REMINDER-Next week is an offweek. Happy Fourth!
Steve Weddle (steveweddle.com) blogs about crime fiction at DoSomeDamage. Weddle also works with John Hornor Jacobs on NEEDLE. This year his short fiction has appeared at Beat To A Pulp, Crime Factory, and A Twist of Noir.
BOYS ON THE BUS, Tim Crouse
The US Presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972 provided for some great journalism. Norman Mailer had a nice one about the Miami/Chicago conventions in 1968. Hunter S Thompson went gonzo for next campaign with his FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72. And Jules Witcover was all over everything, of course. And then there was that Watergate book.
A book that isn’t read much anymore, but should be, is THE BOYS ON THE BUS by Tim Crouse, who was covering the campaign for ROLLING STONE magazine. Crouse was in his mid-20s and decided to cover the coverage. The conversations between journalists are great. The race for deadlines. The inside details. Crouse had a good eye and a better ear, knowing that the untold story of the people writing the stories was as entertaining as anything. Hunter S. Thompson, R.W. "Johnny" Apple, Jules Witcover, Robert Novak, Haynes Johnson, and many others come and go and the reader gets to see how stories develop and how the coverage met or didn’t meet up with things.
From Crouse’s book: "The fact that [some reporters] thought that McGovern had a chance to win showed the folly of trying to call an election from 30,000 feet in the air. . . . The reporters attached to George McGovern had a very limited usefulness as political observers, by and large, for what they knew best was not the American electorate but the tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March."
One things that’s nice about the book is that you get to see how these reporters riding along with the campaign work as a team. Crouse calls it “pack journalism,” a term we still use. "The press likes to demonstrate its power by destroying lightweights, and pack journalism is never more doughty and complacent than when the pack has tacitly agreed that a candidate is a joke."
Crouse never loses touch with the readers or the writers, seeming to appreciate all sides. THE BOYS ON THE BUS is a great story for those interested in politics, campaigns, journalism, and the inside looks you get when someone dives into something full force. A great read, still in print.
Church of the Dead Girls, Stephen Dobyns
CHURCH OF THE DEAD GIRLS takes place in one of those little towns in the Finger Lakes section of New York State near Utica. The town has been losing jobs and people for half a century. But disappearances suddenly are not due to a lack or jobs or a desire for more cultural offerings. Janice McNeal, a woman of ill repute, is murdered in her own home, her arm amputated. Her son, though seemingly bereft, arouses suspicion when he bites off a classmate's ear. Next three young girls vanish inexplicably, bundles of their clothes later turning up.
A Marxist study group at the local college and a vigilante squad of rednecks also comes under suspicion. The unnamed narrator, a high-school biology teacher, secretly keeps a collection of nasty objects submerged in formaldehyde. No one here is beyond or above suspicion. Some sort of mass hysteria has come about, reminding the reader of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP.
This book examines the sort of hysteria that can overtake a small isolated community. Despite its title, it's a horror story-- a vivid and scary tale from the author of the Charlie Bradshaw Saratoga Springs crime fiction novels. Dobyns is also a poet. This is, no doubt, his darkest book.
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and many other wonderful novels. You can find him here. Wade Miller was of course Bob Wade and Bill Miller. They collaborated on a few dozen novels until Miller died of a heart attack in the office they shared. He was forty-one.
Much of their finest work was done for Gold Medal. The Killer is a fine example. A rich man named Stennis owns a number of banks. His son works in one of them. During a robbery his son is killed. Stennis hires a big game hunter named Farrow to find the notorious bank robber Clel Bocock and his gang. When Farrow locates them he is to call Stennis who wants to be there to watch them die. Farrow is a unique character and not just because of the big game angle. He's middle-aged and feeling it, something rare in that era of crime fiction.
The search for Stennis--and the love story that involves Bocock's wife--takes Farrow from the swamps to Iowa (including, yes, Cedar Rapids) to Wisconsin to Colorado. The place description is extraordinary. Probably too much for today's readers but the Miller books are filled with strong cunning writing. Same for twists and turns. For the length of the first act you can never be sure who anybody is. They're all traveling under assumed names and with shadowy motives. The only thing that binds them is Clel Bocock.
For anybody who thinks that Gold Medals were largely routine crime stories, this is the noel you should pick up. Stark House published this a few years back (still available) along with Devil On Two Sticks, one of the most original mob novels I've ever read. There's also an excellent David Laurence Wilson introduction on the careers of the two writers.
Wade Miller got lost in the shuffle of bringing back the writers of the fifties and sixties. This book, so strong on character and place and plot turns, will demonstrate why more of their books should be in print.
Steve Lewis and Curt J. Evans