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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IN THE DARK by Richard Laymon

The roll-up of Dorchester Publishing, or rather shift from publishing paper books to eBooks, which I think is essentially the last gasp before the company is dissolved, has put me in the mood to read Richard Laymon. Dorchester's Leisure brand was the first American publisher to give Laymon the support his work deserved and it published something like 25 of his novels; a few originals and many, many of his out-of-print, or never printed in the States, titles. Over the past few years the Leisure titles have been slowly slipping out-of-print and it, over the past few months, has made me realize how much I like much of his work.

It, Laymon's work, can be excessive with sex, albeit in a 13 year old fantasy sort of way, but when he tones it down he was one of the best writers of horror over the past few decades. A few of his best are The Traveling Vampire Show, In the Dark, Midnight Show, and Night in the Lonesome October. I'm rereading The Traveling Vampire Show now, which Laymon won a Bram Stoker Award for best novel in 2001, and enjoying it as much the second time as I did the first. With a little meloncholy, for the fate of Dorchester, I wanted to share a review of Richard Laymon's In the Dark that I originally posted at Gravetapping.

Richard Laymon is one of my favorite horror writers, and of the novels he wrote, two stand out as my favorites. The first is his Bram Stoker winning novel The Traveling Vampire Show and the second is his novel In The Dark. I recently reread In the Dark, and it was as good as I remembered, and my memory had built it pretty high, because it is the first straight horror novel I had read since I was a teenager. Sure I read the stray Stephen King and Dean Koontz, but I hadn’t ever really been much of a regular horror reader.

Then one autumn evening I stumbled across In the Dark at my local bookstore. It was the Dean Koontz blurb on the spine that caught my attention, but when I flipped to the first page and began to read I was hooked. In fact I spent the better part of the next year or so “catching up” on the horror field. I read Jack Ketchum, Graham Masterton, Edward Lee, Douglas Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Al Sarrantonio, and so many others I couldn’t possibly list them here—at least not list them and keep you reading.

Jane Kerry is the head librarian at the Donnerville Public Library. She is young, not too far out of college, and she only recently moved to Donnerville, so she hasn’t made many friends around town. Her existence is lonely, a little sad, and not very exciting. That all changes one evening just before closing time when she discovers a plain white envelope on her chair; it is addressed to JANE. Inside she finds a fifty-dollar bill and a note. The note reads:

Come and play with me. For further instructions, look homeward, angel. You’ll be glad you did.
The note is signed MOG (Master of Games), and it is the first of many notes that will lead Jane into increasingly dangerous situations with the promise of larger and larger monetary rewards. It will test not only Jane’s courage and perseverance, but also her ethics and morality.

In the Dark is a suspenseful, enjoyable, and all-around fun novel. Richard Laymon’s plotting is perfect—there are no questions left unanswered and he builds the suspense slowly, ratcheting it up until the climax, where he throws everything he can think of at the protagonist. The characters are likable—particularly Jane and her friend Brace—and he avoids, for the most part, the gratuitous sex and violence he is known for. The narrative does, at times, feel juvenile: towards the beginning Jane is searching an old cemetery for her reward from Mog, and her thoughts are less like an adult woman and more like an adolescent boy, but it works to create tension, and also endear the character to the reader.

In the Dark is one of the few Richard Laymon novels I would recommend to nearly anyone. If you enjoy suspense, horror, or simply well-crafted storytelling, In the Dark will be a good fit. But be warned, if you upset easily, or can’t handle much violence, tension, or a few graphic scenes, you should look elsewhere 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY

A new anthology has hit the streets and it is an event simply because it is an anthology—they seem to be drying up—and even better, it is an anthology of noir stories. It is edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler and titled Best American Noir of the Century. While the title might be a touch boastful, the book does contain some sweet stories and a bunch of them—it’s filled with 39 stories on 731 pages.

A few of the stories will surprise you—David Morrell’s “The Dripping,” which was Morrell’s first published story and it might be his best; and “Mefisto in Onyx” by Harlan Ellison, which is as much speculative as suspense. There are many others that most of us wouldn’t immediately identify as noir, but as they’re read, it becomes plain they are just different shades of the same dark place.

Twenty of the 39 stories were written in the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s hard to find fault with the selections. A few examples of post-1990 stories that really work are: “Out There in the Darkness” by Ed Gorman (1995), which is the seed material for his novel The Poker Club and is even better than the novel; James M. Halls’ “Crack” (1999); James Crumley’s “Hot Springs” (1996); and “What She Offered” by Thomas H. Cook (2005), a writer who has worked the crime story into something very close to literature.

While the last two decades lay claim to more than half of the selected stories, the editors didn’t forget the early generations of noir. The earliest story, “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, was originally published in 1923 and it also contains stories by several of the better noir writers of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s; including Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Mickey Spillane, David Goodis, Charles Beaumont, Gil Brewer, Evan Hunter, Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson.

The Best American Noir of the Century is the best anthology I’ve seen in years. There are no duds in the bunch and while I have my favorites, all of the stories are good. It is a book that you’ll read more than once and will claim a place on your bookshelf for years.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg

I’m a new arrival to the school of Robert Silverberg. I read The Book of Skulls in 2005 and I’ve made a point to read at least some Silverberg every year since. A few weeks ago I found a TOR Double—No. 26—that featured “Press Enter” by John Varley on one side and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” on the other. The TOR Double contained the text of the original short story published in Galaxy in 1967. The story was expanded and published as a novel in 1968.

