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.

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Stage Violence Draws Real Blood: Layne Fargo’s Temper

temper - layne fargo

After back-to-back mystery/crime fiction novels set in 1950’s New York, I was ready for a break, and Layne Fargo’s first novel Temper (2019, Simon & Shuster) provided just that.

Author Wendy Heard mentions Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in her dustjacket back cover praise for Fargo’s Temper. It’s a perfect reference. There are no swollen joints or black feathers sprouting out of anyone’s shoulder blades, no practice barres or frayed leg warmers. Temper isn’t set in New York’s ballet world, but in Chicago’s indie theater scene. But much like the darkly surreal Black Swan, Temper deals with passionate creatives’ self-absorbed and manipulative relationships, the wafer-thin line between on stage performances and offstage drama, and the horrors that may be revealed when creativity is fully unleashed.

Black Swan

Struggling actor Kira Rascher lands the role of a lifetime with Joanna Cuyler’s cutting edge theater group, which means she’ll have to work with mercurial actor/director Malcom Mercer, the indie scene’s bad boy, notorious for pushing performers past all reasonable limits and leaving a long trail of broken hearts — and minds — in his wake. Yes, Kira-Joanna-Malcom form a doomed love triangle, but the fact is, Temper is more of a love-and-destruction octagon that sucks in everyone in Kira’s circle, from part-time bi-bedmates to ex’s going way back to high school scandals.

Temper isn’t a mystery novel and couldn’t be labeled crime fiction by any stretch. The cover calls it ‘psychological suspense’, and I’ll go along with that. Like Black Swan, it defies easy categorizing. But it was an excellent read, and for us residents of the big city on the inland ocean, Temper was brimming with spot-on locales and atmosphere. Sure, a savvy reader may guess where the story is inexorably heading (and I did), but it was one heck of darkly fun trek getting there, thanks to Layne Fargo’s skillful multi-POV writing. Check it out.

The Police Women’s Bureau

The Police Women's Bureau

Book reviews claim a novel is a ‘real page turner’ all the time, but I’m here to tell you that Edward Conlon’s The Policewomen’s Bureau is precisely that: A page turner. My proof? I started the book after work on Monday, and stayed up ridiculously late both Monday and Tuesday nights devouring this novel. Yes, a little groggy in the office Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, but it was worth it.

Edward Conlon’s a former New York City cop himself, and even after retiring was called back, currently the Director Of Executive Communications for the Police Commissioner. His own memoir Blue Blood was a bestseller and award finalist. The man can write, and he knows what’s what when it comes to being a cop and has an uncanny feel for effectively setting a scene — a hectic Italian family gathering, an authentic squad room, holding cell or gritty New York street scene.

Decoy 1957

I knew I’d like this book from the very beginning of the first page, which is a quote from the groundbreaking 1957 TV series Decoy (see link below for more about that), which starred Beverly Garland in the very first network crime drama led by a woman, the first filmed on location in New York, and told the story of Officer Casey Jones, an NYPD policewoman working different cases in each episode, sometimes undercover, sometimes in uniform. It’s a perfect choice to kick off Conlon’s novel, which is based on real life policewoman Marie Cirile’s own memoir and here tells the story of Marie Carrara, young wife, mother and member of a large and very traditional Italian family. Marie’s a cop, though policewomen are largely relegated to women’s wing jail matrons and occasional undercover assignments, enduring relentless taunts, hassles and worse  from their male counterparts, and institutional discrimination from the higher-ups. The book opens in 1958, spanning a ten-year-plus period through 1969 as Marie moves up the ranks, fighting superiors along with the crooks, while suffering through horrifying abuse from her ultra-traditional maximum-macho Italian husband (also a cop, and clearly a slightly crooked one), which goes beyond his flagrant infidelity, verbal abuse and routine physical violence, then culminates in a brutal rape. It’s grim stuff. But Marie perseveres, devoted to her kid and the job. Which is incredibly exciting stuff, tricking mobsters and working sympathetic snitches, trading blows with drug dealers and chasing junkies. Finally partnered up with two precinct oddballs, the threesome quickly grow into an unbeatable team with stellar arrest records, and form an unbreakable bond in the process.

The Policewomen’s Bureau is a terrific crime fiction novel, a maddening tale of how-things-were seventy years ago (enough so to dispel any warm nostalgia one might have for the ‘good old days’) and a truly moving saga of a quiet hero, a regular woman’s struggle against relentless injustice and discrimination. Do check it out, and give Beverly Garland a peek in 1957’s Decoy while you’re at it.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/02/06/decoy-retro-tvs-first-woman-with-a-badge/

 

The 1960’s Fifty Shades Of Grey?

Valley Of The Dolls 50th

A post or two back I referred to Renee Rosen’s novels as ‘guilty pleasures’, though was quick to point out that her books are far from fluff. Rather, for me, at least, they’ve been pleasant diversions from a steady diet of gangsters, gumshoes and gun molls.

