Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Which is better?; The Ugly File

From my buddy Dave Zeltserman-

Ed, here’s a question regarding your post today, especially about your comments about George Higgins. What’s better as a writer—to writer 4-5 books that are considered great, and 20 books that are mediocre, or 25 books all of which are highly entertaining but none of them considered great? And then you had Hammett, who wrote 5 great books, but then the well ran dry.

Of course, with Stout, I’d argue that he wrote 5-6 great books, with the rest being mostly highly entertaining.

(in a later e mail he mentioned Harper Lee as an example of a one book author. She certainly had enormous and lasting impact.


Ed here: I've always been fascinated by the big producers. Westlake, Silverberg, John D. MacDonald. That said, I think that time judges writers on their very best work. Hard to imagine Harper Lee ever going out of print. Or Bellow or Roth or Kerouac. Not all their books but one or two deemed their best. But who knows. When you consider Gertrude Stein's "The Lost Generation" you have to wonder. No generation of Americans before or since has produced so many excellent writers. But today Fitzgerald stands alone with Hemingway a distant second.

So what do you think? In mystery fiction, as Dave says, Stout wrote a handful of great ones but that doesn't lessen the pleasure (for me) of his slightly lesser efforts. And I do consider him a seminal figure in mystery.

---------------------------THE UGLY FILE

In the late seventies I worked on a documentary about children born with severe birth defects. I'd never really thought about the subject. But in the course of putting it together, I spent a long afternoon talking with a lovely woman whose one year old was terribly deformed. She talked about what lay ahead for the child and for herself. The conversation came back to me in the early nineties and I wrote The Ugly File.

I sent it out to my usual markets. All the editors said they thought it was a fine story but they couldn't publish it because it didn't fit what they did. Was it mystery? No. Suspense? No. Horror? No.

Well I sold it to an anthology finally but when the book was turned in the NYC editor said they couldn't publish it. So it was cut. It finally ended up in a horror anthology. It's now been reprinted six or seven times so somebody must like it.

Mark Steensland and Rick Hautala asked me if they could film it and my first reaction was to laugh. I could not imagine how anybody could make a short film out of the story. But they did very good job. It's now played at something like twenty-three festivals here and in Europe.

The estimable Ben Boulden of Gravetapping announced last night that it would soon be on-line. I thought some of you might like to read the story. It's not very long. I would've used an attached file if I knew how to do it. Instead I've just printed it out.


Short Film: Lovecraft's Pillow
This is an interesting short film directed by Mark Steensland and written by Rick Hautala. It is credited to an idea from Stephen King. The pair--Steensland and Hautala--have collaborated on several short films including Peekers, and The Ugly File. Peekers is a terrific short, and I am anxiously awaiting the Internet release of The Ugly File. It is currently making the film festival rounds.

The Ugly File is based on a masterful short story by Ed Gorman and it would make a terrific film. It's too bad Masters of Horror didn't produce it. is Lovecraft's Pillow.



