Saturday, April 29, 2006

Two by Parker

In recent days I've read the two most recent novels by Robert B. Parker, SCHOOL DAYS (featuring Spenser) and SEA CHANGE (featuring Jesse Stone). I've read Parker for all these years and continue to read him for very specific reasons: the books are short, they read fast, and the dialogue is usually pretty good. Also, I continue to find his lead characters interesting (with the exception of Sunny Randell; I don't read that series anymore). I expect the plots to be thin and some of the other characters to be annoying.

SCHOOL DAYS and SEA CHANGE are pretty much par for the course for Parker. There are some minor variations. Spenser is pretty much on his own except for Pearl the dog in SCHOOL DAYS. Hawk is mentioned but never appears; Susan is gone for most of the book but still manages to maintain a presence because Spenser spends so much time pining away for her. I'd take Rita Fiore over Susan in a second, but that's just me. Anyway, it's sort of refreshing to see Spenser operate without his usual sidekicks. SEA CHANGE is rather preachy and moralistic, even for Parker, and I didn't like it as well as the other Jesse Stone books. But it's still certainly readable and I'm sure I'll pick up the next one in the series when it comes out.

So if you like Parker's work, these books are fine. You'll read them, enjoy them, and probably forget all about them in a week's time. But if you haven't read Parker before, don't start with either of these. Go back and read him from the first.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Green Light for Death/Frank Kane

In one of the comments below, Carl mentions buying a copy of Frank Kane's novel GREEN LIGHT FOR DEATH because of the cute redhead on the cover. I suspect he's talking about the version on the left. The one on the right is from an earlier paperback edition published by Reader's Choice Library. I like both covers and thought I would steal a page from Bill Crider and post them both here.

As for the book itself, it's the second novel in Kane's long-running series about private eye Johnny Liddell. I read it about twenty-five years ago and remember liking it quite a bit. The Liddell series got a little tiresome as it went on and Kane began to repeat himself, but the early books are pretty good.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Bamboo Bomb/James Dark

There's a story behind why I read this particular book at this particular time -- so naturally I'm going to tell it.

Like a lot of people who have a lot of old paperbacks, I sometimes have trouble remembering which books I own and which I don't. So when I come across something interesting in a used bookstore, I occasionally have to ask myself, do I already have this one or not? And if I can't remember, I err on the side of caution and buy it anyway, because -- in the words of a very wise man -- you never regret the books you buy, only the ones you didn't buy.

Anyway, I was discussing this with Livia the other day, which led me to remark in passing, "That's why I have five or six copies of THE BAMBOO BOMB by James Dark."

She just looked at me and asked, "Have you ever actually read it?"

I had to admit that I hadn't, so she said, "I want you to read it."

Now I have. And it's not bad.

Mark Hood is your typical Sixties secret agent: rich American playboy, Rhodes scholar at Oxford, internationally renowned cricket player, race car driver, karate master, etc. Just the sort of guy who spent the Sixties fighting the bad guys and keeping the world safe. He works for Intertrust, a top-secret international spy organization. In this book he's sent to Singapore to pull the old "American down on his luck" bit so he can infiltrate a group of villains who are out to destabilize the Far Eastern political arena . . . I think. I'll admit I had a little trouble following the plot because I know almost nothing about politics in the Far East during the Sixties. But that's okay, because Hood fights a bunch of bad guys, romances a couple of beautiful girls, and blows a bunch of stuff up real good.

One of the best things about this book is its length -- 127 pages. And there's more plot in that 127 pages than in a lot of 500 - 600 page thrillers that I've read. True, there's not much characterization or back-story, but sometimes I don't care. You pays your money and you takes your choice. More than anything else it reminded me of the Sam Durell books by Edward S. Aarons, with its hardboiled hero and exotic locations and convoluted plot. "James Dark" didn't write as well as Aarons, but then, few people ever did when it comes to this particular sort of book.

