Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block
Arbor House Publishing
Hardcover edition
, Copyright 1982

My life was a ice floe that had broken up at sea, with different chucks floating off in different directions. Nothing was ever going to come together, in this case or out of it. Everything was senseless, pointless, and hopeless.

This is the fifth novel in the Matthew Scudder series and it's been hailed as the one that propelled the character and the series into wide notability. But if you read the previous novel, A Stab in the Dark, you could see it started there. In Eight Million Ways to Die, the "unlicensed" NYC PI does really breakout and Lawrence Block gives us one of the best detective mystery novels that was published in the 1980s.

As he sits in Jimmy Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole, ex-New York cop Matthew Scudder doesn't take every case that walks through the door. He picks and chooses, and it has to "feel right." The money feels right when call-girl Kim Dakkinen hires Scudder to talk to her pimp about freeing her from his stable. After finally locating the elusive pimp that goes by the street name Chance, Scudder finds that this case is easy money because Chance has no problem letting Kim go. For him, there are girls getting off the bus every day in NYC that he can hustle. But when Kim Dakkinen is found brutally slaughtered in a hotel room the next day, all fingers point to Chance. Though still a suspect, he has an air-tight alibi and with the police lose interest in solving a prostitute's death, Chance wants Scudder to investigate into her murder.

There is really two stories (or three) going on in Eight Million Ways to Die. One of course is the mystery surrounding why Kim Dakkinen was butchered and who did it. Block actually gives us all the clues, but we miss them because we are absorbed by the second storyline in the novel, and that is Matthew Scudder's battle with alcoholism. On the wagon and falling off it, the day to day punishment to stay sober bleeds through the pages towards the reader. It's remarkably well done. Down church basements to sit in the back at AA meetings and never participating, Scudder is really alone fighting off this demon that has plagued him. It's powerfully written and I found it more interesting than the fine whodunit plot in the novel. Another thing Block excelled on was creating a NYC where the streets are gray, dismal and violent. He throws this at us by having Scudder reading from the papers or talking with a befriended cop about the amount of relentless murders that are occurring in the City. And this bleak atmosphere goes directly in parallel with the inner conflicts tormenting Matthew Scudder's life. Scudder finds himself not immune to this violence also. There is an outstanding scene where he is pushed into a dark alley, mugged, and has to battle with his attacker. After all he is one of the eight million living in New York City.

All I wanted was an excuse to walk through the door of that bucket of blood and put my foot upon the brass rail. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the place, and in an instant I was recalling everything about it, the smells of the booze and stale beer and urine, that dank tavern smell that welcomes you home.

I wasn't sure is I was rooting for Matthew Scudder in this one or feeling sorry for him. I do know that when I first read this novel it played with my emotions. I never read anything like this in a PI novel before. The novel is filled with well developed secondary characters, the best being the pimp Chance and his small harem of prostitutes. Add Matthew Scudder and great storytelling, and Eight Million Ways to Die becomes a monumental PI novel. It is that.

If you are going to read just one Matthew Scudder novel, this is the one you want to read. But beware, I guarantee after this one you will want to read more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mackenna's Gold by Will Henry

Mackenna's Gold by Will Henry
Copyright 1963

For comforting an old Apache during his last dying hours, prospector Glen Mackenna is bestowed with the secret location of the Lost Canyon of Gold. Called Sno-ta-hay by the Apache, the canyon is a sacred place where mass amounts of gold are protected by ancient spirits. After memorizing the map even though he believes this is just a fable, Mackenna is then captured by the ugly renegade half-breed Pelon Lopez and his band of outlaw Indians. Pelon wants Mackenna to lead them to Sno-ta-hay and to persuade him to do so he holds a white girl hostage. Well, the adventure begins and along the way there are plenty of killings, a cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers hunting them down, forced alliances with nasty villains, and the truth about the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings at the Canyon of Gold.

What might lie ahead for his companions, he could not begin to imagine. What lay ahead for himself, he did not dare to think about. For the moment, only one thing was to be regarded as absolute certain: in such a company of human animals as that with whom he now loped through the desert night, death was no farther away than the nearest member of the pack.

