October 2007

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

The Payback

When did the scales tip so far out of balance?

Believe it or not, I’m not a fundamentally angry guy but sometimes the world’s sense of fair play seems to have gone badly awry. I think part of the trouble is that as much as many of us want to believe in karma, it’s a damned hard thing to see for ourselves.

I speak here, of course, of the more popular notion that people eventually get what’s coming to them, not the intrinsic Buddhist principle that one’s actions cause integral repercussions.

Back to the point, how often have you really seen the scales balanced, the bad guys punished, the good guys riding home to safety under a glorious sunset? Life is more often like the latest film version of 3:10 to Yuma, a throwback based on the short story crafted by crime’s elder statesman Elmore Leonard in 1953. When you see it, you’ll see what I mean. Life just ain’t fair, my friends.

To play devil’s advocate, the urge to settle the score never seems to work out well for anybody. It’s like the myth of the retirement heist. It rarely happens. People talk. Things catch up.

The late, great Richard Pryor hit it on the head when he said, "It should be illegal to make somebody want to kill you. Prisons are full of murderers that killed good people who needed to die at that particular time."

Luckily, the hard men, femme fatales and loose cannons that populate crime fiction aren’t blessed with the virtue of patience. They never seem to doubt that somebody deserves to die, that wrongs need righting, or that a punch in the mouth might work just as well as intellectual argument. So who’s had it up to here?

Let’s start with one of the great, fundamentally human characters in American crime fiction, Walter Mosley’s African-American detective Easy Rawlins, who returns in Blonde Faith the first week of October. Anyone who’s followed Rawlins’ ups and downs in Los Angeles over the course of nine exquisitely crafted novels knows that his name belies his life, a rough-and-tumble series of adventures that have threatened his life, his family, and his own sense of right and wrong. Sometimes the road to ruin is deceptive. All it takes is the moment a person says that enough is enough. For Easy Rawlins, that moment has arrived.

It’s been a bad time for Easy since the events of Cinnamon Kiss. It’s been more a year since he’s had held a steady job. His adopted daughter Feather got sick and his woman took her far away to a Swiss clinic, falling in love with a West African prince in the process and leaving Easy with a lot on his mind. He’s buying bullets. He’s plotting his next moves. He’s sinking into the quicksand of his own sorry existence.

And he might take a whole bunch of people with him when he goes under.

To make matters worse, the two men that Easy can rely upon have disappeared. They’re also both stone killers that make Charlie Manson look like a piker, so their absence weighs heavy on Easy’s mind. One is Mosley’s greatest creation, the sociopath and career criminal Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, portrayed so memorably in the film version of Devil in a Blue Dress by a menacing newcomer named Don Cheadle. The other is Christmas Jones, a protective and highly-trained soldier who learned his skills in the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia.

When Black’s young daughter Easter Dawn turns up on Easy’s porch with no explanation and a bagful of cash, it’s in the detective’s nature to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, a man named Pericles Tarr is presumed murdered at the hands of Mouse and it’s up to Easy to find his friends before the boys in blue put Raymond in an unmarked grave.

Blonde Faith’s plot is stellar as usual but it’s the substance of Mosley’s language that never fails to move me. While Easy is rarely beaten, he understands to his very core the losses of life, big and small, and never fails to clench a fist or grit his teeth at the shocking injustices of life on the streets. Here’s a taste from the book’s midsection, as Easy tries to pry some personal information out of Pericles’ hysterical wife:

Being poor and being black are not the same things in America, not exactly. But there are many truths that all black people and poor persons of every color have in common. One of the most important particulars in our lives is the understanding of the parable of the Gordian Knot. You have to be able to cut through that which binds you. Maybe that’s leaving a woman behind or breaking into a bank under cover of darkness; maybe it’s bowing your head and saying, “Yessir,” when a man has just called your wife a whore and your children dogs. Maybe you spend your whole life like some John Henry banging away at some boulder that will never give.

I took a hundred dollar bill from my wallet and pressed it into Meredith’s hand. I could have cajoled her, called a social worker, talked until I was blue in the face. But the Knot was the rent and the sword was that hundred dollar bill.

“What’s this?” she asked, lucid at last.

“It’s what you need, right?”

That old chestnut: the things we need. Easy’s biggest problem this time is that he doesn’t know what he needs, be it retribution, or Bonnie’s love, or simply to learn what it feels like to finally lose, once and for all. What Mosley provides is an ending of sorts, and it’s a maddening one. Without revealing too much, it’s a punch to the gut, one that finds Easy’s manic confession at the novel’s end finishing with the words, “I think I smiled and then the world went black.” It is, alongside Mosley’s debut Devil in a Blue Dress and his mournful stories of ex-convict Socrates Fortlow, the author’s finest work to date.

