The Complaints by Ian Rankin: Introducing the anti-Rebus, Matthew Fox

The ComplaintsThe Complaints

by Ian Rankin

Series: Matthew Fox, #1Hardcover, 438 pg.
Little, Brown and Co., 2011

Read: November 20 – 22, 2018

I left the last Rankin book thinking, “If I didn’t know that there were more Rebus books coming, I’d be really depressed.” There are advantages to being this far behind a series. Thanks to a podcast interview I heard with Rankin around the time I started to plan my Rebus reading (I think it was this A Stab in the Dark episode), I knew that at some point, he pushed “Pause” on Rebus to introduce a new character — initially, I think, to replace Rebus. But it didn’t work out that way. Still, I wanted to read them in chronological order, so I could appreciate it when the new guy was merged into the Rebus books.

And that’s where we are now, with the introduction of The New Guy: Malcolm Fox, of the Complaints and Conduct division (aka “The Complaints”) — essentially, Internal Affairs (aka “The Rat Squad”). It’s almost like Rankin came up with a list of Rebus’ characteristics and put a “not-” in front of every one of them to create him. He doesn’t drink (because he’ll end up like Rebus does, or worse), he follows the rules (generally speaking), he gets along with and respects/trusts his superiors, he’s close with his family . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He’s a lot more likeable than Rebus, too — as a person and as a fictional character. He’s not as well-developed — this is his first book and Rebus had 17 at that point, so that makes sense. Although, typically, IAB/Complaints type characters are usually dramatic obstacles to the series protagonists and are therefore little-liked, so that was strange.

The novel starts with Fox riding high — he’s just closed a major investigation, and is doing clean up on that when he’s given a new assignment. He’ll be helping out another division — I suddenly forgot their name, but essentially, they’re the equivalent of the Special Victims Unit. So right away you know this is not going to be a fun book — a detective who polices the police investigating sex crimes. There’s just no way to paint a “fun-loving romp” face on that premise.

But before we can get too far down that road, a pretty big complication arises. (Minor Spoiler warning) The abusive boyfriend of Fox’s sister is found murdered. And guess who is the first suspect? That’s right. Better yet: guess who is one of the investigating officers? If you guessed the target of Fox’s new investigation, give yourself a pat on the back.

So Fox has to investigate a detective without him knowing about it, while being investigated by that same detective — and to keep it from looking like payback. Which is a pretty cool setup for a novel, you’ve got to admit. Better yet, it’s Rankin behind the wheel, so you know he can (and does) deliver on the setup.

The bulk of the novel is about Fox doing his best to find the killer — for his sister’s sake (primarily) — and keep himself out of the cross-hairs of the investigators. This will lead him to some very not-regulation investigative techniques, some of which might remind people of the Rankin creation that Fox isn’t. The mystery itself and the way it’s told is classic-Rankin. Lots of twists, a couple of good turns, very satisfying throughout.

Meanwhile, we get a pretty good character study/introduction to this new character through this — and through a friendship he develops with another detective during this. I really enjoyed the novel, and Rankin gave his new character a serious challenge to start with, a very cleverly constructed mystery to untangle. Fox is a worthy entry into the world of Rebus and Rankin.

I’ll leave with this — if after 2007’s Exit Music I’d have been nervous about what was to come next, I’d have been relieved after 2009’s The Complaints. Now, I’m just eager to see the two detectives on the same page.

—–

4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

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The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin: Likeable Characters, Strong Mystery, & Geeky Fun Combine for a Winning Debut

The Frame-UpThe Frame-Up

by Meghan Scott Molin
Series: The Golden Arrow Mysteries, #1

eARC, 304 pg.
47North, 2018
Read: November 28 – 29, 2018

There are some posts I’m not sure how to start. Introductions are probably the hardest part for me (I say this today, tomorrow I’ll be struggling with a conclusion). I thought about starting this post this way:

    If you liked . . .

  • the Dahlia Moss books, but want something less sit-com and more dramedy
  • the Kirby Baxter books, but wish that Molly was the star?
  • Seanan McGuire’s Antimony Price, but wish you didn’t have to put up with the cryptozoology?
    and/or
  • the Castle pilot episode
  • …then this is the book for you!

