Wednesday, August 29, 2007


The Accidental Time Machine
by Joe Haldeman
Ace Books
276 pages

Ever since H.G.Wells set forth the idea of traveling through time, dozens of writers have found the challenge of playing with time irresistible. This includes followers of both hard science fiction like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and practitioners of the not-so hard sci-fi, poet scribes ala Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson among these. Hugo Award winner Joe Haldeman’s work is clearly of the former camp.

Matt Fuller is a research assistant at MIT who discovers the calibrator machine he is working on has somehow become a time machine that leaps into the future every time he presses the ON button. At first, it is only gone for a few seconds, but Fuller begins to calculate that with each jump, the machine expands it reach by a factor of twelve. Keeping the discovery to himself, he then manages to connect the small calibrator time machine box to an automobile. This allows him to jump into the future with the next push of the button. So begins Matt Fuller’s adventure and ours.

Thankfully Haldeman then sets the spotlight on the socio-economic goings on of future America rather then getting too involved with the technical requirements for a real time machine. He does cover the usual paradoxes inherent with messing with history, but it is his deft eye on the evolution of social mores that is the fun of this book. He imagines first a world where right wing Christian fundamentalist have taken control of a ravaged country and set about building a society the Amish would find stifling. When Matt jumps again, he finds himself on the west coast where interaction between people is limited strictly to the internet and Los Angeles is operated by a sentient computer who appears as an attractive woman, sort of an electronic between an all knowing mother-hen and a guardian angel.

The book is breezy, fun and yes, thought provoking. I think H.G. Wells would have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Deadly Beloved
A Ms.Tree Novel
by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
194 pages
(Available 27 Nov.)

Back in the heyday of independent comics, writer Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beaty created one of the most memorable characters to ever grace the pages of graphic literature; Private Eye Ms.Tree. The sexy brunette with the page boy cut and the square shouldered blue trenchcoat stuck around for fifteen years, moving from publisher to publisher as she delivered some of the best, slam-bang action mystery stories ever produced for any media. The barrel of her .45 was always hot as this dame had no qualms about giving the bad guys a lead send-off when the situated warranted. Which was quite often, much to our satisfaction. She was no Agatha Christie type puzzle-solver, although Michael Tree (her dad wanted a boy) was sharp as any tack on the board. She preferred to play in the tough-guys’ sandbox and the lady was every bit their equal in the wit and bravado departments.

At the time, we fans knew Collins was also an accomplished mystery writer and dreamed of the day when he would give us an honest-to-goodness Ms. Tree novel. That day has come, thanks in large part to publisher/editor Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime. This is the book all of us clamored for and now that it’s here, it delivers on all cylinders.

The wife of a well known accountant catches her husband in bed with a hooker and blows them both to kingdom come. What should be an open and shut case is anything but to the homicide detective Lt. Valer. Everything about the crime is too set-up, too convenient. Through the woman’s lawyer, Ms. Tree is brought into the case. Valer believes the mob has recruited a murder specialist who covers up his hits by duping others into carry them. The idea of such a nefarious puppeteer seems outlandish, until Ms. Tree learns her client suffers from schizophrenia and that someone had switched her medication which kept her rational, with placebos.

And if that wasn’t enough to get the plot rolling, Valer then suggest the murder of her own husband, ex-cop Michael Tree, a year earlier on their wedding day, may have been another of the death planner’s contracts. Soon Tree and her associate, Dan Green, are knee deep in killers and assassins and the body count starts to climb. The hallmark of the Ms. Tree comics was their intensity and rapid fire pacing; DEADLY BELOVED is no exception. Collins also earns his mystery stripes as he plays fair and peppers his tale with more than enough clues for the astute reader to figure who done it. He also manages to provide a clever hat trick at the end that had me grinning like a kid exiting the carnival Fun House.

