Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book-buying in the time of the pandemic

If I have missed one thing during the pandemic-induced lockdown and work from home, it's my frequent visits to secondhand bookshops, pavement booksellers and book exhibitions. Since working remotely, March 19 onward, I have bought just two books off Amazon India—a used but rare Corgi edition of Sudden and a new Fantastic Four: The Coming of Galactus comic-book digest, both featured here. The Sudden paperback with the eye-catching cover art was like winning a lottery. I was both surprised and delighted to find it on Amazon India for only Rs.295 ($4). My favourite western is not easily available at used book sales in Mumbai.

But I did buy books in the weeks and months leading up to the virus outbreak. Here are a few with their synopsis, actual covers and original year of publication.

The New Collected Short Stories by Jeffrey Archer, 2011

"This brand new edition brings together three of Jeffrey Archer's classic collections of short stories—To Cut a Long Story Short, Cat O' Nine Tales and And Thereby Hangs a Tale—showcasing the master storyteller's skill like never before. Every reader will have their own favourites: the choices run from love at first sight across the train tracks to the cleverest of confidence tricks, from the quirks of the legal profession, and those who are able to manipulate both sides of the Bar, to the creative financial talents of a member of Her Majesty's diplomatic service—but for a good cause. In `Caste-Off', Jamwal and Nisha fall in love while waiting for a traffic light to turn green in Delhi, and in `Don't Drink The Water', a company chairman tries to poison his wife while on a trip to St Petersburg, with unexpected consequences... The stories held in these pages are irresistible: ingeniously plotted, with richly drawn characters and deliciously unexpected conclusions. Some will make you laugh. Others will bring you to tears. And, as always, every one of them will keep you spellbound."

The Twisted Thing by Mickey Spillane, 1966

"This was some household.

"The kid was a genius, the father a scientist of international repute. Money was problem. Not shortage of money but the opposite: too much. The sort of money that brings the envious and the scheming clustering like flies round a pile of ripe offal: nieces, nephews, cousins - a family of mean minds and gross appetites.

"The hired help had its peculiarities too: the chauffeur, an ex-con; the governess, formerly a featured act in strip clubs from New York and Miami; a secretary with a well developed taste in other women.

"Quite a household. And not one to welcome the arrival of Mike Hammer
not when the kid had been kidnapped and everyone else was a suspect."

Snobs by Julian Fellowes, 2004

"The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity. Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them."

"The best comedies of manners are often deceptively simple, seamlessly blending social critique with character and story. In his superbly observed first novel, Julian Fellowes, creator of the Masterpiece sensation Downton Abbey and winner of an Academy Award for his original screenplay of Gosford Park, brings us an insider's look at a contemporary England that is still not as classless as is popularly supposed.

"Edith Lavery, an English blonde with large eyes and nice manners, is the daughter of a moderately successful accountant and his social-climbing wife. While visiting his parents' stately home as a paying guest, Edith meets Charles, the Earl Broughton, and heir to the Marquess of Uckfield, who runs the family estates in East Sussex and Norfolk. To the gossip columns he is one of the most eligible young aristocrats around.

"When he proposes. Edith accepts. But is she really in love with Charles? Or with his title, his position, and all that goes with it?"

Sudden: Law O' The Lariat by Oliver Strange, 1931

"The word had filtered out that Sudden was dead—and there was no one around to contradict it. Men who had cringed before, swaggered now; others boasted of their encounters with Sudden, the coward.

"Only one man stayed quiet: a tall, saturnine fellow wearing two guns tied low. When he heard the rumours, he gave a thin smile; and when someone asked him who he was, he said shortly: James Green. James Green — alias Sudden!"

Maigret and the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon, 1968

"Two brothers find a grisly package clinging to the propeller of their barge in the Canal de Saint Martins, and by the time Maigret arrives most of a mysterious corpse has been assembled, except for the head. The search shifts from finding the missing piece to finding a motive, as the Inspector's keen mind assembles clues from the dismembered torse which lead to a trio of suspects. A flash of intuition linking the principal suspect's sordid life to the whereabouts of her victim on his last day alive closes the case but opens Maigret's mind to the reason for the crime."

I have yet to read Julian Fellowes and Georges Simenon.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Case of the Wandering Redhead by Leigh Brackett, 1951

I’d never read Leigh Brackett until now and I’m glad I finally did. I found her short story The Case of the Wandering Redhead in the pages of New Detective Magazine, February 1951, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is the introduction to the story.

“Here is the most ruthless man you’ve ever met—a filler whom death could not soften nor bullets stop—yet whose relentless fists battered to their last futile gesture that softest thing a man ever finds—the heart of a woman in love. It is with a definite sense of accomplishment that we welcome Miss Brackett to these pages—which many of you will find unforgettable!”

The “ruthless man” is Marty James, a territorial gangster who lives by guns and fists, and the narrator of the story. He is wildly in love with Sheila Burke, a stunning redhead he wants to marry even if she detests the very thought of it. She refuses him point blank, just the way he’d shoot his adversaries. Sheila has good reason for not wanting to have anything to do with him.

“Can I get it through your head? I hate you, Marty. I hate everything you stand for. All I want out of life is decency and peace and maybe a little happiness. You can’t give me any of them.”

But Marty has no plans to leave her alone. In fact, he is trying to force her to marry him, when his sidekick calls him away on urgent business only to betray him to a rival gangster eyeing his turf. Marty fights and shoots his way out of captivity and returns to Sheila, with a rib wound and two bullet holes in his thigh.

Six flights, with thin snow beginning to fall, thinking of Sheila’s voice saying, There’s blood on you, Marty. You’re not in my world.

I thought, All right. That’s the way it is, Sheila. That’s the way we’ll play it. I was colder than the snow, and numb.

The Case of the Wandering Redhead is a cracker of a story. The two main characters, Marty and Sheila, are drawn well. In the words of the gangster, human enough to go crazy over a girl. Brackett’s narrative style is clean, almost poetic and visually striking, as if the story is playing out on screen. Consider this passage.

I looked at her. She was beautiful. She was like something the wind might cut out of a snowbank, with the red fire of her hair on top. Her eyes met mine, and there was an awful coldness in them, like I’d killed the spark inside her.

The short story is a fine example of the hard-boiled crime fiction of the Golden Age, although I have plenty left to read from the genre.


Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter by Stephen Mertz, 1985

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter by American thriller writer Stephen Mertz is book one in the adrenaline-soaked Mark Stone: MIA Hunter series comprising seventeen novels. The series was created and plotted by Mertz, who wrote the novels in collaboration with Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Newton and Bill Crider. Mertz and Newton have also written several of the action-packed Mack Bolan: The Executioner books created by Don Pendleton.

My Kindle edition is a reprint of the first M.I.A. Hunter with an additional title Leave No Man Behind and September 2017 as the publication date. As the series name suggests, M.I.A. Hunter refers to Mark Stone, a tough-as-they-come former Green Beret whose post-Vietnam War mission is to find American POWs forgotten by the government and declared either as MIA or KIA, and bring them home. He knows he can’t get them all out, but he’s determined to save as many as he can.

Stone does his MIA hunting in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, and elsewhere, with his two trusted and battle-hardened friends, the six-foot-four Texan Hog Wiley and former British commando Terrance Loughlin. They rarely question Stone and his actions, even if it means going into hell and fighting their way out of it. They’re in it together. While Stone works for the CIA, in an unofficial capacity, he often operates on his own under Stone Investigative Consultants, a private-eye outfit in Los Angeles.

M.I.A. Hunter begins in the steaming Laotian jungle. Stone and his men, backed by Laotian anti-communist guerrillas, rescue a US navy pilot and other POWs held captive by the Viet Cong since the war ended. When they finally make it through over a hundred miles of enemy territory, their pickup chopper throws up a surprise: CIA man Alan Coleman with a twisted agenda. He detests Stone and places him and his friends under arrest for violating US law; in other words, for making the spooks look bad.

