Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: The Year in Reading

2014 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 64 titles, and will likely finish one more—Logan’s Search by William F. Nolan. I surpassed last year’s mark by nine. The majority of the titles were fiction, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too. The nonfiction tended towards history and true crime, which included a number of interesting titles including A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger and My Silent War by Kim Philby.

I entered 2014 with two reading goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2013 I read only five authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, but the second goal was an abject failure. I only read one book—a nonfiction book titled Dirt, Water, Stone: A Century of Preserving Mesa Verde by Kathleen Fiero. So, 2015 will have to be the year of the woman in my reading list.

I became acquainted with the work of eight authors in 2014: Andrew Hunt (City of Saints), Richard Hoyt (Trotsky’s Run), J. J. Maric (Gideon’s Staff), Stephen Overholser (Shadow Valley Rising), Steve Brewer (Baby Face), Michael Parker (The Eagle’s Covenant), Robert Parker (Passport to Peril), and Gregg Loomis (The Julian Secret). The best of the “new”—not so new really since it was published in 1982—was Richard Hoyt’s Trotsky’s Run.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 24 titles, which is approximately 38 percent of the total for 2014. I read nine by Harry Patterson, eight by Ed Gorman, four by Garry Disher, and three by Lawrence Block. I had a few special projects that inflated the number of titles read by specific authors including my ongoing initiative to read and review all of Harry Patterson’s early novels—34 novels published between 1959 and 1974—interviews with Garry Disher and Ed Gorman, not to mention an Introduction I wrote for Stark House Press’s forthcoming release of Mr Gorman’s classic private eye novels The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers. An omnibus I recommend absolutely.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2014. No rules, except no repeats. If I read it in a prior year it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2014 are—

5.  Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell. The work of David Morrell has been a staple of my reading since my teens, and I generally read his new work as it is released. Murder, however, was an exception. I waited more than eighteen months from its release before reading it, which was a mistake because it is, simply put, fantastic. It is a Victorian novel—think of the journal entries of Dracula mixed with the sophisticated mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and the setting and description of Charles Dickens—but also very modern, and very David Morrell.   
4.  Trotsky’s Run by Richard Hoyt.  Trotsky’s Run is my first experience with the work of Richard Hoyt.  It was published in 1982 by William Morrow, and I ran across the mass market edition released by TOR in 1983.  It is an espionage novel with a cleverly devised plot, humor, a little tradecraft, a bunch of history—both now and then—and a somewhat satirical view of cold war paranoia. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Goin’ by Jack M. Bickham. Goin’ is a running-from-age novel rather than a coming-of-age novel. Stan is middle-age. He has a wife, now ex-wife, and a daughter. He is miserable, empty, and searching for something to make things better. He buys a small Honda street bike and hits the road. He finds adventure in the same vein as a 1960s television show—think Route 66. It has the feel of a coming-of-age tale, but it is shadowed with a darkness and cynicism that comes only with age and experience. Goin’ spoke to me—I, somehow, am inching in to middle age. I understood the struggles, and fears of the protagonist. Read the Gravetapping review.   

2.  Whispering Death by Garry Disher. This is the sixth, and most recent, entry in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series of crime novels. It is a police procedural of the best kind. It is human, interesting, and entertaining. The antagonists are a serial rapist, and a brilliantly executed professional criminal named Grace. The beauty of this novel, and everything written by Mr Disher, is the crafty manner information is kept from the reader—from back stories to motive.   

1.  Strangers by Bill Pronzini. Strangers is a special novel. It is atmospheric, weighty, and entertaining. It is plot driven, but the procedural mystery runs a distant second to its raw emotional impact. The setting—desolate, stark, empty—fits the thematic structure of the story. It is one of the more powerful Nameless novels. Its emotional impact is on par with Mr Pronzini’s standalone work; particularly his masterful Blue Lonesome—which shares a similar setting, but very different leading woman—and The Crimes of Jordan Wise.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Real Nice Guy" by William F. Nolan

“His name was Jimmie Prescott and he is thirty-one years of age. Five foot ten. Slight build.”

