Tuesday, 26 December 2017 – pages 1-58 of Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde

Tuesday I had trouble finding my next book. My shelves are buckling under the weight of recent orders from Edward R Hamilton and from various online, used booksellers. Somehow, nothing seemed “just right.”

So, I started messing with Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde (2013). It’s a nonfiction account of his travel from Capetown, South Africa, north to Angola. Theroux notes that Last Train amounts to a second phase of the journey that he recounts in Dark Star Safari (2002), which ended in Capetown.

As I enjoyed Dark Star Safari (and all of Theroux’s nonfiction travel work), I had high expectations for Last Train. My expectations have been met, as I’d give Last Trainr 8 out of 10, so far.


Theroux’s Journey

The book begins with Theroux in remote Namibia. At the same time, the economies are collapsing in the developed world. Theroux muses that these “primitive” Namibians may have the last laugh.

The second and third chapters find Theroux back on familiar ground in Capetown, South Africa. He’s very interested in what has happened since the end of his trip there ten years before. First, he visits the black settlements on Capetown’s outskirts. He finds that there has been progress, but that a steady stream of migrants continues to arrive from the rest of South Africa. In the white areas, he also discusses what is different. Again, he seems relatively upbeat.

To those familiar with Theroux – who has a well-earned reputation as something of a grouch – the book has a surprising start. But, being Theroux, he mixes in a bit of darkness by musing that this African adventure might be his last trip. Theroux makes many references to his advancing years and how senior citizens are pushed to the margins of society.

Onward with Paul

The next chapter takes Theroux on to Namibia. I can’t wait.

Why did it take me so long to read this one? I’m a big Theroux fan and I’ve had Last Train on the shelf for a long time. I guess the moment just wasn’t right. But I’m really enjoying my (armchair) travels with Theroux.

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Monday, 25 December 2017 – finishing Arthur Jones’ The Road He Travelled (pages 249-279)

Christmas night I finished The Road He Travelled, Arthur Jones’ biography of M Scott Peck. On the whole, I give the book 7.5 out of 10.

IMG_0630Peck’s Sad End

Though I enjoyed the final two chapters, it wasn’t uplifting. The end of Peck’s life did not feature a gentle ride into the sunset. Instead, as Parkinson’s disease slowly killed him, Peck tried to control everyone around him – and largely failed.

In the final pages, author Jones focuses on Peck’s narcissism. For all of Peck’s accomplishments, he did much to alienate his three children and his first wife. Moreover, Peck’s limitations precluded him from “making things right” before he died. Peck’s son, Christopher, describes his father in the following, devastating terms –

Christopher – “…surmised that his father wasn’t a Jekyll and Hyde character ‘because Jekyll split himself into vice and virtue, but Scotty’s virtue was really a sham. His narcissism left him a very lonely person, and his saintliness (which I found creepier than his cruelty) was a plea for love. I don’t think he loved because he enjoyed loving others; he loved in order to be loved back'” (p. 274).

Worth Reading

You may not love Peck after reading The Road He Travelled. But, as with Peck’s books, the reader – even the critical reader – is left with much to ponder. For me, the best question is one of the oldest -“What price glory?” Peck achieved a tremendous amount, but he was never happy and his success took a heavy toll on Peck and on everyone around him.

Jones’ bio is well worth a look for those interested in M. Scott Peck.

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Sunday, 24 December 2017 – reading pages 157-247 of Arthur Jones’ The Road He Travelled

At night, I red some more of Arthur Jones’ biography of M. Scott Peck, The Road He Travelled. I read Chapters 9 – 13, which cover the period of Peck’s greatest celebrity after he published The Road Less Travelled to such great success. The portrait that emerges is of an unconventional thinker who tackled life’s most-vexing issues, but who struggled to maintain relationships with his wife and children.

Sunday’s Reading – Bit of a Letdown

IMG_0630The material was good, but it was not as strong as what I’d read Saturday night. The main problem that I had was that Jones “loses” Peck the person for long stretches. Too often, the chapters simply recount what was in Peck’s books; The Road He Travelled can seem more like a book review than a biography

Life After Success

Predictably, Peck continued to be very successful after publishing The Road Less Travelled. Just as predictable was that – despite his many successes – Peck could never duplicate the success of The Road. An interesting aspect of Peck’s writing life was the incredible array of topics that his work covers – building community, human evil, international relations, and golf, to name just a few.

Jones devotes much space to Peck’s time on the lecture circuit. Peck’s ability as a presenter helped push The Road to the top of the bestseller list. At the same time, it also helped to undo Peck – as he spent 200+ nights per year on the road, he continue to abuse alcohol, smoke a pack of Camels each day, and engage in extramarital affairs.

The final parts that I read focused on Peck’s decline. By the mid-1990s, his book sales had begun to slide and he was the subject of unflattering profiles in Life and Rolling Stone magazines. More seriously, Peck had developed Parkinson’s disease and his wife filed for divorce. By the end of Chapter 13, Peck is remarrying, but is also preparing to die.

My Thoughts

Readers will be ambivalent about Peck. His thinking was provocative, but he is not someone you always like. I’m enjoying Jones’ book and give what I’ve completed 7 out of 10.

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Saturday, 23 December 2017 – Pages 1 – 156 of Arthur Jones’ The Road He Travelled

Back in the early 90s, when I was in undergraduate school, I turned on the Today Show. Bryant Gumbel was still the host and he was interviewing M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Travelled. Peck was on Today to promote a new book. I still remember the often-sour Gumbel gushing about The Road Less Travelled; Gumbel noted that Peck’s new book was going to have to be something else to match the standard set by The Road.IMG_0630

Well, that piqued my interest, though I didn’t read The Road right away. With seven million copies of The Road in print, I inevitably came across a cheap-o copy in a thrift store and bought it. Self-books generally disappoint, but The Road lived up to its laudatory reviews – it’s an original mix of tough love and personal insight.

Jones’ Bio

When I heard that Arthur Jones had written a biography of Peck, I was interested. When I read some of the excerpts, which stated that Peck didn’t always practice what he preached, I was more interested still. But I didn’t around to it, until – a few weeks ago, I had an Amazon gift card, so I spent some of the money to order a used copy Jones’ bio, which is titled The Road He Travelled.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was deeply disappointed. The seller had described the book as being in excellent shape, but it had extensive water damage and some of the pages were moldy. A complaint from me to Amazon ensued; I got a refund and got to keep the book.


Inside flap

Finally, the Book

Saturday, I got around to reading my moldy, waterlogged copy of Jones’ book. It’s good. Despite some dead parts, I give The Road He Travelled an 8 out of 10 so far.

For the most part, Jones constructs the biography in chronological order. He spends much time on Peck’s childhood, when he was born into an East Coast family well connected to the U.S. Elite. Peck’s father was a Harvard-trained attorney at Manhattan’s Sullivan and Cromwell, a law firm associated with Republican Party heavyweights such as Thomas Dewey and the Dulles brothers.

However, Peck’s father was half-Jewish, a fact the father hid even from his own family. (He went to his grave without discussing it with his children). Peck was born into this world where “keeping up appearances” was everything. On top of that, Scott was unable to be the “golden boy” that his parents wanted him to be, dropping out of the famed boarding school Exeter.


Back cover

Move Into Adulthood – and Lost Momentum

Against this backdrop, Peck eventually graduated from Harvard and from Case Western Reserve’s medical school. Jones shows how Peck’s senior thesis at Harvard foreshadowed the ideas that he would further develop in The Road Less Travelled. Along the way, he married Lily Ho, a Chinese-American woman. Peck’s status-conscious father strongly disapproved of Ho, due to the fact that she wasn’t caucasian.

Up to this point, Jones really engages the reader. But the book loses momentum when it recounts the 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, Peck was in the Army and establishing his family. But the material just isn’t that good.

Peck the Author

The final section that I read was better. Jones discusses how Peck wrote The Road while practicing psychiatry in rural Connecticut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peck’s parenting and family life repeated many of the dysfunctional aspects of his own upbringing.


About Arthur Jones

When I stopped reading for the night, The Road had become a surprise hit and Peck was traveling the U.S. To promote the book. Jones uses Peck’s absentee fathering as evidence that Peck was a narcissist who – at bottom –  more about his own needs than about those of anyone else.


While Jones’ book has its flaws, it’s very compelling and I recommend it. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Friday, 22 December 2017 – Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of The House of Zeus

Friday I finished Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of the House of Zeus. It’s about Mississippi super lawyer Dickie Scruggs and his fall from grace for attempting to bribe a judge. Prior to that, Scruggs’ life seemed to be charmed – as he had made a fortune as a trial lawyer.

The book had particular resonance for me. Much of the book takes place in Oxford, Mississippi. I lived in Oxford for two years in the 1990s and thought that it was the model of the small college town.


Readers will take different lessons from Scruggs’ story. He was not born into wealth or status, but he managed to acquire it – becoming a millionaire trial lawyer, a Navy pilot, and a player in national politics. (Among other connections, he was Senator Trent Lott’s brother in law).

But success seemed to sow the seeds of Scruggs’ destruction. Scruggs associated with some very unsavory people. Some of the book’s best stories concerns the shadowy characters who operate at the margins of Mississippi politics – and how much influence these characters can wield. When Scruggs became frustrated at his inability to obtain a large settlement from State Farm insurance over its failure to pay claims related to Hurricane Katrina, the bribery scheme was hatched.

The first part of The Fall of the House is Zeus is much better than the second part. Once this trials start, the narrative loses momentum. Still, this is a terrific book about an interesting character and about “how things get done” in state politics in the U.S. I give Zeus 8 out of 10.

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Sunday, 17 December 2017 – Pages 96 – 156 of Brett Halliday’s Murder Spins the Wheel

If you’re a bookworm, you never want to quit any book before you finish it. There’s always a feeling of failure when you quit reading. Sometimes you are rewarded because a dull read picks up. But it’s more likely that you punish yourself because most books that don’t engage you tend to stay dull ’til the bitter end.

Should Have Cut My Losses

IMG_0625Such was the case with Brett Halliday’s Murder Spins the Wheel. Sunday I slogged through ’til the end of it, but I can’t say that I’m any better off for having done so.

The novel contains lots of action – drugs, violence, sports, gambling, sexy women, etc. But it’s not enough. As mentioned in yesterday’s blog entry, this is the icing without the cake. It might work with more-realistic characters and better details, but what’s here is disappointing.

Private eye Mike Shayne is about what you’d expect – picture John Wayne working as a Miami p.i. and you’ve got the right idea. He’s a big redhead whose street smarts always leave him one step ahead of everyone else – especially the incompetent police. And that’s a problem. Several times during Murder Spins the Wheel Shayne manages to bully the police into doing things his way, which the reader knows simply wouldn’t happen in the real world.



Nice Plot Twists

The plot was better than I gave it credit for in yesterday’s blog. In the last 20 pages or so, Halliday throws in some nice twists. One twist involves a relationship between several of the characters that brings to mind Ross Macdonald’s intricate plots. Also, Halliday ends the book with another nice twist that I didn’t see coming.

The problem with the plot is that I’d checked out mentally before the book’s twists and turns. When the twists came, I’d already rendered my verdict on Murder Spins the Wheel.

Find Something Else to Read


Unfortunately, I cannot give Murder Spins the Wheel more than a 4.5 out of 10. 

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Saturday, 16 December 2017 – reading pages 1-95 of Brett Halliday’s Murder Spins the Wheel

Friday, my kids spent the night with my parents. My leggy wife and I had a few hours of free time and decided to spend it on a visit to one of the world’s greatest places – America’s Thrift Store in Tillmans Corner, Alabama. For the cheapskate book lover, it’s hard to beat – they have an entire wall of books. All paperbacks are $1 and all hardcovers are $1.50.

After searching the stock, I found three – Brett Halliday’s Murder Spins the Wheel, John Lutz’s Death by Jury, and Robert Graysmith’s The Sleeping Lady. Those three books, my library books, and all of my other recent orders ought to keep me off the streets during the holidays.

Searching for Low-Rent Thrills

A few years ago, I finished the last of Ralph Dennis’ Hardman series. Dennis was an Atlanta writer whose Hardman series (published from 1974-77) is one of the unappreciated gems of men’s adventure books. In that series, Dennis accomplished the seemingly-easy – but very rare – feat of crafting a readable, well-written series of crime novels. Ever since I finished the Hardman books, I’ve been looking for a similar series.  So far, I haven’t come close to finding anything that measures up.

Over the years, I’ve read some nice things about the Mike Shayne series of detective novels. Just the other day, I was thumbing Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s 1001 Midnights and I remembered that the Shayne novels had been on my to-read list. Finding Murder Spins the Wall seemed like a message from the literary gods that the time was right.

(Finally) About the Book

IMG_0625Brett Halliday was the pen name of a number of different authors. According to online sources, Davis Dresser stopped writing the Mike Shayne series around 1958 and turned it over to various ghost writers including Ryerson Johnson and Robert Terrall. This is my long-winded way of stating that I don’t know who wrote Murder Spins the Wheel. 

The novel opens well, with a “Slam. Bang.” sequence in which three lowlives attempt a strong arm robbery of $200,000 from a Miami bookmaker named Harry Bass. Predictably, things don’t go as planned and Mike Shayne comes in to try to unravel the mess. Also predictably, he uncovers a complex plot involving fixed football games, fixed horse races, heroin, the mob, and lots of beautiful women (in short, all of the things guys like).

Straight from the Mold

After the start, the pace never slows. The story careens from one sex- and action-filled sequence to the next. The reader never catches his or her breath. The novel seems to be a mid-60s period piece, all of the characters drink and smoke. Also, the women are all young and sexy. Here’s a description of Harry Bass’ much-younger “secretary, ” Theo Moore –

“Harry had been married twice, and his second divorce had just become final. He had always had good taste in women, and on the evidence it seemed to be getting even better. She was blonde, probably in her late twenties, though Shayne was no longer much of a judge of women’s ages. She was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. A pencil with a large eraser was stuck in her hair and a light cashmere sweater was thrown carelessly over her shoulders. All Harry’s women had been sexy looking. She was no exception, but she looked interested and intelligent. That was new” (p. 18).

The passage above is typical of how Murder Spins the Wheel treats its female characters – for the most part, they are peripheral to the story. Moreover, to the extent that women are involved, it is through the male characters’ reactions to the women’s sexuality. Of course, this is standard procedure in the men’s adventure genre.

More interesting, at least two me, is the way the author develops the Vince Donahue character. Donahue is a heroin-abusing playboy who appears to be the prime mover behind all of the nefarious plots. Shayne finds a cocktail waitress Donahue jilted; she explains his appeal –

“With most people, it’s easy to get into things and hell to get out. But Vince always manages to get out just as easily as he gets in. Nothing bad ever seems to happen to him. Maybe going to jail won’t work. I guess it doesn’t, usually. But it would get him away from Miami Beach before the roof caves in. He’s – terribly handsome, Mr. Shayne. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him, but he’s one of the best-looking people. The way he moves. … He’s proud of his teeth. He had caps put on last year and they’re absolutely perfect. The way he looks is the only real thing he’s ever had. And I can see how it’s going to end – with one person holding him and another hitting him in the face with brass knuckles” (pp. 50-51).

Unfortunately, the book is far from perfect. Aside from the cliches, one consistent problem is that it’s difficult to follow the action sequences. The author tries to describe the action from a variety of perspectives, which confuses the reader, making him or her work too hard to understand what is happening. A simpler description – perhaps explaining things from Shayne’s perspective – would have worked better.

The Icing Without the Cake

So far, I’d give Murder Spins the Wheel a 6 out of 10. For what it is, the book isn’t bad. It has all of the elements that you would hope to find in a men’s-adventure novel. But, it doesn’t have the little extras that separate decent novels from good novels; the book needs better character development and the little bits of local color that would lift it to the next level.


The first 95 pages of Murder Spins the Wheel are sort of like the icing without the cake – the glitz is there, but the substance could be better. So far, this one’s worth reading, but not worth making the effort to seek out.

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