Best Books of 2013

I apparently read a sizable amount of crime-fiction this year. Although I love capital ‘L’ literature, various science-fiction, and fantasy, I spent 2013 nestled in the breast of violence and mayhem-fiction. That said, these are the creme of the crop. The best of the best. The essential five.

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The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The girl who wouldn’t die – hunting a killer who shouldn’t exist.

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras, leaving anachronistic clues on their bodies, until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and turns the hunt around.

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Joyland by Stephen King

As I hit the midpoint of the Joyland, Stephen King’s latest novel, I began to fret that I missed the plot. Based on the gorgeous Glen Orbik cover and flavor text, I anticipated a ghastly killer fun-house or a crazed madman ripping through teens like cotton candy. What I didn’t expect was the most profound reminiscence of youth and growing up since King’s The Body (later titled Stand By Me).

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Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Collins’ original fiction is a blast and I cannot speak enough about my love of his work. Quarry and Ms Tree are two of my all time favorite characters. His CSI tie-in novels are better than the shows. Hell, I even read the novelization of Waterworld because his name was on it. But his historical fiction rises above ‘em all. I find them so in-depth, well researched, and well-crafted, that I wish history teachers took such care and love for the eras they talk about. Sure, I know that this is fiction. I’m not pretending much of this is real, but I know that he creates such a gorgeous overview of the time that it drips with realism.

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The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson

Boo Malone lost everything when he was sent to St. Gabriel’s Home for Boys. There, he picked up a few key survival skills; a wee bit of an anger management problem; and his best friend for life, Junior. Now adults, Boo and Junior have a combined weight of 470 pounds (mostly Boo’s), about ten grand in tattoos (mostly Junior’s), and a talent for wise-cracking banter. Together, they provide security for the Cellar, a Boston nightclub where the bar-tending Audrey doles out hugs and scoldings for her favorite misfits, and the night porter, Luke, expects them to watch their language. At last Boo has found a family.

But when Boo and Junior are hired to find Cassandra, a well-to-do runaway slumming among the authority-shy street kids, Boo sees in the girl his own long-lost younger sister. And as the case deepens with evidence that Cassie is being sexually exploited, Boo’s blind desire for justice begins to push his surrogate family’s loyalty to the breaking point. Cassie’s life depends on Boo’s determination to see the case through, but that same determination just might finally drive him and Junior apart. What’s looking like an easy payday is turning into a hard bounce—for everyone. (from Tyrus Books)

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Skinner by Charlie Huston

A combination of Le Carré spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy from the novelist hailed by the Washington Post as “the voice of twenty-first century crime fiction,” Skinner is Charlie Huston’s masterpiece—a new kind of thriller for a new kind of world. (from Mulholland Books)

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

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 Seduction of the Innocent
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime

 

I was working for a rare book dealer when I came across a volume of the 1955 U.S. Congress Committee on the Judiciary Volume of Juvenile Delinquency: Comic Books, Motion Pictures, Obscene and Pornographic Materials, and Television ProgramsIt was a volume (some 1,000 pages) of committee transcriptions dealing with how these monstrosities will infect American youth like some horrible drug. It sought to curb the temptation set up by the comic industry by making crime and evil so damn seductive.  For impact, there are transcripts  from purveyors, priests, parents, and victims.

My favorite bit comes from the Code of Comics Magazine Association of America (adopted 26 Oct. 1954):

“The comic-book medium, having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities…
To make a positive contribution to contemporary life , the industry must seek new areas for developing sound, wholesome entertainment.”

Of course transcipts continue to allude to an American tradition of decency and fairness. Since most of these Senators are from Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas, and this is pre-60’s Civil Rights, I was never sure whose vision of American tradition they wanted preserved. I can make good solid guesses though.

