Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trinity - Matt Wagner

Over the years I’ve read and enjoyed a number of comics written by Matt Wagner, his long-running series SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE being the most notable. TRINITY is a fine trade paperback reprinting a three-issue miniseries written and drawn by Wagner and featuring DC’s three most iconic characters: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Now, when I was a kid, I wasn’t a Wonder Woman fan. I suppose I was as sexist as any other ten or twelve year old boy in the Sixties. Plus I really didn’t like the art on the issues coming out then. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, DC tried to remold Wonder Woman into a Modesty Blaise sort of character, and while that was interesting, it never really worked for me, either. In the Eighties, though, there was another Wonder Woman relaunch with excellent stories and art by George Perez, and that one won me over. I’m still not a huge fan, but Wonder Woman is okay.

Throw her into an epic story with Superman and Batman, though, and you’ve got something. TRINITY is the story of Wonder Woman’s first meeting with them, and it involves an evil, globe-spanning conspiracy hatched by one of Batman’s arch-enemies, Ra’s Al Ghul, as well as one of Superman’s antagonists, Bizarro (who’s not really evil but still plenty dangerous anyway). Several things make TRINITY a fine piece of graphic novel entertainment. Wagner provides the art as well as the story, and it really works. He’s a good storyteller who uses classic layouts most of the time. His script is top-notch, capturing the personalities of Superman and Batman in all their complexity. There’s a sense of rivalry that’s always there, as well as a certain frustration and disapproval that each feels about the other’s methods, but above all, they’re friends. Then that sort of gets knocked cock-eyed by the arrival of Wonder Woman. No, there’s not any sense that they’re vying for her affections (although Batman is surprisingly interested in her). Wagner is too subtle a writer to take the easy, obvious route. But having Wonder Woman around does change the dynamic between Superman and Batman, at least a little.

This is one of the best comic book series I’ve read recently. If you’re a fan of the classic DC characters (another of whom makes a funny, unbilled cameo appearance), give TRINITY a try. I had a great time reading it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Lost Battalion

I enjoy a good war movie every now and then, and THE LOST BATTALION fits the bill. Made for the A&E cable network, it’s based on the true story of an American battalion that gets cut off from the rest of the American forces during an advance into the Argonne forest during World War I. Almost completely surrounded by the Germans, the Americans resolve to hold their position until help arrives, which takes days. Outnumbered, starving, without medical supplies, the odds are against any of them surviving.

In classic war movie fashion, THE LOST BATTALION introduces us to about a dozen of the soldiers, most of them from New York but some from Texas and Montana as well. Most of them are “citizen soldiers”, who were either drafted or enlisted to fight, not career military. Their commander, a lawyer in civilian life played by Rick Shroeder, fits into this category, too, and struggles to become a respected leader. You know going in (at least you do if you’ve ever watched many war movies) that not all of them are going to make it, but this grim, gritty film directed by Russell Mulcahy makes their life-and-death struggle very interesting.

With its unrelenting air of doom, I’m not sure I’d say that THE LOST BATTALION is an entertaining film, but it’s very well-done (other than some shaky camerawork I didn’t like) and I think it’s a movie that’s well worth watching.



Thursday, June 25, 2009

Don Coldsmith, R.I.P.

I was never a big fan of Farrah Fawcett or Michael Jackson, but I'm sorry to hear about their passing. The third death today hits a lot harder in the Western field. Don Coldsmith, who collapsed last week during the Western Writers of America convention, has passed away. I was definitely a fan of Don and his work. We weren't close friends but always talked whenever we were at the same convention. I believe we shared an agent for a while. He was a good man and a fine writer. Best known for his multi-book Spanish Bit series, he also wrote several very good stand-alone historical novels. He will definitely be missed.

The Tarnished Star - Jack Martin (Gary Dobbs)

THE TARNISHED STAR, the debut novel by Gary Dobbs of The Tainted Archive (writing as Jack Martin), is out now, and I’m happy to report that it’s a fine traditional Western novel. It’s the story of Sheriff Cole Masters, who runs afoul of the evil Bowdens, father and son. Wisely starting in the middle of the action, Dobbs takes a page from the movie RIO BRAVO and has Masters waiting for the arrival of the circuit judge so that the prisoner in his jail, Sam Bowden, can be tried for the murder of a prostitute. Sam’s father, wealthy and powerful cattleman Clem Bowden, has a different idea. He plans to free his son, no matter what it takes.

