In my 2014 reading recap, I discussed how a number of familiar names dominated that year’s Top Ten, and I predicted that several of those names would resurface in 2015 – names like Joe Lansdale, Ace Atkins and Stephen King. Well, not only did that prediction come true, but I’m making a similar prediction for 2016. Lansdale has both a Hap and Leonard novel and a Hap and Leonard short story collection on deck; King has the finale of his Bill Hodges trilogy ready to go; and Atkins will once again favor us with new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Don’t be shocked if some (or all) of those titles make the Top Ten for 2016. Continue reading
Gator Bait by Adam Howe
Comet Press (August 2015)
If I tell you that Adam Howe’s Gator Bait features an out-of-the-way Louisiana bar that has a trapdoor over a swamp in which a giant, ravenous alligator lives, do I really need to tell you anything else? Because, yes, Gator Bait has that very thing, and yes, the gator eats well (and often) throughout the course of this gloriously fun pulp novella.
Well, even though I don’t get paid by the word around here, I suppose I’ll tell you a little more. Gator Bait is anchored by a guy named Hammond, a classic ne’er-do-well who is on the run from a sequence of events that cost him a few fingers. This is a bit of a problem for Hammond, seeing as he’s a juke joint piano player by trade, but he proves to be quite resourceful (not to mention a talented enough musician to overcome the loss of a few digits). He hitches a ride and ends up at The Grinnin’ Gator, a dump of a bar owned by a man named Croker.
Croker is the very definition of “repulsive,” but he’s managed to snag a very attractive woman named Grace as his wife. Grace is drawn to Hammond, now the Gator’s new piano player, and the two quickly enter into a clandestine relationship. Grace tells Hammond about the safe full of money Croker has in his office, and the two begin to cook up a scheme designed to get them both out from under the abusive man’s thumb.
Naturally, things do not go as planned, leading to blood-soaked finale punctuated with double-crossings, gator feedings, and death by moonshine.
Howe takes several familiar elements and spins them into a thoroughly entertaining read. He’s particularly good at bringing the seamy Grinnin’ Gator to life, making it – and the steamy Louisiana swampland that surrounds it – a character in its own right. If you’re anything like me, you’ll power through this one in one sitting and then hit the Internet to track down more of Howe’s work. Gator Bait is tasty stuff, and highly recommended.
Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime (April 2015)
In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal published Thieves Fall Out, a crime novel set against a backdrop of political unrest in Egypt. Written by an unheralded author known as Cameron Kay, this minor piece of pulp fiction came and went without much fanfare. It has remained in obscurity since then, unavailable in any new printing and unknown to all but a handful of readers and scholars who knew the truth: “Cameron Kay” was actually respected American writer Gore Vidal.
Vidal wrote the novel when he was 28, and reportedly never thought much of it. When the book came to the attention of Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, he immediately approached Vidal about republishing it, but Vidal wasn’t interested. After the author passed away in 2012, Ardai approached his agent and estate and was granted permission to reprint the book. The new edition was released in April of this year.
If you remove Vidal’s name and legacy from Thieves Fall Out, what you’re left with is fairly standard pulp fare. It’s the story of Pete Wells, an American drifter of sorts who finds himself broke and just this side of desperate in an Egypt that is teetering on the edge of revolution. He becomes entangled with a woman named Hélène and a man known as Hastings; the pair have a job they need done and they feel Wells is just the man to do it. The duo remains disturbingly coy about what exactly the job is, but Wells is in little position to make demands, so he goes along with their scheme. Eventually it’s revealed that the pair are working to smuggle a valuable necklace out of the country, and Wells is their chosen vessel.
Of course, in fine thriller tradition, things are not quite what they seem. There’s a police inspector, incredibly (and distractingly) named Mohammed Ali, who may or may not be “on the take;” there’s a love interest, a woman with a Nazi background and a suspicious relationship with the Egyptian king; and there’s a shadowy puppet master named Le Mouche who may be friend or may be foe.
Thieves advances at a methodical pace – not to the point that it plods, mind you, but patience is definitely a virtue. The writing is uneven at times; the young Vidal proves adept at depicting both the beauty and the grit of the Egyptian setting, but stumbles over the occasional clumsy phrase. There are no big action set pieces to speak of, but things accelerate entertainingly towards the end. It’s the kind of curiosity that Hard Case Crime excels at producing: a peek into the formative years of a gifted and influential writer, and an enjoyable if not essential addition to the crime genre.
The Redeemers by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (July 21, 2015)
Now that we’re five books in, the world of Ace Atkins’ “Quinn Colson” series is well-stocked with characters, events, and history. Colson is still the man around whom the stories revolve, the moral center of his family and, whether he believes it or not, all of Tibbehah County; but Atkins has been careful to build up a strong supporting cast along with him. That work pays off handsomely in The Redeemers, in which Colson takes a bit of a back seat while several characters old and new get a chance to shine.
