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I Have An Admission To Make
I was given a free digital copy of this book by the publisher.
However, very happily, willingly, and bravely, but with total confidence in the book and its author, the
publisher agreed to my terms. These emphasised I’m my own koala, and I'll write whatever I bloody well want.
Good on yer, Crime Wave Press, that takes guts, and I approve.
Unputdownability Quotient: 9/10
Dead Men Do Come Back is a great read. The reasons it gets an unputdownability quotient of 9/10 are:
- The well-written nature of the characters, about whom you will enjoy reading, and regarding whom you will want to know what happens. This is particularly so with the protagonist.
- There is a constant flow of activity about which you must think and consider.
- The storyline puzzles are clever and suitably sneaky.
- The clues are there, and while you'll probably guess some, others are well disguised, especially when you can’t see how what you suspect will come about. However, Steve has written this quite fairly, and is not focused on tricking the reader. I hate the trickiness of some authors, who are just being unfair to their hopefully rapidly decreasing number of readers.
- The history, the gold industry details, and the “place”, or more properly “places” (Juneau is the principal place, but activity also occurs in Seattle and Fiskville*, Alaska's criminal hellhole, and on the ferry that runs between Juneau and Seattle, and which goes past Fiskville), are extremely interesting, especially if, like me, you know very little about the Alaskan gold rush and mining history, or more specifically the post-gold rush period of the 19 noughties.
My focus of study on gold mining (I have an almost endless series of study focuses - or should that be "focusi"; no, probably "focii"? And why the hell would anyone care?) has mostly been about the Australian equivalents, with a special focus on Ballarat, the 1854 Eureka "rebellion", and Victoria's gold rush period in general - all pre-corporate mining.
“Nastiness” Factor: 0/10
While far from being a "cosy", unnecessary violence, blood & gore, or explicit sex, and particularly the ghastly combination of the three, are not present in Dead Men Do Come Back.
As I’ll probably repeat until the cockatoos all come home to roost, bad luck for those who love violent sex, and of course I know it's a normal part of the world's reality, but only a comparatively minor part, at least up the gumtree I live in. I make no value judgement about those who like that stuff, so long as they don't cause harm to anyone without their explicit and freely given approval.
So, it's at least good luck for those of us who don't want to read all about some author's fantasies we find unpleasant, and if you rate all such books as "cosies", well good luck to you. It's just ... well ... you're a twerp!
Oh, there is a little sex, mention of brothels, and the like. These mentions don't even rate anything between 0 and 1 on any of my scales. And after all, this novel is set in a frontier gold mining town in Alaska! But if you're weirdly averse to any mention of this stuff I guess this isn't the book for you. Otherwise, go for your life. The weirdos are just missing out!
Type, Time & Place
Key Storyline Crimes
I think that’s enough to be going on with, although I could pick a few more out of this rather pleasantly convoluted tale.
And I stress I use “convoluted” in the best possible way. Sometimes we need something that makes us think, rather than lounging around wondering when dinner’ll be ready. Especially if you live on your own!
Again, that’s enough, well, OK, at least 6 more than enough (?!), to be going on with.
And how many of these did Steve actually intend? Several, I hope. He seems like a bloke who plans what he writes and why he writes it. I just also hope I’ve picked at least one he actually intended! Otherwise he’ll reckon I’m a real dill!
Not that he'd be right, though, of course! Ummm ... hello ... why've you all gone so silent? Hello ... you don't think I'm a dill, do you? Oh. Okay. I'll just wipe a tear.
The protagonist is United States Marshal Gordon Whitford, responsible for law and order in Juneau, Alaska, and surrounding areas.
Juneau did also have a police force in 1910, although it had a suspiciously high turnover rate of "Marshal" - same title, but different service to Whitford's US Marshals Service. The town's force was appointed by the local municipality, seems to have been responsible only for comparatively minor crime within the limits of the Juneau municipality, and also seems to have been subject to the control of the town's wealthy.
I must admit, I have some trouble coming to grips with the different responsibilities of the United States' various police forces, but I think I've got this at least nearly right.
Anyway, Whitford is a straight-down-the-line lawman. That’s not to say he can’t be flexible where he feels it necessary for the keeping of the peace in town, and the best use of his scarce resources. Those “resources” being a deputy who’s as useful as a roast beef sandwich to a kangaroo, who was corruptly appointed at the behest of the mayor.
