Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cowboy Logic/Kinky Friedman

I'm going to break this blog's no-politics rule long enough to endorse Kinky Friedman. Not as a candidate for the governor of Texas -- although he may get my vote -- but as the author of this new collection of mostly humorous sayings culled from a variety of places, most notably the Kinkster's own wickedly warped brain. Included is one of my favorite quotes:

"This country was a better place when all the cowboys sang and their horses were smart."

Another one new to me that I like, from the section on writing:

"This is the twenty-fourth book that I've churned out -- I mean, carefully crafted."

As usual with Kinky's work, there are even a few serious moments, but I won't quote them here.

Scattered throughout the book are cartoons by the late Ace Reid, from his long-running comic strip "Cowpokes". Between the cartoons and the small amount of text on most of the pages, this is sort of like a Big Little Book for adults. You can probably read the whole thing in thirty minutes or so. But I guarantee, it'll be an enjoyable half-hour.

Michelle Monaghan

One of the folks who commented below points out that in yesterday's post I failed to mention Michelle Monaghan in my remarks about KISS KISS BANG BANG. I agree, this is a serious oversight, so in order to make up for it I thought I'd post this picture of her from the movie. A lot of shots in this film are like McGinnis covers come to life, including this one.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Considering the subject of several recent posts on this blog, you probably won't be surprised to know that this movie had me from the opening credit that reads "Based in Part Upon the Novel BODIES ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM by Brett Halliday". I remember this novel fairly well, and a lot of the basic plot of KISS KISS BANG BANG comes from it. But the rest of it is entirely its own brilliant lunacy.

The plot of this private eye movie is almost too complicated to describe, so I won't try. But it manages to be both hilarious and tragic, often within seconds of each other, and has some of the best dialogue and action scenes I've run across in a long time. I'm not a fan of either Robert Downey Jr. or Val Kilmer, but both are very good in this film, especially Downey. This is the best movie I've seen in I don't know how long.

(Aside for those who have already seen it: While we were watching it, I turned to Livia and said, "You know, if those Johnny Gossamer books were real, I'd have them on my shelves." She nodded and said, "I know.")

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Finish One, Start Another

Yesterday afternoon I wrapped up a book I've been working on for a while, and this morning I started writing the next one on the schedule. Normally I like to take a break for at least a day between books, but in this case the timing didn't work out right for that. Anyway, the new book is the first one I've done in this particular series, and it's always fun to work with characters I haven't written about before. I hope it goes well.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

MSMM December 1978

This is the rather gory cover of the MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE issue that featured my first Shayne story, "Death in Xanadu". As you can see, also featured in that issue was a story by "J.R." Lansdale. Inside the issue he's billed more correctly as Joe R. Lansdale. "Long Gone Forever" is one of his stories about private eye Ray Slater. I read and enjoyed all those stories as they came out and didn't even know Joe yet. It would be another couple of years before we began trading letters. Also in this issue, although not mentioned on the cover, is a story by none other than Lawrence Block, "The Ehrengraf Appointment". Pretty good deal for a buck, if you ask me.

We were on vacation when this issue came out, and I remember quite well going into an old, wooden-floored newsstand in Corpus Christi, Texas, and seeing a stack of copies sitting on the shelf. I bought all of them, four or five total, I think. It was a mighty proud day for me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mike Shayne Stories

As I mentioned in one of the comments below, here's the list of Mike Shayne stories I wrote many years ago, interspersed with a few comments about the ones I remember. Some of them I have almost no memory of at all. All these stories were published in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. Most were 20,000 word novellas, although some were shorter than that and a few pushed 25,000 words. Not all the titles are mine, as the editors sometimes changed them.

“Death in Xanadu”, 12/78 -- my first Shayne, written at the request of editor Sam Merwin Jr.

“Twice as Deadly”, 6/79

“Lady From the Grave”, 9/79

“The Phoenix Gambit”, 12/79

“Murder by the Bay”, 2/80

“Payoff in Blood”, 3/80 -- a kidnapping yarn

“The Bedlam File”, 5/80 -- set in a mental institution, I think

“Murder in Paradise”, 6/80 -- set in Mexico

“Encore for Death”, 7/80

“The Viper Conspiracy”, 8/80 -- the first Shayne of several I did with an espionage angle

“Yesterday’s Angel”, 9/80 -- Shayne's long-dead wife reappears - or does she?

