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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pocket-47: Old Memories Die Hard in the Sunshine State (review)

Florida is one of those places that most of us think we know... and, whether or not we’ve ever set foot across the state line is irrelevant. Maybe it’s the rampant commercialism (and ubiquitous black mouse ears) of Orlando, or Key West’s breezy, laid-back cool (set to the tune of every single Jimmy Buffett song ever written), or South Beach’s excesses (seriously, who hasn’t seen "Miami Vice"?), or those raucous Spring Break parties, or even some ‘gators (or Gators, depending on what floats your boat)... but whatever it is, we invariably picture something larger-than-life, outrageous, or just sort of odd when we think about the Sunshine State.
What we don't picture, though, are all the "normal" people, those with unglamorous jobs and boring lives just like the rest of us. (It makes me feel a bit sorry for all my wonderful Florida friends, actually.) But, in the soon-to-be-released Pocket-47,* author Jude Hardin actually does a nice job of combining the two “sides” of Florida; mixing (mostly-) regular Joes and Janes with enough of that trademark craziness and weirdness to satisfy anyone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nicholas Colt used to have it all--fame, fortune, and a happy family--back when he was the lead guitarist in a popular rock group. Now a private investigator, he has chosen to live in a dinky, ramshackle camper in an off-the-beaten-path campground (a place with very little need for detecting, actually), rather than settling in a metro area where his skills would be more in demand (and thus, more lucrative).
But, he desperately needed that kind of change after a tragic accident twenty years ago left him the only surviving member of both the band and his family. So, now he fishes. He hangs out with the campground dog. He works, when the rare case comes along. He waits (and waits) for checks to arrive from the local lawyers who occasionally hire him, so he can pay the few bills which he’s constantly behind on. He hopes his old GMC Jimmy (“Jimmy”, of course) will keep running. He makes it through one day, then wakes up again to start the next.
Colt isn’t exactly thrilled when an attractive woman shows up on his doorstep out of the blue one day, looking to hire him. Still, his phone has just been shut off (again), so he begrudgingly agrees to listen to her story.
Leitha Ryan wants Nicholas to find Brittney, the much-younger sister of whom she’s now the legal guardian. There was an argument, it seems, after which the 15-year-old girl took off. Leitha is terrified of going to the police, for fear they might want to revoke custody. But, as a young nurse with plenty of bills of her own to pay, she can’t afford a fancy, top-dollar private eye. (Hence, her appearance on Colt’s decidedly-humble doorstep.)
Colt considers the job; how hard could it be? (Plus, he really doesn't want to wake up one day to find Jimmy being hauled away by the repo man.) He names a price, Leitha agrees, and just like that, he’s (at least temporarily) flush again. The case, he figures, should be wrapped up in a day or two.
Things don’t pan out as expected, though. Colt finds himself believing the (older) boyfriend, who--although an A-1 jerk--honestly doesn’t seem to know (or care) where the girl might be. Nor do her after-school tennis instructor or the foster parents Brittney had prior to Leitha. Colt doesn’t like this; young girls who run away because of little spats with their parental units don’t run very far, so he should have been able to find her by now. 
Colt is good at what he does, and after more digging and some surveillance (with the assistance of a lovable old codger with whom he likes to fish and drink beer), he succeeds in finding Brittney... only to discover that it isn’t quite Mission Accomplished; the girl is clearly terrified, convinced that someone wants to kill her. 
Doubtfully, he agrees to protect her for a few days while trying to figure out what to do next. As the pair gradually develop a tentative bond--he, getting a feel for what it would have been like to now have a young adult daughter of his own (had the horrible accident not taken her away from him so long ago), and she, for having a father figure for the first time--and he sees that she isn’t just another flighty teenage girl, Colt starts taking her fears more seriously. When they’re awakened early one morning by someone shooting up the camper--and Brittney disappears again--he finally understands that the threat was all-too real, too late.
From that point on, Colt is a man possessed, guilt and anger fueling his new purpose and drive. As he delves deeper and deeper into the tangled mess Brittney landed herself in, her chances look increasingly worse. Everywhere he turns, there’s more deception more danger... and another murder. (There are also more opportunities for Colt to get beaten up, robbed, and shot, as he stirs up a hornets' nest everywhere he goes.)
Eventually he gets to the bottom of everything (of course), but--just when we think Colt has it all resolved?Turns out that’s not quite the case... and from that point, the last third of the book gallops off in an unexpected direction. It’s all another part of Colt's long, grueling journey--the worst of which isn’t the physical trials and torture he endures, but rather, the mental and emotional anguish, as the awful past he’s been trying to put behind him is suddenly thrust front and center. If he can make it through this final trial by fire, he might be free at last of the ghosts which have haunted him for so long. If he can’t, though... well, there's not much chance he’ll make it, at all.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Pocket-47 has all the makings early on of being another good (if somewhat-cliched) Florida suspense/mystery. (Every fictional private dick in the state always seems to favor Hawaiian shirts and shorts, enjoy fishing, have a ready supply of witty and/or snarky one-liners to be pulled out at a moment's notice, and is trying desperately to escape some big-bad in his past. Apparently, those are prerequisites for getting a P.I. license there, that’s all I can figure.) Hardin has a deft hand with dialogue, and he‘s written believable, interesting characters. The mutually-healing relationship between Colt and Brittney adds a nice emotional counterpoint to the violence. (Although most of it isn’t gruesome, there is a lot of brutality.) The story is genuinely suspenseful, too; it has "movie" written all over it... which, from an entertainment standpoint, isn’t a bad thing. 

