TOUGH TENDER by Max Allan Collins

Tough Tender
(Hard Case Crime Series #153; Nolan Series #s 5 – 6)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 15th March 2022
ISBN: 9781789091434
— Paperback — 346 pp.


The reprints of Collins’ Nolan series continue from Hard Case Crime, with another two-for-one packaging featuring the ‘retired’ titular thief and his young heist partner Jon. The series has had a complicated publication history, often out-of-print and relatively difficult to track down. This volume collects the fifth and sixth novels in the series, first published in 1982, Hard Cash and Scratch Fever. Even more-so than previous double collections from HCC, these two novels fit exceptionally well together, linked by a ruthless femme fatale antagonist. Tough Tender simply reads like one complete story in two acts.

The set up for these episodes in Nolan and Jon’s lives follows a standard format, also frequently used in the Quarry series: The criminal protagonist is trying to live a retired life, but previous deeds pull them back in. Usually what brings them back to crime is either the prospect of a really big paycheck, or someone coming out of the woodwork to kill them. The first part of Tough Tender, Hard Cash, offers a slightly different tactic: blackmail.

An executive at a bank that Nolan and Jon robbed previously in the series shows up at Nolan’s restaurant with an offer for another heist, this time with inside cooperation. Nolan wants no part in the risks or the executives eager ignorance. Facing the choice of either going along to hear more about the executives plans or killing him to prevent him from turning Nolan in, Nolan opts for restraint, taking Jon for a meeting to hear more about the heist plan, and the executive’s threats. There, they learn that the real drive and brains behind this plan is a sultry and dangerous woman name Julie, who has the married executive wrapped around her finger in adultery. Still not liking any bit of being ‘forced’ into a heist, Nolan and Jon choose to proceed, cautiously, expecting a double-cross.

In Scratch Fever, the second half of Tough Tender, Jon has returned to his life of comics and rock and roll, while Nolan is back at his restaurant/motel. As Jon’s band performs in a local backwoods music venue, he is shocked to see femme fatale Julie among the audience, a woman that he and Nolan thought was dead. Even worse, her deadly regard notices him. Jon manages to get a message of warning to Nolan, but not without also become captured by the jaded girlfriend of one of Jon’s old flames, a confused girl who has become ensnared by Julie’s destructive sexual allure.

Of the two components, Scratch Fever works best, offering a more unique scenario within the series than Hard Cash and focusing equally on Jon as on Nolan, in alternating chapters. Hard Cash also suffers from poorly inserting the Comfort family series antagonists into the plot. Though Jon shot the Comfort patriarch in the previous entry to the series, the old coot managed to survive, and is off with one son to get revenge on the guys who stole from them. The plot line only becomes possible due to a stupid slip up by Nolan and Jon in the previous novel, and Collins’ “oh, he actually wasn’t really dead!” ploy. This would be forgivable, but the Comfort plot in here really goes nowhere, with an evaporating resolution by mere chance as this B plot intersects with the main heist plot.

The other aspect that reads off in these novels would be Nolan and Jon’s automatic reaction to Julie (from first meeting) as “that bitch”. There’s a harshness to Nolan in particular that does not play well at all, particularly in 2022. Similarly, Jon’s relationship with the lesbian girlfriend who kidnaps him in Scratch Fever plays out in an unbelievable way that in today’s age would have to be depicted more delicately and realistically.

Then again, these were written in the 1970s – published in the early 1980s – and they are noir pulp. So readers who go for this fare shouldn’t be entirely surprised or put off even when things run counter to contemporary sensibilities or reader beliefs. The fact is that Tough Tender serves as a solid continuation to the Nolan series. Still not as refined or engaging as the Quarry novels, but essential for fans of Collins’ neo-noir and the HCC label.


THE ALBUM OF DR. MOREAU by Daryl Gregory

The Album of Dr. Moreau
By Daryl Gregory
Tor.com — May 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331
— Paperback — 176 pp.


Have you long been searching for a short science fiction / murder mystery read, packed with humor and meta winks, featuring a Boy Band of eccentric, genetically-engineered, human-animal hybrids?

