Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: Just Before Dark

Just Before Dark is the fifth (of five) horror novels written by Bill Crider and published as by Jack MacLane.  It was published by Zebra in November 1990, and the cover art is terrific in a disturbing if tongue-in-cheek sort of way.  It is dark—a purple smudge for sky—and features a cold metallic junkyard piled high.  It reminds me of the first thirty minutes of the film “Wall-E” with the added appeal of skeletons strewn throughout.  The artist is uncredited.

The opening paragraph:

“Frank Castella remembered dying.”   

I haven’t read any of the “Jack MacLane” novels, but knowing the general high quality of Mr Crider’s work I plan to remedy that very soon.  All five of the MacLane novels are currently available as ebooks.

This is the fifth in a new series of posts featuring cover and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops.  It is reserved for books I purchased as much for the coer art as for the story or author. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Ed Gorman is one of the top writers of genre short stories.  His most recent collection of short fiction, Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace, features the Gorman short story at its best.  It includes 14 stories published between 1989 and 2014.  The stories range from science fiction to straight crime, but each has the commonality of the outsider perspective, and a certain discomforting velvet darkness.

The collection opens with the 1999 story “Angie” (originally published in the anthology 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense).  Angie has goals.  She wants the best life has to offer.  As a girl she heard the term “kept woman” and has spent her life aiming toward that destination; somehow she ended up the live-in of a bigoted small time criminal, with his son, in a dilapidated trailer.  The story builds quickly, and in unexpected ways—not once, but twice—and the ending is a perfectly dark shadow of humanity.

Scream Queen is a rich collection of stories; none are weak and each is entertaining and even provocative.  The best of the group—first among equals, in a sense—is the 1994 science fiction story “Cages” (originally published in the anthology Earth Strikes Back.  It is written in third person from the perspective of a young boy whose father is a “dreamduster” (read drug addict).  There is strife between the boy’s mother and father, mostly due to lack of money, and he has the dream of a perfect life.  A new car.  A sunlit afternoon.  And peace.  He thinks the key is money, and he has a plan to get it for his mother.

“Cages” is truly a masterpiece.  It is set in an undefined place and time; a futuristic (in a bad way) place to be sure.  A gray world with bitter gray people.  The boy’s plan is executed, but not quite revealed until the final paragraphs of the story, and its revelation is stunning.  It is reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s early science fiction stories—it particularly reminded me of his “Dance of the Dead”—but it is wholly Ed Gorman from its sympathetic treatment of the boy to the pity of the denouement.

The collection includes many of Mr Gorman’s classic dark suspense stories, including “Out There in the Darkness” (basis for the novel The Poker Club), “Stalker,” “Render Unto Caesar,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “The Brasher Girl” (basis for the novel Cage of Night), and the powerful vampire story “Duty”.  It also includes a few of his more recent offerings, including the terrific title story Scream Queen and Calculated Risk.  

Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace is published by Perfect Crime Books, and it includes a very nice Introduction by Tom Piccirilli, an Afterword, which is a brief interview with Ed Gorman, and there are editorial notes at the end of a few of the stories.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

THE DARK SIDE OF THE ISLAND by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

The Dark Side of the Island is the eighth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964, and it is the first novel, of many, Mr Patterson set (at least partly) during World War 2.

Hugh Lomax is a working screenwriter, and recent widower.  He is English, but makes his home in California.  As the novel opens Lomax is steaming to the small Greek Island of Kyros.  He was briefly on Kyros seventeen years earlier with British Intelligence to destroy a high tech radar installation.  He is returning for an elusive reason; something unfinished, nostalgia, or simply to see the island in the warmth of peacetime.

Unfortunately his welcome is less than cordial.  A man he considers an old friend threatens to kill him, another actually tries to kill him, and the local constabulary politely asks him to leave.  The locals blame Lomax for snitching out the islanders who helped him to the Germans and nearly all of them hold a grudge.  For good reason.  Nearly everyone was sent to a concentration camp at Fonchi, and more than 20 never returned.

The Dark Side of the Island is told in three acts.  The first and third are set in the early 1960s, and the middle is set during World War 2.  Lomax is lost in the mystery of who talked to the Germans, and why.  He knows it wasn’t him, but no one on the island seemingly had a motive—or anything to gain—from the betrayal. 

