DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN by Carolyn Ferrell

Dear Miss Metropolitan
By Carolyn Ferrell
Henry Holt and Co. — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250793614
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


Fern, Gwin, and Jesenia are three young girls from very different backgrounds, living their lives of unique joys and struggles at home and at school that nonetheless unite them in the transformations of adolescence. They’re also united in a nightmare experience: captives of an abductor they know only as Boss Man, who has stolen them from the streets and placed them in his basement, a chamber of horrors hidden in an unassuming, dilapidated Queens home.

When authorities finally descend upon the home years later and rescue the “Victim Girls”, they discover only two of the missing young girls, now women, and one young baby. Neighbors look on at the scene of police, ambulances, and news vans. They wonder how this could have occurred right next door, without them ever suspecting. Among those is local newspaper advice columnist, Miss Metropolitan, who feels particular guilt for having failed to notice anything amiss right before her journalistic eyes.

As the rescued Fern and Gwin come to terms with their traumatic abuse and experiences of victimhood and unfathomable resilience, they also ponder the fate of Jesenia, who helped keep them strong, alive, during the ordeal – Jesenia who was forced to bear a child of rape. Meanwhile, others associated with the case, its aftermath, and the next generation, deal with the lingering unanswerable mysteries: Why did this happen? How did it happen? How have the survivors been forever changed? What has been lost?

Dear Miss Metropolitan is a fast moving mosaic of a novel, a narrative stitched together from multiple viewpoints, in different formats, jumping around in time between past and future. Chapters are brief, with standard prose or in the form of document clippings, transcripts, even photographs. Points of view can jump from paragraph to paragraph, narration and dialogue bleed together.

One gets the sense that Ferrell employs this stylistic structure in order to depict the elements of such a traumatic crime from many perspectives through time, as the ‘truth’ behind things and the labels used to describe the victims (survivors) of the abduction and abuse evolve. The publisher and many reviews have referred to this stylistic choice as innovative, but it is not really. Authors have been doing this for a long time. I just finished reading Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, a gothic ‘puzzle-box’ of a novel meticulously structured among perspectives to astounding affect. More modern, and far more effective, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film employs a mosaic structure of media not unlike what Ferrell does here with Dear Miss Metroplitan.

The problem with Dear Miss Metropolitan is that it all comes across as a meaningless cacophony; the artistic reason for including multiple perspectives and time jumps drowns out any insights into the larger scale contexts directly from within the crime as a victim/survivor or indirectly from viewing it from the outside as voyeur, from living it and knowing one’s past or from seeing it only second-hand after the fact. Ferrell fails to hit all the themes and perspectives adequately, and confuses what is there and done well with misapplied structural artifice.

Dear Miss Metropolitan would work far more effectively by limiting aspirations and focus to the girls: their past, their ordeals, their strength, and their bravely facing the aftermath. Time jumps and perspective jumps would have even still worked fine. The mistake was to then also try and look at the outsider perspectives and needlessly use fragments from media text or photos. The majority of the novel indeed focuses just on the girls. The titular Miss Metropolitan doesn’t even really appear until almost the close of the novel, and her inclusion becomes far too little, too late.

This is a difficult novel to read due to the nature of its plot, a thriller based on real life horrors of the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a plot that also comes up frequently in horror fiction and crime thrillers. To Ferrell’s credit she does succeed in making this somewhat fresh, at looking at the themes of victimhood, survivorship, bravery, and guilt. She also does this without ever making the horror seem exploitative. However, she bites off too much to effectively chew by trying to make this a structural puzzle box that also reveals profound insights into multiple perspectives across space and time.


BIRDS OF PARADISE by Oliver K. Langmead

Birds of Paradise
By Oliver K. Langmead
Titan Books — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789094817
— Paperback — 298 pp.


