Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Review(s)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Crime: Antiques Flee Market: a Trash 'n' Treasures Mystery by Barbara Allan (Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins)

Following her divorce, Brandy Borne moved back in with her mother, Vivian, in her hometown of Serenity. Much to her chagrin, the first thing they did together was attend a mother-daughter meeting of the local Red Hat Club. (Mystery readers all, the local branch has been named The Red-Hatted League.) Vivian couldn't go with Brandy's much-older sister Peggy Sue (they were both named after popular songs of their day) because Peggy Sue was already a member.

Before her arrival, Peg informed Brandy that Vivian sold off most of her prized possessions to an antique dealer while on a "drug holiday" from her bipolar meds. When the antique dealer was found dead — and both Brandy and Vivian admitted to running over the body in their car — it was up to the Borne girls to sift through the other suspects (the dealer was known for taking advantage of citizens) and find the real killer. This story was told in the first "Trash 'n' Treasures" book, Antiques Roadkill.

Since then, they've become amateur sleuths of a sort, investigating murders in their formerly quiet little Midwestern hometown and generally causing havoc of one sort or another while getting in the way of genuine police investigation. The second book in the series, Antiques Maul, is Halloween-themed. It concerns Brandy's trying to keep Vivian out of trouble by opening a booth at the local antiques mall, then finding a woman dead, presumably by her pit bull.

The third book in the series is Antiques Flee Market. Now it's Christmastime, and a former "conquest" of Vivian's (a "mercy mission" during wartime) has been found dead in his nursing-home bed.

Along for the search this time is the victim's British, Goth granddaughter, Chaz, an ex-con with less than savory friends and a delightfully Cockney way of speaking. Meanwhile, Brandy is troubled by an anonymous note that suggests Vivian is not her real mother, and Vivian is excited by news that she is no longer bipolar but merely schizo-affective (which is actually bipolar with psychotic tendencies).

Antiques Flee Market shows a marked improvement over the first book in the series, which I was actually unable to finish (I skipped the followup). The prose here is smoother, with very little sign of one author taking over for the other. The Collinses work well together as "Barbara Allan," and even the humor — which definitely felt inserted into Antiques Roadkill — is much more seamlessly integrated, making for a genuinely funny read (as opposed to simply a joke-filled one).

Fans of co-author Max Allan Collins will appreciate a couple of touches that must have come from him: namely a Mike Hammer reference and the fact that the antique this time around is a rare edition of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the "sleuth" Collins used for his Disaster series book The Pearl Harbor Murders). But all in all, "Barbara Allan" is really coming into her own, and the Trash 'n' Treasures series has to be the quirkiest cozy series on the market.

In fact, in many ways, the Collinses seem to be turning the classic tropes of the cozy subgenre on their ear. After all, the Bornes aren't independently wealthy; their dog is diabetic, blind, and named after raw fish; they're highly dependent on psychiatric medications just for their daily functioning (with disastrously funny results if, for example, they get their pill boxes confused); and their antiques are solely low-rent, flea-market fare (Mother is not averse to Dumpster diving) that clearly falls under the heading of the series' inspiration, the adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

In short, unlike most escapist fiction protagonists, the Bornes do not have a life to which it is likely the reader will aspire (except perhaps for those readers who should be, but aren't already, on psych meds). It more closely resembles horror fiction in that the events make you feel better about your own life.

Of course, I could be off on my facts a bit there, given that I wouldn't even have heard of this series if it weren't co-written by one of my favorite authors. But Antiques Flee Market actually turned out to be quite a fun read. Each chapter ends with an (often tongue-in-cheek) antique-buying tip, and the couple have a delightfully wicked sense of humor (dig that soap-opera-derived cliffhanger ending!). I'm already looking forward to reading the fourth book in the series, Antiques Bizarre.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Crime: Damon Runyon, Douglas Lindsay, and Tom Piccirilli

If you're at all like me, when a holiday season rolls around, you like to gear your genre-fiction reading toward material with that theme. Where horror dominates Halloween, the Christmas season seems to focus on crime.

I first came across this seemingly ironic pairing in an anthology entitled Murder for Christmas, which still graces my bookshelf, waiting patiently through the other eleven months for me to pay it due attention each December. This book also has the special honor of having introduced me to Damon Runyon via "Dancing Dan's Christmas," which is not only an excellent example of Runyon's style and sense of humor but also holds up to annual rereading.

"Dancing Dan's Christmas" is a yarn (and Runyon's stories often feel like yarns) of getting one up on the coppers. It's a nice little holiday tale filled with Runyon's wonderful humor, sly references to crimes "not" committed by the narrator, and quite a good deal of the Christmas spirit. When a story contains a drunk in a Santa suit and still has an O. Henry–style happy ending, you know you're in the hands of a skilled writer. Murder for Christmas is out of print, but "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is currently available in the Penguin Classics edition of Guys and Dolls and Other Writings.

From upstart publisher Blasted Heath comes Douglas Lindsay's latest in his series of Barney Thomson, the "renegage barbershop legend," The End of Days, a novella set during December 2009. Carnage seems to follow Thomson wherever he goes, though Thomson directly causes none of it.

In The End of Days, at the same time Britain's Prime Minister hires Barney to do his hair ("He did Blair's hair at the last election. And he did the First Minister in Scotland a while back. He has form. Get him down here") — despite a warning that "death, murder, slaughter, blood, horror, mutilation and genocidal abomination are sure to follow" — someone starts killing off members of Parliament at an alarming rate.

As the PM is more concerned with how his hair looks at each speech he gives — "I want a haircut that transcends hair. That's what Gandhi had. He had a haircut that didn't even need hair. I want something like that, but a haircut that doesn't need hair but has hair anyway" — Thomson becomes his advisor during one of the worst times in Britain's history, culminating in a planned invasion of the United States! This combination of serial killer and political satire makes for great reading.

Where The End of Days ends on Christmas Day, author Tom Piccirilli's "noirella" You'd Better Watch Out begins there, as the narrator watches his father brutally murder his mother on that holiday. (Piccirilli's time working in the horror genre comes in handy here.)

Soon, he begins working for mobster Johnny Booze, who trains the kid to be a torpedo (hitman) of the highest order, while the kid readies himself for the day his father is released. The tension Piccirilli weaves throughout the story is sometimes nearly unbearable, showing how he's one of today's top noir-fiction writers.

Piccirilli uses the Christmas theme well, as nearly every important event occurs on or around that day as the years pass. You'd Better Watch Out is certainly not a feel-good read — though there is a genuine soft spot at its center — and it is perfect for those not looking for some relief from the usual tidings of comfort and joy.

(And after you've read all three of these stories, be sure to add The Thin Man to your annual slate of holiday viewing, even if only for the scene where Nick Charles tests out his new air rifle — on the Christmas tree ornaments.)

Happy holidays!
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