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

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

Video Killed the Radio StarVideo Killed the Radio Star

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #2

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

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

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

“Even persiflage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

4 1/2 Stars

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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

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

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.

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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