Written by Will Henry (Henry Wilson Allen) in 1963, Mackenna’s Gold packs quite a bit of action in an evenly-paced Western novel. Though not a masterpiece, the plot that is spun around the quest for the gold is very good. In reality, there is a legend of the Lost Adams Diggings (a man named Adams boasted of finding the gold-filled canyon in 1864) and even today fanatics search for this legendary lost canyon. The Adams tale is the driving force in Mackenna’s Gold. And when you mix in the ragtag pursuit for the gold, Will Henry spins a decent Western story here. But I did have a few problems with the novel, most of them revolve around the characters. Mackenna comes off like a cream puff, he toughens up at the end but his image is cast early in the story. The hostage white girl is never really developed by Will Henry and only seems to be in the story as an excuse to force Mackenna to show the renegades the way. And Pelon is a total enigma. At times he is a vile, violent, ignorant killer and then later he acts almost Shakespearean as he rants to Mackenna about compassion and fate. It’s the pure-blood Native American characters in the story that captivate the reader. Pelon’s mother and sister, who are along on the quest, are the most intriguing of the group. Henry details their past and they play important roles in the outcome of the story. Another Indian called Hachita, who shows compassion towards Mackenna, extends to the reader a sense of the lost wonders of the American Indian way of life. Like a heart that has been touched by the sound of the water and the songbirds in the canyons, Hachita portrays a stature of honesty and morality when compared to all the other characters in the novel. I really liked the Hachita and Henry did a good job with the character.

Overall, I liked “Mackenna’s Gold.” Will Henry always has something going on in the story. The book has an underlying theme about the craze for gold and the consequences of tampering with sacred legend. And the history surrounding the Lost Adams Diggings is so damn interesting, it keeps the reader glued to the pages.

Not perfect, but it still is a good Western adventure.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Body Lovers by Mickey Spillane

The Body Lovers by Mickey Spillane
Signet P3221
Copyright 1967

Spillane's The Body Lovers was written when Mike Hammer came out for round two. Round one being the six explosive Hammer novels from 1947-1952. In the 60s, the toughest fictional PI reappeared in five more novels. Some say they fall a step behind when compared to the first ones, but to me The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Twisted Thing (1966) didn't miss a beat. As for The Body Lovers, I will agree that it's not even near being one of top novels that feature Mike Hammer. But it still is a Mickey Spillane novel, and it still has the violently vindictive Mike Hammer reeling out his own ways of justice, and it still is entertaining as hell.

But it wasn't her he was seeing. It was me he was watching. I was one of his own kind. I couldn't be faked out and wasn't leashed by the proprieties of society. I could lash out and kill as fast as he could and of all the people in the room, I was the potential threat. I knew what he felt because I felt the same way myself.

Bang page one, Hammer stumbles upon a body of a beautiful girl that was whipped to death. From his cop buddy Capt. Pat Chambers, he finds out that other girls have been found tortured and killed. The only lead is that all were found wearing exotic negligee. Mike stays out of this one, even though most of the press and the public believes otherwise. But not for long, because a crook that Hammer sent to the slammer hears about the murders and hires Mike to locate his missing sister. The sister knew the dead girls and might be next. Quickly Hammer is setup for a hit, botched of course with him blasting the hood to kingdom come. The trail leads to the high fashion world and shady UN delegates. And when Velda, Hammer's full-time secretary and part-time associate, gets caught in the action and Mike discovers her missing, not only does he pulled back his snarly grin, the hammer on the .45 gets cocked and he is ready to release his rage.

A little less hard than you'll find in other Hammer novels. But when I comes, it comes. The best by far is when Hammer is looking for a pimp named Lorenzo Jones. He locates Roberta, one of Jones' whores. Roberta agrees to tell him where Jones is hiding but on one condition, Hammer must take her along to watch him kick the crap out the pimp. It's Spillane at his best. In The Body Lovers, Hammer comes off a bit older. He even realizes it. At one point he talks about dissection thinking and missed clues in this head, "Little voices, I thought. They were saying something, but were too far away to be heard. It wasn't like the old days any more. I could think faster then." But when he's ready to cut down the evil that has spread throughout the city, our revenge seeking white knight doesn't fail the reader.

This one has all that makes Mike Hammer novels a fun read. Including Hammer's (and Spillane's) views about commies, diplomatic immunity, bleeding-heart liberals creating loopholes in the justice system-they are all here. The reader is never disappointed. You can't go wrong picking up a Mickey Spillane novel. He was an American icon and created one of the most memorable private detectives in fiction.

Every now and then you have to get your Mike Hammer fix.