The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson / ****

25159239There’s something exciting about reading a book that draws on traditions you’re unfamiliar with, and that goes double when you’re dealing with supernatural forces and old folklore. Telling a story about feuding gangs with supernatural trappings set in the 1800’s is a good hook, but M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with the Ghost Eyes goes further by diving into Chinese folklore, spiritual warfare, and ancient traditions, telling a story that doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve read. And though the book’s writing isn’t the best, the propulsive story, fascinating cosmology, and great characters all make for a great read well worth your time.

Trying to explain the plot is difficult; there’s a lot going on here, even before you dive into the complexity of the cultural traditions being explored. Suffice to say that it’s the story of Xian Li-lin, the only child of a prominent Daoshi exorcist (a man who seems constantly disappointed at the fact that he’s left with only a female child behind). Li-lin is not only in training to succeed her father, however; she has yin eyes, which allow her to see the spirit world around her. Li-lin finds herself being used as part of a plot to get to her father, but the question is, why? Is it a power play by a rival tong? A threat from a malevolent entity? Or something far greater and more dangerous?

The Girl with Ghost Eyes follows Li-lin as she dives into the spirit realm, fights dangerous bodyguards, grapples with ancient incantations, and tries her best to save her father and understand what’s going on. In many ways, it’s pure noir; from the shadowy alleyways of Chinatown to the numerous characters on all sides of the moral spectrum, from the dangerous world of Chinese tongs to a struggle for power, M.H. Boroson plays it all with a heavy (and well-used) glaze of noir toppings.

But in the end, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is most memorable and exciting for the richness of the culture it evokes, and the astonishing visions we get along the way. Back alley marketplaces of demons and spirits. Midnight parades of unimaginable beings. Dark spells carved into skin. Passports that assist in moving beyond the ghost realm. Ancient incantations based on conceptions of death far outside of the Western mentality. An emphasis on saving face, on honor, on gender roles, on ancestry. The Girl with Ghost Eyes doesn’t just slap on a few ethnic ideas and assume that’s good; instead, it immerses you in its well-researched and understood world, bringing it to life on every page, every social interaction, every question of motivation. From the necessary spells to the conflicts between rivals, from family histories to job titles, Boroson brings the era to life phenomenally, giving us a way to experience a mythology and heritage far outside what most of us ever get to.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes isn’t flawless at all; the writing, while never bad at all, often feels functional at best, and occasionally can get a bit too heavy into “telling” instead of “showing”. And yes, that complicated plot sometimes gets to be a bit too much; there are times where it feels like the book isn’t just this one story, but every other idea Boroson had thrown into the background. By and large, though, the book works, keeping you completely hooked into its compelling world and incredibly fleshed out mythology, and investing you in the fate of a young woman who’s desperate to prove herself in the face of every obstacle. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, one whose world and characters are so good that it overcomes the small, forgivable flaws along the way. Here’s hoping there’s more books in this world to come, and a lot more of Li-lin’s story for me to enjoy.

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Standard Hollywood Depravity, by Adam Christopher / **** ½

31216087Last year, I picked up Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill on a whim, and was delighted I’d done so; marrying the hard-boiled PI stories of Raymond Chandler with science-fiction trappings, Made to Kill was a treat, telling an old-fashioned story in a wholly unique and interesting way. Its protagonist, Ray Electromatic, was the last robot left working after a brief boom in the industry, and now, he was left investigating cases – oh, and murdering for hire, too. It was a great hook for a pulpy tale, and if Made to Kill never really moved beyond its pulpy roots, that’s fine; it was enough fun that it more than justified its existence and then some.

Now comes Standard Hollywood Depravity, a follow-up novella to Made to Kill that finds Ray being brought in for the killing of a young go-go dancer, only to find the club full of very dangerous made men – a situation that makes his life far more complicated, and the job far more complicated. And making things worse is the way that Ray is no longer content to just follow orders and his programming; no, Ray is getting curious about things, and questioning the situations he finds himself in, and feeling a little more reluctant about killing without reason.

