Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Overlooked Movies: Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (2013)

QUEEN OF HEARTS is the third and final Hallmark Channel movie in which Luke Perry played frontier judge John William Goodnight, a character Perry created. In this one, Goodnight tangles with a beautiful female con artist and a vengeful former colonel discharged from the army because of his brutal methods. As usual, there’s plenty of action with a few heart-warming moments along the way. A lot of the story takes place on a riverboat, one of my favorite settings for Westerns.

I think this is my favorite of the three Goodnight movies. The script, while still pretty predictable, is more focused than the first one (which really meandered around) and less stereotypical than the second one. The production values seem a little higher, and it helped that there weren’t too many scenes in that touristy-looking Western town in Canada where so many Westerns have been filmed in the past 20 years. Also, the villain is a cast-against-type Rick Schroder playing the crazed colonel, and it’s good for Perry (who’s as stalwart as ever) to have somebody stronger to play against. The final slugfest/shootout between the two of them on the riverboat is excellent.

I liked this one enough that I’m sort of disappointed there weren’t more of them. As it is, it’s a worthy conclusion to the Goodnight series and well worth watching for Western fans.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Planet Stories, Summer 1945

I'm seriously out of step with modern life in many respects, of course, and science fiction is one of them. This is the kind of SF I like: rayguns, space babes, and monsters. Just the sort of things PLANET STORIES specialized in. This issue has a nice cover by Parkhurst and stories by Fiction House regulars Emmett McDowell and Wilbur S. Peacock, as well as long-time SF pro Ross Rocklynne. The other authors are unfamiliar to me, but I wonder about one of them, George A. Whittington, who published only a handful of stories, all in PLANET STORIES. Makes me think that might be a pseudonym or house-name. At any rate, this looks like a fine issue to me, although most current SF readers would be either uninterested (at best) or horrified to the point of outrage (at worst).

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ranch Romances, First January Number, 1955

I don't know who did the cover on this issue of RANCH ROMANCES, but I'm quite fond of it. That is one beautiful woman. Inside are stories by Parker Bonner (who was really W.T. Ballard), Michael Carder (who was really Vernon Fluharty, who also wrote Westerns as Jim O'Mara), J.L. Bouma, Harold Preece, Elsa Barker, and a writer I'm not familiar with, Lloyd Kevin.

UPDATE: That great cover art is almost certainly by Everett Raymond Kinstler. Thanks to Sheila Ann Vanderbeek for the ID.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Forgotten Novellas: Satan Calls His Children - Arthur Leo Zagat

As I’ve said before, since the Weird Menace genre is all about dressing up and saying “Boo!”, I find it very appropriate for the Halloween season. So this week I read a “gripping mystery-terror novel” (actually a novella) by one of the masters of the genre, Arthur Leo Zagat.

“Satan Calls His Children” was published in the May 1937 issue of DIME MYSTERY, probably the leading Weird Menace pulp. It actually starts off quite differently from most of these stories I’ve read. The protagonist is Jennie Gant, a young woman who works in a commercial laundry and lives in a lower-class neighborhood populated mostly by immigrants from eastern Europe. She has a young brother, but they’re orphans and she supports them both. Her boyfriend is a medical student who works as a night watchman to make ends meet. Zagat establishes all this pretty quickly, while at the same time sketching a vivid, naturalistic portrait of the neighborhood that seems almost more like something from a mainstream novel of the time.

Then, one of the poor immigrant women kills her own infant and then herself in a really shocking murder-suicide, all because she doesn’t want Satan to get her baby. There’s a mysterious talisman involved, as Jennie discovers to her fear and regret when her own brother is targeted by sinister forces. Other than the one instance of violence, the first half of this novella is a slow burn, as Zagat steadily ratchets up the psychological suspense. It’s genuinely creepy and had me looking over my shoulder a little as I read it.

The second half is considerably different, as Zagat falls back on more familiar Weird Menace tropes. We get desperate chases through the sewers, a spooky crypt full of cages where stolen children are kept locked up before apparently being turned into savage beasts, a red-robed mastermind, his hulking minion, and the inevitable logical explanation for all the supposedly supernatural stuff.

The thing is, Zagat was better at this sort of thing than most of the writers in the genre, and his excellent storytelling is compelling enough that I read the whole novella in one sitting, something very unusual for me in these attention-span-challenged days. Ultimately, “Satan Calls His Children” is a very good Weird Menace yarn, with the added bonus of the fine writing in the first half. You can find the e-book version on-line, and I give it a high recommendation.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Avenging Angels #2: Sinners' Gold - A.W. Hart (Wayne D. Dundee)

Gunslinging twins Reno and Sara Bass are back in AVENGING ANGELS: SINNER’S GOLD, the second novel in this top-notch new Western series. Behind the A.W. Hart house-name this time around is Wayne D. Dundee, one of the most dependably entertaining writers in the business today.

