Monday, September 5, 2011

Who Ya Gonna Call?

There are some chores we perform ourselves without much thinking. Washing the dishes. Cleaning the junk drawer.

There are other tasks most of us wouldn't dream of tackling. Subduing a rogue elephant. Performing a do-it-yourself appendectomy.

Then there are jobs like changing the oil in the car or tiling a kitchen counter. Some folks do these things themselves while others call in an expert.

Murder is that type of job.

A premeditated murder can be undertaken by a determined amateur but there are times a mere dilettante or gifted dabbler simply won't do. The potential victim is enveloped by security. The pool of potential suspects is shallow. The potential murderer is too fastidious to perform such a dastardly deed or not fastidious enough to plan and execute it without getting caught. Whatever the reason, the work is outsourced to a pro.

I've been reading about those times and meeting one assassin for hire after another. Fictional bodies have been dropping like autumn leaves from the trees. Let me take a breather from watching the rain of corpses to introduce you to some industrious professional killers.

The opening scene of Lenny Kleinfeld's Shooters & Chasers finds a freshly recruited pro criminal, sweet but dumb Emilio ("Meelo") Garcia, working at the absolute pinnacle of his abilities—he's waiting in a Chicago hotel room. His new boss, the man Meelo knows as Oscar, told him to stay put unless he wants a bullet through his brain. In a valiant effort to follow orders yet cope with his boredom, Meelo struggles to smoke only a "professional" amount of weed and literally gets lit.

Meanwhile, a famous Chicago architect climbs into a taxi to go home. When he arrives, a mugger kills him just feet away from the horrified cabbie. Cops Mark Bergman and John Dunegan easily follow evidence straight to Meelo but he insists he was in his hotel room and didn't murder anyone. The two conscientious cops are uneasy with contradictory statements by witnesses and Meelo's crazy story involving Oscar. Is it possible that a deadly mugging is really an extraordinarily elaborate professional hit-and-frame job? Of course!

Yeah, yeah, I promised an intro to the hitters but handed you the fall guy instead. Listen, you should meet those memorable baddies (Arthur Reid, Dina Velaros and Hector B) yourselves. I will tell you this: A more witty, rambunctious, hip and hilarious, soft-hearted hard-boiled book is impossible to imagine. Assessing Shooters & Chasers as if it were a wine I'd say it offers up an enthralling bouquet of Quentin Tarantino, the Muppets, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. Complex, savory and unadulterated pure fruit. Don't. Miss. It. Kleinfeld's sequel is in the works with a probable publishing date of 2013 and I am dying to get my hands on it.

Richard Straight took an unexpected career path to hit man. He was a Tchaikovsky-loving, Kant-reading New York City policeman with a good reputation until his wife was killed by a car bomb meant for him. Straight decided if he couldn't lick 'em, he'd join 'em so he called the boss of the Mafia soldier he'd been pursuing and asked for a job.

Straight, the first book by Steve Knickmeyer, he is sent to Solano, Oklahoma to kill jeweler Arthur Taber. Straight's boss insists that Hamilton Coady join him there so Straight can give Coady some on-the-job training. The two hit men do not hit it off. Eliminating Taber doesn't go as planned and this summons two Oklahoma City private investigators, tough Steve Cranmer and his womanizing young sidekick, Butch Maneri. Events in Solano don't go smoothly for them either because the town's citizens aren't statues content to stand quietly in the park while two hit men mess around.

This well-written book is for readers who like theirs served hard-boiled with lashings of clever dialogue and sprinklings of humor. Despite their cynicism, the characters deliver some tender insights into the human condition. I liked this book and you can bet I'll read Knickmeyer's next one, Cranmer.

"It's a lot of work being me." Frank Machianno begins his narration of Don Winslow's non-series book The Winter of Frankie Machine with this lament and he ain't kidding. Frank is a Vietnam vet who now runs a bait shop on the pier in San Diego. He also furnishes linen and fish to restaurants and manages rental properties. A relaxing dinner out with his girlfriend means that while Donna powders her nose, Frank slips into the kitchen to ask the chef if he's happy with his current fish supplier.

Frank has a daughter entering medical school and an ex-wife to support. Yet he finds the time to make life good. Perfectly made coffee and pasta. Surfing with friends. Everybody likes and respects Frank but nobody respects him like those who knew him before he retired from the Mob. He was Frankie Machine. Efficient pro killer, honorable "made" man, no squealer. One night Frank the bait man has no choice but to perform a favor, meeting with a Detroit mobster, for the son of a West Coast Mafia boss. The meeting is a setup that forces Frank on the run from the Mob, the cops and the FBI. To bail out of trouble he looks back at his decades as Frankie Machine to figure out who in the Mafia now wants him dead. It's a gripping, tightly plotted and cinematic tale about a surprisingly sympathetic character and I cheered for Frank all the way.

Have you ever been caught with your mental pants down during an introduction? Not this time. I feel no humiliation admitting I don't know the real name of Thomas Perry's hit man. When his parents died he was raised by the local butcher. "The Butcher's Boy" is how the neighborhood knew him and how the Mafia knows him now. He's highly skilled in the arts of murder and life on the run, thanks to his now-deceased mentor Eddie. The Boy runs Eddie's advice almost constantly through his head as if he's fingering a talisman.

He needs more than luck in Perry's first book, The Butcher's Boy, when everyone is out to get him. Bad guys include Mafiosi and their connections, one of whom hired him. Good guys include the U.S. Justice Department's Elizabeth Waring, who analyzes computer printouts listing fishy deaths and whose expertise is the Mafia. She has long suspected the existence of a prolific pro killer. A pickup full of fertilizer that detonated in California, killing its union-member owner, catches her attention. Justice begins an investigation that explodes in scope.

