Sunday, February 28, 2016

CROSSFIRE: THE SCALES OF JUSTICE by John Hegenberger

1988. Eliot Cross is tired of the private detective game and thinking about his exit. His one-man shop, Cross Examinations, in Columbus, Ohio, is less than busy. His elderly mother and estranged father both died the prior month, and the bottle has become more comfort than it should be. His head hurts, too, since taking a knock the previous night after discovering a dead body at roadside. The body disappeared and the police are less than interested in Eliot’s story.

An old flame, Diane Davis, convinces Eliot to take one last job before shuttering the business. It is an industrial espionage case involving the theft of a high tech industrial scale developed by Ms. Davis’ employer Justice Scale Corporation. Eliot takes the job for no reason other than wanting to end his P. I. run with a win. The case, unsurprisingly, is more than it seems and by the end includes a few dead bodies and even circles back to Eliot’s disappearing roadside corpse.

Crossfire: The Scales of Justice is a nicely entertaining private eye novel. Its plot is complicated, interesting, and satisfyingly over-the-top—it includes a blackmail scheme threatening the 1988 Summer Olympics. It is written in a smoothly terse, almost ironic, first person. Eliot is self-deprecating, tough, and attracts women like a film star. The setting is nicely late-1980s, including vintage descriptions of Columbus, cars, and music. It is easy to read, more fun than any Tuesday night on television, and thoroughly enjoyable.    
   
Purchase a copy of Crossfire: The Scales of Justice at Amazon.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

BACKSHOT: 1902 by Ed Gorman

Backshot: 1902 is the first of two related short novels. 1902 is written by Ed Gorman and Backshot: 2012 is written by Tom Piccirilli. The connection is familial. Marshal Royce, who appears in the later parts of 1902, is the grandfather of the protagonist in 2012. I haven’t read 2012 yet—my copy is still wending its way across the United States, last check put it in North Carolina—but 1902 is damn good.

Declan Parnell is a young, relatively harmless, man working in the finest restaurant in Granite Bend. He has two weaknesses, the tables in the local casinos, and Jancey. Jancey is the beautiful, manipulative, self-serving girlfriend of Declan’s boss. She gives Declan a taste whenever she wants her beau in a jealous huff. Declan’s other vice destroyed his relationship with his only real friend, a middle-aged woman named Burl, which makes him vulnerable to a supporting role in the robbery of a local judge. The robbery goes bad, and Declan’s prospects get bleaker when Marshal Royce, who is in town investigating the local Sheriff for corruption, starts sniffing around.

Backshot: 1902 is a marvelously executed western noir. Declan is likable, maddening in his foolishness, and hopelessly inadequate to Jancey’s powers—

“She was right. I didn’t know much about women and the little I did know scared the hell out of me.”

It is very much like an old Gold Medal crime novel—a man trapped in a situation far out of his control, his downfall brought by a beautiful woman, and his redemption in the arms of another. It is developed with Ed Gorman’s masterful colors of humanity. The most egregious, nasty villains are painted with the light brush of understanding, creating a moral ambiguity that is more horrifying than straight evil. It is an understated masterpiece, an apt description of many of Ed Gorman’s works, and well worth the price of admission.  
       

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

EAST OF DESOLATION by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

East of Desolation is the twenty-second novel published by Harry Patterson, and the first to appear under his most famous byline, Jack Higgins. It is also a pivotal title in his transition from midlist to bestselling writer. It was originally released in the U. K. as a hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968, and it was issued in the United States by Doubleday & Company; it was Mr. Patterson’s first U. S. appearance in hardcover.

Joe Martin is a British pilot flying an Otter Amphibian from the small town of Frederiksborg on the southwest coast of Greenland. The flying season is short and the climate cold, but the money is double what he can earn elsewhere and its lack of civilization suits him. He has summer contracts with several mining outfits, and a special deal flying provisions to an Ernest Hemingway-style actor hunting polar bears and everything else drawing breath. The actor is a washed up legend named Jack Desforge who authors, and perhaps believes, his own mythology.

Things get interesting when an insurance adjuster, Hans Vogel, arrives with the widow of a pilot whose crashed airplane was discovered on the ice-cap a year earlier. Vogel wants Joe to fly him to the wreckage to identify the pilot. The story, both Vogel’s and the widow’s, Sarah Kelso, doesn’t add up and Joe has an uneasy feeling about the whole thing.

East of Desolation marks Harry Patterson’s entrance to the top-tier of adventure writers—Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes. It is markedly better than its predecessors; its characters are richer with less caricature, the plot is larger with more doubt about its conclusion, and its setting is sturdy with a forbidding sense of isolation. It is first person narrative with a hint of the unreliable. Joe Martin knows more than he is sharing with either the reader or the other players. A characteristic shared by most of the cast—Desforge, Kelso, Vogel—which generates significant tension and unease.

Joe Martin is the most developed protagonist of Mr. Patterson’s early work. He is, like many of Mr. Patterson’s protagonists, a man who has fallen below his station, but he is also more; an alcoholic, divorced, and hiding. His relationship with women is more complex than the usual and there is a nicely executed romance between he and an actress friend of Jack Desforge. An early line nicely defines his feelings—

“I think it was General Grant who said: War is hell. He should have added that women are worse.”


The is plot complicated, there are more variables than Mr. Patterson’s earlier work, and a larger cast with believably suspicious motives. It is enhanced by the strong and forbidding setting of Greenland. The flying scenes, to a rank non-pilot, have the feel of reality and give the story a sense of high adventure. And everything works perfectly.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Judas Country"

Judas Country was published in the United Kingdom by Hodder & Stoughton as a hardcover in 1975. The edition that caught my eye was the Pan paperback edition published in 1977. The cover successfully portrays violence in an otherwise serene locale—the softly golden colors hint at sunset in a nicely rural, very Mediterranean, background shattered by a shot-up Beetle and a crouching man with a revolver. The artist: Harry Hants.






















