Monday, November 30, 2009

Mr. Monk in Trouble - Lee Goldberg

Bill Crider posted about this book earlier today and said just about everything I could say about it, only better. You can read Bill's comments here, if you haven't already. The only thing I can add is that this is probably my favorite Monk novel so far, and that's saying a lot. It comes out tomorrow, I believe, so you'll have plenty of time to pick up some as Christmas presents for your friends and family who are Monk fans. They'll love you for it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wild Lovers - Orrie Hitt

This novel, a 1961 release from Kozy Books, is a typical Orrie Hitt yarn in some respects, but not in others. It’s a backwoods book, as you can probably tell from the cover, and sort of reminds me of some of Harry Whittington’s novels. It’s about the lives and loves of several people who come from a poor area in upstate New York known as Shanty Road. (There is, in fact, a sleaze novel by Whittington called SHANTY ROAD, published by Original Novels in 1954 under the Whit Harrison name. It would have made a good title for this book, too.)

Unlike the usual male protagonist you find in Hitt’s novels, the main character in WILD LOVERS is a young woman, Joy Gordon, who was orphaned at sixteen when a fire burned down the farm house where she lived with her parents, killing her mother and father. Left on her own, Joy moves into a shed that remains standing on the property and supports herself by selling eggs from the flock of chickens that’s almost her only possession of any value.

Almost, but not quite, because the property she inherited from her parents includes the only easy access to a lake which some developers want to turn into a hunting and fishing resort (another interest of Hitt’s). As the novel opens, though, the real estate agent in charge of the negotiations won’t meet Joy’s price. Actually, the agent is just trying to get her to go to bed with him, because in the five years since she was orphaned, she has grown up into a virginal, twenty-one-year-old beauty.

Helping out Joy is her neighbor, mechanic Pug Stark, who does meet the usual description of a big, burly Hitt hero. Pug comes from a real white trash family: his father refuses to work, and his sister is pregnant and has no idea who the father is. (Ah, the unwanted, unwed pregnancy, another favorite theme of Hitt’s.)

Then a stranger shows up, an artist from New York City whose family owns one of the properties along Shanty Road. He’s come up there to work and brought his beautiful mistress with him, and he’s a big, brawny guy, too. When he sees Joy, he immediately wants to paint a portrait of her – nude, of course – and his arrival changes everything, as Joy winds up juggling the three men who are interested in her, a neat reversal of the standard Hitt plot where the hero has to decide between three women.

That’s not the only twist that Hitt throws into the plot, as characters do things that take the reader by surprise and turn out not to be exactly what they appear to be at first. The ending won’t be any huge shock for Hitt fans, but it is pretty satisfying. The writing is good in this one, too, not quite as terse and hardboiled as in some of Hitt’s other books but with quite a few good lines.

WILD LOVERS is a good solid Orrie Hitt novel and very entertaining. If you haven’t read his work before, it would be a decent place to start, and if you have, you’ll want to read this one, too.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: White Indian -- Donald Clayton Porter (Noel Gerson)

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a novel that has a connection to the Pilgrims, although it’s set somewhat later. WHITE INDIAN is the first book in what started out as the Colonization of America series. It opens in 1685, several generations after the founding of the first English colony in North America. Settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony have established an outpost known as Fort Springfield in the valley of the Connecticut River, but they have to worry constantly about Indian attacks, and with good reason. During one such raid by Seneca warriors, a young couple named Jed and Minnie Harper are killed, and their infant son is carried off by the Seneca chief Ghonka, who adopts the boy, names him Renno, and raises him to be a great warrior.

That’s just the beginning of this novel, which follows Renno to manhood. Like Tarzan, he comes to realize that he’s different from those who have raised him. Also like Tarzan, he’s the biggest, fastest, strongest bad-ass in the jungle – I mean forest – and eventually allies himself with the English while still maintaining his ties to the Seneca. He fights on the side of the English during clashes with the French, who are also trying to establish colonies in North America, and starts a long-running feud with a Frenchman who’s so evil he practically twirls his mustache. Like most of the historical fiction produced by the book packaging company Book Creations Inc., WHITE INDIAN and its sequels contain a heaping helping of soap opera to go along with plenty of colorful and sweeping action. Sometimes the historical accuracy was less than rigorous, but the editorial policy at BCI was “Never let history get in the way of a good story.” And BCI was definitely in the business of turning out good stories.

Now here’s the background of this series, for those of you who are interested. “Donald Clayton Porter”, the author of this book, was actually Noel Gerson, who was also the original “Dana Fuller Ross”. Gerson wrote a number of historical novels over the years, under his own names and those two house-names, as well as the pseudonym Bruce Lancaster and possibly others. His style is pretty unmistakable, no matter what name is on the book. His prose is a little clunky in places and sometimes he skimped on the action scenes, but he possessed the true storyteller’s knack of getting the reader to keep turning the pages. There’s also a mild edge of sexual kinkiness in many of his books, and it shows up in the White Indian novels as well. Renno has a habit of deflowering most of the beautiful English virgins he meets, and then his sidekicks among the colonists marry them and everybody is happy.

