Friday, September 22, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Wench is Wicked - Carter Brown (Alan G. Yates)

I started reading Carter Brown books when I was in high school, and I hate to think of how many decades ago that was. I’m still reading them all these years later, and thankfully, I’m not the only one. There are enough Carter Brown fans out there for Stark House to reprint the first three novels featuring Lieutenant Al Wheeler in a very handsome trade paperback collection. It just so happens that Al Wheeler was the narrator/protagonist of the very first Carter Brown novel I read, ’way back when (I think it was THE UNORTHODOX CORPSE, but I’m not 100% sure of that), so I was very happy to have the chance to read THE WENCH IS WICKED, the book that introduced the character.

This novel was first published in 1955 by Horwitz Publications in Australia and has never been reprinted in the United States until now. Al Wheeler isn’t quite the same character in this one that we know and love from the Signet editions that would appear on every paperback spinner rack in America a few years later, usually with great covers by Robert McGinnis. For one thing, Al doesn’t work for Sheriff Lavers, although there is a character named Lavers in this book who’s a politician. Maybe he gets elected sheriff at some point in the series. Instead Al is a detective lieutenant on the police force of an unnamed California city not far from Los Angeles. In later books this locale is known as Pine City. Nor does he drive an Austin Healy sports car, but he does rent an MG for part of the book. There’s no sign of his dimwitted sidekick Sergeant Polnick.

But the wisecracking, the chasing of beautiful dames, the hardboiled attitude, and the deceptively keen mind that can solve multiple murders, those are all in place in this first adventure, which involves a murdered playwright whose body is found at the bottom of a gravel pit. The playwright is involved with a movie crew from Hollywood that’s shooting a Western in the area, so the suspects include a couple of gorgeous actresses, a leading man who’s prone to violence, an unsavory character actor, a director who may or may not be a drug addict, and a cameraman rumored to have an unhealthy interest in underage girls. So Al has plenty to sort through, including two more murders, before a suspenseful showdown with the killer in that same gravel pit.

Alan G. Yates, the author behind the Carter Brown pseudonym, was an Englishman who lived in Australia, and his early books, although set in America, contain the occasional bit of description or dialogue that doesn’t ring true. As a result, when Signet began reprinting the books, they hired an American mystery writer to go over the manuscripts and revise them slightly. This practice lasted for only a few books, however, as Yates got to be very good at sounding American. Since THE WENCH IS WICKED was never reprinted over here, there are a few examples of things that aren’t quite right, such as Al’s car having a bonnet rather than a hood. Things like that don’t bother me at all; in fact, they kind of add to the book’s charm.

Many of the Carter Brown books have pretty intricate plots, while others are fairly thin. This one is in the middle, complex enough to maintain the reader’s interest all the way through but not terribly difficult to figure out. The main appeal of these books for me has always been the fast-paced, breezy style and the likable protagonists. THE WENCH IS WICKED delivers quite well on those scores. It’s just great fun to read, and I give it and the Stark House collection that includes it a very high recommendation.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Now Available for Pre-Order: Blaze! Spanish Gold - Ben Boulden


The only thing Kate and J.D. Blaze had in mind when they rode into the settlement of Unity, Utah, was celebrating their wedding anniversary. But then J.D. is forced to kill a corrupt deputy in order to save a woman’s life, and suddenly the Old West’s only husband-and-wife gunfighters are plunged into a deadly mystery involving a sinister albino, missing men, and a lost treasure in Spanish gold.

It’s action all the way as critically acclaimed author Ben Boulden returns with another exciting installment in today’s top Adult Western series!


Friday, September 15, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Empire of Doom - John Peter Drummond


I continue to be stubborn and read the Ki-Gor stories in order, which brings us to "The Empire of Doom" in the Winter 1940 issue of JUNGLE STORIES. I'm convinced that the same author who wrote the previous installment, "Ki-Gor—and the Paradise That Time Forgot" turned out this one as well. The style is the same, and Ki-Gor and his beautiful redhead American wife Helene still live on the same fortress-like island in the middle of a river and hang around with their Pygmy buddy N'Geeso and Marmo the elephant.

