Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TROTSKY'S RUN by Richard Hoyt

Trotsky’s Run is my first experience with the work of Richard Hoyt.  It was published in 1982 by William Morrow, and I ran across the mass market edition released by TOR in 1983.  It is an espionage novel with a cleverly devised plot, humor, a little tradecraft, a bunch of history—both now and then—and a somewhat satirical view of cold war paranoia.

Two of the major players in the novel are historical figures.  Leon Trotsky and Kim Philby.  Trotsky’s role in the novel develops slowly as the novel unfolds, but Philby’s role is central and obvious.  Philby wants out of the Soviet Union—where he defected in 1963—and he has information to trade with the United States for safe passage. 

Philby’s claim is bombastic.  The likely victor of the upcoming presidential election is an officer of the KGB.  The information is received a few weeks before the election, and the CIA is in a quagmire.  Is Philby’s intelligence factual, or is it nothing more than Soviet disinformation.  A quick and dirty plan is hatched; two CIA officers will extract Philby from Yalta, where he is vacationing, and interrogate him to determine the validity of the evidence.

Trotsky’s Run is as smooth an espionage novel as you will read.  The prose is sparse and economical.  It is long on narrative and short on dialogue.  The plot is crisp, complicated, and at times outlandish—although not in bad way, but rather in a mildly satirical manner that feeds off extreme cold war paranoia. 

Kim Philby’s historical narrative is interesting and, what I know about his activities before he defected, even accurate.  His role in the capture and execution of dozens of agents in communist Albania, and in the capture of Soviet defector Konstantin Volkov are two of the more interesting, but also detailed—if briefly—Philby’s early marriage to a young Austrian communist in Vienna, and his later pro-fascist stint as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War.

Trotsky’s Run is an excellent novel.  It is witty and humorous—in the manner a suspense novel should be humorous, through the dialogue.  It is both intelligent and entertaining, and while the overarching plot is somewhat fantastical Mr Hoyt is able to make it seem believable by infusing the storyline with historical events and peoples—think Trotsky and Philby—that give it a certain plausibility.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014


New, Improved Murder is the second novel published by Ed Gorman, and the first (of five) in his Jack Dwyer private eye series.  It was originally published by St. Martin’s Press in hardcover, and it is currently available in a Ramble House Double with Rough Cut.  The edition to the right is the 1986 Ballantine paperback.

Jack Dwyer is a former cop who got the acting bug after he was cast in a local public safety commercial.  He started acting lessons, quit his job, and applied for his private investigator’s license (in very nearly that order).  He also took a security guard job to keep the wolves away.  The novel opens with Dwyer on a riverside park murder site.  He was called there by a panicked former girlfriend.  A girlfriend who left him for another man, and a girlfriend Dwyer isn’t quite over.

The woman is nearly comatose when Dwyer arrives.  She is distraught with grief and fear.  The man who replaced Dwyer in her life is dead in the grass, and the gun that killed him is in her hand.  The police arrive and everything fits neatly into a little package.  No real investigation, other than into Jane Branigan—the girlfriend—and the case seems open and shut, but something about it bothers Dwyer.  That something may be nothing more than his feelings for Jane, but Dwyer doesn’t think she did it.

New, Improved Murder is a seriously good private eye novel.  Jack Dwyer is a likable, compassionate, sometimes self-doubting reluctant good guy, who tends to stand on the outside.  He is working class top to bottom, and the world through his eyes is a harsh, troubled place, with just enough hope and romanticism to keep him from the maudlin.         

The story is a straight shot.  It is fast, dirty, and entertaining.  The mystery is fine edged with enough clues for the reader to guess the killer, but nothing is in plain sight and it is doubtful most readers will guess it before the final pages.  The supporting cast is a mixture of blackmailing psychopaths, prostitutes, nasty businessmen, broken children, and everyman scared; scared of life, death, and nearly everything else.  The amazing thing, it is all this and funny, too.  Not the story, or the characters, but rather Dwyer’s take on the world as seen through his semi-smart ass commentary and dialogue.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

PAY THE DEVIL by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Pay the Devil is the seventh novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by Barrie Rockcliff in 1963, and it languished out of print for nearly four decades until it was reissued in mass market in 1999.  I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but the paperback reissue has the feel of a light reworking; the dialogue, particularly in the opening chapter, has that peculiar light wispy droll of Mr Patterson’s later work—

“‘I’d say so, Josh.  Let me have that spyglass of yours, and I wish you wouldn’t call me general.  I only had one hundred and twenty-three men left in the brigade when General Lee gave me the appointment.  Now it’s more like twenty.’”

There is also the oddity of the protagonist’s man servant—former slave—Joshua who is referred to, both in narrative and dialogue, as “Josh” in the prologue and “Joshua” throughout the rest of the novel.  My guess is Mr Patterson added the prologue for the mass market issue, and (perhaps) lightly touched up the remainder. 

Clay Fitzgerald is a worn out Confederate surgeon and cavalryman.  He has been at war four long years, and as the novel opens he joins General Lee on his march to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  General Lee summarily releases Clay and his men from duty, and they quietly slink away before the surrender. 

