Universal Monster Book Tag


Witty and Sarcastic Book Club tagged me in her little creation—a tag based on Universal’s Classic Movie Monsters. There’s a lot of recency bias in my pics, but oh well—I liked the list. I really need to do more things like this, it was fun.

While trying to come up with the last couple of entries for this, I took a Facebook break and read a couple of posts on a Nero Wolfe fan group, and realized I could fill my blanks from that Corpus. Then it occurred to me that I could do one of these with entries only from the Nero Wolfe series. Or, the Spenser series. Huh. (I’d have trouble with some other series depending how you define “sequel” below). Watch me control the impulse.

bullet Dracula: a book with a charismatic villain
The Silence of the Lambs
My Pick: Gotta go with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, every other charismatic villain I can think of pales in comparison.
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: (yeah, so much for restraint—this was a fun additional challenge) Paul Chapin in The League of Frightened Men (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Gray Man in Small Vices

bullet The Invisible Man: A book that has more going on than meets the eye
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity
My Pick: The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Even in the Best Families
Bonus Spenser Pick: Early Autumn

bullet Wolf-Man: A complicated character
Needle Song
My Pick: Doc Slidesmith in Needle Song (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Can I just use Nero Wolfe? Eh, Orrie Cather in A Family Affair
Bonus Spenser Pick: Patricia Utley in Mortal Stakes

bullet Frankenstein: A book with a misunderstood character
The Unkindest Tide
My Pick: The Luidaeg in The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Over My Dead Body (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: Hawk, A Promised Land

bullet The Bride of Frankenstein: A sequel you enjoyed more than the first book
Stoned Love
My Pick: Stoned Love by Ian Patrick (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: The League of Frightened Men (yeah, that’s the second time this shows up, but it’s the sequel…) (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: God Bless the Child

bullet Creature from the Black Lagoon: An incredibly unique book
A Star-Reckoner's Lot

(there’s a better cover now, but this is the first)

My Pick: A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Some Buried Ceasar (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: A Savage Place

bullet The Mummy: A book that wraps up nicely (see what I did there?)
Every Heart a Doorway
My Pick: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: This applies to almost every one of them, I’m going to go with The Doorbell Rang
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Judas Goat

I’m not going to tag anyone, but I’d encourage any reader to give it a shot. I’d like to see your lists.

Also, I’ve been thinking for awhile I needed to do a re-read of the Spenser series. This post has convinced me I really need to get on that.

Land of Wolves by Craig Johnson: Longmire’s back home and hunting for killers (human and animal alike)

Land of Wolves

Land of Wolves

by Craig Johnson
Series: Walt Longmire, #15

Hardcover, 336 pg.
Viking, 2019

Read: September 24-25, 2019

It’s hard to think of a place in Wyoming where the wind doesn’t reign supreme; where the sovereignty of sound doesn’t break through the parks of the Bighorns with a hoarse-throated howl. I sometimes wonder if the trees miss the wind in the infrequent moments when it dies down, when the air is still and the skies are a threadbare blue, thin and stretching above the mountains. Needled courtesans—the lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and Engelmann spruce—stand at the edge of the great park like wallflowers awaiting the beseeching hand of the wind to invite them to the dance floor. And I can’t help but wonder that when the sway passes and the trees are still, do they pine for that wind; do they grieve?

Ahhh…it’s good to be back in Absaroka County.

Walt starts off investigating the death of a sheep—probably at the hands, er, teeth of a wolf. This wolf is likely from Yellowstone and kicked out of his pack. Now that he’s probably/possibly killed a sheep, it certainly appears to be open season for him soon. Oddly, there’s no sign of a shepherd for this dead sheep, which gets Walt and Vic to go looking.

Sadly, they find the shepherd hanging from a tree—possibly the loneliness of the Wyoming wilderness got to him, or maybe he was killed. Neither case looks easy to wrap up, which means that it’s time for Walt to get back to focus more on the job and less on recovery from the horrible injuries (physical and mental) sustained in Mexico.

