Monday, December 31, 2007

The Wrap-up

Even more than usual, 2007 has been a year of peaks and valleys for us. To get the valleys out of the way first . . . In January, my mother suffered a massive stroke. She tried for a while to come back from it, but her age, the severity of the stroke, and other medical problems were just too much for her to overcome and she passed away in June. Also in January, Livia’s mother had foot surgery, and on the same day, the day of our worst ice storm of the winter, her dad slipped on the ice and broke his ankle. So both of my in-laws were laid up for several months, and they’ve had other medical problems that have had to be dealt with. The first half of the year, though, with my mom and both of Livia’s folks all in bad shape at the same time, it was fairly rough.

Not to dwell on the negative, though, let’s move on to better things, such as the month Livia and I spent down at the Gulf Coast, doing research for one of her books and generally having one of the best times of my life. That was certainly one of the highlights of the year, and I’ll touch on the others in my usual end-of-the-year reports, which I’ll get around to after the December end-of-the-month update.

Writing -- December

After a down month in November, my production was back up to its usual rate in December. I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself again and again – I turn out a lot of pages for a few months, then I get tired and the number drops for a month or so until I get a second wind. It’s discouraging when the pages don’t come as fast as I want them to, but I’ve learned to be patient and work my way through it.

Reading – December

Here are the books I read this month, an odd assortment, as usual:

DEAD STREET, Mickey Spillane (w/ Max Allan Collins)
LONGARM AND THE HOLY SMOKES GANG, Tabor Evans (Peter Brandvold)
THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR, Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Stracyznski
SECRET AGENT X: FACELESS FURY, Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)
CIVIL WAR, Mark Millar
DEADLY BELOVED, Max Allan Collins
DOOMED DEMONS, Eustace L. Adams
QUEENPIN, Megan Abbott

Movies – December

After a slow start we wound up watching quite a few movies:


This list doesn’t include the movies that I slept most of the way through.

Now for the yearly wrap-up.

Writing 2007

Once again I set a record for the amount of work I produced, including a record month (the one we spent at the coast, which proved to be highly productive). I topped a million words again for the third year in a row, for whatever that’s worth.

On the publishing front, 15 of my books came out this year, also a record, under seven different names including my own. The two with my name on them, DUST DEVILS and DEATH HEAD CROSSING, are the real highlights and the work I’m most proud of in recent years. They’ve garnered the best reviews of my career, and I’m very grateful that people have enjoyed them. One of my goals for 2008 is to write another crime novel under my own name, and maybe by stating that in public like this I’ll actually get around to doing it. Don’t get me wrong – I greatly enjoy the series work that I do and I’m glad to have the work. But there’s something special about telling your own stories, and I’d like to do more of it.

Reading 2007

I read 141 books this year, up two from last year’s 139. My most-read author was Erle Stanley Gardner with five books, all of them Perry Mason novels. Here are my top ten favorites, alphabetical by author as usual, with a few comments on each:

QUEENPIN, Megan Abbott – I said in my informal review of this book a few days ago that it was short, fast, and mean. It’s also one of the best noir novels I’ve read. Abbott’s first two novels, DIE A LITTLE and THE SONG IS YOU, were also strong contenders for this list.

HAWKE, Ted Bell – Over-the-top espionage action/adventure with a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality to it, more reminiscent of OUR MAN FLINT than AUSTIN POWERS, and great fun.

THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN, Gil Brewer – What I said about QUEENPIN? Short, fast, and mean? Same here. A classic noir reprint from Hard Case Crime with my favorite cover of the year.

DEADLY BELOVED, Max Allan Collins – Another Hard Case Crime book, this time an original and the first novel featuring Collins’ comic book character Ms. Tree. A great hardboiled private eye yarn.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, Sara Gruen – A mainstream novel about circus life in the 1930s. Captures the era very well and tells a dramatic, touching story.

MIAMI PURITY, Vicki Hendricks – Like Megan Abbott, Vicki Hendricks has a strikingly distinctive voice that’s displayed to great effect in this noir novel. The other book of hers I read this year, VOLUNTARY MADNESS, was a near-miss for this list.

THE CRIMES OF JORDAN WISE, Bill Pronzini – One of the most smoothly-written crime novels you’re ever likely to read, with a definite Gold Medal tone to it.

THE BLONDE, Duane Swierczynski – Quite possibly the fastest-paced novel I’ve ever read, with sure-handed action scenes and hilarious dialogue. The follow-up novella, “Redhead”, is almost as good.

BEGGARS OF LIFE, Jim Tully – A tough, at times beautifully written non-fiction account of Tully’s life as a hobo during the early part of the Twentieth Century, and as hardboiled as any novel.

