Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Rain on the Dead by Jack Higgins, 2014

I will give you my verdict right away. Rain on the Dead (2014) is probably the most disappointing Jack Higgins novel I have read till date.

The British writer's 76th action-thriller has a fine cast of characters, all old anti-terrorism hands — legendary ex-IRA gunman Sean Dillon (his 21st appearance), his boss General Charles Ferguson (head of a secret intelligence unit reporting to 10 Downing Street), Captain Sara Gideon (a decorated Afghan war hero), Major Giles Roper (a wheelchair-bound tech whiz), and the Salters, Billy (a gangster turned MI5 agent) and his uncle Harry (who runs a dockside pub and is handy with a gun).

While those are good reasons to read the book, a weak storyline and an even weaker plot are reasons to avoid it. Unless, like me, you're a big Higgins fan and will read anything by the man who gave us such gripping fare as The Last Place God Made (1971), A Prayer for the Dying (1973) and The Eagle Has landed (1975).

Rain on the Dead begins with a failed assassination attempt on the charismatic former US President, Jake Cazalet, at his estate on Nantucket, an island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the two Al Qaeda-backed Chechen gunmen, Ferguson and his team happen to visit Cazalet just at the time and foil the bid masterminded by a cold and calculated faceless entity called the Master. Not very original, as you can see, and not very scary either.

From there, the action moves to Drumgoole in Ireland, Paris and finally London, as team Ferguson thwarts repeated attempts to kill Cazalet. In frustration, the Master, who reports to some kind of a grand council, hires desperate men, including special ops gone rogue, to bump off Dillon, Gideon and the others, but all in vain.

Here are two more reasons why I did not enjoy the novel as I thought I would.

Apart from the weak plot, the logic or the lack of it, and the occasional typo (yes, those too), I found the writing style, peppered with dialogue, almost amateurish. Preposterous as it may sound, it seemed to me that the book was ghostwritten. The narrative lacked depth and the conversations between the various players were at times school-grade. This was not the Jack Higgins I grew up reading.

The third reason is Sean Dillon, whose role during The Troubles in Northern Ireland haunts him in many of his novels including this one; just as they do Higgins' other ex-IRA heroes. We get a sense that Dillon, though still respected by his peers and feared by his enemies, is growing old and past his prime. In Rain on the Dead, he plays a largely supportive role, always on hand with a Colt .25 but not doing much. The brave and likeable Captain Sara Gideon and the young and reckless Billy Salter take the honours, as they run down the shadowy Master before he can get anywhere near Jake Cazalet (who first appears in Dillon #6 The President's Daughter, 1997). 

So, would I stop reading Higgins? Never. I have many of his books to read and I'm sure I'll enjoy many of those.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Merrick by Ben Boulden, 2017

"Thief, gunman, killer. A hero you'll hate, but root for anyway."
Every time I watch a movie about a heist or read a story about a robbery at gunpoint, the first thought that comes to my mind is Something’s going to go wrong. In spite of meticulous planning, things don’t always go as intended. That’s exactly what Merrick—a tough outlaw with a conscience and the hero of this fast-paced Western short story by Ben Boulden—finds out when he teams up with an old partner to ambush an armoured wagon in Texas and make away with a $15,000 payroll.

Merrick, who is brought in as a last-minute replacement, is mindful of the risks involved in the venture. He knows by experience that a holdup is never easy, even if the dough is. Though he is reluctant to accept mastermind Clarence Tilley’s offer at first, the .44 Remington wielding outlaw cannot escape the allure of money and the prospect of moving to the California coast and living it up.

But the outlaw’s getaway plan is dashed to the ground when Spider Robison, a particularly vile, greedy and trigger-happy gang member, double-crosses his accomplices, wallops Merrick in the head and decamps with the loot. After regaining consciousness, Merrick sets out to hunt down Robison, not so much to seek revenge as to retrieve his rightful share of the heist and be on his way.

Merrick is not the quintessential Wild West outlaw. He is an outlaw alright but one with scruples, the kind who’d indulge in unlawful acts but probably won’t go beyond a limit. While he can be tough and dangerous, and shoot to defend himself, he also has a certain vulnerability, a sense of fair play and justice, perhaps even compassion, which sets him apart from others of his kind.

