Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bacon's Blood (57)

 
At the instant he was saying “Huh?” Blow knew precisely what Barbara Bassett had just said to him. Ordinarily such sloppiness would embarrass him. He was a lawyer. Lawyers were trained to keep ahead of everyone else or else to react quickly enough with something like “That's a damn good question” or “Are you sure?” to jangle the narrative, buy a little time. Lawyers did not say “Huh?” unless they were being sarcastic, and Barbara Bassett, the semi-retired secretary he'd inherited from his father, would tolerate sarcasm only if done playfully. Blow and Bassett were feeling anything but playful.

He recovered quickly, almost quickly enough to keep it from being a question. But even as a question he had wiggle room. It was noisy around them, and Bassett had lowered her voice a tad more than necessary to keep potential eavesdroppers from picking up what she said. He rotated his head to complement the “Huh?” which served also to compliment her for noticing something of possible importance he had missed. In fact, it occurred to him as he surveyed the courtroom, a flat unquestioning “Huh” might have sounded patronizing. Sensing that his response had done no harm triggered a warm pulse of reassurance his instincts at least were in balance. This came as a particularly welcome affirmation in the foggy uncertainty that shrouded the trial's conclusion for him after his tumble through the emotional rapids.
Buoyed momentarily by Bacon's successful testimony, his confidence dropped under Bacon's mood change. Rose again on the crest of his closing argument, then a plunge wondering what was wrong with his client. Buffeted in the struggle with self-doubt over the two-hour jury mystery. Ascending on the private hope from a verdictless two hours, jarred by Leonard Bacon's violating the two-hour taboo, startled to near abdominal collapse by the inside knock on the jury room door, and giddily relieved by the break for lunch. His calm response to Bassett's question was less a triumph of intent than a product of nervous fatigue.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD - Harlan Ellison

I instantly disliked Harlan Ellison when I first met him, two weeks ago. He struck me as the type of guy I've run into over the years who is smart as a whip and lives on his wits. The type of guy who picks fights in bars—or anywhere—because he knows he can cow most opponents without having to throw a punch. He does this because he's learned he can take a punch if necessary, and can handle getting the crap kicked out of him if it comes to that, without letting go of his quick, cocky mouth. Being relatively slow-witted myself, and nonviolent as default, I try to avoid guys like this.

I'm pretty good at spotting them in a crowd, as they tend to be smaller than average in stature. That's the first clue. If they're louder than those around them, their voices penetrating and persistent, eyes assertive, roaming...the aversion I feel is proof positive. Mere awareness of their presence at, say, a party, sullies the convivial ambience I'd anticipated. Thus my introduction to Harlan Ellison, by way of the cover photo on the book I bought two weeks ago. I did not look closely at the photo when I clicked the download button. It was the title that sold me: The Beast That Shouted Love to the Heart of the World

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bacon's Blood (56)

The magic number for Elvin Bacon had arrived. It was two hours after the jury began deliberating. Blow and Barbara Bassett read a glimmer of hope in each other's eyes at the time-honored milepost when the odds of a favorable verdict tilted toward the defendant. Blow was facing away from Bacon and his brother, who had joined them at the defense table when the jury went out. Bacon had been distant most of the morning, seeming to regard Blow as invisible. Blow was curious to know what his client might be thinking at the moment but he hadn't quite worked up to the exertion of twisting enough to see, when Leonard blurted, “Two hours. They're going for acquittal.”
Blow winced at Leonard's overreaction. It was one thing to exchange subtle looks, but attorneys religiously avoided tempting fate vocalizing what was common knowledge. They would never admit to superstition, or course. Even in the terrible suspense of the moment Blow would have denied any such intention tapping a peremptory finger against the wooden defense table at Leonard's imprudent remark, although he immediately ceased when he caught himself at it. He twisted around in the chair to find Leonard staring at Elvin.
Elvin's expression remained uninvolved. Something internal was distracting the bituminous eyes, dulling their usual raptorial vigilance. He looked at Blow, but with no sign of recognition. Leonard, his own expression unable to conceal worry, shot a glance at Blow and turned back to his brother.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

BOOKER - David McCain

Should you happen to be looking around this Christmas season for something to give that child you know or are raising, whose penchant for pulling the wings off flies and torturing the family pets has you worried he or she might grow up to become a serial killer or a Fox TV commentator, here's an idea:
Let Booker talk to the rascal, shape the kid up a tad, take the little wing-plucker into his world. Booker's story starts out kinda scary. He's the runt of a litter of four Jack Russell Terrier mix pups. Their mother, who lost her human family, gives birth to them on a snowy day under the porch of a farmer who doesn't want them and who takes them out into the woods and abandons them.

