Top of the Heap

Ever since I’ve gotten my Sony 505, I’ve been doing some mad reading. I’ve also been doing some mad neglecting, most namely in the Hard Case Crime (HCC) series.

So I made myself a promise, for every book I read on the 505, I read a HCC book until I’m all caught up. I don’t know how long I’ll keep at it, but since I tend to not like reading back-to-back-to-back HCC novels, this is doable. In addition, I’m starting from the first HCC release and reading them order (those I haven’t read yet).

So, first one up is Top of the Heap, which is book three in the series.

The book follows detective Donald Lam as he provides what at first seems to be a harmless alibi for John Carver Billings II, but as things unravel, Lam finds that he has been played. Of course that doesn’t sit too well with Lam, and he goes on a mission to figure out why Billings set him up.

Top of the Heap is bittersweet. It starts off grand, with that pulp fiction prose that I love so much, but by the third act, when the mystery is coming unraveled, it’s nothing but exposition. In these types of books, it seems that exposition is to be expected at some point or another, but here it seems to go on and on and on. First Lam explains to one person what exactly happened. Then the coppers pull him in, and he explains the entire thing again, this time adding a little bit more. Then a third party is notified and it starts all over again. By the time the third (or was it the fourth?) explanation came around, I was weary of the whole damn thing.

Best known for his “Perry Mason” novels, Gardner certainly does have the snap and wit for the dime novel, but this first introduction for me was pretty underwhelming. Yet I like his style enough to give him another chance, I just hope I’m not spoon fed the entire mystery next time.


So the big movie right now (at least for comic book fans) is Watchmen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Over at a forum I frequent, a vote was cast for a “book of the month” discussion and guess what won?

You got it.

I have mixed feelings about a graphic novel (basically, a big comic) as a book of the month discussion. I’m not adverse to reading them, I just don’t believe they have as much meat as a real book. No, scratch that, they don’t have as much meat as a real book. That’s not to say they aren’t enjoyable, or worthy of discussion, but if I’m going to discuss a book, I’d want to discuss a book. But since a vote was cast, and the yays had it, I went out and bought Watchmen.

What a waste of $20.


Watchmen is well written, for sure. And the art I can dig. Even the story is more than doable as it follows around a superhero outcast, Rorschach, as he tries to make sense of the brutal murder of The Comedian, another superhero killed in the first pages of the novel.

For all intents and purposes, Watchmen is a graphic novel I should like. With the exception of one character (Dr. Manhattan), none of the heroes in the book have superpowers. They are just strong, or athletic or whatever. Like Batman (hands down, my favorite hero) or The Punisher, they are just normal everyday folk — unlike that clown Superman, who is just lame. For the most part, any superhero with superpowers is lame, except those in Supreme Power.

In addition to the characters, the story is enough to interest me. It’s a mystery, plain and simple. I should be all over that.

But where it fails, and fails miserably, is the action — or lack of. Nothing ever happens! Okay, so that’s a mild exageration, but let’s face it; comics are a visual medium. No matter what spin is ever placed on it, at the end of the day a comic is visual.

Sure, there is a lot of subtext in Watchmen — the pirate story was pretty well done — and Rorschach is pretty bad ass (even with his annoying Hulk-like speech pattern), but the story really needs to be more interesting than it is in order to justify all the accolades the comic gets. Hell, The Walking Dead doesn’t have action every page, but it has one hell of a compelling story (although I will admit being biased, as I dig zombies more than tight wearing vigilantes).

Regardless of it all, I’ll still see the movie. I won’t rush out to the theaters, as I’m perfectly content on waiting for the DVD. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the movie, most importantly that the movie is more violent than the comic. That’s good for me. Also, I’m curious to see Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. He’s done a lot of movies since I first saw him, but he’ll always be Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears.

Fade to Blonde

I’ve been back filling my Hard Case Crime collection every time they have a dollar sale (members only sale, you cats really need to join the club if you haven’t yet), and Fade to Blonde by Hard Case Crime co-founder Max Phillips — the other founder being Charles Ardai — is one that had most recently come in.

Number two in the HCC catalog, Blonde is yet another fantastic addition to the series, as it has everything pulp lovers need: Babes, brawn, bullets and bite.

Set in 1940s Los Angeles, Roy Corson is hired by Rebecca LaFontaine for a little protection from a gentleman named Halliday — a man who has threatened to throw lye in her face. And, oh yeah, Halliday is tied to the mob. But Corson does what any man’s man does in this situation…he takes care of business.

Blonde is a fine example of what pulp fiction goodness is all about, damsels in distress, tough as nails protaganists (and equally slimey antaganists) and razor sharp writing. Author Phillips has a good beat:

From a conversation with a sandwich girl at a party:

“How’s Miss Godalmighty?” she said absently.


“Your date. Miss HIgh and Godalmighty Bellinger.”

“Oh. Fine, thanks. She sends her love.”

“You like tomatoes? Some people are allergic, but I think they’re good.”

“I like tomatoes.”

“What she probably likes is you’re not an actor.”

“That’s it.”

“I guess she’s not too high and mighty for a place like this.”

“I guess she isn’t. What did she turn you down for?”


“I said, what did she turn you down for. Or did she just turn you down, period?”

The girl in the kimono didn’t say anything, just kept slicing tomatoes.

You hear that? That snap snap snap? That’s a good beat, kids.

One slight thing I didn’t like about the book is some of characters brought in didn’t have much purpose other than furthering the plot. It’s expected to have a character once in a while that accomlishes this, but Blonde has a few more than it needs. Corson’s interactions with characters like Burri, the head mob honcho, seem a little forced and pointless. Burri isn’t the only one, either. The man (whose name escapes me) who suggested LaFontaine to Corson in the first place pops up once or twice, if only to give Corson some advice and/or information just seems like filler.

Another small problem I had was with the ending. I felt slightly cheated because there wasn’t enough information prior to suggest what was coming. Looking back, there were slight hints, but they were barely whispers and nothing to grab onto. The finale is by no means unbelievable, but it would have been nice if, after finishing the book, I could have said, “OH! OKAY! I GET IT!” But because of the suddeness, it seemed a tad contrived.

These quibbles are easily overlooked, though, because Phillips is really that good with the lingo. The book is by no means a disappointment and is a fun read from start to finish. So much so, that I’m hoping Phillips throws us fans another bone in the future.

The First Quarry

There’s a lot of things I love about the Hard Case Crime series. Their covers are amazingly cool. The club is reasonably priced (about $6.00 a month). About every quarter they have sweet sales, where they mark down books to a buck or two (just got in 13 books for $21). And, with the exception of maybe one or two books, I have enjoyed everything I’ve read from the catalogue.

But one of the things I like most about the HCC series is it introduces me to authors I may not have heard of (or have seen their work without realizing it). Like Max Allan Collins. I’ll get back to this in a minute.

Due to just being busy as hell, it’s the first HCC book I’ve read in a while. As I was reading it, I was painfully aware that I’ve been away from the pulp for entirely too long (and realized, with glee, while I haven’t read any in a while it also means I have a pretty big back log I can plow through).

The First Quarry is actually the second “Quarry” book in the catalogue, the first being The Last Quarry. Fortunately for me, First is the prequel to Last, and I have not had a chance to read the latter, yet. So that works out pretty good.

It’s 1970, and Quarry, a paid-for-hire assassin, sits in an abandoned house watching the occupant of the home across the street, waiting for an opportunity to close the contract.

As the title, The First Quarry, suggests, this is Quarry’s first job for The Broker, a man who found Quarry through unknown means, and offered him a position in his company. The Broker negotitiates the contracts, and his employees, men like Quarry, fulfill those contracts. A sniper in Vietnam, Quarry came home from the war only to find his wife with another man and…let’s just say he took care of business. Since then, Quarry didn’t really have anything going on in life until The Broker showed up. An opportunity presented itself, and he took it.

Because nothing is ever easy in a pulp novel, this is no simple job. So many things complicate this seemingly simple hit, it no longer becomes a case of “What can go wrong, will,” but “Yeah, shit’s just gonna go wrong, whether it can or can’t.” But a credit goes to author Collins’ skill, because everything that goes wrong is feasible, and it all comes together in a believable way in the end.

The First Quarry is written in first person narrative, but it is also a diary of sorts, as Quarry addresses the reader (think TV’s “Dexter”). It works extemely well because Quarry (via Collins) is very matter-of-fact with a witty, dry sense of humor. It works extremely well, and a solid introduction to Max Allan Collins for me.

