Well, we didn’t get to go to SDCC or the Clallam Bay ComicCon or even on our planned bookscouting/loafing long weekend. Instead, we had to invest in a new radiator and cooling fan for the damn car, which had been overheating badly for the last week or so. This torpedoed virtually any leisure activity budget we might have had, and reminded me yet again how much of a drag adulthood really is most of the time.
The one upside to this is that since I was forced to be a bus commuter again, I had ninety minutes at each end of my workday to read, and so I was able to put a considerable dent in the Shelf of Shame to-read pile. The lot fell into several categories, and so that’s how I broke them out for this column. Here’s a bunch of capsule reviews.
Vintage Westerns. These are basically formula novels, the men’s adventure equivalent of a Harlequin romance. Long before Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard and those guys invested the genre with actual literary merit, the pulp magazines were churning out monthly novel-length tales of good guys taming bad towns. You can count on a corrupt land baron, a sultry temptress, a worthy rancher struggling to keep his small-but-honest operation going with the aid of his beautiful but naive daughter, and a taciturn fellow from out of town who rides into the middle of all this drama and makes it his business to see to it that virtue triumphs.
There are people that sneer at formulaic melodrama and if you really backed me into a corner on it I have to admit they have valid criticisms. Nevertheless, I’m not one of those people. Sometimes you just want a bag of potato chips, not a gourmet meal. Anytime I pick up a paperback Western published before 1980, I’m reasonably certain of what I’m going to get. When you know it’s just there to play the hits, all that matters is whether or not it’s done reasonably well.
With that disclaimer, these two recent acquisitions were pretty good. First up we have The Lonely Law by Matt Stuart.
The blurb: THEY SAID HIS BADGE WAS BOUGHT! Jim Larribee was proud of the badge on his chest — but everyone knew he wouldn’t have it without Big Dan Sharples. The powerful rancher had pulled strings and twisted arms to make Jim sheriff, and the townsfolk figured that the lawman was just another hired hand in Big Jim’s ruthless drive to rule the range… but both Big Jim and his blood enemies had surprises coming– blazing right out of the barrels of Larribee’s guns. The only way anyone was going to lay claim to Larribee’s badge was to take it off the sheriff’s dead body–and God help the one who tried.
And this one is almost exactly the same book, except for the hero’s motivation. The Stranger From Texas by Allan Echols.
This time it’s Merle Roberson riding into town to find out who killed his father, and it ticks all the same boxes, but I thought it was a slightly stronger book than the Stuart one; the plot was more complex and it’s a bit of a whodunit, though we know that Roberson’s father was clearly done in to advance the schemes of the corrupt cattle baron Rex King.
Each one was a quick read, basically one day’s worth of bus riding each. Well worth the two dollars I invested in them.
Comics. Ever since my former comics retailer closed up shop at the beginning of the year, I’ve pretty much quit getting new comics. Instead, I’ve been acquiring remaindered hardcovers here and there whenever I see them on sale. Mostly it’s older DC superhero stuff but every once in a while something relatively recent finds its way to me. Like Damian, Son of Batman by Andy Kubert.
This story is basically a bounce off Grant Morrison’s one-off in Batman #666, in which we see a future version of Damian as the new Batman. Andy Kubert writes and draws a four-part story where we see how he got to that point, and the book rounds out the collection by including the aforementioned Morrison story. Kubert’s story is one of those fussbudgety continuity things that really no one was asking for, but it is pretty good, and breathtakingly gorgeous to look at.
If I’d paid full price for this I might have thought it was a thin read for the money, but since I got mine for three dollars I was pretty pleased with it; it had a little bit of a What If? circa 1978 vibe. Even at that it’s strictly for the hardcore Bat-fans, though.
Mostly, though, my current itch is discounted DC Archive Editions of material from the Golden Age. These hardcovers have been getting reprinted at a much more reasonable price– $24.95 as opposed to the original $49.95, which means the discounted versions have been showing up used for anywhere from five to ten dollars at Half Price Books and similar venues.
I have very fond memories of this era of the DC heroes from seeing the stories as back-of-the-book filler in the seventies 100-page Super-Spectaculars. Revisiting those characters now in these hardcover editions has been tremendous fun; a great many of the stories are brand-new to me and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how GOOD they are. Once you get past the raw efforts of the very beginning and you’re into the mid-1940s, when the writers and artists were beginning to gather confidence and acquire a little polish, there’s a lot of cool stuff there.
