Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Westlake, Donald E. 361. New York: Hard Case Crime, 2005. 207 pp.

Hard Case Crime is a great new(ish) publishing house. They specialize in hardboiled detective & crime fiction, both publishing forgotten classics and new books. They've been around for a couple of years and have published new and classic books by such notables as Stephen King, Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, Lawrence Block and Charles Williams and a whole bunch of others that may or may not be familiar to the mass audience. Well, I've always liked hardboiled stuff but have never had a really good guide to new and classic stuff. So, finally getting around to reading one of the books from this series was a mental event for me of the highest order. Would it live up to the hype? Would I be able to use the distinctive retro cover stylings of the line as a key to excellence?

The answer is yes. The first one I've read is 361 an early novel by Donald Westlake. Westlake, of course, is notable for many other crime and detective novels, as well as some cool fantastic fiction such as the excellent Humans.

And 361 is a good one. My kinda hardboiled. Seems this guy Ray Kelley gets out of the Navy and his father picks him up from the base. They're driving around a little later and his father gets gunned down while driving the car by a guy in another car. When our man Ray gets out of the hospital, recovered from the injuries sustained when the car crashed, he and his brother vow to figure out what really happened. They end up in New York City, tangled up with the mob, learning more family secrets than they can shake a stick at. There's violence aplenty with a few more bodies, some surprising, some not. But it's not some abstract, bloodless stuff from a shoot 'em up movie. It's personal, in your face. This is a memorable novel that will stick with you with good characters portrayed in lots of shades of grey, facing pain and tragedy and more than a few moral dilemas.

First published in 1962 and mostly unavailable since then, Hard Case has done us all a great service by reprinting this novel. It's the first for me from Hard Case, but it won't be the last.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Lupica, Mike, editor and Glenn Stout, series editor. The best american sports writing 2005. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 353pp.

This is always a really solid series, full of interesting and involving stories about the sports world, usually with a very pleasingly broad definition of sport. I particularly like this series as commute reading material. Long bus and subway rides are perfect for this kind of book, with lots of short vignettes to keep your mind off how depressing very long commutes are.

This volume? Up to the usual high standards. Each year's editor gives his volume a different feel, of course, and Lupica is no different. The emphasis this year seems to be on difficult, wrenching emotional stories, sometimes with happy endings but very often pure tragedy. This year we have the story of a struggling LA girls softball team, baseball player Ken Caminiti's death, a young player's steroid-induced suicide, a bunch of friends who have an annual golf tournament in memory of a friend that was killed in an accident, a college player's tragic death from a killer infection, the rise and fall of tennis player Roscoe Tanner, a drug-infested highschool in Peabody MA, a hockey player who just disappeared one day in Europe never to be heard from again, rapist Carlos Perez and a female basketball player's near-fatal encounter with meningitis and her long and painful recovery. A grim volume to say the least.

There are a few stories to balance the depression, one in particular was about people in Vermont who go fishing with guns. Yes, they shoot the fish. And a couple of amusing stories on fishing and Howard Cosell.

Aylciffe, Jonathan. The vanishment. New York: Harper,1994. 227pp.

Jonathan Aycliffe, who also writes thrillers under the name Daniel Easterman, is a very accomplished horror writer. I've read two other of his novels, The lost and The matrix and they were both terrific. The vanishment is no disappointment either. It's a subtle, spooky novel that relies on a building sense of unease rather than a gory payoff (not that there's anything wrong with the occasional gory payoff, of course).

Writer Peter Clare and his wife are vacationing at an old house on the Cornish coast when she mysteriously disappears. The investigation reveals little but Peter does end up delving into the ghostly past of the house. An interesting blend of ghost story and haunted house mixed with a possibly unreliable narrator make for a fun novel. Peter is never less than an interesting character who unwittingly draws others into the supernatural crossfire.