Indie Crime Crawl: Ad Fontes — The Publishers

Okay, for my last couple of posts for the Indie Crime Crawl, I’ve decided to go back to the sources—the authors and publishers of the Indie Crime books I’ve been thinking about/talking about all this week. Check them out. Without them, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

I’ve put a few in bold that you definitely want to check out—but I’ve enjoyed offerings from all of these.

(N.B.:this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to be—there are a lot of indie publishers out there, I’m not going to pretend to know them all; I just pulled these lists from glancing through my logs and I might have not recognized some as indies without checking further; I couldn’t find an active site for some; and/or avoided some that I wasn’t that impressed with.)

Indie Crime Crawl: Ad Fontes — The Authors

Okay, for my last couple of posts for the Indie Crime Crawl, I’ve decided to go back to the sources—the authors and publishers of the Indie Crime books I’ve been thinking about/talking about all this week. Check them out. Without them, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

I’ve put a few in bold that you definitely want to check out—but I’ve enjoyed offerings from all of these.

(N.B.:this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to be—there are a lot of indie publishers out there, I’m not going to pretend to know them all; I just pulled these lists from glancing through my logs and I might have not recognized some as indies without checking further; I couldn’t find an active site for some; and/or avoided some that I wasn’t that impressed with.)

A David Ahern
Carolyn Arnold
B Cheryl Denise Bannerman
C.G. Barrett
Gray Basnight
Clare Blanchard
Leopold Borstinski
Simon Bower
Rebecca Bradley
Steph Broadribb
Matt Brolly
Jonathan Charles Bruce
Nathan Burrows
C Jacqueline Chadwick
Jim Cliff
E. J. Copperman, Jeff Cohen
D Russell Day
F Alan J. Field
Tony J. Forder
G Paul Gadsby
Dave Gehrke
Robert Germaux
M.K. Graff
Chris Grams
H Nancy Hersage
Noelle Holten
J Michael RN Jones
Brent Jones
K Joe Klingler
Nick Kolakowski
Charles Kriel
L Neil Lancaster
David Harris Lang
Rich Leder
Ken Levine
Jim Lusby
M Max McBride
Russel D. McLean
Duncan MacMaster
Luna Miller, Aidan Isherwood (Translator)
Dreda Say Mitchell
Fidelis Morgan
Todd Morr
N David Nolan
O Judith O’Reilly
P Richard Paolinelli
Ian Patrick
Nicky Peacock
Jo Perry
Matt Phillips
Q Nick Quantrill
Bryon Quertermous
R Mark Rapacz
Gary Raymond
Betsy Reavley
Miranda Rijks
Nathan Ronen
S. J. Rozan
Desmond P. Ryan
OMJ Ryan
S Carl Schmidt
Mindy M. Shelton
Rob Sinclair
Dave Sinclair
James Stansfield
Jay Stringer
Ruth Sutton
V Jon Voss
W Chuck Waldron
Frank Westworth
Dale Wiley
Anna Willett
Erica Wright
Erich Wurster
Z Mark David Zaslove

#IndieCrimeCrawl — a couple more highlights

So who forgot to hit “Publish” last night?
Hey, I found time to do another one of these. The hashtag has primarily been sales (great sales) from various publishers and various and sundry Indie publishers shining the light on other Indie publishers. How cool is that? So seriously, go check out the hashtag and find some great reads — #IndieCrimeCrawl.

Beyond that, there were two things that I wanted to highlight — the list shoudl probably be longer, but I ust don’t have the time, so again, I refer you to Twitter.:

I expect this weekend will be pretty quiet, but that hashtag will still be worth checking out.

Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald: Move over Murphy, it’s Mary Shield’s Law now

The last book I’ll look at for #IndieCrimeCrawl (not my last post for the Crawl) is the latest from Helen Fitzgerald. Unlike the others I’ve blogged about this week, Fitzgerald is a new author to me, and the only thing I know about her is that a few weeks ago, about half of my bookish twitter feed was full of people praising this book. I don’t remember who is the one that convinced me I should pick up this book — I could pretty much pick a name at random and come up with a decent candidate though. I don’t see anyone but an independent publisher allowing this story to be told in the way it is. I think many publishers would take a version of this novel — a restrained and somewhat neutered version of it, sure — but not this version. This protagonist, this story, this author and this publisher are textbook examples of the strengths of Independent Crime Fiction. Without further ado:

Worst Case ScenarioWorst Case Scenario

by Helen Fitzgerald


Paperback, 207 pg.
Orenda Books, 2019

Read: July 13 – 15, 2019

           When Mary decided to get her diploma [to become a Social Worker], she believed it would be her role to stand on bridges and stop people jumping off. Very soon after qualifying she realised she would never stand on bridges. She and everyone else were too busy catching casualties downstream. Except for sex offenders. If you saw a drowning sex offender being swept with the current you threw a large rock at him. Mary had done her best work in her first five years in the job. Those early cases were the ones she could recall, where she’d made the time and had an impact. She should have been forced to resign at the five-year mark. Every worker should.
           Please let me get through today without killing a child, they’d all be thinking, as Mary had thought for the last thirty years. Please help me not ruin a child’s life. She’d prayed each day that she’d get through it without fucking up, without turning out to be the bad guy after all. No-one in the office was expecting fame, riches, or even thanks, even though each worker would have made an excellent protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life. They all saved lives, all the time, but no-one ever noticed. Boy did people notice when it went wrong, though.

Mary Shields is a social worker/probation officer, and I can’t imagine that there are many in either field that can’t recognize themselves a little in those above quotations (I couldn’t pick one). It’s probably my (understandable) lack of knowledge about Scottish penology/jurisprudence, but I don’t get exactly how her job works. She refers to herself as a social worker, and seems to work for a private employer, while she manages people on probation. It didn’t impact the novel for me, it’s just something I stumbled over a few times.

Before I go on, can I just ask something? Police procedurals and PI novels are never going away, but are we done with Forensic Scientists/CSI-types now and moving on to Probation/Parole Officers? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve gone my entire life without reading a book focused on/featuring a Probation Officer and now I’ve read two in the last month and a half. I’m all for it, if the books are as good as these two are, I should stress.

Anyway, Mary is going through several changes in her life — including The Change. Her adult son has finished school and has found gainful enough employment that he has moved into his own place, her husband—a struggling artist for years is on the brink of making good, reliable money; and her own employment is getting the best of her—the schedule, the clients, the management—it’s all too much and with Roddie about to have a reliable income, she’s decided to give her notice once things become official for him. Having made that decision, she’s being a little less careful than she should be with her clients. Instead of doing everything by the book and diplomatically, she’s going to cut to the chase and do what she can to protect society from her clients and do what’s right for the people around them (even if they don’t want her to.)

The strategy sounds all well and good, but the execution could use a little work. Mary describes her role to one client as imagining the worst case scenario and then working to make sure it doesn’t happen. Well, she couldn’t imagine this scenario if she’d tried. Things start to go wrong immediately, and to a degree she can’t cope with.

The biggest example of this (but far from the only) is Liam Macdowall, her newest client. He was convicted of murdering his wife, and is on the verge of release. Not at all coincidentally, on the same day, his book is due to be published. It’s a series of letters he wrote to his dead wife from prison, essentially exonerating himself and putting the blame for the problems on his life on her. He’s become the poster child for Men’s Rights Activists throughout the country and his release is the occasion for protests (not necessarily the non-violent kind) for feminist groups as well as his fellow MRAs. Mary lays down the law on the eve of his release, setting forth very strict guidelines and expectations for him. Which is begins openly defying within hours of his release.

Before Mary can do anything about it, thing after thing after thing go disastrously wrong—regarding Macdowall, but with other clients, too. I can’t get into the details, but let’s just say the best of the things that go wrong is that her own son begins dating Macdowall’s oddly devoted daughter and sipping the MRA Kool-Aid. Everything that Mary tries to do to either fix the problems in her life, or just alleviate them, fails miserably. The only thing thing that doesn’t blow up in her face is retreating home to her bed and streaming Sex and the City. Her life doesn’t go from bad to worse just once or twice, but at every turn, she finds another level of worse for things to go to.

