Monday, April 30, 2007

End-of-the-Month Update

Reading

I read fifteen books in April. They are, in order:

SIN IN THEIR BLOOD, Ed Lacy (Leonard Zinberg)
PEANUTS: A GOLDEN CELEBRATION, Charles M. Schulz
TWISTED, Jeffery Deaver
THE HEIST, Michael A. Black
BATMAN: DETECTIVE, Paul Dini and Royal McGraw
THE LABYRINTH, Francis Stevens (Gertrude Bennett)
JONAH HEX: FACE FULL OF VIOLENCE, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
MARKHAM, Lawrence Block
THE DESERT PILOT, Max Brand (Frederick Faust)
THE HIDE HUNTERS, Lewis B. Patten
ASTONISHING X-MEN: DANGEROUS, Joss Whedon
THE BUTCHER #1: KILL QUICK OR DIE, Stuart Jason (James "Doc" Dockery)
THE AVENGER: THREE GOLD CROWNS, Kenneth Robeson (Paul Ernst)
THEY COULDN'T SAY NO, Matt Harding (Lee Floren)
APRIL KANE AND THE DRAGON LADY, Author Unknown (based on comic strip by Milton Caniff -- there'll be a post about this one in a day or two)

Movies

I watched six movies: THE ILLUSIONIST, BORDER FEUD, BORDERLINE, FREEDOM WRITERS, HAPPY FEET, and MAN OF THE YEAR.

Writing

It was another pretty good month, despite the traveling in the middle of it and the slump I've run into -- again -- at the end of the month. I went over my monthly goal by 37 pages, which means that I've erased my deficit for the year and am now 13 pages ahead of schedule. We'll see if that holds up. Setting arbitrary page goals has always bothered me a little. I feel like I'm a bit too obsessed about such things. But I've been doing it for so long that I wouldn't know any other way now.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mystery Solved, Thanks to Ennis Willie

So I get up this morning and check my email, and there's a message from none other than Ennis Willie, the author of the Sand novels and many other great hardboiled crime novels from the Sixties. Once I calmed down my Inner Fanboy ("I got an email from Ennis Willie? How cool is that?"), I realized that he had given me the answer to a question I asked the other day in my post about the first novel in the Butcher series. Here are Ennis Willie's comments, posted here with his kind permission.

As a faithful follower of your Blog my interest was especially captured by your discussion about who wrote the first Butcher novel "Kill Quick or Die".

The author was an old friend of mine named James "Doc" Dockery, who had been writing novels for Lancer Books under the name Stuart Jason. I don't know how many books he wrote in the Butcher series or how Stuart Jason became a house name, but I can verify the first book. I recall sitting in his apartment here in Atlanta while he discussed his plot for a spy novel. The novel was going to start with his spy landing in Cairo, Egypt and taking a cab to the Shepherd Hotel. I said a name like the Shepherd Hotel didn't sound much like Egypt to me, and he explained that the hotel was real, that he had spent a lot of time in the area and had stayed at the hotel and was familiar with it and other local landmarks. I will add that the character at the time owed more allegiance to James Bond and Matt Helm than to Sand.

I've been out of touch with Doc for a long time, but a more likable guy would be hard to find. He used to spend long stretches of time in Mexico, then rush back to the U.S. to catch up on what was going on. He was always trying to drag me down there with him, and looking back on it now I'm surprised I never found time for at least one trip. With this in mind, I just tackled my filing system (old stuff on bottom / new stuff on top) looking for something on paper from the period. What I found was a letter he wrote me from Mexico about a year before the first Butcher Novel. The first paragraph gives a good picture of him I think.

"Dear Ennis:I just finished another masterpiece for posterity and am spending the day writing letters, and since your name is at the top of the list, you're one of the first to be afflicted by my devastating wit and sagacious pearls of wisdom. Seriously, I just want to talk to a friend who can answer me in English. Here in Tuxpan I am one lone gringo amongst sixty-five thousand Mexicans and it gets real hairy sometimes for lack of a familiar word."

I'm not familiar with James Dockery and haven't been able to find anything about him on the Internet, but the books Ennis mentions that Dockery was writing for Lancer as Stuart Jason must be a series of plantation novels that came out in 1969 and 1970: BLACK LORD, BLACK MASTER, BLACK HERCULES, and BLACK REBEL. They were reprinted by Manor Books about ten years later, still under the Stuart Jason name but with some of the titles changed. I have only one of them, the Manor edition DELTA STUD, which was originally BLACK HERCULES, and I've never read it.

Flipping through the Butcher novels I have, the style in most (but not all) of them seems to match Dockery's style in the first book, KILL QUICK OR DIE. I'm confident that he was the main author on the series until Mike Avallone took it over with #27. But I plan to read some of the others just to make sure.

