Saturday, November 28, 2009

Longarm (Longarm #1) by Lou Cameron writing as Tabor Evans (Western series)

Prolific author Lou Cameron created Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis "Longarm" Long in 1978, and you couldn't ask for a more complete character introduction that the one he gives in the opening of the first novel in the series, simply titled Longarm. In a smooth narrative style, Cameron chronicles Longarm's rising in the morning, and we get the whole rundown from nearly every detail of his appearance (his hair is tobacco-leaf brown) to his whiskey preference to his philosophy on hygiene.

On this particular morning, Long goes into the office of his boss, U.S. Marshal Billy Vail for an assignment: to go to the tiny village of Crooked Lance and bring Cotton Younger to face trial. When Longarm gets there, though, he finds that others had the same idea.

A Canadian mountie, a local sheriff, a French-Canadian bent on revenge, a couple of bounty hunters, and a captain of the U.S. Army all want Younger, either for the crimes committed under their jurisdiction or for the price on his head (as well as his assumed knowledge of the whereabouts of Frank and Jesse James and the even bigger rewards for them).

So, since nobody is letting anybody go anywhere with their prisoner, things come to a standstill. Soon, people start getting killed and true identities come to light, and it's up to Longarm to bring his man back to justice — even though Younger swears he's not Younger — and find out what happened to Deputy Kincaid, who came to Crooked Lance looking for Younger and disappeared.

This initial entry in the long-running series is one of the more interesting and well-written I've read yet. Cameron offers surprises galore in Longarm and keep the suspense high. Who is this Frenchman who doesn't speak French? And who is the woman who keeps climbing into Longarm's bed in the dark of night? Cameron knows his period and continually inserts little nuggets of historical context.

Longarm (bound with the second novel in the series in "double" fashion) is a hot-blooded Western and a good old-fashioned mystery with a solid, sensible ending. Only one question is left unanswered, but it serves to end the book with a chuckle. Even the love interest is drawn in an intriguing fashion, with the woman Longarm ends up with being the only one who can hold her own in a intellectually stimulating conversation. This novel starts the series off well, and Cameron (who was still occasionally writing Longarms as recently as 2006) sets the standard for all to follow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Losers Live Longer by Russell Atwood (Hard Case Crime)

The follow-up to author Russell Atwood's debut novel (and cult favorite), East of A, was ten years in the writing. Originally titled Between C and D (making for a sort of A-B-C-D motif across the titles, which is cute), Losers Live Longer is also a sequel, featuring Atwood's private investigator Payton Sherwood and a beautifully unconventional horizontal cover painting by Robert McGinnis.

At 9:30 in the morning, the Thursday after Labor Day, private detective Payton Sherwood's buzzer sounds — a highly unexpected intrusion during a time of few clients. But it is a client ... sort of. Private eye extraordinaire George Rowell (called "Owl" by his friends and colleagues) wants Sherwood to follow a follower, a simple soft cover job.

But before Sherwood can get down to the street to discuss the job with the great detective, Rowell is killed, and Sherwood sets out to find the killer. However, nothing is ever so simple in New York City, and Sherwood gets deep into the dark side of the city and finds out more about human depravity than he ever wanted to know.

Losers Live Longer has an odd sort of protagonist: Sherwood seems to only be playing detective, more interested in spouting pop-culture references than in doing any real legwork. (Though any book that obliquely references The Electric Company and Sesame Street and directly name-checks Murder, My Sweet can't be all bad.)

I have a tendency to think this is a result of the author's putting too much of himself into the character (Atwood, Sherwood: it's not a big leap, and it reminds me of the Lawrence Block stories with characters called "Lenny Blake" and the like). This is generally a bad idea unless your plot is particularly strong, and the plot of Losers Live Longer is just OK. It also takes a while to get going. (As usual in this genre, things don't get really interesting until the ladies show up.)