From that point, Dobbs veers off from the expected and spins a yarn of violence and redemption in gritty, tough-minded prose. Cole Masters is hardly an infallible hero. He can be indecisive at times and dangerously impulsive at others. He never loses his devotion to the law, however, and before the book is over, the title reference to a tarnished star takes on more than one meaning.

THE TARNISHED STAR is an entertaining, fast-moving story, as are all the books I’ve read from the Black Horse Westerns line. From the pulpish cover to the final showdown in which plenty of bullets fly, it’s a fine, action-packed Western that still manages to be character-driven. You can order it from an assortment of places, including Amazon and The Book Depository (which offers prompt, free shipping worldwide – hard to beat that deal, which is why I ordered THE TARNISHED STAR from them), and if you’re a Western fan, you want to get your hands on this one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taken

Speaking of explosions, as I was in the previous post, there’s one in TAKEN, and a lot of other action, too. Liam Neeson, handling the running, shooting, and fighting parts just fine, plays a retired CIA agent who goes after the bad guys who kidnap his daughter while she’s vacationing in Paris. Needless to say, since Luc Besson co-wrote this film, Neeson’s character is a one-man army much like Frank Martin in the Transporter movies, although the stunts in this one are somewhat more believable. There aren’t really any twists to the plot. Everything plays out pretty much like you’d expect it to. But when it’s done as well as it is here, that’s fine with me. I liked TAKEN a lot, and if you’re in the mood for an action movie, I highly recommend it.

"It Doesn't Always Have to Be Six-guns, Boobs, and Explosions"

That was my comment, referring to my usual movie-watching habits, after we watched LITTLE MANHATTAN, a sweet, occasionally funny film about the budding romance between a couple of fifth-graders who live in New York City. This movie takes place in what I think of as sitcom Manhattan, where everything is incredibly clean and safe and charming. It's a pretty good film, although, lowbrow that I am, I wouldn't want a steady diet of movies like it, either. But that takes me back to my original comments about six-guns, etc. On the other hand, why the hell not?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Return of the Japanese Spammer

The blog got hit with spam comments in Japanese on nine different posts during the night. I've deleted all of them, and if it continues I'll turn on comment moderation again. I'd rather not do that unless I have to, though. I like for people to be able to see their comments right away, and it doesn't take much longer, if any longer, to delete the spam than it does to approve comments. I do hope this isn't the start of a whole new wave of spam, though.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fired Up!


Crass, crude, silly, predictable teen sex comedy about a couple of football players going to cheerleader camp to chase girls. And I laughed all the way through it and thoroughly enjoyed it. (Big surprise there, eh?) Seriously, if you can say such a thing about a movie like this, the script is considerably smarter than you might expect. Worth checking out if you're in the mood for some lightweight entertainment, which I usually am.

Friday, June 19, 2009

One More Reason I Love the Internet

I got a call this afternoon from a small press publisher who's interested in reprinting some of the work of one of my favorite pulp authors, Donald Barr Chidsey. It seems this fellow had read something I wrote on-line about Chidsey and thought I might be able to give him some information he's been looking for. As it happens, I was able to tell him what he needed to know, and we had a nice long conversation about pulps, mysteries, Westerns, and the current state of the publishing business. Probably wouldn't have happened, though, if he hadn't run across my comments about Chidsey. (By the way, "Battleship on a Mountain" is a heck of a story.)

Forgotten Books: I Should Have Stayed Home - Horace McCoy

Cullen Gallagher mentioned this novel a couple of weeks ago on his blog, and since I happened to have a copy on hand, I thought I’d go ahead and read it. I’d never read any of McCoy’s novels before, although I’ve read several of his pulp stories and enjoyed them. And I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME is dedicated in part to Joseph T. Shaw, the famous editor of BLACK MASK, so I figured it might be worthwhile.

