Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

As DC’s best-known characters, Superman and Batman have been teaming up to battle various super-villains for more than fifty years. Since I like both characters, it makes sense that I’d enjoy SUPERMAN/BATMAN: THE GREATEST STORIES EVER TOLD.

Most of the stories in this trade paperback are from WORLD’S FINEST, the comic book that featured Superman/Batman team-ups for most of its run. The first story, though, comes from a 1952 issue of SUPERMAN and tells how Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne learned each other’s secret identities. Up until that time, they had worked together a few times as Superman and Batman but neither knew who was really behind the other mask. From that point until the first reboot of the DC Universe in the Eighties (a move that I still disagree with, but that’s beside the point), Clark and Bruce not only work together to combat the bad guys but also form a lasting friendship. To tell the truth, that sense of friendship is the most appealing thing about many of these stories, which tend toward mild little puzzle yarns with no real sense of danger or adventure. Later, of course, in the stories from the past twenty years or so [Curmudgeon Alert!], things get a lot more grim and angsty, and the art gets more manga-influenced and hard to follow. But they’re still fairly entertaining.

Science-fiction author Edmond Hamilton, who also had a long career in comics, wrote about half the stories in this volume. Curt Swan, the quintessential Superman artist, provided the art for several of them. One short-short about a near-meeting between Clark and Bruce when they were children was written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, two of my favorite modern comics creators. When I was a kid reading comics, I always regarded WORLD’S FINEST as one of DC’s second-tier titles. Actually, back then I wasn’t all that fond of any of the team-up books, like THE BRAVE & THE BOLD or over at Marvel, MARVEL TEAM-UP. Reading the stories now, though, I find them pretty enjoyable and a nice shot of nostalgia, as well as being well-crafted in their own right. If you like Superman and Batman, you’ll definitely like this volume.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


When I was a kid, I was a fan of boy-and-his-animal yarns, like the horse books by Walter Farley, dog books by Jim Kjelgaard, and even, yes, OLD YELLER. The movie DUMA is clearly in that tradition. Set in Africa and based on actual events, it’s the story of young Xan, who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub and raises it. The usual sort of complications that crop up in these stories cause Xan and the now full-grown cheetah, Duma, to find themselves on their own in the wilderness, trying to get back to the area where Duma was born.

Along the way they encounter various dangers from animals and the elements, as well as a mysterious wanderer who may or may not have their best interests at heart. It’s an adventurous tale with a pace that seldom slows down for very long, and I enjoyed it. While the plot was somewhat predictable, I was never sure how things were going to turn out, and that’s always a plus. Also, the movie is beautifully photographed, which is no surprise considering that it was directed by Carroll Ballard, the director of the well-regarded THE BLACK STALLION (speaking of Walter Farley). DUMA is a very likable, family-friendly film and well worth watching.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


I’m usually out of steps with the critics and the public both, and FLYBOYS is a good example. It got mediocre reviews and did lousy at the box office, and I think it’s a wonderful movie.

It’s the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, Americans who became pilots for the French before the United States entered World War I. Although there’s a graphic at the start of the movie that says it’s based on a true story, the characters are all fictional and most of them are war movie stereotypes: the tough cowboy, the spoiled rich kid, the Bible-thumper, the black prizefighter, the guy with a dark secret, the confident guy who cracks up under pressure, the pilot who’s a grizzled veteran despite his relative youth . . . You get the idea. You’ve seen this stuff before, going all the way back to THE DAWN PATROL, but the makers of FLYBOYS do such a good job of it that I didn’t mind if it was hokey and predictable. I got caught up in it anyway and thoroughly enjoyed it. The big finish is telegraphed early on, but that didn’t stop the grin on my face when the pay-off scene finally arrived.

