This year I've got Gabino Iglesias and Cameron Pierce Hughes contributing their picks.
Before we proceed let’s pause for the annual invocation:
“What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies “the best”? Are they our favorites? Are they “movies we got to see before the deadline”? In my case, it’s some combination of all three — but I’m really quite happy with the aggregate results.” — Jim Emerson
Now lets begin.
Cameron Pierce Hughes
1) Dead Body Road by Justin Jordan
Dead Body Road is simple, and that's the beauty of it. Much like the surprise hit John Wick earlier this year. Collecting the 6-part mini-series by writer Justin Jordan (The Strange Talent/Legend of Luthor Strode, Shadowman, Green Lantern: New Guardians) and artist Matteo Scalera (Black Science.) is a love letter to the western and Elmore Leonard's leaner 70's novels. Orson Gage was a very bad man who found some form of solace in his wife, a police officer, but during a bank robbery, she is killed. Now these men have to die. Car chases, bloody brawls, a giggling and grinning psychopath, I loved this story. I love that the world feels older than these six issues, that Gage had a long and bloody career. The dialogue is sparse and it's all so lean you could cut yourself on it. The twists are many, but rather than complicating the loveliness of the low-key plotting, they complement it. and Scalera's art is scratchy but kinetic and his choreography of the action is smooth as silk. Crime fiction has flourished in comic books for a long time and I think it's far past time one snagged an Edgar. Dead Body Road should be the first.
2) The Planetary omnibus by Warren Ellis and John Cassady
Planetary covers all the fiction, all the fantastic stories you have read and enjoyed in your lifetime. Tarzan, Superman, the Fantastic Four, Sherlock Holmes, Japanese monster movies, John Woo's bloody thrillers and pulp heroes, and so much more, rendered by lush art by John Cassady and beautiful colors by Laura Martin.
In the world of Planetary, these things happened. They are not things that people have read about, or imagined, or can even conceive. But they're out there, waiting to be discovered. This is what Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer, super-powered archaeologists of the weird and impossible do, and where Warren Ellis and John Cassaday craft the most optimistic, beautiful and inventive love letter to the popular fiction of the Twentieth Century. Collecting all 27 issues and all the specials, like a mind-bending crossover with Batman, it's a must-have.
3) Get Blank by Justin Robinson
In a direct sequel to 2012's Mr. Blank (And it is a sequel, you will be lost if you don't read it) life is okay for our hero. He's running a small bookstore somewhere up north and he's in a happy relationship, far away from his old days as the bagman/punching bag for every conspiracy group in Los Angeles.
Then his girlfriend is arrested for murder.
Our nameless narrator(he has MANY aliases) is back in the game against his will, diving into Los Angeles's secret underworld where the Russian Mafia is not even the most dangerous threat to his existence. This is a series that's like candy for the fan of the conspiracy theory and pop culture in general. It also might be the most un-abashedly progressive thriller in years where a supporting character is a transgender woman and two gun-runners our narrator works with are a married homosexual couple. Coupled with Robinson's ability to make sense of a complicated plot while still putting in plenty of humor and, yes, heart, this might be the most exciting quasi-P.I. series in years.
4) Black-Hat Jack by Joe Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale is never better than when spinning a yarn. When he takes grim reality and adds spice, and he's at it again with his buddy cowboy novella, Black-Hat Jack, Nat Love (subject of Lansdale's coming novel Paradise Sky), the one and only Deadwood Dick, writes down his version of certain events, straightening out numerous misconceptions raised in the popular and sanitized dime novels. Though he embellishes, he swears it's all, or mostly all, true. Starting with the fact that he was actually an African-American. . ''Black Hat Jack'' details Nat's version of the events of the now famous Second Battle of Adobe Walls, where he and a handful of buffalo hunters, primarily his buddy Black Hat Jack ("My name is Jack and my hat is black.") were pitted against hundreds of Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa warriors in the infamous Second Battle of Adobe Walls. The action is quick, bloody and furious and it's muscular and lean, getting in, telling the story, and getting out. In a 35 year career, it excites me that the King of Mojo is not just still this good, but seems to only be getting started in showing us what he can do.
5) I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
When you're the screen-writer of one of the best action movies of the last 30 years, George Miller's The Road Warrior, there are expectations when you write your first novel.
I am Pilgrim meets those expectations. And then some.
“Pilgrim” is an American intelligence operative who, despite wanting to retire to a “normal” life, stumbles upon the biggest case of his career. His story starts with an unrelated grisly murder of a woman in a seedy and sad New York hotel room and quickly escalates to a matter of national security. The events unfold in slow motion, and we see the past and present from both Pilgrim’s perspective and that of his mysterious adversary, a man of single-minded zealous devotion. I am Pilgrim spans the globe and is muscular in all the best ways. Hayes writes an adult thriller that never talks down to you but never fails to entertain. The surprises and twists are many, starting with the murderer being a woman. I loved this novel. I was absorbed in a way I rarely am with international espionage thrillers as this 600 page epic just breezes by like an Arabian horse. I'm hoping this is just the start of an exciting new career for Hayes. I'm a fan.
6) Eat What You Kill by Ted Scolfield
Evan Stoess is a struggling young Wall Street analyst obsessed with fortune and fame. A trailer park kid who attended an exclusive prep school through a lucky twist of fate. It is at this school where he discovers the philosophy of greed and ambition above all else in the writing of Ayn Rand and a monster is born.
Evan is that rare sociopath where he's all emotion, the problem being they're all bad emotions. Rage, petty jealousies, arrogance and envy, so much envy. He covets a woman and calls it love and doesn't think twice about destroying others to get ahead. To him, there's no real difference between small but devastating betrayals and completely destroying the lives of others. As long as he gets his.
When a small stock he discovers becomes an overnight sensation, he is poised to make millions and land the girl of his dreams, but disaster strikes and he loses everything.
Two years later a mysterious firm offers Evan a chance for redemption, and he jumps at the opportunity. His new job is to short stocks—to bet against the market. But when the stock goes up and he finds himself on the brink of ruin once again, another option presents itself: murder.
He's a lot like Patrick Bateman and Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. Charismatic, intelligent men who are in reality small, pathetic and petty. You'll be horrified when you start rooting for Evan, but his reasoning about why he should get ahead is so seductive it's easy to fall for. They don't make noirs like this anymore.
7) The Poor Boy's Game by Dennis Tafoya
Dennis Tafoya's new novel about Philadelphia crime reminds me of how Elmore Leonard wrote Detroit in the 70's and 80's. Dangerous. Sexy. Alive in a way most written cities aren't. He feels like a journalist writing down the stories of people he's met.
When US Marshal Frannie Mullen gets one of her best friends shot during a routine apprehension, her career is but over. Disgrace and still reeling from the loss, Frannie is trying to sort out her feelings for Wyatt, the reformed outlaw who loves her, and to support her newly-sober sister, Mae, as she struggles with the fallout of being brought up by a violent man who ultimately goes to prison for murdering their mother. Until the day he escapes and bodies start piling up.
Frannie Mullen is beautifully human, but what's more is she's feminine. She's emotional and sexual and while tough(Tafoya's characterization of her as a sports fan is believable), you never get the feeling Tafoya is just writing a man who looks like a woman as so many male writers do. She joins the pantheon of great heroines like Clarice Starling, Ellen Ripley, Fargo's Marge Gunderson and Elmore Leonard's own Jackie Burke/Brown and Karen Sisco.
8) Bagmen by William Lashner
If Tafoya's Philaldephia is Leonard, Lashner's portrayal of the City of Brotherly Love feels like what Chandler would have written the city like. Tough without being brutish and romantic without being sappy and never ever forgiving.
