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review 2016-12-13 17:31
Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir by Jim Fusilli
Crime Plus Music: The Sounds of Noir: An Anthology of Music-Based Noir - Jim Fusilli,Craig Johnson,David Liss,Val McDermid,Alison Gaylin,Reed Farrel Coleman,Brendan DuBois,Willy Vlautin,Peter Blauner,Naomi Rand,Mark Haskell Smith,Erica Wright,Gary Phillips,Peter Robinson,Galadrielle Allman,Zoë Sharp

Modern life seems to have a soundtrack for everything. Even crime.

CRIME + MUSIC: The Sounds of Noir, collects twenty darkly intense, music-related noir stories by world-renowned mystery authors Brendan DuBois, Alison Gaylin, Craig Johnson, David Liss, Val McDermid, Gary Phillips, Peter Robinson and, from the music world, Galadrielle Allman, author of Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman and award-winning songwriter-novelist Willy Vlautin. Edited by novelist and Wall Street Journal rock and pop music critic Jim Fusilli.

The lively anthology’s chilling, sinister tales tap into the span of rock and pop history, ranging from Peter Blauner’s heart-wrenching “The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon” to Fusilli’s “Boy Wonder,” set in the world of contemporary electronic dance music; from Naomi Rand’s “The Misfits,” a punk-rock revenge saga to Mark Haskell Smith’s menacingly comedic “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.”; from Reed Farrel Coleman’s study of a one-hit wonder, “Look at Me/Don’t Look at Me” to Erica Wright’s account of betrayal among minor talents in “A Place You’re Likely to Find”—and many more.


In the hands of these modern masters of mystery fiction, CRIME + MUSIC exposes the nasty side of the world of popular music, revealing it to be the perfect setting for noir.


*********
 
The biggest reason for me to reading this collection of short stories was that a story by Craig Johnson was included. Unfortunately, it was a story I had already read and not a favorite short story of mine. But, re-reading made me like it better this time. Many of the names in this book were unknown to me, besides Craig Johnson have I previous read books by Alison Gaylin, Val McDermid, and Peter Robinson. So, I was curious to see which stories would work for me. And, I'm really pleased to say that most of the stories in this book were good. Only one or two did not completely work for me, the rest was enjoyable to read.

The big drawback, for me, was so many of the stories was interesting, but I would have loved to read them as full-length novels instead. So many of them had potentials, but often I felt that because of the length did they not really have time to develop the story and its characters. However, what I really liked was that this collection has me a chance to discover several new authors that I want to read more from.

I want to mention some of my favorite stories in this collection. For instance, Played by Death by Bill Fitzhugh is one that I would love to see as a full-length book. A serial killer that stages the victim's death to evoke the title of a classic rock song. That's just awesome! Earworms by Zoe Sharp is also pretty cool. Torture through music, with a twist. Another one is The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon by Peter Blaunder. This one does not really feel like a crime novella, but it's good. The kind of story when, despite being so short you start to care for the character and its characters. Finally The Blackbird by Peter Robinson. That story just grabbed my attention, so tragic, so good!

I want to thank Three Rooms Press for providing me with a free copy through Edelweiss for an honest review!

Contributor Bio(s)

Jim Fusilli is the author of eight novels. He also serves as the rock and pop music critic of The Wall Street Journal and is the founder of ReNewMusic.net, a music website for grownups. He lives in New York City.

Craig Johnson is a award-winning, NY Times Bestselling author, best known for his Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim, and was adapted for a TV series on A&E. He lives in Ucross, WY.

David Liss is a bestselling American novels and essayist, best known for his historical-mystery work including the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Whiskey Rebels. He lives in San Antonio.

Val McDermid is a Scottish crime writer, best known for a series of suspense novels featuring Dr. Tony Hill. She lives in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.

Alison Gaylin is the author of the Edgar-nominated thriller Hide Your Eyes and its sequel, You Kill Me; the standalones Trashed and Heartless; and the Brenna Spector series:And She Was (winner of the Shamus Award), Into the Dark, and the Edgar-nominated Stay with Me. She lives in Woodstock, NY.
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review 2016-01-16 17:48
Dirtbags By Eryk Pruitt
Dirtbags - Eryk Pruitt

Serial killer have a little bit of an image problem, especially of late where terrorists (home grown and imported) and school shooters have taken over the spotlight and media headlines. Sure, there are still a few famous ones; Ted Bundy, William Colton Hughes, or Jeffrey Dahmer comes to mind, but otherwise there is not a lot of interesting bunch of them around anymore.

