EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writers #8 – Robert Ray – Murdock PI Series

More shelf clearing, Readers!

Next up: Murdock for Hire, Book 2 in the hard-boiled PI series by Robert Ray,   featuring boat- building private eye,  Matt Murdock.

Author Robert Ray is a pretty cool guy.  Born in Texas in 1935, which makes him 86 years old, he describes himself as “author, teacher, dangerous thinker”.  In university he majored in languages, learning Russian, Chinese and Hindustani!  He bagged a PhD and has spent his professional life teaching writing at the college level.

Penguin published Ray’s first books in the Murdock series from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. I remember their witty titles: Bloody Murdock, Dial M for Murdock, Merry Christmas Murdock and Murdock Cracks Ice.  Then there’s a 20 year gap before the next two books in the series: Murdock Tackles Taos (2012) and Murdock Rocks Sedona (2015). Also a change of venue from California to New Mexico and a change in publishers to Camel Press Publishing  a mid-list publisher of genre fiction located in Washington State.

So what happened?  A familiar and unhappy scenario for many writers.  They publish a series of books then the publisher drops them because (a) their editor and in-house champion left the company or (b) the books didn’t sell quite enough. Quality doesn’t count, not even Hammett nominations, only biz revenues.  Authors’ careers increasingly resemble the business curves of  commodities.

So what happened to Ray in the intervening 20 years? Quite a lot as it turned out.

He returned to his teaching roots and with co-author, Bret Norris, created The Weekend Novelist, a step-by-step manual for wannabe authors busy with their day jobs.  It proved to be such a huge success that Ray went on to write two more follow-ups: The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery with his friend, Jack Remick as well as  The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.  Ray believes that  the books have taught more than 10,000 people how to write!

Ray also wrote a standalone thriller, The Hitman Cometh as well as several business texts and a book on tennis.

Today, with the help of Jack Remick, he maintains a vibrant blog on his website. Every Tuesday and Friday they write together at Louisa’s Bakery and Cafe in Seattle, a city where he and his wife live with three cats…so far.

I like this guy!!

Re-reading the opening chapters of Murdock for Hire, I’m struck by Ray’s spare, journalistic prose,  which zips you through the pages. The subject matter is pure “Wolf of Wall Street” stuff. Hapless businessman Eddie Hennessey tries the kinky sex and drugs of an exclusive hookers’ club and ends up unpleasantly dead. Murdock, who more than a little resembles Travis McGee (he loves boats and hot women), is asked to investigate.  It’s an enjoyable pulp read, the same but different.

BOTTOM LINE:   My copy of Murdock for Hire  is paperback, not first edition.  Prices on Abe Books, Amazon and Biblio range from $2 to $6.  Thierry value: $11.30US*

DECISION: Donate to Little Library

*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honor of Mr. Brainwash who sold old used T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writers #7 – Stephen Paul Cohen

Back to clearing my book shelves, Readers!

Next up: two books by Stephen Paul Cohen, featuring investigator Eddie Margolis: Heartless (1986)  and Island of Steel (1988). Both published by William Morrow.

Stephen Paul Cohen is/was a real estate lawyer living in Minneapolis. His two private eye thrillers earned rave reviews in leading US publications. The New York Times called his writing “smart, desperate, gritty”. The Wall Street Journal gave it the ultimate praise:  “literate”.   I remember the emotional intensity of Cohen’s writing, something all we writers strive for.

Flipping through Cohen’s books 30 years later,  I realize that he’s writing noir – and nice juicy pulp fiction, too. The gritty street life he creates feels very real.  Just the same, he relies on many PI thriller tropes, which readers expected and wanted: Eddie Margolis, the hero, is a a desperate alcoholic who decides to avenge his best friend’s murder. He deals with corrupt rich and powerful men and beds deceitful dames. He’s betrayed by a lover. You know how it goes.

But that doesn’t mean the books are bad. Far from it. Genre publishers look for “the same but different”. By that criterion, Cohen’s books certainly deliver.

So what happened to Stephen Paul Cohen? There’s very little about him on the internet.  His books are available on Amazon.ca, but only as used copies.

