Apr 122012
I've never actually read much Lawrence Block. I once read one of his later Matt Scudder novels and I really didn't care for it. I'll have to try one of them again. I've liked two of his Tanner novels, even though they are very light. A Bernie Rhodenbarr I had to quit in the middle. And then I've read Killing Castro.

I finally got around to reading the first book Hard Case Crime put out, Block's Grifter's Game that was originally published as Mona (Fawcett Gold Medal 1961). It really shows Block was a good writer even when he was very young (he was 23 when this was published, and I think this is his first, at least under his own name), the text is fluent and very readable. Block's dialogue is paced well and crispy. It's too bad there's so little of it in the middle parts - the narrative turns pretty much into the protagonist's monology. The protagonist is a con man in his late twenties. He's quite sympathetic, though he's a heel of the worst kind, seducing women to to live on their money for days or for months and then dropping them. There are no good people in the world of Grifter's Game, which, combined with the pretty nasty ending, makes this a worthwhile noir novel.

Next off I'll be reading Block's Getting Off and Lucky at Cards. Why? I'm working on an article for a Finnish journal about sex and sleaze paperbacks. And because it's about time I start reading Lawrence Block.

 Posted by at 9:08 am
Apr 112012
My latest column for the Los Angeles Review of Books was published last week. The article was called, "The Criminal Kind: Voyeuristic Pleasures." Here are the books I reviewed:

Kings of Midnight by Wallace Stroby
"At their best, crime novels provide more than the voyeuristic pleasure of looking in on a lifestyle that us law-abiding citizens will never know first-hand: they offer a refractive glance back on our own world. In her own way, Crissa Stone is a modern-day hero for an America still recovering from the economic collapse. There’s an honesty and integrity to her work ethic that separates her from the fold."
And She Was by Alison Gaylin
"A moody, densely layered mystery whose emotional notes are as affecting as the plot points are enthralling. Gaylin excels at getting us into her protagonist’s complex (and crowded) mind."
Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
"Imagine the literary love child of Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, but way more twisted, with a penchant for dismemberment, and a hell of a lot funnier. That’s Joe R. Lansdale’s Edge of Dark Water in a nutshell."
The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson
"Don’t let the exotic Peruvian backdrop fool you: this is in no way a picturesque walk in the park — or through the Incan ruins, as the case may be. From its doom-laden opening line (“Standing at the edge of the mountain, I imagined what it would feel like to let go”) to its unexpectedly savage finale, The Next One to Fall is driven by the noir impulse towards oblivion."
Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm
"Dead Harvest is a wild and unpredictable ride that only gets more bold as the narrative unfurls, and now that the foundation for the series is set, I’m excited to see what hurdles Holm has set for Thornton in the sequel, The Wrong Goodbye, already slated for October 2012."
Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg
"What saves the book from becoming an orgy of excess, however, is Silverberg’s stylistic restraint, and his attention to detail and craft. Blood on the Mink is by no means as extreme as something by Mickey Spillane. Silverberg’s style, at least here, is more reminiscent of the cool precision of a Peter Rabe. When it comes to action, there’s a remarkable balance of clarity and brute force to his choreography"
Apr 092012
Hard Case Crime has put out some very interesting reprints and obscurities. Lawrence Block's Killing Castro is probably of the latter kind. It's entertaining, but I'm not sure whether I could call it a forgotten classic. It's a story about five Americanos trying to kill Fidel Castro and trying to get 20,000 dollars as a reward. Some of them are professionals, some of them are idealists, some of them are just waiting around to die and trying to do something useful while dying.

Unlike another blogger said, I didn't find this tightly knit or narrated. It's more like a loose narrative, with just episodes following each other. Some of the episodes are more entertaining than others and Block creates some pretty good characters through dialogue and action. The fate of some of the characters was also entertaining and not something I anticipated.

In a weird narrative technique Block also interweaves the story with the history of real-life Castro and his rise to power. Without those parts the book would be one third shorter and I guess Block just typed them up to fill up the standard book-length. Block's view of Castro and Cuba before him seems pretty solid, though, and even if those bits irritated me, they provided some new information! 

