Stop That Complaining

It’s that busy time of the year. Last week, on Black Friday, I decided to forgo the usual weekly blog. No, I didn’t spend the day shopping (“oh, the horror! the horror!”). I spent the post-turkey time relaxing. I don’t do that very often. Relaxation has never been a natural state for me. But I like to give it a try every now and then. It feels weird at first, but then I pick up a book, zone out, and I’m okay with it.

However, in the midst of my reverie, what should arrive from Fed-Ex but boxes filled with our new title, Marilyn K./The House Next Door by Lionel White. Naturally, I felt obliged to start getting them ready to ship out. Then, on Monday, more boxes arrived, this time filled with our new Black Gat book, Only the Wicked by Gary Phillips. Naturally, I had to get those orders out as well.

And after I got all those books boxed up and off to the post office and UPS….just as I was ready to kick back again… I received a plethora of orders from the Baker & Taylor warehouses, one of which wanted one copy each of almost every book in stock. Yowza.

I only mention this because right before Thanksgiving I had emailed a fellow bookseller, bemoaning the fact that November orders were way down. Which they were. But December has started with a bang, so I’m officially going to stop complaining.

In fact, today Booklist sent me a new review of Gil Brewer’s The Erotics/Gun the Dame Down/Angry Arnold which concludes with these words: “Plenty of writers wrote better, but Brewer’s fever-dream Florida always makes an unforgettable detour.” Reviewer Keir Graff suggests that our collection offers “a more complete picture of an author who never really fit in,” and his enthusiasm for Brewer is obvious. Love these Booklist reviews.

Last month they reviewed our Lionel White two-fer with these words: “The two tales in this double-decker come at us from a time—1960 and 1956, respectively—when crime novels were shorter and more focused than now. No padding, no sagging middle, everything pointing to the grim finale… The ending is as surprising as it is satisfactory.” We couldn’t agree more.

And a week ago we finally got word of a late October review in Publishers Weekly for Fell the Angels by Catherine Butzen. The reviewer said: “Butzen keeps the action moving quickly, with plenty of fights distracting Abby and John from their search for the killer, but also tosses in some delightfully grim humor.” Thank you, PW.

So, not only am I going to stop complaining, but I’m going to be officially thankful for all the great reviews and the book orders, and all the continued support we get from the Stark House Crime Club members as well. It’s turning out to be a pretty good end of the year after all. Now, if we could only get a little peace in the real world….

—Greg Shepard

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Fell the Angels

Chicago, Illinois. Present day.

The man grinned as he ran. He skipped lightly over a patch of ice, overbalanced, and turned his stumble into a theatrical flip that landed him squarely on the steel fire escape. He was a selkie and his name, when he bothered to answer to one, was Luka.
Abby Marquise hitched her purse higher onto her shoulder as she dodged around the ice Luka had jumped. Sweat trickled down her forehead and clung to loose strands of dark-blonde hair. Shapeshifters were never easy to handle, but this one had more energy than most. The shoulder holster under her parka was rubbing her side raw.
“Get back here!” she panted, but the selkie just thumbed his nose at Abby and galloped down the fire escape. She reached the top just as he reached bottom. As she clung to the metal railing, trying to find steady footing for the descent, he smiled up at her and tapped one foot.
Abby tried not to swear, but it was a near thing. She clambered awkwardly down the fire escape as Luka took off again.
At least he was doing her the courtesy of letting her keep up. Most fairies could easily outdistance a human, but Luka had already killed two women in his personal quest for fun, so perhaps he was enjoying this variation on his usual game. He might have a plan, or he might not. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, Abby would have to catch him.
She didn’t want to. There were other agents better-equipped to handle a takedown, but unless her luck changed they wouldn’t be there in time. Of course this had to happen today of all days.
Luka cut left and bolted across the street, ignoring the honking car horns and shouts of passersby. Another patch of ice sent him skidding, giving Abby a few precious seconds to close the gap, but her hand barely brushed his sleeve before he twisted neatly out of the way and bolted. “No touching!” he sang out.
They streaked past the adobe-colored structure of the local clinic, following the straight line of Western Avenue. Abby’s lungs burned with the cold air and her heart felt ready to burst. Luka just laughed and somehow accelerated.
There was a definite course to his run now. He veered off the central course of Western Avenue and streaked across the snow of an empty lot, heading towards the park across the street. He was about a hundred feet ahead, but Abby could see him stoop low and snatch something out of a snowdrift. Then he was off, but more slowly this time, struggling to unwrap heavy PVC sheeting from a small package as he ran.
Abby slowed a little as well and fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket. “He’s got something,” she panted. “Think it’s his skin. Off Addison, heading down to the river.”
“Hang on,” said the voice of Adam Starczynski. “John and Dummy are three blocks behind you. If you grab the skin you can control him, but if he hits the water—”
“I know,” she said and ended the call. Sucking in as deep a breath as she could manage, she swiped sweat out of her eyes and pushed forward.
The park sloped gently for the length of a soccer field before making an abrupt plunge into the gravel-edged shallows of the Chicago River. It was one of the best places for foot access to the river: the banks for miles around were steep and lined with trees, condos, concrete barriers and private docks. A small service offered canoe and kayak rentals for an hourly fee, but it was closed for the season.
The selkie plunged into the shallows and pulled his white sealskin over his head. A moment later, a snowy seal with golden eyes was thrashing its way into deeper water. It raised its flipper in a jaunty salute as Abby stumbled to a halt on the bank.
She had to do something. She should draw her pistol, shoot him dead in the water, but her hands were trembling with exhaustion and she could hardly see through the haze blurring her vision. She could only bend over, panting for air.
But something seemed to be wrong with Luka’s getaway plan. The seal flopped backwards in the water and wrinkled its nose. It sneezed. Spluttered. Its eyes instinctively squeezed shut, and its whole body convulsed as it tried to clap its flippers over its face. Its alarmed bark turned into bubbles in the greasy water and startled a seagull perched on a nearby chunk of ice.
With a wounded yelp, the seal thrashed its tail and sped towards the shore as fast as it could. When it crawled up onto the bank, some twenty yards downstream from where it had started, the water ran in oily gray rivulets from its fur.
Gasping, the selkie ripped off his enchanted skin and began to cough in a deep phlegmy rattle. “Is that supposed to be a river?” he demanded as Abby came stumbling through the trees. “How can you do that to me?”
Abby shucked off her parka and drew the Beretta Tomcat from its holster. “Luka,” she began as steadily as she could, “you are hereby charged with the murders of Alicia Gonzalez and Rebecca Cartwright. If you have any information that would be of use to the human authorities, please disclose it now and I might be able to help you. Hand over the skin and—”
Fairies preferred magic, but they knew what guns were. Luka grabbed his skin and bolted for the water’s edge.
Abby fired twice. The first bullet zinged over the selkie’s head, but the second hit home between his shoulder blades. He gasped and hit the surface face-first, his sealskin still in his arms. Blood bubbled out into the icy water.
Taking a shallow breath, Abby shook her head and holstered the weapon. The body was already sinking. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed Adam again.
“He’s dead,” she said. “But he’s in the water, and there’s no way I can fish him out myself.”
“Roger,” Adam responded. “Any witnesses? Dummy’s right behind you, and he’s got the jar …”
“Nobody saw the last part, but there might be some people who were curious about the chase.” The slow current of the river was spreading the blood around, creating a reddish-brown patch in the water. “We should probably listen to the police band for a while, just in case.”
“I figured. You gonna write up the case report?”
“I… no, I don’t think so.” It would be completely dark soon, and she had an appointment to keep. “Tomorrow okay?”
Adam’s voice wasn’t exactly sympathetic, but it had softened. “No prob. Go home and get cleaned up.”
Heavy footsteps were coming up behind her. Abby turned. A seven-foot-tall man, pale as chalk, was making his way down the riverbank with a green glass jar under one arm. When he saw her, he waved one hand and smiled. The hand hopped down from his wrist and scuttled across the snow towards Abby, where it made itself comfortable on her shoe.
“Hi, Dummy,” she said. “I hope you brought rope.”

…And that is the first couple of pages from Catherine Butzen’s new book, Fell the Angels, which Stark House just published in October. I mailed out lots of review copies, talked the book up, tried to encourage Crime Club members into taking a copy. Got no reviews, a few conservative orders. Which is a shame, because it’s a great read. It moves fast, has a host of interesting characters—including a group of rogue selkies—and reminded me of the early urban fantasies of Charles DeLint. It’s got a mystery for the mystery fans, but it deals with the peripheral world of faerie for fantasy aficionados. I was charmed by Butzen’s first book, Thief of Midnight, and equally charmed by Fell the Angels.

So why am I making a blog out of the first chapter of Butzen’s book? Because I refuse to give up. There are readers out there for this book, and I’m determined to flush them out!

—Greg Shepard

Mixing it Up

This week has been real interesting. I’ve been jumping back and forth between the mystic realms of Algernon Blackwood, editing down the scan of The Human Chord for next Spring; and working with Rick Ollerman on his introduction to Malcolm Braly’s prison biography, False Starts, for February. Oh, yeah, and for fun, I’m reading William Patrick Maynard’s The Terror of Fu Manchu, following Dr. Petrie on his mad chase over London. My head’s all over the place.

I’m also shaking my head wondering why our two October books aren’t flying out the door. Stark House just released The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn and Fell the Angels by Catherine Butzen, but since they didn’t get any major reviews, none of the bookstore and library buyers know they’re here. Some months, you just can’t win.

Granted, the Coburn book isn’t new. It was Coburn’s second published novel. But it’s such a clever mystery, snaking around all over the place as first the police, and then the parents, try to find out who killed the babysitter and kidnapped their small child. I’ve read it a couple times, and I get caught up in the story and characters each time. Everything hinges on finding out the real identity of the babysitter. I thought it was a very clever book, as Coburn’s books generally are, puzzle pieces of interlocking stories that slowly come together to form one large pattern of character and place. If you haven’t read a book by Andrew Coburn, do. You’re in for a treat.

And the Catherine Butzen book is a real page turner, too, though in a completely different way. With Fell the Angels, she goes back to the characters in her first book, Thief of Midnight, as they continue to battle the forces of magical maliciousness in the world. Abby Marquis is part of the Society for the Security of Reality, fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness—the bogeymen, the ancient myths, the werewolves, ghouls and faeries—but she also has a neglected and rebellious teenage son to raise. This torturous balancing act on the part of Abby is what gives the book its tension because soon enough, her son becomes involved in her pursuit of a group of rogue selkies, too—to his detriment.

There’s a mystery here as Abby tries to find out who the selkies are and who is controlling them. But there’s also a lot of gritty urban dark fantasy here as well. Personally, I love Butzen’s series, and I’m hoping it finds its readers. I waited five years for Butzen to finish this second book, and she has promised a much shorter wait for the third. You should check it out, trust me. Like the Fu Manchu book I’m reading, it’s also a lot of fun.

And isn’t that the reason we spend so much time reading. If it isn’t fun, we just put it down, and find another book. Of course, there are times when what you really want to do is finally read James Joyce’s Ulysses or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, just so you can say you did it. But most of the time, we read for pleasure. I wish a few reviewers had found our October books, but hopefully the authors themselves will stir up a little activity. I took a break from our usual 1950s hardboiled action this month, because sometimes you just have to mix things up a bit to keep it interesting.

Now, back to that Fu Manchu book. As I recall, Dr. Petrie had just met Gaston Max in Paris, and they were about to take on the most sinister villain the world has ever known….

—Greg Shepard

The Art of Juggling

Things have been rather quiet this week at Stark House. No new books came in. No review copies to mail out. Very few returns. Hardly any orders. The Fall Doldrums are upon us, that brief lull before Holiday Madness. In fact, most of the mystery bookstore folks are probably at Bouchercon this weekend down in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rick Ollerman is certainly there, making the rounds.

He’s got a new book out which we had hoped to publish before Bouchercon. But we had to push it back to December for one reason or another. Truth Always Kills is the title, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that before too long. Bouchercon notwithstanding, it’ll be worth the wait. It’s the story of a cop who has to decide between protecting his family, and remaining true to his profession. Rick nails it with this one.

Meantime, we continue to offer a bit of the old and the new this month with a new dark urban fantasy by Catherine Butzen—Fell the Angels—and an early mystery by Andrew Coburn called The Babysitter. I usually try not to offer two books in one month because it wrecks havoc with the Stark House Crime Club. These patient members keep trying to catch up and I keep doubling the number of books we’re publishing. As I mentioned in the current newsletter, this year we’re publishing 22 books. Two years ago we published seven books. We’re just going book-crazy here at Stark House. (Going, going, GONE!)

But seriously, I do worry that we’re starting to get ahead of ourselves, publishing more than even we can keep up with. Sometimes I’m sitting here working on three or four books at once—scanning and editing one, working on the cover of another, trying to find someone to write an introduction for a third, and dealing with the printer proofs on a fourth. I’m not very good at making lists, and I sometimes wonder how I juggle all this around. And then I’ll forget to follow up on something and realize, I don’t have this juggling thing down as well as I think I do.

This week, for example, I sent out two proposals for what I hope will be new Harry Whittington and A. S. Fleischman books. I’m also working with Mark, the art director, to finish up the text and cover files for the review copies of our January book by H. Vernor Dixon, as well as work on designs for the February books. I also found time to scan another Algernon Blackwood book for next Spring, while reading a couple of Clifton Adams westerns which are so noirish, I am very tempted to reprint even though we aren’t really a western publisher.

And as much as I’d like to take the rest of the afternoon off and just do nothing, here I am writing my weekly blog. And, you know, I still love it. I’ve been a book person all my life, collecting and voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on as a teenager, reviewing books for the local newspaper in my 20s; working in a bookstore, then repping for a book distributor, finally becoming a sales rep for a New York publisher before starting my own distribution company in the 1990s. And then Stark House.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up and have to get a real job, but hopefully, that will never happen.

–Greg Shepard

Gil Brewer guns the dame down

We’ve been doing so much traveling this September, I only just finished the latest newsletter, which will post on Saturday, Sept 26th, just squeaking by before the end of the month. I talk a little about more the new Gil Brewer book, The Erotics/Gun the Dame Down/Angry Arnold, plus the upcoming October titles. It’s easy to get excited about the Brewer book.

Working on Gun the Dame Down was the real labor of love. The original typewritten manuscript was too faint and had too many corrections to scan. So I started from scratch, and retyped it page by page. Nothing quite gives you a feel for an author’s style like typing out an entire novel. I could see Brewer trying out some of the tropes of the wise-cracking detective novel, inserting quirky little character traits to make his characters come alive while creating the steamy feel of a hot summer night in Florida. I’m not such a great typist that I would want to do this with every previously-unpublished manuscript, but it was a lot of fun transcribing Brewer.

I could be wrong, but I think this is the first book where he introduces the dynamic of the older man and the seductive under-age nymphet that he used in some of his later books. You really can’t get much less politically correct than writing about that combination these days. I’m not going to take a moral stand on the issue myself, but the fact that the original editor had crossed these sections out doesn’t surprise me, even without the context of early 1950s censorship. The fact that I put them back in makes sense to me, because they help define the characters.

The main character, Bill Death, encounters just about every form of temptation and abuse a down-at-heels detective should have to take in a 24 hour period when he takes a case and walks into the household from hell. An over-sexed teen is only one of them. And let’s face it, part of the charm of Brewer is his sexual tension. His characters are usually after two things: sex and money. In Gun the Dame Down, it’s mostly sex. It took Brewer a couple more books before he got the balance right. But that doesn’t make Gun the Dame Down any the less obsessional, and certainly no less readable. For me, it’s the highlight of the collection.

Which brings me to George Tuttle, who first introduced me to these unpublished gems of Brewer’s. As far as I know, George was the first one to create a web page for Gil Brewer, which offers a very thorough look at all of Brewer’s works. His favorite is Angry Arnold, the serial killer book, and the last unpublished work in the collection. And a sick little serial killer Arnold is. He’s been in a car accident, and something has shaken loose in his moral makeup. He gets urges. Of course he does—he’s a typical over-sexed young man—but he himself has the sex appeal of a wet noodle. He resents all the beautiful women that won’t give him the time of day. So he kidnaps them, and….

Well, you get the picture. Were there a lot of serial killer books in the 1970s? I don’t think so. But by then, Brewer was trying all sorts of approaches to get back into print. At one point, he wrote an Executioner novel for Don Pendleton called Firebase Seattle. Everyone loved it except for Pendleton himself. And so it sits in storage. Brewer also wrote a spy thriller called The Paper Coffin which reads like a real period piece, when Euro-spy fiction was all the rage. Unusual for Brewer, the sex and money angle is toned down in this one.

Probably the most unusual book from Brewer’s slush pile is House of the Potato, a curiously static novel about a poor family in the Erskine Caldwell tradition. It feels very autobiographical, and reads like a first novel. Before Brewer developed the frantic style he started to develop in Gun the Dame Down, he didn’t seem to know what to do with his characters. In House of the Potato, they mainly seem to move from room to room, this character pining for that character, each one pissing the other off and interiorizing the pain. When someone gets around to writing Gil Brewer’s biography, I’m sure this book will get much discussion. In the meantime, it stands as the only book by Brewer that I’ve read that I most emphatically have not wanted to publish. And I’ve got pretty broad tastes.

Still, I think we put together a pretty good selection from these previously-published manuscripts of Gil Brewer’s, and since the book is out this week, I can now say, I hope you enjoy them.

—Greg Shepard

And now….Bruno Fischer

The Bleeding Scissors/The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer should be here from the printer early next week. I first discovered Fischer when I started reading and collecting Gold Medal paperbacks back in the 1980s. I was working for a fellow who imported British paperbacks and sold them to U.S. bookstores. I was his buyer and sales rep. That’s when I discovered the UK Zomba Books editions edited by Maxim Jakubowski which collected four noir/hardboiled American novels in one volume, including such authors as Jim Thompson, David Goodis, W. R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy and other mystery greats.

This was right before Barry Gifford started the Black Lizard line. It was synchronicity. Two lines of books dedicated to reviving the past masters of noir fiction. I became obsessed with these authors and started tracking down the old paperbacks myself. With a fervor bordering on the religious, wherever I went selling British books, I scoured the used bookstores in the area for 1950s and 60s treasures. How had I missed them before, I wondered? I had been so busy immersing myself in the world of science fiction, I had completely ignored the other half of the spinner racks!

But I made up for lost time pretty quickly. My sales area included Seattle to Los Angeles, so I covered a lot of territory. On a trip up the California coast—before I moved here in the 1990s—I discovered an old used book store that was literally filled with 50s paperbacks—all for a quarter a piece! I left with a large box full, then drove back the next year and bought another box worth. Sad to say, the place doesn’t exist anymore. It’s hard enough finding used bookstores that sell vintage paperbacks at all these days, much less for a quarter. The collectors have been busy in the past 35 years.

That was a glorious time, though, hunting for old paperbacks when you could still find them for a dollar or two. That’s when I first found Bruno Fischer. I think it was House of Flesh I read first. Could have been Murder in the Raw, Fools Walk In or The Lustful Ape. I know I just gobbled them up at the time, so that one book tended to blend into the next, blurring my memory of plot and quality. So rather than drive myself crazy trying to remember which were my favorites, when I tracked down the manager of the Bruno Fischer estate to bring some of his books out on Stark House, I decided not to reprint any of the Gold Medal books—I started reading some I hadn’t read before.

That’s how I discovered The Bleeding Scissors, a twisted mystery that starts very simply when a fellow finds his wife and her sister haven’t returned home one snowy evening. In fact, they’ve disappeared. Clues give themselves up reluctantly, with a faint trail leading to the New York theater district, where the two sisters had appeared under stage names. To say more would give away the surprises, but let me just say, Fischer kept me reading and guessing right to the end.

The Evil Days turned out to be a different sort of clever. Fischer had been suffering a writer’s block that lasted ten years or so, and this was his return—his final book—a tale of suburban infidelities and subtle lies, that reveals a hidden world behind the day-to-day duties of married life. I knew this to be a favorite of Ed Gorman’s and even though I was sorely tempted to reprint So Wicked My Love instead, I decided that if I were going to pair two Bruno Fischer books, The Evil Days had to be one of them.

Readers of the good old stuff have their own Fischer favorites. I hope this is only the beginning of our Bruno Fischer reprinting so I can share a few more of mine.

One more thing on our Fischer reprint, however. The cover art. Anyone who collects old paperbacks does so with an eye to the cover art. I’ve known some people who only collect for the art alone, and could care less about the books inside. It’s a crazy world. But in this case, I contacted Lynn Maguire, daughter of vintage cover artist, Robert Maguire, and asked permission to use the art on her website labeled “The Bleeding Scissors.” I knew it wasn’t the cover art that Signet used on their 1955 edition, so I asked her why the title. Lynn informed me that the illustration on the website was an alternative design her dad had rendered for Signet that they didn’t use. Well, hell, that was impossible to resist. So I arranged with Lynn to use her dad’s second version on our cover, and that’s how we ended up with Robert Maguire art on our new edition of The Bleeding Scissors/The Evil Days.

–Greg Shepard

The Trees Beneath Us

When Rick Ollerman came to me in early 2014 with an original book called The Trees Beneath Us by a fellow named Darren R. Leo, he warned me that it wasn’t a typical Stark House book. He said it fit into “the brilliant voice all his own” category, that it would resonate with anyone who had experienced a tragedy in their lives. Rick read it because author Charlie Stella read it, and recommended it.

Sometimes it really does come down to “knowing a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.” Like Charlie and Rick, I fell in love with The Trees Beneath Us, too. I loved the voice of the main character, Finn. Weary, cynical and burdened by pains both physical and psychic, he is searching for something that doesn’t have a name. Finn starts out hiking the Appalachian Trail as a novice, but pretty soon we realize that this is no ordinary hike, that Finn has some major purging, soul-searching, and flagellating to do.

Rick called it “the story of a troubled man and his transformation and ultimate redemption…intensely human and haunting.” Charlie Stella had taken a writing class with Darren Leo and called it “a humbling experience.” Author Ann Garvin said that Darren Leo “writes about healing, grief, and the intersection of the two.”

I read it and labeled it “eco-noir.” Which, for all its reductive simplicity, works.

Finn thinks he’s escaping into a world of solitude. But the more he walks, the more fellow-hikers he meets along the trail, the more he learns of the universality of pain as a shared human condition. Everyone carries theirs a little differently, some aggressively, some burying it within. The Appalachian Trail soon becomes a metaphor for this journey of self-discovery. But the book isn’t just about pain, worn-out feet notwithstanding. There is much to discover here. I love this first paragraph:

“I wasn’t suicidal just then. The granite extended up and disappeared into a cloud. A dark streak ran down the white face, mineral footprints of water. I studied that path. Through however many years, the water had eroded indents and depressions in the rock. They ran this way and that on their trip downward and always followed the path of least resistance. Given gravity and enough time, water would conquer most things.”

Just a simple image of rock, water and time. Every hiker can relate to this view. A simple image, but an apt image to reflect the character of Finn himself, who is about to go through his own inevitable changes. Like any good noir, it starts with a character who cluelessly pursues something that has the potential to destroy him.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of The Trees Beneath Us. I want everyone to get a copy and read it. Ask for it at your local bookstore or library. Order it online. Soon it will be available as an ebook, for all you kindle and nook readers. Personally, I hope Darren R. Leo keeps writing and turns out an even better book next time. Because next time, I’m sure one of the major publishers is going to be ready for him. Remember, you heard about Leo here first.

–Greg Shepard