Thursday, September 8, 2022

Finding Howard Fast

I'm kind of dumbfounded to only have discovered the works of Howard Fast this year. He wrote historical fiction, especially about the U.S., and also many mystery novels--two of the genres I most enjoy--and yet somehow if I knew anything about him at all, it was the vague memory that he'd written Spartacus, on which the famous movie was based.

Well, I've found him now and have started moving through his prodigious canon with great joy.

The way I found him was kind of wonderfully serendipitous. This year I've gotten involved with the world of stamp collecting and a search for books about stamp collecting yielded a novel by E.V. Cunningham called The Case of the One-Penny Orange. Cunningham was one of Fast's non-de-plumes. Since I'd at least heard of Howard Fast, I decided to look for this particular book.

Right about this time, Wonder Books, my go-to source for used analog books, was offering The One Penny Orange Mystery by Morris Ackerman. Not paying enough attention to the title or the author (and knowing that Fast was using a pseudonym without remembering exactly what it was), I ordered the Ackerman book.

As soon as it arrived, it was clear that I'd ordered the wrong thing, not the Fast/Cunningham book at all; but I read The One Penny Orange Mystery anyway, and actually quite enjoyed it. It's about a guy who worked for the British government in Mauritius who, on the day of independence, as the British were departing their former colony, inadvertently took with him one of the extremely rare early Mauritius stamps that have become so famously expensive. He takes it to a stamp dealer, finds out how much it might be worth, puts it up for auction...and then a whole slew of exciting adventures occurs as a number of obsessed collectors decide they must own that stamp, no matter the cost.

Ackerman's writing is not great but he spins an involving yarn, and he fills the book with interesting opinions about the worlds of business and philately. (As far as I know, this is his only book; I give him great credit for saying what was on his mind.)

So, I liked reading this One-Penny Mystery book, but I still hadn't read the Fast/Cunningham one I had sought out in the first place. A search of Amazon's Kindle section netted the one I wanted, along with a long list of other books by Howard Fast. Perusing that list, I was most intrigued! The mystery novel turned out to be the second of seven in a series starring detective Masao Masuto. But there are so many Fast books on offer: a six-part series about an immigrant family in America, novels about American history from the Revolution to the McCarthy Era, suspense stories and thrillers, collections of short stories. I bought The Case of the One-Penny Orange and started in.

And I couldn't put it down. It's a terrific book: fast-moving, smartly plotted, filled with wholly believable, interesting and human characters. It left me wanting more; much more.

I next read a collection of Fast's short stories, Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel, and other stories of a young nation, an inspiring and entertaining dozen tales mostly set around the time of the American War of Independence. These stories should be required reading for all Americans, especially in this particularly troubling time we're living through. They remind us what the American experiment was about and what the idea of America actually means.

I've since read two more of the Masao Masuto books (they're excellent) and I just finished last night Fast's novel The American, which is a fictionalized account of the life of John Peter Altgeld, an honest-to-goodness authentic American hero if ever there was one, a man who is now more or less entirely forgotten. The final chapters of this book moved me greatly, and I highly recommend it.

I am looking forward to more Fast: the rest of the Masuto mysteries for sure, and more of the stories, and many more novels beyond that.


  1. i am loving this blog — and i'm going to go find howard fast in analog books. and yes, be a stylist. you were born for it.