Monday, December 23, 2013

Thrift Shop Book Covers: The Freedom Trap


The Freedom Trap is the eighth novel published by Desmond Bagley.  Its United States debut was a hardcover published by Doubleday in 1971, but it is the Fawcett Crest paperback edition that caught my eye.  The cover art has everything an adventure novel should—a frogman, a bikini clad beauty, an exploding boat in the background, and the tide breaking onshore.  The artist, as far as I know, is unknown, but it is a fine example of a 1970s Fawcett paperback.























The novel itself is pure adventure.  Reardon is a high class criminal who is hired by a man named Mackintosh for a simple job—knock over a postman delivering a shipment of uncut diamonds and hand them over to Mackintosh and get paid.  But like everything, nothing is as simple as it seems and Reardon finds himself in prison serving 20 years.  And all this in only the first 38 pages; and it astonishingly gets better.
It is widely believed The Freedom Trap was inspired by Soviet spy—or more accurately British double agent—George Blake’s October 22, 1966 escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison.  He was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 42 years in 1961.  The plot is similar to Jack Higgins’ 1967 Paul Chavasse novel The Dark Side of the Street, which was also likely influenced heavily by the George Blake story (due to the timing of its release) and is an excellent adventure novel in its own right.       

The opening paragraph:

“Mackintosh’s office was, unexpectedly, in the City.  I had difficulty in finding it because it was in that warren of streets between Holborn and Fleet Street, which is a maze to one accustomed to the grid-iron pattern of Johannesburg.  I found it at last in a dingy building; a well-worn brass plate announcing innocuously that this Dickensian structure held the registered office of Anglo-Saxon Holdings, Ltd.”        
The Freedom Trap was translated to film as “The Mackintosh Man” starring Paul Newman as Reardon.  The plot, and it has been several years since I have seen it, follows the novel quite closely.  It was directed by John Huston and written for the screen by Walter Hill.
Although for all excitement, action and even history of the novel, it is the cover on that 1973 Fawcett Crest paperback (M1789) that made me pick it up in the first place.  It’s a shame these lurid covers and well told stories are relics limited to thrift shops and forgotten used books stores. 


This is the first of a new series of posts featuring the cover art and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops.  It is reserved for books I purchased as much for the cover art as the story or author.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 -- The Year In Reading

2013 marked my reentry to consistent blogging, and it was also my most productive year as a reader in the past five or six.  To date I have finished 53 books (and I will probably finish another 2 or 3); the majority were novels, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too.  The nonfiction tended towards history, which included a number of interesting titles including Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and Manhunt by Peter Maas.

The year also marked a return to a genre I enjoyed (loved?) as a boy—adventure.  Specifically the British writers of the 1960s and 70s featuring such stars as Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, and Jack Higgins.  This said, I didn’t read many “new” authors, but mostly stayed with the old reliables.  In fact, I only increased my fiction writers read by five—Craig Thomas (Wolfsbane), Alfred Coppel (The Eight Day of the Week), Shepard Rifkin (The Murderer Vine), A. Bertram Chandler (Star Courier), and Billie Sue Mosiman (Wireman).
What I lacked in new writers I made up for in my long time favorites.  A full fifteen of the novels I read, or approximately 28 percent of my total reading, was limited to four writers.  I read or reread six titles by Jack Higgins, and three titles each by Jack M. Bickham, Ed Gorman, and Bill Pronzini.  And I really enjoyed every one of the novels by each of my most frequently read writers of 2013.

In the old days of this blog I put together a listing of my favorite five books read for the year, and I decided it would be fun to do it again this year.  It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list by a less than scientific methods.  With that said, my five favorite novels read in 2013 are—
5.  The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe.  This is the first title to feature Marlowe’s recurring character Earl Drake, and it is a real piece of hardboiled candy.  It was originally published by Gold Medal in 1962, and earlier this year it was released with its sister novel The Endless Hour in a nifty trade paperback by the never disappointing Stark House Press.  Read the Gravetapping review.

