Book Review: Strike Lightning by Steve Cole (Young Bond)

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Young Bond

Steve Cole’s 3rd Young Bond book Strike Lightning comes right off the heels of his second effort Heads You Die.  Cole took over the Young Bond series from Charlie Higson who ended his tenure with By Royal Command which details the events surrounding Bond’s expulsion from Eton.  The Young Bond books themselves are a truly ambitious undertaking.  For those who are unfamiliar with the series, it attempts to fill in the gaps of Bond’s childhood using only the meager details that Fleming included in the his Bond novels, particularly from the obituary featured in the novel You Only Live Twice.  The series has followed young James throughout the 1930s starting at about the point when he was about 13 with Charlie Higson’s SilverFin.

Now with this latest installment, we find James shortly after his first term at Fettes College in Scotland where he finishes his education according to Fleming. Right before Christmas Break, James witnesses the death of a fellow student engaged in suspicious mechanical experiments with a professor. James stubbornly refuses to accept the school’s official conclusion that the death was an accident inadvertently caused by James being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joined by his Etonian school friend Perry Mandeville, James decides to investigate the murder of his young friend only to find himself in the middle of a high stakes international weapons smuggling conspiracy with the added danger of a secret weapon possibly falling into the hands of Nazi Germany.

I don’t want to give away any SPOILERS regarding the nature of the secret weapon, but it’s one of those things that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief.  In his postscript, Cole details about how such a weapon might have been realized in the 1930s, but even he admits it’s one of those things that while not entirely impossible would have been highly improbable for the period of time in which this story takes place.

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Maximilian Blade

There are quite a few antagonists for James to square off against but not all of them turn out to be who we think they are when we first encounter them.  This is the first instance since Higson’s By Royal Command I could think of where characters employ a kind of subterfuge to disguise their true motives.  The problem for young James is that throughout the book, he has to evade all these antagonists at various times because it would appear that they are all working together in a conspiracy with serious ramifications beyond the murder of his school friend Marcus.  First, there’s Dr. Randolph Whittaker, the science teacher who the students at Fettes refer to as Captain Hook because his hand had been blown off in The Great War.  James’s friend Marcus is killed in Whittaker’s experiment. Then there’s Whittaker’s 18 year old female assistant Herta, who tries to obstruct Bond’s inquiries into the events surrounding Marcus’s death. Both Herta and Dr. Whittaker appear to be using their positions at Fettes College to facilitate weapons research for a disabled owner of a weapons manufacturing company named, Maximillian Blade.  Finally, there’s Ambassador Grünner who appears to be procuring weapons for the Nazis.  All these characters intimidate, obstruct, and harass James at one point or another until James uncovers the truth behind their conspiracy.

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Ambassador Grünner

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Kitty Drift

Luckily, James has some help along the way. He enlists the help of Perry Mandeville, who we last saw at Eton before James was expelled. He also meets up with this book’s Bond Girl – Kitty Drift, a brash, smart, and socially awkward young woman who also happens to be a train enthusiast.  Kitty’s skill set comes in handy and her obsession with train schedules and a mysterious “ghost train” all come to the forefront to help James along the journey, a journey that begins at Fettes College in Scotland, takes him to the hamlet of Ruskie and transports him to The Hague in the Netherlands and finally to an area just south of Düsseldorf in Germany where you can imagine some most perilous dangers await.

At times, Cole offers up a very vivid picture of James’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  At the beginning, he starts to dwell on the fact that since his parents died, he hadn’t truly ever felt at home except for the times when “danger [is] biting at his heels.” James was a child orphaned at the age of 11, and since then his Aunt Charmian has seen to his upbringing, however, much of his time has been spent boarding between Eton and Fettes as well as with the thrilling adventures James has found himself in throughout these 8 novels in the Young Bond series. From very early on in the series, James developed quite a taste for danger and for using his skill set and ingenuity to save himself as well as others.  By the end of Strike Lightning, we see a bit of a shift in James’s thinking about the nature of war and weaponry.  Someone along the way had lectured him about how weapons can be just as much a deterrent to war as they are a tool in warfare itself. He’s told that “Weapons save lives,” but then he asks himself “Is that what I’m becoming?” For the first time, we see Bond briefly confront the realities of his future life as an agent prior to him even realizing what his fate has in store.  It’ll be interesting to see how Cole explores this in his next and final Young Bond entry Red Nemesis due out in the Spring of 2017.

Strike Lightning is a fast paced story with many chases, some actual spying, and many thrilling confrontations.  If you enjoy the series you’ll enjoy this entry as long as you allow yourself to suspend disbelief a little which usually comes with the territory anyway with Bond.

