Friday, October 31, 2008

THE COMMISSION by Michael Norman

I have never found a mystery novel set in my native Salt Lake City very compelling, and surprisingly there have been a few. The best was Stephen White’s Higher Authority, which I enjoyed and really had some pretty accurate and colorful local scenery. Unfortuantely it is the exception. The others were pretty drab and uninteresting. The worst was a lazy effort by Thomas H. Cook titled Tabernacle. It was written pretty well, but it also showcased Cook’s lack of knowledge about the culture and even the geography of the place. There was also a private eye series that starred the moronically named Moroni Traveler written by Robert Irvine. The scenery and setting were an improvement, but the character and mystery were both lacking.

I have always wondered why mystery writers stay away from Utah. Sure it sounds uninteresting, but under the placid white shirts and black suits, the prim cleanliness and façade of wholesomeness resides the same decay and rot of any culture. Salt Lake City is a major hub of the Mexican drug trade. There is the sinister grip of the Mormon Church on local politics. There is polygamy, murder, rape, and above all else the tendency of financial fraud—Salt Lake City is the smallest American city with its own FBI fraud office. And the politicians are as seedy, corrupt, and nasty as anywhere else. One of our Senators actually employed E. Howard Hunt during the Watergate years.

Needless to say when I learned there is a local writer—Michael Norman—producing a Salt Lake City-based police procedural series I was intrigued. The first novel, of two so far, is titled The Commission. It is a slim volume published by Poisoned Pen Press and amazingly it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The cast consists of two cops. The first, and the narrator, is Special Investigations Branch of the Utah Department of Corrections Chief Sam Kinkaid. The second is the stunningly beautiful and always competent Salt Lake City detective Lt. Kate McConnell.

When the son of a local and very powerful businessman is gunned down in the driveway of his home in an exclusive neighborhood Lt Kate McConnell is tapped to lead the investigation. Kincaid is called in because the victim—Levi Vogue—was the Chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole. It doesn’t take long for the pair to discover Vogue led a less than ideal Mormon lifestyle; he was a philanderer who enjoyed strip clubs and hookers. The two detectives quickly find themselves walking a tight line between an escalating criminal investigation and a deepening political quagmire that threatens not only their careers, but potentially their lives as well.

The Commission is an enjoyable straight-forward procedural. It is written in first person with an occasional, and not too annoying, switch to third person. The setting is well drawn—while Mr Norman doesn’t quite capture the nuances of local life, he does make a good attempt that is more than just throwing out names and places. There are a few scenes in the small Casino border town of Wendover that are particularly well drawn. The cast is broad and the victim and his family are easily compared to a local clan that claims the current Governor as one of its own.

The plot is straight forward and unmarred by any jolting twists. I did guess the conclusion no more than one-third of the way into the novel, but it really didn’t bother me. The narrative is clear and readable and there is enough tension and suspense to keep things interesting.

The Commission is the best mystery novel I have read set in Salt Lake City. It is quick, believable, and very entertaining. It is certainly good enough that I plan to search out the second in the series.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

2008 Halloween Film Festival

October is winding down. The days are shortening, the shadows are lengthening, the temperatures cooling and the leaves are changing from green life to the dashing colors of death. And, best of all, Halloween is quickly approaching. A holiday that I treasure as much as any holiday—it is part sentimental and part adult anticipation. It is the unofficial end—at my house anyway—of the summer season and the beginning of the season of hibernation.

As I mentioned in a previous post my wife and I watch a horror movie each Sunday in October to celebrate the coming of Halloween. There is no real preparation for the films other than selecting a broad array of horror films from the library and video stores to choose from and then simply picking one and watching it Sunday evening.

This October has been the season of Richard Matheson. Of the six films—we slipped a few extra into the schedule—three have been based on novels by Mr Matheson. And all three were pretty good; I have my favorite, but none were complete bums. The films represent the modern-era of Hollywood. The oldest was released in 1964 and the latest was released in 2006.

October 4. We watched the recent release BUG. It was a modern tale of paranoia and fear. It was a well made film that shouted low budget. It was filmed in one small place—a cheap and decaying motel room. It was enjoyable and thought provoking, but at moments felt a little flat. I wrote a review of this one earlier in the month. Click Here.

October 10—this is one of the extras. It was a chilly Saturday night and we decided to cheat and watch an old horror film instead of going out. We made the right decision. Last Man On Earth was released in 1964. It stars Vincent Price, was directed by Ubaldo Ragona, and based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Of the three films made from I Am Legend, Last Man on Earth is the most faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

Vincent Price admirably brings the protagonist Robert Neville to life—for some reason his name is changed to Robert Morgan in the film. He is alone in his home. His wife and child are gone, and the marauding vampires call his name at night as they circle and try to get through the walls of the building. His days are lonely and long, until he discovers he is not the last man.

Last Man on Earth is a great film with more meaning than is expected from an old low budget black and white from the 1960s. Very much recommended.

October 11. This was a two film night. The first was a short slasher movie titled The Descent. It was probably the weakest of our Halloween films. The opening thirty minutes felt like a Richard Laymon novel—a diverse group of women get together once a year for an adventure. They are smart-alecky, attractive, brave and scared. I really enjoyed the opening, but the film devolved into mindless violence and gore.

It was written and directed by Neil Marshall. I don’t know this, but it felt like a foreign film aimed directly at an American audience. It was released in 2005.

The second horror special of the night was “Sounds Like” from Masters of Horror. This is the best episode from the uneven Showtime series I’ve seen. It was written and directed by Brad Anderson. It first aired in 2006. If you haven’t seen this one, you should. I wrote a detailed review last year. Click Here.

October 18. We watched the second of three films based on Richard Matheson’s work. Stir of Echoes is an updated adaptation of the novel by the same name. Kevin Bacon plays the role of Tom Wallace—again the protagonists name is changed to Tom Witzky in the film. The adaptation is loose, but faithful to the ideal and concept of the novel. There are a few startling and chilling moments; the climax is predictable, but fun.

Stir of Echoes was adapted and directed by David Koepp. It’s an enjoyable film that, if you leave your expectations at the door, is enjoyable, quick and a little unsettling. It was released in 1999.

October 25. The Legend of Hell House. This is one of the films that I really anticipated watching this October. It is based on the novel by Richard Matheson and also adapted by Mr Matheson. It was originally released in 1973. It is a traditional ghost story with a twist of modern technology thrown in. As I watched the film—I have yet to read the novel—I was struck by how closely it resembles several more recent ghost stories, the most notable Stephen King’s Rose Red.

The Legend of Hell House is the story of four people who are hired to enter an old mansion that is proven to be haunted; a scientist and his wife and two mediums. They are paid a large sum to stay for four days and interpret what they see. It is a well made film that doesn’t feel its age, or even of the 1970s. There is nothing overly gothic about it and there are even a few legitimate scares. It is very probably my favorite film of the Halloween 2008 Film Festival.

October has been a great month, and I can’t wait to see what is on tap for the evening itself. Here is to a wonderful and eventful—the good kind of events—Halloween at your house too.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman, R.I.P.

We’ve lost another wonderful writer. This time it is Tony Hillerman who wrote the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels along with several stand alone novels. I first read Hillerman in the late-1980s and then, like so many of the authors of my youth, I lost track of his work until about four years ago when I read Skinwalkers. The Navajo tribal range never seemed as stark, as likable, or so much like home before Mr Hillerman brought it to life with his skill and talent.

He will be missed.

Here is the opening Marylin Stasio’s obituary in the International Herald Tribune (The New York Times):

Tony Hillerman, whose lyrical, authentic and compelling mystery novels set among the Navajos of the Southwest blazed innovative trails in the American detective story, died Sunday at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, The Associated Press reported.

He was 83 and lived in Albuquerque.