One source of information is Allen J. Hubin’s review of Island of Steel on the Mystery File website.  Comments suggest that publishers may have dropped hard-boiled fiction in the early 1990s, because cozies sold better.  A fair observation, but I also believe that Cohen’s writing was ahead of its time. He was writing noir, which wasn’t popular then, but has since had a big resurgence .

I further suspect that unfavorable reviews may have played a part. In 1989, the year after Island of Steel came out, Cohen co-authored a speculative fiction thriller, Night Launch, with then Senator Jake Garn. The book should have been a slam dunk for both authors, but  Publishers Weekly gave it a thumbs down.  Did William Morrow drop Cohen because of that?

Ten years later, Cohen apparently tried writing again. His drug trade thriller, Jungle White, was published in Thailand by White Lotus Press, but not elsewhere. (Did Cohen move to Asia, the way a few of my friends have done?) A reviewer on the Things Asian website hated Jungle White so much he wrote a lengthy and damning review, renaming the book, “A White in the Jungle”.  I haven’t read it so I can’t comment either way.

All writers get the rare bad review. Most of the time the reader simply didn’t “get” the book. But when they feel compelled to vent to the whole world about it, I suspect a more self-centred motive is at play.  I have to ask the question: Did the Things Asian review make Cohen quit writing for good?

BOTTOM LINE:   My copies of Heartless and Islands of Steel are used Avon paperbacks, not first editions.  Prices on Abe Books, Amazon and Biblio range from $4 to $12.  Thierry value: $18.97US*

DECISION: Keep as rare books. 

*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honor of Mr. Brainwash who sold old used T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Books #6 -The Neon Flamingo by W. R. Philbrick

Eat This Book

 

 

 

 

I read my first T.D. Stash novel  while vacationing with the family at a tourist lodge on Lake Temagami. Despite being exhausted after canoeing with a 3 year old, I sat up all night to finish The Neon Flamingo. Its Florida Keys setting was as removed from Northern Ontario as you can imagine.

Gripping and smoothly written, W.R. Philbrick’s book has stayed with me, mostly because its hero, T.D. Stash, was so unusual for the late 1980s. He was a screw-up – a  stoner and sometime fisherman desperate enough for cash to do favors for friends – legal or not so much. He often made dire situations worse.

I quickly read the next two books in the series, The Crystal Blue Persuasion and Tough Enough. Then waited in vain for more.

A few years later I met W. R. Philbrick at a crime writers’ conference. He happily signed my copy of The Neon Flamingo then passed on the bad news that his editor didn’t want any  more T.D. Stash novels. A damn shame!

I suspect that TD Stash series was too dark. In other words, too intense, truthful and violent for 1990s readers. Like Liza Cody’s Bucket Nut, the books were fine examples of noir – and thus decades ahead of their time.

So what happened to W. R. Philbrick? I’m happy to tell you that he’s written over 30  novels under three pseudonyms, including the Connie Kale and J. D. Hawkins crime series.  He’s had great success as a YA author, winning multiple awards.  His YA adventure story, Freak the Mighty,  was translated into several languages and is studied in classrooms throughout the world. Later it became a successful film.

BOTTOM LINE:

The T.D. Stash books are not  available on Amazon in print or digital form. Abe Books carry only a very few used paperbacks listed between $3 to $8US.

DECISION: Keep this rare book.

EAT THIS BOOK: Never Going Back by Sam Wiebe

Novellas are relatively rare in crime fiction where formats are far more rigid than in literary and speculative fiction.  Short story lengths greater than 5000 words are tolerated…barely. And novels must be no less than 65,000 and no more than 95,000 words.

No doubt the formats are dictated by business rather than artistic imperatives. The story or book length a publisher believes will hold readers’ attention spans.

So what is a novella exactly? A long story or a short novel? As an author whose work naturally tends to fall in this category,  I believe a novella is a story with a linear plot but with more texture, atmosphere and complexity of character than can be captured in 5000 words or less.

The Orca Rapid Reads Series  breathed life into the crime fiction novella. Mostly because of this series, the CWC Awards of Excellence have had enough entries to create and sustain a novella category. (CWC defines a novella as a story between 8000 and 20,000 words.)

The Rapid Reads series is aimed at adults who are ESL students, who have difficulty reading or those who simply want a fast satisfying read. Although the language is uncomplicated, the books are not simplistic. They are hard-hitting, with adult themes and they often focus on social issues.

It’s a challenge for an author to streamline their writing style without losing its essence. That’s why Orca contracted with leading Canadian crime fiction authors for the 68 books in the series, including my friend, Sam Wiebe.

Sam’s novella, Never Going Back  (Orca, 2020is one of the latest books in the Rapid Reads series.  Its protagonist, Alison Kidd, is a tough young woman, a master thief who’s just gotten out of jail. She hated prison and she’s determined to go straight, but the local crime boss blackmails her into pulling off a risky job. If she refuses, her brother will be killed. Can she outsmart her old boss and save her brother and herself?

Sam’s hard-hitting, critically acclaimed Dave Wakeland series and his debut novel,  The Last of the Independents, are both written very much from a man’s point of view. I was intrigued that Sam chose a woman hero for Never Going Back. Could he pull it off?

I’m delighted to say that, yes, Sam did! Alison Kidd is a terrific and likeable character.  (More books and stories with strong women, Sam!) The plot has the twists and turns of a switchback highway and the suspense that goes along with it. An excellent thriller!

EAT THIS BOOK:  5 STARS

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writer #5 – Lia Matera and Star Witness or UFO’s and Me

As a kid I was space mad. I longed to become an astronaut or an astronomer. And while I was growing up, sightings of UFO’s were prominent in the news.  I became convinced that space aliens were visiting  our planet.

Maybe that’s why I have fond memories of Lia Matera’s thriller, Star Witness, the fifth book in her Willa Jansson series. The book opens with a hit-between-the-eyes description of a horrific road accident: a sporty Fiat has dived into the roof of an old Buick, squishing the driver. The owner of the Fiat, Alan, has vanished. When the police locate him, he claims he was abducted by aliens. They’re the ones who dropped his car on the Buick!

It falls to grumpy lawyer, Willa Jansson to defend Alan and his incredible alibi. But delving into reports of UFO’s and encounters of the third kind, her skepticism dissolves. Holy Cartman’s anal probe!

Matera did a deep dive into UFO’s and weird encounters and included a listing of books and videos at the end of Star Witness. In her foreword  she describes how  her personal skepticism took a journey much like Willa Jansson’s.

Even today in Canada, we have firm believers in UFO’s. (Check out the meet-ups in Toronto alone!) Many years ago, I met and chatted with one of BC’s leading UFO believers thanks to my friend, retired filmmaker, Chris Windsor.

Chris had studied film making at UBC while I slogged away at my doctorate in organic chemistry. His student film, Roofman, was a huge hit with audiences at the university. That success and his talent landed him a job making industrial training films in Alberta. Mind-numbing and soul-destroying to be sure, but at least he was earning a living in his chosen profession.

In his spare time, Chris began working on a documentary about UFO’s.  By then I was living in Victoria and writing my PhD thesis. Out of the blue one afternoon, Chris phoned. Would I help him out on a film shoot? He and his cinematographer were in town to interview the President of BC’s UFO Society.

Boy that was a hard choice – cranking out dry scientific prose or skiving off with two friends  to explore UFO’s. Hell, yes!

The three of us headed off in Chris’s car to interview the UFO President at his house in a rural part of Vancouver Island. He turned out to be a  kindly middle-aged man who lived in a tidy, respectable middle class home: he looked and acted like our dads though if memory serves, he did don a tinfoil hat.  And his belief in UFO’s was absolute.

I’ll always owe Chris for that amazing life experience. I don’t know what happened with his UFO documentary, because shortly after that I handed in my thesis, graduated and moved back to Ontario.

So what happened to Lia Matera and Chris Windsor? Lia Matera , herself a  lawyer, was chief editor of the Constitutional Law Quarterly and a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School, when she took up crime writing. She wrote the Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma series of crime novels, twelve books in all, plus a dozen short stories. Her work collected several nominations for leading awards: the Edgar, Anthony and Macavity. She won the Shamus award in 1996.

