Sunday, September 30, 2007

Barbara Mertz; The Lone Wolf's Spy Hunt

Happy belated birthday to Barbara Mertz a/k/a Elizabeth Peters. One of the nicest and most talented writers our genre has ever produced.

While I was reading through some research books yesterday I made the mistake of turning on Turner Class Movies. The first thing I saw was a speeding car an the flame of a gun fired from the shadows. I'm thinking 1930s. So much for research.

Fortunately for me the picture had been running only a few minutes because it turned out to be The Lone Wolf's Spy Hunt written by Johnathan Latimore and featuring two very young starlets named Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth.

Warren William who was so bad as Perry Mason is just as bad here. I know he's supposed to be dashing and debonair but he's always struck me as too stolid for that. I'm probably being unfair (no way, Ed, you unfair?) because he reminds me of Basil Rathbone or Nasal Rathbone as Mad once referred to him. That carefully considered delivery as if the lines are being fed to them through an earpiece.

The plot has to do with goverment plans for a secret airplane. The plot, of course, doesn't matter much. The dialogue is what propels it and Latimore's good at it.

The centerpiece is the eye candy. I wouldn't have thought it possible for Ida Lupino to warrant as much attention as Rita Hayworth but...Lupino is so cute and pretty and fetching as the dippy daughter of a U.S. Senator--so adept at fast drama-queen patter--that even given Rita's regal beauty, she steals scenes from Hayworth.

This came from the Columbia B factory in 1939 and is fun in a dated and dorky way.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Same old, same old

Richard Wheeler is talking about westerns here. But to some degree I think same old old same old applies to all genres. Occasionally I pick up a new book is that is so much by the numbers it startles me. I suppose the saving grace for me is voice. I've read many books that offer little fresh but the voice. Voice, for me, is the great redeemer. Even the most tired entry in long running series is a worthy read if the voice is there. When everything else went to hell, for instance, Archie Goodwin's sarcasm carried the tale.

Here's Richard Wheeler:


I had occasion recently to read a classic gunfighter novel by a very successful western novelist. It carefully strung together every cliche of that sort of story ever invented. There was a large range war, with big and little players, a new-minted sheriff who was a gunslick, and the war attracts gunmen, all with reputations. The usual smartass kid, eager to test himself against the sheriff, ends up surprised by the two bullets in his chest. The usual heavyweight gunman is approaching from afar, the one the sheriff dreads, his progress toward the town somehow mysteriously telegraphed, and of course that confrontation comes at the end of the book. There were backshooters, trick shooters, two-gun shooters, fast-draw shooters, slow-draw aim-and-kill types, and confrontations every few pages.

A lot of people buy these stories, and that is the mystery I hope you will answer for me. When it comes to this sort of thing I'm dumb as a stump. Why do people buy a pocketbook that exactly reiterates hundreds of previous stories of the same sort? The word, novel, derives from the French, nouvelle, meaning new, and yet the purchasors of this sort of fiction don't want anything new. They want the same characters and same situations and same mythology. They want all westerns to be as close to this model as can be written.

It is as if the gunfighter story is not really entertainment for them, but some sort of ritualized affirmation of manhood. Of course these stories have little or nothing to do with the actual West.

Is this true of other realms of genre fiction? Are noir novels essentially the same? Why do people purchase the same story over and over and over?



Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rip Foster; Peter Rabe; Jan Grape

MORE nostalgia? You bet.

Geezers on two different blogs are recalling the Whitman books for juveniles published in the Forties and Fifties and Sixties.

As I remember a good number of them were media tie-ins. There seemed to be an interminable number of Bonanza books, a show I never took to because of smirky, creepy Michael Landon. I always thought he should have been cast as a Peeping Tom. I just got that kind of of sleazoid vibe from him.

The only one I kept for some reason is a western by Talmage Powell, one of the fine old pulpsters I grew up reading.

The best of the Whitmans, for me anyway, was a short-lived series built around a space adventurer called Rip Foster. Rip was one of those clean-cut All American teenagers who could right any wrong you threw his way and look cool doing it.

(Maybe this wasn't a Whitman; maybe this was a Grosset & Dunlap. Well, in some ways they were interchangable.)


Just before he died, Peter Rabe mailed me two manuscripts that I shopped around for some years. Glowing letters but the usual resons for rejecting them--not sure how to slot these.

They're now in the hands of Greg Shepard at Strk house and hopes are high. They're excellent books.


From Jan Grape about last night Roy-Gene post:

"As a huge tomboy (as they used to call us...are there any of those any more?)I loved all the cowboy movies. My favorite Saturday pass time. Don't remember Tim Holt in Treasure or Ambersons but as a Saturday cowboy, yep, you bettcha. Loved Roy and Dale, but my absolute favorite was Lash LaRue. Don't know who he was, but cracking that whip was the coolest thing ever. At least to my ten year old mind. I remember being 7 years old and asking Santa for double guns with holsters. Some where there is a photo of me wearing them. Then when I was 9 I wanted real caps for my guns. Got those, too. Guess they're considered too dangerous and violent-producing for kids nowadays...sad. I know I never had a thought about really shooting someone. Only bad guys in cowboy movies shot people, and the good guys caught them and put them in jail. I think maybe the Tim Holts of the world taught good and evil and maybe we need more of that today. Just my thoughts."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tim Holt

Since this seems to be nostalgia week, and since several bloggers are talking about some of their favorite tv shows and movies, I'll mention a name here that only a portion of you will be familiar with.

Tim Holt (from Turner Classic Movies)

"Began his career as a child actor in silent films starring his father, Jack Holt, and graduated to juvenile parts in B productions of the 1930s. Holt landed significant roles in Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) and, opposite Humphrey Bogart, in John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948)."

Quite a career, eh? Two of the finest films ever made. So why haven't you ever heard of this guy?

I'm not sure. Even though he had major roles in both films, even though his reviews were terrific, he went straight from these films into a series of B westerns for RKO. To be fair to the quote from TCM, their writer finds his westerns "routine."

I think they're better than that. Something like a quarter century ago I wrote a piece for a book on western film stars. My subject was Roy Rogers and Gene Autry-compare and contrast. I had so much of my early childhood invested in their films that I could hardly knock them. But I did point out that they were aimed primarily at kids. I also noted that the stolid Gene reminded me of the family insurance salesman and that Roy was the sort of goofy older brother you were sometimes embarrassed to claim. Plus there was their singing. They were both pretty good at it and a lot of the Dale Evans stage numbers in the Rogers pictures were very good. She was pretty, shapely and she could sing. And the dance routines were lavish for a B.

But...singing cowboys?

I remember channel surfing past a country music channel that claimed that tonight some "real cowboys" would be dancing the "tush push." Yes, you find frequent references to "tush pushing" in most histories of the American West.

That's why, as I got older, I preferred the Tim Holts. I watched a few of them recently and realized that they were aimed for the upper end of the young audience. Tim's intensity wasn't anything you ever saw in Roy or Gene. And even the comic relief, with an Irish actor playing a Mexican ass-bandit, was a mite racy for ten year olds. (Othe cowpokes joked about girls; you had the feeling that ole Chico might actually have done the deed once or twice.)

I'm not making the case that these were major westerns in any sense. But the scripts were often enjoyable mysteries, the acting was solid, and the RKO B factory could trick up a beleivable west in all respects.

And nobody sang a single note.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


A bookstore owner recently told me that there was a surfeit of writers asking to visit. A decade ago another bookstore owner told me that even some of the big names didn't draw much of an audience after their second or third appearance.

When I was growing up we had anything but a surfeit of writers.

Part of what I'm about to say owes to the fact that except for Minneapolis I grew up in small cities and small towns. I didn't meet a writer until I was in my early Twenties. He was a local guy who sold to men's magazines and very small soft core publishers. His dream was to sell a story to Amazing Stories. I don't think he ever did.

But it was cool to sit on the summer library steps and talk to him. Cheesy as his markets were, he was an actual pro. He was a grumpy middle-aged bastard and I probably wouldn't have liked him but for the fact that he was an actual WRITER. That was worth listening to a whole lot of bitching.

I'd tried to meet an author before, the great YA writer Henry Gregor Felsen. He was speaking in Des Moines. My cousin wanted to go too. We were going to ride in style. He had a chopped, channeled, louevered 50 Ford. The only thing wrong with it was that it spent half its years in the garage. A very tempermental car. One of us once said that his Ford was the equivalent of marrying the most beautiful girl in the world only to find out she wouldn't sleep with you. His Ford wouldn't run on Felsen day.

One night in a local pub I met a guy who told everybody he was a writer. Paperbacks, he said, and yanked a Dell First edition from his back pocket. I don't remember the title but I do remember the author name: Robert Dietrich. He always used a pen-name when I asked him how come his own name wasn't on the cover. Saving himself for more important work. Then he'd use his real name.

Those were my early drinking days when people passed in and out of my life in a boozy fog. I ran into "Mr. Dietrich" a few times more but decided he was just a bullshitter, As he was, it turned out, the Dietrich name being in fact Howard Hunt of Watergate fame. But the fake Dietrich did do something spectacular. There was a down and out bar down on the river where, on a hundred dollar bet, he walked in with a real full-grown lion on a leash and scared the shit out of all the poor winos. He was arrested, of course. I never did quite know how the hell he came up with a lion.

Nelson Algren was the first writer of any substance I ever saw. He was teaching at the Iowa workshop and speaking on a panel. He was well worth the wait. Funny, melancholy, angry and just generally honest and wise. No bullshit.

He was well worth the wait.

Monday, September 24, 2007

James Reasoner

I'm picking up on a recommendation Bill Crider posted yesterday. That being a long interview with James Reasoner posted on that fine western site Saddlebums.

This isn't of interest only to western fans. In the course of it James discusses many of the moments he's enjoyed and endured in a full time writing career that stretches past the thirty year mark.

Not until I read the interview did I realize how many books of James I've read. Starting back in the 70s with all the Brett Halliday lead novelettes he wrote for Mike Shayne mystery magazine. Awhile back I posted a piece on the work he's doing for the Longarm series. When James says that he does his best with every assignment, including house name work, he's not boasting. He's telling the truth. I've read four of his more recent Longarms in the past month and a half and each is a fine, considered and successful piece of storytelling craft.

Then there's the work he's done under his own name, especially the noirs Texas Wind and Dust Devils. For me these rank among the best crime fiction of the past twenty five years (though technically Texas Wind reaches back more than thirty). His story about selling Texas Wind to Manor Books is both funny and heartbreaking. That was quite an outfit.

Thirty-some years in the business of full-time writing. Think of all the names large and small that have disappeared in that time. All the flavors of the month. All the critics' darlings. All the overpaid and overhyped wunderkinds who weren't so wonderful after all.

I think of James as having a career comparable to Gene Hackman. No he doesn't make Hackman's money; no he doesn't have Hackman's celebrity. But as an artist and craftsman he has Hackman's ability to adapt to a variety of tasks and commit himself completely. Not a whisper of hackwork. Full tilt. And like Hackman the work is occasionally brilliant. Check out Texas Wind and Dust Devils if you doubt me.

And to end with a piece of news-I'm pretty sure that soon enough there be a collecton of James' best short stories. He's as good short form as along form.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Antiques Roadkill

Yes, I admit it. From time to time I read cozies. And what's more, smart ass, the one's I read I enjoy.
I think this is probably the result of being weaned, as a mystery reader, on Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. I have an appreciation for the alternate universe nature of enjoyable worlds I can visit again and again.
Barbara Allan (a/k/a Barbara and Max Allan Collins) has created a world that lies on the banks of the Mississippi and is populated by folks who are every bit as colorful as the people who serve Master Nero. In other words, they're fun. And you hope to see them again, especially heroine Brandy Borne and her eccentric mother Vivian. Their relationship, funny and wan and occasionally touching, is the centerpiece of the story.
A crooked antiques dealer has cheated Vivian out of her heirlooms. Brandy, just returned to the small town of Serenity, joins her mother in trying to get them back. But soon enough there's a problem. The antiques dealer is found dead and guess who is the leading suspect?
As the story plays out, Brandy presents her small town with affection and just the right amount of rueful disdain, giving us the perfect backdrop for her wry sly tale.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dick Francis

Marilyn Stasio has a particularly appealing column tomorrow. Her lead paragraph is especially interesting:

"There are no daredevil steeplechase races in DEAD HEAT (Putnam, $25.95), no close-ups of quivering horseflesh, no heroic jockey to vanquish those villains who would corrupt the sport of kings. Rather, this new novel by Dick Francis, written with his son Felix, focuses on the restaurant business, even to the point of tossing in some cooking tips."

Dick Francis? Restaurants?

Stasio likes the book and I suspect I will, too.

I've been reading Francis for more than thirty years and I can honestly say that few of his novels have disappointed me. True, I think the early-to-middle ones were the best but he's one of those storytellers who can work his way through a book the way a good professional fighter can work through a bout. It may not be his best night but ultimately he wins.

Or should I say "they" instead of "he?" Francis always admitted that his now-deceased wife worked with him on his novels. But as his career wore on there were rumors that it was the other way around, that it was he who "helped" his wife, who was, according to the rumor, the real writer in the family.

I suspect this piece of conjecture won't be solved until after Francis' passing.

In this age when one must transcend, Francis remains what he's always been, a sleek, witty, wily storyteller. My favorite of his books is In The Frame. I reread it once a year just to remind myself how to keep a story on track while creating an interesting milieu. The mystery elements are really mysterious, the people, if a bit booky, are compelling and, at least in his early years, the violence is spare but explosive. For all his British reserve, he reminds you every once in a while that murder is indeed a nasty business.