And it´s understandable, you can´t really go and kill people at random, nope, you need a mission, you need to make a statement, otherwise killing people just because doesn´t really cut it. That is definitely even more of a problem when you´re living in Hickory Town, Bumblefuck, where the jobs are rare, money is tight and besides a strip club not much left for entertainment.

The other problem is as an aspiring serial killer - meet Calvin Cantrell - you need some proper training but where to start? As every successful serial killer knows, you start with killing cats, that´s what you do. Just there is this tiny little problem that your neighbors might get suspicious if their beloved kittens go missing. Not easy. Plus you need a calling card, a recognizable M.O. Just in case you finally are making it into the papers coz you have made a name for yourself that strikes fear into people´s lives. That is important too when you are in and out of Hickory Town, Bumblefuck when you want to become someone when until then you are a no one.

I imagined Calvin back as a young one when some humble school teacher asking the kids what they want to become later in life. We all have been there. A doctor, an astronaut, a ballerina, and Calvin raising his hand, I want to become someone else.

And that is the gist of the novel, those might not be the smartest of the people, their circumstances going downhill a while back when nobody was looking, but still they hold some sort of integrity to their lives and try to make the best of it, even stripping might all they know how to do. Ironically that´s something that ties the characters together, a human treat of making the best out of it even there is not a lot to nothing to begin with.

At the end of the day those are mediocre people doing mediocre things, forgettable, unremarkable normally, if not for Eryk Pruitt giving them a place to shine. Or maybe he doesn´t shine a light on them exactly, but the jury´s still out on that.

Anyway, those are the obstacles Calvin has to deal with, but when opportunity strikes he knew he found his calling. Tied in to a failed school shooter, Philipp, another trailer park reject, he thinks it´s as good as anything to kill Tom London´s ex-wife who caused a little bit of a scene when wanting her son back in her custody. London is the biggest restaurant owner in town and as far as he is concerned the protoype of the good citizen. He simply cannot have it that his ex-wife interferes in his life again. Nope, his second wife wouldn´t want have any of that, and does nobody think of the children? Well, Tom London does.

Now of course if you have shit for brains, are dumber than a big pile of dog poop, and every day is a demon´s christmas carol for you, you are really, truly fucked. And fucked he is, Tom London that is. Mostly by his mistress, Rhonda, and even more so he is fucked over by his second wife Reyna, after things are going downhill fast for him. Not a woman ever to take kindly to adultry, or anything, really, she is out to get him good and proper.

The second chapter, can I call it a chapter?, those dealing with Tom London from his POV is the strongest of the three. He is a loathsome asshole of a restaurant owner, but justifies everything he does with his son. Raising prices or cutting down on the meat, treat his Mexican employers like shit, - because of Jason, obviously as he justifies everything in the name of his son. At first this sounds ridiculous, until it´s starting to just being plain funny. Still, once shit hits the fan I felt pity for him. Nevertheless he deserved all the shit he got in return, just how he got pooped at.. nope, sire, that ain´t right. So fuck you Mr Pruitt for making me care about some asshole.

And that is the biggest accomplishment of Dirtbags, coz D-bags they are all. There are zero saints, and there is a whole lotta lot of games being played, which comes to light more and more. The back and forth between past and present, the crossing and double-crossing takes some and some more. Pruitt, however, takes the satire and runs with it until the point of discomfort. It´s a bit of a distorted mirror where you see some parts that might make you question a thing or two about yourself, hence some sort of an ´it ain´t right´ feeling setting in. Until you start laughing coz it´s really too absurd of what you see.

The last part, those of Rhonda, is the weakest of the lot. Mainly because Pruitt had to fill in the gaps, go further into what role she is playing, being Calvin´s wife and all, and explain more of everything that is happening throughout the novel. So it partially fades simply away, even there is a big show down with a nice twist, and you get a good glimpse into her inner workings and what made her the woman she is today. For that alone it is worth reading though, even the special knack is kinda not there anymore.

