Friday, August 28, 2009

September is Hard Case Crime Month at Somebody Dies!

In August 2004, I came across an article in the Boston Herald touting a new imprint from Dorchester Publishing: Hard Case Crime. The concept intrigued me — recapturing back the style of the lurid paperback originals from the post–World War II era — and I recognized the name of the founder, Charles Ardai: I'd reviewed a short story of his for the online review publication, Green Man Review.

So, I sent Charles an e-mail asking to review the books and was surprised to learn he'd read my review of his story and liked it. He said yes, and I've been reviewing the Hard Case Crime books ever since. It's hard to believe it's been five years ... until I look back on all the reviews I've written.

In honor of Hard Case Crime's fifth anniversary, it's Hard Case Crime Month here at Somebody Dies. Beginning Tuesday, September 1, I'll be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books — from Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game to Christa Faust's Money Shot (the rest are already here).

If you've been a fan from the start, this hopes to be a fond trip down memory lane. And if you're new to the line, you're in for a treat (if I may be so bold). So, spread the word and let people know about the Hard Case Crime birthday party here in September. Everybody's invited!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BoneMan's Daughters by Ted Dekker (unabridged audio book read by Robert Petkoff)

Navy captain Ryan Evans has never been much of a husband to his wife Celine or father to his daughter Bethany. His work with military intelligence has always taken first priority and has caused not only his absence in their lives but even their house via his multiple deployments. In fact, Celine and Bethany have decided to continue their lives as if Ryan were never a part of them, which they've believed for years.

But Ryan's experience as a prisoner of war changes his priorities, and suddenly he wants nothing more than to be the perfect husband and father. Meanwhile, Phil Switzer, whom district attorney Burton Welsh prosecuted to conviction for the "BoneMan" killings, has been released from prison due to new doubts about the evidence.

Elsewhere, the real BoneMan is making plans for his next abduction. In his search for the perfect daughter, and after seven unsuccessful tries that had to be eliminated (shades of The Stepfather), he thinks he's found just the right girl: Bethany.

In early 2005, I was sent a review copy of a novel by an author totally new to me. Obsessed was Ted Dekker's eleventh novel for Christian fiction publisher Thomas Nelson, and it suffered from Dekker's insistence on making the characters purely "good" or "evil." Four years and twenty (!) novels later, Dekker's craft has greatly improved, and his characters have gotten far more complex. All the people in BoneMan's Daughters are flawed, and yet all also manage to elicit our sympathy. (The book is Dekker's first with a mainstream publisher, namely the vast Hachette conglomerate.)

BoneMan's Daughters is utterly compelling from start to finish, though Dekker still relies too heavily on Judeo-Christian God and Satan metaphors for my taste (especially the pervasive father/Father motif) and the ending is unbelievable. Despite these major flaws (though some readers will not see them as such), the author has produced a thrilling and worthy addition to the canon of serial-killer fiction. In BoneMan, he has created the most fascinating serial killer since Francis Dolarhyde. (You'll never look at Noxzema lotion the same way again.)

Audiobook reader Robert Petkoff (Beat the Reaper) does a marvelous job with the varied characters, capturing the voice of each character perfectly. His ability to go from hero to villain, switching between two characters displaying very different emotions from each other in a single conversation, is nothing short of stunning. I don't think BoneMan's Daughters would be nearly as effective on the page.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

"This isn't a story in Gray Streets, Mr. Loogan."

"You keep telling me that. But more and more it's getting to look like one.... [He's] dead and I'm a suspect. If this were a story in
Gray Streets, I'd have to solve the crime on my own... and clear my name."

She closed her eyes. "David, this isn't a story in
Gray Streets."

"That's what you say."
— from Bad Things Happen

David Loogan is a man who wants no past. In fact, "David Loogan" is not his real name, only a convenient substitute. After he moves to Ann Arbor, he comes across a copy of Gray Streets magazine and submits a story — literally over the transom — twice. Editor Tom Kristoll notices the marked increase in quality of the revision and offers David a job as an editor.

