Fans of Robert E. Howard might wonder what took me so long, but it was not until last summer that I discovered his funny, fighting character, Steve Costigan.
Hopping around Amazon, I found a collection of 21 Costigan stories for 99 cents on Kindle. Now I am slowly working my way through the yarns.
So far, the stories feel like a combination of Popeye cartoons and the dark B pictures that used to play on TV on Saturdays when I was a kid.
Costigan is a merchant seaman who gets himself into fights and scrapes in every port.
The collection kicks off with Costigan in a Hong Kong saloon where he meets an old pal, encounters a beautiful woman and gets involved in the mystery of a missing jewel.
He and Bill McGlory, a guy he is either brawling with or palling around with, track the woman and get tangled up with a Chinese gangster. The trail leads to a fabulous compound which feels like a sort of maze as the sailors fight with guards and henchmen in dark mysterious rooms and closed-in courtyards that seem to magically appear out of Robert E. Howard’s pen.
In the next story, Costigan and his bulldog, Mike, are in a waterfront dive in Singapore when some tough, sporting types want Costigan to enter his pet in an organized dog fight with a notorious killer pooch. Costigan tells them to forget it, but someone kidnaps Mike and Steve fights his way through the city looking for the animal.
He offers a reward for his stolen dog and plans to raise the money by stepping into the boxing ring and winning the prize money. The fight is hilarious with Costigan battling but distracted with thoughts of who may have stolen his dog and worries about getting him back.
There is plenty of action and some very funny dialog peppered with cartoonish, phonetic seafaring words, and lots of 1920s-1930s slang.
The stories are fast, clever, and peppered with salty, but G-rated language, and funny observations as told in the first person by Costigan “hisself.”
By today’s standards, parts of the stories are either borderline to outright offensive. Howard was a writer of his time and I’ve got to believe he was not out to offend anyone, but to just tell a rip-roaring tale for the enjoyment of his readers.
Howard, author of the Conan the Barbarian stories, wrote about 27 Costigan tales from 1929 until about 1934. He died in 1936 at age 30.
For more on the boxing sailor, Steve Costigan, check out Paul Bishop’s post.
And for more posts on books, head over to Patti Abbott’s page.
Dana King is the author of 10 books and several short stories. His novels A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window were nominated for Shamus Awards. He’s written five novels in his Nick Forte series, and his fourth novel in the Penns River series came out January 21.
ELGIN BLEECKER: Dana, welcome to The Dark Time. Your new novel, Ten-Seven, just came out. Would you tell us about Penns River, your fictional small city in Pennsylvania, and about its police department, and what its detectives face in your new story?
DANA KING: Pittsburgh’s recovery after the collapse of the steel industry is remarkable, but it never really made it north up the Allegheny River. Penns River still has an economy that runs about as well as it did in the 70s and no real hope of things getting materially better. The new low-roller casino was supposed to bring untold riches; instead it brought a new way to siphon money out of the town, along with increased crime. The persistent poverty whipsaws the police between having more crime and less money for the resources to fight it. In Ten-Seven, an apparently random act of violence has repercussions out of proportion to its initial effect because there’s too much going on for the beleaguered cops to concentrate on anything.
EB: I am curious to know how the series began – the conception that lead to the first novel, Worst Enemies. Was it the location? Was it Detective “Doc” Dougherty? Or did you start with the killer and his crime?
DK: Worst Enemies began as an idea to put a twist on Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. I’d not read the book, nor had I seen the movie; I just knew the premise. All my previous stories were set in and around Chicago but I hadn’t lived there in a while and wanted a location I knew but where I could also make the stories about more than the featured crime. I grew up in the three small towns that make up Penns River and went back often to visit my parents, so I took a page from the “Write What You Know” school and placed the story there. Ben Dougherty (pronounced “DOCK-erty”) was my anchor, the one person who saw the town the most like I did, as he’s been away for quite a while (in his case, in the Army) and was able to place his love for the place in perspective. I chose the name deliberately to anchor myself there: my father’s first name was Benjamin and my mother’s maiden name is Dougherty.
EB: I have a clear mental picture of Penns River, its neighborhoods and people. But you never wrote any long descriptions. It was all subtle suggestions, brief impressions. When describing a person or place, how much is too much, how much is too little, and how do you know when you’ve got it just right?
DK: Everything is subordinate to the needs of the story, so all descriptions have to be proportionate to how important they are in relation to the story. If something matters for the story—say a character needs to have brilliant blue eyes—then I’ll describe them. That’s not to imply I never make digressions from the main thread. Not at all. But when I do digress to set a mood or to build a character in the reader’s mind, then whatever I choose to describe is critical to that story, even though it’s smaller. I rarely worry if the description is too little, as I only want to give enough for people to form some image for the movie that’s playing in their heads. I know it’s too much when I’m editing and start to feel antsy for things to move again. When in doubt, too little is almost always better than too much.
EB: Your Penns River cops sound like real people. I think I can even detect a regional accent. Do you recall specific people when composing dialogue for your characters? And once you hear it, how do you get it down on paper?
