Themes: / hard-boiled / noir / crime / mystery /
Tal Howard, a disillusioned Korean War vet, breaks away from his old life, looking for answers and convinced he’s going to find them in the small town of Hillston. What’s in Hillston? Sixty grand in embezzled funds that Howard learned about from a dying friend in a POW camp. He just needs to find out where the money is hidden and contend with another former POW who has come looking for it, Earl Fitzmartin–a psychopath they were all terrified of in the camp. Howard soon learns that the secret to the money’s location lies in the dead man’s past, which must be discovered through the women he knew, such as the respectable Ruth Stamm and the sultry and dangerous Toni Rassele.
A reissue of John D. MacDonald’s 1955 standalone novel On The Make was among the first books to be released from independent publisher Gutter Books after evolving from a 7 issue run of the amazing Out of the Gutter short fiction journal which debuted in 2008. Gutter books released to date have included other classic crime reprints, new original crime novels from authors such as Joe McKinney, the anthology Atomic Noir edited by Duane Swierczynski with Lou Boxer, and even a reprint of Gold Medal’s 1950 UFO inquiry The Flying Saucers are Real by former Marine Corps naval aviator Donald Keyhoe. Now On The Make has launched as the first of what hopes to be many titles to be brought to the audiobook format by Gutter Books.
The reissue includes an introductory essay “The Two Sides of John D.” by Martin L. Kohler and a concluding essay by Gutter Book’s own Matthew Louis, both which I appreciate being included in the both the new print edition as well as the audiobook. I do have one slight issue with the introductory essay in that although On the Make was in fact the author’s intended title for the novel, the publishers went with a different title, one that in my opinion serves as a major plot spoiler consider a specific main character in the novel. Therefore my own recommendation would be to save both essays for enjoyment later after listening to the story first. That being said, my understanding is that the mention in the prologue was left intact so as not to mislead any readers who may have already be familiar with the book from the former title.
The hard-boiled 1st person narrative of On the Make is handled well by narrator Robert Armin, whose other audiobook credits include non-fiction, self-help, children’s, and crime titles as well as his own writing. The main character, Tal Howard, is a veteran of the Korean War brought to a small town seeking buried riches hinted to him from the last wishes of a fellow prisoner of war. Tal quickly finds many others snooping around and that other strangers have already outstayed their welcome in the town of Hillston. I’ve personally only read other standalone novels from the John D MacDonald bibliography and based on what I’ve read I feel this novel serves as a great introduction to this period. The essays give a good comparison and contrast from this era with his later and better known Travis McGee series of novels. Also of interest and mentioned in high regard is the science fiction works of the author which have included short stories and a handful of novels. I recalled enjoying On the Make first time around when I read the Gutter Books paperback, and enjoyed revisiting the story with the audiobook. I may have to check out some of the John D. MacDonald series or sci-fi novels.
The SFFaudio Podcast #200 – Jesse, Mirko, and Gary Lovisi discuss the Science Fiction novel Mars Needs Books! by Gary Lovisi.