All of 25 pages, Merrick is a cracker of a Western story that fans of the genre will enjoy reading. The plot—a stage robbery gone wrong—reminded me of pocket-size black-and-white Western comics I was fond of reading in my youth. I could visualise each scene unfold in the form of a comics panel or frame. In that sense Merrick would make for a very entertaining comic-book.

I hope Ben Boulden—author of Blaze! Red Rock Rampage (15) and Blaze! Spanish Gold (18) in the Blaze! Adult Western Series—casts Merrick in more short stories, perhaps even a novel or two. I’d like to read more about the Utah outlaw’s exploits in the author's crisp narrative style. Recommended.

Available for Kindle, $0.99.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Books and ebooks of 2017

I bought less than a dozen books and ebooks in 2017, and intentionally so. It was in keeping with my decision to read as many books as I could from my collection of 100-odd paper books. The resolution did not work. Like a government project delayed by time overrun, I have decided to carry-forward the ambitious plan to 2018 and keep my fingers crossed.

There were a few notable acquisitions during the year, books I was glad I read.

Author Margot Kinberg, who blogs about crime fiction every single day at Confessions of a Mystery Writer, very kindly sent me a signed copy of Past Tense, the third book in her mystery series featuring ex-cop Joel Williams. The professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Tilton, a fictional university, is an affable and unassuming gentleman with a nose for sniffing out clues. Past Tense was an engaging campus mystery. You can click here to read the review.

Ben Boulden's debut novel Red Rock Rampage, #15 in the Blaze! Adult Western Series, features J.D. and Kate, a husband-and-wife team of gunfighters in what is an action-packed tale written in a racy style. I reviewed the book and interviewed Ben here. In coming weeks, I intend to read his second novel Blaze! Spanish Gold. But before that, I will be reviewing his 25-page Western short story Merrick (since reviewed). You can learn more about Ben and his work over at his blog Gravetapping.

During the year I was lucky to purchase three out-of-print Sudden paperbacks, my favourite Western series created by British author Oliver Strange. One of these is Sudden Strikes Back by English writer Frederick H. Christian who wrote five of the Sudden novels, following Strange's original ten books. I now have eleven of the Sudden novels that I have been reading and rereading since the eighties.

Finally, a friend and colleague gifted me a lovely hardback edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends, a delightful collection of children's poetry written and illustrated by American author and cartoonist Shel Silverstein. Wikipedia quotes Silverstein as saying that he never studied the poetry of others and developed his own "quirky style, laid back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang." Where the Sidewalk Ends inspires you to pen your own verse.


Sunday, 31 December 2017

Nothing much happened

2017 was probably my worst year of reading and writing in recent memory. I read very few books, short stories, essays and poetry, and reviewed even less on my blog. I was preoccupied with personal and professional labours, even as commuting to work and back got more stressful, which left me with little energy to read or blog. 
© Bill Waterson

As the year wore on, my visits to other blogs declined. It was the one thing I missed the most. But a New Year, as Calvin tells Hobbes, is a "new beginning" and full of "new possibilities" and I look forward to reconnecting with my fellow readers and bloggers. In fact, it's the first thing I'm going to do in 2018, starting tomorrow.

Some of you may have noticed that I'm quite active on social media but that's only because I mostly post on the go, waiting for a bus, an autorickshaw or a suburban train and sometimes during actual commute when I'm in no mood to read. What I didn't achieve reading and blogging, I more than made up with social media—I doubled my followers on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, more recently, Instagram. It's another thing that I know less than 50 per cent of my connections. I have also been listening to a lot of old music and playing a lot of chess and Scrabble on Android. I have been playing the two board games since I was a kid, thanks to dad.

During the year I watched many films and serials, mostly Netflix originals including Marvel's stand-alones—Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist—though I still have to watch their combined miniseries The Defenders. I enjoyed Godless (western) and Alias Grace (psychological), both six-part limited series. Alias Grace is based on Margaret Atwood's Booker-nominated novel, which I have not read. Beasts of No Nation, the story of a child soldier in a war-torn African country, was a disturbing film. Idris Elba's character as the rebel warlord lacked depth.

For some reason, I also binge-watched Jason Statham's crime flicks on Netflix and I quite enjoyed it all; his films reminded me of the hard-boiled thrillers I often read. A couple of plots were straight out of a James Hadley Chase or a Lionel White, particularly the two caper movies The Italian Job and The Bank Job.