I’m not typically one to get awestruck by a cover, but even I had to stare impressed with the design on Oliver K. Langmead’s Birds of Paradise for a good while before cracking the book open to begin reading. It’s the work of graphic designer Julia Lloyd, and I want to be sure and give credit for such fantastic, evocative work.

Langmead’s novel takes an interesting premise and runs with it in inventive ways that create a hybrid sort of genre novel, equal parts dark fantasy and heist crime noir, with a dash of John Wick thrown in. The official blurb of the novel dubs it American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia. While I can see the Gaiman American Gods vibe going here, the latter comparison makes absolutely no sense to me. A Biblical story lies within the inspiration, but it is not working the Creation story in any of the ways that any established religion does, whether using the Hebraic version or another.

Instead, Langmead takes the concept of a created perfection in the Garden of Eden, and considers the characters who populated it prior to the Fall. There is Adam and Eve, of course. But, also all of the other created species that populate its land, air, and waters. In particular, all the animals that Adam had a role in naming, intelligences that while not quite human ‘in the image of God’ still have a relatable consciousness.

If these were all created in a perfection, immortal before sin and death entered the world, what might have occurred after the Fall? What if the mortality and the loss of perfection only affected all that came afterward. What if all those archetypes remained immortal, but their perfection became lost and fragmented to all the corners of the Earth? In other words, Langmead spins his own mythological take on the outcome of the Creation story.

Set during the present day, Birds of Paradise follows Adam as he struggles to keep up his existence roaming the Earth and not giving in to despair to end his immortality to meet the fate that all of his children that have come to populate the planet can enjoy. Only one thing keeps Adam driven to continue on, the potential of recovering Eden, finding the fragmented creatures and pieces of its ruins.

Stories of rumors and pieces being discovered start to reach Adam’s ears, and his former animal friends like Owl, or Raven, or Pig start to reunite, coming out from their lives among the human population they’ve learned to integrate into, hidden for centuries. Adam begins to imagine that if he can recapture, and recreate Eden, then maybe the paradise that he has so long been exiled from could finally return. Full of despair and yearning for Eve, the woman he exchanged hearts with, but has since lost sets him on a personal quest for redemption and reclaimed worth.

However, a group of powerful and rich individuals have also set their eyes on amassing the scattered fragments of Edenic perfection, and are willing to destroy anyone that gets in their way, even the archetypical animals who still persist across Earth with deep personal connection to their former home. When these individuals of desire and greed kill another piece of Adam’s cherished past, it sets the First Man on a path of violence, not just to recapture Eden, but to enact bloody revenge.

Langmead writes Birds of Paradise in rich, poignant prose, a beauty that contrasts sharply against the raw, violent brutality of many of its action sequences and the brooding weariness of its protagonist’s soul. This is a dark novel, even pessimistic, where the drive to fight on comes with the near total realization that Eden can’t be recreated, that Adam is doomed to failure, and his soul mate Eve cannot return. Adam’s a man who lives in an eternity of memory, knowing that the perfect good times he once enjoyed are gone. But, the only thing that can keep him going on is that shred of hope that maybe, just maybe he can build some sort of simulacrum of that perfection to at least pretend and experience some bits of joy anew.

And moreso, even if he can’t go back home to the perfect Eden, he is certainly not going to sit by and watch others create a bastardized version of it for their own selfish amusement as they rule over rest of his children. Or let them kill his only remaining friends in the process of their hubris, falling to the same sin as he and Eve.

Langmead’s plot is a very compelling one, and he effectively delves without reserve into the dark emotions of humanity. Personally, I found it all too dark and depressive, the revenge too cold blooded. I felt as though Adam was just as reprehensible and vile as the antagonists of the novel. I just got a better sense of the intense trauma that got Adam to this point of weary despair, destroyed. But I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it, or if I wanted to particularly dwell amid it. However, for those who that strikes better, Langmead does deal in that darkness with aplomb.

