Ro’s Handle, by Dave Lager

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Although I didn’t set out to, in roughly the past year, I’ve read no less than three novels, and one short e-story, that feature female cops as protagonists: this one, “The Academy” (the short e-story that’s the teaser for Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series), Tami Hoag’s A Thin Dark Line, and Justin W. M. Roberts’ The Policewoman. It occurred to me that an instructive way to open this review might be to compare and contrast the four works.

Like Tracy Crosswhite, Lager’s Rowan (everybody calls her “Ro”) Delahanty is a state champion in pistol shooting, who goes into law enforcement as a career. (Ro also has a black belt in judo.) And like Hoag’s Annie Broussard, she becomes a sheriff’s deputy. (Her milieu is a county dominated by a mid-sized city, sort of a median between Tracy’s Seattle and Annie’s backwoods south Louisiana parish.) The principal difference here is that both Tracy and Annie started their careers with ambitions to become detectives, and they’re protagonists of mystery series. This book has no mystery elements as such, and Ro’s vocational interest is strictly being a uniformed beat cop. She’s also younger than Tracy, and had already decided to become a cop as a fifth grade kid (whereas Tracy switched careers after teaching high school chemistry for several years), and she doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of a sibling who was murdered and a parent who committed suicide. (Instead, the Delahanty family is impeccably wholesome and normal.) So Ro’s definitely her own person, not a Tracey Crosswhite clone. And where “The Academy” focuses on the theme of sexism and sexual harassment as a challenge female cops have to face, those elements are very limited in this book, only show up near the end, and manifest themselves only in comments that aren’t made to Ro’s face.

Both Roberts’ Sarah and Ro are basically gun wizards (who, of course, have to put in a lot of training and practice to get and keep that level of skill, in addition to their natural talent!) formidable in combat, and drawn in such a way that some readers will view them each as something of a “Mary Sue” –that is, a heroine who’s too perfect to be realistic– though I didn’t see them that way. But although I classified both this novel and The Policewoman as action-adventure, the action elements in the latter are a LOT more prominent than they are here. This one has only one action scene, and that starts only in Chapter 22 of a 29-chapter book. Some readers (though I wasn’t in that number) of Robert’s book took issue with the first four chapters of character introduction/development and stage setting as being supposedly too slow-moving and boring. Those readers would really have an issue with the first 21 chapters here. And the shooting itself is actually over very quickly, as it would be in real life. Fans who have to have unremitting slam-bang action and a high body count will find this aspect limited and tame here. (Again, I’m not in that number myself, and I actually found that aspect of the book very well done.)

All three of the novels compared here provide the heroine with a “love interest” and have some “romantic” elements, including some unmarried sex. But (though I won’t include any spoilers) the overall handling of the “romantic” aspect here was, for me, highly unsatisfactory and off-putting, and would not, IMO, generally appeal to “romance” fans either. It should also be noted that the relationship escalates to sexual intercourse on the first date (which is the third time the couple have seen each other!), so has very marked insta-love issues. And Ro’s lover here is a divorced dad 13 years her senior, who has a 15-year-old daughter (Ro’s only 21).

You might ask, if this isn’t a mystery, a full-blown action novel, or a real romance, what IS its appeal? What sort of novel is it? I’d describe it as very much an intensive character study of Ro, and a very realistic “slice of contemporary life” novel describing the world of a rookie female cop. Lager obviously has a practically exhaustive knowledge of police equipment, organization and procedure, which gives the work a great deal of authority. Ro is a round, three-dimensional protagonist with a lot of depth to her development, and does exhibit some admirable, heroic qualities. (Frank is developed well too.) As his fascinating blog entries indicate, Lager has a mental picture of Ro’s entire life history from childhood on and a comprehensive understanding of all her characteristics as a person. He doesn’t feed us ALL that information here (the novel only covers the time beginning with her winning the Iowa state shooting championship in April 2003, shortly before joining the sheriff’s department, to September 2003, when she earns her “handle,” or nickname for radio identification purposes, and sort of becomes one of the guys -she’s currently the only female deputy). But we get a lot of it, including a thorough introduction to her family, a few glimpses of her childhood, her orientation week, her habits, life and dislikes, stuffed toy panda, etc. By the time this is over, we know her like a real person (and probably like her –I did, and do!)