4.  Dark Passage by David Goodis.  This is Goodis’ most well-known novel.  It is dark, a little twisted, and a bunch of fun.  It was originally published in 1946, and it has been reissued a number of times. It is currently available in an omnibus hardcover edition by The Library of America, which includes four other Goodis titles.  Interestingly, the plot is similar to the television show “The Fugitive” and United Artists Television settled a copyright lawsuit with Goodis’ estate.
3.  The Beardless Warriors by Richard Matheson.  I was reading this title for the first time when Richard Matheson passed earlier this year, and it is a truly masterful piece of storytelling.  It is the story of a young man ordered to the frontlines as a replacement soldier during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe.  He is transformed from a green recruit to a seasoned combat soldier in a matter of days, and what frightens him and the reader alike is how easily he takes to killing.  This is a masterpiece by one of the most consequential authors of his generation.

2.  Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard.  This is a collection of short stories written by Mr Leonard.  The title is from the story the television series “Justified” is based, and amazingly the pilot for the television series and the story are almost identical.  I devoured this collection in little more than one sitting, and as I read it my main thought—nobody writes like Elmore Leonard. 
1.  The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin.  When I sat down to compile the best of list there was no doubt what the number one would be.  It is a perfectly executed crime novel, and an even better piece of civil rights literature.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

DRAGON GAMES by Stephen Mertz



2008. Beijing, China. The world has descended on China for one of the most spectacular public relations campaigns in modern history.  The Summer Olympics mark China’s celebration, and notice to the world, that it has arrived as a major world power, and it is of the utmost importance nothing go wrong.  A small group of private foreign security agents are hired to help protect the influx of both Western athletes and tourists.

The novel begins with the opening ceremonies in the behemoth stadium coined “the bird’s nest” with an unexpected and very violent operation involving both the private security firm and Chinese Special Forces.  A group of what the Chinese believe to be terrorists are captured in the delivery access area of the stadium.  It is a quick and violent operation that isn’t noticed by anyone, including the media, but leads the protagonist, Tag McCall, into a dark and dangerous mission that will cost him more than he can fathom.

Dragon Games is a throwback in the thriller racket.  It is more adventure and less bombast.  The writing is tight and literate, and the plot is streamlined into an action packed story that is more believable, and therefore more suspenseful, than the common variety 21st Century thriller.

The prose is strong and shifts from a rich and almost poetic cadence to a stark and pounding hardboiled style that is reminiscent of the suspense novels of the 1970s and 80s.  It is, however, not a rehash of anything old or new.  The story is original and the style is all Stephen Mertz.  It is a modern adventure novel that it is better than most in its category.

The characters, particularly the hero, are built around the story, but they have a certain reality that gives them a flesh and blood feel.  They have families, love, hate, hope and even dreams.  Their back stories are sprinkled throughout the novel with a sparseness that allows the reader to relate to the characters without slowing the pace of the plot.

Dragon Games is the best of Stephen Mertz’s novels.  The narrative is strong, the characters are vivid and bold, and the story is exotic, enticing, and damn fun.  There are brief touches of understated humor mixed with ratcheting tension and action, and richly detailed and interesting descriptions of Beijing, the Olympics and the Chinese people. Mr Mertz has written a novel that is worthy of the first tier of suspense and action novels.


This review was originally published in slightly different form at the long ago blog Dark City Underground on June 1, 2010.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

COMES THE DARK STRANGER by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Comes the Dark Stranger is the fourth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1962.  It is an anomaly in Mr Patterson’s body of work because it is less adventure and more noir than anything else he wrote.

Martin Shane came to Burnham to kill a man.  Eight years earlier he and five other volunteered for Korea in Burnham, and were later captured by the Chinese.  They were questioned and tortured by a slight, club-footed Chinese officer named Colonel Li.  The men were captive for only a few days, but it was long enough for one of the men to be summarily executed and another to give Colonel Li what he wanted.  And Shane came back to Burnham because he needs to know who spilled to Colonel Li, and punish him with his life.

Comes a Dark Stranger is an interesting study of cold war paranoia.  Martin Shane received a severe head wound in Korea when American bombers raided the monastery where he was held captive, which took his memory for seven long years.  The seven years between the last day at the monastery and a few weeks before the story begins are a blank, and the war is fresh on his mind.  The cast of characters is straight from a 1950s film noir—a deformed millionaire, a shifty nightclub owner, a sweet but worldly club girl, a drunk and his bitter greedy wife, and the mandatory seemingly honest middle class lady.