Hawksbill Station is a penal colony used to segregate political dissidents from the general population. It is much like the Soviet gulags of the mid-Twentieth Century, except there are no guards, no fences and no returns. A wall of time, two billion years long, separates Hawksbill and the society that created it. It is on an Earth that has yet to witness its fish crawl from the sea. The camp’s only connection with the future, what the men call “Up Front,” is a device called the Hammer and Anvil—a time machine that only operates into the past. And it is the lifeline of the small penal colony.

“Hawksbill Station” is an intriguing story. It alters the Cold War prison tale into dystopian science fiction. While the model of the prison is clearly based on the Soviet-style gulag, the story is as much about capitalism as it is about communism—the idea being, oppression is oppression no matter its wrappings. With that said the politics of the story are less important, much less, than the story itself. The setting, as dark and desolate as it is, has a beautiful surreal sense—picture an Earth with no mammals and no flora inhabited by trilobites and several dozen banished men.

The story is only 86 pages in mass market, but Mr Silverberg, with a sparse and seemingly simple prose, is able to create both the world and the characters in a detail that many writers are unable to do in three- or four-hundred pages. He makes the characters, all of them, sympathetic and likable. The antagonist is two billion years from where the story is told and is really nothing more than the shadow of a bogeyman.

“Hawksbill Station” is the real deal. It is a science fiction story that tells something of who we are as a culture, and more importantly, what we are as individuals. It is a truly excellent story.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

David Morrell and the World Goes Digital

The Los Angeles Times published an interesting article/interview about David Morrell's decision to publish his upcoming novel The Naked Edge as an Amazon Kindle exclusive. In the interview portion of the article Morrell makes some good points about the benefits, for the author or owner of the copyright, to choose an eBook only format: 1) the reach of the product is higher--instead of reaching a potential audience of a few hundred million in four or five countries, the book can be sold instantly in over 100 countries; 2) the overhead costs are zero--no printing, warehousing, returns, etc.; and 3) he controls the copyright.

The eBook business model has the potential to change the publishing world as we know it. There are, and will continue to be, more quality books available: both older and out-print titles and never-before published titles by professional writers that, for whatever reason, never found a traditional publisher. It will enable the author to have more control over her body of work, and in a very real sense, give her a stronger bargaining position with traditional publishers because there is the option to self publish and reach a large marketplace without dealing with the headache of distribution.

The authors will also reap higher benefits by taking a significantly larger portion of the revenue, Amazon pays royalties in the neighborhood of 70% of gross, and the with the introduction of eBook readers that are usable, affordable and accepted on a mass scale the business model is viable. It is an exciting change in an industry that has been less than vibrant in the last few decades, but it, like all change, will be beneficial for some and disastrous for others. The big publishing houses have the most to lose.

If the eBook trend continues, and why wouldn't it, the traditional publishers have little to offer except editors. A service that is extremely valuable, but can be done without the extraordinary overhead that large business needs to operate; think a lone, experienced editor, in his study working for piece work farmed out by both new and established writers. Or maybe even an editor hired by a cooperative created by a group of writers. The possibilities are unlimited and, for good or bad, very much like traditional self-publishing--what will it do to the writer's organizations like MWA, HWA, SFWA, etc? How will it affect brick-and-mortar bookstores? Badly, no doubt, for both.

The future is an uncharted place. It is anticipated with trepidation, fear and hope. The eBook is a device that I have fought against, internally at least, but now give a grudging acceptance. It is here and offers something new and interesting to, maybe, invigorate an industry that has grown tired from abuse and lack of interest. Is it the "new thing" that will save story-telling, in prose form, or will it prove to be a short-lived trend? Only time will tell, but at least the question brings some hope to everyone who enjoys a good story.

To read the LA Times article click Here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

WHEN OLD MEN DIE by Bill Crider

Bill Crider is best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery novels, but his work is not limited to any one genre—he has written Western, horror and even, in his early years, men’s adventure—or style. His Dan Rhodes mysteries tend to be a mixture of hardboiled and whodunit with a touch of humor to keep it fresh. I’m a big fan of the Dan Rhodes novels, but I’m also a fan of Bill Crider’s work in general. I especially enjoy a series written by Mr Crider in the early- to mid-1990s featuring part-time and usually unwilling private investigator Truman Smith, which is more hardboiled than the Sheriff Dan Rhodes stories, but there is still a compelling mystery and that extra touch of humor.

I recently read the third Truman Smith novel, When Old Men Die. It was published by Walker and Company in 1994. Truman is finally beginning to put the disappearance and murder of his sister behind him. He has a steady job with a bail bondsman in Galveston, Texas and the novel opens when he is approached by Dino, one of his oldest pals, to find a homeless man called Outside Harry.

Truman is a little dubious of the whole setup. He can’t figure why Dino wants to find Outside Harry, and Dino’s explanation that Harry was his friend doesn’t wash. But Smith owes Dino and he commits to look for Harry over the weekend. It only takes a few hours for Truman to find trouble followed by more and then more trouble until he has to either solve the case or get out of Galveston altogether.

