Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fort Worth

I'm on an extended assignment in Fort Worth, Texas. I arrived Sunday January 2. The weather is beautiful and, more importantly, the used bookstores are terrific. Last night we (my wife and I) went to a Half Price Books on the west side of Ft. Worth and was overwhelmed. We spent a few hours stalking the stacks and put more books back than we purchased, but we did come away with a few treats: A Fine Dark Line by Joe R. Lansdale, Deep Space edited by Robert Silverberg and The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick.

This morning we drove south to Waco and stopped at a Half Price Books in Burleson. I purchased a copy of the Millipede Press edition of Fredric Brown's Here Comes a Candle and Not Comin' Home to You by Lawrence Block. It was originally published as by Paul Kavanuagh. Simply put, I really, really like Half Price Books.

The temporary move down to Texas is one of a few reasons Dark City has been quiet the last month or so, but the near future offers the hope of consistent posts and, hopefully, hours of pleasure reading. I have read a few terrific books over the past several weeks and a few everyone should find and read are:

Noir 13, which is a collection of stories that features some of Gorman's classic stories, including "Such a Good Girl" and several (I think I counted seven) never before published tales. It is a wonderfully entertaining collection that I will review in great detail soon.

Johnny Porno is a New York City mob tale set in the 1970s at the height of the popularity of the film "Deep Throat." The protagonist is a down on his luck electrician who lost his union card and by extension his job. To make ends meet he takes a below low-level mafia job dropping off and picking up bootleg copies of the film to area theaters. It doesn't take long for everything to fall apart. It is a gem of a novel, and it is a novel that I plan to review in detail soon. And, if you're interested the writer is the cool Charlie Stella.

Funland is Richard Laymon's carnival novel and it is different from any carnival you've ever read about. A description of the plot will fall flat, but it is one of Laymon's four or five best novels. Entertaining and goof fare for anyone except the most squeamish--it is absent the adolescent sex that occupies much of Laymon's work. It was scheduled to be published in mass market by Leisure, which hasn't happened since Leisure is slowly tilting to its side just before it goes belly up. It is, however, available as an ebook at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon or on the second hand market.

I hope everyone has had a good start to the new year and if any of you know any good book shops within an hour or so of Ft. Worth, please don't keep them a secret.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

MERRY CHRISTMAS, MURDOCK by Robert J. Ray

It's been too long since I made an appearance. I wanted to wish everyone Happy Holidays and post this reprint of a novel I enjoyed as a teenager and as an adult. It's set in Southern California at Christmas, and it's a private eye novel. Two great things together.
 
Merry Christmas, Murdock is the fourth novel written by Robert J. Ray to feature Orange County private eye Matt Murdock. Murdock is a former LAPD officer who feels and acts more like a college professor than a cop. He lives in a small bungalow on the beach and he owes more than just a little to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. His best friend, Wally St. Moritz, is a carbon copy of McGee's Meyer, and Murdock's personality and drive are reminiscent of the great McGee; he has astonishing luck with the ladies, he gets thumped more often than not, but he always finishes somewhere near the top. And now that I think about it, he has more than just a smattering of Jim Rockford.

It's Christmas, and Murdock's luck is running low; his last job didn't turn out as expected and his client won't pay. His girlfriend headed north, and it doesn't look like she's coming back. So he's home licking his wounds, cooking a gourmet meal and trying to forget about the holidays when his friend Wally St. Moritz--a surf shop-owning academic--telephones with a job. The daughter of a senator was the victim of a hit-and-run accident at the local shopping mall and the senator isn't satisfied with the efforts of the local law.

Murdock isn't crazy about the set-up--he and the senator, a sexy lady from Texas, take an instant dislike to each other and the case isn't compelling. A simple hit-and-run doesn't exactly excite Murdock's sense of mystery, but he doesn't have any other clients on the radar so he hesitatingly takes the job. It leads him into places he never expected--from the parlors of the wealthy, to the teenage enclaves of the Xanadu mall, to the seedy boardwalk of a by-the-hour motel, Murdock tramples his way to an imperfect justice. A justice that is far from complete, but it's the best Murdock can do.

