Book review time! Some of these are brand-spankin' new, some of 'em are a tad older, one's criminally out-of-print, and every one of 'em is worth tracking down and buying. Consider this one a shopping list, because there's not a bad one in the bunch.
The Weight - Andrew Vachss (Pantheon, 2010)
Excellent stand-alone crime novel from Vachss, a master at trimming off the fat and leaving just lean, hard prose. In this one a musclebound professional thief, “Sugar” Caine, is misidentified as a rape suspect. He didn’t do it, but his alibi -- that he was committing a heist at the time -- is NFG, and since he was carrying a parole-violating gun on him when he was picked up, the cops have him in a position to make deals. Since Sugar’s code will not allow him to give up his partners, he does a reduced sentence for the rape he didn’t commit. When he’s released he goes to collect his share of the heist money from Solly, who planned out the job, but Solly sends him after a book held by another mastermind, Albie. Albie is now dead. As Sugar deals with a girl Albie took as a pupil, he figures out that there’s something more crooked and sinister going on than he could have suspected. It gets complex, and Vachss is never too forgiving if you can’t keep up, so ya may lose a thread here and there, even if you re-read the explanations... but, I kept on track more than enough to enjoy the hell out of the book, and the writing is brilliant as always. I have a habit that I only seem to do with Vachss’s books -- I don’t believe in writing in or highlighting books, but I keep a slip of paper in his to write down page numbers with especially good lines, and I racked up lots of those before I was done, from the humorous (“The fat fuck’s idea of exercise was chewing”) to serious Art-of-War-worthy mottos (“A guy who’s gunning for you should never know you’re carrying steel, until he feels it go in.”), to the almost-Zen (“Always add everything up. If you do that right, whatever’s missing, that’s what you’re looking for.”). So, even if the plot got a little tangly for me (and that’ll probably clear up when I read it again -- and Vachss is a guy I do read again, and again) there are a whole lot of good lines put together, like always, and you’re strongly urged to check it out. Recommended, but with this writer saying that is practically a genetic imperative for me. If I can do nothing else on this blog but turn you on to this man's work - both written and otherwise - then I'm satisfied.
Visit Vachss at his website, The Zero, and follow him on Twitter, where he offers a wealth of those quotable lines I was talking about. And if you're not sold yet, go read an excerpt and you will be.
The Dead Man #3: Hell In Heaven - Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin (Adventures in Television, 2011)
The third entry in the horror/action series is an odd one; the hero, Matt Cahill, drifts into an off-the-map town called Heaven (no relation). It’s an archaic community, run by warring clans, and has apparently been expecting him. While defending himself from a supernatural (and pretty dadgum gruesome - good work, guys!) attack, Matt frees the townspeople from tyranny... only to find that they like tyranny and are counting on him to take the former oppressor’s place. When he tries to refuse, very bad things happen and may only get worse, because it’s another trap by his enemy, Mr. Dark. Yet another solid (albeit short) entry in the series, which you should still get into before you get too far behind. Plenty of gore and axe-swinging action, and a higher level of surrealism than the previous entries; Goldberg and Rabkin play around with reality a bit and make you wonder if everything is really as it seems for Matt. The bonus preview of the next entry (The Dead Woman) and Goldberg’s great Jury series (better known to frequenters of this blog as .357 Vigilante, right, kids?) are welcome extras.
*edited to remove a mild complaint that was explained in the comment section. :)
Here's a Dead Man blog, and you can follow the series and Lee on Twitter.
The Last Zombie: Dead New World - Brian Keene, art by Joseph Wight (Antarctic Press, 2011)
Here's a zombie comic to tide you over between installments of Walking Dead, and to provide that excellent series some competition (but not really because I suspect fans of this kind of stuff are going to be doing what I’m doing - buyin' both!). In this zombie-apocalypse scenario, the bulk of the undead horror is (apparently) done, as most of the carnivorous dead have been killed off for good. But the plague that caused them is still out there, and while our main protagonist, Doctor Scott, has come up with a vaccine, it's just a stop-gap and will only slow down the plague's effects, not inoculate against it or reverse it. Dr. Scott has a fiance in a bunker in West Virginia, but communication with her location has ceased, ad they don’t know if it’s just equipment failure or something more sinister. Dr. Scott talks his way into joining a military caravan from his base in Colorado to see what’s going on at the other base. Since the zombies are supposed to be eradicated, it should be a relatively safe journey. It isn’t. There are other diseases out there, and other survivors have gone to Road-Warrior-ish extremes, so our heroes have big problems... which means we’ve got another great zombie-based comic to look forward to. Keene’s writing is great as always, and the black-and-white art is strong and moody (although they’ve been a little heavy-handed on the grey wash, making things too dark sometimes, which loses detail). Bring on the second one, Last Zombie: Inferno.
Learn more on Keene's blog (which is a place any horror fan should have bookmarked - it's an indispensable hub for news on horror fiction) and follow him on Twitter.