Flaws in either plot or characterization can generally be overlooked, though, if they complement each other. Neither is strong enough to carry Losers Live Longer by itself, but they're just good enough together to make for a decent read, if not a particularly memorable one.

Atwood's website — conveniently titled — has an mp3 of the author reading the first chapter of Losers Live Longer, a pdf of the original short-story publication of "East of A" in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (where he was an editor for a time), and other interesting downloads for crime fiction fans (including a rare recording of Mickey Spillane reading a Mike Hammer story that chronologically precedes all the novels).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Son of Retro Pulp Tales edited by Joe R. Lansdale and Keith Lansdale

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

In 2006, author/editor Joe R. Lansdale collected a selection of short stories written by various authors in the style of the old pulp magazines. Retro Pulp Tales was that rare anthology that was almost universally acclaimed, and it shared the Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology for that year. It is therefore not surprising that Lansdale and Subterranean Press have come out with a sequel, appropriately titled Son of Retro Pulp Tales and appropriately edited by Lansdale and his own son Keith.

The anthology starts off with a bang with Joe Lansdale's own contribution. (He sat out the first round.) "The Crawling Sky" features Reverend Jebediah Mercer, the hero of a novella (Dead in the West) and two other short stories collected in The Shadows, Kith and Kin. It concerns a caged lunatic, a house with "haints," a magic book, and a man-eating Shmoo — you know, your average everyday Western (at least as seen through a Lansdalean filter).

David J. Schow chronicles "A Gunfight," as his hero Proctor (with apologies given to the late Donald E. Westlake, a.k.a. Richard Stark) is run through the wringer for the sake of a few bucks. Schow never lets the action stop, and the result is reminiscent of his Hard Case Crime novel Gun Work. James Grady offers an action-filled tale of Crows, crutches, and a cocked Colt set in the other kind of "Border Town."

Mike Resnick brings the funny in the pulp-adventure parody "The Forgotten Kingdom." It's his latest story to feature the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones, man of the cloth and seeker of half-naked High Priestesses. Jones is not too educated, but he has a sharply developed sense of irony, which makes his narration a hilarious read. Cherie Priest delivers creepiness to spare with her Weird Tale of "The Catastrophe Box" (stolen from a paranormal investigator) and its effect on a doctor and his wife.

I wish I could praise William F. Nolan's "The Perfect Nanny," since it seems so personally significant in his introduction, but it is unfortunately so cliche and predictable that there's really nothing to recommend it. Also, Christopher Golden has a beautiful germ of an idea in "Quiet Bullets" — a spectral cowboy teaches a fatherless boy how to defend his home — but the short format requires him to skimp on its development and bring it to its conclusion too quickly.

Timothy Truman serves up "Pretty Green Eyes," the "first piece of all-prose fiction sold" by one known primarily for his illustrations. (He also did the terrific cover.) Truman digs into his Appalachian roots and comes up with a story that delivers the punch of a Mickey Spillane novel in just 12 pages. Matt Venne tries out his version of the Steve Costigan boxing stories of Robert E. Howard — only with Joe Louis fighting Himmler ans his Nazi werewolves during WWII. "The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the SS" is one of the more exciting stories in Son of Retro Pulp Tales due to its climactic scene in the ring; just watch out for the schmaltzy ending.

Stephen Mertz pays homage to another pulp master by writing "The Lizard Men of Blood River" according to the formula reportedly used by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent. What results is one hell of a pulp story. It has a strong and fast hero, Speed McCoy, a scantily clad damsel in distress, and a highly unconventional villain. It's also unbelievable, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, highly imaginative, well written, and most of all, exciting. "The Lizard Men of Blood River" is undoubtedly the high point of Son of Retro Pulp Tales, and this Mertz fellow was obviously born in the wrong decade.

Ending the anthology is Harlan Ellison's "The Toad Prince, or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes," a highly imaginative — though disappointingly linear — piece of sci-fi involving pieces of six and a whore called Sarna. Ellison offers a great deal of suspense and creative detail along with a sort-of surprise ending that caps off another worthy selection of pulp pastiches.