The book opens with Mickey Walls and Kyle Hazlewood, a couple of buddies shooting the breeze at the Huddle House. Mickey guides the discussion to the subject of Larry Cobb, local lumber baron and Mickey’s ex-father-in-law. Larry hasn’t been too nice to Mickey in the wake of his divorce from Tonya, Larry’s daughter, and Mickey has heard that Larry might have screwed Kyle out of some money a while back. They talk about the safe Larry keeps in his house, the one stuffed with money that Larry is afraid to put in a bank. They talk about how ol’ Larry has screwed over a lot of people in Tibbehah County, and wouldn’t it be some fine justice if somebody was to hit the old man where it hurt?
If the guys had stuck to simply venting their frustrations to each other, things would have been better for both of them. Instead, they put together a plan to carry out their little revenge fantasy. That’s bad decision number one. Bad decision number two falls squarely on Mickey, who enlists the help of a couple of “professionals” from Alabama to help carry out the job.
Peewee Sparks is a sloppy, foul-mouthed sloth who loves two things above all else: telling tales about his sexual conquests, and Alabama Crimson Tide football. Chase Clanton is Peewee’s nephew, a dim-witted young man with aspirations to be a hardened criminal, and a love of Alabama Crimson Tide football that rivals that of his uncle. These two spend the book drinking cheap beer, riding around in a van with a mural of Alabama football coaches Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the Lord Jesus painted on the side, and generally bungling every part of Mickey’s scheme they get their hands on.
These two characters are the worst possible representations of Southern men that I can imagine, but don’t dismiss them as over-the-top caricatures. As a life-long Alabama resident, I can tell you that the characterization is, unfortunately, dead on. Not for ALL Southern men, mind you; but they do represent a very small, very disturbing, minority. I’ve met these men, pumped gas alongside these men, stood in line at Wal-Mart with these men, and watched football games with these men. They exist. God help us, they exist.
Anyway, these two buffoons roll into town to help Mickey and Kyle, and things go downhill fast. A house is wrecked, a deputy is shot, and Peewee’s safe-cracking skills prove to be about as legitimate as his sex stories. And, unbeknownst to this foursome of master criminals, there’s information in Larry Cobb’s safe that some very bad men are willing to do very bad things to keep covered up.
Where’s Quinn Colson in all of this? Well, he’s out of a job – Rusty Wise has been elected sheriff, and his first day on the job is the day of the robbery at Larry Cobb’s house. While Quinn considers his future (featuring such options as farming with his long-estranged, recently returned father; reuniting with his still-married ex-wife; or going to Afghanistan for some security work), deputy Lillie Virgil is trying to bring her new boss up to speed while working the Cobb case. Meanwhile, Quinn’s sister has fallen off the wagon and shacked up with some crackheads in Memphis.
Atkins juggles all the plot threads and characters with a deft hand, and the story breezes along on the strength of his comfortable, conversational prose. Atkins also writes books in Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series, and the way he maintains the stylistic differences between the two – the “Spenser” books with their clipped, economical prose, versus the back porch storytelling style of the “Quinn Colson” books – is staggering.
The Redeemers is a big book for the series as a whole. This seemingly small-time heist ultimately results in a major shake-up for some longtime characters and for Tibbehah County as a whole. Atkins clearly isn’t interested in simply maintaining the status quo, and that’s a good sign for the long-term health of this series. The Redeemers – and the “Quinn Colson” series as a whole – gets my highest recommendation.
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (July 7, 2015)
Brian Panowich makes a blistering debut with Bull Mountain, a multi-generational family saga and a withering expose of outlaw life.
The story begins in 1946 as three members of the Burroughs clan, including 9-year-old Gareth, hunt deep in the woods of Bull Mountain, discussing the future of the family and their land. Rye Burroughs thinks selling the timber rights on part of the family’s land is a good idea; his brother, Gareth’s father Cooper, strongly disagrees. The way in which Cooper expresses his opposition sets a brutal tone, both for the remainder of the novel and for the direction of young Gareth’s life.
After this gripping first chapter Panowich jumps ahead to 2015. Another Burroughs, Clayton, is sheriff of McFalls County, Georgia. While Clayton’s official jurisdiction includes Bull Mountain, everyone knows Clayton’s brother Halford is the real law up there. Halford embodies the family’s love of outlaw living, but his decision to change cash crops from marijuana to meth is bringing a new element of danger to life on the mountain. Clayton, meanwhile, is determined to live a different kind of life than the rest of his family. He and Halford have maintained an uneasy distance for most of their adult lives, but the arrival of one Special Agent Simon Holly is about to set them on a tragic collision course.
Once all of the major players are established, Panowich bounces back and forth in time, showing the roots of old grudges and the consequences of past decisions. While the book isn’t loaded with traditional cliffhangers, he does have a knack for heating things up in one timeline and then moving you back (or forward) to the other. There’s a point towards the end where I thought this technique was going to backfire on the author, as Panowich focuses some major time on a seemingly minor character. It struck me as a pleasant enough diversion that nonetheless had me impatient to get back to the main story. “This should be a book of its own,” I thought, and then Panowich revealed this “minor” character’s real role in things, and I realized the guy knows what he’s doing, so maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the ride.
