I went to the ophthalmologist today for a check-up and got a clean bill of health on both eyes. The vision in the left one (the one that had the retinal tear during the summer) has improved some, although it may always be a little obstructed and the eye itself is more prone to fatigue. But I've adjusted pretty well, I think. My writing pace is almost back up to where it needs to be. The doctor told me to come back in six months for one more check-up, and if everything still looks all right, I won't have to go back after that unless new problems develop.Since the kids are older, Halloween isn't what you'd call a big holiday around here anymore. Also, we live out in the country, so we've never had trick-or-treaters. We watched IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN last week (hey, you can't miss the Great Pumpkin -- or at least, I can't, having watched it nearly every year for the past forty years), but that's about the extent of our Halloween celebrations around here.
I've known Jim Lee for several years now and always enjoy getting a chance to talk with him about books, as I did last week during all the NOAH'S RIDE activities. He's a fine essayist, and his collection TEXAS, MY TEXAS is well worth seeking out. I think ADVENTURES WITH A TEXAS HUMANIST, published a couple of years ago by TCU Press, is his most recent book. I've been reading it the past few days, along with the Kinky Friedman book (now there's a pair for you, Jim Lee and the Kinkster).This volume is divided into three sections: literary criticism about Texas writers and their work; folklore; and autobiographical essays. Now, I don't mind admitting that lit-crit is usually pretty heavy going for me, but Jim Lee writes some of the best I've run across. His essays are clearly written, straight to the point, and entertaining as well as informative. The centerpieces of this section, lengthy articles entitled "The Age of Dobie" and "The Age of McMurtry", are both excellent reviews of Texas writing, and to prove that academic endeavors can extend to a wide variety of subjects, Lee also provides a fine analysis of the Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy movie BOOMTOWN and ties it in with numerous novels centered around the oil industry in Texas (a particular interest of mine). I'm not that interested in folklore, but the essays in this section are interesting, and one of them, about sidekicks in B-Western movies, is great fun. The autobiographical essays are my favorites, as they take Lee from a young man in a private school in Tennessee through his service in the Navy during the Korean War to his four decades as an English professor at what is now the University of North Texas. His sense of humor really comes through in these.What baffles me is how I managed to spend several years as an English major at what was then North Texas State University in the mid-Seventies, when Jim Lee was the head of the English department, and never take one of his classes or even really know who he was. I'm glad that's not the case now.
Somehow I missed this collection of Kinky Friedman's essays when it came out a couple of years ago. Regular readers of this blog know that I like the Kinkster's books. (I have to get around to reading his novels one of these days.)However, this is probably my least favorite of his books that I've read. It's mostly about various singers, politicians, and other celebrities that Friedman knows, and I didn't find those essays as interesting as the ones he's written about more ordinary people. There are some highlights, though, including a piece about Kinky's trip to the Australian Outback and a memoir about his father, Tom Friedman. (A similar but even better essay about Friedman's parents and the children's camp they ran for years on the Medina River can be found in the collection TEXAS HOLD 'EM.)So, while I found this book somewhat disappointing, it's still worth reading.
Me at the book signing, also courtesy of Russell Andrew. And I think that's enough of my mug for a while.
Here's a group shot from last night, missing only a couple of the participants. Seated, left to right, are Jane Roberts Wood and Mike Blackman. Standing, left to right, are Phyllis Allen, Mary Dittoe Kelly, Mike Cochran, Mary Rogers, Carlton Stowers, me holding the microphone and looking like a crooner, Elmer Kelton, and Jeff Guinn. Photo by my friend Russell Andrew.The previous photo was taken by my daughter Shayna, by the way, as I should have noted when I posted it.
Cast your gaze at the above picture and you'll see a real rarity: me in a tie. I'm signing books at Bass Hall in downtown Fort Worth, where all the authors of NOAH'S RIDE gathered tonight to be interviewed, answer questions from an audience of about a thousand people, and sign copies of the book. I'm in the middle, with Phyllis Allen to my left and Edgar-winning true crime author Carlton Stowers next to her. To my right are Mary Rogers, Mike Cochran (another fine true crime writer), and Mary Dittoe Kelly. I should have some other photos to post later in the week.Although I'm not that fond of public speaking, the evening seemed to be a rousing success, and we sold a lot of books. With the proceeds going to charity, that's a good thing indeed. I spent quite a bit of time talking Western pulps with Elmer Kelton and mysteries with Carlton Stowers, so that was fun as always. There was a bit of a surreal moment when I was standing on stage with all those award-winning novelists and journalists, literary lions, and living legends, as a little voice in the back of my head started singing the old song from Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong . . ."But it was a great evening, and I want to thank Jeff Guinn, Judy Alter, and James Ward Lee, the guiding lights behind the project, for allowing me to be part of it.
The problem with any “best of” or “greatest stories ever told” collection is that nobody will ever agree on the contents. So, to get the quibbling out of the way right up front, how can you have a book called BATMAN: THE GREATEST STORIES EVER TOLD and not include Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Night of the Reaper”, my favorite Batman story ever? Not to mention the classic Batman/Enemy Ace story, “Death Stalks the Skies”, also by O’Neil and Adams?
With that out of the way, let me say that this is a very good collection indeed if you’re a Batman fan. I include myself among that number and have for more than forty years. I had already read some of the stories in this volume, but I enjoyed reading them again. And the ones that were new to me were all very entertaining. I consider the Sixties and Seventies to be the best era of the Batman’s long run, and most of the selections here come from those decades. Thankfully, the Fifties are ignored for the most part. The stories during that period tended to put the Batman in silly, science-fictional situations for which he wasn’t suited at all, and even though they were the first Batman stories I ever read, ’way back when, I don’t care for them now. The O’Neil/Adams team, in my opinion the best to ever produce Batman stories, is represented here by “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”, an excellent story from an era that returned the Batman to his urban noir roots. There are several stories written by Bill Finger, who was underrated and almost unknown for a long time because the Batman’s appearances were always by-lined Bob Kane, who co-created the character with Finger and did the art in the early years before a long series of ghosts took over that chore. The always dependable and entertaining Mike W. Barr contributes a fine story from the Eighties, and the most recent story, by Devin Grayson, is also good and shows a nice appreciation for the character’s history.
So while these aren’t necessarily “the greatest stories ever told” when it comes to the Batman, they’re very good and make up a very entertaining and highly recommended collection.
The book signing in Granbury yesterday afternoon went very well. Eight of the NOAH'S RIDE authors were there. We did a short talk about the process of writing a collaborative novel, then signed copies of NOAH and other books. They had the Point Blank Press reprint of TEXAS WIND, and I think I signed eight or ten copies of it, which isn't bad for me. The best part of the day was getting to visit with old friends like Jim Lee, Carlton Stowers, and Danny Odell. Danny and I had a good talk after the signing about Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, F. Paul Wilson, and John D. MacDonald. All in all, an enjoyable afternoon, and thanks to the Friends of the Granbury Public Library for including me.
Here's Gary Gianni's cover for the World Fantasy Convention anthology, which will be out in a couple of weeks.
For any of you in the North Texas area who feel like taking a scenic drive down to Granbury, I'll be doing a book signing at the city hall there on Saturday afternoon from 3:00 to 5:00 along with several of the other authors who contributed to NOAH'S RIDE, a collaborative Western novel just published by TCU Press. That's an old scan of the preliminary cover, but it's the only one I have handy. In addition to the authors listed there, Carole Nelson Douglas also wrote a chapter for the book. The Granbury signing is part of the city's annual harvest festival and also part of the launch for NOAH'S RIDE. The proceeds from the book all go to charity. Copies of other books by the authors will also be for sale at the signing.By the way, I wrote Chapter Five, just in case anybody's keeping score at home.
I didn't really intend for it to work out that way, but this is the third novel in a row I've read about professional criminals. First was the unnamed con man/narrator of David Dodge's THE LAST MATCH, then the Dolly family from Daniel Woodrell's WINTER'S BONE, and now Stoney, Fat Tommy, and Tuco, a trio of scam artists operating in New York City and New Jersey. The protagonist of this one is Stoney, a likable guy despite his profession. Estranged from his wife and two teenage children, Stoney is trying to clean up his act by quitting drinking. He has no plans to give up being a grifter, though, which is good because his special talents at crime, along with those of his two partners, come in very handy when some secrets about his family are revealed and danger threatens his loved ones.Some books come out of nowhere and surprise you. I'd never heard of Norman Green, despite the fact that he's published four other well-received crime novels, including SHOOTING DR. JACK, which introduced Stoney, Fat Tommy, and Tuco. This is a perfectly fine urban hardboiled crime yarn with a suitably twisty plot, but what elevates it to an even higher level are Green's perceptive portraits of the characters involved in that plot. His heroes are borderline losers who are trying, sometimes with success and sometimes not, to hang on to their dignity and find something worth living for, and they come up against some suitably psychopathic villains. Green's dialogue is excellent, and he's as good as anyone I've read lately at getting to the heart of things with a few well-crafted lines. This is highly recommended and one of the best books I've read all year.
Ree Dolly is an older-than-her-years sixteen-year-old who lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Saddled with the responsibility of taking care of her two younger brothers and her mentally ill mother, Ree’s problems grow worse when her father, who is charged with operating a crystal meth lab, disappears after having put up the family home as security for his bail. If Ree can’t find him and persuade him to show up in court, she and her mother and brothers will be forced out of their house. Unfortunately, all of Ree’s large extended family are criminals of one sort or another, and they don’t want her to find out what really happened to her father.This is a book that’s gotten a lot of good press, and deservedly so. Because of its Ozark setting and teenage girl protagonist, some critics have compared it to Charles Portis’s TRUE GRIT. To me it seems more like an updated version of a backwoods novel by Harry Whittington or Charles Williams, to name just two authors who often mined the same bleak vein of rural poverty and desperation and lawlessness that Woodrell makes use of in this novel. It took me a while to settle in to Woodrell’s style, but once I did I found myself racing right through the story. Occasionally funny, often horrific, and always well-written and suspenseful, this is a fine book. I liked it considerably more than the only other Woodrell novel I’ve read, TOMATO RED.
Coming up with the list of ten detective novels a couple of posts ago got me to thinking about the first books I read by some favorite authors of mine, my introduction to their work, if you will. So, naturally, since I like lists, here's another one -- the first books I read by some notable mystery authors, and a few science-fiction and Western authors, too:Michael Avallone, THE THOUSAND COFFINS AFFAIRMax Brand, SINGLE JACKEdgar Rice Burroughs, A FIGHTING MAN OF MARSRaymond Chandler, THE LADY IN THE LAKELeslie Charteris, THE SAINT IN MIAMIAgatha Christie, THE BODY IN THE LIBRARYMichael Connelly, BLOOD WORKLester Dent, METEOR MENACEFranklin W. Dixon, THE SHORT-WAVE MYSTERYIan Fleming, FOR YOUR EYES ONLYDick Francis, WHIP HANDErle Stanley Gardner, SHILLS CAN'T CASH CHIPS (as A.A. Fair)Zane Grey, THE LOST WAGON TRAINBrett Halliday, THIS IS IT, MICHAEL SHAYNEDashiell Hammett, THE CONTINENTAL OPRobert A. Heinlein, HAVE SPACE-SUIT, WILL TRAVELRobert E. Howard, CONAN THE USURPERLouis L'Amour, THE SACKETT BRANDRoss Macdonald, THE MOVING TARGETJohn D. MacDonald, DARKER THAN AMBERClarence E. Mulford, HOPALONG CASSIDYRobert B. Parker, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPTRichard S. Prather, DEAD MAN'S WALKMickey Spillane, THE DEEPRex Stout, NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGHHarry Whittington, THE DOOMSDAY AFFAIRJack Williamson, GOLDEN BLOODI went on to read many, many more books by all of these authors. Of course, there are scores of other authors whose work I've read extensively, but I don't recall which book of theirs I started on. Of the ones listed above, I remember where I bought the ones that I own, which libraries I checked the others out of, and where I was when I read all of them. Just don't ask me what I had for supper last night, because I might not be able to remember that.
Written in 1973 but not published until now (by the great Hard Case Crime imprint), THE LAST MATCH is the final novel written by David Dodge, author of PLUNDER OF THE SUN, an earlier Hard Case release, among numerous other novels. Spanning several continents and decades, it’s the story of an unnamed American con artist and small-time crook who has a few noble qualities despite the shady life he leads.
A lot of crimes take place in the course of the novel and there are some tough action scenes, but overall THE LAST MATCH isn’t nearly as dark and hardboiled as many of the Hard Case books. Rather, the tone is that of an unrepentant rogue spinning yarns about the life he’s led, a life that he has thoroughly enjoyed. Dodge’s breezy, fast-paced style is an absolute joy to read, and the scenes of local color on the Riviera and in South America are excellent. The book is a little too long and the plot meanders around a little too much for my taste, but the characters are uniformly intriguing, as are the various con games and swindles in which the narrator gets involved. It’s all capped off nicely by an afterword written by Dodge’s daughter that talks about how much of the novel was taken from real life. This is a fine addition to the Hard Case Crime line, with the usual very nice cover, and comes highly recommended by me.
David Montgomery has generated some discussion over on his excellent blog with his list of Ten Greatest Detective Novels. I like lists, of course, so I had to start thinking about that. I'm a little leery of words like "greatest" and "best" and even "favorite", but these are ten novels that stand out in my memory of more than forty years of reading mysteries:THE BIG SLEEP, Raymond ChandlerMURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Agatha ChristieTHE BLACK ECHO, Michael ConnellyTHE MALTESE FALCON, Dashiell HammettTHE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE, Ross MacdonaldTHE PUSHER, Ed McBainTHE FINISHING STROKE, Ellery QueenONE LONELY NIGHT, Mickey SpillaneSOME BURIED CAESAR, Rex StoutTHE DAUGHTER OF TIME, Josephine TeyObviously, most of these are older books. Really older books, in some cases. And I think it shows I tend to like earlier books in a writer's career. The wide swing in sub-genres and styles is indicative of the fact that I grew up in the Sixties reading mysteries from the local libraries, and I just considered myself a mystery fan, not a fan of any particular kind of mystery. The thing about these books is that I can remember where I was when I read each of them, so they must have made an impression on me.And of course, the list would probably be different tomorrow.
I guess my introduction to Bettie Page was the character modeled after her in Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer comic books in the early Eighties. I don’t recall ever knowing anything about her before that. And I’m still not a big fan, although I’m interested enough in the magazine industry during the era in which she rose to fame (the late Forties and the Fifties) that I watched this biopic about her the other day. In fact, during the opening scene set in a newsstand, while the camera is panning over the selection of men’s magazines, I found myself thinking, “Hey! I’ve got some of those issues of ADAM!”
This movie looks great. The cinematographer, set director, art director, etc., do a fine job of capturing the feel of the Forties and Fifties. I haven’t seen a new movie filmed in black and white for a while, and it works very well here. Even the occasional color sequences have a special vibrancy to them. The performances are also good, especially Gretchen Mol as Bettie, who comes across as completely unselfconscious even though she spends about half the movie nude. Speaking of which, the pin-up shots that are recreated seem pretty tame these days, even quaint, and they’re not erotic at all.
The big problem this movie has is the plot: there’s not much of one. Bettie grows up in Nashville, marries a jerk she shouldn’t have, leaves him, and eventually drifts into nude modeling. That’s it. The government investigation into the pornography industry holds the potential for a few fireworks, but none ever develop. I realize that when you’re making a movie about actual people and incidents, you’re sort of stuck with the storyline that history gives you, but in this case that leaves you with a well-made, well-acted movie in which almost nothing happens. I’d call this one a disappointment.
I've been hitting the writing pretty hard lately (hence the scarcity of new posts during the past week), so today I decided to take some time off and do a few other things that needed done. With my eye problems and the heavy work schedule, I sort of let the place go this summer. This morning I wrote an outline for a series Western, then spent the rest of the day mowing, using the weed eater, and firing up the ol' chainsaw to cut down a dead tree -- which promptly fell on me. Paul Bunyan I ain't. But other than a few scratches I'm fine, no harm done. Unfortunately, late in the afternoon the battery on the lawn mower shorted out, so when it died, I couldn't get it started again. Had to push it back into the barn. And of course it was too late to get another battery today. Now, I like mowing about as much as Bill Crider does, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I wanted to get a few more places mowed before I called it quits for the day. Who knows when I'll get back to it? But at least I got the worst of the tall stuff cut down.The life of a freelance writer is just non-stop glamor, isn't it?
Today was the official publication date of the first book in Livia's new mystery series from Signet, and she also got her box of author's copies today. We haven't seen it in the stores yet, but we'll be going out to look around for it later in the week. I like the cover a lot and think Signet did a great job with the book.I can't really write a review of it, of course, since I'm a wee bit biased, but I think it's a very good book, the sort of novel that fans of cozy mysteries will enjoy very much, while at the same time having a bit of a darker edge in places. And the second book in the series, which I read not long ago, is even better.Livia has started blogging, too. Check it out.
Some of you may have noticed that I've added some links to this page. (Yes, it took me more than two years to figure out how to do this!) I haven't been able to get them to look just like I want them to, but at least they're there and seem to work. I'll be putting up more of them -- slowly, mind you -- so if any of you have a link to your blog or website you want me to add to the list, let me know and I'll get them posted as soon as I can.
We've seen a couple of really good movies recently, neither of which did much business at all at the box office. Guess that just proves I'm out of step with the vast movie-going public.LUCKY NUMBER SLEVEN is one of those very intricately plotted crime movies where nothing is what it seems and you have to watch closely all the way through to see how everything fits together. I had most of it figured out by the halfway point, but there were still a few twists I wasn't expecting. I really like this sort of movie and tried to achieve something of the same tone in my novel DUST DEVILS, which will be out next year from Point Blank Press. (Nothing like a little BSP in the middle of some movie comments.)THE GREAT RAID is the sort of World War II movie I didn't think they made anymore. Shoot, I didn't think anybody in Hollywood even knew how to make this sort of movie anymore. It's based on the true story of how American Ranger troops rescued hundreds of POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Phillipines. In addition to the commando raid, there are also prison camp scenes and a look at how the underground helped set up the whole thing. Very stirring and well-done, and as far as I could tell, historically accurate, although I don't know as much about that part of the war as I do about some other areas.Anyway, these movies may not have done well in the theaters, but they're sure worth a DVD rental, in my opinion.