Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Farm by Scott Nicholson (Southern horror)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

For a handful of years, horror author Scott Nicholson released a paperback original each year through Pinnacle Books. He quickly became one of the genre's "writers to watch." Recently, he has embraced the viral marketing potential of electronic books and has begun to self-publish a selection of his high-quality horror fiction.

His latest novel is Drummer Boy, though he is probably still best known for his Bram Stoker Award–nominated debut, The Red Church (recently reprinted by his own Haunted Computer Books). He also has a free ebook of tips for writers, called Write Good or Die.

This review covers his 2006 novel The Farm, one of his paperback originals, now out of print (and thus, by my own definition, "forgotten") but readily available used. One wonders if his fellow North Carolinians appreciate how he portrays their home region in his novels, but the number of readers who do is still growing, and I am one of them.

Katy Logan and her tween daughter Jett Draper are trying to start over. After divorcing her husband Mark because of his drug addiction, Katy was looking for a more stable type of fellow to help raise her daughter through these trying years. She found Gordon Smith, a theological scholar living on his ancestral farm in the small town of Solom, North Carolina (a town patterned after rural Todd, NC).

Gordon's family has a long history in Solom. His first wife (whom Nicholson has rather cleverly named Rebecca) died mysteriously five years ago, but her spirit still haunts the farm, leaving the scent of lilacs in her wake. And Gordon's great-great-great-grandfather was Harmon Smith, a circuit-riding preacher who was killed by members of his own church and still, 200 years after his death, reappears regularly in town — so regularly, in fact, that the locals have gotten quite used to his presence (though he always takes one of them with him each time he comes through).

If that weren't odd enough, Gordon's goats have also begun acting peculiarly — especially in their newly carnivorous eating habits — and his scarecrow, made to appear as lifelike as possible, doesn't tend to stay where you leave it. Does the stranger in the black hat have anything to do with these odd occurrences, or is he just one more of them?

The Farm is not a "barn-burner." Nicholson does not follow the typical horror style here (lots of extreme scenes with a little down time in between), opting instead for a more thriller-like progression where things build and build to a climactic payoff. Nicholson leads us leisurely into these events, always leaving plenty of room for description, character thoughts, and history. Life in Solom is usually pretty slow, and Nicholson's prose offers a taste of that same feeling.

That is not to say that The Farm isn't damned frightening. Nicholson maintains a strong sense of dread, fear, and foreboding, as each character responds to these new events in different ways. Luckily, there are enough recent arrivals in town for us to also experience the old events through new eyes.

Like Stephen King, Nicholson has a tendency to offer up quite a bit of information about each character as he introduces them before moving on with the story. Whether it is too much is up to the individual, but I find this very appealing — and in some ways comforting — as I get to know each person as an individual before he or she is put in mortal danger. But more viscerally focused readers who like a lot of action may find it frustrating that the first 100 pages or so of The Farm is mostly Nicholson setting the stage for what is to follow.

Nicholson has a wonderful eye (and ear) for the details of rural Appalachia; he writes of its pluses and minuses with the same affection his fellow North Carolinian Sharyn McCrumb gives to her mystery novels. Both authors aspire to write more than just another typical genre entry, opting instead to bring a taste of literature into their usually pulpy arena.

The Farm has a more literary feel than the average horror novel. Nicholson even incorporates a good deal of folklore, from Appalachian to ancient Jewish to modern urban legends. The ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, and the book as a whole could have used a little more tightening, but generally speaking, I enjoyed the languid flow of the story. It reminded me of the slow pace of small-town life — one of the few things, other than the mountains, that I miss about living in the South.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Joyride by Jack Ketchum (includes bonus novella Weed Species)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Author Jack Ketchum's specialty is fictionalizing the exploits of real-life criminals, something he has done to great effect in The Lost and Off Season, and especially in the book most consider his masterpiece: The Girl Next Door. The paperback reprint of Joyride (which includes the novella Weed Species) continues this tradition with different but equally disappointing results.