In pretty much every way, Standard Hollywood Depravity is an improvement on Made to Kill; the story is more complex and interesting, Ray more complicated as a hero, the writing sharper. But best of all, Christopher seems to have eased into his world more comfortably, digging around in the weird world that he’s been shaping. What’s it like to be a huge robot and not have people surprised to see you? What happens when you’re becoming aware, as a programmed creation, that your coding might be antithetical to your rapidly growing consciousness? Depravity deals with all of this and more, and does so in a tighter narrative – all the more impressive.

There are still a few issues, mind you; it feels like Christopher elides out a pretty significant scene towards the end of the book, but not in a way that would lead to interesting ambiguity; it just feels incomplete and off-balance in a way, and makes it feel like the book gets rushed right at the very end. And that’s a bit of a disappointment, considering how good the rest of it is. But in pretty much every other way, this one is a knockout, and has me even more excited to check out the next entry in the series.

(Side note: Standard Hollywood Depravity also features a short story entitled “Brisk Money,” which serves as a bit of a prequel to the series. “Brisk Money” is a great story; that being said, the story relies so much on Ray not having information about his life that we already have that it doesn’t always entirely work, especially since the story never really makes it clear when it takes place. In other words, it took me most of the story to realize that this was a prequel that takes place before Made to Kill, and sets up the series to come. There’s still a pretty fascinating detail included here, and it’s a good story; it just feels like it would work better if it was clearer when in the series it took place.)

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The Grifters, by Jim Thompson / ****

grifting_away_01There are numerous varieties of noir out there – your hard-boiled detectives by Hammett and Chandler, your neo-noirs by Lehane, and so many more, creating a massive spectrum of darkness. But even in the depths of dangerous, flawed protagonists, there’s something especially nasty about the “heroes” of Jim Thompson, who gives us twisted killers, con artists, helpless saps, and throws us into worlds where everyone is corrupt, sleazy, and in it for themselves. It’s noir in its purest, most unflinching sense, and done without even a hint of judgment or morality to filter it all out.

And even with all of that, The Grifters manages to stand out from the pack, giving us a queasily incestuous tension between a con man and his grafting mother, two figures who only care about the world inasmuch as it can give them what they want. No, Roy and Lilly may not have the depraved sense of violence to them that Thompson gave us in Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me, but they’re equally broken, nearly sociopathic characters; these are people who have divided the world into grifters and chumps, and chumps are only as good as what you can get out of them. As Roy makes his way through women (always somehow comparing them to his mother), or as Lilly cold-bloodedly manipulates everyone around her, we get the sense that these people could care less about the world around them, and feel like empathy and compassion are for the weak.

As usual with Thompson, plot is almost beside the point here, maybe to a fault for a novel about con artists; yes, there’s a thread about Roy beginning to question this lifestyle after a con goes bad, and Lilly struggling with a very different bad situation, but both of those are far less integral to the book than you might expect. No, Thompson specialized in creating his worlds and immersing his readers into the minds of his characters, and The Grifters features that in spades. From walking you through dice cons to seeing how they react to human kindness, from careful manipulation to instinctive self-preservation, Thompson’s writing excels at creating characters and depicting their thoughts, no matter how fundamentally broken they may be.

And it’s there that Thompson makes his bid to be considered among the all time greats. It’s not his stories, which are thin and more about the internal decisions of the characters. No, it’s his unflinching, unapologetic look at cruel, heartless, despicable characters cut loose in a world that’s unprepared for them, but deserves whatever it gets. That’s what noir is at its best, and trust me, just about any Thompson is among that category. The Grifters maybe isn’t as good as Thompson’s best (for my money, of the ones I’ve read, Pop. 1280 runs away with that) – it could use a little more complexity, just a tad more fleshing out – but it’s still a lean, nasty, pulpy, fantastic read.

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Dead Aim, by Joe R. Lansdale / **** ½

imagesI’ve really come to feel that Joe Lansdale is all but incapable of writing a truly bad book, and that rule might just be doubly true if it’s one of his “Hap and Leonard” books. With a conversational style, an incredible ear for dialogue, beautifully noir plotting that never overshadows the characters, and humor that keeps everything feeling light even as the material goes dark, the series has been a treat throughout its run, and that streak remains intact for Dead Aim, a novella that follows the characters on a “simpler” case not long after the events of Devil Red.

