Book Review: Smoking on Mount Rushmore by Ed Lynskey

17228169I was a little worried when I began reading this new short story collection from Ed Lynskey because while I’ve enjoyed three of his stand-alone novels (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE), I have never read either his short fiction or the crime series for which he is famous. I need not have worried, as I was able to slip right into the groove with these stories.

Mild plot spoilers follow, but as these are mystery/crime tales, I promise not to ruin any of them for you.

SMOKING ON MOUNT RUSHMORE includes sixteen stories, ranging from gritty crime to almost-cozy-type mysteries, to slice of life tales. That makes for a shifting tone across the stories, but I thought that added some enjoyment to the collection, as I never knew what to expect when I began a new story. For example, “The Thief of Hearts” was a low-key lead-in to the collection about a young female college student who falls for the wrong guy. The stories then shift to some darker, more noirish tales. As with much of Lynskey’s fiction, most of these stories are set in the gritty and rural byways of Northern Virginia and surrounding areas, and that sense of place is one of the strongest features of Lynskey’s prose.

The majority of these stories have previously appeared in other anthologies (from 2000-2010), but it’s always nice to see single-author collections appear. Two of the stories in SMOKING ON MOUNT RUSHMORE – two of the longer pieces in fact – are all new: “Sins of the Father?” and “Juror Number Three.” The latter story, about a woman serving on a sequestered jury whose marriage is falling apart, was especially strong. A number of Lynskey’s iconic characters featured in their own series appear here. The private investigator Frank Johnson shows up in five of the stories, including one with an especially good title: “How to Defuse a Terrorist.” Johnson’s bounty hunter sidekick Gerald Peyton also appears in two stories here, and Lynskey’s female P.I. Sharon Knowles also makes an appearance in one story.

The title story, which closes out the collection, is especially strong. Derek has been called up for active duty and is set to be shipped off to Iraq in three days. He convinces his young wife Cerise to indulge him in one last fantasy before he has to deploy: he wants her to give him a striptease on top of Mount Rushmore. So begins a roadtrip for the couple in which we find that Derek, Cerise, and their marriage are a lot more complicated than they first appear.

While I think I prefer Lynskey’s novels to his short fiction (though to be fair that’s my view of most authors), this collection serves as a very good introduction to Lynskey’s work. If you like his characterization, dialogue, and plotting in these shorts, then I’m sure you’d like his longer work, as Lynskey’s novels seem to play out similarly.


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Blood Diamonds by Ed Lynskey

We’ve all heard the saying “there’s no honor among thieves.” We get to see that old chestnut play out in Ed Lynskey’s new action-packed crime thriller, BLOOD DIAMONDS. It follows the adventures of life-long conman Jonas Blades who has settled down into a fairly sedate lifestyle as an IT drone uncomfortably working for a harpy of a boss. Jonas isn’t terribly happy, despite – or perhaps because of – his life in the suburbs, especially since there’s some unpleasant, unresolved business in his past. You see, about nine years before the start of BLOOD DIAMONDS, Jonas was the wheelman in a diamond heist. And that heist didn’t go exactly as planned: Jonas double-crossed his fellow crooks and ended up with the diamonds, tucked away in a safe deposit box. And now Jonas’ former girlfriend and betrayed heist partner is finally getting out of prison and she’s sure to come looking for the diamonds and some payback.

BLOOD DIAMONDS begins in the present, quickly establishes the characters and their current woes, then flashes back to show how Jonas and Jacquie met and takes us through the heist and double-cross. It then returns to the present to resolve the storyline. Of course there’s plenty of action. As with most crime/heist thrillers, BLOOD DIAMONDS must succeed or fail on the strength of its characters. I’m happy to report that it succeeds handily in characterization and dialogue. Jonas is an intriguing character: he seems pretty low-key, and like all too many of us, he seems to be pretty complacent in his life of “quiet desperation.” Jonas is a man who’s been sitting on millions of dollars of stolen diamonds for years now. He’s seemingly reluctant to fence them, but he’s not the kind of guy who would just turn them (or himself) over to the police either. So he simply waits, knowing that his past is going to catch up with him some day. It’s an interesting character study. Every member of the cast of characters is a crook of one sort or another, ranging from Jonas himself, to his ex-partner, the dangerous Jacqui Mantooth, to Jacquie’s thuggish brother, to her new boyfriend, to Jonas’ new girlfriend Rita Jo. Most of these folks are more than they appear, and betrayals are a constant. And because we’re talking about several million dollars’ worth of diamonds, these folks aren’t too shy about doing whatever it takes to get their grubby mitts on the gems.

I won’t spoiler you on how this all turns out. On initial read, I was just a little dissatisfied with the ending, but after a moment’s reflection, I liked Lynsey’s closing. Your mileage may vary, but I was surprised to discover I didn’t mind being left where Lynskey’s ends the tale. We could certainly see several of these folks appear in future DC suburban crime fiction.

I’ve reviewed another of Lynskey’s crime novels set in a thinly-veiled fictional version of the Northern Virginia – my old stomping grounds – and BLOOD DIAMONDS is also set here. (See here for Lynskey’s discussion of his own personal setting.) For those of you familiar with the area, I’d place BLOOD DIAMONDS mostly in the sketchy southern end of Route 1: heading south from Alexandria and into Fairfax county going down to the Fort Belvoir area. It’s an area that’s seen better days, though is close enough to plenty of more upscale places, so it’s a good setting for criminal shenanigans.

Recommended for those who have enjoyed Ed Lynskey’s other crime fiction – you certainly won’t be disappointed here – as well as those with an interest in stories about heists and crooks betraying their fellow crooks. It’s a quick, fun read that carries you right along to a catastrophic climax.


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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Ask the Dice by Ed Lynskey

This isn’t your typical hitman story. I had only read one previous crime novel by Ed Lynskey –LAKE CHARLES (see my review here) – but like that first novel, I enjoyed ASK THE DICE immensely. Much like Elmore Leonard, and I mean this comparison very favorably, ASK THE DICE relies on a small cast of interesting, off-beat characters who engage in a healthy mix of witty repartee and furious action.

Please note: some plot spoilers follow, though I promise not to wreck every twist and turn in the novel.

Tommy Mack Zane is a professional hitman who has been loyally working for Watson Ogg, a Washington, DC crime lord for the past couple decades. Tommy Mack is now late middle-aged and more than a little tired of cleaning up Ogg’s dirty work, to the point that he has begun contemplating retirement. Before he can fade off into the sunset, Tommy Mack is inexplicably framed for the murder of one of Ogg’s two nieces. The word quickly goes out on the street that Tommy Mack is a marked man and he must flee for his life. He’s also got to figure out why he was framed and, perhaps, exact a measure of revenge. Through the course of the story, we also see Tommy Mack’s past slowly unfold as we learn how a pretty likeable guy ended up spending his adult life as a contract killer. There’s plenty of furious action and chases throughout, as well as a final confrontation with Ogg and his “dark suits” (goons), resulting in a very nice resolution to the plot.

There was one very minor pet peeve in the story, and it’s one I freely admit would not bother most readers: I lived in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia area for twelve years and love it. The unique geography of the city and its environs, especially as used by other local authors like crime novelist George Pelecanos, allows for some fascinating use of setting. To be sure, Lynskey generally does a good job with DC, mentioning real places like Adams Morgan, Annandale, and Baltimore. But he has chosen to insert some fictitious locations too – Old and New Yvor Cities, in particular — and much of the action takes place there. For me, that creates a jarring effect that breaks my suspension of disbelief. Where are these places? Somewhere down Route 1? What are they like? I assume they are kind of decaying and sketchy, but I don’t really know. To be fair to Lynskey, he explains why he did this in his blog, and I respect that decision, I just wish that he’d used a few more real locations.

I should also add that Tommy Mack is a poet, and in several places in the novel we are treated to some of his poems. I wouldn’t ordinarily describe myself as a lover of poetry (sorry, folks), but I actually really enjoyed these pieces, so I wanted to mention that specifically here. (The poems are apparently previously published pieces by Lynskey, but fit in very neatly here as, I think, exactly the kind of poems Tommy Mack would write.)

I recommend ASK THE DICE highly. Lynskey’s use of setting is one of the strongest aspects of the book (it doesn’t hurt that the book is set in my old stomping grounds) and I salute him for delving into a real sense of place that too many other novelists only gloss over. If you are looking for a tight crime novel with spare but engaging prose, look no further than ASK THE DICE.


