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.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Unknown Man No. 89"

Unknown Man No. 89 is Elmore Leonard’s 13th published novel. It was originally published in the U. S. in 1977 by Delacorte Press, and in the U. K. by Martin Secker & Warburg. The edition that caught my eye is the recent U. K. edition published by Phoenix. It is a collage of sorts, with a muted water color-like wash, and, even better, it features a 1970s Mercury Cougar. The cover image is by Tim Marrs.

The opening lines:

“A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, ‘Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody.’

“Ryan said to his friend, ‘I don’t know, the way things’ve been going, maybe it’s about time I started taking some’”

Unknown Man No. 89 is a follow up to Elmore Leonard’s 1969 novel The Big Bounce. According to the Wikipedia entry for Unknown, it was optioned for film by Alfred Hitchcock—it would have been his 54th film—but was never made.   

This is the eighth 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.

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


“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 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.