For a real treat if you haven't been there, check out Cullen's reviews of classic westerns right here.
FAULT LINES by Teri White
One of the greatest compliments a book reviewer ever paid to something I'd written was "the best Elmore Leonard rip-off since Elmore Leonard." Publisher's Weekly was referring to my 2003 standalone MAN EATER, but the reviewer could have easily said the same thing fifteen years earlier about Teri White's terrific crime novel, FAULT LINES (Mysterious Press, 1988). I have yet to come across another book that nails the quirky, deceptively scary flavor of a Dutch Leonard novel quite so flawlessly.
True to the often-imitated but rarely duplicated Leonard formula, White populated FAULT LINES with a cast of off-beat, complex characters and then spun a tale in which their separate misadventures would ultimately collide.
Bryan Murphy is an ex-New York City cop who, forced into early retirement by a near-fatal heart attack, now makes his home in Los Angeles, where's he's bored to tears. So bored that he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an ex-con named Tray Detaglio, who's only recently gotten out of the joint. Detaglio's trying to find his ex-girlfriend Kathryn Daily, a cold-hearted hustler and pole dancer who claimed to be pregnant with his child when he last heard from her, but his clumsy attempts to track her down only land him in jail. When Murphy bails him out, being the only person Detaglio could think of to call for help, the two strike a deal: Murphy will look for Kathryn if Detaglio will take over some home repair work Murphy's weak heart prevents him from tackling himself.
Meanwhile, Kathryn---having aborted Detaglio's child years ago---is shacking up elsewhere in L.A. with two more ex-cons, former cellmates Dwight St. John and Chris Moore. Psychotic career criminals who make Detaglio look like an altar boy, Dwight and Chris seem resigned to pulling one stupid, meaningless liquor store robbery after another, until Kathryn offers them a chance at something much better: the Big, once-in-a-lifetime heist they've always dreamed of pulling. One of Kathryn's many ex-boyfriends, post-Tray Detaglio, was mobbed-up drug dealer Michael Stanzione, and before she left him, she learned all there was to know about where Stanzione likes to keep a cool half-million in his palatial Beverly Hills mansion. . .
Get it? It's a terrific set-up, and White works it all to perfection. Tight plotting, solid dialogue---it's all here. But Kathryn---hot, sexy and oh, so wicked---is the poisoned straw that stirs this drink. Bedding and playing all three men at once---Dwight, Chris and Tray---as if they were suckers in a shell game, she leads the reader on a hardcore thrill ride reminiscent of. . .
Well, yeah: a great Elmore Leonard novel.
Patti Abbott, November by Georges Simenon
This is one of Simenon’s standalones, which I generally prefer to the more formulaic Maigrets. A French family lives comfortably, if claustrophobically, outside of town. The first person narrator is twenty-one and works at the local hospital as a research assistant. She’s having a rather prosaic affair with her employer, an older scientist. Her younger brother is taking classes at the local college, majoring in chemistry.
The two siblings live with their parents in a state of constant tension. The mother is an alcoholic, and goes on binges that the rest of the family calls ‘novenas’. Her behavior seems to date from the beginning of her marriage and has almost a formal structure to it. The tension of her behavior is palpable throughout the story.
A newly hired maid, a sexually obliging sort of girl, Manuela from Spain, brings some needed air into this hothouse. Both father and son begin sleeping with her. Neither is satisfied with this arrangement.
When Manuela disappears. it is unclear what has happened and the ambiguity will either intrigue or annoy you. The ending is surprising, yet fitting. This was not my favorite Simenon and yet it succeeded in keeping my interest. Short novels stand a better chance of doing that.
Ed Gorman is the author of Ticket to Ride, Stranglehold, and stories in DISCOUNT NOIR, Beat to a Pulp: Second Round and DAMN NEAR DEAD 2. You can find him here.
Forgotten Books: Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson
Let's begin with a tale of woe. Mine.
Years ago I was asked to contribute a forty thousand word novella to a YA series about shapeshifters. You know, beings humans and otherwise who can transform themselves into other kinds of creatures. I immediately thought of Jack Williamson's The Wolves of Darkness, a grand old pulp novella set in the snowy American West and featuring enough creepy
violence and tangled romance to make it memorable. It even has its moments of sweeping poetry.
Reading Williamson's piece showed me how to write my own. A few days after the young editor received it he called to rave. And I do mean rave. The best of the entire series. Eerie and poetic. Yadda yadda yadda. For the next forty-eight hours I was intolerable to be around. It
was during this time our five cats learned to give me the finger. My swollen head was pricked soon enough. The young editor's older boss hated it. He gave my editor a list of reasons he hated it. I was to rewrite it. I wouldn't do it. I said I'd just write another one, which I did. Old editor seemed to like this one all right but he still wasn't keen on how my "characterizations" occasionally stopped the action. Backstory--verboten.
Shortly after this werewolves began to be popular. I spoke to a small reading group one night and told them about Wolves of Darkness and then about Williamson's novel Darker Than You Think. Everything I love about pulp fantasy is in this book. The werewolf angle quickly becomes just part of a massive struggle for the soul of humanity. As British reviewer
Tom Matic points out:
"According to its backstory, homo sapiens emerged as the dominant species after a long and bitter struggle with another species, homo lycanthropus, whose ability to manipulate probability gave it the power to change its shape and practise magic. These concepts, fascinating as
they are, might make for dry reading were they not mediated via a gripping thriller riddled with startling plot twists, that blends scientific romance with images of stark bloodcurdling horror, such as the kitten throttled with a ribbon and impaled with a pin to induce Mondrick's asthma attack and heart failure, and the pathetic yet fearsome figure of his blind widow, her eyes clawed out by were-leopards. With its scenes of demonic mayhem in an academic setting and the sexual and moral sparring between the two main characters, it almost feels like a prototype of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in a film noir setting."
Williamson couching his shapeshifters in terms of science fiction lends the story a realistic edge fantasies rarely achieve. The brooding psychology of the characters also have, as Matic points out, a noirish feel. And as always Williams manages to make the natural environment a
strong element in the story. He's as good with city folk as rural. And he's especially good with his version of the femme fatale, though here she turns out to be as complicated and tortured as the protagonist.
This is one whomping great tale. If you're tired of today's werewolves, try this classic and you'll be hooked not only by this book but by Jack Williamson' work in general..
Rob Kitchin 2
Steve Lewis/J.B. O'Sullivan