The Hearse by Henry Clement:
Tom Sullivan was standing against the open screen door. His brown suit was curiously old-fashioned. It was years since Jane had seen a man’s suit cut that way. He held a bunch of yellow wildflowers in his hand. For a moment Jane wondered where she had last seen flowers like that. Then she remembered: it had been beside her grandparent’s tombstone in the cemetary.
She stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her.
Tom held out the flowers. “I picked these at my place,” he told her.
Synopsis: Jane inherits house from dead aunt, is menaced by everything. Unfortunately, she is not smart enough to notice until a demon is in her living room.
Jane? Jane Hardy? Peanut, it’s your brain calling. Look, I know we haven’t been in touch a lot these past few years, but I’m really starting to worry about you.
Why? Well Jane, there’s no easy way to put this, but: ever since you inherited your dead aunt’s house, you know, the aunt who was into witchcraft? Aunt Becky? Ever since you inherited her house, you’ve been acting a little strange.
..What? No, I’m sure. Believe me, I’m sure. Look, here’s a partial list of–
C’mon Jane, focus. Yes, that is a pretty dress. Yes, I’m sure you look just as good as your aunt did in it, but–
No, Peanut, come on, focus, follow my finger, follow my finger, we’re talking about your aunt’s house, and all the weird things that have been happening there, so I really need you to focus. Okay? Now, ever since you moved in, I mean, from the very evening you moved in, there have been some things going on in that house that should’ve rung some alarm bells, but here you are trying on your dead aunt’s dresses and pretending like everything’s normal.
What do I mean? Well:
- The night you moved in, you heard strange music coming from your aunt’s bedroom. When you went in, the music suddenly stopped and you didn’t give it a second thought, what with finding shiny earrings on the dresser.
- Then the next morning you noticed a music box you’d put on the nightstand was on the dresser. Didn’t that strike you as a teensy bit odd, Jane?
- The next time you found the music box open and playing, you also found that your bed had been moved to stand at a 45-degree angle to the wall. That really should’ve struck you as strange, Peanut.
(“She stared at it, then shook her head in bewilderment and shoved it back into place. The only possible cause for the moving of the bed was the electricity in the air, she reasoned. Hadn’t she read that in a book someplace?”)
No, Jane, I’m fairly sure you didn’t read that in a book someplace, for oh, about a thousand reasons starting with the fact that as your brain, I can tell you that you last read a book in 10th grade and My Friend Flicka doesn’t cover supernatural furniture juggling.
- Jane, I know we haven’t had That Talk yet, despite the fact that you were married, but inviting a teenage boy into your home to do chores, then getting into soap suds fights with him, letting see you undressing for a shower, and finding his temper tantrums cute is a seriously bad idea. I know, it is flattering that he has a crush on you, but the kind of teenage boy who responds to being turned down for a date by breaking a vase in your kitchen is possibly not one you should have in your home in the first place.
Also, when the teenage boy erects an elaborate rope swing prank to get your attention, and the prank goes mysteriously awry, snapping the rope and cannoning him face-first into the ground, you should see if he’s all right. It’s just good manners, Peanut.
- Speaking of That Talk, this Tom fellow you’ve been seeing–
(“‘Out here in the country, Tom, I seem to be really learning for the first time what it’s like to take care of myself. And I must say that it feels good. In fact, it feels great.’ She smiled at him through the light of the candles. ‘So long as I don’t get killed in the process!’ She broke out into low laughter.
Tom stared into her face for a long moment. ‘You are very beautiful when you laugh, Jane,’ he told her gravely.”)
Yeah, that Tom. Um, isn’t there anything about Tom that strikes you as a little bit weird? Like the fact that no one else can see or hear him? Or that you thought he was going to push you out of that rowboat? Or the fact that HE HAS A PET GHOST HEARSE THAT DOES HIS EVIL BIDDING AND IS JEALOUS OF YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
Jane, I’m starting to really worry about you. Please call.
Love, Your Brain
# 41: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow:
“Sorry, I forgot,” Hang Twelve says, “Like the moana was epic tasty this sesh and I slid over an ax of this gnarler and just foffed, totally shredded it, and I’m still amped from the ocean hit, so my bad, brah.”
