Friday, January 17, 2020

2019: The Year in Writing

I’ve never been accused of being a great writer or a prolific writer, but in 2019 I approached “working” writer status. I had four original crime short stories published. Three were published in related crime anthologies edited by Paul Bishop and published by Wolfpack:
“No Chips, No Bonus” appeared in Pattern of Behavior;
“Awake” appeared in Criminal Tendencies; and
“Junkyard” appeared in Bandit Territory.
The fourth story, “121”, appeared in Rick Ollerman’s Down & Out: The Magazine, Vol. 2, Iss. 1. Three of the tales—“No Chips, No Bonus”, “Junkyard”, and “121”—featured a washed out former FBI agent named Jimmy Ford working security in a nowhere casino town on the Utah-Nevada border. I have more plans for Jimmy and we’ll see where he goes.  
I wrote an Introduction for Stark House’s omnibus edition of Lionel White’s Coffin for a Hood / Operation—Murder. I wrote five or six reviews for Justin Marriott’s terrific Men of Violence. And there were my usual contributions, which I’m proud of, to Mystery Scene Magazine: Five Short & Sweet columns; a dozen or more book reviews; and a feature article about mysteries that take place in circuses and carnivals titled, “Hey Rube! The Mystery is at the Circus”
Overall, 2019 was a pretty good writing year and I hope 2020 will shape up even better.


Monday, January 13, 2020

A Plurality of Eagles (Landing)

Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed thundered onto the book scene in 1975. It was published simultaneously in the United Kingdom, by William Collins & Sons, and the United States, by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. It was translated into a mediocre film released in 1976 starring Michael Caine, Robert Duval, and Donald Sutherland. The director was John Sturges. It has been translated into dozens of languages, published in myriad paperback editions and, I’ve read, it has sold more than 50 million copies.

The Eagle Has Landed is also one of my favorite thrillers. It is complex, exciting, with well-drawn and empathetic characters, and perfectly plotted. It’s also a book I have trouble leaving on the shelf of thrift shops and used bookstores (if the condition and the price are right). I’ve given more than a few away to fellow readers and right now I have four copies on my bookshelf, all mass market paperbacks. 

The first U.S. mass market edition published by Bantam in 1976.

The first U.K. mass market edition published by Pan Books in 1976.


This Bantam reprint, with new cover art, was published in 1981.

And the fourth is the most recent edition published by Berkley in 2000.

Now, if I had the Pocket Books edition published in 1991, I would be a happy man.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

THE SPY IN THE BOX by Ralph Dennis

The Spy in the Box was written by Ralph Dennis in the early 1980s, but this Brash Books edition, released nearly 40 years after it was written, is its first publication. Brash has been releasing Dennis’ work, both previously published and unpublished alike, over the past few years and the quality of Dennis’ writing—the style and the plotting—has been consistently good. It’s been good enough that I wonder why it wasn’t published when it was written rather than moldering away in a filing cabinet drawer awaiting discovery by a new generation of publishers and readers.

Will Hall is a CIA agent stationed in Costa Verde, a South American hotspot, trying to navigate a regime change. His choice to take Costa Verde’s presidency is the moderate Paul Marcos, but when he witnesses Marcos’ assassination and the United States’ pallid response, he quits the agency and goes home. But some things are easier to quit than others, and when he’s framed as a whistleblower—an article with his name and detailing the CIA’s work in Cost Verde is set to appear in a liberal New York newspaper—his leisurely retirement is interrupted by assassins.

The Spy in the Box is a smooth thriller with an abundance of Cold War coolness and double-crosses. Dennis’ prose is straight and sparse. The characters are drawn with depth and include a honey pot with more on her mind than seduction, and a CIA king with a flicker of a conscience. The settings are old-school spy thriller stuff: safe houses, decaying agency-owned motels. The plot is linear and fun. Its only fault is a lack of surprises, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. There are some nice action sequences and a nostalgic sense of 1970s television to it. It’s not as good as Dennis’ Hardman novels, but The Spy in the Box’s unexpected characterization gives it a nice little push.

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019: The Year in Reading

2019 was a solid reading year. I finished 51 titles, which is 13 fewer than last year’s mark. As usual, the majority of the titles were fiction, but I did increase my nonfiction intake over last year, which means I’ve been trending upwards for two straight years.

My fiction reading was dominated by my obligations to Mystery Scene Magazine—thirty titles, novels, collections, and anthologies, plus a bunch of magazines. I was able to read some old favorites, too. I read four novels by Lionel White, including his classic novel, The Killing, to prepare for an essay I wrote for Stark House, two novels by Ed Gorman, including the Sam McCain novel, Save the Last Dance for Me, a Jack Higgins novel and a Richard Laymon novel.

I also read a bunch of authors new to me—16 in total—including impressive works by Mike Miner (The Hurt Business), Sandra Ireland (Bone Deep), Peter Temple (Bad Debts), Rachel Howzell Hall (They All Fall Down), Oscar de Muriel (Loch of the Dead), and Kerry Greenwood (Blood and Circuses).

There were a few titles that rose to the top, which I skimmed (with some difficulty) down to five. With that said, my five favorite fiction titles that I read in 2018 are (and in no particular order):

Bad Debts, by Peter Temple, is the first novel featuring Australian debt-collector, part-time lawyer, and furniture maker, Jack Irish. Published in 1996, it has lost little of its power. Irish is cynical, romantic, and believable as an idealistic, but worn-out seeker of truth. Peter Temple is a brilliant and flashy writer that adds just enough societal observation to elevate it into something approaching literature (in a good way).

Condor: The Short Takes collects six tales featuring James Grady’s crazy spy, Condor. It’s the same Condor that found fame, with Robert Redford’s face, in the film Three Days of the Condor, but the stories are very much about the oddness of our time. The first is set shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the final story—clocking in at very close to a short novel—is about Russian election meddling. The stories showcase a shimmering, yet at times hard to understand, brilliance wrapped in a meaningful schizophrenic style that is as telling of our culture—never-ending news cycles, the fervency of self-inflicted and self-described crises—as it is entertaining. Read my Mystery Scene review.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris, is a thriller with a message about the fragility of modern culture and a coming dystopian post-technological world where the Church is the law and its only guidelines are superstition and fear. This second Dark Age is brought about by human fear and hubris, but the story is played as a tight mystery whodunit that flawlessly plants clues many readers may miss the first time around. Read my Mystery Scene review.

Pursuit, by Joyce Carol Oates, is a brilliant—does Oates write any other way?—dark suspense novel about stalking, abuse, and the female experience in our modern society. Pursuit reminds me, to quote myself, why I would walk 10 miles in the snow to read a handful of Joyce Carol Oates brilliant words.

Blood in the Sky is Steve Hamilton’s fifth Alex McKnight novel that is as much an adventure tale as it is a detective story. McKnight is looking for his best friend’s brother who disappeared while acting as a hunting guide in the Canadian wilderness. The trail starts and ends in the Canada’s vast and cold forests, but nothing turns out as expected. Originally published in 2004, Blood is the Sky is still an impressive and surprising read that pumps new and original life into the private eye genre.

And here are a few honorable mentions. They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Under the Cold Bright Lights, by Garry Disher, and The Big Book of Reel Murders, edited by Otto Penzler.

I hope 2020’s reading is as good as 2019’s was.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


The Poker Club, by Ed Gorman, originally published as a limited and signed edition hardcover by Cemetery Dance in 1999, is an expansion of Gorman’s sleek novella, “Out There in the Darkness” published in 1995. It is the story of four poker buddies whose lives go sideways when a burglar interrupts their weekly game. The men’s fear and anger, heightened by a rash of burglaries and property crimes in their middle-class neighborhood, boils over and the burglar finishes the night dead. Instead of calling the police, the four friends dump the burglar’s body in a river and try to move on, but then the late night calls start, and the men find themselves knocking on the doors of the criminal class.
The Poker Club is a suspense novel propelled by the amplifying effect of the primary characters’ fear-based decisions. These decisions—we’ll call the police after we’ve scared the burglar, no one will ever know he was here—isolate the men, in quick succession, from their families, their neighborhood, and ultimately, from each other. The plotting is straight-forward and without any real surprises, which is okay because the novel’s power is emotion. The men are pushed into decisions (and actions) most middle-class men never see. They face the prospect of losing their reputations, their professions—and with this, the loss of their lifestyles—their families, and, perhaps, their lives. It is more psychological and character-driven than action and it works pretty well.
The Poker Club is dedicated, in part, to Richard Matheson and it’s a good fit. The depiction of suburban middle-class America as a comfortable and safe place before it transforms into something less friendly, almost nefarious, is similar to Matheson’s brilliant novel, Stir of Echoes. The Poker Club was translated into a tolerable low-budget film directed by Tim McCann and starring Johnathon Schaech.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Bavarian Connection"

The Bavarian Connection, by Don Smith, is the twentieth installment of the popular Secret Mission series. It was a paperback original published by Charter in 1978, which is the very edition that caught me eye. The stamps, the disheveled background (especially the colors) work for me. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first paragraph:

Carl Hoffman sat back and steepled his long fingers and considered the dark slender young man sitting nervously opposite his desk. His name was Gunter Vogel, a good German name, Hoffman reflected. And from his swarthy complexion and pronounced accent, probably as phony as the story he had just told him.