Tuesday, May 17, 2016

NO REST FOR THE DEAD



NO REST FOR THE DEAD
By 26 Mystery Writers
Edited by Andrew F. Gulli & Lamia J. Gulli
Touchstone Books
252 pages

Ever heard of a round robin?  A round-robin story, or simply “round robin,” is a type of collaborative fiction or storytelling in which a number of authors each write chapters of a novel or pieces of a story in rounds.  They were invented in the 19th century, and later became a tradition particularly in science fiction.  Having been personally involved with several round-robin projects, we can attest to just how difficult they are to pull off and most of them begun are never completed.  Conflicting egos, styles of writing, etc. etc. all are factors in undermining a project that demands a strict adherence to one narrative plot. Round-robins are easily derailed for dozens of reasons.

Which is why when we stumbled upon “No Rest For The Dead,” in an old bookstore last year, we were immediately intrigued by the dust-jacket’s claim that 26 writers had successfully come together to create gripping murder mystery.  Was it true?  Did the book actually work?  We took a chance, bought a copy and hoped for the best.

Rosemary and Christopher Thomas are curators of a well established art museum in San Francisco.  Their marriage is falling apart thanks to his wandering eye.  Aware of his unfaithfulness, Rosemary threatens to divorce him.  Christopher warns her that should she do so he will fight for custody of their two children; thus assuring he maintains his hold on Rosemary’s inherited wealth. When Christopher disappears soon after a public confrontation at the museum, the police are ultimately called in as a matter of routine. Months later his body is discovered in a Berlin museum folded into a medieval torture device known as an iron maiden. What is left of it, that is. Only through a single tooth and pinky finger are the authorities able to identify the liquefied remains as those of Christopher Thomas.

Soon after Rosemary is arrested, tried and convicted of his murder.  She is sentenced to be put to death by chemical injection.  And that, dear readers, is where this mystery begins, at the execution of Rosemary Thomas.  Present are her closest acquaintances including her alcoholic brother, Peter, and Detective Joe Nunn, the cop who’s testimony help convict her. It is a riveting scene and one that propels the tale. Ten years pass and Nunn learns there is a memorial service planned for the anniversary of Rosemary’s death to be held at the museum. Invited are the same select group who were present at her demise. 

For Nunn, the intervening years have been haunting as he never truly believed Rosemary killed her husband thus his guilt for helping to bring about her death has destroyed both his marriage and career.  With the news of this gathering, the ex-cop begins to wonder if it may be a way for him to reopen the case and not only prove Rosemary’s innocent but eventually find the real killer.  As the date of the event draws nearer, he begins to suspect that, if he is correct, that killer may be among those invited to participate.

From its first page to its last, “No Rest For The Dead,” is a truly masterful, intense and beautiful crafted mystery.  That 26 different writers were involved with its creation is nothing short of mind-blowing to this reviewer.  All mystery novels should be this good. And so let us end with a tip of our pulp fedora to the 26.

(Jeff Abbot – Lori Armstrong – Sandra Brown – Thomas Cook – Jeffery Deaver – Diana Gabaldon – Tess Gerristsen – Andrew F. Gulli – Peter James – J.A. Jance – Faye Kellerman –Raymond Khoury – John Lescroart – Jeff Lindsay – Gayle Lynds – Phillip Margolin – Alexander McCall Smith – Michael Palmer – T. Jefferson Parker – Matthew Pearl – Kathey Reichs – Marcus Sakey – Johanthan Santlofer – Lisa Scottloline – R.L. Stine – Marcia Talley)


Monday, May 09, 2016

QUARRY'S VOTE



QUARRY’S VOTE
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
237 pages

This is one series we came in late on, not having been aware of Max Collins’ hitman Quarry until Hard Case Crime convinced him to bring the character out of mothballs for one more tale; “The Last Quarry” in 2015.  We were hooked instantly and obviously not alone in our appreciation as the publisher continued releasing new Quarry tales.  By this time Collins had long since established himself as one of the premier mystery writers in the country. This was due in large part to his historical Nathan Heller crime novels and his posthumous collaborations with late Mickey Spillane in which Collins completed many unfinished Mike Hammer mysteries.

And still, despite these truly wonderful books, Quarry, in our opinion, is Collins’ most successful series.  A fact now bolstered by the forthcoming TV series being produced for the cable outfit, Cinemax.  In lieu of its premier, Hard Case Crime is reprinting the original Quarry novels first released in late 70s and early 80s.  “Quarry’s Vote,” first published in 1987 as “Primary Target,” is one of these.

