Friday, January 29, 2010

The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Volume 2: The Little Death by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (starring Stacy Keach and a full cast)

Stacy Keach reprises his most famous role as Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane's most famous creation, in this second volume of The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. At the beginning of The Little Death — a "novel for radio" written by Max Allan Collins from the short story "The Night I Died" by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins — Hammer is nearing the end of his search for a reporter friend's killer. Hammer's getting older, but he's still more than capable of chasing a suspect across the rooftops of New York.

After that case is closed in Hammer's signature style, six months go by. Waiting for a client in Carmen Rich's casino, Hammer is interrupted by Helen Venn, mistress and silent partner of the late Marty Wellmann. Venn was there to meet Rich, who didn't show. Hammer escorts her out of the bar, between flying bullets, and she tells him her story: she's thought by Rich to have $10 million that Wellmann supposedly skimmed from Rich, and so she has a price on her head.

Later, Hammer gets a message from "the Captain," a legless, homeless war vet who's seen something important, but when Hammer arrives at the meeting place, the Captain has gone down with his ship. Now Mike's got two murders to solve (including Wellmann's), a gorgeous blonde to protect from syndicate scum, and a couple more murders to commit before he gets to the bottom of things.

The cast of The Little Death (whose title — la petite mort in French — refers to the belief that orgasm causes a loss of vital "life energy") includes Collins regular Michael Cornelison (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life), and Collins himself is credited with two roles. Cornelison as Pat Chambers more than holds his own with Keach's Hammer, matching his verbal thrusts with equally skilled parries. Also strong is Franette Leibow's three-dimensional turn as Velda. Collins uses his skill with tough-guy patter to pepper the story with a selection of fun wisecracks and puns.

There are enough familiar tough-guy private-eye tropes floating around in The Little Death to fill a P.I.-fiction instruction manual, but since a lot of what may now be seen as cliches originated with Mike Hammer, they become part of the appeal. The ending will hardly be a surprise to anyone familiar with the genre (though Spillane and Collins jump us through a number of plausible hoops in the meantime), but that doesn't take away from the wonderful use of the audio format.

In addition to the high-quality writing and acting, the events are underscored by noirish jazz compositions written and performed by Stacy Keach himself. The realistic sound effects — you can even hear Hammer swallow his beer (and his bouncing bedsprings!), including a gunshot that fills the room with its explosion — round out this "movie for the mind" and put Mike Hammer in a fully realized world that will be revisited over and over again. The Little Death is a terrific addition to the Mike Hammer canon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Star Wars: Millennium Falcon by James Luceno (unabridged audio book read by Marc Thompson)

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make you try things you normally wouldn't just in the interest of reexperiencing something you remember fondly. Take for instance, Star Wars. I was six years old when the first film came out (my dad drove several towns over so we could see it), so it has been around since almost my earliest memories. The first trilogy's characters are iconic and lend themselves to wondering what happened after Return of the Jedi.

Almost from the very beginning, there have been novels that carry on the characters' adventures, the so-called Extended Universe books that chronicle events from long before the events of Star Wars to long after, with lots of gaps filled in between. Some of these are iconic in themselves, with Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn trilogy" (beginning with Heir to the Empire) for many fans standing in for the projected third trilogy of films that will likely never reach fruition.

Those three books are probably a good place to start for those interested in seeing what the Star Wars novels can offer. I have to admit it's a lot of fun revisiting favorite characters as well as meeting new ones (though I would still have to file them under "guilty pleasures"). As with any vast collection of writings, the quality of the entire line tends to be uneven, with some being really entertaining and others merely disappointing. This was unfortunately one of the latter.

Star Wars: Millennium Falcon begins 60 years before the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars (the "year 0" for the novels' time line), and it also connects the Legacy of the Force era with events from Revenge of the Sith. Han, Leia, and their granddaughter Allana search for past owners of the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, Tobb Jadak, one of those past owners, awakes from a 60-year coma, hardly aged, and heads off on the opposite search to find the owners who came after him. Only, Jadak is looking for a treasure connected with the ship.

