Litchfield Reviews Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

After an absence of almost 20 years, Stephen Dobyns’ popular laconic hero, former police sergeant turned private eye Charlie Bradshaw, makes a welcome return to the sleuthing world in a lively tale of multiple murder, mutilation and horse-napping.

Dobyns, an award-winning poet and distinguished novelist praised by the likes of Stephen King, has been penning acclaimed crime fiction for more than 40 years. Saratoga Payback, his latest novel, is the dryly amusing eleventh book in his long-running mystery series set in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Charlie Bradshaw, who first appeared in print in 1975, is now aged 67 and married with a teenage stepdaughter. Having had his private investigator’s licence and gun permit revoked by the police chief, ‘with the help of the district attorney,’ nowadays much of his time is consumed with chores around the house.

However, he still occupies his second-floor office above a used bookstore, and still carries a business card, albeit one designed by his stepdaughter bearing the dubious label: ‘Consultant, Legal or Otherwise.’

His slow, monotonous life takes a dramatic turn early one morning when he carries out the garbage and discovers the butchered corpse of Mickey Martin, a neighbourhood acquaintance, in an untidy heap on the pavement outside his home.

With its winning mix of mystery and humour, strong bursts of suspenseful action, and a likeable if ham-fisted hero at the reins, Saratoga Payback is a constantly engaging, sure-footed experience. Let’s hope Charlie Bradshaw will be back on the crime scene sooner rather than later.

My review of Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

BOOK REVIEW OF PETER HELLER’S CELINE FOR THE LANCASHIRE POST

LEP.CO.UK - Celine by Peter Heller

“In the suspenseful new detective novel Celine, bestselling American author Peter Heller creates a most unexpected heroine. Celine Watkins, a sweet, frail, asthmatic private eye in her late sixties who specialises in finding missing persons and reuniting families, is totally unafraid of taking on biker gangs and US Navy SEAL snipers. …Quick on the draw, cool under pressure, and a crack shot with a handgun or high-powered rifle, this silver-haired senior citizen is as lethal as the Glock she carries in her shoulder rig.”

My review of Celine by Peter Heller is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Litchfield Reviews Date with the Executioner by Edward Marston for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Date with the Executioner by Edward Marston

In the latest novel in the highly addictive Bow Street Rivals series, identical-twin detectives Peter and Paul Skillen are embroiled in a dangerous case of treachery, fraud and murder involving two ill-matched duellists sparring over a beautiful woman.

Set in London during the Regency period, Date with the Executioner marks the exciting third instalment in the newest historical crime series from prolific author Edward Marston (aka Keith Miles), who has been writing popular British historical fiction and mystery novels for more than thirty years.

In an interesting twist, this new adventure begins with Paul Skillen (the more engaging, vivacious and audacious of the twins) being arrested for taking part in an illegal duel at dawn.

The Bow Street Runners, ‘imbeciles’ as far as the Skillen brothers are concerned, are typically ‘paid to look the other way’ where duels are concerned. Not this time, however, and with good reason. Having received a handy tip-off from a mysterious informant, they show up in time to stop the duel and embarrass Paul by placing him in handcuffs and taking him into custody.

Their revenge for ‘years of humiliation at the hands of the Skillen brothers’ is short lived. Paul is swiftly bailed out of jail by his brother and, when Bowerman is later discovered dead, with ‘a dagger made of Toledo steel’ embedded in his back so that it pierced his heart, the Bow Street Runners find themselves outmanoeuvred by the Skillen brothers and continually one step behind, as both detective teams work to solve the crime.

Edward Marston is exceptionally good at building tension, fleshing out secondary characters and smoothly integrating his subplots into the main action. Characters like Abel, often discussed but largely offstage, seem more rounded, sympathetic and intriguing, and seemingly unrelated events invariably prove to be part of a larger plot.

Highly enjoyable, full of surprising twists, and with a strong cast of duplicitous characters, Date with the Executioner is another well-executed novel by a reliably masterful storyteller.

My review of Date with the Executioner is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews Big Lonesome by Joseph Scapellato for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Big Lonesome by Joseph Scapellato

In his bold debut story collection, Joseph Scapellato takes aim at the American frontier’s familiar gun-toting, galloping figures and proceeds to blast 25 blistering holes clean through them.

Often amusing, thoughtful and poetic, Big Lonesome is a weird and wildly inventive collection of 25 uniquely imagined short stories focused on the mythologies of the American West and the archetypal nomadic characters who roam the vast, pockmarked, barren landscape.

