Having previously threatened to retire after his tenth movie, writer/director Quentin Tarantino further clarified his post-film plans a month ago by announcing the release of his first novel, a novelization of his ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s scheduled to hit books store in the summer of 2021.
Those of us who’ve spent much of our lives reading and writing crime fiction of the hard-hitting, pulp-ish variety might want to welcome this as good news. After all, Tarantino could well bring a barrage of new readers — lovers of gritty, tough crime thrillers who tend to get their pulp kicks in the film world while leaving the reading up to the more refined, effete fans of literary fiction.
More precisely, Tarantino could help usher in the re-birth of gritty crime fiction that focuses as much on the seedy world of the criminals as nerdy pathologists that populate much of today’s most popular crime fiction.
I’d say Quentin is as likely a candidate as any to trigger a renaissance in this sub-genre. After all, it’s not hard to imagine a fan of the novelized ‘Once Upon…’ becoming an avid reader of the works of Max Allan Collins, Eric Beetner or Christa Faust. Stay tuned…
I always answer: “He was a real gent, sweetest guy in the room, always smiling, a kind word for everybody. And in the end, he was awfully handy with a pump-action shotgun.”
It’s a long story.
I first met the big guy on a gloomy Monday morning, three days after my probation officer told me I’d been approved for a work-release program. I shuddered at the thought of what kind of work would be available for a four-foot-two convicted car thief, but when the words Santa’s helper hit me it seemed like I had just traded one nightmare for another. I mean, The Big House was no romp through a field of roses, but at least I had a trace of dignity in that place.
I scowled my way through a tour of the toy factory, got fitted for a red and green jumpsuit and just like that, I was ‘Skippy’ – a minimum wage-earning ‘seasonal recreation assistant’ with a facial scar I couldn’t wait to explain to the kiddies.
“Welcome aboard, son! Here’s hoping every day here is a merry day,” my new boss chuckled.
I was sick of him already. The laugh, the Grateful Dead t-shirt (he’d save the suit for delivery days) the bits of Cheez-whiz in his beard. Mostly I hated that joyful shine in his eyes. How could he be so goddamn cheery with my life spiraling down the toilet?
But it turned out not to be such a crappy job after all.
Nice benefits, decent hours and apart from the occasional dust-up with one of those pricks in packaging, I got along fine with my co-workers.
And when things did come to a boil, the big guy could always cool us down with a belly laugh and a sedative or two. He was good people, a gentle giant in our peaceful little valley.
But somehow I just knew things would come crashing down. And the first step in the demolition was a visit from the consulting firm of Henderson and Rawls.
They were a husband and wife team, Emily and Rob. A real couple of drips. They would’ve needed more charisma to be accountants. But they had come to save the day:
“We’re aware that you’ve been struggling lately,” Emily chirped. “Profits falling, clients lost, rising shipping costs. But we’ve done some research that can help.”
Then it was Rob’s turn behind the riflescope:
“According to our focus groups, your target market would respond more readily to a number of changes.”
Then they unleashed a parade of stupidity designed to reel in the fast departing youth market: rapping reindeers, eco-friendly presents, Mrs. Claus’s yuletide blog.
“This is bullshit,” Santa mumbled. But they were just getting started.
“And then there’s your Santa…” Rob said.
“Now don’t get us wrong. We’re all for traditional Santa Claus iconography: the red suit, the boots, the sleigh,” Emily said.
“But it seems your Santa is skewing a little… older than would be ideal.”
“The kids want a hipper, more vibrant, more… health conscious Santa.”
“You want to put me on a diet?” Santa yelled.
Rob’s eyes couldn’t lift from the table.
Emily gave it a try: “Not exactly…” But she was afraid of the truth.
The truth was that Santa was being fired.
Silence hung over the room like a fog. That joyful shine in Santa’s eyes had flickered out. And I could tell that Christmas would not be a silent night.
Six months later, five of us found ourselves in a van outside of FAO Schwarz. A wind whipped through the night like a samurai’s sword. But inside the van all was calm, all was bright. Mainly because we were packing some serious heat and had the plan down colder than a polar bear’s balls.
Santa loaded his shotgun, addressed the troops:
“Alright, fellas we know why we’re here. With old St Nick getting the sack we have to do some ad-libbing to get the kids their presents. I’ve made my list, checked it twice. Are we ready to do some shopping?”
Nods all around. But the boss wanted a precise breakdown. He aimed his chin at Fluffy, all scary four feet of him.
Fluffy answered without being asked:
“I get us through the security system at the back door, then I go to the doll department, make this a merry Christmas for some little girls.”
“I secure the east wing, then I take care of the action figures, costumes and toy helicopters.”
I grab what I can from the automated car section, then stand guard at the front door?”
“I stay in the van, keep my eyes open, honk the horn if we get company.”
With a final pump, Santa was ready. And so were his soldiers.
“Let’s get this done, boys.”
They slid on their masks, emptied the van, leaving me in the creepiest quiet I’d ever felt.
Within seconds, I heard glass shatter. The alarm whimpered out a warning, then died a fast death. I could hear the plan snapping into motion: the determined patter of feet, more shattered glass and whispers.
Then Gunfire. And screaming – a desperate wail from Gris-Gris.
Now the place was exploding with gunfire and loudly shouted regrets. There was no plan now, only survival. I raced from the van, maybe too quickly, but fuck it – better to spring into danger than to sit around waiting for it to find me.
I slipped into the back door and caught enough of the scene to know the next move: the security guard turned, stunned – a fifth intruder?
Fuck yes. He caught two in the chest before knowing what hit him.
Footsteps from the hallway, Santa turned, pumped, took off the second guard’s left shoulder, sent him to the floor with a wordless cry for help. He dropped next to Gris-Gris, just another casualty. Another tax on the price of admission.
“Let’s take care of business before we get more surprises,” Santa said.
Game on again, we scrambled back into motion, taking out bags and loading up. Toy cars, robots, dolls, action figures, shit that didn’t even exist when I was kid.
Then the siren crept up. We froze for a second, then gathered the bags in one spot, ready to scramble for the back door.
But good luck scrambling home with the cavalry charging in like that. There was a team of them rushing in, enough footsteps for an army.
“You guys make a run for it. I’ll hold them here!” Santa ordered.
“Are you crazy?” I yelled.
He wasn’t crazy. It made sense to scamper out with the toys because that was what this all about, wasn’t it? But this couldn’t be right, letting Santa go down alone like this.
He waved us off anyway.
As the footsteps closed in I pried myself away and out the back door. Santa found a nook in the hallway, settled there and took aim at the charging mass of blue.
Fluffy had pulled the van up and we loaded the bags, shut the door and hoped we’d have another passenger soon. But we could hear all we needed to hear from the back door: the profanity-laced demands for surrender, the hail of gunfire, Santa’s kamikaze scream – “and to all a good niiiiight!” – and we were off into the plan’s next phase: delivery.
We missed the boss, of course, but we had to go on because what would be the point if we didn’t? The kids, as always, were full of Christmas cheer. There was singing, snowball fights and good will toward all. So basically it was just like any other Christmas. Except that when we got to the Henderson-Rawls residence, we snatched a laptop on our way out.
It was the weirdest job I’d ever taken. No double-crossed thugs, no unpaid loan sharks, nary a cheating spouse to be seen. Just a creepy loner who needed a bullet to the skull before he could push into motion a sick plan to make the world a lonelier place.
And damned if I’d ever had to do that much travel before. But they told me the payday would be worth my while so I sailed off strapped with a 9mm. and a head swimming with 80s nostalgia.
Fighting off a stiff December breeze I wove through the Manhattan streets, eager to find my mark and get the job over with – but good luck fending off the distractions of that gorgeously insane place. The sidewalks were a freak show, alive with coke-fueled craziness and the promise of dangerous sex.
I spent my first ninety minutes spinning deeper into that breathtaking web, absorbing everything.
The sights – even the subway graffiti was somehow beautiful.
The smells – real food, made by real first generation immigrants.
And the voices – Deborah Harry cooing, David Byrne hiccupping, Joey Ramone whimpering, Grandmaster Flash cutting, scratching, reinventing the beat.
How could I not lose track of time? Shit.
I raced from the subway, determined to get across town to The Dakota before it was too late.
It was too late. A cloaked figure – arms extended – closed in on his target rising from a limousine.
“Everybody get down!” I shouted, and both bodies dutifully dropped.
I waited for the gunfire. But it never came.
The autograph seeker turned, his face frozen. Unfamiliar. He wasn’t my mark.
I slipped into the shadows, chagrined.
Then I heard the steps and the gun being loaded. But saw nothing.
“Get down!” I wheezed, no voice left after the false alarm.
I still saw nothing, but tried again:
“Somebody’s got a gun!”
Smirks all around. Who’s the wiseguy? they had to wonder.
My head swiveled, swept the shadows, the alleys, behind the dumpster. Nothing.
Another click. A hammer yanked back. No more steps.
A silhouette emerged, stepped into the moonlight.
“Mr. Chapman?” I asked.
