Friday, July 31, 2009

Forgotten Books: Love Me and Die - Day Keene and Gil Brewer

The origins of Day Keene’s 1951 novel LOVE ME AND DIE are a little murky. According to Gil Brewer’s stepdaughter, Brewer ghosted this novel for Keene, expanding one of Keene’s pulp stories to book length. One website identifies the source novella as “Marry the Sixth for Murder”, from the May 1948 issue of DETECTIVE TALES. This seems pretty feasible to me. Keene and Brewer were friends, and since Keene was already an established writer as the Fifties began, with more than ten years as a popular pulp author under his belt, I can easily see him farming out this expansion to Brewer. Whether LOVE ME AND DIE was written before or after the first two novels Brewer sold to Gold Medal, SATAN IS A WOMAN and SO RICH, SO DEAD (both of which also came out in 1951), I have no idea. But since Brewer probably used quite a bit of Keene’s original novella, I think the book-length version can be regarded as a true collaboration between two of the top suspense novelists of the Fifties. But the question remains, is it any good?

Well, yeah. What did you expect?

The narrator/protagonist of LOVE ME AND DIE is Johnny Slagle (not a great name for the hero of a book like this). Like W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox and Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner before him and Carter Brown’s Rick Holman after him, Slagle is a Hollywood troubleshooter, a private eye who’s on retainer to the movie studios to keep their big stars out of trouble. As such, he gets a call in the middle of the night from an aging, many-times-married screen idol who thinks he has just run over a woman while driving drunk in the middle of a rainstorm. He’s not sure, though, because he didn’t stop to check. That job falls to Slagle, who has to find out if his client is really a hit-and-run killer, and if so, figure out a way to cover it up.

Of course, things don’t stay that simple. Gamblers and starlets and thugs are involved, as well as a gun-toting cowboy from Oklahoma, and wouldn’t you know it, not only does Johnny get hit on the head and knocked out a couple of times, but there’s another murder and he’s framed for it, which means he has to dodge the cops while trying to find the real killer. Yes, it’s a standard plot, but Keene and Brewer throw in some nice twists on it, holding back two of them until very late in the book.

The key to a book like this is the writing, and the pace never slows down for very long in this one, which is all to the good. For the most part, it lacks the intensity of some of Brewer’s other books, but there are a few scenes that vividly capture the sweaty desperation that threatens to overwhelm most of his protagonists. I got the feeling that maybe Brewer was holding back a little on his natural voice as he expanded Keene’s novella, perhaps in an effort to make the book sound more like Keene’s work. I don’t know the details of their arrangement, so I can only speculate. As it is, the blend is a good one. LOVE ME AND DIE is no lost classic or anything – it’s just a shade too generic for that – but if you’re like me and grew up reading and loving books like this, I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty rare. Originally published as a digest-sized novel by Phantom Books, it was reprinted by Harlequin in the Fifties, Paperback Library in the Sixties, and Manor Books in the Seventies (the edition I stumbled across and read). A few copies of the earlier editions are available on-line, but they’re pricey. The Manor edition doesn’t show up at all. So if you ever come across a copy of any of the editions, my advice would be to grab it. And if you happen to have a copy on your shelves but have never read it, I think LOVE ME AND DIE is well worth the time. Keene and Brewer have both made a comeback of sorts in recent years. Maybe some enterprising publisher will reprint this collaboration by them, one of these days.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Like a lot of writers, I have a Google search saved for my name, so if anything new about me turns up on the Internet, I get an email about it. (Egomaniac? Who's an egomaniac?) Anyway, today Google sent me a link for a website supposedly containing my name, and when I went to look at it, it turned out to be a porn site. (No, I'm not going to post the link.) Underneath a bunch of rather disturbing pictures, there was a big block of text that consisted mainly of what I guess you could call porno-words, which I think they put on there so that the site will turn up in Web searches for that stuff. However . . . right in the middle of this porno-gibberish, there's a paragraph about one of the house-name Western series I write for, and sure enough, there's my name, along with the names of some of the other authors. So my question is . . . why? Why include this in the middle of a porn site? Some things just don't make any sense. But it gave me a laugh, anyway. Sort of.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women of the West

Cullen Gallagher and his friends at Not Coming to a Theater Near You are putting together what looks like it'll be an excellent series of reviews about women in the world of Western films. The first review is up now, of a film I'd never heard of, 49-17, the first Western directed by a woman, way back in 1917. This is great stuff for film buffs and Western fans, and I can't wait to see what else they'll come up with. Check it out.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bury Me Deep - Megan Abbott

Over the past few years, Megan Abbott has become not just one of my favorite new writers, but one of my favorite writers, period. Her new novel, BURY ME DEEP, is out now, and it continues a string of very potent successes. It’s one of the best novels of the year.

Inspired by the true-crime case of Winnie Ruth Judd, the infamous “Trunk Murderess”, BURY ME DEEP tells the story of Marion Seeley, who finds herself alone in Phoenix in 1930. Her husband, a doctor who has a morphine addiction, has lost his license to practice in the States, so he has to go to Mexico to be the camp doctor at a remote mine. Marion has a job as a typist at a medical clinic, and she becomes friends with one of the nurses there, whose roommate is a young woman suffering from tuberculosis. Marion spends a lot of time at the house these two friends of hers share, and she’s soon drawn into their life of wild parties. In the process, she meets Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a successful local businessman who has an ill, invalid wife, and when Marion falls in love with Lanigan despite her resolve not to, all the elements are there for a noirish yarn that pulls Marion into a harrowing spiral of crime.

Although I had heard of Winnie Ruth Judd, I didn’t know the details of the case that made her notorious, so I didn’t really know what was going to happen in this novel. And as Abbott explains in an interesting, informative author’s note at the end of the book, her story diverges from the facts of the Winnie Ruth Judd case in several important aspects, anyway. One thing I really like about Abbott’s work is that each of her four novels have been written in a distinctive voice, but there are subtle differences in that voice from book to book. In BURY ME DEEP, although it’s written in third person, the point of view is entirely Marion’s, and so the style is a languid, dreamy, romantic one for most of the book, like something from one of the love pulps of the era, but underlying it is the desperation that Marion feels at being left alone in a strange town that results in her eagerness for something or someone to latch on to. The reader gets so deep into Marion’s thoughts that it’s almost like first-person narration, and after a while you have to start wondering just how reliable that narration is. Marion’s desperation eventually turns to horror, fear, and anger, and those emotions come across in the writing so vividly that the ending of the book is very satisfying.

If I had to choose, I’d say that the terse, hardboiled prose of Abbott’s previous novel, the Edgar-winning QUEENPIN, resonates with me as a reader slightly stronger than the more deliberately-paced style of BURY ME DEEP. However, I’d sure hate to have to live on the difference. Like the rest of her books, this one drew me in and really had me flipping the pages to find out what was going to happen. Also like the rest of her books, BURY ME DEEP has a great cover, the sort that really pulls you in as well. If you like beautifully written historical noir, you can’t go wrong with BURY ME DEEP, or any of Abbott’s other novels, for that matter. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Children of Men

We’re still watching other movies besides those based on Tennessee Williams plays, of course. CHILDREN OF MEN, which came out a few years ago, is based on a P.D. James novel I haven’t read. (That would be true of any movie based on a P.D. James novel.) It’s a near-future science fiction thriller set in England, the only country left in the world that hasn’t descended into chaos after women everywhere became unable to have babies some eighteen years earlier. This sudden and unexplained catastrophe has evidently doomed the human race. It’s just a matter of waiting for everyone to die off.

But then somehow, a young woman in England gets pregnant, and a bureaucrat played by Clive Owen gets mixed up in the plot to smuggle her out of the country and get her into the hands of the mysterious Human Project, a group of scientists trying to figure out a cure for the sudden infertility that’s taken over the planet. Various feuding factions within England want control of the girl and her baby for themselves, which leads to double-crosses, shootouts, and running and chasing.

As an action movie, CHILDREN OF MEN is pretty good. Those scenes are plentiful, well-staged, and harrowing. As science fiction, it kind of falls flat because there’s no attempt to explain anything; the situation just is. On the other hand, the characters involved in this particular story probably wouldn’t be aware of any scientific explanations for what’s happened, so I’m willing to give it a pass on that. As entertainment, well, it’s awfully bleak and grim, but not totally without hope. I like Clive Owen (although after seeing the wonderfully goofy SHOOT ‘EM UP, I can’t watch him in anything without wondering where his carrot is), and Michael Caine is fine as usual in a strong supporting role. I don’t think CHILDREN OF MEN is a great film, but I enjoyed it and think it’s worth watching.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Write With Fire - Charles Allen Gramlich

I don't normally recommend a book I haven't even seen yet, let alone read, but I have no trouble doing so in this case. I've spent many hours talking writing with Charles at Cross Plains, during the Robert E. Howard Days get-togethers, and the conversations are always enjoyable and thought-provoking. I'm sure this new collection of his articles and essays on writing will be, too. My copy is already on order.

This Property is Condemned

This is one I had seen before, so I can’t call it a Movie I’ve Missed, but it’s been close to forty years since I watched it, and on late night TV at that, cut up for commercials and probably shortened to run in a two-hour time slot, as well. So it was almost new to me.

