Thursday, February 04, 2016

THE FUNHOUSE by Dean Koontz

The Funhouse is a movie tie-in published as a paperback original in 1980 as by Owen West. A nom de plume Dean Koontz used especially for this tie-in and again for The Mask (1981). The screenplay that inspired it was written by Larry Block, and to stop any confusion, it was not the suspense writer responsible for Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Chip Harrison, and Keller. It was another Larry Block altogether. The film version was a bust. It was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and, three months after the novel’s release, the film opened and disappeared without notice. The novel, however, did the opposite. It went through eight printings and sold more than a million copies while making an appearance on The New York Times bestseller list.

The Funhouse is, as far as I know, Mr. Koontz’s only media tie-in novel (unless we consider his Frankenstein series a tie-in, which I’m unwilling to do). It is a straight horror story, another oddity for Mr. Koontz, and very good. Ellen Harper is young and beautiful. She married a carny, Conrad Straker, to escape her domineering mother and quickly became pregnant. Her child is born less than normal. Its growth rate phenomenal, and ugly beyond Ellen’s comprehension. She believes the infant is trying to kill her, and on a stormy August night she kills it in self-defense. Conrad is mad with grief, and sends Ellen away with an oath of revenge—

“I’ll find you. I swear I will. I’ll find you, and I’ll take your children just like you took my little boy. I’ll kill them.”

The years pass, Ellen remarries and has two more children. A girl, Amy, who is a senior in high school and a young son named Joey. It has been more than two decades since Conrad sent Ellen away, but he is still seeking revenge. A revenge coming close as his circus moves into Ellen’s new hometown.

The Funhouse is pure carny fun. It is simple by Mr. Koontz’s more recent novels, the plot has fewer complications and the characters are a tad more generic, but the deceptively simple narrative is burning with life—

“…but Mama held her down, held her even harder than before, squeezing the back of her neck, and Mama wailed and whined and shouted and beat the floor with her free hand and thrashed about and shuddered with religious passion, begged and wheedled and whimpered for mercy, mercy for herself and her wayward daughter, howled and wept and pleaded in a fashion that Catholics usually disdained, in a devout frenzy that was more suited to the fundamental Christianity for the Church of the Nazarene, flailed and babbled fervently, until she was finally prayed out, hoarse, exhausted, limp.”

The plot is linear and fast, but, even twenty-five years after its initial release, it boasts a few nicely executed and surprising twists. There is also a sizable helping of carny lore, including the carny marriage ceremony—riding the carousel forwards as man and woman—and divorce ceremony—riding the carousel backwards, alone. If every tie-in novel were as well developed and executed as The Funhouse, I would read nothing else.

Purchase a copy of The Funhouse at Amazon.

Monday, February 01, 2016

No Comment: "Nowhere to Run"

“Vigil half turned in his chair, raised a hand, and when the waiter arrived he ordered two more bottles of the mineral water. He smiled at David. He was not an ugly man until he smiled.”

—Ron Faust, Nowhere to Run. Turner Publishing Company, 2013 (© 1981). Page 57. Captain Vigil, a Mexican policeman, is questioning David Rhodes about the murder of a young woman.


[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context.]

Saturday, January 30, 2016

My Reviews Elsewhere: "The Plague of Thieves Affair"

My review of The Plague of Thieves Affair is live and available at Ed Gorman’s blog. The Plague of Thieves is an historical detective novel set in late-nineteenth century San Francisco, and has the flavor of a Sherlock Holmes tale—including a Sherlock impersonator—with two whodunit mysteries and grit enough to make it interesting.


Purchase a copy of The Plague of Thieves Affair at Amazon.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Now Available: "Truth Always Kills" by Rick Ollerman

Stark House Press’s latest original novel is now available in very attractive trade paperback and ebook versions. Its title is Truth Always Kills, and its author is Rick Ollerman. Rick is the king of the Introduction at Stark House—a vocation he has mastered—and his fiction is no less intriguing.

I was given the opportunity to write the Introduction for Truth Always Kills, which was daunting since there was little chance I could introduce Mr. Ollerman’s work as well as he introduces the work of others. I gave it my best go, but it pales in comparison to the novel. A novel that is half parts suspense and crime, and very good.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

BREAKFAST AT WIMBLEDON by Jack M. Bickham

Breakfast at Wimbledon is the fourth novel featuring aging tennis pro Brad Smith. It was published in 1991 by Tor, and it has a certain nostalgia for me since it was the first Brad Smith, and Jack Bickham, novel I read back in the long ago. It is also pretty good, and represents Brad Smith’s transition from cold war to post-cold war hero.

Brad is uneasy when his old pal and CIA contact Collie Davis makes an unannounced appearance at his Bitterroot Valley Resort—

“Collie Davis did not make casual visits.”

—with good reason, as it turns out. Collie wants Brad to accept an invitation to play at Wimbledon. A legitimate terrorist threat has been identified, and it centers around a young Irish tennis star named Sean Cork. Brad’s job: play tennis, ingratiate himself with Sean Cork, and collect information. All very hands-off with no expected direct danger. Unsurprisingly, it is more complicated than it is supposed to be, and the danger is very real, and very personal, to Brad.

