By Tom Pitts
Pot is on the verge of becoming legal, but the shady grower business is tighter than ever on the Hill in Humboldt. When dirty cash goes missing, an explosion ignites between a wronged biker gang, a young couple on the run, one old lady grittier than a mouth full of sand, and her long lost friend Vic, the man who knows where the bodies are buried because he’s the one who put them there.
Vic – Everyone’s got that one friend, the guy you call who won’t ask questions because he knows the answers won’t be legal. Vic’s life on the street, his years on the run, have hardened his hide into a shell of unforgiving fortitude.
“I been around these people. They don’t play games, and neither do I.” Vic looked directly at Piper. “I am a very serious man.”
Barbara Bertram – At once both a suburban homebody and a force of nature, Barbara spent the first half of her life stumbling through the unforgiving drug addiction, and the second as a devoted mother to an ungrateful boy. But her past serves her well, as she becomes an willing prisoner in her son’s ill-thought machinations.
Barbara came into the room at full speed, tackling the man who held the child. She ignored the SFPD uniform the man wore and took him down from the midsection.
Jerry & Piper – Jerry spent his childhood under the overprotective care of his mother, but never absorbed her ruthless life lessons. Piper is the surrogate daughter of a gangland leader. The pair of lovers hatch a scheme that leads to a pile of bodies, missing cash, and one hell of a ride.
Jerry reached in his pocket, shook out a Marlboro, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. He blew smoke in the kid’s face.
"That ain’t cool.”
Humboldt County & The Hill – While illegal pot is nearly gone, on The Hill, the old way still rules: force, guns, and attitude. Stealing water is a mortal sin, and the different growers still preside over their fiefdoms like medieval kings.
The fireroad led nowhere, the path covered with thorny raspberry bramble and blocked with a fallen tree. Vic killed the motor and listened to the approaching car … He lifted the Glock 19 from the seat beside him and racked one into the chamber.
It only took a few minutes to make it around the long city block, and when they got to the spot Vlad thought he’d seen the Crown Vic, there was only an empty parking spot.
“See?” Dimitri said. “No cops. Only us gangsters.”
My last foray into Tom Pitts' dark imagination took us through the last vestige of San Francisco’s hard underbelly in Hustle. He’s written quite a bit since then, and his newest book 101 puts on display both how far he's come, and also, how much more there still is to see with this author.
There is no doubt; Pitts’ ability to create colorful, if briefly alive, characters helps him accelerate his plot to breakneck pacing. We quickly get imaginative visuals of minor players that give empathy and depth regardless of their time on the page, be it Mr. Clean the bald and giant pot grower in love with a junkie, or Ripper, the loyal farm hand with double the guts filling out his thick belly. Pitts' Humboldt County is filled with these folks, most of which are just meat for this grinder of a noir tale.
Nestled here, either lost in the brambles of Northern California, or blasting through a biker’s hideout, we find, as we always do, this author’s strengths. Never dipping below a sprint, the sleek, straightforward plot gets out of Pitts' way so he can throw us through the ringer. What this allows too, is for his readers not to question otherwise puzzling gaps (How did Barbara, a weakened, late fifties mom wrestle a baseball bat away from her assailant off-screen?). Since it’s in service of forward momentum, we not only don’t question it, we relish in the damage she’s able to commit with her attitude and weapon.
Most interesting, and for my tastes welcomed, is Barbara’s role as prisoner, murderer, and otherwise bad-ass. Pitts sets us up with a typical hardboiled story: a biker gang is missing cash, a punk couple on the run, a mother kidnapped and in peril, the hard-nosed male protagonist that will save everyone’s hides. But as we run through his imagination, the kids become more useless, and the biker gang less capable, and finally, we find out the kicker, how our older mom is actually the truest, and meanest of them all. I applauded this turn in the book, and reveled in the blood she wrought, both in the climax, and in her long ago past.
My regard for Pitts' storytelling is only inhibited by, what I’ll call, less than diligent self-editing. The same author writes this concise polished line:
“Jer-ree.” She said it like she was considering its fit, whether he should keep on using it or upgrade to another name.
Also creates this somewhat flat explanative paragraph:
He knew bureaucracy demanded as much, but he couldn’t help but believe these ideas boxed in their thinking. Where it was the criminal’s job to think as far outside the box as possible, law enforcement had trained themselves to sit squarely and comfortably inside said box.
