Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: Genuinely Dangerous, by Mike McCrary

By Chris Rhatigan

Mike McCrary says he has two goals when writing: 1) Entertain the reader and 2) never, ever be boring.

He succeeds on both accounts in Genuinely Dangerous.

From reading his work, I assumed one of his other goals would be "to be balls-out all the time." 

This book is one blazing motherfucking ride.

As soon as I finished reading it on my Kindle I looked up how many pages it was. Turns out it clocks in at a few over 300. I thought it was more like 500. Not because it felt long, but because there's so much action and insanity packed into those pages.

Here's the jist: Jasper is a movie producer. Or was a movie producer until his second feature flopped big time. Now he's drowning himself in KFC, anonymous sex, and free-flowing booze. Until he sees that childhood "friend" and trendy Hollywood all-star Wilson Gaines is making a fucking documentary about his failure. 

His solution is simple: He's going to make his own documentary in which he's embedded with a group of bank robbers. It's bound to be a hit. Can't miss. 

But instead of a "crew" of bank robbers, he falls in with an inbred tribe of psychopaths. 

McCrary's first book, Remo Went Rogue, is in my opinion a modern crime classic and one of the funniest, darkest trips around. I was delighted to see that Remo makes a brief (but memorable and perfect) cameo here.

Genuinely Dangerous somehow has more action than Remo--and McCrary does this stuff better than anyone. It's intense, brutal, and funny at the same time. 

Yet that's not why the book is great (though it certainly doesn't hurt). The book is great because Jasper is a fascinating character. A self-obsessed fuckstick who goes on this bizarre, substance-fueled quest to impress a girl. He's weirdly self-aware while being delusional and ego-maniacal. His desperation to make this movie will take him down some paths that can only be described as, well, genuinely dangerous.

The bottom line is that those boring Patterson and Lee Child books should on the airport shelves should be replaced by books like this one. Buy it, read it, love it. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Live Girls, Lonely Boys, by Michael Gonzales

“Times Square transformed from an adult sexual wonderland to an urban family playground.”

As a kid growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I was simultaneously awed and appalled by the maddening energy of Times Square, especially 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, commonly called “The Deuce.” With both sides of the street cluttered with a mixture of upright citizens, lowdown schemers, bullhorn screaming preachers, high-heeled hookers, and sidewalk scavengers of every variety who’d come to the strip to lay down their hustle, even the most native of New Yorkers had to be cautious. Although most of the city looked as though someone had dumped a giant garbage can over it, Times Square was especially grimy considering it also served as a business district that included office buildings, restaurants, movie and Broadway theaters.

Once called “the crossroads of the world,” back when the majestic landscape was rhapsodized in Damon Runyon’s colorful prose and the flamboyant Ziegfeld musicals, by the early 1960s, Times Square began to lose its luster. First-run movie palaces, with regal names like the Selwyn, Rialto, and the Victory, and their velvet-covered seats and smoking sections in the balconies, were becoming double-feature grindhouses specializing in B-movies or so-called “adult features.”

Alternative forms of entertainment were also created in the ‘60s, including the first peep booths that the future “King of Peeps” Martin Hodas invented using old nickelodeon film machines, restocking them with stag reels and images of naked girls frolicking. In 1966, the first machines were placed in Carpel Books at 259 West 42nd Street; while others were nervous about the machines, as obscenity laws loosened, soon the peep machines were everywhere. By the 1970s, sleaze defined the area, and would do so for the next twenty-five years.

My first vivid memory of the seedy area was arriving at the Port Authority terminal in 1974 after spending the entire summer at my Aunt Ricky’s house in Pittsburgh. I had turned twelve a few months before and was already having cinematic wet dreams, triggered no doubt by finding my stepfather’s stash of Playboy magazines two years earlier. Greeted at the grimy station by my mom, we exited through the electronic doors and began walking one block east where the uptown number one train station was on 7th Avenue. As we stood on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in the beaming August sun waiting to cross the intersection, a liquor-reeking derelict tried to take a suitcase from mommy’s hand on the pretense of “helping her” across the street. “Thank you, but I can manage,” mom said politely.

However, when the guy reached for her wrist, I saw a side of my mother I never knew existed as she screamed and cursed the man. As the curious eyes of passing pedestrians glared at her, the black version of Ratso Rizzo fled from the scene. Mom grabbed my hand tightly until we were on the sidewalk and then paused to catch her breath. A few feet away a hotdog man stood listening to the Yankees game on a battered portable radio as the smell of boiling franks, red onions, and salted pretzels drifted through the air.

