Fahrenbruary Repost: Briefly Maiden by Jacqueline Chadwick

Briefly Maiden
Briefly Maiden

by Jacqueline Chadwick
Series: Ali Dalglish, #2

Kindle Edition, 317 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: November 30 – December 1, 2017

Vancouver Island’s Integrated Major Incident Squad has been called out again, and Ali Dalglish is brought along to consult — she’s official now, after the success of the case in In the Still, she got her credentials transferred to her new country. So she can help Inspector Rey Cuzzocrea with his profile of the murderer and get paid for it (which is probably useful after the recent disintegration of her marriage).

There’s a series of murders (not a serial killer, technically) in the perfectly pleasant little city of Cedar River (at least for most of the residents). They’re gruesome, clearly motivated by anger, with a sexual component. Ali and Cuzzocrea quickly note evidence of a pedophilia ring associated with the deaths. Which adds a level of complexity and tragedy to the crime — and makes it difficult to care much about the victims. While no one on the VIIMIS wants to help the killer with their campaign, they want to catch her(?) to help her recover from what they think must’ve happened to her(?). The obstacles standing in their way are not the typical or expected kind, and make this difficult case even more difficult.

As before, Ali is brilliant — not just when it comes to criminology, she’s just smart — she’s witty, she’s a font of trivia, and has a vocabulary that you just want to bask in (and borrow!). [Note: I’m not referring to her “blue”/”adult”/”4-letter” vocabulary, which is enough to put off some readers] Her emotional life is a mess, she’s in a slightly better place after the breakup of her marriage, but not that much. There’s some decent character growth at work here, too. She’s just such a great character I don’t think I can do her justice here.

It would have been very easy to make this a story about Ali, the brilliant psychologist helping out a bunch of cops who are fairly clueless (yet high-ranking and successful). But Chadwick doesn’t do that. The members of the Squad are capable — more than capable — and while they needed the perspective and expertise brought by Ali, there’s a good chance they’d have eventually put a lot of the pieces together on their own. For example, Superintendent Shaw would be easy to depict as a stuffed-shirt, unimaginative, by-the-book, and blind to anything that isn’t obvious — and most writers would depict him that way (I can’t help but think of Irwin Maurice Fletcher’s editor, Frank Jaffe, frequently when Shaw shows up) — but at one point he actually puts things together that no one else on the Squad did (most readers will be faster than him, but we have better information). Ali’s not blind to this either — yeah, she has an ego about her own expertise, but she is ready (if not always eager) to acknowledge when her teammates do good to work.

There were a few mis-steps, but when you’re doing so much right, you can afford a few of those. The one that I don’t understand is how little her friend/neighbor, Marlene, was used. Yes, her contribution was essential, but if Marlene had stayed home, Chadwick could’ve found another way to get those results. If you’re going to bring her along — use her. Her brief appearances were fun or pivotal, but there just weren’t enough.

I’ve spent some time over the last week trying to describe Chadwick’s writing style, because it’s so specific and so original. At one point, I decided that “aggressive” was the best adjective — it’s in-your-face, it grabs you by the scruff of your neck and shoves your nose into the text, daring you to even consider your Real Life responsibilities (family, eating, work, etc.) so it can smack the back of your head like Leroy Gibbs. But it’s also inviting, enticing, so you’re sucked in and love it — you want to wallow in the experience, desperate to find out what happens while not wanting to walk away from reading book for the foreseeable future. She’s entertaining and fun while writing about some of the most depraved and horrible things you’ve ever read — while never making the depravity or horror into anything other than evil and wrong.

Briefly Maiden is not a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts — but when the sum of its parts is so great, it can seem to be. If it was just Ali’s acerbic brilliance and skewed (skewering?) sensibilities pushing this story, it’d be something I’d tell you to read. Chadwick’s style is something to behold, no matter the subject. If it was just the heart-breaking and horrifying crime story, I’d give this a high commendation. If it was just for the inevitable but shocking conclusion, I’d say this was well worth your time and money. If it was just Ali’s vocabulary, you’d be smarter for having read it (I learned a few terms/words, and I bet you will, too). You put all that together, plus a few other points I should’ve made and didn’t (for whatever reason), and Briefly Maiden is one of the most effective (and affective) novels I’ve read this year. Stop reading this and go grab it — and In the Still, if you haven’t read that yet.