Reno and Sara, whose entire family was murdered by ex-Confederate outlaws in the first book, are on the drift after tracking down those renegades and avenging their parents and siblings. A chance encounter at an isolated roadhouse results in them killing four outlaws, and when they realize there are prices on the heads of those men, they decide they might as well take the corpses to the nearest town and collect those bounties. A woman they meet at the same time wants to go there, too, so she travels along with them.

Unfortunately, when they get there they discover that the place is ruled with an iron fist by a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who also happens to be the local lawman. Also, their traveling companion has come there to claim an inheritance that leads to even more trouble, and before you know it, Reno and Sara are involved in a dangerous quest for hidden treasure that may or may not exist.

As usual, Dundee spins this yarn in smooth, fast-moving prose with interesting characters and great action scenes. SINNER’S GOLD is a worth successor to the first book in the series, VENGEANCE TRAIL, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the books. This one gets a high recommendation from me.

Overlooked Movies: The Dark Valley (2014)

A mysterious stranger rides into an isolated settlement in a high mountain valley as winter is coming on. The settlement and the valley are ruled with an iron fist by an evil old man and his six brutal sons. (One of the sons wears an eye patch and another looks like Richard Boone, so you know they're bad guys.) The stranger has a camera with him, something that the settlers have never seen before, and claims that he wants to make photographs of them. He stays with an elderly widow and her beautiful daughter, who is engaged to be married to one of the young men in the settlement. Then someone starts killing the old man's sons . . . 

Now here's the oddball twist. The mysterious stranger is from America, but the settlement is high in the mountains in Germany. THE DARK VALLEY is, in fact, a German film, but it sure does look and play like an American Western. If you've ever seen or read a revenge Western movie or novel, you'll have a pretty good idea what's going to happen in this film, although there's a nice twist that I'll admit I didn't see coming.

Actually, a lot of the time THE DARK VALLEY seems like it wants to be a Spaghetti Western even more than it does a traditional American Western. There are bizarre characters, long, lingering, almost silent shots, sudden outbreaks of frenzied violence . . . What it really needs is an Ennio Morricone score and a few close-ups of squinting eyes, and you'd swear you were watching a Sergio Leone film.

A friend of mine recommended this movie to me, and I'm glad he did. Other than a few lapses in logic and being a little too slow and brooding at times, I thought it was very well done and enjoyed watching it. It's offbeat enough to appeal to viewers who aren't necessarily Western fans but has enough of the traditional Western to it that those viewers might like it, too. If you haven't seen it, I think THE DARK VALLEY is well worth watching.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Headstone Detective Agency - Robert J. Randisi

Not many authors are as devoted to the private eye genre as Bob Randisi. Not only did he found the Private Eye Writers of America many years ago, he's also written many excellent novels in the genre himself.

The latest of them is THE HEADSTONE DETECTIVE AGENCY, which is set in New York City and narrated by John Headston, once the youngest detective in the NYPD and then later the owner of a large, flourishing private agency with many operatives working for him. But as this book opens, those glory days are in the past, and Headston himself is the only one left in the agency. Most of the time he's little more than a glorified process server, but along comes a case more like what he handled in the old days. A highly successful Wall Street stockbroker has disappeared, and the man's beautiful wife hires Headston to find him.

He actually accomplishes that task in pretty short order, but his troubles are just beginning. There's a murder, and while Headston himself isn't suspected of being the killer, he still feels driven to solve the case even though it might put him in danger of losing his license, something that's happened to him in the past.

As always with a Randisi novel, THE HEADSTONE DETECTIVE AGENCY is fast-paced and dialogue-driven. The plot is suitably twisty, the solution is satisfying, and John Headston is a world-weary, occasionally wisecracking PI in the classic mold. I just had a great time reading this book. It reminded me of the private eye novels I grew up reading, while at the same time having a contemporary edge to it. There are more John Headston books coming, and I'm looking forward to them.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Astonishing Stories, February 1943

Pretty good cover by Milton Luros on this issue of ASTONISHING STORIES, Popular Publications' science fiction pulp. And you certainly can't argue with the quality of the authors inside: Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, and James MacCreigh, who was really Frederik Pohl. There's also a story by Walter Kubilius, a name that's familiar to me but I don't really know why. I do know this looks like a fine issue, though.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Leading Western, January 1946

