Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not In Novak's House

For those of you history buffs out there the name E. Howard Hunt should bear some signifigance.  He was one of the journalists who went to prison over  the Watergate Conspiracy, but before history recorded him as a scoundrel and a crooked reporter, Hunt was a successful novelist and wrote several  crime stories and political thrillers.  I came across one of them while scavening the book rack at a Big Lots in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  Titled House Dick (mind out of the gutter, you), it's the story of Pete Novak, the resident house detective in an upper-crust Washington, D.C. hotel.

Pete is called in to investigate the theft of ninety thousand dollars of jewels from Julia Boyd's room.  Julia is married to Chalmers Boyd, a man who  claims to be very influential in his home state of Maine.  Due to Julia's obesity and her nervous condition, Chalmers has hired the enigmatic Doctor Bikel to attend to his wife's health.  Chalmers tells Pete that there wasn't any theft and that Julia was having a spell, which leaves our hero confused and wanting to know more about this strange trio.

Down the hall from the Boyd's, Pete runs into Big Ben Barada and the former Mrs. Barada, Paula Norton, who is the blonde-haired, gray-eyed femme  fatale of the story.  When Pete hears Ben working Paula over, he uses his pass key to bust in and take Ben down...but our hero soon regrets this decision  when Paula points a .25-caliber pistol in his kidneys and tells him to split.  "Lady, in case you didn't notice, the guy was beating you up," Pete points out as he leaves.  Soon, Paula calls Pete back to her room and explains that Barada wanted money, which she came to D.C. to pick up.  When the house dick  asks Paula how much money she's collecting, she responds with the shattering "Ninety thousand dollars."

And with more nuance than he's given credit for, Hunt draws you into House Dick and never lets you go.  His prose is the epitome of hard boiled crime fiction, and the dialogue sounds exactly like the movies that were playing during that period.  Pete is probably the best example of crime fiction's over-played stereotype: the smoking, drinking, tough-as-nails private eye, but Hunt uses this to his advantage and creates a detective who gets in over his head in something that he knows isn't going to end well.  The really entertaining part is watching Novak struggle with himself as to what he should or  shouldn't do and how far he'll go for Paula, or Julia, or any of the other characters in the book.

One of the more interesting aspects of House Dick was trying to place where I had heard Pete Novak's manner of speech before.  His cadence was so  familiar to me, and yet I couldn't place it until about the middle of the book, and then it hit me--Pete Novak sounded an awful lot like Humphrey Bogart,  the infamous Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and Rick Blaine of Casablanca fame.  And it wasn't just his speech pattern that drew me to this conclusion, either; it was the way Novak thought, the way he moved, the way he felt.  Everything played out like he'd been modeled after Bogart, and once  I started picturing Novak as Bogart, the book became twice as fun and ten times as enjoyable.

E. Howard Hunt may not be remembered by anything else but his involvement in Watergate for years to come.  However, if you pick up a copy of House Dick (either the original or Dorchester Publishing's Hard Case Crime reprint), you'll find one of the greatest literary minds of the 1960's at work, and  when he was at the top of his game.  The book does not disappoint on any hardboiled level--the crime, the romance, the mystery, the intrigue, or the  action.  It's hard to find a book like that in these modern times, and even though this tome was written in 1961, I'd like you to pick up a copy, set the Wayback Machine to the old days (and for God's sake, leave Sherman behind), and sit in awe as a great detective, and a great writer, get to work.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cuts Like A Knife

Here's a review of another Dollar General find for $1.25 that kept me in suspense the whole time I was reading it.  It's Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut, and my review of it is featured below.


Reading about film editing, even for a film buff like me, is usually a recipe for a nice, long nap.  But if you add a dash of hardboiled noir, drug smuggling, and one very troubled femme fatale into the mix, you have the combination to a very nice story that will hold my interest.  Such was the case with Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut, one of Hard Case Crime's novel reprints from 1986.

In this book (which features a beautiful cover by Chuck Pyle), Bell weaves the tale of Tracy Bateman, a freelance film editor who's been living off the radar ever since his best friend and film producer, Kevin Carter, involved him in a production that used drug smuggling as its major source of fundraising.  After one of their production staff is killed at the border trying to smuggle their "funds" back into the states, Tracy dropped out of the editing game and swore he would have no contact with Kevin ever again.  However, certain circumstances place Tracy in a vulnerable position, and soon Kevin has him flying to Rome to edit a documentary about junkies recovering from their drug addictions.

What does all this have to do with the drug smuggling and hardboiled noir?  I asked myself the same question several times throughout Straight Cut, and every time I did, some twist would occur that made my jaw drop.  Such is the way Bell has written this novel--it's very hardboiled and very noir, but not in the stereotypical notions of the genre.  Bell writes like he speaks, or that was my impression, which gives the prose a personal and close-to-the-vest sound.  Then there's his imagery and nuance for detail in all the locations in the novel--Rome, Belgium, and New York City all seem vividly realized by someone who's obviously been there, heard both sides of every story, and has the scars to prove it.

But the further I dove into Straight Cut, the more I began to identify with Bell's hero, Tracy Bateman.  His emotions over his predicament with Kevin and Lauren (his ex-wife and the femme fatale) became my emotions; his pain became my pain; and his anger became my anger. I've never been so drawn into a book and a set of characters as I was with this novel, and I doubt the experience will be replicated.

