Saturday, October 26, 2013

DEAD RECKONING by Sam Llewellyn

Sam Llewellyn is an author I discovered in the late 1980s as a teenager.  He wrote a series of suspense novels set in the British fishing village of Pulteney.  The novels all have sailing as a backdrop, and by my recollection none of them feature the same protagonist.

I recently reread Dead Reckoning, which is the first of the Pulteney sailing novels published in 1987.  It is narrated by Charlie Agutter.  Charlie is from an old Pulteney family, and he makes his living designing racing yachts.  The novel opens with Charlie receiving a summons to the village’s lifeboat.  A sailing yacht has been caught in The Teeth—a dangerous stretch of reef just off shore.  The stranded yacht was designed by Charlie, and is one of only two produced with a new light weight rudder, but even worse the dead sailor at its helm is his brother.

It appears the rudder failed and a heavy sea dragged Aesthete into the Teeth where its hull was cracked like an egg.  The accident hits Charlie hard.  He and his younger brother were close and his business is threatened with collapse due to the perceived failure of the new rudder.  Charlie is certain the rudder was sabotaged, but the saboteur is a step ahead and he can’t prove it.  The mystery is as much motive as whodunit.  Charlie isn’t sure why the rudder was tampered with, and if it was murder for its own sake—to kill his brother or the other man aboard the yacht—or an attempt to destroy him and his business by undermining the rudder design.
Dead Reckoning is a wonderful suspense-adventure mystery.  It was fairly (and correctly) compared to the work of Dick Francis by critics when it was released.  A slim line suspense mystery with a sport setting.  In this case yacht racing, but it is as much an adventure story as mystery, and it is seemingly influenced by the Alistair MacLean style adventure thriller.  It is heavy on description, setting (weather is always an adversary), action and suspense, and light on dialogue and whodunit ponderings.
Pulteney is a perfect setting for the story.  It is a boom town that was once a place where fishermen made their living from the sea, but it has been bought up by wealthy professionals and industrialists who use it as a place to moor yachts and brag about to their friends back in the city.  The rub between the old and new residents creates its own tension as Charlie works to solve the puzzle and catch the killer.  He walks a tenuous line between both old and new, and isn’t quite trusted by either. 

Everything works in Dead Reckoning, but what sets it apart from its peers is the seamless weaving of both the culture and sport of yacht racing.  The plot cannot be extricated from its background, and one without the other would be completely useless.  The setting is exotic and familiar at once, and the characters are smoothly realistic in shades of both likability and familiarity.   
Dead Reckoning was published more than 25 years ago, but it has held up remarkably well, and Sam Llewellyn is back on my list of favorite writers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

CAMP FORD by Johnny D. Boggs

Win MacNaughton is an aging—99 years old—former baseball player, umpire, and coach who is invited to attend the 1946 World Series by The Sporting News.  A reporter asks him how he thinks the two participating teams—Red Sox and Cardinals—compare to the best team he has ever seen.  Win doesn’t hesitate, and quickly names two teams.

“‘Easy’ I said. “Mr. Lincoln’s Hirelings and the Ford City Gallinippers. Played one game at Camp Ford, Texas.”
The reporter gave Win a confused look and walked away.  He didn’t mention either of the teams in the newspaper the next day, and Win MacNaughton spends the rest of Johnny D. Boggs’ Camp Ford explaining his answer.  He begins his story as a boy in Rhode Island where he is introduced to the game that shaped his life.  His move with his parents to Jacksboro, Texas, where his father gets involved with the anti-slavery movement and, when the Civil War breaks out, his parents take him back North where, in 1863 he joins the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry.

It isn’t long before Win finds himself a prisoner of war at Camp Ford, Texas where life is hard, cruel, and, surprisingly, filled with baseball—even the Southerners are learning the game.
Camp Ford won the Spur Award for best novel in 2005, and it is the best Western novel I have read in a long time.  Mr. Boggs adroitly weaves two storylines—the aged Win MacNaughton watching the 1946 World Series in St. Louis, and Win MacNaughton as a boy growing up in a changing and violent time with the new game of baseball.  The prisoner of war scenes are harsh and realistic with vivid descriptions of the place, the characters, and, most importantly, the inner thoughts of MacNaughton as he tries to survive captivity.
The characters are richly created and populate the novel with a sincerity and richness often lacking in this genre, or any other.  The ideals of friendship, love, and hate are explored, and Mr Boggs leaves just enough ambiguity in the narrative to allow the reader to judge the actions of the characters.  The storyline is refreshing and original.  It has just the right mixture of baseball folklore and Civil War history to satisfy both readers of historical fiction, and anyone who enjoys the sport.  But more importantly Camp Ford is a wonderfully entertaining and downright enjoyable novel.
I enjoyed this novel enough when I originally read it that it was included in my top five novels that year.  Camp Ford is a novel you should make a point to read. 
This review was originally published in slightly different form at the long ago blog Saddlebums on December 16, 2007, but since it is the season of baseball, and the current World Series is being played by the Red Sox and Cardinals, I decided to dust it off and give it new life.  Camp Ford is currently available as an ebook.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Heavenly Van Gogh

This image is of Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon).  It was taken by Hubble in 2002 when the star emitted a pulse of light or energy.  The Hubble website makes the comparison of this beautiful “light echo” to the work of Vincent Van Gogh.  The halo, or dust, is illuminated by the star, which is the red center. 

