Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King

MrmercedesWith Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.

But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.

Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.

As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.

Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.

The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…

I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.

“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”

Review: ‘Borderline’ by Lawrence Block

Borderline

Lawrence Block’s Borderline is over 50 years old, but it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today. It’s a lean, straightforward tale of four people, each wallowing in their own kind of desperation, most of whom are bound for an unhappy ending.

Truth be told, you’re not likely to feel sorry for any of them. Block has assembled a group of interesting but unlikeable characters: there’s Marty, a self-centered gambler; Meg, a young, recently divorced woman on the prowl for some – any – kind of excitement; Lily, a 17-year-old runaway willing to use whoever crosses her path to get her to a more comfortable life; and Weaver, a psycopathic rapist and murderer. The four meet and mingle at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, with almost universally disastrous results.

Block was in his early 20s when he wrote Borderline, and it’s full of the kind of unrestrained energy you’d expect from a talented writer just beginning to explore the depths of his ability. He holds nothing back – the violence is graphic and the sex is explicit, and Block isn’t afraid to mix these elements together when the story deems it necessary. The result is a short novel that fulfills all the lurid promise of its Michael Koelsch cover, and then some.

Hard Case Crime unearthed the book (originally published as Border Lust under Block’s pen name “Don Holliday”) and published it this month as its 115th title. They’ve also included two early Block short stories and a longer, almost novella-length tale to round out the package.

Review: ‘King of the Weeds’ by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

KingWeedsShortly before his death in 2006, author Mickey Spillane left instructions for his friend and literary executor, Max Allan Collins, to complete the various unfinished manuscripts he anticipated he’d be leaving behind. Among them were six novels in various stages of completion featuring Mike Hammer, Spillane’s famous private investigator character. Eight years later Collins has completed that portion of his task with the publication of King of the Weeds, the book Spillane conceived as the last Mike Hammer novel.

King of the Weeds is a sequel to Black Alley, the last Hammer novel Spillane finished and published in his lifetime. Collins assures readers in his opening note that a familiarity with Black Alley is not necessary, and as someone who has not read Black Alley, I can attest that this is true. Spillane and Collins do a good job of filling in the important details so that this novel stands on its own just fine.

At this point in his career, Hammer has made a lot of enemies, so he’s not exactly surprised when someone takes a couple of shots at him as the story opens. It seems as though there’s about $90 billion (yes, billion) in mob money that’s been hidden away, and a few people have an idea that Hammer might know its whereabouts. As Hammer tries to fend off interest from a variety of groups, including the U.S. Government, he begins to suspect that his current troubles have roots going all the way back to a series of murders from 40 years ago – murders that have suddenly been thrust back into the spotlight. Topping things off is a series of accidental deaths involving police officers, each of which looks less and less accidental as the body count begins to climb. These disparate threads could become a convoluted mess in less sure hands, but with Spillane and Collins at the helm what you get is a tightly wound page-turner that continues to build steam chapter by chapter.

Confession: this is my first time reading a Mike Hammer novel. As such, I can’t really comment on how true to the series – and to Spillane’s voice – Collins’ contributions are. Other reviews I’ve read are largely complimentary in that regard. I can say that this does not feel like a novel written by two people; if there are seams, I can’t see them. I can also say that this has been a good enough introduction to the character that I’m eager to go back and read the rest of his adventures. If the tough and resourceful guy I read about here is in the twilight of his career, then I can’t wait to see what he was like when he was just starting out.

King of the Weeds is out now from Titan Books.

Review: ‘Peckerwood’ by Jedidiah Ayres

pwoodWhen author J. David Osborne announced he was starting his own press, Broken River Books, devoted to crime fiction, and teased titles like Gravesend and XXX Shamus, I was immediately intrigued. I wasn’t familiar with Osborne’s work – Low Down Death Right Easy and its sequel, Black Gum Godless Heathen, among other things- but I loved those titles and
enjoyed the excerpts I found online. I checked out the Broken River Books Kickstarter page and read about the five books he already had lined up for release, and got an eyeful of the gorgeously insane covers he’d prepped, and I was sold. I could tell this guy’s sensibility was going to walk hand-in-hand with mine.

