Friday, September 20, 2019

Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

This post is what you might call, coming late to the party.

Most already know what a terrific writer Canadian Dietrich Kalteis is, but I’ve just got to heap on a little more praise.

My introduction to Mr. Kalteis was his 2017 novel, Zero Avenue.

Set in Vancouver’s punk rock scene of the late 1970s, the book is a kick-ass crime story.

A singer and guitarist, a punk-rock club manager, and a drug-dealing gangster all have great ambitions to get ahead.

Frankie, a young woman with an electric guitar, a decent voice, and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, leads her own band. But the group struggles to get noticed and to get paying gigs. She makes ends meet by making deliveries for Marty, the local drug kingpin.

Marty’s business is expanding almost as fast as his own drug habit and he now allows his crazy right-hand man to handle things he used to take care of himself.

Johnny owns a grubby little club and is always in the red. His biggest headache is his landlord – Marty.

Part of Marty’s business is muscling farmers outside the city into allowing him to grow pot in the middle of their corn fields. He has a couple of dim guys with guns stationed at the farm to protect his crop.

The book’s title comes from the name of a street on the Canadian-U.S. border where the farm is located.

Frankie has a thing going with Marty until she catches him being serviced by a woman in the grungy, grotesque restroom of Johnny’s club. The woman takes issue with Frankie’s attitude only to have Frankie beat the crap out of her and leave her bloodied on the floor.

In need of money, Johnny hits on the insane idea of ripping off Marty to pay Marty.

Frankie and her band members wind up in the middle of the mess.

Kalteis remembers and recreates the era and has a ball naming the fictional bands and songs. But, readers do not have to be into punk to appreciate the rip-roaring story.

Zero Avenue is written in an edgy, staccato style that warns: Better keep up, ’cause this author ain’t waiting for you.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, August 30, 2019

Gumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill

Funny and noir are two words not frequently linked. But Paul D. Brazill, master of the comic crime novel and short story, pulls it off. His writing has you laughing while it leads you down a dark alley and punches you in the gut.

In his new book, Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns, Brazill tells four tales of his unlikely private detective. The stories are: “Gumshoe Blues,” “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” “Who Killed Skippy?” and “The Lady and the Gimp.”

The first, “Gumshoe Blues,” is long enough to qualify as a novella, or at least a novelette. At first it seems to be a rambling, episodic excursion through a “seen better days” English city.

Ord picks up odd jobs – very odd for a PI – then often gets sidetracked, drinks too much and has a tendency to screw things up. Anyone who has ever had a blistering hangover will get a charge out of Ord’s morning afters. The writing puts you in the head of Peter Ord. By the end, the loose threads are all neatly pulled together and tied into a satisfying knot.

The fun of a Brazill story is not only in the plot and the unique situations, but also the kaleidoscope of characters. Everyone of them is vivid and comes with a unique history. Brazill provides all this in a few seemingly simple strokes creating places and lives, while he cracks you up with his observations. He is a magician who diverts your attention with humor while he works his craft.

Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns was published today (August 30). Paul D. Brazill sent me a copy a few weeks ago. Other Brazill books are Last Year’s Man, Guns of Brixton, Too Many Crooks, A Case Of Noir, Kill Me Quick! His short stories have appeared in many anthologies.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is a Movie to See

Catch “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” before it disappears.

Films like this generally don’t last long in theaters. I was going to say, little films like this, but “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is not so little. There are some amazing scenes filmed in Seattle and the Antarctic.

But the scenery is not what this movie is about.

It is about Cate Blanchett, one of our finest actresses, and the performance she turns in as Bernadette Fox.

Bernadette, a once rising star and award winning architect of modern structures, quit the designing of buildings and has lived in near seclusion in Seattle for two decades with her husband, a wildly successful computer game creator whose company was bought by Microsoft, and her teenage daughter.

Why did Bernadette quit? Why is she so anti-social? Why is she becoming a problem to her family and neighbors? That is the story, and to add any spoilers to this post would be to spoil the joy of watching Bernadette work through it all.


