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Damaged Goods by Roland S. Jefferson

Publisher: Atria ISBN: 0743268865

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Alonzo Crane is about ten years into a twenty-five year federal hitch earned when a bank robbery he based on The Thomas Crown Affair went wrong. Roland S. Jefferson’s Damaged Goods is about Crane’s opportunity to get his life back by stealing a steamer trunk out from under the noses of the FBI. The trunk’s full of payoff money, some of which is intended for the corrupt warden of Crane’s current accommodations. The adult Crane is the result of a childhood bereft of cultural stimulation, aside from watching movies after school while wondering when his mother will return, so he goes back to them for this plot, too.

There’s more to Damaged Goods than recycled movie plots for the two heists. Jefferson mixes and matches these elements cleverly with double-crosses, perceived double-crosses, maybe a triple-cross, a love triangle, robberies, shootings, beatings, and a couple of explosions thrown in for good measure. The action sequences are well-paced and entertaining, and Jefferson shows a deft hand for letting the reader anticipate the finale without giving too much away. Technical explanations aren’t allowed to bog down the pace, yet nothing happens without at least some setting up. He’s also a believer in Chekhov’s Law that a gun shown in Act One must go off by Act Three, and doesn’t waste any of his preparations.

The problem is, that’s as far as it goes. After a while Damaged Goods takes on a “Perils of Pauline” aura, as Crane and his new inamorata Trixie find themselves in more and more desperate situations. The deus ex machina eventually revs its engine once—or twice—too often as the plot’s convolutions work their way toward a predictable, yet unsatisfying, ending.

Jefferson looks for a tight, street-wise voice, filled with street names for drugs  and vulgar language appropriate to the characters, giving the book a definite noir feel without quite going all the way. The dead-enders in stories by James M. Cain or Jim Thompson got what they deserved there was a lesson there, even if it was learned through the demise of the protagonist. Elmore Leonard would tell Crane’s story with a sardonic acceptance of all the characters’ failings while keeping everything clever enough to be fun. Jefferson’s dialog may be more real than Leonard would have written it, but Leonard’s would be more realistic.

A good story leaves the reader with a bittersweet feeling at the end: satisfied, but wishing there was more. Damaged Goods leaves you thinking “it’s about time.” There’s plenty of action here for aficionados. A lighter hand would have made it a better read for a broader audience.  

 

 

Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime, and Men by Scott Wolven

Publisher: Scribner. ISBN: 0-7432-6011-2

Reviewed by Tim Davis for New Mystery Reader

Join some tough and gritty characters in a debut collection of impressive stories from a relatively new voice, Scott Wolven, a writer who is remarkably skilled at his craft.

Let me give you a sneak peek into eight of the collection’s thirteen gems:

In the collection’s title story, “Controlled Burn,” a fugitive on-the-run, avoiding arrest for an armed robbery, finds new life, new identity, and new ways of avoiding courage of responsibility; in “Ball Lightning Reported,” a man battles storms—real and imagined—and surrenders himself finally to drugs and their consequences; “Underdogs” features two self-appointed bounty hunters who search for one of the “los de abajo” (the underdogs) and prove that fugitive life in the west is no longer what it used to be; and in “The Rooming House,” a man’s memories and experiences—comic, pathetic, and brutal—are marred and exacerbated by a common denominator—alcohol.

“Taciturnity” introduces readers to a determined grandmother who creatively retaliates in unforeseen ways against her neighbor, the policeman she views as responsible for her grandson’s wrongful imprisonment on a drug offense; in “Outside Work Detail,” prisoners who are presumed to be insensitive, self-reliant, and cold-hearted show themselves to be surprisingly affected by an experience wherein they are confronted by the fragility of life and the unmitigated omnipresence of death; a man best known as the town’s meanest drunk in the story “El Ray” finally reveals a long held secret involving friendship and compassion; and in “Crank,” readers will go along on a phantasmagoric excursion into the curiously conflated worlds of crystal methamphetamine, friendship, and Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Throughout Controlled Burn, readers will be drawn into hostile and unforgiving landscapes in a world influenced by drugs (angel dust, cocaine, methamphetamines, and more) and a hell of a lot of alcohol; readers will encounter a dangerously seductive assortment of people (fighters, drunks, truckers, drifters, felons, loners, and those folks next door about whom we really know so very little) whose lives are consumed by fierce passions and vicious conflicts; and readers will explore spell-binding situations dominated by raw darkness, rancid emotions, and bitter sorrows.

Yes, Controlled Burn is dark, mean, and nasty. But Controlled Burn is also very good writing from a new talent that readers ought to very much enjoy.

 

MURDER ON THE SALSETTE by Conrad Allen

Publisher: St Martin's Minotaur ISBN 0 312 30793 4

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This sixth voyage into the past by Conrad Allen is every bit as enjoyable as its predecessors.  Allen has found a niche for himself writing murder mysteries that take place aboard the great liners which most of us only know by their names, if at all.

The Salsette was a trim and speedy boat, smaller than the Mauretania and Caronia and other great boats of history, but Allen describes life on board with all the loving detail he has brought to his other stories.

Once again his detecting couple, Genevieve Masefield and George Porter
Dillman, are aboard a ship incognito to keep an eye on security.  This time they are working for the P&O line, keeping an eye out for jewel thieves and pickpockets.   They're not expecting any serious trouble on the four day run from Bombay to Aden, but before the ship docks, there's a dead body, missing valuables, and a lost ear trumpet to sort out.  Not to mention a gang of card sharps and an Indian seer who may or may not be mixed up in it all.

Genevieve finds this assignment particularly trying, because she and George are now partners in marriage as well as business, but the job at hand prevents their living as man and wife.  She stifles her frustration and sets about making the acquaintance of passengers, and soon finds herself lumbered with the friendship of a clinging vine, Tabitha Simcoe, who sees in Genevieve everything she is not. Tabitha is a meek but pretty young woman who is at the beck and call of her crippled mother, who makes a sort of career of being a brave sufferer of undeserved physical infirmity.

While Genevieve tries to do her own work despite the cloying presence of Tabby, George has to endure the arch attentions of a bold Frenchwoman whose jewelry has been stolen when she inexplicably leaves her stateroom unlocked.   He also receives the more welcome friendship of a young woman who likes roller-skating on the dark decks after supper and literally runs into him.  Her parents are somewhat less than pleased by their growing friendship, innocent as it is, and it's not long before George finds a link between the heavy-handed father and the dead man.

As the ship speeds through the Arabian Sea, time grows short and the pressure is on George and Genevieve to sort out all the various mysteries before they reach the dock.  This they manage to do in a very busy final few chapters that culminate in the identification of the thief, the murderer, and some family skeletons that need to be shoved decently back into the closet before any more harm is done.

Those who are fascinated by the great age of ocean travel during the early part of the 20th century will enjoy this book thoroughly, as will readers who just like an engrossing mystery.