When the series began in 1979, following on the success of John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles and Gerson’s Wagons West novels as Dana Fuller Ross (both BCI series), it was known as the Colonization of America series, as noted above. But within three or four books, it became the White Indian series, and subsequent reprints of the early books carried that name instead. I suspect this was because someone at BCI or the publisher, Bantam, realized that readers were asking for more of those White Indian books, rather than using the more cumbersome original title. The series ran for 28 books, most of them featuring descendants of the original Renno (the longest-lasting hero in the series was also named Renno), and the books continued to appear until the mid-Nineties. Gerson wrote the first twelve, Hugh Zachary wrote #13 through #26, and BCI editor Paul Block authored the final two books in the series, which are collectible now because the series had pretty low print runs by that time. Zachary took over at least two other BCI series in mid-stream, THE AUSTRALIANS under the name William Stuart Long (originated by Vivian Long) and CHILDREN OF THE LION, published under the house-name Peter Danielson (originally George Warren). The Donald Clayton Porter name was also used on the stand-alone novel PONY EXPRESS, which I believe was by Gerson, and the short-lived Winning the West series, written probably by Gene Shelton, although Zachary may have contributed to it, as well.

As for my own connection with all this, I worked for BCI, too, and while I wrote six books as Dana Fuller Ross (the Wagons West prequels known as The Frontier Trilogy and The Empire Trilogy), I was never Donald Clayton Porter. I did one book as Peter Danielson, the final book in the Children of the Lion series. At its high point, BCI was a great place to work, with excellent editors, and the company turned out a tremendous amount of top-notch historical and Western yarns during the Seventies, Eighties, and early Nineties. If you’ve never sampled any of their series, WHITE INDIAN would be a fine place to start.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who celebrate it today. I'm very thankful for many things, including the fact that this will be our first Thanksgiving in the new house and all four of us will be here. I have to get pages done today, but there'll also be time for plenty of good food, maybe the dog show on TV, and visiting with the family. Then I'll be back tomorrow with a Forgotten Books post. Enjoy the day, everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Finding Neverland

We never watched this movie when it came out a few years ago, but we’ve gotten around to it now, and as it turns out, it’s a pretty good one.

FINDING NEVERLAND, not surprisingly, is about British playwright J.M. Barrie, the author of PETER PAN, and tells the story of how Barrie was inspired to write that play by his friendship with a young widow and her four rambunctious sons. There’s a little romance between Barrie (who was married at the time) and the widow, but it’s all very chaste and proper, as you’d expect from upper-class Brits in the early Twentieth Century. Mostly, though, it’s a story about the power of the imagination, and while I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, it works very well for what it’s trying to do. The photography is beautiful, all drenched in rich, lush colors. The pace is a little slow, but not enough to bother me. This is really a movie where the actors have to shine, and Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in the leads do so. (You can't watch Depp pretending to be a pirate without thinking about Captain Jack Sparrow, or at least I can't.) The supporting cast is good, too, even the little kids for the most part.

Clearly, this isn’t the sort of movie I normally watch – nothing blows up real good and there’s no nudity – but everybody needs a change of pace, I guess. It probably helps that I was a big fan of the TV version of PETER PAN starring Mary Martin that ran just about every year when I was a kid. I enjoyed FINDING NEVERLAND quite a bit and think that it’s well worth watching.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ticket to Ride - Ed Gorman

As I’ve mentioned here many times, Ed Gorman is an old friend of mine, so what you’re getting here isn’t an unbiased review. It is, however, an honest one.

TICKET TO RIDE is the latest in Ed’s long-running series about Sam McCain, lawyer and private eye from the medium-sized town of Black River Falls, Iowa. Time has proceeded at almost the same pace as real life in this series. It was 1958 in the first Sam McCain novel, THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED, which came out ten years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long), and in TICKET TO RIDE the year is 1965, just as opposition to the Vietnam War is starting to increase. Sam has organized a rally to protest the war, which has attracted the attention of the mostly conservative citizens of Black River Falls. One of them, a powerful local businessman, shows up at the rally and gets into a scuffle with one of the speakers, a noted anti-war activist from out of town. When the businessman turns up dead later that night, the activist is the leading suspect in the murder and winds up in jail. Sam, of course, sets out to clear his name.

