Category Archives: Noir

(Day Before) Fathers Day FREEBIE!

   June 16, FREE DAY,  for my new novel Pasadena Payback.

   Get Dad a gripping good read for that new Kindle. Take it to the beach. Take it to the shade. Take it with you on your next plane ride.

Crispín Gomez Diaz runs cash between Pasadena and Nogales to pay off his missing brother’s old debt. He has family in Los Angeles and in Sinaloa, and he does what he’s told to keep his family safe from retribution.

  Dirty debts, raw ambition, and old loyalties collide in this fast-moving tale of honor and payback.


The Watchman (Joe Pike #1), by Robert Crais

2007. Robert Crais is a master craftsman who delivers on his promise.

There are alot of variations on the LA private eye story. And lots of good practitioners of the genre. Crais is among the best. His two characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, in my book, belong among the best LA literary sleuths.

This is Joe Pike’s novel, but Elvis Cole is his buddy and of course he makes more than a cameo. Pike relies on Cole to provide key backup.

Pike is a damaged soul from childhood, but he’s a tough survivor who has beaten back his demons in a way that makes him stronger than anyone else. He lives by a code that prizes loyalty above all else. He protects and serves whether as a member of LAPD or as an independent. He hates bullies in any shape, and he never walks out on a friend.

You can read elsewhere for plot summary. I’m only going to tell you that Pike and his buddy Cole are worth spending time with. Their relationship lifts this story above the standard gumshoe narrative, as do the relationships these men develop with other key people they meet over the course of their cases. The bonds of family and friendship are tested through secondary characters that provide further depth.

Crais knows his police procedural stuff, his ballistics, his forensics, his terrain, and police groupthink. But he knows his characters even better, and that’s why I’ll keep coming back for more.

A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid

2008. A cold missing persons case in a Scottish mining town reopens an unsolved twenty-two year old kidnapping and murder and leads Detective Inspector Karen Pirie to a pair of “unrelated” disappearances which together unravel the complex relationship between the miners and the most powerful man in Scotland.

If that sounds like a huge story, it is. We’ve got: Class warfare. Gender warfare. Abuse of power. Press connivance. Provincialism. Nationalism. Union busters and scabs. Art versus commerce versus love. Marital infidelity and betrayal. Families versus families versus neighbors and friends. Murder, robbery, conspiracy. And the 1984 miners strike in Great Britain.

Plus, to set the clock ticking, a young child is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant from his missing father.

I admire Val McDermid and so do alot of other people. She’s won a shelf of awards and has had her characters and novels brought to life in acclaimed TV programs and serials. She doesn’t need me to write a few words about anything she’s done as journalist or novelist. Her place is secure. My two stars will twinkle in the nighttime sky unseen by anyone but me.

But I barely got through this book. Which made me wonder why we like one book and not another. What makes us connect to a character, say, or a voice? Why do we fall deeply into one story and not care about another? It isn’t simply that one book is well-written and another one isn’t. McDermid writes expertly. She is a master of her craft. I have read other work by her and been blown away.

I like the genre. I lived in London–not Scotland, I admit–and traveled the novel’s terrain. I remember the time and the history of the miners strike.

But reading this book was a chore. So why didn’t I just chuck it and move on to something else? No one forced me to keep reading. That’s what puzzles me.

I kept reading even though I felt led along by made-up characters purposefully created to bring out the class warfare etc as listed above. The plot was overly complex and over the course of four hundred pages it unfolded backwards, as any good mystery does, at a snail’s pace. It didn’t help that nothing was much of a surprise. It didn’t help that nearly all the characters were unlikeable, with the exception of the protag, DI Pirie. It didn’t help that–without giving anything away–a key character explained everything he did in a fifteen page letter, the epistolary equivalent of a drawing room confession, making that character utterly despicable in the process.

McDermid’s fans will probably tell me to get stuffed. Even though the author has deep heartfelt passion for the community of miners, that’s not enough to make for a great or even a good book. Her passion is genuine. The well-crafted book though is a failure. It is flat. It is predictable. It is paint-by-the-numbers.

I guess I’m getting to the reasons why I don’t like this book. But does that translate to why we don’t like one book over another? Do we need to believe, to be surprised, if not wowed, by either story, voice, or character? Do we need to be transported somehow somewhere? Do we need to be more than entertained? Do we need to look up from the book and consider our world a bit differently? What makes a story work, resonate, remain with us?

Don’t have those answers yet. Will keep trying.

Looking on the bright side though, if someone with McDermid’s talent can turn out an occasional clunker, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. We might just turn the tables on the writing muses and toss off the odd winner.