Divided into three sections (Old West, New West and Post West), with some of the longer stories broken up by explanatory titles into mini episodes, the narratives feature a hotchpotch of eccentric cowboy drifters, gunslingers, wilful farm girls, sheriffs, women of ill repute, and even a cowgirl ‘born of a beef cow,’ all vividly dreamed up from the pungent cookfires of Western folklore.

In the New West section, the emphasis is on the changing physical and cultural landscape of America. The memory of the Old West has ‘worn vague’ as a result of the rise of cities and growth of immigrant populations, but in the Post West segment we find it still survives.

Characters ‘pass like coins’ from place to place, moving through saloons their grandfathers drank in and woods that Native Americans inhabited. On their journey through America, they carry with them stories passed on to them by their forefathers, whose histories and adventures live on from one generation to the next.

Arguably, the Old West and its spurs-and-saddle narratives of cowboys ‘alone or lonesomely together’ provide the most unexpected, colourful moments.

The underlying message, if indeed there is one, may be for us to stop romanticising the past and learn to adapt to the present in order to survive.

Amusing and affecting and utterly unique, Scapellato’s absurd reimagining of the roughed-up, Stetson-wearing cowboy who once inhabited the American West will startle and surprise those accustomed to Western fiction. Big Lonesome is an impressive debut story collection by a canny, poetically talented storyteller.

My review of Big Lonesome by Joseph Scapellato is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews Angel’s Flight by Lou Cameron for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Angel's Flight by Lou Cameron

Reprinted for the first time in 57 years comes a hard-hitting crime noir tour de force charting a gutsy musician’s bruising journey through the cut-throat American music business during the Dirty Thirties to the Fabulous Fifties.

Angel’s Flight, first published in 1960, is the long-forgotten debut by prolific American author Lou Cameron who died in 2010 having written more than 300 novels.

Although his extensive body of work consists of scores of movie and TV novelisations, comic books, spy thrillers, and war and crime novels, Cameron is best remembered as an accomplished author of Westerns. He won the WWA Spur Award for Best Western Novel and penned a number of popular Western series, including the long-running Longarm series which he wrote using the pseudonym Tabor Evans

Angel’s Flight, his first novel-length foray into crime writing – described by Gary Lovisi in his enlightening introduction as ‘an underrated and unacknowledged noir masterpiece’ set to ‘a jazz and a be-bop beat’ – showcases Cameron’s exceptional versatility and boldness as a writer.

Rich with jive-talking, colourful characters and vivid details about the sounds and trends of east and west coast America during the 40s and 50s, this engrossing, action-packed novel centres on the jazz music scene, from the days of swing and ‘birth pangs of bop’ to the ‘Afro-Cuban kick’ and the beginnings of the cool jazz era.

The hard-boiled narrator is musician-turned-producer Ben Parker, a tough, ‘honest’ and upright insider, ‘the lone wolf’ in a corrupt and ruthless industry. Reliably droll, Parker is a salt-of-the-earth type, able to maintain a brave face and wisecrack in the most hellish of circumstances. Unlike everyone around him, he doesn’t ask for payola and isn’t afraid to take on the mob or powerful, dangerous competitors in order to keep his company afloat.

Enthralling, memorable, and with a large ensemble of authentic, intriguing characters, Angel’s Flight comes across as a music lovers’ tribute to the changing landscape of jazz. Put simply, it’s a piano pounding, brass blaring, pitch-perfect extravaganza that will ‘knock you dead.’

My review of the Stark House Press reprint of Angel’s Flight by Lou Cameron is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews North of Forsaken by Matthew P. Mayo for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - North of Forsaken by Matthew P. Mayo

Old family wounds are reopened during a treacherous, blood-splattered journey through Wyoming to track down a valuable deeded property in a gritty Western from Spur Award-winning author Matthew P. Mayo.

North of Forsaken is the second book in Mayo’s all-action Roamer Western series featuring the exceedingly ugly, antisocial hero Scorfano, nicknamed Roamer by his long-time buddy Maple Jack because of his nomadic lifestyle. A tough, six-foot four loner with ‘vile features’ – a cleft lip, ‘pocked cheeks,’ an ‘oft-broken nose,’ a ‘blocky head,’ and beady, deep-set eyes – Roamer exhibits the sort of demeanour that is more associated with ‘outlaws and bad men thinking bad thoughts and doing dark deeds.’

In the previous novel, Wrong Town, published by Robert Hale in 2008, the luckless hero was mauled by a grizzly bear, robbed by callous bandits, and then jailed for a murder he didn’t commit. Ill fortune follows him once more in this newest adventure, set three years later.

