Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Goliath Bone by Mickey Spillane with Max Allan Collins (Mike Hammer)

"Do we need an attorney, Mr. Hammer?"
"No," I said. "You need me."

Mike Hammer is back! Twelve years after his last appearance in print (1996's Black Alley), America's best-selling private detective adapts to a post-9/11 world, complete with Islamic terrorists on his tail.

The Goliath Bone is the 14th in the long-running series that has spanned over 60 years. Mickey Spillane was never what you would call a prolific writer. Probably because he didn't write because he had to write: he only wrote when he needed money. Thus, for there to be years, even decades, between books was not unexpected. In fact, the 12 years since the last entry doesn't seem quite so long when you consider the nearly 20 that passed between #11 (Survival ... Zero!, 1970) and #12 (The Killing Man, 1989).

A little backstory: After Spillane's death in 2006, his friend and sometime collaborator Max Allan Collins (still the most vocal supporter of Spillane's influence on the crime genre) was given the task of finishing some of the incomplete works found in Spillane's files, with the most excitement focusing on a handful of unfinished Mike Hammer novels.

Though a standalone novel called Dead Street was published by Hard Case Crime under Spillane's sole byline, a Mike Hammer novel called The Goliath Bone was actually closer to completion when Spillane died. The job required Collins to do a combination of editing and writing throughout, getting his fingerprints, so to speak, all over the book.

Therefore, Collins's influence is felt throughout The Goliath Bone, where in Dead Street it was mainly in the final three chapters. Collins does a masterful job at matching Spillane's terse style, but his own more literary tendencies are likely to be noticed by a Collins devotee (such as myself).

The story is a little odd by usual Hammer standards. Two stepsibling grad students (the children of Nobel Prize candidates) possess a valuable artifact presumed to be the femur bone of Philistine giant Goliath ("that champ who went down for the count with an underdog's creek rock in his forehead") wrapped in brown paper. On their way down the subway stairs, someone tries to kill them, and Hammer (who just happened to be exiting a nearby bar when his Spidey-sense tingled) steps in just in time, making himself their bodyguard in the process.

Unfortunately, this new case comes at a very inconvenient time. Hammer and his long-time secretary/girlfriend Velda were just about to head off to Las Vegas and get married, and this puts that off for a little longer. But Velda knows who she's dealing with, and so doesn't put up much of a fuss, offering her own exemplary mental and armamentary services in addition.

No longer the lone wolf, Hammer is surrounded by the other characters for much of The Goliath Bone. The modern Mike Hammer is a man in love: he holds hands with Velda often and discusses the options with her, respecting her input. This is the Hammer of the 21st century, a man who doesn't live in the past, though he certainly talks about it a lot ("I was in all the papers").

Readers used to the tight pacing of the classic Spillane novels will notice instantly that The Goliath Bone has a great deal of talk in it. The exposition — including lengthy discussions on the history and origins of the bone, the intentions of the different factions concerned (handled with some degree of sensitivity), life in a post-9/11 world, and especially far too much of "here's what might happen and here's what we're going to do about it" — takes up over a third of the novel. But once it gets going, the book offers international intrigue on the level of Eric Ambler and John LeCarré.

More Hammer novels are slated for the next few years, but The Goliath Bone is meant to be the last chronologically in the Hammer "timeline" (much like Collins's own Quarry series "ended" with 2006's The Last Quarry, with The First Quarry coming two years later). With a final-chapter reference that ties back to I, the Jury, the series comes full circle in a satisfying way.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lake by Richard Laymon (unabridged audio book read by Stephanie Brush)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

After the death of horror author Richard Laymon in 2001, his international fan base mourned the loss of a writer who seemed to still be improving his craft. (He won his first Bram Stoker Award posthumously for The Traveling Vampire Show, widely considered his best work.) Then three complete, previously unpublished manuscripts were found among his files. One of these was published each year from 2003 to 2005. Between To Wake the Dead (UK title: Amara) and Into the Fire (UK title: The Glory Bus), the second of those was The Lake (same in the UK).

In 1968, Leigh West's boyfriend dies in a horrific accident. Eighteen years later, Leigh's daughter Deana watches as her boyfriend is brutally murdered. Are these two deaths connected? (What do you think?) Leigh and Deana soon discover that someone wants one of them dead, uncovering some family secrets along the way.

The Lake is definitely among the least of Laymon's work. That it was found complete implies that the author himself did not think it was publishable as written, and it certainly reads like a first draft. The characterization is strong, especially the lead female characters (always a Laymon strong point), but the plot is overly convoluted and its presentation choppy, as if Laymon merely wanted to get his ideas down and intended on cleaning them up later. A lengthy flashback with little point besides deeper characterization cements this point.

Once again, Leisure Books have dropped the ball on their copyediting duties. Anachronisms abound in a story assumed to be set circa 1986, including numerous references to later pop culture like The X-Files and Reservoir Dogs, with one character repeatedly requesting a copy of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty (first published in 1990).

Also, the audio recording from Books in Motion appears to be censored or otherwise modified, with at least three instances of the F-word either euphemized or omitted entirely, and several more diversions from the published text. But even with these flaws, The Lake still retains the author's signature readability. The final third ties previously disparate threads together in a suspenseful conclusion as good as anything Laymon published while he was alive.

Reader Stephanie Brush does well with the material. Leigh and Deana are sometimes indistinguishable in conversation, but what mother and daughter aren't sometimes confused for each other over the phone? Conversely, her portrayal of the villain carries the recording to a higher level and also greatly aided my visualization of the character. So, while it does not stand up against the author's other works, The Lake is truly disappointing only in that concern.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Killing Castro by Lawrence Block (Hard Case Crime)

There's been very little pattern in the schedule of recent publishing juggernaut Hard Case Crime. But for the third year in a row, each January has seen the reprinting of one of author Lawrence Block's "lost" novels originally published under pseudonyms. (I'm sure it doesn't hurt that Block's books — the line's inaugural release Grifter's Game, late 2005's The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and the new-year releases of 2007 and 2008, Lucky at Cards and A Diet of Treacle respectively — have been some of their best sellers.)

Ringing in 2009 is the (re)appearance of Killing Castro, which the Hard Case website touts as "the rarest of Block's books," almost 50 years after its first publication in 1961 (the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, just to put things in a chronological perspective) as Fidel Castro Assassinated by "Lee Duncan," a pseudonym Block used only for this book.

(Just to illustrate the genuine rarity of this particular book, on the day I wrote this review, there were no copies available for sale on either Amazon, Alibris, or eBay, and the one used copy on Abebooks was $600!)

Killing Castro introduces us to five men — Turner, Garrison, Garth, Fenton, and Hines — all hired for their own reasons at $20,000 each to kill the Cuban dictator who himself attained power by overthrowing the previous despot. The first chapter introduces the men, the second begins a bio of their target. Quickly we know who we're dealing with, and this pattern continues throughout the rest of the book, with alternating chapters focusing on the present and the past. It's a nice sort of flashback motif, and it works toward making Fidel Castro a sympathetic character, at least until he becomes the thing he's fighting against.