Before long a raptor swoops down and flies off with his sister in its talons. Soon afterward Booker is on his own, fleeing a pack of coyotes while his mother and two brothers stay back and try to fight them. Starving, cold, and alone, he's rescued in the nick of time by “Linda,” who finds him lying near death beside a busy highway. She takes him home to Almosta Ranch, feeds him, introduces him to the three dogs who will become his best friends—Shepherd, Mollie and Sassy—and persuades her reluctant husband to break his own rule of accepting no more strays.
Seems like a happy ending. Compared with Booker's life up to now, it is. But more trouble likes ahead, for Booker as well as for Linda and her husband (Mom and Dad) and for the many other critters at Almosta Ranch, all of whom, by the way, speak English amongst themselves.
Natural, I suppose, to expect a novel a dog narrates to be a tad cutesy for a budding sociopath. Instead, I would say Booker—the book and the voice—is charming. Many believe empathy can only be learned, that instinct alone isn't enough to embrace the Golden Rule. I'm not among them. From my own experience it took a marriage of nature and nurture. I remember killing ants on the sidewalk, focusing sun rays on them with a magnifying glass until they burst into flame. After boasting about my prowess with this technique to my mother one day, she casually asked, “Why would you kill ants? Aren't they your little friends?” I had never thought of the tiny insects in quite that way, as my friends, nor have I ever since. But somehow my mother's comment broke through the fantasy I'd been entertaining. I never burned another ant. They might not have become my friends, but from that point on I felt differently about them. I no longer saw them merely as specks that moved. Now they were earnest little living creatures, maybe even friendly if not particularly friends of mine. In my young mind they now had feelings, too.
Booker's story can have a similar effect on youngsters, I believe. Reading it, or having it read to them, in his voice, seeing his world through his eyes, it would take a pretty hard case not to identify with the little dog and his four-legged friends. Hard to imagine anyone, especially a child, intentionally mistreating a pet after living awhile in Booker's head. It might also be good to know that while Booker's story is fiction, he is most definitely not imaginary. Here's author David McClain:
While this book is a work of fiction, it is based on very real characters. Booker is a very real dog and is, in fact, the Barn Dog of Almosta ranch, a job he takes very seriously. While I have taken liberties with his personal history before he came to the ranch, the scenario I depict is a very possible one and is one that, sadly plays out every day across rural America.
Here's author McClain again on “talking” animals:
Something you will notice as you read the story is that I have given the animals the power of speech. Of course we all know that animals do not have a spoken language in real life, but make no mistake about it, animals do have a language. Their language, while not verbal, is instead based mainly on posture and body language and they are every bit as capable as humans in communicating not only with each other, but with us humans if we but take the trouble to learn their speech.
I came upon Booker while looking for a present for a special friend's 9th birthday. Evan doesn't need to learn about empathy. He's already sensitive to others' feelings, and he's a smart young man. But he also loves a good story. I have no doubt he will love Booker. I cannot imagine anyone but a monster who wouldn't.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ – Walter M. Miller Jr.

My laughter when I first read the opening scene of A Canticle for Leibowitz was of the near-maniacal kind that might accompany an epiphany. I was in the Army at the time, stationed in Germany during the Cold War. Madness hummed always somewhere in the air. We drank. Our humor tended toward the cruelly ironic. A particularly irreverent friend had recommended Canticle as a particularly funny book.

