Thursday, May 31, 2007

End-of-the-Month Update


My usual end-of-the-month writing slump from April didn't go away this time but stretched out most of the way through May, instead. I had enough good days here and there to keep the month from being a disaster where the writing was concerned, but mostly it was slow going and began to pick up only during the past few days. I think I was just so busy in April, what with the traveling and lots of writing, that I got a little worn out and it's taking me some time to recover. Whatever the reason, I fell short of my page goal for May and so my surplus is gone. I'm back to running a deficit, 56 pages to be exact. But I'll make it up. And if I don't . . . well, it's not a killin' matter, as my dad used to say. The quality of the work is still pretty good, even if the quantity isn't quite where I want it to be.


I read the following books in May:

THE EIGHT OF SWORDS, John Dickson Carr
WANTON BAIT, "John Dexter"
THE BUTCHER #2: COME WATCH HIM DIE, Stuart Jason (James Dockery)
SECRET AGENT X, JUNE 1934: CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, Brant House (Paul Chadwick)
DIE A LITTLE, Megan Abbott
BLOOD SON, Erica Orloff
SCARLET GODDESS, Ennis Willie (I'll post about this one in a day or two)

I also read a facsimile reprint of the August 1937 issue of the pulp DETECTIVE SHORT STORIES, published by Adventure House, and YOURS FOR FASTER HIPPOS, a chapbook collection of several articles and essays by Don Herron about Robert E. Howard, including his classic "Conan vs. Conantics".


For a while it looked like I wasn't going to watch very many movies this month, but I saw several here towards the end. We watched THE HOLIDAY, ACCEPTED, FATHER GOOSE, SEA CHANGE, THE MALTESE FALCON, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, TREMORS, and TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS. We started and gave up on several others.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just Your Basic Giant Worm Movies

We watched a mini-marathon of TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS (chronologically the first in the series, as the title makes clear), which I hadn’t seen, and the original TREMORS with Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon, which I saw when it first came out but not since then. TREMORS is one of the great popcorn movies of all time as far as I’m concerned. Sure it’s silly. And there’s no explanation for where the giant worms come from. But I don’t care, it’s still a lot of fun. TREMORS 4 is actually a Western, telling the story of how the worms first showed up in the 1880s. There are a lot of connections to the original, including actor Michael Gross, who’s in all four films, I think. (I haven’t seen #2 and #3, and I’m too lazy to look them up.) Gross is the only recognizable name in TREMORS 4, which clearly has a lower budget. It’s entertaining, too, but not on the same level as the original. And the plots really are almost exactly the same. So I don’t know if I’d recommend TREMORS 4 if you’ve seen the original. But there are worse ways to waste time.

Night at the Museum

I’m sure most of you know the drill on this movie: Lovable loser played by Ben Stiller gets a job as the night watchman in the Museum of Natural History. At night all the exhibits in the museum come to life. Chaos and mildly amusing, special-effects-laden whimsey ensues. Everything wraps up in a predictably touching, satisfying manner.

Although NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM never did fully engage my interest, I laughed a few times, had no trouble staying awake, and found it reasonably entertaining. Robin Williams makes a pretty good Teddy Roosevelt, Stiller’s buddy Owen Wilson plays a tiny cowboy from one of the museum’s dioramas and has a good time with it, and it’s always good to see Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney, who, along with Bill Cobbs (one of my favorite character actors), play the former night guards in the museum. I seem to remember that this movie got fairly bad reviews when it came out, but I give it an okay rating.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Maltese Falcon

We watched THE MALTESE FALCON last night, since Joanna is sort of a Humphrey Bogart fan and hadn’t seen it. What’s left to say about THE MALTESE FALCON that hasn’t already been said thousands of times by hundreds of better commentators than me?

Well, I don’t delude myself into thinking that any of these observations are original to me, but since I’ve seen the movie so many times, I decided to watch for things that I hadn’t really noticed before. One of them is the fact that the sets have ceilings. Orson Welles and his cinematographer on CITIZEN KANE, Gregg Toland, get a lot of credit for being innovators because so much of the photography in KANE is from a low enough angle to show that the sets have ceilings. The same thing is true in THE MALTESE FALCON, which came out the same year (albeit a few months later) as CITIZEN KANE. I’m thinking that John Huston and his director of photography, Arthur Edeson, deserve to be considered innovators, too.

