Wednesday, March 29, 2023

34. Watcher in the Woods by Geoffrey Household

Household really had a specific niche in the men's adventure fiction genre:  manhunting and tracking in the forest, particularly agricultural regions of England.  Maybe I need to read more of his books but of the three I have read, all of them had extensive tracking and stalking scenes involving pages and pages of minute detail about moving around a small area, playing a cat and mouse game with ones hunter.  I enjoy his books but don't love them as the human element is always kept at a cool distance and his badass characters so steeped in oldboy humility and reserve that it tends to lose its excitement.

I found this one at a free book box in Oakland on the way to the Temescal pool.  It's a nice hardback from Thrift books.  The story here is about a now-British of aristocratic Hungarian background who worked for the British OSS in the Second World War.  The story starts with a postman getting blown up just outside the hero's door.  At first he thinks it was a mistaken address or some terrible accident, but after some prying by his Aunt (with whom he lives), he starts to move past the denial and realize that he was most likely the target of the bomb.  We then learn that as part of his war service, he went undercover to work for the Gestapo and was stationed in Buchenwald.  This is an example of where the humanity just seems gone from Household's work.  The hero has shame and regret about that work, but those feelings are never really addressed with any passion or energy.  Though he used his role to save some important women from the death chambers, you would still think that anybody working at a concentration camp would have some serious issues and at least acknowledge the atrocity that he had experienced.  Here it is brushed off as a dark stain on his reputation and sense of self-worth.

Once he realizes that he is being hunted, he heads out to the country where he feels he will have an advantage, both because of his training (as an observer of small animals!) and because it will be harder to surprise him.  Here we get the bulk of the book which is him using different tricks that involve hiding in the forest for long periods of time or going for long walks or rides in the countryside to slowly draw out his hunter and reveal him.  This eventually works and the final climax is an endless night time stalking conflict with each having limited bullets and not wanting to fire because it would waste bullets and give away their position.  I wouldn't call it gripping, but it was kind of cool and interesting.  Maybe if you are someone who has done a lot of old school waiting hunting this stuff would seem quite realistic and technical and therefore exciting, but I really need maps to figure out what is going on so it all becomes sort of abstract.

Of course, his hunter is also a "gentleman" and by the end, each understands the other that it is almost a romance.  The last line of the book is literally them holding hands.  Though there is a real female love interest, the passion isn't quite the same level as between two gentlemen who each deeply respects the rules of the game hunting for one another.

33. One Small Step by P. B. Kerr

Jack from Dark Carnival had recommended this book to me for an xmas present for my 12 year-old nephew but it turned out he had already read it.  My nephew also strongly recommended it so I decided to hang on to it and read it to my daughter.

It's the story of a 12-year old Scott Macleod in the late 60s who turns out to be a flying prodigy.  His father, a decorated and heroic pilot and Air Force instructor, and mother, newspaper fact checker and anti-war protestor, are separated.  After a spectacular rescue landing in a jet, Scott gets tagged by NASA for a super secret space project.  It turns out they have a project to send chimps on the moon before the humans and one of them has become uncooperative, they don't have time to train another and since Scott is small and already shows the potential to be an astronaut, they want him to replace the chimp.

One Small Step is a boy who loves to fly fulfillment fantasy, as well as being an introduction to the world of flying and space and the historical period of the late 60s from an American adolescent male's perspective.  I would say it was a bit too fact-based around airplanes and how to fly them for my daughter, as she glazed over those sections.  However, the various points of drama and excitement were quite gripping. It starts out with the accident (where a goose crashes through the cockpit of the jet and knocks Scott's dad out when they are flying together) and then goes back in time and we were both quite anxious to find out what happened.

The empowerment fantasy continues as Scott is quite willful and also more ethical and caring than they scientists and doctors around him.  He takes a strong stand in protecting the chimps that is cool and later pulls an even stronger power play against the authorities.  Scott embodies the best of America, both its pride and work ethic in striving to achieve but also its disdain for authority.  We get both those poles reflected in Scott's mother and father, though the latter's impact is more apparent in the story.  His mother's strong morality we see more through Scott's actions as her actual role is sadly more restrictive and perhaps a negative stereotype of the worried mother.  The book also gets kind of spiritual and trippy by the end in a nice, subtle way that keeps you thinking.  

Sunday, March 26, 2023

32. Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

I took this book, I'll admit, purely for the cover (and it is a banger).  I wasn't even going to read it, but felt a need for a science fiction palette cleanser as I crush through my on-deck shelf of mostly mystery and thrillers.  Mindswap is of that New Wave science fiction age where the priority was on ideas over narrative, which I respect but recognize is just not to my taste.  I would add a sub-genre of "Irreverent Sci-Fi" of which I think Sheckley was one of the big players if not originator.  Elements of Irreverent Sci-Fi include tongue-in-cheek and self-referential humour, a nerdy, bemused distance from horrible things.  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Discworld would probably be two big giants.

The story here takes place in a future where you can swap minds.  Our hero, Marvin Flynn, lives in upstate New York and really wants to travel so he does a mindswap but once in the martian body and on Mars, he learns that the martian he did a swap with is a scammer and has taken off with his body while another being is owed the body he is in.  Due to legal and bureaucratic rigidity, Flynn has 6 hours to find another body before he has to return the one he is in (and effectively die).  This begins an adventure that takes us to many weird worlds, including indentured egg-hunting, a trek through the Mexican mountains, a high fantasy rebellion and eventually coming full circle.

There are some genuinely funny moments, especially the language he uses in the high fantasy one where they are always going on about their various clothing.  It's just that we basically lose track of the overall story and even worse with any semblance of worldbuilding consistency so that Sheckley can explore various "ideas" and the characters can have side discussions full of logical fallacies and nerdy constructions that are probably stimulating to some readers, but not to this one.  I'm kind of dull and structured and like my books to have a solid narrative and situational framework.  Still, I have to appreciate that Sheckley is a really good writer, his satirical representations of various genres are quite spot-on and even small situations would sometimes get me caught up (and thus disappointed since they end up having no weight or stake).  I also recognize that when this book came out in 1966 stuff like this was pretty wild and fresh for readers of the time.  We are drowning in irreverence today, so I speak from a place of privileged glut.


