Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place

After reading some Sgt. Rock stories in that digest collection earlier this month, I was in the mood for more. SGT. ROCK: BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE is a real mixture of the old and new. The art in this graphic novel is by the classic Sgt. Rock artist, Joe Kubert. And I mean all the art is by him, right down to the color separations and the lettering. The script is by Brian Azzarello, who I guess is new compared to Kubert, although he’s actually been writing comics for more than ten years now. It’s an odd combination, but it works. Really well, in fact.

The story finds Easy Company in the Hurtgen Forest, advancing from Belgium into Germany. Most of the “combat-happy joes” that long-time readers are familiar with are here: Ice Cream Soldier, Bulldozer, Wild Man, Little Sure Shot, and of course, Sgt. Rock himself. There are also a lot of new replacement troops sent to the front for the big push that’s coming. The first part of the book is a fairly standard war story, with Kubert and Azzarello introducing the reader to the new characters and filling in some back story on the older ones.

But then halfway through, the story takes a sudden twist. Easy has captured four S.S. officers, and during the confusion of a skirmish, three of the prisoners wind up dead, shot at point-blank range. The fourth prisoner is missing. The rest of the book has Rock trying to solve the mystery of who killed the German officers while also trying to keep himself and his men alive and carry out their orders to capture a town being occupied by the enemy. It’s a big job, but who better to handle it than the indomitable Sgt. Rock?

Joe Kubert’s art is a little looser and less detailed here than it is in those classic stories from the Sixties, but it’s still very effective. You expect an old pro like Kubert to be a great pure storyteller in his art, and he certainly is. The violence is a little more graphic than it was in the old OUR ARMY AT WAR days, and so is the language in Brian Azzarello’s script. Azzarello does a fine job, though (except for one bit of dialogue that’s so anachronistic it knocked me right out of the story for a moment). He’s one of the modern-day minimalists when it comes to comic book scripting: no captions, just dialogue. That's all right when you’ve got art like Kubert’s to work with, but I’ll admit, having grown up in the Sixties, when I read modern comics I sometimes miss the more traditional writing styles of Stan Lee, Gardner Fox, John Broome, etc.

Overall, BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE is a very good World War II graphic novel. Rock is still Rock. If you’re already a fan, that right there is all the reason you need to read this one. And if you’re not, this is a good place to start. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 30, 2009

PW Starred Review

Publishers Weekly likes HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY, giving it a starred review this week. You can read the whole thing here, but the quotes I particularly like are " . . . raises the action bar to nosebleed heights" and "Pulp adventure fans will be thrilled to see the genre so smashingly resurrected." You can't beat that as a nice way to start your week.

Lords of Corruption - Kyle Mills

I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t read a lot of big international thrillers, but I do like a good one every now and then. LORDS OF CORRUPTION is set mostly in Africa, in (to quote Woody Allen), “a fictional but real-sounding country”. It’s a country plagued by tribal violence and ruled by the iron fist of a military dictator. Throw in poverty and disease and you’ve got a place that needs a lot of help.

A young man named Josh Hagarty sets out to provide some of that help, although actually Josh is just interested in a job. He has an engineering degree and an MBA, but he’s also an ex-con because of his inadvertent part in an armed robbery when he was a teenager. He has trouble at home, too, with an alcoholic, dying mother and a younger sister who wants to go to college, so when he’s offered a job with a charity that runs agricultural projects in Africa, he can’t turn down the opportunity.

Unfortunately (and you knew this was going to be the case), things don’t work out like Josh expects them to, and he soon realizes that the so-called charity is really just a front for an international criminal conspiracy. (This isn’t a spoiler. The book’s title sort of gives it away, and the author doesn’t really withhold what’s going on from the reader, anyway.) Josh doesn’t necessarily want to bring down the bad guys. He just wants to survive the various dangerous situations in which he finds himself, but that means that he has to take on some very powerful enemies.

The first half of this novel is a little slow, what with all the set-up going on, but once the real action starts in the second half, it never lets up for very long. Author Kyle Mills’ style is pretty simple and straightforward, and that’s the way he keeps the pace moving, straight forward. Not only that, but he springs a number of surprises along the way, not so much in the plot itself but in how the characters react to it. Things happen that I wasn’t expecting at all, and that’s always welcome. A lot of times, I know how a book is going to play out well before I get to the end, but that’s not the case here. Another thing that LORDS OF CORRUPTION has in its favor is its length. At approximately 90,000 words, it’s long enough to have some real heft to it, but it never feels bloated, the way so many contemporary thrillers do.

I thought I had read other books by Kyle Mills in the past, but looking over the list of his titles, I don’t see any I recognize, so I guess this is the first one I’ve read by him. But it won’t be the last, because I found LORDS OF CORRUPTION to be a very entertaining novel with just enough social and political musings to balance out the part that’s a top-notch adventure yarn.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: Pushover - Orrie Hitt

With all the Orrie Hitt material I’ve posted on this blog recently (and there’s more in the works, I promise you), it’s about time I got around to reading one of his books. PUSHOVER is the story of Danny Fulton, a small-time con man who, along with a couple of partners, specializes in a scam involving community histories and the Federal Writers Project of the WPA (the first time I’ve encountered that particular angle in a novel about grifters). Most of this yarn centers around Danny, who narrates the novel, putting his usual scheme into action in a small city in upstate New York.

