Sunday, August 31, 2008

Enemy Ace: Archive Edition Vol. 1

When I started reading comics, World War II had been over for less than fifteen years, and war comics were still incredibly popular. As I may have mentioned here before, the first comic I remember buying was an issue of OUR FIGHTING FORCES, featuring Gunner and Sarge (and Pooch!), a couple of Marine riflemen in the South Pacific and their dog (who was probably an honorary Marine, I don’t recall for sure). I read OUR FIGHTING FORCES fairly regularly, as well as OUR ARMY AT WAR, which featured the legendary Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, and over at Marvel, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS. But it was the mid-Sixties before DC Comics took the daring – for the time – step of producing war stories in which the protagonist was a member of the enemy forces. It was right there in the title: ENEMY ACE.

Rittmeister Hans von Hammer is a German pilot in World War I, modeled fairly blatantly on Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Starting as a back-up feature in OUR ARMY AT WAR, the character proved popular enough to graduate to a couple of full-length stories in SHOWCASE, then faded away before returning a few years later in another series of full-length stories in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES. As conceived by writer Robert Kanigher, the Hammer of Hell, as he was sometimes known, was a brooding, morally conflicted character who thought of himself as a human killing machine, while at the same time being tortured by that self-realization. He hears voices that aren’t there, including that of his own Fokker tri-plane, and when he’s not flying patrols over No Man’s Land, he wanders around the Black Forest and talks to a black wolf that befriends him because they’re both killers. At least, that’s the way von Hammer views the relationship.

Providing the art for Kanigher’s scripts was Joe Kubert, who even then was already a legend in the comics industry. Kubert’s research was impeccable when it came to the aircraft and battle tactics of World War I, and no one was ever better at capturing the brooding melancholy of characters like von Hammer. The first volume of the Archives Edition of ENEMY ACE reprints the early back-up stories from OUR ARMY AT WAR, the two SHOWCASE stories, and six issues from the character’s run in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, too. Kubert’s spectacular artwork has never looked better. Kanigher’s scripts suffer from some repetition early on, with the same scenes and even lines of dialogue showing up again and again in the first stories, but the character is so well-conceived and the artwork so good that the reader is willing to forgive a certain sameness to the scripts. At least, I am. And once the run in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES begins, the scripts improve greatly as Kanigher introduces a continuing antagonist for von Hammer, a French pilot known as the Hangman.

The only story in this collection that I’d read before was the first SHOWCASE issue, which I vividly remember buying off the spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drugstore one summer morning in 1965. At the time I was a little put off by the lead character being a German, when I was used to reading war comics in which all the Germans were villains. But I encountered the Enemy Ace in other comics over the years and grew to enjoy reading the stories. Going back now and reading all of these early appearances makes me realize even more what an achievement the character was. These are truly ground-breaking stories that hold up beautifully today, and this collection gets my highest recommendation.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Woods - Harlan Coben

I met Harlan Coben several years ago at a convention, but I’d never read any of his books until now. THE WOODS is the story of Paul Copeland, a county prosecutor from New Jersey who has several tragedies in his past, beginning with the time twenty years earlier when his teenage sister disappeared, presumed to be one of the victims of a serial killer who struck at a summer camp where both the Copeland siblings were staying. Copeland’s mother abandoned her husband and son a few years later, and Copeland’s wife died of cancer a few years before THE WOODS begins. So he’s got plenty of angst on his plate, as well as a high-profile case he’s prosecuting against two wealthy frat boys accused of raping a black, teenage, exotic dancer.

Then a dead body turns up in Manhattan, and son of a gun, the corpse turns out to be one of the summer camp “victims” who supposedly died along with Copeland’s sister. But since this guy was really still alive, maybe Copeland’s sister is, too . . .

