Monday, December 30, 2019

2019: The Year in Reading


2019 was a solid reading year. I finished 51 titles, which is 13 fewer than last year’s mark. As usual, the majority of the titles were fiction, but I did increase my nonfiction intake over last year, which means I’ve been trending upwards for two straight years.

My fiction reading was dominated by my obligations to Mystery Scene Magazine—thirty titles, novels, collections, and anthologies, plus a bunch of magazines. I was able to read some old favorites, too. I read four novels by Lionel White, including his classic novel, The Killing, to prepare for an essay I wrote for Stark House, two novels by Ed Gorman, including the Sam McCain novel, Save the Last Dance for Me, a Jack Higgins novel and a Richard Laymon novel.

I also read a bunch of authors new to me—16 in total—including impressive works by Mike Miner (The Hurt Business), Sandra Ireland (Bone Deep), Peter Temple (Bad Debts), Rachel Howzell Hall (They All Fall Down), Oscar de Muriel (Loch of the Dead), and Kerry Greenwood (Blood and Circuses).


There were a few titles that rose to the top, which I skimmed (with some difficulty) down to five. With that said, my five favorite fiction titles that I read in 2018 are (and in no particular order):

Bad Debts, by Peter Temple, is the first novel featuring Australian debt-collector, part-time lawyer, and furniture maker, Jack Irish. Published in 1996, it has lost little of its power. Irish is cynical, romantic, and believable as an idealistic, but worn-out seeker of truth. Peter Temple is a brilliant and flashy writer that adds just enough societal observation to elevate it into something approaching literature (in a good way).

Condor: The Short Takes collects six tales featuring James Grady’s crazy spy, Condor. It’s the same Condor that found fame, with Robert Redford’s face, in the film Three Days of the Condor, but the stories are very much about the oddness of our time. The first is set shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the final story—clocking in at very close to a short novel—is about Russian election meddling. The stories showcase a shimmering, yet at times hard to understand, brilliance wrapped in a meaningful schizophrenic style that is as telling of our culture—never-ending news cycles, the fervency of self-inflicted and self-described crises—as it is entertaining. Read my Mystery Scene review.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris, is a thriller with a message about the fragility of modern culture and a coming dystopian post-technological world where the Church is the law and its only guidelines are superstition and fear. This second Dark Age is brought about by human fear and hubris, but the story is played as a tight mystery whodunit that flawlessly plants clues many readers may miss the first time around. Read my Mystery Scene review.

Pursuit, by Joyce Carol Oates, is a brilliant—does Oates write any other way?—dark suspense novel about stalking, abuse, and the female experience in our modern society. Pursuit reminds me, to quote myself, why I would walk 10 miles in the snow to read a handful of Joyce Carol Oates brilliant words.

Blood in the Sky is Steve Hamilton’s fifth Alex McKnight novel that is as much an adventure tale as it is a detective story. McKnight is looking for his best friend’s brother who disappeared while acting as a hunting guide in the Canadian wilderness. The trail starts and ends in the Canada’s vast and cold forests, but nothing turns out as expected. Originally published in 2004, Blood is the Sky is still an impressive and surprising read that pumps new and original life into the private eye genre.

And here are a few honorable mentions. They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Under the Cold Bright Lights, by Garry Disher, and The Big Book of Reel Murders, edited by Otto Penzler.

I hope 2020’s reading is as good as 2019’s was.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

THE POKER CLUB by Ed Gorman


The Poker Club, by Ed Gorman, originally published as a limited and signed edition hardcover by Cemetery Dance in 1999, is an expansion of Gorman’s sleek novella, “Out There in the Darkness” published in 1995. It is the story of four poker buddies whose lives go sideways when a burglar interrupts their weekly game. The men’s fear and anger, heightened by a rash of burglaries and property crimes in their middle-class neighborhood, boils over and the burglar finishes the night dead. Instead of calling the police, the four friends dump the burglar’s body in a river and try to move on, but then the late night calls start, and the men find themselves knocking on the doors of the criminal class.
The Poker Club is a suspense novel propelled by the amplifying effect of the primary characters’ fear-based decisions. These decisions—we’ll call the police after we’ve scared the burglar, no one will ever know he was here—isolate the men, in quick succession, from their families, their neighborhood, and ultimately, from each other. The plotting is straight-forward and without any real surprises, which is okay because the novel’s power is emotion. The men are pushed into decisions (and actions) most middle-class men never see. They face the prospect of losing their reputations, their professions—and with this, the loss of their lifestyles—their families, and, perhaps, their lives. It is more psychological and character-driven than action and it works pretty well.
The Poker Club is dedicated, in part, to Richard Matheson and it’s a good fit. The depiction of suburban middle-class America as a comfortable and safe place before it transforms into something less friendly, almost nefarious, is similar to Matheson’s brilliant novel, Stir of Echoes. The Poker Club was translated into a tolerable low-budget film directed by Tim McCann and starring Johnathon Schaech.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Bavarian Connection"

The Bavarian Connection, by Don Smith, is the twentieth installment of the popular Secret Mission series. It was a paperback original published by Charter in 1978, which is the very edition that caught me eye. The stamps, the disheveled background (especially the colors) work for me. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)


 
The first paragraph:

Carl Hoffman sat back and steepled his long fingers and considered the dark slender young man sitting nervously opposite his desk. His name was Gunter Vogel, a good German name, Hoffman reflected. And from his swarthy complexion and pronounced accent, probably as phony as the story he had just told him.

Monday, November 18, 2019

No Comment: "Save the Last Dance for Me"


“Sometimes, something happens that you can’t forgive. And it kills you because you can’t forgive. You drag it along with you your whole life and remember it at odd moments and no matter how old you get, that one thing still retains its fresh and vital pain. And a part of you knows that the other person has gone on and probably never thinks about it at all.”

—Ed Gorman, Save the Last Dance for Me. Worldwide Mystery, 2003 (© 2002); Page 217.

[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context]


Monday, November 11, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Fall Line"

The Fall Line, by Mark T. Sullivan, was published in hardcover by Kensington in 1994, but the edition that caught my eye is the Pinnacle paperback published in 1995. The pastels are from the official 1990s color palette and I’m not sure what’s happening with the skier, but it’s something good. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)






The first paragraph:

Out West, winter storms begin as collisions of cold and warm air in the Gulf of Alaska. The two battle for control, cold winning, then racing southeast to land, across coastal mountain ranges to the deserts of the Great Basin. There the fronts accelerate and gather fury, boiling high over the purple sage and the brine flats until they draw one last infusion of moisture crossing Utah’s Great Salt Lake and then slam into the chill, nearly vertical wall of the Wasatch Mountains. One canyon, the Little Cottonwood, seems to suck the dark storm clouds into itself, up its nine-mile rip, up 8,000 feet to the half-dozen peaks and ridges that form the series of alpine bowls called Alta. Trapped by the jagged crags and frozen cirques, the clouds are squeezed as if by a giant hand milking udders and a snow like no other falls.

The Fall Line is Mark Sullivan’s first published novel and its setting is as appealing to me as the cover. I’ve spent the majority of my life in the Wasatch Mountains’ shadows. I can be at Alta in 25 minutes from my doorstep and at the top of the other Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, in about the same. And the snow, it’s uniquely dry and light. The best snow I’ve ever skied, but I’m biased since it’s been my snow since I was a child.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

MISSING AT TENOCLOCK by Arthur Williams (Jack M. Bickham)


Missing at Tenoclock (1994), as by Arthur Williams—a one-off pseudonym of the prolific and reliably good Jack M. Bickham—is the first of the two Jonelle “Johnny” Baker mysteries set in the fictional Colorado mountain town of Tenoclock. Tenoclock is a tourist boom town with enough celebrity landowners to make it a small and growing version of Vail. There ski lifts, daily old west-style shootouts on its hokey and touristy downtown streets, too, but for all its growth the Sheriff’s Office is still a small operation that usually closes its doors by midnight.
Then Sheriff Jim Way has a gruesome accident with a train; the engineer doesn’t see him lying across the tracks until it is too late. Way’s clothes are saturated with whiskey—a high shelf bottle of Maker’s Mark was found on the front seat of his Bronco—and Tenoclock’s political leaders go into high gear to sell Way’s death as a side-effect of his heavy drinking. But Johnny, who is appointed acting-Sheriff as a publicity stunt by the county commissioners, believes Way’s death wasn’t an accident. She knew Way didn’t drink heavily enough to pass out on a cold autumn night, and he never drank expensive whiskey. In the background is a missing runaway girl, and as Johnny investigates she gets an uneasy feeling the missing girl and Way’s death are connected. 
Missing at Tenoclock is a traditional mystery with several beautifully crafted and suspenseful action scenes. There is a scene where a major player is trapped in an old mine that remains in the reader's mind long after the incident is resolved. The mystery is somewhat light since it is clear who the villain is early in the story, but Bickham does an exceptional job of ratcheting the suspense by slowly revealing the how and the why of both Way’s death and what happened to the missing woman. It doesn’t hurt that Johnnie gets in deeper trouble with every step she takes. The setting is perfectly small-town with oddball characters—a scholarly jailer and grumpy diner owner comes to mind—and small minded and greedy politicians. Missing at Tenoclock is a title to keep a lookout for in used book shops and thrift stores, especially if you enjoy a light mystery with a pleasant setting and likable characters.
The second (and final) Johnnie Baker mystery novel is titled Tenoclock Scholar (1995), and it, like Missing at Tenoclock was published by Walker & Company as a hardcover and neither book was ever published in paperback. An oddity between the two novels: Missing at Tenoclock, was published as by Arthur Williams and Tenoclock Scholar was published with another Bickham pseudonym, John Miles. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

No Comment: "Bad Debts"


“I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was a new brick-veneer suburb built on cow pasture east of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.”

—Peter Temple, Bad Debts. Text Publishing, 2012 (© 1996). Page 1.

[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context]


Friday, October 18, 2019

SOME DIE HARD by Stephen Mertz

Some Die Hard is Stephen Mertz’s first published novel. It appeared as a paperback original in 1979 from the low-rent New York publisher Manor Books, as by Stephen Brett. A pseudonym, at least the surname—according to an informative and interesting Afterword in the recent Rough Edges Press edition—that was a hat-tip to Brett Halliday. The same Brett Halliday behind the fictional private eye Michael Shayne.

Rock Dugan, a former stuntman who gave up Hollywood for private detective work and Denver, is returning home—after tying up an employee theft investigation—from the fictional Langdon Springs, Colorado. Sitting next to Dugan on the bus ride home is a nervous man who, once they arrive at the depot, panics and bolts, stumbling into Dugan before dashing into traffic where he’s hit and killed by a taxi. The police think the man’s death is an accident, an opinion Dugan doesn’t share because the man expertly passed an envelope to him in the confusion. The envelope’s contents are for Susan Court who, with a dying millionaire father changing his will at the last minute and a no-good brother, hired the nervous man, also a P.I., to uncover a few secrets.

Some Die Hard is a hardboiled locked-room murder mystery—those impossible crimes where the whodunit is less important than the howdunit (and Im not even going to tell you who the victim is). Its prose is smooth, although not as crystal as Stephen Mertz’s latest work, and the story is enjoyable and easy. Easy to read, rather than easy to guess. Dugan is likable and hardboiled. He is big-fisted, clever and carries that sacred Private Eye code. A knight-errand more concerned with justice than law.


Sunday, October 06, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Name of the Game is Death"

The Name of the Game is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe, was a paperback original published by Gold Medal in 1962, but the edition that caught my eye is the Black Lizard paperback published in 1988. The dark background and muted colors make for a sinister atmosphere, which perfectly match the dark story. The artist: Kirwan

 
The first paragraph:

From the back seat of the Olds I could see the kid’s cotton gloves flash white on the steering wheel as he swung off Van Buren onto Central Avenue. On the right up ahead the strong late September Phoenix sunshine blazed off the bank’s white stone front till it hurt his eyes. The damn building looked as big as the purple buttes on the rim of the desert.

The Name of the Game is Death is the first appearance of Earl Drake; a middle-lass mand who turned violent crime as an escape of the “hopelessness of middle-class life.” The follow-up novel, One Endless Night, is the second part of a single seamless story. Drake was revived for Marlowe’s ten “Operation” novels. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Name of the Game is Death / One Endless Hour by Dan J. Marlowe

Dan J. Marlowe.  The name alone brings an echo of the hardboiled—

“I’ll be leaving one of these days, and the day I do they’ll never forget it.” 

He wrote in the heyday of the paperback original.  His best work was published by Gold Medal, and his novels stand above most of his contemporaries as hard, uncompromising masterpieces of hardboiled crime and suspense. 

His life was as strange as his fiction: he is likely the plainest womanizer exported by Massachusetts; he gambled professionally for several years; he befriended, lived with, and co-wrote several short stories with the notorious bank robber Al Nussbaum; and late in life he developed memory loss and something called aphasia—“partial or total inability to write and understand words.”    

And all that is only the beginning.  Not to mention it was parroted from the introduction, written by Marlowe’s biographer Charles Kelly, to the new trade paperback double published by Stark House Press.  It features two of Marlowe’s best novels, which really, are two halves of a single story: The Name of the Game is Death (Gold Medal 1962), and One Endless Hour (Gold Medal 1969).

The novels tell the genesis story of Marlowe’s Earl Drake series character.  Drake is not a likable man.  He is a bank robber with a predilection for killing people.  He doesn’t kill simply to kill, but kill he does.  The Name of the Game is Death opens at the scene of a botched bank robbery with Drake shot in the escape.  He and his partner split up, and Drake finds a doctor and a dark place to hide until he is recuperated and the heat is off, which is when the story really begins.  His partner went missing with the money, and Drake is broke.  The rest of Name of the Game is Drake’s search for his partner, and the money, and One Endless Hour is the fallout.

The two novels merge into one complete and engrossing story, which is not to say either is dependent on the other; both are complete with beginning, middle, and end.  However the plot in One Endless Hour is built directly from Name of the Game.  In fact, the final chapter of Name of the Game is included, with a few adjustments as the Prologue to One Endless Hour. 

Name of the Game is the stronger of the two novels.  It includes an exposition of Drake’s childhood, explaining (without apologizing) for Drake’s seeming amoral character.  Its backstory emphasis and character development is reminiscent of John D. MacDonald, but only just.  Its prose is raw and hardboiled—

“I swear both his feet were off the ground when he fired at me.  The odds must have been sixty thousand to one, but he took me in the left upper arm.  It smashed me back against the car.  I steadied myself with a hand on the roof and put two a yard behind each other right through his belt buckle.  If they had their windows open they could have heard him across town.”

—and it is more thematically related to Jim Thompson than John D.

One Endless Hour is more of a straight caper novel.  It lacks Name of the Game’s character development, and backstory, but it flashes pure action.  And, if you consider the two novels as one story, it is the climactic resolution.  The differences in pacing and plotting act to strengthen the two novels’ impact rather than diminish it, and the new Stark House edition is the perfect way to experience the story arc.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Evolution (or maybe just changes)


      My magic as a writer—if I have any—happens in the second and third and fourth drafts. The first draft is a mad and passionate sprint. The characters and the story collide with unexpected results. What I thought would happen (before I wrote that first line) rarely does. The theme doesn’t change, but the way it plays out often will. As an example of how my cluttered writerly mind works, I dug up three different openings for my recent short story, “No Chips, No Bonus” published in the anthology Paul Bishop Presents… Pattern of Behavior, for comparison.
The first beginning is what I saw when the story played itself for me in a day dream. A hot and sweaty desert afternoon. The hero, in this case a guy named Jimmy Ford, being pulled into an isolated location by something not quite known—by the reader anyway. I wanted it mysterious and intriguing at once. And this is what I came up with:

The steering wheel vibrated in my hand as the sedan shimmied across the corrugated dirt road. I wiped sweat from my brow. A blackbird watched from a broken down fence as I concentrated on the rough path, steadily moving north between Lakeside’s yellow-brown slopes and the Grassy’s hump-backed silhouette.

I still like that opening and I think it did (overall) what I wanted it to do, but it pushed the story’s action too far away. So I changed it to this:

When the ochre stained hill came into view I eased the sedan left and drove down a mild depression—tires crunching through shattered rock—and stopped next to a small juniper stand. The engine ticked and groaned before settling into silence. The landscape’s emptiness an illusion. An Air Force bombing range fifteen miles north and west. A television relay station, antennas spiraling skyward, sitting on the Lakeside’s treeless ridgeline to the east. And farther still, the sullied shoreline marking the Great Salt Lake’s shallow waters.

And damn if I didn’t like that opening, too. But it played hell with the story’s pacing. It was still too slow and I wanted, like every short story writer, to capture the reader’s interest immediately. So I changed it to this (which is how the story was published): 

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. 
“Ford? You awake?” Jenkins’ voice booming in my ear.
“Sure, I’m awake.” My eyes were still closed.
“We have a problem.” Jenkins was tense. A quaver of anticipation and fear and something else I couldn’t label whisked into a frothy hum I imagined his imported girls heard every time he unzipped his pants.

And damn if I don’t love this opening scene. It shows us something about Jimmy Ford. He listens to Christmas music in July (as a ringtone anyway), he hangs out in casinos, and Jimmy works for a guy, Jenkins, who he doesn’t much like.
Now if only I could make that happen in the first draft instead of the third or fourth or fifth.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Awake"

I have a brand new short story in an anthology that hit the street last week. The anthology is Paul Bishop Presents… Criminal Tendencies. There are ten crime stories from Paul Bishop, Eric Beetner, Richard Prosch, Michael A. Baron (and others), including my dark psychological tale “Awake”.

The development of “Awake” has a long and sordid history that spans across nearly two years and I think the end product is pretty good. The opening paragraph changed a handful of times (as did most everything else in the story), but here is the final version:

“The old man’s eyes were hot, but the back of his head was ice cold. The neglected kitchen—dirty dishes stacked in the sink; the counter littered with empty food packaging—disappeared as he focused on the tiny old-fashioned micro-cassette sitting on the cracked laminate kitchen table.”

I hope you enjoy it (if you choose the read it).


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Me, Hood!"

Me, Hood!, by Mickey Spillane, is a paperback original published by Signet Books in 1969, which is the very the edition that caught my eye. The simplicity of the background, the large text, and the McGinnis painting are eye-catching. The artist: Robert McGinnis


The first paragraph:

They picked me up in a bar on Second Avenue and waited for the supper crowd to flow out before they made their tap, two tall smiling lads with late model narrow-brim Kellys that helped them blend into the background of young junior executives.

Me, Hood! features two novellas, “Me, Hood!” (1963), and “Return of the Hood” (1964).

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.