Thursday, April 29, 2021

25. The Dead Don't Care by Jonathan Latimer

First of all, I want to give a shout out to The Paperback Warrior.  I am a particular fan of their podcast which has been consistently professional, informative and kind of fun.  If you are a fan of 20th century crime paperbacks, their site and podcast should be one of your go-to references.  They did a best of 2020 and co-host Tom* chose Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer as his favourite book that he had read that year.  I am still looking for it, but did find The Dead Don't Care by the same author at Dark Carnival. 

First of all, I really enjoyed Latimer's writing.  He has a nice sparse yet entertaining style, reminding me of Dashiell Hammett with a spritz of John D. Macdonald (though that maybe because this one took place in Florida). His descriptions of Florida and the beach were incredibly evocative, made me long for the hot sand.  He also has a lot of great drinking moments, both in the dialogue and the described actions.  They drink a lot, especially Crane, the main detective, who is a self-aware alcoholic.  There are also some great snippets of dry detective humour.  So a real pleasure to read.

There are two detectives here, Crane and O'Rourke, part of a larger company who has been hired by the trustee of a rich scion, Penn Essex, to protect the heir who has been receiving threatening letters.  They go to his waterfront mansion south of Miami and there live the high-life with Essex, his sister and their motley collection of guests.  Crane seems to have had a higher class upbringing than O'Rourke, though both seem to have the clothes for the situation.  The location, the characters and the various conflicts and things that go down are all very enjoyable.  I was really looking forward to how it all played out.

Unfortunately, the plot and to some degree the resolution, was a bit disappointing.  Tom's description of Solomon's Vineyard made it sound really hard-boiled.  This book definitely had some edge and you got a great sense of the darker side of life, both rich and poor.  The plot, however, was a more traditional whodunit, almost a "cozy" in the sense that you were driven to try and solve the mystery of who is sending the threatening letters (and then who is the kidnapper who snatched the sister).  I kind of figured it out early but it seemed too obvious.  The reveal was even done as a classic parlour presentation.  None of it was terrible, it just felt a bit like two genres colliding and the wrong genre for the style winning out.  Solomon's Vineyard will remain on my list as will Latimer as the writing style was so good.

One weird thing is that the back cover blurb of this No Exit Press edition gets the name of one of the characters wrong and is just erroneous as only one of them is the sidekick.  Quite sloppy!

The other detective is O'Rourke

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

24. Day of the Drones by A.M. Lightner

I can't remember what prompted me to take this book from the little outdoor book box where I found it.  I think it was the combo of Post-Apocalyptic and racial issues as a subject matter.  I was wary as well, though, since science fiction about race written in 1969 can be questionable. The cover also worried me that it was going to be psychedelic and lack coherence.

My apprehensions were quite erroneous. This was actually a very enjoyable, straightforward PA adventure with a cool setting and some simple but not wrong-headed thoughts about race.  It takes place in some distant future, several centuries after "The Disaster" when most of humanity (and most mammals) was wiped out.  The surviving humans live inland somewhere in Africa.  They are a civilized society, technologically primitive, but with some memory of the past.  They attribute the destruction of the world to white people (and to uncontrolled use of technology).  The protagonist is a bright young woman named Amhara who is sent to school with the potential to rise high in the society. Her childhood friend N'Gobi is as smart as her, but light-skinned.  Actually so light that it was only by the pleading of his mother and the other villagers that he wasn't killed as a baby.

With the support of sympathetic professors who value N'Gobi and Amhara's skill more than they respect the taboo of N'Gobi's whiteness, they form a team that is going to explore outside of their lands for the first time.  This trip is triggered by N'Gobi's discovery of a new kind of bird with a strange, knotted rope around it's leg that could only be done by somebody intelligent.  They have a solar helicopter that had been hidden away (this is a bit of a stretch, but in line with the rest of the book which doesn't fret about nerdy details so we can get on with the exploration).  The journey, which is cool in and of itself, finally discovers the birds on a small island off the English coast. There they do finally discover other people, a tribe of white people who have patterned their society around the giant bees that feed them.

It's a neat, tight little story. There is conflict but it is all done in a non-stressful way which I appreciated.  The racial politics may be a bit naive (there is one person on the expedition who is disgusted by N'Gobi but she learns to appreciate him as a human) which seems appropriate as the author is I am pretty sure white and definitely lived well (went to Vassar and ended up in NYC).  I much prefer a straightforward racism is bad and can be overcome if we work together message than some convoluted "exploration" that you tended to get in sci-fi and crime books that did deal with race from this period.  I also really dug the portrayal of the bee society.  It was a cool idea to think of primitive humans with no mammals who would become dependent on the insects around them.