No?

Well, you should be now. Immediately.

It may surprise you, but I hadn’t either. Boy Bands were never my thing, and my musical tastes are not now – nor have they ever been – particularly mainstream. I also have never read The Island of Dr. Moreau. I watched the movie with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer back at its release, but don’t really remember any details of it. Or I’ve blocked them out. I know the gist of the story though, and could sing you Oingo Boingo’s “No Spill Blood”. That’s about it.

I am a fan of murder mysteries though. And science fiction. And I think I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, all the short fiction by Daryl Gregory that I’ve read over the years in magazines. So, though I was never looking for this book, and the premise didn’t sound that tempting, I gave it a try. I am so thankful that I did.

Gregory succeeds phenomenally well here with the mashup of classic mystery and classic science fiction riffs, tying it all together with a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted noir tone (oxymoron intended) that pulls readers in to simply enjoy the ride. He play with every element, even the murder mystery one by breaking all five of T.S. Eliot’s rules for effective, proper detective fiction.

So, I should summarize the plot a bit before rambling on…

Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has the difficult task of solving the murder of Dr. M, the producer behind 2001’s hottest boy band, the WyldBoyZ. The five genetically-engineered members of this vocal group are Delgado’s prime suspects. She begins to interview each of them: Bobby the ocelot (the ‘cute’ one), Matt the megabat (the ‘funny’ one), Tim the pangolin (the ‘shy’ one), Devin the bonobo (the ‘romantic’ one), and Tusk the elephant (the ‘smart’ one). Through the band members and others involved in their entourage, Delgado (and the reader) learn of the egos, talents, foibles, fractures, and traumas that underlie the band’s history and success.

Gregory brings the characters alive, absurd as they are, to make the reader actually invested in them each, as if one were fans of the band. He makes the mystery plot engaging, paced perfectly to allow the reader to get to know all the suspects, revealing bits that can lead the reader to figure some likelihoods out, but still nailing the eventual culprit reveal. He pays homage to a classic, while also inventing the story in a fun, interesting way.

Through that all, Gregory lets his love of music shine, crafting a story that is equally faux documentary of a band’s history and personalities, like a literary This Is Spın̈al Tap. The humor is on-point, but never gets silly or infantile. It becomes grounded in the serious nature of the psychologies of the band members.

The critique of celebrity and themes surrounding the cost of fame, and the humanization of idols, is nothing new to The Album of Dr. Moreau. but mix that with the the themes of H.G. Wells novel in a murder mystery framework, and all the familiar elements that make up this novel remix into a glorious new beat and key of pure entertainment and fun. I’m not sure if these characters (or the universe) would work in a series that mashed up with additional science fiction classics. But I think it should be investigated. At the least, more stories in this style would be very welcome.


CALL ME A CAB by Donald E. Westlake

Call Me a Cab
(Hard Case Crime Series #152)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 1st February 2022
ISBN: 9781789098181
— Paperback — 256 pp.


An easy-going New York City cab driver named Tom picks up a fare for JFK airport who seems anxious and out-of-sorts. Engaging in some small talk with her, Tom learns her name is Katherine and that she is headed to the airport to fly to California to give her longtime fiancé Barry a final decision in person on the marriage. She has hesitated on fully committing to the union; though he has been patient, he has now given her an ultimatum. If only she had more time to just think, to figure out the source of her indecisiveness, and find a confident answer within her heart.

Katherine asks Tom what the cost would be to drive her to California in the cab. This would give her time to calm her panic and figure things out in isolation. She has the money; Tom has the time; an arrangement is made. Their journey begins. Along the way a close friendship builds between Tom and Katherine through their conversations and the events that go along their journey across country. They learn things about one another, and themselves. Ultimately, Katherine finds her answer.

Call Me a Cab has an exceptionally simple plot, with two simple characters. But, the interactions between Tom and Katherine are fascinating and refreshing, with flowing language from Westlake that probes psychology and human emotions with humor, playfulness, and respect.

