Danny Lopez’s The Last Girl is a stellar example of the enjoyably bleak subgenre of mysteries featuring former journalists, written by former journalists. Out-of-work Sarasota journalist Dexter Vega is hired by scuzzy porn millionaire Nick Zavala to find Maya, his disappeared, twentysomething daughter. Ordinarily, Vega wouldn’t touch such a shifty sounding case—the porn business setup alone makes him queasy—but since he is flat broke, he agrees. Complications arise. Soon after Vega begins looking for Maya, porn king Zavala is found bludgeoned to death by a three-foot-tall bronze penis. (Remember my mention of dark humor?) The Sarasota Police Department doesn’t buy Vega’s tale of trying to find a runaway daughter, because, as it turns out, Zavala never had a daughter. The porn king did, however, have a girlfriend named Maya whom he’d been helping through college. The scenery then shifts from Sarasota to Mexico City, where Maya, a biologist, is rumored to be searching for a rare salamander thought to be extinct in the wild. The last wild axolotl was found in the Xochimilco section of the city, famed for its floating gardens. Vega, who has flown to Mexico City, meets up with a team of other biologists who are also searching for the salamander, but they all claim never to have heard of Maya. Their story eventually changes, but saying more would spoil the bleak fun. The Last Girl is a fascinating tale, mixing murder and beatdowns with a dose of environmental science. Author Lopez assuredly knows how to write, meticulously describing each scene, from sticky-floored barrooms to beautiful-but-threatening Xochimilco. Lopez also displays a deft hand at characterization, right down to the hungry children Vega meets near one of the Xochimilco canals. Travelers will enjoy The Last Girl for its near-travelogue scenery, but mystery lovers will love the way Vega slowly comes to realize that nothing his client told him is true. When the truth comes out, which it always does, Vega is forced to make another decision: leave Maya alone, or just write up the case as a magazine article. Never has a protagonist’s ambivalence proved more bleakly intriguing.
Be sure and catch Howard Owen’s terrific The Devil’s Triangle, which brings back irascible reporter Willie Black for a sixth outing (after Oregon Hill, Grace, etc.). This time out, the murderous stakes are raised when a small plane purposely crashes into the Richmond, Virginia, watering hole where attorneys have gone to celebrate the close of a successful case. As the death toll climbs past two dozen, Willie must fight his wackadoodle publisher for permission to probe more deeply into the pilot’s past. Grim though the subject matter may be, there is—again—a plethora of dark humor to be found here. Newspaperman Willie, himself multiracial, is a sly historian, especially when confronting Richmond’s racist past. When the mayor makes a speech about the tragedy, Willie snarks, “He said a few words about our city’s darkest day, maybe forgetting the time the Confederate troops accidentally burned the place to the ground in their haste to flee the approaching Union army.” The plot—why did pilot David Biggio wipe out a bar filled with attorneys?—is intriguing, but Willie is so entertaining that he could headline a much duller plot and his many loyal readers would still follow him. No one and no thing is safe from Willie’s rapier wit, not even himself. While waiting to see if he is among those destined to lose his job as his newspaper straggles into oblivion, he considers his prospects. “I’m pretty much the whole package: 56 years old, good salary, a well-earned reputation for antagonizing the powers that be, maybe a wee bit of a drinking problem. I’m a human resources ax-wielder’s dream.” Yet Willie isn’t the only colorful character in this comedy/drama of a book. Along for the ride are renegades like Pistol Pete, Peachy Love, Bootie Carmichael, Goat Johnson, and Awesome Dude (Willie’s mom’s pot-smoking boyfriend). Ironically, with all his faults, Willie’s is the strongest voice for decency and honor, which is one of the reasons his three ex-wives and numerous ex-girlfriends still like him. Author Owen, who besides writing superb mysteries also writes superb literary novels (Littlejohn, Rock of Ages, etc.) is to be lauded for creating a character as flawed yet lovable as Willie Black. Yes, the man is a rascal, and yes, he drinks too much, but Willie is truly a man for all seasons.