Cheerful looks at Petra and says, “Sometimes we have entire fascinating conversations in which I don’t understand a word that is said.” He turns back to Hang Twelve. “You’re what I have instead of a cat. Don’t make me get a cat.”
Synopsis: Boone Daniels, half wronged good guy PI, half Lebowski, takes on a missing stripper case for an insurance company. All his friends on The Dawn Patrol, a group of dedicated early-morning So Cal surfers, take the hit.
Boone Daniels used to be a cop, now he surfs. His friends — Sunny Day, Hang Twelve, High Tide and Johnny Banzai (still a cop) — all surf too, and when an epic macking crunchy set of waves approaches, they’re all puzzled when Boone takes on the case of a missing stripper. But what does that have to do with the girls who look like ghosts, the Japanese internment of World War II and the Samoan concept of the marai?
You really should read this book to find out.
I hate being coy about plot twists, I really do, but in Winslow’s case it’s worth it. It’s like the last book of his I read, California Fire and Life, there are so many twists, and they’re all so damn good that in this case it’s worth being coy.
That’s right, babies: the SpoilerPants are staying in the closet.
Things I will say:
–Loved it. (Obviously, right?) Winslow writes really great, strong, believable women in his books, women with agency, who exist outside of a need to nail the hero/PI. Sunny Day, the only woman on The Dawn Patrol, can outsurf all of them, Boone included, and a not-inconsiderable part of the narrative is devoted to Sunny’s focus on making it as a pro surfer; it consumes her to a degree, we’re shown, that her relationship with Boone does not. Petra, the hard-bitten lawyer from the insurance company, repeatedly pulls her weight, plotwise, as well as jumping in and using her brains and her skill as a lawyer to save the day. And let me talk for a minute about turning the cookie-cutter stripper character on its head. Do NOT mess with these ladies.
There’s really not enough words I know to express my need for more characters like these. I am again reduced to eight minutes of squeaking noises.
–It only struck me while I was copying down quotes from the book into the ubiquitous quotes notebook (four pages worth, thanks for asking) that the whole novel is written in the present tense. Normally that annoys the socks off me, but in this case I could not put it down. That is hard to do. I like when hard to do is pulled off well and makes me want to run out and ravage my local bookstore like a well-read Viking.
It’s hard to say what exactly makes this such a great book. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I finished the book last week because a) I want more books to be like this and b) when it comes down to it, I want everything I write to be this compulsive, this deeply layered but with the appearance of ease. All the characters are well-defined, rounded and interesting. A lot of the book focuses on women and people of color, which, roll your eyes all you want, but that’s the world I live in, so I want books that reflect this reality.
Also, Winslow gives great coastal California. He writes a lot about the history of development in Pacific Beach, CA in a way that’s totally unlike the dry history books presented in schools all over this fine nation of ours. There’s a certain unique talent in blending your own writing voice with history in, oh, for example, describing how the Beach Boys are responsible for most of what’s wrong with the coast of Southern California today and pulling it off with a visceral edge:
Boone doesn’t know the answer to that old Ethics 101 question from his freshman year in college — if, knowing what you know now, you had a chance to strangle Adolf Hitler in the cradle — but he’s clear about the answer for Brian Wilson. You’d splatter his baby brains all over the bassinet before you’d let him make it to the recording studio to turn that 101 into a parking lot.
There are tons of small, fascinating digressions that take the form of stories told in flashback. Like when the group took Hang Twelve to a strip club for his birthday and he ate the shrimp at the buffet. Or how Boone came to live in Cheerful’s pier-side bungalow. It’s all magic, and I appreciate the time taken to stop the admittedly gunfire-happy action to tell these stories. They make the book deeper and more nuanced.
The plot is complicated, but simple when it gets all laid out end-to-end.
The ending is not simple at all. It’s also not strictly legal, but it is right. And that’s what counts.
So to recap: good stuff. Dark, textured, complicated and well thought-out.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate July Fourth by ravaging a bookstore for Winslow’s backlist.
The Value of X by Poppy Z Brite:
“That snot-nosed pencil-dick motherfucker. Seriously, Dave, I’m gonna kill him. He might think he’s met some faggots before, but I bet he never met one from the Ninth Ward.”