It’s arguable that the novel doesn’t fit into the Hard Case Crime press mission or genre fold. However, I don’t remotely care, and I don’t imagine any other fans of the HCC series would either. Unlike all the other Westlake titles in the HCC library, Call Me a Cab has no crime in it at all, nor really any mystery. It does contain the element of suspense, but it’s a romantic suspense, a suspense of two characters who gradually share more of a bond making efforts to not consummate feelings of attraction they may begin to feel, because of Katherine’s relationship with Barry and because of her vulnerability in a state of uncertainty and confusion at figuring out herself. Interestingly, grappling to suppress and comprehend her friendship with Tom leads her to eventually realize the source of her hesitance with Barry.

I feel as though this is a really hard novel to review or write about, particularly with details because of its simplicity. It’s probably best if I simply wrap it up by stressing how satisfying Westlake’s deliberate and elegant prose is to read here. The reader falls into companionship with Tom and Katherine and those who have fun ‘shipping’ fictional characters who have that connection that feels so perfect, will adore this too.

Westlake wrote Call Me a Cab, it seems, as an exercise in telling a caper story without a caper. I would say that equally it is a romance story without any physical romance. With offerings like this, I’ll always support HCC willingness to stray a bit from their usual fare.


THE NIGHT ALWAYS COMES by Willy Vlautin

The Night Always Comes
By Willy Vlautin
Harper Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9780063035089
— Hardcover — 208 pp.


Lynette is a typical resident of Portland, struggling to survive and keep her family afloat amid ever widening wealth gaps in the population and gentrification of neighborhoods. Owning a home is economic stability. But, real estate prices have skyrocketed, making her goal of fulfilling the American Dream of a stable homestead all the more difficult to attain. Just in her thirties and saddled with bad credit, she works multiple jobs and pushes herself to mental and physical exhaustion to save all she can. Atop this, she spends every waking hour while at home supporting her developmentally disabled brother Kenny.

Finally, a homeowner is willing to give her a good deal and sell to her; she has managed to put together a plan to make it work. But, Lynette’s mother backs out of her financial contribution to the family goal, abandoning hope that owning a home will put them any better off, and opting for supporting her own immediate personal needs of gratification over long term possibilities. Unable to turn her mother’s mind back, Lynette goes out into Portland on a search for the needed money, calling in debts, going to friends for aid, and – as the desperation increasingly sets in – anything she can do to keep her dream of stability alive.

The Night Always Comes is a thrilling, heroic noir quest. But, one cast bleakly with the repeated crushing of an individual’s spirit by the disparity inherent in the indifference of pure capitalism; by the callous greed of other people trying likewise to survive it. The title of the novel, and its cover photography by Todd Hido, are particularly apt. For all the grit and grimdark of this literary thriller, shiny rays of hope persist, peaking out from the shadows. The unavoidable arrival of night is coupled to the unspoken promise that a daytime will surely follow, if one can just survive until then. A light of goodness remains illuminated even in a house of despair, despite being surrounded by caliginous exploitation.

Like a parable, The Night Always Comes is a succinct lesson in what economic divide and desperation can engender. The strength of Vlautin’s writing shows in how this lesson gets imparted with honesty and impassivity, never feeling pontifical. He renders Lynette with equal sincerity, illustrating both her virtues and her shortcomings. The character allows him to explore the psychological effects that disparity can have on a person, as panic and despair drive one to balancing indiscretions with the desire to keep a pure soul. The other characters offer depictions of other outcomes. For instance, the mother who has simply given up and can fight no further for anything but keeping herself happy and comfortable, a drug perhaps more addicting than the literal ones where Lynette might turn. Or, in contrast, the blithe innocence and ignorance of Kenny, a man whose ‘disabled’ mental faculties have protected his basic human love and empathy from being ground down by society and circumstances as in others.

Some might even consider Vlautin’s novel a crime story, both from the perspective of Lynette’s actions and what others do to her, but also in the sense of what society is doing to people. The noir tone of the plot and Vlautin’s language really augment this feeling. Both his dialogue and his descriptive passages show exceptional craftsmanship, and I guess this is nothing new, as he has won multiple awards and general accolades for previous novels. I hadn’t heard of Vlautin prior to getting a copy of this novel through a Goodreads giveaway, but I’ll definitely be looking for his past and future work now.

