<i>Shark Island</i>: Excerpt Shark Island: Excerpt Chris Jameson A shark attack survivor believes she has already lived through her worst nightmare—she's dead wrong. <i>The Breaking of Liam Glass</i>: Excerpt The Breaking of Liam Glass: Excerpt Charles Harris A darkly satirical look at the deep splits in modern communities. <i>Twelve Days</i>: Excerpt Twelve Days: Excerpt Steven Barnes A paranormal thriller about a family who struggles against a plot to unleash global genocide. Review: <i>Lowcountry Bonfire</i> by Susan M. Boyer Review: Lowcountry Bonfire by Susan M. Boyer John Valeri Read John Valeri's review!
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Showing posts by: Richard Z. Santos click to see Richard Z. Santos's profile
Tue
Sep 23 2014 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov

Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, is a dark thriller featuring a brutal serial killer at loose in Moscow and a young journalist in pursuit, who discovers, amid the acts of sexual sadism, an echo of her own desires (available September 23, 2014).

This book plays by its own rules.

From the first chapter, no, earlier, than that—from the first word Sergey Kuznetsov cobbles together a book designed to get under the reader’s skin. The first word of Butterfly Skin is “You.”

You are being watched. Someone is watching all the characters in the novel and the feeling of being stalked leaks off the page.

Butterfly Skin tells the story of a sadistic serial killer in Moscow, who takes an artistic delight in skinning, slicing, and slowly torturing his young, female victims. However, before you click over to a review of a book about a topic that’s actually fresh, Kuznetsov’s novel takes a unique approach. Instead of a grizzled, disillusioned cop chasing the killer, Butterfly Skin’s main character is a young journalist named Ksenia Ivonova.

Ksenia partners with investors, freelancers, and editors to set up a website meant to compile as much material about the killer as possible. The website includes accounts of the killers, descriptions of the bodies, theories about why this is happening, maps of the crimes, and forums devoted to discussing the crimes.

[But not everything remains theoretical...]

Tue
Mar 18 2014 2:45pm

Fresh Meat: Decoded by Mai Jia

Decoded by Mai Jia is the story of a legendary codebreaker who is tasked with solving two devilish codes that seem to be the product of his old mentor (available March 18, 2014).

Decoded is the American debut of Mai Jia, one of China’s bestselling and most acclaimed authors. In China, Mai pulls off the rare combination of the highest literary acclaim matched with equally high sales. His books are instant bestsellers in China and all of his novels have been made into movies or TV shows.

Narrated by a journalist investigating a famed Chinese mathematical genius and revered codebreaker, Decoded stretches the boundaries of the spy genre and creates something totally unexpected and new.

The unnamed narrator pursues the life story of Rong Jinzhen, a legendary cryptographer who made a big splash and then vanished. The first quarter of the book is turned over to Rong’s childhood and family history. These pages not only give the reader insight into Rong’s fragile mental state but also provide historical background on late nineteenth and early twentieth century China.

Early one morning, the old man called Duckling to his bedside and gestured that he wanted a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote down the following message: ‘When I am dead, I want you to put pear flowers in my coffin.’ That evening, he called Duckling back to his bedside and again demanded paper and pen, so that he could give more detailed instructions: ‘I am eighty-nine years old and I would like eighty-nine pear flowers to be buried with me.’ The next morning he called Duckling to his bedside again and, once supplied with paper and pen, he made his wishes even more precise: ‘Work out how many days there are in eighty-nine years and then bury me with that number of pear flowers.’ Perhaps the old man was confused and fearful in the face of his oncoming death, for at the moment that he wrote these increasingly complex instructions, he seemed to forget completely that he had never taught Duckling any mathematics.

Although he had never formally been taught any mathematics, Duckling was quite capable of this kind of simple addition. It is part of life, everyday stuff: a moderately intelligent child, even if you don’t formally teach them this kind of skill, will still be able to manage it. If you look at it from that point of view, then Duckling had already received as much instruction in addition and subtraction as he needed, since every year when the pear blossoms began to fall from the trees, Mr Auslander would collect them and afterwards get Duckling to count them. When he had come up with the correct number, it would be noted on the wall. Later on, Mr Auslander might well get him to count them again and the total was written up a second time on the wall. That way, by the time that the flowers had all fallen, Duckling’s addition and subtraction had had a thorough work-out, not to mention his understanding of numbers and decimal places.

Soon the young, abandoned Rong [Jinzhen] finds himself in the tutelage of a mathematical genius and develops an almost supernatural ability to deconstruct the most challenging of equations. He’s a totally unique thinker who at a young age can run mathematical circles around even his professors.

