Tag Archives: noir

Debut novel explores how low a man can go and still right himself

Beachhead, by Jeffery Hess. Down and Out Books. 322 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

In the time-honored tradition of Florida Noir, this new title is more grit than polish. And, by the way, that’s a good thing. We meet the main character, Scotland Ross, trying to escape from hard times and avoid doing hard time. He is a man with moral awareness, but also with a conflict of honorable and dishonorable loyalties. A series of bad choices has made it difficult for him to turn his life around. Scotland’s parole officer is worried about him, and with good reason.  BeachheadCover

His older sister Dana, to whom he owes a lot going back to their childhood days, has married poorly and is in a big financial bind. Though he needs cash to build a new life for himself, she flaunts her desperation to the point that he gives her what he has and takes dangerous employment to enable her husband’s irresponsibility – or is it just hard luck?

Scotland, a superb physical specimen, finds himself working for the man who would be governor of Florida. Allan Kinsey is a ruthless, all-purpose criminal. Drugs and real estate coexist in his growing empire. How he will make the transition from gangster to governor is clear enough in his own mind: buying influence and subservience with the currency of money, promises, and threats. For some readers, the Kinsey character may seem unrealistic; others will be reminded of a certain presidential candidate who interprets an opinion not his own as a hurtful threat that must be put down.

Hess

Hess

Working for Kinsey is already a violation of Scotland’s parole, but Scotland rationalizes his choice while hoping to find his way out of Kinsey’s snare. When he disappears, attempting to start a new life in an idealized Daytona Beach, he is tracked down by a pair of Kinsey’s henchmen. In a gloriously violent scene, he makes his escape from being captive on a boat.

Mr. Hess is masterful at portraying the criminal types, their outlook on the world, and the peculiar ways in which they justify their actions. Kinsey’s main assistant, a man named Platinum, is an intelligent psychopath, and the twin bookends who almost murdered Scotland are just as crazy but not quite so bright. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 20, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 21 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Beachhead

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Phil’s Spring Review Schedule

Phil Jason loves books

Phil Jason loves books

Below you will find my intended schedule for the “Florida Writers” column in Florida Weekly. Two slots open in June — maybe you book will get one of them! The final decision, of course, rests with the editors of the various editions. Reviews also coming this spring in Washington Independent Review of Books, Jewish Book Council website, and Southern Literary Review. Check back often.

Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods

April 6/7 – Stuart Woods, “Family Jewels”

April 13/14 – Phil Beuth, “Limping on Water”
April 20/21 – Ian A. O’Connor, “The Wrong Road Home”

April 27/28 – Lisa Black, “That Darkness” 

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

May 4/5 – Marty Jourard, “Music Everywhere”
May 11/12 – M. A. Richards, “Choice of Enemies”
May 18/19 – Lucy Burdette, “Killer Takeout”
May 25/26 – D.J. Niko, “The Judgment”
June 1/2 – Lisa Unger, “Ink and Bone”

June 8/9 – Michael Wiley – “Black Hammock” 

Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley

June 15/16 – Howard P. Giordano – “The Second Target”
June 22/23 – TBD
June 29/30 – TBD

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“Casey’s Last Chance,” by Joseph B. Atkins

“Last chance for what?” the eager reader might ask. To make it to the majors? To score big at anything? In this debut novel, it’s this sorry fellow’s last chance to get out from under the debts incurred over a decade or two of minor league hustling and losing. Not talking about sports here, just life. Casey Eubanks has made mistakes – bad choices, really – over and over again. Hey, he may have killed his girlfriend, Orella, or someone else. Or somehow got her killed. He has been on the run.  Casey'sLastChancefinal1-05

Like most fumbling criminals, he thinks that he can change his dismal life by staking it all on one more crime for the payoff he needs to survive – even flourish. His supposed good friend, Clyde Point, puts him onto something . . . truly horrible. Clyde is ready to vouch for Casey to the big crime boss who needs someone assassinated. $500 now, $500 later. Death of you don’t come through. What a deal.