After reading Peckerwood, part of the first wave of Broken River titles Osborne released last year (which included the aforementioned Gravesend and XXX Shamus along with The Least of My Scars and Street Raised), I can say my instincts were dead on. Peckerwood is a heavenly slice of hardboiled country crime, a raucous mix of crooked cops, rural thugs, hot-headed women, blackmail, deceit and double-crosses. Best of all, it’s loaded with characters that are more than quickly sketched cannon fodder. Not all of them are worth a damn, but they’re all worth getting to know a little better, and Ayres thankfully gives each of them time to breathe and shine.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot as events and relationships become messily intertwined. Take Terry Hickerson’s situation, for example. He’s a local thug who engaged in some tawdry activities with a girl who, turns out, is the sheriff’s daughter. Terry and his pal Cal are in the midst of blackmailing a televangelist, so the extra heat is really not something he needs right now. The sheriff, by the way, is in a partnership with another local criminal, Chowder, and the two of them have had the local drug and sex trade locked down for a good ten years now. Unfortunately, Chowder is receiving some unwelcome overtures from outside interests who are looking to invest in said trade, so things are getting heated there, too. Oh, and someone has been talking to the district attorney’s office, so they’ve sent a representative to the county to poke around.

At times it feels like a scorecard might have come in handy to keep everything straight, but Ayres is a good storyteller and doesn’t let anything get lost in the shuffle. The story moves forward smoothly, and each character and storyline is engaging enough that you don’t find yourself wishing for more of one over the other.

Peckerwood is brash and rude, and a good omen for the quality of working Osborne will be bringing us via Broken River Books. Keep an eye right here, ’cause I have a feeling we’ll be talking about more of these down the line.

Book Review: ‘Hot In December’ by Joe R. Lansdale

HotInDecemberAll Tom Chan wanted to do was grill up a little supper for his family. He was just doing what he’d probably done a hundred times before – standing at the grill, looking out at the quiet suburban street he lived on, thinking of nothing in particular. But instead of the usual calm, forgettable scene, what he saw was a neighbor run down by a speeding car – a car that kept on going while the woman lay crushed and bleeding in the street.

From that point on, things in Tom Chan’s life turn upside-down.

Joe R. Lansdale spins another unforgettable tale in Hot In December, available now in a variety of editions (from ebook to deluxe limited) from Dark Regions Press. Nobody writes better blue collar, “regular joe,” down-to-earth characters than Lansdale, and Tom Chan is the kind of guy we can all relate to. He’s done his time in the military and had hoped that all of that sort of conflict was behind him. He’s got a strong moral center, though, and when he gets a glimpse of the hit-and-run driver he knows he has to help the police bring him in. Unfortunately, the man he saw at the wheel is in deep with the Dixie Mafia – deep enough that even the cops are willing to let Chan off the hook should he “forget” the face of the driver altogether.

Caught between what he knows is right and the potential danger doing the right thing could bring to his family, Chan turns to a couple of his military buddies for advice and assistance. One of his buddies is Cason Statler, an award-winning journalist. The other is a guy called Booger, a cold, remorseless killing machine. The three hash out a plan that will protect Chan’s family even as it puts him square in the sights of some of the baddest men in LaBorde, Texas.

This is a novella with roots in a lot of Lansdale’s other works – the Dixie Mafia is a prominent player in the “Hap and Leonard” novels Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, and Cason Statler’s grandmother is none other than Sunset Jones from Sunset and Sawdust. I love it when authors weave their various stories into a single world, and Lansdale has a lot of fun dropping these little tidbits throughout Hot In December without pulling the focus away from the business at hand.

It’s a dark story, but Lansdale brings his trademark wit to the table, providing plenty of needed levity even as Chan falls deeper into a rabbit hole of danger and violence. His prose is sharp and lean, and his characterization is spot-on as usual. If you’re a Lansdale fan, I don’t need to sell you on this. If you’re not, this short book is as good a place to jump on as any.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger You Know’ by Andrea Kane

the-stranger-you-know-by-andrea-kaneAndrea Kane’s The Stranger You Know is the third book in the Forensics Instincts series. Forensics Instincts is a crack investigative group that draws on top talents in disciplines like surveillance and behavioral science, headed up by its tough, intelligent founder, Casey Woods. I’ve not read either of the previous F.I. books but it wasn’t much of a disadvantage, as Kane finds ample opportunity to bring new readers up to speed on the skills and relationships that inform the team’s dynamic.

