December 2007

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Books for Dangerous Women

I’m not one for book burning but if I was forced to pick one to throw on the fire, I know which one I would pick. The Daring Book For Girls goes right on the top of the conflagration, in my book, followed closely by kerosene-soaked copies of How To Be The Best At Everything (The Girls' Book).

No, I can’t blame Conn Iggulden for my imaginary bonfire, either. I first stumbled across the British schoolteacher turned author when I saw posters in the London Underground for the first book in his Emperor series, a blood-soaked, operatic retelling of the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, which was followed by a no less compelling reimagining of the lives of Genghis Khan and his clan in a series newly labeled Conquerer.

You, of course, know him because of a silly little side project called The Dangerous Book For Boys, which has bizarrely and unexpectedly captured the public imagination. Dreamed up by Conn and his brother Hal on a lark, the original British edition has sold something upwards of half a million copies in the UK and reads like an old scout manual infused with the misty nostalgia of, say, Bill Bryson. The American version feels a bit cauterized with patriotic substitutions of rah-rah jingoism but otherwise, it’s a decent enough lark for mischief-makers young and old.

But naturally, anything that made that much money must be reproduced, as quickly as possible by the lowest possible bidder, and rushed into stores before its commercial appeal dies off in a protracted demise somewhere in the remaindered book bin. The Daring Book For Girls carries a bit more credibility in that Conn and Hal signed off on the mirror image of their little handbook but both it and its slow-witted cousin The Girls’ Book are fundamentally an insult to the intelligence of the better sex.

Where The Dangerous Book covers a weird variety of topics ranging from the rules of chess to a brief history of artillery, The Girls’ Book offers up superfluous lessons such as “how to make your own lip gloss,” and “how to make a scrapbook.” The Daring Book fares slightly better with entries on “female heroes in history” and “five karate moves,” but still lingers slightly too long in the shallow end of the gene pool with a 10-page (bulleted!) section on watercolor painting and instructions on how to press flowers.

Perhaps what’s needed is a Book For Dangerous Women, which would veer much closer to serving everyone’s interests (although it could certainly get me iced in the long run). A lovely, fat trade paperback with an Oprah’s Book Club stamp emblazoned on the front and a hollowed-out final third already outfitted with a .22 caliber Derringer. We could pack the first half with lessons on “how to make poison lipstick,” or “how to make vain men do your bidding while believing they’re in charge,” or “disguise secrets of wartime infiltrators.” Deluxe versions could be employed with midnight black shades, suicide blonde hair dye, truth serum and maybe some C-4.

Until I get my wish, I’m settling in with the new anthology A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. This piercing collection of contemporary women’s noir is brand new from Busted Flush Press (and don’t you just love a book with a title cribbed from original tough guy Jim Thompson published by a house named after Travis McGee’s boat and featuring some of the best women writers of the new century? My spine tingles from the confluence of influences).

The anthology has been lovingly crafted by the wildly talented Megan Abbott, who knows of that which she speaks. Already this year, Abbott, a regular contributor to the partners in crime at The Rap Sheet, had given us two of the better novels of the year. Her second novel, The Song Is You, arrived in January and delved into the real-life missing persons case of starlet Jean Spangler. But it was her latest novel, July’s Queenpin, which really put her on the map. Twisting the old chestnut of embittered captain and naïve protégé into a deliciously new stew, it was a book so juicy and evocative of classic pulp that no less than Ken Bruen dubbed her, “the new Queen of Noir.”

“The idea was to help further expand the definitions of noir, which has historically been so associated with male authors and male protagonists," Abbott told ForeWord Magazine earlier this year about her admirable anthology. “We knew there were all these terrific writers who could offer up rich stories with complicated women at the center. So we got this heady collection of stories about the kinds of women -- waitresses, schoolteachers, housewives, medical students, advertising copywriters, female cops -- who once were relegated to the margins -- and were now standing center stage. It’s been very exciting.”

So it’s with great joy that I settle into the company of the gun molls, femme fatales, and hard women with hearts of gold that populate A Hell of a Woman. It includes outstanding stories by rightful heirs Lynne Barrett, Charlotte Carter, Christa Faust, Alison Gaylin, Sara Gran, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Vicki Hendricks, Naomi Hirahara, Annette Meyers, Donna Moore, Vin Packer, Rebecca Pawel, Cornelia Read, Lisa Respers France, S. J. Rozan, Sandra Scoppettone, Zoë Sharp and the idiosyncratic Sarah Weinman as well as a balanced set of entries by leading men like Ken Bruen, Allan Guthrie and Charlie Huston as well as an introduction by Val McDermid. As if that weren’t enough, Abbott has also asked a number of luminaries to scribble tributes to their favorite women of noir and dozens of familiar names stepped up including Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, Alafair Burke, Harley Jane Kozak, and Robert Randisi. You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas present.

One hell of a woman can drive you crazy. Bill Hicks once lamented of his challenging love life, “You know, it's hard to have a relationship in this business, man. It's going to take a very special woman… or a bunch of average ones.”