I was already primed to appreciate the ghastly irony of the second scene that made me laugh, the one where we learn of the sacred relic, the scrap of paper containing a grocery list in the handwriting of the now St. Leibowitz, found in ruins by survivors of a nuclear holocaust. My outburst at this revelation was less raucous than the first.
By now Walter M. Miller Jr.'s drollery had completely captivated me. His writing at the very start--the dot on the horizon that wriggles in the shimmering heat waves as it grows, drawing relentlessly nearer--was the snare that closed around my ankle and tugged me through a narrative so complex and esoteric that without its unceasing crafty brilliance I'd surely have broken free and fled in utter befuddlement.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bacon's Blood (55)

It was late when the Judge got home and found his son in the library. The elder Stone, instead of going straight to bed himself, had smelled the coffee soon as he entered the house. He found the pot hot on its electric pad next to the stove, poured himself a cup and carried it down the hall to the only logical place Blow was
likely to be. Incandescent light behind the frosted glass in the door confirmed this, but the Judge waited silently a bit listening carefully. Hearing no sounds, he guessed maybe Blow had fallen asleep on the couch that was there for just such late-night sessions. He politely tapped a knuckle.
Yeah, Dad?”
Blow looked up from his laptop when the Judge had pushed the door open far enough for the two to see each other. He was seated at the conference table, facing the door. Despite the golden illumination from the table lamps on either side, his face glistened a sickly bluish pallor reflected from the laptop screen. The Judge hesitated, trying to read Blow's face to see if the interruption was unwelcome. His son's smile came a tad late and was weak, but it was genuine. The Judge inclined his head toward the steaming cup in his hand.
Coffee?”

Monday, November 30, 2015

SOME CAME RUNNING (revisited) - James Jones

I am yet under the spell Some Came Running put on me fifty-two years ago. If James Jones wasn't himself a sorcerer, he surely must have tapped into some magic reservoir of imagination when he created the most poignant romantic tragedy I've ever read.

I've kept the paperback copy from 1963 but haven't opened it since. Was afraid Jones's story might no longer affect the profound emotions it did back then in me—a small-town Midwesterner on the verge of running away to the Army to flee his failures. I've learned from sad experience along the way trying to recapture a past enchantment often dispels the memory's potency. Some Came Running's was one I had rather not risked losing.
What finally prompted me to take that risk was hearing “Gwen's Theme” from the novel's movie version. Now, the movie left so little impression on me I have barely a recollection of seeing it. I did not recognize the music. Knowing what it represented, though, I could feel through its peculiar, rending harmonies, its swells, diminishes, and earnest tempos, the depth of longing and anguish and sorrow shared by Gwen and her lover as they returned to me from the book. It drew me in like a siren song. With my old paperback copy still in boxes with hundreds of other books from my recent move, I went online to see if maybe there was an ebook version. This is when I learned not only that Some Came Running had been out of print for over half a century, but that a newly abridged edition appeared just last year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Consequences of Desire - Dennis Hathaway

Awfully good writing about awful people. This can be said of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction's namesake as well as the award's 1992 recipient. Commonality beyond these two broad distinctions, however, if they exist, are hard to find

The late Ms. O'Connor's style follows one of the basic commandments of good writing: she shows us what's happening. She doesn't tell us Grandmother is a domineering, self-centered hypocrite. We get to watch the old gal in action, bossing her unattractive family around to suit her fancy. In his winning collection of stories, The Consequences of Desire, we see little outward action involving Dennis Hathaway's characters. But inside their heads, oh, mercy. We're immersed in the kaleidoscopic battling of their thoughts and emotions.
Themewise the stories could hardly be further apart—on the surface. O'Connor, while keeping obvious signposts of her Roman Catholicism deeply camouflaged in subtlety, pushes her characters to extremes of happenstance, including death, where their mortal actions can bring them heavenly grace. Religion or spiritual faith are absent from Hathaway's tales. His self-absorbed characters invariably find their dreams, their hopes, their desires coming up short or crashing to pieces when they find themselves face to face with stark reality. Teenager Justine feels the dream she's had most of her life of becoming a private eye blink out when she loses her nerve tailing a mysterious stranger into a rough part of town.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bacon's Blood (54)

