Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Citizen's Arrest" by Charles Willeford

Mr. Goranovsky, also known as “Mr. Do-Gooder,” is a good citizen; honest, upstanding, with a certain civic-mindedness that compels him to find a clerk when he sees a man shoplifting. The store is called Gwynn’s, and it has an odd shoplifting policy. Since an employee didn’t see the actual snatch, they are loath to stop the man for fear, if he didn’t steal anything, of alienating a customer. They ask Mr. Goranovsky to be a witness when the man is approached. He hesitantly agrees, but quickly regrets his decision.

“Citizen’s Arrest” is deceivingly simple and overtly ironic. It takes the expected—crime, punishment, and possible retribution—and twists it into something unexpected. It is humorous, charming—in a hardboiled way—and exemplifies the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. The prose is simple—

“My fingers trembled as I lit a cigarette.”

—and, unusually, there are no first names. It is Mr. Goranovsky, Mr. Levine, Mr. Sileo, which gives the story an uptight formality. A formality that acts as a foil to the climactic twist. And the twist is what makes the story good.

“Citizen’s Arrest” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1966. I read it in the anthology The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "End of the Gun"

End of the Gun was a paperback original published by Pocket Books’ imprint Perma Books in 1955, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The artwork is stark in a monochromatic sort of way. A large hand holding a revolver, the wrong end pointed at the audience, one chamber empty, and a brown background. The artist: Tom Ryan.

The opening paragraph:

“In the pines, Britton waited patiently, peering steadily at the band of mustangs drinking at the spring below. The stallion was a coyote-dun with a black mane and tail and he kept moving about restlessly and warily, head flung up as he sniffed the air. Britton, however, was down-wind and he knew the stallion would never catch his scent.”

H. A. (Henry Andrew) DeRosso was born in Wisconsin in 1917. He was primarily a short story writer who specialized in Westerns; although he also wrote some very good mystery stories. He published six novels (all Westerns); End of the Gun was the fourth. He died of a gunshot wound in October 1960, which was ruled accidental by the Coroner, but there has been speculation it was suicide—his health was failing, and, interestingly, Marquette General Hospital owns the copyright to many—if not all—of his stories.

Mr. DeRosso’s writing, at its best, is existential, violent, and melancholy. His Westerns are almost entirely set in the desert Southwest, and his portrayal of the hard, dry, stark landscape is a central element. I have previously reviewed two posthumous story collections titled Under the Burning Sun, and Riders of the Shadowlands; both edited by Bill Pronzini. I have also reviewed his mystery story “Revenge is Bitter-Sweet”.     

This is the sixteenth 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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I don’t write as much about Stark House Press as I should. It is a fantastic publisher that specializes in reprinting great novels from the paperback golden age—by Harry Whittington, Clifton Adams, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, etc.—great novels from the more recent past— by Bill Pronzini, Robert J. Randisi, Ed Gorman—and even a handful of original titles—by Charlie Stella, Dana King, Jada M. Davis.

Stark House’s most recent release is a double novel featuring two superb historical mysteries—both were originally marketed as Westerns, but “historical mystery” is a much better fit—titled Graves’ Retreat and Night of Shadows. The setting, for both, is Cedar Rapids, Iowa of the late-Nineteenth century, and it is described with an admiring and sentimental hand—

“[A] place the mayor called, with monotonous determination, ‘the Chicago of Iowa.’”

Graves’ Retreat was originally published in 1989 by the long gone Doubleday Western imprint Double D. The year is 1884. Baseball is fashionable across the country, and Cedar Rapids is no different. It has a municipal team providing thrills and trying to keep up with the frequent rule changes—

“It was not an easy game to play because the rules kept changing. It was those goddamn Easterners.”

The star is a young pitcher and bank teller named Les Graves. Les is building a good life, and would rather keep his past secret. His brother, T. Z., is a professional thief, and a few years earlier Les helped T. Z. rob a bank. Now T. Z. has found Les in Cedar Rapids and wants help robbing Les’ employer. To make matters worse Cedar Rapids is playing the best baseball team in the Midwest—Sterling, Illinois—on July 4th, and Les has a history of nerves. A history that kept him out of the big leagues.

Graves’ Retreat is everything one expects from an Ed Gorman crime novel—clever, appealing, human, and sharp. The story is awash with blackmail, cold-blooded murder, and romance. Les isn’t a typical, larger-than-life, protagonist. He is scared and lost. He fears losing his Cedar Rapids life, his brother, and terrified of losing to Sterling. There are moments when the outcome, and Les’ role in it, are in doubt, and the climax is unexpected. The prose is Ed Gorman’s usual literate, tender, and tough style. My favorite line is the description of a Sterling pitcher named Fitzsimmons—

“He had a shanty-Irish face, which meant he managed to look innocent and mean at the same time, and he had a smile he must have practiced as often as he did his fast ball.”

Night of Shadows was originally published in 1990 by Double D. The year is 1894. The Cedar Rapids constabulary is expecting the arrival of an aging former lawman and gunfighter named Stephen Fuller. Fuller is visiting a dying childhood friend, and to avoid any trouble the police chief wants his visit short. A young police matron—

“Matrons were not, strictly speaking, constables. True, matrons carried badges, True, matrons had the power to arrest. True, matrons were summoned to impose law and order during times of emergency. But they rarely worked outside the jail and even more rarely participated in the apprehension of criminals.”

—named Anna Tolan convinces the boss she is both capable and the best choice to escort Fuller around town. Anna’s job is to keep him out of trouble, but it doesn’t go smoothly. Fuller—an alcoholic and drunken storyteller of the highest order—wanders into a bar, having lost Anna, and finds neck deep trouble. He is the only suspect in the murder of a man who called him a liar (and threw whiskey in his face). He bolts the scene, leaving Anna, who is the only person in town that believes his innocence, to find the real killer, and clear his name.

Night of Shadows is something special. It is a police procedural featuring blackmail and murder, but it also has an unexpected element for a Western. A psychopath with a mother complex. It is reminiscent of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, and, as Mr. Gorman explains in the Introduction, it is an homage; and one Mr. Bloch approved. It is important to understand it isn’t Psycho set in Nineteenth century Iowa. Instead, it is a procedural with an investigation, which is performed in a manner that fits the era, and the story of a young woman performing what was then a male-only job.

The novel’s center is Anna. She is bright and capable. A student of the famous French detective Goron’s methods—careful crime scene examination, interrogation—which she uses to solve the crime. It is also sentimental, tender, and very human. The descriptions of Cedar Rapids are perceptive and bright. Fuller, his life and addictions, is drawn with a tenderness that avoids pity and engenders understanding.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Jim Racine is a professional boxer. He is 36, and his best years are gone; he is still fit, but his quickness, speed, and strength are memories. When he was younger, Racine was a contender, but now makes his living fighting second- and third-tier opponents in South America. He makes good money, too, but the wheels fall off in the fictional city of Quitasol when he kills his opponent in the ring.

The outcry is significant, and the local government seizes his passport pending an investigation stranding Racine in Quitasol. The U. S. Embassy is unwilling to help, and Racine is certain if he could speak directly to the ambassador he would have his passport back in a matter of hours. When he finally gets his audience the meeting is interrupted by terrorists who kidnap Racine, the ambassador, and three others. The terrorists’ goal is to ransom the ambassador back to the State Department; which means the remaining hostages are extra baggage.

The Long Count is a sparse, well-plotted gem. It is written in first person with a rich, literate prose—seemingly simple, but its simplicity is deceiving. Jim Racine is one of Mr. Faust’s most likable protagonists; many are cold, almost unapproachable, but Racine is well-defined with high intentions. It is also a novel of ideas. There is a late scene where the ambassador and a terrorist are arguing their political differences; the ambassador turns to Racine—

“‘Racine,’ the ambassador said contemptuously. ‘Haven’t you anything to say for your country?’

“‘You aren’t talking about my country,’ I said. ‘You’re repeating slogans.’” 

The ideas tendered are very much of the novel’s era. It was originally published in 1979, and its major themes are communism, capitalism, and the United States role—both politically and economically—in South America. There is no clear “ideas” victor, but everything is encased in a brilliant adventure story.

Interestingly, the word “quitasol,” used as the name of the city where everything begins, is Spanish for “parasol.” I haven’t worked out the connection between parasol, and the story, but I bet there is one.

The Long Count is Ron Faust’s fourth published novel. It was originally published as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1979, and it is currently available as a trade paperback and ebook from Turner Publishing.

Purchase a copy at Amazon.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

BROUGHT IN DEAD by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Brought in Dead is the twentieth novel published by Harry Patterson, and the second to feature Detective Sergeant Nick Miller. It was originally released in the U. K. as a hardcover by John Long in 1967. It is a police procedural that is hijacked by what is seemingly a secondary character, at least early in the story, and twists itself into straight revenge.

Detective Sergeant Nick Miller isn’t an ordinary policeman. He is independently wealthy, thanks to his brother’s television business, drives a Mini-Cooper, and graduated from the University of London. He is also coarse, and frankly, not the most likable of Mr. Patterson’s protagonists; although he is less disagreeable here than he was in his debut novel, The Graveyard Shift.

It begins with the suicide of a young woman who drowned herself, and took extraordinary steps to conceal her identity. She carries no identification, and the identifying tags are torn from her clothing. She is also a recent addict. Her arms have several fresh needle marks, and the pathologist discovers a small amount of heroin and cocaine in her blood. She is, once Miller identifies her, the girlfriend of a local gangster and the daughter of a respected businessman.

Miller is certain it is murder—the dead woman’s boyfriend, Max Vernon, who owns a high end betting parlor and several other less savory rackets, is the primary suspect, but when a witness changes her story at the Coroner’s Court the death is officially ruled a suicide. This is where the novel shifts from a police procedural to a revenge novel. The primary character also shifts, from Nick Miller to the dead girl’s father, Duncan Craig. Craig is the managing director of a successful electronics company, and a former military man who vows to destroy Vernon.

Brought in Dead is an interesting novel. It is rightly a Nick Miller procedural, but the story belongs to Duncan Craig. Craig is the central player in the second half of the novel, and he is also the most interesting. He uses an impressive array of electronic eavesdropping equipment to identify Vernon’s business assets, and then systematically destroys each. As I read the novel I found myself wondering why the entire story wasn’t told from his perspective. It would have been better for it.

The strengths of the novel, as always with Mr. Patterson, are the strong plotting, the precise, stark prose, and the lightning quickness of the story. It features many of the same players as the original Nick Miller novel, The Graveyard Shift, including Jazz pianist and heroin addict Chuck Lazer, Detective Superintendent Bruce Grant, and Detective Constable Jack Brady. It isn’t in the top tier of Harry Patterson’s work, but it is an entertaining and satisfying novel.

I also learned a nice piece of slang—“snout” was used by the police to describe an informer. Now if I could find a use for it in my everyday parlance.

Friday, June 12, 2015

No Comment. "Winesburg, Ohio, 'Surrender, Part Three'"

“Sometimes it seemed to her that to be held tightly and kissed was the secret to life, and then a new impulse came and she was terribly afraid.”

—Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio: “Surrender, Part Three”. Library of America edition, 2012; page 59.  

No Comment is a new series of posts featuring passages from both fiction and non-fiction that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context—since the paragraph before and after are never included.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "The Darkness Rolling"

I’m doing a few book reviews for Ed Gorman’s blog and my review of Win Blevins’ and Meredith Blevins’ excellent mystery The Rolling Darkness is live even as you read. The Rolling Darkness introduces new series character Yazzie Goldman. It is set in Monument Valley shortly after World War 2, and features a cast filled with notable Hollywood names such as John Ford, and Linda Darnell. It is wonderfully entertaining, and taps into the Navajo culture, with a twist, much like Tony Hillerman did with his Chee and Leaphorn novels. It is published by Forge. 

Read the review, and then read the book.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Interview: Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler is the author of more than 60 books. His first novel, Bushwack, was published in 1978, and the majority of his work is set in the nineteenth century American West. His early novels tended to be short traditional Westerns, but as he grew as a writer, his work did to. In his quiet manner he has transcended genre, and at his best he is a chronicler of the westward expansion. He avoids the rough and rowdy mythology of the West, and instead writes about people, and places. He writes characters that are recognizable—flawed, admirable, frightened, vain—with a kind, understanding empathy. The settings are vivid, real, and capture the beauty, desolation, and wonder of the West.

Mr. Wheeler has won six Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Western Writers of America. He has been called “One of the best Western writers around today,” by Publishers Weekly, and “a master storyteller,” by Library Journal

Mr. Wheeler was kind enough, and showed an amazing amount of patience, to answer a few questions. The questions are italicized.  

You were raised in urban-Wisconsin, but you spent the majority of your early adult life either living in the Western United States—Arizona, California, Montana—or, when you were living away from the West, trying to get back. What is so appealing about the West in general, and Montana, specifically (where you settled)?

The vistas, the empty land, the romance, the stories. I discovered all that working as a newsman in the West. By some miracle, my first jobs took me west.

In your memoir, An Accidental Novelist, you candidly discuss your early work life—working as an opinion editor, beat reporter, book editor, etc.—your trouble staying employed, and the late decision, you were in your early-forties I believe, to write fiction. Why do you think it took so long to turn to storytelling, and how did the long journey help shape your fiction?

No money in fiction! A guy needs a steady job and paycheck. Also, fiction instructors insisted that a story must be shown, not told; dramatized, not reported. (They were wrong, but I didn’t know that.) They said a good novelist should be a playwright at heart, not a newsman.

You sold your first novel, Bushwack, to Doubleday in 1978. What was more gratifying, receiving the check, or holding the printed copy of your first novel?

I got a thousand dollar advance and it was gold to me. Could I possibly turn it into a living, writing on my own, free from bosses? Cash was incredible to me.

Speaking of Bushwack, in your memoir you briefly discuss the misspelled title. Did you take much grief from readers, or other writers, when it was published?

None at all. Doubleday editors left the title as it was, making a westernism of it. Bushwack is how it’s pronounced in the West.

You were the editor of Walker and Company’s Western line in the mid-1980s, and charged with acquiring a certain number of titles each year. Are there any specific authors or titles you “discovered” that you are particularly fond, or even proud, of?

I am proud indeed to have helped Michael Zimmer, Sam Brown, and Gary Svee, put their great talents to work. Each brought uniqueness, authenticity, and courage to the field. There were others I launched, and they all made my editing career rewarding.

How did the experience of editing a Western line change your attitudes towards your own writing, or the genre as a whole?

The gunslinger western gradually alienated me. The plot is roughly the same in all of them: who will be the last man standing? The high-body-count shootout stories are southern in nature, set in Texas and the Southwest, and still sell largely to southerners. Their heroes are ex-Confederates. You rarely see shootout stories set in the Dakotas or Idaho. Western stories set in the north are closer to actual frontier experience, and less mythic. Typically they involve the Indian wars, or vigilante justice, or mining rivalry, or cattlemen versus nesters. My experience editing mythic gunman stories set me to writing about the real West, and eventually historical or biographical westerns.

Your early novels were more traditional—Bushwack was about rustling, Dodging Red Cloud was about the Bozeman Trail—than your later work, which can be grouped into three broad categories: biographical, historical, and mining camp tales. What was the impetus for the change from a traditional Western writer to a historical writer?

People. Characters in romantic westerns are barely sketched out. Gunfighter stories pile up the corpses, but they are barely names: they don’t have histories, family, spouses, children, dreams, beliefs. Neither do they suffer. How many of these stories depict a slow-death wound, pain and gasping and agony, and fear? So the reader doesn’t care. Joe and Bugs and Sammy croak, but who cares?

In historical and biographical fiction, I found the chance to create real characters, and put their suffering into the unfolding drama of their lives. I’ve come to prefer stories that cover an entire life, and often end with an epilogue telling how it all worked out. Most of my later-life novels have followed that preference.

Of your early traditional Western novels do any stand out as particularly good or memorable?

My Santiago Toole novels, which are about a doctor in Miles City who finds himself filling in as a part time sheriff between treating patients, have richer qualities than most genre western stories.

Editor’s note. The Santiago Toole titles include The Fate, Incident at Fort Keough, Deuces and Ladies Wild, and The Final Tally.
I especially enjoy your biographical novels where you develop a story around a historical figure. The first I read was An Obituary for Major Reno (2005) where you tackle the life of Major Marcus Reno who was widely and popularly blamed for General Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. I was amazed at how well you pursued Reno’s complexity, contradictions, and flaws while still making him an empathic character. What type of research do you do for these stories?
Site visits, and any authoritative reading I could trust. The Custer nonfiction is so fraught with blame-mongering that it is hard to separate scholarly work from propaganda.

What do you think causes the passion, blame-mongering, and propaganda in the Custer mythos?

There is a certain white-man arrogance in this. It doesn’t matter that the Sioux and Cheyenne had over 1,500 fighting men, maybe many more, many better armed than the soldiers, and that they easily separated Custer’s divided forces. You could have put General Sheridan or General Grant in Reno’s boots, and the result would not have been much different. How do you control a couple hundred green troops fleeing to the cliff in fear of their lives? For some reason, those involved in this blame-mongering can’t accept the reality that the Indians were a vastly superior force, and there wasn't a thing that Reno or Custer could do about it. It is simply closer to our frame of reference to blame Custer or Reno, i.e., white soldiers were the superior force, no matter the numbers, so it is all the fault of one commander or other, than to look at the reality. This is a distortion of life through the lens of history. We are the dominant world power, so we must have been vastly superior to the Sioux in 1876.

When you are researching a particular historical figure, have you ever been surprised by who the person actually was versus any preconceived notions you had when starting the research?

I thought Reno would be an anti-hero, but the more I read about him, the more variable he became to me. As a young bachelor he was an indifferent soldier, barely qualified for command. But when he met and married Mary Hannah, everything changed. He became a competent commanding officer. And when she died at a young age, he began to deteriorate. He was one of those men who are incomplete without a woman, without a home, without loving arms reaching for him. That topic makes some men itchy, so it isn’t widely discussed. But Marcus Reno was that sort, and I embedded it in the story, and feel I came close to the reality. In the end, I knew I could empathize with him in spite of his numerous failings. His grave at the battlefield is always decorated with flowers or a flag. I believe I know why.

Do you have a favorite, or two, of the historical figures you have researched and written about?

William Clark, of the expedition, who was a grand, balanced, capable man this country can be proud of. Marcus Daly, the Butte copper king, who arrived penniless on these shores and built the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, always generous and caring about his fellow Irish and their widows.

Your biographical novels humanize, and often de-mythologize, major figures of the westward expansion; Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark (2002) deals with Meriwether Lewis’s suicide, and ultimately finds blame with his contraction of syphilis; Snowbound (2010) focuses on John C. Fremont’s cold—almost sociopathic—ambition; An Obituary for Major Reno (2005) enhances Marcus Reno’s reputation at the expense of General Custer’s. Do you ever get kickback from readers and critics for humanizing these real-life, yet popularly mythologized, characters? 

The Lewis and Clark “Establishment” didn’t like the idea that Lewis may have contracted syphilis. That Lewis was ill no one doubted, but it was more commonly believed he suffered from ague, a recurring form of malaria common in Virginia. In my novel, Lewis uses attacks of ague as a way to conceal his true disease. That did not make me popular.  

Speaking of mythology, you have been critical of the New York publishing houses’ treatment of the Western genre—it narrows the field, rather than broadening it, by categorizing it as fiction for middle-aged men; focusing on gunfights, and coarse, hard, men. What do you think the genre—writers, fans, and publishers—can do to better market itself?

The mass-market gunman western is going to continue to sell well; people love myths and buy them. The realistic western story remains in trouble. My own solution is to write biographical novels, or historical novels, that depict the fabulous history of our frontier, primarily as literature rather than mythology. But this is a niche market, at best, and I harbor few hopes for anything more.

Why do you think American readers, and really Americans as a whole, prefer mythology to reality?

The romantic west makes us feel good about ourselves. I love some of those stories, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. I just watched the scene where the troops give John Wayne a watch inscribed to him, and he fights back tears. High Noon, an abandoned and newly married sheriff seeking justice and survival. Shane, a killer who rescues a nester from certain death just because it was the right thing to do. Shane hates his trade, and bawls out the boy for glamorizing what he does. I love those romantic stories that define who we are, and interpret history to glorify ourselves.

Barnaby Skye is one of the most original characters in Western fiction. He is a Brit seaman, a former fur trapper with an ugly, mean horse named Jawbone, and two native wives. I should also add he carries a belaying pin, and generally acts as a travel guide to anyone who will pay the freight. How did the idea for Barnaby germinate, and how have you been able to keep him fresh and interesting?

Pure commerce. A western hero with two wives and a British seaman-deserter background looked like it might sell books. I wrote nineteen in all, eventually carrying the story to three generations. It’s confusing because my first novels were about a middle-aged Skye, but then I went back to his youthful desertion at Fort Vancouver in the 1820s, and ended up with novels about his son, Dirk, entering modern times.

In the Barnaby Skye novels you effectively play off cultural differences between Europeans and the native tribes. As an example, in The Canyon of Bones (2007) you note how the two cultures treat marriage differently—Skye’s wife, Victoria, is ashamed her husband has only one wife, and while she is overworked—doing woman’s work—she won’t let Skye help because it demeans him. It appears you have fun comparing and contrasting the two cultures. What are some of the more interesting differences you have found between the cultures?

In some Indian cultures men were hunters and warriors, and sometimes spiritual leaders, while women gathered, cooked, nourished, sewed, scraped hides, and tended children. Women did the scutwork, such as moving lodges. It demeaned either sex to do the appointed work of the other. That gave me endless opportunities in the Skye’s West novels to have Skye suffer ridicule if he was a thoughtful and helpful husband. But the traditional tribes were more tolerant of women who assumed male roles, who became warriors or spiritual figures. All this formed a comic leitmotif in the Skye novels.

Your novels have a very strong sense of place; the mining camp stories feature the noise, aromas, sights, and the biographical novels aptly describe the terrain—mountains, deserts, elements—in a manner that adds credibility to the story. What is it about place that interests you, and how do you research to ensure accuracy? Do you visit the places detailed in your fiction? 

These places whispered, sometimes sang to me. I was able to stand at a western site and blot up not just the scenery, but all the history and implications. Was there a river? Hard to cross? Dangerous? The land became larger than imagines and sounds.

You have achieved an enviable amount of accolades for your writing, including an astonishing six Spur Awards, and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. In an interview with the late-Ron Scheer you said winning the awards “made [you] more reckless” and created the opportunity to include ideas in your fiction you would have removed before. Can you expand on this? Are there specific novels, ideas, etc. that come to mind?

The walls of genre fell away. I could write about a boozy Skye, with two wives, one of them a first-class cusser; a story about Lewis and Clark that begins when the expedition returns and looks at what fame did to them; a story about an American hero, Fremont, whose ego led to deaths in his company; a book about Wyatt Earp that makes him almost tongue-tied around his wife; a book about Bat Masterson in which the old boy, now a New York journalist, heads into the west to puncture the myths that sprang up around him.

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?

Most any novel about a protagonist who assumes adult  responsibility for his own conduct, his own failures and successes, and learns that excuses, even valid ones, are worthless.

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?

Sun Mountain, a story that follows a man through his entire life, and explores what he did once he arrived in the far west to make his fortune.