The cold rain didn’t improve the looks of the housing development, one of those sprawling valleys of pastel-colored tract houses that had sprung from the loins of greedy contractors right at the end of WW II, fresh as flowers during that exultant time but now dead and faded.
I spent fifteen minutes trying to find the right address. Houses and streets formed a blinding maze of sameness.
I got lucky by taking what I feared was a wrong turn. A few minutes later I pulled my new station wagon up to the curb, got out, tugged my hat and raincoat on snugly, and then started unloading.
Usually, Merle, my assistant, is on most shoots. He unloads and sets up all the lighting, unloads and sets up all the photographic umbrellas, and unloads and sets up all the electric sensors that trip the strobe lights. But Merle went on this kind of shoot once before and he said never again, “not even if you fire my ass.” He was too good an assistant to give up so now I did these particular jobs alone.
My name is Roy Hubbard. I picked up my profession of photography in Nam, where I was on the staff of a captain whose greatest thrill was taking photos of bloody and dismembered bodies. He didn’t care if the bodies belonged to us or them just as long as they had been somehow disfigured or dismembered.
In an odd way, I suppose, being the captain’s assistant prepared me for the client I was working for today, and had been working for, on and off, for the past two months. The best-paying client I’ve ever had, I should mention here. I don’t want you to think that I take any special pleasure, or get any special kick, out of gigs like this. I don’t. But when you’ve got a family to feed, and you live in a city with as many competing photography firms as this one has, you pretty much take what’s offered you.
The air smelled of wet dark earth turning from winter to spring. Another four or five weeks and you’d see cardinals and jays sitting on the blooming green branches of trees.
The house was shabby even by the standards of the neighborhood, the brown grass littered with bright cheap forgotten plastic toys and empty Diet Pepsi cans and wild rain-sodden scraps of newspaper inserts. The small picture window to the right of the front door was taped lengthwise from some long ago crack, and the white siding ran with rust from the drain spouts. The front door was missing its top glass panel. Cardboard had been set in there.
I knocked, ducking beneath the slight overhang of the roof to escape the rain.
The woman who answered was probably no older than twenty-five but her eyes and the sag of her shoulders said that her age should not be measured by calendar years alone.
“Mrs. Cunningham?”
“Hi,” she said, and her tiny white hands fluttered about like doves. “I didn’t get to clean the place up very good.”
“That’s fine.”
“And the two older kids have the flu so they’re still in their pajamas and—”
“Everything’ll be fine, Mrs. Cunningham.” When you’re a photographer who deals a lot with mothers and children, you have to learn a certain calm, doctorly manner.
She opened the door and I went inside.
The living room, and what I could see of the dining room, was basically a continuation of the front yard—a mine field of cheap toys scattered everywhere, and inexpensive furniture of the sort you buy by the room instead of the piece strewn with magazines and pieces of newspaper and the odd piece of children’s clothing.
Over all was a sour smell, one part the rain-sodden wood of the exterior house, one part the lunch she had just fixed, one part the house cleaning this place hadn’t had in a good long while.
The two kids with the flu, boy and girl respectively, were parked in a corner of the long, stained couch. Even from here I knew that one of them had diapers in need of changing. They showed no interest in me or my equipment. Out of dirty faces and dead blue eyes they watched one cartoon character beat another with a hammer on a TV whose sound dial was turned very near the top.
“Cindy’s in her room,” Mrs. Cunningham explained.
Her dark hair was in a pert little pony tail. The rest of her chunky self was packed into a faded blue sweat shirt and sweat pants. In high school she had probably been nice and trim. But high school was an eternity behind her now.
I carried my gear and followed her down a short hallway. We passed two messy bedrooms and a bathroom and finally we came to a door that was closed.
“Have you ever seen anybody like Cindy before?”
“I guess not, Mrs. Cunningham.”
“Well, it’s kind of shocking. Some people can’t really look at her at all. They just sort of glance at her and look away real quick. You know?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I mean, it doesn’t offend me when people don’t want to look at her. If she wasn’t my daughter, I probably wouldn’t want to look at her, either. Being perfectly honest, I mean.”
“I’m ready, Mrs. Cunningham.”
She watched me a moment and said, “You have kids?”
“Two little girls.”
“And they’re both fine?”
“We were lucky.”
For a moment, I thought she might cry. “You don’t know how lucky, Mr. Hubbard.”
She opened the door and we went into the bedroom.
It was a small room, painted a fresh, lively pink. The furnishings in here—the bassinet, the bureau, the rocking horse in the corner—were more expensive than the stuff in the rest of the house. And the smell was better. Johnson’s Baby Oil and Johnson’s Baby Powder are always pleasant on the nose. There was a reverence in the appointments of this room, as if the Cunninghams had consciously decided to let the yard and the rest of the house go to hell. But this room—
Mrs. Cunningham led me over to the bassinet and then said, “Are you ready?”
“I’ll be fine, Mrs. Cunningham. Really.”
“Well,” she said, “here you are then.”
I went over and peered into the bassinet. The first look is always rough. But I didn’t want to upset the lady so I smiled down at her baby as if Cindy looked just like every other baby girl I’d ever seen.
I even touched my finger to the baby’s belly and tickled her a little. “Hi, Cindy.”
After I had finished my first three or four assignments for this particular client, I went to the library one day and spent an hour or so reading about birth defects. The ones most of us are familiar with are clubfoots and cleft palates and harelips and things like that. The treatable problems, that is. From there you work up to spina bifida and cretinism. And from there—
What I didn’t know until that day in the library is that there are literally hundreds of ways in which infants can be deformed, right up to and including the genetic curse of The Elephant Man. As soon as I started running into words such as achondroplastic dwarfism and supernumerary chromosomes, I quit reading. I had no idea what those words meant.
Nor did I have any idea of what exactly you would call Cindy’s malformation. She had only one tiny arm and that was so short that her three fingers did not quite reach her rib cage. It put me in mind of a flipper on an otter. She had two legs but only one foot and only three digits on that. But her face was the most terrible part of it all, a tiny little slit of a mouth and virtually no nose and only one good eye. The other was almond-shaped and in the right position but the eyeball itself was the deep, startling color of blood.
“We been tryin’ to keep her at home here,” Mrs. Cunningham said, “but she can be a lot of trouble. The other two kids make fun of her all the time and my husband can’t sleep right because he keeps havin’ these dreams of her smotherin’ because she don’t have much of a nose. And the neighbor kids are always tryin’ to sneak in and get a look at her.”
All the time she talked, I kept staring down at poor Cindy. My reaction was always the same when I saw these children. I wanted to find out who was in charge of a universe that would permit something like this and then tear his fucking throat out.
“You ready to start now?”
“Ready,” I said.
She was nice enough to help me get my equipment set up. The pictures went quickly. I shot Cindy from several angles, including several straight-on. For some reason, that’s the one the client seems to like best. Straight-on. So you can see everything.
I used VPS large format professional film and a Pentax camera because what I was doing here was essentially making many portraits of Cindy, just the way I do when I make a portrait of an important community leader.
Half an hour later, I was packed up and moving through Mrs. Cunningham’s front door.
“You tell that man—that Mr. Byerly who called—that we sure do appreciate that $2000 check he sent.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him,” I said, walking out into the rain.
“You’re gonna get wet.”
“I’ll be fine. Goodbye, Mrs. Cunningham.”
* * *
Back at the shop, I asked Merle if there had been any calls and he said nothing important. Then, “How’d it go?”
“No problems,” I said.
“Another addition to the ugly file, huh?” Then he nodded to the three filing cabinets I’d bought years back at a government auction. The top drawer of the center cabinet contained the photos and negatives of all the deformed children I’d been shooting for Byerly.
“I still don’t think that’s funny, Merle.”
“‘The ugly file?’” He’d been calling it that for a couple weeks now and I’d warned him that I wasn’t amused. I have one of those tempers that it’s not smart to push on too hard or too long.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“If you can’t laugh about it then you have to cry about it.”
“That’s a cop-out. People always say that when they want to say something nasty and get away with it. I don’t want you to call it that any more, you fucking understand me, Merle?”
I could feel the anger coming. I guess I’ve got more of it than I know what to do with, especially after I’ve been around some poor god damned kid like Cindy.
“Hey, boss, lighten up. Shit, man, I won’t say it any more, OK?”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
I took the film of Cindy into the dark room. It took six hours to process it all through the chemicals and get the good, clear proofs I wanted.
At some point during the process, Merle knocked on the door and said, “I’m goin’ home now, all right?”
“See you tomorrow,” I said through the closed door.
“Hey, I’m sorry I pissed you off. You know, about those pictures.”
“Forget about it, Merle. It’s over. Everything’s fine.”
“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
When I came out of the dark room, the windows were filled with night. I put the proofs in a manila envelope with my logo and return address on it and then went out the door and down the stairs to the parking lot and my station wagon.
The night was like October now, raw and windy. I drove over to the freeway and took it straight out to Mannion Springs, the wealthiest of all the wealthy local suburbs.
On sunny afternoons, Mary and I pack up the girls sometimes and drive through Mannion Springs and look at all the houses and daydream aloud of what it would be like to live in a place where you had honest-to-God maids and honest-to-God butlers the way some of these places do.
I thought of Mary now, and how much I loved her, more the longer we were married, and suddenly I felt this terrible, almost oppressive loneliness, and then I thought of little Cindy in that bassinet this afternoon and I just wanted to start crying and I couldn’t even tell you why for sure.
The Byerly place is what they call a shingle Victorian. It has dormers of every kind and description—hipped, eyebrow and gabled. The place is huge but has far fewer windows than you’d expect to find in a house this size. You wonder if sunlight can ever get into it.
I’d called Byerly before leaving the office. He was expecting me.
I parked in the wide asphalt drive that swept around the grounds. By the time I reached the front porch, Byerly was in the arched doorway, dressed in a good dark suit.
I walked right up to him and handed him the envelope with the photos in it.
“Thank you,” he said. “You’ll send me a bill?”
“Sure,” I said. I was going to add, “That’s my favorite part of the job, sending out the bill,” but he wasn’t the kind of guy you joke with. And if you ever saw him, you’d know why.
Everything about him tells you he’s one of those men who used to be called aristocratic. He’s handsome, he’s slim, he’s athletic, and he seems to be very, very confident in everything he does—until you look at his eyes, at the sorrow and weariness of them, at the trapped gaze of a small and broken boy hiding in there.
Of course, on my last trip out here I learned why he looks this way. Byerly was out and the maid answered the door and we started talking and then she told me all about it, in whispers of course, because Byerly’s wife was upstairs and would not have appreciated being discussed this way.
Four years ago, Mrs. Byerly gave birth to their only child, a son. The family physician said that he had never seen a deformity of this magnitude. The child had a head only slightly larger than an apple and no eyes and no arms whatsoever. And it made noises that sickened even the most doctorly of doctors…
The physician even hinted that the baby might be destroyed, for the sake of the entire family…
Mrs. Byerly had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital for nearly a year. She refused to let her baby be taken to a state institution. Mr. Byerly and three shifts of nurses took care of the boy.
When Mrs. Byerly got out of the hospital everybody pretended that she was doing just fine and wasn’t really crazy at all. But then Mrs. Byerly got her husband to hire me to take pictures of deformed babies for her. She seemed to draw courage from knowing that she and her son were not alone in their terrible grief…
All I could think of was those signals we send deep into outer space to see if some other species will hear them and let us know that we’re not alone, that this isn’t just some frigging joke, this nowhere planet spinning in the darkness…
When the maid told me all this, it broke my heart for Mrs. Byerly and then I didn’t feel so awkward about taking the pictures any more. Her husband had his personal physician check out the area for the kind of babies we were looking for and Byerly would call the mother and offer to pay her a lot of money…and then I’d go over there and take the pictures of the kid…
Now, just as I was about to turn around and walk off the porch, Byerly said, “I understand that you spent some time here two weeks ago talking to one of the maids.”
“I’d prefer that you never do that again. My wife is very uncomfortable about our personal affairs being made public.”
He sounded as I had sounded with Merle earlier today. Right on the verge of being very angry. The thing was, I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t want people whispering about me and my wife, either.
“I apologize, Mr. Byerly. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“My wife has suffered enough.” The anger had left him. He sounded drained. “She’s suffered way too much, in fact.”
And with that, I heard a child cry out from upstairs.
A child—yet not a child—a strangled, mournful cry that shook me to hear.
“Good night,” he said.
He shut the door very quickly, leaving me to the wind and rain and night.
After a while, I walked down the wide steps to my car and got inside and drove straight home.
As soon as I was inside, I kissed my wife and then took her by the hand and led her upstairs to the room our two little girls share.
We stood in the doorway, looking at Jenny and Sara. They were asleep.
Each was possessed of two eyes, two arms, two legs; and each was possessed of song and delight and wonderment and tenderness and glee.
And I held my wife tighter than I ever had, and felt an almost giddy gratitude for the health of our little family.
Not until much later, near midnight it was, my wife asleep next to me in the warmth of our bed—not until much later did I think again of Mrs. Byerly and her photos in the upstairs bedroom of that dark and shunned Victorian house, up there with her child trying to make frantic sense of the silent and eternal universe that makes no sense at all.

Mysteries versus crime novels

Following up on last night's post Jeff Pierce wrote:

I guess I don't understand the difference between crime fiction and mysteries. Are mysteries defined by the fact that the reader doesn't know who did it, while readers of crime fiction do?

Just wondering.

Jeff P.

Ed here: I guess my so-called friend had two parts to his agenda. One was to tell me without telling me that he thought that I wrote trash. And two that he felt that crime novels were superior because they were "serious." He mentioned George V. Higgins as his exemplar.

To me Higgins was brilliant--none better--for four or five books but then he started taking his reviews seriously and gave up telling stories. His last books may have been "serious" but they were boring as hell. I believe he even wrote a piece disdaining "plot."

I further guess what he was talking about were the books his group finds "acceptable." Crime fiction is just as trendy as any other kind of fiction. You show your worth by waving a copy of a crime novel that the hoitiest and toitiest of Acceptable Critics have praised. I'm not sure that he understood that crime fiction--the street fiction popular today--can also contain a mystery. Look at Walter Mosley's novels about LA in the Fifties.

So I'm assuming here that he just misspoke and was confused about mystery vs. crime. He apparently sees all mysteries as the sort lending libraries dispensed in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. You now, the novels no major publisher would touch. He wants books that are taken more seriously than most mysteries.

As I said last night you read what gives you pleasure.

And I still have a shelf-full of Rex Stouts and A.A. Fairs so there.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cinema Retro; Mystery Reader

One of the finest movie genre magazines being published. The cover tells you just HOW good it really is. ON SALE NOW.

-----------------------Mystery Reader

A while back I heard from a guy I knew at college. He wrote to tell me that he thought crime novels were great but that mystery novels were trash. I'm not exaggerating when I say that he was always a snob. His taste in cars/suits/girls/pubs/music etc. were always indisputably the best and if you disagreed he would go a long way at hinting you were stupid. We were never friends, in fact I dimly recall getting into it with him one night and telling him just how much we weren't friends.