How many times can you tell the same story? In Collins’ case, there is no limit. The joy of DEADLY BELOVED is that it is very much the origin story of Michael Tree that all of us read and enjoyed so many years ago in the comics. And then again, it is told in an exciting new way that is completely accessible to the first time reader unaware of the character’s history. That is nothing short of brilliant. DEALY BELOVED is by far the best mystery I’ve read this year. Collins states, in his informative afterward, that future Ms. Tree novels with depend in large part to the reception of this first book. Max, please consider this a huge thumbs up and a heartfelt plea for more.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


The Last Legion
by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Washington Square Press
429 pages

Some times you just get lucky. Which is what happened to me a few weeks ago when I received an e-mail promotion from Barnes & Noble on-line that they were having an inventory clearing sale. Several hundred titles were marked down to ridiculously low prices, in some cases with savings of 80% or more. If you love reading as I do, then there is no way you are going to pass this up. I bought five books from them, four of which were by writers I was unfamiliar with.

I chose THE LAST LEGION because of the cover and the book’s write-up. It clearly appeared to be a sword and sandal adventure and I do like these, if they are well done. The writer was an Italian historian and the text was translated into English. I decided to take a gamble and am so happy I did.

The Roman Empire is crumbling and the barbarian hordes have conquered most their once proud civilization. As the book opens, the barbarian Chief, Odoacer, sends his war captain, the vicious Wulfila, to murder the last regent of Rome and kidnap his thirteen year old son, Romulus, the rightful emperor. Wulfila not only accomplishes this assignment, but his troops also massacre the last true Roman Legion that has been secretly assembled by Romulus’ father to act as his personal soldiers. A handful of these brave men are spared and sold into slavery, whereas one of them actually escapes and attempts to warn the regent of Odoacer’s treachery. He is Captain Aurelias, a man with a haunted past.

When Aurelias realizes he is too late to save the emperor and his family, he makes a reckless attempt to rescue the young Ceasar and his teacher, a wise man named Ambrosinus, from Wulfila’s clutches. The attempt fails and he is severely wounded making his escape. He then comes in contact with a beautiful Roman refugee warrior woman named Livia. She hides Aurelias, nurses him back to health and together they hatch a daring plan to free the exiled Romulus from his prison on the island of Capris. Aurelias seeks out those comrades from his legion, rescues them from the slavers and offers them the chance to redeem their honor by joining him and Livia on their foolhardy mission.

The Last Legion is extremely fast paced and wonderfully written. Manfredi knows his subject matter inside out and he brings an ancient world to vivid life. The story, once the young emperor is rescued, becomes a thrilling chase through a European landscape on the cusp of the Dark Ages. All of which ends in Brittania, where Manfredi’s real surprise is revealed in the final pages of the book. Ambrosinus is actually Merlin, the druid priest, and Romulus is the first ruler of this new island kingdom, taking the title of Son of the Dragon, or if you will, Pendragon. As the book closes, Ambrosinus tells us Romulus is a good king, he’s wed and has a son. The boy is named Arthur.

Two days after I received THE LAST LEGION in the mail, I was in a local movie house and spotted a poster on the wall with this title. I was stunned. Moving closer, I saw that it indeed was heralding a major Hollywood epic based on this very book. I’ve always enjoyed King Arthur books and movie, so I was thrilled to have found this book even by accident. If the movie is half as good, it should be lots of fun. The book certainly is.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Dead Street
by Mickey Spillane
Hard Case Crime
Available 30 Oct.
209 pages

At the time of his death, last year, writer Mickey Spillane left four unfinished manuscripts. Two were Mike Hammer stories, one was an adventure yarn and the fourth was this hard-nose cop thriller. Spillane’s long time friend and protégé, Max Allan Collins assembled and produced the finished book with the use of the late writer’s notes. It is fitting that this truly terrific mystery should be published by Hard Case Crime, a publisher Spillane applauded for recapturing the excitement and fun of the old post-war paperback pulps.

Whenever reviewing such a posthumous effort, the temptation is to spend time praising the life and career of the deceased. I’m going to do my best to avoid that snare, as there are plenty of other, more capable reviewers to do that. But I will add my own personal observations relating to this specific title at the end.

After twenty years on the force, New York City detective, Jack Stang, is retiring and his plans the future are vague. A visit from a stranger turns Stang’s life upside down with the news that the woman he loved and thought dead is still alive. Thus unfolds a bizarre story that Stang, although stunned by its revelations, knows instinctively is gospel. Tweny years earlier, his girlfriend, Bettie, had come across sensitive mob documents in her work for a computer company. For that, the mob attempted to kidnap her. During the ensuing high speed chase with the cops, the van Bettie was in plunged over a bridge into the Hudson river. Although her body was never recovered, it was assumed to have been washed out to sea.

Now Stang learns Bettie is not only alive, but the accident induced both blindness and amnesia. Through the benevolence of the people who rescued her on a New Jersey shore, Bettie was kept safe and out of harms way all these years. Now she has been settled in a retirement community for policemen and fire fighters in the sunny state of Florida. Trouble is the mob has also learned she is among the living and still a threat to their operations. Stang rushes to complex and establishes himself as a friendly neighbor.

We sympathize instantly for at the emotional roller-coaster Stang endures in Bettie’s presence. He can’t come out and reveal their amorous past for fear of frightening her, yet he must find a way to rekindle her memories before it is too late. This is a taut, fast pace thriller with allegories aplenty. Spillane was aware that the book might be his last and he takes advantage of every scene to communicate with his legion of readers what a good and righteous battle is all about. It is a terrific farewell from one hell of a pulp writer.

In THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne’s last movie role was of an aged gunfighter dying of cancer. It was obvious to all that the Duke was playing himself and saying so long to all his fans. Reading through DEAD STREET, I couldn’t help but think Mickey was doing the same thing with the character of Jack Stang. That he ended it with the ex-cop and his lady love reunited and happy was very much his final tip of the fedora to all of us. Rest in peace, tough guy.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Cinnamon Kiss
An Easy Rawlins Novel
by Walter Mosley
Warner Books
313 pages

The joy of having favorite authors is whenever a new book comes out, you feel as if you are about to get together with old friends. That’s exactly how I feel every time a new Easy Rawlins novel arrives. Walter Mosley has created the best California based private eye series since Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled Philip Marlowe stories. Whereas Easy is more southern fried. He’s a black man born and raised in Texas and ends up in Los Angeles after World War II.

The series, of which this is the tenth book, begins in 1947 and works its way to the mid-60s. The previous entry, LITTLE SCARLET (reviewed here) dealt with the Watts Riots and their aftermath. CINNAMON KISS takes place a few months later when things have started to settle down on the streets.

Easy’s daughter, Flower, has become ill with a rare blood disease. Easy’s lover, Bonnie, a stewardess, informs him of a clinic in Switzerland that can save Flower’s life. But the cost will be far beyond Easy’s current monetary situation. Easy is so desperate to save the child, he contemplates joining his psychotic friend, Alexander “Mouse” Raymond in robbing an armored truck. Luckily for our hero, before he can make that decision, he is offered a case by colleague. There is an eccentric, very famous private detective in San Francisco who requiring the services of a black investigator.

Easy and Saul, the friend who recruited him, fly to the city by the bay and meet the short but flamboyant Robert E. Lee. Lee has been hired by very powerful man to find a lawyer named Axel and his African American secretary, Cinnamon. Axel has come into possession of highly sensitive documents that Mr. Lee’s client want returned to them without any publicity. Axel and the girl have disappeared. His trail has gone cold but Lee has learned that Philomena Cargil, Cinnamon’s real name, is from Los Angeles; the black part of L.A. His needs of a black detective to take over the hunt.

Suspecting Lee to be a racist at heart, Easy is reluctant to take the job, but the money offered is enough to pay for Flower’s trip to the overseas hospital. He really has no choice. And once again Mosley sets us on a journey that is both entertaining and thought provoking. Before returning to his home turf, Easy spends a few days in Frisco and gets a quick schooling in the hippie movement and free love. To say it’s a cultural shock to his core beliefs would be an understatement. Rawlins is not a cynic, but he seen enough of life’s sour side to realizing the movement hasn’t a prayer of permanently altering American mores.

Mosley, like Chandler before him, is a social commentator and whether you agree with his politics or not, he presents them deftly with a writer’s subtle skills weaving them throughout the narrative. By the time Easy finds Cinnamon, he has uncovered a dead body and the reality that his simple case is a lot more complicated than presented to him. The missing papers are Nazis Bearer Bonds worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and the reputation of an elite San Francisco family. These are dirty secrets that only cold blooded murder can bury. Easy’s job is to find the missing girl without stopping a bullet first.

CINNAMON KISS delivers much more than you expect from a good mystery. Much, much more. Give yourself a treat and pick it up.