He turned. This was my mark. Sharing that demented grin, glassy eyes shinning on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun. I could see the marquee beaming in his head. He was there already, finished, famous, complete. Nothing left to do but add the exclamation point.
But I had to fuck things up by being a quicker draw.
“The dream is over, motherfucker,” I said.
And I shattered his face into a mess his mother wouldn’t recognize. Twice.
I dove back into the shadows and scampered away, the scene now bathing in stunned silence.
It was time to get back to where I once belonged, back to the winter of 2020, a world that could now watch Yoko grow old with her walrus.
As we lurch further and further into a future of danger, chaos and growing uncertainty, has the idea of post-apocalyptic fiction began to feel less and less fictional? And not just because of the continued threat of COVID, but also the panic and cultural upheaval that has accompanied it.
Allow me to move the topic to a selfish place: What does all this mean to fiction writers?
If Amazon’s book charts are any indication, the pandemic’s deadly spread has been a boon to writers of viral apocalypse novels. Apparently, people like reading deadly fictional tales that mirror the real-file horror of our daily lives. Does this make sense?
It’s not usually the case that people like fiction that close to home. I’ve known a few war veterans in my life and none seemed eager to immerse themselves in the fictional accounts of violent conflict. Nor do most abuse survivors relish tales of violence and torture.
Maybe it’s different when the apocalypse is happening generally to the world, but not to you and your family or circle of friends.
It seems to me that people like fiction that hits close to home — but not too close.
Book Three of the Jake Legato Series, Two Guns Against the Siren is available at Amazon! Here’s an excerpt:
The tattoo shop fell silent when the guy stepped inside.
Clean cut with a shiny wool suit, his expression half-hidden by sunglasses, he didn’t look like a usual customer.
He stepped to the counter, no words. Only a stony gaze bouncing between the shop’s odd artifacts. The checkered floor, the WWII-era pin-up pics along the wall. The cheap plastic reclining chair in the center.
Mouths agape, everybody stared at him. Cheyenne, the spike-haired lesbian behind the counter. Heavy-lidded Evan awaiting a tattoo in the chair. Even Tweaky Jay woke up and found himself gawking.
“Anything I can help you with?” Cheyenne asked, eyes narrow, head tilted. Confused like a kid hearing her first curse word.
“Is Miciela here?” he asked, his voice a deep growl.
“You heard me the first time. Is she here?”
But Cheyenne just kept staring. Then she jabbed both shaky hands into her pockets, unsure what to do with them.
“Let me ask you the question again: Is Miciela here?”
“No? Not right now? I think. She’s usually here. But right now she’s not. I’m sorry. I’ll tell her somebody was looking for her.” Then she forced her lips into an uneasy smile.
But the man didn’t move. “I’ll wait.”
“It could take hours before –“
“I said, I’ll wait.”
Cheyenne stepped back slowly, sizing the stranger up. He was tall and solidly built. His head was all muscle, a fist with a snarl. He looked a like a brick wall in a bad mood.
She’d heard the stories of Miciela’s adventures. Depending on who you asked she’d been a drug runner, an assassin or a Hollywood stuntwoman. Nobody knew the truth exactly but they knew she’d had strange people asking about her. And they knew there were details she didn’t want to share.
The man’s attention drifted to a pair of old creaky doors at the shop’s side. “Where does she stay?”
He shoved his face forward, nearly touching foreheads. “Where does Miciela stay? Which room?”
“She’s not here,” Cheyenne said, bracing for a blow to the chest. “I swear.” she said, her voice now a reedy whimper.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t think she’s around right now –”
He backpedalled to the room’s center, pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his jacket’s inside pocket and spun in a slow circle, his gun’s barrel bouncing from face to terrified face. Without prompting, every hand went up. Gasps filled the room. With the jerk of his head he ordered Even out of the chair. With his foot he slid the chair to the front of the door. Then he addressed his captives.
“Here’s how this is going to work: Nobody is going to move and nobody is going to say a Goddamned thing unless they get asked a question. That way, I don’t have to shoot anybody in the face – which, by the way, I’d be more than happy to do if anybody gets cute.”
Cheyenne tried to still her shaking body. This was the time to be strong. Panic would be the enemy. She stood there watching the stranger, her hands up, knowing this guy would put a bullet into her head if he knew what she was doing.
She was trying to dial 9-1-1, trying to lightly brush the cell phone in her front pocket against the counter. There was no other hope. Miciela would be dead if he’d found out she was only a few feet away.
But dialing wasn’t easy. The man’s gaze crept from captive to captive. He told them not to move and he meant it. So she’d have to dial slowly and carefully. One number at a time.