The plot, as usual for Lansdale (and for noir), starts simply enough: Hap and Leonard are asked to help a woman who’s having some issues with a violent ex. From there, of course, everything gets complicated, as characters show up dead, motivations get questioned, and betrayals abound – in other words, it’s a typical noir story, with double-crosses and uncertainty everywhere. And as usual, Lansdale has a way of taking unexpected turns, or of taking familiar elements in unusual directions; here, while it’s not a surprise that the boys are being played, the reasons for it are more heartfelt and interesting than you might expect.

But really, the reason you read Hap and Leonard books isn’t for the plots; those are the hook that draws you in, sure, but it’s Lansdale’s rich world and fantastic characterization that you really come for, and Dead Aim provides. I could read Hap and Leonard banter and verbally spar for hundreds of pages and never get bored, and the same goes here; there’s a lived-in feel to the characters and their friendship that’s hard to explain, but undeniably present throughout. Moreover, Lansdale manages to bring all of his characters to the same life; yes, everyone in these books has a bit of a smart mouth, but Lansdale makes them all stand on their own, giving each their own personality, even in a short page count. From the wronged woman who may be using those around her to a malevolent hulking man who may be misjudged, Lansdale sketches in his characters quickly and efficiently, bringing them to life so effortlessly that it’s easy to ignore how good he is at it.

Being a novella, Dead Aim by necessity feels a little slighter than the best “Hap and Leonard” books (Bad Chili, for me, holds that title), but in some ways, it’s also a gift for readers, who get something richer than a short story that still holds all of Lansdale’s gifts for pacing, storytelling, humor, and style. And the fact that I get to pick up a bunch of these novellas for a cheap price? That’s a steal for the amount of enjoyment these books bring me. A great read, whether or not you’ve read Hap and Leonard before – and if you haven’t, get on it.

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The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

27209225A few months ago, I stumbled across The Devil’s Detective, which told the story of Thomas Fool, a damned soul doing his best to investigate murders in Hell. It was a book that completely caught me off guard, and blew me away, creating an astonishingly vivid world, and truly committing to its premise – after all, how could you solve murders in a place designed around suffering? Unsworth’s novel embraced that question, turning it into a book in which Fool’s quest for hope and answers is as much a defiance of Hell as it is a murder mystery. It was an incredible, beautifully written book that I loved, and one that I was eager to see followed up.

Now comes The Devil’s Evidence, the second (and hopefully not last) Thomas Fool novel, which picks up some time after the first book. Fool’s stature has continued to grow, but what that means for Hell – which seems to have embraced the idea of Information Men – remains to be seen. Is Fool just a pawn in Hell’s games, or his own man? But before he can deal with that question too much, or work on the series of fires that are breaking out across Hell, he’s drafted into accompanying a delegation of demons into Heaven. And once he arrives, he starts to realize that he’s been brought here to exercise his particular skills all over again – because something horrible is happening in Heaven.

Just as he did in The Devil’s Detective, Unsworth makes his book work by embracing his environment, creating a take on Heaven unlike anything else out there (much as he did with Hell). Unsworth’s Heaven is a beautiful place, but a strange one, with joyful souls in constant waking dreams, and angels unable to perceive anything that might leave them questioning the perfection of their world. It’s a rich, strange world, and as viewed through Fool’s eyes, one that’s both beautiful and utterly alien, both appealing and wholly wrong. More than that, it’s a deeply strange place, much like Unsworth’s Hell; in both places, the idea of religion, sin, or forgiveness feel almost absent and abstract, as though they barely matter at all to the final product.

Once again, though, it’s Unsworth’s rich prose and storytelling skills that make this such a knockout, though. As Fool begins to investigate the horrific crimes throughout Heaven, Unsworth keeps the pressure building, introducing off-kilter angels, ratcheting up the tension between Fool and the demons who resent him, and escalating the stakes far beyond these original murders. Through it all, Unsworth keeps us invested in Fool’s fate – not only his life, but his emotional stakes, his sense of purpose, and his efforts to find something resembling happiness in a horrific life. And once again, that quest for meaning and understanding becomes important as an end unto itself, with knowledge serving both as its own reward and its own curse.

