Friday, February 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: Stirrup High and Western Word Wrangler - Walt Coburn

I’ve discussed Walt Coburn’s work here before. He’s one of my favorite Western authors, while at the same time being one of the most maddeningly inconsistent. Today, though, I’m talking about his non-fiction, not his hundreds of pulp stories and dozens of novels. Coburn is the author of two memoirs, STIRRUP HIGH and WESTERN WORD WRANGLER, and they’re both well worth reading.

STIRRUP HIGH is the better of the two. It’s the story of Coburn’s life as a boy growing up on his father’s vast ranch in Montana around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Although there were a few modern conveniences, such as cars and telephones, ranch life in Montana at that time hadn’t changed much from the Old West days (which weren’t so old then, only a couple of decades past). Young Walt was a high-spirited kid, and STIRRUP HIGH is full of his adventures, many of them in tandem with the old cowboy who served as his father’s foreman. Even in Coburn’s worst pulp stories, there’s an air of authenticity, a feeling of “this is the way it really was” when it comes to ranch life, and when you read STIRRUP HIGH, you can see why that’s true. Now, you have to remember that Coburn was a born yarn-spinner, and like a lot of fiction-writers who turn their hands to non-fiction, he can’t resist embellishing a little bit. Some of the dates that he gives don’t quite add up, and some of the stories he tells in this book don’t quite jibe with established facts . . . but I’m not sure either of those things matter. The spirit is true, and STIRRUP HIGH is vastly entertaining.

WESTERN WORD WRANGLER covers some of the same ground but also carries the story on into Coburn’s later life and is fairly unstinting in dealing with some of the mental problems that plagued him throughout his adult years, along with the physical problems that made him give up cowboying and turn to writing. Much of the material in this volume is drawn from “The Talley Book”, the long-running column that Coburn wrote for the magazine TRUE WEST. That makes for a pretty episodic narrative, and WESTERN WORD WRANGLER is not nearly as polished as STIRRUP HIGH. It also doesn’t go into the amount of detail about his writing career that I wish it would have. But it’s still entertaining and filled with information.

Walt Coburn came to a bad end, tormented by alcoholism and finally dead by his own hand because he couldn’t sell his work anymore. His stories have made a small comeback in recent years, with several paperback collections of his pulp stories from Leisure, as well as a number of hardback and large print reprints of his novels. Everything he wrote in the Twenties and Thirties is worth reading, at least based on what I’ve read so far, and good stories can be found in his work from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, as well, although you might have to dig a little harder for it. He deserves to be remembered, and STIRRUP HIGH and WESTERN WORD WRANGLER are pretty good places to start.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

It’s a good thing I have no street cred to start with, because tonight I watched HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR. We’d seen the first two, so naturally we had to watch the third one, too. I actually sort of like these movies, although they’ll never achieve the intellectual depth and comedic artistry of my beloved Beach Party movies. I especially like some of the supporting cast, like the girl who plays the piano, and I enjoy watching Ashley Tisdale because she seems to have so much fun playing the villainous Sharpay. Well, Sharpay’s not exactly villainous, I guess, but she’s definitely a troublemaker. The music is disposable pop, but it’s catchy enough, and some of the production numbers are surreal enough to be interesting. I assume there’s going to be a fourth movie, since the script for this one spends a considerable amount of time setting it up. If there is, I’m sure we’ll watch it, too.

(And where else but this blog are you going to read about Orrie Hitt and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL within a couple of days of each other? Man, now I need to throw in another Gore Vidal post . . . )

Looking Forward to This One!

Check out this very excellent news over at The Tainted Archive. And heartiest congratulations to the Archavist his ownself, Gary Dobbs, whose upcoming debut novel THE TARNISHED STAR (written under the pseudonym Jack Martin) is now officially the fastest-selling Black Horse Western in history, without even being published yet!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Essex County: Ghost Stories and The Country Nurse -- Jeff Lemire

A couple of weeks ago, I read and enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel, TALES FROM THE FARM. Now I’ve read the other two volumes in his Essex County trilogy, and they’re almost as good. Volume 2, GHOST STORIES, tells the story of two hockey-playing brothers, Lou and Vince, and covers more than fifty years of their lives, courtesy of flashbacks by an elderly Lou. Volume 3, THE COUNTRY NURSE, centers around a middle-aged woman who’s a visiting nurse, checking in on patients throughout the county several times a week.

