Fahrenbruary Repost: Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips: A heart-wrenching noir love story.

Know Me from SmokeKnow Me from Smoke

by Matt Phillips

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2018
Read: November 15 – 16, 2018

If you’re looking for an example of noir — in the classic sense — look no farther than Matt Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke. You can tell that’s going to be the case from the opening paragraphs. The first chapter builds on those first three or four paragraphs and sets the atmosphere, the mood, the tone for the rest of the book — and pretty much casts a spell on the reader, too. The second chapter — where we meet our second protagonist firms that up, and from there Phillips builds on this foundation to deliver a book that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.

But let’s step back from that for a minute — we begin by meeting Stella Radney. She’s in her mid-40’s, a lounge singer, and a widow still grieving her murdered husband twenty years after his death. During the robbery that left Virgil dead, Stella was shot as well and the bullet’s still in her hip — a constant reminder that her loss and pain are physical as well as emotional. Both pains seem a bit fresher in the beginning of the book because Stella’s been informed that new DNA technology (unavailable 20 years ago), has led the DA’s office to reopen the case and they hope to have an arrest soon. Stella’s feeling a little raw, hanging on only by more alcohol than is probably good for her and losing her self regularly in the music she performs.

Royal Atkins is a free man, a man with a second chance — a convicted killer released on a technicality and determined to make the best of his second chance. Sadly, a couple of men at his halfway house decide that the best thing for Royal would be to join them and pull a few stickups — and a few other forms of robbery as well. Royal resists — but it’s as clear to him as it is to the reader that this won’t last.

Stella and Royal meet and the chemistry is instantaneous. The chapter where they meet for the first time is possibly the best chapter I’ve read this year — just magic. For obvious reasons, Royal edits the personal history he tells Stella, and his associates from the halfway house use this to blackmail him into going along with them. He’s trying to build a new life, she’s trying to rebuild her life, and neither of them want to be alone in the process.

So we get to watch the growing love story of Stella and Royal, Royal’s history being used against him, the crime spree, and the certainty that this is going to all going to come to a messy end. A little before the halfway point, I put in my notes, “if I stop, some broken people get to live a decent life. If I read another chapter or two, everything will fall apart and lives will be ruined. So tempted to walk away from it.” I really was — I liked these two so much, I wanted to let them have this chance.

But there was no way I was going to stop, Phillips’ prose was too good to abandoned, and I had to see what actually happened to these characters (no matter how inevitable the end seemed). Seriously, I’d have kept reading just so Stella could think about her relationship to music and songs some more — those sections of the book are practically poetry.

There’s conversation between a couple of characters about Pulp Fiction — and Tarantino’s work feels appropriate to this book. But not that movie. Jackie Brown is the movie that this feels like. Maybe the novel, too, but I haven’t read Rum Punch. They’re both from the same species of sweet, second-chance at love story in the middle of a story of crime, criminals and ex-cons.

This is going to go for my entry for “Read a book you chose based on the cover” in the While You Were Reading challenge — it’s not entirely true, but the cover is fantastic and got me to read the blurb a few times, so it’s close enough.

I love that title, too.

There’s just so many things that are right about this book, and so little that’s wrong. This is a winner — it’ll grab you by the heartstrings, will pull you along through the highs and lows of this story, and only let you go some time after you finish (I’m not sure how long that effect will last, but it’s been almost a week and it really hasn’t let go yet).

—–

4 Stars

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Fahrenbruary Repost: Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton: A Child Abduction Sets Off a Disturbing Chain of Events

I originally posted about this for a blog tour — one of those that I ended up being very glad I participated in, this atmospheric mystery is one to check out.

Burning SecretsBurning Secrets

by Ruth Sutton

Kindle Edition, 264 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018

Read: October 2 – 3, 2018

For a book that clocks in at 264 pages, Sutton packed in a lot of story. I’m having difficulty deciding what to focus on, I’ve got to say. If only all authors could present a guy with such problems . . .