Merry Chrsitmas, Murdock was originally published in 1989, and it's lost little of its appeal. The plotline isn't original, but Mr. Ray freshens it nicely by adding a few unexpected twists and weaving two distinct but connected subplots into the story. The characters are top-notch, especially Murdock; his major weakness is referring to himself in third-person. The novel is seeped with muted working class angst and a baby-boomer vibe that create a cold and severe world with heavy doses of hope, duty, and even a whisper of destiny.

The work of Robert Ray may not measure up to that of John D, but as far as P.I. stories go Merry Christmas, Murdock is pretty good, and reading it not only gave me a window into my own past--I first read this one in the early-Nineties--it reminded me how much I enjoyed the genre as a kid. Heck, I even wanted to be a P.I. Imagine that.

A Note: I originally discovered the Murdock novels as a teenager when I stumbled across Murdock for Hire in the local library. It was a cold holiday season--sometime between Christmas and New Years--and I have a vivid memory of finding refuge in the warm California sun. It probably took a blanket or two as well, but what more do you need than a good book, a terrific hero, and a few days off school?

The five novels that feature Matt Murdock are: Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, Dial "M" for Murdock, Merry Christmas, Murdock, and Murdock Cracks Ice.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE ROCKFORD FILES: THE GREEN BOTTLE by Stuart M. Kaminsky

The Rockford Files is one of the better, if not the best, television private detective television shows. It was produced in the mid- to late-1970s, but it has lost little with age. It is still vibrant, funny and interesting. It was revived for a short-time in the mid-1990s with eight made for television movies, which I enjoyed, but are a step or two below the original series, which also spawned two tie-in novels by the late Stuart M. Kaminsky titled Devil on My Doorstep (1998) and The Green Bottle (1999).Both are good, but The Green Bottle is something special. It is the best tie-in novel I have read. It captures the vibrant humor and action of the original series while accurately aging Jim. These books are available in both hardcover and mass-market, but they are becoming harder and harder to find and you will really enjoy revisiting Jim Rockford as he was in the 1990s.

I was first introduced to Jim Rockford in the late-1980s—the original Rockford Files was ran in syndication on a local television station—but I really didn’t “get” it until the mid-1990s (I was older and presumably wiser, although that is arguable) when several television movies were aired on network television. James Garner portrayed an older Rockford who had lost his father Rocky, and while the movies didn’t have the same freshness and forward momentum as the series, they were still pretty damn good. They focused on the favorites of the series: Beth and Angel and Dennis Becker were all there, as was Rockford: older and wiser with knees that barely allowed him to walk let alone
run.

I recently read a Rockford novel written by Stuart M. Kaminsky that was released about the same time as the television movies—1996—titled The Rockford Files: The Green Bottle. It was a real treat. It is pure Rockford, but it also has the benefit of delving into the psyche and humanity of Rockford. In short, it is a novel that anyone who likes the old television series should take the time to find and read. It isn’t a hastily put together tie-in novel, but rather it is a novel that just happens to feature Jim Rockford in the same world he inhabited in both the series and the movies.

The novel opens with Rockford staking out a boat in Santa Monica. He was hired to retrieve a Chinese bottle th
at was stolen from a collector. It is raining and Rockford feels less than excited about his position—
“I was definitely soaked down to my underwear. I was definitely seasick. I was definitely not in a good mood.”
He makes the recovery in short order, but the job leads him to another job that is more serious and strangely linked to the little green Chinese bottle. He is hired by a surgeon to find his niece, a teenage girl who came out from Arkansas to find fame in Hollywood. She has been gone for several days; she left a note that a producer was taking her under his wing, but while she is a beautiful girl, she is an abysmal actress. The uncle asks Rockford to find her, and in exchange, he will perform surgery on Rockford’s knees at no charge.