But time goes on and most of us are forced to grow up a little even if we don't want to so I replied that yes, there are indeed many fine crime novels currently being written and published but that I didn't agree that mystery novels were trash. In fact, I said, here's a list of mystery writers I think are excellent writers in all respects.

Well he responded by saying yes, but none of these people are writing lasting literature. I responded by saying who knows what will last. To quote Joni Mitchell, I've seen a lot of hard hard places (fall?) to smoke and ash. I can't give you a figure but I doubt more than 2% of any generation's fiction writers last. And I mean genre writers as well as literary writers.

I snarled enough in the letter to insure I wouldn't hear back from him.

But he raises a point I hear more and more these days, that the mystery is inferior to crime novels. Maybe so. As I've said many times you read what gives you pleasure. Mysteries inferior? I don't know and I don't really give a damn. I still read a lot of mysteries, even a number of cozies, and I plan to continue on, blissful in my stupidity.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Forgotten Books: Danger Is My Business by Lee Server

I'm feeling a little better so I thought I'd start inflicting myself on you folks again. But first I want to get a plug in for my old buddy John McCarty novelist and writer extraordinary on genre movies of all kinds. Friday night Turner will be running a documentary called Thrillers and John will be one of the people interviewed. Should be great.


Before he became known for his excellent biographies of Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner and Samuel Fuller, Server wrote and co-edited several books about noir. I collaborated with him on two of them. His knowledge of noir films made me feel like the tourist I am.

He also wrote one of the finest books on pulp fiction I've ever read, Danger is My Business. It's filled with full colors of cover from every genre of pulps and stories about the writers and artists and editors who made them so successful for two decades. Just one example--do you know how Myrna Loy got her last name? I didn't. It turns out the mysterious Peter Ruric, author of Fast One and several classic hardboiled Black Mask stories, gave it to her when she was still a dancer in a nightclub. Very little is known about Ruric who's real name was George Sims and who was born not far from Cedar Rapids.

Each genre gets it own chapter-horror, adventure-western, private eye, romance and sex, hero pulps and science fiction as well as a chapter on the so-called Fiction Factories that ruled pulp land.

The romance and sex chapter surprised me. These pulps took real risks given the prevailing morality of the era. Robert Leslie Bellems set the tone for the naughty hardboiled male writers while women turned in the real erotica.

Same with the horror pulps. Looking at the covers I'm struck by how many of them depicted female bondage. The scantily clad (and usually great looking) heroines were always tied up by some fiend.

We all know how a lot of blurbs work. One writer wants to help another writer so he praises the book. You can usually tell when the blurb writer is log rolling. "I don't think I've ever read a novel as stupendously suspenseful or as monumentally wonderful or as Nobel-worthy as Sure I Killed, I Killed Him Good. And there's print on every page! Honest!"

But here are two blurbs that ring true for sure.

"Danger is My Business Takes me back forty years to my beginnings. Thank God for the pulps!" Elmore Leonard

"Danger is My Business is pure gold. It is so much fun to read. Lee Server's enthusiasm is well-matched to a writing style so witty and a knowledge of the subject so wide-ranging that Danger I My Business is a total page-tuner, as involving as any of the magazines he's opened for us." Donald E. Westlake

This is a book that belongs in your library.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I've somehow managed to get pneumonia.

A very weird day yesterday. I woke up with 101 fever. Even before I called my own doc another doc called me and basically apologized for jumping to the wrong conclusion on a heart scan he gave me, one I was worried about because he'd raised the possibility of surgery because of the way my right ventricle worked. So then I went to see my doc and she checked me out and then sent me to the hospital for blood tests and x rays. I spent four hours there during which via cell phone I got the results of my latest psa test which were not good. Then my doc finished with her day and came over to the hospital to see how I was doing. She went over my x-rays and said you have pneumonia. So now I'm on anti-biotoics. I was supposed to stay in bed today but I couldn't stay away from Half Price and the small library nearest me. Now I'm exhausted again. Hopefully Bill Maher's rage tonight will get me feeling human again. If I'm not better by Monday I go into the hospital for a brief stay. Wouldn't this crap make a great talk show? "And you think YOU feel crummy?" With Ed Gorman!

I won't be blogging for awhile but stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Godfather: 'Nobody enjoyed one day of it’

I was talking about mob fiction the other night and, as a few readers pointed out, forgot to comment on The Godfather. What can I say? One and three are masterpieces. There's an excellent article about it in the London Telegraph this morning:

The Godfather: 'Nobody enjoyed one day of it’
Just like the film, the making of 'The Godfather’ was an ugly story of fear and dysfunction.

By Philip Horne
Published: 4:29PM BST 22 Sep 2009

At war: fallouts during filming almost ruined 'The Godfather'
'Make him an offer he can't refuse' - memorable lines in The Godfather
What was the formula that made The Godfather one of the most successful films of all time? Surely it would take an unusually harmonious combination of talents working in concert, a rare balance of commercial entertainment and artistic challenge, a run of luck those involved couldn’t miss.

But all wasn’t plain sailing on Francis Ford Coppola’s film in 1972. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning three, and on its $6 million budget grossed $101million for Paramount within 18 weeks of release. As the film gets a welcome cinematic re-release in a beautiful restoration, it is timely to dive into the swirling mists of legend and recall how far it was from a sure thing.

“It was the most miserable film I can think of to make,” declares its producer, Al Ruddy. “Nobody enjoyed one day of it.” Coppola agrees: “It was just non-stop anxiety and wondering when I was going to get fired.” The novel by Mario Puzo could easily not have been written: eight publishers passed on the outline for a would-be best-seller pitched by a middle-ranking, mid-forties writer with a bad gambling habit and big debts. Only bumping into a friend had led to his actually writing The Godfather. Its 67 weeks topping the New York Times best-seller list surprised everyone.

Paramount bought an option when Puzo had only written 100 pages, for a mere $12,500, rising to $50,000 if the novel was filmed. But maybe – if we’re to credit Paramount’s head of production Robert Evans – Paramount very nearly didn’t acquire it. There was a bidding war: they were “one day away from Burt Lancaster buying The Godfather, and Burt wanted to play the Don”.

For the rest go here:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Man With The Iron-On Badge Lee Goldberg

The Man With The Iron-On Badge isn't Forgotten, it's just been neglected because so far the only edition has been a small hardcover printing with a large print version coming soon after. This is a book that deserves a trade paperback. With all the small presses so active I'm surprised that it isn't available in a new edition.

Iron-On is a book that will keep you laughing and smiling all the way through. If you have any affection for the private eye novel, this book should be required reading because in addition to gently spoofing the form it is a story so rich in character and story twists it's truly masterful.

Say you were a lonely and somewhat overweight security guard who works the night shift at an exclusive gated community. Say that your idea of dining out was Denny's. Say that the only girl who'll have sex with you--and then only occasionally--always makes it clear that she's looking for somebody a whole lot better than you. Say that your fantasy life springs from all the private novels and TV shows you spend time with in your apartment. And say that suddenly Cyril Parkus who lives in the gated community gives you a chance to perform one of the classic jobs of a real private eye--following his beautiful wife.

This is the life of Harvey Mapes, one of my all-time favorite characters in private eye fiction. Of course Harvey takes the job and the money. Of course Harvey enjoys following a woman as beautiful and worldly as Lauren. Of course Harvey has thoughts of finally getting his life in order.

But fate--or somebody--has different ideas for Harvey.

The novel is seeded with references to private eye shows and novels. In addition it gives us a realistic look at the trapped lives of millions of working Americans who live just above the poverty line. And it also goes the standard Los Angeles crime novel one better by taking us places and showing us people we don't usually see in the LA novel.

But more than the comedy, the beautifully designed plot and the snapshots of La La Land--more than any other element in the book, it's Harvey's voice you'll remember. There's a workaday universality to it that gives the novel its wit and insight and truth.

Before a publisher comes to his senses and reprints Lee Goldberg's fine novel, you can find inexpensive copies on on line.

-----------------HELP- I need to hear from somebody who really understands how both AOL and Yahoo work. I'm having real problems. If you only understand one of them hat's fine. But I'd really appreciate some advice. Thanks

Monday, September 21, 2009

TV Stuff

Last week I read at least a dozen articles touting this new TV season. Community got the most kudos, Glee running a distant second.

As I always say, and mean, maybe it's me. All I'm doing is giving you my reactions. Believe it or not, it's possible I'm full of beans.

I gave up on Community halfway through. It wasn't bad but it didn't have enough going to keep me interested. Joe McHale is good but his constant choice of responses is the smirk and that can get deadly; the Chevy Chase character is a cartoon and not a good one; John Oliver, a likable Brit, seems miscast here; Gillian Jacobs, on the other hand, gives the show energy and dry humor. She's funny and sexy and just the right degree of cynical. I'm reacting to a single episode. The show has a lot of interesting elements. I'm sure I'll catch at least a few more episodes.

I'll probably even try Bored To Death at least once more though I'm not sure why. The closest equivalent to this show was Stephen Cannell's Richie Brockelman, Private Eye. He was the naive but cunning sidekick that Cannell introduced in the last season of The Rockford Files. The series was a spoof of all the weariest tropes and was a lot of fun to watch. It went something like five episodes.

