#FridayReads, Sept 12–George C. Chesbro’s “City of Whispering Stone,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

City of Whispering Stone frontContinuing my theme from last week, today’s #FridayReads is another mystery featuring Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf turned criminology professor and private eye, in City of Whispering Stone, published in 1978, which I read that year, then ordered and sold in my bookstore, Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio. The plot of this novel—Book II in a series that would ultimately have fifteen titles—would have been very topical and timely at the time, as it concerns Iranian students in NYC, an Iranian circus strongman who is a member of the troupe that Mongo once performed in as a headliner, and the political fate of the Shah. In real life, this would have been during the Carter administration and amid the tumultuous revolution that ended with Ayatollah Khomeni and the mullahs in control of the country,when American hostages were held captive for 444 days in Tehran. The mullahs have hold power ever since. Chesbro must’ve had a keen line in to the Iranian expat community in the US, because of the depiction of the dissident students reads like a contemporary dispatch from the New York Times. In the novel, the performer/strongman has mysteriously vanished and Phil Statler, impresario of the Statler Brothers Circus, Mongo’s former boss, hires the detective to locate him. The writing is great—noirish and tough, and very good at revealing the mindset of Mongo, an ultimate outsider who’s never fit in anywhere in his whole life. Back in my bookstore days, I never read beyond the earliest books in the series, so in the weeks to come, I’ll go back in the sequence and re-read Shadow of a Broken Man (1977, Book I), then move on to An Affair of Sorcerers (1979, Book III); and The Beasts of Valhallah (1985, Book IV), and perhaps others.

I do relish reading detective fiction and many different mystery series. As readers here may recall, I’ve written before about the novels of Michael Connelly (who created series character LAPD Detective Harry—short for Hieronymous—Bosch); Henning Mankell (Swedish police lieutenant Kurt Wallander); the late Tony Hillerman (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee), whose series was revived in 2013 by his daughter, novelist Anne Hillerman, introducing new series character, Bernadette Manuelito; Philip Kerr (Munich police inspector Bernie Gunther); John D. MacDonald (salvage expert Travis McGee); and J. Michael Orenduff (author of the POT THIEF mystery series, with protagonist Hubert Schuze, dealer in Native American ceramics). Last year, I wrote an appreciation of one of Mankell’s Wallander books that can just as well apply to all of these series, edited for inclusion in this post:

Henning Mankell’s thriller 2004 thriller Before the Frost, features Detective Kurt Wallander and his grown daughter Linda, who like he had earlier in life, elects to become a police officer. With surprising synchronicity, in Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch novel The Drop, (my May 10th, 2013 #FridayReads), his young adult daughter informs him that she is going to choose police work for her career. I don’t believe these two writers, one in Sweden, the other in Los Angeles, read each other’s work or have directly influenced each other. Instead, I believe that these authors—who have each written ten or more books featuring their detective protagonist—become extremely invested in their characters and loyal to them, so that in their protean creativity, they endow the two characters—both late middle-aged single fathers—with full lives and late-in-life-joy from growing closer to their children. This highlights one of the things I love most about these books, Mankell’s and Connelly’s, as well as mysteries by other authors I enjoy, featuring characters Travis McGee, Bernie Gunther, and Joe Gunther (no relation to the former), by John D. MacDonaldPhilip Kerr, and Archer Mayor, respectively: The author is so devoted to their creation that they give them full lives, and I as a faithful reader, become devoted to them, too.

City of Whispering Stone back

#FridayReads, Sept 5–George C. Chesbro’s “In the House of Enemies,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

Mongo cover#FridayReads—In the House of Secret Enemies by George C. Chesbro, ten short stories featuring one of the all-time greatest detective series characters, Mongo the Magnificent, aka Robert Frederickson, Ph.D.—former headlining acrobat performer for the Statler Bros Circus; black belt in karate; criminology professor at a New York City university; and dwarf. I found this mass-market paperback, a 1990 Mysterious Press edition, when I browsed and shopped at Myopic Books on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago last month, a great second-hand store with a really extensive inventory. The collection also includes a revealing intro by Chesbro, “The Birth of a Series Character,” explaining how he came to dream up the character of Mongo, and how he persevered despite little encouragement from editors, at least at the beginning. After the intro, Chesbro offers notes before each tale explaining the role that the story played in his ongoing development of the character. These stories were all written before he dared put Mongo in a full-length novel—hell, before he even knew if he could write a Mongo novel, and whether the emerging character could bear the weight of a full-length book, leave alone find it accepted by a publisher—so each of these stories was a key experiment in character creation and development. The collection is full of great writing and shop-talk. I read the first few Mongo novels when I operated my bookstore, Undercover Books, but haven’t read one in many years. I love mystery series publishing, with so many great and memorable characters, such as Michael Connelly’s LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Archer Mayor’s Vermont police detective Joe Gunther, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. Now, I gotta find more of Chesbro’s Mongo titles, which combine two of my favorite enthusiasms—the circus and detective fiction! For more info on Mongo and Chesbro—who died, sadly, in 2008, but was around long enough to republish many of the fifteen Mongo titles in POD editions under his own Apache Beach imprint—I suggest you visit the author’s Wikipedia page and this site, Dangerous Dwarf.

Mongo back cover

#FridayReads, July 11–My Personal Faves for this Week

#FridayReads, Harvey Araton’s Newspaper Novel, COLD TYPE


#FridayReads, Harvey Araton’s newspaper novel, COLD TYPE, being published July 2014.

Memorable and likable characters dominate this realistic and very enjoyable novel by longtime New York Times sports reporter Araton, who also spent years at the NY Daily News. The progtagonist is Jamie Kramer, son of Morris, a longtime printer and union member at a NY paper called the Sun, which has recently been acquired by a marauding Anglo-Irish press baron, Leland Brady. Jamie works at the paper, too, though his one big story, on covert policies in his native Brooklyn that limit the sale of real estate to white people, a well-reported expose, earned him nothing but trouble. He hasn’t received the laurels bestowed on his hotshot cousin, Steven, a heroic columnist, at least in his own eyes. The book is set during a newspaper strike, apparently resembling in some respects a strike that occurred at the Daily News in the early 1990s. Araton makes entirely believeable the tension among the eight different unions striking the paper, triggered by the intemperate drivers.

Other characters include Jamie’s wife, Karyn, from whom he’s separated; their son, two-year old Aaron; and Jamie’s Latina colleague Carla, a savvy ally in the newsroom, and a sympathetic soul who knows Jamie’s secrets, even while she has many of her own. One subplot concerns Karyn, who’s in the midst of being recruited by a talkative entrepreneur in Seattle who’s starting a new business selling books on the Internet, still so new at this point in the ’90s. He even wants to recruit Jamie, who wants desperately to maintain a connection to Aaron, and so flirts with the idea of moving across the country. Araton never gives this Jeff-Bezos avatar a name but he hardly needed to do so. One irony that Araton doesn’t seem to have anticipated for his novel is that Bezos is now himself a newspaper owner, of the Washington Post, an inheritor of the world that Jamie Kramer and his father inhabit.

I will say very little about the ending, except that it’s a treat, as just desserts are served all ’round. This is a really enjoyable, sort of old-fashioned novel, offering a social portrait and a really rich story. Kudos to Mr Araton and Cinco Puntos Press, of El Paso, Texas, for writing and publishing this worthy novel. Thanks to Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos, who at BEA gave me the autographed copy I finished reading today. I’m going to be recommending COLD TYPE for weeks.




#FridayReads, April 25, Robert Palmer’s “Blues & Chaos”

#FridayReads, April 11-Stefan Zweig’s “Letter from an Unknown Woman”

The title story in this collection of four tales of psychological disturbance is built around a mysterious epistle an unnamed author receives, announcing a distant lover’s passion for him that due to his own myopia of many years he learns about, for only the first time. Zweig (1881-1942) was born in Vienna and among many works of short fiction wrote the stories that inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson to make the recently released “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Another collection of Zweig’s work has been selected by Anderson, titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, also translated by Anthea Bell. These books are brought out by Pushkin Press, a London publisher of literature in translation and belles lettres, with newly translated works by writers like Zweig, Alexander Pushkin, Antal Szerb, and many other writers, such as the Catalan author Marc Pastor, whose crime novel Barcelona Shadows I look forward to reading soon. While choosing and translating the books very thoughtfully, they also design very handsome editions, as you can see on this page at their website. Pushkin PressBarcelona Shadows

#FridayReads, April 4–A Week for Bookselling & Publishing Memoirs: “Amazonia” by James Marcus & “Stet” by Diane Athill

Amazonia #FridayReads, April 4–AMAZONIA: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut by Employee #55, James Marcus’s witty and winning memoir of working at Amazon from 1996-2001, which he published with The New Press in 2004. Having earlier this year read and written about Brad Stone’s THE EVERYTHING STORE: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which briefly cited Marcus’s book, I also read Marcus’s review of it in Harper’s. I made a point to also read George Packer’s February 2014 New Yorker articles on Amazon, “Cheap Words” and “Amazon and the Perils of Non-Disclosure.” In the latter piece, Packer likens Amazon executives, secure in their Seattle redoubt parceling out only the most limited information about the company, to American officials during the Iraq War confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone who only shared information that suggested the war was going great. I found this analogy quite striking, and suggested, that at least from Packer’s perspective, things may not be going so well for the retail “juggernaut.” Seeing that Marcus was a quoted source for Packer, Marcus’s book has been squarely on my radar for a few months, so I’m glad now to have gotten a copy and begun reading it. It’s immediately enjoyable, with Marcus chronicling the decidedly weird and geeky culture of Amazon and his first meeting with Bezos, when the Amazon founder asked him to “explain a complicated process in as simple a manner as possible.” Humor is sprinkled throughout, as when he begins his new editorial job by writing a 45-word spiel on the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian.Amazonia back

I’m also reading STET: An Editor’s Life, Diane Athill’s London publishing memoir spanning the end of WWII 40s to the 90s with Andre Deutsch Ltd. Athill knew and edited many great writers, including Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler for several of their early books. She recounts having also published Philip Roth’s first novel, LETTING GO, which did well enough that they were going to make an offer on his second book, WHEN SHE WAS GOOD. I love the way she presents this embarrassment:

Stet “[We] decided to calculate the advance on precisely what we reckoned the book would sell–which I think was 4,000 copies at the best–and that [offer] was not accepted. As far as I know WHEN SHE WAS GOOD was not a success–but the next novel Philip wrote was PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT.

This space represents a tactful silence.”


These are illuminating and humorous recollections, gossipy but never malicious, coupled with a wise presentation of editing essentials. She’s also a very endearing narrator. I heard a lot of good things about this publishing memoir when it came out in 2000, and bought it on a trip to a Bay Area publishing sales conference back then. I’m glad I’ve finally made time to read it.Stet

#FridayReads, March 14–Jan Wong’s Memoir of Depression, “Out of the Blue”

Out of the Blue

Triggered by a death threat targeting her for a story she wrote, Wong–a career reporter–does a superb job investigating and striving to understand her own illness.