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.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE

There is a new film based on the Max Brand novel Luck. It doesn't look traditional, in fact it looks more like a movie based on an Elmore Leonard crime novel than a classic Western. It does, however, look interesting. The title is a long one: Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do with It). It has a paltry rating of 3.9 out of 10 stars at IMdB, so it should probably be viewed with discretion and skepticism, due to both the poor rating and what, from the trailer, appears to be a heavy dose of gore and violence.

But it's a Western.



Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do with It) was directed and written by Lance Doty. It is is directorial debut, but he does have a few writing and producing credits, including another film I haven't seen called Noise. There are also a few recognizable faces in the cast, including the always working character actor James Russo who was in both Open Range and "Broken Trail".

Saturday, June 19, 2010

NORTH STAR by Richard S. Wheeler

This is another reposted review. I was in Memphis, Tennessee the last two weeks for work, I arrived back in town last night, and Dark City has been pretty quiet. In fact, although I neglected to mention it, the last two reviews were also reposts. But I do have some new material coming soon.

Richard Wheeler has taken some heat on the Internet the last several weeks for his opinions about the genre Western novel. He thinks it needs to die for a more relevant Western novel to find success in the modern world. I'm not sure I completely agree with him, but he does make some goods points.

I do know that Mr Wheeler is a pretty terrific writer of both Westerns and historical novels. For my money he is in the top ten of his generation and his work has gained strength in both its style and content over the years. He gets better and better. Here is a review of his most recent Barnaby Skye series. A series that is anything but dead. There are at least two more titles expected in the series.

The Skye novels are unique. They are a blend of the historical literary with the tall-tale dime novel. The characters—Skye particularly—are larger than life, but the beauty of the west and the context of the novels is pure literature. North Star is the 17th title and it is no exception. It is well-written, beautifully detailed, and a touch melancholy as, what feels like the final Barnaby Skye story, is told.

Mister Skye is breaking down with age. He is sixty-five. His eyesight is blurring, and his body aches from too many cold nights on the hard ground beneath his lodge. He yearns for a home: A white man’s home with a wood floor, windows, a soft bed, furniture and rocking chair on the front porch. He has witnessed the west from the early days of the fur trade to the current westward expansion of the white man. It is the end an era—the west is opening up for the homesteader and rancher, but it is closing around the Indian tribes like a noose.

Skye is not a wealthy man. The fur is long since gone and there is little need for guide work in these modern times. He and his two Indian wives—Victoria and Mary—live with Victoria’s Absaroka People. Skye knows money will be a problem, but he also knows he needs a home to grow old in. He also has a place in mind in the Yellowstone Valley. It is a place where the old trappers would often meet in the old days and share stories and trade goods. It is near water, there are warm springs, game and enough beauty to last forever. Unfortunately—as is usually the case—everything that can go wrong, does.

North Star
is a melancholy story. It is a story about age and change, but it is also a story about returns—Skye has stayed clear of his own people. He has lived with the Indians for years, but as age captures him he has the need to return to the life his people—the white man—live: a house, a warm stove, furniture, a bed.

The story is told expertly with a weaving and sundry plotline—it isn’t straight and clean, but rather it curls around Skye and his family with destiny’s own uncaring and callous style. It is told in third person and the perspective changes between Skye, his wives and his son Dirk. The prose is vibrant, melancholy and often beautiful with its subtle textures and understated style:

“They reached the riverbank during a spring squall, and continued westward along a worn trail, while wrapped in good blankets. That cold night they raised the lodge and found warmth and peace within.”
North Star is a tale that truly captures the spirit of the west. It is beautiful, harsh, and always dependent on the whimsy of nature. If you think the western is dead, you should read this book. Hell, everyone should read this book.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

SCORPION'S DANCE by Warren Murphy

The past several months I have been re-discovering the work of Warren Murphy. I’ve read a handful of his novels, mostly thrillers from the 1980s, and I have been impressed. Impressed enough to have at least one of his novels in my to-be-read pile all the time. The current resident is the thriller Honor Among Thieves.

The title I just finished is Scorpion’s Dance. A novel that I enjoyed, but not for the reasons I thought I would enjoy it—the plot meandered a little, there wasn’t much action, but there was the trademark humor, and the characters where damn fun. The later two I expected, the former I didn’t, but as a whole the novel worked well.

The United States and Russia form an elite joint-task force to counter an active terrorist organization called Tenterallah that is led by the illusive Abu Beka. As the novel opens Tenterallah is executing a successful ambush at Da Vinci Airport in Rome; seven passengers are killed and another 24 are injured.

