Tuesday, January 20, 2015

ACROSS THE HIGH FRONTIER by William Lundgren

I generally don’t write much about nonfiction, but I recently read a slim volume about Chuck Yeager’s experience breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 in 1947: Across the High Frontier by William R. Lundgren. The version I have is a mass market published by Bantam in the late-1980s. The title page is missing, which, when I discovered it, really bothered me for a few reasons, but mainly because it made it more difficult to determine when, exactly, it was published. Fortunately there is the Internet. Its original publication date was November 2, 1955.

The missing title page is only one of the oddities of the book. The book is a “would you look at how great this guy is (and how long suffering his wife and family are)?” story that, while appealing in a Hollywood manner, wears thin after the first several dozen pages. It is presented in three distinct parts—1. Yeager’s selection as the X-1’s test pilot, 2. Yeager’s World War 2 experience, and 3. Yeager’s experience flying the X-1 and ultimately breaking the sound barrier. The oddity of the presentation is twofold. The first is the use, in sections one and three, of a second person perspective. It is presented as though the reader is Chuck Yeager—

“That’s all you’d done since1943, dogfighting. You could take care of yourself in almost anything that would fly. You could wax almost every one of the flight test pilots with whom you worked. You had a rough idea of what you could do.”

The second person narrative was disruptive—I had to reread a few passages to figure out exactly who “you” was—until I got comfortable with it. And I really did get comfortable with it. Every time my eyes saw “you” my brain read “Chuck”. The other oddity was the author’s use of dialogue, which decreased its credibility rather than increase it. There were conversations between Chuck Yeager and other pilots. Chuck Yeager and engineers. Chuck Yeager and his wife. Chuck Yeager and nearly everyone. All conversations I can’t imagine the author heard, which made me doubt, and doubt is the death of any literature—fiction or nonfiction.

With that said, I actually enjoyed the book. I didn’t know much about Chuck Yeager before I opened its pages, and the most interesting section of the book was the second, which detailed Mr Yeager’s World War 2 experiences. He was shot down over France in 1944. His P-51 was shot down on March 4, and he escaped across the Spanish border March 28. The detail is interesting—there is an enjoyable scene as he tries to communicate with a local farmer on the first day, and it rapidly (too rapidly, really) chronicles his journey, with significant French Partisan help, through France across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.

The third section also had its moments. It includes some interesting technical aspects of the X-1 in an understandable manner—it only had something like three minutes of powered flight time. There is an exciting scene where Mr Yeager is, for the first time, entering the X-1’s cockpit while attached to the belly of its B-29 escort. The air lashing him as he descended the ladder from the B-29. There is the flight the sound barrier is exceeded. Mr Yeager broke a rib in a horse riding incident a few days prior and successfully hid it from everyone so he could keep his seat in the cockpit.

Across the High Frontier is as flawed a nonfiction book I have read. Its second person narrative is disruptive, and just plain strange. Its inappropriate use of dialogue—dialogue its author never could have heard, and the participants never could have remembered in specific detail—decreased its believability. But. And there really is a “but” here. I enjoyed it. Is it historically accurate? Not sure, really, but I have a feeling at least some of the details are probably a little inaccurate—personal interactions, specific meals, etc. The timeline is very likely accurate since it matched the detail from several online sources, and its overall story is really interesting.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stark House Press: The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers by Ed Gorman

Stark House Press has released a two-fer of Ed Gorman’s private eye fiction. The titles are two of Mr Gorman’s best: The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers.

Jack Dwyer is Mr Gorman’s first private eye. The series ran five novels and The Autumn Dead is the best of the group. It is also one of Ed’s best novels. It is a thoughtful, melancholy journey that is heavy on working class angst. The Autumn Dead originally appeared in 1987. The legendary critic and crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes said:

The Autumn Dead, with its depth, its heartbreak, and its melancholy hope, is a new and important kind of American mystery.”  