Now, PUSHOVER is not without its flaws. There’s not much action, and in fact, not a lot happens in the entire book. The big twist near the end is pretty obvious early on, and the ending itself seems a little forced and doesn’t ring completely true to me.

So, why am I featuring it as a Forgotten Book and recommending that you read it if you come across a copy? Because Hitt does a remarkable job of capturing the grubby desperation of these people, especially Danny and his two partners, one a young, beautiful blonde who’s separated from her husband, the other an advance man and salesman who misses his wife and family. All of them seem to be teetering on an emotional brink, and so do most of the people they encounter.

But Danny himself is the centerpiece of the book, and he’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve run across in a while. He’s so determined that he’s a heel who cares only about money that even when he does something nice for somebody, which is surprisingly often, he has to rationalize it to himself by coming up with some rotten motive. Then, when he does decide to give up his career as a con man, settle down, and get married, you just know that it’s not going to work out for him. I don’t know if Hitt or his editor at Beacon Books titled this book PUSHOVER, but it’s an ironically apt title. The cover copy makes you think that it’s all the women in Danny’s life who are the pushovers, but the description actually fits him even better.

Of course, as with all the sleaze novels of that era, the cover copy also makes you think this book is a lot spicier than it really is. There’s actually very little sex in it, and most of what there is falls into the “sin, suffer, repent” pattern that’s also common to the genre. There are also quite a few nice lines, some funny, some poignant. Since this is the first novel I’ve read by Orrie Hitt, I can’t speak for the entire body of his work. Sure, he wrote a lot of books for not much money ($250 to $500 was the usual advance . . . which is really not that bad for that time period), but PUSHOVER, at least, is not the work of a hack. Hitt gives his characters enough depth to make them memorable and does so in prose that’s fast-paced and very readable, despite a few unpolished moments. I’ll be reading more of his novels soon.

Now for the other thing that intrigues me about this book: the cover art. It’s nothing special, really, okay but not spectacular, but as soon as I laid eyes on it, I said to myself, “I’ve seen this cover before, but on another book. And the guy had an eyepatch!” That nagged at me ever since the book arrived in the mail. I had a feeling that I had owned a book with the same art, and that it was on one of those early Fifties digest-sized novels published by Star Guidance, Croydon, Original Novels, etc. Long-time paperback collectors know the sort of thing I’m talking about. So a few nights ago, I sat down and started searching for those publishers on ABE and checking out the listings that included cover scans. I never found the one I was looking for, but that jogged my memory enough so that I remembered Uni Books, another digest line that happened to be published by Universal Publishing and Distributing, the same outfit that later published Beacon Books. Then a name popped into my head: Steve Harragan. I seemed to recall that was the name of the author (well, the pseudonym, anyway) as well as the main character. I searched for Harragan’s name, and up popped Uni Books #44, SIN IS A REDHEAD. “That’s it!” I said. I never read it, but I remembered having that book, and I was almost sure it had the same cover art as PUSHOVER, only the guy had an eyepatch.

Well, I mentioned this to my friend Frank Loose, and wouldn’t you know it, he has a copy of SIN IS A REDHEAD and sent me a cover scan. As you can see, it’s the same painting, only the eyepatch is there in the earlier version, just as I thought, and there are a few other modifications in the paperback version, such as the keyhole motif. The artist is George Geygan, a prolific painter of paperback covers. Steve Harragan, by the way, was really a British author named William Macconnachie, or something like that, a little Internet research reveals, and SIN IS A REDHEAD was originally one of those Mushroom Jungle books.

Sounds like another good candidate for a Forgotten Books post, doesn’t it?

(And if you don’t know what I mean when I use the term Mushroom Jungle, you really need to check out this book by Steve Holland and this web page by John Fraser, which is part of a fascinating and much larger site.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Scribe Award Nominees

The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers is pleased to announce this year's nominees for the 2009 Scribe Awards, which honor excellence in licensed tie-in writing—novels based on TV shows, movies, and games. The nominees for this year's awards are:

Best General Fiction Original
BURN NOTICE: THE FIX by Tod Goldberg

Best General Fiction Adapted
THE WACKNESS by Dale C. Phillips
X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE by Max Allan Collins

Best Speculative Fiction Original
STARGATE SG-1: HYDRA by Holly Scott & Jamie Duncan

Best Speculative Fiction Adapted

Best Young Adult Original
DR. WHO: THE EYELESS by Lance Parkin

Best Young Adult Adapted
IRON MAN: THE JUNIOR NOVEL by Stephen D. Sullivan
THE DARK KNIGHT: THE JUNIOR NOVEL by Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohen

The highest honor the IAMTW can bestow is the Grandmaster Award, which recognizes a writer for his or her extensive and exceptional work in the tie-in field. This year's honoree is KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO. He has written over thirty novels, most of them original tie-ins or novelizations. His work includes many Star Trek novels, as well as original books in the CSI: NY and Supernatural tie-in series, to name just a few.

The Third Annual Scribes will be awarded at a special ceremony at Comic-Con in San Diego July 23-29. (Specific date and time to be announced)

The IAMTW also awards two Special Gaming Scribes, honoring excellence in game-related tie-ins. Those awards are given at GenCon in Indianapolis August 13-16 2009 (http://www.gencon.com/2009/indy/default.aspx. Specific date and time of the ceremony to be assnounced) The nominees are:

Special Gaming Scribe - Best Original
EBERRON: THE DOOM OF KINGS by Don Bassingthwaite

Special Gaming Scribe - Best Adapted
THE WORLD OF WARCRAFT: BEYOND THE DARK PORTAL by Aaron Rosenberg & Christie Golden
METAL GEAR SOLID by Raymond Benson

For more information about the IAMTW (I AM a Tie-in Writer), please visit our site at http://www.iamtw.org/

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Fugitive Pigeon - Donald E. Westlake

When Donald E. Westlake passed away at the end of last year, I don’t recall seeing any mentions of this book in the numerous tributes to him and his work. I think it’s an important novel, though, because it’s part of the transition in his career, the divergence between Westlake the comic crime novelist and Richard Stark the hardboiled novelist. THE FUGITIVE PIGEON is his sixth book, originally published in 1965. I haven’t read the two Westlake novels immediately preceding it, KILLY and PITY HIM AFTERWARDS, but judging by those titles, they don’t sound like laugh riots. I know the first three novels under the Westlake name (THE MERCENARIES, KILLING TIME, and 361) are hardboiled, because I’ve read them. So I’m guessing that THE FUGITIVE PIGEON is something of a departure, a book that still has some hardboiled elements (gangsters, hit men, crooked cops) but also a considerable amount of screwball comedy. As such, it provides a template for a lot of Westlake’s later work that mixes comedy and crime.

But, now that the pontificating is out of the way, how’s the book itself, you ask? Great fun, I’m happy to report. The narrator is Charlie Poole, an unambitious young man who’s perfectly content to run a neighborhood bar in Canarsie. The bar is owned by Charlie’s Uncle Al, who’s a mid-level gangster. Occasionally, Charlie has to hold a package at the bar for somebody until it’s picked up later, and while he suspects this has something to do with his uncle’s criminal activities, he never asks for details. He doesn’t want to know.

But then late one night as he’s about to close up, two strangers come in, and Charlie quickly realizes that they’re hit men sent there to kill him. He has no idea why anybody would send killers after him, but when he manages to escape with his life, he decides that he’d better figure it out in a hurry, because the two assassins are still on his trail. This is the beginning of a whirlwind three days in which Charlie tries to find out who wants him dead and why, an investigation complicated by the fact that he has to keep dodging the two hit men. Along the way he runs into a murder (for which he’s blamed, naturally) and a beautiful young woman (for whom he falls, naturally). It’s all very fast and entertaining and sharply plotted and written, and while there’s not much of the slapstick humor that shows up in Westlake’s later books, it’s pretty funny in places, too.

I really enjoyed this one a lot. If you haven’t read Westlake before, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. If you’re a Westlake fan but have never gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend that you do so. Either way, you’re in for a treat.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The first review of HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY has been posted over at the Pulp Fiction Reviews blog. I'm very pleased and honored by the kind words from Ron Fortier. Check it out. And while you're at it, head on over to Mystery Reader Discussion and take a look at this fine review of Livia's THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE KILLER.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: Strictly for Cash - James Hadley Chase

If James Hadley Chase (who was actually an Englishman named Rene Raymond) is remembered for anything these days, it’s probably either his notorious, highly successful first novel, NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, or the charges of plagiarism leveled at one of his early novels, BLONDE’S REQUIEM, which some people thought borrowed a little too generously from Raymond Chandler’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. One of the people who thought so was Chandler himself, which led to an apology from Chase. Despite that embarrassment, Chase went on to a long, prolific career as an author of mysteries, thrillers, and noir-ish crime yarns.

I read a few books by Chase nearly thirty years ago and don’t remember much about them. A recent conversation with one of the readers of this blog prompted me to try another one, and since I’d recently picked up a copy of STRICTLY FOR CASH at Half Price Books, that’s the one I read. Originally published in England by Robert Hale in 1951, it’s one of numerous Chase titles reprinted in the U.S. by Pocket Books during the Seventies. It’s the story of down-on-his-luck boxer Johnny Farrar (is there any other kind of boxer in books like this?), who’s hitchhiking through Florida when he gets mixed up with a crooked fight promoter (is there any other kind?) and a beautiful but quite possibly dangerous dame (is there any other . . . never mind, you get the idea). So far there’s nothing here you haven’t seen a thousand times before, even though it’s reasonably well-written and enjoyable.

But then Chase pulls a switch and starts playing with time in a way you don’t often see in yarns like this. Ultimately, you may know where he’s going with his story, but you can’t be sure how he’s going to get there, and some of the actual twists are fairly unexpected, too. Like every noir protagonist, Johnny thinks he’s doing the right thing, or at least the only thing he can, but the mess he’s in keeps getting worse and worse until everything comes together in an operatic, almost surreal climax. Along the way, the action scenes are very well-done, and there are some nice lines that made me laugh out loud, like “She had a figure that would make a mountain goat lose its foothold.”

Another charge leveled against Chase is that his books, although set in America, don’t sound American. Well, that’s true in this case, sometimes distractingly so. I’m as much of a supporter of pure texts as the next person, but really, in a book set in America, and published by an American publisher (as these Pocket Books reprints were), a character shouldn’t be pumping petrol and putting something in the boot of the car. It wouldn’t have been too hard for an editor to change those references, and it would have improved the book because sometimes they were so jarring that they knocked me right out of the story.

That said, I enjoyed STRICTLY FOR CASH quite a bit. Chase’s style really keeps the reader turning the pages most of the time. I have several more of his books on hand, and I have no doubt that I’ll read them. And it won’t take me another thirty years, either.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Barnum! in Secret Service to the USA

I’m still reading oddball graphic novels, and this one certainly fits in that category. Here’s the plot: Circus showman P.T. Barnum (who narrates) foils an assassination attempt on President Grover Cleveland, who persuades Barnum to go to work as a secret agent, along with some of the performers from his circus (his “Congress of Anomalies”). Barnum’s job is to stop the evil inventor Nikola Tesla from overthrowing the U.S. government. Helping him is a beautiful, cigar-smoking, female Secret Service agent named Firestone Kelly. Now, I suspect that most people’s reaction to that plot will fall on one of two extremes: either utterly stupid, or a whole lot of fun. I fall on the “whole lot of fun” end of the scale.

There’s a lot of THE WILD, WILD WEST to this one: colorful characters, grandiose plots, far-fetched scientific gimmickry. The story rips right along with cliffhangers and pulp-like escapes, a little romance, a little humor, and a general sense that the creators are having a great time. That usually means the reader will, too.

The script is by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman. I hadn’t heard of Tischman before, and Chaykin’s work has always been pretty hit-and-miss for me. I didn’t like his versions of THE SHADOW and BLACKHAWK, but he did a short-lived, very pulp-influenced comic book series called DOMINIC FORTUNE that was great. There’s an alternate version of Fortune that Chaykin did for another company that I liked, too. I think it was called THE SCORPION. Or maybe it was the other way around. That was nearly forty years ago, though I shudder to think of it. Anyway, I like what Chaykin has done here in collaboration with Tischman, and the art, by Nelo Henrichon (no, I’ve never heard of him, either) is very good, too. Overall, I think BARNUM! IN SECRET SERVICE TO THE USA is a fine graphic novel and recommend it to those of you who like the more offbeat stuff.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Yesterday afternoon about three o’clock, one of my editors emailed and said that he needed the outline for an upcoming book in a series I write for him. I told Livia about the email and mentioned that I didn’t have a plot idea worked out for that book yet. Then I went back to work, thinking that I’d figure out something later. Less than an hour and a half after that, she handed me not one but three, count ‘em three, perfectly usable plots, complete with historical references for each. And this isn’t the first time she’s done something like that. I can only shake my head in awe.

I picked one of the plots, fleshed it out this morning, and sent it to the editor. I’m going to use at least one of the other two for another series, as well. No idea goes to waste around here.

On another note, I got author copies of one of my ghost jobs yesterday, too. It should show up in the stores in another week or so. But my name’s not anywhere on it. So just look for a book without my name, and that’ll be mine!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Find

Livia was at her parents' house today and came across a couple of boxes of our books that we had given them over the years. We're always glad to get extra copies of our books, especially since the fire, so with her parents' permission she brought them home. When I started looking through them, I realized they included a couple of small press magazines from the Eighties that have a couple of my never-reprinted short stories in them: a mystery called "Play by the Rules" that was in an issue of SKULLDUGGERY, and one of my rare science-fiction stories, "Season of Storms", from an issue of a magazine called JUST PULP. After the fire, I considered these "lost stories" and didn't figure I'd ever see copies of them again. Don't know what I'll do with them, mind you, but I'm glad to have them. I think that leaves just a couple of my published stories that I don't have copies of in one form or another. (Not counting the two confession stories and all the men's magazine stories. I don't have any of those, and some of the men's magazine stories I've never seen copies of. I just cashed the checks.)

Hunt For Adventure

The newly-expanded Gabriel Hunt website is now on-line, with a lot more information about the series, bigger cover scans, and sample chapters from some of the books. I can't wait to read the rest of these. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Five Fabulous Blogs

George Kelley tagged me with this, and while I don’t always respond to these challenges, this one is easy because I read so many fine blogs.
Here are the rules:
You must include the person that gave you the award, and link it back to them.
You must list 5 of your Fabulous Addictions in the post. You must copy and paste these rules in the post. Right click the award icon & save to your computer then post with your own awards.
Here are Five Fab Blogs:

I recommend checking out any of the blogs listed over to the left, though, as they’re all well worth reading.

My five fabulous addictions:

Vintage Paperbacks
Comic Books
Ice Cream
One Tree Hill (waves goodbye to the few shreds of street cred I have left)

Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed - Marc Blatte

Those of you who know me would probably guess that I’m not exactly a hip-hop kind of guy – and you’d be right (although I actually do like some of the music that falls into that category). HUMPTY DUMPTY WAS PUSHED, the debut novel by Marc Blatte, calls itself a hip-hop noir mystery. It’s not, really. The music industry setting is important, but it’s only one element of the plot, and I didn’t think the book was noir at all. If, of course, noir can actually be defined. Instead, HUMPTY DUMPTY WAS PUSHED is a pretty good cop novel featuring a likable new detective character.

Salvatore Messina is a New York City cop investigating the murder of an Eastern European immigrant who worked as a bouncer at a trendy club frequented by hip-hop musicians and fans. Black Sallie Blue Eyes, as he’s known (nearly everybody in this book has a nickname) isn’t a brilliant detective; he’s more the dogged investigator who keeps trying to unravel the strands of a complicated plot that involves drugs, money, wrestling, and high society. Naturally, some things that don’t appear to be connected at first glance turn out to be before everything is said and done.

Sometimes in a first novel, the actual writing is a little rough, and that’s the case here, especially early on as Blatte has a tendency to do too much telling and not enough showing. But the prose starts to flow better as the book goes on, and the pace steadily picks up. As I've said many times before, I like a book that has a distinctive voice, and this one does. The novel’s biggest strengths are its well-drawn characters, its funny lines of dialogue, and Blatte’s ability to turn a clever phrase. (Since he’s an award-winning songwriter, that ability isn’t too surprising.) There were plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep me interested, and while HUMPTY DUMPTY WAS PUSHED is an entertaining yarn in its own right, it also shows a lot of potential for sequels. I hope Blatte brings back Sal Messina in future books. If he does, I’ll definitely read them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This movie is a good example of how out of sync I am with the critical establishment (and most of the viewing public, too, for that matter). It was roundly panned, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Yes, it’s hokey. Yes, it’s extremely predictable. I don’t care. It worked for me. That’s probably because it’s the sort of big, historical soap opera that I used to write for various book packagers.

Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, an English noblewoman who arrives in Australia in 1939 to visit her husband’s cattle station, only to find that her husband has been murdered and the local cattle baron had his greedy eye on the station. Her only ally is the mysterious Drover (Hugh Jackman), who helps her save the ranch . . . I mean the cattle station. Nah, hell, I mean the ranch, because the first half of this movie is pure Western. It’s the John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara movie that the Duke and Maureen never made. I’m sure James Edward Grant could have come up with some reason for an American cowboy to be in Australia. I knew everything that was going to happen, right down to the way many of the scenes were staged. The only real difference is that there’s a little Aboriginal mysticism thrown in.

The second half of the movie turns into a World War II epic, as the Japanese attack northern Australia, but that’s all right with me because I like World War II movies, too. It’s slightly less predictable than the Western half, but only slightly. Stuff blows up. Heartstrings are tugged. Bad guys get their comeuppance. What’s not to like?

Some critics even blasted the look of the film. The colors are too bright, they said. Well, why wouldn’t they be bright? This is a Fifties Technicolor movie, a big, sweeping, melodramatic potboiler. Why criticize a movie for being exactly what it sets out to be? I’m not saying that AUSTRALIA is a great film, but it’s nearly three hours long and I was wide awake the whole time. Take that for what it’s worth. AUSTRALIA is as old-fashioned as a movie can get, and sometimes that’s just what I want.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guest Blog: Rittster on Orrie Hitt

(A reader who calls himself Rittster made a couple of excellent comments on Frank Loose’s guest blog about Orrie Hitt, and I thought there was enough good information and opinion in them that they deserved a post of their own. Normally I would ask permission before doing something like this, but since I don’t have an email address for Rittster, I’ve taken the liberty of combining his comments and moving them up here. Rittster, if you have any objections, please let me know, and please email me anyway (the link is in my profile), as I have a question for you. Many thanks!)

I've been a Hitt Man (pardon the expression) for about two years, after being introduced to him by a dear and gracious bookseller friend named Jerry Chadburn. Ever since, I've been on an almost (almost? who am I kidding?) obsessive mission to buy every Hitt book and find any information about him I could. Here's my Hitt-cred at present:82 paperbacks and 1 hardcover. The paperbacks include those he wrote under his own name, the pseudonyms Roger Normandie and Nicky Weaver, and the lesbian-themed books he wrote as Kay Addams. The hardcover is called "Leased" and was co-written with Jack Woodford.I was also fortunate to find a lengthy interview with the Hitt children and a detailed bibliography from a copy of "Books Are Everything!" Vol. 5, No.1, Whole Number 21. The article has photos of Hitt, both alone and with his wife, numerous book cover photos, and is a more-than-generous 48 pages. As well, I managed to find an article written by The Man himself called, "My 'Sex' Books" from the magazine "Men's Digest" #31. Unfortunately, it's only half the article, the other half appeared in #32, which I have yet to find.

To-date I've read 26 books and both articles.It always slightly irks me when I hear Hitt as having written "erotic" novels. Personally, I'd classify them as "hard-boiled" or "hard-boiled/tawdry", or even "hard-boiled/sleazy".

(Note: “Hardboiled sleaze” is the term I started using when trading emails with Frank Loose about Hitt’s work.)

I must disagree with the gracious guest host, and implore that Hitt did indeed often write with the intensity of Gil Brewer, and in fact with even more intensity than many a Gold Medal writer. Possibly my disagreement comes from the fact that I consider "I'll Call Every Monday" one of Hitt's weaker books. In fact, I don't think Hitt is at his best when using James Cain-type plots. To me, Hitt's best writing comes out of two types of stories. One type is about the tough guy who juggles as many dames as he can, while also throwing a ball in the air for a major scam at whatever job he happens to be working. The tough guy is usually too-clever-by-half, and the balls come tumbling down, whereupon whatever publisher Hitt was working for at the time made sure the tough guy saw the light, reformed, and married the one good girl he had ignored throughout the book. All this in the last 3 pages of the book! The other type is about what a nightmare it was to be a woman in the 1950's. In this type of book, the woman is just trying to claw her way out of the low-income gutter, but is screwed-over every way and by every guy she comes into contact with. The worst thing that can happen to a woman in this type of book is that she become an unwed mother. Hitt wrote about this nightmarish scenario with as much passion and intensity as Woolrich wrote about death and isolation. Truly The American Nightmare. I also think Hitt writes about low-income folks better than he does about folks living in the suburbs or the upper classes.

Here are the top ten on my "Hitt Parade" (not necessarily in order of importance)

1.Shabby Street
2.As Bad As They Come (also titled Mail Order Sex)
3.Torrid Wench
4.Race With Lust (as Roger Normandie)
5.The Sucker
6.Rotten To The Core
7.Warped Desire (as Kay Addams)
9.Campus Tramp
10.Wilma's Wants (Published by Novel Books, who apparently allowed Hitt to bring out his political and philosophical side. I'd say Hitt was a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, with a pinch of Ayn Rand thrown in. While still having the same plot framework, I'd say the core of the Novel Books are significantly different from books Hitt wrote for all other publishers.)
If anyone wants any info from my Hitt articles or books I'd be happy to respond.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Am Legend - Richard Matheson

A while back when I watched the Will Smith movie version of I AM LEGEND and posted about it, several people recommended that I read Richard Matheson’s source novel, something that I’d been meaning to do. Well, now I have, and everybody was right: other than the fact that it’s also relentlessly depressing, it’s really different from the movie, and really good, too.

No need to go into the plot. Most of you already know it. Two things impressed me about the book. One is how well it works as both horror and well-thought-out science fiction. I’m sure there have been other novels that achieved such a mixture, but right off-hand, I can’t think of any that accomplished it as well. The other thing that stands out for me is the sheer readability of Matheson’s prose. I was sitting there reading along, and I suddenly realized that I’d read seventy or eighty pages in what seemed like no time at all. In these days when I have to slog through too many books where the writing just doesn’t compel me to go on, an experience like that is rare. I’m not enough of a technician to pinpoint exactly how a writer does that, either. A lot of hard work and a little magic, I suspect.

That's the original edition pictured above. I read the edition of the novel that was issued as a tie-in with the recent movie, and it’s a good deal because you get not only the novel but also ten of Matheson’s excellent short stories, ranging from the Fifties to the Eighties. Several of these I remember reading when they first came out, but I enjoyed reading them again. Among them is “Prey”, originally published in PLAYBOY, which was adapted into a TV-movie featuring Karen Black and a vicious little African doll with a knife. Like a lot of people who were around in the Seventies, I remember that movie very vividly, but I had forgotten that it was based on a Matheson story.

I suspect that most of you reading this have already read I AM LEGEND. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. A grim but excellent book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kings in Disguise - James Vance

I’ve always been interested in fiction about the Great Depression, maybe because I used to hear my parents tell stories about it. Both of them were born in 1916, so they were old enough to have vivid memories of that era.

James Vance’s graphic novel KINGS IN DISGUISE is set in 1932 and tells the story of twelve-year-old Freddie Bloch. Freddie’s mother is dead, his father abandons the family to go look for work in Detroit, and his older brother gets in trouble with the law. Left on his own, Freddie takes to the rails and becomes a hobo, criss-crossing the country, meeting all sorts of colorful characters, and winding up in dangerous situations on several occasions. For the most part, he travels with a man dying of tuberculosis who claims to be the King of Spain, touring the United States in disguise, and this fellow dubs Freddie the King of France, giving the book its title.

Vance’s script is very good, and so is Dan Burr’s art. The story sort of meanders along, and I don’t agree with the politics espoused in it at all (actually I don’t agree with much of a political nature, so don’t take that comment to mean anything), but I couldn’t help getting caught up in the characters’ lives. It’s a cliché to say that you hate to see a book end, of course, but it’s true here. I really wanted to read more about these characters. For that reason, and for the nice little historical touches scattered throughout (at one point Freddie is shown reading an issue of WILD WEST WEEKLY, one of my favorite Western pulps, and other pulps show up, too), I recommend KINGS IN DISGUISE.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Guest Blog: Frank Loose on Orrie Hitt's I'll Call Every Monday

Frank Loose, a regular reader of this blog, sent me some comments on Orrie Hitt’s novel I’LL CALL EVERY MONDAY, which was given a high recommendation by August West, another regular reader and the author of the blog Vintage Hardboiled Reads. I thought Frank’s comments deserved a post of their own, so here is Rough Edges’ first guest blog.

James … Your fascinating story about author Orrie Hitt, in your February 19th blog entry, prompted me to track down and purchase a copy of Hitt’s book I'LL CALL EVERY MONDAY. I just finished it last night and it is a good read. Hitt does not write scenes with the intensity or the relentless pacing of Gil Brewer, nor is he the craftsman that Charles Williams was, but what he does, he does well. In I'LL CALL EVERY MONDAY, he creates a first person narrator with a distinct, consistent and engaging voice, and a story line that, while a tad slow for folks used to thriller and suspense pacing, moves forward with a natural ease and grace that sucked me in.

From what I have read about Mr. Hitt, his writing career is notable for his prolific output and for writing in what I guess you could call the sex genre. I'LL CALL EVERY MONDAY has sex scenes, but by today’s standards they are tame, and are actually well written. This is not exploitation, but the real lives of people played out on paper. Yes, there is a heavy focus on viewing every woman from a physical point of view, but this true to the main character’s personality–––one obsessed with the female form and the pleasures and escape he can find there.

It was also a reflection of the times. Given what was obviously titillating writing for these times, Hitt delves a bit deeper by juxtaposing the main character’s attitudes toward women and sex, with another pivotal character who is portrayed as someone who has “stepped over the line” of society’s mores. A hack writer of expendable fiction doesn’t worry about that sort of nuance, but Hitt did and it layers his story. There are more examples, but enough said on all this without revealing plot points. You may decide to read this book.

The story involves an insurance salesman named Nicky whose main goal in life seems to be bedding every woman he finds attractive. He has no pretense of relationship. Still this is no “lay ‘em and leave ‘em attitude,” as he seems to establish relationships in spite of himself. And just when you are thinking he is despicable and self-centered, he surprises with an action for someone from which he will reap no gain. He steps forward because it is the right thing to do. Hitt has drawn an interesting multi-dimensional character. The book starts slow, but the story picks up speed, ala James Cain, when he meets a woman who Hitt shows is a real match for Nicky, both in her ability to manipulate and in her sexual desire, which she shows can outmatch Nicky for intensity. Throw in an insurance swindle, again ala James Cain, and you have the basis for I'LL CALL EVERY MONDAY.

This book probably wasn’t Gold Medal territory at the time it was written, but it was published by Avon, no back street publisher by any stretch. August West, in his post to you, rated this book in his Top Twenty Favorites, and I can see why he thinks highly of it: strong characters, a building sense of emotional and physical danger, and a twist at the end. An enjoyable read–––and if nothing else, worth tracking down to see what kind of book an author can knock out typing away at his kitchen table while entertaining his daughter’s friends.

The true test of a book for me is how long the characters stay with me after I finish reading. So, the jury is still out on this one, but based on past experience I think this one may stick around.

Frank Loose

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tales From Deadwood: The Troopers

This book is either out now or soon will be. It's the most noirish of the four so far and works fairly well as a stand-alone. Still no word on whether or not there'll be a fifth book, but I hope so because I really enjoy working on this series.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Forgotten Books: Yesterday's Flame - Elizabeth Hallam (Livia Washburn)

I hope you’ll all forgive me for getting a little close to home with this week’s Forgotten Book. Actually, I sleep with the author, so you can’t get much closer than that. But I think YESTERDAY’S FLAME qualifies for this series. It’s an excellent book that didn’t draw much notice when it first appeared several years ago.

Livia wrote several romance novels for Berkley, of which YESTERDAY’S FLAME is the last and in my opinion the best. (They’re all good, of course.) This one is a time travel yarn in which a female firefighter from modern-day San Francisco is mysteriously transported back to San Francisco in 1906, a few weeks before the famous earthquake. There’s plenty of romance, of course, as the heroine meets and falls in love with a 1906 fireman, but Livia throws in some other good stuff, too, such as tong wars, secret passages, mysterious assassins, and a very neat little time travel paradox that’s a beautiful example of an author planting something early on in a book that doesn’t pay off until much later. And then of course, there’s the earthquake itself, which gives the whole book a nice epic feel, and another little twist at the end . . .

I’ve read quite a few romance novels over the years, since Livia was working in that field and I try to help out with the editing and plotting. I especially enjoyed the ones I’ve read by Marsha Canham, Teresa Medieros, and Amanda Quick (who’s really Jayne Krentz), because they usually include plenty of action, adventure, and mystery to go along with the mushy stuff, as we used to call it. I think Livia’s romances meet that same standard. She wrote four for Berkley: MENDING FENCES, under the name Livia Reasoner, a Western about the Fence-Cutting War in Brown County, Texas, in the 1880s; and three paranormals under the name Elizabeth Hallam: SPIRIT CATCHER, a contemporary Western mystery featuring an extended cameo appearance by a series Western character we both worked on years ago; ALURA’S WISH, a medieval novel featuring djinn, noble knights, and plenty of swordplay; and YESTERDAY’S FLAME, the subject of this post. All well worth reading, in my opinion . . . but of course, I’m biased. I wouldn’t steer you wrong, though. Trust me on this.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Marvel 1602

Well. This is an odd comic book yarn. Appearing first as an eight-issue miniseries and then reprinted in a hardback collection (which is where I read it), MARVEL 1602 takes the core characters of the Marvel Universe as they appeared in the early to mid-Sixties and transplants them to Elizabethan England. Nick Fury is now Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Dr. Strange is the court physician, Matt Murdock is a blind Irish minstrel with odd powers, “Carlos Javier” runs a school for gifted youngsters . . . You get the idea. It’s gimmicky – really gimmicky at first – but the story gets extremely complex as it goes along, and then about three-fourths of the way through, author Neil Gaiman throws in a beautiful plot twist that I didn’t see coming at all which makes the story about something else entirely.

Not surprisingly, even considering how little I’ve read of his work, Gaiman’s script is very well-written, and the art by Andy Kubert is great. The characters all look enough like their modern-day counterparts that they’re recognizable, without being slavish imitations. The story actually doesn’t have much action in it, but Gaiman keeps the pace moving along briskly anyway as he peels back the layers of the plot. This is one of those comic book stories where you really have to be a long-time fan to fully appreciate it. In a nice afterword in the hardback collection, Gaiman talks about first reading British reprints of the early Marvel comics in the late Sixties. I was there a little before him, reading the originals from 1963 on, and we obviously feel the same sort of affection for those characters and stories.

MARVEL 1602 is one of the best and most satisfying books I’ve read so far this year. If you’re a long-time Marvel fan, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I got the same sort of feeling from it that I did from Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s MARVELS (a graphic novel that I need to reread real soon now, by the way), an off-kilter but loving revisiting of an era that still means a lot to me.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sgt. Rock's Combat Tales, Vol. 1

If you’re a guy of a certain age, just reading the title of this new digest-sized collection of vintage comic book yarns ought to bring a smile to your face. SGT. ROCK’S COMBAT TALES . . . that really brings back good memories of reading OUR ARMY AT WAR, G.I. COMBAT, and other assorted DC war comics during the Fifties and Sixties.

There are some classic stories in this collection, too, including “The Rock” and “The DI and the Sand Fleas”, which are considered forerunners of the Sgt. Rock character whose stories ran for a couple of decades. Neither of the protagonists in those stories is exactly who Sgt. Rock turned out to be, but they were steps in that direction. Then there are several stories that actually feature Rock and Easy Company (although the regular supporting characters who would be featured later don’t appear in these stories), as well as several stand-alone tales of World War II combat.

The scripts are all by Robert Kanigher, and as usual with Kanigher’s scripts, there’s a certain sameness to them. They pack a lot of emotional punch anyway. On about half of the stories, the art is by Joe Kubert, and those are the best ones as far as I’m concerned. Kubert and Kanigher were a really potent combination, and when you read the Easy Company stories with art by Jerry Grandinetti, you realize how much weaker they are without Kubert. (Grandinetti’s a fine artist, by the way, and I like a lot of his other work, I just have a hard time accepting Sgt. Rock stories drawn by anyone except Kubert.) A couple of the stand-alone stories have art by Russ Heath and Irv Novick, both of whom I like.

The stories in this collection all originally appeared in 1959 and 1960, which is before the Kanigher-Kubert team really hit its stride, but they’re well worth reading. I hope this series of reprints continues and showcases some of the even better stories that came along a few years later.

Monday, March 02, 2009

More Wild West Monday

I've spoken to the Anderson rep who puts out the books in the local Wal-Mart, and he agrees that the store should have an actual Western section again, as it once did. He's sort of at the mercy of the higher-ups as far as which books he gets to put out, but he tells me that he keeps asking them for more Westerns because they always sell. And in a bit of good news, he tells me that the local store is considering expanding the book section, which would mean room for more Westerns. It's a slow process, of course, but I think we're starting to see some results.

Wild West Monday

It's Wild West Monday. You know what to do. But in case you don't, the details are here. I'll be reporting on my own efforts later, since it's barely after midnight where I am.