2009 has been better than 2008 around the Reasoner house, if for no other reason than it’s been calmer. Livia and I have been able to keep our writing careers rolling along, our daughters are doing well in their second year of teaching, and we added a couple of min/pin puppies named Nicki and Nora to the family who have provided much hilarity and adorability. Now, it’s on to my annual recap of how the writing, reading, and watching movies went this year.
As I mentioned earlier this month I topped a million words again this year, with a final total of somewhere around 1.1 million. That added up to 16 books, rounding a little since I was in the middle of a manuscript when the year started and am also in the middle of one now. Somewhat coincidentally, because it doesn’t always work out the same, there were also 16 of my books published this year, under eight different names including my own, sort of, that being the Gabriel Hunt book. As I’ve probably mentioned until you’re all sick of it, that Gabriel Hunt book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and very nice reviews in many other places, and the reception it’s received has been one of the most gratifying events in my career. It was great fun to write and I’m glad it’s been fun for most of the readers. I also wrote several short stories, one of which has already appeared on the excellent BEAT TO A PULP website and others that will show up in various places in due time. I continue to have a fine time writing and plan to keep at it for as long as anybody will buy my books.
I read 113 books this year, slightly up from 2008, and there were so many good ones that picking a Top Ten was extremely difficult. But for what it’s worth, here are the books I most enjoyed this year, in alphabetical order by author, with some brief comments:
BURY ME DEEP, Megan Abbott – while QUEENPIN is still my favorite of her books, this one is a vivid, beautifully written fever dream of a novel, and very compelling reading.
LOSERS LIVE LONGER, Russell Atwood – a deliberately old-fashioned private eye novel, and great fun.
HELL TO PAY, J. Lee Butts – as noirish a Western as you’ll ever find, as bleak as anything by Jim Thompson or H.A. DeRosso, and a tale told in a wonderfully distinctive voice.
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, Neil Gaiman – the first Gaiman novel I’ve read, and the winner of the Newbery Award for best juvenile novel, it’s a great, spooky, suspenseful yarn.
SPADE & ARCHER, Joe Gores – a pastiche that truly reads like Hammett could have written it, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that this collection of linked novelettes really was published in BLACK MASK in 1928.
THE NICK ADAMS STORIES, Ernest Hemingway – a reread of a classic. Some of the all-time great short stories by any author are here.
HOLMES ON THE RANGE, Steve Hockensmith – the most entertaining classical detective novel I’ve read in a long time. I have the others in the series and have to get to them soon.
HIRED LOVER, Fred Martin (probably Orrie Hitt) – Hitt in James M. Cain mode, with a fast-paced story and a real gut-punch of an ending that I didn’t see coming until the last minute.
OTHER SPACES, OTHER TIMES, Robert Silverberg – a collection of autobiographical essays about Silverberg’s life as a writer, illustrated with hundreds of photos and wrapped up with an exhaustive bibliography of his SF.
FAKE I.D., Jason Starr – about as effective a depiction of an anti-hero as you’ll ever find, with a great final line. Read this back-to-back with Butts’ HELL TO PAY if you want to overdose on bleak.
There were a number of other books very close to the same level, such as Orrie Hitt’s TABOO THRILLS, Gaiman’s graphic novel MARVEL 1602, Leigh Redhead’s stripper/private eye yarn PEEPSHOW, Silverberg’s early SF novel CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS, Ed Gorman’s latest novel TICKET TO RIDE, and Jason Starr’s most recent book PANIC ATTACK, not to mention numerous collections of Silver Age comics I really enjoyed. If I had to pick a favorite from that Top Ten list, it would probably be Gores’ SPADE & ARCHER, which made me feel like I was reading actual pulp stories. This may well be the only such list posted on the Internet that includes books by both Ernest Hemingway and Orrie Hitt, but what can I say? I like what I like, and I think that’s the way it should be for all of us.
I didn’t keep a list of all the movies we watched this year (I really need to start doing that) or even blog about a lot of them, so I can’t do a Top Ten for them. We watched a lot of romantic comedies, a considerable number of raunchy college comedies, some superhero stuff, quite a bit of action/adventure where Stuff Blows Up Real Good, the occasional inspirational, based-on-a-true-story drama, some movies based on plays by Tennessee Williams (when Livia was writing her Tennessee Williams book), the very occasional horror movie, and some Westerns both old and spaghetti. I like movies, and I’m sure we watched well over a hundred of them. We’ll probably watch that many next year, too.
So that wraps it up for 2009. Thank you all for continuing to be part of this blog, and I’ll see you next year.
“I found your blog, posted January, 2009, about the ACE paperback book title, "Odds Against Linda." I was very pleased to read what you had to say. Steve Ward was a pseudonym for Norman Rosenthal, who also wrote "Silenced Witness." They are the same person and that I know because it is my dad. He loved to write and wrote on the side while holding down a regular job. Unfortunately he had no other books published. He was working on several, but died before any could be completed.”
And here’s some information from a follow-up email: “If you would like, here's some biographical information on my father. During WWII my dad was a bombardier on a B-24. He flew out of Italy and while on a mission over Vienna was shot down and became a POW. He spent his time in the famous Stalag Luft III until General Patton liberated the camp at the end of the war.
In 1947, he graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. He and my mother lived in California for almost 20 years where he worked as a general manager for an established newspaper publisher. While in California he belonged to the Northern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and at one time held an officers position in the chapter. Such people as Lenore Glen Offord and Anthony Boucher also belonged at that time.
