Monday, December 23, 2013

Thrift Shop Book Covers: The Freedom Trap

The Freedom Trap is the eighth novel published by Desmond Bagley.  Its United States debut was a hardcover published by Doubleday in 1971, but it is the Fawcett Crest paperback edition that caught my eye.  The cover art has everything an adventure novel should—a frogman, a bikini clad beauty, an exploding boat in the background, and the tide breaking onshore.  The artist, as far as I know, is unknown, but it is a fine example of a 1970s Fawcett paperback.

The novel itself is pure adventure.  Reardon is a high class criminal who is hired by a man named Mackintosh for a simple job—knock over a postman delivering a shipment of uncut diamonds and hand them over to Mackintosh and get paid.  But like everything, nothing is as simple as it seems and Reardon finds himself in prison serving 20 years.  And all this in only the first 38 pages; and it astonishingly gets better.
It is widely believed The Freedom Trap was inspired by Soviet spy—or more accurately British double agent—George Blake’s October 22, 1966 escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison.  He was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 42 years in 1961.  The plot is similar to Jack Higgins’ 1967 Paul Chavasse novel The Dark Side of the Street, which was also likely influenced heavily by the George Blake story (due to the timing of its release) and is an excellent adventure novel in its own right.       

The opening paragraph:

“Mackintosh’s office was, unexpectedly, in the City.  I had difficulty in finding it because it was in that warren of streets between Holborn and Fleet Street, which is a maze to one accustomed to the grid-iron pattern of Johannesburg.  I found it at last in a dingy building; a well-worn brass plate announcing innocuously that this Dickensian structure held the registered office of Anglo-Saxon Holdings, Ltd.”        
The Freedom Trap was translated to film as “The Mackintosh Man” starring Paul Newman as Reardon.  The plot, and it has been several years since I have seen it, follows the novel quite closely.  It was directed by John Huston and written for the screen by Walter Hill.
Although for all excitement, action and even history of the novel, it is the cover on that 1973 Fawcett Crest paperback (M1789) that made me pick it up in the first place.  It’s a shame these lurid covers and well told stories are relics limited to thrift shops and forgotten used books stores. 

This is the first of a new 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 purchased as much for the cover art as the story or author.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 -- The Year In Reading

2013 marked my reentry to consistent blogging, and it was also my most productive year as a reader in the past five or six.  To date I have finished 53 books (and I will probably finish another 2 or 3); the majority were novels, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too.  The nonfiction tended towards history, which included a number of interesting titles including Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and Manhunt by Peter Maas.

The year also marked a return to a genre I enjoyed (loved?) as a boy—adventure.  Specifically the British writers of the 1960s and 70s featuring such stars as Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, and Jack Higgins.  This said, I didn’t read many “new” authors, but mostly stayed with the old reliables.  In fact, I only increased my fiction writers read by five—Craig Thomas (Wolfsbane), Alfred Coppel (The Eight Day of the Week), Shepard Rifkin (The Murderer Vine), A. Bertram Chandler (Star Courier), and Billie Sue Mosiman (Wireman).
What I lacked in new writers I made up for in my long time favorites.  A full fifteen of the novels I read, or approximately 28 percent of my total reading, was limited to four writers.  I read or reread six titles by Jack Higgins, and three titles each by Jack M. Bickham, Ed Gorman, and Bill Pronzini.  And I really enjoyed every one of the novels by each of my most frequently read writers of 2013.

In the old days of this blog I put together a listing of my favorite five books read for the year, and I decided it would be fun to do it again this year.  It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list by a less than scientific methods.  With that said, my five favorite novels read in 2013 are—
5.  The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe.  This is the first title to feature Marlowe’s recurring character Earl Drake, and it is a real piece of hardboiled candy.  It was originally published by Gold Medal in 1962, and earlier this year it was released with its sister novel The Endless Hour in a nifty trade paperback by the never disappointing Stark House Press.  Read the Gravetapping review.

