Sunday, January 28, 2007

Arctic chills

In the dark days of winter, nothing cheers you up quite like an 800-page novel about a doomed Arctic expedition.

That's one way to look at Dan Simmons' brilliant new novel THE TERROR. Simmons, whose other novels span a variety of genres (his first book was the breakthrough horror tale, THE SONG OF KALI), has come up with an idea that, at first, seems simplicity itself. He takes as the basis of his story the true-life tale of the Franklin Expedition, an 1845 voyage by two British ships, the Erebus and The Terror, to the Arctic to explore the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The two ships had 134 men between them and supplies that would supposedly last five years. Historians surmise that with the two ships hopelessly icebound, the surviving 129 crew members set off by land in hope of finding open water or rescue by a whaling ship. All of them perished on the ice, from accident or starvation. Remains of the crew members - some showing the marks of cannibalism - were later found.

There have been many explanations for what happened to Franklin's men, one of the most plausible being that their tinned provisions were tainted and crew members were struck down with lead poisoning. In Simmons' novel, there's an even greater threat stalking the men. A savage, almost mythical, beast that lives on the ice and hunts them down one by one.

Since history tells us the expedition had no survivors, you'd think that element of suspense - who lives, who dies - would be absent from the novel. But Simmons has woven the whole thing into a compelling epic of survival and horror and courage. It's an ice-cold fever dream that draws you in deeper with each chapter, each new trial the survivors face. And though Simmons has dedicated the book to the makers of the 1951 film "The Thing," THE TERROR is no pulp thriller. It's deadly serious and deeply involving. Not only is it one of the best horror novels in years, it's one of the best horror novels ever.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Random Readings Vol. 2

This installment of Random Readings is from Donald Westlake's 1974 novel BUTCHER'S MOON, the 16th of Westlake's novels written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark and featuring the ruthless professional thief known as Parker. MOON was the last Stark/Parker novel until 1997's COMEBACK (Parker's lived on in six books since, including the latest, ASK THE PARROT), and it's one of the best, although sadly out of print. It also contains one of the hardest-boiled passages in crime fiction, a scene (slightly edited here) that's a perfect mixture of character, action and dialogue. And, of course, in the Stark way, it seems absolutely effortless.

A little set-up: Grofield, a confederate of Parker's, has been kidnapped by mobsters who want to lure Parker into a trap and get rid of him for good. To prove they're serious, they cut off one of Grofield's fingers and have a low-level gangster named Ed Shevelly take it to Parker. Shevelly and Parker are sitting in the front seat of a stolen Mercedes, Parker at the wheel, gun in hand, when Shevelly opens the small white box he's carrying ....

Parker looked at the finger. The first knuckle was bent slightly so that the finger seemed to be calm, at ease, resting. But at the other end were small clots of dark blood and lighter smears of blood on the cotton gauze.

Shevelly said, "Your friend is alive. This is the proof."

Shevelly seemed uncomfortable now, but to be pushing himself through the scene out of some inner conviction or determination. Almost as though he had a personal grudge against Parker...

Parker glanced at the finger. "That's no proof of anything," he said.

"If you don't get to Buenadella's by noon tomorrow," Shevelly said, "they'll send you another finger. And another finger every day after that, and then toes. To prove he's still alive, and not a decomposing body." ...

Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to either trust him or make use of him. He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying "Get out of the car."


"Just get out. Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me"

Shevelly frowned. "What for?"

"I take precautions. Do it."

Puzzled, Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb. He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm's length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly's head. Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, "I'm only the messenger!"

"Now you're the message," Parker told him, and shot him.

- From "Butcher's Moon," copyright 1974 by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Here and now

As readers of the Virtual Cocktail Party over at the Good Girls Kill for Money blog will know, in recent weeks I've been listening to a lot of Del Amitri, the Scottish band that had its biggest hit back in the '90s with the ubiquitous "Roll to Me." Despite featuring some of the best pop songwriting since Lennon/McCartney, the band - essentially the core duo of Justin Currie and Iain Harvie - dropped off the radar after the release of their last album, 2002's import only Can You Do Me Good?"

But although they've since languished without a record deal or label (Mercury dropped them after the relative failure of that last album), they haven't been idle. Chief songwriter Currie has been involved in other projects, but has also put together a solo album, "Rebound," that has regrettably yet to find a label. However, thanks to modern technology, Currie has recently posted four of his new songs to his MySpace site. Better yet, they're all terrific. And at least one of them, "If I Ever Loved You," is as great a track as Del Amitri ever recorded.

The band itself isn't quite defunct yet though, it seems. Currie and Harvie have also apparently been recording a new Del Amitri record as well, and sample tracks can be found at their site.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Out of the past

I can't say enough good things about Megan Abbott's new novel, THE SONG IS YOU, just out this week. The follow-up to her Edgar-nominated DIE A LITTLE, it's another period noir, this one set in Hollywood in the early 1950s and revolving around the real-life disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. But Abbott's central character - and the novel's wounded hard-boiled heart - is a fictional former-journalist-turned-Hollywood-press-agent named Gil "Hop" Hopkins, whose guilt and alcoholic self-loathing plunge him first-hand into the mystery. Period L.A. noirs aren't exactly rare, but this is Abbott's world and A SONG IS YOU inhabits it fully. It's also graced with some of the best dialogue I've read anywhere in a long time.

Abbott and Edgar-winning author Theresa Schwegel are also touring together over the next month or so, including two appearances in New York this week; Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at The Black Orchid Bookshop on East 81st Street between First and Second avenues.