Ki-Gor's other main sidekick, Tembu George (really former railroad porter George Spelvin, who's now the chief of the Masai), shows up as well, and it's a welcome return. George is a great character: smart, brave, funny, loyal to his friends, and just an all around great guy. He has as much or more to do with saving the day than Ki-Gor does in this one.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of plot. Ki-Gor, Helene, and George get involved in the power struggle between the ruler of a neighboring kingdom and his ambitious nephew. That's about it. There are a couple of decent battles, one early and one late, and not much in between to amount to anything. The writing is okay for the most part, there's just not enough story.

So far the tone of this series has varied from goofy super-science to Nazi-fighing action/adventure to the more mundane fare of the last few stories. I like all three protagonists, though, and that's been enough to keep me going. Better stories will be coming along soon.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Overlooked Movies: The Reivers (1969)


I saw THE REIVERS when it was new, or almost new, anyway, since I remember watching it at the Corral Drive-In, which meant it was in its second run and had already played at what we called the “inside shows”. Anyway, I watched it again recently for the first time since then and was curious to see how it was going to hold up.

The answer is, pretty darned good. This is a coming-of-age yarn, set in  Mississippi and Memphis in 1905 and based on the final novel by William Faulkner. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve never read the novel (or much of anything else by Faulkner, for that matter), so I don’t know how faithful the movie is to it. The protagonist and narrator (in voice-over, from the prospective of a much older man, voiced by Burgess Meredith) is 11-year-old Lucius McCaslin, played by Mitch Vogel, who does a good job in a part that surely would have been played a few years earlier by Ronnie Howard; Vogel bears a distinct resemblance to Howard. Lucius comes from the most prominent family in the small town where he lives, and the patriarch of that family, played by the fine character actor Will Geer, buys the first automobile the area has ever seen.

The car proves to be too great a temptation for the family’s high-spirited handyman and caretaker, Boon Hogganbeck, played by Steve McQueen. While everybody in the family is out of town except for Lucius, Boon takes the car and convinces Lucius to go along with him to Memphis, where they’ll have four days of adventuring. Lucius’s mixed-race cousin, played by Rupert Crosse, invites himself along.

Naturally, a lot happens in that four days. Boon and Lucius stay at a whorehouse where Boon’s girlfriend is one of the soiled doves (Sharon Farrell). Comedy, violence, racism, corruption, and horse racing ensue. Although there are certainly some dark undercurrents, the movie maintains a fairly light tone all the way through, and it could almost be a warm-hearted family comedy/drama except for some language and nudity. It manages to be pretty warm-hearted anyway.

THE REIVERS is very much of its time, the sort of movie that wouldn’t be made today, or at least not in the same way. There’s a lot in it that wouldn’t pass muster with today’s more sensitive, politically correct audiences. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I watched it again after nearly 50 years.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Dime Detective, September 1935


Some days Norman Saunders is my favorite pulp cover artist; some days it's Walter Baumhofer. Today is a Baumhofer day. That's a really striking, evocative cover, and the authors inside this issue ain't bad, either: Carroll John Daly (with a Race Williams story), Erle Stanley Gardner, Norvell Page (a Ken Carter story), and Cornell Woolrich. As I've said many times before, just another day at the newsstand during the pulp era.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Novels and Short Stories, November 1949


WESTERN NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES was never considered one of the top Western pulps, but there were stories by good authors to be found there, plus the occasional good cover like this one. H.A. DeRosso has a story in this issue, as does veteran pulpster Paul Chadwick, writing as John Callahan. What little I've read by R.S. Lerch has been pretty good, and while I've never read anything by John Latham that I recall, he published several novels as Ace Doubles, so he must have been an entertaining writer.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Forgotten Books: Four Frightened Women - George Harmon Coxe (Graphic Novel Version)


I’m a longtime fan of George Harmon Coxe’s mystery novels—they were on the shelves of all the public libraries around here when I was growing up—but I wouldn’t have even been aware of this graphic novel adaptation of his 1939 novel FOUR FRIGHTENED WOMEN if not for my buddy Scott Cupp, who graciously passed along his copy to me.

Originally published by Dell in 1950, this is a reprint from 2010 with an introduction by publisher Greg Theakston. The story features Coxe’s most famous character, Boston crime photographer Kent Murdock, and actually comes off a little like a classic British country house mystery. Murdock comes to the estate of radio comedian Ted Bernard to take pictures of him and his ex-wife, glamorous actress Irene Alexander. Of course, there are a whole lot of other people on hand—Bernard’s adopted son, his ex-wife’s agent, a Broadway actress, a chorus girl, his drunk, washed-up jokewriter, his niece and her fiance, a sinister piano player, a private detective (Jack Fenner, the protagonist in several other of Coxe’s novels), and probably some others I’m forgetting. With that many suspects—I mean guests—on hand, you just know there’s going to be a murder sooner rather than later. And when there is, the killer tries to frame Murdock for it.

This is pure hardboiled pulp. Everybody smokes and drinks constantly, and the wisecracks and tough guy patter are always flying. I loved it. This is the kind of stuff I grew up on, and I never get tired of it.

As Greg Theakston points out in his introduction, nobody knows who wrote the script or did the art for this adaptation. The art is simple but effective, and the script keeps the complicated plot understandable, which was probably much easier in the original novel version. (I’ve never read the book, by the way, and I doubt if I ever will, since I know who the killer is now.) The cover art is by the always good Robert Stanley, who did a bunch of paperback covers, including some of the Mike Shayne novels. This sure puts me in the mood to read some more of Coxe’s novels. I might just do that.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Star Detective Magazine, November 1938


That looks a little like a Norman Saunders cover to me, but it's not listed on his website, so I guess it's some artist whose work is similar. Whoever painted it, I like it. This pulp doesn't appear to have lasted very long, but this issue, at least, has some good authors in it: Cleve F. Adams, Edward Ronns (who was really the great paperbacker Edward S. Aarons), Norman A. Daniels (another prolific pulp and paperback author), Cyril Plunkett, and a couple of house-names.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Ranch Stories, July 1947


This issue of THRILLING RANCH STORIES sports the usual good cover by the apparently tireless Sam Cherry (honestly, when did the man sleep and eat?), and inside there are stories by some top names in Western fiction: L.P. Holmes, Allan R. Bosworth, Joseph Chadwick, Louis L'Amour, Nels Leroy Jorgensen, Hascal Giles, and Joe Archibald. Okay, maybe not all of them are that well-known today, but they were all good solid pulpsters.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Forgotten Books: Color Him Dead - Charles Runyon


I don’t think Charles Runyon was ever considered one of the top-tier Gold Medal authors, but his books have plenty of admirers, including the late Ed Gorman, whose interview with Runyon can be found here. I don’t recall ever reading anything by him until now. COLOR HIM DEAD is one of Runyon’s early novels, published by Gold Medal in 1963. In a neat bit of plotting, it begins where a lot of other noir novels end: with the protagonist in prison, convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, the real killer being the woman he fell for before the book ever begins. Drew Simmons had an affair with the beautiful younger wife of an older, rich man who wound up dead, and Simmons went away for the murder.

But when he gets a chance to escape, he crashes out and tracks down the woman to get his revenge on her. The trail leads to a small island in the West Indies, where Simmons’ former lover is now married to a wealthy, brutal planter who owns just about everything and everybody on the island. And in another nice twist, there’s a good reason Simmons can’t just kill her and be done with it. Instead he winds up involved with the domestic drama playing out there, as well as some dangerous political intrigue.

It’s a great set-up, Runyon’s prose is very vivid, and all the characters are interesting. My only complaints are that the pace is pretty leisurely and the big finish maybe not slam-bang enough for my taste. But COLOR HIM DEAD is still a pretty compelling yarn and well worth reading. A tip of the hat to Fred Blosser for this one.

Now, as an aside, that bare-breasted native girl cover would never be deemed politically correct enough to publish these days. The art is generally credited to Robert McGinnis. In some ways it looks like his work to me, and in others it doesn’t. But I’m about as far from an art expert as you’ll ever find, so don’t go by me. There’s also some underage sex in the book, treated as no big deal, which might also render it unpublishable today, and plenty of racial content, although the only real racists in the book are villains. Just a heads-up for those of you who like to be aware of such things.