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
The New Deal
By Jonathan Case
Amidst the social strata of 1930s New York, a black maid and a poor white bellhop challenge contemporary norms and their own better judgment as they consider a heist that may very well change both their lives forever.
Frank O’Malley – Being in debt ain’t so bad when you have opportunities to make it back. Whether it’s selling apples with his uncle on a street corner, or snatching the occasional unguarded cigarette case, Frank knows a thing or two about making a buck. Theresa tries to keep him honest, but he tries just as hard to bring her around to his side.
“A lot of rich people are born takers, but every now and then you meet one who knows how to share it around. That’s how I’d wanna be.”
Theresa Harris – Starring in Orson Welles' Harlem production of Macbeth, the subtext of Theresa’s ability not only to act, but to lie, is one of the most compelling elements of The New Deal. She immediately gains the trust of the reader, and then begins to subvert that trust throughout the book.
“My mama said I was a natural-born liar.”
Nina Booth – A Gatsby femme if there ever was one, is there more to Nina than her than her dreadful parties, or is she just a woman living out the last of her wealth?
“If you gossip, make sure it’s in front of a rich man.”
Jack Helmer – Though there are a lot of disaffected wealthy characters in this story, few of them so succinctly epitomize their collective detachment better than Jack. Blind to his boorishness, deaf to his overbearing words, he’s not sure what the next thing is, but he’s quite sure he’s already late for it.
“It looks just like it did. After twenty or thirty thousand miles and the sweat and the filth and the grubbing around – It’s just the same.”
“Theresa, save me, tell me something interesting.”
“Nina, don’t torment the poor girl anymore.”
“I’m sorry, are you a poor girl?”
“They’re all poor. New York Negros pay twice the rent of whites. Roosevelt’s only making it worse on them.”
“I adore FDR, do you know he has an elevator just for his car?”
The Waldorf-Astoria, Park Avenue’s most prestigious, and at times at times in its history infamous, grand hotel is the sprawling backdrop for Jonathan Case’s multi-layered period graphic novel The New Deal. Case’s work has recently appeared in more mainstream avenues such as Batman ‘66 and Before Tomorrowland. He goes the creator exclusive route here with Dark Horse and does not disappoint. Already known for his nods to old film and Hollywood and an art style that somehow blends simplicity with sophistication, The New Deal deftly touches on social issues, light-hearted comedy, and a dash of pulp, all within a very manageable 100 pages.
The Harlem Renaissance entered its prime during the mid-thirties, and African American people, like Case’s main character Theresa Harris, for the first time found themselves empowered within their own communities to be creative and inspirational. Frank O’Malley, the bellhop whom Theresa shares the stage with for most of this book, also empowers himself, though by decidedly more dubious means. Indebted to a low level crime boss, Frank gleefully, and at times amusingly, negotiates his way about the rich and famous people he’s servicing all the while looking for his next score.
That opportunity manifests in Nina Booth, a Fitzgeraldian socialite staying at the Waldorf and suffering the incorrigible plight of the wealthy, bad company.
Theresa and Nina form a friendship wherein the older and more socially capable Nina mentors Theresa, and through her support, Case slyly scratches away the Waldorf’s pretty veneer and gives his readers a look at the racist underpinnings of depression era New York.
But it is in Frank and Theresa’s relationship this book find something different and ultimately makes even the somewhat twist of an ending just an amusing sideshow to a wonderfully wrought picture of real world New York. Frank is gleefully unaware of just how taboo his friendship with a black woman is, and it is in that innocence Case finds the humor, the love, in this book. What Case does so well is to not impose modern standards of political correctness or highlight social justices, but he also doesn’t dwell on the issues of racism or class division. Like the hotel itself, they just simply exist in The New Deal, as they did for his characters in this time period, a stark backdrop behind a lighthearted romp of a story, and somehow Case is able to pull it all together.
None of this works without the art, and Case’s ability to blend period realism and unmatched character expressions are perhaps the main joy of talents. Depression period stories, in comics and film, rarely spend time with non-depression subject matter. The New Deal revels in it and this unique perspective is just one of a dozen reasons this book delights.
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.
The Fade Out
By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
An actress strangled. A writer suffering from PTSD. A bungalow owned by a production company in its last gasp before the end of the studio system. The executives don’t care what happened, but maybe the writer does, and maybe he’s determined to find out, even if it means exposing his darkest secrets to a late 1940s Hollywoodland gripped by the Red Scare.
Charlie Parish – What war does to a man. A once promising screenwriter whose creative voice was silenced by the horrors of WW2. Already wracked by soldier’s guilt, he must find a way to cope with his complicity in letting the studio cover up Valeria’s death, knowing he was passed out drunk in the next room when it occurred.