The first, roughly, 15%-20% feels a bit lacking in confidence in his writing, maybe, and somehow doesn´t feel as tense and neat as later parts. Just at some point, a particular scene really, everything is falling together, the pieces make click and the writing itself started to surprise me. And I was hooked. The story telling in small and large is great, even the prose gets its tender treatment of poetic, even hellbent, justice. Maybe his #DaddySworeAnOath too to make him a reverend, preaching to the choir and all, but this I do not know.

The three different main POVs, those of Calvin, Tom and Rhonda, could most likely even stand alone as is, as some sort of novellas maybe. Much more fun are they of course as a part of the novel, the often quoted "bigger picture". The humor is black, it´s even ridiculously funny at times, the prose tight and a serial killer novel for people who don´t care one bit about serial killers. Alas, with the bits and pieces about serial killers thrown in arbritarily by Calvin into conversations you can learn a thing or two you missed in classes. Did you know that Ted Bundy rejected his steak before he was getting toasted? Nope? Now you do.

One thing Pruitt was getting right for sure,

"This is a plot convoluted enough for a shitty novelist or a B-movie. Scratch that. No novelist worth his salt would touch this plot."

And that pretty much sums up ´Dirtbags´.

I´m such a fierce bitch that I didn´t even cry, but you know...


NotEvenMad

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review 2016-01-09 17:18
The First One You Expect By Adam Cesare
The First One You Expect - Adam Cesare

"I don´t do science fiction. That´s stuff for fat fags who jerk it to anime girls."

Coz Tony is a horror guy, and that´s one thing that won´t change, you see? Personally I neither care much for Sci-Fi so I wouldn´t know if this is true (sounds gross anyway) nor do I read normally horror books, but I picked up ´The First One You Expect´ because reasons. It´s not straight forward horror but more of a self-ironic take on a micro-budget film maker who does slasher movies, Tony, which moves into Noir/Crime halfway through the book without ever losing its path.

Adam Cesare plays with all the present stereotypes and clichés, and at the same time making fun of them. Tony, the nerd and basement dweller, working in a dead-end job as a cashier in a local, small grocery store; Burt, his co-worker and star as a killer in Tony´s films who is a loner & alcoholic; and Anna, the real pretty girl who will do anything to become famous, including flashing her boobs at a horror con. Sounds familiar, right? At the same I wouldn´t be all that surprised to see those exact stereotypes coming alive right here, right now. They do exist after all, but Cesare doesn´t mock the people - he is probably one of those guys as he sounds like a true fanboy (I´m not complaining!) - but the clichés while using them to his advantage.

And he sure has an huge amount of knowledge of horror movies as there are plenty of references and he seems to depict everything spot on. The movie obsession itself, the collection of any kind of limited edition DVDs & bootlegs or posters available, as much as the people watching and making those movies, but he does so with a smile. That IMO is the greatest strength of this little novella, as Cesare nods lovingly in their direction, but taking the horror/movie parts seriously.

Tony has some delusions of grandeur; mainly via his social media following, making him aware that he plays his audience, while he knows he is being played too, and giving in to what his followers want. The sick shit, the gore stuff, the violence in true slasher style. Not that he doesn´t love that stuff, he does, but maybe he goes a bit more over the top just for them.

The coolest part is probably that Cesare knows what he´s talking about, so obviously Tony and Anna do what so many other artists have done before them in true 21th century media style. They do a Kickstarter to fund their next movie. And of course they need a nice, bloody video to show how serious they are about their project. I can tell you Anna is very, very, VERY serious about it.

Slowly but steadily Tony loses control in their relationship while Anna takes over, and her sociopathic nature shines through and comes out in full force. From rather quiet girl with a lovely smile and girl-next-door ponytail to full blown killer queen in a heartbeat. Talk about method acting. Tony kinda realizes it, more and more so, but he is also fascinated by Anna and of course due his wanting to have a wider recognition as a film maker he just rolls with it. Until he gets dragged into something bigger than a movie. The power struggle, and change of dynamics, within the two is one of the most important and interesting parts to read about. 

