In case you didn't notice, THE RAP SHEET concluded its weekly series of posting reviews of forgotten books last week. They'll post reviews only on an occasional basis from now on (although we have one up today).
I want to thank J. Kingston Pierce for being my partner in crime for the last 100 weeks. His advice and camaraderie helped immeasurable in keeping the project going.
Although I am not quite ready to hang up my saddle ( until some of the folks who write reviews every week grow tired or run out of books to suggest) I'm going to stop recruiting reviews to post on my site at the end of August. I've recruited reviews from hundreds of people and frankly begging their participation has lost its appeal.
However, if you are a reader of the series and have not contributed a review, I would love to have you contact me. You only need to be a reader to apply for the job. We don't require "smancy pants" credentials around here.
I want to thank those people who almost to a soul managed to turn in a review exactly when they said they would. And words cannot express my gratitude to the people who review books weekly or often. "You guys are the best."
SPECIAL TOPIC-August 20th-My favorite book when I was college aged. What book excited you between the ages of 18-25. Send me your links.
Clair Lamb's business, Answer Girl, provides research, editing, writing and publicity services. Her clients include The Mystery Bookstore-Los Angeles and many published and unpublished authors. She keeps a personal blog at www.answergirlnet.blogspot.com.
Friday’s Forgotten Books: THE SECRET LOVERS by Charles McCarry
Thanks to the fine work of the Overlook Press, Charles McCarry seems to be enjoying something of a rediscovery. If you’ve heard of him, the title you probably know is The Tears of Autumn (1974), McCarry’s extraordinarily plausible alternate history of the Kennedy assassination. At the center of that book is CIA operative Paul Christopher, whose investigation leaves him outside the organization and exiled from everything he loves.
But what does Christopher love, or what did he? The Secret Lovers, published three years after The Tears of Autumn but set three years before the Kennedy assassination, in 1960, tells the story. The title is a pun, referring not only to lovers who hide their relationships, but to the people like Christopher and his colleagues who love secrets for their own sake.
We meet Paul Christopher in Berlin, where a German courier passes him a manuscript written by a Russian dissident. The courier is killed in a hit-and-run accident moments later, and Christopher must find the source of the leak that led to the courier’s death.
The urgency of this search parallels the desperation Christopher feels about his marriage to Cathy, a beautiful and mercurial American who has only the vaguest understanding of Christopher’s real job. All Cathy knows is that some portion of Paul’s mind is constantly preoccupied, hidden from her, unavailable. Her need for his undivided attention spurs her to more and more irrational behavior — public infidelities, tantrums, fights.
Regardless of the leak within his operation, Christopher’s mission is to get the Russian dissident’s manuscript published. A key part of this plan is Otto Rothchild, a legendary, semi-retired agent now living in Paris with his wife Maria, herself a former agent. Otto is confined to a wheelchair, the victim of a mysterious medical disorder; Maria has given up her professional life to care for him. Otto and Maria are the Christophers’ only friends as a married couple, and Maria is one of the few people who can understand Cathy’s torment.
Of course, since The Secret Lovers is a spy novel, nothing is as it seems. Christopher’s loyalties make him vulnerable at every turn. That those loyalties will betray him is not a surprise. How they betray him is truly shocking. The Secret Lovers is a violently romantic novel, in the classic sense of that word: the characters act not out of logic, but out of raw emotion. It’s one of those rare books that demands a reader’s heart as well as her mind, and is my favorite Cold War espionage novel.
Ron Scheer reads, writes, teaches, and mostly keeps it simple in Los
Angeles and the Coachella Valley of Southern California
The Blind Corral
By Ralph Beer
Ralph Beer should have written a whole truckload of novels by now, but all I know of is this one, long out of print, plus a collection of his essays about ranching called In These Hills. I say “should have” because he writes with such precision that you want to slow down and relish each sentence. He’s a writer’s writer. The detail, the word choice, and the capturing of mood, situation, and character are just about perfect.
The story of The Blind Corral is told through the perspective of a young man, Jackson Heckethorne. It’s the post-Vietnam 1970s, and he’s returning home to the family ranch outside Helena, Montana. His family has made a living on the ranch for three generations, but only his aging grandfather lives there now.
Jackson has had some hard luck. An accident on a firing range has put him in a military hospital, and before that there was a brief rodeo career that went nowhere. His return home is supposed to be only temporary, but like wild horses drawn unwittingly into the blind corral of the title, it is not easy for him to leave. Instead of returning to Canada and a woman who waits for him there, he spends a bitter winter on the ranch with his grandfather, who is dying.
There is an aching melancholy and a sense of loss throughout the novel. Ranching no longer supports itself, and ranch families that had once put down roots are selling out to developers. There are reminders of the Indians who lost this land a century before, and now it is being lost again.
Jackson’s worldly adventures have left him empty and without direction. You wonder if what you’re seeing are symptoms of PTSD. Meanwhile, ranch work, the turn of the seasons, and the familiar landscape offer a lost connection to life itself. And there is the company of his father and grandfather, without whom he would be a victim of his growing loneliness.
His fate is played out in a man's world where women, if they figure at all, are as tough and independent as the men. The toughness is a strength that protects them, but leads just as surely to emotional isolation. When an old man dies, the best that can be said of him is that "he was hard on horses; he never forgot a grudge; he either liked you or he didn't."
Sounds a little on the downbeat side, yes, but there is also a quiet beauty in this novel. The land, though scarred and abused, still consoles the soul. And the reader feels both sorrow and admiration for these characters who remain resilient in the face of obstacles. Beer regards each of them as a surviving fragment of the old West, clinging to a kind of dignity in a new West that is diminished and shallow by comparison.
I first found this novel while looking for fiction set in Montana almost a decade ago. The feeling I had while reading it, and the appreciation I felt for Beer’s craft as a writer, have never left me. I would love to see this forgotten novel rediscovered.
Mike Dennis can be found here.
By Charlie Stella
"None of the rules apply unless you're high up enough to dictate them down. Even then, sooner or later, the rules get changed on the fly."
That's NYPD Detective John DeNafria clueing his new partner into the world of Organized Crime in Charlie Stella's 2002 novel of the New York streets, Jimmy Bench-Press. Former boxer Alex Pavlik is DeNafria's partner. He's new to the OC unit, fresh out of homicide and ready to kick some mob ass. Pavlik has a reputation for being a loose cannon, not entirely on board with inconvenient rules such as Miranda rights, so DeNafria has to keep a close eye on him.
Brooklyn mob soldier Jimmy Mangino is about to find out how the rules apply to him. He's a street-level guy, fresh out of prison and back in the rackets. He cuts an intimidating figure and can bench-press four hundred pounds. I'm not a weight-lifter and even I know that's a hell of a lot of poundage to lift. Yes, Jimmy is one tough dude.
But he wants to become a made man, and that's where his problems begin. He does strongarm jobs for the higher-ups, like knocking off porn case witnesses and running protection rackets around town. He hopes these little errands will ingratiate him with "the skipper" and move him ever closer to his eagerly-awaited induction ceremony.
Standing in his way are DeNafria and Pavlik, who are working on a low-grade extortion case. They have Mangino in their sights and they hope he will lead them to much bigger fish. From here, the novel moves swiftly along, parallelling the developments in the case, only taking occasional time out for each of the two cops to anguish and commiserate with the woman in his life.
The book is populated by assorted mob lowlifes and their put-upon victims, all of whom Stella has drawn to perfection. His dialogue is fine-tuned to the point where the reader can very nearly hear the actual voices of each character: pitch, inflection, the whole shebang. He clearly has a grip on the material.
Stella is the author of several other novels revolving around New York wiseguys, all of which have been well-received by readers and critics alike. Jimmy Bench-Press, which was his second novel, drips with violence, but in a different kind of way.
A comparison can handily be drawn to Val Lewton, movie producer from the 1940s, whose RKO films such as The Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and I Walked With A Zombie suggested much more horror than was actually shown. Lewton was given microscopic budgets to work with, so he was forced to improvise, but he also firmly believed that the images of horror which resided in the minds of his viewers were much more powerful than anything he could put up on the screen. Once he tapped into those dark corners of their imaginations, audiences of the day had nightmares after coming out of his movies.
Stella, however, has no such money constraints. He can splash all the blood he wants on his pages, and there are indeed some red stains. No surprise there, of course--it's the mob, right? But the novel is at its most effective when the reader can feel the violence lurking in Mangino's threatening persona. All he has to do is nod or grunt and right away you know the mayhem he's capable of causing. As with Val Lewton's moviegoers, Stella's readers can easily conjure up horrific images without seeing them played out on the page.
Jimmy Bench-Press rings with authenticity and is an excellent introduction to the world of the low-level criminal footsoldier.
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and other novels. You can find him here.
Baby, Come On Inside by David Wagoner
David Wagoner is a celebrated poet who has written a number of novels. My favorite is Baby, Come On
Inside for the simple reasons that it's so instructive aout the male ego. It also deals well with the spiritual meaning of the so-called mid-life crisis.
The fifty-year-old pop singer Popsy Meadows couldn't exist today. He's a lineal descendent of Sinatra and all the other bar room crooners who came after. But back when the book was new in 1968 crooners could still be
seen all over TV variety shows and making major bucks in Vegas.
Popsy has big problems. He's afraid he's losing his voice and he's sure he's losing his mind--the booze has caught up with him and he finds it difficult to remember exactly what has been happening to him. Desperate,
he returns to his home town in search of The Perfect Girl and to resolve his bitter relationship with his parents.
Popsy rents the entire floor of a hotel and invites many of his show biz friends--including some of his wives--for a drunken binge that will certainly never be forgotten by this burg. Wagoner deftly finds the sorrow in all the excess as his foolish and forlorn Popsy attempts the impossible--to not be so "Popsy" any more.
For me the seminal scene is when Popsy goes to visit his parents in the dingy bar they run. The extended scene reminds me of a similar one in Jim Thompson's Texas By The Tale. Bleakness and anger played off the
seeming frivolousness of much of the book. One critic at the time compared the novel to a Preston Sturges movie and that is an apt comparison.
I've reread this two or three times over the years and it always gives me pleasure. Wagoner knows almost too much about fractured people and how they delude themselves. He also knows how to show the reader a hell
of a good time.
Chris La Tray
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf
Steve Lewis'David Vineyard