For me, though, the most-interesting aspect is the surprising twist part-way through--with the last portion going in a direction I never saw coming--that makes this something a little different. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.5 out of 5 mousies

*Pocket-47 will be released on 5/2/2011.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Grift in the Desert: A Jackalope, Some Bafflegab, & the American Dream

A pair of sexy and highly-skilled grifters--fresh from their most-lucrative con job to date--decide to bow out at the top of their game, leaving behind all the glitz, glamour, and thrills in favor of a new pursuit: getting their own little piece of The American Dream (modest home and one-eared rescue dog, included).
Meanwhile, their lovable-but-dim buddy--who wouldn’t know a successful scam if it walked up and slapped him upside the head (which is, by the way, totally likely)--gets a wild hare to try his luck in the art world... as an artist. (This, despite the fact that his friends know he can’t draw a straight line with a ruler.)
The setting for their respective suburban dreams and grandiose schemes? Unassuming Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Yes, it’s a little, erm, off the beaten path--especially for anyone who isn’t from there--but you try finding a good place to “go straight” when you’ve been scamming your way along the West Coast and through the Southwest for the past several years, and... let's just say that all this unassuming-ness starts to hold a certain appeal.)  
Of course, that’s taking for granted that life works out all nice and tidy, though... and when is that ever the case? There’s always a fly in the ointment (or the soup), a spanner in the works, a... well, you get the idea. It’s fine and dandy to have dreams--provided you’re not really expecting them to work out quite like you’re hoping. Actually, that pretty much sets up the action in John Vorhaus’ latest work, the divinely-madcap The Albuquerque Turkey.