The surviving terrorists are arrested, but quickly escape with the help of an outside party. At least that is how it seems until the escaped men are found dead hanging—in the hollowed husks of pigs—from a statue of the Madonna in the plaza in a small Italian village. The dead men have two notes attached that read:
“To the killers of babies and women: your turn in the pigskin is coming.”

and

“You Tenterallah butchers have run out of time. Abu Beka, you are next.”
The terrorists quickly become the victims of their own terror and the operation is controlled from the business offices of Mark Donovan. Mark is a wealthy businessman who, along with a Russian KGB officer named Petrov, plans to wipe Tenterallah off the map in a small and very well funded operation. Unfortunately the pair has an unwitting mole on the fringe of their group and as they make the war personal for Abu Beka, Mr Beka brings the terror to their doorstep.

Scorpion’s Dance didn’t focus on the grass roots operation of Donovan and Petrov, but rather it was presented as a wide-angle perspective. Mr Murphy created a world for the two protagonists that included family, friends, lovers, and social events. It also included the occasional foray into the dark world of spies and law enforcement, but those scenes were rationed and used as climax pieces to unsettle and then pace the story; quite effectively too.

This quality made it very different from the usual thriller fare of the 1980s—it was published in 1990—when the Tom Clancy style thriller was king and it was a similar story, but Murphy cast his own unique storytelling on the entire operation. There was humor—the first few chapters in particular Murphy cast a humorous and telling light on journalism. When there is no news, they interview each other. And then do it again. The prose was smooth and very readable. The characters were witty and charming, and the bad guys were bad.

Scorpion’s Dance is an entertaining novel. It showcases Mr Murphy’s vast talent, and while it is not his best work, it is worth reading simply because it entertains in a smooth and easy style. It runs nearly 500 pages, but it doesn’t drag or bog and when it ended I was sorry to see it go.

Monday, June 7, 2010

THE CEILING OF HELL by Warren Murphy

I’m a sucker for three things. The first is a cleverly plotted 1980s thriller. The second is a private eye novel. The third is any story that features shrewdly evil Nazis. It’s not often to find all three packaged neatly together in one story, but that’s exactly what Warren Murphy did with his 1984 Shamus-winning novel The Ceiling of Hell.

Steve Hooks is a former Secret Service agent and presidential bodyguard. He was wounded in the service and his wife was put in a coma. He left the service to start his own private security agency and while it looked good on paper his client list is shockingly short, so when a former co-worker—Robert Pardin—refers a German academic to Hooks as a bodyguard he can’t turn it down. The German is named Professor Edward Kohl and he makes his living hashing up bad memories about the Third Reich. And there are more than a few groups that would like to silence his voice.

The job doesn’t go as planned. Professor Kohl is killed in his hotel room and Hooks is knocked cold. Before Kohl dies he asks Hooks to help him find a German girl who reportedly immigrated to the United States at the end of the war. The professor doesn’t have anything except her name: Anna Mueller. Hooks doesn’t think much of it until Pardin contacts him and asks him to—unofficially—go to Germany to give condolences to Kohl’s family and investigate the German side of professor’s murder.

It doesn’t take long for Hooks to realize he’s into something much larger than he first thought. He is kidnapped, intimidated and basically wants the hell out. Unfortunately the trouble follows him back home and what he discovers is more than a little unsettling. In fact, it very well might be the beginning of the Fourth Reich in the United States.

The Ceiling of Hell is an interesting mix. It is a private eye novel, but it isn’t the standard fare. The protagonist doesn’t fit the hardboiled mold and the story line is a mixture of a sleek thriller, an inventive adventure tale, and a straight-up mystery. There is plenty of action, and more than a few twists.

The protagonist is likable and more than capable. The prose is swift and clean. The plot is perfectly played. And just about everything else about the story is clean, smooth and entertaining. The real story is the mixture of genre—even related genre—into the novel. It gives The Ceiling of Hell a certain sparkle and originality that it otherwise wouldn’t have. It takes the novel from the entertainingly escapist fare to the next level. It showcases Mr. Murphy’s talent and skill as well as his inventive and subtle humor.

The Ceiling of Hell is a real treat. It is been out-of-print for twenty or more years, but it is very much worth scouring a few used bookshops to find. It was originally printed in 1984 by Fawcett Gold Medal.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Leo Guild Novels

It has been twenty-three years since a slim novel published by M. Evans and Company introduced a half-broken former lawman turned bounty hunter named Leo Guild. He appeared in four titles. The first, Guild, appeared in 1987 and the last, Dark Trail, was published in 1990. Guild was Ed Gorman’s first published western, and it is different than much of what the genre has to offer, but it can still be planted, somewhat askew and off-balance, into the definition of a traditional western. There is a hero, a damsel, and villain.

While the major tropes of the traditional western are honored in the four Leo Guild novels Mr Gorman also seamlessly alters, much like an alchemist, the stories with an undertow of hardboiled noir. There is nothing simple. The characters are less, or more, than they first appear. The landscape envelope’s and defines the characters with its harsh yet gentle embrace. And Leo Guild is an enigma. He is seemingly simple, but he is anything but. He is jaded, cynical, but with an understated and powerful sense of hope. A hope that far outweighs the cynicism and despair that nibbles at both him and the tales he inhabits.

The four novels have a range of both theme and content. The first two titles, particularly the second, Death Ground, have the feel of a literary Spaghetti western and the final two titles focus less on the action of the plot and more on the consequences of that action. Dark Trail’s theme is similar to the classic film High Noon. Guild, like High Noon’s Marshal Will Kane, is fighting a solitary battle that no one else will join. The major difference is the exact nature of the battle; both are born from the character’s past, but Guild’s obligation is much less direct—it comes from outside his own actions—while Kane’s is directly linked to his past life as town Marshal.

While the novels differ thematically they are linked by a powerful and stark style that is reminiscent of the crime novels written in the 1950s and 60s. This hard-bitten prose dominates the story and creates the atmosphere as much, probably more so, than either the setting or plot. It matches the gritty, sorrow-filled protagonist, but also allows for a hint of beauty with a poetic sense of the world and the people who inhabit it. It is hard and real, but also, sometimes simultaneously, surreal and haunting. A few lines from Guild show both the stark hardboiled sensibility aligned with poetic realism.
“They tried him for it back in ’86, in a red brick courthouse just outside of Yankton.”

“St. Mary’s sat in a copse of pines on the southwest edge of town, just up from a beef kill that left the stench of blood on the air.”

“So they sat next to each other on the straw tick and looked around at the dungeonlike cells and the maze of iron bars and smelled the urine and stale food and loneliness.”


The Leo Guild novels are something special. The stories are powerfully plotted and executed much like a suspense or mystery novel and the setting is rendered with a gentle and realistic touch. But the true power is in the characters that roam the pages. To quote an earlier review I wrote for Death Ground:
“Guild is an example of what makes Ed Gorman’s fiction so damn good: characters that are measured and three-dimensional; characters that act, feel and sound real. His male characters are strong and pitiful, lustful and scared, vain and dangerous, lonely and weak—generally all at the same time—and more importantly they are recognizable. And his female characters exhibit the same steady qualities. Neither wholly good nor bad, just human.
The Leo Guild novels are really that good. They are an enigma of both strength and weakness painted on a canvas that projects the power of the modern western and its continued ability to be both poignant and relevant. While also showcasing the often painful and sometimes joyful human experience as seen through the eyes of the working class. All in all these novels are damn good.

Dorchester Publishing, under its Leisure imprint, is reprinting all four of the Leo Guild novels. Guild and Death Ground were released in 2009 and are currently available. Dark Trail is scheduled to be released in November 2010, and Blood Game is scheduled for release in 2011. Dorchester is releasing the final two novels out of order, but it won't detract from the reading experience one bit. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

DRAGON GAMES by Stephen Mertz

2008. Beijing, China. The world has descended on China for one of the most spectacular public relations campaigns in modern history. The Summer Olympics mark China’s celebration, and notice to the world, that it has arrived as a major world power, and it is of the utmost importance that nothing go wrong. A small group of private foreign security agents are hired to help protect the influx of both Western athletes and tourists.

The novel begins with the opening ceremonies in the behemoth stadium coined “the bird’s nest” with an unexpected and very violent operation involving both the private security firm and Chinese Special Forces. A group of what the Chinese believe to be terrorists are captured in the delivery access area of the stadium. It is a quick and violent operation that isn’t noticed by anyone, including the media, but leads the protagonist, Tag McCall, into a dark and dangerous mission that will cost him more than he can fathom.

Dragon Games is a throwback in the thriller racket. It is more adventure and less bombast. The writing is tight and literate, and the plot is streamlined into an action packed story that is more believable, and therefore more suspenseful, than the common variety 21st Century thriller.

The prose is strong and shifts from a rich and almost poetic cadence to a stark and pounding hardboiled style that is reminiscent of the suspense novels of the 1970s and 80s. It is, however, not a rehash of anything old or new. The story is original and the style is all Stephen Mertz. It is a modern adventure novel that it is better than most in its category.

The characters, particularly the hero, are built around the story, but they have a certain reality that gives them a flesh and blood feel. They have families, love, hate, hope and even dreams. Their back stories are sprinkled throughout the novel with a sparseness that allows the reader to relate to the characters without slowing the pace of the plot.

Dragon Games is the best of Stephen Mertz’s novels. The narrative is strong, the characters are vivid and bold, and the story is exotic, enticing, and damn fun. There are brief touches of understated humor mixed with ratcheting tension and action, and richly detailed and interesting descriptions of Beijing, the Olympics and the Chinese people. Mr Mertz has written a novel that is worthy of the first tier of suspense and action novels.