“Well, I like you just fine. It’s just, I liked her too.”
“No … Not even close.”
Gil Mason – Another writer and early victim of Hollywood’s Red Scare, Gil was tagged as a commie and run out of town. He finds a way back in through his friend Charlie’s writer’s block. He needs to stay invisible. But spiraling alcoholism prevents his righteousness and talent from finding a better life.
“They take everything from me – Now they rape and kill this girl and --”
“They didn’t take everything from you, Gil.”
Victor Thursby – Studio head and possible sexual deviant with an eye for talent and a desire to keep his pictures on track and free of tabloid attention. His motives and morals remain hidden, perhaps even to himself.
“Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a child … Christ.”
Phil Brodsky – Head of the studio’s security, Brodsky understands a thing or two about discretion. In covering up Valeria’s death as a suicide, he is also charged with keeping everyone quiet, and he’ll do anything to keep the crickets chirping.
“Well think about that a bit harder next time, Asshole. You know how the old man feels about sympathizers.”
Valeria Sommers & Maya Silver – Two sides of the same coin. Valeria was murdered and Maya will replace her on set. Maya struggles to be something more than a sex toy for powerful men to get ahead, and within her trials, Valeria’s own tortured past is revealed.
“I don’t want to be famous, Charlie.”
“Then why’d you run off and join this circus?”
“Christ … I can’t even remember anymore.”
“Worse than the sick realization that someone was strangling this girl while he was passed out just twenty feet away, [is this]: He can’t call the police.”
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create another interesting, well wrought noir comic with absorbing characters and an original plot. The headline itself seems trite now. How do these two continuously challenge not only a comic genre that borders on hackneyed, but also push themselves to further heights?
Their latest work, The Fade Out, does just that. 1948 Los Angeles is perhaps the most overused setting in all of noir, but it’s also one of the most inspiring, and Brubaker skillfully renders it as the major set piece for the extensive research he has compiled on the era. No grizzled Marlowe-esque P.I.’s sleeping with dames, no drunken but good-hearted Bud White types on the beat, steaming for a fight or an arrest. Not here. The Fade Out steps away from the comfortable trappings of the police/P.I. procedural and embraces the murder mystery, delicately excluding the need for cops by putting his would-be hero in a compromising position from the onset, preventing him from relying on anyone other than himself to solve the inexplicable death of an up-and-coming starlet.
Appropriately, and unsurprisingly, Sean Phillips has cast the authenticity of 1940s LA as a major character. Nestled between the subtle dialogue panels and crying women, he delights viewers with cable cars, signage, and the pleasant accouterments of everyone’s favorite time in Hollywoodland. The suits, the dresses, the night clubs and drunken brawls, they are all here, and given loving treatment by one of the few masters of minimalism in comics today.
In some of their previous partnerships, we’ve seen Brubaker and Phillips tackle the modern crime tale in Criminal and combining the dark supernatural with noir in Fatale. Throughout both, we see strong characters and acute realism, but also, growing complexity. Brubaker’s yarns have always been interesting and multifaceted (See: Captain America), but it is a wholly different thing to touch on a multitude of characters, each with very limited panel time, and have the reader understand their value to the plot and at the same time, have them interesting enough to keep exploring. No doubt, Phillips’ closely rendered portraits help aid their urgency within the plot. At once repulsed and intrigued by Victor Thursby’s secret passage into his stars’ changing rooms, captivated by a two page flashback where Valerie and Maya commiserate on the audition process even though the reader knows one will die and the other will benefit, it is in these moments, the subtle characterization interspersed between the blood and fists that Brubaker’s universe comes alive.
The book’s only limitation is the same as Fatale’s. The episodic nature of single issues lessens the impact of key scenes and reveals without extensive re-reading. If only the entirety of the book could be eaten in one gulp, the way a proper pulp was always meant to be consumed. Understanding the economics of it all, it’d still be nice if twenty four issues of Fatale or the extent of The Fade Out were available in one sitting.
As it stands, we’re left waiting, wanting, trying to make sense of just who is that man standing with Ronnie Reagan, what does Clark Gable have to do with all of this, and of course, how and when will Gil and Charlie’s secrets unravel their friendship and ultimately their lives? Oh, and the murder too of course.
As with some of TDC’s previous reviews, those who are fans of the genre but not of comics would do well to see what the pillars of the community are doing. Creativity in the noir genre doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Not if Brubaker and Phillips have anything to say about it.
J. J. Sinisi
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.