I’ve never talked about Christopher Buckley on this site, which is a crying shame (if only because I’d like to link to the posts demonstrate this point), but I haven’t read anything by him since I started here. I’ve been reading him since the late Eighties and love his approach to satire. The problem with all of his novels (with one exception) is that the last 5-10% seems to get away from him—like a fully-loaded shopping cart speeding down a hill. No brakes and only gravity and momentum exercising any control over what happens to it, while the wheels are close to falling off. I mention this only because I kept thinking of Buckley’s endings while reading this. There are two significant differences—the out-of-control part set in around the 25% mark and somehow (I wish I could understand how) Fitzgerald pulled it off. I do think in the last 15 pages or so, the wheels got a little wobbly, but while things felt out-of-control, Fitzgerald kept things going exactly where she intended.

While I don’t understand fully how Fitzgerald kept things from spiraling out of control in the novel (not Mary’s life) is the character of Mary Shields. She’s just fantastic. She’s funny (usually unintentionally); earnest but jaded; angry at so much of what’s going on around her; fully aware that she’s a mess (and not getting better); yet she pushes on in her Sisyphean tasks to the best of her ability. Her life is a car wreck, and we are invited to rubberneck as we drive by. When we read:

           …she didn’t want to kill [Macdowall’s MRA publisher], as this would mean losing the moral high ground.

we actually understand her frame of mind. She’s a woman whose life is crumbling around her and she’s doing all she can to hold it together for just a few more days until she can retire.

We don’t get to spend enough time with other characters to get a strong sense of them—this is all about Mary and the disaster that is her professional, personal, and family life. I liked the portrayal of almost everyone else in the book, I just wish the style of the novel allowed Fitzgerald to develop them more fully. Particularly the MRAs—I felt that their depiction was rather shallow and lacked nuance, making them rather cartoon-y. Sure, you could argue that she’s just being accurate and MRAs are cartoon-y, but I’d like to see a bit more subtlety in their portrayal. But on the whole, things are moving so fast, and Mary bounces from one calamity to another so rapidly that there’s no time to develop anyone else.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about, and a significant part of me wants to rate it lower. But I can’t largely because of Mary Shields. I’ve never read anything or anyone like her. This is definitely a Gestalt kind of novel—various parts of it may not make a lot of sense; or may be good, but not great. But the whole of the novel is definitely greater than the sum of its parts—when you take all the parts that may not be that stellar and combine them the way that Fitzgerald did—and with Mary at the core—it works, it all really works.

Insane, fun, insanely fun—and probably a little closer to reality than any one is ready to admit. I have a number of family members and friends in the social work/probation/parole fields—and I’m probably going to insist that most of them read this while I encourage all of you to do the same. I can virtually promise that you won’t read anything like this anytime soon.

—–

4 Stars

Indie Crime Fiction: A Niche of One’s Own

Douglas Adams once wrote (in a detective novel, btw, so it’s fitting), “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” That describes this post—I had a pretty clear idea what I was going to say when I started this—but that’s not where I ended up rambling about. Still, I think this’ll work.

Since Jo Perry recruited me to take part in this celebration of Indie Crime Fiction, I’ve been wondering what I can say about the topic as a whole. What is it about Indie Crime Fiction that defines it, what separates it from “mainstream” Crime Fiction (I’m not entirely comfortable with that term — but it’s easier to say than “Crime Fiction Published by one of ‘The Big Five'”). I don’t mean to pit the two against each other—and I don’t think they should be. It’s not a Zero Sum Game—the better Indie Crime is written, sells, and is read the better “Mainstream” Crime Fiction will be written, sell, and be read.

So what is it about Indie Crime Fiction that makes it something to focus on—even celebrate? Like other forms of entertainment media—the last decade+ (largely since the advent of the Kindle) has seen an explosion in the number of options the consumer has. We have hundreds of TV channels—and dozens of streaming options ; we have a music industry so segmented by genre and interest it’s impossible to imagine a star on the level of those produced in the 60’s-80’s. Novels have seen the same explosion—there are just so many options, so many choices, that no one can possibly get to read all of the options that appeal to them—truth be told, no one can know the market enough to know what’s out there that might appeal to them.

