Witness to Myself, by Seymour Shubin

One of the reasons I’ve sought out and read so many Hard Case Crime books is the introduction to quality authors who have, over time, faded into obscurity. The online footprint of Seymour Shubin (1921-2014), for instance, lacks a dedicated Wikipedia page despite having won an Edgar Award. Based in Philadelphia, Shubin wrote novels and articles throughout a long but intermittent freelance career.

I learned from a podcast (I forgot which one, sorry) that Shubin’s Witness to Myself (2006) was the only release from Hard Case Crime that did not feature a woman on the cover, and was consequently the poorest-selling book for the imprint. That is a bit of a shame, since WtM is among the best of the HCC titles that I have read to date.

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Larry Schwinger cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

WtM begins with telling the story of Alan Benning, a privileged but socially awkward teenager on a family road trip. His parents have taken him to a remote beach on Cape Cod, where he decides to kill time by going running. He cuts through some nearby woods and encounters a young girl whose kite was stuck in a tree. After retrieving the kite, he follows some mysterious impulse and sexually assaults the girl before throwing her to the ground. He then flees the scene on foot, escaping notice and culpability but not knowing just what crimes he committed.

The family vacation ends after several days and the Bennings return home with no sign of the police. Although Alan appears to have gotten away with his crime, all of his interactions are under the shadow of his hidden guilt.

His father sat down on a chair facing him.

“Alan, I want to talk to you about something. And I hope it doesn’t get you angry.”

Alan just stared at him.

“I should have talked to you about this before but I was really afraid you’d get angry. And I didn’t think you needed it. In fact I still don’t. But your mother and I, you know, feel I should. It’s about drugs.”

Alan almost sighed.

The point-of-view is told from a third person’s perspective, and we learn that Alan’s story is told by a lifelong friend of his, a writer. The writer is less wealthy, less complicated and far less interesting than Alan himself, but takes up relatively little of WtM as a character. His existence does solve Shubin’s problem of access to Alan’s inner thoughts without requiring us to sympathize with him. Alan the teenager is purposefully less explicable than Alan the adult; the writer, relying on the recollections of another person, does not have a complete explanation over long-ago events.

Alan’s choices as an adult, living with both guilt and uncertainty over what he has done, form the meat of the novel. He becomes a successful and zealously guards his secrets: the facts of what his crime, as well as what he thinks is his secret nature. In one incident, he gets in an escalated argument over a parking spot:

He started to walk away from Alan, then turned and strode back, and after more shouted back and forth they were swinging at each other. A couple of minutes later, as they both stood there out of breath but with their fists still clenched, a police car pulled in, siren whining, in response to somebody’s phone call.

The cop didn’t take either of them in but several days later Alan got notice that he was to appear in Municipal Court: The other fellow was accusing him of attacking him. He was cleared, but in a sense it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had lost his temper in such a stupid way.

And it heightened the fear he’d had ever since the crime, that violence was a part of him.

We see the benefits of the narrator’s style; he is an author of “true crime” books, and produces the efficient and clear paragraphs of a good reporter. It reminded me of the outstanding work done by John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, when reporting the Michael Lock story. A more famous example would be the multipart feature David Simon wrote about Melvin Williams for the Baltimore Sun. I read WtM as a fictional version of one of these newspaper features.

Despite his persistent fears, Alan eventually starts to master the trappings of adulthood. He manages to start a serious relationship with a nurse he meets when recovering from surgery. When he returns to the hospital to learn her name, he finds that she suddenly quit her job and made odd impressions on her coworkers. This apparently intrigued him further, since she was probably an “outsider” like him. He also thrives as a lawyer and gets recruited into a position with a (uncomfortably for him) high profile.

After losing his father to a stroke and his mother to dementia, the ties binding him to his past seem to loosen. That is, until he drives back to the small town in Cape Cod to research what exactly happened to his victim.

Shubin does a good job placing his story in two eras; Alan committed his crime around 1990 but returns to the scene after the advent of the Information Age. Leaving unnoticed and untraced is not as easy of a task as it used to be. The daily newspaper was still a presence in 2005, overlapping with email and internet search engines–Alan’s chances may have been better had he waited still another decade.

Alan’s pursuit of his past quickly evolves into a frantic attempt at escaping it, at the cost of his professional reputation and his relationships. Shubin does a fine job representing Alan’s emotions and motives through the filter of a reporter, following him from the drive into Cape Cod to the final confrontation at his Philadelphia apartment.* Alan is not a sympathetic character but a compelling one, with many of his deepest emotions left implicit. 8/10.

* The Schwinger cover painting features a classical doorway frontispiece of a brick row house, indicative of the northeastern urban setting.

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The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

The twelfth entry in Westlake’s Parker series, The Sour Lemon Score (1969) is also the last of the “Score” books to debut as a Gold Medal paperback. The “sour lemon” choice for the title (assuming it was the author’s choice this time) implies a return to a more orthodox form, without much involvement by his girlfriend Claire and starting off with a well-planned but vanilla bank robbery. This departure from the crazy quilt being stitched by The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score and The Black Ice Score appears to have made TSLS a more popular book–and maybe the most highly regarded of the Gold Medal issues.

The plot of TSLS recalls that of another widely appreciated Parker title: The Seventh. That novel began in the aftermath of a successful heist; Parker returned to his hideout from shopping to find his girlfriend impaled by a sword and the suitcases of money missing. Parker then spends the rest of The Seventh hunting down the nameless young man responsible, attaining bloody retribution after much difficulty. TSLS follows a similar path with a bank heist and double-cross, but this time the perpetrator has a name–George Uhl–and life history that Parker learns as he plays detective.

Still, you cannot go home again: TSLS features a Parker confronting a generation gap within his loose network of underground figures. He’s losing his trusted associates to death or retirement and left with a cast of increasingly younger and less predictable individuals. It also ends in a violent, surreal sequence in that most reliably surreal setting of Parker’s world, the suburbs.

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Allison & Busby edition. www.existentialennui.com

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The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

This post is not a review in the traditional sense, because I typically don’t like to write opinion articles about nonfiction books. Given that the Gaping Blackbird has been increasingly distracted by All Things Westlake, and that I’ve been poking around my fair share of biographical resources when putting together reviews lately, I figured I would lay my cards out on the table and admit to boring my way through the 2014 collection The Getaway Car.

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Darwyn Cooke cover for University of Chicago Press

Constructed out of Westlake’s introductions, essays, letters and private papers by the editor Levi Stahl, The Getaway Car is a posthumous tribute to the great writer. This is a rare statement, but I would have liked to see more introductory material than the brief forward by Lawrence Block; maybe from someone who dealt with him as a screenwriter. Regardless, the book is an impressive collection of pieces, full of things hitherto unknown to this 20-book veteran reader of Westlake’s fiction (not to mention a dedicated consumer of The Westlake Review and other blogs).

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I Speak for Earth, by John Brunner

During the early phase of his career, SF author John Brunner produced a large number of manuscripts to be published as Ace paperbacks. He gained a reputation for giving life to new and futuristic ideas during the early 1960s, before switching to the larger, socially-focused novels that made him famous.

Long before Stand on Zanzibar, however, Brunner demonstrated a tendency to cast his eye on the psychological consequences of progress, rather than the progress itself. His obscure 1961 novel I Speak For Earth embodies this with an interesting take on the “first contact” trope.

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Ed Emshwiller cover for Ace. isfdb.org

I Speak For Earth was published as half of an Ace Double under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott, but it can also be found today as an e-book (as by John Brunner). Brunner reworked many of his early manuscripts for reprinting in the 1970s and 1980s, but not ISFE.

ISFE is a better showcase of ideas than of characters, but it does get the point across that progress is increasingly the outcome of collaboration, rather than individual effort. The blending of identities and personalities into a single central nervous system is a theme visited by many SF books, ranging in quality from Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (at the bottom) to Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (at the very top). Here, Brunner combines the idea with a first-contact story of the “uplift” variety. Continue reading

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“Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle” by Jack Vance

Wrapping up my three-part overview of Chateau d’If and Other Stories, the Underwood-Miller collection of Jack Vance pieces, this article covers the two best-crafted entries: “Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle.” Both are novellas, but unlike “Chateau d’If” they both feature plots and settings that feel appropriate for the word length.

They are also two examples of “gadget” stories, Vance’s own term for the instances where his fiction features a future-science aspect (the gadget) instead of integrating it into deeper thematic material. They enjoy popularity among fans of Vance, but not universal support as examples of his first-rate material. They also feature the plain-spoken style Vance employed in his early career as a pulp writer–which is not a surprise for the 1955 story “The Gift of Gab,” but “Rumfuddle” first appeared in 1973.

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Frank Kelly Freas cover for Street & Smith. isfdb.org

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“Chateau d’If” by Jack Vance

Continuing with the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories, we take a look at the title story, a novella originally published as “New Bodies For Old” in 1950, in the serial Thrilling Wonder Stories. As with many other Vance pieces, “Chateau d’If” is available under various collections, including Son of the Tree and Other Stories of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE).

The VIE is thought to be the authoritative version of Vance’s work, undoing–as much as possible–the interference of various editors over the years. It appears that the in-print Spatterlight Press edition is based off of the VIE, and would be worth purchasing. The contents of the Spatterlight volume Chateau d’If and Other Stories includes several “gadget” stories that I reviewed earlier: “Crusade to Maxus,” “Shape-Up,” “The Man from Zodiac” and “The Augmented Agent.”

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Spatterlight Press edition. amazon.com

The real Château d’If is a fortress built in the 1500s on an island in the Bay of Marseilles of southern France, and used to house prisoners over the years. Religious minorities (Huguenots) and enemies of the state (Communists) were imprisoned there, in isolation from the public. Wealthy prisoners were given cells in the upper floors, with windows and better food, while the poor where housed in the dungeons. It is also where the main character of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo was confined after being framed for a crime. Continue reading

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“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens”, by Jack Vance

More famous for his many series of SF and fantasy novels, Jack Vance was also a prolific writer of short fiction. The two early 1950s novellas described here feature the same female protagonist, a daring and surprisingly remorseless teenager named Jean Parlier. Jean is not a stereotypical femme fatale stuffed into an SF plot; nor is she merely the female version of a more traditional hero. The technology of Vance’s distant future has given her a chance to defy the social order, but she has to tread the line between hero and villain.

This post is the start of a series on the novellas comprising the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories. Unlike The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, which I reviewed last year, this book has no introductory essay. The eye-catching Ilene Meyer cover art oversells the surrealism of Vance’s stories, but I suppose many of the events experienced by his characters would be bizarre and disorienting.

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Ilene Meyer cover for Underwood-Miller. isfdb.org

“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens” are apparently the only two stories featuring Jean Parlier, both published in 1952 issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories. They were also combined into a 1965 “fix-up” novel called Monsters in Orbit (a bad title). Like many, if not all, of Vance’s shorter science fiction, both stories are readily available in later collections, most recently in The Golden Girl and Other Stories.

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