This big Memphis operator, a whole-hearted Nazi named (of late) Max Duren, is involved with illegal everything and even a business, garment manufacture, that could be legal but would make less profit if it followed the rules. And now there might be more rules, and even a union shop, to protect the workers who are viciously exploited. There’s a good-looking young Polish woman, Ala Gadomska, who is stirring things up at Bengal Britches. She’s a courageous, fast-talking labor organizer who must be stopped. Such is Casey’s assignment.

Readers follow Casey through an off-the-highways tour of the American South, circa 1960. It’s time for President Kennedy to turn America into Camelot – but that’s not happening along the routes Casey travels: a network of despairing, grimy small towns with their failed businesses and failed history rooted in slavery’s aftermath.

Atkins

Atkins

Atkins’ eye for unpleasant physical details and their cultural resonance is penetrating. His prose is tonally perfect. His dialogue is uncanny, accurate, and revealing on more than one level.

This is noir country with grits gone cold; sad, confused Casey is its exemplary figure. His one skill – marksmanship. His fatal flaw – some vestigial sense of right and wrong mixed with guilt that wiggles beneath his fear and greed. When the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger.

Having screwed up his last chance, he gets a last, last chance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: Southern Literary Review — January Read of the Month: “Casey’s Last Chance” 

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Travel the meanest streets in this bold, gut-wrenching mystery

Blue Avenue, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.95.

How noir is it? Very. Black on black. Mayhem and murder prevail. Mr. Wiley’s Jacksonville is a place where one encounters an amazingly high percentage of individuals who mete out or receive abuse, suffering, and death.  BlueAvenueCover

Yet, for all the gore and the gruesome rationalizations for evil deeds, the novel is highly magnetic. Gorgeously written with copious sensory detail, “Blue Avenue” attacks our complacency, makes us wish we could turn away from the novel’s norm of brutality, but has us trapped in our own voyeuristic thrill-seeking, tempting us to condone what deserves condemnation.

This is a very fine piece of imaginative writing about very bad people who, unfortunately, we are given the tools to understand. At some level, we are like them. Thus we accept them. Worse, we feel sorry for them.

William “BB” Byrd inherited from his father four gas stations that keep him economically afloat. His real business – actually more of an avocation – is vigilante justice.

BB and is wife Susan occupy separate bedrooms in the home they share with their teenage son, Thomas. Love has been distorted into a bitter accommodation to BB’s disturbing needs. His wife Susan withholds intimacy while BB withholds honesty, security, and fidelity.

BB dreams of Belinda Mabry, the beautiful black girlfriend of his teens. She was an extravagant risk-taker. Belinda, who moved from Jacksonville to Chicago with her parents and disappeared from BB’s life, never disappeared from his thoughts. Now, twenty-five years later, BB learns from Lieutenant Daniel Turner, police detective and former playground friend, that she is dead. (The series is named for Daniel Turner. I haven’t yet figured out why.)

MIchael Wiley

MIchael Wiley

Belinda was found trussed in a peculiar position, wrapped in cellophane, and tossed in a pile of trash. Daniel asks BB to identify the body. He does so, almost vomiting at the gruesome sight. He learns that Belinda is the third in a series of serial killings with the same M.O. The other two women had frequently been arrested for prostitution.