When Old Men Die
is an entertaining story with all of Bill Crider’s trademarks—the mystery is tight and superbly plotted, the characters are eccentric with muddy motives, and the humor is good natured and funny. The style and theme, or maybe the attitude, is more hardboiled than much of what Mr Crider is currently writing, but it works and works well. The setting is pitch-perfect—Galveston is described, both past and present, with nuanced detail by a writer who obviously knows and likes the city. The prose is lucid and smooth with enough bite to make it interesting—
“There were three quick shots, two of them scoring the floor; the third once glanced of the flashlight and spent it spinning crazily.”
A detail I really enjoyed about the novel is Truman Smith’s cat Nameless. A name, or lack thereof, that is conspicuously similar to Bill Pronzini’s long running Nameless Detective series. The best part is, Nameless is a cat in every detail—

“He’s big and yellowish orange, with gray-green eyes. He took his time about entering. He looked up at me as if to ask where I’d been all evening, then stretched and gawked and looked behind him before stepping daintily through the door.”
When Old Men Die is worth seeking out and finding. It will keep you entertained to the very end.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Used Books and the Internet

I have mixed feelings about purchasing used books on the Internet. I like the vast selection and, often, the inexpensive prices, but I've been burned several times by the actual condition of the book against the seller's stated condition and even, on more than one occasion, the seller's advertised edition of the book versus the actual edition that arrives in my mailbox.

I had a recent experience at eBay that was disappointing. I found a lot of eight Richard Laymon titles, all published by Leisure, that were advertised as "like new." I watched the books for nearly a week and placed my bid on the final day of the auction. I won. I was excited. And I paid within minutes of the auction's close. Then a little over a week later the package arrived. I anxiously opened it--a small box--and inside were the eight books. The titles were correct. The editions were correct. Unfortunately the condition was far less than expected. I expected books that were very close to new in condition, but I received books that were very well used and very well worn.

My excitement quickly turned to disappointment because I wanted the books to both read and keep. I sold most of my Richard Laymon novels several years ago and over the past several months I have wanted to replace some of my favorites. Titles like The Traveling Vampire Show, One Rainy Night, Night in the Lonesome October and a few others. The lot I purchased had the first two titles along with a couple books I haven't read. But now every time I look at the books I get a little annoyed, shake my head, and I'm reminded that I could have purchased the four titles I really wanted from a new bookstore for only a few dollars more than I paid for these beat up and abused paperbacks.

These are the Laymon novels purchased on eBay
I guess what I'm really getting at is, I'm going to miss brick and mortar bookstores if and when they disappear for the simple reason that I can walk in, pick up the book, thumb through the pages and know exactly what I'm purchasing. In a very real sense I already miss that feeling and the bookstores aren't gone yet. At least not completely.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Booklist's Top Ten Westerns of the Decade

Booklist  has a list of its picks for the top ten Westerns of the decade; 2001 to 2010. The list is interesting and surprising, to me at least, because I have read only two of the novels. There are some familiar authors on the list--Loren Estleman, Robert Parker, Tim Champlin, Elmer Kelton and Bill Brooks.

I'm a little skeptical of it, too. Of the ten novels four were, or will be, published in 2010, which means that 2010 is either a renaissance year for Western fiction or the writer of the article tended to have a memory for his most recent reads. But all in all its not a bad listing of authors and there are more than a few that I added to my ever increasing list of books to read.

To read the article click Here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ONE FOR HELL by Jada M. Davis

Stark House Press is gearing up for its release—in October—of a reprint of a Fawcett Red Seal original in 1952 titled One for Hell and written by Jada M. Davis. A writer I wasn’t familiar with and after reading it, I really don’t know why. It is terrific and one of the best hardboiled noir tales I’ve read. It resembles the work of two pulp writers, W. L. Heath—particularly Violent Saturday—and Jim Thompson. It has the violence and dark shadows of Thompson and the sociology of secrets that Heath did so well.

Willa Ree is a drifter and a petty criminal. The novel opens with Ree riding the rails toward a small Texas boomtown. His plan is simple: fleece the town and move on. What happens is beyond Ree’s expectations and the town looks better to him by the minute. 

One for Hell is pure entertainment. There isn’t a protagonist. The supporting cast, Willa Ree is the main player, come and go like visitors to an amusement park. One by one they ratchet the pressure on Ree until he is ready to break. And one by one Ree pushes them aside until he no longer has the ability.

The plot is tight and woven with a sophistication of character, morality and corruption. The town has secrets—everyone has something to hide and Ree uses this underlying human weakness to his advantage. He culls his enemies, the weaker ones first, from the herd and eliminates them. He has a girlfriend who is an arch-type, flawed at that, of woman. She has all the strengths and the weaknesses and most are both—a desire to trust, to love and believe. She is the light of the story and the hope.

The action is developed with a solidity and audacity that separates this novel from so many others of its type. There is a scene in the middle part of the novel that covers 18 pages that changed my view of what can be done with both violence and action in a prose story. It rolled like a freight train in the dark hard night. It changed Ree from a smalltime hoodlum to a big time psychopath. It was the crux of the story, the beginning of the end for Willa Ree, and the push that leads the reader into his twisted mind.

There really isn’t anything flat in One for Hell. Everything works. From the plot to the characters to the psychology to the prose and it wraps itself together without the reader really knowing that it is happening. Willa Ree spends much of his time trying to guess the actions and motives of other people and the internal dialogue is simple and interesting:
“Maybe the old woman knew. Or maybe she found it, though not likely. Baldy wasn’t a trusting sort of person, and she wouldn’t have guessed he had money in the first place. He sat on the trunk and surveyed the room. Pictures? Too simple.”
One for Hell is proof that Stark House is one of the best publishers of classic crime fiction. This, like all of its releases, is still fresh and vibrant all these years later and it is going to be on my bookshelf for a very long time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Revenge is Bitter-Sweet" by H. A. DeRosso

H. A. DeRosso is best known for his dark Westerns. His better work is unusual—it tends toward dark, but it has vibrant and visceral settings and descriptions. His protagonists tend to be indecisive and lost. His work is frequently, and correctly, compared with Cornell Woolrich’s bleak and violent noir.

His Westerns are amazing. They were original in an era when the genre was cluttered with stereotypes and cheese, but he was also an accomplished writer of pulp crime. His crime stories vary from readable to damn good; an example of the later is his 1960 story “The Hired Man”. I recently found a crime story he wrote in the collection Alfred Hitchcock’s Death Bag. It is titled “Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” and, while it isn’t as nearly as good as “The Hired Man,” it is an entertaining and well developed story.

Will Owen is bitter and angry. Another man caused his father’s death and the woman he loves is lost to him. The story opens with a late night appointment in the woods. Will is anxious, but it’s not from pleasant expectation. He is anxious because he is he is going to get some long awaited revenge for his father’s death.

“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” is a twisty story with a surprise ending—it opens rushing down one avenue and quickly turns down another. The climax, and the twist, is planted early in the story. The author didn’t cheat. Unfortunately it was also quite easy to guess the surprise before it was revealed. A situation that would destroy most stories, but it didn’t matter much with this one. It was the journey and the writing that made it work.

The protagonist is a believable character that displays emotions relevant to us all—sorrow, anger and guilt in shifting shades. The setting is brilliantly conceived and executed to support the thematic emotions of the story. It is a dark and gloomy rural wilderness that matches the internal sufferings of the protagonist. A place that is likely very much like Mr DeRosso’s native Wisconsin.

The prose isn’t exactly hardboiled, but it is far from delicate. There are passages that feel like a dark and masculine poetry—
“The car stopped. The lights winked out. The night shadows dwelt in unruffled peace again.”
“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which is one of the more mainstream magazines that published Mr DeRosso’s work. And it is easy to identify the difference between this story—aimed at the fat part of the market—and his Westerns, which tended to be published in smaller, edgier magazines. The elements are all there, but it is muted just enough that it loses the gritty power of his best work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SWAS: William Herbert Dunton

Crow Outlier, c. 1896? Oil.
William Herbert (Buck) Dunton was born in the state of Maine in 1878. His art schooling was conducted over decades. He attended both the Cowles Art School in Boston, Massachusetts and later the Art Students League in New York City. Mr Dunton, as a young man, earned his living primarily as an illustrator for both magazines and children's books.

In 1896 he made a trip to the Western United States, particularly Montana, and was enthralled by its landscape and people. He continued to live in the East, but he spent time each year traveling across the Mountain states. In 1914 he permanently relocated to Taos, New Mexico and earned his living primarily as a Western artist. During the Great Depression he turned to the painting of portraits as his primary source of income. In 1935 he was diagnosed with cancer and he died early in 1936.

Crow Outlier is an oil painting. It, like much of Dunton's Western art, has a rich texture with thick brush strokes and brilliant colors. It beautifully captures both the Western landscape and the solitary, ostracized Crow warrior. I have a print hanging on my wall and the rich and vibrant scene is always an amazement to me. It is purported to have been painted in 1896, but I have my doubts and believe it was painted much later, possibly in the second decade of the 20th Century.

If you would like a professional poster print of this painting please email me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Giveaway

I found a terrific copy of Jack Higgins' Dark Side of the Street in a thrift shop and as a celebration of the new blog--the one you're reading--I want to run a contest to give it away. Dark Side of the Street is the fifth of six novels Jack Higgins wrote in the 1960s that chronicle the adventures of super spy Paul Chavesse. It was originally published in 1967 under the moniker Martin Fallon, a name you will read occasionally in some of Higgins' other work, and this particular copy was published in the 1980s by Signet. It is one of two Paul Chavesse novels that are out-of-print in the United States. The other out-of-print Chavesse novel, Midnight Never Comes, was reworked and published in the early-1990s as On Dangerous Ground.

If you are interested in entering the contest you need only do two things: 1) send an email to zulu1611@yahoo.com with a subject line that reads "Jack Higgins Giveaway" and include a mailing address where it can be sent, or if you prefer you can provide your mailing address when I give notice that you won; 2) complete the first task by 11:59 PM MDT, August 28, 2010.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene

I haven’t read much Graham Greene, but the few novels I have read—generally with years in between—I have enjoyed. And with every novel I read, without fail, I wonder why I don’t read more of his work. I recently read his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American. It was originally published in 1955 and it literarily documents, through the actions of a young American agent, the seeds of the United States’ entry, as combatants, into Vietnam.

The Quiet American is told in first person by an aging British newspaper journalist named Thomas Fowler. The novel’s opening scene has the arrival of a French policeman with news of the murder of one of Fowler’s friends. A young American named Alden Pyle. Pyle worked for the U. S. Economic Aid Mission in Saigon. He is an idealist who believes it is both possible and without doubt that the U. S. can bring democracy to Vietnam.

Pyle’s knowledge of Vietnam is based on the work of a journalist named York Harding who has written several works about communism in Asia. Harding wrote of a “Third Force”—something like the partisans in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War Two—that could rally the people into a popular rising for democracy. The only problem, Vietnam is not Europe and the world is never as simple as we would like it.

The Quiet American is a prescient novel. It was first published 10 years prior to the first major U. S. battle in Vietnam, Ia Drang, but it deftly and accurately defines many of the problems that the United States faced in Vietnam. It explores the gung-ho naïveté with which the U. S. Government entered the country. It foretells the debacle U. S. intelligence services would create with their secret wars and covert operations. But the most interesting is its view of America and Americans as innocents unfamiliar with the world beyond its own borders.

It is a novel that is rich with both historical perspective and its contemporary world. The author obviously loved Vietnam; it is painted with a tapestry of vivid description and loving detail. It is a literary thriller—in the best sense of that term. It is a story first, but Graham Greene expertly weaves ideas, characters and truths into the narrative in a manner that they become an intricate and necessary part of the story.

The Quiet American
is also a metaphor for the end of the British Empire and the rise of a young America as a superpower. Pyle is the new—he is young, strong and full of ideals and ideas. Fowler is the old—he is cynical, knowledgeable and somewhat world weary and frightened. He is scared of age, but mostly he is frightened of losing his status and potency as a man.

The Quiet American
is a wonderful novel. The writing is smooth with a certain antiseptic feel—the reader views the events very much as a spectator, but the performance is so compelling that it envelopes the reader with its dark and cynical view of how things are. Its view of America is rough, but it is done in a way that is forgiving and understanding; almost in a manner of a parent disapproving of his child.

The Quiet American is, in short, the best novel I have read this year. It is appealing as both a suspense novel and literature. Its themes are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and the story (the plotting, the description and setting) is brilliantly executed. If you haven’t read this novel you should.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

SWAS: Irving R. Bacon

The Conquest of the Prairie, 1908. Oil on canvas.









 

Irving Reuben Bacon was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1862. He studied art at Munich, Germany. He was a student of William Merritt Chase. Irving R. Bacon is best known for his portraits of the Ford family; he was sponsored by Henry Ford as a protege.  Mr. Bacon died in 1962.

His styles varied dramatically from theme to theme. He painted cityscapes with broad, rough strokes and a loose European style. Reuben Bacon's American West themed art was painted with a more controlled realism that captured the West much as it must have been. His art, specifically his frontier themed art, was popular during his lifetime and continues to be very collectible.

The Conquest of the Prairie
is an oil on canvas painted in 1908. Its smooth realistic lines capture the crisis of the westward migration of the pioneers to the native Indian tribes. Its subtle portrayal of the approaching wagons pushing the buffalo past the stationary Indian encampment vividly captures the end of one era and the beginning of another.

If you would like a high quality poster print of this painting, or any of the other paintings featured in our Sunday Western Art Series, please contact me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Dorchester -- the Death of Mass Market?

Sad news this week from Dorchester Publishing. As of this coming Monday, August 9 it will switch business models from a mass market publisher to a digital and print-on-demand only service. I'm not sure how it will affect the availability of new titles. My assumption is that its future titles will be available on the major Internet bookstores as ebooks, but as far as the print-on-demand versions I'm a little skeptical. My guess is the prices will increase dramatically and the quality of the physical book will decrease.

This looks very much like the beginning of the end of mass markets. A book form that brought reading to the masses simply because it was inexpensive. But just as the mass market ended the run of the pulps and slicks, the ebook seems to be the end of mass market.

With this move the electronic book reading device appears to be gaining not only prominence over physical books, but it is also now moving from luxury to a necessity for readers of new books. This may be the mark where paper books become the luxury.

I hope that Dorchester finds success with its new plans because an ebook only Dorchester is much better than no Dorchester at all.   

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about Dorchester Here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"In a Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald

I originally wrote this review July 31, 2010 for Gravetapping, but I recently reread "In a Small Motel" and I was blown away all over again. The amount of story John D loaded "In a Small Motel" is impressive, but it is almost awe inspiring that he was able to tell an interesting and well-plotted story with a richly textured atmosphere and an abundance of humanity without many words.

"In a Small Motel" is in my top two or three favorite short stories of all time. You should find a copy and read it.
 
This week I have another short story to talk about from the nifty anthology American Pulp; an anthology that every reader of hardboiled mystery should own because it simply rocks. The story: “In a Small Motel” by John D. MacDonald. It was originally published in the July 1956 issue of Justice.

Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.

As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.

The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.

“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:
“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”
And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.

“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is, however, a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out.

There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, hear the cars on the highway, smell the exhaust, and feel the empty and hard fear that escalates from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

SWAS: N. C. Wyeth

Above the Sea of Round, Shiny Backs the Thin Loops Swirled and Shot into Volumes of Dust, 1904. 
Newell Convers Wyeth, known popularly as N. C. Wyeth, was born in Needham, Massachussets in 1882. He was a pupil of Howard Pyle at his School of Art in Wilmington, Delaware. Wyeth is best known for his illustrations of classic children's literature. His first illustrated book was for the Charles Scribner's Sons edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. He went on to illustrate more than a dozen classic novels, for both Charles Scribner's Sons and other publishers, including Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deer Slayer and Kidnapped.

Howard Pyle emphasized that the artist should paint from his experiences and N. C. Wyeth took his advice seriously. He traveled to the Western United States three times between 1904 and 1906. It was this period and later that he painted many of his best Western paintings, including the featured oil on canvas above. He died in 1944, but his work continues to inspire and help define the romantic vision of the early American West. N. C. Wyeth's son, Andrew, and grandson James, are also successful artists.

Above the Sea of Round, Shiny Backs the Thin Loops Swirled and Shot into Volumes of Dust was painted at Colorado in 1904. N. C. Wyeth was only 22 years of age when he painted this beautiful and romantic piece. It has a richly textured style that captures both the harshness of the Western desert and the lifestyle of the working cowboy. Its colors are muted, which focuses the audiences attention to the panicked horses and the working cowboys. It is a truly beautiful painting.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

MASTERSON by Richard S. Wheeler

I don't have a Kindle, or any kind of ebook reader, but with the growing list of older novels reappearing on Amazon it probably won't be too long until I buy one. The latest that made me wish for a Kindle is an older Western (not really that old, but it is out-of-print) written by Richard S. Wheeler and titled Masterson. It features an aging Bat Masterson in the early Twentieth century. The Publisher's Weekly review is terrific. It, in part reads: "This is classic Wheeler, a solid story about real people told with wit, compassion and a bit of whimsy."

No one writes the biographical novel quite like Richard Wheeler. If you have a Kindle, or the free download of its reader for the PC or Mac, you might want to try this one. It's $3.99 and worth every penny. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

TESTAMENT by David Morrell

I have been reading the work of David Morrell since I was a teenager. The first novel I read was Brotherhood of the Rose and then I quickly read its two succeeding, loosely related novels, The Fraternity of the Stone and The League of Night and Fog. It is a trilogy that is related by theme rather than character, although one character does appear in two of the three novels. If you haven’t read them, you should.

The point? Other than David Morrell is a terrific writer? I recently reread Mr. Morrell’s second novel, Testament, and really had a good time. It is a suspense novel with a stark and brutal plot and even better writing. It is similar to First Blood in that both are essentially chase novels. The difference between the two are the characters—John Rambo is a major league tough guy with not much to lose, and Reuben Bourne (the protagonist in Testament) is a family man with everything to lose.

The novel opens with Bourne and his family—his wife, his young daughter and his infant son—enjoying the morning meal, but everything is about to fall apart. He is a writer and several months earlier he wrote an unflattering article about a Militia leader. When it was published the subject of the article threatened Bourne and his family, but Bourne didn’t think much about it until the final morning with his family; a morning that left Bourne a shattered, scared and a nearly broken man.

Testament opens with a flash. The opening line reads:
“It was the last morning the four of them would ever be together: the man and his wife, his daughter and his son.”
And it never lets up. The chase begins in Bourne’s house, but it quickly moves to a small cabin in a rural town. Then it moves into the wilderness where Bourne is drawn to his limit. It is written in a starkly realistic style. The action is quick, hard and believable. There is a scene in a ghost town—a town that isn’t marked on any maps, a town that is nearly intact, the buildings upright, whiskey still on shelves, glasses and plates set at tables and blankets and beds—where a battle ensues between Bourne and his pursuers that is as well written and suspenseful as anything I have read.

I came across Testament late. I read it for the first time in 2005, but it has become my favorite of David Morrell’s novels for the simple reason that it terrifies me. The situation is frightening—a man against real, solid bogeymen who also must battle the harsh reality of winter in a wilderness without provisions. It is something of a mix between Jack London and a Geoffrey Household title, Rogue Male. It is reminiscent of these older tales, but it also fresh and invigorating, even nearly forty years after its first publication.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Sunday Western Art Series

Carl Oscar Borg. Sons of the Desert, c. 1925. Oil on canvas.
Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947) emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1901. He was an art teacher in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, and worked as a theater stage painter in both the United States and England. He is best known for his later work of the American West, particularly of the Southwest deserts.  

Sons of the Desert is a romanticized vision of the West. It portrays the rugged beauty of the land with the mythological vision of the men who inhabited it. It is a truly beautiful painting with its soft lines and rough, broad strokes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Trailer: Neverland by Douglas Clegg

It has been sometime since I posted a book trailer, but when I saw this one I just had to. It's the best trailer I've seen. A trendy little computer animated film. It is two parts spooky, two part alluring and one part cool.  

The book itself is a new edition of one of Clegg's early novels. Unfortunately it is one I haven't read, but need to.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

THE FLY ON THE WALL by Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman is a writer who nearly slipped past me. He was a bestseller in my teenage years and I have always had a slight bias against the big sellers because I thought, and rightly so in many cases, that their fiction was overstuffed and vapid. But Tony Hillerman’s fiction certainly does not fall in that category. It is both lively and interesting—very, very interesting. His work deserved to be a bestseller because he was a damn fine writer, which should be a requirement to finding a place on the lists.

I recently read one of his early novels, The Fly on the Wall, originally published in 1971 by Harper & Row. It is the first Hillerman novel I have read that didn’t star either (or both) Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn and I really enjoyed it. The protagonist is a political writer for the Tribune named John Cotton. The location is never fully identified, but the descriptions and climate make it seem like an Eastern state, maybe, probably, a place like Virginia.

It opens with Cotton writing his column, an hour or so before deadline, when a jubilantly drunk colleague interrupts him with the news that he has a huge story about the state governor’s office. Cotton doesn’t pay much attention, but a few minutes later the man falls to his death in the state capitol building. He doesn’t really make any connections there either, except that his reporter’s instinct makes him curious about the story. Then things start to happen that make Cotton more and more curious.

The Fly on the Wall is a whodunit with enough intrigue and action to make it more akin to an American-style crime novel than the old British Agatha Christie-style mystery. It is plotted with a precision that only solid and professional whodunits are, but it is also filled with suspense and, in a few scenes, violence—not just the hint of violence, but actual violence. There is one scene in particular that lifts this novel above most in the category; a scene just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico (in the only chapter of the novel that the protagonist is outside the bleak wintery locale of his newspaper job) that is a beautifully rendered chase scene. It is a scene that could have been lifted from an early David Morrell novel, but at the same time it is all Tony Hillerman.

The novel has a sense of reality to it. Mr Hillerman was a newspaperman, and the book acts as a guide to what the industry must have been like in the 1960s and 70s, particularly what it must have been like to be a political reporter: the deals and counter-deals; trying to report factually while also not angering the politicians enough to freeze you out; the jaded cynicism matched against the idealistic sentiment of the job.

The Fly on the Wall was, according the Wikipedia, Hillerman’s second novel, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a man learning his trade. It is full-bodied and has sense of importance. It is as fresh today as it was when it was first published.  In fact as I read it, it felt as though it was written yesterday, and I bet the same will be true in ten years and then again in another ten.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Handful (plus one) of Jim Thompson Trailers

We all know who Jim Thompson is, thanks in part to the original Black Lizard Crime line. There is a new film out based on his novel The Killer Inside Me that looks really good. While I was watching the trailer I went on a little hunt and found a handful of trailers for movies based on the work of Jim Thompson. 

The Killer Inside Me, 2010



Hit Me, 1996, from the novel A Swell-Looking Babe.

 

The Getaway, 1993



The Grifters, 1990



After Dark, My Sweet, 1990



The Getaway, 1972. Is it just me, or does this trailer have the same soundtrack as The Rockford Files?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

THE RED MOON by Warren Murphy

Warren Murphy is best known for his The Destroyer series (he co-created it with the late Richard Sapir), but his body of work is impressively diverse. He has authored everything from horror to mystery to suspense to fantasy. He won two Edgar Awards and two Shamus Awards in the 1980s and, while he has been silent for nearly two decades, he is a giant in the field.

I have a weakness for all his work, but I am particularly fond of his suspense novels. I recently read his 1982 novel The Red Moon and it is as exciting, vibrant and interesting today as it must have been when it was published nearly thirty years ago. It seemingly has an interesting history—a history that I am guessing at. It appears to have been written as a novelization for a film that was never released. The copyright holders are Davis/Panzer Productions (a production company that produced the “Highlander” television series) and Stan Corwin Productions.

While the genesis for the novel is somewhat shadowy, the novel is wonderfully so. It chronicles the story of one Christopher Caldwell—a former CIA agent who dropped off the radar when his wife and child were murdered in a car bombing. He is reluctantly pulled back into the clandestine world of murder and betrayal when his father-in-law is found dead in what is ruled a fishing accident. The canvas is broad and it includes World War Two art theft, oil, Iran—it was published a mere three years after the Shah was deposed—greed, secrets and betrayal.

The Red Moon was a paperback original published by Fawcett Gold Medal—a line that has sadly disappeared—and it is very much a novel of its time. The plot is straight out of the 1980s: Nazi hunters, big oil, Mideast plotting, sinister corporations and corrupt politicians. The style is different from many of Warren Murphy’s suspense novels—there is less humor, although he does have some fun with two Israeli Mossad agents who tend to speak with British accents, and it reads something like a contemporary Robert Ludlum novel, less the annoying exclamation marks.

While The Red Moon is different than some of Mr Murphy’s work it is no less entertaining. It is sharply plotted; the story unwinds with just enough surprises to keep the reader wondering. The bad guys are introduced as the story moves forward, and a few are genuine surprises. The prose is simple and effective and the dialogue is expertly used to both explain the characters motives and quicken the pace to the next crisis.

In short, The Red Moon is an entertaining suspense novel. It is large and complicated (376 pages in mass market), but it reads much more quickly than many novels in the genre. It is also one of Mr Murphy’s better suspense novels, which is high praise, and is well worth seeking out a copy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Birth of a Monster" by Richard Stark

I found a small collection of old digest-sized science fiction magazines in a thrift shop last summer and I finally seriously looked them over this past weekend. The first is a magazine titled Super-Science Fiction. It is the August, 1959 issue and it is filled with a decent collection of science fiction and horror. There are eight stories, and four are by Robert Silverberg, under various pseudonyms.

The story I want to talk about today however is by Donald E. Westlake, written as by Richard Stark. It’s title: “Birth of a Monster”. It is the story of a doctor who gets a late night call from a man whose wife is in labor and, even though the soon-to-be mother isn’t a patient, he agrees to rush to the couple’s home and deliver the baby. Once there the doctor discovers something a little unusual.

“Birth of a Monster” is a decent little pulp story. It is straight up horror, but Mr Westlake played with the tropes just a bit; to tell how would ruin the tale. The language is stilted and sharp and adds to the slight unease that the story creates in its reader—
“He hung up, hurried back to the bedroom and dressed. He knew the estate, at the end of Larchmont Road. Empty for years.”
It is told quickly, which keeps the reader from jumping ahead to the final twist before it arrives. It reminded me just a little of an early Richard Matheson story, although not quite as vibrant and polished. And while it is not as mature and solid as Mr Westlake’s later work (he was only 26 when it was published) it is a story that will bring a smile. At least it did for me.