Lomax is a classic Jack Higgins’ protagonist; brilliant, principled, and something less (at least in the world’s eyes) than he could be.  The storyline is familiar to Mr Patterson’s regular readers, but the foray into the past is something rare.  It isn’t perfectly executed.  There is some confusion on character names.  There are two with the name “Yanni”; one a young boy in the modern sections and another a shepherd during World War 2.  The plot is relatively complicated and it would benefit from more flesh (i. e. development), but like all of Mr Patterson’s novels it is sleek, fast, and entertaining.

There is an interesting piece of dialogue, which will likely resound with most writers.  When Lomax tells an English writer, who lives on Kyros, one of his men borrowed a book of poetry from his bookshelf, the writer says—

“You know, Lomax, for some strange reason, most people seem to think writers ought to distribute their books free.”

An element that separates Mr Patterson’s work—particularly his early novels—from most of its competitors is the small and accurate detail.  In the opening pages Lomax discusses his work with the E.O.K. in Crete during the war; a right of center partisan group organized by British Intelligence to act as a competitor to the communist underground.  

Friday, April 04, 2014

GOIN' by Jack M. Bickham

1971 was a big year for Jack M. Bickham.  He turned 41, published six novels, including his novel The Apple Dumpling Gang, and his much lesser known novel Goin’Goin’ is different than much of Mr Bickham’s work.  It is a mainstream novel.  Or at least something approaching a mainstream novel.  Perhaps a hybrid between a straight hippie novel and a modern western is more apt.   
The year is 1969.  Stan Pierce is 40, newly divorced—


—and going through a mid-life crisis.  His hair has grown to his collar, he purchased a little Honda 450 street bike, and as the novel opens Stan is headed for the road.  He has no clear destination, but he knows what is behind him; an ex-wife, a young daughter, and a seething personal unhappiness. 

Once on the road Stan joins two bikers who are short on cash, and he tags along to a farm outside the rural city of Kirkerville (likely Arizona, but it is never identified as such), and hires on as a fruit picker.  In Kirkerville he meets a young married woman named Elizabeth Faering.  She is everything he wants.  Young.  Beautiful.  Independent.  Free.  The two lovers concoct a future together, but the dream is interrupted by a fruit pickers’ strike.  A strike Stan agrees with, but a strike that is commandeered by a man who is less interested in getting the workers’ better pay and working conditions, and more interested in starting a revolution.

Goin’ is a pretty great novel.  It fits its time and place; think back to an age when motorcycle riders were considered hooligans, smoking reefer was an unconscionable sin, free love was the opposite of “up-tight”, and Eugene McCarthy was a saint of liberalism. 

The tension is generated both by plot—the strike and the population’s reaction to it—and Stan’s inner turmoil.  He is an everyman outsider.  He attempts to fit, but he is ostracized by Kirkerville’s residents as an outside agitator—it is not uncommon for him to be called a “pinko”—and the strikers, particularly his two friends, view him as a traitor.  His affair with Liz ends badly—although not unexpectedly—and it is written with a powerful simplicity, which makes Stan’s emotional pain visceral.

Goin’ was published as a paperback original by Paperback Library in July 1971, and to my knowledge it has never seen print again.  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

DEATH OF A CITIZEN by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm is a solid citizen.  He is married with three children.  He makes a living writing popular novels (western’s mostly), and lives with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His picture perfect American dream is mangled when Tina, an operative he briefly worked with in Europe during World War II, walks through the front entrance of a cocktail party.  She passes an old signal to Matt—“I’ll get in touch with you later. Stand by”—and in an instant (and without much fuss) Matt’s idyllic existence shatters.

Death of a Citizen is the first (of 27) Matt Helm novels, and it is absolutely terrific.  In the opening sequence Helm is an everyman; likable and stable with a pretty wife and a family, but it only takes a few hours for his old habits to take over.  It starts with a dead woman in his writing room, and then a confrontation with Tina who, after some convincing from Matt, weaves a fantastic story about a Soviet agent hunting a nuclear scientist working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.

