Friday, March 26, 2010

The Getaway Man, by Andrew Vachss

(pb; 2003)

From the back cover:

"Eddie starts stealing cars long before he's old enough to get a license, driven by a force so compelling that he never questions, just obeys. After a series of false starts, interrupted by stays in juvenile institutions and a state prison term, Eddie's skills and loyalty attract the attention of J.C., a near-legendary hijacker. Eddie becomes the driver for J.C.'s ultra-professional crew. J.C., the master planner, is finally ready to pull off that one huge job every con dreams of. . the Retirement Score. But some roads have twists even a professional getaway man can't foresee. . ."


Noir doesn't get much leaner than this. A present-day homage to the noir of the Forties and Fifties, Vachss's prose is stripped down, its twists explosive (and often unexpected), and his characters multi-layered and fascinating.

A must-read for any crime fiction aficionado: this is one of the best noir novels I've read in a while.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Defend And Betray, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1992: third book in the William Monk series)

From the inside flap:

"After a brilliant military career, bravely serving the crown and country in India, esteemed General Thaddeus Carlyon finally meets death, not in the frenzy of battle, but at an elegant London dinner party. In a bizarre incident that shocks aristocratic London, General Carlyon is killed in what first appears to be a freak accident. But the General's beautiful wife, Alexandra, readily confesses that she killed him -- a story she clings to even under the shadow of the gallows.

"Investigator Thomas Monk, nurse Hester Latterly, and brilliant Oliver Rathbone, counsel for the defense, work feverishly to break down the wall of silence raised by the accused and her husband's proud family; and with the trial only days away they inch toward the dark and appalling heart of the mystery..."


The first half of Defend And Betray seems straightforward and bleak: the murderess, Alexandra Carlyon, has confessed to the crime and is sure to hang. However, her stated reason for the crime is a deception -- at least that's what Oliver Rathbone, Alexandra's lawyer, and William Monk, investigating the murder, believe.

The day-to-day, plot-constructive mundanity of the first half is a masterful build-up; it made the second-half character dynamics, courtroom fireworks and twist-reveals resonate even more with this reader.

Solid, emotional, twist-effective read.

Followed by A Sudden, Fearful Death.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Asia Shock: Horror & Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, by Patrick Galloway

(hb; 2006: non-fiction. Illustrations by Greg Lofrano)

From the back cover:

"Asian Extreme cinema is hot, and this book celebrates all its gory glory. Patrick Galloway, who last looked at samurai films in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Handbook, now takes on Asian masters of suspense, exploitation, the supernatural, and bone-chilling, blood-curdling horror. This critical guide contains over 50 reviews of fans' and critics' favorites ranging from classics like [Nobuo] Nakagawa's The Ghost of Yotsuya to contemporary cutting-edge films by Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook. Included are viewing tips, cultural backgrounds, and genre overviews."


This is an indispensable guide to Asian cinema. Whether you're unfamiliar with the cultures and films Galloway analyzes and appreciates, or you're somewhat familiar with them (like I am), there's something for any dark cineaste here.

Knowledgeable, critical (when necessary) and enthusiastic about its subject matter, Asia Shock is one of the best books I've read about these types of films.

Own this, if you have a bent for splatterific, vicious and/or lurid films.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Spy In The House Of Love, by Anaïs Nin

(pb; 1959: fourth volume in Nin's five-book "continuous novel")


Sabina, a neurotic thirty-year old European woman, feels trapped on Long Island while she waits for her husband (an "equable" Alan) to return from his work-travel in New York City.

She staves off -- exacerbates -- her insomniac frustrations by sleeping with other men, then immediately fleeing if they begin to become too real, too human, for her.

Her lovers include: Phillip, a handsome singer who's sick of the love hunt; Mambo, a nightclub owner, who wants a calm, caring wife; John, a young pilot who's haunted by the hijinks and grotesqueries of war; Donald, an effeminate Momma's Boy; and Jay, a successful, no-bulls**t ex-pat painter, who's just returned home from France.

These men briefly provide thrilling distractions from her head-tripped, empty life and self. They provide her chances to try out different aspects of her personality, or varying "roles."

Alan, her peripheral husband of ten years, is merely a thirty-five-year-old father-figure, who accepts her transparent lies (regarding her affairs) while soothing away her histrionics.

All the while, she's being watched by a nameless "lie detector," a cipher-man she "accidentally" called late one night.

Sabina's garrulous affairs and restlessness could easily be soap operatic hack-work, but in Nin's hands, it's an examination of a woman who is trying to find herself, but then shies away from that knowledge when she realizes she might discover it: she enjoys the thrill of her tail-chasing too much to abandon its circle-rush.

Nin provides an effective counter-balance to Sabina's slutty gabbiness with shrewd psychoanaltyical observations, sometimes given by an omniscient outside voice. The rest of these observations are voiced by other characters, like Jay, or Djuna Barnes (the main protagonist in Nin's The Four-Chambered Heart).

Nin also shifts, here and there, from past tense to present tense. Some readers may be put off by that, as well as Nin's favoring eliptical moods and phrases in order to maintain Sabina's chaotic mindset, and the nebulous feel of the novel.

Solid work from a distinctive author.

Followed by Seduction Of The Minotaur.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Horns, by Joe Hill

(hb; 2010)

From the inside flap:

"At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death, of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real.

"Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renown musician and younger brother of a rising late-night star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more -- he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic.

"But Merrin's death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside...

"Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new look -- a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. it's time for a little revenge..."


Caveat: (possible) spoilers in this review.

Horns is an addictive, distinctive, playful reinvention and re-characterization of the "deal with the devil" plot-structure/-sub-genre, popping with pop-references (which keep with the novel's hell/devil theme).

Hill's skillful, multi-layered, playful writing veneers this sometimes-scary, sometimes-sad work. The sorrow and/or rage of the characters, particularly that of the core characters (Ignatius "Ig" Perrish, Merrin Williams, Lee Tourneau) is especially affecting and rings true -- combined with its natural, leavening humor, dark divinity, and mortal moods and motives, it pinnacles Horns above most of this season's published horror offerings.

Not only that, but as a bonus, repeat readers of Hill's may note a passing mention of Judas Coyne, the protagonist from Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. (I love it when skillful writers link/consolidate the reaches of their printed universes, pulling readers, like myself, into them even more.)

Fun, top-notch read, this. Own it.

According to, a film version is forthcoming, sometime in the near future. I'll update information pertaining to it when more information is made available to me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Four-Chambered Heart, by Anaïs Nin

(pb; 1959: third volume in Nin's five-book "continuous novel")


Djuna Barnes is crazy in love with Rango, a lazy, jealous, good-hearted Indian. They spend lusty nights together on Djuna's time- and Seine River-weathered boat, until Rango's drunken/café ranconteur ways and his sickly wife, Zora, intervene in a major way.

Rango's nightly café visits are made without Djuna: Rango is too uncomfortable -- insanely jealous of Djuna's city past, with her friends and ex-lovers -- to bring her along for that.

Zora is a mentally sick, manipulative woman who purposely keeps herself physically ill (via poison and weather-inappropriate clothing) to trap a guilt-ridden Rango in her rotting marital sphere. Their sexual relationship ended early on in their long marriage, as he's lusty, and she finds the act of sex repulsive -- always has, according to her.

Djuna, blinded by her love for Rango, gets drawn in further to Rango's and Zora's dysfunctional, emotionally-poisonous world; it's not long before Djuna is looking for a way out for her and Rango -- and it's clear she may have to make a solo exit, leaving Rango and Zora to their mutual and separate insanity.

My only nit with this novel is that on a few occasions, Nin breaks from her third-person perspective to rambling, first-person perspectives, to show Djuna's emotional mindset: this is unnecessary, stylistically jarring and superfluous writing that mars an otherwise solid, if sometimes maddening -- why doesn't Djuna abandon this toxic situation? -- novel.

Worth reading, if you don't mind the above nit, and the doomed-romance vibe of the work.

Followed by A Spy In The House Of Love.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Babycakes, by Armistead Maupin

(pb; 1984: Book Four in the Tales of the City series)

From the back cover:

"When an ordinary househusband and his ambitious wife decide to start a family, they discover there's more to making a baby than meets the eye. Help arrives, in the form of a grieving gay neighbor, a visiting monarch, and the dashing young lieutenant who defects from her yacht. . . Babycakes was the first work of fiction to acknowledge the arrival of AIDS."