What Independent Publishers—and self-publishers—can do that the Big 5 can’t do, is appeal to a niche audience. They don’t need a mega-seller to take care of the budget (and pay for mid-list—and lower—authors to get established and build an audience). I don’t know—and don’t want to know—the economics involved and just what they have to sell to make a profit, but it’s not as much as Hachette or Simon & Schuster, that’s for sure. But a niche audience tends to be very devoted and likely to proselytize.

Yes, there’s not the marketing push behind them that some get from the “mainstream” (but even most of their authors have to do their own), and they have to rely on word of mouth—but word of mouth can be very effective. And in our heavily-curated social media world, word of mouth can be very effective—there’s a good chance that someone you follow shares some of your tastes/perspectives/interest (that’s why you follow them, right?). So something they talk about is likely in your—or adjacent to your niche. And niches abound in Indie Crime.

A small sample off the top of my head—which is just the tip of the very large iceberg—there’s a niche for novels about*:

*This is off the top of my head, so details might be a bit off, the links are to my own posts, but you can find links to the author/publisher in them

And I could go on (and wish I had the time to)—and those are just niches that I’ve found—and I know there are more out there that would appeal to me as much (if not more) than some of those. Atypical protagonists, sometimes atypical crimes/cases, told in bold—sometimes unconventional—voices and styles. This is what appeals to me about Indie Crime Fiction. Sure, mainstream publishing does come up with things that are atypical—e.g., a 34-year old woman in Botswana moving to the city and starting a detective agency, a pre-teen girl in post-war Britain who keep stumbling over dead bodies, a dog narrating PI novels, a modern inner-city Holmes, a pre-WWI lady deputy sheriff turning New Jersey law enforcement upside down—and I’m glad they put those things out! But by and large you find the “quirky” (for lack of a better term) in Indie Crime Fiction.

A plethora of voices—and it drives me crazy to know I can’t sample all that I want to, and that I won’t even know all that I don’t get to sample—telling a panoply of stories. This is what Indie Crime Fiction is about, what draws me to it, and won’t let me go for the foreseeable future.

Ink to Ashes by Russell Day: The Least Likely Miss Marple Successor Dives into the Murky World of Motorcycle Gangs

I’d fully intended to post about this book last week, until I remembered that this was #IndieCrimeCrawl week. Who better to write about this week than Russell Day and Doc Slidesmith? I don’t think I can think of better representatives of Indie Crime Fiction than them. Last year Day made me into a near-raving fanboy, and this year’s work has only made me appreciate him all the more. There’s a realism as well as poetry to his prose that needs to be experienced to understand. I can’t encourage you enough to buy and read his work. This is one of the grittier works I referred to yesterday (when this was supposed to post, but life happened and I forgot to edit the intro), and so it might not appeal to as many people as other authors do — but for those whose taste run to the darker side of Crime Fiction, Russell Day is your man.

Ink to AshesInk to Ashes

by Russell Day
Series: Doc Slidesmith, #2

Kindle Edition, 306 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019

Read: July 12 – 13, 2019

           For me, the why of it is always the point.

As much as we all like a good whodunit, generally, I’m with Doc Slidesmith — the whydunit is really what’s more interesting. You might have an incredibly clever criminal — and an equally clever sleuth (professional or amateur) — a twisty, turny plot with perfect reveals, and the rest — but if the motive behind the crime is non-existent or non-interesting, the novel just isn’t going to be that satisfying. Russell Day’s Doc Slidesmith novels are all about the why — he’ll pull the why out at the end and it’ll be something you don’t expect (but maybe should have), and it will be compelling as you could want.

One of Doc Slidesmiths’ oldest friends has died in a motorcycle accident and his widow has very unusual request, which I’ll leave for you to read about on your own. But it leads to one of the . . . strangest and most striking first chapters that I can remember.