The Stranger You Know centers around a character from one of those previous F.I. books, The Girl Who Disappeared Twice. In that book, serial killer Glen Fisher was caught and locked away by the team, and even though he remains in jail he’s found a way to go after them, and Woods in particular. Girls with physical similarities and deeply-buried connections to Woods are dying, and somehow Fisher is pulling the strings from prison. The body count is mounting on a daily basis, and the man responsible is making it clear that Woods herself is the intended endgame.

Much of this is going to be familiar ground to regular thriller readers. Serial killers seeking revenge on their pursuers, the prisoner manipulating events from his cell, the “random” victims who aren’t random at all – it’s all standard thriller fodder. Kane does introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of F.I. teammate Claire, an “intuitive” (i.e., a psychic) whose abilities help the team hone in on the killer. Claire’s presence is a strong asset for the F.I. team, but Kane is for the most part judicious in her use of the character, resisting the urge to let the convenience of psychic ability pave over every difficult plot point.

Overall, The Stranger You Know isn’t breaking any new ground. As far as I’m concerned, though, familiarity doesn’t automatically breed contempt. You can tell me a story I’ve heard before as long as you tell it in a compelling way, and although I never got deeply invested in these characters or this story, Kane did at least hold my interest throughout.

The main stumbling block for me in this book is the dialogue. Achieving a natural conversational flow in dialogue is essential in building compelling characters, and Kane really struggles with this in my opinion. For example, when describing a crime in progress to a police officer, one character says, “It could be a fait accompli already.” Later on, someone says, “I’ll be doing yoga in the third-floor office where I store my mats.” It’s too stilted, too specific when compared to the way people actually talk, and lines like this popped up multiple times, pulling me completely out of the story each time.

Misgivings aside, I found The Stranger You Know to be a solid thriller. It’s got the convoluted plot and brisk pacing that you want, but it lacks the strong characterization and innovative approach that would elevate it for me. As it stands, Kane’s new novel is a fine diversion and fun, if ultimately forgettable, read.

Book Review: ‘Bait’ by J. Kent Messum

bait-novel-cover-messum“Please know that no one will be coming to your aid.”

That’s a chilling thing to read. It’s especially chilling when you read it in a letter meant for you and five fellow castaways after you’ve all awoken to find yourselves on a beach with no recollection of how you got there or who these people are that are with you.

This line comes early in Bait, not long after an opening that, while effective, gives away a little too much about what’s coming in the pages ahead. The same can be said for the copy on the back cover, where the art of the tease is all but discarded and the entire premise of the book is laid out for you. A book like Bait is structured so that its reveals are an important part of the reading experience, but when that is taken away from you in the opening minutes the book is hobbled as a result.

That’s not to say that Bait is not an entertaining read; it is. But the potential was there for so much more. Two critical mistakes were made in the book, one being the too-quick giveaway of the premise in the cover copy and in that first chapter. The second mistake is one that’s harder to overcome: in the entire group of six that find themselves in this situation, it’s hard to find one character that’s likable enough to root for. When the whole book is built around the idea that you’re following these people in a struggle for survival, there needs to be someone for the reader to identify with, and Messum doesn’t supply that.

I think now is a good time to point out that I don’t think this book is a total loss. Messum has a clean, quick-moving style, and Bait is very cinematic as a result. It’s a fast, fun read with spots of real tension sprinkled throughout. But again, the lack of relateable characters and the removal of most of the suspense keeps this from being much more than a disposable summer read.

J. Kent Messum has a lot of potential, and I’ll be curious to see what he does next. Bait is neither a total success nor a total failure. It’s a promising start, and hopefully Messum can hammer out some of the kinks and hit the ground running with his next novel.

Book Review: ‘Dead Aim’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Dead_AimAt this point in the series, some eight novels and a couple novellas in, reading a Hap and Leonard book is like having a couple of buddies over – the kind of buddies that always have the best stories to tell. Those kind of buddies rarely, if ever, let you down. The same can be said for Joe R. Lansdale‘s Hap and Leonard books.

If there’s a formula to the Hap and Leonard books, it’s this: the guys take on a job – protecting someone, or following someone, or maybe helping someone that’s been done wrong get a little payback; said job turns out to be much more complicated than originally thought; the guys deal with the complications with a little luck, a little skill, a little help, and, when necessary, a little brute force; the guys live to fight another day, while their adversaries (if they survive) limp off to jail, or crawl back under the rock where they came from. It’s simple, straightforward stuff, but Lansdale tells these stories with such skill that each one is like a breath of fresh air.

