Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Elimination is the fifth novel featuring political consultant Dev Conrad, and, contrary to popular belief (I’ve always wanted to say that) not the last. It is election season, and Dev is in rural Illinois helping Representative Jessica Bradshaw win re-election. Ms. Bradshaw is in a dead heat with her far-right (read, Tea Party) opponent Trent Dorsey. Dorsey has a billionaire uncle—

“‘Uncle Ken,’ as Dorsey always referred to him…”

—funding television attack ads and robocalls claiming Representative Bradshaw as a drug addicted-Commie-lesbian. Dev’s appearance in Jessica’s district, and home town of Danton, Illinois, is to stop the bleeding and prepare for the final debate. Jessica wins the debate, but the celebration is cut short by a badly botched assassination attempt. An attempt so poorly executed the local law thinks it may have been staged.

Elimination is a nicely twisted mystery, and a poignant commentary on the current political environment. Dev is a wearied political strategist who often finds his clients lacking—megalomaniacs, narcissists, jerks—who just happen to, mostly, vote the right way. Dev is a light-hearted cynic (dubious but cautiously optimistic) with a dry wit and a tendency of self-deprecation—

“A lie, but what the hell. God had personally given me a daily allotment of one hundred and twenty-three lies. I was, after all, in politics.”  

The political is the center of the story providing servings of both horror and humor, and there is enough middle class angst to make anyone nervous, but it is the mystery—who shot at Jessica Bradshaw, and why—and Dev’s voice that make it pleasurable.       

Purchase a copy of Elimination at Amazon.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Vision"

The Vision was published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons as a hardcover in 1977. The edition that caught my eye was the original Bantam paperback edition published in 1978. The cover art actually caught my eye twice in very slight variations. The first was the Bantam edition (a few years ago), and the second was a Golden Apple edition (a few weeks ago). The Golden Apple edition was published in 1984. The artwork is the same, but the layout is different. Both feature a mildly creepy pencil drawing on a white background. The artist: Unknown.

The Bantam edition includes reflective red eyes on the bat.

The Golden Apple edition:

The opening paragraphs:

“‘Gloves of blood.’

“The woman raised her hands and stared at them, stared through them.

“Her voice was soft but tense. ‘Blood on his hands.’ Her own hands were clean and pale.”

The Vision was advertised as a horror novel, but it is more of a genre bender; much like Mr. Koontzs later work in the 1980s, but not quite at that same exceptional level. Mr. Koontz said his intention with The Vision was to write it as if Dashiell Hammett had set out to write a horror novel.” It was published just three years before Dean Koontzs breakout novel Whispers.  

[This is the seventeenth 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, July 22, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "Dry Stone Walls"

I’m doing a few book reviews for Ed Gorman’s blog and my review of Robert J. Randisi’s entertaining whodunit Dry Stone Walls is live even as you read. Dry Stone Walls is the first in a new series featuring retired NYPD Captain of Detectives Truxton Lewis. It is set in Kentucky Blue Grass country. It is published by Riverdale Avenue Books.   

Read the review, and then read the book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Publicity Push: Axel Brand's Joe Sonntag Novels

[Publicity Push is a new feature highlighting a book, or a series of books. It is intended to introduce something interesting and new—without the necessity of writing a specific review. I’m planning to do two or three of these each month. If you are a writer, or a reader, and want to recommend something to be highlighted please email me:]  
Richard S. Wheeler is best known as an author of historical Western novels. He has won an impressive 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. He is also a consummate gentleman, and very nice man who did an excellent interview here at Gravetapping.

While Mr. Wheeler is primarily a writer of historical Western novels, he has also written five novels featuring Milwaukee homicide detective Lieutenant Joe Sonntag as by Axel Brand. The setting is historical—1940s Milwaukee—but the plots are criminal. The series has received critical praise—

“[Brand’s] noir style effectively combines muscle and cheek, and Sonntag is an appealing laconic sleuth.” –Kirkus Reviews on The Hotel Dick

“[The Dead Genius is] buoyed by Brand’s crisp prose and Sonntag’s reflexive wisecracks.” –Kirkus Reviews on The Dead Genius  

Crossroad Press has recently—over the past few months—reissued all five of the Joe Sonntag novels in ebook form, and you may want to try one. The novels are below—if you click the title you will be transported to each book’s Amazon page—with the publisher’s brief description and the first paragraph from each novel. I particularly like the first few lines of The Hotel Dick.  

Publisher’s Description: “It’s 1948 Milwaukee. The Lakeshore Towers Hotel house detective, J. Adam Bark, is murdered while sitting in a barber's chair. Homicide detective Lieutenant Joe Sonntag is sent to investigate, but has a difficult time with the barber’s insistence that Spencer Tracy killed Bark.”

First paragraph: “Joe Sonntag knew the victim this time. He never liked the man and wasn’t surprised that someone put a bullet through his mouth and another through his heart. There would be maybe two hundred suspects.”

Publisher’s description: “Armand de Trouville is dead. The little genius pioneered a new field, forensic document examination. Thanks to Trouville, forgers and people who write fake wills and stickup men who pass notes to bank cashiers are in jail.”

First paragraph: “The death notice in the Milwaukee Journal announced the visiting hours. Joe Sonntag thought he could manage it during his lunch break because the mortuary was only six blocks away, and it would be a good day to walk.”

Publisher’s description: “Milwaukee, 1948. Joe Sonntag, ace investigator for the police department, faces a riddle: a lovely young woman is found dead at the zoo, near the lion cages, lying in a bed of ferns. She has been carefully laid out there, her arms folded. Nearby, a lioness prowls her cage. Plainly, whoever put her there cared for her.”

First paragraph: “The body was near the lions. That’s what they told Lieutenant Joe Sonntag when they woke him up early. A young woman had been found dead at the Washington Park Zoo, a few blocks from Sonntag’s house, so the dispatcher had called him.”

Publisher’s description: “A violent strike; murder at the factory gates. Milwaukee, 1949. There’s labor turmoil in Beer City. Joe Sonntag gets called to the strike-bound West Allis tractor factory, where a temporary employee has been shot and killed in the middle of the night. The struggle between the Machinists Union and the company has boiled over into murder. But it proves to be more complex than that.”

First paragraph: “The phone knocked the crap out of his beauty sleep. Joe Sonntag staggered out of bed, while Lizbeth stirred, and made his way to the kitchen, where the phone li9ved. It took effort to wake up; he hadn’t slept long, and had been yanked like a marionette out of a peaceful slumber. He flipped on the kitchen light and headed for the upright phone and yanked the receiver off the black stalk.”

Publisher’s description: “A church potluck dinner. A sudden, shocking murder right after the pastor says grace. Joe Sonntag is a horrified witness, and swiftly arrests Manfred Wittstein, who claims his wife Freda killed their children, Matthew, Mark, Gerta, and Reuben. Thus begins an odd quest to learn why the killer shot Freda, and whether his wife had destroyed their children. It soon proves to be a case unlike any other Sonntag had tackled. The children are, indeed, missing. And no one can say what happened to them.”

First paragraph: “If there was one thing Lieutenant Joe Sonntag dreaded, it was being trapped inside of a church with pious people. He couldn’t help it. He had no use for churches. He wasn’t against them; he just was totally uncomfortable in them. And now he was stuck.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

DARK SIDE OF THE STREET by Martin Fallon (Jack Higgins)

Dark Side of the Street is the twenty-first novel published by Harry Patterson, and the fifth to feature Paul Chavasse. It was originally released in the U. K. as a hardcover by John Long in 1967 under the byline “Martin Fallon”; a name that has a history with Mr. Patterson. It was an early pseudonym, and the name of two protagonists who met similar fates in the novels Cry of the Hunter (1960) and A Prayer for the Dying (1973). It made a pre-The Eagle Has Landed appearance in the United States as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback in 1974.

Paul Chavasse is employed by a British intelligence organization called “The Bureau”; its director reports directly to the Prime Minister. Chavasse is educated—a former lecturer of linguistics—ruthless, and very much in demand. When he is approached by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch with an opportunity to spend time in a maximum security prison Chavasse accepts with good humor. His assignment is to infiltrate a criminal organization that seemingly has the ability to penetrate any prison, and abscond with the convict of its choosing. And once out, the prisoner vanishes without a trace.

Special Branch believes the next convict to escape will be Harry Youngblood. Harry was convicted of robbing an airport with two associates, and both have already escaped in spectacular fashion. Chavasse’s assignment is to tag along with Youngblood when his escape comes, and get the details of the organization arranging it. He does, and what he finds is both surprising and daunting.

Dark Side of the Street is one of the more accomplished Paul Chavasse novels. The plot is perfectly executed and surprising. The prose is even and consistent, and at times vividly eloquent—

“Rain drifted against the window with dismal pattering and Chavasse looked out across the farmyard morosely. In the grey light of early morning, it presented an unlovely picture. Great potholes in the cobbles filled with stagnant water, archaic, rusting machinery and a profusion of rubbish everywhere.”

There is a nicely executed heist in the opening pages before it settles into straight adventure. Paul Chavasse is a likable protagonist with a knack for finding himself behind bars, and an uncanny ability of getting out. A situation that happens at least once in the first five novels. The central antagonist is interesting for two reasons. The first is Mr. Patterson’s use of an obvious sociopath with an over the top personality (Sean Rogan less the conscience). The second is his name, Simon Vaughan. A name many readers will recognize as the protagonist from The Savage Day (1972), and Day of Judgment (1979); although it is definitely not the same character.      

The plot is also familiar, but the familiarity is external to Mr. Patterson’s work rather than internal. Desmond Bagley used a similar storyline for his excellent 1971 novel The Freedom Trap, filmed as “The Mackintosh Man”, which was inspired by the 1966 escape of British double agent George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs prison. It is likely, due to the proximity between Blake’s escape and the publication date, it also inspired Dark Side of the Street.  

No matter its inspirations, Dark Side of the Street, is one of the better early novels Harry Patterson published. It is the last novel Mr. Patterson wrote before introducing his most famous nom de plume—Jack Higgins—and it is a bridge between his early work and the brilliant novels he wrote in the middle of his career.   

I wrote a short introduction to the Paul Chavasse novels a few years ago you may find interesting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Stark House Press: Black Gat Books

I’m a big fan of Stark House Press, and I have been meaning to write a post about its latest publishing venture, Black Gat Books, for a several weeks. Black Gat is a mass market line dedicated to reprinting great crime novels of the past. Stark House’s website identifies Black Gat’s mission statement—  

“This is a single-title line of books, uniformly priced at $9.99, offering additional reprint titles from past masters of mystery fiction. Each book will be numbered. Some will have new introductions, some will not.”

There are three titles currently available:

No. 1.  A Haven for the Damned by Harry Whittington. This is one of Mr. Whittington’s Gold Medal books originally published in 1962. The Black Gat edition includes an excellent Introduction by David Laurence Wilson.

No. 2.  Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. This is Charlie Stella’s first novel. It was originally published in 2001, and received critical raves. Stark House published its sequel, Rough Riders, in 2012, which was reviewed here at Gravetapping.  

No. 3.  Stranger at Home by Leigh Brackett. This title was originally published as by George Sanders—the English actor—in 1946. It was written by the great Leigh Brackett, and it is thankfully available again.

There are two additional titles that have been announced, but not yet released:

No. 4.  The Persian Cat by John Flagg. This is one of the earliest Gold Medal titles. It features agent Gil Denby, and is set in Tehran. Its release date is August 2015.

No. 5.  Only the Wicked by Gary Phillips. This is an Ivan Monk mystery set in Los Angeles. Its release date is November 2015.  

The Black Gat titles are available directly through the publisher, and most online bookstores. If you click on the titles above you will be whisked to the Amazon page for each.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Compound Murder is the twentieth novel featuring Blacklin County, Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes. The series started in 1986 with Too Late to Die, and the latest title (number 22 in the series), Between the Living and Dead, is scheduled for release in August. Blacklin County’s population is small, but the characters and crimes are anything but.

It opens with a burglary at the Beauty Shack. The thief broke the restroom window, and stole the Shack’s latest inventory items—“…hair extensions and wigs. Made from real human hair,” which have an impressive street value. Sheriff Rhodes’ report and scene investigation are interrupted by another call. A corpse is in the parking lot of the community college. When Rhodes arrives the scene is being handled by Dr. C. P. Benton; “Seepy” to everyone who knows him. Dr. Benton isn’t a deputy, but he thinks he is, and he is pretty sure the dead man was murdered—

“You’re sure it’s a crime scene?”

“That would be my professional judgment as a graduate of the Citizens’ Sheriff’s Academy.”

As it turns out Seepy is right, and Rhodes quickly identifies a handful of suspects. The victim was an English professor, and not well liked. The primary suspect is a student named Ike Terrell. Ike is a suspicious character simply by relation. His father is Able Terrell who is the leader of the county’s local survivalist group. He has a compound, guns, and rumors of more guns. The investigation is far from clear, and the plot is littered with twists.

Compound Murder is smooth, humorous, and criminal. It is a rural police procedural; mostly whodunit with a shimmer of hardboiled. The humor is secondary to the well-crafted mystery, and acts as a foil to the seriousness of the crime. It is developed in the eclectic oddball characters—the Abbot and Costello act of the police dispatcher and jailer, and Rhodes’ straight man-like reaction to it—and the dialogue, which hums with misunderstanding. The stolen hair is a hot topic, and provides a few well-placed laughs— 

“‘That’s not a head,’ Rhodes said. ‘It’s a wig stand. With hair on it. Real human hair, too, I’ll bet.’

“‘He scalped his victim?’

“Buddy’s voice trembled. Rhodes didn’t know if the cause was excitement or disgust.

“‘No,’ Rhodes said. ‘His victim was Lonnie Wallace.’

“‘It was Lonnie Wallace’s body at the college?’

“Rhodes wondered why all his conversations seemed to go this way. Maybe it was somehow his own fault.”

Mr. Crider nicely develops the setting—the decaying main streets of Blacklin County’s small towns; the heat; the countrys expanse. The places, and many of the characters, flow from novel to novel developing a strong sense of place in each, and the series a whole. There are also a few insider jokes: Joe Lansdale’s name shows up twice. Once as a karate instructor, and again as a novelist.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

NIGHTCRAWLERS by Bill Pronzini

The Nameless Detective series has been active since 1971 and it is still strong—in sales and quality alike. The protagonist—Nameless, who isn’t as nameless as he once was—has aged and matured in almost real time. He was young and full of fight throughout his appearances in the 1970s and 80s, but with age he has mellowed with creaky bones, aching muscles, a wife and an adopted daughter.

The thirty-second title, published by Forge in 2005, is Nightcrawlers and while it, and all of the recent titles, is different from the early Nameless stories it is still pretty damn terrific. In many ways the latest releases are better—there is more nuance, the execution is tighter and Nameless—or Bill—has developed into something more than he was. He is a living, breathing, believable character that is not only sympathetic to the reader, but downright likable.

Nightcrawlers is a personal journey for Nameless. There are three storylines that run parallel, and not one of them ever crosses another—there are no hokey connections or ridiculous coincidences, but rather there are three stories (mysteries) compressed with superb execution and sharp prose into one very enjoyable novel.

Nameless’ detective office is a three-person operation now. Nameless has semi-retired, Tamara Corbin is a full partner and Jake Runyon is the main operative. The location of the office has also moved—it is now just south of Market instead of the old O’Farrell Street location.
Business is slow; Tamara is taking care of what seems to be a small skip-trace on a deadbeat dad, Jake is pursuing a non-paying case in an attempt to stop a string of brutal beatings in the Castro and Nameless is doing a personal favor for a dying pulp writer—Russell Dancer who appeared in at least three earlier Nameless novels (Undercurrent, Hoodwink and Bones), and is based on the pulp writer J. M. (Jay) Flynn.

The skip-trace turns out to be more than it first appeared and not because of the case itself, but rather something Tamara stumbles across as she is working it. Unfortunately Tamara never gets the opportunity to tell either Nameless or Runyon her suspicions before she disappears, which acts as the catalyst for the climax of the novel.

Nightcrawlers is damn entertaining. It is written in both first and third person—Nameless acts as his own narrator and the chapters in the perspective of Tamara and Jake are in third person. It works very well. It broadens the scope of the story without diminishing its personality. The perspective changes from chapter to chapter are easily detected (beyond the note at the top of each chapter) by subtle shifts in style and vocabulary. Tamara has the easy flow of the street, Jake is hardboiled, and Nameless is just Nameless.

Tamara: “Now that she was here, out on a field job, she began to feel a little stoked.”

Jake: “The man himself was in his late thirties, short, dark, and cynical. The cynicism showed in his eyes, the set of his mouth, his voice.”

Nameless: “Russ Dancer, dying. Cirrhosis and emphysema. Refused to quit drinking or smoking, refused hospitalization or treatment beyond painkillers and an oxygen bottle that he carried around with him.”

The prose has the deceptive feel and flow of simplicity, but, in its stark hardboiled style, it is vividly saturated with the essence of the characters and their city, San Francisco. The setting is developed well and described in a fashion that it makes the reader feel like she is in San Francisco moving between Market and Castro and all points between. The story builds upon itself with each page and chapter bringing with it a dry and edgy suspense.

Nightcrawlers is the real thing and a terrific entry in the series. Find a copy, read it, and pass it on because more people should be exposed to both Bill Pronzini and his other “Bill,” known as Nameless.

This review originally went live May 7, 2012. It was the first review I wrote for Gravetapping after a long hiatus, and I decided it was worth running again. Nightcrawlers was the first “modern” Nameless novel I read, and since then I have been reading each title as it is released. I have even reviewed a couple: Strangers, and Nemesis

Purchase a copy on Amazon.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Requesting Information About Ron Faust

I’m planning to start a permanent page—as part of this blog—dedicated to the work of Ron Faust. Mr. Faust wrote 15 novels between 1974 and 2013; his final novel, Jackstraw, was published posthumously. He died in 2011, and information is difficult to find.

I’m looking for information about Mr. Faust and his work: firsthand stories, interviews, articles, etc. The information will be used to develop a better understanding of both the man and his work. If you have memories, knowledge of his biography, bibliography, or know of any magazine and newspaper articles featuring Mr. Faust I would love to hear them. Please send an email to

I have written what I know about Ron Faust in the post “Ron Faust: An Unforgettable Writer,” and I have reviewed three of his novels: Nowhere to Run, Split Image, and The Long Count.