Saturday, January 31, 2009

Once Upon a Time in America

I’ve been a fan of Sergio Leone’s films for many years. I think he’s one of the most influential directors of all time, although probably not in ways that he would have imagined. But just watch any sitcom. Sooner or later, there’ll be a scene where two of the characters confront each other. Stirring music will swell up, and the camera will zoom in for close-ups of their eyes narrowing. It’s the classic Leone-staged final gunfight, played for laughs. I’m convinced that it’s been done so many times it’s become part of filmmaking grammar, and some directors probably don’t even know anymore who they’re paying homage to when they shoot a scene like that.

My favorite Leone film, and one of my favorite films, period, is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Somehow, though, I never got around to watching the similarly-titled ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, one of Leone’s last projects from the Eighties. We watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the epic (three and a half hours!) story of several Jewish boys from New York who grow up to be mobsters. The story jumps around in time from the Twenties to the end of Prohibition in the Thirties to the late Sixties, when one of the boys (Robert DeNiro as an adult) returns from a long exile to confront some ghosts from his past, and thereby trigger a series of flashbacks.

There’s no question this is a well-made film. The acting is good, the script strikes plenty of suitably operatic notes, and the photography is beautiful. Most of the Leone touches are there: the complex plot; the long, lingering, sometimes almost dialogue-free scenes; the frequent close-ups; the sweeping Ennio Morricone musical score; and the occasional bits of dark humor. It’s a violent, gritty film, befitting the subject matter.

But even though I found much to admire in this movie, ultimately I was a little disappointed in it. I felt like it was building up to something that never quite came together and didn’t care for the ending at all. I know it’s probably unfair to compare this film to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but that movie built up to something and really delivered. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, not so much. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth watching. I doubt if I’ll ever revisit it, though, as I do on a regular basis with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Forgotten Books: Way Station - Clifford D. Simak

Tucked away in an isolated corner of Wisconsin farmland is an old house that dates from before the Civil War, but it’s strangely unchanged in all that time. So is the man who lives there, Enoch Wallace, who fought with the Union Army in that conflict and is now still alive more than a hundred years later and apparently not much older than when he fought at Gettysburg. Enoch’s secret is that inside the house is an intergalactic transport apparatus, and he’s the keeper of Galactic Central’s way station on Earth.

That’s the set-up of Clifford D. Simak’s Hugo-winning novel WAY STATION, first published in 1963 and reprinted several times since. Simak was a veteran of the science fiction pulps dating back to before what’s now considered the Golden Age of those magazines, and as the pulps faded he made a seamless transition to writing well-received hardback SF novels. Although he wrote some Western stories for the pulps and later dabbled in fantasy novels as well, he’s best remembered for what some have called pastoral SF – stories and novels usually taking place in rural settings, with low-key, somewhat unsophisticated (at least on the surface) protagonists. WAY STATION fits neatly into that sub-category and may well be the best example of it I’ve encountered.

Simak was never a flashy writer. His prose style is functional and plain-spoken, like the people he writes about. In WAY STATION, the story unfolds in a gentle, leisurely fashion, with the main elements of the plot never really getting into gear until about halfway through the book. Most writers today couldn’t get away with that, but Simak makes it work. And once things do start rolling, the scope of the story rapidly expands, with the fate of entire galaxies ultimately at stake, even though all the action takes place here on Earth.

When I was younger, I read a number of Simak’s novels, and while I enjoyed them, he was never a particular favorite of mine. I think maybe I just wasn’t ready to appreciate his virtues. WAY STATION is a fine novel and has dated hardly at all. I plan to read more of his work soon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

One Year Ago

A year ago today at this time, I was wandering around in huge clouds of black smoke with my niece and her two little girls, carrying my dog, trying to stay in an open spot where the air was still breathable, and wondering if any of us would get out alive. Wondering if my brother-in-law, who had disappeared into the smoke as he tried to save his house, was still alive. Wondering if maybe, just maybe, the fire would miss the house, as it had appeared for a few minutes that it might. Wondering if there would be anything left.

Well, you know the answers. My niece and her girls are fine, my brother-in-law is okay and did save his house, thanks to the timely arrival of one volunteer firefighter and a little pumper truck, and the fire didn’t miss the house. We salvaged a few tools and a lone pulp, a 1936 issue of ARGOSY. Quite some time later, my daughters found a Norah Jones CD in the rubble, cleaned it up, and that sucker plays just fine. In a year’s time, we’ve gone from staying with my wife’s parents to living in a mobile home for nine months to living in our new house. The girls are fine and have good jobs, Livia and I are rolling along in our writing careers, and life is pretty much back to normal, thanks to the efforts of literally hundreds of people – friends, relatives, and total strangers – who have helped us.