DK: It’s a writers’ joke, but I listen to the voices in my head. Most of my dialog comes from me putting myself in a situation and transcribing how I think that conversation would go, making adjustments for character differences along the way. The first draft is very close to a transcription of what goes on in my head, so much so that I sometimes have pages with no tags or attributions as my fingers try to keep up with what I’m hearing; delineating each character’s method of speaking takes place in edits. I still have a fairly pronounced Western Pennsylvania accent and I can call up voices from my past pretty easily. I think it also helps that I was a classically trained musician so I have an ear for tone and rhythm that is helpful here.
EB: Thanks, Dana, for taking the time to discuss your new book and your writing.
Tony Knighton’s 2017 book Three Hours Past Midnight checks all the boxes for a crime novel. It has a cool resourceful anti-hero, scary, relentless bad guys, tough savvy women, dirty cops, crooked politicians, a good mystery, plenty of action, and a sprawling urban setting.
The main character is a professional thief who is so deep in the shadows hardly anyone knows his name – including the readers of this noir story. He is a man known as a top professional, which is why a former city cop hires him to break into a sleazy politician’s townhouse and steal the contents of a safe.
The thief easily lets himself into the home, finds the safe, then surprisingly, chops it out of the wall and drops it out a side window where the ex-cop picks it up, puts it in his vehicle and drives away. The two will settle up later.
But when he arrives at the meeting place, he finds the ex-cop shot dead and the safe gone.
If he is to maintain his reputation, the thief cannot let this go unanswered. He spends the rest of the night moving about town, hunting down the guys who killed the ex-cop and took the safe. The thief wants to do more than just find and punish the culprits, he wants the money from the safe and he wants to know why they killed the man.
The crazy, tangled and violent journey of the thief is an exciting ride as he tracks down the safe and the thieves. And to complicate things, he is being tracked by someone willing to kill anyone in his way.
The story takes place in and around Philadelphia, a city Tony Knighton obviously knows well, perhaps from his day job. He is a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
Three Hours Past Midnight is a fast-paced, intriguing whodunit, and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Worst Enemies, the last book I read before the close of the year, is on my short list of best reads of 2018.
It is the first book in Dana King’s Penns River series and introduces Detective Benjamin “Doc” Dougherty and the other cops in this fictional city in western Pennsylvania.
Doc and his partner, Willie Grabek, a slightly burned-out detective close to retirement, are called to the scene of a brutal homicide. A woman was killed in her home during a burglary gone wrong. Or, so the cops think.
The identity of the killer is revealed in the first chapter as Tom Widmer, a knucklehead who, while boozing in a strip joint, meets Marty Cropcho. The two share their problems and Marty comes up with a great plan to solve them. He tells Tom they should each kill the other’s wife in a Strangers on a Train type plan, and no one will ever connect them because no one knows they are acquaintances. Evidently these two never read the Patricia Highsmith novel or saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie.
With complete instructions on how to get into the house and just what to steal to make it look good, Tom Widmer goes first. But Widmer quickly learns it is not easy to kill a person. Marty Cropcho’s wife puts up one hell of a fight for her life, but loses in a brutally graphic scene.
The detectives soon have Widmer in custody when author Dana King pulls the rug out from under everyone. The case goes off in an unexpected direction. His story zigs and zags and speeds along following Doc as he tries to untangle a mystery that seemed so clear cut in the beginning.
King also provides a look into Doc’s personal life – his love life, his folks whom he visits every Sunday to watch the Steelers play football on TV, and his somewhat empty home life.
At times, the book feels like non-fiction thanks to King’s natural, realistic-sounding dialogue and the unusual surnames of many of his characters, including one police officer nicknamed Eye Chart.
The small city of Penns River comes to life as clearly on the page as any real place, complete with its wealthy suburb, a crumbling poor neighborhood, local taverns, chicken wing joints, and a veterans’ hall where old timers shoot pool and drink tap beer.
There are two more novels in the Penns River series, Grind Joint and Resurrection Mall, and Dana King just announced a fourth book, Ten-Seven, due out this month.
New York City lawyer, sleuth and sometime tough guy Scott Jordan, the
hero of a dozen books by Harold Q. Masur, was first introduced in the
1947 novel Bury Me Deep.
The year 1947 also saw the publication
of Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, which introduced Mike Hammer. Masur
may have been influenced by Spillane, or perhaps he was just writing to
the tastes of the times.
While crafting a Perry Mason-like
mystery, Masur peppered his story with sexy dames for Scott Jordan to
encounter and a few thugs for Jordan to square off with. But Masur falls
short of matching either Spillane or Erle Stanley Gardner.
story begins with a scene that could be the first line of a joke. Jordan
opens his apartment door to find a beautiful, nearly naked woman
reclining on his sofa. The girl soon winds up dead and coincidentally
turns out to have been a witness in a big inheritance case.
There are a lot of coincidences in Bury Me Deep. Too many.
Q. Masur (1909-2005), was a lawyer, but unlike Gardner, did not give
Scott Jordan nearly the legal acumen or cunning personality of Perry
Mason, nor was Jordan as tough and entertaining as Spillane’s
Bury Me Deep is a book I looked forward to
finding and reading, but, instead of going on, I will send you over to
others who enjoyed Masur’s work a lot more than I did, and you can read
their takes here and here.