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.