This book starts off with a child abduction — a child, Helen Helsop, that we get to know a little bit before she’s abducted. Immediately I groaned, because the last thing I wanted to deal with is a book about a little girl getting snatched and then dealing with whatever abuse is looming. Without spoiling much, let me assure you — nothing like that happens. This is not that kind of kidnapped child story. This doesn’t mean that she’s been taken for benign or even beneficial reasons, however.

Helen hasn’t been living at home — she’s been staying with family in town so she can attend school. Because theirs is a farming community — predominately, or at least heavily, a dairy and cattle area, and this is 2001 — the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I’ll be honest, as an American in a pre-social media age, I didn’t have a strong grasp on the effect this had on smaller farmers — I just never was exposed to it. I got what it meant on the national/industry front, but didn’t think much more about it. If I had, it would’ve been obvious just how much this would decimate a community, an individual family, and why this was such a horrible crisis. Anyway, back to Helen — she hasn’t had a good time of it in this temporary home and is easily persuaded to leave. It’s hours (of course) before anyone notices that she’s missing, and even then, most of her family doesn’t believe she’s actually missing.

Before that, thankfully, the police are called in — we focus on DC Maureen Pritchard — a well-known fixture in the community (not as well-known as her father, however) and the newly-arrived DS Anna Penrose. There’s a little professional jealousy between the two — Pritchard envies another woman in a position she was denied and Penrose would love the acceptance and respect her fellow officers seem to have for Pritchard. But largely, they can put that aside to focus on Helen. It’s obvious from the start that the foster family and Helen’s actual family are both holding back from the police, but it’s hard to tell if it’s germane to the case, or if it’s just things that no one wants to share with outsiders.

This is all so compellingly told — the layers that Sutton is working on are something to behold. She’s excellent at revealing more and more about Pritchard and Penrose while they’re uncovering more about Helen’s life and whoever took her. You could make the case (I think you’d be wrong, but you can make it) that the mystery in this novel takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the women and their superiors. Initially, probably because we meet her first, I was pulling for Pritchard to solve the case, rescue the girl and save the day to put Penrose in her place. But soon, I just wanted the two of them to knock off the nonsense and just work together — preferably by being open with each other about what’s going on. I won’t say if I was ultimately satisfied in that desire, but I can say that Sutton deals with their relationship in a way that is absolutely believable and realistic — a very satisfactory job.

The greatest impediment to the search for Helen isn’t the fact that the family is hiding something(s), the difficulty in tracking down a person of interest, the cleverness of the kidnapper, finding a particular van in a decent size, getting a straight answer out of scared kids with overbearing/concerned parents interfering (for nefarious reasons or unintentionally), or any of the other absolutely understandable and inevitable roadblocks. Instead, it’s Detective Inspector Stanley Bell — he’s too focused on the budget and on impressing his DCI, not that we can forget his obvious misogyny and blatant racism. It’d have been easy for Sutton to leave him as a buffoon, an obstacle, a foil for Pritchard and Penrose — but she doesn’t, there are times when he seems to be a perfectly capable police officer. But those times are the minority — it is fun to watch his subordinates play him to get their way, Penrose learns from Pritchard’s example quickly on this front.

If I tried to talk about the kidnapper, I’d spoil it — if I tried to talk about Helen’s family, I’d fail. I can’t summarize what Sutton did there (I was reductionistic enough with the police — and I’d still be reductionistic if I’d included everything I wanted to say about them) — I’ve known men like her father and older brother. I could feel their pain, their frustration — with their life in general, even before Helen’s abduction, which just seemed like the next-to-last straw for them. Between Foot and Mouth, general hardships (physical and financial) related to this lifestyle, too much alcohol, and a wife who wants more than all this — it’s just too much for people to take.