Standing silently, I began looking around and I noticed the pictures of nude women on marquees and enticing four-color posters advertising movies with lewd titles including Oral Annie, Sex School, Liquid Lips, Inside Joy, and The Coming of Angie that hung inside glass display cases. As though hypnotized by the flashing lights (Live Nudes! Peep-O-Rama!), my brown eyes scanned the signs, the faces and flashes of flesh as repulsion and fear soon became fascination.

Wonderfully, I stared at the unsavory characters, skimpily-clad women, the scarred short-stay hotels, the numerous sex shops, topless bars, and the tinted windows of massage parlors that lined the landscape. Moments later, as we silently scurried to the subway, I was aware that my fear of Times Square was slowly melting away with each step down the dirty sidewalk. While there were other types of businesses on the block—including a sporting goods shop and a tiny burger spot—it was the neon lit porn places that I was most drawn to.

Living in Harlem with my mom, grandmother, and a younger brother, I had more than a few friends that I hung out within our neighborhood who often went to Times Square to see the latest blaxploitation or kung-fu flicks. My mom wasn’t having it. “I don’t want you down there,” she said. “Anything can happen down there.”

As I got older I enjoyed taking solo journeys around the city. Riding the bus downtown to the library near Rockefeller Center, which became one of my favorite parts of the city, or to the East Side to a cool comic book shop that was a block away from Bloomingdale's, I romanticized New York as I pretended to be a minor character in a Truman Capote story or an extra in Annie Hall. Walking through the city, breathing in the dirty air, staring at the towering skyscrapers, going to the Doubleday Books store on 5th Avenue, I would occasionally be in the vicinity of Times Square. I didn’t venture into the chaos alone until I was a nineteen-year-old college student going to a revival movie theater called the Hollywood Twin, located at 777 8th Avenue between 47th and 48th Street; a few years before, the Twin was a porn theater that could be seen in the film poster for Taxi Driver, but in 1981 it went legit and started showing old movies.

Leaving the theater one night after seeing a double feature, I looked down the block at the radiant neon and the vibrant colors beckoning me to Show World. “The brightest of the gaudy lights in the pornographic firmament of Times Square,” journalist Dan Barry described it in a 1995 article in The New York Times. A former hardware store and Chemical Bank building, Show World was owned by Richard Basciano and opened in 1975. In his wonderful book Tales of Times Square, writer Josh Alan Friedman says it was a simple place that became more of a gaudy sexual spectacle with its “slick design” and “supermarket aisles, everything steel, Formica, (and) tile floors.”

Outside of Show World, breakdancers were on the dirty sidewalk, spinning on their heads while blasting a boombox. Before entering into the porn emporium, I got change for a five and stuffed the quarters into my pocket; feeling the weight and warmth of the coins against my leg, I scurried inside. A few years later, Show World would begin using their own specialty tokens with the silhouette of a dancer in motion on one side and the words “Worlds Greatest Show Place” on the other.

I stepped cautiously inside; the music was blaring as the sounds of Thriller, Hall & Oates, and Marvin Gaye bounced off the mirrored walls. To the left was a staircase that led to the booths and live girls. I glanced upwards and saw a beautiful black woman wearing a red babydoll nightie and high heels, a siren amongst the lights and noise whose mission was to lure men up the stairs.

That first night, I spent about an hour walking through the multi-leveled porn plaza where one could watch snippets of XXX movies in private for a quarter on the first floor, witness a live sex show on the second, talk to a naked woman on the third, or sneak down to the basement that was the territory for transsexuals. On the first floor, there were racks of glossy porn magazines with a sign next to them that read “When looking at magazines use both hands.” There were also sex toys as well, including various sized vibrators and plastic sex dolls with oval open mouths.

Inside the booths, men masturbated and ejaculated onto the floor; upon exiting, the mop boy would slide his bucket over and clean-up for the next customer. The music was loud, but I could hear the orgasmic groans coming from the booths; some came from women who were in the movies, while others were from the men who watched. “If you don’t think the central problem of New York is loneliness, hang around Times Square some evening and try to understand how these people get through the night,” Pete Hamill wrote in his “Cityside” column in New York magazine in 1972. “They are there alone, trying to find a way to get through the night.”

Although it wasn’t an everyday thing, I went often enough that in some spots the girls knew me by face or name (I always told them my real name, because it sounded so fake) or fetish for curvy woman. Jiggling the quarters in my pocket, I watched as men darted inside the darkened booths and locked the doors. Walking into an empty booth, I put a few quarters in the slot as a partition opened; through Plexiglas, a beautiful naked Hispanic woman lay on a couch masturbating.