—–

5 Stars

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

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

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

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

5 Stars

Black Moss by David Nolan: A Mystery that will Haunt You in a Stunning Debut Novel

Black MossBlack Moss

by David Nolan


Kindle Edition, 291 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018

Read: Febryary 11 – 12, 2019

           Danny had never been out here before. He’d heard the moors were bleak, but he wasn’t prepared for the sheer unrelenting nothingness of the area. It was like the world had been horizontally cut in two –sky at the top, moor at the bottom, with nothing to provide any form of relief from the two themes. Not even a tree. Not one. In any direction. Bleak.

David Nolan’s debut novel is one of those that I’m having a hard time gauging how much to say about the plot. If I don’t keep a foot on the brake pedal, I know I could easily go on and on and quickly give away everything — and where’d the fun be in that for you?

Not that “fun” is a good word for about 96% of the experience of this book. This isn’t one of those books (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Half of this book is told in April of 1990. Rookie radio reporter Danny Johnston is assigned to cover a murder miles away from the story that he wants to cover (and that just about every other reporter in the Manchester area is covering), the real-life riot at Strangeways prison. As Danny is watching the police fight the wind, he sees the body they’re trying to cover with a tarp. It’s a young boy, clearly the victim of murder. A few days later, he’ll learn just how brutal the killing is — but it doesn’t matter. From the moment he saw the body, Danny was committed to making sure the killer is caught.

The other half takes place in 2016, when noted television report Daniel Johnston wraps his car around a tree. He’s drunk — he usually is, it turns out — and this is the last time. The iPhone video of his exit from the car and the drunken ranting and falling that ensues doesn’t do his image any favors. He’s facing criminal charges, the collapse of his career and therapy. Between some great medication, someone to listen and a lot of free time, he makes some progress on putting himself back together and decides to go back to Manchester to try to complete the quest he started so long ago. He also explores some of his own demons along the way — we don’t spend that much time with that, but enough to get a better idea what’s behind a lot of his own behavior.

In addition to Danny/Daniel, there’s a small-town newspaper reporter, three police detectives, several Radio Manchester employees, an MP and some residents of a children’s home and the woman who runs the place that serve as the major characters in 1990. In 2016, we still see most of these characters — just at new stages in their lives. Some of them have moved past this crime, others remember it as much as (if not more than) Danny. None of these characters are the kind of splashy or obviously entertaining individuals that many mystery novels are peppered with — they’re simply well-rounded people. Flawed, with obvious issues and strengths.

From the first chapter (see the quotation above) to the end — there is a bleak feeling pervading this work. Between the geography, the situation, and the weather that’s the best word for it. I don’t describe the feel of books often enough — but this is one of those books that the adjective “atmospheric” was invented for. There’s an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling.

Which isn’t to say that this is a book you trudge through — you don’t. You really don’t notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. You want to get to the bottom of things with Danny and his friends/allies.

The mystery part of this book is just what you want — it’s complex, it’ll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it’s fantastic. I had an inkling about part of it — but I didn’t see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. Yet when the reveal is finished you’re only left with the feeling of, “well, of course — what else could it have been?”

And then you read the motivation behind the killing — and I don’t remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There’s evil and then there’s this.

This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could’ve been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan’s first novel delivers everything it promises and more. You won’t be sorry if you give this one a shot, you’re not going to read a lot of books better — or as good — anytime soon.

—–

5 Stars

Circle of the Moon by Faith Hunter: PsyLED Fights its Biggest and Most Dangerous Foe and Troubles from Within

Time to wrap up our Tour Stop for this book — I hope you’ve enjoyed it half as much as I have. I get a little long-winded below, sorry — but when I like a book as much as I did this one, it happens.

Circle of the MoonCircle of the Moon

by Faith Hunter
Series: Soulwood, #4

eARC, 400 pg.
ACE, 2019

Read: February 6 – 8, 2019


I’m going to have to talk about the events at the end of the previous book, Flame in the Dark, a little bit. If you haven’t read that — sorry. You may want to use the time you were about to spend on this post to purchase that/get it from your library instead.

So, with any of these Soulwood books there are three main threads to follow: 1. The PsyLED case(s) and storylines associated with the team; 2. The developments with God’s Cloud of Glory Church and Nell’s family; 3. Nell’s personal evolution as in independent woman and her supernatural development. These will all intertwine and effect each other — particularly the private lives of the PsyLED team and Nell’s own development. I want to touch on all these briefly to give you a good idea what to expect with this book.

