Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hard Case Crime Releases All of Michael Crichton's "John Lange" Novels (Reviews of Grave Descend and Zero Cool)

In 2006 and 2008, respectively, Hard Case Crime (during its relationship with Dorchester Publications) rereleased Grave Descend and Zero Cool, two novels written by author Michael Crichton to support him during medical school. Despite their quality, being a medical student, Crichton published them under a pseudonym, "John Lange." (Another pseudonymous Crichton novel written during the same period, A Case of Need by "Jeffery Hudson," even won an Edgar Award.)

Part of the deal was that they be reprinted under the Lange pseudonym, with no Crichton-related publicity involved whatsoever. The information was hardly secret, though, the Internet being how it is. For example, there was a list of Lange novels prominently placed on Crichton's Wikipedia page. And fans of the author had known of the pseudonymous works for quite some time.

Still, the deal was struck, and the two novels saw the light of day, two years apart, for the first time in nearly forty years. Now, after Crichton's passing, and well into Hard Case Crime's new iteration with Titan Publications, all of the John Lange novels are being released with Crichton's name on the cover, and with new paintings commissioned from cover artists Glen Orbik and Gregory Manchess.

I have not read all of the books, but here, slightly edited for length, are the original reviews I wrote back then for Grave Descend and Zero Cool.

"Every story was different, and they were all, to his ears, improbable. But not like the Grave Descend. That was not merely improbable; it was weird. Even the name of the ship was weird." — from Grave Descend

Author John Lange is actually the pseudonym of a massively bestselling author whose name you would instantly recognize if I chose to reveal it. Hard Case Crime, seeing the first reprints of Lange's books since their original publications, would like us to respect his privacy, but as we all know, there are no secrets on the Internet, and his identity is only as far away as a single click.

Coincidentally, John Lange was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Grave Descend. The author actually won the Edgar for another novel he wrote around the same time under a different pseudonym. (He has also won one under his own name, but not for a novel.)

Jim McGregor, a diver by occupation, is hired to investigate the sinking of the Grave Descend, a luxury yacht with an unlikely moniker (it's actually a quote from Samuel Johnson, the source of all the epigraphs in the book), off the coast of Jamaica. The main trouble is that McGregor can't seem to get a straight series of events surrounding the sinking — everyone has a different take on what happened, even where the boat went through customs.

To make things more difficult, the sinking is being kept from the press for 24 hours due to the presence of the boat's single passenger, Monica Grant, who is not only striking beautiful (especially in a bikini) but is also the "good friend" of the boat's married owner, Robert Wayne. McGregor discovers a few other details while involved with this mysterious crew, and begins to piece together a puzzle that's got his name written all over it.

John Lange offers up a straightforward, taut thriller with no frills but more than a little John D. MacDonald in its pedigree. The use of short chapters and sharp dialogue make the relatively complicated plot flow easily and quickly toward its conclusion. A slight but entertaining piece of escapism, Grave Descend is completely engrossing during the reading but doesn't leave much behind in its wake. (See what I did there?) I finished it in just a couple of hours and I don't imagine it took Lange much longer. Fans of MacDonald and Richard Stark could do worse than to take a short cruise aboard the Grave Descend. Just watch out for those hammerheads.

If you do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

If you refuse to do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

What's a vacationing radiologist to do? Dr. Peter Ross is going to find himself very busy over the next few days, involved with so many people, he'll be lucky to make it in time for the radiologists' convention.

Zero Cool is the second John Lange novel (after Grave Descend) to be revived by Hard Case Crime, but it was published first originally. It is also, I think, the better-written and more entertaining of the two.

John Lange was the pseudonym for an author who later became a huge best-seller under his own name. I'll hint by saying he's an "admirable" sort of fellow (unless that's a reference too dated for modern readers), but a quick Google search will reveal all.

Events in Zero Cool pile on one another in an almost improvisatory fashion, as if Lange were simply taking dictation from a compulsive liar with A.D.D. The seemingly unplanned nature of it, however, meant I was unable to predict much of what happened.

Ross hops from Spain to France and back again, mostly against his will, all the while leaving behind what must be the world's most tolerant (and trusting!) girlfriend, a woman he only met days ago on the beach (portrayed in Gregory Manchess's cover painting by model Meredith Napolitano, who is cleverly shown reading a copy of Grave Descend.)