“Mayhem in the Magic City”, 10/80 -- a story set in the 1940s, for a special "Crime in Other Times" theme issue; tells the story of how Shayne's wife died; more espionage, this time of the World War II variety; probably my favorite of the Shayne stories I did

“Killer’s Eve”, 11/80 -- a Hallowe'en story

“All the Faces of Fear”, 12/80 -- set against the background of a circus's winter quarters

“Black Lotus”, 1/81 -- the first story of three to feature a decidedly non-PC villainess, created at the request of editor Charles E. Fritch

“Odds on Death”, 2/81 -- a gambling ship story

“Three Strikes – You’re Dead!”, 3/81 -- a baseball spring training story, of course

“Fit for a Corpse”, 4/81

“The Stalker of Biscayne Bay”, 5/81 -- one of my rare serial killer stories

“Byline for Murder”, 6/81 -- Tim Rourke is framed for the murder of a rival reporter

“Death From the Sky”, 7/81 -- the second Black Lotus story

“Midnight Wind”, 8/81 -- another favorite; the old sinister doings at an isolated motel plot

“Killer’s Cruise”, 9/81 -- murder on a cruise ship, with Livia, myself, and several other authors making cameo appearances

“The Full Moon Means Murder!”, 10/81 -- another Hallowe'en story, this one with a werewolf

“A Cry in the Night”, 11/81 -- the baby found on the doorstep bit

“Death in the Dailies”, 12/81 -- murder on the set of a low-budget horror film

“Beautiful but Dead”, 1/82 -- murder at a beauty pageant, I think

“Doomsday Island”, 2/82 -- the third and final Black Lotus story, with Shayne acting as a secret agent

“Havoc in High Places”, 3/82 -- another favorite; Shayne finds himself trapped with some dangerous characters in a Miami high-rise during a hurricane; havoc ensues

“Deadly Queen”, 4/82 -- murder among world-class chess champions

“The Medici Casket”, 5/82

“The Assassination of Michael Shayne”, 6/82

“Book of the Dead”, 7/82 -- another one featuring cameos by real people

“Deadly Visitor”, 8/82

“Death in Texas”, 9/82 -- set in Corpus Christi

“Murder From Beyond the Grave”, 10/82

“Fishing for Murder”, 12/84 -- my final Shayne story, written as a favor to a friend who wanted to be a character in one of them

I should point out that Livia contributed to the plots and writing of many of these. At least one is mostly her work. It was a good run, but by the time I finished that two-and-a-half year stretch from May '80 to October '82, my brain was pretty much running on fumes. I'm tempted to go back and read some of these, since they'd be almost like new stories to me now. Maybe I'll get around to it one of these days.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Call for Michael Shayne/Brett Halliday

Some of you reading this may not know that in the early days of my writing career, more than twenty-five years ago, I was "Brett Halliday" for a while, penning more than three dozen short novels about Miami private eye Michael Shayne for MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE. And I do mean penning -- most of my first drafts in those days were written in spiral notebooks with a fountain pen. I'd been reading the full-length Shayne novels for years and read a lot more of them after MSMM's editor, Sam Merwin Jr., asked me to try my hand at writing a Shayne story. So I have a great fondness for the series and have always considered it somewhat underrated by the critics. These days, of course, Mike Shayne is mostly forgotten. But not by me. I still read (or sometimes reread) one of the novels now and then.

From 1949, CALL FOR MICHAEL SHAYNE is one of the books I hadn't read until now. It's by Davis Dresser, the creator of the series and the original Brett Halliday. It starts with a situation that's very familiar to readers of hardboiled mystery novels: Insurance executive Arthur Devlin wakes up in a seedy hotel room with no memory of where he's been or what he's done during the past two weeks. And oh, yeah, there's a dead body in the room, too, a weaselly-looking guy with his head bashed in by a blackjack. Instead of muddling through and finding out what's going on by himself, though, Devlin does the smart thing. He turns to Mike Shayne for help.

As always in a Shayne novel, there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot. Some of it is fairly easy to figure out, but there was one "D'oh!" moment near the end when I smacked my forehead and realized I should have made a certain connection a lot earlier. Dresser was a master at staying one or two or sometimes three jumps ahead of the reader.

There's no sign of Shayne's faithful secretary Lucy Hamilton in this one, or his reporter friend Tim Rourke, but Miami Chief of Police Will Gentry and Shayne's longtime adversary Peter Painter make appearances. The fact that all the action in the novel takes place in less than twenty-four hours just didn't leave room for Lucy or Rourke, I guess. The scenes where Shayne spars verbally with Painter are great fun, as usual.

CALL FOR MICHAEL SHAYNE belongs in the second or maybe even third tier of Shayne novels, but it's still very entertaining. The cover illustration above is by the great Robert McGinniss and is from the second of three different Dell editions. For more on Michael Shayne, including lots of cover scans, information about MSMM and the radio and TV versions of the character, check out the website Flagler Street, named after the Miami street where Shayne had his office in most of the novels.

Topper and Topper Returns

My daughter Joanna is a fan of Cary Grant movies, so we picked up a DVD that has both TOPPER and TOPPER RETURNS on it. I always liked the Topper TV series from the Fifties, which I watched in syndicated reruns during the Sixties. I've read some of the novels by Thorne Smith, too. I'd seen TOPPER, but the last time was many years ago. Sad to say, watching it now, it hasn't aged that well. Cary Grant is always good, of course, and Roland Young was a good character actor. But the film, while whimsical at times, just isn't very funny and meanders along at a slow pace.

I'd never seen TOPPER RETURNS and didn't really know anything about it, so I was surprised when I saw that Cary Grant wasn't in it. In fact, the only actors who return are Roland Young as Cosmo Topper and Billie Burke as his wife Clara. The credits open with a mysterious shadowy figure and dramatic music, as if this is a mystery movie rather than a comedy. Then I see that the screenplay is by Jonathan Latimer, the hardboiled mystery novelist, and Gordon Douglas, better known as the director of numerous action-packed Western, mystery, and adventure movies. Needless to say, my interest perked up. TOPPER RETURNS is indeed a mystery movie (with humor) rather than a comedy. Topper himself is an incidental character for much of the film, which centers around two young women visiting the creepy old house that one of them is about to inherit -- if she can live long enough to do so. Early on it becomes obvious that somebody is trying to kill one of them.

If TOPPER was too slow, the same can't be said of TOPPER RETURNS. There's a heck of a lot packed into the movie's fairly short running time. We get Joan Blondell as a cute, brassy ghost; Carole Landis as the blond bombshell who's the intended victim of the murder plot; snappy, hardboiled patter from rugged Dennis O'Keefe; a masked killer who sports a slouch hat and cloak that make him look a little like The Shadow; George Zucco (the poor man's Bela Lugosi) as a sinister doctor; secret passages, trapdoors, and revolving walls; a cavern with a hidden boat landing (one of the sure signs, along with quicksand, of a really good movie); and to top it all off, a fine performance by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, one of the greatest second bananas of all time. I had a wonderful time watching this movie.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


When the novel DERAILED by James Siegel came out, it caused a minor stir. Some readers loved it, some hated it. I came down sort of in the middle, thinking that the book had a couple of major flaws but also finding some things to like about it.

So I was willing to give the movie a try, and somewhat to my surprise, I found that I liked it quite a bit. This is one of those cases where the screenwriter put his finger on the problems that plagued the novel and fixed them, straightening out the confusing structure of the book and completely eliminating the one over-the-top plot development that made a lot of readers, myself included, want to heave the book across the room. I thought before seeing the movie that Jennifer Aniston was miscast in her role, but actually she did a more than okay job. So what we have here is a nice little thriller with a very satisfying ending that probably deserved to be more successful than it was.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Red/Jack Ketchum

It's always nice, after reading a bad book, to read a really good one. It sort of restores your faith in the whole reading process. This evening I read Jack Ketchum's RED, and it's a very good novel indeed.

The storyline is pretty simple. Young punks kill old man's dog. Young punks and their families think old man is harmless. They find out otherwise, much to their regret. That's about it. But Ketchum writes so well that the pages just flow by. Despite the blurb from Stephen King on the cover and the word "Horror" on the spine, this isn't a horror novel at all, unless you consider that any novel that's truthful about the human condition is going to have some horror to it. This is more of a mainstream novel, and for the most part, a quiet, subtly written one at that, making its way along deliberately until it abruptly explodes in unexpected directions.

Sure, one plot development is rather hard to accept (you'll know it when you come across it) and some of the plot threads maybe work out a little too neatly, but in this case I'm okay with those things because of all the novel's strengths. This is just an excellent book.

I've been aware of Ketchum's work for years and in fact I own most of his books, but this is the first novel of his that I've read. It almost certainly won't be the last.


Vampires and werewolves a-chompin' and gnawin' on each other one night, Cole Porter the next. Our movie-watching is nothing if not varied these days. Tuesday night we watched this biopic from a couple of years ago. I like Cole Porter's music a lot, and there's plenty of it in this movie, done in period scenes by contemporary performers like Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, and the great Diana Krall. Not only that, but the cinematography is excellent, meaning that this is a move that looks and sounds gorgeous. The storyline, although accurate in the details of Porter's life, comes across as pure Hollywood hokum most of the time, but as a long-time devotee of hokum, that didn't bother me at all. Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd and the rest of the cast do a fine job. The setups for some of the musical numbers occasionally verge on silliness, but again, that's okay with me as long as there aren't too many of them. All in all, I had a good time watching this movie. That's about all I ask of a film these days.


I just finished a novel by an author I won't name who used to be one of my favorite writers. Sure, he wrote the occasional book I didn't care for, but usually I liked his work a lot. But this is the fourth straight book from him that I thought was either mediocre or just plain awful. In fact, this is the worst book I've read in a long time, with ridiculous, unbelievable plot twists thrown in seemingly at random, characters who do idiotic, unbelievable things just to keep the plot going, continuity glitches -- it's afternoon, then night, then afternoon again, then night again, all in one sequence of events -- and incredible coincidence piled on incredible coincidence. I kept reading for the occasional good line and the hope that things would get better, but they never did.

I always ask myself when I dislike a book this much, especially when it's by an author I used to enjoy, if the writer changed -- or if I did. I know that as a reader, my tastes change from time to time. But in this case, I can point to enough specific problems in the book, and in other recent books by the same author, that I don't think it's me.

I may still go back and try some of his earlier novels that I haven't read yet, but I think I'm done when it comes to his new stuff.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Underworld: Evolution

To be honest, I'm not much of a fan of gory horror movies, and Livia likes them even less than I do. But a while back we watched UNDERWORLD and thought it was pretty good, so tonight we gave the second one in the series a look.

This is a pretty hard-to-follow movie, even for somebody who's seen the first one. Eventually the plot got itself all sorted out, I think. There are some nice scenes, but all too often the movie falls prey to the problems that often plague sequels -- the film makers take everything that worked about the first film and raise it to even higher levels, so in this one we get more creatures, more fights, more blood, more badly-edited action scenes, and the result is a movie that comes close to being too over-the-top. Overall, though, I think it stops just short of being too much and still works as a decent film.

Anyway, we all know the storyline isn't as important as the sight of Two-Gun Kate Beckinsale running around dressed like Emma Peel, shootin' monsters.

I think they're making a third movie in this series -- this ending of this one is a pretty blatant set-up for another sequel -- and I expect that when it comes out, I'll watch it.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

REH Days

I spent yesterday in Cross Plains, Texas, taking part in the annual Robert E. Howard Days get-together. This was the largest one yet, as fans from all over the world converged on this little town to celebrate the centennial year of Howard's birth. All the programming while I was there was excellent, but the real highlight was an interview with Glenn Lord, who for many years was the agent for Howard's work. Many of the great Howard stories we take for granted now probably would have been lost forever without Glenn's efforts. The thing about Glenn is that he's such a soft-spoken Texas gentleman and is so genuinely friendly that when you're talking to him you tend to forget he's really an iconic figure in the history of fantasy fiction. It was fascinating listening to him talk at length about his work during the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies that laid the foundation for the current outstanding state of Howard publishing and Howard fandom.

It was also great to see so many Howard fans in one place -- people I've never met before except on-line, people I haven't seen in years, people I see every year in Cross Plains. It's especially good to put faces with familiar names.

And don't forget, the World Fantasy Convention to be held this November in Austin is also Howard-themed, so I expect to see a lot of these folks again. I'm already looking forward to it.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The last time I saw this movie was in the summer of 1972 or '73 -- I'm a little hazy on the year -- at the Corral Drive-In Theater in Lake Worth, Texas. The Corral is long gone, of course; the property where it was located is now occupied by a big shopping center anchored by a supermarket. But I saw a lot of good movies at the Corral during the Seventies and remember it fondly. Several years after watching BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID there, I discovered that Livia was there with her family the same night I was. So in a way this is the first movie we watched together.

Anyway, it's now been released on a two-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, and the set is a dandy one. The movie itself looks great. Conrad Hall's Oscar-winning photography deserves a good transfer, and it got one. The extras include two different "making of" documentaries, one concentrating on the nuts-and-bolts of making the movie and the other focusing on the script, plot, and characters. Both are excellent, as is the historical feature devoted to the real Butch and Sundance, contrasting the real people with the fictional characters based on them. Also included are interviews and commentary by Newman, Redford, assorted production people, and scriptwriter William Goldman. Goldman is one of my favorite writers in several different areas -- novels, screenplays, and non-fiction about the movie business. His comments here are fascinating. All in all, if you're a fan of this movie, this DVD set is well worth having.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Pretty Good Day

Yesterday started with an email from one of my agents saying that a check was on the way. Then my story in a new anthology (RETRO PULP TALES, published by Subterranean Press) got a fairly nice mention in the new issue of LOCUS. Then last night I found out that stories by both my wife and I made the cut and will appear in the Robert E. Howard Memorial Anthology published in conjunction with the World Fantasy Convention this fall. Mine is an El Borak story, as far as I know the first ever El Borak tie-in. And on top of that it was my birthday (I turned 53). I wouldn't expect a day like that every day, but it was sure a nice counter-balance to the days when all the publishing news is bad.

On the birthday front, one of my presents was the boxed set of the original KING KONG, SON OF KONG, and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG on DVD. I made the comment that if we watched all of those and also watched the new version of KING KONG, it might be too many giant monkey movies. To which my younger daughter replied, in her usual sardonic fashion, "You can't have too many giant monkey movies." I think she's probably right.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pelecanos on TRUE GRIT

Here's a nice little article by George Pelecanos about Charles Portis's novel TRUE GRIT, which also touches on the movie verson of the novel. I've read the novel and seen the movie, and they're both wonderful, no doubt about that. I'm the opposite of Pelecanos in that I probably like the movie a little better. Rooster's shootout with Ned Pepper's gang, prefaced by that famous exchange of dialogue Pelecanos quotes, is one of my favorite moments in all of film. But what the hey, they're both great. Thanks to Duane Spurlock for the link.

Pelecanos is a well-respected author of mystery fiction, but he's one of those writers I haven't gotten around to trying yet. I figure anybody who likes TRUE GRIT, though, deserves to be jumped up closer to the top of the stack.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Sound of Thunder

I didn't even know they'd made a movie out of Ray Bradbury's famous short story, that's how fast this came and went from the theaters. It's been probably thirty years or more since I read the story, but both of my kids read it in their high school English classes, so when we spotted the DVD at Blockbuster we decided to watch it.

Of course, there's not enough material in Bradbury's short story about time travel gone awry to support a feature-length film, so the scriptwriters took the title and the basic concept and used them as a springboard for an action-packed, special-effects-laden SF/horror shoot-em-up. I'm not a big fan of Edward Burns, but he's okay here as the hero. Ben Kingsley is given almost nothing to do as a greedy millionaire. The supporting cast sort of runs together. The special effects looked pretty good at times, but at other times resembled the graphics from a video game. Despite its flaws, though, I watched this one with a fair amount of interest. It's not a great movie by any means, but it's not as bad as some of the reviews suggested.

As for Ray Bradbury, I really ought to go back and reread a lot of his stories. I was a major fan of his work for a long time but sort of drifted away and haven't read any of it in years.

More About Meares

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of the novels of Leonard F. Meares, the late Australian author of hundreds of Westerns, mostly under the name Marshall Grover. A new and excellent article about Meares by David Whitehead can be found on the new edition of Black Horse Extra. Whitehead is a fine Western author in his own right and knew Len Meares quite well. In this article he discusses not only Meares' early career but also the final books that Len wrote for the Black Horse Western line in England.

Speaking of Black Horse Westerns, there are now two websites devoted to the line. The Black Horse Express can now be found here, along with links to websites for many of the authors who write BHWs. All these sites are well worth checking out for Western fans.