Tag Archives: crime noir

Blood, bullets,brutality abound in latest from Jeffery Hess

Tushhog, by Jefferey Hess. Down & Out Books. 330 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

Set in 1981 in Fort Myers, Florida and nearby Lehigh Acres, Mr. Hess’s second Scotland Ross novel abounds in blood, bullets, and brutality. Rival crime cadres vie for power, alliances are reshaped, and conditions are such that not taking sides can be an act of courage. Scotland, still mourning the death of his young son, is preoccupied with trying to achieve a life on the right side of the law, but all around him forces are at work to push him over to the wrong side.  

Though he has a sense of right and wrong, Scotland has a history of poor choices. Also, he has difficulty in checking his instinctive reactions to situations that come his way.

Does he have a girlfriend? Well, course. What would a tall, trim, muscular dude be without a beautiful girlfriend? Gorgeous Kyla, his sexy drummer girl, has an independent streak that makes Scotland nervous. He wants to take care of her – to keep her safe. But she has other ideas. Kyla is a fine character, and one can hope that she has a future in the next installment. Like all of us, she keeps secrets. Finding the balance of intimacy and independence is difficult for each of them, and Mr. Hess paints their ups and downs with convincing precision.


For an action novel, this one has a lot of talk. Ordinarily, I would find dialogue this detailed and prolonged to be out of balance with the other elements of story-telling. However, Jefferey Hess has a flair for orchestrating the various voices (characters) he has created, individualizing them and giving their interplay rhythm and force. The voices project social class, ethnicity, education, and personal style. It’s mostly a southern smorgasbord, with a bit of New York and Cuba thrown in depending upon which part of the novel’s criminal spectrum is being represented. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 19, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the September 20 Charlotte County edition and the  September 13  Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Tushhog

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Satisfied vengeance casts a pitch-black glow

Black Hammock, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 192 pages. Hardcover $28.95.

With his newest and noirist thriller, Michael Wiley pretty much forsakes traditional detective story plotting and follows a protagonist on his personal vendetta. The protagonist, Oren, has gathered up a small group of his well-armed friends with the goal of murdering his mother Kay and her husband Walter. He wants it to be a slow, painful death. He is sure that the couple, who have a home on isolated Black Hammock Island in northeastern Florida near the Georgia border, had killed his father, Amon Jakobson, eighteen years ago, effectively abandoning Oren to an uncertain fate when he was only eight. BlackHammockCover

A local Sheriff’s Office detective, Daniel Turner (for whom Mr. Wiley’s mystery series takes its name), has had a continuing interest in the unsolved disappearance of Amon that is stirred up by the arrival of Oren and his vigilante crew. Because Turner is identified with Jacksonville in Wiley’s earlier Turner novels, Black Hammock is no doubt to be imagined as part of the Jacksonville/Duval County united government. How Oren executes his plan and how his actions affect others are the novel’s principle centers of interest. Bringing to life a rural, off the grid culture is another. Revealing the hard life of Amon is a third.



Mr. Wiley handles his exposition by alternating two narrators. One is Oren, telling his own story (and his father’s) in his own way, at once humorous and threatening. The other is Lexi, the eighteen-year-old bookish daughter of Kay and Walter, who is looking for her chance to get away from the tawdry life at Black Hammock. Lexi’s concern about the future of her mentally disabled younger brother, Cristofer, has probably kept her from leaving the island.

In having Lexi tell her side of the story that begins with Oren’s arrival (he keeps his identity a secret through most of the story), Mr. Wiley allows her to stand in for the reader. Her questions and suspicions about what this strange, intelligent, erratic fellow is doing by invading her home directs the reader’s interest, sympathy, and judgement.

For each narrator, and for the other important characters, Mr. Wiley has developed a distinctive voice. In fact, the book’s impact in large part comes from its frequently over-the-top dialogue. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 8, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Black Hammock.

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The king of Jacksonville noir fashions a blazing darkness

Second Skin, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 225 pages. Hardcover $29.95.