Though it doesn't have the fully fledged atmosphere of its celebrated parent, Son of Retro Pulp Tales is actually more representative of the broad range of genres published during pulp's heyday. It also offers a similar success rate, with at least one true gem and only one true dud. Those seeking to recapture the past with fiction of the present need look no further.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Six-Gun Caballero by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged Western audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics, but his fiction has been popular for decades. His science-fiction epic Battlefield Earth was a worldwide bestseller, as were all ten volumes of his Mission Earth series.

These days, however, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more (shall we say?) "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. Now Galaxy Press, founded to promote Hubbard's fictional output, are focusing on the author's early work for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s, reprinting all 150 of the stories he wrote during those years.

Pulp fiction fans rejoice, because there's a "new" voice on the block that deserves to be noticed. I'm a big fan of Westerns and audiobooks, but sadly, Western audiobooks are increasingly hard to come by these days. Plus, when you can find them, they're expensive. So, when I learned that the Stories from the Golden Age series was simultaneously being released in paperback and audio — with both versions at the same price — I knew I would have to try them out, despite any preconceived notions I had about the author.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

Six-Gun Caballero was originally published in Western Story Magazine's March 12, 1938, issue. Michael Patrick Obañon inherited 100,000 acres of land from his father, Irishman Tim Obañ. Recently, the Gadsden Purchase has turned this Mexican property over to U.S. ownership, and all such property has been deemed open for settlement.

Tim's old friend, Judge Klarner, attempts to advice don Michael to refile his claim with the U.S. government, but he gets there just before the arrival of a gang set on taking the land and everything on it. When they mistake Don Michael for a "greaser" ranchhand and offer him new employment, he accepts and takes the opportunity to infiltrate. Because Michael Patrick Obañon is not about to let the renegados commandeer his father's legacy, but he'd rather use his wits than his silver-inlaid pistol any day; it's more fun that way.

Director Jim Meskimen's performance as don Michael grounds the whole cast's performance with its subtlety. He embraces the charm and humor of the character, adding more than could be projected merely on the printed page. Meskimen's relatively low-key acting leaves Shaun Duke free to chew up and spit out the microphone in his wonderfully over-the-top, villainous turn as Charlie Pearson. The rest of the cast, R.F. Daley and Tait Ruppert, is equally talented. (All the roles are played by just four people, and you'd never know it.)

Hubbard uses the traditional Western form to tell a challenging and unpredictable story, where the hero outwits his attackers instead of merely having to outshoot them. In doing so, he also puts the spotlight on the consequences of a well-known historical event: one seen as positive on the one side but obviously not fair to everyone involved. But Six-Gun Caballero is so intelligent and suspenseful that you'll not really notice the historical subtext until it's over.

I'm really excited about sampling more of the Stories from the Golden Age series of pulp tales. I think you'd agree that anything that gets somebody actually excited about fiction these days is worth a look. And Six-Gun Caballero is a great place to start: it's not only an exciting story, but it also takes a nontraditional approach to the hero, something that is even today a pleasant surprise in Western fiction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

After Dark by Haruki Murakami (unabridged audio book read by Janet Song)

My reading of choice these days is genre fiction; I want something easy to follow when I read for relaxation. But occasionally I reach for something more challenging, most often by a familiar author I feel is doing something new with the form or its execution.

Ever since I read a handful of stories by author Haruki Murakami in the The New Yorker (starting with "The Ice Man" in 2003), I've wanted to try a novel of his. Audiobooks are how I do most of my experimentation, so coming across a copy of After Dark gave me the opportunity I sought.

All the action in After Dark takes place from midnight until dawn on a single night. Mari Asai, reading by herself in a Denny's in lieu of going home, encounters a handful of interesting characters.

