Jun. 24th, 2012

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The world has, collectively, a pretty short attention span. Used bookstores are full of books that were once bestsellers and now don't even have collectible value. Which is a good thing for people who like good books rather than good buzz.

There are still people who'll recognize the name Jack Finney. Over a dozen TV shows or movies have been based on his work, the most famous probably being Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the many remakes and ripoffs thereof; he also still has a devoted following for his classic 1970 time travel novel Time And Again, set in (and featuring photographs from) New York City in 1882. Everything I've read by him has been enjoyable, whether it's his SF stuff or his more satirical contemporary fiction like Good Neighbor Sam (made into a Jack Lemmon movie) and The Night People, or his often Twilight Zone-like short stories.

This weekend I finally read an old book club hardcover I bought close to a decade ago, his 1959 heist caper novel Assault on a Queen (Frank Sinatra starred in the movie version of this one). As is typical of older novels, it's only a couple hundred pages long, and yet in that short (by today's standards) space, Finney develops a set of characters and ratchets up the tension as they execute an unlikely caper -- resurrecting a sunken U-boat to make a pirate attack on a luxury liner. It was a lot of fun and didn't come close to overstaying its welcome. I understand the movie's a bit different, but I'd like to track down a copy now. And maybe one of Good Neighbor Sam, for that matter.

Fewer people will recognize the name Craig Rice. Her peak of popularity came a couple of decades earlier and the handful of movies and TV shows bearing her name are largely forgotten. But her books have occasionally had short-lived reprints; Bantam did a few about 25 years ago, and a smaller press did a few more. Her best known books are a series of mystery novels that combine the classic American mystery novel with the screwball comedy, resulting in a somewhat more bizarre take on the kind of thing the Thin Man movies did so well. I read all of the John J. Malone and Jake and Helene Justus novels I could find back in the early 1990s and had a blast.

A few of her books have probably been out of print for several decades, though, and I suspect the one I just read is one of them. But the Doctor Died was published as a mass market paperback by Lancer in 1967, a decade after Rice's death, and the cover promotes it as a newly discovered novel. I don't think I'd even heard of it before I picked up a used copy a couple years ago. Turns out it wasn't all that great, unfortunately. It was almost certainly written not long before her death; the emphasis on sex and espionage, the relative lack of humour, and the speed with which its complicated plot occurs, all make it feel out of time compared to its predecessors. It's very unrepresentative of the Malone and Justus series at its best. And yet I'm glad to have it. It's a long way from Rice's best, but it's a reasonably enjoyable and quick read.

Anyway, if you haven't read either Finney or Rice, keep your eyes open the next time you're at a used bookstore. Or, if you must, go search for something at Amazon or ABEbooks. It's just more fun to find this kind of thing at a real used bookstore. If they still exist...


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