When Sheneel Greene, a lovely nineteen year old near-Albino college student, is found dead on property connected with the Phelps Paper Company, the police inquiry seems lackadaisical. Her English teacher, Lillian Turner, was first concerned when Sheneel was only considered missing. She and her husband Johnny Bellefleur, a spiritually and psychological wounded war veteran, feel obligated to pursue the mystery – first of Sheneel’s disappearance and then of her demise. Second_Skin_Cover

Johnny, who for too long served on a Navy hospital ship processing deceased soldiers’ bodies and body parts for burial, runs a missing persons detective agency. Alone, he staffs a shabby office made available through the influence of his police detective brother-in-law, Daniel Turner. Yes, this is the character whose name labels this distinctive mystery series.

The attempt by Lillian and Johnny to investigate together serves as a vehicle for healing their troubled relationship, but it turns into a monstrous adventure the stress and violence of which promise to destroy them. Johnny, whose nightmares are full of death even without this current undertaking, will have plenty of reasons to seek the skills of his VA counsellors. He and Lillian are pursuing deadly secrets. Sheneel had enough knowledge of Phelps doings to be dangerous. So did her brother Alex, who also becomes a victim.

Now Johnny and Lillian are dangerous as well, and as the Phelps kingpin and his son make too clear, they are bringing danger upon themselves by getting near the answers to those secrets, if not hard evidence.

Secrets like how did a Gullah community that once lived on land now controlled by the paper company disappear? What has compromised the health of so many who live nearby? Why do people who are exploited retain a bond of loyalty to those who exploit them? How can a major local employer in today’s United States actually own law enforcement?



Will Daniel Turner get serious about investigating these deaths, or is he a bought cop?

Johnny’s dog brings a major clue: Percy drops Sheneel’s hand and arm, her pale skin bearing the “tattoo of a snake circling to bite its own tale,” beside his master. This image, found elsewhere in the story, is laden with symbolic overtones. Not a self-amputation, the tattooed limb was cleanly cut from her body and left to be found as a warning. It’s clear now that her death was no suicide. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 28, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 29 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Second Skin

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Florida noir trilogy wraps up with a big bang

The Big Hello, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 215 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Michael Lister is the bard of the Florida Panhandle. His crime novels, distributed through several ongoing series, set a very high standard for originality, style, and impact. The Big Hello, the third and final installment in the Soldier series, features an ex-cop private eye named Jimmy “Soldier” Riley who is at once as tough as they come and as filled with romantic longing as anyone should be. In this series, both homage to and fulfillment of the hard-boiled Florida noir tradition, the story line is drenched with death. BigHelloLow

However, the story line – easy to follow in some ways – is also something of a problem. In this chase to save the woman of his dreams, if in fact she is alive, Jimmy is tangled up in a chase after the super-perverse serial killer who abducted her. One thing is clear: Lauren Lewis in not in her grave!

One-armed Jimmy and his sidekick, a one-eyed Negro named Clip, are regularly arrested by members of the local constabulary (the action runs back and forth between Panama City and Tallahassee during the early 1940s), some of whom are competent, others less so, and others corrupt.

The number of characters juggled in a relatively short book, the nonstop mayhem, and the sketchy development of back story, can leave readers disoriented. I’m thinking this book is best enjoyed by those who have read the two previous volumes in the series, “The Big Goodbye” and “The Big Beyond.” Yet it is highly enjoyable, though a bit perplexing, in itself.

Perhaps the sense of chaos and disorientation is deliberate:

“What’s our next move?” Clip asked.

                We were standing back over near the ambulance again, waiting on Collins.

                “I have absolutely no idea.”

                He nodded and seemed to think about it. “And how is that different from any other time?”

                I managed a smile.

                He was right. That was the job. Stumbling around in the darkness, being lied to and misled by some while others attempted manipulation, intimidation, and bribery, all while not giving in, not giving up.

Okay, I can groove on this.


The book has many spectacular scenes, including the gallery of macabre art by the serial killer, Flaxon De Grasse, who juxtaposes body parts in his surrealistic compositions (or decompositions). In portraying wartime Northern Florida, Mr. Lister projects – without excessive, show-off detail – the feel of the cars on the pre-Eisenhower roadways, the roadside saloons, motels and other accommodations, and the countless stops at payphones.