4.  Dark Passage by David Goodis.  This is Goodis’ most well-known novel.  It is dark, a little twisted, and a bunch of fun.  It was originally published in 1946, and it has been reissued a number of times. It is currently available in an omnibus hardcover edition by The Library of America, which includes four other Goodis titles.  Interestingly, the plot is similar to the television show “The Fugitive” and United Artists Television settled a copyright lawsuit with Goodis’ estate.
3.  The Beardless Warriors by Richard Matheson.  I was reading this title for the first time when Richard Matheson passed earlier this year, and it is a truly masterful piece of storytelling.  It is the story of a young man ordered to the frontlines as a replacement soldier during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe.  He is transformed from a green recruit to a seasoned combat soldier in a matter of days, and what frightens him and the reader alike is how easily he takes to killing.  This is a masterpiece by one of the most consequential authors of his generation.

2.  Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard.  This is a collection of short stories written by Mr Leonard.  The title is from the story the television series “Justified” is based, and amazingly the pilot for the television series and the story are almost identical.  I devoured this collection in little more than one sitting, and as I read it my main thought—nobody writes like Elmore Leonard. 
1.  The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin.  When I sat down to compile the best of list there was no doubt what the number one would be.  It is a perfectly executed crime novel, and an even better piece of civil rights literature.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Monday, December 16, 2013

CHASE by Dean Koontz

I am a longtime fan of Dean Koontz’s writing.  I enjoy all of Mr Koontz’s work, but I have a particular fondness for the work he produced in the 1970s and 80s.  I love his big genre mixing thrillers like Lightning, Cold Fire, and Twilight Eyes and more recently I have gained an appreciation for his earlier straight suspense novels like Shattered, After the Last Race, and Dragonfly.

I recently reread a short suspense novel written as by K. R. Dwyer titled Chase.  Benjamin Chase is a used up Vietnam veteran who received the Medal of Honor for an act he wants to forget.  He lives alone in an attic apartment.  He drinks to drown out the voices of the dead, and he wants to be left alone to grieve and regret.  His world tumbles into chaos when he saves a young woman from murder, and the would-be killer—a man who calls himself “Judge”—begins calling Ben on the telephone.      

Chase is a dark and disturbing novel.  It was written in the Vietnam-era and is infused with hard cynicism.  Chase is simple.  He is alone, guilty, and ashamed.  His isolation is perpetuated by the near hero worship, and simple minded patriotism, of the townsfolk.  He has judged himself as less than, but as Judge pursues his verdict against Chase, he is forced to face both himself and his demons.
Chase is all story, which is to say plot with a snatch of something close to meaning.  It is short and sleek.  It takes only a few pages to move from the opening scene banquet to the action.  That is not to say it is plotted from action scene to action scene because it isn’t; there is a legitimate mystery, and the psychology of the protagonist is interesting in itself, and the slow escalation of isolation between Chase and the police, and Chase and society creates a tension all its own.  The prose is crisp and with a touch of melancholy—

“Maybe it was better to be without a woman than to die and leave behind one who grieved so briefly as this.”      
It opens as a straight forward suspense novel—how will Chase save himself from Judge—to something approaching a vigilante novel.  The climax is both surprising and horrifying; even disturbing.  Its suddenness and violence surprised as much on my second reading as it did the first.  Chase isn’t one of Dean Koontz’s big novels, and it may not appeal to most of his current readership, but it a fine example of high velocity classic suspense.  But that ending is a killer.    

Chase was originally published by Random House in hardcover in 1972.  It was reissued in Mr Koontz’s collection Strange Highways in 1995.  The reissued version was touched up before its release, but what was changed, other than the addition of a brief opening chapter setting the time and place of the story, I’m not sure.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

DRAGON GAMES by Stephen Mertz

2008. Beijing, China. The world has descended on China for one of the most spectacular public relations campaigns in modern history.  The Summer Olympics mark China’s celebration, and notice to the world, that it has arrived as a major world power, and it is of the utmost importance nothing go wrong.  A small group of private foreign security agents are hired to help protect the influx of both Western athletes and tourists.

The novel begins with the opening ceremonies in the behemoth stadium coined “the bird’s nest” with an unexpected and very violent operation involving both the private security firm and Chinese Special Forces.  A group of what the Chinese believe to be terrorists are captured in the delivery access area of the stadium.  It is a quick and violent operation that isn’t noticed by anyone, including the media, but leads the protagonist, Tag McCall, into a dark and dangerous mission that will cost him more than he can fathom.

Dragon Games is a throwback in the thriller racket.  It is more adventure and less bombast.  The writing is tight and literate, and the plot is streamlined into an action packed story that is more believable, and therefore more suspenseful, than the common variety 21st Century thriller.

The prose is strong and shifts from a rich and almost poetic cadence to a stark and pounding hardboiled style that is reminiscent of the suspense novels of the 1970s and 80s.  It is, however, not a rehash of anything old or new.  The story is original and the style is all Stephen Mertz.  It is a modern adventure novel that it is better than most in its category.

The characters, particularly the hero, are built around the story, but they have a certain reality that gives them a flesh and blood feel.  They have families, love, hate, hope and even dreams.  Their back stories are sprinkled throughout the novel with a sparseness that allows the reader to relate to the characters without slowing the pace of the plot.

Dragon Games is the best of Stephen Mertz’s novels.  The narrative is strong, the characters are vivid and bold, and the story is exotic, enticing, and damn fun.  There are brief touches of understated humor mixed with ratcheting tension and action, and richly detailed and interesting descriptions of Beijing, the Olympics and the Chinese people. Mr Mertz has written a novel that is worthy of the first tier of suspense and action novels.

This review was originally published in slightly different form at the long ago blog Dark City Underground on June 1, 2010.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

COMES THE DARK STRANGER by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Comes the Dark Stranger is the fourth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1962.  It is an anomaly in Mr Patterson’s body of work because it is less adventure and more noir than anything else he wrote.

Martin Shane came to Burnham to kill a man.  Eight years earlier he and five other volunteered for Korea in Burnham, and were later captured by the Chinese.  They were questioned and tortured by a slight, club-footed Chinese officer named Colonel Li.  The men were captive for only a few days, but it was long enough for one of the men to be summarily executed and another to give Colonel Li what he wanted.  And Shane came back to Burnham because he needs to know who spilled to Colonel Li, and punish him with his life.

Comes a Dark Stranger is an interesting study of cold war paranoia.  Martin Shane received a severe head wound in Korea when American bombers raided the monastery where he was held captive, which took his memory for seven long years.  The seven years between the last day at the monastery and a few weeks before the story begins are a blank, and the war is fresh on his mind.  The cast of characters is straight from a 1950s film noir—a deformed millionaire, a shifty nightclub owner, a sweet but worldly club girl, a drunk and his bitter greedy wife, and the mandatory seemingly honest middle class lady.

The prose is an interesting mixture of Mr Patterson’s normal, almost lyrical prose, and a more straight forward dark, shadowy prose.  An example of the former is the opening lines—

“He was drowning in a dark pool.  The hands of the damned were pulling him down, but he kicked and struggled and fought his way to the surface.”
And an example from the later—

“There was a narrow, dark opening in the opposite wall, and he crossed the street and plunged into it as the car flashed back.”
The deep shadows and stark flesh of an urban underbelly is palpable in much of the prose, and as I read the novel I was reminded of the shadowy lighted films popular in the era heavy with paranoia, betrayal, and fear.  The paranoia is central to the plot and the throughout the novel Shane hears the scrape and slide sound of Colonel Li walking.  It is a sound he hasn’t heard since the Korea, but it is a sound that literally represents the narrow edge between sanity and madness.

Comes the Dark Stranger is different than most of Mr Patterson’s novels, and while it seems rushed in spots and a tad over plotted, it is an entertaining diversion.  Its atmosphere and tone is rich, and Martin Shane is an engaging protagonist—if seemingly unreliable much of the time—who the reader easily identifies.  But the most interesting element of the novel is its experimental nature.  Not experimental in the macro sense, but rather in the micro sense—i. e. Mr Patterson’s own body of work.   
There is an interesting correlation between Harry Patterson and Martin Shane.  Shane regained his memory when he fell and the shrapnel lodged in his brain shifted.  Harry Patterson was diagnosed with something called essential tremor syndrome in his early seventies, which is a neurological disease that caused shaking so severe he was unable to hold a pen.  He suffered a seizure at a friend’s house, fell and struck his head, and the tremors stopped nearly instantly.  In an interview with Reuters Mr Patterson said, “In a way it is a bit like Lazarus.  It has been a blessing late in life—this unprecedented cure.”