A lot of good, even classic, science fiction stories are currently available for free as HTML, PDF or some e-reader format. I decided to feature some of these “freebee” pieces on a semi-regular basis this year.
Recently, I was trading ideas about Dashiell Hammett’s famously cryptic novel The Glass Key on another review site. There are significant gaps in the narrative of that book, the source of the friendship between the principal characters, the true culprit of the murder, etc., that seem to hinted at by objects with a symbolic significance. These include a hat and a cane, items that are either missing or perceived to be missing at the scene of the crime. Sometimes, of course, a hat is just a hat — but is it in The Glass Key? I’m still making up my mind.
The “hats” in H.G. Wells’ 1896 short story “The Purple Pileus” certainly carry a significant symbolic meaning. They are the caps of hallucinogenic toadstools discovered in the woods by a frustrated husband as he contemplates ending his life. Wells was known for his fiction discussing the consequences of aggressive experimentation, but usually the culprits were well-meaning and knowledgeable scientists. Here, we have an ordinary shopkeeper in a moment of weakness — or shall we say, irrational clarity. “The Purple Pileus” is freely available in PDF format.
As I’ve been reading through the titles of the Hard Case Crime series of paperbacks, I’ve found most of them entertaining at minimum, and frequently highly satisfactory. Last October, I was convinced I came across a true classic in Charles Williams’ A Touch of Death; not only for its compelling characters, but also the spot-on pacing and setting details.
Plunder of the Sun, a 1949 David Dodge story about the race to dig up a long-lost trove of Incan treasures in Peru, inspires similar praise. The “exotic treasure hunt” sub-genre is not something I’ve dipped into with any regularity, but PotS shows the appeal of these kinds of adventures. The Robert McGinnis cover features an egg-shaped menhir and two men of very similar appearance: the main character Al Colby and the man who proves to be his darker half, “Jeff” Jefferson.
Robert McGinnis cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com
Well, any book that features a menhir is going to get my attention, but Dodge has used a whole host of details in dialogue, setting and character that elevate PotS well beyond its seemingly standard plot of clues and double-crosses. I’ll cover the two major themes that caught my attention while (and moreover, after) reading this interesting story.
I’ve noticed that many of the recent “rediscovery” publications from Hard Case Crime are older novels packaged with a extra short story or two. Whether I really liked (Robert Silverberg’s Blood on the Mink), disliked (Lawrence Block’s Borderline) or have been mostly indifferent about the featured novel, the extra content (always from the writers’ early efforts) has always been worthwhile for the added perspective. This is definitely the case for “A Bullet for Satisfaction,” the 1950s-era novella included in the volume containing Mickey Spillane’s long-unpublished final novel, The Last Stand (2018).
Laurel Blechman cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.org
For those familiar with Spillane’s famously two-fisted detective novels — my only experience with his work had been the infamous I, the Jury — “A Bullet for Satisfaction” could be described as the Spillane you would expect. Captain Rod Dexter, a tough homicide police detective, is called to the best hotel in his city to investigate a murder. A local politician has been shot in the face with a large caliber bullet, making it not only a killing but a message. Already suspicious of the local crime syndicate, Dexter heads out to the victim’s wife and her sister, and after a brief interview he’s convinced that both the gangsters and their connected District Attorney are wrapped up in the business.
Waking up hung over and next to a naked corpse is not a unique way to begin life as a crime novel protagonist — the premise that begins Ed McBain’s 1952 So Nude, So Dead also started off the Lawrence Block thriller After the First Death. Unlike the alcoholic of Block’s novel, SNSD features a heroin addict whose one-night stand with a nightclub singer has ended in her death by gunshot and a cache of drugs gone missing. SNSD was published under one or two different titles and pseudonyms during the 1950s, and then out of print until Hard Case Crime brought it back a half-century later.
Crest Book (?) edition.
Reading books has always been something a minority of people do for recreation. Reading books that have not seen any form of publicity or marketing for decades is rarer still. Reading thicker, obscure books packaged in dense paperbacks from the 1970s … in all frankness I’d be surprised if there’s anyone else out there who has digested Gordon Dickson’s Time Storm recently.
Time Storm (1977) is an epic-scale SF novel about the scattered survivors of a metaphysical disaster that has befallen the Earth: great, moving walls of mist have swept over planet, emptying the cities and towns of most inhabitants. When a “mistwall” sweeps over an area, in replaces it with a version of it from its own (usually, distant) past or future. Those left behind have mostly suffered from at least some form of temporary insanity, wandering around completely stunned and senseless, before waking to find themselves in a world carved up into time-displaced sectors.
Bantam Edition. isfdb.org
TS follows the journey of one survivor, a talented ex-businessman named Marc Despard, as he strives to first escape and then master the new, chaotic universe that he finds himself in. The initial chapters describe him escaping the moving mistwalls by driving around in a small delivery truck. Although people are scarce, there seems to be plenty of cars and preserved food around, and Marc is able to siphon gas and scavenge cans as he travels. Continue reading
Hard Case Crime has always featured first-time publications alongside the reprints and discovered “lost” novels in its catalogue, and with few exceptions the new novels have been packaged with cover art to look like vintage crime paperbacks. That is certainly the case with Allan Guthrie’s 2005 Kiss Her Goodbye: the yellow backdrop of the Chuck Pyle cover looks like something out of the 1940s or 1950s.
Chuck Pyle cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com
The content of KHG is straight out of the golden era of hardboiled fiction, too. Joe Hope is the enforcer for Cooper, an Edinburgh loan shark. Although he doesn’t kill anybody, he frequently beats them bloody and broken, using a wooden baseball bat. As in the case that begins the story, Cooper often accompanies Joe in these jobs when a debt is overdue, motivated as much for pleasure as for business.
William Marshall, a rather obscure Australian mystery author, is one of those writers whose books follow the same formula, on the strength that that formula is unlike anyone else’s. As this post suggests, his police procedurals resemble a spinning plates act at a carnival, usually at the expense of an easily followed plot and cast of refined characters. That’s ok though, because the payoff is a lot of entertainment, slapstick humor, and usually, a serious treatment of real issues.
Russell Farrell cover for Penguin. amazon.com
Whisper (1988) is the first Marshall book I’ve read that does not belong to his Yellowthread Street mysteries, which take place in Hong Kong. Instead, the events of Whisper occur in and around Manila, the largest city in the Philippines. Like Skulduggery and Out of Nowhere, this book takes on traditions of death and burial rites as important themes (Marshall’s biography page mentions some time working as a mortuary assistant). Skeletons are involved.