Thursday, July 30, 2015

Murder Straight Up [book report]

Reading an Ed Gorman mystery is like sipping beer in a quiet bar with a good buddy while he tells you about his latest adventure.

Thus far I've enjoyed the adventures of three such Gorman buddies. My wife introduced me to Ed Gorman's writing with the Father's Day gift of a Sam McCain novel in 2005. The title, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, turned out to be ironic, as she and I, despite her inscription answering Carole King's musical question in the affirmative, are no longer together.

But my relationship with Gorman is still going strong. I've read all ten Sam McCain nostalgia mysteries and all five Dev Conrad political mysteries. I've read his debut novel, Rough Cut, which one publisher mistakenly says is the first Jack Dwyer mystery. It's not, technically, although the narrator's voice does sound awfully familiar. First of the four official Jack Dwyers is New Improved Murder. I'm here to talk about the second, Murder Straight Up.

This adventure starts off on the wrong foot. Dwyer is working the night shift as a security guard at KLRD-TV, Channel 3. He's on the second floor making his rounds when his flashlight dies. Suddenly he's groping blindly and bumping his knees in a room that's “slightly darker...than in Richard Nixon’s mind.” I include the quote as a sample of Gorman's humor and political proclivity—a fair warning for Trump chumps to jump off now or strap in for the ride. There are more bumps ahead.

It's not a bump that sends Dwyer's heart a'thumping, however, but a scrape against an uncarpeted section of flooring “somewhere to my right.”

Several heavy heartbeats later the chase is on. In the dark. The perp gets away, down a fire escape into the rainy fog. Dwyer curses, notifies the police, notifies the security agency that employs him, and notifies the TV station's building manager. Then he takes a break.

He's in the station's coffee room eating a Ho-Ho, drinking a Pepsi and flirting with Kelly Ford, Channel 3's news consultant, when suddenly Ford says, “Straight up.” This means it's ten o'clock. The night news show is about to begin. The two of them turn to the monitor to watch it live. It is then, immediately following the opening sequence as the number two camera fixes on news anchor David Curtis, that Dwyer and Ford see the anchor get an odd look on his face. He grabs at his throat, mouth foaming, stands up, and then collapses face down across his desk. Dead.

No doubt it's murder. Some at the station hold Dwyer responsible. A plumber had left the rear door unlocked, but Dwyer should have caught it. Knowing his job is at stake he turns detective. His digging turns up the prowler's identity, a troubled teen with a possible motive. Police arrest and charge the teen, but Dwyer believes he didn't do it. There are too many other plausible suspects, most of them Curtis's colleagues at Channel 3.

Dwyer's not your typical rent-a-cop with delusions of grandeur. He was a cop, for real, a job he left to try his hand as an actor. His night job buys groceries and pays the rent. The acting? Well, let's just say our boy is still preparing for his breakout role. He auditions days and lands the occasional commercial job.

He's the most human of any detective I've seen in crime fiction. He talks like I do, using language assuredly inappropriate here, but fine for a novel. I would have to use a lot of ***s and @#$%&%$#@s to give you excerpts from Murder Straight Up. During a car chase, for example, Dwyer complains that his bladder is causing him a certain anxiety.

Here's a partial from that scene I can give you without the euphemistic symbols: I had the terrible uncomfortable feeling that I was going to wet my pants, and I was shaking so bad from nerves that even the soles of my feet were wet. Human.

Here he is consoling a burly truck driver upset over a fatal accident he believes was his fault: “Goddammit, he’s f**kin’ dead!” the driver said. He was obviously a good man, and this was all bullshit he didn’t deserve. “It’ll be all right. You weren’t responsible in any way. All right?” “He’s f**kin’ dead?” This is not an uncommon reaction at traffic accidents. Shock and guilt. We’re a lot more fragile than the macho boys let on. I patted him on the shoulder again. I didn’t know what else to do. The siren was drawing nearer.

