Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil -- Jeff Smith

I first heard of Captain Marvel when a friend of mine in junior high sold me some Golden Age comics he had collected. There were several issues of WHIZ COMICS in the batch, and although I enjoyed them, I never tried to accumulate any more of them. Later, of course, DC Comics brought back Captain Marvel in a series now entitled SHAZAM!, after the secret word the character said to transform from young Billy Batson into the stalwart superhero who bore a not-so-coincidental resemblance to Fred MacMurray. I read those, I read the occasional reprinted story from the Golden Age, and I even watched the Columbia movie serial that starred Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel.

Now I’ve read yet another incarnation of the character, as Jeff Smith, the creator of the series BONE (which I’ve heard of but never read), has retold Captain Marvel’s origin and tied it in with a retelling of his most famous Golden Age story, the epic battle against the sinister Mr. Mind and the Monster Society of Evil. That was the first real continued story in comic books, back in the early to mid-Forties, and it just so happens that one of the Golden Age issues I got my hands on in junior high featured a chapter from that long epic. So I already knew the secret of Mr. Mind.

That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the hardback reprinting of Smith’s four-issue miniseries, though. It’s great fun. The artwork stops just short of being too cartoony. I’m not sure I agree with the decision to make Billy Batson and his long-lost sister Mary so young, and I didn’t care for the political angle that Smith added to the plot, but those are minor points. All in all the story has a nice breathless enthusiasm that’s matched by the art, and there’s hardly a bit of angst to be found. If you’re a fan of the Golden Age Captain Marvel, I think you’ll enjoy this one. I certainly did.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The January Corpse -- Neil Albert

I read this book for one reason: Kevin Burton Smith wrote eloquently about it on the Rap Sheet a couple of weeks ago, in a post that was part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books blog project, and it sounded interesting. I’m glad he did, because I enjoyed THE JANUARY CORPSE quite a bit.

Dave Garrett is a disbarred lawyer now working as a PI in Philadelphia. He’s hired to investigate the disappearance of another lawyer seven years earlier, not to find out what happened but simply to provide evidence in a presumption of death hearing in which the missing man’s family is trying to have him declared dead. It quickly becomes obvious to Garrett that more is going on, though, as mobsters try to scare him off the case and other strange things crop up, like a hundred grand in missing money.

The author of this first novel, Neil Albert, does a pretty good job of making the reader think this is going to be a very generic first-person private eye yarn, then layering in some unusual elements that elevate it to a higher level. It’s difficult to talk about them without ruining the plot, so I’ll just recommend that you read the book yourself if you come across a copy. All the reviews quoted on the book talk about the huge twist at the end, and for what it’s worth, I picked up the clues Albert plants right away and saw it coming very early on. You probably will, too. But it’s still something you don’t come across very often, if ever, in a PI novel, and Albert succeeds in creating such a likable narrator that this is one of those rare occasions when figuring out the plot ahead of time didn’t make me stop reading. There are several other novels in this series and I don’t know yet if I’ll read them or not, but I liked THE JANUARY CORPSE. It’s a worthwhile Forgotten Book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spiderweb -- Robert Bloch

SPIDERWEB is the other half of the recent Robert Bloch double from Hard Case Crime. (Yes, I’m reading a lot of HCC books these days, for some reason – like they’re good.) I enjoyed SHOOTING STAR, but SPIDERWEB is a darker, better book, I think.

The narrator is Eddie Haines, a radio announcer from the Midwest who heads to Hollywood in the early Fifties with the intention of being a success as a TV show producer, or an announcer if he can’t sell his pitch for a TV series. Of course, neither of those goals works out, and he’s on the verge of killing himself in despair when he meets Professor Otto Hermann, a “psychological consultant” to the movie community who’s actually a swindler and conman. Hermann recruits Eddie to join his group of henchmen and gives him a new identity as the author of a successful self-help book. Eddie realizes that the professor is a crook and that he’s turning into a crook himself, but everything still goes along fine until the professor decides to target a state senator for blackmail and use the senator’s niece as part of the plot. It just so happens that Eddie has fallen in love with the niece . . .

In noirish fashion, things get worse from there, as Eddie tries to do the right thing but it won’t quite seem to work out. Bloch keeps the story perking right along, but under the smooth prose and snappy patter is a pretty bleak look at Southern California and gullible humanity itself. SPIDERWEB is a fine novel, and Hard Case Crime has done a good thing by bringing it back into print.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Few Words from Bill Pronzini

Last Friday I posted about DAY OF THE MOON, a novel by Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann. Here’s some more information about the book, from Bill himself.

You're right that Flagg was intended to be a series character. The novel was originally sold to Leisure here, but never published because of a change of regime and policy; Wallmann and I were lucky to sell it to Hale in the U.K. And to have Carroll & Graf do a U.S. mass market edition, all thanks to Ed G. (Incidentally, MOON is composed of three novelettes, two from AHMM, one from MSMM, that we bridged together and revised into the novel format. There's one other Flagg novelette from AHMM that we planned to use as the basis for a second novel and that has never been reprinted or collected.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Few Movies


I tried to tell Joanna that this was an inspirational, heartwarming, based-on-a-true-story sports movie, but she wasn’t buying it. Of course not. I mean, Will Ferrell and Jon Heder figure skating? That’s really all you need to know about this movie to decide if you might like it. It’s crude, goofy, and silly. In other words, I am the target audience for this one. It’s no TALLEDEGA NIGHTS, mind you, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.


Shayna and Joanna wanted to see this one because it was filmed on the campus of our mutual alma mater, the University of North Texas. (Actually, it was North Texas State University when I went there.) It’s a pretty good little sports comedy about the usual gang of misfits coming together to learn from each other and prove som
ething, in this case that they can actually win a game. No championships here, just a more modest goal. But there are some funny lines and we enjoyed seeing all the places that we know so well. Well enough, in fact, that at one point in the movie as Scott Bakula (who plays the quarterback) gets in his jeep and drives out of a dorm parking lot, Joanna and I both said, “Hey, he turned the wrong way.” You see, that’s a one-way street in front of Kerr Hall.


Saving the best for last (even though we watched it before the movies mentioned above), Joanna wants to
see the new Indiana Jones film, but she’d never seen any of the others. So we watched this the other day and I thoroughly enjoyed it – again. I’ve seen it numerous times and always enjoy it. This time I was struck by how stylistically similar it is to the movies of the Thirties and Forties. I know that’s what Spielberg and Lucas were shooting for, but they really nailed it for most of the movie. It’s a really pure film – not much CGI, especially by today’s standards, and great stunts performed by real people without all the modern-day quick-cut editing that geezers such as myself don’t like. In fact, I realized watching the movie now that I don’t like the big finale as much as I do the rest of it because it’s so much more SFX-laden. As gosh-wow as it was, especially watching it in a theater back in 1981, I sort of wish they’d found some other way to do it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Money Shot -- Christa Faust

Angel Dare is a retired porn star who runs a talent agency for the adult film business in Los Angeles. She thinks she’s doing a favor for an old friend who’s a director when she agrees to appear in one last film for him. Unfortunately, what she’s really doing is getting mixed up in a dangerous mess involving stolen money, mobsters, prostitution, and lots and lots of killing.

I’d read a lot of positive reviews of this Hard Case Crime novel by Christa Faust (who won the Scribe Award last year for her novelization of SNAKES ON A PLANE), and when I opened it up I found that it’s dedicated to Richard S. Prather, one of my all-time favorite authors. So I was predisposed to like MONEY SHOT. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how good it really is. The plot’s pretty straightforward, with only a few minor twists, but what a voice Faust gives to Angel Dare. The writing propels the action forward at the most compelling pace of any book I’ve read recently and makes the characters come to life. The reader really cares about what’s going to happen to Angel and the few other sympathetic characters and roots for the villains to get what they deserve.

Given the plot, there’s a lot of sex and violence in this novel, of course, but it’s necessary for Faust to tell the story she wants to tell. Still, if that sort of thing bothers you, it might be best for you to skip MONEY SHOT. Otherwise, I give it my highest recommendation. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: Day of the Moon -- Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann

As far as I can tell, DAY OF THE MOON has been published in only two editions, a 1983 British hardback from Robert Hale and a 1993 paperback reprint from Carroll & Graf, making it a perfect candidate for the Friday’s Forgotten Book project. It’s a dandy little crime thriller, tightly plotted as you’d expect from a couple of old pros like Bill Pronzini and Jeff Wallmann and written in terse, hardboiled prose that’s a joy to read.

Flagg (we’re never told his first name) is a troubleshooter for the mob, here known as the Organization. He’s headquartered in San Francisco. As the book opens, he’s looking for the loot from an armored car robbery which has disappeared following some sort of double-cross that left the planner of the heist dead. That job isn’t the only one Flagg has on his plate, though. He’s also investigating a series of hijackings involving trucks and merchandise owned by the Organization, including some moonshining equipment. That ties in with Flagg’s third assignment, which is to find the bootlegger who’s trying to muscle in on the Organization’s illegal liquor operation in the Pacific Northwest. Not surprisingly, the armored car robbery winds up being connected to Flagg’s other two jobs as well.

Flagg reminds me a lot of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker in his low-key professionalism and also in the fact that the reader winds up rooting for him despite the fact that he’s a criminal. He actually comes across as a private eye of sorts, except his only client is the Organization. He shies away from violence, although he’s plenty tough when he has to be, and prefers to rely on his brain rather than a gun. He needs both, though, to untangle this complicated plot. I’m not aware of any other books or stories featuring Flagg and don’t know if he was intended to be a series character, but he certainly could have been. DAY OF THE MOON is a fine, enjoyable novel. One of the reviews quoted on the cover of the paperback refers to it as a “good, old-fashioned page-turner”, and that’s exactly what it is.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Streak - Max Brand (Frederick Faust)

By the time Frederick Faust wrote this novel (which was originally serialized in ARGOSY), he had been turning out Westerns for almost twenty years, and it shows because this is a clever twist on just the sort of plot that he’d been using for a long time. The typical Faust hero is a larger-than-life figure, able to outshoot and outfight any enemy, and of course he can tame the magnificent killer horse that no one else can even approach, let alone ride.

To the people of Jasper Valley, that’s a good description of The Streak, who quickly becomes a legend when he first arrives in the valley, interrupting a hold-up and sending seven outlaws fleeing for their lives.

The reader knows, though, even if the citizens of Jasper Valley don’t, that The Streak is really just easy-going cowboy Blondy Torrance, and his outlaw-taming is nothing more than luck and exaggeration by those who witness it. Likewise with his taming of the wild stallion Rocket. The Streak is a typical Faust hero on the surface, but a sham underneath. The same as in Coburn’s BARB WIRE, the fact that Faust sets this novel in contemporary (to him) times, with automobiles, telephones, and phonographs, provides even more contrast between the mythological Old West that Faust mined for so much of his fiction and the reality of a developing West where the real estate speculator was rapidly replacing the rancher. In the end, THE STREAK is as much a hardboiled mystery as it is a Western, as two of Blondy’s cowpoke friends try to solve a murder for which The Streak is blamed.

Despite the satirical overtones, there’s plenty of action in this book. Blondy eventually does find something of a heroic nature inside him. No modern reader will be surprised by that, or by the identity of the murderer, who seems pretty obvious from the first. But this is still one of the best Faust novels I’ve read, with some keen observations on the nature of legends versus reality and some fine dialogue. Faust wrote like no one else ever did, and most of his strengths are on display here. (Thanks to Bill Crider, who sent me the copy I read.)

(This review also originally appeared in OWLHOOT.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Barb Wire -- Walt Coburn

Walt Coburn has to be one of the most inconsistent Western writers I’ve ever encountered. STIRRUP HIGH, his fictionalized memoir of growing up on one of the largest cattle ranches in Montana during the early 20th Century, is one of the best books of its type that I’ve read. Many of his hundreds of stories published in the Western pulps are excellent. But at the same time, many of his stories are terrible, mostly from the late Forties on, when he began having more of a problem with alcohol. And his novels, to me, are seldom as good as his shorter works, because the longer length provides more of an opportunity for his weaknesses to surface.

BARB WIRE, one of Coburn’s early novels, is a mess. Highly entertaining in places, but still a mess. The plot is a simple one: A villain from back east encourages farmers to move into ranching country, knowing this will provoke a cattlemen vs. nesters range war, after which, when both sides are wiped out, the bad guy can move in and take over. Certainly that plot wasn’t as old in 1931, when the book came out, as it is now, but it had whiskers even then.

BARB WIRE is set in the 20th Century, complete with telephones and cars, and that allows Coburn to indulge in one of his favorite themes, the passing of the Old West and the end of ranch life as the old-timers knew it. The other dominant theme in his work is the resurfacing of complications that have tragic origins in the past. Coburn can give Ross Macdonald a run for his money when it comes to this element of his plots.

And ultimately that causes most of the problems in BARB WIRE, because Coburn crams dozens of characters into the story, all of them with at least one melodramatic connection with the other characters. You’ve got your nominal hero, rancher’s son Buck Rawlins, who’s in love with Colleen Driscoll, the daughter of Bob Driscoll, the former partner but current enemy of Dave Rawlins, Buck’s father, who were both friends with Uncle Hank Mayberry, the local banker whose son-in-law is in cahoots with the Evil Easterner. Buck thinks that Colleen is in love with Bill Murdock, whose father Angus Murdock is hated by the cattlemen because he raises sheep (you knew there had to be some sheepherders in here somewhere) and is blamed for a murder and a prairie fire really caused by, you guessed it, the henchmen of the Evil Easterner. Then you’ve got the Nighthawk, a dashing and good-hearted outlaw who used to be a cowboy but now robs trains because he hates the railroad because he blames it for the deaths of his father and brother, and of course the Nighthawk is also friends with Buck Rawlins and is opposed to the schemes of the Evil Easterner. Not to forget the psychotic gunslinger who has a hook in place of his left hand, a despised son who wants to be a preacher, and an old enemy who was thought to be dead but is really still alive and working for, who else, the Evil Easterner.

I’m sure you get the idea by now. There’s just too blasted much going on in this book, and while Coburn keeps his various plot threads under control well enough so that the reader never gets lost, after a while it’s exhausting keeping track of things. Coburn’s tendency to every so often drag in some new characters from out of left field complicates matters even more.

Despite all of that, however – or maybe because of it – the book does have an epic feel, and it’s packed full of very stirring and well-written individual scenes, too, with a lot of operatic, over-the-top action. A real sense of authenticity comes through, as well. The plot may be a little unbelievable, but the details of ranching life in Montana come across as completely realistic. All of it wraps up with a poignant and very effective ending. So if you come across a copy of BARB WIRE and decide to read it, I certainly wouldn’t advise you not to. Chances are you’ll be entertained. Just be prepared for a certain amount of goofiness as well. (This review was originally published in OWLHOOT, the Western apa. If any of you are interested in joining, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the right person.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Diet of Treacle -- Lawrence Block

Like LUCKY AT CARDS, A DIET OF TREACLE is a Hard Case Crime reprint of an early, pseudonymous novel by Lawrence Block. In this case, the book was originally published by Beacon Books in 1961 under the title PADS ARE FOR PASSION and the pen-name Sheldon Lord. It’s the story of Joe, Shank, and Anita, three young people who become involved in the hipster drug scene in Greenwich Village circa 1960.

Unlike LUCKY AT CARDS, the crime element in this novel is fairly slight, unless you want to count all the pot-smoking and drug-dealing. The main criticism that’s been leveled at A DIET OF TREACLE in the reviews I’ve read is that not much happens. That’s certainly true. Most of the book is taken up by the back-stories of the characters, and the event that you’d think would ignite most of the action in a book like this doesn’t occur until very late in the plot, and from that point on things feel rather rushed, especially after the leisurely pace of the rest of the novel.

Which isn’t to say that A DIET OF TREACLE isn’t worth reading. It certainly is. As it was from the beginning of his career, Block’s prose is so smooth that it’s a joy to read. None of the characters are very likable, but he fleshes them out so skillfully that you want to find out what happens to them anyway. And he provides a nice verbal snapshot of a particular time and place. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say how accurate that portrait is, but it certainly feels realistic. So I can recommend A DIET OF TREACLE, just don’t go into it expecting to read a hardboiled crime novel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Longarm Covers

It occurs to me that with everything that's been going on this year, it's been a while since I posted any Longarm covers. Here are a couple of recent books in the series that I can highly recommend. The outline for LONGARM AND THE HANGTREE VENGEANCE was written in longhand on hotel stationery at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin a couple of years ago. The title for LONGARM AND THE PINE BOX PAYOFF was given to me by my daughter Shayna, and since the plot grew directly from that, she deserves some of the credit (or blame, as the case may be). Anyway, I think they're both pretty darn good books.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

27 Dresses

Before we watched this, my daughter asked, “Are you going to write your usual blog post about how you’re not really the target audience for this movie?”

Well, what can I say? I’m not the target audience for this movie. Nothing Blows Up Real Good. Heads don’t roll. Nobody gets nekkid. Instead you get a sweet little romance – Katherine Heigl is the perpetual bridesmaid who takes charge of all her friends’ weddings; James Marsden is the cynical reporter who’s writing a story about her without her knowing about it – plus the occasional mildly amusing line and Heigl dancing on a bar to “Bennie and the Jets”. Come to think of it, I guess that’s enough reason to devote a couple of hours to watching this one.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday's Book You Have to Read: The Siamese Twin Mystery -- Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen is probably my favorite of the so-called Golden Age of Detection authors. I’ve read most of the books that were actually written by Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the cousins who were the creators of the Queen pseudonym and the Ellery Queen character, as well as some of the later, ghosted books. I’ve never read a bad one among the Dannay/Lee books, and I’ve liked all the ghosted ones I’ve read, too.

But my favorite Ellery Queen novel is THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY, so that’s the book I’ve chosen to write about this week in another installment of The Books You Have to Read. I enjoyed the Queen books for their elaborately constructed puzzle plots and for the characters of Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen. THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY, originally published in 1933 but readily available in paperback reprints from the Sixties and Seventies, adds some elements that aren’t all that common in the other Queen novels. It’s a little more bizarre than most, with a plot that includes a scientist who may or may not be mad and an isolated mountain lodge for a setting rather than Manhattan or Hollywood or even the small town of Wrightsville, the locations of most of the other Queen novels. Mainly, though, what THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY succeeds in doing like no other Queen novel I’ve read is creating an almost unbearable feeling of suspense that really had me flipping the pages when I first read it about forty years ago. Dannay and Lee don’t let up on that suspense, either, until the very last line of the book, which I’ve never forgotten even after all this time. I really don’t know how the plot holds up now, since I haven’t reread it in a long time, but I do know I enjoyed the heck out of this book.

Since it is rather atypical, THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY might not be the best place to start if you’ve never read an Ellery Queen novel . . . but if you’ve never met Ellery and his dad, you really ought to.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mind Games -- Merline Lovelace

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book from the Nocturne line, Silhouette’s series of paranormal romantic suspense novels. Merline Lovelace’s MIND GAMES is a very entertaining novel, although to be honest it’s not all that paranormal, reading more like an espionage/action/adventure yarn. Taylor Chase is an Air Force captain sent in undercover to rescue a scientist who’s being held captive on a tropical island belonging to a reclusive, sinister billionaire, and helping her out is an old boyfriend of hers, a professor who specializes in psychic research. I knew from previous books of hers I’ve read that Lovelace is a really good storyteller with the ability to create likable characters and keep a story moving along at a fast clip. She certainly does that here. I raced right through MIND GAMES and had a good time doing it. It’s romantic, it’s suspenseful, and Stuff Blows Up Real Good, always a plus.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Avalon -- Francis Stevens

Avalon is a family name in this long-forgotten pulp novel, not a place. Originally serialized in ARGOSY in September and October of 1919, it takes place on a group of isolated islands off the coast of South Carolina. In pre-Revolutionary times, these islands were granted by the King of England to the Avalon family, who still rule them as a sort of feudal fiefdom despite the presence of a few modern items such as automobiles, gasoline launches, and wireless communication with the mainland.

The current master of Five Isles is Florence “Flurry” Avalon, who is a rugged male despite his feminine name. Avalon is seldom in residence there since he also runs a coffee plantation in South America, but his sister and younger brother live in Cliff House, the ancestral family residence which serves as this novel’s version of The Old Dark House . . . because that’s the kind of story this is, filled with secret passages, villainous Spaniards, shipwrecked survivors, mobs of torch-bearing villagers, unexpected shots in the night, and love at first sight between Avalon and one of the passengers from the wrecked schooner who show up at Cliff House.

The author of AVALON is Francis Stevens (the pseudonym of Gertrude Bennett), who also wrote some early weird thrillers such as THE LABYRINTH and THE CITADEL OF FEAR. I’ve read THE LABYRINTH and thought it was okay up to a point. AVALON lacks as many weird elements, but its plot holds together better and overall I enjoyed it quite a bit. Yes, it’s melodramatic, and its style is so old-fashioned that it might be off-putting to most modern readers. But if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, the story moves along at a good clip and some of the writing holds up well. It’s due to appear in a reprint edition later this year from Beb Books, and if you enjoy early pulp thrillers, you might want to give it a try.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Condemned

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you may remember that I thought THE MARINE, starring John Cena, was a pretty good rassler-turned-action-hero movie. Now we’ve watched THE CONDEMNED, starring Stone Cold Steve Austin (although he’s billed now as just plain Steve Austin, probably a good move on his part), another WWE superstar.

Austin plays Jack Conrad, an American locked up on Death Row in a South American prison. A sleazy millionaire rounds up violent convicts from all over the world, takes them to a remote South Pacific island, and turns them loose so they can run around and kill each other, with freedom going to the sole survivor. Outwit, outlast, outplay, indeed. And of course the millionaire plans to broadcast the whole thing live on the Internet to an audience that will equal the size of the one for the Super Bowl.

With a long-in-the-tooth set-up like that, a movie needs a smart, witty script, some unexpected plot twists, or preferably both to be very good. THE CONDEMNED doesn’t really have either of those things, so I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good as THE MARINE. What it has going for it are Austin’s impressive physical presence, some nice photography, and a decent supporting performance from the dependably offbeat Rick Hoffman. It’s certainly watchable, but you’ll know everything that’s going to happen in the movie long before it gets there.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Zero Cool -- John Lange

I remember seeing the original editions of this book and others by John Lange, who was really Michael Crichton, but even though they seem like the sort of book I would have read back in the Sixties and Seventies, somehow I never got around to them. Now with Hard Case Crime bringing some of the John Lange titles back into print, I get a chance to read them without having to hunt up those pricey original editions.

ZERO COOL is more of a thriller than a mystery, although its protagonist, radiologist Peter Ross, has plenty of mystifying things to figure out during the course of the book. He’s in Spain where he’s supposed to present a paper at a medical convention, when he gets involved with a beautiful young Englishwoman, assorted Spanish and Italian and Arab villains, an American who wears buckskins like a frontiersman, and a corpse that goes missing after Ross is kidnapped and forced to perform an unorthodox surgical procedure on it. Everything is fast and breezy and a little over-the-top from the get-go, and the book becomes more bizarre as it goes along. I should have loved it.

But from all the good reviews I’ve read, I seem to be the only person who didn’t care much for this book. It’s not bad, mind you. I found it to be sort of entertaining, but I didn’t care much for the hero and despite the fast pace of the prose itself I thought the plot took ’way too long to develop. The first half of the book is a bit repetitious with the various gangs of hoodlums taking turns kidnapping and/or threatening Ross. The second half, where things actually start to move the story forward, is better. But Ross is still a dumb and not very sympathetic hero.

I enjoyed ZERO COOL enough so that I’ll certainly read Hard Case’s other John Lange reprint, GRAVE DESCEND, which I also have. I hope I like it better.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: Seven Faces -- Max Brand

This week I’m participating in Patti Abbott’s The Books You Have to Read blog project, and the book I’ve chosen to write about is Max Brand’s SEVEN FACES. Most of you who are familiar with Max Brand’s work know him as a Western writer, but Brand, whose real name was Frederick Faust, was also a prolific mystery author. During the Thirties his work appeared regularly in the pulp magazine DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY, among others, and DFW was where SEVEN FACES originally appeared as a serial in October and November of 1936.

The protagonists of this novel are a couple of New York City cops, Angus Campbell and Patrick O’Rourke, who make a formidable team despite the fact that they can’t stand each other. When a wealthy man named John Cobb appeals to the police department because he’s been receiving threats on his life, Campbell and O’Rourke are assigned to the case. Cobb has to go to Chicago on business, and the two detectives also have to travel to Chicago to present some evidence in a court case, so their superior decides they should take the train with Cobb and guard him from whoever wants to kill him.

Unfortunately, Cobb disappears on the way to Chicago, and Campbell and O’Rourke have to split up in their attempts to track him down and find out what happened to him. From there the story is a fast-paced yarn featuring torture, murder, greed, and evil coming back from the past to haunt the present. Sure, the characters are a little stereotypical – Campbell is a dour Scotsman, O’Rourke a fat, cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking Irishman – but the plot has some clever twists and Faust keeps things perking so nicely that the reader is drawn along effortlessly by the story.

I picked this book mostly because I enjoyed it, but also because while it’s obscure, it’s not that hard to lay your hands on a copy. It’s been reprinted twice in the past ten years, first by the University of Nebraska Press in their series of Max Brand reissues, and then in large print by Chivers/G.K. Hall. Faust wrote at least one more novel featuring Campbell and O’Rourke, MURDER ME!, and I intend to track it down and read it, too.
(By the way, hearty congratulations to Patti and Megan for their well-deserved awards!)