January 21: Evan Lewis
January 28: Kerrie Smith
February 4: Todd Mason
February 11: George Kelley
Patrick Downey is the author of Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld 1900-1935 and Bad Seeds in the Big Apple: Bandits, Killers and Chaos in New York City 1920-1940. He is currently preparing to self-publish a book on the gangster Jack Legs Diamond. You can visit him at his blog http://deadgangster.blogspot.com
Varney, the Vampire, James Malcolm Ryner
I was a monster movie geek as a kid and I’ve always remembered an illustration from one of the books I had on the subject. It was from an old penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire or, The Feast of Blood and it showed a skeletal bloodsucker about to bite into a sleeping woman. For some reason the name always stuck with me and, if I remember correctly, the author of said monster movie book stated that the Varney story was long gone.
Fast forward about thirty years and there I am surfing around the internet and just for funnsies I type in Varney the Vampire and low and behold I’m taken to Amazon.com. Turns out Varney has been dusted off, semi-edited, and is available once again for consumption. I had to buy it.
Varney was the first popular vampire story preceding Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about fifty years. It is interesting to see what effects and doesn’t effect a vampire from 150 years ago as opposed to what Hollywood has taught us. If you can enjoy a good yarn for what it is and have fun with a melodramatic, occasionally boring, perhaps a bit clichéd (a sailor that actually says “Shiver me timbers”) story originally meant for the masses and not the literati then you may enjoy this book.
As a penny dreadful it was cranked out a few chapters every week and sold to, well, people like me. Varney’s author, James Malcolm Rymer was paid by the word when this was being published so sometimes what could be said in five words may take fifteen. Also there are times when the author pads the word count with detours. For example during a conversation one of the characters may say, “That reminds me of story.” And then he takes the next two pages to tell the story. The good news is if you aren’t interested in the side stories you can skip them as they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
When it was originally released as a serial Varney’s popularity was so great that it ran for about two years, hence the hefty page count. I enjoyed the book but also went in with an open mind. As I said it can be melodramatic and wordy but it is also fun. It’s a penny dreadful and I think that in itself pretty much tells you what to expect. You got your aristocratic vampire who, unlike Stoker’s vampire, is a sympathetic villain, a rich family on the skids, angry towns people and at the heart of it a mystery. I was struck by how human nature hasn’t really changed over the years. Characteristics such as greed, fear, mob mentality, lying, gossiping are all in there. I think that’s one of the reasons the story is readable, though it takes place in an English town in the early Nineteenth Century, the recognizable traits could easily place the story in a New England town in the early Twenty-first Century (that is if people in the New England town said things like, “Hilloa!”, “Ay” and “Indeed!” and maybe they do. I haven’t spent much time there.)
Part of the fun for me when reading was imagining the Londoners of 1845, when it was first printed, gathering around their lamps or candles getting their weekly dose. That’s a good way to read it. A few chapters every week like it was originally meant to be consumed. That way, if you need a break, you can take a few nights off then come back without losing anything.
The book is from Zittaw Press and is edited by Curt Herr, a professor of Gothic literature, who also wrote the introduction and notes. With Varney you really get a lot of book for your buck. In addition to The Feast of Blood, which runs about 750 pages (oversized book with small print) you also get back matter consisting of four appendixes:
1- Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls, (four more short stories.)
2- Nineteenth Century Essays on the Perils of Penny Dreadfuls
3- Contemporary Scholarship on Penny Dreadfuls and Varney the Vampire
4- Woodcuts from the original printing of Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood.
A penny dreadful about a vampire, it’s pretty much worth the cover price just to say you own it.
Ed Gorman is the author of Stranglehold, Ticket to Ride and numerous short stories, westerns, and crime fiction tales. You can find him here.
A TOUCH OF DEATH by Charles Williams
I spent a good share of last night reading Hard Case Crime's snappy edition of A Touch of Death by Charles Williams and I'll say what I've said before about this book. It likely has more plot turns than early James M. Cain, a writer whose influence on Williams is clear. But I have to point out quickly that he made this particular set of tropes his own. His men are not those of Postman or even Double Indemnity. His men are smarter--but to no avail.
One of Charles Williams' amoral failed men narrate. He was briefly a football star. Now he's a busted real estate agent. No wonder he gets interested, after initial reluctance, in stealing one hundred twenty thousand dollars that a bank president took from his own bank. The woman who convinces him to help her makes it sound simple. It's probably in this mansion. All you have to do is get in there and find it. The bank president's wife won't be home for two days. You'll have plenty of time.
Right. Well, we know better than that, don't we? Yes, he gets in but he finds he's not alone. The woman is there, beautiful beyond description, and drunk beyond belief. But so is a killer. After saving her life, failed star takes her to a cabin in the woods where he plans to persuade her to tell him where the money is.
That's the beginning. Everybody in this book is a professional liar as Andre Gide said of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. And the bank president's wife is the most fatale of femmes. She lies on virtually every page and occasionally almost gets them killed. That she knows where the money is is obvious. That she killed her husband is also obvious. But who is trying to kill her and why?
There is a sadness, a sorrow, in Williams that informs much of his work. It's not the usual noir feeling that the world is rotten. These men know that they themselves are rotten. And are not so smart after all. If David Goodis wrote suicide notes and Jim Thompson (in The Killer Inside Me) pleaded for understanding, Charles Williams frequently took us on guided tours of lust and greed and men who almost consciously destroyed themselves. Maybe it's what they really wanted all along.
Kent Morgan lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where in retirement he co-writes two sports columns, plays hockey twice a week, and tries to figure what to do with all the books in his house and garage. He admits that he didn't need that box of 15 books that arrived this week from Bookcloseouts.com.
In A True Light – John Harvey – Carroll & Graf 2002
In 1998, John Harvey won the first-ever Sherlock Award for the best detective, Charlie Resnick, created by a British author. When he decided to stop writing the Resnick series, he opted to write a standalone where he could use his interest in both art and music in the storyline. The result is this book which received well-deserved raves from book reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Sloane is a 60-year-old painter who is just out of prison after serving time for duplicating fine art for a dealer. He takes the rap and doesn’t squeal on the dealer who promised him 20,000 pounds on his release. After he collects the money, he is contacted by a woman in Italy who tells him a prominent artist with whom he had a fling in New York when he was 18 is dying and wants to see him. She claims that Sloane is the father of her estranged daughter, who is a jazz singer in the States, and asks him to find her. This takes him back to New York where he discovers the younger woman is involved with a man who beats her and has ties to organized crime. Sloane isn’t convinced that the woman is his daughter and despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to want him in her life and any help with her problems that includes drugs, he can’t stop himself from getting involved. The story moves back and forth from New York to London and Pisa and Harvey’s characters jump off the page as Sloane attempts to resolve his issues as well as the woman’s problems. This is one of the few books I have read in recent years that I didn’t want to put dow
Steve Lewis/Marv Lachman
David Rachels (Also check out David's blog for a comprehensive list of all Gil Brewer's short stories.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch