Friday, March 30, 2012

21. The Sharpshooter #7: Head Crusher by Bruno Rossi

The order of books on my on-deck shelf seems to have arranged itself such that I have spent a lot of the month of March wallowing around in the filth and scum of 1970s New York.  Again, this is a book I picked up on my fruitful trip to the Maritimes.  Who could resist such a cover, especially with the lurid green background?

The Sharpshooter series is the story of Johnny Rock, previously John Rocetti, who parents were murdered by the mafia and who is now on a life mission to wipe them all out.   In Head Crusher, he makes his way to Times Square where he finds a mafia-run brothel and through a bit of dumb luck (there is an attack on the boss of the brothel and Johnny shoots everyone he sees, accidently saving the boss's life) worms his way into a lieutenant position of a local high-ranking member of the family.  It turns out an internecine mafia war is brewing, as the capo from Queens wants territory from the uber-boss of Manhattan.  Johnny Rock, through his cold-blooded killing skill ends up playing a big role in helping the big boss win.  He doesn't care as long as he is killing mafia goons.  But when the war is over, he returns to his main goal and starts taking down the mafioso who have adopted him.

This book is not realistic at all.  However, unlike the last Butcher book I read, it's not preposterous.  The world portrayed seems pretty real, especially all the seedy stuff in Times Square and the mafia's hangouts and homes.  What's unrealistic is how quickly they accept him into the fold and how many of them he kills.  Nevertheless, the book is written with enough grit and intensity that you don't really care.  I actually really started to get into it by the second half.  It feels like a book written quickly by a competent writer, without a lot of regard to the overall structure.  There is one scene that was particularly good, when Johnny gets invited to dinner with the big boss and has a conversation with his educated, dissatisfied granddaughter.  She instantly recognizes him as someone not like the other men that hang around her family and they have a kind of connection.  Then at dinner, Johnny hardens, reminding himself of his mission and that his own murdered sister was very much like the granddaughter and he slaughters the entire family!  His only reprieve towards the granddaughter is that he can't bring himself to shoot her a second time, so she dies with only a single bullet through the chest.  Cold.

There are 15 books in the Sharpshooter series and they are fairly well-respected by fans of these numbered series of men's action and adventure.  I know they were cranked out by several authors with minimal oversight or editing, so I am not too picky about continuity and typos.  But what I don't understand is how in this book #7, Johnny can identify both the guy who carried out the hit on his family and the big boss who ordered it and off them in this volume.  Did he not get to them in the previous six books?  Or does each book have a new mafia leader who is responsible for his family's murder, making the whole thing into a kind of surreal, fantastic cycle of imaginary revenge?

Here is a good overview of the entire series, with some good background material.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

20. Loan Shark by J.W. O'Dell

Phew!  Well this turned out to be an excellent antidote to that terrible Butcher novel I read before.  Right from the beginning, I could tell we were in a different level of quality with Loan Shark.  The writing is taut and the setting's grime, squalor and desperation of 1970s Times Square feels very real.

The story starts in medias res as deadbeat gambler and alcoholic Joey Casey loses all his bets in his last big play.  He is in deep to a shylock and not just any shylock, but one of the meanest and least compromising, Macaluso.  Worse, he drunkenly talked shit about Macaluso and even mocked his retarded daughter.  So Macaluso's two top goons, old pros Fine and Demera, are after him and it's quite possible that this time they'll take his life.

The other important character is Frank Cassidy, Joey's older, smarter and more responsible brother.  He is in his own bad place, but it is more psychological. He's a cop who never tried for promotion because that would have revealed how he lied about his identity to hide the existence of his brother with a record.  Furthermore, his wife had died.  Totally estranged from Joey, he spends his days working in a dull daze and his nights being depressed.

The whole book takes place in about a day and a half, with Casey on the run, swinging between despair, fear, anger, hopelessness, a lot of it related to whatever stage of drinking he is in.  Finally, he turns to his last option, his brother.  And that's what Loan Shark is about, the relationship between these two brothers and the choice Frank decides to make.

It's a quick, absorbing and intense read.  All the characters are richly portrayed with an efficiency of text and a realness that makes it effective.  The portrayal of Joey's alcoholism is extremely believable.  You hate the guy for his selfishness, his lying, his manipulation, but you also can't help but sympathize with his inevitable downward spiral.  Excellent book.  I can't find very much else about this author.  Anybody out there know anything about J.W. O'Dell?

