Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bottom of Every Bottle - Robert J. Randisi

Perfect Crime Books is a new small press publisher, and it’s getting off to a great start with several fine volumes, including a brand-new novel by Robert J. Randisi.

Jake Gilmartin is a veteran New York City cop who finds himself in trouble when evidence of corruption surfaces against him. He’s suspended from the force, and things get even worse when an intruder shows up at his apartment one night and tries to kill him. Jake fights back and the would-be assassin winds up dead. That’s when Jake discovers that the man lying dead on his kitchen floor is another cop, a man Jake had considered a friend.

And this is just the prologue.

Most of the book is narrated by Jake’s son Rob, a gunnery instructor in the army who was also an investigator in the Military Police for a while. With no one left to trust, Jake calls on Rob for help finding out who framed him and wants him dead, even though Rob hates his father for cheating on Rob’s mother and breaking up their marriage years earlier. Reluctantly, Rob comes to New York to help Jake and finds himself mixed up in a complex and dangerous tangle involving organized crime, cops who may or may not be trustworthy, a beautiful female cab driver, and a number of colorful denizens of New York City. The scope of the plot eventually expands to cover decades of time and thousands of miles as Rob and Jake wind up facing almost overwhelming odds.

As always with a book by Bob Randisi, the pace really rockets along in this one with plenty of good dialogue and action. There’s a little humor, some very nice character bits, and an intriguing back-story that’s ripe for further exploration in a sequel, although this novel stands alone just fine. Although it’s thoroughly contemporary, I got a sense of some Gold Medal influence in the book, including the great title. It’s no secret that Bob and I have been friends for thirty years, but I try very hard not to let that influence my opinion when it comes to books by my friends. You can take my word for it: THE BOTTOM OF EVERY BOTTLE is a very good, tough cop thriller, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Forgotten Books: Abu, the Dawn-Maker -- Perley Poore Sheehan

Unseen since it was first serialized in the early pulp ALL-STORY CAVALIER WEEKLY, Perley Poore Sheehan’s novel ABU, THE DAWN-MAKER is the story of a slave revolt and native uprising on the coast of East Africa. Abu, a white barbarian with the soul of a poet, is the slave of an Arab merchant. When he finds a mysterious golden talisman called the Double Eye, only to have it taken away from him by the merchant, who then gives him a beating, Abu breaks free and goes on a rampage. Seeing what’s going on, the Arab’s other slaves join in the rebellion, and the result is a brutal bloodbath during a party at the merchant’s house.

I don’t know if Robert E. Howard ever read this story, but it’s certainly possible. In the opening chapters, Abu is very reminiscent of Conan and other Howard heroes as he wreaks havoc on his enemies and leads a rebellion against the rich, powerful, and evil masters of the unnamed African nation where the story takes place. There’s slaughter right and left for a while, but then Abu emerges victorious and has to deal with ruling an unexpected kingdom while also trying to expand it. There’s also the matter of Khadija, the beautiful blond prisoner who was supposed to be the bride of the overthrown Arab merchant. She and Abu fall in love at first sight, but Abu has sworn a vow of poverty, sobriety, and chastity until he has spread his empire over the entire world and freed all the slaves everywhere.

Well, you know that’s not going to work out.

From that point, the story’s pace slows down considerably, but it never loses the reader’s interest. Long-time pulpster Sheehan packs in enough political intrigue, African mysticism, unrequited romance, and inevitable tragedy to keep things percolating nicely. Eventually, the British authorities get wind of what’s going on and send warships steaming toward the African coast to deal with the rebellion. The action heats up again, and everything leads to a powerful, if somewhat puzzling, ending.

As you’d expect from a story published 95 years ago, the writing is a little old-fashioned in places, but a lot of it is surprisingly terse and modern. There’s also some of the casual racism of the time period, although it’s not as prevalent as you might expect. Still, you should be aware of it if you’re considering reading this story.

Which you can do without having to hunt up six issues of an obscure pulp magazine published in 1915, thanks to Beb Books, which has it scheduled for an upcoming reprint. ABU, THE DAWN-MAKER is an entertaining blend of action and epic drama that often reads more like a mainstream historical novel than a blood ‘n’ thunder pulp yarn. If you’re the type of reader who can put your mind in early 20th Century mode, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Going on the assumption that a large group of well-educated, well-read people will know something about everything, can anybody tell me why I wake up yelling from nightmares at least twice a week and have for years, and more importantly, what the heck can I do to stop it? (I generally don't remember my dreams, but the ones that wake me up tend to linger in my memory.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Order in the Court!

I'm happy to say that has chosen Rough Edges as one of its 50 Best Blogs for Crime and Mystery Book Lovers. You can read about the rest of their choices here. It's a stellar line-up, and I'm pleased and honored to be part of it. (And yes, that post title is 'way too easy, but it's early and that's the best I can come up with.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Some of you have already weighed in with your favorable opinions of THE HURT LOCKER, and I’m glad to say that I concur: it’s a very fine film, worthy of its Best Picture nomination, and I sort of hope it wins.

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it’s the story of a small group of soldiers in Iraq who work as bomb disposal experts. There’s not really much of a plot. They go out and deal with a bomb, they go out and deal with a bomb, they get trapped in a desert firefight while they’re on a mission to dispose of a bomb, they deal with an Iraqi civilian who’s forced to be an unwilling suicide bomber, etc. Between missions, we get a little background on the three main characters, but not much. And this is one case where the technique works just fine. The harrowing details of these soldiers’ day to day lives are very effective.

Along the way there’s also a countdown to the end of the team’s rotation in Iraq. Even though that’s a bit of a cliché, it adds to the realism of the film. There are plenty of explosions, but they’re not the sort of fancy, pyrotechnical Stuff Blowing Up Real Good so common in films. They’re loud and dusty and grim and dangerous, sort of like real explosions must be.

The acting is fine all around, but Jeremy Renner, who was really good as a cop in the short-lived TV series THE UNUSUALS, is great as the new sergeant who comes in and takes over the team after the previous team leader is killed in an explosion early on. He’s good enough that I need to find out what other movies he’s been in.

I also liked the fact that THE HURT LOCKER doesn’t seem to have any political axes to grind. It’s really more of an old-fashioned GI movie about this handful of soldiers, the way they interact, and the job they do. And it doesn’t hurt that it has some of the most suspenseful scenes you’ll ever see.

I think this is far and away director Kathryn Bigelow’s best film, and it’s the only thing I’ve watched lately that may hold up over the years as a great film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Hate Valentine's Day

No, not me personally. It’s the title of a movie.

You know those romantic comedies where the guy and the girl are obviously meant for each other but are kept apart by some stupid misunderstanding and the girl has these two wacky gay sidekicks and they all live in New York City which is clean and charming and filled with people who are colorful and eccentric but still friendly and helpful and the guy and girl get together at the end and everybody goes “Awwww”?

Well, this is one of those movies.

But the script is pretty funny in places, and the cast does a good job, which makes I HATE VALENTINE’S DAY a passably entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Buntline Special - Lou Cameron

Lou Cameron is an important figure in paperback history for a couple of reasons. First of all, he had a long career stretching back into the Fifties as an author of paperback originals in a wide variety of genres: mystery, war, adventure, science fiction, TV tie-ins, and movie novelizations. Then, in the mid-Seventies, he created the most popular and prolific Adult Western series in LONGARM. It wasn’t the first Adult Western series – there’s considerable debate about which one deserves that title – but since the first book was published in 1978, the series has rolled along for more than thirty years with a new title every single month (sometimes two in one month), until there are nearly 400 regular Longarm novels, plus 27 oversized Longarm Giant novels, with more to come and no end in sight. The books don’t sell like they used to (at their peak, the Longarm novels sold more than 100,000 copies each, a number that’s almost unheard of today when you’re talking about Westerns), but they still move steadily off the shelves. Several Spur Award-winning authors have contributed to the series under the Tabor Evans house-name. Cameron himself falls into that category, having won a Spur in 1976 for his novel THE SPIRIT HORSES. Longarm is one of the great success stories in genre paperbacks, and it came after Cameron already had quite a reputation as an author.

Cameron didn’t concentrate solely on Longarm after creating the series, though. He contributed to a few other Adult Western series, including a couple that he created and wrote all the books himself: STRINGER under his own name and RENEGADE (really more of an adventure series set in Central and South America, although they were marketed as Westerns) as by Ramsey Thorne. He also wrote a few stand-alone traditional Westerns for Gold Medal (by then an imprint of Ballantine), which brings us to THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL.

This novel from 1988, which as far as I know has never been reprinted, has a fairly traditional plot. In the mid-1890s, a young cowboy named Matt Taylor rides into the town of Freewater, Colorado (which actually straddles the state line between Colorado and Kansas) looking for a crooked trail boss who absconded with the wages owed to Matt and the other cowhands who drove a herd of cattle up the Ogallala Trail. Matt winds up finding the man he’s looking for, but that’s just the beginning. He becomes the deputy to Freewater’s town marshal, a legendary gunman named Big Bill Burton who carries one of the long-barreled revolvers of the title. Matt quickly grows into the job of being a lawman, stopping a bank robbery and engaging in a couple of shoot-outs that gain him a reputation and some enemies who want him dead.

The story sort of ambles along in episodic fashion as Matt deals with a number of criminal cases that arise while he’s wearing a badge in Freewater. He also romances a couple of beautiful women, the town schoolmarm and the local doctor. Since this is a traditional Western, the courting is very decorous, not at all like Cameron’s Longarms. The plot works its way toward an ending that you’ll likely see coming, although Cameron does throw in a nice little twist as he wraps everything up.

So why should you read THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL? There are several reasons. Despite the predictability of the plot, Cameron peoples it with some colorful and well-drawn – and in the case of his hero Matt, very likable – characters. Not everybody turns out to be exactly what you expect them to be. Also, episodic or not, the book never really slows down. Cameron had plenty of experience at keeping the reader flipping the pages, and it shows here. There are some nice cameo appearances by actual historical characters such as Charlie Siringo, Will Rogers, and Bill Tilghman, and a brief bit that offers a clue as to the later history of one Custis Long, aka Longarm. If Cameron says something about ol’ Custis, you have to take it as gospel, in my opinion.

What I really like most about this book, though, is Cameron’s distinctive voice. For much of his career, he wrote in a pretty standard action paperback style, but over the years it began to evolve into a more colorful use of language. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it reminds me of the dialogue in the TV series DEADWOOD, without all the cussin’. This makes it easy to identify the Longarms that Cameron wrote (and to be honest, he got to the point where he overdid it in that series, in my opinion), but it works perfectly in THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL, making everything in the book sound absolutely and grittily real. You might not like it – the style is eccentric enough so that I can see how it might rub some readers the wrong way – but I think this is one of the best Westerns I’ve read in a good long while, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shoot First and Pray You Live

I’d heard a little about this movie before we watched it. Some people say it’s a spoof of Spaghetti Westerns, others claim it’s a modern attempt to make a new Western in the style of the Italian films. I’m here to tell you it’s not really either of those things. I have a hunch that my opinion will be solidly in the minority, but I think SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE is about nine-tenths of a great film.

More importantly for Western pulp fans, most of the time it’s a very faithful adaptation of Frederick Faust’s novel LUCK, which started out as an ARGOSY serial in 1919 under the pseudonym John Frederick, then was published in book form under that name as Faust’s third published novel in 1920. Later, it was reprinted under its original title, as well as under the title RIDERS OF THE SILENCES, as by Max Brand. The film version follows the plot of the book accurately, as far as I recall from reading it a number of years ago, and uses big chunks of dialogue that really sound just like Faust’s work, so I assume they’re straight from the book, or almost so.

The plot finds a young man called Red Pierre falling in with an outlaw gang and enlisting their help in his vengeance quest against a notorious gunfighter named Bob McGurk, who killed Pierre’s father and raped his mother. The movie doesn’t tell the story in a traditional linear fashion, however, instead looping around and around with flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. Everything makes sense in the end, but this is a movie where you have to pay attention to follow it.

Most of the movie is played absolutely straight and works very well indeed. But every so often writer/director Lance Doty opts to drag in some oddball stylistic flourish, like including a flashback to Red Pierre’s childhood that’s animated (according to an interview, that was cheaper than hiring a child actor) or running a long sequence in reverse. Bits like this probably appeal to more modern viewers (one review I read compared it to PULP FICTION), but to a traditionalist like me, they seemed too jarring.

I’m willing to overlook those moments I didn’t like, however, because there were so many things I liked a lot about this movie. The cast, which includes almost nobody you’ve ever heard of except maybe Jim Gaffigan, James Russo, and Richard Tyson (who was also in THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, which we watched recently) does a fine job. Despite being shot quickly on an extremely low budget, the movie looks great. The music, which deliberately echoes the work of Ennio Morricone, is pretty good most of the time.

Mostly, though, I really liked SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE because overall it’s probably the most faithful adaptation of a Frederick Faust Western ever. From the moment very early on when the narrator starts talking about the mountain desert, you know you’re in Faust country. And it made me realize for the first time that what Faust was doing, decades before the genre was even invented, was writing the literary equivalent of Spaghetti Westerns. Think about it . . . larger-than-life stories set in a mythological West featuring nearly superhuman heroes and villains . . . that’s a good description of both Spaghetti Westerns and Faust’s novels. Watching this movie really made me want to pick up a Max Brand novel and read it from a whole new perspective.

A lot of viewers may watch this movie, scratch their heads, and go “Huh?” But I loved it, and I hope they make the sequel that’s promised at the end. I’m pretty sure there’s a sequel to the novel LUCK, too, but I can’t recall the title at the moment. I’ll have to search it out and read it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Stepfather

THE STEPFATHER is a remake of a movie from the Eighties that was written by Donald E. Westlake, about a serial killer who seduces widowed or divorced women, worms his way into their families, and then winds up slaughtering everybody before moving on and doing the same thing all over again. The original starred the excellent Terry O’Quinn in the title role. I recall watching it when it came out and remembered the basic plot. I assume I thought it was okay without being overly impressed by it.

So why the remake? A whole new generation of viewers since then, of course, and the fact that the filmmakers could switch the sex of the teenage protagonist (it was a girl in the original) and sign Penn Badgley from TV’s GOSSIP GIRL to play the hero.

Does it work? Not too well, as far as I’m concerned. The cast is pretty good, and of course any movie with Sela Ward in it is worth watching to a certain extent (although they deliberately deglamorize her here, it seems like). The action scenes are well-staged and don’t have any of that quick-cut editing I don’t like, but the creepy moments don’t generate much real suspense or any scares because it’s so obvious what’s going to happen. The whole thing feels very by-the-numbers. And there are a couple of big holes in the plot that make you wonder how this supposedly brilliant serial killer keeps getting away with it when he’s so sloppy.

All that said, THE STEPFATHER isn’t terrible. It’s not all that gory, which is a plus for me, and it moves right along. Don’t rush out to rent the DVD and don’t expect a classic if you do watch it, but this one does manage to fall into the amiable time-waster category.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New Website for Black Dog Books

If the Sixties and Seventies were the Golden Age of Pulp Reprints because of all the mass-market paperbacks coming out then (Doc Savage, The Shadow, G-8, Jim Hatfield, and many others), then this must be the Silver Age. There are a number of small presses reprinting great pulp novels and stories, many of which haven't seen the light of day for decades. One of the best is Black Dog Books, published by my friend Tom Roberts. The new Black Dog Books website has just launched, so check it out. Tom produces some beautiful volumes filled with great stories by Lester Dent, H. Bedford-Jones, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, and many other fine authors. I don't think you can go wrong with any of his books.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fantastic Four: Lost Adventures

This is an interesting collection of Fantastic Four stories ranging over a number of years. It starts off with a recreation of what would have been the final FF story drawn by Jack Kirby, which was shelved because of plot problems. An earlier story with Kirby art was substituted for it at the last minute. But several issues later, some of the rejected art was used after all, with a framing sequence by John Buscema. This collection gives us all the versions, including the uninked and unlettered panels of Kirby’s original art that survive. Taken any way you want to look at it, “The Menace of the Mega-Men” and “The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man” (the alternate titles for what is basically the same story) are pretty minor pieces of comic book history, but as always, Kirby’s art is interesting to look at.

The collection is rounded out by a much more recent story, “World’s End”, which is also billed as “The Last Fantastic Four Story” (I don’t know about that; isn’t the FF still being published?), “Homecoming”, a reprint from the 25th anniversary issue of the comic book that I must have read when it was new but have no memory of; and “If This Be . . . Anniversary!”, a humorous yarn from the 45th anniversary issue. All these stories were written by Stan Lee (although “Homecoming” was plotted by Marvel’s then-editor in chief Jim Shooter), and as always Stan’s familiarity with the characters and great touch with dialogue makes them fun to read.

Other than the first story in the collection, I don’t see how these are actually “Lost Adventures”, but I enjoyed the book anyway. If you’ve never read the Fantastic Four, this isn’t the place to start, but if you’re a long-time fan like me, I think you’ll find it entertaining, although nothing in here even remotely approaches the top rank of FF yarns.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow Cream!

When I was a kid, one of the treats we had occasionally was snow cream: ice cream made from snow, canned milk, sugar, and vanilla extract. Simple but delicious. I haven't had any in several years, but Livia got a big bowl of snow a while ago and mixed up some snow cream. Wonderful stuff! And we have some left over to go in the freezer, too. (After eating a great big bowl of it, I sure am chilled, though.)

Forgotten Books: Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

I mentioned this book a couple of weeks ago in my post about Philipp Meyer’s novel AMERICAN RUST, and I realized then that I’d never read it. So I found a copy and remedied that situation.

There’s no point in going into the plot to any great extent. I imagine most of you have read OF MICE AND MEN, either in high school or college or on your own. (I still remember a librarian asking me, “Which class is this for?” when I checked out a copy of THE GREAT GATSBY. I told her it wasn’t for a class, I just wanted to read it. She looked surprised.)

But to get back to what I was saying, you know the story: George and Lennie, the rabbits, the tragic ending. I knew the story and I’d never read the book or seen any of the movie versions. So what is there to say about it?

Well, it’s really well-written. Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Salinas Valley are very effective, and the terse, hardboiled, realistic dialogue is great, conveying a lot more than just what’s said on the surface. The book is noir as all get-out, with a pervading sense of doom that makes you root for the characters even though you know things aren’t going to end well for them. In fact, the whole thing reminds me very much of a Gold Medal novel, with the farm setting, the restless, slutty wife, etc. Heck, this could almost be an Orrie Hitt novel!

Which leads me to say something that some of you may consider heretical: classic or not, I don’t think OF MICE AND MEN is any better than the best of, say, Charles Williams’ or Harry Whittington’s work. I’m not sure it’s even as good as some of their novels. It’s true that Steinbeck was trying to write literature and Williams and Whittington were writing to put food on the table and gasoline in the car. But here’s what it comes down to for me, and this is something I firmly believe.

They’re all words on paper.

Doesn’t matter who wrote them, doesn’t matter the intent, once they’re there, they’re just words on paper and the only thing that’s important is what they say. In this particular case, I think some of the Gold Medal writers said the same sort of thing that Steinbeck is saying in OF MICE AND MEN, only they did it better.

That said, I don’t want to disregard the quality of Steinbeck’s book. It’s regarded as a classic for a reason. It’s very, very good, very evocative, very suspenseful. Indeed, a great book, if for no other reason than the influence it had on popular culture. If by some chance you haven’t read it, you should. It’s short, fast, and mean, and reading it is a powerful experience. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Storm of the Century

Of course, the century's pretty young yet.

Yesterday the weather forecast said we might get an inch or two of snow. Right now we have nine inches on the ground and it's still falling. To many of you, that's not much. But this is the second deepest snow I've seen in my lifetime. Yeah, it's pretty, but I still don't like it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Edition of Black Horse Extra

Word comes today from Keith Chapman, alias top-notch Western author Chap O'Keefe, that a new edition of the excellent webzine BLACK HORSE EXTRA has gone live. This issue features an excellent interview with author and blogger Gary Dobbs, an article about the new line of Black Horse Extra paperbacks (two so far, both O'Keefe titles: MISFIT LIL CHEATS THE HANGROPE and LIBERTY AND A LAW BADGE, reviewed here not long ago), an article about artist Frederic Remington, and assorted Western fiction news, primarily about the Black Horse Westerns line published by Robert Hale. As always, there's plenty of informative and entertaining reading for Western fans.

By the way, I have a copy of MISFIT LIL CHEATS THE HANGROPE on hand and hope to get around to reading it soon.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Well, it’s back to loud, SFX-laden action movies, at least for the moment. SURROGATES takes place in a near-future world where people have stopped leaving their houses and live their lives vicariously by means of amazingly life-like robots which they control mentally through a vast computer network. Also, there are enclaves of humans who rebel against the concept of robot surrogates and think that people should go back to living in their own bodies. Got all that? If you can accept that premise, the rest of the movie makes sense for the most part.

What you wind up with is a world full of amazingly good-looking people, because who’s going to pay good money for an ugly surrogate? It’s an idyllic world, almost free of crime, but then somebody starts murdering surrogates, which also kills their human operators, who are supposed to be protected from such dangers by fail-safes built into the computer network. Obviously, someone has found a way around those fail-safes.

Bruce Willis is an FBI agent assigned to investigate the case, using his own robot surrogate. (Wait a minute. If there’s no crime anymore, why does the FBI still exist? Oh, never mind . . .) Willis’s surrogate gets trashed in one of the many action sequences, and the FBI won’t give him another one because of course he’s one of those maverick cops who plays by his own rules. So he’s forced to carry on the investigation in his actual human body, which is, not surprisingly, a lot scruffier than the surrogate version.

This is a pretty silly movie, but it’s also pretty entertaining if you just go with it, and it has a very effective ending. Willis has played the beat-up but still hardnosed cop role so many times he could probably do it in his sleep, but he doesn’t phone in his performance and is especially good in the scenes where his human self has to adjust to being out in public again after years of using a surrogate. I liked SURROGATES, and if you’re a fan of futuristic action movies, I think you probably will, too.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Couple of Webcomics

A friend of mine drew my attention to these, and I'm glad he did. These webcomics are samples posted as part of a contest run by DC, with the prize being, as I understand it, a contract to continue the story as regular comics. ISLAND, ALONE is leading in the current contest, which ends February 26th. It's a really nice piece of pulpish Victorian adventure, with a zeppelin, a mysterious island, and a beautiful, redheaded jungle girl. What more do you need? You can read it, and vote for it if you're of a mind to, here. ISLAND, ALONE is written by Shawn Aldridge and drawn by Rich Fuchsia.

VIC BOONE was the runner-up in a previous contest, and even though it didn't win, it's a lot of fun, a private eye yarn set in a world of Fifties science-fiction movies. Like ISLAND, ALONE, it's written by Shawn Aldridge. The art is by Jeff Winstead. Even though the voting on that one is closed, you can still read it here. I recommend both stories.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Three O'Clock High

I would have sworn that we watched every high school comedy movie made in the Eighties, but somehow we never got around to this one. It’s what I call a “bad day” movie, where things start out wrong for our decent, everyman hero Jerry Mitchell and keep getting worse as the day goes on. The low point, though, is when a new student who happens to be a psychopathic bully decides that he and Jerry are going to have a fight on the parking lot as soon as school is out at three o’clock.

Jerry and his best friend, who’s the editor of the school newspaper, try to figure out a way for Jerry to avoid getting beaten up, but every scheme they try just backfires on them. Eventually, of course, the showdown, the moment of truth, arrives, and the question is whether Jerry will step up and at least survive.

THREE O’CLOCK HIGH is a pretty good film, with a funny script co-written by Richard Christian Matheson. The cast is populated by actors who hadn’t done much then and didn’t go on to do much, although there are a few exceptions (Mitch Pileggi, Jeffery Tambor, and Yeardley Smith, to name three). Jerry is played by Casey Siemazko and Richard Tyson plays the bully, and while both of them have worked steadily over the years, neither is what you’d call a big name. But they’re fine in their roles, as are most of the other people in the movie.

I’m glad we finally got around to watching this one. It’s no FERRIS BUELLER, mind you, but it’s pretty entertaining and well worth investing an hour and a half of your time if you haven’t seen it.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


So, why watch a movie when you know how it’s going to end? Well, in this case, when I was a kid I read a book about famous disappearances and found it pretty interesting, so I’ve always been a little curious about what happened to Amelia Earhart. Curious enough to watch this movie, anyway.

In classic biopic fashion, AMELIA begins at a pivotal moment as she’s about to take off her around-the-world flight with Fred Noonan, and then uses flashbacks to tell the story of how she became a famous aviator (or aviatrix, in the parlance of the day) and married publisher George Putnam. There are some soap operatics along the way about Amelia’s affair with flying instructor Gene Vidal (Gore’s daddy – who knew?) and some stuff about how celebrities were merchandised during the Thirties. Hilary Swank plays Earhart and really does look like her. Richard Gere is her publisher/husband, and Ewan McGregor has what amounts to an extended cameo as Gene Vidal.

This is a movie that looks great. The photography and the scenery work really well together. It’s well-acted, too. But it never seems to generate any real drama. The only suspense comes toward the end, and that’s diluted because we know how things are going to turn out. This is another case of a film that’s not terrible, but there’s no compelling reason to watch it, either, unless you’re really interested in the subject matter.

Contest Results

The winner of the free copy of Philipp Meyer's AMERICAN RUST is Steve Oerkfitz. Steve, email me with your mailing address and I'll pass it along to the book's publicist. Thanks to everyone who entered, and more contests will be coming up soon.

Friday, February 05, 2010

New Randisi Short Story Collection

Here's a book I'll have to buy. It's already available from Amazon and soon will be from the publisher, Perfect Crime Books. According to Bob, it includes "Henry Po stories, Truxton Lewis stories, Val O'Farrell stories and a few more, plus an intro from Ed Gorman." Sounds like good stuff.

Last Day to Enter for American Rust

Don't forget, today's the last day to throw your name in the hat for a free copy of Philipp Meyer's fine novel AMERICAN RUST. I'll be doing the random drawing shortly after midnight tonight (that's Central Standard Time), or first thing in the morning if I'm already asleep by then. US or Canadian entrants only, please, since the copy will come from the publisher, not me.

Forgotten Books: The Lone Ranger - Gaylord Dubois

David Cranmer and Richard Prosch had some posts on their blogs recently about the Lone Ranger. Well, as it so happens, I’m a big fan of the Lone Ranger and have been since childhood. I always watched the TV show and read many of the novels by Fran Striker that were published by Grosset & Dunlap. In fact, I remember visiting some relatives one summer when I was about ten years old and going with my cousins to the local public library, where I was thrilled to discover about half a dozen of the Lone Ranger novels that I hadn’t read. My cousins checked them out for me using their library cards, and I was able to read all of them before we had to go home. Along about the same time, I began listening to syndicated reruns of the Lone Ranger radio show (along with The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and Gangbusters) and enjoyed those, too.

Later on, when I was in high school and college, I started watching reruns of the TV series and discovered that I still liked it, maybe even more than when I was younger. I even sat down one summer and wrote more than 25,000 words of a Lone Ranger novel that I never finished. (Yes, I know, fanfic. That’s not the only one I wrote, either. I actually finished my Tarzan novel.) Sure, I can see some of the cheesiness in the show (like the giant plastic rock and the fake trees that are in so many of the supposedly exterior scenes that were really shot on a soundstage), but the series as a whole just works for me, for whatever reason. I can still sit down, watch an episode I’ve seen many times before, and thoroughly enjoy it.

I hadn’t revisited the novels in quite a while, though. Last year for my birthday, Livia bought the entire set of novels from a collector friend of mine who was selling them, and gave them to me for my birthday. Those recent posts by David and Richard prompted me to get out the first one and read it for the first time in more than forty years.

First of all, despite what the cover says, this book wasn’t written by Fran Striker, who was the primary scripter of the radio show. It’s actually by Gaylord Dubois, as the title page admits, adding that it’s “based on the famous radio adventures by Fran Striker”. Later printings attribute the book itself to Striker, “based on the famous Lone Ranger adventures created by Geo. W. Trendle”. Trendle was the radio executive who came up with the idea, but I think most of the actual creation of the character came from Striker. Regardless of all that, Dubois is the real author of this one.

So how does it hold up? Well . . . I’m not going to lie and pretend it’s a great book by modern standards. Dubois’s prose is long-winded and just plain slow in many places. The plot, which involves sabotaging the building of the transcontinental railroad, has more whiskers than Gabby Hayes. And the Lone Ranger himself is off-screen for long stretches of the book that concentrate on the rather vapid and not-too-bright proxy hero and heroine.

But there are moments . . . moments like the one where the Ranger is racing to catch a runaway train to prevent a head-on collision with another train . . . or when he breaks up a lynch mob about to hang an innocent man . . . or when he has a showdown with a gang of outlaws that involves dynamite, railroad flares, and a bow and arrows . . . well, let’s just say that at those moments, I can hear the William Tell Overture playing faintly in the back of my head. If you’ve ever had that experience, you know what I mean.

A couple more interesting things about this book. It was originally published in 1936, which means it’s based solely on the radio series. Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels, and the TV version were still more than a dozen years in the future. So the characterization and descriptions of the two main characters are a little off from what you might expect if you grew up on the TV series, as I did. Even though this is the first novel in the series, it’s not an origin story at all, and there’s no mention of how the Lone Ranger came to be. It does, however, begin with a lengthy sequence about how the Ranger found his horse Silver, which is at odds with the TV continuity. Then it goes on to the main story about the railroad sabotage.

I remember that even when I read these books as a kid, I thought there was something not quite the same about the first one. The edition I read then was credited to Striker, but it just didn’t seem as good as the other books in the series, which I liked better. Later on, of course, I found out why. Gaylord Dubois was actually one of my favorite writers when I was a kid, although I never knew anything about him at the time. But he was the writer on long runs of the TARZAN comic book (with the Jesse Marsh art), and also wrote the back-up feature in TARZAN, “Brothers of the Spear”. In addition, he created and wrote the comic book TUROK, SON OF STONE, which I also read every time I could find an issue. Dubois wrote a bunch of other stuff, too: more than 3000 comic book stories, Big Little Books, juvenile novels based on other radio shows and comic strips, like DON WINSLOW OF THE NAVY, which Dubois ghosted for series creator Frank V. Martinek, and probably a lot of other things I’m not aware of. I have to wonder if he really wrote that TERRY AND THE PIRATES novel I read a couple of years ago. There’s even a blog devoted to him and his work that’s maintained by his granddaughter, and it’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan of Twentieth Century pop culture.

So, should you run right out and find a copy of this book? If you’re not already a Lone Ranger fan, probably not. But if you are and you’ve never read it, I think it’s worthwhile, as a piece of history if nothing else. I enjoyed it, and I’m sure some of you would, too.

Meanwhile, I have all the other books in the series, the ones actually written by Fran Striker, sitting right here on the shelf beside me, just waiting for me to get to them. The next one is THE LONE RANGER AND THE MYSTERY RANCH. All I have to do is look at it, and I hear the William Tell Overture again, playing its siren song . . .

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In the President's Secret Service - Ronald Kessler

Livia picked up this book for research purposes (she’s writing a proposal in which one of the main characters is a Secret Service agent), and it looked interesting, so I decided to read it, too.

I admit, my knowledge of the Secret Service comes mostly from movies and TV and the occasional political thriller. I know some of the history (founded by Allan Pinkerton during the Civil War, etc.), but IN THE PRESIDENT’S SECRET SERVICE focuses on both the more recent past (assassination attempts in the Twentieth Century and beyond) and the day-to-day activities of the Secret Service, as well as their training and procedures.

Somewhat surprisingly, much of the book is an indictment of Secret Service management, which, the author claims, is asking its agents to do more and more without giving them the resources to perform their jobs at the highest possible level. Much of the agents’ equipment, including the weapons they carry, verges on being obsolete and can’t match up with the firepower possessed by modern-day terrorists. Severely overworked, the agents don’t have time for the necessary training, either. Kessler pulls no punches in this part of the book, although the actual field agents come in for plenty of praise.

But let’s face it, what we’re all really interested in is the gossip, and Kessler delivers, again pulling no punches as he tells how the agents who work with them every day feel about the high-level politicians that it’s their job to protect. From JFK on, Kessler dishes the dirt about all the presidents (and their families) and reveals who was really a phony and a big jerk, who was a lot smarter than he seemed, who cooperated with and respected the Secret Service, who went out of their way to make the agents’ jobs a lot more difficult than they had to be, and who was just downright weird. Some of it is very surprising, some of it not at all.

The big question with any book like this, of course, is how accurate it is. And my answer is: I don’t have a clue. I’m no Washington insider. Kessler is, having been a long-time journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the author of more than a dozen previous books about politics, espionage, and business. No doubt some of the things in this book are spin and exaggerations, but my hunch is that there’s a considerable amount of truth in it as well.

Regular readers of this blog know that I hardly ever venture into the realm of politics. IN THE PRESIDENT’S SECRET SERVICE is remarkably non-partisan, though, and more than that, it’s very entertaining and informative. You can take some of what Kessler has to say with a grain of salt if you want, but that’s true of anyone who writes about politics, history, or current events. I enjoyed the book, and if you have any interest in the subject matter, I don’t hesitate to recommend it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

American Rust -- Philipp Meyer (plus Book Giveaway!)

When I was asked if this blog could be one of the stops on the virtual tour for the trade paperback edition of Philipp Meyer’s novel AMERICAN RUST, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I recalled that Vince Keenan read the book and liked it, and while Vince’s tastes and mine don’t agree 100% of the time, the percentage is high enough that I was glad to give this novel a try. I’m glad I did, because it’s excellent.

I suppose any novel about a smart little guy and a dumb big guy will be compared to John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN somewhere along the way, and so it is here. And yet, as if aware of that, Meyer puts some subtle yet distinctive spins on that formula to create a book that’s very different from Steinbeck’s novel. (Which, come to think of it, I’ve never read. I guess it’s just that OF MICE AND MEN is so ingrained in the public consciousness that I know what happens in it, whether I’ve read it or not. But I really ought to remedy that, and not rely on the references to it in old Bugs Bunny cartoons.)

I didn’t mean to digress. The protagonists of AMERICAN RUST, a pair of young men named Isaac English and Billy Poe, have that Mutt-and-Jeff quality to them, size-wise, but while Isaac, the little one, is book-smart (he wants to be an astronomer), he’s sometimes lacking in common sense. And Poe, the big galoot of the duo, may lack Isaac’s IQ, but he’s more grounded in real life.

Meyer also sets up his novel so that you think you know what’s going to happen, but he starts pulling plot twists early on and never really stops. These aren’t dramatic, turn-on-a-dime twists, mind you, but they keep steering the novel in directions you don’t really expect.

The plot is fairly simple. Isaac wants to get out of the place where he grew up, a steel mill town in Pennsylvania where the mill has closed down and the resulting economic depression has settled over the entire area. His friend Poe agrees to go with him part of the way, to a place where Isaac can hop a freight and head west. But something happens along the way that keeps them from leaving, and that violent incident overshadows the rest of the novel as the two of them and the circle of people around them, including Poe’s mother and the local sheriff, are forced to deal with it.

The story itself is fine, but where AMERICAN RUST really shines is in its characters and its grim yet beautiful depiction of the setting. Meyer does an excellent job of capturing the desperation smoldering inside all these people. Some of that desperation is rooted in economics, but for the most part it’s just sheer humanity, the longing to connect with other people and the inability to do so, the easy falling back into a pattern of mistakes, the futility of best efforts wasted by events beyond our control. Meyer also paints a vivid picture of the ruined and dying Pennsylvania towns.

AMERICAN RUST isn’t a particularly pleasant book, but it’s very well-written and tells a compelling story, and it builds to a fine ending. One of the best books I’ve read recently, and highly recommended. I have one copy to give away, so if you'd like to enter the drawing for it, send me an email or let me know in the comments. The deadline is midnight Friday, and this one is open to only to readers in the United States and Canada.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Boys are Back

As I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to movie-watching these days, I’m making an effort to sample other things besides big, noisy action movies and crude sex comedies. And I like Clive Owen, so THE BOYS ARE BACK seemed like a good possibility. It’s based on the true story of an Australian sportswriter who’s forced to raise his young son alone after his wife dies of cancer. Things are complicated by the arrival of the guy’s older son from a previous marriage. He’s also befriended by a divorced mom he meets at his younger son’s school.

And there’s your whole plot right there. There’s an occasional mildly amusing line and a few times when something dramatic almost happens, but for the most part this movie is so slow, grim, and depressing that I was never able to warm up to it. Owen does a good job, as does the rest of the cast, but I just didn’t get involved in the film. I guess it needed some carrots. (You SHOOT ‘EM UP fans know what I mean.)

I don’t think THE BOYS ARE BACK is a terrible movie at all. It just didn’t work very well for me. Call me shallow if you want, but by the time I finished watching it, I was ready to look over my Netflix list and find something with boobs and explosions to move to the top. I probably won’t do that . . . yet.