It's a lot of fun. It's not the best-written book in the world, but its classic pulp adventure–inspired origins shine through brightly, with at least three occurrences of "And then it happened." But the fact that the author added new material for this reprinting makes it just that much more special. The new pieces, a prologue and epilogue that bring the action into the current day, make Zero Cool feel like a new book, even though it's over 40 years old. If you like Grave Descend and Zero Cool, be sure to check out the rest: Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go (AKA The Last Tomb), The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, and Binary.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Modern Halloween Classic: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge (horror novella)

This is an expanded version of the review that was originally published in the now-sadly-defunct Down in the Cellar magazine. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

"He's the October Boy ... the reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face ... and he's gonna getcha! That's what they always told you ... he's gonna getcha so you know you've been got!!!!!" — from Dark Harvest

Every year around Halloween, I choose an old favorite set around the holiday to reread and get into the literary mood. Sometimes it's an entry in the Orangefield series by Al Sarrantonio, sometimes the anthology October Dreams, but this year it was Norman Partridge's high-octane horror novella Dark Harvest.

From the jack-o'-lantern on the cover, it's easy to tell that this novella is Halloween-related. But where most pumpkin-heads are fairly innocuous-looking, this one is positively threatening, which gives you some idea of the book's contents: intense effects in a short amount of time.

In fact, Dark Harvest is so much better than the early fiction that came out in the rerelease of his short-story collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales that it is hard to believe they were written by the same person.

You know this kind of story: it's the legend every small midwestern town has, and Partridge has managed to keep things familiar and yet fill this novella with surprises. It's got the nostalgia of Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes with a touch of The Twilight Zone and the kind of dark suspense that Partridge specializes in, but the author has also included a melancholy thread that adds depth.

It's that time again: Halloween night, the night when all teenage boys are released, after being locked in their rooms for five days, and set off to find "The October Boy," a midwestern nightmare with a jack-o'-lantern for a head and one thing on its mind: getting to the church on time (no, really). The boy who kills this awful creature (also known as "Sawtooth Jack") gets to leave town, or "jump the Line," something that has become increasingly more difficult, especially with Officer Jerry Ricks enforcing the border. But Pete McCormick thinks this is his year. He has stolen Officer Ricks's .45 and he is determined to get out of the town that has been holding him and his family, and everyone else in it, down for generations.

Dark Harvest is by turns frightening and sad, scary and tragic. It is a pure Halloween horror story, but one whose ripples extend past the time it takes to read it (only a few hours). The characters are people you know, only in a situation you couldn't have imagined that nevertheless feels entirely plausible given the right set of circumstances. I believe that Partridge has crafted a new Halloween classic, one that should find a permanent place on the shelf of every fan of the holiday who appreciates solid writing with no spare parts.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber (Star Wars zombie horror)

Trig Longo is a barely teenaged Cimarosan grifter imprisoned along with the rest of his family aboard the Imperial prison ship Purge, which is also home to five hundred other murderers, thieves, and rebel insurgents. En route to the detention moon, the Purge breaks down, its engines coming to a standstill.

The discovery of a seemingly abandoned Star Destroyer results in a scouting party being enlisted to search for salvageable repair parts. Only half return, and by the time they realize what they've brought back with them, it is too late: death is aboard the Purge — and it's contagious.

Before long, Dr. Zahara Cody and her 21B droid are dealing with over a dozen dead and a nearly 100 percent infection rate. Before long, only six of the living remain, surrounded by innumerable rank corpses.

But of course, these aren't your average dead bodies. These are the kind who make like Lazarus and get up and walk. And they're really, really hungry.

When I saw Death Troopers, my first thought was, "Wow, not even Star Wars can avoid jumping on the zombie bandwagon." And then I knew I had to read it. The cover image of a decapitated stormtrooper's bloody head hanging on a hook was simply too gruesome to resist.

I've always thought of Star Wars as relatively "clean" entertainment, so this addition of undead horror to the franchise was intriguing and exciting in its opening of a new world of potential storylines. Death Troopers is eerie from the beginning, and author Joe Schreiber (Chasing the Dead) uses his experience in the thriller genre to craft some genuinely scary scenes. The book doesn't really get moving for a while, but the surprise appearance of a pair of familiar faces one-third of the way in is a pleasing distraction.

Audiobook reader Sean Kenin adds to the gruesome nature of the disease by kindly providing appropriately wet coughs for the infected. Some poor choices, however, make the audiobook less than it could be. One is having Kenin describe a character's action (sighs, deep breaths, etc.) and then redundantly perform them. Another is just nit-picking, but I found it difficult to believe that a lab described in the text as "dead" and "abandoned" would require the use of mad scientist bubbling chemical sound effects.

The conceit of having the chapter titles screamed in a kind of electronic filtered echo starts out as a nicely disturbing counterpoint to the text but becomes laughable after only a few occurrences. (There are around forty chapters.) Death Troopers is in fact only the second time that I've felt an audio version detracted in some ways from the story. (See my review of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.) The crunching, slushy sound effects of a body being torn apart are quite nice, however, and the experience as a whole was altogether entertaining.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant by Harold Whitehead

I have to admit that when I saw the title of this book at Project Gutenberg, I thought it was going to be a parody of some sort, the title playing in my head as read by a deep-voiced radio announcer. But the introduction by author Harold Whitehead quickly put that idea to rest, as it was obvious that this assistant professor of Business Method at the College of Business Administration at Boston University had serious intentions: to illustrate to those who feel that business is not a place for creative endeavor that the opposite is in fact true.

Whitehead does his job admirably in what is, I believe, his only novel. It is hard to find much information about him online, but he seems to have been best known for his nonfiction writing on business, including a popular, long-running column called "The Business Career of Peter Flint" (a collection of which is advertised in this book's pages).

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is the story of a young and ambitious businessman, tired of working as a clerk, who buys a local hardware store. Black is a clever fellow full of creative marketing ideas, and the story shows his varying levels of success as he learns business management, sales, and advertising the hard way: on the job. His direct competitor, Stigler, is not happy about his new competition, however, and is determined to knock the youngster down a few pegs.

Luckily, Black left his previous employer (Barlow, the market leader by a long shot) on good terms, and the kindly gent is free with guidance. Black also has his highly supportive wife, Betty, to comfort and advise him as well.

Whitehead tells an absorbing yarn of drummers, jobbers, and endless opportunities told through the first-person experience of the title character. Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is one of the best books I've read this year, both in its narrative energy and its informative power.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Black Powder Justice (Wilderness #6) by David Robbins writing as David Thompson

Since the Wilderness series was released in audio form, I've been trying to catch with entries I missed, particularly the earlier ones. Read by Rusty Nelson and published by Books in Motion, these books are truly fine Westerns well-read by a professional. The most recent one I heard is Black Powder Justice, the sixth book, originally published in the early 1990s.

Nate King is hunting buffalo for himself and his five-months-pregnant Shoshone wife, Winona, when it begins to snow. In the mountains of 1835, this is not a small matter. Getting a large chunk of meat for now, he heads home. But the blood draws a pack of wolves, who work steadily to attack Nate and wear him down in their typical style. Eventually he fall prey to the cold and loss of blood.

In the midst of his recovery, Nate and Winona venture outdoors to investigate a noise and return to a home invader -- a human one. Before long, the Kings are prisoners in their own home, and soon Nate is knocked out.  When he wakes up, he finds everyone else -- and all the food -- is gone.

Uses his copious survival skills, his respect for others, and the fame gained by killing a grizzly bear using only a knife to not only retrieve his wife, but also gain the respect of a Ute brave while forcefully borrowing his horse.

David Robbins wrote the Wilderness series under the pseudonym David Thompson until recently.  As of series entry #67 (The Gift), he has begun using his own name.  Under either name, the author is a natural storyteller with a true gift for authentic characterization -- he shows us in Black Powder Justice that even a stoic Indian woman can get insecure when her husband calls another woman's name in his sleep -- and for lengthy descriptive passage that don't feel like filler.

The Devil Gets His Due by Peter Brandvold (Lou Prophet Western series)

The first Peter Brandvold novel I read was The Devil Gets His Due, and it set off an appreciation for the man's writing that has continued to this day. It was out of print for quite some time, but now Piccadilly Publishing has rereleased it in ebook form. Below is reprinted the review written by that first-time reader just discovering Brandvold's talent for the first time.

Lou Prophet is a bounty hunter. His motto is you don't stop until the job is done. So, when he met up with Louisa Bonaventure in Minnesota during her search for revenge on the Red River Gang that killed her family, he decided to help her out. Partly because of the reward on their leader, Handsome Dave Duvall, but also because Louisa, whom Prophet dubbed "The Vengeance Queen," was only 17 years old and might be in need of some assistance (and protection).

Since then, the duo have whittled the formerly 20 members of the Red River Gang down to one: Duvall himself, and Prophet wants to take him alone and, if possible, alive. It's part of the bounty hunter code. But "Miss Bonny-venture" wants Duvall for herself, as well, and is willing to die for the pleasure.

The Devil Gets His Due is the fourth novel by author Peter Brandvold to feature bounty hunter Lou Prophet. A prolific writer, Brandvold is the author of multiple series, including the Sheriff Stillman Once books, the Cuno Massey .45-Caliber series, and the Rogue Lawman books. He also writes under the pseudonym Frank Leslie and is reportedly one of the stable of authors writing regularly for the long-running Longarm series.

Based on the evidence of The Devil Gets His Due, Brandvold will be a new favorite. He starts out with action and keeps it coming. His grasp of character is modern yet authentic to the period, and I especially enjoyed that he doesn't take the traditional route regarding an expected love interest between Prophet and Louisa. This alone let me know I was reading a writer of imagination and originality. I've already added three more of his novels to my collection, hoping to sample each of his series in turn. Then I hope to track down some of his newest books.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson (occult horror)

In memory of author Richard Matheson, I recommend this, one of my favorite books of his. This is another terrific thriller from Richard Matheson. When the film version of A Stir of Echoes came out years ago, it was instantly dismissed as a rip-off of The Sixth Sense — a difficult feat considering that the novel that was the source of the film was written over forty years prior.

As a fan of the film (it is highly underrated and will definitely provide entertainment for fans of the genre) and of Matheson's work, I felt I owed it to myself to check out the original. (For some reason, a definite article is good enough for The Sixth Sense, but an indefinite article not good enough for Stir of Echoes. I'm sure someone was paid well for making that decision.)

A Stir of Echoes by Richard MathesonWhen Tom Wallace is hypnotized at a party by his brother-in-law, he turns out to be a surprisingly good subject. Afterward, he is told how malleable he was, and a good laugh is had at his expense when he unwittingly performs a post-hypnotic suggestion.

But then things aren't the same for Tom: he begins having dreams that a woman in black is in his house, and then realizes that he is able to read people's minds. This comes in handy on more than one occasion, but generally appears to be a nuisance, especially to Tom's wife, Anne, who wants him to see a doctor.

Given what I had read of Matheson's, I wasn't surprised by the level of quality presented in the story. What did surprise me, however, was that A Stir of Echoes, although first published in 1958, is not at all dated; it could have just as easily been written today, Matheson's story and characters are so "modern" and timeless. This is particularly true given the modern atmosphere of being more accepting to the idea of spirits "crossing over" from another plane.

As the story progresses, the tension ratchets higher and higher. Matheson hardly lets up, steadily adding more complications to the plot until the surprise revelation. This is one of the reasons that I like Matheson's work so much: the knowledge that I am always in for a ride.

(Fans of the movie please note: the plot of A Stir of Echoes differs from the film in many details. The base story is, of course, the same, but the identities of the participants — the alleged ghost, the alleged killer — are different, which allows for a new experience in reading a book you think you're already familiar with.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Re-Kindling Interest: Different Strokes: How I (Gulp!) Wrote, Directed, and Starred in an X-Rated Movie by Lawrence Block writing as John Warren Wells

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

In 1973, at the height of the mainstream pornography heyday, with films even now considered classics of the style (Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones) playing alongside other Hollywood fare, author Lawrence Block was hired to write a similar film that would have "a real script and a good cast and wide distribution." (Something author Terry Southern predicted in his novel Blue Movie.) The film was to be titled Different Strokes, but things didn't quite work out and it was never made.

But, as part of the deal, Block had arranged with his publisher to document the production in a book that would also include the screenplay and interviews — "for some subsidiary income [since] I wasn't going to be getting much actual cash for [the script]" — and publish it under Block's sexual-behaviors pseudonym, John Warren Wells.

Neither saw a reason why they couldn't go ahead with that part.

The result, Different Strokes: How I (Gulp!) Wrote, Directed, and Starred in an X-Rated Movie, is almost entirely fiction. (Some of it based on actual events that occurred before the production was cancelled.) But, according to Block's afterword in Different Strokes, "that was easy enough. It was fiction, and I'd been writing fiction for years. I liked fiction. You weren't tied down by facts."

And if there's something Lawrence Block is great at, it's fiction. I've been a fan of his for a couple of decades now, and Different Strokes has the same voice, humor, and skill at characterization and storytelling that have made him a best-seller since the 1980s.

His work from before that period is generally of the same quality; it has just been hard to acquire due to its often being hidden under a variety of pseudonyms. But now that Block has begun digitally releasing back-catalog works like Different Strokes: How I (Gulp!) Wrote, Directed, and Starred in an X-Rated Movie — and giving some away on Orange Wednesdays at his blog — it's going to be much easier to find a high-quality Lawrence Block book to read whenever I want one.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Devil's Manhunt by L. Ron Hubbard (western audiobook)

With Devil's Manhunt, author L. Ron Hubbard puts his own spin on the classic "most dangerous game" yarn." The title story first appeared in Famous Western magazine in February 1950, and this audio edition also contains the stories "Johnny, the Town Tamer" and "Stranger in Town."

After eight months of hard work, Tim Beckdolt struck gold in Desperation Peak, Arizona — 175,000 dollars' worth that took him more than three more months to gather up.

A life of leisure is in his direct future, until he's found by a Virginian aristocrat named Bonnet and his Swedish henchman, Sven. They know that the only way to all that money is through Tim's corpse, and Bonnet sees it as an opportunity for a little fun.

While the actor who plays Tim is fine, the performance of Bonnet truly disturbs. R.F. Daley once again delivers a powerful narration, and the only bad apple is Phil Proctor (fantastic in Shadows from Boot Hill), who plays Sven like one of his Firesign Theater characters.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss (collection of 20 short stories and a screenplay)

Crime author Andrew Vachss is well known as a modern master of the hardboiled tale, and the twenty-one works in his latest collection, Mortal Lock, only serve to further that reputation.

Vachss is an attorney who only represents clients under 18, but his doppelganger shows up in "Veil's Visit" (co-written with friend and fellow Texan Joe R. Lansdale) to defend Hap Collins's best friend, serial crack-house arsonist Leonard Pine.

Veil's defense is as funny as it is clever, and Lansdale and Vachss blend their styles seamlessly. It is a treat for Lansdale fans and a welcome source of laughs in the midst of the surrounding darkness.

Because the stories in Mortal Lock are dark, no doubt about it. Vachss seems to specialize in portraying the worst sides of humanity, with only occasional dashes of hope included.

Lucky for the reader, what makes society poorer makes for gripping fiction. From beginning to end, the works in Mortal Lock — I would say "stories," but the final third is devoted to a screenplay adapting the "Underground" stories from Born Bad — are utterly engrossing.

And the characters are originals. Take the narrator of "Ghostwriter," one of two previously unpublished stories. He will do anything to be recognized for his writing, as long as it's for its quality. He doesn't care about the money; he still needs to realize his true ambition, no matter who gets in the way.

"Bloodlines" (source of the title phrase) is the other original in Mortal Lock. To fit in while he waits for his target to come along, a hit man learns the ins and outs of racing "trotters." The story and dialogue were reminiscent of some of the best work of Damon Runyon (a favorite of mine), and I loved learning about an unfamiliar topic while being entertained by two really great characters.

Other memorable characters that come to mind are the cagey old prisoner from "Seeding the Ground," and Rhino and Princess from "Profile" — which features series character Cross, protagonist of Blackjack and numerous short stories. "As the Crow Flies" stars the protagonists of Vachss's latest series, beginning with the novel Aftershock. The story starts out relatively low key, but that allows the ending to hit that much harder.

The writing in Mortal Lock, while it may seem sensational on the surface, is actually quite subtle. This comes out best in the several short-shorts scattered throughout. There are stories like "They're All Alike," "Corazón," "Savior," and "Dead Reliable" that save their gut punch to the end. And tales like "Sure Thing," "Passage to Paradise, and "Pig" may not deliver their full effect until the reader has left them for a while. Their power comes from what is not on the page, but in the final picture those words create in the mind.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Re-Kindling Interest: Via Dolorosa by Ronald Malfi (literary psychological horror)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, he knew. But he also knew that whatever doesn't kill you sometimes only maims you and weakens you and makes you angrier and colder than you ever thought possible. Not for the first time, he acknowledged that, sometimes, it was probably better just to have it kill you." —from Via Dolorosa

Nick D'Nofrio was a lieutenant in the Iraq war, where he saved the life of one of his men. Now he's a newly married man, paying for his honeymoon at a resort hotel on Hilton Head Island by painting a mural on their wall.

But Nick can't get away from his past, especially not with the father of the man whose life Nick saved working as the hotel's bell captain — he got him the painting gig — and his injured right hand acting up whenever he tries to do any painting.

Nick is on a downward spiral, and he won't let his wife be a support. He chooses instead to spend inordinate amounts of time in the company of a Spanish photographer who only wants details on his war experiences and any photos he has or knows about. This shakes up Nick's marriage at a time when what he most needs is stability.

I'm quite pleased to see that author Ronald Malfi has allowed Via Dolorosa to be rereleased as an e-book. I read it when it first came out in hardcover in 2007, and I was very impressed by Malfi's examination of humanity's darkness, the horrors that we inflict upon each other, most often without intending to.

Malfi's first novel, the gothic horror tale The Fall of Never, was about the negative effects of family. Its followup, The Nature of Monsters, was a departure from the genre, a sort of modernized Great Gatsby that focused on how much we'll take from the people we believe are our friends. Via Dolorosa combines elements of both styles, with Malfi turning his keen eye on marriage and how one person's emotional baggage (specifically the horrors of war) can sour the experience for both parties.

This is a dark, sad, and depressing novel but a very rewarding one. The often dreamlike quality of the prose suits this novel told from the perspective of a troubled protagonist who spends the majority of his time deep inside his own head.

But Via Dolorosa retains a modicum of hope through Nick's constant struggle for escape, in whatever form it avails itself. Whether through the guise of a Spanish photographer or in the shadows of the pointedly named Club Potemkin, or even just at the bottom of a bottle of Red Truck, Nick's continual pursuit of a way out rescues his story from utter bleakness.

Friday, March 15, 2013

New on My Shelves

You've got to love used book stores and all the treasures they offer.

And a happy Ides of March, everyone.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

One Night Stands and Lost Weekends: Early Stories by Lawrence Block (short stories and novellas)

May you, Dear Reader, like the tomcat who had the affair with the skunk, enjoy these stories as much as you can stand.
—Lawrence Block, from the introduction
In 1999, publisher Crippen & Landru released limited hardcover editions of the early short fiction of author Lawrence Block.  The short-story volume was entitled One Night Stands, and the novella collection was called The Lost Cases of Ed London.

Now, these two volumes have been combined into a single trade paperback with the provocative title One Night Stands and Lost Weekends. The title describes the average time it took to write the short stories and novellas, respectively.

Block begins One Night Stands and Lost Weekends with a self-deprecatingly humorous introduction where he tells why he changed his mind regarding his original decision — set down in the introduction (also included) to the preceding limited collectors' edition — to only release the stories to a limited audience. Basically that, upon reading the stories, no one called "rip off," so why not make a little more money off them?

While these stories obviously aren't to the level of Block's later work (a point he emphasizes in both introductions, practically going so far as to warn the reader away from them), they will still appeal to the author's fans.  His voice is already clear, and the humor and imagination glosses over any imperfections in craft.

Con man Dick Barron runs across an amateur playing "The Badger Game" — badly — and decides to go along with it and turn the tables, though he's a little too arrogant for his own good. Before reading this story, I had not heard of this con, and now references to it seem to keep popping up. Apparently it was a popular plot device during the period. The story is definitely of its time — the narrator speaks of "expensive" thirty-dollar shoes — but Block's skill at character makes this one of special appeal to fans of confidence tales like his The Girl with the Long Green Heart.

"The Bad Night" is a simple and unsurprising standoff between two young killers and their much older potential victim. The use of setting and dialogue goes a long way toward saving this one. "Bargain in Blood," originally published under the "Sheldon Lord" byline, has a simple message: the next time your other half wants you to prove your love, just hope she's not Rita. Block manages to put off the surprise nearly to the end here.

"Bride of Violence" is a very well executed piece of pure crime fiction with a twist that, if hard to condone, is completely the result of the actions of the story. "The Burning Fury" is another one of those stories of people who can't leave well enough alone.  Block's characterization is stunning, giving all the right information and still holding back a surprise.

Characterization is everything in "The Dope," since there's very little in the way of plot.  "A Fire in the Night" is an internal monologue of sorts with a twist that negates several factual statements from the story.  "Frozen Stiff" owes a debt to Roald Dahl, as the irony flows. (A nod to the master is given in the form of a leg of lamb.)  Another Sheldon Lord, "Just Window Shopping," shows remarkable insight into the mind of a voyeur who gets a surprise opportunity.

A quote usually misattributed to Confucius says that if rape is inevitable, just "Lie Back and Enjoy It." But then the tables are turned a little too cutely in this tale from 1958. (Read it online.)  "Look Death in the Eye" is reminiscent of Robert Bloch with its darkly funny and humorously gruesome Tales from the Crypt–style ending.  In "Man of Passion," a photographer on the run picks the wrong town to hide out in.

"Nor Iron Bars a Cage" is one of those tales where you just know there's going to be a twist that the whole story was conceived around, but still Block manages to surprise with his only attempt at science fiction. "Package Deal" concerns town tamer Lou Baron, Joe Milani, Albert Hallander, Mike Ross, Arlington Ohio, and a hit man with his own agenda.

A particular highlight is "Pseudo Identity." It is the tragic tale of a double life that goes awry when the two overlap in an unexpected way.  Block pulls us along a surprising route that ends in a karmic twist.  This is one of his best all around.

"Ride the White Horse" is a very dark tale of how one man's life changes for the better — and then for the worse — when his routine is disrupted. A little naive in its drug knowledge but very astute in drawing the primary relationship.  The overblown ending is the only real detriment.

Even after having so many twists and turns thrown at me, Block still managed to get another one right past me in "The Way to Power," a tale of a mob gunman who finally begins to think for himself.  Lenny Blake (not his real name), the protagonist of "You Can't Lose," offers advice for smart guys who don't like to work but like to stay flush with cash--as long as they're not into luxury.

The "Lost Weekends" portion contains three novellas featuring Block's first series P.I., Ed London.  The introduction to this volume is similar to the other.  In "The Naked and the Deadly," London meets his client's blackmailer, and on the way to do business the extortionist is mowed down by a Tommy gun.

Ed then fills us in on the backstory: he was hired by a secretive woman, a lawyer is looking for the woman, a cop is looking for the lawyer, and things go from there.  The novella gives London (and Block) the chance to ramble on a bit and impress us with his esoteric knowledge.

In "Stag Party Girl," the title character jumps out of a cake at a bachelor dinner and gets shot for her trouble. She'd been intimate with most of the attendees and was potentially blackmailing one or more.  This is an improvement on "The Naked and the Deadly," with London seeming to take his job more seriously.

Finally, in "Twin Call Girls," Ed gets an urgent call from a frightened woman.  But when he gets to the meeting he finds her dead.  When the girl subsequently turns up alive at his office, it's not hard to figure out what's going on.  (The title gives it away.) This is the darkest of the three, with Block delving into some of the seediest aspects of humanity, but always with enough heart to make it palatable.

Reading these solid detective novelettes, it's easy to see how Block would progress to his later detective series.  And readers hungry for more Ed London can find him in Coward's Kiss.

Readers seeking classic Block should keep searching. But I heartily recommend that readers of Block's Hard Case Crime reprints get a copy of One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Longarm and the Ambush at Holy Defiance by Peter Brandvold writing as Tabor Evans (2013 Longarm Giant)

I'm glad to see the return of the giant editions of the adult Western series, which have been on a general hiatus since 2010. Longarm and the Ambush at Holy Defiance begins with an exciting scene aboard a train, with Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Parker Long, known popularly as "Longarm," taking on an entire gang of owlhoots singlehandedly.

It ends with a similarly rousing confrontation, and the middle ain't too shabby, either.

After the train tussle, Longarm asks for some well-deserved time off. But Chief Marshal Billy Vail denies his request, sending him straight off to the town of Holy Defiance, Arizona.

Vail wants Longarm to find out what happened to some Arizona Rangers and U.S. marshals who've not been heard from since they were sent to investigate the location of a gold shipment (insured by the Pinkerton agency) that was stolen from a stagecoach.

And he wants Longarm to go with a Pinkerton as his partner. But Longarm meets his match in Pinkerton agent Haven Delacroix.  Not only is she as good at her job as he is at his, and as brave and proud to boot, but they're also both horndogs of equal measure.

Because of this, the contractually obligated sex scenes in Longarm and the Ambush at Holy Defiance actually serve to add an extra level of tension between the pair of protagonists. They spend at least as much time thinking about each other as they do about the case.

