A friend of mine told me about this blog, Reading California Fiction. The author covers all sorts of books, including many crime and mystery novels. The most recent post is about Chandler's THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER. I'm going to be digging through the archives to check out some of the older posts. I think a blog devoted to fiction set in a particular state is a good idea, and someone should do one about Texas fiction. Not me, though.
The first comic books I remember reading are mid-Fifties issues of SUPERMAN, BATMAN, and WALT DISNEY’S COMICS & STORIES that I came across a few years after they were published. But it wasn’t long after that that I encountered TALES TO ASTONISH, STRANGE TALES, and the other “monster” comics that Marvel was publishing at the time. These books featured short, stand-alone yarns heavily influenced by the horror and science-fiction movies of the Fifties, with titles like “Groot, the Monster from Planet X!” and “Taboo, the Thing from the Murky Swamp!” (Gotta get those exclamation points in there.)
I wasn’t a huge fan of those stories, but I read plenty of them. And when Marvel reprinted a bunch of them in the Seventies, I read some of those, too. So when I came across MONSTER MASTERWORKS, a trade paperback full of those reprinted stories, I had to pick it up and read it, for old time’s sake, if nothing else.
The biggest appeal of these stories now is the artwork. Most of them in this volume were penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Dick Ayers, the team responsible for so much great work on the various Marvel superhero titles a few years later. MONSTER MASTERWORKS also includes stories drawn by the great Steve Ditko and one story penciled by Kirby and inked by Bill Everett, the Golden Age icon who created the Submariner. (Quick – “Sub-MARE-in-er” or “Sub-ma-REEN-er”?)
Not surprisingly, the scripts are all by Stan Lee, and boy, are these stories silly, especially the ones drawn and probably plotted by Kirby. The Ditko stories, “The Threat of Tim Boo Ba!” (probably my favorite story in the book), “Zzutak, the Thing That Shouldn’t Exist!!” (whoa, two exclamation points, must be really scary, kids), and the positively restrained “Fear in the Night” at least have twist endings. Some of the other stories are pretty interesting, too, such as “The Brute That Walks!”, a yarn that foreshadows the creation of the Hulk a few years later.
All in all, I had a great time reading this collection. It didn’t quite make me feel like I was seven years old and sitting on the front porch of my parents’ house reading funny books again, but it came close.
I think I need to start a new category for some of my movie posts. I could call it Movies I’d Never Even Heard Of. I probably won’t, mind you, but if I did, CHARLIE BARTLETT would certainly fit into that category. I didn’t know anything about it, but it turned out to be a really good film, especially for one that I didn’t know existed.
Charlie Bartlett is a 17-year-old with an extremely wealthy and extremely ditsy mother and an absent father. The father’s absence plays into the plot later on, so I won’t say anything more about that. Charlie has just been expelled from an exclusive private boarding school for making phony driver’s licenses in his dorm room and selling them, and his mother decides that he should go to public school. This turns out to be a terrible idea at first, because the preppy, eccentric Charlie doesn’t fit in at all in today’s rough-and-tumble high school.
But things start to improve. Charlie falls in with the school’s drama club (especially the principal’s pretty daughter) and figures out a novel way to keep the school bully from beating him up. Soon he’s back to his old ways, acting as unofficial psychiatrist to his classmates (Charlie has been in therapy all his life, it seems, and knows a lot about such things) and prescribing medication that he scams out of his own psychiatrist. And he’s making money hand over fist at it, of course.
Up to this point, the movie has been pretty much a comedy, and a good one, too. But then it begins to take some serious, darker turns, and it also does that very well before finally coming to a satisfying conclusion. Anton Yelchin, an actor I hadn’t heard of, plays Charlie and does a great job. Kat Dennings, from NICK AND NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, is good as the principal’s daughter, and the principal himself is played by Robert Downey Jr., who as usual is fine in a role that’s about as far as you can get from the buffoonish high school principal who usually shows up in movies like this. CHARLIE BARTLETT is full of unexpected twists and character developments and some surprisingly sweet moments, and I’m glad we happened across it. If you haven’t seen it, or even heard of it until now, like me, I highly recommend it.
I got my copies of this one yesterday and I've seen it in Wal-Mart, too, so I know it's out there. It's the wrap-up of a storyline that's been running in the past three Longarm Giant Editions: LONGARM AND THE OUTLAW EMPRESS, LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN EAGLE SHOOTOUT, and LONGARM AND THE VALLEY OF SKULLS. While these books can be read as stand-alones, I think they're more effective if they're read in order. Jessica Starbuck and Ki from the old LONE STAR series play major roles in this one, and a character from another old Western series shows up before the book is over, too. I think these books are a lot of fun, and I hope the readers feel the same way.
I don’t suppose you could really consider any of Clive Cussler’s novels forgotten, but you don’t hear much about this one, and it has some historical significance because it was the first published appearance of Cussler’s long-running series character Dirk Pitt. Not, however, the first Pitt novel written. Chronologically, the first Pitt novel is PACIFIC VORTEX, which Cussler wrote but was unable to sell. THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER came next and was published in England by Sphere Books in 1973 under the title MAY DAY. Bantam brought it out as a paperback in the U.S. in 1977 as THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER. However, by that time, Pitt had appeared in the U.S. in hardback in what’s actually the third novel in the series, ICEBERG, his first appearance in the U.S. Then a few years later, following Cussler’s ascent onto the bestseller list with RAISE THE TITANIC!, Cussler dusted off that trunk book, PACIFIC VORTEX, and found a publisher for it. Confused yet? You would have been if you’d read THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER or ICEBERG back in the Seventies, because the books contain references back to previous volumes in the series that hadn’t actually been published yet. (Update: Check the comments for clarification on this book's publication history.)
With that bit of history out of the way, what about the books themselves? Well, knowing the order in which they actually run, story-wise, I read the first one, PACIFIC VORTEX, a few years ago, and while I thought the writing was pretty rough in spots, I enjoyed it. As I’ve said many times before, give me a writer with a distinctive voice, even if that voice isn’t as slick as some others. I’m just now getting back to Dirk Pitt. THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER gets off to a great start. A small U.S. air base on the Greek island of Thasos is attacked by a mysterious World War I-era German biplane. A ship belonging to NUMA (the National Underwater Marine Agency) happens to be nearby searching in the Aegean for a prehistoric fish that may not be extinct after all. Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino, who are troubleshooters for NUMA, happen to be flying in, too, in a World War II-era PBY, so we get a nice dogfight between the two vintage planes.