Some of the characters appear in all three volumes, as their storylines wander in and out with each other. Like real life, in other words. But all three volumes, read together, form a fairly coherent history of a couple of interconnected families over the past ninety years. It’s a little soap opera-ish, what with all the infidelities, hidden pregnancies, madness, and death. I’d be tempted to call it Canadian Gothic, if not for the fact that Lemire approaches his subject matter in such a terse, almost hardboiled manner. The plot may be a little over the top, but Lemire’s storytelling never is.

I don’t think GHOST STORIES and THE COUNTRY NURSE are quite as good as TALES FROM THE FARM with its superhero influences, but they’re still very good, and the trilogy as a whole is well worth reading. If your tastes run more toward literary fiction and you’ve never tried a graphic novel, the Essex County Trilogy would be a fine place to start.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More Orrie Hitt

After my post about Orrie Hitt the other day, I received an email from someone who knew the Hitt family quite well. Here’s an excerpt from that message, quoted with permission:

"I don't know which daughter you heard from, but I grew up and graduated with one of them. We were friends for years and I was in her home many, many times. I remember her 'dad' sitting at the kitchen table, cigarette in his mouth, with the old typewriter in front of him. I and her other friends never thought a thing about it and we had no clue as to what he was doing. It wasn't till our latter teens did we find out what he was doing and then we went on a search of his books... we found them in one store, in the back, and no we didn't, nor could we buy them. I asked my mother about it and she had some of his books which I secretly confiscated and read.. wow, was that an eye opener.

I think, due to the small town, his occupation was not a topic of discussion and was kept low key. I don't think I ever said anything to his daughter, my friend, nor did anyone else. It didn't matter that he wrote racy books, we were all just friends growing up in small town USA."

The description of Hitt’s working methods matches what we’ve heard from other sources, and I love the image of the teenage girls trying to find his books.

I’ve illustrated this post with another Hitt cover scan I found on-line. Man, I want to read HOT CARGO right now. It looks like it could have come right out of a SPICY ADVENTURE pulp and reminds me a little of Robert E. Howard’s Wild Bill Clanton stories.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Max Payne

I don’t recall hearing much of anything about this movie when it came out. I knew it was based on a video game, and my impression is that the reviews weren’t very good. Bad reviews have never stopped me from watching a movie, though.

MAX PAYNE opens like a pretty typical hardboiled cop movie. The title character is an apparently burned-out homicide detective who’s little more than a glorified file clerk in the Cold Case division. On his own time, though, he’s trying to track down the murderers of his wife and child. But then, a little way into the film, the plot takes a sudden twist with the introduction of a new designer drug that makes people hallucinate about sinister winged creatures . . . or are those creatures actually real? Then there are more bizarre elements piled on, so for a little while you don’t know if you’re watching a cop movie or a fantasy movie or what.

And then MAX PAYNE proceeds to take the most utterly predictable road it possibly can. The explanation for all the weird stuff that’s going on? It’s exactly what you think it is. You sit there and think, “Well, this guy’s dead meat,” and sure enough, a few minutes later, he is. The blinking neon signs identifying the bad guys couldn’t be much bigger or brighter.

But (you knew this was coming) I kind of liked it anyway. The cast is good, the photography is really nice at times, and the pace never lets up for very long. Most of the action scenes are okay, although there’s some of that quick-cut editing most of us old geezers don’t like. And despite the predictability of the plot, there are a few moments that are actually pretty suspenseful. You can’t help but like and root for Max Payne as played by Mark Wahlberg, who’s become a pretty dependable action star. There’s even a set-up for a sequel at the end, and if they make it, I’ll probably watch it.

