Tuesday, April 28, 2009

VERY MERCENARY by Rayo Casablanca

Very Mercenary, the latest from Rayo Casablanca, has a little bit of something for everyone. Art students, Palahniuk fans, early period Carl Hiaasen fans, late period Elmore Leonard fans, Victor Gischler fans, hipsters, hipster-haters, douches in Che Guevara T-shirts, people who laugh at douches in Che Guevara T-shirts - you know: everyone.

Okay, looking at that list I now see that that ain’t exactly everyone but still, Rayo Casablanca is hell of a lot of fun. You know that phrase every fucking region in America likes to call their own for some retarded reason: Don’t like weather, just wait ten minutes? Well, if you don’t like what’s cracking in Very Mercenary, just read for ten more minutes - there’s bound to be some character you dig the shit out of.

It’s the story of the kidnapping of heiress Leigh Tiller, the beautiful hipster New York socialite - think Paris Hilton but smart and cool.. She’s abducted by a bunch of escaped mental patients dressed in “furry” costumes who keep her in an abandoned building. That is until Laser Mechanic spots her by chance in the window.

Laser Mechanic is the leader of Strategic Art Defense, a guerilla art collective made up hundreds of people across the US who are out to fuck up the corporate world, man, like, with their art and shit. Laser figures rescuing Leigh and making her part of the SAD - Patty Hearst-style - would be a major coup for the collective. So a major rescue mission is put into action.

But now not only are the cops after Laser and his crew, but Leigh’s Trump-ish father has been commissioning various insane groups of killers to pursue them. Thing is, dude’s not looking to save Leigh from the SAD, but to have her and Laser killed…

So there’s a lot to like in Very Mercenary. Being the violence junkie that I apparently am, I especially liked all the different gun-toting crazies in the book. There’s a character called the Serologist who is hands-down one of the coolest, most bug-fuck crazy killers I’ve read lately. His introduction is just fucking hilarious and sick - and he only gets better as the book goes on.

But the shit of it is, on the back of the book, the fucking plot description gives you the names and descriptions of all the various gangs that go after Leigh and Laser and that ruins a lot of surprises. I won’t tell you what the various crazy-ass killer gangs are in the book (shit, if you want to know what they are a couple clicks on google will satisfy the curiosity toot-fucking-sweet) because I think the book is better served by their details being a surprise.

I mean, one of the gangs doesn’t even get mentioned until the last quarter of the book for fuck’s sake! Yeah, mentioning some of the crazy shit that goes down in the book helps sell it to certain readers, for sure, but because I read the fucking back of the book I was fucking waiting for certain characters to show up already! So if you’re smart, you’ll avoid reading anything further about this beast before picking up Very Mercenary. If not, don’t say I didn’t warn your ass.

All right so this next bit is going to sound fucking vague, but I’m not one to spoil shit so deal with it. My main issue with Very Mercenary is how much the tone shifts depending on what characters you’re following. Shit is always pretty wild and crazy, but when you compare the cute-sy romance/daddy issue stuff in the Laser and Leigh storyline to the darker, more painful places you go with the Serologist character in his back story, it’s kind of jarring, comparatively uninteresting. But like I said, just wait ten minutes, I suppose.

But no matter what floats your boat, you’ll probably dig Very Mercenary. Well, that is, if you liked any of that shit I mentioned up top and… Jesus, you know what I mean, right?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Catching Up #28: The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips

Okay so fucking sue me: I've only just read The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips. Yeah, I fucking know, all right? Get off my fucking nuts. That is why I have the Catching Up series, you douche: so I can CATCH THE FUCK UP.

It's not like I didn't want to for a long ass time. Thing is, I saw the movie first and I have kind of a crazy memory for movie details. Shit, I have a crazy memory in general but especially for movies. Name me a title and I can tell you when and where I saw it, even shit I saw when I was like five or six (whether what I tell you is truth or not is another matter, but that's the fucking rub, right?) So naturally it's kind of hard for me read a book after watching the film because the plot sticks in my mind no matter how hard I try to drink it away.

And though even when I picked up the fucking book the whole story came racing back to me, I forged ahead because, dammit, I want to know what the cult of Phillips is all about (also, the sequel, The Walkaway, looked pretty cool and I couldn't very well pick that up without reading the first book now could I?)

Well, lo and behold, the book is better than the movie. A lot better. But that ain't exactly blowing your fucking hair back in the new information department, now is it?

And the movie does spoil some shit quite a lot because for the most part the movie is pretty faithful (well, until we get to the ending which I won't get into but jesus fucking christ, the original book ending would have guaranteed the move - flaws and all - something like cult classic status instead of "remember that time Harold Ramis made a crime movie?" status), but the book tells the story in a much more involving way. Shit, until about half way through the book there are only sly hints at the crime story that is going down, we're mainly just hanging out with Charlie Arglist as he takes us on a hilarious tour of the sad-ass bar scene in Wichita on Christmas Eve 1979 (and why not make it a period piece, Hollywood? Way to miss the fucking boat over and over and...okay. I'm over it. Deep breath.).

