Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pick Up A Pulp [16]: TOP OF THE HEAP by A.A. Fair

Like the other Cool and Lam pulps by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair, Top of the Heap starts with a simple and shady case, easily solved and paid for only to morph into a complex conspiracy.  

This time round, The Cool and Lam detective agency is hired by John Carver Billings to confirm an alibi placing him at a motel with two women from out of town at time of an attempted murder of a prominent mob boss. Lam promptly confirms the alibi only to get suspicious about how easily Billings's story fell into place. Taking matters into his own hands, Lam soon discovers the women were paid off and the simple case was a ruse leading him down a complex underworld rabbit warren. 

One thing this series has going for it, is that each installment (those I've read anyway) reads perfectly well as a standalone. Top of the Heap is book #13 and requires the reader to have no prior knowledge of the earlier cases. Though, readers of the series will note, by this point, Lam is taking lead and the charismatic Bertha Cool is on the peripheral - a far cry from the other Cool and Lam book published by Hard Case Crime in The Knife Slipped. 

Starting simple and evolving into a broader mystery is fine, if done right. Unfortunately each of the 3 Cool and Lam books I've read have lost me midway through as the case spans different directions connected together by paper thin threads. Top of the Heap is perhaps the prime example; there's an attempted hit on a mob boss, the murder of a mob moll, a murder of a mining mogul, stock market manipulation, paid alibis, and potential banker fraud, oh a plot to take over a prominent gambling establishment - all in around 200 pages. It's hard to keep up. 

Top of the Heap will appeal to fans of Cool and Lam but readers wanting a traditional pulp will be let down, dime store dialogue aside. 2/5 stars. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: ORPHAN X by Greg Hurwitz

Publisher Penguin
Length 427 pages
Format paperback
Published 2016
Series Evan Smoak #1
My Copy provided by the publisher

My Review
A clandestine government agency targets pre-teens on the edges of society to take part in the Orphan program - a program designed to turn these young people from wayward and down on their luck individuals to merciless killing machines on command. 
   
The concept of the Orphan program is excellent, brutal, and black ops believable. Author Greg Hurwitz has, with Orpahn X, written a fast paced action thriller that never lets up, all the while steadily developing his protagonist into a likable and well rounded character; flaws and all. 

Orphan X picks up with Evan Smoak, now out on his own following the demise of Orphan program working as a self funded vigilante. Wanting to use his expertise to help those in need, rather than murdering for hire, Evan (known as Orphan X) relies on a unique method of picking his assignments; they pick him. After each mission he tells the person he helped to pass his number on to someone in need. Only once, then forget about him.

The snag in Orphan X is that Evan receives two calls in close succession, the second prior to completing his current mission. Red flags abound and soon Evan is fighting for his life and those he's sworn to protect. 

What I really liked about this book was the constant guessing game. The motive for the dual call hides behind a veil of mystery for the better part of the book, which at times was frustrating but trust me, it's well worth the wait. Evan's backstory and current day-to-day life are fleshed out among the ever present action in a way that doesn't slow the story down, rather humanizing the vigilante giving the book an added layer of depth.

As the first book in a new series, Orphan X has loads of potential. I'll be fast tracking the next read, The Nowhere Man for sure. 

3.5 / 5  

Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: SAVAGE LANE by Jason Starr

Publisher No Exit Press
Length 317 pages
Format paperback
Published 2015
Series Standalone
My Copy I bought it

My Review
Jason Starr gets inside the crawl space of the minds of his characters in similar fashion to suburban noir authors James M Cain and Megan Abbott as he weaves a seductively good tale infused with satire, secrets, and murder. 

The suburbs are a breeding ground for gossip, and it's this gossip that leads to a very public accusation of murder and a fallout which destroys long time friends and rocks a family to it's everyday middle class core. 

Karen is the girl next door - the middle aged mom version that is, while Mark is the love struck boy - circa middle-aged family man. Mark's wife, Deb, knows something is going on between Karen and Mark. The subtle flirting, the texting, the whispered conversations and morning jogs together. She can see her husband drifting off to the arms of another woman. She is certain of this. So much so that confronts Mark about and then Karen - causing a stir and creating a scene which changes their lives forever. 

Sounds like a midday-made-for-TV-movie doesn't it? Think again. Jason Starr has a knack for writing troubled characters who succumb to an all too easy darker persona while making said dark persona shine with normalcy. The blue collar noir of Jason Starr's earlier novels rears it's head in the mean streets of suburbia and the end result is a topsy turvey thriller sure to please.

4 / 5 stars. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review: MILDRED PIERCE by James M Cain

Publisher Blackstone Audio
Length 10 hours
Format audio-book
Published 2007 (originally published 1941)
Series Standalone
My Copy borrowed from the library

My Review
Set during depression era America, this family drama takes the reader deep into inner suburbia where a housewife, mother, and businesswoman can echo noir with the best of them.

