The little boy placed the Yule log on the andirons along with kindling, struck a match and set the log ablaze. He sat there transfixed by the crackling and popping sounds and the dance of the yellow and orange flames. It was his private fire, his alone.
Then an explosive pop and the log split in two. Smoke poured into the room like a carpet of soot unfurling. Out of the smoke a scaly clawed hand was reaching for something.
And a scratchy snarling voice cried out from the hearth, "Playing with matches again? Here's your coal, you naughty boy!"
For more Christmas themed drabbles please visit Loren's blog where he has collected the links to all the participants' blogs. There are also a few stories posted here for those who don't have blogs. They make for quite a variety of chilling holiday visions and events.
BARBARA & MAX ALLAN COLLINS – Bombshell. Five Star, hardcover, April 2004; trade paperback, 2005.
Did you ever hear the story of how Marilyn Monroe saved Nikita Khrushchev’s life while he was making his famous visit to the US in 1959? Me neither, so either (a) it was hushed up really, really well, or (b) could it be? – in this, their latest venture into historical mystery fiction, the Collinses are completely making it all up.
As a matter of fact, it was in September of that year when I left home for college for the first time, and given that as an understandably overwhelming distraction, I simply did not remember, until reading this book, that Nikkie, as Marilyn fondly begins to call him, even went to California. His outburst of annoyance when he discovered that he was not going to be allowed to visit Disneyland, for example, must have made headlines at the time, but until I checked it out on the Internet, I wasn’t sure if it happened, or if it is only one of the totally misguided urban legends that spring up from time to time. It is not.
It is Marilyn Monroe herself who is the detective in this book, beginning when she is accidentally visiting one of the men’s room at Fox Studios – don’t ask, read the book – and overhears two plotters discussing their upcoming assassination attempt on the Russian leader’s life.
And of course she is the book’s star attraction all the way through, although the title may have another interpretation or two as well. The Collinses have done their homework – they always do – and that their leading character is Marilyn Monroe, full in equal measure of self-confidence and self-doubt, well, they certainly convinced me. I don’t think any male of a certain age can read this book without falling in love with her all over again.
December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!
ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.
But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.
Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.
The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.
The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.
Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.
• Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (Morrow):
Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks (last seen in Watching the Dark) was among the 16 books chosen by Kirkus Reviews critics as the best mysteries and thrillers of 2014. I agree. It starts off with a dead, 59-year-old ex-college lecturer, Gavin Miller, being discovered along a disused length of railway track. We soon learn that Miller hadn’t been doing well for several years, ever since he was dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct with female students. He’d become something of a hermit, drinking himself into forgetfulness. So how did such a loser come to have £5,000 in his pocket? That’s what Banks wants to know, and it will take more than a little rummaging around in Miller’s troubled past to find out. Banks eventually determines that Miller’s murder is connected to events from four decades ago--the days when this future professor was another “young, naïve, privileged intellectual” caught up in political protests and friendly with a woman who has since become a top romance writer, related to a man who’s in line to serve as England’s next home secretary. By the time Banks’ higher-ups start feeling queasy about where this case might be headed, and tell him to put the brakes on, he’s too invested in the outcome to comply. Beyond delivering a compelling story, Robinson does a nice job here of showing how Banks’ subordinates, particularly Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman, have learned from his rather unconventional but determined example as an investigator.
• Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey (Pegasus):
Introduced in Harvey’s 1989 novel, Lonely Hearts, Charlie Resnick--a Polish-descended, jazz-loving, and stalwart police detective in Nottingham, England--has since seen fictitious service in a dozen sequels as well as one collection of short stories (Now’s the Time, 1999). The redundantly titled Darkness, Darkness supposedly marks Resnick’s last appearance, though we’ve heard such claims before. In these pages we see Harvey’s man retired but still working for the Nottingham force as a civilian advisor. When young Kenyan-born Inspector Catherine Njoroge is served up the case of a woman, Jenny Hardwick, who disappeared during the bitter UK coal miners’ strike of the mid-1980s (and whose skeleton has only just resurfaced), she turns to Resnick for assistance. He, after all, had a hand in police surveillance during that work stoppage and might shed some light on the deceased’s fate. With skills acquired after many years of penning police procedurals, Harvey weaves together Hardwick’s experiences, the story of the long-ago strike--which created fissures between friends and divided whole families--and a secondary plot line about Njoroge’s souring association with an abusive ex-lover to produce a novel that, if it does offer Resnick’s final bow, tops off that series most pleasingly.
