Category Archives: Reviews

Sherlock Holmes & Mr. Mac in: The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby and The Case of the Unseen Assassin by Gary Lovisi

lovisi-cAuthor/bookseller Gary Lovisi is a frequent contributor to The Digest Enthusiast. I like his writing. In fact, that’s why I publish it myself. I’ve read plenty of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but never The Valley of Fear, where the young Scotland Yard detective, Alec MacDonald (aka Mr. Mac), was first introduced. Now he’s back, with a prominent role in two new Sherlock Holmes adventures in Black Gat Books #11.

It’s obvious from the historical notes that follow each story that Lovisi did his homework before attempting to follow in the footsteps of a legendary author like Doyle. His grasp of the characters, the times, and where these new adventures fit in the Holmes canon are to be commended. The reference points in the stories themselves are kept brief and pertinent, adding credibility without digressing into fannish indulgence.

Both stories are nicely plotted with plenty of complications and twists to keep readers engaged and mystified. The pacing strikes the right balance between the style of Doyle’s originals and today’s more fast-paced narrative drive.

The first story, “The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby,” is the more traditional of the pair. Steeped in English custom and courtesy, it begins with Inspector MacDonald’s investigation of a suspicious burglary attempt. Events escalate quickly into a major dilemma when Lady Westcott herself disappears, compelling Mr. Mac to draw Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the affair. A missing person case with no apparent motive and no apparent kidnapper presents just the sort of challenge the great detective and his fans relish.

The second and final story, “The Case of the Unseen Assassin,” pits Holmes and his companions against a more modern-day threat—a serial sniper whose victims have no discernible connection to their killer. Armed with only their wits and the tools of the 19th Century, the trio of Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald must stop the killer before another victim is murdered.

The Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Mac stories of Black Gat Books #11 offer two entertaining mysteries in the style of the original Doyle classics. Fans of the great detective and old English police procedurals would do well to conclude both are worth their immediate engagement.

Black Gat #11 and earlier books in the series are available directly from Stark House Press and the big river for $9.99.

Down on the Street by Alec Cizak

downonthestreetAs the designer on Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 1, edited by Alec Cizak, I was predisposed to enjoy his latest book, Down on the Street, from Down & Out Books. Fortunately, the novel goes far beyond any struggle for objectivity. It is simply, terrific.

As crime fiction goes, Down on the Street is on the deep, dark side. Its main characters embrace one bad idea after another to make the rent or pay off an urgent obligation that looms around the corner. Lester Banks is a balding, world-weary cab driver who ekes it out in the same run-down apartment building as Chelsea Farmer, a college girl who looks arrestingly out of place in her squalid surroundings.

Their stories intertwine with touches of humanity between their lousy choices and the lousy consequences that follow. Like their mutual brainwave to pimp out Chelsea, making her fair game for a series of Johns who seem intent on turning prostitution into property. It all seems real, sprung to life inside the reader’s mind, through the characters’ street-smart dialogue and shortsighted schemes.

Even before I put the first chapter behind me, I was caught, transfixed as Lester and Chelsea plunge headlong into their world of excess, violence, and sex. Dangerous and vicarious at first, things quickly turn raw and sobering, as these broken spirits scrape toward rock bottom.

Cizak’s novel is a fast, brutal trip down on the street. The writing is terse, with a lyrical quality that belies its spare, driving narrative. “The air outside wobbled from the heat. He hustled to his cab and cranked the engine to get the A/C working.”

If you only try one new crime fiction author this year, make it Alec Cizak. His new book is well worth the price of admission and, more importantly, your time.

Suspense Novel #2

suspense_novel_2The second Suspense Novel was an original, The Case of the Lonely Lovers by Will Daemer, published in 1951. A pseudonym, Will Daemer, is an anagram for Wade Miller, the writing team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller, who also wrote as Dale Wilmer (another anagram) and more famously as Whit Masterson and Wade Miller. Perhaps their most famous novel as Whit Masterson, Badge
 of Evil (1956), was the source of Orson Welles’ screenplay for his film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958).