The job turns out to be more complicated than it seems. It leads Rockford down a dangerous path that finds him accused of murder, and into th
e strange world of Chinese glass bottle collectors—in short, it is vintage Rockford.

The Rockford Files: The Green Bottle is a brilliant translation of the television series into novel format. It envelopes the character with precision—Rockford is stubborn, humorous and always put-upon. He ends up in trouble at every turn, and also never seems to get paid. A problem he seemingly deals with a lot. Angel has a large role in the novel, and he adds the needed oddity and humor to the story. Becker is also there, as is Captain Diehl and Beth Davenport. As well as Rocky, not as an on-stage character, but his memory and style lingers in Rockford’s life like a shadow.

The story is sha
rp and unique. It stands well as part of the series, but it also plays well on its own. It is a private detective story with style and punch. It will satisfy the most ardent Rockford fan as well as the passing fan and the reader who doesn’t know Jim Rockford from Miss Marple. In short, The Green Bottle is one terrific read that captures the spirit and nature of the series while expanding it into something that is totally original. It is exactly what a quality tie-in should be—familiar yet new and exciting.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stark House Press: The Silent Wall & More

Stark House Press is happy to announce the long-awaited publication of the late, great Peter Rabe’s final manuscripts, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver.  Along with a very rare Rabe short story, “Hard Case Redhead,” the books will appear in a single volume this coming January.  The above passage is the opening from The Silent Wall, which Booklist calls “a claustrophobic noir, at times almost unbearably tense.”  And it is certainly that.  Matty Matheson has the run of an entire town but he is not allowed to leave, held captive by the Mafia for reasons he only thinks he knows.

The Return of Marvin Palaver is a darkly comic, highly complex short book about a swindle, payback and the incredible lengths one man will go to get his revenge against the man who ruined him.  Rabe never wrote the same book twice and even with his talent for writing different kinds of crime fiction, the story will leave you breathless with its unique voice and dark sense of humor.

Shortly before his death in 1990, Rabe had sent these manuscripts to friend and author Ed Gorman, who’s had them in his possession until now.  We’re ecstatic to be the ones who are finally bringing these books, along with the short story “Hard Case Redhead,” into the world.  In “Redhead,” two thieves and their uninvited guest try to wait out the aftermath of a troublesome heist.  It’s hard-boiled and noir and shows that Rabe could write just as well at shorter lengths.

Donald E. Westlake named Rabe and Hammett his two major genre influences, Bill Pronzini called him “a kind of fictional surgeon,” and Bill Crider said, “Few writers are Rabe’s equal in the field of the hardboiled gangster story.”  If you’ve never read Peter Rabe, there’s no better time to start.

We’re also announcing the creation of the Stark House Book Club with a special offer of free shipping on all our books to everyone who signs up now.  No minimum to buy, no obligation, just sign up and you’ll receive each new release, hassle free and with no shipping, as they are published.  For a limited time, each new member can order as many backlist titles as they’d like for 15% off list price and again, free shipping.

To sign up for the club, e-mail us at griffinskye3@sbcglobal.net. And to check out our list of authors and titles, visit our website at www.starkhousepress.com.

On tap for the near future are a two-in-one volume of vintage sleaze crime novels from the famous (under his real name) Don Elliott and a nice trio from Day Keene, and many other exciting titles.  So sign up now and don’t miss a book!

To receive this newsletter automatically, please send your e-mail address. We look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers,
Greg Shepard, publisher
Stark House Press

Saturday, November 6, 2010

NIGHTCRAWLERS by Bill Pronzini

The Nameless Detective series has been active since 1971 and it is still strong—in sales and quality alike. The protagonist—Nameless, who isn’t as nameless as he once was—has aged and matured in almost real time. He was young and full of fight throughout his appearances in the 1970s and 80s, but with age he has mellowed with creaky bones, aching muscles, a wife and an adopted daughter.