I don't know the cover artist on this issue of LEADING WESTERN, but I think it's a decent cover, as most of the covers on the Trojan Western pulps were. I can't argue with the authors inside, either: William R. Cox and Laurence Donovan were prolific, well-regarded pulpsters. M. Howard Lane's stories appeared frequently, too, most often in Popular Publications pulps. House-name Max Neilson is on hand, too, and since Donovan has a story under his own name in this issue, that makes me suspect he may have been Neilson in this instance, too. The other author is Tonto Green, which sounds like a pseudonym or house-name to me, but that's pure speculation on my part.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Living End - Frank Kane

Frank Kane has been one of my favorite authors since I first read one of his Johnny Liddell private eye novels in high school, fifty years ago. I never read any of his stand-alone books until now, though. THE LIVING END was published by Dell in 1957, and it’s going to be reprinted soon by Stark House as part of its Black Gat Books line. That’s an excellent choice, because I really enjoyed this novel.

THE LIVING END is the story of Eddie Marlon, an ambitious, hustling young songwriter who winds up working as the assistant to a popular disc jockey at a New York radio station. This is early in the disc jockey era, and Marty Allen, Eddie’s boss, is one of the first really successful ones. The music industry is changing, and so is radio.

Eddie’s story is as old as the hills, though. He’s a heel, through and through, and will resort to any tactic, crooked or not, in order to advance his career. When a lucky break allows him to strongarm himself into a position of power, he uses his admittedly canny instincts to reinvent himself as the most influential personality in radio, and every bit of power he seizes just emboldens him to grasp for more. The question is when, not if, all this is going to catch up to him . . .

Although laws are broken and gangsters play a part in the plot, THE LIVING END isn’t really a crime novel. It’s more a character study of a sociopathic personality, as well as a vivid portrait of the music and radio industries in the mid-Fifties. Eddie seems to be loosely based on Alan Freed, who is sometimes referred to as the man who invented rock and roll. Other characters are based on real people as well, and some actual historical figures skirt around the edges of the story.

Even though there’s very little action, Kane keeps the pace in this book really racing along. His style is terse, hardboiled, funny at times, poignant at others. I really enjoyed THE LIVING END and am glad it’s being reprinted. I give it a high recommendation.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC - Reed Tucker

When I was a kid, the first superhero comic books I ever read were issues of BATMAN and SUPERMAN that must have been published in the late Fifties, because this was around 1960 and those issues were old and beat up. I don’t know how they came to be around our house. Maybe they were my brother’s, but I don’t remember him ever reading comic books. Likely they were something my dad picked up, or one of his customers gave him. (He was a TV repairman.)

I read other DC comics over the next few years, including what I now know was a very early issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, #5, I think. I vaguely remember seeing some of the monster books published by Timely or Atlas or whatever they were calling themselves in those days, but they didn’t interest me. I liked superheroes.

Then, as I’ve mentioned before, on Christmas Day 1963, a couple of my girl cousins gave me a stack of comics they didn’t want, which included FANTASTIC FOUR #16 and #17, AVENGERS #1, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS #3, and TALES OF SUSPENSE #42. That was the first time I knew something called Marvel existed, but as soon as I’d read those comics, I read ’em again and then as soon as possible started hitting all the spinner racks in our little town and grabbing all the current issues I could find. For years I read almost everything Marvel published, but I continued to read a lot of DC books as well, all through the Sixties and Seventies.

So Reed Tucker’s non-fiction book SLUGFEST: THE EPIC, 50-YEAR BATTLE BETWEEN MARVEL AND DC packs a tremendous amount of nostalgia value for me. I was there on the spinner rack front lines of that war for many years, allowance clutched in my grubby little paws, trying to figure out which comics I really wanted, because I couldn’t afford to buy all of them.

Tucker does a fine job of detailing all the behind-the-scenes stuff going on at the time, including chicanery and shenanigans on both sides, and as it turns out, some things that puzzled me at the time actually had hard-headed business reasons behind them, rather than being any sort of creative decisions, for example turning TALES OF SUSPENSE and TALES TO ASTONISH into split books featuring two different superheroes. He also brings the personalities involved (writers, artists, editors, executives) to life and reveals some things I didn’t know. Again, for example, I wasn’t aware that DC editor Mort Weisinger was so widely despised in the industry, and evidently for good reason. I just knew Weisinger as a former pulp editor and writer who was in charge of the Superman titles for years and years.

As SLUGFEST progresses later into the Seventies and on into the Eighties and Nineties, some of the nostalgia value goes away for me, but I still found it very interesting, because many of the people involved at Marvel and DC during that era are guys that I’ve met and like, such as Marv Wolfman. And during those decades, I was still buying a lot (but not all, anymore) of Marvel’s books and many of DC’s. It wasn’t until later in the Nineties that a long run of what I considered absolutely terrible creative decisions at Marvel soured me on comics in general and I didn’t read any of them for close to a decade.