Matera wrote from 1987 to 1996 then very little thereafter though Ellery Queen Magazine published her chilling tale, “Snow Job” as recently as 2019. Did she go back to law? Did she retire? The crime writing world is poorer for it!

Chris did go on to make a feature film, Big Meat Eater, a horror comedy that was released in 1982.  It got favorable reviews and was a finalist at the 1983 Genies  for Best Original Screenplay, but it never became a huge hit.  Chris told me that unfortunately, as a Canadian film it was eclipsed by the American film, Eating Raoul, another horror comedy about cannibalism.

Andrew Gillies, Chris’s star in Roofman and Big Meat Eater went on to have a long career as a stage and film actor, with roles in The Virgin Suicides and Orphan Black. 

Sadly, Chris left the film business. He may simply have burned out. To learn about the arduous art of film making, read his excellent article in the Georgia Strait here. He now lives in Asia where he has worked for many years.

VALUE: So what’s my used paperback copy of Star Witness worth on Abe Books? About $2 to $8US.  It doesn’t appear to be available in Canada

BOTTOM LINE: Keep. In honour of UFO’s!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eat this Book: Forgotten Mystery Writers #4 – Liza Cody and Bucket Nut

Back in the 1990s, the Crime Writers of Canada had an unusual guest speaker from the UK –  a woman!  Indeed a young woman! She’d just written crime novel with a fascinating protagonist, decades ahead of her time. And it had won the prestigious CWA Silver Dagger Award.

Liza’s hero, Eva Wylie, is a female wrestler – and gay. The book I’ve pulled from my shelf is Bucket Nut, a pejorative phrase thrown at women who don’t pass het-male beauty standards. Or as the Brits put it “a face that could stop a clock”.

Bucket Nut is written in Eva’s voice and vernacular, every word pitch-perfect. Here’s a sample para:

I know you think I’m stupid. Don’t try to tell me different, because I know, see. And maybe I’d done a stupid thing. All right.  But even clever people can do stupid things. You don’t have to be all-round stupid to be conned. Clever people can be fooled, too. Hasn’t anyone ever taken you for a sucker? Well okay. I’m not judging you, so don’t you sit there and judge me!

Set in the sordid world of low-rent wrestling,  Bucket Nut shows Liza’s knowledge of a tough and gritty Britain.  Like other great crime novels, it explores the social issues of sexism, poverty and the class system while solving the mystery.  Eva is no saint and she relies on her fists and muscle more than is wise.

In creating Eva, Liza Cody was inspired by real-life British wrestler, Klondike Kate, who, she says, looked like a rain barrel in a leotard.

After the CWC meeting, I chatted with Liza, who, though tall, was about as far removed from the world of female wrestling as can be imagined. Born with dyslexia, she attended art school, became a graphic designer and worked day jobs, including doing hair styles on the wax dummies at Mme Tussaud’s!

When the digital world eclipsed the old mechanical world, Liza could take up writing, because of the computer spell-checker.  Her experiences in the art world served her well in creating – or documenting – bizarre encounters. During our chat, she entertained us about a cop at her gym who wore a complete “Dr. Frankenfurter ” under her uniform!

So what happened to Liza Cody? She didn’t disappear at all. She just didn’t come back to Canada!

I’m delighted to report that she’s had a very successful career in the UK.  Her Anna Lee novels about a woman private investigator, became a TV series in the UK and the USA.  And she continues to write: dozens of short stories, many published in Ellery Queen Magazine as well as five standalone novels.

Her most recent work, Lady Bag,  stars an elderly homeless woman whose pet greyhound is her best friend. One day outside the National Gallery, they meet the Devil…   I’m definitely going to read that one!

VALUE: So what’s my used paperback copy of Bucket Nut worth on Abe Books? About $4US.  And the Thierry* value: $66US.

BOTTOM LINE: Keep. In honour of wild women protagonists!