But that just seemed frivolous. So I abandoned it.

A chance encounter in a slow-moving coffee shop line and an overheard offhand remark leads to LAPD Narcotics Detective Matteo Kildaire consulting comic book writer Michael-Grace (call her “MG”) Martin about an unusual crime. A couple of drug dealers had been tied together and left for the police, a photo printed in the newspaper (or at least an online version of it) reminded MG of one of her favorite comic book panels when she saw it — a panel from a comic in the Eighties. It turns out that there are additional reasons to tie the crime scene to that particular comic, and the detective could use some help. He’s clueless about this kind of thing and is desperate to get any kind of line on the vigilante responsible.

Matteo is concerned for various and sundry reasons that MG and her coworkers at Genius Comics might be a target for trouble (and/or responsible for it). MG is intrigued by the entire thing (and the fact that an incredibly hunky detective is talking to her about it doesn’t hurt, even if he is the Muggle-ist Muggle around) — actual crimes being committed around town by someone very inspired by the comics that shaped her early geekness?

Now, Matteo doesn’t want word to get out about a. MG consulting for him; b. the close eye Genius Comics employees are being watched with; c. really anything about the vigilante. So he poses as someone MG’s dating, without really consulting her on it. Spending time with her in social settings allows him to investigate her coworkers and friends — although he really seems interested in getting to know her better.

MG’s dealing with several things in her own life — she’s up for a big promotion at work; her side project of designing costumes (for cosplay, and her friend Lawrence’s drag queen act) is dangerously close to turning into something more than a hobby; and somehow she has to work in a fake relationship (without tipping off the true nature of things to her roommate or Lawrence).

The chemistry between the two main characters is fantastic — Matteo comes across as a very nice guy, the kind of person you’d like to think every detective is — driven, honest, kind. MG’s the kind of person I’d like to hang out with — creative, funny, geeky (although her LOTR views means we won’t be best friends). When you put the two of them together they work really well — on a detective/consultant basis, or as a couple. It’s obvious from at least Chapter 2 that the sparks are there, so I don’t feel too bad talking about this — but they do keep it pretty professional. Mostly. Whether they’re being professional, or they’re in one of their more personal moments, these two are a great pair.

Now while the pair are getting to know each other, the crimes associated with the comics continue to pile up, get more serious and start to involve significant damage and danger to human life. Other than Matteo, the police and the FBI aren’t that convinced that MG can really help them. And at least one of her friends becomes a person of interest in the investigation. These two things spur MG to do some independent investigating in addition to her consulting. Which goes about as well as you might think for a comic book writer/would-be fashion designer starring in a comedic novel.

And it is funny. MG is a great narrator — honest about herself and her foibles; snarky about the foibles (and strengths) of those around her; clever, witty and her narration is chock-full of geek-culture references. Molin tends to over-explain some of MG’s references. You don’t need to tell me that “Winter is coming,” is a Jon Snow line. You can just say it and everyone will know you’re talking about Game of Thrones (or Death and Boobies, as MG prefers). I don’t remember noticing that later on, I either got used to it or Molin course-corrected. Either way, it’s not a major problem.

The story is strong, the culture around Genius Comics is interesting (and rings true), the secondary and tertiary characters are fun — it’s a very satisfying debut novel. I do think that MG’s roommate and coworkers could’ve been developed a bit more. At least we could’ve spent more time with them, not much, just a little (except the roommate, we could’ve had more time with him — but that seemed intentional). But that’s about my strongest criticism, come to think of it. There are some scenes that are just fantastic — Matteo watching the original Star Wars trilogy with MG and her coworkers for the first time is magic. There’s a moment in the last chapter that’s a little better, too (but I won’t spoil anything). Molin can tell a good story and capture small elements well.