Finding themselves more-than flush after their last (big!) score, Allie Quinn and (the oh-so-delightfully-named) Radar Hoverlander agree that this is the perfect opportunity to renounce their swindlin’ ways and try for a more normal life--one with paychecks, taxes, and regular hours. Even Radar’s old friend/constant sidekick, the hapless Vic Mirplo, is on board with their plan (especially so after he hatches his own get-rich-quick-as-an-artist scheme, which--given his utter lack of any artistic talent whatsoever--rather misses the whole point of going straight... except that it doesn’t. But more about that, later.)
Things go well enough, at first; Allie scours the classifieds, Radar daydreams (okay, not terribly productive, but even ex-hustlers need a little downtime, right?), and Vic proceeds to paint nude models, construct increasingly-bizarre (yet somehow, oddly-compelling) sculptures, plus concoct plans for the quasi-artful mutilation of a shipment of deformed Barbie dolls. (Don’t ask; just trust me--that last one's disturbingly hilarious.)
Until one day, that is, when the fly I mentioned earlier crash-lands in the ointment (or the soup, your choice), in the guise of an unfortunately-dowdy woman... a woman who appears to be tailing Radar, seeing as how she starts popping up everywhere he goes. (Given the precise nature of his illustrious former career, the idea of someone sneaking around, following him--even a frumpy, middle-aged woman--isn’t exactly cause for celebration.) Nor do things really improve much after Radar's double- and triple-takes, during which he gradually comes to recognize this homely matron as none other than his long-estranged father--the infamous Woody Hoverlander, con man extraordinaire--in drag. (As reunions go, though, it’s a corker.)
It doesn’t take a genius to intuit that when Dad shows up out of the blue--two decades after doing a bunk--to say “howdy” to his suddenly-comfortably-well-off son, he probably wants something more than a reunion supper at the local steak-atorium. (No, Radar isn’t up there with the likes of Einstein, but he’s smart and savvy enough to have a clue.) Still...  it’s his dad! After all these years! And he’s a legend!
About that “legendary” bit... Woody is, indeed, widely-known and even respected in their, erm, field; the man has pulled every snuke around dozens of times, and probably invented a fair number of them, in the first place. But now, he’s in big trouble; he owes money (which--inconveniently--he no longer has) to one of the premier Vegas hotels, where he claims to have racked up some smallish debts. So (and you know where this is going, don’t you?), Radar--against his better judgement and Allie’s conflicted wishes--agrees to help, almost eager, even, to play the long-abandoned son riding in on a white stallion to rescue his old man. (Okay, no horses are involved, and Woody isn’t really all that old. I’m just taking a page out of Vic Mirplo’s book and using a little bit of artistic license.)
Naturally, everything falls apart (doesn’t it always?), and after all the dust settles, Radar finds himself sans girlfriend (she’s not a fan of whatever else he’s going to have to do to extricate Woody from this mess), sans happy doggie (since Allie took him with her on her way out the door), and--although not necessarily the most-worrisome out of the three--sans newly-reacquainted father (because annoyed Vegas thugs have nabbed Woody and absconded back to Sin City with him). Really, the only thing on the plus side is that Vic actually seems to be creating a buzz with his new-found passion in life, art. (Yeah, who knew?) And, thank goodness for that, because Vic (or “Mirplo”, the one-named wonder he’s restyled himself as) is about to feature significantly in Radar’s new plan; Mirplo will play the Albuquerque Turkey--rich rube/ budding artist (and star of Mirplopalooza!), and, hopefully, utterly-irresistible bait to these particular Vegas sharks.
You can guess what happens next. (Okay, you really can’t--at least, not most of it--but you know the very next thing, which is all I’m shooting for, here.) Radar finds himself on a long (and lonely) drive to Vegas, ready to don his sparkliest flim-flam man persona and attempt to play out the whole hero scene one more time. (Yes, because it worked so smashingly-well the first time. Ah, but hope springs eternal.) Little does he know what lies in store... 
Does Radar’s witty "bafflegab" and uncanny ability to think (and act) on his feet save the day (and save his father)? Do more bad guys pop out of the woodwork than cleavage is popping out of the hostesses’ bustiers in the casino’s gaming rooms? Are there double-, triple-, heck--maybe even quadruple-crosses, galore? Will Allie ever reconsider her position and relent, or is she gone with the wind? Can Mirplo really make it as The Next Great Thing? Does Radar at least get his dog back??  
(Seriously, like you think I’d tell you? Ha, fat chance.)
~ ♠ ~ ♣ ~ ♥ ~ ♦ ~