Let’s start with God’s Cloud of Glory, which gets a lot less ink than we’re used to. But when they show up, it counts. It’s unclear how much of the church is really in favor of the changes occurring within it — it’s probably not as uniform as I’d been thinking. Which makes sense, any reformation is slow and complicated — and won’t be a straight line of progress, humans are messier than that. Whether this group will actually stumble into orthodoxy is hard to say, and it’ll definitely take years. We get to see a little of the pushback to the reforms here, but it’s nothing severe. I expect in a book or two, something will happen because of what we see in this book. The Vampire Tree on the Church’s land takes a different role in this book than we’ve grown accustomed to — and it’s probably the most important and intriguing development having to do with the Church in Circle of the Moon (possibly the most important in the book as a whole, too — time will tell).

We do learn some interesting things about Nell’s family and how they acted before Jane Yellowrock and the feds upended everything, too. I shouldn’t forget that…

As far as Nell goes, it’s been just a few weeks since she stopped being a tree and started being a human-ish person again. As you can see from the excerpt I posted earlier, things are going well for Nell and Occam, and things are moving quickly on the Mud coming to live with Nell front. But both are bringing their share of challenges for Nell. Her life is definitely not looking anything like what she’d envisioned and the changes aren’t easy for her — she mentions at one point her mixed feelings about coming into the twenty-first century. As much as she relishes some of these changes, none of them are easy.

Nell is forced to confront and re-evaluate her ideas about love, commitment, what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So much of her thinking is still that of a “churchwoman” as she’d put it. She knows other women, other men, don’t think of things in those terms and while she’s rejected her upbringing, she hasn’t yet replaced everything she wants to (she probably hasn’t even figured out everything she wants to change).Occam is the best person for her to be involved with right now (the cynic in me wants to say that he’s too perfect, but I like him too much to listen to my inner cynic) — his patience, kindness and understanding are what’s going to help her the most now.

I’m not gong to say anything else about Mud — but I’m a fan. I don’t think Hunter hit a false note with her character or any scene she was in. Mud’s a great character and knows exactly what she wants in this life (at least for now) and what she needs to do to get it. Primarily that involves manipulating and/or convincing her sister to do a few things — and Mud’s an expert at both of those.

As far a Nell and her powers go? Just wow. If you think the tree thing in the last book was revolutionary, just wait. There’s nothing as cataclysmic this time (thankfully — I’m not sure we readers could take it), but the implications of some of what Nell does in this book that aren’t yet known or seen, and the reverberations from them will be felt for a while.

So that brings us to PsyLED. Rick LaFleur wakes up in the middle of a very strange witch circle with no idea how he got there. He’d been called there somehow — as his cat. There’s a dead cat near and Nell picks up traces of vampires in the circle, too. Clearly, black magic is involved — but how and why, no one knows. It doesn’t take long before there are other circles being discovered — new and made in recent weeks. Rick and some of Ming’s vampires alike being called to them. Either of those happenings would be concerning — but the combination of them is mysterious and troubling. Also, why is Rick being called and nothing happening to the team’s other werecat? The questions and mysteries pile up quickly.

Some trouble in Knoxville law enforcement doesn’t help, either. Supernatural crimes/events — things like strange witch circles — aren’t being reported to PsyLED as they ought to be. The FBI and one particular agent (the witch that Nell met last time) are hovering on the fringes of the investigation in a way that speaks of more than mild curiosity. Changes and upheaval in the local vampire government — Ming of Glass is now a MOC, for example — feeds into some of the confusion.

It’s one of those situations where the more Nell and the team learn, the less they know. Everything points to big trouble, they just can’t figure out what kind of trouble — or even its source. Rick is going to have to explain a lot about things he’s previously been reluctant to discuss, for starters. And still, they may not figure out what kind of black magic is involved — and why — before it’s too late to save innocent/not-so-innocent lives.

This is the best PsyLED story this series has yet given us. Nell running off on her own isn’t going to crack this, solid procedure, a real team effort and some quick thinking (and a few lucky breaks) are the key to things working out. It’s probably the most exciting story, too. There’s a lot of action, there are more guns fired in this book by law enforcement than possibly in the first three books combined. Lainey and her magic, JoJo’s computer wizardry (legitimate and less than), Occam’s cat and trigger finger, Tandy’s abilities, plus Nell’s abilities (including offensive capabilities we haven’t previously seen) are going to have to work more in general and in combination with each other than they have in the series so far just to keep the team in the game — but for them to actually close this case and get some answers, they’re going to need extra help. I loved this part of the book and want to keep talking about it, but I’m going to hold back. I’ve often wondered if the team wasn’t wasting time in the past — not this time. Everything clicked for me with this story and I couldn’t be happier about the whole thing.

