Cisco – Flannery O’Connor meets Elmore Leonard in San Fran

Cisco by Jim White. Dark Passages Publishing. 2019.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Cisco unfolds on the streets of San Fran. The protagonist, Cisco, is a cunning man, a kidnapper with a Biblical sense of wrath. His antagonist, Detective Helen McCurda, is a seasoned cop with no quit. The novella’s plotline is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story. The reader gets religiosity and hard-scrabble life in equal measure. In addition to the O’Connor fictional MO, we are in Elmore Leonard land. White delivers Cisco with sharp, clear prose. There are no wasted words. We are immediately pulled into the story.

Cisco knows his Bible, but he doesn’t turn his cheek. He’s a lawless evangelical. He has no apparent remorse. A speech impediment humanizes him. However, it turns out to be fake. Some think he’s a mad man. Is he ‘criminally insane’? I’d say not. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a killer/kidnapper of Biblical, as in monstrous, proportions, both physically and mentally. His strength appears to come from God, and yet he is a Fallen Man (echoes of Prospero and Caliban in ‘The Tempest’).

On the other side of the thin blue line, Detective McCurda is intelligent, tough, competent, and sympatico. She’s everything you want a cop to be. However, Cisco is the engine of the story. His actions and complex personality move the plot forward. As in Leonard’s novels, the criminals in Cisco are far more interesting than the cops. I like that. The cops can’t always be the stars. But I do have a minor complaint – which is really a compliment.I want more of Cisco. The story ended too soon.

The King of California Noir

Who’s the King of California Noir? Michael Connelly. Some might say Raymond Chandler (his protagonist was Philip Marlowe) or Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade). Others might make a case for Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t have to be a writer to be the King. However, in my eyes, Connelly is the reigning King of California Noir. His output surpasses that of Chandler or Hammett, but that’s not all. Harry (short for Hieronymus) Bosch, Connelly’s protagonist, is a more realistic and enduring lead than either Marlowe or Spade.

This post introduces Connelly’s Bosch series (it doesn’t review a particular novel). The Detective Harry Bosch novels are set in Los Angeles. Bosch is an LAPD detective. He’s a Vietnam vet, a former “tunnel rat” who operated in the vast underground mazes used by the Vietcong. He has no pretensions, and no patience for those who do. He’s tough and diligent, but he’s not a wooden macho man, not overly taciturn or snarky. Unlike Sam Spade, for example, Bosch is not hard-boiled to the core, which makes him an easier man to know. Hammett shows very little of Spade’s emotions and only the manly side. After all, Spade was a hard-edged dick. I’m not denigrating Hammett’s fictional MO. He wrote in the 1920s and 30s; hard-boiled was the schtick.

Connelly’s Bosch novels deliver plenty of explanatory details, making it easy to follow the story. Admittedly, that can slow the pace. He’s partial to what I call Hollywood plotting, such as extended car chases, but, hey, the books are set in LA. He’s more mainstream than Ian Rankin, for example. In some places, Connelly’s info-dumps are too long. Ditto for his police procedural details. At times, the prose is workman-like, which is not surprising given his prodigious output, almost a book a year. However, I’m OK with all of that. I get sharply plotted whodunits. I get a tough yet sympatico protagonist. I get LA. (I used to live there – shout-out to Irv and his family – and get a kick out of Bosch’s LA. Nostalgia Noir, eh.)

A few quotes from the Bosch opus ….

“Bosch knew every trick there was when it came to planting obfuscation and misdirection in a murder book. He could write a how-to manual on the art of turning the [pre-trial] discovery into a nightmare for a defense lawyer. It had been his routine practice back in the day to redact words in reports without rhyme or reason, to intermittently remove the toner cartridge from the squad room photocopier so that pages and pages he was turning over were printed so lightly they were impossible or at least headache-inducing to read.”

“Bosch never got used to viewing crime scenes. He had been to hundreds of them and seen the result of human inhumanity too many times to count. He always thought that if he got used to it, then he had lost something inside that was needed to do the job right. You had to have an emotional response. It was that response that lit the match that started the fire.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Bosch novels.

Book Review Omnibus: Sister-in-Law, The Chase, Fields of Lies

Sister-in-Law by M. R. Morgan. Black Opal Books. 2018.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

You don’t have to follow US politics or love political/psychological thrillers to be captured by this novel. It draws you in — even if you’re oblivious to Washington DC. If you’ve shut out the US Feds, disregard your past proclivities and dive into Sister-in-Law. Although I grew up in the US and Canada, I now live in Canada. However, place of residence doesn’t matter. Sister-in-Law is accessible to anyone and everyone.

Morgan’s plotline is clever without being unnecessarily circuitous. His prose is clear and precise. His characters’ motivations are easy to comprehend. However, he doesn’t spoon-feed you. He delivers exactly what you need. You fill in the rest.

I’m not going to expand on the plotline (a troubled seductress becomes the president’s sister-in-law to get to the president himself; echoes of Marilyn Monroe, anyone), other than to say that the sister-in-law gets to her target. And that’s not a spoiler alert. It’s what happens along the way that counts. Enjoy the twists. Get your politics with a bang (double-entendre intended). Given the current political climate in Washington (shutdowns, disarray, doublespeak), you might be wishing the president actually had a sister-in-law.