[Rong, meet Mao Zedong. Mao, this is Rong...]

Fri
Aug 31 2012 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: The Three-Day Affair by Michael Kardos

The Three-Day Affair by Michael KardosThe Three-Day Affair by Michael Kardos is a thriller featuring three ordinary men who test the limits of their friendship when a robbery goes wrong (available September 4, 2012).

Will, Jeffrey, and Nolan are lifelong friends. They went their separate ways as adults, living their own lives while forging their own careers. They have no reason to believe anything extraordinary will befall them. Until one shocking moment changes everything….

The Mysterious Press is back from the dead, and the first debut novel from the relaunched press is a good sign of things to come.

Michael Kardos codirects the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, edits the literary journal Jabberwock Review, and several of his stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories. In other words, Kardos brings some heavy literary credentials to The Three-Day Affair. His first novel combines tension and thrills, with a welcome devotion to character development and quality writing.

[We need more of those!]

Tue
Aug 7 2012 12:55pm

Fresh Meat: Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman

Gangster Squad by Paul LiebermanGangster Squad by Paul Lieberman is a true crime novel based on the experiences of eight covert cops waging war on L.A.’s biggest gangsters (available July 31, 2012).

In the late 1940s, a secret squad was created inside the Los Angeles Police Department. Eight men were tasked with keeping “eastern hoodlums” from taking over L.A. The “Gangster Squad” were ghosts: “They’d meet on street corners, in parking lots, and up in the hills. In effect, they would not exist.”

Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles by Paul Lieberman explores the largely untold history of this secret unit and is the basis for the film Gangster Squad, starring Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Josh Brolin, which was recently pushed back to a 2013 release. Lieberman’s book is based on his seven-part series for the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

The best part of Gangster Squad is that it feels like a new cops and robbers story. We’ve seen similar fictionalized tales, such as L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. Also, “The Hat Squad,” a different secret group within the L.A.P.D.’s robbery division, has been the subject of multiple films and a TV show. Yet the “Gangster Squad” and the mobsters they went after have largely stayed under the radar.

[But they’re coming back to the public eye . . .]

Sat
May 12 2012 11:00am

Fresh Meat: Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd ParryPeople Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry is the true crime story of Lucie Blackman, who stepped out on the streets of Tokyo and disappeared in the summer of 2000 (available May 22, 2012).

The research montage. CE readers know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s Cumberbatch sherlocking around a crime scene, the Doctor Who or Torchwood gang banging away on impossible, alien computers, or the CSI crew banging away on even more impossible, alien computers, the research montage is a key part of crime and science fiction television. Usually the montage has some sort of fast-paced electronic music thumping underneath it and shocking clues are unearthed.

Research is cool.

Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness is a testament to research, and how it can be used to completely immerse a reader in a dark tale. Darkness tells the true story of Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one-year-old British woman abducted in Tokyo in 2000. This book isn’t only the story of Blackman’s disappearance; it’s also the story of her entire life, her family’s life, the life of her killer and, to a lesser extent, a history of Japan. This massive book is built on a foundation of interviews, newspaper articles, trial transcripts, official evidence, and tons of endnotes. Parry is the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and the man knows how to layer information, often dense historical information, in a way that pulls the reader deep into the mystery.

[Some of the scariest stories happen in real life...]

Fri
Mar 30 2012 2:00pm

The Library of America Recognizes David Goodis as an All-Time Great Noir Writer

David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950sThomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter, Philip Roth. These are just six of the classic American authors collected in gorgeous, limited-edition volumes by The Library of America (LOA). The aim of the Library is to “preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing” in scholarly, authoritative volumes.

Now, these big time authors are being joined by the poet of skid row, the guy who’s always on the outside looking in, but who doesn’t actually want to go in, an author who crafted some of the darkest, most self-destructive narrators in American literary history.

David Goodis.

[Wait...what?]

Mon
Feb 13 2012 10:30am

Fresh Meat: Liar Moon by Ben Pastor

Liar Moon by Ben PastorLiar Moon by Ben Pastor is the second book in a series of World War Two-era thrillers featuring Major Martin Bora. This book takes place in fascist Italy, and Martin Bora is a Major in the Wehrmacht.

Let me repeat that. Bora is a German army officer during World War Two—you know, Nazis, the bad guys, the ultimate villains, the ones who audiences are never allowed to feel any sympathy for, the ones Indiana Jones can kill by the boatload without blinking an eye.

