My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2019

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I even looked at my reading log. After my first cut (which was pretty hard), I had 20+ candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was difficult, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad—most were really good and worth the time (sure, a handful should be missed, but let’s forget about them). But these are the crème de la crème.

Not all of these were published in 2019—but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

I should say that I was a little worn out by the time I composed a lot of this and ended up borrowing heavily from my original posts. Hope you don’t mind reruns.
(in alphabetical order by author)

Deep Dirty TruthDeep Dirty Truth

by Steph Broadribb

My original post
Lori is kidnapped by the same Mob that wants her dead, giving her basically two choices—do a job for them or else they’re coming for JT and Dakota. Nothing about this book went the way I expected (beginning with the premise), it was all better than that. I had a hard time writing anything about this book that I hadn’t said about the first two in the series. Broadribb’s series about this tough, gritty bounty hunter (who is not close to perfect, but she’s persistent, which is easier to believe) started off strong and remains so.

4 Stars

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh

My original post
One of the best serial killer antagonists I can remember reading. A breakneck pace. An intricately plotted novel. An already beloved protagonist. Genuine surprises, shocking twists, and a couple of outstanding reveals make this fourth Eddie Flynn novel a must-read (even if you haven’t read any previous installments).

5 Stars

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven

My original post
It’s hard to avoid hyperbole in a Best-Of post like this, it’s harder still when talking about this book. But I just did some math, and Black Summer is in the top 1% of everything I read last year—the writing, the plot, the pacing, the tension, the protagonists, the villain(s), the supporting characters are as close to perfect as you’re going to find. The first note I made about this book was, I’m “glad Craven gave us all of zero pages to get comfy before getting all morbid and creepifying.” It’s pretty relentless from there—right up until the last interview, which might elicit a chuckle or two from a reader enjoying watching a brilliant criminal get outsmarted. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s so much fun to read.

5 Stars

An Accidental DeathAn Accidental Death

by Peter Grainger, Gildart Jackson (Narrator)

My original post
Grainger’s DC Smith couldn’t be more different than Craven’s DS Poe if he tried, and these two books feel so different that it seems strange to talk about them at the same time. What’s the same? How easily they get the reader invested in their protagonists. How easily they get you plunged into their world and caring about what they care about. Grainger has a nice, subtle style (with even subtler humor) that made this novel sheer pleasure to read (well, listen to, in this case).

4 Stars

Dead InsideDead Inside

by Noelle Holten

My original post
When I was about halfway through this novel, I wrote, “While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel…Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate—like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.” This is not an easy read thanks to the characters and circumstances, later I wrote, “This isn’t the cops dealing with a larger-than-life genius serial killer—rather, it’s the everyday reality for too many. Just this time tinged with a spree killer making a grim circumstance worse for some. It’s a gripping read, a clever whodunit, with characters that might be those you meet every day. As an experience, it’s at once satisfying and disturbing—a great combination for a reader. You won’t read much this year that stacks up against Dead Inside and you’ll join me in eagerly awaiting what’s coming next from Holten.” I can’t put it better than that.

5 Stars

Deception CoveDeception Cove

by Owen Laukkanen

My original post
I heard someone describe this as Laukkanen writing fan-fic about his dog Lucy. Which is funny, and pretty much true. From the setup to the execution and all points in between, Deception Cove delivers the goods. Anyone who read just one of his Stevens and Windermere books knows that Laukkanen can write a compelling thriller with great characters. In these pages, he shows that in spades—you take a couple of characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts and instead makes them three-dimensional people with depth, flaws, and a relatability—and throw them into a great thriller. What more could anyone want? A wonderful dog. Guess what? He’s got one of those, too. Leaving the reader wanting little more than a sequel.

4 Stars

HackedHacked

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
Duncan MacMaster is a new (for me) go-to author if I need someone to break me out of a gloomy mood because of books like this. Clever, well-plotted, and filled with more laughs than some “Humor” books I read this year. It also features what’s probably the best secondary character from 2019. Take out the humor (for the sake of argument here, don’t you dare do that really) and this is still a smartly-plotted and well-executed mystery novel. Adding in the humor makes this a must-read.

