Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ROUGH RIDERS by Charlie Stella

Rough Riders is a follow up to Charlie Stella’s 2001 novel Eddie’s World. This time around Eddie Senta spends the bulk of his time in a coma. His old nemesis James Singleton, called Washington Stewart since he snitched for a new identity, put a hit on Senta that went sour. Senta’s wife hires former NYPD detective, and current private eye, Alex Pavlik to find Singleton. The trail leads to North Dakota where there is something of a cold spell—30 below and holding—and a crime wave.

There is also a cast of real characters: a former Miss North Dakota tending bar, an ice cold Air Force Colonel who is both a pilot and M. D., a drug dealing airman about 20 points shy of a hundred, a couple gangsters, and a lineup of lawmen. Not to mention a college kid dead of a heroin overdose, and his strung out girlfriend.

The plot has a bunch of moving parts, and the action sprawls between New York and North Dakota. The bad guys, with Singleton at the center, cleverly plot their riches and ultimately their escapes. The good guys are mainly trying to get in the game, or even worse figuring what the game is, and who the players are. It is something close to humorous absurdity—the good and bad guys occupy the same places, but their paths rarely cross; Washington Stewart is missing an eye and one side of his face is caved in, but he is hard to find.

The dialogue, as always with Mr Stella, is something special. It is sharp, humorous, and revealing. The prose is stark as a Dakota winter, and the journey is a pleasant, entertaining, and involving distraction. Rough Riders is great fun.

Rough Riders was published as a trade paperback by Stark House Press in 2012, and Eddie’s World is scheduled to be republished in mass market by Stark House’s imprint Black Gat Books in May 2015.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

THE HUSBAND by Dean Koontz

My patience with modern thrillers—anything late-1990s and beyond—is thin. They always open with potential and then become less interesting with each page. I start several each year, but seldom get past the 100th page before cleaning the gutters is preferable. Dean Koontz is the exception to the rule; although labeling him as a thriller writer is similar to confusing a Corvette with a Kia Soul.   

I recently read his 2006 novel The Husband, and I was mesmerized from the first sentence to the last. Its opening is undeniably appealing:

“A man begins dying at the moment of his birth.”

Mitchell Rafferty is happily married, moderately successful with a two man gardening operation, and about to be pulled into nightmare. It begins quickly and without remorse. The day: Monday, May 14, 11:43 AM. Mitch is planting red and purple impatiens when his cell phone rings. A man’s voice:

“‘We have your wife.’”    

The kidnapper demands $2 million in exchange for her life. A sum that is not only unobtainable, but nearly unimaginable for Mitch. More revelation would spoil the meal, but there are a handful of brilliantly executed plot twists—none expected, anticipated, or doubted once revealed—and suspense alarming enough for sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and sleepless nights.

The prose—like everything Mr Koontz writes—is smooth and easy as glass. It is poetic in its simple, metered manner; easy to read and brilliant. But everything about The Husband is brilliant; from plot to prose to character to theme. And even better, it opens with death, but ends in a flutter of life:

“Although he knows her as well as he knows himself, she is as mysterious as she is lovely, an eternal depth in her eyes, but she is no more mysterious than are the stars and the moon and all things on the earth.”   

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Winter in a Day

It has been a long dry winter in my neighborhood. High skies, bad skiing, and uneventful driving. A handful of bushes in my front yard, miraculously, never lost their leaves and really look terrific this spring. I shoveled my driveway a whopping three times; a frequency my back enjoyed. But yesterday the sky opened and winter arrived dropping 6 or 7 inches. It lasted a meager 24 hours, but it was wonderful. 

Then this morning things got even better. I found a visitor in my backyard. A small buck mule deer—velvet covered antlers between his ears—laying in a deciduous alcove. The snow like ground cover around his bed. It really is the small stuff.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

TEKWAR by William Shatner and Ron Goulart

Sometime in 1992, probably late in the year, I devoured the first three novels in William Shatner’s Tek series: TekWar (1989), TekLords (1991), and TekLab (1991). At the time, as a teenager, I was certain they were as original and exciting as anything ever published. As I’ve aged, become jaded by life, my opinion has changed a smidge; there probably are stories more original, more exciting. And, even worse, the Tek books will never be canonized, but—even after these truths were revealed—I still enjoy them. They are a sweetly inviting piece of candy—all sugary and sweet with no aftertaste, or calories. Maybe a shadow of guilt, literati induced guilt, but thankfully it passes with the first page.  