There’s not nearly as much Tennessee Williams material in this film, which was “suggested” (according to the credits) by a short, one-act Williams play of the same name. While much of the dialogue from the play was used, the screenplay, which was co-authored by Francis Ford Coppola, splits the source material in two and uses it as a prologue and epilogue and invents the long flashback in between that makes up most of the movie, although the storyline is at least extrapolated from bits of dialogue in the original.

The film takes place in the small town of Dodson, Mississippi, where we first meet the 13-year-old girl Willie Starr walking along the railroad tracks near an abandoned and condemned boarding house that her mother used to run. Willie tells the story to a boy about her own age she encounters on the tracks, launching the flashback in which the boarding house is still occupied and Willie’s beautiful older sister Alva has numerous suitors among the railroad men who live there. But then a railroad employee named Owen Legate arrives to cut the runs that go through Dodson and lay off most of the men who work for the railroad, and things begin to fall apart for the Starr family. Naturally, a romance develops between Alva and Owen (they’re played by Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, what else would you expect?), which ruins the plan hatched by Alva’s mother to push Alva into the arms of a well-to-do railroad superintendent with a sick wife.

Things play out in Southern, depression-era, soap opera fashion, and even though I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, I found the movie really entertaining in an old-fashioned way. I remembered liking it when I saw it before, and I did this time, too. It’s got a fine cast. I’ve always liked Robert Redford, Natalie Wood is beautiful (and it’s amazing how even at the age she was then, you can often see the little girl from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET in her), and Charles Bronson is good in an unsympathetic role as a brutal railroad worker who plays up to Alva’s mother in order to get closer to Alva. Mary Badham, who played Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, plays Willie. The photography by James Wong Howe is excellent, and I think the screenwriters did a pretty good job of expanding the play (which, admittedly, I’ve neither seen nor read).

Overall, I had a fine time watching this one. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a look. If it’s been forty years since you watched it, like me, it’s worth watching again.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Livia's Blog

Livia has a really nice post over on her blog tonight about the life of a freelance writer. It won't necessarily cheer you up, but I think it's very well-written (and not just because she says kind things about me in it). Check it out.

Forgotten Books: Conquerors From the Darkness - Robert Silverberg

I’m writing about another science fiction novel this week, although of somewhat more recent vintage than last week’s THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM. As author Robert Silverberg explains in his introduction to the 1979 Ace reprint of CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS, the story first saw life as a novella, “Spawn of the Deadly Sea”, in the April 1957 issue of the SF digest SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES. (I’d be willing to bet that at least one reader of this blog owns a copy of that particular digest magazine.) A few years later he expanded the story into a full-length novel that was published by Holt, reprinted in paperback by Dell, and then finally reprinted again by Ace in a double volume with Silverberg’s 1957 novel MASTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (which I’ll probably read and comment on eventually). That’s the edition I read. As far as I know, it hasn’t been reprinted since.

CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS is exactly the sort of vivid, galloping action yarn that made me a science fiction fan in the first place. At first it seems like a heroic fantasy novel, set in some totally different universe than ours. The oceans cover the entire planet except for a few floating cities. The only commerce is between those cities, and keeping the seas safe for the merchant vessels is a Viking-like group known as the Sea-Lords. The hero of the novel, a young man named Dovirr, lives in one of the cities but wants to be a Sea-Lord and take to the oceans. He gets his wish and rapidly rises in the ranks, and along the way the reader learns that this is indeed Earth, a thousand years after alien invaders flooded the planet for reasons known only to them, preserving a little of humanity in those floating cities. After a while, the aliens abandoned Earth, also for reasons unknown, leaving it in a vaguely medieval state except for a few remnants of the alien technology that still works.

You’d think that that background, along with Dovirr’s life among the Sea-Lords and his ascent to a position of power among them, might be enough material for a novel, but if you’ve read many books like this, the twist about halfway through won’t come as any surprise: the alien Star Beasts return to take over the planet again, and Dovirr and his comrades have to find some way to stop them with swords and sailing ships.

I really enjoyed this book. In his introduction, Silverberg mentions reading the work of Robert E. Howard, and I can see some Howardian influence in CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS, most notably in the way Dovirr manages to seize command of every situation in which he finds himself, much like Conan, and in a very Howard-like final line. The pace is fast, the writing colorful, and the inner 14-year-old in me just loved it. The adult reader in me thought some parts of the story could have been developed a little more and a little better, but hey, adult readers weren’t the target audience for this yarn in the first place. I really like a lot of Silverberg’s early SF (as well as the sort-core sleaze novels he wrote as Don Elliott), and if you want to settle back and have a fine time, I highly recommend CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Agent of T.E.R.R.A. News

Like Randy Johnson, I've heard from the daughter of Jack Jardine ("Larry Maddock") about my posts on his Agent of T.E.R.R.A. series. I loved these books when I read them back in the Sixties and think it's pretty cool that the author's daughter got in touch with me. The most exciting thing, though, is learning that manuscripts exist of two unpublished books in the series. I can tell you, if any publishers are interested, I'd buy those books right now.

