Thursday, November 30, 2006


Lucky At Cards
by Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime
222 pages
Available in Jan 07

Since arriving on the publishing scene two years ago, Hard Case Crime, has set about reprinting classic crime novels. That it's not surprise that LUCKY AT CARDS is the third such book they have acquired from Grand Master Lawrence Block. No one, except maybe the late Jim Thompson, captures the world of confidence men, and women, better than Block. One has to wonder at his own background. I find it hard to believe that his intimate knowledge of the hustle could be acquired simply by research. Maye some day he'll write an autobiography and fill us all in on how he does it.

For now, we have this 1964 thriller back in print for an entire new audience of mystery-thriller fans. Bill Maynard is a second rate stage magician who gets pulled into the world crooked card games when he is taught how to use his hand dexterity to manipulate a deck three-ways-from-Sunday. Sleight of hand used to cheat people. No longer an honest, two-bit performer, he becomes what is referred to in the criminal circles as a card mechanic.

When fate, and a few broken teeth, land him in a small, out-of-the-way town, Bill plans on sticking around long enough to see a dentist, shill a few locals in a poker game and then beat it for greener pastures. All well and good until he meets Joyce Rogers, the sexy wife of the insurance salesman in whose home the poker game is being held. When Joyce arrives at his hotel room a few hours later and confesses she is from the wild side of the tracks and sees him for the hustler he is, things begin to heat up. Joyce is going crazy stuck in the role of dutiful housewife and desperately yearns for excitement in her life.

Before you can blink, she and Bill are naked and devouring each other physically as if the world were going to end the next day. Joyce Rogers is a femme fatale of the deadliest sort. She wants to run away with Bill, but not without her husband's money. Together they hatch an elaborate sting to achieve that goal. Like all good noir stories, this one has some very unexpected twists and by the end, both Bill and Joyce discover that even a square, unimaginative man like Murray Rogers can become a deadly opponent when the tables are turned and the cards hold a hidden joker.

Block captures all the nuances and tightrope morality of people who live in the shadows with extreme poignancy. He never white-washes them into Hollywood stereotypes, but rather finds the core ambiguousness of their natures. After all, why would anyone in the world want to spend their lives cheating people? Yet, every day, hundreds live that life and are very, very good at it. Reading LUCKY AT CARDS may not explain why they do it, but it will show you how they do it. Get ready for an education.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


by Bobby Nash
FYI Comics
242 pages

Superheroes have been around since Superman first took flight from the imagination of Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. The thing was no one ever took them seriously. Once the American comic book was fully established by the end of the 1930s, it was as a media of make-believe directed solely towards children.

In the 196os, Stan Lee began to chip away at this immovable label by writing characters that were both amazing with incredible powers while at the same time still very much human as they grappled daily with the same problems all of us face. This new pseudo-realism would reach its culmination peak with the publication of Alan Moore's maxi-series, THE WATCHMEN. Suddenly there was an earthy, fragile unmasking of what true heorics meant to all of us. It was an adult story for an adult audience and superheroes were no longer the exclusive reading material of children. They had grown up.

It wouldn't take long for other venues to latch on to this new found, dramatic maturity. Although the 70s, 80s and 90s would give us new film interpretations of Batman and Superman, they were still mired in adolescent mentality, as is evidence with how quickly the Batman franchise quickly spun out of control with each new entry and was ultimately relegated to a live-action-cartoon status. The movies might have had the right intentions, but they simply didn't understand the true concept of superheroes.

Along comes M.Night Shyamalan and UNBREAKABLE. The first true, adult superhero movie ever made. Bruce Willis' character doesn't have an origin story. He doesn't come into his powers easily or eagerly. They frighten him. There are no lofty vows to fight evil and corruption. Rather the film is a journey of self-discovery and clearly puts forth the theory that evolution isn't quite done with the human race. Can REAL superheroes some day walk among us?

