Friday, December 28, 2007


By Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime
205 pages

Welcome to Greenwich Village, New York, during the height of the “beat” movement. Anita Carbone is a bored college student who, like the rest of her generation, is repulsed by the American dream of surburbia, a nine to five job and two and a half kids. She doesn’t know what it is she wants, only what she doesn’t. Thus she hooks up with two pot-smoking hippies in the persons of Joe Milani and Shank Marsten. Shank supports the two by selling marijuana while Joe simply smokes weed and floats through his life.

When Shank is offered an opportunity to start pushing heroin, he grabs for it and soon is moving in faster, more lucrative circles. He begins to have dreams of big scores with even bigger rewards. All the while Joe and Anita are simply tagging along for the ride, unaware of how deep into the drug world Shank is leading them. In the end Shank’s house of cards falls apart and he resorts to violence to escape capture by the law. Soon all three of them are on the run with nowhere to go.

Block is a craftsman who builds characters precisely. He knows their motivations, or in this particular case, their lack of such, and he paints a sad picture of a lost generation struggling to find some worth in the world. By the books climax, Joe has to climb out of his mental fugue and get back into reality, or else become a piece of social flotsam forever adrift in a meaningless existence. First published in 1961, A DIET OF TREACLE is a look back in time well worth your attention.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


By Jim Patton
Forge Books
316 pages

Max Travis is a tough as nails District Attorney whose personal life is a mess. He’s had two failed marriages and just can’t seem to connect with the right woman. Then within a period of two days his routine world is turned topsy-turvy by two supposedly unrelated events. The first is a home invasion at his friend’s place that goes tragically awry and leaves another pal shot and in a coma. The second is his accidental meeting of a sensational looking divorcee in his favorite bar only a day later. The hot blond, Dana Waverleigh, looks like she just came off a Penthouse centerfold and Max falls for her like the proverbial ton of bricks. From her immediate, sexual response, Dana seems to be feeling the same things and the two begin a highly charged affair.

Travis is at a place in his life where idea he may end up a cantankerous old bachelor seems to be evolving into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So much so that he overlooks the facts that Dana has two daughters from her past failed relationships. That should warning enough that there is something psychologically wrong with his new paramour. But the sex is great, the dream of making one relationship work is just too strong. Max soon finds himself lost in Dana’s charms.

When another horrible shooting occurs and ballistics matches the bullets to the gun used in the home invasion, clues begin to drop that Dana’s association with Max is not an accident of chance but there exist a tenuous connection to the drug-addled killer on the loose. Can the love-sick D.A. come to his senses before somebody else dies? Patton’s writing is crisp and concise with an economy of verbiage I found absolutely perfect for this kind of noir melodrama. He has an ear for dialogue that rings true and a bitter sweet sympathy for all his characters, whether good or evil.

DYING FOR DANA is a solid entry in the ranks of crime-fiction that I recommend it strongly. It’s a good read that completely satisfied me by the end.

Monday, December 17, 2007


By Mark Del Franco
Ace Books
292 pages
Available Feb.08

Imagine if you will that the world of fairies and elves and other assorted fantasy folks actually existed somewhere in another dimension along side our own. Now imagine that somehow that world and our own suddenly merged together into one truly weird reality and there you have the setting of Mark Del Franco’s fantasy series. In this world, which looks, sounds and feels like our own, all these fey creatures now reside right alongside normal humans. The day of merging is known by all as the Convergence and the fey people recall it with much melancholy as they were the ones uprooted from their familiar existence and thrust into ours without any warning.

It is many years since the Convergence and fey folk have learned to adapt and live in the human world, albeit with a silent, often antagonistic acceptance. Our hero, Connor Grey, a Druid born on Earth, is part of the new generation that has no memories or emotional connection to the old world. He lives in Boston and works helping the police on matters dealing with the fey community. His best friend is a tough, Irish detective named Murdock and they make an effective team, each deferring to the others strengths whenever on a case.

During an earlier investigation, Grey was nearly killed by a German Elf. When the Convergence occurred, it did not simply deposit all manner of fey beings so they could live harmoniously as one people. Far from it. Old hatreds and rivalries came along, such as the animosity between Celtic Fairies governed by the Guildhouse and the Teutonic Elves ruled over by the German based Consortium. It is one of these latter that attacks Grey, and although the villain fails to kill him, his eldritch assault somehow robs Grey of his druid powers. Now he has to adapt to a life without these skills and rely on his instincts to help Murdoch when something goes awry in Boston’s fey neighborhood.