People who know a lot about World War I aviation will tell you that this movie is riddled with historical inaccuracies. That may well be true. Even though I’ve written a little about the subject (the novel UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS and the novelette “Devil Wings Over France”), I’m far from an expert on the subject. And this is one of those relatively rare cases where I don’t care. John Wayne and Stuart Whitman shouldn’t be carrying Winchesters and Peacemakers while Texas is still a republic, either, but that doesn’t make me love THE COMANCHEROS any less. Just think of FLYBOYS as a film version of a George Bruce pulp novel from WINGS or DARE-DEVIL ACES (there’s even an evil German flying ace called the Black Falcon, another pulpish touch), and you’ll have a great time with it. The subtle tributes to Charles M. Schulz and Snoopy don’t hurt anything, either.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Barbed Wire Noose -- Harold Adams

This is another Depression-era mystery set in the small town of Corden, South Dakota, featuring ne’er-do-well detective Carl Wilcox. This time around, while continuing to help his parents run the hotel they own, Carl is also called on to temporarily replace the town’s one-man police force when the local cop falls sick. Naturally a murder coincides with this development, as one of the town’s more enigmatic citizens is hanged with a length of barbed wire. This results in several relatives and associates of the murdered man showing up in Corden, and one of them winds up dead, too. Throw in a blizzard on top of these crimes, and Carl has his hands full sorting everything out.

That’s one of the drawbacks in this book: the plot is pretty complicated, and while Carl eventually uncovers the murderer, I’m not sure everything really hangs together. There are some continuity glitches, too, as a character changes hair color not once but twice, and the timing of a mysterious death in the past is given as five years earlier in one reference and ten years in another. Whether those are minor quibbles or major problems pretty much depends on the reader, I suppose. They bothered me, but I still enjoyed the book quite a bit. Adams has a wonderful way with characters and dialogue, and I love the dry wit with which Carl narrates these books, as well as the convincing but not overdone sense of time and place to be found in them. I’m sure I’ll read more entries in this series, not right away, but fairly soon.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Death Head Crossing Review

Gonzalo over at the Saddlebums blog has some kind words about DEATH HEAD CROSSING, including the hope that it's the first book in what will turn out to be a series. I share that hope, but as of right now, I have no idea if such a thing will come about.

Bart Spicer's Westerns?

Juri Nummelin points out in his comment on my post about the Saddlebums blog that Brian Garfield, in his interview there, includes Bart Spicer in a short list of Western writers he admires. Juri didn't know that Spicer, best known for his series of novels about private eye Carney Wilde, had written any Westerns, and I didn't, either. I'm still not sure he did, but as the covers above indicate, Spicer certainly wrote some historical novels. Both of these appear to be Revolutionary War stories, and he wrote at least one other novel with a Revolutionary War background, BROTHER TO THE ENEMY, about Benedict Arnold. By the way, the cover for THE DAY BEFORE THUNDER is by James Bama. Never saw any women like that on those Doc Savage covers Bama is justly famous for.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rat Patrol Novels

Randy Johnson mentions the Rat Patrol novels in his comment on the previous post. There were five of these published by Paperback Library in the Sixties, when the show was still on the air. The first one was by veteran pulp author and paperbacker Norman Daniels, the other four by David King. I don't know anything about King except that he wrote a Western or two under his own name and also wrote at least one Slocum novel as "Jake Logan". I read all the paperbacks when they were new (bought 'em right off the spinner rack -- boy, I miss spinner racks sometimes!) and liked all of them. I've thought about rereading them to see how they hold up, but I have no idea where my copies are and haven't worked up the enthusiasm to search for them. There was also a Whitman juvenile novel based on the series by I.G. (Ivy) Edmonds that I wasn't aware of until I looked up the books on ABE. Edmonds is another author that's mostly a mystery to me. I know she wrote some stuff for the Girl From U.N.C.L.E. digest magazine and a few paperbacks, but that's it.

31 and Counting

It was 31 years ago today that Livia and I got married. In some ways it doesn't seem nearly that long ago, and in others it seems like we've been together forever. I guess that's what happens when you're lucky enough to find the right person the first time.

In the swag department, Livia got me an iPod so I can have music while I'm walking (I try to walk at least a mile a day, but the hot weather in the summer cuts into that some) and boxed DVD sets of both seasons of THE RAT PATROL, one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Saddlebums Blog

If you're interested in Westerns -- and I know some of you are -- or even if you're not, you need to check out Saddlebums, a new blog devoted to all things Western. The first feature is an excellent, wide-ranging interview with Brian Garfield. Take a look at it here.

The Crimes of Jordan Wise -- Bill Pronzini

I’ve been a fan of Bill Pronzini’s work ever since I read his Man From U.N.C.L.E. novella “The Pillars of Salt Affair” in the MFU digest magazine sometime in the late Sixties. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that Pronzini had written that story. It was published under the house-name Robert Hart Davis, a tribute by publisher Leo Margulies to Bob Davis, an early pulp editor with whom Margulies had worked. Anyway, I was a huge U.N.C.L.E. fan and really enjoyed “The Pillars of Salt Affair”; I remember the ending of it to this day. It was a few years, though, before I discovered that Pronzini wrote it.

By that time I was also reading and enjoying his Nameless Detective series, one of the great private eye series of all time. Over the years I’ve fallen behind on reading the Nameless books, but I’ll catch up on them sooner or later. In the meantime, I’ve just read this stand-alone suspense novel by Pronzini, and THE CRIMES OF JORDAN WISE lives up to the high standard of his other work.

In classic noir style, accountant Jordan Wise meets beautiful-but-only-as-good-as-she-has-to-be Annalise Bonner (even Annalise’s name sounds like something out of a Gold Medal novel), and before you know it Jordan has embarked on a daring plan to steal a lot of money in order to win her over. That he succeeds is almost a given, but you also know that the idyllic life Jordan and Annalise make for themselves in the Virgin Islands isn’t going to last. Things Will Go Wrong. And they certainly do.

What makes THE CRIMES OF JORDAN WISE such a fine novel isn’t the plot, which won’t contain many surprises for regular readers of this sort of book, but rather Pronzini’s writing, which is some of the smoothest you’re liable to encounter. Like Lawrence Block, there’s nothing fancy about Pronzini’s words, no verbal pyrotechnics, just good old-fashioned storytelling that draws the reader farther and farther into the story with well-constructed sentences, concise characterization, and occasional bursts of action. THE CRIMES OF JORDAN WISE gets a high recommendation from me.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Durango Kids

Another library movie, this one a low-budget, family-friendly adventure film about a group of modern-day kids who accidentally travel back in time (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) to the Old West and try to prevent a gang of outlaws from stealing a fortune in gold. Most of the cast members are unknowns, and the acting is pretty bad throughout. But the scenery is really nice. The movie was filmed around Durango, Colorado, and some of it involves the tourist train that runs between Durango and the old mining town of Silverton. We rode that train once when I was a kid, on one of our vacation trips, and it was fun seeing it again.

It’s also interesting to watch how some of the Old West scenes show a Sergio Leone influence. I think the look and feel and staging of the Italian Westerns are so ingrained in pop culture by now that sometimes filmmakers imitate them without even being consciously aware of what they’re doing. I’m also curious about the title of this movie. Wasn’t the Durango Kid the name of the character played by Charles Starrett in most of his B-Westerns? How many kids today are going to be aware of that? A handful, if that? Why give your movie a title with a connotation that 99.9% of your intended audience doesn’t understand?

DURANGO KIDS is just entertaining and interesting enough to be worth a look, especially if you find it at the library, like we did, and don’t have to pay anything for it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hawke -- Ted Bell

Recently I got the urge to read a long book, which is rare for me, and at nearly 600 pages in the Pocket Books Premium edition, Ted Bell’s debut thriller HAWKE certainly fits the bill. When I was younger and had more time to read, I plowed through many a doorstopper novel without really thinking about it. The summer between eighth and ninth grades I read all three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back-to-back, something I’d never attempt today. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO? GONE WITH THE WIND? No problem.