It's a complex plot, engagingly told, well paced and suspenseful. The reader alternately accompanies the Boy as he ingeniously and energetically murders and copes with being chased by ramping up the mayhem, and Waring as she doggedly follows his trail. (I coped by taking the book into the bathtub and ingeniously and energetically splashed around. When I sensed Waring's frustration I ate Lindt truffles to deal with it.)

In Sleeping Dogs and again in The Informant, the Boy is flushed out of retirement in England, where he's been living as Michael Schaeffer. Certain Mob bosses are not ready to bury the hatchet with Schaeffer so he sets his jaw and travels back to the States to mow them down until they are. Waring picks up his scent in Sleeping Dogs and she's in full cry after him in The Informant. She wants him in the Witness Protection Program and Schaeffer wants to pick her brain about the Mafia don who's pursuing him. Neat, huh?

This is a series best read in order. The second and third books clarify events in the first and give more background about the Boy. I enjoyed these books very much. Elizabeth Waring is an appealing character, a dedicated fed who balances motherhood with her career and struggles with the Justice bureaucracy. I rooted for the Butcher's Boy because his enemies are plug uglier than he is. He's a pro assassin humanized by his desire to stay alive, an attachment he develops in England and most of all his bond with Eddie. It's a fitting memorial to Eddie that his Boy endures. I suggest you resist temptation to read one right after another or you'll be dodging bullets as you water your petunias. All the Boy's nonstop scrambling and inventive slaughtering made me walleyed and driving the car risky business but I've survived. Thanks, Eddie.

There are other hitters I want you to meet but they'll have to wait. I'm exhausted from evading capture. In coming weeks I'll tell you about these books:

Barbara Paul:
Kill Fee; Teri White: Max Trueblood and the Jersey Desperado; Josh Bazell: Beat the Reaper; J. A. Konrath ed.: These Guns for Hire; Jerome Charyn: Elsinore; Frederick Forsyth: Day of the Jackal; Max Allan Collins: Primary Target; Lawrence Block: Hit and Run; Loren D. Estleman: Something Borrowed, Something Black.

I hope you'll try some of the books I've described above. Tagging along with these hired guns as they calmly dispatch their targets and fade quietly back into the woodwork can be very interesting. But pro hitters' lives are like yours and mine. Things don't always go without a hitch. The victim's neighbor pops over with a meat loaf or a solid citizen sideswipes the getaway car and stubbornly insists on an exchange of information. A pesky private eye decides to poke her nose in. What causes a blinding headache and more extemporaneous work for gunmen can cause rejoicing for us ignoble readers as we take unseemly pleasure in watching them desperately run up the death toll and run hell for leather outta there. Isn't it something, how exhilaratingly ignoble we can be?


  1. Della--

    Ask any actor. Playing a bad guy is, by a statistically significant margin, more fun than playing a good guy.

    And when you read a novel, you are the actor, playing the character in your head. Having a fine time committing murder and getting away with it. Wallowing in it. While claiming, "Hey, it wasn't me having a good time murdering all those people just like the ones I'd like to whack in real life, it was just some fictional character."


    What can I say, except thank you, Della, for writing such kind things about my own modest attempt to help you exercise your voracious homicidal instincts at a safe remove.

    Safe, as long as you keep the Lindt-munching within reasonable parameters.


  2. Lenny, I'm thrilled to find you here!

    I will have to scream for help if we discuss psychological reasons why we read crime fiction for pleasure. Feeding the id? All I know is that I laughed out loud when your off-the-wall characters chew the murder scenery and loved your horsing around with words.

    Don't thank me, please let me thank you. I re-read Shooters & Chasers before writing this blog and it was as much fun the second time around. How many times can a mystery reader say that about a book? I highly recommend this one.

  3. Della, maybe feeding the id and giving the old super-ego a good kick in the shins at the same time.

    Lenny, thanks for dropping in.

    I'm in complete agreement with Della about Shooters & Chasers. It belongs in the category "No Other Mystery Is Quite Like This One." How is it possible for a book about murder to be both full of black humor and tender-hearted? This one is. Even people who don't usually read hard-boiled fiction containing some street lingo love it. It's a great read.

  4. Hello, Material's a shame you all are somehow somewhat thinly veiled...are you all in the Witness Protection Program?

    But I know who Della is!!!!
    And thank you, Della, for the very comprehensive remarks about Thomas Perry's hit man! I'm going to start a new TBR list. I thoroughly enjoyed a group discussion of THE BUTCHER'S BOY several months ago and want to read the other two.

    Regarding Thomas Perry...he deserved every EDGAR he received and then some. And I thought his Jane Whitefield was the best series since sliced white bread!


  5. Hi, Jane. Nice to see you! It's a good thing we Material Witnesses aren't in the Witness Protection Program or we'd be outed by now.

    Perry's THE BUTCHER'S BOY is fun. The blue paperback edition has an interesting intro by writer Michael Connelly. I bet you'll like Perry's other two in this series. I loved learning all of Eddie's advice for not attracting attention to yourself. That might come in handy. I know Georgette likes Perry's non-series caper METZGER'S DOG.

    I've been reading books about bank heists and other capers lately to balance all the books in which people are bumped off. Sometimes it's a relief to read about crooks who want to get their hands on money rather than around someone's throat. It's a pleasure to come across well-planned double crosses. Triple crosses are even better.