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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers

Upcoming Reviews

I have been woefully remiss in publishing new book reviews this year. Sadly, finishing up a dissertation while teaching college has a way of pushing everything aside. Not to worry, I should be finished up with the dissertation in a few months, so I can only hope that will mean more free time for reading and writing reviews. But I do have a number of reviews planned, including the following:

FICTION

Michael R. Collings:
The House Beyond the Hill
The Slab
Shadow Valley
Serpent’s Tooth (I may need to get my hands on Devil’s Plague first though.)
The Gummi Bear Omnibus

Ed Lynskey:
Ask the Dice

Robert Reginald:
The Paperback Show Murders (coupled with Gary Lovisi’s Murder of a Bookman)
The Cracks in the Aether
The Pachyderms’ Lament
The Fourth Elephant’s Egg

NON-FICTION

Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, edited by Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz

The Halloween Encyclopedia, Second Edition by Lisa Morton

Boots on the Ground: The Fight to Liberate Afghanistan from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, 2001-2002 by Dick Camp

Before Sherlock Holmes: How Magazines and Newspapers Invented the Detective Story by Leroy Panek

They’re coming, guys, I promise!

Ed Lynskey interview

As a follow-up to my review of Ed Lynskey’s new “Appalachian noir” novel Lake Charles the other day, I’d like to provide a link to a good interview with Lynskey posted on the Out of the Gutter (OOTG) magazine blog. If you’re not familiar with OOTG, it describes itself as “pulp fiction and degenerate literature,” and I think that sums it up nicely It contains some interesting, foul stuff you won’t find elsewhere. I heartily approve of the mag and have been a fan since issue #1.

In any case, check out the interview, and check out Out of the Gutter!

Book Review: Lake Charles by Ed Lynskey

The book was billed as Appalachian noir, and it certainly lives up to its name. It’s dark, gritty, bloody, and the Southern setting makes a real difference in the story. I was actually reminded a bit of some of Elmore Leonard’s work: Lake Charles depends heavily on a small cast of well-drawn characters and, more importantly, their dialogue. I apparently glossed over the clue on the first page that the book is set in 1979, but this soon became readily apparent. Lynskey does a good job of injecting the time period into the book in ways both big and small throughout. Oh and by the way, the cover’s gorgeous, isn’t it?

Plot spoilers follow.

The protagonist is Brendan Fishback, a young man who faces a first degree murder charge at the start of the novel. He’s been accused of murdering Ashleigh Sizemore, the daughter of a local bigwig, with whom he partied at a concert then returned to a seedy motel for some sex and drugs. When Brendan woke up, Ashleigh was dead. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) Brendan’s pretty sure that he didn’t kill the girl, but thanks to a drug haze, can’t quite recall exactly what happened. Brendan (now out on bail awaiting trial), his twin sister, Edna, and her husband, Cobb, head to the eponymous Lake Charles, Tennessee for a relaxing weekend of fishing and jet skiing. Two problems turn what should be a fun weekend into a nightmare: (1) Edna disappears; and (2) Brendan and Cobb discover that Lake Charles is the site of a massive marijuana farm guarded by brutal thugs. Brendan also discovers that his sister’s kidnapping and the industrial-sized pot farm are intimately connected with the murder he’s been charged with. Jerry Kuzawa, Cobb’s father with a mysterious past, soon gets involved with the quest for vengeance, and he’s an eminently enjoyable character. Brendan’s dreams are an integral part of the story, and I was initially a little concerned that it would result in silliness, but it’s a well-done element in the novel, and a good vehicle for his memories of that fateful drug-fueled night gradually resurfacing.

There’s a stunningly high body count in the book, though I won’t spoiler the ending of the book, but it’s fairly satisfying (if a bit more positive than we’d expect from a “noir” novel). The setting – both time and place – play a major role in the book and is a real strength of the novel. I liked the quirky, unique characters a great deal, and while I occasionally got a little tangled up in the dialogue, they were well done (though maybe just a little too blasé about killing people). If it’s not abundantly clear, drugs do play a major role in the story, but I should clarify that they are never glorified and their use is depicted only as debilitating and, frankly, stupid, so no worries on that score.

I give this one 4 stars out of 5. Lots of fun and definitely recommended. Prior to reading Lake Charles, I wasn’t familiar with Ed Lynskey’s work, but I’ll definitely look for more of his crime fiction. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Lynskey can do with the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachians (my neck of the woods).

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers