The mob and much more…

Walk into any big box bookstore these days and, chances are, you’ll be able to put your hands on a dozen or so organized crime novels in less than 10 minutes. Life with the mob is the newest darling of popular fiction in America.

If you like your mob fiction with a healthy dose of weirdness, though, you’re going to have to head for the paperback aisle of the nearest supermarket. With any luck, you’ll find a copy of Tom Piccirilli’s “Headstone City” (2006, Bantam Dell, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 302 Pages).

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Piccirilli’s tale of mob violence, loyalty and persistent dead people revolves around ex-con Brooklyn cabdriver Johnny Danetello, who grew up with the once-powerful Monticelli crime family. Unfortunately, the Monti gang has taken out a contract on his life because teenage mob princess Angelina Monticelli died from a drug overdose in his cab while he was rushing her to a hospital.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

The tale seems pretty mundane as far as organized crime, vengeance and dead mob princesses go, but it’s anything but ordinary when you consider the fact that Danetello has the ability to communicate with the dead – his parents, the aforementioned Angelina, deceased mobster JoJo Tormino and tormented neighborhood grocer Aaron Fielding – whether he wants to or not.

Johnny developed this talent in his youth shortly after he and mob scion Vinny Monticelli tried to crash a stolen car through a police barricade and both were thrown through the windshield of the auto.

Vinny, too, picked up some unusual skills as a result of the crash. He can predict the future – sometimes – and has the ability to periodically slip between three different planes of reality.

Vinny now seems to be part of the mob family’s dedicated efforts to exterminate Johnny, but the two-fisted cabdriver proves difficult to kill, even when he regularly strolls into the mob’s favorite clubs and the mansion of once-powerful Don Pietro Monticelli.

Complicating Johnny’s threatened life are a cast of characters worthy of a Federico Fellini epic. There’s lovable Uncle Phil Guerra, a retired cop who probably killed Johnny’s father. And Grandma Lucia, a 78-year-old bingo fanatic with pink hair who delights in cleaning Johnny’s trusty .38 revolver and is no slouch when it comes to matter-of-factly clearing a room of troublemakers with a pump shotgun.

The cast of characters also includes Glory Bishop, a B-movie actress who achieved temporary stardom as the terrorist-baiting heroine of the action flick “Under Heaven’s Canopy”; and slow-talking Daniel Ezekiel Cogan, an FBI agent with a hee-haw smile and a cousin named Cooter.

Toss in a half-dozen steely-eyed hitmen and Johnny finds himself with an increasingly complicated social calendar – one that could get him killed.

Will our star-crossed cabdriver live to talk with the dead again? You can find the answer for less than six bucks in the paperback book aisle of your favorite supermarket. Pick up some cannoli while you’re at it…

Originally published April 9, 2006

Murder? Mayhem? Gotcha covered …

When it comes to the best and brightest in deftly crafted supermarket literature, it’s hard to beat “What Rough Beast” by H.R. Knight (2005, Dorchester Publishing, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 374 pages).

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This latest addition to the decidedly quirky world of supermarket paperbacks has everything one could ever wish for when it comes to fast-moving fiction from the neighborhood grocery store.

Set in Victorian England, “What Rough Beast” is an enticing blend of murder, mayhem, mystery and mythology.

Perhaps best of all, the novel stars the improbable but intriguing crimefighting team of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes – and American escape artist Harry Houdini.

This has got to be one of the best supermarket paperback pairings to come along since the mid-1990s, when another author – his identity now hopelessly lost in the recesses of my somewhat fallible memory – teamed Edgar Allan Poe with Davy Crockett to solve a grisly murder in 19th-century America…

As our tale unfolds, Sir Arthur and his newfound friend, Houdini, are embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with a questionable character named Maximillian Cairo (not to be confused with Joel Cairo, who’s somebody else’s villain).

Cairo is a shady spiritualist and pornographic poet who, Conan Doyle and Houdini believe, is using seances to bilk the grieving and gullible out of their money by contacting spirits of dead loved ones.

When the pair reveal some of Cairo’s shoddy tricks, the troublesome fellow offers to show them the true scope of his occult powers.

This is where things get more than a little dicey for our heroes.Conan Doyle and Houdini impetuously take Cairo up on his offer and, joined by some of their fellow seancegoers, meet the occultist in a dank stone cellar.

Cairo proceeds to draw a protective septagram on the floor, then gets naked and summons a shape-changing horror from the darkness. Sometimes it’s a goat-man, sometimes it’s an alluring young woman and sometimes it looks like a bulging, heaving glob of animated mucous.

Unfortunately, Houdini decides to intervene, breaks the protective septagram, temporarily kills Cairo and sets the bulging, heaving glob loose.

