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Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez

Roachkiller

When you read a PI novel like those involving Marlowe, it’s not unusual to have someone sneak up on our hero and knock him out with a sap blackjack blow to the back of the head. He never sees it coming and wakes up, stinking with gin and lying next to a dead body. Well, Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez (Beyond the Page, 2012) managed the same thing for me as a reader (the gin was diluted with tonic and no dead body, fortunately). When you start a book by an author new to you, there’s hope in your heart. Except this time, the experience is quite stunning. Eight of these ten are terrific stories. Even in marginal failure, the stories have a precise narrative economy. All are told in an efficient, stripped-down noir style and embrace the tough side of life with bland acceptance. Whereas others sensationalise for effect, this author gives us unadorned grittiness and leaves any moral judgement to us. One of these stories is original although the author does confess to having tweaked the text of those already published. The only downside to this ebook collection is that it’s short. Except I suppose it’s a good thing that the author left me wanting more.

R Narvaez

R Narvaez

“In the Kitchen with Johnny Albino” is about life choices. There’s nothing you can do about the basics of biology. If you will insist on sleeping with men and not taking precautions, pregnancy usually follows. The life already tough with one child is about to get tougher with another on the way. So when you’re in that situation, what do you do? You could go back to Puerto Rico or you could take a risk and run a numbers book. That would be empowering so long as the established players looked the other way. This is a pleasingly elegant story about a lady who discovers a strength she’d not expected. We’re left uncertain how it will all turn out but at least satisfied she’s taken the first steps. “Juracán” is the name given to the god of chaos and disorder by the Taino Indians in Puerto Rico. This plot demonstrates the old adage that if you roll with the blows, you arrive at the end of the fight with minimal damage. Of course, this requires you to stay calm when all around you are excited, particularly if there’s a hurricane coming in your direction. The man who earned the name “Roachkiller” is a walking hurricane who learned his lesson well and has no intention of going back to jail. Normally this would mean avoiding the company of other criminals and not committing further offences. This man has a slightly different strategy. “GhostD” captures another life choice. This time we’re travelling with a man who has a desk job with a private security company. He’s got a quiet life dealing with ID theft but then someone has to ask for his help. And one thing just leads to another as the man he’s looking for turns up dead. So what’s a desk jockey to do? “Santa’s Little Helper” reminds us the old established employees are tough and the newcomers are inexperienced, particularly when it comes to running.

“Unsynchronicity” teaches us that when bad stuff happens, it happens and, in short order, it keeps on happening in “Ibarra Goes Down” as a man on a mission to Australia finds an urgent need to defend himself when the fridge door opens. “Watching the Iguanas” takes us into the future and shows us some people still have to live from one drink or one meal to the next. Such a life teaches you to keep going as long as you can and reminds us to carry a snack in case of need. “Rough Night in Toronto” shows us a future in which androids get to play an active part in life. Little changes when it comes to criminal activity except they’re harder to kill. Finally, “Zinger” has a different take on an execution that doesn’t quite work out the way everyone expects. Taking the overview, Roachkiller and Other Stories is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award for Best eBook – Fiction and well worth reading if you enjoy stories with a noir edge and a sometimes vicious sense of humour.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo (Other Press, 2011) poses rather a nice existential question. Let’s suppose you’re an American hitman working in England, what would you think about while waiting for your intended victim to be in the right place for you to do the job? Would you be humming a merry tune or perhaps worrying about whether it was going to rain, and you without an umbrella? Presumably you would not be anxious about your financial health. As a seasoned professional, you would have cash salted away in numbered accounts under different names. Your health would be good. You would keep fit. After all, there’s no knowing when you might have to run after a victim or, perish the thought, run away from the police. Not, of course, that you’ve ever faced such an indignity. You’ve always managed to avoid even the slightest chance of detection. Perhaps you’re always professional, focused on tracking your victim, monitoring the environment for potential threats so that, when you have the victim alone, you can despatch him and be gone before anyone notices the body or you. Indeed, perhaps it would be better if you tried not to think at all. Not that the morality of killing people for a living has ever bothered you. You’re not one of these deep-thinkers. It’s always been a simple financial transaction. A life for cash.

