Moses McGuire knows a thing or two about life going to shit. Forty-three years old, he wakes up every day with a decision to make: go to his job as a bouncer at a strip club, or kill himself? The job at the strip club is relatively new, he got that shortly after being released from prison, but the thoughts of suicide aren’t. In fact, as Moses recalls it he was six years old the first time the thought seriously crossed his mind.
Somehow he made it another thirty-seven years down a rugged-ass road without topping himself, but not without hitting a few major potholes along the way. Medically discharged from the marines for “almost constant drinking and general insanity,” Moses has served time, picked up more than his share of battle scars from bar fights, is in debt to his ex-wife and his bookie, and has been cut off by his dealer for passing a bad check. (“Hell, what kind of dealer takes checks anyway?”) That suicide option looks better every morning.
And the morning we meet him at the start of Beautiful, Naked & Dead may well have been the day, until Moses gets a phone call from one of the girls at the strip club asking for his help. Not just any girl, actually, but the one person in the world Moses considers a friend. When she doesn’t show for their scheduled meeting Moses goes to her apartment, where he finds she’s been brutally tortured and murdered. The one good thing in his life having been taken from him, there’s going to be Hell to pay for those responsible, as well as anyone foolish enough to get in his way.
He may be a Scotch drinking, pill popping, strip club frequenting, suicidal ex-con of Viking ancestry (complete with red beard and body “built for wielding a battle-axe”), but Moses nevertheless has an unquestionably rock-solid moral compass. Unfortunately for him, in Beautiful, Naked & Dead following his moral compass leads Moses into a shitstorm of nearly biblical proportions, landing him in the middle of a turf fight between Armenian and Italian gangsters, and in the way of both the local police trying to solve his friend’s murder as well as Federal agents working the organized crime angle. They in turn threaten Moses with everything from torture to death to prison, but what none of them seem to understand is that Moses neither fears their guns nor respects their badges. He’s a man on a mission with nothing to lose, and be it with fists or guns, Moses doesn’t care how much blood he has to shed to get the answers he wants.
Author Josh Stallings is masterfully understated in his handling of the seamy underworld that is sex for sale in America, a topic around which a large portion of the story revolves. Whether dealing with the comparatively benign strip clubs like the one where Moses works, the legal brothels in Nevada where Moses’ search takes him, or the rough business of exploitation pornography that rears its ugly head, Stallings brings each to life in a very matter of fact manner. Gangster or stripper, cop or ex-con, the characters in Stallings’ world are neither heroes nor victims, deserving neither admiration nor pity. They are simply people struggling, with varying degrees of success, to make their way through the world to the best of their respective abilities.
As I was reading Beautiful, Naked & Dead I marked passages that I thought I may want to quote in this review. In looking back at my notes, however, I realized that if I used everything I marked I’d basically be quoting you half the book. Stallings’ prose is that tight, engaging, and memorable. In fact, Beautiful, Naked & Dead is the poster child book for those who love good writing, especially hard-boiled crime writing, to wave as they rage against the publishing machine that gives contracts to people like Snooki while authors who really have the chops and who are paying their dues, authors like Josh Stallings, are somehow left out in the cold.
Moses McGuire is an uncommon lead, but a fitting one for a book that has an uncommon mix of brutality and beauty, sex and love, hate and humor, hopelessness and hope. Uncommon though it all may be, however, under the skillful hand of Josh Stallings it not only works, it makes perfect sense. Make no mistake about it, Beautiful, Naked & Dead is big league crime fiction, and by all means you should step up to the plate … you’d just better seriously dig in when you do because Stallings is bringing the heat.
Beautiful, Naked & Dead is available from Heist Publishing (ISBN 978-0615449869).