My parents then moved to Ohio where he became Advertising and Marketing Director for Jacobs, Visconsi & Jacobs, a shopping center developer. (Yes, the same Jacobs that owned the Cleveland Indians, but not until several years after my dad retired).
My dad not only loved to write, but to read and listen to music. He had a very extensive library and record collection. Writing was a passion of his, but it's hard to support a family on writing alone. "Silenced Witness" was published in 1955. He then wrote "Odds Against Linda" under the name of Steve Ward which was published in 1960. Both were written while living in California. Over the years he had worked on several novels but because of work, was never ever able to finish any of them to his satisfaction. However, after his retirement, he did have two short stories published in the Sunday magazine section of the "Cleveland Plain Dealer." He retired in the late 1980s and really started to delve into his writing. Unfortunately shortly afterwards he became ill with Alzheimer's and it progressed rather rapidly before he could finish any other books. He died in November, 1998.”
I really enjoyed ODDS AGAINST LINDA and did a Forgotten Books post about it earlier this year. I’ve ordered Norman Rosenthal’s other book, SILENCED WITNESS, and I’m sure I’ll have some comments on it in due time. I think it’s great that members of his family know there are still people out here reading and appreciating his work, and I always enjoy finding out more about the writers whose work has entertained me. It’s a shame Rosenthal wasn’t able to publish any more books. From what I’ve read, he was a pretty good writer.
I know the critics don't like these movies, but the humor in them is so bizarre and over-the-top, and there are so many movie trivia in-jokes (watch for Clint Howard in a cameo role), that I find them pretty funny. But the best part of this one is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart. Dressed in an aviator's outfit and spouting goofy Thirties slang almost like a female version of Dan Turner, she's really swell and definitely easy on the optics.
It was 33 years ago today that I made my first professional fiction sale, a bright, sunny day like this one, as I recall, although a bit warmer than it is today. I've written about that sale, and other things about my early writing career, here and here, and if you haven't read those posts before, I invite you to go take a look at them. There have been peaks and valleys in my career since then (mostly peaks, for which I am profoundly grateful), but I can honestly say that I've had a great time being a writer and hope to continue at this crazy business for a long time to come, despite all the recent upheavals in the publishing industry. It's the only job I know of where you can sit around in your pajamas drinking coffee and eating doughnuts and tell people that you're working . . . and they'll believe you.
This is one of the Christmas movies we watched yesterday, and it turned out to be pretty good. It’s set in 1931 and is about a girl from Pittsburgh whose father has to send her to live with her “aunt” (really an old girlfriend) in a small town that has a local ordinance against dogs. Naturally the girl winds up with an adorable dog and makes friends with a family that provides a “dog orphanage” just outside the town limits. The mayor’s brother is the dogcatcher and rides around in a motorcycle sidecar while his assistant drives the motorcycle. There’s a lot of mild danger and adventure and plenty of cute little kids and dogs.
This is a family-friendly movie, very sweet and heart-warming and inspirational, but the Depression-era setting is portrayed in an appropriately dark and gritty manner. The cast, all of whom were unfamiliar to me except for character actors John Billingsley and Richard Riehle, does a good job, and the period detail is good with one exception: I don’t think the football term “Hail Mary pass” had been coined in 1931. That’s a pretty minor quibble, though.
Since Christmas is over, you probably won’t want to run out and find a copy of THE 12 DOGS OF CHRISTMAS. But next year, if you want to watch a decent little holiday movie you probably haven’t seen before, you should keep it in mind.
I don't know what the official snowfall was around here, but we had five or six inches in our front yard, making this the whitest White Christmas in my memory. Most of it melted off the roads during the day, but there's still quite a bit in the pastures. Some of the drifts were several feet deep, something we don't get around here very often.
It was a quiet, peaceful day. We opened presents, ate some good food, watched TV (the Mythbusters Christmas Special on DVD, as well as some made-for-TV Christmas movies), ate some more, napped, just generally took it easy and enjoyed the day.
I like calendars and usually get at least a couple for Christmas. This year I got a wall calendar with cover reproductions from assorted science fiction pulps (PLANET STORIES, THRILLING WONDER STORIES, etc.), a GET FUZZY desk calendar for upstairs in my writing room, and a PEARLS BEFORE SWINE desk calendar for downstairs. There were some CDs, a DVD history of the Dallas Cowboys (apologies to all of you who dislike the Cowboys, but they've been my team for more than forty years and it's too late for me to stop rooting for them now), and an excellent stack of books: Robert Lesser's PULP ART, the coffee table book from a few years back that I've never owned until now; a couple of Spider reprint volumes by Norvell Page, CITY OF DOOM, the mass-market paperback from Baen, and THE SPIDER VS. THE EMPIRE STATE from Age of Aces Books, each of which reprints three novels; THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF THE SECRET 6, from Altus Press, which reprints all four novels from the short-lived pulp series by Robert J. Hogan; THE ADVENTURES OF SMOKE WADE, VOL. 1, pulp aviation stories also by Robert J. Hogan, published by Age of Aces; SWORDS FROM THE WEST, the latest Bison Books collection of Harold Lamb stories from the pulp ADVENTURE; and finally HONEY IN HIS MOUTH, the Hard Case Crime novel by the great Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage. If you're counting, that's more than 2500 pages of pure pulp goodness! It may take me a while to work my way through all those books, but I know I'll enjoy them tremendously.