Pitts is creative, smart, and gritty as hell. His characters tell us this throughout his many stories, especially this one. For his next work, I hope he slims down his writing as much as his plotlines. Let the action roll, we already understand these mean men and women by their actions; we need less of their inner dialogue. In his next novel, I’m confident Pitts goes from good to great, and that he’ll trust himself as much as we already trust him.
101 is nasty little ride, and one that reads as quickly as the action firing between its covers. We recommend it.
*** Full Disclosure, This Desperate City was sent a reviewers copy of this book. However, we do not post reviews of books we do not enjoy ***
By Earl Javorsky
After the apparent suicide of his sister, a misanthrope tries once more to care about his life and the people within it. But the answers he seeks may be locked behind a woman enthralled by a mysterious self help group and a reporter who just can’t leave well enough alone.
Jeff Fenner – Be it drugs, women, or just another bad night out, Jeff can’t seem to find his way to adulthood. Even the death of his sister Marilyn doesn’t shake him loose from his self-destructive trajectory. It’s not until he meets a reporter investigating a spate of suicides that he realizes there’s likely something more to life than himself.
“Jesus,” Jeff said as he walked down the hall with Ron. “What just happened?”
“How about grace?” Ron said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
Holly Barnes – Happiness is illusive, but does it exist at all? Holly swims in these thoughts, of desperation, of self importance, long enough to realize she needs to look beyond. She finds some measure of comfort in a new self help group SOL, Saving Our Lives, and one of their mystifying leaders. But with the peace of mind also comes something else, apprehension.
“You scared me, what happened?”
“It felt like I was falling again,” Holly said. The icy feeling inside was subsiding. “Halcion – that’s not a very common drug, is it?”
Art – Confident and relaxed, Art has a way with people. He wants them to feel comfortable, tranquil, like their best selves. Trust is important in his job, and the more people, especially women, who confide in him, the more he can help change their lives forever.
“Holly, the Tonys of this world have their radar set to your frequency. Yours just happens to be set to theirs. Until you change your frequency, there will always be another Tony.”
Ron Pool – It’s easy to become disaffected. The reporter business isn’t kind, grinding you up and all that. But Ron doesn’t lose sight of his profession’s importance either. So when the bodies start stacking up like driftwood, the filaments of criminality string together in his mind and the old reporter begins calling in some favors.
“He grinned back but wondered if maybe his hunch was wrong, that LA was a big city and that it contained, among other things, a lot of attractive women, some of them troubled, some of them fatally so.”
“She was very uncomfortable – She felt exposed, as though her life had been shown to be transparent and trite. She had experienced a distinct sensation of falling as he spoke, but anger provided the solid branch that she needed to steady herself, to come back to her own.”
Trust Me is a study in duplicity. Earl Javorsky, who hit the scene hard with his first novel, Down Solo, comes back with an LA noir laced tale here that, I’ll admit, I had to read twice to really appreciate. Deception, it’s something Javorsky’s characters practice on every page, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, so does his prose, layered thick with subtle foreshadowing elements that are easy to miss but wonderfully wrought when discovered.
It’s why Holly, the misguided but poised co-main character, is so sympathetic. Self-Help groups bear a dubious distinction within our hyper oversensitive culture and Holly shares these prejudices, even as Art, her creepy yet endearing sponsor pulls her deeper into the group’s inner circle.
Why this book works, and perhaps what strung me through to that crucial second reading, is the juxtaposition between Jeff and Holly. Despite her insecurities or her abusive boyfriend, Holly exudes aloofness and confidence, never truly convinced anything is as it seems, even when she is at her lowest. Jeff however, can’t seem to parlay a lifetime’s worth of street smarts into even one good payout. The story hinges here, and it’s important because without this balancing act, Javorsky’s tale comes dangerously close to cliché, losing its footing, plummeting as it were. It is here the author reaches out and grabs us to save his story.
While victimization of women as a theme is also, again, dangerous treading in a genre replete with volumes of similar plot drivers, Javorsky deftly maneuvers his characters around the board, conscious of toeing too close to the edge, and pulling back when he needs to. A less artful author could have botched this job, luckily for us, he does not.
As the story rolls to a close, the final scenes are at once predictable yet somehow measured in their relevance to the characters. Getting there is the interesting part but the resolution, steeped in moment to moment unrevealed mystery, is the joy. If you take the plunge on Trust Me, don’t be afraid to jump off the ledge.
J. J. Sinisi
By Max Allan Collins
In the Biloxi heat, a Vietnam vet turned hitman carries out the orders of his fixer, looking for revenge, but finding sex, betrayal, and blackmail in its wake.
Quarry – With nothing left after the war, Quarry fell in with the Broker, a man with an eye for violent talent. Southeast Asia hardened Quarry’s emotions until killing became no big thing, but he still tries to walk the righteous path. But how far does that line bend when his freedom is at stake?
“I guess I’m not your knight in shining armor anymore.”
Woodrow Colton (Mr. Woody) – The head of the Dixie Mafia’s guarded cruelty is one of his worst kept secrets. Running a mini empire of strip clubs and brothels comes with its own set of complications though. Woody’s second in command, Jack Killian, has ambitions stretching beyond the boundaries of the sleepy tourist towns dotting the Gulf and Woody implores The Broker to send someone capable of correcting his problems.
“I am determined to make you feel at home, son… Have you ever been to Biloxi before?”
“Then trust me on this one, son. Take my word, you will thank me to your dying day.”
Luann – A teenage prostitute pretending to be twenty-one, addicted to television and bad decisions. Luann’s instincts have served her well, and she does more than just seduce a reluctant Quarry. She correctly reads her opportunity to blackmail him into action, hopefully ensuring her freedom from a doomed life and his abstention from her execution.
She turned her eyes towards me. Such a light blue. Such a lack of interest.
“If you want sex, I’m okay with it.”
Jack Killian – There’s something honest about Killian’s quick temper and simmering fury, something Quarry, though he’s been assigned to murder the underling, respects. But respect only goes so far when money and blood are on the line.
“Politicians in Biloxi like their bread buttered on both sides, and my knife works both ways.”
Wanda Colton – As Woody and Killian juxtapose the difference between blatant and obfuscated brutality, so do Woody’s wife Wanda and Luann pair the two powers of sexuality, Luann young and energetic, and Wanda calculated and measured. She uses her wiles it to lock Quarry to the same alibi, and ultimately protect her own deceptions.
She got off me and went into the bathroom and washed up and came back and gave me a businesslike look, her head tilted. “So do we have an understandin’?”
“How many men have you killed, Quarry?”
“Here or overseas?”
“Over a hundred.”
“I would guess a sniper gets pretty cold-blooded about it.”
“Killing from a distance can get easy. I’ve don’t close up and personal to. It’s messier.”
The reason Quarry’s Choice works so well is also the very reason it likely only appeals to a limited audience. Mid-seventies post Vietnam settings are rarely this realized however, present but not overwrought in hair styles, and cars, and songs, and even décor. Collins, as usual, does a masterful job of placing his characters in a historical world dictated by his rules and perceptions. In Road to Perdition, his seminal graphic novel of depression era mobsters, the overriding theme of fathers and sons and the protections they can and cannot provide each other swell to the story’s surface, and the Model Ts and the rural county roads help set us in a distinct time with moral and social boundaries. Here too, Collins firmly establishes his setting so as his characters navigate its deadliness, we don’t roll our eyes at another jaded mobster’s wife or a tired teenage stripper turned prostitute.
Quarry’s trip to the Deep South starts with a simple assignment; kill Jack Killian, the second in command of the Dixie Mafia, a small outpost of organized crime on the Gulf. But halfway through his assignment, he’s killed two men, a woman, and he’s only ensured himself a job with both his target and his contractor. It’s here where Quarry’s Choice excels, amid the violence and betrayals of characters unhindered by today’s moral compunctions, characters firmly strapped by the gender roles and off-kilt danger of a scarred nation reeling from its first major military loss. Collins uses the period to not only drive his plot but also to subjugate growing themes within more modern crime fiction. This creates a wonderfully tight and enjoying read, but does little to expand or test a genre full of similar wonderfully irreverent works.
This is not to say there isn’t a disguised modernity here. On the contrary, the empowered women, Luann, the blackmailing little nymph wrapping Quarry around her finger, or Wanda, the sophisticated but sad empress, earn their keep among the bloody and testosterone filled pages. But the subtly of their power plays coupled with their limited page time (in Wanda’s case), may lead to an earlier exit for some of the less initiated.
Quarry’s Choice works because of all of the reasons pulp/crime fiction fans love. That this may be a barrier to others shouldn’t be a roadblock to its enjoyment. At under 300 pages, this swift and at times extremely witty novel is a breezy read on a hot summer day, enjoying Quarry fighting his way in and out of trouble while others are setting him up in their sights.