Soon they become close friends. They even dig a grave together to bury the thief (or not) that Tom (or somebody) killed — hey, what are friends for? David also begins an affair with Tom's wife Laura that ends on the evening Tom is found defenestrated (self- or otherwise) and most definitely dead.

Enter detective Elizabeth Waishkey, investigating officer and mother of a teenage daughter. Elizabeth's job gets progressively more difficult as the body count increases — all employees of Gray Streets in one form or another — and her mysterious prime suspect (though he has her believing he didn't really do it) continually takes the investigation into his own hands ("just like in a story in Gray Streets").

It may seem like I'm repeating the phrase "like a story in Gray Streets" a lot, but it's nowhere near as many times as it's used in Harry Dolan's debut novel, Bad Things Happen. It's a kind of metafictional motif, used to remind the reader that you are reading a book, but that this book isn't going to be like other crime/mystery novels, as much as the characters might want it to be.

Dolan has several tricks up his sleeve, all of which make Bad Things Happen a continually surprising read. It compelled me through its unpredictable plot from the beginning, and I was never able to tell where it would end up. First, it seemed like a typical noir-style crime novel, but it soon became a mystery with multiple murders to solve.

For a book so steeped in genre, Bad Things Happen manages to be almost completely non-formulaic. (The author's fondness for Raymond Chandler is obvious through references, but I'm not enough of a Chandler buff to see any stylistic similarities.) Each page offers a new piece of information, and the direction of the plot is never telegraphed.

The protagonist's actions are realistically improvisatory — Dolan seems to truly be making this up as he goes along — but the level of detail suggests both a fertile imagination and months devoted to orchestration. (That is, assuming that Bad Things Happen is not semi-autobiographical: Harry Dolan and David Loogan share more than a few similarities.)

What it all comes down to is that Bad Things Happen is a terrifically auspicious debut that is going to be hard to follow. There is nothing cliche or predictable from the opening line all the way to the surprisingly complex solution (that you'll never guess). I'm already looking forward to seeing what Harry Dolan does next.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One (audio book read by Charles McKibben, Bob Souer, Bob Barnes, and Brian Holsapple)

Shadow Kingdoms is volume one of Wildside Press's series of ten books collecting "The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard," namely Howard's stories as published in the magazine Weird Tales, in chronological order. Audio publisher Audio Realms has taken a selection of the stories in that volume and produced an unabridged recording of its own, also called Shadow Kingdoms.

Though they're not the first ones presented, I began with the three stories of my favorite character, Solomon Kane, featured in this collection. "Red Shadows" introduces Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero. Avenging the death of a young woman, Kane travels for years to find Le Loup ("the wolf"), meeting "good juju man" N'Longa — who later plays a larger role in Kane's life — for the first time. Howard doesn't shy away from the action here, putting Kane in peril no less than three times.

I've experienced "Red Shadows" multiple times, in print and audio, and it never loses its power to entertain. Both Kane and Le Loup are indelible characters, and the action sets up Kane admirably well for his later stories.

In "Rattle of Bones," Kane and Gaston L'Armon enter a tavern for the night and discover there's a good reason it's called "The Cleft Skull." This story and "Skulls in the Stars" have suspense, death, and insanity portrayed with skill, and they really show Howard at his best. In some ways, Solomon Kane reminds me of the Western hero: stoic and strong and operating under a strict moral code of his own devising. The Kane stories offer the same kind of entertainment provided by modern Western series like The Trailsman and The Gunsmith: a sole hero who comes in, solves a problem, and travels off again, ready for another adventure.

"The Lost Race" is one of the earliest of Howard's Weird Tales publications, from 1927. Howard's appreciation of the history of the Pict race was already long-standing. In this tale, a fellow named Cororuc happens upon some dwarfish folk ("small dark people") and gets mixed up in an age-old revenge. Written when its author was only 18, it has a tangential relationship to his stories of Bran Mak Morn (though the Pict king himself is not mentioned).

