Saturday, November 16, 2013

What it Was

What it WasWhat it Was by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Derek Strange is hired to find a missing ring, he has no idea what he's getting into. Robert Jones, aka Red Fury, is on a crime spree, looking to make a name for himself, and Frank Vaughn is on the case. Will Strange find the ring he's looking for? Can Frank Vaughn prove he isn't too old and bring Red Fury in?

And now, I can add "Read the complete novels of George Pelecanos in 2013" to my resume.

I was hooked on What it Was from the first page. Derek Strange and his new partner, Nick Stefanos, are chatting in a bar when Derek starts telling a story. Much like the last Derek Strange book, What it Was is a tale of the past, when Derek Strange was young and just starting out.

As with all George Pelecanos books, What it Was paints a vivid picture of what life in Washington DC was like, this time in the mid-1970's. Derek Strange is fresh off the police force and looking to make a name for himself as a private investigator. Frank Vaughn, his former partner, is still on the force despite nearing retirement. And Red Fury doesn't care whose toes he steps on.

The McGuffin of the story, the ring Strange is hired to find, is an afterthought for most of the book, though it changes hands quite a few times. The real story is of Strange, Vaughn, and Fury, all with something to prove.

The writing is vintage Pelecanos, full of car and music references and painting a picture of DC life. While I knew Strange wouldn't die, since he was telling the story, there were some tense moments, plus some cameo appearances, like Nick Stefanos and Johnny McGiness working at Nutty Nathan's in the 1970's.

The suspense builds throughout as Strange and Vaughn get closer and closer to crossing paths with Red Fury. When the big moment happened, it didn't go down quite like I suspected but it was still pretty satisfying. Write more Derek Strange, Pelecanos!

What it Was is an easy four stars. If you haven't read a George Pelecanos book yet, you're really missing out.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Insect Cookbook

The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable PlanetThe Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet by Arnold Van Huis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Insect Cookbook is what it claims to be: a cookbook with insects as the primary ingredient, since we'll be needing more and more sources of protein as the human population continues to grow.

The book starts with an overview of insects and has some interesting bug facts. Did you know that in the tropics, insects cost more pound for pound than meat and that in some parts of Mexico, popped ants have become the preferred snack at movie theaters? Fascinating stuff.

Insects as a food source are widely discussed, from Australians marketing grasshoppers as sky prawns, the Dutch calling them Land Shrimp, to weaver ants, termites, and yellowjackets being roasted and consumed. Spiders are given a mention despite being arachnids and not insects, though both are arthropods. Really, would eating tarantula legs be that much different than eating crab legs?

Many of the recipes in this book use either migratory locusts and two different types of mealworms, the insects most widely available to buy in the Netherlands, where the book was originally published. Others use termites and things of that nature. There are salads, soups, main courses, and desserts. Carmellized grasshopper, anyone?

This book does a great job at making the idea of eating insects more palatable. I've long thought that insects probably don't taste much different than shrimp or lobster. Aside from the box of chocolate covered insects someone at work gave me and that time I finished a bowl of cereal only to find there were weevils floating in my milk, my insect eating experience is minimal.

As I read this book, I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier. Thankfully, there is a list of insect suppliers in the back, right behind the chapter talking about how much less resources it would take to raise insects for food than it does cows or pigs.

Four out of five stars. I'm going to go scare up some grasshoppers to throw on my leftover pizza.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

10 Questions with Lawrence Block!

It's not every day a guy's favorite crime writer agrees to answer some questions for his blog.  Without further adieu, here's my interview with Lawrence Block!

What made you decide to revisit Bernie Rhodenbarr with The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons?
I’d wanted to write more about Bernie ever since THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL nine years ago. I’ve always enjoyed writing in his voice and seeing the world through his eyes. But the several attempts I made over the years were discouraging, and just didn’t come together, and I wasn’t willing to force it, because the one thing I’m unwilling to do is write a bad book about him.

Then I reached a point where I was ready, and I got on a cruise ship on a Saturday in July, and Sunday morning I got up early and went to work. I wrote every day for the next five weeks, and when the ship docked I got off with a finished book.

How has your writing process changed since the first Burglar book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers?
I’m not sure it has, beyond my having made the transition twenty years ago from typewriter to computer.

You've struck me as one of the authors to really see the potential in reissuing out off print works as eBooks.  Do you have any ebooks coming down the pipe you think people should be aware of?
I’ve got two non-fiction titles in preparation, collections of pieces I’ve written over the years. One will center on the world of crime fiction, while the other will have essays and travel writing and, well, other stuff. But these will be originals, and you asked about out-of-print reissues.

Actually, I think I’ve reissued just about everything out there. Unless I manage to talk myself into discovering the merits of one or another pseudonymous work of midcentury erotica, and that’s always a possibility.

How did you get entangled with Hard Case Crime in the beginning?  It seems like a match made in heaven to me.
Charles Ardai, the guiding genius of Hard Case Crime, has been a fan and a friend for a long time. THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART was Hard Case’s first title, and he went on to publish several more of my paperback crime novels before hitting on a few originally pseudonymous works—like A DIET OF TREACLE and KILLING CASTRO—and, coming up in May, BORDERLINE.

Did you get to choose the stories for Catch & Release?
Yes, and it wasn’t difficult to choose; the book contains all my short fiction written too late to be included in ENOUGH ROPE.

What's the story behind Borderline?
I believe it was written in 1961, and originally published under the publisher’s rather lame title of BORDER LUST. The pen name was not one of mine, but “Don Holiday,” a pen name used by my friend Hal Dresner. If I remember correctly, I had an extra book that month, and it thus got published under his name. (Or it may simple have got jumbled at the publisher’s offices. Many things did.)