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Sweet Bird of Youth

Livia’s working on a book with a Tennessee Williams connection, so we decided to watch some of the movies based on Williams’ plays that we’d either never seen before or hadn’t seen in a long time. So you can expect more posts like this over the next few weeks.

I’m certain I’d never seen SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH before. It came out several years after CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (my favorite Williams film so far) and also stars Paul Newman. No Elizabeth Taylor this time, though. It was also written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks, who did CAT. In this one Newman plays a young man named Chance Wayne, a would-be actor who has failed at every turn. He returns to his hometown in Mississippi with an aging actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), he met in Palm Beach, and Chance is convinced she’s going to be his ticket to fame and fortune. Along the way, though, he wants to be reunited with his former girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of a powerful, corrupt politician named Boss Finley (Ed Begley in a performance that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), who also has an evil son who hates Chance.

Lots of possibilities there for lurid, overheated drama, and the movie takes advantage of most of them. I kept thinking that if this was a novel and the corrupt politician wound up dead about 40 pages in and Chance was blamed for the murder, this would be a Gold Medal by Harry Whittington or another Williams (Charles), or possibly Gil Brewer or Day Keene. But since it’s based on a Tennessee Williams play, that doesn’t happen. Instead everybody lashes everybody else half to death with impassioned speeches for a couple of hours. That sounds more critical than I mean for it to. It’s just that with Williams, you know going in you’re going to get characters who are going through a lot of raw emotional torture. And although some of it comes across as a little hokey and over-the-top now, most of it works.

Nobody was ever better than Paul Newman at playing a thoroughly unsympathetic cad that you wind up rooting for anyway, and he does his usual fine job in this film. Geraldine Page is also pretty good as the actress who fears that her comeback film is a flop. Ed Begley chews the scenery a little too much for my taste as Boss Finley, but Rip Torn is pure evil as his son. Shirley Knight, as Chance’s former girlfriend, isn’t given much to do, but she looks good doing it.

This is a really bleak film with a studio-mandated ending that’s not really happy but at least somewhat hopeful, an ending that Williams and Brooks both disliked. I thought it worked all right, though, and without it the movie might have been too overpoweringly grim. Even as it is, it’s hard to say that I actually enjoyed it. I admired it, though, and think it’s a pretty good film. I’m not sure how I missed seeing it in the past 40-some-odd years, though. It must have played on TV dozens of times when I was growing up. Oh, well, that’s why this series of posts is called Movies I’ve Missed (Until Now).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gran Torino

We try to watch most of Clint Eastwood’s movies, although sometimes it takes us a while to get around to them. For instance, we just watched GRAN TORINO. I like Eastwood’s films because most of them have actual characters and not just an abundance of special effects. GRAN TORINO certainly falls into that category.

I’m sure most of you have seen this one by now. For those of you who haven’t, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed, retired auto worker in Detroit who stubbornly stays in his old neighborhood despite the fact that all his neighbors are now Hmong immigrants. Walt is a tough, profane, hard-to-like old codger who uses a lot of racist language, but over the course of the movie, if we judge by his actions, we learn that he’s not a racist at all. He just doesn’t like or respect anybody who hasn’t earned it. He befriends the young man next door, who’s in trouble with the local Hmong gang, and you just know that’s going to lead to a confrontation sooner or later.

For a movie with a ton of bad language and more than a little violence, there are an awful lot of funny, touching moments in GRAN TORINO as well. Eastwood is wonderful as usual as Walt, although I’m a little surprised critics haven’t started leveling the same sort of charges against him that they did against John Wayne: “He’s just Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood.” Maybe so, but does anybody do it better? (Anyway, I don’t think that’s true of either Eastwood or Wayne.) The young Hmong actors who lead the supporting cast are fine, too.

Overall, this is an excellent film, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Hunch - Seymour Shubin

I hadn’t read anything by Seymour Shubin before, although I have the Hard Case Crime reprint of his novel WITNESS TO MYSELF. He has a brand-new novel out from the excellent British publisher Murder Slim Press, THE HUNCH, and that was my introduction to Shubin’s work.

As Dave Zeltserman points out in his introduction to the novel, Shubin’s characters are normal people, the sort we encounter everyday, the sort who might even be us. The couple at the center of THE HUNCH certainly fits this description. Dr. Jon Hendricks is a successful dentist, while his wife Cindy is an aspiring little theatre actor. They live in a suburb of Philadelphia and have a daughter who’s about to get married. In other words, their lives may not be perfect, but they’re pretty darned good. And you know right away, of course, since this is a noir novel, that all that is about to fall apart on them.