Lightner was quite prolific in fiction and non-fiction and did some other YA and PA books.  Worth checking her out more.  Nice little find!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

23. Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

He gets his name on the cover, so I guess I also have to give a shoutout to story selector and introduction writer, Patrick McGrath, who I guess put together this New York Review of Books collection.  Daphne du Maurier is one of those authors with whose name I have been quite familiar while also basically being ignorant of what she actually did. This book was handed on to me by a friend who was doing a shelf purge.  I felt a bit burdened, but now am glad I read it as it is a nice introduction to du Maurier.  She is an excellent writer.  Although I am not a huge fan of short stories, her clear prose and subtle ability to change styles and perspectives is well demonstrated in all these stories.

The two well-known stories, because of the movies based on them are the titular "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds".  I didn't love the movie of Don't Look Now.  I don't know why, it just kind of bugged me. The death of the daughter was so horrific and sad that the rest of the movie couldn't surpass that feeling and the couple just seemed mostly annoying.  The story is tighter and the husband comes off much more as being an ignorant ass (and thus getting his ironic, "Appointment in Samarrah" type ending).  The Birds was simply exquisite.  A dark, tight story of survival in rural England, it feels very influenced by WWII and the blitz.  The movie takes the basic premise but completely relocates it.  Here we have much more of a straightforward and grim tale of apocalyptic survival.  Just excellent.

The other stories are all equally well-written and intriguing, but ultimately suffer for me from the lack of depth inherent in the short story. There is a really cool one where a woman comes out of an eye operation and everybody has a different animal head (The Blue Lenses).  Kiss me Again, Stranger is a nice woman as serial killer twist with a great but doomed young romance encounter.  

I will have to read one of her novels at some point.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

22. The Ants by Peter Tremayne

This was quite a nice find for a paperback collector and in beautiful condition.  It almost looked like it had never been read.  I am also a big fan of the killer ants concept (who isn't).  My all-time favourite old time radio show (and also a classic) is the William Conrad Escape episode "Leiningen Versus the Ants".  The ants as devouring adversary are a great antagonist in and of themselves, but they also engender creative solutions to fight them.  It's fun to think about.

Unfortunately, though The Ants is a competent even enjoyable book, the creative solutions are lacking. I strongly suspect that Tremayne either read the original short story that Leiningen Versus the Ants was based on or heard the radio play.  The setup (South American plantation) and several of the techniques (particularly the fire ditch) to fight the ants seem to be cribbed right from the story.

There are two protagonists here, Jane the anthropologist who returns to the Mato Grosso province to find her father and the tribe they lived with all completely disappeared and Hugo the bush pilot working for the largest plantation owner in the region.  His plane crashes and Jane rescues him.  Together, the two of them with the one native boy survivor make their way back to the plantation, where Xavier the owner, Lopez his foreman and Consuela his selfish and sexy wife are in their own little domestic conflict.  This group must first solve the mystery of the destruction and then when they learn it, fight the ants as well as their own internal conflicts.

As I said, if it were wholly original, I would say it's a pretty fun ride.  The ants are awesome in scale and the destruction they cause is quite fun and well-described, as is the stress when they start to threaten.  Tremayne does a good job of describing the tactile sensations of a lot of large ants, especially when they get squished.  It gets to you a bit.

There are, as usual, some minor missteps with the gender roles.  Jane lived for several years already in a remote village in Brazil, speaks Portuguese and Xingan and is an excellent and fast shot.  Yet as soon as there is danger, she faints.  Hugo is constantly sending her to the safe places.  It's this weird dance of yes she is a cool girl who can do stuff but oh she is also a woman so better not actually just make her the protagonist lest she stress the sensitive ego of the male reader.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

21. The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill

When I found this book in the bookbox in Little Italy, the back cover was missing and the front cover was almost ripped off.  Normally, that is too damaged for me to take, but this was a beautiful 1954 Pan edition with a really nice illustrated cover.  I'm glad I read it but I don't know if I will keep it.  Ethical and archival considerations come into play.I believe it is something of a classic, at least was quite popular when it was released not long after the war ended.  It's the straight-ahead story of the pilots and leaders of the 617 Squadron, a specialized super-heavy and accurate bomber team.  It has the best portrayal of British humble pluck and some pretty exciting bombing runs.  It is told in a documentary style, but the action scenes are none the less thrilling.  I have to admit that I didn't quite understand how the targetting was done by the lead planes, as there was some jargon and terms that were perhaps more widely used right after the war.  It is always crazy to me the men who flew in WWII.  They would fly a plane 10 hours just to get to a bombing run!  Think how hard that would be.

