Friday, May 30, 2008

Ten Plus One by Ed McBain (87th Precinct)

The classic 87th Precinct novels are my favorites because of books like Ten Plus One, the fifteenth in the series. From the beginning, it contains some of McBain's best writing. And I'm talking about descriptive, sometimes philosophical prose — something rare in crime novels, anyway. But when an author begins a novel (about a sniper picking off citizens) with a tongue-in-cheek section on how it's illegal to die in the springtime (autumn is much more appropriate), you've got something special.

And Ten Plus One continues to impress! Each victim gets a full rundown of the events, thoughts, and feelings leading up to their final moments, making each a real person before becoming a corpse.

(Chapter 10, detailing the tragedy of Frankie Pierce, a victim of a different sort, is worth singling out as an example of bad police work, and also as a cautionary tale. Parents should read it to their kids as a reason why you should never get on the wrong side of the law because it labels you forever.)

The plot, the motive, the backstory detailing the connections of the victims to each other, and the solution are all very original — and even groundbreaking by implication, especially where past events are concerned, making Ten Plus One an absolute necessity for Ed McBain fans.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rio Largo: a Ralph Compton novel by David Robbins (audio book read by Joel Leffert)

Kent Tovey and Dar Pierce run the "Circle T" and "D.P." ranches, respectively, on opposite sides of the Río Largo ("long river"). Technically, they're competitors, but since there is enough land for each to run his ranch successfully, they often help each other out and have become friends. Workers for each ranch are told to be polite to the other ranch's workers, and to only go for cattle that have crossed over once the other ranchers have been notified, to avoid any suspicion of rustling.

But an impulsive act leads to a murder, which leads to more, with each side accusing the other without searching for evidence. When one of the ranch owners is found with his face half–shot off, it's war.

Author David Robbins's tough and forceful prose was the first thing I liked about Rio Largo. Later, I was impressed by how the author laces his old-style storytelling with modern sensibilities.

Any ranch worth its salt is going to have a high percentage of cowboys and vaqueros who are experienced gunhands. But Tovey and Pierce seem to have hired more than their fair share of hardened killers. The newest hire, Hijino, is a breed to himself, however — the closest thing to a serial killer I've encountered in a tale of the Old West.

Robbins is also an expert at creating suspense, as his characters find out information and — as they try to piece together who is behind the sabotage — quickly realize that no one is safe. (Robbins also doesn't shy away from chronicling the effects of the bloodshed on loved ones.)

Entirely despicable, Hijino is also the most purely entertaining character in Rio Largo, simply due to his unpredictability. While the other denizens of the Circle T and D.P. are mostly loyal to their employers, there is underlying racism among a selection of the cowhands. Also, some of the Pierce children (half-Mexican by Dar's wife Juanita) just know that the "gringos" are behind it. But Hijino schemes entirely for his own purposes, and you just never know what he'll do next. One thing is for sure: he'll let no one get in his way.

Reader Joel Leffert's performance deserves a great deal of the credit for how much I enjoyed this book. From the youngest woman to the oldest man, his voices are individual and authentic. But this only enhanced the experience wrought by Robbins himself. Despite being published under the "Ralph Compton" mantle, this is no throwaway series novel but a possible contender for the mantle of modern classic. "Fill your hand" with a copy of Rio Largo.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Books I Couldn't Finish, May 2008

Bloody Season by Loren D. Estleman (read by Norman Dietz) — This book dragged worse than any Western I've tried to plod through. The first chapter chronicled the slowest gunfight ever, with every gunshot followed from its gun to its final resting place. Chapter 2 continued this ridiculousness with several paragraphs detailing all the wounds and their effects for each person. Chapter 3 felt like reading a court transcript with very little editing. Not exactly my idea of gripping reading.

Sin Killer (first book of the four-volume Berrybender Narratives) by Larry McMurtry (read by Henry Strozier) — This attempt to make the frontier funny (sort of a "P.G. Wodehouse goes West") is admirable and very humorous in spots. But eventually, the way McMurtry tries to make every situation ridiculous (with no exceptions) just seemed a bit too silly to me.

World War Z by Max Brooks (read by the author and a full cast) — Blame this one on high expectations. I really thought this full-cast reading of Brooks's "war of the zombies" was going to be the best audiobook of the year. But even performances by Mark Hamill, Carl Reiner, Henry Rollins, and Alan Alda couldn't hide the fact that the story is essentially about as entertaining as the nightly news.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Max by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)

When we last left Max Fisher (a.k.a., "The M.A.X.", New York's baddest hip-hop drug dealer), at the end of Slide, he was being led off to jail. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's third collaboration — not coincidentally titled The Max — picks up with Max trying to get his bearings as the new little fish bitch in a big pond. But Max still thinks like a CEO and knows how to play the game, and before too long, he is ruling the roost with the blacks, the Aryans, and the Latinos all thinking he's with them.

Enter Paula Segal, a midlist mystery writer just demoted to "cult" status ("She thought only those creepy noir guys got demoted to cult. She'd never even written a short story for Akashic"). She's looking to revive her career with a true-crime book about Max — and hoping that the Edgar Award she'll undoubtedly win for it will help her meet her latest crush, Laura Lippman.

Meanwhile, Max's ex-fiancée, Angela Petrakos, has just arrived in Greece (she's of Irish-Greek descent and already tried Ireland, where she just didn't feel quite as Irish as she does in the states) and hooked up with a Brit named Sebastian. Not only does he have that accent, but he also looks just like Lee Child! (Too bad his idol is Tom Ripley.)

Readers of Bruen and Starr's previous books are already aware how much fun they like to have with real authors in their stories. Chapter 3 alone contains a great deal of inside information about the workings of the crime genre that even partially knowledgable fans will get a kick out of. After the disappointment that was Slide, I'm happy to say that The Max is a return to form for the duo, though they still seem to prefer "extreme" storytelling for its own sake.

On the downside, for the most part Paula Segal is a wasted opportunity. After a very intriguing introductory chapter, she is never used to her fullest potential — even if she does quote Babe while pleasuring herself. The cover painting by Glen Orbik (Branded Woman, The Colorado Kid, Money Shot), however, is just the opposite. It is everything it wants to be. In fact, in some ways, it is even more successful in fulfilling its intentions than The Max is.

Despite the unevenness of the trilogy that began with Bust — and signs point to it not becoming a tetralogy — Ken Bruen and Jason Starr offer an original ride that is practically a genre unto itself. Here's hoping that these collaborations lead readers to the authors' separate works (though they write very different separately than they do together), or that they will decide to work together once again (and maybe give Paula her own book).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Shooting Star / Spiderweb by Robert Bloch (Hard Case Crime double)

It's at first a little surprising that Hard Case Crime would reprint a Robert Bloch novel, let alone two, since he is best known for writing the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho. Though Bloch then became known as a horror writer, that book was just one of 20 he wrote throughout his career, covering other genres like science-fiction and, the appropriate one here, crime.

Shooting Star appears in this volume along with Spiderweb, packaged together in a form reminiscent of the old Ace Doubles — two complete novels printed back-to-back and head-to-tail with a separate cover for each one. You read one novel, then flip the book over to read the other. Each one has its own copyright page and cover art. It's a gimmick, to be sure, but a great one.

This presentation is perfect when you consider that Shooting Star and Spiderweb actually both first appeared as part of the Ace Double line (each runs just over 150 pages). Not together, though: they were published in 1958 and 1954, respectively. (Spiderweb was backed by a David Alexander novel, and Shooting Star was backed with a collection of Bloch's short stories.)

When an old friend asks him to solve an old murder, a one-eyed, down-on-his-luck literary agent becomes a one-eyed, down-on-his-luck private eye. After Mark Clayburn had the accident that lost him an eye (and gained him a patch), no one came to visit him — not even Harry Bannock, though they were pretty close at the time.