According to a 2008 Gawker story, “at [Show World’s] peak, thirty-two live girls per shift worked 24-7 behind glass on stages and in peepshow booths.” I stared for a minute until the partition closed; after feeding more change into the machine, my eyes looked up from the couch and I was startled when I realized I could see the faces of other men (some smiling, a few sullen) as they too stared intensely at the naked woman.

“Now, in our center booths, it’s time for the live sex act, right here at Show World!” an invisible barker screamed circus style over the speakers as the Latina woman on the couch was soon replaced by a scraggly couple doing everything the announcer promised. Truthfully, I’d never considered watching another couple have sex and I was somewhat repulsed. Years later, I became friends with a brilliant illustrator named Guy Gonzales who used to work at Show World performing live sex acts with various girls.

“Sometimes we would just be so fucked up in there,” he told me.

Preferring the peep shows to the live acts—even the single woman “love booths” were too intimate for me—I went from curious voyeur to a regular customer. I roamed through Show World as though searching for something, but I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for as I stood nervously inside of peep-show booths that smelled of strong disinfectant.

After a few more visits, my nervousness began to subside as I frequented Show World more often, as well as discovering other joints on The Deuce to feed my growing addiction to both the sex and the scene. Like some of the other men, I often looked around before entering, hoping that no one I knew saw me. Everybody from college students to businessmen to Hasidic Jews were there. At Show World, race and class amongst the customers disappeared; we were all the same—horny man-children lost in a decadent wonderland of sex and satisfaction.

Working as a messenger in the area, I was often on The Deuce and the temptation was too much to control. One day, while exiting from some sleazy spot whose name I’ve since forgotten, I bumped into my girlfriend Francine and her little sister.

“What were you doing in there?” Fran asked.

“Nothing,” I muttered, feeling Catholic boy guilt. Nevertheless, those distant memories of being an altar boy were wiped away with the thrill of being in such close proximity to women and their naked flesh.

Smiling devilishly, Fran snapped, “Boys are just so nasty.”

Over the years the girlfriends would come and go, some who were aware of my weakness, that, truthfully, I never thought about too deeply. Still, there was still a side of me that thought my activities were disgusting, that I was a perv with some kind of malfunction that rivaled the lonely and demented Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Was I suffering from addiction or a hatred of women, as the Women Against Pornography (WAP) protesters proclaimed from their table that was often set up across the street? Was there something wrong with me mentally or was I just another horny guy that loved looking at naked women?

While I had to deal with my personal issues concerning porn, I never felt as though I was a misogynist. If watching porn was a weakness, I thought, than it was no worse than any of my other bad habits like drinking too much Cafe Bustelo and puffing too many cigarettes. As I passed their table on the way to my destination, the WAP representatives yelled to passersby that porn was “violence against women,” based in humiliation and degradation, Usually speeding up my steps, I simply kept moving until I was inside that well-lit porn palace, far away from any truths.

Beginning in 1993, under the mayoral reign of Rudy Giuliani, the city government’s mission to revitalize Times Square became a reality as new zoning laws were put into effect, forcing many of the porn-related business to close; soon, construction crews tore down old buildings and replaced them with Disney stores, themed restaurants, multiplex theaters, and other tourist traps. Within a couple of years, Times Square transformed from an adult sexual wonderland to a urban family playground sponsored by corporations.

Show World owner Richard Basciano, who also controlled other porn places in the neighborhood, waged a war against Giuliani, but in the end, he lost. These days, the Show World building houses a giant Rite-Aid drug store. Going there recently, I glanced at blue uniformed young adults behind the counter, the young luxury housing couple buying Smart Water, and the new mothers pushing their precious babies in thousand dollar carriages, thinking to myself, “If they only knew; if they only knew.”

Michael A. Gonzales has written essays and articles for The Pitchfork Review, Complex, Best African-American Essays 2010 edited by Gerald Early, Stop Smiling and Ebony.com. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991), he has written music journalism for Vibe, Red Bull Academy, The Village Voice,The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulpand Crime Factory. A columnist for soulhead.com, Gonzales is currently finishing his literary New York City hip-hop novel Boom for Real.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

REVIEW: The Basics of Ransom by Ian Maxwell

Ian Maxwell pitches his book Basics of Ransom a "thriller with deadbeats" but along the lines of "Harold and Kumar or Pineapple Express."

And that's a very accurate description.

A couple of stoner bros hatch a plot to kidnap tech wizard Frank Turner's wife so they can payoff some debts. But it turns out the "tech wizard" is as broke as they are. They demand $50,000 for her return, then quickly switch to half-a-mil. But it's not clear if Frank really wants her back.