Bell has crafted a great piece of work here that will leave you stunned and feeling a little uneasy when you're finished.  It's not exactly a happy story, but one that's complete, fully-fleshed out (a rarity these days), and firmly based in the realm of possibility.  It will also make you feel like you got more than your money's worth, so if you can find a copy of Straight Cut, make sure you grab it--you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Twist Ties

I found myself browsing at another Dollar General store in town and stumbled upon Colby Hodge's paranormal action/romance "Twist" for $1.25.  The anime-inspired cover art intrigued me, and so did the premise.  Here's my review of the book as it appears on's "Twist" page.


Two of my many interests lie in anime and books.  When a publisher combines them (a rarity, I'll admit), I definitely take a second look, which is what I did when I picked up Colby Hodge's "Twist" the week before Christmas.  The book was categorized as an action/romance and was published under Dorchester Publishing's short-lived Shomi Romance line, which featured sci-fi, fantasy, and action-oriented romances written by fresh female authors.  Sadly, Shomi was cancelled two years into its inception, and the anime covers only lasted the first year of its existence.

Despite that, Miss Hodge introduces us to Abbey Chase, our heroine, by giving us a piece of the novel's ending first.  The story then backtracks to how Abbey got to that point by starting at the beginning--she's a poor college student who lost her dad in a car accident and flips houses to make money.  She's currently flipping a house from the 1920's that has a brick wall built over the fireplace.  Sledgehammer in hand, Abbey tears down that wall, proving that she's not sugar, spice, and everything nice.  Plus, I always liked the idea of a girl with her own set of tools. 

Abbey finds a time-traveling device behind that brick wall which hurtles her one hundred years into the future and into the arms of Doctor Shane Maddox, who she remembers from her past life.  Shane is now the leader of a band of resistance fighters who battle the "ticks"--time-traveling alien vampires who invaded the day Abbey disappeared into her brick wall, one hundred years ago.  Shane blames Abbey for the post-apocalyptic world humanity now lives in while she's fighting her attraction to him, just as she did in her old life.  Abbey is forced to find a way to survive in this brave new world, which isn't easy, considering that every "tick" within fifty miles wants to kill her.

Miss Hodge constructs a very interesting, if somewhat hard to digest, world for this book to take place in.  The time-traveling alien vampire thing fades over time, leaving us with Abbey, Shane, and the supporting cast of rogues who fight alongside them.  Hodge's strength lies in her characters and in her dialogue, which moves the story along at a comfortable pace.  The rhythm of "Twist" took a little time for me to get used to, but once I did, I really got hooked on Abbey's first-person narrative and her affable way of describing the events in the book.  It sounded the way a modern twenty-something woman would talk, which is the key when writing from the first-person perspective, and Hodge had that down to a "T." 

While there's certainly no shortage of paranormal/supernatural romances out there, Colby Hodge has created something unique in "Twist"--a good blend of action and romance that leaves you feeling satisfied when all the dots get connected and the heroine saves the day.  The last time I read a book like that I was in my teens, and if you can say the same, then it might be time to pick up "Twist" and revisit the days when things really did end happily ever after.

--Justin A. Swartz

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mystery of Ms. Tree

I stumbled upon a copy of "Deadly Beloved" at my local Dollar General store for $1.25 and couldn't pass it up.  I'd never read a Max Allan Collins book before, nor was I familiar with his female private eye Ms. Michael Tree.  Below is the version of my review that appears on's "Deadly Beloved" page.


I am an unabashed fan of hardboiled detective novels & pulp fiction, which confuses some of my friends who read more modern novels and rave about them.  I've basically grown up on a diet of Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Donald Westlake, so you can say that when I pick up a pulp novel, I'm in familiar territory.  Taking that into account, the books from Dorchester Publishing's Hard Case Crime imprint are like a warm blanket on a raw winter's day, and I've enjoyed every single one I've read...but I haven't enjoyed a pulp novel, let alone any book, as much as I liked "Deadly Beloved" by Max Allan Collins.

The novel features Collins' female private eye Ms. Michael Tree (her father wanted a boy), who is trying to deal with her late husband's murder, which occured on their wedding night.  The action shifts to the present day, where Ms. Tree is assisting the Chicago P.D. on what should be an open-and-shut murder case, and then jumps several hours ahead, where Ms. Tree is in a psychiatrist's office, talking about her husband's murder, how they met, and her present dilemmas. 

Just when you think none of this ties together, the strands that Collins weaved throughout the novel start meeting in unexpected places, and before you know it, you've got the answer to the puzzle--and so does Collins' heroine.  The way this novel flowed just blew me away, and the prose had such style that I couldn't tell where one chapter ended and another began.  Assisting the flow of the novel is the dialogue, which never dips into hyperbole and keeps both feet in Coolsville.  Plus, there's Ms. Tree herself, a really awesome woman who is as tough as they come and always gets her man.  

In the back of the book, Collins takes the time to explain the comic book origins of Ms. Tree and how he came up with the idea.  He also goes on to describe all the various incarnations of Ms. Tree, whether it be books, comic books, television, or movies.  The latter has yet to happen, but "Deadly Beloved" would definitley make the perfect hardboiled noir film for someone like The Cohen Brothers or Frank Miller.  All we can do is hope, but for now I'll settle for the paperback novel, which I read and finished the same day I got it.  Once you start reading this book and settle into Ms. Tree's universe, you won't be able to put it down, and it'll be an afternoon well spent.

--Justin A. Swartz