The Albuquerque Turkey is more sheer fun than I’ve found between the covers of a book in a long time--the kind of story that had me sitting there grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole time I was reading it. There's some everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stuff going on here... but in a really good way, with schemes and scams, art, romance, hijinks, and that ever-present sense of humor. It's a deliciously-outrageous lark (with a groove a bit like Carl Hiaasen’s storytelling). Many scenes seem to come almost (but not quite) out of left field, with tons of belly laughs as well as a few of those hold-your-breath, how-are-they-ever-gonna-get-out-of-this-predicament moments. The end result is one very twisty ride, told in a slick, cool way (think the Ocean’s Eleven movies), and each character is an absolute hoot--bigger than life, yet somehow never crossing the line into total caricature. 
That brings me to the final thing. You wouldn’t expect it, most likely--I didn’t, and I’m a huge fan of clever plots and bon mots and, well, this whole genre--but The Albuquerque Turkey has a little sumthin-sumthin special that puts it a notch above the rest of the pack... a genuine heart and soul at its core--the bubble gum nestled in the center of a Charm’s Blowpop, if you like--and that softer, sweeter interior works to temper the wild-and-wooly exterior, brilliantly. (As an example, here's my favorite non-funny line in the entire book: "Everybody's on their own road, Radar. And every road is hard. No need to strew nails." Perfection, that.) 


For an all-out, satisfying bit of feel-good fun, this is one hand that’s gonna be hard to beat.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mysterious Disappearances, a Dog, & an Unlikely Voyeur