Now Bannock wants a favor: for Clayburn to solve the murder of Dick Ryan (Clayburn has a PI license and gun permit to help with research on true-detective yarns) so Bannock can cash in on a TV deal for Ryan's series of 39 Lucky Larry movies. (Ryan was found with "reefer butts" at the time, and the TV people are wary of closing the deal due to the scandal.) Clayburn only agrees because he could use the money. But the threats begin right away, and the police are less than helpful.

I often enjoy novels set in old Hollywood. In fact, just before beginning Shooting Star, I had just read two others — What Makes Sammy Run? and Rude Mechanicals — and I thought my brain was primed for the experience. But, as one might expect, Bloch shows a different side of Hollywood. No bright lights here, expect for the occasional muzzle flash. Clayburn can't trust anyone, not even the people he has to depend on most.

What I didn't expect was conventionality. Though few of them are genuine classics, all the other Bloch novels I've read were nonetheless intriguing in their pursuit of original ideas. But, apart from a couple of interesting details — namely, the one-eyed protagonist and the antidrug message (with repeated talk of "reefer addicts") — Shooting Star is like a lot of other private eye novels. Plus, the solution is so predictable that it's practically given away before the book begins.

Even Spiderweb offers a very typical noir-fiction plot: greed gets a guy in over his head with some shady dealings, and he has to find a way out. Eddie Haines had a promising career in Iowa. The star of the senior play, they all said, "You oughta be in pictures." When he got a crackerjack idea for a TV series, he headed for Hollywood. Two months and $300 to an agent later, after not a single bite, Eddie is standing in front of his bathroom mirror with a straight razor in his hand and shaving the farthest thing from his mind when a Peter Lorre lookalike knocks on his door with $100 and the opportunity to become someone else.

The only different between this and any other typical crime novel is Bloch's use of psychology as a theme. Fortunately, that difference goes a long way toward making Spiderweb the more entertaining of the two. My guess is that it was the novel actually selected to be reprinted but that it was too short by itself and Shooting Star was picked to fill out the page count. Either way, I still hope Hard Case Crime produces more dual volumes like this one and the one they published early on, collecting Max Allan Collins's first two novels — I have to admit I like getting "two for the money."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)

In the Afterword of 2006's The Last Quarry, author Max Allan Collins implied that, though that book told the final Quarry story chronologically speaking, he was not averse to going back and exploring previous events in Quarry's career. For fans, the only question was, how far back would he go?

Would you believe, all the way back to the last week of 1970?

The First Quarry, just as its title implies, takes us through the events surrounding Quarry's inaugural murder for hire (technically, he killed professionally before as a sniper in Vietnam, but this is freelance), in service to the well-dressed individual known to us as "The Broker": to assassinate college professor and best-selling author K.J. Byron and burn the manuscript of his new book.

Sounds straightforward enough, but Quarry (whose real name, he reminds us, is "none of your fucking business") quickly finds that it's not all that easy. The involvement of the Chicago mafia is only one of many complications that arise unexpectedly, with The Broker called in for advice and assistance with collateral damage on more than one occasion.

Maybe it's because death isn't all Quarry's got on his mind. His focus wanders when he envies how Byron's female students thank the professor for his mentoring — on their knees. So when opportunities arise with two other women, so does Quarry (so to speak). In fact, with all the action both Quarry and Byron get, The First Quarry may be the most sexed-up novel that Hard Case Crime has yet published.

Because there's a good deal of exposition, the first portion reads a little slower than may be expected. Luckily, at just about the time I was thinking things were getting too slow, Collins follows Raymond Chandler's often-quoted advice and brings in a man with a gun. From that point on, things get really interesting, and The First Quarry delivers a number of surprises. But, unlike a lot of authors, Collins doesn't call attention to these with exclamation points or other crutches: he just writes what happens and lets our brains to do the double-take all on their own.