The cast of characters get a bit confusing but the ones that are highlighted are quite compelling.   He pays particular attention to Wing Commander Cheshire, a true eccentric of the British income-less landed gentry.  Brickhill seems to have known and talked with many of the people in the story and he fills it out with many little anecdotes and asides about their characters. 

There is one disturbing element in this book.  It smacks you in the face a few chapters in.  The squad leader's dog is named the n-word!  Just seeing it once is really shocking, bringing the entire good guy narrative into perspective.  You suddenly see that these personable lads are also the elites of a destructive, rapacious empire whose racism is so deep that they would name their dog the perjorative term for a peoplel they had subjugated.  There is a whole little sub-plot with the dog and the name comes up several times.  And spoiler alert, the dog is hit by a car and is killed just before the first big flight.  Reading that chapter created a real conflicting mix of emotions in me.  Imagine being a nerd of colour and reading this book and stumbling onto that word.  

So I'm left conflicted.  The book is too beat up for my library and I don't think I want it in there anyhow.  Do I repair the front cover and pass it on or should it be removed from circulation because of the use of that word and maybe it is just at the end of its life?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

20. The Executioner #24: Canadian Crisis by Don Pendleton

The Executioner books do little for me but I had to pick up #24 for $10 from S.W. Welch because of the Canadian content.  And not just any Canadian content, but Quebec and Montreal.  This one will go in my glass display case next to Iceman #6: Canadian Kill.  

Just as a concept, the Executioner books are hard for me to understand.  Mack Bolan is unstoppable. There is little suspense in his campaigns against various mafia headquarters.  There is also not a wide range of interactions to be had in stories whose main purpose is to deliver scenes of mafia goons being gunned down.  I guess there is creativity in the ways in which they get set up.  The actual gunning down can take place in a range of locations.  But overall there is just not a lot to these books. They are almost poetic.  Mack Bolan goes to a new place, assesses the situation, has some plan (where he can also call upon any government agency and all their resources) and then kills everybody.  We get really bizarre conversations and narrator musings about questions and answers where the answer was already written and the answer it is always death.  You can't even really tell what political world these books are in.  Something about extreme individualism but so muddled up with Bolan's weird life (death) philosophy that it is almost meaningless.  The theme of these books is that The Executioner must be constantly killing mafia people and they must keep being there to be killed.  At least in the two books I've read, the mafia don't even actually do any crimes or harm anybody. 

Canadian Crisis sends Bolan to Montreal where he has learned of a global crime summit where somehow the American mafia will launch a crime invasion of Quebec, taking advantage of the current political instability (this book was written in 1975 a few years after the FLQ crisis, which is mentioned). The crossing to Canada, the drive to Montreal and the stealth approach into Montreal (via Rivière des Prairies) are all geographcally acurrate.  I was hoping we would get more of that in Montreal but unfortunately the rest of the book takes place in a hotel so we never get to see the rest of the city.  It's a cool hotel because it has a network of secret shafts and tunnels, which the Quebecois Francais (the new separatist society following the footsteps of the FLQ) has discovered and retrofitted to use to start their revolution. I guess the plan is to kidnap and kill a lot of rich people in the hotel but before that it serves as a perfect way for Mack Bolan to kill more mafiosa.

Pendleton does a decent job of giving some colour to the mafia who actually get names and roles and there is a well done reveal when the bodyguard finds his boss with his throat slit.  Bolan meets a hot revolutionary quebecoise who is named Betsy Johnson because her father was American.  Her conversations with Bolan are the weirdest. One could believe that Don Pendleton had never actually spoken directly with a woman, certainly not a French-Canadian revolutionary. She has all these questions and he keeps telling her the answer is death but she doesn't get it until she has to.  And then he gets to go off camping with her to fish and have sex until he has to go back to killing mafia again.

Friday, April 16, 2021

19. The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

I am starting to see a pattern in Charlotte Armstrong's work.  The climax often involves somebody trapped somewhere with limited time before they will be killed, while one or two people desperately try to find them and convince the authorities.  In one, the guy was trapped in the basement of a house about to be demolished.  I also have a better grasp of her tone.  When I first started reading her, the outer and inner dialogue felt stilted and uncertain which made the characters seem unreliable.  Now I think that is more her style and is intended to give an immersive feel to the reader.  So I found myself better able to just sit back and enjoy the narrative.