Talked about on today’s show:
the great description, Audible.com, it’s a prison novel, it’s a dystopian science fiction novel, it’s a book collector’s novel, Philip K. Dick, a reality dysfunction, The Man In The High Castle, 1984 by George Orwell, “retconning“, Stalin, airbrushing history, a new Science Fiction idea!, Amazon’s Kindle, Mark Twain, “The Department Of Control”, J. Edgar Hoover, Simon is the most evil character ever, oddball individualists, a straw man gulag, one way of keeping the population in control is to send troublemakers away, another is to give them someone to hate, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, the Attica Prison riot (1971), Arabella Rashid, entertainment media, when you can’t tell what the truth is anymore it’s very easy to control people, maybe it’s an allegory for our times, Paperback Parade, SF writers were wrong about what our times are like, Mars, crime novels, Science Fiction as a metaphor, people are scared of reading, “I like good writing”, Richard Stark’s Parker novels, getting the word out about Mars Needs Books!, Gargoyle Nights, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, horror, fantasy, nice and short, short books pack a punch (and don’t waste your time), Stephen King, Patrick O’Brian, ideas, paperback novels from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, customers want thick books, Winter In Maine by Gerard Donovan, were looking at a different readership today, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, there’s nothing that doesn’t add to the story, “Lawrence Block is scary good”, Donald E. Westlake, Robert Bloch, Eight Million Ways To Die, A Pair Of Recycled Jeans by Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter (Ed McBain), Charles Ardai (was on SFFaudio Podcast #090), book-collectors, Murder Of A Bookman by Gary Lovisi (is also on Audible.com), collectable glassware, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, cool dialogue, Driving Hell’s Highway by Gary Lovisi (also on Audible.com), That Hell-bound Train by Robert Bloch, noir, Violence Is The Only Solution by Gary Lovisi (paperback), hard-boiled, revenge, betrayal, personality disorder, Sherlock Holmes, westerns, “if there’s one truth in the universe that I know it’s that Germans love westerns”, which frontier are you talking about?, The Wild Bunch, a western with tommyguns, Akira Kurosawa, Outland (is High Noon in space), Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, hard-boiled, violence, the Martian national anthem, Prometheus Award, libertarian motifs, world-building, GryphonBooks.com, Hurricane Sandy, Wildside Press, POD Books, eBooks, fire and water, that paperback is still in readable condition in 150 years?, fanzines, Jack Vance, The Dying Earth, Robert Silverberg, Dell Mapbacks, paperbacks were disposable, used bookstores, sex books.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The Steel Remains
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Simon Vance
Publisher: Tantor Media
Themes: / Fantasy / Noir / Hard Boiled / Magic / War / Homosexuality /
“Men were like blades, they would all break sooner or later, you included. But you looked around at the men you led, and in their eyes you saw what kind of steel you had to hand, how it had been forged and tempered, what blows, if any, it would take.”
—Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains
With his new book The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan sets out to (as main character Ringil Eskiath might say) “prick the bloated arse” of J.R.R. Tolkien and post-Tolkien fantasy. Elsewhere on the web Morgan has expressed his deep dissatisfaction with traditional high fantasy, which often pits stainless forces of good against hordes of irredeemable evil in bloodless, antiseptic sword play. He’s accused Tolkien of the same shortcomings (a flawed analysis with which I vehemently disagree). Against this backdrop, Morgan set out to write The Steel Remains as a deliberately gray, grimy, alternative viewpoint. His book succeeds in sliding cold steel into the lie of childlike fantasy, with which my favorite genre of fiction is admittedly littered.
But when the screaming of gutted men and the skirling of steel dies down, and the full extent of the destruction is laid bare for us to see, The Steel Remains does not have much to offer. The old cliché that it’s easier to tear down and destroy than to build anew applies here. In its falling over itself desire to slice and dice fantasy’s traditional conservatism, The Steel Remains indulges in plenty of its own predictable clichés: Every priest is a religious fanatic and a sex fiend, every leader a morally and ethically corrupt, egotistic blowhard, for example. The book lacks a moral compass; Morgan the author’s world view must be a bleak one, indeed.
The action of The Steel Remains focuses on the converging storylines of three uneven characters—one very well done (Ringil, a sarcastic, war-weary, homosexual master swordsman), one middling (Egar, a brawling, boisterous, randy barbarian from the steppes), and one rather forgettable (Archeth, a black, female half-breed of human and Kiriath, deadly with throwing knives and hooked on drugs). All three are veterans of a recent war against an invading race of “scaly folk,” in which humanity staved off utter destruction at a very high price. Ringil, a war hero but now combat- and world-weary, has retreated from his mercenary lifestyle and is living a slothful, under-the-radar existence, until he’s summoned by an urgent message from his mother: Ringil’s cousin, Sherin, has been sold into slavery to repay a debt, and Ringil’s mother wants her back. Ringil reluctantly agrees.
