Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wrap-up

This is my annual end-of-the-year post, where I discuss my writing and the books I’ve read. No movie talk this year. I watched a lot of ’em, some good, some bad, but couldn’t even begin to come up with a list of the best ones. I’ll try to do better about that next year, when I may bring back my end-of-the-month updates, if I can remember to do it. (Remembering anything is more of a challenge than it used to be.) So . . .


At the beginning of the year, I got this crazy idea: what if I could average 500 pages of fiction per month? That would give me 6000 pages for the year, something I had never achieved before. Was it possible? Was it even wise to attempt it? I’d thought about it in previous years but always given up by sometime in the spring. 500 pages a month, month after month, is just too hard a pace to maintain. Fall behind, and it’s almost impossible to catch up.

But wouldn’t it be cool, I asked myself, to stack up twelve reams of paper and then stand beside them to illustrate how much I’d written? There were a couple of problems with that. One, it’s a stupid, show-offy idea. So you write 6000 pages. If they’re not any good, all you’ve got is a 6000-page-high pile of crap. Two, I don’t have twelve reams of paper, and since everything’s digital now, I probably won’t ever need that much paper again and refuse to waste the money buying it for some dumb picture. So, no photo.

But yes, I wrote my 6000 pages. 6017, to be precise. Looked pretty iffy for a while, but I made it. Being a dinosaur from the typewriter era, I don’t keep a word count. It’s all about the pages with me and always has been. But I know that many pages comes out to be somewhere between 1.3 and 1.4 million words, the most I’ve ever written in a year. It breaks down to 16½ books under seven different names, including my own, and about half a dozen short stories. It also includes my first original e-book, RANCHO DIABLO: HANGROPE LAW.

On the publishing front, I had 16 books published in 2010 (books written vs. books published usually comes out pretty close to the same like that), under six different names (all of the above except my own, but REDEMPTION, KANSAS will be out in March with my name on it). Plus a few short stories.

Will I ever write that much again? I don’t know, of course, but I have my doubts. While I’m sure there are some crappy pages among the 6017, I think for the most part they’re pretty good. I think at least a couple of the books I wrote this year rank among my best ever. But the readers are the ultimate judges of that. However, that pace is a little too much, even for me. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll do my million words again in 2011 – I already have about 1.1 million under contract – but unless something else sells or I find myself with more time to work on spec projects than I expect, I don’t think we’re looking at 6000 pages again. Probably more like 5800.

My biggest goal is to get everything back on schedule again. My primary editor has been remarkably patient about me turning in books late. I really appreciate that, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get things squared away so that by the middle of the year, the books will be coming in on time again. There’ll be a few logjams along the way – I have three books due on April 1, for example – but I’ll work through those.

So what it boils down to is that I wrote a lot, I think I did pretty good work, and I intend to keep going as long as the editors have faith in me and the readers enjoy what I’m doing. And none of it would be possible without all the help I get from Livia, Shayna, and Joanna, so a great big thanks goes out to them as well.


After a few down years, I got back on a more normal pace in my reading. I read 146 books in 2010, which I consider a good year. I read a wide variety of books, in many different genres, as I usually do, some old, some new. I read a number of books in manuscript because the authors wanted blurbs from me, something I’m always glad to do as long as I have the time. Coming up with a list of ten favorites wasn’t easy (it never is), but here are the books I liked the best this year, in the order in which I read them:

ONE FOR HELL, Jada M. Davis
THE WALK, Lee Goldberg
RAINWATER, Sandra Brown
SIEGE, Brian Michael Bendis
TARZAN AND THE LION MAN, Edgar Rice Burroughs

Troy Smith’s Nashville-set crime novel is one I read in manuscript, and I don’t believe it’s out yet. The others are all either in print or easily available in used copies on-line. A couple of them, THE HARDBOILED DICKS and TARZAN AND THE LION MAN, are rereads of books that I loved when I was a kid, and obviously I still do. And yes, I’m aware it’s an odd list overall. I’m an odd reader. There were dozens of other books that could have made this list, and might have if I’d been coming up with it on a different day. I don’t believe I read a really bad book all year (mostly because if I start one I don’t like, I don’t finish it). But I’m happy with the mix and hope to keep it up.

In conclusion . . .

2010 was a pretty good year, very, very busy but enjoyable for the most part. I was able to stay on a fairly even keel and get a lot done. If 2011 continues that trend, I’ll be pleased.

Forgotten Books: Summer of Sin - Orrie Hitt

For the last Forgotten Book of the year here on Rough Edges, we return to old reliable Orrie Hitt, with the 1961 Beacon novel, SUMMER OF SIN. Hitt’s narrator this time around is Clem Evans, the usual 6’4” protagonist. Clem is 22 and has big plans: he’s going to take over a swimming and picnicking resort on the local river for the summer and make enough money to buy a shop that sells cigarettes, beer, and dirty books. But his girlfriend, pretty and semi-wholesome Nan Gordon (she only puts out for him) doesn’t like the idea and thinks he should take the janitor job that’s open at the hospital where she works. They break up over the issue and Clem winds up getting involved with local bad girl Emily Stucker while he works to get the beach resort ready for the summer season. Another distraction arises in the shapely form of Gloria Darnell, the beautiful daughter of the woman who owns the resort (which she’s only leasing to Clem). Clem falls hard for Gloria, but obstacles keep cropping up in his path, including a knife-happy JD who has a grudge against him.

As you can see, it’s the usual Hitt formula with the hero/heel juggling three women. Clem is a little more of a heel than some Hitt protagonists, as he continually mooches money off the women in his life, but he’s not as bad as some and wants to do the right thing, he just can’t seem to figure out what it is sometimes. Common Hitt themes such as fear of pregnancy, dirty pictures, and lesbianism show up, too, although for the most part SUMMER OF SIN revolves around money: Clem’s desperate, grasping need for it and his inability to get enough of it. There are a couple of crime angles, including a murder and a blackmail plot, but neither of them really amount to much. The ending is a series of abrupt deus ex machina twists, as if Hitt realized he had gotten enough words and wanted to wrap things up so he could get on to the next book. (I know that feeling!)

So why, given all that, should you read SUMMER OF SIN if you come across a copy of it? Because nobody was ever better than Orrie Hitt at creating an atmosphere of sheer, gritty desperation. Take away the phony happy endings that were probably required by the publishers, and Hitt’s books are the noirest of the noir, inhabited by people who don’t have enough money or love or anything else, people who numb themselves with sex and booze in order to cope with their grinding unhappiness, people who go down the wrong paths knowingly because they can’t seem to find the right ones. Even the rich people in Hitt’s novels are flawed and miserable. SUMMER OF SIN doesn’t belong in the top rank of Hitt novels, but it’s well worth reading because it captures that small-town darkness so vividly, yet still manages to hold out a small sliver of hope, whether it’s really believable or just another trick of fate. I had a great time reading this book, just as I do with nearly all of Orrie Hitt’s novels.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hell Island - Matthew Reilly

I’ve seen Australian thriller writer Matthew Reilly’s novels around for a number of years now and even used to own a few of them I never got around to reading. However, I recently came across HELL ISLAND, a slim little volume that was written originally for the Australian government to give away in an effort to promote reading, as Reilly explains in his introduction. At 30,000 words or so, it seemed worth taking the chance, especially since it features one of Reilly’s series heroes, Marine Captain Shane Schofield.

The plot is fairly simple: the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz has stopped at a remote Pacific research station known as Hell Island, and something has gone terribly wrong. Four teams of high-level operatives – Delta Force, Navy SEALS, 82nd Airborne, and Force Recon Marines (the latter commanded by Schofield) – are parachuted in to find out what happened and set it right. Chaos ensues.

Or to boil it down even more, to only four words: Apes with machine guns.

If that doesn’t get your blood to pumping, well, then . . . you’re not a 12-year-old boy at heart, I suppose. I am, at least some of the time, and so I really wanted to like this book. It has plenty of action, some of the characters are interesting, and it reads fast. However, Reilly’s frantic, hyper-kinetic writing style, with its abundance of italics and exclamation points, didn’t really work that well for me. I found just enough intriguing in HELL ISLAND that I might read something else by Reilly. It may take a while for me to get around to it, though. If you’re already a fan of his work I’m sure you’ll want to read this one, too, or if you’d just like to sample it, this is a good way to do that.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Judas Payne - Michael Hemmingson

Judas Payne: A Weird Western / Webb's Weird Wild West: Western Tales of Horror (Wildside Double #11)

There’s a line in the author’s bio at the back of this book I really like: “Michael Hemmingson writes books in every possible genre he can.” That’s my kind of writer. I’ve read Hemmingson’s Orrie Hitt pastiche, THE TROUBLE WITH TRAMPS, but JUDAS PAYNE is the first Western by him I’ve read. It’s an unusual book, and it’s a fine example of taking a traditional plot and doing something new with it.

In JUDAS PAYNE, you’ve got homesteaders, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, Indians, a friendly sheriff, a wagon train, a gang of vicious outlaws and slavers led by a former cavalry colonel, a mysterious gunfighter, and a young hero trying to make his way in a world full of tragedy and strife. Sounds like a pretty traditional Western, doesn’t it? Oh, yeah, the young hero is the son of Satan. Literally. Satan takes on the form of a handsome, wounded Indian, and seduces the wife of the preacher. Lots of horrific things happen, to go along with shootouts and fistfights and assorted other Western plot elements.

Hemmingson writes in a somewhat formal style reminiscent of the TV show DEADWOOD, and it’s very effective given the Gothic overtones of this yarn. It’s a short, fast-moving novel, and spawn of Satan or not, Judas Payne winds up making a fine, likable hero. Everything is set up for sequels, and I hope we get them.