It does just as soon as the book opens, when Cindy confesses to Jon that not only has she had a one night stand with an actor/director she knows from her little theatre circle, but she has just killed him because he threatened to reveal their relationship and then attacked her. Jon is horrified by both revelations, but he loves his wife and wants to protect her, so he takes the necessary steps to conceal her involvement with the murder. The rest of the novel is concerned with the effects that Cindy’s crime and Jon’s cover-up of it have on them as individuals and as a couple, especially when their best friend, a true-crime writer who narrates the book, begins to suspect that one or both of them may be guilty.

That aspect gives the book one of its most distinctive qualities. The narrator is telling the story, some of which involves him directly in the action, but much of it doesn’t. He’s relating it after the fact, and with such insight into the thoughts and motivations of the other characters, that the book almost, but not quite, seems to alternate between first and third person, the style that so many thriller writers use today. Shubin’s approach is just enough different that it comes across as slightly odd, but he makes it work, and very well, at that.

This is just the sort of book you’d think that I wouldn’t like. It’s pure psychological suspense, with few twists and turns in the plot. The murder happens off-screen, before the book even begins, and after that, well, nothing much really happens until the end, and even that is pretty low-key (but very effective, with a great final line). But somehow Shubin works some storytelling magic and kept me flipping the pages at a fast pace to find out what was going to happen. I’m not sure how he did it, but THE HUNCH is a fine novel and one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading more of Seymour Shubin’s work.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): The Big Tease

I’ve never been much on “mockumentaries”, although I’ve seen some that were pretty entertaining, like A MIGHTY WIND. One of my daughters is a fan of Craig Ferguson, though, and she picked up a copy of THE BIG TEASE, a movie Ferguson co-wrote and starred in ten years ago (which I think is the approximate cut-off point for these Movies I’ve Missed posts – they have to be at least ten years old). It’s supposed to be a documentary about Crawford McKenzie (Ferguson), a Glasgow hairdresser who’s been invited to Los Angeles for the prestigious Platinum Scissors competition, a “hair-off” for world-famous stylists. With a camera crew following him around, Crawford embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in L.A. when he finds out that he’s not actually supposed to compete after all. He was just invited to be a member of the audience. But he’s determined not to let his friends and family down, so he tries to find a way into the competition, no matter what it takes.

I think Ferguson is a pretty funny guy, and he lives up to that here. THE BIG TEASE was made when he was a regular cast member on THE DREW CAREY SHOW (a series I always enjoyed, even in its later years when ABC was just burning off the episodes during the summer, and out of order at that). Carey shows up playing himself in this movie, and there’s an excellent supporting cast including Charles Napier, David Rasche, and Frances Fisher (who was once police detective Debra Saxon on the great hardboiled mystery soap opera, THE EDGE OF NIGHT). I laughed quite a bit and got caught up in the story. THE BIG TEASE is silly, no doubt about that, but it works and I enjoyed it. If you haven’t seen it, I think it’s well worth watching.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Other Boleyn Girl

First of all, I don’t even recall if I ever took English History in college, and if I did, it was a heck of a long time ago and I’ve slept since then. So I don’t really know how much of this movie is fiction and how much is based on fact. Oh, I’d heard of Anne Boleyn, of course, and I had a pretty good idea how it was going to end. But you don’t watch period costume dramas for the history, or at least I don’t. When I watch one, it’s for the spectacle, the soap opera, and (let’s be honest here) the swordfights.

Well, you get two out of three in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL.

Natalie Portman is Anne Boleyn, Scarlett Johannson is her sister Mary, and Eric Bana is a buffed-up Henry VIII who doesn’t look at all like the usual pictures of the king. There’s all sorts of political intrigue, love triangles, lust, adultery, near-incest, and heartbreak. With all these rich, powerful, beautiful, angst-filled people running around, it was like watching the GOSSIP GIRL version of English history. (Credit to Shayna for coming up with that dead-on review while we were watching the movie.) But it’s well-acted, sumptuously staged, and beautifully photographed. I enjoyed it. It could have used a few swordfights, though.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Girl in the Golden Atom - Ray Cummings

Science fiction existed long before people ever called it that, of course, dating back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and quite possibly earlier. And there was quite a bit of it published in the pulps before the term came into existence. A couple of examples are the debut novelette by Ray Cummings, “The Girl in the Golden Atom”, originally published in ARGOSY in 1919, and its novel-length sequel, “The People of the Golden Atom”, published a year later, which were combined into the novel THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM in 1923. That novel has been reprinted numerous times, often in an abridged version.

I just read the original pulp versions, courtesy of an upcoming reprint edition from Beb Books. Sometimes these eighty- and ninety-year-old pulp yarns don’t hold up well for today’s readers. What about THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM? Well, it does and it doesn’t.