“Rickey, I know you want to kick Muller’s ass. Hell, I want to kick his ass. But don’t do anything stupid. It’s not worth getting thrown out of school over.”
“You think they’d throw me out?”
“For fighting? Sure. You know we’re supposed to — what is it the dean said at orientation? — ‘conduct ourselves like professional chefs at all times.’”
“I know professional chefs who’d kick his ass over something like this.”
Synopsis: Set before the rest of the Liquorverse, this is the story of how Rickey and G-man knew they were in love when they were sixteen, and how their parents thought they knew better and nearly ruined everything.
I’m not sure I could ever truly hate one of the Liquorverse books; that whole world is so vivid and real to me, such a delicious place to roll my brain around in. These are my comfort books; even just a few pages and the world gets a little bit better.
That said, The Value of X will never be one of my comfort books.
Rickey and plain old Gary Stubbs have been best friends since fourth grade and when they turn sixteen, they both realize they’re in love and, being that that’s something too big to keep from your best friend, act on their feelings. Unfortunately, their parents quickly figure out what they’re up to and become determined to “save” their children from their misguided ways and cook up a scheme that separates the two of them, getting Rickey’s dad to pay for culinary school way the hell out in New York. It’s a tempting offer to Rickey, who already knows he wants to cook for a living, and while the two boys make the best of things, the course of true love never did run smooth. Thankfully, Rickey’s temper, his sense of what’s best for him save the day.
Oh this book. I love Rickey and G-man together. Always have, always will. I love how they figure out how to work with being in love and that they’re so sure of each other at the start. I love the part where G-man is curled up on the sofa sobbing and his mom comforts him, because even though she’s one of the architects of his unhappiness, he’s still her baby. I love all the diners and restaurants and kitchen scenes.
I love how happy it makes Rickey to punch out Muller because I love the disconnect there, that he did what was right for him even though the rest of the world is going to think he fucked up and got kicked out of cooking school (amusingly, the next book on my TBR is Virginia Rich’s The Cooking School Murders.)
I love Rosalie, and I love that she answers the phone when Rickey calls G-man back. I love that she keeps being Rosalie the rest of the series.
I love that Rickey simply doesn’t care he’s gay. I love that Elmer Stubbs is kind of horrified by Brenda’s assertion that being friends with G-man has calmed Rickey down, because I can’t imagine Rickey being more crazed, either.
But it’s because I love all these things so much that I find the rest of the book to be sheer torture. It’s so hard to read about these parents getting all misguidedly involved in their kids’ lives. Like hello, they’re holding down jobs and not doing drugs and they’re happy, so lay off!
At the same time, that I feel so keenly annoyed at the Stubbs and Brenda Rickey that later stories, like “The Feast of St Rosalie” are even more powerful. Brite’s written about how fascinated he’s been by the Stubbs family as a whole, and how they kind of took over their part of the Liquorverse, and I can definitely sense that in this book. They’re painfully realistic.
For the record, my favorite book in the series is D*U*C*K. I know you didn’t need to know that but it’s true. And I think I might be reading that book next, simply to calm down a little from reading this one. Which is probably a measure of how good The Value of X really is.
This entry is really disjointed, isn’t it? That’s very much how I feel after having read this book: disjointed. I know it comes out all right in the end. While I was reading the book, I knew it would come out all right in like, fifty pages or so, but the getting from here to there was torture.
The Company Man by Robert J Bennett:
Finally one of the larger detectives tackled him and wrapped around his legs, bringing him to the ground. The conductor wept and struggled with him and clawed at the floor. Several patrolmen ran to him, and on took out his truncheon and raised it high.
“Stop!” shouted a voice.
The officers looked over their shoulders to see Samantha furiously striding toward them. They paused, unused to dealing with well-dressed women, particularly ones who were shouting at them.
Synopsis: In an alternate-history Seattle, where one company holds all the cards, a very peculiar man and his assistant set about tracking a labor union leader, the last honest cop works himself to a grizzled nub and everyone conveniently turns a deaf ear to the strange noises the city itself has started making.
