Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 13, 2009

Ed Gorman
is the author of THE MIDNIGHT ROOM and many other fine novels. You can find him here.

Ed Gorman: Loser Takes All, Graham Greene

I mean no disrespect when I say that I imagine Graham Greene conceived of Loser Takes All (one of his self-described "entertainments") as a film before he decided to write it as a short novella. It's big and colorful and hangs on two cunning twists that neatly divide the piece into curtain act one and curtain act two.

The story concerns the honeymoon of Mr. Bertram and his bethrothed Cary. They are planning to go on a modest short vacation when fate, in the the person of Dreuther, an incalculably rich man for whom Bertram is a lowly assistant accountant, intervenes. Bertram solves an accounting problem that nobody else in the incalculably vast corporation can figure out so Dreuther rewards him with the promise of a honeymoon on his yacht and nights of glamor in the casinos of Monte Carlo... Cary is thrilled.

Well, they go to Monte Carlo but soon learn that Dreuther has forgotten his promise. They are left to make do with their pitiful finances. They can't even pay their bills. Then Bertram, a math whiz, goes to a casino and tries out his own system for winning. And even more than that he begins to see how he can bring down Dreuther...

The rich men of the Fifties are perfect matches for the Wall Streeters of today. Their greed and lust is literally without bounds. Greene creates four distinctive scenes of black comedy when dealing with them. But even more, at the point when Cary sees her new husband change because of his winnings, Greene begins to examine the morality of greed. He also, in the midst of the action, gives us a painful subplot about adultery.

I was re-reading William Goldman's Adventure's In The Screen Trade the other and found this salute that I'd forgotten: "I think Graham Greene was the greatest novelist in English this century."

If you read Loser Takes All, you'll begin to see what Goldman was talking about.

Mark Arsenault i
s a Shamus-nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is:

The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain (sort of)Mark Twain’s last book

The Mysterious Stranger, was considered so cynical it wasn’t published until 1916, six years after Twain’s death.

In the book, Satan’s nephew visits three kids in Austria in 1590, performs incredible miracles and exposes the hypocrisies of humanity. The story is an attack on organized religion, war and human nature.

Only decades later did researchers realize that Mark Twain never finished the novel—he wrote three distinct, unfinished versions—and that Twain’s biographer, Albert Paine, had combined the versions, changed some characters and wrote new material to stitch the story together.

For Twain fans and scholars, the revelation was like discovering that da Vinci never finished the Mona Lisa, and that somebody else had added the smile.

Twain’s aborted manuscripts were later published in original form. I’ve read the originals in addition to Paine’s 1916 mash-up, and I’d argue that the 1916 version should not be overlooked.

First, Paine’s biggest sin: Mark Twain’s vision for the story included a good priest framed for a crime by an evil priest. But Paine refused to allow a Catholic priest to be the villain, and inserted a new character—an astrologer—to do the dirty work.

But beyond that, Paine did what an editor should do—help a struggling writer shape the story. The writer in this case happened to be dead. Twain struggled the last 20 years of his life with the story. Large portions of his original three fragments are gawd-awful boring.

The version Paine produced is mostly Mark Twain. The story thick with the rage and despair Twain felt near the end of his life, after living long enough to bury his wife and three of his children. Yet there’s humor in the cynicism, as if Twain couldn’t help but be funny.

The book also contains my favorite Mark Twain quote, about the power of laughter. Twain puts this wisdom in the mouth of Satan’s nephew, though we can deduce that the “nephew” was in disguise, and that the words are from Satan himself. As he does throughout the story, in this passage Satan is complaining about humanity:

“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

You can find Mike Dennis here. He has a forthcoming novel THE TAKE, debuting in 2010.

THE SQUEEZE by Gil Brewer

A fortune in illicit cash, a sinister gambling joint operator, a gorgeous redhead, and enough double-crossing to last a lifetime…those are the building blocks of The Squeeze, a fast-moving novel by Gil Brewer.

Written in 1955, The Squeeze is centered around Joe Maule, a Chicago transplant to the southwest

Gulf Coast of Florida, the site of many Brewer tales. Joe is in debt to the tune of $12,000, a fortune at the time. He owes it to Victor Jarnigan, owner of a nearby illegal casino. Jarnigan, who has cheated Joe out of the money, has concocted a plan to allow him to clear his debt. All Joe has to do is get cozy with Caroline Shreves, local femme fatale.

According to Jarnigan, a stickup artist from years past had squirreled away nearly $300,000 from his jobs, before finally being executed for murder. Before dying, however, he told someone where the money was hidden. That someone was Ernest Lobb, who lives in a sprawling beachfront home with his wife Sara and her stepsister Caroline.

Sara is overweight and repulsive. She drinks gin and eats chocolates at seven in the morning, generally making life unbearable for everyone around her. Caroline, however, is eye-popping, and is given to hanging around local cocktail lounges on weeknights. Joe’s instructions are to develop a relationship with her, then get into the house and try to find out from Lobb where the money is. The stakes are high, as Jarnigan has promised Joe a long, agonizing death if he fails to turn up the cash.

Well, Joe gets tight with Caroline, all right, according to the plan, but he falls in too deep. As with most Brewer protagonists, he’s blinded by his lust for this alluring woman who knows all the moves.She appears to fall for him, too, and before you can say “Judas kiss”, the two of them are plotting to grab the money for themselves and split town.

Meanwhile, Jarnigan puts relentless pressure on Joe to locate the loot. He continually checks on him, and sends henchmen around to make sure he’s got his shoulder to the task. Through it all, Jarnigan is never far enough away for Joe to get comfortable.

Joe finally confronts Lobb and, after beating it out of him, learns where the money is kept. A few minutes later, Lobb commits suicide. Knowing that Jarnigan would never buy the story, Joe and Caroline get rid of the body, making it look like Lobb has left for good on his own.

Complicating matters is the fact that when Joe and Caroline go to retrieve the money, it’s gone.

Jarnigan’s patience wears thin, Sara hits on Joe, Caroline is insisting on finding the money no matter what, and the betrayals begin.

Time runs out on all the characters, as The Squeeze comes rushing to its inevitable climax. Brewer’s formula of lonely-guy-meets-beautiful-dish works again, thanks to clever variations in his theme. He pushes all the right buttons in this little noir gem, which unfortunately has been left in the dust of the last half-century.

Martin Edwards is a CWA Dagger Award winner and author of two series: one set in Liverpool and one in the Lake District. THE SERPENT POOL will be out in Feburary.

Woman at Risk, Miles Tripp

I’m fairly confident that few if any readers of this blog will be familiar with my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books – even though it dates back only as far as 1974, and its author died just nine years ago, not too long after publishing his final novel. The book I’ve chosen is Woman at Risk, the author is Miles Tripp.

Tripp qualified as a solicitor after serving in the RAF during the war, and he produced no fewer than 37 novels, 14 of them featuring a private eye called John Samson. During the 1970s, I had a phase of enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve blogged previously about a very unusual novel of psychological suspense of his called Five Minutes with a Stranger.

Woman at Risk is very different, possibly unique, novel. I don’t want to say too much about its structure, because that would spoil some of the surprises in store for anyone who cares to read it. Suffice to say that it’s a short but clever novel, with a number of quite remarkable twists.

On the face of it, the story is about a rather selfish solicitor called Robert, whose wife mysteriously disappeared three years ago. He is a workaholic and his social life is confined to a regular Friday evening get-together in a pub with three other men. But he starts an affair with the wife of a client, and in the first few pages of the story, the woman dies in his house. In a panic, he decides to bury her body in a wood. Suffice to say that this is not a wise decision, and that his sins are bound to find him out. But what his sins are, and how they are found out, are questions to which few readers will guess the answers at an early stage of this ingenious narrative.

There’s just a hint of Boileau and Narcejac about some of the melodramatic aspects of this novel, and I really enjoyed devouring it. I picked up my copy by chance from a catalogue issued by that very good bookseller, Jamie Sturgeon of Littlehampton. I was attracted by Tripp’s inscription in this copy to a policeman friend. He says that ‘Anglia TV bought the TV rights of this book but couldn’t get a suitable script written.’ This puzzled me, until I realised how the complexity of the story might well defeat a script writer. To find out what I mean, you’ll have to read the book – but if you do, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Jeff Meyerson has been a member of DAPA-EM for over 30 years and published an early fanzine in pre-computer days called (way before the bookstore/publisher of the same name existed) The Poisoned Pen. I was a mail order book dealer, specializing in secondhand British mystery and detective fiction. I've read thousands of mysteries since 1970.

Shirley Jackson, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957).

Anyone who has gone through high school in this country is undoubtedly familiar with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," surely one of the most widely read and aught short stories of the last half century. Fans of supernatural and horror fiction probably know her The Haunting of Hill House or one of its two movie adaptations, the first of which was one of the best horror movies ever.
Not many, however, are aware of her other persona as the Erma Bombeck of her time. Despite what the titles might suggest, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are not horror novels. Rather they are often hilarious and memorable tales of Jackson's life with her husband trying to raise her four young children.
Even though it's been thirty years since I first read them, there are still stories I remember vividly, including her oldest son Laurie's tales from kindergarten and the antics of bad boy "Charles." Jackson can't wait until open school night to get a look at this monster, only to learn...well, it's worth reading for yourself. Another incident comes when her husband (literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) decides they need a car and she is the one who will have to learn to drive. Perhaps taking the children along was not the best idea.
These stories were originally published as short stories in various women's magazines of the day and can easily best read episodically. If you need a laugh you could do much worse.

Jared Case is a graduate of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and the Head of Cataloging for the motion picture collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. He is the curator of the film noir series that runs in January and February at the Dryden Theater and is, himself, a “pre-published” author. You can read his thoughts on film noir, crime fiction, kooky criminals and local authors at A Case of Murder (

DIE DREAMING, Terence Faherty

Owen Keane is the perfect example of a character that illuminates the prosaic by highlighting the idiosyncratic. His background is like no other: On a religious retreat between his junior and senior years in high school he came across a boy who claimed he could talk to God. When this claim was proven a deceit, his faiths were shaken: his faith in God, his faith in Man, and his faith in The Truth. This event was never far from him, and his crises of faith were internalized, affecting his belief in God, his belief in himself, and his belief in his ability to find the truth. Hoping to tackle all of these crises simultaneously, he abandoned Mary, the woman who would be the love of his life, and entered the seminary. When his failure at the seminary coincided with Mary’s abandonment of him for his college roommate, Harold Ohlman, Owen began to wander, doing odd menial jobs, and ending up in a liquor store. In a fit of pique, he attended his tenth high school reunion under the guise of a private investigator, and Owen Keane, the amateur detective was born.
This backstory is specific enough to be unique, and yet the sum is the same for many of us. Our lives have been an accumulation of events that led us to question the world around us. And to this end, Owen Keane has many of the same investigative tools we all do. As a fan mystery fiction and mystery film, Owen has been indoctrinated into all the tropes and clichés of the detective’s process. His experience is our experience as he references Dashiell Hammett, or Nero Wolfe, or Double Indemnity. This makes him acutely self-aware of his place in the genealogy of detective fiction, but the broad shoulders he stands on don’t prevent him from jumping to the wrong conclusion or following a lead because he hopes it to be true. His failings are our failings, even as his cynical, self-deprecating exterior belies an underlying belief in the goodness of men and women, and the belief that he will be able to effect positive change through the search for truth.
In fact, his currency is truth. Rarely does he get paid for his services, and even then it only covers expenses. But if he can uncover the truth, not necessarily for himself, and not even necessarily for the victim, it adds to a growing tapestry of truth, something that he can point to as a basis for a belief in his ability to find the truth, which supports a belief in himself and in mankind, which holds up the possibility of a belief in the existence and effectiveness of God, despite the fact that faith requires neither proof nor support. Yet this is what drives him to toil in the long shadows of Sam Spade, Nick Charles and Travis McGee.
DIE DREAMING, the fourth book in Terence Faherty’s “Owen Keane” series, is perhaps the best, taking this mystery-fan/faith-in-crisis context and grafting it onto a mystery story that inverts the mystery story expectation of beginning-middle-end. Owen Keane, 28 and feeling a bit of a failure, decides to play a self-deprecating joke on his high school classmates, The Sorrowers, by running an ad for the Owen Keane Detective Agency in the 10th reunion program. But one of The Sorrowers is a jokester herself and sets up a fake mystery to lure Owen into an embarrassing situation. Owen falls for the ruse, but is saved by another classmate. In the meantime, however, a true mystery surfaces when loose lips mention an event that was suppressed 10 years ago and that tied The Sorrowers together in a code of secrecy. Owen’s investigation stumbles along, following false leads and shaky assumptions, but his dogged determination does eventually reveal the truth. It also reveals that there are as many victims as perpetrators, and in the end Owen decides that the truth, now discovered, is sometimes better left buried.
This decision comes into question 10 years later when one of The Sorrowers turns up dead. Owen must come to terms with his responsibility in the death and determine whether the truth did come out, and if someone would kill to keep it hidden. His investigation takes him back to his hometown and his 20th high school reunion. He starts to look at The Sorrowers and the mysterious event that took place 20 years ago, but he has to take into account the changes that have taken place in the last 10 years, when the end of his last investigation became the beginning of this new crime. He discovers that relationships are even more complex than they appeared, and that crimes can have implications generations removed from the original event itself.
There is no better feeling than finding a piece of art that resonates with you, unless you get to share that discovery with someone else. Terence Faherty and Owen Keane were such a discovery for me, and I hope that, by sharing the discovery with you, they will pass from the realms of the forgotten.

Paul Bishop
Bill Crider
Ray Foster's Grandaughter
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/David Vineyard
Todd Mason
Eric Peterson
Laurie Powers
James Reasoner
Kieran Shea
Kerrie Smith
Kelli Stanley


Laurie Powers said...

That Graham Greene sounds good, Patti. I haven't read any, I'm ashamed to say.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite Graham Greene's are BRIGHTON ROCK, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, and the HEART OF THE MATTER. But any Greene is better than almost anyone else.

Todd Mason said...

I'm reminded of the short story contest conducted by the British version of the fiction magazine ARGOSY in 1947. Theodore Sturgeon won the prize with "Bianca's Hands," a story so disturbing he couldn't find a market for it when he wrote it, in 1939...a local fellow named Greene had the story which placed second.

Todd Mason said...

(I would like to read that Greene story, too, btw.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Great selection this week. I think I want to read all of these.

Anonymous said...

SInce THE THIRD MAN is one of my favorite movies I read the book version (which I believe also came after the screenplay), which - obviously, perhaps - is pretty close.

In the 1970's I read a lot of older travel books, including Greene's JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS (across Africa, an awful trip). His autobiographical works are also worth seeking out.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I haven't read those--not even Travels with My Aunt. The Sherry bios are incredible too. Interesting the biographer who devotes his life to another person's. We heard him speak once and it was just that.

Travis Erwin said...

I should have some forgotten books soon as my mom just gave a box full of old ones that came from my old room.

Paul D Brazill said...

I love Graham Greene too and that's one I haven't read. Actually, all the books this wek look like my cuppa tea.