The depiction of Helen is really strong, as well — she is a scared twelve year-old doing the best she can in a horrible circumstance. At some point the police don’t understand why she did X in a situation. I wanted to yell at them, “because she’s a scared little kid!” Of course, she’s not going to act like a rational adult. (The other thing I had a hard time buying was that given the emphasis the officers put on local knowledge, was that it was the outsider who understood the importance of getting his cows milked to a dairy farmer)

I’ve gone on too long, and haven’t said nearly enough. So let’s hit the important things as I try to wrap up.As I said at the outset — this is not a typical kidnapping novel. Every assumption you make early on in the book will prove to be mistaken, but it all feels organic, it all seemed natural. This isn’t one of those books where you can see the author moving pieces around to achieve her ends. I have no doubt she did — but I couldn’t see it. There’s some good action, some very clever policework, and a strong psychological-thriller bent to parts of this as well. There’s a strong Perry Mason-esque quality to the strategy the police employed at the end, which I appreciated. Burning Secrets ticks almost every box a mystery-fan will have on their list.

This is a novel about family secrets, family problems — all families, on some level, I’m sure. There are strong threads about options various women take to take care of their families and themselves — what lengths they may go to, what shortcuts they may take, what hard choices they may make — to secure happiness, health, or survival. This is a novel about change — individual and societal — how difficult that is. But none of these themes detract from a heart-stopping and heart-breaking story about a kidnapping and the consequences radiating from it. All in less than 300 pages — not a bad feat.

I have no idea if Sutton intends to write more about these characters (there’s every reason to think she will, given her track record) — but I’d love to spend more time with them. If Penrose and Pritchard can turn their détente into some sort of working understanding, or better, a real partnership, they’d be a fantastic combination (for drama, they’d still be interesting if they don’t form any closer relationship, but it wouldn’t be as fun to read). Sutton does have a pretty hefty backlist, and I should try to dive in — and you should, too. Start with this, though, it’ll whet your appetite for the rest.

—–

4 Stars
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.

A Few Quick Questions With…Jo Perry

One of the first things I did when I decided to participate in Fahrenbruary was to see if Jo Perry would participate in one of these Q&As (and thankfully she displayed poor judgment and agreed). I decided to post this today to commemorate the publication of the fourth book in her fantastic series, Dead Is Beautiful. It’ll be the next book I start and I’m hoping to have my post up about the book itself on Monday. I know the positive reviews are already popping up out there on teh IntraWebz. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this.

What was your path to publication? What did you do to prepare yourself to this career in fiction?
I don’t believe anything prepares a person for writing fiction except writing and reading. My father’s formal education ended at fourth grade. He educated himself by reading and became a comedy writer. My mother had been a teacher. Both read relentlessly. Words, especially jokes were serious business: One wrong word and the joke’s punch evaporates.

I always wrote—mostly poetry, studied literature in college, got a Ph.D. in English, taught literature and writing, wrote episodic television and some other stuff. But despite all that I am very late bloomer when it comes to fiction. My first novel, Dead Is Better was published in 2015.

As for a “career in fiction,” I’m not there yet, but I’m very lucky that my husband, novelist Thomas Perry demonstrated how that’s done. This year he published his 26th novel, The Burglar.

Whatever one might think about Charlie (your protagonist we know best), there’s no denying that Rose is what most of your readers connect to. You recently posted something brief to Facebook about Rose’s origin — can you talk a little more about that?
During the scorching summer of 2008, I came upon a dusty, thirsty, exhausted, frightened dog that someone dumped in crowded home improvement store parking lot. I drove her home (she fell asleep immediately on the front seat of the car) and––after some listless attempts to find a home for her because we were strictly cat people––we were hers and we named her Lucy.

From the first moment she met me, Lucy upended my life, revealed new worlds and introduced me to people who have become deep, cherished, important friends. Lucy’s constancy, her sweetness despite being neglected and abused, her patience with me, a total dog-novice idiot, her sense of humor, her wisdom and her benevolence changed me completely. I experienced the bottomless, endless goodness dogs give us, and witnessed the casual and not so casual cruelties which human beings visit upon dogs hourly and daily.

The experience of knowing/experiencing Lucy, and Lola, the second dog who appeared to us, is the basis for Dead Is Better and the other books in the series—so yes, in general ways, Lucy is the model for Rose.

Outside some pretty extreme — and rare — circumstances, Charlie and Rose do little more than watch events unfold in front of them. What was the reasoning behind that choice? What are the special challenges behind that kind of protagonist for the writer?
I wanted my protagonists dead, which means that they would be ghosts. But I wanted none of the traditional ghostly machinery, telekinetic movement, special effects or general creakiness. So I set up some rules: In the afterlife the dead can touch each other, see each other and of course hear each other.

But in living world only the dead can see the dead.  They cannot be heard or felt or seen. The dead cannot affect anything directly.

The challenges are huge but fun and in some ways a relief from guns, computers, traditional violence, cell phones of crime fiction.  And ghosts are perfect voyeurs. They can spy all they want. They can float through walls. Through people. They can go anywhere at any time. And they are fearless because they cannot be killed.

Most of the time these limitations are liberating and inspiring. Other times they are a pain.

Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write? Or are you primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader?
I love nonfiction. I don’t think I could write it well. Nonfiction demands meticulous, massive research and an ability to organize all of it into a compelling, graceful narrative.

I have become mystery/suspense/thriller reader now and love it.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
TV: I wish I’d written Fauda, and The Method.

Books (short list) I wish I’d written Nikki Dolson’s All Things Violent, Grant Nicol’s A Place To Bury Strangers, Denial by Paddy McGrane, James Craig’s A Slow Death and A Shot At Salvation, Timothy Hallinan’s Pulped, For The Dead and Crashed, Saira Viola’s Jukebox, Fidelis Morgan’s The Murder Quadrille, Seth Lynch’s Salazar novels, Thomas Perry’s novels, esp. the Butcher’s Boy novels, the Jane Whitefield novels, and Strip; Derek Farrel’s Danny Bird mysteries, David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device.

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?
In no way do F13Noir/Fahrenheit Press require their authors to, as they might say, flog their publishing house. The truth is that their writers and readers rave about them because they love them. They’re funny, they’re honest, they’re daring, and they take risks.

Too often publishers avoid risk entirely and busy themselves with policing genre boundaries to make the selling of books easier, i.e. so they can say, “This luminous thriller is Girl On A Train meets [insert name of best seller here].  Any book that violates genre norms or bends genres or or that is too weird is a no-no. An example: A publisher liked Dead Is Better except for one small thing—the dog. I was told that I couldn’t have a “dog detective.” That a dog protagonist in a mystery was not permitted. Was a rule breaker. That if I removed the dog, they’d look at the book again. Which means either that they didn’t like the dog, which is fine, or that they didn’t know how to sell the dog because a dead dog protagonist was too different, too weird, maybe too upsetting for some.

Fahrenheit Press/F13Noir don’t play that game or any games––which is extraordinary. They look for crime fiction that (and I cannot speak for them, but I infer this from their list) makes the reader feel something, that’s exciting, daring, fresh, brave. They look for powerful voices. They don’t try to tame crime fiction, they like it wild, unapologetic, unadulterated. In fact, they kind of dare writers to produce the most courageous books they are capable of writing.

That is miracle and I am endlessly grateful to them because of it.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for Charlie and Rose. I hope you enjoy continued success with them (and not just because that would guarantee me more of them to read).

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

Fahrenbruary Repost: Dead is Good by Jo Perry

One more Charlie and Rose book for you this week — and it’s a doozy. I hope you’re enjoying this stroll through these books as much as I am — I’m enjoying them so much, that for the last two days I’ve forgotten to mention something incredibly important — the fourth book in this series, Dead Is Beautiful comes out tomorrow — Fahrenbruary 14th! Go — click and buy. Then come back tomorrow for a special treat.

Dead is GoodDead is Good

by Jo Perry
Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

Kindle Edition, 282 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: August 3, 2017

Oh, and after all this time I learned something else about being dead.

