I’ve read a lot of books by Donald E. Westlake over the years and have always preferred his more hardboiled novels to his comic capers (although those are pretty good, too). His series about the thief Parker, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, is a high-water mark in the genre, and I like his novels about disgraced detective Mitch Tobin, written under the name Tucker Coe, almost as well.
361 is one of Westlake’s early hardboiled novels, published in 1962 and reprinted earlier this year as part of the great Hard Case Crime line. (It also happens to be the only Hard Case Crime reprint so far that I didn’t own in the original edition.) A few lines from the back cover copy sum up nicely what sort of book this is: “The men in the tan-and-cream Chrysler came with guns blazing. When Ray Kelly woke up in the hospital, it was a month later, he was missing an eye, and his father was dead. Then things started to get bad.”
That told me right away this was my kind of book, a real nose-buster of a novel, to use a line of cover copy from a different publisher. As it turns out, though, it’s more than a simple vengeance yarn, as Westlake springs a couple of decent plot twists that just make things worse for his protagonist/narrator Ray Kelly. The writing is terse throughout. Overall, an excellent book, and I’m glad the guys at Hard Case Crime brought it back into print.
I finished reading this trade paperback collection of the first story arc from Dark Horse's Conan comic book, written by Kurt Busiek with art by Cary Nord. Busiek is one of my favorite comics writers (his ASTRO CITY was a great series, as was UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN) and he approached the task of writing Conan adaptations and pastiches the right way, by going back to the original stories as Robert E. Howard wrote them and by taking part in the various Howard groups on the Internet. The result is an excellent job in the sections of this volume that are adapted from Howard stories. The sections that are original stories by Busiek start off well, with Conan staying fairly true to the character as Howard established him. But near the end of this collection, the story takes a turn that seems so wrong to me, so un-Howardian, that I wasn't able to get past it. I realize that everybody has their own interpretation of these things, but I can't buy this one. As for the art, I remember reading Cary Nord's run on DAREDEVIL several years ago and liking it. Some of his Conan art is good, too, such as the cover for this trade paperback, but most of it is too blurry and vague for my taste, and the fact that it was colored directly from Nord's pencils and not inked first doesn't help matters. I think it was really crying out for the definition that a good inker could have given it. However, nobody pays me to write or draw comic books and likely never will, so take these opinions for what they're worth.
I went to the doctor today for a check-up on the place where he removed a pre-cancerous growth from my face during the summer. There was no sign of it coming back, so he pretty much gave me a clean bill of health (other than some ligament problems and a touch of arthritis in my left knee, which was the other reason I went to see him). That good medical report must have inspired me, because I came home and wrote all afternoon and had a very productive day.
With the current book almost finished and another one coming up that I hope to start this weekend, I took part of today off and went to the Fort Worth library to gather up research for the new one. Of course I found a few non-research books that I want to read, too. In what may come as a surprise to most of you, I didn't go to Half Price Books when I finished at the library. I was diligent and came home and worked instead, wrote a chapter that brought me that much closer to the end. I'm reading LONE STAR AND THE GOLDEN MESA, #33 in the Lone Star series of adult Westerns. As those of you who have read my zines in the Western apa OWLHOOT already know, I really like this series because the plots are usually pulpish and often outlandish and downright goofy, but always presented with a straight face. All of them were published under the house-name Wesley Ellis. I know who wrote many of the books in the series, but this is one where the author is unknown to me. It's pretty well-written and enjoyable so far.
Here's a nice action-packed Western pulp cover that I like, scan courtesy of Jim Griffin. Full-scale brawls like this are relatively rare on Western pulp covers. I also like the titles that the editors at Popular Publications came up. "Water Rights for Hell's Back-Yard" has that bizarre touch that so many of the stories in Popular's Western pulps possess.
What a stupid controversy. It's the Astros' ballpark. If they want the roof closed, it ought to be closed. I agree with Dan Patrick of ESPN, who was just saying that the Astros' owner ought to close the roof anyway, just before the first pitch is thrown. And play the theme from STAR WARS over the PA system while they're doing it.
I don’t think it’s available in stores yet, but today Livia and I received author’s copies of our new Civil War novel, CALL TO ARMS, published by Cumberland House, and it's a beautiful book, as usual. I'll try to get a scan of the cover posted tomorrow. This is the first book in The Palmetto Trilogy, which focuses on South Carolina’s role in the war. It’s also the first time my name has been on a book in almost two years, since my Western non-fiction volume, DRAW. Publishing the majority of my work under pseudonyms and house-names has never bothered me and still doesn’t, but I don’t mind admitting that seeing my name on a book is a very nice feeling.
