Monday, December 07, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part I: Steven Nester

Steven Nester is the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene, and Firsts Magazine.

The Killing Kind, by Chris Holm (Mulholland):
“Trying to make things right one murder at a time,” says Michael Hendricks, a hit man who only kills other hit men. A Special Forces guy presumed to have died in Afghanistan, Hendricks is invisible, moving with speed and stealth, which is a testament to author Chris Holm’s writing, because Hendricks carries so much baggage it’s a miracle he can even lift a gun. His tech-wizard pal and former army mate Lester figures out when and on whom gangland executives have ordered hits, and for a price Hendricks will get there first and eliminate the threat. What starts out as a good day in the killing grounds, though, becomes a frightening game of cat-and-mouse when the mob puts a hit on Hendricks in the form of Alexander Engelmann, the type of creepy yet sophisticated European to whom sadism is a fine wine to be savored. There is an emotional and moral depth to this novel, well represented in characters such as Evie Walker, the love Hendricks left behind, and the gay FBI agent, Charlotte Thompson, who is intent on tracking Hendricks. Holm doesn’t flinch from fleshing out those two, and his efforts give The Killing Kind the sort of realism that many shoot-and-run thrillers can’t claim. Lucky for readers that Hendricks’ world has become even more complicated by the end of this book than it was at the outset, suggesting that we can expect sequels.

The Redeemers, by Ace Atkins (Putnam):
Things are looking down for Quinn Colson. Not only must this 30-something Mississippi sheriff contend with women problems, a crack-smoking sister, and a shiftless Hollywood has-been of a daddy, but now he’s been voted out of office. It’s enough to make him consider returning to Afghanistan to engage in security work. Colson has only days left to take down his persistent nemesis, the man who engineered his recent election defeat: corrupt county supervisor Johnny Stagg. However, more troubles are brewing. The new year has arrived with a bang. Law-enforcement officials are being kept busy with a couple of southern-fried yeggs who steal the supposedly money-jammed safe belonging to local lumber magnate Larry Cobb when they can’t blow the thing open. Seems Cobb’s ex-son-in-law, Mickey Walls--who helped put the wheels of that theft in motion--wants cash and revenge, and when the safe is found to contain detailed records on every illegal deal Cobb has made, local politicians and crooked cops are put in the sights of justice. New and naïve sheriff Rusty Wise gets shot while investigating, so now it’s up to Colson’s old deputy, Lillie Virgil, to step up and get the job done the way Colson taught her. Lucky for her and the good town of Jericho, Mississippi, that Colson can’t stop sheriffing. Colson gets his man, but it only leaves the door open for another criminal enterprise to set up shop in this flawlessly written book.

Serpents in the Cold, by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy (Mulholland):
Written in grime on last month’s fish wrap, the atmospherics presented by authors O’Malley and Purdy in Serpents in the Cold--Boston, winter, 1951: why would anyone be there unless they were stuck or had a nice operation going?--are so complete and credible, they might have you checking your arms for needle marks. Dante Cooper is a heroin addict and Cal O’Brien is a drunken ex-cop. The demons chasing these old pals are scattered when Dante’s sister-in-law, Sheila, is brutally murdered, perhaps by a serial killer, and dumped into Boston Harbor. You know the deck is stacked when it’s revealed that Sheila was involved with a gangster, because in the post-war monochrome of a desultory Boston, behind every gangster is a politician. Dante and Cal manage to focus and find new purpose in securing justice for Sheila; if those two (sadly unqualified as they are for this assignment) can’t hunt down the slayer, then Sheila will have died for no reason. Women like her, who can fornicate their way up the food chain, discover too late that the higher they go, the more they know. And that can be an extreme liability. Chilled by one of the worst winters in Beantown’s memory, tackling their case in the wake of the infamous Brink’s Robbery of 1950, and hampered by a lack of resources, Cal and Dante must confront some of the city’s most powerful players if they’re ever to figure out how Sheila went from a nice warm bed to the mud of an icy shoreline.

Voluntary Madness, by Vicki Hendricks (New Pulp Press):
Punch and Juliette are a spontaneous couple with a plan in this well-deserving reissue, and that is to live their lives to the fullest in Key West, Florida, until their money runs out--and then they’ll commit suicide. Well, the dough does disappear, sooner rather than later, and to keep the high life going these two co-dependent lovebirds move from burglary to armed robbery to accidental murder. In the meantime, life is a work of art to the multi-racial Punch, who is allegedly writing a novel, as well as to Juliette, a wisp of white trash from Tennessee, who plays a willing enabler and sidekick to Punch’s exhibitionist and outlaw ways. “I could see myself as Sundance, if I knew how to shout,” Juliette says, and in an ominous development of character, she soon learns to howl. The pair focus on robbing restaurants for cash and dinner, and become media-darling desperadoes in a town that celebrates nonconformity. For Punch--diabetic and a committed alcoholic--death wouldn’t be too far removed, even if he walked the straight and narrow, but he keeps upping the ante. Juliette doesn’t really want to die, and she knows that keeping Punch sober will also keep him busy at the typewriter, and that the chance of literary fame should cause him to stick around for at least a while longer. But Punch, being a highly attuned anarchist (“Nothing’s right or wrong, good or bad,” he says. “Just more or less interesting.”), seems as assured of his death wish coming true as he is of finding coal in his stocking.

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Putnam):
Thriller master Frederick Forsyth’s memoir is subtitled My Life in Intrigue, and that’s no lie. Writing with typical British reserve, his adventurous existence takes him from the point of achieving his early goal of flying jets for the Royal Air Force to his crucial career choice of journalism and the opportunities it presented. Later, after moving to the BBC, Forsyth made fine use of his globe-trotting experiences from Berlin to Biafra, before being cashiered for insubordination. With the variety of good-natured aplomb and que sera, sera attitude that abounds in this book, Forsyth eventually finds his bank account near empty and decides to get himself out the hole by writing a thriller in one month’s time--a book that turned out to be The Day of the Jackal (1971). Forsyth has ties to the British intelligence agency MI6. He moonlighted as a gentleman (read unpaid) spy, filing reports while covering the atrocities in Biafra during the late 1960s. He also spirited secret documents, in his car, from East Germany to the West--a hair-raising escapade that could have caused him apoplexy even if it had run smoothly, which it did not. Forsyth blames much of his life and career on good fortune, and he recounts its twists with a cheerio that is infectious and makes the whole affair sound like quite a romp. While most of us will lead lives of quiet and normality, it’s greatly entertaining to read about someone else who has enjoyed grander and more memorable exploits, and is generous enough to share them.

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