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Tag Archive: lost novel


Review by C.J. Bunce

Most of the world knew Roger Zelazny for his fantasy and science fiction short stories and novels.  Neil Gaiman has cited Zelazny as his greatest influence.  In his 58 years Zelazny won three Nebula awards and six Hugo awards, and is best known for The Chronicles of Amber His “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was included in the DVD collection Visions of Mars: First Library on Mars, taken onto the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008.  In 2008 an unpublished novel was located, a crime thriller by Zelazny called The Dead Man’s Brother, and Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint published it for the first time ever in 2009.  We’re reviewing it here as part of our excursion into lost novels and our “Retro Fix” series for fans who thought they’d read the entirety of their favorite authors’ works.  Previous works reviewed here include lost novels by Michael Crichton, James M. Cain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Gore Vidal, and others, as well as several forgotten classics of science fiction, fantasy, and pulp noir.  In an afterword by the author’s son Trent Zelazny, he comments on his father and writing genre, “Great writers will never hold back due to genre.  They will tell the story they want–or must–in spite of the limiting labels designed  by publishers.  They don’t think of themselves as science fiction writers or mystery writers or western writers.  They think of themselves simply as writers, period.”

In Roger Zelazny’s crime thriller The Dead Man’s Brother, his hero Ovid Wiley runs Taurus art gallery in New York.  Wiley is a former art smuggler and also a former CIA operative whose genetics (explained in the book) reflected a type of super soldier tendency.  At present, the early 1970s, Wiley had cleaned up his act for the most part, still in the art world buying and selling artwork as a respectable art dealer.  In the first scene we meet Wiley entering his gallery to find the dead body of his former partner in crime, a man he had neither seen nor thought about in several years.  Wiley is then accused of his murder, but the CIA intercedes.  It turns out they could use his unique skill set and familiarity with Rome specifically to earn a “get out of jail free” card by finding a missing priest alleged to have stolen millions from the Vatican.  Wiley begrudgingly agrees, and his investigation re-introduces him to the dead partner’s girlfriend and finds the embezzling priest dead.  Before he gets accused of that murder, he takes the girlfriend in tow and heads to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to locate the dead man’s brother.  He is imprisoned and tortured by locals for days, getting into a bizarre national conflict he has no interest in.  Armed with a machete and thoughts of revenge, he ventures home with a package and secret information.

Fans of Zelazny’s writing are the real target for this novel.  The tale is not particularly gripping, yet readers will stick with Zelazny to the end simply to see what completely insane circumstance his hero is going to get involved with next.  The Dead Man’s Brother often reads like an early draft–many stream-of-conscience paragraphs pepper the plot that conjure the image of a writer who sat “butt in chair” and wrote from beginning to end, intending to return with a few good edits later.  Little is known why this novel was shelved, and it is only a guess that he wrote the book around 1970-1971.  Was he merely experimenting with styles?  Was he attempting to write his own version of an American James Bond or dabble with mainstream works?  More than a few threads remain hanging by the end of The Dead Man’s Brother.  Presumably he intended to return to finesse these once the novel was sold?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.  James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre.  But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with.  That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.

The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision.  Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale.  Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page.  The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death.  Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk.  Or was he?  Police repeatedly return to question her.  Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.

     

Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress.  Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again.  She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity.  As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate.  The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel.  She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions.  Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader.  She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg.  She takes actions that risk her job.  So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too?  What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son?  Can we trust her?  Can we trust Cain?

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