Litchfield reviews ‘A Forgotten Evil’ for the Colorado Review

A Forgotten Evil by Sheldon Russell

“Rich in detail and exquisite prose, and with an unpredictable, weaving narrative, A Forgotten Evil is an ambitious, impressively told tale full of vivid landscapes and unique characters with an authentic voice and a distinctive presence. Russell convincingly conveys the gory conflicts, the injustice felt by Native Americans and their acts of retaliation, and the assault on Washita River, one of the bloodiest in frontier history, making A Forgotten Evil a compelling, moving story that will linger in the memory.”

I’m very familiar with the works of Sheldon Russell, having read all ten of his books, from his American frontier novels and tales of the Oklahoma Land Rush, to his postwar mysteries and his fictional account of Francisco Vázquez Coronado’s 1540s North American expedition. This, his latest, is a deeply moving tale set in the post-Civil War period where bloody skirmishes rage between the U.S. Army and Native American peoples. I’d argue that it is his best book to date, and so I’m very pleased to have been able to write an in-depth review of it, published today in the Colorado Review.

You can read the full review here:

Litchfield Reviews Tears Are For Angels by Paul Connolly

Tears Are For Angels by Paul Connolly

Tom Wicker was a distinguished journalist, editor, and columnist for the New York Times who wrote a number of bestselling books, among them A Time to Die (the winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1976), and the 1973 political novel Facing the Lions. In the early 1950s, while working on the copy desk of the Winston-Salem Journal, he sold several crime novels to Gold Medal Books using the pseudonym Paul Connolly. He reserved the name Thomas Wicker for more serious and ambitious work.

Initially, the Gold Medal 25 cents editions were reprints of popular, previously published novels, but later they sought works by promising new authors. His first effort for them, published in October 1951, was Get Out of Town, about organized crime in North Carolina. The novel focused on a policeman who is blackmailed and framed for murder after attempting to expose a racket. That summer, he completed a second novel, The Second Grave, purchased by Gold Medal. Published as Tears Are For Angels in 1952 (it’s likely that the editors at Gold Medal were the ones responsible for the title change), this is a very engrossing tale of love, tragedy, and redemption. The central character, who’s a farmer named Harry London, is a suicidal alcoholic with one arm and a broken heart. A couple of years earlier, he caught his wife, Lucy, in bed with another man – Dick Stewart, a philanderer who runs a profitable local store – and Lucy ended up dead.

I’ll avoid going into the how’s and the why’s and, instead, say that two years later, while Harry is hitting the bottle hard in an effort to forget Lucy, a young woman from New York City shows up in search of the truth about that fateful night. Her visit inflames Harry’s desire to kill Dick Stewart and finally put a plan into action to accomplish the deadly deed.

Although the plot is suspect and offers more questions than answers, Wicker writes with intelligence and passion and makes you care about the central character. Powerful flashbacks, as well as beautifully wrought prose and a thrilling ending, help make this one a satisfying noir novel that’s well worth reading. On the basis of Wicker’s excellent, eloquent writing, I’m interested in seeing if his other Gold Medal books (Get Out of Town and So Fair, So Evil) are of the same high caliber.

You can read more about the title on the publisher’s website:

(Black Gat Books, paperback, $9.99)

The Vicarious Traveler: A Lowestoft Chronicle Anthology

The Vicarious Traveler: A Lowestoft Chronicle Anthology

The Vicarious Traveler, the newest Lowestoft Chronicle Anthology, was published this week. It includes a foreword by Michael C. Keith, a professor emeritus at Boston College best known for his excellent memoir The Next Better Place. Author Keith Rosson, who penned the literary novels The Mercy of the Tide and Smoke City, commended the collection for its “sly humor” and “clear reverence of story.” Screenwriter Linda Boroff, responsible for the independent movie Murder in Fashion, called it a “cornucopia of riveting tales and vivid poetry,” and crime fiction writer Timothy J. Lockhart praised the editor for his “admirable work in selecting and presenting a memorable miscellany of fiction, nonfiction, and verse that beckons to literary travelers and leads them onward from one entertaining stop to another.”

The collection is available from all the major online booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from the publisher.

Litchfield reviews ‘When I Can’t Sleep’ for the Colorado Review

Colorado Review - When I Can't Sleep by Robert Garner McBrearty

On When I Can’t Sleep:
“In this supremely entertaining collection of bite-size yarns that combine humor, pathos, and razor-sharp reverie, prize-winning micro fiction maestro Robert Garner McBrearty stirs and startles and makes the reader shake with laughter. When it comes to real short, real brutal, poignant and punchy works of comic cleverness, McBrearty is the grand cabana, the big cheese, the ring to rule them all.” —Nicholas Litchfield, editor of Lowestoft Chronicle

Some years ago, shortly after reading his riotously comic and absurdist short novel The Western Lonesome Society, I got the opportunity to interview McBrearty. We had a lengthy and rewarding conversation about some of the characters and plot threads in his book, and I confess I could have asked him many more questions. He’s given a lot of interviews over the years, and touched on a great deal of the themes and ideas in his stories, but I just know he’ll have plenty more unsaid things to share about his work. Perhaps, someday, we’ll get the chance to talk more about his fiction.