This is not, of course, the stuff of high drama. Some readers will feel that the plotting and development of the story is way too slow-moving. The heavy accumulation of detail and description, including things like the menus for people’s breakfasts, description of Ro’s underwear, the specifics of what she and other characters are wearing, etc., contributes to that impression. Related to this, there tends to be a lack of meaningful conflict in the story-line until towards the end. (For instance, both Ro and Tracy Crosswhite are champion competitive shooters, and we see them both in competitive settings. But where Tracy is being scored on her pistol shooting in “The Academy,” it’s at the climactic moment of the tale, and the outcome is in doubt until the end, making for genuine suspense and tension. In Ro’s championship competition, on the other hand, I never really felt any element of suspense or tension, and her win is almost anti-climactic.) Only near the end is there a situation where Ro is in real danger and engaged in actual combat; only near the end is there any real sense of possible conflicts in her relationships with other deputies, and only near the end is there any real question about the nature of her relationship with Frank. Most of the story is pretty much a matter of day-to-day life (with the exception of starting a dating relationship). As might be expected from a college speech teacher, Lager’s technical mastery of prose style is quite professional; there are just a very few places where minor editing would have helped.

For me, this book was difficult to rate, because there are aspects I really like and aspects that I really dislike. I didn’t mind the slow-paced build-up quite as much as some readers probably will, because I was interested in learning about Ro and what makes her tick, and about the workings of a modern sheriff’s department (I learned much that I didn’t previously know, and I think most readers would). IMO, the action scene was good, the handling of the psychological aspects of the aftermath struck me as true to life, and the ending worked very well for me. The Ro-Frank aspect of the plot ultimately proved to be a major liability in my estimation, which dragged down the rating. If the book were written with no “romantic” element at all, just as a straight police-life and action story, I’d probably have given it five stars. As it was, the romantic-erotic parts earned one star. Overall, I decided to split the difference and give the book three, since I liked much of it. (And yes, I will read the sequel!)

I was gifted by the author with a review copy of this book, but no guarantees that I’d like it were offered or expected. Nor did World Castle Publishing (which also publishes my novel) put any pressure on me to write a favorable review (and I would have canceled my contract with them if they had!).

Note: This novel has only one explicit sex scene, but it occupies a very prominent position in the strictly-linear story arc, and it’s extremely, graphically detailed, with a “you are THERE!” immediacy. There is a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, religious profanity, the c-word to describe part of the female anatomy, etc. (Some, though not all, of this reflects real-life cop culture.)

Author: Dave Lager
Publisher: World Castle Publishing, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Policewoman, by Justin W. M. Roberts

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

“…courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

Debut author Justin W. M. Roberts and I became acquainted recently in the Action Heroine Fans group that I help moderate on Goodreads. I noticed his mentions of this novel there, and was interested enough to accept his generous offer of a hardcover review copy; but no guarantee of a good review (or a review at all) was asked or expected. This book had no trouble earning its stars on its merits! For much of the time while I was reading it, I expected to give it four and a half stars, but after the impact of the ending, there’s no way I could give it any less than five.

“Write about what you know” is an axiom Roberts clearly takes seriously. British born (and a graduate of Hull Univ.), his father was an army general, and the future author seems to have been what’s sometimes called in U.S. slang an “army brat,” who grew up in close proximity to military bases and traveling around the world to different postings. For the past 25 years, he’s made his home in Indonesia; this book is set partly there and in the British Isles, and like the author, his titular heroine straddles the two cultures.

