Ken Bruen & Jason Starr


"The Max"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye FEB 20, 2009)

Hard Case Crime brings back Max Fisher (a.k.a. “The M.A.X.”) and Angela Petrakos in The MAX, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's sequel to Bust and Slide, the first two volumes about these crazy characters.

The MAX picks up where Slide leaves off. The M.A.X. is preparing to serve his sentence for drug dealing at the notorious prison in Attica, New York, while Angela is off in Greece, touching base with her Greek roots, after getting fed up with her Irish half.

Delusional Max envisions himself deserving special treatment in jail, given that he's a "big time …drug baron." His illusion about jail life is brought to an abrupt end when he is unceremoniously escorted to his cell and is greeted by his huge black cellmate, Rufus, who instructs him to get ready to be his "girlfriend" starting that night. Then, as Max walks through the prison, the whistles and catcalls from his fellow inmates further shatter his dreams about jail life.

Well, as stupid as he is, The M.A.X. is nothing if not lucky. He steels himself to be subjected to Rufus's every whim, “But then something weird happened” and there is a sudden shift in attitude toward him for no perceptible reason. Rufus starts acting deferential to him, his fellow cellmates stop with the whistles and catcalls. The M.A.X. soon learns that word got around about what Slide had done to The M.A.X.’s drug-dealing assistant Kyle, except that the precise details get lost in the telling and what was done to Kyle is attributed to Max instead. This secures his safety as it strikes fear in the hearts of Rufus and the rest of the inmates, except one--a homicidal Panamanian maniac named Sino who does not buy the story about Max's role in the unfortunate dismemberment of Kyle. In any event, Max was not going to let this new found advantage go to waste and milks it for all it's worth, and remarkably his delusion about becoming the king of Attica becomes reality, and he lords it over inmates and even guards alike.

In the meantime, Angela is busy being Angela in Greece. Ever clueless in her choice of men, she hooks up with a fellow named Sebastian, who is a handsome Lee Child-look alike. She is principally attracted by Sebastian’s British accent. Sebastian claims to be a writing a novel (which should have immediately put Angela on high alert, as her two previous disasters of boyfriends, Popeye from Bust and Slide from Slide, purported to be a poet and screenwriter, respectively) and the beneficiary of a trust fund, but his looks and accent blind Angela to the reality that she never did see him write anything and his credit card is rejected time and again. True to form, Angela ignores the signs that this fellow is a gold-digger, as she starts picking up tab after tab.

Sebastian is in fact a con man who latches onto Angela thinking she is "a rich American dumb blond." When Angela is raped by her drunken Greek landlord, she uses the landlord’s cleaver to hack him to death, and Sebastian realizes the type of woman he's dealing with (“she didn’t have baggage, she had freakin’ cargo”!), and after Angela forces him to assist her to dispose of the body, he takes his leave from her.
Realizing Sebastian's not returning, Angela hightails off the island where she's staying only to be arrested and jailed on Lesbos—where else in Bruen/Starr’s universe?--on account of her landlord’s murder. She uses her sexual wiles to escape and in her current state of desperation and poverty realizes that--despite all they've been through--she and Max share a common chemistry and belong together. She returns to the States, learns of Max's incarceration and heads up to Attica to seek his assistance.

Angela's reunion with Max is preceded by the entrance of another new member of the ensemble of crazies. Paula Segal is a mediocre and neurotic mystery writer whose agent talks her into changing to true crime and suggests she write Max Fisher's story. Paula covers his trial and goes to Attica in hope of conducting a series of interviews with The M.A.X. for her book about him. Max is so full of himself that he sees Paula as an opportunity for conjugal visits and agrees to cooperate with her only if she agrees to marry him. Despite being a self-described "newbie lesbian," with a thing for Laura Lippman no less, Paula agrees.

Max quickly drops his marriage proposal to Paula once Angela gets to him. Despite her several attempts to kill him, Max--rationalizing that all true love relationships "go through rough patches..."--amazingly feels similarly connected with Angela. He challenges her to prove her loyalty by procuring a getaway car and guns for his and Rufus’s planned break out of Attica during the up-coming riot that Max helped to instigate by riling up Sino. Angela would come through with the assistance of a “Boyo” associate from the Bronx.
In the meanwhile, a cousin of Angela’s Greek landlord tracks down Sebastian in England and forces Sebastian to help find Angela so he can avenge his cousin’s murder. Sebastian and this fellow head to the States, where Sebastian is able to utilize the source of all current-day wisdom and truth, www.google.com, to discover Max’s whereabouts, and they head to Attica figuring that Angela must have sought to reunite with him.
Big-mouth Max, for whom discretion is a foreign concept, brags to Paula about the pending break-out and invites her to witness it, so she can include a first hand account in her book. Paula runs into Sebastian (she initially thinks he’s Lee Child in Attica trying to steal her story) and the Greek, spills the beans about the break-out and they decide to accompany her in the hope that Angela would be there.

All principal characters cross paths at the climax of the story which culminates in fatalities befalling a majority of them. One has to read the book to see how it turns out and to form an opinion about the prospect of whether the Max/Angela series will be more than a trilogy.

Dark humor permeates this book, just like it did the previous two. The characters are pathetic and laughable and consistently fool themselves about themselves. (For example, regarding the catcalls and whistles when he first arrived at Attica, The M.A.X. incredulously figures: "A face like [mine], naturally guys couldn't resist it." Regarding Paula: “Paula was shaking, not from fear but sheer hot exhilaration. Well, exhilaration and cocaine,” and Sebastian: “Oh, he swore, by all that Cambridge held sacred….Naturally Sebastian had never actually been to Cambridge….”) These characters are not at all worthy of sympathy. They do whatever they have to to fulfill their unruly desires. They have no discipline, no respect, no dignity, not many—if any—positive characteristics. But again, the reader doesn’t walk away disgusted or outraged, because Bruen/Starr’s crafty use of dark humor strikes some chord that give this story a largely humorous quality, despite its characters’ bad deeds.

The irony between objective reality and the reality as ill-perceived by these characters is a source of perverse delight. A prime example is Max’s totally false expectations of prison life, encouraged by his grossly exaggerated view of self, which does truly become reality. “…[S]omething weird happened.”—You can surely say that again!

Finally, the raunchy language used by Bruen/Starr throughout this book, as in Bust and Slide, is not different from what many think to themselves in private and/or voice to a limited audience under particular circumstances, but which most would not think of reducing to writing for distribution to the general public. This naughty aspect of Bruen/Starr’s writing makes the Max/Angela series of books different and appealing to a reader who is not put off by things that are perverse, risqué, scatological and the like.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 11 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Max at Hard Case Crime

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"Slide"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye OCT 13, 2007)

Ken Bruen and Jason Starr collaborate once again in this sequel to Bust, their first book together.  Both are original paperbacks issued by Hard Case Crime books.  As wild as Bust is, Slide is even more so, in terms of its violence, raunchy language and sex.  Notwithstanding that (and the violence, language and sex are not at all gratuitous; Hard Case Crime books are hard-boiled and quite realistic and Slide is just that if nothing else), Slide is another masterful writing effort by these two skilled (and uninhibited) writers, who know how to create and bring to life bizarre characters and unusual plots.

Of Bust's four principal characters, only Max Fisher and Angela Petrakos survive and are around for the events that follow in Slide.

At the end of Bust, Max has lost what had been a successful computer networking business, having been deserted by his staff and clients, who are repulsed over his suspected involvement in his wife's murder.  At the start of Slide, he somehow--unknown even to him--finds himself in Mobile, Alabama, in disheveled condition, except for his ego which remains intact and manages to somehow keep him going, despite how clueless he otherwise is about the reality that is Max.  While he looks like crap, with swollen, bloodshot eyes, pasty white skin, strings of greasy hair, yellow teeth with a prominent one missing, to himself he is still the same suave, debonair, happening guy.  While in Mobile, he has the "mother of wake up calls" and discovers the world of crack cocaine and its business possibilities, especially the prospect of its restoring him to his former position as a "man of wealth and fame."

Angela, on the other hand, took Max's engagement ring, his $10,000 “emergency fund” and uses his charge card to fly to Ireland.  There, she resumes her quest for Mr. Right.  However, she merely repeats her pattern of only finding Mr. Wrong, remaining oblivious to her lack of sound judgment in this area.  In a moment of desperation, she comes across a fellow named Slide.  Though he thought he kidnapped her, she figures his behavior signaled attraction to her, and her fearlessness eventually wins him and they become a couple and partners in Slide's newly established kidnapping business.  If nothing else, Angela's manipulative skills do serve her well.

This new character, Slide, is an Irishman who loves all things American.  It turns out that he is even more demented than Angela's last boyfriend, Thomas Dillon or "Popeye" from Bust, "that psycho poet nut job."  Slide's name comes from his favorite line to his victims, just before he kills them: "I'm gonna let it slide."  He takes great pleasure in the false comfort these words provides his victims, before he proceeds to do them in to their even more extreme horror.  He fashions himself to be a serial killer and his goal is to set the world's record for serial killing.  However, he does need to work on restraining himself from killing those he kidnaps before ransom payment is received if his kidnapping business is ever to be financially lucrative.

Back in New York City, Max sets himself up as "a high end crack dealer."  He establishes his abode in a sublet penthouse in the fashionable Upper East Side of Manhattan, which he christens "Fisherland."  He engages a full-time sushi chef and hires away a favorite stripper, Felicia, from Legz Diamond to serve as his "steady ho."  Max takes his new role most seriously, as a businessman in terms of establishing a client base and product source and also in terms of adopting the mores of the drug dealer.  He schools himself on the lingo and style of drug dealers, by studying the appropriate music (listening to the likes of Naz, Ja Rule and 50 Cent) and films (such as Boys in the Hood, Menace II Society and Scarface).  He decides that his new persona requires a new handle and starts referring to himself, and insists that others also refer to him, as "The M.A.X."  He "balances" his mood swings by ingesting varying amounts of crack, coke, booze and viagra.  Among other things, The M.A.X. envisions the future including a highly regarded weekly Wall Street Journal column where he shares his business acumen with the world, as well as an HBO series about him and his doings.

Felicia’s view of The M.A.X. is not in synch with Max’s view of himself.  Contrary to his belief that she accepts her role with him gladly, she is sick and tired of his 24/7 sex-on-demand, his obnoxious way of talking to her, like referring to her as his "bee-ach;" and his presumptuousness about being a hip drug-dealing know-it-all.  Max has gotten to be so much for her that she starts looking for ways to take him down, which include stealing his money (he gave her the combo to his safe during a drugged out moment), cooperating with a detective looking to put Max away for his role in his wife’s murder and the killing of the detective who was investigating that case; and setting him up to be ripped off (and possibly worse) during a "Colombian" drug deal about to go down.

Meanwhile, after Slide foolishly kills someone he believes is in tight with the ruthless Boyos (IRA associates who are said to make the Soprano's appear meek and mild),  Slide and Angela need to get out of Ireland in a hurry, and they choose to relocate their kidnapping enterprise to New York City.  Slide sees NYC as the land of opportunity for someone soon to be setting records in serial killing with so many people worthy of killing.

Of course, it is inevitable that Angela/Slide and The M.A.X. cross paths.  Angela notices a newspaper piece about Max’s involvement in a drug deal and she figures he’s as good as anyone to rip off for ransom to gain the freedom of a kidnapped associate.  As can be expected, nothing ends up as intended on either side.

As stated, this is another outrageous, out-of-control, comic success of Bruen’s and Starr’s.  They have a way with words that will make the reader smile—and cringe—at the same time.  Unfortunately, the choicest passages are too risqué to repeat here.

A reliable source reports that another sequel is in the works by Bruen/Starr, so stay tuned...

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Slide at Hard Case Crime

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"Bust"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye OCT 13, 2007)

While writers Ken Bruen’s and Jason Starr’s collaboration in Bust is a farcical comic success, with plenty of dark humor and quite an ensemble of screwy characters, the result is a fascinating, enjoyable read.

The cast of characters consists of:

Angela Petrakos, a woman in her late 20’s of Irish and Greek descent who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the States when she was 12 years old.  She maintains the Irish accent of her mother and the Greek temper of her father.  Not conventionally pretty, she nevertheless knew “how to use what she had” and “her real talent was seduction,” although she did not always exercise the best of judgment with respect to her choice in men.

Bobby Rosa, a 47-year old Latino man, who survived years of armed robbery, prison confinement and Desert Storm with barely a scratch, but at the age of 44 gets shot by a jealous boyfriend and is rendered a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.  His loves includes guns and photography, and he spends a lot of time traveling around the City taking pictures of beautiful, usually scantily-clad, woman and plastering his walls with their pictures.  Three years of confinement in the wheelchair finds him antsy about getting back into the “action.”  Offsetting his criminal inclinations, Bobby makes sure to visit his aged mother several times a week in the nursing home where she’s confined after her debilitating stroke.

Thomas Dillon, aka Popeye, a 30-something Irishman, essentially a herpes-spreading, murderous freeloader looking for an easy score, whom Angela met in a pub while on vacation in Ireland and invites back to the states with the intention of eventually marrying.  Dillon spent time in jail for one of his 17 murders and was a dangerous, psycho.  He is also a stupid man, who does not think through or plan how to approach the crimes he commits.  His carries around for show The Wisdom of Zen, which he picked up from the previous inhabitant of his jail cell, and he likes to talk about writing poetry.

Max Fisher, a middle-aged cheapskate, sleaseball, “the most disgusting and pathetic guy” Angela ever met, is the founder and CEO of NetWorld, an Internet network company.  He is a shallow man, whose idea of effective marketing is to treat customers to strip joints and arranging rendezvous for them with prostitutes in hotels.  Instead of his head, he thinks with another part of his anatomy.  He is egocentric, quite vain, gullible and clueless, despite being a successful and wealthy businessman.