Here’s a story I don’t think I’ve told before, but if I have, bear with me. The day after the fire, I was at the library using their computer to post the news of what had happened on this blog. I had told the librarians about it, and as I was leaving, a fellow who happened to be there in the library stopped me. He was probably in his seventies, wearing a cowboy hat, not very big but you could tell by looking at him that he was tough as whang leather, as the old saying goes. He told me that he’d heard me talking to the librarians and said, “I just want to shake your hand and tell you that ever’thing’s gonna be all right.” So I shook his hand and thanked him, and when he let go, there was a ten dollar bill folded up in a tiny square in my hand. I don’t know who he was and have never seen him again, but I’ll never forget that man. Or all the rest who have helped us get through this.

A couple of days after the fire I was talking to someone else who had lost his house the same way. He said, “You never really get over it. But you find ways to go on.” That’s true. I don’t think I’ve “gotten over it”. There are still the occasional dark nights of the soul when I feel like I should have done something to stop it. I still mourn the pets we lost and the things from the girls’ childhood and a million other things. Something comes up and I think, “Well, I’ve got so-and-so out in the studio”, and then realize that, nope, I don’t. The same thing happened when my folks passed away. It was a good three years before I stopped thinking from time to time that I was going to ask my dad about something or other. And just the other day some question came up about a relative of mine, and I thought about how my mother would know, and for a second, the impulse was there to call her up and ask her. Then there’s that abrupt stop, that instant when you realize, nope, can’t do it anymore. It’s the same way with the things that we lost a year ago today.

But the good thing is, there are a lot of days when that doesn’t happen. Most days, in fact. Most days are spent thinking about the chores we need to do, the doctor’s appointments coming up, the pages that need to get written (and boy, they really need to get written!), the books I want to read next. In other words, looking forward instead of looking back. So, in that spirit, this is probably the last blog post I’m going to write about the fire. Something might come up that would call for a mention on here, so I won’t rule it out, though.

A year’s time is an odd thing, a blink of an eye in one way, a lifetime in another. So again, thank you all for helping me make it through the past year.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Enemy at the Gates

I try to catch most of the World War II movies but missed this one when it came out. A young Russian soldier (Jude Law) becomes a sniper during the siege of Stalingrad and demoralizes the Germans so much that they bring in a sharpshooter of their own, an aristocrat played by Ed Harris. Most of the movie is a tense duel between the two as they try to get a clear shot at each other, but there's also a little romance and some philosophizing as well. This is a grim and gritty but intelligent thriller. It's also a rather old-fashioned movie that's staged and edited so that the viewer can actually tell what's going on. ENEMY AT THE GATES is a well-made, involving film, and I liked it a lot.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Eagle Eye

Remember the bit from English class about the willing suspension of disbelief? Well, you'd better be really willing to do a lot of suspending if you're going to watch this move, which has one of the most far-fetched plots I've encountered in a long time. But it moves fast and it has Michelle Monaghan in it, so there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Old Time Radio

Reminiscing about listening to The Shadow and other old time radio shows the other day reminded me of how much I enjoyed them. I've put a link over on the side to the Old Time Radio Show Catalog site and plan to do a considerable amount of poking around on it. I've really only listened to a few of the classics, and I'm sure there are plenty of other OTR shows that I'd enjoy. Check it out (although I'm sure some of you are familiar with it already.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Forgotten Books: Murder on the Side - Day Keene

At the beginning of this novel, Larry Hanson is bored. He’s bored with his job because, while he’s trained to be an engineer and works at an engineering firm, he’s stuck in a desk job instead of being out building bridges and dams. He’s bored in his marriage to a cold, uncaring wife. He’s approaching middle-age and fears that life has passed him by. So when his wife is out of town caring for her sick mother and his beautiful young secretary calls him in the middle of the night because she thinks she’s just accidentally killed her old boyfriend who just got out of prison, Larry thinks that maybe he’ll finally have a little excitement in his life.

And since this is a Gold Medal novel, you know that Larry’s about to get a whole lot more excitement than he bargained for.