Block makes the reader care about everyone, at least about whether they'll live or die, and he elicits just the right amount of empathy. Despite the title, it's easy to make the assumption that Castro does not die in Killing Castro simply because he's still alive at this writing. This assumption puts a fatalistic spin on the actions of Turner, Garrison, Garth, Fenton, and Hines — how many of them will die? which ones will it be? — that ratchets the suspense a even higher than Block's prose does on its own.

Killing Castro is easily the equal of Block's previous Hard Case Crime reprints. Just like those, I wanted to be reading it every free moment. And just like those, it is guaranteed to bring a terrific reading experience, not only to the author's devoted fans, but to anyone who appreciates well-written hardboiled crime fiction.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner (introduction by Neil Gaiman)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

The name Will Eisner is synonymous with groundbreaking comics, and his most famous and most widely acclaimed creation is criminologist Denny Colt, left for dead and prematurely buried, but escaped from the grave and revived as a crimefighter known only as "The Spirit."

The Best of The Spirit culls twenty-two stories from the dozen-year run of The Spirit, with two early selections (including the 1940 origin story). The vast majority, however, come from the postwar period, with 1946, 1948, and 1949 the most heavily represented. The introduction by Neil Gaiman (author of The Sandman series) acknowledges Eisner's influence on him and otherwise reinforces Eisner's importance to the medium (the community's annual awards are named after him).

Since I'm not a comics historian, I'll have to take his word on whether Eisner's work was ahead of its time. But what I can vouch for is the readability of The Best of The Spirit. These are short, seven-page dark crime stories often blended with human interest, the drama of the common man. Sometimes criminals are redeemed. Sometimes victims triumph despite the odds. But always, right wins over wrong — often with an ironic twist that makes the justice more delicious.

The comics format allows Eisner to combine mature storytelling with Dick Tracy-style character names (like Silk Satin, Rice Wilder, and Sand Saref) and not have the latter detract from the former. People just don't stand for that sort of thing in prose, but inside the format of four-color illustration, somehow it's OK. Even hardboiled crime fans who usually scoff at the graphic format (like me) will be pleased, because these are mature tales whose quality is immediately evident and that remain instantly accessible to modern audiences, despite their circa-World War II origins.

The Best of The Spirit is a terrific introduction to Eisner's style, particularly his combination of the trappings of film noir with an occasional dose of slapsticky humor. And it especially succeeds at its primary intent: through an affordable sampling, to pique people's interest in the full Spirit Archives series of hardcover volumes.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (literary fiction)

I hesitate to slap a derisive label like "chick lit" on anything, but author Sara Gruen's third novel is a prime example of the worst kind of "women's fiction"; Water for Elephants was obviously written by a woman solely for other women, with no attempt to be realistic from the male point of view. Instead it perpetuates the romantic ideals set forth by Harlequin and its ilk — heights that no three-dimensional male can ever reach. (No wonder it was a word-of-mouth bestseller.)

This is shown most strikingly through Gruen's protagonist, Jacob Jankowski. He does not talk, think, or act like any (straight) man I have ever met. The purpose he serves, it seems, is to stand in for a lot of women's idea of what a man should be. When a man looks at another man and calls him "unshaven" with the implication that what he really means is "unclean," you know you're nowhere near reality. This type of man lives only in fiction.

Gruen even makes Jacob a virgin (though old enough to have a degree from veterinary school) so that when he and the female lead finally make it to the bed (which is inevitable in this world), it more closely match the unspoken wishes of her audience.

(Now, understand, men's fiction is no better from the woman's point of view, with the hero more often than not bedding the female lead, who then conveniently dies so he can have access to a series of new women without guilt for the expense of a succession of prostitutes. I'm not saying it's any better, but at least it's marketed to men and not a general audience.)

Gruen relies so much on stereotypes from romance novels (or even just their covers) and "chick flicks" that none of the characters in Water for Elephants ever feels like a real human being but simply an archetype playing its part in her story. The writing flows nicely, and the story is somewhat interesting if you don't mind melodrama.

Also, Gruen manages to humanize people who have previously been seen as freaks, but this was all for nought when I never believed that the narrator was telling me the truth about his gender. I actually kept waiting for that to be a "twist" in the story, and in fact was disappointed when it never came.

Plus, if a man were really telling the story, he would undoubtedly have recognized the sophomoric unintentional hilarity in the following passage: Teams of men are ... raising enormous poles.... I pass a group of ten throwing their combined weight against a single rope as a man off to the side chants, "Pull it, shake it, break it! Again—pull it, shake it, break it! Now downstake it!" [p. 34].

(Yeah, that's what she said!)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jesus Coyote by Harold Jaffe (a novel based on the Charles Manson Family)

The devoted followers of the charismatic Jesus Coyote (whom they call "Soul") have perpetrated a heinous act under his instruction: the gruesome murder of actress Naomi Self (the 8-months-pregnant wife of Polish director Jaroslav Hora), her close friend and ex-lover "hairdresser to the stars" Don Francisco, and five others including Phillip Morris heiress Kristin Barrett and Czech national Viktor Hus. But after four months, the governor's task force of LAPD, FBI, DEA, ATF, National Guard, and other "experts" have unearthed "no viable suspects."

Author Harold Jaffe expands on the concept of his short story collection 15 Serial Killers with the novella Jesus Coyote, a "docufiction" not very loosely based on the exploits of the Manson family. Using the documentary format of letters, transcripts of interrogations and phone conversations, and selected first-person accounts (from the killers and the victims) — concluding with a one-on-one interview with Coyote himself — Jaffe pieces together a gripping narrative that hews closely to the facts while retaining the fluidity of fiction.

This format gives Jesus Coyote a verisimilitude that the usual linear narrative storytelling would not. And Jaffe's stark style is such that, except for the name changes, the story reads like truth. If the real names had been used, I would just about believe everything actually happened as written (though Jaffe admits to some timeline shifting in an author's note).

Short at 150 pages, Jesus Coyote is by no means a quick read; the text is dense and rich with detail and characterization with not a sentence out of place. (I don't remember seeing any typos, either — always remarkable for a small press product.) Jaffe inclusion of revelations (based on his research) about certain characters was the single touch that affected me more than anything else; it made me see them as real people — with interests and passions of their own — and not just as the cult that mindlessly followed their leader.

This was unexpected, and with all the books I read, I'm always impressed when one surprises me. For this and the other reasons above, I feel like Jesus Coyote will live large in my memory — it's certainly one of the most fascinating books I've read this year.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez (extreme horror)

Under the guise of an extreme horror novel, author J.F. Gonzalez has managed to create, with Survivor, an emotionally resonant moral commentary on the underbelly of society, showing how the top and bottom blend until there is little or no difference anymore.

Brad and Lisa Miller are on their way to a romantic vacation (where she will announce her new pregnancy to him) when with the unwitting help of the police, Brad is arrested and Lisa is kidnapped. The kidnappers are snuff-film producers, and Lisa was the specific request of one of their best clients. She'll soon be a movie star unlike she ever imagined unless she can somehow bargain her way out, letting her maternal instinct guide the way.

But that's only the beginning. Gonzalez expands his novella Maternal Instinct into a gripping full-length novel that is better than a novella expansion has any right to be. He layers on the suspense and makes Survivor into a real page-turner, despite its horrific subject matter.

The killings put on film are graphically depicted in the prose, which will put off some readers who are more used to the tongue-in-cheek horror of Richard Laymon or Edward Lee. Gonzalez touches on the reality of the situation in a way I've previously encountered only in Jack Ketchum novels, which makes the interpersonal violence even more disturbing. He also approaches an aspect of murder rarely encountered with any depth in horror novels: the consequences. Every character's actions in Survivor have definite and unavoidable repercussions, and Gonzalez folds them all into his believable plot.

The decision Lisa makes in order to attempt her escape has perhaps the most horrifying outcome of all, the effects of which are felt throughout Survivor — much like in the best work of Gary Braunbeck — in both tangible and intangible ways. What this all adds up to is a book that impressed me far more than I expected it to, and one that I continue to think about over a year after finishing it. (I never intended to review it, but I had to get all my thoughts out and down in some organized fashion so they'd stop buzzing around my head — so here they are.)

The early part of Survivor is not as well written as what follows and contains a good deal of unnecessary repetition — something that, as a proofreader, is a real pet peeve of mine. There are also a couple of unrealistic character autobiographies (where they tell the histories of how they got in the snuff-film business) that slow down the story but do serve to make them more three-dimensional. All of the majors, however, were well drawn so that I can still picture them clearly in my mind even now.

Out of a fairly straightforward novella, J.F. Gonzalez has constructed a multilayered novel with a least three genuine surprises. Survivor can be read as simply a fast-paced and entertaining (if gruesome) horror novel, or also as a statement on family dynamics and their potential outcomes. If Gonzalez's other novels are this impressive, he will have a new fan in me.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Red Sky in Morning: a novel of World War II by Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane

Max Allan Collins's second mainstream novel under the Patrick Culhane byline, Red Sky in Morning, is a marked improvement over the first, Black Hats. Once again the action takes place in the past, but this time all the characters are fictitious, with only mentions of famous personalities — and a much closer connection to the author's own past.

Ensign Peter Maxwell has had it easy during his stint in the U.S. Navy, spending his days heading the chorus and spending his nights with his pretty wife, but there's a war going on around him, and damned if he doesn't want to be part of it. So, the newly promoted Lieutenant Maxwell and his best friends — known collectively as the Fantail Four, a vocal quartet best known for their Ink Spots impression — sign up for duty aboard the U.S.S. Liberty Hill Victory, an ammunition ship with an all-"colored" crew and an openly racist captain. (Liberty Hill is Maxwell's hometown, and he sees this as an omen.)

Slowly, the Four realize they've put themselves into a potentially life-threatening situation — a point the nearby Port Chicago disaster drives home — but they decide to do what they can to make it work, including teaching the mostly illiterate crew how to read (especially the "no smoking" signs posted next to the explosives).

But when the white X.O. (executive officer) and then a black crewmember are murdered, Maxwell is promoted to the post, then relieved of his duties to investigate the crime. He makes his first executive decision by choosing another black crewmember (and fellow jazz enthusiast), Seaman Ulysses Grant Washington — known as "Sarge" from his years as a Chicago homicide detective — to accompany him on interrogations, and to essentially run the investigation.

The murder mystery is well plotted and satisfyingly solved, but the real appeal of Red Sky in Morning lies in the characters' relationships and in how Culhane/Collins shows them realistically, not shying away from popular conceptions (and epithets) of the era. This way, we are offered a complete portrait of a time and place that is likely not very familiar even to World War II aficionados.

Red Sky in Morning was inspired by stories Collins's father (the book is dedicated to him) told him of his own time in the Navy, making this his most personal book yet. The author states that the book is mostly fictional, but that several details are lifted from those reminiscences.

The rest came from Collins's imagination and his usual exhaustive research of the setting and period. He and co-author/research associate Matthew V. Clemens (see My Lolita Complex) plotted the story together, much like they did for Collins's CSI novels. With Red Sky in Morning, Culhane/Collins once again showcases his inimitable skill at making a time period come alive. I for one am glad that Max Allan Collins, Sr., shared his experiences with his son, so that he could in turn share them with us.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Roger's Version by John Updike (unabridged audio book read by Michael Prichard)

A born-again computer whiz kid bent on proving the existence of God on his computer meets a middle-aged divinity professor, Roger Lambert, who'd just as soon leave faith a mystery. Soon the computer hacker begins an affair with professor Lambert's wife — and Roger finds himself experiencing deep longings for a trashy teenage girl.

That's what the marketing department of Ballantine Books says Roger's Version is about. And, really, that description does summarize the high points. Surprisingly, they've left out the fact that the "trashy teenage girl" is the daughter of Roger's half-sister. Wouldn't that little taste of partial incest bring in a few more readers? At least, the ones who are already familiar with author John Updike's specialty: what I like to call "the dalliances of adulterous suburbanites."

Only this time, Updike also adds in discussions about religion, computers, and astrophysics culled from the best minds in these areas (check out the Acknowledgments page for credits). In addition, also talked about freely are politics, economics, and modern music (the book is practically soundtracked to Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual).

In this way, Roger's Version is like an undergraduate-level class on these subjects delivered with Updike's typically gorgeous prose — and peppered with illicit trysts to keep the reader's interest. Reader Michael Prichard is the perfect audiobook reader for Updike's work. His nearly flat tone gives equal gravity both to lengthy passages on erudite subjects and to nearly pornographic sexual situations (including a description of one character's erect member so detailed that the listener could practically draw it from memory).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Gun Work by David J. Schow (Hard Case Crime)

There are friends you hang out with on a regular basis. Then there are your special friends — the ones you can depend on to get you out of a jam you can't solve on your own. Carl Ledbetter is in that kind of trouble.

His fiancée Erica has been kidnapped while in Mexico City, and the ransom is one million dollars. So, who can Carl call but his fellow Iraq War vet, Barney, a scarred yet deliberately nondescript character with the proverbial "checkered past." Carl once saved Barney's life, so Barney accompanies Carl to the money drop and shows he was born to tackle this kind of situation.

But when things go wrong because Barney's aim is too good, he smells a fish ... and someone who was supposed to stay alive doesn't ... and then things get really bad.

Though he's done a great deal in the intervening years, author David J. Schow is probably still best known for (whether it's true or not) coining the term to describe the kind of horror fiction he and his fellow "splatterpunk" writers were producing in the mid-1980s.

Also, though Schow has written half a dozen novels, and about as many Hollywood screenplays, his reputation has been primarily based on his skills at the short story. He deserves for his newest novel, Gun Work from Hard Case Crime, to change that perception.

Gun Work is Schow's first book since his 2006 collection, Havoc Swims Jaded — and his first ever set firmly in the hardboiled crime genre. 250 pages of constant action are divided into five parts and no chapters, with Schow (who was once married to fellow Hard Case scribe Christa Faust) offering up a speedy, grueling, and ultimately satisfying read — as well as a graduate-level education in artillery.

Parts of the story fit well into the usual Hard Case style, but Gun Work is most definitely rawer than anything else they've published to date. Barney has to go through one hell of a struggle to finish the task he sets for himself, all resulting in a blistering confrontation with the person responsible for the whole mess. If you enjoyed how Allan Guthrie put his protagonist through the wringer in Hard Man, you'll love what Schow does with Barney in Gun Work. The Mexican wrestlers are just a bonus.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Christmas Crime: Three Days of the Condor directed by Sydney Pollack (starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman)

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and David Rayfiel from the book Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford once again as the all-American) gets to read for a living, analyzing texts for the CIA through the cover of the "American Literary Historical Society." When it's his turn to go out for everybody's lunch, he comes back to find them all dead.

From then on, Turner (code name "Condor") is on the run — from the killers and from the government — with only photographer Kathy (striking Faye Dunaway) his only, albeit reluctant, ally.

Setting Three Days of the Condor during the Christmas season does little to bring tidings of comfort and joy. But the script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (The Parallax View) and David Rayfiel — and the direction of Sydney Pollack (his fourth of seven collaborations with Redford) — deliver the right amounts of post-Watergate paranoia and intrigue.

As an enigmatic professional killer, Max von Sydow heads an impressive supporting cast that also features Cliff Robertson and John Houseman. (Keep an eye out for von Sydow's code name. It is a nice little in-joke connected to his appearance in The Exorcist.) The result in a fun thriller that, while very tied to its period, also reminds us that the priorities of the government have been the same for a long time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

21 directed by Robert Luketic (starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth)

21 (2008). Screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb from the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant MIT student on his way to Harvard Medical School. He's already been accepted, but the money is an issue. Ben is up for a full scholarship, but so are 76 other people, and he has spent so much time studying, he's had little opportunity for the "life experience" the scholarship board seeks from that one "dazzling" candidate that deserves the $300,000 free ride.

So, when his Nonlinear Equations professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), recruits him to his team of other brilliant students to count cards in Las Vegas casinos, he reluctantly accepts — on the condition that once he's earned the three-hundred grand, he's out.

Spacey is electric as Professor Rosa, but it's Sturgess's work as Ben Campbell that grounds this flight of fancy in reality. He is instantly likable, and his troubles are relatable, even though few people have actually experienced them. Laurence Fishburne also has a nice turn as ultra-intimidating security man Cole Williams, a man who does whatever it takes to keep his job in an increasingly computer-controlled arena.

Though it's supposedly based on a true story, 21 is pure Hollywood all the way. From its underprivileged hero given the opportunity of a lifetime, to its instant inclusion of the hero's dream love interest (here Kate Bosworth), to how Ben drops his geek friends once he gets the chance to hang out with cooler people, to how the student surpasses the teacher.

The first portion of the movie is so predictable, in fact — and so spelled-out for the general audience — that it's a struggle just to get through to the interesting portion: the actual Vegas scenes. As a whole, however, 21 is a lot of fun, and I was surprised at how much I thought about it after it was over, especially that insipid but catchy phrase, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake (originally The Mercenaries, also published as The Smashers) (Hard Case Crime)

Mavis St. Paul has been murdered, and Billy-Billy Cantell, a stuttering dope user/seller is the prime suspect, mostly because he was found at the scene of the crime with the gun in his hand. Only there's no way he could've done it. His friend and colleague Clay believes this and, following order from their boss, gangster Ed Ganolese, is trying to clear his name because the police aren't interested in another suspect.

But Billy-Billy has disappeared, and the police are getting too involved in Ganolese's operation, so Clay (who creates "accidents" for people who cross Ganolese) has to play amateur detective and discover who the "cutie" (as Ganolese refers to him) is that killed Mavis and framed Billy-Billy, apparently just to sabotage Ganolese's outfit.

Will Clay find out who did it? Will he get any sleep? Will his girlfriend Ella leave when she finds out what Clay does for a living?

The Cutie is a reprinting of Donald E. Westlake's debut novel under his own name. (He had previously published so-called "sex novels" under a pseudonym.) As The Mercenaries (its original title), it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for that year (it did not win, but the author would eventually win multiple times for other books).

The Cutie was always Westlake's preferred title, and it's actually more appropriate once you read the book. The funny thing is that the girl on the cover is not the "cutie" of the book, but she is the only one referred to as "mercenary."

For a debut novel, Westlake's familiar style is already apparent: a semihumorous approach, clever plotting, and an engaging mix of smart and dumb characters. (And I have to imagine that, before Westlake, nobody else was combining those things in just that way.) It's reassuring to know that the author emerged fully formed from the literary womb. In fact, it's only in later portions that The Cutie shows signs of inexperience — even as one character practically confesses before our eyes, Westlake tries to force us down the wrong path by having Clay continually remind us who the "only" suspects are. When the solution is finally revealed, it's actually a relief.

On top of this, however, the author offers an ending that reinforces the notion (spoken throughout) that emotion has no place in business. I never saw it coming. Westlake fans will undoubtedly enjoy this reprinting of yet another early novel by Hard Case Crime. And fans of the author's Dortmunder series will appreciate that Westlake already has a character stealing a car with M.D. plates.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Widow for One Year by John Irving (unabridged audio book read by George Guidall)

Is love too strong a word to describe one's feelings toward a great read? Admiration, definitely — I'll even freely admit to affection. But love? I have to imagine that everyone who reads John Irving's A Widow for One Year struggles with that question, simply because it is one of the most perfectly put together pieces of fiction I have yet encountered. I still think about the characters — especially protagonist Ruth Cole — I even miss them.

A Widow for One Year is Ruth's story. It begins when she is four years old, and her portion is tangential in the first third of the novel while Irving tells the story of her parents. Ted Cole is a successful children's book writer and illustrator who has affairs with "young mothers" under the guise of using their children as models.

Ted's relationship with his wife Marion has been over since the grief over the deaths of their two sons, Thomas and Timothy, has made her an emotional zombie. (Ruth's birth was an attempt to repair the loss, but Marion will not allow herself to love her daughter.) Ted hires college student Eddie O'Hare, an aspiring writer, to be his assistant for the summer of 1958. Soon after, Marion begins an affair with the boy, and Eddie soon discovers his job is more than advertised.

The second portion of the book begins in 1990, when Ruth is 36 and a successful writer on her own. She is still greatly affected by the decisions her parents made during her childhood, and is at a reading of her latest novel when she runs into Eddie, now 52 and a less successful writer (all the main characters are writers, yet this never becomes tedious).

During research for her latest novel, intended to be a departure from the semiautobiographical tomes written so far, Ruth gets herself into a situation that tests her to her limits. This thread lasts through the rest of A Widow for One Year, and Irving makes unexpected choices for his characters, never allowing the reader to predict just what they will do next.

I'm fascinated by how skillfully Irving assembled this story of two generations, carefully referring to past events that enhance the present narrative, and deftly paralleling those events with the novels the characters themselves write (all the main characters are professional writers, yet this never becomes tedious) — and especially drawing the story around so it reaches a full circle of sorts.

Also of note is Irving's ability to create even-handed personalities: people who do something despicable one moment and admirable the next, retaining their likeability in the process. Readers will be both literarily satisfied and emotionally moved even while they are crying tears of laughter at a couple of slapstick scenes. John Irving is really a writer who has something for everyone, and A Widow for One Year is the best book of his I've read yet. The audiobook read by the extraordinary George Guidall only enhances the experience. Not only are his characterizations awe-inspiring, but his Dutch pronunciation is immaculate.

A movie was made of the first portion of A Widow for One Year. The Door in the Floor stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges as Marion and Ted Cole, respectively, and Elle Fanning as young Ruth.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word by Matthew Warner (horror essays)

Subtitled Essays on Writing and Appreciating the Genre, short story writer and novelist Matthew Warner's first collection of nonfiction, Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word, is ideal reading during the month best known for ending with Halloween. And it's a must-have for fans of the horror genre.

In these articles that span from 2002 to 2007 — with all but two coming from the author's tenure as a columnist for Horror World — Warner covers a variety of diverse topics from horror stereotypes (and why we need them) to the importance of research for verisimilitude, from why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an example of excellent plotting to the secrets of a successful collaboration, from how to write "invisible" dialogue to tips on public speaking.

Warner even gives new readers a taste of his short fiction ("With the Eyes of God") and then shows how he got there. (Those whose appetites are whetted can seek out Death Sentences, his short fiction collection). Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word also contains a critique of Left Behind from the horror writer's perspective, one essay each focusing on the subjects of his two novels to date (The Organ Donor and Eyes Everywhere), a lengthy exposé on his summer working for notorious "book doctor" Edit Ink, and even insightful articles on censorship and the connection between horror and violence.

Warner has an engaging conversational style that makes even the most indepth material go down easy. But I'm not sure I can bestow a greater compliment than the fact that reading Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word is the first time I've almost been late for work because of essays. As I finished one, the next one's title intrigued me to continue. Kudos to the author and Guide Dog Books for assembling a collection of horror-related articles that are just as accessible to the horror reader as to those who want to write in the genre — and is far more readable than others of its ilk.

The Boys Are Back in Town by Christopher Golden (dark fantasy)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Will James, reporter and critic for the Boston Tribune, has just been passed over for a promotion — on the weekend of his 10-year high school reunion — because his articles are too "eccentric." (They are primarily exposés in the style of his idol Harry Houdini on occult subjects like Wicca and vampires.) The next day, he travels to his hometown of Eastborough, Massachusetts, for the reunion.

But since this is a Christopher Golden novel, this isn't going to be just any high school reunion. Almost as soon as Will arrives, something strange happens: when he asks about his friend Mike (Mike had sent Will an e-mail saying he would attend), his other friends look at him in horror. That's not funny, they say. You know Mike died before graduation; you were at the funeral.

Even odder is the fact that Will suddenly does have a vague memory of that series of events — where there was no such memory before. Before long, other things Will thought he remembered are changed, and he begins to notice changes in the personalities of the people around him as their memories (and therefore realities) are affected. But the worst is when he watches his best friend Ashleigh transform before his eyes from the shiny girl he loves into a world-weary sufferer, all due to a single event. Someone is messing around with their pasts, and Will seems to be the only one who realizes it. To fix it, and to find out who's behind this insidious transformation, Will has to go back into his past and rediscover a talent he has long tried to forget.

The Boys Are Back in Town represents a sort of coming of age for author Christopher Golden (then known primarily for his media tie-in and young-adult series novels). Previously, his works wore their influences on their sleeves (Straight On 'Til Morning was a Peter Pan update of sorts; The Ferryman featured Styx guardian Charon) — a practice Golden continues to adopt with his modern updates of classic stories (Bloodstained Oz, etc.) — but Boys Are Back feels truly original. The premise may feel somewhat familiar but the plot framework is Golden's own.

Golden's characters, as usual, are detailed and realistic. Since a good deal of the action focuses on their time in high school, he gets to cater to his faithful young-adult audience while not alienating the adult market. The only trouble is that the adults (with a few important exceptions) aren't really all that different from their younger counterparts (but, then again, we all know people who haven't changed since high school). Threaded among the events is a nice lesson in how our memories shape the people we later become. But his greatest accomplishment is in his very moving portrait of the platonic love between Will and Ashleigh. Even if you never had a best friend you truly loved, you'll know what it feels like when you finish this book.

I've read a number of novels where problems are caused, then solved, through the use of magic (usually spelled "magick"), but The Boys Are Back in Town is the first one that didn't resort to silly, florid incantation or spells cast in an ancient language for verisimilitude. Golden accomplishes this by a simple feat: he has his characters use magic and believe in it, and so the reader does, too. This kind of matter-of-fact approach succeeds with all of the more "out there" parts of the story, like time travel (with the usual paradox omitted, allowing characters to interact with their other-time selves), letting us be swept up in Golden's murder-mystery suspense-thriller plot that pulls the best parts from The Twilight Zone and Back to the Future, among others. And he does not slight us on the ending, offering up a conclusion that is both literarily satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

It's always fascinating to watch an author develop, and The Boys Are Back in Town is a big step forward for Golden, one that shows how he was perhaps training his literary muscles for a larger task, such as the recent Veil trilogy (beginning with The Myth Hunters), in which all of his skills come to fruition. But it's also just a solid thriller, a fully involving read ideal for anyone in search of a fast-paced, character-focused novel, even if they don't generally enjoy stories with elements of fantasy, because Golden integrates them into his story so seamlessly.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub (unabridged audio book read by Frank Muller)

Authors Stephen King and Peter Straub's second collaboration is much more than just a sequel to their first, The Talisman. In fact, Black House, draws from the earlier book's mythology only in a few scenes. An older Jack Sawyer returns as the protagonist, but now he's a talented police detective called out of voluntary retirement to help solve a rash of child murders in his newly adopted home of French Landing, Wisconsin.

This makes the vast majority of Black House reminiscent of Straub's murder mysteries (like The Throat) — which is a welcome change from the King-dominated tone of The Talisman. But King fans need not think of eschewing Black House outright because the authors have a trick up their collective sleeve: they've managed to also tie this story into the Dark Tower mythos — solidly but without overdoing it.

Everything is crafted so well and flows so smoothly that "even a blind man can see" (as the eminently quotable George Rathbun would say) that Black House is the best thing either of them had written up to that point — and is a shining example of what can be achieved when a pair's talents combine to enhance each other. Straub's literary bent gives style and intelligence to King's average-guy prose, and King's skill at pacing keeps Straub's tendency toward lengthy description from slowing things down. As a result, it offers the best of both authors with very few of their flaws remaining. The quality even transcends the distracting narrative style (using first-person plural, in the manner of screenplay directions, to reflect the book's dual storyteller).

Black House also manages to turn the impossible into the believable and can be enjoyed fully by the uninitiated, though fans who have already read The Talisman and the Dark Tower series will undoubtedly be the most rewarded and have the most fun. But I'm not sure the book as written is even as good as the audiobook as read by the late Frank Muller. His legendary vocal skills enhance the storyline with unforgettable characterizations of the colorful cast. The abovementioned George Rathbun and the villainous Mr. Munshun are particularly remarkable, making this original, exciting, suspenseful and intelligent story into something even better than the words on the page. "Case closed, game over, zip up your fly."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Baby Moll by John Farris (writing as Steve Brackeen) (Hard Case Crime)

In the 1982 reprint of his modern classic Harrison High, author John Farris mentions in passing some "other novels" he wrote during the time it took him to write that book: "suspense thrillers ... published by Gold Medal Books under a pen name."

Baby Moll was the second of five novels that first saw print under the moniker Steve Brackeen, and Hard Case Crime is publishing it under Farris's own name for the first time. Farris also admits that, at the time of their first publication, he "fondly imagined [they] rivaled the best of John D. MacDonald."

Baby Moll is the story of Pete Mallory, who used to work for gangster Macy Barr, until he got tired of Barr (and his "whole rotten business") and walked out. Pete then settled down with a nice girl named Elaine and spent six years trying to forget his past.

The trouble comes, though, when others don't forget your past, and Barr uses Pete's most closeted skeleton to get him to come back and protect Barr from veiled death threats. But no sooner is Pete back in town than it seems he's also on somebody's hit list, so he's then on the hunt for two potential killers.

If "the best of John D. MacDonald" includes one of my favorites, Cry Hard, Cry Fast, then the young Farris comes very close, at least in terms of characterization. In general its embarrassing to realize what a skilled and confident proseslinger he was right out of high school. Because, to read Baby Moll, you'd never know that Farris wasn't a world-weary 50-year-old spilling his disappointment on the page — that he still had his whole career ahead of him.

Baby Moll offers up a rogues gallery of characters, dark underworld types and otherwise. Its not very predictable nature — along with its fairly atypical, original style — makes for an engaging read, and Farris offers an ending that is both touching and satisfying.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Super-Detective Flip Book: Two Complete Novels by John Grange (Introductions by John Wooley and John McMahan) (Jim Anthony, Super-Detective)

"As a manhunter Jim Anthony had no equals; his fame as an amateur scientific criminologist was world-wide. Detection was his hobby, his avocation; countless were the mysteries he had solved, the murderers he had brought to justice after the police themselves had failed. In consequence, the mere mention of his name was enough to strike terror into the heart of any transgressor." — from Murder's Migrants in Super-Detective Flip Book: Two Complete Novels

Pulp fiction seems constantly to be on the comeback. From a publisher entirely devoted to it, like Hard Case Crime, to modern-novel imitations like The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, even to weblogs trumpeting its merits, like the "Pulp O' the Day" feature on I Was a Bronze Age Boy, it seems we just can't get enough of those seemingly undefeatable heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage, and the hardboiled private eyes that followed in their footsteps after World War II.

During his tenure as star of his own magazine, Super-Detective, millionaire Jim Anthony was both a superhero and a detective. For 10 novels (always written under the house name "John Grange" — much like The Shadow's author, "Maxwell Grant"), Anthony fought "super-villains" in high adventure tales of science-fiction. Then, for whatever reason (not all that many world-dictator wannabes, I imagine), Jim Anthony became a more traditional shamus against foes with more earthbound ambitions.

Both of these phases are considered by aficionados to be of equal quality, and the Super-Detective Flip Book contains a "novel" (really "novella," as neither exceeds 100 pages) from each period, printed back-to-back and head-to-tail like the old Ace Double format. (Only, unlike the mass-market size that Ace used and that Hard Case Crime recently revived with its reissue of two early Robert Bloch books — Shooting Star and Spiderweb — Off-Trail Publications and Reverse Karma Press have published these books in trade paperback.)

First up chronologically is November 1940's Legion of Robots, the second of a trilogy of novels (widely presumed to be the work of pulp sci-fi author Victor Rousseau, though this is still only speculation) featuring Jim Anthony's struggle with Rado Ruric. Don't worry that two-thirds of the story is missing, however: the other two have been reprinted separately since their debut and (at least according to the introduction by John McMahan), Legion of Robots is considered to be better than its brothers (Dealer in Death and Madame Murder).

Turn the book over to find not-so-"super" detective Jim Anthony in March 1943's Murder's Migrants, one of around a dozen Anthony tales written by pulpsmiths Robert Leslie Bellem and Willis Todhunter Ballard (still under the "John Grange" pseudonym). During this era, Anthony's adventures became less kid-friendly (mostly due to his sidekick's eye for the ladies), because comics had taken away much of that audience and the publisher decided to cater to the older readers who had remained.

While Anthony was originally created as an amalgam of other heroes of the time, like Doc Savage, Superman (just check out the "Super" lettering on the cover), and possibly even Tarzan, he has his own admirable qualities — and a "legion" of fans to support him. But neither of the stories in the Super-Detective Flip Book is what I would call "good." They both have the particular pulp charm of stories that were written in a hurry, but Murder's Migrants in particular is painfully overwritten in spots. (Given its 60-page length, this is rather surprising.)

Before 10 pages have passed, Bellem (who would eventually focus his skills on television scripts) and Ballard (who would stick to novels but switch primarily to Westerns as "Todhunter Ballard," even serving as vice president of the Western Writers of America for a time), have brought out half a dozen of Anthony's superhuman powers (some from his Comanche mother, another from a Hindu yogi) before he has even met the villain. And the finale more closely matches that of the Firesign Theatre's detective parody Nick Danger, Third Eye than any other real detective novel. And in case we didn't get the point, there's that passage I quoted at the beginning of this review, which I can only refer to as a sales pitch. (No wonder author Bill Pronzini devoted an entire chapter to the duo in his book an awful crime writing, Gun in Cheek.)

Super-Detective Flip Book is a terrific time capsule of a time when pulp was king, and "escapism" was the name of the game. I'm not sure that it's going to gain the style many new fans; the quality of writing is simply too pedestrian to make a new reader hungry for more. But the pulp fan who needs something besides the same old reprints that everyone else has already done will find it a welcome discovery indeed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fifty-to-One by Charles Ardai (Hard Case Crime)

"[This game is] called 'Fifty-to-One'. Those are the odds, you see."
"Of winning?"
"Of surviving."
— from Fifty-to-One

Charley Borden is a publisher, editor, and self-proclaimed rip-off artist. The best-selling book of his publishing line, Hard Case Crime Books, is blatant Mickey Spillane pilferage — Eye the Jury by Nicky Malone ("a Mac Hatchet mystery") — and he thrives on bad publicity because it sells books.

But Charley's a likeable sort, so when he asks showgirl Tricia "Trixie" Heverstadt — who dances in a famous gangster's nightclub but really wants to write for The New Yorker — to write a true-crime work on her boss's exploits, she is glad to oblige for a penny a word. Only the story she tells — of the theft of the gangster's millions — is completely made up.

Or so she thinks. The gangster disagrees; the details of the events depicted in Tricia's novel happened to him exactly the way she wrote them — down to the combination of the vault — and he wants to know who the thief was. The police would also like to know the identity of the book's author (published as "Anonymous" to create mystery and sell more books, of course) and no one is going to let up until they get what they want.

Fifty-to-One is the 50th book in the Hard Case Crime line (the real one), founded in 2004 by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips. In recognition of this milestone, Ardai felt a very special sort of book was called for, and he wrote it himself (though Phillips contributed a chapter).

And Ardai really set himself a challenge: to tell a riveting story in 50 chapters, each named after the Hard Case Crime books published up to that point, in chronological order. Chapter 1 is "Grifter's Game," chapter 2 is "Fade to Blonde," etc. (Observant readers will also find references to books 51-55.) And Ardai's story tries its damnedest to deliver what the chapter titles promise.

Along for the ride are a couple of writers named Larry and Don (maybe you've heard of them?), ever-ready with a quip or a caper. Their influence is felt in how Ardai deftly commingles suspense and humor in what is undoubtedly the funniest book Hard Case Crime has published to date. (The humor carries you through a few too many convenient coincidences.) Ardai makes fun of the publishing business, the crime genre, and best of all, he makes fun of himself!

Fifty-to-One is well paced, and it has that pulp-style written-in-a-hurry feel that adds to its sense of immediacy. That said, it also feels a little too long at 330 pages. But it's hard to be too critical of a book that is so obviously a labor of love. Ardai didn't have to write a special book to commemorate Hard Case Crime's 50th "anniversary," so the fact that he wanted to is all the more endearing.

Ardai's novel isn't meant to be a future classic — it's just a fun, self-referential romp purely intended to offer a few hours' diversion along with its plethora of cross-merchandising (an 8-page gallery of all 50 covers is included in place of the usual club advertisement). The great thing is, fans will see these as bonuses, which just goes to show how attuned to his readers Ardai is. He has produced a novel that attempts many things and succeeds at more of them than should have been possible. Fifty-to-One is a book that is not only a solid example of the comic crime novel, but also goes to show what a really good writer can come up with when he truly challenges himself.

Friday, August 15, 2008

No House Limit by Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

Joe Martin runs the Rainbow's End, the only independent casino left in Las Vegas; the rest are all run by the Syndicate (better known to the uninitiated as the Mafia). The Syndicate wants Joe out of business, so they surreptitiously challenge him on his own turf — by sending Bello, the world's greatest gambler, to win millions of dollars at Joe's craps table.

With Bello on their side, how can they lose? But a man like Joe Martin doesn't get where he is by taking unnecessary risks. He's got an ace in the hole of his own, namely an innocent schoolteacher from Utah.

Steve Fisher, screenwriter of such beloved films as Lady in the Lake and Song of the Thin Man — and Oscar-nominated for Destination Tokyo for his original story — was the author of over 100 novels, as many screenplays for film and TV, and nearly 1,000 short stories. Any author who can produce that much understands the need for a brisk pace, and his novel No House Limit doesn't let up from the start. If other Fisher works are this briskly paced, I'll definitely be on the lookout for more.

But the main reason for No House Limit's success is the atmosphere. Fisher's portrait of Las Vegas in the 1950s, especially the casino environment, is so rich and detailed, it's a character in itself. I would have believed that he was a denizen of the city himself. But according to his son Michael's afterword, he just really enjoyed gambling — the rest came from research, in particular time spent with famous real-life gambler Nick the Greek.

The portrayal of the inside of a busy casino: the overlapping voices (game callers on top of conversations) and the loneliness of crowds combines with his insightful characterizations to make No House Limit — which is essentially a simple story, well told — into a memorable reading experience.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Sense of Humor" by Damon Runyon (Broadway short story)

Any fan of crime fiction would do well to check out the short stories of Damon Runyon. One of the most most popular writers of his day, he is now largely forgotten among modern readers, except for fans of the musical Guys and Dolls (and they may not even know that Runyon's work was its source).

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly his reputation for unapologetic sentimentality (almost completely absent in crime fiction since the "tough guy" 1950s) and his propensity for O. Henry–style twist endings — both aspects that appear dated to readers in the 21st century.

But alongside those traits runs an ironic (often pitch black) sense of humor that would probably surprise someone expecting a more "innocent" tone from 1930s fiction. Take for example this (more than somewhat edited) selection from the story "Sense of Humor" (available along with many others in the new collection Guys and Dolls and Other Writings):
"Say," [Joe the Joker] says, "I am going to play a wonderful joke on Frankie Ferocious."

"Well, Joe," I say, "you are not asking me for advice, but I am going to give you some free gratis, and for nothing. Do not play any jokes on Frankie Ferocious, as I hear he [...] will not laugh if you have Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and Joe Cook telling him jokes all at once. In fact," I say, "I hear he is a tough audience."

"I am going to have myself delivered to Frankie Ferocious in a sack."

"Well," I say, "personally, I see no percentage in being delivered to Frankie Ferocious in a sack, because as near as I can make out from what I read in the papers, there is no future for a guy in a sack that goes to Frankie Ferocious. What I cannot figure out," I say, "is where the joke on Frankie comes in."

"Why," Joe the Joker says, "the joke is I will not be asleep in the sack, and my hands will not be tied, and in each of my hands I will have a John Roscoe, so when the sack is delivered to Frankie Ferocious and I pop out blasting away, can you not imagine his astonishment?"

Well, I can imagine this, all right. In fact, when I get to thinking of the look of surprise that is bound to come to Frankie Ferocious's face when Joe the Joker comes out of the sack I have to laugh, and Joe the Joker laughs right along with me.
Add to that Runyon's signature use of present tense (which can come off as stilted when he forces past- and future-tense phrases into its rules but has a charm all its own), and you have something that is difficult to get into at first, but that is immensely rewarding once you "learn the language."

"Sense of Humor" ends with a twist worthy of the darkest crime fiction and had me open-mouthed, but at the same time, it's really the only ending that fits the story. Runyon's stories often wrap around themselves and tie up neatly with a ribbon, often in a way that elicits a smile at the author's craftsmanship.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale (country noir)

Cason Statler is an Iraqi War vet returned home to Camp Rapture, Texas. Before his time in the service — he signed up for Afghanistan after 9/11 but was shipped to Iraq, go figure! — Cason was a Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist, so the local paper is happy to hire the "local boy made good" as a columnist.

Cason is wondering if there'll be anything to write about in such a slow town when he comes across the notes left by his predecessor (best known for her weekly survey of local garden insects) regarding the unsolved disappearance of teenager Caroline Allison.

Meanwhile, Cason struggles with the return to his hometown, among other things: living at home with his parents again in the wake of his more successful brother; a drinking problem that may or may not be out of hand; and being dumped by the girlfriend whose presence helped see him through the war.

