Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Leisure's Classic Film Collection

This is kind of cool. Leisure Books recently announced a series of four Western novels in its upcoming Classic Film Collection. The novels are all the basis of classic Western films. The first to be released is Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers. It is scheduled to be released in February 2009. I recently watched the film version of The Searchers for the first time on a local PBS affiliate. It truly is a masterpiece. John Wayne can’t do everything well—like deliver lines—but in The Searchers the director John Ford captures Wayne at his best: the long lonely look of his aging face; the heavy swagger and bravado and his sheer masculine essence. It was a great film and I’m betting the novel is just as good.

The second to be released is Destry Rides Again by Max Brand. It is scheduled for release in March. This is a novel and film that I have never read or seen. I’ve read a handful of Brand Westerns and each one was enjoyable. Here is a taste from the Dorchester website:

“Destry Rides Again helped launch James Stewart’s career and revitalized Marlene Dietrich’s in 1939. The character has remained one of Max Brand’s most famous, spawning a 1954 remake of the movie, a TV series, and a Broadway musical.”

The third will be released in April 2009. Its title: The Man from Laramie. The author: T.T. Flynn. Flynn is a writer whom I have yet to read, although I have a few of his novels floating around. I do, however, remember the film. It starred James Stewart—as I recall—and was a pretty good Western. Dorchester’s website claims that there were more than 500,000 copies of this novel printed in the day.

The fourth and final novel in the series—so far as I know—is another Alan LeMay titled The Unforgiven. This is another title that I’m not familiar with. Here is what Dorchester has to say:

"In many ways this novel, a May release, is a companion to The Searchers, as it features a different perspective on the clashes and prejudices between whites and Native Americans. Rather than chasing after a missing white girl taken captive by the Comanches as in The Searchers, The Unforgiven presents the explosive ramifications when it’s revealed a white family may have taken in a Kiowa baby 17 years before."

I’m looking forward to these titles. I grew up with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on the television screen. My father enjoyed the work of the former and my mother the later. I’m especially looking forward to The Searchers. The film has been playing quite frequently on television recently and I’ve watched it more than once.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Top Five Reads of 2008

It’s nearly 2009 and that means one thing—well several things, but the most exciting is the Gravetapping top five reads of the year. The rules are simple. There are really only three. The first is, the novel can be published anytime, anywhere. The second is, I have to have read it in 2008. The third is it has to be new to me, which means that I can’t use the same old book year after year.

So, without further ado, drum roll please. And now imagine your favorite celebrity at the pulpit with a cheesy smile and overdone hair. Here it is—in ascending order—the top five Gravetapping reads of 2008 are…

5) Archangel by Robert Harris. I love the occasional thriller. I enjoy the fast-paced style and the deep backstory that many well-written thrillers provide. Unfortunately many of the current crop of thrillers skip backstory altogether and the fast-paced style seems less fast-paced and more contrived and tedious. However, a few months ago I read a terrific thriller by Robert Harris. It is a modern story of Joseph Stalin and it is filled with historical insight, adventure, suspense and enough twists to keep even the most jaded thriller readers—me!—satisfied.

4) Red, White, and Blue Murder by Bill Crider. I discovered the work of Bill Crider earlier this year and I’m getting dangerously close to declaring Gravetapping as his unofficial fan club. His Sheriff Dan Rhodes stories are terrific and Red, White and Blue Murder is no exception. Click Here to read the review.

3) The Other Side of Silence by Bill Pronzini. Bill Pronzini is a regular on this list. His novel The Crimes of Jordan Wise won the top honor a few years ago—I still think about that one. It was terrific. And The Other Side of Silence is right up there with it. The first chapter is actually the short story “Engines” Pronzini wrote for Tony Hillerman’s The Mysterious West back in the mid-1990s and the story follows the recently separated Rick Fallon to Death Valley where he saves the life of a young woman who is in trouble. His journey takes him from the desolate desert to Las Vegas to Bull City, Arizona, and then into the southern climes of California.

2) A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson. This is a masterpiece of psychological horror. The amazing thing is it is also a brilliantly created view into suburban American life of the 1950s. The characters are rich and the story is perfect. Click Here to read the review.