Fortunately, for the reader as much as Roamer, part way through his exciting, violent, and remarkably perilous journey, the crotchety old-timer Maple Jack decides to take part in the action. Jack, a trapper from New England who has become a reclusive mountain man, is a familiar face in Mayo’s work, having appeared in a number of the author’s short stories. He plays a welcome larger role in this tale, providing some much-needed humour to the proceedings.

Solidly entertaining, and with a strong line-up of cold-blooded villains, North of Forsaken marks the long overdue return of Roamer, Mayo’s most noteworthy lead character. Expect plenty of gunplay, ambushes, bloody corpses and thrilling shootouts.

Matthew P. Mayo, a past Lowestoft Chronicle contributor, has finally provided a follow-up to the excellent Wrong Town, published nine years earlier. The new Roamer adventure, this time published by Five Star, is well worth the wait. You can read my review of North of Forsaken in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith

Love and marriage, freedom and loneliness, and risk and misadventure are some of the themes in the latest instalment of prolific, bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith’s delightfully witty 44 Scotland Street series.

The Bertie Project, the eleventh novel in the immensely popular series focused on the lives of a small community of people inhabiting a somewhat Bohemian corner of Edinburgh’s New Town, finds many of the streets best-loved residents buffeted by the winds of change.”

Through a variety of inventive ways, McCall Smith interconnects various storylines and lures his well-drawn characters out of their upmarket homes and into each other’s bustling lives. Very much character driven and down-to-earth, the society presented in 44 Scotland Street feels like a community of warm-hearted people who have genuine concern for the fate of those around them, something that anthropologist resident Domenica Macdonald would surely be pleased to hear.

With its sharp, worldly wise humour, interesting personal tales and fine array of charming characters eager to engage in insightful conversation, The Bertie Project is never less than extremely entertaining and highly addictive. Long may the series continue…

The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith is published by Anchor Books this week. You can read my review of the book in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews World, Chase Me Down by Andrew Hilleman for the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - World, Chase Me Down by Andrew Hilleman

Colourful, real-life American outlaw Pat Crowe, the most wanted man in America at the turn of the century, is masterfully resurrected in the epic, action-packed Western novel World, Chase Me Down.

Andrew Hilleman’s riveting debut chronicles the incredible exploits of a hardened criminal who gained notoriety in 1900 for kidnapping and holding to ransom the teenage son of a meatpacking tycoon in Omaha and got away with $25,000 in gold.

The model for the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping some 30 years later, which was hailed by the media as ‘the Crime of the Century,’ Crowe’s abduction of Edward Cudahy Jr. is believed to be the first kidnapping in the U.S. in which ransom money and victim were safely exchanged.

It is a crime motivated by revenge. Crowe and his buddy Billy (William Cavanaugh) stopped working for Edward Cudahy Sr. to open their own butcher shop and, when it failed, Crowe held his former employer responsible.

Snatching Eddie off the street while the boy is running errands, Crowe and Billy take him to their hideout and keep him blindfolded and chained to a chair until their ransom demands are met. After collecting the money, they eventually release him and manage to elude the authorities and Pinkerton bounty hunters for five years.

Loosely based on true events, World, Chase Me Down is largely fictionalised, and the author’s version of events is so thrilling that the reader immediately becomes engrossed in Crowe’s dramatic tale and looks forward to each extraordinary chapter of his life.

Gory, violent and occasionally shocking, Hilleman’s novel is also darkly comic, moving and extremely entertaining. A standout work of fiction.

My review of World, Chase Me Down by Andrew Hilleman is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg in the Lancashire Post

LEP.CO.UK - Death and the Naked Lady/The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg

John Flagg, pseudonym of American crime writer John Gearon who died in 1970, delivers a barrage of murder and mayhem in two fabulous 1951 mysteries… with the added bonus of a suspense-packed short story.

Death and the Naked Lady features a thrilling tale of stolen jewels, murder and espionage on board a luxury ocean liner, while The Lady and the Cheetah focuses on a deadly case of blackmail and sabotage among European nobility at a palace on Lake Maggiore, Italy.

In Death and the Naked Lady, American nightclub singer Mac McLean, who has ‘skyrocketed’ to fame in central Europe, returns to New York for a major gig but quickly discovers that his patron, Georges Fournier, has been murdered in Paris and Fournier’s valuable jade figurines have been planted in his cabin, making him the prime suspect.

It isn’t long before others learn of the precious jade owls and when the determined Louis Devois of the Deuxième Bureau boards the ship, it’s a race against time for Mac to unravel the mystery and prove his innocence.