When Wayne — who always wanted to kill someone but never had the guts — sees Carole and Lee murder Carole's stalker ex-husband Howard, he knows these are some people he'd really like to hang out with. So, he kidnaps them and, inspired by their gumption, sets off on his own spree.

If this setup sounds vaguely familiar, Ketchum found inspiration for Joyride in an unlikely source — Emile Zola's classic La Bete Humaine — though the two authors take a different approach. (Other character details were pulled from Ketchum's usual source, the multivolume Bloodletters and Badmen by Jay Robert Nash.)

Originally printed in 1995 in the U.S. (and the U.K., where it was called Road Kill) and rereleased in a limited edition by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2007 with a new afterword from the author, Joyride differs from Ketchum's usual style in that it eschews graphic sex and violence for the most part. Sometimes it hardly seems like a Ketchum novel at all. The suggestion and actions are there, but the loving descriptions of carnage and mayhem are mostly absent. Instead, the author includes his characters' thoughtful inner monologues on the different qualities of their relationships. Sheer suspense regarding how far Wayne will go carries the reader to the end, and even with that, it was a struggle.

Weed Species, however, is extreme to its detriment. A novella spanning about 80 pages in hardcover (the Cemetery Dance limited edition includes a handful of full-page illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne), it starts right off by chronicling Sherry's Christmas gift to her boyfriend Owen: her teenage sister to rape and a camcorder to film it. This opening scene would have put the author firmly among the "extreme horror" crowd if he weren't in fact a founding member. In it, Ketchum clearly portrays the couple as irredeemable. Later events only serve to underline this fact.

Sometimes it seems as if in Weed Species Ketchum is only out to disturb us; he has said he does this by disturbing himself first. The book's theme can be summed up in three words: "cruelty begets cruelty" (an idea underscored by the book's title and illustrations and by the actions of another of Owen's victims; she survives only to hurt another).

This underlying story behind the story would have been served better by a shorter rendering. Ketchum's need to stick to reality (Owen and Sherry are also based on real people) prevents him from giving Weed Species the satisfying punch of an ending it requires to circumvent these flaws. As a result, it feels like purposeless sensationalism, though it contains some of the author's most brutal and visceral prose yet.

Many people have attempted to thread their horror with social commentary, and Ketchum has done it so much better before that it's difficult to recommend this to any but his most hardcore fans. Weed Species and Joyride thus make an interesting pair. Put together, they seems like two parts of a whole, but taken separately, each feels as if it is missing something vital.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Alibi by Teri Woods (unabridged audio book read by Paula Jai Parker-Martin)

Author Teri Woods is one of the shining stars of modern urban fiction, also known as "street lit." She follows in the literary footsteps of such influential street-lit writers as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Chester Himes, and Sister Souljah, while blazing a trail of her own by the sheer extent of her popularity.

Woods began by self-publishing her first novel, True to the Game, and selling copies out of her car trunk while working as a paralegal. Then she founded Teri Woods Publishing and further increased her readership while also allowing newer authors a home for their work.

Now she sees her debut on audiobook, Alibi, after signing with a major New York publisher, namely the vast Hachette conglomerate, hoping to further spread her vision via their wide distribution model. (Alibi is also Woods's debut in hardcover.) Paula Jai Parker-Martin (The Proud Family) performs the characters with such skill that she is practically invisible, allowing the writing to shine.

1986, North Philadelphia — Lance and Jeremy are a couple of low-rent dealers who think they've found their golden ticket: an open window at the apartment of drug lord Simon Schuller's runners. But things go wrong fast, and the only one to escape the scene alive is Nard, one of the runners.