Walt is largely ready for this kind of thing, he needs something to focus on. He has to first deal with a labor and wildlife advocate who knew both the wolf and shepherd, and she doesn’t trust Walt’s approach to either. There’s also the shepherd’s employer—a member of the same family that left then-Sheriff Lucian Connally without a leg. There’s a populace worried about the presence of wolves in the area (ignoring the fact that there’s only one that’s been seen). Also, Henry adds the possibility that this wolf is actually a messenger from the spirits with a vision for Walt. Lastly, the entire Sheriff’s department wonders how long it’ll be until Walt does something to endanger his life—and just how bad that’ll be.

Most dramatically, a computer is installed on Walt’s desk, “the slippery slope to a cell phone.” Despite this intrusion of the 1990’s into his life, Walt perseveres.

This brings Walt back to Absaroka, he hasn’t spent a novel here since 2015’s Dry Bones (it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long), and the citizens are aware he’s spending a lot of time away. We see the old regulars, which should make long-time fans happy. But best of all, the story is classic Longmire—an exploration of Wyoming’s past and future just as much as it is the past and future of the characters (regulars and new to the series).

Early on, Walt’s on an unexpected hike and it’s taking it’s toll:

I pushed off the tree and started back at a slow pace, wondering if I ’d ever pick up the step I’d lost in Mexico. Maybe that was the way of things; sometimes you paid a price and never get to make another deposit into your account and eventually you are overdrawn. Lately, I’d been feeling like I was standing at the counter, the cashier always closing the window in my face.

That neatly summed up my fears about the series in general, particularly how it’d work after Mexico. If the series was going to continue in the vein of Depth of Winter, I’d have a hard time sticking around. But I’m happy to say that while the effects of Mexico linger, and will continue to be felt for some time, I’m not going anywhere. There were repeated signals throughout this novel that the status quo shouldn’t be taken for granted when it comes to any of these characters (except maybe Henry, he’ll only change when he wants to), but the same things that have been drawing readers to Walt Longmire for 15 books are still at the character’s and series’ core.

Leaving the state of the series aside, this was one of my favorite installments in the series (sure, I might be extra generous given my fears after Depth of Winter). The characters shone—it’s one of Sancho’s best outings, and Vic was just great. The story was compelling, a great mix of a drama and comedic moments, and the mystery was satisfying (maybe a little easy to suss out for the reader, but Johnson hit every beat correctly). I’m already counting the days until #16.


4 1/2 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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.

—–

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

Opening Lines – A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author — but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. Would it make you commit? How can you not?

Listen.

At some point, a poor sap will look at you and say, “This is the worst day of my life.”

But as long as you have breath in your lungs to say those words, you’re not having your worst day. You haven’t even hit rock bottom, much less started to dig. You can still come back from a car wreck, or that terrifying shadow on your lung X-ray, or finding your wife in bed with the well-hung quarterback from the local high school. Sometimes all you need to solve your supposedly world-ending problems is time and care, or some cash, or a shovel and a couple of garbage bags.

If you see me coming, on the other hand, I guarantee you’re having your worst day. Not to mention your last.

Let me show you how bad it can get. How deep the hole goes. And the next time your idiot friend says something about worst days, as the two of you stand there watching his house burn down with his pets and one-of-a-kind porn collection inside, you can tell him this story. It might even shut him up.

Let me tell you about Bill, my last client.

from A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow: A truly magnificent book that I can’t adequately express my appreciation for

The Power of the DogThe Power of the Dog

by Don Winslow
Series: The Power of the Dog, #1

Paperback, 542 pg.
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2005

Read: December 29, 2018 – January 8, 2019

           The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity. Without them, cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges, and instead of making billions smuggling it, I’d be making pennies doing stoop labor in some California field, picking it.

And the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling protection against him, charging the independent contractors who want to move their product through La Plaza thousands of dollars for the use of our cops, soldiers, Customs agents, Coast guard, surveillance equipment, communications . . . This is what Mexican cops appreciate that American cops don’t. We are partners, mi hermano Arturo, in the same enterprise.

Comrades in the War on Drugs.

We could not exist without each other.