Time jump to the present. The hottest new hit on the boob tube is HEROES, a show about every day people suddenly discovering themselves possessed of truly supernatural powers. What happens next? From week to week the writers of this teleplay have begun a weaving, mesmerizing, completely addictive series that tries to answer that very question. Be they villainous, or heroic, the characters on HEROES are finding their way and it seems millions of us have come along for the ride.

Likewise this new thriller by Bobby Nash. FANTASTIX is a story of a world where superheroes have been around for a long-long time. Now something is systematically killing them off and therein lies the mystery of both their beginnings and their future. Nash, himself a comics writer, has a leg up on his writing peers as he gets what the true underlying core of heroism is all about. As we follow Rob Temple, once known as Visage, on his own journey of self-discovery, the road leads to sacrifice for there can never be heroism without selflessness...and selflessness is at the heart of sacrifice.

The story begins when Dominus, a thinly disguised Superman archetype, is found brutally battered to death. The police, the government and a secret agency, known only as Haven, all become embroiled with the fate of the world's meta-humans. Temple and his young sidekick, Mouse, soon find themselves allied with three very unique people; Frisk, the sexy black chick who is practically invulnerable; Lore, the shy, quiet girl with the ability to bend people to her will, and a were-beast known as Kracklin.

Together they search out the truth behind their own lives and the dangers that threaten to destroy them all.

This is only Nash's second book and it is wonderfully executed. He has matured considerably as a writer since that first offering and the control with which he spins this yarn is both deft and entertaining. I really enjoyed reading this book and came to love these characters. If superheroes are your cup of tea, do not pass up FANTASTIX. It has a lot to say.

The book is available on-line from

Friday, November 17, 2006


The Last Match
by David Dodge
Hard Case Crime
313 pages

David Dodge was a bestselling travelogue and suspense writer back in the 50s & 60s. His most famous novel, TO CATCH A THIEF, was made into a popular film by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Dodge's greatest passion in life was traveling and he used writing to support that wanderlust. He also had a real fascination for bunco artist, commonly referred to today as confidence men.

Dodge died in 1974, short after finishing THE LAST MATCH. The manuscript was filed away with his other papers and would not see the light of day again until 1998 when it was uncovered by his daughter, Kendal. An editor friend suggested she show it to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime. HCC had last year published Dodge's South American thriller, PLUNDER OF THE SUN, and was very eager to read this long lost novel.

Now, thirty-three years after it was first written, THE LAST MATCH, is published much to the pleasure of suspense lovers everywhere. The book is classic Dodge in that it begins in France, then jumps to South America, the US East coast and North Africa before ending on a small island off Sardinia. It is a book filled with wonderfully drawn characters, exotic locales and a very tight, twisty plot that delivers a marvelous and satisfying climax.

Curly, our hero and narrator, is a discharged GI who chooses to remain in Frnace after World War II. Curly is also a likeable grifter who sees unlimited opportunities for a man of his less than honest talents. In the course of plying his shady trade, he meets a sophisticated British blonde who seems obsessed with humiliating him at every turn. There are also a couple unsavory French and Corsican gangsters who cross his path. Throughout the first half of the book we follow Curly along on several elaborate scams. The guy just loves the con.

But when he starts running afoul of the law, Curly packs his bags and heads for warmer, safer climes and ends up in Peru and eventually the Amazon. There another series of misadventures results in a reunion with the straight-laced British femme fatale and a surprise development he is totally unprepared for.