And really, if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, that's all you should really know about the Ice Harvest going into it. It's about Charlie Arglist, mob lawyer and divorcee, spending his last night in Wichita doing little errands and tying up certain loose ends - but mainly just getting fucking drunk off his ass. Eventually, the noir shit raises its ugly head and things get brutal and the whys and whats are made clear.

You should also know this: I envy the shit out of you, Ice Harvest Virgin. I envy the living motherfucking shit out of you something fierce. But I saw the movie and it didn't hurt the experience enough that I would deter anyone at all from picking up the book toot-fucking-sweet.

The Ice Harvest is a fucking dark, nasty hoot and if you don't dig it, there's really nothing that can be said for you other than that you're culturally retarded and probably should quit life and talk about Susan Boyle till someone with half a brain stabs you in the throat (I really hope that in six months someone reading this article will have trouble remembering who Susan fucking Boyle is).

That's pretty much what I got, dear reader. I could have just read The Ice Harvest and kept it to myself, let my secret shame as a ignorant noir fan eat me up inside. But I'm trying to keep up with the rest of my generation by telling complete strangers on the internet everything - no matter how disturbing or shameful - about myself. So consider yourself confessed to, dear readers, and I'll consider myself cleansed. Or not. It's up to you as unofficial internet-priests, I suppose.

But enough with this apologetic bullshit, I've got more catching up to do with my sharp-looking copy of The Walkaway.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Catching Up #27: Tom Epperon's THE KIND ONE

The Kind One is not gonna blow your hair back with its bad-assery, nor is it going to register on your pretentious douche-meter with any wild stylistic choices, but it is a solid story solidly told. Tom Epperson's novel is comfortable and fun to read. That's really all that can be said about it.

Okay, that's bullshit. The Nerd always has more shit to say than that.

The Kind One is the story of Danny Landon, a hood under the employ of vicious gangland boss Bud Seitz. It is the 1930's in Los Angeles. Prohibition has just been repealed and gangs like Seitz's have to find another way to stay in power other than bootlegging. Danny Landon is one of Seitz's most vicious enforcers, known as Two-Gun Danny following an incident where he took down a ship full of innocents with a gun in each hand.

At least that's what he's told.

See, Danny can't remember anything before almost a year ago when he was said to have gotten his ass beat by some rival gangsters. He's got the scars to prove it, but other than that he has no idea who the hell he is. The weird part is, sometimes it seems even his fellow hoods are sketchy on the details of his past. Worst part is, if he was a violent thug before the accident, he sure doesn't feel that way now, a fact that makes him a weak link in Seitz's organization.

Regardless of Danny's worthlessness as a thug, Seitz seems to have a soft spot for the kid and asks him to serve as a bodyguard to his beautiful girlfriend Darla. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Danny fell for Darla and began to question who he was before the head injury...

There's nothing fatally wrong with The Kind One - in fact, it is pretty enjoyable most of the time. Epperson - the co-screenwriter of the great crime film One False Move - knows how to keep a story moving. Thing is, there are so many cliches throughout the novel you can't help but roll your eyes sometimes. Even from the brief description I've given you, there's no doubt some of you smart-asses that think you can already foresee how shit wraps up - and you're probably right.

But there are plenty of crime novels that play it close to the cliches and are fucking awesome regardless. For the most part, that shit wasn't what bothered me so much about The Kind Ones as the bizarre shifts in tone. When Danny is doing mob shit in the novel, things are brutal and twisted (which means, you know, I liked that part of the book). But when he's at his bungalow hanging with his neighbors, the book gets about as sappy as can fucking be.

See, Danny's two best non-underworld friends are Sophie, a plucky-yet-abused twelve-year-old and Dulwich, a kindly old Englishman who lives with his adorable cat Tink (short for fucking Tinkerbell, naturally). Of course, these two are supposed to figure into Danny's final shot at redemption (if you didn't see it going there, you're not much of a reader), but I don't really see why Epperson had to make them so goddamn fucking cheesey!

I mean, I could almost understand the sentimentality used in these passages if Danny were a heartless killer when he's not at the bungalow, but he's not. He's skittish about violence and blood and doesn't really do anything badass until the end. Therefore, why does the author insist on making him so goddamn fucking likeable all the time by having him pal around with an old duffer and cute kid? Yeah, for sure the violence and mob shit is often fucking brutal stuff - murders committed over nothing, teeth flying out of mouths, brains spattered on dresses kind of shit - but Danny is just a mild accomplice at best in this mayhem. I'd still feel sympathy for him regardless of whether or not he has a cute kid and fuzzy kitty hanging around his fucking ankle. But maybe Epperson has a different kind of audience in mind than the NoN (jesus, let's hope I'm no one's ideal audience!).