I also watched Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, which "Examines the many flavors of minimalism by taking the audience inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life—families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker—all of whom are striving to live a meaningful life with less." I found it interesting though there was nothing new about the "less is more" principle; mystics have been advocating it for centuries. We just need to be reminded of it every now and then. To be honest, I have been hoarding books when I should be reading and giving them away, at least the ones that aren't going to be a part of my collection. 

© www.theminimalists.com

On the writing side, well, I'm still writing; struggling actually, with time constraints and writer's block, though the latter is a self-created myth. It's an excuse not to write and watch a movie, instead. I have incomplete short stories, a novel I've only recently started working on, and a work of nonfiction that I hope will make people feel good about themselves. I'm going to persist with these projects in 2018, try and write every single day, and work to a deadline.

© Juggernaut Books
On a slightly positive note, I published my first short story, A Little Murder at Dinner, at Juggernaut Books, a Delhi-based writing platform. It's an atmospheric tale about a cop and his wife, and set around a couple of murders.

Here is an extract from that story:

“Do you really think she did it, Harry?” Trisha’s voice was almost a whisper.

Hemmady shrugged, “The Dina I knew a long time ago couldn’t have done it. Now I’m not so sure. People change and that’s not always good. Sometimes bad things happen. I think she and Rana decided to get back together, maybe for Jenny’s sake, maybe for the money, and it all went wrong. I feel for Jenny. She didn’t deserve any of this.” 

“Will you be okay, Harry? I mean, you’re going to see her...,” Trisha’s voice trailed off.

“I’ll be fine, Trish. It’s just another homicide.”

She didn’t stress the point. They both knew it was more than that.

So that's how the year was—nothing much happened. But I do hope to make things happen in 2018, particularly where my writing is concerned.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Dead Line by Stella Rimington, 2008

The story of English author Stella Rimington is as interesting as the plot of Dead Line, the fourth novel in her espionage series centered around MI5 agent Liz Carlyle. Dame Rimington, who joined Britain's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency in 1969, was appointed Director-General in 1992—becoming not just the first woman to hold the post but also the first head of MI5 to go public.

With nearly three decades of intelligence service behind her, the series is no doubt stamped with her rich and personal experience. Dead Line, the only book I have read so far, is a convincing story in the cloak-and-dagger world of spy fiction.

The British government is weeks away from hosting a Middle East peace conference at a resort in Scotland. While Syria and Israel are at the centre of the peace talks, heads of government from Britain, the United States, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iran are expected to lend their weight to the roundtable. The conclave may not yield immediate results but it's important for the UK that the event concludes peacefully. The prestige and reputation of 10, Downing Street depends on it.

But there are people, rogue agents, even nations who, true to reality, will stop at nothing to wreck the Gleneagles conference. Following a tip-off from MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, MI5 boss Charles Wetherby entrusts the sensitive case to agent Liz Carlyle—find the two terror suspects, including a Syrian journalist, who are planning to disrupt the global conference and save the day for Her Majesty's government.

There is just one problem: Liz has almost nothing to work on. So she starts digging from scratch and soon uncovers a plot far more serious than she and Wetherby, or anyone in British Intelligence, could have imagined; one that nearly gets her killed and out of business. Liz's investigations set her on a collision course with friends from other intel services, the CIA and Mossad. Eventually, she nails the threat down to David Kolleck—a diabolically clever Syrian agent with a grim past and an insensate thirst for revenge.

Dead Line may not have the glamour of a Tom Clancy thriller, the legacy of a John le CarrĂ© page-turner or the technical depth of a Craig Thomas novel. But it's a realistic depiction of what might actually take place in the sanitised corridors of intelligence services and those involved in the fight against terrorism and subversion. Rimington has an easy and evenly-paced narrative style, and her plotting is methodical, which can be attributed to her own experience. She has drawn Liz Carlyle as a credible intelligence officer who leads a normal life with her share of career aspirations, familial troubles, and hidden feelings. 

I plan to read more in the series by Britain's most famous spy.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Photo Essay: Browser's delight, buyer's paradise

Secondhand books have the tantalising aroma of a Goan vindaloo or a Malwani curry.

Browsing through books is half the battle. Buying books is not necessarily winning the fight. I have spent a greater part of my reading years doing no more than looking up books, admiring covers, flipping pages, reading back of the book, searching for bookmarks, and envying other people's choices and purchases. I find as much joy and satisfaction in browsing as I do in buying books. Of course, there have been many occasions when I have walked out empty-handed and instantly regretted not picking up a coveted title or an out-of-print book, and I have rushed back the next day only to find it gone. Book kismet.