19. Butcher #8 Fire Bomb by Stuart Jason

Wow, was this book ever terrible.  Just inept all the way through.  I'm certainly not a book snob (more like a snobby anti-snob, really).  I love gratuitous violence, cheap thrills and exploitation as much as the next red-blooded male.  I've never been a big fan of these numbered series of men's adventure novels, but I respect them for the role they played and the pleasure they gave to a lot of readers.  I've read a few myself already and they've generally been okay.  I've actually grown to appreciate them much more thanks to the recent discovery of Joe Kenney's excellent Glorious Trash blog where he reviews in some depth these kinds of books and compares them to each other.  Often, his blog posts are more fun than the books themselves, though he treats them with respect when they deserve it, which they often do.

I couldn't find a review of any of the Butcher novels in his blog, though he makes a passing reference to them, so he must have read them.  I'm just curious if he would consider this one any good.  It's just so badly done, walking this middle line of mediocrity where it is stupidly brutal but not brutal enough, preposterously unbelievable, but not over-the-top enough to make it fun, stupidly sexist without any real good sex and just terribly, terribly written.  It's almost as if it was written by a hard-working 15-year old boy with some promise who had only ever read numbered men's adventure novels.

Even the action is lame.  The Butcher always whips out his Walther P-38 (which can both blow a hole in a man's back the size of a teacup and hit a sniper high up in a building 100 yards away; nice gun!) which goes koosh!  koosh! every time.  There is no resistance to anything he does, not a single challenge.  So the whole book is just us following him around on this stupid quest by his organization White Hat to find some guy who is responsible for smuggling super high quality heroin into the states.  The big reveal is supposed to be how they do it, which is to mix it into a paste and make dolls out of it.  Then to fool customs, they stamp "Made in Hong Kong" on the back, so they won't realize it just got shipped from Iraq!

It's pointless for me to go on and on with the pathetic plot.  What makes this book really suck is the basic behaviour of the protagonist.  He kills everybody left and right, always figures everything out, but when then he is constantly getting totally surprised by the most obvious thing or having some weird over-reaction, like his hands trembling.  It's just so bad.  Even the cover is lame.  While not offensive, this is definitely the worst book I've read in quite some time and possibly the worst since I've been doing the fifty books thing.  I wish I had the wit and patience to actually make this review enjoyable for the reader, but I'm just too lazy.  So my apologies for the rant, but boy, that was a tough book to get through.  I'm glad it's over!

Friday, March 23, 2012

18. The Spiked Heel by Richard Marsten

I love corporate espionage and wish there were more good books in this sub-genre.  The 50s had a bunch and I stumbled upon this one in the Maritimes (man, that trip is still producing!).  I have to say that I am slightly pleased with my book choosing these last couple of years.  When I stumble upon an old paperback which interests me but whose author I am not familiar with, I really fret over whether or not I should pick it up.  So far in 2012, every single one of those books have turned out to be at least readable and often quite good.  The Spiked Heel was another succesful find by me.  After I read it, I did a bit of research and it turned out that Richard Marsten is the penname of Evan Hunter, who has the penname Ed McBain!  Dude was prolific.

The Spiked Heel takes place in a high-fashion shoe company in the mid-50s, mainly in their manufacturing headquarters in New Jersey (their sales office is in the Chrylser building in Manhattan).  A multi-generational family-owned company that was starting to get soft sells itself out to a much larger, mass-market shoe company from the south.  McQuade, a hatchet man, big, blond, too handsome and too charming, is brought in.  The protagonist, Griff, has worked at the company for 11 years and knows it from top to bottom.  At first he doesn't realize that McQuade is there to shake things up, but as the book moves along he not only finally cottons on to that, he learns that McQuade is a force of evil.

And that's what makes this book so crazy.  Ostensibly, it is about this new guy coming in and forcing changes onto this established company. The book goes into great detail about the structure of the company, how the factory is run, how shoes are made.  Some reviewers at the time found it a bit dull, but I found it fascinating.  This was the peak of American manufacturing, with the skilled manual labourers of the old world working in the industrial context, producing 2,500 beautifully made shoes a day.  And wow, they sure don't make shoes like this any more.  All the cost-saving measurements that McQuade forces onto the company are only precursors to the way all shoes are produced today.  You read about how shoes were made 50 years ago and you realize that even the fanciest bespoke shoes of today are actually pretty low quality.