The prose is an interesting mixture of Mr Patterson’s normal, almost lyrical prose, and a more straight forward dark, shadowy prose.  An example of the former is the opening lines—

“He was drowning in a dark pool.  The hands of the damned were pulling him down, but he kicked and struggled and fought his way to the surface.”
And an example from the later—

“There was a narrow, dark opening in the opposite wall, and he crossed the street and plunged into it as the car flashed back.”
The deep shadows and stark flesh of an urban underbelly is palpable in much of the prose, and as I read the novel I was reminded of the shadowy lighted films popular in the era heavy with paranoia, betrayal, and fear.  The paranoia is central to the plot and the throughout the novel Shane hears the scrape and slide sound of Colonel Li walking.  It is a sound he hasn’t heard since the Korea, but it is a sound that literally represents the narrow edge between sanity and madness.

Comes the Dark Stranger is different than most of Mr Patterson’s novels, and while it seems rushed in spots and a tad over plotted, it is an entertaining diversion.  Its atmosphere and tone is rich, and Martin Shane is an engaging protagonist—if seemingly unreliable much of the time—who the reader easily identifies.  But the most interesting element of the novel is its experimental nature.  Not experimental in the macro sense, but rather in the micro sense—i. e. Mr Patterson’s own body of work.   
There is an interesting correlation between Harry Patterson and Martin Shane.  Shane regained his memory when he fell and the shrapnel lodged in his brain shifted.  Harry Patterson was diagnosed with something called essential tremor syndrome in his early seventies, which is a neurological disease that caused shaking so severe he was unable to hold a pen.  He suffered a seizure at a friend’s house, fell and struck his head, and the tremors stopped nearly instantly.  In an interview with Reuters Mr Patterson said, “In a way it is a bit like Lazarus.  It has been a blessing late in life—this unprecedented cure.”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

STAR COURIER by A. Bertram Chandler

John Grimes is the Owner-Master of the deep space pinnace Little Sister.  Little Sister is a modified solid gold hulled ship, which was given to Mr Grimes by his former employer Michelle, Baroness d’Estrang, of El Dorado “in lieu of back pay and separation pay.”  A pinnace is a light sailing ship used as a tender for a larger ship, but Little Sister is fully equipped and capable of autonomous galactic space transit.

Grimes is recently unemployed and finds himself on Tiralbin looking for a mail contract.  The Interstellar Transport Commission has the mail contract for Tiralbin, but it is notoriously slow for the smaller provincial planets off the main trade routes—

“Grimes recalled especially a parcel that his colleague had torn open with great indignation.  According to the postmark it had taken just over a year to reach Lindisfarne Base.  It contained a not readily identifiable mass that looked as though it would have been of interest only to a geologist.  It was, in fact, a birthday cake that had been baked by the disgruntled lieutenant’s fiancée.”

Grimes is on planet for only a few hours when a cargo to the small wealthy planet Boggarty is offered.  The cargo is a rush consignment with one hitch: the Superinteding Postmistress Tamara Haverstock must accompany the cargo.  The expected pleasantries happens between Grimes and the postmistress until Little Sister’s inertial drive breaks down, and they are boarded by the Shaara, a very advanced bee species.
Star Courier is a simple, straight forward space adventure.  It is simple, but the sheer amount of action is extraordinary—Grimes moves from budding entrepreneur to casa nova to prisoner to conquering diety.  In short, the story is large, but it is played out on the ground and kept not only manageable by Mr Chandler, but also entertaining.  The prose is simple, crisp, and very readable.  It perfectly matches the story style, and creates a certain low level buzz of tension by pushing the narrative forward quickly and without any overwrought dramatics.

Star Courier is very unlike most of the science fiction currently being published.  It is short, full of adventure, and includes very little—no?—philosophy.  It is something very close to what Ace was publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, and if you enjoy the older science fiction—or maybe it is better described as space adventure—than you will have a great time with this one.
Interestingly, I found a quote from Mr Chandler regarding his work in his entry in Contemporary Authors Online—

“I write science fiction because I like it.  More than one unkind editor has commented that my stories are ‘costume sea stories.’”     