With two searches underway, it's inevitable that they will convene somewhere in the middle. The only questions are where and when, and what will happen when they do. Author James Luceno (who also wrote the superior Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader) uses this very thin plotline to chronicle the history of the most famous ship in the Star Wars universe.

Despite the pressures of so many players, however, the titular starship herself is the main character in Millennium Falcon, since all the action, narration, and dialogue (other than that continuing the story of Invincible, the last novel in the Legacy of the Force series — a small percentage) is of and about her.

The unabridged audiobook is read by veteran narrator Marc Thompson. His voices greatly enhance the text, and it's always a treat to hear him capture the vocal essences of beloved characters like Han Solo and C-3PO without resorting to mere impersonations of the film actors. His female voices are relatively inferior (his Jaina Solo and Ben Skywalker were nearly indistinguishable in the Legacy series), but that doesn't affect the reading much at all.

Luceno makes the events between historic revelations just barely entertaining enough to tie them together. I'm sure the decision to fictionalize this history was based on sales potential (over a drier, "nonfictional" rendering), but Star Wars: Millennium Falcon is a novel in name only.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Memory by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime)

When author Donald E. Westlake died at the end of 2008, he left only one unpublished novel, Memory, which he had written early in his career (sometime in the '60s), but which was rejected by his agent for being "too literary" (i.e., unsellable). So, it was put in his files and never saw the light of day.

With the assistance of Lawrence Block and Abby Adams (Mrs. Westlake), Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime has made Memory available now for all the Westlake fans who've been clamoring for one more book from the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster.

Paul Cole, a road company actor in a touring Broadway hit, stops off for some midnight fun after that night's show. While in flagrante delicto, her husband storms in and brains Paul with a chair, putting him in the hospital and knocking the sense right out of his head. He can't remember much for any significant length of time.

Cole struggles every day just to survive: to work and make money so he can get back to New York and try to find his old life again. But things like room and board, food, and a general inability because of regular expenses keep him stuck. He tries to make notes when he remember bits and pieces, but when he returns to the notes later, they don't seem to mean anything anymore. How can you buy a bus ticket if you don't remember why you were putting aside the money in the first place? And Paul is always fearful that he will forget something important, like to go to work, but daily events settle into a routine and they get a little bit easier for a while.

Then the police come for him....

Memory is a great book, and I write this without reservation. It outshines anything else Westlake has done and makes his intricately plotted Dortmunder and Parker novels seem like silly trifles. I'll even go so far as to say that from now on, every Westlake book will be compared to it, every fan defined by their appreciation of it. ("You like Westlake? Have you read Memory?") How ironic that such an early book could end his career on such a pinnacle of achievement.

The real beauty is how Westlake takes the reader along as if we are on the business end of a leash. Everything Paul feels, we feel (torpor, joy, happiness, confusion, fear), only with the extra knowledge of an outsider, adding suspense to the mix. Since Paul doesn't know what to expect, neither do we, though we desperately want to find out, so we watch with breathless anticipation as he continues on his path toward the rediscovery of Paul Cole. It's tragic to watch Memory unfold, as Cole takes a step forward only to fall behind again, but utterly compelling in a voyeuristic way.

It's almost a good thing that Memory was not published back when it was written, because given the author's reputation for short crime novels, it likely would not have seen print at its full 360-page length. And I imagine that one of the scenes that would have been cut — because it does little to further the plot and adds nothing to the character — is also one of my favorites. Showing Paul looking for work, with no documentable past, lets Westlake make a wry stab at employment offices who demand efficiency while making it difficult to accomplish due to their interest in doing things just so.

