Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: The Year in Reading

2015 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 61 titles, and will likely finish one more—the forthcoming Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce—which is three short of last year’s mark. 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 Night by Elie Wiesel and Mind Over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes.

I entered 2015 with my two ever recurring goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2014 I read only eight authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, and also managed to add a few—only three—female authors to my list (all are included in the “new to me” category).

I became acquainted with the work of ten authors in 2015: David Lippincott (Salt Mine), James W. Hall (Bones of Coral), Sandra Block (The Girl Without a Name), Rick Ollerman (Truth Always Kills), Trace Conger (The Shadow Broker), Andrew Coburn (The Babysitter), Tony Park (Ivory), Christine Matthews (Beating the Bushes), Carolyn Hart (High Stakes), and John Saul (Nathaniel). The best of the “new”—and it was actually published in 2015—was Park’s Ivory. The number of new authors, and female authors, was due, mostly, to writing reviews for Ed Gorman’s blog and Mystery Scene Magazine.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 17 titles, which is approximately 28 percent of the total for 2015. I read five by Jack M. Bickham, and four each by Jack Higgins, Dean Koontz, and Ed Gorman.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2015. No rules, except no repeats. If I previously read it, it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were two or three that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2015 are—

5. Ivory by Tony Park. Mr. Park is an Australian thriller writer who writes vividly about Africa. This one is set in Mozambique, South Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The protagonist is an ex-SAS officer turned pirate to finance the rehabilitation of his family’s hotel on the Island of Dreams. The pacing is fast, and the locales are exotic and it actually lives up to the term “thriller.”  

4. The King of Horror and Other Stories by Stephen Mertz. If the title didn’t give it away, this is a collection of short stories by crime and adventure writer extraordinaire Stephen Mertz. It includes all of Mr. Mertz’s short stories over the past several decades, and each is very entertaining. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Split Image by Ron Faust. This is an old school noirish treasure. It is dark, riveting, and curious; as much literature as commercial. It weaves an enticing mixture of Edgar Allan Poe—think “The Tell-Tale Heart”—Alfred Hitchcock, and a 1950’s Gold Medal novel. It is one of Mr. Faust’s finest novels. Read the Gravetapping review.   

2.  The Husband by Dean Koontz. This is a mesmerizing, well written, and extraordinarily entertaining thriller. It is smooth with the beat of poetry in its prose—not in a complicated manner, but rather the meter and rhythm. It opens in a rush, and keeps the steady pace from beginning to end without falling into the trap of overwrought doldrums or meaningless melodrama. Read the Gavetapping review.       

1. Snowbound by Richard S. Wheeler. This title won a Spur Award when it was published in 2010; an honor it surely deserved. It is the story of John C. Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition, which was ostensibly to find a railroad route across the Rocky Mountains at the 38th Parallel between St. Louis and San Francisco. A fool’s dreams at best. It is a powerful novel of survival and calamity, and deserving of a much larger audience than it has so far reached. Read the Gravetapping review.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "The Sundown Speech"

My review of Loren D. Estleman’s most recent Amos Walker novel, The Sundown Speech, is live and online at Ed Gorman’s blog. The setting is post 9/11; twelve or so years ago. And, as Mr. Estleman explains in the Afterword, it is an expansion of a novella he wrote as a serial for the Ann Arbor News. It is also pretty terrific.

Purchase a copy of The Sundown Speech at Amazon.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Now Available: "Anything Goes" by Richard S. Wheeler

Richard Wheeler’s latest novel, Anything Goes, is now available in hardcover from Forge. It is Mr. Wheeler’s “first print novel…published in three years,” and it, like all of Forge’s Westerns, is handsomely designed.

Richard Wheeler’s fiction has won an astounding six Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Western Writers of America. I have been a longtime fan of his work, and he, at least by email, is one of the kindest, polite, and knowledgeable people I have corresponded with. Earlier this year I conducted an interview with Mr. Wheeler—one I’m particularly proud of—you should read.

I am also planning to review Anything Goes in the next few weeks, but until then here is the publisher’s description

Anything Goes: the enchanting story of a vaudeville troupe that makes its way to Western mining towns, from renowned master of the Western novel, Richard S. Wheeler.

“The cowboys, gold miners, outlaws, gunmen, prostitutes, and marshals who populate the Wild West never see much big-city entertainment. Most towns are too wild and rowdy for entertainers to enter, let alone perform in. All that is about to change.

“August Beausoleil and his colleague, Charles Pomerantz, have taken the Beausoleil Brothers Follies to the remote mining towns of Montana, far from the powerful impresarios who own the talent and control the theaters on the big vaudeville circuits. Their cast includes a collection of has-beens and second-tier performers: Mary Mabel Markey, the shopworn singer now a little out of breath; Wayne Windsor, "The Profile," who favors his audiences with just one side of his face while needling them with acerbic dialogue; Harry the Juggler, who went from tossing teacups to tossing scimitars; Mrs. McGivers and her capuchin monkey band; and the Wildroot Sisters, born to show business and managed by a stage mother who drives August mad.

“Though the towns are starved for entertainment, the Follies struggles to fill seats as the show grinds from town to town. Just when the company is desperate for fresh talent, a mysterious young woman astonishes everyone with her exquisite voice.
“The Wild West will never be the same. They've seen comics, gorgeous singers, and scimitar-tossing jugglers. Now if the troupers can only make it back East . . . alive!”

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Reviews Elsewhere: "High Stakes"

My review of Carolyn Hart’s enjoyable novel High Stakes is live and online at Ed Gorman’s blog. It is cold war romantic suspense with a nicely executed plot, likable characters, and a satisfying twist.

Purchase a copy of High Stakes at Amazon.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

DEATH OF A CITIZEN by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm is a solid citizen.  He is married with three children.  He makes a living writing popular novels (western’s mostly), and lives with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His picture perfect American dream is mangled when Tina, an operative he briefly worked with in Europe during World War II, walks through the front entrance of a cocktail party.  She passes an old signal to Matt—“I’ll get in touch with you later. Stand by”—and in an instant (and without much fuss) Matt’s idyllic existence shatters.

Death of a Citizen is the first (of 27) Matt Helm novels, and it is absolutely terrific.  In the opening sequence Helm is an everyman; likable and stable with a pretty wife and a family, but it only takes a few hours for his old habits to take over.  It starts with a dead woman in his writing room, and then a confrontation with Tina who, after some convincing from Matt, weaves a fantastic story about a Soviet agent hunting a nuclear scientist working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.

The action is convincing, the prose is smooth and cool—

“Suddenly I was feeling fine.  You can stay tense only so long.  I was over the hump.  I was driving ten miles out of the way, with a corpse in the bed of the truck, just to take a worthless alley cat home.”

And the plot is as tight and smooth as a guy wire.  There is more than the usual backstory about Helm’s World War II exploits, and post war life, but it is done without interrupting the forward momentum of the plot.  Even better, Mac—the leader of the “organization” Matt worked for, and is once again working for—makes an appearance in the field, and Helm’s doubt and operational rust give him an element of believability. 

Death of a Citizen is the first of the Matt Helm novels, but it is as convincing, urgent, and well written as any.  In a sense it is the primer.  It introduces Helm, the organization, and everything it is, which is essentially a kind of counter intelligence wet work squad.  It is the cold war on a small field.  The best part, the citizen who lost his life (from the title) is Helm himself, and what he gains is a certain freedom, his code name Eric, and an outlet for his violent nature.

Death of a Citizen was originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, and it was recently reissued as a paperback by Titan Bookspurchase a copy at Amazon.

This is another reprint of a Matt Helm novel I enjoyed. It was originally posted March 30, 2014. I’ve been desperately busy the last several weeks, but there will be new content coming very soon.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Mexico Run"

The Mexico Run was a paperback original published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1974, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover features a racing car—Jaguar, it appears—with a starred bullet hole in the windshield, billowing dust in its wake, a stone church in the background, and another car in pursuit. It is beautifully 1970’s Gold Medal. The artist: Unknown (to me).

The opening sentence:

“I picked up the XKE in San Francisco. It cost me twenty-six hundred dollars, and I bought it from an instructor at the University over at Berkley, who I figured had probably used it mostly for girl-bait on weekend trips down to the Monterey Peninsula.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

MURDERERS' ROW by Donald Hamilton

Murderers’ Row is the fifth Matt Helm novel.  It was originally published by Gold Medal in 1962, and it is the best of the ten or so Matt Helm titles I’ve read.  Helm is anxious for a long awaited vacation to visit a new lady friend in Texas when Mac calls him on assignment; Mac is the chief of the counter spy agency referred to as “the organization”.  He is directed to help an agent with her bone fides, and play her second chair, to infiltrate a Soviet ring that kidnapped an American scientist.  Her orders.  Extract the scientist, or close his eyes permanently.

Helm’s cover is a low level mob enforcer named Jimmy (the Lash) Petroni.  His mission: “plausibly,” and effectively beat up the female agent tasked with infiltrating the Soviet kidnap ring to buttress her cover as a breaking down alcoholic agent.  Helm reluctantly accepts the task, but everything goes wrong in short order.  The female agent dies at Helm’s hand.  Helm is arrested for murder by the local police, and Mac wants him back in Washington with no further action. 
Murderers’ Row is to thrillers as the 100 yard dash is to track and field; fast, hard, and entertaining as hell.  The opening sequences deftly alternate between Helm’s botched assignment and Mac’s orders.  The tone of the narrative in the opening scenes is clinical and professional; very much like a briefing of events without emotion or introspection.  When the female agent dies at his hands, he explains:

“It wasn’t the worst moment of my life.  After all, I’ve been responsible for the deaths of people I knew and liked: it happens in the business.”
But as the novel moves forward the narrative wobbles from the clinical to the personal.  Helm begins to doubt his motives and even, at least regarding the death of his fellow agent, his reality.   His concern: his “hand slipped” during the assault intentionally rather than accidently, which brings to mind a comment Mac made about the psychology of men who kill for a living —

“After a while…their judgment becomes impaired, since human life has ceased to have much value for them.”
Helm doesn’t spend more than a few passages worrying it, but he spends just enough time to give him credibility with the reader.  A credibility that removes him from the classless sociopath to a workman doing a dirty, nasty, but very necessary job. 

Murderers’ Row has everything the Matt Helm novels are known for—action, a vivid cast of characters, a tight and lean plot, and a touch of humor.  As an example of the humor, in the opening scenes Mac explains why Helm needs to perform the assault rather than a young agent previously assigned—
“Not one of them would kill a fly, I sometimes think, to save an entire nation from dying of yellow fever.”
Helm responds—“‘Yes, sir’….’Yellow fever isn’t carried by flies, sir.  It’s transmitted by mosquitoes.’”        
Mac—“‘Indeed?’...‘That’s very interesting.  I could have made it an order, but the young fool…’”
The best part, if you read closely Mr Hamilton always explains the title, which is usually far from intuitive.  In this case, “murderers’ row” is a euphemism for the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D. C.  

Murderers’ Row was recently republished in mass market by Titan Books.  Purchase a copy at Amazon.

This review originally went live November 22, 2013 and since there has been some talk about the Matt Helm novels on a few other blogs I decided it was a good time to kick some new life into this one.