The setup is Francis has returned from WWII and discovered his childhood love has hanged herself while in the employ of a much-loved retired film-producer.  His sister has already gained employment at the producer's house to follow up on her suspicions.  Francis pretends to be the husband of the recently drowned daughter of the producer to also insinuate himself into the household, but his plot gets thrown for a serious wrinkle when the daughter shows up alive.  It is a psychological game of cat and mouse as Francis and his sister try to find proof that the suicide was murder while the daughter struggles with her own reality.  The producer is a real trip, super charismatic and manipulative with an almost spell-like voice.

I find the interactions a little too hesitant in this book.  Armstrong does a great job of building up tension but there isn't quite enough release for my taste.  The fun is in the hidden conflicts as people try to communicate with a mix of lies and truth.  The ending here, though, was quite exciting which kept me turning the pages.  I'll try not to be too spoilery but leave this to remind myself that it involved garbage men and a trunk.

They made a movie out of it and Claude Rains is the perfect actor to play the producer.

Monday, April 12, 2021

18. Sex Peddler by Arthur Adlon (pseudonym for Keith Ayling)

I really feel like part of the paperback hipster zeitgeist having found and read Sex Peddler.  The cover design was cheap and anonymous enough that I thought it might be an actually pornographic read and hesitated to pick it up.  Not that I have anything against pornographic text, but just thought I wouldn't want to necessarily waste my precious reading time and overburdened on deck shelf on something that doesn't have a real storyline.  Well, no, this book, while having a lot of sex and a straightforward and relatively positive perspective on sex work, is still very much a crime narrative, albeit a soft one.

Ray is a high-class pimp in Manhattan. He fell into it by accident and though very good at his job and happy with the returns, he is internally morally conflicted.  He considers himself superior to the vice racket and is aggressively resistant to calls from Nick the big time pimp in town to join up.  Because he comes from class, at least failed upper-middle class, his endgame is to go legit. He is also dating Millie, a good girl from Flushing.  It all gets very complicated when he takes on a job for Nick to set up a super-hot fallen arisocrat Cuban girl so she can make a bunch of money and bring it back home to her family.

I don't know how real or based on experience it actually is, but the portrayal of this level of prostitution at this time is very interesting and convincing. He goes into detail about how residential hotels that house young women trying to make it in Broadway, keep tabs on them and their debts and then sell their names and habits to pimps who come and convince them to meet a nice man in their room one time.  It's all very genteel and fun and the pimp covers their rent.  It escalates from there, though nowhere is there any explicit coercion or violence in this story.  

The whole story is kind of soft, from the perspective of a fan of hard-boiled fiction. A woman is murdered and planted in Ray's room and it is almost an afterthought that opens the book and then gets brushed off in a few pages.  The real story is his internal conflict with all the women he is with.  Which one will he choose? Which one will he end up with?  How will this expose the true rot in his character?

The ending is quite weird, where he marries the cuban woman utterly against his will, even though they have the best sex scene in the book.  In some innate way, he is horrified by her, because she is a whore. The book ends turning the tables by making her comfortable with what she does and he being the ultimate whore, the pimp.  An odd little morality tale.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

17. Tros (the first book of Tros of Samothrace) by Talbot Mundy

I think Ken Hite recommended this series, but it was so long ago, I can't remember.  It has been on my on-deck shelf for a couple of years at least.  It's a beautiful Tandem paperback from 1971 but the small typeface intimidated me.  I was also a bit wary of jumping into another old British saga after reading a few different takes on the Arthur myth a few years ago.  This quarantine period, however, I felt the need for more escapist fiction and took the plunge.

Tros takes place in I guess the height of Roman power, before the birth of Christ and when they were first threatening Britain's shores.  The story begins with Tros in conference with a British chieftan and his wife.  We learn quickly that Tros is Greek, a powerful fighter and expert sailor, whose father has been captured by the Romans.  In exchange for his father's life, he is sent as a scout to Britain to report back to Caesar good spots for an invasian.  He hates Caesar and the Romans. The story is about him working with and sometimes despite the Britons to doublecross Caesar and rescue his father.  Much of the narrative involves Tros meeting and getting to know the Britons, most good but reckless, a few truly good and honourable and one or two not so good.  I don't know if Mundy is actually British.  It feels like this book likes to poke a bit of good-natured fun at British culture, portraying them as quite rowdy and unable to follow directions or kowtow to authority.  So they are constantly screwing up Tros' clever plans, but once whipped into shape, show a hearty fighting spirit.

I see now I was mistaken in my fear about the density of the text. Tros is written in straightforward style and the narrative advances briskly.  It reminded me a lot of Robert E. Howard, though the individual heroics is more of a sub-text and the language less demonstrative.  It is still very much centered on the individual hero and his will and skills which help him guide lesser men and allies to unexpected success.  The philosophical counterpoint to Tros the hero are the druids and "mysteries" as exemplified by almost Gandhi like quotations at the beginning of each chapter and Tros' father, who is now a spiritual leader after a youth of battling and takes a more pacifist approach to resisting the Romans.  There is also some Asterix here, with the setting and the Romans as bad guys.  I would not be suprised if both Howard and Goscinny and Uderzo had read these books.