I started this by joking around about the kind of people that’ll like this book — but seriously, there’s something about this that’ll appeal to most. Just thinking of friends/family/workplace proximity associates who read novels — I can’t think of one who wouldn’t find something in this to enjoy. My mother would like the interplay between the characters (particularly between MG and Lawrence) and the story, even if she didn’t get most of the fandom references; my buddy Paul would like MG’s spirit, the mystery, and Matteo; Nicole would dig the mystery, MG, and the fandoms (even if she doesn’t share them, she’ll get it), MG’s design work, too; I’ve got another friend who’d like the mystery but would roll his eyes at some of the relationship stuff; Rosie would get a kick out of it all, especially MG’s voice — and so on. Okay, to be honest, I can think of one reader I know who wouldn’t like it — between the subject matter, the voice, the crime story — it’d be beneath her (unless Molin gets interviewed by NPR, then she’d be a big fan). My point is — there’s at least a little something here for everyone to get into, if you don’t let any of the particulars of the setting or character get in the way.

Sure, I liked Dahlia Moss/Kirby Baxter/Antimony Price/Castle without any of the conditions that I started things off with — so this was definitely in my wheelhouse. But more importantly, it was a fun story well told, with charming characters that you want to spend time with. If I’m reading Molin’s tweets correctly, we’re looking at at least a trilogy with these people — I’m all in for that, I’m very interested to see where she takes the story and the characters. I fully expect that I’m not going to be alone in my appreciation for The Frame Up.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from 47North via Little Bird Publicity and NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to all for this great read.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Blood Feud by Mike Lupica: Sunny Randall’s Back in this Promising Reintroduction

Blood FuedRobert B. Parker’s Blood Feud

by Mike Lupica
Series: Sunny Randall, #7
eARC, 352 pg.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Read: October 5 – 9, 2018

I have a complicated relationship with Sunny Randall. Readers of this site have been frequently exposed to my love for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, both by Parker and the continuations by Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman (let’s overlook Michael Brandman’s contributions for the moment). I enjoyed his stand-alone works, and I thought the first couple of Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch books were fun (I haven’t tried the Robert Knott continuations). Which leaves us with Sunny.

Sunny Randall, the story goes, was written to be adapted into a film series for Parker’s chum, Helen Hunt (incidentally, I’ve never been able to envision Helen Hunt in a single Sunny scene, but that’s just me). She’s a private investigator; a former cop; part-time painter (art, not house); emotionally entangled with her ex-husband, but can’t live with him; lives in Boston; and enjoys good food. But she’s totally not a female Spenser — she doesn’t like baseball, see? I’ve read all the books — some multiple times — and while I enjoyed them, I’ve never clicked with Sunny the way I have with others. Including every other Parker protagonist. Most of her novels are mashups and remixes of various Spenser novels, entertaining to see things in a different light — but that’s about it. Frankly, the most I ever liked Sunny was in the three Jesse Stone novels late in Parker’s run (but both characters are better off without each other).

So when it was announced that Mike Lupica would be taking up the reins of this series I was intrigued but not incredibly enthused. I only know Lupica from having bought a few of his books for my sons when they were younger. I didn’t get around to reading any of them, so he’s really a new author for me. And sure, I was a little worried about a YA/MG author taking the reins of a “grown-up” series. But not much — if you can write a novel, you can write a novel, it’s just adjusting your voice and language to be appropriate for the audience.

Enough blather — let’s talk about Blood Feud. Since we saw her last, Sunny has had to move, Richie (her ex-) has gotten another divorce (giving them the chance to date or whatever you want to call it) and has replaced her late dog, Rosie, with another Rosie. Other than that, things are basically where they were after the end of Spare Change 11 years ago (for us, anyway, I’m not sure how long for her, but less time has passed you can bet).

By the way — does anyone other than Robert B. Parker, Spenser and Sunny really do this? Your dog dies, so you go and get another one of the same breed and call him/her the same name? Is this really a thing?

Then one night — Richie is shot. It’s not fatal, but was done in such a way that no one doubts for a moment that it could have been had the assailant wanted it to be. For those who don’t know (or don’t remember), Richie is the son of an Irish mob boss, although he has nothing to do with the family business. He’s given a message for his father — his shooter is coming for him, but wants him to suffer first. This kicks off a race for the shooter — Sunny, the Burke family and the police (led by Sgt. Frank Belson) are vying to be the one to find the shooter.