As you might expect, things get really complicated from that point. Copeland tries to compartmentalize his life, but that becomes impossible when all the compartments start slamming together. Most mystery readers will probably figure out some of what’s going on, but Coben throws in plenty of twists, some of which I definitely didn’t see coming. The book is paced well for a long novel and the writing flows smoothly. Since it’s the only Coben novel I’ve read, I don’t know where THE WOODS ranks among fans of his work, but I liked it quite a bit and plan to read more of his books.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Wreck of the Old 89

Our ’89 Buick Century, that is. A very sweet car despite its age. Livia and I were sitting peacefully at a red light this morning when the vehicle coming along the highway behind us slammed into us at high speed. We’re both shaken up, bumps and bruises and sprained knees, but apparently nothing serious. Livia started to get sick from the heat, but the firefighters who responded to the accident invited her to sit in the fire truck, which was air-conditioned. She started feeling better fairly quickly.

The rear end of the Buick is very messed up, of course. We’re both glad the gas tank didn’t explode. At this point we have no idea if the car can be repaired or is a total loss. We’re hoping it can be repaired because the engine runs great and it gets extremely good gas mileage. So we’re thankful nobody was badly hurt and royally frustrated because of all the hassle involved. But Livia got to sit in a fire truck and in a police car, and I got to sit in the back seat of the police car like a perp. It was all I could do not to start humming, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do . . .”

Forgotten Books: Acapulco G.P.O. - Day Keene

Day Keene, whose real name was Gunard Hjertstedt, started his writing career in the pulps and went on to become one of the most reliably entertaining authors of paperback suspense novels for Gold Medal and other publishers during the Fifties. In the Sixties, in addition to his crime and suspense novels, he also began writing glossy soap opera-type novels. ACAPULCO G.P.O., from 1967, fits quite nicely in that category.

Not that there’s no crime and suspense in this novel. There’s plenty, as there is in any good soap opera. Centered around Acapulco and a nearby former fishing village that’s now home to a number of wealthy jet-setters, Keene spins a yarn with a large cast and a number of intersecting storylines. Among the characters are a former Red Chinese army general who defected and wound up in Mexico, a beautiful movie star whose popularity has faded (you’ve got to have one of those in a book of this type), an angst-ridden artist and his model wife, and numerous horny teenagers. As for plotlines, you get drug smuggling, prostitution, kidnapping, murder, and lots of sex to go along with the crime and violence. Make no mistake about it, this is a lurid book.

Which, of course, is part of its guilty-pleasure appeal. Keene knows what he’s doing and does it extremely well. The storytelling skills he honed in the pulps keep things moving at a very fast pace, and then he springs a late twist in the outcome of one of the storylines that took me completely by surprise. While his earlier paperbacks are probably better (the Hard Case Crime reprint of one of his best books, HOME IS THE SAILOR, is still in print), ACAPULCO G.P.O. is well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

House Update

The rebuilding of our house has finally gotten underway. It took us a long time to make up our minds what we wanted to do. Livia has some pictures of the first steps posted over on her blog.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Livia's New Books, Part 2: Frankly, My Dear, I'm Dead

Coming out in hardback November 01, 2008.
No one is surprised when feisty Delilah Dickinson opens her own literary travel agency in Atlanta after her divorce. But during her first group's tour of an old plantation modeled after Tara from Gone With the Wind, she finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery - and everyone knows death is not so good for business. So, with God as her witness, Delilah vows to find the killer - who frankly doesn't give a damn.
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation ISBN-13: 9780758225665

Monday, August 18, 2008

ArmadilloCon; Gabriel Hunt

I got home yesterday evening after spending the past three days in Austin for ArmadilloCon, the excellent annual science-fiction convention sponsored by the Fandom Association of Central Texas. As always, it was wonderful seeing all my old friends and making a few new ones. I’d name names, but then my aging brain would forget someone and I’d feel guilty about that. I was on three panels, all of which went fairly well, although I think I annoyed a fellow panelist on one and definitely annoyed an audience member on another. But I had a great time wandering around the dealer’s room and talking to folks. I didn’t take any pictures (I’m a terrible photographer), but you can find some videos from the con over at Bill Crider’s blog.

