Monday, December 18, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part V: Steven Nester

Steven Nester is the longtime host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio program heard on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). In addition, he is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, January Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Mystery Scene, and Firsts Magazine.

August Snow, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime):
August Snow is a former Marine and ex-cop who, after winning a wrongful-termination lawsuit, takes his pile of cash and returns to his old Detroit neighborhood, Mexicantown, a once-thriving haven for families that was cruelly hit by years of “white flight.” Snow is the kind of guy you want watching your back. He also believes in redemption. As he recalls his late father saying: “We are defined by those we could have helped and chose not to …” In this, his debut outing, the protean Snow is asked by a former foe, Eleanor Paget, to investigate improprieties at her private wealth management bank. But Snow isn’t ready to tackle detective work again, and turns her down. When Paget is subsequently found dead, an apparent victim of suicide, Snow has more than a few doubts about the circumstances. A man of intelligence and curiosity, he launches his own probe of her demise. This brings him into contact with crooked cops, the FBI, Russian assassins, a dysfunctional family circle, and international money laundering. As interesting as the case being tackled here is, it’s Snow—a “Blaxican” (the son of an African-American policeman and a Mexican mother)—who draws and rewards the reader’s attention most. He is at heart a mensch, a person exhibiting integrity and honor, and the 800-pound metaphors of second chances in this book drive that home. Author Jones is a Detroit-area poet and a playwright whose love of language makes every page of this novel resound with meaning. Plans to turn August Snow into a TV series protagonist may have been disrupted by the fact that the Hollywood heavyweight spearheading that idea was now-disgraced film producer and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, but it’s said Jones is working on a second Snow novel.

Down to No Good, by Earl Javorsky (Story Plant):
This paranormal noir gives one the sensation of walking through a darkened room, stepping tentatively with care and trepidation so as to not trip over the furniture, bang one’s head, and be cast as a fool. But once readers wrap their minds around Javorsky’s darkly blithe thriller and sense the geography of the world he has created, the humanity of his narrative will draw them in as quickly and completely as did Thorne Smith’s Topper series. A follow-up to 2014’s Down Solo, this new novel finds ex-junkie and single-dad private investigator Charlie Miner still adapting to his Twilight Zone metabolism, which allowed him to survive being shot dead by multiple bullets. After hearing a “voice” tell him how to heal his wounds, he arose from a slab at the morgue, stole clothes from a corpse, and kept on keeping on. Not only did Miner resurrect himself, but he now possesses another superpower: the ability to leave his body and “roam.” Miner can also enter the bodies of others, “like a hermit crab, taking over an abandoned home.” In Down to No Good he is called in to help his old pal, Los Angeles Homicide Detective Dave Putnam, after Tamara Gale— “psychic to the stars” —begins giving the media vital information about several murders, making the LAPD appear clueless. Putnam, who is privy to Miner’s extraordinary secret, wants the P.I. to gather some insights into Tamara and Philip, her unctuous and lethal husband, who’ll stop at nothing to promote themselves. You might think Miner’s skills would make him the perfect crime solver. But Javorsky tempers his protagonist’s abilities with discretion. Miner isn’t given an all-access pass to every room or person—he is nowhere near that cartoonish. Nor is he so flawed and humanized a character that, like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, he verges on being an antihero. Charlie Miner has a mission—to save lives in order to stay alive—and a sense of humor that makes him an engaging enigma.