The first novel, TekWar, was published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in hardcover. Ace reissued it as a mass market in 1990. Amazingly, I have read it three times. It introduces former police detective Jake Cardigan who was convicted of corruption. He was sentenced to fifteen years in the “Freezer,” which is a cryogenic suspended animation penitentiary. The world continues, but the convict sleeps it away. Jake is given parole after four years when an influential private detective agency, Cosmos, successfully lobbies for his release.

Cosmos wants Jake for his contacts in Mexico. A man named Leon Kittridge, along with his daughter Beth, have disappeared in Chihuahua where their skycar reportedly crashed. Professor Kittridge is developing a device that easily, and remotely, destroys tek; an illegal virtual reality device that creates the illusion of a perfect life. Cosmos has sent three operatives to Chihuahua in pursuit of the Kittridges and none have returned.

TekWar is a humorous, almost tongue-in-cheek, futuristic private eye novel. The setting is 22nd century, but the science fiction takes a backseat to the hardboiled detective story. There are robots, flying cars, and, of course, tek, but the “science” is decoration. Very good decoration and the novel is better for it, but still decoration. Change out tek for smack and flying cars for Chevys and it is a 20th century piece.

The humor is built in to the science fiction element of the story, which gives it the feeling of, “don’t take this too seriously.” In an early passage the warden, through his robot proxy, wishes Jake well and of his certainty Jake learned his lesson and will never return to the Freezer—

“Or, for that matter, to any of the fifty-three other prisons and correctional facilities in the State of Southern California…”

A platinum haired silver painted receptionist, going through life changes, confesses to Jake she has recently been mistaken for an android—

“‘…so far three clients have confused me with servomechs and a new ‘bot on the custodial staff tried to dust and polish me.’”

The action and humor are the novels strong points, and overshadow its weaknesses—there isn’t much doubt how the novel will end, and Jake Cardigan’s motive is exposed by his annoying habit of talking to himself. A habit, in my memory, that is reduced in the later series novels. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2015


Ron Faust published 15 novels in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. The first, Tombs of Blue Ice, appeared in 1974 and the last, Jackstraw, was published posthumously in 2013. His work never gained the commercial success it deserved; maybe it was too atmospheric and literary for the genre crowd, and too plot-driven for the literati. Or maybe he didn’t put enough titles on the shelves, or maybe it was pure blind bad luck. Whatever the reason, his work is deserving of a revival.

Mr Faust’s work appeared in three distinct bursts. The first, and his most productive as far as number of titles published, was between 1974 and 1981. This period saw the publication of six novels, which tended to adventure with exotic locations and solitary heroes. Lean, beautiful, descriptive prose, linear storylines, and violence.

The final novel of this early writing period is titled Nowhere to Run, and its publication in 1981 would be Mr Faust’s last for 12 years. It is also one of a few Ron Faust novels I hadn’t read, until very recently, and while it isn’t as mature and ambitious as much of Mr Faust’s later work—In the Forest of the Night, When She Was Bad, etc.—it is an excellent adventure story with a strong sense of place, character, and a beautifully nuanced awareness of humanity.

David Rhodes is something of a bum. He was a professional tennis player, ranked as high as 147 in the world, living illegally in the Mexican coastal town of El Jardin de los Reyes, Garden of the Kings. He makes a meager living teaching tennis and raiding lobster traps. In the beginning, he meets an American girl who calls herself Strawberry Lassitude—

“Her eyes seemed illuminated from within. They were bright and metallic with craziness.”

—who is later found strangled at the bottom of a rocky cliff. The local police, in the form of one Captain Vigil, are desperate to solve the murder in a manner to reassure the town’s primary economic driver: tourism. Specifically, American tourists. The simplest solution. One American killing another, and, better, the killer an illegal guest of the seaside town, which makes David the ideal suspect.

Nowhere to Run is stylistically flashy, thematically subtle, and plotted for surprise. The natural, smooth flow of language is beautiful in its sparse and rich tones. It equally defines the characters, the landscape, and the story.

“Vigil half turned in his chair, raised a hand, and when the waiter arrived he ordered two more bottles of the mineral water. He smiled at David. He was not an ugly man until he smiled.”

“Brown pelicans folded their wings and made clumsy crosswind landings in the troughs between waves. The tops of the coconut palms were greenly incandescent in the sunlight but it was cool and dim in the shade below. Here, there was a soothing opacity, a rippling underwater sheen, while beyond the grove of trees the morning sun glazed the air and slowly devoured the shadows it had created.”

Nowhere to Run is simple, or appears so at its surface. The tale is straightforward—murder, man accused, and, after much turmoil, killer exposed—but its simplicity is misleading. The story is dependent less on plot than character. The actions of the characters, and the motive for those actions, are dominant and the plot becomes a rational extension to that dominance rather than the characters a prisoner of the plot. Its language is sharp, almost poetic in its descriptive prowess, and its building blocks are human morality, psychology, and frailty. The psychology, and morality, and frailty, are summarized quite nicely in the closing pages—

“He had spent most of that evening in the lounge of the Hotel El Presidente, drinking and playing liar’s poker with a couple of his pals. They had gambled with one-hundred-peso notes and Harry had lost about forty dollars. Not much money, but enough to sour his mood a little; he had never learned how to accept losing, hated it, regarded it as a little death—every time you lost, whether a dime or an argument or what the Asians call face, a chip was taken out of your self-esteem and you entered the next contest with that much less confidence. Losing was an accumulative poison like lead or arsenic; small doses did not appear to cause much harm, but they collected and in time…”

Nowhere to Run was originally published as a paperback original Fawcett Gold Medal in 1981, and it is currently available from Turner Publishing as a trade paperback and ebook. The essay “Ron Faust: An UnforgettableWriter” provides a bibliography and a little detail about Mr Faust’s work. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Foundation Trilogy"

The original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov consisted of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The three novels were based on eight stories published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950. The first title, Foundation, was published as a hardcover—packaged as a novel—by Gnome Press in 1951, and Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation followed in 1952 and 1953, respectively. I have read that Gnome Press paid royalties rarely and grudgingly.

The editions that caught my eye are mass market reprints from 1964 to 1966 by Avon. The covers are vintage 1960s—a psychedelic slant with detailed but simple images of man and beast and wonderful colors; forest green, sky blue, and burnt orange. The artist: Don Ivan Punchatz.     

Foundation (1966).

The opening sentence:

“HARI SELDON—…born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069.”

Foundation and Empire (1966).

The opening sentence:

“The Galactic Empire was falling.”

Second Foundation (1964).

The opening sentence:

“THE MULE. It was after the fall of the First Foundation that the constructive aspects of the Mule’s regime took shape.”

I am particularly fond of The Foundation trilogy; in my middle teens my mother purchased a trade paperback anthology published—in my memory—by Ballantine Books, which included all three novels. I devoured it, lived it. Loved it. And I really wish I still had that copy.  

This is the thirteenth 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.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Nina" by Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch is a legend. He is popularly known as a horror writer, but his production was wide and impressive. He wrote extensively in the crime, science fiction and horror genres. He had a particular skill at taking the style of one genre—hardboiled crime—and mixing it with the theme and expectations of another genre—horror. Think Psycho.

I recently read his short story “Nina” and I was impressed (to say the least). Nolan is an American running a plantation in the wild country of Brazil. The closest city: Manaus. The plantation’s only access is by boat, and Nolan isn’t completely comfortable with the workers. It’s not that they don’t work well, but rather it is their ceaseless drumming during the night. Add the heat. The humidity. The mosquitoes. And Nolan is a miserable man.

His life on the plantation changes when a woman appears. She is unknown to the local workers, and Nolan’s translator, Moises, calls her an “Indio” and “savage.” She soon becomes Nolan’s bedmate, and when his wife and child arrive to visit, Nolan’s world is shaken on its head.

“Nina” has all of the elements of a terrific horror story: a foreign and exotic location; a creepy and dark fabric; mysticism; outright strangeness; and a violent, and very peculiar, loss. It is very much horror, but it is brilliantly delivered with hardboiled prose, which provides a raw power—not to mention forward momentum—many horror stories lack:

“After the lovemaking Nolan needed another drink.

“He fumbled for the bottle beside the bed, gripping it with a sweaty hand. His entire body was wet and clammy, and his fingers shook as they unscrewed the cap. For a moment Nolan wondered if he was coming down with another bout of fever. Then, as the harsh heat of the sun scalded his stomach, he realized the truth.”

“Nina” is one of the better genre stories I have read. Its power is heady and visceral with a shadow-like quality; the narrative creates a shifting, soft focus, of the events. The characters feel real and the narrative is perfect. It captures the essence of the story and delivers it with an impressive blend of force and jaded subtlety most writers never achieve.

“Nina” originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1977. I read it in the anthology The Best Horror Stories Volume 1 edited by Edward L. Ferman and Anne Jordan. It was published by St Martin’s Press in 1988.

This was originally posted February 6, 2009, but since I have read a few Robert Bloch short stories recently, and reviewed his fantastic “The Hell-Bound Train” I thought it would be interesting to find some of my prior writings about Mr Bloch’s work. I also reviewed his stories “The Real Bad Friend” and “Lucy Comesto Town” in 2014.