I’ve always had what you might call a like/dislike relationship with short stories. In their favor, they perform a useful function: providing some escapist entertainment when reading time is limited. They’re like little morsels in the buffet of storytelling, (hopefully) palatable and (generally) easily-digestible... although rarely approaching the level of delicacies.
Of course, the same thing which makes them desirable--their brevity--can also be their downfall. Too many short stories come across as incomplete pieces of what must (or should) have been a larger whole, leaving me unfulfilled in the end... as though I’d sat down at a table famished, prepared for a small feast, but had been served, instead, a 100-calorie bagged snack.
After looking through my stacks of books (which are still pretty much everywhere) recently, and spying several skinny little volumes peeking out from between the much larger ones--not to mention all those shorties I keep having to thumb past on my Kindle’s home page--I decided that, like it or not, it was time to tackle another one. And by that, I mean anything--regardless of whether or not I was really in the mood for it--as long as it could be classified as “wee”. (No, that’s not how I usually go about choosing my next hopefully-really-good read, but sometimes circumstances just beg for drastic measures, you know?)
Fortunately, this was one decision that involved no agonizing on my part (a rarity in itself, given my track record with over-analyzing everything), because as soon as I spotted this particular little book, hiding all-but-forgotten in a teetering stack, it was obvious my choice had been made... and that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊
In The Girl in the Green Raincoat, author Laura Lippman utilizes the constraints of the short story form to very good effect, giving readers of her long-running Tess Monaghan mystery/crime fiction series something we haven’t seen before: both a tidy, pared-down case featuring the always-likable and entertaining Baltimore private investigator, and some brand-new insights into a few of the secondary characters.
The premise--although novel to the Tess series--is actually a take on the classic Hitchcock movie, “Rear Window”. [Let me pause just long enough to insist that if you haven’t seen this fabulous movie--starring a dashingly-melancholy James Stewart and an ever-radiant Grace Kelly--you seriously need to correct the oversight. For some intelligent and classy thrills, chills, and romance, it’s nearly impossible to beat. Go... rent it, buy it, stream it, whatever. Just watch it, okay?] But back to the topic at hand. In the movie, a man amuses himself while convalescing at home by watching what his various neighbors across the courtyard are doing in their own apartments (yes, spying on them)... until one day he witnesses what may (or may not) be a murder!
In Lippman’s spin, Tess is heavily (and surprisingly) pregnant, suffering through her third trimester. Following a scary episode which landed her in the ER, she’s been placed on strict bed rest for the duration. (The fact that the normally active p.i.--a very hesitant and uncertain mother-to-be, at best--finds herself in the middle of an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned “confinement”, does not sit well with her, at all. Or lie well with her, as more aptly describes her enforced, semi-recumbent posture.)
After realizing that there are serious limits to how much reading, TV-watching, and even ‘net-surfing one can do from the (dis)comforts of one’s bed, Tess takes to looking out the window on the activity in the street below, watching the neighbors’ houses and the park which borders their neighborhood. (It should be noted that she finds nothing particularly odd about this; people-watching is not only an acceptable past-time to her, it’s an activity with which most private detectives--Tess included--are intimately acquainted.)
Before long, the bored p.i. notes certain patterns. Young mothers push babies around in strollers (although she tries not to think too much about all of that) and elderly couples enjoy their daily constitutionals when the weather is nice. Joggers and bicyclists, intent on getting their workouts in, whiz by in blurs of color and movement, no matter the weather. And, of course, the grassy park is a natural magnet for anyone walking or exercising a dog (another thing which isn’t dependent upon Mother Nature’s clemency). 
Perhaps because Tess, herself, has a greyhound--or maybe due to the brilliant green color of the coat, standing out in such sharp contrast on an otherwise grey day--but after the first time she spies an attractive young woman walking her dog, Tess starts making it a habit to watch for them each day. Rain or shine, they appear almost like clockwork--the woman always wearing the same bright green raincoat, always talking on her cell phone, and always being led by her high-stepping greyhound.
Until one day, that is, when Tess spies the familiar racing dog tearing through the park unattended, leash flapping in the wind... but mysteriously without a girl in a green raincoat frantically trying to catch up.
And the day after that, neither one of them appear.
Tess frets, concocting all sorts of possible scenarios--none of which have happy endings. Seeing how agitated she’s getting (which is unquestionably dangerous for both her and the baby), her boyfriend, Crow, and best friend, Whitney, allow themselves to be co-opted into canvassing area neighborhoods for the missing woman and dog.
Rather than soothing Tess’s jitters, what they discover further escalates her fears: the dog, now being sheltered by an anxious mother with two small children, who had found him wandering down their street. Unwilling to keep the highstrung (or noisy, neurotic, and incontinent) creature any longer, the woman foists him onto Crow and Whitney and closes the door in their faces. 
Upon their (semi-triumphant?) return home, Tess feels vindicated for her concerns. She renews her efforts, scouring the newspapers and local TV news, desperate to read or hear any info about a young woman who has gone missing (or been found). The ex-reporter/currently-benched p.i. puts all the skills she can manage from her prone position to use, trolling the web and making phone calls... until she finally hits on a way to figure out the missing woman’s identity.
She is--or was--married... and this isn’t the first time her husband has been involved in the disappearance of a significant other.
But, as always, there’s so much more going on than just what meets the eye...
❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ 
The fun in almost any mystery, of course, is the build-up to the final denouement, that “gotcha” moment when the reader knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who the bad guy is, as well as the why behind it all. The same holds true for The Girl in the Green Raincoat ; there’s some nice suspense--plus a few nifty little surprises--along the way to the grand finale (which is, for the most part, a satisfying one).
As is typically the case in a Tess Monaghan book, though, it’s the characters themselves--including the city of Baltimore, which has a character all its own--and their intertwining relationships, which provide the real meat of the story. Lippman imbues each one of them with believable traits, quirks, habits, and personalities, from Tess all the way down to the minor players we see only rarely (or even just once). It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a story when you find yourself interested in--and caring about--what happens to the characters. (Plus, Tess has dogs, and--as any animal-loving reader will attest--you should never underestimate the appeal of reading about a character who adores his/her pets. That kind of stuff just never gets old.)
As I mentioned earlier, this short story is unique in the Tess series because it offers some new looks at old things; for instance, for the first time ever, we view events (at least, for a brief period) through best friend Whitney’s eyes, which gives a completely different perspective on things. I really enjoyed that. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the series, you definitely can read this as a stand-alone, if you like; there's enough explanation that you won't be lost. Series fans, on the other hand, should take note that this isn’t one of those non-essential “extras” authors occasionally put out as part of an anthology; The Girl in the Green Raincoat doesn’t merely add a little something to Tess’s story, but rather it continues that story. And, after everything that takes place, it should really be interesting seeing what Lippman envisions for Tess next. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

[Note: Laura Lippman is not only the author of several highly-acclaimed Tess Monaghan books, but of a number of gripping stand-alone works, as well... and she has earned pretty much every major award in crime fiction for her efforts. If you haven’t read her work before, you should definitely give her a try. :)]