And maybe it's also a good thing because, if Memory had been published in the 1960s, Westlake's career might have gone in a different direction. We may have never met Dortmunder or Parker and would know the author instead for his increasingly weighty philosophical novels on the human condition, with crime novels merely something he did "in the early days" (and tried not to talk about too much). Or maybe he would have disappeared altogether. Who knows? What's important is that it is being published now. Forgive the pun, but Memory is unforgettable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Christmas Crime: Snow Angels by James Thompson (an Inspector Kari Vaara mystery)

Lapland is in the northern part of Finland, located 100 miles inside the Arctic Circle. This time of year, there is almost 24 hours of darkness. One week before Christmas, Sufia Elmi, a Somalian B-movie actress at least as famous for her looks as for her talent, has been found dead in three feet of snow. Her body was mutilated, with "nigger whore" carved into her stomach (likely while she was still alive), and her struggles have formed the shape of a snow angel around her body.

The case is taken by Laplander police inspector Kari Vaara. Is it a race crime or a sex crime? Is it the first of a potential series of killings? Either way, Vaara says of the crime, "There's a lot of hate here." Coincidentally, Sufia has been murdered in the same place Vaara met his wife Kate, an American. (In a flashback, we discover his name means "Rock Danger" or something equally silly in English. He tells Kate, "I promise it sounds better in Finnish.")

Snow Angels (published as Lumienkelit in Finland) is the first in a new mystery series from author James Thompson. A Kentucky-born American who has lived in Finland for over a decade, Thompson is able to write knowledgably of the environment and society while retaining an outsider's eye for important details.

Thompson embraces the dark side of society much like his namesake Jim Thompson (the name under which this author is published outside the U.S.). Both Vaara and Kate share a bad childhood and a bum leg, Vaara still hasn't dealt with his role in the death of his sister Suvi, and these are only two of the things hanging over Vaara's head in this Finnish noir.

Vaara quickly discovers that this case is going to get personal. The prime suspect is the man whose credit card paid for Sufia's residence, a Helsinki bigwig named Seppo Niemi, also coincidentally the man that Vaara's ex-wife left him for 13 years ago. So now, in addition to a national chief of police who wants him off the case and responding officers who want to go on vacation, Vaara has to deal with an ex-wife who thinks that the arrest of Niemi constitutes some kind of "dish best eaten cold" revenge by Vaara for her leaving him.

Numerous other suspects arise through various sexual connections. (Sufia's father thought she was pure, but forensic evidence suggests this to be far from the truth.) As their numbers decrease through attrition, the investigation zeroes in on a few.

Things eventually get so personal for Vaara that he wants to recuse himself, but by that time he needs to solve the case or ruin his career. But if he keeps on, his marriage to Kate, months pregnant with his child, may be ruined by his intense focus away from her. Can he both see justice served and be home for Christmas dinner? The solution is both shocking and fairly played.

Thompson is a skilled wordsmith who writes invisible prose that lets the culture and all the dark undercurrents come flowing off the page in an almost overwhelming gush. Snow Angels is a dark and engrossing read that will be best appreciated by fans of modern European noir writers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Other Worlds by Barbara Michaels (audio book read by Barbara Rosenblat)

Some interesting discoveries can be made through experimentation. I'd been experiencing a shortage of audiobooks for my hour-long commute when I saw one on the giveaway table where I work. I was aware of author Barbara Michaels as a romantic-suspense author, but I had only read one of her mysteries written as Elizabeth Peters and had not pursued any more. But any port in a storm, as they say, so I snatched it up — hardly missing a step, in fact — as I made my way out to the car that evening.

On my way home, I popped it in the cassette player (I drive a 2002 model), figuring to go ahead an try it out. If I didn't like it, I would drop it off again the next morning. To my surprise, I was completely enthralled by the opening paragraph. The tone, the irreverence, the mythic nature of the setup, all really spoke to me, not least of which due to their similarity to Rod Serling's introductions from The Twilight Zone:
The scene is the smoking room of an exclusive men's club, familiar through film and fiction even to those who have been denied admittance to such precincts because of deficiencies of sex or social status.... The tall windows are draped in plum-red plush, shutting out the night air and the sounds of traffic on the street without — the traffic, perhaps, of hansom cabs and horse-drawn carriages. For this is no real establishment; it exists outside of time and space, in the realm of imagination — one of the worlds that might have been.
Other Worlds begins with a meeting of the minds: Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Podmore, and Nandor Fodor all gather in the sitting room of this mythical men's club for their usual discussion of what is today called paranormal research. This time, someone has brought a guest, and Houdini offers up the story of the Bell Witch (a true story that has inspired a number of books and films, most recently An American Haunting).