Blow's gratitude at the subtle gotcha tone in Fred Gobble's voice mitigated its unpleasant implication.
He knew Gobble was having a little fun trying to intimidate a less-experienced adversary, but the prosecutor showed his own inexperience tipping his hand rather than setting Blow up for whatever surprise he had in store--a friendly invitation to stop by the office and have a post-Thanksgiving drink or pick up a routine discovery list his secretary had left on his desk before taking off for the holiday. No such finesse. The message on his cellphone, in Gobble's tediously somber voice only this time with a trace of edge, said simply, “Something came in over the weekend. Stop by the office when you can.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

St. Albert the Great - Kevin Vost

Sunday I missed my first Feast of St. Albert. I had a couple of excuses, the first being I was already committed to something. The second, of arguably greater weight, was my never having been a Roman Catholic, thus not knowing a whit about St. Albert. In retrospect it is clear I might have brushed either excuse aside with nary a blink of remorse. As a working news reporter I'd eaten free food at many events where I knew little or nothing about the principals.
The feast hosts who'd invited me were my Facebook friends, Mahogany Roasters, a local craft coffee company, the mere scent of whose coffee is enough to lure me to their door through thick or thin.
My curiosity is what did me in. Googling St. Albert, I found right off he was known as “Albert the Great, champion of faith and reason” as well as the patron saint of science. Faith and reason, most unusual bedfellows it seemed. And science? Agogged at the implication of clashing outlooks and stubborn mindsets, practical and metaphysical, and learning also that Albert had been the teacher of a more famous saint, Thomas Aquinas, I bought the book.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bacon's Blood (53)

When Blow saw who was talking with Charles Motley at Twice Told Tales he looked around for Ransey Cooper, the photographer he'd hired for Rose's story on the private detective. The magazine was paying Cooper also to shoot some promotionals at the signing. She'd made a favorable impression on him thus far. Articulate and confident during the interview. Asked intelligent questions. Dazzling portfolio.
He'd been watching her work the room as Rose sat signing books for customers who had reached her small table after advancing in a line that snaked around the front of the store. Ransey was shapely and graceful with an intelligent, pretty face. But what impressed him most was the energy. Scanning the browsing customers, floor displays and rows of bookshelves his eyes were soon familiar with the nimbus of chestnut curls darting and bobbing among the customers as she chatted, made notes and unobtrusively snapped an occasional photo. Looking now, though, Blow was unable to locate her.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Black Cloud - by Fred Hoyle

A Silicon Valley survey by The Atlantic, published in its November issue, found the “greatest work of science fiction ever written” to be Asimov's Foundation novels. For their next choice the techies picked Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud got any votes its total would have come in somewhere behind Star Wars, which captured the only honorable mention.


I've read nothing by Asimov, and the closest I came to Hitchhiker's Guide was to pluck it off the bookstore shelf, read the cover blurb and the first few paragraphs, and return it to the shelf. Science Fiction has so never been my thing I feel awkward just using the genre's vernacular abbreviations. For the sake of brevity in this instance, though, I'll grit my teeth and leap over what seems to be the no-longer-in scifi straight to what I sense is the current password: SF? Or is it lower case?

On second thought I probly wasted most of the previous paragraph building a defense against presumed sf snobbery. This because I just remembered various devoted sf fans have assured me they were unfamiliar with The Black Cloud, and I don't believe they were patronizing me. All the same, as a precaution I fought to withhold any implication of “gotcha” for having read what I considered a prerequisite for anyone pretending intimacy with the literature.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Fly on the Wall - Tony Hillerman

Odd. The Fly on the Wall. A book so unlike Tony Hillerman's other novels, all but one being his celebrated Navajo Tribal Police series, it seems an anomaly. A fly in the ointment, one might say, cheap pun though it be.
Mystery fans enamored of the legend-hued tales featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee indeed are apt to overlook an early one about a newspaper reporter, suspecting perhaps it was a false start, the clumsy effort of a novice before he hit his stride.

In fact Hillerman's false-start novel--the clumsy one, in his own estimation—turned out to be the first in the series that ultimately brought him fame. The Fly on the Wall came out in 1971, a year after The Blessing Way. Yet it was the Indian culture that fascinated him. Wanting to “get it right,” he followed Fly with Dance Hall of the Dead. He knew now he was hooked, and went on to write sixteen more featuring the same milieu and cast. His burgeoning readership got hooked in the process.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Bacon's Blood (52)

They weren't more than half an hour out of Leicester when Rose found the misgiving niggling at Blow's consciousness from his meeting with the Bacon brothers. It hadn't become a formal question in his mind until he and Rose started dissecting implications of the new information. Just something that didn't feel quite right, keeping his skeptical reflexes from fully blessing the promise of hope Leonard's sober, reasonable presentation had aroused. Rose picked up right away that his mind wasn't settled.
He frazzle you again, darlin'?” She was behind the wheel. He'd smiled, shaken his head and climbed into the passenger side when she asked if he wanted to drive the rental.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What Became of the Princes in the Tower?

It is doubtful professional cold case investigators, no matter what evidence they might find, could ever solve irrefutably a probable murder more than half a millennium ago. Absolutely nothing—not even an indisputably authenticated confession by his successor on the throne--would be enough to absolve Richard III, King of England, from the accepted popular assumption he arranged the murder of his two nephews in the Tower of London.
This was foretold sadly by Scotland Yard's Alan Grant in 1951 after his exhaustive probe into historical records pointed the accusing finger instead at Henry VII. Grant is a fictional character, but this matters not in the least. The evidence he and his fictional assistants dug up were found in nonfictional records by his creator, Scottish playwright/novelist Elizabeth MacIntosh, while researching a play set in that period. Under the nom de plume Josephine Tey she devoted the fifth in her series of Inspector Grant mysteries to perhaps England's oldest and most controversial real murder mysteries, known down the ages as The Princes in the Tower.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bacon's Blood (51)

Blow waited until he heard the Bacon brothers' footsteps on the walkway before he went to the door. He watched through the glass panes as they entered the black SUV, slammed the doors and backed the bulky vehicle off the asphalt parking pad unto the side street. He watched them head up to the main street, cross it and drive out of sight beyond the next block.
He locked the door, closed the blinds and texted ready to Rose. He left the office through the back door to the hallway and went down past the library to his bedroom. He changed into his Tim Bascom disguise and lay back on the bed to wait for Rose.
His head roiled with conflicting emotions. For the first time since he'd taken the case he sensed a faint pulsing of optimism his client might in fact be innocent of murder. The evidence that Elvin Bacon had been set up was only hearsay, but it seemed plausible. Blow understood part of his positive turn of mind might be to brother Leonard's credit as the personality yin to Elvin's yang. Leonard's testimony should have the same effect on a jury. Gobble would want Lucas King on the stand for the sleaze factor. MacKenzie, of course, would deny everything. It was imperative to have his Dear Rat letter in order to give Lucas's story substance. Without it their seed of doubt had little chance to sprout.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Flannery Forgotten? (A Good Man is Hard to Find)

Imagining being forced at gunpoint to nominate someone for the title of Ultimate Forgotten Crime Writer, only one name comes to mind: Flannery O'Connor.

You ignorant cretin,” the literary gunsel likely would snarl, waving his delicately engraved Mauser pocket pistol in my face as other literati circled around, agape. My attacker would add, voice rising to include the onlookers, “How did you get in here, anyway? Surely you weren't invited?”

Yeah,” a voice would thunder from within the gathering herd, “Forgotten, hell! I'm focusing my seminar this term on her work.” A soprano shrills above the swelling rumble of crisply sophisticated mutterings: “Crime? How dare you disparage Miss O'Connor as a genre writer! Shame on you.” Another voice, a baritone: “Get the bricks! Let's stone this dumb bastard!”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mysterious Hiatus of a Troublesome Novel: Sarkhan by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer

Eugene Burdick's death in 1965 of a heart attack ended a meteoric literary career on a mysterious note that remains unexplained to this day.

