Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE LAWBRINGERS by Brian Garfield

The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, the bad guys are too bad, and the natives are one-dimensional cutouts. The townsfolk—the common working class—are portrayed as stupid, weak, or both.

In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. There have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10 percent that separates a viable genre from a dead one and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the novels published today.

An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, ACE, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.

The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in an unexpected way. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.

The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not the end justified the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less an end to his jurisdiction and more an artificial line to be ignored.

Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but he hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.

The Lawbringers manages to does all that and also tell an exciting and tight tale. It has a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis of right and wrong. It has a conscience without being limited or judged by that conscience. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10 percent, which has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.

This post originally went live September 1, 2009 right here at Gravetapping.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mom (December 2, 1941 to July 27, 1994)

20 years. That is how long it has been since we spoke. Since you gave me advice. Since you were part of my life. That last time is vivid in my memory. A hot July evening in the kitchen. The faded, dirty brown linoleum. The white walls. The cheap brown table. You were in a wheel chair; body wasted. Hair so red, so short. That damn bright red seat cushion that gave less than concrete. The pain in your eyes haunting, feverish. The black canker of disease devouring you. Your only grasp on life; hard stubborn will. And love. And maybe fear. Not for you, but for me.

I let you go that night. I told you I would be fine. I lied. Every word a lie. I wasn’t alright. I’m not alright. I survive. I’ve survived nearly half my life without you. Without a mother. Without my mother. There are days I hardly think of you, but not many. Mostly I wonder how it would be if cancer hadn’t destroyed you. Eaten you. I wonder what you would teach my child. My daughter with red hair. My daughter with your sweet, kind demeanor. My daughter who you never met. Who will never meet you.

It has been 20 years since my whispered request of “mom,” was answered. It has been 20 good, hard, and bad years. 20. A number that is impossible. A number that is so very unfair. A number that represents the years spent without the benefit of your quiet, beautiful wisdom. A span of two decades that passed like a long weekend, but has somehow felt like an eternity. I have nothing but memory—

That warm autumn day we took the bus to Safeway—why we didn’t drive I will never remember—eating that package of Snowballs on the grass berm waiting for the bus.

That day I picked a package of gum—Bid Red in my memory—from the shelf and pocketed it without paying. You made me return it. To the store manager no less, and apologize, and promise never to do it again.

That day you purchased me a cheap plastic Batman Halloween costume before taking me to Dad’s shop to show it off.

That day you stood up to the school bus driver for me.—

It has been 20 years Mom. You have been gone so very long, but still, if I can find silence. A quiet place. If I concentrate. If I want to badly enough, I can still hear you. I can feel the gentle timber of your voice like a summer breeze. I can feel your pride, joy, sorrow, and disappointment. You are gone Mom, but everything you taught me. Everything you were is still here. It is with me. It is with my family. It is with my little girl.

It has been 20 years Mom, and still I miss you. Still I mourn you. Still I love you.

Friday, July 25, 2014

WRATH OF THE LION by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Wrath of the Lion is the twelfth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964, and it is both the longest and best of Mr Patterson’s first dozen novels. Mr Patterson’s early novels all had marvelous titles, and this is one of my favorite. It comes from a line in William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”—

“The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.”

Neil Mallory is a former SAS Colonel now working for British Intelligence. He is sent to a small island in the English Channel, closer to France than England, to search for a French submarine with a renegade crew. The L’Allouette (ironically meaning “lark” in English) has been cruising the French coast making mischief. It forced a boarding on a ship in the Channel and executed an aging public prosecutor responsible for convicting several of the crews’ comrades.

Mallory’s mission: find the L’Allouette and call in the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. The island has only a handful of full time residents, and the heavy, who is a self-exiled former military officer from an old line family, seemingly knows more about Mallory’s doings than Mallory knows about his.

Wrath of the Lion is the most complete of Mr Patterson’s earliest work—its characters are crisply developed (and believable—Mallory has something of a genuinely unsavory past), its plot is linear, tricky (in a good way), and while not surprising to the 21st century reader, it is executed with an almost flawless professionalism and very, very entertaining. The prose is eloquent and smooth describing the action, setting, and characters in a succinct and (somehow) economical manner—

“He took her arm. They walked to the corner and turned into the street. It started to rain, a thin drizzle that beaded the iron railings like silver. There was a dull, aching pain in her ankle and the old houses floated in the fog, unreal and insubstantial, part of a dark dream from which she had yet to awaken, and the pavement seemed to move beneath her feet.”

The setting is a perfect fit for the period it was written. The bad guys belong to a real world French terrorist organization referred to in the novel as the “O.A.S.,” which is an acronym for “Organisation de l’armee secrete”; or its literal English transaction, “Organization of the Secret Army.” The O.A.S. was a group dedicated to keeping French colonial rule in Algeria. It, most notably, made an assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in 1962.

The factual detail—sprinkled into the narrative in small morsels—is as interesting as the plot. There is an interesting definition of the word “karate,” a bevy of detail about 1960s French-Algeria relations, the workings—in surprising detail—of the tiny Type XXIII U-boat design (an undersea electric tin can), and even a perfectly placed quote—from what I believe is Shakespeare—

“When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon.”        

—which is everything one expects from a high quality Harry Patterson novel.

Neil Mallory may seem familiar to the regular reader of Mr Patterson’s work, and for good reason. A very different Neil Mallory starred in The Last Place God Made; an incarnation that was saw him as bush pilot rather than a former SAS officer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


“A man can get into a lot of trouble if he’s lonely. If he’s just lonely enough and has time on his hands. That’s a combination made for trouble.”

Burt Keating is from New York—just outside Buffalo—where he manages a small savings and loan branch. He is in his mid-thirties with a beautiful wife and a very comfortable life. That changes when his wife leaves on an icy night for some butter, and a few blocks from their house she is crushed between a Buick and a tree. Burt can’t seem to function anymore. He sells the house, takes a leave of absence from his job and purchases a new car—

“I wanted to flee to a new world and I knew that short of some South Pacific island, southern Florida was as close as you could come. After a few restless days in Miami, I took an apartment on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale some twenty miles away. It was a place called the Tropic Moon Apartments.”

Unfortunately the miles and warmer clime can’t set Burt’s mind right. The only thing that has any meaning is the memory of his dead wife and the life they had, but that is over and there is nothing he can do to change it. Then he meets Alicia Shafton. A woman who seems as lost and lonely as Burt, but she has a secret. Her husband, a gambler and shyster, died and left a lockbox with a note attached. It instructed her to sell the box to a man named Ralph Emory for $200,000. The only problem: Everything goes wrong and Burt can’t help but get involved.

The Quaking Widow is the first work by Robert Colby I have read and it won’t be the last. It hit a note with me—the story, setting, characters—that many works of fiction don’t. It opened with a blast—an immediate and drastic change for a protagonist with an uncertain future—and cruised forward into ever increasing peril. The characters were the expected: sleek, beautiful, mysterious, and good and bad in varying measures.
The setting is drawn marvelously. As I read, I mourned the Florida that was. The pre-Disneyland and Miami Vice Florida that was one part hillbilly and another parts chic, wealthy and dangerous. A Florida that a person can get lost in. The same Florida that was painted in the novels of John D. MacDonald with his vivid and beautiful flashes of prose.

The plotline is the expected—the dangerous and unknown femme, murder, a wildcard nympho and mysterious opponents that will stop at nothing to get the prize. In this case the box and its contents. I guessed the major plot turns before they were revealed, but it didn’t bother me because the story, while plot-driven, is textured with enough humanity to keep it more than interesting. The pacing didn't hurt either. It is perfectly developed with a well-balanced mixture of action and suspense, with a dash of romance and mystery. The prose is hardboiled and, at times, clever and rich:

“She turned around and walked briskly across the room, her high, firm buttocks waving an insolent goodbye.”

The Quaking Widow is worth tracking down. It is fifty-three years old, but it is more than just nostalgia. Heck, I wasn't even on the radar when it was written. Instead it is a fine example of a linear and well-told tale that is both entertaining and exciting.

It was published by ACE (D-195) in 1956, and coupled with Owen Dudley’s The Deep End.

This is a repost. It originally went live August 10, 2009. Since I wrote this review I have read several more Robert Colby novels, and he has become one of my favorite pulp writers.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: If Dying was All

If Dying was All is the first of four novels featuring Southern California private eye John Easy. It was published as a paperback original in 1971 by Ace Books, and the cover art is absolutely groovy. Not just anyone can pull off an ascot, polyester bell bottoms, and Florsheims. The artist: Beats me. Although I do know I really, really like this cover.

The opening paragraph:

“The tall, naked girl held up the portable typewriter at arm’s length, gripping the case handle with long tan fingers, and asked, ‘How about this one?’

The other three Easy novels are: Too Sweet to Die (1972), The Same Lie Twice (1973), and One Grave Too Many (1974). John Easy also appeared in three short stories—“The Tin Ear” (1966), “You Have to Stay Dead for So Long” (1976), and “They’re Gonna Kill You after Awhile” (1976).

This is the sixth of a series of posts featuring the cover art and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops. It is reserved for books I purchase as much for the cover art as the story or author.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

This review of George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides was originally written for SFReader a very, very long time ago, and my opinion of it has altered somewhat in the passing years. Its significance as a novel has increased—the ideas and story have stayed with me as much as any novel I have read. The haunting and bleak images of humanity’s passing are powerful, and while I still think the novel would be better served if the omniscient voice were removed or limited, I also understand it frames the story’s ideas.

Earth Abides is lauded as one of the most noteworthy post-apocalyptic novels ever written. It was originally published in 1949, and its author, George R. Stewart, was better known as a writer of nonfiction than fiction, but Earth Abides is easily his most recognizable work.

Ish Williams is a graduate student working on his thesis—“The Ecology of the Black Creek Area”—in the wilds of northern California when a virulent virus destroys humanity. When Ish returns from the wilderness he finds an empty world. There are no bodies littering the streets, no signs of struggle, nothing except the surreal stillness of empty towns, streets, businesses, and homes. Everything is gone, and Ish doesn’t understand what happened until he reads the bleak, desperate headlines of the final issue of a newspaper in an abandoned magazine shop.

Earth Abides is the story of Ish’s survival. He is a man of intellect—he mourns the passing of knowledge—and he can visualize the future not as an abstract idea, but as it very well may be. Ish chronicles the remnants of humanity as it forms itself into small tribes. The tribes survive from what the “old ones” left behind. Their food comes from cans. They raid sporting goods stores for firearms and ammunition, and miraculously the remnants survive and grow. Ish begins his journey as an observer, but quickly finds himself as a participant in the new world.

Earth Abides is one of the most troublesome novels I have read. It is troublesome because the writing—style, narrative, and plotting—drove me batty. In a matter of a few pages it would cycle from powerful and energetic to dull and overly analytical. The major reason for this wild swing was the frequent interruption of narrative with an omniscient spoiler every few pages. The spoiler acted as a chapter heading, but it, in very academic and technical style, detailed exactly what was going to happen over the next several pages.

It is also an unflattering portrayal of the terribleness of surviving civilization’s death. There is nothing romantic, or wholesome, or evil, as in many other popular post-apocalyptic stories, but rather it highlights the difficulty, the loneliness, and downright miserable aspects of survival. It reads realistically—the way I imagine it would be if nearly everyone died leaving only a few people holding the bag; suicides, drugs, alcohol, and insanity the flavor of the day.

Realism is the novels strength. Mr Stewart’s vision of desperation is vivid and consuming; early in the novel, when Ish returned to emptiness, he drives from town to town honking his horn, waiting for a response that never arrives. The loneliness and desperation is palpable.

Earth Abides is a roller coaster. I enjoyed yes, but I also disliked it. It is a novel filled with ideas, but its impact is lessened by an over-evaluation of those ideas.   

Thursday, June 05, 2014

SHEBA by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

Sheba is a revised edition of Harry Patterson’s ninth published novel, Seven Pillars to Hell. Pillars was released as a hardcover by Abelard-Schuman in 1963 as by Hugh Marlowe, and Sheba was released as a paperback original in 1994 as by Jack Higgins. Sheba is an example of what Harry Patterson does very well—a linear adventure set in an exotic landscape with a likable protagonist and sinister antagonists.

It is 1939. Gavin Kane is a former archaeologist turned smuggler. He operates a launch from the small port of Dahrein, a fictional place that is likely somewhere in real world Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula. Kane’s professional interest and greed is piqued when he is approached by an alluring woman with a tale. Her husband is a lecturer of archaeology, and he disappeared after coming to Arabia searching for the Temple of Sheba. The temple is believed to be in Rub’ Al Khali, The Empty Quarter, which is a no man’s land filled with criminals and wanderers. She offers Kane $5,000 in advance, and another $5,000 when her husband is found, and he will earn every penny.

Sheba is a smoothly told adventure yarn. The plot is linear and clever. There are no dangling devices, and one scene leads exactly to the next. The prose is vintage Harry Patterson: stark, succinct, and, in places, eloquent. Everything works, but the setting really shines. The heat and dust and thirst are palpable. An early paragraph describing the harbor is particularly nice—

“The Catalina swung in across the town and splashed into the waters of the harbor. Beyond it a freighter moved slowly across the horizon toward the Indian Ocean, and three dhows in formation swooped in toward the harbor like great birds.”

Sheba has the feel of the Indiana Jones movies. It includes a Nazi plot device, archaeology, and a bunch of action. There are damsels in distress, traitors, and very bad guys. 

I haven’t read Seven Pillars to Hell and I consciously attempted to identify both the new and the old (or what seemed to be the new and the old) in Sheba. The new: the Nazi plot—including Admiral Canaris of Abwehr and a battle injured officer named Captain Hans Ritter who is suspiciously similar to The Eagle Has Landed’s Oberst Radl—was likely added to the original story. The old: Everything else. It is plotted much like many of Mr Patterson's early work, including Sad Wind from the Sea and The Khufra Run.  

Interestingly, Kane refers to Dehrain as “Arabia Felix,” which is a Latin term used by the Romans to describe the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. “Felix” is translated as “happy”.