He is a loner. A sniper. A killer. The sort of sniper who sets up over a busy city street and randomly chooses a target. A victim. It is the spontaneity that thrills him, and, by his own reckoning, he is the best. The best because he has 41 notches on his rifle, and, while there have been a few close calls, he has no real fear of capture.

“A Real Nice Guy” is a stylish crime story written by William F. Nolan, a favorite author of mine, originally published in the April 1980 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It is something of a battle of sociopaths—both bad, of course—and while the ending is less than surprising the journey is ideal. The prose is smooth and, especially the non-dialogue narrative, is something like a brassy jazz riff—

“He was a master. He never missed a target, never wasted a shot. He was cool and nerveless and smooth, and totally without conscience.”

It is short. Third person, and very much worth seeking out. But, in the interest of fairness, that is exactly what I think of all Mr Nolan’s short work.

I read “A Real Nice Guy” in The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, published in 2013 by Running Press, and edited by Maxim Jakubowski.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

The Graveyard Shift is the fifteenth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1965. It is the first of three novels featuring University of London graduate, Mini-Cooper driving, all around sharp guy—if a little coarse and hard—Detective Sergeant Nick Miller.

Ben Garvald, an independent street thug, is released from England’s Wandsworth Prison—in Southwest London—after nine years of a ten year tab. Garvald and two partners robbed a Birmingham steel plant of a $15,000 payroll. In the ensuing chase one of the crooks was killed, one captured—Garvald—and one walked away clean. Now, Garvald his headed back home and he is definitely not wanted. Three street toughs are hired to discourage him, and his ex-wife’s sister asks CID to have a word with him.

Enter Detective Sergeant Nick Miller. An educated copper with money, drives his own Mini-Cooper on the job, an expert in karate and judo, and has a style all his own. He wears a stylish cap called “Schildtmutze”—no idea what it is, but the hipsters all seem to like it. Miller is tasked with finding Garvald, and warning him off, but, as expected the set up isn’t exactly what it seems and the only sure thing? Ben Garvald is at the center of everything.

The Graveyard Shift is a little different (but also the same) from Mr Patterson’s usual. The prose, and the protagonist are hardboiled. It is a straight 1960’s crime novel, but the plotting is old school Harry Patterson—linear, clean and a study of complex simplicity. There is the main storyline—propelled by Garvald as antagonist—and several supporting subplots including an attempted murder of a police constable.

There is also a relatively large cast of characters. The most interesting is an American jazz pianist, hero of the big war, and heroin addict named Chuck Lazer. Lazer is something of a forerunner for Mr Patterson’s Liam Devlin—disillusioned, wisecracking (and even a little wise) Irish rogue from The Eagle Has Landed. The difference. Lazer is more than just disillusioned. He is also a drug addict, which is described depressingly well—

“On top of a small bedside locker were littered the gear that told the story. A hypodermic with several needles, most of them dirty and blunted. Heroin and cocaine bottles, both empty, a cup still half-full of water, a small glass bottle, its base discolored from the match flame and a litter of burned-out matches.”

Unfortunately Nick Miller is less than compelling. He comes across as coarse and even (a little) mean; not to mention a little too cool. That isn’t to say The Graveyard Shift is a bad novel, but rather it would have been significantly more successful if the protagonist was more likable. It is a well-paced, interesting, and entertaining crime novel. It is very definitely of its era—it has a glossy-gritty 1960’s feel—drugs, hip, and distrust. There is betrayal, murder, and enough of the unknown to keep the reader turning pages. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stark House Half Price Sale