But the real energy here is the hyper-Freudian McQuade and how he forces himself and his irresistable quest for power onto everyone around him.  It's kind of awesome.  Not only can the sensible typist not resist lifting her skirt and shaking her rump for McQuade, but she is aware of it and tries to prevent herself from doing it, but his animal sexuality is overpowering for her.  His first aggressive move is to break up a fight on the factory floor with a giant firehose, spraying his manhood all over the combatants until they cry.

There is also an interesting regional sub-text that I suspect presages the more stark blue-state, red-state division we see today.  McQuade is from the south as is the company he works for.  He is such an extreme character that he almost doesn't seem human.  He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't laugh.  When his impoverished background is revealed and the ferocious drive it inspired, he reminds one of Max Cady from Cape Fear. The only other southern character shows up at the end of the novel and though a force for reason, seems almost like an extraterrestrial.  There is a real undercurrent that the South is the other and to be feared.  The voices in the book are from the second-generation immigrants, the Italians, the Jews, the Irish that made New York such a vibrant place in the 20th century.

There is a lot going on in this book and it doesn't all mesh well, like a smorgasbord of themes.  The notion of "decency" is crucial to the protagonist's final understanding of how evil McQuade is.  McQuade's technique is to do something brutal and then follow it up quite suddenly with disarming charm.  He does this once by sticking his hand out for a shake after Griff stops him from taking the way-too-drunk typist home.  When they grip, he then brutally crushes Griff's hand.  He does it a second time at the end of the book and Griff agonizes whether he should shake his hand.  He does again, to his regret again and realizes that it is common decency that compels us to respond when a man sticks out his hand for a shake.  McQuade's not respecting that demonstrates his fundamental lack of humanity.  I really enjoyed that idea.

However, there is a side story about a woman whom McQuade takes out and rapes and while it is portrayed from her perspective with a thorough and interesting look into her background, it still comes off as very nasty and punishing for her.  It's very in line with the sexual mores of the time (she was loose in her younger years, but was trying to change).  But I'm reminded of the nasty mysogyny in the other Ed McBain book I read.

In any case, thoroughly entertaining, with lots of rich material to analyze.  Mad Men has nothing on this stuff.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

17. The Lotus Caves by John Christopher

The John Christopher Young Adult review of 2012 rolls on!  I had thought that the Tripods trilogy was my introduction to Christopher as a grade 6er, but as soon as I saw this cover for the Lotus Caves, I realized that this was in fact the first of his books that I read.  I even have a vague memory of Glen Dumont of all people telling me that it was really good.  It definitely made the rounds among our sixth grade class.

After rereading it, I feel that it has jumped ahead of the other of his YA books that I've recently read (excluding the Tripod trilogy).  It's tighter, with a strong focus.  The relationship between the boys is a bit more subtle as well.  Christopher has a tendency to pit the protagonist against a superior boy and having the protagonist always being resentful, which starts to get tiresome.  Here there is some of that, but it is much more complex and evolves nicely. 

It takes place in the year 2068 on a moon colony.  Because of the high-cost of resources and transport, life is very limited here.  Everybody lives under a single bubble and there really isn't that much to do.  The protagonist Marty suffers because his best friend gets sent back down to earth.  This is generally a one-way trip.  He soon makes friends with another boy, who is a bit of a loner and more daring.  After getting into trouble for one prank, they are barred from the local community center.  Boredom and their own restless spirits find them taking the lunar vehicles outside of the dome.  These things have regulators that only let them go a safe distance, but one day they find one with the key to unlock the regulator carelessly left in the vehicle.  So they decide to take the vehicle far out and do some exploring.

Their goal is the abandoned first station, where the first settlers stayed.  There they find a clue that leads them on to a fantastic discovery, a cave under the surface of the moon filled with fantastic plant life.  The only problem is that it really doesn't want them to leave. It's a study in willpower, freedom versus comfort and responsibility, with some really cool concepts along the way. 

I wonder if The Lotus Caves got edited by the same woman who helped him with the Tripod trilogy.  It's very well constructed, probably the perfect length for a twelve-year old.  The first half is about Marty's challenges of adolescent life on the moon.  The second is all about the lotus cave and the boys trying (or not trying as the seductive nature of the plant takes over their spirit) to escape.  Both sections are compelling and keep you wanting to read more, especially the second half.  The visuals are also really stimulating, with the cave taking form in my mind as I read it.  Good stuff.  You can see why it was so popular.  I wonder if it is still on the curriculum today.  It should be.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

16. The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas

The more Ross Thomas books I read, the more I realize that the first book of his that I read, the Porkchoppers, is an anomaly.  It's fairly serious and straightforward and while there is a large cast of characters, it really focuses on one man.  My sense is that Thomas' usual style is a blend of tough crime and espionage with an undercurrent of dark humour, all pushed forward by a rich ensemble cast of characters who are either unique in their own right or the result of various crazy historical situations.