The element I enjoyed most in Birds of Paradise included the various animal personalities from Eden who join Adam along the way to various degrees. Langmead makes these characters rich and vibrant, across a spectrum of personality traits that cleverly mimic their animal origins. The concept of these human-like magical Edenic progenitors of the creatures that now inhabit the Earth with us is an interesting one. And there are intersting parallels here in terms of Adam’s place within the context of these other characters – his responsibility to them and the concepts of humankind’s stewardship of Creation, to live as part of the ecosystem with conscious responsibility. Something we’ve failed at. It’s thus interesting that this is perhaps the one thing that Adam recaptures here from Eden, a sense of communion and connection, a reunion.

The other element I appreciated in the novel were the the protagonist – antagonist conflict and the heists of Edenic fragments that fuel it. Strip away the brutality and what we’re left with here is a very brutal noir story, with all its aura of dark pessimism. Langmead kept me engaged in Adam’s melancholic journey because of this plot conflict, with the exuberance of the novel’s villains.

As I think about it more, I usually go for noir that is brutally dark, so why was I a bit more off put by it here in Birds of Paradise? For one, Adam felt a bit too unredeemable for my tastes, I probably would react similarly if he were a corrupt and degenerate PI, for instance. But also it’s the religious aspects of the novel here, the idea that Adam is trying to recreate the ideal of God by doing things that are even more rebellious and counter to Christian concepts, at least. This is my own perspective butting in here, though. Langmead makes it clear that this is not a Biblical reality, God is pretty much absent from things here, certainly the Christian concept. But, it’s harder for me to make that separation and form that disbelief amid a fictional world. I could do it with Norse gods, or with Greek ‘mythology.’ Not so easily with what’s closer and more ingrained.

Birds of Paradise succeeds very well at doing what the novel sets out to do, and for fans of this type of fantasy genre there is a lot of wonderment within its framework to appreciate, enjoy, and ponder.


THE TURNOUT by Megan Abbott

The Turnout
By Megan Abbott
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780593084922
— Paperback — 368 pp.


First released last August, but only recently out in paperback, The Turnout is the tenth novel from Megan Abbott, a popular suspense/crime writer whose work typically focuses on female perspectives. I have always heard good buzz around her novels, and I even have a couple sitting on my shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet.

This solidly constructed thriller affirms why Abbott’s work has been bestselling and award winning. The Turnout is propelled forward by a simplicity of suspense and atmosphere that make it immanently readable. Furthermore, the familiarity of everyday characters and seemingly mundane conflicts of work and family form a curtain of universal relatability for readers. Beyond that curtain lie secrets and crimes that Abbott allows poke out: dark, uncanny shivers and susurrations amid everyday life. With plotting and language she deftly builds suspense up to the shattering revelations of the novel’s climax.

Sisters Dara and Marie oversee the prestigious Durant School of Dance, an institution of ballet they inherited after the tragic death of their parents in a car accident. Dara’s husband Charlie works alongside the sisters. Once their mother’s prized student, who spent life growing up with the sisters as an adopted part of the Durant family, Charlie’s ballet talent buckled to injury. Now, the trio work fluidly in an intimate choreography of instruction, molding a new generation of dancers into ballet artists.

The clockwork precision and smoothness of the professional and personal lives of this trio becomes unbalanced when Marie suddenly decides to move out of the familial Durant home and crash at the dance studio, away from Dara and Charlie. Then, just as the school begins its preparation for their annual crowning performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a fire breaks out from a space heater Marie has been using. Though firefighters save most of the school, extensive repairs become necessary just when the school is busiest and the family is most stressed.

From word-of-mouth recommendation, Dara hires a construction remodeler to repair the damage. Though relieved to see the team gets to quick work, Dara becomes increasingly concerned by the odd behavior and comments of the lead remodeler, Derek, who has seemingly enchanted Marie into an alarming relationship of sexual passion and psychological control. Strange accidents and setbacks to the repair begin to occur, and Dara begins to fear that Derek is not just further fragmenting the Durant family, but has his eyes set on much more.