For a real guilty pleasure – that is, a book you devour but feel legitimately guilty about — Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley Of The Dolls is like a mid-sixties Fifty Shades Of Grey…similarly notorious, and notoriously popular in its time. Sprawling (to the point of rambling), sexy, melodramatic yet often awkwardly written, the book’s a compelling page-turner nonetheless. A legitimate publishing phenomena, Valley Of The Dolls was the biggest selling book in publishing history at the time of the author’s death in 1974 and has gone on to sell over 31 million copies to date. For any contemporary writer tracking single digit weekly orders for their Amazon Kindle and Create Space books, or praying that their small press’ 5,000 unit trade paperback press run will sell out someday, 31 million books is almost too much to grasp.

Segueing from Renee Rosen’s 2019 Park Avenue Summer to Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was a natural, and I did just that. In Rosen’s novel, an Ohio ingenue and aspiring commercial photographer arrives in mid-sixties New York and promptly becomes iconic editor Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary right at the moment the magazine is about to be relaunched as the controversial girl-power monthly it quickly became. The novel’s heroine gets that plum gig via a referral from a family friend who’s an editor at the Dolls’ real-life publisher, Bernard Geis Associates.

Valley of the Dolls

Valley Of The Dolls the 1967 20thCentury Fox film starring Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward and Barbara Parkins frequently pops up on both broadcast and cable TV channels, but if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, I encourage you to give the novel a try. The movie’s pure mid-sixties kitsch, but understandably had to sidestep or soften the novel’s more tawdry and saucy content. In fact, it’s said that original screenwriter Harlan Ellison insisted his name be removed from the credits due to the less downbeat ‘Hollywood’ ending reshot at the studio insistence.

Even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, it’s enough of a pop culture touchstone that most people have some vague idea of what it’s about. Three New York friends in the entertainment business experience various highs and lows in their careers and love lives, succumbing to ‘Dolls’ (barbituates, and specifically, Seconals) along the way…enough to institutionalize one for addiction (Patty Duke in the movie) and be the weapon of choice for another’s suicide (Sharon Tate in the movie). But the novel’s very different from the film, most notably in its more sprawling 20 year time span from 1945 to 1965. (The film seems to be set almost entirely in the 1960’s.) There are more complex backstories, complications and relationship woes, it being a rambling sort of soap opera. And the sex is notably more explicit. Keep in mind that in 1966, sleaze publishers like Midwood and others were still pumping out ‘sexy’ paperback originals to be sold exclusively ‘under the counter’ at most stores. Frank dialog about menstruation, abortion or contraception was pretty rare. Explicit sex scenes (well, relatively so) in a mainstream novel? Even more scandalous, and here the sex includes vanilla sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex and more, and in frequent doses. And most importantly, it’s the women, not the men, talking about it, wanting it, trying to avoid it or merrily engaging in it.

Nearly half the book is set in the 1940’s, and the titular ‘dolls’ don’t even appear till well over a third of the way through. The novel’s male characters are mostly philanderers, lushes, failures or con men, and even the seemingly ‘good’ men go bad to some degree by the end. The three main women are complex, but far from angels, and none find release or redemption in their careers, their romances or anywhere except in the embrace of their lovely little dolls. Do not look for a happy ending when you finish the last page.

Valley of The Dolls Movie

I read Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls last week in a handsome 50thAnniversary trade paperback edition, complete with some introductory front matter and an essay from the author herself. A tireless self-promoter, book publishing urban legends claim that Susann would get up in the wee hours to primp, fill her car with coffee and cartons of donuts in order to show up at local rack jobbers and distributors’ loading docks before the truck drivers departed, encouraging all to keep her book face-out and in-stock at each stop on their routes. If true, this was before the days of consolidated book distribution (still continuing as we speak, with Baker & Taylor leaving the trade book business altogether and Ingram just about the only game in town).

Well, I never managed to wade through Fifty Shades Of Grey, even after a couple tries that couldn’t get past fifty pages of grey. But I’m really glad I read Valley Of The Dolls. Call it kitsch, call it trash…call it what you like, but it was a cultural milestone in its time and still a fun read even today.

Renee Rosen’s Guilty Pleasures

Park Avenue Summer

I stumbled onto my first Renee Rosen novel a few years ago and have been hooked since. Just finished her latest, Park Avenue Summer, a few weeks ago.

Rosen’s Dollface from 2013 is where I started, her first novel, I think. No surprise that it caught my eye, being set in Prohibition era Chicago, and telling Vera Abramowitz’ story in which romance with a suave bootlegger goes bad once he’s in the clink and she has to take over. Writer Rosen’s from Ohio but relocated to Chicago, seems to have acquired a very genuine feel for the city, and obviously does her homework on each period she writes about. That first book set a tone for the subsequent novels: A young woman navigating her way through an overwhelmingly male dominated world in eras when things were evolving, but only a bit. A very little bit.

