Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Able Team, Louis L'Amour and Sudden

In my first blog post of 2020, I wrote about my abysmal reading through most of last year. No excuses. But that did not stop me from buying more books, some of which I highlighted in that post. Here are three paperbacks—two westerns and a thriller—that I bought secondhand in 2019. I'm particularly delighted with the acquisition of Able Team and Sudden, which are rare finds in my part of the world.

Ironman is the 19th book in the Able Team action-adventure series written by two pseudonymous authors, G.H. Frost and Dick Stivers. The series—a spinoff of Mack Bolan: The Executioner created by Don Pendleton—was first published in 1982 by American Gold Eagle publishers.

I have been collecting Mack Bolan thrillers and the spinoffs—Able Team, Phoenix Force and Stony Man— for nearly a decade and own some 25 novels, including a few written by Pendleton himself. The books remind me of my teens when I used to collect James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter and Perry Mason, the originals of which are still available in secondhand bookshops in Mumbai.

Synopsis: "Able Team's Carl Lyons travels to the cloud-swept Sierra Madre without his partners and without his weapons. But what was supposed to be well-earned R&R turns into a nightmare of conspiracy and terror when a Fascist international surveillance team identifies Lyons as one of the American specialists who wrecked Unomundo's attempt to seize Guatemala two years earlier."

Carl 'Ironman' Lyons is an old Able Team hand. As a bright LAPD detective, Lyons was tasked with bringing Bolan in—dead or alive; that is, till the Executioner saved his life. Later, he is recruited by Hal Brognola who heads a special organised crime task force.

Western fiction is one of my favourite genres. I like to think of Westerns as the sum total of most other genres—crime, mystery, suspense, action, romance, politics, war, religion. So I'd no hesitation in picking up the Bantam edition of Hanging Woman Creek by Louis L'Amour, an author I read widely in my younger days.

Synopsis: "Barnabus Pike is no gunfighter and not much of a street fighter. Eddie Holt is a black boxer in a white man's world. They've both taken their share of hard knocks. Now they're looking to survive a brutal winter in a remote Montana line shack, collect their pay, and settle down for good. Then they cross paths with a hardworking Irish immigrant and his beautiful, spirited sister, who've been burned off their land. It's a fight Pike and Holt don't want, don't need, and don't dare turn their backs on-especially when one of the perpetrators might be one of Pike's old friends. Hunted like animals across the frozen countryside, Pike and Holt will risk everything-including their reputations, their dreams-and their lives."

If you're familiar with my blog, you'll know much I enjoy reading Sudden novels. James Green—alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw— was created by British writer Oliver Strange, who wrote only 10 books. Much later, English author Frederick Nolan did a fine job of producing five more Sudden novels, including Apache Fighter (my second copy), under the pseudonym of Frederick H. Christian. The original Corgi editions are so rare in India that they're being sold at hundreds, even thousands, of rupees. I have most of the 15 books.

Synopsis: "There was a reward of five thousand dollars for the man who could bring Barbara Davis out of Apacheria alive. Every outlaw, gunman, and scalphunter in the south-west had drifted in to Tucson, then out into Apache country, lured by the dream of easy gold. The Apaches killed some of them slowly and horribly; but still they came. Governor Bleke knew unless the girl was brought out soon, he would have a full-scale Indian war on his hands. He sent for the one man who might be able to do it. A tall, slow-drawling man who wore his six-guns tied low and looked as if he knew how to use them. A Texas outlaw on the run: SUDDEN!"

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Lesson in Deceit by Gillian Larkin, 2016

They came to a crossing and Sam pressed the button. “Anyway, let’s talk about you. How many dead bodies have you found now? Granddad thinks you’re cursed.”

“It’s not my fault I keep finding them,” Julia said with a note of indignation.

© Amazon Kindle
A Lesson in Deceit by Yorkshire-based author Gillian Larkin is the first book in her Julia Blake cozy mystery series. It is a delightful novella about a murder set in the University of Edinburgh.

Julia Blake has a son, Sam, and a daughter. She dotes on them. She lives with her Scottish shortbread-loving dad in Leeds and runs a cleaning business to support her family. Life has not been easy since her husband left them. But her hardships have not deterred her from caring for her family or solving murder mysteries, even if accidentally and often to the mild annoyance of DI Clarke of Leeds.

In the story, Julia is visiting Sam at his university and typically is full of motherly affection and concern. Sam takes her around the campus, including to the local pub where he works part-time. He introduces Julia to his close friend, Elliott, who is covering his shift that day. Elliott works many shifts because he needs the money, and hence misses lectures. In fact, he hasn’t been himself lately, causing Sam to suspect something is bothering his once happy-go-lucky friend. Elliott’s plight stirs Julia's maternal instincts.

But before Julia can think of helping him in some way, her dad’s prophetic words come true again — she finds Elliott dead in his room. There are no signs of injury or a scuffle. Did he overdose on painkillers and sleeping tablets? Or was he poisoned with a heady concoction of the two drugs?

DI Thostlewaite, who has heard of Julia’s reputation and her penchant for turning up where corpses do, gently tells her not to interfere with the case. But she has no option when the local police detain Sam as a suspect.

“Grandad wants to know if you’ve found any dead bodies yet. Ha! He’s so funny.”

“Dead bodies are never funny,” Julia replied.

A Lesson in Deceit is not a murder mystery in the true sense. There is no major investigation and the unearthing of clues, as Julia predictably does at some risk to her life, is kept to a bare minimum. Julia and Sam are likeable characters, mainly because of their strong familial bond, easy relationship and light banter. The author has also nicely interlaced her narrative with values. For instance, when Julia offers Sam extra money so he doesn’t have to work at the pub, he tells his mother that she’d done enough and that he wants to pay his own way.  A nice lesson for young readers.

The novella, available for Kindle, is written in an easy and engaging style, which I suspect is deliberate, and will appeal to both young and old readers. I hope to read more about Julia Blake’s charming mysteries as well as other offerings from Larkin. 

© Goodreads
About the author: Gillian Larkin is the author of several mysteries, both short stories and novels. Her series includes the Julia Blake Murder Mysteries, Storage Ghost Mysteries and Paranormal Mysteries among others. She lives near Leeds, Yorkshire.

Friday, January 03, 2020

The Bodyguard by Lee Child, 2010

© ITW Publications
She took my formal qualifications for granted. I have scars and medals and commendations. I had never lost a client. Anything else, she wouldn't have been talking to me, of course. She asked about my worldview, my opinions, my tastes, my preferences. She was interested in compatibility issues. Clearly she had employed bodyguards before.

If ever I have read about the all-too-real fictional world of bodyguards in about 500 words, it is in The Bodyguard, a short story by Lee Child. In those initial paragraphs, the British author succinctly describes the life and work of a highly-trained bodyguard who quits the military to protect the rich, the famous and the powerful.

Written in the crisp and gripping style of his Jack Reacher novels, Child gives us a nameless bodyguard who could either be real or a phony, and the stakes that go with the unpredictable nature of his job; mostly looking out for automatic targets, the wealthy and the politically connected, and guarding them from kidnapping for ransom. Especially in South America where such abduction is a national sport.

A year after he quits his friend's agency and starts his own business, our bodyguard, "a medium-sized man, lean, fast, full of stamina," is hired by Anna, a 22-year-old rich and beautiful woman whose father is a Brazilian politician and businessman and her mother a television star. But the contract with Anna and a perilous trip to Brazil don't go according to plan.

The Bodyguard is well-written and entertaining, the incredulous turn of events towards the end adding to the pleasure and making it well worth reading. The 3,110-word story is part of First Thrills (2010), an anthology of thrilling stories—of murder, mystery and mayhem—by various authors, and edited by Lee Child himself.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Hits and misses in 2019

2019 was less than an average year for reading and writing. I did not read much and hardly wrote in my personal capacity. I'd be embarrassed to put a number to either. I have a folder titled 'My Writing Projects' that I have been visiting whenever the mood has suited me. While I did not read a lot, I did buy a few books and watched plenty of films, mostly on Netflix. I also travelled a bit, especially towards the end of the year. I continue to remain active on social media, as many of you know, which is partly responsible for the downside to my reading and writing. I will have to do something about it in the new year.

On a more positive and happy note, my daughter, a post-graduate and a chartered accountant by profession, got engaged and married all within a span of three months. My son, a graduate, enrolled for an MBA programme with specialisation in finance. Both are brilliant in Math and Accounts. I count on my fingers. In October, I rejoined a yoga class, which was a big plus for me, though I'm light years away from doing Shirshasana (the headstand) and having a fresh perspective on life. I needed to slow down and de-stress. Now I wake up at 5 am, bathe and shave, do yoga from 6 to 7 am on most days, come home for a quick breakfast, change into formals, and head to work by 7.30 am. 

I'm going to make sure 2020 is different and productive. I have a few unwritten goals that include reading and writing, contributing meaningful essays and articles to magazines and websites, and reviewing books and interviewing authors on my blog. I have missed the last. Hopefully, this is a start.

Coming back to the new and secondhand books I acquired in 2019, I look forward to reading the ones I received as Christmas gifts from my family—India: From Curzon to Nehru and After, a 550-page book on Indian history by Durga Das (1901-1974), a well-known journalist and historian, and Batman: The Killing Joke, a 1988 DC graphic novel written by Alan Moore and featuring Batman and the Joker. History and comic-books have been my favourite genres since I was in school.

At another time, a serious errand ended in a treasure hunt among the old book haunts of King's Circle in central Mumbai and a rare find—an early Coronet edition of P.G. Wodehouse. A welcome addition to my wife's collection of mostly Penguin PGs.

I will leave you with a story in 50 words—a Dribble—I wrote on Facebook; clearly, the influence of yoga.

I sat on the mat, legs folded under me, eyes closed lightly, hands resting on my thighs, the tips of my index finger and thumb touching gently, in Gyana Mudra. I took a deep breath and exhaled, once, twice, thrice, and instantly found balance—in a dusty old secondhand bookshop.

Happy New Year!

Images: Prashant C. Trikannad