Being a typical basement dweller Tony´s relationship to his parents consists more or less of his mom´s sniffing at his Amazon packages of Japanese gore porn, and his dad not talking to him, presumbly because he is such a sick piece of shit. There are moment of self-awareness but those are brief, and easily dismissed. Some of those make Tony likeable, but also someone to loathe. He really is a sick piece of shit, a sorry little loner but there is something sweet about him that I couldn´t be mad at him for long. At least he showers on a regular basis and doesn´t piss in bottles, so hooray for some human decency.

Most surprisingly ´The First One You Expect´ is incredibly funny. A lot of dry and black humor in the narrative voice, graphic but not all to graphic but most of the time extremely subtle with flashed out personalities - my perception of Tony & Anna changed more than once-, and an idea which I think is interesting to watch how it plays out in all its glory. A real wicked little novella. I´m not much of a movie buff myself, but for some odd reason I like to read about movies. The oddball stuff, the small independent stuff no one in his right mind would follow up with. In so far I certainly wouldn´t watch the movies Tony shoots but I sure would read anything I could find about them online.

´The First One You Expect´ is for me as much a horror/crime satire - and a close observation of it - as it is a honorary mention and a tribute of the underground film makers. The one who might not have the funds but have the artistic skills, the imagination, the heart and passion to do what they love the most.

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review 2016-01-08 11:46
Low Down Death Right Easy by J. David Osborne
Low Down Death Right Easy - J. David Osborne

I don´t know if there is something like Bizarro Crime, if not there should be. Low Down Death Right Easy would most likely fit right in. There is something surreal in this book, especially later on where it´s not quite clear if those are simply meth-induced feverish dreams, or the reality and something more sinister, more nefarious is at work. Or maybe it´s just a different take on rural Oklahoma with people with dead end jobs that don´t go anywhere while trying to keep their heads just above poverty line and trying to get by. Drugs, crime, a dead body, the usual ingredients of the classic tale of Crime Noir are there, and still there is something more to it. A gloom/darkness that swallows everything and everyone.

There are two parallel story lines, those of Danny Ames who desperately is on the search for his younger missing brother, Thomas, and those of Arlo & Sepp Clancy. Ames is a bouncer in a rave club/drug addict, one of those figures who owns a room when entering it simply for being who they are. Police is sort of looking in this missing person case, without much enthusiasm, until Ames takes matters into his own hands. A hysterical mother, always just short of a nervous breakdown, needs to be taken care of too; hardly accepting any kind of bad fate that might have happened to Thomas, the good kid in her eyes. Plus there is Rafe, the sociopathic sidekick, which complicates matters further for him.

Later in the story Ames starts to lose some teeth coz he is simply rotten to the core like that. Which describes him pretty perfectly, but all of those characters have a soft side to them, a realistic one which maybe doesn´t make them likeable exactly, but at least one can feel sympathy for them. For the situations they find themselves in, for the decisions they make in their lives. There is an easy path for them, and another one they take and everything has consequences for any of them.

Arlo struggles through his job, his marriage with Jen and day dreaming of moving to another place, another city to be happy again, and trying to keep his brother out of prison. Easy drug money, failed job applications, it ain´t easy. Sepp has just the knack for finding himself into shaddy deals that sooner or later will go wrong. They know this and kinda shrug it off. There is only so much one can do. You see it, you watch it happening, and maybe you should have done more, and maybe you did your best and failed. And then you see the sadness in their eyes...

The most interesting part is probably when the two back to back story lines are clashing and their different worlds collide. One can see how much influence the older brothers actually have over their younger brothers. Both, Danny & Arlo shape and form their siblings in a way, good and bad, and when things are falling apart they spiral downwards fast and easy. Scary shit as I too have an older brother and if I take the story at face value I am pretty much fucked. Thanks for nothing, I guess? Or maybe everything. Nobody lives in a bubble and whatever we do will affect someone´s else life as well.