JUDAS PAYNE is half of Wildside Double #11, published by Wildside Press. On the other side of the book, continuing the Weird Western theme, is Don Webb’s short story collection, WEBB’S WEIRD WILD WEST. I’ve met Webb several times at conventions but haven’t read any of his work yet. These stories look good, and I plan to get to them soon. In the meantime, if you enjoy a definitely off-beat Western, check out Michael Hemmingson’s JUDAS PAYNE. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Marvels: Eye of the Camera - Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern

If you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe and haven’t read MARVELS, the graphic novel by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, you really should. It’s an everyman’s history of the Marvel Universe from the Golden Age through the beginnings of the Silver Age, told from the point of view of news photographer Phil Sheldon. And it’s wonderful stuff, certainly one of the best, if not the best, graphic novels I’ve ever read. Of course, I may think that because it retells from that slightly different point of view many of the stories I remember reading in their original versions when I was a kid.

Now there’s a sequel, MARVELS: EYE OF THE CAMERA, written by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern, with art by Jay Anacleto. It picks up just about where the first one left off and carries the stories on through the Seventies and Eighties, when a lot of things changed in the Marvel Universe. The simple days of the Sixties, when Stan Lee wrote nearly everything and Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, and Don Heck drew nearly everything, were gone. A lot of different creative voices were at work then, and the stories got longer, more complicated, and considerably darker (although it’s hard to get much darker than some of those early Spider-Man stories by Stan and Steve). As a regular reader of almost everything Marvel published from 1964 on, I knew when things began to shift during the Seventies. Some of the stories didn’t seem to be as much fun, but I figured part of that was because I was older, and we know that nothing is ever quite as good as it is when you first discover it.

During the Eighties, though, things definitely changed, and it wasn’t just me. Part of it was economic: the rise of comics shops and the direct market changed the way publishers did business, and that leaked over into the creative end of it. Big, company-wide “event” stories, like Marvel’s SECRET WARS and DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, became popular. So did changing characters’ costumes, and sometimes the people wearing the costumes were even different than what we were used to. Everything seemed to be a state of flux. I’ll be honest – I didn’t like it very much. But I found enough to enjoy in comics that I kept reading.

It was all the stuff that happened in the Nineties that drove me screaming for the hills and caused me not to even pick up a comic book for eight or ten years . . . but that’s a different post.

To get back to MARVELS: EYE OF THE CAMERA, the real “eye” of Busiek and Stern’s story isn’t the camera at all, but rather the man holding the camera. (And if the fact that Phil Sheldon has only one eye isn’t a rather obvious bit of symbolism, I don’t know what is.) The story doesn’t just retell Marvel history from that era, although there’s plenty of it in there, and an appendix in the back of the book even details which issues all the events came from. The central focus of the book is Phil himself, his personal story and how it’s reflected in all the superhero chaos that seems to be going on all the time. There’s some sly humor here, as the writers consider what it would be like for average people to be witness to all these earth-shaking events over and over again. It’s a little like Norvell Page’s Spider stories. Just how often can New York be destroyed, anyway, before it’s back to normal the next issue? Quite a few, evidently, if we’re to believe the pulps and the comics.

Busiek and Stern wind all this up in a closing chapter that’s almost guaranteed to leave you a little misty-eyed, especially if you’re a writer. I haven’t said anything about the art. It’s pretty good. Not as good as Alex Ross’s in the original, but Jay Anacleto does a fine job at what must have been a huge task of capturing the look of scores of different characters. All in all I’d rank this one just below the original MARVELS, and it’s definitely worth reading. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I Remember It Well . . .

It was 34 years ago today I opened the mailbox at my parents’ house and took out a check for my first professional fiction sale. I’ve written about that day and the story involved here, so as usual I won’t repeat all the details. I can’t let the occasion pass without at least mentioning it, though, and I can’t help but think about all the changes that have occurred since then. That story was written on a manual typewriter, stuck in an envelope, taken to the post office, and mailed. The check for it, also filled out on a typewriter, came back to me in the mail. Nothing digital involved anywhere in the process. On a personal level, I was not only 34 years younger, I was 60 or 70 pounds lighter, my eyesight was better (not good, just better), and I didn’t have to say “Huh?” a dozen times whenever somebody tried to talk to me. I didn’t have a beard, but I had more hair on top of my head than I do now. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I had a full head of hair, though. I was born balding, and I stayed that way. I was already married, but we didn’t have any children. That was still almost eight years away. I was working for my dad and had no idea what the life of a full-time freelance writer was really like. All I knew was that I wanted it.

So, 34 years later, after being a writer for more than half my life, has it been worth it? From a financial standpoint, almost certainly I could have made more money doing something else, and my family definitely suffered during some of the really lean times. But although it seems like I’ve been chained to the keyboard for years, I know that’s not really the case. The freedom writing has given me allowed me to be very much involved with the lives of my kids as they grew up, and I’m a lot more proud of the way they’ve turned out than I am of anything I’ve written. Writing was a means to that end, though. It’s also enabled me to be around to help out when other family members needed me, as they’ve helped me countless times. From a creative standpoint, I’ve always been a storyteller, and I’ve been able to spin lots and lots of what I hope are good yarns. They haven’t always been the stories I might have told if things had worked out differently, but I’ve always found something worthwhile to tell in all of them. And when I think about the millions of times over the past 34 years that someone has sat down, read something I wrote, and enjoyed it, well, you just can’t beat that feeling.

