"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, December 12, 2022

Dear Diary: Run Like Hell By James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance Publications Baltimore 2022)

Readers unfamiliar with Dear Diary: Run Like Hell may prefer to read these notes only after reading the book.

Dear Diary: Run Like Hell 

By James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance Publications Baltimore 2022)

This is my first time reading James A. Moore. My thanks to his publishers for sending me an advanced reading copy of Dear Diary: Run Like Hell

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Dear Diary: Run Like Hell contains two adventures of Buddy Fisk.

The short story "Dear Diary" is a biter-bit suburban crime story. Diarist narrator Buddy (his criminous nom de guerre; by day he teaches dance) is sent by his sometime employer Demetrius to steal back four rare books.   

     "Four books?" Listen, I'll be blunt here. I don't work at a library. I do the sort of shit that no one ever wants to do and somebody always has to do. Mostly, I kill people. I kill a lot of people. I don't ask questions, I don't study my targets and get to know them, I just make them dead. My point is…I don't normally get sent out to gather a few books. My rates are too high for that sort of shit.

     Demetrius gives me one of those looks; the ones that say I'd be better off not asking too many questions, and I nod my understanding.

     "So what's the deal then?"

     "I have a name. I know who has the books. You get them, and you take them to this man at this address." He hands me a piece of paper. "When you get done, you come back to me and I give you a bonus."

Now, if you think this is going to be a smart-alec Bernie Rhodenbarr caper or one of Donald Westlake's yarns of crime and misdemeanor, adjust your readerly expectations. "Dear Diary" is moonlighting splatterpunk: a man reports on the men fought and the carnage wrought, and the satisfaction he felt in inflicting so much of the old ultra-violence.

The twist in the tale begins when Buddy gets his hands on the books:

     One of them was as big as the Manhattan White Pages and bound in leather. There was some weird writing on the front. It matched the description. One looked like somebody had taken the time to bind eight pages of paper between two pieces of sterling silver. No way it was a fake. Like the first one, it matched the description. The next one was small and well worn, like an old family Bible, only I'm pretty sure the gargoyle face on the front never went with a copy of the Good Book.

     I reached out and touched the last one. I swear it squirmed in my fingers. That was enough for me. No way the little shit had a chance to make copies. Even if he'd had the time, he wasn't that smart. Leo looked at me hopefully and I nodded my approval. Then he turned to pick them up....

Once Leo the book thief is dispatched, Buddy begins the nighttime trek on foot back to his vehicle. But he senses he is being followed, not by rival book collectors, but by something out of "Canon Albrecht's Scrapbook."

[....] I finally got a look at what was following me. It wasn't a dog. I would've preferred that, because, noisy and vicious or not, I knew a well-placed bullet would at least kill a dog. I only got a look in the plate glass window from a little five and dime on the corner of Westfield Avenue and Lanier Road. It was night and the only light was coming from the streetlamp behind me. So I couldn't see it clearly, but I knew right away I was in deep shit.

     It was just a shadow, okay? But it looked all wrong. It sort of looked human, with arms and legs, but it was running on all fours, and it was as skinny as a greyhound. I couldn't see the face, but I could see the hair on the thing, thin and scraggly, like it had the mange or something, and I could see the long fingers of the hands whenever it was bouncing forward. It didn't run so much as it hopped, the legs pushing off the ground and the hands catching the sidewalk and moving it forward before the legs did their thing and kicked again. It made me think of the way kids played leapfrog when I was younger. The same sort of motion, but faster and a lot stronger....

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"Dear Diary: Run Like Hell" is a longer yet more perfunctory Buddy Fisk adventure. Our diarist is kidnapped and tortured after an assassination. His opponent, Anton Naheel, is a remorseless revenger and dabbler in black magic, made bullet-proof through the skills of his familiar.

"Dear Diary: Run Like Hell" is far more violent and gruesome than the first story. Happily for any Buddy Fisk fans, room is left for a galaxy of sequels.

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One benefit of Dear Diary: Run Like Hell is that it gave me an even greater appreciation for Nathan Ballingrud's short story collection Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell (2019), which I reviewed here.

Ballingrud takes far greater care in the ways he turns the tables on his protagonist, Jack Oleander. He also seeds small dramatic curlicues along the way that pay off later, often across more than one story. 

The Oleander stories lack the vigilante cynicism and rudimentary 1:1 plotting that hobble Moore's  Dear Diary: Run Like Hell.  

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12 December 2022

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