Mar 012015
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

MICHAEL KORYTA – The Cypress House. Little Brown, hardcove, January 2011; paperback, July 2011.

   They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first dead men.

   When that is the first line, it is difficult not to go to line two, and so it is with this excellent noirish crime novel, that also happens to be a supernatural novel. You will see it compared to Stephen King, but don’t let that scare you away. Koryta is a first class crime novelist who found his niche in writing tough noirish novels that veer into the supernatural with an admirable ease.

   I have avoided the horror genre for the last decade, but Koryta can write. He can also create characters you care about, evil you fear, and choreograph violence like no one else. He’s closer to a cross between John D. MacDonald and Cornell Woolrich than Stephen King.

   The time is during the depression, and WWI veteran Arlen Wagner is drifting to his birthplace with a plan we will soon learn, but on the way there, he sees dead men on the train and with nineteen year old Paul Brickill leaves the train in a small North Florida town.

   Wagner has reason to trust his instincts. Since Belleau Wood, he has been able to see death coming. He has been able to talk to the dead.

   The decision to leave the train at that point wasn’t that good either, though. He has fallen into the fiefdom of Judge Solomon Ward and Sheriff Tolliver and his henchmen deputies. Getting away doesn’t seem likely, so he and Paul find themselves staying at a ramshackle hotel by the ocean owned by beautiful Rebecca Cady.

   They went a mile down this mud track before the trees parted and the road went to something sandier, shells cracking beneath the tires. A moment later the water showed, and a clapboard structure of white that had long since turned to gray. It was a rectangle with a smaller raised upper level, steep roofs all around. At the top of the structure was a small deck with fence rails surrounding it. A widow’s walk. A porch ran the length of the house, and an old wooden sign swung in the wind above: The Cypress House.

   This is not a modern gothic by any means, for all its atmosphere. Wagner is as tough and hard as any Hammett hero, and Koryta’s prose can be as clean and cut. He doesn’t dwell or linger on gore and grue like a sick twelve-year-old. There are real scares here. There are real mysteries, and not the supernatural kind. Rebecca is tough and beautiful, no fainting heroine to be saved, and her developing relationship with Arlen believable.

   Rebecca Cady hates Ward and Tolliver, but is somehow tied to them. As she and Arlen and Paul wait for a coming storm, tensions build between the two men, both attracted to her, and as Arlen pieces together the secrets of Cypress House and the corrupt little county, he is drawn even closer. They used to smuggle whiskey through Cypress House, and once Rebecca’s father was Solomon Ward’s partner, but now Ward holds Rebecca’s convict brother’s life over her head and is in a far more sinister trade.

   The final one hundred pages or so of this book consist of a sustained running battle between Arlen and Ward’s men. It may not be a tour de force, but it is as suspenseful and well written as any I have encountered a long time, and Arlen’s history and gift/curse play into it with little or no strain on the reader.

   The clouds thickened and continued to hide the sun, but the rain held off. It was as if the storm were being kept at bay, and angry about it.

   Like the storm the violence and Arlen Wagner won’t be held at bay for long. Both will break with unexpected violence.

   I can’t emphasize enough that this is and remains a fine crime novel more than a supernatural one. It never veers off message, loses a step, nor forgets where it is going. Kortya is the most sustained and capable crime writing novelist I have encountered in a long time.

   Arlen will fight his battle and confront his personal battle and destiny in a believable manner with the ending so perfect I don’t want to even hint at it.

   Love lingers.

   I won’t explain what that means in Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House, but it does have power. American noir meets American Gothic, and readers of both genres have a win-win. All I can say is this one would make a hell of a noirish crime film, supernatural or not.

   Few modern writers I’ve picked up recently impressed me this much, and on top of all that, I found it remaindered for a buck at a dollar store. I would have happily paid more.

 Posted by at 9:39 pm
Mar 012015
The Short Mystery Fiction Society today announced its nominees for the 2015 Derringer Awards, as follows.