I’m pretty sure that I can’t say anything about the people behind the circles without ruining something. There’s some real evil afoot, I tell you what. There’s also a damaged soul (well, a few of them), some well-intentioned moves in the past that result in trauma and worse in the present, a mixture of aligned entities that don’t necessarily have the same ends in mind. You combine those things and you get a lot of damage, heartbreak, and death being dealt. Not only is this the best PsyLED story, it’s got the most compelling opponent(s) for the team yet.

I know that Rick has his detractors going back to early on in the Yellowrock books up until his involvement in this series. I haven’t checked as much as I should have to see if some of them have come around to him or not. I’ve never been as anti-Rick as others have been, but he’s never been a character I liked. As soon as he and Jane split, I would’ve been content to never think of him again — but Hunter had other ideas. I liked him in this role, but I’ve always preferred everyone else on the team (except Paka), and really hoped he’d be in the background for some time. Yeah, well, that’s absolutely not the case in this book. I won’t say that this book wholly rehabilitates the character for me — and I can’t imagine that the extreme anti-Rick contingent will be satisfied. But, I will say that it’ll be hard for people to not soften their opinion of him after this book. Hunter did a lot of good to his character in this book. For people who liked Rick and/or were positively-inclined toward him? You’re going to love this book.

Tandy does a couple of things in this book that intrigued me. Nell’s not the only paranormal on this team whose powers are developing in ways that may prove troubling. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that these two (and maybe others?) are changing, or if there’s another explanation — they’re changing each other, one is changing the other while they evolve themselves — or is there an outside party up to something? It’s also possible I’m reading too much into things.

This is largely an aside for people who are Yellowrock fans. Throughout this book, we brush up against Jane Yellowrock and what happened in Dark Queen, which seems to have happened while Nell was a tree (I think Dark Queen started about the same time as Flame in the Dark, but DQ ended a lot sooner than FitD), and Nell’s not really up on what’s going on with her friend yet. She knows a couple of the bullet points, but doesn’t really have the full picture. According to FaithHunter.net’s Reading Order, this novel actually happens after the next Jane Yellowrock novel. So, we’re about as confused as Nell is. Now, does this impact any of the interaction Nell, JoJo and the rest have with Jane, Alex or any of the vampires in Tennessee? No. But man, it makes me even more curious about what happens after Dark Queen — I didn’t think I could be more curious about that than I was, but man…this book has really intensified all that for me.

Okay, back to Circle of the Moon. I’ve given the first three books in the series 4 1/2 Stars each. I think this time I have to give in and toss that missing half star to the rating. The PsyLED story was great, we didn’t get bogged down in the Church/cult business too much, Mud just made me smile, and while I’m not comfortable with every choice Nell made in her personal and professional life (and a couple of the choices worry me long-term) — I like the fact that she’s making them. I can’t think of a single problem with this book, it satisfied every fan-impulse/desire I had, was a step up from previous installments in many ways, and told a solid and complete story that still drives the reader to want more. I can’t imagine a Hunter fan not liking this book — and it’s the kind of book that should get her some new readers, too.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. My opinions remain my own and are the honest reactions of this particular reader.

—–

5 Stars


My thanks to Let’s Talk Promotions for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book via NetGalley) they provided.

Confess, Fletch (Audiobook) by Gregory Mcdonald, Dan John Miller: Fletch, Flynn, A Murder or two and a Heist. What more can you want?

Confess FletchConfess Fletch

by Gregory Mcdonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #2 (#6 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 23 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: January 25 – 30, 2019

           Fletch dialed “0”.

“Get me the police, please.”

“Is this an emergency?”

“Not at the moment.”

The painting over the desk was a Ford Maddox Brown – a country couple wrapped against the wind.

“Then please dial 555-7523.”

“Thank you.”

He did so.

“Sergeant McAuliffe speaking.”

“Sergeant, this is Mister Fletcher, 152 Beacon Street, apartment 6B.”

“Yes, sir.”

“There’s a murdered girl in my living room.”

“A what girl?”

“Murdered.”

Francis. Xavier. Flynn.

Those three words are really all I have to say. This is a clever book, with a few good mysteries and Fletch doing his thing. There are antics galore, witty dialogue, yada, yada, yada. As much as I love I. M. Fletcher, Gregory Mcdonald’s greatest creation was Flynn — Blackstone Audio will be releasing those soon and I’ll talk more about him then — but for now, let’s just say that I loved meeting him again and Dan John Miller nailed the character. I was worried about Flynn, really, but I was so relieved that the character came to life as he should.

