LITTLE SISTER

Little Sister Robert Lee Martin (1952)
Whether they cut her too much slack growing up out of pity for her mother dying when she was little or they just didn’t lavish the time on her for more selfish reasons, preoccupied with their own affairs, Little Sister grew up spoilt, her behaviour indulged. Now Linda is seventeen, life’s for living, rules are for poor people, the world’s her oyster. Only some thing happened last night can’t be brushed under the carpet.
Private eye, Andrew H Brice, gets a summons from heiress Vivian Prosper, she’s not the type of woman who calls into the office. When he arrives at the Prosper family home the first impression is real money. Vivian is lying topless on a towel by the pool in the back garden. Ever the gentleman, Brice makes as much noise as he can approaching across the lawn. She grabs her little sweater but her nudity around a stranger doesn’t seem to bother her much. Vivian is a divorcee, she reverted to her maiden name when the marriage broke up. Vivian is the older of two sisters, step-daughters to sportsman, Jerome K. Pitt.
The call is about Linda though, the Little Sister, Vivian admits she hasn’t done much of a job bringing her up since their mother died, and Jerome is far too busy to be bothered. Linda is about to turn eighteen when she’ll inherit her trust fund, a tidy little fortune: $300,000. Vivian wants Brice to scare off her latest beau, there have been men before but Linda wants to marry this one. Arthur Spotwood is a grease monkey, a gold digger. Vivian explains that Linda is not in love just infatuated, she’ll get over it, she knows her sister. Spotwood is pretty sure of himself he’s already declined a $5,000 bribe to get lost. Brice is thinking Linda is of an age to make her own mind up, he has reservations about the job, but he’s willing to do some digging. Linda isn’t around, she didn’t come home last night, not for the first time.
Brice is leaving as a red convertible rolls up the driveway and the driver’s head falls forward on the horn. Linda is wasted but the car looks undamaged, apart from a stain leaking from the boot, (trunk). When Brice takes a look inside he finds a body, a young man, stabbed in the chest. Vivian instantly dives in to protect her sister and they put Linda to her bed. Then they chat, Vivian’s attitude to Brice suddenly softens, she pleads for his help to ditch the body, make it all go away. Brice should call the cops asap, he’s resisting Vivian’s charms but it’s tough and she’s being awful friendly. They agree to hold off, take a run at Linda to see what they can find out. That’s when Brice realises the girl has been doped. They call a doctor, a little while later and she’d have died. Finally Brice calls the police. Vivian isnt happy but Brice is her only chance to get Linda out of a hole. Brice is caught up in a web of lies, family secrets, jealousies, revenge and desperation.
The story has echoes of Chandler, a deliberate evocation of The Big Sleep, that is then subtly subverted, (Chandler published a novel called The Little Sister, 1949). Little Sister is well plotted and throws up a decent surprise or two after lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Brice is a likeable gumshoe, he has a way of playing with the other characters and a shady edge that works well. However, it’s his relationship with Vivian and the interplay between the two that sparks all the way through the story, that’s a lot of fun. The tone is crisp with a touch of humour and snappy dialogue. In all an entertainingly gripping read.
There’s an interesting introduction from Bill Pronzini who corresponded with Martin towards the end of his life. Pronzini paints a sad and touching portrait of a lonely man who never gave up on writing despite long since having published new material.
Black Gat Books, Stark House Press, paperback, August, ISBN 9781951473075

