Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE SUNDOWN SPEECH by Loren D. Estleman

The Sundown Speech is the most recent entry, 25th overall, in Loren Estleman’s justly celebrated Amos Walker private detective series. Dante and Heloise Gunnar were swindled out of $15,000 by a would-be director named Jerry Marcus. Jerry hooked the couple for an investment in a film dubiously titled Mr. Alien Elect, and when he stopped returning telephone calls the couple contacted Walker. It is a straight missing person case and Amos reluctantly takes it; reluctantly because the Gunnar’s, particularly Heloise, are off-putting to his working class sensibilities, and all the leads are in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A scant 45 minutes from his beloved Detroit, but worlds apart—

“The place looked as far away from the Motor City as Morocco.”

The setting is post 9/11, but not by much. The preamble is as cool and stylish as anything I’ve read:

“Roll the clock back a dozen years, maybe more; Michael Jackson was still alive, Iris, too. I could walk all day without limping. Tweet was bird talk, the chain bookstore was the greatest threat to civilization since ragtime music, and the only time you saw a black president was in a sci-fi film. Going back is always a crapshoot.”

And it only gets better. Amos Walker is his usual smart ass and hard-boiled self, and the mystery is something of a locked door job. This time, however—and not to give too much away—the locked door is in the police forensics lab. The supporting cast is college town unusual; big and brassy while lacking experience and boasting excessive aspirations. A photographer who photographs nudes in public places not minding the accompanying public decency ticket and bail money for his model. The local police have a thing for writing parking tickets, and the detective working the case keeps giving Amos a polite, but resolute “sundown speech”—thanks for your help, please go back to Detroit. Amos doesn’t much want to stick around either, but the facts keep him there as the case turns more and more serious, and more and more curious.

This review originally went live on Ed Gorman's blog December 22, 2015.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

SPLIT IMAGE by Ron Faust

Split Image is best read cold, and this review is loaded with spoilers. Read ahead at your own peril and rest assured it is fantastic.

“It occurred to me—and this was my first conscious thought upon ‘awakening’—that the crows did not object to the carnage. Of course not. They were scavengers and were impatiently waiting their opportunity. Even so, I could not entirely dispel the notion that they were judging me—small black magistrates, feathery clerics.”

The idea is Andrew Neville’s; a failed playwright, three early critical successes and nothing since, making his living as an editor of a corporate newsletter. On a whim he travels to the woods of northern Wisconsin to the primitive hunting cabin of a friend. It is autumn, and deer are in season. He takes an old bow and its matching arrows from the cabin. He doesn’t expect a kill, but when a buck cuts his trail a lusty greed overtakes him. The deer is wounded, and while tracking it Andrew comes to a man cleaning a buck.  

Andrew believes the deer is his, but the man calmly and reasonably claims it. The two have a cold exchange of words; at the end Andrew kills the other. He doesn’t remember the actual killing, but Andrew knows he did. He cleans up the cabin, disposes of the clothing and other evidence and returns to Chicago. A few days later he learns the man’s identity, and realizes, for the first time, he once knew the man. They were in the same theater company, and while Andrew failed as a writer his victim found significant success in Hollywood.

Andrew, after meeting his victim’s widow at the funeral, calculatingly insinuates himself into the dead man’s life. He moves into the boat house on his wooded estate, wears his clothes, befriends his only child, and smoothly woos his wife. The only hold up is a despicable man named Roland Scheiss—

“‘Scheiss means ‘shit’ in German, doesn’t it?’”

—hired by the murdered man’s parents to prove his widow, and by extension, Andrew Neville killed him. Scheiss is loathsome. He is filthy, crude, and corrupt. His game is blackmail, and he begins calling Andrew at odd moments of the night threatening, cajoling, taunting. Andrew remains calm, but his sanity begins to unravel; he converses with his victim in the dark hours, and small meaningless events begin to weigh heavily, and finally his narrative turns suspect; is the tale truly as it is being told, or is the reader being deceived?

Split Image is a fine novel. It is dark, riveting, and curious. It is as much literature as commercial. It weaves an enticing mixture of Edgar Allan Poe—think “The Tell-Tale Heart”—Alfred Hitchcock, and a 1950’s Gold Medal novel. Andrew Neville is a cold, almost empty narrator, who is as interesting, and enigmatic as any character in popular literature. The prose is sparse, poetic and meaningful. It is also satisfying, thought-provoking, and damn good.      

Split Image is Ron Faust’s tenth published novel. It was published in 1997 by Forge as a hardcover. It is currently available as a trade paperback and ebook from Turner Publishing.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Mystery Scene Reviews: Issue No. 145

The latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine—No. 145—is at a newsstand near you. The issue is packed, as usual. It features an in-depth article about eleven non-mystery novelists—Stephen King, Louis L’Amour, J. K. Rowling, etc.—who wrote one or more excellent private eye novels, an interview with Marcia Clark and much more.

Issue No. 145 also includes two book reviews by, um, me. The titles: Not Dead Enough by Warren C. Easley and We Were Kings by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy. Not Dead Enough is an entertaining mystery featuring Cal Claxton, former big city prosecutor turned small town lawyer, set in rural Oregon. We Were Kings is a big, in both length and complexity, noirish crime novel set in 1954 Boston. The reviews are available online at Mystery Scene’s website—click the book titles above.

Mystery Scene is available at many newsstands, including Barnes & Noble, and available for order at MS’s website.