Pub Day Repost: The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks

ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019
Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

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The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks


ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019

Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Patrick

I won’t say that I saved the best for last — but I’ve saved one of the best for last. I’ve reposted my takes on his two gripping thrillers this week and now it’s time to hear from someone you can trust a lot further than DS Sam Batford. Not only is Ian Patrick a heckuva writer, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve interacted with online — always gracious and encouraging to me personally. That generous spirit is evident here, in addition to some of the best responses I’ve ever received to things I’ve asked. This is a great way to wrap up my involvement in Fahrenbruary.

Enough of my blather, on with a few questions for Ian Patrick.

Tell us about your road to publication — was your plan/dream always to become a novelist, or was this a later-in-life desire (“well, I’ve got to do something when I retire . . . “)?
It’s been a journey in excess of twenty years. I never planned to write novels and certainly not crime novels but circumstances, thankfully, led me to do so. I had to retire two years shy of my thirty year service as a detective with the police. About seven years ago it was discovered I had a very rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. It mainly affects my legs but there’s some upper body proximal weakness too. Not ideal when you’re in law enforcement! I know there are officers with disabilities within the police and it’s a fantastic thing that there are, but for me I couldn’t do the desk job side and decided it was time to leave and spend what mobility I have left with my family.

We relocated to Scotland from London and had a house adapted so I can use my wheelchair and also shower! Prior to moving I’d entered a short story competition with No Exit Press and got down to the final three. I figured I could write and the short story became the opening chapter of Rubicon. I submitted my work to Fahrenheit Press as I’d read their criteria, looked at my subject matter and just knew it was a great match. At the same time various agents were liking the writing but it wasn’t for them. Thankfully Chris discovered my submission on the pile when he was taking timeout for the weekend but wanted something to read. He’d read the first three chapters and took a punt on the rest entertaining him while he relaxed. I was a lucky man as he said yes.

Any road to publication isn’t easy, no matter what route you choose to do. It’s a path of: rejections, self doubt, challenge and introspection. However if the will to write is present it won’t leave you. I’m not of the ‘everyone has a book in them’ school of thought because of this feeling. If that were the case there’d be many more books out than there are now.

To write takes dedication, self belief despite the nagging doubt, discipline, tenacity and courage. Whether that’s a novel, blog, essay or diary, you’re putting a part of you out to the world. A world that’s a very harsh judge. Since publication Rubicon has gone on to be optioned by the BBC for a six part TV series that’s currently in development. I have also shared a stage with Val McDermid and Denise Mina at Bloody Scotland. Not bad for a guy who left school at 16 with nothing more than a, ‘good luck,’ wish from the head.

Your novels are so full of of rich and interesting characters, outside of Sam Batford — which character in Rubicon or Stoned Love was the most fun/rewarding to write and why?
Thanks for saying so, that’s an encouraging thing to read. I loved writing Stoner or Zara Stone. She was a wonderfully rich character to write. Full of self doubt yet coming across as confident in her criminal company. When I worked in London you met young women like her who were trapped by violent relationships, poverty and drugs and couldn’t escape the cycle as it was the only thing they knew and had grown up with. Their cycle of life just became the same as it was so tough to break the mold that circumstances and environment continued to create. As a society we can be too quick to judge those less fortunate and apathetic to wanting to instigate any real change. Change must start at an individual level in order for a wider community to see the benefits.
Batford seems to be an inherently unlikable/despicable character — he’s the kind of police officer that other detectives would work to bring down. I want to ask why you’d design someone like him — but instead, let me ask how much of a challenge is it to get into (and stay in) the mind of a character like that? And, how do you approach depicting a character like that in a way that you’ll get readers to want to spend time with him?
This is a very intuitive question. You’ve picked up on a real issue for me when writing about Batford and what he is capable of as a cop and human being. I can’t tell you how he came to be the way he is but that’s how he panned out as soon as I’d finished the first chapter. The protagonist could’ve been anyone but my mind ended up writing the last paragraph of chapter one with me sitting back thinking, “Hello, where the hell did you come from?”

It was as much of a shock to me as I don’t plan any of my work I simply write and see where it takes me. Once he was there I couldn’t go back no matter how I tried to soften his character it just didn’t work (and I did try it) I’m glad it didn’t as I think he’s a complex individual that readers have a love hate relationship with but they don’t despise him and strangely want him to carry on. At least that’s the feedback I’m getting from the reviews I’ve read.