1) Death Ground by Ed Gorman. I can’t say enough about this novel specifically or Ed Gorman’s work as a whole. He is a favorite writer of mine and Death Ground is one of the many reasons why. It is dark and pessimistic, with an overcast of sly humor and unruly humanity. Click Here to read the review.

This year it was particularly difficult to narrow the list down to five. I very easily could have made a list of ten or fifteen. Ed Gorman had another novel that barely missed the list—Sleeping Dogs—as did Bill Crider with Gator Kill. A few other honorable mentions are: Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough, Baby Moll by John Farris, Zero Cool by John Lange, Luck Be a Lady, Don’t Die by Robert J. Randisi, The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson and Stephen Mertz’s The Korean Intercept.

An excellent year in my reading chair. And here is to 2009. I bet it’s even better.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; Feb 2009

The latest issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine arrived in the mail Friday, and as always it is a treat. I have the mail schedule pretty much pegged and I had been expecting it for a few days. Not that it was late, but rather I was impatient. It is the February 2009 issue and it is a celebration of Sherlock Holmes. But like always there is a broad array of high quality stories that will appeal to any and all mystery readers.

The contents are (I haven’t read all the stories yet--I try to savor every issue--so if there aren’t any comments it means I have been there yet):

“The Last Drop” by R.W. Kerrigan

“Greetings from Purgatory!” by Steve Hockensmith – Old Red and Big Red are back in a Sherlock Holmes-type adventure set in the old West; the thriving metropolis of Lovelock, Nevada. A can’t miss story that is whodunit, Western, and down right humorous.

“That One Small Thing” by Shane Nelson

“The Package” by Frank T. Wydra

“Wolfe at the Door” by Loren T. Estleman – An Estleman story is always worth the price of admission and this take on the Nero Wolfe mysteries is no exception.

“Clowntown Pajamas” by James Powell

“The Wilt of Love” by Michael Z. Lewin

“A Stab in the Heart” by Twist Phelan

“The Adventure of the Dying Ship” by Edward D. Hoch – This is a reprint of the late-EQMM regular and it is a dashing Sherlock Holmes story.

“Down to the Bitter Dregs” by Silvija Hinzmannn – This Passport to Crime story originates from a Croatian-born German. A terrific little tongue-in-cheek satirical revenge story. A great introduction to a foreign language writer.

It also includes The Jury Box by Jon L. Breen and Blog Bytes by Bill Crider. Another terrific issue that every mystery reader should make a point to pick up.

Friday, December 19, 2008

HARM by Brian W. Aldiss

Apologies in advance. This is another retread review. I originally wrote it for SFReader.com last summer. It posted 27-July-2007. The good news is, most of you probably never saw it, so it very well may be just as good as something new. Maybe. I have a couple reviews slated for next week; probably Monday and Wednesday. I just need to find time to write the damn things. Have a great weekend.

Brian W. Aldiss is a living legend in the science fiction genre—he has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He has been a progressive voice in the genre for decades, and his latest novel, HARM, has all the life, voice and thought provocation of anything he has ever produced.

HARM—an acronym for Hostile Activities Research Ministry—is a satirical novel based in the near future. It is the story of Paul Ali, a writer and British citizen of Islamic heritage, who is being held as a political prisoner in a terrorist detention camp. Inside the prison he is known only as Prisoner B. His crime: a few characters in his comic novel "The Pied Piper of Hament," drunkenly joke about the assassination of the British Prime Minister. His only human contact is with his interrogators, who practice torture and violence with a particularly frightening glee.

When Paul is not in interrogation he is sequestered in a solitary cell where he suffers visions and vivid imaginings due to a mental illness. He lives in two separate and distinct worlds. The first is the world of torture and pain, and the second is a distant world where insects are dominant, and the local human population has been transplanted with extreme difficulty. They were transported in Life-Process Reservoirs, which contained their brain functions and DNA and then were reconstituted on arrival. Unfortunately the reconstitution did not work perfectly, and many of them have lost significant verbal skills, a vast amount of their intelligence, and their cultural identities.

