Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Dying in the Post-War World" by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has been writing about his hardboiled former Chicago cop turned private dick Nathan Heller for 30 years, which translates into 15 novels and four short story collections. Nate first appeared in True Detective (1983) and most recently in Ask Not (2013). In 1991 the first collection of Nathan Heller stories appeared, and its title story—the best in the collection—was a Shamus nominated novella titled “Dying in the Post-War World”.

“Dying in the Post-War World” is set in Chicago. July, 1947. Heller’s wife, Peg, is pregnant, and while business at his A-1 Detective Agency is slow—no one is getting divorced in the post war euphoria—life isn’t bad. That is until Bob Keenan, a high level administrator at the Office of Price Administration (OPA), calls with an emergency, and Peg tells Nate she wants a divorce. In that order, and just that quickly.

The emergency. Bob Keenan’s six year old daughter JoAnn was kidnapped from her room. The window open. A broken down ladder outside, and a note on the floor of the girl’s room:

“Get $20,000 Ready & Waite for Word. Do Not Notify the FBI or Police. Bills in 5’s and 10’s. Burn this for her safety!”

“Dying in the Post-War World” is an intriguing retelling of Chicago’s Lipstick Killer. The names have changed—William Heirens (the real world convicted Lipstick Killer) is now Jerome Lapps, and Suzanne Degnan (the kidnapped girl) is now JoAnn Keegan. Mr Collins also plays with the timeline, and adds an appealing mob connection in form of one Sam Flood (aka Sam Giancana). The details are interesting, but the magic is in the telling. The smooth integration of fact and fiction. The old world Chicago. A Chicago where it was both possible to buy, and people actually wanted, a brand new Plymouth. The humor—“crooked even by Chicago standards.”

The story is written in first person. It is something of a nostalgic memoir. It is hardboiled, lean, and tough as the Windy City. It also has a bunch of post war angst. The sort of angst we all feel; a little hope and a lot of fear for the future. Not necessarily our own future, but the future we leave our children—

“For that one night, settled into a hard hospital chair, in the glow of my brand-new little family, I allowed myself to believe that that hope was not a vain one. That anything was possible in this glorious post-war world.”

But the most powerful effect of the story? Doubt. Doubt about the killer. The future, and ourselves. And even a touch of shame; at what we do, how we do it, and worse, how we rationalize it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Decoy"

The Decoy is a paperback original published by Gold Medal in 1951. It is as by “Edward Ronns,” a pseudonym of Edward S. Aarons who is best known for his “Assignment” novels. The cover art is beautifully soft—the dark shades of the background contrast nicely with the soft, bright colors of the fallen, or falling angel. The artist: BaryĆ© Phillips.

The opening paragraph:

“Ben Sherman awoke with a sense of unfamiliarity to place and time. The night was cool. He could hear the peepers in the fresh-water swamp nearby, their chirrupings a brave but trembling herald to spring. He missed the sound of the ocean’s surf. In the deeper stillness that spread under the cries of the peepers, he could hear someone breathing in the darkness, someone other than himself. He became conscious of Angie’s soft warm thigh pressed against his.”

Mr Aarons wrote somewhere around 30 novels as by “Edward Ronns”. The majority of his novels, including his “Assignment” novels, were published by Gold Medal; unfortunately his work has not weathered as well as many of his contemporary Gold Medal writers.

This is the ninth 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.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE DRAGON MAN by Garry Disher

The Peninsula is “a comma of land hooking into the sea southeast of Melbourne” in Victoria, Australia. It is a tourist destination known for its beaches, wineries, and coastal towns. It is sparsely populated, beautiful, and, recently, the stalking ground for a sex killer. One woman was found dead on the Old Peninsula Highway—a lonely road treading the western coast of the peninsula, cutting south and west—and another has disappeared.

Inspector Hal Challis, the regional homicide specialist, is assigned the investigation. The search is headquartered in the fictional city of Waterloo. A city with a small police force, and an even smaller CIB—Criminal Investigation Branch—squad. The killer is careful and clean. The only significant lead is the track of a rare brand of tire near the dumping site of a victim—

“There was no semen. The killer used a condom. There were no fingerprints. The killer used gloves. What he’d left on his victims were absences, including the absence of life.”

The Dragon Man is a beautifully written police procedural. The main plot is supplemented with crisscrossing subplots. An overzealous constable. A series of house burglaries. A frightened woman trading sex for drugs. And Hal Challis. An almost broken, flawed man. A man who is married to a woman who, along with her lover, attempted to kill him. A man who is underestimated by most, and a man who is likable, and, at times, real.

“He drove on. Christmas Day. With any luck, someone would find a body and free him from Christmas Day.”

The setting is rendered with care, and the small details—a bucket in the shower to catch the water for additional use in the garden, dry draught-like conditions of mid-summer heat, herons feasting on mosquitoes—create a real world believable place. A place that is familiar and exotic. Mr Disher also plays with morality. The police often behave more consistently with the criminals they chase. One steals evidence from the police locker. Another attempts to blackmail a woman for sex during a traffic stop.

The Dragon Man is the real deal. It is the first novel (of six, so far) featuring Hal Challis. It is something of a cross between literature and police procedural. It is rich on detail, economical, meaningful, and a wonderfully entertaining novel.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

THE WAY YOU DIE TONIGHT by Robert J. Randisi

The Way You Die Tonight is the ninth Rat Pack mystery featuring smooth operator and Sands’ pit boss Eddie Gianelli. This time Eddie G. has more action than he can track. Edward G. Robinson (the other Eddie G.) is in town, preparing for his Lancey Howard role in The Cincinnati Kid. Howard Hughes is on his case for dope on the Vegas scene, and Jack Entratter’s—manager of the Sands Casino—girl (read secretary) is found hanging from a pipe in a casino restroom. The cops—lead by the incompetent and highly frustrated Detective Hargrove—are calling it suicide, but Eddie G. sees only murder.

It seems everybody wants something from Eddie G.—

“‘You’re the man everyone comes to when they need something in Vegas.’”

—and fortunately there is enough to go around. Eddie enlists the help of Danny Bardini, a childhood friend turned private eye, and Jerry Epstein, formerly known as the torpedo and current mob enforcer from Brooklyn, to help solve the murder. Eddie G. (really Mr Randisi’s execution) expertly shuffles between the murder and the “other Eddie G.” and Howard Hughes subplots—subplots that provide gentle nostalgia and smile inducing humor.

The Way You Die Tonight is as smooth as anything in print. It is heavy on dialogue, larger than life, and fun as hell. The Vegas that was is vividly described. The casinos: The Sands, The Desert Inn, Binion’s Horseshoe. The atmosphere: jittery, exciting, exotic. I was reminded of an especially good episode of the old Robert Urich television series Vega$. The open skies, faded mountains, wide streets, and hip celebrity sinsters.

In a word: Fantastic!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Interview: Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman has been a full time writer for nearly 30 years. His first novel, Rough Cut, was published in 1985, and since then he has published dozens more. He has won nearly every major award—the Shamus, the Anthony—for “Best Critical Work”—the Spur, and the International Writers Award. And, rightfully, he was awarded The Eye for lifetime achievement by the Private Eye Writers Association in 2011.

His latest novel, Riders on the Storm, his tenth novel featuring small town lawyer and investigator Sam McCain, was recently released by Pegasus Books. Riders has been welcomed with strong critical support, including a starred review from Booklist, and it is highly anticipated by, at a minimum, me.   

Mr Gorman kindly answered a few questions about Sam McCain, his fiction in general, and even a little about life, for Gravetapping. The questions are italicized. 

I’ve been reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio and I have been struck by the similarity of his small-town Midwestern characters, and the characters you populate your Sam McCain novels with. Who are some of the writers, and works—fiction or nonfiction—that influenced your Sam McCain novels?

Well I’ve been reading and rereading Anderson since I was in high school. He’s one of my Hall of Famers. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Hamlin Garland, James T. Farrell, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen Crane (who’s sort of an honorary Midwesterner)—they’ve all had great effect on my world view and writing.

Your work is often from the perspective of the outsider. Your Sam McCain novels—generally—have a softer shade of outsider than much of your other work, but McCain is something of a man without a country. He doesn’t quite belong to the lower socio-economic class he grew up in, but he also doesn’t fit the more educated middle- and upper- middle class. How much of this outsider perspective is from your own experience, and how much is from observation?

Very good question. That’s one of the traits I share with McCain. I’ve never fit in anywhere. Bill Pronzini once said that my characters are outsiders who are trying to make peace with the world but can’t ever quite make it.  That’s certainly true of me.

Esme Anne Whitney. Judge Whitney is a gentrified judge from a wealthy family whose influence in Black River Falls is waning. She is a character who is astonishingly out of touch with Main Street. Did you have a particular person, or type of person, in mind when you created her? And where did the rubber-band flipping come from?

I like the Judge. She represents everything Sam despises but he enjoys her and respects her. She was created from whole cloth as was the rubber band bit.

The historical detail you include in your McCain novels is impressive. You tend to have one or two significant background events—the death of Buddy Holly, the 1960 presidential campaign, the release of the Ford Edsel, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.—that frame each novel’s era, but more interesting are the smaller details. The novels, movies, fashions, haircuts, stores—Woolworth, Rexall, etc.—and the small town politics. What type of research do you do when you write the novels, and do you have any recommendations for further reading?

The things you cite are as fresh in my mind as when I was living through them. 

Sam McCain’s favorite actor is Robert Ryan. Do you share that sentiment, and if you were to recommend one or two of his best films, what would they be?

Ryan was a man of parts—rage and sorrow. He never got his due. He was the perfect Irish actor. The Iceman Cometh and Odds Against Tomorrow are my favorites. 

In the first three Sam McCain novels there were two significant recurring characters, the beautiful Pamela Forrest and Mary Travers. Sam McCain loved Pamela Forrest who loved a married Stu Grant, and Mary Travers loved Sam McCain. This strange love triangle was written with humor, but it was shaded dark with undertones of pre-destined unfairness. All three of the characters lost something—love, acceptance—that could easily have been theirs for the taking. What were you trying to say about McCain, and the world, with this relationship?

I wasn’t thinking of anything more than how when you look back over your life you see how perverse romantic entanglements are. You lose a woman and yet she circles back years later. I like the French philosophy: “Sometimes the only thing worse than losing the woman is winning her.” You chase and chase a woman until you’re finally in a relationship with her only to find out that she’s less than wonderful. Then after you’re able to function again despite the pain you see somebody you should have been with all along.  I wrote a long story called “The End of It all” that is exactly about that theme. It’s been optioned three times for darkly comic cable but it’s never been made.

Speaking of Mary Travers. Is there any relationship between her name and the folk singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary? 

No. She’s named after a girl I knew in Catholic school.

The Sam McCain novels are populated with a colorful cast. There is the rubber-band flipping Judge Whitney, the incompetent bully Sheriff Cliff (Cliffie) Sykes Jr., the beatnik sleaze writer Kenny Thibodoux, and medical examiner Doc Novotny—graduate of the Cincinnati Citadel of Medinomics. I can only imagine the fun you had creating these characters. Do you have a favorite, and are these small town oddballs something of an homage to The Andy Griffith show? 

I used to love watching Andy Griffith even though I knew it was, you’ll forgive the phrase, a white wash. Amusing as it was there never was a town like Mayberry anywhere anytime. No, my characters all have dark sides. And Black River Falls, while there are many decent people in it, is a town of shadows and secrets like any other small or large town.

The tone of the novels have shifted as the series has unfolded. The early titles were more innocent and hopeful than the later novels. This shift in tone is aptly geared towards matching the changing times—from the late-1950s to the early-1970s. When you started the series, did you plan to take it into the 1970s, and is this shift in tone something more than just matching the era where the story takes place (i. e. is it also related to the current political climate)?

Each book got a little darker on its own. The times became more and more turbulent and Sam, who was growing up, had to respond accordingly.  

I recently re-read your fine novel The Autumn Dead, featuring part time private eye Jack Dwyer, and I was struck by the relationship between Dwyer’s childhood neighborhood “the Highlands,” and Sam McCain’s “the Knolls.” Both are presented as lower class enclaves dying of poverty, decay, and desperation. Your work often showcases the tension between classes, and these neighborhoods display the “less than” segment of society. How much of this tension comes from your own childhood, life?

From age six to approximately age seventeen these were the neighborhoods I lived in. Mixed race, violent, girls who got pregnant around fourteen or so, boys who went to reform school as prep for prison, spending Saturdays downtown just for a glimpse of the very pretty girls we considered (from where we lived) rich but who were really just middle-class. 

