Do No Harm.

Do No harm

My book cases’ Collins (and I don’t mean Wilkie) section takes up most of a long shelf, and that’s only the Max Allan Collins solo titles (his co-authored completions of Mickey Spillane novels being in the even bigger Mickey Spillane section). Collins shares some shelf space with Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peter series, which I consider a pretty honorable place to reside. From Michael O’Sullivan and The Road books to Ms. Tree, Maggie Starr in the 1950’s NYC comics scene series to the new Galena, IL police chief Krista Larsen series, it’s a long and continually growing row. There’s even an ancient Mallory hardcover from 1984, Kill Your Darlings (a used bookstore find, that one). I’ll admit to coming up a little shy on his Nolan and Quarry novels. Still, call me a fan.

But the longest portion of that long bookshelf is taken up by Collins’ Nathan Heller books, among my favorite mystery/crime fiction series, right up there with Estleman’s Amos Walker and Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself. There are hardcovers, trade pb’s and pocketbooks from Tor Forge, iBooks, Harper Torch, Signet, Dutton, Thomas Mercer and more…you have to stay on top of things if you want to catch the Hellers, and I do try to be diligent about it.

Advance PR noted that 2020’s Do No Harm would thrust Chicago P.I. Nathan Heller and his A-1 Detective Agency in the middle of a sensational 1950’s murder case: The Sam Sheppard affair. Heller has found himself in the midst of Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh kidnapping and Marilyn Monroe’s death among other high-profile cases. I’ll admit to enjoying Nathan Heller most when tangling with the mob in his Chi-Town home-town, his early career the most interesting. Frankly, I knew little about the real-life Sheppard murder other than it being ‘sorta-kinda’ the inspiration for the popular 1960’s TV series The Fugitive.

Newspapers

Dr. Sam Sheppard was a successful suburban Cleveland physician and apparently a bit of a philanderer. Late at night after an Independence Day get-together with neighbors, Marilyn Sheppard was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered right in the family’s lakefront home’s upstairs bedroom, while their son slept just down the hall and Sheppard himself snoozed away on a downstairs sofa. Law enforcement bungled the investigation and the local press more or less convicted him long before charges were filed or his trial commenced. Sheppard was found guilty and sent away for life. Many, however, felt he was railroaded.

Collins’ Nathan Heller novel includes a large cast of characters both real and imagined/composited, including Elliott Ness (who moved to Cleveland after his notorious ‘Untouchables’ escapades in Chicago), Perry Mason creator Earle Stanley Gardner and celebrity defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Collins’ and long-time associate George Hagenauer’s thorough research is evident throughout, the book reading at times like a true crime book and at others like a rousing Nate Heller noir novel. Sheppard was ultimately retried and exonerated, though he earned no brownie points for his antics during his post-prison life, and while Collins seems convinced of the doctor’s innocence, Do No Harm doesn’t whitewash the man. The author concedes that he changed his own mind several times about who really murdered Marilyn Sheppard during the wee hours of July 4th, 1954.

If my work schedule was a little less overwhelming, I’m sure I’d have plowed through this book in a couple days. As it was, I was forced to read a chapter or two at a time over several days, but always anxious to get right back to it. Nate Heller books are just like that. Do No Harm was actually the very last new book added to the normally overflowing to-be-read heap on the writing lair’s endtable. That pile will grow again and soon enough, though it’ll take a little more doing than usual to rebuild the stack to normal size. And it’ll take some patience to wait for another Max Allan Collins Nathan Heller novel.

The Man That Got Away.

The Man That Got Away

 

In Lynne Truss’ 2019 The Man That Got Away, young seaside resort town Constable Twitten is largely dismissed by his colleagues and superiors even though he knows Brighton’s infested with criminals of every sort, most likely led by the police station’s own unassuming cleaning woman, who keeps the uniform cops and inspectors preoccupied with tea and delectable dainties while she eavesdrops on police matters and plots elaborate schemes of her own.