Soon Ringil finds out that the slavery web in which Sherin has been caught is very dark, wide, and sinister. At its centre are a race of alien beings called the dwenda—tall, attractive, human-like, magic-using creatures that are a combination of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans with their cruel and alien immorality, and Poul Anderson’s Nordic-inspired, haughty, and warlike elves (Morgan lists Anderson and Moorcock as two of his sources of inspiration; the third is, unsurprisingly, Karl Edward Wagner). The dwenda are planning to incite a second war on earth and then destroy the victor, taking back their ancestral lands (the dwenda dwelled on earth many years ago). The dwenda require the sacrifice of barren human females to fuel the dark powers that are the source of their sorcery.
There’s much to like in The Steel Remains. Morgan’s prose is sharp and highly readable, and he shows a fine eye for detail and realism in his culture and city-building. Trelayne—a nasty, sprawling, brawling city in which whoring, slavery, and public executions are practiced openly—feels real. Egar’s Majak culture is based on pre-colonized North American Indians, and is well-done with its shamans and superstitions, trade in vast herds of buffalo, and armor and weapons suited to a nomadic lifestyle on the plains.
In addition, if you like your battles bloody and realistic, Morgan is your man. His fight scenes are well-done and you get a great sense of Ringil’s skill with his deadly broadsword of Kiriath steel, and Egar’s brutal butcher’s work with his two-bladed Majak lance. Disembowelings, beheadings, and other ghastly wounds are rife.
Much of the book passed under my eyes as well-oiled but heartless machinery producing graphic combat carnage and highly explicit sex (I’ll pause here to state that the blood and semen-soaked pages of The Steel Remains would make George R.R. Martin blanch, and Eric Van Lustbader—author of The Ninja—green with envy). I found the characters rather unlikeable and unengaging, and the plot fair at best. Very little actually clicked with me until the concluding act, in which Ringil, Egar, and Archeth reunite to fight a desperate last stand against the duenda. This was one of the few moving scenes in the book in which I actually felt some measure of concern and identification with our heroes. Ringil’s rousing speech is of the stuff with which great heroic fantasy is made. I wish there was more like this.
In summary, we know that life is can be dirty and horrible. War is hell, yes, and men are weak and piggish. But Morgan drives the same points home, again and again, over 400 dark, cynical, iconoclastic pages of The Steel Remains, which by the end is too one-note and sacrifices story at the expense of the author’s agenda.
Narrator Simon Vance does a terrific job as narrator, changing his voice to suit the temperaments and personalities of the various characters in Morgan’s novel. Clarity and precision are among Vance’s strengths as a reader and he does not disappoint here. When I began listening to The Steel Remains, and before I had seen the narration credits, I recognized Vance’s distinctive voice from his wonderful depiction of Count Dracula and the rest of the characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Blackstone Audiobooks). For unknown reasons Vance performed Dracula under the pseudonym, Robert Whitfield.
[For more of Brian’s thoughts on The Steel Remains check out The SFFaudio Podcast #034]
Posted by Brian Murphy
By Charlie Huston; Read by Scott Brick
8 CDs – 9 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Themes: / Horror / Hard-boiled / Detective / noir / Vampires / Zombies /
I lent this audiobook to a friend. Later, listening to me waxing enthusiastic over the book, he said in a dubious tone, “That’s the book where the zombies and vampires are fighting?”
It is true that vampirism is a key element of detective Joe Pitt’s character as practically everything he does entails watchful details to stay alive and undetected for what he is. Already Dead is, first and foremost, heart and soul, a hard-boiled detective novel. One might be forgiven for thinking that Charlie Huston is merely another author taking advantage of the recent trend featuring vampires as key characters in fiction. However, they would be dead wrong. What becomes very clear is that Huston is taking advantage of this fantastical setting to examine good versus evil, rising to humanity versus sinking to the level of animals, the societal urge to define oneself by the group one joins, and, of course, what constitutes true love. It is no surprise then to find that some of the greatest intentional evil is perpetrated not by vampires but by mere human beings. All of these themes are set forth for us in crackling dialogue that hearkens back to the best of Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, who one is irresistibly reminded co-wrote the screenplay for the film-noir classic Double Indemnity. In fact, a scene toward the end of the book between Joe and his girlfriend Evie is a noir-style dialogue masterpiece that sends thrills through the listener and that would not be out of place in that movie.
