Friday, February 27, 2009

PRISON OF ICE by David Axton

Dean Koontz is a marvelously talented and prolific writer. His work carries back decades; his first published novel was one-half of an ACE Double SF titled Star Quest. He started out writing science fiction, but his work has evolved and changed extensively since his early days. And in his early days, like many writers, he worked in various genres and venues—he wrote science fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and even gothic romance.

The bulk of Mr Koontz early work is out-of-print. I read once that when he hit the best-seller list he went on a buying frenzy—he purchased the rights of many of his early titles from the various publishers that owned them because he didn’t think most were worthy of marketing to his new, mainstream, audience. I’ve always admired that about Dean Koontz, but what I admire even more is his work. All of it, even the few titles I’ve read that he has made the decision to keep off the shelves, is pretty damn good.

I ran across his novel Prison of Ice in a thrift shop a few weeks ago and I couldn’t wait to crack it open. It was published in 1976 in hardcover by J.B. Lippincott, and then in mass market a year later by Fawcett Crest as by David Axton. It has since been updated—Koontz rewrote and republished it in 1995 as Icebound. He updated the technology and added something like 150 pages to the paperback. I’ve had Icebound in my collection for years, but never made time to read it, but when I found the original I couldn’t help myself.

A United Nations scientific team is conducting a research expedition in the hostile North Artic. They are studying the possibility of dislodging large segments of icebergs to transport and use as irrigation water in the western desert of the United States. The team consists of nine members, and when the novel opens eight are planting bombs in the ice in an attempt to separate a section from a large ice shelf.

A brutal storm is expected in the next few hours and the group is in a hurry to finish and get back to their base camp, but before they can a large tsunami-like wave hits the ice shelf—it was caused by multiple seismic incidents several hundred miles away on the ocean floor. The wave hits the ice shelf and separates the work area from the larger body of ice.

The team quickly realizes they are trapped on an iceberg that is slowly moving south with an artic blizzard brewing. Their only hope of escape are two trawlers several hundred miles away that can’t possibly forge through the bitter storm. They have limited supplies, and worse the bombs they planted are set to go off at midnight. Then, when their odds of survival are particularly bleak, one of their own is knocked unconscious in an attempted murder on the ice. No one knows who the murderer is, but everyone knows the murderer is a member of the expedition.

Prison of Ice is an homage to the work of Alistair MacLean—a fast and crisp thriller with enough betrayal, suspense, hardship—both from the physical elements and the intrigue of just who really is the bad guy—and adventure to keep the reader entertained without ever once questioning the very implausible action on the pages. There is even a tagline on the front cover that compares it to the work of Alistair MacLean—“Super suspense-adventure in the thrill-a-minute tradition of Alistair MacLean….”

The plot is sleek and fast. Mr Koontz moves the story quickly enough from crisis to crisis that the reader doesn’t have time to question and evaluate the happenings. Rather, the reader simply, and blissfully, straps in and enjoys the ride. The story is measured in time. It opens at 11:57am and closes twelve hours later. It is written in third person and the characters are built soundly enough to make them likable, and there are enough red herrings to keep the murderers identity a secret until the final climax.

The prose is perfectly matched to the story. It is sparse and stark without embellishment or unnecessary description: “Unclipping his flashlight from the tool belt that encircled his waist, he cut open the perfect blackness with a blade of light and looked at the snowflakes swirling inside.”

Prison of Ice is an excellent and entertaining novel. It is the only one of its kind and style that Dean Koontz has written, which is a shame because he has a knack for it. With that said, is it as good as MacLean’s early work? No, but still, it is a great and fun read that anyone who enjoys thrillers in this vain will absolutely love.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Trio of Charles Bronson Trailers

I'm not sure if I want to publicly admit this, but I've been on a Charles Bronson kick the last few months. I've watched a few of his films and really enjoyed each. I love his tough guy persona--it's so far over the top, but somehow, someway he always pulls it off. And with not more than a snicker or two. But I am pretty damn forgiving.

I looked at Bronson's IMDB list and he had an impressive number of credits. He started on television in 1949--was this the first season of TV ever?--as a guest star on something called "Fireside Theater". He then worked steadily until the late 1990s. He is best known for his tough guy roles in the late-1970s and 1980s, specifically the Death Wish films.

My favorite Bronson film--if you take out the large cast The Great Escape--is the western film Breakheart Pass, but I have fond memories of his Eighties roles; they all sort of blend together, but...I remember liking them. Although, how can help from liking the old vigilante / revenge tales of the 1980s?