 

*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honour of Mr. Brainwash who successfully sold used, outdated T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: THE COLD VANISH by Jon Billman

I was a bookish child and so inept at sports that my friends would fight to NOT have me on their team. But two amazing women got me to love sports – and changed my life forever.

In university, my sister-in-law got me into hiking, biking and downhill skiing. (We also had adventures dinghy sailing.) And my friend, Marian Misters, co-owner of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, introduced me to road running.

Hard work and perseverance accomplished more than I dreamed of: I’ve run a marathon, regularly biked 120 km at a stretch and skied black diamonds without dying! But I remain in awe of ultramarathoners, adventurers and mountain climbers whose exploits I devoured in the late, great Outside magazine.

Jon Billman, is a search-and-rescue expert, a former wildland firefighter and regular contributor to Outside. In The Cold Vanish, he explores how and why people continue to go missing in the wilderness. It’s been said that the solution to an enduring mystery is often sadly banal. That may be true of the many cases Billman writes about, but like Jon Krakauer, he unveils the tragedy behind each story – and a warning.   Venturing into the wilderness requires an abundance of caution.

Billman’s book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down. The overarching  story centers on Jacob Gray, a 22 year-old cyclist who disappeared in Olympic National Park in Washington State.  He’d embarked on a cycling journey but shortly after leaving home, his bicycle was found abandoned by the side of the road, all his gear intact.  Close by was the fast-flowing Sol Duc River. Searchers assumed the worst: that he’d tried to fill his water bottle, fallen in and drowned.

Billman formed a close friendship with Jacob’s father, Randy, who never gave up hope of finding his son. They searched for Jacob for over a year, chasing scenarios from Jacob being involved in the drug trade to joining a cult to simply walking away from the world.  (No spoilers, you must read through to the end of the book to find out what really happened to Jacob.)

The reasons behind these disappearances range from murder to accidents to running away. Billman interviews scientists – there aren’t many of them – who  research how and why people go missing in the wilderness.

So how do people go missing? Much of the time accidents are to blame, usually falls when the person was on their own.  The other main reason? Simply getting lost and dying from exposure, which usually means dehydration or hypothermia. People greatly underestimate the amount of water they need when hiking, especially in the heat. And even temperatures as moderate as 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) can lead to hypothermia.

Sadly the vast majority of the cases do not end well. Billman does include a miraculous rescue, that of a young yoga teacher who went missing in Hawaii for over two weeks. She wandered off the marked trail in a nature preserve and got lost. She survived a fall and a broken leg, but knew enough about nature to stay dehydrated.  Search planes found her by chance in an area of the preserve far outside the search range. She’d wandered much farther than anyone had predicted.

The takeaways from the stories: those who go missing for a long time are found by chance and by people unassociated with the original search and rescue team.  Often as not, the missing  person is in a location logic did not dictate.

Important to remember that our predominantly urban society is spectacularly underequipped to deal with the wilderness. It’s not Disneyland. When exploring the wilderness, listen to the advice of forest rangers and park wardens. Don’t wander off marked trails.  Take the right amount of water, food and supplies with you. And never go alone.

My rating: 5 stars  Eat this book!

A Footnote:  In 2016, at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix, Arizona, I took a tour of the Apacheland Movie Set museum. Our guide told us how a hiker had died the day before of heat and dehydration. He’d wandered off the beaten track and gotten lost, one canyon looking much like another. Also that day, three German tourists had set off into the desert with umbrellas to ward off the sun, but greatly underestimated the quantity of water they needed. Fortunately they were rescued, dehydrated but alive.  Read the full story here.

EAT THIS BOOK: Filthy Sugar by Heather Babcock

Heather Babcock

Heather Babcock is an  accomplished author of poetry and short fiction. She has read and performed at a gamut of live venues in Toronto.  (Read more about Heather’s accomplishments  here in Goodreads.)

I became friends with Heather through our mutual friend, Toronto Poet.   Ed and I have enjoyed her readings at Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and The Redhead Revue. We all share a love of things retro, especially very bad sci-fi movies from the 1950s.

I was delighted when Heather Babcock’s debut novel, Filthy Sugar was published by Inanna Publications. This independent press focuses on literature by and about women and is also the publisher of two dear friends and authors, Lisa De Nikolits  and Caro Soles.

Set in the depths of the Great Depression, Filthy Sugar describes the often tawdry adventures of  19 year old, Wanda Whittle, who uses her beauty and her sexuality to get out of poverty. She ends up cruelly exploited – as a burlesque dancer, a sex worker and even as a “redeemed woman” for a tabloid – because she trusts or falls for the wrong guy.  But Wanda is a fighter and in a great twist at the end of the novel (no spoilers!), she takes back control of her own life and finds real love.

It’s a credit to Heather’s terrific skills as a writer that she can unsparingly portray the romantic traps and sad situations that Wanda falls prey to and yet embody the pages with such vitality, you can’t stop turning the pages.

Heather submerged herself in the history of 1930’s culture –  even listening to 1930’s music while writing – and her passion for the period creates magic on the pages.  (Each chapter is referenced for history buffs.) Here are just a couple of my favorite lines:

  • When the lights are dim and the cigarettes are lit, the dames look like ladies and the mugs look like gentlemen and nobody sees the blood on your shoes at the Bow Tie.
  • When the only things alive are the rats in the walls and the little vampires under my mattress, it’s high time to blow.

I especially love Heather’s portrayal of 1930’s street talk.  Some of the phrases are historical (she includes a dictionary at the end of the book) but the best ones, she created herself. Here’s a sampling:

  • Slug burger – a poor person’s burger served on stale bread
  • Crepehanger – a cynic
  • Flock of salami – bullsh*t
  • Underwood banger – a reporter
  • Filthy sugar – dirty money

Underwood banger and best of all, filthy sugar are Heather’s own phrases. History is the loser!

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. Five stars!

My Story on Audio

Great news!

My long story, “Brainworm”, is featured on Donna Carrick’s Story Stocking, Part One on July 22nd and Part Two on July 29th.  “Brainworm” first appeared in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, In the Key of 13.

In the story, Fiona, a middle-aged woman worn down by looking after her difficult stepmother, has a near miss on the highway during a biting winter blizzard. The shock forces her to face the danger about to devour her.

Click here to tune in to this podcast.

EAT THIS BOOK: Rolling Thunder by A. J. Devlin

I had the pleasure of meeting AJ Devlin at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver in 2019. We ended up sitting next to each other at the Crime Writers of Canada pub dinner and really hit it off. It turns out that AJ spent many years in Hollywood as a screen writer and our daughter, Claire, works in special effects so I know how tough the film biz can be. And we bonded over the challenges we’d both had to overcome to be traditionally published.

 

AJ’s first crime novel, Cobra Clutch, found a home with NeWest Press. It introduced “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead, a former pro wrestler turned private eye. I loved it! Like pro wrestling, Cobra Clutch has it all: comedy, great characters and over the top action. (The shoot-out on Lion’s Gate Bridge is my personal favorite.)

Cobra Clutch was nominated for a Lefty Award and went on to win the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award. Not bad!

So I was eager to read Jed Ounstead’s next adventure, Rolling Thunder. I’m delighted to report that it’s great fun and a great read. Jed is in fine form as he dives into the world of roller derby. The coach of the Split Lip Sallies, whose stage name is Lawrence O’Labia, has disappeared days before a critical match. (Lawrence’s real-life name is even ruder.) The roller derby team hires Jed to find him.

Running Lawrence down lands Jed in enormous danger as he searches through Vancouver’s seamy side. Is it gambling? Drugs? Larry’s secret fondness for the (gay) leather scene? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

AJ has a gift for witty names and dialogue. He populates the pages of his thriller with hilariously weird characters, among them: an effete bookie who races dachshunds, an excruciatingly amateur talk show host and a 300lb roller derby star who likes to whack men’s butts. Jed gets lots of action in and out of the ring. The fight scenes are especially well-written: gritty and visual.

Rolling Thunder hits all the marks for a PI thriller. Thoroughly recommended. 5 stars.

Available on Amazon.ca in print and e-book.