Book Review – An Audience of Corpses by John Maygrove

It’s not often you get to read a first novel and think, “Ah, this author’s gonna go somewhere”. First novels are oftentimes clunky, kludgy affairs. A labor of love, to be sure. And for that reason alone there’s usually something good lurking in the text. But to come across first novel well-written enough and complicated enough to feel like it came from someone seasoned is a rare thing.

Which is exactly how I felt about John Maygrove’s An Audience of Corpses. It’s a brilliantly conceived story arc that manages to incorporate serial killers, a murder where the victim is caught on tape wandering around an hour after his death, and an apprentice private eye unsure of his own skills, and not only wrap it up nicely, but put a black silk bow with skulls on the package.

I have a particular love affair with crime noir. You know, the stories where the criminals didn’t do something pedestrian like knock off a jewelry store or file their taxes late. Stories with some meaty sections. Human trafficking, cavorting with evil, selling tainted drugs because reasons, stuff like that is what gets me hooked and keeps me interested. Because, let’s face it, a string of convenience store robberies was probably perpetrated by some poor schmuck who just wanted to feed his family. But the guy who figured out how to weaponize religion and use it to gain wealth and power probably has some interesting psychological ticks.

The hard-boiled private eye story has been done. It’s a classic thing and there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing it again, so long as there aren’t any black birds driving the plot forward. What separates Maygrove’s work from the classics of the genre is not what it does, it’s where it starts. Classic private eyes tell their tales from a place of long experience. They get to draw on experiences and reference histories. Maygrove’s P.I. has just buried his teacher and is starting on his own on his very first day. Some experience, sure, but it all came from working with a mentor. Now, in the midst of losing a friend he’s dropped into the middle of a case with nothing to draw on but the musings of a dead man.

That adds something special to the genre. It’s an origin story. And, one would hope, won’t be the last mystery Jack Hornby has to unravel.

Apprentice P.I. Jack Hornby had only just buried his friend and mentor, stricken with grief and contemplating his future. Sitting alone in the office they once shared, he is accosted by an eccentric woman in desperate need of help. Reluctantly, he agrees. But a case of suspected infidelity turns out to be so much more when his target winds up dead in the middle of a grisly scene.

Jack finds himself pitted against his old nemesis- now a highly decorated police investigator- in a bid to uncover the truth behind what really happened in that seedy hotel room, and just how the victim was sighted walking down the street shortly after his death. In a case where nothing makes sense and no one is what the seem, Jack’s only ally is his old mentor’s peculiar yet alluring niece, the former secretary from the now-defunct detective agency.

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Book Review – Night Shift by B.K. Bass

A little-known fact about me: I have a minor in Theatre. That’s with the re not the er because theater is different from Theatre. One’s a place, the other’s a much larger things. Among other classes I took, one was set design. Our teacher once sat everyone down and said, “Look, there’s a lot more to good set design than just following the play directly. If you want to set ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the tropics and have palm trees on stage and make Theseus a ganja-smoking Jamaican gangster, you can do that. Just don’t let the scenery upstage the story.”

Bottom line, a good story is a good story no matter where it’s set.

Take, for instance, B.K. Bass’s take on detective noir that he’s dropped into a cyberpunk-ish setting. Traditional hard-boiled detective stories were a thing back in the day and they wove tales about vicious crimes and the die-hard detectives that set out to solve them. Those tales are still being told today – look at stories like L.A. Confidential. It’s a genre that seems simple to do from the outside. Bad guy does bad things. Good guy sets out to stop them. Simple, really. But to do it well takes a deft hand and an ability to drop oneself into that world to write it well. It’s not a genre for pulling punches or writing feel-good tales. Bad things are happening and they need to be treated with the shot of whisky and punch in the gut they deserve.

It’s also a genre that opens itself nicely to fit into whatever world we decide to drop them into. Because, if there’s one thing humans are really good at, it’s being bastards to each other. It doesn’t matter the time or the place, you can rest assured someone is out there right now pulling the ultimate dick move on someone else.

And that’s why Night Shift made for a fun read. Bass has pulled the hard-boiled detective out of the past and present and dropped him head-first into an ugly future where the country has fallen apart. But for all the technology floating around in the story, human nature is still human nature and there are still bad people doing terrible things. It’s just the way the world works. There are still jerks, they just have better computers. And cyber-hookers.

While Bass may not have given us a ganja-smoking Jamaican gangster, he’s done something similar; he’s taken a good story and changed the set pieces. And, like any good set designer, he’s done so without falling into the trap of letting the setting drive the story. Night Shift lives and breathes in its setting without the setting becoming a major character.