The story, as Houdini tells it, is wonderfully eerie and filled with surprises as the ghost goes from mere noise-making to verbal and physical abuse. Subsequently, the others gathered each offer his opinion on the real explanation for the seemingly supernatural events.

Later, a different guest is invited, a female mystery writer who presents a similar case (based on the Phelps haunting) rewritten into a first-person narrative told from the point of view of a newly remarried woman and her family's supernatural experience with their new Connecticut home. Houdini wryly remarks that the guest would not have been allowed were this not a fictional gentlemen's club.

Despite a weak, abrupt ending, Other Worlds is an entertaining examination of paranormal occurrences given in an engaging manner. I especially enjoyed the narrative conceit (which is all it is — no effort seems to have been taken to create any genuine characterizations) of the discussion among the famous names of early paranormal research. There's nothing of real substance, and likely nothing new for anyone already familiar with these stories, but it's an interesting way to while away the time between work and home.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Baron of Coyote River by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged Western audio book)

These days, L. Ron Hubbard's name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of Scientology, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The audiobooks are a professionally produced combination of traditional audiobooks, with narration deftly handled by actor R.F. Daley, and old-time radio, with skilled actors, genre-specific music, and sound effects. The Baron of Coyote River contains two stories: the title work and "Reign of the Gila Monster."

In "The Baron of Coyote River" (originally published in All Western in September 1936), Lance Gordon is an outlaw with a price on his head and a chip on his shoulder. He's wanted for the revenge murder of his father's killer, McCloud, and he's tired of running. So, when he's faced with capture by Captain Anderson of the U.S. Cavalry, he decides to go down fighting.

A local man named Tyler admires Gordon's sand and gives him a chance to escape. Holding off the cavalry temporarily, Tyler gives Gordon a horse and a destination: "the Coyote River this time tomorrow." But Tyler isn't risking Anderson's wrath for his health; he's got a job for Gordon: infiltrate the 3B Ranch, stomping grounds of the mysterious cattle rustler known as the Baron, and report back. (Tyler was rather attached to his cows.)

Author L. Ron Hubbard adds welcome touches of humor to this story of a fight against frontier injustice. A particular highlight is when Tyler (played by Fred Tatasciore), spouts off a long-winded telegram while holding off gunfire from his pursuers as Gordon frantically writes it all down. Also, the great pacing of director Jim Meskimen and realistic sound effects put the listener right in the middle of a stampede, adding to the suspense already created by Hubbard's sharp descriptions.

Martin Yurchak takes an unusual tack and hardly plays Gordon as a hero; his performance is, in fact, quite reminiscent of Shaun Duke's villainous Charley Pearson in Six-Gun Caballero. Also, as in that book, some timely government paperwork saves the day in "The Baron of Coyote River," though not in quite as satisfying a manner.

In a change of pace from other audiobooks in the Stories from the Golden Age series, actor Bruce Boxleitner handles narration duties on "Reign of the Gila Monster," the second story contained in The Baron of Coyote River audiobook. (Listeners may remember Boxleitner from Scarecrow and Mrs. King or Babylon 5 but may not know he is also the author of the sci-fi Western Frontier Earth.)

Regular listeners may miss R.F. Daley's solid presence, but Boxleitner's slightly raspy tone is an effective substitute, offering another perspective on the narration. In fact, Boxleitner may be a mite more accessible, sounding somewhat like a favorite uncle telling the story.

A seven-foot-two jasper named Gilman (locally known as the Gila Monster) terrorizes Powderville from the marshal's seat: no drinking, gambling, spitting, or freeloading. Town founder Howdy Johnson (who intended Powderville to be the "mecca of the trail") takes action against the oversized superman because "even Hannibal had his Waterloo."