Before long, the violence spreads to other people the Burkes employ — both property and persons are targeted by this stranger. It’s clear that whoever is doing this has a grudge going back years. So Sunny dives into the Burke family history as much as she can, so she can get an answer before her ex-father-in-law is killed. Not just the family history — but the family’s present, too. As much as the roots of the violence are in the past, Sunny’s convinced what the Burkes are up to now is just as important to the shooter.

Richie’s father, Desmond, isn’t happy about Sunny sticking her nose into things. Not just because of the crimes she might uncover — but he really wants to leave the past in the past. But as long as someone might come take another shot at Richie, Sunny won’t stop. This brings her into contact with several criminal figures in Boston (like Parker-verse constants Tony Marcus and Vinnie Morris) as well as some we’ve only met in Sunny books.

There are a couple of new characters in these pages, but most of them we’ve met before — Lupica is re-establishing this universe and doesn’t have time to bring in many outsiders, but really just reminds us who the players are. Other than the new Rosie, I can’t point at a character and say “that’s different.” He’s done a pretty good job of stepping into Parker’s shoes. Not the pre-Catskill Eagle Parker like Atkins, but the Parker of Sunny Randall books, which is what it should feel like (( wouldn’t have objected to a Coleman-esque true to the character, just told in a different way). I think some of the jokes were overused (her Sox-apathy, for one), but it wasn’t too bad. Lupica did make some interesting choices, particularly toward the end, which should set up some interesting situations for future installments.

The mystery was decent enough, and fit both the situations and the characters — I spent a lot of the novel far ahead of Sunny (but it’s easier on this side of the page). I enjoyed the book — it’s not the best thing I’ve read this year, but it’s a good entry novel for Lupica in this series, a good reintroduction for the characters/world, and an entertaining read in general. If you’re new to this series, this would be as good a place to hop on as it was for Lupica.

I want better for Parker’s creation (but I think I’d have said that for most of Parker’s run with the series), and Lupica’s set things up in a way that we could get that in the near-future. He’s demonstrated that he has a good handle on the character he inherited, the question is, what can he do with her from here? I was ambivalent about this series coming back, but I can honestly say that I’m eager to see what happens to it next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A Charming, Dark, and (somehow) Fun Serial Killer Tale

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Hardcover, 223 pg.
Doubleday Books, 2018

Read: November 23, 2018

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

That’s one of the best pair of opening sentences I can recall. How do you not get hooked right there? You get so much in those two sentences, you know that Ayoola has killed multiple times, at least three (otherwise, Korede would’ve said something like “What, again?”); the fact that she says “him,” instead of “someone” or a name suggests that Korede will know who she’s talking about without explanation; and you hear a put upon sibling fed up with their sister’s antics.

And yeah, that’s the book in essence — Ayoola has killed her third boyfriend (in self-defense, she swears . . . again), and calls on her big sister to come help clean up. Korede’s a clean freak — she’s not quite OCD, but close. When life gets stressful, she cleans, and with her little sister, she’s got plenty of stress in her life.

Korede is beginning to think that Ayoola might not just be the innocent girl who has been able narrowly escape assault. Three kills, she’s read online, qualifies you to be a serial killer. And what’s worse — the doctor that Korede has unrequited feelings for has caught her sister’s eye, too (and vice versa) — and that can’t be good for him. I had about a dozen ideas how this was going to end — and I was wrong on every point. Which is good, because Braithwaite’s ideas were far better than mine would’ve been. She zagged when most would’ve zigged and nailed the resolution to this book.

This is enough to make an entertaining and suspense filled book. But then you throw in the characters that Braithwaite has created and things take on a different twist.

Korede’s a nurse — a demanding, dedicated, compassionate one. Ayoola is a vapid knockout who knows that it doesn’t matter what she knows, does, or thinks — she’s convinced that all she has to do is continue to look good and make men feel good about themselves and she’s set. This seems shallow, but neither Ayoola or Korede can prove that she’s wrong.

