Friday, April 30, 2010

Newspaper Article Update

The article about Livia and me that was published in the West Texan News is now on-line. You can check it out here.

Forgotten Books: The Hardboiled Dicks - Ron Goulart, ed.

Like it was yesterday, I remember it: a very foggy December evening in 1967. I was 14 years old, and when my mother went to Seminary South with my older brother and my sister-in-law, I tagged along. Seminary South was the first major shopping center in Fort Worth, built in the mid-Sixties as an open-air mall much like the various outlet malls that now sit beside many of the Interstate highways. It was on Seminary Drive in south Fort Worth, hence the name. The main attraction it held for me at that time was a small bookstore called The Book Oasis. I was able to stop in there for a little while that night, and while I was there I found a book I knew I had to have. It had a bright, pop-art style cover that showed a strong-jawed guy in a fedora socking a thug. The title?


By this time I was fairly familiar with the concept of the pulps from reading Doc Savage novels and the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I even owned a pulp, a 1931 issue of DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY that I had picked up in Thompson’s Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth a year or so earlier. (In those days you could still buy tons of Gold Medals and Dell mapbacks from Thompson’s for ten cents each – and I did.) THE HARDBOILED DICKS was my introduction to the sort of fiction to be found in BLACK MASK, DIME DETECTIVE, and other hardboiled detective pulps. Originally published in hardcover a couple of years earlier, it was reprinted in paperback by Pocket Books and had a great introduction by Ron Goulart.

But it was the stories themselves that grabbed me immediately and wouldn’t let me go. What a line-up of stories, authors, and characters:

“Don’t Give Your Right Name” by Norbert Davis (Max Latin)
“The Saint in Silver” by John K. Butler (Steve Midnight)
“Winter Kill” by Frederick Nebel (Kennedy and MacBride)
“China Man” by Raoul Whitfield (Jo Gar)
“Death on Eagle’s Crag” by Frank Gruber (Oliver Quade)
“A Nose for News” by Richard Sale (Daffy Dill)
“Angelfish” by Lester Dent (Oscar Sail)
“Bird in the Hand” by Erle Stanley Gardner (Lester Leith)

I knew that Lester Dent was really “Kenneth Robeson”, the author of many of the Doc Savage novels I was reading and loving every month, and of course I’d heard of Erle Stanley Gardner, having read some Perry Mason and Donald Lam/Bertha Cool novels already. Frank Gruber’s name was vaguely familiar to me. But the rest of those guys were brand-new, as far as I was concerned. When I read the stories, I loved them and wanted more. As much as I could get my hands on, in fact. Oddly enough, the stuff wasn’t as easy to come by then as it is now, at least not to a kid in a small town in Texas.

That copy I bought at The Book Oasis in 1967 was lost in the fire a couple of years ago, of course, but I knew that THE HARDBOILED DICKS was one of the books I had to replace. And having a week for Forgotten Short Story Collections was the perfect excuse to sit down and reread it (although, technically, most of the stories in this book are novelettes, not short stories). I was interested to see whether or not they would hold up after all these years.

The answer is simple: Boy, do they.

I recall that on reading them the first time, I didn’t like Gardner’s Lester Leith story or Whitfield’s Jo Gar story as much as the others. They’re good, just not as good as the others, plus the Gardner story isn’t particularly hardboiled. Rereading them confirmed that, but they’re still great fun. The stories by Norbert Davis, John K. Butler, and Richard Sale are all fast-paced and very funny in places. I’m always amazed by how much plot pulp authors could pack into a story. Frederick Nebel’s “Winter Kill” impressed me even more this time around. A lot of people say Nebel was almost as good as Dashiell Hammett, and I agree with that. Frank Gruber’s story about Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia, is so good that I’ve already ordered a replacement copy of BRASS KNUCKLES, a collection of Quade stories that came out a year or so after THE HARDBOILED DICKS. It’s another old favorite of mine that contains a long introduction about writing for the pulps that Gruber expanded into his book THE PULP JUNGLE. And then of course there’s Dent’s “Angelfish”, one of two stories he wrote for BLACK MASK about private detective Oscar Sail. These are classics and deservedly so, and in rereading “Angelfish” I was more impressed than ever with Dent’s use of language. It’s just a great yarn. As a matter of fact, that description could be applied to any of the stories in this book.

Seminary South existed much like it was then until sometime in the early Eighties, although The Book Oasis went out of business years earlier. I remember going to Seminary South with Livia several times during the first few years of our marriage. Then somebody got the idea of enclosing it and making a regular mall out of it, and the place lost most of its charm as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s been at least twenty years since I’ve been there, probably longer. I think it still exists in some form, although it’s gone through numerous remodelings and name-changes, but I’m not sure about that.