• The Devil in the Marshalsea,
by Antonia Hodgson (Mariner):
This debut historical novel from Antonia Hodgson, the editor in chief of publisher Little, Brown UK, won the Endeavour Historical Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and found a spot on Publishers Weekly’s list of favorite mystery and thriller novels from 2014. It deserves those and other accolades. The story builds around Tom Hawkins, an almost professional good-for-nothing in 18th-century London. Finally convicted for failure to pay his debts, Hawkins is tossed unceremoniously into Marshalsea prison, a much-feared institution in Southwark, a district distinguished at the time by its disgraceful pleasures: “bear fights and cock fights; theatre and gambling; acrobats and fortune tellers; cheap beer and even cheaper Flemish whores.” He winds up bunking with one Samuel Fleet, a thoroughly eccentric gent--viewed by many in the gaol as the devil incarnate--who may or may not have slain his previous roomie. Not surprisingly, Hawkins wants out of this nightmare post haste. But his only hope of early liberation might be to solve the recent murder of a previous Marshalsea inmate, Captain John Roberts, whose comely wife has been pushing for an investigation into his demise, and whose ghost has allegedly taken to roaming the prison grounds. Hodgson is unsparing in her evocation of Georgian-era penitentiary life, complete with whippings, cruel restraining devices (at one point, Hawkins finds his head locked into a metal skull cap and the rest of him chained in a rat-infested chamber), and an unusual in-house economy that allows better-off jailbirds to enjoy treats such as taverns and coffeehouses. A sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is due out in the UK next July.
• An Officer and a Spy,
by Robert Harris (Knopf):
Twenty-four years after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1895 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of feeding military secrets to the German Empire became an international outrage and an opportunity for French intelligence officials to get back at their nation’s old adversary. However, the Dreyfus case may be less straightforward than it appears. Not long after Colonel Georges Picquart, one of Dreyfus’ teachers, reluctantly accepts a promotion to lead the French military’s Statistical Section--which had been instrumental in gathering the feeble evidence used to exile Dreyfus to Devil’ Island in French Guiana--he becomes convinced that another highly placed turncoat was actually behind those treasonous endeavors (“[H]ow easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world …,” he muses early on. “Already I trust no one”). Picquart’s superiors want him to curtail his probing, but the colonel--an ambitious gent who, despite his cool demeanor, is something of a ladies’ man--won’t give up so easily, his persistence eventually landing him in an African purgatory from which he must escape if he’s ever to act as whistle-blower in the Dreyfus affair. This is not the first novel to tackle the Dreyfus case; Michael Hardwick’s Prisoner of the Devil (1979), a lackluster work in which Sherlock Holmes sticks his nose into the scandal (at Queen Victoria’s behest, no less) covered much of the same ground. But An Officer and Spy, though slow-paced at times, is a much more engaging take on one of history’s most notorious subversions of justice.
• Sundance, by David Fuller (Riverhead):
Finally, let me diverge from the theme to take in a work of speculative historical/Western fiction. Although we’ve been told that Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, perished during a November 1908 shootout in Bolivia, accompanied by fellow outlaw Butch Cassidy, David Fuller imagines an alternative scenario. As Sundance opens, we see Longabaugh--or Longbaugh, as this author prefers to spell it--being released from a Wyoming prison, where he’d spent 12 years under an assumed name, for a crime unrelated to bank or train robbing. 1913 presents the Kid with a vastly different world from the one he’d known during his misspent youth (he’d now be in his mid-40s), but he hasn’t lost his determination to reunite with wife Etta Place, who’d stayed in contact with him through most of his incarceration, but has now disappeared into the concrete wilds of New York City. Following clue after vague clue (might he be reading too much into the signs Etta allegedly left behind?), Longbaugh cuts a fascinating, dangerous path through Manhattan, encountering old friends and new foes as he struggles to find his beloved, hoping time hasn’t sapped her desire for his company. The end of Sundance is a bit too neat, but given how things might have turned out, it’s also satisfying as hell. This is David Fuller’s second novel, following 2008’s Sweetsmoke, and if I enjoy that one as much as I did Sundance, you can be I’ll be hoping for more from this author.
Let me draw attention, too, to three non-fiction books I was fond of this year, and that other crime-fiction fans should also enjoy:
• The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott (Titan): A beautifully illustrated overview of McGinnis’ 60-year career, during which he painted the covers for myriad paperback works by Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Carter Brown, and others. Read more about this volume here and here.
• Goodis: A Life in Black and White, by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool): Although it was published in France way back in 1984, this book about David Goodis, one of the 20th century’s finest authors of paperback thriller fiction (his 1946 novel, Dark Passage, became a film noir classic) was unavailable in English until now. Learn more here.
• Roy Huggins: Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, by Paul Green (McFarland): Huggins’ sometimes controversial, usually successful life as an author and developer of TV shows is explored in great depth here, though anyone who knows Huggins’ career well is sure to be frustrated by not having all of their questions about his work answered.
THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY. Tiffany Productions, 1931. Warner Oland, June Collyer, Lloyd Hughes, Clara Blandick, Hale Hamilton, Wallace MacDonald, George Fawcett, Florence Lake, Mischa Auer. Based on the novel by Harold MacGrath. Director: George B. Seitz.