Oh, where to begin with this fabulous book.
Right. I know: page 20. That’s right, when you sit down to read this book, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning of Chapter Three, which is page 20. Why? Because the first nineteen pages of the book are a mess: stilted, disjointed language; images that never quite gel in the mind’s eye (it took me three tries to figure out where the corpse was) and two protagonists who are virtually indistinguishable.
But if you let those first two chapter dissuade you from the rest of the book, you’d be missing a real treat.
And the story begins.
Set in an alternate history version of post-WWI America, The Company of the title is The McNaughton Corporation, a suffocating, tentacled miracle of modern life, providing the citizenry with everything it may or may not need, including a shadowy security force dedicated to union-busting.
McNaughton operative Cyril Hayes has a dark secret of his own, one the McNaughton Company’s only too happy to use to their advantage. Along with his assistant, Samantha, Hayes is sent after Mickey Tazz, the city’s mysterious union leader, a man who hasn’t been seen in years, but who’s still spoken of in madly glowing terms by everyone who’s never met him.
Then the railcar trolley full of dead men arrives and things get a little unhinged. Because this city’s riddled with more than a network of disused subway tunnels and subterranean laboratories: some secrets don’t like being contained anywhere.
I enjoyed this book so much.
I loved how it refused to be pinned down. It wasn’t exactly alternate history, and it wasn’t a hardboiled detective story. It wasn’t exactly a Lovecraftian ghost story, but it wasn’t just a steampunk Ayn Rand, either. And then there’s the corpse from the first chapter. I eventually gave up trying to figure out what genre the story was, and I lost count of all the clever literary references I found because I was simply enjoying myself too much.
Hayes’ better half (and for my money, most of the sexual tension was between the two male leads) is Detective Garvey, the last honest cop in the city. If Garvey has a first name I missed it entirely because throughout the text he’s Detective Garvey; it’s not just what he does, but it’s who he is as well, a key to his motivations and fate, something Hayes takes gentle pains to point out. As the city descends into chaos, Hayes, Garvey and Samantha, in the grand tradition of detectives everywhere, doggedly continue to try to locate Mickey Tazz and not get sucked into the complex and deadly machinery that is the McNaughton Corporation. And it is a gloriously dingy romp indeed.
Now, my only other complaint about this book is the treatment of Samantha, the assistant. See, that’s basically what she is throughout.
Later on, she turns into the love interest as well,but despite her integral role in the plot the reader’s never allowed to remember she’s nothing more than a glorified secretary. And indeed, the ending, which I won’t spoil, provides her with a continuance of that role. Garvey chooses his fate and Hayes chooses his as well, but Samantha, at the last, is given the role of a companion to one of the two men, because after all she is “the last good thing in my life.”
That’s right, she’s a thing. People get to choose their fates, but things are carted along for the ride like baggage. It’s an unpleasant set-up and one not worthy of what’s otherwise really an astonishingly good book.
Garnethill by Denise Mina:
Despite the atmosphere in the house Liam delighted his mother by getting into Glasgow University Law School. He dropped out after six months and started selling hash to his friends on a casual basis but he discovered a talent and went professional. He bought a big house. They told Winnie he managed bands. Maureen used to nag him about security but he said that if he started to worry about things like that he’d get really paranoid.
His present girlfriend, Maggie, was a bit of a mystery. She was a model but they never saw her model anything, and a singer, but they never heard her sing either. She was very pretty and had the roundest arse Maureen had ever seen. She didn’t seem to have any friends of her own. Poor Maggie had a lot to live up to: Lynn, Liam’s first and last girlfriend, was a doctor’s receptionist and rough as a badger’s arse but such great crack even Winnie’s snobbishness dissipated when Lynn told a story.
Synopsis: After deciding to break up with her therapist-bf Douglas, Maureen goes out and gets rip-roaring drunk with a friend, only to wake up at home the next morning, with Douglas bound to a chair in her kitchen with his throat-slashed.
Oh I loved it. I loved it.
Weirdly, this book has been on my infamous list of Background Reading for My Mania for Insane Asylums since it first came out, but even for me, the premise of the book was a little gritty, so it didn’t rise to the top of my TBR pile until a friend was emptying out her book collection and winged it at my head.