Don Winslow’s new novel involves the activities of the NYPD’s ultra-elite Manhattan North Special Task Force, whose leader, decorated detective sergeant Denny Malone, and his quick-thinking, brave, brutal, hard-charging, and hard-playing crew have been given unrestrained authority to “hold the line” against the city’s gangs and their guns and drugs. This, and the book’s title, may suggest that it is a police procedural. It is not. It is, instead, an open- and stink-eyed study of Malone, who, like his close-knit squad, is as corrupt and nearly as vicious as the gangsters he’s been assigned to combat. No spoiler here; the novel begins with Malone facing jail time and feeling remorse for ratting out his closest bros-in-blue, detectives Russo and Big Monty. Using prose powerful and persuasive, Winslow charts the downfall of these “kings of the city” who are smart and cynical enough to realize they are not just beyond the law but beyond salvation. As Winslow sees it, they’re not alone in their corruption. Their city is roiling with other crooked cops, crooked lawyers on both sides of the court, crooked judges, and of course crooked politicians. Finding a character to like is harder than winning the New York Lottery. But likability is not always a required ingredient for literary success. (Hi, there, Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth!). And this is, make no mistake, a significant work. Winslow knows how to string words and, along with many action sequences that should not be pacemaker-approved, there are several rants and raves about Manhattan that are pure hardboiled poetry. Especially as delivered with heart-pounding and, at times, heartbreaking intensity by reader Dion Graham (The Wire). The actor is particularly good at creating distinctive voices, primarily Malone’s growl, which is relentlessly tough-as-nails even when altered by physical pain or self-disgust or genuine regret. Russo sounds brash, emotional and very Italian-American, while Monty speaks with a deep African-American mix of strength and self-confidence. Past the main characters, Graham gives their police chief a harsh, demanding attitude, and the gang leaders a cheerily sneering, faux-friendly but cutthroat approach. Malone’s wife is, for her few scenes, justifiably in-your-face angry, while his drug-addicted nurse girlfriend sounds as if she’s falling asleep mid-sentence. The feds are overly aggressive, ruthlessly ambitious, heartless, and as annoyed as if they, too, are off-put at having found no one in the novel likable, least of all Malone.
Fred Van Lente (coauthor of Cowboys & Aliens, Deadpool) goes from graphic to words-only novel with this parody of Agatha Christie’s famous standalone finally labeled And Then There Were None after its original Ten Little... titles failed to find an ethnic category that wasn’t offensive to modern readers. Van Lente’s whodunit has legendary comic Dustin Walker inviting nine less-than-legendary funny folk to his compound on a secluded island in the West Indies to work with him on an exciting new project. Needless to say, the invitation is a ruse. His purpose is to make them pay with their lives for their “crimes against comedy.” Adding to the amusement are characters who are composites of real comedians living and dead, samples of their stand-up routines, snarky showbiz references, and a plot stocked with as many red herrings as Dame Christie’s, with an ending even she might have had trouble guessing. Like any project this comedy obsessed, it faces a “could be funnier” critique, but there are laughs enough to merit a listen. J.D. Jackson does an admirable job of juggling all the aggressively extroverted voices, male and female—not to mention performing their routines in character using a reasonably effective, well-paced stand-up delivery. Still, if ever a book deserved a full-cast reading, this is it. (That goes for the Christie novel, too, now that I think of it.)
Leo Margulies (1900-1975) was one of the most successful and long-serving pulp magazine editors and publishers. Most familiar of his titles to today’s readers is Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, in format a digest but in spirit a pulp, which began in 1956 and outlived him by a decade. Along with titles from the science fiction, sports, Western, romance, and aviation genres, he oversaw such crime pulps as G-Men, Mystery Book Magazine, Popular Detective, Phantom Detective, and Thrilling Detective. He was the original publisher of The Saint Detective Magazine, and later launched shorter-lived digests fronted by Charlie Chan, Shell Scott, The Man from UNCLE, and The Girl from UNCLE.
The author is a relative and provides personal and family insights along with the account of his uncle’s professional life. While he could be prickly and difficult, Margulies was clearly a fair and decent man, as well as a good writer and editor. Over a hundred pages of appendices include listings of his magazines arranged by publishing imprint, anthologies, novels published by his Gateway Books imprint, comic books, his own published writings, (a short story and anthology introduction serve as examples), and posthumous tributes by Forest J. Ackerman and Will Murray. Statistical buffs will be interested in the approximate numbers of contributions bought from his most prolific writers. Topping the list is Norman Daniels (270). Some others include Johnston McCulley (170), Louis L’Amour (140), Dennis Lynds (110), Michael Avallone (70), and Henry Kuttner (40).
Sherman is an experienced researcher and careful scholar, whose rare errors may be owing to a limited knowledge of popular fiction genres and their authors. A series of short story collections by Leslie Charteris from the 1950s and 1960s, including The Saint in Europe and The Saint on the Spanish Main among others, are described as anthologies rather than single-author works. And Sherman seems surprised that Leo Margulies was not credited as their editor, stating that Leslie Charteris was. The implication is that the stories were not actually written by Charteris. While this is possible, it seems more likely that Sherman is confusing these collections with a series of paperback anthologies from the ’40s with the title The Saint’s Choice and edited by Charteris.