One of the things that Abbott does very well is to convey the harsh, painful toll of ballet on the dancer’s body, from the feet on up. Dara repeatedly echoes the voice of her mother in encouraging and glorifying the torment and self sacrifice given by children for their art. It’s a bitter truth that any success involves struggle and pain, contortions and wounds. Something like that physically embodies this. Abbot takes this dark idea and runs with it, showing the manipulation of students by mentors that parallel the bodily manipulations of muscle and skeleton in the ballet dancer. The title of the novel refers to this specifically: the turnout, where a dancer achieves full 180-degree rotation of their feet to jut at a right angle from front, a physical achievement requiring contortions of the hip to manipulate human anatomy into atypical forms.

These themes of physical manipulation and pain center into the dynamics of all the character relationships, and the plot of The Turnout. The family strife, the histories of past trauma kept hidden, and the toxic agenda of Derek: these all echo the tolls taken by ballet for excellence. The difference, however lies in the questions of what one demands from (and gives of), oneself, versus what others selfishly take. That distinction is key, particular in the example of protagonist Dara, who is quite willing to endure pain for the sake or her art and things she controls, but refuses to bear it for others.

As the protagonist and point-of-view for the novel, Dara represents the most complex and developed character. It’s a shame that Abbott doesn’t put the same intricacy into the others. To an extent she has little choice. We can’t know the thoughts of others, and to reveal more depth in many would ruin the suspense or reveal truths prematurely. However, I do think that Marie could have been more of a focus for development and insight.

Despite the darkness of its plot elements, The Turnout is a pleasure read, an engaging thriller that doesn’t require much beyond reading and enjoying. Dara’s voice of growing confusion and fear lend a shadowy atmosphere where the reality of what faces her becomes obscured amid her assumptions and suppressed memories. This creates a perfect mood for suspense fans to enjoy, and I look forward to reading more of what she has written.


RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: THE MILITARIZATION OF AMERICA’S POLICE FORCE by Radley Balko

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force
By Radley Balko
PublicAffairs — 2014
ISBN: 9781541774537
— Paperback — 528 pp.


This is a title that went onto my to-read list when it first came out, but it took years and a happenstance coming across the book at Burning Books to get a copy, and then awhile of it sitting in a pile before deciding I really needed to get into it. Despite those 8-or-so years, the relevance of the title has hardly diminished, becoming perhaps more important, focusing on issues that are germane to front page headlines in today’s New York Times.

The title of Balko’s books is somewhat incomplete. Thought he militarization of civilian police serves as a major focus of the book, it’s more broadly a history of, and commentary on the third and fourth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America. For those who don’t remember the particulars of this part of the Bill of Rights, these are:

Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Balko begins by discussing the colonial and revolutionary context of these amendments, with emphasis on the third that seems so irrelevant to us today at the surface level. He discusses how the amendments both relate to the common law Castle doctrine, and explains why these were considered so fundamentally important both then at the time of the writing of the Constitution, and now.

He then traces the concept of civilian policing through history, quickly getting to its use in the United States and focusing in a series of chapters on the decades from the 1960s to the 2000s. The starting point of the 1960s corresponds to the political introduction of the “War on Drugs” to the nation, as well as violent events that led to the development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.

The tie-in of targeted amplification of drug prosecution (particularly minor offenses that have no victims) and SWAT (increased militarization of policing) corresponds to the gradual, systematic erosion of civil liberties related to the Castle doctrine and the pair of Constitutional amendments. With mind-boggling and frightening implication, Balko relates how systems of policing have violated, or circumvented, protections against individuals in their homes, degraded the supposed protections supplied by warrants. Worse, politics have instituted a system whereby police departments are perversely rewarded for feeing this self-perpetuating machine of terror, and have even been penalized for actual fighting of crime with results.