FRIGHT, Cornell Woolrich – Another Hard Case Crime reprint of a classic noir by one of the classic noir authors. A little more deliberately paced than some of Woolrich’s work, but truly chilling.

If I was to pick a favorite new author this year (new to me, anyway) it would have to be a three-way tie between Megan Abbott, Vicki Hendricks, and Duane Swiercyznski. I’ve read all of Megan’s books so far, but thankfully I still have a few of Vicki’s and Duane’s to get to. And I’m looking forward very much to anything new by any of them. They’re now must-read authors for me.

Movies 2007

I watched 84 movies this year, and I think I mentioned every single one of them here on the blog, even when I didn’t comment at length about some of them. In picking the ones I found the most enjoyable, I confined myself to movies that I’d never seen before, otherwise the list would be top-heavy with films like THE MALTESE FALCON and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. So, while I don’t claim that any of these are classics of the cinema, here are the movies I liked the best this year, in the order I watched them:

CASINO ROYALE (the Daniel Craig version)

As you can see, I don’t go in for arty films. I like humor, stuff that blows up real good, and pretty women. Get all three of those in a movie and I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it. Throw in a swordfight and some quicksand and you’ve got a classic.

To sum up, Dickens got it right with that “best of times, worst of times” stuff. That was 2007 in a nutshell around here. I have high hopes for 2008 while still maintaining my usual edge of pessimism.

Thanks to all of you who read this blog every day, every so often, and everything in between. I hope all of you have a very Happy New Year.

UPDATE 1/1/08

I've discovered since posting this that my short story collection from Ramble House, OLD TIMES' SAKE, came out in late December, so that makes 16 of my books published in '07, also a record, of course. And three of them had my name on them -- which may also be a record.

The Case of the Hesitant Hostess -- Erle Stanley Gardner

This novel from 1953 is different in several respects from the usual Perry Mason yarn. For one thing, the trial in which Mason is involved is already underway when the book begins. For another, he’s defending a client on an armed robbery charge, rather than trying to save him from a murder rap. And finally, he’s working on this case pro bono, having had it assigned to him by the judge.

If you’ve read very much by Erle Stanley Gardner, though, you know that things won’t stay that simple. Mason’s client is charged with yanking open the door of a car stopped at a red light and robbing the couple in the car at gunpoint. But before you know it, the case involves a chain of successful nightclubs, beautiful hostesses who are little better than prostitutes, a model who winds up with a garrotte around her neck, a shady gambling ring, possibly crooked cops, a cutthroat assistant district attorney and a flying trip to Las Vegas, where, the gossip mavens report, the noted lawyer Perry Mason has eloped with his beautiful secretary Della Street.

This book barely pauses to take a breath. As usual, Gardner packs a lot of story into a fairly short amount of time. There are two long, very effective courtroom scenes, and Mason races around and even throws a punch or two in some hardboiled action reminscent of the early novels in the series. In the end, the plot is relatively easy to figure out, but Gardner is having so much fun it doesn’t matter. THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS is one of the best Perry Mason novels I’ve read, and a really good way to wrap up my reading for the year.

My Favorite Wife

MY FAVORITE WIFE is another Cary Grant comedy. (One of my daughters has quite a few of Grant’s movies on DVD.) In this one, his scientist wife has vanished seven years earlier during an expedition to the South Seas, and he has her declared legally dead so that he can marry another woman he’s met since his wife’s disappearance. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s the same day his wife, played by Irene Dunne, shows up again after having been marooned on an island for the past seven years with handsome and athletic Randolph Scott.

With a set-up like that, you have to expect some mildly risque dialogue (very mild!), a lot of going in and of doors, and some deception and mistaken identities. The humor is of the gently whimsical variety for the most part, although Grant provides a few laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody was ever better at charming befuddlement. I’m not much of an Irene Dunne fan, though, and kept thinking, “Man, this would be a better movie with somebody like Kate Hepburn in the role.” In fact, the whole film could have done with more colorful characters and some cutting loose. It comes dangerously close to being stodgy at times. But I like Cary Grant a lot, I’m a long-time fan of Randolph Scott (I’m warnin’ ya, don’t even start), and MY FAVORITE WIFE is worth watching.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rush Hour 3

