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.