Star Courier felt very much like a sea story; from the use of the term “pinnace” to describe Little Sister, to landing procedures in port, to the use of mainline trading routes.  However space travel is inherently comparable with sea travel due to the long distances involved and the solitary self-sustained journeys.     
Star Courier was originally published by DAW in 1977, and it is currently available as both an ebook and in an omnibus print edition (both trade and mass market) titled Galactic Courier: The John Grimes Saga III, which also includes To Keep the Ship, Matilda’s Stepchildren, and Star Loot.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Don Pendleton's Joe Copp Novels

Don Pendleton is best known for his men’s adventure series The Executioner.  He created it and wrote, more or less, the first 38 titles in the series before he handed it off to Gold Eagle books and a host of ghost writers.  Mr Pendleton’s later work never found the same success as The Executioner, but he wrote a series of private detective novels featuring an ex-cop tough guy named Joe Copp.

Copp appeared in six novels between 1987 and 1992.  They were published in hardcover by Donald I. Fine, and paperback (except the first) by Harper.  There is something almost juvenile about the stories—black and white themes, hard as nails action, and prose as hard as Mickey Spillane—but the stories are vivid, exciting, and very entertaining. 

Below is a listing of the books in chronological order with the cover scans of the original hardcover and paperback editions of each title, excepting Copp in Deep, which I was unable to find a scan for the hardcover.    
Copp for Hire.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1987 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Lynx Books in 1988.

 
Copp on Fire.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1988 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Harper Paperbacks in 1989.  Read the Gravetapping review.


Copp in Deep.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1989 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Harper Paperbacks in 1990.  If anyone has a scan of the hardcover I would be much obliged for a copy.


Copp in the Dark.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1990 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Harper Paperbacks in 1991.

 
Copp on Ice.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1991 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Harper Paperbacks in 1992.

 
Copp in Shock.  Published by Donald I. Fine in 1992 as a hardcover, and reprinted in mass market by Harper Paperbacks in 1993.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

THE CASTRO DIRECTIVE by Stephen Mertz

Stephen Mertz is an unheralded, and much undervalued, writer of action and suspense novels.  He has steadily put together an impressive body of work since the late 1970s.  He was one of the original writers of the post-Don Pendleton, The Executioner series, and he created a few of his own successful men’s adventure series in the 1980s, including M. I. A. Hunter and Cody’s War.  But the meat of his work is what he has produced over the last decade starting with Night Wind, and including the excellent novels The Korean Intercept, Dragon Games, and Hank & Muddy.

I read his most recent novel The Castro Directive in close to a single sitting.  It is a straight action thriller with a dollop of intrigue, and a touch of betrayal.  The year is 1961.  The CIA sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba is in its final phase and a high level leak is passing information about the invasion to the Castro government.  When a CIA man is killed on a deserted Cuban beach the Kennedy administration brings in a troubleshooter named Michael “Graveyard” Morgan.  Graveyard is a Green Beret sergeant stationed in Vietnam as an advisor, and he is a man who gets the job done.

Morgan’s job is to find the mole.  It takes him from the streets of Miami to Nicaragua to Cuba, and back again.  There is an interesting sub plot involving Graveyard’s daughter and wife, and the cast of characters includes President Kennedy.  The JFK described is long on intelligence, but short on marital fidelity.  One of my favorite presidential scenes has Kennedy reading a James Bond novel poolside. 
The Castro Directive’s plot is straight forward, but with a few well timed and satisfying surprises.  The prose is stark and, in places, quite vivid— 
“The only sound for the past ten minutes had been the lapping of gentle swells against the low, black-painted hull.  The V-20 speedboat rode the swells one hundred yards offshore.  Sleek, sixty-three-feet in length, the launch bore no name or markings.”   
Graveyard is an action hero from the old school.  He is tough, single minded, and willing to do, and risk, anything to get the job done.  The added element of his family, which Mr Mertz ties into the story admirably, adds a little meat to the bone and makes the story more interesting.  The real charm of The Castro Directive is the setting—1960’s South Florida, especially—and the straight forward action, which is a specialty of Mr Mertz. 

The Castro Directive may be Stephen Mertz’s best novel to date—and each is seemingly better than the last—but even if it isn’t his best, it is damn enjoyable anyway.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

DEAD RECKONING by Sam Llewellyn

Sam Llewellyn is an author I discovered in the late 1980s as a teenager.  He wrote a series of suspense novels set in the British fishing village of Pulteney.  The novels all have sailing as a backdrop, and by my recollection none of them feature the same protagonist.