At a low point in his perpetually low career, ethically adventurous lawyer Victor Carl finds himself creeping through the streets of Philadelphia carrying a bag full of money for an ambitious politician. It is a rotten job on the wrong side of anyone’s line, but with bag in hand Victor is suddenly hobnobbing with the city’s elite, filling his bank account, and having sex with the politician’s gorgeous and deranged sister. But just when Victor begins to think he’s got a future in the political game, one of his payoffs ends up in the pocket of a dead woman, and Victor's new friends turn their backs on him and he barely has anyone from his old life as his practice is in a shambles.
He's a true Chandler hero, scruffy and hang-dog, hating high society while desperately wanting to be among them. And Lashner's fat cats are the type that will say sweet things to you with a smile while twisting the knife in your belly. It's a classic noir Wrong Man plot and I loved it. Also, it's Lashner fighting against the 1% while being published by Amazon's Thomas and Mercer. I don't know about you, but I love that. It's so punk rock.
9) Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell
I call it "That Raiders feeling." when I experience an adventure story so confident and well told, that makes me feel like the first time I saw the Steven Spielberg classic Raiders of The Lost Ark. I felt it with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I felt it with Stephen Somers' The Mummy and I felt it with this past summer with Guardians of the Galaxy. Now I feel it again with Castell's ode to pulpy swashbucklers and homage to the Dumas adventure classic The Three Musketeers. It's so confident, so well choreographed in its action, its word-play and political intrigue. It's a hell of a lot of fun and hard to believe it's a first novel.
10) Easy Death by Daniel Boyd
It's tempting to make a heist novel cute or its protagonists heroic. Now, I loved the show Leverage, but I always yearn for something like Frankenheimer's Ronin, Mamet's Heist or even Ben Affleck's (Director's cut with alternate ending) The Town. Daniel Boyd's 50's noir chronicling the planning, execution and getaway of a armored car robbery during the holidays in a nasty and sudden blizzard is just what the doctor ordered.
Boyd tells his story from a number of points of view and the result is that the reader is treated to realistic and sometimes very funny dialogue from the armored car guards, the robbers, the law enforcement officers giving chase, and others. Everyone is making small-talk about the holidays and where they'll go and what they'll do. It's not just a trapping like in Die Hard, the holiday is used here. It makes things complicated for our thieves right up to the bloody and melancholy ending. This is a masterpiece.
11) The Jones Men by Vern E. Smith
The epitome of a one hit wonder. Journalist Smith had a story to tell, about the heroin drug trade in the 70's in Detroit. A respected and powerful gangster is killed and suddenly a Shakespearian battle for the crown ensues. It feels like the black version of street crime masterpiece The Friends of Eddie Coyle and a 40 year precursor to David Simon's HBO masterpiece The Wire. It's a colorful world bursting with detail that feels too weird and intimate and bursting with excess and great characters. I was hooked immediately with the novel's opening funeral, and its patrons are so weirdly formal but sleazy and gross in wonderful blaxploitation detail. Do yourself a favor and pick this bad boy up.
12) Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
Sal Cupertine is a legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia, known for his ability to get in and out of a crime like a ghost. Until now, that is. His first-ever mistake forces Sal to botch an assassination, killing three undercover FBI agents(in an instance of the book's humor, they are called "Donnie Brasscos" by Sal.) in the process. This puts too much heat on Sal, and he knows this botched job will be his death sentence to the Mafia. So he agrees to their radical idea to save his own skin.
Assume the identity of a rabbi in mid-90's Las Vegas, in the death throes of going from sleazy to Adult Disneyland where power was up for grabs.
It's tempting to say this is just a riff on Get Shorty, and in a way, it IS The Get Shorty of organized religion as Sal discovers that the bureaucracy and corruption in the temple isn't that different from Mafia life, but similarities end there. It's the freshest, funniest (and weirdly sincere) Mafia novel since Don Winslow's off-beat The Winter of Frankie Machine. Sal's transformation from a man of violence to a man of faith never hits a false note. He not only gets good at it, he starts to LIKE it. It fills a hole he didn't know was there. It's a fascinating and often hilarious and sardonic journey and you'll be glad you made it.