HARM is a disjointed novel that is effective for the simple reason that when all of the storylines are connected and examined as a whole, they become something more than their parts. It is a story that casts a cynical eye at our post September 11th society. Mr. Aldiss cleverly unmasks the tightrope that many British Muslims are walking—they must embrace the British culture without losing their own—and he also casts a shadow against the methods used by Britain and the United States in the war on terror.

HARM is a novel that is both enlightening and demanding. It is very much a novel of our time, and it captures many relevant themes—immigration, identity, racism, torture—but it also examines the obscurities and nuances of what has happened to our culture since the September 11th terrorist attacks. It translates the hate and anger with a perfect pitch, all while telling a compelling and entertaining story. I recommend HARM wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Book Trailer: The Chameleon Conspiracy

I've read two thrillers by Haggai Carmon this year -- Triple Identity and The Red Syndrome -- and I enjoyed both. The novels feature DOJ lawyer Dan Gordon; a protagonist that has a little trouble with authority and doesn't mind breaking the rules to catch the bad guy. There is always a financial connection and Gordon always follows the money.

The third novel in the series is due out in April 2009 from Leisure Books and Mr. Carmon sent a link to a book trailer that highlights the series. It's pretty good and makes me excited to read The Chameleon Conspiracy.

PS. If anyone knows of any good book trailers send me an email. If you are an author or publisher I would love to hear from you. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tom Piccirilli: "The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back"

This is a repeat post (at least the review of "The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back"). It first went live 21-June-2007.

It has been a hectic week at my house and the blog has suffered from more than just a little neglect. So…

I’ve been reading Tom Piccirilli short stories for years. I’m a big fan, and a few months ago I decided to track down all of his Western short stories. I even emailed him and asked for a list. The list wasn’t long, but it was long enough. Here it is:

"The Day Lamarr Had a Tall Drink with His Short Daddy";
Desperadoes edited by Gorman & Greenberg, 2001

"The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back"; Texas Rangers edited by Gorman & Greenberg, 2004

"Slicing Through Ninety-Two Pages of the New Testament"; Guns of the West edited by Gorman & Greenberg

"The Comfortable Coffin of Miz Utopia Jones Clay";
Boot Hill, edited by Randisi, 2003 (I think this one is also the first chapter of Piccirilli's novel Coffin Blues.)

"Tracking the Death Angel";
The Best of the American West II edited by Gorman and Greenberg, 1999

I recently re-read the “The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back” and I liked it better the second time than the first. If that’s possible. My only complaint. I need more Tom Piccirilli Western short stories. A novel or two wouldn’t be bad either.

And now the review...

Tom Piccirilli is best known as a horror writer, but he has published two western novels—Grave Men and Coffin Blues—and several western short stories. I recently read his western short story “The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back” and it had the same power as his best horror—the prose sharp as a dagger, the story literate, and very entertaining.

“Blood Beneath” is the story of Smoke, a Texas Ranger, who is hot on the tracks of two outlaws: rapists, murderers and overall bastards in the worst way. They left a child to die in the hot sun and raped her mother. Smoke quietly follows the outlaws across the open country of Texas until he hunts them down in the small town of Last Chance where he seeks justice and more than a little vengeance.

“The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back” is one of the best stories I have read this year—short story or novel. It has the feel of a 1970s Spaghetti western, and as I read I couldn’t help but picture Clint Eastwood with his quiet strength, compassion, and tough-as-nails exterior. Smoke is the champion of the downtrodden, the protector of the weak, and basically one tough dude—an anti-hero to root for. Mr. Piccirilli brings a solid story to life with a bare, stark, cynical and violent style. The opening is pitch perfect:

“Smoke found the dying child in the rocks about midday, gave her water and shade for the two hours she lasted, and buried her beneath a red plum bush.”

The power of the prose never lets up, and the story glides seamlessly to its inevitable conclusion. Mr. Piccirilli is a terrific writer who deserves a larger audience, and “The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back” not only gives hope to a shrinking genre, but is also one hell of a good tale.