The cause was pulmonary failure, according to the AP report.

Click Here to read it all.

Friday, October 24, 2008

SNOWBOUND by Bill Pronzini

Hidden Valley is a beautiful mountain town that in summer is awash with tourists, but in winter is home to only 74 residents. The Christmas season is in full swing, which at Hidden Valley means the tourists are gone, the streets are empty, and the snow is piling up. There is only one highway that connects the village with the outside world and it runs through a treacherous pass.

The residents are hunkered down and enjoying the quiet, solitary winter. The village is aglow with the season:

“Mantled with a smooth sheen of snow, decorated with tinsel and giant plastic candy canes and strings of colored lights, the tiny mountain village looked both idyllic and vaguely fraudulent, like a movie set carefully erected for a remake of White Christmas.”

The country store, the restaurant and the other small businesses along Sierra Street are quiet as the town waits for an impending storm. What they don’t know is that three strangers are coming with the bad weather and one of them plans to violently take the town hostage. And when an avalanche blocks the pass he effectively, violently and insanely puts his plan in motion.

Snowbound is an early Bill Pronzini novel. It was originally published in 1974 and it has all the earmarks of a 1970s thriller—the prose is sharp with a medium-boiled style, the plot is quick without any tricky gimmicks, the characters are developed with just enough backstory to make them interesting, and the length is perfect: 313 pages in mass market. It doesn’t hurt that you can feel the heavy brown polyester pants clinging to the characters like a talisman against the future. Perfect, really.

The protagonists—a small group of townies—are well painted and one, a stranger to the town, is downright sympathetic and likable. But the power of the story rests with the development and believability of the villain. He is an unlikable man with a feverish insanity that Mr Pronzini develops and enhances as the novel progresses. He, and the other two outlaws are perfect for the story, and they help elevate Snowbound from the pedestrian to the pretty damn good.

The suspense is expertly increased with a measured pace from the idyllic and peaceful opening scenes of life in Hidden Valley to a botched robbery in Sacramento to the violent climax. The early scenes in the village are developed much like a small town horror story; a slow build-up to a known—by the reader—and unavoidable collision with a sinister, almost evil, force.

Snowbound is a novel that would translate very well into a hardboiled film, either as an updated version or in its historical context. Its force and impact have diminished little over the thrity-four years since its original publication. It is not on the par of Pronzini’s recent work—specifically the character development and the unique sense of place—but it is a well-written and entertaining novel that will appeal to anyone who enjoys their thrillers crisp, tight and to the point.

Snowbound was recently—last December—reissued by the terrific small press Stark House Press. It was issued in trade paperback with another early Pronzini novel Games. A novel that I haven’t read, but is on my list.

Other Gravetapping reviews of Bill Pronzini's work:

"The Winning Ticket"; October 4, 2008
The Crimes of Jordan Wise; August 2, 2007

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rat Pack Film Update

Some cool news from Robert Randisi about the film deal he made for his first Rat Pack novel Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime. He wrote the screenplay and in an email he said it “was a blast.” And it seems like a novel that should translate to film quite well.

The project was recently featured in Variety.

Randisi solves 'Rat Pack Mysteries'
Hackett options first novel 'Everybody Kills'


In a move that features life and art imitating each other like a dog chasing its tail, Sandy Hackett has optioned Robert Randisi’s novel, “Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime,” the first of Randisi’s “Rat Pack Mysteries” featuring the eponymous Hollywood bad boys.

Hackett, son of late comedian Buddy Hackett, created “The Rat Pack Is Back” tribute revue at Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel. He met Randisi when the author was researching the Pack in 2007, and the two struck a pact this summer.

“Everybody” is set in 1960 when the storied showbiz gang (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Bishop) was shooting “Ocean’s 11” during the day and headlining the Sands’ Copa Room at night.

The tale finds Randisi’s protagonist, pit-boss Eddie Gianelli, summoned to look into a series of death threats against Martin.

