Sci Fi, by William Marshall

William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street series of detective novels are known for their humor, violence and nearly frenetic pace. Besides the debut Yellowthread Street, I thought The Hatchet Man delivered strongly on all three elements, while Skulduggery benefitted from a more contemplative pace as was just as entertaining. In between, the books Gelignite and Thin Air fell a bit short, mainly because their major themes of terrorism and racism crowded out the humor and interesting side characters.


Ann Miesel cover for Owl Books.

Sci Fi (1981), the sixth Yellowthread Street title by Marshall, is mostly a return to both the original Yellowthread Street‘s form and quality. Continue reading

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When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger

Science fiction and crime fiction are two genres with largely different traditional audiences, although there are many of examples of writers that have crossed the boundary between them. Asimov, Vance, Silverberg and Moorcock are all giants of SF who have published multiple mysteries – with Vance winning an Edgar Award. Less common are attempts to blend crime and SF into one book (unless we count the techno-spy thrillers), but Asimov wrote his robot mysteries and Bester’s The Demolished Man is as classic of an SF novel as any.* More often than not, these two popular genres have remained largely separated throughout their shared existence in the bookstores.

George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1987) is a detective novel that could easily fit in as a title in the Hard Case Crime line of crime titles, but it is also thoroughly science fiction. It centers on Marid Audran, a private eye who stalks the streets of the walled city of Budayeen, a futuristic pleasure-district based on pre-Katrina New Orleans. It is the first of three novels about Audran, forming a series cut short by a confluence of medical, financial and legal circumstances.


Jim Burns cover for Bantam Spectra.

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The Crime at Black Dudley, by Margery Allingham

The rustic country mansion is a popular setting for murder mysteries – although I can only vaguely recall episodes of Murder She Wrote, the movie Clue, etc. Being naïve to this sub-genre of crime literature, I decided to pick up what appeared to be classic – the first book in the Albert Campion series of mysteries by the English writer Margery Allingham.


The Crime in the Black Dudley (1929) starts with a dinner party at a coastal Sussex manor, named the Black Dudley. Various guests, mostly young adults from distinguished society, are entertained by Wyatt Petrie and his uncle, the mysterious Colonel Gordon Coombe.  Arriving late to the dinner table are the Colonel’s private doctor (he’s bound to wheelchair), a very large German, and a couple of suspicious-looking characters.

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The Handle, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

Donald Westlake’s Parker series, featuring the stoic and violent thief Parker, is a celebrated franchise of paperback crime fiction. The books are renowned for being fast-moving, unsentimental and flavored with irony and dark humor. The University of Chicago Press has reprinted the Parker titles in highbrow tradeback editions, and maintains a site tracking all of the different characters that populate them. Moreover, the most thorough Parker resource on the web remains The Westlake Review, which also covers many other of the author’s works.

Although I found the first book The Hunter problematic (Parker is clearly a sociopath in this one), many who have read it have been engrossed with the series from the start. For me, The Man with the Getaway Face is the true launching point of the series – so if you don’t like one, try the other before giving up on Parker.

In any case, Parker develops as a character as the series goes along, and I thought The Seventh was a clear step forward from The Jugger, which seemed to be pollenated with ill-fitting asides. A recent SFFaudio episode suggested that Parker’s motivations fit classic Epicureanism: his actions are not guided by abstract mores or a hunger for great things, but by his preferences (following the plan, getting his share of the loot) and whether someone has taken his property. In The Seventh we get to see what boundaries this philosophy places between Parker and others, as illustrated with the interactions he has with the secondary characters, and by the relationships that these other persons form with each other.

When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.

The Handle (1966), the next book in the Parker series, features another change in focus. Whereas The Seventh was dominated by the messy aftermath of a successful robbery, The Handle is focused on the set-up and planning of an even more brazen job – knocking over an island casino. As always, Westlake used the Richard Stark pseudonym for this title, adopting his darker noir style to accompany the name change. The Handle has also been published as Run Lethal, for some reason.


Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books. The Westlake Review.

The most interesting cover of The Handle comes from the ever-versatile Harry Bennett, who chose to depict Parker (the big guy on the right), his female companion Crystal, and (I assume) the fellow thief Grofield on a blank canvas. Crystal is painted in full color, while a greyscale Grofield wears a rather flamboyant blue suit. Parker of course has barely any color at all, and he hides his famous hands in his coat pockets. Their eyes are all focused on something to the right, but their different postures indicate a sort of mutual independence in their intended actions. They don’t particularly look at ease with other, either. Even tough this book is a satire of the trendy spy thrillers of the time,* Bennett’s cover rightly highlights the psychological aspect of this unusually cerebral heist novel. Continue reading

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Freedom Beach, by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel


Tom Kidd cover for Tor.

Science fiction in the 1980’s and 1990’s developed a large preoccupation with “inner space” topics like mind-reading and dream travel. Obviously, these tropes began long before 1980, but as the size of novels ballooned in these later decades – perhaps because word processing software took over for typewriters – extended passages of dream hacking became more prominent. Through some sort of advanced technology, characters could interact with each others dreams for scores of pages. Continue reading

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Skulduggery, by William Marshall

Skeletons washing ashore make for intriguing mysteries: they have a story to tell, but the truth of their origins are a cloudy mixture of time, culture and circumstance. The bodies of fishermen found in Japan indicate desperate searches for food off the shores of North Korea. During World War II, a homeless Welsh man who had died of poisoning was dressed as a pilot and left to deceive the Axis intelligence in Operation Mincemeat. The discovery of a skeleton off the shores of Hong Kong starts Skulduggery, a very good mystery novel by the Australian writer William Marshall.

The Yellowthread Street series of “police procedurals” is centered around an overworked, and at times combustable, police station in the fictional Hong Bay district of 1970’s Hong Kong. The Australian writer William Marshall keeps several characters around throughout the series, mostly on the side of the law. We have seen, so far, that when the scale of the crime is too large (terrorist attacks), the interesting secondary characters can get crowded out:

  1. In Yellowthread Street, we’re introduced to the detectives Feiffer, O’Yee, Spencer and Auden, as they attempt to catch a violent gangland interloper. This book is notable for its slew of Chinese characters, including uniformed constables and gangsters with ridiculous nicknames, who have small but vital parts in the wild story.
  2. In The Hatchet Man, a serial shooter is targeting people who happen to sit in front of him inside movie theaters. This case exposes us to more of the contentious but functional mentor/mentee relationship between Feiffer and O’Yee.
  3. In Gelignite, Marshall focuses on the ugly racism of a deranged bomber. We also see more of O’Yee and his anxieties. So far, it is the least fun to read, as the problems of institutional racism and terrorism have grown worse since 1977.
  4. In Thin Air, a 1970’s-era airline disaster drama unfolds as a group of terrorists target planes and make cryptic phone calls to Feiffer. This draws Feiffer into conflict with the security professionals at the local airport. Better than Gelignite, but still weighed down by tacked-on racist diatribes and a scale of crime that doesn’t fit the series.

Skulduggery (1979) is the fifth book in the series, and represents a change in scale of the crimes that Feiffer and Company investigate. The focus is on Feiffer’s attempt to unlock the story behind a fully intact but decades-old skeleton that washes ashore on a raft. This skeleton’s arrival in a cold foggy morning is richly described, with curious accompaniments — a set of false teeth, rope around the ankle, a bag of sweet potatoes, a prepared fish and a painted drainpipe.


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Thin Air, by William Marshall

The 1970s were a big decade for airline-disaster dramas, from the movie Airport in 1970 to its ultimate parody Airplane in 1980. The 1977 William Marshall book Thin Air looks like an attempt to tap the healthy audience for airborne suspense, while continuing his Yellowthread Street series of police procedurals. Read in 2017, Thin Air gets reclassified as a yarn about terrorism – although an improvement over the previous (also terrorism-focused) Yellowthread Street book, Gelignite.


Thin Air is the fourth entry in the Yellowthread Street series, which take place in the fictional Hong Bay district of Hong Kong. The hard-working police of the Yellowthread Street police station are roped into a terrorist plot when their Chief Inspector Feiffer receives a strange phone call. Continue reading

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