Ah, the utility of slender books…
I held a number of jobs in my youth that make me appreciate what a sweet deal I have today. Sure, sometimes books disappoint, and sometimes theatre patrons are obstreperous…but in my current employment I never have to worry about being eaten alive by pigs or reduced to a slurry by waste chemicals.
My brief stint with a security company wasn’t terrible, by comparison—there were only a couple of moments where death or serious injury seemed possible —but it could be extremely boring. Passing the long hours reading was officially forbidden. But…they can’t have meant it. The security uniform boasted a breast pocket just the right size and shape to conceal a mass market paperback. There’s a hint right there.
Which books made their way into that pocket? I am glad you asked. Here are my top five.
Shadow of a Broken Man by George C. Chesbro (1977)
Dr. Robert “Mongo the Magnificent” Fredrickson is a former sideshow dwarf. Other jobs: circus tumbler, black-belt martial artist, and professor of criminology. His latest gig: private detective.
This, the first Mongo mystery, is an architectural conundrum. The Nately Museum has clearly been designed by visionary architect Victor Rafferty; it has all the hallmarks of his style. But this should have been impossible: Rafferty died long before the plans were submitted, incinerated in a tragic mishap in front of multiple eyewitnesses. How could a dead man design a building not begun until long after his death?
Mongo is asked to unravel the mystery. He soon finds himself dealing with a number of national intelligence agencies. Why should this seemingly quotidian problem involve global security?
The series caught my attention because the author built his plots around the paranormal and supernatural. Things get very, very weird, very, very quickly when Dr. Frederickson is involved. I think they’d make a great film or TV series. So did a few other people—the books were optioned for a film that would have starred Peter Dinklage (you’ll remember him from Game of Thrones). Too bad that the project seems to be on indefinite hold.
The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald (1979)
Back in the day I bought a case of John D. MacDonald novels from a used bookstore that didn’t want to catalog them. Those books got me through a lot of boring shifts. I knew to buy the case because I’d already read one Travis McGee novel, The Green Ripper.
Gretel makes the fatal error of being the ongoing love interest of the lead in a long-running series starring a habitual bachelor. No sooner does aging “salvage expert” Travis McGee resolve to spend the rest of his life with Gretel (first encountered in An Empty Copper Sea) than poor Gretel dies from a brief but horrible illness…
Travis soon discovers that Gretel was poisoned, having seen too much. While the murder was unnecessary—witnessing something does not mean that the significance of what was seen is obvious—and the attempted cover-up failed entirely to cover up the information it was intended to conceal, the murder does manage to attract Travis McGee’s full and undivided attention. Thanks to McGee’s unmatched skills, America is about lose a terrorist organization it never knew it had.
The Green Ripper is completely atypical for the series. Whereas the other books are about a fellow who helps the helpless, The Green Ripper shows McGee as assassin, slaughtering his way through a collection of hapless political extremists who had no idea that a simple murder could have such unfortunate consequences. It is by far the bleakest entry in the whole series, not least because it’s full of gloomy prognostications about what the 1980s would surely bring:
All the major world currencies will collapse. Trade will cease. Without trade, without the mechanical-scientific apparatus running, the planet won’t support its four billion people, or even half of that. Agribusiness feeds the world. Hydrocarbon utilization heats and house and clothes the people. There will be fear, hate, anger, death. The new barbarism. There will be plague and poison. And then the new Dark Ages.
“How much time have we got?”
“If nobody pushes the wrong button or puts a bomb under the wrong castle, I would give us five more years at worst, or twelve at most.”
It could never come to that. Could it?
Sunfall by C. J. Cherryh (1981)
This book is a collection of short pieces from an author whose work I know primarily from novels.
Humanity has expanded across the Milky Way but Earth still exists, as do its ancient great cities. In this twilight era, each city has embraced and deepened its own essence. Cherryh explores the distant futures of Rome, Paris, London, Peking, Moscow, and New York in works ranging from short story to novelette.
Modern readers might wonder how it is that humans are still human in a future so distant that the Sun is dying. They might also wonder how it is that place-names have changed less in eons than they did in mere decades. These bagatelles aside, the collection is nonetheless convincing by way of mood and aesthetics.
Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)
Night Shift was King’s debut story collection. As is the case with many debut collections it contains some very early works, some of which aren’t his best. Just some. It also contains many of King’s best-known, most effective horror stories. It’s no surprise that this collection won the coveted Balrog Award. If you’re unfamiliar with King’s work, this is a good place to start.
Night Shift was just a bit too big for shift entertainment; books longer than two hundred pages produced a noticeable lump in the guard uniform. But I persisted despite the risk that bosses would notice. I’d read one story that was just so good, so apt, that I had to finish the book. The story: “The Mangler,” which starred a demon-possessed industrial laundry press…
It was pure delightful coincidence that I often worked for a laundry service that owned just such a press, which lay in direct line of sight from the security station where I sat each night. There was no indication that the real-life press was possessed by a demon, but still…the possibility lent a delightful frisson to reading during those long and boring hours.
Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer by Tanith Lee (1983)
Perhaps my favourite Tanith Lee collection, narrowly edging out her 1989 Forests of the Night.
In Red as Blood, Lee reimages well-known fairy tales as gothic narratives. Most but not all of them are fantasy. Of particular note: “Red as Blood”, from which the collection takes its name, which casts an unsympathetic light on Snow White and a positive one on her stepmother. I was not a particularly observant reader where prose was concerned, but Lee’s prose made me take notice.
On a more personal note, this was the very collection that first revealed to me the marvelous book-concealing properties of the uniform breast pocket and in so doing likely kept me from going mad with boredom.
No doubt you have your own list of books you encountered at just the right time to conserve your mental wellbeing. Feel free to mention them in comments!
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.