with poor, ignorant, trouble, dirty, drunk, lazy, thieving, no-good, arsonist and jailbird. You live on the poorest road in the poorest county in the state. Girls either won't have anything to do with you or their fathers make sure you don't have anything to do with them. Your dad is an abusive drunk and one brother takes after him. Your other brother is doing nine years for burglary and arson. You think your mom is okay but you'll find out you don't know her as well as you think you do. You're a pretty good high school football player but that's all you've got going for you. You barely passed your junior English class. In fact you only got the D because the teacher believed you when you said you were committed to improving during your senior year. So when you win the school essay contest, it's pretty easy for even your best (and only) friend, Polio Baughman, to believe you cheated. Never mind the teachers, principal, other students and their parents, and the sponsor of the contest. They want to see you stripped of the award they are sure you didn't earn. Only you didn't cheat. It turns out you have a gift. But who's going to believe you? Who's going to believe IN you?

THE ESSAY, Robin Yocum's bootstrapping, 1970s coming-of-age tale about the obstacles faced by Jimmy Lee Hickam in his climb out of ignorance and poverty, rings true because the details are true: junkers on blocks in the front yard; slag heaps that smolder a sulfuric stench near homes; homes in disrepair; the father who would steal from his children; the mother who is so focused on dealing with the abuse she faces that she cannot properly care for her children or even take much interest in them; the community prejudice against the children of the truly poor that helps keep them 'in their place.' Yocum describes it all in vivid prose that lacks sentimentality and yet still manages to make the eyes water on occasion.

If Jimmy's rise to success -- and we're not talking about him becoming a millionaire tycoon; just getting a career rather than a job, that's all -- feels a tad predictable, it is no less welcome for all that. And the characterizations, not only of Jimmy but of his ex-con brother, Edgel, and his English teacher, Miss Singletary (my heroine as well as Jimmy's), more than make up for knowing that Jimmy will at last make good. Edgel is such a fine, well-rounded character that he really deserves to have a "bad boy makes good" story of his own. And the redoubtable Miss Singletary has a cat-o-nine-tails for a tongue, and readily wields it against those peers of hers who would happily let one more Hickam child slide into ignominy. She will remind every reader of at least one relentless, passionate educator in his/her life. (In my case, Miss Cora "Shotgun" Gibbs, principal at First Avenue Elementary in the late 1960's.)

In case you hadn't guessed by now, THE ESSAY is not strictly a crime novel, though crimes do occur in the story. The only real crime will be if you miss reading this poignant, funny and uplifting story. Here's an excerpt in which Jimmy describes his best friend:

Polio Baughman was my best friend, though it was a position he held by default.

I met Polio when we were both six years old and waiting for the bus to take us to school for the first day of first grade. The Baughmans had just moved to a small one-story shanty on Red Dog Road and I was surprised to see this new kid standing at the bus stop. He was a skinny, malnourished little guy who smelled like a musty basement. He had a crop of unruly blond hair, untied shoes, and a perpetual line of snot running from his nose to his mouth. His real name was Kirby, but as a young boy he was so thin and bony that the kids gave him the nickname of Polio, which, like so many unfortunate nicknames, stuck. By junior high, even the teachers called him Polio.

Polio and I were the only two doggers in the first-grade class at Zaleski Elementary School. Thus, we rode the bus together, sat beside each other in the slow reading group and, since the other kids had been forewarned to keep their distance from us doggers, pretended to be army commandos together during recess. Red Dog Road was segregated from the rest of Vinton County by prejudice, barren hills, and miles of bad country lanes. Consequently, Polio was my only friend. He spent countless hours at my house, coughing, swiping his snotty nose with his forearm, and looking for something to cram into his pocket.

Polio didn't have another friend in the world, yet he would steal from me at every opportunity. If there were a few pennies on my dresser when he got to the house, they would be gone when he left. Over the years I trudged over to Polio's house to retrieve money, toys, the pocketknife my grandfather Joachim had given me, and three arrowheads that I had found on the ridge behind our house. Twice, I had to grind his face in the dirt and threaten him with a beating if he didn't return stolen toys, but mostly he just gave them up.

"Why do you steal like that?" I asked him once.

"'Cause you got stuff and I don't," he responded.

"But that doesn't make it right, Polio. You don't steal, especially from your friends. My brother Edgel's like that, always stealin', and he's in prison now."

Polio just shrugged.

Like most doggers, Polio was a survivor. He was the middle one of five kids, and even by the standards of Red Dog Road, they were poor. They had running water, but no indoor toilets. Polio did his business in a fetid outhouse that was the only thing on Red Dog Road that smelled worse than the dump, or he simply unhitched his pants and pissed in the yard. His father was a silent, grease-stained man who had chewing tobacco stains caked to the corners of his mouth and a growth on top of his forehead the size of a lemon. He worked in the junkyard outside of Zaleski. Every day, Polio's mother wore the same faded blue, sleeveless housecoat that revealed a mass of gray armpit hair.

I understood this and that is why I tolerated Polio's thievery. He was the only kid my age within miles and the only one whose parents didn't mind having a Hickam in their yard. My Grandpa Joachim had an old billy goat on his farm that would butt you the second you turned your back on him. You had to be careful and you couldn't take your eye off him. Dealing with Polio was no different from dealing with that old billy goat. If I was careless enough to leave something where Polio could get his hands on it, shame on me, because I knew he would steal it. It's just what he did.

THE ESSAY by Robin Yocum
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing (October 9, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1611457661
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611457667
  • Available for Kindle and Nook