Death is failure.

Death is loss.

Everything—who you are, what you know—goes.

Whoever you thought you were, you weren’t and you’re not.

When he was alive, Charlie Stone was married multiple times to pretty horrible women (if we’re to believe him — and we might as well, he seems pretty upfront and honest about this kind of thing), not that he was any catch, either. But he really only loved one person, Grace Morgan. Grace broke things off with Charlie and moved on with her life, but apparently after hearing about his murder, she was moved to change her approach to art — deciding to challenge the audience, forcing them to realize how close to death they are.

Yeah, it sounds pretty silly and pretentious to me, but hey…that’s not the important part of the story. Maybe if we got more examples of her art, I’d care more and maybe even understand. What is important about Grace, for our purposes, is that her life is in danger, it’s because of this danger that Charlie and Rose have been brought from their afterlife-limbo back to Earth.

The book opens with one of the more blatant suicide-by-cop scenes you’ve ever read, which is intended to serve as protection for Grace. It doesn’t work out, or the book would be really short. Powerless to do anything but watch and hope things turn out okay, Charlie and Rose travel around L.A. discovering for themselves what it was that endangered Grace in the first place — which brings them into a world of drugs, sweatshop workers, deceptive piñatas, and smuggled birds.

This is a very tangled story, it takes Charlie quite a while to put the pieces together — Rose has her own priorities in this mess and spends some time away from Charlie, unwilling to turn her focus on his behalf. The way that this criminal enterprise is eventually revealed to work not only seems like something that really exists, but is revealed in a way that is narratively satisfying.

Charlie will tell his readers over and over that there’s no character growth in death — that’s nonsense. Post-mortem Charlie is a much more emotionally mature and self-sacrificing kind of guy than pre-mortem Charlie was. In this book we see him come to — or at least acknowledge — a greater and deeper understanding of what love is, and what he allowed his previous relationship to become. It may not do him any good in the afterlife, but Charlie is better for it, and in someway we can hope that Grace is better off having gone through all this, so that whatever life has in store for her can be tackled face-on.

I love these characters — even while we readers don’t fully understand their circumstances, how they know where to go, what brings them to this world at certain times. Even while they don’t have much better of an idea than we do (at least Charlie doesn’t). I love how while they can’t interact with their environment, the people they see and events they watch unfold, they are driven to find answers, driven to care about what’s happening. There’s something about that compulsion — and success they have in figuring things out — that matters more than when Bosch or Spenser or Chin and Smith put all the pieces together to thwart someone.

This wasn’t as amusing as previous installments, but it was just as satisfying — maybe more so. For a good mystery with oddly compelling characters, once again, look no further than Jo Perry.

The L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner has a gift shop?? Why isn’t anyone investigating this? It may be real, it may be popular and legal. But surely that’s a crime against tact, right?

—–

4 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Russell Day

Yesterday I reposted a couple of personal highlights from 2018 (I’m talking about what I read, not what I said) — Not Talking Italics and Needle Song. Today, I get to share some A’s to my Q’s behind the brilliant writer behind them, Russell Day.

Without further ado…

What was your path to publication? What did you do to prepare yourself to this career in fiction?
I don’t think I ever consciously prepared for a career as a fiction writer (my default setting is pretty much: wing it). I started writing when I was a teenager, but it’s only been the last five years or so that I’ve taken it seriously. Before that, I’d make a lot of good starts but then get bored or, worse, sit around waiting until I was in ‘the mood’. That’s a recipe for a drawer full of unfinished manuscripts. Now I just sit and write and if it’s crap, I rewrite.

Getting published, for me, has largely been down to competitions. The first piece of fiction I ever had published appeared in Writer’s Forum Magazine, where it had won second prize in their monthly short story contest. It was a Doc Slidesmith story, called The Tattooist, the Tarot and Bang-Bang the Clown. Fahrenheit might be releasing a collection of my short stories this year, and hopefully The Tattooist will be included in it. I’ve got a lot of affection for that piece, it was the first time I saw my stuff in print and it was doubly exciting that it featured Doc.