Stark House Press—one of my favorite publishers of vintage crime fiction—recently announced its annual Holiday Sale. This year they have a large selection of books—20 to be precise—on sale for half the cover price, which is a terrific deal. The titles are below:
Catherine Butzen: Thief of Midnight
Robert W. Chambers: The Slayer of Souls / The Maker of Moons
James Hadley Chase: Come Easy—Go Easy / In a Vain Shadow
Jada M. Davis: Midnight Road
Don Elliott/Robert Silverberg: Lust Queen / Lust Victim
Feldman & Gartenberg (ed): The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men
A. S. Fleischman: The Sun Worshippers / Yellowleg
Arnold Hano: So I’m a Heel / Flint / The Big Out
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding: The Unfinished Crime / The Girl Who Had to Die
Russell James: Underground / Collected Stories
Stephen Marlowe: Violence is My Business / Turn Left for Murder
E. Phillips Oppenheim: Ghosts & Gamblers: The Further Uncollected Stories
Vin Packer: The Damnation of Adam Blessing / Alone at Night
Richard Powell: A Shot in the Dark / Shell Game
Bill Pronzini: Snowbound / Games
Peter Rabe: Kill the Boss Good-By / Mission for Vengeance
Douglas Sanderson: The Deadly Dames / A Dum-Dum for the President
Bill Shepard: California Cornerstone
Charlie Stella: Rough Riders
Cynthia Campbell Williams: This Fool’s Journey: Tarot Tales for Modern Minds

For more information visit the latest Stark House newsletter (scroll down towards the bottom of the newsletter).

Sunday, December 07, 2014

"In a Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald

This week I have another short story to talk about from the nifty anthology American Pulp; an anthology that every reader of hardboiled mystery should own because it simply rocks. The story: “In a Small Motel” by John D. MacDonald. It was originally published in the July 1956 issue of Justice.

Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.

As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.

The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.

“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:

“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”

And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.

“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is also a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out. 

There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, the car exhaust, hear the highway noise, and feel the empty and hard fear escalating from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

This post originally went live July 31, 2009 after my first reading of In a Small Motel. I have since gone back to the story several times, and after each reading my appreciation and enjoyment of it only increases. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

LYNCHED by Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman wrote no fewer than 10 western novels for Berkley between 1999 and 2006. The earlier titles tended to be branded with a single word—Lawless, Vendetta, Relentless, Lynched—and like all of Mr Gorman’s westerns, each is as much a mystery as a western. I recently read his novel Lynched, which was originally published by Berkley in 2003 and recently released as an ebook by Rough Edges Press.

Ben Tully is a quiet working class marshal in a small, unnamed, frontier town. The new century is approaching, and the world is changing. The business of law is moving from the end of a gun to a more scientific approach. Fingerprints are a big deal in the trade magazines (even if the courts don’t approve), as is reading a crime scene for evidence. But the future is far away when Tully finds his town dark and quiet, his office a shambles—the night deputy beaten and unconscious—and a man swaying, dead, at the end of a rope behind the jail.

The town has a secret. Everyone knows who hanged the man, and why. The woman he killed was Marshal Tully’s sweet young wife. The evidence was clear—he was covered with blood, and in his pockets were a few items from Tully’s house. Open and shut, but Tully doesn’t trust the mob verdict, and when the dead man’s sister came to town crying his innocence she found an unlikely ally.

Lynched is a melancholy crime novel wrapped and delivered as a western. The prose is lean and smooth; something close to hardboiled, but not quite. It is sharp with working class pain and a palpable angst—

“There was a cold amusement—an arrogance—in the man’s voice that Tully didn’t like. A superiority. Tully wasn’t educated, rich, or fashionable. He wasn’t particularly intelligent, virtuous, or cunning. When people talked down to him, the way this man did, he secretly felt he deserved it.”

It is cast with a litany of scoundrels and saints, and it is often difficult to tell one from the other. There is a wandering con man, cum actor, a self-absorbed, and somewhat delusional, boarding house mother, a beautiful and shy young woman, a saloon and casino keeper, and Tully. And the town, and everyone has their own agenda. The mystery is sharp and plotted with a sure hand. There is more than one red herring, and I didn’t guess the ending until the final pages.

Lynched is a winner. It is entertaining, and, in its small and quiet moments, thought provoking. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interview: Garry Disher

Garry Disher is an Australian writer well known for his crime fiction worldwide. He also has a successful track record writing literary, children’s and young adult fiction. Mr Disher cut his teeth, in the crime genre, with a heist novel featuring his now cult character Wyatt in the 1991 novel Kickback. Wyatt has appeared in a total of seven novels. The most recent, simply titled Wyatt, appeared in 2010 (after a 13 year hiatus) to rave reviews. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and even more impressively, won the prestigious Australian Crime Writers Association’s Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction.     

