A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

Love for Lydia, by H.E. Bates*****

loveforlydiaHE Bates wrote before, during, and after World War II. Many readers came to his work after seeing a televised version of it.  It was different for me. I am fond of excellent fiction, military history, and short stories, and when I cruised Net Galley and found The Flying Officer X and Other Stories, I took a chance and scored a copy. Once I had read those, I knew I would want to read more of his work when I could. So although I came to this outstanding novel in a different way than most readers, I have to tell you that I loved it every bit as much as they did. Thank you Net Galley and Bloomsbury Reader for the complimentary DRC.  I read multiple books at a time, and I feel a bit sorry for others I read at the same time I read this, because almost everything else looks shabby next to Bates’s work. Those that enjoy great literary fiction, romance, and historical fiction—which this technically isn’t, since it was written during that time rather than later, but the feeling it generates is similar—should get a copy. Once the reader opens it, she is destined to be lost to all other purposes until the last page is turned.

This spellbinding story will be released digitally Thursday, May 12, 2016.

The setting is a small town in Britain, a town with a tannery and small farms. One great house surrounded by beautiful gardens stands aloof from the rest; it houses two elderly single women and their alcoholic brother.

Then Lydia, their niece, comes to live with them.

Lydia’s arrival is cloaked in mystery. She doesn’t talk about her mother. The aunts encourage the belief that Lydia is an orphan, but we later learn that isn’t really true. And at first Lydia, who has been cocooned so carefully that she has no social graces nor any real wardrobe, futzing around in clothing that looks suspiciously like that of her elderly aunts, really needs a trustworthy young mentor close to her own age. After having eyed the local population, the aunts send for the protagonist, young Mr. Richards, whose family fortunes have slid to terrible places. Once the proud owners of considerable farmland, the Richards family is now cramped in a noisy flat that shares a wall—and the attendant noises and smells—with the tannery.

Perhaps the thing the aunts like most about young Richards is his great fondness for flowers, an unusual trait in a young man at the party-animal age. He endears himself to the aunt that gives her attention to the landscaping, commenting on the traits of flowers and making suggestions that create an instant bond between young man and old lady, but Richards is unprepared for what awaits him.

The aunts want him to meet Lydia, and they wonder whether he might take her skating on the lake. He agrees to do so. Lydia has never skated and starts out as if she were a colt trying to navigate a frozen surface, all arms and legs floundering, falling. So he is unprepared for the grace and dignity that soon possess her. They fall in love, and young love proves to be the school of hard knocks for our young man, as it is for so many.

None of this brief outline can provide Bates’s magical facility with words. This blog has reviewed hundreds of books—all read and reviewed by me—and this is one that stands out and that has stood the test of time. Bates transports us to a place we have never been and makes us feel we know it, and its inhabitants, intimately. He also lights on issues like social class and the way those with lifelong privilege might treat those without. But this is not a social justice campaign, it’s a brilliant work of fiction that sizzles in places and scorches in others. Character development is spectacularly done; I have had my nose in half a dozen books since I finished reading this one, yet I still think of Blackie, of Tom, of Nancy, of Alex, and oh of course, of Lydia. The ending is bittersweet yet strangely satisfying.

The vocabulary level that makes for such tremendous depth of character and setting also requires a strong facility for the English language on the part of the reader. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, I don’t recommend handing this novel to your love-struck sixteen-year-old as summer reading unless he or she reads at the college level.

I dare you to find a more engaging love story than this one.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3, by Mark Twain****

autobiomarktwainv3Huge thanks go to Net Galley and University of California Press, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. It has taken me some time to read and rate it because once I had the DRC for Volume 3, I decided I should hunt down volumes 1 and 2 and read those first. Now I am finally finished, and it was well worth the effort.

First let’s talk about the obvious thing: how dare I rate Twain four stars rather than five?  I considered the matter and reflected that if Twain himself were to rate it, he might say the same. The reason is that, as he plainly states more than once in his narrative, he is writing not for posterity, but for bulk. An unfair copyright law that was present at the time he began his autobiography permitted a copyright to stand for only 42 years, after which the work entered the public domain. Twain hired a lobbyist to attempt to gain an amendment offering the author the option to renew the copyright, and ultimately he won. But when he started the autobiography, his plan was to write 500,000 words and then republish each of his books with a portion of the autobiography attached so that it could be called a new work and thereby merit a brand new copyright. Twain’s wealth had been considerably depleted by dishonest people in his employ, not once but three times. He had made a fortune, but much of it was gone, partially due to an unscrupulous publishing agent and then later to two household employees he regarded as close to him as family. The double blow of losing so much money and learning of the duplicity of people he had loved and thought loved him was a bitter pill indeed.

So the book contains filler, and this he unabashedly admits. And at times I had found myself wondering why he included all of the letters he had received from cute children he had met onboard a ship, but until I found the bald statement that he needed 500,000 words, I had attributed it to his eccentricity. No, not so much. There is gold in this memoir, and if you like Twain, or history, or both, you should buy it and read it. He says things nobody else has said, and so even once you realize you have entered into a portion of the memoir that is just plain filler and you skim till that section ends, the next things you read will be worth your time and money.

I promise.

Twain stipulated that the autobiography in its entirety must not be published until he had been dead 100 years. He did this because if he wanted to say someone was a rotten scoundrel and then give details that might well draw a lawsuit, he could go ahead and say it; he also said he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of said people’s children or grandchildren. I’d say he succeeded. Some of those he consigns to the flames are individuals contemporary readers won’t recognize. However, he hated President Theodore Roosevelt with a fiery passion, and he doesn’t mince words where he is concerned.

Most of the memoir is not angry in tone, however; there are places where I laughed out loud. The way he talks about Carnegie, who mentally catalogued every compliment ever paid him and then went through the entire litany when one visited, adding new ones but never removing or abbreviating the old ones, just cracked me up.

Most of all, I loved his explanation of the privileges conferred upon us by old age, one of which was the right to pitch a fit if one felt like it:

“But indeed the older you grow, the less secure becomes the furniture. When I throw chairs through the window I have a sufficient reason to back it. But you–you are but a creature of passion.”

Toward the end  I wanted to sit down and cry with him. He lived a long life, but the outcome was that he outlived three of his four children—a little boy that died shortly after birth, as well as two of his three daughters—and also his lovely wife, whom he adored, and his best friends. The autobiography was to provide support for the two daughters that he feared would not see a nickel from his earlier works because of the copyright laws.

Then two things happened almost simultaneously: the law was changed, with the amendment he had fought for added so that his copyrights could be extended; and the daughter that still needed his financial support, a woman that had spent much of her life in an institution because of epilepsy but now had medication that made it possible for her to be at home with a private nurse, died in the night.

It was right before Christmas, and she had been planning a surprise for her father, a Christmas tree decorated in an unusual, very artistic and tasteful manner, as he discovered when he entered her private sanctuary after her death. There were over fifty Christmas gifts there in various stages of wrap, many of them for people Twain says he would not have even thought of shopping for, and so he just sits in that room with his memoir, and he sobs. His other daughter, Clara, has married an affluent man and is very happily married; she won’t need his money. And now Jean is gone. Twain records the fact that the purpose the autobiography was to serve no longer exists…and he stops writing.

It’s enough to break your heart.

And so it ends, but it is an epic work.

For those planning to get this memoir, I give two crucial bits of advice: first, look at the title of the book carefully. Make sure it is this exact title. If it’s turned around—if for example the title becomes “Mark Twain’s Autobiography”—that’s not the one you want; it’s a knock-off and it’s not really even readable. It’s cheaper, but it is a false economy. The Twain Project took painstaking care in sorting and assembling what amounted to two whole file drawers full (or ten feet of files) of Twain material, some of it duplicated, some of it in his own handwriting, and some of it dictated, then typed by someone else. It was a huge job, and UC did it right.

The second bit of advice is not to worry too much about reading volume 2, or if you do, purchase the book that includes volumes 1 and 2 together. For some reason, even after all the effort that was expended into the organization of this hefty memoir, there is some duplication that renders most of volume 2 the same as portions of volume 1. Maybe it was Twain’s intention to duplicate it and so the Twain Project did so to honor his wishes; I can’t say. But everything you need in order to read this memoir in its entirety can be found in volumes 1 and 3.

Even with the filler, it is amazing work, and I highly recommend it to those that love Twain; those that love history; and those that love great memoirs.

Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair *****

thejungleIt’s not your best beach read, but it’s an important bookmark in the history of American literature.

The second wave of immigrants who came to the USA around the turn of the century (our setting is 1905) came mostly from Eastern Europe. Political turmoil and poverty were the push factors for myriad Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Turks and others who needed to get away, and the still vivid hope of the American dream, the possibility of social mobility unthinkable in Europe, was the pull factor. The Statue of Liberty still meant something back then.

It wasn’t as simple as it seemed, though. One of the primary large cities to which immigrants flocked was Chicago, and one of the chief industries that would offer them work–as usual, work that those born here would not do–was meatpacking. It looked like good money, even after meeting coworkers who had fewer body parts at the end of their tenure at the packing plant than they’d had going in. It was bloody, nasty, inhuman, and heartless, both toward the workers and the animals. And the stuff that landed on the conveyor belt went into the product to be sold at the supermarket, whether it belonged there or not.

I’ll let that sink in a moment.

Sinclair’s novel was intended to be a workingman’s call to arms. Cast off the bonds of wage slavery. Let the people who do the work own the means of production, set the time tables, and divide the spoils. He’d been reading Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and believed his book would be a revolutionary vehicle. After all, working people read back then, and their attention spans had not been reduccd by the instant gratification that television and video games would later provide. He hoped it would be effective.

It was, but not the way he planned. When Americans read about all of the disgusting stuff that was landing in what they intended to serve for dinner, they revolted, and the Food and Drug Administration was born.

Today, meat packing workers are still among the most injured and the lowest paid, and they are still largely manned by immigrant workers.

The bottom line: read this for its historical importance and its place in American literature, but don’t expect to enjoy the experience. It’s pretty grisly material, but rightly so.