It’s 1957, and we’re still a few years away from the near-riots between rampaging gangs of Mods and Rockers on Brighton’s streets and beaches. The town fathers are more focused on the newly formed troop of Brighton Belles: attractive, uniformed young women roaming the resort town to act as guides and steer tourists to fee-based attractions. A pair of those very Belles may be the best witnesses to a bloody murder which will lead young Constable Twitten on a merry chase probing a seedy nightclub, a kitschy wax museum, a pair of young lovers’ failed elopement and a notorious con artist’s latest scheme, all the while playing cat and mouse with the police station’s kindly cleaning woman, who only Twitten knows as Brighton’s reigning crime lord.

I challenge you to classify this novel. There’s nothing remotely hard-boiled or noir-ish about it, yet it’s certainly not what you’d call a ‘cozy’. Now, this comes from a Yank, and a Midwesterner at that (which is about as blandly American as one can get) but I’d have to say this was the most thoroughly British novel I’ve read in a long time. Imagine a Fawlty Towers episode or an extended Monty Python sketch, brimming with quirky characters and all told in a loopy narrative which frequently detours into chatty bits of backstory. At times, the plot had my head spinning. But once finished, I admit that I still wanted more. Which is fine, since The Man That Got Away is actually Truss’ second Constable Twitten book. Sidestepping my usual diet of dark, brooding gumshoes and femmes fatales is a healthy thing, so I’ll be looking for her first one, 2018’s A Shot In The Dark on my next bookstore or library trip.

A ShotIn The Dark

Not Everyone Checks Out Of The Sun Down Motel.

The Sun Down Motel

I usually don’t like my mystery mixed with horror. If I’m in the mood for supernatural horror – which I will be a few times per year – I like it straightforward, the more gothic the better and with fairly traditional genre fiends: Witches, vampires, etc. My preferred mystery/crime fiction choices are normally dark enough without shape-changers, spellcasters or anything with fangs. But usually doesn’t mean always.

For a while, it seemed like Simone St. James’ 2020 The Sun Down Motel’s handsome cover (designed by Sarah Oberrender, based on a Tom Hogan photo) was everywhere I looked, including my own TBR list. As luck would have it, I got the book just as my day job headed into its annual late-winter/early-spring ‘crazy time’ – extra hours, arrive early/leave late, weekend time expected. Among the casualties of that schedule: reading time. I mention this only because I suspect I’d have burned through St. James’ novel in a weekend or a couple looooong evenings, but with leisure time scarce, it took several frustrating days instead (frustrated only by my reluctance to put the book down).

Back in 1982, twenty-year old Viv Delaney, armed with vague intentions of heading to NYC to become an actress, arrives in the small hamlet of Fell, New York. On an impulse, she decides to linger, taking a job as the night shift desk clerk at the Sun Down Motel on the outskirts of town. Working the graveyard shift way out on a desolate rural highway, all alone with only a handful of quirky guests for company sounds creepy enough. Encountering ‘things that go bump in the night’ – lights going on and off and room doors opening and closing on their own, unexplained odors, spectral figures appearing in the dark – ought to send her packing. Instead, she continues to show up for her nightly vigil, even after learning about the recent vicious murders of several young women…each still unsolved, and somehow tied back to the Sun Down Motel itself.

In 2017, Carly Kirk drops out of college after her mother’s death and shows up in Fell, hunting for clues to what happened to her aunt Vivian — presumed murdered, having vanished altogether from her night shift desk clerk job at the Sun Down Motel. Which is now even more desolate, run down and creepy than it was back in 1982, and whatever lurked inside its dark rooms and run-down corridors has been stirred up again by Carly’s arrival. Taking the same night shift job her Aunt Viv held 35 years earlier, Carly digs deep into Fell’s hidden secrets, apparently asking questions some people want to leave unanswered. Bad things happened in Fell and in the Sun Down Motel…and more are about to happen again.