Allrighty then. That’s usually how the universe decides to communicate, so I’ve learned to duck as much as possible and roll with whatever makes contact.
And this book definitely made contact.
In her first year of university, Maureen had a breakdown and spent five months in a psychiatric hospital working through her issues, all of which involved her family, especially her alcoholic mother Winnie and her father, who left when she was twelve. Upon her release and against everyone’s advice, she began dating Douglas, a therapist at that hospital. Eight months later it’s over in Maureen’s eyes, but not, apparently over enough for Douglas’ murderer.
The set-up’s brilliant: how does a recovering psychiatric patient explain a dead body in their kitchen to police? And more importantly to Maureen, how does she keep her drug-dealing brother Liam from their prying eyes as well? By finding the murderer, of course.
The mystery world is rife with a myriad of amateur sleuths, and Maureen’s probably one of the less likely ones to take up the crime-solving banner. But she’s also so well versed in the rhythms of a psychiatric hospital and, more importantly, how to connect with ongoing mental illness sufferers, that she has insight the police don’t.
As she puts it after the police hamhandedly interview a fellow patient about her brutal rape: “They just about broke the poor woman’s brain.”
Maureen on the other hand, takes the woman home with her, makes her cups of tea and, recognizing the need for professional help for everyone, calls over her best mate Leslie, who works at a women’s shelter.
The mystery at the heart of Douglas’ murder is lurid and revealed in fits and starts, but it’s more than enough to keep company with the dramatic subplot that is Maureen’s uber-dysfunctional family. Her mother Winnie is so soused all the time that she’s thrown out of a police station. Her sisters think Maureen should be institutionalized again and she and Liam have a fantastic love-hate relationship that’s sorely tested as the police suspect first her, then him, then both of them of having done away with Douglas. And through it all, Maureen has to cope with the regular panoply of triggers and traumas incumbent to abuse survivors.
There’s a lot going on in this book.
The plotting hangs together nicely and the characters are, if not entirely likeable (including Maureen) then at least both memorable and believable. Garnethill is a world where actions have consequences, and even if they’re not the ones you would’ve wished, the only thing to do is make the best of things. Or a hash of it. Either one works.
The level of honesty with which mental illness is portrayed reminded me strongly of Mary Morell’s Final Rest, and I’ve seen other reviews of the book bang on about how central to the book it is, but frankly, for me, I thought it was admirable how the book wasn’t all about it; instead, it was about a woman who’s been accused of murder who has to clear her name and protect the parts of her family worth protecting and dodge the rest…while being an abuse survivor. It’s a welcome difference.
Garnethill is the first book in a trilogy, but don’t look up the other two books on Amazon unless you want to be spoiled on the identity of the Garnethill killer; I made that mistake for everyone, but the book still managed to surprise me with its twists and turns.
Body Work by Sara Paretsky:
“This older guy, he’s kind of crude, and he can’t keep his hands to himself. So first I kidded him, you know, going, ‘Whoa, buster, seems like your fingers kind of forgot curfew. Better tell ‘em to stay home where they belong.’ Well, that was like slapping a whale with a goldfish — totally useless. So the next time I kicked him good on the shin, and he talked to Olympia, and she came to me and said I couldn’t go around kicking customers. So I explained what happened, and she said, Are you sure? And I said, I know what a hand feels like when it’s inside my pants, and she said, if I overlooked it, there’d be something extra in my pay envelope. But–”
“Quit.” I said flatly “If Olympia is running drugs — and a bar is a perfect Laundromat for drug money — you don’t want to be there when the cops shut her down. And if she’s pimping for some sleazoid, you need to run for the exit.”
“I will if I have to. But Vic, it’s almost four hundred a week in tips I’m getting there, pretty much tax-free. And my day job, I don’t know how much longer they’ll keep me on. Would you — I know it’s a lot to ask, but could you–”
“What, shoot him?”
Synopsis: VI Warshawski might be getting old and finally reaping some of the karmic payback of her terrible twenties and thirties, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still know how to party, social justice-style.