Old or new, shops or footpaths, books will always be around, to mock, deny, bond, and befriend. Let me take you through some of my secondhand book haunts, mostly in South Mumbai, where I have browsed more than I have bought. A few of these pictures are old and have been reproduced before; the rest are as recent as yesterday.

The footpath libraries of Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk).

Abraham Lincoln in not so strange company.

My pick of the box — Jack Higgins, of course.

A pavement seller on Mahatma Gandhi Road opens for the day.

The suburban bookshop where I browse or board a bus.

The English historical novelist on my wish-list.

Fiction rubs spine with self-help on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

No customers yet but this footpath bookseller knows his books.

British crime writer Martina Cole at Books by Weight.

A closeup of the pavement seller on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

Heavyweights jostle for space at a suburban bookshop.

Take your pick or toss a coin.

Spy fiction writer Craig Thomas is an old school friend.

Books in a haystack near the old Central Telegraph Office.

© All photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sniff the Detective by Richard McClure Scarry

Sniff is a detective.
He helps people find things.
He helps catch bad people.
He thinks with his head.
And he smells with his nose.

Personal commitments over the long weekend kept me away from my computer at home, and naturally, from blogging. I'm not comfortable writing or commenting on my cellphone or tablet. Something or other goes wrong, there are unsolicited pop-ups and often the page reloads itself. I find that annoying. I took the time off to read short stories, including a delightful children's detective story. Yes, you read that correctly. It was a first for me in middle age. I found the story online and read it with wide-eyed innocence. No, that's taking it too far.

Sniff the Detective (Golden Books, 1988) by the late American children's author and illustrator, Richard McClure Scarry, is an illustrated book containing two stories—Sniff Catches the Robber and Sniff's Best Case Ever—with anthropomorphic characters, animals who talk and act like humans. They're all very likeable.

In Sniff Catches the Robber, Chief Hound asks Sniff, the dog detective, to help catch a thief who has been stealing Mrs. Jewel's precious bracelets from under her nose. Mrs. Jewel, a matronly pig, likes to grow pumpkins and eat them too. Since Mrs. Jewel has neither been out nor has had any visitors, Sniff decides to spend the night at her house and catch the culprit red-handed.

In Sniff's Best Case Ever, it's raining and Sniff is lazing in bed when the police chief in another city summons him. Our sleuth is not happy because it's his birthday next day, and he wants to stay home and eat cake and ice cream. But duty calls. Sniff catches a train where he encounters shady guys wearing dark glasses and carrying violins, staring at him and scaring him out of his wits.

Sniff the Detective is a funny little book with large colourful illustrations and large typeface, the kind that you can read to your little kids or grandkids at bedtime. I liked Sniff's sleuthing philosophy. The K9 detective has got it right.

Surprised with my choice? Well, children's, YA or adult, a detective story is a detective story and you're never too young or old to read one. Reading time: 10 minutes, maybe less.

Note: Writer-blogger Patti Abbott is hosting Friday's Forgotten Books over at her eclectic blog Pattinase, where you can read some fine reviews of forgotten or overlooked books.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Boot Hill: An Anthology of the West by Robert J. Randisi

"They died with their boots on."

© Forge Books
Boot Hill: An Anthology of the West (2002), edited by American author and anthologist Robert J. Randisi, is a remarkable and delectable collection of original short stories by some of the finest Western authors. Of the 15 stories only The Naked Gun by John Jakes (1967) is a reprint.

I borrowed the 351-page digital book from Archive.org and I have a fortnight to read all the stories before it probably vanishes automatically. I'm sure there's a waiting list. The stories revolve around Boot Hill in Dodge City, Kansas, the final resting place of some of the wildest and bizarre characters that rode the American West—“from the coffin-maker with a death wish to the drunken cowboy haunted by one night of greed and violence, to the vigilante piano man and the tough-talking soiled dove.”

So far I have read only Randisi’s pithy introductions of all the writers and his own enjoyable and rather humourous short story, The Gravediggers, where the eponymous Gravedigger welcomes the reader to Boot Hill and, in characteristic Old West lingo, talks about the history of the place, the “dead folks” and their stories (“if’n they could tell ’em that is”), the backbreaking work of digging graves, the bare wooden headstones (“with some writin’ on it”)...

