Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: The Year in Reading

2014 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 64 titles, and will likely finish one more—Logan’s Search by William F. Nolan. I surpassed last year’s mark by nine. The majority of the titles were fiction, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too. The nonfiction tended towards history and true crime, which included a number of interesting titles including A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger and My Silent War by Kim Philby.

I entered 2014 with two reading goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2013 I read only five authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, but the second goal was an abject failure. I only read one book—a nonfiction book titled Dirt, Water, Stone: A Century of Preserving Mesa Verde by Kathleen Fiero. So, 2015 will have to be the year of the woman in my reading list.

I became acquainted with the work of eight authors in 2014: Andrew Hunt (City of Saints), Richard Hoyt (Trotsky’s Run), J. J. Maric (Gideon’s Staff), Stephen Overholser (Shadow Valley Rising), Steve Brewer (Baby Face), Michael Parker (The Eagle’s Covenant), Robert Parker (Passport to Peril), and Gregg Loomis (The Julian Secret). The best of the “new”—not so new really since it was published in 1982—was Richard Hoyt’s Trotsky’s Run.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 24 titles, which is approximately 38 percent of the total for 2014. I read nine by Harry Patterson, eight by Ed Gorman, four by Garry Disher, and three by Lawrence Block. I had a few special projects that inflated the number of titles read by specific authors including my ongoing initiative to read and review all of Harry Patterson’s early novels—34 novels published between 1959 and 1974—interviews with Garry Disher and Ed Gorman, not to mention an Introduction I wrote for Stark House Press’s forthcoming release of Mr Gorman’s classic private eye novels The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers. An omnibus I recommend absolutely.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2014. No rules, except no repeats. If I read it in a prior year it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2014 are—

5.  Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell. The work of David Morrell has been a staple of my reading since my teens, and I generally read his new work as it is released. Murder, however, was an exception. I waited more than eighteen months from its release before reading it, which was a mistake because it is, simply put, fantastic. It is a Victorian novel—think of the journal entries of Dracula mixed with the sophisticated mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and the setting and description of Charles Dickens—but also very modern, and very David Morrell.   
4.  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. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Goin’ by Jack M. Bickham. Goin’ is a running-from-age novel rather than a coming-of-age novel. Stan is middle-age. He has a wife, now ex-wife, and a daughter. He is miserable, empty, and searching for something to make things better. He buys a small Honda street bike and hits the road. He finds adventure in the same vein as a 1960s television show—think Route 66. It has the feel of a coming-of-age tale, but it is shadowed with a darkness and cynicism that comes only with age and experience. Goin’ spoke to me—I, somehow, am inching in to middle age. I understood the struggles, and fears of the protagonist. Read the Gravetapping review.   

2.  Whispering Death by Garry Disher. This is the sixth, and most recent, entry in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series of crime novels. It is a police procedural of the best kind. It is human, interesting, and entertaining. The antagonists are a serial rapist, and a brilliantly executed professional criminal named Grace. The beauty of this novel, and everything written by Mr Disher, is the crafty manner information is kept from the reader—from back stories to motive.   

1.  Strangers by Bill Pronzini. Strangers is a special novel. It is atmospheric, weighty, and entertaining. It is plot driven, but the procedural mystery runs a distant second to its raw emotional impact. The setting—desolate, stark, empty—fits the thematic structure of the story. It is one of the more powerful Nameless novels. Its emotional impact is on par with Mr Pronzini’s standalone work; particularly his masterful Blue Lonesome—which shares a similar setting, but very different leading woman—and The Crimes of Jordan Wise.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Real Nice Guy" by William F. Nolan

“His name was Jimmie Prescott and he is thirty-one years of age. Five foot ten. Slight build.”

He is a loner. A sniper. A killer. The sort of sniper who sets up over a busy city street and randomly chooses a target. A victim. It is the spontaneity that thrills him, and, by his own reckoning, he is the best. The best because he has 41 notches on his rifle, and, while there have been a few close calls, he has no real fear of capture.

“A Real Nice Guy” is a stylish crime story written by William F. Nolan, a favorite author of mine, originally published in the April 1980 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It is something of a battle of sociopaths—both bad, of course—and while the ending is less than surprising the journey is ideal. The prose is smooth and, especially the non-dialogue narrative, is something like a brassy jazz riff—

“He was a master. He never missed a target, never wasted a shot. He was cool and nerveless and smooth, and totally without conscience.”

It is short. Third person, and very much worth seeking out. But, in the interest of fairness, that is exactly what I think of all Mr Nolan’s short work.

I read “A Real Nice Guy” in The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, published in 2013 by Running Press, and edited by Maxim Jakubowski.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

The Graveyard Shift is the fifteenth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1965. It is the first of three novels featuring University of London graduate, Mini-Cooper driving, all around sharp guy—if a little coarse and hard—Detective Sergeant Nick Miller.

