DIVIDEND ON DEATH, by Brett Halliday


Dividend on Death
(Mike Shayne #1)
By Brett Halliday
Open Road Media – 16th June 2015
(First published 1939)
ISBN 9781504012737 – 218 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley

This is the first of the Miami-set Mike Shayne noir novels, written by Davis Dresser under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The style of the novel will be familiar to anyone who has read pulp crime or seen film noir. There is a hard-boiled private investigator, murders, a beautiful woman in distress, thugs, and dangerous twists and turns for the hero.
A young woman named Phyllis Brighton shows up in PI Mike Shayne’s apartment/office in psychological distress. Both her doctor and her new step-father believe that she has a mental complex that could lead her to unconsciously harm – even kill – her mother. No sooner does she leave with Shayne’s guarantee that he will work for her to prevent her from killing her mother than the step-father also shows up at the door to hire Shayne to protect his wife from Phyllis. Two payments for one job, what could be better? But before Shayne can even start the job(s), he finds Phyllis covered in blood and her mother lying dead with a knife in the back.
Dividend on Death is primarily interesting as a curiosity from its age and as the first Mike Shayne novel. The psychological, medical aspects of the story are influenced from the theories of the late 1930s, and are nice to see played out here. In a way the novel falls into the ‘mad scientist’ genre perhaps as equally as the crime fiction one. So readers interested in that historical perspective, or the role of psychology in fiction, could find something of great interest here. I wasn’t previously familiar with the character of Shayne. Given that the character is one of the giants of the field (featured in novels to the late ’70s and appearing in radio, TV, and film) some readers might consider the start of the series worth checking out.
As a pulp crime novel, however, Dividend on Death isn’t anything exceptional; the character of Shayne doesn’t have any personality traits that make him particularly compelling compared to other well known characters of that age or of more recent decades. (Perhaps the character is fleshed out and develops more unique personality in later books?). The story and the writing in this are neither superb nor poor for the genre. Dividend on Death in most respects is just average: a decently entertaining read.
Compared to some pulp of the era and beyond this novel doesn’t focus on a femme fatale relation or steamy scenes, instead featuring the criminal action and Shayne’s attempts to find the truth and ‘capture’ those responsible. Fans of the genre who favor action and punching over the sexploitationesque elements in crime fiction may then appreciate this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

NEAR ENEMY, by Adam Sternbergh

22078949Near Enemy
Spademan Series
By Adam Sternbergh
Crown – 13th January 2015
ISBN 0385349025  – 306 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Near Enemy does everything that you could ask from a sequel, and it does it all well. If you are new to Adam Sternbergh’s Spademan protagonist and post-terrorist-dirty-bomb New York City setting, then do yourself a favor and go find Shovel Ready, which I reviewed here previously. If you enjoyed Shovel Ready, chances are you’ll like this even more.
 The second novel takes something that is introduced in the first, the limnosphere, and expands upon its implications into a plot. As a virtual world where the affluent can escape from dilapidated reality, the limnosphere is not a new concept to science fiction universe. But Sternbergh does explore it in interesting ways that make Near Enemy a fun kind of mystery/cyber punk mashup. The novel opens with the morally ambiguous Spademan contemplating the target he has been hired to kill, a young ‘bed-hopper’ who is part of an underground that effectively hacks into other people’s limn experiences. Spademan’s hesitance over carrying out the hit turn dangerous when this limnosphere voyeur informs him that someone has worked out a way to kill people within the virtual world so that the physical body dies too. Spademan soon finds himself further involved in a situation that threatens one of the only pillars of stability holding up the post terrorist attack society of the city.
The previous novel in this series focused mostly on Spademan as a character, and was cast in a distinct noir tone with the standard femme fatale to get mixed up in the protagonist’s business. These noir stylings remain here, but Near Enemy goes a bit further in exploring the state of this devastated near-future New York City, where the leaders and officials maintain a rough order through corruption and conspiracy.
The plot from the first book is further developed alongside the main threads of this novel, with key characters returning and progressing further, in interesting ways. Most notably, one of the villains from the first book becomes increasingly apparent as an actual ally, creating a morally ambiguous character complementary to (and distinct from) Spademan’s ‘hitman with a heart’ persona.
As with Shovel Ready, this will likely appeal to people that go for mystery/crime thrillers inthat classic vein of gritty protagonists, and to readers that appreciate the speculative plot built around these limnospheres, both in terms of their societal role and potential to be abused for nefarious purposes/power. A fun read with well handled plot twists and characterization, Near Enemy proves Sternbergh does have a series in him, and I look forward to enjoying it continue.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Crown Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
ISBN: 0385348991
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)

I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.

Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.

As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.

Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.

Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.

Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.

In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.

By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

More info from the publisher

Author bio from the publisher

The Baby in the Icebox: and Other Short Fiction, by James M. Cain

The Baby in the Icebox:
and Other Short Fiction
by James M. Cain
Publisher: Open Road Media
220 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publication: 1932)
Source: NetGalley

The name James M. Cain never registered on my radar, although I was already familiar with some of his work: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and what is often considered the epitome of film noir, “Double Indemnity”. Upon opening this I expected more of the same, but was surprised to see a greater variety and depth the Cain’s writing and fiction plots/genres. Several days after finishing this and I wish I had more of his work at hand to read, both the original stories that birthed those classic noir films and his other less known output.

This particular collection is an excellent primer on the scope of Cain’s writing, being split into three sections of form: dialogues, short stories, and one serial novella. Each section is preceded by an introduction to Cain’s use of the form, and a general introduction opens the entire collection. These introductory essays are skimmable if you are really just interested in the meat of the fiction, but they are useful in grounding you in why Cain wrote each style of fiction, the merits he viewed in each, and how they were received by critics and fans.

Throughout all the forms Cain has two clear strengths. First is creating a clear, compelling conflict or plot, regardless if large-scale like a crime in a film noir, or a simple, brief confrontation in a doorway. Second is his strength in writing dialogue and regional dialects, particularly of working class people. This shines most obviously in the brief dialogues that open this collection, but even within the short stories they dominate, stretching a bit longer, and broken up from time to time with narration describing the setting or actions. Yet, even these narrations, rendered in the first person, are strongly reminiscent of spoken word, a dialogue between the working class narrator, and the reader, who can easily imagine themselves as an unnamed character in the story, listening to a yarn in a diner over a coffee, or bar over beer.

In these dialogues and short stories the genre of crime or transgression appears from time to time, but many also do not approach anything as grandiose, focusing instead on small aspects of human emotion or psychology in a pure manner. These are Cain’s most literary moments, and the ones (based on the introductions) that he was most proud in writing. What is interesting is that Cain did not set out to write honest, emotional dialogue-laden fiction per se. That is simply the only writing he was able to create that appeared authentic and sincere. He had to become the character and ‘act’, writing as if he were not Cain at all, but an imagined personality, role-playing. The result is stories and dialogues that don’t come across as fictions necessarily, but honest, imperfect recollections, most wonderfully perhaps in the story that gives the collection its name.

The collection ends with a serial novella, a style that Cain did not have any artistic appreciation for, but simply used to pay the bills, much like a serious actor doing some light, mindless blockbuster. But Cain can’t help inject some artistry into the serial, shaping a genre that would translate into the film noir and eventually the French new wave. His serials turned out immensely popular, both with general readers and critics. The serial included was made once into a film that wasn’t particularly successful, which I haven’t seen, but it does lack the spice and sordidness of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or the precision and tautness of “Double Indemnity”. Nonetheless it is a nice conclusion to the collection, bringing it round to the style of story Cain became most noted for popularly.

Although I am interested in reading more of Cain’s work, I appreciated the length this collection kept. By the end of the dialogues and starting the still dialogue-laden short stories, that style was beginning to wear on me, much as Cain found it did when trying to use it to such a degree in his novels. By making this a mixture of styles but allowing none to overstay their welcome, this collection found a great pace. The publisher is releasing a lot of Cain’s old work in ebook format, so once I obtain an actual reader I’ll be checking out some more titles that pique interest.

Four Stars out of Five

The Dirty Streets of Heaven, by Tad Williams

The Dirty Streets of Heaven,
by Tad Williams
(Boddy Dollar Series Book 1)
Publisher: DAW
ISBN: 0756407907
441 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
(Original Publ: September 2012)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A shelf in my library holds the first two novels of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn epic fantasy series, but rather than start those I ended up getting another one of his books instead, in this case the first volume of an ‘urban fantasy’ series whose second book is about to be released. I knew nothing about this, and generally don’t enjoy urban fantasy as much as other parts of the genre.

Upon starting to read it I discovered I didn’t want to put it down, perhaps because I am more unfamiliar with books like it, so it seemed truly fresh. The novel is a fantasy featuring angels and demons in present-day history, but the heart of it is noir crime fiction, complete with witty, snarky, and at times jaded first-person narration, double crosses, and sultry femme fatales. Rather than each of these elements being grounded firmly in an urban crime ‘reality’ it is built around a fantastic realm constructed by Williams.

This realm is one of the afterlife, and the battle/competition between heaven and hell. But not in any particular religious sense. The afterlife here is really nothing more than a second existence with different physics and even less freedom. The deceased, or reborn as it were, are judged and placed on team heaven or hell in an afterlife that is full of rules and assumptions, but more uncertainties than their previous Earth-bound life. Moreover, souls aren’t much changed, not all the good are squeaky clean, and perhaps the damned have a bit of love still within them.

The uncertainties of this post existence for the characters makes this Williams-constructed universe intriguing, and makes one eager to see what more is revealed about the truth behind it in future volumes. For this one, many of the mysteries will remain unanswered beyond the immediate plot driving the protagonist/narrator.

I appreciated the narrator and his humor, though at times like many noirs, it can go a bit over the top. The characters were interesting and the action entertaining. The one negative reaction I had to the novel was the unnecessary repetitiveness of some of the narrator’s observations. He reminds the reader numerous times about certain character traits or thoughts as if to drive home a rationalization for particular actions or inactions. With each new time the reader is reminded it starts feeling more an excuse of forcing plot points to occur.

Many will be disappointed in this novel if they approach it expecting a fantasy – even if unfamiliar with Williams’ high-fantasy and going into this as pure urban fantasy. If you enjoy crime novels and don’t mind the concept of them existing in a made up world that bridges the Earthly and spiritual realms then I suspect you would like it, for its tone and soul are noir all the way.

Four Stars out of Five

The Suburban Abyss, by Cathryn Grant

The Suburban Abyss, by Cathryn Grant
Publisher: D2C Perspectives
ISBN: 9780985765774
392 pages, paperback
Published November 2012
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

One of the aspects of many Hitchcock’s films is his ability to identify and relate the terrifying in the everyday and familiar, most notably in “Shadow of a Doubt”. I immediately thought of this when reading the summary for the novel and the description of ‘making the mundane menacing’. Unfortunately I was largely disappointed with the novel, it is an intriguing concept, but the execution failed for me.

The novel focuses on three households as they deal with an intrusive building project adjacent to their homes. Annoyance and minor suburban strife slowly envelope each of their private lives and inter-relations until a moment (near the end) when it erupts in murder. One problem arises in the slow build to the eventual catastrophe, it is a prolonged and not terribly interesting journey to get there. While Grant flirts with some interesting themes here and there, such as the nature of communication, privacy, friends, and strangers, she doesn’t dwell with them long, moving directly into a stream of conversation to reassert character traits already familiar, and moving one inch forward into the plot.

Conversations. The dialogue in the novel kept me from liking it fairly well as a simple entertaining read. To her credit, Grant does make each character unique and she does well in making them think and carry out actions that establish their psychology well. But they are all unreliable, lying to themselves above all, and the occasional inconsistencies make it hard to tell if they are subtle indications of the character’s underlying instability, or errors on the author’s part. They each blurt out statements and questions that appear absurdly rude, they do this a lot. I suspect this makes it easier to get plot points out to the reader, but it makes the characters appear very unrealistic.

Perhaps this behavior goes into the whole ‘menace in the mundane’ idea, but this becomes the problem with that kind of tactic when making a story. Exaggerating the mundane to to make it menacing and interesting also makes it seem unbelievable and forced. Or worse, if it fails in that, it remains mundane, and bores. There is a fine artistic line in making it work, but I simply didn’t see that here.

At the end I’m sure many will disagree with me and find this a rewarding entertaining read. There is ironic humor, a bit of romance, a bit of crime, characters who may be in situations that are familiar, etc. Grant has been published in Ellery Queen & Hitchock’s magazines and has gained other recognition for her short work. I realize that this novel has no aspect that couldn’t have been done just as well in a novella/novelette and I think could have been much more impactful and interesting in that form with an editor.

Two  Stars out of Five