The dynamic of the long-suffering, responsible, plain(er) sibling doing the right thing and looking out for the spontaneous, outgoing, super attractive one isn’t new. Adding a mother who takes the responsible one for granted and dotes on the other, doesn’t change things, either. But somehow, Braithwaite is able to depict these three in a way that seems wholly familiar (so you can make assumptions about a lot of the relationship) and yet it feels so fresh she might have invented the archetypes.

If Jennifer Weiner lived in and wrote about Lagos, Nigeria and included murders in a tale of sibling rivalry and learning to accept yourself — you’d get something a lot like this book. There’s an intangible, ineffable quality to Braithwaite’s writing that I cannot capture better than that — but it’s better than my illustration sounds. The story goes to some really dark places, and there’s really no reason to find the characters or story so charming — but that’s all down to Braithwaite’s fantastic authorial voice. Yes, it’s about murder, the importance of family, self-sacrifice and what’s more important in this life — skill, intelligence and dedication, or beauty and sex appeal; but you might as well be reading about Bridget Jones counting cigarettes and worrying about Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy.

One other thing — this is just a wonderfully designed book. The size — smaller than your typical hardcover — is distinctive, the typeface used in chapter headings and page numbers are peculiar enough to stand out. The whole thing just feels like a different kind of book. Does this make an impact on your enjoyment of the novel? Probably not, but I appreciated the experience and look.

I can’t think of enough ways to praise Braithwaite — there’s an intangible quality to this book that just won me over pretty much on page one. You will not believe that this is her first novel — and you will hope it’s not her last. The sibling rivalry story was well-told and engaging, the hospital stories were enough to be the core of a very different novel by themselves, the serial killer story was unpredictable. The characters are the kind that you’ll remember for a long time. Stop reading me and go find a copy of this book.

—–

4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett: A Creepy and Fast Adventure

 Small Town NightmareSmall Town Nightmare

by Anna Willett

Kindle Edition, 227 pg.
The Book Folks, 2018

Read: November 22, 2018

           She wondered how much she should reveal. Her history was painful, and rehashing it for a stranger wouldn’t really help.

“It’s complicated, but I know he wouldn’t not show.”“Not unless something stopped him?” Damon asked, finishing her thought.

“Something or someone.” As she spoke, they rounded a bend and the road tapered downwards. In the distance she could see a cluster of buildings dotted with patches of open fields and circled by forests. Night Town. The sight of it sent a ripple of gooseflesh running up her arms.

“You think he’s down there somewhere?” Damon had turned in his seat and was studying her as if searching her reaction.

“It’s the last place he mentioned before disappearing.” She gripped the wheel tighter. “If he’s there, I intend to find him.”

When your younger brother, the one you spent a few years raising yourself after your parents’ death, goes missing — you throw caution to the wind to go find him. Especially if you’re a gutsy crime reporter like Lucy. She heads of into a part of the country she’s not familiar with, into a town she’d never heard of, to find out what happened to her brother in the week since she’d heard from him last. Along the way, she comes across a helpful stranger — a drifter of sorts, like her brother — who is willing to lend a hand to the search. Lucy doesn’t care (much) why he’s willing to help, she’s just glad someone is taking her seriously.

When she gets to Night Town (such a friendly, welcoming name, isn’t it?), she’s met with general apathy toward her plight — and maybe a trace of antagonism. It’s tough to say why people are so resistant to helping her — maybe because she’s a stranger, maybe they don’t like drifters, Lucy could come up with a dozen reasons, but that wouldn’t change things. None of the local residents seem inclined to help. It’s a good thing she’s found Damon. One of the men at the local police station seems indifferent (at best) to her problem, but the Senior Sergeant is eager to take a report and do what he can to find her brother.