Also of course, since this is a Gorman novel, nothing is exactly what it seems, and as it turns out, nearly everyone involved in the case has something to hide, as Sam finds out when murder crops up again. This is a finely-plotted mystery novel with a number of suspects and a surprising but logical ending. As always, one of the main attractions of Ed’s work is that there is very little that’s black-and-white. None of the characters are all-noble or all-villainous, including Sam himself, who’s a very likable narrator because he’s honest about his own flaws.

And I don’t think there’s any author who has broken my heart more with poignant little moments of humanity than Ed Gorman. In every book, it seems like there’s at least one powerfully understated passage that speaks directly to the fear and sadness and joy that makes us who we are, and that’s certainly true in TICKET TO RIDE. It’s what makes Ed not just one of the best mystery novelists, but one of the best novelists, period, working today. TICKET TO RIDE will be out soon, and I recommend it highly.

Texas Rangers, July 1957

I haven't posted a pulp cover here in a long time, so since I just put one up on the WesternPulps group, I thought I'd upload it here, too. The actual author of the Jim Hatfield novel in this issue is Walker A. Tompkins. I read it years ago, and it's a good one.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia

I wasn’t expecting much from this direct-to-DVD action movie, but it turned out to be fairly entertaining. It’s the story of a Navy SEAL team sent into the jungles of Colombia on a recon mission as a favor to the Colombian government because of a tip that Colombian insurgents are up to something big and no good. When they get there, they find themselves in the middle of a whole series of double- and triple-crosses. There’s an abundance of running and shooting, the occasional knife fight, and lots of stuff blows up real good. It all plays like a slightly bigger budget episode of THE UNIT, minus the soap opera stuff back home but complete with the gruff, bend-the-rules colonel in the control center running things. The leads are Joe Manganiello (also known as “Hey, it’s that guy who used to be on ONE TREE HILL. You know, he played Brooke’s boyfriend for, like, half a season.”) and somebody from the WWE who’s billed as Mr. Kennedy (a.k.a. “Who?” “I dunno, I can’t keep up with any o’ them rasslers since The Rock left.”)

Snarky comments aside, Manganiello and Kennedy both make pretty solid action heroes and turn in decent performances. The production values are good, the action scenes are edited so that you can tell what’s happening most of the time, and the script at least tries to throw in a few plot twists, although you’ll probably see most of them coming. The movie is only an hour and a half and seemed to move even faster, and I enjoyed it. If you’re action/adventure fan, I think it’s worth watching.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Star Trek

Here I am, late as usual, writing about a movie all of you saw months ago in the theaters. But what the heck. That never shut me up before.

Like it was yesterday, I remember sitting down to watch the premiere of STAR TREK in 1967. (If it wasn’t 1967, don’t blame me. I don’t fact-check these things, you know.) I was a big science-fiction fan and was really looking forward to it, and it didn’t disappoint me. Sure, the original series looks a little cheesy now, but I never noticed that then. I loved the show, watched all the episodes as they aired, watched the reruns, watched the syndicated reruns, watched the cartoon show, and read all the books based on both. Gradually, though, the enthusiasm waned. When the movies started coming out, I watched them and liked them all right. I didn’t catch up on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION until after it had ended its run, but then I saw all the episodes in reruns and became a fan of that one, too. Then I watched all the other spin-off series (gave up on VOYAGER before it ended, though). Read some of the tie-in novels here and there along the way. So I consider myself a Star Trek fan, although not an obsessive one by any means.

Which brings us to the new STAR TREK movie.

Of course I had to watch it. Several years ago, before there was even any discussion about this one, I read a comment from someone, sorry I don’t remember who, that said, “You’ll know you’re really old when you see different actors playing Kirk and Spock in the movies.” So I guess I’m really old, which comes as no surprise. And as such, I was prepared to be cantankerous and find fault with the new movie. For about two-thirds of it, I still was. I kept thinking, “Yeah, the special effects are good, and the actors are okay, and the story’s pretty interesting, but . . . but . . . but this isn’t right! And that over there’s wrong! And that’s not the way it was!”

But then the movie springs its nice little plot twist that makes everything okay. I won’t go into the details of it, in consideration for the two or three of you who haven’t seen the film already, but it put a grin on my face, I can tell you that. And the overall effect is to make me say that I liked this movie quite a bit and will certainly watch any sequels they’d like to make. I don’t think the magic of the original is quite there, at least not for me, but the movie comes close to capturing it here and there.

It also makes me want to go and read some of the tie-in novels. There are plenty of them out there I’ve never read. Whether or not I’ll ever get around to it is another question. But I might.

UPDATE: The quote about different actors playing Kirk and Spock comes from my friend Don Herron.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Beat Farmers

Here's another group I like that I'd never heard of until I found them while poking around YouTube. Evidently the band has something of a tragic history, the lead singer having died of a heart attack on stage during a performance.

Southern Culture on the Skids

My musical tastes tend toward jazz, movie soundtracks, rock oldies, and classic country. But I heard this group on the radio the other day and liked their songs, so here's some music for your Saturday. The sound quality in this clip isn't very good, but you can get an idea of the group's enthusiasm and sense of fun.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Nick Adams Stories - Ernest Hemingway

Does anybody read Ernest Hemingway anymore? Is his work still taught in school, or has he gone the way of so many other Dead White Males? I read “Big Two-Hearted River” (which is in this collection) and THE SUN ALSO RISES for high school classes back in the Sixties, but I was already a Hemingway fan and eventually read just about everything he wrote.

And even though I’d read some of the stories separately, I read this collection when it came out in 1972. Like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Hemingway’s stories about his sort-of alter ego Nick Adams weren’t written and published in chronological order, so whoever put together THE NICK ADAMS STORIES set out to rearrange them and include some material that wasn’t published in Hemingway’s lifetime to form a somewhat coherent narrative of Nick’s life. While in general I’m not sure that sort of thing is a good idea (L. Sprague De Camp did the same thing with the Conan stories, which as it turns out are much more effective if read in the order in which Howard wrote them, as the recent Del Rey editions have proven), the end result here is to make the stories read more like an episodic novel, and it works very well. Some of them, as the preface points out, make a lot more sense this way.

Of course, the stories are good anyway, no matter in which order you read them. Included are classics like “The Light of the World” (which has one of the all-time great opening paragraphs), “The Killers”, and “Big Two-Hearted River”. The previously unpublished material includes the novella-length “The Last Good Country”, which unfortunately ends in the middle of the action, as if Hemingway couldn’t figure out where to go from there. What we have of the story is really good, though, and it’s a shame he never finished it because it could have been a classic hardboiled adventure yarn.

I had a good time rereading this book, although I did notice one thing. It may be better not to read too many Hemingway stories back to back, because his style is so distinctive that after a while it starts to seem a little like a parody of itself. That’s a minor complaint, though. THE NICK ADAMS STORIES is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one that I highly recommend.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rocky and Bullwinkle

It was fifty years ago today that ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE debuted. I was in first grade at the time and don't recall if I saw that first episode, but I do have vivid memories of watching it every day after school about that time, and for many years afterwards I watched the show every chance I got. From what little I've seen of it in recent years, it holds up pretty well, especially the segments with Rocky and Bullwinkle themselves. The other stuff doesn't amuse me quite as much as it did back then. I really ought to pick up some of the DVDs, but I don't know when I'd find the time to watch them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume 1

I was going to continue reading the Marvel Masterworks editions reprinting THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (I have Volumes 2 and 3 on hand), but I got sidetracked to another title, the original cornerstone of the Marvel Universe and a title I’ve long considered to be my favorite comic book of all time: FANTASTIC FOUR.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: FANTASTIC FOUR, VOLUME 1 reprints the first ten adventures of the F.F. from 1961 and ’62. The first issues I ever read were #16 and #17, so I had to catch up on these later, but I’d read them all in various reprints and even owned a couple of those first ten issues at one time or another. No need to recap the origin – you probably already know it if you have any interest in this post at all – but I will make a few comments on some of the stories. The menace in the first issue, the Mole Man, seems like a refugee from one of the Lee/Kirby monster comics. I don’t care that much for Kirby’s art here (or in any of the first three issues, for that matter), and Ben Grimm’s personality is really the only one that stands out in the origin. Reed, Sue, and Johnny are pretty much stereotypes. The second issue, which introduces the Skrulls, is a little better because of the nice twist ending, but the third story regresses with a really lame villain, the illusionist known as the Miracle Man.

In the fourth issue, though, something happens that lifts the series to a higher level. The Submariner, the famous Golden Age character and nemesis to the original Human Torch, returns, albeit in a manner that relies ’way too heavily on coincidence. But there are some really effective scenes in this one.

With the fifth issue, the series begins to hit its stride with the introduction of the F.F.’s all-time greatest villain, Dr. Doom. The time travel plot is a little silly, but the art, with Joe Sinnott inking Kirby, is really good, and we get The Thing dressed as a pirate, so what more do you want? The sixth issue teams up Dr. Doom and Submariner against the F.F. and is also a good story with decent art as Dick Ayers takes over the inking chores. I always liked the Kirby/Ayers art, although I think Sinnott was the best inker ever for Kirby.

The seventh and eighth issues are pretty forgettable, although #8 introduces blind Alicia Masters, who becomes Ben Grimm’s long-time girlfriend. The Submariner returns yet again in #9, which has a silly but entertaining plot about the F.F. going to Hollywood to make a movie, then Dr. Doom shows up again in #10, which also features cameos by Lee and Kirby and introduces the concept that the members of the F.F. know there are comic books being produced about them (and it’s even implied that they share in the revenue from those comics).

Up until this point, the complaints I had about Kirby’s plotting in the early issues of THE AVENGERS haven’t really cropped up, but F.F. #10 really falls apart in terms of logic and continuity. Stan’s script basically ignores the fact that characters do things that make no sense and show up in places they couldn’t possibly be. But out of the first ten issues, two of the stories are excellent (#5 and #6), two are pretty good (#4 and #9), and the others are okay except for #10, the only real dog in the bunch. Unlike THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which started out great, FANTASTIC FOUR had to grow into greatness, despite the cover proclamation about it being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

Which it was, a couple of years later and for several years after that. But who knows when or if I’ll get around to reading the reprints of those stories?

One more comment: These early issues feature the tragic, surly Ben Grimm who’s always losing his temper with his teammates and threatening to quit. Gee, Reed, Sue, and Johnny, do you think he might have felt a little better about himself and been easier to get along with if you’d actually called him “Ben” every once in a while instead of always calling him “Thing”? No wonder he always felt like it was clobberin’ time! (Although that phrase doesn’t actually appear in any of these stories.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Losers Live Longer - Russell Atwood

When this book came out a few months ago, it got quite a bit of attention because of its great horizontal cover by Robert McGinnis. Then people actually read the book and realized that LOSERS LIVE LONGER is one of the best private eye novels of recent years.

This is the second appearance for Russell Atwood’s New York City PI Payton Sherwood, but it’s been ten years since the first one, EAST OF A. Sherwood isn’t very successful as a detective, at least not financially. He’s living in his office, which is almost bare of furniture because he’s sold everything to get by. Then he gets a phone call from a well-known, retired private eye offering him some work, and since Sherwood needs the money and also is eager to work with this guy, he accepts.

Problem is, the old PI is killed on his way to Sherwood’s office. Like all good fictional private detectives, Sherwood sets out to investigate the death, even though he doesn’t have a client. This sets into motion an extremely complicated plot involving beautiful women, missing millions, mobsters, drugs, blackmail, and close to a dozen murders. And it’s all packed into less than twenty-four hours of time!

The writing is fast and funny and contemporary, with the plot turning on things like USB drives and skateboards, but at the same time it’s pure BLACK MASK. Remember the passage from an old pulp story that Ron Goulart quotes in the introduction to THE HARDBOILED DICKS, where the detective goes on for almost a page explaining the incredible twists and turns of the story’s plot, then concludes, “Simple. Got it now?” That’s what LOSERS LIVE LONGER is like. Plus there’s a little Mike Hammer influence thrown in, since Sherwood is motivated by wanting to find out what happened to the older PI even though he doesn’t have a client. (Although Sherwood and Mike Hammer are about as different as they can get in every other respect.)

I had an absolutely wonderful time reading this book and highly recommend it. Like some other bloggers whose reviews I checked out, I immediately went on-line and ordered the first one in the series so I can read it, too. And I sure hope that it’s not ten more years before Russell Atwood writes another Payton Sherwood novel, because LOSERS LIVE LONGER is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Question

Okay, since most of you are readers: do I spend a couple of weeks reading UNDER THE DOME (because that's how long it would probably take me) or do I read the four or five other books I could read in the same amount of time? I'm not getting any younger, you know! I'm not putting it to a vote or anything, but I'd appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Death Committee - Noah Gordon

I’ve always been a sucker for soap opera. Not necessarily the daytime TV kind, although at various times of my life I’ve been a regular viewer of shows such as RYAN’S HOPE and THE EDGE OF NIGHT. I’m talking more about novels that were bestsellers in the Fifties and Sixties by authors like Harold Robbins, Arthur Hailey, Henry Denker, Herbert Kastle, and Wirt Williams. (Other than Robbins and Hailey, there are some forgotten names for you. Maybe Robbins and Hailey, too, more than I’d like to think.) These novels were often about Hollywood, or fancy hotels, or the publishing business (usually bearing little resemblance to the real publishing business), or some other glamorous, high-pressure setting like, say, a big-city hospital.

Which brings us to THE DEATH COMMITTEE. I remembered reading this novel when it came out in 1969 and enjoying it, so I thought I’d give a try again. It’s pure soap opera, centered around the life and loves of three doctors in a Boston hospital, following them from one summer to the next. Along the way there are flashbacks to fill in the histories of the main characters, as well as a framing sequence involving the Death Committee of the title, which meets whenever a patient dies unexpectedly to find out what went wrong and who is to blame.

This book is really dated in one respect. Nearly all the doctors are men, with female characters relegated to playing wife/girlfriend/nurse/patient roles. You can’t blame a book for being a product of its time, but in this case it does seem to limit the dramatic possibilities quite a bit. But the writing is very clear and direct, with hardly a literary flourish to be seen. Everything goes to the service of story and character, which is not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Gordon keeps the pace perking along with plenty of complications, and I can see why I enjoyed it forty years ago. It’s just a good, involving story, well-told.

If you’re a fan of ER or GRAY’S ANATOMY, you’ll probably find a lot that’s familiar in THE DEATH COMMITTEE, though the novel is, of course, a lot more old-fashioned than those shows and lacking in the bizarre quirks that show up so often on GRAY’S. Some modern readers might find it a little too slow, but if you’re looking for a nice hefty chunk of former bestsellerdom, give THE DEATH COMMITTEE a try.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Home Sweet Homicide

Look quickly during the opening credits of HOME SWEET HOMICIDE and you’ll see a picture of Craig Rice on the cover of TIME, as far as I know still the only instance of a mystery writer’s photo appearing on the cover of that magazine. It shows up here because HOME SWEET HOMICIDE is based on Rice’s novel of the same name (which I haven’t read) and because the story is somewhat autobiographical. It concerns a female mystery writer, Marion Carstairs (played by the very attractive Lynn Bari, cast somewhat against type here since she usually played sultry villainesses), her three precocious children (Peggy Ann Garner, fresh off her Academy Award win for A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN the year before), Connie Marshall, and Dean Stockwell (who grew up to play Al on QUANTUM LEAP), a couple of police detectives (the great Randolph Scott and ubiquitous character actor James Gleason), and the murder they all get mixed up in.

You’ll probably figure out the mystery and spot the murderer pretty early on in this 1946 film, but that doesn’t really matter. The fun in HOME SWEET HOMICIDE is in the gentle swipes at the writing game and the publishing business (there’s a nice line about FOREVER AMBER delivered by one of the kids, for example), as well as the domestic comedy centered around trying to raise three children who are probably too smart for their own good. In fact, this movie pretty much belongs to the kids, who try to solve the murder that takes place in their suburban neighborhood so that their mother will get the credit for it. Dean Stockwell is especially good as the conniving ten-year-old who’s saddled with a couple of older sisters.

For a film that’s concerned with murder, HOME SWEET HOMICIDE is a really pleasant movie, as well a nice little slice of post-war Americana. It’s not that easy to find – I think there was an old videotape, but it’s never officially been released on DVD – but it’s out there if you know where to look. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it, especially if you’re a Craig Rice fan.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Writer's Lament

I done run outta words.

Seriously, I know where the current book is going, but I don't know how to get there. I have no idea what happens in the next three chapters that I need to write in order to finish off this section. Was it Raymond Chandler who said that when you don't know what to do next, have a man with a gun come into the room? Well, what do you do when you've already done that? (Since this is a Western, I just had an ambush take place, but it's the same principle.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper

Like ADVENTURELAND and CHARLIE BARTLETT, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER is a little more than the usual crude teen comedy. It is indeed pretty crude at times, and it’s not quite as smart as those other two films, but it’s not bad. Denis Cooverman is your typical high school geek/valedictorian with a film buff buddy who may (or may not) be gay. For years Denis has sat behind beautiful blond head cheerleader Beth Cooper in all their classes, and he’s in love with her even though she doesn’t know he exists. So at graduation, Denis uses his valedictorian’s speech to finally say what he’s always wanted to tell her (as well as taking shots at a number of his classmates). Then, surprisingly, Beth and a couple of her beautiful cheerleader friends show up at Denis’s graduation party that night.

Hijinks ensue.

A lot of the madcap adventures that follow fall into the typical teen comedy category, but the screenplay by Larry Doyle, based on his novel, also takes pleasure in turning some expected stereotypes on their ear. It makes for a pretty funny movie that’s occasionally touching, even though it’s not very believable most of the time. I think it was missing one final twist where one of the characters was concerned, but that’s just me. Overall, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER is an entertaining movie and worth watching. And for some of you out there (you know who you are), let me add just one more thing:

Hayden Panettierre, who plays Beth, is old enough now to do nude scenes.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Back in the Eighties, Livia and I owned a store that sold comic books, among other things, and we did a brisk business in G.I. JOE issues, especially back issues. I read some of them myself and occasionally saw an episode of the cartoon series based on the action figures, but I was never a big fan.

So I was vaguely familiar with some of the characters in the recent movie G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA but didn’t really know what to expect from it. This was the second movie based on toys that we’d watched in as many weeks (the other being the second TRANSFORMERS movie).

But if you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I’m a pretty soft touch where movies are concerned. Some of them I hate to the point of turning them off unfinished, but I seldom if ever blog about those. Most of them, though, I can find something to like about them, and that’s the case here.

First the things I didn’t like, and some of them are my usual complaints: quick-cut editing in most of the action scenes and bad lighting in some of them. There were too many times I said to myself, “Wait a minute. What just happened?” There are some lines in the script making fun of the characters’ action figure origins that are maybe a little too cute. And some of the acting is either wooden or too far over-the-top. (You didn’t think it was possible that anything could be too over-the-top for me, did you?) But acting isn’t generally a big concern for me in movies like this. Being able to follow the action is.

And that said, there’s a lot of action in G.I. JOE. This is a movie that hardly ever slows down to breathe. It’s one frantic, SFX-laden set-piece after another, with the occasional flashback to fill in the histories of some of the characters, as the international military unit known as G.I. Joe tries to track down some deadly nanomite warheads that the bad guys are going to use to take over the world.

So with all that going on, it baffles me how the filmmakers managed to do it, but I actually got caught up in the story and the characters. In my usual long-winded way, it’s taken me a while to get around to saying it, but I liked G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA. Liked it quite a bit, in fact, and really enjoyed watching it. Yes, it’s a silly, cartoonish movie based on toys, but I think it’s a heck of a lot better than either of the TRANSFORMERS movies. Have I turned into a G.I. JOE fan after all these years? I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that, but if they make the sequel that the end of this one is obviously leading up to, I’ll watch it. No doubt about that.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Forgotten Books: King of the World's Edge - H. Warner Munn

Originally serialized in the September through December 1939 issues of WEIRD TALES, H. Warner Munn’s KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE was a prime candidate for reprinting in the Sixties paperback fantasy boom sparked by Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It features swordplay, magic, and lost civilizations. What else do you need?

Well, an Arthurian angle doesn’t hurt. There’s also a nice framing sequence in which a mysterious bronze cylinder is discovered in Key West following a hurricane, and inside the cylinder there’s an ancient document purportedly written by one Ventidius Varro, a Roman legionnaire posted in Britain at the time of Arthur’s rise to power. Like Jack Whyte’s Camulod novels and the movies THE LAST LEGION and KING ARTHUR, KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE is set during the last days of Roman occupation in Britain, when most of the Roman soldiers are actually second- or third-generation Britons. Ventidius Varro is one of them. Cut off from Rome, these hold-out legionnaires align themselves with Arthur and the enigmatic mage Myrdhinn in order to oppose the invading Saxons and unite the various British tribes. After Arthur’s efforts are crushed and he himself is mortally wounded in battle, Myrdhinn places him in what amounts to suspended animation, hides his body, and then sets sail with a band of legionnaires commanded by Varro in search of a place where they can regroup and figure out a way to retake Britain.

Things don’t work out that way, however. Instead, Myrdhinn and the rest of these British adventurers wind up in a new world far to the west, across the ocean, where they are captured by, escape from, and wind up doing battle with various groups of native tribes. Along the way Varro becomes the staunch ally of a native leader named Hayonwatha, founds his own empire in the new world, and battles to overthrow the evil Mia, who have extended their grasp over the entire continent.

Part of the fun of a book like this is seeing the way Munn comes up with new explanations for all the history and legends of early North America, from Florida up to the Great Lakes, across the continent to the Rocky Mountains and down to Texas. Varro, Myrdhinn, and their friends wander all over and have numerous adventures. The pace is a little slow at times and the writing style is old-fashioned, but after all, the story is being told by Ventidius Varro in a letter intended to be carried back to whatever emperor is currently in power in Rome.

Though it lacks the storytelling power of a yarn by Howard or Burroughs, KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE is an entertaining, inventive novel with quite a bit of action. Getting the book back in print from Ace was enough to prompt the never prolific Munn to write a sequel, THE SHIP FROM ATLANTIS, almost thirty years after the original. I have that one, too, and hope to read it soon. (I believe both novels were also issued in a combined volume called MERLIN’S GODSON, from Del Rey in the Eighties, but I have the Ace editions.)

Update: Don Herron informs me that there's a third book in the series, MERLIN'S RING, and refers to it as Munn's masterpiece. He also recommends Munn's historical novel THE LOST LEGION. There's two more books for me to look for!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Beer for My Horses

If you check out the comments about this movie on IMDB, you’ll see that people either thought it was surprisingly good or absolutely hated it. Mark me down in the “surprisingly good” category.

BEER FOR MY HORSES is an action comedy written by its two stars, country singer Toby Keith and comedian Rodney Carrington. They play Oklahoma deputy sheriffs who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel and a local meth manufacturing operation. The movie is a little schizophrenic: at times it seems like it wants to be a serious action movie, but then more goofy, good ol’ boy, redneck comedy comes along. Somehow, though, it works for the most part. A lot of the comedy is pretty funny, especially if you’re a good ol’ boy redneck yourself, which I certainly can be at times. Toby Keith is a decent actor, although having an imposing size and a great voice help a lot in the role he plays. I’ve always liked Rodney Carrington, and the cast also features the great Barry Corbin, as well as a host of cameos by various country music stars.

Then there’s Willie Nelson, who shows up in a truly bizarre scene featuring a traveling circus that has hardly anything to do with the rest of the movie. This is a scene that’s either borderline genius, or else Keith and Carrington had been hanging around Willie and breathing too deeply before they wrote it.

Overall, BEER FOR MY HORSES is an amiable, fast-moving, somewhat politically incorrect hour and a half, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. If you decide to give it a try, just remember those 50/50 odds I mentioned above.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Some Vintage Harlequin Covers

Vintage Harlequins

Here's an interesting article about the half-dozen crime novels from Harlequin's early days as a publisher that have been reprinted recently to help celebrate the company's sixtieth anniversary. I plan to buy these but haven't gotten around to it yet. Now, if it had been me, I would have picked a Western and an adventure novel (probably something by H. Bedford-Jones) to be reprinted, too. I don't know how well these books are selling, but it would be nice if Harlequin would reprint more from the days when they published other genres besides romance. (Thanks to Frank Loose for the link.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More Free Books

Livia is giving away one free copy each of her new mystery novels KILLER CRABCAKES and HUCKLEBERRY FINISHED. Head on over to her blog for the details.

Monday, November 02, 2009

PW Likes Hunt at the Well of Eternity Again

Publishers Weekly has selected HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY as one of the Top 100 Books of 2009, and it's also one of only five mass-market paperback originals to make that list, I believe. They commented: "Reasoner launches the Gabriel Hunt series with a fast-paced tale of purely entertaining Indiana Jones–like adventure, smartly updated for modern sensibilities."

Needless to say, I am very happy about this, and also very grateful to Charles Ardai for giving me the chance to work on this series (as well as giving me such a great character to work with). And I also want to thank all the readers who enjoyed the book and let me know about it. Now, before this starts sounding too much like an Academy Award acceptance speech, let me just say . . . Yowza!

Wild West Monday

Another Wild West Monday has rolled around, and I'm sure by now all of you know what to do: go to your local bookstore and/or library and request that they carry more Westerns. I know from experience that this really does work. Due mostly to Livia's Wild West Monday efforts, the local Wal-Mart now has a pretty good Western section again (Westerns had all but disappeared from this store) and the books are selling really, really well. Many thanks to Gary for getting this initiative started, and now the rest of us have to do our part as well.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Dawn on the Great Divide

Since I posted about my Buck Jones/Bela Lugosi story yesterday, I thought it would be appropriate if I watched a Buck Jones movie and made a few comments about it. (I would have watched a Lugosi movie, too, but I don’t have one handy. Maybe next week.)

DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE is a particularly poignant Buck Jones movie to watch, because it was the last one he made before he was killed in the famous Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston. In fact, this film hadn’t been released yet when Buck died.

Although it wasn’t promoted as such when it came out, DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE is actually part of the Rough Riders series, a series of B-Westerns Buck made for Monogram Pictures co-starring Colonel Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton. McCoy isn’t in this one, having gone back on active duty in the military during the buildup to World War II. (The rank of colonel wasn’t honorary; McCoy was the genuine article and is worthy of a few blog posts devoted to him one of these days.) Jones and Hatton are on hand, though, playing their usual roles of Buck Roberts and Sandy Hopkins. McCoy’s place was taken by a mostly forgotten Western star named Rex Bell.

In the other Rough Riders movies, the trio are U.S. Marshals, but in DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE they’re wagon train scouts, with no mention being made of any law enforcement connections. The plot is nothing special. It’s the old “white outlaws masquerading as Indians to raid the wagon trains” bit. (I once wrote a book using Livia’s suggestion that I have a group of Indians masquerading as white outlaws. It made a pretty good twist.) Several things make DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE worth watching. The production values are good, with a lot of location shooting and not much stock footage. The script is unexpectedly rich in characterization when it comes to some of the people traveling on the wagon train, giving them more depth than you usually find in a B-Western. A lot of familiar faces populate the supporting cast: Tristam Coffin as a shady character trying to reform, Harry Woods as the main villain, the great Roy Barcroft as Woods’ main henchman and the one who engages in the final shootout with Buck, and Bud Osborne as another henchman. These are like old friends to B-Western fans.

Then there’s Buck himself, who by this stage of his career was an elder statesman of the genre and invests his role as Buck Roberts with the appropriate gravitas and dignity. He was never the most polished actor, but he had a great screen presence. I have several more of his movies on hand and look forward to watching them soon. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a good solid B-Western, DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE is a fine example.