Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Review: "Hero" by Thomas Perry


by Thomas Perry
Mysterious Press, 2024


Hero, Thomas Perry’s latest thriller, is a shotgun blast from the first page to the last. Justine Poole is a security agent for Los Angeles’ most prestigious security firm, Spengler-Nash. The agency specializes in security for celebrities and wealthy businesspeople. When Justine stops a criminal gang from kidnapping a geriatric Hollywood producer and his wife, she gets the full media treatment. She is hailed as a hero for a couple news-cycles, but then she is vilified as a vigilante. Worse, Justine gets on the wrong side of the crime boss, Mr. Conger, that ordered the kidnapping. Conger wants Justine dead as a show of power to both his friends and enemies.
     With a high-dollar hitman, Leo Sealy, on her trail, her friends out-of-reach, and the police looking for her, Justine finds herself alone. So she does the only thing she can do—run and hide. She finds help from an unwitting investigative journalist, Joe Alston, but this is little comfort since Justine can’t shake Sealy and it will take more than luck to escape with her life.
     Thomas Perry is (from my house anyway) the preeminent thriller writer working today. His chase scenes, which are a large part of all his novels, are believable, exciting, and breathless without ever feeling rushed or underdeveloped. And Hero is no exception. The race begins when Justine pulls the trigger on the kidnappers and doesn’t end until the last page. The details of the high-end security industry are intriguing—identifying targets, creating escape routes, etc. The character development is skimpier than Perry’s usual, including that of Justine Poole, but Hero is a marvelous piece of escapist fiction anyway.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Review: "On Texas Street" by Ernest Haycox


“On Texas Street”
by Ernest Haycox
Little, Brown & Co., 1942


Originally appearing in the Dec. 1932 issue of Collier’s, “On Texas Street” is an appealing literary Western about Lee Bowie. Bowie is a cow-puncher with Texas’ Star Cross Ranch. After delivering 1,800 cattle to Abilene, Kansas, Bowie is stumbling his way to a decision about the man he is, a trail drover, and what he may want to be: a driftless family man.
     Haycox stirs a little action into the narrative, even a shooting—although it is off-page—along with the real-life Abilene lawman, Tom Smith. What makes “On Texas Street” shine are its emotional sense, its real-world low-key drama, and its small but colorful cast of characters.
     Which is to say, “On Texas Street” is far from a traditional shoot-’em-up Western, but it is a fine story with enough plot to keep most readers hooked.

“On Texas Street” appeared in the story collection, Murder on the Frontier, along with eight more of Haycox’s tales published by Collier’s in the 1930s and early-1940s.   

Monday, January 22, 2024

"Introducing the Author... Frank M. Robinson" — from Imagination



This autobiographical essay by science fiction writer Frank M. Robinson appeared in the June 1955 issue of Imagination alongside Robinson’s novelette, “Wanted: One Sane Man”. For me, the best part is where Robinson is defending J. Robert Oppenheimer. With the runner-up being his name dropping of Imaginations editors, the husband and wife team of William L. Hambling and Frances Hambling.

Click the Image for a larger view.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Review: "Cause of Death" by Patricia Cornwell


Cause of Death
by Patricia Cornwell
Berkley, 1997


Patricia Cornwell’s seventh Dr. Kay Scarpetta novel, originally published by G. P. Putnam in 1996, is a blander production than her earlier work—Postmortem (1990), Body of Evidence (1992)—but there are enough plot twists, character banter, paranoia, and mysterious deaths to keep it entertaining. While Scarpetta, the Virginia State Medical Examiner, is covering for her Tidewater pathologist while he attends his mother’s funeral in England, a journalist Kay knows dies while diving in the restricted waters of the Inactive Naval Shipyard.
     When Scarpetta arrives on scene, a Navy investigator tries to intimidate her away, but Scarpetta, being Scarpetta, digs in and demands access. What she finds under the waves is an AP reporter named Ted Eddings. The Navy, and pretty much everyone else, likes the story that Ted was diving for Civil War relics and had an accident. A theory Kay doesn’t share since Ted had no obvious wounds or symptoms of drowning. When she won’t drop the case, Scarpetta begins receiving, at first subtle and later obvious, threats from an unknown source.
     Cause of Death begins as a straightforward forensic detective thriller—a mysterious death begets an investigation that uncovers further questions until a solution is found—but in the last 50 or so pages the narrative, a bit jarringly, swerves into something else entirely. Entertainment Weekly said in its review, “Cause of Death is less like a crime novel than a screen treatment for a David Koresh-meets-Tom Clancy TV movie-of-the-week.” A good comparison since those final chapters crashed into international thriller territory with terrorists, Libyan ambitions, and a thunderous visit from the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. A nasty cult is involved, too. Cornwell went big with the story, but a better play would have been to keep it small and criminal and believable. But even with that major flaw, Cause of Death kept me turning the pages with a rush all the way to the end and I’m sure I’ll read another Cornwell book sometime.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, January 15, 2024

S. S. Van Dine Sets Down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories


S. S. Van Dine Sets Down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

The American Magazine, Sep. 1928


“There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better….”


“Servants—such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like—must not be chosen by the author as the culprit….”


The detective story is a game. It is more—it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader’s interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws—unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1.     The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2.     No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3.     There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4.     The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5.     The culprit must be determined by logical deductions—not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6.     The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7.     There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.

8.     The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio [from the  beginning].

9.     There must be but one detective—that is, but one protagonist of deduction—one deus ex machine [god from the machine]. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10.  The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story—that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

11.  Servants—such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like—must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person—one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.

12.  There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13.  Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.

14.  The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element—a super-radium, let us say—is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author’s imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15.  The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent—provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face—that all the clues really pointed to the culprit—and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary “popular” novel will read detective stories unblushingly.

16.  A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely “literary” technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity—just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.

17.  A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department—not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18.  A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19.  The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction—in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20.  And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.

(a)   Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.

(b)  The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.

(c)   Forged finger-prints.

(d)  The dummy-figure alibi.

(e)   The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.

(f)    The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.

(g)   The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.

(h)  The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.

(i)    The word-association test for guilt.

(j)    The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

S.S. Van Dine (1889 – 1939)—saddled with the ostentatious name William Huntington Wright—wrote the golden age detective novels featuring amateur sleuth Philo Vance. Van Dine, much like his detective, was—as Otto Penzler wrote in The Detectionary—“a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism.” The twenty rules Van Dine recorded are interesting, and even helpful for writers and readers alike, but many exist for no other reason than to be broken by better writers.

“S. S. Van Dine Sets Down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” originally appeared in the Sep. 1928 issue of The American Magazine.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Review: "The Poker Club" by Ed Gorman


The Poker Club
by Ed Gorman
Leisure Books, 2000


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 classes.
     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 well. 
     The Poker Club is dedicated, in part, to Richard Matheson and it is a good fit. The way suburban middle-class America is transformed from a comfortable and safe place to something less friendly, almost nefarious, is similar to Matheson’s brilliant novel, Stir of EchoesThe Poker Club was translated into a tolerable low-budget film directed by Tim McCann and starring Johnathon Schaech.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, January 08, 2024

"Introducing the Author... Robert A. Heinlein" — from Imagination



This autobiographical essay by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein appeared in the Nov. 1953 issue of Imagination alongside Heinlein’s short story, “Sky Lift”. A light-hearted, almost silly (and dare I say, conceited?), but interesting take on Heinlein’s world view. 

Click the image for a larger view.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Review: "Dust Devils" by James Reasoner


Dust Devils
by James Reasoner
The Book Place, 2011


James Reasoner’s marvelous crime thriller, Dust Devils—published by Point Blank Press in 2007—received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the writer and critic, Ed Gorman, wrote: “Dust Devils is an exemplary modern hardboiled novel with all the merits of the post-Tarantino era but none of the flaws.” Not only does Dust Devils live up to the accolades it received upon its original publication, but it reads as well today, some sixteen years later, as it must have then.
     Toby McCoy is a young drifter looking for work in the dusty, windblown Texas panhandle. On a chance, Toby knocks on the door of a lonesome farmhouse. A woman nearly twice his age, Grace Halligan, opens the door with some suspicion, but agrees to give Toby a job. No more than two weeks later, Grace and Toby, driven by mutual loneliness, make their relationship more personal and physical. But when a pair of gunmen arrive at the farm, Grace and Toby’s secrets are dragged out from the shadows.
     Dust Devils is close to a perfect hardboiled thriller with twist after surprising twist built into the plot. And each twist hits the reader harder than the last until that final, shocking hammer blow. The characters—particularly Grace and Toby—are developed with a realistic flair. Both are likable and curiously mysterious at once. The Texas landscape is painted with a realist’s brush and it is obvious Reasoner not only knows the country where the book takes place, but loves it, too. While Dust Devils isn’t exactly noir, there is an appealing melancholy to the narrative that is as much about the sunbaked landscape as it is about the story.
     Dust Devils needs only a larger readership to claim its deserved place as a genuine hardboiled classic.

Go here for the Kindle version and here for the paperback edition at Amazon.