After that, Pitt has to investigate the reason for the attack, of course, which leads him into a conspiracy right out of a Sixties secret agent movie: there’s a beautiful woman who may or may not be trustworthy, an evil baddie who looks like Erich Von Stroheim (as Cussler points out frequently), an underground labyrinth with deadly dangers lurking in it, secret lairs, skin-diving, explosions, fistfights, double-crosses, a wrap-up where the bad guy stands around explaining everything . . . well, you get the idea. If you like this kind of stuff (and you know I do!), THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER is a lot of fun. At this point in his career, Cussler’s still not much of a stylist and has a tin ear for dialogue at times, but he keeps things moving along so well that doesn’t really matter, at least not to me. As a character, Dirk Pitt is a kind of a jackass at times, too, but you have to admire him because Cussler really heaps on the punishment but Pitt keeps taking on the bad guys anyway. I enjoyed this novel enough that I’ll certainly continue with the series, and I don’t think it’ll take me several years to get around to the next one. In fact, I have a copy of ICEBERG already and will probably read it later this year.
Coming up in Forgotten Books posts: I feel a Western binge coming on.
BODY OF LIES is a pretty good thriller about a CIA field agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his handler (Russell Crowe) trying to track down a terrorist mastermind in the Middle East. There’s almost no politics in this movie, which is fine with me. Instead it’s an anti-terrorism procedural with some classic espionage movie elements added to it, such as the abundant double- and triple-crosses and the fact that hardly anybody is telling the truth. There’s plenty of gritty action (not surprising since the movie was directed by Ridley Scott), tiny touches of humor here and there, and good performances by everyone involved. I don’t recall hearing much about this one when it came out, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but I enjoyed the movie and think that it’s well worth watching.
If you go over to Livia's blog, you can read the opening paragraphs of this book (which I think are really good -- again, not an unbiased reader!) and find out how to enter to win one of the free copies she's giving away.
LONGARM: HELL UP NORTH is the 365th entry in the long-running Longarm series, and it’s a good one. This yarn finds Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long in the far northern reaches of Dakota Territory, trying to bring in a fugitive from justice before winter closes in. When he’s wounded in the line of duty, he seeks help in a small, eerie town called Helldorado that’s been taken over by a gang of outlaws. The owlhoots are waiting there for a reason, although Longarm doesn’t know what it is, and not only does he have to conceal his identity as a lawman and try to stay alive, he also has to solve the mystery of what has brought the outlaws to Helldorado.
The author behind the Tabor Evans house-name this time around is Peter Brandvold, who knows the country he’s writing about quite well. That shows in the book, too, as he paints a vivid picture of the bleak Dakota Territory landscape with an ominous winter closing in. As always in a Brandvold novel, there’s plenty of well-written action, great dialogue, and numerous touches of humor. He remains one of the best in the business at picking out just the right details to make a scene come to life.
This is one of the most entertaining Longarms I’ve read in a while, and if you’re a fan of the series or just enjoy a good, gritty Western yarn, I recommend you pick up a copy.
(I think this is a nice essay, and I'm glad to publish it here on the blog.)
Boy, You're on Your Way By Peter Leonard
I remember when I was nine years old, going down the stairs to the basement, seeing my dad at his desk, white cinder block wall behind him, concrete floor. He was writing longhand on unlined, 8½ x 11 yellow paper, typewriter on a metal stand next to his chair. Across the room was a red wicker waste basket, balls of yellow paper on the floor around it, scenes that didn't work, pages that didn't make it in the basket. In retrospect, it looked like a prison cell but my father didn't seem conscious of his surroundings, deep in concentration, midway through a western called Hombre that would be made into a movie starring Paul Newman.
Forty years later I remember visiting my father after work one evening. I was stressed out after presenting a new ad campaign to Volkswagen that got lukewarm reception. Elmore no longer wrote in a cinder block basement. With forty novels and a dozen scripts to his credit, he now worked in the living room of his manor home in Bloomfield Hills, a tiny suburb of Detroit. What struck me was that his desk looked much the same as it had that day when I was nine. Same yellow pad, and half a dozen balls of yellow paper next to the waste basket against the wall, electric typewriter on a metal stand behind the desk. No computer anywhere in sight. Elmore in Levis and sandals and a dark blue Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, talking enthusiastically about the opening scene of his new book called The Hot Kid.
Watching my father, I thought, here's a guy who really loves what he's doing, and I didn't. Earlier that afternoon, during my presentation, the VW ad manager had taken my first campaign board and flung it like a frisbee across the conference room. And I thought that was our best idea.
I don't know if my observations that day were the final motivator, or if it was my continued disinterest in advertising, but a couple months later I decided to write a novel. I was forty nine. I remember sitting on a couch in the family room, writing the opening scene of a book called Invasion, while two of my kids, Alex and Max, were doing their homework. I read what I had written and thought: this isn't bad, maybe I can do it.
The last piece of fiction I had written was in 1974. I had taken a creative writing class my senior year in college and really enjoyed it. I never aspired to be a novelist, but after graduating I wrote a six page short story -- I can't remember the title -- and mailed it to my father to see what he thought. A few days later I received his three page critique. One line summed up his point of view. "Your characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun. They all look and sound the same." That from a writer who never used similes or metaphors.
I had not written another word of fiction in twenty five years. But as I looked back, it had less to do with Elmore's comments and more to do with getting a job and getting married and raising kids and starting a business. I may also have been intimidated because my father was so good. In fact, I remember having dinner with Senator Don Riegel -- he lived in the neighborhood and our daughters were friends. I told Don I was writing a book and he said, "You writing a book is like Michael Jordon's son trying out for the NBA."
I said, "Don, thanks for your support."
He said, "No, I was kidding. I'm sure you'll make it.'"
It took a year and a half to finish Invasion. I didn't want Elmore involved in any way, so he suggested sending it to Jackie Farber, his former editor at Delacourt.
He said, "Jackie's good. She'll tell you the truth."
I was excited. I thought it was a good story with good characters. I mailed the three hundred page manuscript to Jackie and called her a week later. I said, "What'd you think?"
"You've got a nice facile style," Jackie said. "But I have one question. Who's your protagonist?"
I knew who the main character was, but if it wasn't obvious, I had a problem. I was disappointed, but I could understand what Jackie was saying. I had thirty seven characters, and a murky plot that needed thinning out. I didn't try to defend the book. I put it aside remembering the prophetic words of Russell Banks:
"Most novelists have a failed attempt or two, books that didn't work, didn't make it. Pages in a desk drawer somewhere."
I didn't dwell on the failure of my first novel. I had another idea and began writing Quiver, a story about a woman whose husband is killed in a bow hunting accident by her sixteen-year-old son. While the main character, Kate McCall deals with the loss of her husband and her son's surly guilt, her ex-con, ex-boyfriend comes back in her life and sets into motion a series of events culminating in a life or death confrontation with a gang of killers.
I sent Quiver to my agent, Jeff Posternak at the Wylie Agency. He read it and said, "I guarantee this is going to sell."
And it did.
I remember when Jeff called with the good news. It was an overcast day in March. I was in my office, looking out the window, trying to think of a headline for an ad. The phone rang and I saw the New York caller ID. I picked it up and said, "hello."
Jeff said, "I've got good news for you. Are you sitting down? You're going to be published. St. Martin's has made an offer for two books."
I can't tell you how elated I was, finally breaking through after three and a half years. It's a real kick to hold your first published book in your hands, and then to see it on a shelf in bookstores. I don't think that'll ever get old. I called my father and told him.
I’m not a big fan of, nor well read in, the genre sometimes known as “Northerns”. These are stories set in Alaska or Canada, usually centered around the Gold Rush. When I say I’m not a big fan of Northerns, I don’t mean that I dislike them. I simply haven’t read enough of them to say one way or the other. I’ve definitely enjoyed most of the books I’ve read that fall into that category, though. This anthology, published by Mosaic Press in 1999, which features a dozen pulp yarns with Northwest Mounted Policemen as their heroes, is one of the best Northerns I’ve run across.
Of course, that might be expected considering the line-up of authors: Lester Dent, Ryerson Johnson, Hugh B. Cave, Murray Leinster, Frederick Nebel, and Talmage Powell, among others. These are all well-known and well-respected pulp wordsmiths, although with the exception of Johnson they’re more famous for their work in other genres. The lesser-known writers in the book also turn in good stories. Dent’s two stories about the otherwise-nameless Silver Corporal are especially interesting. Published at the same time as Dent was beginning his long run on the Doc Savage novels, the stories show some striking similarities to his work on Doc. Though the Silver Corporal is very different physically from the Man of Bronze, he has the same superhuman strength, and his enemies have the same tendency to come to a bad end in the traps they set themselves. The novella by Nebel, “The Valley of Wanted Men”, is full of the same sort of fast-paced, hardboiled action that can be found in his private eye stories for BLACK MASK and DIME DETECTIVE. “Spoilers of the Lost World” by Roger Daniels even adds a fantasy element to a typical Northern adventure. Here’s the complete table of contents, along with original publication info:
"Deadly Trek to Albertville" by Talmage Powell Originally published in POSSE, March 1957 "The Frozen Phantom" by Lester Dent Originally published in WESTERN TRAILS, April 1933 "Spoilers of the Lost World" by Roger Daniels Originally published in NORTH-WEST ROMANCES, Fall 1938 "White Water Run" by Hugh B. Cave Originally published in WESTERN STORY, 14 February 1942 "Red Snows" by Harold F. Cruickshank Originally published in THRILLING ADVENTURES, February 1938 "The Driving Force" by Murray Leinster Originally published in COMPLETE NORTHWEST MAGAZINE, July 1938 "Snow Ghost" by Lester Dent, featuring The Silver Corporal Originally published in WESTERN TRAILS, May-June 1933 "Phantom Fangs" by John Starr Originally published in NORTH-WEST ROMANCES, Spring 1942 "The Dangerous Dan McGrew" by Ryerson Johnson Originally published in ACE-HIGH MAGAZINE, 2 March 1931 "Death Cache" by Lester Dent, featuring The Silver Corporal Previously unpublished "Doom Ice" by Dan O'Rourke Originally published in NORTH-WEST ROMANCES, Summer 1942 "The Valley of Wanted Men" by Frederick Nebel Originally published in NORTH-WEST ROMANCES, Spring 1940
There’s also an excellent introduction by Canadian pulp expert Don Hutchison about the genesis of such Northern-oriented pulp magazines as NORTH-WEST ROMANCES and COMPLETE NORTHWEST MAGAZINE. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a single Northern pulp, but I may have to remedy that one of these days. All in all, an excellent anthology, highly recommended to anybody who enjoys action-packed pulp yarns.
I’ll admit that the X-Men movies are probably my least favorite superhero films (other than the dreadful first Hulk movie) because as they go along they stray farther and farther from the continuity established in the comic book. I think the Spider-Man movies and IRON MAN were successful because they at least stay true to the spirit of the characters, even if they do condense decades worth of storylines into a few hours.
Despite feeling that way about the X-Men movies, I had no doubt that I’d watch X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE. I like the Wolverine character and have ever since he was introduced, and Hugh Jackman did a good job playing him in the other films. As it turns out, I actually liked WOLVERINE more than the other movies in the series, with a couple of reservations, however.
First of all – and this isn’t really the movie’s fault – I never cared for the idea of giving Wolverine an origin story. I really liked the way he was presented early on in the comics as a very enigmatic character with occasional hints that he was more than a hundred years old. That way he could have been anywhere, done anything. There were no real limits on his background. Then the folks at Marvel decided they had to give him not just one origin story, but two, one going back 150 years or so to his childhood, the other detailing how he came to have adamantium bonded to his skeleton. But I ask you, what’s the point of having a mysterious character if you then take all the mystery away from him? I suppose being an enigma eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns, but I didn’t feel like Wolverine had reached that point. Of course, the powers that be at Marvel didn’t come and ask me for my opinion, did they? But there it is for what it’s worth.
That said, the movie version does a pretty good job of being a faithful adaptation of those two origin stories, at least as I remember them. (It’s been a while since I read them.) It veers off from the comic book continuity as it goes along, bringing in characters and situations from much later, but the scripters make it all work pretty well. I don’t think WOLVERINE is a great film, but it’s a consistently entertaining special-effects-laden superhero movie with plenty of action, a little pathos, and a little humor. It must have worked, because it made me want to go read some comic books.
Now for my other quibble. You’d think that with the hundreds of names that appear in the opening and closing credits for this movie, there would have been some place to mention Len Wein, the writer who actually, you know, created the character of Wolverine. But unless I missed it, which is always possible, I didn’t see his name anywhere. I know, I know, that’s the comic book biz for you. But sometimes it bothers me, and this was one of those times.
Over on her blog, Livia is giving away three signed copies of the paperback edition of FRANKLY MY DEAR, I'M DEAD, the first Delilah Dickinson Literary Tour Mystery. While I'm obviously not an unbiased reader, I think it's a really entertaining book. Check it out.
This post doesn’t include a cover scan because the copy I own happens to be coverless, and there doesn’t seem to be one anywhere on-line. But what about the book itself, you ask?
LUST SHOP is narrated by Pete Ritchie, who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles and owns a garage specializing in repairing foreign cars. Pete is a young, virile guy, of course, who enjoys romancing the rich, beautiful married women who bring in their foreign sports cars for him to work on, hence the title. To his surprise, Pete gets really hung up on one of his customers, a gorgeous blonde named Chris. She won’t have anything to do with him, though, until he agrees to handle a little problem for her. It seems that she’s being blackmailed . . .
Well, you know as well as I do that this is a set-up for a Gold Medal novel. However, since this isn’t a Gold Medal novel but rather an Evening Reader, Pete doesn’t jump right away at the chance to get involved in Chris’s troubles. Instead he tries to distract himself by bedding various other women in a series of scenes that seem like nothing more than padding at first. In a nice twist, though, later on they actually turn out to be connected to the main plot. When Pete finally does decide to try to get the blackmailer off of Chris’s back, you know things won’t turn out the way he wants them to. They’re just going to get worse. Again, this isn’t a Gold Medal, so even though you’d have to call it a hardboiled crime novel, the plot doesn’t play out exactly like you might expect if it was written by Charles Williams or Gil Brewer.
The thing about books published under the “John Dexter” house-name is that you never know what you’re going to get. I’m reasonably certain that this book isn’t by Robert Silverberg, Lawrence Block, or Donald E. Westlake. All the Harry Whittington novels published under the John Dexter name have been identified, and anyway, LUST SHOP doesn’t read anything like Whittington’s work. The breezy, wise-cracking style reminds me a little of the Clyde Allison books by William Knoles, but this doesn’t seem like a Knoles plot to me. Which means the actual author is probably one of the half-dozen or so other writers who turned out books for William Hamling’s sleaze publishing empire. I have no real idea which one it might have been.
LUST SHOP certainly isn’t some sort of lost classic or even a top-tier sleaze novel, but it is a fast-paced, fairly entertaining yarn with a couple of decent plot twists and the occasional nice line. If you like this sort of book – and obviously I do – it’s worth reading if you come across a copy. I recently picked up a nice stack of coverless John Dexter books (including a couple of Whittingtons), so you can expect to be reading about more of them here on the blog.
A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed THRILLER: STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT, the first anthology put together by the International Thriller Writers. Now the follow-up, THRILLER 2: STORIES YOU JUST CAN’T PUT DOWN is out, and for the most part, it’s a pretty entertaining bunch of stories, too.
First of all, I like the subtitles on these books. They remind me of those great Alfred Hitchcock anthologies from the Sixties and Seventies. In fact, there may have been a book called ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT. (I’m too lazy today to look it up and see for sure.) Secondly, the ITW has a pretty talented roster of members to draw from, and as a result there are a number of really good stories in these anthologies, by big names and newcomers alike.
I’m not going to go through all of them in this volume, but I will point out a few favorites: “Can You Help Me Out Here?” by Robert Ferrigno is a sly gangland execution story with a final twist I didn’t see coming. “A Calculated Risk” by Sean Chercover is a tropical adventure that I thought was really well-written. “Bedtime for Mr. Li” by David J. Montgomery is an interesting, well-done hitman story, something that seems to be a minor theme in this anthology since several stories feature such characters. Another case in point in Jon Land’s “Killing Time”, which I really enjoyed. Ridley Pearson’s “Boldt’s Broken Angel” is part of the author’s series about cop Lou Boldt and generates considerable suspense. Three stories are by romantic suspense authors I hadn’t read before: “Vintage Death” by Lisa Jackson, “On the Run” by Carla Neggers, and “Watch Out for My Girl” by Joan Johnston. I liked all of them well enough that I’ll probably give some of their novels a try.
Of course, in any anthology the odds are that some of the stories won’t be to my taste, and that’s true here, but there were only one or two that I started and didn’t finish because I didn’t care for them. In a 500-page anthology with 23 stories, that’s a pretty good winning percentage. I enjoyed THRILLER 2 quite a bit and don’t hesitate to recommend it as another fine collection from the ITW.
We're getting the same two questions from people about the PWA Shamus Banquet at the Slippery Noodle blues bar in Indianapolis, Fri. Oct. 16, 6:30 to 9:00: Are tickets still available? and Can I come if I'm not a writer?
We have managed to INCREASE our seating at the banquet, so tickets will be on sale until OCT. 1. And ANYONE can come--writers, agents, editors and FANS. Tickets are $50. Email Bob Randisi at RRandisi@aol.com for details on how to get your tickets. It is STILL a ticketed event, with no entry without one.
We caught up to this Clint Eastwood-directed drama from a while back, and I was glad we did. CHANGELING is based on the true story of Christine Collins, a single mother from Los Angeles whose son disappears in 1928. Several months later, a boy is found in DeKalb, Illinois, who is identified as the missing youngster. When he’s brought back to L.A., though, Christine insists that he’s not her son, which earns her the enmity of the Los Angeles police force, especially the detective in charge of the case who feels that Christine is trying to embarrass him.
From there the plot goes through numerous twists and turns, and when seemingly unrelated elements crop up, you know they’re going to wind up being connected to the disappearance of Christine’s son. Eventually you get police corruption, political in-fighting, mass murder, media frenzies, and people being thrown into the psycho ward. It’s harrowing stuff, especially knowing that it’s based on a true story, but very compelling and well-done.
Angelina Jolie plays Christine, and while her off-screen celebrity makes it difficult for her to get past the “Hey, it’s Angelina Jolie!” reaction from the viewer, she does a pretty good job for most of the film. The supporting cast is good, too, most notably Jeffery Donovan, who usually plays a good guy but is really slimy here as the police detective. The recreation of Los Angeles in the 1920s is very effective. There are one or two holes in the plot that bothered me, but not enough to ruin the movie.
Overall, CHANGELING is a grim but rewarding movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I think it’s well worth watching.
I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a paperback from 1957 and it’s got a beautiful blonde on the cover and the hero’s name is Dex Nolan . . . well, I think, “This is my kind of book.” That reaction isn’t always right, of course. Just because a hardboiled crime novel was published in the Fifties doesn’t make it good. But the odds are that I’ll enjoy it, and in this case, my instincts were right on the money.
You really have to be a longtime fan of this stuff to recognize the name Floyd Mahannah. He wrote only a half-dozen or so novels, but he was a prolific author of hardboiled short stories and novelettes, many of them published in the iconic digest magazine MANHUNT.
THE GOLDEN WIDOW finds former cop Dex Nolan in a tough spot as the story opens. Having left the police force to operate a gold mine in Arizona, he’s just lost the property in a lawsuit over unpaid taxes. So he’s broke and at loose ends, and when a former girlfriend shows up asking him to help her because she’s being blackmailed, you know Dex is going to say yes. You also know that his decision is going to wind up landing him in a lot of trouble, and of course you’d be right. It seems that the former girlfriend’s husband has been murdered, and while she has an alibi for that killing, she’s up to her neck in other assorted troubles. Dex, acting like a private eye even though he’s not one officially, locates the blackmailer, and sure enough, that guy winds up dead in short order, too. That’s just the start of it, though. You get gangsters, drug smuggling, a suitcase full of loot, the cops chasing Dex for murders he didn’t commit, shootouts in the desert, and more double- and triple-crosses than you can keep up with. Dex takes a lot of punishment in this book, both physical and emotional, before the final twist comes barreling down on him and the reader.
Ultimately, you may spot the killer in this one – I did – but the fun in reading it is in Mahannah’s tough-minded prose and the classic Fifties setting. THE GOLDEN WIDOW is kind of a generic novel, but I mean that in a good way, in that it’s a prime example of the sort of book that I grew up reading and enjoying. I’ll probably get around to reading the rest of Mahannah’s novels. I have another one on hand and hope to get to it soon.
From 2001, this neat little psychological thriller isn’t quite old enough to count as a Movie I’ve Missed, but it’s well worth watching if you haven’t seen it. Matthew McConaughey plays a guy who walks into an FBI office and confesses that his brother is the serial killer known as the God’s Hand Killer. Most of the rest of the movie is a series of flashbacks about the lives of the two brothers that starts out as a bucolic, Mayberry-like coming of age story and then takes a dark turn that keeps getting darker and darker. There’s a little gore, but the violence is actually pretty restrained for the most part. You also get several late twists in the plot, most of which you’ll probably see coming, but I was surprised by the final one. It’s all well-acted but unrelentingly grim (except for one hilarious scene centered around a schoolyard discussion of “The Dukes of Hazzard”). FRAILTY is a good film, and I’m glad we caught up with it.
(This story first appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of SKULLDUGGERY, a small press mystery magazine edited by Will Murray. I've resisted the urge to do any rewriting, other than correcting some typos and fixing one geographical mistake I made back then.)
Play by the Rules -- by James Reasoner
Jan wasn’t waiting for me on the dock when I brought the Santana into the boat basin, and I suppose that’s when I began to worry. I got the boat tied down and went at a fast walk toward the motel, two blocks away from the beach.
Nothing looked out of order as I approached. Business was good and all of the little pink cabins were occupied. A few of the parking spaces were empty at the moment, since some of the guests were out sightseeing or shopping. I couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension that had hit me, though. Jan had been there to greet me every time I’d brought in the shrimp boat during the two years we had lived in Fulton Beach.
When I went between the two big palm trees that flanked the entrance to the motel courtyard, I could see a strange car, a little red Datsun, parked next to the two-story cabin that served as the motel office and our living quarters. The way the Datsun was parked blocked off our station wagon.
I opened the screen door and went into the office, called, “Jan!”
Her voice came from the living room upstairs. “Up here, Josh.” She didn’t sound like anything was wrong. I slowed down and went up the stairs at a normal pace.
“Hi, Josh. Look who’s here,” she said when I came into the room.
The man sitting on the sofa with her was somebody I had seen before, but I couldn’t recall where. He was just on the far side of thirty, like myself, with long dark hair and a quick grin. His clothes were expensive without being flashy. He stood up and stuck out a hand.
“Josh! Long time no see, old buddy. Hope you don’t mind my barging in and introducing myself to your lovely wife here.”
I hesitated, then shook with him. “Hello. It, uh, has been a long time.”
“Saigon in ’69, right? You were playing Buz Sawyer while the rest of us had to be content with being plain grunts.”
That’s all it took. As soon as he said Buz Sawyer, I knew who he was. His name was Howard Cole, I had known him slightly in Vietnam, and I had never been able to stand him.
I used to run into him every so often in Saigon. He worked in the supply depot, and if I remembered right, there had been some rumors about black marketeering that involved him. He always called me Buz Sawyer because I worked in Intelligence. We had never been friends, let alone “old buddies”.
Still, there was no point in being rude to him now. I said, “Sit down, Howard. How’ve you been?”
He smiled, showing me all his teeth, and the phoniness of it put me even more on edge. “Never better,” he said. “I happened to be in the area on business, and I thought I’d drop in and see my pal Josh Denton. Boy, we’ve both come a long way since ’Nam, haven’t we?”
He looked around, letting his eyes linger a little longer than I liked on Jan. I didn’t say anything, and he went on, “Yeah, you’ve got it made, Josh. Nice little business, a boat, sand and sea, and a pretty wife. You’re a lucky guy, you know that?”
I was feeling more uneasy now. Howard Cole always had an angle, and I could sense some unknown currents moving around under the surface.
Jan was blushing a little from his flattery. “You will stay for supper with us, won’t you, Mr. Cole?”
“Hey, call me Howard. Sure, I’ll stay if it won’t be any bother. What I’m really interested in is a couple of rooms for tonight. Some friends of mine should be here a little later and I thought if you had any vacancies . . .”
“Sorry, we’re full up,” I said quickly.
Jan shook her head. “No, we’ve got one cabin empty. The Evanses next door left early, Josh. Could you and your friends manage with one cabin, Howard? It has two double beds.”
“I’m sure we could, Jan. You don’t mind if I call you Jan? Tell you what, I’ll unload my stuff now. Okay, Josh?”
I didn’t know what to say except, “Sure.” I didn’t want Cole in our motel, but I didn’t have any tangible reason to refuse him.
But I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t believe his friendliness for a minute. He had some reason for showing up, and it wasn’t to relive old times.
When Cole had gone downstairs to unload his Datsun, Jan said, “Is something wrong, Josh? You didn’t seem too pleased to see Howard.”
I didn’t see any point in worrying her. “No, I was just . . . surprised. I think I’ll go down and help him, see if he needs anything.”
What I hoped was that he’d spill what was going on.
He was taking a suitcase out of the trunk of his car when I came out the office door. I said, “Let me get that for you,” and reached to take it.
He jerked it away and said, “No! I mean, ah, I’ve got it.” He shot a quick glance at me and I could see fear in his eyes.
I wondered if he could see it in mine.
For a moment, I considered telling him to get out. But what would I tell Jan when she asked me why I had done it?
I said, “You’ll be in this first cabin here, right next to the office. When do you think your friends will be here?”
He looked at his watch, a big sparkling gold thing. “They should be here by eight-thirty or nine. Could you come in for a minute, Josh? There’s something I’d like to talk over with you in private.”
“All right,” I said. “The door should be unlocked.”
It was. He went in first, carrying the suitcase. I followed him in. He put the suitcase on one of the beds while I went over and punched the air conditioner on.
When I turned around, he had a gun in his hand and it was pointing right at me.
“Now don’t get upset, Josh,” he said. “Everything’s going just fine.”
I didn’t know how to react. I had never had a gun pointed at me before, even in Vietnam. I said stupidly, “What’s going on here?”
“You’re going to help save my life,” he said. “You don’t have to know the details, you just have to do what I tell you. That way, you and Jan don’t get hurt.”
The façade of brash charm was gone now. His face was a taut mask with gleaming eyes. I said, “Take it easy, Howard. I’m not going to argue with you. What is it you want?”
“We’re going to go back outside and act like nothing’s happened. The three of us will eat dinner, and then when my friends get here, they’ll keep Jan company while you and I go on a little cruise in your boat. It’s a simple business deal.”