But despite the rampant cliches and occasionally cloying cutesiness, I burned through The Kind One. Like I said, it's not gonna fucking "wow" you, but I can't say you won't be entertained. The best thing I can say is that it is certainly a comfortable read. I'm definitely interested to see where Epperson goes from here. I feel like he could go either way, either be a badass noir dude or a general audience historical thriller guy. Naturally, the Nerd of Noir hopes he'll come to the dark side....

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Catching Up #26: The Song Is You by Megan Abbott

The Song is You is not just a great Old Hollywood novel but a great journalism novel. Megan Abbott captures a time when studios would bend over backward to keep even the slightest indiscretion by their contract talent under wraps - and the great yellow journalists of yore were trying their damnedest to uncover every last slip-up. To keep said journalists from succeeding, the studios had smooth-talkers like publicity man Gil "Hop" Hopkins on the payroll, men with the magical ability to spin every shameful event into a glowing piece of positive press.

As our story begins, Hop is in some hot water. It is 1951 and it has been two years since B-girl Jean Spangler mysteriously disappeared. Thing is, Hop was with Spangler that night and knows for a fact that she went to a shady sex club with the song-and-dance movie duo Marv and Gene, men who are infamous for their violent sexual proclivities. Other thing is, Hop jump-started his publicity career that night by helping to erase the connection between Marv and Gene and the Spangler disappearance. Now that career high(low)point is coming back to haunt him in the form of the beautiful Iolene, a beauty who is asking the wrong questions about what happened that night.

And so begins Hop's journey to uncover what really happened to Jean Spangler. Whether he'll use what he finds out to cover his and certain studio players' asses or to bury all their asses is another matter...

Because that is really what is at the center of Abbott's novel - Hop's final shot at redemption. Sure, you've got a tight mystery plot and tons of great lore about fifties Hollywood, but what it all comes down to is Hop's very soul. He's a great fucking character. A man so pretty and smooth he can get his joint copped by a gorgeous starlet with a wink and a smile, but who is tortured by the many horrible mistakes he has made in the past. Shit, he makes plenty of them in the present, too.

And if that ain't the stuff of classic noir, I couldn't tell you what the fuck is.

But shit, if you've read this site even a little bit, you know how enamored (Wow, I just typed "enamored." I am king of the douches) I am with Abbott's work already. She is one of the true originals kicking ass in the crime fiction world today, an author whose work is both wonderfully classic and soberly modern at the same time. This Song Is You is an old Hollywood/yellow journalism novel to set on the shelf next to Ellroy's LA Confidential.

Yeah, I just said that shit. Fuck, I would even shout it into James Ellroy's crazy brilliant face.

Okay, no I wouldn't. Dude scares the shit out of me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

SAFER by Sean Doolittle

Sean Doolittle’s Safer is one agonizingly intense motherfucker of a crime novel. To give you an idea of what kind of sack-shrinking scariness is in store for you should you pick up this novel, you just have to read the first chapter. What happens in the first chapter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you because, you know, I’m such a swell fucking guy.

Paul Callaway, the English professor hero of Safer, is arrested on kiddie porn and stat rape charges by the Clark Falls, Iowa police department in the middle of a faculty party. It’s such a ball-breaker of a scene, so direly embarrassing and quietly horrifying. Not to mention a ballsy-ass way to open a book.

When Safer is really getting it right (and for the most part, it gets shit really fucking right), it plays like an “urban yuppies move to the scary countryside” horror novel more than anything else. Thing is, instead of being harassed by hillbillies who like to rape and maim, they are harassed by a security obsessed neighbor with major police ties.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Safer is the story of Paul and Sara Callaway, two Boston academics who move to the Midwest when Sara takes a major administration job at a large public university. Due to a run-in with an intruder in their house their first night in town, the two join the neighborhood watch patrol run by security consultant neighbor Roger Mallory. But as they settle into their new neighborhood, they start to learn that Mallory, an ex-cop whose son went missing ten years previous, may be taking neighborhood security a little too seriously…

Now you’re thinking, What the fuck Nerd? You have a fucking vague-ass plot description after the big kiddie porn reveal up at the top? Well, impatient fucking reader, I did not fuck shit up because you see Safer is not told strictly in chronological order. Doolittle has Callaway tell the story (who is more up to the task than an English professor, after all) and Callaway has a tendency to show off his storytelling skills – fucking with chronology, pointing out literary tricks to the “class” from time to time, shit like that. But don’t let that worry you – the po-mo shit in Safer is an extremely low-key. You won’t get “smugged-out” by it like in most self-reflexive novels.

So anyway it’s a simple story told in a complex way and that really tends to work for the novel. Things are always tense and generally organic and Doolittle’s prose style is always tight and flows well. Everything about this book is just kicking your ass until towards then when….


I had some problems with how big the conspiracy gets in Safer. I mean, it makes sense and everything and it is pretty clever but this is Sean Fucking Doolittle, a guy up there with Pelecanos when it comes to making “believable” crime novels. For him to have the neighborhood conspiracy get so big and even do the traditional “connecting the crime from the past to the present events” thing? It was kind of discouraging, honestly, but only kind of because it is handled really assuredly. It just seems a little obvious when coming from the guy who did Rain Dogs and other incredibly original crime novels.


But like I said earlier, what makes Safer work is when it plays like a brilliant horror novel of small relatable fears. The fear of being watched, of being accused of a horrid crime you didn’t commit – it’s all handled in a way that makes sense, a way that makes you think it could happen to you. There is no doubt that this is Sean Doolittle’s most intense and suspenseful novel to date. No matter what my problems with the wrap up towards the end are, I for sure fucking got there in record fucking time, with sweat down my back and my nerves fried to shit.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Catching Up #25: Ryu Murakami' In The Miso Soup

If you ever wanted to know what Jason Starr would be like if he was born and raised in Tokyo instead of New York City (and you know you've wondered, dear reader, you can't fool my ass), Ryu Murakami is about as close as you're gonna get. Murakami has a style as simple and direct as Starr's and is just as willing to take his heroes all the fucking way. Not only that, Murakami also has Starr's sly, sick way with satire to boot.

Don't believe me? Well, then fuck yourself, I guess. Nobody's forcing you to read this shit, after all.

Now that I've lost the nay-sayers, we can get down to brass fucking tacks, faithful reader.

In The Miso Soup is the story of Kenji, a young unlicensed tour guide of Tokyo's sex-for-sale districts. Kenji hires out to English-speaking tourists who want his assistance while navigating the Kabuki-cho, a place where anything you desire is available, but where the locals are often wary of gei-jin (white folks). As the book starts out, a weird lard-ass American named Frank has hired him for three nights - December 29-31 of 1996.

From the get-go, Frank is one weird fucking dude. He lies all the time and he just plain looks fucking spooky, but money is money and Frank seems to have a fair amount of it. But the weirdest thing is, there has been some brutal murders as of late, and Kenji gets the sneaking suspicion that maybe this strange American might have something to do with them. But that's just Kenji being paranoid, right?

What makes this novel move - before the sex gets titillating and the violence gets crazy fucking brutal, that is - is Murakami's deft way with the travelogue shit. He enlightens the reader and explains a lot of shit about Japanese culture/sex culture via Kenji's first-person perspective, but it never bogs down the story, never fucks up the freight train pace. There all kinds of insights tossed off, customs of different types of sex clubs revealed, but it is always completely fascinating. It's not like those shitty historical novels you've read where the author insists on explaining boring-ass shit like why they tie the robe this way and not that way for five fucking pages. No, the info you get here is fucking gold, but you assumed that already didn't you? I mean, come on, it's about sex clubs so why wouldn't you be interested?

And not only do we get insight into how all this sex club shit works, but we get a wonderful peek into why modern Japan is what it is and why everyone is just so damned lonely. And that's really what the book is about, Japan's culture of loneliness, this loneliness that has lead to a booming sex industry. And Murakami both satirizes and sympathizes with this culture in equal measure, if you can believe that. Also, Murakami is not a sensationalist or a damning moralist - he does not blame the sex industry for the violence and horror that happens in this novel. Or well, maybe at the.... never mind.

But you're thinking to yourself, "Never mind all the hoidy-toidy shit about Japanese culture and travelogue bullshit and themes and satire and whatever the fuck, Nerd. You're not impressing anyone, here. Tell me about the crime goods, tell me if this shit delivers or not."

Well, impatient reader, I can tell you whole-fucking-heartedly that In The Miso Soup delivers like a motherfucker. There is a scene in this book that was so brutal I could not believe I was reading it. Murakami does not practice restraint in the slightest and thank the fucking stars for that. Rarely do I ever want to look away from a good macabre scene of violence, but the big one in Miso? Jesus. Guy's like a Japanese Allan Guthrie for fuck's sake.

So I really don't know what the fuck you're waiting for, dear reader. The pace is quick, the violence is sick, there's a ton of sex stuff, it's an easy-to-read introduction to a foreign culture, there's sly satire and hoidy-toidy themes, and did I mention that this thing is super short? It's honestly like a one-sitting read - and I never say shit like that. So for fuck's sake, you can't fucking lose with In The Miso Soup. It will shove a fist full of wasabi up your ass and gut you with a samurai sword, but you'll love every dark, fucked up minute of it.