Saturday, September 22, 2007


by Robert Terrall
Hard Case Crime
220 pages

Back in the early late 1950s, my Uncle Ray use to go through books like this one as if he were eating salted peanuts. Many was the night, after dinner, that I’d race across the back yard to his house to hook up with my cousin, David, to see if he was up to a game of baseball or football in the neighborhood field depending on what season it was. I’d find Aunt Winnie in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes, while in the living room there would be Uncle Ray, a Navy Yard welder, stretched out on his favorite sofa, in his stocking feet, the black and white television on and a cheap, Gold Medal mystery novel in his hands. Ray could both read through one of those gaudy covered thrillers in one evening, at the same time be tuned in to the evening broadcasts. The guy simply amazed me.

And so did those wonderful paperbacks. Of the army of tough-guy private eyes to grace the pages of those drugstore rack thrillers, Robert Terrall’s Ben Gates was one of the finest. Gates, like many of his counterparts, was a New York City based gumshoe with fast fists for the bad guys and charm aplenty for the sexy ladies, of which there were many. KILL NOW, PAY LATER is typical of his cases, wherein he’s hired by an insurance company to protect the wedding gifts of a wealthy Long Island socialite. A simple enough case until somebody spikes the coffee he’s drinking and by the time he comes to, someone has been scared to death during an abortive robbery and the perpetrator gunned down.

It all seems like a very open and shut case. Unfortunately it also makes Gates look like an incompetent accomplice. Knowing the only way to clear his name, and reputation, is to unravel the caper on his own, very much to the ire of the State Tropper Captain in charge. Along the way, our witty, cigar-smoking shamus tangles with no less than four stunning, sexy beauties all with various motives. The only thing they have in common is getting him in bed. Even though Terrall was excellent at creating a light, satirical atmosphere to his mysteries, Gates is very much a real detective and by the end of the book his efforts expose a poignant, family tragedy.

All in all a dandy pulp mystery Uncle Ray would have enjoyed immensely. In fact, considering he read hundreds of these, he probably actually did. I hope you will too.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Edited by Del Howison & Jeff Gelb
Ace Horror
339 pages

Often times while at conventions chatting with my colleagues, one of the topics that seems to reoccur frequently is the death of short fiction in American literature. Oh, I know, you can all make an argument for this or that foundation or magazine that still promotes the art of short story writing. But if you are brutally honest, you will also concede that these are mere oasis in a vast desert where the format is all but forgotten and extinct.

Except for one particular genre; horror. The field of short horror fiction is as vibrant and alive today as when I first discovered it as a teenager in high school with my introduction to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is without a doubt the founding root of American short fiction, and that the one genre he so excelled in, that of the horrifying, thrives today says something for our national psyche as a whole. Without going into all the psychological underpinnings of why we like to be frightened, the truth remains that all of us, at one time or another in our lives nurture a dark desire to peek into the black bedroom closet, almost wishing to find a lurking monster within. Today’s horror writers serve that primal need by offering up the monsters our imaginations crave.

That said, the strength and weakness of any anthology is always going to be its diversity. DARK DELICACIES, we are told in the preface, came about because there is an actual bookstore with that name located somewhere in Southern California and it caters to horror fiction. Thus did one of the owners and a fellow writer come up with the idea of producing a yearly anthology series showcasing today’s premier writers of the macabre. With this first volume, they hit a bulls-eye in winning the prestigious Bram Stoke Award.

On the whole, DARK DELICACIES does deliver its promise to put forth the scariest tales ever. Some of course miss the mark by very little while others sadly don’t even belong in this collection. But again, with a mixed bag, that is always to be expected. Ray Bradbury’s entry is a token affair. Had his little noir romance been submitted by an unknown, it would most likely have been rejected on the spot.

My favorites are Nancy Holder’s OUT TWELVE-STEPPIN’, SUMMER OF AA, about two rock stars in L.A. who happen to be cannibals and are trying to quit. It’s both chilling and funny as hell. Likewise John Farris’ BLOODY MARY MORNING which delivers a wonderful, twisted finale. The most haunting, and justifiably so, is THE DIVING GIRL by the recently deceased Richard Laymon. Laymon was a truly unique voice in the world of horror fiction and reading this touching story, I was once again reminded of how much he will be missed.

