Friday, October 29, 2010

Forgotten Books: Hangin' Pards - Gordon D. Shirreffs

Gordon D. Shirreffs was one of the most consistently entertaining hardboiled Western authors for many years. I’ve read quite a few of his books, and they’ve all been good. I’d never heard of this novel (which is half of an Ace Double, with the other side being Shirreffs’ RIDE A LONE TRAIL), but when I ran across a copy, I certainly didn’t hesitate to pick it up. So far, I’ve been well rewarded for doing so.

The protagonist of HANGIN’ PARDS (a great title, by the way) is Holt Deaver, a young man who has drifted onto the wrong side of the law on occasion but isn’t exactly a hardened owlhoot. As the book opens, he’s running from trouble. The men he was riding with robbed and murdered an army paymaster over Holt’s objections, and they’ve decided that they need to kill him in order to keep him from ever turning them in. He had to gun down one of the bandits to get away from them – not the first fatal shooting scrape he’s been mixed up in –and now the rest of the gang is closing in on him. Think things can’t get any worse for our boy Holt? Of course they can.

That’s what happens when he runs into an old outlaw named Cass Riker who has even more trouble on his trail. It seems that Cass has just been released from Yuma Penitentiary, where he served fifteen years for a Wells Fargo robbery that netted him anywhere from eighty to a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. (The number keeps changing depending on who’s telling the story.) Cass is the only one who knows where the loot is hidden, so his former partners – who he may or may not have double-crossed – are trying to catch him so they can torture the location of the money out of him. Since both of them are in trouble, Holt and Cass throw in together, of course, with Cass promising Holt a share of the loot if they get away.

There’s nothing particularly original about this plot, but the joy of reading Shirreffs’ work is in his mastery of pacing and his tough, gritty prose. The action scenes in his books are as hardboiled as they come. Plus his descriptions of the rugged settings are vivid without being long-winded and really capture the Arizona landscape. The final showdown takes place at night in an eerie ghost town and is very effective.

HANGIN’ PARDS doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a pleasure to read and packs plenty of excitement into an economical 40,000 words or so. If you’re a fan of tough-minded Westerns, I highly recommend it and just about anything else by Gordon D. Shirreffs. (And every Shirreffs-related post has to include a mention of his CALGAICH THE SWORDSMAN, one of the best historical fantasy novels I’ve ever read.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Reading Habits

In a comment on the previous post, Prashant C. Trikannad says, among other things:

Would you consider writing about your reading habits? For instance, the process of selecting and acquiring the books you hope to read, the time you spend reading every day, assimilating what you have read and then putting them up on your blog, perhaps even a regular list of interesting books for the rest of us to get the drift.

A long time ago, a wise man once told me “The problem with writing is that it interferes with your reading time.” That’s all too true. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and if the writing went away I’m sure I’d continue to read. These days, I read a little in the morning, while I’m eating breakfast and while I’m lingering over my coffee, if I think I can spare the time from whatever I’m working on. And I read some at night, usually between ten o’clock and midnight. That’s about it, although every so often I manage grab fifteen or twenty minutes sometime during the day to read. Luckily, I’m a fast reader and always have been, so I can get through quite a few books that way. I’m not a speed reader, and I don’t skim much at all, but when I do read, the pages go by pretty quickly.

In 1980 I started keeping a list of all the books I read. Although the lists are gone, lost in the fire (except for the ones for the past three years), I remember that I never read less than 100 books in a year, and most years I read somewhere between 120 and 150. So that’s ten to twelve books per month.

Choosing what to read used to be done almost entirely by whim, just whatever appealed to me at the moment. For the most part, it’s still that way, although these days more people send me review copies or manuscripts that I’ve agreed to blurb or books for which I’m writing introductions. The thing of it is, nearly all of these are books that I want to read anyway, so I still consider it pleasure reading. There are also occasions when I have to read books in a series where I’m going to be writing some of them. Even though you could call that research, I still enjoy it. And sometimes I read actual research books. Mostly, though, it’s still a matter of “Ooh, that looks good!” or “Ooh, that would make a good Forgotten Books post!”

I buy used books at Half Price Books, on the Internet, and occasionally at other used bookstores. I buy new books on the Internet, either from Amazon or directly from the publisher. I know I should buy more new books from brick-and-mortar stores, but I’m hardly ever anywhere close to one. There was a time when I would say, “This looks interesting, I might read it someday” and buy it. Now, because of the shortage of space, time, and money, I try to be a little more discriminating. I try to hold my purchases down to books that I actually intend to read in the reasonably near future. Of course it doesn’t work out that way. No matter how long I live, I’ll never read all the books I have. I know that. Doesn’t stop me from buying more, because in the words of that same wise man, “You never regret the books you buy, only the books you didn’t buy.”

