Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Were I Police Detective Edelman and I had the faded TV star Stephen Wade in my custody I'd lock him up, close the case and take a long, well-deserved vacation. This is one murder rap not even my buddy Jack Dwyer--former cop, now private eye and sometime actor—is going to upend, believe me.

I mean, look. Let's be realistic here. Wade's fingerprints are all over the knife that's buried in Michael Reeves's back. Okay? Need more? Opportunity: A reliable witness sees Wade enter Reeves's apartment around the time of the murder. Motive? Hours earlier Reeves had shoved, slapped and humiliated Wade in front of the rest of the cast of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night following Wade's drunken bumbling, stumbling, mumbling performance. Reeves directed the production and is the local theater's resident director.

One might think even Jack Dwyer would let this one go, especially considering the victim was not a likable guy. Somewhat of a loathsome guy, actually. The kind of guy who probably had it coming anyway. But, then, Jack Dwyer's not the kind of guy who gives up easily. Not the kind, either, to rush to judgment, no matter how loathsome it might be to keep an open mind.

One suspects Ed Gorman was a Dwyer kind of guy. He created Jack Dwyer and used this quote by the late British author Gerald Kersh to introduce Murder in the Wings, our currently discussed Dwyer mystery: ". . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."

In Murder in the Wings, Jack Dwyer neither hates the man charged with murder nor has to look for any chinks in his armor. There is no armor. Stephen Wade is himself writhing in torment, destroying his career and his life with drink. He is also Dwyer's friend. Dwyer was one of the cast members in this disastrous performance of O'Neill's classic play. He restrained the actor after a fight broke out between the two enraged men. It was Dwyer whom Wade called, in a drunken stupor, from Reeves's apartment where he said he found his tormentor lying face down in bed with a knife protruding between his shoulder blades.

Nope. No way Jack Dwyer is going to let this one go. Not even after Wade admits he isn't positive he didn't stab the loathsome director to death. Not even after he waves a .45 at Dwyer and flees sobbing into the night. Dwyer couldn't let this one go if he wanted to, if only because his lovably flaky girlfriend, Donna Harris, has decided that “sweet” Stephen Wade did not—could not—murder anyone, not even someone as loathsome as Michael Reeves.

Besides, taking a closer look one sees there are plenty of folks, in the theater group alone, with motive, opportunity and means to have done the dirty deed.

Ed Gorman was at the top of his game with this novel. The writing is crisp and insightful, with moments of pure poetic joy. His characters are so real you feel you know them, or would like to. His plotting is intricate and daring. He keeps you guessing right up to the eminently satisfying denouement.

And the humor. Oh, mercy. It sneaks up and gooses you when you least expect it. There seems always to be a scene or two in every Gorman novel that sets me to laughing so hard I worry I will not be able to stop. Or that the neighbors will call 911. This time, about halfway through Murder in the Wings, I grabbed my cell phone thinking I might need to make the call myself.

Turns out I didn't. But I was ready.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Thursday, November 17, 2016

MAGGIE: A Girl of the Streets – Stephen Crane

With no knowledge the expression gadzooks did or did not exist in the latter part of the 19th century I presume here to employ the aforementioned expletive to burst forth with appalled astonishment from the throat of Rupert, our imaginary reader at the imaginary distinguished Manhattan publishing house Lyttel, Pettibone & Throckhauptman, as he begins reading the manuscript of a short novel by one historically accurate Johnston Smith.

Rupert’s outburst coincides with his hurling of the manuscript across the room he shares with three other readers of what one day would come to be known as slushpile submissions, most of which were returned to their authors with notes of polite rejection. Our historically accurate manuscript is thusly returned after Rupert composes himself and sheepishly gathers up the sheets from the floor to stuff into the self-addressed-stamped envelope its author had enclosed with his submission. Doing so, Rupert notices the name on the return envelope is not Johnston Smith. Rupert shrugs, assuming the name is that of Smith’s agent, pastes the flap shut and drops the envelope into the outgoing basket on his desk. He pauses for a moment before releasing the envelope and wonders why he does not recognize the "agent"’s name: Stephen Crane. Rupert and the other New York publishers who rejected Maggie: A Girl of the Streets wouldn’t have this problem two years later when Crane dropped the pseudonym for his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Then any vocal sounds they might have produced likely would have been expressions of dismay for having rejected Maggie.
Frustrated by his failure to find a publisher for Maggie, Crane went the self-pub route, spending nearly $900 to have 1,100 copies printed. Reflecting back on this venture he was quoted as saying, "how I looked forward to publication and pictured the sensation I thought it would make. It fell flat. Nobody seemed to notice it or care for it... Poor Maggie! She was one of my first loves."