Other notables worthy of your attention are; HAECKEL’S TALE by Clive Barker, THE PYRE AND OTHERS by David J. Schow, BLACK MILL COVE by Lisa Morton and THE BANDIT OF SANITY by Roberta Lannes.

There are a few other so-so pieces. Finally, since I’ve applauded the best in this gathering, it is only fair I skewer the worst. That honor goes to KADDISH by Whitley Streiber. His story is a distasteful anti-religion piece of science fiction extrapolation on what would happen if the Christian Right were to control the country. One of the tenets of true Christianity is that all people are allowed to live their own lives and make their own religious choices. Maybe Streiber has never met a real Christian before. His vision is sophomoric at best, hateful at worst. Too bad it had to be included in this otherwise stellar collection.

Pick up DARK DELICACIES, wait for a lonely, foggy night and sit back and enjoy, But keep one eye on those shadows in the corner. They seem to be moving, don’t they?

Thursday, September 13, 2007


by Cornell Woolrich
Hard Case Crime
254 pages

Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born in 1903 and died in 1968. During his life he wrote twenty-seven novels, the last, INTO THE NIGHT, was unfinished at his death and completed by Lawrence Block. So successful were his novels and short stories that twenty-five features were made based on them to include Francois Truffaut’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW.

Cornell’s work was the essence of noir drama, centered around the psychological traumas suffered by his characters. FRIGHT, originally published in 1950, under his George Hopley pseudonym, is a prime example of this kind of gripping thriller.

Set in the early 1900s, a young business man, Prescott Marshall, is about to marry the girl of his dreams; a young socialite named Marjorie Worth. A few weeks before the wedding, Marshall goes out on the two with several of his pals and ends up having a dalliance with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When the girl comes to him several days later and asks for money to keep her silence about their tryst, he is more angry with himself for having let down his moral guard, then he is with the bimbo. He pays her and thinks that’s the end of it, but alas he soon learns otherwise.

On the morning of his wedding, the blonde shows up and demands an even larger sum. This time she threatens to disrupt the wedding and tell Majorie the entire sordid tale. Pushed to his limit, Marshall strangles the girl in a fit of passion and hides the body in his closet. He somehow manages to go through with the wedding, but all the while his mind is caught up in a merry-go-round of fevered terror he cannot escape.

Woolrich’s genius is taking us into Marshall’s fragile mind and watching as every single event in his life from that point onward becomes a threat to him. He convinces Marjorie, after their honeymoon, to flee New York and go live in the Midwest. Yet he’s not safe from his paranoia even there. For as any psychologist would understand, the one person Prescott Marshall cannot ever elude is himself. His spiraling descent into madness and ultimately other murders is an amazing tour-de-force that held me until the very last, astonishing page. Woolrich had a gift for language that is all too rare in modern writers and he employs it throughout this novel with an artist’s deftness.

FRIGHT is one book I will not soon forget. Lastly, a big tip of the fedora to cover artist, Arthur Suydam. This is one of his best efforts to date and a fitting companion to this terrific Woolrich classic.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


by John Steakley
Daw Books
426 pages

I have an affinity for science fiction military novels. Two years ago a friend of mine urged me to find a book he had read long ago called ARMOR. He ranted and raved about how brutal was its depiction of warfare and how much the book had awed him. Considering it was well over ten years since he’d read it, I was willing to accept his recommendation. For a book to having such a lasting effect suggested it was truly something special. Two weeks ago, while browsing a mall bookstore, I found ARMOR. It is copyright 1984. I have no clue what printing this paperback is, and I don’t really care. I’m just damn happy it is still being reissued.

ARMOR tells the story of a mysterious man named Felix who joints the Fleet Navy to escape a painful past. During basic training, he is found to have unique warrior skills, ala a remarkable adaptability to combat situations and an incredible, almost superhuman will to live. Felix is made a Scout and given the standard, fully armored battle suit, complete with the latest computer controlled technology to provide him with the most up impressive firepower of any soldier in the known universe.

He and his fellow warriors are going to need all of that weaponry. Mankind has gone to war with an alien race so lethal, they engender fear even by the mention of their earthly description, Ants. On a savagely hostile desert world, where the air is poisonous and rivers of acid flow, millions of these huge, four-armed killing machines breed every single day with one hive-like goal, the complete destruction of the human race. This nightmarish planet is called Banshee and that is where Felix and thousands of his comrades are deployed.

From the start Navy intelligence gives proof to its own oxymoronic nature as Felix and his group arrive dead center in midst of a swarming ant pile. Thousands upon thousands of ants, their pincer-like hands clawing and cutting through the plastisteel of Fleet armor and gutting into soft human flesh beneath. But Felix isn’t one of these terrified victims. Somehow the essence of the suit comes alive at the moment of contact and suddenly he finds himself being controlled by a powerful killing-frenzy he later identifies as the Engine. It will not allow him to die. Felix kills everything in his path, breaks through the ant-swarm and escapes…to fight another day. And another day, again, and again, and again.

Who is Felix really? What secrets lie in his past life and how has he become the only soldier able to merge with his battle suit and become the Engine? This book has been rightly hailed as a classic by sci-fi literary critics and I add my voice to theirs. If you have ever wondered at the nature of the beast that resides in all things under nature’s skies, then ARMOR will raise some uncomfortable issues. Just keep telling yourself it’s only a book. I did. And a damn good one at that.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


The Book of the Dead
by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Warner Books
597 pages

I make no bones about the fact that after reading THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, I became an immediate fan of this series. If there is a more traditional classic pulp hero than Special Agent Pendergast, I’ve yet to encounter him. Whereas Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt gets my vote for being a modern Doc Savage, Pendergast is the heir apparent to both the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician. What else can you say about a thin, gaunt F.B.I. agent who is rich, a genius and can time travel in his mind. That latter ability a trick he picked up in an ancient Tibetan monastery. See, I told you he was pulp eccentric. And of course he is the penultimate good guy.

Special Agent Pendergast first appeared in this team’s first work together, THE RELIC, but it wasn’t until THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES that he took center stage and instantly captivated a readership hungry for this kind of literary action. That was followed up with the equally brilliant STILL LIFE WITH CROWS. Then came BRIMSTONE, and we Pendergast fans were shocked to discover the super agent did indeed have a deadly nemesis his equal in all things; his own younger brother, the twisted Diogenes Pendergast.

BRIMSTONE, much to our delight, was in fact the first book in a Diogenes trilogy that was quickly followed by THE DANCE OF DEATH. Here, for the second time in so many months, Pendergast, aided by his good friend, police Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta, barely managed to foil Diogenes latest sinister plot. But Diogenes, in his own brilliant way, had outwitted our hero and in the book’s startling finale, successfully framed Pendergast for a series of murders he himself had committed. Thus the cliffhanger ending found our stalwart hero locked up in a maximum security federal prison while the psychotic Diogenes was still at large and planning his most evil crime yet. This last year, awaiting the release of THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, has been rough.

So, here it is, the final chapter. It is a winner from the opening page to the last, propelling the reader on a high speed roller coaster ride of wild, imaginative suspense and thrills. Diogenes, in a clever disguise, has made himself a staff member of the New York Museum of Natural History. It is here he plans a heinous mass murder the likes of which this city has never seen. Meanwhile, D’Agosta, along with the help of wheelchair bound computer wunderkind, Eli Glinn, orchestrates a fantastic, complex prison break that will free Pendergast; hopefully in time to thwart his insane brother. This chapter in the series also provided, for the first time, an intimate look back into Pendergast’s past, something Preston and Child have skillfully withheld up until now. The revelations in this section are powerful and add much to the character’s layered, and unique personality.

Granted, most books should stand on their own, and in that regard THE BOOK OF THE DEAD will clearly confuse any new readers who have not read the previous two volumes. If, on the other hand, you make the effort to hunt them up and read them all, I guarantee you a truly exciting reading experience. There are just too few thrillers these days that are this much fun. Here’s hoping Special Agent Pendergast is around for a long, long time.