If you’re a reader who really looks for ‘feel-good’ escapist fiction, then this certainly is not the novel for you. If there was ever an opposite to a feel-good story (a feel-dreadful story?) then it’s this. But, that doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant read, or a night of darkness you can’t get through. And maybe it’ll drive more into action that help bring the daylight to our world.


QUARRY’S BLOOD by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Blood
(Quarry Series #16)
(Hard Case Crime Series #151)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 9781789096682
— Paperback — 224 pp.


Quarry’s Blood is a quick and satisfying pulp read, with Collins infusing his latest novel with fresh blood (yes, bad pun groan) to invigorate the aging Quarry series. I first saw this title in the Hard Case Crime catalog and thought, oh dear, another Quarry novel? And then I was even more confused to see that it was set in 2021, well after the events of The Last Quarry, which had been meant as the chronologically final story of the former contract killer’s life. I read how HCC editor Charles Ardai talked Collins into writing this entry, read the novel, and then was very glad that Ardai succeeded.

If, perchance, you haven’t read a Quarry novel, or if you haven’t seen any of the brief Cinemax series based on the series, here’s the gist of the character. A Vietnam veteran trained as a sniper, the man later dubbed Quarry returned home after the war to find his wife had been cheating on him with another man. Quarry killed that man, but circumstances led to him legally getting off from the crime, and to be recruited as a hitman for a powerful ‘Broker’ with mob connections, a man in charge of delegating regional contract killings. The Broker names his talented new recruit “Quarry” for the man’s rock solid appearance and hollow emotional core, and Quarry quickly becomes one of his best hitmen. Until the Broker begins to worry about Quarry and betrays him. Quarry goes rogue and takes care of the problem, procuring a list of jobs in the process. Quarry begins to go to people on the hit list and offer his services to get rid of the contract killers after them, and then also to try and find out who ordered that hit and take them out too. As he ages, he eventually settles for one last job with a big payout; he ends up with retirement with a woman he loves.

In Quarry’s Blood, the former hitman is still living the quiet, retired life, mourning the recent loss of his wife to COVID, but continuing his daily routine as he approaches seventy years old. This calm routine changes when a true crime writer, Susan Breedlove, arrives knocking at his door with questions. Susan has written a best-selling book that investigated and exposed many events from Quarry’s past, including what occurred with the Broker, and she is looking to write more, with more details and the hope of cooperation from Quarry, the man she knows far more about than anyone should. Even more disturbingly, soon after her visit, a contract killer and his backup make an attempt on Quarry’s life. It’s reasonable to Quarry to assume these two events are connected.

There are two things to the aptly titled Quarry’s Blood that make it succeed in terms of its plot. First, it is now a case where Quarry is the contract. He has to both protect himself from being killed, while also investigating to try and figure out who would want him dead and how it relates to Susan’s book/research. And, though he is in remarkable shape for his age, he is certainly not in top form for the kind of exertion that investigation might entail. Second, is the character of Susan: who she is and how that relates to Quarry and his past. The person who put out the hit on Quarry, and their secret reasons for doing so also pull from the core of Quarry’s past and nicely parallel his relation to Susan.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to be more detailed, but I’m going to opt for keeping it all a surprise. The novel begins with three chapters set in the 1980’s, so that by the time we get to the present and Susan arrives, things should already be clear to readers. Thankfully Collins doesn’t take too long to dance around things either, leaving the real mystery of the novel to who is targeting Quarry – and even moreover why.

Collins’ writing is exactly what one would expect from this master of neo-pulp. The text and dialogue flow crisply, with bits of playful trashiness one would expect from the genre. The novel is also preceded by some quotations, one of which is a definition for ‘meta’. Indeed, there are many self-referential nods in Quarry’s Blood, including mention of the TV series and the idea that Quarry himself writes the pulp Quarry series that everyone thinks is fiction.