In terms of When I Can’t Sleep, which contains thirty flash-fiction pieces, some of which are previously unpublished, I can honestly say that at least half a dozen rank as the best McBrearty has written. One of these, which I’m very proud to have been able to publish in issue #39 of Lowestoft Chronicle, is his deeply touching and life-affirming little masterpiece “Mr. O’Brien’s Last Soliloquy.” It’s a short, gut-wrenching monologue in which a ninety-four-year-old man, reflecting on the events that marked his life, voices his sorrows and regrets and offers pertinent advice.

I discuss this story and McBrearty’s other fine tales from When I Can’t Sleep in my book review in the Colorado Review, which came out today. You can read the full, in-depth review here:

Litchfield Reviews Alibi For a Dead Man by Wilson Toney

Newbie fiction writer Wilson Toney delivers a lean, humorous, fast-moving crime story with a nod and a wink to pulp fiction maestro Carter Brown. Alibi for a Dead Man, published this December, is the first in what promises to be an entertaining series featuring Bug and Roche, two sharp though weary private dicks. The plot revolves around the aftermath of a multi-million-dollar bank heist, in which the getaway car was involved in a car crash, killing two people. When the nuisance A1 ambulance chaser Joel Cready arrives at the accident site, he’s just in time to get caught up in a staged car crash and is subsequently on the hook for vehicular homicide.

Enter the two main leads—narrator David Roche (pronounced Rock, but deliberately mispronounced by his boss to sound like Roach) and his partner, John Wallis, curiously nicknamed Bug. The two jaded, middle-aged investigators are part of a prosperous, long-established private detective service known as the National Detective Agency.

When their boss, Thompson, asks them to investigate the suspicious crash, they jump at the chance to take a break from gulping down lousy office coffee and, instead, utilize their generous expense account. Believing Cready is blameless, and the deceased driver of the other car was dead before impact, the two P.I’s widen their investigation to include other reported crimes in the area.

Before long, they are interviewing possible suspects involved in the bank robbery and racking up hefty bar tabs in the process.

Meanwhile, the well-off United Transhipment, a money-laundering outfit, retains the services of National Detective Agency hotshot Joe Starkey to trace one of their employees who mysteriously disappeared. Starkey suspects the employee, a man with many aliases, has absconded with company funds.

As each man gets to work on his case, a connection begins to emerge between the cases. Gradually, the trio works together to crack a much larger case, each desperately trying to get their hands on a lovely hunk of reward money.

The consistently entertaining Alibi for a Dead Man winds up to a thrilling, satisfying finale. On the basis of this slick first series entry, Bug and Roche have a long and promising future ahead of them.

(Stark House Press, paperback, $14.95)

Two Stunning Excursions Into Terror From Dolores Hitchens

Over the past two years, I’ve been lucky to be involved in quite a few book projects with the excellent independent publisher Stark House Press. I’ve read and reviewed a large number of their books and am continually amazed by the sheer quantity of quality authors they publish. A lot of their catalog consists of previously out-of-print works by long-forgotten, bestselling mystery writers. And we’re not talking bottom drawer efforts, either. Many of the books were popular big-sellers in their day, with favorable critical reviews, and yet for some reason, they fell into obscurity along with the author.

One such author was Bill S. Ballinger, a prolific writer of suspense novels and mystery fiction. I’ve been a big fan of his work for many years and am proud to have helped bring a couple of his books back into print. Anyone interested in checking him out should grab a copy of the compilation Portrait in Smoke/The Longest Second while it’s still available. I’m proud to have contributed the introduction. Incidentally, his most famous novel, The Tooth and the Nail, is one of the greatest mysteries ever written…and it’s still out of print!

Since the Ballinger collection, I’ve written introductions for the James O. Causey triple novel compendium The Baby Doll Murders/Killer Take All!/Frenzy, the Helen Nielsen double novel collection Borrow the Night/The Fifth Caller, and a terrific two-in-one volume by Dolores Hitchens (Stairway to an Empty Room/Terror Lurks in Darkness) that’s released this week.

I highly recommend this pair of unpredictable and unnerving tales to anyone not yet acquainted with the work of Hitchens. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, she was ranked as one of the nation’s leading mystery writers. And once you have read these stories, you can see why critics for the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle all raved about her fiction. Both of these suspense novels, first published in the early 1950s, are taut, unsettling stories, full of drama and excitement and atmospheric writing.

One of the great joys of Hitchens’s prose is her keen, visual flair. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thinks that Stairway to an Empty Room and Terror Lurks in Darkness would both translate to the big screen very well. They never got the Hollywood treatment they deserved.

Anyway, make sure to get hold of these tales while they are back in print, and savor them. You’ll be in for a menacing ride!

Available from Amazon or directly from the publisher:

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

“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.