Dollface

I missed her second novel from 2014 but kept up with the next three: White Collar Girl  from 2015, about young Jordan Walsh struggling to make it as a reporter in the boys club newsroom of the Chicago Tribune back in 1955. Next came Windy City Blues in 2017, once again set in Chicago and merging 1950’s-60’s fact and fiction with a young Jewish girl in the vibrant R&B music scene and tumultuous race relations while at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records.

White Collar Girl

Rosen’s latest, Park Avenue Summer, left her adopted home town for mid-1960’s New York City, where aspiring photographer Alice Weiss takes a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary just as the iconic editor and author of the then-scandalous Sex And The Single Girl was about to turn the publishing world on its ear with the relaunch of Cosmopolitan magazine. I saw one review calling this novel “Mad Men Meets The Devil Wears Prada”, and that’s not an entirely bad description, at least as far as describing the milieu goes.

I’m calling Rosen’s novels ‘guilty pleasures’, but not to suggest that they’re lighthearted fluff. Far from it. Her novels have been a treat, helped locales and era come vibrantly alive for me, and each has been a pleasant diversion from the mysteries and crime fiction I normally devour. Three in a row all situated in 1950’s-60’s settings? That’s just a bonus for me. I don’t know where Renee Rosen is headed next: Back to Chicago, and if so, in what decade? Wherever and whenever it is, I can guarantee I’ll be going along for the trip.

Windy City Blues

 

Save Me From Dangerous Men

Save Me From Dangerous Men

S.A. Lelchuk’s Nikki Griffin loves books.

She can quote classic writers to grad students, has a huge storage locker crammed so full of books that she needs straps to keep the shelves from tumbling over. She even owns a Bay Area used bookstore, the kind of place that only seems to exist in novels, where quirky patrons congregate for hours, hold literary meetings, sip complimentary coffee and (hopefully) buy something once in a while.

But it’s also a destination for abused women. Somehow word gets around about Nikki Griffin. Because she tracks dangerous men. Men who hurt the women they claim to love. And Nikki is particularly skilled at teaching them what it feels like to be hurt and helpless, and making sure that they never, ever hurt those women again.

Lelchuk’s Save Me From Dangerous Men hooked me mere sentences into the opening pages, with a tense scene that set the pace for the entire novel. That the book eventually took an unexpected turn and found Nikki Griffin embroiled in something much bigger than another threatened or abused wife or girlfriend could’ve been a disappointment in less capable hands, but the author skillfully interweaves Nikki’s day job, her poignant backstory, her ‘side business’ along with a more conventional private investigation job she accepts with misgivings, which not surprisingly, spirals into global thriller territory.

When I bought this book the week before last, one of four that I carried to the register, the cashier asked if it was for me or someone else. It seemed like an odd question. I told her it was for me, and her face immediately lit up as she told me she’d just finished it, assuring me I would like it. A lot. And she was right. I guess she just wanted to share.

There’s no setup to segue conveniently into a sequel, but I get the feeling S.A. Lelchuk’s got another Nikki Griffin novel in the works. I sure hope so. A couple online reviews I read actually griped about the author being a man writing a woman’s book and in first person POV no less. Oh, screw them. We all hear “this one’s a real page-turner” bandied about a lot, but Save Me From Dangerous Men truly is, and Lelchuk has created a very memorable, troubled, vulnerable yet lethal character who gives the notion of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ another rich layer: part bibliophile, part investigator, part vigilante, but very, very human throughout. Look for this one and check it out…I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed.

The Dealer

 

Dealer - Collins

I’m a Max Allan Collins fan, enjoying the very prolific Iowa writer’s partnership on several unfinished Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer novel manuscripts, his three-book 1950’s comics-scene mysteries (A Killing In Comics, etc.), the before-its-time Ms. Tree comics and one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, The Road To Perdition graphic novel and subsequent sequel novels, and most of all, the entire Nathan Heller series – novels and short fiction alike. In fact, those Nate Heller books are among my favorites, and a few have been read more than once…just cuz.

There are some Collins’ works I haven’t read, including a few standalone novels and TV/film novelizations. But one group in particular that I’ve neglected is his Quarry series, dealing with a Viet Nam war era U.S. Marine sniper who becomes a professional assassin, and including 14 novels. The series was made into a short-lived Cinemax series only loosely based on the actual books, which ended in 2017. Most of the 1970’s Quarry novels have been reissued as handsome pocketbook style paperbacks by Hard Case Crime, when the imprint was on its own and still now under Titan Books’ ownership. But not this one, apparently.

Just spotted it this morning at the incredible and long running Not Pulp Covers blog (companion to the Pulp Covers blog), and I guess it’s time to hunt up a copy and see if Collins can hook me on his hit man the way he’s done so well with Nate Heller, Ms. Tree and other memorable characters.

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