Best Flash Fiction (up to 1,000 words):
“Because,” by Melissa Yuan-Innes (Fiction River Special Edition: Crime)
“Sweet Smells,” by Jed Power (Shotgun Honey)
“How Lil Jimmie Beat the Big C,” by Joseph D’Agnese (Shotgun Honey)
“Foodies,” by Rob Hart (Shotgun Honey)
“Knockout,” by Eryk Pruitt (Out of the Gutter)
“Because,” by Travis Richardson (Out of the Gutter)

Best Short Story (1,001-4,000 words):
“The Least of These,” by B.V. Lawson (Plan B Magazine, Vol. III)
“Killing Sam Clemens,” by William Burton McCormick (Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine)
“A Friend in Brown,” by Mary E. Stiba (from Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler; Level Best)
“The Bad Son,” by Britni Patterson (from Carolina Crimes: Nineteen Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing, edited by Karen Pullen; Wildside Press)
“The Kaluki Kings of Queens,” by Cathi Stoler (from Murder New York Style: Family Matters, edited by Anita Page; Glenmere Press)

Best Long Story (4,001-8,000 words):
“A Hopeless Case,” by Hilary Davidson (from All Due Respect, Issue #4, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Mike Monson)
“Separation Anxiety,” by Angel Luis Colón (from All Due Respect, Issue #5, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Mike Monson)
“The Ultimate Mystery,” by M.H. Callway (World Enough and Crime, edited by Donna and Alex Carrick; Carrick Publishing)
“The Missing Money,” by James T. Shannon (from Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave)
“Dead Men Tell No Tales,” by Cathy Wiley (from Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Barb Goffman and Marcia Talley; Wildside Press)

Best Novelette (8,001-20,000 words):
“Hitler’s Dogs,” by Doug Allyn (Fiction River Special Edition: Crime)
“Infernal,” by Trey Dowell (Untreed Reads)
“Busting Red Heads,” by Richard Helms (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March 2014)
“The Monster in Our Midst,” by Kris Nelscott (Fiction River Special Edition: Crime)
Juba Good, by Vicki Delany (Orca Books Rapid Reads)

Congratulations to all of the contenders!

(Hat tip to My Little Corner.)
Mar 012015
A good reminder, from Today in Mystery History:
March 1, 1933. On this date The Case of the Velvet Claws was published. Erle Stanley Gardner had been writing stories and novellas at an amazing rate, mostly for Black Mask Magazine, trying to earn enough money to drop being a lawyer and go full-time as an author. It took another lawyer to help him out: the fictional but wildly successful Perry Mason, who premiered in this book. 75 novels and a hit TV show followed.
READ MORE:The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #9: Perry Mason,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).

Marvel’s Agent Carter…so close to be great.

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Mar 012015

When it was announced that Marvel and ABC would be creating a spinoff of Captain America spotlighting Agent Peggy Carter, I…sort of cheered?  Fans had been hoping for a Black Widow solo outing, or any female superhero feature, but at least this would highlight a female-driven comic book movie.  The abysmal Elektra and Catwoman movies have made studios skittish about the lady superheroes, so with a Wonder Woman film tabled until 2017, and a female Captain Marvel not coming out until 2018, Agent Carter would be the first chance so see a comic book show centered around a woman.

            Origin stories are always rough to present, as fans already know how the hero came to be and generally just want everyone to hurry up and get to the smashing.  CW’s The Arrow bypassed this by getting right to his crime-fighting and unfolding his pathway through flashbacks, and then jumpstarted The Flash by introducing him there.  In contrast, the films of Superman and Spiderman forced audiences to yet another interpretation of their origin until we could get to the good stuff. 

            Ideally, Agent Carter could also have skipped past an origin story since she had already been introduced, fully formed, in the first Captain America movie.  Instead, what we received was a sidelined agent who had regressed from being a kickass partner to Captain America and saving the world to being a secretary who took lunch orders and filed the paperwork.  Of course, as we saw in the One Shot extra included on blu-rays, Agent Carter would soon be going out on her own to take down enemy spies, but within her own agency she was still treated as an inept girl. 