Bored To Death on the other hand struck me as being about nothing more than two not-especially interesting narcissists played, respectively, by Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson. Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis are struggling artists (novels and comic strips) and Danson a world-weary owner of a trendy art gallery. My first problem is that I do not believe that anybody would hire Schwartzman's character as a private eye. Ever. Under any circumstances. And having never been much of a Danson fan, his attempts to convey Continental ennui were to me pretty embarrassing. Galifianakis saved the episode for me. The whole thing comes alive when he's on screen. His bitching, his self-pity, his paranoia--he should be the private eye. For one thing he looks a lot more competent than Schwartzman or Danson at just about anything you care to name. And he's a hell of a lot more fun. It's worth a second look but I'm not sure where it can go for here. The way it's set up I sense it'll be repeating itself endlessly.

The book HBO should adapt for a series is Lee Goldberg's The Man With The Iron-On Badge. It has a voice and world unlike any other p.i. novel I've ever read. And if you put Galifanakis in the lead you'd win Emmys for sure. Lee''s novel will be my Forgotten Book for this week.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I hope Elmore Leonard sees this

Ed here: Salon has been running a series of articles about various injustices in our system of criminal justices. This one staggered me. This is straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

Ardor in the court, Part 3

A Texas court affirms the right of a judge and a prosecutor who slept together to condemn a man to death
By Alan Berlow

Editor's note: Read Part 1 and Part 2 of "Ardor in the Court."

Sep. 21, 2009 |

If anyone had any doubt that the Texas justice system operates in a parallel universe, look no further than the latest decision by the state's highest court in the case of death-row inmate Charles Dean Hood. On Wednesday the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) said it wasn't interested in examining whether there was a conflict of interest in Hood's 1990 trial simply because District Attorney Thomas S. O'Connell Jr., Hood's prosecutor, had had a long-term sexual relationship with presiding Judge Verla Sue Holland, an affair the two tried to hide for 20 years.

In 1989, Hood was convicted of murdering Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace. The Holland-O'Connell affair was first reported by Salon in 2005, quoting anonymous sources. Judge Holland refused to either confirm or deny the affair at the time. A year ago this month, Holland and D.A. O'Connell, both since retired, acknowledged under oath that they had had a long-term sexual relationship, which was never revealed during more than a decade of appeals by Hood's lawyers. In her defense, Judge Holland said the affair ended more than two years before Hood's trial. But O'Connell also testified that the two had discussed marriage, and recalled that the affair continued as late as mid-1989 -- just before Hood's trial. He said the two continued to have a "good relationship," sans sex, during and after the trial. He said the two took a trip together in 1991.

Rather than address the affair directly, the CCA ruled 6-3 on a technical question, concluding that Hood should have raised the issue at his original trial. But Hood's lawyers couldn't prove the widespread rumors of the affair before Hood's trial. The CCA had earlier criticized Hood for failing to present any "personal knowledge" of the affair, a virtually impossible hurdle given that, as far as we know, there were no witnesses to the lovemaking other than the two principals, no Paris Hilton-style video, and the judge and her boyfriend weren't talking. The CCA also said Hood's claims were based on "rumor," not fact. But when Hood's lawyers were able to present the detailed facts of the affair, based on the confessions of the principals, the CCA said it was not interested in these facts.

Needless to say, some people have found the behavior of the since-retired judge and prosecutor, and that of the CCA, since Judge Holland was once a member of the very panel weighing her actions, more than a little unsavory. A score of legal ethicists concluded that the participation of the two at Hood's trial was unethical, unprofessional and unconstitutional, and the legal basis for a new trial self-evident. Hood's lawyers insist the affair rendered the conviction and death sentence invalid. Now they will have to convince a federal court that Hood has a right to a new trial.

Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents Hood, said, "No one would want to be prosecuted for a parking violation -- let alone for capital murder -- by a district attorney who is sleeping with the judge. Yet the Court of Criminal Appeals is unmoved. We are outraged by this breakdown in the integrity of the justice system." John Rolater, an assistant district attorney for Collin County, which is pursuing the case against Hood, called the CCA ruling "a significant procedural victory."

for the rest go here:


I watched Casino for the third or fourth time last night. This is remarkable for me because I'm not much for mob movies or mob fiction. As an audience member I usually want to see everybody in the movie die in the slowest and most savage way possible. The romance of the mob--of whatever configuration or ethnic persuasion--misses me. To me they're parasites and thugs and as such not interesting as human beings, even the new kind with Harvard MBAs.

But Casino and The Cooler cut through my prejudices precisely because they didn't romance their subject matter. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, they seem to realistically depict one big aspect of mob life in Vegas.

The most amazing aspect of Casino for me has always been Sharon Stone's performance. Never before and never since has she been even close to this kind of range and depth and power. She is so terrifying in her addiction all you can do is watch her. You can't quite even sympathise with her. Coke has made her Other. DeNiro does a riff on Irving Thalberg from The Last Tycoon. Except here he's not a poetic man working in an industry that despises poetic men, he's a mobster with aspirations to be a celebrity, as expressed in those awkward scenes of his "TV show." The cigarette holder he uses is a great symbol of ersatz sophistication. And Joe Pecsi. Few characters have ever died so viciously and few have ever deserved it more. But again he's like Stone's character. His violence has made him Other. You can neither sympathise nor understand him. All you can do is want to see him die in some terrible prolonged way. And the same with all the thugs around him. (The Cooler does a better job of giving the people around Alec Baldwin personalities. You don't like them but at least you have some understanding of them.)

I'd say that if Scorcese had only done this one picture in his life he'd be remembered as a great director. It has flaws but it has the heft and feel of real life, of time passing, of people changing. Now he should do the Nathan Heller Books by Max Allan Collins, the only mob novels I've ever liked. Like Scorcese, Collins has found his own way into the mob world and the novels are masterful.

Addenda: There are obviously several other writers whose mob books I enjoy. Charlie Stella is a true original, a serio-comic street poet who can turn turds into flowers. I also like Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor. The books I don't like celebrate mob life--Italian, Jewish, Irish--with a blind eye to the predatory nature of the characters. I know this is a priggish way to look at it but bullies--which is what they are--just don't interest much. If mobsters had any gumption they'd go into something that really paid big--Wall Street or banking or politics.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Walter Hill Interview

Think Walter Hill and you likely think of his enormous hit 48 Hours or Brewster's Millions or Streets of Fire. Crowd pleasers for sure. But for me his more interesting work can be found in the more personal films he's done in the action genres. Southern Comfort, The Driver and Hard Times re a few of them. He's not always successful. I remember how disappointed I was sitting through Johnny Handsome. Most writers have had projects like that, where you just can't make the thing work the way you want it to. In the case of Johnny Handsome Hill resorted to heavy violence every time he seemed to run out of good ideas. Once in awhile the violence even got to be funny. Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen were SO tough they were parodies of tough. On the other hand Hill managed to take the Charles Bronson of Death Wish 9,10, 11 and 74 and turn him into an actual person. To me it's a small masterpiece, bitter, brutal but not without a certain elegaic quality as well, particularly in the closing scenes. All this said Hill is an extremely intelligent, articulate and engagingly modest guy. And this is one hell of a good interview.

From the interview:

Q I’m a big Anthony Mann fan, and there are a lot of parallels between your bodies of work. Mann said his movies were about “the use of violence by thoughtful men.”

H The kinds of stories I like to tell are part of a tradition—and I’m not comparing myself to, or placing myself as the equal of some of the great storytellers I’m going to mention; I’m artistically modest, as everyone ought to be—but it’s the tradition practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller.

I think there’s less room in the marketplace now for the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, and which I tend to think of as my strength; action movies today are more fantasy, exaggerated, comic book… That sounds pejorative… but tastes change. Audiences change. I think the older tradition was more intellectually rigorous, and the newer tradition is more pure sensation… and that’s not necessarily bad. It’s the old Apollonian vs. Dionysian controversy… Nietzsche might very well have liked the newer films more than the older ones… (laughs)

Q I was thinking about why things have changed. Do you think in the time of Ford, Hawks, Mann—when these kinds of films were being made regularly—the audience, the studio bosses, and those directors all shared a more common sense of morality?

H Sure. I talked to Lindsay Anderson about this once; he’d made the remark about what a lucky director John Ford was… that in addition to his great talent, his sensibility was by and large in step with that of the mass audience. An obvious contrary example would be Orson Welles, who did not come along at the perfect time to find an audience for his vision, an audience that would have made his work commercially sustainable.

for the rest go here:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Alleys; Wolf Moon

I was writing a scene set in an alley of the kind most of us over fifty are probably familiar with when I realized that there are millions of people who probably won't have any real feel for what I'm describing. Most of the alleys I played in had weathered garages and dirt surfaces and an infinite number of places perfect for playing cowboys and Indians or war or even, if your mind was particularly inventive that day, buccaneers. Alleys were the preferred meeting place for my group of friends. Sometimes we had to suffer older bullies who invaded from other alleys; and sometimes we bullied invaders not as old as we were. Your alley--or at least your part of it, if it was long--was your territory dammit. There were always girls and much as they were denied, crushes bloomed and proved distracting. Even for a nine year old it was hard to keep your mind on being a cowboy when a glimpse of your secret love had just devastated you. Garages were the shrines of secrecy. In the ancient sunbeams through dusty windows, the air rich with the scents of car oil and rubber tires and mower blades smelling of new mown was where forbidden cigarettes could be smoked or nudist magazines could be passed around or plots against bullies hatched. That era has passed. No garages in most housing developments, nor certainly in McMansion-land. I'm not a sentimentalist about the old days. For all its failings this is a fine splendid time to be alive. But I do miss alleys. They were like theaters and you got to play anybody you chose to.