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Steve Cole at Fettes College

Steve Cole was very meticulous in his research for this book and he actually visited Fettes College to find out what life was like there for students in the 1930s.  The school put him in touch with some actual Fettes College alumni from the era and one gets a good sense of the authenticity regarding his descriptions of James’s life at Fettes at the beginning of the book. He also went to The Hague and visited the Hotel des Indes where a pivotal scene takes place so that he could accurately describe the sequence.

Here are my previous reviews of the books in the Young Bond series.

  1. SilverFin by Charlie Higson
  2. Blood Fever by Charlie Higson
  3. Double or Die by Charlie Higson
  4. Hurricane Gold by Charlie Higson
  5. Danger Society and “Hard Man to Kill” short story by Charlie Higson
  6. By Royal Command by Charlie Higson
  7. Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole
  8. Heads you Die by Steve Cole
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Book Review: My Word is My Bond by Roger Moore

In 2008 Sir Roger Moore released his first book, a memoir entitled My Word is My Bond. The book is an enthralling tale that takes readers through his early childhood, his many years as a venerated actor with such prominent roles as The Saint and James Bond,  up through his present day role as an elder show business statesman and more importantly a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF.  Moore has often been described as a raconteur and this book lives up to that expectation. As a reader you feel like you’re seated with him at your favorite restaurant sipping wine as he relates colorful anecdotes of his long storied career as well as his early childhood. Born in Stockwell, his childhood was plagued by illness and having to evacuate his home town to live in Devon while the threat of bombing raids loomed over London. Moore paints a colorful portrait of his early life and career and provides a rather insightful view into the latter days of the Hollywood studio system where actors would be under exclusive contract to a film making studio and the heads of these studios wielded enormous power and control over the careers of the actors employed by them.

Moore is charmingly self-deprecating throughout holding no delusions as to his actual acting prowess.  One gets the sense that he sees himself as someone  who was extremely lucky having the right look and obtaining the right contacts, friendships, and show business relationships to mold his career over the span of decades. His one literary vice seems to be name dropping, and that is actually the one consistent flaw throughout the book.  Oftentimes an amusing anecdote is accompanied by several tangents where the name dropping can get irritating, but once you get used to it, it can get rather amusing.  Moore is also a self-confessed practical joker.  On his James Bond sets, he would often prey upon Desmond Llewelyn who played Q.  Knowing that Q’s dialogue was rather intricate and full of technobabble, he’d often get hold of the script and change Llewelyn’s lines hours before shooting forcing him to learn new dialogue.  On other occasions, Moore was a peacekeeper as on the set of The Persuaders a TV show where he costarred with Tony Curtis for 1 season as a mismatched duo who went on adventures.  When Curtis called the episode’s guest star Joan Collins the “C-word” Moore was called onto the set on his day off to diffuse the situation.

Upon getting the much coveted role of James Bond, he recalls:

I’d be the first to admit that I’d been living the good life in the previous year or so…. That was brought home to me rather curtly when Harry [Saltzman, co-producer] called me one day.

‘Cubby [Broccolli, co-producer] thinks you need to lose a little weight.’

Okay, I thought. So I started a strict diet.

The phone rang again. ‘Cubby thinks you’re a little out of shape.’

So I started a tough fitness regime.

Again the phone rang, this time it was Cubby. ‘Harry thinks your hair’s too long.’

‘Why didn’t you just cast a thin, fit, bald fellow in the first place and avoid putting me through this hell?’ I replied.

The stories he tells about making the Bond films are quite fascinating as a fan and Moore’s rather unique insight into this experience is always quite compelling and amusing:

Cubby and I visited Maurice [Binder, title designer for the Bond credits sequences featuring naked ladies ofttimes in silhouette] on his shooting stage one day and found him on his knees, lovingly spreading Vaseline over the private parts of one of his female nudes.  He said it was to keep her pubic hairs flat in front of the wind machine, so as not to incur the further wrath of the censor.

I turned to Cubby, ‘And I thought that was one of the producer’s perks?’

In a scene where Bond quips about Egyptian builders knowing full well that a representative of Egypt’s government was on set monitoring their every line, Roger suggested that he simply mouthed the line by moving his lips and not actually saying anything so that they could add the line later in post-production.  Many such stories are cleverly regaled throughout the book, however, when Roger doesn’t have something nice to say about someone he tries to keep it diplomatic by simply stating that he has nothing to say about them as is the case with Grace Jones his co-star on his final Bond film, A View to a Kill.  Jones reported took a large black dildo into the bed with her for their love scene, which seems to have perturbed Roger despite his penchant for practical jokes. At the same time, one gets the sense that he may have glossed over his failed marriages although he admits to sharing in some degree of fault for how they ended.  One of his ex wives spent many years denying him a divorce.

What drives the latter third of the book is his commitment to UNICEF, and we learn that despite his life of privilege Moore has done a remarkable job giving back to the world at large through his dedication to UNICEF bringing awareness to the struggle to help children in need around the globe. His major cause since he joined the organization in 1991 is to raise funds and awareness for Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD) in many third world countries. It’s a preventable problem that can be resolved by simply ensuring that every household uses iodized salt to avoid all sorts of maladies and mental disorders. Moore frequently meets with heads of state on behalf of UNICEF to urge them to combat IDD in their poorest communities. Roger has led a fascinating life and he is to be commended for his commitment to UNICEF. He has received many honors for his humanitarian work, and in 2003 he was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II particularly for his work with UNICEF.  Roger Moore may not be everyone’s favorite Bond actor, but he’s lived a fascinating life.  Reading this book, you can’t help but develop a profound respect for the man. On his work for UNICEF he writes:

I’ve often been asked just how much UNICEF receives from the United Nations and why we need to raise funds.  The answer is UNICEF receives nothing from the UN, it is completely self-funded and that is why I – and others like me – go out banging the drum.  Of the money we raise, less than nine percent goes in administration costs around the world; the rest goes directly to the children

 

Heads You Die Review

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Young James

Heads You Die is the 7th novel in the Young Bond series and the second book written by Steve Cole after Charlie Higson’s monumental first five novels in the series.  This book picks up right after Cole’s last offering, Shoot to Kill, where Bond thwarted a dangerous Hollywood blackmail scheme. James (about 14 or 15) and his new school friend Hugo, a 16-year-old boy afflicted with dwarfism, are now in Cuba staying with family friend of Aunt Charmain, Dr. Hardiman prior to embarking on their return trip to Europe.  We know from Fleming’s brief writing on Bond’s youth that Bond will eventually end up going to Fettes College in Edinburgh to complete his education, but Heads You Die has other plans in store for young Bond.  This is quite simply Steve Cole’s best Young Bond novel so far especially for those readers who may have been discouraged by the Hollywood setting of the previous book.  The Caribbean is prime Fleming territory and Cole knows this and utilizes it to optimum effect.

The plot is set in motion when Dr. Hardiman is harassed and then kidnapped by a dastardly villain named Scolopendra, a native of the island who has achieved wealth and power by acquiring a vast and comprehensive knowledge of the island’s botanical treasures.  He needs Dr. Hardiman to work on a mysterious secret project and uses his henchmen to intimidate anyone who stands in his way. James suffered through several encounters with the aptly named El Puňo so christened due to the fact that after the massive man lost his hand, he had a block of granite fixed on to his stump carved into the shape of a fist.

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In addition to Hugo, Bond works with a new set of allies.  Jagua is Scolopendra’s daughter

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Jagua

who has grown disgusted with her father’s cruel methods and Maritsa is Jagua’s best friend.  Jagua is probably the strongest female character of all the Young Bond books.  She’s fiercely rebellious and is able to handle multiple dangers to achieve her goals.  She’s actually very reminiscent of Judy Havelock from Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only short story. Their motivations are different of course but their determination and their strong wills are very much similar. Together the group figures out that the only way to rescue Hardiman and end Scolopendra’s mysteriously cruel secret project is to get some kind of leverage to use against Jagua’s father. A strong box on a sunken cruiser may hold the key to foiling Scolopendra’s plans, but first they must dive.   Here’s where Cole unleashes his inspiration from Fleming. The primitive diving equipment utilized by Jagua and Maritsa, who have grown accustomed to diving provides quite a challenge for young James. With a primitive diving helmet attached to hoses and bellows for air, Bond must dive deep down into the water to recover a mysterious strong box with Hugo pumping the bellows to provide air to the homemade helmet under water.  As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to navigate, young James promptly discovers he isn’t alone and a thrilling underwater action sequence ensues.

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Scolopendra

Bond must also contend with the mysteriously veiled woman named La Velada who has Scolopendra under her spell much to Jagua’s contempt and decipher what to make of her connections to Russian Secret Police. Multple dangers are in store for Bond to contend with including many chases, being shot at by La Velada, and hiding while a murder takes place.  The following sequences gives us a glimpse at how Cole invests the readers in the psyche of Bond much like Fleming had done.

“ One thought kept spinning around in his head:  If La Velada’s bullet had hit me yesterday, I’d be a corpse on the floor myself. Now Scolopendra had executed a man, and she hadn’t even flinched; clearly they were two of a kind. James shuddered. To shoot a man dead in cold blood, at point-blank range . . .

I could never do that.

While demonstrating just the right amount of restraint, here Cole invests us in Bond’s youth and innocence in a way that foreshadows the man that James will become.  These experiences throughout the Young Bond novels are slowly shaping who James will be, but at this stage the concept of killing in cold blood is shocking to the young man and appropriately so. Clearly, Bond doesn’t know how any human being could possibly commit an act of brutality without remorse or any emotional effect whatsoever.  At the same time, Bond is constantly finding himself in dangerous situations in circumstances far beyond his control.  Take this quote from an earlier chapter:

“Heart hammering as he raced away, James knew that he would never get used to the thrill of danger.  That was its allure.  So much of life was routine and boring, but danger had no rules.  It happened anywhere, could take so many forms.

‘And it looks me up wherever I go,’ he muttered to himself.”

Note the italicized emphasis on the word “never.” Danger is something he would “never” get used to, but he still relished the thrill of it.   For now, in James’s psyche the dangerous situations are not thrills that are sought after but when he happens to come across said danger he enjoys it on some level because he contrasts it with “boring” and “routine” regular life.  It should therefore come as no surprise that the adult Bond would subscribe to a life that guarantees danger with every mission perhaps to relive the same childhood thrill.

Heads You Die is a fantastic novel and I look forward to Steve Cole’s 3rd book, Strike Lightning due out in September where we will finally see how Bond settles into life at Fettes College.  While I don’t blame anyone for missing Charlie Higson, Heads You Die has convinced me that Steve Cole has put Young Bond on the right course.  Not only is able to deliver thrilling action sequences for young james, he also delivers on building upon the character we’ve gotten to know in the previous books.  I highly recommend this latest book and I have no doubt that Strike Lightning will continue to provide the kind of suspense and thrills to exceed our expectations as Bond fans.

  • As a side note, I highly recommend acquiring the limited edition hardcover of Heads You Die available only as an import if you live in the US. Cole provides his insights about where he drew his inspiration for the diving sequences with a notable selection from Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity.”  He also provides a deleted / altered scene from his book for context, which gives the lucky reader a brief glimpse at the creative process involved in writing a Young Bond book.

review by Jack Lugo

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Some Kind of Hero – Book Review

With its meticulous research into the history of the Bond film franchise and close attention to many of the franchise’s little known details, Some Kind of Hero is the ultimate nonfiction book for Bond fans. Authors Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury conducted over a hundred interviews with noteworthy participants in the Bond film saga, uncovered countless little known facts, shed light on many of the franchise’s unsung heroes, and poured years of research into a well-crafted epic tome. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s library whether you’re a hard core Bond fan familiar with the franchise’s history or a casual fan looking to read and learn more about the Bond phenomenon.

The only thing that would have cemented this book as even more definitive would have been an interview with Sean Connery himself.  Rest assured, the authors landed interviewssean-connery_8814825-original-lightbox with every other Bond actor and then some. Connery, however, has become notoriously elusive in recent years. Although he has been seen a number of times in public, I imagine it would be a challenge to land an interview with him particularly if the sole topic was to be about Bond and not say Scottish independence.  The authors recount their efforts to get an interview with Connery in the Introduction and they did in fact come very close.  I suppose an in-depth interview with Connery relating his side of the story in regards to his experience as 007 might make for a book of its own.  Even without Connery’s participation, I think the authors did a fantastic job of informing the readers about many of Connery’s concerns and issues with the franchise as well as the producers without necessarily taking sides.

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Ian Fleming with producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli

The personalities of Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman permeate this book.  In fact, I feel I have better sense of who those two individual men were as people than I did before reading it.  Each of these men whose names have become synonymous with the James Bond film franchise has an early chapter devoted to them before the main crux of the book continues with a chapter devoted to each Bond film.  As the narrative unfolds, the authors impart many subtle details and personality traits of each of these men along with the roles they took on as the partnership progressed.  There are quirky details like Saltzman’s unenthusiastic reaction to Paul McCartney’s condition that he be the one to perform the song he wrote for Live and Let Die when Saltzman would have preferred Thelma Houston.  Prior to that Cubby Broccoli described Ian Fleming’s disappointment at having had his meal pre-ordered for him at a restaurant in Turkey. The most fascinating chapter, however, is devoted to the ultimate breakup of their partnership after The Man with the Golden Gun.   The complex details concerning the dissolution of their partnership are explored in a chapter the authors call “Two Scorpions in a Bottle – Broccoli vs Saltzman.”  Here, we learn from Harry’s son Steven that film title designer Maurice Binder served as a “back-channel” between the two producers when they were most at odds.  We also learn a great deal more about the circumstances that led to Harry Saltzman being forced to sell his shares and controlling interests to United Artists.

Some Kind of Hero also gives us a very compelling look at some of the unsung heroes in the Bond franchise.  Of particular note is Johanna Harwood whose screenwriting contributions remain largely unrecognized within Bond fan circles.  The authors were

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Johanna Harwood

lucky enough to sit down for an interview with Harwood, who has not frequently spoken publicly about her role in the Bond saga.  She enters the story as Harry Saltzman’s assistant but her actual role was to write scripts. She described Saltzman’s personality at one point saying, “[His] big fault was that he was tactless. He was always rubbing people  up the wrong way because he was saying things, unkind things but he wasn’t actually unkind.  He never thought this might upset this person . . . He was an extraordinarily good salesman.  If he had one really big quality, I would say it was he could sell anything.  He could go off with an idea and sell it to anybody. What he couldn’t do later was develop the idea.”

Saltzman first tasked Harwood with writing synopses of all the Ian Fleming books and it would appear that Harwood did a considerable amount of work prior to Richard Maibaum coming on board submitting her own scripts and developing early adaptations of Fleming material.  She even wrote her own Bond short story called “Some Are Born Great.”  Harwood went on to receive screenwriting credits on Dr. No and From Russia with Love but her work on Goldfinger remains uncredited.  Although many of her contributions may have been changed by subsequent writers especially on From Russia with Love, the authors of Some Kind of Hero have done Bond fans a tremendous service by getting her story down and shedding light on the important role she played during the creative process of those early Bond films.  Harwood also co-wrote EON’s early non-Bond movie during the sixties called Call Me Bwana.

Also of note are some of stories the authors have uncovered which have garnered media attention over the past several months.  First there was the story of how Amy Winehouse might have done the theme song for Quantum of Solace were it not for her untimely death.  David Arnold had “sketched out” some musical ideas leaving the lyrics for Winehouse to complete.  The authors were also able to get Pierce Brosnan to unleash a few more details about his departure as Bond. Brosnan describes the phone call he received after his agent informed him that negotiations for him to star in his fifth Bond film had stopped.  Brosnan told the authors that he “was utterly shocked and just kicked to the kerb with the way it went down.”

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All in all Some Kind of Hero reads very swiftly despite its rather thick appearance.  Although the book clocks in at over 700 pages, the main narrative is actually just over 600 pages with the notes and index taking up the last 100 pages.  It could be read either from start to finish or one might decide to read chapter by chapter as you watch the films chronologically. I’m glad to have read it once all the way through, but I could easily see myself returning to Some Kind of Hero as I re-watch the Bond films re-reading each chapter that corresponds to whichever film I decide to put on.  I feel like this book tells the story about the key people involved in the Bond saga better than most books on the subject.  You get a real sense of the personalities involved, the various conflicts that ensued, and a rationale behind many of the decisions that were made.  Each chapter in the Bond saga is given its due and although it’s obviously way too vast to convey the entire scope of this book into one review, it’s safe to say that I believe most Bond fans would benefit from reading Some Kind of Hero regardless of how well-versed they believe themselves to be regarding the history.

Review by

Jack Lugo

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I originally posted this review over at the James Bond Radio podcast website but I recreated the review here for your convenience. You can find the original review posted over at jamesbondradio.com here: http://jamesbondradio.com/some-kind-of-hero-book-review-by-jack-lugo/?utm_content=bufferdc0eb&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

Book Review: My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane’s 2nd novel, My Gun is Quick, delivers an even tougher punch than its predecessor.  It’s at once grittier, seedier, and full of the kind of passion and brutality that can only exude from a Mike Hammer story.  The book begins oddly enough with Hammer taking on a rather meta perspective speaking to his reader directly:

“When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there?  Probably not.  You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened.  You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it?”

Hammer goes on to describe the typical reading experience as “life through a keyhole” describing his perspective reader as someone who is out of touch with what really happens in the world.  It’s a rather bold way to start a pulp novel by essentially telling your reader “you have no idea what really goes on out there.”  I have to admit that this drew me in further although I’m not sure how readers in the 1950s would have reacted to this. I was pleasantly surprised to see Spillane have Hammer start out the story this way.  It would have been easier and safer to just start off by getting into the plot, but Hammer has his reader take a moment to think about how they’re about to engage with this story.

Once the story begins we find Hammer stopping by a seedy all night diner for coffee after having resolved a case.  He befriends a red headed prostitute who we later learn was named Nancy.  She asks him to treat her to some coffee and they have a friendly conversation.   Although many still view these Hammer stories as a sexist and misogynist, the character is actually quite nonjudgmental of the prostitutes in this story and treats them with a lot more respect than one would expect of a man from that generation.  He develops genuine sympathy for Nancy and goes on to describe her:

“She wasn’t very pretty after all. She had been once, but there are those things that happen under the skin and are reflected in the eyes  and set of the mouth that take all the beauty out of a woman’s face. Yeah, at one time she must have been almost beautiful.  That wasn’t too long ago, either.”

She tells him, “Big Mugs like you never have to pay, mister.  With you it’s the woman who pays.”

Their friendly conversation is interrupted when a man, described by Hammer as a “greaseball,” accosts her forcing Hammer to get involve and dispatch him.  Once the threat is dealt with, Hammer tells us:

“I grinned at her again.  She was scared, in trouble, but still my friend.  I took out my wallet. “Do something for me, will you, Red?” I shoved three fifties in her hand.  “Get off this street. Tomorrow you go uptown and buy some decent clothes.  Then get a morning paper and hunt up a job.  This kind of stuff is murder.”  I don’t ever want anybody to look at me the way she did then. A look that belongs in church when you’re praying or getting married or something.”

The next day, Hammer finds out that Nancy died in an apparent hit and run, and he knows without a doubt that she had been murdered despite all the evidence pointing to an accident.  He enlists his friend on the Police Force, Pat Chambers, to help dig around and soon finds himself on the trail of a lethal crime ring with many powerful connections and many means to threaten whoever might get in their way.  Hammer fearlessly goes after them out of his sense of outrage with the way Nancy was treated and all that led her to where she ended up in her life.  There’s no subtle irony at play when he reminds the reader later on that this crime ring would be taken down because of the senseless killing of a prostitute.  We also find out that perhaps Nancy had been working out her own angle to usurp the system that actively oppressed her and other women.  A complicated blackmail plot emerges and Hammer finds himself employed by a wealthy client with a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

Along the way, Hammer befriends and actually falls in love with a reformed prostitute named Lola, who offers some background insight into how and why women at the time might have fallen prey to the prostitution racket.  She tells him:

“Maybe that’s why Nancy and I were so close . . . because there was some excuse for it. I was in love, Mike . . . terribly in love with a guy who was no damn good.  I could have had anybody I wanted, but no, I had to fall for a guy who was no damn good at all.  We were going to get married when he ran away with a two-bit bum who hung around all the saloons in town.  I was pretty disgusted, I guess. If that was all men wanted I figured on playing the game.  I played it pretty good, too. After that I had everything, but never fell for anybody.  . . . I had something men wanted, and they were willing to supply the overhead charges. It got so good that it wasn’t worth while playing one sucker at a time.   Then one day I met a smart girl who introduced me to the right people, and after that the dates were supplied and I made plenty of money, and had a lot of time to spend it in, too.  I had a name and phone number, and if they had the dough all they had to do was call.  That’s why they called us call-girls.  The suckers paid plenty, but they got what they wanted and were safe.  Then one day I got drunk and slipped up.  After that I wasn’t safe to be with any more and the suckers complained, and they took away my name and my phone number, so all I had left was to go on the town.  There’s always people looking for left-overs like me.”

Lola describes how contracting venereal disease set her on a path downward within the prostitution ring and it’s a really sad story. Instead of judging her, Hammer sympathizes with her and treats her with the same respect that he would any other woman.  Today, we live in a world that might cynically mock this scenario, but Spillane entreats us to look at these characters in a genuine and refreshing way without sugarcoating the harsh reality of their circumstances.  Hammer falls in love with Lola because he sees her as someone equal to him in her humanity despite her difficulty in seeing herself as his equal because of her past. This is not a fanciful Pygmalion trope that Spillane uses as an exploitive aspect of the narrative.  Instead, he authentically captures the essence of two people really falling in love by delving into this genuine relationship between Mike and Lola.  This aspect of the novel is actually even more compelling than the murder investigation part of the plot.  There’s plenty that gets revealed in their interactions and plenty of unavoidable heartbreak when it all comes to a bitter end.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it’s not very hard to figure out the twist to the story long before it arrives.  When you find out who the villains turn out to be it doesn’t really have that impact your looking for.  In the 1st book, it was easy enough to guess who the villain turned out to be, but the final confrontation scene left an indelible impression on me.  In this story, that doesn’t quite happen.  There are plenty of times when Hammer could have complicated things for the eventual villains had he been onto their scent before the reader; not to mention the fact that many unpleasant things happen to innocent people along the way, which could have been prevented.  Despite some plotting issues, I actually found myself enjoying this novel a bit more than I, the Jury.  It was fascinating to see Hammer fall in love and it’s great to read much of the passionate writing herein.

I highly recommend My Gun is Quick to any fan of the genre.  It’s a thrilling fast paced read with many poignant character moments.  I may be one of those readers that Hammer referred to at the beginning of the story decades removed from when it was written, but I’d like to believe that the impact these stories have are timeless and perhaps we can gleam a bit of insight into the time and place Spillane wrote about and find that that place sadly might just exist today.

Source.

  1.  Spillane, Mickey My Gun is Quick. Signet, 1950.

Book Review: I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane was indeed a master of his craft. I’ve read other renown authors from the noir / hard-boiled genre, but there’s something that just comes across as more visceral and hard hitting about Spillane’s writing. There’s nothing pretentious about his style but there’s an unspoken wisdom behind his words. I may have read Spillane a long time ago, but it’s one of those things where if you approach something later in life it leaves an entirely different impression on you.

While it’s not that hard to figure out who may have killed Mike Hammer’s friend Jack, it’s really Mike Hammer’s single-mindedness and his flawed yet likeable persona that draws us in. By exploring Hammer’s psyche and motivation through the 1st person narrative, Spillane gets a reader to not only understand him but also to sympathize and even perhaps condone his callous attitude towards life at least in part.

Originally released in 1947, this is a book that is authentically of its time in terms of some out dated attitudes(which is to be expected) but it’s also very easy for a reader to put himself in that setting and feel as if he’s right there in the room with Hammer. This book is a classic in every sense of the word. It’s almost a master class in hardboiled / noir writing, and it’s a book that I’d be happy to return to and re-read at some point. Spillane introduced us to the gritty world of Mike Hammer and his sassy assistant Velda in this debut novel and the result is one that will definitely strike a nerve. It feels like these characters are still alive today as you read this book.

Both the prose and the dialogue are so top rate throughout.  There’s plenty revealed about the nature of Hammer as well as the characters he finds himself dealing with. There’s just something about exchanges like this that just makes the writing come alive to the point that you feel you could almost sink your teeth into their thoughts and words.  When describing Charolette, a psychiatrist who had attended the party Jack gave before his demise, Hammer says:

“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place, although I could see no strap marks of a restraining bra. Her legs were encased in sheer nylons and set in high heels, making her almost as tall as I was. Beautiful legs. They were strong looking, shapely…. “

Soon after we get to some very provactive dialogue:

I grinned at her. ‘You remind me of something.’

‘What?’

‘A way of torturing a guy.’

‘Oh, please, I can’t be that bad. Do I affect you like that? Torture you, I mean?’

‘No, not quite. But if you take a guy that hasn’t seen a woman in five years, let’s say, and chain him to a wall and let you walk past him the way you did just now – well, that would be torture. See what I’m getting at.”

Many writers have since tried to emulate Spillane’s prose and dialogue to varying degrees of success, but there’s just something that comes across as so authentic, raw, and pure here that it’s easy to lose yourself in the narrative.  To some readers what comes across may be nothing more than a macho fantasy, but for someone who enjoys the genre and all its elements its like reading poetry.  The book trascends the revenge angle that remains at the forefront of the plot and becomes a poignant character study of a flawed man, his desires, and the way he perceives the world around him and the people occupying that world.

The world Hammer occupies is a cold and vicious one.  It’s a gritty urban landscape where characters either survive or don’t survive and it’s a world that doesn’t stop and grieve for those who don’t.  Mike Hammer sees himself as the ultimate purveyor of justice.  As hinted from the title, he’s driven to dole out justice his way as judge, jurror, and executioner of cold-blooded killers.  It never occurs to him that he may indeed be making himself into the very kind of killer he wants to hunt down.  There are friendships such as the one he has with Pat Chambers, the lead police detective who uncharacteristically decides to share information with Mike Hammer despite Mike being a Private Detective.  He also has his loyal assistant Velda who not only works for im and has a crush on him, she also understands him and accepts him for who he is probably more than anyone else Mike Hammer knows. There are desirable women who he must either submit to or resist depending on the circumstances, and there are victims who he may or may not be in a position to protect from a vicious killer.

In way, it’s refreshing to read something so honest and compelling, which stands in contrast to the way most of these kinds of characters are made to function today.  Today, we impart our heroes with tortured souls.  Once they’ve crossed a certain line, they have consciences that dragged them down and make our heroes question their own methods and even their own identities.  Take Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy for instance.  In each film, the character feels a progressing burden of having to carry out the very justice that initially inspired him. Our heroes today like to dwell in the existential consequences of their very existence as heroes and purveyors of justice.  In contrast, Mike Hammer of this novel exists in a time when such meadering philosphical melancholy isn’t only uncharacteristic, it’s nonexistent.  Mike Hammer remains secure in who he is and never questions the nature of how he doles out his brand of justice.  He just does it and he does it stubbornly and unapologetically.

The ending will hit you like a ton a bricks not because of who turns out to be the killer but because of the way Hammer tells it. The interplay between dialogue and Spillane’s descriptions in those final moments will leave an indelible mark on a reader. It’s a remarkable dance that engages the reader via Spillane’s stark but elegant language. I highly recommend getting to know Mike Hammer, a shamus for the ages.

Book Review: The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Jeffrey Westhoff

With its Hitchcockian title and bountiful references to James Bond, Jeffrey Westhoff has written a fantastic YA spy thriller.  Having recently read all the books in the Young Bond series, I found all the references Westhoff makes to Bond quite fun as it feels like a book written with the Bond fan community in mind.  While anyone who enjoys the spy thriller genre will be pleased to read this book, the novel also stands on its own with its memorable characters, its present day European setting, and exciting chase and action sequences.

Westhoff’s protagonist, 15 year old Brian Parker from Wisconsin, seems like a kid I would have liked to have been friends with in High School.  While on a European tour school trip with his school, Brian finds himself embroiled in a real life espionage plot involving a corrupt CIA official, a physicist’s daughter, and a number of dangerous criminals hell bent on preventing Brian from sharing what he finds out about their scheme.   The story starts off innocently enough with Brian and his schoolmate chatting about their favorite fictional hero, Foster Blake, and playing a game of “Spot the Spy” in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Brian’s idolization of “Foster Blake” is easily identifiable as Westhoff’s thinly-veiled appreciation of the James Bond franchise. Most Bond fans will appreciate the comparisons Brian makes between the “Foster Blake” novels and the movies, which serves to highlight Westhoff’s appreciation of both the literary and cinematic incarnations of the Bond franchise.

Brian encounters the “grey” man he had earlier spotted as a potential spy while off to find a German edition of a Foster Blake novel to complete his collection. This time, however, the man is stooped over after having been stabbed by a suspicious man Brian had just passed emerging from the dying man’s direction.  The dying man’s cryptic final words serve as the impetus for Brian to summon all the knowledge and skill he’d gleamed from his love of Foster Blake and put it to use to evade capture on an adventure that takes him to so many different European locations it’s amazing Brian is even able to keep track of where he is. He also finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for at times because he’s such a spy buff. At one point Brian is told,

 “You see, that’s why you’re in this mess, Brian . . . Because you use words like rendezvous and case officer. If you were another kid who spent all his time playing with his Xbox, I could have handed you off to the State Department and let them baby-sit you . . . But you had to have read these spy thrillers written years before you were born . . . You had to know too much about the spy game.”

Soon, Brian learns that even after escaping that he can’t exactly go to the authorities for help because his kidnappers happen to also be watching his family home in Wisconsin.   With the very real threat to his family, he finds that the only thing to do is try everything he can to foil the villains. He finds himself getting chased by henchmen in Nice, Cannes, Toulose, the Pyrenees Mountains, Barcelona, and a military base in San Gregorio.  Along the way he meets up with Larissa, the French teenage daughter of the scientist whose coveted prototype weapon prompted the conspiracy Brian finds himself involved in.

A lover of early punk rock bands like the Ramones, it’s easy to see why Brian takes an instant liking to Larissa as she becomes a willing partner in his perilous endeavors.  The book becomes a lot more fun as it slows down to take advantage of its European setting with Larissa using the crypt at the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulose as a temporary hideout.  We also learn a little bit about the Comet Line, a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains where French Resistance fighters used to sneak Allied soldiers from France into Spain during WWII.  Larissa even bears a similar surname to the female organizer of the Comet Line, Andree de Jongh.

While it seems at times like Brian and Larissa are constantly running, hiding, escaping, or plotting to evade henchmen, I actually appreciate the few quiet times where the action slowed down and Larissa talked about her background and her interests.  If there’s any critique I have of the book is that I wish there was more time for these characters to just be safe long enough for them have more moments like they had in the Pyrenees before the villains caught up with them.  Too often the characters find that just as they thought they could rest easy for a time, the villains seem to miraculously spring out from nowhere once again re-igniting the tension and adrenaline rush for the characters.  I find that even with a story that hinges so much on chasing and action that the moments I often enjoy the most are when the characters have a chance to breathe a bit and talk freely without an immediate threat just around the bend.

I really enjoyed The Boy Who Knew Too Much and believe it to be a very impressive debut novel for Jeffrey Westhoff.  His love of spy thrillers shines brightly throughout this book.  I think young readers will like it, but I also believe that adult fans of spy thrillers will find that they share a certain kinship with Brian Parker.  It’s not clear whether or not this is a one-off story or if Westoff plans to continue it as a series.  I can certainly imagine how Brian Parker may find himself in a new set of dangerous circumstances where he might need to rely on his experience as a young spy again only next time he won’t need to recall the fictional adventures of “Foster Blake.”  He’ll have his own previous experience to draw upon.  Anyone who enjoyed the adventures of Young Bond as written by Charlie Higson should take note.  Brian Parker of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a modern day Young Bond in training.

To purchase The Boy Who Knew Too Much:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

The nook and kindle version are currently $2.99 while the paperback is currently $14.95.

Source:

Westhoff, Jeffrey The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Intrigue Publishhing LLC, 2015.