Friday, May 06, 2016

Friday's Forgotten Books, Debut Novels

Some of my favorite crime fiction debut novels: A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin; In the Heat of the Night, John Ball, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Harry Kemmelman, Fletch, Gregory McDonald, When the Bough Breaks, Jonathan Kellerman, Postmortem, Patricia Cornwall, A Grave Talent, Laure R. King, A Cold Day in Paradise, Steve Hamilton, In the Woods, Tana French, The Expats, Chris Pavone, From Doon to Death, Ruth Rendell,Cover Her Face, P.D. James, Roseanna, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowal, Love in Amsterdam, Nicholas Freeling, Starvation Lake, Brian Gruley, The Ice House, Minette Walters, The Moving Target, Ross Macdonald

It was the summer of 2003 perhaps. We were on Cape Cod, in a two-week rental when we got the call. Megan had sold her first novel to Simon and Schuster. It had all gone quickly, finding an agent and selling the book. Not at all what I had read about in the sort of online columns that rendered advice then. We did not know she was writing a book nor that she was looking for an agent or publisher much ahead of time. We believed she was settling into an academic career after earning her Ph.D. But the academic life didn't suit her. And her placement, in rural New York, wasn't right either.

I decided to read DIE A LITTLE again. I had not revisited it since 2005 when it debuted. I was amazed at how many of her writing riffs were already in place. Her love for research, her love for Hollywood, for femme fatales, seedy hotels and bars, glamour. In many ways, there is more of Megan in this book than any other. I can see all of her lifelong interests played out here.

Lora and Bill King are close siblings, who grew up on their own after their parents death. He is a cop; she a schoolteacher. When he falls for the glamorous Alice Steele, Lora's radar is up. She is both seduced and wary of her new sister-in-law. Clearly there is something off about her. Is it drugs? Is it a sordid past? Bad associations?  Lora will do anything to protect her brother. Just how far will she go?

DIE A LITTLE was nominated for an Edgar for best first novel. It lost to OFFICER DOWN by Theresa Schwegel. Like all of Megan's books is doesn't fall easily into categories.  It's a crime novel, yes, but it is more about the people than the crime. It's more about the place, the period. It is a very good first novel, I think.

Kent Morgan lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where he is doing his best to downsize his book collection by donating to various charity sales. It's a difficult task.

Sanibel Flats - Randy Wayne White - 1990
I'm cheating a little by selecting this book as Randy Wayne White's first book. However, it is the first book he wrote under his own name. Before he started the successful series featuring marine biologist Doc Ford, which now numbers 23 books, he wrote two paperback original action-thriller series. The first series of seven under the name of Randy Striker was published in 1981 and 1982. White used the pseudonym Carl Ramm for the Hawker series of 11 books published between 1984 and 1986. The author was working as a fishing guide in Florida during this period. For many years it was reported that White refused to acknowledge that he wrote the books. The Striker series was republished several years ago and since 2008 the list of his books in the Doc Ford hardcovers states that he wrote them as Randy Striker. Still no mention of the Carl Ramm books.  
I was introduced to White and Doc Ford when I came across a paperback copy of Sanibel Flats in 1991. Rather than reread the book and write a new review, I went back into my book records and found the mini-review I wrote at the time. Here it is with no editing.
Doc Ford is a marine biologist running a small business on the southwestern coast of Florida. He once worked for the government in Central America, but he had to get out before he was killed. When an old high school friend, who works as a freelance pilot (no drugs), has his son kidnapped by a terrorist group, he asks Ford to help him get the boy back in exchange for some Mayan treasures. Doc has no desire to leave Florida and a developing relationship with a local artist, but under pressure he agrees to discuss the situation. However, when he goes to meet his friend in an old partying locale in the Sanibel flats, he finds him murdered. He then feels he is left with no choice and goes to Central America. Doc is a very complex character and White's story is excellent so I hope we see more.
Using my rating system with a maximum of four stars, the first Ford received three and one-half. In 2000, Sanibel Flats was selected as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.     
While on a baseball and books trip to Florida in the Spring of 1992, I was in a Waldenbooks in Clearwater waiting to make a purchase while the clerk behind the counter removed new books from a box. She pulled one out and exclaimed, "I want this for myself." Of course I looked and the book was the second Doc Ford titled The Heat Islands. There were two copies so I took the other, which I gave four stars. Since then I have purchased the new Doc Ford when it came out each spring. On several occasions I was able to get it signed by the author in one of the Doc Ford restaurants in the Fort Myers area. This spring on the day it was released, White signed my copy of Deep Blue in the original Doc Ford's Bar and Grill on Sanibel Island.
While I have enjoyed all the books in the series, I do prefer the ones where the  action takes place in the  Florida Gulf Coast area. If you haven't read Doc Ford, I would suggest that you start with the early books.

THE GREAT SANTINI (1976) by Pat Conroy

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

It is 1962, and W.P. “Bull” Meecham, U.S. Marine Corps light colonel and fighter pilot, whose self-proclaimed nom de guerre is the Great Santini, has been stationed in the Mediterranean for the past year. His family—wife Lillian, children Ben, Mary Anne, Karen and Matthew—has been living in Atlanta, Georgia with Lillian’s mother. They have lived all over the United States for years, depending upon where Bull has been stationed, but stay in Atlanta when he’s out of the country.

Now Bull is coming home, having been assigned to the Marine Air Station in Ravenel, South Carolina as the commanding officer of Squadron 367. His homecoming is a matter of ambivalence for his family, especially for the children and most especially for Ben, the oldest. Bull Meecham has so utterly embraced the disciplinary strictures of the Corps as to be a martinet not only toward those under his command, but also toward those in his family. He has come to expect the same kinds of responses to orders from his children that he expects from Marines. The children have been trained to respond in kind, not least because their father can be both verbally and physically abusive to them and to Lillian.

Very much an episodic novel, The Great Santini deals more focally with Meecham’s family life and his wife and children’s (particularly Ben’s and Mary Anne’s) lives and relationships with him and with one another. Extra-familial episodes include, among others, Ben’s friendship with an African-American man named Toomer, the son of Arrabelle Smalls, the Meecham family’s no-nonsense maid who gives as good as she gets—especially to Bull; Ben’s performance on the school basketball team; violent encounters with members of the lowlife Pettus family, particularly Red Pettus; and Bull’s interactions with Corps superiors and underlings.

As many a scene in the novel demonstrates, Bull Meecham seems simultaneously one-dimensional and complex. For instance, when Ben tells his high school principal that he hates his father, the principal replies: “No, you love him and he loves you. I’ve seen a lot of Marine fathers since I’ve been at the high school, Ben…They love their families with their hearts and souls and they wage war against them to prove it…All your dad is doing is loving you by trying to live his life over again through you. He makes bad mistakes, but he makes them because he is part of an organization that does not tolerate substandard performance. He just sometimes forgets there’s a difference between a Marine and a son.”

Bull Meecham is a memorable character, someone readers will love and laugh at and with one moment, then hate, curse and want to slug the next. The book’s other major characters are also superbly delineated. Loaded with moments which are by turns laugh-out-loud funny, tender, suspenseful, and moving, The Great Santini is a wonderful first novel by an excellent writer who is an exemplar of the adage “Write what you know.” Meecham is based on Pat Conroy’s Marine Colonel father and aspects of his son’s upbringing.    

The first work I read by Pat Conroy was his novel The Lords of Discipline, which I loved both for its story and the quality of the telling. Later on I read The Boo, the author’s first published book—a work of non-fiction—and still further on the novel The Prince of Tides, upon which the movie was based. After finishing The Great Santini, I watched its film version and was happy to see that it manages to effectively capture the crucial details of a 400-page-plus work of potent fiction, and one I can and do emphatically recommend, especially the print version—but with the caveat to sensitive readers that it contains some instances of raw language including f-bombs and racial epithets.  

© 2016 Barry Ergang

Sergio Angelini, NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, James Hadley Chase
Yvette Banek, CROCODILE ON A SAND BANK, Elizabeth Peters
Joe Barone, LOVE STORIES WITH MURDERS, Harry Bingham
Brian Busby, THE WILD OLIVE, Basil King
Bill Crider, NORWOOD, Charles Portis
Martin Edwards, THE SIRENS SANG OF MURDER, Sarah Caudwell
Curt Evans, DEATH ON THE LAST TRAIN, George Bellairs
Rich Horton,  Another Ace Double: Empire of the Atom, by A. E. Van Vogt/Space Station #1, by Frank Belknap Long
Jerry House, BILTMORE OSWALD, J. Thorne Smith
Nick Jones, TIME RIGHT DEADLY, Sarah Gainham
George Kelley, THE DEMOLISHED MAN, Alfred Bester
Margot Kinberg, NEFARIOUS DOINGS, Ilsa Evans
B.V. Lawson, FIRST CASES, ed. Robert Randisi
Todd Mason, FFFirstB: MOTHER ISN'T DEAD SHE'S ONLY SLEEPING by Kit Reed (Houghton Mifflin 1961); SHORT STORY 2 by Arno Karlen, Sally Weber, Michael Rumaker and Gertrude Friedberg (Scribner's,1959)
J.F. Norris, MARE'S NEST,  Carlyn Coffin
Matt Paust, CONCRETE ANGEL, Patricia Abbott
James Reasoner, NIGHTRIDER DEPUTY, Ralph R. Perry
Richard Robinson, THE BLESSING WAY, Tony Hillerman
Sandra Ruttan, HUSH, Anne Frasier
Kevin Tipple, A BOND WITH DEATH, Bill Crider
TomCat, SILENCE IN COURT, Patricia Wentworth
TracyK, THE DEFECTION OF A.J. WINTER, Robert Littell
Westlake Review, THE FOURTH DIMENSION IS DEATH, Donald Westlake


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

1. Randy Wayne White wrote EIGHTEEN books in the mystery field before the first Doc Ford book.
2. Pat Conroy wrote two books before THE GREAT SANTINI.
3. RUNNING SCARED was Gregory Mcdonald's first mystery, published 10 years before FLETCH.
4. Ross Macdonald wrote four mysteries under his real name of Kenneth Millar, starting with the excellent THE DARK TUNNEL, before he created Lew Archer with THE MOVING TARGET.

You hit several I considered - FROM DOON WITH DEATH and COVER HER FACE in particular, The one I was going to do, Owen Parry's FADED COAT OF BLUE, I decided against because he had written other books under his own name (Ralph Peters).

I guess I overthought this.

Some good choices there, though I have to admit I am in a minority in that I did not like the Steve Hamilton book.

Kent Morgan said...


I have to assume you didn't bother reading the first part of my Randy Wayne White review before you commented.

Bill Crider said...

Congrats on the Anthony nom, Patti!

Mathew Paust said...

I guess I won't wait for You Will Know Me to be delivered to my Kindle in July.
I'm ready to get to know Megan right now, and I believe our library just might have a copy of Die a Little.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Bill. Quite a surprise.
Give it a shot, Matt. I think you will like it.

Barry Ergang said...

Jeffrey, the category was debut novels. Conroy's first two books were non-fiction, Santini his first fiction.

Todd Mason said...

I echo Bill's congratulations, and thanks for your assessment of DIE A LITTLE...hard to get too much more inside without it coming from Megan, or possibly her editor.

And I understood the category to be First Books, which would've meant, say, the critical essay collection IN SEARCH OF WONDER for Damon Knight, but I'd already done a sort of review of that one some years back...but I do have two nothing like final word reviews on two first books of fiction up and at 'em (the latter from the series that had previously first put Richard Yates between boards as part of a similar quartet of young writers):

MOTHER ISN'T DEAD SHE'S ONLY SLEEPING, Kit Reed; SHORT STORY 2, Arno Karlen, Sally Weber, Michael Rumaker and Gertrude Friedberg

TracyK said...

Very interesting comments on Die a Little, Patti. I like novels that are more about the people than the crime.

I also liked your list of first novels you enjoyed. Many of them I have read... but I will have to seek out the rest.

Todd Mason said...

And it is remarkable how many young writers do have much of their voice in place from the first publication, even when under excessive influence of others...I think of the gallows humor of Robert Bloch, for example, even given how otherwise Lovecraftian much of his earliest work was...he even got HPL to joke around a bit in response. The Kit Reed novel feels very much like her later work...not that she wasn't already a veteran writer, if mostly of journalism, by the time she published the book.

Mathew Paust said...

Anyone interested in learning more about Concrete Angel's Anthony Award nomination for best first novel, click here: Crimespree Magazine

Congrats, Patti, and best wishes for tonite's Bouchercon voting!

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great theme and a great roundup Patti, though you are of course cheating with the Ross Macdonald as Ken Millar had published earlier novels than that but under his own name.

Todd Mason said...

I believe I'm also tagged to collect FFB links next Friday and then next yet, while our Anthonist host is touring Krakow and points eastward...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'll be here next Friday. It's the 20th and 27th we'll be gone.

Todd Mason said...

Gotcha! Should've rechecked the email. Szczęśliwej podróży!