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.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"In A Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald


A favorite anthology of mine, featuring vintage hardboiled crime stories, is American Pulp; edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg, and published by Carroll & Graf in 1997. There are 35 stories between its covers, from writers like Donald Westlake, Fredric Brown, Mickey Spillane, John Jakes, Ed McBain, James Reasoner, David Goodis, Lawrence Block—and, and, and…
One of the stories, and a damn good one, is John D. MacDonald’s “In a Small Motel”, which originally appeared in the July 1956 issue of Justice.
Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.
As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.
The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.
“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:
“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”
And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.
“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is also a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out. 
There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 63 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, the car exhaust, hear the highway noise, and feel the empty and hard fear escalating from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Echoes: SFBC "Things to Come" Newsletter (Jan & Feb 1955)

There aren’t many things better than what I find in used books. Photographs, receipts, business cards, and every so often hard cash. The things people leave behind opens a window into the book’s history. Where it’s been and how it got into my hands. Bridging those two takes imagination, but that’s the best part.

I recently purchased Fredric Brown’s science fiction collection, Angels and Spaceships, as a book club edition hardcover; stuck between the front board and the first page was the January and February 1955 “Things to Come” pamphlet of the Science Fiction Book Club. It featured SFBC’s January selection—Portals of Tomorrow, edited by August Derleth, with stories by Bradbury, Simak, and Brown. The February selection was the book I purchased.
These advertisements stuck between book pages, and often (especially in mass market paperbacks) printed on the last few pages of a book, have an allure for me. The old titles, both familiar and new (to me), are vibrant and exciting. In this case, I would order every single book listed—Children of Wonder, edited by William Tenn, The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, The Mixed Men, by A. E. van Vogt, Needle, by Hal Clement, Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein. When the books arrived I would hold and study each one, carefully, looking at the synopsis, studying the copyright page, imagining the adventures and knowledge printed inside.

Maybe one of these days I’ll throw logic and caution to the wind and order a stack of books from an old advertisement, hoping it finds its way into The Twilight Zone where all orders are honored at those old time prices and everything is fresh off the press. Oh, the dreams that could be.
But until then, I always have those ads. Those dreams. 

The first scan is the pamphlet’s first (right) and last (left) pages. The second scan is the interior, pages two and three. Click the images and you should be able to read them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

SNOWBOUND by Richard S. Wheeler


Richard S. Wheeler died on February 24, 2019, at the age of 83. He was a brilliant writer and a genuinely nice man. I was lucky enough to have corresponded with him over the past decade. Our emails would come in flurries over short periods, and then there would be silence for months and even years. Ill miss his kind and generous words, his sly wit and his presence.

Over the next several days I will repost a few of my writings about his work, starting with this review of his novel, Snowbound, written in 2015. 
_____
Richard S. Wheeler won a Spur Award for Best Western Short Novel for his 2010 novel Snowbound. A well-earned and deserving honor. Snowbound is less Western and more historical. It chronicles John C. Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition, which was ostensibly to find a railroad route across the Rocky Mountains at the 38th Parallel between St. Louis and San Francisco.
The expedition was privately funded by a group of St. Louis businessmen—with the support of Fremont’s senator father-in-law Thomas Benton—and while its claimed purpose was to find a railroad route, its true purpose was to rehabilitate Fremont’s public reputation after his court-martial, and ultimate resignation from the United States Army. The route crossed the high and rugged spine of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where a railroad passage was unlikely at best, and—to prove something to his detractors—it was attempted in winter.
Snowbound is effectively told in an alternating first person narrative. The narrative perspective changes from chapter to chapter. It is told in the words of several characters, including Fremont, and several of the expedition members—Dr. Benjamin Kern, Alexis Godey, its lead scout Old Bill Williams, and others. It reads much like a diary with minimal dialogue. It is told primarily with the internal observations of the narrating characters. It is, through the horror of the failed expedition, a character study of John Charles Fremont. Fremont is presented as an enigma. He is narcissistic, admired—idolized, really—complicated, and, in the end, loathed by some. 
The novel’s brilliance is its powerful description of the oppressive, brutal cold of the snowbound high Rockies, and the hardship of the expedition—
“We all looked pretty grim at times, with icicles dangling from our beards like chimes and ice collecting in our eyebrows and a rime of frost around our nostrils.”
“This was a tumble and rocky land, with giant gray outcrops, steep slopes, somber pine forests, groves of spidery cottonwoods and aspen, fierce, cruel creeks. And snow lazily smothered the country. It had caught and settled in every valley and dip, so that we were crossing spots that were ten or twenty feet deep, perilously working upslope in a tamped-down trench that reached our heads.”
“Somehow, we made camp and got fires going in protected snow pits where the wind would not snuff them. The snow had diminished, but the heavens scowled at us, and I had the sense we were trespassers, invaders of a place that was sacred to others, where no mortal should pass by.”
The story’s hero is Alexis Godey, a former fur trapper and scout, who is Fremont’s second in command. He is developed as a quiet, competent, and ethical man. Godey was responsible for saving the bulk of the expedition’s men when he led the relief party—after reaching Taos with Fremont and a few others—back into the Mountains to rescue those stranded by hunger and cold. While Godey is leading the relief party, Fremont recuperates in Taos and planning the next leg of the expedition to California, and preemptively blaming the scout Old Bill Williams for the disastrous expedition.
Snowbound is a powerful novel of survival, and calamity. It is an introspective interpretation of one of the most eccentric and dishonest topographical expeditions of the Western United States. It is a beautifully rendered piece of literature that captures the stark beauty of winter on the high ranges, and both the hubris and nobility of men.

Monday, March 11, 2019

THE DRAGON MAN by Garry Disher


The Peninsula is “a comma of land hooking into the sea southeast of Melbourne” in Victoria, Australia. A tourist destination known for beaches, wineries, and coastal towns. It is sparsely populated, beautiful, and, recently, the stalking ground for a sex killer. One woman was found dead on the Old Peninsula Highway—a lonely road treading the western coast of the peninsula, cutting south and west—and another has disappeared.
Inspector Hal Challis, the regional homicide specialist, is assigned the investigation. The search is headquartered in the fictional city of Waterloo. A city with a small police force, and an even smaller CIB—Criminal Investigation Branch—squad. The killer is careful and clean. The only significant lead is the track of a rare brand of tire near the dumping site of a victim—
“There was no semen. The killer used a condom. There were no fingerprints. The killer used gloves. What he’d left on his victims were absences, including the absence of life.” 
The Dragon Man is a beautifully written police procedural. The main plot is supplemented with crisscrossing subplots. An overzealous constable. A series of house burglaries. A frightened woman trading sex for drugs. And Hal Challis. An almost broken, flawed man. A man who is married to a woman who, along with her lover, attempted to kill him. A man who is underestimated by most, and a man who is likable, and, at times, real. 
“He drove on. Christmas Day. With any luck, someone would find a body and free him from Christmas Day.”
The setting is rendered with care, and the small details—a bucket in the shower to catch the water for additional use in the garden, dry draught-like conditions of mid-summer heat, herons feasting on mosquitoes—create a real world believable place. A place that is familiar and exotic. Mr. Disher also plays with morality. The police often behave more consistently with the criminals they chase. One steals evidence from the police locker. Another attempts to blackmail a woman for sex during a traffic stop. 
The Dragon Man is the real deal. It is the first novel (of seven, so far) featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry. It is something of a cross between literature and police procedural. It is rich on detail, economical, meaningful, and a wonderfully entertaining novel.

Monday, March 04, 2019

2018 Reissues Roundup: Some of the Best Books to Hit the Page (Again)


I have a review article up and running at Mystery Scene’s website. As the title suggests it’s a look at older novels that were reprinted in 2018. I look at the first two Hardman novels by Ralph Dennis—Atlanta Deathwatch and The Charleston Knife is Back in TownThe Red Scarf by Gil Brewer, The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Frenzy of Evil by Henry Kane, and a few others.
If you choose to read it, let me know what you think. And even better, what were some of your favorite books that hit print in 2018 again?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Short Stories Wanted for Bouchercon (Anthology)


Attention Writers and Attendees of the 50th Anniversary Bouchercon, 2019:
YES, there will be an anthology this year! And yes, you can submit a story for consideration as long as you’re a registered conference attendee! Here’s all you need to know:

– One of Bouchercon 50’s goals is to make the largest charitable contribution in the history of the conference. All proceeds from the sale of the books will go toward that effort! LIFT, Literary Instruction For Texas, works to enhance and strengthen communities by teaching adults to read. And Bouchercon gets to help in that mission this year!
– For a theme, think no further than the conference slogan: Denim, Diamonds, and Death!
  Original stories are vastly preferred. Absolutely no reprints, please.
– Stories should be less than five thousand words. Approximately. Sort of. But you know writers.
  The book itself will once again be published by the fine folks at Down & Out Books.
  The deadline for all stories will be June 1st.
If you think you’ve got the story for the anthology, not just a story, please send it to rick@downandoutmagazine.com. We’ll have the book for sale in the book room with some signings and hopefully we’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution to LIFT as well as showcase some of the amazing talent in the Bouchercon writing community.
So let’s go, people. Bring it on!
Sincerely,
Rick Ollerman