Friday, August 19, 2016

Summer Bookstores

I don't venture into physical bookstores that much these days. I'm too tempted to buy books that I don't have the room for. Sometimes, though, I find myself in one. This summer, not only did I find myself in two, they are simply two of the best bookstores I have been inside of in ages.

The first is the Old Number Six Book Depot in Henniker, New Hampshire. Having ventured the north to see the Tedeschi Trucks band, along with Los Lobos and North Mississippi Allstars this past July, we chanced upon one of the largest used bookstores I have seen in a very long time.

The clerk was friendly and knowledgeable. The books were plentiful (they claim over 130,000) and well organized. And clean. I really dislike it when I leave a used bookstore and my hands smell of mildew and foxing. 

I only bought a few paperbacks, but the luminous Mrs. V. did take a stack of pictures. Always on the lookout for books by folks I know, I was happy to find a pair of Ted Rypel's original Gonji books.

We spent about two hours browsing, a thing I haven't done for that long in years. Not only did they have a wide selection of authors, they had some real depth. The ends of the shelves were decorated with a variety of books (as you can see in the pictures above). 

I walked out with David C. Smith's Oron, and a paperback of Allan W. Eckert's The Wilderness War. Nothing else in the genre sections caught my eye that day, and they charged more than I was willing to pay for Francis Prucha's The Sword of the Republic ($16 vs. the $4 I could get it for on Amazon). 

Closer to home, I found a place called Second Time Books in Mount Laurel, NJ. Mrs. V. really discovered it when she was looking for stores that paid cash for books. The store specializes in sci-fi and fantasy. The paperback selection of those two genres is solid, but the hardcover shelves are packed with even more good stuff. There are run-of-the-mill editions side by side with first editions and Book Club editions. Very good batch of books, but not what I was interested in. What's very cool is all hardcover books are Just-a-Folded. Heck, I don't do that for my own books. Impressive.

I wasn't looking for sci-fi/fantasy, yesterday, though. Specifically, I was hoping to find another of the Macmillan Wars of the United States books. And I did: Blood on the Border by Clarence Clendenen. 

In the back room, there was a buy-three-get-one-free sale. From that pile, Mrs. V. got a pair of audio books for her mom, and I got hardcovers of Lyn MacDonald's Somme, and Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star.

Now the sad thing is, I brought in four sci-fi hardcovers and the owner offered me $12 cash or $24 credit. If he hadn't, I might not have hunted as hard as I did, but he did, and I did. The final cost to me was $5.91, which is pretty freaking awesome. Of course, now I've got to find some space for the new purchases.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Utterly Bonkers: The Crime Fiction of William L. Marshall

In 1992, my mom brought home a mystery set in 1880's New York City. Called Faces in the Crowd by William L. Marshall, its cover featured two tough looking characters. Still a newcomer to reading mysteries and the like, barely extending my attention to anyone other than James Ellroy, the setting made me give it a go.

From the very first page, the very first paragraph even, I was confused. Who were these strange characters, what was going on? Who was the Despondent Man and did he really have a vial of nitroglycerine? Who were the Germans working in Grammelspacher's Shooting Gallery?  Slowly, the lights came on and the situation was illuminated, if not completely untangled. And I was ensnared.

With no help from the rest of the department, Detective Virgil Tillman and Patrolman Ned Muldoon uncover and face off against a vast, murderous conspiracy. They visit the mansions of the wealthy and, quarantine islands, and madhouses. New technology only empowers the already powerful, strengthening their throttling grip on the masses around them.

The book is by turns madcap, insane, and completely ludicrous. Unlike Caleb Carr's more realistic, and duller The Alienist, Faces in the Crowd is a depiction of moral and criminal corruption in 19th century New York as Dickens at his angriest might have written or Bosch at his most disturbing would have painted. Realism takes a distant second-place to a dark, impressionistic version of the city and the worms that gnaw its heart away. New York is a place of casual racism, utter contempt toward the poor by the high and mighty, exploitation of the legions of immigrants flooding the city, and terrible crimes committed by both the rich and the poor.

It's also insanely funny. Absurd humor flecks the pages of Faces in the Crowd, even at its most bleakly serious moments. When Tillman needs the help of a pair of explosive experts, he allows them to wreak vengeance on a brutal and unprincipled beat cop who crippled one of their family members. Dressed in a rabbit suit, they douse him in alcohol and cheap perfume before they attack him so no one will believe him. Then they blow a hole in the street to gain access to the disused Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel.

Every place, every street, every character is draped in wonderful prose. On the very first page readers are treated to a crazy catalogue of noises, people, and lots of alliteration. 

In Grammlespacher's Shooting Gallery, 234 The Bowery at 10:08 P.M. Sunday, April 13th, 1884, there were a lot of guns shooting. Through the smoke and fumes, flashes and flames, there were a lot of people shooting them. In Grammelspacher's, on the noisiest street in the world, with the steam engines of the Elevated running on both tracks north and south outside thirty feet above the sidewalk every two minutes, there were clerks in tight suits shooting .25 Stevens at mechanical Indians that went "Ugh!" when hit in the heart, country boys firing Flobert Five Millimeters at flashy farfarooms that flew to fragments, wanton women and their wastrels whamming Winchesters at whirring windmills, diving ducks being powdered to pumice by Peacemakers, and, at every second booth along the walls of the gaslit place, S&W .32 Number Twos being shot and shooting things to shards by anyone who could get their hands around them two at a time. Everything moved, spun, turned, ducked--everything ran by steam. The excess pressure ran a small calliope in the corner that shuddered and shook as it blasted out patriotic airs full volume a penny a time.

I wonder if Marshall felt the only way he could properly explore the horror at the center of his story, and those that ravaged 19th century New York City was with surrealism and absurdism. Whatever his motivations, his madness-wreathed vision of the great metropolis, built of gilded mansions, dark slums, writhing with spiritual degeneracy, feels more real than any more "realistic" historical view of the city that I've read. This idea can be applied to his other series as well. In each, it's the poor and working-class that suffer the most from crime, which too often has its roots in the greed of the privileged and wealthy. Only by coming at it from off-kilter perspectives can the severity of the injustice and misery in the world as it actually is than could be conveyed in a more naturalistic crime novel.

Faces in the Crowd is a book I absolutely love and have read several times. There's an earlier book in the series, New York Detective, that centers around the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. It's good, but lacks the operatic plot of Faces. While Marshall wrote more books after Faces, he never returned to the characters.

The Hong Bay district of Hong Kong is fictitious, as are the people who, for one reason or another, inhabit it.

Of the twenty-four novels written by Willam Marshall, sixteen belong to the Yellowthread Street series. Built like a standard police procedural, each book follows the same pattern: Det. Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer investigates an ominous, major case, Senior Inspector Christopher O'Yee investigates an odd, lesser case, and none-too-bright Inspectors Auden and Spencer get caught up in a third, wacky case. Usually, all three strands come together in unexpected ways, with the various investigators not realizing they're operating in parallel until nearly the end.

Despite this cookie-cutter sounding approach, the plot of each novel is so strange, they never feel repetitive and reading several back to back does not get boring. The first novel, Yellowthread Street (1975), features a vengeful madame, Hot Time Alice Ping and her leg-breaker, Osaka the Disemboweler, hunting for the finger-chopping extortionist called the Mongolian. That's probably the most realistic, normal crime I can recall in the entire series. 

The setting of the sixth book, Sci-fi (1981), is the annual All-Asia Science Fiction and Horror Movie Festival. While examining a spaceship made of old tea chests, and what seems to be a robotic spaceman, two street cleaners encounter fiery destruction. 

(The first sweeper) turned his attention to The Spaceman. "Is he supposed to be an Earthman?" The first sweeper said, "He hasn't got anything written on his suit so he isn't supposed to be Chinese." He thought about it for a moment, "If he was supposed to be a Chinese spaceman he'd have a red star or something on his chest, wouldn't he? Unless he's supposed to be a Hong Kong spaceman?"
The second sweeper said, "Hong Kong hasn't got any spacemen. That's only the Americans and the Russians."
The click came again from the ray gun, and then slowly, inexorably The Spaceman's arm moved and the gun came up, swivelled slightly and trained itself on the flying saucer.
The first sweeper said, "That's good. How do they do that?"
The second sweeper said, "It's a machine."
The second sweeper said, "Just so long as they don't make a mess, that's all I care about. You see one of these science fiction movies and they blow down half the city -- but do you ever see the poor sods of sweepers cleaning up after them? Nah." There was a hissing sound coming from the muzzle of the ray gun and the, a fraction of a second later, a fine mist of something filled the air and made the second sweeper gag. The second sweeper said, "What the hell is---"
The Spaceman, his hand firmly on the butt of the ray gun, turned slightly and place himself in direct line with the flying saucer. He pressed the trigger.
The flying saucer disappeared into a single ball of roaring, blossoming flame.
There were forty five million dollars involved, minimum. The Spaceman, oblivious to the shouts and protest of the street sweepers, moved on to Stage Two in order to get it.
Raising the ray gun for the second time, he swung it past the blazing, collapsing saucer and, centring the nozzle squarely on the chest of the second sweeper, pressed the trigger and, in a raging stream of pulsing yellow fire, cremated him where he stood.

In War Machine (1982) (which my mom also brought home from the library) it looks like Japanese soldiers have emerged from four decades of hiding in a secret bunker to wage war on Hong Kong. A gang of criminals begin taking out municipal fixtures with high explosives for some unknown motive in Roadshow (1985). Headless corpses float in on the tide, a crook uses a vial of Durian juice to rob banks, and in the final novel, To the End (1998), Feiffer and company must come to grips with the impending Chinese takeover in 1997.

The emphasis in each book is on the plots, which are unhinged, complex things, with Marshall spinning several plates on sticks all at once. And still, he manages to breath some life into his four series regulars, so you look forward to seeing them again. Feiffer and O'Yee have the most flesh on their fictional bones. The cases they investigate usually force them to confront some part of themselves or weigh duty versus justice, giving Marshall time and room to plumb the characters' depths. Spencer and Auden are thinner, but consistently funny. They fill the stock role of would-be men of action and daring, who instead fall prey to fits of slapstick and comic misunderstanding.

I haven't read any of these in several years, but with the recent advent of the first four Yellowthread Street books as e-books, I'm going dive to back in. 

Marshall wrote one more mystery series, a duology set in the Philippines. The first is Manila Bay (1986), and the second, Whisper (1988). I haven't reread it in many years, but for a while, Whisper was one of my favorite books. The Kirkus review of it condemns it for being "grotesque but not fanciful, cartoonish but not funny, overwrought instead of buoyant." I'll have to give it a go, but I recall it being creepy and disturbing, as someone seems to be killing the poor of Manila for their skeletons.

When I saw that Marshall's books were finally appearing as e-books, I was excited.  After 1998's To The End, he seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. In 2009, I wrote Otto Penzler, Marshall's US publisher, to ask if he knew what had happened to him. Penzler told me he had no idea, having heard nothing from him in years, but suspected he had gone back to Australia for good. 

The other night, I bought the e-book of Yellowthread Street for a whopping .99 - and discovered William Marshall's been dead since 2003. That means, when I wrote to Penzler, Marshall had already been gone for six years and even his publisher didn't know it. 

I didn't know the man, and I know nothing about him other than a few scraps of career background (playwright, journalist, proofreader, morgue attendant, teacher in an Irish prison). What I do know, is that he wrote a stack of books that have given me hours of delight as I gamely followed along into the demented mysteries he set his joyfully original characters loose on, and savored every line of loopy dialogue and paragraph of outlandish description. In a just world, his work would be better known. Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Vacation (well, from reviewing anyway) and some words about John Connolly's Charlie Parker books

Got my four nephews (ages 6-11) visiting, so no book review this week at Black Gate. I'll be back next week with something new (either a review of The Stone Giant or a short story roundup). In the meantime, I'm getting to make headway in Geoffrey Wawro's The Austro-Prussian War, P.C. Hodgell's Bound in Blood, and John Connolly's The Whisperers.

For those not in the know, John Connolly is the author of the long-running (14 books to date) Charlie Parker series of supernatural thrillers. While the first novel, Every Dead Thing, a brutal serial killer mystery, seemed almost straight, there were a few intimations of what was to come. Slowly, at first, then in great big galloping strides, the books became more overtly weird and wild. 

While never eschewing the lurid pulpishness of the material (cults, demons, mysterious killers, ghosts, etc.), Connolly doesn't take that as an excuse to write poorly: he writes as much with poetry as blood and darkness. Like James Lee Burke in his Dave Robicheaux books, he imports a pitch-black beauty to stories of obscene violence and very Christian sin. Both writers' heroes are also retributive figures, bearing flaming vengeance, and justice, regardless of personal cost. And I'll take that as an entrée to strongly recommend Burke to anyone interested in truly great crime-fiction. 

Charlie Parker is an ex-NYPD cop routinely drawn into strange (and usually, quite bloody) mysteries. Often, he is helped out by his friends, Louis and Angel, the former an assassin, the latter a reformed petty crook. If they sound a little too cookie-cutter hardboiled sidekicks, rest assured, they are not (they even get their own book, The Reapers).

Not every book is great, but none has been disappointing and less than good. In addition to the mystery(ies) in each new title, there's the overarching mystery of just what place Parker is destined to play in a larger war between good and evil. I read the first six in rapid succession before taking a break for a year. Now, having burned through The Reapers and The Lovers, I'm well into #9, The Whisperers

Connolly's also an author of very good short horror stories. In fact, that's how I came to discover the Charlie Parker books. Waiting with my friend in the vet's office while my sister's dog was dying, I told him about the very creepy Kevin Costner horror film, The New Daughter. I also told him I'd learned it was based on a story by some guy from Ireland named Connolly. My friend immediately began telling me how'd he'd been listening to all these great horror radio stories scripted by the same guy. That was enough for me and that night I bought Nocturnes, Connolly's collection of stories. 

I, of course, read "The New Daughter" first. It's a very different creature than the movie, but equally unsettling. I quickly read the rest of the book, enjoying it's mix of Jamesian and King-like stories equally. What stood out the most though, was the Charlie Parker novella, "The Reflecting Eye." Written well into the series of novels, it makes no bones about being a supernatural tale. I liked it so much, I immediately tracked down the first Parker book, and was hooked. I probably won't write real reviews of these, but I will mention them again, and probably tell you again just how good they are and that you should read them.

Messed it up the first time, so here goes a my playlist of heavy sounds I put together for a solo roadtrip to the Poconos to help move my aunt. The drive was a compendium of miserable encounters with bad drives, heavy weather, and massively-time-costing accidents. The music, though, was the dose of awesome riffage I needed to make me not care. The move itself, while dirty and sweaty, as those things are, was pretty painless and only took seven hours. Note: Don't be scared that Google can't scan the rar's. They're big and heavy, but not dangerous.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Western Lights series by Jeffrey E. Barlough

I haven't read/reviewed much S&S lately. After I read Captain Alatriste, I found myself gravitating toward other things, hence Jeffrey E. Barlough's Dark Sleeper today, and James Blaylock's The Stone Giant next time. There's no straight line from Pérez-Reverte's swashbuckler to those books, but with it's eccentric characters, it's a less crooked one than one might think. 

Jeffrey E. Barlough has been writing his Western Lights books for nearly twenty years. He's written nine books, the last six self published (something I suspected, but didn't know for sure until today). I've only read three of them, but I own 'em all and dead set on fixing that soon. 

It's hard to describe exactly what Barlough's doing. In an interview at Black Gate with, he said, among his many inspirations was wondering what it would be like if
"H.P. Lovecraft had written the Perry Mason mysteries, or if M.R. James had created Sherlock Holmes." Ideas like that coupled with a mastery of pitch-perfect discursive, sardonic Dickensian prose, make Dark Sleeper a blast. That there are Ice Age megafauna, real and invented, only makes things even better.

One of the things that impresses me most about the self-published Western Lights books is their quality and presentation. The first three books in the series, Dark Sleeper, The House in the High Wood, and Strange Cargo were all published by Ace. The first one's cover with a mastodon-drawn coach is very good. The second, with a bear and a house on high is boring, and the third is just too-science-fictiony and, again, boring.
The later books all have paintings not created for them on their covers. All are wonderful and wholly appropriate 19th century paintings. I don't know for sure, but I assume Barlough does his own art direction and, man, are his covers of a better quality than most of what I see out there. If you can't paint your own terrific covers like Raphael Ordoñez, this is definitely the way to go.

Original Ace covers

Dark Sleeper has inspired me to go back to one of its primary sources: Charles Dickens. I read Great Expectations and Hard Times in school, but have little memory of them. As an adult I read, and loved A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and the monumental Bleak House

The latter is a madhouse of intertwined mysteries revolving around a probate case that has dragged on for decades. Its evocation of Victorian London is powerful, as it contrasts the splendor and squalor, the powerful and the folks barely eking out a living. At times it's a strange phantasmagorical tale, others a bitter critique of the "system," and others a goofy comedy. Bleak House's pages are filled with virtuous heroes, dastardly villains, and utterly useless flit-abouts. Despite the mountains of exaggeration and ridiculously oddball characters, Dickens manages to make it an affecting tale. 
I'm not sure which book I'll dig out. I've always been curious about Barnaby Rudge, a novel of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, so maybe that'll be my choice.

So here's my first work playlist. It's fairly short and utterly inappropriate for Dark Sleeper, but what the hey. Most of the songs are linked by having roots in the same proto-punk/proto-metal/glam scene of NYC in the mid-70s. The last song's just there 'cause I love it. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Macmillan Wars of the United States series

Without even realizing it, I had several books from this series. From my dad's shelves, I have Bauer's The Mexican War. Looking for a good book on the Indian Wars, I picked up a used copy of Utley's Frontier Regulars. At some point, I can't even quite remember when, I bought Trask's The War with Spain (sadly, without the series' cover).

Since The Mexican War and Frontier Regulars sit apart on the bookshelf, I never noticed or thought about their similar covers (d'oh!). It was only when I was tooling around looking for a something or other last year that I found a Goodreads page listing out the series. Examining the Bauer book, I learned that MacMillan had advertised a much longer series, with books about the other military services, the War of 1812, the Banana Wars, and a host of other things. While the series-fan in me would have loved to have seen what those looked like, there are plenty of great titles on all those things, so no great loss.

I doubt I'll get all the books, and any I do buy will be in whatever version's cheapest. I've long past needing to get first edition hardcovers of all my books (just Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Glen Cook!). My goal is to get a book to read. I've just ordered Sword of the Republic by Francis Paul Prucha. Prucha was a Jesuit who wrote several acclaimed books about the US and our interaction with the Indian nations. He seems to have made a special focus on the Old Northwest. I'll probably buy the (way overpriced) e-book version of Utley's Frontiersmen in Blue. I've read a little Utley before and he's less self-flagellating than many American historians writing about the US and the conquest of the Indian nations. I'm not defending American actions, but they are merely part of the sad history of humanity exploiting, brutalizing, and killing itself, regardless of time, place, and color. I've yet to read about any two polities coming into contact with each other where the stronger doesn't seek to find out just how far it can go seeking an advantage over the weaker, to the point of conquest or even extermination.

I really like these covers. The decision to go with headgear's a nice touch. Looking back on the brouhaha about the Army's adoption of the black beret a few years back, it's interesting to see the only overlap on all these covers is the campaign hat for the Spanish-American War and Pershing's incursion into Mexico. I wonder if hats and headgear in the services have ever stayed as static as they did over the past few decades. 

The unfortunate choice of the American Revolution cover, however, means if I was collecting the series I'd be pretty bummed out. I mean, seriously, MacMillan, what were you thinking? So it's hat/helmet/hat/hat/helmet/hat/DRUMS? Dang, people. Oh, well, it's forty years ago and it doesn't matter anymore.

In addition to The Sword of the Republic, and Frontiersmen in Blue, I see myself getting my own copies of a few more of these in the future. I would really like my own copy of Blood on the Border, and definitely one of Arms for Empire. Leach has also written about King Phillip's War, the first significant fight between colonists and Indians, so tangentially, I'll take a look at those as well.  The other volumes I'll probably never get. I'm not interested enough in the history of the services to get any of those volumes, and while The American Way of War might be a solid history of what we've done in the past, its 1977 publication date means the past forty years of American military theory and practice goes unstudied as well as all sorts of scholarship done on the period it does cover. 

So there you go. A host of new books to check out. If you've read any, let me know. I'm curious how well they hold up.