Every Shallow Cut - Tom Piccirilli (ChiZine Publications, 2011)
Harrowing portrait of despair, kind of like Falling Down meets Travels With Charley. A not-very-successful writer’s marriage goes as bad as his career and he ends up homeless without much left but what he can fit in his car, and his bulldog, Churchill. Then a gang of punks try to take what little he has left and he discovers his capacity for violence. After beating them up and taking one of them’s money, he buys a gun (for no particular reason) and drives cross country to stay with his bossy, not-terribly-sympathetic brother. Things don’t get much better, including his mental state, so what’s left for him to do? This is a fast-moving, crisply-written novella and the most-compulsively-readable work I’ve seen from Piccirilli. He’s a master craftsman, but sometimes lets the literary merits of his prose drown his story (his A Choir Of Ill Children is extremely highly regarded but I’m 0 for 2 at reading it so far... but will still probably give it another try one of these days because I know I'm missing something), but this one’s clear and compelling, without sacrificing the literary qualities. The ending is a bit frustrating but also logical in a way I can’t explain without spoilers. The novella’s a pretty big downer, emotion-wise, but it’s something anyone who loves good writing will want to check out. It’s not really a horror story, but since the protagonist is someone most of us could potentially become, given the circumstances, it provides dark truths that are scarier than murder and monsters.
Tom has a website you should check out, and a Twitter feed that's good to follow.
The Name of the Game Is Death - Dan J. Marlowe (Black Lizard, 1993, originally 1962)
One of the most ruthless, badassed, hardboiled novels ever written. A borderline-psycho called Roy Martin (among other names) pulls off a bank robbery with his partner, Bunny. Roy catches a bullet in the arm from a cop, who catches some more-lethally-placed ones from Roy. He and Bunny split up while Roy recovers, planning to divide the money later, but Roy starts getting mail that lets him know someone’s probably killed Bunny. Flashback-like stories from Roy’s earlier years explain how he got to be such a hardass and also illustrate just how far Roy will go if you do harm to anyone he likes. So Roy -- after some violent encounters along the way -- makes it to the area of Florida where Bunny was last heard from and starts working to find out what happened to him, and where the bank loot is. If he finds out it’s going to mean heavy misery coming down on everyone involved. It’s an amazing job of creating an anti-hero -- Roy is kind of like Richard Stark’s Parker but even more cold-blooded and misanthropic, made human almost entirely by his love of animals. Marlowe’s writing is powerful and gets a lot done with just a few blunt words (“He’d live. He wouldn’t enjoy it.”) and Roy rams right through situations that would make even Mike Hammer flinch. Marlow later carried this character through a series where he became a spy of sorts (“Drake, The Man With Nobody’s Face”) but he must have watered those down a lot because, as Roy, this is a guy who doesn’t have many bounds when it comes to depravity; if crossed, he’ll shoot cops, beat and rape women, leave people to horrible deaths in swamps, maim, cripple, kill, you name it. And he’s not exactly mentally-balanced, either, as his relationships with women he does like can bear witness. Very tight, hardcore crime novel that really should still be in print; somebody, get on that.
Do not judge this book by its cover!
Sand’s Game - Ennis Willie (Ramble House,2010 - material originally published around 1965)
Man, do I hope Ramble House will release more of Willie’s work, because this guy may be the best-kept secret ever in hardboiled crime fiction. Originally published as cheap “smut” novels (although the sexual activity is negligible and decidedly non-graphic), this collection is composed of two short novels (“Death In A Dead Place” and “Too Late To Pray”) and three short stories (“Con’s Wife,” “Flesh House,” “The Ugly Redhead”), plus several essays on Willie from experts in the genre. Sand is a prototype later copied in the Butcher series of action novels by Stuart Jason -- a hardboiled tough guy who used to be a mobster but quit when he got disgusted with what they were doing. Of course, the mob doesn’t allow anyone to just quit, so hit-men are always after Sand, which just ups the violence quotient from whatever other vengeance-quest he’s undertaking. These were inspired by Mickey Spillane’s work, and I love Spillane, he’s one of my writer gods, but I’ve got to say that Willie outdoes him when it comes to hard-boiled toughness. In “Death In A Dead Place” an already-wounded Sand takes on a terror cell planning to unleash a deadly plague. “Flesh House” sees him avenging the death of a murdered madam, and “The Ugly Redhead” is another revenge-hit, as is “Too Late To Pray.” Great lines fill every page, some so badass that you just have to laugh at how cool they are, even though this is by no means parody of any sort. It’s really genius writing, and makes you wonder what other ancient small-press things may be out there awaiting rediscovery. This book’s going to get re-read a lot, so even though it costs more, you’re going to want it in paper, not in an e-book version that you’ll probably no longer be able to access in five to ten years. Worth every extra dime, trust me, you'll thank me later.
And if you want you can follow me on Twitter, where I mostly babble insane, vulgar nonsense that has nothing to do with any of this, but should delight you if you like silly stuff about poop, random violence, and pinatas. (I do believe I have more jokes involving pinatas than anyone on Twitter, which proves the theory that nobody really likes jokes about pinatas).