He/she/they are masters of the game.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Crime Wave

Vince Keenan recently posted commentary on a noir film called "Crime Wave" with Sterling Hayden and Gene Nelson as the stars. Hayden is the cop, Nelson the decent but vulnerable ex-con who's dragged back into crime by former associates. Before this plot was used by crime writers western writers did something like a thousand riffs on it.

But director Andre DeToth makes it work. Hayden's always been an interesting actor, which isn't to say that he's always good. He needs the right words to make a character come alive. He's not one of those actors who can take a nothing script and make something of it. And sometimes he's got a tin ear for the rythm of a line. But when he's on... Here, to me at least, the performance is good but needs more variety to be really memorable. But what Hayden lacked in words he always made up for in sheer presence. This guy could steal a scene just by leaning against the wall in the background. He was just one of those actors the camera automatically zeroed in on.

Vince notes that James Ellroy feels that this film is superior to Chinatown. Well, I'd sure like to have some of THAT weed. But it is a very exciting and visceral picture not so much because of the story but because of the way De Toth uses Los Angeles circa 1951. It's one of the few films I've ever seen where the city is also a true character, much as NYC is in The 87th books and Paris is in the Magraites. Ellroy claims that this film inspired some of his best work. And I can see that. This is Ellroy country for sure. The opening scene, an action set piece, is so vivid you almost break out in a sweat. And you're in the center of it, in a nowhere little gas station at night, with the big city rolling past you in every direction--and you nailed down in a tiny life and death drama that won't be worth more than an inch or two in tomorrow's newspaper. A scene with true ingenuity and power.

Well worth the money especially with Eddie Muller on the commentary track as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Crider Country

I'm infringing on my friend Bill Crider's great blog tales of woe and the bizzare life forms but Jerry Healy sent me this and I just can't resist reprinting it. Forgive me, Bill. And thanks, Jerry.

Subject: It's a wonderful world

SNELLVILLE, Ga. - Police are investigating the death of a man who collapsed after he was head-butted by an armless man in a fight over a woman. Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said the two men, Charles Keith Teer and William Russell Redfern, scuffled Monday afternoon in the driveway of a suburban Atlanta home.

Police say Redfern, who was born with no right arm and only a short stump for his left arm, kicked Teer and Teer hit Redfern during the fight, which was due to long-standing bad blood over a woman who once dated Teer and now dates Redfern.

After bystanders separated them, Redfern "came back and head-butted (Teer) one time," Whitehead said.

Teer complained of feeling dizzy, collapsed and died, Whitehead said.

After the fight, Redfern and the woman got into his truck and drove to the Snellville police station, Whitehead said. He said the couple had called 911 to report the dispute, then told the operator they needed an ambulance after Teer collapsed.

A woman who answered the telephone at Redfern's home, in suburban Tucker, Ga., said he had no comment. She declined to identify herself.

Police are awaiting autopsy results before deciding whether Redfern should be charged.

Known by the nickname "Rusty," Redfern made a name for himself in the late 1980s for pen and ink drawings he does using his foot.

According to the Web site for VSA Arts — an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that promotes and showcases artists with disabilities — Redfern's drawings take one to six months to complete.

He was one of six Georgians selected to represent the state at the 1989 International Arts Festival in Washington, D.C., and was commissioned by Georgia's then-Secretary of State Max Cleland for a series of illustrations depicting the state capitol.

According to the site, he started Redfern Originals Inc. in 1987, producing Christmas cards, stationery and limited-edition prints.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Wild Angels

Excellent long review of the Roger Corman boxed set over on Cinema Retro. In a few cases the reviewp iece is better than the films it covers. My favorites of the films are The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Bloody Mama, the latter more for the movie poster than the film. I mean how can you go wrong with an image of a plump Shelly Winters in a fedora, a cigar jammed into the corner of her mouth, and wielding a tommy-gun?

But the most interesting review is of Wild Angels, a movie I remember catching at a drive in the days of acid, crash pads and long discussions about what we'd do when we came to power in Washington, "we" being all the stoners in the room.

This was also the time when people such as Leonard Bernstein had to prove their hipness by inviting the Black Panthers to dinner parties. To me the Panthers were a mixed bag. I believe they were murdered in cold blood by Chicago police but I also believe they were generally as racist, intolerant and violent as the Klan even though, I realize, that their formation was a reaction to two centuries of slavery.

But it was a time of tourists, and there was no better emblem of that than Jagger and Richards hiring the Hells Angels to police Altamont. I'm a Stones fans (I always preferred them to the Beatles) but security geniuses they ain't. Their naivete got an innocent young man murdered.

I mention this because one of the films covered in the Cinema Retro piece is The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda, a film about those good old trustworthy honorable fascinating guys that cultural toursists briefly found just peachy.

No matter how stoned, drunk, sexually gratified you were in the course of this drive in flick nothing could lessen the impact of its brutality. This picture broke the contract movie makers have with movie goers. These are people you don't merely dislike. These are people you want to murder. And take your time doing it.

Here's a long paragraph from the review:

"Corman doesn't sugar-coat the gang lifestyle. The self-centeredness, lack of intellect and abscence of loyalty among the members is presented in a forthright manner. The person who is your friend one minute, mocks your tragic circumstances the next. Women are passed around like beer bottles to be used at will by the barbaric male members of the gang. Corman's emphasis on making the gang appear realistic also leads to an inevitable problem: there are no heroes in the film. In fact, there isn't a soul with a single redeemable attribute. Whether Corman sought to make these characters sympathetic seems doubtful. Rather, he seems to have simply been utlizing the Corman touch for exploiting a subject matter in a timely way. The film is primarily interesting because of its cast. Peter Fonda went from being a drab second-rate actor to a pop culture icon with this film and posters of him astride his chopper still adorn head shops today. Nancy Sinatra is largely wasted in a underdeveloped role that could have been played by any actress. Yet, Corman well knew the exploitation value of casting this popular singer. The supporting characters include Corman favorite Bruce Dern and his (then) real life wife Diane Ladd and in minor roles Michael J. Pollard and Gayle Hunnicutt. Members of the actual Hell's Angel's Venice, California chapter also appeared as bikers.Interestingly, Peter Bogdanovich worked on the film in several capacities without screen credit. The film boasts a hallmark of many Corman productions: stunning cinematography that belies the relatively low budget. The film remains a distasteful experience largely because the scum bums depicted onscreen don't confine their assaults to law enforcement officers. They gang rape a grieving widow from their own group- at the same funeral service in which they relentlessly beat and humiliate a preacher. A nurse who tries to care for a wounded gang member is sexually assaulted and the group sports Nazi flags on everything from clothing to caskets."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Jim Rigney a/k/a Robert Jordan

From Locus:

Death: Robert Jordan

Fantasy writer Robert Jordan, born 1948, died today, September 16, 2007, at the age of 58. Jordan was the pen-name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. He was author of the bestselling Wheel of Time series that began in 1990 with The Eye of the World and continued 11 volumes through Knife of Dreams in 2005, plus prequel volume New Spring (2004). A twelfth volume, A Memory of Light, remains uncomplete. Before that series Jordan wrote the Michael Fallon historical romance trilogy and seven Conan novels, from Conan the Invincible (1982) through Conan the Victorious (1984).