Collins clearly has fun writing this unexpected chapter in Quarry’s story, and he succeeds in making it unique enough from previous entries to warrant its telling. Susan is an impressive addition to the series, and I could see things continuing in spin-off series featuring her. In fact, I hope Ardai pushes strongly for that.


FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


DOUBLE DOWN by Max Allan Collins

Double Down
(Hard Case Crime Series #149; Nolan Series #s 3 – 4)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789091410
— Paperback — 352 pp.


Even mediocre Max Allan Collins provides more entertainment value than much of the crime fiction that is out there, and with this volume one gets two episodes from the neo-noir series featuring the professional thief Nolan for the price of one. Double Down is a recent Hard Case Crime reissue of the third and fourth novels of Collins’ Nolan series, Fly Paper and Hush Money. Originally written back in the ’70’s, but not published until 1981, these novels have since been often out-of-print. This release by Hard Case Crime follows their publication of the final Nolan novel (#9, Skim Deep) a few months prior, which I reviewed here previously.

In Fly Paper, Nolan has settled into retirement from pulling jobs for the Detroit mob, surviving old enemies to manage one of organized crime’s legitimate businesses, the Tropicana hotel and nightclub outside Chicago. But Nolan receives a call from his protégé Jon that sets the pair up for a heist of some easy money from a member of the Comfort family, a crime clan who continue as a principal antagonist to Nolan in the series. Meanwhile, a man plots the daring hijacking of a flight for some ransom money. Unfortunately for this man, he has chosen the flight that Jon and Nolan are taking after netting their easy score.

Fly Paper is an odd entry to the Nolan series compared to the others I’ve read. The heists and crimes come down entirely to happenstance, showcasing the Pasteur quote “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” It all ends up feeling like a cakewalk, with Nolan and Jon barely breaking any sweat. Additionally, the novel has the feel of being two stories set in one (compounded here with Fly Paper being paired with another novel.) There is the one plot with the Comfort family, which easily resolves, and then there is the plot inspired by the real history of “D.B. Cooper” and his hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. I imagine Collins read the news stories about this stunning event back in the early 1970’s and thought, hmm, I wonder how that would’ve gone down if a real bad ass were on board at the time to steal from the thief? Beef that concept up with a set-up to get Nolan on the plane, and print it.

Hush Money takes place concurrently with Fly Paper, and immediately following. Someone in Des Moines is killing business associates of organized crime, and the Mob thinks that Nolan may be the best person out there to find who is responsible and cleanly make it end. With the amount they offer him, how could Nolan turn it down, especially with Jon eager to help? It takes a good third of the short novel for Nolan and Jon to even appear, so a good chunk of Hush Money involves the killer, the targets, and their families during the time when Jon & Nolan are making bank off the Comforts and an odd plane trip home. Again, this gives Hush Money the feel of being two stories that merge into one. The plot feels superior to that in Fly Paper, though, with less of a reliance on happenstance, and without the DB Cooper gimmick going on. It’s also interesting to see Nolan work in a role of mediator where he ends up not ever having an ‘enemy’ or ‘evil person’ who he has to go up against for survival.

Neither Fly Paper or Hush Money are ground-breaking or remotely compare to the best noir that Collins has produced. But, regardless, he can write. Nolan shines with style, wit, and a charming elegance that imparts that compulsively readable pulp crime vibe. Jon has more naiveté, but an earnest drive to learn and find success. The stories and dialogue smoothly flow to give a simply entertaining diversion of crime fiction, bread-and-butter of the Hard Case Crime line that doesn’t demand much, but also doesn’t insult or fail.

Hard Case Crime is in the process of publishing additional works by Max Allan Collins, including titles featuring his character Quarry and volumes from the Nolan series that follow this one. The character of Nolan is inspired (at least in part) on a thief from Donald E. Westlake’s oeuvre writing as Richard Stark, and Hard Case Crime is likewise amid several Westlake releases. Look for reviews of those releases coming ahead, and check the novels out if you’re a fan of this pulp crime gold.