            I adored the two hour pilot of Agent Carter, but having the show back-pedal within her our office in order to protect her “identity” was a chore.  Peggy Carter was facing the same sexism faced by other women who lost whatever independence they had in the workplace once the war ended, but it was particularly grating in this setting after seeing her be so great.  Even Tommy Lee Jones respected her as an equal, so one would think that there would have been some run-off within the S.S.R.  As historically accurate it may have been to have Peggy Carter downgraded to being essentially a secretary, it was a bummer to watch.  By the finale she does finally get the respect of her office, only to have it undercut and stolen by the one agent who knew exactly how capable and extraordinary Peggy Carter was as an agent.

            That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the show or that there wasn’t a lot great about it.  I would definitely tune-in again if it gets a second season.  Carter’s relationship with Jarvis was great, and I especially loved how they never had her resort to “honeypotting” or using her “wiles” to seduce an agent.  Instead she was able to use her intelligence and stellar detective skills.  Then she smashed.  At this point, I guess it will have to be enough.

Mar 012015

I’m essentially an optimist. I see the positive side of most events and trends, and I look for signs of good things happening or to come. When there doesn’t seem to be anything good on the horizon, I settle for “This too shall pass.” But the last couple of months have put me in a rare “When will this end?” mood.

The weather, of course, is the culprit. The unending cold, sprinkled (or inundated) with snow or sleet or freezing rain, seems to have put everyone into grumpy gloominess.  Even sunny days, with temperatures in the teens or single digits, bring just enough melting to create another hazard, black ice. And potholes. No one wants to go outside unless it is absolutely necessary. For retail or restaurant businesses, the persistent cold is keeping customers away. This time of year is always the slowest; this year, it’s almost a standstill. Some restaurants and shops are closing, unable to weather this storm. My shop will be all right, but I’m hoping for some pent-up demand once the temperature gets above freezing (possibly in the next week).

Still, I see signs of hope. There was a robin on my deck railing this morning! Today the temperature got into the high 20s, and there were a few families with children in the shop browsing. The parents said they just had to get the kids out of the house to do something. (But more snow tomorrow!) The longer term forecast says we may break that freezing mark for a few days next week.

The gods of Facebook must have seen my need for good news; it seems that this week there was an overabundance of posts with links to articles on encouraging trends for those of us supporting and being supported by the paperbound book. This winter is dreadful; the long range forecast is bright. The topics are ones I have written about frequently, so rather than elaborating on them, I am providing a few links for those who want to read the details:

Why digital natives prefer reading in print. (Washington Post, February 22)

Sorry, Ebooks, These 9 Studies Show Why Print is Better (Huffington Post, February 27)

The Rise of Independent Booksellers in The Time of Amazon (Buzzfeed, February 26)

The studies seem to be showing that electronic readers are hard on the eyes, lead to lower comprehension of the material, and interfere with sleep. As to the independent booksellers, I was comforted by the lead quote from John Green in the Buzzfeed post: “You cannot invent an algorithm that is as good at recommending books as a good bookseller.”

So here is my question: Would all the brilliant minds who have given us a reading tool that is less suited to the human brain than the method we already have, and who design algorithms that can’t imitate the perception of booksellers we already have please turn their attention to doing something about the weather?

Feb 282015

Just got an intriguing email newsletter from Ramble House, the small Mississippi-based company that publishes all of Harry Steven Keeler (and also great books such as Hake Talbot's "Rim of the Pit"). Here's the note from RH's Fender Tucker:

This is just a teaser about a great new book by James Keirans called THE JOHN DICKSON CARR COMPANION. We're putting the final touches on the huge book, getting the comprehensive index just right and we anticipate that it will be available sometime during the month of March. Of course you'll get a Rambler to announce it.

It contains information about every character and plot in every tale written by Carr, all in alphabetical order. Author Keirans has spent years compiling this information and it's all here to accompany you on your journey through the world of John Dickson Carr.

Stay tuned.

As I said, intriguing, to say the least. Anyone know any more about this project?