Worth it? In the words of the TV commercials, it’s been priceless.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jonah Hex

As further evidence that I’m either a brilliant iconoclast tilting at the conventional wisdom or else just too damn weird for my own good, I watched the universally-reviled JONAH HEX and found it surprisingly entertaining.

Now, I’ve been reading Jonah Hex in comic books for close to forty years now, and don’t get me wrong: JONAH HEX the movie is nowhere near a faithful adaptation of the character. The back-story is the same, but just about everything else is different, as the filmmakers give Hex the supernatural power of being able to bring the dead back to life long enough to talk to them and find out things he needs to know and have him fighting an old enemy who has built a super-weapon (originally designed by Eli Whitney) that he intends to use in a series of terrorist attacks meant to bring the country to its knees. Hex, who at the beginning of the movie is a bounty hunter like in the comics, is recruited by the government to stop the bad guy’s plan.

Yes, it’s silly, but for somebody who’s never read the comics (like the people watching it with me), I think it’s a serviceable plot. Josh Brolin does a good job as Hex, although the scarred-face makeup didn’t look quite right to me, and John Malkovich chews the scenery just fine as the bad guy. Megan Fox plays a whore who’s an old friend of Hex’s but doesn’t have a lot to do.

I do have some complaints about the movie that have nothing to do with whether or not it’s faithful to the comic book. The movie calls itself a Western, and yet nearly the entire thing takes place in South Carolina and Virginia. It seems to me it would have been more effective if the writers had found some way to move the action out west. Also, the big centennial celebration at the end where the final showdown takes place never would have been held at night. In 1871, such things were held during the day. Also, for a movie with as many special effects as this one has, at times it looked surprisingly cheap, like the producers couldn’t afford enough extras to make things realistic.

A lot of critics complained about how short JONAH HEX is. Not counting the credits at the end, it runs about 75 minutes. Well, that didn’t bother me. There’s always a lot going on, and it didn’t seem like a particularly short movie. Hey, a lot of B-movies from Thirties, Forties, and Fifties managed to pack plenty of stuff into 75 minutes. I do think this one could have used a little more exposition, as some of the plot was a little hard to follow, but another five minutes or so would have done it.

Overall, I wouldn’t say JONAH HEX is a good movie, but it entertained me more than I expected it to. If you can just forget about the comic book, or have no knowledge of the comic book, it’s an okay way to pass some time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Forgotten Books: A Corpse for Christmas - Carter Brown (Alan G. Yates)

Since Friday falls on Christmas Eve this week, I thought it would be a good idea to read a Christmas-themed mystery as my Forgotten Book. Or in this case, re-read one.

When I was growing up in the Sixties, Carter Brown books were everywhere. You couldn’t find a paperback rack without at least a couple of Carter Brown titles in it, and the used bookstores had shelves after shelves of them. And I was a fan. What teenage boy wouldn’t be? The books had fast-paced plots, racy dialogue, and McGinnis covers. I gobbled ’em up.

One of them I remember reading was A CORPSE FOR CHRISTMAS, but that’s all I recalled about it. So I scrounged up a copy (ordered it off ABE, to be precise) and read it again. The results were sort of mixed. This is one of the books featuring Lt. Al Wheeler, probably the best-known of Brown’s detective characters. I’ve always liked Al, and he’s his usual abrasive but charming self here. The action takes place during the last few days before Christmas, and at one point the murderer wears a Santa Claus suit, but overall there’s not much Christmas atmosphere in this one, despite the title. The fact that the fictional Pine City, where Al works as a detective for the sheriff’s department, is in Southern California probably has something to do with that. And Brown’s writing was never really very strong on any sort of atmosphere to start with, being concerned mostly with plot and dialogue.

Add to that an unimpressive cover and a fairly bland plot about the murder of a guy who owns a public relations company, and you have a book that’s something of a disappointment. However, it does pick up steam late, with more murders and a flurry of plot twists (the Carter Brown novels tend to be fairly complex and usually well-plotted), so I wound up enjoying it enough to consider the couple of hours it took to read it not wasted time. And it’s put me in the mood to read more Carter Brown books, although who knows when or if I’ll actually get around to it.

Now, as a bonus since the book I picked didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped it would, here’s a rerun of a post I wrote back in 2005, before the Forgotten Books series began and I suspect before many of you were reading this blog:

I'm a nostalgic kind of guy, and let's face it, I never really grew up to start with. I still read comics and pulps and old paperbacks. But some of my interests have faded away over the years. During my junior high and high school years, I read lots of British mysteries (along with all other sorts of mysteries). Many of them were by Agatha Christie. I haven't read anything by her in years, though.