There is some fine humor in Murder Straight Up, as there is in most of Gorman's stuff I have read. I laughed so hard reading one scene I worried the neighbors might call 911. A couple of killers attack Dwyer on the rooftop balcony of a building where he has an “acting” job reading promotional hype at a gun show. A team of survivalists from the show arrives to “rescue” him. Shots are fired. Many shots. Eventually many police arrive. The ensuing conversation between the police commander and the gun show manager...well, I don't want to give anything away here. But if it doesn't make you laugh you sure as hell could use another beer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Improved Murder [book report]

Hey there! Those midsummer blahs got you feeling...well, sorta blah? Yeah? They did for me, too, until I discovered a secret: Jack Dwyer, the remedy that never fails to do the trick. [cue up tinkling ice cubes over a Jimmy Buffett background]
Pretty good line, no? Above? Didn't it make you just itch to dash out and bring home a fifth of Jack Dwyer? Not if you knew your booze it didn't. But if you knew your mystery writers—well, now that's another story. A good one at that.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Concrete Angel [book report]

I haven't read any other reviews of Patricia Abbott's fine debut noir novel, Concrete Angel, but I can't imagine any of them—up to and including the likes of Michiko Kakutani, the dragon queen of New York literary reviewers—starting out any other way than something like this: Concrete Angel begins with a bang, quite literally. Six of them in fact.

There. I didn't put it in quotes because for all I know I'm the first, and I intend to post this without checking for others.

So the chief villain in this story, a gorgeous, highly talented woman the narrator calls Mother, pumps six bullets into a soda-pop salesman in her apartment. She had picked him up at a shoe-repair shop only hours earlier and enjoyed a romp with him in her bed before dispatching him with a revolver. He'd caught her taking bills from his wallet and had grabbed the phone to call the police. “Mother” couldn't allow this, as she already had something of a record and had an aversion to jail. Thus, relying on the time-tested felon's credo that dead men tell no tales, she silenced him before he could make the call.

On second thought, it occurred to her the killing might cause her more trouble than the theft of a few dollars. She needed an alibi, a fall guy...something. Mother was not about to take the rap for murder. Maybe, just maybe, she could pin it on...why, this story's narrator, of course! Twelve-year-old Christine, her daughter, asleep in the next room.

Christine had slept through the murder, all six bangs of it. But her mother shook her awake and the two had a tearful chat. The girl was smart for her age but would do anything for her mother's approval. She went along with a concocted version of how the killing went down. She pled guilty to shooting the salesman after she saw him “trying to strangle” her mother. The court gave her probation and ordered counseling.

Concrete Angel is Christine's story, but she keeps the spotlight throughout on Mother, who comes across as a sort of amalgam of the Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest and Mame of Auntie Mame. I should note I've read neither of the aforementioned accounts by relatives of the title characters. The stars in each are larger-than-life dominant women, and the sense I have of them from popular accounts seems to fit Mother quite well: a narcissistic, compulsively acquisitive sociopath brilliantly adept at manipulating others.

We follow Christine's incremental awakening to the reality of her mother and their relationship, which, while seeming at first to Christine an enviable mother-daughter intimacy gradually shows itself to be a dangerous illusion. Ultimately Christine has serious urges to kill her mother in order to rescue her much younger brother from falling into the same trap that threatened to smother her.

Christine's voice is chillingly authentic as she reveals to us her growing awareness of a nightmare from which escape begins to look impossible. The climax of Concrete Angel matches the stunning opening in gaping suspense.

While Concrete Angel is Patricia Abbott's first published novel, she's an award-winning crime fiction writer with more than 100 published stories including two ebooks: Monkey Justice and Home Invasion. Um, yeah, I guess you could say I'm a fan.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Glory Hobble

It was my moment. The phrase flashed on and off in my head like the blue neon Pabst in the window down at Morey's. A tombstone then floated into view and there it was again, engraved beneath my name: "Hobbled to glory."

Clearly this was it.  All my days' dreaming, scheming, writing, blogging, pouting, propagating, proclaiming, pretending and any other "p" you can imagine had come down to this one huge life-defining Portentous Pretend. I was to limp with stunned, growing horror, as I navigated through the swirling smoke and maze of human corpses while the cameras rolled around me and probably above me and, for all I knew, under me. 

I was an extra, or, as we're called nowadays, "background." This insider's term I learned from my daughter, who'd landed a background job for another remake of the old swashbuckling romance To Have and To Hold. It was being filmed at various locations. Our set was within an hour's drive.