Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"The Santa Claus Murders" by Ed Gorman


A Christmas novella featuring Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain, originally published in Crooks, Crimes and Christmas (Worldwide, 2003) and, as far as I know, currently out-of-print.
Sam McCain’s only reason to attend a high school reunion / Christmas party is a hope there will be attractive, available, attentive former female classmates. The party is at the home of the wildly wealthy Don Lillis, who inherited the house and a steel mill from his father. On his arrival, Sam finds the usual clustering of people. The wealthy and upwardly mobile, the weirdoes, the blue-collar-types, all congregating in their respective groups. Sam has the uncanny ability to move from group to group, but he doesn’t quite belong to any of them. 
The party turns bad when Bob Nugent, the class drunk, is found in the guest room with a knife in his throat. Bob Nugent was the kid everyone expected to succeed. In school, Bob worked hard, was kind, friendly and the teachers loved him. He was, to Sam’s thinking, a brownnose of the first order. But something went wrong for Bob during his college years and he started drinking. The party screeches to a halt when Bob’s body is found and the unlikable and incompetent Sheriff Cliff Sykes, Jr is called to investigate. Cliffie, as he is called behind his back, makes all the wrong assumptions and McCain decides to solve the mystery on his own for two reasons: to make Sykes look the clown, and to make sure the right person is brought to justice.
“The Santa Claus Murders” is Sam McCain at his best. He is young, endowed with the wisdom of a much older man, intelligent and savvy at why people do what they do, and cynical with a perfectly complimented amount of optimism. He is a kid that doesn’t quite fit a category—he grew up in the poor section of town, but he is a college graduate with his own small law practice. He is an ideal Ed Gorman character: intelligent, cynical, tough, realistic, and yet hopeful and wistful at the same time.
The mystery is perfectly executed. The killer is revealed only moments after the reader figures it out. The supporting cast is top-notch. Cliffie Sykes is his usual gruff and annoying self. The Judge is kind and vindictive in a swift, judgmental and condescending manner. And everyone else plays their parts perfectly.

Monday, November 26, 2018

SPLIT IMAGE by Ron Faust


Split Image is best read cold, and this review is loaded with spoilers. Read ahead at your own peril and rest assured it is fantastic. But if you insist…
“It occurred to me—and this was my first conscious thought upon ‘awakening’—that the crows did not object to the carnage. Of course not. They were scavengers and were impatiently waiting their opportunity. Even so, I could not entirely dispel the notion that they were judging me—small black magistrates, feathery clerics.”
The idea is Andrew Neville’s; a failed playwright, three early critical successes and nothing since, making his living as an editor of a corporate newsletter. On a whim he travels to the woods of northern Wisconsin to the primitive hunting cabin of a friend. It is autumn, and deer are in season. He takes an old bow and its matching arrows from the cabin. He doesn’t expect a kill, but when a buck cuts his trail a lusty greed overtakes him. The deer is wounded, and while tracking it Andrew comes to a man cleaning a buck.  
Andrew believes the deer is his, but the man calmly and reasonably claims it. The two have a cold exchange of words; at the end Andrew kills the other. He doesn’t remember the actual killing, but Andrew knows he did. He cleans up the cabin, disposes of the clothing and other evidence and returns to Chicago. A few days later he learns the man’s identity, and realizes, for the first time, he once knew the man. They were in the same theater company, and while Andrew failed as a writer his victim found significant success in Hollywood.
Andrew, after meeting his victim’s widow at the funeral, calculatingly insinuates himself into the dead man’s life. He moves into the boat house on his wooded estate, wears his clothes, befriends his only child, and smoothly woos his wife. The only hold up is a despicable man named Roland Scheiss—
“‘Scheiss means ‘shit’ in German, doesn’t it?’”
—hired by the murdered man’s parents to prove his widow, and by extension, Andrew Neville killed him. Scheiss is loathsome. He is filthy, crude, and corrupt. His game is blackmail, and he begins calling Andrew at odd moments of the night threatening, cajoling, taunting. Andrew remains calm, but his sanity begins to unravel; he converses with his victim in the dark hours, and small meaningless events begin to weigh heavily, and finally his narrative turns suspect; is the tale truly as it is being told, or is the reader being deceived?
Split Image is a fine novel. It is dark, riveting, and curious. It is as much literature as commercial. It weaves an enticing mixture of Edgar Allan Poe—think “The Tell-Tale Heart”—Alfred Hitchcock, and a 1950’s Gold Medal novel. Andrew Neville is a cold, almost empty narrator, who is as interesting, and enigmatic as any character in popular literature. The prose is sparse, poetic and meaningful. It is also satisfying, thought-provoking, and damn good.
Split Image is Ron Faust’s tenth published novel. It was published in 1997 by Forge as a hardcover. It is currently available as a trade paperback and ebook from Turner Publishing.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Warsaw Document"