“The Rat Pack were drinking before there was alcoholism, smoking before cancer, and having sex before AIDS,” says Hackett. Still, he adds, “There is a romanticism about them.”

With Randisi set to deliver the screenplay —his first — by year’s end, Hackett, who also co-exec-produced the 2007 horror film “Portal,” hopes to roll cameras by the first quarter of 2010.

It’s not too early, however, for Randisi to muse on who might make a good bigscreen Sinatra: “If Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr.. read Variety, I’d like them to get in touch with me.”

Click Here to go to the article at Variety.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fresh Air Interview with Charles Ardai

Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai was interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air. It originally aired May 5, 2008, and it was rebroadcast yesterday. I didn’t catch it on the original air date, but I sure did yesterday and it was extremely enjoyable.

Mr. Ardai was articulate, intelligent, and overall very impressive. His knowledge of the pulp era authors and titles is vast, as proven by the selection of reprints he has selected for HCC. He also divulged a significant amount of personal information, including that he is the son of two Holocaust survivors. Overall I was as impressed with his wit and poise as I am with the novels he writes and publishes.

Do yourself a favor and track over to the NPR website and listen. It runs about 30 minutes. Click Here to go there directly.

A Note: Ardai's novel Songs of Innocence won the Shamus Award for best paperback original earlier this month. To see the entire list of winners over at Bob Randisi's PWA blog click Here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A STIR OF ECHOES by Richard Matheson

A few years ago I read an interview with Richard Matheson where he categorically denied being a horror writer. At the time I thought it was simply a case of him being uppity because he is absolutely known as a writer of horror fiction. I also wasn’t well-read on Matheson’s work. I had experienced only a few of his novels and a handful of his short stories and I had certainly never seriously analyzed it beyond the point of: That was cool.

Over the past few months I have more intimately acquainted myself with his work. I have read several dozen of his short stories and two of his novels—The Incredible Shrinking Man and A Stir of Echoes—and I have to agree with Mr Matheson. He is not simply a writer of horror. His work certainly contains elements of horror and terror, but it is also something much more. It is a study of the human condition. It illuminates humanity and, his early work especially, opens a vivid and stunning window on Cold War American suburbia.

A great example of Matheson’s view on Cold War America is his novel A Stir of Echoes. The plot is definitely speculative—Tom Wallace, after he is hypnotized in a parlor game at a neighborhood party, is endowed with a perception that allows him to read the thoughts of others and vividly see into the near future. This new ability is seemingly attached to a woman who visits Tom’s house in the quiet hours of the night. She is dressed in a black dress and Tom has no other explanation than she is a ghost and she desperately wants something from Tom.

While the ghost element is what pulls the story, it is the human element that creates the power and longevity of the work. It is set in suburban Southern California in the 1950s and Mr Matheson, with a seeming simplicity, paints a vivid and complex portrait of the American dream. The neighbors are genuine: they are living, breathing individuals who, on the outside, love, dream, and live. It is this surface that Tom is able to see and understand in the beginning, but as the story develops along with his psychic abilities the neighbors are revealed in a much deeper sense—he can see their lust, hate, depression, fear, anger and all the broiling complexity that is humanity.

A Stir of Echoes is written in Richard Matheson’s effective and understated prose style. The dialogue is strong and it has the sound and texture of reality. It is technically a ghost story, but it is much more. There is a well-developed mystery with a subtle flow of paranoia and fear; a paranoia that is very closely related to the Cold War-era itself. It is multi-layered and can be read as both an immensely entertaining novel as well as a work of illuminative literature. It is dark, but it also develops a strain of hope as it reaches its climax. It is a literary work that has already survived past its own generation, and it well very likely remain relevant and read well beyond the current generation of readers. As it, and much of Richard Matheson’s work, should.