Christmas Day is always a time of reflection for me, rather than New Year's. I always look back on what's happened since last Christmas and wonder what will happen between now and next Christmas. It's also a reminder of how truly blessed I am to have a wonderful family and great friends and the opportunity to do work that I enjoy and that brings pleasure to other people. I hope it was a wonderful holiday for each and every one of you.
It's snowing lightly outside, we're supposed to have three to five inches by tomorrow morning (White Christmases are rare around here, but not unheard of; I can remember several in my lifetime), both girls are here, I have all my present-wrapping done (except for one that I forgot about), and I've been to the store to pick up a few last things we needed. In other words . . .
Okay, Christmas, bring it on.
(Seriously, Merry Christmas to all of you, and thank you for being part of this blog.)
The Thirties gangster movie is another film genre for which I’m a sucker. Give me a movie about guys in fedoras and trenchcoats who use tommy guns to rob banks and speed around in roadsters, and I’m a happy viewer. It’s even better when there are other guys with fedoras and trenchcoats and tommy guns (the FBI, in other words) trying to catch them. So you know I had to watch Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES.
The center of this film is John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, but almost of equal importance is FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The cat-and-mouse game they play as Purvis tries to capture Dillinger and Dillinger continues robbing banks and eluding arrest (for the most part) is very suspenseful. I don’t know how historically accurate all the details are (I have the Bryan Burrough non-fiction book on which the film is based but haven’t read it yet), but I do know enough about Dillinger so that I was aware all through the film of how it had to end. I don’t think that knowledge took away anything from my enjoyment of the movie, though, and I enjoyed it a lot.
PUBLIC ENEMIES got mixed reviews when it was released, but I thought it was excellent. It’s a determinedly old-fashioned movie and looks great, despite the fact that it was shot on high-definition video rather than film, or maybe because of that. A cinematographer I ain’t. All I know is that I really enjoyed the look and style of the film. Depp, as usual, disappears into his role and is really believable as Dillinger (except for one moment when he’s running through the woods and flapping his hands like Captain Jack Sparrow), and Bale is pretty good as Melvin Purvis. Character actor Stephen Lang turns in a fine performance as a grizzled special agent. There’s a lot of action, mostly gun battles, and for the most part they’re well-staged and easy to follow. The period detail looked good. I kept hoping Dillinger would walk past a newsstand full of pulps, but if he did, I missed it. The only magazines I spotted were copies of LIBERTY, LADIES HOME JOURNAL, and (appropriately enough) TRUE DETECTIVE. Even the music is good, with a recurring bluegrass theme during the bank robberies and chases reminiscent of the music from BONNIE AND CLYDE. Maybe a little too reminiscent, but I won’t quibble.
I won’t guarantee that you’ll like this film, but if you’re a fan of gangster movies and haven’t seen it, you really ought to give it a try. I thought it was one of the best films I’ve seen recently, and it’s one of the rare movies I wouldn’t even mind watching again. Highly recommended.
(One last note: in watching the scenes at the Biograph Theater, I realized that I’ve never seen the Clark Gable/William Powell movie that was playing there on that fateful night, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. It’s now on my Netflix list.)
For those of you who don’t know, prolific Western author and occasional commenter on this blog Chap O’Keefe is really Keith Chapman, who’s been writing and editing a wide variety of genre fiction in comics, magazines, and books for many years now, in addition to his work as a journalist.
Recently he’s established his own publishing imprint for Western fiction, BHE Books, providing the first two novels himself, brand-new entries in two long-running series: MISFIT LIL CHEATS THE HANGROPE and the latest one, LIBERTY AND A LAW BADGE, another adventure of range detective Joshua Dillard, a former Pinkerton’s operative with tragedy in his past that drives him to fight outlaws of all stripes.
LIBERTY AND A LAW BADGE is the first Chap O’Keefe novel I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. As the book opens, Dillard is on his way to his latest assignment, stopping a range war in Montana and finding out who’s been rustling cattle from his employer’s ranch. Pretty standard stuff, you say? Well, maybe at first glance, but not by the time Chapman gets through throwing twist after twist into the complex plot. The Liberty of the title is actually a young woman who’s been blackmailed into a sordid affair with a crooked sheriff, who’s the brother-in-law of the cattle baron who hired Dillard, who owns the cattle that Liberty’s husband is accused of stealing. Got that? Then there’s the cattle baron’s sister, who’s married to the crooked sheriff, and she goes on a rampage when she finds out about her husband’s adulterous affair with Liberty (said affair really being nothing more than a series of rapes). Add in a brutal deputy with an agenda of his own, and there’s a whole lot for Dillard to untangle before he can straighten everything out. Naturally, that untangling involves a number of fistfights and shootouts.
This book is a lot of fun, pulpish but with a sharp, contemporary edge. The dark, complex plot, the emotional angst, and the gritty storytelling remind me very much of many Westerns published in the Fifties by Gold Medal, by authors such as Lewis B. Patten, Dean Owen, and William Heuman. The pace is very fast, the action scenes are handled well, and Joshua Dillard is a very likable hero, tough and competent enough to handle just about any situation, despite his occasional self-doubts, but not a superman by any means. I’m ready to read more about him right now. You can order LIBERTY AND A LAW BADGE here or at Amazon, and if you’re a fan of hardboiled action Westerns, I definitely think you’ll enjoy it.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s books, and it’s entirely possible I never will. (“Sour grapes, anyone?” asked the writer whose books have sold a tiny, tiny fraction of what Brown’s have.) And I didn’t like the movie version of THE DA VINCI CODE. So why did I watch the movie version of Brown’s novel ANGELS & DEMONS?
