Review: The Bitch by Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton’s crime novels and short stories have a rich vein of truth and knowledge running through them that most crime writers, even the most talented, simply can’t emulate. Which is hardly surprising considering that he once spent a couple of years in prison for burglary at the Pendleton Reformatory in Indiana. Even the most stringent research is a mediocre substitute for real life experience. And it’s this kind of experience that filters down through the bedrock of Edgerton’s novel, The Bitch, and permeates the actions of its two main characters, Jake Bishop and Walker Joy.

The Bitch in this case is not a woman, but the nickname that cons and ex-cons alike give to the three strikes and you’re out sentencing structure of the American legal system – the point at which prisoners become ha-bitch-ual offenders and go inside for the rest of their lives.

At the start of The Bitch, after a second stint in jail, Jake Bishop is a reformed character working as a hairdresser and dreaming of opening up his own salon with his pregnant wife, Paris. The trouble starts when he takes a phone call from Walker Joy, his one-time cellmate, to whom he owes a very big favour, begging for help: by getting him out of a jam with a dodgy jeweller that he owes money to. His thinking clouded by fears of The Bitch, Jake declines. He is then warned by the jeweller that he has knowledge that will put Jake inside for a third strike and also intends to frame Jake’s younger brother for a recent burglary of his premises. Jake is left with no choice but to take the job on.

The job is to steal a few very special stones from a jewellery designer who is away for the weekend, but there will be a lot of other jewels in there too. If they can pull it off, the take will be massive.

The only problem is that, in true noir style, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Jake is left wondering just who he can trust, and just how far he can go to avoid the ever-present third strike life sentence. Well, he goes pretty far, believe me, but to say more would spoil things…

I enjoyed The Bitch immensely. It is written with skill and care by a writer who knows his stuff personally, and that comes through in the fear and increasing desperation of Jake’s narrative voice. Thoughts of that dreaded third strike are always on his mind, colouring his decisions, clouding his judgement, making him irrational – it’s an impressive piece of first-person narration. But it’s the plotting and organising of key events in the narrative that impressed me most. There are times in many noir stories where events tumble into the protagonist’s path with such frequency that there’s always the danger of the narrative tipping over into parody. Les Edgerton sidesteps these potential problems adroitly through a combination of fine writing and slowing the narrative down to allow the characters and readers time to draw breath. He drops a few twists along the way to a really satisfying ending, in which he gives Jake a truly great line of closing dialogue (so good, in fact, that I wished I’d written the damn line myself). If you are a noir fan, a heist fan, or a straight up thriller fan, there’s plenty in The Bitch that will satisfy you. Highly recommended.

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Review: A Day in the Life of Jason Dean by Ian Ayris

Jason Dean is an a hard man, a very hard man, the kind of scary-looking bloke who gets sent to collect debts and, if needs be, kill people, which is exactly happens on this particular day, but the problem is that his heart isn’t really in it any more. He has a wife who hates him, and the only thing he truly loves is his daughter, Sophie, who occupies his thoughts a lot on this particular day.

So when local gangster, and all-round Wagner-loving psychopath, Mickey Archer, tells him to deal with some debts and then kill a skinhead car dealer who has sold Archer a dud vehicle he does so more out of fear of his boss than any desire to flex his muscles.

Jason’s debt collecting duties happen with mixed success. One of the men, an elderly soldier, commits suicide in front of him, and the other involves dealing with a nightmare family of the kind you’ll find on many deprived council estates. Jason ruminates on writers during many of these incidents, partly because although Jason isn’t a well educated man, due to parental negligence, among other issues, he is a well read and intelligent one.

Finally, he has to face up to the dealer and go through with Archer’s request, but even that is fraught with surprises…

A Day in the Life of Jason Dean is a very strong performance written in a stylised local vernacular that helps burrow into the mind of its protagonist. The character of Dean, who could so easily have been a cliché in the wrong hands, comes across as a sympathetic and even sensitive soul, albeit of the kind that you wouldn’t ever want to upset. The disagreement, although it’s more one-sided than that, between Archer and Dean about Wagner and Shostakovich is both funny and scary, and there’s a similar feeling of unease in another meeting between the two men later in the story – you always get the feeling that Dean is treading on eggshells around his boss. Similarly, Dean’s love for his wife and daughter is equally well evoked, and pays dividends towards the end of the story. Jason Dean is a very well written tale with a genuine compassion towards people on the lower rungs of British society and comes highly recommended.

Review: The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson

When Phil Gaines’ new wife, a kinky young barmaid called Paige, and his business partner, a psychopathic pervert and genius getaway man called Jeff, run off together it’s a case of so far, so bad. But when he realises that they’ve also made off with his life’s savings, accumulated from years of bank robberies executed with zen-like calmness and precision, it’s a matter of life and death. Until this point, Gaines has managed to live a quiet and controlled life of meditation in his modest apartment in Modesto, California apartment and successful robberies out of the state.

But now his life is anything but quiet and controlled. He wants his money back and his wife and partner dead.

However, his ex-cohorts have plans of their own, which include framing and killing Gaines in a big robbery that will make them a lot of money if they can pull it off. But when the plan goes awry and Gaines escapes it leaves the main players chasing each other across the state to the home of an ageing pornstar, where their blood-soaked destinies await.

Mike Monson is a fairly new author to me. I’d read a couple of pieces of his flash fiction over at Shotgun Honey (Tough Love being an especially memorable tale), but The Scent of New Death is I believe his first longer-length work. Although the title page calls it a novella the story manages to cram more incident and character into its pages than many works that are twice the length. And I honestly loved every second of it. The characters of Phil, Paige and Jeff are fully realised and are starkly contrasting. Phil is controlled and calm most of the time, thanks to his zen meditation, but he also has a sociopathic disregard for human life, which means he’ll kill anybody who gets in his way. Paige is wild and initially fun-loving, though her idea of fun differs markedly from that of most regular people. Jeff is as vile as they come – a sexually deviant psychopath with absolutely no regard for human life and enjoys murdering for the sheer thrill. Even the minor characters have a feeling of interior lives, rather than as pieces to be moved around an elaborate literary chessboard. The prose is clear and precise and doesn’t get in the way of the action and incident, of which there’s plenty, and the dialogue is sharp and snappy without being showy. It is a superb crime thriller with some very, very violent and kinky moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it I can’t recommend The Scent of New Death highly enough. Superb.

Review: The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer (Jon Bassoff)

Having been impressed earlier this year by Jon Bassoff’s psycho-noir stylings with the cracking Corrosion, I decided to find and download some more of his work, which led me to The Disassembled Man under the pseudonym of Nate Flexer.

This novel shares some traits with Corrosion (grimy first-person setting with an unreliable and insane protagonist, a keen eye for blue collar American life, and a rich cast of repulsive low-lives) but also diverges in some respects, bringing in a sense of the supernatural with one of the cameo characters (although this seems open for interpretation, at least in my reading of the text (the protagonist is insane, after all)).

The protagonist, Frankie Avicious is man at the end of his tether. He’s a heavy-drinking slaughterhouse worker who is in love (more obsessed) with a stripper. His obese wife, whom he hates, wants to leave him for another man because she believes he married her for her father’s money, which happens to be true. But his father-in-law, who owns the factory where he works, has such little respect for Frankie that he’s placed him in a dead-end post on the slaughterhouse killing floor rather than in a more palatable post in the office. Frankie decides to murder his father-in-law and then his wife in an attempt to get his hands on the inheritance money and run away with his stripper, with a little guidance from a mysterious and creepy watch salesman. Like all noir plans it inevitably goes wrong in the worst possible way, but it takes a few wild twists and turns before the gruesome and nightmarish finale.

The Disassembled Man is another very fine piece of noir from Jon Bassoff. It’s very well written with a neat line in glib metaphors and hardboiled one-liners. It isn’t as strong as Corrosion, partly because some of the supporting characters feel a little underdeveloped, like they’re just there as Frankie’s cannon-fodder, but the prose conjures up some wonderful images, especially during the hellish finale, and there are some great set-pieces and intense moments of suspense. If you have a strong stomach for violence, this novel comes highly recommended.