Leigh Brackett,
Stranger at Home
(Stark House, 2015)

Charlie Stella,
Eddie's World
(Stark House, 2015)

Harry Whittington,
A Haven for the Damned
(Stark House, 2015)

After establishing itself as a major publisher of reprint of classic noir novels from the 1940s and '50s, Stark House expanded its boundaries to include contemporary novels, publishing original and new works by new and overlooked artists. Now, the firm has taken their mission one step farther.

The rise of the ebook had one unanticipated and, to me, very sad effect: it killed off the mass-market paperback. Since their introduction in the late '30s and their explosive growth during the '40s and '50s, rack-sized paperbacks were the way most people bought and read books.

They were ubiquitous and flexible in their use, just the right size to be carried in a jacket pocket and read on the bus or subway. Easily brought to the beach or the pool, they could be used to while away a sunny afternoon or, if you were a student, they could save you a fortune in textbook costs.

After you'd read them, they didn't take up much space on your shelves if you wanted to save them and, if you didn't, they were inexpensive enough to pass on to a friend without eating a financial loss.

In short, they were the perfect book.

And, one day they were gone.

Well, Stark House has decided to bring them back. Their imprint, Black Gat Books, is a series of mass-market paperbacks, in a numbered series, containing the house's specialty: forgotten or overlooked noir classics.

Attractively designed, with a neat red strip across the top of each front cover with the imprint's name and the number of the title on it, and with each book in the series having the same picture on the back cover, they are instantly recognizable as a set.

These books look good and feel good in your hand. But none of that means anything if they are not fun to read. Are they?


Harry Whittington -- not the Harry Whittington that Cheney shot in the face, by the way -- wrote more than 85 novels in his 12 best years as a novelist. He was also known by the bylines Whit Harrison, Ashley Carter, Harriet Kathryn Myers, Hondo Wells and about a dozen others. Stark House has previously reissued eight of his novels and none that I've read disappoints.

In the first novel of the series, Whittington's A Haven for the Damned, a bank robbery gone wrong sets off a chain of event that leads to a group of eight people forced together in a New Mexico ghost town called Lust -- Whittington is not always the most subtle of writers. Each is driven by a different goal. Each is suffering from his or her own demons. The novel, from varying points of view, sets these characters on a collision course and they play out their destinies.

The second one is a contemporary title. It's the first paperback printing of Charlie Stella's first novel, Eddie's World. If you haven't read Stella, you are in for a treat. (I've reviewed two of his previous novels in these pages: Johnny Porno on 29 May 2010 and Rough Riders on 6 October 2012. Both are worth seeking out.) Rough Riders is, in fact, a sequel to Eddie's World. What you have to understand about Stella is that he creates a dark and odd world that is existential and weirdly hilarious. His characters will remind you a little of Elmore Leonard's, and his plot unfolds the same way.

The central character has something going, usually a small-time crime, and it goes wrong. As he tries to fix it, everything falls apart on him and his danger level increases until he has to literally place his life on the line.

In this one, Eddie Senta is suffering from a case of existential boredom where nothing in his life has any more meaning than anything else. Eddie, a word processor who moonlights as a burglar, undertakes a burglary gig he doesn't need just to break the boredom, which results in his becoming the lead suspect in a triple murder, his wife leaving him, the cops after him, his best friend and accomplice dead, and himself a target.

The thing about this novel is not only is it suspenseful, it is funny as hell.

No. 3 in the series comes from Leigh Brackett, a science-fiction writer who also wrote hard-boiled crime fiction and screenplays; she helped William Faulkner write the script for The Big Sleep and wrote several John Wayne movies, including Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. She also ghost-wrote novels for movie stars, which is how Stranger at Home came to be originally published under George Sanders' byline.

In it, Michael Vickers shows up at a party at his house, which takes everybody by surprise because he is supposed to be dead. It seems that on a trip to Mexico with three companions, he winds up assaulted and missing. Four years later, he is a little late for the party but he's there and naturally he's a little curious about which one of his good friends tried to kill him. Since this is a book supposedly written by a movie star, Vickers is rich, has a beautiful socialite wife and a large estate that appears to be in Malibu. Stranger at Home moves quickly and has a neat plot twist at the end.

With these three novels, Black Gat Books is off to a fine start. Featuring well-chosen and well-edited classic titles, attractively presented, the series needs only one thing to make it perfect: a bigger typeface. The type font chosen is almost too small for older eyes. That's a small quibble for such a large bundle of reading pleasure, though.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 May 2016

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