THE GODMOTHERS by Camille Aubray

The Godmothers
By Camille Aubray
HarperLuxe — June 2021
ISBN: 9780063090279
— Paperback — 592 pp.


Greenwich Village, New York City, the 1930s. As war breaks out in distant Europe, a wealthy family of Italian Americans with business ties to the mafia works hard to ensure their continued success for themselves, and even more for their children. Gianni and Tessa have one daughter, Petrina, and three sons, Johnny, Frankie, and Mario; partnering them each with the right spouse becomes the immediate parental priority to facilitate their continued familial prosperity. However, the fashionable and intelligent Petrina has a marriage on the rocks, and she still hasn’t fully recovered from a potential scandal in her past that threatened the family’s stability.

Considerate and responsible eldest son Johnny has married naive Amie, a young French widow from upstate New York, who he helps after she has used a gun to end her abusive marriage to a bar owner. Fiery middle son Frankie marries the equally spirited Lucy, an Irish nurse who has prior experience standing up to members of organized crime. But for quiet and cerebral Mario, the doted-upon baby boy of the family, Tessa decides that he needs a good Italian woman from the old country, a woman who has not grown up with the influences of American culture. Tessa and Gianni arrange to bring a young woman named Filomena over for marriage to Mario. Outbreak of WWII in Italy and tragedy leads another girl to seize the opportunity to secretly come in her friend’s place, adopting Filomena’s name and identity.

The bulk of the novel deals with the history of this family from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chapters set in the 1980s frame each side of this story, featuring Nicole, who is learning all these hidden secrets of her family’s past from one of the four Godmothers. Aubray follows the opening bookend with chapters that separately introduce the pasts of each of the four women, with particular focus on Filomena. By the point of Filomena’s marriage to Mario, the singular path of the woman as part of the familial is followed. Their generation takes over more business operations with the death of Gianni and Tessa.

The gradual departure or loss of the men to illness or war gradually allow the women to take leadership more fully, making use of the survival skills they have each learned from their pasts, and their keen intellect. With strengths to complement one another, and ferociously protective of each other’s secrets, these Godmothers work together to separate their lives from dependence on crime and keep their children safe.

The basic feminist story in The Godmothers is solid. It’s a story of divestment from situations they have been born or married into while maintaining loyalty to ‘blood’. Establishing social independence alongside separation from criminal business ties that leave them vulnerable and at the mercy to immoral powers that they’ve all had personal prior experience with in some way.

Aubray’s construction of the novel is less perfect. The bookends to the story set in the 1980s are unnecessary, and even detrimental. The opening sets up expectations of really dark secrets and mystery that will have big implications for Nicole. There are some dark secrets and mysteries revealed in those days of the 1930s – 1950s. But from the point of view of decades later, they are all pretty unsurprising, and hardly scandalous to warrant panic for Nicole. If framed solely as learning more about her family it may have worked better at least (even if not needed). Instead it sets the novel up to be far more of a thriller and mystery than it ever is.

The other major issue with The Godmothers is that it becomes progressively less compelling as the read continues. The first half or so was engaging, but the plot soon settles into a lull of predictability, and the character developments among the women and their relationship stagnates into repetition of themes. Coupled with an anticlimactic end to the 1950s era story of the Godmothers gaining criminal independence, the fizzling of any story on the 1980s side of the history makes the final chapters of the novel more skippable than engaging.

Though Aubray writes well – if a bit melodramatically – and crafts interesting characters with a meaningful history, the structure of the novel and a second half of smooth-sailing against any remotely rough waters ends up dampening the initial joys of reading The Godmothers. Given the numerous mentions of the novel on “Best of the year/summer” lists and many enthusiastic reader responses, there are certainly readers out there who will enjoy this and not mind structural elements I found to not work.

For those who are interested in looking into The Godmothers further, there is currently a new Goodreads Giveaway running until April 26, 2022 to win a copy of the novel.


CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


LATER by Stephen King

Later
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491
— Paperback — 248 pp.


Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.

Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.

As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.

Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.

As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.

At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.

His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.

It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”

Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.

If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.

From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.