Friday, November 29, 2013

The (E-)Resurrection of a Master of Mystery

Edward D. Hoch was, quite simply, one of the biggest and best names in the mystery field for decades. He was also a rarity: an author who managed to make his bread and butter almost entirely through short stories, a form that is possibly more difficult to master than that of the novel. Hoch’s career was amazingly prolific, with hundreds of short stories to his name. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine would not have been the same without its usual dose of Edward D. Hoch. In any anthology, Hoch could always be relied on to deliver a solid story. He was a terrific plotter: he could come up with fascinating situations, and then resolve them so elegantly that the reader could only stare in amazement at the work of a master craftsman.

So imagine my delight to discover that The Mysterious Press has brought out Hoch’s books in e-book form. Many of these are short story collections, but Hoch wrote a novel every once in a while, such as The Shattered Raven (which is among the books brought back into e-print). And one book in particular caught my eye: The Sherlock Holmes Stories of Edward D. Hoch, which collects all twelve of Hoch’s Holmesian pastiches. If any author out there could possibly do Holmes justice, it would be Hoch, and so I knew I just had to read this book.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Keep-Your-Mouth-Shut Files #1: Mickey Spillane

I’ve been blogging for more than two years now, and I like doing it. I use this blog to record my thoughts, feelings, and opinions on the mystery genre, and to steer readers in the direction of books they might enjoy. I try to read every book based on its own merits and to judge them all fairly. And I think I’ve done a decent job overall. That being said… I’m only human. I make mistakes. It took me a while to figure out just what a “proper” review was and how different criteria will apply to different subgenres. It took some time for me to accept that the modern crime fiction scene is far more interesting than I at first gave it credit for. And every once in a while, I went out and said something very… er, opinionated.

The funny thing about opinions is that they can change. And it can take you off guard. And boy, I’ve sure thrown around a lot of opinions here on this blog. Sometimes, I think back on what I wrote a year or two ago, and wonder just what on earth I was thinking at the time. And so I’d like to introduce a new feature on this blog, one which I hope will prove interesting: “The-Keep-Your-Mouth-Shut Files”. Although I might change the title if I think of something better, this is the part of the program where I revisit old blog posts and confirm everyone’s impression of me as an opinionated jackass who should just keep his mouth shut sometimes. And I can think of no better an inaugural subject than Mickey Spillane.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Band of Brothers

The time period is the American Civil War. As the fate of the United States is being decided on the front lines, heroes are born… and sometimes, good men falter. Such is the case with eight of the soldiers, court-martialed and convicted of cowardice. The military decides to conduct an unusual experiment, and gives these men their own separate company, Company Q.

Shunned and despised by their fellow soldiers, Company Q is led by Jared Heath, a former captain whose conviction came as a result of his refusal to obey a direct order. They’re nicknamed the Company of Cowards, and their unusual story is chronicled by Jack Schaefer, the author of the legendary novel Shane.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blackbeard's Revenge

…And unmoor’d souls may drift on stranger tides
Than those men know of, and be overthrown
By winds that would not even stir a hair…
—William Ashbless

John Chandagnac is off to the New World aboard the Vociferous Carmichael. He has only one thing in mind: he wants to find his uncle, Sebastian Chandagnac. But this will not be a happy family reunion. It turns out that Sebastian Chandagnac is a ruthless criminal. He claimed that his poor brother, the rightful heir to a fortune, was dead, and made off with the cash. That brother, John’s father, was a puppeteer, and ended up dying a pauper, from starvation and the cold. John is furious and wants to get to his uncle, reclaim the fortune that rightfully belonged to his father, and get even.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. John’s plans for revenge are suddenly halted when his ship is attacked by a gang of pirates, led by the infamous Philip Davies. And they weren’t working on their own: a few of the Carmichael’s passengers were in league with the pirates, helping them to take over the ship. One of these is Benjamin Hurwood, an eccentric one-armed professor with a beautiful daughter named Beth. When Davies murders the Carmichael’s former captain, Chandagnac, in a fit of fury, attacks the pirate and wounds him. As a result, Davies allows the other passengers to go free, but John Chandagnac is given a different choice:

“Join us, wholly adopt our goals as your own, or be killed right now where you stand.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

More Western Thought

Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Kubla Khan

Last year, when I reviewed Shane by Jack Schaefer, I admitted that I did not know much about Westerns and that I intended to rectify the mistake. Well... it's taken me a while to get around to it. I have so many books lying unread on my shelves... But because of my blog, I tend to emphasize crime and detective fiction. As a result, I have plenty of books in other genres lying unread and which I will probably never read if I follow my current reading patterns. So I've decided to rebel. For the next little bit -- maybe one week, maybe two, maybe a month... who knows? It depends how much I enjoy myself... - I've decided to take a small hiatus from mysteries and to focus on other genres. (There might be one or two mystery reviews, but these would be out of my backlog.) And to kick this break off, today I’d like to talk about another Western that was recommended to me by Bill Pronzini: The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout.

The scene of the crime has temporarily been taken over by other genres. All those who object may use the provided space-time continuum to proceed to the next crime fiction review.

Western fans might recognize the title as the title of John Wayne’s final movie, and for good reason: that movie was adapted from the book by the author’s own son, Miles Hood Swarthout. The film co-starred such legendary actors as Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Stewart, and it included other high-profile names: Ron Howard, Scatman Crothers, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, and John Carradine all come to mind. I consider the movie to be one of the finest Westerns ever made, a poignant valentine to the Western and the type of iconic hero John Wayne might have played. (Indeed, the movie began with a unique sequence, in which a series of clips from Wayne’s glory days in film were used to show his character’s glory days.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dead and Buried

Gervase Fen has had quite enough of life as Professor of English at Oxford University. For starters, he’s just produced a definitive edition of Langland, and that’s enough to make anyone go mad, and the only remedy for that is a complete change in occupation. Plus, no matter where Fen goes, it seems that murder follows him and people keep dropping dead. So he decides to go into politics and get himself elected as Member of Parliament in the small village of Sanford Angelorum and the fine county surrounding it. True, he’s never lived there, nor has he even visited the place before, but you can’t let minor details like that derail a promising political career.

But then again, maybe Fate has other plans for Fen. On the evening of his arrival, he spots a large naked lunatic running in the middle of the road, before the man disappears. Before long, a suspicious accident occurs, a man is murdered, a blackmailer seems to be on the loose, Fen meets a real-life poltergeist, and there’s something about a non-doing pig in there as well. Look, it’s an Edmund Crispin novel; the only thing it’s really missing is a judge who bases his verdicts on the advice received from a lunatic in a box. More specifically, all this madness occurs in the novel Buried for Pleasure.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dance into the Fire

When the United States entered the Second World War, Detroit converted its automobile factories into an “arsenal of democracy”. Car manufacture was put on hold and instead, workers produced tanks, aircraft, and other machines which helped the Allies win the war. All sorts of people had to come together and collaborate in a spirit of patriotism. But racial tensions were high and eventually resulted in rioting.

And in Loren D. Estleman’s novel Jitterbug, a psychotic killer is taking the whole patriotism thing a bit too far. A maniac is on the loose, murdering people left and right. Specifically, he targets hoarders, convinced that every dead hoarder means a soldier’s life is saved on the war front. All those gas and food rations can go to the fine American troops instead of the greedy hands of citizens back home too old and/or infirm to fight. He even leaves a calling card, the message “Kilroy was here”, and it’s up to police lieutenant Maximilian Zagreb to hunt the killer down. But there’s no shortage of suspects in a metropolis like Detroit, and Zagreb is racing against time as Kilroy’s violence escalates…

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Case of the Constant Suicides

It’s 1964. Beatlemania is sweeping the nation, and Chicago private eye Nate Heller is taking his son to see the group live onstage. Heller is working security for the group, and as a result, he even manages to give his son one kick-ass birthday present when he brings him to meet the group and they sign a napkin for him. All in all, it was a terrific evening, even if the Beatles’ screaming fans threatened to permanently damage Heller’s hearing.

But I suppose something worse could happen. For instance, a car might try to run Heller and his son down, and damn near succeed at ridding the world of the feisty P.I. once and for all. But Heller’s son is too quick for the driver, and succeeds at getting his dad out of harm’s way. But Nate Heller got a look at the driver, and he’s pretty sure he recognizes him. It’s somebody that he dealt with almost a year ago, a Cuban who was connected with the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy… in Chicago. The plot, described in detail in 2012’s Target Lancer, was ultimately foiled, but didn’t do much good: Kennedy met his death in Dallas a few weeks later, and the supposed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed two days later by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Horror!

It is March 1895 in London and Sherlock Holmes receives a strange visitor at 221B Baker Street. It is a peculiar, arrogant Irishman named George Shaw and he comes to consult Holmes about the murder of theatre critic Jonathan McCarthy. Holmes and Watson accept the case and begin to dig around McCarthy’s personal life, discovering that the man was universally despised in the West End. During their investigations, they run across all sorts of potential suspects, including Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

But if only the case had ended there – when another murder occurs, Holmes and Watson discover something absolutely horrendous is at the centre of this case, a secret so black it could unravel the very fabric of British society. In fact, that’s why Watson decided to entitle this case The West End Horror. After being lost to the world for years, it fell into the hands of Nicholas Meyer, who had also edited Watson’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. It is unfortunate, then, that this was such a sub-par outing for both Holmes and Watson.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Shanghai Noon

Brendan Lavin is an ex-con trying to make an honest living in New York City. It’s not an easy thing to do. His bakery is floundering, business is bad, and the bills are getting bigger and harder to pay. When his girl’s second cousin Tommy walks in with news of a job, Brendan initially wants nothing to do with it. But the rent is about to go up again, his supplier – of baking ingredients, that is – has cut him off, and he won’t be able to pay all his bills. Finally, he picks up the phone and gives Tommy a call and learns about the job.

It’s an armoured car heist, and it’s supposed to be as easy as taking candy from a baby. But it goes wrong; terribly, terribly wrong. Four people end up dead, and Brendan is torn up with guilt. When Maureen finds out about what he’s done, she leaves him. And so, Brendan takes his money and decides to start over again in Shanghai. But twelve years later, the past comes back with a vengeance when Brendan’s former colleagues find him, and they demand his help in another job…