Simone St. James arranges her novel with chapters alternating between 1982 and 2017 (mostly) and in different POV’s. There’s an unrelenting sense of bleak fatalism hovering all around Viv’s 1982 narrative, each event and discovery leading to what seems like an inevitable end. Carly’s dogged investigation is no less eerie, and in lesser hands this could all get unwieldly pretty quick. But RITA and Arthur Ellis award-winning author St. James keeps it under control, even if this reader occasionally mixed up a secondary character or two, briefly misplacing them in the wrong era. My bad. But then, there is a widening list of suspicious characters – alive and not so much – and everyone in Fell seems to be hiding a secret, all of this carefully parceled out in a steady and addictive stream of hints, clues, surprises and chapter-ending cliff-hangers that really, really work effectively.

I’ll take for granted that Simone St. James has already deposited fat checks for movie rights (or at least an option). If not, Hollywood better get on it. This story’s tailor made for the big screen, and the author paints one vividly dark scene after another like verbal storyboarding. I hadn’t read any of Simone St. James’ prior novels, though I see she has several. 2018’s Broken Girls looks interesting, and I think I can still do with some more of St. James’ eerie storytelling after devouring The Sun Down Motel.

The Broken Girls

One Good Deed

One Good Deed

We’ve been here before. If you’re a fan of postwar paperback originals, you’ve been probably here quite a few times, in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be here all over again if a talented writer can make it worth the trip.

A stranger arrives in a made-up big town/small city, typically in some vaguely Midwest or southwest locale, only to wind up in trouble with the local law, corrupt power brokers and – inevitably – the resident femme fatale. It’s been a standalone mystery/crime fiction novel staple since the 1940’s. Paw through musty paperbacks in a used bookstore and you’re bound to come up with one or more. Familiarity (even occasional redundancy) doesn’t undermine this viable noir-ish story setup, any more than seascapes, still life’s and figure studies would be invalidated simply because painters frequently explore them like an artistic right of passage. Two examples of this type of story that immediately come to mind are Ross MacDonald’s Blue City from 1947 and The Long Wait, a rare non-Mike Hammer novel from Mickey Spillane in 1951. And I bet you could name some others.

Blue City MontageThe Long Wait Montage

So, there’s nothing surprising about David Baldacci giving this time-honored theme a go in his current One Good Deed, other than the fact that this NYT bestseller already knocked out nearly 40 novels (his first novel, Absolute Power, adapted to a successful film as well) before contemplating his first retro postwar setting. Based on some online reviews I’ve spotted, it caught a few of his loyal fans off-guard. Well, they better get used to it, since it sounds like One Good Deed is the first in a new series Baldacci has planned.

In 1949, Aloysius Archer steps off the bus in Poca City in ill-fitting clothes, a measly few dollars in his pocket and a three day stay prepaid at the only hotel. He’s due to meet his parole officer, find a job and start over after a three-year prison stint on trumped-up charges. But Archer (which is the handle he prefers) endured far worse as a decorated infantryman in WWII’s Italian campaign, and is a man to reckon with.

An ill-advised but understandable urge for a forbidden drink and some barroom banter with a local lounge looker are among his first mistakes. Followed by a bigger lapse in judgement when he agrees to collect a debt for Poca City’s big shot, Hank Pittleman, who owns the local bank, the town’s only industry (a hog slaughterhouse), the hotel Archer’s staying in…hell, even the cocktail lounge they’re drinking in. And the girl who’s got Archer’s head spinning. As will happen in such tales, Archer winds up in bed with Pittleman’s seductive mistress…the same night Pittleman’s murdered, his throat slit ear-to-ear. All of which finds Archer in one hell of a lot of trouble with the local law, the State Police homicide investigator who takes over, and Archer’s own parole officer…who just happens to be an intriguing woman with a mysterious past and is every bit as alluring as the Poca City bad girl he’s already mixed up with.