“The Blood Beneath When the World Draws Back” was originally published in the anthology Texas Rangers—edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg--in 2004.

Friday, December 05, 2008

DEATH GROUND by Edward Gorman

Leo Guild is an aging bounty hunter. He is a former lawman, father and husband, but that is all behind him. Now he rides alone. He is melancholy, intelligent and violent; when he needs to be. He also has a past that sticks with him. He killed a little girl. The courts forgave him, but he can’t find the heart to forgive himself.

Death Ground opens on the evening of Guild’s 54th birthday. In lonely celebration he makes a date at the local brothel with a young “straw-haired” girl. Things don’t go as expected with the girl and his birthday truly turns for the worse when he is summoned to the Sherriff’s office.

Two men are dead. One—Merle Rig—hired Guild as a bodyguard and the other—Kenny Tolliver—was technically Guild’s employee. He hired Kenny to protect Rig while he paid a visit to the "straw-haired" girl. As he looks at the cadavers on the heavy mortician’s tables he figures his job is gone and it is time to ride on, but first he pays a visit to Kenny’s mother. A scene that unsettles Guild and also piques his interest; Kenny’s mother knew Rig and Kenny palled around with a couple local deputies.

Leo Guild decides he can’t leave town until he figures who really killed the pair and why. He has a feeling it is not the violent mountain man being blamed by the Sherriff, but he doesn’t have many suspects. He doesn’t have anything but a hunch, really.

Death Ground isn’t a traditional Western. It, like all of Gorman’s Westerns, is a noir mystery wrapped in the trappings of the Old West. That is not to say that the historical element isn’t accurate or interesting, because it is. It is also central to the story, but an Ed Gorman Western is more of a historical mystery than anything else. A hardboiled historical mystery at that.

The prose is tough and tender in varying shades. It defines the story, action, and protagonist with a lean, smart and melancholy and literate style:

“Then he started digging snow up with both hands, and he covered them good, the two of them, and then he stood up and looked out on the unfurling white land. There was blue sky and a full yellow sun. Warmer now, there was even that kind of sweetness that comes on sunny winter days. It made him think of pretty women on ice skates, their cheeks touched perfect red by the cold, their eyes daring and blue.”

Leo Guild is an everyman. He is the man who does what needs to be done. He isn’t a hero, or a villain, but rather he is simply a man; a man who has seen much, done much, and lost much. Guild is an example of what makes Ed Gorman’s fiction so damn good: characters that are measured and three-dimensional; characters that act, feel and sound real. His male characters are strong and pitiful, lustful and scared, vain and dangerous, lonely and weak—generally all at the same time—and more importantly they are recognizable. And his female characters exhibit the same steady qualities. Neither wholly good nor bad, just human.

Death Ground is a Western that should have wide appeal. It will please the traditionalist with its rugged description of frontier life and the people who settled it. It will also introduce readers of hardboiled crime fiction to a new genre, but mostly it will please any reader who wants something tangible and meaningful mixed into a well-told, excellently plotted and immensely entertaining novel.

This one is well worth searching out.

Death Ground is the second of three novels to feature bounty man Leo Guild. It was originally published by Donald M. Evans in 1988. The other two are: Guild (1987) and Blood Game (1989). I have also read Blood Game, and it is every bit as good as Death Ground. I can only imagine that Guild holds it own as well.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Meme: Authors New to Me

I was “tagged” and invited to play a little game by J. Kingston Pierce from The Rap Sheet—a pretty damn good blog that you should check out if you haven’t. The game? List the writers I was introduced to in 2008.

The rules are pretty simple: 1) The writer must be new to me, regardless of publication date; 2) bold the titles that were debut novels in 2008; 3) Tag some other people.

Here they are…in the order read.

Haggai Carmon – Triple Identity [Review]
David Gunn – Death’s Head
Gwen Freeman – Crazy Fool Kills Five [Review]
Sarah Pinborough – Breeding Ground [Review]
Bill Crider – Red, White, and Blue Murder [Review]
Dan Ronco – Unholy Domain [Review]
Robert Fate – Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption [Review]
Michael Norman – The Commission [Review]
Cody McFadyen – The Darker Side [Review]
I. Micheal Koontz – A Matter of Revenge (I just started this one.)