Now, as I mentioned, I like how the HCC catalogue introduces me to authors I’ve read before, authors I’ve never heard of and authors whose works I’ve seen, but wasn’t aware of who they were. Well, Collins is the author of The Road to Perdition (you know, the movie that Tom Hanks is actually enjoyable in?). I didn’t realize this until I hit Collins’ website and noticed that on his bibliography. Completely fitting considering how much I enjoyed the movie’s noir style — and I still need to pick up that graphic novel.

The Fist Quarry is yet another solid entry in the Hard Case Crime catalogue. I can’t wait to read The Last Quarry.

Money Shot

Wow. It certainly has been a while since my last update, but after finishing Money Shot by Christa Faust, I had to post about it.

A while back, I wrote a blog about how, for the most part, I do not enjoy mystery novels (or, more specifically, crime novels) written by women, as they generally get tied up with crap I don’t care about (ie: feel good garbage). Of course, there are exceptions (like Janet Evanovich), but those are few and far between.

Well, if Money Shot is any indication, Faust is a very welcome addition to my limited library of female crime writers. (And before any panties get in a bunch and accuse me of being misogynistic, can men write romance novels as good as women? I’m guessing no.)

Anywho, Money Shot, aside from having a terrific oh-so appropriate title, centers around Angel Dare, a former pornstar turned business woman (her business caters to women in porn). When she gets a call to pull a favor for a friend, a quickie movie, Dare reluctantly agrees. (Partly because the guy she’s to ‘do’ is the current top dog in the industry and he specifically asked for her).

Once she shows up to the shoot, though, she’s beaten, tortured and raped — all over a missing briefcase that she knows seemingly nothing about. Fortunately for our heroine, she manages to live through this ordeal (not for the lack of the baddies trying), and takes it upon herself to give a little payback.

Just scope the book’s first paragraph:

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend your left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema. Plus there are these long dull stretches where people in the audience would probably go take a piss or get popcorn, since it looks as if nothing is happening and they figure maybe you really are dead after all. After a while, you start to wonder the same thing yourself. You also wonder what will happen if you throw up behind the oily rag ducttaped into your mouth or how long it will take for someone to notice you’re missing. Otherwise you are mostly busy bleeding, trying not to pass back out, or laboriously adding up the cables, the stuffy cramped darkness, the scratchy carpet below and the raw hollow metal above to equal your current location, the trunk of an old and badly maintained car. That’s what it was like for me, anyway.

How can you not like that opening?

And, the best part is Faust keeps that finger snapping beat the entire novel. Good times, indeed.

Part of the Hard Case Crime library, Money Shot is probably the best I’ve read of the series. And that’s impressive because, with the exception of maybe two, they all have been top notch reads.

I’m eagerly looking forward to more from Faust. She’s a fantastic writer, she has crazy wit and she’s pretty damn hot to boot.

That’s right. I said “to boot.”

If you dig the hard boiled, pick this one up immediately.

Kill Now, Pay Later

You know a book is good when it’s memorable, and Robert Terrall’s Kill Now, Pay Later is good book.

Part of the Hard Case Crime series (really digging this series), I finished it about two months ago, and I can still recollect parts of the book with ease.

Ben Gates, Kill Now’‘s main character, is a Private Dick who takes a seemingly easy gig guarding some wedding presents for a fancy pants family.

As it goes, someone drugs him, kills the host and makes off with some of the goodies that were intended for the bride and groom. The blame, of course, falls squarely on Gates’ shoulders, so in order to keep his reputation, he has to solve the case to clear his name.

During his investigation, Gates manages to sleep with seemingly every woman he comes in contact with, and fight every bad guy in his path. Like John Blake in Little Girl Lost, Gates is not a Superman. He does take his licks. Not as much as Black, but Gates (like Blake) is a realistic protagonist.

What’s really interesting about Kill Now is it was first published over 40 years ago. Reading it, it holds up extremely well, as Terrall was smart enough not to put anything in that would date the book. No TV show mentions, no song mentions, no car model mentions. None that I could recollect, anyway.

Kill Now, Pay Later is humorous and action packed, just how I like my pulp. A fine addition to the Hard Case Crime series.

Little Girl Lost

Over a year ago, I read Colorado Kid by Stephen King, which was part of Dorchester Publishing’s new series of Hard Case Crime books. While the book was enjoyable, it was neither hardboiled, nor noir. And as much as I liked the pulp cover, I didn’t pick up any more in the series.

I’m a dumbass.

