They Walked Like Men, by Clifford Simak

In the comments of my last review of Simak’s work, a 1970 novel named Out of Their Heads, it was suggested (in agreement with the critical convention), that the book was published after the author’s creative prime. I ended up giving it a thoroughly middling rating (the lowest out of several Simak reading experiences, in fact), putting me in no position to argue.

They Walked Like Men, from 1962, is also an uncelebrated Simak novel, but it hails from the era of the Hugo-winning Way Station and “The Big Front Yard.” It is a compact alien-invasion yarn with some interesting characteristics than separate it from the pulp tales of bug-eyed creatures out of the so-called “Golden Age.” However, these same characteristics — intentionally, I believe — recall the separation from a more significant “golden age.” That is, the time when American monetary policy was based on the gold standard.

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Tony Destefano cover for Manor Books. isfdb.org

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“The White Otters of Childhood” by Michael Bishop

Michael Bishop, like the almost all authors of the SF genre, is best remembered for his novels. Additionally, recent reviewers of his work have emphasized his novellas as further examples of his best writing, especially among his 1970s fiction (see this and this). “The White Otters of Childhood” is a 1973 novella included at the end of his collection Blooded on Arachne. The other stories in that book were reviewed here and here.

“Otters” first appeared in the highly-regarded Fantasy and Science Fiction, and garnered both Hugo and Nebula nominations. It is split up into several sections, each headed by an epitaph quoting an author who Bishop acknowledged as an influence for the story: H.G. Wells, Thomas Kyd, Saint-John Perse, Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter M. Miller, Jr. Of these names, I have only read Wells and Miller, but the others are certainly important in their respective fields.

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David Hardy cover for Mercury Press. isfdb.org

My first guess at the inspiration of the title came from a quick search for white otters in literature; although extremely rare, white otters have been spotted throughout history. I assume that their albino coloration makes them especially susceptible to hunters. These animals are featured in a Seneca legend – where they hold the spirits of “witch” women and must be hunted – and we’ve seen Bishop make use of Native American traditions in Brittle Innings.

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Cut Me In, by Ed McBain

My ongoing foray into vintage crime fiction meant that it was only a matter of time before I read by first Ed McBain book. Ed McBain, of course, is the most popular of several pseudonyms used by the very prolific Evan Hunter (1926-2005). Some of his long-obscure early work has been brought back into print by the publishers of the Hard Case Crime label.

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Cut Me In (1954) is early McBain novel that takes place in the insular and apparently cutthroat world of literary agents. It mostly takes place in various offices and apartments, stuck in the sweltering heat of a New York summer. Before McBain was an author, he was an agent himself, and he apparently put some of his least favorite memories into Cut Me In and its cast of treacherous characters. Little honesty is too be found in these pages.

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Thieves Fall Out, by Gore Vidal

With the remunerations for his literary works not keeping up with his lifestyle, the writer and intellectual Gore Vidal (1925-2012) wrote a few genre books under pseudonyms, one being “Cameron Kay” for the pulp crime novel Thieves Fall Out. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1953, it was forbidden by Vidal to be reprinted — at least under his real name — for the remainder of his life.

The cover art for the Gold Medal edition is interesting: two men, an American and, presumably a fez-wearing Egyptian, are drinking together in a Cairo bar. Their hands are almost touching, or almost not touching, when an expat woman appears on the scene, striking a hand-on-hip what are the two of you up to? posture. Vidal had turned to pulp fiction because the outrage over the homosexual themes of his 1948 The City and the Pillar kept him in exile from the major newspapers’ book sections; it’s not entirely surprising that “Cameron Kay” had this subtext in TFO, hastily written is it was.

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Gold Medal edition. jamesreasoner.blogspot.com

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Slide, by Ken Bruen & Jason Starr

The Ken Bruen and Jason Starr collaboration Bust was at once bizarre and vulgar, but it was a fun read and turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected it to be. That was mostly due to its surprisingly effective depiction of the two principal characters, a corrupt and sleazy computer executive named Max Fisher and the wildly impulsive barfly Angela Petrakos. Those two almost completely lacked any sign that they would survive to the end of a violent noir novel, but they hung around like feuding cockroaches, leaving a largely unintended trail of mayhem behind them. It was enough for me to pick out the 2007 sequel, Slide, also published by Hard Case Crime.

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Richard B. Farrell cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

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Songs of Innocence, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

After his strong debut crime novel Little Girl Lost, Charles Ardai – using his pseudonym Richard Aleas – continues the story of the private investigator John Blake with Songs of Innocence (2007). SoI also continues the usage of a William Blake-inspired title, the death of a sex worker as the initial plot event, and a pre-existing relationship between Blake and the dead sex worker as the hook between character and story. However, this is a book that departs suddenly and dramatically from its shared setup.

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Glen Orbik cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

The first half of SoI is a build-up of Blake’s return to his old role — he had quit being a private eye at the end of Little Girl Lost — and the reconstruction of his deceased friend’s life. We know from the beginning that Dorrie Burke, a college student Blake meets at Columbia, was a independent sex worker who sold massages in her apartment, and that she suffered from depression. Dorrie described her profession in a series of deeply personal writing assignments for a class (excerpts from these accomplish a lot of exposition and character development, without repeating the pattern of flashbacks used in the first book), and confided in Blake when entering depressive episodes. When she turns up dead in her bathtub, next to pills and whiskey, and with a plastic bag around her head, Blake refuses to accept that her death is a suicide. She would have called him first, and he would have talked her out of it.

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Little Girl Lost, by Charles Ardai (as Richard Aleas)

The Hard Case Crime imprint is known for featuring novels by new or emerging crime authors, as is especially unusual in that it has printed the debut novel by its own co-founder, Charles Ardai. Ardai adopted the pseudonym Richard Aleas for this title and its sequel, which feature the small-time private sleuth John Blake. The false name is a thin disguised anagram for Ardai, probably made is tribute to those writers who adopted pen names for commercial or artistic reasons.

Little Girl Lost (2004) is a contemporary private eye novel, borrowing several tropes of the genre but also adapting them to mark the passage of time. Its publication date puts it in the brief time in our history where most working people had cell phones but still relied on voice mail and email to communicate. The founder of Juno, a successful early internet company, Ardai captures the increasingly quaint era of having an online existence prior to the age of video streaming, text messaging and social media.

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Robert McGinnis cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

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