Tuesday, September 16, 2014

STRANGERS by Bill Pronzini

Strangers is the 39th—by my count—Nameless Detective novel, and it is something of a throwback. Nameless revisits his past, in both technique—he is once again a lone-wolf detective without benefit of Tamara, Jake, or Kerry—and fact.

His past comes back in the form of Cheryl Rosmond. Cheryl is a former lover. The relationship crumbled twenty year earlier, and Cheryl now lives in the dusty mining boom town of Mineral Springs, Nevada. She is a widow, and her son, Cody, is accused of three rapes. The evidence is circumstantial, but strong. A witness—a desert hermit named Max Stendreyer—saw Cody leaving the area of the final rape, and the ski mask and knife the rapist used were found in his Jeep.

Cheryl, in desperation, calls Nameless. She has hired an attorney—the only lawyer in town who will take the case and criminal law isn’t his specialty—and she needs someone who will dig around to prove Cody’s innocence. Nameless is reluctant, but his sense of duty pulls him into the case—

“It was the kind of distraught plea I’d heard in one form or another a dozen times before, and invariably my response had been the same: yes. Wise or foolish, right or wrong, always the same.”

Mineral Springs is a dirty, dusty, and cramped town. Its residents are small minded, petty, and mean. It is stark contrast to Nameless’ memory of Cheryl, and he has difficulty making her fit the town. She is harassed with telephone threats, and malicious property destruction—her shed is set on fire and a brick is thrown through a window of her home. Nameless isn’t welcomed with open arms either. The County Sheriff doesn’t quite warn him off, but comes close. The victims are less than cordial, and one of the townspeople takes a long distance and anonymous rifle shot at him.      

Strangers is a special novel. It is atmospheric, weighty, and entertaining. It is plot driven, but the procedural mystery runs a distant second to its raw emotional impact. The setting—desolate, stark, empty—fits the thematic structure of the story. The emptiness defines the nature of Nameless’ quest. A quest to discover the facts of the crimes Cody is accused of, and the truth of his shared past with Cheryl. A past that, when he discovers its truth, he would have preferred left alone—

“When I reached the highway and turned west, I didn’t look back.”

Strangers is one of the more powerful Nameless novels. Its emotional impact is on par with Mr Pronzini’s standalone work; particularly his masterful Blue Lonesome—which shares a similar setting, but very different leading woman—and The Crimes of Jordan Wise.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A MAMMOTH MURDER by Bill Crider

“Bud Turley, called Bud Squirrelly by those who thought he had a lot of peculiar ideas, put the gigantic tooth down on Sheriff Dan Rhodes’s desk and said, ‘I want you to take custody of this tooth, Sheriff’”

With that opening, the very essence of both A Mammoth Murder and Bill Crider’s character Sheriff Dan Rhodes is laid bare: humorous, witty and entertaining. A Mammoth Murder was originally published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Press, and it is the 13th mystery to feature Blacklin County Sheriff Dan Rhodes.   

Bud Turley found the tooth in Blacklin County’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. A patch of dark timbered country called “Big Woods,” which is home to a mean-spirited pack of wild hogs, rattle snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and rumors of Bigfoot. Turley is certain the tooth he found belongs to the later and he wants Sheriff Rhodes to protect it until an expert—a local community college teacher—can look at it the next day.

A report of a dead body in Big Woods interrupts Rhodes’s enjoyment of the tooth. The dead man is Bud Turley’s best (and only) friend Larry Colley whose body is discovered alarmingly close to where Bigfoot’s tooth was found. The death toll rises when an elderly shopkeeper is found dead in her store. Rhodes is certain the murders are connected, but he is continually bothered by a feeling of missing something both important and obvious.

A Mammoth Murder is a charming, sly, and entertaining novel. The mystery is quirky and sincere. The dialogue is sharp and genuinely funny; most of it coming from the mouths of Rhodes’s dispatcher and jailer, Hack and Lawton. The two jab at each ferociously and enjoy, more than just a little, playing with Rhodes’s patience.

The story is bolstered by a colorful cast—Bigfoot hunters, amateur crime writers, a local newspaper reporter better at her job than Rhodes would like, and Rhodes’s wife Ivy, who put him on a low fat diet and knows nothing about his daily Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Not to mention Hack and Lawton.        