The original novelette finds five men sitting around their club (gentlemen used to belong to clubs, you know, where they would sit around and smoke and drink brandy and tell each other about their adventures): The Chemist, The Doctor, The Banker, The Big Business Man, and The Very Young Man. Yes, that’s how Cummings refers to them throughout, although eventually he does reveal their names. It seems that The Chemist has discovered by using a super-high-powered microscope that there are worlds within worlds and habitated universes within the very atoms of everything that makes up our world. He has also developed chemicals that will allow him to shrink and enlarge, so he can visit the universe he has discovered within the atoms of his mother’s golden wedding ring. In other words, Cummings was there first with the idea that sparked the plots for countless comic books and movies later on.

In the first part of the story (the original novelette), The Chemist visits the Golden Atom, falls in love with the beautiful girl he spied on there, and helps out her people in a war with an enemy city-state. He does this by growing to giant size and stomping on the enemy army. (To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) Since he decides not to come back to our world, eventually The Doctor, The Big Business Man, and The Very Young Man use the chemicals he left behind to follow him into the Golden Atom. They find their friend there, but they also find a revolution, excitement, danger, and romance, along with a lot of shrinking to hide from enemies and growing to giant size to stomp them. There’s a lot of stomping, both deliberate and accidental, in this book, which at times provides it with some rather bizarre humor.

The first half of the book is pretty slow, an example of what some people call travelogue SF, where the characters walk around, look at stuff, and talk about the history, geography, and social customs of the world where they find themselves. There’s also a lot of pseudo-scientific discussion about the whole shrinking process. In the second half of the book, though, the revolution gets underway and the whole thing turns into a colorful, violent, fast-paced adventure that fits pretty well into the sword-and-planet subgenre of science fiction.

So, is THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM worth reading nearly ninety years later? If you’re interested in the history of science fiction, definitely. If you looking for an entertaining adventure novel, it qualifies there, too, although you have to be patient and the writing style is definitely old-fashioned. Cummings isn’t nearly the storyteller that his contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs was, and the scientific speculation seems pretty silly now, but back then it was pretty dazzling stuff, I imagine. I enjoyed the book and I think some of you would, too.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Code

I like a good caper movie every now and then. THE CODE features Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas as rival art thieves who get drawn into a scheme by a Russian mobster to steal a couple of Faberge eggs. The two of them are forced to work together to pull off the intricate heist, while being pursued by a dogged police detective (played by Robert Forster), who has been after Freeman’s character for years.

As is par for the course with movies like this, not everything is what it seems, but the participants all seem to be having fun and director Mimi Leder keeps things moving along at a reasonably fast pace. Even with the twists and turns, I thought there was a certain by-the-numbers quality about this movie, but it’s still entertaining and has some moments of sly humor about it, such as the exchange where Freeman and Banderas argue about whether a particular incident happened in TOPKAPI or RIFIFI. THE CODE isn’t on the same level as those films, but it’s worth watching.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Sad Story

Since I posted last night about a movie that features a dusty old bookstore, I thought I’d relate this true story. A few years ago while on vacation, I went into a used bookstore I had visited a few times in the past. It wasn’t a great store, you understand, but it was okay. It had quite a bit of Sixties and Seventies men’s adventure, science fiction, and Westerns, and it was run by an old guy who was just like all the other old guys most of you have seen running dusty old used bookstores: a little gruff, but you could tell he liked being surrounded by all those books.

So when I walked into the store a few years ago and looked around, I knew right away that something was wrong. It was clean. The shelves were neat and orderly. And there was a perky, thirtyish woman behind the counter. I started looking around. All the books were maybe not new, but they were recent, and most of them had been bestsellers. Where were the stacks of Penetrator and Malko books? Where were Mack Bolan and The Survivalist? Where was the old guy?

I got my answer a few minutes later as I overheard (well, actually, eavesdropped on) a conversation between the woman running the store and another customer who asked about the old guy who used to be there. “Oh, he retired,” the woman said. “So my mother and I bought the store because we thought it would be fun. Of course, the first thing we had to do was get rid of all those old books that were in here!”

If some of you feel a little sick to your stomach right now, I completely understand.

I’ve been back to that store a couple of times since then, and I’ve bought a handful of books there, although it’s hard to find anything I’d actually want. But I’m thinking I may not go again. The place is haunted by the ghosts of all those old books that were summarily gotten rid of. I just hope the new owners had a big sale and didn’t just box them up and put them in the dumpster. That would be just too painful to contemplate.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Based on a young adult novel, at first glance INKHEART is a fairly standard fantasy adventure movie about people called silvertongues who have the ability to read aloud from a book and make things in it come to life. Brendan Fraser plays the protagonist, an American whose profession is repairing rare books. His wife mysteriously disappeared a number of years earlier, and with his 12-year-old daughter, he travels the world searching for a copy of the ultra-rare novel INKHEART. While they’re in England, some bizarre, sinister characters start stalking them, and that leads to a series of special-effects-laden adventures.

All this is pretty well done, but what sets INKHEART the movie apart are the numerous moments that make you realize that it’s really about the love of reading and the power of the written word. You get some funny, scary, exciting adventures along with it, but for me (and I’m betting for many of you, if you watch the film), the best scenes are the ones where people poke around in dusty old bookstores and libraries and obviously love being surrounded by books.

I like Brendan Fraser in most of his movies, and he’s fine here. The always interesting Paul Bettany has a good part as a roguish character who may be a friend or may not be. Overall, INKHEART is a very entertaining movie, and I especially recommend it if you love books and storytelling like I do.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

As I may have mentioned before, we’re not big on horror movies, but we watched and enjoyed the first two UNDERWORLD movies, so it was a given we’d watch the third one, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS. This is actually a prequel to the first two movies, explaining the beginnings of the centuries-long war between the vampires and the lycans, a race of werewolf/human hybrids who retain some of their human intelligence when they transform into wolves. As such, it’s set in some vaguely medieval time, so there are a lot of castles and swordplay and such. With its blend of gothic horror and adventure, it reminded me a little of the Warhammer novels, and with the romance, political intrigue, and soap-opera-like dramatics, it also struck me as the sort of story that Book Creations Inc. used to produce in any number of historical family sagas (some of which were written by yours truly).

Anyway, although it’s kind of predictable, I enjoyed RISE OF THE LYCANS quite a bit. In fact, it may be my favorite of the series so far. Rhona Mitra replaces Kate Beckinsale as the heroine (Beckinsale provides some narration and makes a cameo appearance). Mitra is as good-looking as Beckinsale and has a really hot accent (how’s that for incisive film criticism?), so the change is okay with me. There are swordfights galore, bloody battles between lycans and vampires, the hero has a big galoot sidekick (giving weight to my theory that most action movies are really Westerns, regardless of their trappings), and after the inspiring ending, there’s an epilogue setting up the next film in the series. Needless to say, we’ll watch it.

By the way, even though this is a prequel, it’ll make a lot more sense if you’ve seen the other two UNDERWORLD movies first

Friday, July 10, 2009

Forgotten Books: Armed ... Dangerous ... - Brett Halliday (Robert Terrall)

A while back I had an email conversation with an author friend of mine about the relative merits of Robert Terrall’s Mike Shayne novels. When I was first reading the Shayne novels back in the Sixties and early Seventies, I didn’t know that Davis Dresser, the original Brett Halliday, had had so many ghost-writers contributing to the series. But I did know that as the Sixties went on, I began to like the novels less, and by the Seventies, I didn’t care for them at all. Later, of course, I found out that Robert Terrall was the author of the books I didn’t like.

However, a number of people whose opinions I respect do like Terrall’s Shayne novels, and since I hadn’t read one in close to forty years, I thought I ought to do so and see if my opinion of them has changed since then.

Well . . . it has and it hasn’t.

ARMED . . . DANGEROUS . . . , from 1966, is one of the books I never got around to reading back then. It’s got a nice McGinnis cover, at least on the first edition, and although Mike Shayne is nowhere to be seen, the opening section certainly has plenty of action and intrigue to recommend it. Early on, there’s a beautiful French blonde, a jewel heist, the brutal shooting of an off-duty cop, and a kidnapping. But there’s a twist coming, and I’ll admit, Terrall slipped it right past me for a good while, although I caught it before it was revealed. From that point on, there are a lot more twists, as the story takes on a much larger scale and becomes part caper novel/part thriller with international implications. It’s very well written, a little dated in some respects today but not all that much, and the pace is spectacular, leaving the reader whipping through the pages to see what’s going to happen. There’s even a bit of humor as Terrall name-checks another of his pseudonyms. This is a very entertaining novel. The problem is, it’s barely a Mike Shayne novel.

Oh, a character named Shayne plays a huge part in it, make no mistake about that, but he’s so lacking in personality that the protagonist could be almost anybody. There’s no sense that this is the same character who inhabits all the books in the series actually written by Davis Dresser. Terrall may have been a better wordsmith than Dresser was, I won’t argue that point, but Dresser’s Shayne is a fascinating character, no more honest than he has to be but with a decent core, and maybe one of the most intelligent characters in mystery fiction, who is always two steps ahead of the other people in the books and three steps ahead of the reader. I think most of the other authors who ghosted full-length Shayne novels were able to capture this to a certain extent, and Terrall did, too, at first, but as his stint on the series went on, I believe he lost his handle on the character. However, I could be wrong about this, and I plan to read more of his books to see what I think.

In the meantime, should you read ARMED . . . DANGEROUS . . .? Absolutely. It’s well-written and a lot of fun. If it had featured anybody but Mike Shayne, I’d give it an unqualified recommendation. But if you’ve never read a Shayne novel before, this is definitely not the place to start.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


KNOWING is your basic action thriller/science fiction/horror film about the concepts of determinism versus the randomness of the universe. And, oh, yeah, the end of the world. Nicolas Cage plays an MIT professor who comes into possession of a paper covered with apparently random numbers that were written by a little girl and put into an elementary school time capsule fifty years earlier. He sees a pattern in the numbers, starts to decipher them, and soon realizes that they correspond to the dates of violent disasters that happened in the intervening fifty years. And there are still some dates and disasters to come . . .

This movie is of possible interest to mystery fans because it was written by Ryne Douglas Pearson, the author of several pretty good suspense novels featuring a team of FBI agents. And most of the way, KNOWING is a pretty good little film that explores issues mainstream films often don’t. But then, boy, does it do some serious falling apart in the end. Livia and I both wound up disappointed. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but I wouldn’t rush right out to pick up the DVD.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Reservoir Dogs

There are a lot of movies that most of you have seen already, but that, for one reason or another, I’ve missed along the way. I’ve written about some of them before, here on the blog, but I’m going to make it a semi-regular series, Movies I’ve Missed (Until Now). The first one up, which I watched last night: Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS.

I admit, I haven’t seen much of Tarantino’s work. I liked the episode of CSI that he wrote and directed a few years ago, and I’ve seen PULP FICTION, which I thought was okay. But I like the episode of THE SIMPSONS that parodies PULP FICTION more than I like the movie itself. In fact, every time Tarantino has a bunch of guys sitting around talking about various oddball subjects (as he does in RESERVOIR DOGS, too), I keep hearing Chief Wiggum saying, “You know what they call a Krustyburger with cheese in France, Lou?”

Anyway, RESERVOIR DOGS. You’ve seen it: gang of professional criminals, botched diamond robbery, extremely bloody aftermath, broken up by the back-stories of some of the characters. Great cast. I was especially impressed with Lawrence Tierney and Harvey Keitel. The violence is effective, and so is the use of music. Love Steven Wright (one of my favorite comedians) as the DJ. Unfortunately, as I touched on above, all of Tarantino’s favorite bits have been parodied so much it’s hard to take them seriously. Still, I have to admire the guy. His work has a style and a voice of its own, and I like that. If I had seen RESERVOIR DOGS when it was new, it might have impressed me more. As it is, I liked it well enough to say that if, like me, you’ve never seen it before, you really ought to watch it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Not Your Usual Gold Medal

I was in a thrift store today looking over some shelves of used paperbacks when a bright yellow spine caught my eye. I grabbed the book immediately, of course, recognizing it as a Gold Medal. But it turned out not to be what I expected. I didn't even know this one existed. Now, I'm not exactly a poetry-lovin' kind of guy, but . . . it's a Gold Medal. I couldn't leave it there. Anyway, it looks like a pretty good collection, heavy on the classics like Longfellow, Emerson, Whittier, and the like. What the heck, it was only 40 cents. And I can't help but wonder . . . what's that dame really got in mind? Why's she leading that poor sucker down that country lane? Is there a dead body at the end of it, or a fortune in loot from an armored car robbery? Is this really a lost Charles Williams novel, POETRY GIRL? Hey, it is a Gold Medal, after all.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop - Lee Goldberg

MR. MONK AND THE DIRTY COP, the latest novel in the tie-in series by Lee Goldberg, will be released next week, and you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. I’ve mentioned here before how much I enjoy these books, and this one is no exception.

MR. MONK AND THE DIRTY COP finds Adrian Monk being forced out of his comfort zone again (as if Monk actually has a comfort zone). Budget cuts cause his old friend Captain Stottlemeyer to fire him from his job as a consultant for the San Francisco Police Department, so Monk winds up going to work for a snazzy, high-tech private detective and security outfit called Intertect (a deliberate nod on Goldberg’s part to the old MANNIX TV series – and not the only such nod in this book, either). Naturally, there are several cases going on, and also naturally, some of them wind up being linked in ways that aren’t readily apparent at first. Monk, with the able assistance of narrator Natalie Teeger, sorts through them in his own distinctive way. The stakes are raised higher than usual, though, when someone he’s close to winds up in jail, charged with murder.

As always, Lee Goldberg has the voices of the characters down perfectly and spins his yarn in smooth, often funny, and occasionally poignant prose. The plot has just the right level of complexity. There are a lot of excellent tie-in novels out there (the level of writing in the genre has never been higher than it is right now), but the Monk books are some of the very best. Don’t miss MR. MONK AND THE DIRTY COP.