The Eighth Dwarf is the story of the early days of post-WWII espionage, as a group of people converge on Berlin searching for a rogue assassin who is taking out hidden ex-Nazis.  The main protagonist is Minor Jackson, an ex-OSS hotshot turned slacker turned (quite passively) spy/independent operator.  He is a bit of an empty construct, though, as it is Nicola Polescu, the charming, clever, sophisticated and untrustworthy dwarf who brings him into the game who is the real mover and shaker in the book.

Nick and Minor are hired by a German Jew in Mexico, the father of the rogue assassin, to find him and bring him back.  The Russians, the Brits and the US also want the assassin, all for their own reasons, and they all send their various representatives to war torn Germany to participate in the party.

It's a fun, lively read.  Ross Thomas writes books that are fun to read, as there is always something going on or an interesting character doing something cool.  The portrayal of 1946 Berlin is great as well, not too in-depth but full of black market basement restaurants, ruined hideouts, gangs of polish DPs (displaced persons), prostitutes wearing nothing but fur coats and more, all put together make for a really intriguing, adventuresome milieu.

I found the 1988 Mysterious Press edition, which has a nifty, though more symbolic than representational, cover.  Interestingly, there are quotes about Thomas from both John D. MacDonald and Eric AmblerIt stands out and I'll keep it, but I would probably be as ruthless as "the wicked dwarf" if it would help me to get my hands on this British version as discovered (and researched) by Louis XIV of the great Existential Ennui book blog.

Monday, March 19, 2012

15. The Incline by William Mayne

There is a whole world of British fiction for younger readers.  I only know a small sampling of it (The Box of Delights, Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blighton) but would like to know more.  There is a used bookstore in Winnipeg (Nerman's Books) that has an amazing selection of it (entire collections of authors) in their basement.  If I lived there, I would probably make more of a study of it.  The first bookstore we went to on our Maritimes trip was in Victoria in PEI and was called Kit Marlowe & Co.  The proprietor was a friendly, informative British woman and she had a small and selective stock with a lot of interesting british stuff.  She recommended William Mayne as having been a popular young adult author with a working class perspective.  The Incline is the book of his that I picked up there.

It's about a young man, Mason, who finishes school and starts a job working as a clerk in the bank in his village.  His father is the foreman of the local granite quarry, which is the economic heart of the little village.  The main storyline in the book is about the quarry losing money and then shutting down, but it is all seen through young Mason's viewpoint.  It's odd, because he is really young, seemingly just starting puberty, but he's finished schooling and starting out in the bank working alongside an older fellow.  I guess this is the period when the concept of "teenager" had yet to come into being.  It makes it difficult to understand his behaviour and thinking as he is at once much more adult than a person of his age today and at the same time, much less experienced.

The owner of the quarry came from the same roots as Mason's father, but has done well for himself and now owns the big house on the hill.  He also has a daughter that is about Mason's edge.  They used to play together, but now he has developed a crush on her.  She is weirdly infantalized, having been groomed for a higher class and sheltered from the realities that her peers in the village face.  She's nice, though, but wants to keep their relationship at the same level it was when they were toddlers together, while Mason is looking for something more serious (though even he is quite innocent about how it all works, believing only that he "loves" her).

It's an odd book, staying mainly in the cerebral.  While things actually happen, quite serious things, they never seem to disturb the dreamlike wondering that is Mason's worldview.  This book doesn't have any of the weight or bitterness I expected.  There is no resentment of the wealthy or crushing despair for the poor.  It just is what it is and doesn't seem all that unpleasant.  An interesting read, which probably requires some analysis and explanation by experts to help the 21st century North American reader to understand.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

14. War of the Dons by Peter Rabe

This was probably the find of last summer's trip to the Maritimes.  I still remember running my finger down the horizontally stacked (and badly organized) paperbacks in the mystery section of this rambleshack used bookstore run by an ex-ship's engineer in Lunenburg, N.S. (check the back of the Canadian dime) and seeing the Godfather-esque typeface and the name Peter Rabe.  I got all excited, but immediately tried to act cool when I saw the price was $2.  I actually was nervous when the proprietor was going through my stack of books to calculate the total price that he would say, "hey wait a minute, let me just check this on ebay..." Fortunately it didn't happen.