Your most recent Sam McCain novel, Riders on the Storm, is scheduled to be released by Pegasus in October. It is the tenth novel featuring Sam McCain. Would you tell us a little about the novel, and is it going to be the final entry, or can we look forward to another? 

Since it’s a sequel to Ticket to Ride I don’t want to give away the storyline. It’s a novel about the Viet Nam where Sam is forced to change in ways that would have been unimaginable even six months before.  

I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?

Oh man my answer would change day to day. Today it would probably be a Graham Greene novel. 

The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?

Probably The Autumn Dead which is being reissued as a two-fer with another of my books The Night Remembers

[Editor's note: Stark House Press is scheduled to release The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers as a trade paperback in December 2014.] 

In 1996 you published a novel titled Black River Falls, which is the name of the fictional city Sam McCain inhabits. Are these the same city—removed by a few decades—or did you simply like the name? On a side note, BRF has one of the most heart rendering scenes I have read in popular fiction; the protagonist, a young boy named Ben (as I recall), sneaks ice cream licks to a kitten dying of leukemia.    

Black River Falls may have come from my friend the late Dick Laymon. He may have used a town by that name in one of his books. 

[Editor's note: Richard Laymon used the name Black River Falls in his 1986 novel Beast House. The protagonist, Gorman Hardy, wrote a nonfiction book titled Horror at Black River Falls. Interestingly, Black River Falls, Wisconsin was home to a crime outbreak, and general misfortune, in the 1890s.]

I don’t get a lot of fan mail but Black Rivers Falls is frequently mentioned by readers as my best novel—that or Cage of Night.

When I was getting clean from alcohol and drugs my little boy Joe brought me a kitten because he said he knew I’d be lonely. Hi mother and I had divorced six year earlier. The kitten was tiny and beautiful. I named her “Ayesha” after the woman in H. Rider Haggard’s She. She developed leukemia when she was six months old. It took her three months to die. It broke my heart watching her become more and more frail. I can still feel her tiny warm body in my hand sometimes.

I know you grew up in Iowa, but did you, like McCain, grow up in a small town environment?

Yes, after the big war my family did live in a few small towns. I draw on a lot of memories when I’m fleshing out Black River Falls. But basically I lived in Cedar Rapids which is small by many standards but large if you live in Iowa.

Friday, September 26, 2014

PASSPORT TO PERIL by Robert B. Parker

In July 2009 Hard Case Crime reissued a cold war era thriller titled Passport to Peril, which at face value isn’t unusual, but what is unusual is the name of its author: Robert B. Parker. Unusual because it is a shared name with the creator of the Spenser novels, but very definitely not the same man or writer.

Passport to Peril is an early example of the cold war thriller. It was originally published by Rinehart & Co. in 1951, which predated the earliest James Bond novel, Casino Royale, by two years. John Stodder is an American journalist traveling to communist Budapest on a false Swiss passport purchased in Vienna. Stodder assumed the name, Marcel Blaye, was a figment of the forger’s imagination, but the passport is no forgery. It belonged to a man murdered in Vienna. A man with ties to both Soviet-bloc agents and the remnants of fascist Germany.

When Stodder realizes he is traveling on the passport of a dead man he jumps the train just inside the Hungarian border, which sets off a series of events that includes pursuit by communist Russians, fascist Germans, and eccentric American secret agents. He also finds a love interest in Marcel Blaye’s traveling secretary.

Passport to Peril is a well-paced, exciting and, unfortunately, flawed novel. The plot is complex and executed with brevity and a crisp, exciting (and almost believable) style. The opening pages are overly dependent on dialogue, but around page 50 everything changes. The dialogue is clipped, and the story is shown rather than explained.

The pacing is nearly perfect for the majority of the novel, which allows the reader to forgive the novel’s excesses—the early reliance on dialogue, awe inspiring coincidences, the clockwork timing of the American secret agents, and the suspiciously intermingled resolution of Stodder’s private reason for traveling to Budapest and the complex intrigue Marcel Blaye’s passport unwittingly dragged him into. 

The cover art is by Hard Case Crime regular Gregory Manchess, and it is one of my favorite. The cold colors give atmosphere to a really cool (pun intended) scene. The cover has more than just a passing resemblance to the Robert Maguire cover of the Ace edition of Harry Whittington's 1960 A Night for Screaming.