Monday, November 16, 2020

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Hollywood Nocturnes"

Hollywood Nocturnes, by James Ellroy, was published in hardcover by Otto Penzler Books in 1994. The edition that caught my eye is Dell’s paperback reprint published in 1995. The bright and rich colors of the 1990s – orange and pink and that rich and deep purple – are exciting and enticing. And, there’s that accordion player to add a bit of “hmmh?” The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first sentence of the story, “Out of the Past”:
 

“A man gyrating with an accordion – pumping his ‘Stomach Steinway’ for all it’s worth.” 

Hollywood Nocturnes is a collection of seven of James Ellroy’s crime stories.

Monday, November 09, 2020

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead

This is review is for a book different from the usual fare at Gravetapping, but it is a marvelous and important novel that satisfies on every level of good literature. It entertains, it educates, it illuminates.

Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is as brilliant as it is uncomfortable. Elwood Curtis, a black teenager living in 1960s Tallahassee, is sent to a segregated reform school, The Nickel Academy, after the police catch him in a stolen car. Elwood was hitchhiking for the first day of his early-entry college class in the next town, when the car thief picked him up. His pleas of innocence go nowhere with the police or the judge.

Nickel’s staff trade the boys’ state allotted food to local businesses for kickbacks. They beat and whip any of the “students” perceived as trouble-makers. A few of the boys disappear into unmarked graves after severe beatings, the staff claiming they ran away. The boys are offered to local bigwigs as free labor. The pedophiles on staff have unlimited access to the boys.

The school’s degrading atmosphere is more than Elwood can stand. He wants to fight, in a similar way that his hero Martin Luther King Jr. confronts segregation and racism, but the more he struggles against Nickel, the harder his life becomes. The Jim Crow South setting is vividly drawn, uncomfortable, and for this naïve reader, startling. Elwood's journey from a hopeful boy, listening to King’s sermons in his grandmother’s house, to his descent into Nickel is both tragic and disturbing.

The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it was inspired by the very real Dozier School for Boys, which operated in Marianna, Florida, between 1900 and 2011. The beatings, killings, and everything else actually happened at Dozier, but the story and the characters are the invention of Whitehead.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Books in Film: "Dark Passage"

 When books appear as set background in film and television, I spend more time identifying the books than paying attention to the story. When a book gets actual screen time, it makes me happier than something so insignificant should.

This happened with David Goodis’ Dark Passage in the 1991 film, Past Midnight. A film I haven’t watched enough of to decide if a connection exists between novel and film, but man do I dig that featured Dell edition and, even more, its prominence the scene.

Past Midnight was directed by Jan Eliasberg, written by Frank Norwood (it is rumored Quentin Tarantino heavily revised the script), and stars Rutger Hauer, and Natasha Richardson.




Monday, October 26, 2020

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Condominium"

Condominium, by John D. MacDonald, was published in hardcover by J.P. Lippincott in 1977, but the edition that caught my eye is Fawcett Crest’s paperback reprint published in 1978. Broken sunglasses, a tipping skyscraper, water surging across open sand, and the gold foil title always makes me look twice. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first paragraph:

Howard Elbright finally found Julian Higbee, the condominium manager, lounging against a concrete column, staring toward the pool area where two young women were taking turns diving from the low board.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Tidbits: The Haunted, by Robert Curran (the movie, too)

In 1988 a blandly designed hardcover—black type on a white background with a thumbnail image of a creepy house at the center—was published by St. Martin’s Press. Its title, The Haunted, by Robert Curran, Jack & Janet Smurl, Ed & Loraine Warren. The name “Robert Curran” was a disguise for crime writer Ed Gorman (his job was as a ghost writer). Like much of the Warrens’ work it was labeled nonfiction, but there are those who doubt the veracity of the Warrens’ paranormal stories.

The Haunted is about a malignant haunting of Jack and Janet Smurl:

“Jack and Janet Smurl and their family have been victims of abuse - both mental and physical - by inhuman entities that threaten their sanity, and even their lives. Over several years, the Smurls together with numerous other people - neighbors, police, priests, researchers - have witnessed scores of supernatural events at the family house: the ripping out of ceiling fixtures, the levitation and beating of the family dog, Janet’s strangling by unseen hands, the repeated appearance of a black hooded figure - and more. And they can’t escape - the demon even follows them when they leave their house.” (from the dust jacket)

According to Ed, in the months before he died in October 2016, the book “was ridiculous, but it made a good TV movie.” The movie was aired on Fox in the Spring of 1991 (in my memory), and Ed’s analysis of the film is pretty much right. The movie is creepy, scary, and entertaining as heck. The starring roles are filled by Sally Kirkland and Jeffrey DeMunn.