Now, as is the norm for small fictional towns that outsiders find trouble in, there’s one family that owns about half the town, and employs the other half. Samuel Nightmesser is the only living representative of that family at the moment, so Lucy and Damon look into him (lacking any other ideas, hoping they’ll come to them), while Senior Sergent Day investigates in a more official capacity. We don’t see much of the official investigation, but it’s reassuring to know that not everyone in town is necessarily in Nightmesser’s pocket.

It soon becomes evident that there’s more afoot than a missing drifter, and that someone in town is prepared and willing to take steps to dissuade Lucy from turning over any more rocks to see what’s underneath. The reader knows a bit more than Lucy, and learns pretty quickly that there’s more to some of the people in her life than meets the eye. From there, it’s just a matter of Lucy and her associates putting the pieces together, uncovering all that’s afoot and trying to survive — and maybe help her brother to survive, too.

It didn’t take me long to write in my notes that “this is going to get creepy soon.” It did. I also noted “this is going to have an ugly end.” It did, and not necessarily in the way I expected. I also guessed right about a couple of identities. I think most readers will guess these things around the same point I did. Doing this doesn’t make any of the reveals or the novel less effective. If anything, it helped build the tension, because you were waiting for particular shoes to fall. I should also add, that there were at least three reveals and twists that I didn’t see coming, and one of them took me completely by surprise.

The morbid and creepifying elements of this book are really well done — I’d have liked to seen a bit more of them, honestly (and I don’t typically need a lot of that — but it would’ve helped, I think). Willet has a gift for using that kind of thing to reveal character, not just to advance the plot. I should probably note there’s at least one sentence toward the end of the novel that you should probably not be eating anything while you read. Just a friendly tip — set aside your snacks during the last 20 percent of the book.

The action is fast, the book grabs your attention and keeps it throughout — there’s not a lull in the action and there’s nothing dull within a mile of the text. It’s a quick read (perhaps, too quick) and one that’ll keep you entertained.

I want to stress that I enjoyed Small Town Nightmare, and my guess is that I’m not alone in this. However, it felt rushed. It felt undercooked. If things — details, tension, mystery, relationships, etc. — had been given a little more time to develop and grow; if threads hadn’t been left dangling (or had been cut entirely); if motivations were clearer; I can easily see myself excited about recommending it. But, I can’t do that — I can recommend it, and I do think most of my readers will like it. I’m just not over the moon about it.

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided, which did not influence my opinion, merely gave me something upon which to opine.

—–

3 Stars

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett

Today I welcome the Book Tour for the thrill-ride Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett
Publisher: The Book Folks
Release date: August 27, 2018
Format: Paperback/ebook
Length: 227 pages

Book Blurb:

A young drifter is in deep trouble, his sister is his only hope…

Lucy’s younger brother has gone missing. When she sets out to find him, the trail takes her to Night Town. It’s a rural backwater deep in the forests of south western Australia.

Lucy tries to enlist the help of the local police, but she is met with hostility. She befriends a man who might help her cause. Yet he is not quite who he says he is.

As the locals begin to resent her presence in the town, danger quickly mounts. The town has secrets and they seem to centre on the enigmatic Samuel Nightmesser, its wealthy benefactor.

What connects her missing brother to this grim boondock? And why do the townsfolk want rid of Lucy?

As the story unfolds we are immersed in a creepy, claustrophobic drama in which everything is at stake. If you like books with a strong female lead that keep you on the edge of your seat, you’ve found your next favourite read.

About Anna Willett:

Anna WillettAnna Willett is the author of Backwoods Ripper, Retribution Ridge, Forgotten Crimes, Cruelty’s Daughter and the best-selling thriller, Unwelcome Guests. Her new release, Small Town Nightmare is available on Amazon. Raised in Western Australia Anna developed a love for fiction at an early age and began writing short stories in high school. Drawn to dark tales, Anna relishes writing thrillers with strong female characters. When she’s not writing, Anna enjoys reading, traveling and spending time with her husband, two children and their dogs.

Anna Willett’s Social Media:

Facebook ~ Website ~ Pinterest ~ Goodreads ~ Amazon Author Page

Purchase Links for Small Town Nightmare:

Amazon UK ~ Amazon US ~ BookBub


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

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