To paraphrase what I said about THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, if you liked the first two Rush Hour movies, then you ought to like RUSH HOUR 3. Odd-couple cops Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker once again find themselves working on the same case. This time they chase off to France to track down the mysterious mastermind behind an international criminal conspiracy. (By the way, chances are you’ll figure out who the mysterious mastermind is the first time the character makes an appearance on the screen.) Along the way you get a lot of rapid-fire comic dialogue, including a blatant swipe of an old Abbott & Costello routine that still, God help me, had me laughing helplessly for a couple of minutes. Plus an abundance of goofy, over-the-top action sequences set at various Paris landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, of course. Jackie Chan, bless his aging heart, can still carry out some great stunts. RUSH HOUR 3 is even more of a live-action cartoon than the previous installments in the series, with not a frame of it meant to be taken seriously. Despite that -- or maybe because of that -- I enjoyed it quite a bit and don’t hesitate to recommend it for fans of the series.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

I’m definitely not the target audience for THE NANNY DIARIES, the film based on a popular novel about a young woman’s experiences as a nanny for a wealthy couple in Manhattan. But when the rest of the family started watching it, I sat down as well, figuring, okay, I can get a good nap in during this one.

Just goes to show you I can be wrong, and frequently am. I stayed awake all the way through the movie and enjoyed it even though the plot is pretty skimpy. Scarlett Johansson is good as usual as the young woman who graduates from college with a degree in physics (I think; some of that wasn’t real clear to me) but winds up accepting a job as a nanny and taking care of a little boy who’s quite a handful, at least at first. The real challenge, though, is dealing with the boy’s mother (Laura Linney), who after being friendly at first turns into an absolute monster once Johansson’s character takes the job. The father, played by Paul Giamatti (who seems to be in every other movie made these days), isn’t any better. But there’s a handsome guy who lives upstairs in the building, and wouldn’t you know it, he and the nanny “meet cute”. Everything plays out exactly like you think it will, but the performances and some stylish touches here and there in the direction make the film watchable. Don’t rush right out to rent it, but if you find yourself watching it you probably ought to be able to stay awake.

The Simpsons Movie

I’ve been a fan of the Simpsons ever since the characters first appeared on The Tracy Ullman Show nearly twenty years ago. I think that overall THE SIMPSONS is one of the best TV series of all time, although there’s certainly been some inconsistency along the way. So it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. I’ve read some criticism leveled at it because it’s too much like the TV series. Well, what else would anyone expect? The movie plays like a bigger, slightly more complicated, slightly more explicit TV episode, which is exactly what I thought it would be. And what I hoped it would be, because I laughed all the way through it.

There’s no point in talking about the plot. Homer does dumb things and gets in trouble, bizarre stuff happens, pop culture references abound, Homer does more dumb things but finally saves the day through reluctant courage and more than a little luck. Vintage Simpsons, in other words. My only quibble was the absence of Sideshow Bob. If you like the TV series, you ought to like the movie. If you hate the TV series, then of course you should avoid the movie. And as a test of that, does the line “That could be anybody’s pig crap silo!” strike you as funny? Well, there you go.

Friday, December 28, 2007


I never was a fan of the Scooby-Doo cartoons. They came along after I was too old to watch them as a kid, and my kids never watched them much. We had a videotape of a Batman/Scooby-Doo crossover movie because one of my daughters was a Batman fan, but that was about it.

However, sometimes we watch odd things, so the first live-action (with the exception of an animated Scooby) SCOOBY-DOO movie found itself in our DVD player the other day. And even though it got terrible reviews when it came out, I actually sort of enjoyed it. A lot of the script comes across as post-modern irony, which I generally don’t like, but it’s a little funny in places. Yes, the computer-animated Scooby-Doo looks goofy. Was anybody really expecting anything else? And I have eight words for anybody who says this movie isn’t worth watching:

Sarah Michelle Gellar in mini-skirt and go-go boots.

So there.

Queenpin -- Megan Abbott

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book, but I’m certainly glad I did. Many of you have probably already read QUEENPIN, Megan Abbott’s third novel. For those who haven’t, it’s the story of a young woman (whose real name we never learn, unless I just missed it somehow), who’s working as a bookkeeper in a sleazy, mob-connected strip joint when she becomes the protégé of an older woman who has spent twenty years working for organized crime as a courier and money launderer. Our narrator takes to the work with a minimum of fuss or mental anguish and becomes good at it, but then, wouldn’t you know it, she meets the wrong guy – a handsome gambler who always seems to be just one bet away from the big score – and Things Go to Hell.

When you just read the bare bones of that plot, it’s easy to say that QUEENPIN is something of a gimmick book: taking a standard, Gold Medal-type noir plot and inverting it so that the protagonist is female instead of male. Funny thing is, when you actually read the book you don’t really get that sense at all because Abbott is so good at creating characters and dragging you along with them as things get worse and worse. The setting of this one isn’t quite as well defined as it is in her other two novels; maybe it’s set in the Fifties, like DIE A LITTLE and THE SONG IS YOU, or maybe it’s the early Sixties, but either way it’s emphatically Not Now. The world of race tracks and night clubs through which the narrator moves is vividly rendered, and the dialogue that could have sounded like a parody of that era comes across as real and natural.