The Chase by Leonardus Rougoor. Black Opal Books. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Leonardus Rougoor’s The Chase transports you to a place most people don’t go. You enter the mind of a vigilante. Joseph is a solo vigilante, a man who has taken the law unto himself. We only get his first name, which seems appropriate. It makes him more unknowable.

In his quest for justice, Joseph is judge, jury, and executioner. He’s not entirely at ease with his calling. As he relates, “if polite society and the police [in the USA] can’t or won’t do anything … then I guess the problem falls on me. God, I wish it wasn’t like this.” Yet Joseph doesn’t shirk his self-appointed duty. He kills those he finds guilty. In his mind, “a bad upbringing doesn’t give you the right to lead a bad life.” Furthermore, if “you live by the sword it is only fitting that you die by the sword …. This, of course, doesn’t apply to me. I’m on a mission.”

Joseph wields god-like power. In his mind, he has to. American Society has given him no choice. He avenges pimps, drug dealers, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and porn producers, among others. Yet his main target is personal – it’s the killer of his wife and unborn child, Dennis Jackson. Jackson is still a killer. He’s a wary prey, and his tracking takes patience and skill. Fortunately, Joseph possesses both in abundance.

The Chase bares the soul of America. Joseph rationalizes his killings, and yet he wonders if he’s any better than the scum he kills. As a reader, you inhabit his mind, you share his triumphs and doubts. Will you agree with him? Will you understand him? Jump in and find out.

Author’s website: leonardusrougoor.com

Fields of Lies by Sabina Gabrielle Carrara. 2019.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

What’s better in a murder mystery than a web of lies? A field of lies. How do you up the ante on that? Add more than one field. In Sabina Gabrielle Carrara’s Fields of Lies, multiple fields of friendship and marriage have been enjoying apparent peace for over twenty years. Yet the hand of death is simply slumbering.

As Fields of Lies opens in the quaint Irish village of Seacross, life seems benign. However, Bernadette and Michael Greaney are living a lie. They don’t love each other. The seemingly solid walls of their marriage are in fact unsteady facades. And then the facades are ripped open. A prodigal son returns to the village. The rift in the Greaney marriage widens. Gabrielle Carrara delivers all the elements of a cracking whodunit: seething discontent, extramarital affairs, deceit, payback, jealousy.

A man who was responsible for a crime two decades ago – and who escaped punishment – is murdered. We have motive: payback. But where’s the opportunity? It is cleverly hidden. A parade of lies unfolds before the perpetrator is apprehended. A high tide of red herrings expertly deflects the reader from the whodunit. Will the killer come to light? Will the denizens of Seacross stare down death and despair? Read Fields of Lies to unearth the answers. See how deceit awakens the hand of death.

The King of Scottish Noir

Who’s the King of Scottish Noir? Ian Rankin. Hands down. Some might say Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, but I see him as the father. In any case, Rankin’s output far surpasses that of Stevenson.

This is not a review of a particular Ian Rankin novel. It’s a quick introduction to the author’s Rebus opus. The Rebus novels are mostly set in or near Edinburgh. Inspector John Rebus is a hard-edge, no-nonsense police detective with a philosopher’s head and heart. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He doesn’t always play by the rules. If I were murdered, he’s the kind of detective I’d like on my case.    

In the Rebus novels, Rankin deploys banter to counter the bleak reality of Scottish crime. He portrays tough criminals who are tougher men. The cops who hunt them are just as tough. Aye, but there’s humour too, of the Scottish ilk. Gruff, understated and, given the juxtaposition, funny as hell.  

At times, the plotting and crime MOs seem over-the-top. Some readers find the novels overly bleak and depressing. They are cut from the cloth of real life. When I read a Rebus novel, I get punched in the gut, I sometimes feel numb, I wonder how s**t like this happens. But I keep reading. That’s what I want from the King of Scottish Noir.

A few quotes from the Rebus opus ….

On John Rebus himself:

“Often he declined invitations, because to accept them meant that he had to dust off his brogues, iron a shirt, brush down his best suit, take a bath, and splash on some cologne. He also had to be affable, to drink and be merry, to talk to strangers with whom he had no inclination to talk and with whom he was not being paid to talk. In other words, he resented having to play the part of a normal human animal.”

“What would he do with a million pounds? Same as he’d do with fifty-thousand. Self destruct. Only faster.”

On Scottish life:

“Rebus hated the smiles and the manners of the Sunday-dressed Scottish Protestant, the emphasis on a communion not with God but with your neighbours. He had tried seven churches of varying denominations, and found none to be to his liking.”

Rebus on racism:

“It’s an emotive subject to be sure … and yet I have to deal with it every single day. I think Scotland was complacent for many years. We don’t have room for racism here, no way, we’re too busy with bigotry!”

On crimes:

“Men were childlike. But that was men for you. Simple pleasures and simple crimes. Male revenge was simple almost to the point of being infantile. You went up to the bastard and you stuck your fist into his face or kneed him in the nuts. But the revenge of the female. Ah, that was recondite stuff.”

“Rebus played with the jigsaw puzzle of the crime. It was coming together, though it was a slow business. Errors were made. And an error, once made, led to more pieces of the jigsaw being placed incorrectly, until the whole thing had to be broken up and started again.”