I recently reread Dead Reckoning, which is the first of the Pulteney sailing novels published in 1987.  It is narrated by Charlie Agutter.  Charlie is from an old Pulteney family, and he makes his living designing racing yachts.  The novel opens with Charlie receiving a summons to the village’s lifeboat.  A sailing yacht has been caught in The Teeth—a dangerous stretch of reef just off shore.  The stranded yacht was designed by Charlie, and is one of only two produced with a new light weight rudder, but even worse the dead sailor at its helm is his brother.

It appears the rudder failed and a heavy sea dragged Aesthete into the Teeth where its hull was cracked like an egg.  The accident hits Charlie hard.  He and his younger brother were close and his business is threatened with collapse due to the perceived failure of the new rudder.  Charlie is certain the rudder was sabotaged, but the saboteur is a step ahead and he can’t prove it.  The mystery is as much motive as whodunit.  Charlie isn’t sure why the rudder was tampered with, and if it was murder for its own sake—to kill his brother or the other man aboard the yacht—or an attempt to destroy him and his business by undermining the rudder design.
Dead Reckoning is a wonderful suspense-adventure mystery.  It was fairly (and correctly) compared to the work of Dick Francis by critics when it was released.  A slim line suspense mystery with a sport setting.  In this case yacht racing, but it is as much an adventure story as mystery, and it is seemingly influenced by the Alistair MacLean style adventure thriller.  It is heavy on description, setting (weather is always an adversary), action and suspense, and light on dialogue and whodunit ponderings.
Pulteney is a perfect setting for the story.  It is a boom town that was once a place where fishermen made their living from the sea, but it has been bought up by wealthy professionals and industrialists who use it as a place to moor yachts and brag about to their friends back in the city.  The rub between the old and new residents creates its own tension as Charlie works to solve the puzzle and catch the killer.  He walks a tenuous line between both old and new, and isn’t quite trusted by either. 

Everything works in Dead Reckoning, but what sets it apart from its peers is the seamless weaving of both the culture and sport of yacht racing.  The plot cannot be extricated from its background, and one without the other would be completely useless.  The setting is exotic and familiar at once, and the characters are smoothly realistic in shades of both likability and familiarity.   
Dead Reckoning was published more than 25 years ago, but it has held up remarkably well, and Sam Llewellyn is back on my list of favorite writers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

CAMP FORD by Johnny D. Boggs

Win MacNaughton is an aging—99 years old—former baseball player, umpire, and coach who is invited to attend the 1946 World Series by The Sporting News.  A reporter asks him how he thinks the two participating teams—Red Sox and Cardinals—compare to the best team he has ever seen.  Win doesn’t hesitate, and quickly names two teams.

“‘Easy’ I said. “Mr. Lincoln’s Hirelings and the Ford City Gallinippers. Played one game at Camp Ford, Texas.”
The reporter gave Win a confused look and walked away.  He didn’t mention either of the teams in the newspaper the next day, and Win MacNaughton spends the rest of Johnny D. Boggs’ Camp Ford explaining his answer.  He begins his story as a boy in Rhode Island where he is introduced to the game that shaped his life.  His move with his parents to Jacksboro, Texas, where his father gets involved with the anti-slavery movement and, when the Civil War breaks out, his parents take him back North where, in 1863 he joins the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry.

It isn’t long before Win finds himself a prisoner of war at Camp Ford, Texas where life is hard, cruel, and, surprisingly, filled with baseball—even the Southerners are learning the game.
Camp Ford won the Spur Award for best novel in 2005, and it is the best Western novel I have read in a long time.  Mr. Boggs adroitly weaves two storylines—the aged Win MacNaughton watching the 1946 World Series in St. Louis, and Win MacNaughton as a boy growing up in a changing and violent time with the new game of baseball.  The prisoner of war scenes are harsh and realistic with vivid descriptions of the place, the characters, and, most importantly, the inner thoughts of MacNaughton as he tries to survive captivity.
The characters are richly created and populate the novel with a sincerity and richness often lacking in this genre, or any other.  The ideals of friendship, love, and hate are explored, and Mr Boggs leaves just enough ambiguity in the narrative to allow the reader to judge the actions of the characters.  The storyline is refreshing and original.  It has just the right mixture of baseball folklore and Civil War history to satisfy both readers of historical fiction, and anyone who enjoys the sport.  But more importantly Camp Ford is a wonderfully entertaining and downright enjoyable novel.
I enjoyed this novel enough when I originally read it that it was included in my top five novels that year.  Camp Ford is a novel you should make a point to read. 
This review was originally published in slightly different form at the long ago blog Saddlebums on December 16, 2007, but since it is the season of baseball, and the current World Series is being played by the Red Sox and Cardinals, I decided to dust it off and give it new life.  Camp Ford is currently available as an ebook.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Heavenly Van Gogh