The most obvious injustice that Balko brings up with anecdote again, and again (showing it is an acute symptom of societal, or institutional, disease) is the no-knock warrant that became created and justified to allow police to enter private residences with no warning, with impunity, violence, and little oversight or consequences for their actions. All that was needed became a the mere suspicion that drugs may be present, and that warning of entry to the home could, maybe, result in drugs being disposed of.

Balko shows how often this has been abused with horrendous consequences due to ignorance and errors. Misidentified homes, wrong addresses, poor or dishonest informants and intelligence, etc. I lost count of how many innocent people’s lives ended because their home was suddenly invaded by dark-clad paramilitary forces. And nothing would change, it would only increase.

Alongside this, Balko also addresses how police SWAT teams became increasingly used for situations where they were not required – for example, peaceful protests. Or police departments in areas of the country with no record of violent crime for over a hundred years got themselves a SWAT team and battle tanks. Simply because the money was made available, and this is America.

What may astound many readers of this is how pervasively the political will for this extended through the decades and broadly across party lines. Conservatives who introduced ideas for being tougher on crime were later stunned that their misguided legislation had grown beyond intent, misused to now not target criminals, but attack civil liberties. They recanted, and regretted their initial ideas. But it is too late. Liberals who fought for the rights of poor people don’t want to be painted as being soft on crime. So they support/introduce bills to increase funding or giving authority to police. And it comes back to bite them.

Sadly, the failure of the Supreme Court through the decades in protecting the Constitution equally becomes clear. And, it makes one realize that the recent erosions of Constitutional protection (and future that this current court is likely to take) is not that atypical.

The NYT article I mentioned earlier is actually about how President Biden is issuing an executive order in response to what occurred to George Floyd (and the many, many other similar travesties of justice. This order demands reductions in police use of the ‘choke-hold’ and reductions in the use of ‘no-knock’ warrants. Ironically, Balko reveals that one of the biggest political names in the past decades who has personally driven legislation leading to increased police abuses like the above was Senator Joe Biden.

The birth of SWAT and police excesses were ultimately born from fear of maintaining control of a population that could arm itself with weapons and armor that an ordinary citizen could not take on. Recent events remind us that continued access to such weapons and bodily armor by the general population will only further fuel the fear and the arguments in some eyes that police should do more to protect, and that civil rights should be sacrificed. Balko’s text reminds us just how vigilant we need to be, and perhaps even work more directed and effectively towards reversing the general trends of our democracy.


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.


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.


SKIM DEEP by Max Allan Collins

Skim Deep
(Frank Nolan Series #9; Hard Case Crime Series #146)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime — December 2020
ISBN: 9781789091397
— Paperback — 256 pp.


I’ve been a fan of the Hard Case Crime series for awhile now, and like the media-tie-in series that I follow, I’ve been trying to keep up with reading each of the new releases under its banner. On occasion there is one that I really don’t care for, but the majority I find wonderfully entertaining, in that light reading kind of way. They span a variety of the mystery/crime/thriller genre with both classic reprints, new additions to series, and completely new creations from modern-day noir writers. They all have that tinge of noir pulp that I adore, even when it comes across as dated.

Shamus-award winning and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Max Allan Collins is probably a name familiar to anyone who reads the genre. Some bit of his prolific output in prose and graphic novels is likely familiar to an even broader swatch of the pop culture population. His Road to Perdition comic series was made into a film with Tom Hanks, and his Quarry novel series more recently appeared as a Cinemax TV series. I’ve read most all – if not all – of the Quarry novels from Hard Case Crime, and reviewed one here awhile back. I remember enjoying these to varying degrees, so the news of a new Collins novel was something to celebrate and anticipate.