Well, you gotta have something to do on a Saturday night.
However, movies will often surprise you, and I found quite a bit to like about ANGELS & DEMONS. To get my major complaint out of the way first, in the end the entire plot of this movie hinges on something so far-fetched that it seriously stretched my willing suspension of disbelief. It almost snapped, in fact. But I finally decided to just say, “Okay, whatever, sure that could happen,” and went along with it.
Tom Hanks is back as Professor Robert Langdon, who is actually sort of an appealing hero, obviously in over his head where the action stuff is concerned but still willing to try. That everyman quality may be one of the keys to the popularity of Brown’s work. He’s called in by the Vatican to help follow a trail of historical clues centered around various statues in Rome. The Pope is dead, four cardinals have been kidnapped and are scheduled to be executed by their captors every hour for four hours, and then, oh, yeah, there’s an antimatter bomb hidden somewhere around the Vatican that will destroy most of Rome when it goes off. Unless, of course, Langdon can follow the clues and save the day.
I think the fact that the action takes place in a short period of time, only a few hours, and is confined to Rome really helps the pace and sense of urgency in this film. I don’t remember much about THE DA VINCI CODE, but I do recall that it really plodded along. Not so with this one, which never slows down for very long. The action scenes are well-done, and the acting is okay all around. I have no idea if all the art history and Church history spouted by various characters is accurate, but hey, ignorance is bliss, or in this case, a fairly entertaining couple of hours. As mentioned above, it does have that “Oh, come on!” moment late in the game, but other than that the plot seems to make sense.
So, somewhat surprisingly, I have no trouble recommending this one, and I’m not trying to damn it with faint praise, either. I enjoyed it and think it’s worth watching.
This is a World War II movie that I hadn’t heard of, although the background of it is certainly familiar. It’s about the British prisoners of war who were forced by their Japanese captors to build a railroad through the jungles of Thailand. Yep, it’s THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, although that was a fictionalized version of the historical situation and TO END ALL WARS is based on a memoir by Ernest Gordon, who was actually one of those prisoners. And even though it covers some of the same ground, it’s also an excellent movie in its own right.
Not surprisingly given the subject matter, this is a pretty grim and harrowing movie, and kind of tough to watch at times as the prisoners are subjected to all sorts of torture and general mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese. Robert Carlyle plays one of the officers who thinks it’s his duty to lead an escape, Kiefer Sutherland is an American merchant marine who got swept up with the British when Shanghai fell, and a Scottish actor I’d never heard of, Cieran McMenamin, plays the young Ernest Gordon, who is indeed pretty earnest. There are two main Japanese actors, one who plays the brutal sergeant of the guard who seems to be tormented by secrets of his own, and a young translator who befriends the prisoners.
The photography and the scenery are beautiful, and that provides a pretty striking contrast to the ugliness going on in much of the film. This is one of those movies about the triumph of the human spirit, and it has a lot to triumph over in this one. But in the end it does, and the film concludes with some touching footage of a reunion between the real Ernest Gordon and the Japanese translator fifty years after the war. TO END ALL WARS is a fine film. I wouldn’t say that you’ll have a good time watching it, but you might well wind up being moved by it.
Imagine, if you will, a new TV detective series debuting in the fall of 1960, probably on ABC, definitely produced in glorious black-and-white by Warner Brothers, and called GRANDSTAND or maybe WINNER’S CIRCLE, something like that. The narrator/hero is Mack Gaul, troubleshooter for a popular Florida horseracing track, who every week solves murders and deals with all the colorful characters who show up at the track. Mack is played by, say, Darren McGavin. Tonight’s episode . . . “A Slice of Death!”
If you’re old enough to imagine all that, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Bob McKnight’s 1960 Ace Double novel A SLICE OF DEATH is like. Actually, calling it a novel is being generous, since it probably doesn’t have more than 30,000 words packed into its 102 pages. Which is not a bad thing, because that’s just about the right length to adapt into an hour-long episode of our imaginary TV drama GRANDSTAND.
It opens with a beautiful redhead with a slide rule (remember slide rules?) informing Mack that the payoff listed on the track’s tote board is wrong. According to her, the holders of winning tickets are being shorted forty cents. That doesn’t sound like much, but Mack knows it could add up to a lot of money, so he starts investigating and trying to find out if it’s an honest mistake or if somebody who works for the racetrack is crooked.
I think you can probably guess what the answer to that question turns out to be. It also won’t come as any surprise that the guy operating the tote board turns up dead, and Mack is the leading suspect. The manager of the racetrack is missing, too, and his beautiful blond secretary can’t find him. Throw in some Cuban gangsters, assorted racetrack employees and hangers-on, and a few action scenes, and you’ve got a fast-paced mystery that takes place in only a few hours. The prose is strictly functional and there’s nothing jaw-dropping about the plot, including the identity of the criminal mastermind. But it’s all good fun anyway, and a nice little snapshot of an era and the sort of books published then. I’ve read a number of Bob McKnight’s Ace Doubles in the past, and while none of them have risen above the level of competent entertainment, none of them have fallen below that level, either.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go imagine some more TV shows that never existed but should have.