When Cairo is revived from death – he’s a tough little critter – he warns the gathering that Houdini’s bungling may have set free none other than the spirit of the ancient deity Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, inspiration, excess, debauchery and violence.

Worse, Cairo warns, the god may already have taken possession of one of their bodies so he can better attend to debauchery and violence.

Conan Doyle and company are at first skeptical, but soon the evidence begins to pile up in the form of – you guessed it! – inspiration, violence and debauchery.

And the madness is spreading from their small group to all of London, which is being swept by drunken orgies and violent confrontations.

How will Conan Doyle and Houdini save Victorian London from the ravages of Dionysus?You can pick up the answer for just $6.99 in the paperback aisle of your favorite supermarket. You might first, however, want to learn how to draw a protective septagram…

Originally published May 15, 2005

It doesn’t get any better than this …

When it comes to supermarket paperback literature, you can hardly ever go wrong if you pick up a volume that’s got a vampire or two in it. Or Nazis. Or, perhaps, malicious shape-changing witches.

Happily, there’s one supermarket paperback on the shelves right now that’s got all three: “Second Sunrise” by David and Aimee Thurlo (2004, Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 336 Pages).

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Not only does “Second Sunrise” have vampires and Nazis, it’s got a Nazi who is a vampire – and a terrorist. He wants blood. He wants power. And he wants plutonium.

A Nazi terrorist vampire with plutonium? Now there’s an unsettling combination.

The unlikely hero of “Second Sunrise” is Lee Nez, a New Mexico state police officer. Nez, a rather ordinary Navajo lawman, is making his mundane rounds one evening near the end of World War II when he and his partner go to investigate the sound of gunfire and discover that a U.S. Army convoy has been ambushed.

You guessed it – Nazis!

When the smoke clears, everybody appears to be dead and our protagonist is seriously wounded, but he manages to hide the convoy’s secret cargo.

You guessed it – plutonium!

A short time later, the plucky but mortally wounded lawman is captured by a dead Nazi who turns out to be a vampire who subsequently mixes his blood with that of the police officer in an attempt to keep Nez alive long enough to find out where he’s hidden the plutonium.

Nez outwits the Nazi vampire, boots him over a cliff and sets him on fire, but the bloodsucker manages to escape.

And that’s the least of Nez’s problems, because he’s also been turned into a vampire himself.

As luck would have it, Nez finds a tribal medicine man who is successful in reversing some of the damage, which means Nez will have remarkable strength, age very slowly, be able to go out in daylight if he uses plenty of sunblock and survives on a normal diet supplemented, from time to time, with a refreshing glass of calves’ blood.

There are some drawbacks. His vampire nature can be detected by Navajo witches known as “skin walkers” who can transform themselves into large, homicidal animals at the drop of a hat and lust after the lawman’s blood.

So Nez has to deal with periodic visits from evil, ill-tempered wolves and panthers who are dedicated to chasing him all over New Mexico.

He buys a lot of sunblock, kills a lot of skin walkers and actually settles into a kind of comfortable routine after 50 years, but there’s trouble looming on the horizon. The former dead Nazi vampire is now a practicing terrorist and he’s back in New Mexico, masquerading as a German Air Force pilot undergoing training at Holloman Air Force Base while he searches for the missing World War II plutonium and plots the demise of Nez, now known as officer Leonard Hawk.

A bit of a sticky wicket, eh?

Will Nez meet his match in the bloodsucking terrorist, be eaten by ravenous skin walkers or, perhaps, fall prey to a comely FBI agent?

Hey, amigos, if you haven’t already figured it out, anything can happen in “Second Sunrise.”

You want answers? Go to the supermarket. Pick up some Bloody Mary mix while you’re at it…

Originally published March 27, 2005

Bikes, brawls, babes ­ all in 196 pages

If you purchase only one supermarket biker action-suspense paperback this fall, make it “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” by Ralph “Sonny” Barger.

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Like all the best supermarket paperbacks, “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” has everything. It’s 196 pages of nonstop action with outlaw bikers, brawls, babes, a drug-addled federal agent who hangs out in a Bay Area porn palace and, of course, treachery, intrigue and murder.

Plus, this fast-moving tale of high-octane homicide is written by Sonny Barger, longtime president of the Oakland Hells Angels, a man who knows of what he writes as opposed to some beady-eyed guy who rides a Moped and pens all his biker novels from the safety of an ivy-covered cottage in Iowa Falls.

Co-authored by Keith and Kent Zimmerman, “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” tells the story of one Patch Kinkade, a veteran member and former president of the fictional Infidelz motorcycle club in Oakland.

Patch, once a feared and respected leader of the powerful club, has decided to get out of California with its gun laws and helmet laws and sort himself out in Arizona. He’s got a lot of, like, angst.

Patch is no social butterfly. He doesn’t have much of a family other than the Infidelz, and his best buddy is a wickedly curved skinning knife called Sharpfinger.