But let’s put Reluctant Flynn aside for a minute. Fletch is visiting Boston — taking part in a home-share kind of program, staying in a nice apartment while the owner is staying in Fletch’s Italian villa (you know there’s a story behind that, but we don’t really get it at this point). He comes home from dinner the first night to find body lying on his rug. She’s very naked and very dead.

Naturally, Fletch is the prime suspect.

Meanwhile, Fletch is trying to track down some stolen art work on behalf of his fiancé, the daughter of a recently kidnapped and (apparently) murdered near-destitute Count. His recently stolen art collection is the only real inheritance she’ll get. Assuming her current step-mother isn’t named in the will. Fletch is working with the owner of a private gallery to track down what he can of this collection while his fiance and her step-mother wrangle. Fletch’s interest in, affinity for and expertise in art is established here and will show up again a few times in the series.

Of course, Fletch is also busy investigating the murder and reconnects with a former editor of his, from before he worked for Frank Jaffe. He uses this connection to dig u information on the man whose apartment he’s in, the gallery owner, and just about everyone else he comes across in Boston. Inspector Flynn of the Boston PD makes plenty of investigative headway, too — but he and the rest of the police are too focused on Fletch as suspect to do much beyond that. So Fletch uncovers the other viable suspects, if for no other reason than to give Flynn someone else to look at.

This is the first mention of I.M. being from Seattle, incidentally. I never remember that.

It’s a great plot, with all the twists that you can want. There’s so much to enjoy in this book — Fletch’s observations, odd way of approaching his investigation, and banter with Flynn, his editor-friend and anyone else he cares to befuddle is the kind of thing that led me to read this book a few dozen times before now.

As I said, Miller does a great job — he’s good with every character, with the narration and everything. I do think he’s a bit slow, but at 1.25 speed his rhythms match what I expect from Mcdonald. This guy is rapidly becoming one of my favorite audiobook narrators — I expect by the end of this series, he’ll be near the top.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fahrenbruary Repost: Needle Song by Russell Day: Great characters, strong writing, and a clever solution to the mystery made this one of 2018’s best.

Could. Not. Put. This. Down.
And now I get to repost this — one of my Top Ten from last year. This is what Fahrenheit does best: unusual protagonists, a great deal of panache, and a crime that’ll make an impression.

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day
Series: Doc Slidesmith, #1

Kindle Edition, 380 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: July 2 – 4, 2018

He’d changed again in some way. Like he had the night in The Jericho putting out The Jive. But this was different again. The Jive was showmanship. The good Doctor Slidesmith in full sail. This was more intense. I’d see him like thus on occasion in the shop, absorbed in the ink and the song of the needle. I wouldn’t say lost in what he was doing. Lost implies lack of control.

For the first time that evening, it struck me he needed an audience, not to watch him but for him to watch. Like a dial on a machine, not part of the process, just a way of monitoring it.

Back when I posted about the short story featuring Doc Slidesmith, Not Talking Italics, I said that if Needle Song was anything like it, “I’m going to have to go down to the superlative store this weekend to stock up before I write anything about it.” I’m fully stocked (now) and ready to go.

I was disappointed — somewhat — and relieved to see that the all-dialogue, no narration, no other description approach of Italics was nowhere to be seen. I could’ve read 380 pages of that (see my love for Roddy Doyle), but I know it’s not that approachable and will turn off some readers.

Now, I don’t know if anyone but Karen E. Olson has envisioned a tattoo shop as a hotbed of crime fighting — or the staff of such to be the source people would turn to for help with legal difficulties. But it works — all because of the owner of the shop, former psychologist, current Voodoo practitioner and Tarot reader, Doc Slidesmith. On the surface, you see a rough-looking — striking, I think, bordering on handsome — but your basic leather-glad biker type, covered in ink — and will underestimate him. Only those who’ve been in conversations with him, those who’ve given him a chance will see the charm, the intelligence, and the indefinable characteristic that makes people come to him for help in times of trouble. In many hands, Doc’s…peculiar resume, shall we say, would end up this cartoonish mish-mash of quirks. But Day is able to make it work — there’s a reason that Doc ended up where he is, we don’t need to know it, but it makes him the man (and armchair detective) that we want to read about.