Throughout my career, my general pattern has been to start each day's work by editing, polishing, and revising what I wrote the day before. I can't argue with the way it's turned out. On occasion, when deadlines were tight, I've been known to just start typing where I left off the day before and rely on Livia to fix any mistakes I make. It certainly helps to have a fine editor in the same house, so that she can say "What happened to the other dead body?" or "This sentence doesn't make any sense" or "You're not going to have the hero get hit on the head and knocked out again, are you?"
I've also, at times, written something straight through and then gone back to the first and edited the whole thing, and I'm wondering if that might not actually be the best way to approach it. I think when you read the whole book in a relatively short period of time, you might see things you'd miss if you were just rereading small chunks every day. But I don't know. When it comes to writing, my rule is whatever works is what works, if that makes sense. I'm curious anyway about what you writer-types out there think. Is it better to revise every day, or wait until you're finished and revise the whole thing?
I heard about the movie DETOUR and its director, Edgar G. Ulmer, for years, and when I finally got around to watching it, I liked it a lot. Now I’ve watched another Ulmer film, the much more obscure CLUB HAVANA, and it’s . . . interesting.
CLUB HAVANA is basically a Grand Hotel sort of movie, introducing the viewer to a number of different characters who show up at the opulent Miami nightclub of the title. There’s the idealistic young doctor, the married couple on the verge of breaking up, the middle-aged society woman with three very creepy grown children, the gangster who’s suspected of murder, the piano player, assorted other musicians, the somewhat shady switchboard operator . . . You get the idea. Ulmer gives each of these characters a little time in the spotlight, so to speak, and then lets them interact and their storylines intertwine.
The biggest problem with this movie is that at 62 minutes, it’s just too short to do justice to all the plot that Ulmer tries to cram into it. Watching it you get the sense that if it had been thirty or forty minutes longer, it would have been a much better movie. As it is, it’s really rushed, and the fact that at least ten minutes get taken up by a couple of musical numbers doesn’t help matters. Still, there are some striking scenes and genuinely suspenseful moments. The big ending, which takes place in the club’s parking lot, is marred by photography that’s too dark and murky to tell what’s going on most of the time.
Tom Neal, one of the stars of DETOUR, plays the young doctor, and while Neal’s tragic personal life later on inevitably resonates for the modern viewer in these early roles, he’s not given much to do here. Marc Lawrence as the gangster turns in the best performance and the movie would have benefited if his role had been bigger.
Overall, CLUB HAVANA would have been better if it had been longer and had better production values . . . but if it had had those things, then it wouldn’t really be an Ulmer film, now would it? This one’s hard to find, but if you come across a copy it’s worth watching, as a curiosity if nothing else.
DUPLICITY – This was a movie I felt like I should enjoy a lot more than I did. I’m not much of a Julia Roberts fan, but I like Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti (who is seemingly in even more movies than Jane Lynch is in TV shows, if that’s humanly possible), and I usually enjoy intricately plotted movies where nothing is what it seems. For some reason, though, this one just didn’t work for me. I found keeping up with all the plot convolutions more boring than intriguing, and in the end I just didn’t care what happened. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood to watch it.
NOVEL ROMANCE – This one had what should have been an okay premise for a romantic comedy: single female magazine editor wants a baby, so she offers to publish the work of an aspiring writer in return for his sperm. Unfortunately, with the exception of a nice line here and there about the writing business, the script just isn’t funny, and Traci Lords is terribly miscast as the editor. The movie also makes the same mistake so many movies do and would have us believe that novel manuscripts are thin things bound in plastic covers. The great Paul Johansson does his best as the writer and delivers the movie’s best line (the profound “Most writers are full of shit.”), but he can’t save the film overall. The only other thing the movie has going for it is a supporting turn by Mariette Hartley, who is still beautiful after all these years.
I’m not exactly what you’d call a Scrooge, but I’m generally not as filled with the Christmas spirit as some people are. So I thought maybe it would help me get in a holiday mood if I read a sweet, heartwarming, inspirational Christmas novel. What did I pick?
NORTH COUNTRY CUTTHROATS.
This entry in the long-running Trailsman series was published a couple of years ago and is definitely a Christmas novel, taking place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as Skye Fargo finds himself in Dakota Territory, riding shotgun on a stagecoach driven by his old friend Grizzly Olaffson. Fargo would rather be wintering some place warm and tropical, but that’s not how things have worked out. And of course, getting caught in a blizzard is almost the least of Fargo’s troubles, since the stage is carrying a strongbox full of army payroll money that’s bound to attract outlaws, and one of the passengers is a beautiful Russian woman with a secret in her past that may prove deadly to Fargo.
The author behind the Jon Sharpe house-name on this novel is the always dependable Peter Brandvold. As usual in Pete’s work, there’s plenty of gritty action and colorful characters, a few touches of dark humor, and a vividly described setting. NORTH COUNTRY CUTTHROATS may not be exactly what you’d call sweet and heartwarming, but I thought it was a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re a Trailsman fan, you’ll want to read this one, and if you haven’t tried that series yet, this would be a good place to start, especially given the time of year.
I decided to look up the original cover of FLIGHT TO DARKNESS from its 1952 Gold Medal edition (the only edition until the New Pulp Press reprint). The art on this one is by Barye Phillips and is okay, but I don't think it's one of his better covers. My favorite Phillips covers are probably on some of the Shell Scott novels, although I'm far from an expert on his work.