The Gravediggers sets the tone for the remaining stories that I look forward to reading over the next few days. Meanwhile, here is the cast of authors in order of appearance.

01. The Gravediggers by Robert J. Randisi
02. The Naked Gun by John Jakes
03. The Ghost of Abel Hawthorne by Elmer Kelton
04. Sinners by Wendi Lee
05. The Guns of Dusty Logan by James Reasoner
06. Hard Ground by L.J. Washburn
07. The Comfortable Coffin of Miz Utopia Jones Clay by Tom Piccirilli
08. Anonymous by Randy Lee Eickhoff
09. The Last Ride of the Colton Gang by John Helfers and Kerrie Hughes
10. The Sellers by Troy D. Smith
11. The Piano Man by Robert Vaughan
12. Dead Weight by Richard S. Wheeler
13. A Disgrace to the Badge by Ed Gorman
14. Planting Lizzie Palmer by Marthayn Pelegrimas
15. A Damned Nuisance by Marcus Galloway

A Western anthology can’t get better than this.

Note: Writer-blogger Patti Abbott is hosting Friday's Forgotten Books over at her eclectic blog Pattinase, where you can read some fine reviews of forgotten or overlooked books.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Booty for a Badman by Louis L'Amour, 1960

My belly was as empty as my prospect hole, and it didn't seem like I had much choice.

When young William Tell Sackett, the oldest of the three Sackett brothers, has no luck panning for gold, he agrees to carry 50 pounds of the yellow metal out of the camp and deliver it safely to a bank in Hardyville—all for a princely fee of $100. The gold belongs to four miners who trust him. There's just one problem: he must carry it through desert-mountain country over five days. And Tell knows he won't be alone on the trecherous journey. The Cooper gang, who make a living out of robbing and killing successful prospectors, will be hot on his trail. 

Unmindful of dangers on the trail, the quiet, honest, and tough cowboy packs a horse and rides out with the gold, each pound worth $1,000. He is not worried about the Coopers. While he can take on the desperadoes, he's not so sure what to do when he encounters Christine Mallory, a pretty woman on the run from her soldier-husband and stranded in the middle of nowhere. Disregarding his father Colburn Sackett's advice to stay clear of women because "They'll trouble you. Love 'em and leave 'em, that's the way," the chivalrous Tell agrees to escort her to Hardyville on the Colorado, even if it means slowing down and risking his life.

Right then I'd much rather have tangled with the Coopers than faced up to that woman down there, but that no-account roan was taking me right to her. Worst of it was, she was almighty pretty.

And then, all of a sudden, the Cooper gang turns up. Here it comes.

Booty for a Badman is a fine Western story told in an engaging, concise, and easy style, a Louis L'Amour trademark. The author draws a vivid picture of the wild country, the hostile terrain, the dust raised by his pursuers in the distance, the night campfire and smoke without going into a lot of detail. Tell is a god-fearing and an honourable man, as evident from his gentlemanly behaviour towards Christine who he addresses as "Mrs. Mallory," but he can't help dreaming of settling down with a woman like her and raising a family. In the end L'Amour throws up a couple of twists that I didn't see. I'm glad for it's the element of surprise that holds my interest in a story, especially a Western that often finishes along predictable lines. 

The short story, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, July 1960, and subsequently reprinted in the same magazine, 1975 and 1988, is part of The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour: The Frontier Stories, Volume One. I believe there are at least four other volumes in this series, and including other stories add up to more than 250. I read L'Amour—one of the most popular and prolific writers of the last century—after many years, and I'm prompted to read (and reread) his Sackett series among other novels.

Note: For more Friday's Forgotten Book reviews, visit Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom. Todd is doing the FBB honours this Friday in place of Patti Abbott at her blog Pattinase.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The lure of secondhand books

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Secondhand books are like antique furniture. They have a musty but pleasing smell, great monetary value, and are much sought-after by discerning readers and serious collectors. But just as it's not easy to buy old furniture, it's not that simple to get hold of forgotten and out-of-print books. You have to establish contacts with used booksellers over several years, like a news reporter cultivating his source for a scoop or a cop working an informant for a tip on an elusive gangster. Once you have a mole or two in the used book trade, you can get almost any title you want and tick them off your wish-list.

I remember every secondhand book or comic-book I have bought over the past three decades, and it hasn’t been easy.