And as for those Robert Silverberg stories. I'm reading them, or at least savoring the thought of reading them, as I type. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Adventureland" and "Diggers"

I'm a sucker for independently produced coming of age stories and over the past few months I've seen two that I want to recommend. The first is a film starring Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart called Adventureland.

James Brennan is a recent college graduate who has planned to spend the summer in Europe with a friend, but his father is demoted, and his plans quickly evaporate. Instead he finds himself working a summer job at an amusement park. It is a dead end, but he finds something there that he didn't at college; a view of the future and the world.

It was directed by Greg Mottola, of Superbad fame, but it isn't the same type of film. The humor is more muted and the story is, while admittedly just a bit self-indulgent, more intact and interesting. And it's essentially a carny movie. How can you go wrong?
  


Click Here to visit Adventureland's IMDB page. 

The second film is a Paul Rudd vehicle titled Diggers. It is different than Adventureland. Its focus is on a group of friends approaching middle age in the late-1970s. Their world is changing, as it always does, and each friend has to find a new way to live. It is a comedy, dark at times, that made me laugh and think at the same time. There are also a few poignant moments about life, love and escaping the shadow of not only your own past, but also that of your parents and family.

Diggers was directed by Katherine Dieckmann and written by Dan Marino. It stars Paul Rudd, an actor who has grown on me since I was first underwhelmed by him in his Friends role, Ron Eldard, Maura Tierney, and Dan Marino. It was released in 2006.



Click Here to visit Digger's IMDB page.

These are both films that, if you like this type of story, you will enjoy. They are both definitely worth a look.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Len Deighton? John Le'Carre? Or...?

An interesting AP story hit the Internet this afternoon...
"The FBI has arrested 10 people for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia's intelligence organ, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles.

"According to court papers unsealed Monday, the FBI intercepted a message from SVR headquarters, Moscow Center, to two of the defendants describing their main mission as "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US." Intercepted messages showed they were asked to learn about a broad swath of topics including nuclear weapons, U.S. arms control positions, Iran, White House rumors, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, the Congress and political parties.
"After a secret multiyear investigation, the Justice Department announced the arrests Monday in a blockbuster spy case that could rival the capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York."
To read the entire story click Here to be transported to ABC News.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A CASE OF NEED by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton was a writer who knew how to write, and what he chose to write seemingly meant something to him. His later novels tended to deal with science, technology and ethics, and his early works—particularly the novels written “as by”—dealt with both youth and culture in a strikingly simple and meaningful manner. His 1968 novel A Case of Need written as by Jeffery Hudson is not only the best of his early works, but it is also arguably his best novel.

John Berry is a pathologist at a Boston hospital and the novel opens with a heart surgeon ranting about losing a patient on the table. Berry doesn’t pay much attention because this is how the surgeon deals with the stress and anger of a lost patient. The rant, like everything in the novel, has the subtle feel of reality and prepares the scene for the main crux of the novel: an abortion gone wrong. A procedure that was illegal when the novel was published and no less controversial than it is today.

Dr. Art Lee is an OBGYN and an abortionist. He is also one of John Berry’s best friends. When a young woman dies in an ER hemorrhaging from a botched abortion, Dr. Lee is the primary suspect. This sets the novel in motion—John Berry is certain his friend didn’t perform the procedure and he wants to clear Dr. Lee’s name, but his motives become less clear as the novel unravels.

A Case of Need
is a crossroads novel between Mr Crichton’s early pulp adventure novels and his larger, more complex modern novels. It is something like a DMZ between the John Lange thrillers and The Andromeda Strain. It features many of the hallmarks of his later works, particularly cultural and medical ethics, but it is wrapped in a damn terrific mystery. It won an Edgar in 1969 for best novel and it represents Crichton’s talent at its highest.

What truly separates A Case of Need from the herd is its setting, theme and dialogue. The setting is the world of medicine. It clearly focuses the reader’s attention on not only what it is like, or was like, to be a work-a-day physician, but it also thematically explores the ethical decisions that lurk in the industry. It gives a murky representation of abortion and its relation to both physicians who perform the procedure and those who do not. And the dialogue is vintage Crichton; it moves the story forward in quick and linear fashion.

There really isn’t anything about the novel that is weak or underdeveloped. The prose is strong and vivid:
“All heart surgeons are bastards, and Conway is no exception. He came storming into the path lab at 8:30 in the morning, still wearing his green surgical gown and cap, and he was furious.”
The mystery is plotted perfectly and the suspense is built as well as any novel I have read. It begins with what appears to be a moment of subterfuge—the angry heart surgeon—but ties the seemingly out-of-place opening scene perfectly into the theme of the story; the imperfect surgeon struggling with his own limitations and balancing the imperfections of society with the needs and demands of his patients.

A Case of Need is a terrific novel that is as relevant and entertaining today as it was forty years ago. In a sense it is very much a novel of its time, but it also has a timeless quality in that the questions it never quite answers will continue to debated generations from now. And it very well may be the evidence we need to prove Michael Crichton was from another world. He really was that good, and this novel proves it.