He is tough to be with on a day to day basis though, even though he’s fictional. I was trained to see corruption and vetted to a very high level to make sure I wasn’t susceptible to turning by criminals. So writing about a corrupt man goes against all my core values. This is also what makes him a challenge to write and strike that balance where the reader has some empathy for him. I’m a believer in the principle of loathing a person’s actions rather than the whole person. Maybe that’s what’s coming out in my writing that makes him ‘acceptable’ enough to readers that they’re happy to read more. I guess that’s a question you could answer or throw out for debate, as I’m guessing!

Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write? Or are you primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader?
I enjoy the works of Philip K Dick. I think he was a genius of his time and his writing still resonates today. I couldn’t write science fiction though as my mind isn’t creative in that way. I read widely across genres as you know from Jo Platt’s Rom-Com! It’s vital, as a writer, that I read widely as there’s some incredible writing out there. Just take a look at any Fahrenheit book and you’ll see that. I do love the writing of Ed McBain, Chuck Palahniuk, Cormac McCarthy, Saira Viola, Mike Grothaus, Jane Issac, Derek Farrell, Tony Cox, Seth Lynch, Paul Brazil and Jo Perry, to name a few. They all bring a unique voice to their work.
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?
Rubicon isn’t my first novel. My first novel was read by someone I know, who’s an editor and author who absolutely slated it. I mean, there was no shit sandwich, it was a brutal destruction that could’ve maimed a writer, other than me, to the point where they wouldn’t write again. I’m not made like that though and twenty-four hours later I was writing Rubicon the short story.

Here’s the thing.. I haven’t had a negative review in two years of publication! Don’t tell anyone, though! If I’m honest I don’t think I’d be the type of person to dwell on it. After all there’s plenty of books I haven’t got on with but that doesn’t mean the writing’s crap. It just means it wasn’t the book for me. That’s the beauty of words, in that everyone’s different.

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?
Definitely not contractual obligation! If it were I wouldn’t have signed as I don’t worship anyone! What you have with Fahrenheit is an indie record label vibe within publishing. So a core group of people will buy what the label produces as they know they don’t produce shit. From that word of mouth spreads and others join in. I’ve found crime writers, in particular, to be a friendly and supportive group of people. The type of people that can hang out together and have fun. You’re right, not every publishing house has a vibe like Fahrenheit. Orenda books is the only other that springs to mind but is totally different. Fahrenheit is unique in what they have created.

For me, what Chris has done is create a publishing house BUT let the readers and authors create the brand. Now that’s not easy for a man who likes to be in control. He’s expressed his core concept and beliefs and put that clearly on his website, much to the chagrin of some, but they wouldn’t be Fahrenheit people in the first place. Punk doesn’t mean aggression, hard, ruthless or conceited. Punk means freedom of expression, liberation, heart and voice. Everything Fahrenheit is becoming. What other publisher has Fahrenhista equivalents getting together to talk books from their publishing house? This isn’t me making it up, just ask Chris.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for the Batford novels, I can’t wait for #3 and hope you find continued success with them.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the support you’ve given me and the thoughtful and open minded reviews you’ve written. Without good people like yourself indie presses wouldn’t exist. We can write as much as we want but it’s down to people like you to get the word out.

Finally you the reader. If you’ve got this far you’ve given up your precious time to find out a little bit more about what I think. But it’s just my opinion and you must feel free to take or leave as you wish. In a world of billions to have your time to listen is a very rare privilege. One I don’t take for granted. Many thanks for all your support.

Fahrenbruary Repost: Stoned Love by Ian Patrick: No Sophomore Slump in Sight with this Thriller.

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #2

Kindle Edition, 246 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: September 14 – 15, 2018

I need to blend in where I shouldn’t belong. The best undercover officers have no air of ego or the appearance of a police mannequin. After all, one sniff of pig and your ass is bacon. I’ve no intention of being served up at any criminal’s barbecue.

How do you follow up 2017’s Rubicon, the twisty, morally ambiguous (at best) tale of an undercover cop? Well, if you’re Ian Patrick, you do it by bringing that shady cop back and putting him in a tighter spot with threats (physical, legal and career) on all sides.

Sam Batford has had a little time off to recuperate and get his head on straight after Rubicon — hopefully giving the heat on him a little time to cool down, and maybe give Big H time to move on from the setback Batford dealt him.