Ben Garvald, an independent street thug, is released from England’s Wandsworth Prison—in Southwest London—after nine years of a ten year tab. Garvald and two partners robbed a Birmingham steel plant of a $15,000 payroll. In the ensuing chase one of the crooks was killed, one captured—Garvald—and one walked away clean. Now, Garvald his headed back home and he is definitely not wanted. Three street toughs are hired to discourage him, and his ex-wife’s sister asks CID to have a word with him.

Enter Detective Sergeant Nick Miller. An educated copper with money, drives his own Mini-Cooper on the job, an expert in karate and judo, and has a style all his own. He wears a stylish cap called “Schildtmutze”—no idea what it is, but the hipsters all seem to like it. Miller is tasked with finding Garvald, and warning him off, but, as expected the set up isn’t exactly what it seems and the only sure thing? Ben Garvald is at the center of everything.

The Graveyard Shift is a little different (but also the same) from Mr Patterson’s usual. The prose, and the protagonist are hardboiled. It is a straight 1960’s crime novel, but the plotting is old school Harry Patterson—linear, clean and a study of complex simplicity. There is the main storyline—propelled by Garvald as antagonist—and several supporting subplots including an attempted murder of a police constable.

There is also a relatively large cast of characters. The most interesting is an American jazz pianist, hero of the big war, and heroin addict named Chuck Lazer. Lazer is something of a forerunner for Mr Patterson’s Liam Devlin—disillusioned, wisecracking (and even a little wise) Irish rogue from The Eagle Has Landed. The difference. Lazer is more than just disillusioned. He is also a drug addict, which is described depressingly well—

“On top of a small bedside locker were littered the gear that told the story. A hypodermic with several needles, most of them dirty and blunted. Heroin and cocaine bottles, both empty, a cup still half-full of water, a small glass bottle, its base discolored from the match flame and a litter of burned-out matches.”

Unfortunately Nick Miller is less than compelling. He comes across as coarse and even (a little) mean; not to mention a little too cool. That isn’t to say The Graveyard Shift is a bad novel, but rather it would have been significantly more successful if the protagonist was more likable. It is a well-paced, interesting, and entertaining crime novel. It is very definitely of its era—it has a glossy-gritty 1960’s feel—drugs, hip, and distrust. There is betrayal, murder, and enough of the unknown to keep the reader turning pages. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stark House Half Price Sale

Stark House Press—one of my favorite publishers of vintage crime fiction—recently announced its annual Holiday Sale. This year they have a large selection of books—20 to be precise—on sale for half the cover price, which is a terrific deal. The titles are below:
Catherine Butzen: Thief of Midnight
Robert W. Chambers: The Slayer of Souls / The Maker of Moons
James Hadley Chase: Come Easy—Go Easy / In a Vain Shadow
Jada M. Davis: Midnight Road
Don Elliott/Robert Silverberg: Lust Queen / Lust Victim
Feldman & Gartenberg (ed): The Beat Generation & the Angry Young Men
A. S. Fleischman: The Sun Worshippers / Yellowleg
Arnold Hano: So I’m a Heel / Flint / The Big Out
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding: The Unfinished Crime / The Girl Who Had to Die
Russell James: Underground / Collected Stories
Stephen Marlowe: Violence is My Business / Turn Left for Murder
E. Phillips Oppenheim: Ghosts & Gamblers: The Further Uncollected Stories
Vin Packer: The Damnation of Adam Blessing / Alone at Night
Richard Powell: A Shot in the Dark / Shell Game
Bill Pronzini: Snowbound / Games
Peter Rabe: Kill the Boss Good-By / Mission for Vengeance
Douglas Sanderson: The Deadly Dames / A Dum-Dum for the President
Bill Shepard: California Cornerstone
Charlie Stella: Rough Riders
Cynthia Campbell Williams: This Fool’s Journey: Tarot Tales for Modern Minds

For more information visit the latest Stark House newsletter (scroll down towards the bottom of the newsletter).

Sunday, December 07, 2014

"In a Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald

This week I have another short story to talk about from the nifty anthology American Pulp; an anthology that every reader of hardboiled mystery should own because it simply rocks. The story: “In a Small Motel” by John D. MacDonald. It was originally published in the July 1956 issue of Justice.

Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.

As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.

The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.

“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:

“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”

And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.

“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is also a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out. 

There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, the car exhaust, hear the highway noise, and feel the empty and hard fear escalating from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

This post originally went live July 31, 2009 after my first reading of In a Small Motel. I have since gone back to the story several times, and after each reading my appreciation and enjoyment of it only increases.