For those that haven’t met Doc before — he’s your standard-issue doctor of psychology, who has embraced voodoo and tarot reading, rides a motor cycle and owns a tattoo shop, while solving mysteries that he stumbles into à la Miss Marple. You know the type. Yakky is his taciturn friend/colleague who works in Doc’s shop, and is a backup/wingman when Doc needs one (whether he wants one or not).

The widow has another request — her husband was one of the founders of a motorcycle club, and one of the newest members has disappeared. Can Doc track him down as a favor to the dearly departed? She can’t ask any members of the club so she’s counting on Doc to come through for her.

At the moment, things are really tense intra-club membership. There’s a move for the club to stop being a tighter association of motorcycle enthusiasts and become a full-fledged outlaw biker gang. This is causing problems in the ranks — there are many who don’t want anything to do with that, preferring to preserve the club as is — but there are many, typically younger voices who want to go all the way with this. Tied into this move are income streams and dissension about some of them, plus pressure to add in something more illegal than they currently have to worry about.

Doc’s not far into his search when he can tell there’s a lot of lies around the disappearance of the member, and before Doc can figure out who’s lying and why — the search becomes deadly. It isn’t long after that when Doc starts to question the official finding about the motorcycle accident. Leading to more questions and deceit. Yakky and Doc now have to walk through this minefield to find out what happened to the member (and why), what happened to Doc’s friend (and why) — oh, and maybe stop an all-out war between this nascent outlaw gang and an already established one. Just another day in the office for Slidesmith.

I was able to guess the who behind one of the lines of investigation pretty easily, but the why was something I just didn’t see. The other line was a mystery for me right up until the reveal, making that particular reveal quite satisfying. Coupled with Day’s ear for dialogue and evocative prose, the mysteries — and the darkness of the human psyche they explore makes this a compelling read — almost a must-read.

The various club members and those who come into regular contact with them are really well depicted — and several of them are the kind of character that you hope show up again in a future book in the series. But the core of the book is Doc and Yakky. Now, Needle Song was written from Yakky’s perspective, where this is written from Doc’s — and that makes so much difference. A lot of master detective types (amateur or not) need to be written about “by” a friend, associate or assistant. John Watson, Archie Goodwin, Chet, Danny Boyle do more than narrate the stories and relate the exploits of their partners/employers, they also help convey the proper sense of awe and wonder we’re supposed to have for the Great Detective. In Needle Song, we got that from Yakky — both the narration and we were given a proper sense of admiration in response to Doc. Here, we only get Doc’s narration — and he isn’t nearly as impressed with himself as Yakky was/is. Which makes it harder for the reader to be.

On the other hand, Needle Song was in many ways, Yakky’s story. This is absolutely Doc’s story, so who else could tell it to us? And Day is able to get across the kind of guy that Doc is — like in this testimony from his departed friend:

           “Do you know what Dago used to say about you? He said, if you followed someone into a revolving door, you’d walk out in front of them. He thought a lot of you.”

Don’t let the fact that I’m not raving give you the impression there’s something wrong with this book. Rather, it just reminds me how impressed I was with Needle Song. I wondered if Day could live up to expectations, and I don’t think he did. Many will disagree with me (which is a good thing), but while this was a solid, compelling read featuring characters that I can’t get enough of — it didn’t knock my socks off. Russell Day remains one of the strongest new voices I’ve come across in the last couple of years. I know his next novel will be completely different from this, but I hope he comes back to this world soon. In the meantime, go, go get this.

—–

4 Stars

In the Eye by Robert Germaux: Barnes hunts for a missing woman in a solid PI novel

If you’d asked me last week, I’d have said that this was the third book featuring the private eye Jeremy Barnes. Apparently, it’s the second. I’d have insisted I read two others, however — but my archives, Amazon and Germaux’s website tell me I’m wrong. I’ve also read one of the two books he’s written about Pittsburgh Police Detective Daniel Hayes. With both series, you almost instantly feel like you’re returning to a beloved series that you’ve been reading for years. Already this week, we’ve seen the grittier side of Indie Crime fiction — but here’s another side, light, action-driven, character-oriented, dialogue-heavy. Or, to put it another way — fun.