To quote Ed, “Don't waste your time on the book.” But the movie is worth its ninety minute run time. Here’s a link to a fairly low quality print of the movie at YouTube:

https://youtu.be/9BaF-YgmBNk

Saturday, July 11, 2020

THE TENTH VIRGIN by Gary Stewart

The Tenth Virgin, by Gary Stewart (St. Martin’s Press, 1983), is the best mystery novel set in Utah I have read. It is a private eye novel starring Gabe Utley. Gabe was raised on the east-side of Salt Lake City. He is a big city private eye, New York City, back in Utah as a favor to his high school sweetheart, Linda Peterson. Linda’s teenage daughter ran away, leaving a note that she joined a violent polygamist sect. Gabe is doubtful he can track the girl down, but his sense of obligation keeps him on her trail. The investigation takes Gabe into the wealthy and powerful Mormon hierarchy in Salt Lake City and then into the depths of the poverty-ridden polygamist clans of Southern Utah.

The Salt Lake City setting details a town that no longer exists—it is so much bigger now, less homogeneous—but it is done with a vivid and accurate hand. The narrative is crisp. The characters, from newspaper reporters to mean-spirited bigamist husbands, are nicely drawn with enough depth to make them familiar to the reader. The plot is nicely executed and the cultural examination of Mormonism (the culture, and not the religious doctrines) is spot-on. 

The Tenth Virgin is truly something special.  

Monday, May 04, 2020

TIEBREAKER by Jack M. Bickham


In 1989 a midlist writer named Jack Bickham published the slim suspense novel Tiebreaker. It was the first of six novels featuring aging professional tennis player, current teaching pro, sometime magazine writer, and former CIA asset Brad Smith. Brad is a step beyond the tail of his career and, after investing his prime years’ winnings unwisely, earns a living as a teaching pro at a club in Richardson, Texas. The novel’s opening is too good not to share—

“The last thing I had on my mind was somebody breaking into my condominium and dragging me into the past.”

It wasn’t on his mind because he was playing the finals of his tennis club’s first annual Richardson Charity Tournament against a hotshot college player acting like John McEnroe and threatening to clean the court with Brad. A battle between age and arrogance. When Brad makes it home, so both he and the reader can discover who and what is going to drag him into the past, he finds his old agency contact, Collie Davis, watching a western on television with a beer in his hand.

The agency has an assignment requiring Brad’s specialized credentials; a young Yugoslavian tennis star named Danisa Lechova wants to defect to the west, but her passport has been confiscated, and the UDBA (Yugoslavia’s version of the KGB) is openly watching her. Brad agrees, reluctantly, to act as Danisa’s go-between for the defection, using his cover as a tennis writer. 

The Brad Smith novels rank as my favorite featuring a serial character. Brad is uniquely American. He does odd jobs for the agency due to a perceived debt he owes—

“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”

—but he often doesn’t like the assignments, or the agency’s work overall. In a sense he is supporting the lesser of two evils—meaning the CIA against the KGB and the Soviet Union. He is a patriot, but it stops somewhere short of murder, coups, criminality, and E. Howard Hunt. He has a conscience and a well-defined ethical awareness that is unique to spy thrillers. He is also likable, admirable, mostly, and has more trouble with women than imaginable.

The novels, and Tiebreaker is no exception, are written in both first and third person. Brad’s perspective is in first, and an assortment of characters, including good guys and bad, are in third. The alternating perspectives give the novel a hybrid feel—Brad’s narration is more closely related to a private eye novel with social commentary making it more personal, and the third person expands it into a broader and larger suspense-spy story.

The tennis is an integral element to the story, and it is described so well it becomes a secondary character—

“Somehow I got my Prince composite on the yellow blur and bounced it down the line, hitting the back corner, close. He glided over to get it and I thought I saw the angle and guessed, chuffing up toward the net.”

The suspense is expertly designed around the story questions—a clue is identified, but its impact and relevance is not revealed for several pages. It is done without any annoying tricks or contrivance. The characters—both Brad Smith and the secondary folks—are well defined without any doubts about motivation or outcome. There are no crazy monsters, or unexplained actions. Everything is logical and smooth.

I like Tiebreaker and its five sequels so well that I re-read the entire series every few years, and if I was any more weak-willed I would probably read them more often.