Litchfield reviews ‘Stories in the Key of Me’ for the Colorado Review

Colorado Review - Stories in the Key of Me by Michael C. Keith

“Carefully crafted tales of the supernatural, thought-provoking introspection, and relentless black humor can be found in this eclectic new collection from American author and professor emeritus at Boston College, Michael C. Keith. Much like a game of darts, where some darts miss the intended mark, some hit the bull’s-eye, and others miss the board completely, it’s only natural that a fair portion of the many pieces in Stories in the Key of Me either won’t resonate with every reader, or will fail to move, captivate, or linger long in the mind. Pleasingly though, much of this rich and diverse collection of imaginative, humorous, and philosophical thoughts, and strange, spooky, and bewildering tales is sure to move and delight and undoubtedly leave behind a lasting impression.”

Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Michael C. Keith’s story collection Stories in the Key of Me.

Read the full, in-depth book review here

Lancashire Post Reviews Helen Nielsen’s Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller

LEP.CO.UK - Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller By Helen Nielsen: A superior pair of unique tales which richly deserve a revival - book review

“American writer Helen Nielsen – a scriptwriter for episodes of the television dramas Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason – was a popular author in the late 1940s and the mid-1970s. Many of Nielsen’s stories appear in the anthologies Best Detective Stories, Alfred Hitchcock’s Hangman’s Dozen, Ellery Queen’s Double Dozen, and Best Legal Stories, and several were adapted for television. Gold Coast Nocturne, her second novel, was made into the 1954 film, Murder by Proxy, starring Dane Clark and Belinda Lee.

Although these and other books by Nielsen – who died in 2002 at the age of 83 – sold well and were critically successful, much of the author’s work is long out of print.

Fortunately, Stark House Press have started a revival of her work, and this new publication of a two-in-one volume features Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller, a couple of complex and ingenious murder mysteries that first came out in the late 1950s.

In his introduction to the double-novel collection, writer Nicholas Litchfield, who is editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, describes Nielsen’s pair of unconventional whodunnits as ‘two exemplary mystery novels that are sure to leave you on edge and breathless and in search of more of her thrilling, intricate, and astutely written tales.’

Litchfield, a keen supporter of Borrow the Night, believes the strength of the novel lies in ‘the exceptionally well-sketched principal characters and the skilful way Nielsen drops hints and revelations and introduces unexpected plot twists to cast doubt on just about everybody.’

The Fifth Caller is an original mystery for the period because of its toughness, pace and invention, and for the measured way Nielsen presents realistic, complex characters in a fast-paced drama.

A superior pair of unique tales which richly deserve a revival…”

Read the full, in-depth book review here.

Litchfield Reviews Tall, Dark and Dead by Kermit Jaediker, The Savage Chase by Frederick Lorenz, and Run the Wild River by D.L. Champion

Tall, Dark and Dead / The Savage Chase / Run the Wild River

Blackmail and murder, the abduction of a compulsive gambler, and a crook’s ambition to control the trafficking of ‘wetbacks’ across the U.S. border are among the trio of gritty tales first published in paperback by Lion Books in the 1950s and reprinted in this classic noir collection.

Originally published in hardback by Mystery House in 1947, and later reprinted by Lion Books, the quick-paced, breezy detective story, Tall, Dark and Dead, was penned by American crime reporter Kermit Jaediker, who died in 1986.

Jaediker, a columnist for the New York Daily News for 35 years, was a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. Aside from true crime stories in venues like The Orlando Sentinel and The New York Times, he worked as a comic books writer and colourist and authored two novels.

This, his debut, which is heavy on action and plot, but leavened by dry humour and zestful dialogue, is a forgotten Forties pulp detective story that concerns a slimy gossip columnist, Erskine Spalding, who is blackmailing a beautiful, wealthy socialite, Tina Van Lube, whom he’s had an affair with behind her husband’s back.

Although Tina has pawned her jewellery to pay him, the greedy Spalding wants more, and so she hires an avaricious ex-cop turned private eye, Lou Lait, ‘whose reputation can be best described as dubious,’ to retrieve her incriminating love letters from Spalding’s safe.

