Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“Bullets, Buddies, and Babes”


A Review of James Phoenix’s Frame Up (Grey Swan Press, Sept. 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9834900-3-6)

I like bold. Writers should be. During my three-decade-long literary apprenticeship I have come to agree with teachers and working professionals that being a good writer—nevermind a great one—takes a hell of lot of effort, study, and belief in yourself.
            You have to be bold.
So I was immediately interested in James Phoenix and his debut novel when I read that he was intending Frame Up to help fill the void left by Robert Parker (author of the ultra-popular Spenser and Jesse Stone detective series’) when he died in 2010. There are several other names of note in his press materials—Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler.
His own literary apprenticeship certainly seems to fit the subject matter—while he was learning to write well (and he does) he worked as a dishwasher, a waiter, a factory worker, a construction laborer, a stone tender, a weightlifter, and bouncer, a lobsterman, a salesman, and a successful International hi-tech entrepreneur.
Elements of all of these varied jobs appear in his book. And his publicity photo presents the image of a no-nonsense New Englander with an edge.
Learn your craft. Set your sights high. And then put it out there. Let the audience decide.
That is the great democracy of small-press publishing, especially in the age of print on demand and DIYers flooding the market with their words.
In this case, Phoenix is offering his book in hardback. Taking a risk at reaching a new audience fresh out of the gates with a $27.95 cover price.
He’s bold. And it seems to suit him. And the genre in which he works.
The hardboiled detective is a beloved American icon, whether on the page, the screen, or the stage. My recent foray into the field with a murder mystery musical in which the lead character is a trenchcoated, whiskey-slugging gumshoe in 1939 Manhattan was such a hit I was commissioned to write a sequel. Whether it's the wise-cracking, the knuckle-busting, or the bevy of beautiful clients who prove to be medicine good and bad, characters like Phoenix’s—a Boston cop now retired and turned private eye named Fenway Burke—are easy to root for and fascinating to watch.
Frame Up pays homage to all the best parts of the genre—it’s got the arrogant rich, the scum of the Earth criminals, the pissed-off cops, the beautiful women, and the loyal-to-a-fault friends. It’s got plenty of violence, and fast cars, late nights, and trendy locales. The dialogue is snappy and abundant, making for a quick read that moves along toward a satifying end. It’s also got the requisite dead ends and false leads.
It’s even got some romance.
Another aspect of the book, which has become a staple of crime dramas on TV, is the use of technology to solve crimes. The recent updating of Sherlock Holmes to be as adept at using cell phones and computers as the original character was at analyzing tobacco and mud samples brings the detective genre home to new audiences and Phoenix introduces an interesting tertiary character to help Burke with the more complicated cyber-work of tracking down clues in the twenty-first century.
I applaud Phoenix’s boldness—and fans of the crime drama, including Parker’s—should enjoy this latest addition.
I regret having to end an otherwise positive review by making note that the book suffers from an inordinate amount of typos. A thorough editorial review of the manuscript before publication would have elevated this book to the first-class publication its author no doubt would like it to be.

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