Until recently, when on a whim and a desire to revisit that part of my earlier years, I picked up a copy of her novel MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS. This is a Hercule Poirot novel that I never read back in the Sixties, and he was always my favorite among her characters. I'm afraid I never cared much for Miss Marple. Anyway, I've now read about a third of MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS, and I'm enjoying it very much. True, at this late date the plot seems almost like a parody of itself: a dysfunctional British family, plus a couple of mysterious outsiders, gathers at the family's country estate for Christmas, and the obnoxious patriarch of the family winds up being murdered. Naturally, Hercule Poirot happens to be visiting one of the local police officials, so he's drawn into the investigation.

Sure, it's a hokey set-up, and characters tend to have conversations with each other about things they already know, simply as a means of filling in the readers on the backstory, but I'm willing to forgive that. The characters themselves are pretty interesting and Christie does a good job of sketching them in without going overboard on the background. The prose is fast-paced and quite readable, and I haven't figured out who the killer is yet. (Unlike a novel I read recently by a current big-name thriller writer, where I saw every single plot twist for the entire book in the first fifty pages or so.)

So, while I doubt that I'll ever gobble down Agatha Christie mysteries like I did in the old days, I'm having a lot of fun with this one and will probably read a few more now and then.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Just in Case You Don't Have the Christmas Spirit Yet . . .

. . . I give you the great Michelle Monaghan, from the equally great movie KISS KISS BANG BANG.  I've gotta watch that again.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Plumm Summer

This is another of those Movies I’d Never Heard Of. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a small town in Montana in the late Sixties about two brothers, one a teenager and the other a five-year-old who’s obsessed with the puppet mascot of a local kid’s TV show. I thought the plot was going to go one way, but it went another instead, which is always a nice thing. I was also glad to see such stalwart character actors as Peter Scolari and Clint Howard making appearances. The movie’s really sweet, but some domestic drama involving the kids’ father (played by William Baldwin) gives it a slight edge in places. The host of the TV show is played by Henry Winkler, who will always be the Fonz to me, no matter who he’s playing.

Mainly, though, this post is an excuse for me to talk about the local kid shows of my youth. When I was six or seven, I was a big fan of a show that featured a couple of puppets named Mickey and Amanda Mud Turtle. A few years later, Amanda left and was replaced by a character named Michelle Mud Turtle. I saw them in person several times when they made public appearances at various churches. Some of my Facebook friends who grew up around here at the same time remember Mickey and Amanda/Michelle, which is good because otherwise I might think I imagined them. There’s no footage of them on YouTube, which surprises me a little.

You can find clips on YouTube from Slam Bang Theater, my other favorite, though. The host of that was known as Icky Twerp. He was really an actor named Bill Camfield, who also played Gorgon, the host of Nightmare Theater, the weekly Saturday night horror movie on Channel 11. I’ve posted clips of Camfield as Gorgon before, but I don’t think I’ve posted any of his work as Icky Twerp. Well, we’re going to remedy that:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Shrek Forever After

We watched the first three Shrek movies, so it was inevitable we’d watch the fourth one, I suppose. And equally inevitable that I’d enjoy it. I tend to like Mike Myers’ movies, although I haven’t seen all of them. I’m especially fond of the three Austin Powers movies, so that ought to be enough to tell you what my tastes are like.

SHREK FOREVER AFTER isn’t as funny as the previous movies, although it certainly has its silly moments and sly pop-culture references. It doesn’t play like it was intended to be as funny, though. It uses the old IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE bit to show Shrek what the world would have been like if he’d never been born, and instead of the noir nightmare we get in the Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra classic, this movie gives us more of a heroic fantasy adventure with an alternate universe, a rebellion, and lots of action and magic. You’ll be able to predict just about everything that happens, but it’s still enjoyable, or at least I found it to be.

So if you’re a Shrek fan, this one is certainly worth watching. If you’ve never seen any of the other movies, I wouldn’t start with it. But I had a good time with it, for what that’s worth.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Winners . . .

. . . of the first annual Rope and Wire Short Story Contest have been announced, and I'm very pleased to note that my friend (and the publisher of the fantastic Black Dog Books line) Tom Roberts has won third place with his excellent story "Toby."  We all know Tom is a great artist and publisher, but he's a fine writer as well.  You can read Tom's story here, and you can check out all the other top finishers here.  While you're there, take a look at the rest of the site.  If you have any interest in the West or in Western fiction, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rancho Diablo: Hangrope Law is Now Available

I'm very pleased to announce that the second Rancho Diablo book, HANGROPE LAW, is now available on Amazon for the Kindle.  I hope that those of you who read and enjoyed the first Rancho Diablo book, SHOOTER'S CROSS, will give this one a try as well.  This would be something great to buy with that Amazon gift certificate you're going to get as a Christmas present next week, or might I suggest that if you're giving a Kindle as a present to someone who's a Western reader, you could download both Rancho Diablo books on it so they'll have something to read right away.  Just a thought.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Forgotten Books: Shotgun Gold - W.C. Tuttle

W.C. Tuttle was a prolific author for the Western and general fiction pulps, turning out hundreds of stories and dozens of novels from the mid-Teens through the Fifties. SHOTGUN GOLD is an early novel of his that features what I think is his best character, range detective Hashknife Hartley.