When one of the leaders of the Consortium and a human teenage drug runner are both murdered on the same night only blocks away, Grey suspects the killings are somehow related. The Elf lord was a politic figure attempting to bring about unity between the Guildhouse and the Consortium. His brutal slaying by a Troll gang leader begins to stir up bad blood between the two factions until an all out magic war threatens to overrun the streets of Beantown. It is left to has-been Druid and a savvy human cop to unravel the mystery before that war erupts.

UNQUIET DREAMS is the second book in the series and although I’ve not read the first, I can say without reservation it a solid adventure filled with unique characters and plenty of fast paced suspsense. In fact the only thing I did not like about this book was its title. Del Franco has chosen to name the books in this series with words beginning with the UN prefix and although that may be a nifty marketing stratagem, it really does not serve his novel in the slightest. It is a poor label slapped on a really good book. Do not be put off by it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Edited by Matthew P. Mayo
Express Westerns Publication
185 pages
Available on-line at

What with having recently read and reviewed the collected short western stories of Elmore Leonard, it seems I’ve suddenly found myself caught up in this uniquely American pulp sub-genre. Happily so, I might add. This particular volume is made up of writers, most of them British, who write western novels for the Robert Hale publishing outfit across the pond.

Oh, there are a few American scribes among this talented bunch, but oddly enough only one of them actually lives out west, while two of the four reside in the woods of Maine. Go figure. It seems you really don’t have to live out west to write about it. WHERE LEGENDS RIDE contains some truly memorable and weld told stories that I enjoyed a great deal. As in all anthologies, there are degrees of proficiency and this book is no exception.

The Prodigal by Chuck Tyrell is a poignant, classic cowboy tale of right and wrong with a dedicated marshal having to hunt down his own son. Likewise The Man Who Tracked a River by Derek Rutherford offered up a story of guilt and redemption that was seeped in the dust of the badlands. Desert Surrender by Kit Churchill is a raw, grim adventure that had me turning the pages fast. These are all classic western gems.

Once Upon A Time In Mirage by I.J. Parnham and Snows of Montana by the editor, Matthew P. Mayo read like saddle-tramp sagas inspired by O’Henry, their twisty ends fun.

For outright horsey humor there is Hard Times For The Pecos Kid by Les Pierce and Pretty Polly by Duane Spurlock. Both could have been made into movies with James Garner, they have the same light, hilarious flare to them. Whereas Hectate by P. McCormac tells the story of a mule from hell that is just too funny. I actually chuckled out loud while reading these entries. Proving that all westerns need not be straight laced and melodramatic.

Among the others, I thought Bubbles by Ross Morton was a creative mistake as it really isn’t a short story. It’s a tale so large it is clearly an outline for a novel that I hope some day he chooses to write. While as much as I enjoy anything Lance Howard writes, his The Ballad of Jesse Barnett did not belong in this collection. There is a larger-than-life theme to the eclectic collection and this story just does not fit that mold.

Fourteen horse-operas presented for your enjoyment by skilled writers who clearly know their stuff. There is so little good short fiction done these days, when an excellent book like this comes along, you dare not pass it up. So tighten your cinches, belt on your holster and get ready to ride. This is one hell of a literary round-up.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


and Other Holiday Tales
by Charles Dickens
Borders Classics
224 pages

There are still many classics I’ve yet to lay my hands upon. As Thanksgiving passed and we entered fully into the Christmas season, my thoughts drifted to all the wonderful movies with this particular holiday theme that I like so much. For me, A Christmas Carol remains the most enjoyable, followed closely by It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. I wonder if many people know that Dicken’s immortal tale of old Scrooge is the most filmed novel ever. From the days of the silent movies through to animation and even a Muppet Christmas Carol, the story has been told and retold countless times. And yet I’d never read the actual novel. Well, to be fair, novella. It is a relatively short piece and one of five Christmas stories that Dickens wrote during his life. This wonderful volume also contained two others; The Chimes and The Cricket On The Hearth.

Now having finally read the original, I’m truly delighted to have done so. Dickens had a true sense of human nature and he reveled in telling stories of people from all social standings. He understood the woes of the poor and downtrodden and forever gave them a poignant, suffering nobility. What surprised me the most about the story was how fast paced it is and just how quickly old miserly Scrooge’s conversion comes about. On the oft chance that there are those of you still unfamiliar with this cautionary tale, it’s plot is simple enough.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is a cantankerous old man who detest charity and believes hard work is the only means to salvation. Enough so that he treats his clerk, Bob Cratchit, like a slave and refuses to celebrate the Christmas holidays. On the eve of Christmas he is visited by the waling ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who has come to warn him. Unless he changes his ways, his own eternity will be spend in misery. Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three ghosts, spirits of Christmas past, present and future. Which is exactly what happens and in those three visitations, Scrooge’s heart is thawed to the blessings of love and family. He is forever changed into a decent, thoughtful and generous soul who finds great satisfaction in doing for others the rest of his days.

