Underground Reading: Happy New Year, Herbie by Evan Hunter

Happy New YearLike The Last SpinHappy New Year, Herbie (1965) is a collection from the versatile and multi-named Evan Hunter. However, unlike The Last Spin, this collection is less prone to wander across genres: the eleven stories contained within are all contemporary literary fiction.

The opening story, "Uncle Jimbo's Marbles", is the longest, and perhaps my favourite of the collection. A young man is convinced by his girlfriend to become a camp counselor for the summer. It is better for them to across the lake from one another at "Camp Marvin" and "Camp Lydia" than trapped in New York under the scrutiny of her disapproving father. At least, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, Marvin himself - the head honcho - has other ideas. A polio scare means that he declares 'quarantine', and the two camps are no longer allowed to come into contact (except for passed notes). As Camp Marvin goes stir crazy, a new obsession arises: marbles. Soon, it turns out that one of the counselors - Jimbo - is a marble maven, and threatens to capture all the glassy loot available. The story describes the camp's slow degeneration into madness, as marbles become objects of current, despair and, ultimately, a sort of cultish fixation. Our narrator, grounded by (what we assume is) puppy love, is the only one to keep his head - but even he can't escape his bizarrely dystopian setting.

"Uncle Jimbo's Marbles" is a coming of age story, but also one that mixes an improbable tension with a heart-warming resolution. Definitely a camp story, but one that comes equipped with some strange life lessons.

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Underground Reading: Deadly Weapon by Wade Miller

Miller-deadly-weapon-hb"Wade Miller" is the pen name of a writing partnership composed of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. The two combined to write more than thirty novels, including one that was adapted into the famed Orson Welles noir, Touch of Evil.

Deadly Weapon (1946) is their first collaboration and, as such, is a fairly promising debut. Anthony Boucher reviewed it warmly upon its release, praising the "machinegun tempo, tight writing and unexaggerated hardness". And certainly these are all true statements. However, the book also has a disappointingly random ending.

The book begins with (surprise!) a murder. A man is stabbed to death in the audience of a 'high-tone' strip show in San Diego. Also in the audience: Walter James, an Atlanta PI who was in town to find said man. When the lights come up, the action begins. Walter - ably assisted by Laura "Kevin" Lynn, a college student with the misfortunate of sitting next to the dead man - begins the case. The dead man is found with half a business card and a matchbox full of DOPE (marijuana, in 1946). Neither Walter nor the investigating police have a hard time drawing the conclusion that there's some sort of drug ring involved.

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Underground Reading: The Last Spin by Evan Hunter

The Last SpinEvan Hunter was, amongst others, Hunt Collins, John Abbott, Curt Cannon and, of course, Ed McBain. Under his real name Hunter skewed, at least in his early career, towards literary fiction, whereas his other pen names each took on other stylistic approaches.

The Last Spin (1960) is one of Hunter's more eclectic collections, spanning genres freely, but, for the most part, focusing on characters and emotional (rather than physical) challenges. The collection contains a handful of stories that have been reprinted over and over again - but also a few rarer tales. 

The opening story, "First Offence" is vintage Hunter - or McBain, even. It has a vaguely procedural format told from the point of view of a young offender, who undergoes his first night in jail and the 'line-up' the next morning. An older, wiser con tries to take the kid under his wing, but to no avail. Our narrator is, as they say, 'feeling his oats', and is determined to make the most of his experience. The reader is treated to Hunter's skill at bringing to life the gritty but inexorable process of justice, as well as the ability to craft credible, layered characters in a short space. Despite the narrator's manic confidence, there's a sense of foreboding, and the story's payoff is as just as it is depressing.

"Small Homicide" is a similar vein: a police procedural that plays it by the numbers, but is underpinned by empathy for the criminal. If "First Offence" is more successful, it is because it has slightly less overt pathos. "Kid Kill" is another story slightly undermined by the procedural structure. Similar to Bradbury's "The Small Assassin", "Kid Kill" is an uneasy balance between the plausible and the possible, and needs either more space (or less 'realism') to succeed fully.

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Review Round-up: The Outlaws of Sherwood and Moon Knight

Outlaws of SherwoodRobin Hood retellings all tend to blur together - possibly because, after a lifetime of exposure to film, television, books, more books, comic books, and post-apocalyptic comic books, the core cast of characters and plot twists all become a bit predictable. Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) adds a fresh perspective to the mix because it is spends the most time scrutinising what an outlaw thinks, as opposed to what one does. McKinley's Robin Hood isn't so much the grand adventurer or iconic rogue as much as an accidental - if thoughtful - leader.

