Time to look at my favorite debut novels of 2012. Once again, I see it's male-dominated, but I'm done sweating that. My tastes are my tastes and my blind spots mine alone. Lemme know what I missed, okay?
The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker. Celebrity, sex and death are part of every big-hit book cocktail recipe, but rarely are they pulled off with more heart and narrative verve than they are right here. An assistant medical examiner with an itchy instinct about the murky circumstances surrounding the last days of Marilyn Monroe finds himself on the wrong side of... everybody in this scandal-rag conspiracy. Is it possible to talk about this book without mentioning the hovering specter of James Ellroy or classic film noir? Maybe. But why would you? If you diggum like I do - this one's right up your dark, crooked alley.
Cash Out by Greg Bardsley. Three hellish days in the life of everyman Dan Jordan who has done his time in the belly of the beast (a start-up tech company that hit the big time). Three days until his stock options mature and he can cash out - start over with his family. A real life, a good life. But it's going to be a really, really, really bad three days. Seventy-two hours that the universe will spend screwing with Dan and his ever-vulnerable just-had-a-vasectomy-area through eccentric and psychotic neighbors, cold-blooded killers, egomaniacal CEOs and uber-nerd blackmailers. Ridiculous, yes. But Bardsley grounds us in emotionally relevent trials and consequences amid the full frontal assault from the supporting cast of bizzarre antagonists and frenemies.
City of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore. If you're a leg-breaker working for a crime boss in Los Angeles you can reasonably expect to make a few enemies in the course of your professional duties, but nothing could prepare Joe Sunday for the monsters he's about to encounter. Now, he finds himself a walking abomination - undead and burdened with sudden intense urges to eat people - and in search of some mysterious hoodoo that will sway the balance of power on earth and change the flavor of the apocalypse. Not that he believes in that kind of thing. Or ever did before. Hardboiled horror with a sardonic slant, supernatural pulp with the brakes cut and everything turned up to eleven. Looking forward to Dead Things, now.
Hell or High Water by Joy Castro. A serious-minded novel that works as a thriller and explores social and humanitarian issues is a tricky thing to pull off, but Castro aims high and shoots with precision. Her tale of a missing girl and a young journalist tasked with tracking down sex offenders who've fallen (or jumped) off the grid amid the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans shines a light in some dark, dank corners, but does so with a human warmth that is a rare and valuable thing.
Last Call for the Living by Peter Farris. A recently released and extremely dangerous convict double-crosses his Aryan Brotherhood partners by going through with a planned bank robbery solo and ahead of schedule. During the heist one teller is killed and another taken hostage out into the wooded hills of rural Georgia. Told from multiple points of view including the thief, the hostage, the law and the vengeance and loot-seeking gang members, this one is as rough and unsparing as the natural world. If you, like me, enjoy fare like Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men or Urban Waite's The Terror of Living then you'll love this one.
Hell On Church Street by Jake Hinkson. Con man Geoffrey Webb sacrifices everything about his perfect gig as the youth pastor of a small town Baptist Church for the love of the preacher's teenaged daughter, but things don't go quite as he hoped they would. In fact, they go badly. Horrifically badly. Now every crooked thing in the county wants a piece of him and by the tale's end, he'll barter that last slice of his soul for... well... let's just say it probably won't be worth the price. If this sounds like a long-lost Jim Thompson novel to you, then you've got a good ear, and Hinkson has a helluva knack for nailing that Thompson-esque vibe of rot on Main Street. I read this one in a single day - the voice, the narrative pull and the sheer audacity of its he-just-went-there spirit made it one of the most memorable reads in years. Can't wait for The Posthumous Man.
Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm. Another early in the year debut that had me hungry for more. Hey, luck me, he's already followed it up with another Collector book, The Wrong Goodbye. The concept is high - Satan's bag-man in rebellion against his boss, defying the dark lord and investigating a soul he believes has been framed for the slaughter of her family. Now, Sam, The Collector, is on the run from all manner of boogey-bodies, trapped in the most dangerous middle ground while the battle between heaven and hell rages all around. Holm is a master of pacing and balancing of horror, humor and heart, and The Collector is one of the most engaging series protagonists to come around in a while.
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen. Another high concept tight-rope act that could easily have fallen into luke-warm, safey-safey crime thriller middle ground, but didn't. I can't stress enough the dangerous game you play when making criminals likeable - you pull punches with plot and more importantly character - but Laukkanen found an engaging (dare I say electrifying?) razor's edge of space to unleash this tale of young, over-educated kids who get waaaaaaay over their heads in their kidnapping for fun and profit scheme. Okay, perhaps they're not all that likeable - anybody as entitled and cavalier with their mark's lives as these kids are can't be entirely sympathetic - but they've convinced themselves they've found the perfect victimless path to short-term careers as criminals... Oh what tangled webs we weave when we practice self-deception. When one of their targets turns out to be mobbed-up and things go south, the gang gets a big, rude wake-up call to their true intentions and capabilities. Laukkanen proves a first-rate plotter and pace-maker. We'll see where he takes us in Criminal Enterprise.
The Inquisitor by Mark Allen Smith. Now we come to Geiger, the most enigmatic series protagonist we're likely to see for a good while. He's a criminal, so good at what he does (torture people) that he's semi-legit (his clientele include organized crime, international coroporations and the CIA). He's as damaged a human being as we can expect to carry a thriller (series) who can't quite function in society, but has carved out for himself a very specialized subsect of the shadows where he thrives - and even then, not so much by skill or instinct even, but by rigidly following a code. So when he finds that code flagrantly violated by a client, he summarily severes the relationship and absconds with potentially explosive evidence (in the form of a young boy carrying a big secret). Now every contact is suspect, every relationship just another vulnerable spot and he's got to leave his comfort zone and improvise. The results are harrowing, thrilling and even touching.
The Wowzer by Frank Wheeler Jr. Speaking of damaged protagonists (and Jim Thompson-esque territory), lemme introduce you to Deputy Jerry - the titular monster in this bloody crime saga. I say monster, because he is, but you may not get that at the book's beginning. Jerry's voice is likable and reasonable, and we're immediately rooting for him because he is surrounded by criminals and opportunists with far baser motivations than Jerry's. Slowly we pick up on Jerry's particular picadillos and hang-ups (germs and sexual dysfunction among them), but it's not until he makes a particularly chilling candid confession of his own capabilities halfway through the book that we become truly frightened of him (we're already frightened for him). Jerry is a Sheriff's Deputy in Arkansas whose main duties include killing folks who cross the drug ring known as the Sanhedrin. When Jerry finds himself (and his fiancee) on the wrong end of the Sanhedrin's Do-we-trust-them-or-kill-them? scale, the bodycount is going to skyrocket and our loyalties are going to be challenged big time. No idea whether there're more Jerry stories kicking around Wheeler's brainpan, but be assured that whatever we see next from him, I'll be first in line for it.