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.
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