Hubbard shows his flair for the tall tale in "Reign of the Gila Monster" (originally published in Western Aces in September 1937) especially in his increasingly outrageous descriptions of the title character: "His hat ... looked bigger than an umbrella." "He had once stepped on [a] hound dog, and ... not even an inch of the animal's tail was visible." "He could take a bottle of whiskey in his hand, close his finger, and say, 'Which one have I got it in?'" This must have taxed even Hubbard's considerable skill for hyperbole.

Fred Tatasciore voices Gilman with the appropriate resonance and power, and subtlety is not called for with a character whose quietest tone can still be heard at the city limits. Prolific character actor Martin Kove (the Karate Kid trilogy and over 100 other movies) plays Howdy Johnson with just the right balance of "civic pride" and vice protection. It is a welcome departure from the traditional Western, this twist on the norm, with the villain fighting for "good" and the hero trying to keep the "bad" status quo.

I found both stories in The Baron of Coyote River to be highly entertaining, though they have very different approaches, with "Reign of the Gila Monster" probably in the lead just due to its novel take on the Western. Both, however, will entertain pulp fiction fans, and especially those of us who enjoy a good audiobook.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (literary horror)

The best horror fiction deals with the things that really scare us. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the like have their place. But what of the fear that comes from deep inside: questions like, what if your own child was a monster? Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing explores this kind of horror in her novel The Fifth Child, which I first learned of in The Book of Lists: Horror in a "horror novels that don't call themselves horror novels" sort of list.

David and Harriet Lovatt seem to have been made for each other. Their meeting was the proverbial "across a crowded room," and even their ideas on children match exactly: they want many. Even though their first four children (Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul) arrive somewhat more quickly than anticipated, everything develops easily despite protestations from relatives that their family is growing too fast.

Everything changes, however, with the arrival of the fifth child. The pregnancy is more difficult, the birth more an ordeal, and the new baby, called Ben, is very different from their other children — in ways they all find deeply unsettling and often shocking.

In addition to offering a highly gripping and suspenseful read, with The Fifth Child author Doris Lessing investigates the nature of family and the societal definition of what it means to be "human." Ben is referred to as an alien, a monster, a freak, an atavism from a race that is perhaps better suited to living underground, and various other "inhuman" monikers.

Lessing presents Ben's myriad quirks and misbehaviors with a tone that replicates that of a horror novel. This is quite appropriate given that the other family members view him with extreme trepidation that develops into fear for their lives with a family pet turns up dead.

This all results in those outside the immediate family becoming increasingly distant. Lessing skillfully illustrates this isolation through Christmas attendance, with successively fewer visitors each passing year. Eventually, Luke and Helen (away at boarding school) choose to spend the holiday with their grandparents, effectively keeping them away from home all year long.

Ben appears to be unknowable, and this is exactly the kind of thing that inspires terror in most people. At first, the family try to deal with Ben in the only way they know how. This may seem cruel at first, but the relief is palpable when their decision is reached. But Harriet then makes a pivotal decision that essentially destroys her family.

The Fifth Child does end on a note of hope, however slight. (The Nobel committee recognized this when they awarded her in 2007, writing, "From collapse and chaos emerge the elementary qualities that allow Lessing to retain hope in humanity.")

The novel was well enough received by readers to inspire a sequel, Ben, in the World. But The Fifth Child on its own is a marvel: a thought-provoking, unforgettable story that makes the reader ask what he or she would do in the circumstances — and then deal with the answer that comes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Killing Edge (Bushwhackers #3) by Robert Vaughan writing as B.J. Lanagan (Western series)

During the Civil War, brothers Win and Joe Coulter rode with Quantrill's Raiders, Confederate "bushwhackers" who performed such notorious acts that they were considered outlaws after the war was over. But such characters would hardly make good Western series heroes, so in the Bushwhackers series, this history is proudly spoken of but otherwise glossed over. (Other fictional Quantrill riders include Josey Wales and Rooster Cogburn.)

Looking for a place to get in out of the rain, Win and Joe spy a cabin. But as they approach it, the residents open fire. After a gunfight, the Coulter brothers, discover naked captive Pamela Wellington, daughter of Sir Philip Wellington, owner of the 60,000-acre Camelot Ranch.