Do you have any more books with Hard Case in the works?
No, but Charles is looking at a couple of other early works. One’s unquestionably a crime story—it centers on a holdup—but on first reading he saw problems with it. He’s looking again to see if it’s something he can salvage.

How involved have you been in the production of A Walk Among the Tombstones?
Not at all, beyond having the great pleasure of visiting the set four or five times during filming. And I did have a cameo—I was Man in Bar #3, a role I spent much of my early years rehearsing—but that whole scene got cut, so my film debut will have to wait.

Might we see a new Matthew Scudder short story to coincide with the release of the movie?
There’s an interesting thought. I can’t rule it out, but neither can I make it happen by force of will. We’ll have to see.

What's next for Lawrence Block?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Wrong Quarry

The Wrong QuarryThe Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quarry's in Stockwell, Missouri, hoping to squeeze the target of a hit into paying him to kill the men paid to bump him off. But is Quarry working for the wrong man? And why is someone so sure Roger Vale killed Candy Stockwell?

I unexpectedly received this ARC from the fine folks at Hard Case Crime.

Quarry is back and still running the kill the killers game he's been running for a while now. Set in the Reagan years, Quarry digs at a sleepy Missouri vacation town's underbelly and gets a look at some human vermin.

The writing packs a punch, par for the course for Quarry books. Quarry's still a bastard but you end up liking him because the people he's after are as bad or worse. Or so he tells us. There may be a touch of the unreliable narrator in Quarry.

As usual, Quarry kills and fornicates his way through a detective caper. I have to admit I was out in the woods for most of the book in regard to what happened to Candy Stockwell. I think Quarry was too but that might be because he can't keep his penis to himself when there's an available vagina in the vicinity.

In a time when people are complaining about Hard Case printing books that don't fit the mold, it's nice to see the forefathers like Lawrence Block and Max Allan Collins back in the mix. Max Allan Collins' books are hit or miss for me but The Wrong Quarry is like a shot in the face from two feet away. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Borderline by Lawrence Block

BorderlineBorderline by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I finished the ARC of The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, I hinted that I'd be willing to read any more Lawrence Block books that needed reviewing. Several days later, this arrived in my mailbox.

Borderline: Four drifters wind up in Juarez and find that some borders, once you cross them, cannot be uncrossed...

Borderline is the story of four drifters whose lives intersect once they reach the border towns of El Paso and Juarez. Marty is a gambler.
Meg is a divorcee looking for thrills. Lily is a hitchhiker looking to start a new life. And Weaver is a cold-blooded serial killer.

So yeah, Borderline is bit of dirty good fun, a lot of it taking place in a Juarez cathouse or points nearby. While there's nothing indicating it in the ARC I'm reading from, I suspect it was one of Block's porn books for the 1960's.

For a short book with a lot of sex in it, there's enough crime in it justify including it in the Hard Case line. Weaver supplies most of it but the other characters aren't angels. There's also a fair amount of suspense. I spent most of the book wondering how Weaver's tale was going to intersect with the rest of the cast, near misses upping the tension accordingly.

Like I said, dirty good fun.

The Burning Fury: A lonely lumberjack drinks in bar, trying to control his dark urges. Then a woman shows up...

This was a quick tale. I was pretty sure how it was going to go but it didn't make the ending any less brutal.

A Fire At Night: An arsonist appreciates the fire he started and watches firefighters try to stop it.

Again, another quickie with an ending I was pretty sure about but the ending was still chilling.

Stag Party Girl: A groom to be is getting death threats from an old flame and hires a PI named London to be his bodyguard. But what will happen when someone winds up dead at his bachelor party?

This one turned out to be a pretty good murder mystery. Ed London had to figure out which of the guys at the bachelor party shot the stipper after she popped out of the cake. It seemed Karen got around...

Lawrence Block kicked off the Hard Case Crime series and his entries never disappoint. Four stars, though this might have more smut than some Hard Case readers are comfortable with.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Mr. Majestyk

Mr. MajestykMr. Majestyk by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When someone tries to strongarm melon farmer Vincent Majestyk, he quickly ends up beaten and soon Majestyk is in jail. However, the prison bus is attacked and Majestyk finds himself on the run with Frank Renda, a hitman. That's when things get complicated. Will Majestyk be able to fix the situation and get his melon crop in on time?

This early Elmore Leonard book is a pretty smooth read, like all of his stuff. Vincent Majestyk, melon farmer and Vietnam vet, is one of Leonard's typical good guys, rough around the edges and not entirely law-abiding. The plot's not all that complicated. Majestyk wrongs a couple people and they want him dead. Too bad no one told them he was a ranger in Laos and earned a Silver Star...

Charles Bronson played Majestyk in the movie. I've never seen it but it was easy to picture Bronson in the lead role as I read. Majestyk is the take-no-shit kind of guy Bronson usually played. He's not John Rambo but he's definitely capable. He just wants to get his damn melon crop in on time!

The bad guys are pretty par for the Leonardine course: slick but not as slick as they think they are. Unlike some of old Dutch's villains, I didn't find any of them to be very likeable and it was very satisfying once Majestyk starts taking the law into his own hands. If they had any redeeming qualities, I might have felt bad for them.

The story is one long cat and mouse game and it starts feeling like a western close to the end, like a lot of Elmore Leonard tales. I guess what I'm saying is that while Mr. Majestyk feels like a lot of Elmore Leonard tales, it's definitely one of the better ones. It's a high three or a low four.

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