The thirty-second title, published by Forge in 2005, is Nightcrawlers and while it, and all of the recent titles, is different from the early Nameless stories it is still pretty damn terrific. In many ways the latest releases are better—there is more nuance, the execution is tighter and Nameless—or Bill—has developed into something more than he was. He is a living, breathing, believable character that is not only sympathetic to the reader, but downright likable.

Nightcrawlers is a personal journey for Nameless. There are three storylines that run parallel, and not one of them ever crosses another—there are no hokey connections or ridiculous coincidences, but rather there are three stories (mysteries) compressed with superb execution and sharp prose into one very enjoyable novel.

Nameless’ detective office is a three-person operation now. Nameless has semi-retired, Tamara Corbin is a full partner and Jake Runyon is the main operative. The location of the office has moved to—it is now just south of Market instead of the old O’Farrell Street location.

Business is slow; Tamara is taking care of what seems to be a small skip-trace on a deadbeat dad, Jake is pursuing a non-paying case in an attempt to stop a string of brutal beatings in the Castro and Nameless is doing a personal favor for a dying pulp writer—Russell Dancer who appeared in at least three earlier Nameless novels, Undercurrent, Hoodwink and Bones and is based on the pulp writer J. M. (Jay) Flynn.

The skip-trace turns out to be more than it first appeared and not because of the case itself, but rather something Tamara stumbles across as she is working it. Unfortunately Tamara never gets the opportunity to tell either Nameless or Runyon her suspicions before she disappears, which acts as the catalyst for the climax of the novel.

Nightcrawlers is, simply put, damn entertaining. It is written in both first and third person—Nameless acts as his own narrator and the chapters in the perspective of Tamara and Jake are in third person. It works very well. It broadens the scope of the story without diminishing its personality. The perspective changes from chapter to chapter are easily detected (beyond the note at the top of each chapter) by subtle shifts in style and vocabulary. Tamara has the easy flow of the street, Jake is hardboiled and Nameless is just Nameless.

Tamara: “Now that she was here , out on a field job, she began to feel a little stoked.”

Jake: “The man himself was in his late thirties, short, dark, and cynical. The cynicism showed in his eyes, the set of his mouth, his voice.”

Nameless: “Russ Dancer, dying. Cirrhosis and emphysema. Refused to quit drinking or smoking, refused hospitalization or treatment beyond painkillers and an oxygen bottle that he carried around with him.”

The prose has the deceptive feel and flow of simplicity, but, in its stark hardboiled style, it is vividly saturated with the essence of the characters and their city: San Francisco. The setting is developed well and described in such a fashion that it makes the reader feel like she is in San Francisco moving between Market and Castro and all points between. The story builds upon itself with each page and chapter bringing with it a dry and edgy suspense.

Nightcrawlers is the real thing and a terrific entry in the series. Find a copy, read it, and pass it on because more people should be exposed to both Bill Pronzini and his other “Bill,” known as Nameless.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

TICKET TO RIDE by Ed Gorman

I've been ignoring DCU badly the last few weeks. I have a few posts planned and one nearly written--it was supposed to be finished yesterday, alas... However, I did find something that the regular readers will like. Ed Gorman's most recent Sam McCain novel is now available in mass market from Worldwide Mystery. It is the eighth in the series, and not, as reported in my review below, the last McCain novel. I've heard there is one more in the works, which is good news.

This review originally went live at
Gravetapping December 12, 2009.

The eighth, and reportedly last, Sam McCain novel opens in 1965 at a Vietnam peace rally in Black River Falls, Iowa. The rally is held in the local Presbyterian Church and after 90 minutes of the same arguments—being spoken by different people—McCain is ready to leave the rally for the comforts of a double feature at the drive-in. But then as the newest local superstar, a pretty boy named Harrison Doran, is speaking a man takes the stage and asks to rebut the protestor’s arguments.

