The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

October 31, 2010


The heart of pulp – the cheap paper and glue product, the boiler-room atmosphere of authors cranking out novels on a weekly basis – may be dead, but the soul, ah, the soul – those fantastic stories of action, adventure, mystery – lives on. And not solely at events such as PulpFest, where past pulp glory is continually redistributed.

In Beat to a Pulp: Round 1, David Cranmer and Elaine Ash have made a dedicated and informed effort to keep flowing a font of new stories in the finest pulp tradition. Kudos to them, for in this tasty and tasteful collection are stories of crime, mystery, noir, nautical adventure, western action, SF, horror, and even – are you ready for this? – an intergalactic western. So true to the soul of pulp is this anthology there is even a previously unpublished western (The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce) by the late Paul S. Powers, a notable pulp writer during the 1930s and '40s. (And this story is even more intriguing when set alongside Craig McDonald's short story, Colt, and Ambrose Bierce's own short story, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, neither of which is in this book, but would be worth your while to read.)

The collection is so huge, 27 stories plus a history of pulp, that the book could very well be used to do what the title suggests. A few of the stories, like the very fine Hard Bite, by Anonymous-9, were originally published by Cranmer and Ash at the Beat to a Pulp webzine, while many others were written just for this "round." The credentials of the authors known to many fans of crime fiction: Charles Ardai, Robert J. Randisi, Hilary Davidson, Sophie Littlefield, Patricia Abbott, Jedidiah Ayres, James Reasoner, Stephen D. Rogers,  lends deserved credence to names that may not be quite so familiar to readers who don't regularly visit short-fiction webzines and anthologies: Nolan Knight, Chris F. Holm, Jake Hinkson, Kieran Shea, Andy Henion, and the man with a brand new book deal, Frank Bill.

Here's an anthology that really does offer something for every one, from Nazis to vampire fish, from shoot-outs to smuggling. I loved Ed Gorman's Killing Kate, about a man who could never bring himself to harm his unfaithful wife; and the Paul S. Powers story, which I've already mentioned. Then there's Chap O'Keefe's The Unreal Jesse James, about a time-traveler who robs trains in the Old West. And Charles Ardai's A Free Man, about where mid-life crisis can lead a man, is brilliant; as is the creepy little tale of wedded bliss in Sophie Littlefield's Fangataufa. And Cullen Gallagher's A History of Pulp is not to be missed. Pripet Marsh, Stephen D. Roger's story about a World War II soldier who just follows orders.There are just so, so many excellent stories here. I know I'm hardly the first to say it, but Beat to a Pulp: Round 1 is an absolute knock-out. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Foreword: Bill Crider
1. Maker’s and Coke Jake Hinkson
2. A Free Man Charles Ardai
3. Fangataufa Sophie Littlefield
4. You Don’t Get Three Mistakes Scott D. Parker
5. Insatiable Hilary Davidson
6. Boots on the Ground Matthew Quinn Martin
7. Studio Dick Garnett Elliott
8. Killing Kate Ed Gorman
9. The Ghost Ship Evan Lewis
10. The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce Paul S. Powers
11. Heliotrope James Reasoner
12. The Wind Scorpion Edward A. Grainger
13. Hard Bite Anonymous-9
14. Crap is King Robert J. Randisi
15. The All-Weather Phantom Mike Sheeter
16. Pripet Marsh Stephen D. Rogers
17. Ghostscapes Patricia Abbott
18. Off Rock Kieran Shea
19. At Long Last Nolan Knight
20. A Native Problem Chris F. Holm
21. Spend it Now, Pay Later Nik Morton
22. Spot Marks the X I.J. Parnham
23. Hoosier Daddy Jedidiah Ayres
24. Anarchy Among Friends: A Love Story Andy Henion
25. Cannulation Glenn Gray
26. The Unreal Jesse James Chap O’Keefe
27. Acting Out Frank Bill
A History of Pulp Cullen Gallagher

October 30, 2010

Gonzo goings-on

A GONZO NOIR, Declan Burke's latest novel, is finally on the print publishing horizon. Though a print run of only 500 copies is planned, should the run sell out, the net profit will all go to the Children's Hospital in Tallaght, where Burke's daughter spent some time last year.

For anyone not familiar with Burke's novels, just allow your mind to contemplate these two words: screwball noir. Burke doesn't admit to it, but it's possible he's the literary love-child of Preston Sturges ('A pratfall is better than anything.') and James M. Cain ('I want to see that fin. That black fin. Cutting the water in the moonlight). With Tom Stoppard ('I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.') as godfather. I'll be keeping tabs on a pub date. Who knows, maybe at that time we can lure DB over to The Drowning Machine and get his feet wet.