4 1/2 Stars

The ChainThe Chain

by Adrian McKinty

My original post
There was enough hype around this that I can see where some of my blogger acquaintances were let down with the reality. But McKinty’s breakout novel absolutely worked for me. The tension is dialed up to 11, the pacing is relentless, the stakes are high enough that the reader should make sure their blood pressure prescriptions are filled. The Chain is as compelling and engrossing as you could want. It’s a near-perfect thriller that doesn’t let up. Winslow calls it “Jaws for parents.” He’s right—I can’t imagine there’s not a parent alive who can read this without worrying about their kids, and reconsidering how closely to track their movements and activities.

4 1/2 Stars

Black MossBlack Moss

by David Nolan

My original post
This is one of those books that the adjective “atmospheric” was invented for. There’s an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling. You really don’t notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. The mystery part of this book is just what you want—it’s complex, it’ll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it’s fantastic—I didn’t see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. But afterward you’re only left with the feeling of, “well, of course—what else could it have been?” And then you read the motivation behind the killing—and I don’t remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There’s evil and then there’s this. This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could’ve been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan’s first novel delivers everything it promises and more.

5 Stars

The Power of the Dog The CartelThe Power of the Dog / The Cartel

by Don Winslow

My original post about The Power of the Dog, The Cartel should be up soon.
There’s simply no way I can talk about one of these without the other, so I won’t. This is a fantastic story about a DEA Agent’s obsessive drive to take down one of the most powerful, deadly and successful Mexican Drug Cartels around, as well as a devastating indictment of the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, these are not difficult reads. Despite the horrors depicted, they’re not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. They’re not easy, breezy reads— but they’re very approachable. I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either—if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything—but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of the attention of “serious” readers.

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight, Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice, Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg, Going Dark/Going Rogue by Niel Lancaster (can’t pick between the two), You Die Next by Stephanie Marland, The Killing State by Judith O’Reilly, Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry, Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, Paper Son by S. J. Rozan, and How To Kill Friends And Implicate People by Jay Stringer.

Hacked by Duncan MacMaster: A Smart, Fun Sequel that Topped the One that Went Before

Hacked

Hacked

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Jake Mooney, #2

Paperback, 258 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019

Read: December 10-11, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“You’re a very different kind of man Jake Mooney,” she said. “It’s almost like you belong here, but don’t belong here.”

“How is that?”

“Your life is like a movie,” she said, “and I think the last thing you want is to live your life like that.” …

“This is my second go-round for this sort of thing,” I said, “and the problem with sequels is that they always have to top the one that went before them.”

I remember really enjoying Hack, our introduction to Jake Mooney. But, I didn’t remember exactly why I did (I guess I could’ve read my post about it, but that sounds too much like research). It took almost no time at all to remember once I dipped into this Hacked (and many of the details about Hack came back to me straight away, too). Hack had a strong voice, fun characters, a clever mystery, with a satisfying conclusion to wrap things up. Hacked gives us more of all that.

For those of you who haven’t met Jake Moody, he’s a former journalist turned ghostwriter. Two years before this novel, he rose to fame by solving multiple homicides. He then finished ghostwriting the autobiography of one of the murder victims. He then writes his own account of what transpired (see Hack for details), as well as a fantasy novel. Now he’s been talked into coming to LA to sell the movie rights to any/all of his books.

Before his days of ghostwriting, Jake lived in LA and still has plenty of friends there and touches base with a couple of them. One of the things everyone is talking about there is the hacking of a movie company and the release of private date from them—supposedly, this is a North Korean retaliation for the portrayal of Kim Jong Un in one of that studio’s movies. A legendary agent who Jake knew years ago inadvertently puts Jake in the middle of the investigation. Not long after that, a P.I. friend of his asks him to consult on the same topic.

When Jake arrives at his friend’s home, however, he finds his friend brutally murdered. The assumption has to be that the people behind the hack are the people who killed his friend. So while he really is content to leave the investigation into the hack to the proper authorities, seeing his friend’s body sets Jake inexorably into finding out who committed the murder (and the hack while he’s at it).

Jake’s assisted in this hunt by his agent friend, his new agent, an accountant turned security guard, a former FBI agent, a ride-share driver who’s always wanted to be up to escapades like this, and an attractive studio exec. Help comes from other directions, too, but I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you.

