Book Review of Walla Walla Suite (A Room with No View) by Anne Argula

What do you get when you mix together a mitigation investigator doggedly trying to stamp out the death penalty, an ex-cop fighting off constant hot flashes, a barely legitimate business owner who calls his employees Arnie’s Angels, and a beautiful young woman in the prime of her youth? Answer: the basic ingredients to Anne Argula’s excellent PI novel, Walla Walla Suite (A Room with No View). 

The plot starts off as a simple missing person’s case. Eileen, one of Arnie’s Angels, goes missing, and Arnie hires Quinn, a fledgling private investigator, to track her down. But when Eileen turns up dead, the narrative really gets cooking, and the whole book morphs into a rather thoughtful and funny–funny ha-ha and funny sad–commentary on crime and punishment, capital punishment in particular. The only real “action” takes place in the last ten pages of the novel, so if you crave a lot of car chases and fistfights and gun play this isn’t the book for you.  However, there are two other factors that make this book more than worthy of a read.

Quinn, a newly-divorced ex-cop struggling to establish herself as a PI, is half of what makes Walla Walla Suite so enjoyable, so fresh.  Tougher than a two-dollar steak, and every bit as sardonic as James Crumley’s C.W. Sughrue, she is, by her own admission, a second or even third-rate investigator.  But, ironically, this is also part of what I think makes her so dynamic as a character: she is real.  Many detective characters are simply too heroic, too perfect, and Quinn is severely flawed, but in a good way.  She is both sarcastic and self-effacing; she is indifferent and persistent, competent and bumbling.  Not to mention she has some fantastically funny one-liners, mostly about hot flashes and the incurable human condition. Plus, in the end, she does manage to save the day, more or less, and the ending in no way feels forced or contrived. Best of all, the (tragic?) ending affects her not a wit, which I appreciate as it is realistic. Face it, many of us just never learn our lesson, no matter what the scenario, no matter what the outcome.

To the other half of what makes this a good novel: the setting. Full disclosure: I tend to fetishize what I consider cool and/or exotic locations, and Seattle, the setting of Walla Walla Suite, falls under that category.  The descriptions of the dreary weather, the buildings and streets, the waterfronts: all of it is expertly rendered and adds a satisfying layer to the narrative. It made me want to visit the city, which is a testament to the author’s abilities.

Bottom line, I find Quinn to be a welcome addition to the PI genre, and not just because she is a middle-aged woman. But because the character is a living, breathing being, one capable of great comedy and tragedy.  Quinn, it seems, has a nose for trouble, and I, for one, would love to be around when she finds it.

walla walla suite

Go Go Gato Publisher Revisions

I just completed the first round of editing/revising for Go Go Gato.  The publisher and editor notes were helpful, and I (hopefully) strengthened the narrative and the character development. I’m hoping I’ve written an engaging mystery with memorable characters, settings, and dialogue.  Put another way, my goal as a novelist was always incredibly simple and ridiculously ambitious: I strive to write the kind of books I enjoy reading.  Not to sound big-headed, but I enjoyed reading my book, which was kind of weird and sort of cool at the same time.  I actually stopped a time or two during the revision/reading process and thought, “That’s good writing. I wrote that.” I’m of the opinion that all writers have to be at least a tiny bit arrogant to believe others should spend time and money to read something they wrote, to believe what they have to say about the world, albeit a fictional one, is worthwhile.  That said, I believe my book is worthwhile.

Arrogance aside, I must confess to feeling a range of emotions, most of them brand-spanking new for me, an emotionally-suppressed introvert who tends to dwell on the negative. First, I’m feeling grateful my work will be out there in the world soon. Writing is a vocation for me, and now that I have the opportunity to do what I love, and, possibly, hopefully, earn a bit money doing it is gratifying.  Second, I feel inspired to keep writing (and reading).  Honestly, there are countless books available nowadays, and not long ago that fact would have depressed me, but now it invigorates me, motivates me to keep working, keep doing what I love to do.

Okay, I’ll stop now before I start to sound too much like the “sentimental geek” Ryan Adams sings about.


Writers I Admire: Daniel Woodrell

This guy is right up there with Ace Atkins and Dennis LeHane for greatest American crime novelist. His work has been labeled country noir because his books usually feature violence and very flawed, hardscrabble Ozarks folks. Woodrell portrays his characters honestly, starkly, but also with compassion, which is one of the main reasons his work is so compelling: he obviously knows these characters.  How they talk, how they think, how they interact with the world: everything is always spot-on.  Too, Woodrell obviously cares about his characters, and that comes across especially in Tomato Red and Winter’s Bone. Another element of his work that sucks the reader right in is the voice. I challenge ANYONE to read the opening three pages of Tomato Red and stop reading. Ditto Under the Bright Lights, which is the only novel of his I know of that isn’t set in the Ozarks; this one is set in New Orleans and is straight up hard-boiled, page-turning fun.

The Maid’s Version is his latest novel, which is high on my holiday reading list. Below are links to excellent reviews of his various books.

Book Review of American Crow by Jack Lacey

To paraphrase the late great Elmore Leonard: a novelist should cut out the parts that readers skip over.  This is excellent advice, advice which Jack Lacey, author of American Crow, seems to have taken to heart.  The pacing of this novel is frenetic, the scenes chock full of action.

American Crow begins with our hero Sibelius Blake vacationing on a beach in France with his seventeen year old daughter. A freak accident occurs, and the daughter dies, rendering Blake unfit to continue his line of work: finding people who no other bounty hunter or private investigator can (or will) find.  But after a brief fallow period, Blake, a tattooed, rough-around-the-edges Londoner, takes a case in America. His mission: locate an eighteen year old girl named Olivia.  Sounds easy enough, but there are, of course, a multitude of complications. For starters, Blake is wanted by the authorities in the U.S., so he has to sneak into the border via Canada to get to Minnesota, where Olivia was last seen. Once Blake makes it to Minnesota, he follows up some leads and soon discovers that Olivia has joined a local activist group.  This group has gone down to the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky to protest a very large and very powerful mining company, the head of which is a dangerous man named Corrigan.  That, as they say, is when the fun starts. No spoilers, but Blake runs into trouble at practically every turn, and his troubles keep the reader entertained (and suspended) until the last page.

I did have one or two criticisms of the book, however. One, the author repeatedly uses. . . (dot, dot, dot)  This becomes noticeable almost after the first chapter, and every time it takes the reader out of the story a little. Two, the dialogue of the Southern characters does not, in many places, ring true. Born and raised in North Carolina, perhaps I’m just hyper-aware of Southern speech patterns, and how different they can be from one state to the next, one town to the next.  That said, I found not just some of the dialogue but some of the portrayals of Southern characters, well, caricature-esque.

Bottom line though, Sibelius Blake is an interesting lead character, and there is a cinematic quality to Lacey’s narrative that is addictive.  Too, I think the author’s background as a journalist is a real asset as the writing is taut, the level of detail spot-on.  I recommend American Crow, especially to those hooked on the Jack Reacher series, or those who can’t pass up a lightening-fast plot with solid prose.

american crow

This book, featuring Blake, a rough-around-the-edges, tattooed man who specializes in finding people who cannot be found,

Revision of Go Go Gato…Meet Eli Sharpe, PI

I just received my editor’s comments on Go Go Gato.  Aside from minor tweaks, they are asking I change the main character’s name.  After several days of kicking around names with my wife, and a writer friend of mine at work, and my students, and pretty much anyone whose path I’ve crossed recently, I have settled on… Eli Sharpe.  I’ve always loved one-syllable first and last names, and I dig the name Eli.  Too, I’ve always been obsessed with the cadence and rhythm of a person’s entire name.  Eli Sharpe, to my ear, rolls off the tongue.  Hopefully, one day, the stories of ELi Sharpe will be as loved as the stories of my favorite PIs: Elvis Cole, Spenser, Conway Sax, and Boone Daniels.

I’m very excited to begin reworking Go Go Gato for publication next year. I’m also very grateful to Camel Press for the opportunity to bring my stories to print.