Friday, March 24, 2023

31. The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

Williams is not being removed from my hunting list.  This book was great.  It started out solid, well-written though the set-up seemed a pretty classic situation of the loner guy new in town who gets caught up in bad things in the town.  The main theme also seemed a bit simplistic and blatant as well; the guy is caught between the world of crime and sin that his bad side led him to and the safe legit world opportunity that the town presented to him.  However, as the story moves on, the complexity of the situation and the deeper and deeper shit he gets himself into and the really unexpected yet darker ending than I expected took this book into the upper echelon of noir fiction.

Madox is a bit of a drifter, not a super-bad guy but not great either.  After leaving the navy, he gets in a brawl in Houston so hits the road and ends up in a small town in Texas where he finds a job selling cars.  He's definitely disgruntled, arguing with his boss and spending his nights tossing and turning in his way too hot boarding house room.  Right off the bat, things get a bit weird, when he is sent with the attractive and nice young lady, Gloria, from the loan business across the street (owned also by his boss at the car lot) to go repossess a car.  The guy who bought the car is a roughneck, working as a security guard near an oil rig in the forest.  Here we get a great game-recognize-game moment and an example of some of Williams' great hard-boiled prose:

He was a big man, around six feet and heavy all the way up, and walked with a peculiar short stride which some people might have called mincing but wasn't. It was the flat-footed shuffle of a bear or a heavyweight fighter, and men who move that way are balanced and hard to push off their feet.

Sutton behaves with nasty and smug contempt towards Gloria, like he has something over her.  This is the biggest mystery of the book, but slips to the background as Madox begins to dig his hole.

First, he has an affair with the ripe, near spoiling, wife of his boss.  She is a fantastic character, coming off at first as just a bored, stupid sexpot but revealing layers of deceit and nastiness as the book goes on.  She is super hot and sexy and Madox at first can't resist and then when he can, she has the leverage on him and starts to apply it:

"I love talking to you," she said, smiling. "We understand each other so well.  You know, in a lot of ways we're just alike."

"Isn't that nice?" I said.

"Yes, I think so.  Now kiss me like a good boy, and tell me you like me better than that skinny little owl."

There was no way to kiss her like a good boy.  You could start out that way, but you always ended up on the other side of the tracks. If you hated her, it didn't make any difference; it worked just the same.

Such a great line!  Then, by chance, when there is a fire in town, he goes into the bank and finds it empty but for one old man, which sets him thinking of how he can rob the place, which he does.  This is an incredibly tense and creative scene, as the only thing that goes wrong is Mort, the old blind African-American who sells pencils on Main street, walks in and senses something wrong.  He can hear Madox's breathing and tracks him as he tries silently to sneak out of the bank. Such a great idea for the thing to screw up the robbery.  Nevertheless, Madox succeeds but then his hole only gets deeper.

He starts to actually fall in love with Gloria, and she back.  But she cleary has some twisted connection to Sutton and Madox keeps trying and failing to stop fucking his boss's wife. Everything just gets worse and worse, of course, while Gloria and Madox's love gets more and more real.  It's a great contrast of highs and lows as you read it.  The simplicity of the theme, rather than becoming obvious, gets more and more mired in the craziness of the situation.  Life keeps handing Madox opportunities to lead a great, legit life with Gloria, but he is already in so deep with all his crimes and lies that you know he's fucked.

Great book.

Addendum: I just did a bit of internet research on the movie and it looks quite good.  The casting of Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly seems quite good and it was directed by Dennis Hopper.  I'm going to check it out.  I'm a big fan of those '90s noir/thrillers anyways.  I also notice that the original title of the book appears to be "Hell Hath No Fury" which is way better.  Some idiot producer high on coke probably changed the title and Black Lizard then changed the book to get some movie sales.


<spoiler select to see>This is what makes the ending so great.  Williams totally flips the traditional noir ending, so that while Madox lives and even gets away with it, he gets completely trapped by Dolores and is forced to marry her, take over the car and loan business and go totally legit, all the while working with his love (that Dolores forced him to reject).  He even succeeds in work and life, thinking about running for town council but he is miserable and must keep his wife alive for as long as he can because if she dies, she will expose him.  Just the worst.</spoiler>

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

30. The Schoolgirl Murder Case by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson is an interesting and talented writer.  When I read a book like this one I am reminded at how skilled he was at producing a solid to excellent thriller in the conventional police genre.  I hesitated on this one because the last books of his that I read (or at least that I remember) were not so focused.  I was worried this one was going to be a bit of a rambling mess like The Philosopher's Stone.  I was glad to be wrong, as I tore through this one.  It is a very readable, straightforward and engaging procedural mystery that gets connected to black magic social circles but only the subtlest hints of any real supernatural.

The opening scene is the police at a murder scene.  A young woman has been raped and strangled and left in some trees between two houses in Hampstead.  The investigating officer on the scene Chief-Inspector Gregory Saltfleet (odd name) is the protagonist, an experienced, humane and competent detective.  He figures out a day late that what they assumed was a schoolgirl was actually a prostitute in her 20s who was dressed up as a schoolgirl.  They also check the empty house near the body the next day and discover another dead person, this time a middle-aged male, nude and half under a bed, no obvious signs of death but a look of terror on his face.  The house appears to be wiped clean of prints.  

The second victim is quickly identified, the wealthy and dissolute nephew of the owner of the house, whom we soon learn was quite a pervert and also recently interested in black magic.  Saltfleet competently and calmly starts poking around the world of the occult and local sex trafficking, centered around an occult bookstore.  The mystery itself is not super interesting but all the locations and the steady work of the police kept me engaged.  Things stay very grounded and we also get a lot of nice details of other side cases going on.  Felt like Wilson did some real research into Scotland Yard and wanted to share it with us. There is a hint of real magic, as Saltfleet meets a patron of the bookstore, a witch who does horoscopes and things get slightly freaky (and possibly sexual) back at her apartment when she has a powerful vision that leads him to a clue.  Later we learn that she had a more concrete connection to the murder, but Wilson doesn't dismiss his protagonist's spiritual connection with the witch.

I was also relieved that this book wasn't actually about murdered schoolgirls, but focused on this single case.  A solid read. I wonder if Wilson ever used Saltfleet in any other books?


29. Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette

No I did not read this book in a single day.  I've been reading it for at least a year maybe two, reading sections in between other complete books.  Surveys like this about books I am into are very challenging for me to read.  They can get repetitive and the content doesn't stick with me if I read them straight-through.  The real danger, though, is that they make me aware of all these other books I need to find and read. My overburdened hunting list and on-deck shelf (though I have cut into that this year) can not take the pressure.