The Warsaw Document, by Adam Hall, was published as a hardcover by William Heineman Ltd in 1971, but the edition that caught my eye was the paperback edition published by Fontana in 1978. The cover is cold war perfect with a Mercedes—the choice of every good spy—running a barricade. The artist: Tony Roberts


The first paragraph:
There would be no warning, I knew that.
The Warsaw Document, is the fourth (of 19) novels featuring British spy Quiller. The Quiller books were published as by Adam Hall, which was a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

JIMI AFTER DARK by Stephen Mertz


Jimi After Dark is the second novel in what I think of as Stephen Mertz’s musical mystery series, which isn’t an accurate moniker since the books are as much about the time and place of the tales’ setting as they are about the music and musicians. The first, Hank & Muddy (2011), was set in the 1950s and featured Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. Jimi After Dark is a 1960s novel set in 1970 London, near the end of Jimi Hendrix’s too-short life. Its genesis, as Mr. Mertz explains in his Afterword, is Jimi’s mostly disbelieved kidnapping claim by armed thugs and his ultimate rescue by other armed men.
From the start, Jimi is in trouble, legal trouble with his former manager Mike Jeffrey and another, more violent, trouble with more than one unknown source that may, or may not be related to the Kray Brothers—the East End crime syndicate brothers in prison when the story begins—and the Central Intelligence Agency. Jimi calls on his old Army buddy, unnamed in the story and simply called Soldier, for help. Soldier is fresh from his second tour in Vietnam with a tendency towards violence and a strong sense of duty and loyalty, which acts as an effective literary foil for Jimi’s hippie and gangster filled world.  
Jimi After Dark is an action crime novel with nicely executed action scenes, a few twists, and big ideas: friendship, loyalty, betrayal—the unexpected betrayal of friends and lovers and the more expected betrayal from governments—duty, honor, and the relationship between music and culture. The 1960’s culture war is dissected, Jimi on one side and Soldier on the other, wrapped inside a well-told, exciting story with the cleanest, strongest prose in the business. Jimi After Dark is Stephen Mertz’s best novel, and it should be on everyone’s reading list.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

COME OUT TONIGHT by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon is a legend in the horror genre. His work is brutal, violent and, at times, almost pornographic. His novel Come Out Tonight is no exception. It is the story of Sherry Gates and her scrape with a demented underage serial killer.
The novel opens with Sherry sending her boyfriend, Duane, to a local convenience store for condoms. When he doesn’t return she gets nervous and goes out looking for him. She finds Duane’s van, but she doesn’t find him. This sparks an all-night search, a chance meeting with a helpful older man and an encounter with two charmingly innocent teenage boys. And, somewhere in between, she is kidnapped, beaten, and raped. The plot takes a number of surprising turns. And in the end, it becomes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.
Come Out Tonight opens with a bang. The prose is quick and sharp. The story is interesting and the characters are fun, even if a little familiar to anyone who has read Richard Laymon’s work. It is dialogue rich, and a very quick read. Unfortunately, like many of Laymon’s novels, it lacks a certain amount of believability. It is difficult to ignore the glaring fact that all of this pain, fear and horror could be escaped by simply picking up the telephone and dialing three numbers: 9-1-1.
While the characters motives are suspect, and not adequately explained, this is still a fun novel. The reader just has to ignore the obvious holes in the plot, and the fact that Laymon’s characters never make the right decision. They always run down the wrong corridor, or choose the wrong road, or alley. They are innocent, or ignorant, of their true situations, and they always think they can handle it. They never, when it is available, ask for help. And, of course, their actions always lead them into deeper, darker and more frightening places.
Fortunately, it isn’t very difficult to ignore the novel’s weaknesses. Richard Laymon can weave a damn good story and make you want to ignore the blemishes. He does it with a sturdy understanding of the tale and its impact on the audience. He tightens the suspense like a noose around the reader’s neck. He makes you want to believe the tale. It is very much like a campfire story. You know it is not real, and could never be real, but somehow it still enthralls and even scares you.
The action is violent and stuffed with sex—most of the novel is filled with sexual torture, but somehow, as written by Laymon it is less disturbing and nasty than it could be; perhaps because it is seemingly written through the eyes of a thirteen year-old boy. It is more fantasy than reality. And that fantasy is somehow innocent and almost coy.
Come Out Tonight is not for everyone. If you are offended by violence, sex, or just about anything else, avoid this book. If, on the other hand, you like a little heady action and quick-shot violence you just might like this offering. Be careful and don’t take it too seriously, or we all may have to question both our sensibilities and our sanity.

