September 2007

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Grab Bag

Grab bag. Grab shoes. Grab language lessons for French, Arabic and mainland Chinese. Grab lightweight, durable travel clothes with deep and hidden pockets for bribe money.

Leave telephone, iPod, and other questionable hardware.

Above all else, grab weather-beaten, overstuffed passports with extra pages stapled in marking passage through Heathrow and Gatwick and Sheremetyevo, through the grubby stations at Nice, Gare Du Nord in Paris, and that dim little concrete bunker at Brussels South where the Eurostar stops. There’s a stamp from that palatial station at Haydarpasa where the Orient Express used to end its journey from Istanbul, where the guards had no sense of humor. Here and there, I find keepsakes from a world apart. There, a bit of dried blood from that night in Amsterdam, here, a lipstick kiss from a Lebanese fencer, a note with a word of warning from a learned Greek professor with a predilection for 1970s cop flicks. Lastly, the faded stamp from the customs agent at Minneapolis who said, “Welcome home, son,” and completed deflated my antagonistic expectations.

The dismal airport at Shannon, the dazzling scenery from the railway along the Cinque Terre in Italy, the barking, cacophonous crush of humanity at Waterloo. Sometimes I think that when I die, it will all flash before my eyes and what I’ll find is a dizzying blur of monuments, punched tickets, and sunsets that can only be seen when you’re achingly, blissfully far from home.

I’m on the run just now. There are some unsavory errands to be run that require my presence elsewhere. But I’ll be back, not to worry.

Grab keys, set the security system, stuff Euros, Yuan, Dollars and Pounds into the kit. Set a Gone Fishin’ sign out, and, oh hell. I nearly forgot about you.

Well, I just can’t leave you hanging for a month. Whatever would you read if you didn’t have some violent, breathless escapism to keep you occupied in my absence? I’d come home to find you reading James Patterson or Sidney Sheldon, or worse. Okay, in the interest of preserving the species in my stead, I’ll leave you with a handful of suggestions from the precarious stack of books that even now threatens to tumble over before my very eyes.

First, a title that should have made last month’s column of furtive mysteries but keeps managing to scurry away on its own power, the damned thing being straight out of the old Eerie magazines published by Warren in the seventies. Phillip K. Dick award-winner Michael Marshall has been getting raves for his recently released creepfest The Intruders, and rightly so. The book, which concerns a slightly unhinged Seattle ex-cop named Jack Whalen, is a tightly written, rapidly paced thriller that becomes a bit of a mind warp in the end, really. To introduce us to his odd world, Jack relates the story of Donna, a girl in his high school who was found dead in her parent’s bathtub with slit wrists and a pair of nail scissors in her eye. Though no one really knows the truth, Whalen manages to finally soothe her boyfriend’s pain.

“She was provisional,” I said suddenly.

It was like he hadn’t heard me. Then he slowly turned his head. “What’s that?”

“Donna,” I said. “She was never really… locked in, you know? Like she was just renting space.”

He frowned. I kept going.

“It was like… like she knew it might just not work out, you know? Like she came into the world aware that happy-ever-after was a long shot. So she put all her chips on one bet to win. Came in red instead of black, so she just walked away from the table.”

Years later, Fisher approaches Whalen with the story of two people murdered in Seattle under odd circumstances while his wife, an advertising executive, quietly slipped away on a business trip. Convinced there’s a connection, Gary asks Whalen to investigate. Fisher’s odd visions and a suspiciously prescient nine-year-old who disappears in Portland figure into the mystery. The rest you’ll have to discover on your own, but take my word that the ride is worth it.

Also on bookstore shelves these days is the black humor of The Follower by Jason Starr, the widely published author of Cold Caller and Lights Out as well as the acclaimed co-author, with Irish hard man Ken Bruen, of Hard Case Crime’s evil duet, Bust and its sequel Slide. In The Follower, Starr takes on the fertile territory of the NYC social scene in a thriller that subtly jabs at Bright Lights, Big City and American Psycho with a plot that follows a trio of twenty-somethings through the urban meat market. Katie Porter is a good girl feeling a bit worn down by the big city. Her boyfriend Andy is a successful banker but he’s a bit of a drip. When she meets Peter Wells, she’s reinvigorated by the raconteur’s single-minded pursuit of her. Well, at least until Andy is found strangled in front of his apartment building and dear Katie realizes that there’s much more to Peter than meets the eye. Dark stuff, tensely told, for you thriller fans out there jonesing for a fix.