"The Dream Snake" stands out as a particularly well-done pure horror story in the classic told-by-the-campfire vein. That is, its ending is entirely predictable and, in fact, inevitable from the beginning. But Howard's portrait of a man in the grip of an intense lifelong fear (from a horrific recurring dream) is utterly believable. A well-performed reading of "The Dream Snake" could be the highlight of any Halloween night storytelling session.

"The Hyena" is a high-energy adventure tale set in Africa and involving the antagonism between a fetish man and an American rancher. The American is kind of dumb — I guess he's never read this kind of "twist" ending before — but this doesn't ruin the tense showdown.

"The Shadow Kingdom" is the first featuring Kull from Atlantis, usurping king of Valusia. Kull meets his own attempted usurpers in the Serpent Men, a fascinating race of snake-headed individuals who deal in mesmerism and shape-shifting. Kull has to struggle with his own doubts to maintain the throne. Many consider this story to be the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre ("Red Shadows" also has its supporters for that title), with the main difference being the latter's use of a realistic setting (Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C.). Though similar in many ways to the later character of Conan the Cimmerian (the first Conan story was a rewritten Kull story), I find Kull superior due to his tendency toward deeper thinking.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" finds Kull in a melancholy mood. His friend Brule the spear-slayer suggests a night on the town, but that does not appeal. Later, a blonde with "violet eyes" recommends a visit to Tuzun Thune, a wizard who shows Kull his hall of mirrors. Kull sits before one often, expostulating on which Kull is the real one. Sounds like Kull didn't take his meds. After such a heroic turn in "The Shadow Kingdom," this story may disappoint some. But perhaps it was merely the author's way of putting a little of himself in his work, given Howard's own notorious bouts with depression. It certainly seems like being king isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The Voice of El Lil" was actually published in Weird Tales's sister publication Oriental Stories, and it's actually from volume two of the Weird Works series, The Moon of Skulls and doesn't appear in the print version of Shadow Kingdoms at all. Why this was done is rather confusing, but the story itself is one of Howard's rousing "lost race" stories. It starts out slow but shows many facets by the end.

All in all, Shadow Kingdoms is highly entertaining listening. Audio Realms seems to have picked the most exciting stories of the bunch and given them to the narrators best suited for them. (Usually, single-author collections have a single reader.) I look forward to their future recordings in this series.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter (unabridged audio book read by Ed Sala)

I'm a big proponent of judging an author by his work. Whatever ideals author Forrest Carter espoused, or whatever deceptions he perpetrated, during his life, you can't deny his powerful storytelling. A perfect example is Gone to Texas (filmed by Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales).

Gone to Texas is a sneaky kind of "sleeper" novel. At first it didn't seem to be affecting me, but before I knew it, it was over, and I was eager to revisit the characters. (The paperback is bound with the sequel, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales.)

Carter ensures that we sympathize with this feared outlaw (he seems to be notorious wherever he goes) by giving us some history. Josey Wales was a farmer and family man. But when he found his cabin and family burned black by red-leg raiders, he became one of the Missouri guerillas known as "Quantrill's Raiders" (another fictional Quantrill rider was Rooster Cogburn). Carter shows Wales's other aspects subtly in how he deals with other people: the young boy Jamie Burns; Lone, the Indian who becomes his "brother"; and the two women he saves from Comancheros and who ride with them.

Gone to Texas is not action-packed, though plenty happens. It's a portrait of a man not easily understood. Ed Sala reads the audiobook with a similar approach — seeming to not put too much of himself in the characters, in order to allow the listeners to put more of ourselves into their places. This is one of those novels that reveal more on subsequent readings, a modern classic.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Honey in His Mouth by Lester Dent (Hard Case Crime)

Reading Honey in His Mouth was an exercise in giving an author a second chance. I first read the work of Lester Dent in June when I happened upon a Doc Savage novel by "Kenneth Robeson" (Quest for Qui) in a used-book store. I didn't like it. Mostly, I didn't like the characters. After all, why does a superman of sorts need five assistants, especially when he spends most of the book saving them from their own stupidity?