Here are some of those basics of ransom:
1. Always start with a small advance, the pre-ransom
2. Make sure ransom is a tax deductible in your state
3. Does your employer have a ransom program?
4. If not, ransom can be swapped in lieu of alimony
5. Keep an eye out for the Katie Holmes Syndrome
6. Never call an uber for your hostage
7. Showmanship and pizazz are equally important
8. Always stick to the stipulated amount
9. Don’t order steaks minutes before the exchange
10. If you do, don’t pay for it with the ransom money

Basics of Ransom is chaotic and funny. Everyone from the stoner kidnappers to a mafia don is determined to screw things up. There are a couple of times where it goes off the rails, but that's all part of the fun. It's an enjoyable read for fans of crime fiction and/or comedy. I happen to be both. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cold London Blues by Paul D. Brazill

Below is an excerpt from PDB's latest. Check out Cold London Blues, Amazon US and Amazon UK.

A shadow of gloom hung over Father Tim Cook as he watched the slivers of early morning sunlight slice through the stained glass windows of St Martins’ church. The church felt cold and cavernous to him these days. His footsteps echoed as he paced the damp floor.

He sighed and realised he’d been doing that a lot lately. Reminded him of his mother. He shivered and looked at his Rolex. It was almost opening time at The Golden Fleece.

Father Tim left the church and took a short-cut across the park, avoiding the attentions of the drug dealers, drunks and prostitutes that congregated there, even at this time of day. He was almost at the rusty wrought-iron gate that led to the high street when a dishevelled, shambling figure stumbled from out of the bushes. He was tall, gangling. Dressed in what had once been an expensive suit but was now tattered and torn. Covered with dirt and excrement. Another city boy down on his luck, maybe. A twat for sure. The pallid skin and glaring red eyes gave him the appearance of a vampire on the prowl.

He reached out a bony hand.

‘Spare a …’

Before he could finish his sentence, Tim punched him in the throat and guts. The junkie barely screamed as he stumbled to the ground.

Tim glanced around but no one had noticed. These days, no one had any interest in what happened to a drug addict in a city that was infested with them. Tim dragged the unconscious junky into bushes and headed across the street and into The Golden Fleece.

‘The usual, Father,’ said Niall, the Golden Fleece’s wiry and obtuse barman, who had the annoying habit of never looking anyone in the eye.

Tim nodded.

Niall poured a pint of Stella Artois and placed it on the sticky bar. Tim sat at the corner of the bar watching an old black and white television that was showing a cricket match that seemed to have been dragging on for an eternity.

Niall usually refused to allow a television in his pub but today was a cricket tournament that he felt he just couldn’t miss. Tim had no interest in sport, especially cricket, and was almost catatonic. Apart from Tim, the rest of the customers in the pub were weathered and weary old men that were gathered around the bar watching the match like gargoyles at the front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

‘This must be what purgatory is like,’ said Tim.

‘Eh?’ said Niall.

‘Nothing,’ said Tim.

The multi-coloured lanterns that adorned the bar area and the dingy pub’s few tables flickered as the front door opened. A tall blonde in a fake leopard-skin coat walked in. She grinned.

‘Father Cook,’ she said. ‘Just the bloke I’ve been looking for.’

Magda grasped Cook’s hand and shook it vigorously. An old, overtly masculine habit from the days when she was known as Marek.

‘Let’s grab a table,’ she said. ‘I have some info that’ll blow your cobblers off.’

Although Marek had learned a little English whilst serving in the Polish army, Magda’s far from sentimental education came from hanging around Liverpool bars just as classy as The Golden Fleece, and even less sophisticated establishments.

They took a seat in a dark corner of the room, beside a broken quiz machine. The small table was illuminated by a shimmering red lantern. Magda took off her coat. She was wearing a sparkly black dress. Her fingernails and lipstick were blood red.

She put her black leather handbag on the table. Groans of disappointment emanated from the bar area.

‘What are they watching?’ she said.

‘Paint stay wet,’ said Tim.

Magda rummaged in her bag. She placed a few items on the table: a knuckle-duster, a small gun, a lipstick. And then she took out a Samsung Galaxy S4.

‘Have you heard of the motivational guru Nathan North?’

‘I have heard of him. There are billboards about the city for his Wembley Arena show/ performance or whatever they call it but who exactly is he?’

‘It’s an everyday kind of story. Nathan North was once a television chat show host. He was kidnapped while recording a TV programme in Colombia and had some sort of mystical revelation. He eventually set up a series of self-help courses ‘The North Method.’ And sold books and films of course.’

