Monday, November 12, 2007

Lady's Night


Allison & Busby, £10.99, ISBN 978-0749080167

HELL OF A WOMAN Edited by Megan Abbot
Busted Flush Press, $18, ISBN 978-0976715733

DEADLY BELOVED By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime, $6.99, ISBN 978-0843957785

Charlie Fox, the protagonist of Zoe Sharp’s popular series, is what a Scottish mother might call a “tough cookie”. But even this kick-ass heroine’s mortality may be in doubt as Sharp’s latest novel opens, finding Charlie shot and bleeding out in the bleak wilderness.

It’s a dramatic start for a series, and makes an immediate impact, even for a reader who’s never read this particular series before.

Like Lee Child, Barry Eisler and Brett Battles, Sharp is shooting for fast-paced heroics in her books. Her protagonist is tough and capable, but in contrast to Reacher or Rains, she seems believably vulnerable. Perhaps because her profession is more accessible than those of her male counterparts. Charlie Fox is a working bodyguard, and this status adds a touch of realism to her character that helps cement her world. She has to balance a real life with her more outlandish exploits, unlike the other characters whose status is often closer to archetypal than fully rounded individual.

The contrast Sharp draws between keeping Charlie professional and maintaining her humanity is evident in the tortured relationship she has with her boss. It is a small cliché, the romantic relationship with the boss, but is used here to illuminate Fox’s character and add some much needed tension to her professional outlook. Toeing the line between caring for someone and keeping them in line is tough, and Sharp piles the pressure perfectly, especially in one confrontational scene where Charlie is having doubts about accepting her latest assignment.

That’s not to say that Charlie is a hand-wringing heroine by any means. Unlike the more “chick lit” protagonists of certain current crime series, she is believably female without resorting to typically “girly” clichés. Her bloody-mindedness and dedication to her own professionalism are intense enough to both intrigue and unnerve the reader. Push this girl the wrong way, and you could end up in hospital or worse.

But a character like Charlie needs a plot to use her full potential. And Sharp provides a nicely twisting narrative that manages to use both the personal – there’s a great “family” theme running through the novel, especially the relationship between fathers and daughters – and the visceral to excellent effect.

Second Shot is, simply, a brilliantly executed (if you’ll pardon the pun) action thriller. More than that, its great to see a female protagonist who can kick ass equal to – if maybe better than – her male counterparts.

Charlie Fox, of course, also makes an brief (blink and you’ll miss her in the excellent Served Cold) appearance in Megan Abbot’s brilliant anthology, A Hell of a Woman (Busted Flush Press). This tightly themed collection of stories sets out to prove that female characters are more than the stereotypes they often get lumbered with in crime fiction.

While Val McDermid’s introduction focuses primarily on Chandler’s misconceptions of female characters and forgets to add that even today certain characters cheapen their characters – even those who serve as protagonists – to one-note chick-lit archetypes (equally as dull as the scheming femme-fatale) she sets the tone of the anthology nicely. These stories serve to show many facets of the female protagonist in crime fiction. From the ass kicking Charlie, to the less obviously proactive lead of Sara Gran’s brilliant The Token Booth Clerk, the anthology presents the reader with a variety of female characters who serve as the driving force behind the fiction.

Even those stories narrated from the male point of view (Ken Bruen’s Nora B springs instantly to mind) show the effect of women on those around them, and make even absent characters seem strong and… real.

The problem with many anthologies is that certain stories feel like they’re coasting. Usually, these stories come from the biggest names in the anthology. But here, everyone’s on form from the names you know down to the names you don’t. They’re all on board and running with the idea of femininity as a concept, an actuality, a myth… something to embrace and something to be terrified of. In fact, what makes this anthology stand out is the fact that the crime elements of the stories are incidental to the theme. This is a showcase of what crime fiction can do when it becomes about more than “solving mysteries” or “restoring order”. More often than not these stories are more about social commentary (Libby Fischer Hellman’s High Yellow) or psychology (Charlie Huston’ s Interrogation B) or what it means to be a woman in a desperate world (Lisa Resper France’s School Girl) than they are merely about “the crime”. But they use the trappings of crime fiction to push forward strong stories that support the basic themes.

Abott herself is a name I’ve been hearing about for a long time. On the strength of her assembling this anthology, it looks like I’m going to finally have to cave and pick up one of her own books. And based on the strength of stories here, I’ve got a whole new lot of authors I want to investigate further.

No question, this is one of the strongest anthologies I’ve read in a long time. In fact, the first I’ve digested in one sitting. But with the incredible array of writers and the sheer variety of stories involved, I can heartily recommend picking up A Hell of a Woman.

I’ve already mentioned the idea of men writing about female characters, which brings us neatly to Hard Case Crime’s newest release, Deadly Beloved, by Max Allan Collins. Collins, who seems to write at least ten books a year, is the kind of pulp writer you thought had disspeared decades earlier. He can turn his hand from original novels (the Nate Heller series) to tie-ins (he has written CSI tie-ins and Bones novels) to polishing off the final manuscripts by respected masters of pulp fiction (he was the one who guided Mickey Spillane’s final novel, Dead Street, to completion following the author’s death last year).

Deadly Beloved is based on Collins’ comic-book series, Ms Tree, which concerns itself with a female private eye. Once secretary to a respected investigator, she takes the business on when he is killed. She’s a tough, no nonsense kind of lady, who isn’t afraid to flaunt a gun or her own sexuality.

Collins himself admits in the afterword that Ms Tree is based very firmly in the old four colour comics tradition. Like Dick Tracy, but it’s the girl kicking ass. This is the kind of thing Collins does very well indeed.

Tree is missing the depth of emotion that runs through many of the shorts in Hell of A Woman and the natural empathy of Sharp’s Charlie Fox, but within the confines of her no-nonsense, high octane world she becomes compelling. Like the Tracy strips that were a direct influence on the novel, things seem a little tidy and perhaps even unbelievable, but there’s an energy to Collins’s writing and a love for the character and world he has created that shines through.

As with the Nate Heller series, and Collins recent polishing of one of Mickey Spillane’s final books, he seems extremely comfortable – as a writer – in a truly pulp world. For all the modernity of its attitude towards a female protagonist, Deadly Beloved remains cheerfully old fashioned in its ass-kicking approach to crime solving, its choice of antagonist and even in the way the story itself is structured. Take out the modern aspects of Tree’s investigations, and we could be back in the good old days of pulp. Collins puts forward the idea in his afterward that Ms Tree came out of the idea of spitballing around the concept that Mike Hammer’s devoted secretary might have taken on the agency following his death.

You think it’s a coincidence that her late, lamented shamus husband was called Michael?

So, yeah, Deadly Beloved is unashamed, ass-kicking, old fashioned fun. And as for Ms Tree herself, well, she’s something of a fantasy in many ways. But that doesn’t change the fact she’s one hell of a dame in her own right…

Russel D McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 12 November 2007

Buy SECOND SHOT (Charlie Fox Series) from
Buy Second Shot: A Charlie Fox Thriller (Charlie Fox Mysteries) from

Buy A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir from
Buy A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir from

Buy Deadly Beloved (Hard Case Crime) from
Buy Deadly Beloved (Hard Case Crime) from