The Wade/Miller team wrote over thirty novels together. Their lifelong friendship began in childhood; they attended San Diego State together and even enlisted in the US Air Force in unison. Both writers were born in 1920. Bill Miller died much earlier, in 1961, while Robert Wade lived to the age of 92, until his death in 2012.

After 1961, Wade continued his writing career as a solo novelist and a movie and television scriptwriter. He was honored with several awards over his career, including the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988.

The Case of the Lonely Lovers opens with a dark-eyed, young woman, one Betty Ackerman, dressed in a gayly flowered frock, running for her life. She chances upon an isolated house, its reluctant owner, Robert Muir, and his massive dog, Kahn. Only the mystery of what and why loom larger than the danger and desperation hinged on her disagreeable host, reluctant to help a damsel so obviously in need.

She explains she was kidnapped and how she only escaped by a stroke of luck. She pleads for him to believe her, to which he replies, “It doesn’t make any difference whether I believe you or not.”

A knock interrupts their strained conversation. A voice through the door, a police detective yells, “We’re looking for an escaped prisoner by the name of Betty Ackerman . . . I’d like to take a look around.”

But the ornery churl shares his aversion to the needs of others freely. He denies the detective entry, seeing it as the shortest route to end further interruption and investigation. Betty is quick to capitalize, and ekes out permission to stay the night, as he grudgingly unlocks one of the upstairs bedrooms for her.

Ed Lynskey, on MysteryFile. com, quotes the back cover copy from Evil Come, Evil Go, about Wade and Miller’s writing process. In part: “After discussing an idea at length, they outline extensively.” For me, this technique shows prominently in the tight plotting of The Case of the Lonely Lovers.

Tension builds masterfully as the fog of mystery behind “The Case” slowly clears. A conspiracy, with Betty unknowingly thrust into its center, in the fight of her life. As the main plot heats up, Wade and Miller simultaneously fuel the romantic triangle of Betty, her boyfriend Glen Proctor, and Muir, as she steadily thaws the cold heart of her reluctant host.

Most of the prose is purposefully composed, driving the plot, character depth or the emotional impact of the action. But a few lines stand out as more poetic, like this one near the climax: “She blamed the thin fog that had been sucked inland by yesterday’s heat and drifted like a grey broth at the windows.”

Like the first Suspense Novel, The Case of the Lonely Lovers is a terrific read, one that seems perfectly ripe for a new printing.

Captain Future Returns

Captain-Future500In the afterword to Avengers of the Moon author Allen Steele writes about his discovery of Captain Future and the Futuremen in a Popular paperback reprint he found on a drugstore spinner rack at the age of 11. His introduction to the series was similar to mine, which is to say, I anxiously awaited his revival of the characters in a new adventure.

Avengers of the Moon is as much a reimagining of the cast’s origin story as it is a new adventure, with both tightly woven together into a seamless space opera. Steele’s novel is remarkably true to the series’ roots, but updates its science and technology from its 1930s era. The entire cast is present and accounted for: Curt Newton, Otho, Grag, Simon Wright, Joan Randall, Ezra Gurney, and Ul Quorn. Each remains true to their character, but updated with current social sensibilities. Even the inane infighting between Otho and Grag, along with their pets Eek and Oog are present, but Steele wisely tones it down several notches. It’s there for a moment of nostalgia, and then he thankfully moves on with the story.

For fans, I think Avengers of the Moon rates five stars. Without the history, a newcomer won’t feel the same sense of wonder as each old friend makes their entrance, and may not have the same appreciation for their characterizations. Despite handling the task very well, it does require breaking into the momentum of the story.

Now that the whole crew has been reintroduced and recast, here’s hoping the next one will rocket us into the future and never let go until its last page.

