Sunday, November 22, 2015

No Comment: "The November Man"

“It must be the same as deprogramming a Jesus freak: The intellectual argument never counted because there was no intelligence involved.”

—Bill Granger, The November Man (There are No Spies). Grand Central Publishing PB, 2014 (© 1986). Page 157. Lydia Neumann speaking to Margot Kieker.

[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "Fate of the Union"

My review of Fate of the Union—the second Reeder and Rogers thriller—by Max Allan Collins and Matthew Clemens is live and online at Ed Gorman’s blog. FU—I couldn’t resist—is an entertaining, fast paced political thriller with a crowd of shady characters and a bunch of action.

Purchase a copy of Fate of the Union at Amazon.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I’ve been knowingly reading the work of Stephen Mertz for nearly a decade; unknowingly since I was a teenager—all the way back in the late-1980s and early-1990s—devouring men’s adventure series novels like The Executioner and M. I. A. Hunter. He wrote some of the better non-Don Pendleton titles of the former, and created, writing many of the books, in the latter. In recent years he has broken away from series work and produced several high quality novels in a variety of genres—The Korean Intercept, Dragon Games, The Castro Directive, Fade to Tomorrow, Hank & Muddy, and others.

Mr. Mertz is primarily a novelist, but his career began with the sale of his short story, “The Busy Corpse,” in 1975 to the short-lived The Executioner Mystery Magazine. In the forty years since, and including that first sale, he has published “a mere twelve stories”—his words, not mine—and each is included in his collection, The King of Horror & Other Stories. The stories are as varied as his novels. There is an action story, “Fragged,” three featuring a P. I. named O’Dair, and an old-school pulp adventure yarn, “The Lizard Men of Blood River,” which is aptly dedicated to Lester Dent.

The best story in the collection, and they are all very good, is the title story, “The King of Horror.” In the Afterword Mr. Mertz describes it as “[a] cautionary tale for writers.” It features one Rigby Balbo, an aging writer angry at his irrelevance. Rig believes he is blacklisted by the industry and his fellow writers intentionally ignore the influence of his early work. But he has a plan to get even. A plan that turns blackly ironic for him, and darkly satisfying for the reader. I reviewed this story back in 2009.

“The Basics of Murder” is a straight P. I. story. O’Dair—no first name—is on vacation visiting an old friend who made the Army a career after Vietnam. O’Dair’s leisure time is cut short when an officer is killed on the firing range, and his friend asks him to look into it. What he finds is something altogether unexpected for both O’Dair and the reader.   

The Afterword is worth the price of admission alone. It details Mr. Mertz’s thoughts on each of the stories, and illuminates a little of the personal Stephen Mertz. A few of my favorites:

“The King of Horror” was written as “an open letter to” Michael Avallone; a popular writer of the paperback era, and close personal friend of Mr. Mertz, whose markets were gone and who felt some bitterness about it.

Stephen Mertz worked as a touring musician for seven years playing “the beer bar circuit.”  He played the harp—“blues lingo for amplified harmonica”—and vocals.

The King of Horror & Other Stories is pure entertainment. It showcases the work of an underappreciated writer whose talent and excitement is present in each tale. The style is quietly smooth, and the plotting is sharp and surprising. Mr. Mertz may not be a prolific writer of short stories, but what he does write is damn good.

Purchase a copy of The King of Horror and Other Stories at Amazon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Stars Like Dust"

The Stars Like Dust was originally published by Doubleday & Company as a hardcover in 1951. The edition that caught my attention was a mass market reprint published by Lancer 1968. The cover features what appears to be a happy star maker—shimmering red and blue stars cascading from his hands and a smile on his face. A horsehead nebula in the background. The artists: Kelly Freas.

The opening sentence:

“The bedroom murmured to itself gently. It was almost below the limits of hearing—an irregular little sound, yet quite unmistakable, and quite deadly.”

The Stars Like Dust was serialized as “Tyrann” by Galaxy. I’ve read Galaxy’s editor, H. L. Gold, who was notorious for changing story titles, changed the title to “Tyrann”, Mr. Asimov’s preferred title was used on its first book appearance. 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "Beating the Bushes"

My review of Christine Matthews’ fine novel Beating the Bushes is available at Ed Gorman’s blog. Beating the Bushes is a smoothly written and entertaining thriller.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

THE BABYSITTER by Andrew Coburn

“‘I don’t understand. I’m nobody. I’m not rich or famous or influential. I’m only a teacher. I don’t even have tenure.’”

John and Merle Wright arrive home from a movie to find the babysitter brutally murdered, and their 16-month old daughter missing. The only clue is the babysitter. Paula Aherne. A student at the local college, well-liked by the Wrights and wonderful with the baby. The investigation uncovers everything Paula told the Wrights to be a lie. She wasn’t enrolled at the school. Her childhood stories are false. And her name isn’t Paula.

The police investigation is empty, and two unscrupulous feds manipulate it for their own ends. The Wrights take matters into their own hands and start an amateurish investigation. An investigation that leads them into Paula’s past, and a lineup of unsavory characters.

The Babysitter is wholly original. Its setup is straight mystery—a murder, a kidnapping, a police investigation—but it unravels in unexpected ways. It is unsolvable by the reader and more suspense than mystery. The characters, excepting the Wrights, are secretive and frightening in a recognizable and common form. Everyone has a secret. It is nightmarishly real to a suburban audience in a bleak and satisfying manner.

The Babysitter was originally published in 1979, and it has new life with its recent Stark House Press trade paperback edition.

Monday, November 02, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "The Girl Without a Name"

For some reason Mystery Scene Magazine is allowing me to do a few book reviews for its print and online editions. The first is for Sandra Block’s entertaining novel The Girl Without a Name. It is available in Mystery Scene No. 141, and on its website. It is the first, but it won't be the last (with any luck).