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.