Friday, December 15, 2017

Best, Bill


So there I was, sometime in 1978, reading a copy of ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, which had a small section of classified ads on the last page. Among those tiny-print listings, there was an ad for something called THE NOT SO PRIVATE EYE, which seemed to be a fanzine devoted to private eye fiction, my long-time favorite sub-genre of mystery fiction. Back issues were available, so I sent off a check to the editor/publisher, Andy Jaysnovitch, and in due time I got a box in the mail containing all the issues that had been published up until then. I was only vaguely aware of what fanzines are, and that was because I’d read about ones devoted to science fiction, although I’d never seen one. The small Texas town where I grew up wasn’t a place where you would run into such things.

But when I started reading TNSPE, as it was known to its subscribers, I knew right away that I loved this sort of thing: articles about private eye fiction and its authors; reviews of books new and old; and maybe best of all, a letters section where fellow fans could get together. A prehistoric version of Facebook, if you will.

As I looked through those letters and saw the names and addresses of the guys who had written in, I noticed one thing right away. Some of them were from Texas! There were fellow fans of the stuff that I loved! I had never met or even corresponded with any. As far as I could tell, I was the only person who read Mike Shayne or Shell Scott novels anywhere in the vast Lone Star State.

Not only was one of those fans in Texas, he actually lived in Brownwood, a town I knew quite well because I had relatives all over that part of the country. Bill Crider, his name was. So I acted on impulse and wrote him a letter introducing myself. (The other two Texas fans who had letters in TNSPE were Joe Lansdale and Tom Johnson, and I could write a lot about them, too, but this is Bill’s day.)

Bill wrote back immediately. He recognized my name from a story I had published in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, “Down in the Valley”. That started a pattern that went on for years: I’d write a letter to Bill, and five or six days later, I’d get one in return. (The post office was a little more efficient and dependable in those days, or at least so it seemed.) We talked about books we’d read and movies we’d seen and got to know about each other’s families. After a while, since Brownwood was only a two-hour drive away from where I lived, I drove down there one Sunday and had lunch with Bill, his wife Judy, and their kids Allen and Angela. Later, Bill took us all out to Greenleaf Cemetery and showed me the grave of Robert E. Howard, a writer both of us admired greatly. And he gave me a bunch of duplicate paperbacks from his collection, great old Gold Medals and other vintage paperbacks.

Later, I made another trip to Brownwood and delivered a VCR to him. They had just started selling those to the public, and my dad sold them at his TV shop, so I was able to get him a good deal. The thing was enormous and heavy, had a corded remote, and would record a whole two hours on a videotape. But for the early Eighties, it was a pretty cool deal. On that same trip, Bill took me to a couple of used bookstores in Brownwood, so I went home with more books again.

Around that same time, Bill sold his first book, a Nick Carter novel written with a friend of his named Jack Davis. I remember unfolding one of Bill’s letters and seeing the first line: “The Nick Carter book SOLD!” From that beginning, he went on to become one of the most beloved and acclaimed mystery writers of the past three decades with his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series as well as other mystery series and stand-alones. And while he was doing that, he published a bunch of critically acclaimed Western and horror novels and became one of the most reliable authors of house-name men’s adventure and Western novels. We worked together on six books, four in the Cody’s Law series under the name Matthew S. Hart and two in the Trailsman series as Jon Sharpe.

We saw each other fairly often at conventions like Aggiecon and Armadillocon and best of all, the annual Cluefests in Dallas. On the Friday evening of Cluefest, Dallas mystery fan Barry Gardner (who, as it turned out, was the son of Bennie Gardner, aka Gunnison Steele, one of the Western pulp authors I greatly enjoyed) held a barbecue at his house for a small group of fans and writers that included at various times Bill, Scott Cupp, Marv Lachman, Richard Moore, Steve Stilwell, Bruce Taylor, and others I know I’m forgetting. Those evenings are some of the best convention-related memories I have.

With the rise of the Internet, Bill and I traded emails instead of letters, but we stayed in touch. He started a blog (which in the early days featured frequent posts about how much he disliked mowing his lawn) and that blog inspired me to start one of my own. By this time he had moved from Brownwood to Alvin, near Houston, to teach at Alvin Community College. We still ran into each other at conventions but not as often since real life kept us away from them more than it used to. But every time we saw each other, it was like the proverbial no time at all had passed. We could sit down and pick right up talking about books, writing, movies, and anything and everything else.

The trials that Bill has gone through over the past decade are probably well known to everyone reading this. He helped his wife Judy battle cancer and then, after losing her, fought the disease himself. Through it all, he’s continued to turn out fine books, kept producing his blog until very recently, and adopted three kittens whose luckiest day ever was the day Bill found them. He’s been able to make it to a few conventions. I saw him at Armadillocon in Austin in 2016, and again, the times we spent together there will always be favorite convention memories.

At the bottom of that very first letter from Brownwood all those years ago was the signature, “Best, Bill”. That’s exactly what everyone who knows Bill has gotten from him: his best friendship, and it’s very good indeed. Here’s to you, Bill, with thanks for the past forty years. It’s been my honor and my great pleasure.

Best,
James 

Forgotten Books, Bill Crider Edition: We'll Always Have Murder - Bill Crider


I wanted to read something I hadn’t read before for Bill Crider Week, which is no easy task because I’ve read a lot of Bill’s books over the years. But somehow I’d never read WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE MURDER, which was intended to be the first of a series featuring Humphrey Bogart, narrated by Terry Scott, a private eye who works for Jack Warner. Like Bill Lennox and Dan Turner before him, Terry Scott is a Hollywood troubleshooter whose job is keeping movie stars out of trouble. In this case, the star is Bogart. Frank Burleson, a sleazy private detective who works for one of the lower-rung studios in much the same capacity that Scott works for Warner Brothers, is trying to blackmail Bogart. Jack Warner wants Scott to get Burleson off the star’s back. But when Scott and Bogart pay a visit to Burleson, they find the guy murdered—with a .45 stolen from Bogart’s apartment during a wild party lying beside the body—and a couple of hostile cops show up mere moments later to complete the frame.

All you have to do is read that description of the opening to know that this is the sort of book I love, and I suspect many of you do, too. Naturally enough, Scott and Bogart set out to find the real killer in order to clear Bogart’s name. If Burleson was trying to blackmail Bogart, it stands to reason he had other blackmail targets as well, and since most of the people who were at Bogart’s party and had the opportunity to steal the murder gun are working together on a jungle picture at Superior Studios, that leads the two investigators into more trouble in a back-lot jungle, where, before you know it, another murder takes place.

What do you want in a book like this? Snappy patter? Gangsters? Thuggish henchmen? Night clubs? Beautiful actresses? Fistfights and shootouts and our heroes being taken for a ride? You get all that and more in WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE MURDER, and all of it told in a smooth, fast-paced style. Bill does a great job of blending historical characters with fictional ones (Peter Lorre’s cameo appearance is wonderful). Writing a historical mystery like this can be tricky. It’s easy to go overboard with the period details. Bill never does this, and as a result, the setting is very evocative without being heavy-handed.

I can’t even pretend to be an objective reviewer in this case, since Bill and I have been friends for more than 40 years, but I can tell you this in all sincerity and you can believe me or not: WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE MURDER is a wonderful book, one of the most entertaining I’ve read in a long time, and I give it my highest recommendation. And I’d say that whether I knew the guy or not.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Fantastic Adventures, December 1952


Okay, maybe I'm crazy, or just a 12-year-old boy at heart, or both, but that cover by Robert Gibson Jones is just great! Riding in a sling under the neck of a giant bat while fighting spaceships with a smoking raygun! I mean, what could possibly be cooler? I don't know which story in this issue of FANTASTIC ADVENTURES it goes with, if any of them. Milton Lesser, who went on to become Stephen Marlowe, of course, is the only author in it I've heard of. The others are a mixture of house-names and writers I'm not familiar with. I'll bet I'd have a good time reading it anyway. Or I could just look at the cover and imagine my own story to go with it.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Million Words and Counting


Today I reached a million words written for the year, for the 13th year in a row. Superstitious? Who, me? But I think there's a good chance I'll try for that mark again next year, and hey, if you're gonna write a million words a year for 14 straight years, you might as well go for 15, am I right?

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Novel and Short Stories, October 1956


Well, that's one of the oddest Western pulp covers I've run across. I'm not sure I actually like it, but it's certainly eye-catching. The artwork is by Stanley Borack, who did the covers for a bunch of men's adventure magazines. Inside this issue of WESTERN NOVEL AND SHORT STORIES are stories by Elmore Leonard, Noel Loomis, S. Omar Barker, Edwin Booth, John H. Latham, and William Vance, which is a fairly strong line-up of writers.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Ebony Juju - Gordon MacCreagh


I enjoyed the first Kingi Bwana novella, “The Slave Runner”, quite a bit, but Gordon MacCreagh’s second novella in the series, “The Ebony Juju” (originally published in the July 13, 1930 issue of ADVENTURE) is even better.

This yarn finds the American hunter and freelance trouble-shooter named King being asked by an official of the British government to investigate rumors of gun-smuggling and a possible native uprising around Lake Victoria in Africa. King, not wanting to get wrapped up in all the red tape of working for the government, refuses. But he plans to head in that direction anyway, since he’s on the trail of a fortune in ivory that’s supposed to be buried somewhere in the area.

Wouldn’t you know it, the bad guys, fearing King’s possible involvement, decide to kill him to eliminate that potential threat to their scheme. (Doc Savage’s enemies made this same mistake, over and over again.) The attempted assassination fails, of course, but now they’ve gotten King actually interested in what’s going on in the area. He discovers that the natives (and yes, they’re very restless) are being stirred up by a large idol carved of ebony that can move and talk when it’s possessed by the spirits. (Didn’t I see this same plot in at least one Tarzan movie?)

Eventually King figures out everything that’s going on and foils the villains. You knew he would. Along the way, though, there are a couple of very suspenseful scenes and a lot of fine, authentic writing about Africa. These Kingi Bwana stories are starting to remind me of Robert E. Howard’s El Borak yarns in the way they’re structured, which makes me wonder if Howard read them. We know he was a fan of ADVENTURE. The locations are different, of course, and MacCreagh’s work lacks the breakneck pace and action of Howard’s stories. MacCreagh’s stories move along more deliberately and seem more concerned with creating tense scenes, which they do quite well. But there’s the same element of the “Great Game”, the political and espionage manueverings between England and Russia as they try to solidify their power in what they consider a backwards part of the world.

I’m only two novellas in, but I’m really enjoying this series so far. In this story, we learn that King is a Westerner, having grown up in Dakota Territory, and if they had made a Kingi Bwana movie back in the Thirties, Randolph Scott would have been perfect for the part. I’m glad I have the entire series and will continue reading and reporting on it here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Overlooked Movies: Diggstown (1992)


James Woods and Oliver Platt are con men. Louis Gossett Jr. is a boxer involved in the game they're running. Bruce Dern is the mark. Heather Graham is young and beautiful. Punches are thrown, blood is spilled, and plot twists abound.

I vaguely remember when DIGGSTOWN came out, but we never watched it and I couldn't tell you why. I like boxing movies and I like con game movies, and this is a pretty entertaining combination of the two genres, with a little Southern small town Americana thrown in. The supporting cast includes Randall "Tex" Cobb, who I've always liked. So I enjoyed DIGGSTOWN quite a bit and am glad we finally watched it.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Ernest Haycox and the Western - Richard W. Etulain


Reading ON A SILVER DESERT, the biography of Ernest Haycox by his son Ernest Haycox Jr., prompted me to read this book as well. ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN by Richard W. Etulain is a fairly new book, released earlier this year, although much of it is drawn from Etulain’s 1966 doctoral dissertation. It’s not a biography, although there’s necessarily some information in it about Haycox’s life, and not exactly a critical examination of Haycox’s work, either, but more of a book about Haycox’s work and career, how he approached the writing of his stories and novels and how he handled the life of a professional author of Western fiction in the first half of the 20th Century.

This is just the sort of book I really enjoy. I never tire of reading about what, how, and why writers write what they do. Etulain devotes a lengthy chapter to Haycox’s time as a Western pulpster, from 1924 to 1930. After that, although Haycox still wrote some for the pulps, he had broken in to the slicks and sold most of his work to COLLIER’S. As a pulp fan, this part of the book is probably the most interesting to me, but the later chapters about Haycox’s work for the slicks, the movies based on his stories, and his efforts late in life to break away from traditional Westerns and write major historical novels, are all well written and well worth reading.

Having read these two books, I’m in the odd position of having almost read more about Haycox and his work than I’ve actually read of his novels and stories. I’m exaggerating, of course, but because, as I’ve mentioned before, I was never much of a fan of his books, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what he produced. I have quite a few volumes on his work on my shelves, though, and plan to read something else by him soon.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Fast Job


Due to a schedule bottleneck largely of my own making, I wound up with just three weeks to write an 80,000 word historical novel. That would have been a pretty fast pace even back in my younger days, and now it's a lot more than I normally do. But I felt like I had to give it a try.

So just a few minutes ago, I sent the manuscript to my editor in New York. 82,522 words written in 19 straight days. Not something I'd want to do again any time soon. But I think the book turned out to be pretty good, and that's the most important thing.

I'll be starting the next one tomorrow.

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Hollywood Detective, October 1945


It's not just the number of words Robert Leslie Bellem wrote that's impressive, although that has to be considerable, it's the sheer number of stories. For example, for every 90,000 word novel I write, Bellem had to come up with ten or twelve workable short story plots to equal the same wordage. That's insane. I can't even imagine how many hundreds and hundreds of plots he created. (And sure, he probably repeated himself some, but still . . .)

What prompts this is the fact that Bellem wrote every story in this issue of HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE, four Dan Turner yarns under his own name and a non-series story as Jerome Severs Perry. And this is hardly the only issue of a pulp written entirely by Bellem. The guy was a wonder. At least he didn't do the cover for this issue, but whoever did turned out a good one.