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Book Reviews

Spotlight on: Ed Gorman

Books Reviewed:
The Autumn Dead by Ed Gorman
Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine by Ed Gorman
A Cry of Shadows by Ed Gorman
Death Ground by Ed Gorman
Murder in the Aisle by Ed Gorman
Rituals by Ed Gorman
Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories by Ed Gorman

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories

Speak to genre writers about the writers they admire and the name of Ed Gorman will invariably come up. His ability to cross mystery, suspense, horror, and western boundaries has given him a large following in the community. Unfortunately, it has also kept him from mainstream success.

Ask about his work and you'll likely be told to "read it all." Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories is probably as good a place to start as any, provided you skip the first couple of tales. They are original to this collection, but they simply don't live up to the rest. Putting them at the front of the book was a poor decision, as they nearly made me give up on the book altogether.

The introduction by Richard Laymon (one of those where one friend writes about another -- pervasive in the mystery and horror genres) promises some of the best stories you've ever read -- morality, sadness, and humor abound -- and urges the reader to seek out Gorman "oaters" (Westerns), as well. You really couldn't ask for a better introduction, but incidentally, Laymon does not mention one single story included in Such a Good Girl, choosing instead to slyly lead the reader toward Gorman's other collections and novels.

Unfortunately, this is the third Five Star short story collection that I have read and, although their books are beautifully produced (the spines are especially strong), the contents have been consistently lacking. (For more indepth information, read my reviews of Jack Dann's Visitations and Barbara and Max Allan Collins' Murder - His and Hers.) Publishing a book without a thorough copy edit isn't doing anybody any favors; it's confusing as hell when characters' names change on a whim, like happens in both "A New Man" and "Aftermath."

The first story, "All These Condemned," has a twist ending but an otherwise unsatisfying conclusion. Next is "A Girl Like You." Rich boy Peter Wyeth can have anything he wants -- except Nora. But who is she? And why does this story have no real resolution? Fortunately, there are some real gems that follow.

"The Way It Used to Be" is the first one to show any real cleverness in style or execution. It follows a teenaged bigot on his search to find out why his sister is dating a black guy. A cross of Joe Lansdale and Rod Serling. "Judgment" (from Monsters in Our Midst) was the first one to show any sign of "genius." Character and plot combine in a classic story of a man who follows his conscience in the face of the rules. "Ghosts" is a more emotional piece, about two out-of-luck characters whose lives intersect. The change in focus is surprising but natural.

"That Day at Eagle Point" follows the lives of three friends through their ups and downs, breakups and reconciliations, up to and including the ends of two lives. It's emotionally solid work from Gorman and it at this point when I realized that I just might get out of Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories entertained after all. The centerpiece, however, is the title novella, which concerns the sacrifices some people will make in the name of a loved one's happiness. "Such a Good Girl" has uncommon characters, a gripping plot, and an unexpected resolution, making it near the cream of this crop. "Aftermath," about what happens when a police officer rapes a local suburbanite instead of his usual prostitutes, is almost as good, but it doesn't quite play fair, hiding information from the reader and offering an ending that could not have possibly been foreseen.

When private eye Jack Dwyer (protagonist of a series of Gorman mystery novels) investigates an assault on a young girl, he finds out that beauty isn't only in the "Eye of the Beholder." In this, and throughout Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories, Gorman exhibits his true skill at bringing out the darkness in his characters. This skill is used to perfection in the collection's closer, "Angie," a true ass-kicker (from the Bram Stoker-winning 999) that crosses into Lansdale territory again with its completely irredeemable lead characters. What a terrific bang to end a collection that started out with a whimper.

Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine

The first in a proposed series, Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine starts it off with a bang. Ten years after the Civil War, Noah Ford is an Army investigator searching for a lost machine-gun prototype used in the war. When he discovers that his brother, David, may have been responsible, his loyalties are torn -- even though he hasn't gotten along with his Southern family ever since he joined the Union Army.

Despite his attempts toward the opposite, David ends up dead and Noah is brought into contact with people he did not expect. Prolific author and editor Ed Gorman (Spur Award winner for "The Face," which can be found in Gunslinger and The Dark Fantastic) writes Westerns for crime-fiction lovers. The setting is different, but the atmosphere is just about the same. The same types of people dealing with the same types of problems, just in a different time. I am always amazed at how lean Gorman's prose is, at how he manages to fit the plot of a larger novel into less than 300 pages. Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine was a fascinating read, and I can't wait for the next in the series: Cavalry Man: Powder Keg.

Rituals by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, Rituals

The Salem Witch Trials: a sad piece of American history. But it couldn't happen again, right? That is the idea posed by Ed Gorman's novel Rituals. In it, witches are merely regular people (women, of course, men can only be "carriers") who are born with special "secret" powers that bloom after puberty (shades of Carrie) and fizzle out during adulthood only to partially resurrect themselves during old age. Direct descendants of the persecutors of Salem are hunting down the witches' descendants in an attempt to completely destroy them.

Our focus, however, is on a small cache of characters in Hastings Corner. Laura and Abby were best friends who had the power to heal. Separated by their marriages, they managed to stay close. Now Laura is dead, as is Abby's daughter. They both had the power; is there a pattern?

Though probably best known for his rough-and-tumble mystery and western characters, Gorman shows off his sensitive side in Rituals. Most of the proceedings are seen from the points of view of the female characters, and even Cam is painted as a really nice guy, someone who was an insensitive jerk and messed up once but is now very understanding. I never doubted the truth of these people, though I take their behaviors into question now and then.

The plot itself depends on a flimsy act of restraint, that is repeatedly reinforced, but that could easily be overcome with a simple lie, solving most if not all of the characters' problems. Also, the ending, unfortunately, takes much too long to actually happen, even though some parts feel rushed, as if some cutting was done and some tightening attempted, but was just not fully successful. Nevertheless, Rituals is immensely readable, especially at the beginning, when I didn't want to put it down.

The Autumn Dead by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, The Autumn Dead (available in The Dwyer Trilogy)

Ed Gorman's series private eye Jack Dwyer (first introduced to me in the story "Eye of the Beholder" from his collection Such a Good Girl) is a reluctant hero. He doesn't carry the stresses of the job well because he takes things personally, making his girlfriend Donna worry about their relationship when he won't open up and talk about it. But all this makes him all the easier to identify with -- he's a "soft-boiled" sort of detective; being shot at actually frightens him!

When a high school flame comes back into his life, he doesn't jump back into the old patterns; in fact, his feelings are so strong that he avoids her until she hires him to pick up a suitcase for $1000. Of course, nothing is ever so easy and this gesture leads Jack to a series of events involving more school "chums", a stranger in black on a motorcycle, and the hidden potentials of several people.

The Autumn Dead is very unassuming. Had it not been recommended to me, I likely would not have finished it; I'm used to faster-paced gumshoes than Jack Dwyer. It was not until the story was over that I realized I couldn't get the character out of my head. I wanted to know what happened to him after the story. It has sneaked its way in through the back door of my mind and now I can't wait to read the follow-up, A Cry of Shadows (especially since it was recommended in the same sentence as The Autumn Dead).

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

A Cry of Shadows by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, A Cry of Shadows (available in The Dwyer Trilogy)

In this sequel to The Autumn Dead, it's Christmas-time and P.I. Jack Dwyer's steady girl Donna is away on a business trip. Not the best time for Dwyer, emotionally sensitive on his best days, to get involved in a murder query revolving around a bunch of people who've shared each other's beds. The right temptation at the wrong time has sent stronger men asunder, and Dwyer is lonely and inexplicably attractive to women.

A Cry of Shadows doesn't sound much like a murder mystery, but Ed Gorman's kind of private eye novels are hardly about who killed whom, but about how all this affects a different, softer kind of private investigator. The big question is answered a little too neatly anyway, so don't come expecting a complex denouement on par with Colin Dexter; come simply to travel with an everyman private eye, and leave the tough guys to fend for themselves.

Gorman has the enviable ability to make every word count, and A Cry of Shadows has all the meat of your average mystery novel and more, contained within a book the size of a novella (less than 150 pages).

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Murder in the Aisle by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, Murder in the Aisle

Tobin and Dunphy have a love-hate relationship as movie critics on a syndicated television show. One night, tensions rise to the point that a fistfight breaks out between the two during filming. Later on, Dunphy shows up at Tobin's door and falls into his arms, a knife in his back. Of course, others show up at Tobin's apartment soon after and things don't look good for Tobin, as he has to find out who the real killer is.

This mystery is much lighter in tone than Gorman's Jack Dwyer private eye novels (including The Autumn Dead and A Cry of Shadows), and in general Murder in the Aisle is a lot of fun. It's a quick read at 160 pages and not much attention needs to be paid to keep up with the plot (which is really too flimsy to support even this length). Plus, it's so obvious that Gorman is having such a great time with his obvious Siskel and Ebert clones that it's impossible not to enjoy it along with him.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Death Ground by Ed Gorman Ed Gorman, Death Ground

Ed Gorman writes my favorite kind of Western, at least as far as I can tell from the example of Death Ground. I really enjoy dark fiction like horror and hardboiled crime novels, with characters that are unrepentantly operating by their own sets of rules. This is the first Western I have read that didn't appear to be peopled entirely with noble characters trying to do the right thing.

Everyone's motives in Death Ground are questionable. Even the protagonist is a bounty hunter named Leo Guild who is more interested in collecting the reward for returning the spoils of a bank robbery than in bringing the robber to justice -- although that would be okay, too, as long as the reward is worth it.

Gorman puts enough plot into the book's 157 pages to fill a much longer novel. At least four characters undergo some type of change, a cholera outbreak wipes out half of a settlement, and all the bad guys are punished, usually with a bullet or six. Somehow, Gorman manages to make each individual sympathetic (like the priest who isn't really, two brothers with an incredibly dysfunctional relationship, and a murderer who adopts an orphan) in an emotionally touching narrative. With the existence of sequels to help ease the transition via familiarity, Death Ground also acts as the ideal introduction to Westerns for the dark fiction fan.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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