Scotland on Sunday added:

“Ever since I read The Autumn Dead, I’ve rated Gorman as highly as Crumley, Ellroy and Burke.”

The Night Remembers is a standalone. It features time weary and nostalgic retired police officer Jack Walsh. A man who has problems younger than his age—a young son with a woman nearly half his age—and a character I wish had seen one more case. It first appeared in 1991. Andrew Vachss said:

“Takes crime detection to the dark edge of man-made horror.”

San Diego Union added:

The Night Remembers is a gem [and] an ingenious story.”

The best part the Stark House Press edition, aside from the two brilliant novels, are the two introductions. The first is from Stark House regular Rick Ollerman—who is an excellent critic and writer on his own merits—and the other from the relative newcomer Benjamin Boulden, which is actually me.

The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers is available at most of the online retailersAmazonand also at Stark House’s website. It is a very nice trade paperback, and book purchase you will not regret.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Visual Pulp: The Ace Double Titles of Jack Bickham

Jack Bickham died of lymphoma in July 1997 at the of 66. He is best remembered as a teacher of writing. He wrote several successful, and still in print, how-to writing titles for Writer’s Digest and he lectured in the journalism department at the University of Oklahoma. While he is mostly remembered as a teacher, Mr Bickham was also a fine novelist. He wrote in several genres; mystery, suspense, Western, and science fiction. His most successful novels, stylistically, thematically and commercially, were his Brad Smith suspense novels. A series that featured an aging tennis pro who is also something of a semi-pro spy. The Brad Smith novels were published by TOR/Forge between 1989 and 1994. See the line up here.

The Brad Smith novels were written and published late in Mr Bickham’s career. A career that began in the pulp paperback era. It started with one the pulpiest producers of all: Ace Books. He wrote seven novels for Ace between 1958 and 1961; each as one-half of a double. Six Westerns and a lonesome mystery. The covers are lurid, and the writing is brief and stark. These titles are different than his later work, but also the same. They are certainly shorter (mostly running about 125 pages in mass market), and absolutely by the hand of a writer still learning his craft, but, much like his later work, each is strong on sensible plotting, reliable cause and effect action, and entertaining and likable characters. 

Below is a list of Mr Bickham’s work published by Ace. The pertinent information is all there: title,year published, Ace serial number, and the companion book. And, more importantly, a nice fresh, newly minted, scan of the coverfront and backof each book. 

Gunman’s Gamble. Ace D-308. Published in 1958 with Draw and Die! By Roy Manning. The first sentence:
“The sky had already begun to streak with pink and purple of nightfall when he rode to town, but the townsfolk came alive when they saw him.” 





















Feud Fury. Ace D-384. Published in 1959 with Mountain Ambush by Louis Trimble. The first sentence:
“‘Trouble’ Clayton Hartung muttered.”





















Killer’s Paradise. Ace D-442. Published in 1960 with Rider of the Rincon by Rod Patterson. The first sentence:
“The eleven men stopped their steaming horses at the crest of the treeless hilltop and paused for just a moment, still in the driving, cruel July Kansas rain.”





















The Useless Gun. Ace D-462. Published in 1960 with The Long Fuse by John A. Latham. Read the Gravetapping reviewThe first sentence:
“Four killers, honed to perfection in a series of raids and county seat wars, rode west out of Dallas County, Texas.”




















Dally with a Deadly Doll. Ace D-489. Published in 1961 with Somebodys Walking Over My Grave by Robert Arthur. The first sentence:
“‘Celery’ said Larry Crystal”




















Hangman’s Territory. Ace D-510. Published in 1961 with The Searching Rider by Harry Whittington. The first sentence:
“The late spring storm was breaking.”




















Gunmen Can’t Hide. Ace F-120. Published with Come in Shooting by John Callahan. The first sentence:
“The winter of 1880 had been cruel in Colorado.” 





















