Saturday, December 31, 2011


The Collected Nathan Heller Short Stories
By Max Allan Collins
Thomas & Mercer
373 pages

Sixty three year old Max Collins has been at this writing game for a while coming onto the mystery private-eye scene with his 1994 Shamus Award winning “True Detective,” published the year before.  Since that monumental debut, Collins has gone on to produce several continuing series both in comics and prose; these include his comic book female P.I. Ms. Tree and the morally ambiguous hit-man, Quarry. The one fictional character Collins is most recognized for is Nathan Heller from his historical crime novels.   Heller is a Chicago based investigator who over the course of his career rubs shoulders with personalities such as Al Capone and Eliot Ness and worked on such mysteries as the Lindberg baby kidnapping and the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart.  His most recent Heller case was the critically acclaimed “Bye Bye Baby” wherein the fiftyish shamus becames involved with the death of Marilyn Monroe.  All of these books are excellent and worthy of your time and attention.

Over the years Collins, at the request of anthology editors, also penned short stories featuring Heller.  With the assistance of his research colleague, George Hagenauer, Collins adapted true crime stories and then wove his tough guy hero into their fabric so that the history and fiction elements become indistinguishable.  This volume has taken that baker’s dozen and for the very first time presented them in chronological order from the first which occurs in 1933 to the last set in 1949.  The settings range from Chicago to Cleveland and Hollywood.  Here is a sampling of what is included between the covers.

“Kaddish for the Kid,” Heller is hired to protect a retailer from a crooked union scam in reality a protection racket.  During a street shootout, his young partner is killed and the angry private dick goes after the killers with a vengeance.

“The Blonde Tigress,” has Heller investigating a trio of stick-up artists led by a female boss who tries to manipulate him into aiding her escape justice.

“Private Consultation,” has a well known Chicago doctor accused for murdering her daughter-in-law and her son hires Heller to investigate. What he uncovers is a sad testimony to a loveless marriage where none of the participants are innocent of wrong doing.

The Perfect Crime,” finds Heller in Los Angeles to help a friend. Before he can pack up and head home, he’s hired by the beautiful blonde star, Thelma Todd to act as her bodyguard. Miss Todd suspects mobsters wish to do her harm for refusing to allow Lucky Luciano to use the top floors of her famous restaurant as a casino.  When she is found dead in her garage from carbon monoxide poisoning, Heller knows the coroner’s accidental death ruling is pure bunk. He decides to extend his trip to catch a killer.

In “House Call” a caring doctor is brutally murdered while answering a night summons to aid a sick child.  This time Heller joins forces with the Chicago P.D. to hunt down the vicious killers and bring them to justice.

“Marble Mildred” tells the story of woman trapped for fourteen years in a loveless marriage who discovers a humiliating secret which she’d rather go to the electric chair rather than having it made public.  A tragedy Heller is helpless to prevent.

“The Strawberry Teardrop” is based on the case of Cleveland serial killer, the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run and how he was finally caught by the famous lawman Eliot Ness.

There is not a lemon in the batch.  Collins writing style is terse and economically efficient.  He uses words like a scalpel carving up the psychological motivations that induce people to do bad things.  All the while Nathan Heller is his surgeon, meting out equal doses of justice and compassion.  The title, “Chicago Lightning,” is gangster slang for gunfire and is only fitting as this book comes heavily loaded with pure pulp pizzaz.  Don’t miss it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

HUGH MONN - Private Detective

HUGH MONN –Private Detective
By Lee Houston, Jr.
Pro Se Press
176 pages

Genre blending has always been a staple of pulp fiction and there have been many sci-fi based private eye creations over the years.  Writer Lee Houston Jr. isn’t breaking any new ground with this collection. What is his doing is adding to it with a truly sympathetic character in Hugh Monn, a human residing on the planet of Frontera.  For background, we are told that there was an intergalactic war between isolationist who opposed species interaction and the allied worlds who favored it both for moral and economic reasons.  The isolationist lost although remnants survive in bands of outlawed terrorist.  Monn is a battle weary veteran of the campaign having fought with the allies.  Now he’s settled down in his one man private investigations business and the eight cases in this volume have him mixing with various humanoid species also inhabiting the city island of Galveston 2. Each is well done and adds in creating a fascinating supporting cast.