He is best known for the two novels he wrote as collaborations: The Ugly American, with William J. Lederer, and Fail-Safe, with Harvey Wheeler. Both novels, which became must-see movies,
nudged conventional thinking out of its comfort zone—one with American involvement in Southeast Asia, the other with unintentional nuclear holocaust. 
Burdick and Lederer were naval officers and published novelists when they met at a writing conference and decided to collaborate on The Ugly American, published in 1958. The mystery grew out of a second collaboration seven years later. Meanwhile Burdick and Wheeler wrote Fail Safe. Each was teaching at the time: Burdick at the Naval War College; Wheeler, at Washington and Lee University.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bacon's Blood (50)

The tip had been anonymous, which meant they had to check it out.
"Louise, the receptionist, took the call," said Leonard. "She said it was a man. She didn't recognize the voice and he didn't identify himself. Asked for me, but I wasn't in. She asked him if he wanted to leave a message on my phone. He said no. Gave her this message to give me when I got back. It was simply that Dwight MacKenzie was into more than what he was being tried for, that he was into meth—manufacturing crystal speed, is how she said he put it. Then he hung up."
Blow looked up from the yellow pad he'd been making notes on. "That's all? All he said?"
Leonard nodded. "Not much, is it. But it was enough."
"Yeah, I suppose. Could have been a setup. You say the trial was looking good at that point?"
"We thought so. MacKenzie's a charmer. Classic con man. Commonwealth's case was a little shaky. Hard to prove fraud anyway, and MacKenzie was playing the victim, claimed his associates, as he called his sales staff, were the ones falsifying appraisals and credit reports. Without his knowledge, of course.”
You knew better? I mean, you didn't buy that?”
I didn't have to. I was defending him. Attacking their evidence and protecting my flank, making sure nothing blew up in my face. You know how that works.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Forgotten Books: Some Came Running, by James Jones

As serendipities go this was a dilly. A dipsy doodle of a dilly, a chance coincidence that has gifted me back half a century to a novel that lodged itself more pervasively throughout my psyche than any other. Reading that last sentence scares me a little as I'm not often so definitive, preferring instead to hedge and dillydally leaving as many doors and windows—escape hatches--open as I can without appearing blatantly chickenshit. But I've given this some thought, and I cannot think of another novel that has stayed with me as has Some Came Running.

And I have read a lot of novels.
Funny thing is I didn't know how deeply and thoroughly Some Came Running had embedded itself until yesterday, when I started reading it again. It will take at least a week or more for me to finish it, again, but I knew within the first couple of sentences of my second read in fifty-some years how important this masterpiece of James Jones's is. To me. I rarely read novels more than once. And those I have, for the most part, have shown their age—or have reminded me too poignantly of mine. With this in mind, remembering how much I had enjoyed Some Came Running the first time around, I approached a reread with the caution one might feel on the verge of meeting a long-ago good friend after much life has burnished and reshaped memories that could evaporate in a blink.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Bacon's Blood (49)

Blow quickly picked up on a curious dynamic between the Bacon brothers. Elvin was bigger, better looking and with the more forceful persona, the kind of male that presumed the alpha role in most any setting. As he did now toward Leonard, ostensibly. After entering the office first and handling the introductions, and not waiting for an invitation, he gestured to the two wooden courtroom chairs facing Blow's desk. Leonard played along, giving his younger brother a half smile before sitting.

Within moments Blow could see a slick irony at play in Elvin's deference to the older man. It appeared as simple civility, appropriate on the surface, but also natural cover for something less obvious.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The McBain Curse (with The Last Best Hope and Widows)

I'm onto something, I think. I think I'm onto why a certain number of the Amazon “customer reviews” for Ed McBain's novels are so negative. There are always a few negative ones posted by readers so disenchanted by whichever McBain novel they've just tried to enjoy they must go on record. One star, two, maybe even three. This is always the case. Always. It's always the case.