As the story opens, Quarry has quit the killing game, married and settled down.  He’s also about to become a father for the first time.  One day, while his wife is away, he is visited by a stranger wanting to hire him to assassinate a radical political figure running in the current presidential race.  Quarry is offered the sum of one million dollars to take the job; the largest such payment he’d ever been offered.  Still, because of the contentment he’s finally found in his life, he turns the job down.  Days later he feels anxious about his decision, beginning to worry that his turning down the hit will have dangerous repercussions.  Tragically his haunting premonitions become reality and everything he held dear is taken from him in an act of cruel savagery. 

Having the survived this attempt on his life, Quarry sets out to find those who have targeted him and wreak his own brand of retribution.  Pulled back into his life as an agent of death, he sets about proving that his years away haven’t dulled his skills in the slightest.  He is the embodiment of the relentless Reaper and woe to those who find themselves in his path of bloody vengeance.

“Quarry’s Vote,” is Collins as his best, delivering a top notched thriller with a dark, twisted lacing of black satirical humor that weaves itself through his depiction of modern politicos from both sides of the aisles.  And it’s returning in this particular year of such a outlandish presidential contest couldn’t be more fitting.  We’re only too happy to cast our own vote for this Quarry ticket.  As you should be.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD



THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD
By Terrence McCauley
Down & Out Books
130 pages

“The Devil Dogs of Belleau Woods,” is a gripping war adventure set during one of the most brutal battles of World War One.  Corporal Charlie Doherty is a New York City cop who thought he was a tough guy but when he finds himself in a pitched battle alongside a handful of U.S. Marines against an overwhelming force of German troopers, he quickly discovers the true meaning of grit and courage. 

The book opens with Doherty the sole survivor of his company after a hellish battle with the enemy.  Alone in its aftermath, he founds himself lost in the dense forest of the Belleau Woods pinned down by a machine-gun nest.  Then two gutsy Marine officers arrive on the scene; Capt. Devlin and Lt. Barrows. Devlin, though young, is a seasoned warrior and quickly directs them into taking out the German gun.  Soon the trio hook up with a group of other lost Marines led by a grizzled Sgt. Ambrose.  Devlin believes the enemy is going to make another push to break through their lines and they may be the only force in the area capable of repelling them.

When they find a small, isolated French farm, Devlin decides it is the place where they will make their stand.  Their objective, to hold back the advancing Germans until reinforcements can arrive.  McCauley’s prose is terse and straight forward.  His fighting scenes are savage without being sensational.  He paints the horror of warfare with a detached, clear reporting and captures the pain, suffering, courage and ultimate sacrifice that are part of combat.

We haven’t read a war book this good since Richard Matheson’s “The Beardless Warriors.”  For a small volume it packs a solid punch proving once again that Terrence McCauley is a rising star in today’s fiction.  Not to be missed.

Friday, April 29, 2016

3 THE HARD WAY



3 THE HARD WAY
By Gary Phillips
Down & Out Books
295 pages

First before digging into this book’s trio of excellent pulp yarns, we want to tip our fedora to Down & Out Books.  A fairly new publishing house, the quality of their recent titles has been excellent and that bodes well for all new pulp readers.  In fact, the three novellas you’ll encounter in this volume were only available digitally until now; just another reason for us devoted book lovers should be grateful to this new outfit. Here’s hoping they are with us for many years to come.

Okay, so on to the review.  Gary Phillips is regarded as one of the finest new pulp authors in the game today and his reputation is well earned.  A prolific scribe, he has a passion for creating unique heroes with a recognizable pedigree going back to the classic pulps of the 30s and 40s.  In this book we get to meet three of the newest starting Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston; a sophisticated conman with the nickname McBleak.  Sauve and debonair, he follows in the footsteps of such notable crime figures as Parker and Raffles with just a smidgen of the Saint in there somewhere.  In this offering called “The Extractors,” McBleak sets his sights on a greedy developer and plots an elaborate and dangerous scam to fleece the crooked financier.  The con is meticulously planned out and with the help of some loyal pals, McBleak risks life and limb to come out on top.

This is followed by “Ten Seconds to Death,” in which we meet the Essex Man, Luke Warfield.  He is a former secret agent turned philanthropist who uses his agency to help people in need, support his community and bring justice to those who can’t afford it in a legal system corrupt to the bone.  If he sounds a bit like Bruce Wayne/Batman, trust us, that’s no accident.  Phillips loves his heroes brave and noble.  In this introduction to Warfield and his team, we learn something of his black-ops background when he begins to investigate the murder of his stepfather.  It appears an old colleague from that shadowy world has gone rogue and unless Essex can stop him, he will rain down death and destruction on Los Angeles.  This one moves like an Indy 500 speedster, giving us readers little to do by flip those pages and hold on tight.