The Met has a new assignment for him — working with the same DCI as he did last time, DCI Klara Winter. During the last assignment, she wasn’t sure she could trust Batford — now she’s convinced that she can’t. In fact, while she wouldn’t mind taking down the criminals that Batford infiltrates, her main objective is to arrest Batford and his Superintendent Mike Hall, a pair she’s convinced are dirty. She’s right, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Ostensibly, Batford’s assignment is to infiltrate a group that’s supposedly planning a major armed robbery and will need a driver of some sorts. But the clock is ticking so he doesn’t have time to do this carefully. Winter has someone already embedded with the crew giving her information, and their primary purpose is to get dirt on Batford and Hall. Which sounds good, but when you get a couple of guys as cagey and wily as this pair, that’s no easy task.

At the same time, Hall’s told Batford that between family and work stresses, this is his last hurrah. Now, he’d like to start his retirement with a sizeable bankroll, and trusts that Batford will find a way to make the both of them some money from just whatever it is that this crew is up to. The crew’s leader, who goes by the cuddly moniker of Razor, is a long-time “unauthorized informant” of Hall’s. And now, he’s sending Batford in to get him arrested. Which seems odd, but it does give Hall enough of an inside track to help Batford.

So, essentially, Batford needs to find a way to get rich off these criminals, hopefully get enough evidence for some arrests, stop them from pulling off whatever they’re trying to — and avoid getting arrested himself (not that he knows he’s being targeted for that). Oh, yeah, and Big H hasn’t moved on, forgotten or forgiven him — in fact, he has an active contract out for Batford’s life, and there are people trying to collect on that. Sounds like a pretty rough time for him.

In Rubicon, there was a question (at least for me) throughout — just how bent is Batford? Will he actually do law enforcement, or is he just out for himself? What are the limits for him? Will he have any success in either his criminal or police activities? In Stoned Love, the questions are different — we know he’s bent pretty far. So it’s just will Batford survive? Will Winter arrest him? Will Hall use him to save his own skin? Will Razor do something to him? Will Big H’s killers eliminate him?

This changed the dynamic of the book for me, and made it a lot easier for me to enjoy this novel and cheer on Batford. There’s no moral or legal gray area any more. Like Michael Corleone or Hannibal Lechter, Sam Batford is a despicable character that the reader wants to find success. Thankfully, he’s nervy enough and clever enough, that there’s a pretty good chance that he will. At least for a while.

Winter is manipulative, deceptive and devoted more to her career than anything else. But she’s, technically, the good guy here. Everyone else is the kind of criminal that the police are supposed to stop, not become. But because we’re in Batford’s head, and Winter’s primarily seen as an obstacle for him to overcome, the reader roots for him and against her — knowing the whole time that it should be the other way around.

There’s frequent and repeated commentary on the effects of Brexit, budget cuts, personnel cuts and other moves by the British government that are impacting the police services throughout the novel. Patrick is a former police officer and if these aren’t his actual views coming forth through Batford, he’s a better author than I think. If Batford’s diagnosis of what’s going on with the police in Britain is accurate, it sounds pretty frightening.

It’s a minor thing — I only noticed this as I started to write this post, and I’ve recently had a bad experience with reading a novel that couldn’t pick a verb tense, so I was primed — but Patrick’s use of the present tense for these books is a subtle, and incredibly effective way of cranking up the tension, propelling the action forward, and pushing the reader to keep up with the pace of the book. I should’ve picked up on it with Rubicon, and am a little annoyed with myself for taking this long to notice.

I enjoyed Rubicon, but I appreciated what Patrick was doing and how he was doing it more. With Stoned Love, I still admired and appreciated his skill and aims, but I enjoyed the story more — I resented things like work and family for preventing me from finishing this as quickly as I wanted to, and absolutely relished an airline flight that meant I had uninterrupted reading time*. I think Stoned Love is an all-around better effort (which is saying something) and makes me very excited to see what comes from Ian Patrick next.

Not everyone enjoys reading books where the police are just as dirty as those they’re supposed to be stopping — and I understand that — but if you’re someone who can embrace a tarnished knight, someone who seems to be law enforcement malgré lui, you don’t want to waste any more time, get your hands on Rubicon and Stoned Love and prepare to be impressed.


* I also really appreciated having this to focus on rather than the fact that I was in a giant metal tube that has no business being that far off the ground, but that’s another story.