13) The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
The sweetest words of this weird western come at the end with the words "Fisk and Shoe will return in Foreign Devils."
Imagine, if you will, Guillermo del Toro acquiring a time machine and making a western starring 60's era Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood with a script by Robert E. Howard about two gun-men protecting a river-boat housing a Roman-type politician and his friends as they carry on like Caligula. It's an alchemy of a little bit Rome, a lot Leone, some heroic fantasy. The action is fast and nasty and the dialogue tough and clipped. This book is so good, guys. Great atmosphere, great ideas and action and a great western.
14) Sundance by David Fuller
There have been tons of books, movies, stories and conspiracy theories where Butch or Sundance, or both of them, actually survived their time in Bolivia. Sundance ranks among the best of them.
It's 1913, Harry Longbaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, gets out of prison in Wyoming and goes looking for the love of his life under an assumed name, Etta Place in the still young but bustling New York City as he out-runs old enemies who have an idea of who he is.
It's a changed world Longbaugh re-enters. Horses are being replaced by strange motor vehicles. Gas lamps are giving way to electric lights. Workers fight for safety, and women for the vote. What hasn’t changed are Longbaugh's grit and aim. It subtly turns into a noirish western as he investigates this strange, dangerous world where his old ways are no longer as useful and Etta, he discovers, has many secrets of her own. I loved the romance and danger of this novel, how I very rarely thought of Redford while reading. This is Fuller's Sundance, not Goldman's, and he's a great character.
15) Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley
Clive “The Milkman” McCahon returns to his tiny Alaska hometown after a seven-year jail stint for dealing coke. He has a lot to make up to his younger brother, Miles, who has dutifully been taking care of their ailing mother. But Clive doesn’t realize the trouble he’s bringing home. His violent and VERY angry old business partner is right behind him, a by the books State Trooper is dying to put Clive back behind bars, and because things weren't hard enough for our man, Clive might be going insane, he’s been hearing animals talking to him. Straley, a poet, writes beautiful lyrical prose in an increasingly complicated screwball comedy plot much like the Coens classic Raising Arizona. His Cold Storage is a real place, but is just weird enough that it's not quite real. It joins the pantheons of great fictional towns like Newhart's New Hampshire, Star's Hollow in Gilmore Girls and Northern Exposure's own Alaskan small town Cecily.
16) Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey
Deep Winter is going to get a lot of comparisons to the Coens brothers neo-noir masterpiece snowy noir Fargo.
But I hope it's also mentioned just how great this debut novel from screenwriter Gailey is.
In the small town of Wyalusing in rural Pennsylvania a woman is found brutally murdered one horridly cold winter night. Next to the body is Danny Bedford, a misunderstood and huge man man who suffered a tragic brain injury that left him with limited mental capabilities. Local bully turned deputy pegs him for the murder. In the hours following her body found, more chaos and crimes rip the town apart as a blizzard hits the town, a local sherrif and state trooper set out to make sense of it all and secrets and old and thought hidden truths are revealed. It's claustrophobic even though it's set almost always outside and the writing is crisp, sad, and flows like freshly melted spring-water. It's like Fargo, but for all the right reasons. Great characters, the violence ugly and sudden and always painful and a searing humanity that will break your heart as two men fight the elements and the darkness of the human heart and mind and one sad giant with the mind of a child fights a world against him.
17) Velvet: Before The Living End by Ed Brubaker by Steve Epting
Velvet is the greatest love letter to James Bond and the spy genre I have ever encountered.
Ed Brubaker, for a long time now, has been the best kept secret in crime fiction, from his Criminal mini-series, his P.I. comic mini-series Scene of the Crime, the spy in the cold Sleeper, the recently finished Fatale and now Velvet.
Collecting issues #1-5, VELVET takes place in 1973 London, England. Velvet Templeton (and how great a name is that in a James Bond pastiche?) works as a secretary for the director of a British spy agency named Arc-7 (a fictional MI6). Arc-7 uses the best secret agents in the field called X-Operatives, and then one night agent X-14 has just died out in the field. Looking into the investigation, it’s clear X-14 was setup and there is a mole in the agency. Just as Velvet is getting even slightly closer to what is really going on, she gets framed for murder and displays knowledge and skills far beyond her status as a secretary. Now on the run from the authorities and her own agency, Velvet must travel across the globe to clear her name, find out who setup X-14, and who is the mole in Arc-7.
There are three important scenes of Velvet: A group of chauvenist pig spies are bragging about this great lay they all had and slowly realized it was the one and only Velvet and she made them all feel they were the only one. The second scene is when she busts out an experimental gliding suit for a daring escape. It feels just low-tech enough to feel appropriate for 1973, but cool like the best Bond gadgets. The third is when Velvet discovers the conspiracy, turning the book into a mix of Six Days of the Condor and a pulpy Bond movie.
Velvet herself is a great character. She never feels like Brubaker is just writing a man with breasts. She's sexual and emotional and Brubaker uses the fact that she's middle-aged very well. You feel her history in every decision she makes. Epting's art is detailed and exciting and I love the "acting" of the men and women he draws. I'm so happy this book exists.
18) Blue Estate by Vikctor Kalvachev
There's no real new ideas in Blue Estate. It's a mix of Ellroy and Tarantino, but it's joy in how it embraces pulp. A shady, sometimes clueless P.I., a femme fatale actress client, warring mobs, a bodygaurd playing everyone else against each other, an over the hill action star (not AT ALL modeled after Steven Seagal) It's the most unique comic crime series in a long time not because it's original but because it so eagerly embraces gonzo insanity and has a wicked black humor about itself that reminded me a lot of the Shane Black masterpiece Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Things move fast in BLUE ESTATE. Alliances switch, power shifts, and bullets fly faster than the twists and jokes. The small artist army Kalvachev employs catches the fast-paced intensity of the story, constantly challenging you to hang on. The look of the comic book changing suddenly, like a director on a very weird high.
Together with a jam session of regular and special guest contributors, Viktor Kalvachev has designed BLUE ESTATE with intriguing and surprising shifts in style to indicate jumps in time, swings of mood, reversals of fortune...It's a hell of a ride.
Gabino Iglesias' Best Crime Reads of 2014
I read a lot of stuff this year, and the crime folks did a particularly fantastic job of blowing my brains out with their prose. From straight gritty noir to works that blurred the line between literary fiction and crime, 2014 had a bit of everything, and a lot of it was very good. Here are my top reads for the year:
13. Hop Alley by Scott Phillips
This was solid, but the reason it made my list is that it contained two things that surprised me: the way Phillips masterfully plays with language and the humor. Yes, this was funny, and that’s something that most crime novels are afraid of trying or simply fail miserably at it. Looking forward to reading more Phillips in 2015.
12. Scent of New Death by Mike Monson
Much like Phillips, Monson is here because he did something unexpected. Monson took the elements of crime some folks consider tropes and turned into something entirely new. Also, his main character here had a frame of mind I had never before encountered in a dude with a gun and an agenda. This was enough to make me add Tussinland to the pile the second it came out.
11. The Fix by Steve Lowe
I knew Steve Lowe as one of the funniest, most creative bizarre writers, so watching him pull off one of the nastiest, fastest, grittiest noir novellas of the year was a real pleasure. What The Fix prove is that chops are fucking chops and genre be damned. There’s a scene here that involves the destruction of a human hand that’s enough to put Lowe on any crime reader’s radar. I really hope there’s more noir coming from this funny guy.