Which it certainly is, although it’s not a crime novel at all. A few minor crimes take place, but they’re hardly the focus of the book. Instead it’s a Hollywood novel set in the Thirties, narrated by Ralph Carston, a young would-be actor from Georgia who’s determined to make it big in the movies. As the book opens, he’s working sporadically as an extra and living, platonically, with a bit-part actress named Mona Matthews. Ralph makes the acquaintance of a wealthy widow known for throwing lavish Hollywood parties, and despite being rather na├»ve, he knows that she can help him advance his career if he goes along with what she wants, which is him.

This book is pretty much a soap opera. Along with Ralph’s affair with the widow, the plot features a big star who turns out to be a lesbian, an interracial couple, some nights spent in jail, a suicide, and lots of boozing and sex. What makes I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME worth reading is McCoy’s bleak, fast-paced prose. The plot may be melodramatic, but the writing is pure hardboiled, with a grim, fatalistic tone that makes the book qualify as noir, as well. I’ll definitely have to get around to McCoy’s other novels, and in the meantime, if you like Hollywood novels, this one gets my recommendation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Progress!

After struggling mightily with the current manuscript for the past two days, today actually turned out to be fairly productive. No barn-burner, you understand, just a good solid day of work. It's always a relief to realize that you're not really that talentless hack the little voice in the back of your head keeps whispering that you are. (I think all writers probably have that little voice at times.) I've compared writing to baseball before, and I still think the comparison is valid. You write your way out of a slump just like you hit your way out of a slump. Of course, it remains to be seen whether I'm really out of this one. Let's give it a few days.

Joe Lansdale Podcast

As someone who's been fortunate enough to hear Joe Lansdale talk on numerous occasions, I can tell you that it's always entertaining and often informative. The same can be said of the podcast of Jeff Rutherford's recent interview with Joe. You can listen to it here, and I recommend that you do so. Joe's comments about the current state of the publishing business are especially interesting. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Japanese Edition of Dust Devils

Copies of the Japanese edition of DUST DEVILS arrived in the mail today. I think this is a pretty good cover. Of course, I can't read any of the book itself other than the English stuff on the copyright page and some of the house ads in the back for Dick Francis books. Whenever copies of a foreign edition of one of my books show up, I still think, "Ain't that cool?" I love the idea that people in Japan will be reading what I wrote in my little, book-cluttered studio in Texas. Yesterday was one of those days when I thought, "Why did I ever want to be a writer?" Today is one of the days when I know why.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hitting the Wall

Those of you who are writers, or who are acquainted with writers, are probably well aware of one thing we all have in common: we complain. We complain a lot. But even so . . . man, the pages came slow today. Really slow. But the good thing, to quote Scarlett O'Hara, is that tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Murder By the Book

I’m back from my signing at Murder By the Book in Houston, which went very well, I thought. I missed several friends I’d hoped to see who weren’t able to attend, but the customers who were there were fun to talk to, and McKenna and the rest of the staff couldn’t have been nicer. As for the store itself, if you’re a mystery fan and you’re anywhere near Houston and you haven’t been there yet . . . start making plans to visit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much mystery fiction of all types in one place outside of Bill Crider’s house and my old studio. It’s just an amazing collection. I started buying stuff for myself after the signing was over and had to make myself stop after a while.

As for Houston itself, the last time I was there was in 1961, a week or two before Hurricane Carla came ashore nearby. I remember my dad complaining about the traffic and how hard it was to find your way around, even then. As you can imagine, nearly fifty years later neither of those situations had improved. I got turned around when I came into town on Friday and wound up going the wrong way, but I figured that out fairly quickly and got squared away. By the time I left I knew my way around the streets in the vicinity of the hotel and the bookstore pretty well. But it was still very nice to get back to my neck of the woods.

And again, Murder By the Book is a wonderful store. If you can, go there. Buy books.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Forgotten Books: Try Anything Once -- A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

I’m not sure any of the books in this series are truly forgotten, since there are still a lot of Donald Lam/Bertha Cool fans out there, but they’re certainly not as well known as they once were. Also, all the books are out of print except possibly TOP OF THE HEAP, which was reprinted by Hard Case Crime a few years ago. Anyway, you can’t go wrong with any of the books in this series, so today we’ll look at one of them I read recently.