Clay inherited a family estate in the West of Ireland called Claremont, and he and Joshua make the journey as something like a long overdue vacation. Unfortunately the Ireland they find is less than an idyllic playground.  It is inhabited by a poverty-stricken working class, and an abusive ruling landowner class.  On arrival Clay is disinterested in the politics of the place, but circumstance and conscience prohibits neutrality.  Clay takes the identity of a local folk hero called “Captain Swing,” and metes out a sort of vigilante justice.

Pay the Devil is the longest, and most complexly plotted of Mr Patterson’s early work.  It is something of a gothic with its Irish moors, night rides, and even a forbidden romance.  The setting is beautifully rendered by Mr Patterson with his usual deft, and almost lyrical prose—

“Clouds moved over the face of the sun and a great shadow spilled darkness like a fast-spreading stain across the ground.”

The historical aspect of the novel is also nicely rendered.  The description of General Lee on his march to surrender.  The idea of Irish Home Rule, and even better the names of the secret societies that advanced the idea, “Fenian Brotherhood,” and “Ribbonmen.”  The contempt the landowners had for the working class; primarily protestant vs. Catholic.  The primary antagonist, Sir George Hamilton, summed the gentry’s view of the Irish—

“‘But the standards one would apply in England cannot be applied here.  These people are animals.’”          

However, there are also elements of the novel that are flat.  The narrative is too reliant on dialogue to set up major plot twists, setting, and character development.  The antagonists—land owners—are described as nothing short of the embodiment of evil, while the working class are something close to trodden angels.  A little too black and white even for an adventure novel, but forgivable because of the swift action and the well-developed setting.

Pay the Devil is not an example of Mr Patterson’s better work, but it is an entertaining novel.  It has an abundance of action.  The Captain Swing concoction is something akin to Zorro.  And there are several entertaining vintage slang words, including “lucifer” matches, “moonlighters,” and a wonderful summation of 19th century cesarean section as “a form of homicidal witchcraft.”

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Thrift Shop Book Covers: Panic in Philly

Panic in Philly is the 15th title in Don Pendleton’s enduring The Executioner men’s adventure series.  It made its debut in a nifty paperback original published by Pinnacle in 1973, but the edition that first caught my eye—in the Shopko Book Department in the late-1980s most probably—as a teenager was Pinnacle’s reissue.  It’s more than a touch corny, but it is so late-1980s from the pastel trimmings to the pastel blue dress to the big hair, and even the Uzi in Bolan’s hand.  All it is missing is an explosion in the background with a couple bad guys being blown in the air. 

The opening paragraph:

“Panic came to Philadelphia on a cool Spring morning and its name was death—purposeful, clad in black as a symbol of utter finality, moving swiftly in its inevitability.”

One of my favorite components of a Mack Bolan novel is the Bolan “quote” featured on the first page.  It is a sort of Rockford telephone message without the intentional humor, and bunches of attitude.  And if you’re lucky there may be more than just one.  The quote in Panic in Philly summarily prepares the reader for the battle to come: “So maybe I can’t win this lousy war.  But I’m going to give it one hell of a try.”

Saturday, February 01, 2014

TEK NET by William Shatner and Ron Goulart

Tek Net is the ninth (and final) Tek novel published by William Shatner.  It, like all of the Tek novels, was written by Ron Goulart.  The novels are futuristic detective stories detailing the exploits of Cosmos Detective Agency operatives Jake Cardigan and Sid Gomez.  I read, and really enjoyed, the first four novels in the series back in the 1990s, but somehow lost track of it when the later books were released.  When I stumbled on Tek Net in a thrift shop a few weeks ago I couldn’t help picking it up, and I’m glad I did.

The European Teklords have developed a new delivery method for tek—a digital drug that delivers addictive virtual fantasies.  The new delivery system eliminates the need for chips and headgear.  The new tek will be a boon for the European cartels, and force their American counterparts out of business.  Jill Bernardino, a former tek addict and second wife (of four) of Sid Gomez, becomes a pawn between the American and European Teklords when she learns about the plans.  She is kidnapped in quick order, but not before she makes a call to Sid pleading for help.

Tek Net is less science fiction than action.  It is told in an almost frantic pace—the plot moves like a rocket from scene to scene.  There is no down time.  Every word has the overwhelming purpose of moving the plot forward.  Sid Gomez is the center point of the story, and Jake Cardigan (the usual primary player) is basically in a supporting role.  There is not much mystery about the story’s trajectory (or final destination), but it is populated by a long list of villains who range from frightening to hilarious (in a good way).  Think of a geriatric gangster who paints, and has a flock of virtual sheep in his backyard.

The setting is a future Southern California, which is simply known as Greater Los Angeles.  A place where smog has gotten so bad it is unbreathable in places, and robots do the majority of the dirty work.  There are a surprising number of “attractive” robots, an impressive amount of tek addicts, and even more unscrupulous citizens.  A particularly vivid scene is a dilapidated theme park called Hollywood Starwalk Park.  It is a sort of robotic version of a wax museum where robots made up as Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin recreate classic films—

“When the blonde actress on Gable’s left winked at Jill, her plastiglass eyeball fell out.  It hit the simulated white gravel of the path and bounced once.”

Tek Net is pure fun.  There is not a whit of character development, and the science fiction tends to be less futuristic than simply renaming common items with an often cold and futuristic sound—“vidphone,” “guardbots,” “plastiglass,” “skull-mail,” etc.—but for what the story lacks in literary development it makes up for in brisk, straight-forward action, and a sort of cordial humor.