That said, the story showed some real creative thought on display, so I opened Honey in His Mouth with both trepidation and anticipation. This novel was written in 1956, one of Dent's last, and it remained unpublished until Hard Case Crime got hold of it and added it to their roster of lost novels that include Roger Zelazny's The Dead Man's Brother and David Dodge's masterful The Last Match, a modern classic of grifter lit.

The main draw of Honey in His Mouth for me was its con-man protagonist. If you want me to read a book, tell me there's a confidence scheme involved, and the more elaborate the better. (Another recent read, King Con by Stephen J. Cannell, was very enjoyable in an Ocean's Eleven kind of way — meaning all the pieces are there, but it was a little too eager to be mainstream to be anything more than a fun ride.)

Dent starts out with a truly exciting car chase. Walter Harsh is a photographer who is not averse to scamming folks for equipment. Such was the case with D.C. Roebuck, who let Harsh have $712 worth of supplies to be billed later. Harsh never paid the bill and subsequently met Roebuck at a filling station. Harsh speeds out; Roebuck gives chase, and off we go. Before the end, an arm is broken, and a car is off the road.

Harsh's time in the hospital gives him an opportunity. He has O-negative blood, you see, a very rare type. This just happens to be the same blood type as the president of a South American country, whom Harsh also just happens to exactly resemble. There is a quartet of schemers who have been looking for someone just like him to impersonate the dictator, and they're willing to pay him $50,000.

Dent sends us on a ride that will not only please his fans but also those of other Hard Case Crime novels. The vetting process of Harsh is a highlight, with the five main characters taking turns in the spotlight. Each one — Brother, Doctor Englaster, Mr. Hassam, Miss Muirz (the dish depicted in the cover painting by Ron Lesser), and Harsh himself — is a full-bodied individual easily distinguished by his or her own conceits and deceits.

Just as I was getting comfortable with them and settling in for a smooth read, Dent throws a monkey wrench that practically sends their plans all to hell. I was worried that Honey in His Mouth would soon focus on the scheme to the book's detriment, but this conflict only serves to bring out the characters' differences and personalities all the more.

Dent is a highly skilled plotter, and Honey in His Mouth in a prime example. It is definitely one of the best of the year, and it just may be one of the best that Hard Case Crime has published yet. It rushes headlong toward a roller coaster conclusion — with plenty of sharp turns to keep things interesting, including two I never saw coming (though my wife thought one was obvious, so your mileage may vary).

Between Honey in His Mouth and The Last Match, my favorite books of the Hard Case Crime like have been ones found by their authors' estate. I for one would be very grateful if all late crime authors' relations would thoroughly scour their famous kin's files for more gems like these. Sometimes trunks house treasures.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald (unabridged audio book performed by a full cast)

Retired colonel Mark Blackwell hires private detective Lew Archer to ivestigate his daughter Harriet's new fiancee, painter/layabout(/murderer?) Burke Damis, in The Zebra-Striped Hearse. (The title vehicle actually has a pivotal but otherwise tangential role.) It was the tenth in the popular private-eye series by author Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), widely considered to be among the top handful of best writers of detective fiction, especially of the hard-boiled noir variety.

Archer begins the case rather simply, but it soon becomes increasingly complex as questions lead to uncovered murders that relate to the case. The deeper Archer gets, and the more people he talks to, the more connections are made until there's a veritable web of links for him to sort through. (At one point, I actually wondered if it were possible for everyone to be guilty, much like a famous mystery set on a train.)

This is a different kind of audiobook and one I'd like to see more of: a full, unabridged reading of The Zebra-Striped Hearse performed by a cast of forty actors, with about a dozen of those tackling multiple roles. Some names may be familiar: Ed Asner plays Colonel Blackwell, with Kathryn Harrold as his wife Isobel, Jennifer Tilly as Harriet, and Joe Pantoliano as Burke Damis.

Prolific character actor Harris Yulin directs and carries the main role of Lew Archer. Yulin grounds the production with his solid portrayal, always in the foreground, but never getting in the way of his supporting actors. Other than Yulin, Asner and Harrold shine the brightest, though Tilly's turn is surprisingly earthy. Pantoliano, unfortunately, is given little to do — even "understated" would be an understatement here.

The whole venture is underscored by a piano- and trumpet-based soft jazz score that lends the perfect "lonely gumshoe" feel typical of the films of the genre. And film is the word of the day, because unlike single-reader audios, The Zebra-Striped Hearse is really a movie for the mind — it combines the best parts of unabridged narration and old-time radio. What a terrific way to be introduced to such a legendary series; I only hope the print versions can match up.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Man from Nowhere: a Ralph Compton novel by Joseph A. West (Western)

Eddie Oates has always been a drunk, good for little else than humiliating entertainment given in exchange for a drink. When the Apaches surround Alma, New Mexico Territory, its citizens cut the fat to save supplies. This includes hanging the stage-robbing Hart brothers ahead of their sentenced date and banishing Eddie, three whores, and "simple boy" Sam Tatum.

Left to his own devices, Eddie continues to show off his faults. But he soon finds the better part of himself through dealing with people he meets along his travels — especially a young Lipan Apache who says she's his wife.

Author Joseph A. West wrote the first two "Ralph Compton" novels I read: Doomsday Rider and Vengeance Rider. Those two introduced me to the style, and at first it didn't seem like anything special. But I've read other Comptons in the meantime (Rio Largo by David Robbins and The Goodnight Trail by Compton himself) and have since come to appreciate the particular tone and blend of action with characterization that it typifies. Now I'm continually on the lookout for them, and "Ralph Compton" (whoever is actually doing the writing) is one of my favorite Western authors.

So, when I saw The Man from Nowhere, I decided to give West another try. He pleasantly surprised me. Eddie Oates, along with all the other characters that people the novel, are fully realized portraits of individuals under some form of duress or another — none more than Oates himself, who continually fights his desire for alcohol and eventually redeems himself and even becomes a hero of sorts.

The story is mainly Eddie's, but West makes sure to give each character in The Man from Nowhere his or her time in the spotlight and offers up not just one but two memorable villains in the process. He also ties things up with a feel-good ending that doesn't forget the seriousness of what came before. West has truly impressed me with this latest offering, and I'll definitely look for his name in the future.

Nitpicker's Note: When a character has a pet phrase that is repeated several times throughout a novel, it sticks in the memory. At the same time, it's understandable when a mistake on the last page of said novel slips past even the best copyeditor's eye. Even so, when Nellie calls her friend Lorraine "Darlene" in the midst of that pet phrase, you'd think somebody would have noticed.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mortal Wounds by Max Allan Collins (omnibus of CSI tie-in novels Double Dealer, Sin City, and Cold Burn)

Anyone who reads this and asks: "Why is Max Allan Collins writing CSI novels?" must have forgotten (or never knew) that, in between his various graphic novel and historical mystery projects, Collins has had a lively TV/movie tie-in sideline going on for some time now. In fact, it was his novelization of Saving Private Ryan that gave him the "New York Times Bestselling Author" designation that has appeared on nearly every one of his book covers since.

The bottom line is that Collins writes intelligent, detail-oriented, fast-paced novels (mysteries for the most part) and so is a perfect fit for CSI. His experience writing in the voices of already-extant characters also serves well in his representation of Grissom, Willows, Brass, Brown, Stokes, and Sidle: every line reads as if it were delivered by the actors; and remember, these are original plots, not novelizations of previously filmed teleplays, making the result that much more admirable.