SLOW BEAR

Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith
I’m having one of those lazy days when I just want someone else to tear down the walls for me, set the world on fire – on the page that is, so I can feel like a rebel from the comfort of my armchair. So I step into the dark and dangerous world of Slow Bear. He seems like a nice guy, minds his business, drinks his drinks, all the time wondering what it would be like to party with Kylie, the Lady Barmaid, but that’s for later. Right now as we meet him at the Rez casino bar and he looks pretty calm. Things are about change, spiral out of control hardly covers it, twenty four hours from now Slow Bear won’t know which way is up, and that’s before the serious fun starts. A whole mess of mayhem and violence is just around the corner in this deeply cynical, blackly comic, modern noir. Clearly Anthony Neil Smith isnt paid by the word, he’s scrupulously mean with them, not a one out of place – this is taut and lean, as it should be. This is a sprint not a marathon but a lot will happens in a few short strides and all of it is going to be noisy and brutal and raw. Slow Bear isn’t about to pick a fight but he intends to finish what others have started. He could use a friend but I wouldn’t trust one of these guys with your pocket money let alone my life!
Dumb luck – the one time Micah ‘Slow Bear’ Cross tried to be a good cop he got his arm blown off by an angry vet who brought his war home with him. That was a year ago, now he lives off his disability, his meagre pension and a small settlement from the assailant’s gun company. Every day he’s to be found in the casino dispensing advise for chips. Jim chucks two $20 chips in front of him and asks him to find out if his wife is cheating on him. Hell, everyone knows Greta is giving it away to Vlad, the pit manager, even Jim knows. So Slow Bear gives him the advice he’s really looking for, something useful – forget about revenge. That way it pans out with Vlad dead, Jim in gaol and Greta free to shag some other guy/s. Shame faced and beaten down Jim crawls away, maybe he heard, maybe he listened. When Slow Bear gets to thinking about it, he remembers he doesn’t like Jim much so he gives Vlad a call, a word of warning, just in case Jim suddenly gets emboldened. Then Slow Bear forgets about it.
That night back at his trailer he’s contemplating the stars, I don’t think the meaning of life is on his mind but his reverie is cut short anyway by the noise of a car approaching. Vlad stumbles out of his vehicle all excited and shouting something about not meaning to do it. Do what? It’s only on the way back to town that Vlad admits what he’s done that he didn’t mean to do – he killed Greta, Jim too, but Greta’s the thing. Slow Bear is angry as he takes in the scene of carnage at their house. No way this was self defence, no way it can be made to look like self defence; three in Jim’s head, more in Greta’s body. She was getting off on playing the two guys against each other that must have hurt vlad, that or the blow job she was giving Jim when he burst in on them earlier in the night. Slow Bear says he can’t help, Vlad needs to call the cops, confess and plead temporary insanity or something. Vlad doesn’t see it that way, he turns on Slow Bear, he’s gonna tell the cops it was all his idea unless he helps. So now Slow Bear has to come up with a plan to save his own ass. As a former Rez cop he knows they aren’t going to investigate too hard as long as there are no loose ends so he puts Vlad through a scenario.
Next day Trevor Cross, chief (of police), catches up with Slow Bear. Trevor is smart, he’s figured out what Slow Bear done and there’s a price for that. A little job Slow Bear can do for The Hat, (The Chief/Chairman), tribal leader and oil tycoon. The Exile is back, The Hat thinks Santana still has his finger in the oil company pie and he wants him gone – permanently. There’s too much at stake to have Santana rocking the boat. Slow Bear is about to suggest he wouldn’t know how to help when Trevor snacks him on the skull with a bottle as a prelude to a classic demonstration of police brutality. Slow Bear is now, like Santana, an exile, persona non grata, trailer and car impounded, cards blocked – he’s going undercover, like it or not. Now he has plenty in common with Santana, might as well get used to the idea of helping The Hat. Turns out Santana has some nasty side-lines, when Slow Bear finds that out it all gets very personal, he wants to take him down big time. Let the PAIN begin.
Slow Bear has more arms than scruples – one. He’s a tough cookie who makes enemies easily. This is a novella bursting at the seams with attitude, gruesomeness and thrills. More of this I could stomach, heads down no nonsense, mindless noir – let the chips fall where they may.
Farhenheit Thirteen, Farhenheit Press, paperback, 9781912526673, available now.

TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO

Trouble is What I do by Walter Mosley
‘That phone number got me a night of bliss, a broken wrist, and, in the end, it cost a man his life. But that’s another story.’
And so it is, a throw away that just gives the reader an idea of Mosley’s ease with a wittily intriguing turn of phrase. Mosley has created two of the most robust and entertaining detectives in modern crime fiction; Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and Leonid McGill. The Easy novels chronicle a large slice of post WWII American history from the perspective of a black detective on the west coast. Leonid speaks to the modern experience of a black New York gumshoe, sadly illustrating that not enough has changed in the world, as recent events point up all too well. In that, these are very political and very relevant novels. Trouble is What I Do takes a sideswipe at what’s behind the Trumpian demagoguery and the, (still!), deeply racist nature of old American money and privilege.
Politics aside; for all their flaws, Easy and Leonid are likable characters and Mosley is a born storyteller and a veritable ideas factory. He has a way of setting a story running inside the main story that works to illuminate the important theme and later entwines with the heart of the action. It’s a pleasure reading about Leonid McGill, his complicated life and messy family affairs as well as his deadly cases. That said this is the least complex of his tales, a slight story, more a novella than a novel. There aren’t so many strands to pull together and I miss that, even though this is still a pulpy pleasure I would not want to forgo.
It all starts when Mardi Bitterman informs Leonid McGill they have visitors:
‘She’s the detective agency’s secretary-receptionist and also the human barometer that helps maintain my moral bearings in a world where sin is reflex and kindness a quick death.’
A tall young man with a battered guitar case, Lamont Richards and his ninety-two year-old grandfather, Philip Worry, known as Catfish, an old blues man, stand in Leonid’s office with a strange request. Catfish wants Leonid to deliver a letter to a white socialite, daughter of a private bank owner, descended from a family that dates back to the Mayflower. Justine is about to get married, the letter from her grandmother, Lucinda Pitts Sternman, was entrusted to Catfish a long time ago with instructions on when to deliver. It contains secrets about the family history that her father, said banker, would be prepared to kill to avoid her finding out. The case brings Leonid back in touch with his own past, the time he had to face down a deadly assassin and lived to tell the tale, (fortunately this time they might be on the same side). Leonid soon has to put Catfish and the grandson into hiding as they become targets, the links between the respectable city gent, with political connections, and the city’s most feared gangster become apparent.
Never was delivering a letter so complicated but it’s a lot of fun seeing Leonid try to make it happen. Leonid is best in a tight spot and he’s a very smart man when the fists won’t get it done he can figure something out. Mosley’s hardboiled detective stories are stylish and wholly in the best of traditions but with that richly flavoured, often bitter and brutal, black experience. I would like more meat on the bones but this is an exciting and entertaining story and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
W&N, hardback, ISBN 9781474616522, February, 2020.