It takes a while for Hashknife and his partner, Sleepy Stevens, to show up in this one. Tuttle starts out by establishing the long-time rivalry between ranch owners Moses Conley and Franklyn Moran, who had a falling-out over a business deal twenty-five years earlier. The situation is aggravated now by the fact that Moran’s son Jim is in love with Conley’s daughter Dawn. (Yes, it’s the old Romeo and Juliet plot, transferred to the cattle country of the Southwest.) Conley has a problem with his hot-tempered son Pete, too, when Pete winds up in jail charged with murdering a gambler. Then some butchered cattle belonging to Moran turn up on Conley’s range, followed by Conley getting shot and Jim Moran being found standing over the body with a smoking gun in his hand. Throw in a cabal of gamblers who want to take over the town, and you’ve got a pretty complicated plot for Hashknife to straighten out, which is nothing unusual in a Tuttle novel. Some of his plots rival those of Erle Stanley Gardner for complexity.

Hashknife is a great character, on the surface a typical slow-moving and apparently slow-witted cowboy who sort of ambles around like a frontier Columbo, asking pertinent questions here and there and observing everything and everybody. When trouble breaks out, though, as it always does, he’s fast on the draw and plenty tough. Hashknife is usually two steps ahead of everybody else in the book in his thinking, and he needs to be here as Tuttle keeps throwing in plot twists almost right up to the final page. Some of them you might see coming, but I’ll bet you won’t be able to predict all of them. I certainly didn’t. Tuttle also provides a lot of humor in his books, including some shenanigans that can only be described as slapstick – with bullets. Sleepy Stevens is a comic sidekick part of the time, although he can be pretty tough when he needs to be, too, and there are plenty of other colorful cow country characters. Tuttle is big on nicknames, as well. In addition to Hashknife and Sleepy, the sheriff in SHOTGUN GOLD is called Roaring Rigby, and there are cowboys known as Wind River Jim, Lovely Lucas (so-called because he’s so big and ugly), and Horse Collar Fields.

Tuttle started writing Hashknife and Sleepy stories around 1920, in the pages of the pulp ADVENTURE. The characters appeared in numerous other pulps over the years, including ARGOSY and SHORT STORIES. The concept of a pair of range detectives proved to be popular. Tuttle himself revisited it in a long series of novelettes in EXCITING WESTERN featuring characters called Tombstone and Speedy. These stories are a little different in that Tombstone isn’t nearly as smart as Hashknife and usually solves his cases more by dumb luck than anything else, but they’re still enjoyable yarns. Harry Sinclair Drago, writing under his pseudonym Bliss Lomax, turned out a number of novels featuring range detectives Rainbow Ripley and Grumpy Gibbs, and Norman A. Fox threw his hat in the ring with his novels about Rowdy Dow and Stumpy Grampis. Although to be fair, Rainbow and Grumpy, and Rowdy and Stumpy, seem to have been influenced as much by Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes as by Hashknife and Sleepy, if not more so.

Then you’ve got the cover of the Popular Library edition from 1950, with art by Kirk Wilson. These characters don’t really look like anybody in the book (although the guy could be Jim Moran), but boy, that pistol-packin’ redhead is something. She really knows how to wear a yellow shirt and a pair of jeans. There’s a good reason red and yellow are the predominant colors on so many Western pulp and paperback covers. This one really catches your eye, doesn’t it?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my post on RESCUED IN THE CLOUDS that the writing was pretty old-fashioned, as you might expect from a book first published in 1927. Well, SHOTGUN GOLD originally came out in 1927, too, but the writing is clean and fast-paced and almost slick enough to have been published now. Some of the humor is a little dated and corny, but of course that doesn’t bother an old codger like me. I really enjoyed this one, and if you like Western mysteries, you can’t go wrong with SHOTGUN GOLD or just about anything else by W.C. Tuttle.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Free PDF of The Neverending Hunt - Paul Herman

My friend Paul Herman is making his massive Robert E. Howard bibliography THE NEVERENDING HUNT available as a free PDF file.  This is a book that every REH fan should have. You can find all the details here, and after you're done checking that out, give some thought to becoming a member of the Robert E. Howard Foundation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dancing With Myself Interview

There's a new interview with me (conducted by me, as well) on Nigel Bird's Sea Minor blog.  There are a few things in there that haven't been told elsewhere, as far as I remember, so check it out if you're of a mind to.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Forgotten Books: Passage to Samoa - Day Keene

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Day Keene is one of the most consistently entertaining writers I’ve ever read. Every book is well-plotted and sharply written, and PASSAGE TO SAMOA is no exception.

A Gold Medal from 1958, this one starts with a fairly standard set-up. The protagonist, Matt Kelly, is a deep-sea diver hired at the last minute to recover some money and important papers from a rich man’s yacht that sank during a storm in the South Pacific. The wealthy owner went down with the ship, and his beautiful stepdaughter is now heading up the salvage operation. The stepdaughter has a scandalous reputation – eloped with the family chauffeur at sixteen, married a phony count at eighteen – and since she’s fodder for the tabloids, a beautiful blond reporter and her tag-along cameraman manage to come along on the expedition. There are also a couple of survivors from the sunken yacht taking part.

