Saturday, July 13, 2019

SHERLOCK HOLMES: ZOMBIES OVER LONDON by Stephen Mertz


I have always wanted to hear Sherlock Holmes say—

“Zombies.” and “The undead.”

—but I didn’t know it until I read those words in Stephen Mertz’s Sherlock Holmes: Zombies Over London. It features, as the title suggests, Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless detective Sherlock Holmes. It is, as are the bulk of Conan Doyle’s original stories, narrated by Dr. John Watson and the narration is close to perfect – the cadence, noun and verb selection, characterization, and setting very much capture the feel and time of the original stories.

It opens with a punch. Holmes and Watson are inflight aboard the futuristic military dirigible Blackhawk, approaching Castle Moriarty to rescue Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan, from the clutches of Professor Moriarty. Moriarty kidnapped Mary as a form of extortion to keep Holmes and Watson from investigating his most recent criminal endeavor. An enterprise Holmes knows nothing about, except Moriarty’s plan to auction off its results, whatever it is, to the highest bidder. The two men jump from the dirigible, a “flight enabler” – very much like a hang glider – strapped to their backs, landing safely on the roof of the castle. Once on the castle they notice a group of empty-eyed workers loading wagons in a precise, rigid manner; to Watson’s confusion, and incredulity, Holmes labels the workers as zombies. And Moriarty, always the master criminal, has more than zombies in his plans.

Sherlock Holmes: Zombies Over London is a hybrid adventure and detective novel. Its mystery is genuinely interesting. It features more than one nicely turned sub-plot, which effectively adds texture and confusion to the primary mystery without cheating. Its cast is unique and includes H. G. Wells and a teenage Albert Einstein. There are several scenes that display Mr. Mertz’s keen ability to develop action in a sparse, believable manner without losing the voice and tone of a Sherlock Holmes story. It is an impressive display of storytelling. It captures the essence of Conan Doyle’s stories while being wholly original, and it is a showcase of Mr. Mertz’s range as both storyteller and writer. And, it is damn fun.


Monday, July 08, 2019

Circus Mysteries & Men of Violence

I’ve been pushing my own stuff too frequently the past few weeks, both here and at Gravetapping’s Facebook page, but—and please forgive me—I wanted to tell you about a couple non-fiction pieces that are available out in the big bad world.


The first is a feature article I wrote for Mystery Scene Magazine—it even made the cover!—about mysteries with a circus or carnival as a central element. A subgenre that has long intrigued me for the simple reason that I love the illusion and mystery of traveling amusements. The article, titled “Hey Rube! The Mystery is at the Circus”, is far from an in-depth study of this type of mystery since I limit my scope to four novels: Slow Dollar, by Margaret Maron; Catch a Falling Clown, by Stuart Kaminsky; Blood and Circuses, by Kerry Greenwood; and The Death of Anton, by Alan Melville.

The second is a half-dozen reviews I wrote for adventure novels that have been included in the fanzine, Men of Violence, in its all reviews edition. It’s an attractive paperback with more than 100 reviews and 90 pages. My entries are: Sad Wind from the Sea, by Jack Higgins, Wrath of the Lion, by Jack Higgins, East of Desolation, by Jack Higgins, The Guns of Navarone, by Alistair MacLean, Terror’s Cradle, by Duncan Kyle, and High Stand, by Hammond Innes. The other reviews included in this issue look even more intriguing (maybe because I didn't write them).


Thursday, July 04, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Deathwatch"

Deathwatch, by Elleston Trevor, was published as a hardcover by Beaufort Books in 1985, but the edition that caught my eye was the Star Book (imprint of W. H. Allen & Co.) mass market edition. The cover says everything. The artist: unknown (to me at least)






















The first paragraph:

The snow came drifting in massive silence across the Lenin Hills, blown from the north and spreading rumpled ermine over the city, torn here and there by the spikes of the church steeples and jeweled by the street lamps, with the gold domes of the Kremlin burning against the black horizon to the south.