Double Hooks: A stagnant ex-athlete is forced into a life of crime by his unwillingness to make decisions. An ill-tempered vampire questions too much and hides too little, threatening to change the world.
Long before glittering vampires and bad boy werewolves were saving chaste girls without an opinion as to who they wanted to lose their virginity to, dark and terrible bloodsuckers roamed the fictional streets of New York City, getting blown in bathrooms and eating people’s tongues out. A quintet of novels, one for each festering borough, showed the world of noir just what cross-genre really meant. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt wasn’t a misunderstood creature of the night, nor was he a nosferatu, cringing at the harsh daylight from the safety of his warrens, scaring the locals in Coney Island. He was grit, he was noir, he was the best and worst elements of Huston’s other original, and slightly better adjusted protagonist, Hank Thompson. Both men inhabited worlds rife with conflict and simmering with danger and hate.
If I saw something once that I can't explain, that doesn't make them real. And if a trick of the dark gave me a chill, that doesn't make them real. And if a madman says what's at the core of us all is a senseless, flapping quiver of black shade, that's just one more reason not to believe.
The thing of it is, Pitt and Thompson aren’t Huston’s best heroes, though they may be his best known. As the two men grind through eight books of beatings and baseball bats, eye gouges and broken knees, perhaps Huston’s most impressive feat, aside from somehow making us believe his malnourished and fading vampire is part of a larger community of infected psychopaths or that his onetime big league hopeful athlete is resourceful enough to evade and overcome a city full of gangsters, is the remarkable sense of place imparted throughout all his works. Sure, Huston lived as a California transplant and bartender, the most intrinsic type of New York there can be, for over a decade. But his Manhattan breathes in the obscure Inwood Hill Park, up in Harlem and divorced from the staid literary trappings of midtown. His Brooklyn rots in the alleyways on Mermaid Ave and not in Park Slope or Bed Stuy. His characters rummage through a city readers know but can’t possibly understand to such a level of detail, not unless they grew up there and worked there, and even then, they’d probably be hard pressed to name all of the exotic locales his characters have their teeth beat in. It’s not so much a tour of the city as it is an invitation down the dark side streets people pretend to ignore as they hustle their way to someplace safer.
Think about a night like that often enough, you'll ask yourself a lot of questions. Most of them about yourself. The kind of person you are. What you'll do and why and when you'll do it. What you believe in. What you really believe in.
The brutality of Joe Pitt’s trials and Hank Thompson’s tribulations aside, there’s a tenderness that Huston curates within them, his wonderful ability to keep us caring about a pair of people who, ostensibly both turn into homicidal street enforcers. But much like Tom Pitt’s novel Hustle (which TDC reviewed here back in November), the urgency of Joe’s next drink of blood and Hank’s need to get away from the terror he’s unwittingly stepped into, is never more than a few moments, or pages away. This necessity, to fill these characters’ great chasms of emptiness, becomes all encompassing and inform bad decisions at a rate the heroes cannot possibly overcome. In the gritty little lines between Hank’s gruesome discoveries of his dead friends or Joe’s hunger for blood ravaging his guts, we see desperation, deep hollow sadness, and most of all, the horrors of addiction and complacency and how they can move a person.
One day, when I am a braver man, I will tell her these things, and then I will look her in the eye tell her I love her and ask her to be only mine. But until that day, we're just friends.
But so what. A lot of great writers have a wonderful sense of place in their works. Chandler had LA and Izzo had Marseille, so sure, give New York to Huston. And addiction and complacency? Been there plenty of times. What else does Huston have?
Theme. The man does more with theme in his first ten pages than most noir writers do in two hundred. Caught Stealing, his first novel and the first in the Hank Thompson Trilogy, layers on the thematic elements so thick it threatens to strangle the reader. Hank is an ex-baseball prospect whose budding career was done in by an ill-fated attempt at stealing third base and then further shattered by a terrible car accident. Now, alone and adrift in the big city, miles away from his California home, he’s tasked with watching a neighbor’s cat, and unwittingly the cash the neighbor’s stolen from local thugs. From there, an on-the-rails action adventure rolls from the station but this idea of having something taken, of the world asserting its violence to rob a person of their virtue, or their possessions, or their girl, or their parents, of having everything taken before its time, pervades the entire novel.