It’s not long before someone tries to kill Jake, he’s kidnapped more than once, assaulted, and . . . you know what? You wouldn’t believe me if I listed all that happens to this poor writer (also, why ruin the surprise?)—I couldn’t help imagining MacMaster asking himself, “What else can I do to Jake? A tiger attack? Nah, not sure how to get him in the cage, but I do know how to ….”

The LAPD is eager to pin all of the death and destruction on Jake, but the more they press him, the more adamant he becomes that he won’t leave. Given the strong cloud of suspicion that North Korea is behind the hack, and presumably the murder of his friend, the FBI is involved, too. They’re less inclined to suspect Jake of having anything to do with the murder, but they’d like him away from the case.

There are more than the requisite number of twists and turns to this case, none of them feels forced or gratuitous. And even when you’re faster at putting the pieces together than Jake is, you should probably take a beat before criticizing him, because you’re probably not as right as you think you are.

The tone is what separates this from similar mysteries. This is not a comedy —there’s a brutal murder, including signs of torture to start things off. There are threats of violence, actual violence, and more deaths to come. But the way that MacMaster tells it makes it become one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads of the year. Think Marshall Karp’s Lomax and Biggs Mysteries for tone. That’s probably not the most helpful comparison, come to think of it, because I’m not sure how many people are familiar with them (too few for sure). Okay, think of this as a Shane Black story—just a novel instead of a script, and there’s no tie to Christmas. MacMaster’s Kirby Baxter books are more overtly comical than his Jake Mooney books, but both are just flat-out entertaining and laugh-filled.

Typically, in books/TV/movies, Hollywood Agents are not depicted sympathetically. Which is probably a bit of an understatement, really. But Jake’s old friend and new agent are both depicted as decent people that he can rely on. That’s not really a plus or a minus when it comes to evaluating, but it’s so strange that I felt compelled to mention it. I can’t remember another fictional Agent who wasn’t some sort of duplicitous, manipulative, weasel.

The story, Jake and the other characters, the fun had a Hollywood’s expense, the twists, etc. would’ve been good enough to make me rave. But there’s a Chinese gentleman that plays a big role in the novel—I don’t want to say much about him, because you just have to meet him yourself. He pops up repeatedly throughout the novel, yet we really don’t spend that much time with him altogether. But he steals every scene he’s in. He’s one of my favorite new characters of 2019. If there’s a Hacked Again or Hack Harder or whatever, I hope MacMaster can come up with an excuse to use him again.

I just had so much fun with this one (a common theme when it comes to MacMaster)—I can’t think of a single reason why someone shouldn’t read this (you don’t have to read Hack first, by the way). Jake was right in what he said before, the problem with sequels is that they have to top the one that went before. Hacked easily does that. It’s smartly-written, cleverly-plotted and just fun to read. Go run and grab it!


4 1/2 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.

Fahrenbruary Repost: Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster: A Murder Mystery as Fun as The Buggles’ Song

(or the cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, either will work)

Video Killed the Radio StarVideo Killed the Radio Star

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #2

Kindle Edition, 261 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: October 15 – 16, 2018

“I fear we will never be mistaken for the Algonquin Round Table.”

“We’ll have to work on our witty repartee,” said Molly. “I plan on taking a course on banter, ripostes, badinage, and persiflage.”

“Even persiflage?”

“Especially persiflage,” said Molly. “There is nothing worse than sub-par persiflage.”

“You might need to get a sub-par persiflage lanced.”

“We’ve hit the nonsense phase of the night earlier than usual.”

“I like nonsense,” said Kirby, “it distracts me.”

Kirby Baxter just wants to live a quiet life out of the spotlight: hanging out with his girlfriend, Molly, when he can; restoring a car with his valet/bodyguard/etc.; and drawing his comics. And now that the excitement about the murder he solved at Omnicon dying down, he’s on the verge of doing that. But the mayor of his hometown knows Kirby, and has no shame in extorting his cooperation with a small problem that he’s having.

You see, one of the town’s major landmarks — an old, abandoned mansion — is in dire need of upkeep and remodeling. And a reality show full of C-List celebrities (maybe D- or E-list) have recently set up shop to do that work. But the city’s having second thoughts and they want Kirby and his über-perception skills to find a reason to shut down production and send them packing to disrupt another locale.