I know, though, that it still exists vividly in my memory, along with The Book Oasis. I bought other books there over the years, but THE HARDBOILED DICKS was the best. If you like pulp detective yarns, it gets my highest recommendation. You can find copies fairly inexpensively on-line.

Of course, that won’t be like picking it up brand-new and flipping through those red-edged pages and knowing that you’d found something really wonderful. You had to be there for that, and I was. Yesterday, it seems.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Blind Side

An inspirational, based-on-a-true-story sports movie? We’re there, of course. And this is one of those cases where my tastes agree with those of the movie-going public, because I thought THE BLIND SIDE was one of the best examples of that genre I’ve seen.

No need to talk much about the plot in this one: wealthy white suburban couple takes in hulking, homeless black teenager who becomes a star football player. Lessons are learned. People’s lives are changed. Yes, it proves that real life can be as hokey, sentimental, and predictable as any piece of fiction.

Funny thing, though. As the movie progresses, it turns out those things don’t always matter. I credit that to some really fine acting, top to bottom in the cast, and a very solid script that is by turns surprisingly funny and surprisingly gritty. There’s a fight scene that’s really well done and plenty of good dialogue. I was also very pleased with the football scenes. In nearly every football movie I’ve watched, there comes a point when the filmmakers have the characters do something really stupid, something that would never happen in a real football game, simply to make things more dramatic. Not here, though. As far as I could tell, everything was very realistic.

Of course, I could wax rhapsodic about how beautiful Sandra Bullock is, but at this late date, what’s the point? Didn’t she win the Academy Award for this movie? (How quickly they forget!) I really liked her performance, especially the scenes where she’s getting in people’s faces and reading them the riot act. Good stuff.

So yeah, you’ll probably know everything that’s going to happen in this movie, but it’s done so well it works anyway. I thought THE BLIND SIDE was very entertaining and highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Newspaper Article

For those of you in northwest Tarrant County, northeast Parker County, and southern Wise County, there's a nice article about Livia and me in today's Star-Telegram, in a new supplement section called West Texan News. I don't think it's on-line, at least not yet, so you'll have to look in the paper for it if you're interested. Thanks to Brett Weiss and Julie Thibodeaux for doing a great job!

Up in the Air

How do you go about making a good movie about a guy who flies around the country firing people? Well, you start by getting George Clooney, one of the few actors around today with some old-fashioned movie star charm, to play him. Give him a good supporting cast, and a script with some witty (but not really laugh out loud funny) lines. Even with all that going for it, though, I’m not sure I liked UP IN THE AIR all that much. I didn’t care for the ending at all. Had it been more satisfying, I think I would have rated the movie as okay. Not nearly as good as most of the critics found it, but still okay. As is, I still think it’s worth watching for the performances, and because the ending is a choice made by the screenwriters that some viewers might like more than I did. Lord knows my tastes don’t agree with the majority a lot of the time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares - Matt Fraction

This trade paperback reprints the first seven issues of a new Iron Man series from a couple of years back, THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN. As such, it’s one of the most recent comics stories I’ve read lately, and I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed it (with a few quibbles, of course).

This is close enough to the Iron Man I remember that it still seems like the same character. The big difference is that since this story follows the big Civil War crossover event, a lot of superheroes have gone public with their formerly secret identities. So everybody knows that Tony Stark is really Iron Man, which I can accept in the current continuity, although it still seems odd to me. Stark not only heads up his multinational conglomerate, Stark Industries, but he’s also the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Universe’s superspy organization. (Whatever happened to Nick Fury? He better not be dead. He was always my second-favorite Marvel character, after Ben Grimm.)

The first six issues in this volume make up a storyline called “The Five Nightmares”, and the seventh, which guest-stars Spider-Man, serves as an epilogue. The bad guy is Ezekiel Stane, the son of deceased Iron Man villain Obadiah Stane. In order to get revenge on Tony Stark for his father’s death, Ezekiel Stane has stolen some Stark Industries technology and adapted it into terrorist weapons. In classic comic-book fashion, though, that’s just an excuse for some good old-fashioned brawls between Iron Man and Stane’s evil variation of the same character. The script is by a writer I’m unfamiliar with, Matt Fraction, but it’s a good one, filled with a nice mix of captions and dialogue. Too many modern comics writers use captions too sparingly, in my opinion. It’s a convention of the form, for goodness’ sake. You’re writing comics, not movies. But to continue . . . Fraction’s dialogue is pretty good, and in the Spider-Man scenes he does a fine job of capturing the character’s wise-cracking personality.

The art by Salvador Larroca (another comics creator unfamiliar to me) is okay. Larroca’s storytelling ability is pretty good. I didn’t have to sit there and study each page just to figure out what’s going on. But I’ll admit that dark, muted art on slick paper will just never feel “right” to me where comics are concerned. Comics are supposed to be bright and colorful and printed on cheap paper. However, those days are gone, and I’m glad to read something new, or relatively new, that at least approximates the traditional feel of superhero comics. THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN: THE FIVE NIGHTMARES succeeds on that score. If you’re a fan of the character, even a long-time fan like me, I think there’s a good chance you’d enjoy this one.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Forgotten Books: Alaska Steel - John Benteen (Ben Haas)

This is the second volume in Ben Haas’s outstanding series about soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. It opens in Hollywood in 1914, where Fargo is working temporarily as an actor, of all things, playing a villain in a silent Western movie directed by Thomas Ince. Ince is the only real-life character to make an appearance in this novel; the hero of the picture is fictional, as is a beautiful actress Fargo meets.

Ince wants Fargo to continue making movies and claims that he can be a big star, but Fargo isn’t interested in make-believe. Having lived a life of adventure, he needs the real thing. So when the actress, Jane Deering, asks him to go to Alaska and find out what happened to her husband, who disappeared there several years earlier while prospecting for gold, Fargo agrees without hesitation. He’s less enthusiastic about the idea of Jane coming along with him to look for the missing man, but she convinces him.

Naturally, things don’t go well, and Fargo and Jane wind up in all sorts of danger in the gold fields of the untamed Yukon country. There are vigilantes, a mysterious killer, blizzards, and assorted mushing around on dog sleds and snowshoes. As usual, Haas spins his yarn in tough, hardboiled prose without a wasted word to be found. He’s one of the best pure action writers I’ve ever run across. This one shows a few signs of hurried writing, but the story sweeps along at such a swift pace I didn’t really care. ALASKA STEEL is a prime example of a short, gritty adventure novel, and like all of Ben Haas’s work that I’ve ever encountered, it’s well worth reading.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Two More Covers

Thanks, everyone, for all the comments so far. They've been very helpful. Here are a couple of redesigned covers, taking into account some of the things that have been said. I don't want people to automatically think "Western" when they look at the book. I've also made them smaller so they'll look more like they will on Amazon's site. Of course, the good thing about all this is that we can try a cover for a month or so and then swap it for another one if we want to.

A Choice of Covers

So, sometime in the relatively near future, I'll be putting a previously unpublished action/adventure novel (not a Western) up on Amazon for the Kindle. There's a story that goes with it (of course), but I'll get to that at a more appropriate time. For now we could use some input on the cover. Livia designed several, and these are the two we like the best. So if you have a preference for one over the other, please let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter - Darwyn Cooke

Like many fans of hardboiled and noir fiction, I’ve read most of the novels about the professional thief Parker that Donald E. Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark. They’re great books, and one of these days I’ll catch up on the ones I haven’t read. But the idea of adapting one of them into a graphic novel probably never would have occurred to me.

Luckily, it occurred to Darwyn Cooke, who took the first Parker novel, THE HUNTER, and turned it into an excellent graphic novel of the same name. Cooke’s art is distinctive, to say the least, and it works very well here. He’s made the wise decision to set his adaptation in 1962, the era in which the source novel was published, and he does a fine job of capturing the feel of the early Sixties. Also, although it’s been a good while since I read the book and I don’t remember all the details, the script strikes me as a very faithful version that uses a lot of Westlake’s dialogue and narration. And man, does it move fast, just like Westlake’s novel.

There’s not much to say about this one. I liked it a lot. If you’re a fan of the Parker novels and haven’t read it yet, you really should.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Trouble With Tramps - Michael Hemmingson

If you frequent this little corner of the blogosphere, you can’t have missed the resurgence of interest in the work of Orrie Hitt over the past couple of years. Probably nobody has read more of Hitt’s novels during that time than Michael Hemmingson, and certainly no one has written more about Hitt’s work than he has, having started an entire blog devoted to the subject. So there’s probably no one more qualified to write an Orrie Hitt pastiche novel than Hemmingson, which is exactly what he’s done in THE TROUBLE WITH TRAMPS, recently published by Black Mask Books.

Set during the Fifties, the era during which most of Hitt’s best books were published, THE TROUBLE WITH TRAMPS is narrated by Jack Card, the sort of working man/would-be writer/part-time heel that Hitt often used for his protagonists, right down to the six-foot-two, hundred-and-ninety-pound physical description. Jack is involved with three women: his wife Kay, with whom he’s trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage; teenage tramp Lucy, who’s pregnant by him; and Eve, the beautiful, amoral woman who’s married to a rich, much older husband. Jack really isn’t a bad guy, but he’s made some bad choices that keep getting him deeper and deeper in trouble.

If you’ve read even a few Orrie Hitt novels, you’ll recognize several of his favorite plot elements in the previous paragraph. Hemmingson doesn’t stop there, either. There’s also a peeping tom, a murder plot, a little social commentary, and some stuff about the publishing business. No lesbianism or hunting camps, though.

I think for a pastiche novel to work, it not only has to echo the work of the original author but also possess some strengths of its own. THE TROUBLE WITH TRAMPS succeeds on that score. The prose is lean and punchy, even more so than Hitt’s, and the story races along very effectively. Heel that he is at times, you can’t help but root for Jack, and while a familiarity with Hitt’s work certainly increased my appreciation of this book, I think most readers who enjoy Fifties-era hardboiled sleaze would enjoy it even if they’d never read anything by Hitt. THE TROUBLE WITH TRAMPS doesn’t quite have the same level of raw passion that Hitt brought to his work, but if you’re a fan there's a good chance you'll like it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lust of the Lawless - Robert Leslie Bellem

Tom Roberts of Black Dog Books has just published this new collection of all the stories Robert Leslie Bellem wrote for the pulp SPICY WESTERN. These are just the sort of colorful, action-packed Western yarns that I really enjoy, so I was glad to write the introduction to the volume. Check it out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dragon Games - Stephen Mertz

For the past thirty years, Stephen Mertz has been one of the top authors of action and adventure novels in the business, and he makes a welcome return with DRAGON GAMES, a thriller just published by Five Star.

Set in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics, this novel features a large, well-drawn cast of characters and several interweaving plotlines, all of which wind up involving in one way or another Taggart McCall, one of the agents for the international force that’s been put together to provide security for the Olympics. McCall is a former member of the U.S. Secret Service with some dark clouds in his past and a pressing personal problem in the present: he’s been having severe chest pains and thinks he may be on the verge of dying from a heart attack at any moment. That’s certainly not the best situation for a hero who has to run around battling bad guys, solving murders, and uncovering sinister plots that threaten the stability of the entire world.

Taggart McCall is one of the most likable protagonists you’ll run across in a thriller, and almost as good is Kelly Jackson, a member of the U.S. gymnastics team with problems of her own. Mertz neatly avoids the trap of forcing a romance between McCall and the less-than-half-his-age Kelly. In fact, before the book is over he manages to upend a lot of the reader’s expectations, as the plot takes more than one unexpected twist and turn.

Smoothly written and fast-paced, DRAGON GAMES is a very entertaining novel. It has plenty of plot without being overstuffed and overwritten like some modern thrillers. Mertz still has the knack of keeping the reader turning the pages, and that’s the mark of a great storyteller. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


This is another of those movies I’d never heard of, and as it turns out, maybe with good reason. It’s the story of a young man who murders his parents when he’s 15, is tried as a juvenile, and gets off with three years of detention in a juvenile facility because he was on heavy doses of antidepressants when he committed the crime. When he turns 18, he’s released, but the cop who investigated the case (Russell Crowe) thinks he’s actually a psychopath and will kill again.

The kid takes off on a road trip, accompanied by a 16-year-old girl who’s obsessed with him and may be crazier than he is. The cop follows them, hoping to catch the kid in the act of trying to kill somebody else so justice will finally be done.

That’s not a bad set-up, but unfortunately this is one of those movies where there’s thirty minutes worth of plot and an hour and a half of brooding. It’s well-acted and there’s the occasional nice line, but that doesn’t make up for the glacial pace. Grim, psychological “thrillers” like this may fascinate some viewers, but I’m not one of them. I didn’t like TENDERNESS at all.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Forgotten Books: No Wings on a Cop - Cleve F. Adams (and Robert Leslie Bellem)

Like SHADY LADY and CONTRABAND, NO WINGS ON A COP is another novel published under Cleve F. Adams’s name that was actually expanded by Robert Leslie Bellem from an Adams pulp story into a novel. Bellem and Adams were good friends, and I seem to recall reading that Bellem wrote those novels as a favor to Adams’s widow. Of course, I imagine Bellem got a cut of the money, too. If I’m wrong about any of that, I hope someone who knows more about the situation will correct me. Also, I’m not sure which Adams story served as the basis for this book. It might be “Clean Sweep”, from the August 24, 1940 issue of DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY, which, according to the Fictionmags Index, features police lieutenant John J. Shannon, the hero of NO WINGS ON A COP. If anyone knows for sure, again please let us know in the comments.

With that bit of background out of the way, how is NO WINGS ON A COP as a novel? Pretty darned good, that’s what it is. When the story opens, Lt. Shannon’s boss and good friend, Captain Grady, has already been murdered, and the killing has been pinned on gambler Floyd Duquesne, who evidently had been paying off Grady for protection. Shannon doesn’t believe that his friend was crooked, of course, and sets out to find the real killer. Almost as soon as he begins his investigation, though, somebody plants a bomb in his car. Shannon survives the explosion, but his left arm is broken, so for the rest of the book he’s going around with his arm in a cast and a sling, which proves pretty inconvenient at times but ultimately comes in handy on at least one occasion.