What it comes down to is that Megan Abbott is just a damned fine writer. Short, fast, and mean, like good noir fiction is supposed to be, QUEENPIN is her best book yet, and it’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. (And as usual with her books, it has a great cover.)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Hanging Shoe

Today is the 31st anniversary of my first fiction sale, a confession yarn to the now long-defunct magazine INTIMATE STORY. I’ve written about the background of that sale before, and you can read that post here. But I had actually been paid for my writing before that, so I thought today that I’d back up and talk a little about my short career as a professional journalist.

Back in ’76 I worked for my father at his TV repair shop, as many of you know. In those days, it was still cheaper most of the time to get your TV fixed when it went on the fritz, rather than just throwing it away and buying a new one, so if you were in the TV repair business in a small town you got to know just about everybody in town. One of our customers at the shop was the editor and publisher of the local newspaper. I became friends with him and sometimes talked writing with him, so he knew about my ambition to become a writer. One day I mentioned to him that the paper ought to run some movie reviews, and he asked me if I wanted to write them. If he ran them, he said, he would pay me the princely sum of $2.00 per review.

Are you kidding? Of course I said yes. I jumped at the offer. And just like that I was a professional movie critic.

The first movie I reviewed was John Wayne’s final film, THE SHOOTIST. I don’t really remember what I said about it, but the review was probably a mixed one because I never have cared much for that movie. Nor could I tell you all the other films I reviewed, other than a few that stuck in my mind: STAR WARS, KING KONG (the Seventies remake with Jessica Lange), and CAR WASH. Why I remember that odd assortment, I have no idea.

I kept this up for a year, maybe two. I got to know some of the managers at the movie theaters in Fort Worth, and they would let me and Livia in for free. At other theaters we had to pay, which meant I lost money on those reviews. But we still got to see the movies. The editor didn’t pay me on any sort of regular basis. I’d stop by the paper every so often, when the amount he owed me had built up to thirty or forty dollars, and get a check. Sometimes those checks bought our groceries that week. I even wrote a couple of human interest articles for the paper and also got paid for those.

Then the paper changed hands, I lost interest – I’d already figured out that I wasn’t cut out for journalism – and that was the end of my newspaper career. But it had been fun, it had gotten some of my work in print, and I made a few bucks. By then I was selling short stories to MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, so I concentrated on fiction from then on, although I’ve written a few non-fiction pieces here and there.

Most writers I know, no matter how long they’ve been at it or how successful they’ve been, are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everyone to discover that they’re talentless frauds. (See, the title of this post does make sense; it’s not the title of a Frank Gruber mystery novel featuring Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg after all – although it sounds kind of like one, doesn’t it?) I’m no different in feeling that way, so every year on December 27th I’m very thankful to all the readers, editors, and agents involved, as well as to my beautiful wife and my kids, that I’m still in the game and that the shoe is still up there. Maybe it’ll wait a while longer before it drops on my head.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bookgasm Top Ten

I'm pleased to report that DUST DEVILS has made Bruce Grossman's list of top ten crime novels of 2007, as reported over on Bookgasm. Bruce is, of course, a man of impeccable taste, and I'm very glad he liked the book enough to include it.

White Christmas

We watched this movie on Christmas Eve, appropriately enough. I hadn’t seen it in at least five or six years, maybe longer. Didn’t really matter, though. I’ve seen it enough times so that I know everything that’s going to happen and could even quote a lot of the dialogue along with the actors if I wanted to.

Nearly everybody has seen this movie, and so much has been written about it that I’m going to comment only briefly on things that I hadn’t really noticed in previous viewings. Most notably, there’s quite a bit of padding. Several of the musical numbers, like “Minstrel Show” and “Choreography”, do nothing to advance the plot or tell us anything about the characters. The movie could have easily been fifteen or twenty minutes shorter. Not that I don’t enjoy the production numbers; they’re well-staged and quite entertaining. But if they hadn’t been there, I don’t think we would have ever missed them.

Something I didn’t know until recently is that Rosemary Clooney sings both parts in “Sisters”. I figured Vera-Ellen’s singing was dubbed, but didn’t know that Clooney was really singing to herself in that song.

I really like the opening scene set during World War II, and I still find the last twenty minutes or so of the film very moving. As for the middle, it’s still entertaining, but except for the occasional funny line it doesn’t grab me like it once did. That’s because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I guess.