First is Takahashi, a jazz trombonist who once met her at a party. He leads her to Kaoru, manager of a "love ho" (a hotel primarily used for trysts) and her staff, "Wheat" and "Cricket." Mari speaks Chinese and is needed to translate for them what happened to a Chinese prostitute brutally beaten at the love ho.

A touch of the eerie is added with an alternate subplot concerning Mari's sister Eri. While Eri sleeps, a man watches her, while wearing a mask that makes him look like he has no face, practically motionlessly, through her TV. I like how Murakami makes this whole setup voyeuristic. The man watches Eri, and we, through cinematographic description involving "POV camera," watch him watching her.

All of After Dark is equally visual, with descriptions so rich as to make the mind's eye unable to resist picturing the images, but I'm surprised that these Eri scenes have not already been filmed by some aspiring J-horror director: you could shoot the text as is. The set design, costuming, and camera movements are all there; Murakami has taken care of everything.

After Dark also showcases a different approach to its villain: we know what Shirikawa has done, but we didn't see if happen. Murakami only treats us to the mundane events of his life, but our knowledge casts a pall over those events, and we continually expect something else to happen, though the actual text never implies that at all.

Narrator Janet Song is invisible throughout her reading of After Dark, and that is the highest compliment I can pay an audiobook reader. She is merely a conduit for Murakami's magical-realist, post-modern narration (many questions are left unanswered) and richly drawn characters.

I'm always fascinated by authors who can make a series of seeming normal events absolutely enthralling. Half the credit must go, I suppose, to translator Jay Rubin since I can't read Japanese. The seemingly mundane appears, in reflection, to be quite profound. But Murakami shows us that, depending on the filters through which you look at life, even Love Story can appear to have a happy ending.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trapp's Mountain by Robert J. Randisi (western)

In 1846, mountain man John Henry Trapp's wife and home were deliberately destroyed by fire. Trapp searched high and low and killed the men responsible. But one of the men was the son of a powerful man, and he made sure Trapp served the top sentence of 25 years in prison for his revenge. Finally free again, all Trapp wants is to get back to his mountain.

Now Trapp has to feel his way around the 1871 West as a 64-year-old man who still feels 39 (age doesn't matter in prison) but whom others now derisively call "Grandpa." And he's got only his talent for poker, his skill with his trusty Sharps buffalo rifle, and his new friend Fry to help him along.

As if that weren't enough, there's someone who thinks that prison was not enough punishment for Trapp and wants him dead. But getting between Trapp and his mountain is a dangerous proposition.

Robert J. Randisi is one of my favorite Western writers. In addition to his work on The Gunsmith (probably my favorite of the monthly Western series), he also manages to write some of the more interesting nonseries Westerns due to his modern approach to character and his liberal use of humor along with the expected traditional genre tropes.

In Trapp's Mountain (originally published as Mountain Man's Vengeance under the pseudonym "Robert Lake"), Randisi shows the other side of revenge. Many Western authors would have focused on Trapp's seeking of retribution and called it a day. Randisi does give that part its due through a strategic use of flashback, but he is more interested in how that action colors the rest of Trapp's life.

Trapp just wants to get back to the life he had before, but first he's got to actually make it back to the mountain, and Randisi puts a lot of exciting obstacles in his way. Trapp's Mountain makes great use of Randisi's unadorned prose style. It reads quickly and moves like the best pulp fiction. The only downside is that it ends at the point where a sequel would begin, and there doesn't seem to be one. But Trapp's journey is interesting enough to stand alone.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Where Everything Ends by Ray Bradbury (an omnibus of Death Is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and Let's All Kill Constance)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

The subtitle "The Mystery Novels of Ray Bradbury" quickly tells us what's between the covers of Where Everything Ends, a collection of an underappreciated portion of the author's bibliography: three crime novels written between 1985 and 2003 that feature an unnamed narrator/protagonist (very much Bradbury's doppelganger) and detective Elmo Crumley dealing with mysteries during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The title piece, published here for the first time, is the short story that came first and inspired the rest. Reading it after the novels (it is placed at the back), it comes across as definitely a lesser work: one written by an author still trying to get his bearings in the genre. And he makes the beginner's mistake of focusing too much on how the crime was done instead of on his own forte, character. Luckily, Bradbury eventually combined the two and produced three novels that equal his speculative output in skill and heart, if not necessarily excitement.