So let’s think the unthinkable. Suppose it does actually occur to you to assess your life and what you’re doing with it. Would you be happy? It’s not that you lack the wherewithal to live a very comfortable life but, when you look around, you find the place where you hang your hat is Spartan, in the less friendly version of the word. You have very few material possessions with clothes obviously low down in your scale of priorities. And what interests or hobbies do you have? Well, now that you mention it, the cupboard seems equally bare on that front. You could always try reading a few books to bring a little culture into your life. What about architecture? Haven’t you always been interested in buildings, even if only to find quiet places inside or outside where you can do your killings. Would you be in the market for books on Georgian style? Well, perhaps mainly photographic rather than detailed historical tomes. You wouldn’t want to tire yourself before you start.

Ronald De Feo not quite looking Georgian

Anyway, what would happen if you threw in an extra death? It’s not in your interests to have potential witnesses so, even though you were in the middle of Derbyshire (and nothing newsworthy ever happens in Derbyshire) you kill both the intended victim and the old guy he was talking to. Except that gets into the national press. Old man gunned down in gangland hit (in Derbyshire, of all places). So, suddenly, your reputation for clean kills is blighted and you’re on a compulsory vacation in New York where you can have fun playing the part of an Englishman — there’s less chance the accent and mannerisms will detected as false. But when your work interrupts, you find yourself sent off again. You may be the fastest worker not employed as a short-order cook, but this doesn’t mean you’re immune to complaints from unhappy customers. So you decide to revisit the old homestead, remind yourself of your roots. Then, all that’s left to do is go off to Barcelona. After all, it’s got some great architecture and people to kill.

Calling Mr King is a slightly disconcerting book. Normally, when you read about a psychopathic killer, you’re expected to be shocked and appalled by the wanton cruelty of the man. Yet here the intention is to present a serial killer in a not unfavourable light. Indeed, there’s some mordent wit on display as this first-person narrative explores the thinking processes of a man who stands on the cusp of what will be, for him, some quite profound insights. In all the years of his relatively short existence, he’s never really thought about himself or what he would like to make of his life. He’s just been a straight arrow who, when pointed at a victim by the bowman, flies at the target without blinking. Now that his brain has been engaged, the point of the book is to see what actual thoughts drop down into his consciousness when he shakes his own tree. The result is a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who, in many senses, was a victim of his abusive father. Perhaps more importantly, he never had a chance to make anything of himself. Neither the home nor the education system offered him a chance to climb up from the bottom of the heap. He was just lucky it turned out he was a dead shot.

Like Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Ronald De Feo is out to play a game with us. If he can make us care about this stone cold killer, we can be made to worry about whether he can retire. What would we want for such a man? A villa with a library of books on architecture or a grave with no-one to mourn him? The problem is that it goes on too long. No matter what De Feo tries, he can never make us feel real compassion for a loose cannon — at the end, he’s just as much an amoral killer as when he started except now he’s unpredictable. Ironically, that makes him even more dangerous. So our Mr. King, the name being a nursery rhyme joke, is nowhere near as “likeable” as Tom Ripley nor is his situation as interesting. I might have felt more kindly disposed towards the book had it been about one-third shorter. As it is, I just wanted Mr King arrested or dead.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Snitch by Booker T Mattison

To help readers assess the extent to which this review may be biased, I remind everyone that I am an atheist. Snitch by Booker T Mattison (Revell, 2011 and now distributed by INscribe Digital as an e-book) is a study in melancholy with a Christian message intertwined. Imagine Andre, a man who loves the power and emotion of poetry and, through that, finds what should be the perfect relationship with a beautiful woman called Sandra Horton. They have a child together but he increasingly feels as if, somehow, he doesn’t fit comfortably into the relationship. So he leaves her. He still writes. That’s inevitable. Words are so inextricably bound up in him, he will never be able to stop. But the best he can do for employment is drive a bus through the night. Perhaps, life could have been different. But you never get nowhere on a perhaps. What actually happened was that, at college, he was picked up by the police the first time he carried drugs. The results were a conviction, ten years probation and him busted from college. He lost big time. As a very good, if selfish, footfall player, he was lined up for a scholarship or the possibility of joining a pro team. What makes his present job as a driver all the more difficult is that the defensive player who took him out of the key game when NFL scouts were present now works alongside him. His rival did play professionally for a year and then gave it up. To Andre, they’re two ageing lions wondering which one of them should be dominant in the current pride.

The mother of his child is still beautiful but also struggling. With a young boy to look after, she’s not got the best of lives ahead of her as a single mother when all she can do is work as a waitress, albeit in a fairly classy restaurant in downtown Jersey City. Her father disowned her when she not only began living in sin, but also had a child. It’s a shame really. In different times, she and Andre might still be together. In their own ways, they still love each other. Then there’s Hakeem Shabazz. He knows Andre from way back and is now trying to make it as a professional councillor on Communipaw Avenue. This is a dangerous neighbourhood and he’s chosen to buy on the OGC’s turf. OGC? The Original Gun Clappers, a gang now run by Cyclops (better known as Claymont to his Grammy Lee), that deals drugs to the ‘hood. To complete the circle, Sandra and Grammy Lee are members of the New Jersey Truth led by Rocky Jenkins — he’s Claymont’s uncle and the man who originally founded OGC. None of this should matter except that driving down Bergen Avenue on his midnight shift, Andre sees Cyclops shoot a known snitch dead. At first Andre denies all knowledge. It’s dangerous to talk out of turn in this part of town. When he finally admits being involved, he’s put on two-weeks suspension without pay for failing to report one aspect of the incident. When the police tell the bus company Andre failed to disclose his conviction, he’s also out of a job.

Booker T Mattison using his hands to get the message across

The thing you have to remember about these neighborhoods is that although thousands live in the area, they know each other. Many are related by blood or the experiences they’ve shared. For that reason, we have to expect an author will draw everyone into a tight circle of relationship to power the story. In this case, sadness and despair can always turn darker when it comes to more basic questions of self-defence or revenge. At times like this, there’s always an ambivalence about the role of God. For the self-righteous, it’s the cornerstone of life. For others, the extent they admit God has a part to play in their lives is a matter of convenience. Take a father who thinks his daughter should be respectable and marry before having sex. When invited to dandle his illegitimate grandson on his lap, should his strict Christian principles bend? Or what about an ex-con who works as bouncer in an up-market club. When at work, should the question of God come up when he has to invite a troublesome soul to leave?

Religion is always a difficult issue to deal with in fiction. If it arises naturally and is no more than a subtext, it can be accepted in the same way we all rub along with each other in the community. But it becomes more problematic if the message is too dominant and influences the direction of the plot. To be judged a success as a narrative, cause and effect should always be credible. In one sense, I’m happy to see people within any community coming together to resist the influence of criminals who blight their lives. Within reasonable limits, both individuals and the communities they form should be able to defend themselves. As an analogy, think of the white blood cells generated by the human body’s autoimmune system. The leucocyte identifies bacteria, viruses and other invading “foreign” materials, and fights against them. So, in principle, Andre and anyone else who might join him are this neighbourhood’s white blood cells. They are organising themselves to defend the social body from criminal infection. We then get into motives. Why should they put themselves at risk for the benefit of the majority who choose not to get involved?

For Christians, the central metaphor is that, by sacrificing Himself on the cross, Jesus accepted the evil in the world and, through that acceptance, defeated evil. In modern times, a comparable example would be the role of the innocent witness. An individual who silently stands up for what he or she believes, who has the courage to confront evil, say by peacefully picketing an abortion clinic, is following the example of Jesus and so defeating evil. Finally, we have the idea that those who put their trust in the Lord, who come with humility in their hearts and care nothing for their own safety, will be saved. In this way, God’s love is unconditional even though, to some in the religious community, one or more of those saved are undeserving. All of which brings us back to the title. Although Christians believe God is omniscient, an innocent witness is actually acting as a snitch, representing the conscience that does not speak to the wrongdoer, but is prepared to speak out against wrongdoing to the world.

From this, you will understand that Snitch is not a realistic crime novel. Rather it’s an extended parable that ends with a miracle. If this fits your interests, Snitch is well written and consistent in its message.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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