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