Elsewhere on our bleak tour, stumbling into September, we can look forward to darkening skies, falling leaves, and the return of Andrew Vachss’s perpetually dangerous anti-hero Burke in Terminal, hitting stores at the end of the month. Our steel-hearted protagonist has come home to New York but the man’s a little older, a lot wiser, and things aren’t looking up, as Burke relates in a brief monologue that catches us up to current events.

I used to find people. Kids mostly. I was good at it -- the best tracker in the city, the whisper-stream said. But I’d finally learned that bringing kids back to the people who paid me didn’t always make me a hero.

And the last job I’d done had changed that forever. The man who used to send me tracker work would never be calling me again, either.

I scratch around now. Helping people go and stay gone, that’s something I know how to do. But there’s not a lot of that kind of work around. And most of it just vibrates with danger, like the hum in an electric fence.

The thing about doing crime for a living is that you have to keep doing it. And, every time you do, the odds shift… in the wrong direction.

To make ends meet, Burke agrees to take part in a multifarious extortion scheme plotted by “Claw,” a dying white supremacist who needs a ton of green for a questionable treatment in Switzerland. Normally, Burke wouldn’t take the chance on a low-life like him but the Aryan brother tempts fate by promising to reveal the details of the 30-year old murder of a 13-year-old girl. Fortunately, Burke has his support system this time -- the Prof, Max the Silent, Michelle and the other regulars at Mama’s all figure into the game -- but par for the course, almost no one gets away clean.

In a slightly more civilized world, Robert Greer has outdone himself back in Denver with his latest CJ Floyd novel, The Mongoose Deception, due in October. This time, he’s set his part-time bail bondsman on the trail of no less than the killers of one John Fitzgerald Kennedy. An earthquake in the Eisenhower Tunnel unearths the tattooed body of a miner 30 years after his disappearance. The twisting, time-shifting plot brings Floyd into the orbit of mobsters, intelligence officers and other suspect characters who might know where more bodies are buried. Greer’s novels are normally less ambitious and more character-driven but it’s a nice surprise to see him stretch his creative muscles here.

“I was surprised to see how easily I could pull from the stable of the CJ Floyd ensemble of players and work them into the Mongoose plot,” Greer said of his latest opus. “It turns out that during the course of the eight CJ Floyd novels that I’ve written, CJ has surrounded himself with friends like Mario Satoni, a one-time Denver mafia Don, Flora Jean Benson, his former secretary and now his partner in the bail bonding business, and a lady who served as a marine intelligence sergeant during Desert Storm… I never really thought about giving CJ a case with political overtones quite as heady as the JFK assassination, but it turns out that after eight novels, CJ had simply connected himself to the kinds of characters who could carry out the actions necessary to move the Mongoose Deception along.”

Another mystery from the past emerges in September from our friends at Soho Press. After the well-deserved success of its WWII mystery Billy Boyle last year, the imprint has convinced author James R. Benn to bring back his titular Boston police officer in The First Wave. Now Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal investigator, Billy is assigned to the invasion of Algiers at the end of 1942, the tipping point of the war and a critical moment for Rommel’s Afrika Korp. Billy’s investigation into the murders of both American and French soldiers is just as entertaining as his debut and it’s to Benn’s credit that he’s taken his noble detective out of London and into the line of fire.

I buy you books and buy you books and all you do is eat the covers. That should hold you for a little while during my brief, unexpected absence. I should have just enough time to file this away, grab the International Herald Tribune, and organize a dead drop before the plane takes wing for Barcelona.

Clayton Moore has seen a few things in his time. He leaves a trail of breadcrumbs at claywriting.blogspot.com.