Flagg fills the deck of the deluxe French ship, the Dauphiné, with an array of powerful, duplicitous characters with secrets aplenty and veiled motives.

In The Lady and the Cheetah, the central character – a nomadic, devil-may-care newspaper correspondent named Rafferty Valois, discredited for fabricating news stories – has the same playboy qualities as Mac. They both enjoy extravagant, hedonistic lifestyles, they live in luxurious hotels in picturesque European cities, drink hard, play hard and rack up debt while socialising with celebrities and aristocrats. Unlike Mac, however, the redheaded Rafferty is ‘short and pixyish’ and ‘not at all good-looking.’ All the same, he’s still something of a womaniser.

Highly entertaining and full of exciting twists and quirky characters, Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah are a wonderful pair of vintage tales of murder in high society which have aged remarkably well and will charm a new generation.

My review of Death and the Naked Lady / The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the full review here.

Litchfield Reviews Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped for the Lancashire Evening Post

LEP.CO.UK - The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner

After a forty-six year lull, the frosted office door of ‘B. Cool, Investigations’ swings open once more as the lovable private eye team of ‘hard as nails’ boss Bertha Cool and her ‘little runt’ operative, Donald Lam, set to work on a tough new case in The Knife Slipped.

Hired by a distraught wife and her mother to shadow Eben Cunner, suspected of being an adulterous husband, Cool and Lam’s seemingly straightforward investigation becomes one of their most challenging and highly perilous.

Eben, it turns out, is a double-crossing crook with multiple identities and when he’s bumped off, Donald is left holding a smoking gun, framed for murder.

Pitted against crooked cops and powerful gangsters, it takes all of Bertha’s cunning and Donald’s gutsy determination to find a way out of their predicament and put the murderer behind bars.

Bestselling American author Erle Stanley Gardner, who died in 1970 – creator of famous fictional attorney Perry Mason – posthumously returns with this newly unearthed hard-boiled detective novel.

Although his regular publisher, William Morrow, rejected the book in 1939, and the author subsequently discarded it without reusing any of the material, this little gem of a novel has finally found its rightful place on the shelves of bookstores worldwide after being mislaid for 77 years and turning up in an archive at the University of Texas.

The wonderful uniqueness of larger-than-life Bertha Cool and her quirky rapport with gutsy Donald distinguish this from other detective novels. Although underhand and conniving (forever after ‘a piece of the cake’), you can’t help but love the boldly confident, shrewdly independent and strong female PI. She is such a dominant force that, by comparison, Donald comes across as the damsel in distress.

Condescendingly described by Bertha as a frail weakling who ‘can’t take a beating’ or ‘dish one out’, Donald certainly does get knocked around a lot, suffering so many blows to the head and blackouts that it’s a wonder he doesn’t change professions! Bertha comes to his rescue numerous times, fending off cops and gangsters intent on doing away with her employee.

While Donald may be the narrator, it’s clear that Bertha is the heart and soul of the novel. Her ruthless qualities only serve to make her all the more endearing – cold, cruel, manipulative, ‘profane as hell,’ she’s also shockingly miserly, clinging to money ‘like a barnacle caressing the side of a battleship.’

In fact, she is so stingy that Donald can barely do his job properly. The ‘piece of junk’ rental car she gives him can’t keep up with the car he’s tailing, and his daily expenses are barely enough to cover three phone calls and a hamburger.

The only time Bertha doesn’t economise is where food is concerned. In one scene, the breakfast she orders could feed a party of six. According to Donald, she’s so big that she jiggles, rippling across a room like ‘a cylinder of jelly sliding off a tilted plate.’

Although he doesn’t say it, it’s evident that Donald feels enormous affection for her. And who can blame him? For all her faults, it’s difficult not to marvel at Ms Cool and relish every snide remark that tumbles from her gluttonous mouth.

Interestingly, The Knife Slipped was intended as the second instalment in Gardner’s Cool & Lam mystery series, which began in 1939 and ended in 1970, numbering 29 books (this being the 30th). Unlike publisher William Morrow, Hard Case Crime, who reprinted another Cool & Lam novel, Top of the Heap, some years ago, made a wise decision in releasing this never-before-seen novel.

Amusing, exciting, and perpetually entertaining, The Knife Slipped highlights what a remarkable writer Erle Stanley Gardner was and how even splendid novels by big name writers can sometimes slip through the net. Thankfully, this one got a second chance. Make sure to add it to your Christmas list.

My review of Erle Stanley Gardner’s never-before-published Cool & Lam mystery novel, The Knife Slipped, is published today in the Lancashire Evening Post and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK.

Read the review here.