War of the Dons is the story of the three Guarda brothers, who are top-ranked lieutenants in mafia don Messina's southern California organized crime empire. Marco, the leader, sees Messina as weakening and wants to get him out of the way and take over.  The three brothers pretty much run everything anyways.  Then things get really complicated.  I don't mean a big mess, but just really complicated.  This book takes the idea of the outfit as a complex business organization and really runs with it. The conflict between the traditional family roots and the modern business structure of organized crime is a big theme here, anticipating the cynicism with which Stark portrays the mob (basically as the IRS with guns and equally hated).

Most of the book follows the Guardas, their sattelites and the big bosses at the top as the Guardas succesfully kill Messina but then have to try and hold on to the power in the vacuum they have created.  For the first half, I found it a cool and engaging narrative, exposing a fascinating world with lots of juicy details of personalities, locations and ways the mob works.  But I wasn't blown away, kind of feeling that maybe Rabe had mailed this one in a bit to cash in on some editor's request to cash in on the godfather craze.  But things take off in the second half and you get a taste of what makes Rabe such an interesting writer.

The book focuses here on the three brothers and their relationships, probing deeper than what we had previously seen on Marco in particular.  Pepe, the oldest, is the crazy, sexual strongarm.  Nuncio is the weaker business guy.  (I'm pretty sure there is some correlation here with the id, ego and superego but I'm too lazy to figure it out.)  Marco is the fascinating one.  He spends most of the book under incredible tension, trying to hold his increasingly-complex plans together.  He is cold and seems motivated by ambition but also a desire just to make the thing work.  But when it does all go to shit, he suddenly relaxes, desiring only to wreak havoc on his opponents just for the sake of the havoc.  He goes back and forth between this freedom from pressure to uber-tenseness several times in the book and it is this duality in his character that's the most compelling (and what the plot ultimately seems to be driving at).

It's not a perfect book.  The pacing is inconsistent, especially at the end.  I would have loved another 50 pages on what was wrapped up in one.  But I think students of Parker would do well to read this book.  I don't even know if this was one of Rabe's works that influenced Westlake, but there is a similar and maybe more complex relationship to power and authority here as there is in the Parker saga.  Good, intense stuff.

Friday, March 09, 2012

13. Gangway! by Donald E. Westlake and Brian Garfield

This was a nice $2 find from, if my faltering memory is holding up, the Maritimes.  However, I am really not a big fan of the aesthetic of this edition.  Because the book takes place in the late 19th century, but was published in the early '70s, they had to give it that heinous slightly abstract '70s old-timey aesthetic.  Shudder.  I grew up with that (I remember my friends had a wallpaper of it in their bathroom), couldn't stand it then and can't stand it today.  But still, it's a nice paperback of a pretty fun read and a less well known Donald Westlake.

Gangway! can be pretty easily encapsulated as a historical heist comedy novel or for those of you familiar with Westlake, Dortmunder in 1870's San Francisco.  It also reminded me a lot of Westlake's comedy capers like High Adventure.  If any of that is up your alley, then Gangway! is probably worth putting on your list.

The protagonist, Gabe Beauchamp, is a con from Hell's Kitchen, forced to go to San Francisco by his local ward boss.  A lot of the book is about Gabe hating and adjusting to what he considers living in the boonies, though the authors go a long way towards making it more of a mockery of the New Yorker who has never left Manhattan.  Gabe has a nose and a skill for crime and is immediately attracted to the Federal mint and the wagonloads of gold bars that are shipped into it from the mines around SF (this is the late gold rush period).  So he assembles a string of wacky characters, including a streetsmart San Franciscan women who takes a shine to his exotic east coast ways.

He comes up with an elaborate, dubious plan that very much invokes the title of the book and involves a lot of other interesting characters and wacky situations.  I found some of the humour a bit forced, just not quite as tight and polished as the Dortmunder novels, but it never gets in the way and overall supports a light, pleasant tone that makes for quick and enjoyable reading.  The heist itself is quite fun and would have made for a great movie.

There is a great interview with Brian Garfield (author of Death Wish among many other things) and he talks about his days in the 60s and 70s playing in a regular poker game with Westlake as well as how they collaborated on Gangway!

Don Westlake had a blinding-fast mind. He always seemed to have on the tip of his tongue the sort of wonderful witty rejoinders that occur to most of us a day or two too late. In 1970 we got the idea that it would be amusing to try combining our strengths in a Western comedy novel. We wrote Gangway!, and it turned out to be quite funny, I think. Henry sold it and it did fairly well. But our ambitions to sell it as a basis for a movie didn’t work out. And we’d done it in a silly way—each of us would write a draft, then turn it over to the other, who’d rewrite the whole thing and give it back. It was about four times as much work as either of us would have put in individually on a book. So we didn’t try that again. But it was fun, and we got to know each other’s working styles.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

12. All I Can Get by William Ard

This was another exciting old paperback find at an outdoor book fair in the Laurentians last summer.  I really should have bought more.  There was some great stuff there. 

While this turned out to be an enjoyable read, the cover does not reflect the interior of the book at all well.  Yes, that scene takes place and yes there is a girl who plays for fun and yes I guess the protagonist, Lou Largo P.I. does play for keeps.  But this book is not some intense, torrid, hard-boiled tale of sexual conflict.  The tone is the biggest thing not well-represented by the cover.  It's actually kind of light and humorous, closer to Boston Blackie than Philip Marlow.  And the story is actually about a wealthy newspaper tycoon who invests in a morning paper in a small city across the bay from Tampa in an attempt to take over the market and the resistance he and his allies face from the mob (well mobs, as both the mafia and the Cubans are fighting over the turf). 

There is another story wrapping around the newspaper narrative.  At the beginning of the book, the newspaper tycoon hires Lou Largo to investigate a beautiful, young woman with whom he just fell in love and has proposed to marry after meeting her hours earlier (this is where the light tone starts off).  Of course, Lou, after discovering that she is a total party girl, gets with her.  Though it is "a Lou Largo novel", Lou leaves the story for the next half of the book, where we follow the tycoon as he goes to Tampa to sell the newspaper and take his star editor back with him to NYC.  He is also planning on marrying his fiancé as well, but gets caught up in the mob war and changes his mind on selling the paper.  The story then moves into main gear and we get lots of good (actually fairly hard-boiled) gang war stuff, beatings, stand-offs, gunfights, corrupt cops and so on. 

It really reminded me a lot of "The Fools in Town Are on our Side", though a bit neater in its wrap-up and a bit lighter in its overall tone.  It was kind of a fun book, but just not as heavy as what I was expecting.  Now I shall go and see if Lou Largo actually had a series.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

11. All These Condemned by John D. MacDonald

My copy of this is the same depicted here, except with a 35¢ price tage and in even worse condition.  It's almost on its last legs, with the pages separating from the spine, though not yet falling out.

It's an early John D. MacDonald and though it hinges around a murder mystery, it is much more a study of the soullless, broken bourgeoisie of the mid-fifties and probably thus fell into the literary genre rather than the mystery.  The copy on the back and inside front cover suggests that it was marketed that way.

The story is about 8 people who go to a weekend at the beautiful country lodge of the rich and manipulative cosmetics executive, Wilma Ferris, who in some way owns them all.  She drowns during some skinny-dipping on Saturday night and the ostensible hook of the book is for the reader to find out whodunnit.  It's structured in a neat way, with each chapter being the viewpoint of one of the 8 people, either from a "before" or "after" the murder.  We get to see how each of them think, how they think of the others and what their relationship was with the victim.

It's good, engaging stuff.  All of them are in some ways broken or on the verge of being broken.  In many cases, they are in this state because of Wilma Ferris.  MacDonald, though, doesn't seem to really blame Ferris.  From his perspective, they are all examples of the modern condition, people so far removed from the honest basics of hard work and treating people right, that they have no moral compass in the first place and it is easy for a cruel sociopath like Wilma Ferris to push them in the wrong direction.

I have only watched a few episdes of Mad Men, but upon finishing this book, I kind of felt the whole series is kind of superfluous.  They were trying to critique the flaws of that era in multiple episodes, when John D. MacDonald did it in a single book, with a lot more punch.  The other thought I had upon finishing this book was that although I look upon a lot of the naive excesses of the '60s with a great deal of superior scorn and contempt, when you jump into the era that went before, you kind of feel that the over-reaction of the 60s made a lot of sense.