Wednesday, June 29, 2016

DRY STONE WALLS by Robert J. Randisi

Truxton—“My parents named me after a highway sign”—Lewis is a retired NYPD Captain of Detectives. He is a young 62, and using his retirement to travel the United States by housesitting—

“Mature Male Available for Housesitting, Non-Smoker, No Pets, Widower.”

Tru gets free lodging, and the traveling homeowners get reassurance their house is safe. Tru is on a job in rural Kentucky when he discovers the nearly lost art of dry stone walls; rock walls with no mortar. Max Beasley, a curmudgeonly old-timer, is the only local mason who still constructs the walls. Max agrees to take Tru as apprentice, but Tru’s job description changes when he arrives at the job site and a portion of the wall has been knocked down, and even more strangely, Max is not there.

It turns out Max is in jail for the murder of a land developer whose body was found beneath the collapsed stones of the wall. Max had refused to sell his property, and the developer tried multiple methods of persuasion, including physical intimidation. Methods Max didn’t like. Tru is convinced Max is innocent of the crime, and he spends the rest of the novel proving it.

Dry Stone Walls is the first in a promising new series. It is a comfortable whodunit rich with dialogue, a likeable protagonist, small-town paranoia—of outsiders like Tru—and a cast of oddball characters; a local Sheriff who allows Max’s temporary escape from county jail, an old woman wanting to help Max get “off the hook,” without “puttin’ [herself] on it!” and a bookkeeper who is a gin rummy prodigy.

The mystery is also good. There is enough going on the keep things interesting; an FBI agent working undercover at the murdered man’s office, and the local residents’ unwillingness to give Tru an honest answer. The killer is identified earlier than expected, but a satisfying twist in the final pages keeps things interesting.

This review originally appeared at Ed Gorman’s blog on July 21, 2015. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "A Grue of Ice"

A Grue of Ice was published in the U. K. in 1962 as a hardcover, and it was released in the U. S. that same year with the title The Disappearing Island. The edition that caught my eye is a mass market published by Fontana in 1973. The art is vivid. It features a bright single engine float plane in the foreground and shadowy warship in a gray background. The artist: Chris Foss.

The opening paragraph:

“‘Drake Passage!’”

Geoffrey Jenkins was a second tier adventure writer during the genre’s golden age—1950s to the 1980s—which means his work, on average, was good, but a step below the genre’s best. His work is comparable to Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins, and Gavin Lyall. He was South African, and, according to Wikipedia, he wrote the first James Bond novel after Ian Fleming’s death, which was never published and is presumed lost.

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster defines “grue” as—1. “a fit of shivering…” and 2. “gruesome quality or effect”

This is a reprint of a post that originally went live November 22, 2014. It's been particularly busy at my house the last few weeks and the blog has been suffering. There will be new content soon. 

This is the tenth in a series of posts featuring the cover art ad 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 08, 2016

BRANDED by Ed Gorman

“He wanted to build himself a cigarette, but his hands were covered with the woman’s blood. There was something vile about cigarette paper soaked with blood.”

Rough Edges Press continues its revival of Ed Gorman’s classic western novels with its ebook release of Branded. Branded was originally published as a paperback original in 2004 by Berkley and didn’t get the play it deserved, but, thanks to this reissue it has and opportunity of reaching a larger audience.

Andy Malloy is nineteen and preoccupied by the daydreams of youth. Andy, Sir Andrew as he is known in the realm, imagines himself a knight of King Arthur’s Court where he is brave, just, and admired. But his reality is much different. He works as a store clerk, his father is a drunk, and his stepmother, Eileen, is petty and unfaithful. Arriving home from work Andy discovers Eileen lying dead on the couch, a gunshot wound to her forehead. His father, Tom, is the obvious suspect and Andy hides the body until Tom convinces Andy he isn’t the killer. The only problem is the Sheriff, a hard man with a reputation for beating and killing suspects, doesn’t believe any of it.

Branded is a superior western novel. It is a heady mixture of character, plot and action. Populated by real people who act and behave, at different times, both rationally and irrationally. A town gossip whose only joy is causing trouble, a violent lawman with a suspicious background, a town drunk whose personal frailty and desire for respect is painful, an isolated woman with a burned face. And townspeople who do their best to ignore it. The plot is closer to crime, shadows of serial killings no less, than a traditional western and there is a satisfying, and surprising, climactic twist. But it is also appealing as a traditional western and readers of both genres will find much to like here.              

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Publicity Push: Garry Disher's Wyatt Novels

Garry Disher is my favorite Australian crime writer. I first discovered his work in the mid-1990s when his publisher, Allen & Unwin, imported the first five Wyatt novels to the United States as mass market paperbacks. Their appearance was brief and they have been highly sought after, and very pricey—ranging from $30 to $100—on the secondary market since.

Wyatt is a professional criminal in the mold of Richard Stark’s Parker, but the stories are anything but derivative. They are hard, original, and more fun than nearly anything I have ever read. Mr. Disher’s U. S. publisher, Soho Crime, has published three Wyatt novels over the past few years—Port Vila Blues, The Fallout, and a new title Wyatt—but the earlier books have continued to be difficult to find. Until now, because the titles are finally available as ebooks. 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.  

Publisher’s description: Wyatt plans to hit a suburban law firm for the settlement money in its safe. But he’s working with cowboys, and the lawyer planning to rip off her boss is a little too mysterious for his comfort. Wyatt’s as good as they come, but everything needs to go like clockwork—and you can’t always plan around human frailty.

First paragraph: Wyatt tensed. A silver BMW had emerged from the driveway of the Frome place. The headlights plunged, then levelled, as the car entered Lansell Road. Wyatt counted heads: Frome driving, wife next to him, kids in the back. He checked the time—8 p.m.—and watched the BMA disappear in the direction of Toorak Road.

Publisher’s description: This time it’s a payroll and bank run in the north of South Australia, an outpost town suddenly transformed by a pipeline construction project that brings petty crime, prostitution—and opportunity. It’s a town with its own secrets and Wyatt isn’t quick to trust at the best of times. But he’s on the run and he can’t afford to be choosy.

First paragraph: The work was dirty, the little town a joke, but Wyatt was interested only in the advantages—they didn’t know who he was, there were no cops, and no one was expecting a payroll snatch.

Publisher’s description: After the heists gone wrong in Kickback and Paydirt, Wyatt is further down on his luck and deeper in with the Outfit, a network of organised criminals whose attention he’s tried hard to avoid. A risky job in a Brisbane bank and the return of a femme fatale add further complications to Wyatt’s increasingly desperate situation and force him to decide who he is and who he cares about.

First paragraph: There were two of them and they came in hard and fast. They knew where the bed was and flanked it as Wyatt rolled onto his shoulder and grabbed at the backpack on the dusty carpet. He had his hand on the .38 in the side pocket and was swinging it up, finger tightening, when the cosh smacked across the back of his wrist. It was lead bound in cowhide and his arm went slack and useless. Then he felt it across his skull and he forgot about his hand and who the men were and how they’d known where to find him and everything else about it.

Publisher’s description: Wyatt made some powerful enemies in his first three outings, and the time has come to confront them. But we know by now that Wyatt’s revenge won’t be showy, impetuous and futile; it will be pragmatic, elaborate—and still possibly futile. He holes up in Sydney, preparing to return home to Melbourne to play his enemies against each other in a dangerous double-cross that will tear down the notions of loyalty and obligation.

First paragraph: The stranger appeared just after lunch on day one of Wyatt’s operation against the Mesics. He was driving a red Capri, soft top down, and Wyatt watched him park it against the kerb, unfold from the car, stride to the compound gates and bend his face to the intercom grille in the brick pillar. MESIC was spelled out in shiny red tiles above the intercom and Wyatt saw the stranger touch the name as though to draw luck from it. Then the gates jerked, swung open, and the man stepped through the gap. He was about thirty, and he had the raw-nerved, hole-and-corner look of a man who exists on coffee and whispers. Wyatt put that together with the car, the costly jacket and the jeans, and speculated that here was someone who made profit for the Mesics and profited by them.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Jack Higgins' Paul Chavasse: A Cold War Spy

This is the first two parts of a three part series about Harry Patterson’s Paul Chavasse novels, published in the 1960s by Abelard-Schuman and John Long.  The first two parts are an introduction to the character, and the third part is an analysis of the six titles to feature Paul Chavasse.  This essay was originally posted July 2, 2012.

Paul Chavasse:  An Introduction to the Cold War Spy Story
I.       Introduction
The 1960s were a decade of espionage—both in cold war machinations of super power maneuvering and popular fiction.  The popular front of the adventure spy story started when it was made public President John F. Kennedy enjoyed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.  According to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum website, Allen Dulles, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated:
“‘Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband his first James Bond book (probably From Russia, with Love).’  Dulles then began to buy other books, and sent them to John F. Kennedy.”
Ian Fleming’s work became a sensation, hitting the major bestseller lists and, in the decades since, becoming a pop culture icon; spawning a myriad of films and, after Fleming’s death, attracting authors great and small to continue the Bond series.  While the James Bond series is the most well known of the adventure spy genre, it is far from the best.  The most striking of its contemporaries was Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels—a series first appearing in 1960 with Death of a Citizen, and totaling 27 titles in its three decade run.  
In industry, and publishing is no different, when a commercial strike is made—in this case the rise of Fleming from midlist writer to bestselling phenomenon—a host of copycat products are rushed to market.  One of the many spy novels published in the wake of Fleming’s success was a slim volume published by Abelard-Schuman, a British publisher, in 1962 titled The Testament of Caspar Schultz (Testament).  The name on the copy was Martin Fallon, which was a pseudonym for a young Harry Patterson. 

The name Martin Fallon and Harry Patterson have a long and successful history.  Martin Fallon was used for the protagonist of two separate novels—the first was an early title, Cry of the Hunter, which was published in 1962 under Patterson’s own name, and the second was A Prayer for the Dying published in 1973 as by Jack Higgins.  Mr. Patterson has a tendency to repeat himself, and he did something very similar to the two incarnations of Martin Fallon: He killed both.  The novels are both very good, but A Prayer for the Dying is one of Patterson’s best.

II.    Chavasse
Testament featured a stark and hard protagonist named Paul Chavasse.  Chavasse was a former academic who caught the eye of Mallory, the boss of a British espionage agency answerable to the Prime Minister called “The Bureau,” when he helped a friend escape from Communist Czechoslovakia.  Mallory, known as “The Chief,” offered Chavasse a job while he was in hospital recovering from his wounds.  The Bureau is headquartered in an old house in St. John’s Wood—on a polished brass plate next to its main door is inscribed “Brown & Company – Importer’s & Exporter’s”.
Paul Chavasse is a recognizable character to readers of Harry Patterson; educated, exotic—he was derived from a Breton father and British mother—cynical in a romantic sort of way, and tired of the game he can’t, or really doesn’t want, to leave.  Chavasse’s personal life is not really explored in the novels; however, a paragraph from Testament summarizes his early life, in order to explain his French name—
“My father was a lawyer in Paris, but my mother was English.  He was an officer in the reserve—killed at Arras when the Panzers broke through in 1940.  I was only eleven at the time.  My mother and I came out through Dunkirk.”
The novels are serious adventure stories, but there is some humor.  Enough that it seems Patterson likely had a great time writing the Paul Chavasse novels.  An early scene in Testament finds The Chief explaining why Chavasse can’t have some much needed time off.  When Chavasse asks about two specific agents—Wilson and LaCosta—Mallory responds that Wilson is presumed dead in Ankara, and LaCosta—
“…cracked up after the affair in Cuba.  I’ve put him into the home for six months….I’m afraid we shan’t be able to use LaCosta again.”
Another example is a line from the 2001 edition of The Keys of Hell, where two characters are speaking of Chavasse’s excessive skill as a linguist, “He speaks more languages than you’ve had hot dinners.”
The Bureau is set up similarly to that of Fleming’s MI6.  The Chief is over the top and larger than life, and very, very British, and his private secretary, Jean Frazer, is all curves and someone Chavasse quite enjoys looking at—
“She was wearing a plain white blouse and tweed skirt of deceptively simple cut that moulded her round hips.  His eyes followed her approvingly as she walked across the room to her desk and sat down.” 
While his eyes are appreciative, Chavasse is anything but a womanizer, and his relationship with Jean Frazer is that of a friend.  Chavasse, like most of Patterson’s protagonists, has a romanticized view of women, which is often both a strength and weakness, but it always lends itself to the character’s loneliness—he is an outsider, isolated from a society that depends on his work to survive, and often a gentleman people look upon as fallen far below his stature. 
Chavasse always gets the job done and he does it with a complex mixture of larger than life exploit and human frailty; a mixture and style only Harry Patterson can routinely employ successfully.  It is atmosphere, dialogue and action.  When in top form Patterson can tell a character’s story with the singularity of the way he smokes a cigarette, stirs his drink, or looks at a woman.  The six novels to feature Paul Chavasse are a step below Patterson’s best work, but only just.

Part III.  Novels

1.  The Testament of Caspar Schultz (1962)

2.  Year of the Tiger (1963)
3.  The Keys of Hell (1965)
4.  Midnight Never Comes (1966)
5.  Dark Side of the Street (1967)

To be continued...