I follow Andrew Nette on twitter who so often has cool recommendations and just shares great ephemera about old paperbacks and movies.  I admit to being envious to his many nice paperback finds in Australia.  They have a very different publishing world and had a much stricter censorship regime post-WWII so that there were fewer pulp books there.  Yet somehow the second-hand book stores seem much more fruitful than those we have in Canada today.  Anyhow, he is a serious student of the genre and has put together several books like this one.

Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats is organized chronologically with each broad period of paperback fiction being given an essay or two, excerpts from the books, sometimes an interview with the author and most importantly, tons and tons of beautiful full-colour images of the covers.  The essays vary in quality, some are more factually-based histories of the various writers and the genre's impact on society (and vice-versa), whereas some try for social analysis.  There were too many and too spread out for me to remember any qualities aside sadly from one negative reaction to an essay on female and youth sexuality that was just bizarre and so wrong in its simplistic political assumptions that I almost wonder if it was done deliberately in a bad attempt at tongue-in-cheek humour.  Very questionable that it was included at all. 

Don't let that minor stain colour one's impression of the overall work, which is thorough and excellent.  This is kind of a must-have for anyone with an interest in paperbacks and will fill in many gaps for collectors. I also appreciated that it had a more Australian and British perspective, which was informative for me coming from North America.

In some ways, my favourite part was the very end where they got into the social issues books that came out in the 70s and early 80s of young adults and were often sold in schools.  Books like Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack and The Chocolate War.  These were very present in my childhood, though I think I was a bit young to read them but they always represented a kind of cool, older world.  I particularly liked the work of Molly Gratton (though they were short) and will check out her blog, Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989.

You can buy this book in North America at PM Press.  You should!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

28. Enter the Dragon by Mike Roote

This was another neat gift from my friend who can't stop going to the collectible store.  It's a pretty cool little collectible it turns out and I was proud to share it on twitter when somebody else had a different version.  I wasn't too keen to actually read it, though.  Enter the Dragon is one of my all-time favourite movies.  My mom took me and my friend Mike Tanaka to see it a special double bill with The Big Brawl at the Woodgrove theatre .  We were totally into martial arts and used to practice our moves on his trampoline.  We actually had to wait about a half-hour between the two movies while they drove the reels for Enter the Dragon over from Parksville where they had been screening it earlier.  It was a truly memorable cinematic experience and I was totally into Bruce Lee for years (still am).  I had an awesome poster in my bedroom of him with the 3 cuts across his stomach from Han's bladed hand.  Enter the Dragon holds up today on so many levels. It's so tragic that Bruce Lee died before it was released because it was the success he had dreamed of and can be considered probably the most important and influential martials arts movie for western action cinema.  

So anyhow, I wasn't too keen to read a movie adaptation, until I stumbled across this article about the author, who is actually a woman named Leonore Fletcher who wrote the book from the screenplay while on speed over a weekend.  She actually had quite a successful career doing movie tie-ins which were big business back in the day (this one was a bestseller). It's really worth reading the article.  I thought I should read the book as well.

It's a fast read and is basically a scene by scene copy of the movie.  There are some changes (Bolo is Turkish and the bully on the boat is Korean and no fight in the hall of mirrors, among others) and a little bit of suggested backstory thrown in, but honestly it lacked depth which I think would have made it much richer.  I mean why not throw in some more backstory for Lee and the connection between the Brits and the Shaolin temple in past espionage work?  It kind of felt like I was reading the movie for the most part (and some of the dialogue, especially that of Williams and Han is quite good on the page too) so not all that enjoyable.  But I guess pre-VCR this was all most fans could hope for to be reminded of the movie.

There was one big difference that was quite interesting.  In the fight scene between Han and Oharra, which is one of the greatest moments in cinema history on the screen, they just have a long fight and then Oharra pulls a blade from the crowd.  Lee forces him to stab himself with it.  The movie is very different, does an excellent and creative job of demonstrating both Lee's superiority and his fury.  I wonder if that choreography came from Bruce Lee himself?   It's also way more intense and dramatic.  Jesus this all makes me want to watch the movie again.

RIP Bruce Lee.

Monday, March 20, 2023

27. The High Wire by William Haggard

This is something like the 5th or 6th Haggard I have read.  What a great discovery.  It's odd, because the only books of his I have found are these gorgeous green penguins from the 50s and 60s.  However, it turns out Haggard wrote almost 30 books going right into 1990, but I never see those later books.  I wonder if they didn't sell as well.

I would say The High Wire is one of the lesser of his books that I have read.  I kind of get the feeling he is trying for a love story as that is the narrative thread that holds together a somewhat disjointed plot.  The main actor here is Rex Hadley, recently divorced from a difficult woman (whose behaviour somehow held him back from fulfilling his full career potential as a managing engineer) is now promoted to take over the nationally important "Project A".  He is first given a week's vacation to settle down post-divorce and goes to Sestriere, a ski resort in the Italian alps.  There he meets a charming and louche aristocratic with an attractive woman who wine and dine him and he accidentally lets slip that he is now the boss of Project A.

He realizes his error the next day, and also sees the slip as a reminder that he has to tighten up his game.  However, it is enough for the aristocrat who then gets assigned to the British embassy where he sets up a blackmail play.  At the same time, his boss, Victor head of the secret service back in the enemy country (never named and not Russia) also is working with more direct action to get Hadley to talk.  Project A is only in its nascent stage, but the rumours are that it is based on a new concept that could revolutionize conventional warfare and tip the balance of power to the west.  Victor's boss is putting heavy pressure on him to find out what it is.

I say it is disjointed, but it's more that the book flows pretty evenly for the first two-thirds, seems to conclude and then has a new final act which involves Hadley now engaged to the woman he first met with the aristocrat back in Sestriere and though Victor and the aristocrats moves have been blocked, Victor comes himself for a final desperate play.  It involves commandeering a gondola (thus the title) to torture Hadley and get his info. I can't remember if Victor was a character in any of the earlier books and maybe that's why he gets this final chapter, but it felt tacked on.  There was more action than usual in this book including an attempted kidnapping via helicopter on english soil, with dogs attacking and a shootout. That was fun. So not my favourite Haggard but will look great next to the other green penguins on my shelf!

Saturday, March 18, 2023

26. Duke by Hal Ellson

There is a lot to be suspicious about here: a novel that will "awaken" you, the middle-aged white people on the cover (the protagonist is black) and the back especially that says this is a "book of proven merit".  Even wilder, I read elsewhere that there are several editions of this book with a foreword from Dr. Fredric Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame.  This edition had a prefatory note from the author that appeased my fears somewhat, only in that he clearly is trying to show us the lives of the adolescents he is writing about in an honest way and that he is genuinely sympathetic with them.  He was a social worker at a psychiatric hospital in NYC and his stories came from the stories he heard from his patients.  Still, I was dreading a Cross & Switchblade situation heading in.

Duke is an odd book in its style and structure.  The narrative is repetitive.  Duke is the leader of his gang and there is a cycle of war and peace between them and their rivals from the next neighbourhood. Duke also runs weed for a spanish dealer, making deliveries via subway and foot all over the city, especially Brooklyn.  The book is an ongoing series of these incidents without much of a larger narrative.  It's kind of a summer in the life of a kid in Harlem.  He tries to write it in the slang (it's first person), which may be authentic but feels forced and artificial (not helped by the extensive glossary at the beginning) at first.  As it goes on, though, there is a rhythm to the book.  It starts to feel almost like a poem.  You do feel for Duke and his stressful, tiring life.  

The sympathy is reinforced by the growing prominence his psychology takes as the narrative goes on.  Duke struggles with fears and anxieties.  These are quite interesting.  He hears his name being called on the streets and nobody is there.  He fears his hands are shrinking.  He sees the face of the spanish girl Gigi that he loved and whose father moved her away because he was black.  He sees a one-legged man who looks at him funny and scares him.  All these neuroses are much more terrifying to Duke than the undercover cops that are really tailing him.  At first it feels a bit simplistically Freudian, but it gets weirder and weird and he even has a full breakdown where he runs away and sleeps in the basement of a house he breaks into and then ends up with some hoboes.  His recovery is so sudden that it really does seem like he is suffering from schizophrenia that is only going to get worse.

So I hate to admit it but Duke is sort of an "awakening" book, but not in a cloying pushy way.  I would rather read this book actually written by a young black kid from Harlem for many reasons but for a white guy from 1950, this book does give you a compelling and sympathetic look into such a person's life.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

25. Marshworld by A. R. Lloyd

look at these evil mofos!
This one has been on my list almost as long as the elusive Colin Dann but I finally found it somewhere last year.  As many of you may know from years of following this blog, I am a fan and student of the sub-subgenre of intelligent farmland animal adventure fiction.  I am very pleased to find that Marshland is an excellent addition, possibly one of my favourites so far.  It's the story of Kine, the bold (and perhaps arrogant) weasel in the pastoral river valley (in the afterword we learn this is between Kent and Essex).  The only other humans are the farmer and his daughter and Poacher, the lone neighbour who knows everything about the land.  Weasel's dominance and indeed his very existence is soon threatened by a gang of nasty mink, led by their truly evil leader and den mom, Gru.

Mink are nasty!  Though (again the afterword) Lloyd explains that mink aren't actually as voracious and destructive as portrayed in the story.  They were imported from North America for their pelts and those that escaped survived and even dominated in the english landscape.  But they tend to live fairly solitary lives and hunt and protect their territory in a reasonably balanced way.  In Marshland, they are like true human colonists, slaughtering simply for the slaughter.  They massacre frogs, birds, fish and in the most brutal part, Kine's awesome mate Kia and his loving new brood of weasel kittens!  It's rough.  This book is almost like a weasel Death Wish. There is also a secondary plot about Poacher with hints of his past in the Second World War and the farmer's daughter who helps take care of him as he gets sick and old (he showed her the ways of the woods when she was young).

My one challenge with these books is that the author's are almost always english flora and fauna nerds.  They tend to go overboard with the descriptive writing and the specific species of plants, birds, insects and animals.  The latter I can generally picture but so many of the plants I have no image of at all, that it just goes right over my head.  This is the kind of book that would do well with some cool ebook where you could just put your finger on the word and it would show an image of that kind of plant. Actually, this holds true for the powered pump drainage system that I guess takes excess water from the marsh and puts it into the river. It was a crucial plot point, but I couldn't figure out how it was supposed to work so had trouble visualizing its dangers.

Despite those minor concerns, it's an absorbing and exciting book.  I am happy to learn that it is the first in a trilogy, so A. R. Lloyd stays on the list!

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

24. The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Charlotte Armstrong is another of those semi-forgotten and very good female mystery/thriller writers from the post WWII-era.  This is the last of her books that I had on my on-deck shelf after a concerted hunting effort.  I had been saving it but my 2023 focus is to reduce my on-deck shelf to zero if possible and to clear out books that have been sitting there for years (so I can buy more books!).

The Dream Walker has a novel approach.  It's not really a mystery, though there is a murder, as you know pretty much what happened in the opening pages.  The narrator Olivia, who announces herself unreliable due to the state of her health, is from a good family and an acting teacher at a girls school.  Her story is about a conspiracy to discredit her wealthy and influential uncle. The concept is relevant to today's world of disinformation.  A dissolute failson gets mixed up with a commie spy ring and it is the uncle who tips off the authorities.  By pure chance, the failson runs into a failed theatre director and together they cook up a plot with the help of two actresses to get revenge.  The idea is that one actress in New York will start passing out and having visions of herself in another place, speaking to a person in that place.  The second actress, disguised to look like the first one, actually is in that place and speaks to the person.  It is done subtly and cleverly so that it attracts little attention at first, but soon grows. The mystery that keeps you reading is exactly how this will involve the uncle.  The relevant idea is that even though many people will dismiss it as faked, it is enough to cause debate and controversy and thus doubt.

Alongside the conspiracy, there is a romantic angle, as Olivia's cousin (though not really as it is by marriage) is also investigating the visions.  This narrative I found less enjoyable and subtle as the mystery.  The cousins are always bickering and Olivia has this annoying mode of being constantly vexed by the cousin. You guess quite early on that they are supposed to fall in love and the bickering just seems odd.  I don't know, I wasn't feeling it. Her emotional insecurity contradicted her courage and cleverness in dealing with the mystery.  The climax was quite fun, with Olivia using her acting skills to turn the table on the manipulative playwright in an OTR/Suspense style that was quite fun.

So a bit of a mixed bag, but I'll give it a thumbs up for the innovative structure.

Friday, March 10, 2023

23. The Naked City by Stirling Silliphant

This was a fun, little read.  I started off thinking I was going to love it, as it had a sparse prose style, great NYC location (and love for the city) and a strong lead-in to the two main cops (the young recently promoted detective getting paired up with the hardcore but soulful vet).  It veered a little too sentimental as it went on and as it is basically the episodes written in short story format, it lacked the depth to make it truly fulfilling.  Nevertheless a quick enjoyable read that led me to the classic old school Hollywood career of Stirling Siliphant and some of his TV shows (including The Naked City which also started out as a noir feature that I want to see).

My favourite story here was SUsequehanna 7-8367 about one of the many young girls who came (and probably still come) to NYC to seek their fortune.  She installs a telephone, a big exciting step and the first thing she gets is a call from a girl asking for Larry who is then threatened and presumably murdered.  The cops believe her but don't make much of an effort to help her, so she goes out and starts investigating on her own.  It's a nice combo of cool legwork (she hunts down the telephone installer) and a spunky character.  It all ends a bit abruptly, but was fun nonetheless.  

I didn't know about Stirling Silliphant and actually have not seen very much of his large body of television and movie work.  But when you read his bio and credits, you can see how he significantly impacted much of the content I grew up on (he wrote for the Mickey Mouse Club which always had these weird adventure stories) and enjoy today.  He was from the elevated perspective on the common man school of writing and loved genre.  He was a friend of Bruce Lee and a big supporter of his career. One of those manly, cool 20th century hardcore writers.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

22. Emergence by David R. Palmer

This was a real find.  I can't even remember where I first heard about it.  It had been on my hunting list for a long time until I found it at the excellent Fireside Books in Parksville, B.C. (well worth a visit; a huge and varied stock with many paperbacks and incredibly well-organized).   Emergence is a lost and well-regarded semi-YA post-apocalyptic novel from 1985.

I probably would have loved this book if I had known about it in my adolescence.  I still quite enjoyed it as an adult but some of the plot elements and an unwanted theme of sexuality were too apparent for me to appreciate it as some still do.  Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun, with some cool ideas packaged in a novel format.  11 year-old Candida is the narrator (for most of the book), writing in a journal in Pittman shorthand.  This gives it a clipped style, generally without the subject article, which is not pleasant at first, but you get used to it.  Furthermore, she is a prodigy, which I guess Palmer equates with being a nerd, because she has this very nerdy extreme logic approach to her life.  This is kind of cool, but also in light of the heel turn that nerds took with the internet, also feels unpleasantly tech-bro.

The tech-bro stuff gets really icky and creepy with the weird need for her to think about her sexuality.  It shows up briefly in her own thoughts, but then gets disturbing when she is propositioned by almost every male character she encounters.  These propositions come in these weird, pseudo-rational offers which is supposed to be justified because these are all this new super race of post Homo sapiens, so they are all hyper intelligent.  Today this reads as the horrible new nerd-reworking of classic mysogyny.  It would be bad enough if it were just the dudes doing it (the main one being this dude in his 40s) but the Candida character herself seriously contemplates negatively and positively in this weird "rational" manner which even moral issues aside, just seemed completely out of place for an 11 year-old, not matter how intelligent.  It felt like this was some kind of fantasy of the author to meet this hyper-intelligent, soon to be hot, 11 year old ass-kicker and want to have a romantic relationship but would of course respect her wishes (which she would rationally consider).  Gross.

Getting that unfortunate business out of the way, I can say that the rest of the book was quite fun.  The apocalypse was quite clever: a lurking disease bioweapon that is only triggered by low-level radiation so that it requires bombs to be detonated above the target which do no damage, leave minimal radiation but get everywhere so there is no escape.  The concept of a new species of human was cool as well and generally an elite highly-trained 11 year old girl driving around empty North America looking for other survivors was a lot of fun.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

21. The Case of the Sun Bather's Diary by Erle Stanley Gardner

I can't remember where I found this and it is somewhat beat-up, with a nice warp to it.  This curvature and the silver pocket book edge on the binding side, made me not appreciate the cover until I was about halfway through.  It's a great, classic 50s babe on the beach painting with really fun typography, as the title is the sun and I assume hand-done as well. 

The story starts out fun, with a woman phoning Perry Mason from a phone on the 17th hole of a private golf course.  She is completely naked and needs rescuing.  How she got in that situation is soon revealed: she lived in a trailer in a hidden area in the forest behind the golf course and enjoys nude sunbathing.  While out getting a tan, somebody stole her trailer and her car.  Well things get much more complicated quickly when we learn that her father is in prison for stealing $300,000 from an armoured car transfer.  She is convinced he is innocent, as there is only circumstantial evidence in what seems like an impossible theft, given all the security protocols (the package that arrived at the destination bank contained old cheques; somehow the money had been swapped out along the way or beforehand).  Oddly, she is quite flush as her car and trailer were both new and good quality and she has ready cash to pay Mason.  And she refuses to reveal where her money comes from.

It's a neat set-up as Mason (using Paul Drake) is trying to find out the whole story at the same time as the cops and perhaps one other party while the woman keeps disappearing and being involved in suspicious situations that seem to suggest her dad did steal the money.  Halfway through, one of the suspects of the original theft is murdered and Mason and his client are both potential suspects.

It was a fun read, though the middle with a lot of Mason asking Drake questions was a bit too tell-y rather than show-y.  Also, Perry Mason himself was kind of annoying with his letter and not spirit of the law tactics to bamboozle fiery D.A. Hamilton Burger.  It almost bordered on unethical.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

20. Accordéon by Kaie Kellough

This is generally not my genre, but I thought I should get some local canlit read in my life.  This is an experimental "novel" (I think "book" may be more accurate) that is ostensibly about the appearance of the flying canoe in modern-day Montreal.  It is structured in sections of texts, each of which is no more than a page, some even being a single short paragraph.  The text is written by the "author" who is unreliable and whose identity keeps changing.  Next to most of the texts are notes by three editors from the Ministry of Culture who comment on the text and interact with each other.  They represent that benevolent bureaucracy from 20th century Canada with helpful interpretations but also suggesting some authority and rules.

The texts themselves are first person pastiches of all things anglo Montreal.  Reading them was kind of like taking all my quotidien Montreal experiences (including the people I see on the street and in stores and restaurants), blending them all up and re-ordering them into stream of consciousness rants from some guy in front of a Jean Coutu.  There is also the added idea of the Ministry, a department that is attempting to categorize and manage every aspect of Quebec culture.  This was a neat concept, but unfortunately for me, there was no real narrative and after a while I didn't see anything more happening than what was in the first quarter of the book.  Artistically, Accordéon does capture a time and place quite well, this weird limbo we anglophone expats in Montreal inhabit as well as the hauntings of the old Canadian federal bureaucracy.  However, I'm not sure to what end all this was done.

Monday, February 27, 2023

19. Hijack by Edward Wellen

I got this as a gift from a friend who hits up a neat comic and collectible store he discovered in the old garment district in Montreal North.  They have a small shelf of paperbacks which I've checked once.  It was curated with mainly fantasy and movie tie-ins; not much in the mystery genre. Worth keeping an eye on.

Hijack was a quick read, somewhat thin with a really great premise.  The language used was a little stylistic and at times it was unclear what was actually going on.  I realized afterwards that this had originally been a short story and you can tell.  There isn't enough depth of character for us to care about them enough so that I was turning the pages mainly to find out what happens (because the premise was good), but had little emotional investment.

It takes about a third of the book before the premise is revealed.  This is another flaw, because during the first third the author takes us through all these criminal machinations that are only somewhat interesting and kind of nerdy.  The mafia has a stake in a large electronics company that turns out to be furnishing equipment for a government space project.  The protagonist, a high-level mafia but not at the top, starts investigating.  We finally learn that they government has discovered that the sun will go nova within months and destroy the solar system, so they are hastily building a long-distance space station to take the leaders and their families to find a new planet.  The mafia decides to hijack the project and put their own people on it.  This is a great idea and it is kind of fun as they plan and actually do hijack it.  There is also a great twist that I saw coming (you may be able to as well).  So the last half was entertaining, but undermined by the lack of character depth and also that they didn't really push the premise to its limit.

18. The Question of Separatism by Jane Jacobs

My sister brought me this book (a beautiful first edition hardcover) as she thought I would find it interesting. I approached it very defensively, I have to admit.  I am like every right-thinking person a huge fan of Jacobs work on cities.  I was concerned, though, that as a Toronto-ite who had as far as I knew had little experience with Montreal or Quebec, she would just be one more pundit weighing in on Quebec who had never actually lived in French Quebec.  Happily and to my surprise she sidesteps this issue entirely.  This book is basically an economic analysis of all the risks and opportunities to Canada and Quebec if Quebec were to separate. Her conclusion is that while there would be some potentially difficult areas, a true separation would benefit both countries.

The initial chapter is basically a call for rationality and to remove emotion from the discussion.  She calls out both sides, though is sympathetic and understanding, for making completely unrealistic arguments and statements.  She then makes a really interesting historical argument, demonstrating that Toronto had actually started outgrowing Montreal as the major economic hub of Canada decades before the Quiet Revolution.  This was a real revelation to me as the conventional wisdom is that the french took control, started imposing language laws and all the big companies fled, thus flipping Montreal and Toronto's status. Jacobs demonstrates how mining growth in Ontario and its investment in Toronto pushed the TSX past the Montreal exchange and started to move money from the big banks in Montreal to those in Toronto. 

She then goes into the history of Norway and its peaceful separation from Sweden in the 19th century.  This chapter was really interesting as well.  I didn't know any of it, particularly that Norway had neither its own true language nor a self-identified Norwegian culture until this period.  The next chapter she argues convincingly that big or small are not definers of an economy's strength and quietly and gently rips into Canada for using it's population size as an argument for why it's economy is so fragile.  She calls it a "colonial economy", dependent on resource extraction with minimal effort in developing domestic manufacturing and small and medium-sized enterprises.  This situation has improved somewhat since 1980 when this book was written, but not much.  This is why Canada is still so keen on fossil fuels and a relatively large emitter of fossil fuels.  Also why Canada, despite some positive examples like the videogame industry (in Montreal), is still lacking in innovation.  It's really kind of depressing how we lag behind small countries like Norway when we have all the same advantages and more.  The one thing we have that they don't is a culture of small-minded penny-pinching fear of change and a powerful cabal that works to ensure they have all the money.

Anyhow, it was quite a surprise to read that Jacobs was a proponent of separation.  But when you get to the end, she makes a strong argument for diversity and then it makes sense that she would support a separate Quebec.  She argues that despite the inherent limitations of our colonial economy, a separate Quebec would create an economic diversity (layering on the existing diversity of culture and language) that would benefit both countries.  This aligns with her arguments about mixed spaces in cities.  I wonder if this book was ever translated into french and how it was received in Quebec.  According to my sister, it was not that well received in english and that in general Jacobs post-Cities works, as is typical, were poo-pooed by the Canadian literary establishment.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

17. There's Always a Price Tag by James Hadley Chase

I am not a huge James Hadley Chase fan, though always on the lookout for different editions of his famous No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  I found a small set (I think 3) of these great Corgi super 70s photo covers with the excellent big font of his name and I had to have them.  So far his books are always entertaining, but also slightly mechanical and derivative, so I have been parsing them out slowly.  I'm on a reading roll this early 2023 and working on cutting down my on-deck shelf, so it was time.

The story here is told from the perspective of Glyn Nash, a smart, good-looking guy down on his luck in a dead-end advertising job in L.A.  He is sitting in a bar when he sees a guy stumble out and blindly walk into traffic.  Nash saves him from getting hit by a car and then offers to drive him home.  The man turns out to be Erle Dester, a famous once-successful movie producer who is on the verge of drinking himself to ruin.  He offers Nash a job as his chauffeur and dogsbody for quite a good sum. Nash is reluctant until he meets smouldering hot Mrs. Dexter.  Against his better judgement, he takes the job.  He soon learns why the house has no other servants, why most of the rooms are closed off and covered in dust clothes and why Mr. Dester is drinking himself to a stupour.  Mrs. Dexter, as soon as she learned that her husband had taken out a massive life insurance policy on himself in her name, became "frigid".  And now Nash strongly suspects she is waiting for him to die.  Even more against his better judgement, he decides to try and team up with her.

This is a very procedural and more complicated take on Double Indemnity.  We have the super smart, relentless insurance investigator, but he only really comes around late in the game when everything is already going to shit.  This isn't really a morality play and if there is any kind of deep theme it's that planning an insurance scam that involves murder (even if in this case, it doesn't actually involve murder) is incredibly complex and almost certainly will fail.  The enjoyment of this book is following Nash in his planning and then stressing along with him as little things keep going wrong here and there, each not enough to totally derail the plan, so that he keeps going along with it until things of course finally do not work out at all.  The fun part is that one of the crucial elements in the plan is to put Dester's body into a deep freezer so they can take it out later and fake the actual time of death.  There is a lot that is preposterous about this plan, but it is still quite enjoyably goofy.

The ending petered out a bit as he basically just gets caught (no spoilers because he foreshadows it at the beginning) though there is a minor ironic twist a little before the very ending.  

Also, I am not sure if it is me or if Chase was relaxing his American cover a bit by this time (written in 1958) but it felt more english in style to me.  First of all, I don't think anybody was called "Glyn" in America (nor "Erle") but mainly there was a "should" instead of a "would" in the first page.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

16. The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

I found this in a free box here in Montreal in beautiful brand new non-fiction trade paperback format.  I consider myself broadly but not deeply well-informed on indigenous issues.  My work engages with many First Nations and Inuit communites and though I am not on the front lines, I have benefited from several trainings.  More importantly, I grew up on Vancouver Island and my friend's dad was a fisherman who was really close with several First Nations communities, so I was exposed to their reality early on.  I also had a buddy in elementary school from the Reserve, though sadly he did not continue with his education.  My mother was the psychologist at the Nanaimo General and would come home and talk about how racist towards the First Nations they were there. All that to say that I didn't need to read this book to know how much we in Canada fucked and are continuing to fuck the indigenous peoples here and how deep and ongoing (and often sickeningly normalized) the racism towards them is here.

The other weird thing was that just after I picked this book up, there was some news item about how Thomas King had been revealed to not be a Cherokee after all.  That put me off from reading the book, but when I went to research it, it seemed to all go away quite quietly, though his bio makes it clear that he is "not tribally recognized".  This is a very tricky subject, but just look at the guy.  I'm not going to opine too long, as if there is a sin here it is if he somehow benefited from his being or claiming Indian to get a job that another Native American might have gotten.  There are probably deeper post-modern issues as well, but I suspect the guy's dad really was Cherokee but he was raised basically as a normal white kid while knowing about his dad's background (he was raised by his mother).  Anyhow, the point is that from what I can tell his work has done a lot of good in raising awareness at least.

I was also at first a bit annoyed by the breezy tone of the book, especially all the first person and references to his wife.  But once it gets rolling, that breezy tone makes the book (and its important info) very easy to digest and sometimes quite clever and funny.  He is an older guy and wrote mainly fiction, so I totally sympathize with his struggles writing this book.  I hate to say it, but I would have to use the term "important".  It delivers a solid and brutal list of all the various mutating ways the American and Canadian governments have systematically attempted to "Kill the Indian" since the European colonists first arrived.  What's clever about the book is that it frames it in the broader argument that it is basically all about getting the land (and the resources therein) and basically trying to eliminate the Indian as an annoying (inconvenient) problem blocking progress.  So you see all the various phases of government policy with different names and tactics but all basically boiling down to the same end goal.  His tone is light throughout and thank the Gods because even with that, it is some brutal and infuriating reading.

He does end on a somewhat positive note (though with many qualifiers), discussing the Alaska and Nunavut treaties.  As I read this, I can hear the pro-oil and logging fucks going on about the economy and jobs.  At what point do we take capitalism's cock out of our mouth and find a way to live on this planet without consuming every last molecule so we can have two cars and get likes on instagram?  This book is a strong reminder that we can create a world where our priority is well-being and not profit and a huge part of that is truly redressing the wrongs of colonialism giving power back to the indigenous people of the land here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

15. Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren

I have mixed feelings about this book.  My first concern was that I was surprised to discover that it is a collection of short stories, not a novel.  My second concern is that though it is about criminals and the underworld (mostly urban) of the 30s and 40s, it is a bit too literary for me.  It doesn't read like someone telling stories, but rather someone trying to get some ideas and feelings off about downtrodden people or something. It's just not my jam.

On the positive side, Algren is a great writer.  The locations and situations of the petty criminals and losers of Chicago are rich and well told.  There is lots of drinking and fighting (his boxing scenes are really good; detailed and punishing). Prostitution at the lowest levels is standard work for most of the women characters.  The men are all stealing or up to some kind of scam.  Everything is quite depressing.  There are few scenes of redemption or happiness and they are of the humblest sort, such as the boxer who loses the fight he was supposed to throw even though he doesn't want to and learns that his girl bet all of his payout on him.  They lost it all, but are happy because they still love each other.  Most of the stories are just sad.

I think what bugged me was that deep down underneath all these stories, though they are portraying a reality that didn't tend to get written about in literary journals, are basically moralistic.  Nobody is going to get out of their situation and it kind of feels like they aren't supposed to.  They definitely aren't supposed to get any pleasure out of their lot.  I wasn't around in Chicago's poorest neighbourhoods in the thirties and forties and glad I wasn't but I do feel despite the poverty, there were probably moments of happiness and joy for the people lived there.  You wouldn't get that from Neon Wilderness.


Friday, February 17, 2023

14. Chanur's Homecoming by C.J. Cherryh

This is the fourth (and penultimate) book in the Chanur series, which I found in quite good condition at Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver.  Unfortunately, as usual, I didn't treat it so well as I carried it from Montreal to Berkeley to Austin and especially on the plane dinged up the cover and edges pulling it in and out of an over-stuffed backpack.

I really could not remember where we had left off from The Kif Strikes Back, but there is an excellent summary chapter at the beginning that not only lays out the previous storyline, but also gives good summaries of the various characters and species.  Still, it took me a good 80 pages of the first 400 to really get caught up with who is who and what was going on.  This series is complicated!  You have 4 oxygen-breathing species who though can be thought of as sort of animal-equivalent (the feline Hani, the simian mahendo-sat, the insect-like Kif and the avian-ish Shtsho) are each complex enough in their depiction and language that that simplification isn't too helpful.  Also, humans get added to the mix, though we never get their point-of-view nor a clear understanding of what their space empire is actually like beyond that there are 3 warring governments and they may have some relatively high tech for space travel.  There are also 3 mysterious methane-breathing species, hard to know because their language is almost unintelligible for the protagonist Hani and one, the knnn, that nobody seems to know anything about other than they are super powerful and just show up and take stuff and leave other stuff behind (which is better than just destroying everything by taking it apart which they did before).