So while I think MAX PAYNE could have been a much better movie if they had ratcheted up the weirdness a little more and not taken the easy way out at every turn, it’s an enjoyable enough way to spend a couple of hours, especially on a Friday evening when there are also a couple of pizzas involved. That’s the way I recommend you watch it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: Anarchaos - Curt Clark (Donald E. Westlake)

Donald E. Westlake isn’t that well-known for his science fiction, but he wrote one SF novel, ANARCHAOS, published by Ace Books in 1967 under the pseudonym Curt Clark. I’ve heard this book described as “Parker in space”, and I can kind of see why people would think that. The narrator/protagonist of ANARCHAOS, Rolf Malone, shares some traits with Parker, most notably his willingness to kill quickly and efficiently when he needs to in order to accomplish his goal. Unlike Parker, though, Malone’s goal is personal: he arrives on the planet Anarchaos, where there’s no system of government and everybody is on his own (the planet’s name comes from the combination of “anarchy” and “chaos”), to find out who murdered his brother, a mining engineer who worked for one of the corporations that provide what little semblance of civilization exists there. Naturally, it becomes obvious in short order that somebody doesn’t want him to find out the truth.

From that set-up, Malone sets out on a years-long quest that finds him in danger again and again before he finally sorts out what really happened to his brother and tries to exact vengeance on the people responsible. It’s a tough, bleak book – lots of terrible things happen to Malone – and Westlake spins the yarn in his usual smooth, fast-paced prose. Pseudonym aside, I think most people who have read much of Westlake’s work would recognize who was really behind the name “Curt Clark”. (Of course, there’s also a funny little moment where Malone comments on a body of water known as West Lake.)

I enjoyed ANARCHAOS very much. Westlake’s world-building is excellent, with the physical details of the planet well thought out, leading me to think that he could have had a successful career as a science fiction writer if he’d wanted to. Even in a book like this, though, the real emphasis is on crime and suspense despite the SF setting, and it’s clear that’s where Westlake’s real tendencies were. ANARCHAOS was reprinted in 1989 by Mysterious Press in a volume entitled TOMORROW’S CRIMES, which is where I read it. That collection also includes nine of Westlake’s fantasy and science fiction short stories, which originally appeared in some of the SF digests, EQMM, and assorted other places. Not surprisingly, most of those short stories have some crime or suspense element, too. Copies of ANARCHAOS and TOMORROW’S CRIMES can both be found pretty easily and inexpensively on-line, and I highly recommend either version. (Although I’d go with TOMORROW’S CRIMES because you get the short stories, too, that way.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Orrie Hitt

A few weeks ago, I posted a comment on Duane Swierczynski’s blog about one of his “Legends of the Underwood” series, this one concerning Orrie Hitt. If you haven’t read that post and my comment, go over there and do so, then come back here.

Okay. So I’m sitting here checking my email, and this message comes in, prompted by my comment on Duane’s blog:

"i recently read a statement on orrie hitt and feeling sorry for him. so why?
you need not feel sorry for such a man in his time or in your time. this man was well loved by everyone that met him. he lived his life as he saw fit. his family centered their lives around him. and they loved him with all their hearts. he lived a happy and joyful life. i know i am his daughter i was there i saw his smile and twinkle in his eye everyday. so do not feel sorry for him feel sorry for yourself for not knowing him like i did!!"

I’m getting email from Orrie Hitt’s daughter. I love the Internet.

And you know what? She’s absolutely right. There’s no reason in the world to feel sorry for a man who lived his life as he saw fit and was happy and joyful doing it. We should all be so lucky as Orrie Hitt.

Since this message came in, I’ve traded a couple more emails with the lady, and she graciously gave me permission to post her words here. She’s also told me a little more about her father, such as how he would always talk to her dates when they came to pick her up when she was a girl, and how the guys enjoyed the conversations with Orrie so much they’d wind up being late getting to wherever they were going on the date. As she points out, I am sorry I never got to know him. I would love to be able to sit down and talk writing – and life – with Orrie Hitt.

I’m also sorry that I’ve never actually read any of Orrie Hitt’s novels. I used to have some of them, but I never got around to reading them. That, however, is something I can remedy. I just ordered a handful of them, and I’ll get around to reading and posting about them as soon as I can.

Western Fiction Review Interview

There's a very nice interview with me over at the Western Fiction Review. Steve did a great job of illustrating the interview with covers of my books. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

This is another of those movies for which I am definitely not the target audience. But you know me. I find something to like in most movies. This one follows a group of teenagers running around New York City one night searching for a rumored after-hours concert by their favorite rock band. Along the way, various of them fall in love, break up, and have adventures. It’s occasionally cute and sweet, occasionally funny, and occasionally gross.

