Tuesday, July 15, 2014

THE QUAKING WIDOW by Robert Colby

“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”.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

TERROR'S CRADLE by Duncan Kyle

The 1970s was a great decade for adventure novels. There was a wave of writers, mostly British, who were writing suspense adventure—generally featuring a common man in very uncommon trouble—as well as the genre as ever been written. The most popular, and the most remembered, is Alistair MacLean, but there were others. Men named Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall and Jack Higgins. These writers were very nearly MacLean’s equal; if Mr MacLean’s early work is the measuring stick.

The genre also cultivated other writers who, while not quite consistent enough to break into the top level, wrote some pretty damn good novels. One such writer is Duncan Kyle. Mr Kyle, which is a pseudonym for one John Franklin Broxholme, published 15 novels between 1970 and 1993. He was a bestseller in the United Kingdom, but his work never quite paid out in the United States. I recently read Mr Broxholme’s fifth Kyle novel, Terror’s Cradle, published by William Collins in 1975.

John Sellers is a British newspaperman in Washington D. C. covering a Senate corruption case that may implicate an English politician. It is a bust, but before Sellers can fly home to London he is sent on a junket to Las Vegas where a starlet, who is a magnet for trouble, is in more when a man is found dead in her hotel bathroom. His Las Vegas trip is cut short when he is first threatened, and then actually chased by armed gunmen. When Sellers returns to England he learns his coworker and friend, Alison Hay, has disappeared after a seemingly successful assignment in the Soviet Union.

Terror’s Cradle is a slick adventure novel. The protagonist is both strong and vulnerable, and even better, stubborn. He quits his job and plays a harrowing game with both the KGB and CIA. His mission is to find Alison Hay, and he will do anything to do it. The locales are exotic from the desert landscape of Lake Meade in Las Vegas to Gothenburg, Sweden to the Shetland Islands in the North Atlantic. The pace is smooth and quick; it charges out of the gate and never slows. The action scenes are believable, and even better, exciting. There is a chase scene in the opening pages that transitions from Lake Meade to the barren desert landscape of its shores, and it is really one of the better I have read.

“As I stumbled quickly between the sheltering rocks, I heard the car stop and doors open and close. Then there was silence. I kept going, frantic to get space and distance between myself and the road.”

Terror’s Cradle is on par with the best of the genre. It is literate, intelligent, and exciting. The prose is sharp, the plot is straight-forward and smoothly perfect. There isn’t much mystery about where the story is going, but it is so concise and exciting it doesn’t matter. If this is an example of the quality of Mr Broxholme’s Duncan Kyle novels, there very well may be an addition to the top tier of suspense adventure writers.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"The Real Bad Friend" and "Lucy Comes to Town" by Robert Bloch

This 1978 collection included "The Real Bad Friend"
When I think of Robert Bloch, I think of his novel Psycho, which isn’t completely fair because Mr Bloch wrote a number of excellent stories—both novels and shorts. But Psycho is special in his cannon simply because it, due to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, has become a cultural icon. It is something of an originator of the modern serial killer novel (but so much better than most of the modern fare), and it really is a classic of both suspense and horror.

Something I didn’t know, until very recently, is the novel is preceded by two short stories that share a theme—psychotic multi-personality antagonists—which act as something close to building blocks for the novel. The stories are, “The Real Bad Friend” and “Lucy Comes to Town,” published in 1957 and 1952 respectively.  

“The Real Bad Friend” is, of the two stories, the easiest to trace directly back from Psycho. The protagonist is one George Foster Pendleton. George is a dull, unimaginative vacuum salesman with a mother fetish—he married his wife Ella because she reminded him of his mother and he wanted a woman to care for him—and a solitary friend named Roderick. Roderick is something of a mystery. He comes and goes at odd times, and while he and George often travel together Roderick has never met Ella. In fact, Ella knows nothing about George’s friend Roderick.

The catalyst of the story is Ella’s inheritance of $85,000, which gives Roderick an idea, which germinates into a plan. A plan George is something of a passive, almost unwitting, accomplice.

“George Foster Pendleton would never have thought of it. He couldn’t have; he was much to dull and respectable. George Foster Pendleton, vacuum salesman, aged forty-three, just wasn’t the type. He had been married to the same wife for fourteen years, lived in the same white house for an equal length of time, wore glasses when he wrote up orders, and was completely complacent about his receding hairline and advancing waistline.”

“The Real Bad Friend” is a full-bodied psychological dark suspense story. It is written in third person in a pedestrian and unadorned style. The prose is the physical embodiment of George’s personality (and lifestyle); dull, dry, reliable. But the prose is key to the success of the story. It is hiding a psychotic rottenness with an ordinary complacency. It shares a commonality with both “Lucy Comes to Town” and Psycho; a primary character who is much more than he (or she) appears.

“Lucy Comes to Town” is a simpler story than “Friend,” but it is no less interesting. It is written in first person by an alcoholic woman named Vi. Vi is both confused and scared, and her friend Lucy makes matters worse. Lucy convinces Vi that her husband is holding her hostage in their home. He is intentionally keeping Vi’s friends away, and the nurse he hired to help Vi rehab is actually nothing more than a guard.

Lucy helps Vi escape from the house, and the bulk of the story takes place in a dingy motel room as conversation between the two women. Lucy leading Vi back to the bottle and in the process into a dark ranting paranoia.