The action is convincing, the prose is smooth and cool—

“Suddenly I was feeling fine.  You can stay tense only so long.  I was over the hump.  I was driving ten miles out of the way, with a corpse in the bed of the truck, just to take a worthless alley cat home.”

And the plot is as tight and smooth as a guy wire.  There is more than the usual backstory about Helm’s World War II exploits, and post war life, but it is done without interrupting the forward momentum of the plot.  Even better, Mac—the leader of the “organization” Matt worked for, and is once again working for—makes an appearance in the field, and Helm’s doubt and operational rust give him an element of believability. 

Death of a Citizen is the first of the Matt Helm novels, but it is as convincing, urgent, and well written as any.  In a sense it is the primer.  It introduces Helm, the organization, and everything it is, which is essentially a kind of counter intelligence wet work squad.  It is the cold war on a small field.  The best part, the citizen who lost his life (from the title) is Helm himself, and what he gains is a certain freedom, his code name Eric, and an outlet for his violent nature.

Death of a Citizen was originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, and it was recently reissued as a paperback by Titan Books.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: Utah Blaine

Utah Blaine is the second of three Louis L’Amour novels published by Ace.  It was originally published as by Jim Mayo and made its debut as one half of an Ace Double (D-48) in 1954. The artwork of the original paperback isn’t bad, but getting a copy could set your retirement back.

The edition that caught my eye was an early 1970s Ace reprint.  It has an alarmingly orange cover—something close to post-apocalyptic as it seems to devour the town in the background—a gunman on an angry horse firing at someone offstage.  It appears there is something close to artillery kicking up dirt geysers (actually rifle slug impacts, I’m sure).  It is a scene straight from a comic book, and I love it.  The artist is uncredited.      

The opening paragraph:

“He was asleep and then he was awake. His eyes flared wide and he held himself still, staring staring into the darkness, his ears reaching for sound.”

I read this title as a teenager and I can barely remember the plot, but I do remember I enjoyed it. I know the edition I read was issued by Bantam in the 1980s.  The thing I really like about this old Ace paperback.  It informs the customer it is Louis L’Amour “writing under the pen-name ‘Jim Mayo’”. 

This is the fourth in a new series of posts featuring cover and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops.  It is reserved for books I purchased as much for the cover art as for the story or the author.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie

Nick Glass is a rookie prison guard in a Scottish prison.  He has been on the job six weeks with mixed results—the other guards mock and make trouble for him and the inmates don’t respect him.  At home he has a five-year old daughter and wife.  His wife tends to drink too much, and is just on the backside of an affair.  To say Nick has a little stress is an understatement.

To make things worse Nick is approached by one of the inmates and asked to mule drugs inside.  The inmate gives him two choices: 1) make an easy buck; or 2) his little family gets hurt in a big way.  Nick is in big trouble as he desperately tries to protect his family at home and his own life at work.

Slammer is the sort of novel that creeps up on you in about three pages.  It starts hard and strong and never lets up.  Glass is a regular guy caught in a nasty and impossible situation.  He doesn’t belong in the prison.  He is a nice guy, both weak and sincere.  He, much like his name, is prone to fracture.  And Guthrie makes sure Glass does just that.

The novel opens with Glass in the office of the prison psychiatrist.  It is a mandatory visit and Nick is less than pleased to be there.  The psychiatrist is an instrument Mr Guthrie uses to foreshadow and then define the undoing of Nick.  He is a skewed sentiment of sanity in a dark and insane world.  A world that envelopes Nick and threatens to destroy him.  And Nick is the perfect object—he is prone to fantasy, and as the novel progresses, he begins to mistake his fantasy for reality.  It is a trip into hell.  A trip the reader knows is coming with each progressive sentence, paragraph and page, but is helpless to stop.

Slammer is a wonderfully executed novel.  It is reminiscent of Guthrie’s first novel Two-Way Split, but its execution is better (amazingly).  It is short, 263 pages, but it does not lack meaning or story.  The prose is hardboiled, lean and smart.  The dialogue is crisp, and the atmosphere is weighty and oppressive.  It is a fine example of the new noir: a hopeless, distraught and shameless (in a good way) vision of the human condition.

This is an encore post.  It originally went live on November 23,2009.