The first Gil Brewer book I read was WILD, and I didn’t much care for it. But since then I’ve tried his work again, most recently THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN (the Hard Case Crime reprint with the great cover) and LOVE ME AND DIE, published under Day Keene’s name but actually a ghosted expansion by Brewer of a Keene pulp novelette. I’ve become a confirmed Gil Brewer fan, like a lot of you are, I’m sure. One of his rarer novels, FLIGHT TO DARKNESS, is about to be reprinted by New Pulp Press, and it’s a very good one verging on greatness.
FLIGHT TO DARKNESS is the story of Eric Garth, a sculptor from an old, fairly well-to-do Florida family who is wounded in the Korean War. The book opens with him about to be released from the psychiatric ward of a VA hospital in California. His physical wounds have healed, but he’s been troubled by a recurring dream in which he murders his brother. Eric has fallen in love with one of his nurses at the hospital and plans to marry her, but first they’re going to drive cross-country to return to his family home in Florida.
I’ll bet you can guess that doesn’t turn out to be a good idea.
Actually, they make it all the way to Alabama before trouble crops up, but when it does, it lands Eric in a sanitarium, and then his girlfriend disappears, and then he escapes, and when he does finally make it to Florida . . . well, you guessed it.
Things get worse.
And looming over the whole thing are Eric’s doubts about his own sanity, so always in the back of his mind (and the reader’s mind) is the possibility that he really is crazy, and when he’s framed for murder, well, maybe he wasn’t framed after all. Before the book is over, Eric can’t fully trust anything or anybody, including himself.
Murder, madness, swamps, gators, a savagely beautiful woman . . . it doesn’t get much better than this for noir fans, and the last fifty pages or so are about as crazed and breakneck as anything you’ll find in the genre. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Throw in the fact that New Pulp Press has produced a top-notch trade paperback reprint with a very evocative cover, and you’ve got a book that I don’t hesitate to recommend very highly. I think the official publication date is tomorrow, but I’ll bet you can go to Amazon or NPP’s website and order a copy right now.
Here's the new cover scan from the WesternPulps group: SPEED WESTERN, August 1944. Another good lineup of authors: E. Hoffman Price, James P. Olsen, James A. Lawson (who was really James P. Olsen as well), and Larry Dunn, who was really Laurence Donovan. SPEED WESTERN was the slightly tamer successor to SPICY WESTERN. All of the Spicy titles were converted to Speed titles during the Forties.
It almost slipped past me that this book came out this month. I think I did forget to say anything last month when THE TRAILSMAN #337: SILVER SHOWDOWN was published. Both should still be readily available if you're in the mood for a good Western or need some stocking stuffers.
No, not me. Livia has a nice guest blog about Christmas mysteries posted at the excellent Mayhem and Magic site. Check it out. (By the way, the mass market edition of THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE KILLER is out now, in case you're looking for an almost-last-minute gift for someone who enjoys mysteries.)
I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, the bookmobile came out to our little town from the Fort Worth Public Library and parked under a shade tree on Main Street every Saturday morning. It was about the size of a UPS truck and packed full of books. That was my introduction to the world of libraries. From the age of six, I was there nearly every Saturday, checking out an armload of books that I would read during the week and return the next Saturday so I could get more.
Among the books I discovered in those early years was a series of juvenile novels by Walter R. Brooks about some talking animals who lived on a farm in upstate New York. If I remember correctly, the animals had always been able to talk. It’s just that up until a certain point, humans had never bothered to ask them any questions.
The unofficial leader of the animals was Freddy the Pig, who could read and write and had a decidedly adventurous nature for a pig. He fancied himself a detective and sometimes wore a deerstalker cap and carried a magnifying glass for examining clues. He generally solved the mysteries that came up on the farm and the ones involving the circus with which the animals traveled from time to time. He also started a bank for the animals, learned how to fly a plane, wrote poetry, and even became an explorer and went on expeditions to other countries. Quite a pig, in other words.
He was surrounded by a colorful and entertaining supporting cast of animals and humans, including Jinx the Cat, who was often the comedy relief, and the wise old cow Mrs. Wiggins, who acted as the voice of reason for the impulsive and occasionally reckless Freddy. I seem to recall that there was also a human who functioned as a recurring villain, although he was never really too villainous. These are kids’ books, after all, so Freddy never wound up as bacon.
I loved these books and read all of them I could get my hands on. Some of them I probably reread several times. The series was originally published from the Thirties up through the mid-Fifties, and some of the titles have been reprinted in recent years. To give you an idea of the series’ deadpan humor, here’s a brief passage from FREDDY AND THE PERILOUS ADVENTURE (1942):
“Back at home, in what Freddy called his library, which was really just a shed built on to the back of the pigpen, were dozens of disguises, all neatly hung on hangers, which he used in his detective work. In any one of these he felt sure he could walk straight down the road without the slightest danger of being recognized. But without a disguise he was just a stray pig, and if the police were really looking for him, any stray pig was bound to be stopped and questioned.”
I imagine most kids today would find these books much too gentle and whimsical for their tastes, but for me they were an introduction to mystery fiction (I read them even before I discovered the Hardy Boys), and in rereading them today, I find that I appreciate the humor in them even more than I did when I was eight years old. If you read these in your childhood but haven’t revisited them since, they’re well worth a look. And if you’ve never gotten to know Freddy, well, then, maybe you should.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for World War II movies, which is probably one reason I had so much fun writing the books in the Last Good War series a few years ago. DEFIANCE is definitely a World War II movie, but a bit different than most. It’s about a group of Belorussian Jews who take to the woods and hide when the Nazis come in and take over in 1939. A couple of brothers (played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber) who are former smugglers put their criminal background to good use as they become the leaders of the group and turn it into a resistance unit to fight the Germans.
DEFIANCE is based on a true story (though I have no idea how historically accurate it really is) and is an old-fashioned and very good film. There’s a lot of action that’s staged and shot so that you can tell what’s going on, and there are also well-developed characters, a compelling story, and a very satisfying ending. I didn’t even come close to nodding off, which is a rarity for me when I watch a movie. Now, it is almost unrelentingly grim, which you’d expect from the subject matter, but there are a few small touches of humor here and there, as well as the occasional stand-up-and-cheer moment. Craig and Schrieber are good as the leads, but really the whole cast is excellent. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but turns out it’s a fine film, one of the best I’ve seen recently. Highly recommended.
I was looking for something completely different to read the other day and picked up this book more or less at random. I like a good romantic suspense novel now and then, so I decided to give it a chance. It had a couple of things going for it: it’s set in Alaska, a setting I usually enjoy, even though I’ve never been there and almost certainly never will be; and it’s a nice, brisk 65,000 words or so in length, maybe even a little shorter than that. A lot of the bestselling romantic suspense novels suffer from the same malady as many other bestsellers: they’re too blasted long.
COLD CASE AFFAIR starts off with a bang, literally. In a flashback set twenty years in the past, a mysterious someone plants a bomb in a mine, and when it goes off, the blast kills a dozen miners. Jump ahead twenty years, and the daughter of one of those murdered miners is returning to her hometown to take over the newspaper she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. It’ll come as no surprise to mystery readers that she tries to find out who was responsible for that never-solved bombing, and wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that the circumstances of her grandfather’s death are pretty sinister, too. At the same time, the heroine has a lot of emotional baggage involving a handsome bush pilot to deal with. This is a romance, after all.
A lot of times, at least in my experience reading them, which is admittedly limited, romantic suspense novels skimp on the mystery and suspense. That’s not the case here, as Loreth Anne White, an author I’d never read before, blends the two elements just about evenly and does a fine job with both. Some of the mystery is pretty easy to figure out, but the plot also takes an unexpected and almost noirish turn late in the book, leading to an action-packed ending. Most importantly, White is a good storyteller and possesses that indefinable knack of making the reader keep turning the pages. I enjoyed this one quite a bit and think it’s well worth reading. I may try some of the other books in this line.
Usually the sleaze publishers were pretty serious about everything, but this house ad in the back of Orrie Hitt's TEASER (Beacon, 1956) displays a little touch of whimsy. You may have to click on the image in order to read it.
I don’t recall hearing much about this near-future thriller when it came out, so when we sat down to watch the DVD, I commented that I didn’t know if the movie would be any good or not.
Shayna said, “It’s a Vin Diesel movie. He probably kills people.” To which Livia added, “And things blow up.”
That’s a pretty good description of BABYLON A.D. Diesel (who is about halfway between Bald Vin and Hairy Vin in this one) plays a mercenary with the unwieldy name of Toorop (which everybody in the movie seems to pronounce slightly differently). He’s hired to transport a young woman from a mysterious convent in Central Asia to New York. (Transport? Did somebody say transport? Where’s Jason Statham, speaking of bald guys?) The young woman is accompanied by an ass-kickin’, philosophy-spoutin’ warrior nun. Who else would you get to play that part except Michelle Yeoh? Various bad guys (or are they?) try to kidnap the girl along the way, and/or kill Diesel and Yeoh. Potential double-crosses loom. Things get metaphysical. Finally you get to an ending that makes the viewer go “Huh?” At least I did.
All that said, I thought BABYLON A.D. was a pretty entertaining movie. There are a lot of striking images and plenty of action, some of which could have been better-edited, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, it’s that old complaint again, but this movie isn’t too bad an offender in that respect. Diesel is Diesel, and I suspect most viewers either like him or don’t. I do. I like Michelle Yeoh, too, but she isn’t given much to do here. I asked at one point, “Is this movie based on a video game?” Turns out it’s not; it’s based on a novel I’d never heard of instead. But it plays a lot like a video game movie, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This one’s worth watching, although I wouldn’t rush right out to grab a copy of it if I were you.
I'm trying to get back in the habit of posting a new cover scan on the WesternPulps website every Sunday, and when I do, I'll post it here, too. This week it's the February 1941 issue of SPICY WESTERN. Larry Dunn, the author of the cover-featured story "Six-Gun Wedding" was really prolific pulpster Laurence Donovan. This issue also featured a Simon Bolivar Grimes story by E. Hoffmann Price. I hasten to add that I don't own this issue. The scan comes from the invaluable Fictionmags Index.
In the spirit of fairness, here's a clip featuring the other leading singing cowboy from that era and his most frequent sidekick. Now, I never liked Gene and Frog as much as I did Roy and Gabby, but I'll admit they made some decent movies for Republic in the Thirties. This clip also includes the credits from ROOTIN' TOOTIN' RHYTHM, and it's interesting to note the the script was based on a story by Johnston McCulley, the prolific pulp author and creator of Zorro.
I need a little inspiration before I get to work this morning, and who better to provide it than the King of the Cowboys and the Greatest Sidekick of All Time? By the way, I love the fact that one of Fred Rogers' first jobs in television was working on The Gabby Hayes Show. "Boys and girls . . . can you say whippersnapper?"
I don't know if this is the same edition as the one Max Allan Collins mentions in his comment on the previous post, but it's a good cover and worth posting. "A guy -- a girl -- a highway motel" . . . As Ron says in his comment, I love motel noir, too. There's an anthology idea for somebody: MOTEL NOIR.
I guess ROADSIDE NIGHT qualifies as a Forgotten Book. In forty-plus years of reading and collecting books like this, I’d never heard of this novel or its authors, Erwin N. Nistler and Gerry P. Broderick. As far as I’ve been able to discover, this is the only book they ever published.
When you see the phrase “strange love” on a paperback from this era (1951), it’s usually code for a lesbian novel. Not in this case. The relationships here are strictly heterosexual. The narrator, Buck Randall, is an ex-G.I., a World War II vet who fought on Guadalcanal. He owns a tavern and a small motel on the Pacific coast in California. He’s having a minor romance with the beautiful teenage daughter of the man who owns a restaurant down the coast highway from the motel. He’s not particularly ambitious.
Then a gorgeous blonde in an expensive car stops at the tavern for a drink as she’s passing through the area, and Buck falls hard for her. He pines away until she comes back by. They start getting to know each other. She’s interested in him, too, and after they begin sleeping together, he finds out that she’s not as well-to-do as he thought at first. In fact, she’s in sort of a desperate situation, but she knows a way out, if only she can find somebody to help her . . .
Yep, you’ve read it before, starting with James M. Cain and going right on through the Fifties in the work of dozens of paperbackers like Charles Williams, Day Keene, Gil Brewer, and Orrie Hitt. The femme fatale, the likable but not-too-bright hero, the scheme that will make them both rich if only nothing goes wrong . . . but it always does. The first half of ROADSIDE NIGHT doesn’t blaze any new ground, but at least it’s a fairly early example of that standard plot. What makes it worth reading is the prose, which is bleak and fast-paced, and the sweaty air of doom and desperation that hangs over the book like fog rolling in from the sea.
Then the second half of the novel throws in just enough plot twists so that everything doesn’t work out quite the way you might expect it, and ROADSIDE NIGHT turns into a really nice little noir novel. I think the ending could have been stronger – Nistler and Broderick pull back just a little when maybe they shouldn’t have – but it’s still very effective. This isn’t some lost masterpiece of crime fiction, but it’s well worth reading and would make a good candidate for reprinting. It’s too short for Hard Case Crime, probably not much more than 35,000 words, but it would work just fine in, say, a Stark House collection with a couple of other short novels. I’m really glad I ran across it, and if you happen to do likewise, I think you should grab it and read it.
Evan (Dave) Lewis tagged me with this meme, which involves naming five favorite Internet stores other than Amazon. I don't do much shopping on the Internet other than for old books, so my top spot definitely has to go to ABE. But I also buy pulp reprints from various publishers who sell through Lulu, and VCI Entertainment has some great obscure DVDs, and we buy more current stuff through Half.com and Deep Discount. That's five, isn't it?
It’s starting to look like Lee Goldberg Week here on the ol’ blog. After reading his latest Monk novel, MR. MONK IN TROUBLE, we’ve also watched FAST TRACK: NO LIMITS, the movie he wrote and produced in Germany last year that’s now out on DVD. It’s set in Germany, as well, but two of the four main characters are Americans.
Katie Reed is a beautiful mechanic who owns a garage where she builds street racers. Mike Cassidy is a pizza deliveryman who putters around town on a moped, disguising the fact that he’s actually a former getaway driver who’s wanted in the States for his part in a bank robbery. In a nice little plot twist, there’s no romance between them. Katie’s boyfriend is a young German cop who’s also an expert driver, and Mike falls for the wife of a rich businessman whose car he “borrows” to take part in a street race. Katie needs money to save her garage, and her only real hope is to win a series of races with her cars. (She doesn’t drive herself, just provides the cars and takes part of the purses when they win.) Throw in more cops, some gangsters, a nasty villain, assorted bank robberies, beautiful women in skimpy outfits, several races, and a handful of really spectacular stunts, and you’ve got a highly entertaining action/adventure movie.
Most of the cast is European, but the two leads are American (Erin Cahill as Katie) and Canadian (Andrew Walker as Mike). Everybody does a good job, the script has some funny lines and several very effective dramatic moments, and the stunt drivers really steal the show. I don’t know if Lee has any more of these in the works, but if he does, I’ll watch ’em, you can count on that.
I'm sure a lot of you have already seen snow this season, but not us. Not until this morning, when big flakes were coming down hard and heavy for a while, covering cars and turning the ground white. December 2 is pretty early for that around here. It's not cold enough to stick on the road, thank goodness, and while I'm not a huge fan of winter weather in general, I have to admit that some snow on the ground and in the trees looks pretty. I'm not longing for it like Bing and his buddies in this clip, though.
Around the middle of the day today, I passed the million-word mark for this year. That makes five years in a row I've written at least a million words. I don't say that to brag. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have had the opportunity to write that much, and I owe it to the readers who buy the books and the editors who've had faith in me, and I want to thank all of them for making it possible.
Still . . . a million words a year . . . five years in a row . . . I'd be lying if I didn't say I think that's pretty cool. (And no, before you ask, that's not Livia and me in the picture.)