In the 14th installment of Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series, the aging, cynical detective again finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time: while checking out The Body Artist, a controversial new performer who lets a Chicago nightclub audience paint on her naked body, Vic chases after two arguing patrons, one of whom is shot and dies in her arms.
I can’t tell you how many times that has happened to me.
Nonetheless! When Warshawski is hired the next morning by the father of the angry Gulf War veteran charged with the crime, her initial reluctance to dig too deeply gives way to the familiar perverse delight Warshawski takes in shaking trees and turning over stones, and giving whatever emerges a good swift kick.
Aided by her niece Petra, geriatric super-hero landlord Mr Contreras and a handful of surprisingly sympathetic minor characters, Warshawski fights the good fight on multiple fronts: in addition to working on the murder, the P.I. becomes fascinated by the mysterious Body Artist and the club who was showcasing her wares. If, like Warshawksi, you suspect that basically no one in Chicago is telling the truth, ever, you’re halfway right.
While this story felt like one of Warshawski’s tamer cases, the plot was still gritty and believable, and Paretsky tackles the bias and trauma faced by of Gulf War veterans — both abroad and at home — with skill. But the main attraction of the stories remains Warshawski and her cast of North Racine Irregulars.
Reviewer Julia M. Walker has written that Warshawski “hasn’t aged well. She still lives hand-to-mouth, still takes stupid risks (no, not all risks are stupid, but most of Vic’s are, willfully so); she still hurts the people she loves — both of them — and has failed to form any adult friendships, having instead surrogates whose shins she can kick: a mother and a dog-sharing grandpa.”
I only partially agree. It’s clear Warshawski still enjoys getting under people’s skin (Warshawski has a couple of exquisitely immature moments when she expertly torments the club’s owner for no apparent reason) she’s definitely begun to pick her battles. She’s no longer, as Lotty once accused, the “dog that has to get down in the pit — the ring — and fight every damn person, even its friends”.
Instead, and especially with her impressionable niece, Warshawski has developed a weary kind of patience with her inner circle by accepting finally, in part, that they long used a similar forbearance to deal with her.
Warshawski is both aware of her failings and still stubbornly refusing to move past them, rightly recognizing that her flinty personality is a double-edged blade. Here, Warshawski wields that personality like a knife, cutting through the conspiracy of lies at the heart of this above-average entry in the Warshawski canon.
Murder on the Run by Gloria White:
I drove to Bernal Heights, straight to Blackie’s house. It was a run-down, ticky-tacky place, just one notch above a shack, with a sweeping view of Interstate 280 and the farmers’ produce market. None of Blackie’s four ex-wives had been able to pry him out of it, but none of them had tried too hard either. Blackie managed to keep it by promising them all his income. Then he basically quit working.
Synopsis: Ronnie Ventana’s set out her PI shingle in San Francisco and hit a run of good luck, which is promptly halted by seeing a high-profile SF personality throw some dude in the Bay. Mistaken identities, beer, missing corpses and shenanigans follow.
I probably should’ve.
Veronica “Ronnie” Ventana, daughter of the notorious cat-burgling Ventanas, is just starting out as a PI in San Francisco when, on an early morning run near Presidio Park, she sees an uber-successful fellow PI chuck a guy into the Bay. Despite Ronnie’s best attempts at getting the cops to believe her, the case goes cold when the body is nowhere to be found. So Ronnie, still flush from a satisfied and generous client, sets out to nail the bad guy.
Of course, everything goes wrong and nothing is what it seems.
Murder on the Run was a 1991 Anthony Award finalist and with good reason. It’s well-written and scenic, with lots of San Francisco and intriguing, well-delineated characters. Ronnie’s a hard-drinking, immature, wanna-be know-it-all whose stubborn naivete contrasts well with the laconic, world-weary attitude of her mentor, a run-down boxer named Blackie Cooper, and her tight-ass yuppie ex-husband, Mitch.
The plot hangs together nicely and White’s writing style lets you feel like you really are zooming around the city with Ronnie and getting wasted at after-hours East Bay jazz joints.
There are currently five books in the Ronnie Ventana series; Murder on the Run is the first, and I liked it so well I found a used copy of the second, Money to Burn right away.
That….may’ve been a mistake.