All the way through it, though, I kept thinking, “I’ve seen this movie before.” Finally I figured out why I felt that way. With its set-up – all the action taking place in one night, the stories of the different characters weaving in and out of each other, the constant music and the way the music motivates much of the action – well, this is just an updated version of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, with about a tenth of the depth and meaning of that earlier film.

Not to be too harsh about NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, though. It’s an entertaining film, the cast is appealing, the music is great (hey, I like a lot of new music), and no doubt it resonates much more strongly with today’s kids, just the way AMERICAN GRAFFITI did with me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Iron Man

We continue catching up on movies that everybody else has already seen. IRON MAN is about half of the Best. Comic Book Movie. Ever. While the origin story in the first hour or so has been updated and the location changed from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the spirit is as close to the source material by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck as any movie adaptation of a comic book story I’ve ever seen, even more so than the Spider-Man movies (which set that standard until now, as far as I’m concerned). After that, as the movie begins to condense more than twenty years worth of comic book continuity into another hour’s worth of story, things get a little less focused, but it’s still pretty darned good.

A lot of that is due to the cast. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Tony Stark, Terrence Howard makes a good Jim Rhodes, and even though I’m not a big Gwyneth Paltrow fan, she’s fine as Pepper Potts. Jeff Bridges does a good job as the villain, although my memory is fuzzy enough on the character he plays, Obadiah Stane, that I can’t say whether his characterization matches the comic books. The script is funny in places, and there’s not much Hollywood revisionism, always a good thing.

I’ve probably told this story on here before, but Christmas Day, 1963, as we were visiting at my aunt’s house in Brownwood, two of my cousins gave me a stack of comic books they didn’t want anymore. Among them was an issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE featuring one of Iron Man’s earliest appearances. (It was TOS #42, I think, but I’m too lazy to look it up.) He was in AVENGERS #1, as well, which was also in that stack. I liked the character right away and read the Iron Man comic book for many, many years, until a couple of disastrous plot twists in the Nineties prompted me to give it up. But I’m still very fond of the character, and I’m glad this movie does him justice.

And if you haven’t seen it, be sure to wait for the little scene after the closing credits, which sets up at least one more movie to come.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Forgotten Books: Thieves Fall Out - Cameron Kay

I picked up this book a few weeks ago in Half Price’s nostalgia section for four bucks. I’d never heard of it or the author, but hey, it was a Gold Medal and it was in good shape, so I bought it anyway. So later I looked it up on ABE to see if I could find out if Cameron Kay is a pseudonym. Turns out that THIEVES FALL OUT is a rare book. Only two copies are listed on ABE, and the cheaper one is $135.00. Suddenly that $4.00 I risked is looking pretty good. The reason the book commands prices like that is because Cameron Kay is indeed a pseudonym. The real author is Gore Vidal.

Now, I’ve never read anything by Gore Vidal except this book, so I can’t really compare it to the rest of his work. As a Gold Medal, though, it’s pretty good. The plot finds a tough, young, down on his luck American, Pete Wells, in Cairo, where he winds up broke after being drugged and robbed in a whorehouse. He falls in with some shady characters, including a beautiful woman, who hire him to help them with some mysterious and no doubt illegal scheme. It’s not long before various people are trying to kill him, a crooked police inspector (named Mohammed Ali) is after him, and Pete realizes he can’t trust anybody, even the girl he’s fallen in love with. Ceiling fans revolve slowly. A hunchbacked dwarf plays the piano in a Cairo dive. A smuggler talks like Peter Lorre. In other words, a fine example of a Gold Medal of the international intrigue variety.