It’ll come as no surprise to anybody who’s read more than a few of these books that Larry soon finds himself up to his neck in trouble, of the multiple murder, on the run from the cops, illicit sex, missing money, and deadly secrets variety. Like a lot of Gold Medal protagonists, Larry’s kind of a heel and not too bright, at least at first. The plot stretches credulity almost to the breaking point a few times, but Day Keene is such a skillful author and keeps things moving so fast that the reader doesn’t really care. I didn’t, anyway.

Chances are you’ll see most of the twists and turns coming in this one, but I’ve discovered that reading a Gold Medal novel is a lot like taking a Sunday afternoon drive: the pleasure isn’t so much in where you’re going, but rather in how you get there. I’m not sure that MURDER ON THE SIDE is a book you’d hand to somebody who’s never read a Gold Medal and say, “This is what they’re like.” You’d probably need a Charles Williams or Harry Whittington or Gil Brewer novel for that. To me Day Keene’s work never quite reaches the same level of sweaty intensity that you find in a book by those other authors. It’s still incredibly entertaining and just flat-out fun to read. A little of his work is back in print now, from Hard Case Crime and Stark House, and more of it deserves to be, including MURDER ON THE SIDE. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Shadow: Crime, Insured - Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson)

Originally published in the July 1, 1937 issue of the long-running pulp magazine THE SHADOW, “Crime, Insured” was the choice to lead off the series of reprints being published by Nostalgia Ventures for the past few years. These are really handsome trade paperbacks approximately the same size as a pulp that reprint two Shadow novels in each volume.

My history with The Shadow goes back to the early Sixties, when episodes from the old-time radio show were syndicated to local stations across the country. One of the stations in my area began airing them, along with episodes of THE LONE RANGER, THE GREEN HORNET, and GANGBUSTERS, in a block from ten o’clock until midnight every night. I had a combination AM radio/reading light that attached to the headboard of my bed, so I would turn the volume real low and listen to those old radio shows while I was supposed to be sleeping. I enjoyed all of them, although, to be honest, THE LONE RANGER was my favorite.

Then in 1964, I bought a paperback called THE SHADOW STRIKES off the spinner rack at Tompkins’ Drugstore, realizing this was the same character. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the pulps, but I really liked this book, which was written by somebody named Maxwell Grant. Of course, it was actually written by Dennis Lynds, as were the original Shadow paperbacks that followed it for the next few years, all of which I bought and read faithfully. Eventually I found out about the Shadow pulp novels, and about how that series of paperbacks that melded the pulp character with the secret agent boom that was going on came to be written. And the pulp novels themselves began to be reprinted by Bantam, beginning with the very first one from 1931, “The Living Shadow”. I read all the Bantam reprints and the even longer reprint series that came out a few years later from Pyramid/Jove/HBJ (many of them with covers by Jim Steranko). I read the ones that were reprinted by Doubleday in Crime Club editions, as well as the occasional odd reprint from other publishers. And of course, I acquired some of the actual pulps along the way and read them, too. Although The Shadow was never my favorite pulp character, I enjoyed the novels a lot.

So I’m glad to see some of them being reprinted again, including quite a few that I haven’t read. One of which was “Crime, Insured”. (You thought I was going to wander around in Nostalgia Land forever, didn’t you?) In this yarn, an insurance magnate has come up with a new idea: he’ll insure the schemes of various big-shot crooks in New York, so that if they fail to collect the loot they’re after, the insurance company will pay off that amount. If the crooks succeed, the company gets a ten per cent premium. Naturally, The Shadow gets wind of this scheme and sets out to destroy it with the help of his various agents. And that leads to something that hadn’t happened up to that point in the series. The bad guys fight back and discover most of The Shadow’s secrets, including the identities of his agents, the fact that he poses as Lamont Cranston (he’s not really Lamont Cranston, no matter what the radio show and the later novels said; trust me on this if you don’t know the story already), and even the location of his secret sanctum where he plans out his war on crime.

Many Shadow fans regard “Crime, Insured” as the best novel in the entire series. I wouldn’t go that far myself. The underlying scheme is just too pedestrian, and I’ve read numerous Shadow novels that I enjoyed more. However, I understand why it’s a fan favorite: it has a huge, over-the-top action sequence in which the villains capture all The Shadow’s agents and invade his sanctum for an epic battle. This is Walter B. Gibson (the original “Maxwell Grant” and the author of nearly 300 Shadow pulp novels) at his best, and it’s a great scene. There’s also a tie-in with an earlier Shadow novel, “The Black Hush”, which is one of my favorites in the series.

