Thursday, December 27, 2012


Dev Conrad—the cynical yet hopeful political consultant from Ed Gorman’s 2008 novel Sleeping Dogs—returns in Stranglehold.  Conrad is a Chicago-based political consultant who has one serious flaw; he has a conscience.  He plays to win, but he has an antiquated sense of fairness and honor.  A trait that isn’t in high demand in American politics.

Susan Cooper is an ideal candidate—she is attractive, intelligent, well spoken and personable—but as the election nears she becomes erratic and secretive.  Dev Conrad is called in as a trouble-shooter to find out the problem and put a leash on the candidate.  It’s not a quick fix however—Cooper is unmoved in her strange behavior and the clues Conrad finds lead him both to and away from his target.

Stranglehold is everything a mystery should be: dark, witty, plot driven, but populated by characters that matter, and it is never generic.  Mr Gorman takes a standard plot—murder, blackmail, lust—and breaths new life into it with twists that surprise the reader and invigorate the story.  It is a murder mystery, but its cock-eyed slant tracks the story into unexpected territory.

The opening line reads: “All roads lead to motels.” A standard theme in detective fiction—the seedy motel where unspeakable madness occurs—but Ed Gorman uses it as a kind of foil.  Not a trick by any standard, but he turns the trope against itself as well as the reader.

Ed Gorman is the most reliable writer of suspense currently working.  His plots—see above—are always clever and tight, his prose is smooth and hard at once, his narrative is steady and his dialogue is crystal.  But his real power is with the people that populate his stories.  His work has a dark cynicism about it, but that cynicism is rarely projected onto his characters.  There is hope in the behavior of his characters—they tend to be kind, solid, melancholy and very real; i. e. flawed.  The hero is as flawed as the antagonist, but it is the flaws, and how the character manages them, that generate compassion and interest from the reader.

Stranglehold is different from the first Dev Conrad novel: Sleeping Dogs.  It is darker.  There is less humor, although there is plenty if you enjoy your humor dry and subtle.  The differences between the two novels is interesting only on an intellectual level because both are entertaining.  The bottom line is, Stranglehold is the real deal.  It is another example of just how good Ed Gorman is at his craft.  It is also a reminder of the injustice that his name isn’t on the same lists as Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the rest of the high quality bestsellers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

ONE FOR HELL by Jada M. Davis

Stark House Press released a reprint of a 1952 Fawcett Red Seal original titled One for Hell written by Jada M. Davis back in 2010.  Davis is a writer I wasn’t familiar with and after reading it, I really don’t know why.  It is terrific and one of the best hardboiled noir tales I’ve read.  It resembles the work of two pulp writers, W. L. Heath—particularly Violent Saturday—and Jim Thompson.  It has the violence and dark shadows of Thompson and the sociology of secrets that Heath did so well.

Willa Ree is a drifter and a petty criminal.  The novel opens with Ree riding the rails toward a small Texas boomtown. His plan is simple: fleece the town and move on.  What happens is beyond Ree’s expectations and the town looks better to him by the minute.

One for Hell is pure entertainment.  There isn’t a protagonist.  The supporting cast, Willa Ree is the main player, come and go like visitors to an amusement park.  One by one they ratchet the pressure on Ree until he is ready to break.  And one by one Ree pushes them aside until he no longer has the ability.

The plot is tight and woven with a sophistication of character, morality and corruption.  The town has secrets—everyone has something to hide and Ree uses this underlying human weakness to his advantage.  He culls his enemies, the weaker ones first, from the herd and eliminates them. He has a girlfriend who is an arch-type, flawed at that, of woman.  She has all the strengths and the weaknesses and most are both—a desire to trust, to love and believe.  She is the light of the story and the hope.
The action is developed with a solidity and audacity that separates this novel from so many others of its type.  There is a scene in the middle part of the novel that covers 18 pages that changed my view of what can be done with both violence and action in a prose story.  It rolled like a freight train in the dark hard night.  It changed Ree from a smalltime hoodlum to a big time psychopath. It was the crux of the story, the beginning of the end for Willa Ree, and the push that leads the reader into his twisted mind.

