Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The View" by Brian Garfield

I found an older issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the holiday weekend—July 1983—that contained a Brian Garfield story. It cost a princely two dollars; it didn’t take long to both purchase it and devour the Garfield story. Not long enough at all since the short stories of Brian Garfield are more difficult to find than one would think.

The story is titled “The View” and it is a California story—land developers, Hollywood actors, and deep muscle massage professionals. There is also a murder, a touch of adultery, a terrific view, and a condominium builder who wants to take it—the view—away.

Christopher works as a massage therapist, but his true ambition is as a screenwriter. He has several clients on a mountaintop overlooking the Los Angeles basin, and as the story opens he is at the front door of former film star Tom X. Todhunter—an 84 year-old veteran of both silent films and talkies. The old man doesn’t answer and when Christopher tries the knob it opens and he finds Todhunter looking forlornly out the large picture window at the back of his house.

It seems that his neighbor, also a client of Christopher’s, has purchased the surrounding properties with the intention to build a large condominium complex that will completely block Tom’s view. And he is less than excited about the prospect. He tells Tom that they need to stop it from happening, but damn if he knows how….

“The View” is pure fun. It is less mystery and more suspense. It is expertly plotted and written, just as one would expect from Mr Garfield, but there is also a touch of humor and poetic justice. The prose is understated and the story moves with a quick and light pace—it is made for reading, and it reads with a pleasant and expert smoothness. The characters are surprisingly well defined in short space, and the story is perfect for a lazy bedtime read.

“The View” is a professional and competent story and it begs the question; Why isn’t there a Brian Garfield collection available on the market. He is one of the defining writers of both suspense and western fiction from his generation and both his short work, and for the most part, his novels are largely forgotten. If anyone is listening, I will be the first in line to buy a Brian Garfield collection when it is published.

Friday, November 27, 2009

New Authors: 2009

Last year I participated in a meme that asked for a list of all the writers I read for the first time. I really enjoyed it. This year there has been no such meme, but J. Kingston Pierce over at The Rap Sheet made a list and I thought I would follow his lead.

The list is in order of reading. I excluded all non-fiction. I have also included any additional titles I read by the author in 2009. I added ten new fiction writers to my personal “read” library—the exact number as I added in 2008. Five of the 10 are pulp writers and the other five are contemporary, although the novels were original published anywhere from the mid-1990’s to 2009.

Stephen J. Cannell
On the Grind, February

Paul Harris
The Secret Keeper, April

Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath)
Afraid, May

W.L. Heath
Violent Saturday, May

Stuart Kaminsky
The Rockford Files: The Green Bottle, June
The Rockford Files: Devils on My Doorstep, September

J.M. Flynn
Deep Six, June

Robert Colby
The Quaking Widow, July

Sid Jacobson
Vlad the Impaler, October

Edmond Hamilton
Fugitive of the Stars, October

Merle Constiner
The Action at Redstone Creek, November
Guns of Q Cross, November

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Odds & Ends: Thanksgiving Style

1. My wife and I are going to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in style—in Las Vegas, Mojave, and maybe, just maybe Baker, California. It is where all the truly beautiful people go for holidays. So needless to say it’s going to be a little quiet around here for a few days.

2. If you are of the mind there is an interesting essay on the Dorchester website written by Ed Gorman about his recent Leisure release Death Ground. He gives an idea of its origin and even discusses a review that compared it to a Spaghetti Western. Click Here

3. I’ve been reading pulp writer Merle Constiner recently and he really had a knack for writing witty and downright funny dialogue. I finished his novel Guns at Q Cross yesterday and the following line has rattled through my head more than once:

"He'd be more at home with a green buffalo hide, behind a pile of manure."