The book deal with Fahrenheit Press came my way because of their Noirville competition. I entered two pieces for that, The Icing on the Cake and Not Talking Italics (another story about Doc). Both stories struck a chord with the judges, and Chris McVeigh offered me a two book deal on the strength of them. The Icing on the Cake, was included in the anthology and Not Talking Italics, was offered up as a teaser to introduce people to Doc.

What first hooked me with your story “Not Talking Italics” was the way you told that particular story — all dialogue, practically an extended monologue. Was there anything in particular that drove that choice, or did it just “happen”? Would you/have you consider writing a novel in that manner?
We’re back to competitions again. I wrote Not Talking Italics with a view to entering it into a competition that wanted stories told entirely in dialogue. In the end I couldn’t keep to the required word count, but I liked the story and thought it might be a good fit for the Noirville competition. One of Doc’s main features his the-gift-of the gab, so he lent himself to the style.

I don’t have any plans to write a whole novel using just dialogue. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think that technique is best suited to pieces that can be read in one sitting. That said, I like my characters to talk a lot and I sometimes slip ‘transcripts’ into the plot. I do that in Needle Song in a couple of places and do it again in Ink to Ashes, the second Slidesmith novel.

Liking to hear the characters ‘talk’ is why I often write in the first person, I try to give the impression that the reader is being ‘told’ the story.

Doc Slidesmith has quite the interesting and varied résumé/CV — he’s clearly not your everyday fictional detective (amateur or not). Psychologists have been done, tattoo shop owners — not so much. Definitely no one’s put them together before — and then throwing in the Tarot reading has to make him even more distinctive. How did you stumble across that particular combination, and why would you go looking for it?
Just before I started writing Needle Song, I’d met a woman who practiced Voodoo and it caught my interest.  Doc’s connection with Voodoo and Tarot stemmed from that. After that I sort of built Doc, bit by bit, around the scene where we first see him reading the Tarot. Once I’d established him as a freak, albeit a clever one, I had to ask myself how he’d make a living. It had to be something that fitted his aesthetic and suggested a certain depth. Tattooist was an obvious choice.

The psychologist angle was almost accidental. I’d wanted a name that had a Voodoo flavour to it. For a while I thought about calling him Papa Slidesmith, but that made him sound too old. Doctor Slidesmith had a certain ring to it and, of course, someone would have to ask why he called himself ‘Doc’. Giving him a full-fledged PhD was a good way to show his intelligence and it also muddied the waters as to whether he’s reading the Tarot cards or the people around him.

(that’s one of my favorite answers I’ve ever received from an author . . . )

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?

I’ve been very lucky in terms of reviews and haven’t been roasted … yet. I don’t know how, or even if, harsh criticism will affect my writing. I’m pretty well tuned into my own sense of what does or doesn’t work, so I’ll probably stick with that.
Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write? Or are you primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader?
I read many genres, but my first port of call is mystery/crime. I couldn’t write a historical novel, I’m just not good enough at research to get the details right.
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?
A lot of it’s down to Chris McVeigh’s enthusiasm. If you talk to the man for a few minutes it’s clear he wants Fahrenheit to publish books he believes in. Yes, it’s a money making venture but that’s not all it is to him, not by a long way. Another thing that makes Fahrenheit different is simply the selection of books.

Fahrenheit doesn’t think like a mainstream publisher. It doesn’t want to publish a reworked version of last year’s best seller. It wants to publish something else. And if that means colouring outside the lines a bit then so be it. THAT implies a certain trust in both the writers and the readers. That trust makes you a part of Fahrenheit. We’re not just numbers being told what to write this year or told what we’re going to read. With Fahrenheit we’re all in it together.

And they sell cool mugs.

Can’t argue with that last line — love my Fahrenheit mug. 🙂

Thanks for your time, sir. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got coming next.

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.

—–

5 Stars