Osborne´s writing style is minimalistic, or more like he cut off any meat to the bare bones, so the mere essentials are there, but not a lot more. Nevertheless there is a beauty and an eloquence in his prose which I haven´t read before. The narrative voice looks simplistic even it isn´t but carefully crafted to have the maximum of effect. There is nothing show-offish about it, just pure, rough emotions with a lot of subtext, blanks that needs to be filled in. Everything that is unnecessary is removed. Which also makes it partially tough to get into it, and it´s one of those novels where you simply have to hang on. Neither did I find it easy to understand at times what is happening, but I had to read and reread scenes to get a fuller picture even he describes details, emotions, the world surrounding our characters very well. Nor do the dialogues much to bring the story forward. Still, those are real conversations by couples/mothers/sons/brothers, about everyday life and its problems. But once I got the hang of it I felt spit out/broken/torn.

I still haven´t figured out what the title phrase actually means. Low Down Death Right Easy sounds like a Gospel song, but for me the book itself reminded me more of a Blues song with an almost unbearable melancholy at times. And it makes me think why does this dude in his - back then - mid-20´s has so much insight into the human condition? It ain´t right. That´s not the way it is supposed to be, but at the same time everything makes sense. He writes like someone twice his age/too smart for his own good. I wasn´t even half finished with the book when I went out and purchased three other books written by Osborne. I wanted to know who is this guy? But it doesn´t really matter.

However, one of my fave bands is Deer Tick. There is a fantastic live video on YouTube of them playing their song "Ashamed" and when the crowd kicks in and sings along their singer/guitarist John McCauley just smiles, and with a huge shit infested grin shouts back, "You know what I´m sayin´?". And while I keep thinking back to this video I wanna shake and yell at Osborne, no, I don´t!... but I´m ready to sit down and listen.

 

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review 2015-12-12 21:51
Knuckleball by Tom Pitts
Knuckleball (One Eye Press Singles) - Tom Pitts

Hugh Patterson was a cop. He was a good cop. Until he was a dead cop.

While I have no idea what a knuckleball is, and have even less interest to check it out, Pitts uses the ongoing motif of a series of baseball games between the Giants and the Dodgers (no idea about them either) to pull off a intertwining setting of the games and the murder of a cop.

Patterson is a mild mannered cop who hasn´t an inch of cyncism in his bones who walks the beat with his partner, Alvarez, on Mission street in San Francisco. One of the old fashioned cops who believes if only he knows everyone´s name and greet them with a smile they will form some sort of relationship with him, and the police in more general terms. Thugs and drug dealers as those are who move around in the neighborhood.

And then there is Oscar. A 15 year old who lives with his older brother, Ramon, and their mother. A huge Giants fan who hates Ramon as he is tormented by him ruthlessly.

While the cops are looking for the killer, with a description which fits everyone and no one, the dead cop Patterson is made into some kind of larger than life figure and hero by the media and indeed Giants fans alike in the city. One of those deads who will live forever in memories, who normally would be forgotten in a heartbeat. The bloodlust, the cry for vengeance is getting strong with the crowd, and the killer has to be found, blood money and all. Which I found very fitting how it is described without going overboard just once. It simply feels as realistic, even gritty, as possible when compared to media coverage about similar incidents.

Pitts ties everything together very smoothly. The dead cop, his partner, Oscar and his relationship to Ramon and the ongoing search for the cop killer. The smartest move is probably the omniscient POV. Reading through the novella, taking in all the different situations and motivations, makes this particular POV with its lean, smart and ultra-realistic prose just exciting.

It´s crisp, it´s mean, and very, very smart how the story moves forward while Pitts keeps pushing his genuine characters around. Everybody has something to hide. Small things really, or ugly, dark secrets, until they keep spiraling out of control due the circumstances they find themselves in. There is more than one truth in everyone´s words and actions, while the blood is literally flooding the streets, and you can smell the sour, stale taste of beer. Smell the mild scent of the weed smoked in alleys.

Characters screw up, try to hide the fact that they screwed up, and screw up even more. The psychological part, the question of "why?" they do what they do is a huge part of what makes this novella so cool for me. It is inevitable that not every question can, maybe not even should be, answered, but all the pain and the stress of the situations becomes truly alive.

Pitts here clearly is more interested in the characters´ motivations than to talk about "who done it", and the ending is ambigious, open to interpretation, even when clued in about right from the start due this particular narrative technique. It´s dark, it´s bloody, and I guess that´s what you call a homerun.

 

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