Another angle I considered is the legend that Huston gave a copy of Hammett’s novel to his secretary, told her to put the dialogue into script format, and then used that as his shooting script. I’m inclined to doubt that, because there are some fairly important changes from the book, including the deletion of the Flitcraft story and a slightly different ending. Huston had to have done some work on the script.

I was also somewhat surprised at how little screen time Sydney Greenstreet actually has. Gutman is such a dominant character that it seems like he’s there more than he really is. But Greenstreet doesn’t make his first appearance until the movie is halfway over and is in only three or four scenes after that. But it’s a great performance, no doubt about that.

Finally, this isn’t something new I thought about on this viewing, but rather a long-time complaint about the movie. Mary Astor really is a weak link in what’s otherwise a great cast. I don’t think she was a very good actress, her hairstyle is distractingly goofy, and I don’t find her attractive at all. It’s a tribute to Bogart’s skill that I can believe Spade really cares about Brigid. One of the actresses considered for the part before Astor got it was Rita Hayworth. Now that’s a Brigid O’Shaughnessy I would have liked to have seen.

Despite that quibble -- and Gladys George really isn’t very good as Iva, either, come to think of it -- THE MALTESE FALCON is still a great, great film, one of my all-time favorites, and thank God they haven’t remade it as an Adam Sandler movie . . . at least not yet.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Die a Little -- Megan Abbott

I really think that you have to be in the right mood for a book, that sometimes no matter what the author does, a story or a style isn’t going to resonate with this particular reader at this particular moment. Which brings me to Megan Abbott’s debut novel, DIE A LITTLE. Having heard a lot of good things about this book, I gave it a try months ago, read about twenty pages, didn’t care for it, and put it back on the shelf. But something kept telling me that this is the sort of book I usually like, so I gave it another try, and I’m glad I did. This time I raced right through it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Set in Los Angeles in the mid-Fifties, it’s the story of schoolteacher Lora King and her brother Bill, who’s a detective for the district attorney’s office. Lora and Bill are very close -- too close for siblings, some reviewers said, but I’m not sure I agree with that. I think Abbott is just capturing a different era, a time when adult siblings could live together with no hint of sexual suspicion and, indeed, nothing improper going on. But either way, the ties between Lora and Bill are strong enough so that when Bill falls in love with and marries a woman named Alice Steele, you know that change in the status quo is going cause some serious repercussions. And by the end of the book, boy, does it, as Lora starts investigating Alice’s background and discovers a lot of dark and dangerous secrets that lead to people doing things they thought they never could, resulting in a fusion of domestic drama and noir crime novel that works really well.

Lora narrates this book in the present tense, a style I usually don’t care for, but between this book and Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS I’m starting to like it a little better. I still think the story is awfully slow to develop and the first half of the book is too laden with period details, but once Abbott has everything established the second half goes by at a much faster pace, galloping along to an ending that’s not really surprising but still quite effective.

After starting this book and not liking it, I also picked up Abbott’s second novel, THE SONG IS YOU (couldn’t resist the cover), but didn’t get very far in it, either. After reading DIE A LITTLE, though, I’ll definitely be giving THE SONG IS YOU a second chance, too.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sea Change

I still read and enjoy Robert B. Parker’s novels, but most of the time the plot details go in one side of my brain and right out the other. So I can’t tell you if SEA CHANGE, the latest TV-movie adaptation of one of Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, is faithful to the book or not. But that doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I watch these movies for Tom Selleck’s portrayal of Jesse and his interaction with the other characters. Selleck is just about perfectly cast in this role. The movies, with their melancholy musical score always playing in the background, seem a little more dour to me than the books do, but I enjoy them anyway and will keep watching as long as the producers keep making them.

We taped this movie last week and watched it a few days later. As a postscript, we also started watching two other movies on DVD but gave up on both, so I’m not going to count them. For the record, they were THE GOOD SHEPHERD, the CIA movie with Matt Damon, and SHOPGIRL, with Steve Martin and Claire Danes. We all agreed that they were both utter snoozefests, and THE GOOD SHEPHERD was incomprehensible to boot. Is it just too difficult to light a scene so the viewer can tell what’s going on and tell your actors to speak their dialogue so that it can be understood? Or am I just a reactionary curmudgeon?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Duke

I can’t let the hundredth anniversary of John Wayne’s birth go by without a few comments. I know some people don’t care for Wayne or his movies, but he’s my favorite actor by far and has been for more than forty years. Here’s my list of my favorite John Wayne movies, not necessarily the ones I think are the best films he made, but the ones that I’ve gotten the most enjoyment from over the years.