If you’ve never read a Shadow novel before, I’m not sure I’d recommend “Crime, Insured” as the best place to start, even though most of the supporting cast appears and there are those great action scenes. But if you’re a fan of the series and haven’t read this one yet, you definitely need to.

The other novel reprinted in this volume is “The Golden Vulture”, which was written by Lester Dent as a try-out for the Doc Savage series and then not published until five years later, when it was extensively revised by Gibson. There’s also an interesting article about how all this came about by pulp authority Will Murray. I read “The Golden Vulture” just a few years ago in the original pulp, so I’m not going to reread it any time soon, but I recall that I enjoyed it quite a bit. All in all, this was a fine way to launch the Shadow reprint series, and I hope to read more of these volumes soon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vote for Kasey

If you want to help out one of the best young singers in the business, go here and vote for Kasey Lansdale.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One More Reason I Love the Internet

Fred Pohl has a blog. Do you have any idea how long I've been reading novels and stories by Fred Pohl? Well, longer than I like to think about, that's for sure.
(Thanks to Steven H. Silver for the heads-up.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Whiskey, Guns, and Sin - Charles Gramlich

If you haven't already done so, head on over to David Cranmer's excellent BEAT TO A PULP and read Charles Gramlich's story "Whiskey, Guns, and Sin". It has some of the best action you'll ever read, and I love that title.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dancing Aztecs - Donald E. Westlake

With Donald Westlake’s recent passing, I wanted to read something by him. I’ve read a lot of Westlake’s novels over the years, but he was prolific enough that there are still a lot of them I haven’t read. The one that came easiest to hand was DANCING AZTECS, a stand-alone comic thriller.

The set-up is fairly complicated. A corrupt businessman and a low-level crook are trying to smuggle into the country an ancient Aztec statue in the shape of a dancing priest. The statue is about a foot tall, made of gold, and has emeralds for eyes. It’s hidden among a shipment of copies that are intended as awards to be given out at a luncheon to the members of a club in New York City. Of course, there’s a foul-up, and the statue that’s worth a million dollars is given out in the place of one of the copies. Various people find out about this and start trying to find the valuable statue. Chaos of a humorous nature ensues, along with a considerable amount of action and romance.

What’s left to say about Westlake that hasn’t been said in the past couple of weeks? You already know his style is smooth and very readable (although he does some things in this book with the timeline and POV shifts that most writers wouldn’t attempt – and makes them work). He weaves together a complex plot and a huge number of characters and somehow keeps everything straight so that it all makes sense. Not an easy task. DANCING AZTECS is very funny in places, and you can’t help but root for the characters, even the ones who are crooked. Overall, I prefer Westlake’s serious books to his comedies, but just about everything he wrote is worth reading and DANCING AZTECS is no exception. Reading it is a highly entertaining way to spend some time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Forgotten Books: Odds Against Linda - Steve Ward

Like Ross Laurence’s THE FAST BUCK, which I also wrote about a while back as a Forgotten Book, Steve Ward’s ODDS AGAINST LINDA (also published as half of an Ace Double, like THE FAST BUCK) seems to be the only book Ward ever published, at least under that name. The writing is good enough, and the name so generic, that I have to wonder if Ward is a pseudonym.

The narrator of this novel is Peter Conrad, a Korean War vet who lost a leg in that conflict. Following the war, he moved to Mexico to make a living as a commercial artist, but as the book opens, he’s returning to San Francisco with his new wife Linda. Before he even gets out of the airport, though, he gets knocked out, kidnapped, and Linda disappears. From there on, Things Get Worse. Soon enough, Pete’s on the run, charged with a murder he didn’t commit, and as he himself notes, a guy with one leg can’t do much running.

This is a short novel (107 pages), but the author packs in a lot of stuff: a piano-playing dwarf, beautiful strippers, double identities, gunplay, brutal fistfights, torture, truth serum . . . You get the idea. Halfway through, there are two big twists, one of which you’ll see coming. But the other you might not. I didn’t. The whole plot is familiar enough that you’ll probably have a pretty good idea where the author is going, but he throws in enough oddball notes along the way and the writing is smooth enough so that I found reading the novel a fast, very entertaining experience. Highly recommended if you run across a copy of it.

