Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Citizen's Arrest" by Charles Willeford

Mr. Goranovsky, also known as “Mr. Do-Gooder,” is a good citizen; honest, upstanding, with a certain civic-mindedness that compels him to find a clerk when he sees a man shoplifting. The store is called Gwynn’s, and it has an odd shoplifting policy. Since an employee didn’t see the actual snatch, they are loath to stop the man for fear, if he didn’t steal anything, of alienating a customer. They ask Mr. Goranovsky to be a witness when the man is approached. He hesitantly agrees, but quickly regrets his decision.

“Citizen’s Arrest” is deceivingly simple and overtly ironic. It takes the expected—crime, punishment, and possible retribution—and twists it into something unexpected. It is humorous, charming—in a hardboiled way—and exemplifies the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. The prose is simple—

“My fingers trembled as I lit a cigarette.”

—and, unusually, there are no first names. It is Mr. Goranovsky, Mr. Levine, Mr. Sileo, which gives the story an uptight formality. A formality that acts as a foil to the climactic twist. And the twist is what makes the story good.


“Citizen’s Arrest” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1966. I read it in the anthology The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "End of the Gun"

End of the Gun was a paperback original published by Pocket Books’ imprint Perma Books in 1955, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The artwork is stark in a monochromatic sort of way. A large hand holding a revolver, the wrong end pointed at the audience, one chamber empty, and a brown background. The artist: Tom Ryan.






















The opening paragraph:

“In the pines, Britton waited patiently, peering steadily at the band of mustangs drinking at the spring below. The stallion was a coyote-dun with a black mane and tail and he kept moving about restlessly and warily, head flung up as he sniffed the air. Britton, however, was down-wind and he knew the stallion would never catch his scent.”

H. A. (Henry Andrew) DeRosso was born in Wisconsin in 1917. He was primarily a short story writer who specialized in Westerns; although he also wrote some very good mystery stories. He published six novels (all Westerns); End of the Gun was the fourth. He died of a gunshot wound in October 1960, which was ruled accidental by the Coroner, but there has been speculation it was suicide—his health was failing, and, interestingly, Marquette General Hospital owns the copyright to many—if not all—of his stories.

Mr. DeRosso’s writing, at its best, is existential, violent, and melancholy. His Westerns are almost entirely set in the desert Southwest, and his portrayal of the hard, dry, stark landscape is a central element. I have previously reviewed two posthumous story collections titled Under the Burning Sun, and Riders of the Shadowlands; both edited by Bill Pronzini. I have also reviewed his mystery story “Revenge is Bitter-Sweet”.     

This is the sixteenth in 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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

GRAVES' RETREAT / NIGHT OF SHADOWS by Ed Gorman

I don’t write as much about Stark House Press as I should. It is a fantastic publisher that specializes in reprinting great novels from the paperback golden age—by Harry Whittington, Clifton Adams, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, etc.—great novels from the more recent past— by Bill Pronzini, Robert J. Randisi, Ed Gorman—and even a handful of original titles—by Charlie Stella, Dana King, Jada M. Davis.

Stark House’s most recent release is a double novel featuring two superb historical mysteries—both were originally marketed as Westerns, but “historical mystery” is a much better fit—titled Graves’ Retreat and Night of Shadows. The setting, for both, is Cedar Rapids, Iowa of the late-Nineteenth century, and it is described with an admiring and sentimental hand—

“[A] place the mayor called, with monotonous determination, ‘the Chicago of Iowa.’”

Graves’ Retreat was originally published in 1989 by the long gone Doubleday Western imprint Double D. The year is 1884. Baseball is fashionable across the country, and Cedar Rapids is no different. It has a municipal team providing thrills and trying to keep up with the frequent rule changes—

“It was not an easy game to play because the rules kept changing. It was those goddamn Easterners.”

The star is a young pitcher and bank teller named Les Graves. Les is building a good life, and would rather keep his past secret. His brother, T. Z., is a professional thief, and a few years earlier Les helped T. Z. rob a bank. Now T. Z. has found Les in Cedar Rapids and wants help robbing Les’ employer. To make matters worse Cedar Rapids is playing the best baseball team in the Midwest—Sterling, Illinois—on July 4th, and Les has a history of nerves. A history that kept him out of the big leagues.