This post originally went live January 17, 2010 in a very different form. The text was adjusted (hopefully for the better) and the book images were changed out for the bigger and better versions. I hope you enjoy.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

MURDER AS A FINE ART by David Morrell

David Morrell is anything but predictable. His first novel, First Blood, was a brilliant action piece that introduced the now iconic character Rambo—christened “John,” made less lethal, and given a very Sly Stallone humanity, not to mention slur, in the film version. The 25 novels, and more than 40 years, that followed (so far) he has written a Western—The Last Reveille—horror—The Totem, Long Lost, and Creepers—and more than a few thrillers—The Brotherhood of the Rose, Fraternity of the Stone, The League of Night and Fog, etc. The common theme? There are two, actually: 1. high quality, almost literary, action oriented violence, and 2. fear.

His latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, is another seeming departure from his usual. It is an historical mystery set in Victorian England, but it is very much stamped with Mr Morrell’s “you are there” action and descriptive style—

“Vomit was on the floor. The books were disarranged. One of them was open, vandalized, a page having been ripped from it.”

The protagonist is a frail, hopelessly opium addicted, 69 year old essayist named Thomas De Quincey. Mr De Quincey is an historical figure whose 1821 essay “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” an early example of the ever popular addiction genre, caused an uproar in the tightly buttoned Victorian culture. “Confessions” is the basis for the character Thomas De Quincey, but the basis of the novel’s plot is a true-crime, and likely satirical essay, written by Mr De Quincey titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” “Murder” details the Ratcliffe Highway killings in a poor section of 1811 London. A murder spree that paralyzed England in its entirety, as Mr Morrell explains in his Introduction—

“But in fact the panic that resulted from the Ratcliffe Highway killings was far worse and more widespread [than the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888] because those multiple murders were the first of their kind to become common knowledge throughout England, thanks to the growing importance of newspapers….”      

The year is 1854. It is a cold December night when a man reenacts the original Ratcliffe Highway murders. He kills a shopkeeper, his wife, two children—one a baby still in its crib—and a servant. The method of the killings is identical to the original murders. A mallet to the head and a knife slash across the throat. The original killings were followed 12 days later by the murder of another family in a London tavern. A merchant seaman was arrested Christmas Eve, and killed himself before trial.

The murders of 1854 have the same effect as the original 1811 murders: panic. The city’s populace is frightened, and everyone is suspect; particularly anyone who is different. A foreigner in general, and Irish in particular. The London Police Department is less than thirty years old, small, and the science, or perhaps art, of detection—reading a crime scene, forensics (footprints, etc.)—is in its infancy. The lead detective, who is one of eight plainclothes officers in London, is a redheaded Irishman named Detective Inspector Sean Ryan. He conceals his red hair, and therefore his Irish beginnings, under a newspaperboy’s cap. It is unfortunate racism and hate is relevant to every generation.

When the police commissioner connects the original murders, committed when he was a boy, to the current murder spree, Thomas De Quincey’s essay on the subject becomes of interest. When it is learned that De Quincey is in London on a publicity tour he, despite his age and frailty, becomes a suspect. Traveling with Mr De Quincey is his 21 year old daughter Emily; a young woman who is something of a progressive—she chooses to wear bloomers rather than the more appropriate, and much heavier, hoop dresses—and very industrious. A significant portion of the novel’s narrative is in journal form, written by Emily. She is an alluring mixture of Sherlock Holmes’s Dr Watson, and Bram Stoker’s Mina Murray.

The momentum of the novel is the multiple murders, but it is the atmosphere, and the setting that consume it. It is written with a tense, immediate style. The thick, acrid fogs of the city “smelled of chimney ashes.” The description of a large city without real lighting, electricity. A police force in its infancy, and a palpable terror. The narrative—aside from Emily De Quincey’s journal entries—is third person omniscient, which is used effectively to describe and explain setting—

“The color of laudanum is ruby. It is a liquid that consists of 90 percent alcohol and 10 percent opium. Its taste is bitter. A Swiss-German alchemist invented it in the 1500s when he discovered that opium dissolved more effectively in alcohol than water. His version included crushed pearls and gold leaves.”    

