Monday, July 29, 2019

MADBALL Is a Classic Pulp Novel from 1953 Now Available Again

Originally published in 1953, this great hard boiled pulp novel has just been reprinted by Black Gat Books, a division of Stark House, which has reprinted a number of pulp classics over the last few years.

Set in a traveling carnival that's stopped in a small town for a few weeks before its season ends, the book is populated by carnival barkers, strippers, fortune tellers, grifters, roustabouts and a host of the other seedy types that were associated with outfits like this in the middle of the last century. Everyone around the operation is on the make and seems to have his or her own con, and if there aren't enough marks among the square johns who come out to the carnival from town, a lot of the carnies are not above taking advantage of each other, in nightly poker games and other diversions.

The stakes are raised dramatically when two of the carnies hit a bank and get away with $42,000. Before they have a chance to enjoy the money, though, they're in a car accident. One of the robbers is killed; the other is laid up in the hospital for several weeks, recovering from his injuries. By the time the second robber is able to return to the carnival, others among the carnival's crew are beginning to put two and two together. Some of them will now be looking for the stolen money, which they assume that the robbers must have hidden nearby, and once the hunt begins, no one will be safe.

The search for the stolen loot sets off a cascading series of events that constitute the novel's story. It's an intricate plot, and watching the pieces come together is hugely enjoyable. The cast of characters is also expertly devised, and Brown creates a truly believable world. Just watching the inner workings of the carnival is fun in and of itself and, all in all, this is a book that will appeal to large numbers of readers who love classic pulp fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

James Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA Is a True Classic in the Genre of Crime Fiction

Everyman's Library has just published a new hardback volume containing all four of the novels that comprise James Ellroy's first L.A. Quartet. Ellroy was at my local bookstore a few weeks ago promoting this book and his new novel, This Storm, which is the second novel in his new L. A. Quartet. With signed copies of both books in hand, it seemed like a good time to return to The Black Dahlia, the first novel in the original series.

Set in booming and corrupt post-World War II Los Angeles, it takes as its starting point one of the most famous unsolved murders in the history of L.A., or of the rest of the country for that matter. The victim was a promiscuous young woman named Betty Short, who seemed to captivate everyone who fell into her orbit, at least as Ellroy imagines it. Short was tortured over several days before her body was cut in half, disemboweled, and abandoned in a vacant lot.

Short was only one of a number of young women who came to Hollywood at this time, dreaming of success, only to come to bad end. But the press dubs Short The Black Dahlia, and the discovery of her brutalized body turns into a sensational murder case that captures the city's attention--a case that can make or break reputations. Spearheaded by an ambitious deputy D.A., the police devote thousands of man hours interviewing witnesses, potential subjects, and tracking down leads. 

Caught up in the maelstrom are two young cops, Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert. Former boxers, the two men bond over the murder case. They become partners and ultimately fall in love with the same woman. They also fall in love with the Black Dahlia, and the case consumes both of them with irrevocable consequences for them and for the woman, Kay, with whom they are involved.

This novel is in many respects a coming of age story for Bucky Bleichert, who is at the center of the novel. Beginning as an idealistic young patrolman, Bleichert will be tested and corrupted by the Dahlia case in ways he never could have imagined, and the reader watches in awe and horror as he descends into the hell of his obsession with Betty Short.

Mixing fictional characters with real ones, The Black Dahlia is also a stunning portrait of postwar Los Angeles and of the people and the forces that were shaping the city at that time. James Ellroy's own mother was raped and murdered a decade or so after Betty Short, when Ellroy was still a young boy. As in the case of Betty Short, the killer was never found, and this may explain Ellroy's fascination with the Black Dahlia. Blunt, brutal and beautifully written, this is a riveting story and a true classic in the field of crime fiction.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Jockey Kit Fielding Finds Trouble in This Novel from Dick Francis

Those who have read several of Dick Francis's mysteries will know exactly what to expect from Break In. Malevolent forces are at work and a jockey, in this case Kit Fielding, gets caught up in the machinations. The Fielding family has been feuding with the Allardeck family for generations, and Kit's sister, Holly, has complicated matters by marrying into the Allardeck family, on the order of Romeo and Juliet.