Lou knows the ideal man for the job – his buddy, Willie J. Flick, ‘a picker of locks’ and, in Willie’s estimation, ‘the leading escape artist of the American stage.’

However, when Lait breaks into Spalding’s house to check on Willie’s progress, he finds his friend in ‘a drunken stupor,’ the safe expertly opened with a burglar’s tools but containing no letters, and ‘a trail of blood’ leading from the snoring figure of Willie right up to the dead body of Spalding.

Lait’s concerns about protecting his client and trying to explain his illegal entry into Spalding’s house outweighs his civic duty, and he departs the house before the police arrive, having been unable to rouse Willie from sleep.

Although unwilling to admit to the authorities his close connection to the safecracker, the reward money for information leading to the capture of the murderer persuades Lait to help in finding the culprit.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be a highly dangerous investigation involving a long list of suspects that include Tina’s disfigured husband, her hot-headed brother, a disgruntled butler, a dubious gun-running Colonel, and a dancer who may be ‘a secret agent’ for a subversive group of Latin-American revolutionists.

The second story, The Savage Chase, which was written in 1954 by the late Lawrence Heller, a prolific American novelist and screenwriter who used the pseudonym Frederick Lorenz, is an unusual thriller about a rich, notorious gambler, Ralph Stallings, who becomes a hot target for vicious, money-hungry hoodlums in New Jersey.

Rumour has it that Stallings, an obsessive gambler who often loses big, has blown a million dollars at cards in the past, and when he’s in a drunken, reckless mood, he doesn’t stop gambling until he’s down to his last Cadillac.

After a particularly heavy night on the town, the inebriated Stallings passes out in the back of a taxi and the driver, having offloaded him at a hotel, sells this intelligence to Lee Mayo, a professional gambler.

The information subsequently gets passed around town like a bookmaker’s tip, with every lowlife around keen to get hold of Stallings so they can sell him into a card game with the gambler and mobster Ernie Wiles.

This absorbing, if outlandish crime tale is aided by strong dialogue and interesting characters, but marred by a contrived, bloody climax.

The final story, Run the Wild River, which is the best of the three, was a Lion Books original, written by the late D’Arcy Lyndon Champion, a writer from Melbourne who wrote under the name D.L. Champion.

Throughout the 1930s and 40, Champion was a regular contributor to leading popular magazines like Detective Fiction Weekly, Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Thrilling Detective, and originated the famous pulp action hero ‘The Phantom Detective,’ which was later serialized on radio.

This 1952 noir novel, which is Champion’s last known work, is a compelling, hard-boiled tale of the rise and fall of Bill Ackroyd, a hardened, ruthless small-time crook with an insatiable lust for money and power.

After being run out of Juarez and El Paso on the same day for ‘running a crooked dice game,’ he winds up broke and destitute in the Mexican town of Reynaldo.

It isn’t long before he’s back on his feet, negotiating his way into a job as a human trafficker, leading hundreds of poor, desperate Mexicans across the Rio Grande to work for ‘a dime an hour’ for ranchers in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Ackroyd’s absolute determination to become the kingpin of the border running operation, combined with his lack of discretion and diplomacy, ultimately leads to his downfall.

It’s a testament to Champion’s fine writing that the reader cares about the fate of the despicable, unsympathetic, perpetually scheming narrator and the villainous characters around him. Engrossing from the first page to the last, Run the Wild River makes a welcome return to print.

Litchfield Reviews Fredric Brown’s Madball

LEP.CO.UK - Madball by Fredric Brown

Accomplished American mystery and science fiction author Fredric Brown, who died in 1972 at age 65, penned more than 30 books, 300 short stories and vignettes, and television plays for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

His novel, Madball, reissued this month as a mass-market paperback by Black Gat Books, was originally published in 1953 by Dell Books and in condensed form, earlier that same year, under the title ‘The Pickled Punks’ in The Saint Detective Magazine.

It was the novel that began the pocket-size paperback revolution by Dell Publications – a project that revolutionized the publishing industry by offering, without a prior hardcover edition, original paperback novels for 25 cents.