And don’t forget that I am giving away a copy of Constiner’s The Action at Redstone Creek. The deadline is November 30, 2009. Click Here

4. This is probably old news to most of you, but I discovered a fantastic website that has .pdf files of hundreds of old pulp stories. The stories include the full text—very clean and easy to read—as well as any illustrations that ran with the story. The site is PulpGen.com. If you haven’t been there, you should take a look around. Click Here

5. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie


Nick Glass is a rookie prison guard in a Scottish prison. He has been on the job six weeks with mixed results—the other guards mock and make trouble for him and the inmates don’t respect him. At home he has a five-year old daughter and a wife. His wife tends to drink too much, and is just on the backside of an affair. To say Nick has a little stress is an understatement.

To make things worse Nick is approached by one of the inmates and asked to mule drugs inside. The inmate gives him two choices: 1) make an easy buck; or 2) his little family gets hurt in a big way. Nick is in big trouble as he desperately tries to protect his family at home and his own life at work.

Slammer is the sort of novel that creeps up on you in about three pages. It starts hard and strong and never lets up. Glass is a regular guy caught in a nasty and impossible situation. He doesn’t belong in the prison. He is a nice guy, both weak and sincere. He, much like his name, is prone to fracture. And Guthrie makes sure Glass does just that.

The novel opens with Glass in the office of the prison psychiatrist. It is a mandatory visit and Nick is less than pleased to be there. The psychiatrist is an instrument Mr Guthrie uses to foreshadow and then define the undoing of Nick Glass. He is a skewed sentiment of sanity in a dark and insane world. A world that envelopes Nick and threatens to destroy him. And Nick is the perfect object—he is prone to fantasy, and as the novel progresses, he begins to mistake his fantasy for reality. It is a trip into hell. A trip the reader knows is coming with each progressive sentence, paragraph and page, but is helpless to stop.

Slammer is a wonderfully executed novel. It is reminiscent of Guthrie’s first novel Two-Way Split, but it is better and executed with a higher skill set. It is short, 263 pages, but it does not lack meaning or story. The prose is hardboiled, lean and smart. The dialogue is crisp, and the atmosphere is weighty and oppressive. It is a fine example of the new noir: a hopeless, distraught and shameless (in a good way) vision of human condition.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Giveaway













This is a little different. I have been searching out novels by the pulp writer Merle Constiner, and in my enthusiasm I picked up two copies of his ACE Double The Action at Redstone Creek. And I want to give it away. It is numbered G-638, and it includes A Time to Shoot it Out (originally titled Renegade Guns) by Edwin Booth. The publication date is 1967.

If you are interested in adding this classic ACE Double to your collection send an email to zulu1611@yahoo.com with “Book Giveaway” in the subject line along with your name and the address you would like it shipped in the body of the email by Monday November 30 at 11:59pm MST. I will then select an entry at random, notify the winner and ship the book in early December.

I wrote a review for The Action at Redstone Creek a week or so ago; click Here to read it.

Also, I would love to hear about any old westerns you remember enjoying—titles or authors. Feel free to email me, or post a comment.

Note. The above scans are not of the actual book you will receive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins has been entertaining me since I was twelve or thirteen. I started with his bestsellers and then fell—literally—into his earlier work when I found several old paperbacks at a library sale. The titles included In the Hour Before Midnight, The Keys of Hell, and East of Desolation. I can still remember finding that cache—each of the books were Fawcett Gold Medal’s from the 1970s. They had those terrifically tight and sexy covers from the era, and the stories. What can I say about the stories except they were/are the best adventure thrillers I have ever read.

I’m reading one of Higgins’ early titles now—The Iron Tiger—and as often happens I did a search for Mr Higgins and found an article that appeared in Reuters this past January. I learned a few things—the first, is that 2009 marks his fiftieth year as a professional writer, and that he was diagnosed several years ago with an illness that made writing impossible. There is also a short interview where he discusses The Eagle Has Landed; how it was received, how it changed his life, and how his original publisher didn’t want it.

A snippet:

“CANBERRA (Reuters) - Novelist Harry Patterson, better known as thriller writer Jack Higgins, celebrates 50 years of writing this year, counting his blessing.

“Patterson, 79, was diagnosed about eight years ago with essential tremor syndrome, a progressive neurological disease, that made him shake so much that about two years ago he found he could not pick up a pen and was about to give up writing.

“But while suffering a seizure friend's house, he fell and knocked his head, ending up in hospital -- and overnight his tremors disappeared, allowing him to write again.”

To read the rest go Here.

To read a little appreciation I wrote last year go Here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mystery v. Thriller

This is an interesting (and very superficial) video interview with a few thriller writers about the difference between a thriller and a mystery. The writers each tend to define mystery as a traditional whodunit rather than a crime novel; although the lines between crime and thriller are heavily blurred. I tend to prefer modern crime and mystery novels to thrillers--modern thrillers tend to be too big and bombastic, and usually challenge my willful suspension of disbelief.

I do like the idea one of the authors had about mysteries (to paraphrase): they tend to be intellectually stimulating. He was speaking of the whodunit, but the major advantage of the crime novel is that it is a terrific vessel for social commentary, which is the element that draws me to it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

THE ACTION AT REDSTONE CREEK by Merle Constiner

I have been reading an unusually high number of westerns recently, and older westerns at that. I continued the trend with an ACE Double—one-half of an ACE Double—published in 1967; The Action at Redstone Creek by Merle Constiner (G-638). Mr Constiner’s work was unfamiliar to me—it was recommended by Ed Gorman—and I found it unusually literate, if not a bit odd, for an old genre western.

Mark Townsend is a gladly out of work tracker, but as the novel opens he is sitting at an ax-cut table in his rustic home staring at his final three silver quarters. He isn’t overly worried, but he is realistic—he doesn’t care for money, but he knows there are necessities only coin money can buy. His money problems only last—a page or two—until a dandy walks into his home and offers him a job.

The dandy, a man named Joe Teague, wants him to find his son who disappeared on his way to an engineering job at a mine in Idaho. The pay: one hundred dollars. Townsend takes the job, but quickly realizes Teague was less than honest with him, and the job is much more dangerous and involved than simply tracking a man. In fact, it isn’t too far into the story that he runs into a pair of toughs who have ill intentions towards Teague directly and Townsend indirectly.

The Action at Redstone Creek is vintage ACE—it starts with a bang and hurriedly moves from one scene to the next. There are gunfights, intrigues, cattle rustling, dueling ranchers, and lonely frontier dwelling men. The difference, or what separates it from most of the other ACE westerns, is the writing. It is fresh with a witty sense of humor. The prose and dialogue—not to mention a few of the situations and character relationships—is sharp, realistic and, at times, damn funny:

“It was midafternoon. He was staring at the quarters, trying to think of them in terms of cornmeal and fat pork, but thinking mainly what nice conchos they’d make, when the man stooped down and came through the door.

“‘No offense meant,’ said the stranger, ‘but for a white man’s shack, this place has a sort of stink, a little like Indian smell.’

“‘Thank you,’ said Townsend. ‘Maybe some kindhearted Indian sometime will say as much for you.’”

The story doesn’t do the expected, and the characters are never typical—they dress and walk like the typical western character, but their actions, language, and responses tend to shy away from genre norms. An example is Townsend. He is far from the archetypal hero in both appearance and form. He is described as: “thirty-four, short, a little humped, big nosed, almost lizard eyed, and pretty ragged for the gaze of any white man.”

The Action at Redstone Creek is different, but its unusualness separates it from the herd. It is a story that will appeal to readers of traditional westerns, but its quirky nature will also appeal to others who are less inclined to read a western.

When I read Redstone Creek I did a little research on the author and I was saddened by what I learned. He died broke (the plight of many pulp writers) and alone. His life reminded me of Townsend's, particularly the opening scene when Townsend is staring at his final three quarters.

There is a detailed article at Pulp Rack about the life and work of Merle Constiner. It is titled "The Hunt for Merle Constiner" and written by Peter Ruber. Read the article, and then find one of Constiner's novels.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trailer: The Killer Inside Me

This is an extended trailer for the upcoming release of the The Killer Inside Me. It is based on the novel by Jim Thompson. It really looks good; a little violent, but good. It stars Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Alba. It was directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is coming in 2010.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WEAVEWORLD

I have almost no experience with the work of Clive Barker. I have seen a few movies based on his stories, and know his name. And that is it. A few days ago I was thumbing through my wife’s bookshelf and pulled Barker’s Weaveworld down and read the first few pages. I was stunned; both the prose and deep current of meaning were beautiful.

I haven’t read Weaveworld yet—it is an intimidating 700 pages—but I have read the opening few paragraphs a dozen or more times over the past few days. It captures the essence of how story relates to society, and how the story becomes an extension of the society that tells it. But Mr Barker writes it so much better…

“Nothing ever begins.

“There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

“The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

“Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

“Nothing is fixed. In and out a shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.”

Sunday, November 08, 2009

ISIS by Douglas Clegg

I have been a fan of Douglas Clegg’s work for several years. I first discovered him through his novel The Infinite. A spooky and enchanting haunted house story, which turned out to be the third novel in the Harrow series. Harrow is an old estate in the Hudson Valley that has seen more than its share of evil. The books all feature Harrow, but they are each very different—each explores the haunted place from a different angle and time, and each is very, very good.

I recently read a new Douglas Clegg story that reminded me, just a little, of my first experience with his writing. It is a novella published in hardcover and fully illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne. The title: Isis.
Iris Villiers is a young girl—lonely and isolated—in the family estate. Her father is steadily away with his work, and her mother is ill with tonic and despair. Iris’s only joy is her brother Spence. The two wander the large estate and play. They create games and, based on a play they performed one summer, they take to calling each other Isis and Osiris. Their world is one of fortune, if a bit empty, until an accident changes Iris forever.

Isis is a haunting tale. It has the feel of a fairy-tale blackened with a supernatural yearning and loneliness. It chronicles the tenuous grasp humanity has on its destiny and how tightly we are held by the past. The prose is simple and wispy—it is the voice of a girl who never really had much, but who is desperate to keep the little she does have.

It is short—113 pages with a dozen or more black and white illustrations—but the meaning and intricacies of the story linger long after the book is closed. Isis is a genre story with teeth. It is literate, interesting, entertaining and very, very smooth. It is absolutely a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson is a director who has never really broken-out. He has made some terrific films, including the three below, but he seems to meander between feature film and television. His films, including some of his television, are pretty straight forward, but he always adds something fresh and new.

He is able to take an old idea (the ghost house in Session 9) and use the expectations of the genre against the audience. He never creates the usual, but rather he uses the usual in unexpected ways to fashion a very unusual and often powerful story.

If you haven't seen any of Brad Anderson's films, you should. The three below are all good, with Transsiberian being the best, and The Machinist at the weakest. I would also recommend his episode of Master of Horror. A clever hour long movie titled Sounds Like.

Transsiberian,
2008



The Machinist, 2004



Session 9, 2001

Sunday, November 01, 2009

THE LAWBRINGERS by Brian Wynne Garfield

The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, and the bad guys are too bad. The natives are deemed to be one-dimensional cutouts and often misrepresented. The townsfolk—the common working class—are either portrayed as stupid or weak, or both.

In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. But there have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety-percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10% that separates a viable genre from a dead genre and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the modern novels that are published today.

An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, ACE, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.

The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in a less direct fashion than expected. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.

The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not, the end justifies the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less a concrete end to his jurisdiction and more a line on a map that could be ignored and crossed at will.

Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best, no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but still, he was a man who hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.

The Lawbringers does all of the above while telling an exciting and tight story. It has its fair share of gunplay, but it is told with a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis and definition of right and wrong. It is a western with a conscience, but it isn't limited or judged by that conscience, rather it is simply expanded into the realm of believability. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10% that has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.