Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Hot Country

Robert Olen Butler
The Hot Country

Mysterious Press, 2012

A young American journalist Christopher Cobb in spring of 1914 is coming to Mexico, where the civil war is in full swing. At the inn Cobb notices a pretty laundress, which seems to Cobb not just a laundress. When an unknown sniper makes two attacks on the lives of American men here in Mexico, Cobb suggests that the sniper is a woman and that woman is the laundress. Much more than in a mysterious sniper the journalist is interested in the German ships at the dock and the question of why some Germans were brought to the city of Vera Cruz, under the cover of night. With the help of a young pickpocket Diego Cobb must find out for his newspaper, who the Germans are and what they want from Mexico.

The Hot Country is a sandwich from a good stylist Butler, where each ingredient separately tastes better than the whole. Cobb is on a train through the country in the grip of civil war, bumping into a gang of robbers and thugs, and this is Western. Cobb seeks a mysterious sniper who hasn’t killed the journalist in one night, and this is searing melodrama. Cobb acquires information and adds the bits of the story to his big report, and this is reporter's novel. Cobb, whose mother is actress, disguised as a German ambassador, and this is a picaresque novel. But collectively this novel fails as a spy novel. Cobb, however, says himself that he is a journalist, not a spy. Perhaps this is so. He is too chatty for a spy, that is just right for a newspaper reporter. Blame for this loquacious can be laid upon Butler: He wrote a novel in the first person, and what else journalists and actors can do, if not to tell, even to yourself.

«My breath caught hard in my chest and I waited. She waited too. Weighing my Americanness, I supposed. Weighing my life. Charting a path for herself.

Then the hammer uncocked and clicked softly back into place. The muzzle drew off my skin. The candle flame vanished in a puff of her breath and I lay very still as she slipped through the dark and out of the room and out of the life she'd left for me

Butler wrote a moderately exciting adventure story similar to the ones that were written at the beginning of the last century.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Cold Day in Paradise

Steve Hamilton
A Cold Day in Paradise

Minotaur Books, 2012 (reissue)

After a psychopath killed Alex McKnight’s partner and nearly killed McKnight himself, Detroit cop takes an early retirement. Doctors removed two bullets from the body of McKnight, and the third one stayed there, very close to his heart. After eight years in the service McKnight receives disability payment and goes to live in a small town in Michigan called Paradise, where Alex’s father left some forest cabins. McKnight spends six years in Paradise, when a local lawyer asks Alex to work for him as a private investigator. Uttley, the lawyer, fires a previous PI because he was incompetent and almost makes Alex to get private investigator’s license. McKnight does not need the money, and he takes the job, because he thinks that he knows how to approach people. Soon someone kills the bookie, through which Edwin Fulton, a local rich man and gambler, placed his bets, and in the middle of the night Fulton finds the body of a bookmaker, calls Alex, asking him for help. After the first dead bookmaker follows the second, and McKnight starts getting ominous notes and calls from Rose, the same psychopath who killed McKnight’s partner.

The longer, the story is the more confusing, moving away from the mystery and practically flowing into horror territory. The fact is that Rose was caught six months after the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in a high-security prison. And he could not escape from prison. But one who threatens McKnight knows what only Rose could know. Naturally, not only the hero is frightened, who thought that the past will remain the past, but the reader too, who already suspects that some magic will involve.

McKnight is a private investigator only conditionally: he's just a former cop, with his fears, and he doesn’t have special insight. Most of the book, he acts like a hunted animal, a little bit more, and the one who plays with him will drive Alex crazy.

McKnight with his knight name and the real knight have in common only metal: the knight's armor, as the hero of the book has a bullet next to his heart. The rest of Alex is far from the hero of the Middle Ages: he slept with his best friend’s wife, been a cop, but hadn’t been promoted to detective, he’s not particularly sharp on the mind and language, and his code of honor is quite specific. Far more likely that McKnight is short for “nightmare”: the whole protagonist’s life became nightmare.

A Cold Day in Paradise is a chilling novel, the grotesque in some way, but no frills there. In here, for example, the bartenders do not remember all the customers for the last three years:

«THE BARTENDER WAS no help. I asked him if he had been there that past Monday. It took him a full minute to figure that one out, so I didn't think he'd be able to remember if there were any suspicious characters there that night. So I just paid the man and headed down to Uttley's office ».