I'm sort of impressed with myself that I got all the above without referencing it on the internet.  It's also a testament to Cherryh's writing skills that she can get this to the reader while delivering the narrative.  She does it with very little exposition, though does rely heavily on Captain Pyanfar Chanur's inner monologue.  All these species are fighting/negotiating/scheming/allying with each other while also having their own internal political struggles.  Language and culture are also major factors so you have not only representatives of each species trying to interact with each other for their various ends, but they also can't understand each other or misinterpret behaviours.  We as readers are not given any omniscience, so we also are trying to parse the limited pidgin of the mahendo'sat or the hissing menace of the kfff and even the maybe 2 dozen human words the Hani interpreter software can badly translate.  It makes for a tough read, but it feels very real.  If you want a rich setting with multi-species space politics as it might play out in a "realistic" way given the limitations of cultures and languages, this book delivers.  Even though it was written in the late 80s, it does not feel anachronistic or coming out of that period.  Likewise with the actual space travel and hyperspace jumps (though the mechanicalness of it all might be a bit 80s).

The basic plot here is that it turns out the mahendo'sat have been playing two warring factions of the kfff against each other while secretly allying themselves with the humans (who turn out to be much more powerful than previously though).  Their big play involves driving the kff towards the Hani homeworlds to hem them in, but also putting those homeworlds at risk.  Pyanfar has to figure this out by playing a delicate game of diplomacy and then by a brutal race of hyperspace get back to protect her homeworld while also dealing with another Hani backstabber and her people's own worldbound and conservative politics whose rigidity may doom them all.

I struggled with the political shiftings as I couldn't always figure out what Pyanfar herself was figuring out. Likewise, the science of the hyperspace jumps with their "V"s and their nadirs confused me.  Nevertheless, it was a real page-turner and quite stressful.  It was actually a bit too stressful and anxiety-ridden at times for me with so much internal monologue, constant fretting and exhaustion.  You are wrung out but satisfied by the end.  I'm still skipping several other layers of nuance, like Pyanfar's husband the first male in space being on the ship and her having a kff on the ship with her and its dinner strange little rodent things escaping into the ship and causing damage.  There is a lot!  The coda, where a young male spacer gets lost and accidentally encounters his hero (because thanks to her male Hani are allowed in space now) was just great.

This stuff is for real sci-fi nerds, and if you are one, I think it is fair to call it a classic.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

13. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Mine didn't have the slipcover
I found this in a Berkeley free box, an old Library of Berkeley discard with an inscription to somebody's grandmother.  I had finished the small books I brought for this trip and was looking for something I wouldn't want to take back with me, so this was perfect.  Plus, these Sabatini books had been huge favourites of my mother and uncle when they were young, so much so that they fought bitterly over them, and she asked that I leave it behind.  The only problem was that I ran out of time and had just finished the penultimate chapter when my ride to the airport arrived.  Fortunately, Captain Blood has been in the public domain for some time and was easily found on Project Gutenberg.  So I read the satisfying final chapter on my laptop in the airport.

It's funny because this is the second book this month where a decent man gets kidnapped and thrown on a boat to the new world.  In Captain Blood, the politics are forefront.  In treating a wounded nobleman who fought in the failed rebellion against Catholic King James, Blood is arrested for treason.  Instead of being hanged, the set of prisoners with which he is charged are sent to the new world colonies as slaves.  The brutality is notable.  This book was considered a populist entertainment of the time.  The treatment of the slaves, in this context, is a harsh reminder of how the "civilized" world used to be, even to their own race. 

Fortunately, for Peter Blood, his skill as a doctor (and his far superior bedside manner) slowly gets him excused from the killing toil of the rest of the slaves.  Here we meet the nemesis of the book, the cruel bastard plantation owner Colonel Bishop, as well as the love interest, his niece Arabella.  Blood, with the interested help of the other two doctors (who are envious of his success) escapes with a bunch of slaves and begins a life of piracy.  The narrative is a serial of piratic battles and adventures that would make a great TV series.  Eventually, it all circles back to Colonel Bishop (with a middle interlude defeating a Spanish admiral) with a most satisfying conclusion.  All these adventures are fun, though at times some of the story felt a bit eluded.  I will keep Sabatini on my hunting list.

Monday, February 06, 2023

12. The Asphalt Jungle by W.S. Burnett

A small note that I put inside this book says that I purchased it at The Monkey's Paw bookstore in Toronto in August '12!  I feel that has to be a mistake on my part as I do remember finding this there and buying it but it can't have been over ten years ago.  I have no record on my blog of the purchase that I can find from that year.  I'm starting to think that I may have transposed the numbers and it was actually the summer of 2021 when I got it (and I was in Toronto then).  

Anyhow, on to the book.  I actually was going to read this phat phantasy novel that I had bought for my brother-in-law for xmas and which he had rejected because he couldn't get into the prose.  I too found it a terrible slog and had to abandon it about 50 pages in.  I have not done that in ages, if ever!  Very discouraging.  So I was very happy to jump into The Asphalt Jungle, which begins with a pretty clear situation and solid prose.  A large midwestern city (which I assumed to be Chicago but then one of the characters runs away to Chicago later in the book) is rife with corruption and has just brought on a new, no-nonsense commissioner who is going to clean it up. The framing device is an old, cynical journalist who decides to give the commissioner a chance. Soon, though, we zoom in to the real story.  An unassuming, German-American, master criminal has just been released from jail with a promising big heist already planned.  He just needs a string and a sponsor.  

Burnett does a fantastic job of bringing us into the milieu and the people of the criminal underworld (and not so "under" with most of the cops on the take and semi-legitimate bookies operating almost in the open).  The hub is a little greasy spoon counter and magazine stall run by Gus, a tough, connected well-respected hunchback (and driver when needed).  He leads Riemenschneider to a great cast of characters, Louis the tool guy trying to go legit, Cobby the money man who is also connected to a big-time defense lawyer Emmerich who has the real money and finally Dix Hendley, the hard southern hick tough who is wavering about his career and his feelings for Doll, the aging nightclub girl.

The entire middle of the book is just clean, efficient criminal machinations as they plan the heist and execute it.  It's great.  Of course, it goes pear-shaped for a variety of reasons and we watch as each character meets their fate.  The bigger idea is that each guy had a flaw that brought them down, but what actually happens is a bit more complex and therefore more interesting. Ultimately, the main thread is competent Dix who really just wants to get back to his family's farm.  This gets a bit heavy and maudlin at the end, but still moved me.