I should have known that the most likely reason they put King in this series is to sell books and get publicity. It was a smart move. But it wasn’t enough for me to keep reading the line.

So one day I was searching around BookMooch, and, on a whim, I did a search for Hard Case Crime. Little Girl Lost was the first hit, so I put in my request. Soon enough, it was at my doorstep. I took it to work with me the next day, and finished it a couple days after that.

Little Girl Lost - Richard Aleas

In a nutshell, while reading the paper one day, John Blake (who happens to be a private investigator, go figure) learns that his first true love was found murdered on the roof of a strip club. Last he heard, she was off in college. So what the hell happened that made her a stripper, and a dead one at that? So he digs into the case.

Lost is an interesting book, as far as hardboiled goes. Blake is not your stereotypical P.I. Sure, he’s witty as they come, laugh-out-loud witty at times (and I’m sure the people on the Metro loved that). And he’s a tough guy in his own right. But the guy gets his ass kicked at least three times in the book. Not something you see often, and it works on some level because it humanizes him. New comer Charles Ardai (writing under the pseudoname Richard Aleas) shows a great deal of promise with this first novel of his. He’s definitely got the wit down, as well as the feel for a gritty crime novel. I hope he continues to churn them out, as I’m already a fan of his work. (Side note: Ardai is the creator of the Hard Case Crime series).

After finishing Lost, I immediately signed up for the Hard Case Crime book-a-month club, and my father, too. They are reasonably priced, thier covers are seriously bad ass and, if Little Girl Lost is any indication, they are going to be something to look forward to in my mailbox each month.

Check them out.

The Straw Men and The Upright Man

After finishing the disappointing Breed, I did something I rarely do after being let down by an unknown (to me) author.I took a chance on another unknown.

Usually, I go back to the well of familiar authors. You know, play it safe before diving back into the unknown again.

But when I went to my box ‘o new books (a box of books accumulated from used book stores, the Wheaton library and yard sales not yet shelved), I picked up The Straw Men by Michael Marshall Smith (writing as Michael Marshall) and decided that would be my next read. I had heard a lot about Smith, The Straw Men in particular. And it was nothing but good. So, what the hell. Worst case scenario would be I would have a crappy read that day on the way to and from work.

Fortunately, Men did not disappoint. At all. It was so good, as soon as I finished it, the very day no less, I went to Borders & Noble to pick up its sequel, The Upright Man.

The Straw Men - Michael Marshall The Upright Man - Michael Marshall

The Straw Men has a fantastic opening, two men pop into a crowded McDonald’s and kill just about every customer in the joint. Then, it immediately moves onto three (apparently) different side stories — a kidnapped girl, a man who is unwillingly pulled into the missing girl’s investigation and another man who finds out after burying his parents they may not really be dead. And the best part is Smith keeps every storyline separate, until he decides to start pulling them all together. Which he does very smoothly and very believably.

The “men” of the title play a minor role to the bigger picture (the book ends up centering around “The Upright Man,” which is the title of its sequel), but they are interesting nonetheless. To tell you their history and the things they do, and even the upright man’s involvement with them, would be to spoil it for you, as the more you know about the story — and its characters — the more some of the enjoyment is taken out. I went in knowing nothing more than its a good book, and you should know the same.

The Upright Man, the sequel to The Straw Men, is just as good as the first. In The Straw Men, you learn the identity of The Upright Man. In The Upright Man, he is hunted by many of the characters from the first novel. And what a trip he leads them on. My. My.

However, one thing I wish Smith had done — at least in The Straw Men — is developed The Straw Men’s past some more. The very little you get to know from this group is incredibly intriguing, but their story seems to just peeter out. It’s almost as if Smith had a broad idea of The Straw Men going in, but got a bit about The Upright Man, and rolled with him, instead. It doesn’t make the book less enjoyable, by any means. It’s simply an avenue I wish had been traveled more before the road split.

All in all, though, two very quick and enjoyable reads. There’s a third in the series, Blood of Angels, that brings the players back together, but I haven’t picked it up just yet. I’m hitting a couple bookstores this weekend, so we’ll see.


In my last post, I mentioned how the seemingly innocent ‘throwaway’ mention of a house cleaning after some badness had gone down in Gary Braunbeck’s novella “The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss.” And how I found out the rest of the story.