A Stir of Echoes was originally published in 1958 and it has a stylistic and thematic relationship with Matheson’s short story “The Distributor,” which was also published that same year. The stories are different in the way each is told, but the subtleties of meaning and the relationship of the individual to society are similar. Each story casts humanity in a dark light, but each also develops a sense of hope and triumph—“The Distributor” in a much murkier and less clear manner. If you want the full impact of A Stir of Echoes find and read “The Distributor” first and then analyze and compare the two as opposite sides of the same coin.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack Higgins

Ed Gorman, on his blog, wrote a terrific review of an old title—The Wrath of God—by Jack Higgins. Higgins is best known for the few dozen bestsellers he has written over the last thirty years, but he also had a pretty terrific (some would say better, so far as quality is concerned) output of novels from the late-1950s to the mid-1970s. His early stuff was comprised of slim adventure thrillers that, word-for-word, are as exciting and well-written as any thriller ever published.

His Paul Chavasse novels, a James Bond-like spy, made the Bond novels look boring and redundant and boring, and his other work was just as good. A few of the better titles are: Savage Day, East of Desolation, In the Hour Before Midnight, A Game for Heroes, The Khufra Run, and a dozen others I’m forgetting. The basic idea is, if it is a Jack Higgins title that was published pre-The Eagle Has Landed it is going to be a treat. And honestly most everything Higgins wrote pre-Sean Dillon days—which comes out to anything published before 1993 (the first Sean Dillon novel was published in 1992, but it wasn’t bad; Dillon was the villain) is pretty good.

I’m getting carried away. I meant this to be a short and simple post about the review Gorman wrote and the small discussion it started over on his blog. To read the review and the discussion thread go Here.

I also found a couple interviews with Higgins—his real name is Harry Patterson—that I thought were quite interesting. There is one on the website of his publisher where he explains why Sean Dillon didn’t die at the conclusion of Eye of the Storm. It was a weak ending and started a series that should never have been. Of course it has probably netted Mr. Higgins a few million dollars…that’s why I’m not in the publishing business. I don’t know what sells or why it sells. Anyway, here is Higgins’ response:

"However, at the end of the book [Eye of the Storm], the good guys pursued him to a French chateau where he was shot dead. When my wife read the final chapter, when I said, "hey, it's finished. What do you think?" she threw it back at me and said, "The readers will hate you because you've created this very unusual character: very strong, very interesting, full of humour and wit and Irishness and so on, and they're going to be angry with you". I said, "Well, what are you suggesting?" She said, "Let him survive and just walk away in the snow in the night".

"So I went and rewrote the final chapter, so when he was shot he was wearing a titanium waistcoat, which, of course, stops rounds going through but knocks you out. He was lying on the floor unconscious, the good guys left him there for French intelligence to do the cleaning up and, of course, Dillon came to. And he walked away through the snow into the night."

And the legacy began. I also stumbled across a few other interviews that were pretty good and you can find the links below. He is a terrific writer and his early work is absolutely awesome. These interviews remind me how much I like his stuff. I might even try another Sean Dillon book.

Shots Magazine
BBC, this one is partially written and partially audio
Times Online

Saturday, October 11, 2008

KISS HER GOODBYE by Allan Guthrie

A couple of years ago I wrote a few reviews and a short story for an online magazine called Adventure Fiction Magazine. It was a magazine devoted to adventure fiction, specifically Robert E. Howard-type fantasy. It was short lived, but I had a good time writing for it. One of the reviews I wrote was for Allan Guthrie's terrific hardboiled Kiss Her Goodbye. A novel that really opened my eyes to the new movement in modern crime fiction. I'm a little slow sometimes.

The movement recaptured the essentials of the old hardboiled noir that permeated the paperback market of the late-1940s, 50s, and 60s, which was an evolution of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s; a subject for which I'm far from expert. The movement has caught the attention of critics and readers alike, and its strong and uncompromising style kills me. I absolutely love it. So here is my review of Kiss Her Goodbye. It is one of the first reviews I wrote (which is the nice way of saying it's not one of my best), but it still sums up my feelings about Guthrie's entertaining novel.