One of Us Is Wrong, by Donald Westlake

1986. Donald Westlake writing as Sam Holt, a protected pen-name.

For five years, Holt, a former police detective, stars in a TV series about a criminology professor and sometime private eye. After the series is cancelled, new roles are hard to find. Holt’s too identified with his successful TV character.  We’ve all had that problem, right?

Holt is almost murdered one day while driving on the San Diego Freeway. One thing leads to another and the actor playing the private eye is soon using his policing skills and notoriety to find out who tried to kill him and why.

Of course he’s loaded: big house, bicoastal-life style, celebrity status, lotsa friends in the biz. All these elements converge in a fast-paced thriller that feels more like TV show than book rack potboiler. There were times I raced ahead just to keep going to the decent ending, but all in all a fun quick read.

As a character, Holt is eighties sass from when he was spawned. Bad guys are dark and swarthy. Women are savvy and willing. The solution to the mystery hides in plain sight – is that a spoiler? – nah.  There’s so much in plain sight that you’ll still have to figure it out.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M Cain

1934. Put Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange out of your mind. That movie sucks compared to the book.

Cain’s novella is a taut tale of a drifter, Frank Chambers, who arrives at an isolated gas station on the outskirts of LA; the station is run by an old world Greek immigrant, Nick, and his young midwestern wife, Cora. Right away we learn Frank’s the kind of guy unburdened by morals or scruples.

The instant he meets young Cora he knows in his gut he’ll have her. Unfortunately for the Greek, he likes Frank and he’s slow on the uptake. It’s been tough to keep able-bodied young men employed out here in the boonies, and Frank’s a hard worker.

The first chance Nick and Cora get, they seal the deal. Then it’s sex, love?, betrayal, guilt, leading to the problem of what to do with Nick.
Cain gives us three solid characters isolated with only their flaws to keep them company. And as anyone who’s ever been on the playground knows, threesomes don’t survive. It’s always going to end up two against one.

But these characters aren’t kids, they’re adults who play for keeps. The surviving twosome though never completely shakes the one they exclude. After the initial euphoria of liberty and success, the ghost of the former friend/lover/employer/spouse returns with the residue/the smell/the bitter taste of betrayal.

Love, lust, boredom, ambition, dreams, betrayal, distrust, more betrayal, defeat. Who wins? Who loses? Was it ever more than spontaneous amoral surrender to a temporary itch?

Cain packs alot into 105 pages. No wonder he burst on the scene with this book and virtually created the noir genre.

Read it twice.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

1950.  Maude Slocum opens this tale at the doorway to Lew Archer’s office.  “Thirty-five and still in the running,” the detective surmises.  Maude is scared.  She’s intercepted a letter to her husband calling him a cuckold. Who would send such a letter and why?  She hires Archer to find out.

Archer drives north of LA to the fictitious community of Quinto, next to the oil town of Nopal, where the Slocums live on property awash in oil. Slocum’s mother-in-law refuses to let the big oil company ruin her land by drilling. The Slocums and their daughter live with old Mrs Slocum. Only Mr Slocum seems happy with the arrangement.

Archer attends a party at the Slocums where family and friends celebrate the opening of a local play starring Mr Slocum.  That night old Mrs Slocum turns up drowned at the bottom of the swimming pool. It could be an accident, but the old woman never went to the pool alone.

Suspects are the son and daughter-in-law of course because they stand to gain the most from opening up the land to drilling.  But a chauffeur has gone missing and his hat was found near the pool.

Archer’s investigation takes him on a tour of the Slocum family estate, of the underbelly of the neighboring boom town, and of the extravagant lifestyle of the oil company owner.  This is not the 1950’s of Jerry Mathers as the Beave.

An early work by Macdonald and maybe his best.

Double Indemnity, by James Cain

1936.  A spare suspenseful story that grabs you from the opening scene.

Insurance agent Walter Huff calls on oil executive client Mr Nirdlinger to renew his policies.  Mrs Nirdlinger answers the door in her bathing suit. Huff is hooked.  The dame knows it.

What follows is a taut tale of murder, guilt, and betrayal.  Why Huff, a reasonably successful agent, falls into the clutches of the femme fatale is never really explained.  He just falls.  Hard.  And does her bidding.  He’s as successful at murder as he is at selling insurance: a knowledgeable planner who gets all the details straight.

But he can’t plan for what he doesn’t know.  And he doesn’t really know Mrs Nidlinger.

At only 115 pages, James Cain created “An American Masterpiece,” according to Ross Macdonald, another master.  Every scene, every word, is carefully crafted to lead you to the inevitable and surprising conclusion.