In the Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues department,  the January issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine arrived yesterday. It appears the good folks at EQMM begin celebrating their 70th year in 2011. Hats off to them, that's a great run. And may it continue for another 70.

Of particular note in this latest issue, is a new story from Liza Cody, MR. BO. Cody only popped up on my reading radar this past summer, and I've since been tracking down copies of as many of her novels as I can find. I turned directly to this story and got sucked right into the world of a single mom struggling to make ends meet just as her long-lost affluent sister swans into her world and turns it upside down. This story should win many new fans for Ms. Cody, and I won't be surprised if it's listed among EQMM's reader favorites at the end of '11.

Talk about getting sucked into a story. I just started Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP, and the first chapter is ultra-humbling for us wannabe-a-writers. Here's a small sample:
Thrill parties every night over on Hussel Street. That tiny house, why, it's 600 square feet of percolating, Wurlitzering sin. Those girls with their young skin, tight and glamorous, their rimy lungs and scratchy voices, one cheek flush and c'mon boys and the other, so accommodating, even with lil' wrists and ankles stripped to pearly bone by sickness. They lay there on their daybed, men all standing over round, fingering pocket chains and hands curled about gin bottle necks. The girls lay there on plump pillows piled high with soft fringes twirling between delicate fingers, their lips wet with syrups, tonics, sticky with balms, their faces freshly powdered, arching up, waiting to be attended to by men, our men, the city's men. What do you do about girls like that?

October 15, 2010


If I had not read and enjoyed Paul Tremblay's two novels about his narcoleptic detective, The Little Sleep and No Sleep till Wonderland, I doubt that this new collection of short stories from him would have caught my eye. And the loss would have been mine, for as much as those novels engaged me, delighted me, and touched me, I believe that it is in the short story form that Tremblay's talents are most fully appreciated.

The most difficult task facing the short story writer is deciding what to leave out, how to create those gaps in the story or character that best reveal the story or character; what to resolve and what should remain ambiguous. After reading these stories I am convinced that Tremblay is a master at evoking images by using shadows, at creating worlds by ending them. His prose is indelibly vivid nonetheless: Starkness is drawn in bold strokes, while plenty is shaded in transparent lines. There is a certain wonderful rhythm to his prose as well, that both pushes and pulls at the reader.

These are not crime fiction stories, although occasionally a crime occurs. If a label is required, speculative fiction will do as well as any other, but writing of this caliber requires the dismissal of categories and genres in favor of simply saying, "yes, read this." Each story becomes a lesson in dread as the author finds the reader's nerve bundles and presses lightly, casually, just letting you know the damage he could do if he wanted. These stories are less about horror than they are horrifying. But in a gentle, subtle way that really gets the lizard brain screaming danger, danger!

I was floored by the very first story, The Teacher, about a hip teacher and his special class in American History, and the effect of that class on one student in particular. No praise I can heap on this story will do it justice, so do yourself a favor and click here to read this story for free. But the leaps of imagination that occur from story to story, the unspoken human entanglements, the deft exposure of great mysteries in small moments -- you will need to read the entire collection to fully appreciate Tremblay's gifts. Check that, you may need to read some of these stories more than once, so nuanced are they.

The Blog at the End of the World is a story perfectly so attuned to how we communicate today, that one could almost search and find such a blog about a medical panic. The End of the Marlborough Man is a brief self-defeating moment of victorious anarchy. And then there's Growing Things, a heartbreakingly irresolute tale about two little girls in a cabin surrounded by plants -- this story should be read alongside Zeltserman's The Caretaker of Lorne Field, for a study in compare and contrast. And it makes me wonder, since both authors dwell up Massachusetts way, what the hell are they drinking up there and could I have some, please?

Charles Tan has written an excellent review of IN THE MEAN TIME at Bibliophile Stalker. I could not say better than he what is so remarkable about this collection:
"With Tremblay, there’s no dramatic music to clue you in that this is the part where you’re supposed to scream. In fact, most of the text is a gradual revelation and it’s only in retrospect that you come to realize hey, this is genuinely creepy stuff."
The readers of this collection are akin to frogs about to be cooked: Toss us in the boiling water and we'll jump right out of the pan. Toss us in cold water, turn on the heat and let the water come to a gradual boil, then we frogs will happily allow ourselves to be cooked and eaten. And, brother, Tremblay makes a meal of us.


October 11, 2010


The first story in this delightful collection of Christmas mysteries just might be the best gift I'll receive this holiday season. Give Till It Hurts is one of the comical John Dortmunder stories by the much-missed Donald E. Westlake. Dortmunder, for those not familiar with the character, is a thief. He's a good thief, which is to say that he's good at his job, not that he is a good man. But things seem to happen to Dortmunder; things no thief, however proficient, can plan for.

With the cops hard on his heels, Dortmunder passes himself off as a guest in a Christmas poker game, sitting in for the missing "Don," who can be no other than Westlake himself, of course. This poker game takes place after hours at The Mysterious Bookshop, with participants including the likes of "Larry" (Lawrence Block?), Justin (Scott?), and the proprietor of the bookstore himself, Otto Penzler. I found myself chuckling because Dortmunder was still so very -- Dortmunder; I found my eyes welling up because I hate the idea of a world without the possibility of more of Westlake's wicked sense of humor. This is the very essence of a Christmas gift: something unexpected that brings joy and also touches the heart.

As a result, I find myself deeply grateful to Otto Penzler for sharing these stories with the rest of the world. You see, Penzler personally commissioned each of these 17 stories, one a year since 1993, from writers whose names alone inform the reader of the quality within this book: Westlake and Block, of course, but also Ed McBain, George Baxt, S.J. Rozan, Edward D. Hoch, Charles Ardai, Mary Higgins Clark, Rupert Holmes, Anne Perry, Jonathan Santlofer, Michael Malone, Andrew Klavan, Jeremiah Healy, Ron Goulart, Lisa Atkinson, and Thomas H. Cook.

Penzler's requirements were that each work must be a mystery/ crime/suspense story, that it be set during the Christmas season, and that at least some of the action must take place in The Mysterious Bookshop. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present. I am mighty sorry that I have not been a customer right along, but Penzler clearly has a forgiving nature since he now makes these stories available to anyone with the price of admission.

Westlake's story is followed by Schemes and Variations by George Baxt, wherein his snarky detective, one Pharaoh Love (I kid you not), is on the trail of a killer who has already done in three book dealers in the search for a rare Dashiell Hammett manuscript. Indeed, missing, stolen, or rare manuscripts play a role in several of these stories, as does Otto Penzler himself, but the reader is pulled along by the sheer charm and ingenuity of the writers. The name-dropping alone is staggering, and evoked a very real, very unChristian envy in me for those who have the privilege of dropping in at Penzler's store whenever they choose.

Generally designed to be lighthearted mysteries, there is yet a darker gem of a story by Ed McBain (who comes in for some good-natured joshing by some of the other writers for his vast collection of pen names). His I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus reveals the sinister side of the jolly holiday season. Lawrence Block chips in with As Dark As Christmas Gets, a clever homage to Nero Wolfe, while Jeremiah Healy introduces The Holiday Fairy, wherein one might note a slight resemblance to a famous Agatha Christie story but to which Healy has added a certain poignancy and imbued with far greater affection than any of the Dame's characters were wont to possess. And Mary Higgins Clark closes out the collection with What's in a Name?, an Algeresque tale for perennially rejected writers.

As a holiday gift for mystery lovers, I highly recommend this collection. But you know, people will say, 'Oh, I got her a book last year. She has lots of books, she must get so tired of receiving them,' and then they'll go out and buy you some overpriced bath salts or too-small house slippers or an Air Supply cd, and you won't get this (or any other) book. You'd better just buy it for yourself.

October 10, 2010


Just in time for Halloween comes Todd Ritter's debut novel, DEATH NOTICE.

Small-town police chief Kat Campbell doesn't have a lot of experience with serious crimes. There aren't many in Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania. So when a local farmer is murdered in a mysterious and rather grisly manner, Kat is happy to accept help from the state Bureau of Investigation. The state investigators suspect a serial killer dubbed The Betsy Ross Killer, for his rather fine sewing technique. The serial killer is caught and confesses, and everyone lives happily ever after.  Except for the next victim. And the next...

The author creates some interesting characters which offset the cliched serial killer situations. Chief Campbell is the single mother of a child with Down's Syndrome. The mysterious Henry Goll, who writes the obituaries for the local paper and becomes a key figure in the investigation, is badly disfigured and so rarely seen, even by his co-workers, that he's been dubbed Henry Ghoul. The lead detective for the state, Nick Donnelly, spends his vacations going around the country to interview killers. There are some nice red herrings, and although the reader may guess the killer's identity, it won't happen early enough to ruin the story. The prose is workman-like, and the pace and tension could be improved upon, but the climactic encounter with the killer is gruesome enough to win over fans of the hardest-core horror films (I may wear a neck brace until my fear wears off. Not to mention avoiding funeral homes.). Fans of Linda Castillo's Silence series should enjoy this one immensely.