“Dineena’s Dilemna,” in which a disinherited son attempts to frame his cousin for the murder of his own mother.  Alas, private detective Hugh Moon is on the case and spots enough clues to free his client and bring the murderous heir to justice.

In “Shortages” Monn is hired by a docking outfit to solve the theft of merchandise from a highly secured storage facility. It looks like an inside job and evidence implicates one of the alien employees unless Monn can figure out how the thieves are working their operations.

In “Law and Order,” Monn is retained by a Felinoid lawyer named Mau to help clear her client from an armed robbery charge.  The problem is the store’s video tapes clearly show the defendant committing the crime. Moon has to prove that even the eyes can be deceived by digital chicanery.

With “The Siege,” Houston gives us his version of the move “Die Hard,” with Monn going up against group of ant-like terrorist secretly taking over a major business tower at the heart of the island where he resides. Super rifle in hand, the gutsy private eye takes on this squad of trained commandos single handed.

“Where Can I Get A Witness?”  Monn is hired to subpoena an elusive witness in a motor vehicle accident case.  In the process he stumbles over the case of popular female singer who mysteriously vanished decades earlier. What’s the connection being that disappearance and the old man becomes the puzzle he must solve before someone dies.

Then a paternity issue results in a kidnapping and ends with Monn trapping an embezzler who became too greedy, all in the story, “For The Benefit Of Master Tyke.”  This one gives us more of the detective’s character and sensitivity as he tries to keep a family from falling apart.  While “At What Price Gloria?” Monn helps an old acquaintance from an earlier case outwit foreign blackmailers and foil an assassination plot.

Finally the book ends with our hero attempting to have spend, “A Day At The Beach,” only to end up solving a brutal murder with the help of a few other beach goers.

What is particularly refreshing in these tales is that Houston wisely opts not to make his hero a hard-boiled, typically cynical type.  Hugh Monn is a genuinely nice guy who likes people and aliens alike and is sincere in trying to make his world a better place for all to live in.  He’s a good guy I liked meeting and hope to see him again real soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Preston & Child
380 pages

In 1995, thriller specialist Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child joined forces to write a best selling novel titled, “The Relic.”  In the process, they created one of the most popular action suspense heroes ever to appear on the printed page; FBI Special Agent Pendergast.  Although the book was a big success and later adapted to film, it was the creation of Pendergast that would be remembered. It has always been my personal belief that the character’s instant popularity surprised the two and they wasted no time in bringing him back in further adventures.  Enough so that with each new Pendergast book, his fame among action devotees continued to spread and today he has a huge, loyal following.

When the pair announced, last year, that they had created a brand new series hero and would be releasing his first book in 2011, the news spread like wildfire across the book world. Eager fans soon learned the new character was named Gideon Crew and the authors had clearly set out to make him as different from Agent Pendergast as they could.  We were also informed, via their website, that a major Hollywood studio had optioned the film rights from the galleys alone.  Obviously the marketing machines were moving in high gear.  The hardback arrived earlier this year to resounding critical acclaim and as of a few weeks ago the paperback edition which is what I’ve just finished reading.

Unless one has never read a Preston & Child Pendergast book, it would be impossible for anyone to read “Gideon’s Sword” without constantly comparing the two fictional heroes. What I appreciated immediately was how the writers set about breaking convention and actually giving this premier outing not one but two separate stories.  If the casual reader picks up the title based solely on the back cover blurb, he or she is going to expect to find a typical revenge drama wherein Gideon Crew goes after the people responsible for his father’s death when he was only a child.  This entire opening section of the novel serves brilliantly in defining our protagonist and giving us a complete origin history.  In a few chapters we learn who he is, what he has done with his life and where those choices have taken him.

But when that first plot is resolved effectively in the first quarter of the book, I found myself both surprised and delighted.  Suddenly the book seemed to take a detour down an entirely different road, one that led to the unknown and unexpected.  Crew is recruited by a unique organization in the employ of the government to become an independent spy.
The logic, according to this top secret “engineering” outfit is Crew’s own anonymity in the world of espionage is his greatest asset, one that will give him the advantage over competing foreign agencies.

His first assignment is to retrieve an important formula from a supposedly defecting Chinese scientist. But when that fellow is murdered upon his arrival in New York, Crew finds himself locked in a deadly race with a merciless assassin to retrieve the mysterious data.  Adding to the puzzle is no one knows what the secret really is.  At this point, Preston & Child do what they do best and that is amp up the pacing so that the story and action begin to accelerate exponentially from chapter to chapter until their over-the-top climax arrives, leaving this reviewer with finger blisters from turning the pages so fast.

“Gideon’s Sword” is a top-notch pulp thriller worthy of any fans attention and support.  As to whether Gideon Crew lives up to his predecessor’s well earned status among loyal readers is another matter.  There were many things I liked about Crew, but again this was only a first meeting and I’m going to reserve the thumbs up or down until at least one more book.  There is a rather important plot element regarding the character’s future that I’ve purposely avoided detailing here. It is one you need to discover for yourself.  I won’t spoil it for you.  Read the book and then we’ll talk.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


By Doug Farrell
BookSurge Publishing
484 pages

Every now and then, I trip over a book that’s really hard to describe genre-wise and this is such a case.  It’s a madcap adventure that falls somewhere between fantasy, slapstick comedy and social satire.  That all these elements mix effectively and in the end produce a heady concoction of genuine adult delight is a testament to Farrell’s own imagination in brewing what he aptly describes as “A Fairy-tale for Grown-ups.”

The set up deals with a fairy war that occurred in another dimension wherein the goblin race lost and was forced to flee to our world, arriving in 1947, two years after the end of World War II.  Convincing certain human scientist to help them, the goblins invented special disguises that allowed them to go undetected in our world and for decades walked among humans, some even interbreeding with them.  Ultimately the same scientists who developed these sophisticated camouflages saw the potential for monetary wealth by using the same formulas to create beauty aids for human women.  They create Glamorine, a Chicago based million dollar cosmetic empire built on the results of these techniques and certain globin magics.

The book’s theme plays with duel definitions of the word glamour.  The first being a quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks.  It also means magic or enchantment; spell; witchery.

The protagonist is super model and the face of Glamorine, Laurie Morgan, whose grandfather was one of the scientist who created the company.  As the story opens Laurie has become disillusioned by her near perfect life and is in the process of divorcing her loving husband, Nick.  Laurie is suffering from ennui unable to explain her own dissatisfaction and believes she’s become trapped in a dull, boring routine of existence.  No sooner is the divorce granted then she is contacted by a blue gnome name Hawley disguised as a little girl.  He warns Laurie that her life is in danger.  As if confronting an actual blue dwarf weren’t enough, Laurie begins to running into women throughout Chicago who looked exactly like her. 

As paranoia begins to set in, Hawley explains that there is a goblin revolution in the works.  After decades of living in secrecy amongst mankind, a group of goblin leaders have concocted a scheme to take control of Glamorine and replace its board of directors, including Laurie and her grandfather, with phony disguised goblins. Once they’ve achieved this end, they plan on poisoning the cosmetics produced to Glamorine to eliminate all of mankind and take over the Earth.

Needless to say having an army of vicious goblins out to do her in is more than enough motivation to snap Laurie out of her malaise and back into living at full tilt if only to stay alive.  Before the book’s conclusion arrives, she will have been held prisoner in an underwater complex below Lake Michigan, met and been devoured by a fire breathing dragon and allied herself with tiny pig-fairies only she can see.  “Glamour Job” is a rollicking tale that never lets up and is filled with satirical jabs at how we treasure a make-believe beauty that is simply an illusion devised by Fifth Avenue to milk millions from starry eyed little girls all wanting to grow up and become runway princesses.  But do be warned, this is only the first chapter in a trilogy and the ending does come somewhat abruptly.

We also note by the print date that “Glamour Job” is four years old.  All the more reason to seek it out as it might have flown under your radar.  Urban fantasy isn’t one of this reviewer’s most favorite genres, but “Glamour Job” has enough action muscle to sustain it for even the most jaded pulp reader.  If you are looking for something truly different and fun, you would be hard press to do much better than this book.