“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, someone whose films I will always go out of my way to see. The movie is based on a 2012 book of the same title by Maria Semple. Billy Crudup plays Bernadette’s husband, and Emma Nelson plays her daughter. Also in the cast are Laurence Fishburne as a former colleague, and Kristen Wiig as her neighbor.

The beautiful cinematography was by Shane F. Kelly (who also photographed one of my all-time favorite documentaries, “Tim’s Vermeer”).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, a Perry Mason mystery

On a folding table at a book fair sat an old, but never read, hard cover collection of three Perry Mason novels from late in the series.

It didn’t take a Perry Mason to figure out the book had never been read. The pages were too clean and some of them were stuck together at the edges the way they will in some brand new books.

The collection was marked $1 – a deal too good to pass up.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s simple, direct writing style, his twisty plots and his fictional lawyer’s quick thinking and sometimes questionable actions are always a pleasure to read.

The last novel in this Perry Mason collection was The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, from 1965.

In it, a 22-year-old woman returning to Los Angeles after a three-month trip abroad, finds the wealthy and elderly uncle she lived with all her life has been forced into a sanitarium by relatives. The uncle’s greedy half-brother is now the conservator of the uncle’s estate by order of a local court.

The woman turns to Perry Mason for help. She knows her uncle is not senile or violent, as the relatives claim. The relatives are out for his money.

Having a person committed against his will to a prison-like hospital is a plot device I seem to recall Gardner using before, and the Perry Mason television show of the 1950s and ’60s used it several times. In fact, the plot of this story is nearly identical to one of those episodes. Gardner’s original stories were often adapted for the series.

Although all the Perry Mason novels are breezy and light, this one seemed even lighter than usual, and a little thin. There were fewer characters – fewer suspects – involved than in earlier Mason books. The author also padded the page count by repeating himself unnecessarily, going over the same elements of the story several times, when the events were not that complicated or hard to remember.

This story could have been set in one of the previous decades – which is part of the charm of the Mason novels. But the character of a young woman in 1965 was out of step with the times. She did not have to be a hipster from Haight-Ashbury or Carnaby Street, but even the most strait-laced girl of that era would not be as square and old-fashioned as this character.

Still, the Gardner style was on display and the crafty maneuvering of Perry Mason was fun to read and exciting to anticipate, especially in the early chapters – like the lawyer’s moves to have a large check cashed for his client.

All the usual characters appear in the book: Della Street, Mason’s confidential secretary, Paul Drake, the head of a private investigation company, Detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg of the Los Angeles Police Department, and L.A. District Attorney Hamilton Burger, who Gardner (and the TV show) were always careful to refer to by the character’s full name, in order to avoid the comical nick-name, Ham Burger.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)



Friday, August 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Don’t read anything about it. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Just go see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Let the movie surprise you.

Before catching it this week, I heard it was Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and latest film. I heard it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. I heard it was about a fading TV star and a stuntman in 1960s Hollywood.

That was enough for me.

I am not a huge Tarantino fan. But the subject and the era of this new one made me want to see it.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is Tarantino’s best movie and I expect it to be up for Oscars in the next round of Academy Award nominations.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Kitten with a Whip by Wade Miller

The 1959 crime novel, Kitten with a Whip, is a noir set in the sunshine of Southern California.

Average guy, David Patton, a San Diego engineer and family man is on his own while his wife and child visit family in San Francisco.

He wakes one morning to find a slinky teenage girl in a nightgown in his house.

She tells him of her escape from a harsh juvenile detention center and begs him to help her.

Does he toss her out and call the cops? No. Remember, this is noir.

He decides to help her. He buys her clothes. He drives her to the edge of town where she can catch a bus. He gives her money.

After making a few stops before going home, he walks into his house and there she is again.

Now Patton is giving himself acid reflux worrying about what the neighbors will think, and how to get rid of her in broad daylight.

She tries to seduce him. She threatens to tell the police he raped her. She threatens him with violence. And on and on.

At times, Patton’s bad decisions pile up so high that the book almost read like a dark comic novel.

Wade Miller was the pen name of the writing team of Bob Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961) who together wrote more than 30 novels, including Badge of Evil, which was the basis for Orson Welles’ film, “Touch of Evil.” There is more about them at Thrilling Detective.

The recent Stark House publication of Kitten with a Whip comes with a second Wade Miller novel, Kiss Her Goodbye from 1956.

And let’s hear it for Stark House, for their work in making these Wade Miller novels and many other hard-to-find books available.

(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

JFK, 007, and Favorite Books

Last week, I posted a piece about Ian Fleming’s 1957 James Bond novel, From Russia With Love. Reading it brought something to mind – something I heard as a kid:

President John F. Kennedy was a Fleming fan.

It is the kind of thing you hear and remember, but don’t know if it was really true.

It was true.

Kennedy not only liked From Russia With Love, he included it on a short list of favorite books.

On Sunday, April 14, 1963, newspapers around the country ran a story from the Associated Press with headlines like, “Spy Thriller On Kennedy Reading List.”

A Long Island woman, the head of her local public library’s board, wrote to the president, “asking him to name two books he considered to have played a part in shaping his life.”

She received a reply from Mr. Kennedy through a presidential aid that included a list of books JFK called, “his particular favorites.” This was the list:

The Emergence of Lincoln by Allen Nevins;

The Price of Union by Herbert Agar;

John C. Calhoun, American Portrait by Margaret L. Coit;

Byron In Italy by Peter Quennell;

Talleyrand by Duff Cooper;

Marlborough by Sir Winston Churchill;

Lord Melbourne by Lord David Cecil;

Montrose by John Buchan;

The Red and the Black by Stendhal; and

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming.

Some publications featured 11 books, and others made it an even dozen by including:

John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy by Samuel Flagg Bemis; and

Pilgrim's Way by John Buchan

Editors must have found it intriguing that the president placed Ian Fleming’s novel among the histories and biographies and they usually listed the James Bond book last, almost as a punch line.

JFK was a voracious reader. “He was always reading,” Jackie Kennedy once said.

Asked in a July 1963 interview, how it felt to have written one of President Kennedy’s favorite books, Ian Fleming said, “It’s quite flattering.”

Fleming said he had met the president and Mrs. Kennedy and had sent JFK autographed copies of his James Bond novels. He said, “It’s the least I can do.”

(Also, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, July 12, 2019

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

A lot of years have gone by since I last read anything by Ian Fleming. The last was Thrilling Cities, a non-fiction collection of travel essays. I found a paperback copy in a used-book store in the 1990s. But I could not tell you the last time or title of one of Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Something on-line triggered an urge to dig out my paperback copy of From Russia With Love.

Fleming’s 1957 book featuring British agent “Double-O-Seven” was far better than I remembered the series. Of course, when I first read his novels I was interested only in the adventure and the hot parts.

From Russia With Love is still a damn good adventure, but by today’s standards, the hot parts are pretty tame.

Interestingly, in his fifth Bond story, Fleming does not bring his main character on stage until about one-third of the way into the book.

The opening chapters describe Red Grant, or Granitisky, as the Russians call him, the immensely strong, murderous psychopath who defected to the U.S.S.R. in the 1940s and whom the Soviets use as an assassin.

The scene then switches to the Kremlin where the heads of intelligence, the secret police and other agencies hatch a scheme to upset the British Secret Service and to throw a scare into their own people to keep them in line. Fleming obviously knew his stuff when laying out the functions of the agencies inside the walls of the Kremlin. Another reason for the plotted attack on the British was the Soviets' embarrassment over recent defections to the West. Fleming has the Russians fuming over the defections of Tokaev, a real-life rocket scientist, and Khokhlov, an actual KGB officer.

The Soviets' plan is to lure a top British agent into a trap and kill him. This agent must be a top man, one with a double-O rating. The one they choose is 007, James Bond. The two lures they use are a portable decoding device and a beautiful young Russian woman working as a government clerk.

When Fleming brings Bond into the story, the agent is between assignments and bored. His days are a dull routine of going to the office, doing paperwork and attending meetings. He is itching for action.