Some readers might think that Pastor is either insane, crazy, or both to write a book with a Nazi protagonist. However, she pulls it off by being true to her main character, and not stooping to easy moralizing or overstating the obvious.

[But...a Nazi hero?]

Fri
Jan 27 2012 2:00pm

New Mexico: Crime from the Land of Enchantment

House Made of DawnA wide variety of writers and artists have been drawn to New Mexico. D.H. Lawrence spent the end of his life there, as did Roger Zelazny. Both Cormac McCarthy and George R.R. Martin live near Santa Fe—have fun picturing the two of them getting together for a bowl of green chile stew. N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winner for House Made of Dawn, is a Kiowa from northern New Mexico. Diane Ackerman’s Twilight of the Tenderfoot, and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos are classic memoirs set in New Mexico.

There’s also a long history of crime novelists not only writing in, but writing about New Mexico. After centuries of tribal warfare, Spanish invasion, the Pueblo Revolt, a couple forgotten Civil War battles, the wild west, Billy the Kid, and the Atomic bomb, New Mexico’s history reads like bloody crime fiction. So it’s not surprising that so many mystery authors have been drawn to the Land of Enchantment.

[Isn’t it crime and punishment, not crime and enchantment?]

Sun
Jan 22 2012 11:00am

What Is a Literary Thriller, Anyway?

Umberto Eco The Name of the RoseRecently, I’ve noticed a genre label being used, and I don’t understand what it means. I’m hoping CE readers can help define this slippery term: “literary thriller.” It’s in use by authors, agents, marketing departments, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and a host of others. However, its usage is also inconsistent, confusing, and mystifying.

I think it’s a term weighted with the pressures of genre and literary snobbery, and I’d like to figure out if it’s an actual genre with a real definition, or if it’s a semi-fake, marketing word.

[Let the debate begin!]

Wed
Dec 14 2011 10:30am

Dancing Around the Scene of the Crime

Bande a partNormally, one doesn’t think of dancing when one thinks of crime films. Sure there’s the occasional Broadway adaptation like Chicago or Guys and Dolls, but most filmmakers don’t interrupt the heist to show some hoofing. Yet there is a time-honored tradition of singing in crime films. All the way from Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel to Jennifer Connelly in Dark City, soulful songstresses have been a staple of film noir. But it’s rare to see main characters, especially male characters, dance on film. Dancing is too sensual, too soft for most crime films.

I want to talk about three notable exceptions to the “no dancing allowed” rule. All these scenes come from directors more than willing to go against the grain and push genre boundaries. Dancing here isn’t just a distraction—it’s an effective way to move the plot forward without words.

[High kicks in high gear?]

Sun
Nov 6 2011 11:00am

The Show from Another Place: Twin Peaks and Grief

Twin Peaks Title Card

Since we’re wrapping up X-tober I wanted to take a look back at Twin Peaks, one of the biggest influences on The X-Files. The similarities between Twin Peaks and The X-Files are easy to spot. Both shows featured a stoic and eccentric FBI agent trying to uncover mysteries that most people can’t and don’t want to understand. The best episodes of both shows were the ones that created more mysteries than they revealed. And, of course, there’s David Duchovny’s infamous three episode appearance on Peaks as transgendered DEA Agent Denise Bryson.

David Duchovny as Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is too complicated to be summed up in one post. So, instead I want to focus on one aspect of the show—one thing Peaks did differently and better than most other shows or films. This is difficult because Twin Peaks did everything differently, which is why the show still feels fresh. Short of some crimped hair, sorry Shelly, the show has barely aged.

[So what’s the secret?]

Wed
Oct 12 2011 10:30am

Street of the Lost: David Goodis and Philadelphia

The Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart film posterDavid Goodis was going to be the next Raymond Chandler. In 1946, Goodis’s second book, Dark Passage, was a bestseller and adapted into a classic film noir. Goodis was signed to a studio contract and started making more money than he ever had before. But Goodis never fit into the Hollywood lifestyle. By 1950, he’d moved back into his parent’s house in Philadelphia. By 1967, he was dead at the age of 49.

Something happened to Goodis while he was in Hollywood. His time in the studio factory inspired the pitch-black novels, which have made him a cult writer among fans of crime fiction. In an earlier post, I explored how Jim Thompson’s time in Hollywood seems to have stifled his creativity and reduced his output. But David Goodis left Hollywood, retreated to Philadelphia, and then really started his career.

[A turn down a darker lane...]

Fri
Sep 9 2011 3:00pm

Michael Caine: The Very Model of a Modern British Thug and Spy

Michael Caine/ MichaelCaine.comMichael Caine occupies a unique position in film history. He’s one of the most important British film actors ever, but he’s always been a bigger a star in Britain then in the United States. For example, The Italian Job (1969) is a hugely popular film in Britain, but was a relative failure over here. Too many Americans only recognize Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, and many filmgoers don’t understand how influential Caine has been. Those who only him as Austin Powers’s dad, probably don’t know that Mike Myers modeled the entire Austin Powers character after Caine’s role in Alfie (1966), which was actually a good movie, despite the anemic remake starring Jude Law—who has now starred in two Caine remakes, and counting.

[If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. . .]

Sun
Sep 4 2011 11:00am

The Nothing Man: Jim Thompson in Hollywood, Part Two

Jim ThompsonYesterday I looked at Jim Thompson’s time in Hollywood—a time filled mostly with frustration and creative blocks. Even the bright spots in Thompson’s film career, working with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory and The Killing, were marked by struggles. Today I’m going to move past the biographical details and look at the successes and failures of his different film adaptations. Looking at what went wrong, or right, in these movies reveals interesting aspects of Thompson’s work.

There have been eleven films made from Thompson’s fiction, yet very few of these movies have been able to retain both the darkness and quality of the source material.

[Hooray for Hollywood.  Or not.]

Sat
Sep 3 2011 11:00am

The Nothing Man: Jim Thompson in Hollywood, Part One

Jim Thompson, Alive And Well...or not.Crime fiction and crime films are helplessly entwined, and after a certain point it’s impossible to tell which influenced the other more. Sure you can’t talk about the creation of film noir without acknowledging Dashiell Hammett, or James Cain and the other tough-guy writers of the 1920s and 1930s. But at the same time you can’t talk about the growth of crime fiction without acknowledging the influence of film noir. We’ll put it this way: Who has influenced crime fiction and film more, Sam Spade or Humphrey Bogart? The answer is “Yes.”

Film history is full of novelists wanting to make it in Hollywood, or at least hoping for a steady paycheck, but falling far short. Even those who managed success in film and in print, say William Faulkner, got fed up with Hollywood and returned to their books.

In this post I’m going to look at Jim Thompson’s particularly troubled relationship with Hollywood, and in my next post I’ll look at the various film adaptations of his work. For more on Thompson’s life readers should immediately find a copy of Robert Polito’s magisterial Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson.

[Hollywood is just as cruel behind the scenes as in front of the cameras.]

Wed
Aug 24 2011 10:30am

Horace McCoy: Reality and Beautiful Risks

Horace McCoy, man of many talentsHorace McCoy led a life so interesting it seems almost comic. He was a fighter pilot in WW1 (shot down and awarded the French equivalent of the Medal of Honor, of course). He was reputedly a pretty good actor and helped create a theater in Dallas. He wrote war and adventure tales as well as the noir stories and novels he’s known for; he edited a magazine; wrote for a Dallas newspaper; drove a cab; and was a travelling salesman—to name just a few of his many jobs. I wouldn’t be surprised if we one day find out he was also an OSS operative, the secret brain behind the A-Bomb and the men’s room attendant at The White House.

[A wide-ranging life leads to a diverse bibliography.]

Tue
Aug 9 2011 4:30pm

When Poker Was Dangerous: Al Alvarez and The Biggest Game in Town

Al Alvarez cover of The Biggest Game in TownI’m not a poker guy. Let’s just get that out in the open right away. It’s not that I dislike the game. I enjoy playing it and I’ll admit to getting sucked into the World Series of Poker (WSOP) when it’s on at a friend’s house or a bar—those hole-card cameras and odds-of-winning graphics are just too good to ignore. But I don’t have a weekly game with friends, I don’t play online (although hardly anyone plays online since Black Friday), and I don’t know who won the last WSOP Main Event.

This puts me in the same basic position Al Alvarez found himself in when he went to Vegas to cover the 1981 WSOP for his book, The Biggest Game in Town. Alvarez lands in a Vegas that’s still grimy and dives into an event that hadn’t yet become family-friendly. In 1981, Vegas was decades away from the towering mega-complexes of today and much closer to its mob-controlled, Rat Pack past. There weren’t spas, shopping malls, or roller-coasters, and Alvarez complains that he can’t even find a swimming pool. Today, that’d be like someone going to Vegas and saying they can’t find a way to lose money.

[Let’s head for Vegas past...]