He also appears to have a background in police and/or military counter-terrorist services. His knowledge of S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) terms and procedures, firearms specs, and both British and Indonesian police and military organization and organizational culture and traditions is extensive, to put it mildly, and he puts this to use in spades throughout the book. It’s noted at the beginning of the book that almost all of these tactics are “intentionally disguised” to protect police and military officers (so that baddies can’t use the book as a text to learn what to expect!), but it still has a very realistic feel. We’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff here; readers who need and want technical accuracy won’t be disappointed. For other readers like me, who don’t know one brand of firearm from another and have little technical knowledge of covert operations, much of this information will go over our heads, but it will still give a feeling of verisimilitude, and maybe impart some knowledge that will stick! (Seven and a half pages of glossaries of organizational “alphabet soup” and British, Indonesian and Irish military/police slang and terms and Gaelic –here spelled “Gaeilge”– phrases are provided; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll refer to them frequently.)

To write a gripping tale of action adventure, of course, one needs more than technical knowledge. Such a story requires a fundamental, high-stakes conflict with moral issues that matter, involving believable characters that the reader can actually care about. Roberts delivers that here, too. His story is set in 2026, in order to allow for the full effects of planned downsizing of the British army, scheduled to be fully effected in 2020, and for the related rise of a new player in international drug trafficking, the Irish Drug Cartel. The book opens with a grisly and highly attention-grabbing torture scene that (once the reader interprets it in the light of the information that follows in the first chapters) establishes the moral polarities very clearly.

Heroine Sarah –half Indonesian, half European, from a military family, and raised partly in England– still in her 20s, is a high-ranking and very capable officer in the paramilitary wing of the Indonesian National Police. She’s seconded early on to Interpol and sent to England to join the task force battling the Cartel. It’s no exaggeration to say she’s one of the best, and best-drawn, action heroines I’ve encountered in fiction. The other important characters are also vividly realized –Niall, the Cartel’s pet psychopath and torturer, is as radically evil a figure as you’ll ever encounter in a book. (There are so many secondary ones that some of their names and sometimes organizational affiliations are hard to keep track of, but you don’t actually have to –in those cases, I just sort of went with the flow. :-) )

There’s a lot of action, but significant character development and interaction as well. (Some readers found the first four chapters slow-paced or even boring, because of the introductions and setting up of the situation, but I honestly did not; I thought Roberts did a good job of holding interest there.) While I’ve classified this as action-adventure rather than mystery, the author effectively uses some techniques of mystery fiction in places to hide clues in plain sight. Some parts of this book are profoundly moving, and it packs a very real emotional wallop. The narration is in third-person, present tense mode; this took some getting used to, but I actually adjusted to it pretty quickly. A quibble might be that some Cartel members are more loose-lipped and careless than would probably be the case in real life, but that is a minor quibble.

Roberts’ online author profile notes that he’s “an active promoter of secular humanism.” This particular book, however, doesn’t grind any sort of philosophical ax. If it has any messages, they would be recognition that drug use and drug trafficking is a pestilent scourge on the world, and high admiration and respect for the often-maligned work of the brave men and women of the police and military who put their lives on the line to stand against it. (Interestingly, Sarah is a professed Catholic, and that aspect of her character is treated respectfully. Granted, it’s clear that her religious beliefs, as far as they go, are more a matter of birthright church membership than a life-transforming personal spiritual commitment –but she does tangibly demonstrate that they go further than just empty words.)

Some content warnings are needed here. I mentioned an opening torture scene. There are some other torture scenes here as well, all of them graphic, and the violence is grim and bloody, with a lot of messy deaths. The author would say the violent content isn’t any more graphic than it has to be, and (unlike Niall), he clearly doesn’t take pleasure in it; but this isn’t a read for the squeamish. While there’s not much bad language in the first three or so chapters, there gets to be a lot of it later, with quite a bit of use of the f-word. This does reflect English-speaking cop and military sub-culture, as well as the speech of low-life thugs, and also, to a degree, contemporary secular British speech (which apparently has coarsened even more than American speech in recent decades). While there’s some unmarried sex here, the sex between the good characters is loving and not really explicit; but there’s a lot of locker-room–style sexual banter that’s R (or X)-rated. Some female readers might also feel that the book suffers some from the “male gaze” syndrome, especially in the references to a photo of Sarah in a bikini.