Elleston Trevor is best remembered as the author of The Flight of the Phoenix (1964), which has been translated to film twice, and his alter ego, Adam Hall, who penned a number of significant adventure and spy stories, including the Quiller books.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Paul Bishop Presents...Pattern of Behavior: Ten Tales of Murder & Mayhem


It’s been far too long since I’ve had a story published, but a few days ago saw my short story, “No Chips, No Bonus”, published in the excellent Paul Bishop edited anthology, Pattern of Behavior: Ten Tales of Murder & Mayhem.

Included in the anthology are stories by Paul Bishop, Eric Beetner, Nicholas Cain, Brian Drake, Christine Matthews, L.J. Martin, Richard Prosch, Robert Randisi, and Nicole Nelson-Hicks.

A group of writers I’m proud to share the table of contents with.

My tale features a down and out former FBI agent and current border town casino trouble-shooter named Jimmy Ford. He’s pulled into investigating a successful, if small, casino heist and the only constant is, he can’t trust anyone. Here’s the opening paragraph:

I was awakened by Bobby Helms singing “Jingle Bell Rock.” An ironic ringtone because it was July and the only jingling I’d heard in months was the simulated sound of coins cascading from slots that were programmed tighter than a billionaire’s wallet.

Pattern of Behavior is available as a Kindle exclusive in ebook—for a meager $0.99 or for Kindle Unlimited—and as a trade paperback everywhere books are sold.



As a sort of post script, I have a short-short story—an ironic and (hopefully) humorous Western—titled, “Reprobate”, free to read right here at Gravetapping.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

OVERKILL by Vanda Symon


Vanda Symon’s Overkill, featuring Constable Sam Shephard, first appeared in Symon’s native New Zealand in 2007 and the series has since run to five books. But this edition of Overkill is both Symon’s and Shephard’s first appearance in the United States. Shephard is a “sole-charge” police constable in the rural town of Mataura, in the Southland Region of New Zealand. A place where everybody knows everybody else. The economy is based on cattle ranching and beef processing, and serious crime is something on television news rather than a real-life experience.

When Gabriella Knowes is reported missing, leaving her young daughter unattended at home and a suicide note on the kitchen table, Sam takes the initiative and organizes a search party. Sam quickly finds Gaby’s body washed up on a river bank. At first glance, Gaby’s death is a suicide, but as Sam investigates, it becomes clear Gaby was murdered. To further complicate things, Sam is removed from the case, suspended from her job, and treated like a suspect in Gaby’s murder. All because Sam didn’t tell her boss that she and Gaby’s husband, Lockie, were lovers before he married Gaby.

Overkill is an entertaining, but flawed first novel. Among its many strengths are the depictions of small town life. The rumors and comraderies, the finger-pointing and rivalries. Sam is a likable and relatable character, but she is often more whiny than she is tough. The novel’s major flaw is the Prologue because it shows the reader what really happened to Gabby. It undercuts the potential suspense since it takes Sam half the story to catch up with what the reader already knows. But Overkill’s flaws are easy to overlook because the how of Gaby’s murder is less important than the why, and, for this non-ranching city reader at least, the why is a wild and satisfying concoction.


Saturday, June 08, 2019

A TALENT FOR KILLING by Ralph Dennis (Coming Soon)

This is good news. Brash Books is bringing out a brand new Ralph Dennis novel with an intriguing history. A Talent for Killing is two novels combined into a single narrative. The first novel, Deadman’s Game, features Kane, a retired and memory impaired Agency assassin:

But the expert killer in Kane rose up again, and now he was working the private side of the street—killer for hire.


Deadman’s Game was published as a standalone novel by Berkley Medallion in 1976, but it was intended as a series by Ralph Dennis and his editor at Berkley. As explained in A Talent for Killing, “the editor who championed the book left [Berkley], leaving Deadman’s Game without a champion in-house and without the editorial support for a robust marketing campaign.” And Berkley’s new editor rejected Dennis’ second Kane novel outright.

Brash Books’ release of A Talent for Killing combines Deadman’s Game with Dennis’ never before published sequel, Kane #2, into a single, wonderful thriller. This new book, along with Brash’s recent releases of Dennis’ Hardman novels and The War Heist (originally published as MacTaggart’s War), is a welcome addition to Ralph Dennis’ canon, and—far too late—corrects the error of New York publishing’s shutout of Dennis in the late-1970s.

The only bad thing? The value of my copy of Deadman’s Game is going to plummet. And, A Talent for Killing, isn’t scheduled for release until September. Although, you can pre-order it now.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Nightmare"

Nightmare, by Edward S. Aarons, was published as a hardcover by David McKay in 1948. The edition that caught my eye was MacFadden Books 1963 mass market edition. The pink hair sold me. The artist: Jerry Podwil



The opening paragraph:

Afterward, when it was all over, it came back to Nolly Bayliss in one-shots, in kaleidoscopic scenes and tableaux that were like shell holes on the surface of his memory. Some of it he wanted to forget, and some of it he struggled to recall for many anxious hours. It was vital to recapture every shade and every detail of that Friday.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

GIRL MOST LIKELY by Max Allan Collins


Girl Most Likely is the first in a two-book series from Max Allan Collins, featuring chief of police Krista Larson. Krista’s patch is Galena, Illinois; the small and beautiful and tourist rich birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant. Krista is a second generation police officer. Her father, Keith, was a decorated detective in nearby Dubuque, Iowa, and at 28, Krista is the youngest female police chief in the United States. 
Krista is looking forward to her 10-year high school reunion in the swanky Lake View Lodge. She’s kept close contact with many of her classmates and Krista likes everyone except for the beautiful television reporter, Astrid Lund. Astra stole Krista’s boyfriend years earlier and shortly after the reunion opens, Astra is found stabbed to death. Krista calls in her father to help investigate the murder, and it doesn’t take long for a link between Astrid’s murder and the murder of another classmate, Sue Logan, to emerge. The big question is who had the motive and opportunity to kill both women? 
Girl Most Likely is an enjoyable traditional-ish mystery with enough action to keep the pages turning. Ish, because it creeps close to a thriller with several scenes that feature the killer in the same way serial killer novels do. Krista is likable and intelligent. The mystery’s solution is played well, but, with the help of the scenes that feature the killer and a steady mystery reader’s nose, not surprising. But my guessing the killer’s identity before Krista and Keith was as much fun as the gossipy and snarky interplay between the former high school classmates. Girl Most Likely is an entertaining mystery that reminded me why I skipped my last high school reunion.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Thift Shop Book Covers: "Close-up"

Close-up, by Len Deighton, was published as a hardcover by Atheneum in 1972. The edition that caught my eye was Signet’s 1973 mass market edition. The black background frames the title (as theater marquee) and lurid illustration perfectly. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

















The first paragraph:
The heavy blue notepaper crackled as the man signed his name. The signature was an actor’s: a dashing autograph, bigger by far than any of the text. It began well, rushing forward boldly before halting suddenly enough to split the supply of ink. Then it retreated to strangle itself in loops. The surname began gently but then that too became a complex of arcades so that the whole name was all but deleted by well-considered decorative scrolls. The signature was a diagram of the man.
Close-up was a departure of Deighton’s mainline work of spy and suspense fiction and it is more satirical than thriller, but it’s a must read for Deighton enthusiasts.

Monday, May 06, 2019

ONE FOR HELL by Jada M. Davis

Stark House Press released a reprint of a 1952 Fawcett Red Seal original titled One for Hell written by Jada M. Davis back in 2010. Davis is a writer I wasn’t familiar with and after reading it, I really don’t know why. It is terrific and one of the best hardboiled noir tales I’ve read. It resembles the work of two pulp writers, W. L. Heath—particularly Violent Saturday—and Jim Thompson. It has the violence and dark shadows of Thompson and the sociology of secrets that Heath did so well.

Willa Ree is a drifter and a petty criminal riding the rails toward a small Texas boomtown. His plan is simple: fleece the town and move on. What happens is beyond Ree’s expectations. The town is a gold mine, and he just may stick around for a big score. 
One for Hell is pure entertainment. There isn’t a protagonist. The supporting cast, Willa Ree is the main player (and he’s pure bastard), come and go like visitors to an amusement park. One by one they ratchet the pressure on Ree until he is ready to break. And one by one Ree pushes them aside until he no longer can.
The plot is tight and woven with a sophistication of character, morality and corruption. The town has secrets—everyone has something to hide and Ree uses this underlying human weakness to his advantage. He culls his enemies from the herd and eliminates them. He has a girlfriend who is an arch-type of the flawed woman. She possesses strengths and the weaknesses alike, but she is mostly good.
The action is developed with an audacity that separates this novel from so many others of its type. There is a scene in the middle part of the novel that covers 18 pages that changed my view of what can be done with both violence and action in a prose story. It rolled like a freight train and changed Ree from a smalltime hoodlum to a big time psychopath. It was the crux of the story, the beginning of the end for Willa Ree, and the push that leads the reader into his twisted mind.
Everything works in One for Hell. From the plot to the characters to the psychology to the prose and it wraps itself together in a tight weave. Willa Ree spends much of his time trying to guess the actions and motives of other people and the internal dialogue is simple and interesting:
“Maybe the old woman knew. Or maybe she found it, though not likely. Baldy wasn’t a trusting sort of person, and she wouldn’t have guessed he had money in the first place. He sat on the trunk and surveyed the room. Pictures? Too simple.”
One for Hell is solid proof that Stark House is the best publishers of classic crime fiction going. 
This review was written in the long ago, and this is a slightly altered version.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Teklords"

Teklords, by William Shatner, was published as a hardcover by Ace in 1991. The edition that caught my eye was Ace’s 1992 mass market edition. Its foil gold background and embossed title perfectly frame an imaginative and intriguing science fiction scene. The artist: Boris Vallajo

 

The first lines:
Friday, May 16, 2120, was grey and rainfilled across most of Greater Los Angeles.
It was not going to be an especially good day for Jake Cardigan.
There were nine Tek novels with William Shatner’s name on the cover, and each was written by the savvy and accomplished science fiction writer Ron Goulart. Teklords is the second in the series and my memory of reading it in the early-1990s is a very good one. The Tek novels were translated into a comic book series and four low-budget made for television movies and an even lower budget series.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

THE QUAKING WIDOW by Robert Colby


A man can get into a lot of trouble if he’s lonely. If he’s just lonely enough and has time on his hands. That’s a combination made for trouble.
Burt Keating is from New York—just outside Buffalo—where he manages a small savings and loan branch. He is in his mid-thirties with a beautiful wife and a very comfortable life. That changes when his wife leaves on an icy night for some butter, and a few blocks from their house she is crushed between a Buick and a tree. Burt can’t seem to function anymore. He sells the house, takes a leave of absence from his job and purchases a new car—
I wanted to flee to a new world and I knew that short of some South Pacific island, southern Florida was as close as you could come. After a few restless days in Miami, I took an apartment on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale some twenty miles away. It was a place called the Tropic Moon Apartments.
Unfortunately the miles and warmer clime can’t set Burt’s mind right. The only thing that has any meaning is the memory of his dead wife and the life they had, but that is over and there is nothing he can do to change it. Then he meets Alicia Shafton. A woman who seems as lost and lonely as Burt, but she has a secret. Her husband, a gambler and shyster, died and left a lockbox with a note attached. It instructed her to sell the box to a man named Ralph Emory for $200,000. The only problem: Everything goes wrong and Burt can’t help but get involved.
The Quaking Widow is the first work by Robert Colby I have read and it won’t be the last. It hit a note with me—the story, setting, characters—that many works of fiction don’t. It opened with a blast—an immediate and drastic change for a protagonist with an uncertain future—and cruised forward into ever increasing peril. The characters were the expected: sleek, beautiful, mysterious, and good and bad in varying measures.
The setting is drawn marvelously. As I read, I mourned the Florida that was. The pre-Disney World and Miami Vice Florida that was one part hillbilly and another parts chic, wealthy and dangerous. A Florida that a person can get lost in. The same Florida that was painted in the novels of John D. MacDonald with his vivid and beautiful flashes of prose.
The plotline is the expected—the dangerous and unknown femme, murder, a wildcard nympho and mysterious opponents that will stop at nothing to get the prize. In this case the box and its contents. I guessed the major plot turns before they were revealed, but it didn’t bother me because the story, while plot-driven, is textured with enough humanity to keep it more than interesting. The pacing didn't hurt either. It is perfectly developed with a well-balanced mixture of action and suspense, with a dash of romance and mystery. The prose is hardboiled and, at times, clever and rich:
She turned around and walked briskly across the room, her high, firm buttocks waving an insolent goodbye.
The Quaking Widow is worth tracking down. It is fifty-three years old, but it is more than just nostalgia. Heck, I wasn't even on the radar when it was written. Instead it is a fine example of a linear and well-told tale that is both entertaining and exciting.
It was published by ACE (D-195) in 1956, and coupled with Owen Dudley’s The Deep End, and this review was originally published all the way back in 2009.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Flight"

The Flight, by C. F. Runyan, was published as a trade paperback by Bantam in 1991. The edition that caught my eye was Bantam Falcon’s 1992 mass market edition. The shadowy and cold-colored cover art is simple with a Twilight Zone-like mysterious appeal. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)


The opening lines:

Somewhere in the large Georgian house a phone rang.
Brigadier General Scott Armitage entered his study, tossed his briefcase onto a side table, and cocked his head peevishly at the insistent ringing.
The Flight was C. F. (Clair) Runyan’s only novel. It’s a big and intriguing thriller with a science fiction element—time travel from 1994 to wartime Philippines in 1942. When I read it as a teenager, it captured my imagination with its intricate plot and the bleak rendering of the Pacific War. Runyan was a historian and retired Marine Corps Infantry officer. He served from World War II to Vietnam. He died in 2010 to little fanfare as his obituary in the San Diego Tribune attests:
RUNYAN, CLAIR F. Lt. Col. USMC, Ret. Dec. 19, 1919 to Feb. 4, 2010. No services held. Cremation with ashes scattered at sea.
My snooping around the internet also found a letter-to-the-editor Runyan wrote in the same newspaper about a critical review of the terrible Bruckheimer / Michael Bay film, Pearl Harbor (2001):
I guess we should cut critics some slack when it comes to history, and (critic-at-large) Welton Jones in his critique of “Pearl Harbor” could use some (“Echoes of yesteryear in ‘Pearl Harbor,’” May 27). Much of what he wrote was good, such as his description of World War II as “the most turbulent conflict in human history, a cruel and monstrous and capricious maelstrom. . . .” That’s a welcome counterpoint to the sappy “The Good War” we hear about. Tell the millions dead how good it was.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg


I’m a new arrival to the school of Robert Silverberg. I read The Book of Skulls in 2005 and I’ve made a point to read at least some Silverberg every year since. A few weeks ago I found a TOR Double—No. 26—that featured “Press Enter” by John Varley on one side and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” on the other. The TOR Double contained the text of the original story published in Galaxy in 1967. The story was expanded and published as a novel in 1968. A novel I have not yet read.
Hawksbill Station is a penal colony used to segregate political dissidents from the general population. It is much like the Soviet gulags of the mid-Twentieth Century, except there are no guards, no fences and no returns. A wall of time, two billion years long, separates Hawksbill and the society that created it. It is on an Earth that has yet to witness its fish crawl from the sea. The camp’s only connection with the future, what the men call “Up Front,” is a device called the Hammer and Anvil—a time machine that only operates from the future to the past. And it is the lifeline of the small penal colony. It is where the new inmates, and the meager supplies arrive from.
“Hawksbill Station” is an intriguing story. It alters the Cold War prison tale into dystopian science fiction. While the model of the prison is clearly based on the Soviet-style gulag, the story is as much about capitalism as it is about communism. The idea: oppression is oppression no matter its wrappings. With that said the politics of the story are less important, much less, than the story itself. The setting, as dark and desolate as it is, has a beautiful surreal sense—picture an Earth with no mammals and no flora inhabited by trilobites, a wild ocean, and several dozen men.
The story is only 86 pages in mass market, but Silverberg, with a sparse and wonderfully simple prose, is able to create both the world and the characters in a detail that many writers are unable to do in three- or four-hundred pages. He makes the characters, all of them, sympathetic and likable. The antagonist is two billion years from where the story is told and is really nothing more than the shadow of a bogeyman.
“Hawksbill Station” is the real deal. It is a science fiction story that tells something of who we are as a culture, and more importantly, what we are as individuals.  It is a truly excellent story.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Echoes: SFBC Advertising Insert (1980s?)

A few weeks ago I posted an image of an old Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) newsletter—click here—and while I was cleaning out a desk drawer a couple days ago, I found this cool advertising insert to join SFBC (probably from the late-1980s). I have no idea how it came into my life, other than as a bonus found inside a used book I purchased in the last few years.

If I could still order “Any 5 Books For $1 (with membership)” I would, and, these are the titles I’d pick:
·         Highway to Eternity, by Clifford D. Simak
·         Star of Gypsies, by Robert Silverberg
·         Across Realtime, by Vernor Vinge
·         Soldier of the Mist, by Gene Wolfe
·         The Shattered Sphere, edited by Robert Lynn Aspin and Lynn Abbey
In fact, just thinking about filling out the order form—no postage necessary—gives me a little thrill. Click on the image to see them larger.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Steel Mirror"

The Steel Mirror, by Donald Hamilton, was published as a hardcover by Rinehart & Company in 1948, but the edition that caught my eye was Fawcett Gold Medal’s 1966 paperback reprint (d1889). The cover painting is a perfect bleak mystery. Its blues and grays, the hard mattress, and small steel mirror attached to the cold wall, all lend a touch of despondency, almost hopelessness, without giving anything away. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)



The opening lines:
He came back from the railway station with his tickets through the hot late afternoon sunshine; and at the door of the Ford garage he had to step aside for a fawn-colored Mercury convertible just driving in. He caught a glimpse of the face of the girl behind the wheel, rather slight and fragile beneath a hat that turned back from her forehead in a ruffled halo of pale straw.
The Steel Mirror, was adapted as the 1957 film, 5 Steps to Danger, directed by Henry S. Kesler and starring Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden. And, a little trivia, Werner Klemperer, in a pre-Hogans Heroes role, played Dr. Simmons.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Another suspect decision...



A poor condition mass market paperback followed me on Thursday, Sleaze, by L. A. Morse. I’ve heard people speak well, and poorly, about this novel featuring private eye, Sam Hunter. And when I ran across this copy everything about it said—Take Me Home! From the warning inside the book:
“This book contains numerous scenes of gratuitous sex and violence, as well as a lot of bad language and worse jokes. If you don’t like that sort of thing, this is a good place to stop.”
To a blurb from a review in the Los Angeles Times:
“I’d cross the street to avoid him.”
To this sweet piece of descriptive prose on the second page:
“It was the receptionist. If her goal was to look like a cheap Vegas hooker, she’d succeeded pretty well. She had a tangled mane of thick black hair. Her eyes were so darkly and heavily made up that they looked like the after effects of a broken nose.”
To the price: $1
There were two Sam Hunter novels published, The Big Enchilada (1982), and Sleaze (1985). Morse won an Edgar Award for his novel, The Old Dick (not featuring Sam Hunter). And I’ve never read any of his books, so…

And, amazingly, it's available as an ebook.


Monday, April 01, 2019

"The Double Whammy" by Robert Bloch


Rod has been a pitchman for a carnival sideshow—“a lousy mud-show that never played anywhere north of Tennessee”—for three seasons and he’s good at the spiel, convincing marks to split with their money for a chance to see the geek bite off a chicken’s head. Rod’s never been bothered by the show before. It’s “just a lousy chicken.” 
But lately, Rod’s had a problem.
“[S]omething was spooking him. No use kidding himself, he had to face it.
“Rod was afraid of the geek.”
The trouble is, the geek isn’t a monster. His name’s Mike, and Mike is the same as all the other geeks. A wino with an addiction and luck bad enough for him to play the geek, raving and biting chickens for a few dollars and a bed.
“The Double Whammy” is classic Robert Bloch; atmospheric, frightening, and clever. Rod, the tale’s narrator, is a touch unreliable and there is more happening than the reader knows (maybe). But what the reader knows is enough, and what the reader doesn’t know. Well, that makes the story that much better. And I enjoyed its every word.
* * *
“The Double Whammy” was published in Fantastic (February 1970) and I read it in the uneven, but enjoyable, anthology, The Wickedest Show on Earth, edited by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini (Morrow, 1985).

Thursday, March 28, 2019

RIDERS ON THE STORM by Ed Gorman


Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain—small town lawyer and investigator—is at the top of my list for private eye serial characters. He is charming, sarcastic, funny, and cool in an off-hand if worried manner. He is an outsider. He grew up in the poor section of Black River Falls (a fictional rural Iowa city) called The Knolls. A place he escaped with a law degree, but a place he can never leave behind because he understands the people. The struggles. The poverty and hopelessness. But mostly, that scared little boy from the wrong part of town is still in him. Worrying. Doubting. 
There were ten Sam McCain novels, and the final, published by Pegasus in October 2014, is one of the best. It’s also the darkest. Even its title, in honor of the song by The Doors, is dark—Riders on the Storm. It’s a direct sequel to Ticket to Ride, and it finds an older, more world-weary Sam McCain in 1971, America. Vietnam is full-tilt, and, as Bob Dylan wrote a few years earlier, “The times they are a-changin’.” Sam, in a short stint with the Army, is involved in car crash and for five weeks doesn’t know his own name—
“My name is Sam McCain. There was a time eight months ago when I didn’t believe that. When both a neurosurgeon and a psychologist visited me every day and tried to convince me of it.”
There is a mystery, and a good one too, but the story is Vietnam—not the shooting and killing in Southeast Asia, but rather its impact at home. Will Cullen, a veteran who struggles with his actions in the war, is accused of killing a local businessman and budding politician named Steve Donovan. Donovan publicly, and maliciously, beats Will Cullen at a political event because Will signed on with the antiwar organization “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” The next day Steve Donovan is found murdered, and the most likely suspect is Cullen. A suspect both Sam and Will’s wife are dubious of, and Sam spends the rest of the novel trying to clear Cullen as a suspect.
But proving Cullen’s innocence is less than easy. Gone is the incompetent and laughable Chief of Police Cliffie Sykes Jr. and in is the professional and competent, “please call me Paul” Chief Foster. Foster is certain of Cullen’s guilt, but he is seemingly fair and uncomfortably considerate of Sam and Cullen’s wife Karen. But Sam is equally certain of Cullen’s innocence and proving it becomes very personal.
Riders on the Storm is Sam McCain, but darker and more intense than the earlier entries in the series. Mary Travers is back with two young daughters from her failed marriage. Her return is good for both her and Sam. Jamie Newton, Sam’s cutely incompetent secretary is also back, but different. Older, very competent, and, unfortunately, no longer referring to Sam as “Mr. G.” There are more characters than Cliffie Sykes Jr. missing—Judge Esme Anne Whitney is nowhere to be seen, and Mrs. Goldman, Sam’s landlord, is AWOL, as are all the colorful Sykes’ relatives. In their place is a darker, more introspective Sam McCain whose youthful exuberance is tempered by time and experience. He is no longer a young man, but he is a more complete man.
Riders on the Storm is different from the previous Sam McCain novels, but as any good character and series, the change is inevitable and welcome. It is the Seventies after all. The age of well-earned cynicism—big government, big business, and all the rest. It’s Sam McCain’s arrival to maturity. Deep with meaning, disappointment, and paradoxically, fulfillment. Even more, it is a very fine private eye novel.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Bloodfire"

Bloodfire, by John Lutz, was published as a hardcover by Henry Holt in 1991, but the edition that caught my eye was Avon’s 1992 paperback edition. A perfectly tropical setting with oh so cool late-1980s colors and a down on its luck diner make for an alluring cover tease. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)


The opening lines:
The ocean roared and pushed him close to shore. Carver felt the equilibrium lent by deep water desert him. His toes and palms scraped on the grit and broken shells of sea-tossed sand.
Bloodfire is the fifth (of 10) Fred Carver mystery novels published between 1986 and 1996. Carver, a former cop, took a bullet in the knee while on duty and prowls Florida’s criminal underbelly with a cane and a sense of duty as a private eye.