I couldn’t keep the cold anger out of my voice as I said, “Nothing had better happen to Jan.”
“She’ll be all right – if you do what I tell you. If you’re a good enough actor, she doesn’t even have to know anything’s going on.”
I had been watching the pistol in his hand, and it was as steady as could be. Jumping him wouldn’t get me anything but shot. I sighed and said, “Okay, Cole, you’re the boss.”
“This suitcase is all the luggage I’ve got. Is the key to this cabin in your office?”
“All right, I’ll lock the door on our way out. Let’s go.” He slipped the gun somewhere inside his sports coat.
We went back to the office and I gave Cole the key to his cabin. Jan came downstairs while we were there and asked, “All squared away?”
Cole gave her his toothy grin. “Sure is.”
“I hope you like fish, Howard. Even considering the circumstances, we eat a lot of it.”
The next couple of hours were an ordeal as the three of us ate supper and then sat outside on the redwood lawn furniture. I tried to keep up normal conversation so that Jan wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong.
Guests were coming and going all the time, usually pausing to chat. Tourists with fishing gear walked by, heading for the fishing dock. We could see other shrimpers pulling into the basin, and a cool breeze was blowing in from the bay.
It was just like hundreds of other pleasant evenings, except that a man with a gun was sitting with us.
Cole was reclining back in a lounge chair when a big car turned in between the palms and pulled up into the courtyard. As it came to a stop, Cole sat up sharply, the self-assured grin falling off his face.
Three men got out of the car and walked toward us. One of them wore a lightweight business suit and walked in front. The other two hung back and were dressed in slacks and sports shirts. They were followers. The man in front was definitely a leader.
He was tall and big without being fat. Iron-gray hair curled tightly against his head. He came up to us and said, “Hello, Cole. Are these your friends?”
Cole stood up respectfully when the man approached. He answered, “Yes, sir, Mr. Bannon. This is Josh and Jan Denton.”
Bannon turned to us and said, “How do you do?” The corners of his mouth lifted briefly, but you couldn’t call it a smile.
“Hello,” I said. Jan, as usual, was more voluble.
“Hi. Welcome to Bayside Courts. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“I’m sure we will,” Bannon said. “If you’ll excuse us, my associates and I have some business to talk over with Mr. Cole.”
The four of them went into Cole’s cabin and shut the door. For a moment I considered getting Jan into the station wagon and making a run for it. Then I saw the curtain in Cole’s cabin move, and one of Bannon’s men looked calmly out at us.
Jan said, “You’ve sure been in some kind of mood since you got in. Is something wrong?”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve just got some things on my mind.”
I was thinking about how much this man Bannon reminded me of an Intelligence colonel I had known. I remembered the time we caught a VC saboteur and the colonel interrogated him. The man had planted a bomb in a Saigon school that killed thirty kids when it went off. When all the questioning was over, the colonel calmly put a pistol to the saboteur’s head and pulled the trigger.
I didn’t think Bannon would need even that much of an excuse.
Jan and I sat there for another half-hour, talking about not much of anything, before Cole, Bannon, and the other two came back out. It was full dark by then, and bugs were beginning to congregate around the lights.
All four of them came back across the courtyard to where we were sitting. Cole said, “Say, Josh, I was just thinking that I’d enjoy a little run on your boat, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, Josh doesn’t like to take the boat out at night,” Jan said. Cole looked hard at me. Bannon had a deceptive look of casual interest on his face.
“I guess I could make an exception for an old friend,” I said.
A smile broke out on Cole’s face. “Great! I’ve never been on a boat, and I just want to ride around a little. I’ll pay you for the gas.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I stood up.
I could tell Jan was surprised by my decision, but she didn’t say anything. Bannon sat down in the chair I had just vacated and said, “I was wondering if you could tell us about this part of the country, Mrs. Denton, while your husband and Mr. Cole are gone. We’re from back east, and this is our first trip to Texas.”
So they were going to be watching Jan while Cole and I were out on the boat. The threat didn’t have to be spoken for me to understand it. I looked at her long brown hair and deep green eyes and knew I was going to behave.
We left Jan extolling the virtues of coastal living to the three men and walked down to the boat basin. As we walked, Cole said, “You’re being very smart about this whole thing, Josh. You keep cooperating and everyone will be happy.”
“I don’t want you happy,” I told him as I stepped onto the Santana. “I just want you away from here.”
“I will be,” he said, voice grim now. “By tomorrow, this’ll all be a memory. Now let’s go.”
I got the engine going and backed the boat out of its slip. Cole stood beside me just inside the open wheelhouse, gripping a railing.
The Santana is just a small shrimper, since fishing is only a sideline with me. The little wheelhouse and the hydraulic lift system are the only projections on the deck. There’s no place to sit except on the deck, which is usually oily and dirty, so Cole stood up while I cruised down the basin. I had filled the tanks on my way in that afternoon.
We rounded the jetty and came out into the waters of Aransas Bay. The wind was getting up, and the ride was rougher than inside the protected basin. I decided it was about time I knew where I was going.
“The other side of St. Joseph Island,” Cole replied to my question. “Out into the Gulf. I’ve got the longitude and latitude. Will that help?”
“It might come in handy.”
I think the sarcasm was lost on him. The rocking boat seemed to make him nervous. He held on tight with both hands, staring out at the dark water.
After we had gone several miles in silence, Cole said, “I guess you’d like to know what this is all about.”
“Not particularly,” I answered, and was surprised to realize that it was the truth. All I wanted was for it to be over.
His unease had peeled away his glibness and left him with a need for honest communication. “I’d like to tell you about it, Josh,” he said, “even if we never were friends like I pretended.”
“All right.” I decided conversation wouldn’t hurt anything.
“It all started with a girl. You remember I was always pretty much of a swinger.”
I didn’t remember. I hadn’t cared that much about him.
“This was different, though. It was more than anything I’d ever felt before. I wanted to marry this girl. I still do, but there’s a problem.”
He paused as if to let me comment, but I didn’t say anything.
He went on after a minute, “You see, she’s Bannon’s daughter. And he doesn’t like me very much. I can’t see myself marrying Elaine over his objections even though I love her, can you?”
I was glad he said it and not me. I was surprised he would be so blunt with himself.
“I’ve got to get his approval, Josh. I decided the best way would be to go into his business.”
“A business you conduct with guns.”
“All right, maybe it offends your morals. I don’t care. If I pass this test tonight, I open the door to plenty of money and a beautiful girl and the easy life. I won’t turn my back on that.”
The dim lights on the panel must have been bright enough that he could see my face and read the disgust on it. “Damn it, Josh,” he exclaimed, “you just don’t understand! It’s all a game, and if you’re going to win, you have to be willing to do anything. Anything! There aren’t any rules.”
“There’s no point in us arguing,” I said softly. “I would like to know how Jan and I got mixed up in this, though.”
“We’ll be picking up a shipment for Bannon. He left it up to me to work out the details. I had made arrangements to use another boat, but that deal fell through at the last minute. I had heard you were down here in this area and had a boat, so I checked around until I found you.”
Bitterness boiled up in me. “So you went out and involved two innocent people with a bunch of killers.”
“Bannon’s just a businessman,” he protested.
“I saw his eyes, Cole. He’s a killer.”
“Look, you’d better just worry about doing what I tell you.” The gun came out of his coat. “I don’t need any goddamn lecture.”
I shut up.
In the back of my mind, a fear was growing. If what I suspected was true, we were going to pick up a shipment of drugs. I didn’t think a man like Bannon would expose part of a smuggling pipeline unless he intended to do something about any possible witnesses.
Cole’s ambition might well have written the death sentence for Jan and me.
I followed Cole’s directions until we were well out in the Gulf and the lights of land were only a distant scattering of fireflies. I slowed the engine and came to a stop at the location he had given me.
Cole looked at the luminous dial of his watch. “We’re a little early,” he said. “It should be soon, though.”
It was five minutes later that I heard the sound of another boat approaching. It came out of the darkness without running lights and slid in beside the Santana. Cole still had the gun in his hand.
“Lupe!” he called. The other vessel was a battered fishing boat and it was silent for long seconds after Cole’s hail.
Then an answering call came back in accented tones. “Sí, Señor Cole. You come from Señor Bannon, no?”
“That’s right. I have something for you.” He stepped out onto the deck, holding the pistol in one hand and a thick envelope in the other.
“And I have something for you.”
With the sound of the wind and the waves in my ears, I almost didn’t hear the shot, but I saw the flash from the shadows of the other boat. Cole grunted and staggered back against me.
Something zipped past my ear and I spun the wheel. Not away from the other boat, but toward it. Cole moaned and slumped to the deck. I ducked to get what cover I could as more bullets thudded into the wheelhouse wall.
The Santana may not be the fastest boat around, but she’s sturdy. The impact knocked me off my feet as the two boats collided with the sound of splintering wood and fiberglass.
Cole cried, “No!” and then I heard a splash. When I turned my head, he was gone. The gun was lying on the deck.
I grabbed it up and emptied it at the fishing boat, not caring if I hit anything. I spun the wheel again and opened the throttle all the way. A little distance appeared between the boats.
Within a few minutes, it was obvious that the other boat wasn’t giving chase. I couldn’t see any activity on board as I pulled away. I didn’t know if any of my shots had connected, but I didn’t care. The Santana was going home.
I felt a pang of guilt about Cole. I knew he had been bleeding, and I had seen fins cutting sleekly through the water. Searching for him would have been futile. Still, I couldn’t help but feel bad about the way things had turned out for him.
Then I got down to some serious trembling as the fear reaction finally hit me.
By the time I piloted the Santana into the boat basin at Fulton Beach, I had decided what I was going to do. There was nothing left but a confrontation with Bannon and the hope that he would believe the truth.
I walked into the motel courtyard on still shaky legs. Most of the cabins were dark, but lights were still on in the office. Before I got there, a form stepped out from the shadow of a palm tree.
“Hello, Mr. Denton.” It was Bannon. “Where’s Cole?”
I took a deep breath. “He’s somewhere in the Gulf. He’s dead.”
I couldn’t see his face, but there was no surprise in Bannon’s voice as he said, “Is that so? I’m glad you’re all right, Mr. Denton.”
I saw it then, understood what had happened. “There wasn’t any shipment at all,” I said. “You set him up. He told me you didn’t like him. Where’s my wife?” There was an edge of hysteria in my voice.
“She’s inside watching television, as far as I know. That’s what she said she was going to do. You can’t prove anything, Mr. Denton. Let me take care of Cole’s bill.”
“He didn’t owe a thing.”
“If that’s the way you want it. You can go inside now if you want to. We’ll be gone shortly. We won’t be staying the night.”
He faded away into the darkness, leaving me there listening to the sound of the waves rolling in and thinking what a poor idiot Cole had been.
A couple of years ago when I was putting together my short story collection OLD TIMES' SAKE for Ramble House, there were a few stories of mine I simply couldn't find, not the manuscripts or the magazines in which the stories were published. As I mentioned a while back, Livia came across a box of books and magazines at her parents' house that had a couple of the issues with the lost stories. If all goes as planned, I'm going to post the first one of them here tomorrow, which will be this particular story's first appearance in almost thirty years.
In the meantime, there are still two more stories I can remember that are nowhere to be found: a mystery called "Dreams Before Breakfast", which was published in either SKULLDUGGERY or SPIDERWEB (small press mystery magazines that were put out by the same people) in the late Seventies or early Eighties; and a science fiction story called "Bugeyes", which appeared in the Winter 1984/85 issue of SPACE & TIME. (I was able to look that up on the Internet; I had no idea when it came out other than sometime in the Eighties.) If any of you long-time collectors happen to have either of these stories on your shelves and would be willing to photocopy or scan them, I'd love to see them again after all these years, and I might even publish them here on the blog.
I don't have copies of any of my confession or men's magazine stories, either, but it's probably better if they stay lost.
(A friend sent this to me, so I thought I'd give it a shot. As usual, I'm not tagging anybody, but if you want to play along, feel free.)
Tired of all of those surveys made up by high school kids? ‘Have you ever kissed someone?’‘Missed someone?’ ‘Told someone you loved them?’ ‘Drank alcohol?’ Here are 50 questions for the people who are a little more “mature”…
1. What bill do you hate paying the most? Quarterly payment to the IRS. 2. Where was the last place you had a romantic dinner? Charlotte Plummer's Restaurant in Rockport, Texas. 3. Last time you puked from drinking? Never. 4. When was the last time you got drunk and danced on a bar? Again, never. 5. Name of your first grade teacher? Mrs. Simmons (she was also my next-door neighbor) 6. What do you really want to be doing right now? Fishing off the pier at Rockport Beach. 7. What did you want to be when you were growing up? History teacher, librarian, then writer. 8. How many colleges did you attend? Two 9. Why did you choose the shirt that you have on right now? Comfort 10. Gas prices? I don't pay that much attention to 'em, because I don't drive much. 11. If you could move anywhere and take someone with you? The Texas coast, and Livia, of course. 12. First thought when the alarm went off this morning? "Not today. I can't do it today." 13. Last thought before going to sleep last night? I have no idea. 14. Favorite style of underwear? Boxers 15. Favorite style of underwear for the opposite sex? Skimpy. 16. What errand/chore do you despise? Paying bills (which is why Livia does it, plus the fact that she's more organized and efficient) 17. If you didn't have to work, would you volunteer? Probably. 18. Get up early or sleep in? Get up early, at least these days. 19. What is your favorite cartoon character? Bugs Bunny. 20. Favorite non-sexual thing to do at night with a girl/guy? Watch a good movie. 21. Have you found real love yet? Yes. 22. When did you first start feeling old? When we had kids. 23. Favorite 80s movie? Ferris Bueller's Day Off. 24. Favorite lunch meat? Sliced turkey. 25. What do you get every time you go into Sam's Club or Wal-Mart? Ice cream. 26. Beach or lake? Beach. 27. Do you think marriage is an outdated ritual? No. 28. How many people do you stalk on Facebook? Not sure what this means. I don't think I stalk anybody. 29. Favorite guilty pleasure? Soapy TV dramas. 30. Favorite movie you wouldn't want anybody to find out about? None. I have no shame when it comes to movies I like. 31. What's your drink? Root beer. 32. Cowboys or Indians? Cowboys. (What can I say, I grew up in the Fifties when there were dozens of Westerns on TV.) 33. Cops or robbers? Cops. ("Just the facts, ma'am.") 34. Who from high school would you like to run into? My old buddy Gary Looney. 35. What radio station is your car radio tuned to right now? Platinum 97 (97.9 FM) (oldies) 36. Norm or Cliff? Norm. 37. The Cosby Show or The Simpsons? The Simpsons, no contest. 38. Worst relationship mistake that you wish you could take back? Too many to list. 39. Do you like the person who sits directly across from you at work? Not applicable. 40. If you could get away with it, who would you kill? I can't think of anybody. 41. What famous persons would you like to have dinner with? Drawing a blank on this one, too. Probably a bunch of writers. 42. What famous person would you like to sleep with? Come on, I thought these were questions for grown-ups. 43. Have you ever had to use a fire extinguisher for its intended purpose? No, and what else could you use a fire extinguisher for? 44. Last book you read for real? PEEPSHOW by Leigh Redhead. 45. Do you have a teddy bear? No. 46. Strangest place you have ever brushed your teeth? A hotel room. (I haven't been in many strange places, obviously.) 47. Somewhere in California you've never been and would like to go? Death Valley. (I've used it as a setting in numerous novels and would like to see if I got it at least somewhat right.) 48. Do you go to church? Only for funerals and weddings. 49. At this point in your life would you rather start a new career or a new relationship? A new career, if I have to choose, but neither, really. 50. Just how old are you? 56, but I've always felt older than I am.
Most of you know my fondness for private eye novels, and you also know that I’m a Reactionary Curmudgeon who doesn’t think anything is as good as it used to be. But that’s not always true. Case in point is PEEPSHOW, a wonderful private eye novel by Leigh Redhead that also happens to be the first offering from a new, independent publisher of crime fiction, The Outfit.
PEEPSHOW was first published in Australia in 2004, and this new edition (with a great cover) from The Outfit is the first American edition. It introduces Simone Kirsch, a full-time stripper and sex-show worker in Melbourne who is also a part-time private detective. Simone has just gotten her PI license, because while her original ambition was to join the police force, her background as a stripper causes the police to reject her application. So she becomes a PI instead. Her first case isn’t a paying one, though: a friend of hers is kidnapped and held hostage by a strip club owner whose brother was murdered recently. He doesn’t trust the police to conduct a thorough investigation, so he tells Simone that if she doesn’t find out who killed his brother, he’ll kill her friend. Since the murdered man managed the club owned by his brother, Simone gets a job there as a stripper so that she can conduct her investigation from the inside. Well, things get pretty complicated along the way, as things usually do in private eye novels, and just when you think things have gotten sorted out, a whole new layer of lies and deception opens up, and all of it plays out against a not very pleasant but vividly rendered background, as it should be since the author was a stripper herself and shares some autobiographical details with her creation. Simone is a great character, a little out of her depth and she knows it, not all that admirable but not the least bit apologetic for her background, and ultimately smart and likable enough that the reader can’t help but root for her. There are some really evil villains, some fine action scenes, and a few last-minute twists of the sort that are always welcome.
There are several sequels to this book, and I hope The Outfit brings them into print in America, too. I’ll definitely read them. PEEPSHOW will be out in November, and if you’re a fan of private eye novels, you should do yourself a favor and order a copy now.
I’ve seen the work of French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette discussed on the Yahoo group Rara-Avis but never read any of his books. I’d never even heard of French graphic novelist Jacques Tardi. So I came to WEST COAST BLUES, a graphic novel adaptation by Tardi of one of Manchette’s novels, with an open mind.
First of all, the title refers to the sort of jazz that’s referenced frequently in the novel, not the setting, since all the action takes place in France. The protagonist is George Gerfaut, a bored, burned-out sales executive who witnesses what appears to be an auto accident. However, a short time later a couple of professional killers begin stalking him, making an attempt on his life while he’s on vacation at the seashore with his family, and Gerfaut figures out that there must have been something more to the accident than he realized at the time. Out of a sense of self-preservation, he begins to investigate the incident, which of course puts him in even more danger.
The story really races along in this book, and although I had to wonder how an ordinary guy like Gerfaut was able to keep escaping from those supposedly competent hitmen, the pace is such that I didn’t question it too much. Gerfaut spends a lot of time brooding and isn’t a very likable hero, but I wound up rooting for him anyway. I didn’t care much for the art at first, either, but ultimately it works very well for the story. Overall, I liked WEST COAST BLUES quite a bit, enough so that it makes me want to search out Manchette’s novels that have been translated into English. If you enjoy hardboiled crime graphic novels, you should certainly give this one a try.
To expand a little on what Scott says, when I lost my collection to the fire, I had some rules about replacing it, too. I wasn't going to buy any book that I'd already read. Well, that didn't last long, but I've managed to keep it under control fairly well. I haven't really bought anything that I'd already read just to have a copy of it. Anything I've bought that I've already read, I intend to read again. Also, new books or replacement copies of books I had before but had never read had to be something that I actually intended to read soon, not just "Oh, that looks interesting, I might get around to reading that someday". I was really bad about that before.
Well, you know where this is going. When I buy a book, I still intend to read it soon, but soon has expanded to mean sometime in the next year or so. I'm sure the definition will continue to grow. I already find myself in the bookstore looking at a book and thinking, "Do I have this one?", and I don't know the answer. I don't think it's happened already, but it's possible that I've bought the same book more than once. (Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I used to have five or six copies of THE BAMBOO BOMB by James Dark. I don't see that one around anymore. But I've already read it, so by rule I couldn't buy it again if I came across a copy. Well, maybe for old time's sake.)
What it boils down to, of course, is that people like me -- and probably many of you -- can find a way to rationalize buying almost any book. And all I can say is, thank God for tolerant spouses.