Graves’ Retreat is everything one expects from an Ed Gorman crime novel—clever, appealing, human, and sharp. The story is awash with blackmail, cold-blooded murder, and romance. Les isn’t a typical, larger-than-life, protagonist. He is scared and lost. He fears losing his Cedar Rapids life, his brother, and terrified of losing to Sterling. There are moments when the outcome, and Les’ role in it, are in doubt, and the climax is unexpected. The prose is Ed Gorman’s usual literate, tender, and tough style. My favorite line is the description of a Sterling pitcher named Fitzsimmons—

“He had a shanty-Irish face, which meant he managed to look innocent and mean at the same time, and he had a smile he must have practiced as often as he did his fast ball.”

Night of Shadows was originally published in 1990 by Double D. The year is 1894. The Cedar Rapids constabulary is expecting the arrival of an aging former lawman and gunfighter named Stephen Fuller. Fuller is visiting a dying childhood friend, and to avoid any trouble the police chief wants his visit short. A young police matron—

“Matrons were not, strictly speaking, constables. True, matrons carried badges, True, matrons had the power to arrest. True, matrons were summoned to impose law and order during times of emergency. But they rarely worked outside the jail and even more rarely participated in the apprehension of criminals.”

—named Anna Tolan convinces the boss she is both capable and the best choice to escort Fuller around town. Anna’s job is to keep him out of trouble, but it doesn’t go smoothly. Fuller—an alcoholic and drunken storyteller of the highest order—wanders into a bar, having lost Anna, and finds neck deep trouble. He is the only suspect in the murder of a man who called him a liar (and threw whiskey in his face). He bolts the scene, leaving Anna, who is the only person in town that believes his innocence, to find the real killer, and clear his name.

Night of Shadows is something special. It is a police procedural featuring blackmail and murder, but it also has an unexpected element for a Western. A psychopath with a mother complex. It is reminiscent of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, and, as Mr. Gorman explains in the Introduction, it is an homage; and one Mr. Bloch approved. It is important to understand it isn’t Psycho set in Nineteenth century Iowa. Instead, it is a procedural with an investigation, which is performed in a manner that fits the era, and the story of a young woman performing what was then a male-only job.

The novel’s center is Anna. She is bright and capable. A student of the famous French detective Goron’s methods—careful crime scene examination, interrogation—which she uses to solve the crime. It is also sentimental, tender, and very human. The descriptions of Cedar Rapids are perceptive and bright. Fuller, his life and addictions, is drawn with a tenderness that avoids pity and engenders understanding.

Order a copy on Amazon

Sunday, June 21, 2015

THE LONG COUNT by Ron Faust

Jim Racine is a professional boxer. He is 36, and his best years are gone; he is still fit, but his quickness, speed, and strength are memories. When he was younger, Racine was a contender, but now makes his living fighting second- and third-tier opponents in South America. He makes good money, too, but the wheels fall off in the fictional city of Quitasol when he kills his opponent in the ring.

The outcry is significant, and the local government seizes his passport pending an investigation stranding Racine in Quitasol. The U. S. Embassy is unwilling to help, and Racine is certain if he could speak directly to the ambassador he would have his passport back in a matter of hours. When he finally gets his audience the meeting is interrupted by terrorists who kidnap Racine, the ambassador, and three others. The terrorists’ goal is to ransom the ambassador back to the State Department; which means the remaining hostages are extra baggage.

The Long Count is a sparse, well-plotted gem. It is written in first person with a rich, literate prose—seemingly simple, but its simplicity is deceiving. Jim Racine is one of Mr. Faust’s most likable protagonists; many are cold, almost unapproachable, but Racine is well-defined with high intentions. It is also a novel of ideas. There is a late scene where the ambassador and a terrorist are arguing their political differences; the ambassador turns to Racine—

“‘Racine,’ the ambassador said contemptuously. ‘Haven’t you anything to say for your country?’

“‘You aren’t talking about my country,’ I said. ‘You’re repeating slogans.’” 

The ideas tendered are very much of the novel’s era. It was originally published in 1979, and its major themes are communism, capitalism, and the United States role—both politically and economically—in South America. There is no clear “ideas” victor, but everything is encased in a brilliant adventure story.

Interestingly, the word “quitasol,” used as the name of the city where everything begins, is Spanish for “parasol.” I haven’t worked out the connection between parasol, and the story, but I bet there is one.

The Long Count is Ron Faust’s fourth published novel. It was originally published as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1979, and it is currently available as a trade paperback and ebook from Turner Publishing.

Purchase a copy at Amazon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Texas Tale. An essay.

This tale starts and ends in the town of Hedley, Texas. Population 317. It’s not much; a gas station, a few houses, and some flat farming country shadowing US Route 287. The story meanders a little, and you’ll get the feeling—rightly so—we’re not in Hedley at all, but this story is about a rancher, a cat, a long drive, and a pit stop. And Hedley is where everything came together.   