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4 1/2 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

I bought this shortly after it was released, and then let it collect e-dust on my e-reader, and pretty much used Damp Pebbles’ Book Tour for this as my excuse to read it. I wasn’t over the moon with this one, but I liked it a lot. And then I spent months thinking about it until the sequel came out. Batford’s the kind of character that will not move out of your headspace like any respectable character does when you start a new book. Rather, he’ll take up residence — scratch that, he’ll squat there, not allowing the lease holder to get comfortable sharing the space with him…. I think this metaphor has gotten out of hand, so I’m going to shut up and get on with the post.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

—–

4 Stars

Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry: Another Winner for this Supernatural Duo

Dead is BeautifulDead is Beautiful

by Jo Perry

Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

Kindle Edition, 268 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019
Read: February 15 – 18, 2019

I can’t explain how death works––I can’t explain cruelty or love––and I don’t know anything for certain except that I failed at life.

Well, I refuse to fuck up my death any more than I already have––

And whatever it means or requires––I won’t fail Rose.

And failing Rose actually seems to be something that can happen here — we’ve seen Charlie and Rose interact with other ghosts before, but not for long — somehow, this time there’s a ghost that they have prolonged — and repeated — interaction with. This other ghost has threatened Rose — despite seemingly being unable to do anything to her, the intent and tone of voice used, scares Rose. And the one thing that’s definitely changed about Charlie post-death is his commitment to this dog, his ability to care for her.

But before we meet this ghost — and see the gruesome, horrific way they become one — we see another killing. The killing of a protected tree. What’s worse, this tree is home to an Spotted Owl and her owlet. While the tree is being (illegally) removed from a plot of land, the owlet falls out and is injured. It was these events that brought Rose, and therefore Charlie, to this area. Coming to the defense of the tree and the owls is a very naked and tattooed woman. She brings in the authorities, and sets off a chain of events that I won’t try to summarize, because you wouldn’t believe me and Perry does a better job than I would in a sentence or two.

This woman, it turns out is named Eleanor Starfeather (really). She’s a doula (birth and death, which is a thing that I just learned exists) and a house sitter — among other things. The house she’s currently sitting belongs to Charlie’s brother and his wife. Charlie’s brother, we already know, is not anyone you want to know. Greedy, superficial, arrogant, vain and uncaring — and his wife is worse. The bulk of the book’s action revolves around these three as they deal with the fall-out from the removal of this tree, the removal of the owlet and the mother owl’s reaction to both being gone. But it also involved a development company — which is developing the land next to Charlie’s brother and a property where Charlie used to live — not that you can tell that anymore.

Charlie and Rose witness a murder near that second property and are pushed into trying to figure out who was behind that murder. Our ghostly pair are hovering around the areas of overlap between the Venn diagram describing these people, company and properties. And slowly, a full picture emerges allowing them to figure out who was behind the murder. Along the way, we (via Charlie and Rose) get to watch the fall-out — involving city politics, real estate development, lawyers, a vengeance-seeking bird, a séance, a mini-Cooper driving Scotsman, and a natural disaster — oh, yeah, and Charlie’s brother having several of the worst days of his life in a row.

This all primarily takes place, where else could it, in Beverly Hills. A place that Charlie clearly has strong opinions about:

Leave it to the City of Beverly Fucking Hills to have “Beverly Hills” engraved twice on its police badges just to emphasize that their black necktied, highly trained, buff, and attractive Beverly Fucking Hills peace officers protect and serve the plastic surgery-altered, chemically peeled, hairlines suture-tightened, Botox-injected, Viagra-aroused, personally trained, lifestyle-coached, professionally organized, blow-dried, sixteen-thousand-dollar blinged-out handbag cultists and their Orc boyfriends and husbands here in this omphalos of malignant narcissism, this authentic-human-emotion-sucking manicured vortex with its fluffy cashmere clouds scudding across the Tiffany-blue vacancy that hangs above the abomination known the world over as Beverly Fucking Hills.

Which adds a different feel to the book than we’ve had in the series. We’ve bounced around from place to place in this series, but I don’t knows that I’ve had such a strong sense location before (I’m not suggesting the earlier books were missing anything, but this has added something). We do spend some time in Charlie’s old neighborhood, but not that much.

It’s possible that Charlie refers to the city with the two words that most people use, but I think it’s always his special elongated form. Ditto for his older sibling, or as he seemingly always refers to him, “my shit brother.” Maybe one reason that Charlie and Rose are still hanging around is that Charlie still holds such determined thoughts and passionate feelings about things like his brother and this city.

In Dead is Good, we got to witness Charlie realize how much someone meant to him, in ways hadn’t really seen in life. In Dead is Beautiful, we get to witness Charlie smitten with a woman — of course, it’ll be unrequited (and would’ve likely been if he was flesh and blood, too), but he is fixated on Eleanor. It’s a side of him that’s nice to see. It’s also helpful for there to be people he actually likes involved with everything he’s witnessing, so he can be positive about some of what happens. By the end of the novel, Charlie does realize a few things about his brother and the way he thinks about him — I’m not sure there’s growth there, but there’s self-awareness, which is almost as good.