Bond gets his wish when his boss, M, tells him about a Russian woman assigned to a Soviet office in Istanbul who wishes to defect to the West and will bring with her one of the decoding machines. Bond and M know it is a trap, but they want the device, so Bond goes to Turkey.

In Istanbul, he meets Darko Kerim, head of the British secret service branch in Istanbul, and a lovable, middle-age, bon-vivant and ladies' man.

A local organization working with the Russians has targeted Karim for assassination and tried to blow up his office. Luckily, Karim was not sitting at his desk at the time, but was over on the couch engaged in a nooner and the blast only heightened the climax.

Some of the absurdities Fleming put into the book, like the submarine periscope installed to peek into the Soviet headquarters in Istanbul, are fun without knocking the story off track. Fleming tempered the joke of the periscope with Bond’s and Karim’s journey too it through a rat-infested tunnel.

Quite a bit of the book found Bond in grubby environs and eating unappetizing foods. When Bond arrives in Istanbul, he checks into a once grand hotel with a great view but which fell into decline and now is a dump. After his first night there, Bond wakes with bed-bug bites. The book is not nearly as glossy as the movie made from it.

A bit of Bond trivia: From my reading, Bond is older than might be assumed. Fleming says Bond came to work for the secret service in 1938. Others speculate Bond was born around 1920. That would make him 18 when he joined. Fleming also notes that he went to college in Switzerland. Bond may have been recruited into the service as a student, but I saw him as older. From Russia With Love takes place in 1955. I pictured Bond in his late 30s or even 40, which made his encounter with Red Grant all the more dangerous.

Revisiting the Bond books today, made the Cold War seem like ancient history. It has been 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union started coming apart. Fleming wrote his series of spy novels about 30 years prior to that. So, it is pretty old stuff. But the writing is still crisp and the From Russia With Love is still a page-turner.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

3 Questions for the 4th

Here is a short quiz for this Fourth of July :

How many words are in the Declaration of Independence?

How many words are in the U.S. Constitution?

How long would it take to read both documents?

Exact numbers are not necessary. Close estimates will count.

Arriving at the exact number of words can be a little tricky. Some count only the body of the texts. Others include the signatures on the documents. With the Constitution, some count all the original passages, including those later amended. Others do not.

So, instead of exact numbers, I will give you some easy to remember estimates:

There are about 1,450 words in the Declaration of Independence, including the signatures.

There are about 8,500 words in the Constitution, including the amendments.

Together, they would take an hour or so to read.

To see a 2009 video of celebrities reading the Declaration, click here.

Happy Fourth everyone!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

At age 80, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios is still a spry and effective thriller, if a puzzling one. More on that later.

The novel is the story of Charles Latimer, an English writer of detective stories, who while visiting Istanbul, meets Colonel Haki of the secret police. Haki tells Latimer about a murdered criminal called Dimitrios found floating in the sea. This man, who went by many names, was himself a murderer with a sketchy, shadowy past that intrigues Latimer.

Curious about the missing parts of Dimitrios’ life, and wanting a taste of actual detective work, Latimer sets off to trace the movements of the dead criminal.

The trail begins in Smyrna (the old name of the Turkish city of Izmir), then on to Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and Paris, revealing Dimitrios’ involvement in international espionage, attempted assassinations, the slave trade and drug trafficking. It also puts Latimer in contact with, and in the crosshairs of, some unsavory characters.

About four-fifths of the way through the book, after digging up a lot dirt on Dimitrios, Latimer worries he may have put his own life in danger. On that score, readers will be way ahead of Latimer.

Earlier, I said The Mask of Dimitrios is a puzzling thriller. While it is a fascinating page turner, most of those pages have other people telling Latimer stories about the many misdeeds of Dimitrios. Little action actually happens in the present, but the stories are fascinating. By the final pages, there is plenty of action, and the ending is gripping.

The Mask of Dimitrios (which was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S.) is a fine book and Ambler (1909-1998), through Latimer’s investigation and internal musings, provides a good deal of history and insight into Europe during the years between the world wars.

(If you enjoy crime stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)