In other news, when I got home and checked my email I discovered that Hard Case Crime co-founder and creator of the new Hunt for Adventure series Charles Ardai had broken the news that I’ll be writing one of the Gabriel Hunt books. I’ve done some work on this already and it’s been great fun. When Charles described the series to me and asked if I’d be interested in contributing, I emailed him back immediately and told him, “I was born to write this stuff.” After getting more involved, I’m even more convinced of that. I don’t know when my book will be out, but I’ll post the cover here as soon as I get a copy of it. Considering the other authors already lined up for the series (Christa Faust, David J. Schow, Nicholas Kauffman, and Charles himself), I’m really looking forward to reading the other books.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Blonde in Lower Six - Erle Stanley Gardner

THE BLONDE IN LOWER SIX is Carroll & Graf’s second volume of Ed Jenkins stories reprinted (mostly) from the pulps, and I wish there were more of them. As far as I know, however, this is it for Ed Jenkins collections.

The Phantom Crook is back in three novelettes that originally appeared in BLACK MASK in 1927, being pursued by the underworld and the police alike, although as far as Ed is concerned, there’s not much difference between the two. If anything, most of the cops Ed encounters are more crooked and corrupt than the criminals they’re supposed to pursue. Ed’s still a hardboiled kind of guy, gleefully sending off his enemies to be caught in their own traps, running around Chinatown in various disguises, making hair’s-breadth escapes, befriending tong leaders, and fending off the attentions of two beautiful young women, because, after all, it wouldn’t be fair to them if he let them fall in love with a crook who has all hands against him. These yarns strike me as being a little more melodramatic than the ones in the previous collection, DEAD MEN’S LETTERS, but they’re still very entertaining.

Then you have the title story, “The Blonde in Lower Six”, which is a different sort of animal. Set in 1943 but published in ARGOSY in 1961 – and I’d love to know the story of how that came about – it’s a full-length novel that’s almost completely devoid of the Phantom Crook melodrama. Instead Ed acts more like an unlicensed private eye as he helps out an old friend from Chinatown in a case involving wartime espionage, embezzlement, characters pretending to be other characters, and at least three murders. The plot is so complicated I sort of lost track, but by the end I think I pretty much had everything straight. Vintage Erle Stanley Gardner plotting, in other words, and told in a very terse, tough style that reads really fast. I loved it, even though I couldn’t always keep up with what was going on.

My only quibbles aren’t with Gardner but rather with Carroll & Graf. On a book called THE BLONDE IN LOWER SIX, why would you use a cover illustration of a girl who’s definitely not a blonde? And if you read this collection, be sure to read the stories reprinted from BLACK MASK before you read the title story, which, although it comes first in the book, is actually more of a sequel to the pulp yarns. I have no idea why they were arranged that way for publication.

I highly recommend both DEAD MEN’S LETTERS and THE BLONDE IN LOWER SIX, and if any publisher wants to reprint some more Ed Jenkins stories, I’d read them without hesitation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Last Legion

This movie took me by surprise. It barely played in the theaters, I don’t recall reading any reviews of it, and as likable as he is, Colin Firth never struck me as an action hero. But then we watched it and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Firth plays Aurelius, the Roman soldier in charge of Caesar’s personal guard – Caesar, in this case, being the adolescent Romulus, who has the bad luck to be crowned emperor just before Rome falls to the Goths. Aurelius, with the help of some fellow legionaries and a hot female warrior from India (don’t ask, it make sense in the movie), rescues Romulus and his sage old mentor, a wizard from the far-off province of Brittania, from the Goths who have captured them. Then, with the Goths in hot pursuit, the group heads for Britannia, where the only remaining loyal Roman legion, the Ninth, is posted. Thus the title of the movie. Of course, more complications and battles ensue once they get there.

Now, there’s not a single thing in this movie that you haven’t seen numerous times before. I don’t mind that if it’s done well and the participants seem to be enjoying themselves, which is the case here. Firth makes for a surprisingly tough and gritty hero, his legion buddies are basically the same squad of good guys who show up in just about every war movie ever made, Ben Kingsley chews the scenery just fine as the old wizard, the kid emperor manages not to be too cute, and I believe I mentioned that Aishwarya Rai (one of those Bollywood actresses, I assume; I’m too lazy to look her up on IMDB) is hot. Kevin McKidd, who plays a fairly sympathetic character on HBO’s ROME (which we’re also watching on DVD, and which I’ll comment about eventually), is suitably villainous as the Goth warrior who leads the pursuit to Britannia. Best of all, though, there isn’t an abundance of special effects, and the battle scenes are staged and edited in a very old-fashioned manner – in other words, you can actually tell what the heck is going on most of the time.