Rule number fifty-two of private investigating is never turn down whatever your host offers you. It’s sort of like those tribes in Africa that get insulted if you don’t drink their goat blood. If you accept something out of somebody’s kitchen, you’re one of them. So, even if she’d offered me catnip coffee, I’d drink a sip or two, just to keep her talking.
“Tell me about this morning,” I prompted when she came back with a tray piled high with cookies and, almost as an afterthought, a coffee mug crammed in at each end.
“Here.” She set the tray down, handed me a cup, picked up the second one, and grabbed a cookie. As she bit into the cookie, she rolled her eyes like she’d tasted heaven. “I love shortbread, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” I forced myself to take one, blew a cat hair off of it and took a bite. “About David?”
In Ronnie’s second outing, she’s awakened at 3am by a friend of her ex-husband’s, who busts into her apartment and demands she help him hide from a passel of Uzi-toting goons. The goons are real enough and in fact douse Ronnie’s apartment in gasoline as a warning, but everything David “Bink” Hanover says is a lie. He’s a con-man from Mitch’s college days whose gotten in over his head with a woman he describes as a black widow: all her boyfriends wind up dead.
Now, apart from the amusingly creative ways the boyfriends die (lion enclosure at the zoo, locked in a fridge with a canister of nitrous oxide) so much of what made Murder on the Run great is missing here: less Blackie Cooper, less San Francisco, less tightly woven plot.
But my biggest complaint is that the antagonist, Bink, is a dillweed.
A juvenile, narcissistic prankster who’s always depended on his looks and connections to get him out of trouble, he jerks everyone around and then gets mad when they call him on his actions. And no one does, including Ronnie, which really lessened my ability to get into the book.
If a friend of your ex-husband’s busts into your apt at 3:30 am trailed by armed thugs and then complains that you’re not doing enough to help him escape, consistently whines about getting caught in shady schemes and keeps disappearing while you’re trying to help him then, sister, it’s time for a spine-reinstallation kit.
That and the resolution to the mystery made very little sense.
So what do we have overall?
The writing’s still light and well-crafted and there are still echoes of the first, most awesome Ronnie Ventana on display here. But Blackie Cooper’s relegated to a walk-on part and Ronnie mysteriously loses a large chunk of her spine when Mitch returns from Tahiti (yes, Tahiti) and gets engaged to a new girl in the space of a week.
It’s definitely understandable if you still have feelings for an ex to be upset by them running off with someone, but Ronnie’s reaction, to sit on her couch in the dark and sob, feels unworthy of her as a character. I mean, she’s more upset by that than by anything Bink does.
Bink. I ask you.
There are four more mysteries in the series: Charged with Guilt, Sunset and Santiago, Cry Baby and Death Notes, and I have to say, if I can find the next one in the series at the library or maybe for $2-3 I’m gonna go for it.
Spine or no spine, Ronnie at least likes to keep things interesting. I’m still rooting for Blackie, though.
Hot and Sweaty Rex by Eric Garcia:
There’s something about the way they’re treating me that reminds me — quite unpleasantly — of the way I spoke to Chaz the other night, As if getting in this car might not be optimal for my health. But I’ve thrown myself headlong into any number of nasty situations when intuition screamed at me to run like hell, and come out clean every time. Unless you count the broken legs. And the stitches. And the two subpoenas.
“Sounds great,” I chirp. “Which way to the car?”
Synopsis: An L.A. P.I. gets drawn into dueling Mafia family problems, due to his shady past. And oh yeah, everyone’s secretly a dinosaur.
Dinosaur PI Vincent Rubio is manipulated into working for one of the main families of dinosaur organized crime. The assignment takes him to Miami, where he collides with another dino mafia family, this one headed by a childhood friend.
So there’s good news and there’s bad news about this book.
The good news is the dinosaurs. They’re EVEN MORE AWESOME THAN YOU THINK. Garcia’s spent some serious time on his world-building, and what should be a fantastic concept actually works: based on this book, I would not in the least bit be surprised if some of you on my f-list are in fact, secretly dinosaurs. Especially
The fact that dinosaurs are mandated to wear human-shaped costumes, held on by straps and buttons, and that their corpses are disposed of by a dino-flesh-eating bacteria, and that they get drunk by eating cooking herbs totally makes sense. It makes a scary kind of sense, and the more details you get the more details you’ll want. It’s fabulous.
