REVIEW FROM THE PAST: “STREET 8″

Street 8

I got to thinking it’s time to revisit this five-year-old review of an outstanding example of noir fiction. So here it is one more time!

STREET 8 by Douglas Fairbairn 

Review by Mike Dennis, 2010

“Nobody wants to come downtown anymore. They tell you it’s like coming to a foreign country.”

That’s the sentiment expressed by a Miami native in Street 8, a hot-blooded 1977 noir novel by Douglas Fairbairn.

The title street, an English translation of Calle Ocho, the main drag of Miami’s Little Havana, is the site of Bobby Mead’s used car lot. Out of habit, Bobby still calls it by its original name, Southwest 8th Street, and from the office window of his lot, he’s seen Miami transformed from a sleepy, one-season tourist town into a vibrant Latin city.

The Cubans are everywhere. They’re even buying cars from him, so for the first time, he hires a Cuban salesman, Oscar Pérez, to accommodate them. Oscar, however, soon becomes embroiled in the hornets’ nest of exile politics, and the trouble begins.

The problem with Miami’s exile community in 1977 is that, while they’re committed to eliminating Fidel Castro, they also want to wipe out his sympathizers and spies who have infiltrated their organizations. But exactly who is who?

Told entirely from Bobby Mead’s point of view, Street 8 allows him no letup. His world is contracting around him, threatening to choke him, and not even his ratty South Beach hotel room offers him any sanctuary. He has a teenage daughter, but his incredibly twisted relationship with her only serves to further cut him off from the city he once loved.

Fairbairn deftly ushers the reader through the dark fringes of the byzantine world of Miami Cubans.  These were the pre-cocaine-cowboy and pre-Miami-Vice days, and we eventually learn that some of them are more interested in acquiring power in Miami itself than they are in retaking their homeland to the south.

Fairbairn’s literary output was small, but well worth looking into. He routinely turns up on Florida crime fiction authors’ “most influential” lists.

Recommendation: Hunt it down and buy it. This little-known novel is an excellent noir tale, highly recommended, as it offers an uncompromising look at one man caught up in a city’s convulsive transition.

HAPPY EASTER, 2015!

Doxies & Easter Bunny

REVIEW: “KILL ME, DARLING”

Kill Me, DarlingJust before Mickey Spillane passed away in 2006 at the age of 88, he alerted his wife to the presence of unfinished manuscripts in his office. He told her to “Give them to Max. He’ll know what to do.”

“Max” was Max Allan Collins, veteran crime fiction writer of scores of novels and several successful series. Collins and Spillane had been friends for years, to the extent that Spillane would posthumously entrust the future of the Mike Hammer franchise to Collins. Pretty big stuff, if you ask me.

Turns out there were quite a few unfinished Mike Hammer works, along with copious notes, in Spillane’s home office. Collins got them all and vowed to complete every one of them. Well, he’s kept his word. Kill Me, Darling (Titan Books) is the latest collaboration, due out later this month.

The novel’s opening is eerily similar to that of 1962’s The Girl Hunters, which boasts one of the greatest opening lines in literary history: They found me in the gutter. Mike Hammer has descended into the world of booze and dereliction following the disappearance of Velda, his girl Friday and not-so-secret crush. Life just doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore after she walked out on him, so he crawls inside of a bottle, hoping never to crawl out. His friend, NYPD Captain Pat Chambers pulls him back from the brink with the news that Velda has been located in Miami, where she is engaging in, shall we say, questionable activities with an unsavory character. Hammer pulls himself together for an all-out effort to find her and bring her back — if she wants to be brought back.

Based on Collins’ knowledge of the Mike Hammer story arc, he has placed Kill Me, Darling around the year 1954. He wisely stuck with Spillane’s original intent and set the story in that year, and thanks to his exhaustive research, vividly recreates 1954 Miami. He does this while keeping the spirit of Spillane’s writing alive to the extent that it’s impossible to figure out where Spillane leaves off and Collins begins. This is very difficult to pull off, especially when working with an iconic writer such as Spillane, whose style was not only ground-breaking, but readily identifiable.

Spillane fans will spot all the usual mileposts: slimy villains, no-necked goons, hot babes, and lots of Mike Hammer attitude. One highlight is where Hammer solemnly promises one of the characters not to hurt a particular villain. He then reveals to the reader he will merely kill the villain without putting a lot of hurt on him, thereby keeping his promise. I don’t know if this was written by Spillane or Collins, but you know, what’s the difference? It’s Mike Hammer, baby!