This movie reminded me a lot of Jack Whyte’s excellent Camulod Chronicles novels. If you’ve read those and enjoyed them, I think there’s a good chance you’d like THE LAST LEGION as well. Predictable or not, it’s one of the most entertaining films we’ve seen recently.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Livia's New Books, Part 1: The Christmas Cookie Killer

Christmas comes to Weatherford, Texas, in this delicious new entry in the national bestselling series.

Yuletide is here—and retired teacher/amateur sleuth Phyllis Newsom looks forward to finishing up this unlucky year. But she won’t be hanging up her apron just yet—because this year’s Christmas bake-off is going to be cutthroat.Phyllis would like to think she’s entering the Christmas cookie contest for the fun of it—but that’s not exactly true. She can’t imagine anyone beating her snowflake-shaped lime sugar cookies. Then, during her annual Christmas cookie exchange, Phyllis heads over to the elderly Mrs. Simmons’s home and finds her dead, in a pile of lime sugar cookies. But with a number of names on Santa’s naughty list, this case may be a hard cookie to crumble.

Publisher: NAL Trade (September 30, 2008)ISBN-10: 0451225341ISBN-13: 978-0451225344

Sunday, August 10, 2008


As usual, I tried to tell my daughter Joanna that this was an inspirational, based-on-a-true-story sports movie, one of her favorite film genres. As usual, she didn’t believe me. She’s on to my tricks. But doggone it, SEMI-PRO really is sort of based on a true story – the merger of the NBA and the ABA, something I remember quite well from the mid-Seventies – and it tries to be inspirational in places, or at least pretends to.

There’s no need to go into much detail about the plot. Will Ferrell plays a singer, a one-hit wonder, who owns an ABA basketball franchise and also coaches and plays on the team. There’s nothing in the script to justify this bizarre set-up; it just is, which is actually pretty effective. In order to be absorbed into the NBA, the team has to finish in the top four in the league. Not much chance of that, because they’re terrible. Ferrell’s character signs a new point guard, a burned-out NBA veteran played by Woody Harrelson. From there it’s pretty much the same sort of crass, crude, silly comedy you almost always get from Will Ferrell movies, although there’s a little about redemption and loyalty and other serious subjects like that as the team chases that all-important fourth place finish. If you like Ferrell’s other movies, which I do, you’ll probably like this one, too. I certainly did. The Seventies setting, with all the disco music and big hair and goofy clothes, made me like it, too, because God help me, I remember all that stuff. All too well, in fact.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Few More Movies

Brief comments on a few movies we’ve watched lately:

AUGUST RUSH – I didn’t know what to expect from this movie, didn’t recall reading anything about it when it came out. It’s the story of a kid from a New York children’s home who runs away to find his real parents. He’s a musical prodigy and believe he can communicate with his mother and father through his music and summon them to him. Interspersed are flashbacks to the ill-fated romance between the parents. You won’t find many movies with more cornball, far-fetched coincidences than this one . . . but somehow it works and I got caught up in it in spite of myself. The music is really good, too. Not a great film, but a good little one, and I liked it.

THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE – I had seen this early Tom Hanks movie, but so long ago that it might as well have been new because I didn’t remember any of it. Hanks plays a somewhat goofy concert violinist who, through no fault of his own, gets caught up in a dangerous war between two factions struggling for control of the CIA. At the same time, there’s a sex farce angle (this is based on a French film, after all) i
nvolving a couple of Hanks’s fellow musicians played by Carrie Fisher and Jim Belushi. Dabney Coleman is the villain. (Is Dabney Coleman still alive? It seemed like he was in every other movie during the Eighties.) Lori Singer is a CIA agent who falls for Hanks. In this movie, at least, she bears a strong resemblance to Donna Dixon, who played Hanks’s girlfriend Sunny on the TV show BOSOM BUDDIES. (“Sunny, Sunny, Sunny . . .”) Again, not a great film, but I laughed quite a bit and enjoyed it, even though I also spent a considerable amount of time thinking, “Boy, look how young they all are!”

THE JACKAL – We never watched this one when it first came out a little over a decade ago. It’s a very loose remake of THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, but it doesn’t share much with the earlier film except the basic premise of a supposedly unsto
ppable assassin who’s planning to kill a very high-profile target. The plot this time around involves a Russian mobster seeking revenge on the FBI and the Russian M.V.D. police agency for the death of his brother, who was killed in a joint American/Russian crackdown on crime in Moscow. Bruce Willis plays the Jackal, the mysterious assassin hired by the Russian to carry out a brutal, very public hit in the United States. Sidney Poitier is the FBI agent heading up the team trying to stop him, which includes an I.R.A. terrorist (Richard Gere) freed from prison to help because he can give them a lead to the Jackal. Jack Black, of all people, shows up as a goofy (what else?) weapons designer. It’s all pretty much by the numbers and took me a while to warm up to it, but I wound up liking the movie fairly well. There’s one unintentional laugh late in the film during a tense shootout when somebody who’s probably a member of the crew strolls by in the background of a shot, obviously not supposed to be there. I’m surprised nobody caught that in the editing. Worth watching if you haven’t seen it, but don’t run out to look for a copy.

BOUNCE – I’m not sure what genre this movie falls into. There are a few laughs, but mostly it’s a tragic romance about a guy who trades boarding passes with someone he meets at the airport so he can stay over in Chicago one more night with a beautiful blonde he also met at the airport. Of course the plane crashes, of course the guy who wasn’t supposed to be on it is killed, and of course the guy who was supposed to be on it feels guilty, goes to see the dead guy’s widow, and falls in love with her. But he doesn’t tell her who he really is and what his real connection to her is, so complications ensue. Not really my kind of movie, and to be honest I dozed through part of it, but I saw most of it and it didn’t strike me as terrible. But films like this rarely resonate with me, and this one didn’t.

As you can probably guess, lately we’ve been watching movies that we picked up cheaply. There are a lot of things we never saw over the years, or saw so long ago that we don’t really remember them, and some of them have turned out to be pretty good.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Secret Agent X: Devils of Darkness -- Brant House (Paul Chadwick)

The Man of a Thousand Faces is back facing another evil mastermind in this pulp novel. One constant in the Secret Agent X series, along with all the disguises, is that every criminal the Agent comes up against is the most brilliant, daring, dangerous, etc., that he’s ever faced, and every villainous scheme is the most horrible and earth-shattering. And then the next issue it happens all over again. (This same tendency crops up in the Spider novels by Norvell Page, only more so. But you see it in the Secret Agent X yarns, too.)

This is a pretty good one, with a gang of crooks that has discovered a way to black out all the light in a given area, even during the middle of the day. But of course, they can still see in some mysterious fashion, which allows them to invade and loot banks and other businesses, using metal-tipped whips to lash the blinded, panic-stricken civilians out of their way. The author is Paul Chadwick, who, as far as we know, created the series and the character of Secret Agent X. He wrote the first few novels, anyway, and alternated with other authors on the series for several years after that. Chadwick’s work can be pretty lurid, as demonstrated in the whipping scenes in this novel. He’s also good at keeping up a brisk pace in his storytelling. If you enjoy hero pulp fiction in spite of its occasional excesses – or because of its occasional excesses, like me – then DEVILS OF DARKNESS is well worth reading. It’s never been reprinted, but it’ll be available in the near future from Beb Books.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Geo. W. Proctor

I just received the following bad news via email:

He and Lana were returning from a vacation in the Florida Keys about 8 days ago and George became ill. He went to the hospital and was there under the best care possible, but he had irreversible kidney and liver failure. There will be a memorial service for him in the UTA Fine Arts building Wednesday at 3 pm.

I’ve known George (who always used the byline Geo. W. Proctor) for nearly thirty years. As best I recall we first met at the AggieCon in 1981. For a while we had the same agent and I once drove over to George and Lana’s house in Arlington to meet with her while she was visiting them from New York. George was also one of the founding members of the Higher Arts Council (which we always called HACK, of course), our local writers group. He was a fine writer of both science fiction and Westerns. We occasionally wrote under the same house-names. We hadn’t talked in a while, but I’m very sad to hear that he’s gone.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the story on the UTA newspaper website.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

City of Bones - Michael Connelly

I continue to read my way through Michael Connelly’s series about L.A. cop Harry Bosch. CITY OF BONES is the eighth book, and the best since the fourth one, THE LAST COYOTE.

This novel begins with Bosch catching a call on New Year’s Day. A dog has found a human bone in a wooded area on a hilltop in Laurel Canyon. At least at first, this is more of a straightforward police procedural than some of the Bosch books, as the various units of the LAPD converge to find the rest of the bones and start investigating who the victim is and what happened to him or her. Bosch and his partner Jerry Edgar head things up, and Bosch, always a man on a mission, finds things more complicated when he begins an affair with a rookie female cop who’s also part of the investigation.

As always in Connelly’s books, there are layers upon layers of plot, and he peels them back with his usual skill. He combines the procedural aspects of the case with the personal life of his main character as well as anybody and better than most. Most of the time I’m pretty good at spotting the killer in Connelly’s books, even if I don’t know all the details of the plot yet, but I didn’t in CITY OF BONES. It’s a fine novel that ends with some changes in Harry Bosch's life, and I’m looking forward to the next book to see where he goes from here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Forgotten Books: Dead Men's Letters - Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner is a long-time favorite of mine. One of his Donald Lam/Bertha Cool books as A.A. Fair, SHILLS CAN’T CASH CHIPS, is one of the first adult mysteries I remember reading, and that was so long ago I checked it out from the bookmobile that came out to our little town every Saturday from the public library in Fort Worth, a practice that ended in 1964 when our town opened its own small library. (I also checked out THIS IS IT, MICHAEL SHAYNE from the bookmobile, the first Mike Shayne novel I ever read. I believe I read other Shaynes and some more A.A. Fair novels from there, as well. But I digress . . .)

Gardner was a very prolific author for the pulps before he ever achieved fame and fortune as the creator of Perry Mason, spinning yarns about a multitude of series characters. One of them was Ed Jenkins, also known as the Phantom Crook, who appeared in scores of stories in BLACK MASK. Despite being branded a criminal, Jenkins was really a good guy who preyed mostly on other criminals, usually when they tried to blackmail him or frame him into helping them, when all the time, of course, they’re planning to set him up to take the fall. Ed always finds a way to turn the tables on them, though.

Six Ed Jenkins novelettes, originally published in BLACK MASK in 1926 and ’27, were reprinted by Carroll & Graf in l990 in a volume called DEAD MEN’S LETTERS. Several of these stories are linked together, a common practice in the pulps of that time. (Hammett’s RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE were both “fix-up” novels put together from linked novelettes.) What surprised me in reading this book was how good the writing is. Gardner’s prose is a little dated and melodramatic in places, but for the most part it’s as clear and sharp as anything being written today. And in places it approaches a sort of terse poetry unlike what you find for the most part in his Perry Mason and A.A. Fair books. Ed Jenkins is about as hardboiled a character as I’ve encountered in Gardner’s work, chuckling after he sends off one of the bad guys to be riddled by machine gun fire in an ambush intended for him by another gang of crooks. As usual, the stories are packed full of plot, and Ed is always two or three steps ahead of not only his enemies but the reader as well.

If all you know of Gardner’s work is Perry Mason, Donald Lam, Bertha Cool, or DA Doug Selby, give DEAD MEN’S LETTERS a try. There’s another collection of Ed Jenkins stories from Carroll & Graf, THE BLONDE IN LOWER SIX, and I intend to read it soon.