The book is one of Block's rarest early pseudonymous efforts, published as "Lee Duncan" under the title Fidel Castro Assassinated. The publisher was Monarch, the year is 1961, and I think in this case the new cover is much better than the original! 
 Posted by at 11:01 am
Mar 212012
Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime have given us another nearly lost treasure in BLOOD ON THE MINK, the only hardboiled crime novel by science fiction legend Robert Silverberg (unless there are more like this still hidden in the pages of the crime digests of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and we can only hope that's the case). This one was written for a magazine that went defunct before it could be published, but Silverberg sold it a couple of years later to one of his other markets, TRAPPED, where it appeared in the November 1962 issue under the pseudonym Ray McKensie. As Silverberg explains in his afterword to the novel, it turns out that was the final issue of TRAPPED, which is a shame because this novel could well have been the first of a series.

The narrator is a federal agent named Nick whose specialty is undercover work. In BLOOD ON THE MINK, he takes the place of a Los Angeles hood who comes to Philadelphia to make a West Coast distribution deal with a counterfeiting ring. Nick's real objective is to find the engraver who's responsible for the printing plates being used to turn out nearly perfect counterfeit bills. In order to do this he has to maintain his dangerous charade while several different factions vie to come to an agreement with the head of the counterfeiters.

Naturally, there are a couple of beautiful women involved, the mistress of the boss counterfeiter and the daughter of the engraver, and both dames wind up putting Nick in even more peril before the assignment is over. Fistfights, shootouts, and explosions punctuate the narrative, and Silverberg delivers it all in terse, fast-moving prose with a firm hand on the various strands of the plot.

Quite a few of Silverberg's erotic novels are crime yarns in disguise, but he's in full hardboiled mode in BLOOD ON THE MINK and I thought it was great. Like I said above, I wish there were more of these books

The Hard Case Crime edition sports a fine cover, as well as including a couple of Silverberg's equally excellent short stories from the crime digests, "Dangerous Doll", another story bylined Ray McKensie, from the March 1960 issue of GUILTY, and "One Night of Violence", originally published as by Dan Malcolm in the March 1959 issue of GUILTY. With a lot of Silverberg's early SF and some of his erotica back in print, it's time for some enterprising publisher to bring out a massive collection of his crime stories as well. I'd certainly buy it.

And speaking of buying, BLOOD ON THE MINK will be available in early April, but you can pre-order it now. If you like top-notch hardboiled crime novels as much as I do, I highly recommend you do so.

Mar 172012

I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.

The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag.  took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then --- check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and  caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery --- since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.

So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore.  Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you.  Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.

Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box.  Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do.  “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either.  It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading   NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.

Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format.  I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs' books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange --- if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? --- but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.

So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?

Feb 202012

I tend to think of Donald E. Westlake's books as either caper comedies or ultra-hardboiled crime novels, but THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, soon to be published by Hard Case Crime (you can pre-order it!), is a prime example of just how wrong that is. Sure, it has "Comedy" in the title, and it's definitely a caper, and it's really funny in places. But it's also pretty dark and bleak at times, too.

Koo Davis is one of America's most beloved comedians, star of radio, movies, and TV, but perhaps best known for all the tours he did overseas with USO shows to entertain American troops in various war zones. Yes, Bob Hope is the obvious template for Koo Davis, but Westlake fleshes out the character and gives him a history and personality of his own.

Written and set in the late 1970s, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is the story of how Koo is kidnapped by the few remaining members of a violent protest group, hangers-on from the Sixties, who want to use him to force the government to release some so-called political prisoners. Westlake cuts back and forth between Koo, the increasingly desperate kidnappers, and the dogged FBI agent who gets the job of finding and rescuing the beloved comedian.

Not surprisingly, Westlake throws in a number of plot twists and complications, and some of the characters turn out to be much different than they seemed at first. The book is expertly paced and very well written, and the last chapters really had me flipping the pages to find out what was going to happen.

For reasons that editor Charles Ardai explains in a short introduction, this novel was never published until now, and that it exists at all is thanks to Max Allan Collins, who hung on to a copy of the manuscript that Westlake sent to him thirty years ago.  Westlake fans, and anybody who loves good fiction, can be very grateful for that. THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a fine, compelling novel, as well as a poignant conclusion to Westlake's career. Highly recommended.
Nov 052011
The second installment of my Los Angeles Review of Books column, "The Criminal Kind," has been posted on their website. In the piece, I discuss Christa Faust's Choke Hold, Ken Bruen's Headstone, Ed Gorman's Bad Moon Rising, and Day Keene's Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold.

Excerpts are below, or read the full piece here.

Christa Faust
Choke Hold
Hard Case Crime, October 2011. 256 pp.
Written in a casual-but-confident first person perspective, Faust skillfully weaves some of today’s most kinetic hardboiled action with her endearingly earthy humor and moments of unexpected poignancy.

Ken Bruen
Mysterious Press, October 2011. 256 pp.
“Taylor, I heard you were dead,” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel,
Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.

Ed Gorman
Bad Moon Rising
Pegasus Books, October 2011. 256 pp.
Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape... Sam McCain is Gorman’s most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Rising is another triumph in an already extraordinary career.

Day Keene
Dead Dolls Don’t Talk /Hunt the Killer /Too Hot to Hold
Stark House Press, August 2011. 371 pp.
Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold (1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money... Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, “What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?” The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today’s top-sellers.
Oct 072011

By Christa Faust
Hard Case Crime
251 pages

Christa Faust, Hard Case Crime’s only female writer returns with a brutal, hard hitting sequel to her first Angel Dare story, “Money Shot.”  Dare is a former porn star who in the first novel found herself mixed up with a group of Croatian mobsters running a sex-slave operation. By the end of that story, Dare had destroyed their organization, freed the captive girls and was on the wrong side of a sadistic criminal mob.

As “Choke Hold” begins, we learn Dare had gone into the government’s Witness Protection program and been given a new identity in rural New England. Somehow the revenge seeking killers learned of her whereabouts and by sheer luck she manages to elude them and escape, this time completely on her own.  Eventually she stops running somewhere in the Arizona desert where she becomes a waitress in a run down, out of the way diner until she can afford enough cash to pay for new counterfeit identity papers. 

Then the whimsies of fate intervene and into the place walks one of Dare’s old lovers, a former porn actor known as Thick Vic Ventura.  He is there to meet his estranged eighteen year old son, a mixed martial arts fighter who he has never met before.  No sooner do the two men greet each other then the joint is invaded by a trio of gun wielding Hispanics who shoot Ventura and attempt to kill his son.  By the time the lead has stopped flying, there are several corpses on the floor and Dare is fleeing out the back door with Cody Noon, Vic’s son, in tow.  He takes her to his mentor, a famous ex-fighter named Hank who is more than a little punch-drunk.

Dare begins to suspect Cody was the real target of the attack  at the diner and by the time she and Hank can fathom the cause, the boy is grabbed by several goons who work for a local Mexican crime boss.  It seems of the mob’s cocaine stash had been pilfered and Cody is the prime suspect.  Having promised Vic, as he lay dying, that she would protect his son, Dare feels obligated to save him, she and Hank, who has become enamored with her, head south on an ill-planned rescue mission.

“Choke Hold” is a chase novel that weaves its way from the barren Arizona badlands to the illegal fighting rings of Mexico and comes to a gun-blazing, bullet rain of destruction in the glitzy American Mecca of Los Vegas.  It is classic noir in that the characters, both good and bad, are lost souls without an ounce of hope between them.  Life has kicked Hank in the head so many times, he has serious medical issues, Cody is pursuing a naïve dream without the slightest idea of the dangerous world he inhabits and Dare is a tired porn queen on the lam from obsessed foreign killers barely able to keep one ahead of them from one day to the next.

Had there been some concrete resolution to any of these characters, the ending would have been a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately from the first page to the last, “Choke Hold” is a one way trip down a railroad track to meet the oncoming train of death head on and thus offers up no surprises. 

Angel Dare is a well envisioned protagonist and in “Money Shot” there was progression in her development as a character.  That is totally missing in “Choke Hold” and thus questions the books very purpose for being, save to watch her run around being chased by killers.  Noir fiction is not easy to write and nearly impossible in a first person narrative when from the very first “I”, you know the hero will survive.  “Choke Hold” feels like a bad sequel and if there is to be a third Angel Dare book, here’s hoping it has a real finish.

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