Review of Shotgun Lullaby by Steve Ulfelder

Conway Sax, a recovered alcoholic with a checkered past, is a man who pays for his sins one favor at a time. In Shotgun Lullaby, the third book in the series, the initial favor is squaring a small car loan debt for one Gus Biletnikov, a wiseass college boy who recently joined the Barnburners (think: Alcoholics Anonymous, but even more intense).  After Sax erases the debt with his fists, he takes a keen interest in helping Gus stay sober and get back on his feet, for the young Biletnikov reminds Sax of his own estranged son.  But the real problems start when Biletnikov falls off the wagon.  First, someone guns down a kid staying in Biletnikov’s room at Almost Home, a halfway house for people fresh out of a rehab or jail. Figuring (correctly) that Biletnikov was the actual target, Sax vows to find out who is after Gus Biletnikov…and why.  This leads to problems with the sordid cast of characters in Biletnikov’s orbit, which includes a gorgeous, but hatable step mother, a smooth-talking con man, a burnt-out drug dealer whose in love with Gus, and a father-son duo of gangsters.  The plot in this one keeps you guessing until the very end.

But what makes this installment of the series stand out is the depths to which Sax is willing to go to redeem himself and, at least in part, to do penance for his past transgressions. Loyalty is not just a word with Conway Sax; it is a lifestyle.  True, Sax has a black and white view of the world and is intensely loyal. He is also prone to fits of rage and violence, but he is not a violent or immoral man. Similar to the violence depicted in Breaking Bad, the violence in this novel is not gratuitous; every punch thrown, every gunshot fired, every life taken costs Sax something, and, by extension, costs the reader something.  This, in a way, elevates this book (and the series) beyond the typical PI/mystery book genre, makes it social commentary…highly readable, extremely enjoyable commentary.

Bottom line, Conway Sax is a good man, and in today’s world where people’s loyalties and moral compasses change depending on self-interest and survival, there is something incredibly admirable about this character’s dedication to family and friends. Put another way, I not enjoy reading these books, I actually relate to Conway Sax. Perhaps it is my INTJ personality, but like Sax, I take my commitments seriously and never give myself a break. Neither does Sax. This makes him the most realistic fictional PI out there right now.  This series is, in a word, revelatory. I hope to one day write something this good…and this relevant.

shotgun lullaby




from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

James Crumley is almost entirely responsible for my fascination with private detective novels. I first read The Last Good Kiss in graduate school, and I’ve read it at least seven or eight times since. That number doesn’t include the countless times I’ve re-read my favorite highlighted passages for inspiration and for pure enjoyment. C. W. Sughrue remains my all-time favorite PI, and Crumley’s prose is, for lack of a better word, addictive. This blog post was a joy to read simply because I wish I could have gone to a bar in Montana, ordered a beer, and met one of my literary heroes.

Contrappasso Magazine: International Writing

Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.



In late May 1996 I drove up out of Wyoming, through the top left hand corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the icy beauty of the Grand Tetons, into Montana, the place they call “the last good place.” After a drizzly day driving interstate 90 I arrived early one evening in Missoula, hometown of James Crumley, self-described “bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” and a writer whose most recent novel, The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) broke a ten year silence, sold forty thousand in hardback and won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Missoula is so full of writers that French television makes documentaries about it. No-one knows why writers come to…

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White Heat by Paul D. Marks

In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress.  A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer.  Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series.  No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.

White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why.  There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story.  Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books).  Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me.  Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots.  Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.

Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.

P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.


Writers I Admire: Steve Ulfelder

I’m a sucker for a good series, and the Conway Sax books are not good, they’re great.  Sax, a part-time mechanic, part-time PI, specializes in doing “favors” for fellow Barn Burners, or recovering alcoholics. As a former drunk, Sax has a checkered past, which, in a variety of interesting ways, both haunts and motivates him to assist other former alcoholics, even when they are ungrateful or downright despicable. But what I dig most about Sax is this: he is a decent guy, an American hero in the same vein as the Colson Quinn character in Ace Atkins’s novels.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says this about the detective: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.” To me, it’s almost as if Chandler were writing about Conway Sax. 

Aside from the main character, however, there are many other excellent reasons to read Ulfelder’s books. The wonderful clipped prose. The fast-paced narratives typically centered around loyalty and redemption. I could go on, but I’ll let the writing speak for itself. Click on the link below, and read the opening chapter of Ulfelder’s latest novel Shotgun Lullaby.