For example, this little gem from the All-Star Archives…”A Place in the World” from All-Star #27.
This was just terrific. I mentioned a few weeks ago how the morality of superheroes was a big draw for me when I was a kid, and this kind of social-justice thing just gets me where I live. A condescending jock, Fred, has a little brother Jimmy that’s in a wheelchair. Fred loves Jimmy but thinks privately that he could never live with that kind of a handicap. Then Fred goes off to war….
Naturally, being basically good-hearted, Fred wants to help others in his situation now that he’s had his consciousness raised about the disabled. So he enlists the JSA. Fred was just thinking maybe the heroes could visit these kids and cheer them up a little, but Hawkman has a much cooler idea.
Each of the six disabled kids gets to help out one of the heroes, and as corny and sappy as you might think this idea is, it nevertheless left me with a big dopey grin on my face.
I can’t help it. I like superhero stories where the good guys are genuinely, y’know, good guys.
Anyway, as one would expect, the quality in these books is all over the place but they’re fun to have in the library. I’m not being all completist about it but I’m keeping an eye out, and if I see one for under ten bucks I’ll probably scoop it up. So far my favorites have been the B-listers like Sandman and Starman but I’m enjoying all of them.
Hard Cases. The timing couldn’t have been better for the new advance review copies of the latest from Hard Case Crime. This imprint continues to delight me, both with offering new authors a chance to work in the hard-boiled crime tradition and in finding obscure works to reprint. Once again we have one of each, one that’s pretty good and one that’s terrific.
The one that’s pretty good is So Many Doors by Oakley Hall.
This is a relatively minor effort from a major literary light, something Hard Case does a lot. Hall was an instructor and mentor to many of today’s best-selling authors like Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Anne Rice, and others. He was also a contender for a Pulitzer in 1958 but lost out to James Agee’s A Death In The Family.
He was largely known for his Westerns, particularly Warlock, but he did do the occasional crime novel. So Many Doors is one of those, an early effort from 1950.
It’s a story of obsession– “A man sits in a cell on death row, sentenced to die for the murder of the beautiful woman called V. But as we learn the story of her death – and of her troubled, torrid life – one question haunts us: why would any man kill the woman he craves more than life itself?” Unfortunately, it never quite pays off on its promise, though I did enjoy it. But even just-okay from a Hard Case book is still good.
The truly outstanding one is the original, though. Charlesgate Confidential.
It has the sort of twisty mystery plot I can never resist, and the structure of the thing is just amazing. The blurb: A group of criminals in 1946 pull off the heist of the century, stealing a dozen priceless works of art from a Boston museum. But while the thieves get caught, the art is never found. Forty years later, the last surviving thief gets out of jail and goes hunting for the loot, involving some innocent college students in his dangerous plan – and thirty years after that, in the present day, the former college kids, now all grown up, are drawn back into danger as the still-missing art tempts a deadly new generation of treasure hunters. A breathtakingly clever, twist-filled narrative that moves from 1946 to 1988 to 2014 and back again, CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL establishes Scott Von Doviak as a storyteller of the first order, and will leave you guessing until the very last page.
And for once that is understating it. I couldn’t put it down and I am very much looking forward to the author’s next one.
And finally, here’s one that defied categorization. Summoned, by Anne Pillsworth.
I picked this up on a whim, purely on the strength of the jacket copy. When I showed it to Julie, she said, “This looks like something you would write.”
Which is somewhat valid, I suppose. My own Silver Riders mashes up Lovecraftian horror with a western… but Summoned is even more wonderfully bizarre in that it mashes up Lovecraftian horror with classic Three Investigators-style young-adult contemporary adventure.
This is the jacket copy that tickled me so much I fell for it on the spot.
That was enough to get me to buy it but the story itself has the same wonderfully humorous and propulsive narrative momentum that I remember so well from folks like Robert Arthur and Lloyd Alexander. It’s just beyond fun and of all the books I mentioned here today this is far and away the one I’m giving the highest recommendation.
It’s the first in a series, I was delighted to discover, and the follow-up, Fathomless, is on order. Best of all, they were both remaindered hardcovers for less than five dollars each.
And that’s all I’ve got, this time out. Back next week with something cool.