Friday, June 04, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books, June 4, 2010

Parisian reading.

Many thanks to Mr. George Kelly for anchoring this ship for the past three weeks. I checked in from an internet cafe but the price of rounding the books up was steep so I will get to it soon.

Lou Alin

Born in Toronto, Canada, Lou Allin is a retired professor of English

With a cottage on a meteor-crater lake of sixty-four square miles as her inspiration, she began her Belle Palmer series, featuring a realtor and her German shepherd, Freya: Northern Winters Are Murder, Blackflies Are Murder, Bush Poodles Are Murder, Murder, Eh? and Memories Are Murder.

Lou has now moved to Canada’s Caribbean, Vancouver Island, and lives with Friday the mini-poodle and Shogun and Zia the border collies in Sooke BC, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Recently, she’s begun a new series starring RCMP corporal Holly Martin. And on the Surface Die will be followed by She Felt No Pain. Lou has two standalones: A Little Learning is a Murderous Thing and Man Corn Murders. Lou’s interest in literacy causes won her a contract with Orca books to write That Dog Won’t Hunt, a novella designed to appeal to adults who are reluctant readers.

John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

When I moved after thirty years from Northern Ontario to far-off Vancouver Island, I took no fiction except for Nevada Barr and John Buchan. I identify with Barr’s ranger Anna Pigeon and her phenomenal sense of place in America’s national parks.

Buchan would seem a world away. Along with his other novels featuring Richard Hannay, such as Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast, The Thirty-Nine Steps was a thriller before the word was coined (Buchan calls it a “shocker,” an adventure where the events are barely credible). Today when many books have a shelf life of a month, Buchan’s masterpiece stands fast.

It has been made into movies four times, most recently for television. Let’s step back a century. It’s May 1914, and a terrified world is on the verge of war. Any advantage may turn the tide. Hannay has returned from Rhodesia to begin a new life, when a mysterious spy asks him for help. A German plot is being hatched to scuttle British plans once war begins. When the man
is found dead in Hannay’s London flat, a knife in his heart, Hannay grabs the man’s wallet and catches a train to Scotland.

Grabbing sleep where he can, a barn, a cottage, a ditch, he’s on the run, one step ahead of the enemy. Who is this group called The Black Stone? How do they know where he is? Can he trust the new friend who has just saved him? His progress is aided by the most far-fetched coincidences. In the middle of nowhere, a comrade motors by to rescue him. He is forever stealing clothes and identities, dodging airplanes, and making mysterious calls to the Foreign Office. Will they believe his story and act to save England? Or will the Kaiser receive the information to carry out a successful invasion? Therein lies the location of the thirty-nine steps.

Hannay is not only an officer, he’s a man who puts his country’s interests first and tells romance to wait. Amid the shells and mud of the Great War, this book found its way into many an army pack and kept spirits high during dark nights of the soul in the timeless fight between good and evil. This story can be told again and again. Because truth does not change, nor do good men. And though he is guilty of the usual stereotypes, he is wise enough to find something noble in his enemies.

It wasn’t enough that Buchan finished thirty novels. He had a long and illustrious political career, concluding by his tenure as Canada’s Governor-General, the representative of the Monarchy. For this honour, he was titled Lord Tweedsmuir. His years in this post from 1935-40 were as tumultuous as his plots, including the abdication of Edward VIII and the beginning of World War II. One of my favorite poses for his eagle-beaked and craggy face finds him in ful-feathered First Nations regalia.

For a man born in 1875, Buchan had a great prescience about world politics.
In Prester John, he anticipated the rise in Africa of a black Messiah, and in Greenmantle, he foretold the increasing power of Islam. In any age and in any place, Buchan would have been a great storyteller. That is his genius.

Mr. Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Recent work has appeared in Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, and a Twist of Noir. You can reach him at
Forgotten Books: Ladies' Man by Richard Price
Back before the president of the U.S. was devoting part of his summer reading to Lush Life, before Freedomland and Clockers, Richard Price wrote a little gem called Ladies' Man.

'Little' because at two hundred and sixty-four pages, the book is trim compared to Price's more contemporary work. There isn't any ink devoted to long-winded police interrogations. Ladies' Man isn't a crime story. You could call it noir, but the book defies easy pigeon-holing. Comparisons have been made to Catcher in the Rye. Kenny Becker, the protagonist and first-person narrator, is a sort of seventy's Holden Caulfield.

Yes, the book is dated. Wonderfully so. The first chapter makes reference to Happy Days, dancersising, and that anthem for a self-obsessed decade, Feelings.

Kenny's a thirty year old door-to-door salesman living in New York. His girlfriend, La Donna, is a wannabe singer. It quickly becomes obvious their relationship's headed for oblivion. Kenny has, as they say, issues about sex:

"I would get swallowed up in that childhood intensity, that self-centered ocean-sized feeling of life and death around sex. And it would happen anytime I was scared or felt hungry or needy around people. Anytime my brain would slip into a survival head the order from Central was STICK IT IN. When in fear, fuck."

He comes home from a depressing day of sales to find La Donna going at it with a vibrator, which he promptly kicks to pieces. La Donna leaves him. His ensuing loneliness drives the rest of the story.
Ladies' Man takes place over the course of a desperate week, a chapter for each day. Kenny obsesses about his abdominal muscles, getting a better job, and how he comes across to his fellow human beings. Most of all, he tries to get laid. Contemporary thinking might dub him a "sex addict," but Price is more concerned with showing the emotions behind Kenny's compulsive behavior than the act itself. When sex does happen in Ladies' Man, the presentation is so stark it makes pornography look sentimental.
We watch Kenny unravel through a tour-de-force of New York nightlife, through quips of Price's trademarked razor dialogue. In one scene, Kenny is reunited with two of his high school buddies. His delight quickly turns to sickening nostalgia, as he realizes none of them have any purpose:
"It was over. It had been the best and now it was over and nothing had ever felt as good. We had peaked back then, and all we'd been doing since was dying."
The book has hilarious moments to offset some of its darkness . La Donna's audition at the Fantasia cabaret had me falling off the couch, it was so funny. So I read it to my wife and she fell off the couch. Ditto for the scene where Kenny gets a phone call from his one-night stand:
"I felt like we made a real connection last night."
"We did! We did!"
"Then why don't you want to see me?"
"I do! I do!" I wanted her dead.
Ladies' Man has its problems. The ending feels abrupt and inconclusive--but this isn't a Hollywood thriller we're talking about here, this is existential literature. Tacking something 'big' onto the final chapter wouldn't have felt right, either. Also, some of Kenny's generalizations about the human condition, the nature of loneliness, slip from profound to banal.
Despite this, Ladies' Man is my favorite work by Richard Price. Forget intricate plotting. This one leaves an emotional residue when you stop reading. And there are parts where you slip right into Kenny Becker's adolescent, manic mindset. Only top-notch writing can do that.
And if you're thinking, "hey, I'll read an early work by Richard Price to see how his prose developed," forget it. He's in peak form in 1978, just as much as he is now.
I guess some authors just stay peaked.

Ed Gorman is the author of THE END OF IT ALL AND OTHER STORIES and THE MIDNIGHT ROOM. You can find him here.

Back in 1967 when Donald Westlake, writing under the name Tucker Coe,published Murder Among Children (second in the series about disgraced cop Mitch Tobin) the Summer of Love had yet to arrive. Hippies were still these strange beings who did little more than fornicate freely and toke on as many joints as they could find. The mainstream press loved them. So did paperback writers, sociologists and people who made their dough standing at pulpits. Hippies were proof positive that this country was disintegrating. Hell, these miscreants wouldn't even go overseas to fight in a war that should never have happened. Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale (I preferred the stripper Norma Vincent Peel) made money trashing them.

Donald Westlake, who was not only a master writer but a master observer of our society, wrote a novel in which an older man, the former cop Mitch Tobin, is forced to defend a young hippie girl accused of murder. Tobin's wife insists because the girl is related to them.

In each book we see Tobin building the wall in his back yard. He literally wants to wall himself off from the world. He has good reason to. Tobin had a mistress he couldn't leave alone, He'd sneak up to see her while his squad car buddy covered for him. Then one day his buddy needed back up while Tobin was in bed with his mistress--and his partner got killed without Tobin there to back him up.

So now Tobin is forced back into the world to find out who really killed the charismatic young man who ran the hippie hangout, the young man Tobin's relative was in love with. Westlake takes us on a tour of hippie life in NYC `67. He has the eyes of a good reporter and the constitution of an honest broker. Tobin sees a lot he likes and a lot he doesn't. I especially like the intersection he sees between crimeand the hippie lifestyle. Some very bad people hid out with the somewhat naive hippies.

The book is a pleasure to read just because of those Westlakian sentences. Never a word too many; language that illuminates every situation.
The Mitch Tobin novels are essentially private eye books and flawless examples of the form.

Joe Barone
Paul Bishop
Craig Clarke
Bill Crider
Mike Dennis
Loren Eaton
Martin Edwards
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Edward Hoch
Todd Mason
James Reasoner
Rick Robinson
Kerrie Smith
Andrew Taylor


Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pattinase (abbott) said...

He emailed me it would be up so I assumed.

Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R/T said...

More about 39 STEPS (on Broadway!) at this link:
Who new Buchan could be funny?
P.S. Make sure you watch the montage video!

Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

I really want to read "The 39 steps."

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have come very close to seeing it the last few times we've been in NY but I was always afraid to have the movie's memory tarnished. Maybe next time.

Jessica Barton linked to by TM said...

A "forgotten" book that won't stay forgotten:

Or hit the hotlink name.

Todd Mason

Anonymous said...

Patti, we saw 39 STEPS at one of the previous theaters it's been at during the NY run (it's been in 4 so far!) and had a great time. It is basically the 1935 Hitchcock movie version rather than the book, done by four actors playing all the characters, and it is a hoot.

Thanks to Joe Barone for reviewing the Camilleri book. I've read all 11 published here (so far) and get each new one as soon as it comes out. Salvo Montalbano is a great character, the Sicilian setting is unusual and vivid and the descriptions of the food he eats always makes me hungry.

One integral part of the series that really helps make it work is the excellent translations (all books) by Stephen Sartarelli.

Jeff M.

Paul D Brazill said...

The 39 Steps is a longitme fave and I agree about Ladies Man. Painfully real at times.Painfully funny too.