Anyway, when I saw that Max Allan Collins was releasing his third Jack and Maggie Starr novel through Hard Case Crime I was pretty damned thrilled. When it was revealed that it would be a fictional attack on Dr. Frederick Wertham (the McCarthy of Comic Books) I was down-right ecstatic. Wertham firmly believed that he could save the world from the savagery of comic-books and did his best to see the industry crippled. He would save The Children by waging a war on a magazine stands of filth threatening to destroy a generation of adolescents. So, an imaginary comeuppence at the hands of master story teller Max Allan Collins seemed like the best possible way to spend a few hours.

And it was.

Collins’ original fiction is a blast and I cannot speak enough about my love of his work. Quarry and Ms Tree are two of my all time favorite characters. His CSI tie-in novels are better than the shows. Hell, I even read the novelization of Waterworld because his name was on it. But his historical fiction rises above ’em all. I find them so in-depth, well researched, and well-crafted, that I wish history teachers took such care and love for the eras they talk about. Sure, I know that this is fiction. I’m not pretending much of this is real, but I know that he creates such a gorgeous overview of the time that it drips with realism.

The most shocking part though, is the care that Collins takes to create Dr. Werner Frederick (the fictionalized Wertham) as a victim. Collins recognizes that in order to have a true crime the reader must give at least one care about the victim’s untimely death: Otherwise, most of the comic community would probably cheer, applaud, and stop reading midway through. Collins’ job, to make a victim of an industry’s greatest nemesis (until Tipper Gore of course) is nigh impossible. Especially considering that whenever the Starrs are on the page all attention turns to them (I’m convinced he could write a Russian play with just these two bantering and I’d read it). Not only does Frederick’s death need to mean something, but it should also seem more important than the charisma of the protagonists. It is the moment when Dr. Frederick is in his inner-city office confronting a boy with a knife that  Collins wields his power as an author. It is a moment which highlights the fact that as misguided and destructive as Wertham was, he was still  human.

Seduction of the Innocent is an absolute must-read for a fan of comic history, wise-cracking investigators, and fans of historical fiction.

Hard Case Essentials Part II

Long ago I started a list of some absolute must-owns from Hard Case Crime. With a bevy of great new novels coming out in the next six months, I thought I’d help you build a back catalogue.

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5. Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins
I love Max Allan Collins and of his two greatest protagonists, the first is Ms Tree.
There aren’t enough Ms. Trees in the world. This is her only prose novel but you can ebay the comics. Its worth it.

Based on the longest-running private-eye comic book series of all time, DEADLY BELOVED brings you an all-new adventure of the legendary Ms. Tree—the groundbreaking female P.I. who put the ‘graphic’ into graphic novel…

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4. Fright by Cornell Woolrich
Set in 1915, this ye olde crime noir is high on suspense and .. Fright. Here an ‘Everyman’s’ error leads to murder in this, one of Hard Case’s darkest and most compelling reprints.

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3. The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins
Quarry is a hitman hunting hitman (and my absolut favorite Collins creation). What I love about this series is the pure ethos. We watch Quarry hunt and stalk his prey with the vigor of a African big game hunter and believe  this is the life of a hitman. Don’t look for the ‘Heart of Gold’ part, Quarry is one of the biggest and most vicious bad-asses since Parker. I will say that I can’t help but grabbing a can of Coke and sandwich every time I pick up a Quarry book. Read it, you’ll see.

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2. Memory by Donald Westlake
Not necessarily noir or hardboiled, this, Westlake’s last  novel, is a moving tale about a man attempting to rebuild his life after a near death beating. Advertisers used to scream ‘not for the feint of heart’, but this one is for the tough guy with too much heart.

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1. Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake
Life sucks for cabbie Chet Conway, but when a horse pays off he thinks he’s on easy street. Until his bookie ends up dead and life starts to suck even worse.  This comic novel from Westlake is the book I give to people starting out in noir. It contains all of the elements of a great crime drama, but with an ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of the genre. Damn, I love this book. Plus, it has one of the sexiest covers of the Hard Case line…except this one…

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I mean, who doesn’t love a paramilitary gal?

Deadpool Killustrated and Frederic Wertham

Long ago there was a prevelent thought that kids couldn’t learn from comics.

This, of course, is a myth. With Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that idea has shifted. Incidentally, and hoping to fill the audience,  I should mention my participation on a panel at the Rhode Island Comic Con about bringing comics into the classroom.

Well, Marvel has decided to push back the clock.
In the best way possible.

In December, Deadpool will be skipping through the literary classics killing various characters and altering our beloved literary canon. Perhaps Moby Dick’s coolest moments now will not just be about Queequag.

On the topic of comics casting a dark shadow over adolescents and warping the minds of the youth, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read is The Ten Cent Plague by David Haju. Its a great window into the 1950’s fear of teenagers and youth via the evil eye-gouging, crypt robbing, torpedo breasted depictions of the lewd in zip tone.

 The Ahab of this voyage to destroy comics and their creators was the nefarious Dr. Frederic Wertham. Wertham, the Tipper Gore of his time, sought to save the youth of America by cleaning up comics…only to see the evil of his ways and recant many years and lawsuits later.

In 2013,  Max Allan Collins turns Seduction of the Innocent into a murder mystery featuring a fictional Wertham…guess who the victim is. The book will also feature 16 pages of Terry Beatty art who you know through Road to Perdition and the criminally out-of-print Ms. Tree. Seriously, Max, please reprint Ms. Tree.

Something Nice – The Comedy is Finished

Me and the new Westlake novel

Donald Westlake – The Comedy is Finished (Free excerpt)
Hard Case Crime

On the outside this has all the trappings of a lurid kidnapping-caper novel. Its got the nude woman on the cover, as well as in the book itself, (I’m still not sure how Barnes and Noble ok’d this and the future HCC novel, Strange Embrace, but that’s their concern), its got blood, and its got the typical in-fighting amongst the criminal element that adds the perfect amount of suspense. What it lacks are the mundane reasons for the kidnapping.

The Comedy is Finished is possibly the best kidnapping novel ever written. USO Comedian, Koo Davis, a thinly veiled Bob Hope, is taken by the People’s Revolutionary Army, a thinly veiled ex-Weathermen, as a bargaining chip for the release of ten leaders of the Revolution. Westlake then spends much of the novel making sense of a post-60’s America. Throughout the novel neither Koo nor the PRA can understand what happened to the innocence of the country and its revolutionary spirit. For an author who wrote some of the most brilliant capers of his time, Westlake  takes on the biggest heist ever; Who stole the American Dream?

What impressed me most was how Westlake remained relatively objective throughout the novel. Both sides are provided ample room to negotiate their rationale. Even the ex-protesters are presented in various shades of intellect and ’60’s characterization. For someone who deals in bullets, Westlake handles each character with such kid-gloves that the reader has no choice but to sympathize with both sides – which means when the bodies start dropping the impact is all the most horrifying.

If it wasn’t for Max Allan Collins, this book may never have seen publication. Thanks, Max for this gift.

2011 – A Year in Pop Culture: Part I

Well, here we are, sitting in the fresh fields of an unblemished new future.

2011 was a great year for me: I got married and went to London, lost 30 pounds, spent another year free from cigarettes, and waded in a veritable ocean of pop culture excellence.

I thought I’d try to once again to attack this blog in a more frequent manner and what better way to start than with a Best of…thing. Here is a perfect jumping on point for new readers and old thyme fans alike.

To those of you who have been riding this ship since the start, feel free to question my intentions; “Aren’t you the guy who hates end of year/best of lists?”.

You can scream and finger wave at me but yes, I’m a slave to the internet peer pressure and I would like to remind you of some of the things we here at the House of Bibliodiscoteque have enjoyed.

Marvel Comics and the latent Sense of Humor:

With all of the serious-adult-minded relaunches over at DC, it seems Marvel’s reaction was to incorporate a smile and wink. That’s right, thanks to writers like Dan Slott, Zeb Wells, Mark Waid, and Jason Aaron, fun has reentered the vocabulary of comics. For too long, too many books have brooded and punched their way onto shelves and forgone levity for ‘intense deconstructions of what makes heroes tick’.