The man is not only the father of a casualty of war, his son died in Da Nang, but he is also a prominent and wealthy resident of Black River Falls. His name is Lou Bennett, and it doesn’t take long for boos to start and the scene to turn ugly. There is an altercation between Doran and Bennett, and then later that night Bennett is found dead. Harrison Doran is the likeliest suspect. McCain doesn’t like Doran, but he is enlisted to defend him, and it is a position that makes Sam less than popular amongst the mostly conservative population.

Ticket to Ride
is a real treat. It features all of the regulars; the town’s pornographer, writer of sleaze, and McCain buddy Kenny Thibodeau, Judge Esme Anne Whitney, Jamie Newton—McCain’s guileless, but less than competent secretary—and the obnoxious and usually wrong police chief Clifford (Cliffie) Sykes, Jr. Mr Gorman perfectly captures the essence of small town America and he does it with a subtleness that never succumbs to cliché or stereotype. His characters are living, breathing people, who are never clearly good or bad—he shows their humanity in brief and poignant moments of vulnerability, weakness, and strength.
The plot is smooth and sharp; the prose is understated, readable and powerful—
“I wanted to say something smart, but his honesty surprised me. He was admitting that all the scorn hurt him. He had no right to tell me this, because, at least for the moment here, I had to feel bad about making fun of him all the time. Cliffie was supposed to be a cartoon. It pissed me off that he’d forced me to see him as a human being.”
The amazing achievement of Ticket to Ride is that it is written with a humor and innocent cynicism that allows the story a power of both place and time, and also a social commentary that is relevant for the story's Vietnam-era setting, as well as that of modern America. It is simple a brilliantly rendered private eye novel that is a wonderful addition to the series and the genre.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

STRANGLEHOLD by Ed Gorman

Dev Conrad—the cynical yet hopeful political consultant from Ed Gorman’s 2008 novel Sleeping Dogs—returns in Gorman’s latest novel Stranglehold. Conrad is a Chicago-based political consultant who has one serious flaw; he has a conscience. He plays to win, but he has an antiquated sense of fairness. A trait that isn’t in high demand in American politics.

Susan Cooper is an ideal candidate—she is attractive, intelligent, well spoken and personable—but as the election nears she becomes erratic and secretive. Dev Conrad is called in as a trouble-shooter to find out the problem and put a leash on the candidate. It’s not a quick fix however—Cooper is unmoved in her strange behavior and the clues Conrad finds lead him both to and away from his target.

Stranglehold is everything a mystery should be: dark, witty, plot driven, but populated by characters that matter, and it is never generic. Gorman takes a standard plot—murder, blackmail, lust—and breaths new life into it with twists that surprise the reader and invigorate the story. It is a murder mystery, but its cock-eyed slant tracks the story into unexpected territory.

The opening line reads: “All roads lead to motels.” A standard theme in detective fiction—the seedy motel where unspeakable madness occurs—but Gorman uses it as a kind of foil. Not a trick by any standard, but he turns the trope against itself as well as the reader.

Ed Gorman is the most reliable writer of suspense currently working. His plots—see above—are always clever and tight, his prose is smooth and hard at once, his narrative his steady and his dialogue is crystal. But his real power is with the people that populate his stories. His work has a dark cynicism about it, but that cynicism is rarely projected onto his characters. There is hope in the behavior of his characters—they tend to be kind, solid, melancholy and very real (flawed). The hero is as flawed as the antagonist, but it is the flaws, and how the character manages them, that generate compassion and interest from the reader.

Stranglehold is different from the first Dev Conrad novel: Sleeping Dogs. It is darker. There is less humor, although there is plenty if you enjoy your humor dry and subtle. The differences between the two novels is interesting only on an intellectual level because both are entertaining. The bottom line is, Stranglehold is the real deal. It is another example of just how good Ed Gorman is at his craft. It is also a reminder of the injustice that his name isn’t on the same lists as Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the rest of the high quality bestsellers.