Finally we get Phillips’ homage to the super pulp icons ala Doc Savage and the Avenger with Ned Noc Brenner, an extreme sports junkie who is recruited by a mysterious organization known as the Vigilance Initiative.  Under the direction of a genius inventor named Hiram Templesmith, Noc and two other agents are sent to foil the plot of a super criminal known as Prospero about to sell a flying-tank to whoever will bid the highest for this weapon of doom.  In true pulp fashion, Noc’s new pals also have their own unique skills. Kolburn is a human chameleon who can change his appearance via millions of nano-robots in his skin cells while the lovely Navarro has subtle by powerful psychic that allow her to sense the veracity of an opponent.  Together, the three efficiently set out to spoil Prospero’s scheme and obtain the anti-gravity machine before it falls into evil hands.

“3 The Hard Way,” is such an awesome volume as it stands.  But to sweeten the pot even more, Phillips has added a brand new Essex Man short to welcome readers to the worlds of his amazing imagination.  In a time when we are seeing more and more wonderful new pulp fiction entering the literary world, Gary Phillips is far out front leading the pack. It would do you well to start reading him now rather than play catch up later. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

CAPE HELL



CAPE HELL
By Loren D. Estleman
Forge Books
224 pgs
Available May 2016

Now we’ve only read a few books by Loren D. Estleman but those were enough to convince us of his immeasurable storytelling talents.  It is also clear he possesses a genuine fondness for westerns as this latest title soundly confirms.

Montana based U.S. Deputy Marshal Page Murdock, a seasoned lawman, is ordered by his superior, Federal Judge Harlan Blackthorne, to Cape Hell, Mexico, to investigates the activities of former Confederate officer, Captain Oscar Childress, said to be assembling a private army to capture Mexico City.  From there Childress plans to turn his attention to United States and attempt to start a second Civil War.

Murdoch finds the entire idea ludicrous but has little say in the matter and soon finds himself aboard an old steam engine train called The Ghost barreling his way south with a shifty Mexican engineer and Joseph, his Indian fireman.  Their destination, Childress’ camp hidden deep in the heart of the rugged Sierra Madres overlooking Cape Hell.

The ex-Confederate would-be conqueror is a well used plot that in lesser hands would have proven tiresome and unoriginal, but it is Murdock’s weary world voice that gives it a new feel.  His curiosity at what makes Childress tick and his stubbornness in seeing the mission completed offer up a truly likeable protagonist who, considering how many times he’s cracked over the head, must have a skull made of rock.

“Cape Hell” is as fast paced as the locomotive that carries us into the eerily beautiful but deadly landscape and in the end delivers a fresh, exciting yarn worthy of the best classic westerns.  This one is a winner hands down.

Friday, April 01, 2016

A HANDFUL OF HELL



A HANDFUL OF HELL
Classic War & Adventure Stories
By Robert F. Dorr
New Texture Books
323 pages

At the height of the classic pulp era of the 1930s and 40s, variety was the name of the game as magazine racks were inundated with titles covering every conceivable genre of fiction known to mankind.  There was clearly something for everyone; men, women and children.  In the post World War II years starting in the early 50s, pulps outgrew their small, square format and morphed into the more typical, larger publications.  With this evolution the diversity continued only now it seemed to be a lot more noticeable.  Glancing at drugstore racks, one could clearly see sections set aside for women’s interest ala romance and confession titles, whereas the kids now had their comic books and for the men readers; many made up of veterans, there were the Men’s Adventure Magazines or, as we’ve come to refer to them today, MAMS.

Month after month throughout the 50s, 60s and well into the 70s, dozens of title covers featured soldiers, sailors and airmen along with scantily clad, busty babes in all manners of death defying scenarios. These were periodicals loudly proclaiming their machismo and all things rugged. There were no fobbish, sophisticated intellectuals in these pages, but true American patriots, battling tough-guys willing to give all for God and country. The writers that produced mountains of these stories were men cast from the same mold as they heroes they wrote about.  None was better at this craft than Robert F. Dorr.

Now editors Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, two men dedicated to preserving the history of MAMS, have collected 17 of Dorr’s classic action adventure shorts that appeared in various titles between 1962 and 1970.  These blood and guts yarns portray American warriors in both the European theater and South Pacific, from on-the-ground hand to hand combat to the nerve-wracking trauma of airmen battling in the skies aboard massive air bombers. Then there are stories detailing the horror of the Korean conflict and finally brutally detailed accounts of jungle action in the steaming valleys of Vietnam.