But to get back to HAWKE, I thought, well, I’ll try it, and if I don’t like it, or if it’s taking too long to read, I’ll just stop. I liked it right away, though, and had no trouble sticking with it to the end. It’s just the sort of over-the-top, swashbuckling, action-adventure/espionage novel that I enjoy. Lord Alexander Hawke is a handsome, debonair playboy/billionaire businessman/freelance secret agent who takes on dangerous assignments for the American and British governments. A lot of the reviews compare him to James Bond, but to me he seems like more of a tribute to Derek Flint and Amos Burke (for those of you with long memories), with just a touch of Austin Powers but not nearly as silly. This book involves a military coup in Cuba that replaces Fidel Castro, a giant Russian stealth submarine, and biological warfare.

But that’s not all, to quote the late-night TV pitchmen. In addition to the secret agent stuff, you also get a storyline involving murder, revenge, and hidden pirate treasure. If that’s not enough, there’s also plenty of Clancy-ish technobabble about weapons, good and evil mercenaries, some big battles, and a climactic swordfight (well, a machete fight, but that’s close) that’s a dandy. You can tell that Bell had a lot of fun writing this book, and I had a lot of fun reading it. I was interested in Bell’s work because I read his story in the THRILLER anthology and thought it was one of the best ones in that book. He didn’t disappoint me with HAWKE.

Is the book too long? Yeah, probably. But the padding isn’t too blatant and for the most part the pace clips right along. A while back I read a thriller by another big-name writer that had a pretty good plot, but all the way through it I kept thinking “Nick Carter could’ve handled this problem in a third as many pages -- or less!” That didn’t happen with HAWKE. There are three more books, so far, starring Alex Hawke, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading all of them.

One reason I’m sort of interested in books like this right now is that I recently finished writing a big international thriller (a ghost job) with lots of short chapters, a big cast, and several interconnected storylines. It’s an appealing format, although I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it as either a writer or a reader. If I can ever find the time I might try to write one of my own, one of these days.

Friday, August 17, 2007


This comedy from several years ago is another one we picked up at the library. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore are a cute young couple in New York -- he’s a midlist writer working on his second novel, she works at a magazine of some sort -- who buy a duplex apartment. The little old lady who lives in the upstairs part of the apartment seems sweet at first but turns out to be the Tenant From Hell. And of course, because of rent control laws in New York, they can’t kick her out, so the rest of the movie revolves around their efforts to cope with her eccentricities at first, and then to get rid of her by any means, legal or illegal, when that doesn’t work.

As likable as Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore are, DUPLEX is only intermittently funny. There’s some amusing, if far-fetched, stuff about the struggles that Stiller’s character faces in his writing career, and his jealousy of a thriller-writing friend of his who is much more successful certainly rings true. Then there’s a decent little twist in the plot at the very end that I didn’t see coming, which is always a plus. This one’s a mildly pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, but not much more than that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Speaking of movies you’d think I would have seen before now, I just watched DETOUR for the first time. This one has quite a reputation as a film noir, despite its low budget and lesser-known actors. It’s the story of a guy hitchhiking across the country (Tom Neal) so that he can be reunited with his girlfriend. Unfortunately for him, he accepts a ride from someone he shouldn’t, and he winds up having to cope with death, deception, and a dangerous woman -- all the stuff of classic noir, in other words.

For the most part DETOUR works really well. Yes, it looks cheap, but most of it is set in cheap places. I’m just old enough to have experienced first-hand the sort of greasy roadside diners, rustic gas stations, and dingy tourist courts where most of this movie takes place. You could still find plenty of those in rural Texas in the early Sixties. Tom Neal does a pretty good job as the unlucky Al Roberts and provides the usual voice-over narration. And Ann Savage, who plays the femme fatale Vera, is genuinely scary. There’s a moment soon after she meets Neal’s character when she turns her head sharply and looks directly at him for the first time, and her feral expression will send a shiver right through you. I think it’s her performance, and the lines from the script about doom and the arbitrariness of fate, that give DETOUR its reputation.

