Review of Bruce Cook’s Books

Dancing with the Stars

A Review by GB Pool

Great atmosphere shares center stage with a cast of memorable characters whose lives are intertwined in this fascinating tale of the dark side of old Hollywood.

Tommy Gun Tango, co-written by Bruce Cook and Brant Randall, brings back several characters from Randall’s Blood Harvest, an equally entertaining story set against a backdrop of the KKK in Massachusetts. And readers of Cook’s first novel will recognize a name that might be a relative of his hero in Philippine Fever, Cook’s adventure story set in the steaming back streets of Manila.

Utilizing multiple points of view, one per chapter, each character starts out by explaining where they came from and about the skeletons in their closets. First is Marshal Lawe, an out-of-work constable from a podunk town called Peony Springs in rural Massachusetts. His little town pretty well dried up and blew away, so he headed west to the Golden State.

Along a deserted highway one night, Lawe sideswipes a hitchhiker who ends up completing the journey with him to the land of milk and honey. This is the Depression, 1932, and everything looks better on the other side of the tracks.

The guy Lawe hits is Al Haine, a two-fisted Irishman who uses one fist to fight and the other to gamble. He is good at both. Talk about the luck of the Irish. Al manages to secure a few extra bucks on their journey to the coast. He never mentions the bruised bodies he leaves in his wake.

Once in Hollywood, Lawe gets himself a job in the movies as an extra. His credentials lead him to a security job for one of the big studios. Al tries his luck at the dog track. He does well and soon moves with a faster, more dangerous crowd.

Laced throughout the opening section of the story are tasty little tidbits ripped from the headlines of the newspapers of the day. Stories like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the mysterious death of William Desmond Taylor. Each tale shows how the studio heads deal with moral turpitude and the threat to their box office receipts along with their willing accomplices in law enforcement.

Another character who graces the pages is Gladys Alwyn. When the war broke out she left Virginia and turned tricks in New York City before saving up enough money to buy a diner in Peony Springs. She hid her past and became romantically linked with Marshal Lawe, but when the economy turned south, she headed for Los Angeles. She had relatives there. She took with her another, darker, secret that she figured would ruin any further notions about making any permanent plans with Lawe.

Al Haine’s tempestuous past was filled with rapid departures, usually when a dead body turned up. His anarchist tendencies finally landed him in America from Ireland where trouble kept finding him. Once in Los Angeles, he sought to improve his lot in life and ended up working at one of the studios as a dancer in a gangster musical. His dancing partner, Gayle, a gorgeous blonde, is a kid with ambition, but this little number plays by different rules.

Gayle wants to get out of the chorus line and into better things. She is a Jean Harlow look-alike who wants to parlay her considerable assets into a sizable career. The young woman (really young, try sixteen) ran away from her hometown, Peony Springs no less, changed her name to a high-toned hyphenated British derivative and, with a doctored birth certificate that places her outside the statutory range, works every angle to get ahead. She meets Al who likes all her angles. They decide to pool their resources and take Hollywood by storm. But they have no idea what kind of storm is brewing.

So everybody is now in Los Angeles, and a particular Hollywood death draws each into a soul-searching nightmare. Tommy Gun Tango is filled with spot-on atmosphere and terrific characters. Any fan of the movies from the 1930s will be instantly transported to an old black and white movie, so bring the popcorn.

A fast and fun read. My only complaint: I wanted it to last longer. The characters are so well drawn, I wanted to see more of them. But the authors left a few doors open, so there just might be more adventures in Hollywoodland.

Published by Capital Crime Press, $14.95.

Blood Harvest
By Brant Randall
Capital Crime Press, May 2008, $19.95

Review by Jackie Houchin

Reminiscent of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Blood Harvest is the chilling tale of hatred, racism and violence spread by the Ku Klux Klan, not in the South, but in New England in the early part of the last century. It’s the story of two rival bootlegging families, related by marriage but separated by prejudice.

Years earlier, the youngest MacKay daughter defied her family and ran off with Nick DeCosta, a detested, “non-white European.” They had a son, Angus, who ran wild as a teenager. One day the boy showed up at a church social where he found young Jackie Sue MacKay ripe for picking.

Her cousin discovered them under a rhododendron bush, and pulled Angus out by the ear. The MacKay men folk thrashed him and tossed him off a bridge, breaking his leg and nearly killing him.

About that time Nick came looking for his boy, saw him in the riverbed, and opened fire on the MacKay men, injuring several. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder. What follows is a trial with little hope of justice.

What makes this book a pleasure to read, and re-read, is Randall’s unique voice. He relates the story of the trial, the lynching and a bizarre revenge murder through the eyes of nine colorful viewpoint characters – including a dog and a crow – and it’s perfectly believable. His back-woodsy dialects ring true, and his animal-speak is mesmerizing. The mystery is well-plotted and absorbing, his writing is fresh, but it’s the characters that sell this one.

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