The opening paragraph:

“A few minutes ago the sky had been a place. Of clouds, winds, pressures, turbulence. Now, it was just the décor of a flashy Cyprus sunset. The propellers wound down and stopped with a brief, violent shudder, but I went on sitting there, running my hands over the still-unfamiliar avionics switches and trying to wriggle some of the stiffness out of my neck and shoulders. A small Ford van dashed up and stopped just in front.”

Judas Country is, like most of Mr. Lyall’s early work, centered around aviation and it is considered by many critics to be among his best novels.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

BLAZE!: A SON OF THE GUN by Stephen Mertz

Blaze! is a newish adult western series created by Stephen Mertz and published by Rough Edges Press. It is “newish” because there are now nine in the series, and the first, Blaze!, was published all the way back in January 2015. It features the husband and wife bounty hunter team J. D.—don’t ever call him Jehoram Delfonso—and Kate Blaze. The ninth and most recent entry in the series is Blaze!: A Son of the Gun written by Stephen Mertz.

The Ludlow brothers are wanted men with a Pinkerton reward attached. J. D. and Kate track the three outlaws to a deserted Arizona ranch the men are using as a hideout. The capture turns quickly to violence and the bounty claim becomes dead, rather than alive. It happens fast, but not easily. J. D. is rescued from an ambush by a young man named Joe Bridge who is running, with a young woman, from his former employer and his girl’s stepfather; a trio of gunnies in their wake. J. D. and Kate help the couple escape with no expectation of anything other than collecting their bounty in nearby Whiskey Bend and riding on. But they get caught up in a shootout in the dusty town and things only worsen from there.

Blaze!: A Son of the Gun is pure pulp joy. It is something like a 1960’s television western mixed with an Ace Double. Its plot is simple, linear and well executed. There is action on nearly every page with absolutely no doubt about who the good guys are and the bad. There is a low level, one or two scenes, of less than PG-13 married sex, which is where the “adult” part plays in, and, if I were to make a wager, I would bet Kate is tougher than J. D. 

Purchase a copy of A Son of a Gun at Amazon.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

THE FUNHOUSE by Dean Koontz

The Funhouse is a movie tie-in published as a paperback original in 1980 as by Owen West. A nom de plume Dean Koontz used especially for this tie-in and again for The Mask (1981). The screenplay that inspired it was written by Larry Block, and to stop any confusion, it was not the suspense writer responsible for Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Chip Harrison, and Keller. It was another Larry Block altogether. The film version was a bust. It was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and, three months after the novel’s release, the film opened and disappeared without notice. The novel, however, did the opposite. It went through eight printings and sold more than a million copies while making an appearance on The New York Times bestseller list.

The Funhouse is, as far as I know, Mr. Koontz’s only media tie-in novel (unless we consider his Frankenstein series a tie-in, which I’m unwilling to do). It is a straight horror story, another oddity for Mr. Koontz, and very good. Ellen Harper is young and beautiful. She married a carny, Conrad Straker, to escape her domineering mother and quickly became pregnant. Her child is born less than normal. Its growth rate phenomenal, and ugly beyond Ellen’s comprehension. She believes the infant is trying to kill her, and on a stormy August night she kills it in self-defense. Conrad is mad with grief, and sends Ellen away with an oath of revenge—

“I’ll find you. I swear I will. I’ll find you, and I’ll take your children just like you took my little boy. I’ll kill them.”

The years pass, Ellen remarries and has two more children. A girl, Amy, who is a senior in high school and a young son named Joey. It has been more than two decades since Conrad sent Ellen away, but he is still seeking revenge. A revenge coming close as his circus moves into Ellen’s new hometown.

The Funhouse is pure carny fun. It is simple by Mr. Koontz’s more recent novels, the plot has fewer complications and the characters are a tad more generic, but the deceptively simple narrative is burning with life—

“…but Mama held her down, held her even harder than before, squeezing the back of her neck, and Mama wailed and whined and shouted and beat the floor with her free hand and thrashed about and shuddered with religious passion, begged and wheedled and whimpered for mercy, mercy for herself and her wayward daughter, howled and wept and pleaded in a fashion that Catholics usually disdained, in a devout frenzy that was more suited to the fundamental Christianity for the Church of the Nazarene, flailed and babbled fervently, until she was finally prayed out, hoarse, exhausted, limp.”

The plot is linear and fast, but, even twenty-five years after its initial release, it boasts a few nicely executed and surprising twists. There is also a sizable helping of carny lore, including the carny marriage ceremony—riding the carousel forwards as man and woman—and divorce ceremony—riding the carousel backwards, alone. If every tie-in novel were as well developed and executed as The Funhouse, I would read nothing else.

Purchase a copy of The Funhouse at Amazon.

Monday, February 01, 2016

No Comment: "Nowhere to Run"

“Vigil half turned in his chair, raised a hand, and when the waiter arrived he ordered two more bottles of the mineral water. He smiled at David. He was not an ugly man until he smiled.”

—Ron Faust, Nowhere to Run. Turner Publishing Company, 2013 (© 1981). Page 57. Captain Vigil, a Mexican policeman, is questioning David Rhodes about the murder of a young woman.


[No Comment is a series of posts featuring passages that caught my attention. It may be the idea, the texture, or the presence that grabbed my eye. There is no analysis provided, and it invariably is out of context.]