In the interests of elevating the playing field, I’ll leave you with a pair of interesting if dichotomous women lying in wait on the shelves now, and another brace that you can look forward to meeting next year.

For straight-up action, it’s worth revisiting Zoë Sharp’s crazy tough heroine Charlotte “Charlie” Fox, the chopper-wielding, ex-Special Forces operative turned bodyguard that British readers have enjoyed through her four book run. American audiences first met Charlie in 2005’s First Drop, which found her crossing the Atlantic to Florida, where mayhem and bloodshed soon put her on the most wanted list. Second Shot, published back in September, finds Sharp continuing to play the game Lee Child has aced, pitting her distinctly English protagonist against dangerous opponents on our American shores. As the new book opens, Charlie’s been shot to hell, twice no less, and lays bleeding to death in a freezing ditch in New England.

The whole of my torso was screaming. When I coughed I tasted blood in my mouth and knew that, whatever other damage it had done, the round had penetrated my lung. I had a vivid mental picture of it still slowly progressing, maybe in a slow-motion tumble, contaminating whatever soft tissue it passed through, like a cancer.

The good news was that I was still conscious, my heart still pumping, my brain still functioning, more or less. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t still going to kill me, given time.

And, one way or another, time was not on my side.

It’s gritty, permeating prose that finds Charlie flashing back to a seemingly innocuous gig protecting a beautiful British lottery winner, Simone Kerse, and her four-year-old daughter from a stalkerish ex-boyfriend. Cue the bullets.

A gentler entertainment can be had in Little Face by Sophie Hannah, published by the pensive souls at Soho Press in October. Another UK bestseller, this psychological thriller is buoyed by its award-winning author’s poetic sensibilities and its flawed, possibly unreliable narrator. As readers, we’re privy to two points of view. Alice Fancourt’s confessional entries detail her greatest fear: that her baby girl Florence has been replaced by a doppelganger. Meanwhile, Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse is struggling to weigh his affection for the distraught mother with his own investigatory instincts. It’s a much more evenly paced read but for a dip into cognitive dissonance on a wintery night, you could do much worse.

On to the New Year, my anxious friends. In February, Edgar Award winner Dana Stabenow (A Cold Day For Murder) abandons the murky world of her Kate Shugak series to enter the wider (and likely more profitable) realm of international thrillers. Prepared For Rage pairs a charismatic U.S. Coast Guard Captain, Cal Schyler, with an Alaskan-born astronaut Kenai Munro and sets them on the trail of Pakistani terror mastermind Akil-but-my-terrorist-name-is-really-Isa, who wields no less than the fortunes and influence of his mentor, the belated real-life terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi. His target: the space shuttle. Sound far-fetched? It is, but to her credit, Stabenow spent a good chunk of this year patrolling South America on the USCG cutter Munro and applies her experiences -- flying a Helo or live firing a .50 caliber machine gun -- with gusto.

“They are as a group rowdy and raucous and definitely a tough room, especially on each other, but there is no group you’d rather have at your back if you were in trouble,” Stabenow wrote of her shipmates. “In attitude they hover somewhere between parents who practice tough love and a SWAT team.”

For less acrobatic and more meditative prose, look no further than the latest thriller by Scottish novelist Denise Mina, Slip of the Knife, which hits shelves in February. Although she’s often compared reasonably and favorably with Ian Rankin, Mina has a style all her own, although she does share the Tartan Noir godfather’s predilection for writing when she should have been studying. Much like Ian, she sloughed off her Ph.D. grant to complete her first novel Garnethill, which won a Dagger award right out of the gates.

Her bread and butter has been her wicked smart series regular, Glasgowian crime journalist Paddy Meehan, and Slip of the Knife brings her hot-blooded reporter into the violence of a new decade, the 1990s. In a brief and bloody prologue, Paddy’s old boyfriend and fellow journalist Terry Hewitt is murdered in a breathless demonstration of Mina’s talent for artful description.

The warm summer breeze tickled the tips of the grass on the verge. In the dark field beyond, a small brown bird rose screaming from the ground, circled and flew away towards the yellow lights of a cottage on the distant hillside.

Terry’s corpse relaxed in the watery ditch. For the briefest of moments a white thigh dammed the stream, pooling it into a miniature lake, until it found a path across his groin, over his hip and continued its passage to the sea.

Terry Hewitt’s corpse began the long melt back into the earth, and the world went on.

The beleaguered and baffled Meehan, now a columnist in an age of flagging newspaper sales, soon finds herself a target for the very press she represents as she’s forced to identify the battered body of her former lover. Things get even stranger when Paddy discovers that Hewitt has left her his home in Glasgow and several valises full of notes.

Mina has been on a roll lately with a fascinating and underrated go at John Constantine for DC Comics in Empathy is the Enemy and The Red Right Hand and a play, “Ida Tamson,”which was performed last year in her hometown. It is a pleasure to welcome her back to the shadowy world of crime fiction and the engaging Paddy Meehan is welcome at my end of the bar anytime.

And to steal a line, that’s all she wrote.

Clayton Moore has called it a year. The next round is on him at claywriting.blogspot.com.