The Devil’s Evidence is a worthy sequel in every way, and that’s no small feat, given how much I loved The Devil’s Detective; it avoids the problem of repetition by letting the story, the world, and the characters evolve and grow, expanding Unsworth’s odd cosmology in the most logical way. And the result is every bit the book that Detective was, working both as horror novel and detective story, as neo-noir and dark fantasy, as bleak crime novel and surreal Barker-esque horror. It’s a wonderfully unique novel, and one that leaves me eager for more Thomas Fool to come.

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The Fell Hound of Adversity, by Parker T. Geissel / ***

514mc52eclI’m on the record as loving books that blur together genres; there’s something invigorating and exciting about reading a book that doesn’t quite fit into any known categories, and whose outcome seems far more in question than your typical read. But at the same time, I’m the first to admit that defying genre boundaries is a high risk maneuver. Even setting aside the question of readers (many of whom prefer their books easy to categorize), the bigger problem is that such blurred lines require a high amount of skill to pull off correctly – a confidence and grace that many authors can’t quite pull off.

Which brings to to Parker T. Geissel’s original, ambitious The Fell Hound of Adversity. Part pulp fiction throwback, part supernatural tale, part parable, part romance story, Geissel writes his book like an author who wants to let his world develop in whatever way he pleases. And while that can be exciting at times, the ultimate result is that the book feels less wild and imaginative and more overstuffed, with plotlines and characters that feel underdeveloped and unexplored, and a storyline that feels incomplete and frustrating at times.

Geissel has created a great world to play around in, though, plunging readers into the city of Adversity, where IRS agents from the Capital have arrived in an effort to crack down on the corruption that’s been plaguing the city. But once they arrive, they find their efforts continually thwarted by a series of brutal murders, anarchists and revolutionaries, and a stonewalling by local officials. And into that mix we throw our protagonist Rudimental Quince, a line cook who gets himself involved in all of this against his better judgment.

If “Rudimental Quince” and “Adversity” seem a bit too precious as names, you might want to brace yourself for the slew of affected names in The Fell Hound of Adversity, which includes characters like Rudi’s brother Lenient Quince, Blazing Buck Cortez, Colonel Dashenka Ivanaovna Stavrogin, Killer Hrapp, Injal Skube, Chairman Tinpot, Mayhew Cue, and more. If you’re into the book, you may enjoy the colorful names, which plays into Geissel’s colorful, larger than life world; for me, the names felt like an affectation, a dose of weirdness and color for its own sake that distracted from the book rather than helping to build the world or tell the tale.

That tale can be a fun one, but it’s also massively overstuffed with twists, reveals, and secrets, many of which Geissel doesn’t feel the need to explain. Which, again, can be fun at time, but here feels like he’s either telling the story badly or just being coy to draw us in. And here’s the thing about noir tales like this: you can play fast and loose with specifics, but backstories and characters matter. (The choice, for instance, to put a critical incident from the book only as an appendix after it ends is a bewilderingly bad one, and it leaves the reader confused and annoyed for much of the book – only to be more annoyed when you get the answers long after they quit mattering and you quit caring.)  And Geissel ultimately plays too fast and loose with some of his main principals, letting his labyrinthine plot take the foreground and hoping it’s enough to keep us going.

And for a while, it is. Geissel has a lot of plates he’s spinning here, and he keeps them all going for a lot longer than you might think, as his story of corruption starts spreading into realms of supernatural horror, romance, espionage, and political maneuvering. But at a certain point, Geissel overcommits himself, and plot becomes so overly complicated – and the characters not involving enough – that I got frustrated with the whole thing.

For all of that, The Fell Hound of Adversity isn’t wholly bad. Geissel’s world is compelling, and he’s got the ambition and imagination to write something spectacular in him at some point. And while I don’t think this book entirely works, and that it ultimately collapses under its own weight, I feel like there’s some promise in here – a lot of talented sections, some strong ideas, and a refusal to be hemmed in by genres and boundaries. And if his reach exceeds his grasp, well, I’d rather read something overly ambitious that doesn’t quite work than read another bland, forgettable best seller any day.