I read another author last week complain that when his work is characterized as “light” it’s frequently taken as a criticism — so I want to stress that I don’t mean it that way at all. I mean it as a compliment — pleasant, quick, entertaining.

I’m getting off topic and this intro is now far too long — so I’ll shut up now and get on with talking about this particular Indie Crime novel.

In the EyeIn the Eye

by Robert Germaux
Series: Jeremy Barnes, #2

Kindle Edition, 272 pg.
2018
Read: July 12 – 13, 2019

           I hung my jacket on the brass coat rack in one corner of the loft, then sat at my desk for a few minutes going through the snail mail that had accumulated since my last time there. There were three checks for services rendered, all of them for background checks I’d run on job applicants for local business owners. The background checks hadn’t taken me very long, which was reflected in the fees I’d charged. Still, three checks in one day. Maybe I should hire an accountant. I glanced down at the checks again. They totaled a little over five-hundred dollars. Maybe hold off on that accountant thing awhile.

Pittsburgh PI, Jeremy Barnes (call him JB), is in the office this day to meet a prospective client. The love of her life is missing, and she assumes — insists it has to be — foul play. JB (like his mentor) doesn’t like missing persons work — it’s too easy for things to go very wrong. But something about this woman’s plight moves him to accept the case. It doesn’t take JB long to reach the same conclusion — she didn’t leave on her own, and she’s not coming back on her own either. As this is a lesbian couple in a pretty conservative small town, JB doesn’t expect a lot of police help (especially once he learns a little about the Chief) — there’s one officer who is doing everything he can, his hands are tied. It’s all up to JB.

JB, a former high school English teacher, is a pretty good character. He’s got the right balance of smarts, toughness and wise cracks to qualify as a PI protagonist. His girlfriend and friends are as charming and interesting as he is. Basically, they’re characters you want to read about. Either hanging out after work or on the job, they’re a lot of fun. I do think the criminals in this book — and those who think like them — are depicted shallowly, and are largely unfair stereotypes. Far too much time is devoted to JB taking cheap verbal shots at them (in the narration or to their face). But the rest of the characters — witnesses, other police officers, friends of the victim — are well done, and add to the story rather than slowing things down or detracting from the pacing.

A quick aside — I appreciated the way that JB’s girlfriend Laura asks about getting too absorbed with a missing persons case and his answer. I wanted to ask her question of JB myself (and a few other PIs, too). More than that, I really liked his answer.

Robert B. Parker’s shadow is a long one in contemporary American Detective Fiction, as I’m sure is news to no one. Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Craig Johnson all are clearly influenced by Parker (even Jim Butcher’s work had RBP’s fingerprints all over it) — but few show their indebtedness to him as obviously as Robert Germaux. This is not a bad thing, this is just an observation. If you’re going to be standing on someone’s shoulders, might as well be the best. It was easy to see in Hard Court, but there are times in this book where I felt I was being hit over the head with it. If I was feeling uncharitable, I could describe this as a watered-down update of Looking for Rachel Wallace with a tiny bit of God Save the Child thrown in. But it’s a pleasant-enough read that I don’t want to be uncharitable — so I’ll just say that the novel wears its influences on its sleeve.

And it is pleasant to read, sometimes with crime fiction, it’s hard to remember that this is a hobby I pursue for pleasure. But with JB’s narration, it’s all about enjoying the ride. I wish more people could pull that off. In the Eye is firmly in the P.I. vein, but isn’t so hard-boiled that someone accustomed to reading cozies couldn’t slip right in. While it’s the second in the series, you don’t have to read them in order — you can (and I’d encourage you to) jump right in anywhere. This is a fun read with a cast of characters you want to spend time with — I’m willing to bet it’s re-readable, too. It inspired me to give the first JB book another read (not sure when I’ll find the time, but I want to).

For a fast, easy read that’s sure to please, In the Eye is just what the doctor ordered.

—–

3 Stars