Here are some of the trailers of the better Bronson films I've watched over the last couple months. Enjoy. And, be careful with the trailer for 10 to Midnight because there is a very brief flash of nudity at the beginning.

10 to Midnight



The Mechanic -- we watched this one last weekend, and if you watch closely (okay, you don't have to watch that closely) you'll notice a very young Jan-Michael Vincent. I saw this guy on an interview a few months ago and he looked like he is 900 years old. He does a pretty good job in this film.



The Evil That Men Do

Monday, February 23, 2009

Short Film: "The Long Silence After"

I ran across a film adaptation of a an Ed Gorman short story: "The Long Silence After". I haven't read the short story and I'm not sure if it has been collected and if so where it was collected. I checked the few Ed Gorman collections I have with no luck.

The film is good. I read on Gorman's blog it was produced by film students. It runs about eight minutes and it's a diversion well worth the time.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Saint with a Six-Gun" by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is known as a crime writer, but at the beginning of his career he wrote some pretty good westerns, both novels and short stories. In fact, many knowledgeable readers argue that some of Leonard’s best work was in the western field. My reading of his is work is not nearly complete enough to make that judgment, but I do know that of the Leonard stories and novels I have read, my favorites tend toward his western fiction.

I recently read his short story “Saint with a Six-Gun” and that notion was reinforced. Lyall Quinlan is a dreamer—he wants to be a lawman, but he is the type of guy who isn’t taken seriously. He is young, skinny, and just plain green. When the local Marshal brings in a known outlaw for murder Quinlan shows up at the right time. The badman—Bobby Valdez—is locked up in the jail and Bohannon, the Marshal, wants to go to his weekly poker game, but he needs and extra hand to help guard the prisoner. He happily gives the duty to Quinlan—only “temporarily, you understand.”


Quinlan ta
kes his duty seriously and doesn’t sleep a blink that first night, or any other night on that long week between Valdez’s sentencing and scheduled hanging. The only major problem is the boy begins to not only understand Valdez, but also actually like him and feel a touch of empathy. A situation that will very likely spell trouble for everyone involved, especially one Lyall Quinlan. “Saint with a Six-Gun” is nearly a perfectly executed short story. It is written in Leonard’s patented sharp and sparse prose with a touch of subtle humor and enough humanity to populate a full-length novel. The characters have the feel of flesh, from Quinlan’s naïve devotion to Bohannon’s and Valdez’s cynicism.

The story is told in third person, but it has an intimacy that attracts the sympathies of the reader to the story and its participants. The plot is pretty basic, which is exactly what Mr. Leonard intended as he leads you down the expected path until the moment he pulls the rug out. It is surprising and humorous with a mild jest at justice—the poetic kind.

“Saint with a Six-Gun” was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Argosy. It is currently available in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and Blood Money and Other
Stories.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Quintet of Alistair MacLean Trailers

I started out this evening cruising through IMDB looking for films based on the novels of Alistair MacLean and I ended up at YouTube watching the trailers for a few. They reminded me of two things: 1) how much I like the work of Alistair MacLean; 2) how much I like some of the films based on the work of Alistair MacLean.

So here are five trailers for five films based on the work of Alistair MacLean.

The Guns of Navarone




Ice Station Zebra



Where Eagles Dare



Breakheart Pass



Bear Island


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

THE THIRD ILLUSION by Harrison Arnston

David Baxter is a wanted man. He is a former CIA operative who, six years earlier, stopped a terrorist attack and in the process killed a man named Nadi Amur. Amur was the leader of a small Palestinian terrorist organization that will do anything to kill Baxter. David took an early retirement from the Agency and now lives a secluded life in a California mountain town. His new name is Jack Slade and no one but a select group knows where he went or even if he is still alive.

Baxter’s carefully planned life explodes when a wealthy businessman with political ambitions and a wayward daughter contacts him. He wants David to find his estranged daughter so he can make amends in a very public way. Baxter takes the job against his own better judgment and finds the girl in short order. Unfortunately the whole thing feels too easy, like he is being led down a carefully arranged path. And when the businessman releases a recent photo of Baxter along with his real name his carefully arranged world crumbles.

The Third Illusion is a 1990s thriller with a perfect set-up and delivery. The narrative is first person and the prose is clean and simple. It is loaded with dialogue that sounds just right and enough–but not too much—philosophy scattered into the storyline to make it interesting.

“I didn’t answer. Instead, I opened my attaché case, removed Ronald Webster’s business card, and threw it on the bed. “This guy works for Steel. He’s the one who bearded me at John Gull’s funeral. He got a good look at my car, and I sensed he knows who I am. In fact, he’s the only person in the last few weeks who’s had a look at my car, other than some people I trust.”

The style and narrative give the The Third Illusion the feel of a private eye novel with a heady dose of thriller plotting. The prose is medium-boiled—not too smooth, but certainly lacking the aggressive and gritty toughness of hardboiled. The characters are standard, but likable and interesting within the context of the story. And the story absolutely zooms! It runs 452 pages in mass market, but it doesn’t feel nearly that long.

The Third Illusion is an example of some of the better genre pulp of the early 1990s. It is entertaining, swift, and damn fun. The plot is tricky without any gimmicks and while the climax stretches belief a bit, it is done expertly enough that the reader doesn’t much care.

The Third Illusion was published by Harper in 1993—it was a paperback original. It was Harry Arnston’s second to last novel and it was, if not his best novel, damn near the top of his body of work. But his work improved with each novel and I can only imagine what he would be producing now.

To read some biographical information about Harry Arnston click Here.

Other Gravetapping reviews of Harry’s work:

Act of Passion
The Venus Diaries

Friday, February 13, 2009

ENDGAME by James Elliott

A couple fishing buddies—both former Delta Force operators—are camped by a remote lake in the Canadian wilderness. They are old friends, but their lives have drifted apart and this trip is the first in six years. It’s been two great weeks of fishing, hiking, leisure and lot of catching up. As the sun begins to set on the final evening of their trip they spot the flicker and glare of a Lear jet approaching hard and steep. Its engines are silent and it appears to be making an attempt to land on the small mountain lake. It hits the lake’s surface fast and bounces back into the air and then hits hard several hundred yards into the forest.

The pair of former operators swiftly move to the crash site and find the crew dead along with a very unexpected cargo—three large black nylon bags stuffed with $20,000,000. The two men—Eddie Barnes and Ben Stafford—make an easy decision. They decide to keep the money and split it even. Unfortunately the money belongs to some pretty unsavory characters who will go to any length to retrieve their property and it doesn’t take them long to discover who took the money and execute a plan to get it back.

Endgame is one of the better straight thrillers I’ve read in the past few years. The plot is exciting and it is loaded with tradecraft and technical spy and tracking stuff without being burdensome. The action is nicely paced—it doesn’t have the low and slow spots that inhabit many thrillers—and the prose is swift and very much in the style made popular by Tom Clancy in the 1980s; although a little more solid and just a shade more literate.

The characters are exactly as are expected from this type of novel: tough, lightly developed with just enough backstory—most of it military experiences—to raise the characters from straight cardboard to interesting and likable. The novels major flaw is its climax—it diffused the storyline into a strange oblique web that was not quite satisfactory. But the journey was one hell of a ride, enough so that I could forgive the ending and wish that Mr. Elliott were still producing novels.

The British publisher Piatkus originally published Endgame in 2000; as far as I know it was never published in the United States. It was written by J.C. Pollock as by James Elliott. I’ve written several posts about the Pollock-Elliott connection:

J.C. Pollock Update
J.C. Pollock Update 2

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Covers of H.M.S. Ulysses

Over at the Rap Sheet a few days ago J. Kingston Pierce posted, in response to a meme, the different covers of the Erle Stanley Gardner novel--as by A.A. Fair--Turn on the Heat. I wasn't tapped for this one, but I'm going to do it anyway. I love cover artwork; specifically paperback artwork and I have been known to grab different editions of the same novel when I stumble across them.

My choice is H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean. It was published in 1955 and it was MacLean's first novel. I've read it a few times and it gets better with every read--the action is fast, the plot is tricky, and it is vintage Alistair MacLean. It should be I guess, since it was his first.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about H.M.S. Ulysses:

"The novel features a light cruiser, one of a unique type similar to the real Dido class cruisers (MacLean had served on HMS Royalist of that class), extremely well armed and one of the fastest ships in the world. But her crew is pushed well beyond the limits of endurance, and the book starts in the aftermath of a mutiny on board. The Ulysses puts to sea again to escort a vital convoy FR-77 (based on the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17) heading for Murmansk. Predictably, all elements have a part to play against them: an unusually fierce arctic storm, the German ships and U-boats, as well as airborne attacks, all slowly decimate the convoy from 32 ships to only 5. The Ulysses herself is lost, fittingly, in a failed attempt to ram into an attacking cruiser, after all her other weapons had been destroyed. There is a true story of HMS Rawalpindi an armed Merchant Cruiser that sacrificed itself"




























The obvious cover scan missing up top is the Fawcett edition. Maybe I'll post it later. Maybe.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Peekers"

There is an excellent short film available on the web for free. The title: Peekers; it is based on a short story by Kealan Patrick Burke. Mark Steensland directed it, Rick Hautala wrote the screenplay and Richard Chizmar produced it.

It runs about eight minutes and it is worth a look.

Go Here to watch

Friday, February 06, 2009

"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 fields. Mr Bloch 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. It is the story of Nolan, an American running a plantation in the wild country of Brazil. The closest city is Manaos and it is accessible only by boat. The workers are something that Nolan can’t quite get comfortable with. They work well enough, but they pound their drums incessantly at night. Add to that the heat. The humidity. The mosquitoes. And you have a pretty lonely and miserable guy.

His small world changes when a strange woman appears at the plantation. No one knows her and when Nolan asks his translator Moises if he knows who she is, he calls her an “Indio” and “savage.” It’s not long before the woman is sharing Nolan’s bed and when his wife and child come to spend a few weeks at the plantation Nolan’s world is rocked.

“Nina” has all of the elements of a terrific horror story: a foreign and exotic location; a creepy and dark fabric; mysticism; strangeness; and a violently peculiar loss. But it is also delivered in a perfect hardboiled prose that gave the story a raw power that many horror stories are missing:

“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 the best short story I have read in some time. Its power is heady and visceral with a strange shadow-like quality. 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 that most writers could never achieve.

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

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Book Trailer: Greasing the Pinata by Tim Maleeny

A few months ago—November 10th when I actually checked and wondered where the hell time goes—I posted a review of a short story by Tim Maleeny titled “Hardboiled”. It was a terrific short—if you want to read the review go Here.

Mr Maleeny has a new novel out from Poisoned Pen Press titled Greasing the Pinata. I started it a few days ago and so far it is also great. The book trailer is what first sparked my interest in the novel.

Here it is…

Sunday, February 01, 2009

BOSTON BLITZ by Don Pendleton

I’ve “rediscovered” The Executioner over the last year. I voraciously read this series as a teenager and somewhere between eighteen and twenty I completely lost track of the older titles as well as the current books in the series. I viewed them as nothing more than fond memories solidly in the rearview mirror of my reading, but like much of what I read Mack Bolan has cycled back into my reading pile. The most recent title I read is the twelfth in the series: Boston Blitz.

Boston Blitz is one of the original Mack Bolan novels; it was written by Don Pendleton and published by the old Pinnacle Books in 1972. I have it on good authority that Boston Blitz was Pendleton’s favorite executioner title and after reading it I can understand why. It is exactly what this type of novel is supposed to be: fast, lean, hard and very rough.

As the title suggests Bolan’s twelfth war ground is Boston, but this time it’s a little more personal than a few of the earlier hits. The Boston mob has kidnapped Mack’s kid brother—Johnny—and girlfriend Valentina Querente.

The novel opens at a mob hangout with Bolan blasting a low-level mob boss named Julio LaRocca. When the audience is properly attentive he tells them to spread the word he is in town and ends it with:

“Tell them! I’m here. Tell them someone knows why! Tell them.”

The plot moves quickly and without a hitch. The action is explosive and exciting, but there isn’t nearly as much action as you would expect. It is paced expertly and the action is used moderately to emphasize and catapult the story from one twist to another. Bolan is a super-hero; more comic book hero than anything else, but Mr Pendleton clutters the narrative with a visually tired, worn out and burdened Mack Bolan. Not so much that it gets tiresome, but rather just enough to make the guy likable and human.

The prose is very hardboiled:

“Yeah, all too familiar. Bolan threw off a tremor of revulsion—for himself, for the world he adopted—then he steeled himself and dropped into the reality of War Everlasting.”

And it—the prose—matches the action and mood of the novel perfectly. There is no humor. There is only sorrow and sadness in the manner of the outsider, very much like the hero of a traditional Western that saves a society that cannot tolerate him or his actions.

Boston Blitz is the best The Executioner novel I have read and if you think you know the work of Don Pendleton and you haven’t read it you should. You might be surprised how good these novels can be. And you might be surprised that Don Pendelton was a pretty fair storyteller who not only created a genre, but worked that genre better than anyone else ever has.

Other Don Pendleton reviews:

COPP FOR HIRE
COPP ON FIRE

Reviews for Executioner Novles not written by Don Pendleton:

#63 DAY OF MOURNING by Stephen Mertz
"Early Fire" by Stephen Mertz