Its beautiful swirls and tidal-like movements are as vibrant as any space photograph I have ever seen.  It is something close to a magical and unbelievable view into a different time and place.  A place we can never see with our own retinas, but a place we can interpret and imagine from the lens of Hubble.  A place of imagination and opportunity.  A place for our hopes and amazements.  But more importantly a vision of the future and humanities march forward, which is summoned by our ability to capture such an image.     

The Hubble website description is here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

AT FIRST SIGHT by Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell’s fourteenth novel At First Sight received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released in 2008.  Publisher’s Weekly called it “disappointing,” and Booklist said it “might be his best novel yet.”  After reading it this past weekend I’m leaning more towards Booklist’s opinion than PW’s. 

Chick Best is a self-made millionaire.  He hit it big with an Amazon-type Internet company, but the good days are gone.  Now he is stuck with an expensive weight lifting wife, an angry drug addicted daughter, and selling his company for pennies on the dollar.  And worst, he is losing his credentials—the envy his wealth and possessions generates in others.  Suffice it to say Chick is a pathetically shallow man.

Chick and his family vacations in Maui each Christmas, and Chick’s dead end trajectory gets a lift when he spots the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  The woman is soft in that feminine way and gorgeous, which is the complete opposite of his hard body wife who spends more time discussing abs, quads, workout programs, and scowling (at least at Chick) than anything else.   
He immediately formulates a plan to meet the woman (Paige Ellis), who is married to a likable old money school teacher who is more concerned with learning disabled children than wealth.  A mind set Chick finds confusing and annoying.  The two couples become friends during the week, and when the vacation is over Chick can’t get Paige Ellis out of his mind.  On a New York business trip he detours to the Ellis’s North Carolina home where he begins his plan to win Paige.
At First Sight is written in both first and third person.  There are three acts—the first is narrated by Chick alone, the second is narrated by both Chick in first person and Paige in third person, and the third is narrated by Paige in first person and Chick in third person.  The changing perspective creates tension and builds doubt between the reader and Chick.  Chick is a sympathetic narrator in the first act, but as the reader is exposed to additional information from outside it becomes clear Chick is less than trustworthy.
While Chick may be less than honest, his portions of the novel are pure gold.  He narrates with a snarky wit, which is funny in the first half of the novel, but as his true character is revealed it becomes ominous.  He turns out to be such a loathsome character I found myself uncomfortable with my original opinion of both him and his and wit; as though liking him in the early stages of the novel illuminated something unsavory about my own character.
At First Sight is pretty terrific.  It is a fast moving story, which is cleverly plotted and told with a flash bang style and wit.  There are moments Chick’s narrative is laugh out loud funny—particularly when he is describing his daughter, wife, and his wife’s trainer Mickey D:

“I let it happen, though, because I didn’t think in four days Evelyn would be able to turn Paige’s softness into the kind of anatomical gristle that she had struggled so hard to achieve for herself.”
At First Sight is the best of the handful of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels I have read, and it’s a shame he didn’t write fewer of his Shane Scully novels and more like this. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Feast of John Lange, Err...Michael Crichton

The best news in publishing, at least at my house, is Hard Case Crime is reissuing the eight novels Michael Crichton published between 1966 and 1972 as by John Lange.  The John Lange novels are superior adventure thrillers strong on plot and action, generally (but not always) set in exotic locations with everyman protagonists.  The majority of the titles have been out of print for decades and cost a small fortune on the secondary market, which is why I’ve read most instead of all. 

I spent the better part of my youth (and a good deal of my adulthood) trolling bookstores with a single goal: FIND A JOHN LANGE TITLE!  And I found most of them (and a bunch of Oliver Lange), but wow a few were elusive, which is about to change because all eight are going to be issued in fashionable trade paperbacks with terrific artwork by Hard Case.  The only problem; will I be able to stop looking for them?

The following is a listing of the John Lange titles in chronological order.  I included the cover art for both the new Hard Case Crime edition, and any other covers I know of (because I love old paperback cover art).

Odds On.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1966.  This is Crichton’s first published novel, and it is one of the titles I haven’t read.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.      
Scratch One.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1967.  Scratch One is one of the weaker John Lange titles.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.

Easy Go.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1968.  It was reissued by Bantam with the title The Last Tomb.  This is one of the better John Lange titles.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Zero Cool.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1969.  This title was reissued by HCC in 2008 as a mass market paperback with cover art by Gregory Manchess.  The cover art will not change, but the book size will be increased to trade paperback.  Read the Gravetapping review.

The Venom Business.  Originally published as a hardcover in 1969 by World Publishing Company.  This is another of the titles I have yet to read.  The cover art is by Gregory Manchess.

Drug of Choice.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet.  Yet another title I haven’t read.  This was also issued under the title OverkillThe cover art is by Gregory Manchess.