This book is, in general, not a bullet to the heart, but very close.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

Horace McCoy
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

Open Road Media e-book, 2012
(originally published in 1948)

Ralph Cotter, a criminal with a university degree, with the help of another convict’s sister, bribes a guard and escapes from prison, in a shootout killing his escape partner. Holiday, sister of the deceased, and Jinx, another criminal, help Cotter to hide in a town where no one knows Cotter and Cotter does not know anyone. Cotter and his associates need the money to hide on, and Cotter, relying on his sophisticated mind and unprecedented audacity, immediately decides to rob a grocery store, which is directly in front of the garage, which belongs to a shady but funky character that helped the criminals escape. The robbery is successful, except for the fact that the robbers kill market’s owner. With six thousand dollars Cotter plans to run, but the garage owner coward Mason turnes him in to police and leads the detectives directly to the apartment where Cotter and Holiday live. One of the detectives is Inspector, and, feeling that these cops are corrupt, Cotter bribes them from his share of the loot. But instead of fleeing, dodgy criminal devises a cunning plan, and the plan works so that the Inspector is now hooked by the dangerous criminal.

Pulpster and Hollywood actor and screenwriter Horace McCoy is mostly known as the author of the novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is another must-read from this great writer. This book has every right to be called noir. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a distorted story of the ascent and fall of heinous character, smug, selfish, cruel, placing himself above everyone.

We have seen many nefarious types for more than half century of noir, but Ralph Cotter stands out by the fact that he was an educated man, versed in philosophy and logic, and when necessary, able to be so well-mannered and highly moral gentleman that even the most cautious people fall under his spell.

This is how Cotter describes Holiday, when he first meets her:

«She smiled at me, unbuckling her trousers but not unbuttoning the fly, slipping them off, arching her shoulders against the back seat to raise her buttocks out of the way. Her legs were slim and white. I could see the skin in minutest detail, the pigments and pores and numberless valley-cracks that crisscrossed above her knees, forming patterns that were as lovely and intricate as snow crystals. And there was something else I saw too out of the corner of my left eye, and I tried not to look, not because I didn't want to, not because of modesty, but only because when you had waited as long as I had to see one of these you want it to reveal itself at full length, sostenuto. I tried not to look, but I did look and there it was, the Atlantis, the Route to Cathay, the Seven Cities of Cibola ... »

Disgust to everithing seeps through the pores in individual sentences and whole paragraphs of the novel («You fools, you mere passers of food, I was thinking; I shall not be saddled with you for long, I shall not be saddled with you for longer than is absolutely necessary »). The novel was ahead of its time, therein lies its appeal, it is not out of date even by now. Most of the books of the time are not that would be too simple plotwise, but they may seem funny and toy by now. This simplicity is not here: update several details, and the novel could easily occur in our days, and we still would have marveled by audacity of this dark novel. McCoy even stylistically is twenty years ahead of his time: in the late 60's not all writers have ventured to use such words as «faggot» and «nigger» in their prose. McCoy doesn’t avoid scenes of beating women and sex scenes. If you are to show your character, then show it from the front and in profile and in full height.

Cotter’s problem is that he, with his mind and life skills, sees American society far and wide and does not want to have nothing in common with this society. But the only alternative to this society, for Cotter, is to become a criminal. And what Cotter would not do, what would he not plan, no matter how different he is from the others, he is still on the one level with other punks and thugs, stupid and short-sighted.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye has not received as much attention as it deserves. This book can and should be read and re-read.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Chuck Wendig

Angry Robot Books, 2012

Miriam Black lives on the road. She hitchhikes, earning a living by stealing from people. To honor or dishonor of Miriam, but it needs to be said that she steals from the dead people. The fact is, Miriam is able to predict the death of another person. It is enough to touch someone's skin, and in her head there is the image: she sees, when and how a person dies. So, finding people who are about to die, she is either rubbed their trust or follow them, so that later, when the person is dead, she pick up the money that was there with him or her. You can’t get rich this way, but it’s enough for a living. Especially if a living means no home, friends, relatives, and no prospects for the future.

At the beginning of the novel Miriam takes the money from the wallet of a man, who had the heart attack just at the moment when he was about to have sex with Miriam in a hotel room. With a black eye and in dirty, torn clothes, Miriam gets in the truck and accidentally touches the driver. The vision shows that the driver named Louis will be brutally murdered in thirty days, and before his death he will call Miriam by name. Miriam, scared, leaves Louis, but their paths will cross yet. Death in the face of three psychopath murderers already comes on the heels.

Chuck Wendig, after the novella Shotgun Gravy, again makes the main character of his novel a woman. And hell, if I had not seen the author's name on the cover, it could be assumed that a book was written by a woman. Miriam Black is even more sophisticated creation from Wendig. She swears, is rude to dangerous types, keeps a diary, where records all her foresight, and her whole life is full of strangers and no loved ones. Here is an excerpt from a conversation between Miriam and two bikers:

«" What's up? " he asks, like not much else is going on.

Ashley's legs start to go limp.

"That guy you're choking to death?"