Recommendation: A must-read for Spillane fans. And for those who like solid hardboiled crime fiction, you can’t go wrong. Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins make a great team.

REVIEW: “A MOST VIOLENT YEAR”

MV5BMjE4OTY4ODg3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI1MTg1MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Every so often you get a film whose title and tag lines promise a certain type of story and draw you into the theater, only to find out those promises had little to do with the movie itself. A Most Violent Year is just such a film. The trailer emphasized its setting in the New York of 1981, purportedly the worst year for crime in that city’s history. Lots of badass-looking guys walking around in topcoats, hot babes, 70s and 80s cars, references to high-level gangsters … it all spilled out of the trailer. I went to the theater thinking I might be in for an atmospheric mob movie, maybe even a solid “sleeper” of a film, set in a desperate city on the skids.

What I got instead was a riveting film centering around the importance of personal honor and principles. There were only brief flashes of violence, gangsters were only alluded to (except for one quick scene in a “social club”, where shadowy mob types sat around a table not saying much of anything), and the story in no way related specifically to 1981. It could’ve easily happened yesterday.

Abel Morales (played with great intensity by Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna own a heating oil company in Brooklyn. Their business is dog-eat-dog, and Morales has an unquenchable thirst to grow his business by encroaching on his competitors’ territories. Problem is, his trucks are being hijacked at gunpoint on a regular basis. Not only that, the local heating oil business, which has long engaged in questionable practices, is being investigated by an ambitious District Attorney, portrayed in a smooth performance by David Oyelowo, fresh off his triumphant turn as Martin Luther King in Selma. Morales’ company may or may not have violated the law, but he certainly acts like it has, and the zealous DA smells blood in the water.

Anna, played perfectly by Jessica Chastain, is not only her husband’s partner in the business, but also the daughter of an unnamed mob kingpin, whose services are apparently available to make all these problems go away. Morales, however, refuses to stoop to that level, opting instead to risk it all and stay on the high road.

The stakes are very high, and the viewer is reeled into this utterly personal drama by AC Chandor’s outstanding direction and deft use of locations. New York has never looked filthier, and this serves the story well. But the real star is Isaac, whose layered performance captures the dynamic of his complex character, torn between what he knows to be right and what is expedient. He makes the viewer feel his pain as the conflict closes in on him and his options narrow.

Recommendation: Go see it before it leaves. A Most Violent Year is much, much better than what the misleading title and trailer imply.

LET’S REVISIT “FULLY LOADED”, SHALL WE?

USED CARSLooking out the window at a gray, windy day here in Key West, I was reminded of an earlier short story of mine, a little opus titled Fully Loaded. It’s a slice of Southern noir, and since I just got done reading and reviewing Quarry’s Choice, a very noirish novel by Max Allan Collins which, like my short story, is set in Biloxi, Mississippi, I thought now would be an ideal time to revisit this little gem of a tale. Here’s a brief description:

It’s 1984 and Biloxi has seen better days. Sherry Lamar, used car saleswoman extraordinaire, is feeling the pinch. Then one day, a stranger walks onto her small car lot and ushers her into a world of steamy sex and murder.

And here’s a little taste of the beginning:

 

The rain finally stopped. It was the middle of the afternoon, nearly three, and it had been coming down since nine this morning.

Thank God for small favors, Sherry thought. At least there were a few hours left to try to make some money.

Because nobody, but nobody, went shopping for a used car in the pouring rain.

Through the window of the sales trailer, she saw slivers of sunlight cutting through the gray clouds. Out on the lot, the water beaded up on all the freshly-waxed cars. Nothing made a vehicle look better than that. Dings and dents always faded away under the silvery droplets, as did any evidence of body work, and even the back line cars looked good.

She looked down at the ashtray in front of her. Her cigarette burned itself out. She thought about lighting another one.

Quitting smoking would save her around two hundred a month. These days, she needed every penny she could lay her hands on.

It wasn’t always that way.

Up until a couple of years ago, if you were talking used car sales along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the name of Sherry Lamar was always at, or very near, the top of the page. You had to look pretty hard to find anyone between New Orleans and Mobile with better numbers.

These days told a different story.

Tourism in the area had been slipping for years now, taking the convention business down with it. Weekend visitors from New Orleans, spring breakers, they were all staying away. Even people from upstate were selling their long-cherished vacation homes down here at bargain prices. That worn-at-the-heels look had set in like grape juice on white linen, and the Coast was now a faded remnant of its earlier, swinging self.

Because of all this, not much money was circulating, so the hard-goods businesses felt it. Oh, there was some loose talk floating around about legalizing gambling, but that was a pipe-dream if ever there was one. Mississippi had about as much chance of getting legal gambling as Mondale had of beating Reagan in next week’s election.

She was seriously debating whether or not to light another cigarette when she saw a customer wander onto the lot.

Kenny was up. She called to him in the bathroom.

“Kenny. You got a customer.”

“Go ahead and take him, Sherry,” he replied from behind the closed door. “I’ll get the next one.”

As she stepped out of the trailer, the sun finished shoving the clouds aside. A slight breeze began drifting in from the Gulf, trying to sweeten the sticky air. It didn’t do the job.

He stood near the front line, by the blue ’81 Cutlass.

“Hi,” she said. “Looking for something special today?”

“Hey,” he replied, turning his attention from the car to her. “About time this rain stopped.”

He was dressed in a nice shirt and pants, and was maybe a little older than she was, around thirty-five, but that was all she noticed. She never got past his dark brown eyes. They held her still in the middle of the hot, sunlit lot.

“Is … is there … something particular I can help you with?”

Now he smiled. She liked that, too.

“Well, if I wanted to buy a car, I’d certainly want to buy it from you, lovely lady.”

She accepted the compliment gracefully. “What can I show you, then?”

“You can show me the manager. I’m looking for a job.”

“A — a job?”

“Yes. A job. Selling.”

“Well … I don’t think we have any openings. Things have been —”

“What’s your name, anyway?”

She absently brushed back a dangling shock of hair from her forehead. “My name? I thought you were looking for a job.”

“Mine’s Marty. What’s yours?”

A little laugh, then, “Okay, you win. I’m Sherry.”

He took her hand, kissed it. “I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Sherry. Now if you could show me the way to the manager’s office so I could — whoa, wait a minute. Unless you’re the honcho around here. Tell me, your highness, is this your empire?” He gestured around with his arm, sweeping the small lot.

She laughed again. “No, it’s not mine. Not by a long shot. You want to see Al. But I can tell you that he’s not looking for —”

“I know, I know. It’s been slow. But I’d be very much obliged if you’d introduce me to him anyway, so he could tell me. You know, kind of make it official. Tie a ribbon around it, so to speak.”

He smiled again. Boy, did she like it.

Sure, she’d bring him in. Hell, she’d hire him herself if she could.

Inside, the air conditioning tried its best to cool things down, but couldn’t quite get there. The door past the bathroom said “Manager”. She opened it and stuck her head through.

“Al, there’s someone here to see you.”

“Who is it?”

“He’s look —”

He slid in front of Sherry, then stood in the doorway.

“The name’s Moran, sir. Marty Moran from Miami.”

He stepped up to Al’s desk, extending his hand. Al took it.

“Well, Marty Moran from Miami, what can I do for you?”

The afternoon sun beat through the window directly into the office, backlighting Al, landing right in Marty’s face. He tried not to squint.

“I’m looking for a job. I’m a salesman.”

“Hnh. You sure picked the wrong time to come lookin’,” Al said, shaking his head. “We got all the sales force we can accommodate right now.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s what Sherry here was telling me. Things have been slow around here.” He stole a quick, sidelong glance at her. She caught it. “But I’m a damn good salesman and I really wish you’d think about it. I just got into town and I need a job.”

“Where’ve you worked before?”

“Miami mostly. A couple of note lots, the used car department of Anthony Abraham — he’s a big Chevy dealer — and I even did some work for a wholesaler. Before that I was in Fort Lauderdale for a couple of years. Same type of thing.”

Al eyed him carefully. He could spot the nickel-dimers and the weak sisters every time.

Thirty-five years in this highly competitive business can give a man that kind of insight, and Al had it. Very little got by him. Eye contact, body language, voice inflections … so many tells on a person, and he knew them all.

“What brings you up here to the Coast?”

Marty replied, “The last place I worked went out of business.” He realized that wasn’t enough of a reason, so he added, “And I, uh — wanted to leave the area.”

“How come?”

His eyes briefly flicked down toward the floor. Al spotted it. The first crack in the armor.

“Well, I … I had ex-wife problems. I wanted to get away.”

Al chuckled. “Hnh! Is that all? Shoot, I expect every man who’s ever had an ex-old lady has had some kinda problems with her. That’s the way o’ the world, son.”

He lifted his bulk out of the chair, then walked around to the front of the desk.

“I still can’t put you on. But if you’ll give me a number where I can reach you, I’ll let you know if something comes up.”

“I’m at the Hotel Gulfport. Room ten.”

Al jotted it down. “Like I said, I’ll let you know.”

They shook hands, and Sherry escorted Marty to the door.