Keene doesn’t wait long to get the action started. A dead body pops up on the third page, and that murder is only the first of several. Keene may be working from a standard plot, but he spins an intriguing, exciting yarn full of double crosses, hidden identities, and lust and greed. You can probably predict that sooner or later both of the beautiful babes are going to wind up naked in a fresh-water pool at the base of a waterfall on an idyllic South Pacific island, and you’d be right about that, but you probably won’t guess the neat twists that Keene springs late in the book.

PASSAGE TO SAMOA is a fine hardboiled adventure novel packing a lot of entertainment in its 144 pages, the sort of book that (all together now) they just don’t write anymore. If you run across a copy, grab it, and if it’s already sitting on your shelves unread and you’re looking for a couple of hours of fun, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Like LEGENDARY, this is another of the WWE’s attempts to make something besides action movies. The title character is Walter Krunk, the massive handyman at a Memphis orphanage who grew up there, was never adopted, and never left. A fire damages the orphanage, which is threatened with being shut down unless the nuns who run the place can come up with the money for the repairs, and who should come along but a boxing trainer who’s looking for a new fighter to compete in a mixed martial arts championship. The trainer has to find somebody in a hurry because he’s in debt to a vicious bookie who’s also involved with the MMA tournament.

Well, you all know where this is going, of course. The nuns and the trainer team up to turn the huge but good-natured Walter into a fighter. Action, romance, humor, and assorted hijinks ensue. You don’t expect a movie like this to break any new ground when it comes to the plot, and KNUCKLEHEAD doesn’t. You have to judge it by how well the people who are involved do what they do, and on that score, KNUCKLEHEAD turns out to be fairly entertaining.

The cast is a good one. Dennis Farina is the bad guy, Wendie Mallick is the nun in charge of the orphanage, Melora Hardin is the former stripper who works at the orphanage. She’s not a nun, so she can serve as the romantic interest for the trainer, played by Mark Feuerstein. The fine character actor Will Patton shows up in a supporting role as the trainer’s father. Not surprisingly, though, Paul Wight Jr., who wrestles under the name The Big Show (that’s how he’s billed here, too) dominates the movie as Walter, and not just because of his size. He turns in an excellent performance. The “gentle giant” role is sort of a stereotype, but Wight handles it very well.

Some of the humor is pretty crude for a movie that seems to be trying to be “family friendly”, but that’s the film’s biggest drawback. KNUCKLEHEAD isn’t a great movie, but its heart is in the right place and I enjoyed watching it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Free E-Book from the International Thriller Writers

Here’s an ITW holiday gift – a free ebook!

Download a free copy of ITW’s latest thriller WATCHLIST – a killer collaboration between 22 authors including Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, Joe Finder, Lisa Scottoline, David Hewson, David Liss and more.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Night Forms - Francis M. Nevins

David Cranmer posted about this book the other day, and let me second his recommendation. I’d been aware of Francis M. “Mike” Nevins’ work for many years, but mostly as an editor and author of non-fiction about the mystery genre. I hadn’t read that much of his fiction. NIGHT FORMS is a massive collection of his short stories, and they’re all excellent.

The book includes a selection of stories about each of Nevins’ series characters, law professor Loren Mensing, con man Milo Turner, and police detective Gene Holt. There are also pastiches of Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler, and Harry Stephen Keeler, as well as a number of non-series stories. The stories’ original publication dates range from 1972 (Nevins’ first story) to 2003. A few of them are pure suspense, but most of them are classic traditional fair-play detective stories, and they serve as a great reminder, in this era dominated by cozies on one end of the spectrum and ultra-hardboiled noir on the other, of just how entertaining that genre can be. More than anything else, NIGHT FORMS is just flat-out fun to read.

My favorite of the series characters is Milo Turner. The stories featuring him are expert blends of con man capers and murder mysteries. My favorite stories overall are the ones that deal with old Western B-movies (one of Nevins’ fields of expertise, along with the law) and copyright issues. Nevins provides afterwords to every story discussing how they came to be written (I love that stuff) and a fine autobiographical introduction that focuses on his friendship and working relationship with Fred Dannay, one half of the Ellery Queen writing partnership and editor of EQMM for many years.

Perfect Crime Books continues to be one of the most impressive independent publishers out there, and NIGHT FORMS is an excellent addition to their list. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

eI53 Now On-line

The latest issue of Earl Kemp's great fanzine eI, the 2010 Annual edition, is now on-line here.  With contributions by Lawrence Block, Michael Moorcock, Victor J. Banis, and Michael Hemmingson, among others, there's plenty of fine reading to be found.  If you've never read eI, I suggest you explore the archives while you're over there.  Allow plenty of time, though.  You may be there all day.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Another Baseball Book

Here's an update from Barbara Gregorich:

I've just published Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Vol. I: Maud Nelson, Margaret Nabel. This is an 8x10 book (notebook sized) of 114 pages, consisting of original newspaper articles written between 1875 and 1935. Most of the articles are quoted in their entirety, some are summarized. These are a portion of the research notes from which I wrote Women at Play back in 1992.

