Thursday, March 28, 2019


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?