Now, I’m less familiar with Collins’ Nolan series, featuring the Lee van Cleef lookalike professional thief Frank Nolan. I may have read Two for the Money, put out by Hard Case Crime in its early days (#5), but it’s too long to remember. The good thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Nolan. or if you have read any of the previous eight books featuring him, to enjoy Skim Deep. At this stage the thief has gone straight, running a restaurant/nightclub in the midwest with his lover Sherry, a former showgirl. He’s made peace with mafia powers that he formerly clashed with, and has been allowed to step aside to settle into a civilian’s life away from crime. Deciding to take things one step further and marry Sherry, the couple leaves on a whim for a Vegas ceremony. There they stay at the French Quarter Hotel (a thinly veiled Orleans), where Nolan’s friend and former accomplice Jon now works, also having gone straight, in the dreams of opening his own comic shop. Unfortunately, Nolan’s former reputation gains unsolicited notice from some in Vegas, including an acquaintance who decides to use Nolan’s surprise appearance to further his own criminal plans. In the meantime, the matriarch of a criminal family sets her youngest son with a mission to kill Nolan and bring her his head, in retribution for Nolan’s prior role in her eldest son’s death. Even if Nolan and Sherry manage to make it out of Vegas alive, an assassin awaits the new husband and wife at their doorway.

Skim Deep suffers most from the execution of its plot. The set up is a good one, but it proceeds predictably. This might not be a real terrible thing for this kind of pulp read, if the plot could have included more twists toward those predictable conclusions, or if the antagonists of the novel showed any modicum of competence as threats to Nolan, Sherry, or Jon. Two separate threats emerge in the novel against Nolan, but the perpetrators of each are almost comically inept. They also both are unwilling antagonists, acting not out of any particular dislike of Nolan, but feeling forced into the situation for want of money – and ultimately for want of keeping a hot wife. The stakes never seem particularly high for the ‘good guys’ of the novel, and each threat becomes dispatched with little fanfare. Sherry does serve a role in the novel, albeit with dated pulp tones of misogyny (e.g. honor and obey the husband); she’s a cheerleader and emotional support for Nolan as well as representation of the one thing he loves, a person who only chose to be associated with crime indirectly through a relationship with him. On the other hand, Jon seems largely dispensable to what occurs in the novel. I gather he is a larger part of previous novels in the series, serving as a young, nerdy and loyal foil to the classic principled and noble tough guy that is Nolan. There’s unfortunately little in Skim Deep featuring that, or to give Jon purpose and import in events.

Despite these flaws, Skim Deep works with the simple fact that Collins can write. The noir tone and Nolan’s personality shine in the dialogue and descriptions from the former thief’s point of view. Further, even if the survival of the hero is certain or they never really feel in danger, the story still flows in the enjoyment of the righteous justice against those who dared think they could hurt the noble Nolan or the innocent Sherry.

Like any criminal protagonist that writers ask audiences to get behind (your Boba Fetts), Nolan may be a thief, but he has a code of honor and respect. He is not evil, nor does he compromise on principals to take the easier path or gain reward. The antagonists of Skim Deep may not be evil either, but they have weak resolves and lack self confidence. They fear losing things they don’t think they necessarily even deserved in the first place. They don’t want to accept what might come, and they will hurt others to selfishly benefit. Nolan may not deserve Sherry. But he knows that he has her love and respect. And she knows she has the same from him. If he did something of his own fault to change that, he would not destroy more lives for his shortcomings. The contrast between these character traits between the protagonists and antagonists is at least interesting in Skim Deep, even if it does then contribute to the sheer lack of potency in those villains as credible threats.

After all this I feel kind of silly trying to analyze the novel. Even with shortcomings, it is a fine entertaining crime read, exactly what I’m looking for when I crack open a Hard Case Crime, and as usual Collins makes even the predictable fun. If you are already a Collins or Hard Case Crime fan, you’re sure to love this too. Fans of the genre who don’t know Collins or the Nolan novels would still find this worth checking out. The opportunity to discover more of the Nolan novels is also coming soon, as Hard Case Crime will be rereleasing the earlier books in the series in the coming month; you could always wait to start with those too. I’m intrigued to meet the Nolan of his more wild days that brought him here to Skim Deep.