Can 2012 be the year we move beyond hero hatemongers who draw a paycheck from the industry they mock?

WinnersAmazing Spider-man, Daredevil (also supporting the BEST COVER of the YEAR), Avenging Spider-manWolverine and the X-men

Uncharacteristic Female Characters:

There was a great gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing over the new 52 DCUniverse and its *cough* relaunch. From the soft-core ending of Catwoman to Starfire’s newly discovered smuttiness to the pantless first issue of Wonder Woman, it seemed to be a tough year for the ladies of the pop culture world.

Alas, some creators have ventured to step beyond these oversexed stereotypes and provide women who are not only written like women, but also hold their own as action heroes.  Yes, I’m looking at you Christa Faust (Supernatural: Coyote’s Kiss and Choke Hold), Duane Swierczynski (Birds of Prey and Fun&Games), Garth Ennis (Jennifer Blood), and Jason Aaron (American Vampire). With 2012’s Fairest spin-off coming out in a few months, let’s see if it can hold up.

   Winners: Coyote’s Kiss by Christa Faust, Birds of Prey by Duane SwierczynskiRachel Rising by Terry Moore 

Noir is the new Black

I did a small victory dance with the relaunch of Hard Case this year. The promise of new books by Max Allan Collins and Lawrence Block was too much to stoically contain. However, the discovery of Victor Gischler, Image Comic’s Blue Estate, the latest installment of Ed Brubaker’s Criminal series, and the limited edition of Steve Niles Cal McDonald Criminal Tales simply pushed it all over the edge.

 WinnersBlue EstateThe Deputy by Victor GischlerHell&Gone by Duane SwierczynskiChoke Hold by Christa FaustQuarry’s Ex by Max Allan Collins

 

 

 

 

See you around for Part II…

Something Nice – Hard Case Returns

Hard Case Crime’s relaunch at Titan Publishing is officially into its second month with four new novels for fans of Two-Fisted Hard-Boiled detective tales. The flagship title for the relaunch is Lawrence Block’s Getting’ Off: A Novel of Sex & Violence.

Its’ a saucy read (if the cover doesn’t provide that insight the abundance of the c-word should) about Rita the serial killer who has more aliases than Block has pen names and decides to revisit her past love affairs. Imagine a sociopathic retelling of High Fidelity except instead of insightful romantic foibles, Rita wipes hers from the face of the planet. Grade 4/5

The second release, Quarry’s Ex by Max Allan Collins is a perfect entry into the Quarry series full of irony, sarcasm, and violence. Ex-hit-man Quarry, now in possession of his bosses’ list of employees, has found the perfect way to use it to his advantage: find the intended hits and hire himself out a fixer. Not only does he insure their victim’s protection, but for a few dollars more he’ll even make sure you are never bothered again. I can’t rave enough about what a great take this is on the ‘anti-hero redemption’ trope. Quarry doesn’t sacrifice any of his viciousness or aggression, he is simply aimed at a different target. (Mr. Collins, the new direction for Quarry is exciting and engaging, but should you find the time, PLEASE do more Ms. Tree books. The world needs a protagonist like her.) Grade 5/5.

Sadly, I can’t really say the same for Collins’ co-authored Mickey Spillane novel, The Consummata. With a fantastic title and intriguing plot this book sails along aimlessly trying to find a steady gust of wind to sustain it. Morgan the Raider is back and on the run from, well, everyone in the world . While attempting to lay low, he is hired by a groups of Cuban exiles to track down a con man who made off with 75,000 bucks. Morgan wanders around Miami thinking aloud and trying to figure out if he is hunted or hunter. While the action sequences are exciting and worth the read, the build up for the S&M goddess, the mysterious Consummata,  is so obvious the reason for waiting so long to reveal her seems like a convenient way to sustain the story to minimum page length.