Throughout them all, Dorr brings to each such authenticity that he immediately captures his readers and sucks them into action. Enough so that this reviewer could hear the sounds of the mighty Pratt & Whitney engines as they  carried airmen over enemy territory and felt hot lead zipping past his head as he crouched in a foxhole of hardened mud on a Korean hillside awaiting the oncoming charge of crazed Red Soldiers.  This ability to share an experience is the hallmark of a true writer. It is a rare talent only few have ever possessed and Dorr is one of them.  My personal favorite was his recounting of “The Incredible Glory Saga of the Boondock Padre.”  This is story of Father Robert Liteky, an Army Chaplain who won the Medal of Honor for his courage at the battle of Phuoc Loc three weeks before the Tet Offensive of 1967. You see, this reviewer was an Army Spec 4 stationed at Long Binh only a few miles away when this happened.  Robert Dorr’s story brought back lots of memories of the brave men and women I served with in those log ago days. Many never came home and we salute writers like Dorr for not letting their stories be forgotten.

“A HANDFUL OF HELL,” is a remarkable collection by a truly great writer. One we are damn proud to have in our library.  It deserves your support and then some.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

SPANISH MOSS



SPANISH MOSS
(A Robineux Mystery)
By E.A. Cook
Rogue House Publishing
169 pages

Sometimes the story of how we received a particular book can be as interesting as the book itself.  Several weeks ago we walked into a very small local bookstore.  You know the kind, they make most of their income in selling or trading used books.  As we had a stack of such that were taking up way too much space in our office, we thought we’d stop by this little store and donate them to the owner.   We will never just trash a book, we love them too much. Thus this way they would hopefully end up in the hands of other bibliophiles like us and along the way provide a little sustaining income to the owner of the shop.

The charming lady who operated the store was happy to take the books off our hands, especially seeing the immaculate condition they were still in and we entered into a nice conversation about what we both liked to read.  Finally, as we were starting to say our goodbyes, she held up her hand, walked over to a shelf and picked up this small book with a light green cover.  She then explained it was written by a local writer here Fort Collins and she wanted us to have it.  She personally thought it was very well written.

And now on to our review of E.A. Cook’s “Spanish Moss.”  The protagonist, Calvin, has been physically abused by his father most of his young life.  When the man attempts to rape him at the age of fifteen, Calvin kills him in self-defense and runs away.  Via hitch-hiking, he wanders aimlessly through the south for several years until one night he’s picked up by a sexual predator.  In his attempt to flee, the boy causes car to crash off a bridge and into the waters of a dark and foreboding swamp.  Hours later, while crouched on the limb of a tree; he is rescued by a Cajun named Esteen Robinaux.  Sensing the boy’s fear and fragility, Esteen brings him to his mother, Miss Jovetta Robineux.   Gifted with “the sight,” Miss Jovetta welcomes young Calvin into their lives and informs him that he now has both a home and a family for as long as he wants one.

Having never known such kindness, the lad accepts cautiously but soon learns there is nothing phony about the Robineux, they are exactly what they appear to be, good and loving people.  In time he also meets Esteen’s only child, a beautiful young woman named Sophie who happens to be a Medical Examiner for the parish.  It is through her Calvin discovers the tragedy that befell the Robineuxs when Sophie’s mother, on a trip to New Orleans, was brutally raped and murdered.  The killer was never found.  As his new life progresses, Calvin begins to mature in both body and mind.  Both Miss Jovetta and Esteen provide him with sage life lessons while Sophie, a third-degree black-belt in Kenpo karate, teaches her adopted brother how to defend himself properly.

Upon turning eighteen, Calvin decides that the best way he can repay them is to go to New Orleans and hunt down the monster that killed Camille Robineux.  Though saddened by this, the family respectfully accepts to his decision.  They send him off with their prayers and well wishes.  At this point, Cook’s narrative becomes a true mystery as Calvin, now calling himself Vin, starts his investigations in New Orleans by contacting newspaper reporter Jack Turpin and Police Detective Liam Nation, both familiar with the old case.  The plot is convoluted and ultimately twist and turns on itself like a crazy pretzel demanding that the reader stay alert as each new character brings a new clue to the unfolding drama.  Cook’s depiction of the city and its popular landmarks add an authentic layer to this fast paced story and there is very little wasted wordage.  His writing is lean and mean, delivering an abrupt but satisfying climax. 

In the end, this little tome works nicely as an introduction to a cast of colorful characters we’d very much like to see return.  Vin Robineux and his remarkable family certainly deserve an encore.