Knives like Sharpfinger, Patch reflects, are your true friends. They never jam or let you down.

Credited with having brought peace to California’s warring motorcycle gangs, Patch is hoping to build a new life along Arizona’s Carefree Highway – just him, his knife, his Harley and a black cat.

But there’s trouble brewing back home. A young Infidelz member named Marco is riddled with bullets following an otherwise mundane motorcycle brawl – probably rating an eight out of a possible 10 – at a Hayward roadhouse.

Admittedly, sometimes people get killed during roadhouse brawls between fun-loving but notoriously short-tempered bikers, but there’s something strange about Marco’s death.

Marco wasn’t participating in the brawl – in fact, he’d just arrived in the parking lot – and the Infidelz weren’t among the clubs involved.

What’s going on?

Patch, urged to investigate by Ahab, the current president of the Oakland Infidelz, is at first reluctant to return to his home turf, but things get weird in a hurry.

A short time after Marco’s murder, Handsome Hank and Reload of the 2Wheelers motorcycle club are mysteriously gunned down as they ride near the Oakland Estuary prior to the big Tribal Casino Poker Run.

Old rival gang tensions begin to escalate and Patch decides to step in before the fragile peace he helped build disintegrates into deadly chaos.

Will Patch be in time? Will he be able to find out who’s behind the string of killings? And will the Harley-loving anti-hero really accept a helping hand from a bunch of Ducati-riding maniacs called the Bushido Blades?

There’s only one way to find out, amigos. Head out for the paperback aisle of your favorite supermarket and get your own copy of “Dead in 5 Heartbeats.”

Originally published October 31, 2004

Readers adore vampire love

A few short months ago, a newspaper colleague of mine scampered by my desk loudly proclaiming “Vampire romance is hot, hot, hot!” before disappearing into the night with a wave of his blood-red cape.

I didn’t think much of it at the time (the guy’s always been a little peculiar), but it wasn’t long before I had to admit that he was right. Romance novels, once known as “bodice rippers,” are currently featuring an increasing amount of vampire love. And nowhere is this trend more evident than in the paperback book aisle of your favorite supermarket.

Take, for example, “Love Bites” by Lynsay Sands (2004, Dorchester Publishing Co., New York, N.Y., $6.99, 373 Pages).

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This is not your father’s vampire paperback.

No, indeed.

“Love Bites” is the romantically blood-curdling story of a handsome, urbane vampire and a hardworking deputy coroner whose love life has been less than scintillating in recent months.

Heroine Rachel Garrett works night shift in the morgue of a Toronto hospital and has a somewhat perplexing problem. The same dead guy keeps turning up on her morgue table and then disappearing.

Sometimes he’s shot, sometimes he’s burned up. And then he disappears and Rachel can’t always remember if he was there in the first place.

Guess what? The undead guy is, of course, a vampire. Not only a vampire, but a witty, 21st-century vampire named Etienne Argeneau, who gets his meals from a blood bank, enjoys the theater and has become moderately wealthy from designing computer games.

Etienne, unfortunately, has attracted the attention of a self-styled vampire slayer named Norman Renberger – who prefers to be called “Pudge.”

Pudge is always trying to kill Etienne, hence the periodic visits to the morgue.

During Etienne’s latest trip to the morgue, Pudge decides to follow the amicable vampire’s body there and finish the job by whacking his head off with an ax. As luck would have it, he accidentally whacks Rachel instead, delivering a killing blow to the already badly confused coroner’s employee.

Pudge apologizes profusely and then flees, leaving our slowly reviving vampire with a bit of a sticky wicket. Rachel is dying and he can save her, but only by turning her into a vampire – a practice frowned upon by his peers.

Etienne, however, opts for the transformational sharing of vampire blood and then rushes Rachel home.

At first, Rachel thinks Etienne’s delusional when he tries to explain that he’s a vampire. Then she thinks she’s delusional. Then, after her canine teeth begin to grow, she’s infuriated that Etienne has saved her by turning her into what she thinks of as “a soulless bloodsucker damned to walk the night and suck neck.

“It’s a complicated world – made all the more complicated by the fact that Etienne and Rachel are somewhat attracted to each other and Pudge is still out there with his rifle, his ax, his stakes, his crossbow and his garlic.

Will love triumph?

The answer’s waiting for you in your favorite supermaket paperback aisle. Pick up some some Bloody Mary mix while you’re at it…

Originally published March 14, 2004

You can’t make this stuff up …

I was more than a little taken aback last week when no fewer than four readers – one of whom actually works here at the newspaper – accused me of making up “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks.

This what we in the news media refer to as “an alarming trend.” If we hear from four readers who have come to an erroneous conclusion, there are probably 11,000 other readers out there who may have come to the same conclusion but haven’t said anything yet.