Kirby visits the production, talks to the cast and producers, looks around and comes up with a lot of observations and conclusions — and could cause a lot of inconvenience and embarrassment for everyone involved from those observations — but he can’t find what the mayor wants. That accomplished, he gets back to pursuing his best life now — which lasts just a few hours. Because before he can start to collect from the mayor for the work, one of the celebrities is found dead.

So, it’s back to the mansion for Kirby, this time to act as a consultant ot the local police as they investigate this suspicious death. Which is soon followed by another. And an attack on another cast member. And . . . well, you get the idea.

It’s nice that MacMaster didn’t repeat the whole “Kirby has to win over a skeptical and antagonistic police officer” thing — this time, thanks to most of the force having grown up with him, they all accept his talents and skills — an expect him to deliver.

The cast of the reality show, “Million Dollar Madhouse,” is filled with the typical collection of has-beens, almost-weres, and celebs trying to stage a comeback. Initially, I rolled my eyes at each of them, but the more time I spent with them, the more I appreciated and enjoyed them. In particular, the Kardashian-esque character totally won me over. Like in the previous book, there’s a large cast of characters that MacMaster juggles expertly — there are so many suspects to the murders, as well as witnesses for Kirby and the police to wade through.

Almost every serious suspect has the same defense — they didn’t want the initial victim dead. They wanted him to make a fool out of himself on national TV, possibly seriously injuring himself with a power tool. Some would follow that up with some other form of revenge — but if he’s dead, no one could get the revenge they wanted. It’s not ideal, but it’s an honest defense.

Gustave was slightly less super-human this time out — but he’s still in the Ranger/Hawk/Joe Pike nigh-impossible stratosphere. As much as I like everyone else in this series, it’s arguable that Gustave is MacMaster’s best creation — not just the character, but how MacMaster uses him.

I did miss Mitch. But was glad to see Molly and Kirby talk about him — and even make a joke he wasn’t around to make himself. It’s probably good that he wasn’t around — it’ll mean when we see him again, it’ll be easy to appreciate him without worrying about over exposure.

In the place of Mitch, we have Molly’s assertive and cunning cousin — she runs a gossip-website and wheedles her way into the investigation in order to land a story big enough to put her and her site on the map. Kirby clearly vacillates between finding uses for her and finding her distracting.

Molly and Kirby are cuter together than they were previously, and I could watch the two of them banter any day. It seemed harder to incorporate Molly into the story this time, and hopefully it’s easier for MacMaster in Kirby #3, but as difficult as it was, it was absolutely worth it.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about MacMaster’s writing that works so well for me, but it does. Just before I started writing this, I started to draw some parallels between these Kirby Baxter books and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). I didn’t have time to fully flesh this idea out, but Raskin’s work definitely was formative for me and if the comparison hold up, that could explain a lot. The mix of humor, real emotions and complex mystery is the sweet spot for me and MacMaster consistently hits it. It’s not easy, there are precious few who try — and fewer that succeed. This is the third novel I’ve read by him and it seals the deal, I’ll buy everything he writes as soon as I can without really looking at what the book is about.

I was a little worried that this book wouldn’t live up to A Mint-Conditioned Corpse, and I don’t think it did — but I don’t know what could have for me. I’d enjoyed the other so much that it’s almost impossible to live up to — and the reality show setting didn’t do anything for me — they just leave me cold. The fact I’m rating Video Killed the Radio Star as high as I am is all about how effortlessly charming and entertaining this seems. Effortless always, always, always equals blood, sweat and tears — or at least a lot of work. This must’ve taken a great deal of labor, and it was absolutely worth it. A clever mystery, clever dialogue, and very clever characters in a funny, twisty story. The Kirby Baxter books are must reads, no doubt about it. Give this one a shot — I don’t see how you can’t enjoy it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: A Mint-Conditioned Corpse by Duncan MacMaster: I run out of superlatives and can’t stop talking about this Mystery that filled me with joy.

Kirby Baxter is possibly my favorite new-to-me character from 2018, you can probably tell that from these next two reposts…And, yes, I’m sticking with the classic cover, although the paperback I bought myself last year has a niftier cover.