Thomas De Quincey reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. His participation in solving the crime is deductive. He accurately identifies the key elements of the mystery—what is known, and what that knowledge means—to create a profile of the killer. He also enlists the help of gang of homeless men and boys to act as lookouts.

De Quincey and Emily are fully developed characters. Likable and believable. The remaining characters, including Sean Ryan and the killer, are less developed, which creates an oddly effective Victorian potboiler—Emily and De Quincey are sharply in focus, but the picture softens as it moves from the center. It allows the plot to develop in ways that are more modern than the historical setting (at least literarily), and also creates an uncertainty of narrative that heightens the tension.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: The Year in Reading

2014 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 64 titles, and will likely finish one more—Logan’s Search by William F. Nolan. I surpassed last year’s mark by nine. The majority of the titles were fiction, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too. The nonfiction tended towards history and true crime, which included a number of interesting titles including A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger and My Silent War by Kim Philby.

I entered 2014 with two reading goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2013 I read only five authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, but the second goal was an abject failure. I only read one book—a nonfiction book titled Dirt, Water, Stone: A Century of Preserving Mesa Verde by Kathleen Fiero. So, 2015 will have to be the year of the woman in my reading list.

I became acquainted with the work of eight authors in 2014: Andrew Hunt (City of Saints), Richard Hoyt (Trotsky’s Run), J. J. Maric (Gideon’s Staff), Stephen Overholser (Shadow Valley Rising), Steve Brewer (Baby Face), Michael Parker (The Eagle’s Covenant), Robert Parker (Passport to Peril), and Gregg Loomis (The Julian Secret). The best of the “new”—not so new really since it was published in 1982—was Richard Hoyt’s Trotsky’s Run.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 24 titles, which is approximately 38 percent of the total for 2014. I read nine by Harry Patterson, eight by Ed Gorman, four by Garry Disher, and three by Lawrence Block. I had a few special projects that inflated the number of titles read by specific authors including my ongoing initiative to read and review all of Harry Patterson’s early novels—34 novels published between 1959 and 1974—interviews with Garry Disher and Ed Gorman, not to mention an Introduction I wrote for Stark House Press’s forthcoming release of Mr Gorman’s classic private eye novels The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers. An omnibus I recommend absolutely.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2014. No rules, except no repeats. If I read it in a prior year it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2014 are—

5.  Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell. The work of David Morrell has been a staple of my reading since my teens, and I generally read his new work as it is released. Murder, however, was an exception. I waited more than eighteen months from its release before reading it, which was a mistake because it is, simply put, fantastic. It is a Victorian novel—think of the journal entries of Dracula mixed with the sophisticated mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and the setting and description of Charles Dickens—but also very modern, and very David Morrell.   
   
4.  Trotsky’s Run by Richard Hoyt.  Trotsky’s Run is my first experience with the work of Richard Hoyt.  It was published in 1982 by William Morrow, and I ran across the mass market edition released by TOR in 1983.  It is an espionage novel with a cleverly devised plot, humor, a little tradecraft, a bunch of history—both now and then—and a somewhat satirical view of cold war paranoia. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Goin’ by Jack M. Bickham. Goin’ is a running-from-age novel rather than a coming-of-age novel. Stan is middle-age. He has a wife, now ex-wife, and a daughter. He is miserable, empty, and searching for something to make things better. He buys a small Honda street bike and hits the road. He finds adventure in the same vein as a 1960s television show—think Route 66. It has the feel of a coming-of-age tale, but it is shadowed with a darkness and cynicism that comes only with age and experience. Goin’ spoke to me—I, somehow, am inching in to middle age. I understood the struggles, and fears of the protagonist. Read the Gravetapping review.   

2.  Whispering Death by Garry Disher. This is the sixth, and most recent, entry in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series of crime novels. It is a police procedural of the best kind. It is human, interesting, and entertaining. The antagonists are a serial rapist, and a brilliantly executed professional criminal named Grace. The beauty of this novel, and everything written by Mr Disher, is the crafty manner information is kept from the reader—from back stories to motive.   

1.  Strangers by Bill Pronzini. 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. It 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.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Real Nice Guy" by William F. Nolan

“His name was Jimmie Prescott and he is thirty-one years of age. Five foot ten. Slight build.”

He is a loner. A sniper. A killer. The sort of sniper who sets up over a busy city street and randomly chooses a target. A victim. It is the spontaneity that thrills him, and, by his own reckoning, he is the best. The best because he has 41 notches on his rifle, and, while there have been a few close calls, he has no real fear of capture.

“A Real Nice Guy” is a stylish crime story written by William F. Nolan, a favorite author of mine, originally published in the April 1980 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It is something of a battle of sociopaths—both bad, of course—and while the ending is less than surprising the journey is ideal. The prose is smooth and, especially the non-dialogue narrative, is something like a brassy jazz riff—

“He was a master. He never missed a target, never wasted a shot. He was cool and nerveless and smooth, and totally without conscience.”

It is short. Third person, and very much worth seeking out. But, in the interest of fairness, that is exactly what I think of all Mr Nolan’s short work.

I read “A Real Nice Guy” in The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, published in 2013 by Running Press, and edited by Maxim Jakubowski.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

The Graveyard Shift is the fifteenth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1965. It is the first of three novels featuring University of London graduate, Mini-Cooper driving, all around sharp guy—if a little coarse and hard—Detective Sergeant Nick Miller.

Ben Garvald, an independent street thug, is released from England’s Wandsworth Prison—in Southwest London—after nine years of a ten year tab. Garvald and two partners robbed a Birmingham steel plant of a $15,000 payroll. In the ensuing chase one of the crooks was killed, one captured—Garvald—and one walked away clean. Now, Garvald his headed back home and he is definitely not wanted. Three street toughs are hired to discourage him, and his ex-wife’s sister asks CID to have a word with him.

Enter Detective Sergeant Nick Miller. An educated copper with money, drives his own Mini-Cooper on the job, an expert in karate and judo, and has a style all his own. He wears a stylish cap called “Schildtmutze”—no idea what it is, but the hipsters all seem to like it. Miller is tasked with finding Garvald, and warning him off, but, as expected the set up isn’t exactly what it seems and the only sure thing? Ben Garvald is at the center of everything.

The Graveyard Shift is a little different (but also the same) from Mr Patterson’s usual. The prose, and the protagonist are hardboiled. It is a straight 1960’s crime novel, but the plotting is old school Harry Patterson—linear, clean and a study of complex simplicity. There is the main storyline—propelled by Garvald as antagonist—and several supporting subplots including an attempted murder of a police constable.

There is also a relatively large cast of characters. The most interesting is an American jazz pianist, hero of the big war, and heroin addict named Chuck Lazer. Lazer is something of a forerunner for Mr Patterson’s Liam Devlin—disillusioned, wisecracking (and even a little wise) Irish rogue from The Eagle Has Landed. The difference. Lazer is more than just disillusioned. He is also a drug addict, which is described depressingly well—

“On top of a small bedside locker were littered the gear that told the story. A hypodermic with several needles, most of them dirty and blunted. Heroin and cocaine bottles, both empty, a cup still half-full of water, a small glass bottle, its base discolored from the match flame and a litter of burned-out matches.”

Unfortunately Nick Miller is less than compelling. He comes across as coarse and even (a little) mean; not to mention a little too cool. That isn’t to say The Graveyard Shift is a bad novel, but rather it would have been significantly more successful if the protagonist was more likable. It is a well-paced, interesting, and entertaining crime novel. It is very definitely of its era—it has a glossy-gritty 1960’s feel—drugs, hip, and distrust. There is betrayal, murder, and enough of the unknown to keep the reader turning pages.