McKinley sets the scene in the opening pages when Robin - who is actually a rather mediocre archer - accidentally kills another forester. It is in self-defense and it is a poor shot, but, nevertheless, a panicked Robin flees into the woods to hide. It is Marian and Much, Robin's two closest friends, who see the bigger picture: a new Saxon resistance, an icon of freedom, a beacon of hope, etc. etc. Robin is mostly concerned with staying alive.

Moreover, that's always Robin's concerns. If anything, Robin is the least "Robin Hood"-like member of his own band: he's pragmatic, slightly paranoid, and far more focused on the day-to-day elements (digging latrines, for example) than fighting for the greater good. McKinley is clever in how she weaves in the traditions of Robin Hood - the green cloth, the archery competitions - in a way that seems both natural historically and natural to Robin as a character.  It is perhaps this commitment to making Robin an ordinary, nice guy in extraordinary, superheroic circumstances that makes him such a compelling character. Through the other characters' eyes, we start to see what he's becoming, and what he is a symbol. Through Robin's own... we only experience the worry, maturity and self-sacrifice that comes with being responsible for the lives of others. 

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Underground Reading: Hot Night in the City by Trevanian (2000)

Hot night in the CityHot Night in the City (2000) is a collection of short stories by the singular (pun intended) Trevanian. The pen name of Rodney Whitaker, Trevanian was the author of a handful of (extremely) best-selling novels, including The Eiger SanctionSummer of Katya and Shibumi. (The latter is, perhaps, one of the best action thrillers ever written.)

(Wikipedia-sourced fun-fact! Trevanian got a screen-writing credit for The Eiger Sanction, but the bulk of the work was apparently done by The Destroyer's Warren Murphy. Given that Trevanian noted that The Eiger Sanction was supposed to be a spoof of books like Murphy's... no wonder he wasn't so happy with the final result.)

Hot Night is an extremely - and deliberately - uneven collection - a showcase of both the author's talent and a certain degree of indulgent experimentation. Individually, the stories are all fine (or better) - as a collection, however, there's very little to link them but their diversity. This is, basically, "showing off". 

The title story - the first in the collection - is perhaps the strongest. "Hot Night in the City" follows a young man - a drifter - as he encounters a young woman late at night in New York. He charms her with his film star impressions, they have coffee, they connect, they fool around and... then it gets awfully harrowing. In one of the book's many self-conscious literary exercises, Trevanian revisits the story at the end of the book, this time through the woman's perspective. He uses virtually the same phrases and structure, showing how the two have a shared experience. But in the final tense paragraphs, he sets off what must be the longest first-act gun in short story history and changes the ending. The new ending is no less harrowing, but also very different. Again, a literary exercise, but not an unsuccessful one.

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Completing Dahl: Two Fables

This year I’ve been blogging once a month here at Pornokitsch about trying to read everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. I’m closing in on the end! Just a few more odds and ends to go.

The usual full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote, save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

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Two FablesTwo Fables (1986) 

It’s difficult for me to believe I’m almost done with this project! It’s been really rewarding overall, even if I did go through a pretty dire stretch over the summer. Gremlins. The word still makes me shudder. Regardless, this time next month I’ll be dutifully typing up a response to, ahem, Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety, the final book of his I have yet to read. And maybe reviewing the film based on Beware of the Dog. Crazy!

So... Two Fables. I managed to nab a water damaged 1st edition of this 1986 release for only three American dollars, totally worth it for the slender volume (64 pages). It contains, as you might imagine, two fables, both original to Dahl, and published together as a limited edition in honor of his 70th birthday. It also contains illustrations by Graham Dean, who is still alive and painting. Dean’s watercolors are beautiful and unsettling in full color - in black and white, as they’re reproduced in Two Fables, they reminded me strongly of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They suit the fables very well. I don’t mean to imply that Two Fables is scary - just bleak, and pared down, like Alvin Schwartz’s retellings. They’re also among the most misanthropic stories of his, I now feel qualified to say. One is all about rape; the other, how becoming pretty makes you awful. Fun times!

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Review Round-up: Retribution and the Westmark Trilogy

RetributionLast year, in Drakenfeld, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to his Classically-inspired fantasy empire and the shadowy investigative body that kept it held together: the Sun Chamber. Drakenfeld followed one of the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigators, the titular Lucan Drakenfeld, as he foiled a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata. In the best tradition of both fantasy and crime novels, Drakenfeld mixed the epic with the deeply personal: Lucan's actions swayed the fate of an empire, but he also wrestled with the demons from his own past.

In Retribution (2014), the second volume, Drakenfeld returns - as does his ruthlessly efficient assistant, Leana. The two leave Detrata for Koton, leaving the old for the new; a metaphor that spans many levels. Whilst Detrata is an ancient, seemingly-established (almost decadent) nation, Koton is a new one - just barely stabilised after years of turmoil. Similarly, whereas Detrata is deeply personally significant to Drakenfeld - a land weighty with his own family's past - Koton is new territory. Not only has Drakenfeld never been there, no Sun Chamber investigator has even been invited before.