I’m not convinced Easy is really retired yet but Kevin Wignall’s hit man in Who Is Conrad Hirst? (November) is coming for his gold watch and is willing to kill anybody who stands in the way. The titular assassin in this paperback original has come to Germany in the dead of winter to confront his past in order to secure his future. Conrad has a list, you see, and it’s a very short one: all the men who know who he is and what he’s done for them over decades. He starts with his handler, hearing the man’s dying confession as he bleeds to death all over his expensive fixtures. It’s brief, ugly, and reflective of the Dagger-nominated writer’s cut-and-dried style.

The conversation was going nowhere. Conrad shot Frank in the chest, the bullet meeting his final words halfway. “I lied,” said Frank, before the bullet punched him into the sofa and the glass fell to the floor.

He didn’t die instantly, and, apart from the bloody hole in his chest, he looked like he could keep conversing all night.

It turns out that Frank lied about many things and it’s up to Hirst to figure out where the truth begins -- and ends. By the time he’s halfway through his list, Hirst doesn’t even know whether he’s working for the good guys -- nominally the American government, as some kind of free agent in serious play -- or the bad guys, a pawn in the criminal empire controlled by mastermind Julius Eberhard. 

Fortunately, Conrad has the essential elements required for a good escape plan: his wits, an itchy trigger finger, and the willingness to do bad things.

“I’ve killed a lot of people in ten years,” Hirst admits. “Killing a few more to get out of the business seems like a good equation to me. The way I see it, the underbelly of the business counts for nothing if no one’s alive who can connect me to it.”

Of course, there’s always the problem of where to go when the killing is done. The party's over, we pack our body bags and go home. But what if home is where all this bloodshed started in the first place? What happens when your baggage is too heavy to lift anymore? Those are the quandaries facing Tom Piccirilli’s fractured undercover cop in his criminal debut The Fever Kill, published by Creeping Hemlock Press in December.

The Bram Stoker Award winner is better known for his supernatural thrillers but Piccirilli has pulled out all the stops in this vengeful drama about going home and killing everyone who done you wrong. No less than Ken Bruen calls it “Hard-honed, poetic, haunting, sharp as the fangs of a cobra, blackly humorous, and oh so damn readable.”

What happens when you stay bent long enough? Sometimes you get to be Crease, a cop who’s stayed too long undercover in the employ of a brutal chieftain named Tucco.

Now he was twenty-seven and had a thick patch of gray growing right up in front and he couldn’t remember what he’d wanted to do with his life before he’d gone undercover. Whatever it had been was now too far away.

It got confusing. He knew he was good enough cop because they kept giving him more and more string, and forgave him for always breaking the rules. The ones they found out he was breaking. The others they didn’t ask about. Even under deep cover you weren’t supposed to back up the dealer during his raids on the competition, dispose of bodies, and screw the guy’s mistress. Probably not, anyway.

It would be one thing if Crease could walk away clean, no harm, no foul. Unfortunately, Crease is a family man with a wife harboring sub-zero affections, a houseful of ill-behaved brats foisted upon him by his wife’s sister, a son of his own who simply hates his father’s guts, and a lingering Achilles heel in the aforementioned mistress, now pregnant with Crease’s child.

Sick with fever, Crease heads home to the surprisingly hard-hearted village of Hangtree, Vermont. His intent is to solve the decades-old pinned on his alcoholic father, a lingering wrong to right before Crease can finally succumb to the fever dreams. Here’s the rub, what our forlorn hero really thinks at the moment of his denouement. Hindsight is a pain in the ass.

He never should have come back to Hangtree. He should’ve marched down to the club where Tucco and Cruez were in the back getting lap dances, walked into the place and shot them both in the face. He would’ve got his medal and gone on from there.

Perhaps forward motion, the avoidance of inertia or recrimination, is the key to maintaining your sanity. Keep moving. Stewing in your misery doesn’t do anybody any good. Just ask Archie Sheridan, the protagonist at the center of Heartsick, a fantastic take on the serial killer thriller from the poisoned pen of Chelsea Cain.

Our pal Archie, a police detective in sodden Portland, spent ten years tracking a beautiful femme fatale named Gretchen Lowell. Too bad for Arch; he got caught in her web, was tortured to the brink of insanity and then, miraculously, released. Moments before his death, Lowell called 911 and turned herself in. Now Archie’s a junkie, a zombie hooked on narcotics, the job, and the lingering conversation he has every week with his sadistic counterpart.

It’s a marvelous, fully-formed evolution for an author whose previous contribution was a Nancy Drew parody called Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. Heartsick stands up squarely on its own as a quality police procedural but it’s more than that. Added to Cain’s devious portrayal of the venomous Lowell, we get an even more acutely drawn portrait of a man who’s suffered pain beyond imagination, and the things he has to do to get past it.

Hell, who knows? If Archie can find forgiveness for the trespasses against him, maybe we all can. But if I have to face that pitch black void that Easy embraces with a smile, I have one last request.

You go first.

Clayton Moore has a long memory. He bites the bullet at claywriting.blogspot.com.