As the book opens, someone has been planting viscous rumors in the press about Holly's husband, Bobby. Bobby is a horse trainer and the rumors say that he is broke and unable to pay his debts. His creditors and the people who own the horses he trains are pressing him, and it appears that Bobby will have to declare bankruptcy and lose everything.

As an Allardeck, he's reluctant to accept help from a Fielding, but Kit is the only one who appears capable of getting his sister and brother-in-law out of this crisis. Kit is forged in the same mold as virtually every other Dick Francis protagonist; he's very smart, extremely clever, and tough as nails. He has the sort of resilience that one expects from a Francis protagonist and like most of the others, he seems impervious to pain. In and around his efforts to save his sister and brother-in-law, Kit will ride a lot of races, and he will meet a beautiful woman that he will court in the style of a Dick Francis hero.

Again, there are no surprises here for anyone who has read a lot of these novels, but that's fine. It's sometimes comforting to fall down and just relax with a good book, even if you know with certainty where it's going to take you.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Great Summer Read from Owen Laukkanen

I'm a big fan of Owen Laukkanen's series featuring Minnesota BCA agent Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere, and I really enjoyed his stand-alone thriller, Gale Force. Laukkanen now returns with Deception Cove, which races away from the first page in sixth gear and doesn't pause long enough to downshift anywhere along the road to the last. It may be his best book yet.

The novel has three main protagonists. Jess Winslow is an ex-Marine who returns home to Deception Cove on the Washington Coast, psychologically wounded after two tours in Afghanistan. While she's been in the service, her husband has died, leaving her only a ramshackle house and a boatload of trouble. Mason Burke is an ex-con, fresh out of prison after serving fifteen years on a murder charge.

The third character, who brings Winslow and Burke together, is Lucy, a black and white pit bull mix. Lucy was rescued just before being euthanized and was brought together with Burke in a prison program where convicts would work with damaged dogs, preparing them to move on to loving homes. Burke brought Lucy out of her shell and trained her well. The dog then went on for additional training before being given to Winslow as a comfort animal, and in the end, the two wind up comforting each other.

Burke remains emotionally attached to Lucy and upon his release from prison, tries to check up on her. He's not looking to get Lucy back, but he does want to make sure that she's safe and in a good environment. He's shocked to discover that Lucy has bitten someone--a deputy sheriff, no less--and is scheduled to be put down. Burke borrows money, buys a bus ticket to Deception Cove and races off--at least as fast as one can race on a Greyhound bus--in an effort to save Lucy.

Upon arriving in Washington state, Burke meets Winslow who is in serious trouble with the deputy sheriff who was bitten by Lucy and who has taken possession of the dog. The ex-convict and the ex-Marine form a tenuous bond, united by their affection for Lucy and their determination to save her. To say any more would be to say too much, and this is one of those cases where, in my opinion at least, the tease on the book jacket gives way too much away. If you get the book, don't read the tease; just dive in and discover the book's great twists and turns for yourself.

Those who follow the author on Twitter or Facebook will have already met Lucy, who Laukkanen rescued several years ago. She appears to be a great dog in real life and she plays a major role in Deception Cover. I really hope that we will see her, along with Burke and Winslow, again soon. In the meantime, this is an excellent summer read that should appeal to anyone who loves a great thriller.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Pursue a Legendary Nine-Tailed Fox

This is another very entertaining entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U.S. Army CID sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. The series is set in the South Korea of the 1970s, and this book, like the previous twelve, is interesting not only for the criminal investigation involved but for the portrayal of the Korean culture and the description of the relationship between the Koreans and the U.S. Army personnel. Limon is also particularly good at depicting the frustrations of life in the U.S. Army in South Korea at this time.

As the book opens, Sueno and Bascom are assigned to investigate the disappearances of three American GIs who have disappeared in South Korea. The three went missing at different times and in different places, but all three disappeared while out carousing in the Korean bar districts near their respective bases, and none of the cases appears to be that of a soldier who has simply gone temporarily AWOL.