TRY ANYTHING ONCE is from 1962 and finds Donald being hired to impersonate a man who went to a motel with a beautiful young woman who’s not his wife. It seems that around the same time they were at the motel, a murder was committed there, and naturally the cops are looking for anyone who might be a witness. Also naturally, the client doesn’t want his wife knowing that he was at the motel with another woman, so he persuades Donald to fix the situation. It seems like a relatively simple job, since the cheating husband and the beautiful cocktail hostess he was with don’t have anything to do with the murder that took place at the motel.

Here’s where you’re going, Suuuure, the two cases aren’t connected. And suuuure the client has told Donald the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened. And you’d be right to be suspicious, as Donald is right from the start. Things get a lot more complicated before Donald untangles all the deception and murder. Despite their physical differences, Donald Lam has always reminded me a little of Mike Shayne, because he’s usually two steps ahead of everybody else in the book and three steps ahead of the reader. Bertha has quite a bit to do in this one, including getting Donald out of jail twice, and she also manages to utter her trademark exclamation, “Fry me for an oyster!”

I enjoy the Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner a great deal, but the Lam & Cool books he wrote as A.A. Fair are my favorites among his work. The plots are just as bizarrely complex as the Masons, and the books are genuinely funny. Donald’s first-person narration is one of the great voices in mystery fiction, rivaling Archie Goodwin for wise-assery, if there’s such a word. And if there isn’t, there should be. Try anything once, as Bertha says to Donald, and if you haven’t read any of this series, you should try this book or another A.A. Fair novel immediately.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Farewell Tour

If any of you are in the Houston area this weekend, I'll be signing at Murder by the Book at 4:30 Saturday afternoon. This will be my last signing for the foreseeable future, so if you get a chance to drop by the store, I'd love to say hello. (I'm also looking forward to buying some books myself, since I've never been to MBTB before, but that's another story . . .)

Panic Attack - Jason Starr

I haven’t read much by Jason Starr – his novel NOTHING PERSONAL and his first collaboration with Ken Bruen for Hard Case Crime, BUST – but I liked both of those books, so I decided to give his newest one a try. PANIC ATTACK is more of a mainstream thriller than either of the other two Starr novels I’d read, but with his own distinctive spin on the material.

It begins with a crime – a couple of burglars breaking into the house of psychologist Adam Bloom. Bloom confronts the burglars with a gun and shoots and kills one of them. The other one gets away and decides to take revenge on Bloom for killing his partner, and that revenge involves Bloom’s wife and daughter.

That’s really the entire plot of the book, but it’s a lot more emotionally complex than it sounds because Starr takes the reader into the heads of all the characters involved, often covering the same events from different perspectives. Most of the time I don’t care much for that technique, but Starr makes it work in this book. Even though none of the characters are very likable (something other readers have pointed out about Starr’s work), they’re all intensely human and you can’t help but want to find out what happens to them, even the evil ones. (And the villain in this book is really evil.) Starr had me flipping the pages and staying up late to finish.

PANIC ATTACK will be out later this summer from St. Martin’s/Minotaur. It’s certainly not what you’d call a breezy beach read, but it’s very well written and worth checking out if you’re a fan of noir fiction.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Taking a break from Spaghetti Westerns, we finally got around to finishing our Indiana Jones retrospective that we started last year and watched INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. I remembered less about this one than either of the other two entries in the original trilogy. We saw it in the theater when it came out and never watched it again. But I recalled really liking the prologue featuring River Phoenix as Young Indy, and watching it again now, I still liked it a lot. As those of you who have read many of my Westerns may have gathered, I like scenes that involve running around and fighting on top of moving trains.

Anyway, what about the rest of the movie? I’m happy to say that I think it’s the second-best Indiana Jones movie, behind RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and not all that far behind, either. You got your Holy Grail, you got your Nazis, you got your zeppelin, you got aerial dogfights and battling a tank from horseback and rats and snakes and 700-year-old Crusader knights. The movie’s not too special effects heavy, and the action scenes are staged and edited so that you can tell what’s going on. If there had just been a swordfight and some quicksand, this would be close to a perfect adventure movie.

I can’t imagine that any of you reading this haven’t seen this movie at least once, but if you haven’t, you should give it a try. I thought it was a heck of a lot of fun.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Four Play

Patti Abbott tagged me with this, and I’m happy to play.

Four Movies You Can See Over and Over

The Comancheros
Casablanca
Citizen Kane
Shane

Four Places You Have Lived

Azle, Texas
Denton, Texas
River Oaks, Texas
San Marcos, Texas
(I haven’t gotten around much.)

Four TV Shows You Love to Watch

The Simpsons
The Bob Newhart Show
The Big Bang Theory
One Tree Hill

Four Places You Have Been on a Vacation

Rockport, Texas
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
El Paso, Texas
Grand Isle, Louisiana

Four of Your Favorite Foods

Spaghetti
Hamburgers
Ice Cream
Nachos
(A gourmet I ain’t.)

Four Websites You Visit Daily

Pulp Serenade
Not the Baseball Pitcher
The Tainted Archive

Mystery File

Four Places You Would Rather Be

The fishing pier at Rockport
The Big Fisherman Restaurant between Rockport and Aransas Pass
The old man’s bookstore just down the street from Lockheed in White Settlement, Texas (it’s not there anymore, but I wish it was – Livia and a few others are probably the only ones who know the place I’m talking about)
The pavilion beside the Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas

Four Things You Hope to Do Before You Die

Be able to slow down a little
Catch up on my reading
Spend another month at the coast
Learn how to grill

Four Novels You Wish You Were Reading for the First Time

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
The Last Hero, Leslie Charteris
Hopalong Cassidy, Clarence E. Mulford

Tag Four People You Believe Will Respond

Cullen Gallagher
Randy Johnson
Gary Dobbs
Steve Lewis

The Great Silence

Continuing with my Spaghetti Western binge, I moved on to THE GREAT SILENCE, which, along with DJANGO, is probably Sergio Corbucci’s best-known film. The title has multiple meanings, starting with the fact that the hero, a gunfighter played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is mute and is known only as Silence. He rides into a snowbound corner of Utah Territory where a community of outlaws is hiding out from a group of ruthless bounty hunters. Klaus Kinski, who could give Christopher Walken a run for his money in the Creepiest Actor Ever to Step in Front of a Camera race, plays the leader of the bounty hunters, who is known only as Loco, another instance of Corbucci giving a character a name that sums him up. Only I’m not sure Loco is really crazy. As Kinski plays him, he’s more like pure evil.

Silence is drawn into the clash between the outlaws and the bounty hunters when the widow of a man killed by Loco asks him to help her get revenge. The widow is played by American actress Vonetta McGee in her film debut. Another American in the cast is Frank Wolff, who made a lot of Spaghetti Westerns. (He was Brett McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.) Wolff, looking a lot like Richard Boone in this one, plays an honest lawman who is also caught between the sympathetic outlaws (are they supposed to be Mormons? I don’t think it’s ever made clear) and Loco’s band of bounty killers.

As is fairly common in these films, there are some flashbacks that reveal how Silence became mute, but most of the story is a leisurely build-up to the final showdown between Silence and Loco. The acting is excellent all around. Kinski’s performance is actually a little understated. There’s not a lot of raving and scenery-chewing. Most of his evil comes through in his expressions. Trintignant is also fine as Silence, a part that has no dialogue whatsoever. And I really liked Wolff in this one. As in the other Corbucci films I’ve seen, the photography is great, and the snowbound landscapes are stunning. The Ennio Morricone score is okay, but not up to the level of his work for Sergio Leone.

All of which brings us to the famous – or infamous – ending of THE GREAT SILENCE. Well, it’s bleak, all right. But I’m going to part company here with what seems to be the consensus of opinions about this movie. While the ending is effective in that it’s a sucker punch the viewer doesn’t see coming, I also thought it felt forced. I felt like the so-called “happy ending” (which is also included on the DVD) was actually set up better by the earlier events in the film and made more sense. In order for the bleak ending to work, one plotline has to be left completely unresolved, and several characters have to act in ways opposite to how their characters have been established earlier in the film. I can’t get into specifics without spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen the film, so I’ll just say that I understand why it’s famous, and I didn’t like it.

I liked the film overall, though. I’ve seen enough Corbucci movies now that some of his themes are becoming apparent, and they’ve all been interesting enough that I want to see more. Probably not right away, though. If you’re a fan of Spaghetti Westerns and haven’t seen THE GREAT SILENCE, you really owe it to yourself to do so.



Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bronco

I've had the theme song from this old TV show stuck in my head for days. Ever since I got rid of the theme from NAVAJO JOE, in fact. My hope is that if I pass it along to some of you and get it stuck in your heads, it'll leave me alone.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Django

I’ve seen DJANGO mentioned many times in discussions of Spaghetti Westerns, and now I’ve seen the film itself in my continuing Western movie binge. In a comment on a previous post, Richard Prosch mentioned what a muddy film it is, and that’s certainly true. It even opens with Django, a prototypical mysterious stranger, slogging through the mud and dragging a coffin behind him. He rescues a beautiful woman from some trouble, then takes her to a town that’s being terrorized by a gang of ex-Confederate outlaws who wear either red scarves or red hoods. You get the feeling that when Django finally opens up that mysterious coffin, all hell is going to break loose, and sure enough, it does. (Kudos to Livia for guessing what was in the coffin before it was ever revealed.)

As if that gang of outlaws wasn’t enough for Django to deal with, there’s also a separate group of Mexican bandidos, plus a fortune in stolen gold, assorted double-crosses, some torture, a shootout in a graveyard, and finally, that sure-fire indicator of a good movie, quicksand! The pace never slows down much in this film directed and co-written by Sergio Corbucci, and as in the previous Corbucci film I watched a couple of days ago, NAVAJO JOE, the photography is excellent and the action well-handled all the way through. The ending is strong and satisfying in this one, too. As for the music, it’s not by Ennio Morricone, but it’s not bad. The theme song sounds a little like a Sixties TV Western.

Franco Nero looks great as Django, but whoever dubbed his English dialogue – I don’t know if it was Nero himself or some other actor – doesn’t do a very good job. I think whoever it was, was trying to emulate Clint Eastwood’s clipped delivery in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, since Nero’s look and acting style is obviously modeled on Eastwood’s as well, but it doesn’t really work and the dialogue just sounds wooden most of the time. It’s not enough to ruin the film or anything, but it could have been better. As far as handling the action, though, Nero is great.

I know there are quite a few sequels to this movie with various actors playing Django. I may get around to watching some of them. As for DJANGO itself, I liked it quite a bit and think it’s a good solid entry in the Spaghetti Western genre.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Birthday

Thanks to everyone for all the birthday wishes. They are much appreciated. It was a nice, leisurely day around here. I wrote a couple thousand words on the current book, hung out with the family, ate Mexican food and cheesecake, and watched some episodes of MYTHBUSTERS on DVD. A while back I expressed an interest in learning how to grill, so Livia, Shayna, and Joanna got me a charcoal grill ("with 20 burger capacity!") and a host of grilling accessories, gizmos, and whizbangs. I guess now I'll have to actually cook something. I may even report on it here. We'll see how it goes.

Forgotten Nonfiction Books: Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck

Before Captain America and Billy did it in the movie EASY RIDER, before Green Lantern and Green Arrow did it in the comic books, author John Steinbeck and a ten-year-old poodle named Charley set off in the fall of 1960 in search of America. Appropriately enough, that’s the subtitle of the resulting book, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: IN SEARCH OF AMERICA.

When I was a junior in high school, a friend and I went through a pseudo-intellectual phase, as sixteen-year-old boys will sometimes do. We read and discussed Hemingway and Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and God knows what else. If our parents would have let us get away with it, we probably would have smoked pipes and worn jackets with leather patches on the elbows. It’s a wonder we didn’t choke on our own pretentiousness. But we actually did read some good books and discover some good authors along the way, among them John Steinbeck. Two of Steinbeck’s books stand out in my memory: the novel THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT and the memoir TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. I liked a lot of his other novels, too, most notably CUP OF GOLD, TORTILLA FLAT, and OF MICE AND MEN. I was less fond of THE GRAPES OF WRATH and EAST OF EDEN, even though those two are probably his most popular novels. It’s been more than forty years since I read TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, so I decided to reread it for this Forgotten Nonfiction Books Friday and see how well it holds up.

I’m happy to report that it holds up very well indeed. Steinbeck writes beautifully about nature and the places he visits and the people he meets. His social and political observations are always interesting, although this time around I did notice an occasional touch of smug superiority about his comments that I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book. It’s not enough to really cause a problem, though.

The best part of TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is the relationship between Steinbeck and Charley, who becomes as vivid a character as any in the book. When Charley develops medical problems and you don’t know what the outcome will be, there’s genuine suspense. As some of you know, I’m a dog person, and Charley’s a great dog.

It’s nice to know that this is as fine a book as I remember it being. Now, will I go back and reread THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT or some of Steinbeck’s other novels and see if they hold up as well? It could happen. They’d make good Forgotten Books, after all, since I don’t think anybody reads Steinbeck much these days, with the possible exception of THE GRAPES OF WRATH for school assignments.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

David Carradine

Let me join a host of other people in expressing my sadness at the death of David Carradine. I was in college when KUNG FU first aired, and it was hard to get anything done in classes the day after every episode because everybody had to talk about what happened on KUNG FU the night before. A couple of years ago, we watched part of the first season on DVD, and the episodes held up pretty well. I enjoyed his work in plenty of other things, too. Rest in peace, Mr. Carradine.

Navajo Joe

Recently I was talking to one of my editors about Spaghetti Westerns. I had submitted an outline to him for a book in one of the series I write, and I mentioned that I thought it had a little Spaghetti Western influence in it. He said that he really liked the films directed by Sergio Corbucci and considered them as good or better than the ones made by Sergio Leone. I hadn’t see any of Corbucci’s films, but as a Leone fan from ’way back (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is one of my all-time favorites in any genre), I had to check out Corbucci’s work.

The first of his movies I watched turned out to be NAVAJO JOE, a 1966 entry starring Burt Reynolds about five years before he became a big star in the U.S. In this one, looking slim, athletic, and impossibly young, Reynolds plays an Indian on the trail of some scalphunters who wiped out his family. The scalphunters give that up and become train robbers instead, and the rest of the movie is an extended cat-and-mouse game as Navajo Joe picks off the bad guys one by one and tries to keep them from getting away with the money they stole.

This movie looks great, with excellent photography and well-done action scenes. Reynolds gives a pretty good performance even though he’s not actually called on to do much other than handle the action. Long stretches of the film are dialogue-free, at least where his character is concerned. The villains are suitably despicable.

I only have two complaints: The ending is something of a letdown and not as epic and dramatic as I hoped it would be, and the theme song is one of the most annoying I’ve ever heard, consisting mostly of a typical Spaghetti Western chorus droning, “Navajo Joe . . . Navajo Joe!” I can’t get the blasted thing to stop playing in my head. The music is by Ennio Morricone, for some reason working under the pseudonym Leo Nichols, and while I love Morricone’s work, I think his score for this one is sort of a dud. Looking around on the Internet, I see that a lot of Morricone fans don’t share my opinion, having a generally high regard for this score. Some even consider it his masterpiece. So what do I know.

Overall, though, I enjoyed NAVAJO JOE quite a bit. I have a couple more Corbucci films on the way, THE GREAT SILENCE and DJANGO. I’ve heard good things about both of them, and I look forward to seeing them for myself.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review of Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear

Ron Fortier has posted his review of the second Gabriel Hunt novel, HUNT THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR, which was written by series creator Charles Ardai. I'm really looking forward to reading this book. And isn't that a beautiful Glen Orbik cover?

Yuma

I’m still on a little bit of a Western movie binge. This made-for-TV movie from 1971 is part of the same boxed set as BOOT HILL. I don’t know how I missed it back when it originally aired, because I watched just about every Western that was on, plus I was a big Clint Walker fan when I was a kid because of his TV series CHEYENNE. But I’d never seen it before, I’m pretty sure of that.

Walker plays U.S. Marshal Dave Harmon, who’s sent to Arizona Territory to clean up the lawless town of Yuma. Right away he runs afoul of a couple of cowboys from the crew that’s bringing a herd of cattle to Yuma so the army can turn it over to the Indians on the nearby reservation. Only it seems that the cattle haven’t been making it to the reservation like they’re supposed to. Something has been happening to some of them along the way. Something crooked, no doubt, and the new marshal has barely arrived before there’s a murder connected to the scheme. He has to solve the killing, deal with the vengeful brother of a cowboy he was forced to shoot in self-defense, keep the Indians from leaving the reservation, and uncover the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the whole thing.

For the most part, it’s pretty standard stuff, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a gaping hole in the plot, too. But Walker always makes an impressive Western hero, and he’s supported here by a number of fine character actors like Morgan Woodward, Edgar Buchanan, and Barry Sullivan. There’s a good-looking hotel owner, too, played by Kathryn Hays, but she’s given almost nothing to do.

What makes YUMA worth watching, though, is a plot twist in the final few minutes that I didn’t see coming at all. Looking back, it’s set up fairly (the hole in the plot has nothing to do with the surprise), and while some of you might be able to predict it, I sure didn’t. And I always like it when that happens.

YUMA is short, only 75 minutes (it probably ran in a 90-minute time slot) and plays a lot like the old B-Westerns. I enjoyed it quite a bit and think it’s well worth a look if you’re a Western fan.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Boot Hill

Despite not caring much for APPALOOSA – or maybe because of it – I was still in the mood for a Western, and this one was close at hand. I remember really liking the Trinity movies starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (whose real names, respectively, are Mario Girotti and Carlo Pedersoli ), and although they’re not playing Trinity and Bambino, they’re both in this one, along with another old favorite from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Woody Strode.

BOOT HILL starts out in a fairly intriguing fashion. A traveling circus has stopped in a small Western town, and at the same time a mysterious stranger (Hill) arrives being pursued by gunmen. After he’s wounded in a shootout with his pursuers, the stranger hides in one of the circus wagons and leaves town with them the next day. Hired killers are still after him, though, and his presence draws down trouble on the circus performers, who wind up siding with him in his battle against an evil mine owner played by Victor Buono. The plot is revealed gradually, with a number of shootouts along the way leading up to a big final showdown.

There’s nothing here you haven’t seen many times before. BOOT HILL was written and directed by Giuseppe Colizzi. The script is pretty good, the direction less so. There are a lot of Sergio Leone style close-ups, but without the sweeping vistas that Leone also provides for the viewer. The action scenes are also hard to follow at times. And there are ’way too many grubby, bearded hombres who look too much alike, which often led me to think, “Wait a minute. Who’s that guy again?”

Despite these flaws, BOOT HILL is reasonably entertaining. Terence Hill always makes a good hero. Twenty years ago when I was writing the ABILENE series for Book Creations Inc. and Pocket Books, there was some discussion about adapting the books into a syndicated TV show that would have starred Terence Hill as Marshal Luke Travis. Nothing ever came of it, of course, but it would have been interesting. Bud Spencer isn’t given much to do in BOOT HILL, but he’s a good sidekick anyway. And the script has enough oddball bits to make it interesting.

BOOT HILL is available on several cheap compilations of public-domain Westerns, and I’ve also seen it as a single DVD for a buck at Dollar Tree, Wal-Mart, and places like that. It’s not a great movie by any means, but if you’ve got an extra dollar and an hour and a half to kill, there are worse ways to spend your time and money.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Wild West Monday

Wild West Monday is back, so head on out to your local library or bookstore, buy some Westerns, check out some Westerns, request more Westerns on the shelves. And if you haven't signed the petition yet, it only takes a few seconds.