Sir Philip hires the brothers on as protectors, and they're immediately involved in a dire situation. What looks like a simple disagreement over water rights (fixed by Joe's preternatural skill with a dowsing rod) turns out to involve an albino hired killer, cattle rustlers, and two hot-blooded women with their eyes on the Coulters' hard assets.

The Killing Edge was tough-going at first. Compared to other Western series I've read (Longarm, The Trailsman, The Gunsmith), the dialogue is bad and the grammar is worse, with misspelled (and misused) words thrown in for good measure. (And I'm not talking about the dialogue but the main narrative.)

I also can't tell one Coulter brother from the other, except that Win is blond and cottons to brunettes, while Joe is dark-haired and prefers redheads (which makes the cover picture an inaccurate representation of the book's contents). Luckily, author B.J. Lanagan (reportedly prolific Western author Robert Vaughan) tells an entertaining story in an easygoing manner. The machinations of the villains — and the Coulters' surprising intelligence at solving the problems — kept the pages turning well enough in The Killing Edge that I picked up another series entry to try out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

Author Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech opens in 1949 with the destruction of a war-damaged Russian Orthodox church — stained glass exploding outward and lacerating the expectant crowd gathered to watch the spectacle.

It's the beginning of a series of events that will lead to new MGB agent Leo Stebanovich Demidov's first arrest. This is an excellent way to remind readers of Child 44 how Leo was before he underwent a sea change due to the events four years later, as chronicled in that novel (which you should probably read before this one).

Smith breaks the tension with a humorous segue into 1956 (the year The Secret Speech takes place) about a bookbinder with a famously bad reputation, that quickly turns tragic when his murder is investigated by the relatively new homicide squad begun by Leo in the years intervening between the two novels: a murder disguised as a suicide disguised as a murder.

It's 1956. Stalin is dead, and his tyrannous reign is at an end. His replacement, Nikita Krushchev, has had a typewritten "secret speech" delivered to every household in a box stamped "NOT FOR PRESS" giving the news that the new regime is going to be different. And the previously state-supported villains (read: government agents like Leo used to be) are to be publicly identified. The Soviet Union is under new management, so to speak.

Where the government was previously thought to be just, right, and infallible, Krushchev's speech states that things got way out of hand under Stalin. This causes a lot of inner turmoil in those who trusted and believed — and, like Leo's wife Raisa, taught the newer generation to do the same.

Meanwhile, an "untouchable" gang leader offers Leo an opportunity: "Free my husband, or I will murder your daughter." So Leo uses his contacts to get himself sent to Gulag 57 to break the man out. But the gulag is not a place where plans are easily carried out, and things begin to go awry by increasing orders of magnitude.

In some ways, The Secret Speech proves to be more viscerally entertaining than its predecessor, as Smith shows himself to be fairly adept at action scenes. Especially during the sea journey to the gulag, where a rough storm occurs at the same time as a prisoner uprising, with Leo's partner Timur Nesterov left to battle both.

But Smith doesn't skimp on the emotional turmoil that drove Child 44, either, with the Demidovs' adopted daughter Zoya (now 14) having a dramatic breakdown as she learns to deal with the fact that Leo was indirectly responsible for the death of her parents. (This shows an interesting flip in focus from the previous book's child murderer to this book's murderous child.) Also, Raisa is forced to choose between two people she loves.

Actor Dennis Boutsikaris continues with the skill and comfort with Russian accents that he displayed so well in Child 44. He reads with deftness and confidence, and his voice is smooth and flows easily into the ear. Boutsikaris is also given a chance to display his range in The Secret Speech, with a wider array of characters from a troubled teenager to a female gang leader to a world-weary investigator, and exhibits a surprising facility with them all.

Though The Secret Speech is not as fully gripping as its predecessor, especially toward the end where it eases into a conclusion, it's still worth a listen, particularly for those with interest in the repercussions of an important event in Russian history.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dead Men Kill by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged zombie thriller audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

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 skilled actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

"I have come to kill you, Gordon."