Mr Disher is also the writer of a series of police procedural novels featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry. The first title, The Dragon Man, appeared in 1999 and the latest, Whispering Death, was published in 2011. The fourth novel in the series, Chain of Evidence, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction, and was named by Kirkus Reviews in its Best Books of 2007 (Indie Books category).

His most recent crime novel is the excellent Hell to Pay (published as Bitter Wash Road in Australia) featuring a, so far, non-series police constable nicknamed Hirsch stationed in a small South Australia bush town. Mr Disher was kind enough, and showed an amazing amount of patience, to answer a few questions. The questions are italicized.

In the United States you are most well known as a crime novelist, but you also write children’s and adult literature. Is one type of fiction more difficult to write, and do you have a favorite?

I don’t have a favourite, all three satisfy me creatively and offer the same creative challenges.  It’s assumed that writing for children and teens is simplistic and therefore easy work, but the reverse is true.  Perhaps I have tested my creative boundaries with the ‘literary’ fiction, but I take care with the craft aspects whatever I write.  However, I’d argue that writing crime fiction has taught me an enormous amount about creating and maintaining tension and suspense, which has helped with my children’s/YA and general fiction writing.

I read that you received a creative-writing fellowship to Stanford University in California. When did you attend Stanford, and was it a positive experience? Also, as a fan (it’s an imperative since I’m from Utah) I must to ask, did you meet Wallace Stegner while studying at Stanford?

The Australian Stanford writing scholarship was set up by a wealthy Australian who had studied at Stanford.  It no longer exists, but for many years the scholarship would go to a poet one year, a fiction writer the next.  I value my time at Stanford very highly.  The scholarship came at just the right time, when I’d had some success with short stories in little magazines and competitions, but yet knew nothing about the craft of writing.  By the end of my time there, I had a clearer grasp of fiction writing techniques, saving me years of hit-and-miss writing, and, more importantly, knew how to edit and rewrite my work.  Yes, we (my class of twelve fiction-writing students) did meet Stegner one afternoon.  A very genial, knowledgeable and gracious man.

In an interview I read that you enjoy watching “crap American crime shows on TV.”  A habit we share. What are some of your favorite television shows?

I have corrupted my daughter into watching with me: anything from Justified, Dexter and Breaking Bad (incidentally, these are classy, not crap) to CSI Miami repeats and Criminal Minds, which are crap.  In fact, one tires of crap TV quickly: the absurd plots, the bad acting and the aridity of formulaic writing.  I should also mention some of the British shows, like Scott & Bailey and Prime Suspect, and the Scandinavian shows, like The Killing and The Bridge (the US version of The Bridge was terrific).

Speaking of television, Internet Movie Database (IMDb) identifies five television films, featuring a detective named Cody, based on characters created by “Garry Disher.” Are these films based on your work? If so, did you develop the characters for television, or are they based on your fiction?

Many years ago, after the first three or four Wyatt novels had appeared, I was approached by the Sydney producer of a water-police series to create a new character for a series of two-hour tele-movies.  They paid me enough to clear my mortgage, but…  First, I created an undercover policeman, having met one recently and been struck by the strange double-life he’d led, infiltrating biker gangs (and the fear and the ambiguity), but learnt to my cost the producer had a certain happy-go-lucky, cheeky-grin, surfer dude actor in mind (“He can’t do dark,” they told me).  So back to the drawing board.  I later went on to write three storylines for the scriptwriter, about a cheeky-grin cop named Cody…  One story involved art theft.  The producer told me, “We see our audience as the western suburbs [i.e., blue collar workers] of Sydney: they’re not interested in art theft.”  That was my introduction to the world of writing for film and TV.

In an interview for the State Library of Victoria you said, “A good crime novel tells us about the world we live in. Tells us about human nature. In many ways literary fiction has let us down on that front.” Would you expand on this idea? Why do you think current literary fiction is failing?