The mystery is great, too. There are enough red herrings to keep the reader interested, and just enough action to make it exciting. Even better, there is something of a cold case thrown in—a young boy was killed in Big Woods ten years earlier, and Sheriff Rhodes is certain it is connected with the two recent killings—and the resolution is very satisfying. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME by Ed Gorman

Save the Last Dance for Me is the fourth Sam McCain novel—and my favorite simply because it is the first in the series I read—written by Ed Gorman. It was published by Carroll & Graf in 2002, and it is currently available as an eBook from Mysterious Press.

The year is 1960. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy are running for President, and Black River Falls finds itself home to a group of Ozark refugees. It is a fundamentalist mountain tribe seeking salvation at the fangs of rattlesnakes, and it has a penchant for distributing anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish pamphlets around town—a particular favorite, “The Jews Behind John F. Kennedy”. Sam is hired by the religious leader of the group, Reverend John Muldaur, to find (and presumably stop) the person who is trying to kill him.

It turns out Muldaur waited too long. He is poisoned at a snake handling ceremony, and Sam, who is a lawyer, a private eye, and an investigator for the county’s most prominent jurist, Judge Esme Ann Whitney, is tasked to solve the crime before Richard Nixon appears in Black River Falls on a campaign stop.

Save the Last Dance for Me is as good as medium-boiled detective fiction gets. It is a finely executed mixture of charm and despair, small town politics, and human frailty. Its pages are littered with hate, lust, and, on occasion, violence—not to mention a mild wry humor—but it is also sensitive and empathetic. Mr Gorman describes the hill-country people with pity, fear, and understanding—         

“You can’t estimate the effects of poverty on generation after generation of people, that sadness and despair and madness that so quietly but irrevocably shapes their thoughts and taints their souls.”

“There’s nothing more frightening than a youngster who has been completely indoctrinated by his parents. He’s as soulless as a robot and as deadly as an assassin. You can’t reason with him because the ‘on’ switch in his brain doesn’t operate. His parents turned it off permanently long ago.”

It is also sharply plotted, and downright entertaining. Sam McCain is likable, and, more importantly, recognizable. He enjoys reading paperbacks, watching film, and the company of fresh, attractive, and intelligent women. The townspeople are odd without being outrageous—the incompetent but pitiable Chief of Police Cliff Sykes Jr., the smug rubber band flipping Judge Whitney, and the beatnik and sleaze writer Kenny Thibodeau are allowed to breath without dominating the tale.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I. ASIMOV by Isaac Asimov

Shortly after Isaac Asimov’s death in 1992 his memoir I. Asimov was released by Doubleday.  It is a series of essays Asimov wrote, seemingly, from the narrative and the date of its publication, on his death bed.  The book meanders—it starts at childhood, but jumps forward to his early writing career, and then back.  It is a patchwork of related postcards rather than a chronological narrative of his life, and it works very well.  

The essays run about four or five pages—sometimes longer, sometimes shorter—and cover a specific event, person, or idea.  He discusses his early life in detail; specifically, working in his parent’s Brooklyn candy store as a boy surrounded by the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, which he wasn’t allowed to read until he convinced his father the science fiction magazines were about science. 

The bulk of the book is devoted to his literary life, which, in his own estimation was his life.  In several sections of the book he wrote he would rather write than anything else.  He did not enjoy travel, and while he did enjoy the company of others, he did not tend to seek it out, and, especially in his early years, he had difficulty getting along and making friends. 

He touches on his major works—The Foundation series; specifically the original trilogy—“Nightfall,” “The Ugly Little Boy” and many others.  He freely admits he enjoyed writing nonfiction more than fiction, and in fact, he considered himself a much more accomplished writer of nonfiction.  A sentiment I tend to agree with; however I enjoyed the original Foundation trilogy immensely when I read it as a teenager.

The most interesting essays in I. Asimov are the short pieces he wrote about his experiences with other science fiction writers.  He had lifelong relationships with many writers, some of whom were part of the science fiction fan club The Futurians.  The Futurians, as Asimov describes it, was an off shoot of the Queens Science Fiction club. The split occurred because the Queens club wanted science fiction to keep itself above politics, and specifically not speak out against fascism, which was spreading across Europe at the time, and The Futurians wanted fascism denounced.   The Futurians included Frederick Pohl, who has written extensively about the club on his blog, Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Donald A. Wollheim. 

He also writes admiringly of John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (ASF), who gave Asimov his first real hope of publishing his science fiction stories and also, later, gave him the idea for his short story “Nightfall”.  The seed for the story came from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay titled “Nature”.  

Asimov seemingly knew everyone writing science fiction in the 1940s through the 80s.  A few of the more interesting comments Asimov makes about his contemporaries follows.

H. L. Gold.  Gold was the editor of Galaxy; a top tier science fiction magazine where Asimov placed several stories.  Gold was an ill-tempered editor, who changed story narratives and titles, and replied with meanness when the authors objected.  Galaxy serialized Asimov’s novel The Stars, Like Dust and changed the title to Tyrann; “Worst of all was his pernicious habit of writing insulting rejection letters.”              

Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein is considered the father of modern science fiction, and Asimov worked with him during World War II, as a civilian employee of the Naval Air Experimental Station (NAES) in Philadelphia.  Asimov wrote that he and Heinlein had an uneven friendship.  He quipped about Heinlein: 

“…although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward.  This happened at just the time he changed wives from liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far right conservative woman, Virginia.”

Clifford D. Simak.  In 1938 when Asimov was still a teenager he wrote a letter to ASFregarding Simak’s story “Rule 18”; he didn’t like the story much.  Simak wrote a polite letter to Asimov inquiring what he didn’t like about the story.  In response to Simak’s letter Asimov wrote:

“…I promptly reread [it]…and I found, to my intense embarrassment, that it was a very good story and that I liked it.”  

I. Asimov doesn’t have the depth and detail of an autobiography.  It has the feel of a congenial conversation, but it seemingly reveals his character, and he makes a point to highlight his flaws.  It is an appealing book written by one of science fiction’s most well-known writers, and it is more entertaining and enlightening than I would have imagined.

This review originally went live June 3, 2012; however the stories Mr Asimov tells in its pages has stuck with me over the past few years, and I have especially been thinking about it again over the last several weeks.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fort Sumner, New Mexico and Billy the Kid

Fort Sumner, New Mexico is a tiny agrarian village 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque. It was originally an internment camp for the Navajo and Mescalero Apache. It was called the Bosque Redondo reservation. The Mescalero quietly left on a cold February night in 1865, and the Navajo were starving after catastrophic crop failures in 1865, ’66, and ’67. The camp was closed in 1868, and the Army sold its buildings to Lucien Maxwell in 1870. Eleven years later William H. Bonney—Billy the Kid—was shot dead in the home of Lucien Maxwell’s son Pete by Pat Garrett, and buried in the old camp cemetery.

Fort Sumner sits in the Pecos River valley and is surprisingly verdant. The Pecos is a ditch of a river. Its muddy water almost stagnant as it ebbs towards Texas and the Rio Grande. Cottonwood trees and alfalfa fields surround the graveyard. There is a worn out historical marker with a caption at the top reading, “Official Scenic Historic Marker” and a privately owned museum at the cemetery’s edge—“Old Fort Sumner Museum—Gravesite of Billy the Kid”.

It is a warm August afternoon 133 years after Billy’s death. A few people wander the graveyard. It is fenced. Billy’s marker is near the center. A rod iron cage surrounds the grave; four sides and top. The Kid is jailed even in death. Nameless tourists have scattered coins across the grave’s surface. A show of respect for a man who is a folk legend. A man who murdered for money.

Fort Sumner is south and east of the shabby Interstate town of Santa Rosa. It sits squarely on I-40 east of the Pecos. Its main street is Historic Route 66. A quiet two lane highway curls south and east from Santa Rosa across surprisingly green desert hill country. The flora is sage in color, but it is desert and the beauty is its variation. It is monochromatic; creosote, pinon, and grass shimmer in the clear morning light. A rare gash of red earth adding contrast. Nothing exists between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner. No towns. No sites. Nothing but empty road. A handful of ranches marked by dirt trails, and maybe a sign—Juan De Dios Ranch, Pettigrew Ranch.

Fort Sumner proper—the modern town—sits at the junction of U. S. 60 and 84. It hasn’t changed in decades. Its main street is a 1950s Hollywood back lot. Red and brown brick buildings. Flat roofed, attached one to another. Appealing, but faded. A picture of desperate tranquility.

The old cemetery is east of downtown, and south of U. S. 84. It is peaceful. An alfalfa field across the oiled road. The crop cut and drying in rows. The air dry and warm. A deep silence broken only occasionally by a passing truck. The crunch of gravel under tires in the museum parking lot. The few people milling around speak seldom, and when they do it is in hushed whispers. Almost reverentially. It is a cemetery. A place of death. A place of quiet.