We also get a few more clues about the nature of the afterlife and how things work for the souls of the deceased (man or beast…at least dog), but no real answers. I’m okay with that, I don’t think I want answers, I like not getting this afterlife, as long as Charlie and Rose are figuring out what the living are up to.

Last week, when I reposted what I’d written about the first three books, I felt awkward about my frequent references to “funny.” When I think back on these books, I don’t think about funny — I think about the crimes, the victims, the reflections on society and death that these books focus on. But I felt vindicated reading this, because it’s a very funny book. There’s slapstick all over the place — even when the events depicted aren’t that funny, they’re told in a way that clearly tells the reader to smile and chuckle. Just that description of Beverly Hills above demonstrates the oft-comedic voice.

But it’s not all funny — there’s a reverence toward death, toward life, toward the relationship between people and dogs. The fate and well-being of the tree and owls are treated seriously and with care. The comedy comes in Charlie’s observations of and reactions to the events he witnesses. His first exposure to Alexa, for example, made me laugh out loud.

As Charlie (ever so gradually) evolves (Charlie of the first two books doesn’t treat the other ghost the way this Charlie does), as we spend more time in this world, Perry keeps improving — this is one of those series that improves as it goes on. These unique protagonists get us to look at life and events in a different kind of way, while reading very different kind of mysteries. I hope I get to keep spending time with them for a long time to come — and I strongly encourage you to join in the fun.

—–

4 Stars

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin: Back in the saddle again, Out where Cafferty is a friend?

Standing in Another Man's GraveStanding in Another Man’s Grave

by Ian Rankin

Series: John Rebus, #18

Paperback, 432 pg.
Back Bay Books, 2013
Read: February 1 – 4, 2019

           Rebus had lost count of the number of cases he’d worked, cases often as complex as this one, requiring interview after interview, statement after statement. He thought of the material in the boxes, now being pared over by those around him–paperwork generated in order to show effort rather than with any great hope of achieving a result. Yes, he’d been on cases like that, and others where he’d despaired of all the doors knocked on, the blank faces of the questioned. But sometimes a due or a lead emerged, or two people came forward to furnish the same name. Suspects were whittled down. Alibis and stories unraveling after the third or fourth retelling. Pressure was sustained, enough evidence garnered to present to the Procurator Fiscal.

And then there were the lucky breaks–the things that just happened. Nothing to do with dogged perseverance or shrewd deduction: just sheer bloody happenstance. Was the end result any less of a victory? Yes, always. It was possible that there was something he had missed in the files, some connection or thread. Watching the team at work, he couldn’t decide if he would want them to find it or not. It would make him look stupid, lazy, out of touch. On the other hand, they needed a break, even at the expense of his vanity.

The book opens with Rebus at the funeral for another retired cop — it’s a strong reminder that there’s not much else in his future. A few more drinks, another handful of cigarettes, a few more unfinished books and then death. He’s got to find away to keep himself going. Having taken to retirement like a duck to the Sahara, Rebus has found work as a civilian in a cold-case unit. It doesn’t seem to be the most effective or active unit, but it’s something. True to form, he spends a lot of time butting heads with the head of the unit — who is actually a serving detective, unlike the rest of the civilians. There’s a chance when the book opens that Rebus could get re-hired as a detective, and he’s looking for anything to help that. When someone comes to visit the man who started this unit — who is now very retired and unavailable — Rebus sees his chance. He meets with this woman who claims that the recent disappearance of a young woman matches the circumstances of her daughter over a decade ago. Not just her daughter’s disappearance, but some others in the intervening years. If Rebus can demonstrate there’s a tie to these disappearances — and find out what’s happened to them and who’s responsible (preferably while the latest victim is still alive), that would go a long way to ensuring him a way back from retirement.

It doesn’t hurt that before coming to him, this distraught mother spoke to someone about the new missing person — DI Siobhan Clarke. Now, Clarke (and her boss) aren’t instantly convinced that Rebus has anything other than the desperate rantings of this woman, but she’s willing to give him enough rope to get started. Which is all Rebus needs to throw himself into things.

The latest woman to go missing has some tenuous connections to organized crime figures in Edinburgh, which may have made her a target — and also may give Rebus resources to find her that other victims’ families can’t give. He’s not shy about exploiting either option there. He also starts diving into the files and lives of the other missing women. What he finds isn’t encouraging, but it’s enough to keep investigation going. Rebus being Rebus, it’s not long before he starts finding enough strings to pull to get at least a few things unraveling. And once that starts, the rest of the case is vintage Rebus — asking questions, annoying the right (and the wrong) people, and finally putting everything together. The mystery is solved in a satisfactory way, but a lot of things were uncovered along the way that some would’ve preferred not being uncovered, relationships damaged, people hurt and lives changed. Even the positive outcomes were largely muddied, and the grays probably outnumbered the blacks and the whites.

Naturally, there’s a lot going on in this book beside the case(s). In this book, this primarily focused on three people in Rebus’ life (whether he wants them there or not).

One thing that’s new in Rebus’ retirement is that he’s picked up a new drinking buddy. Big Ger Cafferty has decided that he owes his life to Rebus (something that Rebus isn’t incredibly comfortable with). So Cafferty will take Rebus out for drinks on a regular basis. Rebus’ impression of Big Ger hasn’t changed at all, but free drinks are free drinks. so he lets Cafferty buy. The two of them being seen in public regularly together is proof to his detractors that all the rumors were true, however. This isn’t really making his case for him.

Having Rebus around is a challenge for his old friend and former mentee, Siobhan Clarke. She knows that Rebus is capable of pulling more than his fair share of rabbits from hats, and with a case/cases as messy as this, she’ll take his brand of results over nothing. But, he undercuts her leadership, he distracts her people from their tasks, and frankly, makes her look bad in front of her bosses. If she can’t control this civilian interloper, maybe she’s not the leader they thought she was. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think Siobhan of Exit Music and before wants to think she’d turn into the kind of DI she has, either. And Rebus makes her take stock of how much she may have “sold out” just by being around. Not that she’s become 100% by the book and in blind lockstep with the chain of command, but she’s a lot closer to it than she had been.

And, of course, we don’t say goodbye to our new friend, Malcolm Fox. We just get to see him in a new light. He’s now cast as an antagonist to Rebus. He’s not a villain, don’t get me wrong — but he’s working against Rebus, and definitely making his life harder. Of course, the way things were headed for much of this book, Siobhan might soon find herself as an antagonist to Rebus, too. It’s difficult seeing Fox in these terms, but thankfully we know we can like and trust him from his own two books, because there’s very little in these pages to commend him. But we know that Fox is a straight-shooter and he’s only got Rebus in his sights because he thinks he deserves it. Well, and maybe he got his nose bent out of shape by the man when he was in CID with him. But primarily it’s Rebus’ lifestyle — the smoking, the drinking, the going off on his own to investigate — Fox sees Rebus as a relic, the old model of detective that the service is trying to get away from. The kind of bad influence that could tank Clarke’s promising career. And then there’s his public drinking with Cafferty (not to mention all the rumors about the two of them). We know Fox is wrong — about the serious stuff anyway. But we also know he’s not totally wrong about Rebus. The only question is, will Rebus be able to win Fox over, or will he be able to work around him?

I like the Fox-Rebus dynamic, in the short-term. But I think it could get really old, really fast.

It looks like the next book will have Rebus back in CID, which is a shame. In a sense. Now, let me explain myself before Paul (and maybe others) fills my inbox/comments with objections. I’m not opposed to Rebus becoming a detective again. But I like Rebus doing cold case work. When he’s worked cold cases before — whether out of curiosity or because they’ve been reopened — he’s done really well, and the resulting books were really good. Fox did pretty good with a cold case, too, let’s not forget. In other words, Ian Rankin can write a very effective novel with his protagonists working cold cases, and I’d like to see Rebus doing nothing else for a while (especially as a civilian). Then again, we got a handful of Bosch novels doing that, why get greedy?

I enjoyed the Fox books, but this felt like coming home. It was only a few lines into the book before I think I “felt” the difference, we were back where we were supposed to be. I’m not sure how accurate that was then, but the book as a whole felt different than the Fox books did. Rankin kept a lot of plates spinning, balls in the air, or whatever cliché you want to use, here — he brought back Rebus, shook up his life a bit more, showed that Clarke was doing fine on her own, brought Fox in, showed what post-Big Ger Edinburgh was like, set up the next stage of Rebus’ career, and managed to tell a heckuva twisty murder/missing persons story. He probably accomplished a few other things, too, but that list is enough. Standing in Another Man’s Grave is just another bit of proof that Rankin is among the genre’s crème de la crème.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge