Tuesday, March 29, 2016

BACKSHOT: 2012 by Tom Piccirilli

Backshot: 2012 is the second of two related novellas. 2012 was written by Tom Piccirilli and Backshot:1902 was written by Ed Gorman. The connection between the two is Marshal Delmar Royce who is a minor, but key, player in the latter parts of 1902 and the great3-grandfather of 2012’s antihero, Royce.

Royce is a professional thief lying in a hospital bed with a broken back and useless legs. His lifelong friend and partner, Quill, punched a bullet in his back after their last job and now Royce is looking at a painful future and a five-year prison stretch. The doctor tells him he won’t walk for a year, but Royce is on his feet in six months; it’s another three years before his release from prison and his planned revenge against Quill.

2012 is a touch Richard Stark, but wholly Tom Piccirilli. The plotline is Stark—Royce is betrayed by his partner and spends the rest of the story getting even—but it is stylistically and thematically Piccirilli. Mr. Piccirilli’s literate, smooth, stark style is, perhaps, the finest in modern crime fiction—

“DeKooning sighed. It was the sigh that said you couldn’t believe people were so clichéd, so obvious, so average. You heard the story a thousand times before and here it was again, and you just couldn’t believe you were going to have to sit through it one more time. DeKooning frowned. It said more about him than anything before.”  

It is thematically complex with a heaviness of the past’s influence on the present. Royce is haunted by the image of a man he will never meet, Delmar Royce, and Quill is tormented by the shadow of his abusive father. The story never strays into predictability, and Royce is, if not exactly likable, understandable and even familiar.

Tom Piccirilli died in July 2015 from brain cancer. He was a talented writer who started his career in horror and then migrated to crime. He won multiple Bram Stoker awards for his horror fiction, including best novel for The Night Class, and he won the Thriller Award for best paperback original for his crime novels The Midnight Road and The Coldest Mile. Backshot: 2012 was published posthumously, and as I read it, I wondered if it is the last of Mr. Piccirilli’s original work.   

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

DOUBLE FAULT by Jack M. Bickham

Double Fault is the fifth novel featuring Brad Smith. It was published in 1993 by Tor. It is Brad’s most personal adventure, focusing on his, and America’s, experience with Vietnam. It is less espionage and more suspense than the other titles and it is the best of the Brad Smith novels.

Arnie Tubb is a head case. He has been in and out of military mental hospitals since leaving Vietnam. After his transfer to the cancer ward of Walter Reed hospital, Arnie takes advantage of its lax security and escapes. During the war Arnie was involved in the massacre of a Vietnamese village, very much like My Lai, which the Army wants to keep secret and Arnie wants to avenge. His vengeance is focused on a group of soldiers who refused to participate in the slaughter and his final target is a helicopter pilot named Kevin Green. Kevin was Brad’s mentor on his college tennis team and he is officially listed as missing in action. His name appeared on a manifest of returning prisoners at the conclusion of the war, but he never came home.

Brad unknowingly gets involved when a member of Tubb’s group, disguised as an Army official, contacts him looking for Kevin and his copilot, Dave Wentworth. Brad insists, sincerely, Kevin Green is dead and he is unaware of Wentworth’s location. After the imposter leaves, Brad telephones Wentworth at his Kansas home and gets an odd reaction. Dave is frightened and abruptly ends the call. A few days and several dozen unanswered telephone calls later, Brad travels to Kansas where he finds Dave dead, his throat slashed, in his apartment. Brad, feeling responsible for Dave’s death, decides to start an amateur investigation and finds himself Arnie’s primary target and a useful tool of the U.S. Army.

Double Fault is a nicely developed suspense novel. The pacing creates something of a funnel. The early scenes rolling along the top, progressing deeper and deeper, narrower and faster until its climactic finale. Mr. Bickham expertly stalls the details of the Vietnam massacre, particularly Kevin Green’s role, until the final scenes, which keeps both Brad and the reader off balance. The unknown factors, Arnie’s motive, Kevin Green’s role, generate believable tension and allow Brad to be played by all sides—Tubb’s group and the government (Army, F.B.I. and to a lesser extent C.I.A.) But what separates this novel from the others is its rendering of Vietnam’s long term impact on the soldiers who fought, in a larger than life manner, and the consequence, or responsibility, of friendship. Brad’s friendship with Kevin Green and his C.I.A. pal Collie Davis at its center.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

GOIN' by Jack M. Bickham

1971 was a big year for Jack M. Bickham.  He turned 41, published six novels, including his novel The Apple Dumpling Gang, and his much lesser known novel Goin’Goin’ is different than much of Mr Bickham’s work.  It is a mainstream novel.  Or at least something approaching a mainstream novel.  Perhaps a hybrid between a straight hippie novel and a modern western is more apt.   

The year is 1969.  Stan Pierce is 40, newly divorced—


—and going through a mid-life crisis.  His hair has grown to his collar, he purchased a little Honda 450 street bike, and as the novel opens Stan is headed for the road.  He has no clear destination, but he knows what is behind him; an ex-wife, a young daughter, and a seething personal unhappiness. 

Once on the road Stan joins two bikers who are short on cash, and he tags along to a farm outside the rural city of Kirkerville (likely Arizona, but it is never identified as such), and hires on as a fruit picker.  In Kirkerville he meets a young married woman named Elizabeth Faering.  She is everything he wants.  Young.  Beautiful.  Independent.  Free.  The two lovers concoct a future together, but the dream is interrupted by a fruit pickers’ strike.  A strike Stan agrees with, but a strike that is commandeered by a man who is less interested in getting the workers’ better pay and working conditions, and more interested in starting a revolution.

Goin’ is a pretty great novel.  It fits its time and place; think back to an age when motorcycle riders were considered hooligans, smoking reefer was an unconscionable sin, free love was the opposite of “up-tight”, and Eugene McCarthy was a saint of liberalism. 

The tension is generated both by plot—the strike and the population’s reaction to it—and Stan’s inner turmoil.  He is an everyman outsider.  He attempts to fit, but he is ostracized by Kirkerville’s residents as an outside agitator, it is not uncommon for him to be called a “pinko,” and the strikers, particularly his two friends, view him as a traitor.  His affair with Liz ends badly, although not unexpectedly, and it is written with a powerful simplicity, which makes Stan’s emotional pain visceral.

Goin’ was published as a paperback original by Paperback Library in July 1971, and to my knowledge it has never seen print again.  

This review originally went live April 4, 2014, and I've been thinking about it again the last few weeks. It is a very good novel that should have an audience.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Disposable People"

Disposable People was a paperback original published by Tower Books in 1980, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover successfully, if a bit psychotically, incorporates several elements in to a whole. The background is a spooky dark green and black, and how can you walk away from the doctor’s half face, half skull? The artist: Bob Larkin.

The opening paragraph:

“The somber-faced man in green stood at the lectern on the small stage, throat mike looped under his chin, watching the audience file in. There were about thirty men and half a dozen women, all wearing ordinary street clothes except for a sprinkling of military uniforms, and all with tense and solemn expressions. After they were seated the only sound in the auditorium was a whisper of chilled, filtered air being pumped six stories underground.”

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Mystery Scene Reviews: Issue No. 143

The latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine—No. 143—at a newsstand near you. The issue is packed (as usual). It features an in-depth article about Margaret Millar, an interview with T. J. MacGregor, and a nice article about Netflix’s Jessica Jones.

Issue No. 143 also includes three book reviews I wrote. The titles: Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman, Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce, and The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley. Where it Hurts is a powerful hardboiled neo-noir, Out of the Blues is a promising first novel police procedural, and The Good Goodbye is an entertaining psychological suspense novel. The reviews are available online at Mystery Scene’s website—click the book titles above.

Mystery Scene is available at many newsstands, including Barnes & Noble, and available for order at MS’s website.

Friday, March 04, 2016

No Comment: "Winesburg, Ohio - 'Sophistication'"

“In Winesburg the crowded day had run itself out into the long night of late fall. Farm houses jogged away along lonely country roads pulling their portion of weary people. Clerks began to bring samples of goods in off the sidewalks and lock the doors of stores. In the Opera House a crowd had gathered to see a show and further down Main Street the fiddlers, their instruments tuned, sweated and worked to keep the feet of youth flying over a dance floor.”

—Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio: “Sophistication”. Library of America, 2012. Page 176.

[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages 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.]