Koton is a fascinating place. It has recently been united under the rule of Queen Dokuz, one of the book's most interesting characters. On one hand, she's brought order to a population of warring tribes and is busily trying to modernise her country into a player on the world stage. On the other, she's a ruthless dictator. Through Drakenfeld's eyes, Retribution treats her situation with the respect and moral ambiguity it requires - there are no easy answers to Koton's future, and whether or not Dokuz will be seen as a saviour or a demon will be determined by posterity.

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Lou Morgan on Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer

Psycho KillerHey people!

It's that time of year again, when the temperature drops, the nights draw in and even the brightest lights of the Upper East Side can't keep out the shadows. So wrap up warm and stay safe - because somewhere out there, a psycho killer's on the loose…

Released in October 2011, Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer is a "reimagined and expanded" slasher version of the first in Cecily von Ziegesar's phenomenally successful Gossip Girl series. In many ways it follows the same plot as the original novel, opening with Serena van der Woodsen's sudden return to New York and her friends on the Upper East Side. Most of the characters and locations will be familiar to readers of the series, as will the drinking, the sex and the drugs - but this time, there's one more vice. Murder. And as Serena hacks a bloody swathe through New York society, it isn't long before her BFF Blair starts to follow suit…

One of the most interesting things about GG:PK is that it's a reworking by the original author, whose publishers approached her with the idea of a parody genre mash-up addition to the series (no doubt inspired by the success of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shuffling into the bestseller lists in 2009). This means that while it's not exactly canon, it perhaps carries a little more weight than a parody written by someone else would.

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Underground Reading: The Rookie by Scott Sigler

The Rookie"Space opera." One of those terms that began as an insult, in this case, in 1941: a reference not to the grand scale of stage opera, but to the "hacky, grinding, stinky, outwarn yarn" of the soap opera (in those days on the radio) - just with "starships". This quote is from, of all places, a fanzine. It is reassuring to know that, even then, people were bemoaning the popularisation - and possibly even femininisation (gasp)! - of the genre. 

Fortunately, the term was reclaimed and repurposed - by the 1960s and 1970s, "space opera" was redefined to include the works of Leigh Brackett, Star Wars and other space-based stories where the science was subservient to the story, and not the other way around.* And... although to each to their own and all that... thank god for it.

Which, decades later, brings us to Scott Sigler's The Rookie (2009), the first in the "Galactic Football League" series. The concept is mind-numbingly simple. In the future, various alien factions have done various alien things and there are a lot of strange beasties out there and they more or less hate one another. SO LET'S PLAY SOME FOOTBALL.

It is, of course, completely nonsensical - and the book is littered with anachronisms (some deliberate) and silliness because of it. The Rookie is a Boy's Own adventure about building character, solid moral instruction and really Cool Stuff Happening. 

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Underground Reading: The Dead Letter and I Could Go On Singing

John D. MacDonald's I Could Go On Singing and Metta Victoria Victor's The Dead Letter - two books of... interest. And occasional flashes of quality.

I could go on singingAlthough John D. MacDonald's I Could Go On Singing (1963) is packed with personal significance, it is hard to make a case for it as a particularly interesting book in the greater scheme of things. One of JDM's rarest books, I Could Go On Singing is hard to find precisely because of its mediocrity. It was published as a movie tie-in (no shame in that, I suppose), and after the movie (a Garland vehicle) didn't do well, JDM encouraged the book's disappearance.* It has not, as far as I know, ever been reprinted. (I believe JDM did the same with Weep for Me, which, again, is sort of perplexingly average.)**

The prime mover of I Could Go On Singing is the chanteuse Jenny Crawford - a popular singer and actress, at the very height of her career. Jenny's sharp - and professional - but also, as we quickly learn, filled with a sort of ennui. Despite her success and her popularity, there's something missing from her life. As we quickly learn, that something may be her (gasp!) illegitimate child - the result of a torrid affair with a British doctor over a decade ago. When Jenny reroutes her tour to visit London for the first time ever, her management team suspects that Jenny's having belated mothering instincts. And this sort of scandal could wreck the good ship Crawford.

Enter her ex-boyfriend, Jason Brown, a typically MacDonaldian sort of male - rumpled-but-handsome, cynical-but-sensitive, making tough decisions about career and love. Jason is recruited by the movie studio with Jenny under contract: they need her to behave, lest her next film go from "a shower of Oscars" to a disgraceful failure. Jason reluctantly flies out to London and renews his acquaintance with Jenny.

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