To set the record straight, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” as reviewed here on Jan. 18, is a real book. It was really written by Max Brooks who, to the best of my knowledge, is a real person who writes books, although I suppose “Max Brooks” may be a pen name.

C’mon, people, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

There’s weird and then there’s weird. And Max is way out of my weirdness league, although I wholeheartedly agree with him that the venerable .30 M-1 carbine is a good choice for stopping zombies at close quarters as well as from a distance (if you’re an above-average marksman).

Besides, making up a book – about zombie eradication, no less – and then making up an author and then reviewing the whole imaginary mess is a lot more work than simply reviewing a zombie eradication manual that’s already been written by someone else who really exists.

Sad as it may seem, this isn’t the first time readers have questioned the existence of a book reviewed in this column.

Admittedly, the books usually reviewed here are not your average New York Times best sellers or selections from Oprah’s Book Club. Ninety-five percent of the books you read about here are supermarket paperbacks and what makes them great supermarket paperbacks is that they’re rarely, if ever, found on a national bestseller list. They will, however, be packed with vampire detectives, singing werewolves, undead space aliens and have really cool titles like “Coffin’s Got the Dead Guy Inside.”

(The latter title, I should point out, is based on the old underworld joke “What’s the difference between a coffin and a cello?” And, yes, it’s a real book by a real guy named Keith Snyder…).

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Supermarket paperbacks and the like may be a little weird, but a tendency toward weirdness doesn’t mean I made them up here at my dimly lit, coffee-stained desk. Horned toads and Republicans are both demonstrably weird, but I deny having created either.

One irate reader once telephoned to accuse me of making up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to further “some kind of disgusting juvenile humor” in a book review about a sinister Seattle steakhouse murder mystery.

Sorry. I didn’t make up the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As much as I’d like to take credit for it, the aforementioned strait is named after a historical figure named, curiously enough, Juan de Fuca. It runs along the northern coast of Washington. Really.

Persons having difficulty discerning the veracity of this column should, perhaps, take the advice of former newspaperwoman extraordinaire Cynthia Roberts:

“The weirder it is, the more likely it’s true.” I rest my case, amigos…

Originally published January 15, 2004

Supermarket superhero

There are some authors with whom you simply can’t go wrong while cruising the supermarket paperback aisle.

Among them are Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Alan Dean Foster.

And then there’s Kinky Friedman.

Friedman has never written a boring supermarket paperback. Never.

Kinky Friedman is a former country-western Jewish musician from Texas who writes mystery novels about a Jewish former country-western musician from Texas who’s a private eye in New York City and who’s named, appropriately enough, Kinky Friedman.

Among his literary triumphs – the author’s, not the private eye’s – are “Armadillos & Old Lace” and “The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover” as well as “Roadkill” and “Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola.”

Friedman’s latest supermarket paperback is “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” and it’s got everything you’d want from a quality supermarket paperback – mystery, Irish whiskey, a missing three-legged cat and a loveable, fishhead-eating sidekick named Ratso.

And that’s not all. (But you’d already figured that out, right?)

“Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” (2003, Pocket Star Books, Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 242 Pages) is a madcap romp that jumps back and forth from New York City to Texas like an armadillo on a hot tin roof.

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The story opens with Kinky juggling three tough cases that were sent his way by Rambam, his “half-Jewish, half-law-abiding P.I. pal.”

Code-named Moe, Larry and Curly, the cases involve a possible serial killer, a missing 11-year-old autistic boy whose only spoken word is “shnay” and a third matter which Kinky describes only as an investigation “so big that it makes the Giant Rat of Sumatra look like Mickey Mouse.”

Kinky’s obviously going to be busy.

So he drinks a life-giving shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey from a bull horn, fires up one of the Cuban cigars he keeps in a ceramic bust of Sherlock Holmes and confers with his cat.

Eventually, he puts everything on the back burner while he heads for the strategically unimportant community of Utopia, Texas, from which Cousin Nancy has called to report her three-legged cat, Lucky, missing and possibly abducted.

Serial killer?

Lost child?

Missing three-legged cat?

Kinky doesn’t have to think twice. He’s going to find Lucky.

Fortunately, our private eye is fortified with a very definite philosophy about finding things:”If you’re trying to find children in trees, or dogs and cats in big green fields, or little shining pieces of happiness and love and peace in this world, you’ve pretty much got your work cut out for you because all these things are almost never really lost and almost never truly found.”

A great philosophy, but will it enable Kinky to locate the missing boy, rescue the abducted feline and still deal with Rambam’s suspected serial killer?

There’s only one way to find out, amigos. Get thee to a supermarket and secure your own copy of “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch.”

You’ll be glad you did.

Originally published November 23, 2003