In summary, I’d recommend this novel for action fans generally, not just for those who particularly like action heroines (though many of the latter will agree that Sarah’s “the ultimate action heroine!”). The content issues, IMO, don’t detract from its very real merits (and might not bother many readers at all); and the author deserves particular credit for bringing to life an admirable heroine of mixed race, a demographic that gets way too little representation in English-language action fiction.

Author: Justin W. M. Roberts
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Manchester Detective Sergeant Jan Pearce is part of an investigation into local crime lord, Connelly, whose family has managed to evade the reach of the law for decades. Indeed, this is the second recent investigation, the previous effort having collapsed, apparently due to procedural blunders. But the boss isn’t taking it lying down, beginning a campaign of intimidation against those investigating him. This hits DS Pearce, with the disappearance of her teenage son, Aiden: she’s convinced this is retribution from Connelly. But neither her colleagues on the force, nor her ex-husband, Sal, agree – they think Aiden simply ran off.

When investigating one of Connelly’s properties, Pearce finds the body of an old woman – along with a bag of cash and her hand-written memoir. It turns out the deceased, Bessy, and Jan had something in common – both had sons that went missing. As she reads the memoir and proceeds with the investigation of Connelly, Pearce gradually realizes that might not be all she shared with Bessie. But the truth about what is actually going on, in the underworld hidden below the working-class estates of Northern England, is infinitely more terrible than either of them would ever have imagined. And considering Bessy thought her son might be a victim of the infamous Moors Murderers (whom she refers to, only as “him” and “her”), that’s saying something.

I’m very much impressed by the way Ward is able to write in two entirely different voices. The sections which are Bessy’s writings, are completely different in tone and style from Jan’s, to the point it almost feels separate novels have had their chapters intertwined. The two women are opposites in many ways. Jan is a career policewoman, who has sacrificed a lot for the job – maybe too much, including her marriage and perhaps even her relationship with Aiden. Meanwhile Bessy is a housewife of the 1960’s, with no interest at all beyond being a home-maker. But the sudden loss of their child turns their worlds upside-down, and forces them to reassess what truly “matters”. Bessy’s life is, literally, never the same again, and there’s undeniable poignancy there, especially near the end of her story.

Both exhibit an utterly dogged determination to pursue what they see as the truth, regardless of the cost or what others may think. In Jan’s case, that leads her into direct peril, because she’s going up against some very dangerous people, who have good reason to prefer privacy. There’s a certain amount of happy coincidence needed for her to unravel the threads, yet there’s no denying her bravery, intelligence and tenacity. The special ops skills, of surveillance and its avoidance, don’t hurt either, though I’d have liked to see more of them being put to use. While the first in the series, it works as an entirely stand-alone novel. If you manage to see where this is going before it happens, you’re a better armchair detective than I.

Author: Jacqueline Ward
Publisher: Novelesque, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Altitude

starstarstar
“Fly the unfriendly skies.”

If you ever wanted to see Denise Richards brawl with MMA star Chuck Liddell, or even the daughter of Frasier, this film delivers. For Richards plays FBI hostage negotiator, Gretchen Blair, who is being ignominiously sent back to Washington after willfully disobeying orders during a siege. She ends up sitting next to the increasingly-nervous Terry (Barker), who offers her $50 million if she helps him get off the plane alive. For he knows it’s about to be hijacked by Matthew Sharpe (Lundgren) and his cronies, who will stop at nothing to retrieve the item which Terry took from them. It’s up to Gretchen, with the dubious help of an air marshal on his third solo flight, to stop their plan.