The rest, the great majority of the customer reviewers, award five stars, with a smattering of fours. The fours I think are by readers intending to appear smart and discriminating. They simply will not be stampeded by emotion into awarding five stars for a genre novel even if they secretly loved it to death. Four stars is as high as they'll go--ever--unless to oblige the author, or the book is so obscure they're really awarding the five stars to themselves, for coolness.
Aside from the tiny faction of cranks who can always be found at the bottom of a review list in the one-or-two-star strata trashing whatever the book, because it's what they do, the negative reviewers I'm talking about, the ones I think I'm onto, I think were genuinely nonplussed by the book they're damning with scant stars. They were dismayed and disappointed, they felt cheated, condescended to, culled and excluded. They chose an Ed McBain novel expecting a good, methodical cop story by a world-recognized master of the form.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Forgotten Books: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Quite possibly the most underappreciated American writer of the second half of the 20th century.”
Thus proclaimed the subject line of the Fictionaut forum discussion last month that introduced me to the late Leonard Michaels. Embarrassed to admit I'd not heard of him, and admiring Chris Okum, the writer who opened the subject, I downloaded Michaels's Collected Essays. I read them almost as fast as I read crime novels.
This surprised me. Michaels was a brilliant man. His essays challenged my mind in a way that ordinarily requires deliberation at the plodding tempo of a dirge. What made the difference, what kept me clipping along through the subtleties of his thinking, enabling me to absorb intuitively the more difficult abstractions, was, simply, his storytelling genius.
And maybe coming up with the right title is part of that genius. The lead-off essay in this collection, for example, the title of which won my devotion at first glance, is What's a Story? His essays are not long. They're not argumentative, dry, tightassed theses aimed at academic review. Humor leavens them. They entice in a voice that reaches with simplicity. They seduce with analysis dressed in narrative.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Report: Lucky Bastard by Gary V. Powell

Wracking my brain here to come up with an opening likely to interest you in Lucky Bastard. Trying not to use the common clichés like “page turner” and “unforgettable characters” and “compelling story” and...feel free to add more, surely you've seen them. They multiply on Internet book sites like fruit flies on spoiled bananas. This time they happen to be right, the clichés, but why take my word for it. Let Lucky Bastard show you:

I was watching the Discovery Channel when I heard the explosion from her trailer. I recognized it for a gunshot, and fearing the worst, headed over. None of the other neighbors seemed to notice, but then we got more than our share of gunshots at Catawba Estates.
Jolene was in her underwear. She stood in the middle of her living room, a beer in one hand, Carlisle's .50 caliber Desert Eagle in the other. Her TV lay in pieces across the room. She claimed she'd hit Larry King right between the eyes.
Nice shot,” I said.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Forgotten Books: (Two Minute Warning)

Two debut novels with an identical theme—terrorism at the Super Bowl—came out in 1975 bringing singular success to their authors: they sold to the movies. Both films—Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday--starred big-name actors. One flopped, the other hit. The author of the flop published 14 more novels, yet today is essentially forgotten despite winning a PEN award for one and success on the screen with another. The hit's author is known as the creator of arguably the greatest modern fictional bad guy: Hannibal Lecter.
It might be no accident that Thomas Harris's blast-off success, Black Sunday, also features a weighty villain—a ruthless operative in the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. By contrast, the villain in George La Fountaine's Two Minute Warning is a young man of little substance with no interesting motive, the stereotypical lone gunman soured on life, as much a victim as those who fall within his rifle sights.

The famous Goodyear blimp hovers as a symbolic paradox in the fate of these two stories. In Two Minute Warning a TV camera in the gondola provides the first glimpse of the sniper hidden behind the scoreboard. Terrorists hijack the blimp in Black Sunday to deliver a bomb whose shrapnel can prove lethal to all 80,000 people inside the stadium, including the U.S. President.
Blimp as good guy, blimp as bad guy. Which one looms on book cover and movie poster? Bad blimp, of course. Why we are fascinated more by villains is above my pay grade, but we are. A primal thing maybe. The thing that could end up giving Donald Trump control over our hair styles like that other child monster has over his subjects, in North Korea.

From what we have, it seems plausible to blame the blimp for La Fountaine's literary flame-out. Although Black Sunday comes out ahead in a comparison of the writing--Harris was a newspaper wordsmith when he wrote it; cinematography was La Fountaine's trade--we know fine writing alone does not a blazing commercial success necessarily make. Robert Stone and Ron Faust come to mind. At the spectrum's opposite end we find E. L. “Shades of Grey” James.
Whatever it might be, the formula for success, La Fountaine learned quickly. He proved this with his second novel, Flashpoint, published the following year. A New York Times review pronounced it "much better--more original, written with more security, and with a chilling impact in its last pages." It took a little longer for Flashpoint to make it to the movies—eight years--but its success towered over Two Minute Warning's. It remains one of my all-time favorites, and it introduced me to La Fountaine's novels.
And to his mystery.