As for the writing itself, it’s very smooth, almost elegant. And that’s where the only real problem lies in this book. A Gold Medal needs to have some raw passion to the prose. Gore Vidal is no Day Keene or Harry Whittington when it comes to putting some real heart and soul into a book. There’s not quite enough of the pure yarn-spinner in him. Still, there are some nice characters in THIEVES FALL OUT, especially the villains (and this is one of those books where nearly everybody is a villain to some degree, even the hero), and Vidal comes up with some good lines of dialogue and numerous striking images. As a reading experience instead of a collector’s item, I don’t think the book is worth $135.00, but I enjoyed it and I’m glad I spent the four bucks for it. If you ever come across a copy like that, grab it, because even a book that’s not in the top rank of Gold Medals is still usually well worth reading. I’d say THIEVES FALL OUT certainly is.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

School Visit

Today Livia and I visited the elementary school where our daughter Joanna teaches and spent a couple of hours talking about writing to the second- and third-graders in her gifted and talented class. It was a lot of fun. The kids were sharp, they asked good questions, and they seemed to grasp most of what we told them. And while we were there, one of them drew our picture. I think she captured us perfectly.
(Update: If you want to see an actual photo from our school visit, Livia has one up over on her blog.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman

The Newbery Medal is given out each year to the book that represents the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. When I was a kid I read many of the books that won the award, but Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is the first one I’ve read in a long time, maybe several decades. I’d be willing to bet, too, that it’s the only Newbery-winning novel that opens with a cold-blooded killer slaughtering a married couple and their seven-year-old daughter in their beds. The only one who escapes is the youngest child, a toddler who has escaped from his crib and wandered out of the house while the killer was tending to the rest of the family.

That toddler winds up in a nearby abandoned graveyard, which is populated by the ghosts of several hundred people who are buried there, going all the way back to a Roman who lived in Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire. The ghosts decide to take the child in and raise him, and he’s given the name Nobody Owens, which is soon shortened to Bod. They’re able to care for a live human being because a vampire named Silas also lives in the graveyard and can venture out of it to bring back food, clothing, and whatever else Bod needs. (Gaiman never uses the word “vampire”, but it’s pretty obvious that’s what Silas is.) The rest of the book follows Bod’s life as he grows up in the graveyard, an odd, adventurous existence between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The story is fairly episodic, touching on different years in Bod’s life, but running all the way through it is a sinister undercurrent, because the man who murdered Bod’s family still wants to find him and kill him, too.

Steve Savile, an author friend of mine, recommended this book in an email group we both belong to, and I’m glad he did. Gaiman writes very well and manages to be funny and creepy and dramatic, often at the same time. There are a lot of striking images and well-drawn characters (living and dead) in this novel, and the final third of the book is very suspenseful and really had me turning the pages. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Gaiman is one of those authors I’ve meant to read, but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Even though it’s early yet, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and I suspect I’ll be reading something else by Gaiman before too much longer.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Secret Agent X: Talons of Terror - Brant House (Emile C. Tepperman)

Originally published in the April 1935 issue of SECRET AGENT X, “Talons of Terror” finds the Man of a Thousand Faces going up against yet another criminal mastermind whose plot involves threatening to kill a number of wealthy, powerful men unless they pay him off. This time the mysterious villain calls himself Doctor Blood, and as the story opens, he’s managed to murder ten men (one per day) by using some sort of unknown beast to tear their throats out and suck the blood from their bodies. Secret Agent X sets out to find Doctor Blood and put a stop to his crime spree. Even though “X” (as he’s often referred to in the novels) makes a habit of not killing his adversaries, he’s willing to make an exception to that rule where Doctor Blood is concerned.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea whether or not you’d enjoy this novel. And I haven’t even mentioned the chapter entitled “Enter – the Claw Man!” You know me. I love this stuff.

Like all the other Secret Agent X novels, “Talons of Terror” was published under the pseudonym “Brant House”. In this case, the author was Emile C. Tepperman, almost as much a mysterious personage as some of the pulp heroes and villains he wrote about. I’ve found Tepperman’s work to be somewhat inconsistent, but he usually came up with pretty entertaining yarns. “Talons of Terror” falls into that category, although I wouldn’t put it in the top rank of Secret Agent X stories. Despite the lurid plot, at times the story seems a little restrained. You know my motto: “If you’re gonna go over the top, go ’way over.” But I did enjoy it, and everything does build up to a good final showdown. As far as I know, this pulp novel has never been reprinted since its original appearance, but a reprint edition is on the way later this year, courtesy of Beb Books. If you want to find out what happens to Doctor Blood and the Claw Man, check it out.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Get Smart

As I’ve mentioned here before, during the Sixties I was a big fan of the secret agent boom in books, movies, and TV. I read all the espionage novels I could get my hands on, watched all the spy movies and TV shows. So of course, I watched GET SMART every week. I read all the tie-in novels by William Johnston. I wasn’t a huge fan of the show, mind you, but I liked it.