Dead Aim, a novella released earlier this year by Subterranean Press, sticks closely to the aforementioned formula. Hap and Leonard are tasked with watching over a woman whose about-to-be ex-husband may have negative feelings toward her and their current marital situation. The guys split up, leaving Leonard to watch her while Hap follows her ex. When someone puts a bullet in the ex’s head, though, the duo begin to understand that the situation runs much deeper than a man who didn’t want a divorce.

More murders come into play, as well as gambling debts, kidnapping, and the Dixie Mafia, a group that Hap and Leonard have already had some unpleasant dealings with (see Vanilla Ride and Devil Red). Impressively, Lansdale manages to pack all of this into a condensed page count without it feeling rushed or crammed – it all flows out in a smooth, engaging fashion. There’s also time for Hap to do a little soul-searching, something that’s been going on for the last several books. He’s a man coming to grips with his station in life, and he’s not completely pleased with where things stand. He’s happy to have his friend Leonard, who he usually refers to as his brother, and he’s head-over-heels in love with a beautiful nurse named Brett, a fiery redhead who doesn’t let her femininity keep her from being as tough and caustic as the man she loves. And although Hap is a man who is unafraid to hurt people, and is usually pretty good at it, it’s not something he enjoys, and the fact that he keeps finding himself in those situations continues to trouble him.

Plots and character growth aside, the real draw for me is the relationship between Hap and Leonard. Although it’s a relationship that exists between two figments of a man’s imagination, it feels as real to me as my own closest friendships. That’s not a knock on my friendships, it’s a testament to Lansdale’s amazing storytelling ability. I could read a 300 page novel about Hap and Leonard sitting in a car on a stakeout – a novel in which nothing else happens and the stakeout is a bust – and be perfectly content. The supporting cast is great and the predicaments Lansdale dreams up for the guys are always a blast, but seriously – 300 pages of these two shooting the shit in a car would suit me just fine.

Book Review: ‘The Maid’s Version’ by Daniel Woodrell

MaidVersionOn a quiet night in 1929, in the small town of West Table, Missouri, an explosion ripped through the local dance hall. 42 people died, and although a handful of people were suspected, nobody was charged.

But lots of people paid, and paid dearly.

It’s the aftermath of the explosion, rather than the event itself, that is the center of Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version. The maid in question is Alma DeGeer Dunahew, and she has a theory on who caused the explosion and why. Her son doesn’t want to hear about, think about it or talk about it, but in her grandson she finds a willing audience. It’s not until a strange visitation at a memorial to the explosion that the boy’s father relents: “Tell it. Go on and tell it.”

What follow is an economical, lyrical tale of small-town secrets and hidden desires. This is not a piece of brightly polished nostalgia – this is a story about a town caught in the Depression, with many of its residents struggling to eke out an existance that’s hardscrabble at best. Woodrell does not shy away from the ugliness of such meager
living. He shows us kids that are thrilled to get a piece of pie with just a bite or two taken out of it that their mom rescues from the leavings of the dinner party she worked; he shows us a boy who lives on the floor of the family shack, his life bleeding out in rattling, gasping breaths because proper medicine isn’t affordable.

But it’s not all ugliness – there’s beauty, too, much of it found in Woodrell’s prose. The author is a natural storyteller, but he’s also a seasoned and exquisite writer. There are passages, sentences and turns of phrase that catch your attention, flag you down and invite you to just stop and stare for a minute. This may sound like he’s breaking one of the cardinal rules of fiction, pulling you out of the story and reminding you that,hey, there’s a WRITER sweating his ass off to bring you all this goodness, but it’s okay. Like pulling over during a long drive to take in the view, these occasional intrusions are worth the interruption.

Some of my favorite bits are the brief interludes in which Woodrell takes a page or two to talk about various victims of the explosion. These brief passages put names and faces to the tragedy so that it becomes more than a mere plot device to move the story forward. In these quick chapters, Woodrell creates characters more realistic than many writers manage to pull of in entire novels.

The Maid’s Version is the author’s first novel in seven years, and it’s a welcome return. Spare in length but abundantly rewarding, it’s further proof that Woodrell is one of the finest writers working today.