Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, December 4, 2009

Dorothy McGuire reading

Today is the beginning of a series J. Kingston Pierce is hosting on The Rap Sheet on the writer, Derek Raymond. Here's the schedule. Stop by and discover a writer we don't hear enough about.

-- December 4: Tony Black on HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN.
-- December 11: John Harvey on THE DEVIL'S HOME ON LEAVE.
-- December 18: Russel D. McLean on HOW THE DEAD LIVE. =
-- December 25: Christmas, no contribution
-- January 1: Cathi Unsworth on I WAS DORA SUAREZ.
-- January 8: Ray Banks on DEAD MAN UPRIGHT.

NEXT WEEK IS FORGOTTEN KID'S BOOKs, with the emphasize on books you read as a pre-teen.

Forgotten Books

Neil Plakcy is the author of four mystery novels set in Honolulu as well as the romances Three Wrong Turns in the Desert and Learn more about him and his books at

The Zoo Gang by Paul Gallico

When I was a teenager I read everything by Paul Gallico that I could get myhands on, from his comic Mrs. 'Arris novels to the tear-jerker The Snow Goose, right up to The Poseidon Adventure, from which the blockbuster movie was made.

But my favorite was a book called The Zoo Gang, which is so far out of print these days that Amazon can only find one used copy.The jacket of my paperback edition calls it a caper novel, though really it's a collection of four stories, and they are more puzzles than capers. The protagonist is Colonel Pierre Roquebrun, proprietor of an antiques store in La Tourette, on the road between the towns of Vence and Grasse, in the back country of the French Riviera.In his youth, Colonel Roquebrun aka Le Renard, or the Fox, led a group offighters in the French Resistance. They include the Wolf, the Elephant, the Leopard and the Tiger, and though all are in the evening of their lives, they are still as clever and cunning as they were during the Second WorldWar.

In "The Picture Thieves," the first of the four stories, a French police detective comes to Colonel Roquebrun for help investigating a series of art thefts. The puzzle involves not only how the paintings could have been stolen, but how to parlay the knowledge of that theft into the prevention ofan entirely different crime. This story introduces the members of the ZooGang as well as their specialties during the war. The characterization ispretty shallow, though, because Gallico's emphasis is on the details of the crime.

In "How to Stick up a Fifty-Million-Dollar Gala," the five friends engage in solving a similar puzzle. "Snow Over the Cote d'Azur" is the longest of the stories, in which Roquebrun's niece dies of a drug overdose, leading him to go after the suppliers of drugs into the Riviera.

The final story, "LeSnatch Double," is another marvel of complicated plotting, in which two children are kidnapped, and a terrible price is exacted for a piece of wartime treachery. Rereading it now, I'm less impressed than I was as a teenager. The characters are flat, and I never was able to keep a handle on the other animals beyond the Fox. There isn't much of a real sense of the Riviera, either, beyond a few place names and some details of the floats in Nice'spre-Lenten Carnival. But the puzzles are very clever, and it's an interesting insight into the kind of men who fought in the French Resistance.

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.

John Sladek, INVISIBLE GREEN (1977)
Bari Wood, THE TRIBE (1981)
Walter Mosley, WALKIN' THE DOG (1999)

I thought what I'd do this week was go back and see what I was reading the first week in December of 1979, 1989 and 1999, and the above three titles answer that question.
Sladek was mostly a science fiction writer, of course, but he wrote two wonderfully old-fashioned locked room mysteries in the 1970's, BLACK AURA and INVISIBLE GREEN, both featuring brilliant amateur Thackeray Phin. Sadly, there were no more of them, and both certainly qualify as unjustly forgotten books. You could check the online booksellers for copies. Both are available at a cheap price on ABE and both are well worth your time.
THE TRIBE was a hit at the time it came out, I believe, and Wood had several other bestsellers, including TWINS and THE KILLING GIFT. She's probably been pretty much forgotten these days, as her last published book was in 1995. To be honest I don't really remember much of this one, which the publisher tried to make a Jewish version of THE EXORCIST, with concentration camp victims and Jewish mysticism combining for rather tepid, if fast-moving, horror thrills. I don't have a copy so can't really be specific.
The Mosley was his second collection of Socrates Fortlow stories, and I'm a big fan of the series. Fortlow was a murderer who has been released from prison and is trying to get by in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood and negotiate his way in a white world. The stories here and in ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, ALWAYS OUTGUNNED, the first book in the series, are well worth your time as Fortlow is - to me - a fascinating character, moreso than Easy Rawlins.

Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and many other fine books. You can find him here.

Bruno Fischer had one of those careers you can't have any more. There's no market for any of it. He started out as editor and writer for a Socialist newspaper, shifted to terror pulps when the newspaper started failing, became a successful and respected hardcover mystery novelist in the Forties and early Fifties, and finally turned to Gold Medal originals when the pb boom began. His GMs sold in the millions. His House of Flesh is for me in the top ten of all GMs.

Then for reasons only God and Gary Lovisi understand, Fischer gave up writing and became an editor for Colliers books. But he had one more book in him and it turned out to be the finest of his long career.

Fischer shared with Howard Fast (Fast when he was writing mysteries under his pen names) a grim interest in the way unfulfilling jobs grind us down, leave us soulless. Maybe this was a reflection of his years on the Socialist newspaper. The soullessness features prominently in The Evil Days because it is narrated by a suburban husband who trains to work each day to labor as an editor in a publishing company where he is considered expendable. Worse, his wife constantly reminds him (and not unfairly) that they don't have enough money to pay their bills or find any of the pleasures they knew in the early years of their marriage. Fischer makes you feel the husband's helplessness and the wife's anger and despair.

The A plot concerns the wife finding jewels and refusing to turn them in. A familiar trope, yes, but Fischer makes it work because of the anger and dismay the husband feels when he sees how his wife has turned into a thief. But ultimately he goes along with her. Just when you think you can scope out the rest of the story yourself, Fischer goes all Guy de Maupassant on us. Is the wife having an affair? Did she murder her lover? Is any of this connected to the jewels? What the hell is really going on here?

Sometimes we forget how well the traditional mystery can deal with the social problems of an era and the real lives of real people. The hopelessness and despair of these characters was right for their time of the inflation-dazed Seventies. But it's just as compelling now as it was then when you look at the unemployment numbers and the calm reassurances by those who claim to know that the worst is yet to come.

All this wrapped in one hell of a good tale by a wily old master.

Paul Bishop
Bill Crider
Martin Edwards
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Juri Nummelin
Eric Peterson
James Reasoner
Rick Robinson
Scott Parker
Kerrie Smith


Paula Schuck said...

Are you there god it's me margaret by Judy Blume, must have read it one thousand times as a 10-12 year-old anxious to grow up.

Todd Mason said...

Please bump up the typeface by a point or so on the guest contributors, Patti...and mine will be up shortly.

Jeff, as you probably know, Sladek collaborated repeatedly with Thomas Disch, and their first (iirc) novel together was a slightly surreal and definitely satirical crime fiction, BLACK ALICE (originally published as by Thom Demijohn, and with a truly awful first edition cover in the US offer).

Charles Gramlich said...

I think Gallico wrote a book called The boy who invented the Bubble Gun, which I read, and have a copy. Though it's at home at the moment.

Todd Mason said...

You're correct, of the few, if not the only, book whose READERS' DIGEST "condensed" version I read through as a kid, one day when there was nothing much else to do (including no way finding the real Gallico text).

Chad Eagleton said...

Thanks for the Derek Raymond link. I'm a huge fan of his Factory series. The last, I Was Dora Suarez, is easily both the most disturbing and most moving crime novel I have, and suspect will ever, read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I must read that book, Chad. Have been hearing about if for years.

Evan Lewis said...

The Zoo Gang sounds like a great concept in a unique setting. Thanks!

Juri said...

Patti: I just put up a short one with Ross Macdonald.