In 1985, over twenty years since the publication of his last full-length work, 1962's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury reentered the novel-writing world with the release of Death Is a Lonely Business, his first foray into a genre epitomized by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald — namely the crime investigation novel.

The narrator of Death Is a Lonely Business is a writer living in Venice, California, where the local carnival pier is being demolished. He discovers the body of Willie Smith, underwater and trapped in a disused lion cage. Then a strange shadowy figure begins appearing in hallways and outside windows at night, and the number of murders increases. The narrator teams with local police detective Elmo Crumley — reluctantly, at first, on Crumley's part — to solve the case. The only clues they have are the writer's intuition, articles that go missing from the deceased's residences, and a blind man's keen sense of smell.

Death Is a Lonely Business has many layers to it. First, on the surface, it's a fine noir pastiche. Second, our hero is especially interesting as a portrait of Bradbury himself in 1949. The naive, plump, 27-year-old writer, who is just becoming successful, inspires immediate identification from fans of the master's work. We already like the author, so we immediately root for his doppelganger.

I especially enjoyed the personal clues Bradbury laid within the story, some of which take a brave person to lay bare in print. But they work to gain our sympathy, which is quite necessary; in the beginning the writer is painted — whether deliberately or not — as a somewhat unsympathetic character prone to outbursts.

The other characters are just as fascinating: Crumley, the cop who just happens to also be a writer; Fannie, the 380-pound sedentary soprano; A.L. Shrank, the psychiatrist with the downbeat library; Cal, the incompetent barber with the ragtime past; John Wilkes Hopworth, the ex-silent film star who still pines for former love Constance Rattigan, his former costar who is dead set on not becoming Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard ("That dimwit Norma wants a new career; all I want most days is to hole up and not come out"); and Henry, the blind man, who is the only one who can identify the killer — by his smell.

Five years later, the author revisited the genre with 1990's A Graveyard for Lunatics, subtitled "Another Tale of Two Cities." It is now 1954, and the Bradbury character is working for Maximus Films as a screenwriter. The studio is separated from Green-Grade Cemetery by a single brick wall, and during a late-night studio party on the eve of Halloween, the screenwriter receives a note that "a great revelation awaits" him on the other side of the wall: "material for a best-selling novel or terrific screenplay." A timid soul, he hesitates but cannot resist. There he finds a body — or is it? Because the body is that of a studio head who supposedly died twenty years ago.

A Graveyard for Lunatics centers around the solving of the mystery, but it's primarily of interest to fans as a lengthy roman à clef of Bradbury's time working on King of Kings.

Famous Hollywood figures appear, operating under pseudonyms, such as the screenwriter's best friend, special effects master Roy Holdstrom (obviously Bradbury compatriot Ray Harryhausen). Even Jesus Christ (called "J.C.," resident of 911 Beechwood in Hollywood) is a prominent character, given his starring role in the film.

Though inspired by hard-boiled works, Bradbury's protagonist/alter ego is as soft-boiled as you can get. He's a sweetheart, an innocent — when Constance Rattigan arises nude from the sea, he looks her in the eyes — a bright child in a man's body. (Yet he's completely up to the task of a heart-racing fight to the death underwater.) The tone more closely matches that of Agatha Christie, but A Graveyard for Lunatics is a solid mystery as only Ray Bradbury could write it.

In 2003, Bradbury revisited Elmo Crumley and company with Let's All Kill Constance. In the opening, Constance Rattigan comes into the Bradbury character's home bearing two books: a 1900 telephone directory and her own personal address book. Some names in both books are crossed out entirely: these are names of those no longer of this earth. Others are circled with a cross beside them, one of them Constance's, and she believes that this means she is one of the next to die. On leaving the books with the writer, she disappears.

