Broken Dreams by Nick Quantrill: Meet Joe Geraghty, PI

Broken DreamsBroken Dreams

by Nick Quantrill
Series: Joe Geraghty, #1

Kindle Edition, 236 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: February 20 – 21, 2018

Wow. This is how you introduce a P.I. Joe Geraghty starts this book with the police looking at him for the murder of woman. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to be suspected — I mean, sure, he’d spent a lot of time hanging out around her house lately and he has only the flimsiest of alibis for the time she was killed in her home. His defense is that his firm was investigating her on behalf of her employer, and that he was being mugged by some teenagers when she was killed. Although they hadn’t been looking into her for very long, Joe and his partner had already found enough to want to dig into her further — and now Joe’s even more interested in the case, if only to make sure he doesn’t get put in the frame if the police get desperate for an arrest.

Step one is completing their investigation of the woman and the situation at her employers. Step two is figuring out the husband’s involvement. And then there’s a dive into other possibilities. It’s not long before Joe is beat up, repeatedly. There’s some back and forth with the police — and a lot of the other mainstays of PI fiction. I’m not suggesting the book is unoriginal at all — Quantrill hits all the right notes, and the murder investigation goes just like it should. There are plenty of turns and revelations for Joe to deal with — all of which end up painting a picture that looks far different from anything expected by the reader or any character at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, they are visited by a woman dying of cancer. Her daughter had vanished 10 years earlier and she wants to find her and try to patch things up while there’s still time. She doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but it seems like the kind of case that could make the detectives feel better about things than their typical fare — so they take the case. There’s not a lot of danger or suspense involved with this one — it’s mostly interviewing people, catching a break or two and a lot of hope that they’re not looking for a corpse. The missing woman — and her family — hadn’t had a very nice or easy life, and Joe uncovers a lot of ugliness along the way. But there’s some hope, too.

Joe was an athlete who had a brush with success before being sidelined by an injury and having to start over without any real tools or options. His business partner/mentor pulled him away from that life and helped train and establish him as a PI — if only to take over the business. Don hovers in the background of the novel, coming out to give advice (not always taken) and help connect Joe with sources of information. Hopefully we see more of him in action in future novels. Recently, Don’s daughter, Sarah, has come on board mostly as office support — but has moved into some investigative roles, as well. She’s a single mom, and much more practical than Joe — she’s primarily involved in the search for the missing woman, and Joe and Don work both cases, with Joe doing the majority of the legwork (and receiving all the beatings and threatenings).

Because individuals in both cases are from the same part of town, there’s some overlap in the investigations — but this isn’t one of those books where seemingly unrelated cases are really tied together. The two do inform each other a little bit, however, and Quantrill weaves them together well. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but the writing is so smooth that it might as well be, it’s very easy to find that multiple chapters have gone by without you noticing the passage of time, and once this story gets its claws into you, it won’t let go. The murder case is complex without getting complicated, and the motives behind everyone’s actions make a whole lot of sense.

There’s a very Lincoln Perry/Joe Pritchard feel to the relationship between Joe and Don, for those that remember Michael Koryta’s debut series. It’s not the same series, but there’s a very similar feel to the dynamic between the veteran with all the connections and the younger, less experienced detective with a troubled and oft-misspent youth. Throwing Don’s daughter (and granddaughter) into the mix changes the dynamic, too. Watching these three interact is almost enough, if the cases they were working were uneventful, I’d probably stick around.

There’s something going on with Don that I’m a little uneasy about, and am very curious about seeing what Quantrill gives us in the next few books. As well as a looming romantic entanglement for JOe — that could be a very sweet story, or a giant disaster (possibly a combination of the two — I might be holding out hope for option 3). But mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing how the events of this novel affect Joe moving forward — I don’t see how they can’t.

While writing this, it occurred to me that most of the mystery novels I’ve read lately have featured at least one law enforcement officer, which is a pretty big change for me. A few years ago, I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a law enforcement protagonists. So getting into a new PI is a very pleasant change of pace. The fact that it’s a good PI novel is just icing on the cake. This was a great ride, and I can assure you that you’ll be seeing me talk about the next two novels in the series pretty soon, I really want to spend more time with these characters and I bet you will, too.

—–

4 Stars

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A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

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’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.

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

Dead is BeautifulDead is Beautiful

by Jo Perry

Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

4 Stars

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

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).

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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.

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