This image is of Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon).  It was taken by Hubble in 2002 when the star emitted a pulse of light or energy.  The Hubble website makes the comparison of this beautiful “light echo” to the work of Vincent Van Gogh.  The halo, or dust, is illuminated by the star, which is the red center. 

Its beautiful swirls and tidal-like movements are as vibrant as any space photograph I have ever seen.  It is something close to a magical and unbelievable view into a different time and place.  A place we can never see with our own retinas, but a place we can interpret and imagine from the lens of Hubble.  A place of imagination and opportunity.  A place for our hopes and amazements.  But more importantly a vision of the future and humanities march forward, which is summoned by our ability to capture such an image.     

The Hubble website description is here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

AT FIRST SIGHT by Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell’s fourteenth novel At First Sight received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released in 2008.  Publisher’s Weekly called it “disappointing,” and Booklist said it “might be his best novel yet.”  After reading it this past weekend I’m leaning more towards Booklist’s opinion than PW’s. 

Chick Best is a self-made millionaire.  He hit it big with an Amazon-type Internet company, but the good days are gone.  Now he is stuck with an expensive weight lifting wife, an angry drug addicted daughter, and selling his company for pennies on the dollar.  And worst, he is losing his credentials—the envy his wealth and possessions generates in others.  Suffice it to say Chick is a pathetically shallow man.

Chick and his family vacations in Maui each Christmas, and Chick’s dead end trajectory gets a lift when he spots the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  The woman is soft in that feminine way and gorgeous, which is the complete opposite of his hard body wife who spends more time discussing abs, quads, workout programs, and scowling (at least at Chick) than anything else.   
He immediately formulates a plan to meet the woman (Paige Ellis), who is married to a likable old money school teacher who is more concerned with learning disabled children than wealth.  A mind set Chick finds confusing and annoying.  The two couples become friends during the week, and when the vacation is over Chick can’t get Paige Ellis out of his mind.  On a New York business trip he detours to the Ellis’s North Carolina home where he begins his plan to win Paige.
At First Sight is written in both first and third person.  There are three acts—the first is narrated by Chick alone, the second is narrated by both Chick in first person and Paige in third person, and the third is narrated by Paige in first person and Chick in third person.  The changing perspective creates tension and builds doubt between the reader and Chick.  Chick is a sympathetic narrator in the first act, but as the reader is exposed to additional information from outside it becomes clear Chick is less than trustworthy.
While Chick may be less than honest, his portions of the novel are pure gold.  He narrates with a snarky wit, which is funny in the first half of the novel, but as his true character is revealed it becomes ominous.  He turns out to be such a loathsome character I found myself uncomfortable with my original opinion of both him and his and wit; as though liking him in the early stages of the novel illuminated something unsavory about my own character.
At First Sight is pretty terrific.  It is a fast moving story, which is cleverly plotted and told with a flash bang style and wit.  There are moments Chick’s narrative is laugh out loud funny—particularly when he is describing his daughter, wife, and his wife’s trainer Mickey D:

“I let it happen, though, because I didn’t think in four days Evelyn would be able to turn Paige’s softness into the kind of anatomical gristle that she had struggled so hard to achieve for herself.”
At First Sight is the best of the handful of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels I have read, and it’s a shame he didn’t write fewer of his Shane Scully novels and more like this. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Feast of John Lange, Err...Michael Crichton

The best news in publishing, at least at my house, is Hard Case Crime is reissuing the eight novels Michael Crichton published between 1966 and 1972 as by John Lange.  The John Lange novels are superior adventure thrillers strong on plot and action, generally (but not always) set in exotic locations with everyman protagonists.  The majority of the titles have been out of print for decades and cost a small fortune on the secondary market, which is why I’ve read most instead of all. 