A few years ago my employer kindly demanded I go to Fort Worth—two times, actually, totaling six months in a nine month period. It was annoying, exciting, a little scary, and everything between. I enjoyed nearly everything about it; city, state, people, and landscape. The work was pretty good, too. There wasn’t much bad; except the August heat (experienced on the second trip), and now that I’m complaining, the smell and taste of the tap water. It smelled like an aquarium, and tasted the same.

Admittedly, the main reason I enjoyed my Texas assignment was because my wife traveled with me. She is an artist, and her employer gave her permission to telework. She worked from the hotel, and I commuted to the office. When we weren’t working we were exploring, but this story isn’t about Fort Worth, Dallas, Half Price Books, or The School Book Depository. Instead, it is about an experience in Hedley where we momentarily paused on the long drive from Salt Lake City.

The trip was a mixture of pleasure, pain, tedium, and, briefly, sheer terror—we hit heavy snow in Central Utah, icy roads in Northern New Mexico, and, as I recall a few cars crossed the median on the tiny highways in Southern Utah. I likely cursed, maybe ranted, and made known my certainty the drivers needed notes to breathe. I should also add, since he is central to this story, a cat traveled with us. His name was Pete—was because he died a year later from cancer, and I still miss him.

Pete was a little different. He enjoyed car rides, walking in the park—securely leashed—and nonchalantly meeting family members at the door; all very coincidental. It just happened he was three feet from the door preening and pretending surprise every time it opened. In the car Pete would stand on the arm rest of the passenger door looking out the window watching birds, telephone poles flash by, and, his favorite, the big shiny silver wheels of semi-trucks spinning in the next lane. His head bobbing with the spin.   

The drive from Salt Lake to Fort Worth is a long one. It runs about 20 hours with good weather and clear roads; something we didn’t have. The snow and ice turned 20 hours to 25, and two days to three. Pete started yowling somewhere near Price the first day, and then on day two in New Mexico he prowled around the car like a stalking lion, stopped, looked straight up at the cold sky in the back window and howled. An honest to God howl. I have never heard anything like it, and, with luck, I will never hear anything like it again.

The third day looked easy. We spent the night in Amarillo, Texas, and it was a straight shot down US 287 to Fort Worth. 287 is a two-lane highway that crosses Northwestern Texas farmland. It is main street for a bunch of towns—Clarendon, Memphis, Childress, Vernon, and the biggest, Wichita Falls. The land tends toward flat, and the towns tend towards small and dusty with a few businesses—mostly fuel stops, agricultural supply stores, and Dairy Queens.

On paper it was an easy drive, but the “on paper” didn’t account for a ten pound neutered black cat named Pete. He was an emotional wreck. He yowled, howled, and most certainly tried to bite me when he saw our sedan that third morning. His carrier bounced and rattled in my hand as I placed it on the backseat. I had second thoughts about turning him loose. He held a grudge. He was also tougher than me, and at that moment angrier. We decided to take it slow. Make plenty of stops, and get Pete’s paws on the ground as much as possible. It went well, but something funny, and nice happened in the parking lot of a gas station in Hedley, Texas.

Hedley, if you’ve never been there, is an unmemorable town. It barely qualifies as a wide place on the road. It, at least in my memory, is comprised of a few unidentified tin buildings, railroad tracks, and a small store called “Uncle Bob’s Food Mart & Fuel Stop”. We took advantage of Uncle Bob’s hospitality and stopped. I put Pete on his leash and he explored the dirt, weeds, and aluminum cans at the far edge of the lot.

If you’ve walked a cat in public, you already know how strange it is. Pete was okay with it. It hindered his wanderings, and he always wanted to climb on, in, or under everything in sight, but he was good about it. The real strangeness is the reaction of other people—awe, surprise, and, on occasion, self-righteous contempt. Contempt for both walker and cat. Now picture this. A busy highway, a gas station parking lot, me, a cat on a leash. In Texas. In rural Texas where nearly everyone drives an oversized pickup, wears sweat stained cowboy hats, dusty boots, and, in my imagination, goes out of their way to squash cats.

I thought of all that when an oversized F-250 pulled into the parking lot, bypassed the pumps, the store, and drove straight to us. I was uncomfortable. Pete was, too. He used a scrawny brown weed for cover. The tinted driver side window lowered revealing a small leather faced man with cowboy hat, and highway patrol sunglasses. I expected him to say something biting, not very clever, and when he was done give me directions to the city.

Instead, he said, “You like cats?”

I dubiously—still uncertain about where this was headed—responded, “Yeah.”

He smiled and said, “Want another one?”

His question surprised me. I likely paused for a moment, trying to think of a polite way to say—“Well, I’m about 1,000 miles from home. The cat I have is about to drive me nuts. If he’s not howling at the empty sky, he is scurrying around the backseat because he didn’t use his litter box in the hotel room, and refuses to use the travel litter box in the car. And I actually know this cat. And he actually likes the car.”

I didn’t say any of it, but rather explained where we were going and the extended nature of our stay. I probably also mentioned the hotel only allowed one animal. Not sure if it is true, but I didn’t want to seem like a jerk, and I really didn’t want an unknown cat in my car.

The man explained a stray had birthed kittens on the small ranch he worked outside town, and then disappeared. She left him with eight baby cats who were now three-months old, and was trying, with little success, to find them homes. When he explained his intentions I felt like a turd. I had misjudged him, and for a very scary moment considered taking a kitten. I kept my mouth closed, and he handed me a business card—not his because he wrote his name and telephone number on the back—and told me we could stop and pick one up on our way home.

We didn’t take a kitten that day, and didn’t stop as we traveled back through Hedley three months later, but the memory is a good one. My wife and I fondly reminisce about Pete and the kind cowboy in Hedley. It was also one of the most unexpected and satisfying experiences we had in Texas, and one that I use to remember most people are pretty great. 


Pete relaxing in Fort Worth
If you got this far, I wrote a eulogy for Pete a few years ago you may enjoy.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

BROUGHT IN DEAD by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Brought in Dead is the twentieth novel published by Harry Patterson, and the second to feature Detective Sergeant Nick Miller. It was originally released in the U. K. as a hardcover by John Long in 1967. It is a police procedural that is hijacked by what is seemingly a secondary character, at least early in the story, and twists itself into straight revenge.

Detective Sergeant Nick Miller isn’t an ordinary policeman. He is independently wealthy, thanks to his brother’s television business, drives a Mini-Cooper, and graduated from the University of London. He is also coarse, and frankly, not the most likable of Mr. Patterson’s protagonists; although he is less disagreeable here than he was in his debut novel, The Graveyard Shift.

It begins with the suicide of a young woman who drowned herself, and took extraordinary steps to conceal her identity. She carries no identification, and the identifying tags are torn from her clothing. She is also a recent addict. Her arms have several fresh needle marks, and the pathologist discovers a small amount of heroin and cocaine in her blood. She is, once Miller identifies her, the girlfriend of a local gangster and the daughter of a respected businessman.

Miller is certain it is murder—the dead woman’s boyfriend, Max Vernon, who owns a high end betting parlor and several other less savory rackets, is the primary suspect, but when a witness changes her story at the Coroner’s Court the death is officially ruled a suicide. This is where the novel shifts from a police procedural to a revenge novel. The primary character also shifts, from Nick Miller to the dead girl’s father, Duncan Craig. Craig is the managing director of a successful electronics company, and a former military man who vows to destroy Vernon.

Brought in Dead is an interesting novel. It is rightly a Nick Miller procedural, but the story belongs to Duncan Craig. Craig is the central player in the second half of the novel, and he is also the most interesting. He uses an impressive array of electronic eavesdropping equipment to identify Vernon’s business assets, and then systematically destroys each. As I read the novel I found myself wondering why the entire story wasn’t told from his perspective. It would have been better for it.

The strengths of the novel, as always with Mr. Patterson, are the strong plotting, the precise, stark prose, and the lightning quickness of the story. It features many of the same players as the original Nick Miller novel, The Graveyard Shift, including Jazz pianist and heroin addict Chuck Lazer, Detective Superintendent Bruce Grant, and Detective Constable Jack Brady. It isn’t in the top tier of Harry Patterson’s work, but it is an entertaining and satisfying novel.

I also learned a nice piece of slang—“snout” was used by the police to describe an informer. Now if I could find a use for it in my everyday parlance.

Purchase a copy on Amazon.

Friday, June 12, 2015

No Comment. "Winesburg, Ohio, 'Surrender, Part Three'"

“Sometimes it seemed to her that to be held tightly and kissed was the secret to life, and then a new impulse came and she was terribly afraid.”

—Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio: “Surrender, Part Three”. Library of America edition, 2012; page 59.  

No Comment is a new series of posts featuring passages from both fiction and non-fiction 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—since the paragraph before and after are never included.