She walked with him through the lot. The Gulf breeze hadn’t done much for the humidity. Colored streamers flapped lazily overhead. Black clouds formed off to the south, promising more rain.

Streetside, she said, “Marty, he likes you. He wasn’t just giving you a line of crap in there.”

“I know,” he said. “But what about you? Do you like me?”

Sherry stammered.

He looked at her for a second, then he said through his smile, “I’m sorry, darlin’, I don’t mean to put you on the spot. It’s just that I feel like … well … I tell you what. You want to have a drink with me when you get through tonight?”

Those eyes again. She’d go anywhere just to stare into them. To have them looking back at her.

His build was only average, kind of wiry, you know, not at all muscular — she never went for those weight-lifter types, anyway — but still, somehow, Marty dripped with masculinity. The hot flash of desire jabbed at her insides, then jabbed again.

She agreed to meet him at seven-thirty.

The whole story is available on Amazon right now, and it’s only 99¢! Come on, you know you want to read the rest of it. Don’t let me down.

 

 

 

REVIEW: “QUARRY’S CHOICE”

Quarry's ChoiceSend a hitman to do a job along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, throw in the usual obstacles, including maybe a sexy woman or two, and you might think you’re in for a paint-by-numbers crime novel, hardly worth the time. But this isn’t like any other such novel, because it’s Quarry’s Choice (2015, Hard Case Crime) a page-turner written by Max Allan Collins, who has carefully crafted his Quarry character over a long series.

Collins, a veteran of over seventy-five novels, knows how to write this stuff. He’s created a sturdy, long-lasting protagonist in Quarry, a character who insinuates himself under the reader’s skin, who’s not afraid to tell the reader how he really feels about things that annoy him, and who always lives to kill another day.

Quarry’s Choice is a prequel of sorts, set in 1972, when Quarry was just finding his assassin’s legs. He’d only been in the game for about a year when the Broker (his job contact) assigns him a very different kind of hit. Quarry packs up and heads for Biloxi, Mississippi.

Biloxi in 1972 was far from the glitzy Gulf Coast version of Las Vegas it is today. Prohibition was still in effect in many Mississippi counties, and gambling and prostitution were wide open, courtesy of the loosely-organized Dixie Mafia. Two DM kingpins rule over Biloxi and Quarry is assigned to take one of them out. Trouble is, Quarry has to get exceptionally close to his target and in doing so, leaves himself open to exposure. He is “given” a stripper/prostitute to keep him company during his stay and their relationship becomes, shall we say, complex.

For Quarry, nothing is ever easy. He’s forced to build up a body count on his way up to his target, and ultimately learns there’s a living witness to all his killings. What’s a hitman to do?

Collins does an excellent job of creating a seedy, backwater atmosphere in 1972 Biloxi, and the reader might consider taking a shower after reading Quarry’s Choice. Quarry is a fish so far out of water, you can feel his gills drying up. The Mississippi criminal organization, while decidedly minor league, is still incomprehensible to him. There’s a double-cross around every corner and he not only doesn’t know who to trust, he’s not sure who to kill.

Pulling the reader back to Quarry’s rookie days is a nice touch by Collins, for it shows him as a younger man, less self-assured than the hardened killer we see in the later efforts. Once again, Collins shows impressive skill in shaping his character and his series. And Hard Case Crime has delivered another superior cover, featuring a properly steamy painting by Robert McGinnis.

Recommendation: Buy it. You can’t go wrong with either Collins or Quarry. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY

Valentine's Day

REVIEW: “THIEVES FALL OUT”

Thieves Fall OutI never much cared for Gore Vidal. He always came off as pompous, insufferably elitist, and wore a perpetual sneer directed at all those around him. Bouncing around between novels, essays, plays, and movie scripts, his writing never seemed to gain focus and never appealed to me. So you can imagine my surprise when I received a copy of Thieves Fall Out (from Hard Case Crime, no less!), written by Vidal in 1953 under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay.

Turns out one of Vidal’s earlier novels overflowed with homosexuality, enraging a New York Times book reviewer to the point where he declared he would never review one of Vidal’s novels again, and would encourage other reviewers to join his boycott. Enter Cameron Kay and Thieves Fall Out.

The story is a good one, centering around Peter Wells, an American who wakes up in a Cairo whorehouse after having been drugged and rolled for his money and traveler’s cheques (remember those?). He’s lucky to escape the whorehouse alive, and heads for the US Consulate, where he receives no help at all. Broke and disheveled, he goes to Shepheard’s Hotel, the place “where the biggest operators live” and “where almost anything might happen”.

