Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Yorick manages to get from New York to Washington, where he finds his mother, who’s a congresswoman. He makes the acquaintance of a woman he knows only as Agent 355, who works from a top-secret government intelligence operation. Together, they try to find a biochemical researcher who may be able to figure out what happened and what to do about it. There are some other characters, like Yorick’s sister who falls in with a group of fanatics called the Amazons, who believe all the men were justly struck down by fate because of their crimes against women. Oh, and Yorick has a monkey, too.
As you may have gathered, there’s ample room here for satire and political incorrectness along with the action, and Vaughan provides plenty of all three of those things. I thought early on in UNMANNED that the writing was going to get so heavy-handed I’d have to set the book aside, but I stuck with it and wound up enjoying it. The story is fast-paced and occasionally funny. Vaughan has an especially good touch with the dialogue. The art by Pia Guerra is excellent. She co-created the series with Vaughan and has a stronger feel for clear layouts and storytelling than a lot of modern comics artists.
I have all ten volumes of this series, and I enjoyed the first one enough that I’m sure I’ll read through the others fairly quickly. I probably won’t post about all of them, but if the quality holds up to the end, I think I can safely say that Y: THE LAST MAN will get my recommendation.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
Years later, a mutual friend put me in touch with Mike, and we corresponded for years after that, off and on all the way up to his death. I know the stories are legion in the publishing business about how hard he was to work with. I know how quick-tempered he was and felt the brunt of it myself on occasion. I know that a lot of his books, especially the later ones, weren't very good. But he was still my friend, a guy who loved pulps and movies and baseball, and a lot of his books, especially the early novels about his most famous character, private eye Ed Noon, are pretty darned good.
Which brings us to DEAD GAME.
I thought I had read all of the Ed Noon novels except for a few late ones that were published only in
It starts simply enough, with Ed being hired to tail a cheating husband. That's what the guy's wife tells Ed, anyway. But instead of visiting a girlfriend, the man heads for the Polo Grounds instead, to take in an exhibition baseball game between the New York Giants and a visiting minor-league team. Then in the ninth inning, in the middle of the action, the minor-league team's third baseman is somehow stabbed to death, and the guy Ed's been following rushes onto the field to search the dead man's uniform before getting away. Ed is left with the questions of who murdered the third baseman, and what was the man he was tailing was looking for.
Well, things get even more complicated than that, of course. A cop gets killed along the way, putting Ed on the bad side of his old friend, Captain Michael Monks. Ed runs into a beautiful redhead and an equally beautiful brunette, the latter named Mimi Tango, one of the great, oddball character names Avallone could come up with. There's a lot of banter, a few fistfights, and Ed gets hit on the head and knocked out a couple of times, a private eye cliché but one that I happen to enjoy. Finally, there's even a gathering of all the suspects where Ed explains what happened and why, leading up to one last burst of action. The "impossible crime" nature of the murder in the middle of the baseball game sort of gets lost in the shuffle along the way, and when the explanation does come, it's hardly what you'd consider a "fair play" solution. But I don't think that's what Avallone was going for. A book like DEAD GAME is supposed to be fast, flippant, and fun . . . and it is.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Monday, April 20, 2009
James LePore’s debut novel A WORLD I NEVER MADE is the story of Pat Nolan’s investigation into his daughter’s life in Europe, and naturally, the deeper he digs, the more complicated – and dangerous – things get. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Megan was involved with a Saudi terrorist, since LePore uses parallel storylines to flash back to the events over the year leading up to the call that told Pat Nolan his daughter was dead.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, since it’s a first novel from a publisher I wasn’t familiar with, but what I got was a well-written thriller with a likable hero and interesting characters. Pat Nolan reminded me a little of another two-fisted American construction engineer, Matt Erridge, who appeared in a number of globe-trotting adventure novels by the prolific Aaron Marc Stein. (I know some of you have probably never heard of Stein, but he was a good solid mystery author worthy of rediscovery.) LePore keeps the pace moving along briskly and saves one last surprise for the epilogue, which is always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. A WORLD I NEVER MADE is a fine novel, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for future books by James LePore.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Anyway, I’d never read any of Whitfield’s novels until now. GREEN ICE was his first novel, published in 1930 and based on a series of five linked novelettes published in BLACK MASK from December 1929 through April 1930 that are put together pretty seamlessly. It’s the story of what happens when ex-con Mal Ourney gets out of Sing Sing after having served a two-year sentence for manslaughter. Mal wasn’t really guilty; he took the rap for his girlfriend at the time, who was really behind the wheel in a fatal car crash. She comes to meet Mal when he’s released, but he’s no longer interested in her and refuses to go with her. A good thing, too, because a short time later, she’s dead, the first of at least a dozen murder victims in this novel.
While in prison, Mal has made friends with several small-time crooks who were drawn into the rackets by the big bosses, the men Mal refers to as the crime breeders. He decides that when he gets out, he’ll go after these big bosses and try to bring them down. Before he can even get started on his crusade, though, he finds himself up to his neck in murder after murder, all of them tied together by some missing emeralds, the green ice of the title. This is one of those early hardboiled novels where the plot gets incredibly complicated, to the point that Whitfield has to stop the action every so often to have his characters explain to each other everything that’s happened so far. He even manages to save one last major twist for the very end.
Plots so complex that they get a little far-fetched are a hallmark of hardboiled fiction from that era, though, as is terse, staccato prose. Whitfield delivers on that score, too. There’s a little snappy patter and considerable tough guy slang, along with plenty of fistfights and tommy-gun massacres, before Mal finally untangles all the various interwoven strands of plot. As you can imagine, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. These days, GREEN ICE would have to be considered a historical novel, but if you’re interested in the genesis of hardboiled crime novels or just looking for a good yarn, I recommend it.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
“The Man Who Laughs” is an updated retelling of Batman’s first battle against the Joker, but it’s a reasonably faithful one and includes a number of respectful nods to the long careers of the characters. I like this early setting for Batman stories, when everything still seems new, Jim Gordon is still a police detective, not the commissioner, and Batman is still a lone vigilante. Brubaker’s script is excellent, and I like the art by Doug Mahnke, too.
“Made of Wood”, the story featuring the original Green Lantern, is even better. I’ve always been really fond of the Golden Age Green Lantern, whose secret identity is broadcaster Alan Scott. This story features a modern-day serial killer who evidently has ties to an old, unsolved case that involved Green Lantern several decades earlier. At one point, Batman and GL discuss the case while playing golf in their civilian identities as Bruce Wayne and Alan Scott. I love the sense of camaraderie among many of the DC superheroes and the way they know each other’s secret identities. Again, Brubaker’s script is top-notch, and the art by Patrick Zircher likewise. By the way, the title of this story, for those of you who aren’t comics fans, refers to the fact that Green Lantern’s power ring is powerless against anything made of wood, its only weakness. I always thought this was a little goofy, but charming in its way, probably more so than the modern-day GL’s weakness, which is the color yellow.
I had a great time reading this one, so good, in fact, that I may feel a Batman binge coming on . . .
Monday, April 13, 2009
Naturally, things get a lot more complicated before everything is said and done. WANTED, based on a comic book series, is almost as bloody, goofy, and over-the-top as SHOOT ‘EM UP. Not quite, mind you – there are no carrots involved in this one – but almost. Probably needless to say, I loved it. As for the reason . . . well, at one point while we were watching it, my daughter looked over, saw me grinning at some ludicrous action scene, and said, “You are such a boy.”
Guilty as charged.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
But I do hate the – all together now – quick cutting in the action scenes. Do the filmmakers sit down and say to themselves, “How can we possibly make these scenes impossible to follow and annoy the hell out of the viewers?”