I am struck less by the significance of the boy-criminal buried here, and more by its silent past. Everything that once was is gone. The Navajo and Mescalero who toiled in the fields. The soldiers. William Bonney, Pete Maxwell, and Pat Garret. The violence of that July night in 1881. All gone. Dead with nothing but a whisper of what was. Standing outside the cage surrounding William Bonney’s gravesite, the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” kept rattling in my mind—  

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper        


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES. Billy the Kid was born November 23, 1859 in New York City as William Henry McCarty. His life was violent and short. Legend has him killing 21 men, but historians believe it closer to eight. He went by many names—Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim—but he was always known as “The Kid”. He spent his final years in New Mexico and named himself William H. Bonney. He was killed in a dark room of Pete Maxwell’s house in Fort Sumner July 14, 1881.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thrift Store Book Covers: "Wollheim's Best SF: Series One"

Wollheim’s Best SF: Series One is a reprint of the anthology The 1972 Annual World’s Best SF. It features an impressive catalog of authors, including Barry N. Malzberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison. While the writers included are impressive, the cover art is even better. The colors are a subdued with sharp lines and it hasn’t a certain muted starkness. The artist is John Berkey.


























The opening paragraph of the Introduction by Donald A. Wollheim:    

“The essence of science fiction is that this is a changing world. In consequence science fiction reflects this. Though science fiction sets up stereotypes, they are stereotypes of that which may some day be or which might have been or could be, but they are always presentations of some form of a changed world.”


This is the seventh 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.

Friday, August 08, 2014

THUNDER AT NOON by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Thunder at Noon is the eleventh novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964. It was extensively rewritten, and published as Dillinger in 1983, which is a shame because Thunder is a pretty terrific novel and its revision essentially doomed the original story to extinction.

1930. Mexico’s revolution is still a fresh memory. Harry Jordan is an English mining engineer who came to Mexico seeking adventure and wealth. He found an abundance of the former and little of the later. He spent the last year panning for gold in the Yaqui River basin and as the novel opens he is in Durango waiting for the next train north. His plans change when he is arrested on trumped up tax evasion charges after refusing a job offer from a wealthy mine owner named Don Jose Manuel de Rivera.

Jordan makes the only choice left and accompanies de Rivera to his mine outside the small town of Hermosa in Northeast Mexico. The mine is in deplorable condition. The ventilation system is unusable, and the reinforcing timbers are rotting. De Rivera is determined to get as much gold from the dilapidated mine as he can before it collapses, and the native Indians—who happen to be Apache—are used as something very close to slave labor.   

Thunder at Noon is Harry Patterson’s version of a western. It is more adventure than traditional, but the setting and story are wholly western. The language is less eloquent and more realistic than much of Mr Patterson’s work. It is something approaching hard boiled. An early passage describing the remains of a young woman, after her execution by a Mexican cavalry troop, is particularly rich—

“As [the train] began to pull away, the sun crept over the rim of the mountains, slanting across the valley. The scarlet skirt of the Indian girl, as she sprawled face down, was like blood in the dust.”

The desert landscape of Northern Mexico is realistically rendered as an ambivalent, and somewhat menacing, spectator—

“When he opened the shutters the mountain was waiting for him as it had always done, crouching darkly out there in the desert, its jagged spines touched with gold in the early-morning sun.”

The plot is Harry Patterson’s usual smooth and professional job. No gimmicks. No coincidences. And nothing left dangling. It reads something like a mixture of a Zorro story—specifically the corrupt and brutal landowner—and a western film. I was reminded of both the film “The Searchers” and, particularly the descriptions of the desert landscape, of a Shadowlands story by H. A. DeRosso.

The antagonists—and there are many—are portrayed as something like incarnate evil. A band of outlaw Apaches, led by a warrior named Diablo, are especially brutal. They kill and mutilate with pleasure. It is caricature, but caricature effectively used, and used without malice. Mr Patterson’s portrayal of the outlaw Apaches is juxtaposed by his use of an old Apache chief named Nachita as one of the supporting protagonists, and, after a particularly gruesome death scene one of the protagonists, a veteran of the Great War named Steiner, philosophically utters—

“‘On the Western front we maimed men just as neatly with shrapnel and shell-splinters.’”        

Thunder at Noon is both a superb adventure novel, and a much better than average western. It is one of the more difficult Harry Patterson titles to find. It was, to my knowledge, never published in the United States and never released in paperback in the United Kingdom. I was lucky to find it in a 1965 book club omnibus from Man’s Book (sort of like The Detective Book Club in the United States). Its second incarnation as Dillinger is its lesser self, and at its core very different; meaning more than just the name of the protagonist changed.


The Man’s Book edition included a photograph of a young Harry Patterson, and I was unable to resist posting it here.