Noir is back. The new line of crime novels published by Hard Case Crime, a partnership between Charles Ardai, Max Phillips and Dorchester Publishing, has brought the 1950s style paperback original, complete with alluring, colorful cover art and stark, dark stories of the noir era back into the mainstream. Hard Case has published eight novels to date, four original, and four classic noir reprints.

The latest original novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, arrived in bookstores in early March. It is written by Scottish writer Allan Guthrie. It is Guthrie’s second published novel—the first was Two-Way Split—and you will not be disappointed. If you like your action swift, your violence fast, your women tough and your men hard, you will love Kiss Her Goodbye. It is pure noir. The description is short and blunt. The dialogue is crisp and the characters are, to put it simply, anything but heroic.

This gritty thriller is the story of Joe Hope. He is a collector for an Edinburgh loan shark named Cooper–Cooper also made a brief appearance in Guthrie’s debut novel. Hope is a rudderless man who lives for nothing more than the thrill of collecting and a night spent at the pub, but all that changes in a flash when his daughter kills herself and his wife is murdered. It’s an understatement to say Joe is angry, but he also finds himself as the prime suspect for the murder of his wife. He goes on the run to solve the puzzle; he has to figure out who he can trust, why his wife was killed, who set him up, and then how to get payback.

The prose is written with a rapid fire pace that keeps the story cruising along. It is quick, concise and brutal:

“Bile rose in his throat. He stood up and spewed all over the carpet. He doubled up. Folded to his knees. Puked once more. His guts hurt. His damaged ribs were throbbing again.”

The sentences are short. The storyline is well constructed and executed with the precision of a craftsman. This is the new noir: tough, hard and fast as a bullet. The pace is unrelenting and the plotting strong.

Kiss Her Goodbye is not for the squeamish. The language is coarse. The story is violent. The characters are difficult to like, but it is a masterpiece of noir. It is dark, dreary and real. This one is better than Guthrie’s first, and I’m betting his next will be better still.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


We have an annual Halloween tradition at my house. We choose a different horror film to watch each Sunday evening in October. There are no rules. The films range from slasher to quiet to psychological, and from old titles to recent releases. The films can be television originals, small budget independent films, or big budget Hollywood releases. Anything goes.

We usually enter October with a pool of several possible titles and wait to make the actual selections each Sunday evening. This past Sunday we watched William Friedkin’s paranoid film BUG. It is a film that I have mixed feelings about. It went in a direction I wasn’t expecting, but at times it felt overwrought and a little tight. The majority of the film took place in a dingy old motel room; a room that successfully gave me a vague feeling of claustrophobia and as the film moved forward the director, subtly at first and then more overtly as the climax approached, turned into a raw slash of paranoia.

I enjoyed BUG, but there were a few moments when it stalled and it took Friedkin too long to get it restarted. The motives of the characters were successfully portrayed and Ashley Judd did a great job as a lonely and sad woman susceptible to a visiting paranoia. It is an uneven film that is more about ideas than horror—it can be seen as a denouncement of the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism, specifically the paranoia that was generated by certain (unnamed) governments for self benefit.

The description over at Yahoo!Movies reads:

A lonely waitress with a tragic past, Agnes rooms in a run-down motel, living in fear of her abusive, recently paroled ex-husband. But when Agnes begins a tentative romance with Peter, an eccentric, nervous drifter, she starts to feel hopeful again--until the first bugs arrive.

And here’s the trailer…

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

New Mike Hammer Novel: THE GOLIATH BONE

I bumped into a new Mike Hammer novel in a local bookstore this past weekend. It is a collaborative effort between the late-Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Collins, or so I think, finished a manuscript left by Spillane at his death. This is the second Spillane novel Max Allan Collins has finished since his death—the first was Dead Street, a Hard Case Crime title that I haven’t read—and I don’t think it is the last. I’ve heard there are at least two more Hammer novels scheduled.