IF LOOKS COULD KILL

If Looks Could Kill by Olivia Kiernan
The third DCS Frankie Sheehan novel
An exciting new Irish crime series was launched when DCS Frankie Sheehan debuted in Too Close to Breathe in 2018. A police procedural/serial killer/psycho drama that put poor Frankie through the wringer – an emotionally wrought and totally gripping story. It had a real feel for its terrain and gave us an intriguing, enigmatic protagonist. Then there was The Killer in Me (2019), featuring a double murder in a Clontarf cemetery and a cold case that placed the original investigation and the Dublin Garda under close scrutiny. This was a more restrained and measured story. Now we have If Looks Could Kill, this for me is a watershed moment, does Frankie Sheehan have longevity? I think she does. Kiernan’s writing has developed, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan is now a fully rounded character. When it comes to the story, less is more, enough complexity to make the case intriguing but delivered in a more settled style, while retaining the earlier passion. Frankie still has an enigmatic edge, but now readers can really identify with her, get where she’s coming from. Whereas, she was difficult to know in the first book because she placed a wall around herself to avoid being mollycoddled or pitied by colleagues after an ‘incident’ in the past from which she was recovering, (although readers had more insight than colleagues she wasn’t an open book). Frankie is still living with the effects of her first traumatic case and she’s in a contemplative mood as this novel opens. Frankie does not suffer fools gladly or put up with the macho Garda crap, and when it comes to a case she is truly fierce.
Dublin, a public garden, children playing. Rory McGrane stands outside the park gates, it’s hot, he’s troubled, distracted. A woman sees the gun in his hand, she’s frozen to the spot, he places the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, Frankie is thinking about the past, about her dead father, the warm feeling of security she felt before she knew him better; righteous, a Guard, a hero, a good man. Of course, there were two sides to the man, there always is; the real man and the image he presented to the world. He was one of the good ones at hiding the truth. Frankie has her own secrets, she’s good at hiding the physical and mental scars of the past from the people around her but not so good at letting people in.
Baz Harwood, her partner at the Bureau for Serious Crimes, gives her a lift to the Gardai annual awards, she’s presenting a prize, a much needed boost for the force after recent bad publicity. They run into a traffic jam, an incident of some sort, Frankie steps out to investigate the problem. A man in his mid-twenties is lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, pleading with another ‘eejit’ who is standing over him, knife in hand. They’ve been squabbling over drugs, Frankie manages to talk the knife wielder down. It’s just Dublin. Next morning a new case comes in from the sticks.
Debbie Nugent, fifty-five, has gone missing from her cottage outside Ballyallan, Wicklow; last seen by her daughter, Margot, three days ago. Why has this come to the Bureau? There’s enough blood to assume it might be murder. Margot lives with her mother but didn’t spot anything, didn’t even query Debbie’s absence. Frankie liaises with the local cops who show willing but are not really up to the rigours of a murder case. Last seen Debbie was believed to be heading to Dublin on the bus, she moved to Wicklow from the city in 1993, she had no mobile and no one knows who she might have been going to see. Frankie launches a full investigation. Margot is the obvious suspect, living in the crime scene for three days and claiming no knowledge of anything that might have happened. The search is on for the body, but in the rural mountains that’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, there’s little hope of finding Debbie Nugent alive. As the investigation unfolds, a family past comes to light that suggests there’s more going on here than Frankie thought and the case may leads back to Dublin.
DCS Frankie Sheehan is a great character, feisty, brittle, brave, determined, and her inner voice is fascinating, one of the things that really drive the story. Kiernan has an eye for details that make If Looks Could Kill feel authentic and gives it a solid grounding. The prose is tight, pared down, and clean. The case far more complex than it first appears which is very satisfying. Irish crime fiction is in plentiful supply, make room for Frankie Sheehan on your shelves.

Riverrun Books, hardback, 23/7/20, ISBN 9781529401059