Friday, January 30, 2015


Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain—small town lawyer and investigator—is at the top of my list for private eye serial characters. He is charming, sarcastic, funny, and cool in an off-hand if worried manner. He is an outsider. He grew up in the poor section of town called The Knolls. A place he escaped with a law degree, but a place he can never leave behind because he understands the people. The struggles. The poverty, and hopelessness. But mostly, that scared little boy from the wrong part of town is still in him. Worrying. Doubting.

There have been ten Sam McCain novels, and the most recent, published by Pegasus in October 2014, is one of the best. It is also the darkest. Even its title, in honor of the song by The Doors, is dark: Riders on the Storm. It is the sequel to Ticket to Ride, and it finds an older, more world-weary Sam McCain. It is 1971, Vietnam is full-tilt, and, as Bob Dylan wrote a few years earlier, “The times they are a-changin’.” Sam, in a short stint with the Army, is in automobile accident and for five weeks doesn’t know his own name—

“My name is Sam McCain. There was a time eight months ago when I didn’t believe that. When both a neurosurgeon and a psychologist visited me every day and tried to convince me of it.”

There is a mystery, and a good one too, but the story is Vietnam—not the shooting and killing in Southeast Asia, but rather its impact back home. Will Cullen, a veteran who struggles with his actions in the war, is accused of killing a local businessman and budding politician named Steve Donovan. Donovan publicly, and maliciously, beats Will Cullen at a political event because Will signed on with the antiwar organization “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” The next day Steve Donovan is found murdered, and the most likely suspect is Cullen. A suspect both Sam and Will’s wife are dubious of, and Sam spends the rest of the novel trying to disprove.

The disproving is less than easy. Gone is the incompetent and laughable Chief of Police Cliffie Sykes Jr. and in is the professional and competent, “please call me Paul” Chief Foster. Foster is certain of Cullen’s guilt, but he is seemingly fair and uncomfortably considerate of Sam and Cullen’s wife Karen. But Sam is equally certain of Cullen’s innocence and proving it becomes very personal.

Riders on the Storm is Sam McCain, but darker and more intense than the earlier entries in the series. Mary Travers is back, two young daughters from her marriage, in a very good way for both her and Sam. Jamie Newton, Sam’s cutely incompetent secretary is also back, but different. Older, very competent, and, unfortunately, no longer referring to Sam as “Mr. G.” There are more than just Cliffie Sykes Jr. missing—Judge Esme Anne Whitney is nowhere to be seen, and Mrs. Goldman, Sam’s landlord, is AWOL, as are all the colorful Sykes’ relatives. In their place is a darker, more introspective Sam McCain whose youthful exuberance is tempered by time and experience. He is no longer a young man, but he is a more complete man.

Riders on the Storm is different from the past, but as any good character and series, the change is inevitable and welcome. It is the Seventies after all. The age of well-earned cynicism—with the government, big business, and all the rest. It is Sam McCain’s arrival to maturity. It is deep with meaning, disappointment, and paradoxically fulfillment. Even more, it is a very fine private eye novel.

As an aside, and very good news. Riders on the Storm has been widely identified as the final Sam McCain novel, but I have it on very good authority—Ed Gorman—that there will be one more novel featuring Sam McCain. Unfortunately it will be the last, but 11 is always better than 10.

If you are interested Ed Gorman discussed the Sam McCain novels, and a few others, in detail in a recent interview.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Conquest of Earth"

Conquest of Earth was published in 1957 as a hardcover by Thomas Bouregy and Company. It was originally published as a four part serial in the January, February, March and May 1956 issues of Amazing Stories under the title The Scarlet Saint. The edition that caught my eye is a mass market published by Airmont in 1964. The art is vivid and interesting. The sun blisters with what appears to be a man worshipping in the background while an astronaut looks skyward in the foreground. The artist: Unknown.

Manly Banister was mainly a short story writer whose work appeared, according to ISFDb, from the early-1940s to the mid-1960s. While I was researching him I found an interesting quote in his Contemporary Authors Online entry—
“‘The only motivating factor behind my writing,’ Manly Banister wrote CA [Contemporary Authors], ‘was desire to make a living without having to punch a time clock.... I wrote for Weird Tales Magazine, until it succumbed to reader apathy and suffered the ultimate fate of every magazine—extinction.’  
The opening paragraph:
“After nineteen years, this was the day of days for Kor Danay. As he had expected, the day dawned clear; as bright as a turgid, blood-red Sun could make it, shining in a dry, cloudless sky that mellowed from almost black at the zenith to a deep indigo at the horizon. In their season, minus-magnitude stars like Sirius and Antares were spicules of light at high noon.”
This is the eleventh in a series of posts featuring the cover art and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops. It is reserved for books I purchase as much for the cover art as the story or author.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

CALL ME HAZARD by Frank Wynne (Brian Garfield)

It has been a summer of great older stuff at my house, and one of the fascinations I developed is the work of Brian Garfield. I read a handful of his novels and reviewed two—Necessity and Fear in a Handful of Dust. My latest Garfield experience is a Western he wrote for the ACE Double line titled Call Me Hazard. It was published as by Frank Wynne in 1966 (M-138 with The Rincon Trap by Dean Owen), and while it isn’t the top of his work it is pretty damn good.

Jason Hazard is a hard case. He isn’t a bad man, nor is he the type who looks for trouble, but nonetheless he is hard, silent, and (when he needs to be) violent. He is also a mystery—the people around him respect and admire him, but Hazard always holds back. When he left his successful mine, and the town of Stinking Springs, Arizona, he didn’t tell many why. He just left and there were a few who took exception to his absence.

Hazard is back in Stinking Springs, but he doesn’t find a warm welcome. There is a new mine owner in town. A man named Vic Olsen who has a long history with Jason—it goes back to their teenage years—and his major ambition in life is ruining Jason’s. The other major mine owners in town are all having trouble too. The place seems jinxed. There have been an abundance of cave-ins and payroll robberies, and most of the owners are contemplating selling out and moving on.

The foreman of the largest operation has gone missing and the local law—a tiny man named Owney Nash, who is owned by the new player—thinks Hazard did it. Hazard hasn’t seen the foreman since he left years earlier, but as he walks into Stinking Springs all hell breaks loose and he will need the few friends he has left in town to survive.

Call Me Hazard is an early example of Garfield’s work. His trademarks are all there—the tight and controlled suspense, the crisp dialogue and competent and literate writing—but it isn’t as sharp or developed as his later work. The story is larger than the space allowed. The plot is tricky and Garfield does well at packing it in to 126 pages, but it would have worked better with more room and run time.

With that said, Call Me Hazard is really entertaining. It is a traditional Western with everything from hired guns, to nefariously beautiful women, and cold-blooded murder. It even has a few humorous names, of which Hazard and Stinking Springs are only two. The lead is a stolid and quiet man who isn’t a hired gun or even a loner. He left Stinking Springs for a reason and everyone who knows why he left is more than glad to see him back.

There is one particular scene—the first major showdown between the protagonist and the villain—that is as suspenseful as any scene in a successful suspense novel, which is Brian Garfield’s calling card. His work, no matter the genre, is plotted to ratchet the suspense from scene-to-scene and Call Me Hazard is no different. It is early and a little too short, but it is all entertainment and a fine example of how good—even at the age of 27—Brian Garfield is.

This post originally went live August 26, 2009 in, with a few minor exceptions, the same form.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


I generally don’t write much about nonfiction, but I recently read a slim volume about Chuck Yeager’s experience breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 in 1947: Across the High Frontier by William R. Lundgren. The version I have is a mass market published by Bantam in the late-1980s. The title page is missing, which, when I discovered it, really bothered me for a few reasons, but mainly because it made it more difficult to determine when, exactly, it was published. Fortunately there is the Internet. Its original publication date was November 2, 1955.

The missing title page is only one of the oddities of the book. The book is a “would you look at how great this guy is (and how long suffering his wife and family are)?” story that, while appealing in a Hollywood manner, wears thin after the first several dozen pages. It is presented in three distinct parts—1. Yeager’s selection as the X-1’s test pilot, 2. Yeager’s World War 2 experience, and 3. Yeager’s experience flying the X-1 and ultimately breaking the sound barrier. The oddity of the presentation is twofold. The first is the use, in sections one and three, of a second person perspective. It is presented as though the reader is Chuck Yeager—

“That’s all you’d done since1943, dogfighting. You could take care of yourself in almost anything that would fly. You could wax almost every one of the flight test pilots with whom you worked. You had a rough idea of what you could do.”

The second person narrative was disruptive—I had to reread a few passages to figure out exactly who “you” was—until I got comfortable with it. And I really did get comfortable with it. Every time my eyes saw “you” my brain read “Chuck”. The other oddity was the author’s use of dialogue, which decreased its credibility rather than increase it. There were conversations between Chuck Yeager and other pilots. Chuck Yeager and engineers. Chuck Yeager and his wife. Chuck Yeager and nearly everyone. All conversations I can’t imagine the author heard, which made me doubt, and doubt is the death of any literature—fiction or nonfiction.

With that said, I actually enjoyed the book. I didn’t know much about Chuck Yeager before I opened its pages, and the most interesting section of the book was the second, which detailed Mr Yeager’s World War 2 experiences. He was shot down over France in 1944. His P-51 was shot down on March 4, and he escaped across the Spanish border March 28. The detail is interesting—there is an enjoyable scene as he tries to communicate with a local farmer on the first day, and it rapidly (too rapidly, really) chronicles his journey, with significant French Partisan help, through France across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.

The third section also had its moments. It includes some interesting technical aspects of the X-1 in an understandable manner—it only had something like three minutes of powered flight time. There is an exciting scene where Mr Yeager is, for the first time, entering the X-1’s cockpit while attached to the belly of its B-29 escort. The air lashing him as he descended the ladder from the B-29. There is the flight the sound barrier is exceeded. Mr Yeager broke a rib in a horse riding incident a few days prior and successfully hid it from everyone so he could keep his seat in the cockpit.

Across the High Frontier is as flawed a nonfiction book I have read. Its second person narrative is disruptive, and just plain strange. Its inappropriate use of dialogue—dialogue its author never could have heard, and the participants never could have remembered in specific detail—decreased its believability. But. And there really is a “but” here. I enjoyed it. Is it historically accurate? Not sure, really, but I have a feeling at least some of the details are probably a little inaccurate—personal interactions, specific meals, etc. The timeline is very likely accurate since it matched the detail from several online sources, and its overall story is really interesting.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stark House Press: The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers by Ed Gorman

Stark House Press has released a two-fer of Ed Gorman’s private eye fiction. The titles are two of Mr Gorman’s best: The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers.

Jack Dwyer is Mr Gorman’s first private eye. The series ran five novels and The Autumn Dead is the best of the group. It is also one of Ed’s best novels. It is a thoughtful, melancholy journey that is heavy on working class angst. The Autumn Dead originally appeared in 1987. The legendary critic and crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes said:

The Autumn Dead, with its depth, its heartbreak, and its melancholy hope, is a new and important kind of American mystery.”  

Scotland on Sunday added:

“Ever since I read The Autumn Dead, I’ve rated Gorman as highly as Crumley, Ellroy and Burke.”

The Night Remembers is a standalone. It features time weary and nostalgic retired police officer Jack Walsh. A man who has problems younger than his age—a young son with a woman nearly half his age—and a character I wish had seen one more case. It first appeared in 1991. Andrew Vachss said:

“Takes crime detection to the dark edge of man-made horror.”

San Diego Union added:

The Night Remembers is a gem [and] an ingenious story.”

The best part the Stark House Press edition, aside from the two brilliant novels, are the two introductions. The first is from Stark House regular Rick Ollerman—who is an excellent critic and writer on his own merits—and the other from the relative newcomer Benjamin Boulden, which is actually me.

The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers is available at most of the online retailersAmazonand also at Stark House’s website. It is a very nice trade paperback, and book purchase you will not regret.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Visual Pulp: The Ace Double Titles of Jack Bickham

Jack Bickham died of lymphoma in July 1997 at the age of 66. He is best remembered as a teacher of writing. He wrote several successful, and still in print, how-to writing titles for Writer’s Digest and he lectured in the journalism department at the University of Oklahoma. While he is mostly remembered as a teacher, Mr Bickham was also a fine novelist. He wrote in several genres; mystery, suspense, Western, and science fiction. His most successful novels, stylistically, thematically and commercially, were his Brad Smith suspense novels. A series that featured an aging tennis pro who is also something of a semi-pro spy. The Brad Smith novels were published by Tor/Forge between 1989 and 1994. See the line up here.

The Brad Smith novels were written and published late in Mr Bickham’s career. A career that began in the pulp paperback era. It started with one the pulpiest producers of all: Ace Books. He wrote seven novels for Ace between 1958 and 1961; each as one-half of a double. Six Westerns and a lonesome mystery. The covers are lurid, and the writing is brief and stark. These titles are different than his later work, but also the same. They are certainly shorter (mostly running about 125 pages in mass market), and absolutely by the hand of a writer still learning his craft, but, much like his later work, each is strong on sensible plotting, reliable cause and effect action, and entertaining and likable characters. 

Below is a list of Mr Bickham’s work published by Ace. The pertinent information is all there: title,year published, Ace serial number, and the companion book. And, more importantly, a nice fresh, newly minted, scan of the coverfront and backof each book. 

Gunman’s Gamble. Ace D-308. Published in 1958 with Draw and Die! By Roy Manning. The first sentence:
“The sky had already begun to streak with pink and purple of nightfall when he rode to town, but the townsfolk came alive when they saw him.” 

Feud Fury. Ace D-384. Published in 1959 with Mountain Ambush by Louis Trimble. The first sentence:
“‘Trouble’ Clayton Hartung muttered.”

Killer’s Paradise. Ace D-442. Published in 1960 with Rider of the Rincon by Rod Patterson. The first sentence:
“The eleven men stopped their steaming horses at the crest of the treeless hilltop and paused for just a moment, still in the driving, cruel July Kansas rain.”

The Useless Gun. Ace D-462. Published in 1960 with The Long Fuse by John A. Latham. Read the Gravetapping reviewThe first sentence:
“Four killers, honed to perfection in a series of raids and county seat wars, rode west out of Dallas County, Texas.”

Dally with a Deadly Doll. Ace D-489. Published in 1961 with Somebodys Walking Over My Grave by Robert Arthur. The first sentence:
“‘Celery’ said Larry Crystal”

Hangman’s Territory. Ace D-510. Published in 1961 with The Searching Rider by Harry Whittington. The first sentence:
“The late spring storm was breaking.”

Gunmen Can’t Hide. Ace F-120. Published with Come in Shooting by John Callahan. The first sentence:
“The winter of 1880 had been cruel in Colorado.” 

This post originally went live January 17, 2010 in a very different form. The text was adjusted (hopefully for the better) and the book images were changed out for the bigger and better versions. I hope you enjoy.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

MURDER AS A FINE ART by David Morrell

David Morrell is anything but predictable. His first novel, First Blood, was a brilliant action piece that introduced the now iconic character Rambo—christened “John,” made less lethal, and given a very Sly Stallone humanity, not to mention slur, in the film version. The 25 novels, and more than 40 years, that followed (so far) he has written a Western—The Last Reveille—horror—The Totem, Long Lost, and Creepers—and more than a few thrillers—The Brotherhood of the Rose, Fraternity of the Stone, The League of Night and Fog, etc. The common theme? There are two, actually: 1. high quality, almost literary, action oriented violence, and 2. fear.

His latest novel, Murder as a Fine Art, is another seeming departure from his usual. It is an historical mystery set in Victorian England, but it is very much stamped with Mr Morrell’s “you are there” action and descriptive style—

“Vomit was on the floor. The books were disarranged. One of them was open, vandalized, a page having been ripped from it.”

The protagonist is a frail, hopelessly opium addicted, 69 year old essayist named Thomas De Quincey. Mr De Quincey is an historical figure whose 1821 essay “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” an early example of the ever popular addiction genre, caused an uproar in the tightly buttoned Victorian culture. “Confessions” is the basis for the character Thomas De Quincey, but the basis of the novel’s plot is a true-crime, and likely satirical essay, written by Mr De Quincey titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” “Murder” details the Ratcliffe Highway killings in a poor section of 1811 London. A murder spree that paralyzed England in its entirety, as Mr Morrell explains in his Introduction—

“But in fact the panic that resulted from the Ratcliffe Highway killings was far worse and more widespread [than the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888] because those multiple murders were the first of their kind to become common knowledge throughout England, thanks to the growing importance of newspapers….”      

The year is 1854. It is a cold December night when a man reenacts the original Ratcliffe Highway murders. He kills a shopkeeper, his wife, two children—one a baby still in its crib—and a servant. The method of the killings is identical to the original murders. A mallet to the head and a knife slash across the throat. The original killings were followed 12 days later by the murder of another family in a London tavern. A merchant seaman was arrested Christmas Eve, and killed himself before trial.

The murders of 1854 have the same effect as the original 1811 murders: panic. The city’s populace is frightened, and everyone is suspect; particularly anyone who is different. A foreigner in general, and Irish in particular. The London Police Department is less than thirty years old, small, and the science, or perhaps art, of detection—reading a crime scene, forensics (footprints, etc.)—is in its infancy. The lead detective, who is one of eight plainclothes officers in London, is a redheaded Irishman named Detective Inspector Sean Ryan. He conceals his red hair, and therefore his Irish beginnings, under a newspaperboy’s cap. It is unfortunate racism and hate is relevant to every generation.

When the police commissioner connects the original murders, committed when he was a boy, to the current murder spree, Thomas De Quincey’s essay on the subject becomes of interest. When it is learned that De Quincey is in London on a publicity tour he, despite his age and frailty, becomes a suspect. Traveling with Mr De Quincey is his 21 year old daughter Emily; a young woman who is something of a progressive—she chooses to wear bloomers rather than the more appropriate, and much heavier, hoop dresses—and very industrious. A significant portion of the novel’s narrative is in journal form, written by Emily. She is an alluring mixture of Sherlock Holmes’s Dr Watson, and Bram Stoker’s Mina Murray.

The momentum of the novel is the multiple murders, but it is the atmosphere, and the setting that consume it. It is written with a tense, immediate style. The thick, acrid fogs of the city “smelled of chimney ashes.” The description of a large city without real lighting, electricity. A police force in its infancy, and a palpable terror. The narrative—aside from Emily De Quincey’s journal entries—is third person omniscient, which is used effectively to describe and explain setting—

“The color of laudanum is ruby. It is a liquid that consists of 90 percent alcohol and 10 percent opium. Its taste is bitter. A Swiss-German alchemist invented it in the 1500s when he discovered that opium dissolved more effectively in alcohol than water. His version included crushed pearls and gold leaves.”    

Thomas De Quincey reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. His participation in solving the crime is deductive. He accurately identifies the key elements of the mystery—what is known, and what that knowledge means—to create a profile of the killer. He also enlists the help of gang of homeless men and boys to act as lookouts.

De Quincey and Emily are fully developed characters. Likable and believable. The remaining characters, including Sean Ryan and the killer, are less developed, which creates an oddly effective Victorian potboiler—Emily and De Quincey are sharply in focus, but the picture softens as it moves from the center. It allows the plot to develop in ways that are more modern than the historical setting (at least literarily), and also creates an uncertainty of narrative that heightens the tension.