Jimmy and Clip comprise an odd couple, a black and white pair unusual in this time and place. Their respect for and loyalty to one another and their handling of situations in which Clip is disrespected or blocked from access are handled by the author with just the right touch. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 27, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 28 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Big Hello

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Cement Shoes and Speakeasies


“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.” So opens Dennis Lehane’s masterpiece of noir crime, Live by Night, a novel that features all of the classic features of the genre, including bank robbery, mobsters, speakeasies, murder and jail time, and which continues in this dramatic style as Joe’s history and the path that led him to his meeting with Emma Gould and finally to this unhappy ending are revealed.

Live by Night

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane is a classic gangster novel set during the Prohibition era, in which the author enables a member of the Coughlin family he first introduced to readers in his earlier novel, The Given Day, to follow in his own footsteps by leaving Boston for Florida. Lehane traveled south to attend university, and has more recently been attached to Eckerd College as writer-in-residence, but his protagonist makes the move for less academic reasons.  LehaneCover

Joe Coughlin was a minor character in The Given Day, which focused on his older brother and their cruel, distant father, who is a major figure in the Boston police force. Joe comes into his own in this book. He has become an appealing character, partly as a result of the sympathy generated by his mistreatment at the hands of his father, who at one point encourages police officers to beat his son after he is taken into custody, but also because of his own philosophy. Joe sees himself as an outlaw, living outside of any established set of conventions, and it is when he is living up to this philosophy that he is at his best as a character.

From Outlaw to Crime Boss

The early parts of the book begin in Boston, where Joe comes into conflict not just with his police captain father, but also with a local gangster, Albert White, whose speakeasy Joe robs, and whose girlfriend, Emma, he steals after they meet during the stickup. He ends up in prison, where he finds a mentor in fellow inmate, Maso Pescatore, who grooms Joe to take control of his bootlegging operations in Florida.

Upon his release, Joe heads down to the eclectic Ybor City, where he sinks into an even darker lifestyle fighting with rival gangs for control of the trafficking routes through Tampa, and clawing his way to the top through his failure to respect the way things are done by the local gangs. Joe sees himself as unrestricted by the laws and conventions of either the police or the gangsters, and this enables him to team up with some Cuban suppliers and build an empire supplying alcohol to most of the Gulf Coast.

As we know from the very first line, this success will not last forever, and in fact, it helps to lead to his downfall. Joe feels that it has deprived him of his outlaw status, and worries that he is beginning to “live by day” and becoming one of the rule-makers, leading his rivals to start seeing him as turning soft as he undergoes the somewhat convenient mid-life redemption crisis, that leads back to that striking opening scene.

A Master of Crime


Live by Night is clearly the work of an author who has mastered the genre and who knows how to keep his readers’ attention, although it is Lehane’s precise prose that really sets his work apart and gained this book the Gold prize for fiction in the 2012 Florida Book Awards. Many of his phrases and chapter headings are just as striking as the opening sentence, and there are some stunningly evocative images, such as the description of lightning carving “jagged white veins in the skin of the world.” Although the main character seems rather undermotivated at times, this is perhaps symptomatic of the ennui of the era in which the story is set and the effects of a life surrounded by alcohol, addiction and crime. Lehane carefully reveals the complex structure of the criminal underworld, while also showing a sensitivity to the impact it has on individual characters, through the breakdown of families and disconnection with society that is so often indicative of alcohol abuse.

This world of Prohibition smuggling is one that Lehane adapts to easily as an author, perhaps because of his previous work as a television writer, dealing not just with this era, as part of the writing team for Boardwalk Empire, but also with other forms of addiction and drug crime, writing for The Wire and his new film project based on the Silk Road online black market. It is easy to see parallels between the characters and situations in Live by Night and modern crime stories revolving around drug trafficking.

Lehane’s previous experience as a screenwriter is also apparent in the cinematic quality of his writing, which fits very well with the crime genre, particularly in the dramatic action scenes that keep the pace moving and contain plenty of violence and plotting to satisfy aficionados of the crime genre. This visual style probably helped ensure that Live by Night was picked up by Warner Brothers for development as a film even before it had been released as a book, but readers may be more interested to know that Lehane plans to write a third book in the series, based around the Coughlin family.

Note: the final link provided in Clair Hooper’s review is an example of her desire to bring attention to causes she champions. Accepting it as part of her contribution to this website was a condition of its availability for publication.

Would you like to be a guest reviewer? Contact me at pkjason@comcast.net.


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