It took us a while to get around to it, but we finally watched the recent movie version of GET SMART, with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway taking over the parts made famous by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. As best I recall, most of the reviews of this movie were pretty negative, not only the ones by professional reviewers and film critics but the ones that appeared on various blogs, as well. But all four of us laughed all the way through the movie and thoroughly enjoyed it, which says something about the public’s taste . . . or ours. Anyway, even though it’s one of the dreaded “reimagings” of an old favorite (generally speaking, not a good sign where I’m concerned), I thought it worked this time. Although I don’t like and don’t watch THE OFFICE, I like Carell in the movies I’ve seen him in, and Anne Hathaway has done a fine job of going from cute to really hot. I thought the rest of the cast was pretty good, too, including a late cameo by Patrick Warburton, one of my favorite actors.

So if you thought GET SMART sucked (and chances are, you did), we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Essex County Vol. 1: Tales From the Farm -- Jeff Lemire

I’ve been in the mood for oddball comics again. ESSEX COUNTY, VOL. 1: TALES FROM THE FARM is a graphic novel written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. The story follows a year in the life of nine-year-old Lester, from one summer to the next, as he lives on an Ontario farm with his bachelor uncle. Lester had to go live with his uncle because his mother died of cancer, and he doesn’t know who his father is. Like most nine-year-olds, he has an active imagination, and in Lester’s case, that imagination focuses on comic books and superheroes, to the point that he wears a cape and a mask to school. As you probably expect, that doesn’t go over too well and makes Lester even more alienated.

And speaking of aliens, Lester also believes that a fleet of invaders from space is about to land on earth, so he keeps an eye out for their advance scouts. The only person who really seems to understand Lester is the owner of the local gas station, a former hockey player who made it to the NHL only to have his career end in his first game due to a head injury that left him with brain damage.

Lemire’s script is as terse and laconic as the people he’s writing about, and his deliberately unpolished art is very effective. The story takes some strange turns before it’s over, and I’m still not quite sure what happened in the ending. But it sure does work well, so I guess that’s what really matters. TALES FROM THE FARM is a poignant little gem, a mixture of fantasy and autobiography, and I’m glad there are at least two more volumes in the Essex County series. I plan to pick them up and read them soon.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Forgotten Books: Slice of Hell - Mike Roscoe

During the Fifties, following the huge success of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, everybody was looking for more books in the same vein, including Spillane’s own publisher. Mike Roscoe contributed to the cause by writing five novels featuring tough Kansas City private eye Johnny April. One difference is that “Mike Roscoe” is actually a pseudonym for two real-life private investigators, John Roscoe and Mike Russo. And to me, “his” work seems to be influenced not so much by Spillane, but the author some people consider an influence on Spillane as well: Carroll John Daly.

SLICE OF HELL is the first Mike Roscoe book I’ve read, although it’s the middle book in the series. In this one, Johnny April is hired to leave his usual Kansas City stomping grounds and go to San Francisco to investigate a crooked trucking company executive who’s rumored to be on the verge of expanding his operation to Kansas City. Since he’s going to San Francisco anyway, Johnny takes on another case that has come his way, a low-paying job for an elderly woman who wants him to arrange a funeral for a friend of hers who has just passed away.

Well, you don’t have to have read many of these books to know that those two cases are going to wind up being connected. The predictability of the plot is one of this book’s failings. So is the overall thinness of the story. And a lot of the tough guy dialogue doesn’t really resemble anything that might actually come out of a human mouth. “Mike Roscoe” has the same sort of tin ear for dialogue that could be found in much of Carroll John Daly’s work.