Leaving three corpses behind, and unable to claim self-defense because of his other illegal activities, Nard needs an alibi and fast. His buddy Sticks, the guy that was supposed to be the lookout that night but didn't show up, feels guilty and sets Nard up with one from his girl, Daisy Mae Fothergill. Sticks will pay Daisy — a 22-year-old stripper and prostitute — $2,000 to say she was partying with Nard at her workplace, the Honey Dipper, all night long. Meanwhile, detective Tommy Delgado and his partner Merva Ross are hot on Nard's trail.

I went into Alibi expecting a straight crime novel, but what I got was something very different. This is raw writing with no apologies. Woods is not a prose stylist — she is unnecessarily repetitive and accents the obvious — but she can plot like nobody's business, and her characters are ultra-real.

Alibi is a prime example of the street-lit style of no-holds-barred writing with explicit language, sex, and violence slathered over an equally hard-core storyline. A real walk on the wild side, a gritty detailed portrait of the desperate and determined, where opportunities are few and the ones that pay well are nearly all illegal. But where a woman who sells her body numerous times daily just to make ends meet can still have fairy-tale dreams.

Woods puts her heroine through so many ordeals that Daisy eventually gets overwhelmed by it all and packs up and moves to see her family in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for some escape. But then Woods gives the crank another turn as an event that was memorable but seemed relatively minor blows up when the FBI gets involved.

Alibi is very creatively plotted. It is also completely absorbing, and I never guessed how things would turn out. It is much less a traditional crime novel than a character piece. (The flashback to Daisy's mother's history is a special highlight.) Luckily, Daisy is an interesting person (though a little dumb at times) and easy to care about since she retains her inner sweetness. The reader really wants things to turn out well for her, even as events seem to be almost conspiring against that possibility.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Feed by Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant (zombie thriller, Newsflesh trilogy)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

In 2014, the Kellis-Amberlee virus — the one that cured cancer and the common cold, then combined and mutated and now turns its dead infected into zombies — spread quickly throughout Santa Cruz, California, along with the rest of the world, killing 32% of the population the first summer and resulting in the "Rising" of shuffling undead that have dominated for the last 25 years. Now in 2039, inseparable sibling duo Georgia and Shaun Mason spend their days tooling around the area in a "traveling blog center," a former news van outfitted with state of the art electronics (camera feeds, wireless tower, backup storage).

They operate After the End Times, one of the most popular news and entertainment sites — traditional media proved to be unreliable during the Rising, so people turned to blogs for their news — and keep an eye out for signs of viral amplification. ("Amplification" because everyone is infected but most are still dormant or of a lesser grade, like Georgia's own retinal Kellis-Amberlee, which results in always-dilated pupils, necessitating her wearing sunglasses all the time, and guaranteeing that any retinal scan comes up positive for viral amplification.)

The bloggers are divided into five camps: the Newsies, who report the unvarnished truth; the [Jon] Stewarts, who are more commentators than reporters; the [Steve] Irwins, who court danger for vicarious thrills; the Aunties, responsible for soothing recipes, remembrances, etc; and the Fictionals, who provide a steady diet of escapism. The Masons' immediate crew (not counting their associates in other areas) is equipped with three of these: Georgia is a Newsie, Shaun is an Irwin, and their tech manager, Georgiette "Buffy" Meissonier ("I'm cute, blonde, and living in a world full of zombies. What do you think I should call myself?"), is a Fictional.

(The reasoning behind Georgia and Buffy's similar given names is purely due to George Romero's becoming a figure of hero worship after the "rules" given in his movies turned out to be incredibly useful in a real-life world of zombies. I assume Shaun is just named after this one.)

Things get very interesting when Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are tapped to cover the presidential campaign of Senator Peter Ryman first-hand, accompanying him as part of his personal press corps. When some zombies get past the security at a rally of Ryman supporters, and later when the senator's ranch is terrorized and family members die, signs point to sabotage and then conspiracy. Some unexpected people are behind it all, and Georgia spearheads the investigation in spite of the potential danger of doing so.

