It can be hard writing book reviews some times even if it is for a book you loved. Ultimately it’s worth it though. I get the satisfaction of having produced something and every once in awhile I get something out of it, like being turned onto the works of a new writer. That’s what happened several months back when Josh Stallings approached me about his debut novel, “Beautiful, Naked & Dead.” Stallings believed that because I was a fan of Charlie Huston’s work I would like his work as well. I just finished Stallings’ first novel and I had to say he was absolutely right “Beautiful, Naked & Dead” was a hell of a debut novel.
The protagonist of the novel is a big man named Moses McGuire. He’s extremely good in a fight, but that’s because he’s been fighting his entire life. When we first meet him the mental scars from all that fighting are starting to be too much and he’s considering suicide. A panicked phone call from his one and only friend makes him reconsider. He then heads to the strip club where he works as a bouncer to try and help his friend. A chance encounter with some vicious thugs though causes him to miss the meeting with his friend and when he goes to find her he discovers she’s been horribly murdered.
That death triggers something in Moses. It sends him racing across California and Nevada in a desperate quest to find and destroy his friend’s killers. During his search he uncovers a web of violence connecting the mob, internet porn, and federal agents. As we the readers accompany Moses we uncover what makes him tick and why he is the man he is.
In Moses, Stalling has a deeply flawed and fascinating hero. He’s haunted by a life time of violence. It’s made him a suicidal, alcoholic who consumes speed to stay awake on long journeys. He’s a deeply loyal guy though who’s true to his word and guided by righteous fury. As a reader you root for Moses in his quest to slay both the bad guys and his personal demons.
Along the way you also meet a variety of interesting supporting characters like the strippers that dance at the club where Moses works. Piper was my favorite; a fierce red head who tries to be a friend to Moses. Other interesting supporting players include a laconic street thug named Gregor and Leo, a veteran soldier for the Chicago mob.
Moses’ interactions with these and various other characters are often funny, tragic, powerful, or exciting depending on the nature of the scene. Stallings shifts between these moods expertly and paces his novel just right. And like the best crime fiction you get an ending that make you feel that you really took a long and meaningful journey with a character. I look forward to taking more journey’s with Moses McGuire too. I recently picked up Stallings’s second Moses McGuire novel, “Out There Bad” and look forward to reading it.
In 2006 I was lucky enough to discover a cool little crime novel called “The Wheelman” by a writer I had never heard of before, Duane Swierczynski. A couple years later Duane picked up a second writing gig. He was now writing both crime novels and comic books and thanks to my job as a staff writer for Comic Book Resources I was lucky enough to talk with him on a semi regular basis. From talking with Duane and reading his work it’s become incredibly clear that the guy knows how to tell a hell of a story. If you’re a follower of his “Secret Dead Blog” you know the man is not just a writer of crime fiction he’s a fan. You also know that he’s a big movie buff. In his latest novel “Fun and Games” from Mullholland Books Swierczynski takes his story telling skills and uses them to blend together the best elements of action films and crime tales into what’s easily his most entertaining work so far.
One of the reasons “Fun and Games” is so entertaining is Swierczynski’s protagonist, ex cop Charlie Hardie. Hardie is a big, gruff, super tough, S.O.B. He definitely feels like a character you would see in a high octane, Hollywood action thriller, but he also has substance. He’s not the one-liner spewing death machine style character that some one like Schwarzenagger used to play. Hardie has more in common with the damaged and haunted heroes that populate the films of screen writer Shane Black. So yes, Hardie is a bad ass, but he’s also very human. He wrestles with some powerful personal demons and in between some fantastic action scenes, and some hilarious mishaps you get to learn more about the things plaguing Hardy. That classic combination of toughness and vulnerability makes Hardie a very compelling hero.
When “Fun and Games” begins Hardie is making a living as a house sitter. His latest job takes him to a lavish home in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills. It’s there where he runs into an actress that’s been marked for death by a very special group of assassins. What follows is an action packed cat and mouse game as Hardie and the actress Lane Madden try to stay one step ahead of the cunning and powerful cabal of killers targeting them.
The assassins after Hardie and Madden are a special group called “The Accident People” who specialize in making their murders look like accidents. They employ and operate a lot of techniques from the movie business so they’re just one of the many ways in which Swierczynski makes good use of his setting. The other is the vibrant way he describes all the real world LA locales. Swierczynski is a resident of Philadelphia but it’s clear he loves Los Angeles. I got some sense of that in his fantastic comic book one-shot ” Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Death Queen of California,”which took place during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but here Swierczynski really shows off his appreciation for the history, locales, and overall strangeness of L.A. The sense of place and ties to the movie industry reminded me of one of my favorite Robert Altman films, “The Player.”
So overall, “Fun and Games” lives up to it’s title. Imagine if Shane Black and Robert Altman did their take on “The Parallax View” and set it in Los Angeles. That’s how cool and exciting “Fun and Games” is . Best of all it’s the first in a trilogy. I can’t wait to read the second Charlie Hardie novel, “Hell and Gone,” which is in stores at the end of this month.