Grave Descend.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1970.  This title was short listed for the best paperback original Edgar Award.  This title was resissued by HCC in 2006 as a mass market paperback with cover art by Gregory Manchess.  The cover is the same, but the size changes to a trade paperback.

Binary.  Originally published as a hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1972.  This title was translated into a television movie directed by Michael Crichton in 1972 titled “Pursuit”.  The novel is the best of the John Lange titles, but the film was somewhat disappointing.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Monday, October 07, 2013

THE REMOVERS by Donald Hamilton

The Removers is the third novel to feature cold war spy, or more accurate, enforcer Matt Helm.  He is less spy and more enforcer because he acts as a counter intelligence wet work operative rather than an intelligence gatherer; or as Helm’s boss explains:

“If you were working for a criminal organization, you’d be enforcers.  Since you’re working for a sovereign nation, you can call yourselves… well, removers is a very good word.”

Matt Helm receives a cryptic note from his ex-wife seeking help.  She left Helm, and took their two small children with her, when his violent past found him.  She lives with her new husband on a ranch outside Reno, Nevada where a local hood is making subtle threats to Helm’s children.  Helm’s boss gives him permission to head west, but asks him to make contact with another agent working a case against a Soviet agent called Martel.
Not surprising, Helm’s personal business and the Soviet operation are one and the same.  The agent working the case is inexperienced and in short order Helm finds only he is standing between Martel, the safety of his children, and the Soviet plot. 
The Removers is a smooth and exciting novel.  There aren’t many surprises, mainly because similar plots have been rolling over and over since it was published fifty years ago, but its execution is pitch perfect.  It is constructed from the ground up—the early action and plotting is interesting enough to keep the reader fully invested, while still leaving room enough for additional tension, action, and suspense without becoming overblown, unbelievable, and tedious.
The characters also contribute to the success of the novel.  There are the expected characters, whose only role is to fulfill the plot, but there are also the unexpected.  There is the flash bang daughter of the hood who is something close to a Helm ally, his ex-wife who is both less and more than expected; less because Helm wants her to behave as an operative, and more because she really is a decent woman. 
The element which differentiates The Removers, and all of the Matt Helm novels, is the protagonist.  He is something other than.  Meaning he is an uneasy categorization; he isn’t sympathetic, and while he constantly plays the angles and never fully risks himself for another, he is far from amoral.  Which is something he would rather you didn’t know.  Although you should know this title, and all the other Matt Helm novels, are pretty damn terrific.
Titan Books is republishing the Matt Helm novels as attractive mass market paperbacks.  To date the first six novels in the series are back in print and two more are scheduled.  I hope there is enough success to get all 27 of the titles back in print because they represent the best the genre has to offer, now and then.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

THE THOUSAND FACES OF NIGHT by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

The Thousand Faces of Night is the third novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1961.  It features a protagonist, Hugh Marlowe, which Mr Patterson later used as a pseudonym for three of his early novels published by Aberlard-Schuman.  The Marlowe moniker appeared on the non-Paul Chavasse novels published by Aberlard. 

Hugh Marlowe is a violent man.  He spent five years in prison for armed robbery, and while he never rolled on his cohorts, he also never shared the loot.  The novel opens with Marlowe’s release from Wandsworth, and waiting outside in the shadows is Mr Faulkner and two heavies.  Mr Faulkner’s crew abandoned Marlowe (and the take) when the robbery went bad, and now Faulkner wants the money.  Marlowe makes his escape, and with Faulkner’s heavies and the detective who investigated the robbery on his tail, decides to disappear until the heat burns low.
He finds a small town called Litton where he can hide.  He finds a job driving a truck for a small farmer who runs a cooperative, but he also finds trouble.  The farmer, a Portuguese immigrant named Papa Magellan, is being squeezed by a larger operator, and Marlowe can’t keep out of it. 

The Thousand Faces of Night is the weakest of Mr Patterson’s first three novels.  The plot is the simplest, and while Mr Patterson has never been accused of over developing his characters, the protagonist has very little flesh.  With this said, it is a quick, and exciting read.  Its plot is a 1980s television drama—think the A-Team, Incredible Hulk, etc.—where an outsider protagonist gets involved, and solves (at seemingly great personal risk), the problems of sympathetic strangers.
There are a few interesting elements in the novel, which are unlike much of Mr Patterson’s work.  There is a sex scene (not terribly detailed) between Marlowe and the antagonist’s niece.  Hugh Marlowe unwittingly gives his plan to save the Magellan farm to the antagonist, and he seemingly goes out of his way to hurt the Magellan’s daughter with both words and actions. 

The prose is stark.  The action is vintage Patterson (short, brutal, and believable), and the descriptions are simple and vivid—

“The hotel backed on to a maze of railway lines and he could see Paddington Station over to the left.  Beneath the window a pile of coke reared against the wall, and there was an engine getting up steam not far away.”
The Thousand Faces of Night is far from Harry Patterson’s best work, but it is an exciting adventure crime novel (more adventure than crime).  And what’s more, it added at least one word to my vocabulary—cosh, which is a weighted hand weapon much like a blackjack.  Now I just need to find the right conversation to use it.