Friday, July 03, 2009
Friday's Forgotten Books, July 3, 2009
Erroll Garner reading.
Chad Eagleton has been published in Muzzle Flash, Pulp Pusher,
Bad Things, Powder Burn, A Twist of Noir, and Beat To A Pulp. When he's not writing, you can find him on Facebook and the Joel Townsley Roger's fanpage.
THE RED RIGHT HAND, Joel Townsley Rogers
People say that nothing good comes cheap.
My local library used to have a book sale every Wednesday with a huge section of 10 cent paperbacks. That’s where I found my copy of Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand.
At best, I hoped for a few hours of entertainment. At worst…I hoped for a few hours of entertainment.
What I got was something much more—an amazingly well-plotted and sinister thriller. A nightmarish fever dream that’s reminiscent of a David Lynch film—when he’s on his game and puts aside all the arty gobbledygook of creamed corn and rabbit-headed protagonists.
Inis St. Erme and Elinor Darrie are on their way to Vermont to be married. On a lonely New England road, they are attacked by a hitchhiker, a strange little man with sharp teeth and twisted, corkscrew legs. Elinor manages to escape. St. Erme is not so lucky. The mad dwarf kidnaps him, dragging him along on a demented joyride that ends with several other townspeople dead and St. Erme’s corpse found along the roadside—his right hand hacked off at the wrist.
The mad dwarf’s rampage should have taken him directly past Dr. Henry Riddle and his stalled coupe. But Riddle didn’t see anything—no killer, no St. Erme, and no car.
Why? It’s the question that pulls Riddle into the hallucinatory murder spree, and plunges him into a surrealist nightmare that leaves him questioning his own sanity. As the action moves back and forth over the course of a single, tense night, Riddle tries to make sense of the events, his words shifting—sometimes brief, clipped, to the point; sometimes formalized, complex sentences befitting a learned man with a well-ordered brain; others a feverish frenzy pouring forth from the subconscious, a stream of images seething and writhing, the disjointed thoughts of a madman. All of which builds toward an unforeseen climax.
Originally published as a short story and then expanded into a novel, The Red Right Hand has been reprinted several times. (My own copy is from 1964, cost 50 cents, and was issued by Pyramid Books as part of their “Green Door Mystery” line.) Copies are easily found.
You should get yours before someone figures out that something this good does comes cheap and corrects the error.
Ed Gorman is the author of the just-released MIDNIGHT ROOM and many other crime and western novels.
A FISTFUL OF EMPTY by Benjamin M. Schutz
When Ben Schutz died at fifty-eight of a heart attack, he was still enjoying the well-deserved praise he'd received for what was likely his finest novel, The Mongol Reply, a savage look at the human debris resulting from a custody battle. Ben had been a forensic psychologist by trade and knew all too well what he was writing about.
The Mongol Reply had been rejected by virtually if not literally every major house in New York. One day his agent called me and asked if I'd give it a read for our library line Five Star.
Ben Schutz? Are you kidding?
Of course. We made a deal straight on. I felt then and feel now that it was one of the most important books we've ever published.
Kevin Burton Smith certainly agreed: "This is not a comfortable novel, and many a reader might squirm with an unpleasant shock of self-recognition. But I think that Schutz, a forensic psychologist himself and the author, in the 1980s and early 90s, of a Shamus Award-winning hard-boiled series starring Washington, D.C.,
private eye Leo Haggerty, has returned to fiction after an absence of more than a decade with arguably his most angry and potent work yet. The Mongol Reply is an unrepentant, take-no-prisoners assault on the twisted and selfish games people play in the name of love, and the sometimes very brutal price that children (and
ultimately, all of us) have to pay for their parent’s sins."
Following this we were lucky enough to do a collection with Ben. And then he was dead. I happened to read one of his short stories this weekend and it was so good I had to pick up a Schutz novel.
I decided to reread my favorite, A Fistful of Empty. I like to say that I read for character and that plot is secondary. That's generally true. If the characters don't work for me, the story bores me. Empty tells one of the most lacerating tales I've ever read and shows me a dozen characters I've never met before. And in the
course of it all it details the end of a relationship with such force that it's difficult to read at certain points. He gets the pain and bitterness and confusion down with surgical precision.
D.C. private eye Leo Haggerty is working on a case that results in his girl friend being raped and his best friend being murdered. I'm not a fan of revenge novels. Most of them are predictable and too many of them are bogus. Vigilantes are often worse than the person they're chasing. But Schutz uses Empty to show us how
revenge is as deadly psychologically for the pursuer as it is for the pursued. ,
The mystery element is classically composed. Haggerty must figure out what a group of skinheads (and his depiction of an obscenely overweight skinhead fascist is guaranteed to make you squirm) and a group of medical researchers in in a very swank pharmaceutical firm have to do with each other.
While the pace is relentless (it's a book you really do want to read in a single setting), it is rich in detailing the D.C. area and the real wold of private investigators. Schutz did his homework.
Ben Schutz deserves rediscovery and A Fistful of Empty is a perfect place to start.
Betsy Dornbusch splits her time between Boulder and in Grand Lake, Colorado. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues such as Sinister Tales, Staffs & Starships, Thuglit, and Spinetingler. She's an editor with Electric Spec and is currently shopping a novel to agents. In her free time, she snowboards and pretends to be a soccer mom. (Nobody's buying the soccer mom bit, though.)
The young adult satire FEED by MT Anderson was a National Book Award finalist and it won the LA Times Book Prize, so most wouldn't call it forgotten or neglected. But I run in SF/F circles, and it's not a book I hear mentioned nearly often enough.
Take high school, dumb down the school part and hype up the parts you hated, and you've got a pretty good idea of the future world Titus, our teenaged narrator, lives in. The Feed is constant advertising (think mainlined Google ads) focused around what everyone does and thinks; School™ teaches students to sort through the barrage with about as much finesse as an automated phone menu. He calls his parents by their first names and was conceived in a lab, like everyone his age.
While there are a few futuristic clichés, Titus' slang-ridden voice carries the reader along on a roller coaster of hyped-up concerns and emotions. More interesting, Titus is a prime example of an unreliable narrator. It might take a couple of readings to catch every idea shoved through his nearly inarticulate, ignorant account.
Going to the moon with his friends over spring break turns out to suck, but when Titus meets Violet at a club and their Feeds are hacked, he realizes there might be more to life than the latest jeans at Weatherbee & Crotch, though, he still craves the hi-amp empathy the Feed provides. Back on Earth, the home-schooled Violet, with Titus stumbling close behind, begins to question everything from Clouds™ to mysterious lesions treated as accessories to their own minds—what the Feed has left of them. Grounded in realistic, suicidal, teenaged determination, FEED leaves readers with a valid warning of where rampant consumerism and constant data mining might lead us.
Mary Saums writes about two sixty-something ladies who fight bad guys with wit and primo firepower. Their first adventure, THISTLE & TWIGG, was a finalist for the 2008 SIBA Award for Best Fiction given by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. She has a story in the upcoming anthology DELTA BLUES along with James Lee Burke, John Grisham and other cool high-class folks. Visit Mary's website for information on the launch party at Ground Zero where she and other contributors will play in the blues band. http://www.marysaums.com
DEADLY DUO by Margery Allingham
When readers talk about Margery Allingham's mysteries, her famous character Albert Campion and the books that feature him are usually the topic. No wonder - they're great!
They succeed for many reasons. Campion himself is a fascinating leading man. Those who meet him often see him as a bit vague or foolish, but this is a clever misdirection that Campion uses to his advantage.
Allingham also scores high marks for her creation of my favorite sidekick of all time, Magersfontein Lugg, a manservant acquainted with the lower-class crime element of London and one with a flair for beautiful Cockney phrasing and wit. The contrast between Campion's upper-class background and Lugg's more down-to-earth experiences make them quite a memorable pair.
DEADLY DUO doesn't refer to Campion and Lugg. Rather it is a volume of two novellas published in the US in 1949, and in 1950 in the UK as TAKE TWO AT BEDTIME. Although they don't follow the adventures of Allingham's famous sleuths, these stories shine with the same excellent qualities as in all her work, interesting well-rounded characters, strong plots and beautiful writing.
In the first, WANTED: SOMEONE INNOCENT, 20-year-old Gillian Brayton returns to her old boarding school for a party in honor of a favorite teacher. Gillian, an orphan with no living relatives, works in a hat shop and has no prospects for the future. She had been a shy girl with few friends at school. At the party, she sees Rita Raven, a schoolmate whom she remembers as being about ten years her senior, and one she knew only by sight. To Gillian's surprise, Rita immediately comes to talk to her, tells everyone they were great friends and, by the end of the party, offers Gillian a job as a personal assistant for a very nice salary.
Gillian knows it's all too good to be true. Still, living in a rich woman's house, more money, and a bit of adventure are better than her present situation. She goes, and before long, begins to see the set-up is more of a real set-up than she imagined.
LAST ACT is also about a young woman, but a very different one than in the previous novella. Margot Robert's success as an actress was almost assured when she was born. Her mother was a famous actress who died when Margot was still a baby. The mother's friend/rival Mathilde Zoffany, an eccentric prima donna, immediately adopted her and raised her to the stage as well.
Zoff in retirement is a demanding old woman who frequently complains to the police about silly things. When Margot returns from traveling abroad, she finds the police there because Zoff has accused one of her grandsons of trying to kill her. Everyone knows this is nonsense. Several days later, Zoff is found dead just after the grandson leaves her house with a bag known to contain Zoff's jewels.
Once again, Allingham creates a world of realistic characters who make you want to keep reading. She's a master at balancing the suspense and keeping the action moving along without resorting to cheap tricks or bad writing. The novella length works very well for these two stories - enough length for proper development but short enough to read in a sitting or two.
I highly recommend DEADLY DUO. As much as I love her novels, the shorter focus in these two novellas highlight the clarity of overall story vision for which Margery Allingham is known. Give them a try when you're in the mood for a quicker mystery fix!