Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stolen - Jordan Gray

I’ve never been much of one for playing computer games, so I’ve never played RAVENHEARST, a mystery game set in the fictional English seaside town of Blackpool. But I’m more than happy to read books based on the game, the first of which, STOLEN, by Jordan Gray, has just been released.

Blackpool was the site of a famous train derailment and robbery in 1940 in which a number of people were killed, including some children of prominent British families who were sending them to the countryside so they would be safe from the German bombing attacks on London. During the confusion of the train wreck, some art treasures and a fortune in gold were stolen, and that loot was never found.

Seventy years later, a documentary film about the Blackpool wreck is about to start production, and American public relations expert Molly Graham is involved in the project. Molly lives in Blackpool with her British husband Michael, a video game designer. At a party announcing the documentary, an elderly woman who is one of the local citizens is murdered. Michael and Molly’s house is broken into that same night. Clearly, somebody doesn’t want the documentary filmmakers poking into the decades-old train wreck and robbery.

That’s just the first of several murders as Michael and Molly investigate in classic amateur sleuth fashion. The plot twists around to involve more than just what’s apparent at first, and Blackpool, like every small town in books like this, proves to have more than its fair share of dark and deadly secrets lurking in its past.

STOLEN certainly has some cozy elements, such as its setting, but it doesn’t read all that much like a cozy. I was reminded more of some of the classic mysteries that feature a husband-and-wife detective team, such as Richard and Frances Lockridge’s Mr. and Mrs. North books. (I really ought to reread some of those.) There’s also a dose of well-handled action now and then, leading up to a very satisfactory climax. Michael and Molly Graham are really appealing characters. They’re both smart and attractive (but not overly cutesy), and they’re realistic in that they don’t really want to run around solving murders and finding themselves in danger – they would just as soon turn everything over to the local cops – but somehow it works out like that anyway.

It’s no secret that veteran author Mel Odom is the one behind the Jordan Gray pseudonym on this book, and it shows in the smooth, well-paced prose and excellent plot. There are at least three more books coming up in the Blackpool series (VANISHED, November 2010; SUBMERGED, February 2011; and UNEARTHED, May 2011), and I plan to read them all.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Forgotten Books: Combat General - William Chamberlain

When I was a kid in school, I loved it when the teacher would pass out the book order forms from Scholastic Book Services. I always found a lot of books I wanted, and I would order as many as my parents were willing to pay for. Even better were the days when the books actually arrived and the teacher gave us the ones we had ordered. I still remember racing home to read THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in the Scholastic edition.

One book that I remember buying at school like that was COMBAT GENERAL by William Chamberlain. But for some reason I never read it, even though it sat on my shelf for years. I lost track of it and my other Scholastic books over the years. They were already gone before the fire wiped out my library.

However, I recently came across a copy of COMBAT GENERAL in the Nostalgia section at Half Price books, and I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, figuring it was finally time to read it, forty-five years after I bought it the first time.

I’ve always liked war novels. As you might expect from a book published by Scholastic, COMBAT GENERAL doesn’t have any real cussing or sex, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as a young adult novel, either. More than anything else it reminded me of the sort of war movie that was made in the Forties. Those didn’t have any cussing or graphic violence, either, but they still managed to tell some fairly gritty stories. So does COMBAT GENERAL. The protagonist is Brigadier General Miles Boone, who has spent the first few years of World War II stuck at a desk in Washington, so that he has a reputation as a “Pentagon general”. He’s finally transferred to a command position in an armored division and finds himself assuming his new post near the front lines in Belgium in the middle of December 1944.

Mid-December 1944? Uh-oh. You guessed it. Boone, with no combat experience, finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge almost as soon as he arrives at his new command. Throw in a superior officer with whom Boone has been feuding since their days at West Point, a reckless colonel with more ambition than tactical skills, a little romance with the American widow of a French officer, a wise-cracking sergeant to drive Boone around, and you’ve got a Forties movie, all right. Randolph Scott would have made a great Miles Boone. And as a novel, Chamberlain’s yarn, while predictable, is very well-written and highly entertaining. The history seems accurate to me, and so do the characterizations.

Which is not surprising considering that William Chamberlain was a career army officer, retiring as a general himself in 1946. He certainly knew what he was writing about. But in doing a little research about him for this post, I came across something that surprised me. At the same time he was putting together a long and distinguished military career, Chamberlain was also a prolific pulp author, breaking in during the late Twenties with Western, war, and adventure yarns in a variety of pulps. He continued contributing to the pulps into the 1950s, when he made the transition to the slicks and published a steady stream of war and military-oriented stories, primarily in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. I may well have read some of them while visiting one of my aunts in the Sixties, because she always had stacks of old issues of the SEP around. Chamberlain also wrote paperback Westerns and hardcover war novels (COMBAT GENERAL was originally published by the John Day Company, as were several more of Chamberlain’s novels).

Chamberlain’s background as a pulp writer is easy to see in COMBAT GENERAL. It’s especially evident in the masterful pacing. Late in the book, when General Boone and his driver get involved in an adventure when they’re separated from the rest of the command, the story maybe gets a little too pulpish, considering the realism of the rest of the book (an encounter with an SS officer results in the trading of insults like “American swine!” and “Nazi dog!”), but that really doesn’t detract much from the novel’s overall impact.

COMBAT GENERAL is a fine book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Bear in mind, though, that as a middle-aged guy who grew up watching COMBAT! on TV, along with a bunch of war movies, I’m a prime example of the target audience for this sort of yarn. But I really enjoyed it. Some of those SEP stories of Chamberlain’s have been collected in several different volumes. I may have to order them. I also discovered that he was the author of MATT QUARTERHILL, RIFLEMAN, a novel about a young Marine rifleman in the South Pacific campaign. I checked that one out from the bookmobile many, many years ago and read it, and liked it enough that I’ve always remembered the title even though I didn’t recall that Chamberlain wrote it. I may have to get my hands on a copy of that one, too, for a reread. I’m glad I stumbled across COMBAT GENERAL. It proves that my instincts were right when I ordered it all those years ago at Walnut Creek Elementary, even though I didn’t read it until now.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Deal Too Good to Pass Up

Acclaimed mystery author Marcus Sakey has just published a collection of short stories available on Smashwords, Amazon, B&N, etc. called SCAR TISSUE.  He's offering a great deal:  50% off the price of the book, which is very affordable to start with, or a free short story.  If you're interested, leave your email in the comments section (or send it to me directly and I'll pass it on) and you'll receive a coupon code to take advantage of the offer.  I have the collection and plan to read it soon.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tied In: The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-in Writing - Lee Goldberg, editor

I haven’t done all that much in the way of tie-in writing – three Walker, Texas Ranger novels, a Kolchak the Night Stalker story, an upcoming Green Hornet story – but I’ve been a fan of the genre for decades, going back to those Lone Ranger novels I checked out of the Odessa Public Library and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback I bought brand-new in 1964 off the paperback rack in Buddies Grocery Store. (Notice how smoothly I work in those bits of book nostalgia.) I’ve read many, many TV tie-in novels and movie novelizations over the years and still enjoy them.

Despite my somewhat limited professional experience in the genre, I’ve been a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers since it was founded several years ago by Lee Goldberg and Max Allan Collins. The IAMTW has just published a new non-fiction book on the subject of tie-ins, and it’s an excellent work that offers something for just about everybody.

If you’re an author interested in writing tie-ins, TIED IN offers advice from the top names in the business, ranging from the general guidelines of a round table discussion of the business and craft of writing tie-ins to specific subjects such as writing tie-in novels for the YA market (from Aaron Rosenberg), novelizing video games (from William C. Dietz), writing soap opera-based tie-ins (from Alina Adams), and writing movie spin-off novels (from Greg Cox). If you’re a fan of certain TV series, such as STAR TREK, PSYCH, MURDER SHE WROTE, and BURN NOTICE, you can get all the behind-the-scenes stories on how the novels based on those series came to be written.

For someone like me, who’s very interested in the history of popular fiction, the highlight of TIED IN is David Spencer’s “American TV Tie-ins from the 50s Through the Early 70s”, which is almost a book in itself. It’s a fascinating historical discussion of how the TV tie-in novel originated and evolved over the years and touches on many of the books I was buying and reading when they were new. This article really brought back a lot of good memories for me. Along similar lines, also of great interest to me were fine articles by Paul Kupperberg about comic book and comic strip tie-in novels (I read a bunch of those, too) and Robert Greenberger about the connection between pulp magazines and tie-ins.

TIED IN is available as an e-book right now, with a print edition coming out soon. Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong. It’s informative, entertaining, and a must-have if you have any interest in tie-in fiction. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rabid Child - Pete Risley

Here’s another debut novel, Pete Risley’s RABID CHILD, published by New Pulp Press, one of the excellent small presses that have been founded in recent years. RABID CHILD is about as bizarre as any crime novel you’re likely to read, starting with that creepily effective cover.

The protagonist of this novel is a young homeless man named Desmond Cray. Desmond is not a nice guy. He has a history of being a peeping tom and child molester, and as the novel opens is leading a squalid life, eating out of trash cans and sleeping wherever he can find a place. Then he runs into a former foster parent of his, Mrs. Honnecker, and allows himself to be persuaded to go back to her home with her. As with every noir novel – and RABID CHILD is about as noir as you can get – this seemingly innocent decision turns out to be a bad mistake.

Because Mrs. Honnecker is crazy, the crippled religious fanatic who lives with her as a boarder is even crazier, and her daughter, who has a sordid history with Desmond, may be the craziest and most dangerous of them all. Desmond, who’s really not that bad a fellow if you can get past that whole child molesting bit, finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble. He knows he should get away from them but can’t quite bring himself to do it. Inevitably, things spiral down to a violent, grotesque, unsettling climax.

You’ve got to admire Risley’s sheer guts for taking a character as unsympathetic as Desmond and making him the nominal hero of a novel. I’m not quite sure how he manages to pull that off, but he does. This is a fast-paced, nightmarish yarn with something to offend and/or disturb just about everybody. I’m not sure what to make of Risley. There’s very little information about him in the book, and the quality of the writing is good enough that it makes me suspect the name may be a pseudonym for an experienced, better-known author. At the same time, there’s a raw quality to RABID CHILD that really makes it seem like a first novel. Either way, this is a fine book that really kept me turning the pages, but I’m not going to recommend it for everybody. If you’ve read this far, you already know whether or not the subject matter bothers you so much you ought to avoid it. But if you want to read something that’s probably unlike anything you’ve read before, you ought to check it out.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Book of Eli

It seems like the older I get, the less I care for post-apocalyptic novels and movies. There are plenty of good ones, of course, including some of the classics of the genre, but my tolerance for worldwide grimness and bleakness seems to be dwindling. Because of this tendency, I was hoping that I’d like THE BOOK OF ELI, but it wouldn’t have surprised me all that much if I didn’t.

As it starts out, the movie certainly has “grim and bleak” down. Denzel Washington is a “walker”, somebody who wanders the mostly deserted highways of an America all but destroyed by a war of some sort. It’s never really explained what happened, but civilization has disappeared for the most part and survival is a matter of kill or be killed. Since Washington’s character Eli has lived for thirty years after the disaster that changed the world, he’s gotten really good at killing.

He wanders into what remains of a town that’s ruled by a local tyrant played by Gary Oldman with his usual lip-smacking evil. His main henchman is Ray Stevenson, who was so good as Titus Pullo in ROME. The always appealing Mila Kunis is on hand, too, as a young woman who wants to get away from the town.

Oldman’s character has been searching for a particular book, and it just so happens that Eli has the only copy still in existence. (No points for guessing what the book is. It’s pretty obvious right from the start.) When Oldman finds out that Eli has the book, he tries to take it, but Eli gets away. Kunis’s character goes on the run with him. From there, the rest of the movie is mostly chases and fight scenes.

It took me a while to warm up to this film with all its bloody nihilism and eye-straining sepia-toned photography. But I wound up getting involved in the story, and Washington, Kunis, and Stevenson are all very good in it. The action scenes are staged so that you can tell what’s going on, at least most of the time, and the ending is pretty satisfying. It’s certainly not a feel-good movie, but I think it’s well worth watching. And it’s kind of gotten me in the mood for something else post-apocalyptic, so we’ll see if anything develops from that.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Killing Trail - Charles Gramlich

We recently bought a Kindle when Amazon dropped the price, and the first book I bought for it and read on it is Charles Gramlich’s Western collection, KILLING TRAIL. It was a great way to inaugurate my Kindle-reading experience.

KILLING TRAIL includes two novellas, “Killing Trail” and “Showdown at Wild Briar”; two short stories, “Powder Burn” and “Once Upon a Time with the Dead”, an excerpt from Gramlich’s unpublished first novel, a Western called THE BEAR PAW VALLEY, and a couple of essays, one about the Old West history to be found in the area where Gramlich grew up in Arkansas and the other about Louis L’Amour. All the fiction is outstanding.  These are well-written yarns with good characters and plenty of action. “Showdown at Wild Briar” is probably my favorite of the bunch, because the hero has to escape from a particularly deadly trap and then finds an even worse plot twist waiting for him. “Once Upon a Time with the Dead” is a flash fiction piece, very poetic and effective. These stories have really whetted my appetite for the first full-length Western novel that Charles is bound to write one of these days, sooner rather than later, I hope. For now, you can start off with this collection, which I give a high recommendation.

As for the Kindle itself, I enjoyed reading KILLING TRAIL on it. When such devices were first introduced, I didn’t think I’d like them, but since then I’ve heard enough people whose opinions I respect say that they liked reading books on the Kindle so I wasn’t really surprised. I don’t know how to do much with it yet, like change the type size or navigate through a book other than one page at a time, but I’m sure I’ll learn all the little tricks. It almost certainly won’t replace reading actual books for me, but for things that are more easily available on the Kindle – or only available on the Kindle – I think it’s great.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

National Day of the Cowboy

Don't forget to celebrate the National Day of the Cowboy today.  Here's an excellent place to start: Ron Scheer's Buddies in the Saddle blog, with a special post today about some of the fictional characters who best exemplify the Code of the West.  As for me, I'll be working on a Western today, so maybe that counts as my celebration.

The Hanging Tree - Bryan Gruley

Like STEIN, STONED, which I posted about a few days ago, THE HANGING TREE is set in 1999. It’s the second novel in a series, following STARVATION LAKE, which I haven’t read. I’m obsessive enough that starting with the second book in a series bothers me a little, but author Bryan Gruley does a fine job of writing this one so that a new reader doesn’t feel the least bit lost. I have some experience at that, and it’s harder than it sounds.

THE HANGING TREE is narrated by Gus Carpenter, the editor of the twice-weekly newspaper in the small town of Starvation, Michigan. Gus had gone away to the big city (in this case, Detroit) to make his fortune, but unfortunate circumstances have forced him to return to his hometown. Change is coming to Starvation, though. On the one hand, the economy has taken a downturn and many of the businesses have closed. On the other, the newspaper has been bought out by a bigger company that brings in a new managing editor, the importance of the Internet is growing, and Gus’s career in journalism isn’t turning out the way he expected at all. Added to that, as this book opens, is the apparent suicide of a distant cousin of his, a young woman with a bad reputation who left Starvation but, like Gus, eventually came back. Even though he and his cousin never really got along very well, Gus feels driven to investigate her death and find out what caused her to end her life, and, as you might expect, he uncovers a number of dangerous secrets in the process.

Oddly enough, despite all the sex, violence, and cussin’ in it, THE HANGING TREE reminded me a little of a cozy mystery in the way it goes about gradually uncovering the sinister underbelly of small-town life. It’s a very well-written book, and Gruley’s prose has the same sort of vivid elegance as James Lee Burke’s novels. The pace is a bit leisurely for my taste, but it helps that Gus Carpenter is such a likable, well-developed character. I expect that I’ll go back and read his first appearance in STARVATION LAKE and will return to this series as it continues. If you like dark, small-town mysteries, there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy THE HANGING TREE. I did.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Interview on BookLife

Jeremy L.C. Jones has posted an interview with me on the BookLife website.  You can check it out here.  And while you're at it, I recommend that you read the rest of this excellent series of interviews with Western writers Johnny D. Boggs, Cameron Judd, Russell Davis, Max McCoy, Jane Candia Coleman, Lucia St. Clair Robson, Thomas Cobb, and Susan K. Salzer.

Forgotten Books: Malay Woman - A.S. Fleischman

Once again I’m cheating a little bit with this Forgotten Book, since the Stark House edition of it will be out next month (paired with another A.S. Fleischman novel, DANGER IN PARADISE), but for now it’s a 1954 Gold Medal that’s never been reprinted, and it’s certainly a novel that deserves to be remembered and, more importantly, read.

This is the first A.S. Fleischman novel I’ve read. He doesn’t waste any time dropping the reader right into the middle of the action. The narrator, Jock Hamilton, is an American running a rubber plantation in Sumatra, and as the book opens, he’s already on the run for the murder of his wife, who he appears to have killed in a drunken black-out because of her habit of cheating on him. Jock himself doesn’t know whether or not he’s guilty, but he’s trying to avoid the cops anyway. He heads for the plantation of an old friend of his who has a rubber plantation in Malaya. On the boat heading upriver, he becomes involved with a beautiful Australian widow who has a couple of professional killers after her. She claims to have no idea who could want her dead, but she accepts Jock’s help in getting away from them. Then, arriving at the plantation, Jock finds his old friend married, and the friend’s beautiful wife has a straying eye that lands solidly on Jock. There’s also the matter of Communists insurgents who have targeted the foreign-owned plantations.

Well, with all these complications, you know Fleischman is going to keep the action perking along nicely, and MALAY WOMAN doesn’t disappoint in that respect or any other. The writing is fast and hardboiled, and the local color is handled very nicely. There are plenty of details, but the book never gets bogged down in them and they don’t get in the way of the action. Jock is one of a long line of Gold Medal heroes who are likable but not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, and even though he’s a little dense about what’s really going on, you can’t help but root for him. All of it leads up to an action-packed and very satisfying ending.

As I mentioned, MALAY WOMAN is about to be reprinted by Stark House. If you like hardboiled mystery/adventure novels, do yourself a favor and pick up this latest double volume, which also includes the usual excellent introduction by David Laurence Wilson and a brief intro by A.S. Fleischman himself, who penned it before he passed away earlier this year. Highly recommended – and I’ll probably be posting about the other half of the book before too much longer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stein, Stoned - Hal Ackerman

I seem to be on a run of debut novels. Hal Ackerman is best known as a teacher of screenwriting, but he ventures into the crime fiction world with STEIN, STONED, the first of what will likely be a series featuring sort-of private eye Harry Stein. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Stein was known as a leading authority on marijuana, probably because he smoked so much of it and even wrote a book about it. But by 1999, when this novel is set, he’s middle-aged, out of the drug culture because he shares custody of a teenage daughter, and works as an insurance investigator. He still likes to think of himself as a hippie at heart, but there’s not much evidence of that anymore.

He gets involved in two cases, one for his regular work when thousands of empty shampoo bottles go missing from a warehouse and one involving the theft of an entire crop of medicinal marijuana. And wouldn’t you know it, in classic private eye fashion the two cases turn out to be connected. In fact, the plot gets so complex and convoluted that the only way Stein can figure it out is when he’s stoned for the first time in years. I managed to follow the various explanations of who did what and why without any pharmaceutical enhancement, but it wasn’t easy.

Of course, the whole hippie-as-private-eye bit has been done before, most notably in Roger L. Simon’s novel THE BIG FIX and its sequels (none of which seemed to me quite as good as that first one, which was one of my favorite books of the Seventies) and in Brad Lang’s Crockett novels, which I haven’t read but ought to. Intentional or not, there are definitely some echoes of Simon’s Moses Wine in Ackerman’s Harry Stein. But there are some differences as well. Simon’s first-person prose seemed to be modeled on Raymond Chandler. Ackerman’s novel is in third person and is a little more detached. The pace is very fast, though, and a lot of the dialogue is pretty funny. Harry Stein is a good character, too. Although the book’s cover copy refers to him as soft-boiled, he can be fairly tough when he has to and finally does untangle everything successfully.

I don’t care much for the title – it doesn’t really say anything about what sort of book this is – but STEIN, STONED is a pretty solid mystery novel and a good debut. I read an ARC, but the book will be out in a few weeks, and if you like funny, offbeat private eye yarns, you ought to check it out.

Monday, July 19, 2010


We hadn’t seen an inspirational, based-on-a-true-story sports movie for a while, and I guess INVICTUS falls into that category. It’s certainly based on a true story and has to do with sports, in this case rugby. In case you don’t know what it’s about, it concerns the efforts of newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela to unite the country in support of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, who were widely hated by South Africa’s black population. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of politics in the movie as well as the sports angle.

As with any movie directed by Clint Eastwood, INVICTUS isn’t flashy. It’s just a good solid story, told without any fancy gimmicks, and well acted by Morgan Freeman as Mandela (who else you gonna get, they’re practically twins) and Matt Damon as the Afrikaner captain of the rugby team. It’s a little ponderous at times, but for the most part Eastwood moves things along well and keeps the movie from getting too self-important. The rugby scenes are good, too, or at least I guess they are. I say that because, basically, I know squat about rugby. In movies and TV shows about American football, especially, there are nearly always scenes that make me want to say, “That would NEVER happen in real life.” Maybe that’s true here about the rugby, but if so, I wouldn’t know about it. (As an aside, as much as I enjoy the TV series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, while it started out extremely realistic, as the seasons have gone on it’s slipped farther and farther into pure Hollywood fantasy. Doesn’t mean it’s not still entertaining.)

Anyway, to get back to INVICTUS, I enjoyed it and consider it worth watching. All it’s really lacking is the bit at the end where you get an update on what’s happened to all the real-life characters since the events depicted in the film. Had to go to Google for that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Duel in the Sun

DUEL IN THE SUN is one of those movies I last saw in high school or college, close to forty years ago. That’s long enough that it was almost like new to me. It’s widely regarded as a pretty lousy movie, but I wanted to see for myself.

The protagonist is Pearl Chavez, a beautiful young woman who is sent to live with some distant relatives after her gambler father is hanged for killing Pearl’s mother and her lover. Her new home is the vast Spanish Bit ranch in West Texas, owned by the tyrannical former senator, Jackson McCanles. The Senator’s wife Laura Belle was a distant cousin of Pearl’s father, who also happened to be in love with Laura Belle and she with him. (The fact that they were related obviously didn’t matter much in that time period.)

The Senator and Laura Belle have two sons, the studious lawyer Jesse and the wastrel Lewt. Naturally, both of them fall for Pearl (again with the cousin thing), and she loves both of them, although she’s drawn more powerfully to Lewt. Passion, angst, and scenery chewing ensues, along with a sub-plot about the Senator’s opposition to having the railroad cross his land.

I think the reason people have such a low opinion of this movie as a Western is because it’s not really a traditional Western at all. It’s a historical romance, and I think it was a deliberate attempt by producer David O. Selznick to recapture the epic feeling of GONE WITH THE WIND, which was released seven years before DUEL IN THE SUN. There’s the same sort of big, sprawling setting, with a ranch instead of a plantation, the same sort of strong but ultimately self-destructive heroine, the romantic triangle with the good but bland guy and the dashing but cruel guy. Butterfly McQueen is even in DUEL IN THE SUN, for goodness’ sake. Several things keep this movie from rising to the heights of GONE WITH THE WIND, however.

For one thing, the advance of the railroad just isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Civil War. For another, Gregory Peck, who plays the bad son Lewt, doesn’t have the same sort of dashing charm as Clark Gable, and for that matter, Lewt isn’t as interesting a character as Rhett Butler, who has a moral center that Lewt is lacking. Some elements in DUEL IN THE SUN work really well, though. The photography is beautiful and really captures the vast scope of the Western landscape. Some of the scenes have plenty of spectacle, too, such as the one where all the McCanles cowboys, led by Lionel Barrymore as the Senator, confront the railroad workers to turn them back from Spanish Bit range, only to have the cavalry show up. There are several hundred men on horseback in this scene, and there’s no CGI, either. Every one of them is a real guy on a real horse. As I commented after the movie was over, everybody in Hollywood who could stay on a horse had a job that week.

Jennifer Jones as Pearl is lovely, more sultry and sexy than most actresses around today. It’s no wonder that almost every male in the movie immediately falls in love with her as soon as they meet her. She also delivers the most understated performance in the film. Everybody else chews the scenery relentlessly, not surprising since the film was directed by King Vidor, who got his start in silent films where overacting was the order of the day. (Although, in another similarity to GONE WITH THE WIND, half a dozen other directors worked on the film at one time or another.) The screenplay is credited to producer Selznick, based on Niven Busch’s novel, but I’d be willing to bet that most of it was actually written by Oliver H.P. Garrett, who’s credited with the screen adaptation, and Ben Hecht, was brought in to doctor the script anonymously. Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton, who plays the good son Jesse, seem miscast to me. Their roles should have been switched. Sometimes when an actor plays directly against type, as Henry Fonda did in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, it can be very effective, but I don’t think it works that well here.

So DUEL IN THE SUN is really a mixed bag in terms of quality. That said, I found more things in it to like than to dislike, and overall I found it pretty entertaining. It’s not a classic Western by any means, but I think it’s worth watching.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Forgotten Books: Gun Hand - Frank O'Rourke

Frank O’Rourke is another Western author who was successful for a long time, publishing his novels regularly in hardback and seeing at least one of them turned into a well-regarded movie: THE PROFESSIONALS, which was based on O’Rourke’s novel A MULE FOR THE MARQUESA.

However, I recall reading a couple of his books in high school and not liking them all that much. But when I recently ran across a copy of his novel GUN HAND, I decided it was time to give his work another try.

This one opens with the protagonist, John McCabe, locked up in a crooked marshal’s jail for a crime he didn’t commit. McCabe manages to escape, along with a Mexican gunfighter and outlaw, Ramon Vargas. Although they take different trails, they both wind up in the Dakota Territory town of Nioebe, which serves as a stopover and supply point for miners headed to the gold fields in the Black Hills.

Also arriving in Nioebe about the same time are Charley Atchley and the gang of desperadoes he leads. Naturally, it’s not long before McCabe and Atchley clash, but although the town leaders try to convince McCabe to take the job of marshal, he stubbornly refuses, having already dealt with too much violence in his life. But of course any Western reader knows that eventually he’ll be pushed too far and have to take action.

There’s not much in the basic plot of GUN HAND that will surprise anybody who’s read very many Westerns, but O’Rourke excels in a couple of areas that make the book well worth reading. His characterization is very good, and as a result the romantic triangle between McCabe and two women is a little deeper and more believable than the same situation in many other novels. I was pretty sure how things would play out, but I wasn’t absolutely certain, and more than that, I wasn’t sure which of the women he ought to pick. Ramon Vargas is a fine character, as well, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose side he would take in the end. Also, the action scenes are gritty and brutal and very effective, especially a scene where McCabe deals with a bushwhacker who’s shooting at him from the top of a building. The final showdown is good, too. A lousy showdown can ruin a book.

The biggest flaw in this novel is that O’Rourke’s prose tends to plod a little at times. The pace always picks back up pretty quickly, though, so it’s not enough to keep me from recommending GUN HAND. Originally published in 1953, it was reprinted by Signet in 1968 and that edition is easy to find. If you’re a Western fan and come across it, pick it up and give it a try. I intend to read more of Frank O’Rourke’s work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


There's a great post by my buddy Kerry Newcomb over on the Western Fictioneers blog this morning.  I'm lucky enough to have known Kerry for thirty years now and have heard him tell this story in person, along with many others.  I've seldom laughed as hard as I have when Kerry would start telling stories.

In fact, that got me to thinking about some of the other times I've laughed so hard.  Fall down on the floor laughter.  One name that immediately springs to mind is Joe R. Lansdale.  Guys like Joe and Kerry are great writers, but sitting down and just listening to them talk is incredibly entertaining.  The wonderful voice that you find in their writing comes through unfiltered, and it's even more enthralling.  That's one more reason I'm glad I became a writer.  It's given me the opportunity to just sit and listen.

I was at a convention a couple of years ago where as one of the programming items, Joe sat down with Bill Crider, Neal Barrett Jr., and Joe Haldeman, and they just swapped stories for a couple of hours while a large audience listened and was very entertained.  That was the highlight of that convention for me.

Of course, not all writers are great talkers.  Some of us are more likely to just sit there quietly and take it all in.  I fall into that category.  But I'm very grateful for the yarn-spinners and glad that I've been able to spend time in their company.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A King of Infinite Space - Tyler Dilts

This is another first novel, and it’s another top-notch debut, as well. Tyler Dilts’ A KING OF INFINITE SPACE is narrated by Long Beach Police Department homicide detective Danny Beckett. Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka, along with a number of other cops, are assigned to investigate the murder of a high school English teacher who was stabbed to death in her classroom while staying late at the school to grade papers.

Like all good police procedurals, this novel takes the investigation step by step, as the cops gradually peel back the layers of the plot. At the same time, Beckett has to deal with all the personal ghosts and demons that plague him. If this sounds a little like Harry Bosch, it should. Dilts has acknowledged that Michael Connelly is one of his favorite authors. What saves A KING OF INFINITE SPACE from being a pale imitation of one of Connelly’s novels is that Dilts’ prose has its own voice, and it’s a good one. The plot is appropriately twisty, the dialogue is both humorous and poignant (sometimes in the same line), and the characters are well-drawn. What this book really has going for it, though, is that sheer, indefinable storyteller’s knack that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next. It’s really very well-paced and leads up to a fine and satisfying ending.

As I commented about John Verdon’s THINK OF A NUMBER, I have a hunch this is the first book in a series. I certainly hope so. A KING OF INFINITE SPACE gets a high recommendation from me, and I’m ready to read Tyler Dilts’ next novel.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Think of a Number - John Verdon

THINK OF A NUMBER is John Verdon’s first novel, but you’d never know it by reading this book. It’s one of the best debuts I’ve read in a while.

Dave Gurney is a celebrated NYPD homicide detective who has retired with his wife to a peaceful existence in upstate New York. Both of them are haunted by a tragedy in their past, which is one reason Dave is willing to take on the solving of a new mystery. An old college acquaintance of his has become a sort of New Age guru, and he turns to Dave for help when he begins receiving some vague but threatening messages. Dave advises his friend to go to the police but investigates on his own anyway, and the situation turns much more serious when the old friend winds up dead.

That’s just the first of multiple murders. Dave continues to be involved in the case as an unofficial consultant to the several different law enforcement agencies that become involved. The plot twists and twists, with elements that are reminiscent of the “impossible crime” sort of mystery that John Dickson Carr practiced so well, such as the footprints of the killer leading away from a victim, through a field of snow, only to stop abruptly with nowhere that the killer could have gone.

Another “impossible crime” angle gives the book its title. In the threatening notes sent to the first victim, Dave’s old college friend, the killer asks him to think of a number at random between one and a thousand. The guy does, then opens the second, smaller envelope that came with the message, and inside it is the number he thought of.

I admit, I was baffled by the whole thing, and usually I’m pretty good at figuring out plots. After Dave solves the crimes, the summation he gives at the end of the book is much like something from the Golden Age of Detection, going on for a number of pages and requiring the reader to pay close attention. As far as I can tell, Verdon plays fair. The clues are all there if you’re alert enough to catch them. (“Alert” and “me” don’t go together very well these days.) It’s not all Golden Age stuff, though. There are police procedural elements, serial killer thriller elements, and even echoes of literary fiction, with some elegant writing and a lot of back-story and character development. It’s an odd mix, but it works very well.

I suspect this may be the first of a series. Fine by me if it is. THINK OF A NUMBER is a little longer than I like and the pace is a tad slow now and then, but Dave Gurney is a fine protagonist and the complex plot really drew me in. I enjoyed the book a lot and highly recommend it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hitchcock Double Feature, Part 2

Both of these pictures turned out to be Movies I’ve Missed (Until Now). I’m not sure how I managed not to see so many famous movies . . .

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is a gorgeous film, full of beautiful autumn scenery in Vermont. Dropped down right in the middle of it is a murder mystery, with a dead body found in the woods. The victim could have been killed by any number of people who turn out to have unexpected connections with him, and they keep burying and digging up Harry (the dead guy) for a number of screwball reasons. This is a comedy more than anything else and actually is pretty funny in places, but it’s more of a “This is a really weird movie” funny than laugh-out-loud funny. It also has a good cast, being the film debut of Shirley MacLaine as well as featuring performances by Edmund Gwenn (very odd seeing Santa Claus without the beard), John Forsythe (most famous for DYNASTY, probably, but he’ll always be BACHELOR FATHER to me), and Jerry Mathers (not yet The Beaver). I think this is a likable film, not great but fairly entertaining.

MARNIE is another one I’d heard a lot about but never seen. Tippi Hedren, another of Hitchcock’s icy blondes, is a compulsive thief with a host of other psychological problems who winds up being blackmailed into marriage by the head of a publishing company (played by Sean Connery, not long after he started being James Bond) who discovers her secret. It’s pretty slow-moving and the big reveal at the end is easy to guess, but it still held my interest all the way through. I generally like Sean Connery’s work, and he’s pretty good in this one. Tippi Hedren is much more inconsistent, fine in some scenes but not very believable in others. Bruce Dern shows up late in a small but pivotal role. I think this is regarded as one of Hitchcock’s lesser movies, but I thought it was okay.

More Hitchcock coming up, but probably not for a while.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hitchcock Double Feature

Livia’s working on a project that involves Alfred Hitchcock movies, so we’re going to be watching some of them. I’ve seen most of the films Hitchcock is famous for, but not all of them. First up are one that I saw many years ago and one that falls into the Movies I’ve Missed (Until Now) category.

VERTIGO – I was in high school or college the last time I saw this one, which tells you how long ago it’s been. I recalled liking it a lot, though. For the very few of you who haven’t seen it, James Stewart plays a former homicide detective in San Francisco who has retired from the force because his fear of heights caused another cop to get killed during a chase after a suspect. An old friend of Stewart’s asks him to tail the friend’s wife, who has been having blackouts. The friend is worried something may happen to her. Reluctantly, Stewart agrees. Tragedy ensues, but it’s followed by an intriguing mystery that turns the movie on its head.

This film still looks great. The shots of the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular, and many of the other shots are staged in a striking, very effective fashion. And I’m a big fan of Jimmy Stewart and love to listen to him talk, no matter what he’s saying. However, other than that the movie really doesn’t hold up very well. The pace is glacial, and it’s not suspense-building glacial. It’s more a matter of “Okay, how many lengthy shots of Stewart’s character driving and driving and driving do we really need?” On top of that (and yes, I know, where do I get off criticizing the Master of Suspense?), the movie tips its hand ’way too early. Yes, even if you’ve never seen it before, you’ll likely guess the big twist early on, but despite that I think it’s a mistake to bring the movie to a screeching halt halfway through so that one of the characters can sit down and explain everything that’s been going on. Even a viewer who thinks he or she has figured out might still have a little doubt at that point, but not afterward. And then I found the ending a real letdown. Dramatic, yes, but it leaves so much unresolved that could have been resolved and made the ending even more dramatic. So overall, if you’ve never seen VERTIGO I think it’s probably worth watching, but this time around I considered it pretty disappointing.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT – This is the one that somehow I had never seen until now. It was reportedly Hitchcock’s favorite of his films, and I liked it quite a bit, too. It’s a somewhat uneasy but highly entertaining mix of small-town Americana and serial killer thriller, as a young woman (the lovely Theresa Wright) tries to figure out whether her charming uncle (Joseph Cotton, who will always be Jed Leland from CITIZEN KANE to me) is really a murderer. There’s a great supporting cast in this one and a lot of humor despite the grisly subject matter. Macdonald Carey strikes me as an odd casting choice for the FBI agent who’s the hero. Wallace Ford, who played the taxi driver in HARVEY, is much better as Carey’s partner. This is one of the few movies I’ve seen where I was really uncertain how it would end, so I think Hitchcock deserves that Master of Suspense label on this film. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely check it out.

There’ll be more Hitchcock coming up.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Two More Announcements from Western Fictioneers

Next year, the Western Fictioneers will present the first annual Peacemaker Awards for the best works of Western fiction published in 2010, and submissions are now open.  You can find out all the details, including how to enter, on the WF website.

Also, if you'd like to show your support for WF and for Western fiction in general, an assortment of merchandise with the WF logo is now available here.  All profits will go to the organization.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Forgotten Books: Tongking! - Dan Cushman

Dan Cushman is a problematic author for me. I’ve always felt that I should like his work, since he wrote extensively for the Western pulps and in fact was responsible for creating the last Western hero pulp, THE PECOS KID. (Cushman write five Pecos Kid novellas for the magazine, all of which have been reprinted in Leisure paperbacks during the past decade.) He also wrote original paperbacks for Gold Medal and was still turning out hardback Western novels for Walker during the Eighties. And yet, when I’ve tried to read Cushman’s work, most of the time I haven’t cared for it. I’ve started some of his novels and haven’t even finished them.

Ah, but I’d never read one of his Far East adventure yarns until now.

TONGKING! was published in 1954 as half of an Ace Double and is very much of its time. The protagonist is down-on-his-luck American soldier of fortune Rocky Forbes, who finds himself broke in Bangkok, not a good situation. He falls in with an old ally/enemy, the smuggler Fatto Kolski (who seems to be modeled pretty blatantly on Sydney Greenstreet). Kolski has a plan to smuggle some guns to anti-communist guerrillas in China, but in order to pull off the scheme, he needs Forbes to pretend to be a dead man.

This is just the beginning of a very twisty plot that involves American spies, British spies, Chinese spies, a beautiful Spanish torch singer, a beautiful American missionary, double crosses, triple crosses, murder, tramp steamers, and shootouts with Thompson submachine guns. If all those plot elements don’t perk your interest, I don’t know what would. The pace never lets up for very long, the local color is very well-done, and Rocky Forbes manages to be a likable hero while at the same time remaining an unrepentant heel. TONGKING! is an updated version of the sort of pulpish international intrigue and adventure stories that were published in BLUE BOOK during the Thirties.

In an interview with George Tuttle that was first published in PAPERBACK PARADE and recently reprinted in SEEKERS OF THE GLITTERING FETISH, the first collection of Cushman’s Armless O’Neil stories that originally appeared in the pulps JUNGLE STORIES and ACTION STORIES, Cushman himself offers a fairly low opinion of TONGKING! I hate to disagree with the author, but I found this novel very entertaining, definitely enough so to make me want to read more of Cushman’s adventure novels. If you have it on your shelves but have never read it, you should take it down and give it a try. If you run across a copy of the Ace Double for a reasonable price, as I did, grab it. That great cover alone is worth something.

