Monday, March 25, 2019

Mental State - M. Todd Henderson

When conservative law professor Alex Johnson is found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his house in Chicago, everyone thinks it is suicide. Everyone except his brother, Royce, an FBI agent.

Without jurisdiction or leads, Agent Johnson leaves his cases and family to find out who killed his brother. There are many suspects: the ex-wife, an ambitious doctor with expensive tastes and reasons to hate her ex; academic rivals on a faculty divided along political lines; an African-American student who failed the professor’s course.

As Agent Johnson peels back layers of mystery in his rogue investigation, the brother he never really knew emerges. Clues lead from the ivy-covered elite university and the halls of power in Washington to the gritty streets of Chicago and Lahore, Pakistan. Ultimately, Agent Johnson must face the question of how far he is willing to go to catch his brother’s killer.

Mental State is about two brothers learning about each other in death, and about the things people will do when convinced they are in the right.

This debut thriller has generated some controversy, supposedly because of the conservative stance it takes, but I'm here to tell you, while the plot certainly centers around politics and the clash between left and right, MENTAL STATE is basically a hard-nosed, straight-ahead procedural with a dogged protagonist and the occasional burst of well-done action. It's not a polemic of any sort. I'm not sure the words "Republican" and "Democrat" even appear in the text.

Instead author M. Todd Henderson, himself a law professor, concentrates more on the relationship between the two brothers (even though one of them is dead for the entire course of the book, appearing only in flashbacks) and sprinkles in a lot of interesting historical nuggets, as well as detailing the twists and turns of how power works in Washington. I've read a number of political thrillers by Vince Flynn and Brad Thor (who are perceived to be on the right) and Brad Meltzer (who's perceived to be on the left), and MENTAL STATE strikes me as exactly the same sort of mainstream thriller. It's also fast-paced, well-written, and I enjoyed it enough that I look forward to seeing what Henderson comes up with next.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Action Stories, December 1930

There's an eye-catching cover for you. I don't know who the artist is. But the authors in this issue of DETECTIVE ACTION STORIES include Erle Stanley Gardner, F.V.W. Mason, J. Lane Linklater, Howard Morgan, and Earl and Marion Scott. Those last three, I don't know anything about, but any issue with Gardner and Mason is probably well worth reading.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Dime Western, October 1933

Now that's a sock on the jaw! In addition to a dynamic cover, this issue of DIME WESTERN also features some great Western pulp authors: Harry F. Olmsted (with a novella and a poem, and he's also possibly the author of the Tensleep Maxon story under the pseudonym Bart Cassidy), Walt Coburn, Ray Nafziger (twice, once as himself and once under the name Grant Taylor), J.E. Grinstead, and Dabney Otis Collins. Definitely an issue worth reading!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Office - Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown is best known for his science fiction and mysteries, of course, but he also wrote one mainstream novel, and it’s now available in a 60th anniversary edition that came out late last year. THE OFFICE, published originally by Dutton in 1958, has some autobiographical overtones—the office boy narrator is named Fred Brown—but as Jack Seabrook points in his afterword to this edition, the novel is almost completely fictional. It’s the story of the eight people who work in the office of an industrial jobber in Cincinnati, a company that sells supplies to machine tool manufacturers. That’s it as far as the plot goes, just the stories of these everyday people and what happens to them over the course of two years in the 1920s.

THE OFFICE is a very old-fashioned novel and reads at times like it was written in the Twenties instead of taking place then. The narrator is very omniscient, taking part in some scenes but knowing everything there is to know about others that take place when he’s nowhere around. The pace is very slow, the plotting mundane (except where it takes a couple of lurid turns late in the book), and Brown doesn’t just break the rule about showing and not telling, he demolishes it. This book is all about telling and revels in it.

The thing is . . . man, he had me turning the pages. After the leisurely build-up, I raced through the second half of this book, compelled to find out what was going to happen. I credit Brown’s skill in creating these characters for that. Yes, there’s not much that’s out of the ordinary about them, but he does a masterful job of showing that every ordinary life is filled with its own drama and suspense. And in showing that, he creates some very poignant scenes.

You know me, I love action. What little there is in THE OFFICE takes place off-screen. Doesn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this book anyway. It was a labor of love for Brown, who worked on it for years in between writing other things. It was also, not surprisingly, his least successful book as far as sales. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best book I’ve read in a while, and I give a very high recommendation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Overlooked Movies: State and Main (2000)

I don’t recall ever hearing about this movie when it came out back in 2000, but a friend recommended it recently on Facebook and it’s written and directed by David Mamet, and I generally enjoy Mamet’s work, so I figured we might as well go ahead and watch it.

STATE AND MAIN is a movie about movies, the sort that Hollywood likes to make from time to time. A group of filmmakers descends on a small town in Vermont, and hijinks ensue. The locals are, for the most part, colorful and eccentric. The movie people are sleazy and self-centered. Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker are the morally challenged stars, David Paymer the producer, William H. Macy the director, Philip Seymour Hoffman the scriptwriter. Among the locals, Charles Durning is the mayor, Ricky Jay owns the diner, Julia Stiles is his daughter, Rebecca Pidgeon runs a bookstore and the local little theater group. It’s a good cast. Macy is one of my favorite character actors, and he’s very good as the director who’s either a decent human being at heart or completely amoral, I never could decide which.

The problem with STATE AND MAIN is that it ambles along, never develops much of a sense of urgency, and just is never as funny as I felt it ought to be. I kept thinking the basic plot would have worked great for a movie in the Forties directed by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, with Barbara Stanwyck as the bookstore owner, Jean Arthur as the actress (or, let’s face it, the other way around would have worked just fine, too), Jimmy Stewart as the befuddled scriptwriter, and Cary Grant as the director. But that movie never got made, and STATE AND MAIN did, so I can give this one a mild recommendation. It’s never terrible, it’s amusing at times (the biggest laughs for us were in the closing credits, which tells you something), and I’m glad we watched it. And I stayed awake all the way through it, for whatever that’s worth.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Blue Book, March 1939

This issue of BLUE BOOK is from my favorite era for that magazine, the Thirties, especially the second half of the Thirties. The usual great cover by Herbert Morton Stoops, and a line-up of authors that's hard to beat: H. Bedford-Jones (twice, once with his imaginary collaborator, Captain L.B. Williams), Max Brand, Will Jenkins (better known by his pseudonym Murray Leinster), Robert Mill, Fulton Grant, William Byron Mowery, and Captain Dingle, all BLUE BOOK stalwarts during this period. It's the closest thing to a cross between a pulp and a slick.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Ranch Stories, April 1945

That's a pretty racy cover for a Western pulp that's not SPICY WESTERN or LARIAT STORY. THRILLING RANCH STORIES was the Thrilling Group's counterpart to RANCH ROMANCES, of course (before RANCH ROMANCES became part of the Thrilling Group itself), with the same blend of "woman interest" and Western action. The authors in this issue are ones you'd expect to find in just about any Western pulp: Gunnison Steele, Stephen Payne, Chuck Martin, Joe Archibald . . . But what about Monica Morton, author of the featured story? Well, "Monica" was really Johnston McCulley, another example of a savvy pro hitting a market. McCulley published more than a dozen stories under that name in various Western romance and love pulps.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Forgotten Novellas: Blitzkrieg in the Past - John York Cabot (David Wright O'Brien)

In a comment on a post a few weeks ago, Todd Mason mentioned the science fiction writer David Wright O'Brien, who published more than 50 stories in just a few years during the early Forties, most of them in the Ziff-Davis pulps AMAZING STORIES and FANTASTIC ADVENTURES. I'd never read anything by O'Brien, so I decided to change that and found an e-book edition of this novella on-line. It's from the July 1942 issue of AMAZING STORIES and was written under O'Brien's pseudonym John York Cabot. He published under his own name and several pen-names, of which Cabot was the most common.

I'll tell you right off the bat that "Blitzkrieg in the Past" is great fun and a Front Porch Book of high order. The protagonists of this yarn are three GIs in a tank crew who are training in their tank in Georgia prior to being sent overseas. They're also testing some experimental radio equipment, and when a thunderstorm blows up unexpectedly and the tank is hit by lightning, our heroes are tossed, tank and all, hundreds of millions of years into the past where they find themselves battling dinosaurs, cavemen, and a more advanced gorgeous blonde who doesn't have their best interests at heart.

Science? You want science? Go read a textbook! But if you want GIs in an M-3 tank fighting cavemen and dinosaurs and tangling with a beautiful but treacherous babe, then this is the yarn for you. I have no way of knowing whether Robert Kanigher ever read this story before he created the War That Time Forgot series in the comic book STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES about twenty years later, but just look at that cover! He must have! (Speaking of The War That Time Forgot, I'm slowly reading my way through the Showcase collection of that series and will have a post about it one of these days.)

But to get back to "Blitzkrieg in the Past", goofy premise or not, it's very well-written. I really enjoyed O'Brien's fast-paced, breezy, "sure this is silly but I'm going to give it my best anyway" style. My only complaint is that the story ends rather abruptly. O'Brien had enough plot set up that this could have been a full-length novel. Maybe he would have expanded it into one and sold it as an Ace Double, if he had lived long enough.

Because, you see, for those of you who don't know, after those few years of furious production, including many stories written in collaboration with William P. McGivern, with whom he shared an office in Chicago, David Wright O'Brien enlisted in the Army, became a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, and was killed in a bombing raid over Berlin in 1944. He left behind a lot of science fiction stories, though, and I intend to read more of them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Overlooked Movies: Fort Dobbs (1958)

I was surprised to come across a Clint Walker Western I hadn’t seen before, since he’s been a favorite of mine for many years. I was a big fan of his TV show CHEYENNE when I was a kid, and I remember watching YELLOWSTONE KELLY and other movies starring him at the Eagle Drive-In. FORT DOBBS was the first film in which he starred, and you could almost imagine it as being a longer episode of CHEYENNE.

Instead of Cheyenne Bodie, though, Walker plays Gar Davis, who finds himself on the run from the law after killing a no-good hombre who had it coming. Caught between a posse and a Comanche war party, he finds himself on an isolated ranch inhabited by a woman (the gorgeous but somewhat miscast Virginia Mayo) and her young son. With the Comanches raiding, he decides he needs to get the two of them to the safety of Fort Dobbs, several days’ journey away. They set out but run into trouble not only from the Indians but also a gun-runner (played with smirky charm by Brian Keith), who knows Walker’s character from before. Reaching the fort doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods, though, because there’s more trouble waiting for them there.

FORT DOBBS has plenty of action and is well directed by Gordon Douglas, who always had a sure hand with such tough-minded fare. The script was co-written by Burt Kennedy, and that’s easy to see because Keith’s roguish, charming, but ultimately evil character is right out of the Budd Boetticher-directed Randolph Scott Westerns that Kennedy also wrote. With those things going for it, plus Walker’s formidable presence, it’s no surprise that I found this to be a very entertaining movie. If you’re a Western fan and haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Dime Mystery Magazine, March 1947

DIME MYSTERY was long past its Weird Menace phase by the time this issue came out in 1947, but that cover almost looks like it could have been from that earlier era, especially if it had been a little more lurid. And "Death Dance of the Broken Dolls" certainly sounds like a Weird Menace title. It's even by Arthur Leo Zagat, one of the masters of the genre. I believe I have a copy of that story somewhere. I'll have to read it. The rest of this issue's contents appear to be typical late Forties semi-hardboiled detective pulp, although by authors who were good at that: Talmage Powell, Robert Turner, Dale Clark, Cyril Plunkett, and Wilbur S. Peacock.