The first book I ever read by Jack Williamson was GOLDEN BLOOD, a paperback reprint of a fantasy/adventure serial originally published in the pulp WEIRD TALES. (The edition I read, for those interested in such things, was the Lancer “Easy-Eye” Edition, with larger print and that odd, light green paper. I don’t know how many of those “Easy-Eye” volumes there were, but it seemed to be an experiment that came and went fairly quickly.)
But back to Jack Williamson. After reading and enjoying GOLDEN BLOOD some forty years ago, I read all of his novels about the Legion of Space, some of the best space opera ever written. At least, that was my opinion at the time, and I’m not sure there’s a better judge of such things than a wide-eyed junior high kid like I was. In fact, I read just about all of Williamson’s work I could get my hands on and liked most of it. I even met him and enjoyed several conversations with him at a science-fiction convention more than twenty years ago. Over the years I’ve continued to read his books and have gone back to reread some of the old stuff in the beautiful collections published by Stephen Haffner. As discussed on this blog a few days ago, Williamson is still writing novels, the latest of which is THE STONEHENGE GATE. The most recent Williamson novel I read before this one was THE SILICON DAGGER, which I didn’t like very much. The storyline of that one just didn’t seem like a very good fit for Williamson’s talents. Not so THE STONEHENGE GATE, which is old-fashioned science fiction in the best sense of the term. Four professors discover a Stonehenge-like monument mostly buried under the sands of the Sahara Desert, but it turns out to be a gateway that sends them on a galaxy-hopping adventure. The story isn’t nearly as rollicking as that description makes it sound, however, because it takes several very dark, thought-provoking turns along the way.
A few things about the book bothered me. The plot is driven by a large coincidence, and the first third, as the heroes travel from planet to planet in the sort of travelogue-SF that was popular in the genre’s early days, moves pretty slowly. Once the characters get involved in a local rebellion on one of the planets they visit, though, the pace picks up considerably. Although it takes a while to get there, the book achieves some of that epic sense of wonder that makes the best science fiction so good and so rewarding to read, and it’s another worthy addition to Jack Williamson’s long career.
I’m a little behind on everything this week, because I spent yesterday afternoon and part of the evening in the local emergency room with my mother, who fell and broke her wrist, along with injuring her hip and shoulder less seriously. Luckily my brother and I were both with her when she took her tumble, so we were able to get her to the hospital in a hurry. Then there was the long wait for X-rays, CAT scan results, etc. She was able to go home and didn’t have to spend the night in the hospital, which is good, of course, and seems to be doing pretty well today.
There’s a certain amount of irony in all this, since she’d been living alone for over a year since my dad passed away but finally moved into an assisted living center at the first of this month because the rest of the family was worried that she would fall or get hurt some other way while she was alone.
Last night somebody decided it would be fun to knock our mailbox over, so this morning was spent repairing it and putting up a new post for it. While Livia did most of the work, I did help dig a post hole, one of my least favorite jobs. But we got the box back up before the mail ran, which means we didn't miss any junk mail or bills. On a more pleasant note, one of my editors e-mailed today and asked me to write a book that I wasn't expecting to write. I agreed, of course -- the only question was whether or not I could meet the deadline -- and have started working on the plot. Should be fun, but then, I enjoy most of the things I write. I'm easily entertained.
Today Livia and I stopped by to visit for a little while with my mother, who is 89. Tonight I'm about to start reading THE STONEHENGE GATE, the new novel by Jack Williamson. That got me to thinking that when Williamson published his first story and became a professional writer, my mother and father were both 12 years old. Livia's parents were alive, but probably not walking and talking yet. And yet Williamson is still publishing novels on a fairly regular basis. If any author has ever had a more long-lasting career, especially at such a high level, I'm not aware of it. Hugh Cave came close, and Nelson Bond is in the neighborhood, but I think Jack Williamson may be the champ when it comes to staying power.
I took some time off yesterday and we watched a couple of movies on DVD, one fairly recent and one a little older. These were the first movies we'd seen in a while. The more recent one was KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, the big historical epic about the Crusades, starring Orlando Bloom. I keep watching big historical epics because I like the genre, but most of the ones I've seen lately have been disappointing. TROY and ALEXANDER come to mind. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN has problems but is something of an improvement over those two. Much of the movie is slow and hard to follow, and it's plagued by alternating overly loud battle scenes and conversations in which the actors whisper and mumble so much that the dialogue is incomprehensible, at least to my aging ears. But the last hour or so of the movie, during which Bloom and his fellow Crusaders defend Jerusalem from Saladin's army, is pretty good, with one excellent scene and some decent action that's not marred too much by the choppy editing so beloved by modern filmmakers. The older movie we watched was MURDER BY NUMBERS, with Sandra Bullock as a homicide detective on the trail of a couple of thrill-killing high school students. That's not a spoiler, by the way. The audience is in on what's going on from the first. I tend to like Sandra Bullock in almost anything, but she's not given much to work with here. The driven cop who's an emotional wreck is such a cliche that it's hard to overcome without some really good writing, and that's not much in evidence in this movie. But the ending is fairly suspenseful and not bad. And as I may have mentioned, it has Sandra Bullock in it. Today was spent running lots of errands, including a stop by Half Price Books, where I picked up a couple of CDs that might make good background music for working. One is the complete score from the movie RED RIVER, composed by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The other is a compilation called DRIVE TIME: ROUTE 66, which starts with the theme from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and ends with HAPPY TRAILS by Roy and Dale. In between is a lot of music by Aaron Copland, Ennio Morricone, and again, Dimitri Tiomkin. It's playing as I write this and is pretty good.
Just say the name "Ed" and chances are that most of the people in this end of the writing world will know immediately who you're talking about. There's a distinct possibility that without Ed Gorman I wouldn't even be in the writing business anymore. Time and time again he's helped me get work, usually when I really needed it to keep going. His old Ed's Place was the first blog I ever read. And then there are all the great books and stories he's written, several of which are on the shelf right beside me as I write this. Now Ed says he's closing down his blog because of his health problems. I believe him, but like Bill Crider, I also believe that Ed will be back. Anything else is just unacceptable. So go read Ed's final post (for now) and then keep this fine writer -- and even better man -- in your thoughts in the days and weeks to come. I know I will.
I'm very pleased to announce that Italian rights to my novel TEXAS WIND have gone to the publisher Einaudi Editore for their Stile Libero Noir imprint. If you look at their website, even if you don't read Italian (which I certainly don't), you can see that they have a great lineup of authors, including Joe Lansdale, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, Jonathan Latimer, and many others. I'm really happy and honored to be part of that group. I'll post the cover art when I get it. And many thanks to Al Guthrie, J.T. Lindroos, John Betancourt, and Sean Fodera for making this come about.
Some of you may remember when I mentioned several months ago that I'd started watching the serial ACE DRUMMOND. Well, I finally finished it, and the fact that it took me so long to watch all of it may give you a hint as to its quality. ACE DRUMMOND was based on the comic strip of the same name that was "created" by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. My guess would be that Rickenbacker didn't contribute much to the strip other than his name, but I could be wrong about that. Ace Drummond is known as the "flying G-man of the air", and in this serial he's sent to China to investigate sabotage plaguing International Airways' efforts to build an airport in Mongolia. It seems that a mysterious masked villain who calls himself The Dragon is trying to prevent the airport from being built because it's near the location of a secret mountain of jade. There were a couple of things I liked about this serial. The recap at the beginning of every chapter is done in the form of a comic strip, which is an interesting, refreshing change from the usual serial recaps. Also, a very young Noah Beery Jr. plays Ace's sidekick Jerry and does a good job, already showing signs of the fine character actor he would become. However, that doesn't make up for the glacial pace of the plot, the poorly done action scenes (you can sure tell this wasn't a Republic Pictures production), and the weakness of the lead actor, John King. As Ace Drummond, the skinny, narrow-shouldered King is about the frailest-looking serial hero I've ever seen. He also has the annoying habit of breaking into song in just about every chapter, and if that wasn't bad enough, it's always the same dumb song. This isn't a terrible, unwatchable serial, but compared to good ones like ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION and S.O.S. COAST GUARD, it's pretty mediocre stuff.
This short novel was originally published in 1953 under the title "Silent Victory" in the pulp TWO COMPLETE SCIENCE-ADVENTURE NOVELS, and then later was reprinted as THE WAR OF TWO WORLDS as half of Ace Double D-335, which is where I read it. Poul Anderson has never been one of my favorite authors, but he could be counted on for consistently entertaining work, and that's the case here. THE WAR OF TWO WORLDS takes us back to the Solar System as it was originally portrayed in SF, with life on other planets -- or at least one other planet, in this case Mars. This novel begins where some would end, as a long, bloody war between the Terrans and the Martians finally grinds to a halt with the Martians emerging victorious. The narrator and hero, a spacer with the United Nations forces, returns to a defeated Earth under Martian occupation. But not all is as it seems, and before you know it, we're off on a cross-country adventure that at times reads more like hardboiled crime fiction than SF. The short length and pulp origins means that the story is almost all action without much characterization, but there are some nice plot twists along the way and the pace seldom lets up for very long. Not a great book, but I found it pretty enjoyable.
I finished reading this book last night but decided it was too late to write a post about it. That was probably for the best, because it gave me a chance to recover a little from the experience. BIG CITY GIRL is a brilliant book, one of the best Gold Medals I’ve read, but it’s about as bleak and harrowing as anything you’re liable to come across. Charles Williams gives us the parallel storylines of fugitive murderer Sewell Neely and his trampish wife Joy, who is staying with Sewell’s family on their failing cotton farm in East Texas. From the evocative cover by Barye Phillips (one of his best) to the last few sad, powerful, subtly horrifying pages, this is rural, “backwoods” noir at its best.
For years, people whose opinions I trust (most notably Ed Gorman and Bill Crider) told me how good Charles Williams’ books were. Still, it took me a while to get around to reading any of them, maybe because I watched a movie based on one of them (THE HOT SPOT) and didn’t care for it. But then a year or so ago I read one of his Dell First Edition novels, GIRL OUT BACK, and this year I’ve read HILL GIRL and now BIG CITY GIRL, and I’m a Williams fan for good now. Some of his later books are about sailing, and he’s supposed to be an excellent writer about the sea, but I haven’t gotten to those yet. Based on the novels I’ve read, though, he’s as good as you’ll find at chronicling the lives of hardscrabble country folks whose luck has run out. I’m glad I still have a stack of his books on hand.
Ashley Rhodes, 17, stands in a pink satiny dress and a tiara, not a bit ruffled by the freshly killed alligator hanging from a weigh-in cable beside her.
It is the middle of September's alligator hunting season, and that means it's Gatorfest time in Anahuac, a Gulf Coast town near the mouth of the Trinity River. Hunters will win Gatorfest prizes for the largest reptile hauled in."
This week on the WesternPulps website, we have another cover scan provided by Jim Griffin, from the February 1946 issue of WESTERN TRAILS. Not surprisingly, a horse plays a major role in this cover, and it's more humorous than most of the covers I've seen on Western pulps published by Ace.
A while back I read and commented about Bill Napier's novel SPLINTERED ICON, which I assumed was a debut novel. One of the readers of this blog informs me, though, that while SPLINTERED ICON is the first of Napier's novels published in the United States, he's written at least three previous thrillers that were published in England: NEMESIS, REVELATION, and THE LURE. I looked these up on Amazon UK, and they sound interesting. If the American edition of SPLINTERED ICON is successful, maybe his other books will be reprinted over here as well. One thing I noticed was that the usual Amazon "Customers who bought this book also bought . . . " list included books by James Rollins and Jack Du Brul. I've bought books by both of those authors recently but have never read anything by either of them. I'm wondering if I need to move them up in the pile of books to be read or leave them where they are.
Today was the biannual county-wide clean-up day. For us country folk, it's a big day, because we get to load up all the stuff that the normal garbage pickup service won't take, haul it off, and dump it for free. Brush, lumber, old furniture, appliances that don't work, almost everything is fair game. We borrowed a pickup, loaded it to the gills twice, and got rid of a bunch of junk we didn't need. After that I sat down and wrote a chapter in the current book, so it was a productive day for me. I'm reading BIG CITY GIRL by Charles Williams, hope to finish it and have some comments on it tomorrow.
TRAIL OF THE RENEGADE is the third novel by James J. Griffin about Texas Ranger Jim Blawcyzk, following on the heels of TROUBLE RIDES THE TEXAS PACIFIC and BORDER RAIDERS. The series started out good and has gotten better as it goes along, so it's no surprise that TRAIL OF THE RENEGADE is the best Blawcyzk novel so far. The story finds Blawcyzk and several of his fellow Rangers sent to north central Texas to round up a gang of outlaws that has been slipping across the Red River from Indian Territory. The gang is led by the infamous Ned Scanlon, an owlhoot whom Blawcyzk is especially anxious to corral. The result is a well-written, action-packed traditional Western novel, but best of all, a lengthy flashback provides some back-story for Blawcyzk, whose history has been something of an empty slate until now. There's also a very poignant ending that features some of Griffin's best writing so far.
My science-fiction story turned into a novelette, perhaps even a novella (I'm not sure where the dividing line is, wordage-wise). That comes as no surprise to me, since I tend to write long. Anyway, I finished the story this morning, then went ahead this afternoon and started the next novel on the schedule. As the old saying goes, no rest for the wicked. And speaking of wicked, I just read IMMORAL, a debut novel by Brian Freeman. It's a well-written, complexly plotted mystery about a cop's search for two missing teenage girls who disappeared at different times and seem to have no connection between them. Most of the action takes place in Duluth, Minnesota, an area about which I know nothing, and Freeman does an excellent job with the setting, rendering it vividly for the reader. Currently I'm reading TRAIL OF THE RENEGADE, the third Western novel by my friend Jim Griffin. I'll have some comments on it in a day or two.
Bill Crider posted yesterday about Gil Brewer's novel THE THREE-WAY SPLIT (which I have on my shelves but have never read), and one of the things Bill mentions is that the book is only 128 pages long. That made me think about when I was a kid, and 128 pages was my favorite length for a paperback because I could read part of it at school in study hall and then finish it at home after school. I don't think kids today know much about study hall. It doesn't fit into their busy, regimented, caffeine-fueled schedules. But it was my favorite part of the day during junior high (where it was mandatory) and high school (where it was an elective, but I took it every year but one anyway) because most of the time I could use it to read books. Occasionally I had to spend part of the period doing homework, but mostly I sat there reading the Saint, Nero Wolfe, Doc Savage, Conan, Jim Hatfield, John Carter, Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, Shell Scott . . . you get the idea. I certainly wasn't going to waste that valuable time in the middle of the day studying. Except, of course, given the way I've made my living, I really was studying, I just didn't know it. Neither did the coach who was in charge of study hall, who was always irritated by the fact that I was sitting there reading paperbacks. He liked to come and loom over my desk (he was large enough that he could actually loom), and the following conversation always took place: "Don't you have any homework, Reasoner?" "Done it already, Coach." "What kinda grades you make, Reasoner?" "Straight A's, Coach." Followed by indeciperable muttering as he walked off. One of the other coaches where I went to high school, the head football coach, in fact, was also the algebra teacher, and a very good one. One day I was sitting in his class during some slack time, so I took out a paperback and started to read. I know it was a Shell Scott book; I think it was BODIES IN BEDLAM, but I'm not sure about that. But the coach saw me reading it and called me up to his desk, told me to bring the book with me. I was pretty nervous, expecting to have it confiscated -- and I wasn't through with it. But instead the coach said, "You like that book? I think I've read all those Shell Scott novels. They're great!" Well, I was flabbergasted. This was the first adult I'd ever talked to who actually liked to read some of the same stuff I liked. Most of them who paid any attention to what I read disapproved of most of it, like I was going to grow up all warped or something because of it. They were right, of course, but that's not the point. What was important to me was finding a fellow fan, and in an unexpected place, at that. Obviously, I've never forgotten it.
The latest edition of Black Horse Express, the on-line magazine about the Black Horse Western line of novels in particular and Western fiction and history in general, is now available. As always, this is an excellent issue, with the lead feature being a lengthy interview with the extremely prolific author Keith Hetherington. There's also an article by I.J. Parnham about the titles of Black Horse Westerns, a historical article by Daniel Stephensen about a famous wild horse tamer, and other Western-related pieces by various authors. And you can find information there about the latest contest to win a free Black Horse Western.
Yesterday I finished the book I'd been working on, so today I was able to get started on something new, which is always a good feeling. In this case it's a little different, because I'm writing a short story (or maybe a novelette, I don't know yet how long it'll turn out to be), and it's on spec (I'm targeting it for a particular anthology, but there's no guarantee at all that it'll sell there), and it's science fiction. I've been a reader and fan of SF for more than forty years, but I've written very little of it in my career -- a couple of stories that sold to small press magazines and a handful of stories and novel proposals that never sold. I'm a believer in the theory that different types of stories use different writing muscles, though, so I thought it was time to give SF a try again. I think I've done a pretty good job on my research, I've come up with the sort of plot that I can write effectively, and I like the characters I've put in that plot. So far -- and I estimate that I wrote between a third and a half of the story today -- I've had a very good time with it. So we'll see what happens.