Back in L.A., Stone quickly overcomes his legal hurdle with the help of Carol Jenner, his lady-friend who works for the Defence Department in Washington, and a smart lawyer. Out on bail, Stone helps the widow of a close friend who served with him in Vietnam rescue her teenage son from a Mexican-run drug cartel and set him on the right path. And just when he’s looking for some MIA action, a badly wounded stranger turns up in his garage and gives him a shocking news before he dies–Rosalyn James, an army nurse and the love of his life who was believed dead in a medevac operation in Vietnam, is still alive. For nearly fourteen years, she has been the prisoner and mistress of a brutal and torture-loving drug lord, known only as General, in his mountain fortress on the Laos-China border.

Stone goes back with Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin, in what could well be the most important MIA rescue mission of his life.

Stone: M.I.A. Hunter is filled with edge-of-the-seat action that never ceases from start to finish. Mark Stone and his men use an array of weapons and hand-to-hand combat skills to kill their enemies with deadly precision and little more than a scratch. They’re almost invincible, even in the face of overwhelming odds, but that is only to be expected of such vigilante-type of novels where the good guys seldom get hurt and are the silent heroes long after the battle is won. They’re men of honour, integrity and sacrifice. I suspect many readers like it that way, as do I, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Someone's got to uphold it, even if it's in fiction and films.

Stephen Mertz does not disappoint in telling the story of the audacious MIA hunter and the forgotten war heroes he brings back from the dead. I will be reading more books in the series.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Drink with the Devil by Jack Higgins, 1996

I read Drink with the Devil—the fifth appearance of Jack Higgins' trademark hero Sean Dillon—before the pandemic and decided to finally review it in my sixth month of work from home. Somehow, I always seem to pick up a Higgins to revive my blog every few months. Maybe because he is my favourite action-thriller writer and also my comfort read.

In Drink with the Devil (1996), Higgins offers a glimpse into Dillon's early life—first as a disillusioned IRA assassin, then as a skilled mercenary for the PLO and the Israelis, the KGB and the Red Brigades, and finally as an operative for a highly secret British intelligence unit answerable only to the prime minister.

The story begins in 1985, London.

The IRA sends Sean Dillon—as Martin Keogh—to team up with a legendary Irish militant (Protestant/Loyalist), Michael Ryan, and his young niece Kathleen, who hijack a truck laden with gold bullion worth £50 million. The IRA doesn't want Ryan to use the bullion to buy arms and start a civil war back home. Luckily for Dillion, things don't go according to plan. One late night, he and Ryan are transporting the bullion truck by a hired boat across the Irish Sea. But the scheming crew with plans of their own forces them to blow up the boat and send the bullion plunging to the bottom of the choppy sea.

Cut to the present, 1995, New York State.

Michael and Kathleen are dead to the world, including to the IRA and British intelligence; the priceless cargo never recovered. Michael is serving 25 years in a New York State prison for a failed bank robbery and shooting a policeman. His niece, who works as a nurse at a nearby hospital, meets him every day. They have assumed the names of Liam and Jean Kelly. 

But word of the lost bullion reaches the mafia family of Don Antonio Russo, who strikes a deal with Michael and Kathleen—a share of the gold, now worth £100 million, and their freedom. Word also reaches the US and British intelligence services, the president and the prime minister, and the IRA.

Enter Sean Dillon. The former IRA hitman is tasked with a single missionprevent the gold from disrupting the peace process between the Catholics and Protestants. He meets his "old friends" a decade later, and therein lies the proverbial twist in the tale.

While I haven't read many of the nearly two-dozen Sean Dillon novels, I can venture to say that Drink with the Devil is not his best. I thought the story, though evenly paced and with a fair amount of action and plenty of dialogue, was somewhat weak. It gave me the impression that even an amateur could have got away with stealing the gold. It also left me wondering how British Intel could not have traced the hijacked bullion or the whereabouts of Michael and Kathleen. They can't just have been lost at sea or disappeared into thin air.

In Higgins' defence, though, Dillion, his boss, Brigadier Charles Ferguson, who heads the secret unit known as the Prime Minister's Private Army, and Special Agent Hannah Bernstein, come into the picture much later; in 1995, when the story of the Irish Rose under the Irish Sea actually begins.

That aside, Drink with the Devil has all the hallmarks of Higgins' simple, to the point and conversational storytelling style. The characters, including the appearance of his other endearing hero, Liam Devlin, and the charming Lake District setting in northwest England, with its pubs and cafes affiliated either to the Republicans or the Loyalists, make the novel a fairly entertaining read. As with many of his IRA-linked novels, Higgins weaves the Northern Ireland conflict and its assorted players into his narrative, which, as a history buff, I find very interesting to read.

Whatever the pros and cons, it is a pleasure to read Jack Higgins.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

I felt like I'd been shot in the leg

Last Thursday, February 6, I learnt an important lesson: If you've crossed fifty, never run to catch a bus. Instead, wait in line for the next one, take an autorickshaw or call an Uber. The world isn't coming to an end.

That evening, I ran, ducked, leaped and dodged like an African gazelle. Big mistake. I was a few metres from the departing bus outside my suburban station when my knees buckled and I almost fell. I felt a stab of pain in my left leg, as if someone had whacked me hard with a stick or shot me in the calf. A couple of passersby helped me up. I managed to hail an auto for the ride home, through hellish traffic. By then, I was in agony and tearing up.

The injury forced me to stay home, or work from home, for nearly two weeks. I was advised complete rest. No travel. No movements. No bending or stretching. No yoga. The physician didn't think it was a tear and he did not recommend an X-ray or a scan, not that I'd have gone in for one. I hate those things. The healing process involved ice and heat packs, painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicines, a pain-relieving balm, my trusted homoeopathy, and getting pampered by the family. The calf is still sore, but better.

With little to do, I read, watched movies and listened to old music these past few days. Blogging, not so much. I read books and comic-books. I rediscovered some great music from my generation, the seventies and eighties. And I watched several films. Here is a recap of films that made an impression, mostly from Netflix and then some on cable TV.

Red Joan, 2018: Loosely based on a true story, widow Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is interrogated by British Intelligence decades after her suspected role in passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets during WWII. She was protecting her country, England; idealistically, if only to maintain the balance of power between the Yanks and the Communists. The film is a series of interesting flashbacks.

Beirut, 2018: In 80s war-torn Beirut, a seasoned but a widowed and washed up US diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm of The Million Dollar Arm) is forced to return to Lebanon to negotiate the release of his friend and colleague held hostage by a PLO faction. I enjoyed the film because I have been following events in the Middle East since the eighties.

We Bought A Zoo, 2011: A rich widower, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his kids buy an estate house, except they also have to buy the zoo that comes with it. The film also stars Scarlett Johansson as his love interest and Thomas Haden Church as his brother. Again, based on a true story. A nice family drama. 

The Kominsky Method, 2018: This is the kind of stuff I'd like to write. Don't ask me why. Two ageing men, acting coach Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) and his longtime agent and friend Norman Newlander (Alan Arkin), ride the roller coaster of life together, laughing through old age, cynicism, loneliness, illness and tragic loss. I hope there is a Season 3.

Lucky, 2017: Harry Dean Stanton was 91 when he played Lucky, a reclusive navy veteran who lives in a small Arizona town. The film follows Lucky's rigid daily routine until, one day, he collapses in his house. Though quite healthy for his age, the event forces him to come to terms with the inevitable process of ageing and dying. Lucky offers a profound insight into one man's philosophical journey. It has some great dialogues too. Stanton, who died before the film was released, looks his age and that kind of hits you from the start.

The Big Short, 2015: Another true-to-life story about the 2007-2008 US financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of the housing market. Remember subprime? This one went over my head.

The Hard Way, 2019: Payne (Michael Jai White), a retired soldier and new bar owner, sets out to avenge the death of his brother, a secret operative, in distant Romania. He finds a kickass ally in his brother's teammate Mason (Luke Goss). Avoidable.

Boy Erased, 2018: Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the son of preacher Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman), is forced into a church-backed gay conversion programme. I found this film disturbing. How can parents do a thing like this to their children, their own flesh and blood? It doesn't have to be "complicated" for parents if it's in their heart to love and accept their children unconditionally. In the end, Jared tells his father, "I'm gay, and I'm your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let's deal with that!" Guess who needs conversion therapy?

There were a few more, I forget which. Meanwhile, lesson learned.