So says a voice reminiscent of the grave, as its fingers wrap around Gordon's throat and slowly take his life. Detective Sergeant Terry Lane arrives on the scene and notes the similarity with another recent murder. All the evidence points to a no-longer-assailant, and Lane's fears are confirmed when he uncovers the suspect's empty coffin and has to fight off a trio of expressionless figures with only his fists.

For a while, Lane has only questions, like how do a letter from "Loup-Garou," a Haitian pharmacy bill, and the mysterious Dr. Leroux tie in to the murders? The primary targets seem to be rich and influential businessmen, but if Lane doesn't find out who's responsible and stop the culprit, the next zombie will be him.

Matt Scott turns in a solid performance as the ultranoble Lane, and John Mariano plays the mad scientist with relish (complete with a selection of diabolical laughs). But the real star of the Dead Men Kill audiobook is narrator R.F. Daley.

Author L. Ron Hubbard's prose is heavy on description, and Daley is more than up to the task. His voice is perfect for pulp fiction, and he adds just the right touch of emphasis (along with the occasional wink where appropriate) without drawing attention away from the story.

Dead Men Kill is the only zombie horror story Hubbard wrote, and the author succeeds by presenting this questionable subject in a realistic manner. He doesn't try to overexplain, but simply focuses on keeping up the story's quick pace (so we don't think about it too much). Its focus on the Haitian voodoo aspects should appeal to fans of more recent takes on the same subject, such as Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novel Cemetery Dance.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Pony Express War (Derby Man #4) by Gary McCarthy (Western series)

"[Thin people] are almost chronically weak ... because they don't eat enough nor do they appreciate the benefits of lifting things to improve their strength and courage." — from The Pony Express War

With his "Derby Man" series, author Gary McCarthy set out deliberately to create a protagonist who is the opposite of the traditional Western hero. A writer of so-called dime novels, Darby Buckingham makes his living with his mind. He is also quite a bit overweight (a source of family pride), and he can't ride a horse very well.

He has, however, retained his prodigious strength (and fists like iron) developed during his time as a circus strongman. The circus traveled the world, and Darby began to write about his journeys. These stories sold well, and, emboldened, Darby tried to write a Western, soon finding himself a new career.

But Darby doesn't like to take orders. So, even though he had decided to write about the beginning of the burgeoning Pony Express, when his publisher makes the same suggestion, he nearly refuses to do it. Until Darby realizes that another writer would undoubtedly attempt to tackle the same topic, and that he is the only one who could do it justice.

And so, derby hat perched on his head, he boards a stage for Nevada. There he finds a brace of enthusiastic individuals set on making history. Unfortunately, the route heads right through Indian territory, and though Chief Numaga of the Paiutes wants only peace, some disrespectful whites and quick-tempered braves can make the traveling difficult for all, and an all-out war is in danger of starting. There are those who would rather the Pony Express never completed a run, and they were not above rape and murder to make sure of it.

Author Gary McCarthy has done a remarkable job combining history and fiction. The Pony Express War is never less than entirely authentic, even as his hero's prideful nature keep a smile on the reader's face. Many of the characters, in fact, are real people, including Pony Express superintendent Bolivar Roberts and inaugural riders Warren Upson and Bob Haslam. And of course Chief Numaga and the Paiute Indians really did object to the line's crossing their territory.

McCarthy has written nearly 100 novels, some under his name and others under pseudonyms. He collaborates with author Frank Roderus under the name "Gary Franklin" and has also written for the Westerns series The Gunsmith, Lone Star, and Longarm. McCarthy won the Spur Award for his novel The Gila River, part of the Rivers West series created by Jory Sherman.

Darby Buckingham is a charming blowhard with numerous quirks. The man loves his food with a Nero Wolfean intensity. But he never shies from a fistfight, and he has a deeply ingrained sense of right that makes him simultaneously admirable and amusing. The Pony Express War was a lot of fun, and I'm already looking forward to reading some more of his adventures, and McCarthy's other novels.
Related Posts with Thumbnails