But I’d still like to know if Steve Ward was really somebody else.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Big Four - Agatha Christie

I recently got the urge to read an Agatha Christie novel, an impulse that comes over me from time to time. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Christie novels, the first one being THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, which I checked out of the school library when I was in the sixth grade. This was back during the days before the balkanization of mystery fandom, when you could read Agatha Christie one day and Mickey Spillane the next and never think anything about it.

Anyway, the book I picked up was THE BIG FOUR, a novel I’d seen mentioned every now and then on the Golden Age of Detection Yahoo group. I knew it was something of an oddity for Christie, not really a straight murder mystery like most of her other books but rather an attempt to write an Edgar Wallace-style thriller. (I say that having never read an Edgar Wallace book myself, you understand, but I seem to remember that from the GAD group.) The plot finds Christie’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, facing off against a group of international criminal masterminds, the Big Four of the title. They’re led by Li Chang Yen (a brilliant, sinister Chinaman . . . wonder where Christie got that idea . . . what do you think, Sir Denis Nayland Smith?), and their ranks include an American, a French woman, and the assassin of the group, the mysterious Number Four, a master of disguise who might be anybody. Accompanied by narrator and faithful companion Captain Hastings, Poirot foils half a dozen or so plots by the Big Four in this episodic novel (something else it has in common with the early Fu Manchu books) before finally having a big showdown with them.

I really have to wonder if Ian Fleming ever read this novel, because some of the bizarre assassination methods, as well as the villains’ death ray and their secret stronghold inside a mountain, really reminded me of the James Bond books. Well, probably the movies more than the books, now that I think about it. But for a book originally published in 1927, there’s a lot of stuff that showed up later during the secret agent boom in the Sixties.

Despite the fact that there are elements here I like, I’m not sure the book ever really works. Christie just doesn’t seem suited for global-scale action-adventure. The writing seems rushed in places, but at the same time, there’s never really much sense of urgency. And even though stuff Blows Up Real Good, there’s no real sense of that, either. Still, I enjoyed THE BIG FOUR overall. Several of the individual cases that make up the larger story arc are interesting and well-plotted. Poirot is, well, Poirot, even when he’s taking on antagonists more suited for James Bond. Captain Hastings is as dense as ever, and whether you find that endearing or annoying is up to the individual reader. This seems to be regarded as one of Christie’s worst books, and I can understand why. So if you haven’t read her work before, this isn’t the place to start. But it’s still a pleasant enough way to spend some time if your expectations aren’t too high.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Superman: Past and Future

SUPERMAN: PAST AND FUTURE is a collection with a sure-fire premise: time travel stories featuring Superman, who has probably done more time-traveling than any other character in the DC Universe. It delivers, too, with stories that originally appeared in various Superman titles from 1947 to 1983. The two earliest yarns were written by Jerry Siegel, one of the character’s co-creators, and other writers incude Edmond Hamilton, who had a long, prolific career in comics as well as his work as an SF author, and the oddly punctuated Elliot S! Maggin, who was one of my favorite Superman scripters (although to me his later work never lived up to his debut, a Green Arrow story called “What Can One Man Do?”). The art on many of the stories is by Curt Swan, the quintessential Superman artist, although there’s one story with art by Wayne Boring, the dominant Superman artist during the Fifties.

I like the Superman stories from the Golden Age and the Silver Age, but I’m less fond of the ones from the pre-Silver Age Fifties, even though they’re some of the first comics I ever read. Wayne Boring’s art never appealed to me, and the stories, while they have a charming silliness to them, still come across as too silly for my taste. Luckily, there’s only one story from that era in this collection – although some might feel that the Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen stories from the Sixties are pretty silly, too. But I enjoyed them anyway, and the three stories written by Maggin are all fine yarns. I wouldn’t put SUPERMAN: PAST AND FUTURE in the top rank of Superman collections, but it’s solidly entertaining and well worth reading.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Forgotten Books: Dwellers in the Mirage - A. Merritt

A. Merritt was one of the big names in fantasy fiction from the Twenties and Thirties, when his novels and stories were first published in the pulps, through the Seventies, when his books were still readily available in paperback reprints, mostly from Avon. However, while I’ve been aware of his work for years, I’ve actually read very little of it. I recall reading his novel THE SHIP OF ISHTAR many years ago, and I think I liked it, although at this late date I’m not sure anymore. A few years ago I read the original pulp version of the novelette “The Moon Pool” (Merritt had a habit of revising his stuff as it went through later editions) and liked it as well.

Now I’ve read his novel DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, and I can see why his books were popular for so long. There’s a lot to like here: a modern hero who’s the unknowing reincarnation of an ancient warrior-king; a lost civilization located in an isolated mountain valley in Alaska, which due to volcanic heating is actually tropical; a couple of beautiful women, one good, one evil, who have a habit of running around in few, if any, clothes (I told you the weather was tropical); a couple of evil high priests; a tentacled, otherworldly horror from a different dimension; castles, strongholds, and epic battles. Just my kind of book, in other words.

What sets Merritt apart from most other heroic fantasy authors, especially the ones from the pulp era, is his leisurely, highly descriptive style. It takes a little getting used to, but I found myself being drawn into the prose. Merritt comes up with some really striking images in this novel. The drawback to this is that despite all the conflict going on, there’s really not much action. The few battle scenes are very well-done, though, and the big showdown at the end between the hero and one of the villains is a great, bloody, hand-to-hand fight.

I enjoyed DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE quite a bit. Merritt’s no Robert E. Howard, mind you – Howard would have compressed the plot of this novel into a novella, probably to great effect – but I definitely plan to read more of Merritt’s work. I’ve already picked up a copy of his novel THE METAL MONSTER, and I also have a reprint of the pulp versions of “The Moon Pool” and “Conquest of the Moon Pool”, which were combined into the novel THE MOON POOL. With any luck, I’ll get to them soon. In the meantime, I have an extra copy of DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, a fourth printing of the 1967 Avon edition. If anyone wants it, the first person to email and ask for it gets it.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Loners - Mark SaFranko

Stories about outsiders have always appealed to me. Many of the classic Western and private eye heroes are cut off to a certain extent from society and although they may form connections with other people, in the end they ride away alone or walk off by themselves down some mean, empty street (with wet pavement because it just rained, of course . . . and somebody up in one of the buildings is playing a saxophone . . .). Shane doesn’t come back, and Sam Spade rides down in the elevator by himself.

So it’s not surprising that I’d be interested in reading a book called LONERS. It’s a collection of short stories by Mark SaFranko, an author I hadn’t encountered before, and it’s published by Murder Slim Press, a fairly new British publisher. Some of the stories are original to this volume, while the others were first published in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and various literary magazines. Despite coming from a British publisher, the stories are all very American, some set in big cities, others in small towns. While most of them concern desperate, lonely people at the end of their rope, and crimes are committed in several of them, I wouldn’t really call them crime stories. They’re more mainstream, literary stories, despite the presence of cops, hookers, gangsters, and at least one serial killer. I guess they’d qualify as noir, though, because they’re dark and bleak as hell.

My favorites are “At the Hacienda” and “Acts of Revenge” because their narrators are writers. (There’s a strong autobiographical element running through several of the stories.) SaFranko writes very well, with the ability to capture characters in a few brief strokes, and his dialogue rings true. I also like the fact that several of these stories have enough plot packed into them that they could have been novels, something that author Seymour Shubin comments on in his introduction. Shubin’s right about that.

I don’t usually comment much about the production values of a book, but I think LONERS deserves some plaudits along those lines as well. Too many books these days are full of typos, from major publishers and small presses alike, but not this one. The cover is all right, but I really like the interior art by Steve Hussy that leads off each story. Fine work all around.

LONERS won’t be to everyone’s taste. The lack of resolution in a few of the stories might bother some people. It bothered me a little. But overall, this is a very good collection.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Another Wild West Monday Coming Soon

Over on his fine blog The Tainted Archive, Gary Dobbs presents a Wild West News Roundup today, including a mention that another Wild West Monday, designed to increase the demand for Westerns in bookstores and libraries, is in the works. There's plenty of other information about Western goings-on in this lengthy post as well. Check it out, and when you're finished there, go and read Gary's story "A Man Called Masters" at BEAT TO A PULP. This is a fine traditional Western yarn with a gritty, hardboiled tone that plays out in some ways you might not expect.

Another Fire Disaster

Many of you have already heard about this, but for those of you who haven't, author Travis Erwin's house burned down yesterday. He and his family got out safely, but they lost everything. I haven't heard yet what people can do to help, but when I do, I'll post the info here. My heart goes out to Travis and his family, and once things are organized, I urge all of you to do whatever you can to help.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Gabriel Hunt Covers

You can take a look at the cover art for the first six Gabriel Hunt novels at the series' website. Looking at these covers makes me even more eager to read the other books in the series.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Incredible Hulk

I’m a sucker for superhero movies. I can usually find something to enjoy in just about any of them. I even liked the universally-reviled DAREDEVIL. But I hated THE HULK. It’s my least-favorite comic book movie of all time. So I was a little leery about watching the second Hulk movie, THE INCREDIBLE HULK.

Luckily, while not a great film, it’s a considerable improvement on the first one. Edward Norton is well-cast as Bruce Banner (I can’t say the same for William Hurt and Liv Tyler as Thunderbolt Ross and his daughter Betty, though). There’s plenty of action, the computer-generated Hulk looks better in this one than in the first movie, the whole tinkering of the character’s origin from the first movie is pretty much ignored, and thankfully, there’s quite a bit of humor. I also liked the foreshadowing of more Marvel movies to come. I think the Spider-Man movies are the best of the lot, and also the truest to the spirit of the original character, but THE INCREDIBLE HULK is an okay way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Forgotten Books: Solomon's Vineyard - Jonathan Latimer

I’ve read several of the Bill Crane novels by Jonathan Latimer, a short but very well-written series from the Thirties about a wise-cracking, hard-drinking private eye. Good stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed them. But over the years, SOLOMON’S VINEYARD has become probably his best-known novel, because of the controversy surrounding it. Written in 1940 and published in England in 1941, it was available in the U.S. only in a censored version retitled THE FIFTH GRAVE (which Latimer himself has said is the better title). The original version was finally published in the United States in the Eighties, in at least two different editions, both of which are long out of print. You can find the text on-line and in a POD version from several years ago. Both have a considerable amount of OCR errors, but luckily that sort of thing doesn’t bother me much, as long as I can tell what the text is supposed to say.

Anyway, SOLOMON’S VINEYARD is a private eye novel, too, but instead of Bill Crane, the protagonist/narrator is a PI who calls himself Karl Craven, although he makes it pretty clear that’s not his real name. The reader never learns what that is. He arrives in Paulton, a small, Midwestern city, looking for his partner, who is there on a case involving a young woman who’s gotten mixed up in a bizarre religious cult. Her uncle has paid the two private detectives to get her away from the cult. But when “Craven” gets to Paulton, he finds that his partner has been murdered. He sets out to finish the case, rescue the girl, and find his partner’s killer. Of course, it gets pretty complicated along the way, what with a corrupt police chief, a suspicious lawyer, a couple of beautiful women, a vicious gangster, and a fortune in jewels and cash all being involved in a complex plot.

“Craven” is a pretty hardboiled character, setting his enemies against each other in ways that wreak bloody havoc, sometimes on innocents. A lot of this book seems influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories and novels, most notably RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE. We never find out the Op’s real name, either, and like the Op, “Craven” describes himself as fat on several occasions. But there are also echoes of Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner in the narrator’s snapper patter and colorful language, and the plot eventually goes far enough over the top to be reminiscent of some of Turner’s wackier capers. Understand, to me this is a very good thing, as I love Bellem’s work, and this blend of Bellem and Hammett works spectacularly well for me. (I have no idea whether Latimer was actually influenced by those two authors, of course. But that’s the way SOLOMON’S VINEYARD reads to me.)

As for the controversy surrounding the book, well, the plot gets a little kinky for 1940. So does the abundance of fairly graphic sex talk, which begins with the book’s opening line. It’s not shocking by today’s standards, but I can see why it would have been back then.

All in all, I’d say that SOLOMON’S VINEYARD is worthy of its reputation. It’s one of the best books I read in 2008, and if you’re a fan of hardboiled private eye novels, it’s well worth your time and effort to seek it out.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Donald E. Westlake

The passing of Donald E. Westlake has already been widely noted (and blogged about), and nearly everyone has commented on his versatility as a writer. It's certainly true that he did fine work in a variety of genres. When talking about Westlake's work, people often mention the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark and the Dortmunder books and other comedies he wrote under his own name. Probably my favorites of Westlake's work, though, are the novels he wrote as Tucker Coe, about retired, disgraced cop Mitch Tobin, who functions as a reluctant and (if memory serves) unlicensed PI. These are bleak but wonderful books that really had an impact on me when I read them back in the Seventies. I may have to hunt them up and read some of them again. Rest in peace, Mr. Westlake.