THE COMANCHEROS (This one never shows up on people’s lists, but I love it. That may have something to do with the fact that it’s the first John Wayne movie I ever saw. My dad took me to see it at the Eagle Drive-In Theater in 1961. You can’t get much better than that. But I think it’s a fine film, too, with great music, good photography, a top-notch script, and entertaining performances all around . . . Wayne and Stuart Whitman as the leads, Lee Marvin as Tully Crow, Nehemiah Persoff as the leader of the Comancheros, Edgar Buchanan as the judge, Bruce Cabot as a Texas Ranger, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams as a gunrunner, Bob Steele as the rancher Schofield, George Lewis as Iron Shirt . . . I even like Patrick Wayne as Tobe.)

THE MAN SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Lee Marvin in support again, along with Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, John Qualen, Woody Strode, Andy Devine . . . that stark black-and-white photography, the story that loops back on itself time and again, Wayne’s line about the steak -- “I said you pick it up, Liberty” -- the looks on the faces of Stewart and Miles at the final fade-out . . this is close to the perfect film as far as I’m concerned.)

RIO BRAVO (One of Wayne’s best and most subtle performances, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson in tights, Wayne’s mocking “Took ya two!” when he and Dude are shooting at the dynamite, the way Howard Hawks takes the stunt casting of Ricky Nelson and makes it actually work in the story, even the song sequences . . . there’s nothing not to like in this one.)

STAGECOACH (Great cast, great script, and the shot that introduces Wayne is an all-time classic. Plus some wonderful stunt work by Yakima Canutt. I still don’t like the fact that we don’t see the big shoot-out at the end, but that’s okay.)

BIG JAKE (The first shot of Wayne in this one is a classic, too. Richard Boone is a great villain, Maureen O’Hara is still beautiful, and I like the elegaic Old West vs. New West feel. I’m also inclined to like this one because I first saw it at the Worth Theater, an ornate, old-fashioned, Thirties-era movie showplace in downtown Fort Worth, which was torn down years ago, unfortunately.)

THE SEARCHERS (Another example of great casting from top to bottom, with some of my favorite moments coming from character actors like Hank Worden and Ken Curtis. I still love the bit where Curtis, as Charlie McCorry, stops his big fight with Jeffery Hunter’s Marty to pick up “somebody’s fiddle”. It’s a beautifully-made film, too, probably John Ford’s best use of Monument Valley -- which doesn’t look anything like West Texas, but who cares?)

THE QUIET MAN (You can’t find a much more spectacular sight than Maureen O’Hara in the Irish countryside. And that epic brawl between Wayne and Victor McLaglen is still great fun.)

TRUE GRIT (“Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” Enough said.)

HATARI! (Another one I saw at the drive-in with my dad. Not much story, but a nice fusion of two of director Howard Hawks’ staples, the knockabout, screwball comedy and the grace-under-pressure drama.)

RANDY RIDES ALONE (The best of the early, low-budget Lone Star Westerns Wayne made for Monogram, with Gabby Hayes playing a villain, a truly bizarre plot, and the usual fine stunt work by Wayne and Yakima Canutt.)

There are a lot of other Wayne films I could mention, like McCLINTOCK!, THE COWBOYS, THE TRAIN ROBBERS, IN HARM’S WAY, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, RED RIVER, EL DORADO, RIO LOBO, any of the Three Mesquiteers movies where he played Stony Brooke, THE ALAMO, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, even the late-in-his-career cop movies McQ and BRANNIGAN . . . well, you get the idea. I like John Wayne movies. I like ’em a lot.

Happy birthday, Duke.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Father Goose

Since we're Cary Grant fans around here, this afternoon we watched this movie from 1964, pretty late in his career. I saw it back when it was new but hadn't watched it since then, so it was almost like I hadn't seen it before.

It's a minor entry in the list of Grant's films but still pretty enjoyable. Set in the Pacific during the early days of World War II, it's the story of a coastwatcher and all-around reprobate (Grant), who gets saddled with taking care of the daughter of a French diplomat and the seven schoolgirls who she's taken under her wing as they try to stay out of the hands of the Japanese. Leslie Caron (not a favorite of mine) plays the French woman; Trevor Howard is the Australian officer who coerces Grant's character into taking the job as a coastwatcher, who reports by radio about enemy ships and planes he observes from his hidden post.