Some years ago, I visited a prominent new bookstore in South Mumbai to pick up a 1995 edition of DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels, a well-known historian of comic books. The 256-page hardback—described as "The complete story of America's favourite heroes and their talented and dedicated creators"—was on sale for the magical price of Rs 450 ($9). Naturally, I was elated. However, I resisted the temptation to buy the book. I thought I could use the money for something more useful, and walked away. When it comes to books, you can’t be blind all the time; sometimes you’ve got to be practical, too.

It was just as well.

A few weeks later, I spotted a near-mint edition of the volume at a pavement bookseller in Fort-Fountain area, a central business district about 7 km from the bookstore. It was sandwiched between an airtight stack of academic journals and coffee-table books. "It's yours for Rs 150," said the bookseller who knew his books better than I did. I offered him Rs 100. We finally settled for Rs 125 ($2.5). It was a bargain I would've been a fool to turn down. Of course, it helped that the bookseller was a "friend" of many years.

Not long after, I stumbled across a fine — and rare for me — edition of The Penguin Book of Comics by Englishmen George Perry and Alan Aldrige, 1967—a 272-page volume chronicling the evolution of British and American comic books. While Perry wrote the text, Aldridge designed the cover and the illustrations. The book analyses the rise and fall of comics in mid-20th century in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code, and the influence of comic strips and comic books on popular culture, and entertainment such as art, films, and television.

Until the mid-nineties, booksellers lined the footpaths in that part of South Mumbai. Today, there are fewer than a dozen, thanks to eviction drives by the municipal corporation. Interestingly, the civic officer in charge of one such operation left the booksellers alone even as he went after other hawkers in the area. "Books are Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge). I want people to buy and read books," he told me at the time. Since the turn of the century many sellers have dumped books—that few people are reading, let alone buying—for more lucrative goods like mobile phone accessories. Book collectors like me were the losers.

Secondhand books are not as elusive as you think they are. You have to keep your eyes open, know where to look. Sometimes they can be right under your nose, other times you have to sniff them out like a wolf sniffing out its prey. After years of browsing, I can home in on a ‘wanted’ title like some kind of a heat-seeking missile. All it takes is a quick, sweeping glance of stacks upon stacks of pavement books, provided the titles are displayed prominently. With practice, you can hone book-spotting into an art.

Some of the most rewarding secondhand book haunts in my city of 18 million are raddiwalas. These hole-in-the-wall paper marts, dotting the island city and its extended suburbs, are more than dusty repositories of old newspapers, plastic bottles, and assorted junk. You never know what reading treasures you will find there. While a few organised paper marts know the value of good books and pass them on to professional booksellers, most stack up books near the entrance and sell them cheap. 

Like an archaeologist digging for bones, I have been prospecting raddiwalas for well over two decades, and rather successfully too. I once bought a dozen rare Phantom and Mandrake comics, under the Indrajal imprint, from a paper mart close to my home for Rs 10 each ($0.16), almost as good as free.

Obviously, the raddiwala didn't know their real value considering that owner Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, publishers of The Times of India, stopped printing Indrajal Comics in 1990. The result: booksellers and individual collectors have been quoting obscene figures for the comics which, apart from Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake, included Indian artist Abid Surti's hero Bahadur (the Brave), Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, Allen Saunders' Kerry Drake and Mike Nomad, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Phil Corrigan, and Steve Dowling's Garth.

Some of the other prized books I bought secondhand over two decades ago, and still cherish, are Art Spiegelman’s Maus (I & II), the 160-page The Science Fiction Book: An Illustrated History by Franz Rottensteiner, a hardback illustrated edition of Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Cows of Our Planet: A Far Side Collection by Gary Larson, Sudden paperbacks by British writer Oliver Strange, a hardback of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Calvin and Hobbes volumes, and dozens of DC and Marvel comics including pocket-size war and western comic-books. Back then, it wasn’t easy to cough up money for a new Gary Larson or a Bill Watterson.

In this age of Amazon and Ebooks, the secondhand book trade is almost dying. Until it does (though I really hope it doesn’t), I will continue to hunt down elusive and priceless fiction and nonfiction. So far I have been lucky, managing to find a few gems every year. The secret to a productive secondhand-book hunt is patience and perseverance—and sometimes luck, when wanted titles leap out at you when you aren't even looking. Those are the ones I like best.