Ed here:

Jim and I criss-crossed at Mayo in Rochester two or three times. We never did meet. But when I heard he was ill and had been to Mayo I wrote him and we began exchanging e mails.

Both of us suffered from incurable diseases that the Mayo docs treated in hopes of giving us as many extra years as possible. Jim's diagnosis was more severe than mine. I have multiple myeloma, a cancer that has suddenly started getting some press. Jim's non-cancerous disease was rare and more difficult to treat. His initial diagnosis was grim. But his prospects seemed to get better a year ago. I believe the docs were saying he might live another three to five years.

In the five and a half years I've had cancer I've met maybe a hundred cancer patients. I've never met one who was as fiercely determined to live as Jim. Nor have I met one who spent half as much time trying to cheer up other people fighting for their lives. If I got a bad report and mentioned it to Jim, he'd write back and talk about how we were going to surprise everybody by living a lot longer than they thought. And he meant it. And he helped.

I also never met a patient who suffered as much as Jim. He went through a very difficult stem cell transplant that didn't do what the docs had hoped. He lost considerable weight, he didn't have much energy, he wondered what the next step would be since the transplant hadn't worked out. I don't have a list of all the various set-backs and serious troubles he endured. But I do know I couldn't have handled them with the grace and fortitude he did.

In one of his last letters to me he spoke of his deep love for his wife Harriet McDougal; of his hopes for his son; of his plans to start writing again, even if it was only a little bit at a time. And he invited me down to go fishing with him. In one letter he'd described his boyhood, a hardscrabble life that taught him some things he would always remember and a few he'd just as soon forget. In his description of his fishing site I heard how much he loved the land and the culture he'd grown up in and the values he'd learned both as a boy and a man, particularly during his service in Viet Nam.

Heroic as some of his characters were, they weren't any more heroic than Jim himself.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

NY Times PB Bestseller List

I don't know if this is a record but it should be. All these books debuting on the list the same week--unless this is some big time computer screw up. Herewith:

On List
1 THE COLLECTORS, by David Baldacci. (Grand Central, $9.99.) The members of the Camel Club reunite to solve a murder at the Library of Congress. 1
2 74 SEASIDE AVENUE, by Debbie Macomber. (Mira, $7.99.) A chess champion keeps a protective eye on his hairdresser wife after receiving veiled threats from a Russian opponent; Book 7 of the Cedar Cove series. 1
3 KILLER DREAMS, by Iris Johansen. (Bantam, $7.99.) A sleep researcher battles the head of a pharmaceutical company who wants to use her technology for evil. 1
4 INNOCENT IN DEATH, by J. D. Robb. (Berkley, $7.99.) Lt. Eve Dallas investigates the murder of a history teacher; by Nora Roberts, writing pseudonymously. 1
5 ACT OF TREASON, by Vince Flynn. (Pocket, $9.99.) The C.I.A. operative Mitch Rapp investigates after an attack on a presidential candidate’s motorcade. 1
6 BEYOND SEDUCTION, by Stephanie Laurens. (Avon, $7.99.) An earl is urged by his younger sisters to pursue an attractive neighbor; a Bastion Club novel. 1
7 THE MEPHISTO CLUB, by Tess Gerritsen. (Ballantine, $7.99.) A Boston medical examiner and a detective investigate murders involving a sinister cabal. 1
8 INFERNO, by Troy Denning. (Ballantine, $7.99.) As Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars” grieves over his dead wife, his nephew, Jacen Solo, plots to take over the Jedi. 1
9 EXILE, by Richard North Patterson. (St. Martin’s, $9.99.) A San Francisco lawyer defends a Palestinian woman accused of killing the Israeli prime minister. 1
10 SILVER MASTER, by Jayne Castle. (Jove, $7.99.) A matchmaker is attracted to a man who’s also a psychic; by Jayne Ann Krentz, writing pseudonymously. 1
11 WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER, by Elizabeth George. (Harper, $7.99.) The back story of the murder of Inspector Thomas Lynley’s wife focuses on an abandoned mixed-race family in North London. 1
12* FRESH DISASTERS, by Stuart Woods. (Signet, $9.99.) Stone Barrington, the New York cop turned lawyer, tangles with a mob boss. 1
13 CALDER STORM, by Janet Dailey. (Zebra, $7.99.) A handsome rancher falls in love at first sight with a photographer; Book 10 of the Calder series. 1
14 BREAK NO BONES, by Kathy Reichs. (Pocket, $9.99.) The forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan finds a fresh skeleton at an Indian burial ground. 1
15 RICOCHET, by Sandra Brown. (Pocket, $9.99.) A detective is attracted to a judge’s wife who he suspects is not telling the truth about a fatal shooting. 1
16 PEGASUS DESCENDING, by James Lee Burke. (Pocket Star, $7.99.) Detective Dave Robicheaux pursues interrelated cases that lead back to the killing of his best friend 25 years earlier. 1
17* DARKFEVER, by Karen Marie Moning. (Dell, $6.99.) A woman travels to Ireland in search of answers about her sister’s death and is drawn into a mystical, dangerous realm of Faery magic. 1
18 ECHO PARK, by Michael Connelly. (Grand Central, $7.99.) Detective Harry Bosch returns to an old unsolved case, with unexpected results. 1
19 COPY CAT, by Erica Spindler. (Mira, $7.99.) The “Sleeping Angel Killer” offers to help a detective solve crimes committed by a copycat murderer. 1
20 DAKOTA BORN, by Debbie Macomber. (Mira, $7.99.) In this reissue of the first book in the Dakota trilogy, a woman returns to the North Dakota town where she spent her childhood vacations.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

W.R. Burnett

Over on the excellent messageboard The Big Adios ( the fine western The Yellow Sky was mentioned and I followed up with a brief bit on its author W.R. Burnett. A few people wrote me off-line to mention that they weren't familiar with his work. Here, from the Turner Classic Movie site, is a biography of the much underrated writer:


A highly-prolific author whose novels and short stories provided the basis for numerous films ranging from the gangster classic "Little Caesar" (1930) to the Western "Dark Command" (1940), W R Burnett also adapted his own work for film (e.g., "High Sierra" 1941) and wrote original screenplays, both alone and in collaboration (e.g., "This Gun for Hire" 1942, "The Great Escape" 1963).