So why am I recommending a novel this flawed as a Forgotten Book? Well, it’s written in an odd, punchy style that takes some getting used to but is very effective once you do. Even the stiff dialogue didn’t bother me as much after a while. And I wound up liking big, dumb Johnny April. (But, Lord, he really is dumb.) The authors keep the pace moving nicely. April has a touch of the same vigilante mentality as Race Williams, and there’s a scene that seems like a direct homage to one of Daly’s stories. Really, that’s a good yardstick. If you can read and enjoy Carroll John Daly’s work, despite its flaws (which I can, without any trouble at all), then you’ll probably enjoy the Mike Roscoe novels, too.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

We finally got around to watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. No point in rehashing the plot at this late date. So just a few comments. This one has the same problem as TEMPLE OF DOOM and LAST CRUSADE. In trying to be bigger and better than RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for the most part what the other three movies accomplish is to be louder and sillier. Sure, RAIDERS has its far-fetched moments, but it’s grounded enough in reality that a part of you wants to believe, if only for the moment, that a human being could actually do all the stuff that Indy does. The other three get so ridiculous that they cry out, “It’s only a movie.” That said, I enjoyed CRYSTAL SKULL for the most part. There are a few good stunts (actual stunts, not special effects), the photography is nice, and it’s always good to see Karen Allen again. One of the cutest of the Seventies actresses. I liked the kid more than I thought I would. Harrison Ford is appropriately grizzled. And John Williams’ music always puts a smile on my face. I’d put CRYSTAL SKULL on about the same level as LAST CRUSADE, and better than TEMPLE OF DOOM. It’s not RAIDERS, but it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet. (And am I the only one who hates references to INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, as if that’s actually the title of the damn movie? It’s not. It’s just RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, blast it.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bruce Grossman on MSMM

Over at Bookgasm, Bruce Grossman's always entertaining column "Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs" takes a look at three issues of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE this week. I remember quite clearly buying two of those issues (the ones from 1978) brand-new off the shelves at Readers World in River Oaks, Texas. Readers World was a nice little store where I bought a lot of paperbacks, comics, and mystery and SF digests during the Seventies. Livia and I used to go there at least once a week. It was owned by Gene and Linda Sanders (I hope I'm remembering the names right), who later moved the store and expanded it, renaming it G. Sanders Books. The new store was in a different part of town and I didn't make it over there very often, but I'll always have very fond memories of the original Readers World. (I sort of wandered off from the original topic of this post, didn't I? Go on over to Bookgasm and read what Bruce has to say, if you haven't already.)

The End of The Cimmerian

After five years of publishing THE CIMMERIAN, one of the best Robert E. Howard journals of all time, Leo Grin has announced that the magazine is coming to an end with the December 2008 issue. The Cimmerian Blog will continue, under the stewardship of Steve Tompkins. I can't say enough about THE CIMMERIAN, which was always full of fascinating reading for Robert E. Howard fans and scholars, or about Leo himself, who has been a staunch friend and has done me numerous personal kindnesses. I was never able to contribute to the magazine as much as I wanted to, but at least I wrote a few letters for The Lion's Den, the magazine's very active letters column, and provided a few bits of info for articles and essays done by other authors. Some back issues will still be available (but only for a limited time), so if you're an REH fan and you've never checked out THE CIMMERIAN, you owe it to yourself to do so. (And while you're at it, head on over to the REHupa site, as well, for some eloquent comments on the subject from Rusty Burke.)

25 Writers

I first encountered a list like this on Lee Goldberg’s blog a couple of days ago, and the idea has spread to other places since then, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. I have very specific reasons for picking every one of these authors, but if I went into detail about them, this would be too long for a blog post and more of an essay instead. The list might vary slightly from day to day, but probably not much. So here they are, 25 writers who have influenced my career, in an order that makes sense to me, even if it probably won’t to anybody else.

Livia Washburn
Robert E. Howard
Davis Dresser
Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett
Ross Macdonald
Richard S. Prather
Mickey Spillane
Robert Leslie Bellem
A. Leslie Scott
Tom Curry
Walt Coburn
Lester Dent
D.B. Newton
Lou Cameron
Jon Messman
Noel Gerson
Paul Block
Gary Goldstein
Ed Gorman
Allan Guthrie
Stan Lee
Ernest Hemingway
Harry Whittington
Leslie Charteris

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Essential Westerns

Gary over at the Tainted Archive has just started what looks like it'll be a very interesting series of posts about the Western novels you have to read and the Western films you have to watch. Check it out and get in on the beginning of a month of posts leading up to the next Wild West Monday (which is March 2, by the way).