Author Mira Grant (the open pseudonym of writer/musician Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye urban fantasy series of novels) starts Feed (the first novel in the her Newsflesh trilogy) off in just the right way for a novel based in action: with a chase that culminates in an airborne motorcycle and the driver's realization that dying on impact would be one of the better case scenarios.

Grant ends every chapter with blog posts from the various characters (primarily Georgia's Images May Disturb You and Shaun's Hail to the King), showing the different sides of the characters in a way that is more effective than simply adding information into the narrative, forwarding the story at the same time.

Considering its primarily subject matter, Feed is surprisingly low on grue, at least early on. Grant focuses more on the imminent danger to her characters, and a certain level of tension pervades throughout the proceedings; you never know when the next attack is going to take place. The author folds in the futuristic aspects of the story seamlessly, blending the sci-fi, horror, and mystery with real skill, and Feed manages to be a satire of news organizations, the government, and the human race in general — with pithy dark humor laced throughout and unforgettable characters.

Feed is one of those rare books that has a little something for everyone. Even people who've never read a zombie novel — even who think they wouldn't like zombie novels in general — will find something to like here. There's political machinations, good character development, well-drawn relationships, behind-the-scenes conspiracy, action, murder, love, technology, suspense, and some very surprising choices for a genre novel, not to mention the all-too-rare focus on modern methods of communication — something that has still not really been absorbed by most current fiction.

Newsie Georgia is the ideal choice for narrator; she is grounded, focused on the facts, but sensitive enough to ensure that the emotions resonate. Irwin Shaun or Fictional Buffy would be more likely to taint the tale with opinion or digression (as we find out during the couple of chapters Shaun narrates). Similarly, the narrators of the audiobook of Feed suit their characters, with Paula Christensen performing Georgia and the other characters in her chapters with skill and sympathy. Conversely, Jesse Bernstein, who sounds a bit too much like David Sedaris to be in this book, doesn't seem up to the demands of his roles and actually detracts from the text instead of enhancing it.

So learning that Shaun in fact does preside over the sequel (once Blackout, now Deadline) was a disappointment to say the least. But that's judging a book unread. Lastly, I must give kudos to Orbit cover designer Lauren Panepinto for capturing the novel's concept and feel excellently, including the pun in the title. (For those who don't get it, "feed" refers to both zombies and blogs.) Feed is terrific entertainment, likely to be remembered as the one that put zombies over for the previously uninitiated.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gun Work: The Further Exploits of Hayden Tilden by J. Lee Butts (Western novel)

Former Deputy U.S. Marshal Hayden Tilden reminisces about his time working for "Hangin'" Judge Isaac Parker from the confines of the Rolling Hills Home for the Aged in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is the 1940s, and Tilden is 90 years old, but his memory is as good as ever. Gun Work begins with a transcribed interview taken by Tilden's biographer, Franklin J. Lightfoot Jr., reporter for the Arkansas Gazette.

With his fellow deputy marshals Carlton J. Cecil and Nate Swords in the Brotherhood of Blood, Tilden hunts down the worst of the worst as Judge Parker's "personal manhunter," and it's OK if he doesn't follow Frank Buck's famous motto "bring 'em back alive." In fact he's rather infamous for the opposite. As outlaw C.W. Jemson points out, "Heard 'bout the way you catch folks, Tilden. Not many as you go out lookin' for come back breathin'."

The main story of Gun Work is told by Tilden to his rest-home sweetheart Martha Frances Harrison ("she likes me to call her Martye") after the announcement that tonight's movie is to be about Wyatt Earp. Tilden allows that his West was not so romantic, and Martye urges him to tell her his story of "obsession, murder, blood, and betrayal."

This time, the assignment, delivered as always by Judge Parker's go-between George Wilton, is to hunt down Jesse and Leroy Coltrane, suspected of slaughtering the Cassidy family with their captured brother Benny, and to retrieve the surviving daughter, Daisy, from Fort Worth. But things are never quite that easy, especially since it seems there are always outlaws ready to challenge the notorious Marshal Tilden.

Author J. Lee Butts writes an exciting Western in Gun Work, with plenty of bullets and bravado. Modern Western writers aren't afraid to get down and dirty in their descriptions of the consequences of gun work, and J. Lee Butts offers up a level of bloodshed that even a horror fan can appreciate, including one highly memorable comment from a witness regarding a shot-off piece of skull: "Lord, Lord. Glob of goo still has the hair growin' out'n it."

That's also an example of the terrific, colorful language to be found in Gun Work. Butts comes armed with an arsenal of similes to describe everything from a falling body to a quiet room. And over 200 pages, he seems to never repeat a single one. The dialogue and repartee between Tilden, Cecil, and Swords is also a treat. Keep a special eye out for the conversation early on between Tilden and Swords regarding Swords' predilection for uncommon eats. ("Fry up some coconuts along with an armadiller, and you've got yourself one helluva meal, my friend.")

I was just looking for some newer work by a Western writer I hadn't read before, and I made quite a discovery in J. Lee Butts. Gun Work is entertaining on many levels, and I recommend it highly to those looking for something that combines humor and grit in a tight, action-filled package.

The Adventures/Exploits of Hayden Tilden, novels by J. Lee Butts:
1. Lawdog (2001)
2. Hell in the Nations (2002)
3. Brotherhood of Blood (2004)
4. Ambushed (2006)
5. Written in Blood (2009)
6. Gun Work (2010)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (unabridged audio book read by Scott Holst)

Author Seth Grahame-Smith spearheaded the public-domain horror-mashup genre with his huge bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was popular not because it was well done (it wasn't particularly; Ben H. Winters's Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is much better executed) but because people loved the idea of it and had to have a copy for their shelf, unread, to occasionally pull out and chuckle at.

Suddenly, Grahame-Smith was in demand, so he brought out an idea he'd had the year before. In 2008, author Seth Grahame-Smith noticed that all the books in the front of his local bookstore seemed to be either Abraham Lincoln biographies (the sixteenth president's 200th birth anniversary was approaching) or the Twilight saga and its ilk. So, why not combine them?

Download from Audible.comNow the author has produced an original novel with another great high-concept title: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (He had been impressed by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, among others, and credits the Internet with making this book much easier to research.)

Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the title of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter alone will sell the book — or at least encourage curiosity. But it's more than that: this book is also the story of its "author," who whiles away nearly a decade behind the counter of a small-town five-and-dime store, trying to write then abandoning novel after novel until the day a friendly regular leaves him a package wrapped in brown paper, containing letters and journals, on the condition that he write a book about them. The first line: "This is the journal of Abraham Lincoln."

The fellow obsesses for seven months over these documents, losing his family then nearly his mind as he pores over the secret diaries of our sixteenth president and his lifelong pursuit to rid America of the bloodsucking menace that had run unchecked since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, and eventually would become the deciding factor in the beginning of the Civil War. Mostly because one killed his mother.

The journals cover Lincoln's life from his frontier boyhood through his presidency and death, with Grahame-Smith inserting necessary historical details to fill in the gaps. Lincoln writes of the suspicious deaths of his aunt and uncle and then his mother, who was called "milk sick" until the truth came out. Lincoln learns from his father Thomas that vampires killed his own father and Abe's mother. Thomas owed a debt that could not be paid, and the vampire shylock took payment in another way.

At age 12, young Abe writes, "I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America" and proclaims God as his enemy for allowing such things to happen. For a while he devotes himself to occult studies and physical improvement, such as developing his ax-wielding technique. Also pivotal is Lincoln's first encounter with slavery. He finds that "bargain" slaves (the weak, the old, etc.) are being bought in great numbers to be used as vampire food. Since no one cares what happens to a slave, there's not the trouble with the authorities that results when "real" people are sucked dry. In that way, the vampires were the first equalizers, realizing that blood is blood, whatever the skin color. Lincoln soon realizes that "So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires."