Hank’s problems don’t get any better after he leaves New York, and in book two, Six Bad Things, and book three, A Very Dangerous Man, the story and thematic elements shift, but he never relinquishes his fundamental essence of where this unique character comes from, whether it’s calling his parents or escorting a young baseball phenom around casinos, Hank’s a hard wired good fellow, despite the car chases and murdering, the best of which is a brutal fight in a scalding hot shower with a tweaker in a mobile home.
I fall back to the floor and he kicks me a few times in the back and the legs, then he gets down on his knees straddling my body, and pummels my arms and torso as I try to cover my face. And then he’s done.
A deepening conspiracy in a clan driven vampyre [sic] society defines the outside-looking-in loss of control Joe Pitt struggles against in the five novels comprising Huston’s Joe Pitt Case Books. Each clan comprises different types of vampyres, each with their own philosophy on life, death, and the ascendency of their race. Huston does an elegant job of sliding the pieces around the board but still giving his character agency within the plot machinations. Whatever horror tropes threatening to pull these novels down, secret societies, unknown super naturals just below the surface of real life, a plan to subjugate the human race, they are all beaten into obscurity by Pitt’s daily, and at times hourly, struggle to survive a political game so much bigger than him all he can do is gnaw at his superiors ankles to see what happens. Reservations about the fantasy content of these novels go unrealized, they are noir and Huston never lets us forget it.
With a squeeze and a twist and a pull I could mash her radius and ulna and tear her hand from her arm and drop it I her lap and walk out with her screams as a soundtrack.
I chose these two series to review not because I think they are the best examples of Huston’s work (The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of the Dead is probably tops there), but because I hate vampire stories. I mean, really hate them. Hate them so much I almost reconsider submitting my writing to sources that actually accept vampire stories. And as far as Hank Thompson is concerned, outside of the PI, I’m not sure there’s a more played out noir plot than wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet in both instances, Charlie Huston is able to bend expectations and challenge genre boundaries. That is what’s most impressive about Huston. A lack of innovation can threaten any industry, any pursuit, adapt or die and all of that. With Huston in its corner, crime fiction has an ally for life against complacency.
TDC Buckshot Reviews,
Written by JJ Sinisi
Two junkie hookers with nothing left to lose attempt to frame their biggest client. Unfortunately for them, someone’s already beat them to it and he’s not ready to share.
“Donny and Rich’s lives ground on in a short cycle of copping, getting high, turning tricks, hiding from the world, then getting sick. Their time was marked by hours, not days.”
It’s not that this book is grimy, though it is. It’s not that its violent, or endearing, or bloody, or wrought with the painful reality of the streets, though it is all of these things.
What Hustle has that a lot in the genre don’t is urgency.
And not the noir urgency of a missing character struggling to stay alive in the hands of a speed-freak killer, or the desperate need to obtain that one last treasure that’ll get a man off the streets for good, (although you guessed it, Hustle has these in spades as well).
The urgency in this tale bubbles from the streets itself, and the addictions buried in the people there. At no point in Pitt’s yarn are we more than a few moments away from the desperate and oppressive need of the next hit, just to get us right, just to get us through the next two hours.
That’s reality on the streets and that’s what makes this novel so compelling. Noir/Crime pieces will always (although don’t have to) spin around the dirty folks skirting the fringes of the law. And some have dark histories and others are getting their hands bloody for the first time, but rarely do we see them so pre-occupied with one singular thought, and even more rarely is this thought a true reflection of reality.
Addiction strangles us at every turn, pressing on our windpipe as Big Rich and Donny turn their tricks with dark men in nice cars just to score some cigarette money, as Bear tries to figure out his next move and how far he should go to save the life of a man who saved his, as Dustin tweaks his way through existence.
It never leaves and just when the countdown hits zero, shakes start, the vomiting and the cramps and the pain, so much pain. It’s not hard to get lost in Hustle’s reverence to addiction, and it’s the book’s most endearing quality. Because in the end, we want Big Rich to be reunited with his chick and their kid, we want Donnie to smarten up and stop getting raped. And most of all, we want Bear to relax on the beers and just settle down with a broad who gets him. But we also know that’s not going to happen. The pull is too strong, the claws too deep. It was always going to end this way, we just needed to see it happen to know for sure.
Tom Pitt’s Hustle gets the reader dirty, sure, but it’s the pain of that dirt, that grit, that makes this small slice of street life so real.
Review by JJS
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.