10. Guns by Josh Myers
Myers didn’t know if he wanted to write a crime novel or do a graphic crime novel, so he did both. Guns is fast, weird, deceptively deep, and a guy gets killed with a drinking implement. I’ve been reading Myers for a while, and this unique book is exactly the kind of brave, strange thing that only he could come up with.
9. Long Lost Dog of It by Michael Kazepis
I think 2014 was a hell of a year for debut novels, and at the top of the heap was Kazepis, telling every old cat in the block that the new guy has chops and a dangerously sharp mind. This was international and superbly written and sexy. If you didn’t read this one yet, get on it and you’ll be waiting for Kazepis’ next one with as much excitement as the rest of us.
8. Hustle by Tom Pitts
Drugs and guns and death and paid sex in dirty hotel rooms are okay, but Pitts added a ton of heart to the mix and readers ended up devouring a great crime novel that managed to make you care about the people inhabiting it. That Pitts can write is nothing new, but this one is his best outing yet, and I’m hoping there’s more from him in 2015. Please get on it, Mr. Pitts.
7. Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley
All you need to know is that, besides a nice stash and a man looking to set things straight, this novel features one of my favorite dogs in literature. Straley keeps things normal until he decides to get weird…and then he goes back to normal. That playfulness made this a very entertaining read.
6. Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe
Ndibe took religion, personal history, and the immigrant experience and created a great novel about petty crime with serious implications, dreams, guilt, and otherness. Kudos to SOHO for bringing this to the American market and, if you haven’t checked Ndibe out yet, get your hands on this.
5. The Last Projector by David James Keaton
This was the other novel making 2014 the year of debuts. Keaton delivered a unique, weird, brave narrative about a hell of a lot of things, and he did so with a commanding voice that seems to come from a man who’s been publishing this kind of literature for three decades. I’m still dreaming about dogs…
4. Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
I was alone out there for a while, praising Nakamura to anyone who would listen. Then author, reviewer, LitReactor person, and good guy Keith Rawson decided to drop some knowledge on everyone and finally managed to get Nakamura the attention he deserves. Last Winter, We Parted is sad, complicated, nuanced, and packed with the stripped down prose that made me really dig the author’s work in the first place.
3. Lamentation by Joe Clifford
Besides the debuts, 2014 was also the year some great crime fiction authors came out swinging and knocked literary fiction authors the hell out with a combination of grit, talent, and the kind of prose that inhabits a variety of spaces at once. Joe Clifford was one of those at the top of that bunch, and Lamentation is the kind of novel that newbies should read in order to learn how to do a few things right.
2. Repo Shark by Cody Goodfellow
Anyone who didn’t read this last year should fix that immediately. No one writes like this guy. Did you hear me; no one writes like Cody Goodfellow. Hell, if you’re not reading this guy, you’re reading wrong. This was fun and explosive and wildly original and funny and full of magic and weirdness and action and the kind of writing that makes you sit back and realize a whole bunch of motherfuckers should stop hitting the keys because they’ll never come close to Goodfellow’s originality.
1. Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer
When I’m reading a book for review, I take notes. I usually end up with a few lines or a couple of paragraphs of good stuff. In the case of Cry Father, I had four or five pages full of stuff I loved. Whitmer is a master of hardcore grit, but he delivers it with an elegance that makes it stand out above everyone else. He also mixes the blood and coke and guns with a helthy dose of emotions, and that translates into a literary kick to the balls of your soul.
Brian Lindenmuth's top 10 novels of 2014
10 - And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard (Burnt Bridge) – Weird westerns can go one of a couple ways and the path that this novel chooses is a more subtle one. There is a creeping dread as the unknown is unleashed by an old west mining company. All the way up to the end the mystery of what was unleashed remains, working as a blank canvas for the reader to project their own imagination on to. The town is presented as a nice cross section with different people from different parts contributing to the narrative. And the Hills Opened Up puts the wild in The Wild West.