Help Wanted

bettyfedora3_234

Betty Fedora #3

As the “News Digest” section comes together for The Digest Enthusiast book six I’m in touch with several indie editor/publishers. Kristen Valentine of Betty Fedora reminded me of issue #3’s first appearance of a story by Victoria Reidfeld, titled “Breadcrumbs.” It was nominated, and very recently won the Derringer award for “Best Long Story” (4001 to 8000 words).

Betty Fedora #3 was published on September 18, 2016. Yesterday, when I looked on Amazon it had zero customer reviews.

Most indie projects struggle for existence. Their creators need financial and emotional support to help motivate them to continue. Buying their books provides financial help. But frankly, the balance sheet on these efforts is usually red even after a hundred sales. So why continue?

cover500

Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 1

Each issue require hundreds of hours of effort to create. That’s not an inflated stat. I know from first hand experience. Indie publishers of series like Betty Fedora, Pulp Modern, and The Digest Enthusiast (and many others) strive to produce the best work possible. A Derringer award for a story is just one proof point of that quality.

Indie magazines and other indie projects need your help. Buy them. Read them. Rate them. Don’t sweat the review. A single sentence is enough. Write more if it feels right, otherwise a quick, honest summary is golden.

It matters. The number of reviews raises visibility on amazon, where it’s easy to be unnoticed among millions of books. And, just as important, your feedback is a voice from the dark. It helps publishers to know somebody out there cares about those hundreds of hours of work that are just beginning on their next edition.

 

tde5cover_mailchimp

The Digest Enthusiast #5

Now go rate some indie digest magazines that you’ve read. Your help is wanted.

Betty Fedora
Crime Syndicate Magazine
Pulp Literature
Pulp Modern
The Digest Enthusiast
Weirdbook
(These are just a few of the titles available.)

On amazon.com, pick an issue, scroll down to the “Customer Reviews” section and click the “Write a customer review” button.

Thanks for reading and considering this request.

H.G. Wells Society Newsletter

wells_30Excerpts from Joe Wehrle, Jr.’s review of the H.G. Wells Society Newsletter #30 from TDE4:

“This may be a somewhat unusual entry in the catalog of digest-size publications, but I think the newly-redesigned H. G. Wells Society Newsletter certainly qualifies for inclusion. I recently received issue 30, Autumn 2015, with cover illustration by J. Begg, reproduced from the Illustrated London News of 25 January 1913.

“I find articles in the Wells Society publications to be very carefully researched and highly literate. A majority of the writers and the editorial staff have doctorates and associations with prestigious uni- versities. They tend to delve deeply into the subject matter, avoiding superficiality and the stereotypical.

“This newsletter is issued twice a year, and there is also a thicker, and very scholarly annual, The Wellsian.

“Subscriptions and general enquiries may be addressed to secretary Eric L. Fitch, 20, Upper Field Close, Hereford HR2 7SW, UK.”

H.G. Wells Society website

A.B. Shiffrin’s Cover Story

Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

Stories from Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

The opening scene of this story, depicted on the cover of Suspense Magazine #1, shows a naked woman, laying on her bed with her throat cut. “A Most Amazing Murder” by A.B. Shiffrin is a serviceable yarn, told first person by the detective who solves the murder.

A. (Abraham) B. Shiffrin was most famous for his broadway plays (Love on Leave, Angel in the Pawnshop, I Like It Here, Twilight Walk and Black-Eyed Susan); several were later produced for television. He also wrote novels (The Other Cheek, Blind Men, Told Out of School, Glitter, Mr. Pirate, and Return at Sunset) and has numerous short stories to his credit.

Here’s the opening paragraph to “Murder”:
“Never was the obvious so baffling. At least, not in my own experience. I was the cop in charge of the crazy case, so I can tell you all about it.”

Manhunt Dec. 1953

Manhunt: the gold standard of hardboiled crime fiction digests. One look at the line-up for this issue tells you why. David Goodis opens with “Black Pudding,” the dark, sweet, just dessert of revenge. That’s Ken and Tillie on the cover, painted by Frank Uppwall. Pretty girl, but then you’re looking at her good side. Ken’s first impression: “It was a female voice, sort of a cracked whisper. It had a touch of asthma in it, some alcohol, and something else that had no connection with health or happiness.” He’s fresh out of San Quentin, with plans for a fresh start in Philly that turn dire when his past suddenly flashes a five-inch blade in the dark.

