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.)

 

 

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Abandoned Buildings in Your Neighbourhood- Part 2

In January I blogged about the ivy-drowned mansion near our cottage  which was later salvaged…sort of.

Small town “haunted” mansion

But do such houses exist in Toronto? Yes, they do! And I’ve learned to spot them.

The obvious clues are boarded up or broken windows, wildly overgrown gardens, leaking roofs and guttering.  Though occasionally these signs can apply to a fully inhabited, sadly neglected house!

More subtle signs appear for vacant homes: usually the overgrown garden is a giveaway. No obvious cars, a sheen of dust on the windows, a dispirited ambience…Though someone somewhere is keeping up the basic maintenance to avoid destruction.

Water, sun and nature move swiftly to claim back the planet.

What fascinates me are the reasons why the house stands deserted. There are stories there. Did the owner grow too elderly or infirm? Turn away from the world because of heartbreak? Was there a family dispute? A lingering estate problem?

And what of this strange sight, spotted on a winter walk?

 

Has the hoarding become so extreme that it’s spilled onto the veranda? Or did someone clear it out for the junk removal service?

Definitely a story here!

 

 

 

URBEX: Toronto – Tout Est Possible!

red and blue abstract painting
URBEX!

It’s March and my thoughts turn to training for The Ride. If Toronto’s wild weather allows, mid-March means riding the real roads!

The 2021 Ride to Conquer is virtual once again, but training is real – and an escape from COVID.

And a chance to Urbex Toronto.  (Urbex = urban exploration.)

 

Spring this year promises to be mild and soon. I jumped on the bike the earliest since the inaugural 2008 ride and pulled off 13 km.

First snow drops

 

The Beltline trail proved to be treacherous. Crossing over the Iron Horse Bridge, I hit ice. It’s like hydroplaning in a car: don’t steer, don’t brake, don’t waver. Maintain speed and balance and hope to *$%# you make it over the next 50 feet.

 

I reached my beloved icon, Tout Est Possible – and happily contended with mere mud before retreating to dodging traffic on regular roads.

It turns out that the Beltline Tout Est Possible is only one of at least 20 such icons scattered throughout Toronto. Many appear in non-obvious locations in places like Sherwood Park, Nordheimer Ravine and Taylor Creek Park.

The artist remains unknown like Banksy since their work started appearing in 2011. I’m happy to report that when my fav got erased, the artist restored it before too long.

For a description of fellow cyclists’ full tour of the icons, see the blogTO article here.

 

 

NEWS! Story in Moonlight and Misadventure

Greetings Readers!

Delighted that my story, “The Moon God of Broadmoor” , has been accepted for Judy Penz Sheluk’s upcoming anthology, Moonlight and Misadventure.  Publication is scheduled for June 18, 2021. Exciting! I can’t wait to read the other stories in the collection.

Through Superior Shores Press, Judy has edited and published two previous anthologies, The Best Laid Plans and Heartbreak & Half-Truths, both of which have received critical acclaim.

Stay tuned for the cover reveal and more updates.

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

 

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Abandoned Buildings in Your Neighborhood – Pt. 1

ABANDONED

I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned buildings. Arrested in time, they are living ghosts, hoarders of stories.  I’ve always imagined them to be located on windswept hills, next to crumbling seashores or hidden in industrial wastelands, not lurking in my neighborhood.

To my surprise, I’ve now run across several abandoned buildings close to home. I’ve even learned how to spot them. (Stay tuned, that’s for Part 2.)

About a year ago, a visitor to our cottage told us that they’d discovered a “haunted house” on their walk through town. Following their directions,  I found it on my next morning run.

On first approach…

The house at first glance seemed to be an older Victorian whose owners loved ivy-covered walls.  But a closer look revealed a seriously deteriorated roof and a badly overgrown garden. The kingdom of plants had taken over.

Definitely some problems

 

 

What is hidden upstairs?
Vandals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A danger in  being abandoned is vandalism – those who seek to destroy for the pure pleasure of destruction. Worst of all is the onslaught of natural elements, water being the most lethal.

I couldn’t help being curious about the reasons behind the house’s deterioration. An official notice was posted close to the “no trespassing” sign. Perhaps the inhabitants grew too elderly or too poor to maintain the house. As per COVID, one day would slide into the next, each as unremarkable as the other until decades had passed.

I spotted signs of an attempted clear-out. Was there a forced eviction? Two of these sad signs below.

Sad carpet
Lonely chair and bed spread

 

 

 

 

 

Over the summer, I observed  attempts to clear and/or repair the house, apparently by someone working singlehandedly.  Not much progress as you might expect for such an overwhelming task.

This summer, a year later, curiosity led me past the haunted house again. Massive changes had happened: the ivy was gone, the extension had been demolished and the entire garden had been ripped out. Nothing was left but an empty purged shell.

Which is the real ghost?

Before and after

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Greetings Readers!

Really looking forward to connecting with you and hopefully meeting you in the real world in 2021. For more news, do check out  https://mesdamesofmayhem.com

Wishing you a bright and healthy New Year!

Madeleine

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, DEAR READERS!


Dear Readers!

This has been a strange year indeed. Most of all, I miss connecting with you and my fellow crime authors in the Real World.

Just in time for Christmas,  Amazon delivered my print copies of A Grave Diagnosis Donna Carrick’s spooky and appropriate anthology for Anno Horribilis, AKA 2020. It never gets old to see one’s work in print!
And a special Christmas decoration, 3D-printed here at home, that captures the world’s feelings about much of this year. Look closely for the message!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay safe and looking forward to a much brighter and happier 2021 in the Real  World!

Hugs, Mad (M. H. Callway)

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.

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