Friday, April 09, 2021

16. The Killing Machine by Jack Vance

I found this in a box of really nice old sci-fi paperbacks in english at the thrift store on Gilford.  Most of them really weren't my bag, but I took this one because I remembered enjoying the first and I felt I couldn't leave such a nice little find without something.  It is a pretty classic yellow-spined Daw.  I will probably have to keep it in my shelf.

I won't go into my feelings about Jack Vance's style again.  It is in full force here.  This is the second book of the Demon Princes series. They are tied together by protagonist Kirth Gersen, whose life mission is to murder the five demon princes who slaughtered his village when he was a boy.  This time he is after Kokor Hekkus, who is another one of these megalomaniac universe-spanning super villains. Vance portrays him as somehow a unique criminal character, but there is something about his use of multiple adjectives and weird systematic approaches to his criminality that makes him seem a lot like the badguy from the last book.

There is a lot of spacefaring and he goes to some cool planets. The Interchange is also a really fun concept.  Kidnapping has become so rife and successful, that someone has created a neutral place for the transfers, where the victims are kept in comfort until the payoff (or their ransom is reduced and slowly sold off to the highest bidder).  The killing machine refers to this centipede robot fort thing that looks like these giant killer centipedes on one of the planets.  It is neat in concept but only one step in a multi-faceted narrative, so not sure why it was the title.

I enjoyed the read, there were some neat parts, but again I feel so distanced from the characters that it all felt a bit cold.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

15. Burnt Sienna by David Morrell

I believe this is the third David Morell book I have read.  The other two, First Blood and Testament are dark, almost dominated by their darkness.  Burnt Sienna is pretty rough at points but it has a much more traditional men's action story arc.  There is nothing particular original here, it almost feels like a pastiche of a men's action paperback from the late 20th century, though much more meticulously crafted than those tended to be.  It does it really well, though, with a driving, muscular story and an almost mythical clash of artistic ass-kicker against psychotic megalomaniac.

Chase Malone is an ex-military helicopter pilot turned successful artist hermit, living in Mexico. A creepy guy tracks him down and offers him a tremendous sum to paint some rich guy's wife.  He refuses, as his main ideal seems to be freedom. The guy turns out to be a completely bonkers, almost cartoonishly evil black market weapons baron who won't take no for an answer. He destroys Malone's life.  Just before going for a futile revenge, Malone is contacted by his old war buddy (whose life he saved) who now works for the agency.  He convinces Malone to spy while getting his revenge.  

Ballassar the weapons lord is a great badguy.  Portrayed as completely domineering, both psychologically and physically (in his 60s, barrel-chested, he manhandles a .50 caliber machine gun), he sets Malone to paint his super beautiful wife.  His backstory is really nasty.  I won't go into the plot anymore beyond saying it keeps moving forward and takes an interesting route to its wild climax.  It's all a bit melodramatic, but everything is served out with so much vehemence and energy, that you enjoy it as part of the ride.  Nothing complex here, just a good solid action read.

Monday, April 05, 2021

14. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

I am pretty sure I bought this from the dollar bin outside of S.W. Welch.  I have read a few more travel books than I ever would have suspected.  I am not a fan by nature, but am interested in the ones that happen in times and places of the fiction I enjoy.  I think also that this was a nice Penguin paperback also motivated me to pick it up.

Wilfred Thesiger is one of those British dudes who just have to explore and in his case especially the desert.  The beginning of the book, he writes about how he felt drawn to the emptiness and the simplicity as well as the companionship that is created by difficult journeys.  Another ongoing theme is his sadness of how oil exploration and civilization will inevitably destroy the life and culture of the Bedu who live in the desert.

I don't pay close attention to geography of travel books, but I do like to have a rough idea of where people are. The maps in this book were badly printed, too dark to see the paths, so it made it hard to follow along the actual journey. The descriptions of the dunes and the limestone flats and all the varied sand and stone environments were vivid and did make me want to see them.  The hardships of their journey and the stresses were equally vivid and equally discouraged me.  I can see that despite the thirst and hunger and discomfort, there is a kind of freeing fatalism in this kind of trek.  The people of the desert, whose lives are tough, are portrayed as being very accepting of their fates when it turns bad and very appreciative of small things, such as a bit of rain that will not produce any green until the next year when they may not even be there.

Sadly, the pages started falling out of the book as I read it.