There’s enough small-town drama and family secrets to fill both a Grace Metalious novel and a Tennessee Williams drama here, mixed in with a puzzling murder mystery (and a few other dustups and deaths along the way), all capped off with a climactic courtroom scene, which may sound like a bit much for any one book, but then Baldacci’s a real pro and more than up to the task. I’d never read one of his novels before, but knowing he plans more Archer novels after One Good Deed, I’ll be watching for the next one. The fact is, when I stumble across some musty old paperback by a long-gone writer in a used bookstore with some other loner stepping off the bus in a made-up town’s Main Street, I’ll probably give it a try too, no matter how many times I’ve been there already.

The Chelsea Girls

The Chelsea Girls - Fiona Davis

Looking to take a break from dark, noir-ish crime fiction after James Ellroy’s This Storm, I knocked off Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, taking a refresher course in the world of thrillers, suspense fiction and serial killers, those enormous categories so closely aligned with mystery/crime fiction, but not always quick to consider themselves a part of the genre.

But the bigger departure from my more customary reading material was Fiona Davis’ The Chelsea Girls (2019), Davis’ fourth novel, the second I’ve read, and the second using an iconic New York residential hotel and mid-twentieth century setting as a backdrop (her debut novel The Dollhouse was set in the Barbizon in the 1960’s).

Ambitious, outgoing head-turner Maxine Mead and comparatively mousey Hazel Ripley partner up on a USO tour during the end days of WWII in war ravaged Italy. After VE Day they drift part, Maxie to Hollywood while Hazel returns to New York where she flees from her manipulative stage mother to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel, home to actors, writers, artists and a colorful cast of the postwar Boho set’s hangers-on. Reunited over a provocative Off-Broadway play penned by Hazel and starring Maxie, the two friends fall under the watchful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Just when Hazel and Maxie should triumph, self-appointed boycotting blacklisters ruin everything, and unexpected betrayals tear the friends apart, only to reunite in the late 1960’s for a sort of reconciliation revealing that, the era’s injustice notwithstanding, not everyone swept up in the Communist witch hunt’s net was entirely innocent.

A novel like Fiona Davis’The Chelsea Girls provides valuable lessons for writers even as it delivers the goods for readers. Davis crafted a page-turner, but does so without any gunplay, car chases, ticking time bombs or steamy sex scenes. It’s just a damn good tale expertly told with two characters that engage the reader pretty much right from their initial introductions. Make that three characters, because the Chelsea Hotel itself is a character as much as Hazel and Maxine, much like the Barbizon was in Davis’ first book, The Dollhouse.

Not to suggest that The Chelsea Girls lack of suspense tricks made it all sunshine and sweetness. It’s definitely not, dealing with the end of the war and the Red Scare after all. But reading it right after This Storm was akin to listening to Taylor Swift after hours of thrash metal. I won’t say ‘soothing’, but it was something like that. For me, it did what it was supposed to do. With the Barbizon and the Chelsea under her belt, I don’t know what other iconic retro residential hotels are left for Fiona Davis, but wherever she goes with her next novel (and clearly, there’ll be a next one), I’m making my reservation now.

 

All The Wrong Places

All The Wrong Places - Joy Fielding

If Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places reads like a Lifetime Channel movie turned into a novel, it does so in a good way. Clearly there’s a sizeable audience for this formula, as Fielding’s nearly 50-year career with just-shy of 30 novels indicates.

After spending days in the impressive but depressing milieu of James Ellroy’s epic This Storm where everyone’s evil or at least mildly crooked, I needed a break from mid-twentieth century gangsters, cops, junkies, pimps and blackmailers (to say nothing of fascists and fifth columnists). So a non-crime fiction novel came home with me (still reading that one) along with Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, its color-saturated cover literally reaching out to me from the shelf, flanked as it was by two comparatively dowdy looking trade paperbacks. (So think about that when fretting over your books’ cover art!)

To be clear: I don’t read a lot of so-called ‘suspense’, ‘thrillers’, ‘psychological suspense’, ‘suspense thrillers’ and whatever other monikers publishers’ marketing departments dream up. Yet, there are a lot to choose from. Given a choice between sadistic serial killers/tortured victims vs. something retro and noir-ish, I’ll always go with the latter. But I’m not completely out of touch with this category, even if some thriller writers adamantly disassociate themselves from the mystery/crime fiction genre, presumably leery of genre labels.

All The Wrong Places updates the familiar ‘lonely hearts killer’ for the 21st century with charming ‘Mister Right Now’ prowling dating apps for his prey. Now I’m not sure what alternate universe you need to visit to locate women who are foolish enough to go to a blind date’s home after only one get-acquainted drink, but in All The Wrong Places they succumb to good looks, a beguiling smile and the promise of a handsome bachelor’s home cooked dinner. No surprise that once the meal’s laid out and the wine is poured, they suddenly find their hands cuffed behind their backs, a noose around their necks, and a long night of unspeakable torture and death in store.

Scenes of this icky torture (mostly kept ‘off screen’ in a kind of PG-13 level of ick) are interspersed among the novel’s main narrative trail, in which thirty-something Paige gives in to her hip widowed mother’s prodding to surf the dating apps herself. Paige is bunking down with Mom after leaving her unfaithful live-in boyfriend and losing her ad exec job. Meanwhile, Paige’s bestie Chloe endures a philandering husband’s hellish abuse, while they all suffer through trickery and worse at the hands of Paige’s scheming near-twin cousin, Heather, the novel’s resident bad girl…and in some ways, its real villain. Frankly, the story could almost stand on its own without the sadistic serial killer at all, even if it wouldn’t have ever found its way onto my to-be-read end table. Some readers will complain that Fielding chickened out at the novel’s climax. There’s no amateur sleuthing, Paige doesn’t vanquish the killer (or even encounter him at all outside of texts) , and even the bad girl’s fate is only implied, not depicted. But I think it was a surprisingly brave choice on the author’s part, particularly in a category that relies on formula.

So I’ve read my serial killer thriller for 2019, though I can’t swear that another won’t sneak home with me from a bookstore visit. Formula can be a good thing, particularly in the hands a talented pro like Joy Fielding, and all the more intriguing when a skilled writer chooses to bend the rules even a little.

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

Dodging And Burning

dodging & burning

John Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning is subtitled “A Mystery”, and it is, though this is no ‘whodunit’, and as the complex story evolves, told from multiple points-of-view and in different times, no less, it becomes as much a who-done-what as a whodunit. Like most of my favorite mystery/crime fiction tales, this is less about the mystery and more about the characters themselves, the setting their tales unfold in, and the events that lure us into unexpected situations, almost indifferent to anything so simple as a crime being solved in the end. Because with the really great books, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Reminiscent in part of novels as diverse as Peyton Place and To Kill A Mockingbird, Dodging And Burning begins as a coming of age tale in a small WWII-era town. At first it appears there’ll be a brutal crime to solve, but the small town setting starts to feel a bit like Twin Peaks as we start to have doubts about the nature of the crime…or if a crime occurred at all. In Copenhaver’s capable hands, that alone would’ve made for a wonderful novel. But he delivers something infinitely more complex, probing characters’ painful secrets and revealing the era’s exciting but dangerous underworld of hidden sexual identities that could never hope to survive in 1940’s small town USA. The novel’s conclusion is bittersweet – in the telling, but also in the reader’s realization that the book is over. The fact is, you’ll want more.

‘A Mystery’? Sure. But no locked rooms, no private dicks, cartoon femmes fatales or gunsels waving snub-noses around. Whether the author planned to write genre fiction that was ‘more’ or ignored genre conventions altogether and the publisher is responsible for that tagline on the book’s cover, who knows. But this is one one hell of good read, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever might come next from this writer. Like Dodging And Burning, I bet it’ll be a surprise.

 

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