"James Dark" was really J.E. MacDonnell. I know nothing about him other than the fact that he wrote a lot of war and espionage novels in various series under various names. The Mark Hood books were originally published by Horwitz in Australia during the mid-Sixties, and at the same time about half of the books were reprinted in the U.S. by Signet, cashing in on the secret agent boom of the time. I think I have all the U.S. editions -- multiple copies of some of them, in fact.

But just to set the record straight, I checked my shelves and I don't have five or six copies of THE BAMBOO BOMB.

I have three.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Outlines and Lawn Mowers

Today I wrote those two outlines I mentioned yesterday, and as always, it feels good to have the plots worked out for a couple of books. Too often I've had good ideas, but if I don't know where I'm going with them, sometimes it's awfully hard to get where I need to be. Tomorrow I'll email them off to the editors involved, after I've had a chance to look them over one more time, and we'll see what happens.

I also worked on one of our lawn mowers that failed to start the last time I tried to use it. I didn't really expect to be able to fix it. My skill level when it comes to repairing machinery isn't very high; I'm a "muddle around and hope it works" sort of guy. But in this case I actually got it started and it seemed to run just fine. I'm glad, because I really didn't want to have to go buy another one tomorrow.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Clean Up Day

Today was another county-wide clean up day. Earlier in the week we tore down part of an old wooden fence around our back yard and loaded it in the pickup. Today I drove over to the place that was the collection point for all the junk and dumped that load, then went back for the rest of the fence and another load of assorted junk. Because of the extended drought we've had, the county has been under a burn ban for a long, long time, so a lot of people have had a lot of stuff accumulate that they would have burned otherwise. That meant the lines were long to get in and unload. I'd like to say that I plotted three books while I was waiting in line, but . . . I didn't. I thought about a couple of upcoming projects, but as for actually worthwhile mental work, there wasn't any on my part today. Since I'm between books at the moment, I need to force myself to sit down and write a couple of outlines. I know from experience that if I start working on the next book without an outline, I'll write myself into a corner before it's over. Of course, I've always been able to write myself out of those corners, but that takes more time and effort and it's just better for me to figure out these things beforehand.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Tarzan and the Cave City

Here's the cover of one of those Tarzan novels by "Barton Werper", in case some of you have never seen one.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Girl Possessed/Dean Owen

For an author who is remembered today (if at all) as a Western writer, based on the evidence of this book Dean Owen could also write a pretty good crime novel. The plot of this book is very much in the Gold Medal style: an earnest but not too bright lunk of a hero runs into a beautiful dame who's maybe no better than she has to be; hero makes one wrong decision that sets in motion a chain of steadily worsening events including murder; and then things get even worse. If there's a drawback to this book, it may be that it hews too closely to this well-established plotline and doesn't provide any real surprises along the way. But Owen tells his story in a terse, fast-moving style that's very appealing to me and gives the reader a good picture of a man who's gone past the end of his rope.

And how about that cover, hey? Pretty spicy stuff.

This novel was published by Gold Star Books, a short-lived company headquartered in Derby, Connecticut. In its three years or so of existence, Gold Star published quite a few crime novels, including American editions of some of the Hank Janson novels, which were hugely successful in England. Gold Star is best known, though, as the publisher of several Tarzan pastiche novels which appeared under the pseudonymous byline "Barton Werper" (actually the name of a character in one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels). If I'm remembering the story correctly, these Tarzan novels were lightly rewritten plagiarisms of some of Burroughs' novels. I recall seeing the Barton Werper books on the paperback rack at Tompkins' Drug Store, where I bought a lot of books and comics and digest magazines in the mid-Sixties, but for some reason I never bought any of them. That sort of surprises me because I was a big Burroughs fan by then. I sort of wish I had picked them up, because they're semi-collectible now, but I don't want them badly enough to go looking for copies.

I've wandered off the subject. GIRL POSSESSED is good enough that I'll definitely read more of Dean Owen's mystery novels under his various pseudonyms (most notably Dudley Dean and Owen Dudley). Luckily I already own most of them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Catching Up

I don't normally post this late at night (or early in the morning, however you want to look at it), but things have been very busy lately and probably won't let up for a while, so I thought I'd better grab whatever chances I have to update this blog. I've been on a pretty short deadline on the current project (it's something I can actually talk about -- eventually), so I've been on a real writing binge. I managed to work a couple of library trips in and even went back to Recycled Books in Denton but didn't find anything of note other than a couple more old Shirreffs Westerns.

