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#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

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#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.

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#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, 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.

#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s Novel “All the Broken Things”

Monday Feb 10 Update: Wow, I loved All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s exquisite novel. Such a rich story of an orphaned boy, his sister, and the carny world of bears and barkers that both assaults them and supports them. They weather all that is arrayed against them. I give this extraordinary novel my highest personal recommendation.

All the Broken Things
#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s novel All the Broken Things. This is an amazing and compelling novel set in Toronto in the early 1980s, about a Vietnamese immigrant family of three, former boat people–mother Rose, teenage son Bo, 4-year old daughter Orange Blossom, known as Orange, who was born with profound birth defects owing to Rose’s exposure to the Agent Orange that the US used to defoliate the countryside during the war. The killing chemical was manufactured in Ontario, a factual point that Kuitenbrouwer makes in an Author’s Note. I’ve found the writing in this so good, the sheer sentence-making and storytelling, that though I had read terrific reviews of the novel, prompting me to to order a copy, when it arrived I was expecting to only glance at the opening page and then put it aside until a moment when I thought I would have more time for it. Suffice to say, I didn’t put it aside at all, and now a day later, I’m on page 134. The book is commanding my attention, drawing me in, like the wrestling bear does Bo, the teenage boy of the tale, who willingly folds himself into the animal’s embrace.

Bo is the is fulcrum of the tale. He, far better than Rose, is able to handle Orange and comfort her. But he’s having a very hard time in middle school, picked on by a kid who yells ethnic slurs at him and wants to fight. Bo obliges this kid, and acquits himself well in their after-school battles. One of these scrums is observed by a carnival promoter who thinks Bo may be able to help out in his sideshow that features a bear, Loralei, who is trained to wrestle people. The Author’s Note also make the point that bear wrestling was at one time legal in Ontario, even common on the carny circuit. Just as Bo has an uncommonly intuitive way with his sister, he also has a gift with bears. Kuitenbrouwer’s descriptions of the tactile and empathic relationship between boy and bear could be outlandish, but instead are wholly believable. This is the book’s first paragraph:

“1984, BEAR
Look at the bear licking Bo’s toes up through the metal slats on the back porch. Bo is fourteen years old, and the bear not a year. The bear is named Bear. When the boy spreads his toes as wide as he can, Bear’s mottled tongue nudges in between them and this tickles. Bear craves the vanilla soft ice cream that drips down Bo’s cone and onto his feet. Bo imagines it must be glorious for Bear to huddle under the porch–her favourite spot–and lap and lick up the sweet cold treat. He imagines himself tucked in down there pretending to be a bear, and then how wonderful it might be, after a day alone, to have someone drip vanilla ice cream right into this mouth.” 

From Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business to Ellen Hunnicutt’s Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, a book I edited and published, to W.C. Fields’ 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,” I have long had an affinity for carny stories, and All the Broken Things belongs in that good company. I want to know what happens next for Bo and his fragile family, and will be spending much of the next few days finding out. Writer Jonathan Bennet has also discovered the charms of this book, in a great appreciation here
All the Broken Things
[Cross-posted on my blog Honourary Canadian.