One of the oddest things about this film, a small gem in its own way, is the name of the villain played by Warner Oland: Dr. Boris Karlov. From what I gather from Wikipedia, and what the heck, I might as well quote:
The reason Dr. Karlov is the villain is because of his totally irrational and demented hatred of the men of the Petroff family, one of whom seduced his daughter, leading directly to her death by suicide. Not knowing which one, father and three sons, he vows vengeance on all of them, even to the extent of following them from Russia to the US in his determined quest for revenge.
The drums, by the way, come into play in a strange fashion. In the dead girl’s hand was found a necklace with charms in the shape of drums, with legend having it that if anyone is given one of the drums, that person will die within 24 hours.
It is a good premise for a story, and the cast goes all out with it, especially Warner Oland in an early pre-Charlie Chan role, and June Collyer as art student Kitty Conover and Clara Blandick as her aunt Abbie, whose Manhattan apartment two of the Petroff brothers have sought a safe haven in.
Fleeing further, but not out of the reach of the crazed Dr. Karlov, the fugitives head for a secluded cottage and nearby boathouse filled with spooky rooms and staircases, dank cellars and dangerous trap doors. And of course, as I recall, it was dark and stormy night.
Perhaps I should not tell you this, but the villain of piece certainly gets what’s coming to him, and more. The acting is somewhat of a drag at times, as was common in talking movies produced as early as this one, but the action is always fast and furious.
One could only wish for a better print than the one from Alpha Video that I watched, in terms of both picture and sound quality, but who’s going to spend money in restoring an old forgotten movie such as this one, no matter how fun it is to watch?
Supposedly publishing takes a holiday break from Christmas to the New Year. I will, in fact, be out of the office from the 24th to the 2nd, but that doesn’t mean work has ceased. Currently I am still reading the manuscripts from the Fall 2015 list, writing/editing back cover copy for the Fall 2015 book, reading submissions to fill the Winter 2016 catalog, and doing the other things that fill up an acquiring editor’s day. Those random things include approving cover routings, talking to sales and marketing about advertising, opening and sharing Christmas presents from my authors, reading my tarot cards, and searching for dinner recipes/ideas.
What makes it so hard to get actual work done over the holidays? Perhaps it’s all the chocolate and sugar coursing through my system. It could also be the excitement seeping in – parties, presents, and good food. Last week we had our Yule party at Llewellyn/Midnight Ink/Flux, which was a lot of fun. There is also holiday planning - what will be on the menu, planning travel days, and sending instructions to Santa so he knows to deliver our presents to Wisconsin. I think the holidays bring out the kid in all of us.
Whatever your holiday is – be is Christmas, Chanukah, or none – I hope you enjoy a few days off surrounded by those you love. And I am going to steal an idea from another blog. On that blog the authors are telling about their best and worst book related events. I am going to do my best and worst Xmas presents.
This is a challenge, for sure. For worst, I think it’s that my sister kept giving me soap for Xmas. Finally, after several years, I said to her, no more soap this year. She seemed kind of surprised and said, “well, I didn’t know what to get you and I asked mom and she said soap.” I laughed and now state very specifically what I want! And soap is never on the list.
I don’t know that I can pick a best. I live about four and a half hours from my family, so for me, every Christmas is magical. My boys and I spend a week at home and it’s always perfect in its imperfection. I know that I am getting a red Wisconsin Badgers zip up hoodie and the Patricia Highsmith books that I don’t have in my collection currently. And I have received a bunch of goodies from my authors. Basically, I have shifted from ooohing and aaahing over things – instead I appreciate that my friends and family took the time out of their day and thought about me. It takes time and care. That is what I love most. Here is a pic of some of the cool stuff I have gotten:
Pretty awesome, huh? All stuff that is perfectly me.
What about you? Best and worst holiday gifts - go!! And happy holidays all!
Well, here are my favorites again...
BEST PI NOVEL: Wolverine Bros Freight & Storage (Conway Sax) by Steve Ulfelder
BEST DEBUT: Silent City (Pete Fernandez) by Alex Segura
BEST NEW PI: Gypsy Moran (in Wink of an Eye) by Lynn Chandler Willis
BEST ACTION SCENES: Jianghu (Randall Lee) by Charles Colyott
I also want to thank Keith Dixon and Sean Dexter for helping me bring out my own stuff again.
Part I: Jim Napier
Part II: Kevin Burton Smith
Part III: Steve Nester
Part IV: Anthony Rainone
Part V: Ali Karim
Part VI: J. Kingston Pierce
It’s been fun presenting these rundowns of our critics’ favorite crime, mystery, and thriller works, but we do need to move on to other editorial endeavors (including tallying the results of our “best crime novel covers” poll). We encourage you now, though, to express some of your own opinions of which books in this genre, published during the last 12 months, most impressed or surprised you. Please use the Comments button at the end of this post to tell us what new works we should have read, but maybe missed, during 2014.
We thank you in advance for your thoughts on this matter.