According to The Fresno Bee, the author travelled with a carnival to get material for this story. You can tell as much from the carney slang, the interesting titbits of carnival lore, and the vivid descriptions of shooting galleries, fortune wheels, merry-go-rounds, and the strident selling spiel of barkers over p.a. systems.

It’s not surprising that authors like Aryn Rand and Robert Bloch spoke highly of Brown, an ingenious writer with an abundance of bright story ideas. Purportedly, Mickey Spillane named him as his all-time favourite author and Anthony Boucher of The New York Times hailed him as a successor to the late Cornell Woolrich.

Madball is a fun, exciting, and extremely enjoyable screwball story that is full of dark and devious humour and numerous surprising twists. A wise investment in time and money, it’s guaranteed to be a novel you will read multiple times.

My full review of Brown’s terrific novel is published today in the Lancashire Post and syndicated to 20 newspapers in the UK. You can read the review here.

Litchfield reviews ‘To the Bones’ for the Colorado Review

Colorado Review - To the Bones by Valerie Nieman

“This nicely paced, suspenseful tale, imbued with detailed knowledge of the Appalachian region and the coal mining industry, is aided by Nieman’s rich, artistic language and redolent descriptions of a grim but fascinating literary ecosphere where giant cracks open in the ground, ordinary rock underfoot leaks a kind of vile pus, and orange goo fills the waterways. It’s a strange, disconcerting place populated by thoughtful, articulate people; trigger-happy rent-a-cops; zombies; and residents who can mysteriously evaporate or be stripped to the bone.”

In To the Bones, the fourth novel  by American author Valerie Nieman, who teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University, Nieman chisels out a post-apocalyptic, eco-justice love story set in the vivid yet fictional Carbon County, West Virginia. The tense and atmospheric story, enlivened by Celtic lore, Appalachian legends, and killer zombies, captures the reader’s attention from the outset, beginning with the intriguing emergence from a deep, coal mine crater of the central character, a hapless government auditor named Darrick MacBrehon.

Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Valerie Nieman’s novel To the Bones.

Read the full, in-depth book review here.

Litchfield Reviews Bernice Carey’s The Man Who Got Away With It and The Three Widows

LEP.CO.UK - The Man Who Got Away With It and The Three Widows by Bernice Carey

“Riveting and astutely written, The Man Who Got Away With It showcases Carey’s remarkable ability to get inside the minds of her many varied characters and convincingly present small-town community conflicts and sentiments of the era.

In contrast, the second novel in this collection, The Three Widows, first published in 1952, is a light, tongue-in-cheek murder mystery that is laughingly farfetched, and yet fun, likable, and thoroughly entertaining.”

Bernice Carey Martin wrote eight critically acclaimed mysteries between 1949 and 1955 using the name Bernice Carey. Despite her success and her unmistakable talent for crafting intelligent, absorbing mysteries filled with authentic townsfolk and credible character development, her literary career fell eerily silent after 1955.

Thankfully, this month two of her long-forgotten novels are back in print.

Nicholas Litchfield’s review of Bernice Carey’s powerful psychological drama The Man Who Got Away With It and tongue-in-cheek whodunit The Three Widows is published today in the Lancashire Post and syndicated to 20 newspapers in the UK. You can read the full book review here.

Litchfield reviews ‘Smoke City’ for the Colorado Review

Colorado Review - Smoke City by Keith Rosson

“Although somewhat uneven and, at times, repetitive, Smoke City is a distinctive, emotionally rewarding story that moves and entertains. Rosson, whose debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, netted strong critical reviews, once again shows his talent for creating authentic, sorrowful characters and rich, beautifully wrought prose.”

Weaving between hope and destruction, fear and sorrow, fantasy and realism, American author and illustrator, Keith Rosson, expertly drives his ghostly, offbeat road novel, Smoke City, into interesting, unforeseen terrain. Set in modern-day America, Rosson’s impressive, character-driven fantasy is focused on two tortured souls, both haunted by past transgressions and both seeking atonement.

Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Keith Rosson’s novel Smoke City.

Read the full, in-depth book review here

Litchfield Reviews Ovid Demaris’s The Hoods Take Over

LEP.CO.UK - The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris

“Highly engrossing, briskly paced, and with colourful and convincing characters, The Hoods Take Over is a grisly yet powerful hard-hitting crime story that shocks, fascinates and moves the reader. Those with a predilection for gangster novels should put this at the top of their reading list.”

Ovid E. Desmarais, better known as Ovid Demaris, was an acclaimed American author of historical and biographical works about the Mafia, several of which enjoyed a combined 64 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He was also successful at writing hardboiled crime fiction. Two of his best-known novels were Candyleg, which was turned into a 1969 Italian film starring John Cassavetes, Britt Ekland and Peter Falk, and The Hoods Take Over, filmed as Gang Wars, featuring Charles Bronson.

Published in June 1957, The Hoods Take Over was Demaris’s second successful published novel in a matter of months. It’s a tautly plotted, gritty tale of gang wars, racketeering, police corruption, and the dangers faced by a murder witness who risks his life to give testimony against powerful mobsters.

Nicholas Litchfield’s review of Ovid Demaris’s excellent ‬The Hoods Take Over is published today in the Lancashire Post and syndicated to 20 newspapers in the UK. You can read the full book review here.

Litchfield Reviews Pirates by Timothy J. Lockhart for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Pirates by Timothy J. Lockhart

Pirates, the latest novel from American author Timothy J. Lockhart, is a modern-day high-seas thriller set in the hazardous rough waters of the Caribbean. As with his suspenseful debut novel, Smith, this explosive action-adventure yarn has the same blend of violence and eroticism, as well as taut prose, exhilarating gun battles, and unforgettable villainy.

At the heart of the story is tough, disfigured Hal Morgan, a former Navy SEAL who now works as a boatman in Puerto Rico.

While returning a charter boat, his lonely life takes an unexpected turn when he comes across a sinking daysailer containing the beautiful mistress of a vicious crime boss and half a million dollars in stolen cash.

What follows is a tense, cat and mouse story with the crime boss and his obedient crew members relentlessly pursuing the girl and the money and brutally dispatching anyone who gets in their way.

With bullets zinging and baddies converging from all sides, it’s anyone’s guess who will make it out alive in Lockhart’s gruesome, exhilarating adventure.

Nicholas Litchfield’s review of the Lockhart’s unpredictable, blood-and-guts page-turner is published today in the Lancashire Post and syndicated to 20 newspapers in the UK. The full, in-depth review can be found here.

Litchfield reviews ‘Adiós to My Parents’ for the Colorado Review

Colorado Review - Adiós to My Parents by Héctor Aguilar Camín

“Given the private nature of Adiós to My Parents, you would think that the book would prohibit a readership beyond those with a personal attachment to the author, but, in fact, this is an astute and absorbing, deeply emotional family tale that can move, intrigue, and interest a far broader audience.”

First published in 2014 in Mexico as Adiós a los padres, distinguished Mexican author and historian, Héctor Aguilar Camín, offers up a bold and intimate account of his family’s checkered history in this powerful and uninhibited memoir, Adiós to My Parents, which has been translated into English for the first time. A recipient of numerous national literary awards, including the lifetime achievement award from Mexico’s Instituto de Bellas Artes—the country’s top cultural institution—Aguilar Camín is one of Mexico’s most revered writers. Although also a well-known novelist, with several of his works adapted to the screen, including Morir en el golfo, he is better known as a journalist and writer of Mexican history and politics.

Here, the emphasis of Aguilar Camín’s book is firmly on his ancestry and, in particular, his mother and father’s personal journey. Using a singular approach to chronicling his and their lives, Aguilar Camín jumps back and forth through the decades, offering a genealogical history, revisiting faded memories from youth, exposing ugly family secrets and painful truths, and sharing his parents’ candid stories.”

Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Héctor Aguilar Camín’s memoir, Adiós to My Parents.

Read the full, in-depth book review here