This book will be of interest to baseball researchers, to women in baseball who want to know their history, perhaps to baseball fans who aren't interested in research but would enjoy reading old-timey articles, maybe to novelists looking for the flavor of the times, and, I hope, to high school English teachers who assign research papers to students.

Since publishing this book last month, I’ve already heard from baseball researchers who said that information in my book led them to some aspect of their own research they didn’t know about or hadn’t considered.

The book is available only through Amazon, $12 for the softbound format, $5 for the Kindle format.

Fantastic Four: Solve Everything - Jonathan Hickman

It wouldn’t have taken much of an improvement for me to like this collection of Fantastic Four stories more than I did the previous one, Mark Millar’s THE MASTER OF DOOM. Jonathan Hickman picks up where Millar left off and has Reed Richards joining forces with a seemingly infinite number of Reeds from alternate universes to solve the problems of all creation. Not surprisingly, things don’t go well. Once that’s resolved in a fairly satisfactory way, Hickman spends a story dealing with some dangling plotlines from Millar’s run, and then this volume concludes with a story setting up a plot that’s still running in the monthly FANTASTIC FOUR comic.

I liked SOLVE EVERYTHING considerably more than I did THE MASTER OF DOOM, but I was still somewhat disappointed in it. The characterizations aren’t quite there, and the plots are still a little too muddled for my taste. Big, sweeping, time-hopping cosmic epics are hard to do, though, and for me, a little of them go a long way. I prefer stories that are on a slightly smaller scale. I’ve read some of the current issues scripted by Hickman and he seems to have settled in, at least to a certain extent. The art’s pretty good, too.

I probably won’t read the collections reprinting the issues between SOLVE EVERYTHING and the current issues. I think I’m caught up enough just to continue on with the monthly book for now. While FANTASTIC FOUR continues to be my all-time favorite comic book, it wouldn’t be on the basis on what’s being published now. But overall, not bad, and probably worth reading for long-time fans.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Forgotten Books: Rescued in the Clouds, or Ted Scott, Hero of the Air - Franklin W. Dixon (Frank Duffield)

A couple of weeks ago there was some discussion in the comments on one of the posts about the Hardy Boys series. I remembered that while I don’t have any of the original Hardy Boys books on hand (or any of the newer ones, either, for that matter), I do have several books in another series by “Franklin W. Dixon”, so I decided to read one of them.

The Ted Scott Flying Stories were launched about the same time as the Hardy Boys, and according to what I’ve read on the Internet, Ted Scott, dashing young aviator, was even more popular than Frank and Joe for a while, with the books about him outselling the Hardy Boys novels. Ted Scott is a pretty blatant fictionalization of Charles Lindbergh, to whom the books are rather brazenly dedicated, along with a number of other early aviators. The first book in the series, OVER THE OCEAN TO PARIS, has plucky young flier Ted Scott becoming the first man to fly the Atlantic and becoming America’s hero in the process. I don’t have that one, but I do have RESCUED IN THE CLOUDS, the second book in the series, and it picks up with Ted returning to a hero’s welcome in his Midwestern home town, only to run afoul of some old enemies.

The plot of this novel really meanders around, as Ted has a series of adventures centered around flying. He stops a train from crashing off a bridge that’s collapsed. He organizes an air show to raise money to build a hospital. He locates a witness against the con man who swindled his elderly foster parents out of a fortune. He rescues flood victims, performs a daring mid-air rescue of two men from a burning plane, and even (attention Bill Crider!) fights alligators. But no matter what the odds against him, Ted Scott never gives up and fights on with a smile on his face, because Ted Scott is nothing if not stalwart.

The writing in this book is really old-fashioned, not surprising since it was published in 1927. It’s hokey, melodramatic, and driven by incredible coincidences. And yet RESCUED IN THE CLOUDS has its moments. Some of the flying scenes, if put on film, would make spectacular stunts. There are also some nice satiric bits about the commercialization of heroes and how everybody but Ted Scott tries to cash in on his fame. According to one website, the actual author of these books was someone named Frank Duffield, whose only other publications seem to be in the field of non-fiction about coin collecting. He certainly wasn’t a polished writer, but as I said above, at times there’s some decent yarn-spinning in this book. As far as I know, Duffield didn’t write any of the Hardy Boys books as Franklin W. Dixon, but he may have done other boys’ series work for Edward Stratemeyer.

While most readers today probably wouldn’t make it very far in a book like this, those old boys’ series novels are, in their own way, historical documents. This one gives what’s probably a pretty accurate picture of the adulation that greeted Charles Lindbergh on his return to the States. And as creaky as it may be, it has a certain charm to it. I may never read another Ted Scott Flying Story, but I have to admit, I’m a little curious about what happens in the next one, OVER THE ROCKIES WITH THE AIR MAIL, OR TED SCOTT LOST IN THE WILDERNESS. Gee whillikers, I wonder if good old Ted will survive?