All the action in the book takes place in less than twenty-four hours, and it’s a whirlwind pace, as you might expect. Shannon clashes with the acting chief of police (the regular chief is out of town), gets kicked off the force, gets hit on the head and knocked out, trades banter with his girlfriend, who’s a beautiful model, has a couple of shootouts with hired killers, has a beautiful redheaded stripper try to seduce him, and runs up against an assortment of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, big-time gamblers, and dangerous hoodlums. It’s all great fun, with a complex plot that Shannon finally sorts out at the end. I’ve been reading this sort of hardboiled detective novel for more than forty years now and still get a big kick out of a good one, which NO WINGS ON A COP certainly is.

Bellem’s writing is as smooth and fast and enjoyable as ever, and knowing the background of the book’s authorship gives it an added level of humor. There’s a mention of a cab driver reading an issue of the DAN TURNER, HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE comic book, some of the characters sit around and drink Vat 69, Turner’s favorite hooch, and Bellem even writes himself into the book as a character, bank officer Robert B. Leslie: “The guy was a middle-aged man with slightly wavy hair, a thickening middle and a mustache of which he seemed inordinately vain.” Although Adams might have been responsible for some of that in the original story, I don’t know. He and Bellem were friends, after all.

NO WINGS ON A COP was originally published by Handi-Books in 1950 and later reprinted by Harlequin. As far as I know, it’s been out of print for more than fifty years now, and it ought to be a prime candidate for reprinting by one of the small presses. This is one of those books that sat on my shelves for years without me getting around to reading it, then was lost in the fire. I replaced it not long ago and decided that I’d better get it read. I’m glad I did. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? - Alan Moore

As veteran comics writer and editor Paul Kupperberg points out in his introduction to this volume, by the mid-Eighties major changes were occurring in the comics industry, from the primary distribution method – comics shops had grown tremendously in importance in the past few years, and spinner racks full of comics were already disappearing from the usual venues such as grocery stores, drugstores, and convenience stores – to the creative, where at DC especially, decades worth of continuity were about to be wiped out.

I first heard about the landmark mini-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS when it was in the planning stages and thought that simplifying the DC Universe was a pretty good idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me, a lot of the charm of the DCU was its very clutteredness. I mean, Gardner Fox’s classic story “Flash of Two Worlds” was still one of my all-time favorites. Then when I found out that DC was planning to kill off some of its major characters in the mini-series and do a total reboot and relaunch of others, I liked the idea less and less.

Which brings us to Superman.

Now, I was never a huge Superman fan, although I read a bunch of comics featuring the character over the years. In fact, it’s safe to say that the first superhero comics I ever read featured Superman. But there were other DC characters I liked better, such as Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Even so, when I heard that DC was starting over with the Superman franchise, starting with John Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL mini-series, I didn’t care for it and didn’t see the need for it. When I first read the stories reprinted in SUPERMAN: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?, they just reinforced that feeling.

Alan Moore had already written a couple of Superman stories, one a team-up with the other major DC character he was writing at the time, Swamp Thing, when he was asked by editor Julius Schwartz to write the final two-parter that would close out the current Superman continuity. I had read and liked those earlier Superman stories written by Moore, and when I read “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, which was split up between SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, I was more convinced than ever that excellent, relevant stories set in the current continuity could be written. Alan Moore had just proven that by turning out one of the best Superman stories I’d ever read.

But of course, nobody at DC listened to me (not that I actually shared those feelings with anybody there) and Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL reboot appeared on schedule, the first of many reboots that spread to Marvel in the Nineties and eventually had the effect of alienating me so much that I didn’t read a single comic book for years and years. Although I have no statistics to prove it, I’m convinced that a lot of fans who grew up reading comics in the Sixties and Seventies stopped reading in disgust and never came back. Eventually, of course, I did, and I’ve read and enjoyed some of the newer stuff. I still like the reprints of the older stuff better, though.

SUPERMAN: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW? reprints all four of Moore’s Superman stories. The title two-parter features art by Curt Swan, the classic Superman artist, and serves as a beautiful (if unnecessary) farewell to the classic Superman continuity. The other two stories are excellent as well. If you’re a long-time comics fan and didn’t read these back in the Eighties, you should pick up this volume to see what you missed. If you read them then, like I did, I think you’ll enjoy them all over again. They’ve aged well (unlike grumpy, reactionary old men such as myself).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is supposedly based on a true story. I have no idea how much is fact and how much is fiction, but whatever the ratio, the blend is an entertaining one for the most part. The story concerns a reporter (Ewan McGregor, sporting a passable American accent) who stumbles on a special Army unit in Iraq conducting research into psychic phenomena. Flashbacks recount the history of the unit, which dates back to the mid-Eighties. It was founded by a soldier played by Jeff Bridges, and one of its most successful recruits is played by George Clooney. At first the unit’s job is remote viewing, “psychic spying” as they refer to it, but over the years they’ve branched out into other things, such as conducting experiments to see if they can kill goats by staring at them and stopping their hearts.

The plot just meanders around and never really generates much suspense or forward momentum, but the sheer goofiness of what’s going on helps to compensate for that. Clearly, the people involved were having fun, which is also a plus. Clooney and Bridges are very good, as always, and McGregor’s okay. Kevin Spacey doesn’t have much to do as a member of the unit who winds up causing trouble.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS isn’t a great film, just an oddball little movie with quite a few funny moments. It’s worth watching. (And as people who have raised the animals in question, at one point in the movie Livia said the exact same thing I was thinking: “Somebody’s gonna have to round up all those goats.”)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Worlds of Poul Anderson

TWO WORLDS OF POUL ANDERSON is a recent chapbook published by World Science Fiction Classics. It reprints a novella, “Industrial Revolution” from the September 1963 issue of ANALOG, and the short story “Duel on Syrtis” from the March 1951 issue of the great pulp PLANET STORIES. I hadn’t read either of these stories before.

“Industrial Revolution” is in many ways a typical ANALOG story from the Sixties. The heroes are engineers and entrepreneurs who have set up a mining operation in the Asteroid Belt, only to run afoul of political tensions back on Earth that affect them even as far out in space as they are. The situation on Earth is actually rather prescient, given events of the past few years, but it’s basically just a backdrop for a scientific problem story. Nothing wrong with that, of course. I like scientific problem yarns of the sort that ANALOG has been publishing for the past seventy or eighty years. (Of course, it was still a pulp called ASTOUNDING for some of those years.) “Industrial Revolution” maybe doesn’t rise to the level of a classic, but it’s pretty entertaining.

“Duel on Syrtis”, though, is a real gem. It’s a tough, hardboiled, and very suspenseful story about a rich guy from Earth hunting a Martian “owlie”, a member of the sentient Martian race that resembles a humanoid version of a Terran owl. That’s not a particularly ground-breaking plot, but in Anderson’s hands the story really draws the reader in. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is a Western transplanted to Mars, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. We have a Terran stalking a Martian instead of, say, a lone cavalry scout trying to track down an Apache renegade, but the tension and grittiness are very similar. Of course, since this is an SF story, science does play a part in the very effective final twist. Anderson paints both characters in shades of gray, rather than black and white, and there’s a lot of poignancy on both sides. This is really good stuff, and if the publisher wants to call it a classic story, well, I won’t argue.

Overall, TWO WORLDS OF POUL ANDERSON is well worth reading if you’re a science fiction fan, and it won’t set you back much. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Box

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson that I haven’t read, THE BOX is the story of a young couple faced with an awful choice. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play a schoolteacher and a scientist, respectively, who live and work in Virginia in 1976. She teaches at an exclusive private school, he’s an engineer for NASA who wants to be an astronaut. They have a young son and appear to be a happy couple.

But then things start going wrong for them, not the least of which is the unexpected appearance of a strange box on their doorstep. Then they get a visit from the disfigured stranger who left it there, who has an ominous proposition for them. If they push the button on the box, they’ll get a million dollars in tax-free cash, which they sorely need. But, as the stranger explains, if they push the button, someone they don’t know, somewhere in the world, will die at that same moment.

It’s a creepy set-up for a story, and the filmmakers play that creepiness for all it’s worth. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the button gets pushed, and of course, bad things happen and nothing turns out like the people involved think that they will (although I was waiting for one more twist that never showed up).

THE BOX is a well-made movie, but I think it would be a stretch to say that I actually liked it. It’s such a cold, bleak, and impersonal film, without even any small moments of humor to break up the grim proceedings. At least that’s the way it seemed to me. And of course, it’s entirely possible that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But it didn’t really work for me, and while I’m not going to say you shouldn’t watch it, I can’t actually recommend it, either.

Texas Stadium Implosion

In the words of Homer Simpson, "IMplosion?"

Friday, April 09, 2010

Forgotten Books: One by One - Fan Nichols

Here are the opening paragraphs from this book:

He slouched through the squalid gaudy Mexican Quarter. He could feel the bulge of the gun butt against his flat belly, held there, beneath his coat, by his belt.

I’m going to kill her, he thought. I won’t turn yellow this time. This time I’ll do it. I’ll kill her. I mustn’t get caught. I can run fast. I’ve got good legs. I can run like hell.

If you’re like me, there’s no way you’re going to read a classic noir opening like that and not keep reading.

Not surprisingly, after the first chapter ONE BY ONE flashes back to tell the story of how the protagonist, telephone lineman Jerry Ryan, gets in such a bad predicament that he’s considering murder. It was a woman, of course. Jerry is in Los Angeles, separated from his loving wife Verna by work (it’s the fall of 1932 as the book begins, in the middle of the Depression), when he makes the mistake of helping an attractive young woman who’s being thrown out of a dime-a-dance joint. The woman, who calls herself Dolly Dawn because she’s trying to break into the movies, latches onto Jerry with the desperation of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver. She convinces him to give her a lift to Las Vegas, where he’s headed for a new job. Jerry is basically a good, decent guy, but he rationalizes himself into bed with Dolly and that turns out to be a huge mistake. Since he took her across a state line and then had sex with her, she tells him that she’ll turn him in to the cops for violating the Mann Act unless he continues to take care of her and pretends to be her husband.

After the noirish beginning, ONE BY ONE turns into less of a crime novel and more of a lurid, soap-operatic melodrama, as Jerry continues trying to get out of Dolly’s blackmailing clutches only to be thwarted by her again and again. That doesn’t keep it from being compelling reading, though. This novel was originally published in 1951 but reads like it was actually written during the Depression, as Nichols paints a vivid picture of shabby desperation among the cheap hotels, boarding houses, freight yards, and gin mills of small towns in California, Washington, and Oregon. Jerry is one of those likable, not-too-bright schnooks who populate novels like this, and you can’t help but root for him even though you know he’s going to do the wrong thing nine times out of ten. All of it leads up to a somewhat odd ending that I’m not sure if I like or not.

This is the first novel by Fan Nichols that I’ve read. I don’t know anything about her except that she wrote a lot of what would have to be considered hardboiled sleaze, even though she started in the Thirties before that genre really existed. ONE BY ONE was originally published by Arco Publishing, a hardcover house that put out books a lot like the ones that Beacon would be doing as paperback originals a few years later. Nichols continued to write through the early Sixties, including books for Beacon and Monarch. I liked this one enough that I’ll continue to keep an eye out for her books, although I probably won’t go on-line and order a big stack of them like I have with some authors. I certainly plan to read more by her, though, and if you run across a copy of ONE BY ONE for a reasonable price (I paid three bucks for mine at Half Price Books), my recommendation is to grab it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

No vampires, werewolves, or singin’ and dancin’ chipmunks in this one. There are, however, a couple of alligators and some iguanas. And a lot of sex, violence, cussing, and general weirdness.

Nicolas Cage plays a cop who injures his back saving a prisoner from drowning during Hurricane Katrina. He’s kind of a sleazy character to start with, and when he’s given painkillers for his back, he becomes a drug addict. Plus he has a serious gambling problem, which gets him deeper and deeper in debt to some bad guys. From there, things spiral even more out of control as he starts investigating a series of drug-related murders.

As far as I know, this movie has no connection other than the title to the original BAD LIEUTENANT movie, which I haven’t seen. So it’s not really a sequel, I guess. It’s well-made, with a script that’s often harrowing and occasionally funny. Cage is in full-out goofy mode for much of the movie, which means he’s either brilliant or over-the-top hammy, or maybe both, depending on your point of view.

This is a pretty good film and worth watching, if you like grittier than usual cop movies with a few offbeat touches.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Couple of Sequels

We watched a couple of movies recently that are sequels to films we saw a while back.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL seems to have been pretty much universally reviled, but I think you have to approach it for what it is. It’s singing and dancing CGI chipmunks, for goodness’ sake. It’s not supposed to be CITIZEN KANE. Yes, the humor is silly and juvenile. I laughed quite a bit anyway. And the movie does manage to make a few sly digs at the merchandising of celebrities. This is a time-waster, but an amiable, good-natured one.

Then there’s THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON, as it’s being called now. For a long time, the most popular post in the history of this blog was my review of the first TWILIGHT movie. I figure a lot of 14-year-old girls have Google searches saved so they get links to every mention of TWILIGHT anywhere on the Internet, and that accounted for the fleeting surge in my blog’s popularity. Of course, most if not all of them never came back. But that’s okay. Maybe one or two lingered to read an Orrie Hitt post.

Anyway, what can you say about NEW MOON? It’s more of the same. Kristen
Stewart remains an interesting young actress (if you haven’t seen ADVENTURELAND, you should watch it real soon), Robert Pattinson is still maybe the goofiest-looking heartthrob in the history of movies, and there’s lot of angst and brooding. Oh, and giant werewolves. The special effects are pretty good, but the movie suffers from a disjointed plot when the scene suddenly shifts about halfway through and everything that happens in the first half of the movie gets shoved aside. I haven’t read the books, but I’m told by people who have that this too-abrupt shift is in the novel, too. Then everything ends in a cliffhanger setting up the next movie, which we’ll probably watch, too. These movies are pretty silly, but they’re not terrible . . . which I suppose puts them on about the same level as ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS.

Of course, when I watched the credits at the end of NEW MOON and saw that it was directed by Chris Weitz, one of the guys behind the AMERICAN PIE movies, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, a cameo by Steve Stifler sure would have livened this up.”

Friday, April 02, 2010

Forgotten Books: Mum's the Word for Murder - Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser)

Davis Dresser wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire as a writer when this book was published under the pseudonym Asa Baker in 1938. He was making a living writing romances and Westerns for lending library publishers, but it was a precarious one. Better things were on the horizon for him, though. The next year, 1939, Henry Holt would publish Dresser’s novel DIVIDEND ON DEATH under the pseudonym Brett Halliday, which introduced redheaded Miami private detective Michael Shayne, a character who would make Dresser a rich man (and put a few shekels in the pockets of numerous other authors, as well, present company included).

But what about MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER? It’s an important book because it’s a dry run for the introduction of Michael Shayne a year later. The detective, Jerry Burke, is a big, tough, smart Irishman like Shayne, and although he’s a cop in this book, he has a background as a private detective and shares the same sort of checkered history that Dresser was to give Shayne. The novel is narrated by Asa Baker (which was also the original byline), a struggling author of Western novels obviously patterned after Dresser himself. A number of years later, Dresser wrote himself (as Halliday) into one of the Shayne novels, SHE WOKE TO DARKNESS, in much the same way. The book is set in El Paso, Dresser’s hometown and the scene of one of the best Shayne novels, MURDER IS MY BUSINESS, which is scheduled to be reprinted by Hard Case Crime later this year. Burke even has a nemesis, the local chief of detectives Jelcoe, who serves the same function as Miami Beach Chief of Detective Peter Painter in the Shayne novels.

As MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER opens, Asa Baker is struggling to find inspiration for a new novel, and he finds it in the person of his old friend Jerry Burke, who has been hired by the city as a special detective to clean up crime and corruption in El Paso. Burke tells Baker about a strange advertisement that appeared in that afternoon’s paper, warning that a murder will take place at exactly 11:41 that night and challenging Burke to do something about it. The ad is signed “Mum”.

Sure enough, a wealthy businessman is murdered at exactly 11:41, and Burke invites Baker along to observe the investigation and gather material for a novel based on the case. This is just the beginning of a clever cat-and-mouse game between Burke and the mysterious serial killer who calls himself Mum. There are several more murders, and each time it appears that the case is just about solved, Dresser throws in yet another twist. Burke has the same talent that Shayne possesses: he’s always one step ahead of everybody else in the book – and two steps ahead of the reader, finally coming up with an ingenious solution that predates another author’s more famous usage of the same gimmick.

The early Shayne novels are entertaining blends of hardboiled action, screwball comedy, and fair-play detection, many of them with plots that rival Erle Stanley Gardner for complexity. Dresser doesn’t quite have the mix down yet in this book – there’s not much comedy, for instance, and Dresser doesn’t strictly play fair, withholding a fairly important clue from the reader until late in the book – but MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER is still one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while. Dresser’s style is very smooth and keeps the pages turning easily. I had a hard time putting this one down.

By the Fifties, the Shayne novels were doing so well in paperback for Dell that Dresser pulled out this old novel, along with one he wrote under the pseudonym Hal Debrett, BEFORE I WAKE, and Dell reissued them under the Brett Halliday byline. MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER proved popular enough that it was reissued again in the Sixties, this time with a McGinnis cover that’s not a particularly good one, in my opinion. Unless that’s not actually McGinnis’s work. I don’t have that edition, so maybe somebody who does can check and correct me if I’m wrong.

There’s one more Jerry Burke novel under the Asa Baker name, THE KISSED CORPSE, which came out in 1939, the same year as DIVIDEND ON DEATH. After that, Dresser was either too busy to return to that Shayne-prototype (he was writing Westerns as Peter Field and Don Davis, in addition to carrying on the Shayne series), or maybe he just thought that Jerry Burke had served his purpose. Based on my reading of this book, I plan on trying to get hold of a copy of THE KISSED CORPSE. MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER is long out of print, of course, like most of Dresser’s work, but copies are fairly easy to come by on-line. I liked this one a lot and give it a high recommendation.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Of Twerps and Gorgons

I don't recall if I've posted this before, but whether I have or not, it's still great stuff. When I was a kid, I had absolutely no idea that Gorgon, the host of Nightmare Theater, and wacky kids' show host Icky Twerp were the same guy.