There's a little action, and a slight sense of the fact that at this point during the war, everybody was afraid that the Japanese were going to invade Australia. Mostly, though, what you get is romantic comedy, and there were few better at that than Cary Grant. He's as smooth and likable here as ever. This is an amiable movie, far from a classic but a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Complete Color Terry and the Pirates, Volume 1 -- Milton Caniff

Continuing with my Milton Caniff binge . . . This volume collects the first nine months or so of the TERRY AND THE PIRATES comic strip, both the color Sunday pages and the black-and-white dailies, which follow two separate continuities at this point in the strip’s history. The dailies explain, sort of, why Terry Lee and Pat Ryan are in China to start with. Pat’s an adventure writer (although he’s too busy adventuring to ever write about it), and Terry is there to look for a lost mine left to him by his vagabond grandfather. Although Caniff doesn’t specify this, I get a sense that Terry may be an orphan, which is why Pat, a family friend, has taken the youngster under his wing. The search for the mine involves them with the first of the beautiful women who inhabit the strip throughout its run, riverboat captain Dale Scott. Later on our intrepid heroes run into a more well-known Caniff female, heiress Normandie Drake.

Meanwhile, over in the color Sundays, Caniff is in the process of introducing his most famous character of all, the female pirate Lai Choi San, better known as the Dragon Lady. Terry and Pat are captured by the Dragon Lady and taken to her stronghold, where they get mixed up in a mutiny led by the Dragon Lady’s second-in-command, who is also in love with her and jealous of the attention she pays to Pat. If you’re familiar with the Dragon Lady, though, you know she’s not going to let her heart overrule her mercenary nature. She’s always got some sinister scheme going on.

The hardboiled action and sexual tension of these yarns is what really sets them apart from other comic strips of their time and makes them the groundbreaking classics that they are. The art starts off rather crude but rapidly improves, although by the end of this volume it still had not reached the heights of excellence that it would over the next few years. You can already see the cinematic framing, the detail, the use of silent panels and darkness and light that really set Caniff’s work apart, though. This is wonderful stuff if you’re a comic strip fan, and I highly recommend it.

One word of warning: Connie, the Chinese sidekick of Terry and Pat, is about as politically incorrect a character as you’ll ever find, especially in his heavily-accented dialogue. At the same time, he’s right there to save the day on numerous occasions and despite being the comedy relief usually functions more as a third hero than a sidekick, so I’d advise modern readers to look past the surface stereotyping.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


If I recall correctly, when this movie came out, it got a few decent reviews. Admittedly, they were of the “This is pretty good for a silly college comedy” sort of reviews. And that about sums it up. ACCEPTED is definitely a silly college comedy with a plot that stretches believability on several occasions. But all four of us watched it and laughed numerous times. And I stayed awake, which says something. ACCEPTED is no ANIMAL HOUSE – but then, what is?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Come Watch Him Die -- Stuart Jason

This is the second book in the long-running men’s adventure series The Butcher. Thanks to Ennis Willie, we now know that the first book in the series was written by James Dockery under the house-name Stuart Jason, and after reading COME WATCH HIM DIE, I’m convinced that it was written by Dockery as well, as the style in both books is identical.

COME WATCH HIM DIE finds Bucher, the Syndicate overlord who quit the Mafia, still working for the mysterious government agency White Hat. For most of the book, the plot seems to be a hopelessly muddled mess involving a Syndicate plan to kidnap important politicians and substitute look-alikes in their place, a Mafia flunky with a photographic memory who’s hiding from his former bosses, mysterious mass deaths in Mexico, vengeance-crazed Nazis, assorted beautiful women, an albino dwarf, and a Mike Fink-like character from the Louisiana swamps who calls himself the Bull Bassoon, whose showdown with the Butcher provides the best scenes. Somewhat surprisingly, by the end Dockery manages to tie all those elements together into a reasonably coherent plot, providing along the way a number of wild, over-the-top action scenes and lines the like of which you won’t read anywhere else. For example:

Everything else you could doubt, including fingerprints, but man, you didn’t argue with a politician’s foreskin. It wasn’t the vogue this season.

They prowled the city’s night with blood-lustful eagerness to kill; hot-eyed, nerves taut, trigger fingers itchy and palms aching to know the assuaging backjolts of death. Through the mind of both a single urge throbbed in rhythm: “Kill the Butcher! Kill the Butcher! Kill the Butcher!”

Love it or hate it, Dockery’s prose is like nothing else. And as far as I’m concerned, even though I recognize its excesses and wouldn’t want a steady diet of it, I’d rather read a book like this with a distinctive voice than any of a dozen bland, by-the-numbers thrillers that all sound like they were written by the same person, no matter who the author is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Water for Elephants -- Sara Gruen

I don’t read much non-genre fiction, but this novel combines the circus and the Great Depression, two of my current interests, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did, because it’s a good book.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young veterinary student at Cornell University who has to leave school when his parents are killed in a car wreck. With no family and no home, Jacob winds up hopping on a passing freight train, only to discover that it’s a circus train carrying the somewhat disreputable Benzini Brothers Greatest Show on Earth. Even though Jacob doesn’t have his veterinary degree, he knows more about animals than anybody else involved with the circus, so he winds up taking care of the menagerie. This puts him in close contact with a beautiful young trick rider, who, unfortunately, is already married to another of the circus performers. Then the circus picks up an elephant from another show that has gone out of business, and that ultimately complicates things even more.

The romantic triangle aspect of this novel gets pretty soap-operatic before it’s over, but Gruen does a good job of not letting it become too over-the-top. Along the way there’s a lot of circus lore and legend and plenty of good characters, like Rosie the elephant and the dwarf clown Walter and his dog Queenie. The story is told in flashback by an elderly Jacob while he’s in a nursing home, and those scenes are pretty poignant. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS had one strike against it going in, because it’s written in present tense, a technique I don’t usually care for. Gruen handled it skillfully enough so that it didn’t bother me, though.

While I felt this novel came up a little short of greatness, it is very good, one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Murder by the Slice Cover

Over on her blog, Livia has posted the cover of her next book, MURDER BY THE SLICE. This is the second book in the series that began with A PEACH OF A MURDER, and in my totally unbiased opinion is an even better book. It'll be out in October from Obsidian Books.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Holiday

There's not a whole lot of plot in THE HOLIDAY. Cameron Diaz is a thirtyish, unhappy woman in California, Kate Winslet is a thirtyish, unhappy woman in England, and when they exchange houses for the Christmas holidays, they find true love with Jude Law and Jack Black, respectively. Slightly sappy synopsis aside, there are some fairly enjoyable moments in this movie. The characters played by Diaz and Black both work in the film business, so there are some nice movie-related in-jokes. Eli Wallach plays a retired screenwriter, and it's always good to see Tuco again. And Jack Black, cast against type as a romantic lead, is great fun, as usual. I did doze off once, but not for very long and I've been tired all day, so I'm not sure you can hold that against the movie.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wallowing in Nostalgia

Today I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in Denton, Texas, where I lived for two years in the Seventies while attending North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). So I decided to visit all my old haunts -- the ones that still exist, anyway. First, though, I went to Recycled Books, for which I feel no nostalgia at all since it wasn't there when I lived in Denton. From there, though, I walked down the block to an antique mall that now occupies the space where Fultz News Agency used to be. Fultz was a huge newsstand/bookstore right on the downtown square where I bought most of my comics, paperbacks, and SF and mystery digests when I lived in Denton. I walked along the right-hand wall of the building and could tell exactly where the comic books used to be.

I ate lunch in the same Jack-in-the-Box where I stopped nearly every day when I walked from class back to my apartment. The menu has changed, of course; the building hasn't, or at least not much. Just down the block is Voertman's Bookstore, which, being right across the street from the NTSU campus, did a booming business in textbooks. But in the Seventies it was also a regular bookstore with a good selection of new paperbacks. That part is gone now. School supplies and textbooks are all that remain. Just beyond it used to be Reader's World, a small bookstore where I bought several of the Zebra editions of Robert E. Howard books, as well as some of those Phantom novels based on the comic strip character. Reader's World opened a store in Fort Worth which I patronized heavily during the early days of my marriage. I bought a ton of comics and paperbacks there, as well as issues of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE when I was publishing regularly in MSMM. The original Reader's World space in Denton is now some sort of counter-culture shop. (I didn't know such things still existed.) Just around the corner was the barber shop I patronized occasionally -- very occasionally, since in those days I had long hair and a Fu Manchu mustache.

All right, now that you've all stopped laughing from visualizing that . . . I drove past the apartment house where I lived. It's a little more seedy and rundown now but still looks remarkably the same. Nearby is the convenience store where I bought junk food, comics, and WRITER'S DIGEST. Why a little hole-in-the-wall convenience store stocked WRITER'S DIGEST on their magazine rack, I have no idea, but I'm glad they did, because it was from market listings in those issues that I finally started submitting stories.

By now I'm sure you've gotten the idea that I spent a lot of my college years reading comics, paperbacks, and magazines. What better preparation could there be for sitting in a room and typing for the next thirty-plus years? Actually, though, I did do a few things that normal college kids do . . . although we won't go into that here. I enjoyed my time in Denton today, and if you've read this far, I appreciate your indulgence.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Milton Caniff: Conversations

For the most part this book, published by the University Press of Mississippi, is a collection of interviews with comic strip writer and artist Milton Caniff, creator of TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON. Making the interviews of added interest is the fact that a couple of them were conducted by Will Eisner and Jules Feiffer, acclaimed cartoonists in their own right. Listening in on the conversations as Eisner and Feiffer sit down and talk shop with Caniff is fascinating for comic strip fans, to say the least. Several articles about Caniff from various magazines are also reprinted, as are reminiscences by a couple of his assistants on STEVE CANYON. (Caniff had no assistants during his run on TERRY AND THE PIRATES, other than a part-time letterer.)

Since most of the interviews cover some of the same ground, there’s a certain amount of repetition of facts, but that’s inevitable. They’re still entertaining and provide a lot of insight into the creation of the two comic strips and Caniff’s working methods. It’s always interesting to me how any series develops over the years, whether in books, comic strips, or some other medium.

For me, though, the highlight of this volume has to be the strips that are reprinted in it, ranging from some of Caniff’s early, pre-Terry work through STEVE CANYON. Included are the famous speech by Colonel Flip Corkin when Terry gets his wings as a military pilot in 1943, maybe the best Sunday page of any comic strip ever; the poignant final Sunday page done by Caniff for TERRY AND THE PIRATES in 1946; the first Sunday page of STEVE CANYON; numerous character sketches from both strips; and several appearances of MALE CALL, the racy gag strip featuring Miss Lace that Caniff did for the armed forces newspapers during World War II. I know I’ve been on a Caniff binge lately (and I warn you, there’s more to come), but he’s that good, and this is an excellent volume for fans of his work.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Morgan the Pirate -- Robert Carse

I wrote this review a good while ago for Juri Nummelin's magazine PULP and meant to post it on here once it had been published, but . . . I forgot. So here it is now.
Following up on his roles in the internationally successful films HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED, in 1961 actor Steve Reeves took on the role of pirate captain Henry Morgan, who put together one of the largest forces of buccaneers ever to sail the Spanish Main and led a massive raid on Panama before ultimately being knighted by King Charles II. The real Henry Morgan’s life has served as the basis for numerous books and films, including John Steinbeck’s first novel, CUP OF GOLD. The novel MORGAN THE PIRATE, by veteran pulp author Robert Carse, is the novelization of Reeves’ 1961 film.

I remember seeing this movie when it was first released, but I haven’t seen it since then and have no real memory of it. So I approached Carse’s novel as if it had no connection with the film and read it strictly as a piece of historical fiction. In that respect, it works quite well part of the time, but not at others.

Most of the book deals with Morgan’s early activities in the Caribbean and Central America. Sold into indentured servitude in England because his family fell out of favor politically, he winds up working as a slave on a plantation, eventually escapes, falls in with a pretty incompetent bunch of pirates, gets captured, survives the tortures of the local Inquisition, falls in love with the daughter of the Spanish colonial governor, escapes again, and finally winds up leading his own band of pirates. This section of the novel is well-written and fast-moving and provides a vivid contrast between the pampered life of the Spanish rulers and the harsh existence of the natives in Panama.

Unfortunately, the section of the novel concerning Morgan’s actual career as a pirate and then a privateer sailing under a letter of marque from the King of England gets cut short. The action is rushed, the writing is flat, and the ending of the book is almost totally lacking in drama. I don’t know if Carse simply ran out of room and/or energy, or if this is the way the movie was written and he was forced to follow the screenplay. Whatever the reason, MORGAN THE PIRATE is about three-fourths of a pretty good historical novel. Unfortunately, that last fourth drags down the overall effect of the book.

Carse had a long career as a pulp author, beginning in 1928. His stories appeared frequently in ARGOSY, one of the leading pulp magazines, as well as in slicks like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. After the collapse of the pulp industry, he wrote quite a few swashbuckling historical novels that appeared as paperback originals and several books of historical non-fiction, usually dealing with ships and sailing. I suppose it was these credits that got him the job of writing the MORGAN THE PIRATE novelization. It is reminiscent in places of Carse’s best pulp work but in the end falls considerably short of that standard.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Wanton Bait -- John Dexter

A lot of the soft-core porn novels published in the Sixties strike me as sexed-up, Gold Medal-type books. WANTON BAIT by “John Dexter” certainly starts out looking like it might fall into that category. Consider these plot elements: an old man who’s the richest and most powerful person in a small town; his young, horny, greedy wife; and an even hornier, greedier lawyer who’s bored with his wife and desperate for a big payoff. Sounds like a book by Charles Williams or Harry Whittington, doesn’t it? In fact, when I started this book I wondered if it might be one of those mysterious, unidentified house-name novels that Whittington is supposed to have written in the mid-Sixties.

But I’m confident now that it’s not, as the style seems to be nothing like Whittington’s, and it never really develops into the crime novel that it appears it might turn out to be, either. Instead it remains throughout more of a domestic drama. That doesn’t make it a bad book, though. The story has a certain noirish edge to it, as the sleazy lawyer/narrator’s big plans take turn after turn for the worse. And whoever the actual author was behind the John Dexter house-name (and there are plenty of suspects), he was a pretty good wordsmith, as the prose is smooth and slick and reads really fast. By 1965, when this book was published, the sex scenes are a little more graphic than they were even a few years earlier, and there are more of them, making them seem somewhat shoehorned in, but they don’t overwhelm the main plot. I wouldn’t run right out and look for WANTON BAIT – there’s only one copy on ABE at the moment and the seller is asking eighteen bucks for it – but if you run across a copy or already own it, it’s pretty entertaining and probably worth reading.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Eight of Swords -- John Dickson Carr

I haven’t read anything by John Dickson Carr in many years, but I remember reading his famous “impossible crime” novel THE THREE COFFINS when I was in high school. I was sick at the time, and this book did a great job of distracting me. I read several more of Carr’s novels after that but then drifted away from his work, as I did with most of the Golden Age of Detection authors.

But I’ve become more interested in that sort of mystery novel again recently, so I picked up several of Carr’s books. THE EIGHT OF SWORDS is the first one I’ve read in this go-round. It’s an early novel of his, originally published in 1934, and features his best-known series character, Dr. Gideon Fell, who was the detective in THE THREE COFFINS and the other Carr novels I read long ago.

This one features Fell investigating a murder at the guest house of an English country estate. I don’t recall Carr as being a particularly humorous writer, but this one is full of comedy, so much so that it seems in places more like a satire of a Golden Age detective novel. It’s full of eccentric characters like a booze-guzzling mystery novelist and his wife, who banter like a British Nick and Nora Charles; a bishop who fancies himself a criminologist; a sleazy lawyer; and an American gangster. The title refers to a Tarot card found with the body, one of what turns out to be a veritable slew of clues. I like the fact that the book is pretty fast-paced. All the action takes place in a single day – and I use the term “action” loosely, because for most of the book that consists of people sitting around talking. Carr’s skill with words makes the pages flip pretty quickly, though, and toward the end of the book there’s some genuine action and suspense. I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t have the killer spotted at all. The plot is very complicated, but Carr plays fair and all the clues are there. Dr. Fell is a fine detective and a colorful character.

I gather that Carr aficionados aren’t very fond of this book and consider it a minor work. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though, and plan to read more of his novels soon, so I guess I’ll see for myself how it fits in.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I've been in a writing slump recently. Last Saturday I realized I'd gone up a blind alley on the current project and had to throw away several days' worth of work. (Of course I didn't actually throw it away; I've already figured out a way to turn that material into something else and salvage most of it, if I'm not able to use it later on in its current form.) That threw me off-stride, I guess, because on Sunday and Monday I was barely able to work. The desire was there, and I put in the time, but the words just didn't want to come out of my brain. Tuesday I was busy with real life all day and didn't get a chance to work.

So today I faced the computer with no small amount of trepidation. I could tell that writing was going to be difficult again. Since I'd done six pages on Monday, I told myself just to match that, and if I couldn't get any more, then I wouldn't worry about it. By the middle of the day I had four pages and no idea what was supposed to happen next, so things were looking pretty bleak. I took a long walk -- left the dogs behind this time because I wanted to think -- and figured out a couple of things. They didn't add up to much, but that was enough to get me started again. I reached my six-page goal and said to myself, "Ten. You can do ten for the day."

Ten came and went and things were starting to fall into place. I kept going. By the time I stopped, I'd written seventeen pages for the day. Not an earth-shattering number or anything, but a good solid chunk of work. The words got me. One by one they built up some momentum and finally picked me up and carried me along with them. And it sure felt good.

April Kane and the Dragon Lady

For the past month or so, between other books I’ve been reading MILTON CANIFF: CONVERSATIONS, a collection of interviews with and articles about the iconic comic strip artist who created TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON. (More on that book when I finish reading it.) I’ve been a Caniff fan since I stumbled across a volume reprinting some of the TERRY AND THE PIRATES strip, back when I was in college.

So I was prompted to take down this book from my shelves and read it, too. It’s a Whitman juvenile novel published in 1942, based on one of the story arcs from the comic strip originally published in 1939. No credit is given to whoever turned the story into a novel, but it almost certainly wasn’t Caniff himself. There are numerous illustrations “adapted” from the strip, so while they’re based on Caniff’s work, they’ve apparently been redrawn and simplified somewhat, lacking a lot of Caniff’s trademark details.

So how does APRIL KANE AND THE DRAGON LADY read as a book? Well, my opinion of it is rather mixed. The characters are great. The teenage trio of clean-cut, all-American Terry Lee, April Kane (a Southern belle in China), and the valiant British youngster Deeth Crispin III make appealing heroes for the kids, Terry’s mentor Pat Ryan is a typical two-fisted, wise-cracking Yank, and the Dragon Lady herself is one of the most complex characters in comics, part heroine, part villainess, and always unpredictable. As you might expect from material originally published so long ago, the treatment by Caniff and the unknown novelist of Chinese and Japanese characters isn’t what you’d call politically correct, but in the end it’s Pat and Terry’s Chinese friends, Connie and Big Stoop, who do a lot of the heavy lifting to save the day.

The storyline itself finds Terry, April, and Deeth caught in the middle of the guerrilla warfare being conducted by the Dragon Lady and her followers against “the Invader”, Caniff’s euphemism for the Japanese. There’s plenty of intrigue in Hong Kong, spies, ambushes, breakneck chases, a hidden city in the Chinese mountains, rival warlords, literal cliffhangers . . . great stuff, in other words. I would have absolutely loved this book when I was twelve years old – which was, of course, the target audience for the Whitman juveniles. Reading it now, I can see that the unnamed author didn’t do a particularly good job in places, especially in the action scenes. Big battles get glossed over in a paragraph or two or occur off-screen. Hand-to-hand fights are awkwardly written and lacking in drama for the most part. But towards the end of the book things begin to come together better and the story really catches fire. The slam-bang climax had me feeling like I was twelve again for a few minutes, and that’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, the ending is rather abrupt and leaves some elements unresolved.

Overall, if you’re a Caniff fan, APRIL KANE AND THE DRAGON LADY is well worth reading, although the comic strips themselves are much better. I believe the novel was reprinted a few years ago, but copies of the original can be found fairly cheaply on the Internet. By the way, that dust jacket picture is one that I found on-line. My copy doesn’t have a dust jacket.

And as another aside, when I was a kid the lead feature in the comics section of the local paper every Sunday was TERRY AND THE PIRATES, but it was written and drawn at that time by George Wunder, who replaced Caniff on the strip when Caniff left TERRY to create STEVE CANYON. I didn’t care for Wunder’s art and never read the strip back in those days, but since then I’ve read reprints of some of his work, and it’s not bad. I just had to be older to appreciate it. My adventure strips of choice when I was a kid were SMILIN’ JACK and BUZ SAWYER. Wonder how they’d hold up if I read them now.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Medical Update

I went to the ophthalmologist today for the final check-up on my eye that had the torn retina last summer. The doctor said that everything looked fine and that I don't have to come back unless I have more trouble with it. My vision is fairly good most of the time, my eye strain problem isn't as bad as it was for a while, and I consider myself lucky that things weren't worse than they were. I'm going to try to do a better job of taking care of my eyes from now on, that's for sure.