I feel sometimes when I read the latest highly-praised literary novel that it’s rich in characterization and absorbing themes and gorgeous language, but I’m dying for something to happen, for a character to do something (walk through the door with a gun in his hand…?).  At the same time, these novels may go deeply into characterization and relationships, but exist in a kind of vacuum when it comes to the world surrounding the characters—the world of tension between rich and poor, of the stranglehold of fundamentalist thought in public debate, of corruption in government and business, of everyday racism, sexism and homophobia.  Crime novels tackle these things.

In this same interview you said, “Reading is vital to me as a writer.” You further said you tend to read bad books critically, but you read good books for pleasure. When you read a bad book do you look for what doesn’t work, and learn from it? As a writer do you learn more from a good book, or a bad one?

Yes, I do look for what makes a bad book bad.  It hones my critical editing abilities, which I hope helps me look for what is weak or poorly thought out or badly expressed in my own writing.  Good fiction will also help, for I might see how other writers solve certain technical problems (I learnt how to handle an ensemble cast by reading John Harvey’s Inspector Resnick novels, for example).

You have two current series characters: Hal Challis and Wyatt. Each is very different from the other. One (Challis) a career police inspector, and the other (Wyatt) a career criminal. The Challis novels are police procedurals written with deliberate style and pacing—the crime is often revealed in stages, and never rushed—and the Wyatt novels are stark, and somewhere near hardboiled. Do you enjoy writing one over the other, and does each style demand different writing (maybe craft) approaches?

I wrote the Challis and Destry novels as a change from writing the Wyatts (six in six years, at the start).  The Wyatt novels follow a certain formula (Wyatt identifies a place to rob, robs it, is betrayed, gets his revenge), but that doesn’t mean they’re easier to write.  I’m a planner, spending weeks on a plan before I start, and every book poses challenges (balancing character and plot, whilst listening to my instincts).  In both series, I take the reader into the minds of the bad guys as well as the good (it’s great for creating tension if the reader knows more about a situation than the hero does), so my thinking processes are similar.  The book that posed the greatest challenge is my latest, Bitter Wash Road (unfortunately titled Hell to Pay in the States) for I do not stray from the thoughts, hopes and fears of the main character.

I agree. Bitter Wash Road is a much better title than Hell to Pay. It features a very likable protagonist named Hirsch. Can we plan on seeing him again?

I have been making occasional notes for a follow-up Hirsch novel but nothing definite or any time soon.

Your novels, particularly the Hal Challis police procedurals, have a very strong sense of place. As an example, in the first Hall Challis novel, The Dragon Man, you describe the heavy heat of mid-summer, Challis showering with a bucket to capture excess water for use in the garden, herons feasting on mosquitoes, etc. What is your expectation for setting within a story, and how do you deal with it as a storyteller?

I know from teaching writing that beginner writers take the setting for granted.  “Two characters are having an argument in a sitting room: okay, there’s a TV set, a couple of armchairs, a bookcase, that will do.”  It won’t do.  The setting is vital.  If handled carefully (certain objects highlighted, or described in a certain way, appealing to the reader’s sense of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing), a setting can come alive, seem tangible, and say something about the characters and the atmosphere.

Hal Challis, especially in the early novels, is something of a broken man. In The Dragon Man you introduce the backstory of his wife, her affair, and the attempt she and her lover made to kill Challis. This is juxtaposed with Hal’s efforts to rebuild an old de Havilland Dragon Rapide airplane. Did you intend this to be an image of destruction and renewal? Or did you have something else in mind?

I simply wanted to show a shy, somewhat sad, careful man with an interest that would absorb him, after his recent heartache.  Plus, I love old planes.

Staying with Hal Challis, I recently read the latest novel, Whispering Death, and I was struck that the cycle may be at an end. He sells his car—a now unreliable Triumph—and the Dragon Rapide he has restored over the previous novels. Not to mention he is involved with Ellen Destry and his life seems to be quite nice. Is this the final Hal Challis novel?

Refer to the question above.  It’s not the latest Challis, for I’m halfway through a new one.  But I like to keep the series fresh for me as a writer and fresh for the reader, and so the characters change over time (marriage, job-rank, place of domicile, etc., etc.).  I couldn’t see where the plane-restoration theme could continue, so found a way of jettisoning it for the future.  So, yes, a cycle has finished, but not the series.

Whispering Death also featured an enjoyable Wyatt-like—professional criminal—called Grace. She is a thief who is running from more than just the police, and there is a hint that we may see more of her. Something I would very much enjoy. Do you have plans for Grace in future stories, maybe even one of her own?

I loved creating Grace.  She’s whispering in my ear about a job she’d like to pull (I just have to think who her nemesis could be).

Your Wyatt novels have been favorably compared with Donald Westlake’s, as by Richard Stark, Parker novels. There are similarities, but there are also significant differences. The most obvious is, Wyatt, while controlled, is more emotional than Parker, and even remorseful of the consequences of his actions. When you set out to write the Wyatt novels had you read any of the Parker novels? Were you influenced by the Richard Stark novels?

I was greatly influenced by the Parker novels.  But I had to make Wyatt my own character, not a clone of Parker.  So now and then we see a little way into Wyatt’s inner life—but I don’t want to take this too far.  If we cared too much for him (he had an unhappy childhood or he robs banks to pay for his little niece’s leukemia operation), he’d be less forceful and compelling.  He’d no longer be Wyatt.

After a 13 year hiatus (1997 to 2010) you wrote the seventh Wyatt novel in the self-titled Wyatt. Can we look forward to another Wyatt novel in the future?

The new Wyatt, #8, is coming out in Australia late 2015.  The Australian title is Down to Dust, and I hope my US publisher, Soho, picks it up.

A superficial question. The novel Wyatt is billed by Soho as a “Wyatt Wareen novel.” Is this actually Wyatt’s last name?

I have no idea where the name Wareen comes from. I have never used it. The character has always simply been called Wyatt. I have a vague idea that a reviewer some years ago called him Wyatt Wareen, but where he got the name, I have no idea.

I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?

I think a big fat, well-illustrated history of art.  It would be instructive and nourish the imagination.

The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?

It’s always the latest one: Hell to Pay (titled Bitter Wash Road in Australia)

Lastly, as we discussed earlier, you are an avid reader. Do you have any particular favorite writers—in any genre, including literature—that have influenced you the most as both a writer and a man? Are there any Australian writers you would like to mention?

Among Australian writers, Peter Temple is peerless (crime), and so is Helen Garner (‘literary’ true crime, as well as literary fiction).  For her short stories, the Canadian, Alice Munro.  In terms of crime writing influence, I’ll name John Sandford. He’s a very tricky and sneaky plotter, and clearly loves creating his bad guys.  In terms of prose style, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, both of whom I met when they visited Australia.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


A few months ago I ran across a Jack Bickham title that was new to me. It was a paperback original published by Pyramid in 1975. The title: The Invisible Plague. My girl was kind enough to give me a copy for father’s day, and it hit the top of my to-be-read pile earlier this week.

Davey Clock is a professor of College English, specializing in Shakespeare, at a small Midwest university. He is middle age, overweight, divorced, a pacifist, and something of a coward. At the end of summer term he makes a late night trip to his campus office. The tropical fish he keeps need attention, a pile of papers await grading before his summer break can begin; which includes a week of vacation in his favorite city, San Francisco, and another of research in Guatemala City.  

The harsh sound of a fire alarm in the Microbiology building interrupts his night. After calling the fire department he wanders over for a closer look. He is rewarded with a blackjack to the back of the skull when he offers help to a man exiting the building in a rush. When he awakens in hospital he finds himself in the middle of an investigation by a shadowy government agency—a deadly toxin was stolen and the professor developing it was killed. A situation Davey likes even less than the ache in his head.

The Invisible Plague is a slick, linear thriller. It is quick, stark, and very much of its era—government mistrust, war weary, and cynical. Cynical in both the government’s treatment of Davey, and Davey’s reaction to that treatment. Davey Clock is painted as something of a Hamlet—indecisive with an early lack of personal courage. He also has an annoying habit of quoting Shakespeare in everyday conversation, and a certain self-righteousness (particularly early in the novel) that is barely contained.

The plot is designed in a simple, but effective, three act format. In the first act Davey is introduced, as is the primary confrontation—the robbers, and to a lesser extent the government agents. The second act is comprised of Davey’s attempts to deal with both, and the third, executed very well, is the climax, which includes both a satisfactory conclusion, and something of a redemption for Davey.

The Invisible Plague is an entertaining novel. It appears its distribution was limited—I have been looking for Jack Bickham titles for 20 years and have seen it only on the Internet—but it is worth a look if you enjoy the older style thriller in general, and the work of Jack Bickham in particular. It reminded me a little, although not quite as good, as Dean Koontz’s (as by K. R. Dwyer) Dragonfly.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

PASSAGE BY NIGHT by Hugh Marlowe (Harry Patterson)

Passage by Night is the fourteenth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by Abelard-Schuman in 1964. It is one of three novels Mr Patterson published as by Hugh Marlowe. This may be the earliest Harry Patterson title published in the United States; a paperback original issued by Avon in 1966.

Harry Manning lost a profitable salvage operation when the fidelistas finished the Bautista regime in Cuba. He escaped Havana with his boat Grace Abounding, and nothing else. Now, between drinks, he makes a meager living as a charter captain. His bitter world is turned over when an airplane—his Cuban exile girlfriend a passenger—crashes into the sea with no survivors. It appears a bomb in the baggage compartment grounded the plane, and when Harry discovers a suspicious name on the passenger list—a man whose luggage was loaded, but who never boarded—he begins a manhunt.

Passage by Night—be patient with the clichĂ©—is vintage Jack Higgins. The plot is everything. It is smoothly executed with a tide of heavy action, and a hard undertow of surprise. The climax is satisfyingly shocking, but wonderfully simple. The Caribbean setting is both exotic and familiar. The Cuban baddies are larger than life, the good guys are heroic, and there is want for a wasted word.

The narrative is less elegant than many of Mr Patterson’s early novels, but it is suitable; not quite utilitarian. There still are examples of his surreal eloquence—

“He checked his pressure gauge again at two hundred feet and stretched out a hand as if to call to her, but he was wasting his time. The darkness moved in on him as the slim white figure disappeared down into the indigo dusk.”        

Passage by Night is a wonderful example of its era. The bad guys are communist, but there is something more than a hint of Nazis, and even better, war criminals. There is a humorous moment when Harry Manning makes a bet regarding Fidel Castro’s longevity—

“‘A hundred dollars American. A year from today, Castro will no longer rule Cuba?’”

A bet Harry lost, and lost badly. There is also the fun of spotting Mr Patterson’s repeats. He has a habit, and not one that bothers me in the least, of repeating himself. The name “Fallon”—a pseudonym used by Mr Patterson, and the name of two unique protagonists—is worn by a less than minor character, and “The Cretan Lover”—the original U. K. title of his novel Solo—is a chapter title.

Passage by Night is pure entertainment, and damn fun.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Jailbird, Wendover, and "Con Air"

There is a dusty little desert town straddling the Utah-Nevada border fringing the southern edge of I-80. A ninety minute run from Salt Lake City. The dull crystalline salt flats hustle into the rocky foothills of the Silver Island Mountains. The flats stretch for miles. In the winter they flood with water, and the summer finds rocket cars, motor cycles, and just about anything else on two or four wheels, playing for speed on its flat, straight surface.

The place: Wendover, Utah.

And it has a history. It was built in 1908 as a railroad town, and pretty much stayed that way until World War 2 brought an Army bomber training base. If it was a B-24, and flew in Europe, there is a good chance plane and crew touched Wendover. Its most famous trainees were the crews of Enola Gay, and Bockscar. The fliers and B-29s that dropped “Little Boy” and “Fatman” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The old structures, clapboard barracks, box style hangars, concrete swimming pool, rot in the dry air. A light blue sky above, and a faded alkaline earth below.

The casinos came in the early-1950s. They came to lure the Mormon population of Salt Lake City across the border to sin. And it worked. The Nevada side—called West Wendover—has prospered. The casinos hatched a fully functional small city—schools, neighborhoods, parks, parents, and children. The east has been stagnant, and poor. Its only draw is the collapsing old base, the airport, and an old propellerless C-123 Provider with a sign identifying it as the airplane used in the film “Con Air”.