Far from the first film of its kind – Passenger 57, with Wesley Snipes, most obviously comes to mind – this starts off almost as a self-aware version of the genre, and is all the better for it. Witness, for example, Jonathan Lipnicki’s brief cameo as one of those super-perky flight attendants everyone hates, the cold, dead eyes of Sharpe’s lead henchwoman, Sadie (Grammer), while she has to pretend to be a stewardess, or Blair’s rant at the passenger who occupies her prized window-seat. It’s clear the writer has flown a lot. More of this, as well as further examples of Arnie-esque one-liners such as “You need to adjust your altitude, bitch!” and we could have had a cult classic.

Unfortunately, as things proceed, it loses a bit of its quirky charm and becomes just an increasingly implausible actioner. I mean, a plane taking off with the escape slides deployed is one thing; passengers escaping from the aircraft while it does so? I also wonder who, exactly, cleared and prepared the wilderness runway on which Sharpe lands the plane, surely the work of hundreds of people over a significant period. Richards is surprisingly credible here, especially if you remember her utterly unconvincing turn as Ph.D Dr Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. However, it’s former Miss Teen Malibu Grammer who is outstanding here among the villains for her lack of scruples, not least because Lundgren – presumably now too old for this shit – spends almost the entire time in the cockpit. Though him flying the plane through a thunderstorm, while the score plays Ride of the Valkyries, was a nice touch.

The plane on which 90% of this takes place, already lends itself to a claustrophobic setting, but Merkin seems to prefer to push the camera in too close to the action, and in half-darkness. I suspect the stand-ins may have been involved, since looking at the IMDb, even Liddell, who plays another of Sharpe’s minions, had two stunt doubles. By the time this finishes – likely no spoiler to say there’s a giant fireball involved – its welcome has just about been exhausted. Yet there has been enough wit and energy to make this qualify as a pleasant surprise, one which surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations.

Dir: Alex Merkin
Star: Denise Richards, Kirk Barker, Greer Grammer, Dolph Lundgren

If Looks Could Kill

starstarstar
“Keeps the pot boiling energetically enough.”

I’ve been a fan of The Asylum studio for a while. They’re famous – or infamous – mainly for two things. Originally, they churned out “mockbusters”, films that rode the advertising coat-tails of larger budget and more famous movies, using titles such as (I kid you not), Snakes on a Train. More recently, they are also creators of the cult Sharknado series for SyFy. However, The Asylum can and will, make more or less anything they think will turn a profit. Their quality of output does vary, shall we say. Yet I was entertained by this slice of Lifetime fluff ‘n’ nonsense more than expected, mostly due to effective performances from the two leads.

There’s Faith Gray (Estes), whose new job as a beat cop has re-united her with Detective Paul Wagner (Kosalka), for whom she has always had a “thing.” But at an incident in a local bar, he meets and ends up beginning a relationship with, Jessica Munroe (Spiro). She’s a drop-dead blonde with aspirations of becoming a movie star – not something easily accomplished in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Before you can say “We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors,” she’s pregnant and married to Paul. Faith, however, thinks there’s something not quite right about Jessica, though her investigation could be considered more as jealousy-induced stalking. It’s certainly painted as such by its target.

The film never tries to hide the fact that Jessica is nutty as a fruitcake. As a result, its plotting is instead very much concerned just with getting the story from Point A to B, offering few surprises. I’m not exactly convinced by the “Based on a true story” claim here. And let’s not even start with the police procedures depictede: let’s just say, Stillwater PD could use some re-training, and move on. Yet the pleasures outweighed the deficiencies; in particular, as mentioned, watching the mousy Faith and psychotic glam-girl Jessica face off. The latter gets most of the cinematic highlights, vamping it up to great effect. Witness, for example, her hyper-ventilating in order to place a convincingly panicked phone call to her lover. Guess all Jessica’s acting classes finally paid off!