Collins's usually lean prose is cut even closer to the bone for this series (all the Quarry books are around 200 pages — shorter even than Hard Case Crime average of 250), and the last four pages are as action-packed as anything he has written. All of which makes The First Quarry a terrific continuation of this popular series, and another fantastic read from one of pulp's few true heirs.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Trailin'! by Max Brand (unabridged audio book read by Rowdy Delaney)

As a fan of author Max Brand (under that and whatever other pseudonyms Frederick Faust chose to write) for a few years now, I am ever on the lookout for more books of his to read. As a fan of audiobooks for nigh on decades, I am especially fond of hearing Brand's books read to me.

But audiobooks are expensive, and libraries never seem to have the selection I'm looking for. Luckily, I recently discovered that Librivox, an online producer of audios of public-domain texts read by volunteers, has added (at this writing) two of Brand's books to their catalog: Trailin'! and Ronicky Doone.

When I got over my surprise that some of Brand's books had slipped out of copyright, I immediately downloaded the former, the second book he published (The Untamed was the first). Here is a portion of the summary submitted by the audio's reader, Rowdy Delaney:

Trailin’! (1919) tells the story of Anthony Bard [...] who sees his father murdered in the yard of their home. This starts young Anthony on a trail of vengeance that leads him to the far West. Here, Anthony, a tenderfoot with a knack for survival, must track down a legendary outlaw who waits for him — not with a gun, but with a story. Along the way he braves the elements, resists a band of cold-blooded killers, and finds love. A classic western revenge plot ... with a twist.

The classic revenge story became a specialty of Brand's. But, unlike later books like Luck and the superlative Beyond the Outposts, in Trailin'! there is nothing special that sets it apart from the work of writers with more typical aims. This would change as Brand wrote more books, but — apart from a surprise revelation at the end — it remains a little disappointing to read a Brand Western that is so ... conventional.

But reading a weak Max Brand novel is still better than reading something by a lesser writer. Librivox volunteer Rowdy Delaney does a good job. She does not give her characters distinctive voices, but the story is not hard to follow. Her somewhat raspy voice certainly adds to the atmosphere. I enjoyed her reading enough that I have already downloaded Ronicky Doone (I've already read one of its sequels, Ronicky Doone's Treasure).

(Trailin'! was originally published in the legendary All-Story Weekly [and actually under the Max Brand byline, unlike numerous others that were only reprinted with it]. The story was filmed by director Irving Cummings in 1931 as A Holy Terror. That movie — which is also known as Wyoming Wonder — stars George O'Brien of Sunrise and a young Humphrey Bogart.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

There Will Be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (starring Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano)

There Will Be Blood (2007). Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, loosely adapted from the novel OIL! by Upton Sinclair.

I went into There Will Be Blood expecting a solid movie, but nothing on the scale writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson delivers. I enjoyed Magnolia and especially Boogie Nights for various reasons (often despite their flaws), but in those films, Anderson seemed to be merely following the multiple-character trail Robert Altman blazed many years before. This film really feels like a truly original story by a much more mature storyteller.

In addition to the terrific acting from star Daniel Day Lewis (and to a lesser extent, Paul Dano in a dual role), there were two major plusses about There Will Be Blood. First, that I had no idea where the story was going. In an age where it seems that one movie is pretty much like another, this is a welcome surprise.

The second additional plus was the terrific modern-classical score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (including portions of his Popcorn Superhet Receiver). It is the first in recent memory that both calls unnecessary attention to itself (mostly due to its use of dissonance during particularly dramatic scenes) and remains true to the film.

Most of the time, when I notice that I'm hearing a score, it's because it's particularly bad. A good score, most of the time, should be like a good editor: if they're doing their job, you won't notice them. But Greenwood's music outdoes itself on both fronts, making the music from There Will Be Blood also the first score since Danny Elfman's peak in the early 1990s that I am actually considering purchasing on CD.
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