Tuesday, January 22, 2019

AT FIRST SIGHT by Stephen J. Cannell


Stephen J. Cannell’s fourteenth novel, At First Sight, received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released in 2008.  Publishers’ Weekly called it “disappointing,” and Booklist said it “might be his best novel yet.”  After reading it this past weekend I’m leaning more towards Booklist’s opinion than PW’s.  
Chick Best is a self-made millionaire.  He hit it big with an Amazon-type Internet company, but the good days are gone.  Now he is stuck with an expensive weight lifting wife, an angry drug addicted daughter, and selling his company for pennies on the dollar.  And worst, he is losing his credentials—the envy his wealth and possessions generates in others.  Suffice it to say Chick is a pathetically shallow man.
Chick and his family vacations in Maui each Christmas, and Chick’s dead end trajectory gets a lift when he spots the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  The woman is soft in that feminine way and gorgeous, which is the complete opposite of his hard body wife who spends more time discussing abs, quads, workout programs, and scowling (at least at Chick) than anything else.   
He immediately formulates a plan to meet the woman (Paige Ellis), who is married to a likable old money school teacher who is more concerned with learning disabled children than wealth.  A mind set Chick finds confusing and annoying.  The two couples become friends during the week, and when the vacation is over Chick can’t get Paige Ellis out of his mind.  On a New York business trip he detours to the Ellis’s North Carolina home where he begins his plan to win Paige.
At First Sight is written in both first and third person.  There are three acts—the first is narrated by Chick alone, the second is narrated by both Chick in first person and Paige in third person, and the third is narrated by Paige in first person and Chick in third person.  The changing perspective creates tension and builds doubt between the reader and Chick.  Chick is a sympathetic narrator in the first act, but as the reader is exposed to additional information from outside it becomes clear Chick is untrustworthy.
While Chick may be less than honest, his portions of the novel are pure gold.  He narrates with a snarky wit, which is funny in the first half of the novel, but as his true character is revealed it becomes ominous.  He turns out to be such a loathsome character I found myself uncomfortable with my original opinion of both him and his and wit; as though liking him in the early stages of the novel illuminated something unsavory about my own character.
At First Sight is pretty terrific.  It is a fast moving story, which is cleverly plotted and told with a flash bang style and wit.  There are moments Chick’s narrative is laugh out loud funny—particularly when he is describing his daughter, wife, and his wife’s trainer Mickey D:
I let it happen, though, because I didn’t think in four days Evelyn would be able to turn Paige’s softness into the kind of anatomical gristle that she had struggled so hard to achieve for herself.
At First Sight is the best of the handful of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels I have read, and it’s a shame he didn’t write fewer of his Shane Scully novels and more like this.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Farewell, My Lovely"

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler, needs no introduction from me, but here it is anyway. The second novel to feature Philip Marlowe was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1940. The edition that caught my eye, and for more reasons than the cover (see the inscription on the title page below), is the 1976 mass market published by Vintage Books. The artist: Richard Waldrep

















The first paragraph:
It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home.


But its the inscription that sold me the book:

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

2018: The Year in Reading



2018 was a great year for reading. I finished, and this is an amazing number for me, 64 titles, which is nine more than last year’s mark and eight more than 2016’s. The majority of the titles were fiction, but I did increase my nonfiction intake significantly over last year, which is good because my only reading goal for 2018 was:
Read more non-fiction!
Whew. I love it when a plan comes together. 
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 my fiction reading in 2018 was dominated by my obligations to Mystery Scene Magazine—thirty titles, novels, collections, and anthologies, plus a bunch of magazines, which aren’t included in my reading totals (and that may change in 2019)—I was still able to read some old favorites. I read two novels by Stephen Mertz, including his excellent private eye novel, Say it Was Murder, the first Wyatt novel, Kickback, for the second time by Australian author Garry Disher. I re-read Jack M. Bickham’s Overhead (my fourth or fifth reading of this title), and Ed Gorman’s The Day the Music Died
But I also read a bunch of authors new to me—25 in total—including impressive works by Richard Prosch (Peregrine Returns), J. Michael Orenduff (The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey), Matt Wesolowski (Hydra), Linwood Barclay (A Noise Downstairs), Steve Goble (The Devil’s Wind), Joe Ide (Wrecked), Helene Tursten (An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good), Graeme Macrea Burnet (The Accident on the A35), Henry Kane (Frenzy of Evil), and Ralph Dennis (Atlanta Deathwatch and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town).
And my reading list in 2018 featured a few titles that rose to the top, which I skimmed (with some difficulty) down to five titles. With that said, my five favorite fiction titles that I read in 2018 are (and in no particular order):
·         The Red Scarf, by Gil Brewer, is pure, wonderful noir, about a man with a penchant for losing. And his every decision assures him a disastrous fate. Look for a more detailed discussion of this title in an upcoming feature at Mystery Scene Magazine’s website.

·         The Charleston Knife is Back in Town, by Ralph Dennis, is the second outing for former disgraced Atlanta police officer, and unlicensed P.I. Jim Hardman. A seamless tale in the vein of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, but with a working class vibe. Look for a more detailed discussion of this title in an upcoming feature at Mystery Scene Magazine’s website.

·         An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, by Swedish writer Helene Tursten, is a collection of five tales with octogenarian Maude doing what she does best, murdering her neighbors for some well-deserved peace and quiet. I reviewed this title for my review column, “Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered”, and you can read it at Mystery Scene’s website.

·         Wrecked, is Joe Ide’s third novel featuring private eye and general good guy, IQ. A furious and fun private eye novel that is as much thriller as anything else. You can read my review at Mystery Scene.

·         Say It Was Murder, by Stephen Mertz, is a private eye novel for the 21st century. Stylish, modern, and it turns a trope or two upside down. Read my Gravetapping review.
And here are a few honorable mentions. Hydra, by Matt Wesolowski, Word of Honor, by Nelson DeMille, Rape: A Love Story, by Joyce Carol Oates, The Peacemaker, by Andrew McBride, The Devil’s Wind, by Steve Goble, Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors, by Christopher Fowler, and Frenzy of Evil, by Henry Kane.


Sunday, January 06, 2019

THE LAWBRINGERS by Brian Garfield


Another older review of an early Brian Garfield western novel. Mr. Garfield passed away, after a years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, on December 29, 2018. When I have a hole in my reading list I’m going to read a couple of his suspense novels, but until then, here is a review of The Lawbringers.
The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, the bad guys are too bad, and the natives are one-dimensional cutouts. The townsfolk—the common working class—are portrayed as stupid, weak, or both. 
In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. There have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10 percent that separates a viable genre from a dead one and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the novels published today.
An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, Ace, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.
The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in an unexpected way. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.
The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not the end justified the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less an end to his jurisdiction and more an artificial line to be ignored.
Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr. Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but he hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.
The Lawbringers manages to does all that and also tell an exciting and tight tale. It has a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis of right and wrong. It has a conscience without being limited or judged by that conscience. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10 percent, which has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.

Friday, January 04, 2019

CALL ME HAZARD by Brian Garfield


Brian Garfield died on December 29, 2018. He was a wonderful writer and storyteller. He started as a western writer, many of his early westerns were published in hardcover by Avalon and then republished in paperback by Ace, as doubles and sometimes as singles. He also wrote several original novels for Ace, and here is an older review, originally written in 2009, for one such title, Call Me Hazard.
It has been a summer of great older stuff at my house, and one of the fascinations I developed is the work of Brian Garfield. I read a handful of his novels and reviewed two—Necessity and Fear in a Handful of Dust. My latest Garfield experience is a Western he wrote for the ACE Double line titled Call Me Hazard. It was published as by Frank Wynne in 1966 (M-138 with The Rincon Trap by Dean Owen), and while it isn’t the top of his work it is pretty damn good.
Jason Hazard is a hard case. He isn’t a bad man, nor is he the type who looks for trouble, but nonetheless he is hard, silent, and (when he needs to be) violent. He is also a mystery—the people around him respect and admire him, but Hazard always holds back. When he left his successful mine, and the town of Stinking Springs, Arizona, he didn’t tell many why. He just left and there were a few who took exception to his absence.
Hazard is back in Stinking Springs, but he doesn’t find a warm welcome. There is a new mine owner in town. A man named Vic Olsen who has a long history with Jason—it goes back to their teenage years—and his major ambition in life is ruining Jason’s. The other major mine owners in town are all having trouble too. The place seems jinxed. There have been an abundance of cave-ins and payroll robberies, and most of the owners are contemplating selling out and moving on.
The foreman of the largest operation has gone missing and the local law—a tiny man named Owney Nash, who is owned by the new player—thinks Hazard did it. Hazard hasn’t seen the foreman since he left years earlier, but as he walks into Stinking Springs all hell breaks loose and he will need the few friends he has left in town to survive.
Call Me Hazard is an early example of Garfield’s work. His trademarks are all there—the tight and controlled suspense, the crisp dialogue and competent and literate writing—but it isn’t as sharp or developed as his later work. The story is larger than the space allowed. The plot is tricky and Garfield does well at packing it in to 126 pages, but it would have worked better with more room and run time.
With that said, Call Me Hazard is really entertaining. It is a traditional Western with everything from hired guns, to nefariously beautiful women, and cold-blooded murder. It even has a few humorous names, of which Hazard and Stinking Springs are only two. The lead is a stolid and quiet man who isn’t a hired gun or even a loner. He left Stinking Springs for a reason and everyone who knows why he left is more than glad to see him back.
There is one particular scene—the first major showdown between the protagonist and the villain—that is as suspenseful as any scene in a successful suspense novel, which is Brian Garfield’s calling card. His work, no matter the genre, is plotted to ratchet the suspense from scene-to-scene and Call Me Hazard is no different. It is early and a little too short, but it is all entertainment and a fine example of how good—even at the age of 27, which is how old Garfield was when he wrote Call Me Hazard—Brian Garfield is.

Piccadilly Publishing has released a few of Brian Garfield’s early, pulpy, western novels as low-priced e-books over the past several months, including Mr. Sixgun, The Night it Rained Bullets, and The Bravos. Also available, from Mysterious Press, are some of Garfield’s later western novels: Manifest Destiny, Wild Times, Tripwire, Sliphammer, and many others.