Saturday, November 12, 2016

Book Reviews: Bad Guys, Red, Here There Be Monsters

Bad Guys
by Anthony Bruno
This novel was the debut fiction offering of now deceased true crime and mystery author Anthony Bruno. It is also first in a series. It was pretty quick reading with very little fat. I did find it a little over descriptive at times but on the other hand Bruno was able to bring you into a story which had only a few well drawn characters. Everyone else was more of a stock type in some aspects. But Bruno did make you feel like you were actually in the New York and New Jersey neighborhoods which he described in such detail. This book was just under 300 pages in paperback and can likely be found in any of your better used bookstores. It's set in the eighties so some of the references (pay phones, slow computers, video cassettes) can feel a little dated. The story is something that you've read a million times before -two cops who are wildly different in both morals and personality must work together to bring down a bad guy. The difference here is that one of the cops may be the real bad guy. This book tries and I think succeeds in having it both ways. It definitely doesn't make heroes out of the organized crime people who are the book's primary antagonists. There's no love for any of the mafiosi, who are depicted here as uniformly greedy, corrupt and personally dangerous. 

On the other hand the younger protagonist is indeed breaking the law. The fact that he's an FBI agent who values doing what's right more than he values upholding the law can leave the reader feeling a bit conflicted, which presumably was the author's intent in creating the character. It's the 80's and one Richie Varga, counselor to at least three New York based crime families has provided evidence and testified against his former bosses, helping to sentence them to life terms and destroying large portions of the East Coast Mafia. Varga has since disappeared into the Witness Protection Program. But word on the street is that Varga is also the man responsible for the grisly murder of three undercover FBI agents, although no one can prove it.

One man who thinks he has all the proof he needs is renegade FBI agent Mike Tozzi. If Tozzi wasn't an FBI agent he would have been a mobster. He's got the looks, connections, aggression and disregard for rules. He also has an overdeveloped sense of vengeance and justice. Alleged criminals who were found not guilty or who escaped indictments because of political connections (a Congressional pedophile) are turning up dead. Everyone believes Tozzi to be responsible. Tozzi's looking for Varga. And he's probably not trying to deliver roses to Varga. The Special Agent in Charge of the Manhattan FBI office brings back Bert Gibbons, Tozzi's former partner, from retirement. Gibbons is ordered to find Tozzi and stop him by any means necessary. Ivers hopes that Gibbons' long experience with Tozzi will give the Bureau the inside lane on catching or teminating Tozzi. Ivers wants to get Tozzi tagged and bagged as soon as possible. Ivers has career plans that would be derailed permanently if news about Tozzi's alleged activities becomes public. 

But the straitlaced Gibbons may be more loyal to Tozzi than he is to the concept of law and order. And Gibbons notices some irregularities within Ivers 'office. Someone is watching his every move. And someone is rebuilding an underground Mafia family. Gibbons must decide what's the right thing to do when all of his choices look bad. And Tozzi must not let his quick temper and weakness for women influence his at best shaky judgment. Tozzi has tracked down Varga's wife Joanne, who did not follow her husband into witness protection. Tozzi's sure that his good looks and charm have convinced Joanne to help him in his search for Varga. Gibbons wonders if his ex-partner is letting the wrong body part do his thinking for him. This was a good read that you can finish in 1-2 days. Don't expect more than that and you won't be upset.

By Jack Ketchum
This is another older book. The best way to describe it is a cross between John Wick and Gran Torino. I was a little leery about reading it if only because the author has a well deserved reputation for over the top violence. I wasn't in the mood for that. So it was good then this wasn't that sort of book. There is violence -the entire story kicks off from a senseless act of brutality- but the author didn't rub the reader's face in it. I thought the story was very realistic in that there was nothing supernatural involved. And if we want to live in a certain type of society we agree to let the justice system handle our grievances. Overall that's probably a good idea. Otherwise the weak could never bring the strong to justice. But obviously even though a justice system may work for all of us on a macro basis there are many times when it fails on an individual basis. There are many times when the strong, wealthy or political elite may corrupt the justice system to use to their own malicious ends. 

So when that occurs the only justice may be found in an individual taking the law into his own hands. It's a paradox. Red is about that sort of situation. Avery Ludlow is a semi-retired widower who lives alone in Maine. His only companion is his fourteen year old dog Red. Ludlow's in his late sixties. His late wife gave him the dog for his birthday shortly before she died. Just as Ludlow is slowing down, his dog Red is as well. Red is positively ancient by canine standards. Red has serious arthritic and ocular issues. But as dogs tend to be Red is still loyal to and protective of Ludlow. Ludlow likes taking Red with him when he goes fishing. One day when Ludlow is out with Red he's waylaid by three teens who claim to be hunting. Well maybe. But what they are actually hunting for is the pure pleasure that comes from hurting people weaker than they are. Angered when they discover Ludlow has no money for them to take, the boys shoot and kill Red. 

After they leave, Ludlow embarks on a quest for justice. It's important to know that this is not just about the dead dog nor is Ludlow a homicidal time bomb waiting to be triggered. There are however incidents and reasons in his background that the reader slowly learns about which show that the three boys made a very very bad mistake. There's only so much a man can take. Ketchum takes his sweet time drawing all of the characters, especially Avery Ludlow. This is just a much a character study of a aging man living with tragedy as it is a revenge novel. It's also a novel which may make you think about the relative value we put on human and animal life and why we do so. Laws vary by jurisdiction of course but as the police explain to Ludlow most district attorneys are not going to spend a lot of resources pursuing those who commit crimes against animals, particularly when the penalties are very low.

The love and affection of an old half-blind dog may be priceless to Ludlow but prosecutors and judges and the law don't put much value on that. Ketchum teases the reader with a class resentment theme which I thought could and should have been brought out more. At least two of the teens who assault him and kill his dog are spoiled rich kids. And their wealthy father shows that the rotten apple didn't fall far from the tree. Ketchum also shows some links between the kind of people who would harm animals for fun and the kind of people who do the same to humans. The two sets have a lot of overlap. If you aren't a big horror fan or don't like constant explicit written depictions of violence this book might be just the thing for you. Ketchum showed that he's not reliant on the gross-out to get the reader to feel things. Ludlow's loneliness and sense of loss is as much a part of the story as his murdered dog.

Here There Be Monsters
By Tim Curran
This is a fourteen story collection of short stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Some are better than others, as is true of any collection but almost all of them are good, which is pretty unusual. There's no huge clunkers here. There is a fair amount of humor as well. The stories all range across different places and times. Some stories are written in a deliberate pastiche of Lovecraft's verbose style ("A shuttered and silent place was Kobolddamn, one that inspired a sense of claustrophobia, a sense of macabre foreboding. At first look I would have thought it deserted, such was its inexplicable  aura of degeneration and rot.") while others reference 1930s and 1940s tough guy patois (" But I didn't want Brennan's badge. He was strictly small potatoes. After facing off with that sweetheart up in the steeple, guys like Brennan were strictly small potatoes. I was sore and pissed-off but the only thing broken was my pride.") 

My favorite story here is undoubtedly "Eldritch-Fellas" which is as you might suspect a parody of the movie Goodfellas. Here Cthulhu is the wild enforcer with a quick temper and a mean streak who takes deadly offense when one of the other Dark Gods has the temerity to tell him that he's funny. This story will amuse anyone who's watched Goodfellas or who has a familiarity with some of that film's most intense scenes. "Six Feet of Moldering Earth" is more of a gothic tale which details the events which happen when two antiquarians and occultists open the grave of a wizard, hoping to make a Hand of Glory. 

Something in the grave isn't dead and needs a new host. "The Shadow of the Haunter" is a classic hardboiled detective story in which a beautiful woman wants a private eye to look into her brother's death. She doesn't think he was killed by lightning.  "The Procyon Project " finds a WW2 vet suffering from PTSD taking a job as a security guards at a Defense Department research facility. "The Naming of Witches" imagines an entirely different reason for the witch trials at Salem and elsewhere. "The Seal of Kharnabis" is about as generic as Curran gets in this collection. It's a somewhat prosaic tale of curses and death brought back to America by an expedition that opened an ancient Egyptian tomb. "The Wreck of the Ghost" details the adventures of a whaling ship crew who slowly discovers that something extremely dangerous is hunting whales and them. "The Eyes of Howard Curlix" revisits Lovecraftian themes about links between cutting edge physics and banned 12th century magic. "Nemesis Theory" tells of a problem in a max security prison where the inmates are horrified to learn that something else is locked in with them. There's little flab on any of these stories. They move quickly. I have seen Curran's name around in a few places. He's from Michigan. I'm going to be looking for some of his other work.

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