A former government statistician, Burnett settled in Chicago at the height of Prohibition and penned his first novel "Little Caesar" in 1929. A veiled study of the rise and fall of a mobster who bore a passing resemblance to Al Capone, the novel was an success as was the screen version starring Edward G Robinson. Books and stories with Burnett's by-line were almost a guaranteed sale to Hollywood (not unlike John Grisham and Stephen King in the late 20th Century), and eventually the writer turned to penning his own scripts for Tinseltown. Not only were the villains in Burnett novels revealed in full human texture--something little seen in melodramas--but also the characters of the cops and other urban authority figures were often idiosyncratic and full-bodied, His storytelling practically created the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s, reaching a high point with his contributions to the dialogue of "Scarface" (1932). "High Sierra" (1941), adapted from his own novel, offered Humphrey Bogart one of his signature villains and "This Gun for Hire" (1942) brought Alan Ladd to the forefront as a hit man seeking revenge.

With the advent of World War II, gangster films lessened in popularity so Burnett turned to writing or co-writing dramas about men in combat situations. He and co-writer Frank Butler shared an Academy Award nomination for their original screenplay of "Wake Island" (1942), a gripping drama about American troops fighting to maintain control of the titular Pacific island at the outbreak of WWII. He went on to collaborate on "Crash Dive" and "Action in the North Atlantic" (both 1943), among others. Following the war, Burnett turned to Westerns (e.g., "San Antonio" 1946; "Belle Starr's Daughter" 1948) and then returned to form with the film noir "The Racket" (1951). He added a dose of humor to the action genre with "Sergeants Three" (1962), a loose remake of "Gunga Din" with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr before penning his final credited screenplay, 1963's tense "The Great Escape", based on the largest escape of Allied POWs in World War II and featuring a star-making turn by Steve McQueen.

Friday, September 14, 2007


(I offered five sets of my two volume story collection for sale last night. Little did I know I had so many old college chums lurking on the blog. I sold all the books and had some nice conversations to boot. Thanks.)

On Slate today Eric Lichtenfeld writes a memorable piece on vigilante movies. He gives space to Brian Garfield's dissastisfaction with the original Death Wish movie and then goes on to consider the form as a whole. For me the most interesting point is what he says about the way modern day westerns look at vigilantes. Ambiguously at best.

Eric Lichtenfeld

The seminal vigilante film of the era—or any era—is Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), based on Brian Garfield's novel. The movie immortalized Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an everyman who responds to the brutalization of his wife and daughter by obsessively smiting muggers and other "freaks" (as the credits bill his family's attackers). This is far from where Kersey began: a progressive raised to hate guns, and a wartime conscientious objector. Of course, Kersey's liberalism exists only so it can be corrected later. Liberals are similarly "reformed" in the new Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One, as well as in Vigilante, Death Wish 3, and The Enforcer, in which a cop's widow makes the point, "It's a war, isn't it? I guess I never really understood that."


This war is between the civilized and the savage—a conflict drawn from the Western. The period's vigilante films actually uphold the Western mythos more reliably than its Westerns do. The Wild Bunch, Ulzana's Raid, and others depict the Western as morally confused, even bankrupt. Meanwhile, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and similar action yarns ultimately embrace the gunfighter's moral clarity.


It's easy to imagine that in a post-9/11 America, vengeance occupies more of our national imagination than before. Maybe it does. But today's vigilante movies channel many of the same frustrations that their predecessors did. Today, as in the '70s, America faces economic, environmental, and energy-related crises. In both generations, Americans wrestle with political powerlessness, on fronts ranging from their own health care to the country's role on the global stage. (America's invasion of Iraq, unsanctioned by the U.N. and launched by a president happy to be seen as a "cowboy"—or more accurately, a gunfighter—could be seen as a vigilante war.) And both generations of Americans watch as the executive branch flouts its accountability to the public and to the law, proves unable to "win" an increasingly unpopular war, and refuses to acknowledge the reality of the war's downward spiral.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Some more psycho self-promotion here

A number of you have asked me about the first two volumes of PS Publishings Collected Short Stories of Ed Gorman. The Booklist (of volume one) was good calling me "a modern master"(or was that modern bastard? ) and the other two reviews (forget where) were good too.

The list price is $30 per volume If anybody would like bother hardcover volumes (unboxed) for $45 e mail me and let me know.

Here's the only review I've seen of volume two.

Ed Gorman
(PS Publishing 2007)

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Author of countless stories, winner of many literary awards, Ed Gorman is considered – and rightly so- a master of crime and suspense fiction, even though, truth be told, labels don’t stick easily to his work.

The UK-based imprint PS Publishing is undertaking the demanding but commendable task of assembling the complete collection of Gorman short stories in a series of volumes. ‘The Moving Coffin’ is the second book in this projected series and concentrates mainly on the author’s crime and mystery tales.

If, incredibly, you still don’t know this author, here’s an excellent opportunity to make his acquaintance. If you're already a fan of Gorman's work, here's a collection you shouldn't miss because it features twenty among his stronger and more compelling journeys into the mysteries of human soul. Gorman is not a creator of mere action thrillers, although his stories are certainly not devoid of action and thrill, but a writer who likes to explore the darker side of human nature and the disreputable aspects of the world we inhabit.

Fine examples are the opening story, ‘Famous Blue Rraincoat,’ a grim reflection on how strange and unpredictable love and marriage can be, as well as ‘The Long Silence After’ a sad story of misery and despair and ‘The Face’ a thoughtful look at the horrors and inhumanity of war.

Obviously there are true samples of straight crime stories, like ‘Intent to Deceive,’ a very enjoyable piece reminiscent of those old black-and-white detective movies,or ‘Favor and the Princess,’ an engrossing tale showing Gorman’s personal view of the femme fatale theme, also developed in ‘Muse,’ a story with a complex plot featuring pop stars and newspapermen.

Other motifs tend to recur. In ‘The Right Thing,’ a piece full of melancholy graced by an excellent psychological analysis of the main characters, a man comes back home to attend his young son’s funeral and to make things straight. A similar theme – a father avenging his son’s murder- is addressed in the nasty but less accomplished ‘Surrogate.’ The title story, ‘A Moving Coffin’ is a piece of solid fiction where a man’s phobias force him to confess his dirty secret, while ‘Pariah’ is a moral parable proving that some truths are best left undisclosed.

‘Yesterday and the Day Before’ shows Gorman at his best in a cruel tale where tragedy generates tragedy, while in ‘Prisoners’ the depressing visit to the prison by a convict’s family reveals a blood-chilling reality.

Family tragedies are among the writer’s favourite subjects as in ‘Riff’ .a bitter tale featuring a man dying with cancer and his cheating wife or in ‘Eye of the Beholder’ a powerful, terrible piece about the power of beauty, a blessing which may turn into a curse.

The most convincing demonstration of the author’s enormous talent is perhaps ‘The End of it All,’ a high-calorie dish whose ingredients include the miracles of plastic surgery, love, sex, murder, etc. as in an ordinary soap opera. But in top of all that there's Gorman’s uncanny storytelling which makes the story unforgettable.

Highly recommended to any lover of good, entertaining but thought-provoking fiction.

© Mario Guslandi
Reproduced with permission

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Death of The Planet

Many of us who write genre fiction learned about storytelling first through comic books. By age four I was a stone fanatic about Captain Marvel and Superman. Arrivals of new issues were on a par with new epidoes of Superman, The Lone Ranger and The Shadow on the radio.