The nub of the story is that Joe Pitt is hired to track down the runaway teenage daughter of a wealthy couple. He delves deeper into the case and increasingly complex and sordid details come to light. Naturally, this is set against a background of New York City vampirism which is the result of catching a virus. The zombies also are the result of a virus, albeit quite a different one which robs the victim of any brain power and leaves them with an insatiable urge for human flesh. It is through tracking down a zombie in order to dispose of it before regular human attention is drawn to the existence of various virus-challenged individuals that Joe is drawn into the case. A loner, Joe must walk a careful line between the Coalition, the Enclave, and various other gang-like power brokerages that exist in vampire society, all of which are interested in some aspect of the investigation. Joe’s girlfriend, Evie, is a regular human infected with HIV, who knows nothing about Joe’s infection. The mutual affection and the need between two such lonely people makes an interesting contrast when one considers Joe’s virus is keeping him alive while Evie’s will eventually kill her.
I have read descriptions comparing Huston to Elmore Leonard and that didn’t ring true until considering The Society, which always made me giggle. (Yes, giggle. Deal with it.) The Society is made up of progressive vampires who are committed to diversity and look forward to the day when vampires are accepted in society as merely another minority. Joe occasionally winds up in their custody and the scraps of conversation he overhears before they realize he is conscious are always humorous. Consider the fact that zombies are termed “Victims of Zombification” as per The Society vote. All conversation halts when someone mistakenly uses the politically incorrect “zombie” until they can be patiently corrected. Extremely Elmore Leonard-esque indeed.
I originally checked the hardback out of the library but it failed to hold my interest for reasons I cannot now remember. However, the narrative fairly blazes alive the second one hears the world-weary Joe Pitt voiced by Scott Brick. My admiration grew as a suave mob boss, The Society leader Terry exhorting Joe to “be cool,” a loving mother who is nonetheless a lush, and a host of other characters all sprang instantly to life with subtle but masterful voicing. I didn’t realize the narrator was the well-known Brick, whose occasional blogging and podcasting I have followed with interest. Listening to this book I realized how skillful he is at his trade. I’m now a fan, not only of author Charlie Huston, but also of Scott Brick.
Warning: The language and situations are explicit although not to an unnecessary degree in most cases. This is a modern, gritty novel and listener discretion is advised.
Posted by Julie D.
Black Jack Justice – Season One
By Gregg Taylor; Performed by a full cast
12 MP3s or podcast – Approx. 5 Hours [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: Podiobooks.com / Decoder Ring Theatre
Published: September 2006
Themes: / Mystery / Crime / Private Detective / Toronto /
“There was no time to explain the extra sensory properties of a truly eye-popping hangover.”
– from “Justice Incorporated”)
Black Jack Justice is a free podcast audio drama available through Podiobooks.com and Decoder Ring Theatre. Set in post WWII Toronto, it follows the cases of a pair of private detectives who right wrongs and investigate the investigateable. This review of the first season started life as a brief mention in an upcoming Five Free Favourites post. But, as I was re-living the show in my mind, and then, fannishly re-listening to the first season, I realized that it was totally unjust to leave Black Jack Justice – Season One without a full and glowing review. Let me put it simply. This is the greatest mystery audio drama since the Nero Wolfe series that aired on CBC Radio in the 1980s. Just like The Red Panda Adventures, also produced by Decoder Ring Theatre, Black Jack Justice is also written by Gregg Taylor. Like Panda, this show is absolutely top shelf entertainment. Not a single episode will leave you cold – every single one is fast, witty and clever. Black Jack Justice – Season 1 is like a good old fashioned cup of java and a slice of cherry pie and the heroes, Trixie Dixon and Jack Justice, are the greatest detective team since Nick and Nora.