This is one of those times that I liked something so much that I just blathered on for a bit, and I’m not sure how much sense it made. The first and last paragraphs are coherent, I’m not really sure the rest is…

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #1
Kindle Edition, 275 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016
Read: July 27, 2018

Is this the best-writing I’ve encountered in a Detective Novel this year? Nope. Is this the most compelling, the tensest thrill-ride of a Mystery novel this year? Nope. Is this full of the darkest noir, the grittiest realism, the starkest exposure of humanity’s depths? Good gravy, no! This is, however, a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.

Think Monk at it’s best. Psych at its least annoying. Castle at it’s most charming. Moonlighting season 1 — I’m going to stop now.

So Kirby Baxter is a comic book writer/artist who breathed new life into a stagnant character which led to the revitalizing of an entire comic book company (not quite as old as DC, nowhere near as successful as Marvel — and somehow hadn’t been bought out by either). He was unceremoniously fired just before he became incredibly well-off (and investments only improved that). Following his new wealth, a thing or two happened in Europe and he gained some notoriety there helping the police in a few countries. Now, he’s coming back to North America to attend OmniCon — a giant comic con in Toronto — returning to see a mentor rumored to attend and maybe stick his toe back in the industry that he loves.

While there we meet his colorist and friend, Mitch — a diminutive fellow, convinced he’s God’s gift to the ladies (most of whom hope he comes with a gift receipt), and just a riot to read about. Molly, a fan, former coworker and friend of Kirby’s who wears her heart on her sleeve (it’s not her fault if people don’t notice it). That needs to be better. Erica is many a dream-come-true — an impossibly good-looking model and would-be actress who is sincere and sweet. Her assistant Bruce is a pretty good guy, too. Her best friend and former mentor, Andi is almost as too-good-to-be-true, and married to a renowned DJ who is providing some of the entertainment at OmniCon. There’s comic dealers, a film director, a crazy actress, Kirby’s former boss, and so many other colorful characters that my notes include a joke about a cast the size of Game of Thrones.

And then there’s Gustav. Words I don’t know how to describe Gustav. Imagine having Batman as your Jeeves. He’s a valet/driver/bodyguard that Kirby picked up in Europe, combining the cool and lethal factor of Spenser’s Hawk, Plum’s Ranger and Elvis’ Pike (except he makes Pike seem chatty). I’d include Wolfe’s Saul Panzer, but Saul isn’t the lethal type that the rest are — but Gustav has the effortless magic about him that makes Saul a winner. If the rest of the book was “meh” and Gustav was still in it? I’d tell you to read the book.

At some point, a corpse shows up — and like the comic book world’s answer to Jessica Fletcher, Kirby identifies the death as a murder — not the accident it appears to be to many. For various and sundry reasons — starting with him being correct, and continuing on to the incidents in Europe — Kirby is roped into helping the police with the investigation. Also, like Fletcher, he’s uniquely gifted to help the police in these circumstances. He’s smart, he has a eidetic memory, can catch a tell or a microexpression like nobody’s business. You throw him into a consulting role with the police, with his friends along for the ride and I’m telling you, you’ve got the most entertaining mystery novel I’ve read this year.

This book’s look at comic conventions reminded me of A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. But where this one is played for laughs, Proehl was serious — but both show an appreciation for, an affection for the culture that surrounds the cons and the people involved. After reading this, I was ready to buy tickets for the OmniCon.

It’s a funny, fast, romp — a very contemporary take on a Golden Age-mystery. Lots of twists and turns, more crimes than you think are happening and more villains than you can shake a stick at. I thought (and still do) that Duncan MacMaster’s Hack showed that he was an author to keep an eye on — this is better.

A Mint-Conditioned Corpse hit the sweet spot for me — a convergence of so many of my likes told with just the right tone (another one of my likes), while maintaining a pretty decent whodunit at the core. I probably smiled for the entire time I spent reading it — well, at least the last 90% once I started to get a feel for things — at 8% I made a note about Kirby “I’m really going to like him,” and a few paragraphs later, I wrote “I already really like him” about Mitch. And I was right about Kirby, and kept liking Mitch — the rest of the characters are about as good as them, and the story is as good as the people in it are. Is everyone going to enjoy this one as much as me? Nope. But I can’t imagine someone not having a ball reading this. Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.

