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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 06:00 am:   

The beginning of 2003 saw the death of Gavin Lyall. If the name doesn't mean anything to you, he was a leading thriller writer (to my mind, *the* leading thriller writer) of the 60s very much of John le Carre's generation, but whereas le Carre's geopolitical concerns became even more apropos as time went by, Lyall's character-driven adventures fell out of vogue. Which is a terrible pity because, to my eye, contemporary thriller writing is dead on its feet. I thrived on the likes of Lyall, Berkely Mather, Desmond Bagley, in a way that I'd never have thrived on a diet provided by the current crop of airport Big Names. The thought of any future writer having his literary tastes formed by a Jeffrey Deaver or a Patricia Cornwell is just too depressing to contemplate.

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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 07:12 am:   

Just to add that Desmond Bagley's novels are all available from House of Stratus, a UK-based print-on-demand publisher. I'd love to know more about POD as my belief is that it's the way of the future for backlists like Bagley's... books that should remain available, but are of no interest to corporate publishing's business model.

Stratus' books have a generic look about them, but a generic look can be fine if it's a good one. And their prices compare with other new paperbacks, especially trade pbs which now seem to be put out at what I'd call hardcover prices. But where are we at with the print technology? I haven't seen enough POD books to say... because they're generally only available on demand, you have to buy one to find out. Which is an expensive way to conduct casual research.
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 10:39 am:   

Stratus is also doing the complete works of Algernon Blackwood. I've got four or five of their volumes so far, and as POD goes, they're pretty inoffensive. For $9 a pop they're a reasonable temporary alternative.

Jason
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 10:43 am:   

Stephen,

POD quality varies a great deal from printer to printer. The bulk of the POD in the US is by Ingram Lightning Source (LSI), and can be identified by the barcode on the last page of the book. The quality is pretty uniformly godawful, with text blur, blotchy colors, wavy spines, etc. I use a POD company called Fidlar Doubleday to produce my galleys, and the books they produce are damn near indistinguishable from real, offset printed trade paperbacks. But a lot of indie publishers use LSI because it provides automatic distribution with Ingram.

I could go on all day about small press and POD, but it wouldn't be pleasant, and I'd end up offending folks.

Jason
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GabrielM
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 10:54 am:   

I have a number of books from POD publisher Wildside because of my interest in classic weird fiction and I certainly welcome the fact that they're keeping authors like Hodgson, Dunsany, Cabell, Morris and Bramah in print and in relatively inexpensive editions where they can be introduced to newbies. On the other hand, the books are plain godawful to look at. Dunsany and Cabell may not be around to complain, but I don't understand why current talented authors are willing to put themselves through that. Charles Stross's TOAST, also from Wildside, must be one of the ugliest books I've ever read.
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 01:34 pm:   

It's disappointing to hear that the technical end of POD isn't up to snuff yet, because I'm convinced that the *principle* is a sound and encouraging one... but a godawful book as a physical object is just off-putting, so I'll reserve my enthusiasm for a while.

A few months back I got the urge to pick up KING SOLOMON'S MINES to plug one of the many gaps in my reading, and every modern copy I looked at was seriously unenticing... the pages looked like those eye charts they hand you to see if you need reading glasses yet.

In the end I bought a Victorian copy for 15, which is less than I'd pay for a new hardcover. It was what I'd call 'pleasantly shabby' (although if I look as good after more than a century, I'll be doing OK) and had all the attributes that make those old books so beautiful... stamped boards, engraved illustrations, a tipped-in map, sewn signatures, and clear, elegant type with lots of room to breathe on the page. Reading it felt almost like a guilty pleasure, like going to a good restaurant on your own (ie, when there's no-one with you that you're trying to seduce or impress).

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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 01:49 pm:   

Jason

I don't know if the same edition came out in the US, but over here in the '60s a budget publisher named Spring Books brought out two big, rather cheaply-produced hardcovers of Blackwood's collected stories called (from memory) TALES OF THE UNCANNY AND THE SUPERNATURAL.

And the most uncanny thing about them is that I've seen those same two volumes on the bookshelves of just about every UK horror writer of my generation whose homes I've visited.
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Friday, February 07, 2003 - 05:10 pm:   

Stephen,

Those same two Blackwood books came out here from the SFBC, and are on the shelves of just about everyone I know as well!

S.T. Joshi have briefly talked about trying to issue a collected works of Blackwood, or at least trying to bring some of his more obscure stuff back into print (The Human Chord, etc) but nothing's been decided yet.

Jason
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Saturday, February 08, 2003 - 12:48 am:   

I'm just now reading Mike Ashley's Blackwood biography, given to me by Stephen Laws. Blackwood's one of those genre figures I've always known *of* but never known much *about*.
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Night Shade Books
Posted on Saturday, February 08, 2003 - 01:11 am:   

Ditto here. I bought Ashley's book when it came out, but haven't had much chance to dive into it yet.

Jason
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 01:42 am:   

On the subject of thriller writers, Frederick E Smith, author of (most famously) 633 SQUADRON but loads of other stuff as well, did an angry piece in the Writers' Guild newsletter about ageism in publishing, basically saying that the industry wouldn't look at his material any more because he wasn't young and beautiful.

There's something in what he says, but I don't think it's an ageist debate so much as a discussion to be had about how Marketing has become the tail that wags the dog. Someone who'd young and telegenic and writes gives a Marketing department two cards to play. Someone who simply writes gives them no card to play because Marketing deals only with those visible, exterior shorthand factors.

There's little they can do with a well-told tale when that's *all*(irony!)they have to sell. So in this corporate-owned, marketing-run era of mainstream publishing the well-told tale has slipped right to the back of the list of priorities.

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Mark PL
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 07:43 am:   

Where have all the thriller writers gone?

Me thinks they could be writing Tom Clancy's new book for him, as I've just read he didn't write his latest. His publishers have admitted that Clancy "provided an idea" for his new book. Now, I'm guessing here, but could that idea have been "let some other poor bugger write some piece of sh*t and we'll stick it out under my name and make a cartload of cash"?

Or maybe I'm being cynical. Hey look! Virginia Andrews has a new book out. Hmm.
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 08:43 am:   

Didn't Clancy already franchise himself for a series of novels called 'Op Center' or something similar? I don't know, buit this kind of thing just feels queasy. If Clancy's successful enough for this to be a going proposition, methinks he ought to be successful enough to choose not to do it.

Sounds like it's no better than a bad decision made out of sheer vanity.

Even less easy to forgive than sheer greed. We can *all* understand that!
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Mark PL
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 09:13 am:   

Yeah, Clancy's done the Op-Centre books. But as I understand it, his sales figures have been falling lately. I think he's just taking the money and running. Could well be writing stuff when he's as vital as Virginia Andrews is right now . . .
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Jeff VanderMeer
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 02:58 pm:   

Re POD--I'd actually say the quality is getting close to up-to-snuff. Really, the problem with Wildside Books would probably be that they don't use designers--the editors do the design work to save money. So it depends on who is doing the design work and how well they understand the technical requirements of POD. My own City of Saints in hardcover is POD and it looks very nice. Jason's right, though--it can be a crap shoot. I think we're about three years away from it being stable.

Also, anyone like the thrillers of Jack O'Connell? I keep hearing good things about him.
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Ian C
Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2003 - 05:22 pm:   

I hope nobody minds the length of this comment.

It has been suggested that a series of remarks I made about pulp thrillers might be of interest to some. It followed Stephen G's remark elsewhere that many pulp writers, whatever their faults, had _something_ that made them immensely readable and endlessly memorable..

[start]
We discussed this a long time ago (slim, kinetic, unputdownable thrillers),
add the "vaguely ashamed of reading, in reminiscence", and I offer the
following description - they are (a) illogical, (b) consequenceless, (c)
non-character-study (d) epic (e) adventures.
- that is, the plots are implausible, impossible, full of coincidences never
questioned during the events, and rarely referred to in later episodes;
- stories have immediate goals, but no lasting effects; things get done
because they need doing, but there's no attempt to change society, and it
remains unchanged even by accident [the hero always fights _for_ society but
it's never with a philosophical intent]
- what you see is what you get; a hero may have a secret identity visible to
the reader (though not to others in the book) but he doesn't keep revealing
hidden depths or change with every new adventure; he is certain of what he
is, and what he can do, from his first appearance;
- they emphasise setting, image, event, character quirks, physical
description; _memorable_ items and confrontations; the action is onstage and
blatant, so even if the plot fails (and few could actually precis a plot),
readers remember _something_ ;
- they are about doing something and going somewhere; thinking consists of
planning what to do next, and never prevaricating;
- the dialogue is always clear, informative, meaningful
- at the base, the author never displays obvious contempt for his readers,
never hints they're missing the joke, never overturns expectations or
leaves a result in limbo

The hero and companions are dragged into a perilous endeavour just as its
machinations are rising towards crisis (if too early in the events - either
they counter the peril before it's truly deadly - and what's the interest in
that? - or they make an error and allow it to flower towards destruction -
thereby appearing to be inept and stupid); various coincidences complicate
their investigation or impart crucial information; the heroes fight an
escalating series of menaces and acts, the major villains staying just out
of reach, increasingly aware of the heroes and increasingly angry towards
them; the heroes finally confront the lead villains, and the global
conspiracy gets derailed as it swings to focus on them. They win. Fadeout.

It's everything that modern thrillers try to eschew - they disdain
coincidence, rationalise flow of information, emphasise the real politik or
intended satiric target of the plot; their heroes are misguided, misled,
weak (rather than vulnerable), and lack competence ("incompetent" in the
worst way); they ignore opportunities and agonise over their actions just
long enough for things to go wrong. The books grow long not by plot but by
repeatedly pausing and stalling the plot, revisiting it from this angle or
that; discussing the possible scenarios and then settling on the one that
would have taken place immediately in earlier "pulp" thrillers!

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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 02:08 am:   

I certainly welcome it, because I think it's a very canny analysis of the pedals pressed by that class of popular fiction... even when a low-ranked writer presses them, the storytelling still *works* and you feel the levers moving in your soul.

What I'd add is that, for me, one of the deepest reading pleasures comes when a writer adds touches of intelligence and grace, bridging the gap between that archetypal narrative and recognisable life... people we can believe in, facing situations we can imagine, reacting in ways that are truthful... without ever betraying or losing faith in the underlying narrative form.
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 04:32 am:   

>>Really, the problem with Wildside Books would probably be that they don't use designers--the editors do the design work to save money<<

It doesn't help that the DTP packages seem to offer default settings that are subtly unprofessional. Although it takes a trained eye to notice them, they have a subliminal effect on the rest of us.
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Jack Haringa
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 05:56 am:   

JeffV--Jack O'Connell's thriller/mysteries are curious inhabitants of that genre preserve, being sometime-hybrids of cyberpunk, ghost story, magic realism (ah, THAT term again!), and hallucinogenic procedurals, depending on which book you read. O'Connell tends to be linguistically literary-minded while at the same time filling his novels with in-jokes about his hometown of Worcester, MA (my current stomping grounds). I like his books a lot, but I can't imagine them being bestsellers or beach-reads; they're too smart and dense for that.

Another recent thriller writer who has a distinctive voice and a sharp style is Boston Teran. His debut novel God is a Bullet was one of the best books I read that year (1999). The follow-up to it, Never Count Out the Dead, was as desperate and grim as his first book, but not quite as compelling. He has a new novel out as of December, but I've yet to read it.

~Jack~
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 12:48 pm:   

I did a Google on Jack O'Connell and I have to admit that the descriptions I found of his material were kind of off-putting... they made it sound like he shovels in everything but the kitchen sink and lets it all swirl around there in a giddy mess.

But then it would hardly be fair to judge his work merely by the prose style of his commentators..! I'll keep my eyes open and if I see one of his titles I'll sample a page and give it a chance on the basis of what I see. I often find that the impression you get from a random dip into an author's work can be a fair guide to whether or not you'll click with it.

I must admit that I tend to be attracted by a stylistic plainness, even austerity. In the past I've made the comparison between a juggler who comes on in a spangly costume and dazzles with a set of flashy clubs, maybe drops the odd one but it doesn't matter because he's got some even flashier ones in his bag... as opposed to one who looks unremarkable, has a set of plain clubs, and does jaw-dropping things without ever letting one fall.
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Jeff VanderMeer
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 02:42 pm:   

I've heard he's good, from a lot of people I respect. Haven't read him yet.
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GabrielM
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 02:46 pm:   

I read O'Connell's WIRELESS and I thought it was OK but never got the feeling that all the various aspects of it combined well. I have a couple of others of his but haven't read them yet.

I was talking to my namesake Chouinard the other day and it turned out that both of us had read a lot of Alistair MacLean novels in our youth. CIRCUS, ICE STATION ZEBRA, GUNS OF NAVARONE, etc. You never hear about them nowadays, however, I wonder whether they hold up at all. He was no Geoffrey Household, but they were still entertaining.

Thrillerwise these days I think I only read Alan Furst, but I love his stuff. I don't know, is there anyone else worth reading?

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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Monday, February 17, 2003 - 02:19 am:   

I'm told that Colin Forbes is To Be Avoided, altho he's very much 'school of Maclean'.

Maclean had a definite gift, I believe, and it vanished with the first book after WHERE EAGLES DARE and never came back. He reckons that for WED he wrote the screenplay first and then turned it into the novel.

Maybe it worked for him that first time, but the books that followed prove that you can't step in the same river twice.
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JT Lindroos
Posted on Monday, February 17, 2003 - 04:19 pm:   

There's a good, illuminating interview with Jack O'Connell at:

http://www.crimetime.co.uk/interviews/jackoconnell.html

I absolutely loved BOX NINE, which is probably the most straightforward hardboiled narrative he's written. I got bogged down with WIRELESS but SKIN PALACE was very good -- there was some fantastic stuff about a lost (or hidden) version of WIZARD OF OZ in it and numerous other threads of equivalent interest, but it lacked the momentum of the first novel.

Also, I saw BOURNE IDENTITY yesterday and it's about as good as a straightforward spy thriller will get these days.

And did anybody read Tim Powers' DECLARE?

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jonathan briggs
Posted on Monday, February 17, 2003 - 04:32 pm:   

Ever read Stephen Hunter? He writes big fat manly man thrillers. Gets downright poetic when he's describing heavy munitions. He occasionally flirts with cheeziness, but there aren't a whole lot of authors who are more fun. The first page of "Dirty White Boys" is onea the funniest openings I've ever read. You can read it on Amazon. Yea, yea, call me juvenile, but it made me laugh and certainly grabbed my attention. Right up there with "Call me Ishmael."

And, aside from a penchant for all things French, he writes excellent film criticism for the Washington Post.
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - 05:17 am:   

highly enticing... Ian Covell put me onto the novels of Tony Kenrick, who passed me by completely in the 80s and early 90s and who since seems to have stopped writing... perhaps SHANGHAI SURPRISE, the slackly-made Madonna movie based on his FARADAY'S FLOWERS, depressed his spririts and affected his creativity.

His early novels are Westlake-style capers and less to my taste, but BLAST and NEON TOUGH are terrific.
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GabrielM
Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - 09:03 am:   

DECLARE is excellent, I agree.
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - 11:19 am:   

And I agree about THE BOURNE IDENTITY in movie form... a good, lean thriller with few pretentions and terrific pace. Elements that I always felt were implied in Ludlum's writing, but never actually present.
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Oto Oltvanji
Posted on Tuesday, April 08, 2003 - 09:17 am:   

Stephen,

I'd like to know what did you think of John Farris's latest Fury sequels?
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Stephen Gallagher
Posted on Wednesday, April 09, 2003 - 03:37 am:   

I found THE FURY AND THE TERROR very hard to engage with. Partly because I wouldn't say that THE FURY cried out for a sequel, partly because if Farris has a weakness, it's for making certain of his characters so exotic and remarkable that they're at odds with the rest of the story.

Still a big fan, though. I'm not a fanatical completist but I've picked up most of his stuff over the years, including HARRISON HIGH titles and some of those pb originals he wrote as 'Steve Brackeen'. I found those in a San Francisco bookstore and I brought THE FURY AND THE TERROR home in hardcover from a visit to Boston.

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