Whenever the movie would slow down and take a breath, though, I thought it was pretty good. I don’t mind Daniel Craig as James Bond, even though – all together now – Clive Owen would be better. Craig’s done a good job of giving us a more hardboiled Bond. It took a while, but I’ve gotten used to Judi Dench as M. Great photography throughout, and the opening credits were okay, with a theme song that’s not as bad as I’d heard.
But it did bother me that they used the classic James Bond theme only over part of the closing credits, and I don’t care how hokey it is, it wouldn’t have killed ‘em to have the line “Bond. James Bond.” in there somewhere. I liked the little visual nod to GOLDFINGER, though. (Ah, GOLDFINGER . . . still the all-time best Bond movie.) The final fate of the villain bothered me a little, too. Just didn’t seem like the way Bond would have handled it.
So what does all my quibbling and damning-with-faint-praise add up to? I liked QUANTUM OF SOLACE and will certainly continue to watch the James Bond movies, but I sure think they could do better.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
That’s not all he has going on, though. It seems that there was a recent coup in the island’s government, and Hank is also smuggling guns to the followers of the deposed leader, who plans to stage a counter-revolution. Plus there’s the mistress of the guy who replaced Hank as captain. She’s actually more interested in Hank, and doesn’t mind proving it. And the beautiful native girl he meets in a bar who claims to be a virgin. And the mistress of the island’s current dictator, who’s also involved in the counter-revolution. And Hank’s beautiful but estranged wife, who shows up unexpectedly with a suitcase full of money. Throw in a sinister Dutchman, drug smuggling, pornography, blackmail, a lot of boozing, and a hurricane, and you can see that Hitt’s packed a heck of a lot into this yarn.
And “yarn” is a good description of this book. It’s definitely larger-than-life, an updated version of the sort of story that might have appeared in the pulp SPICY ADVENTURE during the Thirties. As such, although it’s plenty gritty, it lacks some of the realistic edge that can be found in PUSHOVER. However, the style is faster-paced and has a really nice terse rhythm to it, making it a prime example of what I’ve started calling hardboiled sleaze. Hank is a fine character, tough and definitely amoral about 99% of the time . . . but there’s that one per cent when he finds that he does have a sort of code after all and has to do the right thing even though he doesn’t really want to.
Several fans of Hitt’s work have told me that this isn’t one of his better books, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. That’s just me, of course. I have a fondness for South Seas yarns to start with, and a story can’t get too pulpy for my taste. From what I’ve seen, HOT CARGO isn’t really typical of most of Hitt’s novels, and it’s true that the ending isn’t really all it could be (endings seem to be a bit of a problem for Hitt, from what I’ve read and what other readers have told me). But it’s one of those books that resonated with me, for whatever reason, and I’m certainly glad that I read it.
Friday, April 10, 2009
“Main Currents of American Thought” was first published in the August 5, 1939 issue of THE NEW YORKER and later reprinted in several places, including the massive collection of Shaw’s short stories, FIVE DECADES. Because of its subject matter, I’m admittedly biased when I say it’s my favorite short story. I think it’s the best story about being a freelance writer that I’ve ever read. The protagonist, a young man named Andrew, writes scripts for a couple of daily radio dramas, and in a few thousand words, Shaw perfectly captures what it’s like to deal with all the pressures of trying to write for a living. Some of the lines, which I can’t quote without ruining their impact, are just devastating. And there are other little details, like figuring expenses in terms of how much writing you’ll have to do in order to pay for them, that are utterly true. I don’t know how many times I’ve said things like, “We can afford that. It’s only half a Longarm.” There’s a lot packed into this story, and it’s dated a little, but its core is still true. And if you’re a writer, it’ll break your heart.
Shaw’s best-known short stories are “The Eighty Yard Run” and “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”, and both of those are fine stories. In fact, everything I’ve read by him has been very good to excellent. FIVE DECADES is a great collection, and I recommend it highly. But “Main Currents of American Thought” is a story I reread at least once a year (I picked it up to glance at it before writing this post and wound up rereading the whole thing), and it’s the only story of which that’s true.