"He's my brother. He's ... got problems. One, he's got bad manners. Two, his name is Ashley, and with a name like that, he might as well have a couple vaginas in his pocket, am I right? Three, he's at least half-retarded. Though I'm willing to put money on two-thirds retarded, if you're up for a friendly wager. Mom used to feed him lawn fertilizer when he was a kid, I think as some kind of retroactive abortion attempt. "»

Under a layer of black humor (Miriam no longer takes her life seriously after so many deaths in her head, and humor is the only protection to not go crazy) hides a very dark and full of despair story of a girl who is given a gitf (or, rather, curse) to see someone else's death but not given to prevent these deaths. The story itself is quite local, even small, but it is only that on the surface. Plotwise it is a road novel, with a pinch of noir, the cruel murderers, suitcase full of drugs and roguish hero with supernatural powers. There is something in Blackbirds that is significantly Stephen King-ish. This book could’ve been written by King of The Dead Zone and Misery, when he was writing 200 pages novels. This is also the story which is typically American, with roadside cafes, motels, gas stations and shady characters that can be found on both sides of the highway - occurring somewhere in the heart of the country.

But under a thin layer of the plot there is a thick layer of thoughts on the themes of life and death. Wendig doesn’t waste words. To get to the point, he uses only one sentence instead of ten unlike 95 percent of the fantasy authors. Blackbirds is no fantasy, though. Just insanely good, acrid, burning prose. And the dialogues are top-notch:

"His dick killed him," she says.

"His dick."

"His erection, more specifically."

"You banged CEO Grandpa?"

"Jesus, no. I did flash him a tit, though. He was so pumped fill of dick pills - and not prescribed stuff, but shit from, like, some village in China - that it killed him. My chest isn't exactly impressive, but I guess it's enough to kill an old man. "

Wendig is a phenomenal talent, breakthrough of the last year. Absolute must-read.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Drummer

Anthony Neil Smith
The Drummer

Self-published ebook, 2011
(originally published in 2006)

Back in the Eighties, I played drums for a heavy metal band called Savage Night. Todd was the lead singer. We had one platinum album, a bundle of decent videos on MTV, and several years of successful touring. The money rolled in, the chicks wanted us bad, and near the end, radio spun our power ballad all day and night.
We found out we were broke on a tour of Japan. The record company dropped us—grunge was conquering our space—and we owed millions to tour promoters. After a decent show in Tokyo, the four of us sat in a sushi restaurant and tossed around possibilities. Todd thought we should add a keyboard player and do another album more pop than metal to pay off our debts and make us maybe superstars, the way Aerosmith morphed from bluesy bar band to kid-friendly Top 40.

After a decade and a half after his group collapsed the drummer Merle Johnson (it is not his real name) is drinking beer in one New Orleans’s bar. To avoid persecution from the IRS, Merle (then Cal Christopher, though this is not his real name, as well) had staged his own death, burning his house. Transferred all savings to bogus accounts, Merle straightened himself a new identity and settled in New Orleans, make a living as a sound engineer and living in a former funeral home. Merle started a new life from scratch, and the last thing he needs now is that his past reached him, forcing back into hiding. But Todd Delacroix, the band’s frontman, has tracked Merle and started to blackmail him, threatening to reveal the drummer’s whereabouts, if Merle does not agree to participate in a group’s reunion. Merle has almost killed Todd, but the next day Todd is found dead in a hotel room, or rather, Merle himself finds his ex-bandmate still alive after the overdose, but deliberately calling for ambulance too late. And instead of running from the police, the press, and the IRS, Merle remains in the city, wanting to find out how he was found and who faked Todd’s suicide.

The novel at the time was dubbed as heavy metal noir, and in general it is almost accurate designation. How many crimes (especially murders) take place in a musical environment, except for gang-related shootings among rappers and sacrifices in black metal? I doubt that many, the more interesting it was to learn about the behind the heavy metal scenes. Anthony Neil Smith, it should be noted, leans more on noir, rather than on heavy metal. Book protagonist Merle lacks stupid nostalgia: the long hair, snotty ballads in a metal frame, groupies, drugs before and after performances. Merle really leaves the past in the fire of his house, and not just pretending. He now listens to electronic music, does not indulge in drugs, loves (platonically) pious woman, and would not exchange his present to the past, no matter how successful it may seem. Smith does not allow his character annoying whinings about how everything used to be good, but now everything is bad.

Despite the fact that the novel is full of memories of the hero’s past (so we know the background of Merle) the protagonist doesn’t has time for whinings. All the book he is on the run, if not hiding, he is attacking, and his every action, it seems, only worsens the situation. And the protagonist has no much choice: death, prison or a disclosure, which, for him, is worse than death.

This grim story is peppered with charming descriptions of New Orleans:

«The first thing I did in town was to find Bourbon Street and hit as many bars along the way as I could manage in a few hours. My first Hurricane-a sweet drink full of rum-hit me harder than those drunks in England. Tried the tourist drinks at the frat bars, the vampire bars, the jazz clubs, the strip clubs. Washed them down with watery beer. The music was killing me with goodness, the bar bands more talented playing cover sets than most of the high profile LA people I'd worked with back in the day. Fusion guitarists with gritty blues in their veins, bleeding on the strings. The singers straining through a cloud of cigarette smoke and touching my frozen kernel of a soul. I cried. Couldn't help it.

When I asked for the finest restaurant in the city, a sax player pointed me towards the streetcar, told me not to get off until I reached Commander's Palace, smack dab in the middle of the Garden District. So I did. Stumbled past an ancient cemetery until I found the front door of an elegant turquoise house, the name of the restaurant hanging above me. The captain asked if I had a reservation. I pulled a wad of hundred-dollar bills from my pocket and said, "What I don't spend on food will get passed around as tips, comprende?"

Seven courses. My first creole dishes-oh Jesus the sauces, the crawfish, the shrimp, the rich spicy aroma. Three bottles of wine. Bananas Foster for dessert. I had never been happier at the dinner table. I wanted to puke ».

The Drummer is loud, fast and unforgettable.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

First Novel

Nicholas Royle
First Novel

Jonathan Cape, 2013

The novel opens with a scene in which the main character of the book, Paul Kinder, parses his Kindle to pieces, and then just throws it away. Paul is obsessed with debut novel, especially those that are out of print or whose authors no longer even mention their first books. Paul is an author of a novel published by a small press, and now it’s almost impossible to find copies of his book. He lives alone in Manchester and teaches creative writing at the University, leading the the First Novel course. Paul is unsociable and most people he remembers only for their identifying signs: Overcoat Man, Dog Man, Umbrella Lady, etc. Paul spends his spare time in the garden, touches his collection of paperback books, as well as looks in second-hand stores for rare books.

In the beginning of the book one of Paul’s students named Grace refers to the teacher with a problem: she can not find all the books from the list of recommended reading, and Paul gives her his number, so that later they could meet and he lent her a copy. On the same day, when Paul takes a walk in the park, he finds the body of Overcoat Man. Paul scours body, wearing gloves, but in the pockets finds only five pounds bill. Paul goes on in the evening barbecue to his friends, AJ and Carol.
There, he meets his pal Lewis. One of the guests mentions that Paul is a writer, but he says that he only writes about restaurants and books and does not mention novels. Both Paul and Lewis recently moved to Manchester, although once grew up here. AJ and Carol live near the airport, and the conversation inevitably comes to the fact that in this area there are many pilots. Paul writes his second novel about the pilots and collects material for it.

The story told in the first person is punctuated with excerpts from a novel, but whose novel is this - it will become clear only at the end of the book.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle is not Royle’s first novel, the title shouldn’t mislead you. Royle is a master of strange prose, prose of dream and macabre (I've read in the past year two of his stories, and I still remember I did not understand half of them). This novel is a delightful dizziness while being exercise in style. After reading the book once, you could not understand everything that was happening in the book. First Novel requires focus and concentration, it’s not the book you will read in a one sitting. I read the book twice, but I'm sure that some of the plot twists and turns are still left hidden from me.

The book combined several techniques of writing. The beginning of the novel is almost plotless fiction written in first person, largely autobiographical (Royle himself is obsessed with debut novels). Later in the book the writer inserts fragments of the novel, which later transformed into an independent story - a family chronicle. The author then begins to shift the narrative lens, and strangeness, mismatches, overlaies appears. Deeper into the novel Royle already writes dreamlike prose, where it is difficult to understand who is alive and who is not, who is real and who is not, who is the hero of the novel, and who is the hero of the novel inside the novel. The end is experimental, written in the future tense, where the protagonist is at a crossroads. He either is delusional, or dreams, or just trying to forget. Each technique is used for a reason, and works on a whole story. A fragment of the novel becomes the past, present is questionable, fictional characters are indistinguishable from nonfictional. This is one of those books where you have to question not only what the narrator said, but everything else as well.

However by the finale pieces of the puzzle are beginning to take shape, and the ending is truly a strange and shocking, sophisticated and unpleasant. Nobody will get what he wanted. No one will be happy, because how can there be happiness in such a distorted world.

Subplot (also a novel in the novel) about the pilot Raymond Cross is less spectacular, it is more typical. However, this can be attributed to the fact that this is a novel written by a student, and how expect the perfection from a person who is just learning.

The book, of course, is not just an exercise in style. Royle raises subjects of choice and parental responsibility for the fate of children, generously sprinkles them with black humor and twists the plot as anyone rarely can.

This book is a mature and unusual, and certainly not for everyone.