With the man’s eyes somewhere else, she nudged her body forward, pressing the cell phone against the counter’s sharp wooden corner. She lowered her eyes and caught a glimpse of the phone, making sure she was hitting the nine. She bumped it a second time, hitting the one. Almost there.
But then the man turned. Did he hear that?
“What’s in your pocket?” he demanded.
“What is in your pocket?” he repeated, face on fire and inches from hers. “Is that a cell phone?”
He reached over the counter, yanked her cell phone from her front pocket.
Cheyenne collapsed into a quivering knot, hands still up and elbows covering her face and chest, bracing for the gun shot she knew was coming. There was no way he wouldn’t see the nine and one on the screen. With her eyes slammed violently shut, she whimpered like a wounded rat.
Then she opened her eyes to see the cell phone in her face. The man said, “Call her!”
“Call Miciela. Now.”
She gathered the strength to obey the man’s orders, shaky fingers finding Miciela’s number on her contacts screen. Seconds later, a ringtone rang out from one of the side doors. Pinhead by Micela’s favorite group, The Ramones.
The man smiled for the first time, baring teeth like a pissed-off grizzly. Then he walked to the closet door and swung it open.
He found all five feet and ninety pounds of Miciela curled into a trembling ball. She looked up with eyes that wordlessly begged for mercy. Her lips moved but nothing came out but panicked breath.
The man grabbed Miciela’s baggy shirt by the shoulder and gave her tiny body a yank. She landed on his shoulder, too stunned to fight back. Turning back to the room, he tucked his gun away. “I got what I need and I’m gone. But I’d be more than happy to make a return visit if anybody tries to call the cops.”
He strutted down the hallway, then kicked open the screen door. Everybody scrambled to their feet, racing to the back door while frantically dialing and hoping the worst hadn’t already happened.
Check out Kiss the Ladies Goodnight, the first installment of the Jake Legato PI series for free! Available at Amazon for a limited time only, so get it while you can!
Here’s an excerpt:
Legato sat in front of the guy, then pointed to a small scar under his left eye. “How about I tell you about this. See the scar?”
Tolliver smirked. “Yeah, I see that. What, you get that from some mugger or maybe the bully from Brooklyn high school?”
Legato shook his head. “When I was a kid, there was this guy on the block, never knew his real name but they called him Tweaks. Every block had one. Dude used to sniff glue day and night, lived for the shit, dug through dumpsters to find an extra tube. That guy. The neighborhood joke, everybody laughed at his sorry ass – the way he’d twitch and stutter. The way he’d get lost in mid-conversation if you asked him how he was doing. “Then he moved up to heroin and the shit wasn’t funny anymore. He started robbing people, hiding in alleyways with a tire iron. He’d be in and out of prison and some days you’d see him with bloodstains on his collar that he wouldn’t explain.
“One day I come home from school, hearing screams in the hallway as I walk up – Mama’s screams. When I get there, Tweaks is there, this baseball bat in his hand and Mama’s laying on the floor, arms up, bracing for a swing. Then he looks up, staring at me, kind of laughing, but it’s hard to tell with Tweaks. He raises the bat over Mama, says to me, ‘You better talk some sense to your mother. You hear me? I need money and this is not going to get it!’ He shows me this tiny wad of cash. He stares into Mama’s eyes. ‘Come on, lady! You got more than that!’ Mama was shaking, kept whimpering ‘no’ over and over. She’s looking at me, she’s looking back at Tweaks and I’m scared. Daddy was gone by then, no man in the house. So Mama had a gun, kept it hidden under the bathroom sink. I scampered away, straight to the bathroom, hoping I could get back before it was too late. I was going to shoot this guy, right between the eyes if I had to. I was going put down Tweaks before he put Mama down.
“But then I got back into the living room, that revolver shaking in my hand like an egg timer. I aimed it at his chest, but there’s something about holding a gun and aiming it at somebody. Tweaks started laughing, then came after me with his hand out. He may have been out of his mind, but he knew I didn’t have the heart. I was only twelve, could barely pee straight. And I was talking about shooting somebody? I tried to take aim at his chest again, but I lost my nerve. He turned around, raised his bat and started to swing for Mama’s head. And I fired three shots, two went through his ribcage, sent him to the carpet, shaking like a marlin somebody plucked from the river. The third shot? It went into a mirror off to my left side. A splinter came back and got me just under the eye.” He pointed to the scar again.
The punk said nothing.
“You ready to cooperate with me, Tolliver?”
“Yes, sir,” he mumbled, back erect now, almost respectfully. No more jokes.