Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Wrap Up

Not to start this on too much of a downer, but it's no secret that on a personal level, 2014 sucked. I don't want to even think about how many friends and loved ones we lost, and far too many people we know went through the same thing. Add in Livia's broken arm and some lingering health issues affecting several people in the family, and you've got a pretty lousy year.

But we're still here, still working, and why dwell on the negative when some good things happened, too?

Like the fact that I wrote more than a million words for the tenth year in a row. This is something I started thinking about several years ago, and I'm very glad that I made it despite the fact that it looked pretty doubtful for a while. Of course, it really doesn't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but it's a nice accomplishment anyway.

In case you're wondering, that million-plus words took the form of thirteen novels and four novellas. That's a good year's work, I think.

I also launched Rough Edges Press, my publishing imprint, this year, and brought out sixteen books and stories, a mixture of reprints and originals that I'm very proud of, and next year should be even better with the impending launch of the BLAZE! Adult Western series and more work from some of the best writers in the business.

Writing, editing, and publishing cut into my reading time, of course, but I still managed to read 116 books this year, and here are my ten favorites, in the order in which I read them:

JASON EVERS: HIS OWN STORY, Frank Roderus – one of the best Western noir novels I've ever read and a beautiful example of the unreliable narrator.

THE YEAR WHEN STARDUST FELL, Raymond F. Jones – from the classic line of science fiction juvenile novels published by Winston, and even though I didn't read it until this year, it's exactly the sort of book that made me a science fiction fan to start with.

HALF A KING, Joe Abercrombie – a gritty heroic fantasy novel with great narrative pace, from an author I really need to read more of.

LIGHTS IN THE DEEP, Brad R. Torgersen – a collection of, once again, the sort of classic science fiction that made me an SF fan.

CANNIBAL GOLD/BLOOD RED TIDE, Chuck Dixon – I have to put these first two volumes in Dixon's SF/adventure series BAD TIMES together, since it's becoming obvious that what he's doing here is writing one gigantic novel. And it's a superb one, too, full of action and interesting ideas.

THE CHAPLAIN'S WAR, Brad R. Torgersen – greatly expanded from two of the stories in LIGHTS IN THE DEEP, this is the rare "fix-up" novel that works spectacularly well.

DOC SAVAGE: THE ICE GENIUS, Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray and Lester Dent) – I've enjoyed all of the new Doc Savage novels I've read so far, but THE ICE GENIUS takes the series to a new level. It satisfies a long-time fan (more than fifty years reading Doc Savage for me!) while at the same time being a classic, sprawling adventure novel of epic scope.

McKENNA'S HOUSE, Robert J. Randisi – a fine private eye yarn and a novel with, as Bob puts it, "a lot of heart". Poignant, well-plotted, with one of the most likable protagonists you'll ever find, this is the best Randisi novel I've ever read.

FORBIDDEN RIVER, Frederick Nebel – a fantastic collection of Northerns from one of the best pulp writers, Frederick Nebel, and one of the best pulp reprint publishers, Tom Roberts of Black Dog Books. This one is pure adventure goodness from start to finish.

I read plenty of other really good books, too, and a lot of comic books and graphic novels I enjoyed. Speaking of comic books, most of the movies I liked wound up on the critics' Worst of the Year lists, but two films I loved that were almost universally well-received are CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. They really got it right. I've gotten away from posting about movies except for the Tuesday's Overlooked series, but I'm going to try to do better about that next year and at least mention most of the stuff we watch.

I don't make New Year's Resolutions, but another thing I'm going to try to do in 2015 is spend a little less time on-line and more time reading. I have a lot of books and pulps waiting for me to get to them.

This blog is more than ten years old now, and my sincere thanks to those of you who have been reading it from the first and everyone who has discovered it along the way. I'll close by saying that I hope 2014 wasn't too bad for you, and I really, really hope 2015 will be better for all of us. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: The Desert Horseman

It's sort of a given that the movies I write about in this series are ones that I like, but every now and then I'll bend that rule a little to talk about a film I thought was pretty bad but at least had something of interest about it.

In this case, it's the fact that here I am, 61 years old and a fan of Western B-movies for as far back as I can remember (and I mean that literally—some of my earliest memories are of watching Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy movies), and yet I had never seen one of the Durango Kid movies starring Charles Starrett. I'd read about them over the years but somehow never watched one.

Well, I've remedied that now by watching THE DESERT HORSEMAN, a 1946 entry in the series. By the way, that title has absolutely nothing to do with the story. In this one, Starrett plays drifting cowpoke and former army officer Steve Godfrey, who's also the masked hero The Durango Kid. Everybody seems to have heard of The Durango Kid, but I was never sure if he was supposed to be an outlaw, a good guy, or what. He's on the trail of an outlaw who stole an army payroll, a crime for which Steve Godfrey was framed. In the process of that search he stumbles into a save-the-ranch story in which a beautiful girl's father and uncle are murdered so the villainous lawyer who pretends to be her friend can pressure her into saving the ranch. I'm not sure why the lawyer wants the ranch—there's a rumor there's gold on it, but the bad guy actually starts that rumor—and I'm not sure that's ever resolved. This is a pretty muddled script.

Starrett's sidekick, the ranch cook, is played by Smiley Burnette, and to be honest, I have a pretty low Smiley Burnette tolerance. He was okay as Frog Milhouse in the movies he shared with Roy and Gene, but a little of him goes a long way, and there are four or five musical numbers with him in this movie, which is too much for a film with a running time of less than an hour. The featured musical group is Walt Shrum and His Colorado Hillbillies, a far cry from the Sons of the Pioneers or the Riders of the Purple Sage.

Starrett himself is a pretty athletic hero as The Durango Kid, but he's wooden as can be when he's Steve Godfrey. The rest of the cast is adequate at best. The production values are not bad, though. There are some decent stunts by Jock Mahoney, and the photography by William O'Connell is excellent. What it boils down to, though, is that THE DESERT HORSEMAN is a Columbia production, and the Columbia B-Westerns were just never as good as the ones from Republic.

But at least I can say now that I've seen a Durango Kid movie. For all I know this is the worst of the lot and not representative of the rest of the series. Maybe I'll watch another one sometime (they show up occasionally on one of the digital TV channels here). But I don't think I'll be getting in any hurry to do so.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Forbidden River: Gold! - Frederick Nebel

The great Frederick Nebel collection FORBIDDEN RIVER concludes with the simply-titled novella "Gold!", from the May 1931 issue of NORTH-WEST STORIES. This one is something of a departure from the other stories in this volume. It takes place in Alaska during the spring, so there are no shoeshoes or dog teams or frozen rivers. It also has a little more of an epic scope than the others, as mining tycoon Brant Winters takes on a syndicate that wants to move in and take over Brant's mine as well as the town he's founded. The first move made by the villain and his henchmen is to ruin the bank that Brant owns. That launches an explosive series of avalanches, ambushes, and murder that finally leads to a pitched battle for the town.

This would have made a great late Forties bigger budget Republic Pictures movie with John Wayne playing Brant and maybe Forrest Tucker as the villainous Dirk Rood. That's really how it came across to me. Nebel piles the troubles on Brant until you don't see how he's possibly going to come out on top (even though you know he will), and there's action galore, a little humor with a sidekick named Banjo (a good part for Gabby Hayes or Fuzzy St. John), a few poignant moments, and only a touch of that mushy stuff. As good as the other stories are—and they're top-notch, no doubt about that—this is probably my favorite.

And FORBIDDEN RIVER is one of the best books I've read this year. If you like pulp adventure fiction at its peak, this collection from Black Dog Books gets my highest recommendation.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Argosy, February 22, 1930

Since I seem to have a Leslie Scott theme going this weekend, here's an issue of ARGOSY containing his novelette under the A. Leslie name, "Six-Gun Railroading".  In addition to that we've got an installment of a John Solomon novel by H. Bedford-Jones (haven't read any of those yet, but I need to), part of a Radio Planet serial by Ralph Milne Farley (ditto), more serials by George W. Ogden and Fred MacIsaac, and a short story by Eustace L. Adams. Plus a sword-totin' Viking babe on the cover. Looks like a pretty good issue to me.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Coming Soon: Blaze! (A New Adult Western Series)

J.D. and Kate Blaze are two of the deadliest gunfighters the Old West has ever seen. They also happen to be husband and wife, as passionate in their love for each other as they are in their quest for justice on the violent frontier!

BLAZE! is the first novel in a thrill-packed, all-new Adult Western series created by bestselling action/adventure author Stephen Mertz. J.D. and Kate find themselves facing a deadly ambush by Apaches, then they're hired to track down a gang of ruthless outlaws led by the beautiful, savage bandit queen Rosa Diablo. It's gun-swift excitement all the way in this gritty tale from Stephen Mertz.

Husband and wife gunfighters Kate and J.D. Blaze are hired to track down a gang of rustlers, but what they don't know is that they're going to find themselves in the middle of a three-cornered war, playing each side against the others. If they're lucky they'll collect three payoffs instead of one...but will those payoffs be in gold—or hot lead?! 

Legendary Western author Robert J. Randisi, creator of The Gunsmith, joins the Blaze! team with this fast-action novel of treachery, revenge, passion, and blistering gunplay. From the finest hotels in Denver to a savage showdown in a ghost town, The Deadly Guns is adventure all the way!

J.D. and Kate Blaze, the Old West's only pair of husband-and-wife gunfighters, just want to enjoy their vacation in a beautiful Colorado valley, calling it the honeymoon they never had. But a runaway buggy draws them into a deadly vendetta that threatens the life of one of J.D.'s old friends. Belle Braeden, once a San Francisco soiled dove, is now the wife of one of Colorado's richest ranchers, a fact that the man's spoiled children don't appreciate. When murder strikes, Kate and J.D. have to track down a killer and fight for their own lives against a gang of deadly bushwhackers! 

Wayne D. Dundee, one of today's bestselling and most acclaimed Western authors, spins a lightning-fast, action-packed yarn in BITTER VALLEY, the third book in the all-new BLAZE! series. Trouble always seems to follow J.D. and Kate Blaze, and they answer with hot lead!

(I'm editing and publishing these books, and I can tell you, if you're a fan of The Gunsmith, Longarm, The Trailsman, and Slocum, you're going to want to read these! The first three books will be available as e-books on January 5, but you can pre-order them now. Trade paperback editions should be available about the same time. After that there'll be a new BLAZE! novel every two months, written by some of the top names in the business. If you like plenty of action, be sure to check out BLAZE!)

Writing Anniversary

Regular readers of this blog know that today marks the anniversary of my first sale as a professional writer. For those of you who haven't seen these posts in previous years, on December 27, 1976, I got a check in the mail from Ideal Publishing in New York, in the amount of $167.50, for all rights to a story I'd written for a confession magazine they published called INTIMATE STORY. More details and assorted nostalgic reminiscing about the early days of my career can be found in my December 27th posts for the past ten years.

So, 38 years in this business and I'm still having fun and learning new things and feeling that old familiar thrill whenever I go into a store and see a book I've written on the shelves, whether my name is on it or not. I'll admit, though, it's starting to catch up to me a little. To paraphrase Chris LeDoux, it ain't the years, son, it's the millions of words. I don't plan to ever retire as long as I'm able to write, but I can see a time when I'll write less, anyway.

Until then, I have pages to do.

For now, a quick thanks to Livia—the one person most responsible for anything good I've ever done—and to all the editors and other authors who have helped make it possible for me to keep spinning yarns all these years.

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Western, January 1942

Yesterday in my Forgotten Books post, I talked a little about Leslie Scott's Walt Slade series that ran in THRILLING WESTERN. Here's another issue that featured a Slade novella. Scott later expanded this one into a full-length novel and sold it to one of the lending library publishers. There's also a novelette by the dependable Chuck Martin in this issue, along with an entry in a series I don't care for, Syl MacDowell's Swap and Whopper, plus short stories by some unfamiliar names. I remember reading this issue years ago, or at least the Walt Slade novella and the Chuck Martin story. I may have skipped the others.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Forgotten Books: Killer Country - Jackson Cole (A. Leslie Scott)

We wrap up the Forgotten Books series for another year with an old favorite of mine, an author I've been reading for close to 50 years. In the early Sixties, when I was volunteering in the local public library, I came across some Western paperbacks that looked interesting in a batch of books somebody had donated. They were about a Texas Ranger named Walt Slade, and they were written by an author I'd never heard of, Bradford Scott.

Well, I read them and thought they were great, so I started buying the new Walt Slade paperbacks that came out every month. Of course, I had no idea at the time who Bradford Scott really was or about the history of the Walt Slade character, but I didn't care. I just read the books and enjoyed them.

But over time I also discovered and became a fan of a paperback series about another Texas Ranger, Jim Hatfield, published under the name Jackson Cole. By then I was aware of pulps and eventually learned that the Jim Hatfield novels being published by Popular Library had appeared originally in the pulp magazine TEXAS RANGERS. It struck me that the style varied considerably from book to book, so I figured out that Jackson Cole must not be a real person, but rather several different authors. And one of them wrote an awful lot like Bradford Scott...

Well, it's too late to make a long story short, but let's move along. Bradford Scott, for those of you who don't already know this, was really Alexander Leslie Scott, a prolific pulp author who also wrote under the names A. Leslie and A. Scott Leslie. He even had some poetry published in WEIRD TALES. In 1936 Scott created the Jim Hatfield character in the first issue of TEXAS RANGERS, in a novel called "The Lone Wolf Rides". Several years later, in the pages of THRILLING WESTERN, a pulp published by the same company, he came up with the Walt Slade character and wrote a long series of novellas about him under the name Bradford Scott, while continuing to write some of the Jim Hatfield novels as Jackson Cole. Scott didn't write all the Hatfields, but he and Tom Curry tied for the largest number of entries in the series at 55 novels.

Then in the early Fifties, Scott stopped writing for TEXAS RANGERS and the other pulps, and I don't believe I've ever heard exactly why. But he moved right over into the new paperback market and took the Jim Hatfield character with him, writing a series of novels for Pyramid Books featuring the Hatfield character. Some of these books were rewrites of Hatfield novels from TEXAS RANGERS, and some were new stories.

Ned Pines, the publisher of TEXAS RANGERS, got wind of this and demanded that Scott stop writing Hatfield novels for Pyramid, since he (Pines) was still publishing the character in the pulp and using the Jackson Cole house-name. Scott resurrected the Walt Slade character from THRILLING WESTERN and starting using him instead in the novels from Pyramid Books. Evidently Pines didn't mind about that. (Slade and Hatfield are almost, but not quite, carbon copies of each other.) Again, some of the early Walt Slade novels were rewrites of pulp stories, but for the most part they were originals. The series was very successful, too, running for more than a hundred books and lasting until 1971.

But to get to the real subject of this post (at last!), the novel KILLER COUNTRY is a Jim Hatfield story from the period when Scott was doing them for Pyramid. I don't know if it's a rewrite or an original. Hatfield is sent to the border country in West Texas to find out who's responsible for terrorizing the Mexican villages on both sides of the Rio Grande. Farmers are being crucified on giant cactus plants, staked out on anthills, thrown into snake pits, and other assorted atrocities. Mysterious night riders are striking terror into the area. Rustling and stagecoach robbery are rampant. In other words, plenty of work for a hard-ridin', hard-shootin' Texas Ranger to take care of.

Hatfield does just that, of course, wading through a flurry of ambushes and a myriad of suspects as he tries to uncover the identity of the hidden mastermind who's really behind all the trouble. Scott's plots nearly always follow this formula, but he throws in a few nice twists in this one and I actually wasn't sure who the villain would turn out to be until the end.

Scott is noted for a couple of things: his flowery, long-winded descriptions of the scenery (he was getting paid by the word for his pulp stories, after all) and his over-the-top action scenes. He's in fine form on both scores in KILLER COUNTRY. Actually, his work has had a considerable influence on my own writing as far as the action scenes go, although I don't write the same sort of long descriptive passages at all. KILLER COUNTRY has some nice lines and a breakneck pace, and I really enjoyed reading it. A lot of modern readers probably wouldn't like it because it's silly and unrealistic, but those things don't bother me when I'm in a nostalgic mood.

Leslie Scott was an interesting writer with a tendency for getting the most financial return out of his work. He rewrote some of his Hatfield novels, changing Hatfield's name to Jim Woodward, and sold them to lending library publishers. The early Ace Double BADLANDS MASQUERADER, published under the Leslie Scott name and featuring Walt Slade, is actually a rewritten Hatfield novel from TEXAS RANGERS. In the early Fifties he wrote soft-core erotica for the hardcover publisher Arco Books and later resold the novels as paperbacks to Beacon Books. He also wrote a number of stand-alone Western novels for Arcadia Books that are a notch above most of his paperback originals. His wife Lily was also a pulp writer, and their son Justin Scott is a writer as well and still in the business, having published a number of well-regarded mysteries and currently writing thrillers with Clive Cussler. I just like Leslie Scott's work, although I don't think it would be to everybody's taste. A couple of his Jim Hatfield novels, including KILLER COUNTRY, are currently available as e-books, and used copies of many of his books are easily found on-line.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Memory

When I was a kid, I was, to put it mildly, a handful. As my father, may his truly generous soul rest in peace, once said, "Well, you never let things get too boring when you were a kid." I remember an evening one Christmas season when I was six or seven years old when my sister and her boyfriend were about to go somewhere and I wanted to go along, but I couldn't go with them for some reason. (Those details are fuzzy in my memory.) When they started out the walk in front of our house and my mother told me I wasn't going with them, I reacted in my usual fashion: I burst out the front door and chased after them, yelling and pitching a fit. But then what did I hear?

A booming "Ho, ho, ho!"

I stopped in my tracks, looked over, and saw Santa Claus standing in our front yard, red suit, white beard, and all.

Terrified that my tantrum had put all my presents at risk, I could only stand there as Santa approached me and asked what was wrong. I stumbled over an explanation and then finally just threw myself on the big man's mercy, saying I was sorry and promising that I'd never do it again. He let me off the hook, told me to be a good boy, and said I should go back inside. Which is exactly what I did, as fast as I could. You can bet I behaved better after that...for a little while, anyway.

Of course there's a little more to the story than that. I found out several years later that "Santa" was actually our next-door neighbor Eddie Morrow, who happened to be coming over to show my parents the Santa suit he was going to wear for some sort of festivities. I inadvertently picked that moment to run outside acting like a brat. I'm not sure how everyone managed to get through the confrontation without breaking up at my horror-stricken little face, but they did.

There's no real moral to this story—other than don't act like a jerk because you never know when you'll run into Santa, I guess—but I've never forgotten that evening. So now I'll just wish all of you the very merriest of Christmases, and to all a good night.

Forbidden River: The Roaring Horde - Frederick Nebel

"The Roaring Horde", from the March 1932 issue of FIVE-NOVELS MONTHLY, finds former lawmen-turned-prospectors Clint Edwards and John Sabbath heading north into the wilds of Alaska when they run across a group of travelers in trouble. These pilgrims are all relatives from California, and they're on their way to the settlement of Hardluck Flat to claim some land they're going to inherit from a dying uncle. But out of the three guides they've hired, two have already been murdered, shot down from ambush, and the third is so spooked that he quits and abandons the immigrants. Edwards and Sabbath have no choice but to take over the chore of getting the group to Hardluck Flat. The fact that one of the travelers is a beautiful young woman plays a part in that decision, since Edwards falls for her the moment he lays eyes on her.

Getting their new-found charges to the settlement is no easy task, but even once that's accomplished, Edwards and Sabbath find themselves neck-deep in murder, lynch mobs, and more trouble. Both of them will have to risk their lives to find out what's behind the affair and set things right.

Frederick Nebel was just about perfect for the sort of short novel collected in FORBIDDEN RIVER. He packs plenty of plot into the stories, and there's room for character development, too. Although Clint Edwards is a stalwart, likable hero in "The Roaring Horde", his sidekick, the dour and deadly John Sabbath, is a fascinating character, too. I don't know if Nebel ever wrote any more about him, but he certainly could have if he wanted to.

All in all, this is another fine story in one of the best books I've read this year. You can head over to the Black Dog Books website to check it out if you haven't already.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Bernard and the Genie

Like CHRISTMAS TWISTER last year, one of my daughters recommended an obscure Christmas movie to write about this year. It's BERNARD AND THE GENIE, a love-it-or-hate-it British TV movie from 1991 that seems to have developed quite a cult following. Also like CHRISTMAS TWISTER, it has a considerable amount of oddball charm, but it's a better film overall.

Alan Cumming plays Bernard Bottle, a young art buyer whose life falls apart when he's fired by his sleazy boss (Rowan Atkinson) and dumped by his girlfriend, all in the same day. So it makes sense that when he discovers there's a genie living in an old bottle he picked up in his work, the supernatural being (played by Lenny Henry) doesn't grant him wishes at first but instead tries to kill him with a scimitar.

Once that gets sorted out, as the British say, Bernard and the genie become friends and Bernard gets plenty of wishes granted. Everybody who has wronged him gets their comeuppance, as you'd expect, but along the way there are some very funny scenes as Bernard introduces his new buddy to modern culture. Although Christmas doesn't play a big part in the plot, it's definitely the season in which the story is set, with appearances by carolers, Santa Claus, elves, etc., and even some surprisingly profound theological discussion between Bernard and the genie.

This is a slight but amusing and good-hearted film. The production values are pretty cheap, but it's a movie about dialogue and relationships, not special effects. The two leads are very good in their roles, and the script by Richard Curtis is clever and effective. It's certainly not your typical Christmas movie, but BERNARD AND THE GENIE is well worth watching.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Now Available: How to Get Published: 50 Successful Query Letters - Brett Weiss

More than a decade in the making, How to Get Published: 50 Successful Query Letters is by Brett Weiss, who has authored seven books and has had hundreds of articles published in a variety of newspapers and magazines. A full-time freelancer, Weiss has been prolific on the web as well, writing for numerous markets. As Weiss will show you in this book, hard-working writers should get published frequently, and one of the most important aspects of this is to learn to craft a well-written query letter. 

In addition to 50 real query letters that led to published articles and books (and in one case, a freelance writing job), How to Get Published: 50 Successful Query Letters includes tips on writing query letters, along with articles about and advice on writing in general. Whether you’re an aspiring writer longing to get published or you’re a veteran of the wordsmith wars, you’ll benefit from the behind-the-scenes information this book has to offer. 

How to Get Published: 50 Successful Query Letters features the following: 

*An introduction with tips on writing successful query letters 

*50 successful query letters written by Weiss, who makes his living as an author and journalist 

*An essay on how Weiss “broke through” to become a successful writer 

* “Anatomy of a Near Nervous Breakdown,” in which Weiss reveals how his writing career almost came to a crashing halt 

* “How to Get Published,” which offers practical advice on the writing life 

* “How Writing Can Supplement Your Income,” an article on how to write for publication while keeping your day job 

* “Writers in Movies,” a fun feature on film versions of famous writers 

* “The History of Typewriters,” in which Weiss details the origins of that most wondrous of writing tools 

* An interview with James Reasoner, author of more than 300 books 

*An interview with Brett Weiss, conducted by Chris Cavanaugh of Classic Gamer Magazine

(I've known Brett for a number of years. He's a top-notch journalist, and this book is full of fine practical advice.)

The Blizzard - James J. Griffin

If you're looking for a story that's both a good traditional Western and a fine Christmas yarn, I recommend James J. Griffin's THE BLIZZARD, a short novel that's part of his series A Ranger Named Rowdy.

Rowdy is, in fact, the horse belonging to Texas Ranger Tim Bannon, the actual hero of the series. In this one, Tim and young fellow Ranger Tate Slocum are sent to Sierra Blanca in West Texas to sort out a dispute over water rights between two local ranchers that threatens to break out in a range war. Christmas is closing in fast, and since Tim has had to miss the previous two holidays with his wife and son because of his work, he's determined to settle this conflict and get home in time to spend Christmas Day with his family.

Assorted gun battles and fistfights along the way complicate that effort, though, and then a deadly blizzard sweeps in to threaten not only Tim's plans but also the very existence of a small town.

Nobody writes about the Texas Rangers with more passion and enthusiasm than Griffin, and once again he tells a compelling story in THE BLIZZARD. It makes excellent Christmas week reading.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Popular Detective, December 1945

Not exactly a cheerful, festive Christmas cover, is it? The story it illustrates is by Johnston McCulley and is called "Death Plays Santa Claus". Other authors in this issue are the dependable Norman A. Daniels and Joe Archibald. I hope I haven't ruined your Christmas spirit!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, December 27, 1941

WESTERN STORY usually had a Christmas-themed issue each year. Here's the one from 1941. William Colt MacDonald is probably the biggest name in this issue, along with S. Omar Barker and George Cory Franklin. That's a nice cover, though.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Million Words and Counting: 10th Anniversary Edition

Today I reached the million word mark for the year, the tenth year in a row I've written that many words. Since I recently calculated the total wordage for my career as approximately 21.5 million, that means I've done almost as much in the past ten years as I wrote in the 28 years before that. But I've had some excellent opportunities and wanted to make the most of them. The first time I reached the million word level, I thought I'd probably never do that much again, but to my surprise the totals kept rising for a few years before beginning to taper off. But an insistent little voice in the back of my head had already started whispering, "A million words a year for ten years in a row." I liked the sound of that and decided I might as well try for it.

Earlier this year, especially after Livia broke her arm, I thought the string was going to come to an end at nine years, but then I had a productive summer and thought I'd just keep at it and see how things wound up. One thing's for sure, I couldn't have done it without all the things she does to help. There's never been a better co-plotter, editor, and uncredited collaborator than her.

As for what the future holds, I've learned not to even try to predict that. My plan was to slow down a little in 2015 and maybe write three-quarters of a million words, then gradually cut back to half a million a year. But that's not going to happen, at least next year. I already have a considerable amount of work lined up, plus I'd like to write some of my own stuff, so I'm going to be right around a million words again. I've already had some discussions about 2016 and '17, as well, and if everything continues as it is, it looks like those will be busy years, too.

But if I fall a little short of a million words any of those years, that's okay. I had the ten-year run I was shooting for. And if the string continues, that's fine, too. I'm just extremely thankful I get to tell stories for a living, and I'm going to continue trying to do the best I can at it, no matter how many words that turns out to be.

Forgotten Books: Christmas at the Ranch - Elmer Kelton

CHRISTMAS AT THE RANCH is a collection of three autobiographical essays by Elmer Kelton that was published in 2003 by McMurry University in Abilene, Texas.  Kelton writes about childhood Christmases spent on the ranch where he grew up and where his father was the foreman, as well as other holiday seasons spent at his grandparents' ranch. The middle section of the book concerns the Christmases of 1944 and 1945, the one just before he shipped out for Germany as a member of the U.S. Army and the one he spent in Austria with the family of the girl he wound up marrying. In the final essay he describes a holiday trip he and Ann took back to Austria in the Eighties. As always with Kelton, the writing is clean and unadorned, without any pretentiousness, with a poignancy and beauty of its own. Those of us lucky enough to have spent time with Elmer can hear his voice in the words. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Coming Soon: Guarding Her Heart - Livia J. Washburn

Julia Courtland was on her way west to marry a man she had never met. Henry Everett, the marshal of Flat Rock, Texas, was the grandson of her uncle's best friend. It seemed like a good match for both of them, and the wedding was scheduled to take place on Valentine's Day. 

Grant Stafford thought the young woman who got on the stagecoach at Buffalo Springs was the prettiest thing he had seen in a long time. She wasn't too friendly, mind you, but she was sure easy on the eyes. Not that Grant had time to worry much about such things. He was the shotgun guard on this run, but more than that, he was an undercover Texas Ranger on the trail of the vicious outlaw gang responsible for a string of stagecoach robberies. 

Fate threw Julia Courtland and Grant Stafford together on a cold February day in West Texas, but it also threw deadly obstacles in their path. A runaway team, a terrible crash, and bullets flying through the air threaten to steal not only their lives but also any chance they have for happiness. If they're going to survive, they will have to learn to trust each other . . . and maybe steal their hearts back from fate.

(This is actually my favorite of the stories Livia's written for Prairie Rose Publications because it has a lot of action in it, including a scene right out of a Republic Pictures B-Western. It'll be out later this month, but it's available for pre-order now.)

Now Available: The Name is Hannibal - Wayne D. Dundee

For more than three decades, Joe Hannibal has stood tall on the fictional PI landscape. The Hannibal books and stories have been translated into several languages and have been nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and a total of six Shamus Awards. 

Almost from the outset, Hannibal was dubbed "the blue collar PI" due in equal parts to the series' initial smaller-city setting of Rockford, Illinois, and its surrounding rural areas - as well as to the middle class roots and values that his creator brought to the writing. Later, after author and character both moved to the even more rural setting of west central Nebraska, the distinction only deepened. 

Hannibal has matured and evolved as a character and the writing has been honed to a finer edge. But the admiration for and love of the PI genre that was always at the core and heart of the series has never changed. 

While new Hannibals continue to be written, the original titles -- though somewhat sketchily available over the years -- remain strong, entertaining works. In order for readers to be able to discover this for themselves, a series of "boxed set" collections is being re-issued. 

Volume I, presented here, features the first three full-length Hannibal novels: 

(These are great books, some of the best PI novels of the modern era, and you absolutely cannot beat the price. Grab this collection now!)

Forbidden River - Frederick Nebel

The title story of this great collection from Black Dog Books originally appeared in the June 1930 issue of FIVE-NOVELS MONTHLY. Instead of a trapper or a prospector or a gambler, the protagonist of Frederick Nebel's novella "Forbidden River" is a Chicago lawyer. Dick Berens is on his way to a friend's hunting lodge in Canada for a vacation when he encounters a beautiful and mysterious young woman on the train. When she disappears, Berens wants to find out what happened to her, which results in a tumble from the train and being stranded in the north woods. And when he does succeed in finding the girl, he also finds himself deeper in trouble involving a murder, a sinister stranger, and a couple of dogged Mounties.

This story has more of a mystery element than the first two stories in the collection, and more romance, too. Nebel keeps things perking along nicely, as usual, although I wish Berens had used his background as a lawyer more in trying to untangle the dangerous mess in which he finds himself. Overall, "Forbidden River" is a very entertaining yarn and maintains the high quality of this volume.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Now Available: Hunting Monsters is My Business - John M. Whalen

Mordecai Slate was a mysterious figure who roamed the United States and its Territories from 1870 to 1912. He was more or less a bounty hunter, who just happened to specialize in hunting outlaws of the supernatural variety. He carries a special modified 1855 Colt Revolver Rifle that fires 12 rounds of silver ammunition, a Remington double-barreled Derringer, a Colt Peacemaker .45, and a silver-plated stiletto. But his hard, cold attitude as a professional is perhaps his greatest weapon. Where others lose their heads in fear or rage, Slate keeps his cool. He isn't out for revenge or justice. But when he's paid to do a job, he always sees it through to the end. 

In HUNTING MONSTERS IS MY BUSINESS, undead Tlingit tribesmen rise from their graves in the Yukon; something not of this world stalks Dodge City; a creature emerges from the ocean off the coast of the Monterey Peninsula. Slate takes on these and other terrifying creatures in nine tales of horror and wonder, including a brand new novella written specially for this book.

Saddle up with Slate and ride with him through the Wild, Weird West. The print edition is now available, with an e-book edition coming next week.

(The first Mordecai Slate novel, VAMPIRE SIEGE AT RIO MUERTO, is excellent. I'm looking forward to reading this collection of his adventures.)

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: The 12 Dogs of Christmas

(This post originally appeared in different form on December 26, 2009.)

This Christmas movie I'd never heard of turned out to be pretty good. It’s set in 1931 and is about a girl from Pittsburgh whose father has to send her to live with her “aunt” (really an old girlfriend) in a small town that has a local ordinance against dogs. Naturally the girl winds up with an adorable dog and makes friends with a family that provides a “dog orphanage” just outside the town limits. The mayor’s brother is the dogcatcher and rides around in a motorcycle sidecar while his assistant drives the motorcycle. There’s a lot of mild danger and adventure and plenty of cute little kids and dogs.

This is a family-friendly movie, very sweet and heart-warming and inspirational, but the Depression-era setting is portrayed in an appropriately dark and gritty manner. The cast, all of whom were unfamiliar to me except for character actors John Billingsley and Richard Riehle, does a good job, and the period detail is good with one exception: I don’t think the football term “Hail Mary pass” had been coined in 1931. That’s a pretty minor quibble, though.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bad Times: Blood Red Tide - Chuck Dixon

Chuck Dixon's time-traveling former Army Rangers return in BLOOD RED TIDE, the second novel in the Bad Times series. Hiding out from villains left over from the first book, they and their scientist allies plan another trip into the past, this time to recover a fortune buried on an island in the Aegean Sea by Phoenician traders. Naturally, things go wrong, and Dwayne, the leader of the Rangers, and Caroline, the beautiful blond scientist who helped invent the time travel device, find themselves in the middle of a sea battle between the Phoenicians who captured them and a couple of ships from the Carthaginian navy. Meanwhile, back in the present (The Now, as the Rangers call it), the rest of the group is being stalked by at least two groups of mysterious enemies.

BLOOD RED TIDE is a wonderfully fast-paced, very colorful book. The battle scenes set in the past are downright Howardian at times. But while you might expect the action and adventure to be the primary appeal of a novel by Chuck Dixon, I've got to say that the science-fictional premises he's playing with are even more intriguing. He's come up with some new twists in an old genre, blended them with great action scenes, piled mystery upon mystery, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

CANNIBAL GOLD, the first novel in this series, is one of the best books I've read this year, and BLOOD RED GOLD is a worthy successor. The next one, AVENGING ANGELS, is already out, and I'll be reading it soon, I hope. If you haven't checked out this series already, start at the beginning, as the books benefit from being read in order. They're great fun, and thought-provoking, to boot.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Now Available: Hitler's Time Machine - Robert F. Dorr

“This war will never end as long as both sides have time machines,” Barbara warned, “because one side will always be able to travel back and checkmate the other.”

To Adolf Hitler, the device called Die Glocke, or The Bell, is the wonder weapon that will win World War II for Nazi Germany, enabling the Reich to dominate the world. Others see the time machine differently, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt and Heinrich Himmler.

This dramatic story of the race to develop a time machine on both sides is the first novel by Robert F. Dorr, a non-fiction author of popular history books like "Mission to Berlin" and "Fighting Hitler's Jets." In Dorr's first fiction, the top American scientist is a young woman who has never held a job, and the top Nazi scientist is an SS madman in Hitler's inner circle. The outcome of the war may be decided by a commando raid in the tradition of "The Guns of Navarone."

Or maybe not.

(Robert F. Dorr is one of the top military historians in the business and a fine writer. I'm looking forward to reading his debut novel.)

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Short Stories, August 1937

Nice dramatic cover on this issue of DETECTIVE SHORT STORIES and a good group of authors inside: Donald Barr Chidsey, Philip Ketchum, Carl McK. Saunders (who I recently found out was also Philip Ketchum), Hugh B. Cave, and assorted others not familiar to me. I don't think I've ever read an issue of DETECTIVE SHORT STORIES, but it looks like a pretty good pulp.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Yarns, Summer 1943

Yes, it's another blindfolded horse cover. I'm joking, of course, although for all I know there may be people who collect blindfolded horse covers. It's enough for me that it's a nice action-packed scene, and behind it are stories by T.W. Ford, Archie Joscelyn, Cliff Campbell, and Lee Floren. Not exactly favorites of mine (with the exception of Joscelyn and sometimes Ford), but no slouches, either.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Forgotten Books: Suicide Ranch - Ed Earl Repp

Texas Ranger Clint Buckner is given a furlough from Ranger service so that he can go to New Mexico and lend a hand to former Ranger commander Major Phineas Cole, who has a dangerous job for him. Cole is planning to buy a ranch in the wilds of the Sierra Leone Mountains, but the three men he has sent into the mountains to check out the place have all disappeared, perhaps the victims of foul play. Not only that, but Cole has heard rumors that the man who claims to own the ranch, Dolf Bristow, is not the real owner at all but rather an outlaw who has imprisoned the real owner. This prisoner is a beautiful young woman named Carmelita Holton, and Buckner's job is to free her and get to the bottom of the mysterious happenings on what has come to be called Suicide Ranch.