In the meantime, if any of you know anything else about James Dockery, speak up. And many, many thanks to Ennis Willie for the information he's provided.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Man of the Year

Well, I'm nothing if not consistent in my inconsistency. Last weekend I pan HAPPY FEET because of too much Robin Williams and its schizophrenic nature, and what do I watch this weekend? MAN OF THE YEAR, which not only stars Robin Williams but is even more schizophrenic than HAPPY FEET -- and I sort of liked it.

It's half political comedy (a lot of which seemed to be improvised by Williams, including a few bits reminiscent of his days as Mork from Ork) and half political thriller, with some suspenseful scenes and even a little action. I don't care much for politics, either in real life or as a subject for fiction. But there are some good points made here and there in this movie, and Williams is pretty funny at times. The supporting cast is good, with Laura Linney, Jeff Goldblum (who's starring in RAINES, the not-bad TV cop show that just wrapped up its run on NBC), and Christopher Walken in a non-sinister change-of-pace role for him. (I have to admit that I can't even hear Walken's voice anymore without thinking about his guest shot on THE SIMPSONS a couple of years ago where he's reading "Goodnight Moon" to some little kids. "Scooch closer, kiddies. Don't make me tell you again about the scooching.")

Since I keep talking about other things besides this movie, I guess I wasn't that impressed with it. But I laughed a few times and I didn't fall asleep. These days, I'll take that.

Friday, April 27, 2007

They Couldn't Say No -- Matt Harding (Lee Floren)

This is the soft-core porn novel by Lee Floren, writing as Matt Harding, that I mentioned a few days ago. Originally published by Beacon Books in 1961, it was reprinted in ’71 by Macfadden-Bartell (the edition I read). In looking through my shelves, I discovered that I have a couple of Beacon Books by Floren/“Harding”, MOTEL TRAP and THE NEAR-NUDES. I don’t think I’ll be reading them any time soon, though.

Floren wrote several hundred Westerns under his own name and various pseudonyms. I’ve read maybe a dozen and thought they ranged from passable (the early ones) to downright poor (everything after the mid-Fifties). THEY COULDN’T SAY NO, while not a Western, still falls into the downright poor category. It’s the story of Brad Raleigh, an up-and-coming Broadway actor who’s summoned to Hollywood to play the lead in a big Biblical epic. Before leaving New York, he breaks up with his long-time girlfriend, Mavis Montgomery, who had been his college sweetheart. Mavis wants to get married, and Brad doesn’t. What Brad wants to do is have sex with just about every woman he meets, which he proceeds to do for the next 140 or so pages. Mavis heads west, too, has a few flings of her own, and winds up working as a newspaper reporter in California, where – you guessed it – she runs into Brad again.

While the plot is extremely predictable most of the way, I’ll give Floren credit for coming up with a fairly decent twist at the end. It’s not anything to make the reader gasp in surprise, but it’s not the way I expected things to wrap up, either. The prose is so flat and lackluster, though, it would have taken more than that to save this book.

Of course, the reason I read THEY COULDN’T SAY NO in the first place was to see if I could spot any stylistic quirks of Floren’s that would indicate he might be the author of that first Butcher book I read recently. I didn’t. Which doesn’t really mean anything. Determining the true author of unattributed house-name books is usually just an educated guess at best. But that won’t stop me from trying to figure these things out, because I enjoy the hunt.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Death Head Crossing Cover

This one will be out in August, the first Western with my name on it in a long time. Don't worry, I'll remind you again when it's actually available. But I think it's a pretty good cover and wanted to show it off now.

Anonymity

Keith Chapman brings up a good point in his comment on my DUST DEVILS post, so I thought I'd address it in a separate post. He says:

The snazzy cover surely is better viewed at full-screen size. And as you say, it has the Reasoner name on it. Have you ever found house-name anonymity dispiriting? (Don't answer if you consider it wouldn't be politic, or just none of anyone's business!)

I think most writers, if they're being honest, would rather write under their own name (or a pseudonym of their choosing) than under a house-name. At one point in my career, I had written eighty novels, and only one of them had my name on it. People used to ask me if that bothered me, and my standard flippant answer was, "I don't care if my name is on the book, as long as it's on the check!"

And while there was -- and is -- a smidgen of truth in that, of course I'd like for all of my books to have my name on them. I'm proud of what I do. I really enjoyed it a few years ago when I had two historical series going at the same time, in hardback, with my name on the books.

But when I sit down at the computer, I'm not thinking about what name is going on the book. I'm thinking about the characters and the plot and what I can do with them and whether or not I've done enough research and does this scene need to go before that scene and trying to figure out whether this particular line needs some more tweaking . . . in other words, the same exact process that authors who write only under their own names go through. I'm sure there are writers who don't put as much care into house-name books. I'm sure that's been the case as long as there have been house names. But that's not the way I approach it, and it's not the way that my friends who work in this part of the business do, either. They're professionals and they do the best job they can, not only because that's the surest way to get that next contract, but because they care about the readers. And because they love to write.

But yeah, the recognition would be nice. On most of the books I write, I'm contractually bound not to reveal my connection with them, and it's not just a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" contract where people don't really care who knows. I could jeopardize my livelihood by revealing titles and bylines on here. On some of the series I work on, I can tell people privately which books I've written, but I wouldn't post a list. And some, like the Tales From Deadwood series, are pretty much open secrets. I plan to keep writing the house-name books because I enjoy them, because I have a good relationship with the editors I work for, and because they pay enough to keep me in the business and I'm too blasted old to go out and try to do anything else. But I'm very glad that 2007 will see the publication of two new books with my name on them, the aforementioned DUST DEVILS, and a Western/mystery coming this summer from Pinnacle Books, DEATH HEAD CROSSING.

I just got the cover for that one, by the way, and will post it in a few minutes.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sage Tower -- Dean Owen (Dudley Dean McGaughey)


As I promised Juri a while back, here are my comments on the Dean Owen novel SAGE TOWER. This review was originally published in the Western apa, OWLHOOT.
The title of this short novel isn’t a geographical reference, as I thought it might be when I first picked it up. Instead it’s the name of the hero. Published as half of an Ace Double Western (with Ray Hogan’s KILLER ON THE WARBUCKET on the other side), it has some of the best blurb page copy I’ve read.

There were three things that brought Sage Tower out of Texas:
an eight-sided goldpiece;
a dying Mexican woman;
a message reading: there are no flowers on Emilio’s grave.

If you can read that and not want to read the book, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am, compadres. As usual with a Dean Owen novel, the plot is complex, there’s a lot of back-story, and the characters are well-drawn. He packs a lot into a short (in this case, 118 pages) novel. Here we’ve got lust, revenge, buried loot, murder, gun battles, and several brutal, well-written fistfights, all in tough, lean, hardboiled Western style. This is a fine novel and only makes me want to read more of McGaughey’s books.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dust Devils in the Forecast


No, I'm not talking about the weather. This is the cover for my novel DUST DEVILS, which will be published soon by Point Blank Press. I think it's pretty snazzy. Al Guthrie did a great job editing the book, and JT Lindroos put together a very attractive package. If you click on the picture, you should be able to read the back cover copy. This is the first book with my name on it in quite a while, and my first real crime novel, and I'm pretty proud of it. I hope some of you will read it and enjoy it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kill Quick or Die -- Stuart Jason

This is the first book in the Butcher series, one of the many men’s adventure series that sprang into being following the success of the Nick Carter and Executioner novels. The Butcher ran from 1970 to 1982, with a total of 35 books over that dozen years. The only ones from the series I’d ever read were the final nine, which were written by Michael Avallone under the Stuart Jason house-name. Avallone and I were corresponding regularly at the time, and there’s even a mention of me and my first novel TEXAS WIND in one of his later Butcher novels.

The origins of this series seem to owe something to the Daniel Port novels by Peter Rabe and the Sand novels by Ennis Willie. Bucher (I don’t think we ever get a first name for the character) is an orphan who is raised in a foundling home in Knoxville, Tennessee, becomes a member of the Mob as a young man, rises through the ranks to become a Syndicate big shot – then turns his back on his fellow gangsters and walks away, like Port and Sand. Naturally, the Mob vows vengeance on him and puts a bounty on his head, leading to numerous attempts on Bucher’s life and setting him up for a war against the Mafia. (Hmm, where have we heard that phrase before?) Whoever created the Butcher series doesn’t stop there, though. Not content to write a Mack Bolan clone, the author has Bucher recruited by a top-secret government organization known as White Hat. He receives the code name Iceman and is sent out on all sorts of secret agent-type missions. So what we have here is a deliberate cross between the Executioner and Nick Carter, and obviously the blend was a success, at least for a while.

All that back-story takes place before the first novel in the series, KILL QUICK OR DIE. In this one Bucher is sent to bring in a defecting Chinese Communist scientist named Dr. Fong who has invented some new super-duper gizmo. The actual gadget is purely a McGuffin and has nothing else to do with the plot. The Chinese don’t want Fong defecting to the West, though, so instead of sending agents of their own to track him down, they hire the Mafia to kill him. (You can’t worry too much about logic in a book like this.) In the course of trying to find Dr. Fong and save him from being assassinated, Bucher encounters a couple of other evil Syndicate plots and sets out to put the kibosh on them, too. We get some globe-trotting – from Atlanta to Cairo to Tel Aviv and back to Atlanta – and lots of politically incorrect, over-the-top action scenes. It’s all extremely goofy and written in a very distinctive style. I wouldn’t exactly call this book good, but I will say that I had a lot of fun reading it and I might even read some more of the series.

The authorship of the non-Avallone Butcher books is open to debate. The veteran Western author Lee Floren is supposed to have written at least two of them (#10 THE DEADLY DOCTOR and #11 VALLEY OF DEATH, according to the listing of Floren’s novels in TWENTIETH CENTURY WESTERN WRITERS), and some bibliographers attribute all the non-Avallone titles to him. I suppose it’s possible, but KILL QUICK OR DIE doesn’t read at all like Floren’s work to me. The style in some of the later books is different, leading me to believe that at least two authors besides Avallone worked on this series. I’d like to know who wrote this one, because it’s really like nothing else I’ve ever read before.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Feet


Hey, I like singing, dancing penguins as much as the next guy. But I have to admit that I didn’t care much for this movie. It’s not bad, mind you. The animation is spectacular, and the music is good. The big penguin production numbers are probably the best thing in the movie. But it never quite settles down to a consistent tone, bouncing back and forth awkwardly between goofy animated comedy and screed against the evils of humanity. Also, a little of Robin Williams sometimes goes a long way for me, and at times it seems like he voices every other character in HAPPY FEET. I think I was the only one in our household who didn’t like the movie, though, so maybe I’m out of step . . . or maybe I was just in a curmudgeonly mood when I watched it.

I liked HAPPY FEET better than CARS, though. All of us hated CARS.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Freedom Writers

Another staple of our movie-watching around here is the inspirational, heart-warming, based-on-a-true-story film about the teacher with offbeat methods who bands his or her classroom of misfits together so that everybody learns something from everybody else. I know, that description sounds a little sarcastic, and that’s not really my intent. When done well, these movies are very effective, and FREEDOM WRITERS certainly falls into that category. Hilary Swank, who’s done a fine job in just about everything I’ve seen here in, is very good here as the teacher, although the script doesn’t require much of her except to be earnest and dedicated. The young actors who play the high school students are all good, and there are some well-staged action scenes of gang violence. And it’s good to see Scott Glenn, who plays the father of Swank’s character, again, although he sure has gotten old. (Sort of like the rest of us, I guess.) One of my all-time favorite films is SILVERADO, and Glenn really carries that movie, more so than the better-known actors around him. There’s more than a touch of by-the-numbers about FREEDOM WRITERS, but I enjoyed it as a perfectly acceptable way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Markham -- Lawrence Block

This is a book I’ve had on my shelves for many years, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. It’s a tie-in novel, based on a short-lived series that ran on NBC in 1959 and 1960, starring Ray Milland as New York-based private eye Roy Markham. Now, if Ray Milland isn’t exactly your idea of a hardboiled private eye, well, I feel pretty much the same way. Maybe a lot of other people did, too, and that’s why the series didn’t last long. This novel didn’t come out until 1961, after the TV series was over. I guess Belmont had it in inventory already and decided to go ahead and throw it out there. Lawrence Block wasn’t a big name at the time, so that wasn’t the reason (as it probably was a few years ago when this novel was reissued under the title YOU COULD CALL IT MURDER, with no mention of the TV series or its original Belmont edition).

As for the book itself, it’s pretty standard PI stuff. As a favor to a friend, Markham takes on a wandering daughter job. The girl has disappeared from the fancy private university she attends in New Hampshire. Markham starts investigating and then gets roped into what seems to be a completely different case – but you know the jobs will wind up being connected, and sure enough they are. There’s a lot of small-town college scenes, some late Fifties/early Sixties hipster stuff, a suicide that might be murder, some other deaths that are definitely murder, blackmail, gangsters, and lots of drinking and smoking. Everybody in this book spends a lot of time taking out cigarettes, lighting up cigarettes, putting out cigarettes, etc. Markham gets hit on the head and knocked out. Eventually he untangles everything and exposes the killer, of course.

Not surprisingly, despite the generic plot Block’s use of language is excellent, as always. Even though this book came early in his career, he could already put sentences together in a consistently interesting and entertaining fashion. I didn’t really see anything in this book that was a precursor for, say, the Matt Scudder books. (There is a minor character named Keller, however.) It’s worth reading, although it’s not on the same level as his other early books that have been reissued by Hard Case Crime.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Borderline

This movie is from a boxed set of cheap film noirs that I found at Half Price Books not long ago. I wouldn’t actually call all of the movies in the set noir. BORDERLINE certainly isn’t. But it is a pretty good cops vs. drug smugglers film anyway.

By 1950, Claire Trevor was getting a little long in the tooth to be playing a policewoman working undercover as a showgirl in a Mexican cantina as she tries to track down the head of a smuggling ring, but she works hard at the role. She finds herself getting mixed up in a war between rival gangsters Fred MacMurray and Raymond Burr, and after MacMurray mistakes her for Burr’s moll and kidnaps her, she’s forced to pretend to be his wife as he makes a desperate run for the border with a fortune in drugs. Of course, not everything is what it appears to be. Along the way there’s a little comedy, a little romance, and several shootouts, including an action-packed climax.

Having grown up watching Fred MacMurray playing genial patriarch Steve Douglas on MY THREE SONS, I always have a little trouble accepting him in tough-guy roles. There’s also his uncanny and not at all coincidental resemblance to a certain Big Red Cheese to get past. However, he’s plenty hardboiled in this one and does a good job as a ruthless criminal with secrets of his own. And Raymond Burr is perfectly cast as a beefy, white-suited gangster. There’s even a bit part as a U.S. Customs agent for one of my favorite character actors, Charles Lane, who I believe celebrated his 102nd birthday not long ago.

BORDERLINE is nowhere near a classic – for one thing, the filmmakers tip some of the plot twists ’way too early – but it’s good solid entertainment anyway.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Border Feud

I’m sure that I saw some Lash LaRue movies when I was a kid, since I watched just about every Western movie that was on TV – and there were a lot of them in those days. But I don’t really have any memories of seeing any. A while back I picked up one of those cheap public domain DVDs with a couple of Lash’s movies on it, BORDER FEUD and GHOST TOWN RENEGADES. I finally got around to watching BORDER FEUD, from 1947, in which Lash plays his usual character, Marshal Cheyenne Davis.

Like all the Westerns made by PRC, one of the notorious Poverty Row studios, BORDER FEUD was shot cheap and fast and looks it. Quite a bit of time is taken up by stock footage and the acrobatic antics of Al “Fuzzy” St. John, who plays the comic sidekick Sheriff Fuzzy Q. Jones. The plot is standard stuff: the bad guys stir up a feud between co-owners of a mine so they can grab all the gold for themselves, and yes, the mastermind behind the plot turns out to be exactly who you think he’ll be. Mistakes abound. To distract the villains, Fuzzy takes the bullets out of his gun (six at most) and throws them in a hot stove so they’ll all go off at once. A volley of thirty or forty shots blasts out. Then Fuzzy opens fire with the gun he just unloaded and didn’t have time to reload. At another point, Cheyenne calls Fuzzy “Cimarron”, and there’s no explanation or further mention of the name. The acting is uniformly bad, with Lash and Fuzzy turning in the best performances.

Now, having said all that (and I’ll bet most of you can guess what’s coming), I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Some people can’t stand Fuzzy St. John, but I actually find him funny. He’s no Gabby Hayes, of course, but then who is? Fuzzy’s a good second-tier sidekick. And Lash LaRue really deserves his reputation as the Humphrey Bogart of the B-Western. He looks and sounds and acts like Bogie and makes a surprisingly effective hero. I certainly wouldn’t call this movie good, but I would have loved it when I was eight years old. I still enjoyed it, and now I’m looking forward to watching GHOST TOWN RENEGADES.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Travelogue

Since the last time I posted here, I've been almost a thousand miles, down to San Antonio and then on to the Texas Gulf Coast and back.I didn't have any Internet access while I was gone, but I wrote a little something each day to post here when I got back. So here it is, and I warn you, it's sort of long.

Part 1

I’m writing this on April 12, although it probably won’t get posted for several days yet. I’m in San Antonio, where tonight I attended a dinner event at the historic Menger Hotel that was part of the Texas Library Association convention. It was called “Dying to Meet You” and was set up like speed dating: each table in the ballroom had an author sitting at it, and every fifteen minutes or so we got up and moved to another table. It was fun, I plugged my books, and I saw a few people I know from other conventions, like Lillian Stewart Carl and William Manchee. I met Michael Bracken, one of the most prolific short story authors in the world today, I imagine, whose blog is one of my regular stops, and I enjoyed talking to him for a while before the event got started. The TLA people all did a great job setting this up. They even had valet parking for the authors. Being an old country boy, I’d never had a valet park my car before. Fancy stuff.

As those of you who know me are well aware, I’m a hermit by nature and don’t like to travel. This trip isn’t over, though. From San Antonio, I’m going on down to the Texas coast tomorrow to take care of some family business. I’ll be there for several days and will probably write a post or two while I’m down there. I brought the computer along so that I can get some pages done on the current book, too.

I avoid interstate highways whenever I can because I don’t like the traffic, so today I came down Highway 281 through the Hill Country (for those of you familiar with the area) and the bluebonnets are really blooming. Whole fields were filled with them. Probably the prettiest display of wildflowers I’ve seen in a while.

This is the first time I’ve blogged while traveling, and of course the posts won’t be up until after I’m back. Lowell Thomas I ain’t.

Part 2 – Friday the 13th

Livia’s parents have a vacation cabin on the Gulf Coast. Since they’ve been in poor health they haven’t been able to get down here to take care of the place and mow the grass. So since I was going to San Antonio anyway, I volunteered to tend to those errands. The drive went just fine. I got here, checked the place out, got the mower out and started working. I hadn’t been at for very long when the mower quit working. I’m not much of a mechanic, but I was able to monkey with it for a while and get it started again. Mowed some more and was about a fourth of the way through the job when the mower quit again. This was a different problem, one that I couldn’t fix. Well, after coming this far I wasn’t going to let the work go unfinished. So it was down the road to Wal-Mart, where I bought a new mower. Got it back to the cabin, put it together, put oil and gas in it . . . and it wouldn’t start. I knew crying wouldn’t do any good, but I was tempted. Well, when all else fails, read the instructions. Problem was, although the instructions were in about seven different languages, they were also self-contradictory – in all seven languages, I assume. Anyway, I finally figured out what I was doing wrong, got the mower started, and the rest of the mowing actually went pretty fast. I finished around seven o’clock this evening.

Now after all the driving and mowing, I’m going to rest up for a couple of days before going home. Of course, by resting up, I mean trying to see how many pages I can get done on the current book while I’m down here. But I might take a little while to go booking and maybe even walk on the beach a little.

Part 3

I recovered all right from my eventful Friday the 13th and spent most of today, Saturday, April 14th, working as I said. I wasn’t sure how much I could get done. Strange place, different computer, none of my usual routine . . . Writers are creatures of habit as much as anybody else. But the work went really well. And I even went down to the beach to walk some.

In the middle of the day I also took a break to check out the local used bookstores. When I was here the last time, nearly five years ago, there were four bookstores in town. Now there are two, and one of them appears to be on its last legs. However, the best one (Bill Crider knows the one I’m talking about) is still thriving, despite having been damaged by a fire since I was here last. The people who run it told me they lost all the books except for some of the Westerns, but they’ve managed to restock it fairly well. The owner said he thought they only had about a fifth as many books as they used to . . . but there are still tens of thousands of books inside the store, which has been remodeled and rearranged considerably because of the fire. I spent at least an hour there, happily going through all the shelves. I didn’t come across any great finds, mind you, but I got some good books, including Westerns I didn’t have by Walt Coburn, Philip Ketchum, and William Heuman, good writers all. Also CUTLER #2: THE GUNHAWKS, by John Benteen (Ben Haas), a book I’ve been looking for. I read the first Cutler novel and thought it was excellent. Haas is one of my favorite writers. Still in the Westerns, I found one called PLUMB DRILLIN’ by David Case, who is best known, if at all, for his horror novels, but he’s also supposed to have written quite a few of the Nightstand books, the same line of soft-core porn novels that Silverberg, Block, Westlake, etc., wrote for in the Sixties. Then there’s BARLOW’S KINGDOM by John Redgate, “A Western Tale of Lust and Violence”, according to the cover. What makes this interesting to me is that “John Redgate” is also the author of a suspense novel called THE KILLING SEASON that I read and enjoyed a great deal when it came out in the Sixties. I found out later that “John Redgate” (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, someone please correct me) was really Gregory McDonald, the author of the Fletch novels. I had no idea that he’d ever written a Western. The other item of interest is THE UNKNOWN, a Pyramid anthology of eleven stories from the pulp magazine (you guessed it) UNKNOWN. Some of the stories in here have been anthologized many times, like H.L. Gold’s “Trouble With Water” and L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Gnarly Man”, but most of the others are new to me. Not a great haul, but definitely a good one.

Part 4

One more day, Sunday, April 15th, spent working for the most part, although I read a little and watched a couple of old movies, BORDER FEUD with Lash LaRue and BORDERLINE with Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor. I’ll write individual posts about them later. And the similarity in titles is just a coincidence, not a theme.

I also went back to the used bookstore, which is open on Sunday, and found a few things I overlooked yesterday, like a copy of the Black Lizard edition of David Goodis’s THE BURGLAR, which I didn’t have in any edition, and .357 VIGILANTE by Ian Ludlow, actually the first novel by our old friend Lee Goldberg, who must have been about 12 years old when he wrote this one. (Actually, I believe he was in college . . . but he was still a kid.)

I’ve always wondered just how much I could write if I was holed up somewhere by myself, with not much else to do, and I forced myself to stay at it for longer than I normally do. The answer is – a lot. But I sure wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis. I’ll be heading for home tomorrow, and I’m certainly glad and ready to be there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence

Back in the Seventies, one of my favorite comic book characters was Jonah Hex. Hex was an anti-hero, a scar-faced ex-Confederate bounty hunter in the Old West who appeared in ALL-STAR WESTERN, WEIRD WESTERN TALES (the same book with a title change), and his own comic book, JONAH HEX. The stories by John Albano and Michael Fleischer were gritty and violent, influenced by spaghetti Westerns and possibly by the various Western paperback series such as EDGE that were written by a group of English authors who dubbed themselves the Piccadilly Cowboys, and the art, usually by Tony DeZuniga, was outstanding. DC has reprinted a lot of these early Jonah Hex stories in one of their black-and-white SHOWCASE volumes, but that will be the subject of another post later on.

Today I’m concerned with the revival of Jonah Hex in his own title a couple of years ago. DC is reprinting these stories in trade paperback collections, starting with JONAH HEX: FACE FULL OF VIOLENCE. It’s a great comeback for a great character. Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, these stories are stand-alone Western yarns, and they’re every bit as hard-edged as the originals. Hex takes on outlaws, Indians, the plague, crooked lawmen, and killer nuns. As befitting a character who once appeared in a comic book called WEIRD WESTERN TALES, most of these stories have some bizarre, even grotesque elements (though not supernatural). The artwork in five out of the six stories in this volume is by Luke Ross. It’s a slicker style than in Hex’s previous incarnations, but it works very well. The other story in this book was drawn by Hex’s original artist and co-creator, Tony DeZuniga, and his work is as powerful and effective as ever. If you’re an old fan of Jonah Hex who hasn’t tried this new series yet, or if you just like offbeat Westerns, I can’t recommend FACE FULL OF VIOLENCE strongly enough.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Labyrinth -- Francis Stevens

Sometimes you find little gems in unexpected places. This is the case with THE LABYRINTH, a novel by Francis Stevens that was originally serialized in the pulp ALL-STORY WEEKLY in 1918. A new edition will be published later this year by Beb Books. (Email me for info about that if you’re interested, and I’ll put you in touch with the publisher.)

THE LABYRINTH doesn’t start out too promising. The narrator is wealthy playboy Hildreth Wyndham, whose cousin Veronica disappears under mysterious circumstances. Veronica is the former secretary of the state’s governor (Stevens doesn’t specify which state, but it’s vaguely Midwestern), and Wyndham believes that the politician may have something to do with her disappearance. Along with Veronica’s fiancee Rex Tolliver, Wyndham embarks on a search that takes them to the corridors of power and hints at a sinister conspiracy.

For its first half, THE LABYRINTH is concerned with that search and seems to be nothing more than a pretty lightweight romantic thriller. But then there’s an abrupt plot twist that changes everything, and it’s only the first of a dizzying series of reversals and revelations and grim, eerie scenes that are nothing like what has come before. I love books where nothing is what it seems to be, and Stevens delivers the goods on that, at least for a while.

Unfortunately, if THE LABYRINTH is a gem, it’s a flawed one, because Stevens allows the plot to spiral out of control and the ending is terrible. Also, while the old-fashioned writing style didn’t bother me (I’ve always been able to sort of project myself into whatever era a story was written), some modern readers might find it too stilted. So while I recommend THE LABYRINTH for the offbeat risks that it takes and some creepy, highly effective scenes, it’s not the book that it could have been.

I’d never read anything by Francis Stevens before. Her real name was Gertrude Bennett, and she’s remembered today as one of the first American female authors of fantasy and science fiction, having published quite a few fantastic-themed stories in pulps like ARGOSY and WEIRD TALES, some of which were reprinted in paperback during the Seventies. The promise she demonstrated in THE LABYRINTH is intriguing enough that I’d read more of her work if I came across it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Batman: Detective

BATMAN: DETECTIVE is a new trade paperback reprinting a six-issue run of stories from DETECTIVE COMICS that were originally published a year or so ago. Five of them were written by Paul Dini, the driving force behind the Batman animated TV series, and the other is by Royal McGraw, with art by various hands.

Batman first appeared in DETECTIVE COMICS #27, of course, ’way back in the late Thirties, and ever since, his abilities as a crime-solver have set him apart from most of the other superheroes out there. All the stories in this volume are stand-alones, and most of them focus on Batman functioning as a detective as he takes on classic villains such as The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Poison Ivy. There are a couple of villains who were new to me, Fa├žade and Dr. Phosphorus. All of them make fine opponents for Batman.

This is an excellent collection with fine scripts and art from everyone involved. Batman remains my all-time favorite DC Comics character. I’ve read stories from every era of his history and liked them all (even the goofy, SF-dominated stuff from the Fifties). It’s nice to know that he’s still in good hands today.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Heist -- Michael A. Black

I’m no expert on caper novels, but I know a good story when I read one. Michael A. Black’s THE HEIST definitely falls into that category. Set in 1992, it finds a pair of ex-Marine, Desert Storm veterans hatching a plan to rob a safe deposit box belonging to the number two man in the Chicago mob. They expect to find millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains, but instead they find something even more valuable: a videotape implicating the Outfit’s boss in a couple of murders. Naturally, once word of this gets out, everybody wants the tape, including assorted mobsters, hitmen, government lawyers, federal agents, and cops. The two protagonists, of course, find themselves in the middle of this dangerous hunt, and naturally, things go from bad to worse.

This is a large-cast book with a lot of stuff going on all the time, but Black handles this juggling act with consummate skill, never letting the pace slow down for very long. Great characters, great action scenes, and a poignant but satisfying ending make this a fine crime novel. This is a stand-alone, but Mike Black is also the author of a series of novels featuring Chicago PI Ron Shade. I haven’t read any of these, but I intend to. A long-time pulp fan as well, he’s written a Doc Savage-like pastiche called MELODY OF VENGEANCE that I’ll be reading soon.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Illusionist

Set mostly in 19th Century Vienna, this strikes me as a determinedly old-fashioned film. The setting, the music, the sepia-toned photography, the cinematic techniques like the iris shots that are used frequently, all combine to give THE ILLUSIONIST a vintage feeling. And the plot, with its love lost, regained, and lost again because of a romantic triangle, is also the stuff of classic film. It all works very well, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, even though it's not the sort of movie I usually watch. The pace is pretty slow, which is usually the kiss of death for a film where I'm concerned. But the story was interesting enough to keep me awake and watching, no small feat these days. My plotting ability seems to be slipping, though. I didn't see the big twist at the end coming at all, and I should have.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Twisted -- Jeffery Deaver


As I mentioned in my comments on Jeffery Deaver's second collection of short stories, MORE TWISTED, he who lives by the twist ending dies by the twist ending. Happy to report, Deaver lives more than he dies in this first collection, which I thought was considerably better than the second one, which I still liked. There were more stories in this one where I wasn't able to figure out the ending, including one that really had my jaw dropping on the last page. And there weren't any stories that came to a crashing halt while Deaver explained everything that was going on. This collection's well worth reading, and now the question is whether or not I want to try one of Deaver's novels again. If I do, I'm sure I'll have something to say about it here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Peanuts: A Golden Celebration -- Charles M. Schulz

This oversized volume was published a few years ago to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the PEANUTS comic strip, but I'm just now getting around to reading it. I first became a PEANUTS fan by picking up the Crest paperbacks in the Sixties, which led to me buying the other collections that were available then. I couldn't read the current strips in the newspaper, because the Fort Worth Star-Telegram didn't carry PEANUTS. The Fort Worth Press did, and my family didn't subscribe to it. But eventually the Press went out of business and the Star-Telegram picked up PEANUTS, where I read it until the strip ended and where I still read the reprints of old strips every day.

This book reprints hundreds of strips from all five decades of PEANUTS history, interspersed with text by creator Charles M. Schulz about a variety of subjects related to it. Most of them I'd read before, but there were some I hadn't. What struck me was just how dark PEANUTS was, going all the way back to the beginning. Like the protagonists of countless noir novels, Charlie Brown is doomed no matter what he does. But if the comedy in the strip is pretty black on occasion, it's also very, very funny most of the time. It's true that the quality declined in later years, but Schulz was still capable of brilliance every now and then. And in these days when cartoonists seem to burn out in a relatively short time, I'm not sure any comic strip will ever again be as good, for as long, as PEANUTS was. Reading this book brought back a lot of wonderful memories.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Donald Hamilton

Even though others have already written about it quite eloquently, I can't let Donald Hamilton's death pass without mentioning how much I truly enjoyed his books. THE SILENCERS was the first one I read, back in the Sixties, and as with so many books from that era, I even remember where I bought it: the book section of Leonard's Department Store in downtown Fort Worth. At the time there were eight or nine books in the Matt Helm series, and I read all of them as fast as I could get my hands on them. Later on when the books got longer I didn't like them quite as well, but I still read them. I haven't read any of Hamilton's non-series mystery and suspense novels, but I've read several of his Westerns and liked them. Not as much as those short, mean, early Matt Helm books, though. Boy, those were good. If you've never read anything by Hamilton, you owe it to yourself to hit the used bookstores as soon as possible.

Sin in Their Blood -- Ed Lacy



This early (1952) novel by Ed Lacy was published by Eton Books, an imprint of Avon. I don’t think I’ve ever run across any Eton Books before, so when I found this one last week at Recycled Books in Denton, of course I had to buy it. I read it over the weekend.

It starts out as pretty standard stuff. Tough private eye Matt Ranzino returns to his home town (an unnamed city on the west coast) after serving in the army during the Korean War. He discovers that his former partner, who was sort of a shady character to start with, has turned downright crooked and is involved in an elaborate blackmail scheme. The ex-partner has also taken up with Matt’s ex-girlfriend. Matt is unsure whether or not he wants to be a PI again, but before you know it, he’s mixed up in a complicated murder-suicide case. But then Lacy takes what could have been a generic Fifties private eye novel and turns most of the conventions of such tales upside-down. Matt Ranzino turns out not to be the usual tough guy PI after all. I can’t say much more than that without ruining the book, but those of you who have read some of Lacy’s other novels (I hadn’t) or even read much about him can probably guess some of what I’m talking about.

I have to give Lacy, whose real name was Leonard Zinberg, credit for trying to do something different, but as far as I’m concerned SIN IN THEIR BLOOD is a book that’s more interesting than good. Everything is so heavy-handed that it just didn’t work for me. However, the prose is very slick and fast-paced, and the ending is so over-the-top that it almost saves the whole book. I enjoyed this novel enough despite its flaws that I wouldn’t hesitate to read more by Lacy. That’s good, because over the years I’ve acquired a lot of his books.