As a lover of both Spillane and Collins, I felt this fell flat. I finished it mainly because the plot was so interesting and the settings so well crafted I couldn’t not read it. It just felt as though it really wanted to be a great short story instead of a ‘good’ novel. Grade 3/5.

As for Christa Faust’s Choke Hold, well, I’m saving it for an intended sick day from work when I can read the entire thing without interruption.

Something Nice – The Wheelman Cometh

Sometimes I hit literary speed bumps. There are the novels that look great on the shelf, but after kicking the tires a bit and taking it around the block for a few chapters it tends to bottom out on literary pot holes or simply runs out of gas. It is the lemons that usually send me running back to certain authors who I can trust to get me there in style: Ken Bruen. Christa Faust, Max Allan Collins. Megan Abbott. Lawrence Block. Donald Westlake.

I consider these authors the ‘E’ class luxury machines of the literary world who, as their pages pass by seem to do so in slow motion. The cadence and rhythm of their words echo through the dark empty streets of the imagination. They are reliable, sleek, and get great mileage from the written word.

Today, I am adding another author to this car lot of excellence: Duane Swierczynski. I got to know his stuff mostly through his work on Cable over at Marvel Comics and his implausibly beautiful novel Severance Package. Last night however I decided that, to prepare myself for his forthcoming crime trilogy from Mulholland Books (read an interview between Swierczyncki and Ed Brubaker of Criminal fame), I would reread The Wheelman to get me in the mood.

Swierczynski’s work provides a fine mix between Ken Bruen’s level of violence and James Ellroy’s snappy narrative asides. In The Wheelman, a mute Irish getaway driver rips apart Philadelphia seeking out the Russian mobsters who stole his money and left him for dead. The book screams from one incident to the next without seatbelts and devoid of airbags. It is gritty, violent, and pure escapist fun. Those looking for depth will be left sucking fumes. Incidentally, Swierczynski’s descriptions of Philly’s streets and traffic patterns are more accurate than Google Maps. Should you ever wish to visit the City of Brotherly Love or simply lie and say you have, his novels are second only to the Lonely Planet Guides.

This year, Swierczynski is releasing the first two books of a proposed trilogy. The first is Fun & Games. The second is released at the tail end of the year amidst a plethora of other potentially potent pulps. My recommendation is start early so you don’t get lapped.


Pic Via

Something Nice – M.A.C.

Max Allan Collins not only has a new Hard Case Crime novel coming out this year, but his novel Bye Bye Baby will be released in August.

Like James Ellroy’s American Tabloid this novel dives into the strange depths of American history; A time when the waters of Camelot seemed clean and calm from a distance, but whose murky depths drowned wayward souls.

“It’s 1962, and Twentieth Century Fox is threatening to fire Marilyn Monroe. The blond goddess hires Nate Heller, private eye to the stars, to tap her phone so she will have a record of their calls in case they take her to court. When Heller starts listening, he uncovers far more than nasty conversations. The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia—even the Russians—are involved in actions focused on Marilyn. She’s the quintessential American cultural icon, idolized by women, desired by men, but her private life is… complicated…and her connection to the Kennedys makes her an object of interest to some parties with sinister intentions.

Not long after Heller signs on, Marilyn winds up dead of a convenient overdose. The detective feels he owes her, and the Kennedys, with whom he busted up corrupt unions in the 1950s. But now, as Heller investigates all possible people—famous, infamous, or deeply cloaked—who might be responsible for Marilyn’s death, he realizes that what has become his most challenging assignment may also be the end of him.

PI Nathan Heller returns in his first new novel in a decade, as Max Allan Collins brings to life a vivid star-studded cast, from JFK and RFK to Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, from Jimmy Hoffa and Joe DiMaggio to Hugh Hefner and Sam Giancana. Bye Bye, Baby is a Hollywood tale you never thought could happen…but probably did.”

If you are interested, there is critical look at the cover for this novel over at the Friends/Family/Friends of Max Allan Collins web site. http://www.maxallancollins.com/blog/