Honesty is about all Whitford has going for him. I won’t say he’s incorruptible, but he’s not corrupt, if you can see the difference.
Whitford’s job’s incredibly tough, incredibly unrewarding in all ways, and extremely prone to unfair criticism such as that constantly thrown his way by the local newspaper editor.
We don’t know all that much about Whitford’s past, apart from the fact he’s a survivor of the stupid-as-usual war against Spain in Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders big-noted themselves and got all the glory, while the ordinary foot soldiers, as usual, did the greater part of the dying, mostly from disease and incompetent generalship, again, as usual.
Whitford also has prior experience in the US Marshals Service, Juneau isn't his first posting. However, we don’t find out what he did to end up in Juneau, or whether it was his choice for some reason. Surely no-one would choose to go there unless there was a damned good reason. And the story tells us he is very far from being a fool.
Oh, sorry Juneauites, or is that Juneauvians? I'm sure it's a lovely place these days, but it was pretty crappy in 1910 or earlier. Even Wyatt Earp was in such a hurry to leave he's said to have left his gun behind in the Marshal's office! I'm not sure which Marshal, but I would've thought probably the council appointee.
Mind you, as the story goes on we begin to find some strong indications as to why he may have found himself on the end of an undesired transfer. His thinking processes are a bit unconventional, and he has little, if any, sympathy with crooks who ... oh, bugger, I nearly gave away too much story stuff.
Nonetheless, US Marshals at the time were subject to four year contracts, and seem to have been fairly regularly moved around. My father worked for a very large banking company, and they did the same, to prevent their staff becoming too chummy with the locals and being tempted to defraud the bank on the locals' behalf. I suspect the thinking was the same.
But, back to the Marshal. He’s seen plenty of death, especially in Cuba, and in Juneau’s mines. And not just death, but all the blood, literal guts, and stinks that come with it. And the impacts on those left behind holding the baby, often all-too-literally.
Whitford’s a loner, without much in the way of real friends or people upon whom he can depend. He’s single, appears to have always been single, and doesn’t seem to have had many female “friends”.
On the other hand, he’s not completely unsociable, and is known to drink with locals in the lower level bars upon occasion. And to have utilised the services of those of the town's female citizens making their profits on their backs and in any other position in which they could make cash.
This means, of course, he turns a blind eye to Alaska’s ban on alcohol sales, not because he’s being paid to do so, but because he can see it’s a lost cause, and that for many Juneau residents it’s the only way they can deal with their lives, for better or worse.
Further, the Marshal is far from being part of the power grouping in town. To the wealthy he’s little more than the equivalent of a servant. He uses different, cheaper brothels and bars, rarely mixing with the town’s nobs (or knobs!).
Steve’s a very experienced author with a huge output – some 90 published books at the time of writing (2016). I can’t attest to their quality unfortunately, having not read any but Dead Men Do Come Back, but if they’re half-way as readable as that they would be well worth a read.
Most of his books are histories and biographies, forms of writing which, if you want more than a sale to your grandma, require a high degree of readability, which academics all-to-rarely manage to attain.
Steve reckons all his books, fiction and nonfiction, should be readable, understandable, and educational. Each of these requirements must exist so the reader will keep turning the pages. Not to mention, buying others of one’s books!
I couldn’t agree with him more, except to make sure the definitions of those requirements include “entertaining” somewhere in the mix.
Steve’s a freelance writer, keeping the wolf from the door by way of a high turnover of books, covering a varied range of subjects. However, what shines through in Dead Men Do Come Back is his great interest in and knowledge of the time, place and subject of the novel – around 1910, Juneau, Alaska, gold mining.
It therefore comes as no surprise that while his degree is in European History, his Masters is in American History. Despite these academic credentials, it would be a mistake to regard him as an academic historian or writer, far from it.
Steve’s worked at the coal face - teaching history, writing extensively on Alaskan history (especially on the gold rush and mining eras), and has lived in Alaska, albeit Anchorage, for 40 or so years at the time of writing this review (2016).
Steve also has a couple of wasps in his reg grundies about two crucial things. First, he’s driven to getting kids interested in history - by what for most current school history text books is the most unusual method of making the books interesting. I know. Radical, isn’t it!
To this end, he’s produced a series of 8 books directed at helping middle and high school (in Australia, Years 5-10 or so) students learn real history, as opposed to the dry waffle they get from text books.
Well, OK, most text books. I thought I would bung that in so the big text book publishers still reckon I should be given squillions for good reviews. Ho, ho, ho.
Oh, I guess I should own up to a potential conflict of some sort. The only book I've ever had published was by a text book publisher. I was engaged to write it by a law firm. It was about a New South Wales bit of housing legislation. Try and make that entertaining! Especially with a law firm as client!
Ok, back to the point. I’m sorry, text book writers. Well, actually, I'm probably not really all that sorry. At least you get paid! But, I'm sure you try, and you’re trapped by what you're instructed to write by:
However, I can tell you and all those other bozos, from lots of bitter personal experience, that what you produce makes no positive impact, and turns kids off studying history. Not, probably, that you care, so long as you get paid. Right?
But, maybe turning kids off history is the idea in an economic rationalist, neo-conservative, reactionary world where the humanities are feared because they teach kids how to think, question, and critique what they're told, read, and see. And people like that mostly don't dance on the ends of the puppet strings our would-be masters manipulate.
A conspiracy, eh? Come on, this is a review. Not a suspense story. And it's not bullshit. Okay? The review, I mean. The conspiracy? Who knows.
Right, back to planet earth. Steve’s not just got the students in mind. He knows some, or maybe even many, teachers are stuck in the same rut as the general population, politicians, bureaucrats, and textbook publishers and writers.
Many of these teachers, if not most, are acculturated to only thinking in straight lines and teaching by the rules, “by the book”. The numbers doing this increase, of course, in times when history teaching has become a political football, and varying from the politically set curriculum can be extremely dangerous to one's career.
Accordingly, Steve’s written a book to help teachers get the hang of the whole idea: Use History Like A Tool, An Unconventional Guide to Reading the Past and Managing the Future. A man after my own heart. I’m really looking forward to reading this one. I just bought a digital copy.
The other wasp biting his nether regions is the need to teach kids how to think creatively. I like to think of this as celtic thinking, but that just reflects my biases against many things English, and is far from helpful in encouraging change.
I don't know Steve, so I'm unsure how he would word his impetus here. It seems he and I agree, at least on the basics, as far as I can tell. So I'll expand on my own impetus regarding this matter in the hope it touches on Steve's to at least some degree.
The idea is to teach kids to look for solutions to current or preferably potential future problems in ways different from the old straight Romano/English lines of “logical” thought that simply lead to the same old answers that have failed throughout history, causing the fallacious idea that history is essentially cyclical.
I strongly believe that, to enable people to survive in our increasingly difficult world, the only absolutely crucial thing we need to teach has nothing to do with the 3Rs, or, in simple terms, with the "facts" of history themselves - whatever, of course, they are, as so many of them are, in reality, contested.
Rather, it’s the ability to question and analyse anything they’re being told, so they only do things, and do them in ways, of their own choosing. The alternative is to continue dancing on the end of a whole heap of puppeteers’ strings.
Hmmm ... Have you heard something like this before? Yes, of course. The conspiracy theory - only around the other way. And, you'll notice, without the political overtones. The aim is not some sort of secret leftist takeover, but a very genuine concern over humanity's future.
Of course, I'll have a clearer view of Steve's approach when I read a couple more of his books, particularly: It’s Not What you Think; It’s How You Think! A Nuts-and-Bolts Guide to Thinking Out of the Box, and Making A Pair of Gloves, Creative Thinking for the New Millennium.
So, what’s all this got to do with Dead Men Do Come Back? Well, I could write “Nothing”, but even if I did, this discussion is one of great importance to the whole future of humanity – in my ever-so-humble but over blown opinion.
However, my answer’s not “Nothing”. First, I wanted to clearly show Steve’s seriousness about writing and his great experience and breadth as a writer. Then, his experience as a historian. And then, both his aim with writing, and the end result he’s seeking. Apart from making a living, of course.
Okay, so let’s go back to the beginning again and check the novel against Steve’s own expectations – books should be readable, understandable, and educational.
The book’s a rollicking good yarn. Mind you, don't go thinking Steve's going to let you do a simple cruise rad. Oh, no. You'll have to keep your wits about you, or you'll have to go back and re-read what you've missed.
A rollicking read, yes. A simplistic read, no. The story’s complex in parts. At least, for a simple-minded bloke like me. For example, the description of the insurance scam took a bit of puzzling for me get on top of.
But, then, my pills cause me to be a bit foggy at the best of times, let alone when I've had four hours of sleep the night before.
I hope I'm getting the point across here. This is not some casual read you can knock off in a couple of hours. But that's the point. Steve wants you to think, and to notice Gordon's thinking processes.
And what the hell’s wrong with making us think a bit? That’s what separates a good crime novel from a cosie. Not that cosies can’t be good, blah, blah, blah. So this isn’t a quibble, it’s a “Hot Diggetty” as far as I’m concerned.
Especially in a world where we tend to just sit blankly in front of the tv, letting mindless pap wash over us while corporations con us with constant and psychologically devised advertising, and various bodies and people play with us on the ends of their puppet strings, with their needs in mind, never our needs. Not really.
Right ok rant over, for the moment. Back to Steve's book. I hope I'm not giving the impression this is some critical thinking tome. No, no, and not on your nelly.
There’s plenty of action, the characters arouse one’s interest, the protagonist is sympathetic, the conclusion is complex and requires concentration and thought.
In other words, you'll care about what happens to all the characters, and particularly Whitrod, and your desire to know how Steve's going to fit it all together, and, of course, how many of your guesses (sorry, "deductions") are right, encourages you to read right through to the end.
So, readable? Yep, sure is.
Now, this is where my addition of "entertaining" comes in. Yep, the book may be about history in a place I’ve only barely heard of, in a time I know very little about, concerning technical stuff with which I have no background.
But, rollicking I said, and rollicking I mean. I enjoyed it. It rolls along well, and while there needs to be some technical explanation at times, it's easily absorbed a layperson. Mind you, I was feeling particularly out of sorts the day I read about a complex scam, and had to re-read some bits the next day.
But that's not Steve's fault. In fact, I don't see it as a fault at all. Thinking! The 62 year old brain may not have been all that flash to start with, and it may be growing a little rusty, but I enjoy thinking. I enjoy wondering and puzzling. And I both enjoy being right, and enjoy being wrong when clever truths are revealed.
Well done, and thanks, Steve.
Oh, sorry, now I’ve written what looks like the kind of patronising remark teachers put on their students’ assignments.
Anyway, entertaining? Sure is. Oh, bugger, now I’ve used a phrase associated with a much-loved Australian performer who’s just quite rightly been imprisoned in his old age for acts of paedophilia. I think I might just move on before something else goes wrong.
Next, is the novel understandable? I’ll have to exercise a bit of translation here.
“Understandable” to me means the writing is clear and uses commonly comprehensible language without a heap of unexplained or inadequately explained technical language.
For example, the gold specialist’s term “doré”. This is clearly explained, several times, in several ways, and in several contexts. That scam I mentioned is also well explained, although you won’t want to doze of in the middle! Otherwise you’ll have to go back and start again.
And I stress it was nothing to do with the book that I dozed off. I’m not as young as I was and 1 am is, frankly, rather more than 3 hours after my bedtime, rather than the start of my party-time as it once was.
And this brings us to Steve’s 3rd requirement (and my fourth). The book must be educational. And to answer this I’m going to refer you to my section on “Quibbles”. Not that what I have is a quibble, but initially I thought it was.
Okay, the book’s really good points. Excuse me if I quote myself here:
"[Dead Men Do Come Back] may be about history in a place I’ve only barely heard of, in a time I know very little about, concerning technical stuff with which I have no background, and have a convoluted and complex plot, but Steve has put it all together in what I can easily describe again as a “rollicking good yarn.”"
I love learning about new stuff, especially when I can be reasonably certain the author knows what they’re writing about, and they do so in a way that’s both readable and entertaining. This is, after all, a major reason I read, and especially a major reason I read historical crime fiction.
So, I like Steve’s use of history, and the effort he's made to use fiction to educate us about the history of places he obviously dearly loves. But, more than that, I also like how he's used this method to help us start to think along lines that are a bit different from those we normally follow, or which all-too-many of us fall into in order to survive in our overly linear society.
And the “convoluted” plot? Well, sorry, but I can do no better than quote myself again:
“I stress I use “convoluted” in the best possible way. Sometimes we need something that makes us think, rather than lounging around wondering when dinner’ll be ready.”
First up, I want to make clear I won’t mention a quibble in any review unless it caused me distraction from my enjoyment of the book I’m critiquing. I discussed my reasons for this in my review of Brian Stoddart’s very enjoyable book, A Straits Settlement.
Further, it might help if you read my section on the author of Dead Men Do Come Back, Steven C Levi (left column, towards the bottom), before reading this.
Right, let’s get into it.
Steve reckons his books must accord with 3 primary requirements. All his books, both fiction and non-fiction, should be readable, understandable, and educational.
In the section on the author I indicate I believe he has unequivocally met the first 2 of these requirements, plus my own addition, "entertaining".
It’s the 3rd requirement, educational, I believe initially caused me a little strife, and which I want to discuss so you don’t suffer the same distraction, or, indeed, my initial misunderstanding of it as a negative.
I make the point before we go on that this discussion is all from my own head. I have no proof regarding what I write, so take it as you may.
I have no problems with either you, or Steve, disagreeing with me, and would welcome any comments you may have. I hate trolls, but I genuinely learn from peoples' comments. I'm human, I make mistakes. I accept that.
Another way I learn is from argument. I come from a line of arguing family members. When we stop, it's over. And, often, next time we might be arguing from the opposite camp, forming our understandings, ideas, and opinions.
Unfortunately, many, if not most, other people get angry with me, or think I'm being unduly negative. I try to temper my comments, but sometimes I let rip - but I learn from the response.
If I get involved in anything like that, please don't get angry, just inform me that you don't like my tone.
Oh, but I retain the right to my own opinion, and I may simply disagree with you, or alter my own opinion in a way with which you disagree. Such, I fear, is life, folks. This is my review, if you want it to agree with you completely, write your own!
Ok, back to Dead Men Do Come Back.
I acknowledge that it’s always possible for an author to unwittingly have an unintended effect interpreted by someone such as myself in unintended ways. In this case, I believe my interpretation to be positive and well meant, not a way of smart-arsing or big-noting.
And I reiterate, what I initially thought was a negative is, I now believe, a "Hot Diggetty".
Okey dokey, here goes. Steve’s a teacher, in at least part, and I very much suspect he’s an extremely good one.
I believe he’s recognised what many teachers recognise, that one of the ways to get people to learn what you’re teaching is by repetition. And the teacher’s skill lies in doing so without constantly boring the students.
As I discussed in the section on Steve, he has several things he believes are extremely important to teach about history and thought processes.
Right, so here’s the crux of the matter. In utilising Dead Men Do Come Back as an educational tool, Steve is using an interesting way both of teaching us about Alaska and some of its history and people, and making us think about what he’s teaching us as we go along the very clever paths of thought used by the often under-estimated and mis-used Marshal Whitford.
If I’m right, some readers may react negatively. Crime fiction, to them, is meant to be entertaining, not educational. Well, I’ve got news for them. Crime fiction isn’t “meant” to be anything other than what the author means it to be. Noting that it’s not unusual for readers to add or subtract from, or completely misunderstand what the author means.
Further, I see nothing whatever wrong with that. So when an author laughs about graduate students writing theses about things the author didn’t intend, well get used to it guys, maybe you did it subconsciously, or maybe you’re a genius without knowing it!
Or maybe you’re just a puffed up windbag with a snooty sense of superiority. Or, maybe, to be a little more kind, you’re using same to disguise your low sense of self.
And, to insult another bunch of readers (not to mention the authors I’ve just insulted), the word "literature”, or the terms “serious literature” or “classical literature”, in no way exclude any form of “genre” literature. There are just as many dud “serious" literature authors, as there are dud “genre” literature authors. Proportionally, anyway.
Right, back to Dead Men Do Come Back. Again! To give effect to his educational aims, Steve has to resort to something I found strangely annoying, until I had a chance to think more about it.
So, to the point, at last. There is an odd repetition in Steve’s book, that initially I found distracting. I sincerely hope he meant this, because if he didn’t it I’ve just made an awful fool of myself, and I’ve got a major quibble! Mind you, it wouldn’t be a first for either, so I can live with it, and Dead Men Do Come Back is worth it anyway.
However, the point is, if Steve intended the repetition to serve an educational function, I don’t have a problem. In this case, the repetition allows us to follow Whitford’s thinking as he tries to nut out answers to the many questions the storyline raises. And of course, like all of us, he’s not perfect. He’s a human being, with all the attendant faults to differing degrees.
So, as he ponders what's happening, he might cover the same ground in an attempt to extract more from it.
In this process we find ourselves deviating from the straight paths of thinking common to our over-dependence on “logic” as the only way to resolve problems, the paths Steve correctly identifies elsewhere as “ruts”.
And it’s these ways of thinking that finally help Whitford reach his conclusions and the very clever way he finds of getting revenge on the person who turns out to be his main antagonist, or at least that he allows himself to regard as such.
I greatly respect Steve for caring so much as to make the effort to show us how to better resolve issues and problems. The point regarding Whitford is that he does it in a way that avoids violence, even though violence and his own death are constant possibilities.
If only our world leaders would take note!
(In order of appearance, and not necessarily of importance.)
George S O’Banion
Gloomy Gus Summers
“What this town needs are unions. Nay, a union. A miners’ union that will stand firm for the miners, the working men who feed the empires of Summers and Thane.”
As a matter of interest, Bartlett Thane was the real manager of the Alaska Gastineau mine, and unlike this fictional Thane was married with a daughter - although I'm unsure if this blissful state existed for the real Bartlett in 1910.
I'm reluctant to tell any more of the real Thane's story on the off-chance I might unintentionally spoil the book.
Black Jack Ramser
Well! The name just about says it all. And I admit I found it a bit over the top.
We don't see anything of Black Jack, but in his own way, he's an important character.
O'Banion introduces him to us in one of his columns thus:
"Black Jack Ramser, suspected of the doré bar robbery last August, has been lurking around Juneau slavering at the thought of yet another heist. It isn’t enough that Black Jack was seen wildly spending cash shortly after the heist but that he openly challenged United States Marshal Gordon Whitford to “prove it”."
Oh, dear, poor old Whitford's in for another pasting. Black Jack seems to own many of the brothels and pigs (illegal bars) in town, and has many "kind" folk who are only too glad to tell him when Whitrod's in his part of town, so he can frustratingly keep one establishment ahead of the Marshal.
If his name wasn't enough, his ownership of several pigs and brothels alone should tell you Ramser's Juneau's equivalent of a gang boss, with a finger in any pie going around. He's not a good man to be on the wrong side of, and he's not too good a man to be on the right side of either.
In other words, Ramser's just your average everyday psychopath - and if that's going too far, he's at least as sociopathic as any of Juneau's other business leaders.
Oh, and you remember my comment about Black Jack Ramser's name being over the top? Well, check out some history of Alaskan crooks, and you'll find his name and his character are, if anything, downplayed.
Billy the Horse
“When I turned around I was facing the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was about thirty, with a wisp of a waist and full bosom. She had an angelic face framed with brown hair and lips that were like the petals of a rose. She was tall for a woman but perfect for a man my size.”
This is Whitford’s description of the sight and his initial thought the first time he met Harriet, telling us he was a big man, and giving us a great picture of a woman he shortly points out would be an exceptionally unusual sight in any US city, let alone Juneau.
Presumably even CM’s good looking women were “good looking” for Juneau only, for “women like this didn’t live in Juneau.”
Whitford's a decent man, whatever that means in Juneau, Alaska, in 1910. He at least is embarrassed by his immediate reaction to Harriet Swanscombe, and recognises its inappropriateness.
The Marshal, waiting for Chilly George’s widow to come up from Seattle to claim the corpse and arrange for its disposal, had heard she was on the ferry that just pulled into town, and is expecting a wizened woman in her sixties.
He was certainly not expecting a woman like Harriet to hop off that self-same ferry.
Yep, your right. No more because of the potential to spoil the story.
Sadly, Harriet all too soon heads back to Seattle. But is this the last time he sees her? Or is his attention taken by another woman? Read the book, for I’ll write no more.
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