Now that I look at it, it’s an embarrassingly short list. Although there are a few gems; namely Red, White, and Blue Murder, Breeding Ground, The Commission, and Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption. But none of the books were duds, and I would happily pick up another title from any of these writers.

You probably noticed I broke the second rule; I bolded the title if it was a debut novel even if it wasn’t published in 2008. Opps.

Movie Trailer: STAR TREK

I’m a sucker for Star Trek films, and I really don’t know why. I’ve never been a big fan of the original series or any of the spin-offs, but the films, that’s another story. I like all of them; especially the last several TNG offerings.

The latest installment in the franchise is scheduled for release May 9, 2009. It is directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and stars Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Winona Ryder, Bruce Greenwood—the Nowhere Man, a series that should still be on—and Leonard Nimoy.

A pretty damn good cast. I hope it lives up to expectations.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"The Empty Manger" by Bill Crider

I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I love that I get a day off work. I love the stereotypical atmosphere of goodwill—I usually don’t see it, but I love the idea of it—the music (in small doses) and time spent with family and friends. And eggnog. Always eggnog.

The part of Christmas I don’t love so much are the crowds, both in stores and on the roads. The rush to buy junk no one wants. And the “me me” of the season. So to make-up for the all the bad stuff I usually lose myself in a few mystery stories with Christmas as a backdrop. My only rule—if I actually have one—is that Christmas should only be a backdrop and not the central theme of the story. So this year I thought I would share a few.

The first is a Sheriff Dan Rhodes Christmas primer. It is a novella length story titled “The Empty Manger.” Blacklin County, Texas isn’t a typical Christmas location. There are no white Christmases, it is warm and there probably aren’t many pine trees. But it is the type of rural county where the people are eccentric, there is always a perplexing crime, and enough humor and mystery to satisfy any reader.

The story begins when Sheriff Dan Rhodes is called to investigate the kidnapping of the baby Jesus doll from the manger scene in downtown Clearview. Clearview, like the rest of America, has a decaying and nearly abandoned downtown and one of the plans to attract more traffic to the area is a live manger—including a donkey and a few goats. The production is sponsored by the local First Baptist Church and when Rhodes arrives to investigate the missing Jesus he finds much more—namely the murdered body of Councilwoman Jerri Laxton, a proponent of the downtown revitalization plan, in the alley behind the abandoned furniture store next to the manger.

“The Empty Manger” is pure Dan Rhodes. It is a whodunit with style, humor, and just enough hardboiled action to carry the mystery. Sheriff Rhodes is an old style detective. He doesn’t rely on crime scene investigation or science to solve his crimes, but instead he talks to people and generally noses around until he finds a thread and then picks and pulls at it until the mystery unravels.

The supporting cast, as usual, is an eclectic mix of varying eccentricity. Rhodes is surrounded by bickering geriatrics, hostile romance writers, nosy young reporters, spiteful housewives, lonely widowers and a host of small town goofballs that not only make good suspects, but act as foils to Sheriff Rhodes. They tend to keep him in his place and whenever possible remind him of his failings, both past and present.

“The Empty Manger” is good and fun entertainment. It clocks in at 88 pages in paperback. It can easily be read in one sitting and it has everything that makes the Dan Rhodes series vibrant and it makes for a great escape from crowded super stores, clogged roads and cold weather.

“The Empty Manger” was published in the novella anthology Murder, Mayhem, and Mistletoe. It was released in 2001 by Worldwide and contains three additional novellas—“The Headless Magi” by Terence Faherty, “Christmas Cache” by Aileen Schumacker, and “Stocking Stuffer” by Wendi Lee.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

THE DARKER SIDE by Cody McFadyen

The Darker Side is different than the usual novel I read. It is a serial killer-novel—a genre that I jump into only occasionally—that focuses heavily on atmosphere and a dark philosophical interrogation of humanity and its vices.

