Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Gulf Stream"

Gulf Stream, by Cherokee Paul McDonald, was published as a paperback original by Popular Library in August 1988, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover art is wonderfully 1980s with vibrant pastels, pinks, greens and blues adding to a very Miami Vice feel. The artist: Ken Joudry.

The opening paragraph:
It was the face of the small boy that stayed with him.

Friday, December 22, 2017

WHEN OLD MEN DIE by Bill Crider

Bill Crider is best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery novels, but his work is not limited to any one genre or style. His Dan Rhodes mysteries are a mixture of hardboiled and whodunit with a touch of humor to keep it fresh. Mr. Crider also wrote a series of novels featuring part-time and usually unwilling private investigator Truman Smith. 

The third Truman Smith novel, When Old Men Die, finds Truman putting the disappearance and murder of his sister behind him. He has a steady job with a bail bondsman in Galveston, Texas, and as the novel opens he is approached by Dino, one of his oldest pals, to find a homeless man called Outside Harry.

Outside Harry is a fixture around town. One of a group of homeless that are there, but rarely seen and Truman is a little dubious of the whole setup. He can’t figure why Dino wants to find Outside Harry and Dino’s explanation that Harry was his friend doesn’t wash. But Smith owes Dino and he commits to look for Harry over the weekend. It takes only a few hours for Truman to find trouble followed by more trouble, until he has to either solve the case or get out of Galveston.

When Old Men Die is an entertaining story with all of Bill Crider’s trademarks—the mystery is tightly and superbly plotted, the characters are eccentric with muddy motives, and the humor is good natured and funny. The style and theme, or maybe the attitude, is more hardboiled than much of Mr. Crider’s current writing, but it works and works well. The setting is pitch-perfect. Galveston is described, both past and present, with nuanced detail by a writer who obviously knows and likes the city. The prose is lucid and smooth with enough bite to make it interesting:
There were three quick shots, two of them scoring the floor; the third one glanced of the flashlight and sent it spinning crazily.
One of my favorite details of the Truman Smith novels is his cat Nameless.  A name, or lack thereof, that is conspicuously similar to Bill Pronzini’s long running Nameless Detective series.  The best part, Nameless is a cat in every detail:
He’s big and yellowish orange, with gray-green eyes.  He took his time about entering.  He looked up at me as if to ask where I’d been all evening, then stretched and gawked and looked behind him before stepping daintily through the door.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017: The Year in Reading

2017 has been a great year for reading. I finished 54 titles, which is two short of last year’s mark and six shy of 2015’s. The majority of the titles were fiction and my nonfiction reading tumbled to a scant few books. 

I started 2017 with a single goal:
Read more non-fiction!
And failed miserably, and that same goal will be pushed forward into 2018.
My fiction reading is littered with the old and familiar. If there is an author in general, or a novel or story in particular, I like, I will read it over and over. While 2017’s reading was dominated by my obligations to Mystery Scene Magazine, I was still able to read some old favorites. I read four novels by Stephen Mertz, including his two latest titles Jimi After Dark and The Moses Deception and four novels by Australian author Garry Disher, all in his Hal Challis and Ellen Destry police procedural series. I re-read Don Pendleton’s Copp on Ice, Jack M. Bickham’s Dropshot (my sixth or seventh reading of this title), and Harrison Arnston’s The Third Illusion.
But I also read a bunch of authors new to me—21 in total—including impressive works by Jordan Harper (She Rides Shotgun), Nicole Lundrigan (The Substitute), Zane Lovitt (Black Teeth), Con Lehane (Murder in the Manuscript Room), and Stephen Gallagher (The Authentic William James).
And my reading list in 2017 featured a few favorites, which I whittled (with some difficulty) down to five titles. With that said, my five favorite fiction titles that I read in 2017 are:
5. The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, 2017), is an anthology featuring 73 stories with either a rogue or a villain as its protagonist. The stories included were written from the Victorian Age to modern times. And every story is perfectly suited for its inclusion. My favorite is Bruno Fischer’s dark masterpiece, “We Are All Dead”. Read the Mystery Scene review.
4. The Authentic William James, by Stephen Gallagher (Brooligan Press, 2017), is a historical crime novel with an honest, ethical, and compassionate detective—Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy—at its center. The story moves from London to Philadelphia to Hollywood, but no matter where the action takes place it is well written, well researched, and very entertaining.
3. Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales, by P. D. James (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), is a collection of previously uncollected stories. The stories have a different theme than much of James’ work since the focus tends to be on crimes that are executed so perfectly that they are never solved and every tale is worth reading. Read the Mystery Scene review.
2. She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper (Ecco, 2017), is a nourish masterpiece—ish, because there is a slender line of hope and redemption throughout—featuring a young girl, her fear, a teddy-bear, her convict father, and a drug gang on a path to both destruction and redemption. Read the Mystery Scene review.
1. Chain of Evidence, by Garry Disher (Soho Crime, 2008), is the fourth in his Hal Challis and Ellen Destry police procedural series set in the rural Mornington Peninsula southeast of Melbourne, Australia. Its theme is difficult, the abuse of children, but its execution is so precise, without ever falling into the salacious, that I didn’t want the last page to arrive. Read the Gravetapping review.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Bud Turley, called Bud Squirrelly by those who thought he had a lot of peculiar ideas, put the gigantic tooth down on Sheriff Dan Rhodes’s desk and said, ‘I want you to take custody of this tooth, Sheriff’
With that opening, the very essence of both A Mammoth Murder and Bill Crider’s character Sheriff Dan Rhodes is laid bare: humorous, witty and entertaining. A Mammoth Murder was originally published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Press, and it is the 13th mystery to feature Blacklin County Sheriff Dan Rhodes.
Bud Turley found the tooth in Blacklin County’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. A patch of dark timbered country called “Big Woods,” which is home to a mean-spirited pack of wild hogs, rattle snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and rumors of Bigfoot. Turley is certain the tooth he found belongs to the latter and he wants Sheriff Rhodes to protect it until an expert—a local community college teacher—can look at it the next day.
A report of a dead body in Big Woods interrupts Rhodes’s enjoyment of the tooth. The dead man is Bud Turley’s best (and only) friend Larry Colley whose body is discovered alarmingly close to where Bigfoot’s tooth was found. The death toll rises when an elderly shopkeeper is found dead in her store. Rhodes is certain the murders are connected, but he is continually bothered by a feeling of missing something both important and obvious.
A Mammoth Murder is a charming, sly, and entertaining novel. The mystery is quirky and sincere. The dialogue is sharp and genuinely funny; most of it coming from the mouths of Rhodes’s dispatcher and jailer, Hack and Lawton. The two jab at each ferociously and enjoy, more than just a little, playing with Rhodes’s patience.
The story is bolstered by a colorful cast—Bigfoot hunters, amateur crime writers, a local newspaper reporter better at her job than Rhodes would like, and Rhodes’s wife Ivy, who put him on a low fat diet and knows nothing about his daily Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Not to mention Hack and Lawton.        
The mystery is great, too. There are enough red herrings to keep the reader interested, and just enough action to make it exciting. Even better, there is something of a cold case thrown in—a young boy was killed in Big Woods ten years earlier, and Sheriff Rhodes is certain it is connected with the two recent killings—and the resolution is very satisfying.

Friday, December 15, 2017


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 country’s 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, December 14, 2017

"Top of the World" by Bill Crider

A little more than a week ago, Bill Crider announced he was entering hospice care after battling cancer the last eighteen months. I’ve never met Bill, but I’ve read his work, followed his blog, exchanged emails with him here and there, and feel like I know him. Over the years Ive read dozens of Bills stories, novels and shorts alike, and one has always stayed with me. And here is a review I wrote for that story all the way back in 2009. 
The date is never clarified in Bill Crider’s story “Top of the World”, but its setting is a dusty town in 1950s or 1960s Texas. The protagonist is a mechanic with dreams. He wants his own shop and maybe even a car dealership. But his dreams require money. And money is something Sam Cobb, a middle-aged man who robs banks less for the money and more for the robbing, can help with.
On a summer day, Sam finds the protagonist—a young mechanic whose name is never told—in the small-time auto shop where he works. Sam has a robbery planned and he wants the mechanic to do the driving, but a feeling of unease settles on the protagonist when he learns Sam has gone in with a woman.
At least until he meets her. 
Vicky is older, beautiful with sizzling red hair, a wildcat style and an insatiable appetite for men. The mechanic and Vicky hit it off after that first heist and then start a regular thing. Sam warns him off the lady, but the youngster doesn’t listen. 
“Top of the World” is a swift and twisted throwback of a tale. It has the feel, pacing, and style of a 1950s Gold Medal novel boiled down to 5,000 words. A femme fatale story twisted sideways, turned upside down and shaken. Beautiful and hard with a smooth, dusty and melancholy prose: 
He shook his head again. He didn’t look mad, just kind of sick, or maybe just sad, and he turned and left the garage, settling his hat down carefully on his head.
The narrative is first person, but executed in a way that allows an emotional distance, for the reader and narrator both, from the story. This created distance turns down the story’s suspense, and Crider brilliantly replaces it with the bittersweet melancholy of time’s passage. A feeling of old and new all at once.
“Top of the World” is the real deal. It is literate, beautiful and dark. It showcases Crider’s broad range as a writer—it is nothing like his Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels—his grasp of human psychology and, above all else, is entertaining as all hell.
Bill Crider’s “Top of the World” appeared in the anthology Flesh & Blood: Dark Desires. I read it in The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Vol. 4.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Garry Disher Interview

I have a brand-new interview with Garry Disher, the guy who gave us professional criminal Wyatt and the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry police procedural novels, live and available at Mystery Scene Magazine’s website. To whet your appetite, here are the first two paragraphs:
If you haven’t heard of Australian author Garry Disher, you’re not alone. While Disher’s two character-driven crime series set in Australia have dedicated readers from around the globe, the prolific writer remains sorely underappreciated in the United States.
Signal Loss, the seventh in Australian author Garry Disher’s series of character-driven procedurals featuring the taciturn and solitary Inspector Hal Challis makes its way to American shelves this December. The series has been called “excellent” by the New York Times Book Review and “moody, inventive, and extremely hard to put down,” by Booklist. The gritty cop novels set on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula have been compared favorably to other procedural series by Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and Peter Robinson.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Avalanche Express"

Avalanche Express, by Colin Forbes, was originally published as a hardcover by E. P. Dutton & Co. in 1977, the edition that caught my eye is Fawcett Crest mass market paperback published in 1979. It is the movie tie-in edition for the film directed by Mark Robson, starring Lee Marvis and Robert Shaw. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first sentence:

It was a Wednesday—dangerous Wednesday—and as always the first Wednesday in the month.
Colin Forbes is a pseudonym for the late-Raymond Harold Sawkins (1923 – 2006). A British writer of adventure novels similar in tone and style to Alistair MacLean.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

QUARRY'S CLIMAX by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Climax, the fourteenth title in Max Allan Collins’ revitalized Quarry series, is set in the Highland Strip area of Memphis in the autumn of 1975. The Memphis setting is a “hat tip” to the Cinemax television series based on the novels, which relocated Quarry from his literary Midwest roots to the birthplace of the blues. Quarry, a contract killer, is given the unusual assignment of stopping a hit on Max Climer. Climer is a strip club owner that expanded his business to publish the very adult and very raunchy Climax Magazine, and someone wants him very dead.
Quarry’s business agent, The Broker, is an investor in Climer’s enterprises and he wants Quarry to thwart the hit, and then determine who ordered it. The list of potential suspects is long. Climer is a target of women’s rights groups, religious groups, and business rivals. The Broker sends Quarry undercover as a security consultant, which gives him free access to Climer’s offices and the strip joint below, The Climax Club. The music is blaring, the girls are willing, and Quarry is his cool, composed self.
Quarry’s Climax is a smoothly entertaining tale with sex—Quarry attracts strippers like johns to hookers—violence, and a road map of mid-1970s music. The linear story is told with a stripped-down style, almost like a beer bar chat between reader and Quarry, and plotted with enough twists to keep the pages turning. But it is Quarry, his self-deprecating coolness, dry humor and 1970s social commentary (with a tour guide quality), that makes this one worth reading.