Early in the novel, we learn that BB is a man with a shady reputation, capable of almost anything. Because of the long-ago connection with the Belinda, he could be considered a suspect. When he phones Charles, a man he hadn’t spoken to in eight years, Charles – who shouldn’t know enough to ask – says: “This about Belinda Mabry?” But Charles is the kind of guy who knows about everything dark and ugly, including BB’s deeply troubled past that includes a homicide charge. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 11, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly,the December 17 Fort Myers edition, and the December 25 Bonita Springs and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Wiley

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An edgy tale of self-discovery and the drug trade

Joseph Rakowski, The Delivery Cut. Black Rose Writing. 244 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I was sitting there, prophetically wearing my “Don’t Make Me Take Out My Red Pen” t-shirt, when suddenly I couldn’t resist. “The Delivery Cut,” filled with typos, mangled sentences, and misused words had me clicking that red pen. Could I review this novel? Through the first four chapters I was pretty sure that I would spare my readers whatever I had to say. Then the fifth chapter grabbed me, and was hooked for the rest of the ride. The need for editorial surgery never vanished, but the raw talent blasted through. There is a lot Mr. Rakowski still needs to learn about his craft, but he has a voice, a power, a vision, and something to say.  TheDeliveryCutCover

Give him a try, and you may find yourself on in the ground floor of a towering reputation.

As we meet the narrator, James, he is a 25 year old college graduate very uneasily back home living with his parents in SW Florida. He seems to have no direction except to leave home once again and escape his parents’ middle-class values, which he views with hostility. For James, busy with drinking and carousing, middle-class hypocrisy is everywhere and he hates its deadening weight. Just to get away, he has agreed to go to law school in Miami. He parents seem pleased, but James doubts that this is the life for him.

In fact, soon after entering law school, James perceives himself as having entered another realm of hypocrisy where power is abused and values are falsified. He stumbles his way into a situation that leads to a connection with an illegal narcotics operation. Iconoclast James, now renamed and symbolically reborn as Gabriel by the Frenchman who runs this operation, perversely finds a kind of purity in Claude’s enterprise. Passing tests contrived by the suave Claude and his muscular associate Hugo, “Gabriel” becomes part of the system: the delivery man. His efforts bring him “the delivery cut” from each transaction.

JosephERakowskiTheDeliveryCutHeadshot

Supercharged with cocaine, Gabriel learns Claude’s system, which involves a clean and clear separation of responsibilities and authority. Soon, the delivery man is making so much money on his Miami and Fort Lauderdale routes that he hides most of it and gives much of it away in order to ease his access to the delivery stops. He is somewhat ashamed of the money – not because of its source, but because money is not his goal. What he has found is a sense of being intensely alive. The combination of risk, a kind of independence, and a well-defined GPS-programmed routine has elevated Gabriel’s self-esteem and charged his emotional batteries. . . .

To read the entire review as it appears in the July 31, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 1 Bonita Springs and Naples editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Rakowski

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James W. Hall’s “Dead Last” is dead-on

Dead Last, by James W. Hall. Minotaur Books.  304 pages. $25.99.

A new book by James W. Hall is something to put it away for a special treat: something to look forward to. But inevitably I push other things aside so that I can dig into what will no doubt be a most pleasurable experience. I’m addicted to following the exploits of Thorn, a character at once unique and everyman-ish, spontaneous and guarded, outrageous and surprisingly disciplined.

The Thorn we meet in Dead Last is processing grief. Cancer has taken the woman he loves. Mr. Hall’s description of Thorn’s ritualized mourning, which includes burning many of his personal possessions, is dead-on accurate. Thorn is a man who carries little material baggage. Watching him strip even further down to essentials, a kind of excessive and half-mad cleansing, reveals Hall’s nature with dramatic economy. 

As ever, Thorn’s fate presents him with a case to solve and a wrong to right. Uh, better change those nouns to plural.

How’s this for a plot premise? A Miami-based television cast and crew staffs a low-rated cable series named “Miami Ops.” A running plot line involves a serial killer who, outfitted in a zentai suit – a skin-tight garment that covers the entire body – selects victims from hints picked up in newspaper obituaries. The killer deduces locations, weapons and other details from the obituaries as well. The spandex-clad perpetrator is cunning and ruthless, but the series is about to be dropped by the network.