The production of any given episode of Black Jack Justice is both an echo of those old time radio dramas like Richard Diamond, Private Detective and tribute to the superior techniques of modern storytelling. Actors Christopher Mott and Andrea Lyons, playing Jack and Trixie, are letter perfect, firing an endless rat-atat-tat of peppy dialogue that delivers exposition and character with equal enthusiasm. Mott’s Jack is hard and canny, but with a soft center shown only to dames in trouble and lost kittens. Lyons’ Trixie is whip smart sexy, she knows what she wants and she takes it – no ifs ands or gun butts. Guest actors, many familiar from their roles on The Red Panda Adventures, are also uniformly excellent – they typically play characters like cops, heiresses, and mob bosses. Audio production is minimal, with music being the main addition to the mix. Both Jack and Trixie have their own musical themes that play as they narrate their cases. The stories are lean and snappy, quick paced adventures. The show even has extremely subtle breaking of the fourth wall (of the style found in The Pirates of Penzance) – I absolutely love it. If Martin Backnell, the creator of Black Jack Justice weren’t totally fictional, he’d be smiling so wide at this series.
Posted by Jesse Willis
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Simon Vance
18 CDs or 3 MP3-CDs – Approx. 23 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Published: July 2007
ISBN: 1400104319 (CDs), 1400154316 (MP3-CDs)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Noir / Mystery / Hard Boiled / Genetic Engineering /
Carl Marsalis is a traitor, a bringer of death, a genetic freak and an unwelcome reminder of all that is dark in the human psyche – he in every sense of the word a Black Man. And right at the moment he’s beyond the UN’s jurisdiction, banged up in a Florida jail for financing an illegal abortion. So when the US police call, Carl cuts a deal. The 13s are genetically engineered alpha males, designed to fight the century’s last conflicts. But men bred and designed to fight are dangerous to have around in peacetime. Many of them have left for Mars, but one has returned. Somehow he survived the journey to Earth, and now a series of brutal slayings has erupted across America. Only Carl can stop him. And so begins a frenetic man hunt and a battle for survival. And a search for the truth about what was really done with the world’s last soldiers.
I find Richard K. Morgan, in his rare interviews, offers deep insights into his work. In regards to Thirteen (called Black Man in the U.K.), he describes it as: “An accidentally lengthy meditation on elements of the human condition that the Kovacs books [Altered Carbon etc.] always had the capacity to sidestep – namely, the prison of our own flesh, and the inevitable doom of our own mortality.” And its true, Morgan delivers action and cogitation on action. The setting, a grimly-futuristic Earth and the characters play out the consequences of a well thought out backstory. In Thirteen it seems that various experiments in genetic engineering have lead to at least thirteen strains of humanity. Like all good hard-boiled mysteries it has a fully realized backstory that predominates the main-stage machinations. Carl Marsalis is our anti-hero. He’s one of a small group of genetically engineered super-soldiers who were created by the British government for military use. In Thirteen, Morgan has created a grim future – one that is different from his detailed Altered Carbon and Market Forces worlds – but no less vivid. Years ago, in our future, a new arms race ran rampant, every nation with super-power ambitions started making genetic super-soldiers, others side stepped into crossbreeding bonobos sexual appetites and attitudes into humans. Add in a new racism bound to genetics, the old racism based on skin tone, the potential return of Jesus Christ, a dissolved United States of America, and international intrigue plays out from South America to Asia Minor and Mars – and you get a very rich premise. Carl Marsalis is a dour, taciturn anti-hero, but he’s pretty compassionate for a sociopath. His genes and something called “mesh” (another Richard K. Morgan edge-giver like “neuro chem” from Altered Carbon) and martial arts from Mars make him one bad-ass Brit. If there’s a weakness with the story, it’s the intricacy, there’s almost too much backstory – this leads to too many scenes where little bits of information get doled out. The addition of well more than a dozen characters for Marsalis to tangle with make the whole novel feel long. Thankfully, there’s a perfect ending capping this thoughtfully Noir Science Fiction novel.
Tantor Audio tapped Simon Vance to voice Thirteen, he also narrated Morgan’s Market Forces. Vance brings his a growing body of experience to work with him, and manages to nail a lot of accents in this continent bounding tale. The only point I was shaken from the narrative came when Vance used what sounded like a Charlie Chan impression for a female Chinese character. So far Tantor’s had a lock on the Richard K. Morgan audiobook market so I’m hoping they’re planning on recording The Steel Remains, his forthcoming novel too.
Posted by Jesse Willis