The two also collaborated on a recent short story—“There’s a Killer Loose!”—in the August issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was really pretty good. It had the flavor of a 1950s hardboiled story and a plot that could have been pulled from an old radio mystery. I really enjoyed it.

The description of The Goliath Bone:

The bestselling American mystery writer of all time brings back his world-famous PI Mike Hammer for his biggest—and most dangerous—case. In the midst of a Manhattan snowstorm, Hammer halts the violent robbery of a pair of college sweethearts who have stumbled onto a remarkable archaeological find in the Valley of Elah: the perfectly preserved femur of what may have been the biblical giant Goliath. Hammer postpones his marriage to his faithful girl Friday, Velda, to fight a foe deadlier than the mobsters and KGB agents of his past—Islamic terrorists and Israeli extremists bent upon recovering the relic for their own agendas.

A week before his death, Mickey Spillane entrusted a substantial portion of this manuscript and extensive notes to his frequent collaborator, Max Allan Collins, to complete. The result is a thriller as classic as Spillane’s own
I, the Jury, as compelling as Collins’s Road to Perdition, and as contemporary as The Da Vinci Code.

P.S. Hopefully it's significantly better than The Da Vinci Code.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

"The Winning Ticket" by Bill Pronzini

Nameless and Jake Runyon are on stakeout in an all-night diner waiting on a deadbeat dad who has a history of spousal abuse. Nameless isn’t keen on the job because it feels more like a strong-arm bounty than detective work. The weather outside is wet and the pair are about to call it a night when a couple bang through the entrance. The man is about forty and hard-looking with tattoos on his neck and the back of his hand. The woman is thirty and nervous.

The detectives both sense something wrong with the couple and when they notice a gun tucked into the man’s pants they decide to follow them out into the night. To tell more would ruin the story.

I’ve read “The Winning Ticket” twice over the last year—once in the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and then again in the anthology Prisoner of Memory—and its images struck hard and fast with each reading. It is delivered in Bill Pronzini’s stark and modern hardboiled style and it unravels exactly as expected. There are no jarring surprises or twists, but it is styled, plotted, and executed perfectly.

The setting is detailed with a rich and vibrant nuance that transports the reader to a rainy Northern California winter night. The characters are nicely fitted into the story with a detail that endows each with a sense of reality. The atmosphere is heavy with impending violence and Mr. Pronzini doles out the clues and hints like the professional he is.

“The Winning Ticket” is a nearly flawless short story. The plot relies on an element of coincidence, but it is explained through the action and by the narrator. It is unique and original while also being steady and familiar. Bill Pronzini is deserving of the title of Grandmaster, and this story is another notch on his belt. It is a winner and very much worthy seeking out.

“The Winning Ticket” originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and was republished in the anthology Prisoner of Memory: And 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Covers of Sam McCain

I've always had a fondness for book cover art and I love to see the different editions of the same novel. I've been collecting the various covers of Alistair MacLean since I was twelve; unfortunately most of my collection was lost when I moved to the East Coast several years ago. And then when I moved back West a few more disappeared.

It's not a rare event for me to jump on Amazon's UK website to take a look at the various British artwork of my favorite authors, and that's exactly what I did this morning. I found the cover art for all of Ed Gorman's wonderful Sam McCain novels, less two--the first in the series The Day the Music Died published in 1998 and the most recent Fools Rush In published in 2007; to read the Gravetapping review click Here.

So I thought I would run comparison of the artwork used by his American publisher and his British publisher. The titles are in order of publication date and every one of them is worthy of reading at least once. But I would recommend you give each at least two reads. You won't regret a page of it.

The U.S. Edition is on the left.

Wake Up Little Susie (1999)

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Save the Last Dance for Me (2000)

Everybody's Somebody's Fool (2003)

Breaking Up is Hard to Do (2004)

P.S. There is a rumor Ed has a contract for an eighth Sam McCain novel. The release date is sometime in 2009.