You ever start a book and within a few chapters you know, you just know — the way you know about a good melon — that this is going to be a great book? Not just a good book, an entertaining book, a rave-worthy book, but a great one? Sure, it doesn’t happen often enough, but we’ve all been there. It’s happened almost every time I’ve read a Winslow book, I have to say.

Yet there are eleven books by Winslow that I haven’t read yet. Explain that to me, please.

It’s hard to say exactly when it was that I realized that with The Power of the Dog but it happened — and it took me by surprise for a half of a second, and then the voice in the back of my head said, “Of course.” The scope, the style, the voice, the audacity of the novel — there’s no easy way to describe it. And now I have to try to talk about it? I do super-hero novels, stories about detectives who use magic — or hunt for rare vinyl LPs, teenagers post videos of their drunken parents on Youtube or Picture Books about Die Hard — I posted about (and loved) 2 completely unrelated Crime-Solving Comic Book Artists last year! How am I supposed to talk about this?

After a quick — and disturbing — look at the cost of the War on Drugs in 1997, Winslow takes us back to 1975 in the State of Sinaloa, Mexico. There we meet new DEA agent Art Keller — a Vietnam vet, who’s come to use his experience to help take on the Opium trade. Thanks in large part to those efforts, the Opium trade is devastated — but the industry shifts to cocaine, and well — things go from bad to worse.

We follow Art’s career from 1975 to 2004 — watching him try to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S. Calling that a Quixotic effort seems to be an understatement at best — but one particular cartel has made things personal for him and he directs most (if not all) of his efforts — you could argue most of his life — at disrupting their business and, hopefully, dismantling it. It’s no small task, and no quick battle.

But this isn’t just Art’s story — he disappears from the focus several times, in fact. It’s also the story of a maverick Mexican priest as he struggles to minister to various drug dealers, their family members — and their victims. We get to know some members of the Federación very well (too well, in some cases). Also, because the Federación needs customers, we meet several, ahem, NYC-based importers. Connected to all of the above is a high-class prostitute. We see these characters moving through actual history — Iran-Contra, the Mexico City Earthquake, political shifts in Washington. It was striking reading this in 2018/2019, remembering that once upon a time the name “Giuliani” was an invocation of law and order — a name that symbolized a change in organized crime’s power (at least perceived). Watching these individual’s stories weave in and out of each other’s over the decades and over huge geographic areas moves this from an intricate crime story to an epic.

None of these criminals is wholly evil (well, you could make the case for a couple of them, maybe), there are very relatable moments for just about all of them. They love, they laugh, they nurture their kids — they do good things in their community. The same can be said for the law enforcement characters — they aren’t wholly good, in fact, some of what they do is downright despicable. All of them, in short, are very human.

Winslow’s skilled at weaving in seemingly disparate tales into this tapestry and eventually you can see enough of it to appreciate why they’re all there. There are scenes in this book that are among the most depraved I’ve read. Scenes of torture, scenes of murder, scenes of heartbreak. But they’re not written for thrills, they’re not exploitative — they’re just horrific, and very likely based on something that actually happened. There’s a sweet little love story, tucked away in the middle somewhere that I kept wondering why we were getting. It was hundreds of pages, really, before I learned why — I enjoyed it while I could.

There is within this book a very heavy critique on the so-called War on Drugs in the U.S. — at the very least, on the way it’s being waged. Sometimes this comes from the narration, sometimes from a narcotraficante (see the opening quotation), sometimes from DEA agent — it doesn’t really matter whose mouth the critique comes from, it’s biting and it’s typically on point. It will likely make many people uncomfortable — by design; it should make many people upset. But Winslow never browbeats you with these critiques — unless you take the entire book as one, which it very arguably is.

I don’t know if I have the ability to describe Winslow’s writing here. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, it’s not a difficult read. Despite the horrors depicted, it’s 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. It’s not an easy, breezy read — but it’s 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 attention of “serious” readers.

I think I’ve pretty much covered everything on my pared-down outline. I really want to keep going, but I can’t imagine that many have read this far. As it is, this is at best, an inadequate job describing the book and how wonderfully constructed and written it is. Hopefully, this encourages you to seek more information, or actual reviews about it. Really, The Power of the Dog is a tremendous book and should be read by many. Be one of those.

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5 Stars