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5 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: A Few Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

Not only did the good people at Fahrenheit Press provide me with Duncan MacMaster’s Hack (which I just posted about), I got an interview with Mr. MacMaster as well! As usual, this is short and sweet, he’s got better things to do than come up with clever answers for me, y’know? Seriously, loved his answers. Give this a read and then scurry out to buy his book.

Would you like to give the elevator pitch for Hack? (for that matter, if you want to throw one in for A Mint Condition Corpse, that’d be fine, too)
The elevator pitch for Hack would be: A desperate man is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a washed up TV star with scandal in his past and murder in his future.

The pitch for A Mint Condition Corpse would be: A semi-retired artist’s trip to his favourite comic book convention is spoiled by murder, and only he can solve it.

Do you have experience as a Ghost Writer? Is Hack your way working out some demons? Or does it have a much more benign genesis?
I never specifically worked as a ghostwriter. I did do things like selling jokes to comedians (no one you ever heard of) so I know a bit about doing something that someone else gets credit for.

There is a certain amount of exorcism in the genesis of Hack. By the time I got to writing it I had spent a very long time getting metaphorically kicked in the head by the writing business. The joke market had dried up, and I spent years enduring rejections that ranged from the incoherent to the callous, and some career setbacks that were downright ridiculous.

As you could guess, those experiences left some demons that needed to be exorcised, and Jake Mooney, the hack writer of the title, did it for me. Jake’s had a life defined by setbacks and it’s made him bitter, cynical, and lonely. He sees being a credited author as a step towards some redemption as a writer, and solving the crimes as an attempt at redeeming himself as a human being.

Of course none of this was conscious while I was writing it. While putting down that first draft all I could think about was the plot, the characters and making sure everything made sense. I didn’t discover what I had done with Jake’s and my own hunger for redemption and validation until working on later drafts.

It was different with my first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse. That started with a conscious decision to make Kirby Baxter, card-carrying comics geek, the Sherlockian hero instead of the comedy relief sidekick, and to use him as a vehicle to combine mystery with a satire of pop culture and the people who run it. Hack, has a lot more of my id running amok in it.

You’ve done a little in other genres, but your publications seem to be predominately in the Crime/Mystery genre. What is it about the genre that brings you back? Is there a genre you particularly enjoy, but don’t think you could write?
I’ve dabbled in science fiction, fantasy, and even horror, and I do plan to do more in those genres in the future, but mystery/crime does seem to have a grip on me. Probably because it deals with people who are at the extremes of their emotions, and also because it’s a genre that’s is still a wide open field when it comes to narrative possibilities.

I always credit my narrative style to SCTV. It was a sketch comedy show I watched as a child that parodied television and movies, and it taught me that popular culture is loaded with tropes and cliches that create expectations in the audience. If you know them and understand them, then you can use them to manipulate expectations to misdirect, surprise, amuse, and hopefully amaze the audience.

When I started reading crime fiction in my teens I began to see the patterns inherent in the genre, and started seeing how they could be manipulated to create something new and entertaining.

As for a genre I enjoy, but don’t think I could write….well, I’m not sure. I’m sure readers would tell me if I really screwed up. My bet would be on straight up horror without any sort of mystery to solve inside it.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a relatively slim volume that contains an epic inside. It sets a high standard that I hope to come close to some day. For the most part I tend to avoid reading fiction while I’m writing. I have a bad habit of inadvertently imitating whoever I’m reading. I wrote some truly dreadful pastiches while I was on a Lovecraft reading binge in my early twenties. All sorts of gooey overwrought eldritch nonsense.
This one’s not about you directly, but what is it about Fahrenheit Press that seems to generate the devotion and team spirit that it does (or at least appears to)? I don’t know that I’ve seen as many authors from the same publisher talk about/read each other’s books — or talk about the publisher — as much as you guys seem to. Is it simply contractual obligation, or is there more?
There’s no contractual obligation for camaraderie at Fahrenheit Press, or the House of Love, as our fearless leader likes to call it.

I can sum it up this way: Joining Fahrenheit is like joining a punk band in the mid-70s.

We don’t know what the future holds, or what we will achieve in the end. All we do know is that we are a band of misfits who are all doing what we love, we’re breaking rules and conventions that some thought were inviolate, and that we are all in this wild ride together.

Fahrenheit has been the best experience I’ve ever had in publishing, and I’m sure my fellow authors will agree with me on that.

What’s next for Duncan MacMaster?
I just finished the first draft of a sequel to A Mint Condition Corpse, called Video Killed The Radio Star, and the brutal editing/rewrite process awaits me. I’m also developing a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator. I am even outlining a potential sequel to Hack called Hacked, where Jake goes Hollywood. I’m hoping to complete all these projects and make them worthy of publication as soon as possible.

What happens after that, is anyone’s guess.

Thank you for having me on your blog.

Thanks for your time — I really appreciate it, and hope that the Hack‘s release is successful (as it deserves).

Fahrenbruary Repost: Hack by Duncan MacMaster

We’re focusing on Duncan MacMaster for the next few days of Fahrenbruary. Which means that things are going to be a lot of fun.

This feels a bit rushed to me — and more than a little vague. I guess it should, it was a little rushed, I liked this book enough that I pounded it out a couple of hours after finishing it, I didn’t want to sit on it for a while. And if the post is vague, it’s because this is the kind of mystery difficult to talk about without cracking open all the secrets, and because a lot of what I really liked about this is in the little details MacMaster gave. You need to experience it yourself to get what I’m saying.

HackHack

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Jake Mooney, #1

Uncorrected Proof
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: February 28 – March 1, 2016

Little victories, since they’re all I can hope for, they’re what I live for.

Jake Mooney used to be a pretty good reporter — good reputation, good results — but he got out of that game and got into a more lucrative field, even if it was more distasteful. Events transpired,  and that goes away — I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it involves lawyers and an ex-wife. Nowadays, he gets by being a ghost-writer for established authors who don’t have the time or ability to write their own material. Out of the blue, he gets an offer to help a former TV star, Rick Rendell, write his autobiography. He’ll even get credited for it. Credit — and a nice cash bonus. How can he say no?

Before you can say “Jessica Fletcher,” someone tries to kill Jake and then Rick is shot in front of a handful of witnesses, including Jake. Between his affection for (some of) the people in Rick’s life, worry over his own safety, curiosity, and his own sense of justice, Jake dives in and investigates the murder himself.

Jake finds himself knee-deep in a morass involving unscrupulous agents (I’m not sure there’s another kind in fiction), wives (current and ex-), Hollywood politics, an IRS investigation, a Drug Cartel, former co-stars, hedge fund managers, hit men, and a decades-old mysterious death. And a few more fresh deaths. . The notes he’s already taken for the book gives Jake fodder for his investigation — but the combination of notes and his continuing work provides the killer a constant target (and threat). As long as Jake’s working on the mystery/mysteries — and doing better than the police at uncovering crimes and suspects — the killer can’t just escape, Jake has to be stopped.

The voice was great, the mystery had plenty of twists and turns, Jake’s ineptitude with firearms was a great touch and served to keep him from being a super-hero. I really can’t think of anything that didn’t work. There’s not a character in the book that you don’t enjoy reading about. I had three strong theories about what led to Rick’s death and who was responsible — the one I feared the most wasn’t it (thankfully — it was a little too trite). My favorite theory was ultimately right about the who, but was absolutely wrong about everything else. I take that as a win — I felt good about my guess and better about the very clever plotting and writing that outsmarted me.

That’s more about me than I intended it to be, so let me try this again — MacMaster has set up a great classic mystery — a la Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. A dogged investigator with a personal stake in the case, supporting characters that you can’t help but like (or dislike, as appropriate), a number of suspects with reasons to kill the victim (with a decent amount of overlap between those two groups), and a satisfying conclusion that few readers will see coming. Hack is funny, but not in a overly-comedic way, it’s just because Jake and some of the others he’s with have good senses of humor. I chuckled a few times, grinned a few more.

I bought MacMaster’s previous book, A Mint Condition Corpse, when it came out last year — sadly, it’s languishing in a dark corner of my Kindle with a handful of other books from Fahrenheit Press (I’m a great customer, lousy reader, of that Press).  Hack wasn’t just an entertaining read, it was a great motivator to move his other book higher on my TBR list. Get your hands on this one folks, you’ll have a great time.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the publisher, nevertheless, the opinions expressed are my own.

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4 Stars