Well, here it is. The night I finished Destinations Unknown, I picked up 1999 – the Best American Mystery Stories. Basically, it’s 455 pages of, you guessed it, mystery stories. I read the first stoy, “Keller’s Last Refuge” by Lawrence Block (dug it), and was about to go to bed when I noticed the second story was by Braunbeck. “Safe.”

Huh, I thought. Check that out.

So I decided to knock that out, too, since I had enjoyed Unknown. And it was only 37 pages. It’s not like it was going to keep me up all night.

1999 - the Best American Mystery Stories

Come to find out, “Safe” is about that house cleaning mentioned in Unknown.

What are the odds? I had just finished a novella published in 2006. I picked up a book published in 1999 on a whim, and it had a related story in it. Unbelievable.

The story itself is really, really good and really, really dark. Where “Bliss” was light hearted, and kind of fun, “Safe” is nasty and ugly and somewhat sad. Reading both almost back to back was perfect, as it seemingly showed both sides of Braunbeck’s coin. I had a good time reading “Bliss” because, as mentioned before, it was a story over a beer. “Safe” wasn’t as fun. This one was dark and told over a campfire to creep you out. But, between the two, I preferred “Safe” because of not only its darkness, but also its realism.

I picked up another one of Braunbeck’s books, “Prodigal Blues,” and it looks to be another dark book. I’ve thrown it towards the top of my “to read” pile, as I think I’m going to like this guy more and more as I read more of his work.

River shmiver. Bully is where it’s at.

I first met JF Gonzalez at a book signing in Virginia, where he was doing a book signing with about seven other authors. I had picked up his book or short stories, Maternal Instinct, and the story of the same name blew me away.

A few months later, Survivor – a full blown novel based off the Maternal Instinct short story – hit my hands, and I blew right throw it. Survivor, a family tale about snuff movies, a kidnapped woman and, well, survival, was intense as hell and showed that this guy wasn’t afraid to touch any taboo subject. I liked it.

So, when Gonzalez’s third novel, Bully, was announced, I immediately placed my pre-order. Weeks later, I had it in my hands and then I put it to the side. I was in the middle of two books at the time. You know how it goes.

After meeting Gonzalez again at another signing, I put Bully at the top of my pile so I could read it before HorrorFind – where he would be doing a reading appearance. The sweet thing about author appearances is, in my experience, they are always willing to answer any questions you have about their work. And, given the opportunity, I always ask questions. No, I have never asked “Where do you get your ideas?” That, hands downs, is probably the dumbest thing you can ask an author.

Anyway, I didn’t read the back of the book to see what it was about before I started it. Sometimes, with authors you know you like, it doesn’t really matter what the back of the book. It’s not going to stop you from reading it, and, like a movie trailer, the back of the book is sometimes misleading.

But about halfway through Bully, I did look at the back of the book. Because Bully wasn’t quite like Gonzalez’s previous work. It was more of a mystery than a mental beatdown.

Bully is the story of an innocent man set free as a decades old murder investigation is reopened, police corruption, dysfunctional families and things kids should never, ever see. The book mainly centers around Danny, a man who was tormented by Raul, the boy the now-innocent man was accused of raping an murdering. Danny knows much more than he’s telling the police, but Gonzalez makes you wait to hear his whole story. He drags it out so slowly  and so well that if it were a movie, I’d be tempted to fast forward to the end. Very well done, sir.

The book cover calls it a cross Mystic River meets The Lords of Dogtown. The Dogtown is right on, because Gonzalez nails that ’80s feel of skateboarding kids, but I think Mystic River is a bit off. Yes it has that feel as far as story, but Bully is a far better book than River. It has more heart, more soul and is a more enjoyable read. There’s another book that I would compare it to, but to put it here would be a spoiler, due to the book’s topic.

The one let down of the book is the ending. Well, the second ending. The final chapter, the epilogue I guess, is entirely too forced. It’s as if Gonzalez was tying up a loose end that didn’t need to be tied up, and going for either a setup for a sequel or trying for a shocking ending. But it doesn’t work because the book is perfectly fine up until that last chapter.

That doesn’t hurt the book, though, because it’s the best I’ve read from Gonzalez to date. But, when you read it – because you really should – just stop before the final chapter. If you do read that final chapter, think of it as an alternate ending as opposed to the real thing.

You can pick the book up at Amazon, and I highly recommend it. It’s $15, as it is not a trade paperback, but it’s well worth the money.