Wednesday, July 20, 2011



                  Ken Mercer recently visited the Poisoned Pen (his second trip) for what became a wide ranging and free-wheeling discussion/interview about his new book.  He proved to be one of the most open and engaging novelists to ever brighten the store.  On his first trip here in 2010, he and Barbara Peters, the owner, partook in an exchange on the ins and outs of editing and publishing.  It was an exciting and very interesting presentation.  Coming to see both your favorite and new authors often leads to insights into their works.  Come to a signing and see for yourself.

                  Mercer's first book, "Slow Fire", came out last year.  It tells the story of Will Magowan, an ex-undercover Los Angeles narcotics detective whose life is left in ruins after a series of horrific events.  As a last chance at redemption he accepts an offer to become a police chief in a tiny town in northern California.  He arrives in Haydenville to find an Edenic paradise in the midst of a meth nightmare.  With only an inexperienced deputy for help and a mayor who has him on a short leash, he attempts to figure out what is going on and to stop it.  His main nemesis and suspect is an ex-con, and now famous writer, named Frank Carver. Carver is an amalgam of William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and Jack Abbott.  Mercer does a brilliant job in not only creating this all too vivid character but, through him, channeling all the rampant paranoia that encircled and permeated the 1960's.  Having lived through and been heavily involved in the era's turbulence I found his evocation of these times to be extremely well done.  The author, too young to have been around then, somehow manages to capture the feelings of those years in a very profound and meaningful way.

                 As the past effects and illuminates the present Will struggles to find answers to the drug scourge.  The story chugs along at the pace of a page-turning tornado and runs headlong into a thrilling and unexpected conclusion.  This was one of the best debuts of 2010.

                  Will Magowan is an often self-destructive, extremely flawed and obsessed man.  This is his curse and his salvation.  In his new book, "East On Sunset", Mercer continues Will's story and returns him to Los Angeles.  This sequel came as a surprise to me as I did not see the character as part of a series.  However Mercer uses all of Will's present and past problems as a springboard for a fast paced and very exciting novel.

                  Will, now back with his wife, is at loose ends after leaving Haydenville.  He finds a job as a security guard for the L.A. Dodgers but a visit from an ex-con drug dealer he busted years ago sets off a chain of events that take him back into the life he so desperately fought to escape.

                  The ex-con, Erick Crandell, wants  money for the drugs he thinks Will and his partner, Ray Miller, stole from him when he was arrested.  This leads to a cat and mouse tale of police corruption, political payoffs, and non-stop action.  Crandell is a delusional body-builder and a very twisted individual. As Will's stubborn personality butts heads with Crandell's single-minded desire to get what he believes is his, a perfectly executed and violent dance ensues. Will's wife, now pregnant, becomes a pawn in the battle.

                   Both Will and Erick have an appeal that makes them sympathetic in a very strange way.  This speaks to the narrative skills of the author.

Signed copies are still available from
The Poisoned Pen. Click here
                   The novel is written in a compelling style that grabs the reader and makes it very hard to put down.. The final scenes of the book are truly riveting as this neatly twisted tale corkscrews to a breathless finale.  In these two novels Ken Mercer has g iven the master page-turner, Michael Connolly, a run for his money.  Both books mark an auspicious start of  what I hope will be a long career.

 For further reading I suggest Dave Zeltserman and his Ex-con trilogy.  These three books, "Small Crimes", "Pariah", and "Killer", are modern masterpieces of neo-noir writing. (Click to order)  They may serve as a primer on the ongoing power and possibilities inherent in the genre.

                                   - STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZ

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