If you like hard-boiled detective stories – and who doesn’t – and also like your sci-fi served up with heaping helping people still being jerks to each other, check out Night Shift. It’s a good read. My only gripe was the book is only part one of a three-part story. That means I need to wait to see how the whole thing is going to play out.

In New Angeles, crime is part of the daily business of running the city. But when a routine murder investigation starts turning up more questions than answers, homicide detective Harold Peterson finds himself unraveling a decades-old conspiracy that leads him to the highest echelons of the mob and the city government. As various threads start to come together, the big picture is revealed to be more than he ever bargained for. As bullets start to fly from both directions, the only thing Harold knows for sure is that he isn’t being paid enough to deal with this.

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Book Review – What They Deserve by Sam Hendricks

There’s this running meme that’s been popping up lately about talking on phone in the 50s and being concerned that the line was tapped. Flash forward to 2019 and you’ve got a woman asking Alexa, “Hey, wiretap, what’s a good recipe for pancakes?”

It’s possible to debate the ins and outs of tech like Alexa, Siri, whatever Google’s calling their robo-assistant lately, but it’s not possible to debate the unintended side-effects of having a box sitting in your living room that’s listening to everything you say. Nor is it wise to debate the fact that you just paid good money to give every advertiser on the planet direct access to your house.

Now, I honestly don’t believe big tech has any nefarious plans for Alexa beyond finding new and exiciting ways to sell you shoes and non-stick pans, but what if that weren’t the case?

Sam Hendricks took that scenario, shook it up a little,  and added a hefty dose of mystery and crafted something uniquely terrifying not because of monsters or the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, but because of the extremely close proximity to our own world. A world where tech can provide a sense of security, much like a wall that keeps the bad guys out and controls the sanctity of the Reformed United States.

It’s control that’s the key to the story. Walls can be climbed or flown over or even tunneled under, but a good piece of tech can be even better at keeping people under control. And it’s into that world that Hendricks drops us with a smile and a wave.

What They Deserve is relatively short story, along the lines of a novella, but Hendricks packs it full of information. In the tradition of good writers, she doles out bits of data a byte at a time rather than giving us a full tedious, historical dump. Aside from being a nervous-making tale of technological and tyrannical woe, it’s a fun story that might leave you wondering about the technology we use every day and how it could impact our lives. I’m sure Alexa will have more information about that, though.

Highly entertaining, well-paced, and fun. This could be the start of a great series, if Sam was so inclined to write it.

SEATTLE, WA: 2053.

Summer Wilkins, the official spokesperson for the Reformed United States, is still grieving the loss of her son when a shocking murder rocks the city. After her husband is implicated, she’s drawn into a rebellion that’s ready to do anything to find out the truth behind the new “Inevix patches” being distributed to the public. Murder, mystery, and politics abound as Summer finds out that the biggest secrets are being hidden in her own family.

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Book Review – Roller Rink Witchcraft by Raven Snow

Let’s face a hard fact here: the real world can seem pretty boring. Get up, go to work, curse at traffic, flip off random drivers and pedestrians and the occasional kid in the back of the school bus, go home. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if that person who thinks he’s a warlock really is? Probably not, because you’ve picked on him since kindergarten and he’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and the power of the universe in his little finger. What about if magic were real and, frankly, pretty pedestrian? What if, instead of lurking behind the normalcy, the fantastic was right out in the open? Got a stain, go the cleaners. Got a hex, head down to Regina’s. She’s the best at getting out hexes. She’s even got a groupon going this month.

That’s the thing that fascinates me the most about urban fantasy as a genre. Regular fantasy, with mages and dragons and wizards, is less interesting to me because the world they’re set in is less interesting to me. That doesn’t mean the fantastic elements aren’t cool as shit, it just means I don’t really care for castles and dungeons. I like the idea that the hero or heroine saves the day then goes home to play XBox or Tweet about what they just did.

Totes stopped invasion of evil from 9th dimension. Suck it red ‘lectroids. Lolz. #banzai4life yo.

That’s the kind of world Raven Snow creates. There are magic stores – real magic, not prestidigitation – and they’re fiercely competitive. A budding witch with a powerful grandmother owns a throwback 70s roller rink. (BTW, I spent many a misbegotten day in legitimate 70s roller rinks. Yes, I’m that old). Snow has created a cool world where magic is just one of those things. By stripping the fantastic element from it, she’s made it even more amazing.

The story embedded in the surroundings is a traditional mystery, but Snow has breathed new life into the genre by dropping it into a magical universe. The cool thing is, magic doesn’t solve the mystery, because that would have been cheating.

Roller Rink Witchcraft is part urban fantasy, part mystery, part romance, and a heck of a lot of fun in the process.

witchcraft

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