But the ending of the film is a real let-down. It’s arbitrary, all right, but not in a symbolic way. It’s just abrupt and disappointing and left me with the feeling that some of the movie is missing because of all the things that are set up and then never explored, as if the director said, “Okay, that’s it, we’re out of film.” Maybe that’s what happened, for all I know. I’m glad I finally saw DETOUR anyway. It’s about half of a great film.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You’d think that somewhere along the line I would have seen the film version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, as many old movies as I’ve watched over the years. I’ve seen and liked several other films based on plays by Tennessee Williams, such as THE GLASS MENAGERIE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. But I’d never watched this one until now. And doing so was actually work-related, research for an upcoming project for one of us, but the details of that should probably wait until another time. (How’s that for a tease?)

There’s not much point in going into the plot. You know it anyway, whether you’ve seen the movie or not -- the members of a rich, decadent, dysfunctional Southern family spend a couple of hours yelling at each other, revealing long-buried secrets, and torturing each other emotionally before the whole ordeal acts as sort of a catharsis, leaving at least some of them with the glimmerings of hope. So here are a few observations, for what they’re worth.

Director/co-scripter Richard Brooks tries to open up this adaptation of the play and make it less stagebound, but the results are mixed. Sure, there are some outside scenes, but for the most part the action still consists of people standing around in rooms, talking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if what they’re saying is interesting.

You expect a movie like this to be a little lurid and over-the-top, and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF delivers. You got your dying patriarch, you got your suck-up son and his absolutely horrible wife and children, you got your black sheep son and his possibly unfaithful wife who can’t have children because her husband won’t touch her anymore. You got your struggle to inherit a vast plantation even though its owner isn’t even dead yet. You got your thunderstorm moving in for heavy-handed symbolism. You’ve got a lot of scenery-chewing that I suppose might technically be considered overacting, but with material like this, nothing else is going to work. I think Burl Ives won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Big Daddy, and he deserves it for finding a few quiet moments of humanity amidst all the bombast he puts out. Paul Newman is good, too, spending a lot of the movie in a rather understated mode with all the emotional chaos going on around him but capable of erupting at times like everybody else. Elizabeth Taylor’s Southern accent is grating at first, but I got used to it after a while.

And speaking of Elizabeth Taylor, it’s sort of easy to forget after the past few decades, but there was a time when she was incredibly hot. I’m not sure any actress ever looked better in a slip than she does in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Maybe it’s time for me to find a copy of BUTTERFIELD 8 and watch it . . .

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Speaking of Robert E. Howard . . .

It appears that a new Conan movie deal is in the works. Whether or not anything actually comes of it, well, we'll have to wait and see. But I especially like the last line in the story: "The new version will be more faithful to Howard's original creation than were the Schwarzenegger films."

(Thanks to Vince Keenan for the heads-up.)

World Fantasy Award Nominations

The nominations for this year's awards are starting to appear in various places, and both CROSS PLAINS UNIVERSE and RETRO PULP TALES have been nominated for Best Anthology. It's a first for me, having stories in books that have been nominated for such an award. My track record says that anything I'm involved with won't win anything, but Livia has both a Shamus Award and an American Mystery Award to her credit, so maybe the fact that she has a story in CROSS PLAINS UNIVERSE will help. (No slight intended to RETRO PULP TALES, also an outstanding anthology.)

Hearty congrats as well to Mark Finn, nominated for Special Award - Professional for his Robert E. Howard biography, BLOOD AND THUNDER, and Leo Grin, nominated for Special Award - Nonprofessional for his REH journal THE CIMMERIAN. I'll be rooting for both of these gentlemen.

Slattery's Hurricane -- Herman Wouk

SLATTERY’S HURRICANE is something of an oddity in the career of Herman Wouk. It’s usually not included in the lists of his novels, and I’d never even heard of it until I happened to run across a copy at Half Price Books recently. As it turns out, this paperback original published in 1956 is a novelization of a 1949 movie based on a story by Wouk that was published in the slick magazine AMERICAN. Why there was a seven-year gap between the movie and the novelization, I have no idea.

I’ve never seen the movie, at least not that I recall, but I’ve read the book now and it’s pretty darned good. It’s definitely a Forties-style drama. Navy pilot Will Slattery is passed over for the medal he deserves for sinking a Japanese ship because his squadron leader lies about what happens and claims the honor for himself. Embittered by this experience, after the war Slattery goes to work as a private pilot for a mysterious millionaire and becomes pretty much of a heel, indulging in a series of meaningless love affairs and ignoring the fact that his boss is probably a shady character of some sort. Meanwhile Slattery’s best friend and fellow pilot “Hobby” Hobson stays in the Navy and becomes a hurricane chaser, helping to track the big storms that develop in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. Hobby also has a beautiful young wife, and when Slattery meets her, sparks fly between them.

Well, if you’ve ever seen very many movies from the Forties, you can predict just about everything that’s going to happen in this novel, from the romantic triangle to the criminal goings-on to the giant hurricane that’s bearing down on Miami before the book is over. It’s the same sort of glossy soap opera that was popular during that era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway because I’m a sucker for that sort of stuff. The movie starred Richard Widmark, Veronica Lake, and Linda Darnell. That should tell some of you all you need to know about the novelization, except for the fact that it’s well worth reading if you should happen to find a copy.

My reading of Herman Wouk’s work has been spotty. I’ve never attempted to get through his giant bestselling historical novels like THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. But I have read his fine early novel THE CITY BOY and his first big success THE CAINE MUTINY and an often overlooked novel from the early Sixties called DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL (which should have ended one chapter sooner than it did). I read YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE, his novel about a Thomas Wolfe-like novelist, and loved it. I might even reread YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE one of these days, although I probably won’t because it’s so long. I keep picking up a large print copy of MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR at the local library and being tempted to check it out, but again, it’s so blasted long that I haven’t tried to read it yet.
I’m glad I read SLATTERY’S HURRICANE, though. It’s a lot of fun.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Blaze -- Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

BLAZE is a trunk novel. Stephen King is right up front about that in his introduction. He’s revised it some for publication, but my impression is that it’s basically the same book that he wrote in the early Seventies, right before he wrote CARRIE, during the same period he was writing short stories for the men’s magazine CAVALIER. (I should point out that a few years later I also sold a short story to CAVALIER, along with numerous stories to its sister publications DUDE, GENT, and NUGGET. My career, however, didn’t follow the same path as King’s in any other respects.)

I tend to like trunk novels. I’ve read quite a few of them, ones that finally achieved publication and ones that never did. There can be a lot of reasons a book doesn’t sell besides its quality. One of the best Westerns I’ve read in recent years was a book that never sold, or at least hasn’t yet, as far as I know. So it’s no surprise that I liked BLAZE quite a bit. It’s part crime novel, part social tragedy, as the title character, the hulking Clayton Blaisdell Jr., tries to carry out a kidnapping that a con man friend of his planned before being killed. Blaze, as he’s called, was brain-damaged as a child when his abusive father threw him down some stairs, and the story bounces back and forth between the kidnapping story and the story of Blaze’s life as a child and young man in a series of orphanages and reformatories.

I’m not the biggest Stephen King fan in the world. I’ve read probably half of his books, and I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read. I really liked BLAZE, though. Like most of his early books, it’s very short and tightly written compared to the big, sprawling novels King has produced for most of his career. The story races along, and to give King his due, when he’s really on his game, there aren’t very many authors who can have the reader flipping the pages quite so fast. I have no idea what sort of critical reception BLAZE has gotten, but I liked it and don’t hesitate to highly recommend it.
Rounding out the book is a good short story entitled “Memory”, which King has expanded into a novel called DUMA KEY that’s scheduled to be published next year.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Brick Wall

I wanted to do something different today, so I started writing a mystery short story that's been lurking in my brain for a while. It's not for an anthology or anything, just something I wanted to write and try to sell somewhere. But when I reached about the halfway point in the story, I realized I had no idea how to end it. I liked the writing, liked the characters, liked the general idea, but my first impulse was to say that I'd wasted the day. On the other hand, I have half of a pretty good story. I just need to figure out what the rest of it is. So maybe that's worth something after all.

It'll have to go back in my brain to percolate for a while, though, because I have to get back to my other work.

Talladega Nights

Now, this is my kind of inspirational sports movie. TALLADEGA NIGHTS hits all the usual sports movie cliches, as well as following the standard rise-and-fall-and-rise-again format of countless biopics, but pushes them so far over the bounds of ridiculousness (not to mention tastelessness on occasion), that it’s just hilarious. I think Will Ferrell is one of the most likable actors in the business today and does a fine job of playing utter lunacy absolutely straight. The rest of the cast is equally good: Gary Cole as the disreputable, mostly absent father of Ricky Bobby (Ferrell’s NASCAR driver character), the great John C. Reilly as Ricky’s best friend Cal, Jane Lynch (who seems to be in just about everything) as Ricky’s mother, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Ricky’s nemesis, the gay, French race-car driver Jean Girard. The scenes between Ferrell and Cohen are really funny. I’m not much of a NASCAR fan, but this movie is almost enough to make me want to watch a race or two.

And be sure to watch all the way to the end of the closing credits for the funniest scene in the entire movie. I don’t know what it is about it that’s so hilarious, but I about fell on the floor.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Hang-Up Kid -- Carter Brown

Carter Brown probably doesn’t fall into the category of forgotten authors yet (Bruce Grossman over at Bookgasm occasionally reviews one of the novels), but you don’t see nearly as many of them around as you did back in the Sixties and Seventies. In this part of the country, at least, Carter Brown books usually took up a whole shelf in the used bookstores. Not now.

Of course, they didn’t get much respect even back then. They just sold and sold and sold some more, and there was a reason for that -- sex. McGinnis covers. Provocative plots. Racy dialogue. The fact that they were often pretty funny, sometimes had surprisingly complex mysteries, and read extremely fast probably had something to do with it, too.

Carter Brown was really Englishman Alan G. Yates, who lived in Australia for most of his writing career. His books were published in the U.S. by Signet at first and Leisure later on in his career. One of his editors at Signet was a guy named Ed Doctorow . . . better known now as the novelist E.L. Doctorow. Yates had a number of series characters in his books, such as police detective Al Wheeler, private eyes Danny Boyd and Mavis Seidlitz, and screenwriter Larry Baker. I read many, many Carter Brown books during the Sixties and Seventies (those McGinnis covers, you know), and while I never liked Yates’s work as much as that of Richard S. Prather and Robert Leslie Bellem, which it resembled, I still found the books to be reliably entertaining, even if they were lightweight enough to float away if you weren’t keeping an eye on them.

I hadn’t read any in a long time, though, which brings us to THE HANG-UP KID. I found a few that I didn’t have at Half Price Books not long ago, including this one. I decided to go ahead and read it. It’s one of the books featuring Rick Holman, an unofficial private eye in Hollywood who works for the movie studios, keeping their stars out of trouble (much like Bellem’s Dan Turner and W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox). In this one, Holman is hired to prevent a murder. Young actor Evan Curran is convinced that he’s going to be killed -- because his astrological chart says so. Of course, there are a number of suspects who actually do want to see him dead, so Rick goes to work figuring out which of them is most likely to commit murder. His investigation leads him back to a fatal car crash in England some time earlier, when Curran was there making a movie on location.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the better Carter Brown novels. The plot has fewer twists than usual and the writing isn’t as fast-paced and funny as it is in some of the earlier novels. Also, by the time this book was published (1970), the sex scenes had become more graphic, to the point that they almost seem out of place with the rest of the book. In this type of novel, I really prefer the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, fade-to-black sex scenes in the Shell Scott books, which have a sort of charming innocence about them when you read them now. Still, THE HANG-UP KID read fast and I laughed a few times, so I think it’s likely that I’ll read some more Carter Brown books before too much longer.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

High School Musical

Given our movie-viewing habits, you just knew that sooner or later we’d be watching HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. Now we have, and I enjoyed it. As one of my daughters pointed out when I said I thought it was pretty good, “You know this was designed to appeal to 12-year-old girls, don’t you?” That’s certainly true, but as I’ve said on here before, I find something very admirable about a movie that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and does it with style and professionalism. The young actors in HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL are cute, the songs are really catchy, and the script, while pretty much unrelated to anything that really goes on in high school, is just funny enough to be entertaining. Somebody said that watching HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is a lot like reading ARCHIE comics. I can see that. (Although by and large, ARCHIE is better.)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Naked Liar -- Harold Adams

Some years ago I read one of the books in Harold Adams’s series about Carl Wilcox, a ne’er-do-well ex-con sign painter and part-time private eye who lives in a small town in Depression-era South Dakota. At this late date I couldn’t even tell you which book it was, but I recall that I didn’t like it very much.

I generally like Depression-era novels, though, so I thought it was time to try this series again. THE NAKED LIAR is the fourth appearance of Carl Wilcox and finds him living in the run-down hotel owned by his parents in Corden, South Dakota. One of his poker buddies in a neighboring town turns up murdered, smothered to death while tied naked to a bed after what was apparently some sort of kinky sexual encounter. The man’s wife is in jail, charged with the crime, and her sister hires Carl to prove that someone else is the actual killer.

This leads to a nice twisty investigation involving the other poker players in Carl’s circle, assorted attractive women, a variety of out-of-town gangsters, and a judge who may or may not be corrupt. It’s all narrated by Carl in an appealing style full of dry humor and occasional bursts of violence.

There are plenty of good lines and well-drawn characters in this novel, and Adams manages to capture the feeling of the times without going overboard on period details, which I really like. The plot meanders along for quite a while without much happening, which I don’t like. Overall, though, I enjoyed this book enough so that there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll read more in the series.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Hart's War

This is another movie we missed when it came out, which is sort of surprising considering that I like Bruce Willis movies and World War II prisoner of war movies (such as STALAG 17 and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, both great films). In this one Colin Farrell plays a lieutenant who is a senator’s son, a paper pusher who’s stationed well behind the front lines. But through some bad luck he gets captured by the Germans anyway and sent to a prison camp where Bruce Willis is the ranking American officer. As usual in this sort of film, not everything is what it appears to be at first, and the day-to-day drama of life in the camp eventually becomes something bigger and more important. One of the prisoners is murdered, apparently by another prisoner, which leads to a trial, with Farrell’s character, who was in law school when the war began, serving as defense counsel for the accused.

Since this film is based on a novel by John Katzenbach, a good thriller writer, it’s no surprise that the script takes some nice twists and turns. The acting is fine all around. Despite that, the movie never really engaged my interest as much as I thought it should have. I still enjoyed it, though, and consider it to be worth watching.

PWA Blog

The Private Eye Writers of America, an organization to which I've proudly belonged almost since its inception more than a quarter of a century ago, now has a blog of its own. You can check it out here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume Two

When I was reading comics as a kid, I never was as big a fan of Superman as I was of some of the other DC characters, like Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate the character more, so I really enjoy a volume like this that reprints a variety of Superman stories from the eight decades (!) he’s been around.

This collection is book-ended by a pair of stories featuring Mr. Mxyztplk, the mischief-making imp from another dimension, ranging from his introduction in a 1944 story written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to a story published in 2005 and written by well-known mystery novelist Greg Rucka. In between are a couple of returns to Krypton, tussles with famous Superman villains such as Lex Luthor and Brainiac, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen getting into the usual jams, an attempt from the Seventies to modernize the character a little, and a tale from the stretch during the Nineties when Superman was dead, killed by the villain Doomsday. (He got better.) In addition to Siegel and Rucka, writers who contributed stories include science-fiction authors Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder, and a couple of my favorite comics writers, Denny O’Neil and Elliot S. Maggin. Artists include Wayne Boring, who was the regular artist on Superman stories when I first started reading them in the late Fifties, and Curt Swan, the classic Superman artist who had the longest run on the character. All of this is great fun, and if you’re a Superman fan, this collection is highly recommended.