(Speaking of SEEKERS OF THE GLITTERING FETISH, that was a Father’s Day present from my daughters this year, along with several other pulp reprint collections. This really is a Golden Age for pulp fans, the best since the Sixties. I just need more time to read!)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

National Day of the Cowboy Coming Up

The National Day of the Cowboy is coming up later this month on July 24, and my friend Ron Scheer has come up with an excellent way to celebrate it.  Check out all the details on his blog.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Beat to a Pulp Anthology

David Cranmer has posted a short excerpt from my story "Heliotrope" on his blog today.  This story will appear in the anthology BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE, which looks like it's going to be a fantastic collection of stories.  "Heliotrope" is a little different from the sort of yarn I usually write, and I'm grateful to David and Elaine Ash for wanting to publish it.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Western Fictioneers Website

The official website of the Western Fictioneers has gone live this morning, including information on how to join the organization.  You can check it out here.

Happy Fourth of July

I hope all of you who celebrate the Fourth of July have a great day (and those of you who don't celebrate it as well).  I plan to spend it in the great American tradition:  working.  But we live up high enough we usually have a good view of all the fireworks shows in the area, so I might watch some of that tonight.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife

Sometimes I watch a movie for which I'm really not the target audience and like it just fine.  Other times . . . well, not so much.

Now, I like a good time travel yarn as much as the next guy, but for me a good time travel yarn usually includes, oh, say, the Borg, or Nazis, or Terminators.  You know, the "travel through time, kick some butt, save the universe" type of stuff.  You don't get any of that in THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE.  Instead you get a semi-weepy romantic drama.  Which is not to say that it's a terrible movie.  It looks good, there are a few funny lines amidst the angst, and I stayed awake all the way through it.  Take that for what it's worth.

I will say this.  We watched all of it, which is more than I can say for some movies we've attempted to sit through lately.

Announcing Western Fictioneers

I'm very happy to announce the formation of a new writers organization for professional Western authors, the Western Fictioneers.  The group's blog is up and running here, with an official website to follow soon.  In the meantime, if you're an author who has been paid to write Western fiction (of any length), you're eligible to join Western Fictioneers, as many of today's leading Western writers already have.  Award-winning author Frank Roderus is the first president of the organization, and I've agreed to serve as vice-president.  If you're interested in joining, email me (the link is in my profile), and I'd be happy to give you all the details.  WF has a lot of exciting plans in the works, and if you're a Western author, we'd love to have you be part of them.

Loser Friendly - Jake Cassidy

I didn’t have a Forgotten Book yesterday, but I’ll be back with one next Friday. In the meantime, here’s something not forgotten, but rather, brand-new. And mighty entertaining, too.

New Pulp Publishing is a new small press producing primarily e-books (although printed copies are available, too), in a variety of genres. As their website puts it: “New Pulp Publishing is dedicated to delivering blistering novella length fiction in the crime, suspense, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and western venues.” Their first book, LOSER FRIENDLY, has just been released and features Miami recovery agent Jake Cassidy (a name the author of the series is also using as a pseudonym). Jake seems to be a bit of a cross between Travis McGee and Mack Bolan. He lives on a boat (a yacht, not a houseboat) and for a fee, recovers things that people have lost, usually to some bad guys. But he also has a lot of heavy weapons and is very proficient in their use. Despite those influences, Jake takes on his own character and is a very likable hero and narrator, tough but not flawless, just enough of a smart-ass to be funny, and a good guy to have on your side when you’re in trouble.

In LOSER FRIENDLY, he starts out doing a favor for an old girlfriend and finds himself trying to rescue a would-be Hollywood screenwriter who has run afoul of some mobsters. They want a script the writer has written even more than they want the guy himself, and Jake winds up having to recover it, too. Occasionally the story pauses to take a breath, but for the most part it’s very fast-paced action and very effectively written, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The author behind the Jake Cassidy name is a prolific writer who has been published in a wide variety of genres (it’s not, repeat not, me; I don’t have anything to do with New Pulp Publishing except as a satisfied reader). I had a great time reading LOSER FRIENDLY and look forward to the next book in the series. You can order the e-book here for a very reasonable price.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Shamus Winners, Volumes 1 and 2 - Robert J. Randisi, ed.

I don’t normally recommend books before I’ve read them, but in the case of these two volumes I’ll make an exception because I have read many of the stories included in them. THE SHAMUS WINNERS, VOLUMES 1 AND 2 reprint all the winners of the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Short Story from 1982 through 2009, plus a couple of bonus stories from the other nominees in each volume. Among them are two stories that became the basis for full-length novels, Lawrence Block’s “By the Dawn’s Early Light”, which was expanded into WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES, and Mickey Spillane’s “The Killing Man”, which became the novel of the same name. There are also great stories from Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, Ed Gorman, Loren Estleman, John Lutz, Max Allan Collins, Jeremiah Healy, and a host of other fine authors. As I mentioned, I’ve read many of these stories, and I look forward to rereading them and reading the others for the first time.

In addition to the stories themselves, you get a couple of introductions by Robert J. Randisi, the founder of PWA, and an appendix in each volume listing not only all the Shamus winners in all the categories, but also the other nominees in each category. This is an excellent reference source, and it’s great to have all that information in one place. (Two places, actually, since it’s split up between the volumes, but you know what I mean.)

If you’re a fan of private eye short fiction at all, these books are must-have items and another example of why Perfect Crime Books has become an important publisher in the field of crime fiction in a short period of time. Honest, I don’t work for Perfect Crime and I don’t have anything coming out from them. They’re just putting out a lot of really good books these days, and THE SHAMUS WINNERS, VOLUMES 1 AND 2 are among the best. Highly recommended.