Overall, though, I still like WHITE CHRISTMAS a lot. The photography is beautiful, the songs are great, and the movie has its heart in the right place. I wouldn’t watch it every Christmas, but every few years is just about right, I think.

By the way, we never got around to watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dust Devils Review on Vintage Hardboiled Reads

I hope you'll forgive the blatant self-promotion on Christmas Day. August West over at the excellent new Vintage Hardboiled Reads blog has some very nice things to say about DUST DEVILS. It's always very gratifying to know that people have enjoyed something I've written. And of course I have to mention that the deadline for voting on the Spinetingler Awards is coming up soon. The details can be found here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Wishes

Merry Christmas to those of you who will be celebrating tonight and tomorrow, and best wishes to all. I hope this is a time of peace and contentment for you and your loved ones.

Doomed Demons -- Eustace L. Adams

There’s a story behind my reading of this one. When I was a kid, the elementary school I attended had no school library. Instead, each teacher had a shelf of books in her room that the students could check out. I was in either third or fourth grade, I don’t remember which, when I found a book called DOOMED DEMONS on the library shelf in my classroom. Now, to my nine- or ten-year-old mind, DOOMED DEMONS was just about the coolest title ever, so of course I had to read it. All I remembered as time passed was that it was about World War I pilots, but that fact and the title stayed with me for more than forty years.

So recently I was poking around ABE and decided to search and see if I’d recalled the title correctly. It took only a moment to discover that I had. Cheap copies of DOOMED DEMONS are plentiful. The author is Eustace L. Adams (which I had totally forgotten) and the publisher is Grosset & Dunlap (likewise). Those two items were enough to tell me that it’s what was referred to in those days as a “boy’s adventure book”, a juvenile novel with lots of action and derring-do and a relatively young hero. Grosset & Dunlap was a well-known publisher of such books, and Eustace L. Adams was the author of the long-running Andy Lane series in that genre, as well as writing numerous adult novelettes and serials for such pulps as ARGOSY.

Well, you know where this is leading. Of course I had to order a copy and read it again, more years than I like to think about after reading it for the first time. I’m happy to report that not only does it hold up well, I probably enjoyed it more now than I did back then. It’s the story of a group of young aviators, most of them college age, in France during World War I. The hero is dashing, redheaded Jimmy Deal, and his main sidekick is the chubby, happy-go-lucky Pooch Malloy. Yeah, they’re cliches and stereotypes, and they probably were even in 1935 when this book was published, but I don’t care. I had a great time reading about their adventures. Jimmy crash-lands behind enemy lines and has to steal a German plane to get back to his aerodrome. He carries out a daring rescue of some downed fliers in the English Channel and conducts a dangerous one-man bombing raid on some German submarine pens. He even winds up owning a French country inn that he converts into an officer’s club, until it winds up being the target of a German bombing run.

Adams spins this episodic yarn in a breezy, fast-paced style for the most part, including some excellent aerial combat scenes. When a lot of authors start describing dogfights, I have a hard time following the action, but not here. The images Adams creates are clear and quite striking. Since this is a boy’s book, there’s no sex or cussin’ but plenty of violence. It is a war novel, after all. Although it’s not dwelt on in detail, characters die right and left, including some sympathetic ones. Then the book’s tone takes a sharp, very effective turn toward bleak realism near the end.

I wouldn’t recommend DOOMED DEMONS to everyone, but if you remember reading books like this as a kid or if you’re a fan of World War I aviation yarns, I think you’d get a real kick out of it. I know I did, and this is one instance where I’m glad I revisited my childhood.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Deck the Halls

This movie was released last Christmas season, I believe, to generally poor reviews. I thought it was fairly entertaining, though. Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito play neighbors feuding over Christmas decorations. Predictable, mildly amusing hijinks ensue. The result is a little like a longer episode of a TV sitcom, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I find it interesting that Matthew Broderick, who gained fame playing the free-spirited Ferris Bueller, now usually plays very uptight, self-controlled characters. Nobody’s going to mistake DECK THE HALLS for a Christmas classic, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend an evening.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Longarm and the Hangtree Vengeance -- Tabor Evans

I got my copies of this one today. It's a January '08 book, but it ought to start showing up in stores during the week between Christmas and New Year's. I thought it turned out pretty well, and I'm also fond of it because the outline for it was written in longhand on hotel stationery during the World Fantasy Convention in Austin last year -- one of many outlines I've scribbled in hotel rooms over the years. I don't travel often, but I like to keep working when I do.

Deadly Beloved -- Max Allan Collins

Regular readers of this blog know that I love comic books and I love private eye yarns, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’m a long-time fan of MS. TREE, the female private eye created by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty who has been appearing off and on in comics for more than a quarter of a century now.