Mildred Pierce is the type of book I imagine modern day authors such as Megan Abbott writing. It's seeped in darkness that bubbles to the surface yet never really shows its intentions. Rather using a subliminal tone delivered through deep characterization and a slight of hand twist in plot direction. 

Veda, Mildred's daughter is something else. Self centered, manipulative, and plain bitchy, she has no redeemable qualities yet its her character that makes the book. Mildred comes off as a sap, bending to her daughters every request until finally a gross wrong is done to her. By that time it's too late to turn back; the drama dead in the dust.  

Mildred Pierce is a classic that largely held my attend but it was prone to lapses of semi-boredom where nothing much seemed to happen. That said, given this book was written so long ago, it holds up remarkably well. 

The audio version suffered from a narrator that struggled to make the characters distinguishable at times, particularly early on in the novel. That said, the pitch and breathless delivery fit the tone of the novel perfectly.  

Overall, I give Mildred Pierce 3/5 stars. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Review: THE PASSENGER by Lisa Lutz

Publisher Titan
Length 384 pages
Format paperback
Published 2016
Series Standalone
My Copy provided by the publisher

My Review
I love books that start with a bang. From the first sentence The Passenger vice grips your attention and doesn’t let up.

"When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body." 

After the killer sentence, a mystery slowly unravels; why does Tanya run? She says she didn’t kill her husband, yet innocence is damn near forfeited when she hot foots it out of town, not only leaving behind her dead husband but her former life for she is no longer Tanya Dubois, rather someone else, and then someone different, and then someone else again...a pattern of why’s and constant change accompanied by ever-present danger ensures.

The Passenger is a fast paced thriller that, while entertaining does read a little same-same. Bouncing from town to town, finding danger and violence at nearly every turn, Tanya’s (or Amelia, or Nora, or Sonya) ever changing identity did get tiresome without cause. We eventually do find out the reason, and it’s a good one but perhaps a little more time spent in each locale rather than speeding through personalities and places would have benefited the overall flow of the story.

This is my first book by Lisa Lutz and as far as thrillers with a deep sense of mystery go, it’s pretty good. I found myself constantly making assumptions as to why Tanya was doing the things she did, even with the subtle hints peppered throughout, the reason remained elusive until the end – making this a well crafted mystery.


3/5 stars. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: THE PLEA by Steve Cavanagh

Publisher Orion
Length 400 pages
Format paperback
Published 2016
Series Eddie Flynn #2
My Copy arc provided by the publisher

My Review 
I’ve read reviews which compare The Plea’s style to a mash-up of the fast paced action packed books by adventure/action author Matthew Reilly with the tense thrills and courtroom twists of John Grisham’s legal thrillers and can’t think of anything more fitting to describe the Eddie Flynn books by Steve Cavanagh.

The Plea hits hard and fast. The opening pages see the former conman turned lawyer Eddie Flynn dodging bullets and fighting for his life before the story takes a breath and moves back in time in the lead up to the present day gunfight to document a blow by blow account of how Eddie found himself in such a dire situation.

There is always something happening in The Plea, be it Eddie’s courtroom tactics boarding on the brink of genius or the constant threat of his families safety. The balance between reality and absurd fiction doesn’t quite mesh at times but if you suspend your belief enough, The Plea is all the better for it – I mean, the guy hardly catches a breath, sleeps, or eats for nearly two days while fronting up in court, dealing with the FBI, dodging Mexican cartels, and protecting a billionaire potentially framed for large scale money laundering. It can be exhaustive reading – yet it’s addictive.

Despite being book 2 in the Eddie Flynn series, The Plea reads well as a standalone (I’ve not read The Defense, book 1 in the series) but I’m sure references made to Eddie’s earlier escapades throughout the novel will have more meaning for those familiar with The Plea’s predecessor.


I’d rate this book 3/5 – lengthening the time frame of the story to a week from the couple days in the book would've made The Plea read more plausible, but hey, it’s fiction and it’s entertaining; legal thriller junk food for the mind. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January Reads Recommendation: Australian Crime

My newest obsession (well, one of my new obsessions, I'll talk about the other in a later blog post) is returning to reading Australian crime fiction and non-fiction. There is something that pulls me towards that harsh and desolate outback landscape where the land is as much a serial killer as those antagonists in the pages of crime fiction. The serenity and seclusion is a perfect backdrop for crime. 

Australians will be well familiar with the backpacker murders of the 90's and the convicted killer Ivan Milat responsible for so many unfortunate deaths which makes reading any outback crime fiction all the more grisly by virtue of the true life counterpart. I recently listed to the audible audio version of this book and enjoyed it for the most part, however the clinical nature of the book could lead readers to distraction, that said, I do recommend it if you've not checked it out. 

Aussie crime accounted for over 50% (8 books in total) of my January reading, this is above and beyond the highest ratio of Aussie-centric crime reads I can recall and I loved (for the most part) every aspect of it.  

Below are the picks of the bunch, including my current #1 read of 2017, Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher (published 2013):