Monday, December 13, 2021

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2021,
Part I: 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.

Smoke, by Joe Ide (Mulholland):

This fifth book starring Isaiah “IQ” Quintable finds the Los Angeles troubleshooter having just about had it, after sleuthing his way through four previous outings. With a price on his head, chased from L.A. by gangs, and exhibiting signs resembling PTSD, IQ decides to hit the road (“He didn’t want to be IQ anymore”), and who can blame the guy. His sidekick, sometime-dealer Juanell Dodson, whose comic-relief escapades are an important ingredient in the recipe that makes this series hum, feels left in the lurch by IQ’s departure, and a bit disgruntled. It gets worse for him (or perhaps more interesting) when Gloria, the mother of Dodson’s baby mama, puts her foot down hard on the shiftless lover: get a straight job or get gone. Meanwhile, an escapee from a mental hospital breaks into IQ’s retreat in a small Northern California town, searching for a serial killer, and a hit man IQ once sent away to prison is released—and sets his malevolent sights on Grace, IQ’s one-time girlfriend in Long Beach, California. IQ’s “experiment with this relaxation thing” is a complete failure, as he is once again dragged into a cesspool of someone else’s making. For his part, Dodson (“Some people think outside the box. Dodson had no box”) will have to “learn how to be white,” as he lands a job with an advertising agency, the perfect spot for a hustler with a sense of humor. The only question that remains is, when will IQ and Dodson, the creations of former screenwriter Joe Ide, become characters in a movie of their own? There’s no doubt we haven’t seen the last of IQ, though Ide’s next novel will be The Goodbye Coast (Mulholland), a Philip Marlowe yarn due in February 2022.

Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron):

This is one odd couple who ought to be taken seriously. Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins are aging ex-cons who have managed to stay out of trouble for many years. Ike, who’s Black and long-married, has made a good go of it as a landscaper; Buddy Lee, who’s white and divorced, “a lean and weathered piece of work,” lives hand to mouth in a decrepit trailer. When their respective gay sons became an interracial couple, they didn’t consider it any cause for celebration; life just went on. But then those two young men—intelligent and accomplished, with a small adopted daughter—are murdered in what appears to be an execution. Ike and Buddy Lee find themselves flooded with remorse for not having accepted their sons’ life choices. Their rage can barely be controlled: Buddy Lee threatens to gut his landlord over a late rent dispute, and Ike’s blood chills when the preacher speaking at the funeral refers to the dead boys’ “abominable sins.” This gray-haired pair eventually decide that the best response to their loss is to combine forces and seek frontier-style retribution. “Ike wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty,” Cosby writes. “He wasn’t afraid to spill blood. He was afraid he wasn’t able to stop.” As the fathers focus their fury on tracking down their sons’ slayers, they are pursued by gang bangers as well as by a pack of white-supremacist motorcycle punks. Slowly but surely, Ike and Buddy Lee work their way up the food chain to the person who really called the shots in their sons’ killing. Set in rural Virginia, just like Cosby’s debut novel, Blacktop Wasteland (2020), Razorblade Tears is filled with pain and regret, violence and a remarkable humanity.

Felonious Monk, by William Kotzwinkle (Blackstone):

The perfect place to take it on the lam, or to atone for killing another man in a bar fight, would have to be a Mexican monastery—which is exactly where renowned novelist-screenwriter William Kotzwinkle (Doctor Rat, The Game of Thirty) sends former bouncer Tommy Martini, now known as Brother Tommy, the scion of an American crime family. Twenty-six years old, with an anger-management problem, Tommy has spent half a decade sequestered in that monastery, trying to live a life of peace and chastity. But he gets into trouble when he intercedes between a cartel enforcer and a young boy that enforcer is trying to recruit. Then his retired (and crooked) parish priest uncle, Vittorio—who always understood that while money may be the root of all evil, it’s a necessary commodity to have in quantity—passes away in Phoenix, Arizona. Tommy decides to attend the funeral, which leads to more problems. He is named as the sole beneficiary of his uncle’s sizable estate, and Tommy’s Mafia-connected relatives take that fact pretty hard, all except for his philosophical cousin Dominic. Part comedian, part devil’s advocate, Dominic tosses away Tommy’s anger-management medication (“Rage. It’s good for you,” he asserts), and wants nothing more than to help his brawny cousin … and perhaps turn Tommy into a mixed martial arts fighter in Las Vegas. When a gangster demands million of dollars from Tommy—a debt he says Vittorio owed him, as the result of a shady real-estate deal—it’s finally time to crack some skulls. And plenty of those soon come Tommy’s way, along with assorted mob assassins, Chinese goons, and a sexy new-age cult leader who is intrigued by Tommy’s chastity vows and believes aliens are actively invading human bodies. Tommy reasons that Vittorio has sent him on a quest, and though he can’t figure out the goal, he’s sure he will recognize it when he sees it. Filled with wit, satire, double-crosses, and corpses in need of disposal, Felonious Monk is the first book in a planned series.

Double Solitaire, by Craig Nova (Arcade Crimewise):

Quinn Farrell is a man with a good head on his shoulders. He’s also a fixer: he makes trouble go away, trouble plaguing wealthy and powerful people. For his endeavors, he is remunerated handsomely. It’s lucky that he lives in Los Angeles, where noir rules and where the peccadilloes and stupidity of deep-pocketed Hollywood players are fodder for tabloids and wagging tongues—precisely the sorts of things Quinn tries to eliminate. Terry Peregrine is handsome and vain, an actor who craves underage girls … until one comes around who knows how to put the shake in shakedown. After another of Peregrine’s pick-ups goes missing, Quinn takes it upon himself to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, he grows close to a new neighbor, Rose Marie, who works with terminally ill teenagers. Quinn long ago constructed an ethical frame within which he can live with his actions. However, his exposure to Rose and her youthful charges, whose health difficulties make the self-inflicted problems of famous rich people seem trifling, forces him to reassess his moral choices. Think Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) in the Coen brothers’ 2016 comedy, Hail, Caesar! (a character also profiled in 2004’s The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine, by E.J. Fleming.) Double Solitaire is the opening installment of a projected series.

Finally, one work from the non-fiction stacks …

True Raiders: The Untold Story of the 1909 Expedition to Find the Legendary Ark of the Covenant, by Brad Ricca (St. Martin’s Press):

Indiana Jones (or someone very much like him) lives on in this tale of early 20th-century treasure hunters seeking that holiest of all holy relics, the Ark of the Covenant. In 1909, a Finnish scholar named Valter Juvelius, who supposedly possesses a secret code he discovered in the Old Testament, approaches a British nobleman by the name of Montague “Monty” Parker. Together with American heiress-socialite Ava Astor (touted at the time as the “most beautiful woman in the world”), Juvelius convinces Parker to gather up a contingent of colorful adventurers, and undertake a clandestine excavation among the caves and tunnels located outside Jerusalem’s ancient city walls, in search of the artifact. That enterprise ultimately ended in controversy and outrage, and left Parker and company empty-handed. It wasn’t until 1922, and the unearthing of Egyptian pharaoh King Tut’s tomb, that archaeologists basked in a discovery of historical magnitude on the order of what Juvelius and Parker had promised. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, the Ark seems ever to fly beyond the range of big-dreamers who pursue it. Ricca, who previously wrote Olive the Lionhearted (2020) and Mrs. Sherlock Holmes (2017), employed recently uncovered and newly translated documents to help him reconstruct Parker’s forgotten exploits.

Other 2021 Favorites: Pickard County Atlas, by Chris Harding Thornton (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux); A Blizzard of Polar Bears, by Alice Henderson (Morrow); Blood Grove, by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown); City on the Edge, by David Swinson (Mulholland); and Relentless, by Mark Greaney (Berkley).

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

When I see a list that has only male writers, I discount its value.