Friday, October 26, 2018

MIA HUNTER: L.A. GANG WAR by Stephen Mertz

A three-man strike force accustomed to rescuing prisoners of war in the jungles of Vietnam is stateside on a rogue mission in Los Angeles. Mark Stone, known as the MIA Hunter, is asked by an old war buddy, now a deputy chief with LAPD, to help rescue Rick Chavez from a Colombian drug cartel. Chavez is a Pulitzer award winning journalist who has been writing a series of hard and insightful articles about the drug trade in L. A. The articles have enough detail that the LAPD and the drug gangs—Crips, Bloods and their Colombian suppliers—want to know where his information is coming from.
When Stone and his team arrive on scene, Chavez is being held prisoner in a palatial home in San Clemente; a few doors down from Richard Nixon's house. It takes the team only a few minutes, several hundred rounds of 9mm lead slung by MAC 10s, some smart one liners, and a close call or three, to pull Chavez out of the house. But this is the beginning for the MIA team because as the team is exfiltrating from the firefight, Stone sees a familiar face. A face that belongs to a man who tried to kill Mark Stone in Vietnam.
MIA Hunter: L. A. Gang War—the thirteenth entry in the series—is an entertaining example of the men’s adventure mania of the 1980s. Originally published in 1990 (an honorary member of the 1980s), it is a time capsule of the era, capturing society’s anxiety with an escalating war on drugs, violent street gangs spreading the poison and in the process claiming entire neighborhoods, all in the shadow of America's defeat in Vietnam. It is non-stop action, accented with betrayal, revenge, and the MIA team’s seeming endless supply of bravado and super hero combat skills. There is also a touch of humor, if you look closely, and even a big idea or two. L. A. Gang War is a top-notch example of both the series and the genre.



Monday, October 22, 2018

DEATH OF A CITIZEN by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm is a solid citizen. He is married with three children. He makes a living writing popular novels (western’s mostly), and lives with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His picture perfect American dream is mangled when Tina, an operative he briefly worked with in Europe during World War II, walks through the front entrance of a cocktail party. She passes an old signal to Matt—“I’ll get in touch with you later. Stand by”—and in an instant (and without much fuss) Matt’s idyllic existence shatters.
Death of a Citizen is the first (of 27) Matt Helm novels, and it is absolutely terrific. In the opening sequence Helm is an everyman; likable and stable with a pretty wife and a family, but it only takes a few hours for his old habits to take over. It starts with a dead woman in his writing room, and then a confrontation with Tina who, after some convincing from Matt, weaves a fantastic story about a Soviet agent hunting a nuclear scientist working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.
The action is convincing, the prose is smooth and cool—
“Suddenly I was feeling fine. You can stay tense only so long. I was over the hump. I was driving ten miles out of the way, with a corpse in the bed of the truck, just to take a worthless alley cat home.”
And the plot is as tight and smooth as a guy wire. There is more than the usual backstory about Helm’s World War II exploits, and post war life, but it is done without interrupting the forward momentum of the plot. Even better, Mac—the leader of the “organization” Matt worked for, and is once again working for—makes an appearance in the field, and Helm’s doubt and operational rust give him an element of believability. 
Death of a Citizen is the first of the Matt Helm novels, but it is as convincing, urgent, and well written as any. In a sense it is the primer. It introduces Helm, the organization, and everything it is, which is essentially a kind of counter intelligence wet work squad. It is the cold war on a small field. The best part, the citizen who lost his life (from the title) is Helm himself, and what he gains is a certain freedom, his code name Eric, and an outlet for his violent nature.
Death of a Citizen was originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, and it was recently reissued as a paperback by Titan Books.