The script writer, Sawyer Moss, knows a lot about obituary writing because his mother, April, is the obituary writer for the Miami Herald. Sawyer’s twin brother, Flynn, is one of the shows stars. The other is Dee Dee Dollimore, a gorgeous, toned actress hungry for fame who is Sawyer’s girlfriend. Dee Dee’s father (and former abuser), Gus, runs the show.

Now the series seems to have inspired a copy-cat – a real serial killer who imitates the methodology of “Miami Ops.” One of April’s obituaries is about Rusty Stabler, Thorn’s deceased wife. Details in the obit lead the real-life killer to murder Rusty’s aunt, who lives in a small town in Oklahoma. Since Thorn is mentioned in the obituary, it doesn’t take long for the Starkville, Oklahoma sheriff, a very young woman named Buddha Hilton, to visit Miami, tear Thorn away from his beloved Key Largo, and involve him in her investigation.

Buddha is a fascinating minor character. Only nineteen, she is a self-made professional with skill, courage, and shrewd perceptions. Like Dee Dee a victim of parental abuse as a young girl, Buddha would seem to have a bright future. She accomplishes much in a short period of time to further her investigation into crimes that become part of an FBI case worked by Thorn’s sometimes buddy Frank Sheffield. However, Miss Hilton’s future is cut short by the zentai killer. Thorn now has one more death to avenge, and his own life is in jeopardy.

There is an unsettling glee among some of the “Miami Ops” gang that the copy-cat news might just spike the ratings and save the series. Is one of them behind these killings?

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 24, 2011 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly (and other local editions of Florida Weekly), click here: Florida Weekly – James W. Hall (2)pdf

See also: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/silencer-a-new-thorn-in-james-w-hall%e2%80%99s-crown/

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Despair parties on: James Nolan’s “Higher Ground”

*James Nolan was best known as a poet, poetry translator, and critic before publishing an award-winning short story collection, Perpetual Care and Other Stories, in 2008. Higher Ground , winner of the William Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal in the Novel, adds another dimension to his literary achievement,

This dazzling debut novel set in post-Katrina New Orleans pays both serious and satiric homage to the variety of survivors who never left, came back, or simply showed up in the storm-ravaged city. The title suggests at once the need to rise above the vulnerable, flood-prone elevations and the need to rise above the degradation and corruption that followed the hurricane. People need to find out how to get on with getting on: they need higher spiritual and moral ground. As well, they need to create some redemptive joy out of the madness and mayhem. 

Nicole Naquin has moved back to New Orleans after decades away. She is escaping from a failed marriage and attempting to assist her aging mother, the cantankerous Miss Gertie, who has been reduced to drug-dealing. Employed (actually underemployed) by FEMA, Nicole is already in a despondent state when two calamities befall her on the same day. Her brother, Marky, is killed in a drive-by shooting, and Nicole plows into someone’s FEMA trailer.

That someone turns out to be Kelly Canyon, until recently a reasonably successful middle-class homeowner. Kelly is now headed for divorce and counted among the FEMA-dependent consequences of Katrina. Back in 1975, he was Nicole’s teenage heartthrob. Once fate slams them together, each glimpses the possibility of a new life – a true life – an alternative to the ones they had the ironic good fortune to escape. Though the storm’s aftermath has brought them both down, it seems also to have also finished the process of decline brought on by bad choices and false values. Having bottomed out, there is only one direction left for them to take. Perhaps together.

Killed in the same drive-by episode that felled Marky Naquin, Latrome Batiste is a high school student who seems to have been collateral damage. But was he?

James Nolan

Two very different investigators work the case. One is Lieutenant Vinnie Panarello, a homicide detective who is himself under investigation for shooting someone in the course of an arrest. The other is Gary Cherry, a San Francisco hippie import who has made a home in New Orleans dealing the softer drugs while setting Miss Gertie up in business with illegal “script stuff like Valium, Vicodin, and Xanax.” The two investigators are in each other’s way, but, in spite of different motives, end up working almost in tandem.