Babycakes is as warm, witty and quick-paced as the first three Tales books, with an elegiac edge (carnal betrayal, AIDS, impending middle age) sobering Maupin's life-affirming characters and storylines.

Worthwhile entry in the Tales of the City series.

Followed by Significant Others.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

(pb; 1970: fourth book in the Martin Beck Police Mysteries. Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair.)

From the back cover:

"On a bitter cold and rainy night, nine bus riders are gunned down by an unknown assassin in Stockholm. It seems a random crime, and the press, anxious for any explanation, dubs him a madman. But Superintendent Martin Beck of the Homicide Squad suspects otherwise: this apparently motiveless killer has managed to target one of Beck's best detectives -- and he, surely, wouldn't have been on that lethal bus without a reason."


Plot- and writing-taut, unpredictable and thrilling as its series predecessors, The Laughing Policeman is my favorite Martin Beck Mystery thus far, largely because of the strangeness of the crime, and an equally-strange mystery: why was one of Beck's detectives -- who normally didn't take public transport -- on that particular bus?

Worth owning, this.

Followed by The Fire Engine That Disappeared.

The Laughing Policeman, the film, was released stateside on December 20, 1973.

Walter Matthau played Sgt. Jake Martin SFPD. Bruce Dern played Insp. Leo Larsen SFPD. Louis Gossett Jr., billed as Lou Gossett, played Insp. James Larrimore. Anthony Zerbe played Lt. Nat Steiner SFPD. Val Avery played Insp. John Pappas SFPD.

Cathy Lee Crosby played Kay Butler. Joanna Cassidy played "Monica, Beth's Roommate". Paul Koslo played "Duane Haygood, Drug Pusher".

Stuart Rosenberg directed the film, from a script by Thomas Rickman.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber

(hb; 1978)

From the inside flap

"The Wolfen are here, and they have finally been discovered in the midst of men, because they have made a mistake: the unbelievably savage killing of two New York City policemen.

"And so they are hunted: by Detective George Wilson and his partner, Detective Beck Neff, who hate and love one another with a strange passion.

"And when the Wolfen realize that their existence is known by these two 'dangerous ones,' then the Wolfen begin to hunt them in return. .."


This is one of the best werewolf novels I've read.

Near-impossible to set down, loaded with interesting characters and action/gore sequences, and imbued with a distinctive slant on the werewolf legend, this is a high water mark in the horror/fur n' fang genres.

Worth owning, this.


The film version, Wolfen, was released stateside on July 24, 1981.

Albert Finney played Dewey Wilson (cinematic stand-in for George Wilson). Diane Venora played Rebecca Neff. Edward James Olmos played Eddie Holt. Gregory Hines played Whittington. Tom Noonan played Ferguson.

Dick O'Neill played Warren. James Tolkan played Baldy. Peter Michael Goetz played Ross.

An uncredited Tom Waits played "Drunken Bar Owner".

Michael Wadleigh directed and co-scripted the film; his co-writers on this project were David Eyre and an uncredited Eric Roth.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

(hb; 1983)

From the inside flap:

"Although he faced his responsibility bravely, thirteen-year-old Matt was more than a little apprehensive when his father left him alone to guard their newly built cabin in the wilderness. When a renegade white stranger stole his gun, Matt knew he had no way to shoot game and no way to protect himself. It was only after meeting the proud, resourceful Indian boy that Matt began to discover new ways to survive in the forest. And in getting to know his friend, Matt also began to understand the heritage and way of life of the Beaver clan and their growing problem in adapting to the white man and the changing frontier..."


Empathetic, informative, engrossing, waste-no-words children's-book read, this -- worth checking out.

The television film version, retitled Keeping the Promise, aired stateside on January 5, 1997.

Brendan Fletcher played Matt Hallowell. Keith Carradine played William "Will" Hallowell. Annette O'Toole played Anne Hallowell. Gordon Tootoosis played Sakniss. William Lightning played Attean. Allegra Denton played Sarah Hallowell. Maury Chaykin played Hunter Ben Loomis.

Sheldon Larry directed the film, from a script by Gerald Di Pego.

<em>The Letter, the Witch and the Ring</em> by John Bellairs

(pb; 1976: third book in the Lewis Barnavelt mysteries . Drawings by Richard Egielski .) From the back cover “Rose Rita [Pottinger]...