August 2009

I have not personally read anything by Stephen Hunter but my nephew thinks he’s all that, so I took a look at what he’s written.

His fiction novels (of which there are currently 14) appear to be too violent for my taste, but he also writes non-fiction, including one that took me by surprise by its subject.

An attempted assassination of President Harry Truman:

Harry S. Truman, c1945. (Library of Congress)

Harry S. Truman, c1945. (Library of Congress)

On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, nearly assassinated President Harry Truman. If this historical fact surprises you, you’re not alone. American Gunfight, a new account by suspense novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Stephen Hunter and journalist John Bainbridge Jr., examines this largely forgotten episode in meticulous detail, including the conspiracy surrounding it and the misconceptions associated with the would-be assassins. As the book makes clear, it’s remarkable that these two men even came close to succeeding, given the disorganized nature of the plot. Intending to attack the president at the White House, they only learned in passing from a cab driver that it was being renovated and that Truman was in fact living at the nearby Blair House. When they made their assault on Blair House, they quickly lost their element of surprise when Collazo’s gun misfired, leading to a 38-second shootout in front of the residence that left Torresola and one policeman dead. Meanwhile, Truman witnessed the action from an upstairs window.

At his ensuing trial, Collazo was depicted as a crazed fanatic, but the authors argue that this simplified assessment unnecessarily dismisses a potential political conspiracy involving Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who was believed by some to have masterminded the plot in an effort to bring attention to his cause. Hunter and Bainbridge provide in-depth portraits of Collazo and Torresola, as well as the Secret Service agent and three White House policemen who saved Truman’s life. The descriptions of the remarkably light presidential security of the era reveal much about 1950s Washington, D.C., a time in which the president would take a daily walk around the neighborhood with just a bodyguard or two in tow. As a result of the attack, the Secret Service would forever change the way it guarded the president. This fast-paced book reads like a detective thriller, shifting quickly between various story lines and characters, including a second-by-second breakdown of the gunfight itself. The potboiler narrative may seem over the top at times, with its conjecture and imagined internal dialogue, but this comprehensive account succeeds in bringing this unlikely plot vividly to life. — Shawn Carkonen


James Wolcott wrote today that he thought the 1973 movie The Friends of Eddie Coyleexceeds expectations.” In poking around to see if I could find it to watch online (no success), I discovered that the movie is based on a 1972 novel of the same name by George V. Higgins.

Higgins wrote more than two dozen novels (and several non-fiction books) between 1972 and his death in 1999. In 1985 The Friends of Eddie Coyle was selected as one of the twenty best American novels since World War II by the British Booksellers Association.

With The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974), about a professional killer, Higgins’s first novel was part of a loose trilogy about the criminal underworld. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle the protagonist is a smalltime hoodlum and hustler who tries to avoid giving evidence against his friends. He runs guns to a team of bank robbers while selling information to the cops. Eddie’s betrayals ultimately lead to his death. Higgins’ literary trademark was already fully developed: the action was mostly transmitted through dialogue.

University of Chicago Press is reprinting Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels, originally published under the pseudonym Richard Stark. So far they include:

* Handle: A Parker Novel
* Hunter: A Parker Novel
* Jugger: A Parker Novel
* Man with the Getaway Face: A Parker Novel
* Mourner: A Parker Novel
* Outfit: A Parker Novel
* Rare Coin Score: A Parker Novel
* Score: A Parker Novel
* Seventh: A Parker Novel

The last three in this list have just been released, with more to follow.