I admit, there’s something fun about watching a manipulative sociopath at work: there’s a reason Dangerous Liaisons is one of the all-time greats. Spiro isn’t quite at Glenn Close standards, yet both she and Estes give it their all, and elevate the material to enjoyable nonsense. Even if we didn’t quite get the hellacious cat-fight climax for which I was hoping, it’s always good to see a film where both protagonist and antagonist are women, and there’s no doubt all the effort went into Faith and Jessica, with the male characters barely registering. Paul, in particular, is so easily deceived you wonder how he ever became a detective. Yet, as pulpy nonsense goes, this hour and a half certainly went by quickly and painlessly enough.

Dir: James Cullen Bressack
Star: Stefanie Estes, Summer Spiro, Tomek Kosalka, Brian Shoop

La Esquina del Diablo

starstarstarhalf
“Stuck in a corner.”

You’re in deep in Devil’s Corner
And you already realize it’s hard to get out.
What would you do if there’s no place to run
Sharpen your senses and defend yourself well

In Devil’s Corner, walking towards love
Dodging bullets and risking your heart 
It’s so hard to escape from Devil’s Corner 
Defying death I came here to fight 
And to love 

Thus goes the peppy pop ditty which plays over the opening credits of this Colombian telenovela. It stars Ana Serradilla, whom we previously saw as the heroine of La Viuda Negra. Here, she’s on the other side of the law, playing cop Ana García. She wants to be assigned to the special operations group. But her temper gets the best of her when she’s given a surreptitious test, interviewing a suspect who’s actually a policeman, and is deliberately trying to provoke her.

Fortunately, she gets a second chance to make a first impression, and is inserted in an undercover role to the aptly-named “La esquina del diablo” – the Devil’s corner. It’s a no-go zone for police, a ghetto perched high up on the hills overlooking the city. The area is controlled with an iron hand by the Velasco family, led by patriarch Angel (Tappan); they run drugs and other criminal activities, and have been a thorn in the side of the local authorities for years. Local cop Eder Martin (de Miguel) sends Ana into the area as a social worker, to gather information, after a helicopter crash supposedly kills Angel. However, it quickly turns out this was merely a ruse by the boss, to get the cops off his back. Can Ana embed herself deeply into the local community to complete her mission?

That’s just one – possibly not even the main one – of a number of plot threads which are woven into the fabric of the 70 episodes. Additional elements include:

  • Angel’s second-in-command, Yago (Pernia), who was a childhood friend of Eder
  • Angel’s son, Angelito, who is an ambitious loose cannon with psychopathic tendencies
  • Eder’s relationship with the mayor’s daughter, and its conflict with the growing attraction to Ana
  • Meanwhile, Ana’s gradual realization that Yago may not be as bad an apple as he seems
  • The mayor’s political aspirations and presidential campaign
  • Yago’s son is a promising football player, but is also on the verge of being recruited by Angelito
  • The other undercover cop, who befriends Angelito in jail and helps him escape
  • The mysterious “He”, a rival crime boss who inhabits the upper echelon of the city’s elite
  • The serial killer who is leaving a trail of women’s corpses, tattooed with numbers on their shoulders

Phew. This cornucopia of plot-lines likely both the series’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There’s no doubt it’s actually very well-handled by the writers and cast: even the relatively minor characters are given an impressive amount of depth, and the script never gets jumbled or confused. This is a sharp contrast to Camelia la Texana, the show I’m currently watching: you don’t so much follow the plot, as desperately cling to it, as various groups of sideburn-wearing people scheme against each other. It’s also a contrast, in another way, to Viuda Negra, which was unashamedly about Griselda Blanco. In this case, the breadth of focus inevitably leads to a dilution of why we’re here, with poor Ana often sidelined.