The premise of Richard Marsten’s “Switch Ending” is remarkably similar to “Black Pudding.” How long does it take an ex-con’s old cronies to make trouble once he’s back on the streets? It this case, Danny joins the trouble in progress and attempts to set things right. But he’s living in a dark, noir world, and the best he can manage is to trade one evil for another.

“Killing on Seventh Street” by Charles Beckman, Jr. is a psychological thriller. A regular Joe kills a robber/rapist and struggles with how the violent act has changed him. “But, that evening, he was behind the garage, sharpening the lawn mower, when the neighborhood dog came running over, barking. Clifford reached for the animal and things dissolved in a haze. When it cleared, the dog was a limp form, its broken neck clenched in this hands.”

“Murder Marches On” by Craig Rice features series character John J. Malone. In this adventure the slight lawyer must simply liaise a list of names from a witness to the authorities, as said witness prefers to remain anonymous. Perhaps for the sake of its drama, the exchange takes place in a parade with Malone dressed for the part. At the designated moment chaos erupts and the list holder is murdered. Malone is left with five pages to ensure he’s not the next victim, solve the murder, find the list and collect his fee from his now deceased client. Fortunately, he’s in good hands with Rice.

Things turn considerably darker in “Sucker” by Hunt Collins. Arrested for the rape and murder of his babysitter, Harley appeals to his friend and lawyer, Dave, to help clear him. At the trial the prosecutor’s case, built on a chain of circumstantial evidence, is riddled with doubts by the time Dave finishes. Trouble is, so is Dave.

“Portrait of a Killer” was a regular true crime feature written for Manhunt most often by Dan Sontup. The series began in August 1953 and ran twenty-four issues, ending in July 1955. This issue devotes three pages to Portrait #7, Tillie Gburek, a serial killer who started out poisoning neighborhood dogs and then moved up to a succession of husbands.

The “The Wife of Riley” by Evan Hunter, concerns the disappearance of Riley’s wife at a seashore resort. The place is run by an untoward dude, rife with hidden agendas. “His skin was bad and his eyes were puffed with sleep, and he looked like the kind of guy you could rouse out of any doorway in the Bowery.” Tension mounts as Riley strips away the resort’s façade of normalcy to learn the where and why of his wife’s sudden vanishing act.

Scott Jordan was a series character created by Harold Q. Masur. The lawyer/sleuth takes on a new client in the “Richest Man in the Morgue.” It’s one of several Jordan stories for Manhunt, later collected in The Name is Jordan (1962). “Morgue” is a top-notch yarn with some terrific writing. Here’s one of Masur’s punchy asides: “They thought Hitler was nothing but a windbag too, until he gave the world twenty-four hours to get out.”

Some of Manhunt’s stories are so dark, they could easily have run in a horror magazine. For example, “The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig features a dirty cop and his dirty partner. She beats up underage prostitutes in the soundproof room at the precinct to learn the names of the girl’s johns. Then he blackmails the johns to keep their criminal activity off the record. Things end badly.

“The Coyote” by David Chandler features a father who forces his son to “be a man” by killing a coyote. It’s brutal and torturous, and unfortunately, an accurate portrayal of doctrine over common sense.

Roy Carroll’s characters face personal and social atrocity in “Wife Beater.” Officer Tom Rivas grew up in a house where dad beat mom. Perhaps Cherry Szykora did too. Both wrestle with their pasts as they try to rectify their present.

“The Icepick Artists” by Frank Kane is listed on the contents page as a novelette. It is, but it’s also the first part of a longer saga that involves the death of a PI employed by Seaway Indemnity. The firm hires Johnny Liddell to investigate. He solves the murder, but the larger criminal mastermind waits for readers and Liddell in a follow-up adventure in the January 1954 edition.

“Crime Cavalcade” presents a rapid-fire succession of short true crime stories in newspaper style. The feature ran from May 1953 through December 1955, handled by Vincent H. Gaddis. Here’s a example: “As a gag to illustrate low salaries, Bruce Shanks, cartoonist for the Evening News in Buffalo, N.Y., pictured a policeman baby-sitting to supplement his regular salary. However some of the paper’s readers didn’t get the point. Half a dozen parents telephoned police headquarters that night seeking baby sitters.”

The issue’s final yarn, “The Insecure” by R. Van Taylor was billed as “. . . one of the most unusual ideas ever to appear in Manhunt.” It’s more like something out of the Twilight Zone than a traditional crime anthology, but once you’re tuned in to its unreliable narrator, its an entertaining twist on the expected.

If this edition is any indication, it’s small wonder Manhunt remains the premier title for fans and collectors of hardboiled crime fiction digests.

This review originally appeared in The Digest Enthusiast #3 January 2016.

Children’s Digest Spring 1972

Children’s Digest relied heavily on re-presenting material from earlier sources. Considering its audience, some of its sentiments are more alarming than those in magazines of its era intended for adults. For example, in the lead story, “The Railway Children” by E. Nesbit, a young girl faints as she and two other children attempt to flag down a train headed for an unseen, deadly wreck. After she recovers, her sibling’s reaction: “And presently, when she stopped crying, they were able to laugh at her for being such a coward as to faint.”

I purchased this particular issue as a sample due to Jerry Robinson’s cover feature “From Cave Drawing to Comic Strip” which presents a brief history of the form. It’s a competent overview and includes
 a good assortment of comic strip character illustrations, clearly simplified for its intended audience.

The issue’s best feature is part four of “King Ottokar’s Sceptre,” from “The Adventures of Tintin,” which ran in CD from 1966 thru 1979. Perhaps other issues gave readers more, but this one reprints only two pages of comics in black-and-white. Maybe it’s because they’re accompanied by eight pages of “history” about the fictitious country 
of Syldavia, with some beautiful supporting artwork by Hergé.

In all, the issue reprints six short stories that run from four to seventeen pages in length. All include good quality illustrations, some in a more detailed classic illustration style and some with a modern 1970s look. Nearly all take advantage of the magazine’s two color printing.

In addition to Robinson’s article on comic strips, three other articles appear: “Was There Ever Such a Bird as a Dodo?,” “Water Snails” and “Take Off With Books.” The latter being two pages of reviews of children’s books.

I imagine the balance, the “fun and activities” pages, were favorites among subscribers. They feature an assortment of puzzles, jokes, a pancake recipe (inspired by Winnie-the-Pooh), and puzzle solutions.

Children’s Digest was “famously” printed on “eye ease” ever-so-slightly tinted paper. “This light green paper is easier on the eyes than white or any other tinted paper.”

Re-presented from The Digest Enthusiast book three, January 2016

A Blonde for Murder

Atlas Mystery digest

Late in the 1940s, a series of five Atlas Mystery digest paperbacks were launched. Their covers and back covers display the Atlas globe, but inside Vital Publications, Inc. is listed as the publisher. And in the case of A Blonde for Murder, the story is copyright Current Detective Stories, Inc., a publishing outfit owned by Martin Goodman.

The second in the short-lived series was A Blonde for Murder, written by famed Shadow author, Walter B. Gibson. The story features his magician character Johnny Ardini, who is highlighted as simply “Ardini” in the cover blurb and throughout most of the novel. The artwork, attributed to artist Peter Driben, shows the story’s mysterious blonde murder suspect about to be apprehended.

Gibson also wrote the final book in the Atlas Mystery series, Looks that Kill! featuring Valdor, a master mind reader. Both novels were available in reprint editions from Fiction House Press (through CreateSpace), but I didn’t find them in a recent check of their website—however, both are available from Amazon. The original Atlas Mystery editions can be found through secondary markets.

Excerpt from the review in TDE3.