Grahame-Smith takes a while to find his way with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. At first, it seems to have been put together in much the same way as his Jane Austen zombie novel. In the beginning, the historical chronicle of Lincoln's life is readable and engaging, but the vampire aspects feel dropped in and not part of the whole, as if he wrote the history first and the fiction later.

So clumsily are some of these early portions added that I began to question whether perhaps the author had perhaps merely obtained an extant Lincoln biography (in the public domain or even unpublished) and added his own parts to it. (Before you scream "libel," just remember that even the best historians are sometimes accused of plagiarism. Controversy only sells more books.)

Later, as the main conceit takes precedence over the genuine history, this is much less of a problem. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter tells of Lincoln's political ambitions (and his vacillating nature toward them), and of his friendships with Edgar Allan Poe and his close and complex friendship with his mentor, the uncommon Henry Sturges. This relationship is one of the highlights of the book and shows Grahame-Smith's skill with masculine emotions.

Audiobook reader Scott Holst has difficulty overcoming the dry nature of the prose early on. But he shines in the "quoted" materials from the letters and journals, using a subtle country twang to embody Lincoln and his forebears with skill. The audiobook contains a conversation with the author; a bonus PDF document of historical photographs, paintings, and engravings; and a preview of Michael Koryta's novel So Cold the River.

The book's main success is also its greatest weakness, which is that it reads like a genuine history, but with vampires folded into the reality. Thus, I think it would appeal only to those readers who enjoy history and vampires: history buffs will likely balk at the liberties taken with the facts — a good deal of true stories from Lincoln's life are included, some of which are even more interesting than the slaughter of the undead — while horror fans will be disappointed in the long spans between kills.

Grahame-Smith makes at least one mistake for the sake of narrative immediacy, telling the last moments of a dying man from the perspective of omniscience, therefore reminding us we are reading fiction and breaking the spell momentarily. He also falls prey to the easy out, giving nearly every person who disagrees with Lincoln on any minor point connections with vampirism. It becomes so predictable, that when names like Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, and John Wilkes Booth come up, you'll immediately guess "vampire" and nearly always be right.

But even with its flaws, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter not only solidifies Grahame-Smith's standing as a genre-blender, but also shows bright spots of creativity, suggesting that a completely original novel might not be too much of a stretch. He manages the impressive feat of making the reader believe — if only during the reading — in an Abraham Lincoln that could have been.

I know I'll never look at a five-dollar bill the same way again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ghost Town by Ed Gorman (Western noir)

Author Ed Gorman's Western novels are primarily in the genre he calls "Western noir." In many ways — just about every way except the setting — Ghost Town is more like typical crime fiction than other, more traditional Westerns.

Prison-educated trial lawyer (and sometime thief and con artist) Bryce Lamont is keen to find his old partners Jed Wylie and Frank Stodla. Especially since they still owe him his cut from the job that put him away. He's tracked them down to the midwestern town of Wyatt, Wisconsin, where Jed and Frank appear to have gone legit as a banker and his handyman (though enforcer is more like it).

Unfortunately, a really bad malaria epidemic has hit Wylie, and Bryce's brother Paul has a particularly bad case of it, though Bryce refuses to believe it until he hears it from Laura, Paul's heretofore unmet fiancée and the local doctor. She is the only woman of dignity in a town of iniquity.

Bryce gets the money but loses his brother and sets out to find the ones responsible for Paul's death with only the help of a 15-year-old wannabe bounty hunter and a snake-oil salesman. Threaded throughout — and somehow tying in with all this — is the trial of one Jenny Rice, accused of murdering her own fiancée.

Gorman's Western novels are the perfect stepping stone for the crime-fiction enthusiast wanting to get his or her feet wet in the Western genre. Ghost Town doesn't shy away from the painful parts of life, covering unrequited love, the pain of loss, the suffering of sickness, and the anxiety of hiding from justice, among others.