In an interview that accompanied the advance copy of the book, Panowich talked about his desire to write more books about Bull Mountain – not direct sequels, necessarily, but stories featuring other characters in his fictional Georgia setting. I love when authors build whole worlds and populate them with believable characters – Panowich mentions Elmore Leonard’s approach, and of course I think immediately of Stephen King and the way he would revisit places like Castle Rock and Derry.
Bull Mountain is a pitch black novel, but it’s tinged with real hope, and that’s something that separates it from the pack of meth-and-outlaw-fueled Southern fiction that’s all the rage these days. Brian Panowich has charted his first few steps in what I believe is going to be a rich and rewarding career, and I’ll happily follow him down whatever path he takes next.
Rumrunners by Eric Beetner
280 Steps (May 2015)
Criminal empires share many commonalities with more legitimate businesses; including the fact that they are often built on the backs of blue collar workers, the faceless worker bees and foot soldiers that bear the brunt of the labor and receive little or no glory. In Rumrunners, the empire is the Stanley family, and the worker bees are the McGraws. The Stanleys and McGraws have worked together since the early bootlegging days, but as time has moved on things have changed. For one, it’s no longer a few cases of booze the Stanleys want moved; it’s high-dollar inventory at higher stakes. For another, the current McGraw generation – i.e. Tucker McGraw – wants nothing to do with the old family business. And he’s determined to keep his son, Milo, away from it as well.
When Tucker’s father, Webb, goes missing after a job gone wrong, Tucker finds himself being drawn into the situation against his will. The Stanleys want to know what happened to Webb, and of course they have a strong interest in the cargo he was handling. Calvin McGraw, Webb’s father and Tucker’s grandfather, wants to know, too; but more than that, he sees this situation as a way to get himself back in the action, and to maybe get his reluctant grandson in on it, too.
Family (and the tension that goes along with family) is a major theme in Rumrunners. The new generation of the Stanley family is having to deal with dangers and consequences that reach far beyond anything they faced in the old bootlegging days. The McGraws are facing new challenges as well; for Tucker, it’s the challenge of remaining true to his family, but in his own, non-criminal way; for Calvin, it’s the challenge of ensuring his family’s legacy and purpose didn’t disappear with Webb.
Now, it may seem at this point that the novel we’re talking about is some kind of quiet, introspective meditation on family. Make no mistake, it’s a crime novel first and foremost, and all this family tension is taking place in the midst of some brutal fights and plenty of car chases. Beetner works hard to create well-rounded characters, and then places them in
increasingly dicey situations. He also tries to fit in a little comic relief now and then, mostly in one crew’s bumbling attempts to reclaim a car Calvin took from them. Comedy in the midst of crime is hard to pull off, and Beetner’s efforts don’t always work, but they don’t detract from the meat of the story, either.
Rumrunners is a quick, fun read with some characters I wouldn’t mind revisiting in the future. There are times when I felt like the writing could use a little more grit and authenticity, but overall I think it was a good introduction to Beetner’s work, and I look forward to reading more of his stuff in the future.
Kickback by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May 19, 2015)
Ace Atkins continues to hit all the right notes as curator of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series in Kickback, the 45th overall Spenser novel and the fourth written by Atkins. In this latest adventure we get to watch as Spenser connects dots that run from a private juvenile detention facility in Boston Harbor, through a couple of buddy-buddy judges in Blackburn, Massachusetts, all the way down to the sunny beaches of Tampa, Florida. Along the way we’re treated to Atkins’ flawless approximation of Parker’s style as he maintains the sharp plotting and witty banter that helped make Spenser so popular in the first place.
Kickback opens with a woman walking through Spenser’s door with a sandwich and a problem – two things guaranteed to get a response from the private investigator. Sheila Yates is looking for help for her son, Dillon, who’s serving time at a local juvenile detention facility because he set up a fake Twitter account as a prank on his vice principal. Like many of Blackburn’s youth, Dillon has run afoul of the town’s famous “zero tolerance” judge, Joe Scali. Scali believes in no free passes and no breaks, sentencing kids to months-long stretches for the slightest indiscretions. As Spenser begins to nose around the case, he finds that Scali’s intentions may be less about reducing juvenile crime and more about increasing his personal wealth.
I won’t go any further into the plot, because the main appeal of the series is joining Spenser and his cast of supporting characters (Kickback includes appearances by Hawk and, of course, Spenser’s lovely constant companion, Susan) as they go through their paces. Atkins does a great job of exploring the ways P.I. work can go from routine to deadly with little notice. He also knows the perfect time to drop in the little details that enrich the characters and the world they inhabit – the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and, more importantly, what those things say about them as people.
Is it formulaic? Yes. Atkins is not out to upend the world Parker created. Spenser is basically the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and that’s the way we like it. It’s comfort food, and when done right, there’s nothing better than comfort food. If you prefer to see Atkins unfettered by rules he didn’t create, check out the next book in his series about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson (The Redeemers, out on July 21). But until then, join him as he takes a walk in the well-worn shoes of one of our best mystery writers. With every new Spenser novel, he proves that the trust placed in him by Robert Parker’s family to continue his legacy was well-founded.