Since then I’ve worked my back into being a sporadic comics reader, although mostly revisiting older stuff I loved back then or older stuff I never got around to reading when it was new. (Allowance, remember?) I have no desire to read any of the stuff coming out now, although I’m sure some of it isn’t bad, but Tucker’s book still held my interest all the way to the end. It came out in 2017, which means he probably finished writing it in 2016, and quite a bit has happened in the comics industry since then, very little of it good, from what I know. (And in the spirit of fairness, I haven’t read today’s books except for some independently published projects from people whose work I know and trust to be top-notch. I’m just going by the gossip I see and hear, so take my opinions for whatever they’re worth to you.)

At any rate, SLUGFEST is a really enjoyable book, especially the first half or so, and if you’re a long-time comics fan, I can’t help but think you’d enjoy it, too. It gets a high recommendation from me.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday Evening Bonus Pulp: Complete Detective, November 1938

It's still Sunday, right? So, very belatedly, here's another pulp cover. This painting must have been intended for a Weird Menace pulp, because it checks most of the boxes. We've got a scantily clad babe in bondage, a red-robed cultist (with a hypodermic needle, no less!), a stalwart, two-fisted hero, and some vaguely scientific-looking equipment. I don't know who the artist is, but he sure gave us a lurid cover. Inside, the lead novel is by Edward S. Ronns, who of course was actually Edward S. Aarons, author of many top-notch paperback original novels, including the long-running Sam Durell espionage series. Of the other two authors in this issue, one name (William Corcoran) is vaguely familiar to me, while the other (Omar Gwinn) is completely unknown. I'd have bought this issue anyway if I'd come across it on the newsstand. With that cover, how could I have resisted?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Ranch Stories, November 1949

Sam Cherry certainly painted some pretty girls on his pulp covers, and this issue of THRILLING RANCH STORIES is a good example. This blonde looks plenty tough, too. There are some good tough writers with stories in this issue, including Nels Leroy Jorgensen, who was a regular in BLACK MASK early in his career, and Walt Sheldon, who turned out a number of hardboiled paperbacks during the Fifties and Sixties. Also on hand are Harold Preece, Cliff Walters, house-name Sam Brant, and an author who contributed only a few stories to the Western pulps but made the cover on this one, Melvin Gable.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Vengeful Virgin - Gil Brewer

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on July 8, 2007.)

Originally published by Crest Books in 1958 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2007, THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN is probably my favorite of the Gil Brewer novels I’ve read so far. The scenario is a familiar one: the narrator is a working man (in this case, the owner of a TV repair and electronics shop) hungry for a big payoff. He meets a beautiful young woman who’s stuck taking care of her wealthy, invalid stepfather. It’s what Brewer does with this set-up that makes this such a fine novel. Some authors would take half the book to develop a slow, psychological build-up, and that’s certainly a valid approach. Brewer, on the other hand, has his characters screwing like minks on the kitchen floor and plotting to kill the old man almost before they—and the reader—know what’s happening.

They come up with a decent plan, too, but as always, events don’t play out exactly as they’re supposed to. The fast pace continues all the way through the book as more and more goes wrong and one murder leads to another. There are some striking scenes starkly illuminating the lust and greed that are the twin essences of noir fiction. Brewer’s prose is simple but powerful and carries the reader along. There’s probably not much here that will surprise a veteran reader of this sort of novel, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable time watching Brewer work at his craft.

And aren’t those great covers? The Hard Case Crime edition is still readily and inexpensively available, and it’s well worth seeking out. THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN is a top-notch noir novel and gets a strong recommendation from me. (By the way, I worked in a TV repair shop for five years, and nothing even remotely like this ever happened to me.)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Stillman's Wrath - Peter Brandvold

Sheriff Ben Stillman is back in STILLMAN’S WRATH, the latest installment in his adventures by Peter Brandvold. The objects of that well-deserved wrath are the outlaws who hold up a stagecoach and take not only Stillman’s wife but also one of his friends hostage, setting off a violent pursuit across the rugged Montana landscape. Complicating matters even more for Stillman is a brutal cattle baron who had a great deal of money being delivered to him on that stage—and he’ll do anything to get it back, no matter who gets in his way.