“I lay down on the bed and then I was sleeping, really sleeping for the first time in weeks, sleeping so the scissors wouldn’t hurt my eyes, the way George hurt me inside when he wanted to shut me up in the asylum so he and Miss Higgins could make love on my bed and laugh at me the way they all laughed at me except Lucy and she would take care of me she knew what to do now I could trust her when George came and I must sleep and sleep and nobody can blame you for what you think in your sleep or do in your sleep…”

The relationship between “Lucy,” “Friend,” and Psycho is obvious as one reads the stories. All three feature a primary character with multiple personalities, but more importantly are the stylistic and thematic relationships. Each has the feel of a generic crime story that Mr Bloch handily transforms into something darker, developing a psychological element and a disturbing realism. A dark realism that not only envelopes the characters, but also is relevant (the realism part) to the reader who, very likely, fears the possibility of insanity.         

I read both “The Real Bad Friend,” and “Lucy Comes to Town” in the anthology Murder in the First Reel, edited by Bill Pronzini, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg and published by Avon Books in 1985.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Evolving Cover Art of Mack Bolan

I started reading Don Pendleton’s adventure series The Executioner in middle school and it was (somewhat embarrassingly) the staple of my reading for two or three years.  I even belonged to the “book club” and received the newest edition of The Executioner, and its two offshoots Able Team, and Phoenix Force every month.  A new one every month!  Those were good days.  Go to school for six hours, come home and read a little Mack Bolan.

I read online somewhere the cover art for the series, which is somewhere around 425 titles as I type this, is being updated.  The most recent cover style has featured an embarrassing—embarrassing because I would be shamed if I took it to the counter for purchase—“live action” artwork featuring a model posing with guns, grenades, knives, bazookas, and god knows what else.

The change made me reminisce about the cover styles I read as a teenager, and as I looked back at some of the older covers many gave me something like the thrill I used to feel when that book club package arrived each month.  So much action.  So little responsibility.  I made a brief survey of the Internet and identified 12 variations of style, and each of them, particularly those published pre-1990 really spoke to me. 

Variation 1.  This is a little disingenuous because the first two novels—War Against the Mafia and Death Squad—were published with their own unique covers, but I’m going to ignore them and focus on the first “standard” cover style.  The first 38 novels were published by Pinnacle Books, and, mostly, actually written by Don Pendleton.  The cover art is terrifically lurid with weaponry and violence. These titles were published between 1969 and March 1980.


























Variation 2.  Mack Bolan’s publisher changed—from the old Pinnacle to Gold Eagle—his war changed, and so did the design of his books.  These titles were published between April 1981 and May 1983—entry numbers 39 – 53.


























Variation 3.  A small change to the original Gold Eagle covers.  The overall design did not change, but “Don Pendleton’s” was added above the large block letter “Mack Bolan”.  These titles were published between June and December 1983—entry numbers 54 – 60.



























Variation 4.  Not a big change, but a change nonetheless.  “Mack Bolan” was moved to one line, and “Don Pendleton’s Executioner” was added.  The artwork remained consistent; however the quality of the cover art improved over the run.  These titles were published between January 1984 and July 1984—entry numbers 61 – 67.



























Variation 5.  Another minor change here.  The “Executioner” tag was removed from above “Mack Bolan” and it was replaced with “The Executioner” and the book number in a circle in the top right corner.  This is the first style I remember reading as a kid, and I still get a little excited when I run across one.  These titles were published between August 1984 and June 1986—entry numbers 68 – 90.



























Variation 6.  The same format as all of the Gold Eagle titles to date; however the yellow line at the top is gone.  These titles were published between July 1986 and January 1988—entry numbers 91 – 109.



























Variation 7.  This represents the biggest change since the Pinnacle novels.  The “Mack Bolan” shrinks (and is consistently yellow or white), the title font changes significantly, and the cover art becomes less of a cohesive scene and more of a montage with something approaching a posing Mack Bolan.  A blurb from the San Francisco Examiner is also added—“The biggest of all adventure series.”  These titles were published between February 1988 and August 1989—entry numbers 110 – 128.



























Variation 8.  This is the big change.  It is one I think of as the all-American Bolan.  The background is consistently white.  “The Executioner” is in red white and blue; including three stars in the “E”, and “Featuring Mack Bolan” is added just below.  The blurb also changed to a rolling format between three of four different.  This is the cover style I received once a month with my book club subscription.  These titles were published between September 1989 and December 1994—entry numbers 129 – 192.



























Variation 9Another big change.  This one happened well after I stopped reading the series, but I remember seeing these in the bookstore and thinking, “They don’t even look like Bolan books.”  “The Executioner” is flipped vertical on the left side.  These titles were published between January 1995 and January 1999—entry numbers 193 – 241.



























Variation 10.  Not much of a change, but a change nonetheless.  “The Executioner” in the title is emptied and the artwork behind can be seen.  Starting with No. 258 “Featuring Mack Bolan” is removed from the cover.  These titles were published between February 1999 and April 2000—entry numbers 242 – 299.



























Variation 11.  The live action—think posing model(s)—era starts with No. 300, and it runs an impressive 128 books.  This is my least favorite incarnation of Mack Bolan.  It keeps with the montage effect, but rather than artwork it is photography.  These titles were published between May 2000 and July 2014—entry numbers 300 – 428.



























Variation 12.  The newest variation is something of a mixture of the most recent and the older titles.  It appears to be art rather than photography.  The montage effect is gone, and the title is nice and clean.  Conspicuously missing is the Series Book No. on the cover.  These titles will begin arriving in August 2014.