When Cason's brother Jimmy's reputation is threatened by blackmailers, this pair of Statler brothers have to work together as a sort of private detective/vigilante team, and Cason learns that his brother has weaknesses too. Including one that connects him to the Allison girl.

Nearing the end of his third decade as a horror and crime fiction author, Joe R. Lansdale (winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Bottoms, and more Bram Stoker Awards than you can count on one hand) is still topping himself with each new novel, singling himself out with his particular style of down-home noir.

Leather Maiden combines Lansdale's talents for mystery plotting, quirky but realistic characterizations, colloquial dialogue that doesn't resort to dialect, and an intense portrayal of the dark and light of daily life in the rural South that can only come from a native. The result of this is a novel that offers emotional depth and authenticity along with a fun read. Last year, I wrote that Lost Echoes, Lansdale's previous novel, was "very likely the best thing he has ever written." Leather Maiden may be even better.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins (a Jack and Maggie Starr mystery)

Manhattan, 1953 — Rehearsals are underway toward the opening night of the musical Tall Paul, based on the popular comic strip of the same name by Hal Rapp. Rapp's ex-employer (and chief rival), Mug O'Malley creator Sam Fizer, has threatened to sue, saying Rapp's characters were originally created by Fizer when Rapp was working under him on the O'Malley strip. To make matters worse, Fizer's estranged wife has been hired for a role in the musical.

On Halloween night, shortly after a party at Rapp's apartment, Fizer is found dead in his own room — an apparent suicide but with painfully obvious signs pointing to Rapp as a murderer. Rapp asks Jack and Maggie Starr for help. Maggie runs the Starr Newspaper Syndication Company, and her stepson Jack is a private investigator "with one client: the Starr Syndicate." (Maggie is a former ecdysiast only 10 years Jack's senior — a situation that is a constant source of Oedipal-incest jokes at Jack's expense.)

Rapp has offered his new strip, Lean Jean, to the Starrs, so they are very invested in keeping him out of jail — especially since it looks like he is being framed. Jack takes on the case, hoping to remove the frame from Rapp before Captain Pat Chandler can nail it on tight.

Though Strip for Murder has some basis in history, author Max Allan Collins plays around with the facts here more than with his other historical-mystery novels, which usually hew closely to the facts with just a fictional character thrown in.

In fact, in this case, even the main participants' names have been fictionalized right along with the timeline of events and the characters' relationships, though their real-life counterparts can easily be discovered with a little research. Collins gives them names that aren't obvious caricatures, but realistic names in the style of the real ones. (Even the fictional characters in the musical get this treatment, like turning Daisy Mae into Sunflower Sue.)

Artist Terry Beatty, Collins's collaborator on various comic projects, including Ms. Tree, serves up era-appropriate comics-style drawings at the beginning of each chapter, and also adds a cute feature illustrating the motives, means, and opportunities of all the suspects just prior to the denouement.

Beatty's illustrations do a lot to keep the reader immersed in the world of comics, because once you've seen his renderings of the characters, it's impossible to imagine them any other way. Even with his work isn't on the page, it's still there in the mind's eye. So, though Collins likely had real humans in mind when he created these characters, I had Beatty's renderings in mine while reading Strip for Murder, which gave it a surprising "graphic novel" quality uncommon in a prose volume.

The characters are as two-dimensional as the illustrations — but that may be intentional given the milieu (Collins did write Dick Tracy for 15 years, and his lengthy experience provides fodder for some very welcome comics-business in-jokes). What's important is that Strip for Murder gives a remarkable snapshot of Manhattan in the 1950s and a mystery solution that is as surprising as it is satisfying.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

British Invasion edited by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Oh, the things people get themselves into over drinks. To hear the British Invasion trio of editors Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore tell it (in their foreword): "No one had properly chronicled [the] extraordinary number of British writers [impacting] the American horror and fantasy scene." Ten minutes later, they had sold this alcohol-inspired idea to Cemetery Dance Publications. (This quick sale actually makes a lot of sense since an anthology with this loose of a theme seems like its audience is built-in.)

In an anthology that set no restrictions on its contributors other than they be British and write horror, James Lovegrove sets himself one in the writing of "At One," the story of one man's individual hell. The restriction is unnoticeable until Lovegrove reveals it, but it gives "At One" a great deal of punch that sets it apart. (Interestingly enough, "At One" is a reprint from 2002 in an anthology that Cemetery Dance advertises as having "all new dark fiction.")

Sarah Pinborough recalls a previous British invasion (the one that changed modern music) with "The Nowhere Man," a dark fantasy (or is it?) about a boy's search for his disappeared sister. With an ending that deliberately leaves out information, Pinborough cements the unsettling effects of what preceded it. "Beth's Law" by Joel Lane is a haunting tale of how the disappearance of another young girl turns into a vendetta against outsiders.

Allen Ashley's "The Spaces in Our Lives" isn't even a horror story — unless you consider the mundanity of daily life horrific. If you do, you'll love Gary Fry's "Black Dogs," which delves deeply into a family's psychology. With "The Crazy Helmets," Paul Finch presents a "rise from the grave for revenge" story, then pulls a completely unexpected twist that changes the perception of everything involved.

Phillip Nutman's "The Misadventure of Fat Man and Little Boy, or How I Made a Monster" is by far the best. The story involves low-budget filmmakers, a naive screenwriter, a succubus, and an accidental murder. With chapters named after Warren Zevon songs, it is based on real events (Nutman is himself a low-budget filmmaker). It goes from reality to fantasy and from horror to pathos in the span of a paragraph, and contains enough actual story for a novella, making it seem deeper and wider than its mere 24 pages.

The centerpiece of British Invasion is a piece called "British Horror Weekend" by the ever-prolific Anonymous, an extraordinarily funny story of mass murder at a genre convention. It seems someone wants to kill off all the British horror writers (several contributors to this anthology make cameo appearances) and so devised to gather them all in one place. Cross-pond politics of course play a role, as does a certain amount of Anglophobia when the killer is revealed to be an "Amrk'n" tired of "imagination" in horror and eager for more "close-up detail." One imagines this to be the work of two or more of the editors, since the tone is British and the voice of the "Amrk'n" is frighteningly authentic.

Peter Crowther, whose short-story collection The Spaces Between the Lines so impressed me, does it again with "Leaves." Crowther has a fascinating ability to make the mundane terrifying (what is less frightening than a leaf?), and "Leaves" brings real chills, especially during the supposed "slow" scenes when Crowther is just setting up the situation and we're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Late in the anthology, Mark Morris impresses with "Puppies for Sale," where a man's life is destroyed by a different kind of vampire that only operates via long-distance. And speaking of "blood-suckers," Adam L.G. Nevill knows there are few things worse than an uninvited flatmate who won't bathe — or leave! — and he expresses it with textured sensation in "Yellow Teeth."

Of the 21 stories in British Invasion, only the few above rated mention, but none of them were really turkeys; they simply were not as effective as their brethren. I'm not sure how to take the fact that the under-the-radars seemed to do a better job at scribing scares than their more famous colleagues, but it's good to know that fans of British horror have a lot to look forward to.
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