---------------WOLF MOON

Science fiction writer Kenneth Mark Hoover was kind enough to review my novel Wolf Moon so being the immodest bastard I am, here his take on it:

Western Noir Masterpiece

As a professional writer it is a rare occurrence when I come across a book which envelops me so completely I'm able to doff my critical/authorial/editorial/writer cap and just ENJOY the story within.

Wolf Moon by Ed Gorman enabled me to do that.

This is Western Noir at its very best. Everything clicks here. The writing is as good as anything I've ever seen, particularly when you're talking about an overall genre that is known for its embarrassing hackery, stiff characterization and hoary themes.

Not so Wolf Moon. This is a literate and terse novel that hits you hard. Gorman presents the West as it was and not as Hollywood wishes, or as we hoped it might be. No riding off into the rosy-hued sunset here. There is violence, and love and duty and honor among all the characters, even the more repellent ones in this story. Even better, Gorman knows the West and presents it, warts and all. He is unapologetic when we learn through the protagonist, Chase, that we will not see a happy ending to his life and the woman and child he loves. But even amid all the raw humanity that Gorman writes about in Wolf Moon there is still room for tenderness and love and human passion. Gorman weaves it all together and makes this one of the most memorable novels I have read this year.

I highly recommend this book. Seriously, it's extremely good. Give it a peek.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Books Carolyn Hart-MERRY, MERRY GHOST

MERRY, MERRY GHOST by Carolyn Hart

The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn from Adelaide, OK, has added a sparkle to my life. I enjoy lively, energetic Annie Darling in my Death on Demand series and acerbic, assertive retired reporter Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins in my Henrie O series, but now-you-see-her, now-you-don’t Bailey Ruth is an adventure in the making.. I adore writing about my impetuous, redheaded ghost.

I have always loved fun ghost tales, the Topper books and films, Blithe Spirit, the occasional romantic H’Wood flick with the winsome heroine from beyond . Writing a book with a ghost had great appeal for me. I suggested the idea to my editor and this was before the current craze for the paranormal. She encouraged me and I sat down to write a ghost story.

In most fiction, the ghost is a sidekick, an important character but not the protagonist. The ghost helps or hinders the protagonist. However, when Bailey Ruth came swinging around a cumulous cloud to greet me, she immediately became the star of the show.

I learned a great deal about Bailey Ruth - what she can and cannot do - in GHOST AT WORK, her first adventure. When invisible and not carrying a physical object, she can immediately go from one spot to another. She thinks: Main Square. She is in Main Square. However, if she carries an object - car keys, a gun, a flashlight - she can remain invisible, but she progresses on the earthly plane. When she decides to appear, she also decides how she will appear. Bailey Ruth loves high fashion and takes great pleasure in a well cut blouse and the latest style slacks. Oh, and shoes . . . those require serious consideration.

Bailey Ruth comes to earth as an emissary from the Department of Good Intentions. That’s where I first met her. She was shyly approaching the train station which serves as the department headquarters. Her hope was to be sent to earth to help someone in trouble. A brave sailor saved her from drowning when she was a little girl and she’d like to bring help in turn.

In MERRY, MERRY GHOST, Bailey Ruth receives the assignment because she loves Christmas. She enjoys carols and gifts and decorated houses and the generosity that brings smiles in the dreary depth of winter.

Her assignment in MERRY, MERRY GHOST is to protect a little boy whose unexpected arrival at his grandmother’s house shortly before Christmas reveals the earthly vanities and sins in a gathering family that threaten to being ruin and misery and death.

Christmas affords joy from the sparkle of the holiday. Shining through that glitter is the golden glow of the child in the manger who came to earth to offer redemption. MERRY, MERRY GHOST offers glitter, but I hope it also offers a glimpse of the world as we would all wish it to be.

Bailey Ruth was my guide in Merry, Merry Ghost and she led me on a merry chase. I hope readers will enjoy spending a bit of their holiday in her holiday.
- 30 -

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The only person I didn't hear from was Serena Williams

I always forget that people are going to get mad when I talk politics. I get mad when I read the political sentiments of other people. Why shouldn't people get mad at me?

On line I was criticised by the right who seem to think I'm a big Obama fan. Off line I was criticised by the left who thought I was dumping on Obama.

1. I'm beginning to believe that Obama may have been a better candidate than a president. Read Frank Rich in the NY Times today. He seems to be wondering the same thing. That said, I don't think he had any choice but to bail out Wall Street. But as Senator Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich, Josh Marshall and Rich, among many others have been saying ever since, THEN was when the handcuffs should have been put on Wall Street. Tough, punitive legislation (including long prison terms) for offenses ranging from insider trading to selling unlicensed derivatives). Barney Frank had a bill with fourteen hardball rules in it for Wall Street. The bill included prison terms. Obama said he liked it and then two weeks later backed away from it. There's a long article on HuffPost today about how the five biggest banks have all displaced hordes of lobbyists with ready access to campaign cash for Washington. They go to work tomorrow. Like Frank Rich I don't see how any serious Wall Street legislation will get passed. Obama didn't do his job.

2. Was everybody who attended the march yesterday a racist? No; and I corrected myself soon after I wrote that. I said that while there were serious and honest people attending, there were too many whackjobs. I watched a bunch of interview with attendees and read some blogs by reporters who were there. Here are some of their beliefs.

Don't cooperate with consensus takers. They'll just use the info to put you and your family in "Obama camps."

Gay Muslims are taking over our government. Wow. The middle east has never cared much for gay people. In fact in Iraq right now many gays have been killed in drive by shootings without the govt doing much about it.

Obama has ruined our economy. From a recent census on the recent we learned the following from The Washington Monthly::

"Ron Brownstein took a closer look at the Census Bureau's latest report on income, poverty, and health insurance, and what the data tells us about "the economic record of George W. Bush."

"On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.

"The Census' final report card on Bush's record presents an intriguing backdrop to today's economic debate. Bush built his economic strategy around tax cuts, passing large reductions both in 2001 and 2003. Congressional Republicans are insisting that a similar agenda focused on tax cuts offers better prospects of reviving the economy than President Obama's combination of some tax cuts with heavy government spending. But the bleak economic results from Bush's two terms, tarnish, to put it mildly, the idea that tax cuts represent an economic silver bullet."

Ed here: It's been said so many times today that it's already a cliche. Given what Bush did to the economy, the Constitution and the health system, why didn't we see all the tea baggers and Confederate flag-wavers and strict constructionists out in the streets back then? For some reason Obama got elected and they've been piling on ever since. And most curious of all, they started piling on even before he took office.


-----------------------------------------Love songs

I was punching the car radio station selector for a song I liked when I caught a really cool sounding young woman singing a very erotic love song. She was talking about being breathless and being shaken and longing for him. And then I realized she was talking about Jesus. Whoa Nelly. I'd heard similar songs before but never one quite as well done or obvious, Jesus/God as a love object. We've come a long way from Ave Maria. The thing is that a lot of songs on the religious stations are pretty damned good just as music. Few of them are quite as polished as the big secular studios produce but that's half their charm. It's good music without an abundance of effects. But man equating love for Jesus in orgasmic terms--I dunno. You'd think the true believers would find this offensive.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Political-enter at your own risk

A lot of us who write westerns read a fair share of history about our country as it pushed west. I like to look through old journals in used bookstores because they often contain material you don't find in books. Today I was at Half Price and I found a Journal of Popular Culture from 76 that had a number of interesting articles in it. By far the most striking was "Racial Reservations: Indian and Blacks in American Magazines, 1865-1900" by Professor Charles R. Wilson. The piece introduced me to a particularly repellent racial theory I'd never heard of before.

White intellectuals of the highest order found blacks superior to Indians for a simple reason. Here's Nathan Shaler, Dean of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard:

"We see the essential difference between the African and the Indian in the measure of this faculty (the tendency to imitate whites). The American aborigines are content with their ways, and slow to take on the manners and customs of the whites; they have thus never reconciled themselves with their conquerers. The Negro is contented only when he feels that he has brought himself into accord with his superiors."

There are three pages of quotes like this from various academic publications. I chose the above because it was the easiest to condense.

After I read this I turned on the news and saw the Glen Beck rally in D.C. Wile I'm sure there were some decent and well-meaning people there, I'm assuming that most of them were the dirtbags, KKK wanna bes, mental defectives and white trashers who squelched all serious discussion at town hall meetings. Today they probably went to the bathroom on the street and killed squirrels and kittens for their food.