As George and Ernie get deeper into the case, a number of complications appear, and the strangest among them is the rumor that an ancient legendary creature, the Nine-Tailed Fox, disguised as a beautiful woman, has lured the three missing men to their doom. The story also has some interesting relevance to the present-day, which I won’t reveal, and before it’s over, George Sueno will again wind up putting himself in grave danger in his determination to resolve the case. All in all, a very good read.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Jack Reacher Gets Sidetracked on a Trip from Maine to San Diego

I'm beginning to feel sorry for Jack Reacher. The poor guy can't even begin to take a trip somewhere without immediately running into a problem that demands his attention and derails his travel plans. The opening of this book finds Jack in Maine. With colder weather coming on, he decides to travel cross country, diagonally, from Maine to San Diego, California. 

As is his usual practice, once the spirit moves him, he sticks out his thumb and catches a ride, but it lasts only a few miles before Jack gets let out in the middle of the woods in New Hampshire. As he's contemplating which road to take next, he sees a road sign for Laconia, New Hampshire, the small town where he believes his father was born. Curious, and having never been there, he decides to delay his trip by a day and check out the town. Once there, the situation will immediately become complicated--big surprise!

At virtually the same time, a young Canadian couple sets out on a long road trip to Florida. They're carrying very valuable cargo in the trunk of their ancient car, which they hope will set them up in a new life in Florida. However, just as they're passing near Laconia, the car overheats; the engine begins to clank, and things are not looking good. They see a sign for a motel out in the middle of nowhere and decide that they'd better get a room while they figure out what's wrong with the car.

The motel is brand new, and not quite finished. It's run by four fairly creepy guys and it turns out that the young couple are the only guests. But once stopped, their car won't start again, and so the couple has no choice but to check in. Their situation too will immediately become complicated.

The two stories run on parallel tracks until they very end, when Reacher's story intersects with that of the young couple. The book moves along swiftly and readers familiar with the series will know exactly what to expect. It's a fun read--perfect for a day at the beach or at the lake with Jack Reacher and a cold six-pack of Trout Slayer Ale or some other suitable beverage.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Virginal Young Woman Finds Herself in Jeopardy in This Early Novel from Charles Willeford

Originally published in 1957, this book has all the hallmarks of a potboiler that Charles Willeford churned out relatively quickly, perhaps because the rent was coming due or some such thing. Willeford would later become known for a series of excellent crime novels, most notably, Miami Blues and others featuring a protagonist named Hoke Mosley. This book isn't nearly up to the standards of his later work and, for that matter, it isn't really a crime novel in the traditional sense. Rather it's a titillating piece of soft-core porn, constrained of course, by the literary standards of 1957.

Back in the Fifties, a number of writers, including people like Lawrence Block, were turning out lurid novels like this one, sometimes under their own names and sometimes using pseudonyms, for the spinning paperback book racks that were so common at the time. They most often featured very suggestive covers, hinting that all sorts of interesting and often twisted sexual activity was to be found within the pages, and a common theme of these books involved a beautiful, but innocent young woman--usually a virgin--who accidentally winds up traveling in the wrong company and who is unfortunately led down the path to a life of degeneracy.

Such is the case here. Maria Duigan is a young secretary from New York who has saved her money for almost a full year so that she and a girlfriend can afford a vacation to Miami Beach. Maria is looking for excitement and attracts the attention of Ralph Tone, an art student who is working for the summer as an elevator operator in the hotel where Maria and her friend are staying.

One of the hotel's owners is a Mr. McKay, and he has taken a shine to Ralph for some reason or other. He invites Ralph to spend an afternoon cruising on his yacht, and in an attempt to impress Maria, Ralph impulsively invites her to come along as his date. Much to poor Ralph's dismay, McKay will turn out to be a pimp and a pornographer and once he sets his eyes on the beautiful Maria, her innocence and virginity will be in serious jeopardy.

Over sixty years down the road, this book is perhaps best read as an historical artifact--a reminder of a time when things were more innocent and unsullied, or at least a time when a lot of people wished that they were. The story is a bit overwrought and the conclusion is practically foregone. This is not Charles Willeford at his best, but it's still a fun read.