Author Peter Brandvold, writing under the house name Tabor Evans, does not choose to continue the tradition of having Longarm work with Jessie Starbuck and Ki from the Lone Star series. (This was begun with the first Longarm Giant, Longarm and the Lone Star Legend, continued for a while, then abandoned until the thread was picked up again by James Reasoner.)

But this is hardly a disappointment, since Brandvold brings his own energetic storytelling skills to Longarm and the Ambush at Holy Defiance, making it the most gripping read of the series yet and confirming my opinion of him as the best Western writer working today.

(An observation: Once, while reading The Devil's Lair, an entry in Brandvold's series of Westerns featuring bounty hunter Lou Prophet, I was struck by the similarity between that novel and this series, especially since the plot involved Prophet's taking over a marshal's post.  This feeling was confirmed during Longarm and the Ambush at Holy Defiance when I caught two accidental references to Longarm as "Prophet.")

Friday, January 25, 2013

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime; Jack and Maggie Starr)

Manhattan, 1954—Comics are on trial, both in the court and in the media. Dr. Werner Frederick's best-selling book Ravage the Lambs offers a warning against — or, for some, a guide to — the "worst" of the full-color, graphic (both meanings apply here) publications allegedly warping the minds of America's youth.

A good deal of participants in the comics industry would like to see Dr. Frederick done away with. When he is subsequently murdered by strangulation, is his theory being proven correct?

Seduction of the Innocent is the third in the Jack and Maggie Starr trilogy of historical mysteries by author Max Allan Collins. The previous volumes, A Killing in Comics and Strip for Murder appeared in 2007 and 2008, respectively, but then the publisher chose not to continue with the series.

Lucky for us, Hard Case Crime saw fit to rectify that oversight, and now readers can once again follow the exploits of the Starrs, complete with brand-new art, including fourteen pages of illustrations from Terry Beatty (Ms. Tree) and a suitably lurid cover painting from Glen Orbik.

Maggie Starr runs the Starr Newspaper Syndication Company. Her stepson Jack is a private investigator whose only client is the Starr Syndicate. Jack's father, known primarily as "the major," willed the syndicate to his young wife upon his death, which Jack repeatedly says doesn't bother him. (Maggie is also a former ecdysiast only 10 years Jack's senior, a situation that is a source of Oedipal-incest jokes at Jack's expense.)

Like its predecessors, Seduction of the Innocent has some basis in history, but author Max Allan Collins emphasizes that truth was only the inspiration. He plays around with the facts here more than in, say, his Nathan Heller series. The Heller novels hew closely to the facts with just a fictional character or two thrown in for the sake of the story.

A primary difference between Seduction of the Innocent and history is that Fredric Wertham, the real-life counterpart of Dr. Werner Frederick (and the author of the original best-selling anti-comics screed from which this novel takes its name), died of old age, so Collins even had to invent a murder to solve.

This explains why the main participants' names are fictionalized right along with the timeline of events and the characters' relationships. Collins gives them names that aren't obvious caricatures, but realistic names in the style of the real ones.

Collins himself states that he "invite[s] readers — particularly comics fans — to enjoy the roman à clef aspects," but that Seduction of the Innocent "is a mystery in the Rex Stout or Ellery Queen tradition, with a dollop of Mickey Spillane." But readers who are interested in the period will quickly realize that Collins's usual in-depth research is still strongly at play here, as the surrounding events (including death threats that didn't happen) are all based on fact.

So, it's an interesting mix, and there were times that I was torn by whether to read Seduction of the Innocent as a slice of history or simply as a golden-age mystery. It's fun either way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Glock: The Rise of America's Gun by Paul Barrett (modern history)

Author Paul Barrett has been writing about the gun industry for 15 years at BusinessWeek. Given this breadth of experience, he seems unequivocably qualified to write this history.

Glock: The Rise of America's Gun tells the story of the firearm that rose from humble beginnings to eventually supplant the revolver as the United States's preferred Roscoe. This unassuming plastic piece was designed by Gaston Glock, an Austrian engineer with no experience in gun design, and this proved to be what was needed to bring his gun above the fray.

The Glock seems to have an equal-opportunity appeal, drawing everyone from police officers to gangbangers, from drug dealers to hobbyists, and seemingly every other gun enthusiast in between. Not being one of those myself, I was astonished at how drawn in I was by the tale of the Glock. Barrett's prose is smooth, and the story he tells is surprisingly involved and entertaining.
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