This is a shame, since the heroine here is shown in the first episode, as fully capable of single-handedly taking out and/or down multiple villains with her skills. The mission here is much less direct: it’s very much undercover intelligence-gathering. She can’t kick ass, because that is not what social workers do: if she did, anyone who saw it would have cause to suspect Ana’s real identity and mission, immediately becoming part of the problem. So instead, there’s a lot more skulking around, trying to earn the trust of Eder, and narrow escapes from being caught by Velasco’s gang. After what we saw at the beginning, this passive approach seems like a sad waste of her law-enforcement talents.

This is the main reason for the relatively low score above. For in some ways, it’s the best of the shows I’ve seen, in terms of combining characters and plots in an engaging way. I’m impressed with the non-specific nature of the location, mentioning no particular country or city. The sharp divide between rich and poor, with the latter living in ghettos run by a largely criminal element, reminded me of the Rio favelas – I highly recommend you watch the amazing Elite Squad if you want a glimpse of the hellish life there. But I would imagine it’s equally likely to be Colombia, since that’s where the series was actually shot. The series does well too, in portraying the moral grey-scale: between Ana at one end and Angelito at the other, most making choices based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

There are a lot of interesting supporting characters: not so much Eder and Yago, who are fairly cookie-cutter in terms of being opposing romantic heroes, with dark, troubled (and somewhat shared) pasts. It’s mostly on the fringes of Velasco’s gang that all the fun is to be found. Cachalote (Julián Caicedo) is a burly thug with a surprisingly soft heart – he has an unrequited crush on the mayor’s daughter, formed during her kidnapping. Meteoro (Erick Leonardo Cuellar) is the gang’s drug chemist, though he looks and acts like a methed-up version of Giorgio Tsoukalos, from the Ancient Aliens show. Most notable of all is Michelle (Estefania Piñeres, right), a hard-nosed barrio brat who is more than capable of holding her own in the tough environment, and is ferociously loyal to her boss. She would have enough stories to tell for her own, lengthy series, I’ve no doubt about that.

However, as an action heroine series, it’s undeniably a disappointment: I was expecting much more focus on the central character, based both on Negra and the first episode. And, indeed, much more action. As a regular TV show, it would deserve a higher rating, likely a full star better, since I genuinely did enjoy it. It just isn’t quite the fit for the site which I was hoping to see.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Miguel de Miguel, Gregorio Pernía, Christian Tappan 

A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author’s Doucet series. However, that nominal “series” is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff’s deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who’d like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)

Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures, with references to things like zydeco music. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she’s clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle’s classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff’s office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he’s guilty –but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.

Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren’t obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people’s; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of –only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn’t just an intellectual puzzle; it’s a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.

This can be a very dark novel (and I’m told that’s often characteristic of Hoag’s work). The murder and rapes themselves aren’t directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren’t alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn’t have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn’t intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (That’s not a bad authorial aim!) Disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn’t presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.)

Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn’t stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms –which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn’t Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)

Since I’m trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I’m not planning to pursue this one. But I’d definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I’d be open to reading more of her work sometime.

Note: While it’s not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. There’s also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.

Author: Tami Hoag
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Taken Heart

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“Taken, out of context”

There seems to have been a sudden surge of gynocentric takes on Taken (as it were), with first Never Let Go, and now this. Both concern single mothers with a very particular set of skills, venturing into treacherous foreign territory after their daughters are abducted. In this case, the setting is Belize, where Nina Johnson (Calis) has gone to spend the summer with her boyfriend, volunteering at a local orphanage. When the promised daily contacts stop, single mom and Miami detective Kate (Holden) gets not much in the way of immediate help from the local authorities, and makes a bee-line to Belize so she can investigate on the ground. She’s helped, after some initial doubts, by friendly embassy employee Francisco Orizaga (Degruttola), who has particular skills of his own, being ex-special forces.

They discover Nina has been kidnapped by local cartel, La Muerte Roja (The Red Death), who have branched out from traditional cartel business like drugs, into black market organ transplants. A bar in Punta Dia, visited by Nina, has become ground zero for them, from where they kidnap tourists and turn them into spare parts for their rich clients. It’s up to Nina and her sidekick to track down the base of operations, and free Kate before she becomes a selection box of replacement organs. But that won’t be easy, given how deeply embedded LMR are in the town, and how feared they are by the residents.