I blog about most of the books I read, but not all. There are several reasons I won’t blog about a book. The most common is that I didn’t like it. I don’t mind pointing out a few flaws in a book, especially if I can talk about the things I liked in it, too. But I’m not going to really rip a book here, especially not one by a living author. I’m not getting paid to be a critic. I’m just a guy saying, “Hey, I read this book that was really good, you ought to read it.” Anyway, if I start a book and think it’s really terrible, I usually don’t finish it, and I’m not going to blog about a book I didn’t finish. Another reason I might not blog about a book I liked is that it would be difficult to talk about it without getting into divisive issues like politics or religion, topics I tend to steer clear of on this blog. I have definite opinions on such things, but I don’t think you’re here to read ’em. Then there are the oddball books nobody but me would have any interest in. This doesn’t come up very often, but it still does every now and then. But mostly, what I read, I blog about. My reading list so far this year is up to 113 books, and I’ve blogged about 94 of them. Some of the ones I haven’t blogged about were ARCs or review copies, and I’ll have posts about them when the books actually come out. So I think that’s a pretty good percentage.

A few years ago I did an end-of-the-month update post every month, listing all the books I’d read and the movies I’d seen that month, whether I blogged about them or not. I might try that again next year, if I can remember the idea that long.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Caught - Harlan Coben

I still haven’t read any of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books (I’ll get to them sooner or later, I’m sure), but I just read his most recent stand-alone, a “suburban noir”, as someone dubbed them, called CAUGHT.

As usual, one of the appeals of a Coben novel is trying to figure out how he’s going to make all the seemingly unrelated plotlines fit together. In this one you’ve got a seemingly decent guy exposed by a tabloid TV program as a pedophile, a missing teenage girl, embezzlement, drug dealing, angst over the economy and people losing their jobs, an execution-style murder, various cops and lawyers, and secrets going back for decades causing trouble in the present in Ross Macdonald-like fashion. Oh, and blogging. But also as usual, Coben manages to make it all make sense, in a series of twists and revelations that carry through all the way to the end of the book, and does so with likeable characters and prose that races right along. CAUGHT is a solidly entertaining novel, and if you’ve enjoyed Coben’s other novels, or if you haven’t tried one yet, it’s well worth reading.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


If I've promised you a blurb, guest blog, interview, book intro, short story, or anything like that, and you should have it by now but don't . . . please remind me.  I think I'm caught up on everything, but I'm definitely organizationally challenged these days and I'm worried that I'm forgetting something.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the story of the war between a village of Vikings and a group of flying, fire-breathing dragons that keep raiding the village. Talk about a movie that could go one of two different ways! Throw out the fact that it’s animated. So were 300 and BEOWULF. This could be either a cute, kid-friendly comedy with humor, anachronistic dialogue, and “awww” moments, or a dark, gritty action movie with lots of intense violence, stirring music, and spectacular images.

Well, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON doesn’t make that choice. It’s actually both of those things, and somehow it works really well.

The appearance of the human characters is exaggerated and cartoony, but the dragons are fairly realistic. (Yes, I know how odd that sounds, but you know what I mean.) The attacks on the village are pretty harrowing. The protagonist is a teenage boy called Hiccup, definitely a comedy name, but at the same time he’s dealing with some angsty issues like being a disappointment to his heroic father, the leader of the village. Death and mutilation figure heavily in the back-story, although there’s not much in the actual film. Eventually the action elements begin to dominate, pushing the cuteness into the background for the most part, and this becomes a good old-fashioned adventure movie, which you probably wouldn’t pick up from the marketing campaign.

A lot of times when I start watching an animated film, I don’t know who does the voices, and part of the fun is trying to figure out who they are. One of the characters here is pretty easy to pin down, but I didn’t have a clue who the other actors were. They all do excellent jobs, though. (And I’m not going to say who they are, in case you watch this movie and want to guess, too.)

I didn’t really know what to expect from HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, but I enjoyed it a lot. I think it’s definitely worth watching.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Captain America: Reborn - Ed Brubaker

When I first heard that Marvel was going to kill off its iconic character Captain America, my immediate thought was “Yeah, right.” I thought the same thing years ago when DC announced that Superman was going to die. Call me a cynic, but after fifty years of reading comic books, I know that death is seldom forever in that world. (Aunt May and Norman Osborn, for example.) But killing off a character, even apparently, can make for a good story in the right hands.

When I decided to start reading Marvel Comics again, I knew I didn’t have the money, the time, or the desire to catch up on everything I missed since I gave them up in disgust more than a decade ago. I figured I’d read just enough older stuff to get up to speed on the current storylines. I wasn’t the least bit interested in any of the big mutant-related mega-crossovers, and from what I’d heard about the Civil War storyline, I didn’t really care about it, either. I knew pretty much what happened and knew that the assassination of Captain America was part of that plot. But since I wanted to start reading Cap’s book again (he’s one of my favorite characters and has been since I bought AVENGERS #4 off the spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drugstore), I backtracked and read the trade paperbacks ROAD TO REBORN and REBORN, figuring that would tell me all I needed to know about Cap’s return from the dead.

I was right, but those reprint collections filled me in everything else that’s been going on since Ed Brubaker started writing the character. Bucky Barnes is really alive? Nah, couldn’t be. But remember what I said earlier about death seldom being forever in comics. Yeah, Bucky’s alive, and the explanation is actually fairly plausible. Bucky even takes up the shield and assumes the role of Captain America after Steve’s death (not the first time by any means that somebody else has been Captain America, and probably not the last). But then Bucky, Steve’s former girlfriend and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, the Falcon, the Black Widow, and assorted other characters discover that maybe Steve’s not really dead, and so we get an epic tale of the attempt to find out what really happened and set it right.

Clearly, Brubaker planned all this out years in advance, and I love that sort of long-range plotting. Sometimes it doesn’t pan out due to forces beyond the writer’s control (I still get emails from readers complaining that some of the series I’ve worked on didn’t wrap up well enough), but when it works, it’s great. And it certainly works in this case. Brubaker’s scripts are top-notch, and the art by Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice ranges from very good to spectacular, with only occasional lapses into sequences that are hard to follow. There are some great emotional full-page panels of Cap in action, too. If you’re a backslidden former Marvel follower like me who wants to start reading some of the books again, CAPTAIN AMERICA: REBORN wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Baseball Novels

When I was a kid I loved baseball. Loved playing, loved watching it, and loved reading baseball books, mostly novels. In honor of the Texas Rangers winning the American League pennant last night and going to the World Series for the first time in team history, here are some of my favorite baseball books I read as a kid and a young adult.

The Bronc Burnett series by Wilfred McCormick. High school hero Bronc Burnett (who was a modest, decent guy despite his athletic prowess) played all the major sports, but it’s the books about his baseball exploits that I remember the best. In one of the books, I don’t remember which, Bronc’s high school team plays an exhibition game against the Yankees and beats them.

THE KID WHO BATTED 1.000 by Bob Allison and Frank Ernest Hill. This is one of the books where I bought the Scholastic edition at school.

THE KID COMES BACK by John R. Tunis. I don’t recall much about this one except the climactic scene about a great catch in the first game of the World Series. I need to find a copy of this and read it again.

THE YEAR THE YANKEES LOST THE PENNANT by Douglas Wallop. My junior high library had a copy of this book, which was the source novel for the musical DAMN YANKEES. I thought it was pretty funny and risqué then. Don’t know how it would hold up now.

RHUBARB by H. Allen Smith. The classic about the cat who inherits a baseball team. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and another one I need to reread. Made into a decent movie.

THE SOUTHPAW, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, and A TICKET FOR A SEAMSTITCH by Mark Harris. I read BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, the middle book in this trilogy, when the movie based on it came out, then backtracked and read the other two. Great stuff, although A TICKET FOR A SEAMSTITCH is a fairly minor novel, as I recall. The first two are great, though. There may be a fourth book in the series, I can’t recall, but if there is, I’ve never read it.

I’m sure there were other baseball novels I read, but these are the ones that come to mind first. If you have a favorite baseball novel, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Clue of the Forgotten Murder -- Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner launched the Perry Mason series with the novel THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS, and he was also still a prolific and highly successful pulp author at the time. A year later, under the pseudonym Carleton Kendrake, he published THE CLEW OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER, which may have been intended as the start of another series featuring freelance criminologist Sidney Griff. Instead, this novel was Griff’s only appearance, probably because Gardner was busy with the Mason novels, his pulp work, and then a few years later the great Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series under the name A.A. Fair. But THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER, as it was retitled when it was reprinted under Gardner’s name, is a good book on its own.

When this novel starts out, it’s hard to know who the detective is going to be. A young police reporter named Charles Morden uncovers a potential scandal involving a banker and businessman from a neighboring city. Morden sets out to investigate, but murder soon crops up, and it looks like Dan Bleeker, the very Perry Mason-like publisher of the newspaper, is going to take over as the detective. But there are more murders, and about a fourth of the way into the book, criminologist Sidney Griff comes onto the scene and dominates the action from then on. Griff, too, is reminiscent of Mason in that he figures out pretty quickly what’s going on and manipulates people and events to uncover the truth and get the results he wants.

As is common with these early Erle Stanley Gardner novels, the plot is ridiculously complicated, with all sorts of double identities, impersonations, blackmail, past crimes, phony alibis, gangsters, poisonings, and more. I won’t even attempt to get into the details. Eventually Sidney Griff sorts it all out into at least a semblance of coherence, but I’m still not sure how he figured out everything. I will say, however, that I spotted the vital clue as soon as it was introduced.

This book is from the more hardboiled phase of Gardner’s career and has some nice action in it, including a shootout with a guy standing on the running board of a speeding car and blasting away. You gotta love that stuff, or at least I do. There’s also quite a bit of humor and snappy patter, and of course the usual rapid-fire pacing. The early Gardner novels are nice snapshots of their era. Reading them is like watching a good 1930s B-movie. If you’re in that sort of mood, they’re great entertainment, and THE CLUE OF THE FORGOTTEN MURDER definitely falls into that category. Here’s the opening paragraph, which I really like:

Crime sifted into police headquarters and then seeped down into the press room in the basement with the unfailing regularity of dirty water draining through the waste pipe of a bathtub.

I couldn’t find a scan of the original edition, but like most Gardner novels, there were numerous paperback reprints which can still be picked up fairly inexpensively.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Discount Noir Now Available!

And the run of great anthologies continues.  You can buy it here.  This one really is a lot of fun.  Patti Abbott and Steve Weddle did an outstanding job with it.

If you thought standing in line at your local warehouse store was murder, then you haven't been to Megamart. These flash fiction tales of superstore madness and mayhem will make you think twice the next time you hear "clean up on aisle 13."

This anthology contains works by: Patricia Abbott, Sophie Littlefield, Kieran Shea, Chad Eagleton, Ed Gorman, Cormac Brown, Fleur Bradley, Alan Griffiths, Laura Benedict, Garnett Elliot, Eric Beetner, Jack Bates, Bill Crider, Loren Eaton, John DuMond, John McFetridge, Toni McGee Causey, Jeff Vande Zande, James Reasoner, Kyle Minor, Randy Rohn, Todd Mason, Byron Quertermous, Sandra Scoppettone, Stephen D. Rogers, Steve Weddle, Evan Lewis, Daniel B. O'Shea, Sandra Seamans, Albert Tucher, Donna Moore, John Weagly, Keith Rawson, Gerald So, Dave Zeltserman, Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, Jay Stringer, Anne Frasier, Kathleen A. Ryan, Eric Peterson, Chris Grabenstein and J.T. Ellison.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Great News From Hard Case Crime

Here's an update from Charles Ardai:

We've got some big news to announce today: After a year's hiatus, Hard Case Crime will be returning to bookstores with new titles in 2011, thanks to a deal we just signed with UK-based Titan Publishing.

Titan is a publisher both of fiction and of gorgeous art books focusing on pop culture such as movie poster art, pin-ups, newspaper comic strips, and Golden Age comic books, and has worked with filmmakers such as J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and George Lucas. Titan has been around for 30 years, has more than 200 employees, and in addition to publishing books also has a magazine division, a retail division (Titan owns the famous Forbidden Planet bookstore in London, and until recently co-owned the Murder One mystery bookstore with Maxim Jakubowski), and a merchandise division that produces items such as t-shirts, sculptures, and accessories. We look forward to exploring ways we might develop some cool Hard Case Crime products with them!

But first things first: books.

Hard Case Crime will relaunch in September/October 2011 with four new books, including CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust (sequel to her Edgar Award-nominated MONEY SHOT), QUARRY'S EX by Max Allan Collins (the latest in the popular series of hit man novels by the author of "Road to Perdition"), and two never-before-published novels by MWA Grand Masters (names to be announced shortly).

Additionally, Titan Publishing plans to acquire all existing stock of Hard Case Crime's backlist from Dorchester Publishing and to resume shipping these titles to booksellers immediately.

New books will be published in paperback (possibly some in hardcover as well!); ebook editions will also be released across multiple platforms. Titan is distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Random House.

We're very excited about working with Titan (indeed, we had offers from five publishers and chose Titan over several that were much larger and better-known) -- they love pulp fiction as much as we do and appreciate that in books like ours the visual dimension is just as important as the storytelling. It's hard to imagine a better home for Hard Case Crime.

Charles adds that the Gabriel Hunt series will remain at Dorchester for now, with plans to reissue the series in trade paperback editions.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More Iron Man

Watching IRON MAN 2 a couple of weeks ago perked up my interest in the character. I’ve written on here before about the stack of comics I got from a couple of my cousins on Christmas Day, 1963, and there was an issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE featuring an Iron Man story among them. In recent days I’ve read three collections that reprint a pretty long run from the current Iron Man series: WORLDS MOST WANTED, VOLUMES 1 and 2, and STARK DISASSEMBLED. The storyline that run through all three volumes finds Tony Stark on the run from Norman Osborn, the bad guy turned good guy (but really still bad guy) who runs H.A.M.M.E.R., the organization that replaced S.H.I.E.L.D. during the whole Civil War mega-event. Osborn wants all the secrets to Stark technology that exist in Tony’s brain, so Tony takes the desperate step of shutting down certain areas of his brain and turning himself stupid, just so Osborn can’t get the information he’s after. Tony has a plan to “reboot” himself, though, but in order for it to succeed, he needs the help of numerous allies like Captain America, Thor, the Black Widow, and Maria Hill, the former director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The scripts by Matt Fraction, who continues to write the ongoing Iron Man series, are pretty good, with sharp dialogue and quite a bit of action. I think the stories could have used a little more humor, but that’s just me. Fraction does succeed in making me actually like Maria Hill as a character, when every time I’ve encountered her before she came across as either so bland as to be invisible or too abrasive to be sympathetic. The art by Salvador Larrocca is okay, too, although he’s no Don Heck. (And I’m surprisingly serious about that comment, since we tend to like what we grew up with and I grew up first with Heck’s version of Iron Man and then Gene Colan’s, under the pseudonym Adam Austin).

These three collections brought me almost up to date on the current Iron Man series, which I’m going to start reading again. I still don’t like the fact that everybody knows Tony Stark is Iron Man (again, I grew up in a time when superheroes had secret identities, blast it), but the character seems to be in pretty good hands these days, after a long time of wandering in the wilderness. (Teenage Tony Stark? Really? Tony Stark secretly under the control of Kang the Conqueror since AVENGERS #8? Really? Man, what was Marvel thinking . . .)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Beat to a Pulp, Round One

First it was THE GREEN HORNET CHRONICLES, and now I have my copy of BEAT TO A PULP, ROUND ONE.  My. Oh. My.  What a beautiful book, and what a line-up of stories and authors.  I can't wait to dive into this one.  If you haven't ordered it yet, now's the perfect time.

Draculas -- Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn (J.A. Konrath), Jeff Strand, F. Paul Wilson

It’s no secret that J.A. Konrath is one of the best-selling Kindle authors in the world, and tomorrow marks the release of his newest novel, a horror yarn called DRACULAS, written (under the pseudonym Jack Kilborn) in collaboration with Blake Crouch, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson. I expect it to sell a ton of copies. (And that’s a lot, considering what an ebook weighs – nothing!)

Anyway, I’m one of many who got a review copy. As I’ve probably mentioned here before, I don’t read a lot of horror novels, but I like to try one now and then, especially if it has plenty of action. I’m not much of a fan of slow-moving, creepy, psychological horror. Give me some monster-fightin’ and I’m okay, though. DRACULAS has that in spades.

The plot finds a rich guy who’s dying of cancer spending millions of dollars to buy a recently-discovered skull that may have belonged to a vampire. Thinking that a bite from such a creature might restore his health or at least keep him from dying, he uses the teeth on the skull to chomp his own neck, and sure enough, he starts to transform into something else. (This isn’t really a spoiler, since it all happens very quickly as the novel begins.) Rushed to the local hospital by his nurse, he becomes a bloodthirsty monster and goes on a rampage, infecting most of the people he comes in contact with, who in turn infect others, until there are only a few human survivors left in the hospital to battle the vampires (or “draculas”, as one of the characters dubs them) and try to keep the outbreak contained. Gory chaos ensues.

That’s really all there is to it. All the action – and there’s a lot of it – takes place over a span of a few hours. The collaborators wrote this book by divvying up the viewpoint characters amongst themselves and each writing the scenes featuring their characters, with some mutual editing and helping out to make everything fit together, of course. Some characters die, some characters rise to the occasion, tragedy and heroism abound. There’s some very dark humor, too.

I’m probably not really the target audience for this novel, since I tend not to like really gruesome stuff, and DRACULAS reaches that point in a hurry and builds from there. But it won me over with the characters. The ending probably would have bothered me if I didn’t know there was already a sequel in the works. I’m sure I’ll read it, too.

The Kindle edition of this book includes a lot more than just the novel. There are reprints of several short stories by Konrath, written in collaboration with each of the other contributors, excerpts from other novels by them, an interview with the authors in which they discuss how they went about writing the book, and all the email correspondence that went on between them while the whole thing was going on. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look that’s almost a book in itself, although it’s probably more of interest to other writers than to general readers, as Konrath acknowledges.

All in all, I liked DRACULAS. If you’re a horror fan, there’s a good chance you will, too. But if you’re squeamish, it’s probably best to avoid this one.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): The Colossus of Rhodes

I remember when this movie played at the local drive-in theater, almost fifty years ago, and I wanted to see it then, of course, because I knew it had sword fights in it and I loved anything with sword fights. But I missed it. Then years later, I found out that it was the first movie directed by Sergio Leone, which made me want to see it even more because by then Leone had become one of my favorite directors. Even with that extra motivation, more years went by without me ever watching THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES.

Well, I’ve remedied that now . . . and I’m not sure it was worth the wait.

Washed-up American cowboy star Rory Calhoun plays Dario, a Greek visiting the island nation of Rhodes in the year 260 B.C., and looks a little uncomfortable at times in an ultra-short toga. He finds himself in the middle of a lot of political intrigue involving Rhodes, Phoenicia, and Greece. The Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue and one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, stands guard over the harbor at Rhodes and plays a major part in all the plotting and double-crossing going on.

To put it bluntly, the first half of this movie is pretty dreadful. Everybody stands around and talks, and since too many of the characters look too much alike, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Thankfully, things pick up a little in the second half. You’ve got rebels attacking the palace, Phoenician soldiers smuggled into the city to overthrow Rhodes’ king, Rory Calhoun being captured by the bad guys and escaping several times, molten lead being slung by catapults so it rains down from the sky, and numerous sword fights, including one where Calhoun battles against half a dozen soldiers while standing on the arm of the giant statue, a scene that provoked a comment of “Okay, that’s actually pretty cool” from me.

Overall, though, there’s very little sign of the brilliant director Leone would become only a few short years later. There are a few sweeping vistas, and that’s about it. None of his other trademark shots or pacing, and it probably doesn’t help matters that the music isn’t by Ennio Morricone. THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES could have been a pretty good pulpish adventure movie, but it’s too long, too talky, and too complicated. If you’re a Sergio Leone completist, by all means go ahead and watch it. Otherwise I can’t recommend it.

(As I commented to Livia, a few years later and that might’ve been another washed-up American cowboy star playing Dario: Clint Eastwood. As for my favorite Rory Calhoun movie, it’s probably ANGEL, a surprisingly good piece of Eighties sleaze with a title character who is, according to the movie poster, “high school honor student by day . . . Hollywood hooker by night!” Calhoun plays a homeless denizen of the Sunset Strip who’s a, uh, washed-up cowboy star, and he’s great in the role. If you haven’t seen ANGEL, that one I recommend. The sequel, AVENGING ANGEL, is okay but not as good.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Look at the Redemption, Kansas Cover

Available March 1, 2011!  (But it can be pre-ordered at Amazon now.)

The Green Hornet Chronicles

I hold in my hand (well, not literally, but they're right here beside me) my contributor's copies of THE GREEN HORNET CHRONICLES, the new anthology of Green Hornet stories from Moonstone Books.  As a long-time fan of the radio show and a faithful viewer of the TV show when it ran, I loved writing my story in this one.  The rest of the line-up of authors is spectacular, and I'm really looking forward to reading the other stories.  Highly recommended!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Forgotten Books: Escape Across the Cosmos - Gardner Fox

Return with us now to the days when rocket ships had fins and square-jawed heroes carried positron ray guns. Gardner Fox’s ESCAPE ACROSS THE COSMOS has all that and more. It opens with the hero, Kael Carrick, being marooned on the prison planet Dakkan, which is actually more of an execution planet because it’s totally barren of life and anyone left there with no supplies is doomed to death by lack of food and water. This is how the Empire deals with prisoners convicted of murder. Carrick has been convicted of killing the famous scientist Hannes Stryker, who had saved Carrick’s life by rebuilding his body after the former soldier was gravely injured during a battle against an alien race. Carrick’s brain was the only thing preserved, and Stryker was able to regrow a new synthetic body around it. Got all that? This is back-story from before the book even starts.

Obviously, Carrick was framed and didn’t really kill his benefactor, but he’s left to die on Dakkan anyway. Luckily for him, the planet isn’t as bare of life as everybody thinks it is. It’s actually the secret hideout of a society of criminals (this isn’t too much of a spoiler, as it’s revealed very early on) and Carrick falls in with them. Eventually he escapes and sets out to discover who really killed Hannes Stryker and framed him for the crime. Naturally the beautiful blond crook who has fallen in love with him comes along, too.

At this point, ESCAPE ACROSS THE COSMOS takes on a certain Gold Medal-ish “man on the run” feel, despite the science fiction trappings. Fox isn’t content to leave it at that, though. Instead he piles on a conspiracy that threatens the entire galaxy and a heapin’ helpin’ of Lovecraftian horror, along with a lot of colorful, pulpish action, and it all winds up in a fine showdown with the real bad guys. Yes, it’s mostly silly, hokey, very dated stuff, and most modern SF fans would read a few pages, laugh or sneer, and toss the book aside. But if you grew up reading this sort of hardboiled adventure science fiction like I did, ESCAPE ACROSS THE COSMOS is a lot of fun indeed. It’s also about 50,000 words, instead of a bloated trilogy five or six times that long.

Gardner Fox is probably best known for writing comic books, and he turned out some of the most important, influential stories in that medium, most notably “Flash of Two Worlds”. But he was also a prolific pulpster, turning out many yarns for PLANET STORIES and the like, and he also produced a lot of paperback originals in various genres and under various pseudonyms. He was one of the best at swashbuckling historical adventures, and he created and wrote a well-remembered sexy spy series in the Sixties, THE LADY FROM L.U.S.T., under the name Rod Gray. I’ve found his paperback work to be inconsistent but have enjoyed many of his books. ESCAPE ACROSS THE COSMOS, published by Paperback Library in 1964, may have been an expansion of a pulp story, but if so, I couldn’t find any evidence of it. It shares some concepts with some of the comic book stories Fox was writing at the time, so I suspect it was probably an original. No matter what its origins, I found it to be an entertaining novel and well worth reading if you’re an old guy like me who doesn’t mind if the rocket ships have fins.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rancho Diablo #1 is Now Available!

RANCHO DIABLO #1: SHOOTER'S CROSS is now available on Amazon.  I'm hardly an unbiased observer since I had a hand in the series' creation, but I think Mel Odom did a spectacular job on this book, especially considering that this is his first Western novel.  If you like action-packed Westerns with great characters, this one is highly recommended.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Wipeout - The Surfaris

Another song I like, and some good music to get me up and working on a Saturday morning!  I've never forgotten my friend Dale Sacco playing this song on his drums at a high school talent show more than forty years ago and doing a great job on it.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Forgotten Books: Tickets for Death - Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser)

I’m pretty sure I’ve told some of this story before, so those of you who have already heard it please bear with me. In the spring of 1978, I had been selling short stories to Sam Merwin Jr. at MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE for a little over a year. Sam and I corresponded frequently – no email in those days, of course – and in one letter I asked him who was currently writing the Mike Shayne stories that appeared in the magazine under the Brett Halliday by-line. Honestly, I wasn’t angling for work, I was just curious. I’d been reading the stories and wanted to know who wrote them, since I knew by then that the original Brett Halliday, Davis Dresser, didn’t write the magazine stories. (In fact, by 1978 Dresser had passed away.)

Sam replied that he had been writing most of the stories himself and named several recent entries that he’d done. Then he asked me if I would like to try my hand at one, since he liked the short stories I’d been writing for him. The Shayne yarns ran 20,000 words, he told me, and paid “a flat, lousy three hundred bucks”.

Well, to a 24-year-old freelancer struggling to build a writing career, the idea of writing a 20,000-word story seemed a little daunting, but $300 didn’t sound lousy at all. In fact, it sounded like a fortune. That would pay the rent for two months on the apartment where Livia and I were living, with some left over to buy groceries. Plus I had been a reader and fan of the Mike Shayne novels ever since I was ten years old and checked out a copy of THIS IS IT, MICHAEL SHAYNE from the bookmobile that came out to our little town every Saturday from the big library in the county seat.

So of course I wrote back immediately to Sam and told him I’d love to write a Shayne story. He was pleased and said he would send me a copy of the Mike Shayne “bible”. He also instructed me to “just get the story down” and not worry too much about making sure everything was consistent with what had come before. He could go through it and make it sound like a Shayne if he needed to, he said.

But I’d been reading the Shayne novels off and on for years and was confident that I knew the characters, the setting, and the right style for the series. This was the biggest opportunity I’d had so far in my career, though, so I wanted to make sure I got it right. In order to do that, I quickly rounded up the first ten or twelve novels in the Shayne series (I already owned some of them, and the others were still very easy to find back then) and read them one after the other, totally immersing myself in the world of Michael Shayne before I ever wrote a word of my first story, which was published in the December 1978 issue of MSMM under the title I had given it, “Death in Xanadu”. As far as I remember, Sam changed one word in the manuscript, so I think I did a pretty good job of making it sound like a Shayne yarn was supposed to sound.

This is why, with a few exceptions, my Mike Shayne stories read a lot like they were written in the Forties. Those first dozen or so novels by Davis Dresser were my model for all the ones I wrote. (One of my Shaynes was actually set in the Forties, but that’s a whole other story.)

All of which is my nostalgic, very long-winded explanation for why it’s been 32 years since I last read the 1941 Shayne novel TICKETS FOR DEATH. After all that time, it seemed new to me when I recently reread it.

Mike Shayne has been accused of being the generic hardboiled private eye, and in some of the later books that may have been the case, but the early books were something totally different. Those novels are a highly appealing blend of hardboiled action, screwball comedy, and fair-play detection. Imagine Sam Spade marrying Pam North and solving cases like Nero Wolfe with a gathering of suspects at the end and a detailed explanation of who the killer is, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the early Shayne novels are like. Phyllis Shayne, Mike’s beautiful young wife, was killed off in the series in the mid-Forties, but she’s still around in this one and is, in fact, the reason Shayne gets mixed up in a case involving counterfeit tickets being cashed in at a greyhound racing track in a resort town north of Miami. When the two of them arrive in town, they’ve barely checked in at their hotel when a couple of gunmen working for a local mobster ambush Shayne and try to kill him. Naturally, they wind up dead for their trouble, although Shayne is wounded in the exchange of gunfire. It’s nothing that guzzling down a few glasses of cognac at every opportunity won’t cure, though.

From there, it’s not long until one of the people involved in the counterfeit ticket racket is murdered. Several more murders occur in fast and furious fashion, because this is one of those books where all the action occurs in the space of five or six hours. You’ll probably think you have things figured out – it seems pretty obvious what’s going on – but things are seldom as simple as they seem in Mike Shayne novels, and that’s certainly the case here. Dresser throws in twist after twist, and I’m reminded of the fact that the plots in these early Shayne novels often rival those of Erle Stanley Gardner’s for complexity. Shayne, of course, is two jumps ahead of everybody else (and three jumps ahead of the reader most of the time), and always figures out not only who the killer is but also how he can collect the biggest fee.

TICKETS FOR DEATH is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year, and if you’ve never sampled a Mike Shayne novel, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start, although the early ones probably are best read in order.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Howard Days Photo

This morning my friend Tom Johnson posted this photo on one of the Yahoo Groups we belong to.  It was taken in Cross Plains, Texas, at one of the annual Howard Days get-togethers.  The absence of the pavilion behind the house tells me the picture was taken sometime around 1996 or 1997.  Left to right in the photo are Charles Gramlich, Tom Johnson, Aaron Larson, and me.  Those were great times, but then, any visit to Howard Days is a lot of fun.

Death Notice - Todd Ritter

DEATH NOTICE is Todd Ritter’s first novel, and it’s a really good one. The small, picturesque Pennsylvania town of Perry’s Hollow is rocked by the murder of local farmer George Winnick, whose body is found in a homemade coffin beside the road. One of the most bizarre things about the murder is that the victim’s lips are sewn shut, which soon leads to the arrival of a special state police task force on the trail of a serial murderer known as the Betsy Ross Killer. But that’s not all. It seems that a death notice for the victim was faxed to the obituary writer at the newspaper before George Winnick was killed.

Ritter gives us several point-of-view characters in this novel. There’s Kat Campbell, the chief of the local two-person police force, who’s also a single mother with a son who has Down’s Syndrome. The head of the task force is Nick Donnelly, whose own sister was murdered by a serial killer when Nick was a boy. Then there’s the obituary writer, Henry Goll, also known as Henry Ghoul because he shuns much human contact and carries terrible scars from a tragic accident in his past.

Yes, this is one of those modern mystery novels filled with much angst and brooding and tragic pasts. It’s to Ritter’s credit that he gets past this set-up that’s rapidly becoming a cliché and succeeds in making them believable characters, as well as making the reader care about them. It helps that he’s come up with a good plot as well. Several times during the course of the book, it appears that the mystery has been solved, only to have a new twist crop up, along with fresh murder victims, of course. Everything leads up to a wonderful, over-the-top climax that’s reminiscent of something out of a weird menace pulp from the Thirties. (For those of you unfamiliar with them, the weird menace pulps were a lurid, very entertaining sub-genre featuring stories filled with grotesque horror trappings and endings that featured rational, rather than supernatural, explanations. In other words, they were the forerunners of the basic Scooby-Doo plot, only played seriously for the most part.)

But to get back to DEATH NOTICE, yes, I figured out who the killer was, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. Good characters, a great pace, enough clues to satisfy fans of fair play detective yarns, enough gore for horror readers, and that dynamite ending . . . what’s not to like? This doesn’t strike me as the first of a series, but it could be. Whether it is or not, it’s a very strong debut and has me looking forward to Todd Ritter’s next book. DEATH NOTICE will be out in about a week, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

Iron Man 2

Critics generally praised this movie, but many of them thought it was too busy and had too much plot. Well, let’s see . . . On the side of the good guys, you’ve got Iron Man, War Machine, Nick Fury, The Black Widow, Happy Hogan, and Pepper Potts versus the baddies Justin Hammer and Whiplash, plus throwaway bits setting up at least three more superhero movies to come (unless I missed a few, which is possible). I think that covers just about everything. And so I say to the critics who complained about this movie being too much . . . have you never actually read any comic books? This is classic Silver Age plotting. And in a nice bit buried in the closing credits, the filmmakers actually thank all the writers who came up with the source material in comics published in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, plus one or two who are currently writing Iron Man stories.

As usual in these superhero movies, the story is a mixture of plot elements and characterizations from several decades worth of comic book continuity. Tony Stark is dying because the element that powers the Iron Man suit keeping him alive is also slowly killing him, so he has to find a new element to replace it. At the same time he’s plagued by rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, who teams up with rogue Russian physicist Ivan Danko (wasn’t he originally the Crimson Dynamo in the comics, instead of Whiplash?) to make life even more miserable for Tony, who is also having to cope with friction between him and the government. Yeah, there’s a lot going on. There are plenty of fights and special effects. Stuff, you guessed it, Blows Up Real Good. Plot developments fly by so fast that if you haven’t read the comics, I suppose you could get confused by what’s going on.

Of course that didn’t bother me. In fact, those little moments setting up things for later on were probably my favorite parts of the movie. Overall, I loved IRON MAN 2 and thought it was better than the first one. Your mileage may vary, as the old saying goes. But I’m very happy with what the movies are doing with the Marvel Universe these days, and the trademark closing moment after the end credits really has me looking forward to the movies still to come. If you’re a comics fan and haven’t seen this one yet, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Filthy Rich - Brian Azzarello

Brian Azzarello is the author of the very good hardboiled crime comic book series 100 BULLETS, which has been collected in a number of trade paperbacks, and if you haven’t read them, I recommend the series. FILTHY RICH is a stand-alone, hardcover graphic novel set in the early 1960s, and the Gold Medal influence in it is obvious. The protagonist is Richard “Junk” Junkin, a former high school football star and three-time All-American at Notre Dame who is drafted to play pro football, only to tear up his knee in the final preseason game of what would have been his rookie year. Unable to play ball anymore, he winds up selling cars – or at least trying to sell cars – for the top dealership in the state. Unfortunately, he’s not very good at it, so the owner of the dealership decides to have Junk work as the bodyguard of his wild, beautiful daughter, who has a tendency to wind up in the tabloids.

Well, you know the mix of embittered protagonist, beautiful but amoral young woman, flashy nightclubs, and greed isn’t going to work out well, and sure enough, it doesn’t. Murder rears its proverbial ugly head, and Junk, in true noirish fashion, like a guy in a Charles Williams novel, keeps getting in deeper and deeper.

Azzarello’s script is good, capturing that early Sixties feel for the most part. However, I felt like something was a little lacking in it, and I think that’s due to the fact that Junk comes across as pretty unsympathetic, despite the bad deal that life has given him. In the best noir novels, you want to be able to at least hope the protagonist won’t screw up everything completely (even though you know he probably will). It’s hard to work up that feeling for Junk, and the ending seems more like what he’s got coming to him, rather than a tragedy. I have to admit, though, it’s pretty chilling, especially the final page, thanks in part to Victor Santos’ art, which seems to have been influenced by Frank Miller’s SIN CITY. I really didn’t like Santos’ art that much, since a lot of the time it’s hard to follow, but he caught the mood of the ending perfectly.

So FILTHY RICH gets a qualified recommendation from me. It didn’t really work for me part of the time, but there’s still some good stuff in it. If you love those old Gold Medal novels like I do (and I know a lot of you fall into that category), I think there’s a good chance you’ll find things to like in this one. If Azzarello does any more of these hardboiled graphic novels, I certainly won’t hesitate to read them.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Cowboy Dreams - Prefab Sprout

I don't post much about music because basically I'm just not a real musical guy.  But Paul Brazill did a Forgotten Music post earlier this week about the group Prefab Sprout, which is mostly singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon.  I'd heard one Prefab Sprout song, a rather odd cover of Marty Robbins' "Streets of Laredo", and liked it, so I took a listen to some of their other songs and liked them, too.  Continuing the Western theme, here's one of their best, a song called "Cowboy Dreams".  Some nice music for a Saturday evening.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Texas Wind Now Available for the Kindle

Not a forgotten book this week, but one that was almost impossible to get hold of for a good many years.  It's my first novel, the first private eye novel set in Fort Worth, Texas (that I know of), and now you can get it not only in hardback and trade paperback but also as an ebook for the Kindle, and at a very reasonable price, too, I might add.  Livia and I are working on getting the rest of our backlist available for the Kindle, so I should have some more announcements along those lines soon.