Ed Gorman is one of my favorite Western writers. His works are largely influenced by the Gold Medal novels of the 1950s and '60s. Donald E. Westlake (to whom Ghost Town is dedicated) pointed out similarities to the Westerns of Will Charles (crime author Charles Willeford writing under a pseudonym), stories that Gorman had not read.

Willeford and Gorman approached their material in the same way, namely that criminals are the same no matter what time period they're living in. That's Western noir. What Gorman is doing with the Western that may not be new, but it's still a fresh approach that hasn't been done to death. He did not create the concept of Western noir, but he gave it a name, and he is certainly the best at it.

Further reading:
Vendetta by Ed Gorman — another Western noir, a multilayered story of revenge.
The Midnight Room by Ed Gorman — his own "Gold Medal novel" dedicated to "old friends who were masters of the form": Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby.
The Hombre from Sonora by Will Charles — one of Charles Willeford's pseudonymous Westerns.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Big Bang by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Mike Hammer)

Mike Hammer went to Florida to recover from a stab wound from one of Junior Evello's boys — Junior is the nephew of Carl Evello from Kiss Me, Deadly — "that had opened my side like somebody wanted to slip in there and hide." On his first day back in Manhattan, he chances across hospital messenger Billy Blue being jumped by drug dealers who think he can get them easy access to the hospital's drug stash, and Hammer quickly dispatches the assailants with his signature brand of street justice.

It looks like Evello might be involved, but Hammer assures Homicide captain (and long-time friend) Pat Chambers that he has no interest in the case. Of course, when somebody tried to kill Mike, he gets interested fast. Now it's on.

The Big Bang is one of the handful of unfinished manuscripts Mickey Spillane entrusted to Max Allan Collins upon his death in 2006. Two others have been published previously: the non-Hammer Dead Street and the "last" Hammer novel chronologically, The Goliath Bone.

In addition to being about one-third complete, The Big Bang was also fully outlined and included the ending, which was one of Spillane's favorites. When the deadline for this book was approaching and it did not look like he could finish it, Spillane took the previously shelved "second" Hammer novel For Whom the Gods Would Destroy (he had written it after I, the Jury but quickly pounded out My Gun Is Quick as a followup instead), updated it with references to more recent cases, and sent that one in. It would be published under the title The Twisted Thing.

Spillane's and Collins's styles mesh well throughout The Big Bang, since Collins expanded Spillane's original one-third out to about one-half and then completed what was missing. Collins has somehow managed to produce a novel that is firmly grounded in the 1960s but does not feel dated. This is not an artifact, but a fully vital modern novel.

Collins stays mostly in the background, preferring to let his friend and mentor shine from beyond. Those who have followed Hammer through numerous adventures will appreciate it most, but The Big Bang can be enjoyed even by those relatively new to the detective.

One definite highlight is the climax, when Hammer unwittingly drops acid and sees his potential final moments with all the clarity of a warped record. ("Shotgun" by Junior Walker and the All-Stars gets a prominent role in the melee.)

But the ending of The Big Bang is just stunning, related to a huge shipment of heroin coming into the city (the "big bang" of the title — sorry physics fans, no beginning-of-the-universe theories discussed in these pages1). It may in fact be one of the best of the series. Just don't try to skip ahead and read it because you won't understand its significance unless you've read the rest of the book. The whole thing is well orchestrated for maximum impact. It's a keeper and one that will likely go down as one of the more memorable.

At least one more of these Spillane/Collins collaborations (Kiss Her Goodbye) is already scheduled to be published. There are at least three more substantial manuscripts that could be completed: Complex 90 (a sequel to The Girl Hunters), Lady Go Die!, and King of the Weeds. However, whether these see their way into print depends, like all things in publishing, on how well these sell, so support them however you can (preferably with your wallet) and help Spillane's legacy continue well into the future.

1Try What's Next?: Dispatches from the Future of Science for that — specifically Sean Carroll's "Our Place in an Unnatural Universe."