This is one of my favorite of the Brad Smith novels, and for more reasons than mere nostalgia. It brings something new to the series—terrorists rather than communists—without losing the atmosphere and tone of the previous novels. It helps that Brad’s Soviet nemesis Sylvester remains a key player, and it includes more tennis action than any of the novels since Tiebreaker, which is good since Mr. Bickham writes it so well. It is the longest, and includes the largest cast, of any of the novels. There is a drug crazy American tennis star playing doubles with Brad, an Irish entrepreneur millionaire with a taste for both money and tennis, the very naïve Sean Cork, and a bunch of terrorists that run the gamut in both sophistication and psychopathy.

The most interesting character is an MI5 agent named Clarence Tune. Tune is assigned to liaise with Brad, and keep him safe, which is telling on the perceived importance—or lack thereof—of Smith’s mission. Tune is not given high priority or sensitive assignments, and he is considered less an agent and more a liability by his peers. His character is summed early by Brad—

“Science has not told me so, but I think there must be some other substance excreted by people whose lives have been marked by failure. Such people emit a sour, acidic smell, the work of a few molecules, perhaps, and so primitive that it communicates on a psychic level I cannot understand.”

—if only partially accurate since Tune’s presence, and assistance, is essential to defeating the underlying terrorist plot. A plot that is not made clear until the final pages of the novel. The action is plausible, and the pacing is superb. It has the highest level of characterization of all the novels, and—despite an aged plot—is as readable today as it was 25 years ago. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

Mystery Scene Reviews

The latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine—No. 142—is now available at newsstands everywhere. The issue is packed (as usual). It features an in-depth article about BBC’s Foyle’s War, an interview with Robert J. Randisi, and comprehensive look at the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s.

Issue No. 142 also includes two book reviews I wrote. The titles: Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) by C. Joseph Greaves, and Ivory by Tony Park. Tom & Lucky is an historically accurate look at the 1936 trial of Lucky Luciano, and Ivory is a scorching adventure thriller set in Southern Africa. The reviews are both available online at Mystery Scene’s website—click the titles in the previous sentence.

Mystery Scene is available at many newsstands, including Barnes & Noble, and available for order at MS’s website.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: The Year in Reading

2015 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 61 titles, and will likely finish one more—the forthcoming Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce—which is three short of last year’s mark. The majority of the titles were fiction, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too. The nonfiction tended towards history and true crime, which included a number of interesting titles including Night by Elie Wiesel and Mind Over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes.

I entered 2015 with my two ever recurring goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2014 I read only eight authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, and also managed to add a few—only three—female authors to my list (all are included in the “new to me” category).

I became acquainted with the work of ten authors in 2015: David Lippincott (Salt Mine), James W. Hall (Bones of Coral), Sandra Block (The Girl Without a Name), Rick Ollerman (Truth Always Kills), Trace Conger (The Shadow Broker), Andrew Coburn (The Babysitter), Tony Park (Ivory), Christine Matthews (Beating the Bushes), Carolyn Hart (High Stakes), and John Saul (Nathaniel). The best of the “new”—and it was actually published in 2015—was Park’s Ivory. The number of new authors, and female authors, was due, mostly, to writing reviews for Ed Gorman’s blog and Mystery Scene Magazine.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 17 titles, which is approximately 28 percent of the total for 2015. I read five by Jack M. Bickham, and four each by Jack Higgins, Dean Koontz, and Ed Gorman.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2015. No rules, except no repeats. If I previously read it, it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were two or three that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2015 are—

5. Ivory by Tony Park. Mr. Park is an Australian thriller writer who writes vividly about Africa. This one is set in Mozambique, South Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The protagonist is an ex-SAS officer turned pirate to finance the rehabilitation of his family’s hotel on the Island of Dreams. The pacing is fast, and the locales are exotic and it actually lives up to the term “thriller.”  

4. The King of Horror and Other Stories by Stephen Mertz. If the title didn’t give it away, this is a collection of short stories by crime and adventure writer extraordinaire Stephen Mertz. It includes all of Mr. Mertz’s short stories over the past several decades, and each is very entertaining. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Split Image by Ron Faust. This is an old school noirish treasure. It is dark, riveting, and curious; as much literature as commercial. It weaves an enticing mixture of Edgar Allan Poe—think “The Tell-Tale Heart”—Alfred Hitchcock, and a 1950’s Gold Medal novel. It is one of Mr. Faust’s finest novels. Read the Gravetapping review.   

2.  The Husband by Dean Koontz. This is a mesmerizing, well written, and extraordinarily entertaining thriller. It is smooth with the beat of poetry in its prose—not in a complicated manner, but rather the meter and rhythm. It opens in a rush, and keeps the steady pace from beginning to end without falling into the trap of overwrought doldrums or meaningless melodrama. Read the Gavetapping review.       

1. Snowbound by Richard S. Wheeler. This title won a Spur Award when it was published in 2010; an honor it surely deserved. It is the story of John C. Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition, which was ostensibly to find a railroad route across the Rocky Mountains at the 38th Parallel between St. Louis and San Francisco. A fool’s dreams at best. It is a powerful novel of survival and calamity, and deserving of a much larger audience than it has so far reached. Read the Gravetapping review.