By chance I saw a collection of Superman stories from the Forties and Fifties at the library today. I brought it home and read the pieces by Edmond Hamilton, whose science fiction was a mainstay of my early yute.

The first story concerned the death of the planet--The Daily Planet, that is, the newspaper that employed Clark, Lois and Jimmy fer God sakes. The whole lot of them thrown out on the street when a rival publisher buys the newspaper and then fires everybody. And you're right to think Rupert Murdoch. The Daily Planet is done in by a version of the Australian vulgarian and right-wing pol.

But the storytelling...fantastic. Every page adheres to the pulp formula of...just when you think it can't get any does! All I could think of was the Fugs' great song "River of Shit" because that's just what even Superman faces when he tries to right the wrongs that this slick media emporer throws at the good unemployed folk of the Planet.

In microcosm you have a complete pulp novel in eighteen pages. And what I'd forgotten about stories like these was the novelty of most sequences. You have Lois Lane now unemployed and working as a waitress; and publisher Perry White driving a taxi. And when the media bad guy buys up all the paper in Metropolis so the Planet folk can't even start a four sheet alternative weekly...why Superman heads for the forest and turns trees into wood pulp. Voila! Paper for their little but mighty newspaper!

Of course in the end, and as is only fitting, Superman wails on the media baddy, driving him not only out of Mteropolis but out of newspaper publishing altogether. "You're not fit to be a publisher," Superman says. Yes he does.

I loved this story. The invention and the humor show Hamilton at his best as a comic book writer and helps explain why the old Imagination and Imaginative Tales were never better than when they featured a Hamilton "Complete Novel" in a given issue throughout the 1950s.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stephen Marlowe on writing DOUBLE TROUBLE

Ed here: Over on Tom Piccirilli's great new site The Big Adios there's a discussion of favorite paperback original writers (and a look at Bill Crider's astounding book collection). Because of the discussion I thought I'd reprint this piece of paperback origina history.

Stephen Marlowe on collaborating with Richard Prather

Almost exacty fifty years ago, Richard S. Prather and I decided--with a nudge from our mutual agent--to write a novel pitting our two private eyes, Shell Scott and Chet Drum, against each other until they could realize, almost too late, that they both were working the good side of the street in a complex case with nationwide implications. This was the novel that would become DOUBLE IN TROUBLE, published by Gold Medal in 1959 at just short of double the length of a standard Gold Medal book.

There were circumstances that made the first draft, when we finished it, half again as long as that.
For one thing, until then, we had never met. We developed the plot as we went along, mostly by long-distance phone call. There were telegrams too, including one that went something like "Body of Hartsell Committee lawyer found in Rock Creek Park" that must have startled the Western Union operator.

For another, our work habits couldn't have been more different. Dick liked to plan carefully as he went along, writing a detailed outline, chapter by chapter, from which he developed a first narrative take and then an expanded one that would become his first draft. I liked to work by instinct, writing as the ideas came, and outlining a chapter only when I'd finished drafting it. I'd got to calling this a post-outline, and it would prepare me for subsequent chapters, and it is still the way I write.

Well, we finished that first draft by writing alternate chapters, as those of you who read the book may remember, Scott narrating chapter 1, Drum chapter 2, and so on--to a total of more than eight hundred pages--enough for three Gold Medal books. Drastic measures had to be taken.

Ever been out to the Coast? Dick asked me by phone. Nope, I hadn't. Well, said Dick, come on out and we'll help each other cut. How? I said. There was a silence. Maybe, I suggested half-heartedly, I cut your deathless prose and you cut mine. Maybe, Dick said. Come on out.

So a couple of days later I flew out of Idlewild for LA, and was met at the airport by Dick Prather and his wife, Tina, in a snazzy pale blue Caddy.

"It's yours while you're here," Tina said.


"Well, you see, we'll work together at the house but we figured you'd like some privacy, so we booked you a room at a seaside motel."

"So the car is all yours while you're here," Dick explained.

The Prathers were like that--private people but the best hosts I'd ever known.

Their house was a modernistic, mostly glass cube high on a cliff overlooking Laguna Beach.

We couldn't wait. We set right to work in the brilliant Southern California sunshine. It went like this:
"How about this paragraph in chapter two, where Drum says--well, take a look. Not exactly deathless prose, is it?"
Dick asked. "And it doesn't really advance the plot, does it?"

I bristled. "What about here on the very first page, where Scott says..." I countered.

Dick pointed out something else that needed cutting in chapter 2; I did the same in chapter 1.

Tina suggested, "Why don't we have a drink?"

We had gin-and-tonics on the terrace. I watched a hummingbird hover over an exotic tropical flower. "Nice view," I offered. I had never seen a hummingbird hover before.

"We can go for a drive in the hills later," Dick suggested. "Pretty nice country up there."

We both smiled.

"Boys," Tina said. "You have a book to cut."

Either Dick or I sighed instead of saying, "Sure, and he wants to cut my part to ribbons."

It was as if Tina heard the words. "I have an idea," she said. "But maybe you won't go for it."

"What's that?" either Dick or I, or maybe both in unison, said doubtfully.

Tina smiled disarmingly. She was very pretty. "I'll sort of be the referee," she said.

And we finished our drinks. And the hummingbird veered off with its nectar. And we went to work.

By dusk we'd done a first pass through the first two chapters, cutting excess verbiage. In a tie--at first they were almost always ties--Tina supplied the deciding vote. And pretty soon it became clear that she was as objective as could be. We had to cut a couple of hundred pages, and it didn't matter to Tina whether they were her husband's or mine. We all wanted the same thing, after all.

It took two weeks, with an occasional half day off for a drive or walk, an occasional night on the town. The Prathers were a team, their love for each other obvious, their ability to work together and bring a third person into that work remarkable. I was going through a bad patch at the time with my first wife, and I envied them. Looking back on it from this remove, I think they became the template for my second marriage.

The Prathers were unassuming and always gracious. Even our political differences--they were conservative, I liberal--didn't seem to matter.

And Dick, as we made our way chapter by chapter through the revision, tried to give too much of the credit for the detection to Chet Drum. So I began to give more of it to Shell Scott. Turned out a dead heat. We were friends.

The book? DOUBLE IN TROUBLE went through several printings and made an appearance on the NYTimes softcover best-seller list.

Tina Prather died a couple of years ago, Dick earlier this month. Working with them meant a lot to me in more ways than one, and I'll never forget them.

--Stephen Marlowe

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jane Wyman R.I.P.

Jinx Winslow

I'm noting the passing of Jane Wyman because in the late 40s and early 50s I saw so many of her B movies from earlier years she became sort of my sister. She was a cutie rather than a beauty and a good solid actress rather than a huge star. She did notable A pictures, of course, winning the Academy Award for Johnny Belinda and providing beleivable help to Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.

But I mostly remember her Bs. Her best work was done, I think, in light comedy. She was fetching and funny. I caught one of her old mystery films some time ago. It brought back many many memories of popcorn days in second run houses

"Private Detective" (1940) features Jane as Myrna "Jinx" Winslow private eye. In the course of scouting out a tough case she meets another private working the same case, the durable if dull Dick Foran. You can write the script from here. They meet cute? You bet. They solve the crime? You bet. They fall in love? You bet.

But it's fun all the way through, 55 minutes (according to IMBD) of pulp writing, pulp acting and pulp directing made pleasurable by the good looks and fetching ways of Jane Wyman.

So long, Jane.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Westerns...Fred Blosser

Three serious flaws in the last few new Westerns -- 1) Too much recycling of plots and themes from the classics (can't these guys think of anything new?), 2) too much windy dialogue to reveal character motivation (Wayne and Coop didn't need to endlessly explain why they did the things they did -- one of the beauties of the classic western was revelation of character through action and setting), and 3) it seems the "damaged family" syndrome has crept into Westerns ("The Missing" and apparently the remake of "3:10 to Yuma"), where Dad and offspring are estranged, and the movie turns on Dad doing something in order to make up or prove himself.
--Fred Blosser

Death on The Cheap

Death on The Cheap by Arthur Lyons is a book I pull down whenever I want to recall going to second-run movies theaters in the early-to-mid-Fifties. Nostalgia with brains.

There was usually an A picture run with a B picture and the B-picture was almost always a suspense film (in the towns I lived in B westerns were run in B western theaters).

Lyons concentrates on the forgotten Bs and does a good job of assessing them and making the trip entertaining without being patronizing. He praises such films as Don Siegel's Crime in The Streets and tries (conversely) to make sense of some of the worst of PRC and Monogram plots, which is no easy task.

Lyons wrote a number of excellent private eye novels in the Seventies and Eighties. His style and insight into the crime genre make this book an essential purchase for the noir fan.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Robert Terrall; David Markson; Noir Originals; Tom Piccirilli

A big shout-out to Robert Terrall who was covered today in the gossip column Page Six--"Robert Terrall, who's 93, is having his 1960 mystery "Kill Now, Pay Later," featuring wisecracking New York gumshoe Ben Gates, republished by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 47 years."

Also news of a man who once wrote two very good private eye novels (in the same column) "THAT reclusive novelist David Markson made a rare public appearance at the Strand Wednesday night and shared stories about his drinking days with Dylan Thomas and his excitement over the upcoming re-release of "Dirty Dingus Magee," the 1970 movie version of his novel, with Frank Sinatra . . . "


Two excellent articles on Alan Guthrie's Noir Originals. The first, about William Campbell Gault, captures the decency and skeptical humor of the man and deals at some length with his various books over the years. Gault was a major force and deserves republication.

The second article by Ed Lynskey is a long and serious overview of the work of Bruno Fischer a man whose work, for me, gets better as the years pass. Ed spends considerable time dealing with The Evil Days, which many, including me, consider Fischer's best book. That it came at the end of his career is especially impressive. Despite a long career, the book demonstrates that he very much still had the fire.


Tom Piccirilli and some of his friends have stated a new discussion site for people interested in hardbiled fiction new and old. It's already packed with a great deal of interesting opinion and information.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Ever-Running Man; Phyllis Whitney

Graham Greene spoiled me as far as thriller writers go. His thrillers (or "entertainments" as he chose to call them) always worked on at least two levels, the tension of the story itself and then the characters and the milieu they inhabited.

Cardboard cut-outs of Washington and its people just don't do it for me, whether CIA or FBI, the men too bold (though always with that One Serious Flaw) and the women too beautiful (though always with that One Serious Flaw). Thriller Writing 101.

Marcia Muller In her exciting new novel The Ever-Running Man shows us how to write a thriller that honors the Greene method--tension-filled story, with believeable characters in a carefully detailed milieu.

Private investigator Sharon McCone's husband is one of the owners of RKI, a security company that competes with the best and the brightest in the business. But RKI, home office and affiliates, has been set upon with a domestic terrorist who uses explosive devices with deadly cunning and precision. McCone, barely escaping such an explosion, glimpses the man who means to make things ugly for the company.

RKI hires McCone to see what she can find out. The search is intense, a relentless hunt to discover and stop the killer before he wreaks any more damage.

But in the course of the search McCone is forced to confront certain truths about herself, her husband and his business partners. Muller gives us the world as it is--the world of Starbucks, reading the Sunday paper, the wind for lonely moments, the inevitable misunderstandings in marriage--seamlessly enhancing the chilling plot.

One of the year's best suspense novels.


Happy birthday Phyllis Whitney. I've had the pleasure of working with Phyllis a few times over the Mystery Scene years and she's just as much as pleasure as her novels. Happy birthday, Phyllis.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pavoratti; Monk

Pavoratti was a diva but he was also the greatest voice of his time and a pretty cool guy. Carol remembers hearing that when he appeared in Iowa City (!) years ago he ended the night by making dinner for the people who'd gathered at a professor's home.

I think he said the wisest thing I've ever heard about the audience (readers) accepting or rejecting you. He recalled how his aunt took him to the opera one night. At its finish the audience leapt to its feet, applauding for many long minuttes. His aunt remained seated, arms folded across her chest. She hadn't liked the performance at all. From this he learned, that you would never please everyone and that you shouldn't try. "Play to those who love you" he said. Good advice.


Carol and I are working our way through the first season of Monk. With each episode I realize that this is one of the most unique series ideas I've ever seen. And the writing, acting and directing only make it better.

For pure pleasure, for pure relaxation, buy yourself the first season. What a show.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Alan Guthrie;Craig

Alan Guthrie is not only a spectacularly good novelist and short story writer, he's also a fine historian of the hardboiled field and one of its savviest commentators. Here's from an interview he did with Dave Zeltersman a few years ago. I quote it here because the other night I talked about how the whole idea of craft sometimes gets lost in all the book hype about The Next Big Thing. Alan, commenting on James McKimmey, who published crime novels primarily in the Sixties and Seventies, defines what makes a good solid novelist...a good solid novelist:

As for what makes McKimmey special — it's a combination of factors but among them are these: his understanding of plot construction, his handling of tension, the emotional transitions of his characters, and their incredible depth and subtlety. SQUEEZE PLAY is a fine example of all the above. If you're fond of the kind of novel where you take a basically nice guy, then shovel grief on him, and then, when he can't take any more, you add another shovelful, you'll like this one.


Not part of the deal, pal.

Last week I expressed reluctant sympathy for Senator Larry Craig. I did so, as I said, despite the fact that he has a despicable voting record on many matters, including gay rights. No same sex marriages for Larry; not even civil unions; and if you visit violence on a gay man or woman, no hate crime law in case the local authorities don't feel like prosecuting. A terrible guy, really, Larry. But it instantly became clear that even though the GOP had given Catholic Man of The Year (yes) David Vitter a walk because the sex involved was straight, Craig was going to pay big time. So the sight of the lynch mob chasing even a creep like Craig was an ugly spectacle.

But this jerk didn't understand that my sympathy--usually reserved for cats and old Gold Medal writers--was extended based on the assumption that Craig would be leaving congress for good. And spend time hanging with all his NRA buddies who I'm sure will be understanding of his dilemma.

Now he wants to come back to the senate.

FU, Craig. That wasn't part of the deal.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sunday night viewing

I thought Entourage was fair to middling last Sunday. It must be my superior intelligence but I knew instantly that the boys' film would flop at Cannes, as it did. The best part was the cute and sweet sub-plot with Johnny Drama. Finally reality catches up with Johnny's fantasies. In France Viking Quest is a popular show. His French girl friend was sexy, stylish and really fetching. A non-bimbo even if she was a bit of a groupie. That was a refreshing change. I still hope somebody plants an axe deep into Walsh's head. Turtle is hopeless. Ari is getting dull...I hate to say it because it was my favorite show for three seasons...but it just seems tired and over.

On the the hand Flight of The Conchords was so good I'd put it up against the best of Seinfeld. That original, that funny; and sort of Monty Python strange in places. The lads found their own Walsh in the bongo player...another one deserving of an axe buried deep in the skull. And he was familiar. We've all known people like talent, arrogant, smug, devious...I've watched the episode twice now and it's spot on perfect.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke

In the New York Times Jim Lewis reviews Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson who, for more, is a serious novelist in the tradition of Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Jones, Bellow. As opposed to the show-offs, grave-robbers and sob-sisters of all three sexes whom the glitzy critics call "important." Johnson's ANGELS is one of the finest, most moving novels I've ever read by anybody flat-out. Find it. I doubt you'll disagree.

His new novel is Tree of Smoke. It's a Viet Nam novel. I'm waiting for the U.S. mail to deliver it. While I obviously can't comment on the book I can share with you some of Jim Lewis' comments about Denis Johnson:

"...Johnson has always been an elusive figure, one of the last of the marginal masters. He’s not a recluse, but he’s not out humping his ego, either: I’ve never read an interview with him (though I haven’t looked very hard), or seen a picture of him that wasn’t on one of his book jackets. More important, it has often seemed as if the books themselves — there have been six novels, a book of short stories and one of plays, three volumes of poetry and a collection of journalism — have bloomed spontaneously from the secret fissures that crisscross Americana: jail cells, bad neighborhoods, bus stations, cheap frame houses in the fields beyond the last streetlight. They’re full of deprived souls in monstrous situations, hapless pilgrims on their way to their next disaster. But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe.

"Johnson’s standing, then, is ideal for a writer today: ample respect from his colleagues and peers, a bit of support from institutions and a large following that has nonetheless left him vaguely outside of things. “Tree of Smoke” is a massive thing and something like a masterpiece; it’s the product of an extraordinary writer in full stride. But I can’t help hoping that it leaves his status unchanged. We don’t need any more novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists, but we very badly need more novelists who can write this well. "

(I also want to urge you to read Dust Devils by James Reasoner. A fine, powerful, unique novel.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Mad Men; Kill Now, Pay Later

The Crank Patrol: I finally got around to watching Mad Men and I don't see why it's getting such good reviews. It could well be me. It probably is me. Yes, I am George Costanza. I just get the same feeling from it that I get from too many neo-noirs. If we put on the right clothes and and drop a few lines to indicate the historical era and its mores then we'll have us a pretty cool retro show. It's playing dress up without a realistic or even very interesting script to buttress the fashions. The one I'm zeroing in on concerned keeping the Lucky Strike tobbaco account happy. Just in case we didn't get the point that cigs equal cancer nearly everybody around the table--ad men and tobacco ghouls alike--were coughing. Pretty ham handed. And the way the ad dude saves the moment when the client starts to walk out...I've seen Superman scripts more believable. The much undervalued Rona Jaffe did this all much better in 1958 with Tbe Best of Everything. The scriptwriters should look it up.


In this age of psycho self-promotion (of which I'm guilty myself) and big buck book promotion, it's no longer enough to be a good solid writer. I remember Anthony Boucher calling John D. MacDonald "One of the first-rate craftsmen of crime." And that was a valid assement. JDM wasn't an innovator, a poet, a master psychologist. He was a damned good storyteller who was, in his fiction, true to his time. You can learn a lot about post-war America by reading his early Gold Medals. Those are just a few of the reasons his best work bears rereading today.

I say this because Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall, the new one from Hard Case Crime, demonstrates how admirable and readable a really fine craftsman can be. Terrall worked under a variety of names and worked in a variety of forms. As John Gonzales he wrote a very good 1951 Woolrichian Gold Medal called Death for Mr. Big. As Brett Halliday he wrote a number of Mike Shaynes that not even Halliday could have pulled off. And as Robert Kyle he wrote three excellent serious crime novels about governmental and police corruption. He even, believe it or not, wrote some good books under his own name.

In Kill Now, Pay Later private investigator Ben Gates is hired to watch over the very pricey wedding gifts bestowed on the mucky-muck couple getting hitched in a mansion. But somebody doctors Gates' coffee and he passes out. A valuable diamond bracelet is stolen. Right off I liked the set-up because it was unusual. And that's what makes this book such a fine read. Just about everything in it is unusual. Terrall is like another Hard Case Crime author, David Dodge. You're in free fall with these guys. You don't know what the hell they're up and that's what makes reading them such a pleasure. Nary a single private eye cliche in the entire book.

Terrall was especially good with dialogue. His sex scenes are really sexy and they're good clean fun as well. His take on a recently graduated parochial school vamp is funny, sexy and, given her gold-digging ways, a little scarey.

No it's not a masterpiece; no it contains no big thoughts; no it doesn't enrich humankind. It's just what it should be, a terrific read.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dust Devils

James Reasoner has written one of the finest private detective novels of his generation, Texas Wind. In addition he's written several crime stories that deserve perpetual reprinting. But there have been long years between Texas Wind and his new one Dust Devils (Point Blank Press) so your first thought is was the wait worth it for the reader?

Dust Devils is an exemplary modern hardboiled novel with all the merits of the post-Tarrantino era but none of the flaws. It's difficult to talk about the plot without saying too much. Toby McCoy is on a quest but we don't realize that until Reasoner rips open the sky by revealing the nature of the quest. Reasoner lays down maybe 7500 words that reflect the dusty truths of rural life in hardscrabble Texas. There is tension, there is mystery, there is sex--and then Reasoner just shocks the hell out of you. There are three twists piled on top of the initial twist and then everything goes up for grabs.

The writing is as good as the tale. Reasoner obviously loves Texas, the land and the lore, and it is that sensibility that is reflected in the way the people and the land relate to each other. And gives the story the distinctive tone Reasoner sustains from opening paragrah to fade out.

Dust Devils is a very appropriate title for this book. The novel is packed full with both.