The Twisted Thing by Mickey Spillane (included in The Mike Hammer Collection, Volume III)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

14-year-old genius Rustin York is kidnapped and his father reflexively points the finger at the one ex-con in his employ. The ex-con calls Mike Hammer to help him out, and Hammer gets the guy released and rehired. The father is remorseful and asks Hammer to help find his son.

The Twisted Thing is the novel that author Mickey Spillane (who preferred being called a "writer" since he only did it for the money) sent to his publisher instead of finishing The Big Bang. It was actually his intended follow-up to I, the Jury and was originally titled For Whom the Gods Would Destroy. But when the public responded to the intensity of that book, he wrote the more similar My Gun Is Quick instead.

So, the "real" second Hammer novel sat unpublished for over a decade until the deadline for The Big Bang approached and that novel wasn't done. Spillane dusted off For Whom the Gods Would Destroy, added some references to cases Hammer had taken in the intervening time, changed the title, and turned it in instead, leaving readers without a true Hammer response to the late '60s until Max Allan Collins completed The Big Bang this year.

This novel has all the Spillane hallmarks: deep characterization, a fast plot, realistic dialogue (peppered generously with tough-guy slang), and a great deal of sensitivity shown through Hammer's treatment of Rustin York, boy genius. It also has the expected "surprise" ending (though honestly, anyone who doesn't see this one coming a mile away hasn't read enough Agatha Christie). So, though The Twisted Thing doesn't reach classic status, it still has a lot to offer Hammer fans.

Further reading:

Big Bang co-author Max Allan Collins's recommendation of The Twisted Thing on the The Rap Sheet's continuing series of The Book You Have to Read.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Guns of Sapinero by Peter Brandvold writing as Frank Leslie (Colter Farrow series)

The past can catch up with a man. That's what happened to Trace Cassidy, who was a gunslinger before he settled down to ranch life with his childhood sweetheart. But as The Guns of Sapinero opens, Trace isn't enjoying family life: in fact, he isn't enjoying life at all.

Trace is screaming in pain because he's been laid out like a cowboy Christ and nailed to the bottom of his wagon bed, which is being led by homebound horses as a message to his family. Futilely, he tries to fight off the buzzards, who don't seem to care that he's not quite dead....

After the body is taken care of, Trace's widow Ruth asks their eldest, adopted 16-year-old son Colter Farrow to find the killers and settle up. ("Only [blood] can settle a score like this. And you're every bit as much his blood as [I am].") But Colter is just a drover. He can shoot, but his ideas of how to handle "bad guys" come from the few dime novels he's read.

In no way is Colter Farrow prepared for what lies ahead of him. He's going to follow through — otherwise he can't go back home. He's also going to find out some things about his father that he'd rather not have known. But revenge changes a man. And Colter is going to find that it's the kind of situation that can scar you for life.

Frank Leslie is the pseudonym of author Peter Brandvold, who is one of our best living Western writers. He is always original and surprising. The Guns of Sapinero is the first in a new series from the Leslie brand, whose Yakima Henry books have been well received. (The sequel, The Killers of Cimarron, comes out in June.)

The Guns of Sapinero is a terrific portrait of a boy becoming a man purely through necessity. Farrow is smart enough to know what is expected of him, and it's fascinating to watch him "practice" killing some bank robbers in preparation for meeting his father's killers. This becomes useful, especially as the people of Sapinero (or at least an important few of them) are resistant to Colter's finding out any more about the murder. Luckily, Colter finds help from unexpected corners.

Unlike most modern Westerns, The Guns of Sapinero is not a quick read. This is simply because there's no filler; you must pay attention to every word, or you'll miss something. It is also much darker than Peter Brandvold's other series. ("Western noir" doesn't even begin to describe it.)

In an interesting narrative example of this, Colter actually comes face to face with Lou Prophet and notices the wide chasm between the two men, wishing he had Prophet's easy confidence and skill. But Farrow will find he is more than man enough to do what's required of him.
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