Of course once Red Badge was a hit, critics took another look at Maggie, and, voila!!!, declared it a work of cutting edge naturalistic/realistic brilliance. Uh huh. A real publisher even came out with a new edition, dropping the pseudonym and emblazoning Crane’s name on the cover! To be truthful here, rather than simply snarky, the publishers who rejected Maggie the first time, felt the theme of a girl raised in poverty in a Bowery tenement who turns to prostitution was a tad risque for the popular market. Some also objected to Crane’s meticulous transcription of the Bowery dialect, something other critics praised it for. I found it difficult and unnecessary beyond a little taste initially to get the Bowery voice into the reader’s head before switching to more comprehensible English. Here’s an example:

Pete made a furious gesture. “Git outa here now, an’ don’ make no trouble. See? Youse fellers er lookin’ fer a scrap an’ it’s damn likely yeh’ll fin’ one if yeh keeps on shootin’ off yer mout’s. I know yehs! See? I kin lick better men dan yehs ever saw in yer lifes. Dat’s right! See? Don’ pick me up fer no stuff er yeh might be jolted out in deh street before yeh knows where yeh is. When I comes from behind dis bar, I t’rows yehs bote inteh deh street. See?”

There are patches of overwriting that would have had me shouting gadzooks and hurling the manuscript across the room. I won’t include a sampling here as a gesture of respect for my readers. But then there are gems like this:

The air in the collar and cuff establishment strangled her. She knew she was gradually and surely shriveling in the hot, stuffy room. The begrimed windows rattled incessantly from the passing of elevated trains. The place was filled with a whirl of noises and odors.
She wondered as she regarded some of the grizzled women in the room, mere mechanical contrivances sewing seams and grinding out, with heads bended over their work, tales of imagined or real girlhood happiness, past drunks, the baby at home, and unpaid wages. She speculated how long her youth would endure. She began to see the bloom upon her cheeks as valuable.
She imagined herself, in an exasperating future, as a scrawny woman with an eternal grievance.

I did a double-take and then emitted a sardonic chuckle when I finally recognized that Chapter XVII was breaking the proverbial fourth wall this way:Upon a wet evening, several months after the last chapter, two interminable rows of cars, pulled by slipping horses, jangled along a prominent side-street.”
As one might expect, the naturalistic realism of Maggie is not remotely upbeat and ends on a note so gloomy the movie version, were there ever to be one, likely would use Beethoven’s Funeral March as a background accompaniment.
Can I in good faith recommend Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as “a good read?” No, I can’t and I shan’t. But anyone interested in the seminal work of a genius should find it informing as well as a solid study of Bowery lingo that might some day come in handy should one find oneself stranded in “Rum Alley” or “Devil’s Row” and need directions.
My copy of Maggie is included in the Karpathos complete works of Crane, on Kindle for 99 cents. I shall revisit The Red Badge of Courage soon to see if it holds up to my first reading of it as a youngster. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, November 10, 2016

STEPHEN HAWKING: A Life in Science – Michael White and John Gribbin

Some years back I bought a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I knew Hawking was important, that he was cutting edge. I was curious. I don’t think I got past the first page or two. The language of physics was over my head, yet I caught enough to be vaguely intimidated, suspecting if I struggled with it enough to understand where the author was going I’d soon be revisiting my old nightmares about suddenly getting sucked into a black hole.

Well, that danger is abated. I have learned in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science that black holes are more abundant than visits by Chicken Man: they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere. Presumably sucking sucking sucking… Some—an infinite number, actually--are infinitely smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. Sucking sucking… But the best news I learned from this fairly-easy-to-follow biography of this incredibly hard-to-understand man is that our entire universe is a black hole—one among an infinite number of universes, all of them black holes. I’d have put an exclamation mark after that last sentence had I not become so astoundingly sophisticated in matters of cosmic theory reading this amazing book, which I picked up for half a buck a couple of weeks ago at the library’s used book sale. It was sitting next to a credibly slim volume titled The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump, which, according to my understanding of theories discovered by Stephen Hawking (and my own intuition), possibly itself contains an infinite number of black holes. Needless to say, I had one helluva time trying to decide which of these two possible collections of theoretically possible black holes to spend my fifty cents on.