I spent the better part of my youth (and a good deal of my adulthood) trolling bookstores with a single goal: FIND A JOHN LANGE TITLE!  And I found most of them (and a bunch of Oliver Lange), but wow a few were elusive, which is about to change because all eight are going to be issued in fashionable trade paperbacks with terrific artwork by Hard Case.  The only problem; will I be able to stop looking for them?

The following is a listing of the John Lange titles in chronological order.  I included the cover art for both the new Hard Case Crime edition, and any other covers I know of (because I love old paperback cover art).

Odds On.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1966.  This is Crichton’s first published novel, and it is one of the titles I haven’t read.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.      
   
Scratch One.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1967.  Scratch One is one of the weaker John Lange titles.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.

 
Easy Go.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1968.  It was reissued by Bantam with the title The Last Tomb.  This is one of the better John Lange titles.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.  Read the Gravetapping review.

 
Zero Cool.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1969.  This title was reissued by HCC in 2008 as a mass market paperback with cover art by Gregory Manchess.  The cover art will not change, but the book size will be increased to trade paperback.  Read the Gravetapping review.

 
The Venom Business.  Originally published as a hardcover in 1969 by World Publishing Company.  This is another of the titles I have yet to read.  The cover art is by Gregory Manchess.

 
Drug of Choice.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet.  Yet another title I haven’t read.  This was also issued under the title OverkillThe cover art is by Gregory Manchess.

 
Grave Descend.  Originally published as a paperback original by Signet in 1970.  This title was short listed for the best paperback original Edgar Award.  This title was resissued by HCC in 2006 as a mass market paperback with cover art by Gregory Manchess.  The cover is the same, but the size changes to a trade paperback.

Binary.  Originally published as a hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1972.  This title was translated into a television movie directed by Michael Crichton in 1972 titled “Pursuit”.  The novel is the best of the John Lange titles, but the film was somewhat disappointing.  The cover art is by Glen Orbik.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Monday, October 07, 2013

THE REMOVERS by Donald Hamilton

The Removers is the third novel to feature cold war spy, or more accurate, enforcer Matt Helm.  He is less spy and more enforcer because he acts as a counter intelligence wet work operative rather than an intelligence gatherer; or as Helm’s boss explains:

“If you were working for a criminal organization, you’d be enforcers.  Since you’re working for a sovereign nation, you can call yourselves… well, removers is a very good word.”

Matt Helm receives a cryptic note from his ex-wife seeking help.  She left Helm, and took their two small children with her, when his violent past found him.  She lives with her new husband on a ranch outside Reno, Nevada where a local hood is making subtle threats to Helm’s children.  Helm’s boss gives him permission to head west, but asks him to make contact with another agent working a case against a Soviet agent called Martel.
Not surprising, Helm’s personal business and the Soviet operation are one and the same.  The agent working the case is inexperienced and in short order Helm finds only he is standing between Martel, the safety of his children, and the Soviet plot. 
The Removers is a smooth and exciting novel.  There aren’t many surprises, mainly because similar plots have been rolling over and over since it was published fifty years ago, but its execution is pitch perfect.  It is constructed from the ground up—the early action and plotting is interesting enough to keep the reader fully invested, while still leaving room enough for additional tension, action, and suspense without becoming overblown, unbelievable, and tedious.
The characters also contribute to the success of the novel.  There are the expected characters, whose only role is to fulfill the plot, but there are also the unexpected.  There is the flash bang daughter of the hood who is something close to a Helm ally, his ex-wife who is both less and more than expected; less because Helm wants her to behave as an operative, and more because she really is a decent woman. 
The element which differentiates The Removers, and all of the Matt Helm novels, is the protagonist.  He is something other than.  Meaning he is an uneasy categorization; he isn’t sympathetic, and while he constantly plays the angles and never fully risks himself for another, he is far from amoral.  Which is something he would rather you didn’t know.  Although you should know this title, and all the other Matt Helm novels, are pretty damn terrific.
Titan Books is republishing the Matt Helm novels as attractive mass market paperbacks.  To date the first six novels in the series are back in print and two more are scheduled.  I hope there is enough success to get all 27 of the titles back in print because they represent the best the genre has to offer, now and then.