Andy Miller — known to many as “Yakky” (he’s not a chatty type, his tattoos are all placed so that he can hide them all with this clothing, like a member of the Yakkuza), is the tattoo apprentice to Doc Slidesmith. He lives with his father — a thoroughly unpleasant and manipulative man, that Yakky feels obligated to care for. While clearly appreciative for Doc’s tutelage, and more in awe of his mentor than he’d care to admit, he’s also more than a little skeptical of Doc’s interests, beliefs and practices that aren’t related to his tattooing. He’s our narrator. He’s not your typical narrator — he’s too frequently angry at, dismissive of and unbelieving in the protagonist for that. Which is just one of the breaths of fresh air brought by this book. Yakky is singularly unimpressed by Doc’s playing detective — but in the end, is probably as invested (maybe more) in the outcome.

Jan is brought by Chris Rudjer (a long-time client and friend of Doc’s) for a Tarot reading, which brings her some measure of comfort/reassurance. So that when, months later, her husband kills himself, she comes looking for another reading — which turns into seeking help in general. Not just for her, but for Chris, with whom she’d been carrying on a not-very-secret affair for months. While it seemed obvious that her husband had taken his own life when she found his body, there were some irregularities at the scene. When the police add in the affair Jan was having with someone with a record for violent crime, they get suspicious. Slidesmith does what he can to help Chris prepare for the inevitable police involvement, and enlists Yakky to help, too.

Yakky takes Jan home to stay in his spare room. She can’t stay at home — the memories are too fresh, there are problems with her husband’s family, and (she doesn’t realize it yet) there are people following her and Doc and Yakky are worried. The dynamic between Jan and Yakky, and between Jan and Yakky’s father, end up providing vital clues to her character and psychology. This will end up proving vital to their case.

As Doc and Yakky begin digging around in Jan’s life, it’s immediately obvious that very little is as it seems. Now, if you’re used to reading Crime Fiction featuring serial killers or organized crime, you’ll think a lot of what they uncover is pretty small potatoes. But it actually seems worse — it’s more immediate, more personal — serial killers have their various pathologies, mobster’s are after profits and power — these people are just about hate, cruelty and control. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems worse in comparison.

There’s a depth to all of these characters that I could spend a lot of time thinking/writing/reading about — for example, our narrator, Yakky. I have at least a dozen questions that I feel I need answers to about him. At the same time, I think at least eleven of those answers could ruin the character for me. Ditto for Doc, Gina (another artist in the shop), or Chris. It’s a pretty neat trick — one few authors have been able to pull off, creating a character that you can tell has a compelling backstory, but that you don’t really want to know it (see Parker’s Hawk or Crais’ Pike — or the other mercenary Crais has had to create now that we know too much about Pike). I know who these people are now, and look forward to seeing what happens with them — and that’s good enough. It’s hard to tell, always, just why Doc’s working on this — is it for fun, is it out of a sense of obligation to Chris, does he feel bad for Jan, is it some of all three? Yakky will frequently talk about The Jive — the showmanship that Doc brings to Tarot readings, conversations, and dealing with difficult witnesses — it reminds me frequently of B. A. Baracus’ complaining about Hannibal’s “being on The Jazz.”

The plot is as intricate as you want — there are twists, turns, ups, downs — both with the investigation and in the lives of those touched by it. This doesn’t have the flair of Not Talking Italics, but the voice is as strong, and everything else about the writing is better. It’s a cliché to say that Day paints a picture with his words, so I won’t say that. But he does etch indelible patterns with the tattoo-gun of his words — which isn’t a painless process for all involved, but the end result is worth whatever discomfort endured. Day doesn’t write like a rookie — this could easily be the third or fourth novel of an established author instead of someone’s talented debut.

I’m torn on what I think about the details of the ending, wavering between “good” and “good enough, but could have been better.” It’s not as strong as the 94% (or so) before it, but it’s probably close enough that I shouldn’t be quibbling over details. I’m not talking about the way that Doc elicits the answers he needs to fully explain what happened to Jan’s husband (both for her closure and Chris’ safety), nor the way that everything fits together just perfectly. I just think the execution could be slightly stronger.

Whether you think of this as an amateur sleuth novel, a look into the depravity of the suburbanite, or an elaborate Miss Marple tribute/pastiche, the one thing you have to see is that this is a wonderful novel. I’m underselling it here, I know, this is one of those books that you best understand why everyone is so positive about it by reading it. You’ve got to expose yourself to Doc, Yakky and Day’s prose to really get it. One of the best books I’ve read this year. My only complaint with this book? After reading so much about the “song of the needle,” the shop, the work being done there — I’m feeling the pressure to get another tattoo myself, and soon.

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5 Stars

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