Smoky Barrett is an FBI manhunter who has a very personal experience with death. Her family was killed as she helplessly watched. The experience scarred her, both physically and emotionally. This closeness with death, murder and loss is the reason Smoky is chosen to investigate the murder of a transsexual. The victim is the child of a powerful senator; a senator who comes from a socially conservative state and could lose everything if the investigation turns out wrong.

The victim was murdered on a commercial airliner. No one witnessed it, or even knew it happened until a flight attendant tried to wake her after the jetliner landed. It doesn’t take long for Smoky to realize it is the work of a serial-killer, and she and her team try to walk the tightrope between political pressure, real-world agonies, and the job at hand.

I have mixed feelings about The Darker Side. The atmosphere is rich and dark—it (the atmosphere) reminded me of the Chris Carter television series “Millennium”—but the crime seemed forced and, at times, unbelievable. It, at times, felt like a locked-door mystery for the “CSI” generation.

The protagonist and narrator—Smoky Barrett—made for a likable character and the narrative was smoothly cool in a soft dream-like style:

“There are trees everywhere, young and old. Their sheer volume tells me they are cherished by this city, and I can see why. Fall is an actual season in Alexandria, Virginia. The leaves are on the turn and, well—it’s pretty spectacular.”

The description, at times, is overwhelming. The author uses multiple pages to introduce Smoky’s team, and there is a scene towards the beginning of the novel where a major players reveals he is gay that is overly traumatic and downright unbelievable. But as the story unraveled I found that the excesses bothered me less and less, and that I liked Smoky Barrett more and more.

The Darker Side's true power is its ideas—guilt, sin, absolution and redemption. And in the end it is the ideas, the atmosphere, and the protagonist that carry the novel to its conclusion.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movie Trailer: Dark Streets

I stumbled across a trailer for an upcoming independent film titled Dark Streets. It is based on a play by Glenn M. Stewart. It looks pretty good. A little too much like Chicago, but one can always hope it is better. It was written by Wallace King and directed by Rachel Samuels. It is scheduled for a limited release December 2005. It might be one worth checking out.

The description at Yahoo!Movies reads:

Chaz Davenport is a dashing bachelor who owns what promises to become the hottest new nightclub in town--if only the lights would stay on. Surrounded by the sumptuous blues music he adores, and with his pick of the gorgeous women who perform their sensual dance numbers onstage every night, Chaz is the envy of every man. But with the city thrown into darkness by frequent blackouts and a menacing loan shark closing in, Chaz is in danger of losing the club--and far more. At the same time, he finds himself embroiled in a love triangle with the club's alluring star singer, Crystal, and a new arrival at the club--the mysterious and seductive chanteuse Madelaine. When people close to Chaz begin turning up dead, he doesn't know where to turn or whom to trust. And the harder he tries to uncover the truth, the further he's drawn into the darkness of lies and betrayal--a darkness as black as the city's streets during yet another power outage. Welcome to the Blues.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"The Short and Simple Annals" by Dan J. Marlowe

Toland is a convict. He is in the fourth year of a ride for armed robbery. The first few months in the joint he was a trouble-maker, but over the last few years he has settled into a routine. He even earned a job in the welding-shop.

That is where he is—the welding-shop—when he is summoned to the warden’s office. When he arrives the warden is unusually cordial and the detective who put him away is quietly sitting in the corner. It doesn’t take a genius to figure something is up. He is nervous until the warden tells him another criminal took responsibility for the job he was convicted. And then he knows what’s up: He is free. And Toland knows exactly what he is going to do on the outside.

“The Short and Simple Annals” is the first Dan J. Marlowe short story I have read and I was absolutely wowed. The plot was perfectly executed with one more twist than expected. The language was fluid, hardboiled, and simply stylish:

“I’d just come out from under the welding hood and was inspecting a silver seam intended to staunch a leak in a battered radiator when “Fat” Carson, the welding-shop hack, touched me on the arm. “You’re wanted in the warden’s office, Toland,” he said. He led the way to the door, unlocking it and then carefully relocking it behind us, observing the regular procedure.”