Brandvold is a master of the Western action novel, and STILLMAN’S WRATH never disappoints. This tale has a breathless pace as it cuts back and forth between the captives and the vengeful lawman who sets out to free them. There’s even a little wry humor here and there to go with the gritty action scenes. This is a great series overall, and STILLMAN’S WRATH is one of its strongest entries. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Avenging Angels: Vengeance Trail - A.W. Hart

Reno and Sara Bass are sixteen-year-old twins who live with their family on a small spread in western Kansas, but their somewhat idyllic life there is shattered when a group of ex-Confederate outlaws sweeps through the area, looting and burning and killing. Reno and Sara’s parents and siblings are killed in a raid by this bunch of renegades. The twins escape but are left to make it in a harsh world on their own, and the first task they set for themselves is a simple one.

They’re going to track down the varmints who made them orphans and settle the score.

In order to do that, they’re going to have to learn to improve their natural ability when it comes to gun-handling, and for that they turn to an old friend of their father, who led a wilder early life than Reno and Sara ever knew about. They’re also going to have to reconcile their thirst for revenge with their strong religious faith, especially Reno. That faith will be tested in other ways as they continue their vengeance quest, too.

AVENGING ANGELS: VENGEANCE TRAIL is the first novel in a new Western series created by A.W. Hart, who under other names is one of the top writers in the business. It features lots of gritty action, compelling characters, and vivid settings. I raced through this one even faster than usual and really got caught up in the lives of Reno and Sara. It’s an excellent book, easily one of the best I’ve read this year, and if you enjoy Western novels with a hardboiled edge, you need to check it out. AVENGING ANGELS: VENGEANCE TRAIL gets a very high recommendation from me.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Double-Action Gang Magazine, June 1938

I've read very little from the gang pulps. Like Weird Menace, they were a sub-genre that flourished for a while and then was gone. But they had some good covers while they lasted, and some decent writers, too, such as in this issue of DOUBLE-ACTION GANG MAGAZINE which featured stories by E. Hoffmann Price and G.T. Fleming-Roberts, as well as Anson Hard, a prolific contributor to a variety of pulps, Margie Harris, who wrote mainly for the gang and prison pulps, and house names Cliff Campbell, Mat Rand, and "Undercover" Dix (really?), plus some little-known authors who may or may not have been house-names, too. I don't know who painted this cover, but I would have had a difficult time resisting it if I'd seen it on the newsstand in 1938, and the Price story would have tempted me to buy it, as well.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Wild West Weekly, August 12, 1939

I haven't posted a WILD WEST WEEKLY cover in a while. This one by Lawrence Toney uses a limited number of elements to create a very striking image. I like it quite a bit. Inside this issue are a Kid Wolf story by Paul S. Powers (writing as Ward M. Stevens) and two serial installments by Walker A. Tompkins, the first of one under his own name and the final of another under the house-name Philip F. Deere. Throw in stories by J. Allan Dunn and Chuck Martin, and you've got the makings of a pretty good issue.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Forgotten Books: Night Flight - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I’ve read a lot of aviation fiction over the years, even though I don’t fly, but most of it has been from the pulps. NIGHT FLIGHT by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is definitely not pulpish, but in a way, it is.

I thought I had read this short novel 50-some-odd years ago when I was in college, but I had no memory of it now. It’s a very simple story, set mostly on one night in Buenos Aires and in the air above the Andes, as three mail planes try to get through on their routes as a storm moves in and the people on the ground back in Buenos Aires try to help the pilots as much as they can.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French aristocrat who gained fame as an aviator during the early days of air travel and the mail service. Later, he attained a high literary reputation for his poetry, memoirs, novels, and the children’s book THE LITTLE PRINCE. During World War II, he flew for the Free French Air Force as a reconnaissance pilot and disappeared while flying on a mission in 1944, presumed lost at sea somewhere in the Mediterranean.

With that background, it’s not surprising that NIGHT FLIGHT is written in a lyrical, highly descriptive style, and I’m sure that accounts for its literary reputation. At the same time, the whole “man against nature” theme is something that would have been quite at home in a pulp like ADVENTURE, and there are bits of fine, terse, hardboiled writing throughout the book. That’s why I say NIGHT FLIGHT can almost be considered pulpish. Its subject matter certainly is.

I enjoyed this book, and I’m thinking now that maybe it was WIND, SAND AND STARS, Saint-Exupery’s other famous aviation book, that I read in college. Maybe I’ll read it and see. In the meantime, while I wouldn’t want a steady diet of literary novels like this, it made a very nice change of pace and I enjoyed it. It’s still in print, and the copy in the scan above is the one I read (complete with Half Price Books sticker showing the two bucks I paid for it), published by Signet in 1956.

And I feel like I should point out that this may well be the only blog on the Internet where you can read reviews of novels by both Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Ed Earl Repp.