While the mystery plot holds interest and is managed skillfully, it is not the main center of attention. The real attraction of Higher Ground is Nolan’s representation, in high-powered episodes, of the sensory and spiritual New Orleans he so obviously loves. Drag queens, double-dealers, jobless and homeless strugglers, self-interested politicos, artists, religious seekers, cripples, and crazed psychologists do the dance of self-expression and survival. All this kaleidoscope of human interaction is anchored by a mayoral campaign and the Mardi Gras. All this stew of yearning is seasoned and smothered by the ruins of Katrina and the bureaucratic infection called FEMA.

Higher Ground abounds in dark humor and uproarious hi-jinks as every kind of indignity, sinfulness, and bereavement seeks and approaches a life-affirming antidote and a shaky salvation. In Nolan’s New Orleans, despair parties on.

*This review was first posted on Southernlitreview.com, which is undergoing some technical stresses and strains. Thus, I am posting it here in its entirety (unedited). For the SLR version, click here: http://southernlitreview.com/reviews/higher-ground-by-james-nolan.htm

An interview with Mr. Nolan is also available: http://southernlitreview.com/authors/an-interview-with-james-nolan.htm

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“Silencer”: a new Thorn in James W. Hall’s crown

“Silencer,” by James W. Hall. Minotaur Books. 288 pages. $24.99 cloth. $14.99 paper.

Mr. Hall’s recurring character, Thorn, is among my favorite reluctant heroes.  Now in his eleventh outing, Thorn (don’t you love guys with one name?) forsakes his usual association with the Florida Keys and runs into new kinds of trouble as a landholder with the goal of saving an enormous tract in south-central Florida from development.  Well, no, the set-up is not as simple as that. Thorn has inherited an extensive patch of real estate east of Sarasota that he has agreed to sell to a state program called “Forever Florida.” With the money this brings, he hopes to obtain the historic Coquina Ranch holdings from Earl Hammond, Jr. and take them off the development table as well. 

Earl, the aging head of a Florida dynasty, does not see either of his two sons as proper stewards and is favorable to Thorn’s proposal. The younger son, Browning, is already exploiting a corner of the immense property with an ugly business in which the bored and wealthy can hunt-to-kill exotic animals Browning has brought in from around the world. He has associated himself with too many low-lifes, among them Antwan Shelton, a flashy ex-football star who is now a smooth but shady pitchman and dealmaker.

The older son, Frisco, has long ago separated himself from the family enterprise; he is a Miami policeman assigned and devoted to the mounted police command and its steeds.

At a gathering at the ranch, everyone is seemingly surprised when a long-time loyal employee, Gustavo Pinto, points a gun at Earl. Mayhem breaks out as Browning’s wife, the lovely Claire, senses that something is wrong and also grabs a firearm. But she hesitates just long enough before shooting at Gustavo for Earl to be murdered.

What is Gustavo’s motive? Why is Florida’s Governor Sanchez visiting that day? And why is our hero Thorn kidnapped soon after?

As one might expect, behind the bedlam are issues involving the land: its value, its history, its exploitation, is conservation. Forces large and small are at work, each hungry to prevail.

One piece of the action has to do with the Faust brothers, Moses and Jonah. These men, who buy and sell serial killer memorabilia, also do odd jobs for Browning Hammond. They are the ones who have kidnapped Thorn and have him confined in what seems to be a large sink hole within which a prison has been fashioned. The thought processes of these moral cripples are exquisitely realized by their creator.

Clearly, someone thinks Thorn’s plans to take valuable lands off the development table must be stopped or at least delayed. Earl’s death and Thorn’s disappearance are parts of the same case.

The episodes in “Silencer” that describe Thorn’s confinement, escape, and frenzied journey through the Central Florida wilderness are magnificent. Mr. Hall provides perfect-pitch sensory renditions of the unique terrain and of Thorn’s physical, mental, and emotional ordeal.

To read the entire review as it appears in the April 13, 2011 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 14 Naples and Palm Beach Gardens editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – James W. Hall

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