The Fallen, by Ace Atkins (Putnam):
Ace Atkins has definitely made it in the world. The Robert B. Parker estate commissioned him to take over the long-running Spenser series of private eye novels. He’s won the Edgar Award three times, and is a respected journalist. Yet The Fallen—the seventh book in his series starring Quinn Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger and current sheriff of Mississippi’s Tibbehah County—is proof that success hasn’t spoiled Atkins, and that his man Colson will be around for some time to come. The story finds Colson on the trail of a sophisticated gang of former Marines turned bank robbers, who disguise themselves in Donald Trump masks and warn bank patrons, “Anyone moves and I’ll grab ’em by the pussy.” It’s only their misfortune to knock over the Jericho National Bank, giving Colson clues as to how he might bring their run on financial institutions to a close. The sheriff, though, can’t focus solely on that goal. His old nemesis, Johnny Stagg, a local politician who prospered in the gambling and prostitution business, might have finally been incarcerated, but the vacuum he left behind is promptly filled by one Fannie Hathcock, who’s opened a strip club of her own in Jericho. Then there’s the matter of two missing teenage girls; Colson’s younger sister, Caddy, and the drama of her keeping her nose clean while running an outreach program; the so-called Dixie Mafia and its tentacles reaching all the way to the statehouse; and Maggie Powers, a childhood friend of Colson, whose move to Jericho kicks up romantic sparks. All of this would tax any normal gent’s capacity as a father figure and guiding force in a small town. However, it’s all part of a day’s work for Quinn Colson. Any loose ends Atkins leaves in these pages are intentional, clearing up troubles from previous books and setting traps to be sprung in future entries in this fine series.

Fast Falls the Night, by Julia Keller (Minotaur):
Over a 24-hour period, America’s too-often-ignored opioid epidemic turns a hard-luck former coal-mining town in Raythune County, West Virginia, into a graveyard of dead junkies in Keller’s sixth Bell Elkins novel. Elkins, the county’s chief prosecutor, discovers that cheap heroin flooding the area around Acker’s Gap, the county seat, has been cut with lethal quantities of an elephant tranquilizer, and as more overdoses are reported, it’s up to her and the local sheriff’s department to find the source—as hopeless a task, Keller writes, as “finding a needle—make that a syringe in a hay stack.” EMTs do what they can, treating near-dead junkies with a dwindling supply of Narcan, but residents of the town are conflicted about the plight of these victims, some choosing to do no better than bid them a hateful farewell: “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The sufferers, though—who’ve come to see dope as “the quickest way out of Acker’s Gap”—aren’t all luck-starved white trash; a few are prominent citizens. While the sheriff’s department tries to identify the distributor of these tainted narcotics, Bell Elkins is also struggling with the decision of whether to leave West Virginia, the home to which she returned eight years ago, in order to take a job with a Washington, D.C., law firm. She must contend, too, with her sister, Shirley, who did time for killing their abusive father. An unrepentant alcoholic (“Who needs stained-glass windows if you had liquor bottles on a lighted shelf?”), Shirley here drops a figurative atom bomb into her relationship with Bell; and that information sets up a situation to be dealt with in a coming installment of this series by Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The heroin problem in Appalachia and other rural areas is a hot topic in fiction, but few have handled it as beautifully as this author.

Gangster Nation, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint):
Rabbi David Cohen, the mobster and hit man once known as Sal Cupertine, is back in Gangster Nation, Tod Goldberg’s follow-up to 2014’s wonderfully over-the-top Gangsterland. It’s now September 2001, and although David/Sal has become firmly ensconced in his Las Vegas synagogue and the profitable doings of the Jewish mob, things aren’t getting any easier for him. An obsessed FBI agent (whose associates Sal had killed) is closing in, the plastic surgery on Sal’s face is failing, and the pain he feels for having abandoned his wife and son in Chicago more than three years ago is becoming unbearable—to the point that the former hit man is planning a return to the Windy City. During his time studying the Torah and ministering to the congregants of his Vegas temple, Sal has become a very sage man, wise about the plights of others … as well as his own. “If Sal Cupertine came to Rabbi David Cohen, what would David tell him?” he muses, as he places his predicament onto a larger stage. Yet Cupertine remains a gangster, working the angles whenever he can, convinced that life (and the new PATRIOT Act) is basically a con and a scam. That’s the kind of jaded thinking that might force a man to make mistakes—just what a fake rabbi can ill afford.

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