Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Reviews-77 Shadow Street, Mickey Cohen, Ultimate Autos

77 Shadow Street
By Dean Koontz
I used to read Dean Koontz as avidly as I read Stephen King. Koontz was a favorite. I think he was a favorite of a lot of people since between them, King and Koontz titles used to easily take up one-half of horror section shelf space in many bookstores. However tastes change as we age and it's been a long time since I read any of Koontz's work. A few weeks back I saw this rather hefty paperback on sale for almost nothing so I picked it up. The story wasn't original but there are some talented writers who have claimed that there are very few original sci-fi/fantasy stories, just classic themes that are reworked according to a writer's individual taste and skill.

In this case the story is about The Pendleton, a old mansion with a troubled past that has been changed into a swank hotel. Every so often, usually about 38 years, there are problems, apparitions appear, people kill other people or simply disappear. So basically this is a haunted house story. Obviously this immediately reminded me of Stephen King's The Shining or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House  or Richard Matheson's Hell House but not in a negative way. I was eager to see what a master writer like Koontz did with this format. I will have to go back and check some of his older works but my immediate impression is either that Koontz has become a lot more long-winded since last I read him or perhaps a writer of his skill and success has a slightly different relationship with editors than some neophyte would. I found myself struggling with this book's length. There are some long books where you find yourself frantically turning the pages because you can't wait to see what happened next.  For other books though you frantically turn the pages because you really want the book to end because you have other things to do. Don't get me wrong, uninspiring Koontz is still better than 90% of other genre writers but this story could have easily been chopped in half and not lost that much. It was over 500 pages. That was just too much for me. The story feels stretched out. There is a lot of detail about what each character is seeing. 



Koontz isn't a political ideologue but he does lean conservative and as he usually does in his books, takes a few shots, some deserved, some not, at liberal ideologies. But his real ire is reserved for those that think they have a right to control other people's lives, no matter what their politics may be. This comes through loud and clear in his writing and certainly is on display here. Koontz despises bullies, supernatural or not.
In The Pendleton, the thirty eight year period of calm has expired and the residents start seeing things that can't be real-things from other times and perhaps even from other dimensions. However as a few of them find out the hard way what they're seeing is real and can kill them. Until it's too late they don't try to get out of the hotel. I didn't like this because it seemed to me like they all should have left almost immediately. Anyway it will be up to the hotel residents (some plucky single mothers and their children, a lawyer, a no-nonsense ex-military man, some dedicated or lazy hotel workers, a mentally deranged contract killer with serious Oedipal issues, a drunk Senator, a scientist with a secret, etc..) to find out what's going on, how the events are connected to one of them, and save themselves and maybe the world. Portions of the story are also told from the POV of the entity behind all the strange events.

Again, I liked the setup but was just a bit disappointed in the delivery. YMMV. If you haven't read Koontz I would still strongly urge you to try him but would suggest his earlier works. When he's on he's as good a writer as anyone out there. He, like King, usually has some sharp insights into human nature. I just didn't think this book ranked with his classic work.





Mickey Cohen:The Life and Crimes of LA's Notorious Mobster
by Tere Tereba
When someone says Mafia you probably think of a Italian/Sicilian gangster who's going to make you an offer you can't refuse. In 20th century American organized crime history the Italian element was dominant. However although the Mafia is not an equal opportunity employer, organized crime as a whole certainly is. Until roughly the late forties or mid fifties the Italian element in organized crime was roughly equal in power with other Caucasian ethnics, primarily Jewish Americans. As one crime expert put it, "The Italians had the muscle, the Jews had the moxie and they all made money".
We don't speak of Jewish American crime families today because classic Jewish American criminal groups weren't structurally set up the same way as Italian American mafia families. The Jewish gangster organizations tended to be one or two generation operations, and often disintegrated upon the death of the founding boss. There doesn't appear to be a Jewish criminal analogue to the NY Five Families, which have been in their current form for almost a century. But from the late forties to the early sixties in southern California there was one dominant organized crime boss and his name was Mickey Cohen. He fought off all attempts to steal his crown, both from within and from outside the organized crime fraternity.

Cohen first came to prominence when he attracted the attention of legendary infamous crime boss and killer Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the Syndicate big shot who arrived in California to organize rackets for the benefit of the New York and Chicago mobs. Cohen, then a robber and killer for hire, had robbed a Siegel backed gambling game and initially refused to return the money. After Siegel coldly explained the facts of life and death to him Cohen saw the light and gave the proceeds back. Siegel admired the younger man's guts and brought him into his West Coast operations. Cohen, who had his own Cleveland and Chicago patrons, rose swiftly in Siegel's organization, becoming Siegel's top bodyguard and second-in-command.


Siegel later ran afoul of boyhood pals and fellow organized crime bosses Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano as well as the Chicago Outfit when he refused to share the national wire service and was suspected of skimming casino gambling funds. After Siegel's assassination, Cohen took over his California operations and expanded them greatly. He was contemptuous of the local Los Angeles Mafia family and survived several assassination attempts from what was widely considered to be the "Mickey Mouse Mafia". Cohen had a severe case of OCD, perhaps bought about by his early poverty and STD infection. His OCD would save his life multiple times. Once when a would be Judas shook his hand to mark him for assassination, Cohen immediately left for the bathroom to wash his hands and so missed the ensuing drive-by. Another time Cohen noticed a scratch in his Cadillac fender and bent down to inspect it at the exact time that a rifleman from a rival mob was taking a shot. Some of the attempts on Cohen's life were set up by police. Loquacious, dangerous and rather greedy the dapper Cohen had his fingers in just about every major criminal enterprise in Southern California. Extortion, loan sharking, bookmaking, gambling, pornography, prostitution, and narcotics were his bread and butter. Cohen's legal businesses included clothing stores and ice cream shops. Cohen also had several links to the film industry. He ran an extremely lucrative sexual blackmail business. One of his employees, an bisexual gigolo named Johnny Stompanato, was the lover of film legend Lana Turner. Stompanato was allegedly killed by Turner's teen daughter. Angry at the lost income, Cohen released private and rather intimate love letters from Turner to Stompanato and threatened to release even more intimate film.


This book details Cohen's rise from desperate childhood poverty to lowly thug and goon to Siegel's gofer and later crime boss in his own right to his fall from grace via federal tax evasion convictions. The second conviction finally reduced and perhaps broke his power. This is the true life story which inspired most of the LA noir film and book stories from LA Confidential to Raymond Chandler's works. There is a lot of information about the LAPD. For whatever reason although I was used to thinking of that department as extremely brutal I didn't think of them as particularly corrupt. This book explodes that misconception. The original crime bosses in LA were often Anglo/Irish high-ranking police officers! 
It wasn't until the arrival of Siegel and Cohen that power was passed and even then there remained numerous ties between the criminals, the businessmen, the lawyers, the film studios, the judiciary and the police and prosecutors. Everybody was dirty. This was a fascinating story based on both primary and secondary documents. Tere Tereba did a really good job of setting the stage and telling the story here. I like all the information she dug up on old Hollywood. Heck, this book is as much about the underside of Hollywood as it is about organized crime. See if you can find the 60 Minutes interview in which Cohen insults LAPD chief William Parker as a "sadistic drunk degenerate". There are oodles of info on Richard Nixon, Shirley Temple, RFK, Frank Sinatra, Billy Graham and many other famous names. Cohen was always good for a snappy quote. During a Senate hearing when he was accused of living badly and being surrounded by violence, the pugnacious little gangster responded "Whaddya mean surrounded by violence? People are shooting at me!!!"




Ultimate Autos
by Tom Stewart
What car or truck do you drive? Why do you drive it? Do you enjoy driving it or was it simply something that was practical or within your budget? Do you care about style and performance and showing off or do you simply care about safely getting from point A to point B? Well with gasoline remaining above $3/gallon most of us have to at least consider the fuel economy of what we drive. And most of us are not millionaires or billionaires so even if we wanted something much nicer than we have, chances are we couldn't afford it.
But if money wasn't an option, would you get something different? If so, then Ultimate Autos: The Kings of Bling might be a good place to start looking. The book is somewhat dated; it was first published in 2006. However many of the cars listed within are still in production in later updates. All of them are head turners. These are cars I will probably never own or drive but a man can dream can he not. If you need to ask the dealer or manufacturer how much any of these vehicles cost, you really need to go buy something less expensive.


The coffee table book lists cars which are the prettiest, the highest performing, the most expensive and the most well made. The book is broken up in seven sections (GTs, Convertibles, Euro Supercars, Sedans, SUVs, US Supercars, and Concepts). Each vehicle gets a number of lavish photographs, (the book's paper is glossy and fits the subject matter very well) ,detailed specs and price, and historical production analysis and comparison. Some of the vehicles discussed include the Ford GT, Brabus Maybach, Ferrari FXX, Aston Martin Vanquish, CXT 7300, Hummer H1, Holden Efijy, Maserati MC12, Pagani Zonda, Bentley Azure and many others. Since I happen not to have a spare $400,000 (roughly the median price of the vehicles listed) laying around I won't be purchasing any of these in the next few weeks but if you happen to have that sort of cash and aren't doing anything with it this book might excite your interest and a trip to your local dealer or made-to-order manufacturer.
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