Sunday, October 28, 2012

First published in 1974, this is the sixteenth book in Richard Stark's acclaimed series featuring Parker, the amoral antihero criminal mastermind. While the book can be read as a stand-alone, it is really the capstone of the series to that point and the last Parker novel that would appear until Comeback, a full twenty-three years later.

The original plan seems simple enough: Two years earlier (in Slayground), Parker and several confederates hit an armored car in the Midwestern town of Tyler for $73,000. But before they could get away, the cops closed in and Parker was forced to hide out in an amusement park that was closed for the winter. A group of mobsters and a few corrupt cops laid siege to the park in the hope of separating Parker from the money. Ultimately, Parker hid the money in the park and managed to escape.

Now, after another job has come up empty, Parker decides to go back to Tyler and retrieve the $73,000. He recruits Alan Grofield, one of his long-time associates, and the two of them quietly go to Tyler, wait for the amusement park to close for the night, and head for the spot where Parker hid the loot.

It isn't there.

This will come as no great surprise to the reader because this is the longest of the Parker novels and Parker and Grofield discover that the money is gone on page 21, which means that they will have to spend the rest of the book attempting to get the money back.

Parker is not really surprised to find the money missing either. He reaches the logical conclusion that, in the wake of his escape, the mobsters searched the park until they found the money and appropriated it for their own purposes.

Parker explains to Grofield that he knows who the boss of the local mob is. Parker calls the guy and politely asks that he return Parker's money. Not surprisingly, the mobster claims that he doesn't have it. He insists that his men did search the park but couldn't find it. Parker naturally refuses to believe him and takes several steps to demonstrate that the mobster should not take his threats lightly.

As it happens, Parker and Grofield have arrived in town at a critical time for the local mob. A gang war is brewing and Parker decides that he'll show the locals what a real gang war looks like. He recruits his own gang, composed of a number of characters from the earlier Parker novels, and goes after the mobsters, leading to a sensational climax befitting what Stark originally intended to be the last book in the series.

This is a gripping and very entertaining book that will appeal especially to those who have read the earlier Parker books and who will recognize so many of the characters that Stark resurrects. But it's hard to imagine that anyone who loves crime fiction will not thoroughly enjoy Butcher's Moon.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This is a beautifully-written, captivating book about a number of mostly poverty-stricken rural characters, some of whom are down on their luck and others of whom are simply bad to the bone.

Set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, the story takes place over a period from the end of World War II until the middle of the 1960s. It weaves together the strands of several different stories, and the characters include a husband and wife team of serial killers who hunt their male "models" along the nation's highways. There are a couple of seriously screwed-up preachers, a totally bent sheriff, a war veteran who spends hours at his "prayer log" sacrificing and pleading with God to save his wife who is dying of cancer, and their son, Arvin, who pulls the various parts of the story together. The supporting cast includes a number of minor, but equally well-drawn characters, all of whom are unforgettable.

Also unforgettable is the setting. Pollock paints a vivid portrait of these small towns and isolated farms where hope and opportunity are totally foreign concepts. To say that these people lead often desperate, hard scrabble lives would be an understatement. Although the book is set in the middle of the Twentieth Century, in some respects many of these people are still living as though it were the beginning of the century.

There is a lot of brutal action in this book, but the story is so well-told that Pollock draws you in from virtually the first line. And even though it's very hard to sympathize with a lot of the characters, you turn the last page with a deep sense of regret that the book has ended. Donald Ray Pollock is also the author of the acclaimed Knockemstiff and he is definitely a writer to look for.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I know absolutely nothing about teenage girls--something that, sadly, was also true back when I was a teenage boy. Megan Abbott, on the other hand, either has a very good memory or has done prodigious research into the subject. Actually, I suspect that it's a combination of both, and the result is her excellent new novel, Dare Me.

The book is a meditation on the nature of friendship, love, competition, betrayal and young girls coming of age, set in the world of cheerleading. In it, Abbott exposes the dark underside of the cheerleaders' world and describes a culture that would have me quaking in my boots if I had a teenage daughter.

Beth Cassidy and Addy Hanlon have been best friends since childhood. Beth is the tough-as-nails, natural born leader and Addy is her able lieutenant. They are both tanned and beautiful and are the stars of their high school's cheerleader squad.

Until now, this has required little more effort than the occasional lackadaisical practice, maintaining their hairdos and shaking their assets come game time. But suddenly there's a new sheriff in town or, actually, a new coach who takes cheerleading seriously as an athletic competition. The coach, Colette French, is not that much older than the girls themselves, but she drills them like Marines and whips their bodies and their attitudes into shape. Before long, they're doing routines they never would have dreamed of before.

Most of the girls, Addy included, buy into the program enthusiastically. But Beth is not happy. Coach or no coach, she has always been the team's natural leader, and she detests even the suggestion that she might be eclipsed by the new coach. She is particularly unhappy about the fact that in her view, Addy has turned against her by aligning herself with the coach, and Beth is not a girl who will take this lying down.

The coach is a woman with troubles of her own, which soon bubble to the surface with dire consequences for the young charges she has drawn into her orbit. To say anymore would probably be to say too much. Suffice it to say that these characters are fully drawn, eminently believable, and may of them are scary as hell. But watching the story unfold is mesmerizing--you cannot turn away. Megan Abbott has delivered another very good book that will linger a long time in the reader's memory.