‘Looks like he’s doing well for himself’.

‘Hold on. There,’ she handed Cook her smartphone. ‘Have a gander at that while I go and get a drink. Want one?’

Tim looked at his watch.

‘Yeah, why not.’

Tim tapped the smartphone screen and a small promotional film appeared. A load of blah blah blah about empowerment and the like. North was a real smarm-bag but if it made him the dosh, Tim couldn’t fault him.

Magda sat down as the film was ending.

‘Fascinating stuff I’m sure but …’

‘You missed it didn’t you?’ said Magda. She took a big slurp of her Guinness. ‘Rewind.’

Tim handed the phone back to her.

‘Here, you do it. I hate using other people’s phones.’

Magda tapped the screen and froze it at the point she was look for.

‘There,’ she said, and showed the picture to Tim. Nathan North was shaking hands with a weedy man who looked like a vampire.

‘You want to find Ron Moody, there you are.’

He handed the phone back to Magda.

‘Well spotted, Maggie May. A nice little bonus will be coming your way.’

Paul D. Brazill
is the author of Cold London Blues, The Last Laugh, Guns Of Brixton, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. He has also edited a few anthologies, including Exiles: An Outsider Anthology, and True Brit Grit.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Trevor English Series Is the Definition of Noir

By Chris Rhatigan

In 2011, Pablo D'Stair released five novella about petty con man Trevor English as a serial. Each day a chapter was published at a blog, culminating in the release of all five books. These were stunning little paperbacks that, unfortunately, are not in print today. (Though you can see some of their covers below.)

However, what is in print and available for Kindle is Trevor English, which presents the five parts as a single book.

Somehow, this book has been ignored despite it being one of the most original works of fiction that I've encountered.

I re-read them recently and found them just as engrossing as the first time I read them.

The thing that jumped out at me immediately is the style. Here's a sentence from the first page of this letter to Norman Court, the first book in the series:

"I'd taken a large bite, was taking a drink to help me swallow it, when some guy sat down right at my table, nodded at me, smiling and it wasn't until I'd mashed the swallow down, caught my breath and was saying Can I help you? I realized it was the guy I'd stolen his wallet about two days before."

Most crime writers prefer short, punchy sentences. As you can see, Pablo D'Stair does not. He uses this to great effect with Trevor English--the reader becomes trapped in the narrator's paranoid, narrow voice. The entire series is told in his rambling thoughts.

Then there's the character himself. D'Stair tells you next to nothing about Trevor English's past. All you see is his present. He is driven by an innate desire to grift. He never thinks about it; it's just what he does. But grifting, although central to his character, steadily erodes his sense of self (if he had a sense of self to begin with). He burns through identities one after the other, with no concept of being any of these particular identities. (And his "real" identity sounds like a fake name.)

Here's the last paragraph of the second book, Mister Trot from Tin Street. Trevor's burning time at an airport, slowly making his escape after a failed con.

"Spent as long as I felt like on a bench out in the passenger pick-up area, smoking, making slow progress down my coffee. Every once in awhile I'd think I recognized somebody--the girl, some guy. Nobody. Every now and again, someone'd look at me like they might've been thinking I was somebody, too, quickly able to discern I wasn't. They'd look away and I'd be glad about that."


Then there's the banality of the events across the entire series. In an age where every crime book is "fast-paced" and "action-packed," Trevor English lacks almost any physical action. (D'Stair has described his style as "slow-burn noir.") Trevor blackmails people into giving him small amounts of cash. He wanders from bland nowhere town to bland nowhere town, occasionally working shitty low-wage jobs and always looking for an angle. All he wants is to make enough dough to buy cigarettes and booze and rent a cheap motel room--and he seems almost incapable of having larger ambitions than this. (The banality is wonderfully captured in the covers of the original five novella--which D'Stair did himself--Trevor with a bag, Trevor at a pay phone...)

Trevor is given a gun in the first book and told to use it to kill a man. And he carries that gun for the entirety of the five books and never uses it. Take that, Chandler!

Yet the series has plenty of suspense. Watching Trevor work on his schemes that inevitably fail in one way or another is a sheer joy. And watching Trevor trying to elude the police and various PIs is equally enjoyable.

The thing that Trevor bizarrely, naively never realizes is that the mark is often playing him too. He's a grifter who trusts people almost in the way a child would.

Despite all this, these books were trashed on Goodreads because people suck. Whatever. Read them for yourself and find out. The ebook including all five novella is $7.