9 - The Contractors by Harry Hunsicker (Thomas & Mercer) – The Contractors is a straight up crime thriller. It takes flawed, real characters, and runs them through the paces in a plausibly modern setting. While this is a big book with lots of action it’s the characters that are at the heart. Those pages are used wisely to build the characters up so that you care when they are put through the wringer.
8 - Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview Publishing) – Lamentation evokes a strong sense of place and atmosphere, with heartfelt characters, and tells a hell of a story.
This should be Clifford’s breakout book and is his strongest to date.
7 - Guns by Josh Myers (Copeland Valley Press) – Guns takes a crazy cast of crime fiction characters and takes them to unexpected places. I normally don’t like doing this kind of thing but the greatest compliment that I can give to Guns is that it is like a Duane Swierczynski novel but crazier.
6 - Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint) - Gangsterland is the best gangster novel to come along in years. It shouldn’t be pigeonholed into that sub-genre though; it’s just a flat out great novel. A hitman who needs to hide, gets plastic surgery and becomes a rabbi, then gradually goes native as he explores the similarities between these two worlds and takes advantage of them. I love this quote: “You could never quite unfuck yourself, when it got right down to it, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t be a better person after making a bad choice.”
5 - Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals) - Weird, lush, surreal, alien landscape explored by characters who may not be who they say they are sent by a shadowy government organization. The completed trilogy (all published in 2014) is a monumental achievement of fantastical and weird fiction.
4 - Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster) - The CIA ran the MKUltra project, officially, from 1953 to 1973. During that time the Government took citizens off the street and drugged and abused them in order to find ways to control their minds. This was done all over the country and in parts of Canada. Perhaps the most well known of these sites was in San Francisco where some have argued that CIA administered LSD started the counter culture. A quick Google search shows that notable test subjects include Ted Kaczynski, Ken Kesey, and Whitey Bulger. The official documents pertaining to the project were destroyed. You can see from this reductive summary that this has all the ingredients of a potent brew. O'Connor makes the most of it. Half World is scary, and paranoid and haunting. The first part is like a great paranoid 70's movie, the actions of which will cast a shadow over the rest of the novel.
3 - The Door That Faced West by Alan M Clark (Lazy Fascist Press) – The Harpe Brothers were spree/serial killers around the time of the start of the United States. Their story is fascinating and, arguably, contains elements of the American psyche built right in. The Door That Faced West, the story of the Harpe Brothers told from the perspective of one of their wives (there were three in total), is a stunning portrait of early America and a compelling and entertaining story reminiscent, at times, of True Grit.
2 - Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco) – Fourth of July Creek may just be the most acclaimed book of the year. Those readers that have a built in backlash against these types of heavily lauded books should ignore that urge and go read this now. This is a brilliant novel that takes chances and pays off big.
1 - The Family Hightower by Brian Francis Slattery (Seven Stories Press) – There is a curious mixture of crime, business, and history as the beating heart of America. The exploration of this overlap has been done before. One of the core struggles, for example, in The Godfather, is the desire to more the family into more legitimate enterprises. Or the one last score then I’ll be free of the life stories. But this isn’t a purely fictional idea. The Kennedy’s, one of the great American political dynasties of the 20th century, made their family fortune in bootlegging. Apple’s origin story consists of its founders making blue boxes that ripped off the phone companies by allowing consumers to make free calls. I’ve argued before that people like Tookie Williams, Rayful Edmond, Sonny Barger, Danny Greene, and Lori Arnold have influenced society more then presidents and generals. There is almost a secret American history written on the backs of gangsters, and in their blood. The Family Hightower is that story. It’s the story of a crime family that goes legitimate, and the exploration of the multi-generational cost. It’s the story of the American 20th century. It takes a theme that has seen a lot mileage over the years and gives it power by never forgetting that it is always about family. The Family Hightower also takes the great American myth of the self made man and stabs him in the heart.