There really isn’t anything flat in One for Hell.  Everything works.  From the plot to the characters to the psychology to the prose and it wraps itself together without the reader really knowing that it is happening.  Willa Ree spends much of his time trying to guess the actions and motives of other people and the internal dialogue is simple and interesting:
“Maybe the old woman knew. Or maybe she found it, though not likely. Baldy wasn’t a trusting sort of person, and she wouldn’t have guessed he had money in the first place. He sat on the trunk and surveyed the room. Pictures? Too simple.”
One for Hell is proof that Stark House is one of the best publishers of classic crime fiction.  This, like all of its releases, is still fresh and vibrant all these years later and it is going to be on my bookshelf for a very long time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stark House Press Super Christmas Sale

I received this nice piece of good news from Stark House.  Take my advice and buy a few of the titles. 
Happy Holidays from Stark House Press!

Earlier in the season we offered our first ever Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale to our newsletter subscribers. In an effort to reach out to all our readers, however, we're now making a similar buy 2 get 1 free sale on all in-stock titles from now until midnight on Christmas Day, 2012. And did we mention the FREE SHIPPING?

Details and a complete book listing are available here. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

WHEN OLD MEN DIE by Bill Crider

Crossroad Press Ebook Edition
Bill Crider is best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery novels, but his work is not limited to any one genre or style.  His Dan Rhodes mysteries tend to be a mixture of hardboiled and whodunit with a touch of humor to keep it fresh.  Mr Crider also wrote a series of novels featuring part-time and usually unwilling private investigator Truman Smith.  

The third Truman Smith novel, When Old Men Die, finds Truman putting the disappearance and murder of his sister behind him.  He has a steady job with a bail bondsman in Galveston, Texas, and as the novel opens he is approached by Dino, one of his oldest pals, to find a homeless man called Outside Harry.

Outside Harry is a fixture around town.  One of a group of homeless that are there, but rarely seen and Truman is a little dubious of the whole setup.  He can’t figure why Dino wants to find Outside Harry and Dino’s explanation that Harry was his friend doesn’t wash.  But Smith owes Dino and he commits to look for Harry over the weekend.  It only takes a few hours for Truman to find trouble followed by more until he has to either solve the case or get out of Galveston.

When Old Men Die
is an entertaining story with all of Bill Crider’s trademarks—the mystery is tightly and superbly plotted, the characters are eccentric with muddy motives, and the humor is good natured and funny.  The style and theme, or maybe the attitude, is more hardboiled than much of Mr Crider’s current writing, but it works and works well.  The setting is pitch-perfect—Galveston is described, both past and present, with nuanced detail by a writer who obviously knows and likes the city.  The prose is lucid and smooth with enough bite to make it interesting—

“There were three quick shots, two of them scoring the floor; the third one glanced of the flashlight and sent it spinning crazily.”

And one of my favorite details of the Truman Smith novels is his cat Nameless.  A name, or lack thereof, that is conspicuously similar to Bill Pronzini’s long running Nameless Detective series.  The best part, Nameless is a cat in every detail—
“He’s big and yellowish orange, with gray-green eyes.  He took his time about entering.  He looked up at me as if to ask where I’d been all evening, then stretched and gawked and looked behind him before stepping daintily through the door.”

When Old Men Die was originally published in hardcover by Walker & Company in November 1994.  It is currently available in ebook format from Crossroad Press at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

This is a reworked version of a review originally published at Dark City Underground  in 2010.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hubble Image: The Eagle Has Risen

This spectacular image of a stellar spire in the Eagle Nebula was taken by Hubble.  Its beauty is stunning; the flagrant use of color, shadow and light creates an image that is more question than answer.  It lingers on the screen in a splatter of uneasy form.  It speaks to the wonder that is the universe, and somehow, it brings a connection of both time and distance.  It relates both near and far, the universe and humanity in a mosaic of pixels.  It is real and unreal at once.  It truly is beauty.

The NASA website states the following:
Appearing like a winged fairy-tale creature poised on a pedestal, this object is actually a billowing tower of cold gas and dust rising from a stellar nursery called the Eagle Nebula. The soaring tower is 9.5 light-years or about 57 trillion miles high, about twice the distance from our Sun to the next nearest star.

Stars in the Eagle Nebula are born in clouds of cold hydrogen gas that reside in chaotic neighborhoods, where energy from young stars sculpts fantasy-like landscapes in the gas. The tower may be a giant incubator for those newborn stars. A torrent of ultraviolet light from a band of massive, hot, young stars [off the top of the image] is eroding the pillar.
For the rest of the story click here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE KEYS OF HELL by Jack Higgins

This is the fourth part of an essay about the six novels Jack Higgins wrote featuring Paul Chavasse titled "Paul Chavasse: An Introduction to the Cold War Spy Story".  The novels were written throughout the 1960s, and owe much to both the James Bond and Matt Helm novels.  The novels were published as by Martin Fallon, and before you read this post, you should read the first two segments of the essay here and here and here to put this post in context.

The Keys of Hell
was published in the U. K. by Abelard-Schumann in 1965, while it made its U. S. debut as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback (1-3673-6) in the 1970s.  It appeared in the United States after The Eagle Has Landed made Patterson a bestseller, with an attractive cover painting by Gordon Johnson.  It was reissued, in similar fashion to Year of the Tiger, by Berkley as a paperback in 2001.  The Berkley edition included two additional chapters; one at the opening and one at the end.  This time Chavasse is in 1995 Manhattan, and is presented with a case study of his exploits in 1965 Albania.  The inclusion of the introductory chapter is more successful in Keys, and it includes a humorous piece of dialogue, which explains both Patterson’s writing style and Paul Chavasse perfectly—

“‘This man is what?  Half English, half French.  He speaks more languages than you’ve had hot dinners.  University degrees coming out of his ears.  In spite of all that, a killer by nature.’” 
Keys was my introduction to Paul Chavasse and I have a soft spot for it.  It opens in Milan, Italy—Chavasse has freshly returned from an assignment in Albania, where he was reconnoitering the anticommunist underground, which is more or less defunct, since the sigurmi has swept it up.  After he briefs The Chief he is given an assignment to take care of a double agent, and then he is ordered to take a three week holiday.  A few days into his vacation Chavasse is lured, without sanction from The Bureau, back to Albania to recover the Black Madonna, a religious icon a Catholic group attempted to smuggle out of the country, and the communist Albanian government wants destroyed. 

Chavasse garners the help of an Italian smuggler named Guilio Orsini to make a quick run into the marshy delta of the Buene River in Northern Albania, where a small launch reportedly carrying the Madonna was sunk by the Albanian Navy.  They plan a quick in and out trip, but when they arrive the Albanian’s are waiting.  Chavasse is quickly alone—his party all captured—on the sparsely populated Albanian coast.  It doesn’t take him long to find a few friendly natives, and a way into the ancient castle his friends are being held.  It also doesn’t take long for him to end up in one of the cells, and it takes Chavasse’s patented mixture of violence and wit to find his way out again.

is one of the shorter Paul Chavasse novels—it runs well shy of 50,000 words—but it is one of the more illuminating regarding the character of Paul Chavasse.  He is portrayed as something close to an antihero.  He has always been a man of extreme violence, but his violence has seemingly been manifested in his struggle against tyranny.  However, in a single line of dialogue, Chavasse turns his motives from a soldier of democracy to something very close to a thug—

“‘If I’d been born in Germany twenty years earlier, I’d probably have ended up in the Gestapo.’”
This development of Chavasse as something short of a heroic character is a significant development in both Paul Chavasse as a character and Harry Patterson as a writer.  Patterson has always had a tendency to create protagonists that fall far short of their perceived station in life—an educated gentleman who chooses violence over a refined life—but they are rarely simple thugs who enjoy violence for violence.  This separation of Chavasse as a run of the mill protagonist is a mile post in Patterson’s development as a writer.  This treatment of Paul Chavasse as a violent semi-thug is a marked difference from the Paul Chavasse portrayed in The Testament of Caspar Schultz. 

The revised edition of Keys is the first novel to introduce Chavasse as “Sir Paul Chavasse.”  It introduces his birth date, Paris, 1928, his education:  Sorbonne, Cambridge, and Harvard.  He is identified as a Third Secretary of The Bureau, and Smirnoff is his favorite vodka.