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:

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.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Never Live Twice"

Never Live Twice, by Dan J. Marlowe, was published as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1964. The edition that caught my eye is Black Lizard Press’s 1988 reprint. A disappearing sun, palm trees, a cool car, what appears to be a dead guy, and a woman in distress, or perhaps a femme fatale, grabs with a promise and a curse. The artist: Kirwan


The first paragraph:

The white Cadillac rolled up the curving pebbled driveway, passed the brightly lighted clubhouse, and went around to the parking lot in the rear of the country club. The car’s windows were up and its airconditioning purred quietly against the humidity of the south Florida night. Low clouds drifted across the face of a quarter moon, and a few drops of rain fell on the windshield. The Cadillac came to a stop with its headlights beamed out over a practice putting green; the driver leaned forward, cut the lights, then turned to his companion. “You sure you know what to say afterward?” he asked urgently.

Monday, April 06, 2020

TROUBLE MAN by Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman’s work is reliably good. At its best it is clear, concise, meaningful, entertaining. The people he creates are melancholy with a bitter hopefulness; a hope that mostly goes unfulfilled, but a hope that is as steady and resolute as a winter storm. His stories are most often set in the towns and cities of Iowa. A place that can be as welcoming or forbidding as Mr. Gorman wants it to be. A place he knows well. A place, including its people, he understands with the clarity of a surveyor and the sorrow of a poet.

He has successfully written in many genres, mystery, crime, science fiction, horror, western. He is, on a foundational level, a crime writer. No matter the genre he is writing, and while still honoring the tropes and expectations of that genre, his stories are structured and executed with the deft plotting of the crime story. This style and story structure is especially appealing in the western genre where he has written many of his best novels. I was reminded how well his style translates itself to the western genre when I recently read his novel, Trouble Man

Ray Coyle is a faded gunfighter. He gave up the violence for a sharpshooter job in a traveling Wild West show. When word comes that his only child, Mike, was killed in a gunfight in Coopersville he blames himself. He taught his boy the trade and now Mike’s dead. Ray travels to Coopersville to claim Mike’s body and get the details of the fight that killed him. When the town’s doctor, who doubles as undertaker, shows him the body he notices a deep gash on Mike’s forehead. His suspicions are raised further when he meets the man who killed Mike; Bob Trevor. Bob is the town bully and the son of the most powerful man in the region and, to Ray’s educated eyes, incapable of beating Mike in a fair fight. And Ray decides, no matter how much pressure the town’s Sheriff applies, he isn’t leaving Coopersville until he knows how his son was killed.

Trouble Man is a multilayered novel that is, at its core, a study of two fathers losing sons – Ray and Bob Trevor’s father, Ralph – and their struggle to deal with the loss. Ray is a sad, regretful man, and Ralph is, on the self he projects to outsiders at least, the opposite. Ray blames himself for his son’s demise and Ralph has protected Bob from the consequences of his bad behavior for decades. The story, deftly and without being overbearing, is a character study of these two men, but it is also a well-plotted, entertaining genre vehicle.

It begins in violence and ends the same way. The story transforms more than just the primary protagonist, Ray, and it effectively communicates the turmoil of the human experience. But it does this without devolving into despair and, as the story ends, a bright anticipation of a better future is revealed. In a phrase, it is classic Ed Gorman and its appeal should be wide as both entertainment and the depth of humanity – both good and bad – it displays.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Burning Sky"

The Burning Sky, by Ron Faust, was published in hardcover by Playboy Press in 1978, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover has a hardcover simplicity that pulls the me into a wild place with towering pines and an orange and red sky. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

 The first paragraph:

Ben was telling the Texan about the cats.

There were four cats left, he said: two fine adult mountain lions, a male and a female, that he had trapped near Chama; an immature jaguar that he had smuggled across the Mexican border—“tranquilized so deep with Sucostrin I thought I’d killed her”—and a big, amber-eyed god-damned leopard that he’d bought from a small roadside zoo east of Gallup. He’d read in an Albuquerque newspaper about the outfit going bankrupt and had driven down to see if he could buy any of their cats at a good price. They had a mangy old lion, a living rug; a diseased mountain lion; an ocelot—“all apathetic, not paranoid like real cats”—and the leopard. The leopard was half starved then, wormy and diarrheic, but even so you could see that it was a magnificent animal, a cat of cats, a god of cats.

Ron Faust published 15 novels across four decades. He died in 2011 with little fanfare. What his work lacked in quantity was made-up for by its high level of quality. He was compared to Ernest Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and even Hunter S. Thompson.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Bargain Friday: Three Freebies!

It’s bargain Friday, and this time around I’ve collected a few free ebooks for your consideration.

The first is W. Glenn Duncan’s Rafferty’s Rules:

Rafferty ain’t in the revenge business.

So when he gets told to gun down the low-lifes who kidnapped Vivian Mollison and put her into a drug-induced twilight zone, it’s no can do.

No matter how much money Vivian’s mother is willing to throw at him.

But stirring up trouble amongst five outlaw bikers who picked on the wrong girl?

Now that’s more like it.

Next is Three on a Light, by Victor Gischler:

Detective Dean Murphy isnt your normal shamus. Because of a cursed Zippo lighter, Dean finds himself taking cases involving werewolves, witches, vampires and other things that go bump in the night. A fun, pulpy mashup of the detective and dark fantasy genres. A novel of linked short stories, all of Dean Murphys supernatural adventures. A good selection for those who enjoyed Gischlers VAMPIRE A GO-GO.

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Three On A Light represents my first efforts as a student in creative writing at the University of West Florida. Its being offered to readers as an example of my early work and to tide readers over until my next novel comes out. Id like to dedicate it to my former professors Dr. Carlos Dews and the late Laurie O'Brien.

The final is Jonathan Janz’s Witching Hour Theatre:

On a cool October night at the Starlight Cinema, an all-night horror movie triple feature is about to begin: Witching Hour Theatre. Its the one exciting thing in Larry Wilsons life, not counting the lovely brunette who works the concession stand. Settling in, he loses himself in the atmosphere of the old place: the crowd, the screams, the popcorn and the blood.

But when the second feature ends, only thirteen moviegoers remain. Among them, a woman of nineteen with a fondness for piercings and the macabre, a cop and his wife, a trio of bad-tempered bullies, and a solitary figure sitting silently in the shadows of the back row.

On this endless October night, Witching Hour Theatre will become Larrys worst nightmare. For the movie on the screen is growing stranger by the minute. His fellow theatergoers are disappearing one by one.

And the figure from the shadows is advancing.