DEADLY BELOVED, the latest release from Hard Case Crime, is the first Ms. Tree novel by Collins, and as he explains in an afterword to the book, it’s sort of an update and reboot of the series, a new origin story based on elements from the comic book stories that introduced the character. The basics are the same: tough private detective Mike Tree is murdered on his wedding night, leaving his new bride, also named Michael, to bring his killer to justice and then take over the agency that he started. That’s back-story in the novel, but it also ties in prominently with the case on which Ms. Tree is currently working, a case that involves multiple murders and the Chicago crime family whose patriarch Mike Tree put in jail several years earlier.

Collins does a masterful job of moving the story back and forth in time and weaving the various storylines together. Mike Tree and his bride were inspired by Mike Hammer and Velda, and naturally there’s a Spillane-like vibe that runs all through this story, even though the voice is distinctly Collins. DEADLY BELOVED is one of those rare books where I couldn’t seem to turn the pages fast enough, with plenty of action and colorful characters and a tough attitude on the part of Ms. Tree that’s very appealing. You’ll probably see the ending coming, but that doesn’t matter because it fits so well. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I hope that Collins writes more Ms. Tree novels, as the afterword indicates that he might. For now, DEADLY BELOVED is highly recommended by me.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Bill Crider blogged about this movie earlier this week, which reminded us we’d never seen it, and since we own a copy on DVD and had the afternoon free, it seemed like a good time to watch it.

It’s hard to go wrong with Cary Grant, of course. In this one he plays a Manhattanite born and bred (no one mentions the British accent, naturally), an advertising man who decides to move his wife and two daughters out of the crowded rat race of the city. So he and the always charming Myrna Loy as his wife buy an old house in the Connecticut countryside, only to discover that they’ll be better off tearing it down and building a brand-new house. From there, just about everything that can go wrong does.

Nobody does exasperation better than Cary Grant, and that’s about all he has to do here. This is more of a smile and chuckle movie than a laugh-out-loud movie, but sometimes that sort of gentle humor is exactly what you want. Melvyn Douglas does an okay job as a friend of the family (and narrator), and Lex Barker shows up as a carpenter several years before he became Tarzan. While MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE isn’t in the top rank of Cary Grant comedies like, say, BRINGING UP BABY, I’m glad I saw it and consider it well worth watching.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Civil War

As a general rule, I don’t care much for big crossover “events” in comic books. When I was a kid, I liked the annual crossovers between the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America (more about those another time), probably because I’ve always been fond of Golden Age comics characters. But starting with DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and Marvel’s SECRET WARS in the Eighties, most such mini-series have left me cold. I liked all the different Earths in the DC Universe and hated to see them go. Of course, I didn’t have to write stories set in that very complicated universe. I might have felt differently if that had been the case.

All of which brings me to Marvel’s THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR and CIVIL WAR, a couple of trade paperbacks I read recently which reprint material from 2006’s big event in the Marvel Universe. THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR, which reprints the one-shot AVENGERS: ILLUMINATI (written by Brian Michael Bendis), a couple of issues of FANTASTIC FOUR (written by J. Michael Straczynski), and three issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (also written by Straczynski), sets the stage for the CIVIL WAR mini-series by introducing the concept of the Superhero Registration Act, an effort by the federal government to make all the superheroes in the Marvel Universe disclose their secret identities and go to work for the government, with all the inherent regulation and red tape that would require. Naturally that doesn’t sit well with some of the heroes, and in CIVIL WAR, written by Matt Millar, the friction between the two factions escalates into all-out war as the group supporting the government’s actions, led by Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to force the hold-outs, led by Captain America, into going along with the new law. Punches are thrown. A lot of stuff blows up. A few characters even die (but not any major ones) before things finally get resolved. In a nice touch, though, that resolution is rather messy and inconclusive . .. sort of like real life, especially where politics are involved.

This is where my obligatory “I don’t like the art as much as in the old days” rant usually appears, but I’ve got to say, the art in these two volumes is pretty good. Not as good as in the comics in my day, of course, but certainly okay. And the scripts by Bendis, Straczynski, and Millar are nice, fast-paced blends of action, humor, and pathos that stay true to the characters. I enjoyed these stories quite a bit. Enough to get me back into the comics shop on a weekly basis? Well, no. But I’ll certainly continue to read the trade paperback reprints of these newer comics when I get the chance.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Secret Agent X: Faceless Fury -- Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)

I’ve been in a pulpish mood lately (more on that another time), and one of the things I’ve read is the Secret Agent X novel FACELESS FURY, from the April 1936 issue of the Secret Agent X pulp.

This series ran for 41 issues, and I’ve probably read more than half the novels. One of the consistent problems with Secret Agent X is that, as you might guess from his name, he’s pretty much of a cipher. We never learn his real name or much about his background. We don’t even know what he really looks like because he’s always in disguise. He could be anybody. And yet the novels are usually entertaining because of the bizarre plots and fast pacing.

In FACELESS FURY, which was written by G.T. Fleming-Roberts under the house-name Brant House, the bizarre elements are certainly in place. You’ve got a criminal mastermind with his head completely covered in bandages except for the eyes, which, oh by the way, shoot out an acid so powerful that it’ll completely eat away a man’s face in seconds; you’ve got a similarly bandaged amnesia victim in a sanitarium who may or may not be the mastermind; and you’ve got multiple murder victims found clutching children’s toy blocks in their hands. Not to mention forgers, gentleman jewel thieves, dope fiends, and beautiful actresses with sinister secrets. For a while this seems like a kitchen sink novel, with Fleming-Roberts throwing in every wild thing he can think of whether it makes any sense or not, but by the end of the novel he succeeds it tying it all together fairly neatly. It’s very easy to figure out who the killer really is, but you don’t read this kind of story for the mystery angle, anyway. At least I don’t.

Although Fleming-Roberts didn’t create the Secret Agent X character, he wrote more of the novels than anyone else and is considered by some pulp fans to be the series’ best author. I sort of prefer the stories by Paul Chadwick, the creator of the character, but I like Fleming-Roberts’ work, too, and FACELESS FURY is one of his best entries. It’ll be available later this year in an inexpensive reprint from Beb Books, and it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of the hero pulps. Not a bad place to start if you’re a pulp fan and have never read a Secret Agent X novel, either.

(Thanks to Livia for the cover scan.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

The film critic for one of the local newspapers absolutely hated this movie, saying that it was so incomprehensible that it might as well have been in a foreign language. Well, I didn’t have any real trouble following the plot and actually thought it had a few nice twists to it. But hey, if you’re watching this movie, or either of the two that came before it, for that matter, for the plot, then you’ve probably picked out the wrong movie.

What I watch the PIRATES movies for are Johnny Depp’s over-the-top mugging as Captain Jack Sparrow and the elaborate action scenes and the striking visual images, all of which play major parts in AT WORLD’S END. If you remember the end of the previous movie, Jack had been sent to Davy Jones’s Locker, and this installment opens with his friends figuring out a way to rescue him. That they’ll be successful in doing so is a foregone conclusion, and the rest of the movie’s nearly three hour running time is concerned with all the various groups of pirates banding together to do battle against a common enemy. That final battle is a long, very good scene highlighted by a wedding, of all things. And the post-credits closing scene, while predictable, is still very effective.

I’d rate AT WORLD’S END better than DEAD MAN’S CHEST, the second entry in the series, but not quite as good as the first one, THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL. It’s silly and maybe the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in places (and don’t try to watch it without having seen the first two, or it won’t make any sense at all), but I had a grand time watching it – and I didn’t doze off even once! I don’t know if there’s going to be a fourth PIRATES movie or not – the filmmakers certainly leave themselves an opening if they want to do one – but if there is, you can be sure I’ll watch it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Longarm and the Holy Smokes Gang -- Tabor Evans

A while back when I read Peter Brandvold’s second Longarm novel under the Tabor Evans house-name, LONGARM AND THE WOLF WOMEN, I enjoyed it enough that I had to backtrack and find his first one, LONGARM AND THE HOLY SMOKES GANG. I’m happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed it, too.

In this one, Longarm (who is actually Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long, of course) is assigned to find the hide-out of a gang of would-be revolutionaries who have been looting gold shipments to finance their planned rebellion against the U.S. government. Once Longarm has located the outlaw stronghold, he’s supposed to contact the army and let them handle the job of breaking up the gang. Well, if you’ve ever read very many Longarm novels, you won’t be surprised that things don’t turn out exactly that way. Brandvold throws in a few nice twists and turns in the plot to go with his usual blend of dryly humorous dialogue and fast-paced action. As a character, Longarm is a lot of fun to write (and I can still say that after fifteen years on the series myself), and Brandvold does a fine job of capturing that quality. You can tell he’s enjoying himself, and it follows that the reader will, too. This is another one I’m glad to recommend for fans of series Westerns.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eragon/High Fantasy

I think I need a new category here on the blog: Movies I Didn’t Stay Awake Through. We started watching ERAGON tonight, and I dozed off about twenty minutes into it, waking up just in time to see the big battle at the end. From what I saw, the photography looked pretty good and the special effects were okay, but don’t go by me. I couldn’t tell you much about the story other than that it seemed like standard high fantasy.

Which means I’m not really the target audience anyway, since with the exception of THE LORD OF THE RINGS I’ve never been much of a fan of high fantasy. Give me a book with dragons, elves, quests, magical talismans, etc., and most of the time I'll yawn and put it back on the shelf. I mean no offense to people who enjoy those novels; they just don’t resonate with me as a reader most of the time. That’s probably the reason I never had much success writing in that genre, although Lord knows Livia and I both tried for a while and have the drawer full of unsold proposals to show for it. We actually did sell a novel based on a fantasy role-playing game, LYRON’S LAMENT, that I think turned out pretty well. And I once wrote an entire 75,000-word novel about knights battling dragons in 5th or 6th Century England. That was a ghost job for a semi-big name in the field. However, the book was never published and I never got paid for it, since it was three years late when I took the job and the publisher didn’t want it anymore. Didn’t know that at the time I was writing it, though. Still, it was fun to write, so that’s worth something, I guess.

Dang. Now I’m thinking about writing fantasy again. Some of those proposals were actually pretty good . . .

Dead Street -- Mickey Spillane

The reviews of Hard Case Crime’s recent release of Mickey Spillane’s final crime novel DEAD STREET (edited and completed by Max Allan Collins) indicate something of a generation gap between readers, with most of the older ones who became Spillane fans back in the Fifties and Sixties enjoying it while some of the younger ones have been less than impressed. Geezer that I am, you know which camp I fall into. I started reading Spillane in the mid-Sixties (THE DEEP was the first book of his that I read) and worked my way through the rest of his novels, up to that point, in fairly short order. I vividly recall sitting on the front porch of my sister’s house and reading ONE LONELY NIGHT on an August evening in 1970. With a little research I could come up with the exact date. You know a book’s made a real impression on you when you remember that much 37 years later. As far as I’m concerned, the first chapter of ONE LONELY NIGHT is the best opening chapter of any mystery novel ever written (although THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES comes close).

So what did I think of DEAD STREET? Well, I liked it. It’s not as good as vintage Spillane, but there are some really good lines of dialogue and an intriguing plot that mixes a beautiful woman who apparently died in a mob abduction twenty years earlier but actually didn’t; a couple of retirement communities in Florida, one populated by former cops and the other by retired gangsters; an old brownstone in New York that’s scheduled for demolition; and a missing chunk of fissionable material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. The hero, a retired police captain named Jack Stang who was known as The Shooter, is a classic Spillane protagonist and lives up to his nickname before the book is over. The book’s only comparative weakness is a curious lack of action for long stretches, something that was also apparent in Spillane’s most recent novel before this one, SOMETHING’S DOWN THERE. Maybe that’s a by-product of Spillane growing older and more contemplative. There’s a vivid sense of melancholy and nostalgia in DEAD STREET. Everything in the plot grows out of incidents that happened decades earlier, and the low-key narration reinforces that.

As for Max Allan Collins’s work on the book (he edited it and wrote the final three chapters based on Spillane’s notes), it’s excellent. He does a fine job of capturing Spillane’s style, especially in a shoot-out near the end and the final confrontation with the villain. There are more of these posthumous collaborations coming, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading them.

Overall, if you’ve never read Spillane before, it would probably be a good idea not to start with DEAD STREET. My recommendation would be to go all the way back to I, THE JURY and read the Mike Hammer novels in order. But if you’ve been a Spillane fan for more years than you like to think about, as I am, I believe you’ll have a really entertaining time with DEAD STREET.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Catching Up

Regular readers of this blog may recall that when it goes silent for a while, I’m usually making a big push on the writing. That’s been the case this month as I try to catch up after backsliding a little in November. I haven’t caught up yet, but at least I haven’t fallen any farther behind. I finished a manuscript on Saturday morning that I should have had done by the end of November, so I didn’t waste any time getting started on the next book Saturday afternoon. For a change I had done something intelligent and well-organized a few months ago: when I was writing the outline for the book I started Saturday afternoon, I made a list of all the research books I used, so I was able to gather them up ahead of time and plunge right into the work. Over the weekend I also wrote the outline for a novel that’s several books on down the schedule.


In the midst of all this, I’ve managed to read a little and should have a review or two to post soon. Haven’t really watched any movies, though. Other members of the family watched one last night, a made-for-cable Christmas movie called CHRISTMAS DO-OVER, which can best be described by saying that it’s like GROUNDHOG DAY, only with Christmas. (I can’t help but wonder if that was how it was pitched.) I saw enough to get the gist, but then I dozed off, so I’m not going to count it as one that I watched.