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.")

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