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The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

51ceg9jotjlThe more modern noir I read, the more I often think that much of the best work in the genre revolves around a grip on its environment. James Ellroy and L.A.; Dennis Lehane and Boston; John Connolly and Maine; Raymond Chandler and California…the list goes on and on, but in almost every case, it’s hard to picture the stories working half as well without their world to draw off of, to be its own character in the complex story. And in the best noir, the environment is the story in no small part – for instance, look at how Ellroy draws off of the underside of L.A. to drive his sordid tales.

But rarely have I seen that idea used as effectively and powerfully as it is in The Devil’s Detective, a book whose setting is original, unforgettable, and inextricably linked to its characters, its plot, and its mood. Because its setting is Hell, and in that blasted, hopeless landscape, author Simon Kurt Unsworth crafts a piece of noir unlike just about anything else I’ve read.

Because, here’s the thing about Hell: how do you make a mystery set in Hell? How do you tell a story about a murder in a place where torment is constant, where torture is everywhere, where nightmares live and breathe and the entire point of existence is to live in regret and pain? And more than that, when an environment is shaped around a lack of hope, how can any crime ever be solved – because wouldn’t that offer hope and justice in a place defined by their absence?

Rather than dodge those questions, Unsworth bakes them into the DNA of his book, following Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – a sinner himself – who finds himself doing something he’s never done before: actually investigating a crime. To be sure, this is an unusual crime – not only was a human murdered, but his soul was reaped from his body – but Fool’s investment in the crime, and his dedication to understanding it, feels like a slow, seismic shift in Hell. And his interest – his insistence that this soul matters, that even Hell must have rules – indeed changes everything around him, and throughout Hell. And that change becomes as much a part of the story as the investigation itself.

But, oh, that investigation. This is a labyrinthine case, make no mistake about it, and one that feels heavily indebted to Chandler and Hammett along the way; like those authors, Unsworth follows his detective through a slew of encounters with citizens from all over Hell, through seedy environments and upper class “suburbs” (of Hell), through high-level politics and through abused citizens. But Unsworth makes it all his own, giving us a Hell unlike any other that I’ve read – a Hell that has left behind the torture and nightmares of Dante and resembles nothing so much as a hopeless, bleak industrial society, an inner-city where brutality and violence are just part of the day-to-day life. And as Unsworth dives into the life of Hell and its occupants, his world continues to flesh out, and we start to see just how much his characters – and these crimes – are a function of this world, and not a recent addition. And once that link becomes clear, the story becomes richer, because it’s about more than just one crime – it’s about our hero, and about life in Hell, and about this bizarre, dark world that Unsworth has crafted for us.

Make no mistake, though: this is a dark world. Much of what makes Unsworth’s novel work is that he allows Hell to be every bit as nightmarish and disturbing as it should be. The demons are horrific, and their relationship with humans is brutal and upsetting. The violence is shocking and constant; the atmosphere bleak; the world unforgiving. And the cost is high, and that matters here, because as soon as you care about the world and have hope, it can be taken from you. And that’s the nature of Hell.

And yet, even with all of that, The Devil’s Detective never becomes nihilistic. Instead, it gives us a rich, compelling hero in Fool, who becomes a crusader for lost causes, a lone light in the darkness, and a hope in a world without it. That’s heady material, and makes Fool’s quest all the more engaging, and his development as a character all the more rewarding, as he finds himself becoming noticed by Hell…and then respected by Hell. It turns a noir detective something richer and more profound, and its constant evolution as a book only makes it work all the more.

In short? I loved this book, plain and simple. I loved its complicated, incredible world, and the astonishing array of characters. (I haven’t even touched on Unsworth’s most fascinating character, The Man of Plants and Flowers, who defies all characterization.) I loved its complex story, which uses the framework of a noir tale as a starting point and turns it into something wholly else. And I loved Fool, whose noble quest in the face of horrors becomes as gripping and important as solving the murder that starts it all. I loved the world, the story, the ideas, and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what else Unsworth has in him to come.

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