You know, there's a legitimate argument to make about how Obama has spent our money. Yesterday, the NY Times, the Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post all ran long articles attacking Obama for doing nothing to change Wall Street. The CEOs who should have gone to prison are back to making millions a year and the unlicensed derivates that caused a good deal of the trouble are being sold again. Every piece predicted that we will have an even bigger crash within ten years because Obama let Bernacke, Geithner and Summers sell us out to Wall Street. To me they should be sentenced to prison for life. Paulson would go in first.

But as much as I find it hard to forgive Obama for his cowardice and incompetence with Wall Street, I have no stomach for what I saw on the streets of D.C. today because despite the posturing of "he's spending too much money" just about everybody I saw interviewed said in one way or another "We want our country back." I.e., we don't want no colored guy in the White House. Pure and simple. The placards were offensive as usual--Obama with big lips; Obama as Hitler; and a new one, "Obamacare should be buried along with Kennedy." Nice. Plus a variety of misspellings. I can't spell either but how tough is "nation"?

Do we really want a dirtbag nation? I always quote Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." That was proved again today in Washington, D.C. I came from the working class. I met very few people of the sort I saw on screen today.

I thought of something today I'd never considered before. If Reagan hadn't fought Gerry Ford in 76 then Ford (Ford had also come to hate his neo-con employees Cheney and Rumsfeld) would have won. We wouldn't have had Carter, to me one of the worst presidents in our history and thus we wouldn't have had Reagan and "acceptable racism" ("welfare queens" anybody?). We would have had a nice moderate GOP president like Ford or somebody and we wouldn't be where we are today.

We're in a hell of a fix when the dems stand by and let their president sell us out to Wall Street and the only opposition can be found in the streets at the behest of a sissy like Glen Beck who, I'm pretty sure, agrees with that Harvard quote I used to introduce this post.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Care and Feeding of Dead People; Doug Clegg

I've always maintained that anything created for the good of mankind will within thirty days be turned into something bad for mankind. Human flight was quickly weaponized. Drugs were used to addict as well as cure. And the internet is filled with so many poisonous websites you feel contaminated just hearing about them.

But one of the many worthwhile things the internet has done is secure the work of writers who have passed on. Even famous writers fade from popularity sooner than some of us wish. Two examples would be Robert Bloch and John D. MacDonald.

Except for Psycho Bloch was never a bestseller as such but he was read and respected worldwide by horror and mystery fans alike. A few years before his death there was some carping about how his time had passed. Irritating as the criticism was it seems in retrospect to have foreshadowed how interest in him seems to have faded. Part of this is simply because he's dead. Writers and their work generally fade after they've passed on. But if you Goggle Robert Bloch you'll see that not only his work but also his life are alive and well on various websites. Now when I try to interest somebody in Bloch I just say Google him.

Less than fifteen years ago this wouldn't have been possible. Lost writers were discussed only in fanzines read by a few hundred people at most.

And it wasn't only non-bestsellers who faded. Read through twenty years of New York Times bestseller lists sometime and you'll see how quickly even big sellers vanish.

Which brings me to John D. MacDonald. I was one of the lucky ones who was old enough to read most his books as they were published. He sold big time in the heyday of paperback originals and when he switched to hardcovers with his Travis McGee series he became and remained for approximately fifteen years an enormous international bestseller. He was feted by some of the world's most important critics and the McGees became a benchmark for a certain kind of adventure fiction.

I don't think I've ever seen a writer's books fade from popularity as quickly as MacDonald's did. The McGees are in print but little else. For those of us who believe that MacDonald's best work was often in the stand-alones he wrote for Gold Medal this is sad news because few if any of them in print today. Even the critical acclaim has waned. He doesn't seem to appeal much to people under forty-five. I understand that the McGees have dated. MacDonald got pretty pontifical and silly about modern life in his speechifying. But when you read End of The Night and Cape Fear (The Executioners) and The Last One Left and many of his other books you're in the hands of a master.

Sez me.

But not enough of other people to bring him back into print. So what we're left with are some good sites that steer us to his books and his very interesting life. Maybe the next couple generations up will rediscover him all over again.

For those of you who grew up with the internet, I'm sure all this sounds crazy. So who didn't know there were a lot of sites dedicated to the work of dead writers? Well, a lot of us actually. I had never heard of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, for instance. I saw a reference to her on a site, ordered a used book of hers and was hooked for life. Her suspense novels walk right on the edge of horror, almost fever dreams. She was so good Raymond Chandler called her "the best suspense writer of (my) generation." I'm told she's about to get a serious website. And maybe some serious new readers, too.

Zombies aren't the only dead people who deserve attention.

-------------FROM DOUG CLEGG


Trying to spread this around, so if there are any friends you can send it to, please share it.

A game was developed from the illustrations for my book, Isis, which comes out in about 2 weeks. And we're within two days of hitting a million players (we're over 860,000 now and it moves from 80,000-110,000 players per day.)

The illustrations -- by Glenn Chadbourne - are stunning.

It's beautiful, fun and fairly easy:

Thursday, September 10, 2009


There was so much drumbeat about "Glee" we thought our TV would be taken away if we didn't watch it.

I have to say up front that Carol mostly enjoyed it. She was in theater in both high school and college and then did a lot of acting and commercial work after graduating. We in fact met on a commercial I was working on in Chicago. So the world of Glee is in several respects her world. All these young Glee club singers and actors. It's not my world at all. I never joined anything remotely like Glee or theater until my final two years when I got a playwriting scholarship. Then I spent four or five years with various acting groups. But my experience was very different. We spent most of the time avoiding the landlords who wanted to evict us for not paying the rent.

I guess what startled me about the episode I saw was how stereotyped the characters are and how much it reminded me of High School Musical, which I managed to get through only because two of my granddaughters wanted me to see it. They sat on either side of me. It was cute but vapid. Glee isn't even cute, except for the actress who plays the germ-a-phobe guidance counselor, Jayma Mays. Matthew Morrison is believable but bland as the star but Jessalyn Gilsig as his wife is given a character that is both shrill and profoundly irritating.

The big disappointment here is Jane Lynch. I've been a fan of hers since I saw her as the gay dog trainer in "Best of Show." I'd follow her anywhere. But she's wasted here as a butch coach of the cheerleaders. She's Cruella McNasty and not convincing for a second.

I'm not capable of seriously reviewing the singing or dancing since I know nothing about either art. All I can say as an amateur is that it all it sounded and looked like a series of uninspired music videos. All the songs are lip-synched of course but when you're looking at a lead and three backup singers on a bare stage but what you're hearing is this large sleek kind of breaks the illusion.

Damned if I know what the fuss was all about. But I suppose there's a chance it'll be a big hit with teenagers.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Shadow Season

Starred Publisher's Weekly Review

An interview with Tom Piccirilli

Tell us about Shadow Season.

SHADOW SEASON is a crime/suspense novel about a blind ex-cop turned English professor at an all-girls school. During the winter vacation he, along with a skeletal crew of faculty, watch over a handful of remaining students. My protagonist is forced to deal with his missing girlfriend, a seductive teenager, the impending release of his dirty ex–partner who wants to kill him, and his own loosening hold on the world as the worsening storm leaves him almost wholly sensory deprived. I really had to alter my narrative voice for this one. Since the story is told from my protagonist's point of view, I couldn't write with any kind of concrete images or visual details. I had to rethink my entire process.

You seem to make it a point not to write the same book twice.

I have no interest in retelling the same kind of story the same way. A new novel has to really grab me with a concept or a theme or some overwhelming image, and from there it just unrolls and I'm drawn along, learning the tale as it unfolds. I'm most interested in the surprise and discovery of a new book. If it's not keeping me excited and intrigued, how can it possibly do it for my audience?

Not many people realize how long you've been publishing. You started in the semi-professional magazine, right?

Actually, just about the first thing I sold was my first novel DARK FATHER, which Pocket Books brought out. Then I spent a few years writing novels I couldn't sell. I eventually had to come to realization that the books weren't working and I needed to go back to the beginning and learn how to write a solid short story. I spent a full year doing nothing but writing short fiction. When it began to sell regularly I went back to those early manuscripts and saw a plethora of problems. Writing the short stories had taught me how to strengthen my own narrative voice and edit my work. So I rewrote those books and eventually they began to sell too, several years after I originally wrote them.

You made a serious and respected name for yourself in the small press. What were those early years like for you?

It was rough carving out any kind of a reputation, but the small press is wonderful for encouragement and contact with like-minded folks. It's a real community feeling. People trade magazines, books, discuss their favorite fiction and writers until they're blue in the face. You're younger and filled with more bombast and passion. In the bigger marketplace there's more emphasis on making your mortgage and trying to sell film rights and all of these grander ambitions. The really fun stuff tends to seep out. That's just the nature of the beast, I think.

You gradually phased out the horror elements in your work and took up straight suspense. Was this a conscious decision or did it evolve by itself?

It seemed to happen on its own. I wrote two or three supernatural-suspense crossovers and then just forged ahead with the crime/suspense fiction on its own. I was heading into my mid-life crisis and I think noir just sort of dovetails with my own changing needs and hopes. When you're young you're looking ahead and wondering what might be creeping around the corner. When you're older you're looking back and trying to make sense of your life. I started becoming more interested in reality-based fiction as opposed to the fantastical. Maybe the wheel will come around again one of these days, but right now I feel comfortable writing noir and whatever else might go under that umbrella.

You seem to speak with authority about damaged people. As a writer are you more attracted to them than the standard commercial protagonist?

The standard commercial protagonist just doesn't seem to be very realistic to me. It's a false front, an act fabricated by films/fiction/advertising. There is no normal. The norm is that we're all abnormal and fucked in our own ways. We've all got scars and heartaches and regrets, and we're at least as much a product of our fears and failures as we are our successes. Drama is built on conflict and tension so I focus in on those dark dank places. They're more interesting and more universal, even if some folks don't wish to accept that.

What's a working day like for you?

I burn out at the keyboard very easily, so I write in bursts all day long. I prefer to write a page or two, then watch a movie, then write for a bit, then read for a couple hours, walk the dogs, then get back to writing. It seems to help me stay fresher and keep in the proper mindset. I don't understand these people who say they can sit at the desk and write for ten hours straight. I'd be a basket case after about an hour. It's too hard to dig into yourself that deeply for that long.

Would you change anything you've done with your career thus far?

Oh hell yes. There's been a hundred times when I should have zagged when I zigged. When I should have gotten an agent instead of going it alone or I should have dumped one sooner than I did. Or worked on a short story instead of a novel or vice versa. I took bad deals, I was indebted to people I shouldn't have been. But what's the point in complaining? Hopefully I've learned some hard-fought lessons and can keep striving forward. I suppose that's all any of us can do.

What's next for you?

SHADOW SEASON hits at the end of October. Cemetery Dance is bringing out a huge collection of my short fiction & novellas entitled FUTILE EFFORTS, hopefully by the end of the year. My next novel THE UNDERNEATH should hit in 2010. A small press novella THE LAST DEEP BREATH will be out in early ‘10 from Tasmaniac, the good folks who published THE NOBODY.

Thanks, Tom

Thank you, Ed!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Joan Blondell

Turner has been running Joan Blondell movies for the past week and it's been particularly interesting for me because by the early Fifties when I first became aware of actors as actors Blondell was past her Hwood prime. She spent the last three decades of her life doing more television than anything, and usually playing the knowing but not quite cynical older woman whose wisdom comforts young women and whose loveless life gives her a sense of nightclub melancholy.

I've now seen three of her movies from the Thirties and she was damned fine in every one of them. In Three On A Match she's cast as a working girl fighting her way through the Depression along with a very young and prim Betty Davis. The Third of the title is Ann Dvorak in a wild and finally savage performance that she considered the finest of her career. In Night Nurse she plays Barbara Stanwyck's best friend. The working class element here is played up. Stanwyck has trouble getting into nursing school because she hasn't finished high school. In both Blondell is the sarcastic but loyal friend of the star.

Though she made dozens of movies, she was frequently cast in the sidekick role so I was interested to see how she'd do as the co-star of a comedy mystery with no less than Melvin Douglas, one of the finest actors in Hwood history.

The name of the picture is There's Always A Woman. After I saw it I went to IMDB to read up on its history. Included in the long review is the following: One warning: those who are sensitive to any allusion to spousal physical abuse, however playful, will not enjoy this movie.)

I laughed out loud when I saw that.

There's Always a Woman is about an investigator for the DA's office (Douglas) who lets his wife (Blondell) convince him that he could do better as a private detective on his own. The movie opens with Douglas about to be evicted from his office. He is broke. His detective agency was a bust. He will no longer listen to Blondell who begs him to give it a little more time. But no he says and heads straight to the DA's office to beg for his job back. Meanwhile a woman straight out of Raymond Chandler (beautifully played by Mary Astor) appears and asks for the detective. She wants a woman followed--a woman she suspects is trying to steal her husband. Blondell, who is tired of Douglas demanding that she stay home and be a housewife, listens and says she's the detective. And takes the case. But this isn't Lucy Ricardo. Blondell lies, bullies, entraps and falsifies evidence without any qualm. She's quite charming while she's doing all this but if you hesitate for even a moment you realize she's really menace. But a damned funny one.

This is a great screwball comedy with a whodunit thrown in. It is also shocking in its way. Douglas is hired to solve the case for the DA but Blondell wants to solve it first. The race is played with great comic gusto and more physical interplay between a man and a woman I've ever seen. Though Blondell is very glamorous here with numerous chic outfits and hairdos, she and Douglas go at it every few minutes. And not just verbally (though some of Douglas' zingers are wonderful). No, throughout the movie they are constantly kicking, stomping, shoving, kidney punching, elbowing, jabbing, poking and prodding each other. And she's frequently giving it to him first and hardest. I'm not sure I'd like a relationship like that but the pounding these two give each other kept me laughing for the entire 86 minutes. Again I've never seen anything like it.

One of the many reasons to be thankful for Turner is that you get to discover not just actors but careers. Blondell was a very good actress and certainly worthy of Turner's recent retrospective.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Dame by Richard Stark

Don Westlake used to say that he didn't like to outline, that he preferred letting the story take him where it chose to go. I suppose this was another way of saying what Theodore Sturgeon said a long time ago, that if the writer is surprised the reader will be surprised.

Well, Westlake was probably not only surprised by the various twists and turns The Dame takes, he must have been downright shocked in places.

Our old friend Alan Grofield, flush with money from a bank robbery, is intrigued by a message from a Latin American dictator whose friend needs help. Turns out the friend, the forty-something dragon lady Belle Danamato, lives in Puerto Rico and is seeking a divorce from her mobster husband. She is under the impression that he will do her violence rather than actually go through with the settlement their lawyers have come up with. She already has a bodyguard but he's too ugly to be seen with in public. Grofield hates her and her thugs and quickly departs. Only to return a bit later under duress.

All too soon--or not soon enough from Grofield's point of view--Belle Danamato is murdered. B.G. Danamato, mob boss and now widower, appears and decides that Grofield murdered her. He will be quickly tortured and then executed. But lest we forget, Grofield is a professional actor and he puts on enough of a show to plant doubt in Danamato's mind about the identity of the true killer.

For the next several chapters we have a whodunit. B.G. and Grofield interview each of the six guests, trying to see if one of them cracks or inadvertently reveals something he or she shouldn't. It's quite a crew, the most interesting being the brother and sister team Roy and Patricia Chelm. The lad is a gigolo of some kind and the sister an iron virgin of twenty-three.

But don't be misled. Sure we have a one act version of a whodunit but then we go back to some of the finest chase scenes I've read in a long time. Westlake makes the jungles menacing, fetid in heat and humidity and the decay of dead things.

As I read The Dame I thought of all the different genres of popular fiction Westlake touches on in this novel. A partial list would include screwball comedies, chase and adventure, mobsters, country manor whodunits and Agatha Christie clue planting.

One piece of business is, to me at least, unique. Grofield announces about fifteen thousand words before the end that he knows who the killer is but he won't share his surmise with anybody. Westlake uses it as a very nifty tease.

Couple things: I wouldn't say this is major Westlake but it is an example what the pro of pros could do to exalt a story even he wasn't taking too seriously. The writing is astonishingly crisp and vivid. Once a page he jars you with something, some little turn or piece of psychology that only Westlake could have come up with.

The other thing is Grofield himself. I've noticed over the years that every once in awhile Grofield comes off as a jerk. That's my reaction and maybe my reaction alone. He gets a little too full of himself and a little too coy and glib. Then he settles back down and he's an intriguing protagonist again.

I read The Dame in two sittings and enjoyed the super-charged plot and watching Westlake throw one fast ball after another straight across the plate.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Good People Marcus Sakey

I'll tell you just about everything I love about crime fiction can be found in the novel Good People by Marcus Sakey. Bare bones it's not an unfamiliar tale. Tom and Anna Reed, a Yuppie couple strung out on debt and Anna's desperate and expensive dependence on a fertility clinic to help her produce the miracle she wants, rent out the bottom half of their Chicago house to a strange and frequently surly man.

One day they find him dead of natural causes. But that's not all they find. He had concealed $400,000 in cookie jars, cereal boxes and other kitchen hiding places. After much deliberation they decide to keep it. They will be debt free and Anna can afford more treatments at the fertility clinic.

What they don't know is that the money was part of a robbery. Two people want it. Jack, a psychotic career criminal whose younger brother was murdered by one of the robbers in a double cross (I was thinking Richard Stark here); and Malachi a drug dealer who was humiliated by Jack in the course of the robbery while he was delivering a huge amount of coke. The dealer wants his coke back and a chance to kill the robber.

That's the set-up. As I said, nothing shiny new. But man Sakey is a writer's writer. Not only is the book polished to a razor-edge it's also filled with flashes of insight that jar you. The opening pages describing the robbery are so well laid out and detailed you want to memorize them. The suspicious cop who knows they took the money is ultimately just as morally corrupt as everybody else in the book, a very interesting portrait of a cop. And the robber Jack is Satan's nightmare.
His scenes of violence made me hurt along with the victims. They're that vivid.

Then we have the marriage of Tom and Anna. Neither of them are especially likable. I say that not because they're villains but because they're weak in the way real people are weak. It's sort of embarrassing to read about yourself. They are at the point in their marriage where everything turns into a debate and debate into anger, especially on Anna's part. Her obsession with having a baby is sympathetic at first but, for me, anyway, becomes irritating. Tom wants to adopt but she says no. Period. But Tom isn't a exactly a great mate, either. He's one of the self-absorbed boy-men America seems to produce by the millions. It seems natural that he's in advertising. But it's their failings that are fascinating. No Dr. Phil for these two thank God. They're terrified people (terrified well before they decide to take the money) and settled into battering each other over their mutual helplessness. No need to call for more troops. They're doing just fine.

As a suspense novel it's exemplary. This is one of those books that involves you to the point where you start talking to the characters, saying do this or for God's sake don't do that. Where you physically writhe as Sakey twists every drop of blood from his suspense scenes. You want to see how a master creates a suspense story? Here you go.

I guess this didn't win an Edgar. Maybe somebody could explain to me why not. I came to Sakey late but having just finished one of the most cunningly conceived and executed suspense novels I've ever read, I sure plan to read more of his stuff.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Stark House & Harry Whittington

I'm reprinting this to acquaint new people to Stark House. And because Whittington will always be one of my favorite pulpers.

Back in the 1950s you could run but you couldn’t hide from Harry Whittington. Those were the days when many if not most paperbacks were sold in wire racks found in drug stores, grocery stores and what were then called dime stores.

Harry told me that he’d once seen five books of his displayed on the same rack, all published that month. He worked for everybody, from Gold Medal all the way down to Carnival. He did westerns, nurse romances, tie-ins, war stories and of course crime novels. The last was his true calling. There there was no sub-genre of suspense/mystery he didn’t like. Or apply himself to.

I mention Harry because Stark House Publishing has just published two of his best in a single attractive volume, A Night for Screaming and Any Woman He Wanted. I should also mention here that I’m a free-lance editor for Stark House, though I’d be reviewing this two-fer with the same enthusiasm even if I weren’t.

Harry’s world was not one of ratiocination. There wasn’t time for that. Most of his white working class protagonists were on the run from cosmic forces that would have given Lovecraft pause. In Night, for instance, the villain is so oppressive you seriously begin to wonder if the protagonist will survive. Seriously. The setting is one of those labor camp where drifters and small-time cons are forced to toil for the local politicians who make money on them. If the characterizations are less subtle than COOL HAND LUKE, the violence is every bit as painful. There are two scenes that literally made me wince. Harry knew the Deep South all too well.

Any Woman is a working class nightmare of a different kind. A once crooked cop stumbles on to a situation even he doesn’t want to cover up and joins his former enemy the DA in trying to right it. But the DA dies mysteriously and the cop is forced to go after the mob that runs the town by himself. Although this is a familiar 50s theme (the crooked town), Harry throws in a complication that makes the story personal and harsh. Harry always said that he knew how to do two things – plot and create characters. And this book proves that wasn’t any empty boast.

Here’s the Stark House website: Publisher Greg Shepard is bringing back the favorites of the 50s including Malcolm Braly, Gil Brewer, Stephen Marlowe, Day Keene, Vin Packer, Doug Sanderson and now Harry Whittington. He needs your support and I feel he deserves it, which is why I’m lending a hand. As I mentioned on my blog the other day, I recently paid $15 for a paperback from ABE. Well, I just got it today. It’s yellowed and the spine cracked when I opened it. Stark House sells two-fers (two books per volume) in handsome, sturdy editions for $19.95 that will last much longer than most pbs. I have no financial stake in this, I merely want to see the line thrive. Check out the website.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Radio Days

I'm sure there are a few of you out there who remember, as I do, what it was like to spend hours in front of a radio listening to shows that meant adventure (Superman, Green Hornet, Hopalong Cassidy etc) and shows that meant laughs (I loved Jack Benny, The Great Gildersleeve, Bob Hope (who knew what a dick he was in reality?) and of course Fibber McGee and Molly.

Two of the shows my little brother and I liked best were The Lone Ranger and Tom Mix. The Lone Ranger was sponsored by Cheerios so of course we wanted to eat same while the show was on. No problem because Cheerios were great. The trouble came with cowboy legend Tom Mix. He had the coolest offers. Send in a box top and a quarter and you could get a pair of authentic plastic glow-in-the-dark spurs. We had a deal with our mother. She'd buy us any cereal we wanted as long as we promised to eat all of it. Tom Mix was sponsored by Chex, which has always tasted to me like ground up concrete. But we had to eat it to get those spurs. It was worth it because in the dark of our room we could see the spurs hanging off our shoes. Pretty damned cool.


I was reminded of this while I was reading the new Crippen and Landru collection The Casebook of Gregory Hood, the scripts of fourteen radio shows by none other than Anthony Boucher and co-creator Denis Green. The shows were not only Golden Age Radio they were Golden Age Mysteries. Gregory Hood is one of those amateur sleuths who learned his stripes reading the Sherlock Holmes stories. He's a wealthy man of course and a dashing figure even among all the other dashing figures.

The whodunit set up challenges the reader to guess along with the detective. And they're a lot of fun, so much so that I'll probably invest a little and buy some of the tapes as well. There were a number of similar shows on radio over the decades (John Dickson Carr had a pretty good one) but I'd give the nod to Boucher because the way he has fun with the clues--a beeswax candle anyone?

The Crippen and Landru `Lost Classics' are always important additions to the general mystery library. And this one is no exception.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Visions Deferred- Richard Matheson

I can't think of a better current bargain than this collection of three Richard Matheson screenplays as well as two excellent pieces about him.

If you're like most Matheson fans, you didn't much care for any of the versions of I Am Legend, not the very early b&w Vincent Price one, not the 60s hippie version (though I do have a certain fondness for the kitschiness of it) or the Will Smith version, which I like least of all. In Visions you get to see I Am Legend as a screenplay written by Matheson himself. It's the only version that counts, savage and true to the novel. This is accompanied by an egregious letter from the Motion Picture Association informing Richard of why his movie is too brutal and uses too many "bad" words.

The second script is based on Matheson's famous short story "The Distributor." Here we have wealthy Theo Gordon imposing himself on a reasonably happy suburb. It is his pleasure to destroy it. He starts so many rumors and falsehoods about the neighbors that they begin to believe them and turn on each other, even turning to violence. To me this is one of Matheson's true masterpieces, a story that never loses its shock value. It is a bitter commentary on how lies can turn human being into savages. And the screenplay captures it all perfectly.

The third, "Sweetheart and Horrors," is an ingenious piece of black comedy. After the murder of the the insane family elder, The Sweetheart siblings are ensconced in a mansion filled with booby traps for one night, the elder's money going to the sibling who can knock off the others by the time the sun comes out. Matheson has fun with the farce but introduces us to some truly terrible people in the meantime. A fine funny dark script.

Mark Dawidziak and Matthhew R. Bradley both o sensational work addressing Matheson and his work. Between them they offer a great deal of new information about the most influential horror writer of all time. Richard himself writes afterwards as well.

As I said at the begining, this is the best current bargain I know of. $16.95 for a seminal piece of the Matheson library.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

headlines of the day: no comment

Wheelchair-Bound Woman Shouted Down At New Jersey Health Care Town Hall

65-year-old Healthcare reform advocate punched by opponent at Nelson event

Broward schools remove `negro' from racial background form

Japan's New First Lady: I Rode A UFO To Venus

Low-Wage Workers Constantly Being Cheated Out Of Pay: Study

Top Execs At Bailed-Out Banks Stand To Make Millions In Stock Options

Pay For Execs At Bailed Out Banks 40% Higher Than Peers: Report

So You Just Squandered Billions . . . Take Another Whack at It (Wall Street starting to sell unregulated derivatives again)

Man Succumbs To 7-Year Battle With Health Insurance 09.02.09 (The Onion)

Megan Fox Has Vagina Power, Self-Loathing (Cosmo cover story)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Magazines fading

Part of the pleasure of growing up in the era I did was going to news stands. I liked confronting all those bright, snappy magazine covers. Though I usually ended up buying science fiction and mystery magazines, I usually tried other types, too. For no apparent reason I got hooked for a year or so on civil war magazines.

Later on, in college, I started reading political magazines, The New Republic, the Nation and sometimes the more radical kind featuring people such as Paul Krassner.

I continued to buy sf magazines long after I'd given up reading most of them. It may have been a neurotic attachment to my youth. Or maybe it was because I kept hearing how badly they were doing so I thought I'd kick in a buck to help keep them going.

I can remember my folks getting The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and The American. The latter was where I first read the Nero Wolfe novellas. I always watched for them. The Post seemed to have everybody from Luke Short to John D. MacDonald. John D. seemed to be in every issue of Colliers with great stuff.

I mention this because today I read a long article about how magazine are vanishing. Maybe the only people who'll miss them are my age or a little younger. But it sure was fun going to those news stands.


I want to thank everybody who wrote letters about westerns. What a fine collection of thoughts and suggestions.