I read THE BATMAN CHRONICLES, Vol. 1, a trade paperback reprinting the first year or so of Batman stories from DETECTIVE COMICS in 1938-39 and the entire contents of BATMAN #1 from 1940. If you're a comic book geek (and I am), it's pretty interesting to watch Batman's development, both visually and as a character. The art by Bob Kane starts out pretty crude but improves greatly over the months covered in this volume, especially once Jerry Robinson starts inking Kane's pencils. The scripts by Bill Finger and Gardner Fox are consistently good. The early Batman is surprisingly violent, killing crooks right and left. He mellows a little by the end of this volume, with the introduction of Robin and the start of his wisecracking phase. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable book.

We watched the DVD of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, which I enjoyed quite a bit but with a few reservations. I tend to like Viggo Mortensen and I always like Maria Bello (she's great in a fine film called THE COOLER, with William H. Macy, one of my favorite movies of recent years). The action scenes in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE are very well-done, but I kept expecting something more from the plot, some twist that never arrived. I'm still glad we watched it, though.

I'm currently reading GIRL POSSESSED, a Gold Medal-ish crime novel by Dean Owen that was actually published by Gold Star Books, a completely different and much more obscure publisher. If you didn't know that I've been helping with some Dean Owen research lately, you can read all about it on Mystery*File Online.

Friday, April 14, 2006

DC: The New Frontier, Volume One

I started reading comic books around 1960, not long after I learned to read. And I’d been getting people to read them to me for several years before that, so my earliest memories of comics come from the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s not surprising, then, that I found an awful lot to like in the trade paperback DC: THE NEW FRONTIER, VOLUME ONE. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, this collects the first three issues of a miniseries set in that time period, the beginning of what comics fans now call the Silver Age. It features a whole slew of DC Comics characters, ranging from the iconic (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) to the obscure (Slam Bradley, King Faraday), and a lot in between from big names like Green Lantern and the Flash to more middle-of-the-pack characters like the Martian Manhunter (always one of my favorites) and the Challengers of the Unknown (ditto).

The story actually begins in the waning days of World War II in the Pacific with a chapter devoted to the final adventures of the team known as The Losers – Gunner and Sarge, Captain Storm, and Johnny Cloud, the Navajo Ace. I was particularly taken by this, since one of the first comic books I remember reading was an issue of OUR FIGHTING FORCES which featured a Gunner and Sarge story. From there Cooke follows his huge cast of characters through the Korean War, the Red Scare, the beginnings of the Vietnam War, and the early days of the Sixties. What makes this story different, as DC’s publisher Paul Levitz points out in his introduction to the book, is that characters from different parts of DC’s stable, such as war and superhero and even Western comics, can now all exist in the same universe and interact with each other. I always like a coherent fictional universe, so this appeals to me, too.

There were a few things that bothered me about this book. For all its nostalgic glories, the story seems to wander around rather aimlessly for most of the way and doesn’t really get anywhere until the very end, which means that this collection serves more as a prologue to Volume Two than anything else. That may be perfectly all right once I’ve read Volume Two. Also, the animation-inspired artwork, while pretty effective in places, is just a little too cartoony for my taste. I would have loved to have seen this story illustrated by someone like Neal Adams or Jack Kirby (the latter of which would have been a good trick, of course, since Kirby is no longer with us). I know it’s the curmudgeon in me, but I’ll just never like today’s style of comic book art as much as I like the style of the Sixties and Seventies. I’m generalizing, of course, there are still some very good artists working in comics.

So overall I had a really fine time reading this collection, and I’d recommend it to anybody who was a comic book fan in the late Fifties and early Sixties. I’m looking forward to reading Volume Two as soon as I can find a copy of it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic/Kinky Friedman

I’m not a big fan of travel books, but you know when Kinky Friedman writes one, it won’t be your typical travel book. That’s certainly true of THE GREAT PSYCHEDELIC ARMADILLO PICNIC, which is all about the Kinkster’s hometown of Austin, Texas.

Now, I have to commit some Texas heresy here and admit that I’m not a big fan of Austin, either. I’ve spent too much time trying to get through there on the way somewhere else, which means I’ve gotten stuck too many times in that hellish I-35 traffic. However, I know several people who live there and think very highly of them, and since I’ve spent more time there and learned how to get around and avoid the interstate, I like Austin a little better. At one time, Austin had one of the best used bookstores I’ve ever run across, the Pirate’s Den on North Lamar. Sadly, it’s gone now, and the last time I drove by there the building was occupied by a used furniture store. That’s just not the same. But there are still some good bookstores in Austin and some fine places to eat. What else do you need, other than less traffic?

My other complaint about Austin is that nearly every time I go there, I get a flat tire on whatever vehicle I’m driving. I don’t know why that is. But I would ask that if you ever find yourself in Austin, don’t throw nails out of your car window. My tires will find them if you do.

Anyway, getting back to Mr. Friedman’s book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I learned quite a few things I didn’t know about Austin, mostly concerning places to listen to music, get drunk, and eat barbecue. And while I hate to contradict the Kinkster, the best barbecue in Austin is at Rudy’s in northwest Austin, not at Sam’s. Although I’m sure that Sam’s barbecue is good. Just not as good as Rudy’s. You also have to like any book that has nice things to say about the Cornell Hurd Band, as this one does. Now, I could pick nits and point out that there should have also been a mention of Gary P. Nunn’s classic song “London Homesick Blues” (the one with the lyrics “I wanna go back to the Armadillo . . .”), but I won’t.

So if you’re going to Austin, or if you live in Austin, or if you just like writing that is funny and poignant and occasionally raucous, I recommend THE GREAT PSYCHEDELIC ARMADILLO PICNIC. Just remember, watch out for my tires.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Australian Westerns

I got a comment on an earlier post that I thought was worth discussing here:

Larry and Stretch, Marshall Grover, Marshall McCoy...what a profusion of names and confusing for me. I am trying to find out how many Aussie westerns made it over to the US...can anyone help me with when these books started to appear and what their covers are like. I'm curious to see if they were completely revamped or given a new cover. Anyway please contact me at with anything you might think would interest someone who's trying to get an idea of how US audiences 'read' Aussie stuff, did you even know it was Aussie? What did the blurbs say?

I first became aware that there were Australian Westerns in 1968, when I bought the first of the Larry and Streak series, GUN GLORY FOR TEXANS (pictured above). This was a thin (less than 100 pages) paperback published by Bantam, a publisher with whom I was very familiar because they also published the Doc Savage and Louis L'Amour novels, books I read religiously back then. Right away I noticed that the Larry and Streak book was copyrighted by Horwitz, an Australian publisher whose name I recognized because I was also reading the Carter Brown books, hardboiled mysteries originally published in Australia by Horwitz and reprinted in the U.S. by Signet. I had no idea who Marshall McCoy was, but I liked the book a lot and started buying all the others I could find by him, which included another series known as Nevada Jim. In '68 and '69 there were sixteen books published by Bantam in each series, and then Marshall McCoy seemed to disappear.

Skip ahead a bunch of years, and along the way I discovered that Marshall McCoy was really an Australian author named Leonard Meares, and that under the name Marshall Grover he published literally hundreds of Westerns. I even corresponded with Len for several years before his untimely death in the early Nineties.

To answer the questions posed in the comment above: yes, the books were rewritten somewhat, and the covers were completely different. Larry Valentine and Stretch Emerson became Larry Vance and Streak Everett in the American editions. Don't ask me why; the original names sound just as good to me. Big Jim (see cover above) was turned into Nevada Jim, and the humorous Mexican sidekick he had in some of the Australian editions was written completely out of the Bantam versions. I believe that at first the American editions were rewritten to make them shorter, too, although the page count in both series increased in the later Bantams.

In addition, in 1969, the American publisher Leisure Books released a reprint of the Larry and Stretch novel FEUD AT MENDOZA, this time with the character names and the Marshall Grover by-line intact.. This may have been a pirated edition. It was the only Larry and Stretch novel Leisure published. They did publish a couple of double volumes reprinting some Benedict & Brazos novels by E. Jefferson Clay (actually Paul Wheelahan), and a few other double volumes reprinting various Australian Westerns under different pseudonyms (none of which I remember at the moment). Other than the copyright notices that mention Horwitz, I don't think there was any indication on any of these books that they originated in Australia.

Anyone with more information or comments about these books, I'd be glad to hear from you, as I'm sure T. Johnson-Woods will be.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Dramatist/Ken Bruen

Sometimes I think that finding an author you like is mostly a matter of luck and timing. Take Ken Bruen. I read one of his books a while back and didn't care much for it. I thought it was well-written, but the style and subject matter just didn't resonate with me. (It was either THE GUARDS or THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS, I don't remember which.) But the other day I picked up a copy of THE DRAMATIST, the latest book in Bruen's Jack Taylor series, and I liked it a lot better. Jack has cleaned up and is sober as this book opens, mostly because his drug dealer is in prison, but when that drug dealer asks that Jack pay him a visit, events begin to unfold that wind up putting Jack on the trail of a serial killer.

Bruen has a very distinctive style, and while I found it a little off-putting in the other book of his that I read, this time my mind fell right into the rhythm of it and I enjoyed it a lot more. As for the story itself, it takes some very dark turns, darker than I would have ever attempted, but Bruen makes them work. I'm glad I gave him another try, and I'll be looking for his books now.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Flash Fiction

Since I'd never written anything anywhere close to short enough to be considered flash fiction, I thought it might be fun and interesting to try. The result, a story called "Everybody Lies", is now posted at Tribe's excellent website, Flashing in the Gutters.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Doctor's Office Reading

I took my mom to the doctor today for a checkup, and the wait was really long. Luckily I took a book with me, as I try to do any time I'm going to be sitting and waiting somewhere, and I noticed that three other people in the waiting room were also reading. So naturally, as I always do when I see someone reading in public, I tried to sneak a look at the titles of their books. (I'm sure some of you do the same thing.) The elderly gentleman to my right was reading OREGON!, one of the Wagons West series by Dana Fuller Ross. Now, I've written some books under the name Dana Fuller Ross in my time, but OREGON! isn't one of them. The lady sitting directly across from me was reading BLOOD TEST by Jonathan Kellerman. I have to admit I've never read anything by Kellerman, although I think I once saw a TV-movie based on one of his books. The lady sitting next to her was also reading a paperback, but I never could see what it was. Based on the size of it, I would guess a category romance, but really it could have been almost anything.

As for me, I was reading THE DRAMATIST by Ken Bruen. More about that when I've finished it.

And by the way, my mom's doing fine, especially for somebody who just turned 90 a few days ago.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Odd Questions

So I'm sitting here tonight listening to a Franz Ferdinand CD and reading a Secret Agent X novel ("City of Madness" from the October 1936 issue), and I find myself wondering just how many other people in the world can make that same statement tonight. Then I ask myself how many people not only know that Franz Ferdinand is an emo band but also know what Buck Jones's real name was. Then I think about how my daughter commented the other day that when most people these days hear the name Ferdinand they think of the band, not the archduke. Hell, when I hear the name sometimes I think about Ferdinand the Bull.

Anyway, I got up and changed the CD. But I played Fountains of Wayne instead and then moved on to The Killers, so the weirdness factor hasn't really dropped all that much.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

April Fool's Day

No joke here. I worked a while (not very productively), ran some errands, and then spent most of the day giving a Schnauzer a haircut, if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge . . . well, no, actually I was giving a Schnauzer a haircut.

Ah, the glamorous life of the freelance writer.