Well, he meets up with a Brit known only as “Hastings”, who buddies up to him. A few drinks later, Hastings introduces him to a French Countess who offers him the opportunity to make a big score. Just go to Luxor and await further instructions.

This sets the stage for a guy-in-way-over-his-head story which held my attention throughout. Vidal takes us through the Egypt of the early 1950s, the days of King Farouk, before oil held absolute sway over that part of the world. Danger lurks around every corner, alluring women abound, and there’s even the requisite police inspector (named Mohammed Ali !!). The deeper Wells gets into this scheme, the less he knows and the fewer people he can trust, until … well, you’ll just have to read it.

This novel checks all the boxes and adds up to a finely-crafted story, contained behind a seductive cover painting by Glenn Orbik. I didn’t know Vidal had it in him to write such a noirish tale and to do it so well.

Recommendation: buy it. Don’t let any predisposition toward Vidal get in your way. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

“SETUP ON FRONT STREET”

a novel by Mike DennisNow seems like a pretty good time to have another look at Setup On Front Street, the first novel in my Key West Nocturnes series. A pretty good noir tale, if I do say so myself. It happens to be available as an ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Go here to check it out.

Here’s the opening: (WARNING TO THE EASILY-OFFENDED!! Contains profanity and racial slurs. Better ask your Mommy.)

March, 1991

I got back to Key West on the day Aldo Ray died.

This kid sitting next to me on the bus had one of those old transistor radios, and the news crackled out of it somewhere south of Miami. The big C got him, it said.

Ray was one of my favorite Hollywood tough guys. Like myself, he was powerfully built, with a harsh, scratchy voice, cutting a bearish figure on the big screen. But he had a well-hidden, squishy-soft center, which usually meant big trouble for the characters he portrayed.

As the Greyhound made its way down the Keys that morning, I gazed out at the hot, lazy island hamlets, thinking about Ray and about what I had to do.

And there could be no room for squishiness.

≈≈≈

We lumbered into the downtown Key West terminal. I stepped off the air-cooled bus into the steamy embrace of the thick humidity I remembered from long ago. I started sweating right away. As I took a full stretch, my bones creaked and cracked, and I frowned.

Three days on a bus gives you the creaky bones.

Three years in the joint gives you the frown.

The passengers stood around: an odds-and-ends collection of smelly backpackers, Jap tourists here on the cheap, plus a couple of scowling Miami jigs — low-grade street types draped in gold, probably down here to make a dope drop.

As soon as the driver pulled the bags out of the belly of the bus, I snatched mine and headed across the small parking lot for a little rooming house nearby on Angela Street. It wasn’t even a two-minute walk, but by the time I got there, splotches of sweat had stained the front and back of my guayabera.

Welcome home, pal.

Inside, I signed the register, then paid the deposit. I paused for just a moment, looking at my signature. “Don Roy Doyle,” it read. That was the first time in a long time that I’d written my name for anything other than prison shit.

Before my frown dissolved at this liberating thought, I remembered what got me sent up in the first place.

The clerk pushed me the key. I headed upstairs with more than a little snap in my step. Slipping the key into the lock, I gave it a turn. Then I stepped back just a shade.

I cracked the door a couple of inches, but I didn’t push it all the way in. Instead, I closed it again, then reopened it. Opening my own door. With my own key. How long had it been?

The room was boiling. I flipped the AC on high, then peeled off my clothes. With nobody around.

By normal standards, I’m sure it was just an average-sized room, but compared to my Nevada cell, it seemed gigantic. It was a lot more space and a far better view than I’d been used to, and it was all mine.

Smiling, I turned the light on and off a few times, watching the bulb react to my switch-clicking. Then I moved to the center of the room where I stretched my arms out as far as they would go. I turned a couple of complete three-sixties without touching anything.

With those luxuries under my belt, I checked out the rack. It was huge, compared to the little slab I’d slept on for years. I hadn’t had my feet up in three days and sweet sleep was calling me.

I didn’t even pull back the covers.

≈≈≈ 

I came to at twilight. The humming AC cooled the room to perfection. I felt rested for the first time since I left Nevada. I took a long, warm shower in wonderful solitude, without worrying about anyone trying to fuck with me.

Afterward, I pulled a fresh guayabera and a clean pair of cotton pants out of my bag. I could wear what I wanted now, so I took my own sweet time getting dressed.

With my brushed-back hair still wet, I headed down the stairs, out into the warm night. Man, I felt great.

And now, it was showtime.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Let’s make 2015 the best year yet!

Dachshunds New Year

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