The main action of Bust revolves around Angela’s, Dillon’s and Bobby’s respective attempts to get money out of Max.  Angela has the inside track.  Her feminine wiles get her hired as Max’s executive assistant.  An office affair ensues between them.  Max relates how terrible his marriage is.  Angela suggests a divorce, but he is too cheap to give up half his wealth.  But he is receptive to Angela’s counter-proposal to hire a professional hit man to kill her.  The proposed “pro” is actually Dillon, or “Popeye” to Max, who is kept in the dark about the connection between Angela and this bizarre hit man.  Angela’s and Max’s plan is to marry after an appropriate mourning period.  However, Angela’s true plan is to eventually do Max in and split his wealth with Dillon whom she would marry, though even more devious Dillon has other ideas.

Max hires Popeye to kill his wife for $10,000.  Unfortunately, Max’s teenage niece happens to be with his wife at the appointed time and Dillon kills her also.  Max’s moral compass is so warped that, though he felt genuinely sorry about his niece’s getting killed, he rationalizes that he really did her a favor, by her being killed with her youthful dreams still intact, that he spared her the major disappointments that adulthood surely would have visited upon her in due time.

Dillon is really not a pro.  He commits several serious screwups during and immediately after the murders that could lead the police to him—and Max and Angela.  While those issues are swirling around, vexing those three, Bobby enters the mix.  While on his “tryst patrol” hustle at a hotel, where he barges in and takes photos of couples in the act and then blackmails them, whom should he wheel into but hot-to-trot Max (incapable of controlling his libido) with Angela.  Bobby recognizes Max as the husband of the recently murdered wife, figures Max would not want the police to know about what he is up to with a woman whom Bobby discovers to be Max’s executive assistant and approaches Max about a big-time payment to buy his silence.

Max tells Angela about Bobby and his threat and she encourages him to hire Dillon/Popeye to get rid of Bobby.  From that point on, Angela meets Bobby who then meets Dillon and all sorts of double crosses and betrayals ensue—all to reduce the shares of Max’s pie these crooks will have to share.  When the dust finally settles at the end of Bust, only two of the ensemble are still standing and available to appear in Slide, Bruen/Starr’s sequel to Bust.

Bust is masterfully written by Bruen and Starr and is most deserving of its nomination for the Barry Award as best paperback.  The development of the characters and the plot is extremely well done.  They are introduced bit by bit and from different points of views and vantage points, so that a fuller understanding of the characters and the action is achieved during the course of the book.  At the end, the reader is salivating for more and anxiously awaiting the release of Slide.

Regarding the book's title, its likely source is this bit of (double-meaning) advice given by Max to his marketing director: “In this business, it’s make or break, and you gotta go for bust.”

  • Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Bust at Hard Case Crime



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


Ken Bruen:

New Irish Guarda series:

Jack Taylor series:

Brant Novels:

*Reprinted in the U.S. as The White Trilogy (2003)

 


Jason Starr:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Ken BruenKen Bruen was born in Galway, Ireland in 1951. He was educated in St. Joseph's College in Galway city and later at Trinity College Dublin, where he earned a Ph.D. in metaphysics. Bruen travelled extensively, teaching English in Africa, Japan, South East Asia and South America.

His acclaimed Jack Taylor series is set in Galway, and relates the adventures and misadventures of a disgraced former police officer working as a haphazard private investigator whose life has been marred by alcoholism and drug abuse. It chronicles the social change in Ireland in Bruen's own lifetime, paying particular attention to the decline of the Catholic church as a social and political power. Themes also explored include Ireland's economic prosperity from the mid 1990s onwards, although it is often portrayed as a force which has left Ireland as a materialistic and spiritually drained society which still harbours deep social inequality

Bruen was a finalist for the Edgar, Barry, and Macavity Awards, and the Private Eye Writers of America presented him with the Shamus Award for the Best Novel of 2003 for The Guards, the book that introduced Jack Taylor.

Ken lives in Galway with his wife and daughter.


 

Jason StarrJason Starr was born (1966) and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He had no interest in reading or writing until he went to Binghamton University, where he as also introduced to film noir and other crime films. He being with playwriting and after graduation moved to Manhattan and worked with small theater groups. He also worked at telemarketing and low-level journalism and publishing jobs to earn enough money to travel for a few months and would return to New York and start earning enough money to travel again. But it got old fast and he switched to novel writing.

His novel Hard Feelings was the first original novel ever published in the prestigious Vintage/Black Lizard line. He has won raves for his work from publications ranging from The New York Times to Entertainment Weekly, which compared him to Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. In 2004, he received the Barry Award for his novel Tough Luck, and in 2005 he won the Anthony Award for Twisted City.

He tries to publish at least one book a year and continues to write screen plays.Starr now makes his home in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

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