Now then, here’s my own theory, one which I feel empowered to expound from a foundation of virtual math illiteracy and inherent mistrust of most anyone who seems to know more about something than I do. I would guess such mistrust is explained somewhat, explicitly or by inference, in the fictional Trump book. (Not to worry, there’s no math in this theory): We know that at first few if any human beings knew precisely what the hell Einstein was talking about when he came up with the “special theory of relativity.” It didn’t help that many quickly understood Einstein’s equation E = mc 2 because they still didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. To this day I am fairly clueless.

Moving along briskly here, Hawking’s theories of black holes and other celestial phenomena are even more obscure than Einstein’s theories to my cosmically deprived little brain. I enjoyed reading about them, though—the theories—if only because once I realized that I myself might well be a black hole or at least host to a bunch of them my dread of dreaming the damned sucking dream succumbed to an awesome sense of being Mr. Universal Danger, armed with the knowledge I could at whim strike terror in the hearts of anyone who didn’t know the secret that they too might well be black holes or hosts to a multitude thereof. I’d be wearing tights and a cape were I not uncomfortable with the prospect of starting a dangerous fashion trend among the black hole cognoscenti. Or be misunderstood by the folks in the white suits with the tranquilizer darts.

Getting back to my theory, if only a metaphoric handful of physicists, astronomers and mathematicians are hip to the guts of these theories, who's to say they don’t push their equations into a little niche so esoteric only they can credibly pretend the equations make sense? It’s all just theory anyway. No one has ever identified a black hole, nor will anyone ever likely do so, as Hawking assures us. It’s this small coterie of elite scientists we’re supposed to trust. And Hawking seems perhaps more trustworthy than the average brainiac because he suffers from a disease that’s left him almost completely paralyzed.

But we know the guy has a wicked sense of humor, White and Gribbin say so in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. Wicked sense of humor. Folks who know him, including White and Gribbin, say you can see the mischief in his face. And he loves to whip around the cloistered Cambridge campus at breakneck speed in his motorized wheelchair. He also loves to whip around dance floors in it, flirting with women. I learned also Hawking has three kids by his wife, whom he left after 25 years to move in with his nurse-come-mistress. Them apples, whattaya think? The guy’s a player! A practical joker/player who just might be putting one over on all of us.

So intrigued was I about halfway through the book I bought the DVD of The Theory of Everything, based on Hawking’s wife Jane’s book about their marriage. The flick left me spellbound. I started sitting around with my head lolling to one side, practicing mischievous grins and smartass quips. What the hell is wrong with me? I couldn’t even help my kids with their geometry homework. Now I’m wondering if geometry is some brainiac joke too.

Maybe I’m presidential timber.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, November 3, 2016

SUN MOUNTAIN -- Richard S. Wheeler

I'm finding myself more and more fascinated with history the older I get. Maybe part of the fascination has to do with the fact that events I lived through, heard on the news, read in the newspaper or saw with my own eyes, have since become history. Looking at what is now history that was once part of my life gives my imagination a boost to move further back, to see events before my time differently than I saw them when I studied history in school. The context of living extends perspective in a way that reading about events as an inexperienced youngster never could.

Now, if the histories had been written by Richard Wheeler it might have been different. A masterful writer of historical fiction, Wheeler creates an illusion for the reader to feel he or she is in fact viewing events as they happened. The period in Sun Mountain was the last third of the 19th century during the silver/gold mining boom and bust of Virginia City, Nevada.
The novel unfolds as the memoir of a fictional character—Henry Stoddard—but involves many actual people, including the young Samuel Clemens and other newsmen at the Territorial Enterprise. The newspaper gave Stoddard, one of its reporters, an ideal platform to observe the wild and fascinating milieu and personalities of the mining community made famous worldwide as The Comstock Lode.

Richard S. Wheeler
With this highly personalized device Wheeler spoons out his vast knowledge of the mining industry, the customs of the day and events great and small, locally, regionally and beyond in such vivid detail he held me spellbound throughout the story.

Had Sun Mountain been part of a course when I was in high school or even college I might have become a history buff much much sooner. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]