Friday, November 04, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 4, 2011

A little Halloween story over at THRILLER, KILLERS AND CHILLERS. Thanks to the bunch of editors there.

My review of Margin Call is up on Crimespree Cinema.

REMINDER: LAST FRIDAY IN NOVEMBER IS CANADIAN BOOKS DAY. Although someone should have reminded me that I will be away. Todd Mason has graciously offered to pick up the links so let him know if you are an irregular reviewer.

Summary will probably go up tomorrow

Al Tucher is the author of over 30 stories about the delightful Diana. You can find him here.

By George Harsh.
Since 1986 I have worked as a cataloger at the Newark Public Library, which has existed since 1883. The library has some very deep collections, and exploring them is both my job and a perk of my job. A recent project in the biography section brought me into contact with Lonesome Road, a 1971 memoir by George Harsh.
In 1928 Harsh was a rich, arrogant, idle young college student in Georgia. He and other rich, arrogant, idle young men spent much of their time discussing their superiority over the masses and the uses to which they should put that superiority. This was only four years after the Leopold and Loeb case, but it seems part of the “superman” pathology to dismiss possible lessons from anyone else’s experience. The young men in Harsh’s circle decided that they were able and therefore obligated to commit the perfect crime.
For the thrill of it they began a string of armed robberies. When a store clerk resisted, Harsh was the one holding the gun and the one who fired the lethal shot.
The police easily caught the young supermen, and Harsh was sentenced to death. His codefendants received life sentences, and the prosecutor, troubled by the disparity, succeeded in having Harsh’s sentence commuted to life. Writing years later, Harsh is unsparing toward his young self. He deserved to hang, he says, but he received more mercy than he had shown with the gun in his hand.
He spent the next several years on a Georgia chain gang that was brutal even by the standards of the time and place. Eventually, he became a trusty with a job as an orderly in a prison hospital.
Here we encounter the first of several plot twists that only reality can get away with writing. When an inmate needed an emergency appendectomy, a freak ice storm kept the staff physicians from reaching the hospital. Harsh, who had assisted at several such operations, performed the surgery and saved the man’s life. The governor of Georgia pardoned him.
The year was 1940. George Harsh felt undeserving of peace and security while so much of the world was at war. He traveled north and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Harsh flew numerous bombing missions over Germany. His luck ran out in 1942, when he was shot down. His captors sent him to Stalag Luft III.
Fiction writers, try getting away with that one. In the 1963 film The Great Escape, the character called Intelligence, played by Gordon Jackson, is based on Harsh. He was not one of the 80-plus POWs who made it through the tunnel before it was discovered, which was just as well. Only a handful made it to safety. The rest were recaptured, and the Gestapo summarily executed more than fifty of them.
Harsh survived a brutal forced march westward, away from the advancing Red Army. His narrative ends there.
His story does not. In 1945 he was in his mid-thirties and had spent mere days as a grown man neither incarcerated nor at war. In another twist that in its own way might be the strangest of all, he worked for a while as a publisher’s traveling sales representative. The experiment in freedom was not a success. The memory of his crime tormented him, and he attempted suicide. Later he suffered a stroke, and in 1980 he died.
No collaborator in the writing of this book is named. If it is Harsh’s work, it counts as a remarkable achievement. He knows when and how to make his writing as terse and urgent as Morse code in the night, and his meditations on freedom, imprisonment, violence and war come with a hard-earned authority.
Did George Harsh atone for his crime? It’s a tough call that will vary from reader to reader. Does his book deserve a place on the shelf? In my mind, beyond all doubt.

Ed Gorman is the author of Bad Moon Rising and Stranglehold. You can find him here.

Lemons Never Lie, Donald Westlake

There are so many twists, turns, starts and stops in Lemons Never Lie by Donald E. Westlake as Richard Stark that the novel becomes a kind of crime picaresque filled with mugs, thugs, killers, victims and Parker's redoutable thespian friend, Alan Grofiled. There's also a lot of notably brutal violence.

The book begins with Grofield visiting Vegas to partake of a robbery that will give him the money to survive one more season in his summer theater. Grofield, in case you didn't know, is a "purist" when it comes to acting, his chosen profession. No movies or television for him. Stage only. But it takes his other profession, robbery, to support his theater. Only his long-supportive wife understands how hard he works at both careers.

A man named Myers has set up a robbery plan and has called in amateurs to help him. With the exception of a man named Caithcart and a dangerous man named Dan Leach, the group is a zero. As is Myers. Now Myers, who speaks with a boarding school accent, is one of the great villains in Westlake's world. He is a true sociopathic murderer; a serial killer of a kind. Grofield and Leach decide against working with him.

This is the set-up. There's an early twist that lets us know just how nasty Myers is. And then the various adventures start. Grofield resembles his friend (and fellow robber) Parker only occasionally. For instance, he loves chit-chat, feels sorry even for a guy who tries to kill him and lets another live that (as reader) you know should be killed on the spot, slowly and joyously.

There's also a lot of witty humor. Grofield gets into the damnedest conversations with people. Once in a while you may even forget you're reading a crime novel. Westlake has a great time riffing on all the cliche exchanges you read in most crime fiction. At a couple of point Grofield starts sounding like a TV shrink.

Lemons Never Lie is Westlake at his very best. While there's a screwball comedy-feel to some of the misadventures, the unrelenting violence reminds readers that the Richard Stark is the master of the hardboiled. The masterful plotting, the wry way the genre cliches are turned inside out, and the earnestness and humanity of Alan Grofield make this a pleasure from page one to the unexpected ending.

Yvette Banek
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Elizabeth Foxwell
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Margot Kinberg
Rob Kitchin
B.V. Lawson
Doug Levin
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Ray O'Leary
Todd Mason
J.V. Norris
Richard Pangburn
David Rachels
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Gerald Saylor
Ron Scheer
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple


Anonymous said...

Wow - I never heard of George Harsh or his book but it is indeed an amazing story. I can't believe no one has filmed it.

Of course I've read LEMONS NEVER LIE and every other book Westlake wrote as Richard Stark. I always thought Grofield was a very odd fit with the very different Parker.

Jeff M.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Barry Ergang offers "OH, MURDERER MINE" by Norbert Davis today on my blog.


Anonymous said...

Even though I get a kick out of Kiny Friedman's songs, I really disliked the one book of his I forced myself to read, ELIV, JESUS and COCA COLA. It is probably a minority view but...just not for me.

Jeff M.

Ron Scheer said...

Harsh's story about crime and punishment invites all manner of interpretations. It's the stuff of a great novel because it touches on such deep human issues, guilt and exoneration among them. A film would never do it justice.

EA said...

Albert, this was a stellar book review and you're right: if Harsh's life story was fiction, it would be laughed off as soap opera. Thanks for bring this book (as well as George Harsh) back from the ranks of the forgotten.
Elaine Ash

Gerard said...

I liked the Harsh review so much I won't make any jokes about catalogers.

Al Tucher said...

Yeah, well, Patti just ratted you out, Gerard. You cataloger, you.

Thanks for the comments, all.

Anonymous said...

Patti - Thank you so much for including my post in this noble company!

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Late again. My entry for today's forgotten book is here:

T. R. Pearson's CRY ME A RIVER