Mortal Wounds collects the first three novels Collins wrote connected with this long-running TV series, a job that has since been continued by other authors as Collins moved his focus on to novels related to other series like Bones and Criminal Minds.

Double Dealer is the first novel in the series and contains a good amount of extra detailed history, in-depth predictive reenactments, and copious description, while still respecting the "reality" of the events from the first season. (Something that is also good to remember: later season events, relationships, and promotions are not reflected here, the only major drawback to reading a novel based on an ongoing television series.)

A mummified corpse is discovered that carries the same shooter's-signature as a more recently dispatched victim. However, true to form, Grissom considers the two to be separate cases until the evidence proves otherwise. I'm hesitant to provide too much detail about the plot, but series fans will love how Collins follows the normal procedure of a typical episode in Double Dealer -- all the way down to the jaw-dropping climax and the non sequitur ending. In addition, he adds his own brand of humor, particularly in the form of in-jokes during an interrogation in a video store. (He not only name-drops his own innovative DVD Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market, but also a classic from actor William Petersen's past.)

A satisfying read all around, Double Dealer enhances the CSI mythology without having to go outside the expected realm and leaves plenty of room for further development, making it perfect for fans but also approachable for the uninitiated. (Of course, this metafiction-loving reviewer would be tickled pink to see the worlds collide by having this novel adapted into a future CSI movie, bringing everything full circle.)

Sin City repeats everything that was good about Double Dealer: solid plotting, familiar characterization, loyalty to the format. It's the rare sophomore effort that improves upon its predecessor. That it is also longer makes this feat even more surprising.

Las Vegas earns its notorious nickname when a man's wife disappears and their neighbors suspect the husband, particularly since the wife gave them a secreted cassette tape with the husband threatening to dismember her recorded on it. Meanwhile, a stripper is murdered in the lap-dance room at Dream Dolls (where Catherine used to work before she got her degree in the forensic sciences) and the surveillance cameras point to her boyfriend, who was not only under a restraining order, but also claims he was home watching the game at the time.

Sin City fulfills on all levels. The voices are perfect and one can go from watching the television series to reading the novels seamlessly, which is likely the best compliment one can give to a genre that gains little respect from the literary community but has been vastly appreciated by TV watchers and readers alike for decades.

Collins (with help once again from researcher and plotter extraordinaire Matthew V. Clemens) again delivers the forensic goods in Cold Burn. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, two wintry murders, separated by most of the continental United States, tax the resources of the Las Vegas CSI team. While Catherine, Warrick, and Nick remain on home turf to take care of the mysteriously wet and naked dead female dropped on a park trail, Sara and Grissom are on their way to a seminar in New York, a working vacation. Surprised by work in its midst, they come across an ad hoc funeral pyre in the middle of a snowstorm.

Collins stays faithful to the existing characters while taking advantage of the novel format, creating new storylines and suspects that fit the surroundings but that stretch the usual boundaries with their use of more realistic murders and even rough language. A highlight of this novel is watching Grissom learn new techniques when a Canadian CSI shows his particular skills in working a crime scene covered with snow.

I find reading the novels a perfect way to pass the time instead of watching another rerun for the fourth or fifth time, given how many stations are carrying the show in syndication. (Coincidentally, however, an episode that is referred to as "the Marks case" in Cold Burn was conveniently rebroadcast on the night I read about it, allowing me to get deeper insight into the actions of one of the regulars.)

I still feel as if I have just begun this series, and I'm not about to stop now. More novels follow the three included in the Mortal Wounds omnibus, and I've read one, Body of Evidence, so far, with equally entertaining results. Collins also wrote a handful of other novels for this series and a couple of CSI: Miami novels, as well as a selection of CSI graphic novels, and the plots for CSI video games and at least one CSI board game. For a while there, Max Allan Collins was the go-to guy for nearly all the related materials, and his immersion in that world shows in the quality of his work.
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