That's almost the extent of the plot in this novel. There's also a subplot concerning the murder of Buckner's father, but it ties in with everything else that's going on at Suicide Ranch. What little mystery there is is all cleared up a third of the way into the book. The rest of the novel is an action-packed series of fistfights, gun battles, and chase scenes.

Repp is probably best known as the screenwriter of quite a few Western B-movies, as well as for his habit of hiring numerous ghostwriters to produce the vast amount of pulp stories that were published under his by-line. I don't know who wrote this book, but I suspect it was Repp himself. It reads very much like the other two novels of his that I've read, CYCLONE JIM and HELL IN THE SADDLE. My theory (and I don't have anything to base this on) is that Repp probably wrote the full-length novels that appeared under his name while farming out many of the pulp stories. While I can see the flaws in his work--and there are a lot, chief among them thin plots and very shallow characterization--I find myself enjoying the books anyway. Repp writes with a vividness and sheer enthusiasm that carries the reader along, and he produces very effective action scenes that linger in the memory. While I wouldn't say that his books are top-rank Western fiction or anything close to it, I keep reading them, and that has to count for something.

(This is the last of those old Ed Earl Repp reviews I found in the WesternPulps archives. I have one more Repp novel on my shelves, THE GUNHAWK, and maybe I'll get around to reading it soon. If I do, you'll read about it here.)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

McKenna's House - Robert J. Randisi

Robert J. Randisi says that as far as he can figure, his new mystery novel McKENNA'S HOUSE is his 620th novel. I know what he means by that. I've written a little more than half that many, and I'm not a hundred per cent certain that my total is correct. It may be off by one or two. But regardless of how many books Bob has written, I know that I haven't read anywhere close to all of them. Maybe a fourth of them, or a third, at the outside. But I am certain of one thing, and this is my long-winded way of getting around to saying it.

McKENNA'S HOUSE is the best Randisi novel I've read so far.

Lazarus "Mac" McKenna is a freelance investigator who used to work for an insurance company. He's come back to his childhood home in Omaha to care for his dying father, and after his dad passes away, he stays there, living alone in the house where he grew up. He does the same sort of work he used to do for the insurance company, mostly background checks, working from home on his computer. But every now and then, to break the monotony, he takes on more of a private eye sort of case, such as trying to find out whether or not the CEO of a local company is cheating on his wife. That's what McKenna is doing when he comes across a young woman and a little boy in a bus station. They're broke, hungry, and have nowhere to McKenna surprises both himself and them by taking them home with him.

It's not long after that the case he's working on turns deadly with a brutal murder, and he soon learns that his house guests have a secret that could prove dangerous as well.

Randisi expertly manipulates both strands of this plot, and his writing has never been smoother or faster-paced. Mac McKenna is a great character, neither a wise-cracking supersleuth nor a bitter, angst-ridden loser despite his loneliness and the health issues he's battling. He's just a decent guy trying to do the right thing, and because of that it's easy for the reader to root for him. I don't know if Bob plans to bring McKenna back in another novel, but if he does, I'll definitely read it. For now, McKENNA'S HOUSE is one of the best books I've read this year, and it gets a high recommendation from me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Free Story Wednesday: The Last Ride - David Hardy

Diego Diaz sat atop Relampago, his favorite hunting stallion, surveying the herd of buffalo that covered the Llano Estacado like a jungle, a forest of tossing horns and shaggy hides upon the broad, empty grassland. The buffalo were Diego’s purpose, both sport and business. He was a cibolero, a hunter of the plains. Together with his cousins and neighbors Diego would bring down enough of the shaggy beasts to fill the smokehouse with meat for a long time. The buffalo robes, dressed hides of the best quality, would be traded at the great market in Santa Fe. The tallow was used for candles and cooking. The wool from the buffaloes’ necks stuffed mattresses. The horns and bones could be fashioned into spoons, combs, powder horns, and anything else New Mexican craftsmen could carve. For the New Mexican cibolero, the buffalo was the staff of life just as much as it was for the Indian of the plains.
Diego patted Relampago’s neck. There was nothing he loved better than to be atop a fine horse, lance couched, charging at running buffalo, above all being a hero. Well, perhaps dancing with a lovely señorita, especially Olga. The girls preferred to dance with Diego precisely because he was a young man who charged running buffalo with a lance. Diego heard a voice humming and turned to look. It was his primero, José, who assisted with skinning the buffalo.
“Hola, José,” Diego said. “What’s that tune?”
“It’s the old one about Efrain Ortiz and how he broke his neck when his horse tripped. I made up some new verses.”
“You’re not half bad as a singer. You should make up some new songs.” Diego smiled, but he did not like the ominous subject of José’s song.
José shrugged. “No one’s broken his neck in a while. A guy from Santa Fe got killed by Cheyennes a few weeks ago.”
Diego carried a carbine musket slung on his back, its muzzle stuffed with colored strands of wool. Like most hunters, he considered it too chancy to dispatch a buffalo. It was what a man needed if he had to stand off Cheyennes in a dispute over who had rights to the hunting ground. 
“The mayordomo has the carretas waiting just this side of the draw,” José said. “I’ll stay back and follow to bleed the animals you fell.” 
Diego nodded and turned Relampago back to the buffalo herd. Now was the moment. Silently he offered a prayer for success in the hunt, that the Virgin not let the little ones go with empty bellies. He dug in his spurs and Relampago launched forward like a rocket. The buffalo heard him coming and began to run. But the fastest buffalo in the world was no match for a Spanish mustang in a dead run. Diego bore in, as steady on Relampago’s back as if he were sitting on a bench outside Olga’s house.
Diego picked out a fat cow. He could picture the tender steaks sizzling on mama’s oven, served up with beans, mole, and a mountain of tortillas. Relative speed counted for much in this business. Diego spurred Relampago to a final burst of speed and he tore past the cow, lancing her through her huge heart. She fell dead and Relampago thundered on.
Diego was among the herd now. Tossing horns and shaggy hides surrounded him on all sides like an angry sea. Diego had never seen the ocean, but he could picture the undertow of pounding hooves. Now was no time to quit. Diego never brought down less than a dozen on a run. He picked out a huge bull next.
Diego struck the bull right between the ribs. The beast bellowed and tossed its shaggy head in wrath. Diego knew this one meant business. The huge bull made a sudden, savage rush at him. The beast’s horns came within an inch of disemboweling Relampago. But the stallion was too agile, darting aside while avoiding the other running buffalo. Diego gave the buffalo another stab, but couldn’t land a solid blow, he merely enraged the bull with a shallow prick.
Suddenly the herd began to bunch. The bull was still running, hot to destroy his tormentor. Blood was slobbering from its lips. In an open field Relampago could outrun the bull easily, but he was hemmed in. Diego looked back and saw the bull gaining, wicked horns lowered for a devastating thrust. Desperately, he wheeled Relampago and drove the lance again into the bull’s chest. The bull veered away and Diego tore off in pursuit of fresh game.
Diego laughed as Relampago wove through the running herd. This was life, the wind in one’s face, a fine horse, spurning danger, and winning glory. A thought flickered through his mind, If this was life, was it not to kill and risk death? Then Diego’s focus returned to riding and bringing down his prey.
He took two cows in quick succession. Then Relampago leapt a small boulder and Diego had to cling for life. He began to hum the old song of Efrain the fallen hunter. He had been dead thirteen years, a dim memory to Diego. But Efrain lived vividly in that song, a bold hunter with a fine horse and a steady hand. It’s a hell of a way to get a song about yourself, Diego thought.  
Diego lanced six more buffalo. One more would make his dozen. They were coming close to the carretas. José and his helpers would be at work bleeding the fallen beasts, making sure they were dead before the mayordomo brought the rest of the camp down to help with skinning and packing.
Relampago was still running strong. Diego selected his prey, a lumbering cow, and bore in on it.
One moment Diego was atop Relampago. The next he was flying through the air. Diego never saw the gopher hole Relampago stepped in. It was not carelessness, simply that no human eye could see small holes covered with grass from atop a flying horse while coursing a herd of enraged buffalo. A man took his chances when he rode.
They found Diego lying on the prairie, Relampago still at his side, limping on a leg that would never heal. Ever after, the hunters swore the horse was weeping. A sharp knife gave Relampago a final act of mercy. The mayordomo, an old hunter who had seen much of life and death in his sixty years, oversaw Diego’s burial and made sure they said a mass for him in the little church back home.
One day when José was nearly eighty, he sat in the plaza of Santa Fe strumming his guitar. His fingers were old and ached abominably, but they still picked out the old tunes. New Mexico had been an American territory since the war in 1846. A new century had begun, one with telephones, electric lights, automobiles, and phonographs. They mayordomo was long gone, as was Olga, though her many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren overspread the land. The buffalo were gone too.
“Hey, old timer, what’s that tune?” a passerby asked.
José looked up there was a couple, a man and a woman, tourists evidently, speaking in English.
José knew enough English to reply. “It’s an old song about a hunter and a horse,” he said quietly. Then he began to sing.
A man lives boldly on the open plains,
Or he does not live at all.
A good horse, a strong lance, a sharp eye,
Diego Diaz, he had them all.
On the wide Llano Estacado,
He met his fate without warning.
Diego and his Relampago,
They were the best we ever had.
They left their bones on the barren soil,
They will ever live in this song.
(For more of David Hardy's fine work, check out the links below.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked TV: Deadbeat

DEADBEAT is a series I'd never heard of until we came across it in the store one day. Evidently it was made as an original series for Hulu. But it stars Tyler Labine, a character actor we like who's usually a supporting player. This is the first time I can recall him playing the lead in anything, but I'm probably wrong about that.

At any rate, in DEADBEAT he plays the same sort of stoned slacker he usually does, but in this case he's an aspiring medium who can see and talk to ghosts and helps them conclude whatever unfinished business they have so they can move on. He also works at a newsstand that's owned by his best friend, who's also his marijuana dealer. There's a beautiful celebrity psychic Labine's character has a crush on starting out, but eventually she becomes his arch-nemesis.

This is one of those oddball series that never quite comes together as far as I'm concerned. I kept feeling that it should be better than it really is. However, most of the episodes do have some funny lines or bits of business (the one with the ghost of Rube Goldberg is probably the best episode), and the stories are surprisingly touching at times. There's enough good stuff here that I'm glad we watched it, and if you don't go into it expecting too much, you might be entertained by it as we were. I don't know if there's going to be a second season, but if there is, I'll watch it.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Forbidden River: A Gambler Passes - Frederick Nebel

Moving on the second tale in the collection FORBIDDEN RIVER from Black Dog Books, "A Gambler Passes", from the January 1930 issue of FIVE-NOVELS MONTHLY, is an important story among Frederick Nebel's work, because it may be an unacknowledged prequel to his most famous series, the hardboiled tales of a private eye named Cardigan that ran in DIME DETECTIVE. The protagonist of "A Gambler Passes" is one Jack Cardigan, a former prospector who abruptly turns gambler, much to the disgust of his partner. (Nebel would use a similar plot point two years later in "Wolves of the Wild", which I wrote about last week.) Cardigan has a good reason for his decision, although he keeps it to himself.

However, this is only a subplot of the story, which revolves around Cardigan being convicted of murder by a shady miners' court, over a killing that he carried out in self-defense. Faced with hanging, he escapes and sets out on an odyssey across the frozen North that winds up with plenty of action and plot twists.

Nebel's description of the frigid landscape is extremely vivid in this yarn. To say that the reader is able to feel the cold in the words is a cliché, but it's also true. There's some fine, naturalistic writing in this story. Cardigan's romance with a miner's beautiful daughter is a bit more on the melodramatic side, but it's still effective. The ending is particularly satisfying.

If the Cardigan in this story is the same one who shows up later in DIME DETECTIVE, then clearly a lot happened to him between those two points in his life. Nebel either chose not to fill in that gap, or more likely just never thought of it. But even if it's not the same character, "A Gambler Passes" is still a fine, stirring tale, and it's one more good reason to head over to the Black Dog Books website and order a copy of FORBIDDEN RIVER.