Thursday, August 23, 2007

ACT OF PASSION by Harrison Arnston

When I was a teenager my parents belonged to a bulletin board service called Prodigy. It was around 1990—I was in High School, but the exact year escapes me. The Prodigy service was cool. It had a large array of discussion boards that—for the most part—got some pretty neat participation. The arts and literature board was active and it attracted quite a few writers including Douglas Clegg, David Bischoff, Marc Iverson, C.A. Mobley, S.K. Wolf, Harry Arnston, and so many others that it would be impossible for me to remember them all, let alone list them.

Harry Arnston had his own discussion group called Harry’s Bar and Grill, and it was a gathering place for readers, writers, and anyone else who wanted to discuss genre fiction—both what to read, and how to write it. I was in awe of Harry. He wrote nine, by my count, novels; they were all paperback originals and very much in the mystery genre. Two were courtroom dramas; one was a thriller with its seeds in World War Two, while still another was more like a private eye novel. His work was interesting, and he was a consummate gentleman. I emailed him several times, and he always responded with an obvious kindness that I still admire.

Unfortunately Harry died in the mid-1990s—the last email I sent him, somewhere between 1993 and 1994—asked him when his next novel was due out. His response (certainly not verbatim): I have two novels completed and sold to St. Martin’s Press, but I don’t know when they will be released because they keep firing my editors. I never saw those two novels, and I have always wondered what happened to them—did they ever hit print, or did they die with Harry?

I haven’t read all of Harry’s work, but over the few years I frequented Prodigy I read everything he put out, and I really quite liked it. Which brings me to my belated point: A few months ago I came across one of Harry’s novels in a thrift shop. It was in surprisingly good condition, and even better, it was one I hadn’t yet read. The title: Act of Passion.

Act of Passion is a straightforward courtroom drama. Ann Cohen is the mistreated wife of real estate developer Marty Cohen. Their marriage is a sham—Marty is a little man who loves to bed other women, and his taste trends toward the kinky. The novel opens with Ann drinking herself the courage to confront Marty—earlier in the evening Ann and a friend had seen Marty in a perverted sex act with his mistress, and Ann has had enough. She is finally going to file for a divorce, but before Marty makes it home the police knock on her door.

They ask her several disturbing questions: Where were you this evening? Do you own a gun? She doesn’t understand what they are doing until they arrest her for the murder of her husband. This is where Act of Passion begins, but it is a long way from its end. Ann enlists the help of one of the most highly sought criminal attorneys in the country. He made his name representing a local mobster, and he readily agrees to represent Ann.

Act of Passion was a fun novel to read. It was published in 1991 when the courtroom drama was all the rage, and it has all the elements of the genre: courtroom scenes, investigators, lawyers, judges, and even gangsters who know more than they want to tell. The characters are well conceived—they are not fully developed, but they fit the story perfectly and they, specifically Ann, are rendered to be likable and believable. The plot is also very much the expected, but Mr. Arnston adds enough twists and turns to keep it fresh and exciting.

I enjoyed Act of Passion a whole lot, and while it does have few a creaky moments—the favor of a mobster, the incredulous naiveté of Ann—it holds its own as not only a blast from the past, but it also still has a voice and power sixteen years after its original publication.

If any of you have any information about Harry’s work, especially those two novels he sold to St. Martin’s, please clue me in. I enjoyed his work when he was writing it, and Act of Passion reminded me I need to keep looking for his novels, and there are several of them I haven’t read.


Ed Gorman said...

I knew Harry as a Mystery Scene correspondent. He was a nice guy and a good writer. His books are well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I knew Harry from our GEnie days. He wrote the adapatation for the Madonna movie Body of Evidence. I remember he sweated it out in a very short time. He was a very nice man.

Chris T.