THE LAST MATCH starts slow and builds methodically. Don't let it's steady, plodding pacing put you off. By the half-way juncture, things pick up and the Dodge amps the speed to a roller-coaster finale just as taut and suspenseful as any thriller I've ever enjoyed. This book isa treasure and kudos to HCC for bringing it to us at long last.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


by Dean Koontz
Bantam Books
476 pages

Many years ago a good friend handed me a paperback copy of the WATCHERS by Dean R. Koontz and told me to, "Read this." Since that time, I've become a big-time Koontz fan and have read dozens of his books since. THE WATCHERS still remains one of my favorite books ever. But in those intervening years, Koontz has been hit or miss with me. I've loved lots of his work, and others have left me very disappointed. So, whenever a new one comes out, I give it a very serious scrutiny before plucking down my hard earned bucks. I've discovered as a Koontz follower that he writes two different kinds of thrillers; the dark and deadly type that scares the pants off you and the light and whimsical kind. The latter often deals with issues of personal philosophy and our places in this world. Those are usually the titles that entertain me the most. LIFE EXPECTANCY is very much one of these and a real treat. If you are a Koontz fan, you'll love this book. If you've never read any of his books before,
well, "Read this."

On the night Jimmy Tock was born, his dying grandfather made a prediction that there would be five terrible days in his future. Within hours of his birth, a crazed circus clown named Konrad Beezo murders a doctor and nurse because his own wife dies in childbirth. He escapes into the night with his infant son. What is his connection with the Tock family and their newest member? Thus starts one of Koontz's most memorable yarns to date. Jimmy is a great, eccentric character who wants to live his life as peacefully and dully as is humanly possible. Unfortunately the five days of horror are coming as time passes and he has no choice but to confront them, one by one.

The ingenuity and heart of this book left me crying in several places, happily so. Like myself, Koontz believes there is a destiny shaped by a mysterious God and that each of is a unique piece of that cosmic puzzle called life. We can choose to play out our parts or rebel against them, but regardless, the tapestry of life will continue to be woven in an immortal image beyond our mortal comprehension. Such is the magic of every single human life brilliantly captured by this amazing book. Be prepared to be enchanted.


The Phantom Marshal
by Lance Howard
A Black Horse Western
157 pages

Writer Lance Howard is an avowed pulp enthusiast and when he first began writing for the British label, Black Horse Western, it was inevitable that he would bring some pulpish elements to his horse operas. THE PHANTOM MARSHAL is such a book as ti combines the traditional cowboy vengeance plot with touches from the hero pulps, especially the Shadow and the Black Bat.

Print Madsen was the marshal of a small New Mexico town called Blakewood. Everything was peaceful and quiet until the Gauvin brothers, Cort and Hank arrived. Both had ambitions that involvled breaking the law to get rich and famous. Cort started a big cattle ranch from ill-gotten gains and had dreams of becoming the state governor one day. Younger brother, Hank, opened a saloon and was willing to settle for simply running the town. Of course Madsen, and his younger brother, Mark, were going to be impediments to those grandiose plans. Thus the Madsens were attacked one night by a group of thugs led by the Gauvins. Mark was killed outright and Print was beaten to within an inch of his life and his broken body thrown into the river.

This is all back story. The book opens two years later when the members of that killing party, one by one, fall victim to a mysterious masked avenger in black. This murderous wraith strikes without warning and shows the badmen no mercy. On their bodies he leaves a marshal's badge in which a cross has been scratched. Cort and Hank recognize it as the same badge worn by the dead Print Madsen. Has his avenging spirit returned from the dead to wreak bloody retribution? Or is the masked rider someone else altogether with a different agenda? Before the book reaches its gun-blasting climax, many more hombres will fall at the hands of the Phatom Marshal.

A quick note. Although Black Horse Westerns are produced in England, they are easily available through in this country. Try one. They are much fun.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


by Charles Saunders
Night Shade Books
224 pages.

A long time ago, back in the 70s, DAW books published a trio of books starring a powerful black warrior named Imaro. Mirrored somewhat on Robert E.Howard's classical barbarian figure, Conan, Imaro strode a new and vastly unexplored wilderness few western readers were at all familiar with, Africa.

No, not the Africa of Tarzan and Trader Horn movies that so proliferated the American consciousness of the 1920s and 30s, but an Africa based on authentic myths and legends of that magnificent, nature rich continent. And all of this was the product of an imagination unlike any other to come down the literary halls of fantasy writing. Charles Saunders, like his brawny protagonist, is a large, imposing African-American with a ready smile, marvelous sense of humor and a gift for words that quickly established him as a strong new presence in the American fiction genre.

Sadly the editors of DAW fumbled the ball in marketing this new, and vibrant character and ended up labeling him either "the black Conan" or even more embarrassing, "the black Tarzan."
Imaro was/is neither. He is unique, an original hero who lives his life against the colorful background of a world that sprang from the true, authentic myths of the real Africa. Thus this lack of editorial understanding of the material presented to them, doomed the series to a very quick cancellation after only three volumes. Saunders had in fact written four and had a fifth well in development when this abrupt ending was forced on him. And on that day, fantasy and adventure readers lost something truly special. As one of the few lucky souls to have found and read those three books, I can attest to this loss personally. It seemed Imaro's legend would die before it had really begun.

Jump ahead thirty some years and along comes publisher, Night Shade Books, wanting to resurrect the charactre and the series. Luckily they were able to convince Saunders to dust off his remarkable creation, revamp some of his early chapters to better adjust to modern sensibilities (Saunders is all too aware of current African politics, recent wars and acts of genocide to allow his fiction to exploit such atrocities). And now, a brand new edition of IMARO is once again on the book racks of America, and hopefully this time, with a dedicated publisher, is going to find an eager audience that will soon be begging for more.

Having read both the original version of this book, the first chapter in Imaro's saga, and the new released edition, I'm here to give everyone involved a round of applause. This is by far one of the best adventure books I have read in years. Saunders has matured as a writer and his use of words to convey a sense of time and place is unrivaled among today's fantasists. Do not miss IMARO. You've been given a second chance at a classic, don't blow it. You'll be sorry you did.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


By Pete Hamill
Hard Case Crime

Do not be surprised if in the coming weeks and months you find lots and lots of Hard Case Crime titles appearing in this column. They are by far one of my favorite publishers and I am always eager to pick up each new title they put forth. HCC is about bringing back the true noir pulp fun of paperbacks that were so prevalent in the 60s & 70s via outfits like Gold Medal and Fawcett and Ace. And that's exactly what they do, combining terse, gripping fiction with brilliant new covers by today's finest painters.

Okay, enough about the company. Let's dig into the book itself First published in 1983, the setting is Ireland during a very turbulent time in its war between the North and South, Catholics and Protestants. It is amazing to think that in just twenty or so years we've all but forgotten about the bloody conflict that ravaged that island country, as we've now turned our attention on the Middle East and it's violent problems. Seems like one war after another, and still with some kind of fanatical religious underpinings. Pete Hamill's protagonist is a New York City reporter named Sam Briscoe, sent to do a story on the Irish Republican Army and their mysterious leader. In the process Briscoe is recruited to hand deliver a message from this shadow commander to IRA sympthizers back in America. He agrees to do so reluctantly and almost immediately comes to regret it when he is followed to Switzerland by gunmen. Briscoe realizes he has foolishly put both himself and his eleven year daughter at risk and quickly delivers her to Spain into the care of her mother, his ex-wife.

Back in New York, Briscoe attempts to the deliver the envelope only to have the intended receiver murdered in a terrorist bombing of an Irish bar. Then he discovers his daughter has been kidnapped and smuggled into America. Unless he cooperates with the kidnappers, she will be tortured and killed. Now he's on his own, realizing her safety depends on his ability to find her and deal with his enemies. That he becomes obsessed and ruthless in his quest is what drives the second half of this thriller and keeps the pages turning. Hamill is good at building suspense, but even more so at setting his stage with complex characters and twisty political knots that don't get unraveled until the very last chapter.

THE GUNS OF HEAVEN is effective, powerful drama. That it is tragic is also worthy of attention. People do have the power the make this a better world. This book wonders if they have the courage to do so?