Let's All Kill Constance is not quite as good as its predecessors, but any Bradbury is worth reading. His particular style is always welcome, its familiarity alone bringing a level of comfort to the experience — like revisiting an old friend.

The mystery itself is not as interesting as the characters and their relationships with each other. Although it feels at times (as with the female impersonator) that Bradbury is simply creating a character to fill his plot needs, he still makes each real enough to justify the time spent with them.

The bulk of Let's All Kill Constance concerns the search for the title character. Teaming up again with detective Elmo Crumley, the Bradbury character meets several people involved with Constance's past (many of whom she has just left when the writer and Crumley arrive) and puts together the pieces into a disturbing yet satisfying solution illustrative of the difficulties inherent in being a Hollywood actress.

But through all this Bradbury's youthful exuberance shines. The writer's enthusiasm for life comes through as unadulterated innocence. He seems not to be jaded at all by the modern world, and so the novels contained in Where Everything Ends are not as "noir" as they would have been in other hands. And yet, it's refreshing to have, as a hero in this genre, a person whom the world has not made a pessimist.

Where Everything Ends is a trio of fine novels from Bradbury (together with the short story that provided the starting point), detective novels done in Bradbury's inimitable style. He plays with the conventions, but since he so obviously loves the genre, this is easily forgiven — embraced, even — because the end results are, simply put, fine additions to the canon. This trilogy plus one is also dear to fans because it is likely the closest thing to an autobiography we will receive from this man who has brought so much joy to so many people for so many years.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stephen King's Rose Red directed by Craig R. Baxley (starring Nancy Travis, Judith Ivey, Melanie Lynskey, David Dukes)

Stephen King's Rose Red (2002). Screenplay by Stephen King.

I feel that I must first warn all readers of this review of the fact that this miniseries is over four hours long -- without commercials. This is simply so that everyone will know what they are getting into from the very beginning, not because I have anything against long movies per se, just long movies that are way too long.

There are several things wrong with Rose Red, but the main ones involve its relationship to previous Stephen King works. There is much familiar in this production, with references to Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and a tip of the hat to Cujo being the most obvious. Unfortunately, these references seem to be just there in order to move along an already-thin plot, not leaving a lot to recommend it.

Nancy Travis (who was so good in the Hollywood remake of The Vanishing) is sorely miscast as paranormal researcher Joyce Reardon (the supposed author of book tie-in The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer); she just doesn't have the presence to be believable in such an academically passionate role. The usually-wonderful Judith Ivey is ill-used in a histrionic performance.

On the other hand, soap veteran Kimberly J. Brown knows just how to wring every last bit of sympathy from the audience in her role as Annie Wheaton, the catalyst meant to "wake up" the events at Rose Red. Her sister, "Sister," is played by Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures), who, despite her relatively small role, fares the best of all the cast (or perhaps because of it).

Matt Ross and the late David Dukes are both quite game in their roles (Emery Waterman and Professor Miller, respectively). But Dukes's character is one-note (sad to think it was his last role), and Ross's acting crescendos throughout the film from "subtle" to "absolutely annoying."

After about two hours of exposition, the plot actually begins to move a bit, but it is always slowly, and it is not worth the lackluster "inspirational" ending. For a horror movie, far too many of the cast of Rose Red survive — if more than two or three people are left at the end of a "haunted house thriller," the audience has been cheated.

One would think that Stephen King would know how to write a bang-up ending, especially for something that is partially based on Carrie, which epitomizes the shocker ending. But unfortunately, Rose Red is just one four-hour-long disappointment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Longarm on the Goodnight Trail (Longarm #80) by Melvin Marshall writing as Tabor Evans (Western series)

From a tip by a former Texas Ranger, U.S. Marshal Billy Vail (himself a former Ranger) assigns Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long — better known as Longarm (as in "the long arm of the law") — to investigate a suspicious trail drive of Mexican longhorn steers traveling to Denver.

This case is full of questions: Who are the Arapahoe Cattle Syndicate and the mysterious Sterns who seems to be connected to them? Why are the steers being driven instead of shipped by rail? And why are they insured at $200 a head, with a $1,000 bonus to the trail boss for getting them all there?

The case is controversial too, though, so Longarm cannot investigate it in an official capacity — and if things go sour, he and Vail could both lose their jobs — so Longarm goes undercover, despite his newly wounded trigger finger, as a trail hand named ... Custis ("Not many folks know I even got a first name").

After a weak opening that suffers from too much information too fast, author Melvin Marshall (writing under the Tabor Evans house name) really hits his stride with the meat of Longarm on the Goodnight Trail — the eightieth in the long-running Longarm series. The scenes on the trail were exactly what I was looking for, having picked it up seeking a read similar to Ralph Compton's The Goodnight Trail with a mystery added.

But Longarm is instantly confronted by events and people that want to keep this drive from being a success, such as a tribe of Lipan Apache that do not want the steers to cross their land (resulting in a great hand-to-hand combat scene in a stream), a dwindling supply of grub with no hidetowns in sight, a sudden tornado, a flash flood, and even Charles Goodnight himself, who won't let any herds from Mexico or south Texas cross his land for fear of hoof-and-mouth disease. (Though he does offer an alternate route via the New Goodnight Trail.)

Those who read Longarm for the mystery will be disappointed: the solution doesn't play fair and is given short shrift in any case. But those looking for a fast-paced cattle-drive story — especially those who would normally give series Westerns a pass — should be pleasantly surprised. With author Melvin Marshall's attention to all the details inherent in such a venture, trail-drive novel enthusiasts would do well to pick up a copy of Longarm on the Goodnight Trail.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Death at Dark Water by John D. Nesbitt (Western)

Traditional Westerns are great, but every once in a while a nontraditional one is a nice respite from the sameness of many novels in the genre. (For example, I could never again read a book featuring Doc Holliday and be just fine.) John D. Nesbitt's Death at Dark Water is not going to get your heart racing, but it is a thoughtful portrait of a small town shaken up by an uncommon event.

I also enjoy it when an author offers up a character of a more creative bent, such as the typesetter protagonist in Johnny D. Boggs's The Big Fifty. In Death at Dark Water, Nesbitt introduces us to Devon Frost, a sketcher and painter who has come to Tinaja, and specifically the Rancho Agua Prieta (translation: Dark Water Ranch, named after the shady pool that was originally the water source), to study and draw the ruins.

Nesbitt takes his time setting up the atmosphere, and fans of more traditional Westerns (especially those who enjoy the monthly series — I'm a fan myself) may be wanting him to "get on with it," but I enjoyed the leisurely look at Tinaja and its intriguing cast of characters. These include Petra, the daughter of the original owner of Rancho Agua Prieta, and her conniving stepfather Don Felipe.

A little less than halfway through, one of Petra's suitors, Ricardo Vega, is murdered, and Death at Dark Water becomes a sort of mystery novel with Frost playing detective. Most novelists would have put Frost and Petra in bed together, but Nesbitt gives his hero another interest in the form of local prostitute Ramona. She and Frost develop a friendly business relationship while he does his best to figure out who killed Vega.

Death at Dark Water certainly wasn't what I was expecting when I picked it up, but that actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It expanded my expectations of what a Western can be: that it doesn't have to be all about gunfights and trail drives, but that the pages of a Western can also contain a more classical kind of story. I'm intrigued to try more of Nesbitt's work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ravens by George Dawes Green (unabridged audio book read by Robert Petkoff and Maggi-Meg Reed)

Tara Boatwright's life is about to change, and when she first hears the news, she doesn't even believe it as her mother, Patsy, screams that they've just won the $318 million lottery jackpot. Tara sees this as her opportunity to get out of Brunswick, Georgia, but a couple of outsiders have other ideas. Ravens is author George Dawes Green's first novel since his 1995 bestseller The Juror. (He won an Edgar Award for his debut, 1994's The Caveman's Valentine. Both were made into movies.)

Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko are Ohioans who have hit the road trying to escape their soul-killing tech-support jobs. Stopping off in Georgia on their way to Florida, Shaw overhears the news of the lottery win and immediately sees it as an opportunity not to be missed. He decides that he will get the Boatwrights to give him half of their winnings, and uses Romeo as an off-site enforcer, giving him a gun and a map to the homes of the family's loved ones.

But navigating Georgia backroads waiting for Shaw's signal (or lack of one, as the case may be) leaves one time for reflection. Romeo begins having second thoughts about all the things he's done for Shaw and whether he really wants to continue.

In Ravens, Green and his co-author, Molly Friedrich, have great insight into their characters. (Friedrich is credited in the acknowledgments, and she is also Green's literary agent.) This is no better displayed than with Patsy Boatwright's quick descent from unbelievable riches to greed. She actually gets angry that, instead of her $40 million dream home, she can only afford upkeep on a $22 million "snack bar." Equally fascinating is Tara's friend Cleo, who represents the effect of the Boatwrights' lottery winnings on the supporting players in the family's life.

Though a single narrator is the general tactic with audiobooks, some books get deeper into the character's psyches, and multiple readers are needed to do the work justice. (Reservation Road was another notable case.) With Robert Petkoff (Beat the Reaper, BoneMan's Daughters) handling the perspectives of outsiders Shaw and Romeo, Maggi-Meg Reed is able to devote her talents to the Southern-accented Boatwright clan.

This double-narrator arrangement makes it easy to detect a change in point of view as well as making the contrast greater between captors and captives. And therefore, it serves to enhance the experience of Ravens, a story of faith, love, power, and hypocrisy, with more than a little dramatization of Stockholm Syndrome, into something larger than mere text can provide.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Scarlet Gun (Gunsmith #44) by Robert J. Randisi writing as J.R. Roberts (Western series)

Clint Adams's stopover in Hedgemont with Sheena O'Shay had an unexpected effect. Learning that Adams was the famous Gunsmith led her 20-year-old brother Danny to be a gunfighter. Now Danny has run off, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and Sheena wants Clint to stop him before someone else does, with a bullet.

Meanwhile, another beautiful Irish redhead known only as Scarlet is out for the blood of the five men who "destroyed her family and snatched her innocence." She's already killed two, and the next one on her list is John Titus, who has just hired Danny as a bodyguard of sorts. Leave it to Clint to satisfy the needs of both women in The Scarlet Gun — the forty-fourth in the long-running Gunsmith series — and in more than one way (including one sequence that spans ten pages).

It's always a pleasure to settle in with one of the Gunsmith novels written by author Robert J. Randisi, who is also a writer of terrific private-eye fiction. (The series has been published under the name "J.R. Roberts," a pseudonym of Randisi's and not a house name like other monthly Western series such as The Trailsman or Slocum, since its inception in 1982.) He has a very fast-paced and visual style that makes each novel a flawlessly easy read. Randisi has written over 300 of these books now, and I'm consistently amazed at how he continues to innovate, even in more recent ones like East of the River.

But I think these earlier Gunsmith entries like The Scarlet Gun are my favorites. I especially like how he gives Clint Adams a trackable memory in them. When there were still fewer than a hundred, and no so many plot to keep track of, Randisi would have the current story reference past novels — a very clever marketing tactic. In this one, Adams remembers or discusses events or characters from no less than seven other Gunsmith books: Dead Man's Hand (#14), Killer Grizzly (#24), North of the Border (#25), Trouble Rides a Fast Horse (#31), The Bounty Women (#35), The El Paso Salt War (#39), and Hell with a Pistol (#41). This adds to the fun and, of course, makes me eager to try out the other books.
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