Its tires flat, a wooden ramp providing access to its starboard door. A fading blue runner, or cheatline, on its silver fuselage. Faded block letters, just aft of the wings and above the door, read: UNITED STATES MARSHAL. The number N709RR painted on the tail. The words “The Jailbird” below an eagle with a ball and chain in its talons on the nose. The markings are right; matching perfectly with the “The Jailbird” from the film. The interior is torn apart. A cavernous bay occupies the majority. Bare aluminum walls, the odd wire lifting from the surface. A Gatorade bottle jammed in an I-beam near the ceiling.

The cockpit is barren. Aluminum shine with little else. Two small windows stare at the desolate desert. The original stick—wheel, I think, in this case—is replaced with something like a steering wheel from a bus. If it ever flew it was long ago. In the film the old airbase fronted for “Turner Field”; the desert location where the convict crew landed and most of the film’s action happened. If you look around you can see it. The unpainted clapboard buildings. The rotting airplane hangars, a vintage control tower—now restored—and a swimming pool, its surface covered with peeling blue paint where Steve Buscemi likely took tea with an unsuspecting girl and her dolls.

I have wondered about the plane for years. What its role in the film actually was, and, if it was airworthy then, why leave it to die? I did some research, finally, and what I found was as interesting as the airplane. It is a movie star, or nearly one. “Stand in” is more accurate. It was never flown in the film, but it was used as the Earth bound plane for the desert scenes. It taxied along the Wendover runways, a bus engine powering its wheels. It was in the film, and it played a central role, but it wasn’t the star. Instead it was a prop; part of the scenery. Very much like the abandoned airbase itself.

But still, it is pretty cool.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Dying in the Post-War World" by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has been writing about his hardboiled former Chicago cop turned private dick Nathan Heller for 30 years, which translates into 15 novels and four short story collections. Nate first appeared in True Detective (1983) and most recently in Ask Not (2013). In 1991 the first collection of Nathan Heller stories appeared, and its title story—the best in the collection—was a Shamus nominated novella titled “Dying in the Post-War World”.

“Dying in the Post-War World” is set in Chicago. July, 1947. Heller’s wife, Peg, is pregnant, and while business at his A-1 Detective Agency is slow—no one is getting divorced in the post war euphoria—life isn’t bad. That is until Bob Keenan, a high level administrator at the Office of Price Administration (OPA), calls with an emergency, and Peg tells Nate she wants a divorce. In that order, and just that quickly.

The emergency. Bob Keenan’s six year old daughter JoAnn was kidnapped from her room. The window open. A broken down ladder outside, and a note on the floor of the girl’s room:

“Get $20,000 Ready & Waite for Word. Do Not Notify the FBI or Police. Bills in 5’s and 10’s. Burn this for her safety!”

“Dying in the Post-War World” is an intriguing retelling of Chicago’s Lipstick Killer. The names have changed—William Heirens (the real world convicted Lipstick Killer) is now Jerome Lapps, and Suzanne Degnan (the kidnapped girl) is now JoAnn Keegan. Mr Collins also plays with the timeline, and adds an appealing mob connection in form of one Sam Flood (aka Sam Giancana). The details are interesting, but the magic is in the telling. The smooth integration of fact and fiction. The old world Chicago. A Chicago where it was both possible to buy, and people actually wanted, a brand new Plymouth. The humor—“crooked even by Chicago standards.”

The story is written in first person. It is something of a nostalgic memoir. It is hardboiled, lean, and tough as the Windy City. It also has a bunch of post war angst. The sort of angst we all feel; a little hope and a lot of fear for the future. Not necessarily our own future, but the future we leave our children—

“For that one night, settled into a hard hospital chair, in the glow of my brand-new little family, I allowed myself to believe that that hope was not a vain one. That anything was possible in this glorious post-war world.”

But the most powerful effect of the story? Doubt. Doubt about the killer. The future, and ourselves. And even a touch of shame; at what we do, how we do it, and worse, how we rationalize it.