There’s a huge plot-hole here, in that the last thing any cartel will ever do is target tourists, for nothing brings down federal heat faster. It’s been that way ever since the murder of Mark Kilroy in the seventies (by a satanist cult who had previously killed and dismembered more than a dozen locals with impunity) and remains the case now. Gangs would far rather sell visitors weed, than do anything which might interfere with a valuable and vital cash cow like tourism. But why let that get in the way of a slice of something which teeters between naked xenophobia and being really guilty about its naked xenophobia. Dammit, pick a side and commit to it, why can’t you.

That aside, this falls squarely into the realm of bland competence. Holden has the desperate mother thing down, yet isn’t as convincing when it comes to playing the tough-nosed detective. I sense that Francisco’s purpose in the script is to handle that heavy lifting, and the resulting dilution is perhaps why this doesn’t work as well as Never Let Go. It’s inoffensive enough: I watched the movie on a plane, and it beat browsing the in-flight magazine for a couple of hours. However, if you’re going for that Taken vibe, it isn’t enough to lift the premise, since the story was likely the least interesting thing there. You need someone who can deliver intensity somewhere in the same ballpark as Liam Neeson, and Holden comes up emphatically short in that department.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Gina Holden, Natasha Calis, Raffaello Degruttola, Matthew Ziff

Never Let Go

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“Takenette.”

Based on the title and synopsis, I was expecting something like a Lifetime TV Movie. A mother frantically searching for her abducted child in a foreign location, before they can be sold off to some rich Arab, would seem right up their alley. [Though of course, this kind of thing has long been a popular subject for exploitation, to the point where the Hays Code of the thirties had explicitly to ban movies about “white slavery”] It’s a good deal grittier and harder hitting than that, though could have done with much better explanation of why this momma bear is so ferocious – among a number of other aspects.

The heroine is Lisa Brennan (Dixon), who is enjoying a vacation in Morocco with her child, the product of her affair with an up-and-coming politician, Clark Anderson (Whitney). A moment’s inattention sees the child snatched, and Brennan begins her hunt. She has to do it almost entirely on her own, and indeed, in the face of significant interference; because, after her involvement in the death of one of the kidnappers, Lisa is the target of a woman-hunt by the local authorities. Fortunately, what she does have are a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like the kidnappers. Skills that that poster tag-line references in a shameless way, which I can only applaud. Well played, marketers. Well played….

These would have probably come as less of a surprise had there been some content establishing Lisa’s credentials as a bad-ass. It’s only well after she has gone full Liam Neeson, that it’s even suggested the heroine is an FBI agent, rather than some random Mom on a beach. You just have to take her hand-t0-hand skills on trust. We also discover that the inhabitants of Marrakech leave their doors conveniently open, greet home invaders with little more than moderate confusion, and can be convinced to assist foreign fugitives on the run from the police, with little more than forcefully-spoken English and enthusiastic hand gestures. Meanwhile, the local armed cops will let said fugitive beat them all up, without so much as firing a single shot.

Fortunately, Ford is a much better director than a script-writer, keeping the pace brisk as he gallops towards a “surprise” ending that will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody (an additional black mark on Ford the author). Dixon is also very good in her role, projecting the right degree of focus and intensity, and the pounding, percussive driven score as she’s rushing around the narrow streets and across the rooftops, enhances proceedings significantly, in a way that echoes Run Lola Run. The problems are more whenever the film slows down from that frenetic and breathless pace. For it’s during these quieter moments, where the flaws in the story become most apparent, and you’ll probably find yourself going, “Hang on…”, to a degree that considerably weakens the overall impact.

Dir: Howard J. Ford
Star: Angela Dixon, Nigel Whitmey. Heather Peace, Velibor Topic

Stoner

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“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss