Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Lawrence Sanders -- information

There's really not a lot of stuff on the web about Sanders, aside from the 320 fan reviews of McNally's Migrane or whatever.

Here’s the Thrilling Detective page on Sanders.


A little too much cheerleading here, but you sort of expect that from Thrilling Detective, and aside from that there's a lot of interesting information, starting with Sanders using a pseudonym a couple of times. I did not know that. Apparently Sanders really was a straightforward professional, spending many years as second-tier kind of journalist. He achieved his success in later years, which is always heartening to hear, too.

This looks like a fairly complete bibliography.


A good blog entry where some guy ruminates on his sixth grade reading material. Hell, he sounds precocious – I think I first read Sanders a bit later. (Interesting reference to smutty Sanders sex books, too. Maybe an update? Although of course you never find THOSE in the thrift stores. And actually, really, Sanders doesn't exactly have a reputation as a smutty sex novelist, which suggests these are all lacking that ineffable something that makes that kind of thing really work.)


Interesting review of Sanders’ sf novel The Tomorrow File, which is another one of those books I’m vaguely curious about but not so much to really dig up. Sounds dystopian in a hip-Seventies kind of way.


And that’s about it, at least of interesting stuff I could find. A good example of a popular writer who’s not much discussed online.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Lawrence Sanders

Lawrence Sanders is the kind of writer sometimes charitably called a journeyman, sometimes not so charitably called a hack. Maybe a nicer midpoint would be “professional”. A shorthand description of a “professional”: someone with some writing talent who applies it to the popular genres of his day, in the interest of making some $$$.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making money, of course. But there’s a difference between hoping your books sell, or trying to market them so that they sell, and writing for markets. It’s a difference in emphasis, subtle but real, and it involves the market dictating to you. Time travel romances hot this year? Better grind out a couple. No, wait, it’s women PIs and a bit of sex. No, wait, horror’s back. Etc. And a dedicated, er, “professional” will fill any gap out there he’s told to fill.

This is the Writer’s Digest school of writing, and Lawrence Sanders is the logical endpoint of what that kind of school will produce: slickly made, occasionally diverting, but mostly empty books. All of the authors we’ve talked about before, good bad and indifferent, meant it. (Even Arthur Hailey believed in what he was doing – his books certainly have, for better and worse, conviction. )

With Sanders, no. The books all have a curious facelessness: the faux downbeat style of First Deadly Sin is nothing like the faux giggles of the McNally series, which is nothing like the faux hb stuff in Sixth Commandment. Read a lot of Sanders and you’ll have the impression of a man wearing a lot of masks. The man underneath seems unknowable.

Now, that doesn’t mean Sanders books are without interest: some of them are fairly enjoyable. It just seems kind of sad to me, like Sanders in some sense just missed the point of the thing. I suspect his books will be forgotten fairly quickly, and probably properly so, because they don’t really offer the reader anything new. They just fill existing needs. And there’s always “professionals” out there to do that for the new season, and the new needs.

Sanders came to prominence in the early Seventies with The Anderson Tapes, a half-interesting/half-routine caper novel most notable for its oddball structure: it’s an epistolary novel, told in (mostly) surreptitious tape recordings. This structure does nothing for the plot and just sort of sits there as an irritating overlay on the whole text. But, well, it was the early Seventies, and paranoia was hot.

The First Deadly Sin is quite a different thing, a big brooding police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer. It’s alternately suspenseful and dreary, insightful and banal, moving and crass. Not really a good book, but an intermittently fascinating one that’s worth a look, especially to fans of the sub-genre. (In particular it showcases an odd gift of Sanders’, a knack for making the most outlandish situations plausible. I think his popularity is mostly attributable to that.) I also like The Sixth Commandment, which has an extremely pulpy plot about mad scientists, dangerous experiments, cowed townspeople, brooding henchmen, and sexy femme fatales. It’s made about as plausible as these kind of things ever get: in fact if anything it’s a little too plausible – the books suffers mainly from a surprising stifled sneeze of a climax.

Sanders is now probably best known for the execrable McNally series, the popularity of which I would someday like someone to sit down and explain to me. I tried McNally’s Secret and had a compelling urge to punch the protagonist hard in the mouth.

Those are probably his most famous books. There are other Sanders books out there – he wrote a lot, as professionals are wont to do – but I haven’t been interested enough to check them out.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Joseph Wambaugh -- Information

Well, like I said last night, to my mind the most interesting thing about Wambaugh is that Ellroy was influenced by him. Drop that tidbit the next time your book circle meets to discuss American Tabloid -- maybe you can get an extra brownie or something.

Here's the Wiki article:


I actually grew up in Western PA and I have no idea where "East Pittsburgh" is. According to this article Wambaugh's almost seventy years old -- which actually makes him a little older than my Dad, for Pete's sake. It's hard to believe, I think because he's always had such a boyish look. Google his image sometime and you'll see what I mean.

The wiki article is also interesting for pointing up Wambaugh's connections with "Police Story". Like I said, he's really a creature of the Seventies.

A fairly bland summing up from a site devoted to hardboiled fiction:


Wambaugh isn't a hardboiled writer. I don't care how many Grandmaster awards he gets from the MWA, writing about crime doesn't in itself make you a hb writer. Even writing about sweaty urban crime doesn't do it, by itself. Writers are generally who they think themselves to be, and Wambaugh was clearly aiming for different sorts of stadiums. I rather suspect Joseph Heller, Paddy Chayefsky, and Truman Capote were more influential than Gold Medal paperbacks.

Okayish interview from CNN:


Somebody needs to do a good comprehensive interview with Wambaugh talking about writing, not cops or crooks. There's a real dearth of information out there about what Wambaugh thinks about books and writers. (Wambaugh here singles out The Secrets of Harry Bright -- a'ight, that's on the list too.)

Amusing piece from CrimeTime about how much Wambaugh hated The Choirboys movie:


Probably he'd have been better off not to have done the screenplay.

That seems to be mostly it -- there's a couple of promotional interviews for a book I never read, and if you're interested in the case there's discussions of Echoes in the Darkness and whether Wambaugh got it wrong or messed about with justice -- the usual occupational hazards of the true crime writer. I have read Echoes, and it suffers from Wambaugh generally not liking anybody in the story but the cops. I agree with an Amazon reviewer: Wambaugh is generally just interested in cops. The reason The Onion Field worked so well is because the crime happened to cops.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Joseph Wambaugh

Wambaugh's true crime books are beyond the scope of this blog, but I ought to start by mentioning that they're probably the best things he does. I especially admire The Onion Field, a haunting story about the spiritual ramifications of violence that's on a very shortlist of truly classic true crime accounts. If you only read one Wambaugh, that's the one to read. (Wambaugh, to his credit, seems to feel that this is his most important work as well.)

I'm not much interested in Wambaugh's later books like The Golden Orange. I remember it as being a perfectly acceptable crime novel, but you can get that all sorts of places. He's coming out with a new cop novel at the end of the year, Hollywood Station, I'm curious what the reaction will be but not so curious that I'm going to run out and get a copy and get an opinion myself, frankly. I'm sure it will be promoted as a return to form, though.

Wambaugh's peak years were the Seventies and the early Eighties, from The New Centurions to around The Glitter Dome. I'm a bit embarrassed to say I haven't read the first two books that made Wambaugh's career, Centurions and The Blue Knight (which was made into a famous TV movie I never saw with William Holden). I can't say I have any particular drive to search those puppies out -- I read a lot of police procedurals and I've read a lot of Wambaugh and it's hard for me to believe that I'm really missing anything I haven't seen sixty times before. If I bump into them, though, I'll pick them up and do an update or something, for the sake of inclusiveness.

Wambaugh has had less influence on the police procedural genre than you might think. What we think of in America when we think of a police story, either in books or on tv, almost certainly ultimately comes from Ed McBain: the squad/unit as "the hero", seperate storylines, an interest in the various nitty-gritty technical aspects of police work, the notion of cops as humans with human problems and weaknesses, etc. (That's not to say McBain was the first to do this stuff, he certainly wasn't. But I think he codified a lot of disparate strands.) Wambaugh was always more interested in Creating Literature, in Making Grand Statements, in Being Artful. His novels (at least, the novels in this group) can be best understood not as crime novels, but rather attempts to write Literature about cops. The books are full of literary fillips: the playing around with black humor, the speechifying, the introspection, the often downbeat endings.

Wambaugh had one real idea: cops lead lives that are not so much dangerous physically as they are dangerous morally and spiritually. (James Ellroy, who famously admired Wambaugh, is said to have sold blood in his ragamuffin days in order to get money to buy Wambaugh books. You can see this idea at work in a lot of Ellroy's fiction, although love him or hate him Ellroy is far more of an artist, and there's a lot more going on.) In his books you'll see that idea beaten into the ground, dug up, and then beaten down again. Wambaugh in fact is a good case of how ideas, even good ideas, have their aestehtic limitations.

It works best in the novels generally in moments: Wambaugh is great in short snapshots showing the humor/horror of a cops's life, but tends to get a little shrill about it over the long haul. Most of Wambaugh's books are middling successes/middling failures -- one reason I'm leery of Centurions and Knight, actually. A book like The Delta Star is typical: you're cruising along enjoying this or that entertaining bit -- something seems funny, or wise, or funny and wise -- only to be brought up short by A Symbolically Wrought Moment. And then we're back again. Wambaugh had bad weaknesses for speechifying and painful literary symbolism right out of a Frosh 101 class. (One is tempted to say Wambaugh could've used a better editor, although I'm not sure these books as conceived were ever going to be more than middling. )

The one Wambaugh novel that I think really works -- well, more or less, anyway -- is The Black Marble. I think it's mainly because it's a love story, which gave Wambaugh a sense of play he really needed: one reason the books above are so mixed is that Wambaugh took himself Awfully Awfully Seriously (even when he's having fun it's Serious Important Fun). Here it's much looser, Wambaugh is clearly not taking himself so seriously, and that gives him some much-needed distance on his material. There's a bounce here, especially to the characterizations, that you just don't find in other Wambaugh books.

Mostly. Even this gets strained here or there. Still, worth a look. What other book of Wambaugh's has a credible middle-aged relationship? Some fascinating stuff about dog shows, too.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Short Takes: David Anthony

I keep a book log of everything I've read since 2004. Much of what's in there won't fit into this project, but it occurred to me that some of the authors would. So occasionally I'll raid the journal for some shorter takes on authors.

For a variety of reasons I'm reading a great deal of mystery/crime fiction right now, so expect a lot of that.

David Anthony (pseud. of William Dale Smith) -- I read his novel The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man, which I think I bought on the recommendation of Pronzini in his 1001 Midnights. Generally not that hot -- my notes call it blah and mention that it was obviously Ross Macdonald influenced. Ross Macdonald was a big influence on a number of PI writers of the late Sixties and Seventies, and most of them did not use the influence well. A great number of PI novels from this period tend to be quiet character studies with the crime almost incidental; a hard thing to pull off if you don't know what the heck you're doing. They're usually extremely literate but oddly lacking in excitement -- one has the feeling of ever-fussier presentations of the same damn recipe. I like macaroni and cheese as much as the next guy, but how often can you eat it?

Here's some info. on the series from Thrilling Detective, a useful site:


It was made into a movie with Burt Lancaster, who also got a writing credit on the screenplay. (!)

William Dale Smith was a movie studio executive, apparently. Irritatingly, he's known as "David Anthony" on the web. This is the best hunk of info. I could find on him:


Although he merits a one-line entry on a page devoted to famous West Virginians:


Did you know Patch Adams comes from West Virginia?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Allen Drury - Information

Here's the Wikipedia article, rather a good one, I think, if only that it emphasizes his journalistic roots:


Here's a review of Come Ninevah, Come Tyre (gotta love that title, evocative as all hell) and The Promise of Joy by Adam Cadre -- is this the Adam Cadre, the guy who does the great text adventure games? He does one where you play a slutty teenage girl. "Interstate IO" or something like that -- anyway, it's a really great game, check it out. As for the page, well, I rather suspect the particular books under discussion are stupid, too, but Mr. Cadre unfortunately is so snarky and acerbic he actually makes them sound like they rock beyond measure. Some brave soul should decide for himself, I guess:


One of the reasons it's hard to assess Drury properly is that he's bounced around like a ping-pong ball between liberal and conservative camps. Liberals think Advise and Consent is one of the stupidest books to win a Pulitzer; Conservatives tend to think it's a work of genius unfairly neglected because he's not properly liberal enough. Here's a typical example of that pov, from the Brothers Judd:


I like the Brothers Judd, but they're not especially good fiction reviewers, and this review has the note of special pleading that I dislike from this camp. Too often conservatives overpraise books just because they're conservative in theme: what's worse is that they're defensive about it. They implicity recognize the authority of the literary establishment (which truth to tell is quite liberal in it's politics) -- why else all the shirty "eggheads may not like it but we sixpack regular Joes do" stuff? Better by far not to play that game at all.

Here's a very nice page, liberal in tone (he's dismissive of the book proper) but he maps out alot of the historical roots of the thing. This is where I found out Drury wrote most of it as a first draft. (NOTE: the quote on the page says that Drury did multiple drafts of the first three sections, and only shorted the final two. I have no way of knowing, just my gut talking, but I doubt that's exactly the case. My gut tells me part three didn't get quite as much TLC as parts one and two. I think it shows.)


And here's a pretty well-written paen to Advise and Drury more generally, from Policy Review, of all places:


I think Kaplan rather overrates both Drury's skill and importance -- this is another case of special pleading, really, albeit more ornately presented. Actually, give me the Judds blunt talk any day -- Kaplan takes too much space to say the same exact thing.

I've seen other links, but they're dead or behind subscription walls or seem to be the same thing over and over (the usual online obits). Hitchens must've mentioned Drury once, in the New York Review of Books, no less (the Judds linked to a review of McCarry's no doubt amazing Shelley's Heart. Unfortunately nowadays you have to spend twenty six thousand dollars and cut off your left little finger before you can read any archive stuff from NYRB). I'm curious what he said. Terry Teachout also apparently did a piece on him for the Book Review.

More links or info always welcome.

Allen Drury

Political reporter who achieved a measure of fame and fortune for Advise and Consent, which sat on the bestseller lists for something like 93 weeks and was made into a once-popular, now somewhat-forgotten prestige picture with Otto Preminger directing and Charles Laughton supposedly getting one last great role. Drury wrote other books, none of them as famous as Advise -- I would be very interested in knowing what other people thought of them. (From what I've gathered most people think the other books are awful, although I've read a few people try to make a case for the immediate follow-up, A Shade of Difference.)

Advise is actually pretty decent. Loosely based on the Alger Hiss case, it's a lengthy description of a contentious Secretary of State confirmation hearing. It's soon revealed that the nominee had at best pacifist tendencies, and at worst was an actual Communist sympathizer. This being written at the height of the Cold War by a man we'd certainly call a conservative today, well.

It would be somewhat accurate to call this a "political thriller", although that's not, I think, what Drury intended. I think Drury was looking to write a socio-realistic novel of Washington, with the Senate as an institution as "the hero", rather than any individual Senator. It just so happened to be Drury's good fortune to peg all of his reminiscences and impressions to a plot with some real suspense built into it. That, I'm sure, is why it stayed as popular as it did.

I read somewhere online that Drury wrote most of Advise in the white heat of a first draft. The book shows it. The novel jumps povs, and the first two sections, especially part two, which is told from the pov of aging Southern Senator Seab Cooley (the Laughton part in the movie) are the best written as a whole, the best crafted. They feel smooth, thought-out, and complete.

Part three, which is told from the pov of an up-and-coming young Senator from Utah named Brigham Anderson (supposedly based on JFK) is sloppier as a whole, a bit too long and rambling, but parts of that section have a genuine lyrical power, especially near the end. At his best Drury could write with a surprising white heat -- I rather suspect this is the most strongly felt section of the novel, and probably Drury's own favorite.

The book unfortunately falters in the final sections, when Drury wakes up to the fact that he's actually writing a story and will have to finish it. The plot demands begin to kick in, and what had seemed engagingly expansive suddenly constricts, the way a piece of paper will crumple when a man clenches his fist around it. This is a common fault of writers, especially writers who are better at shorter forms, oddly enough. They are in love with scenes and settings and the interplay of character, and not so much the story they're trying to tell. When they eventually get to the story, they overreact, make the plot strictures tighter than they need be. Guys and gals like this should really give the whole book another draft, even out the tensions somehow. But then maybe after writing six hundred pages you get a little tired of everything.

Despite the forced feel, though, the payoff does have its moments. I especially liked how understated the major victories really were.

Advise is no classic, but it's a good book, mostly, certainly worth a look. It's an interesting artifact of its time, too: its politics, its geopolitical views (Drury, oddly, hated India of all things), its opinions of sexuality, its reverence for the Senate (which almost feels quaint now.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Arthur Hailey - information

Here's the Wikipedia article on him:


It accidentally points out one of the truths about popular fiction, which is that one of the reasons people read is to learn something, and if you can provide them with interestingly presented information, they'll snap it up. Hailey is an extreme case, but in general for this crowd the information trumps the story values.

Here's a puff piece from The Bahamas News, of all places:


Here's another one. Six on one hand/half a dozen on the other which one is 'better', I guess:


Fun facts about Hailey: the movie AIRPLANE! apparently owes something to an early work of Hailey's, though apparently there he played the scenario straight. And Hailey moved to the Bahamas to avoid paying taxes, which amusingly was skipped over in the Bahamas piece.

That looks to be about it, at least at first glance. Plenty of online obits, of course. Apparently Hailey was big in India. Who knew?

Arthur Hailey

An oddity: a man who achieved fame and fortune as a novelist without, apparently, having any discernable skills in that area. Hailey's real talents were in informational/technical writing: if you want to learn how an airport circa 1970 deals with a snowstorm, or what a hotel circa 1964 did with the trash (interestingly, they apparently went through it to make sure nobody threw away anything valuable), then Hailey's your man. Check out Hotel or Airport. I wouldn't go to him for stories, though: swallowed in all of this information is a plot and characters thin enough to put an "Analog" writer to shame.