Thursday, April 09, 2009
“The storm came up suddenly, without warning. One moment the sky was clear and blue, the sun burning through a heat haze, and the next minute it was dark and ugly.”
The book is HOT CARGO by Orrie Hitt. I’ll be posting my thoughts about it in the next day or two.
Cal Harper is a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who resigned after fouling up a case, and now he works with a homeless shelter in Fort Lauderdale. One day he runs across a homeless man who’s been wounded in a shooting, and this victim turns out to be Cal’s long-estranged father, who went to prison when Cal was a kid for accidentally killing Cal’s mother during an argument. It doesn’t take long for Cal to discover that his dad is now mixed up in some sort of dangerous conspiracy and trying to help him out puts Cal in danger, too, from a mysterious assassin. All of this turns out to be tied in with the unsolved 1932 murder of Mitchell Siegel, the father of Jerry Siegel, who was one of the creators of Superman.
Meltzer takes this actual bit of comic book history and spins a very elaborate yarn around it involving centuries-old conspiracies, war, murder, crooked federal agents, and a mystery dating back to biblical times. Does the whole thing border on being a little silly and over-the-top at times? Yeah, probably. But Meltzer keeps the pace moving along briskly and creates a likable protagonist in Cal, along with several hissable villains. It’s all pretty entertaining, and I definitely intend to read more of Meltzer’s novels, as well as his comic book work.
One stylistic note: There was a time when I wouldn’t have read a book like this, because it mixes not only first-person and third-person POV, but also past tense and present tense (first person present and third person past, to be specific). But I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of such things in recent years, and Meltzer makes it work pretty well here.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
I was able to visit with Jim for a while before the program began and it was great to be able to talk with someone I’ve known on-line for years. I also met Jim’s dad Willis and his dog Dougie (hope I’m spelling that correctly). Dougie was a big hit with the kids, too, as you might expect. All in all, it was a very enjoyable little road trip for me.
And now I’m an official Junior Texas Ranger, too. I have the badge to prove it.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
I don’t think there’s any need to go into the plot. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in the books or the movie, I’ll bet you’ve absorbed the basic story anyway from all the hype. (It’s a form of osmosis, I think, but I’m not sure since high school biology was a long time ago.) So what did I like or dislike?
Well, the first half is awfully slow and broody and full of teen-age angst. However, I liked the supporting cast. They looked and acted like actual high school kids, rather than actors in their mid-to-late twenties pretending to be high school kids. And the Pacific Northwest scenery is pretty.
The pace starts to pick up in the second half, and I got caught up in the story to a certain extent. Pretty good action here and there. And lots and lots of foreshadowing for the rest of the films in the series. This one might as well have ended with a “To Be Continued” graphic.
So, to put TWILIGHT to the ultimate test for a film that’s “not my kind of movie” . . . I watched the whole thing and stayed awake all the way through. Make of that what you will.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
It opens with a nameless stranger (Clive Owen) sitting at a bus stop munching on raw carrots. A frantic pregnant woman about to give birth runs past him with a bad guy in pursuit. Owen, against his better judgment, gets involved, winds up in a shootout with a number of would-be killers who are out to murder the woman and her baby, and rapidly proves himself to be deadlier than any of them. The woman gives birth, promptly gets killed, and Owen is stuck protecting the newborn baby from a horde of assassins led by Paul Giamatti. This leads to an almost non-stop series of very bloody, over-the-top, wildly improbable gunfights and chases. Owen’s character turns out to be just about the best shot in the world, and he can wield a carrot with lethal results, too. I’m not kidding. The Bugs Bunny references are appropriate, because SHOOT ‘EM UP is a live-action cartoon most of the time, albeit a very violent one.
Owen’s character is a cipher for most of the movie, although we eventually do find out his back-story. There’s quite a bit of plot packed in around the gunfire and explosions, so you have to keep up. I don’t know if it all makes sense in the end or not. Things move too fast to worry much about that. Watch this for the sheer audacity of the action sequences and Giamatti’s scenery-chewing performance as the lead villain, as well as Owen’s unflappable cool as he deals out death to, oh, at least two hundred of the bad guys.
Like I said above, you’ll probably either love or hate SHOOT ‘EM UP. I thought it was incredibly entertaining. But I’ll certainly understand if you watch it and say, “Well, this is just stupid.” It probably is. But sometimes I don’t mind that.
Friday, April 03, 2009
THE PHANTOM SPY is set in Europe in the mid-Thirties, the era during which it was written. This isn’t a Ruritanian, Graustarkian, comic opera Europe, either. It’s the real thing, with the grim threat of Hitler’s growing power in Germany looming over everything. In Faust’s novel, however, Hitler isn’t even the real menace. The true villains are an international cabal of warmongers who think that Hitler isn’t moving fast enough and want him to go ahead and invade France right away. To further that end, they’ve managed to steal the plans for the Maginot Line and intend to present them to Hitler so that Germany can attack France’s defensive fortifications at their weakest points. (In reality, the Maginot Line didn’t pose much of an obstacle to the Germans a few years later, but Faust had no way of knowing that.) The British Secret Service sets out to steal the plans back before Hitler gets his hands on them, and the agent entrusted with the job is Lady Cecil de Waters, a British noblewoman who has offered her services as a “talented amateur” in the espionage game. (Yes, Emma Peel without John Steed is exactly what I mean.)
Giving Lady Cecil a hand is a would-be suitor of hers, wisecracking millionaire American playboy Willie Gloster, as well as a mysterious phantom spy known only as Monsieur Jacquelin who turns up when he’s most needed. Faust keeps the action moving along briskly as the characters take turns stealing the plans back and forth from each other, and in the process Willie and Lady Cecil uncover the plotters pulling the strings behind the scenes. Sometimes in his Westerns, Faust can get a little flowery and long-winded in his prose, but not here. This one cooks along in a breezy, hardboiled fashion with double- and triple-crosses, characters pretending to be other characters, fistfights and shootouts, and only occasional pauses for reflection. There aren’t many real twists to the plot – really, if you don’t figure out the true identity of the Phantom Spy early on, like when the character first appears, I’ll be surprised – but that doesn’t matter much because Faust is having so much fun, and so is the reader.
THE PHANTOM SPY first appeared as a serial in the pulp ARGOSY in 1937, under the title “War For Sale”. It was reprinted in hardback by Dodd, Mead in 1973 and then in paperback by Pocket Books in 1975, when Pocket reprinted a number of Faust’s non-Western novels. Both of those editions are available pretty inexpensively on-line. As much as I enjoy Faust’s Westerns, I’d really like to see more of his non-Westerns reprinted, especially some of the pulp serials that have never been published in book form. I believe he wrote a Revolutionary War novel that’s never been reprinted, and I’d love to read that one. There are several pirate novels, too, as well as numerous mysteries and contemporary adventures. If you’ve only read Faust’s Westerns, or if you’ve never read his work at all, give THE PHANTOM SPY a try. I really enjoyed it.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
But here’s the problem: I like him. He’s fun to write. And unlike some of the other characters, he hasn’t really done anything to deserve the gruesome death I have planned for him. I don’t want to keep him around for other books, mind you. He’s just a supporting character in this one particular plot and has no place in future books in the series. There’s still a part of me that would like to see him make it through alive.
Luckily, I still have seventy or eighty pages to go in this manuscript, and if he does die, it’ll be fairly late, so I don’t have to decide right away. It’s a hard decision, because killing him off would make for a pretty effective moment in the story, I think.
And they say doctors have God complexes.