And here’s the bad news: the plot? Eh, not so much. It’s basically your garden-variety mob-based goomba dance. There’s two families competing for the same cut of the action, there’s a girl involved, there’s bad blood stemming from past infractions, there’s a not-so-innocent PI caught up in it all. Eh. Nothing particularly new here to see. EXCEPT FOR THE DINOSAURS.
Also, Garcia is really, really in love with flashbacks and I was really not as in love with them, especially when they went on for twenty pages and multiple chapters. Bring it on down, Slappy.
Plus — and I don’t know how we’ve gotten to this place with books, but: this is the fourth book I’ve read this year where the protagonist does something preposterous and/or lame on the very last page, right as the ink runs out. Authors: stop doing this. Now. Rar.
But feel free to add more dinosaurs to your stories, because that rocks. Seriously: new! culinary mystery series featuring a velociraptor running a bakery! A marine salvage adventure novel with a plesiosaur scuba team! Sky-writing, crime-fighting pterodactyls! The possibilities are endless.
Much, possibly, like the supply of coffee in this house.
I hate favors. I hate doing them and I hate asking for them. They always sound so quick and innocent at first. A favor. Like a squeeze. But favors replicate, taking on a life of their own. Lending a hand in the kitchen for a few hours turns into a murder investigation, and then one night your house is set on fire. But how could I refuse after what they had done for me?
Synopsis: Poppy Markham caused a rift in her family when she left their Austin restaurant to become a health department inspector. But when a famous French chef is murdered at Markham’s, Poppy hurls herself into the investigation. Joined by her hunky ex-boyfriend and her gay neighbors, Poppy squares off against a murderer. And her stepmother. And her stepsister. And the restaurant’s general manager. And the sous chef. And…
Poppy Markham is an incredibly likeable amateur detective even when she’s being wishy-washy about her ex-boyfriend, Jamie, and obstinate about her stepmother’s effect on her father. This is no mean feat. And it’s obvious the author has served her time on the line in many, many restaurants, and is very familiar with Austin. These are all good things for this book.
In fact, 3/4 of this book is great fun: light, frothy, funny, snappy and well-written.
And then there’s the ending.
Look, I get that endings are hard, and this one actually made a great deal of logical sense; all the pieces in the story fell together and it was completely plausible. So what happened?
Two things. One, the fight with the murderer at the end. It was short and the murderer folded with one well-placed blow by a small health inspector and then the next thing you know, we’re having the tearful family reunion at papa’s bedside, where he explains everything (conveniently glossing over the ramifications of the solution, which were huge), then everyone hugs, even the people who were at each other’s throats for most of the book.
I was like…that’s it? I read 230 pages of a great mystery and you just Scooby-Doo’ed me?
Two? Hannah Swensen Syndrome. You heard me, I’ve now seen it so often in cozies, I’m giving it a name. After The Cookie Jar’s own legendary crime-solving absent boss, it’s when an amateur detective gets so caught up in solving a mystery that they forget where they work, and the author forgets, too.
Apparently Poppy Markham is a health department inspector who inspects restaurants, so maybe during the book at some point she should…inspect restaurants. She inspected a grand total of one, even though there’s a scene where she mentions she’s exhausted but has to go check on whether to issue a closing at a restaurant across town; she goes so far as to put the coffee on so she can stay awake for just that, then …Poppy wakes up the next morning bright and early and makes no mention of whether she did the inspection.
This problem’s made worse by the early introduction of Poppy’s boss Olive, who we’re told is incredibly controlling and micro-managing and calls Poppy at all hours, and then is never heard from again.
Do you know? If I just didn’t go to work for a couple days, like three or four, with no explanation, I would definitely hear from my boss, and he’s not in the least micro-managing and controlling. So what gives?
With those minor problems aside, it’s still a great read, for the most part and I’m very much hoping that there’ll be a sequel. The whole concept of the health inspector as detective really gives and gives, so here’s to hoping for the next go round, the next person to find a body at a restaurant actually records an infraction or two.