In so short a collection of words, Dickens crams more drama and pathos than any ten writers could hope to accomplish. He cuts to the quick of human emotions and frailties and delivers a brilliant testimony on the powers of Christmas and good fellowship. The message it brings the world is even more relevant in our consumer obsessed society than ever before.

Of the remaining two stories, I found The Chimes to be difficult and confusing. It tells the story of a porter who works near an old church and is forever haunted by the sound of the steeple bells. Somewhere in the New Year’s celebrations he is given a vision of the future by Bell Goblins. It is a bleak setting due in part because he has listened to the wrong advice and not to his heart. Upon waking, he sets out on a different, more jovial and hopeful path. Not one of Dicken’s better efforts.

Whereas the last of the three, A Cricket On The Hearth is pure Dickens and much fun to read. A group of working class people prepare to celebrate the wedding of Tarkelton, an old skin-flint who owns a toy shop, to a beautiful young woman. Meanwhile a Carrier name John Peerybingle and his own young wife, Dot, have just had a new baby and he has a hard time believing his good fortune. There is also Caleb, the widowed toy-maker who lives with his blind daughter and works for Tarkelton.

Now into their midst comes a deaf old man who is down on his luck and has nowhere to stay. Dot Peerybingle urges her husband to take him in and soon events begin to occur that come to test their love and loyalty to one another. All the while the little cricket who lives in the Peerybingle hearth continues to inspire the residents with a magical charm that saves John Peerybingle from making the worst mistake of his life. By the end of the story the true identity of the mysterious lodger is resolved and all are made happy again in typical Dickens’ style. Having read several of his novels while in school, A Cricket On The Heart reminded me of that old familiar charm inherent in his longer works. It really is a gem of a story and one I’m glad to have found at last.

Reading new books is always a pleasure, but it can never quite compare with settling down with something this old and cherished. If you are looking to add some old fashion cheer to this holiday season, look no further than Mr. Charles Dickens and a Christmas Carol.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Edited by Gregg Sutter
Harper Books
546 pages

A good magnetic compass will always point to what is called “true North.” After having finished this whopping big book, I found myself thinking the one clear cut theme throughout these thirty-one stories was that they all pointed “true West.” Social historians have for years claimed a big part of this country’s moral fiber was shaped during the post-Civil War years during our expansion west. The era of the “wild west” and the cowboys somehow infused itself onto our cultural consciousness. From the early dime novels to the rampant production of the silent B movies, tales of the old west have imbedded themselves into the identity of what it is to be an American.

Talented writers who have worked in this genre always revolved their stories around that basic cowboy code of simply doing the right thing. From Tom Mix seeking vengeance in Riders of the Purple Sage, to Gary Cooper defending his town in High Noon and Clint Eastwood out to avenge a scarred saloon girl in Unforgiven, the ramrod nobility of the cowboy hero has remained unwavering.

Picking up a book this big can be daunting, but once I started getting into its tales of Apaches, Mexicans and Cavalry officers, I could almost smell the mesquite and feel the heat of the blazing Arizona sun that just never quits. Leonard uses that locale as the primary background for all his stories and he does so skillfully, painting a picture of a rough, cruel landscape that clearly helped define the people who dared to live on it.

Leonard was brought up in Detroit and during World War II served with the Seabees in the South Pacific. Upon his discharge he entered the University of Detroit and graduated in 1950 with a degree in Philosophy and English. He sold his first short story, Trail of the Apache, in 1951 and for the next two decades continued writing top-notch western tales. At the same time he also penned novels, many of which were later bought by Hollywood and made into films. Two of the stories in this collection were similarly adapted into movies; the Captives filmed as The Tall T, and 3:10 To Yuma, first filmed in 1950 and then remade this year. Each of these films, including those based on his western novels feature the resolute, stoic hero up against overwhelming odds but refusing to compromise his integrity and honor. They are all classic morality tales that just happened to be played out on horseback.

After the western pulp magazines died off in the mid-sixties, Leonard shifted all his efforts to novels and soon was turning to urban criminal topics like Get Shorty, Rum Punch, and Out of Sight. All of which propelled him into the limelight as a bestselling author. Deservedly so. Still, it is in these western that his true gift shines, as each of these stories captures not only the human condition in all its imperfection, but does so with a sympathetic touch that leaves the reader feeling better for having read them. They are populated by unforgettable characters like the young army officer who’s taste for moonshine saves his patrol; the Mexican constable who confronts racism and is in the end defeated by it and the woman with the blue tattoos on her face exiled into the desert by an ignorant, wounded husband.

This is a truly amazing collection and if you appreciate the true genius of short stories, then do not let it pass you by. Voices like Elmore Leonard’s need to be cherished.