The tension and suspense are ratcheted tighter from paragraph to paragraph, and the mystery is compelling and surprising. When I figured I had the ending nailed Mr. Marlowe pulled the rug out.

“The Short and Simple Annals” is a gem of a hardboiled story. It is an unusual take on the revenge story, and it is a reminder that it is the things we forget that put us in a jam. And it is very much worth seeking out.

“The Short and Simple Annals” was originally published in 1964. I read it in Alfred Hitchcock’s Noose Report published in 1966 by Dell.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Google's LIFE images: Rex Stout

A great feature has been unveiled over at Google; "millions" of photographs from the LIFE archives are online and very viewable. It's really cool. Another distraction to keep me from my work. And the photos...very cool.

A great photograph I plundered of mystery legend Rex Stout. Is that an orchid?

Hubble Space Images: Uranus

It has been awhile since I have posted any Hubble Telescope photographs. Too long, in my mind. I love looking at the beauty that Hubble captures in the cosmos. The distant galaxies, nebulas, stars, universes, and even the less exotic images from our own solar system. Today my imagination was captured by the cold beauty of Uranus. It is the seventh planet from the sun, and its blue texture is captivating and lights my imagination with the dreams and visions of Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and the other great hard science fiction writers. It is truly beautiful. And now I will let the photographs speak for themselves...

Uranus with its rings visible

Uranus and its dark spot

Uranus and one of its five major moons Ariel

Bright Clouds and Uranus

Monday, November 17, 2008


The other evening I was reading when I stumbled across a new word: Robotnik. It is Russian for worker, and the name of a Moscow club in the novel I was reading. My steel-trap mind immediately connected the word to robot. A word that I have always associated with Isaac Asimov; and again, I thought, that makes sense. Asimov was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a child.

Well I did a little research and I discovered that I was in error about Asimov’s creation of the word robot, as far as its use as a term to describe a mechanical man. He did use the base to coin the term robotics, but robot was actually first used in the play RUR written by Karel Capek. I can almost hear you groan, what’s the difference. Well, according to Dictionary.com quite a bit and not much, all at the same time.


1. a machine that resembles a human and does mechanical, routine tasks on command.

2. a person who acts and responds in a mechanical, routine manner, usually subject to another's will; automaton.

3. any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill.

4. operating automatically: a robot train operating between airline terminals.


–noun (used with a singular verb)

the use of computer-controlled robots to perform manual tasks, esp. on an assembly line.

The major difference is the human creation of the functioning machine. Robotics stresses the idea of computer-control and human servitude; humans program, design, study and create in robotics. While a robot is something that is machine-like and not necessarily created by humanity. It can actually be used to describe a person and therefore it is not under the control or supervision of humanity, but rather something slightly less than human but very much more than a machine; something to fear.

The idea of robot is given a sinister cast when its root word robotnik is defined. Robotnik is a Czech word related to robota; which means compulsory labor. And robotnik is the peasant or serf who owes that said labor. The life of a robot is quite dreary based on the words used to describe and explain it. It’s also something to fear. The Czar discovered that in a rush some 90 years ago.

Click Here to read more about the play RUR
Click Here to go to the Dictionary.com definition of robot, and Here for robotics

Friday, November 14, 2008

VENGEANCE IS MINE by William W. Johnstone & Fred Austin

John Stark is an aging Texas rancher. He is a veteran of Vietnam and a man who is concerned about the illegal drug trafficking across the US-Mexican border. His concern escalates to outright war against the traffickers when his friend and fellow rancher is brutally tortured and murdered by a Mexican drug cartel. His crusade takes him across the border to a wild strip-club where he finds a few of the men responsible for the murder and then his war quickly finds him. He enlists the help of a his neighbors and hunkers down to face everything the Mexican gang has to throw at him—and it includes hired guns, crooked cops, and a government that is less than pleased with his fight.

Vengeance is Mine is an enjoyable thriller that is well-paced and interesting—I learned a little about Texas geography and even something about US-Mexico border security. The protagonist is an interesting mix of larger-than-life hero and flawed gentleman. He slips from exuberant competence to self-doubt and blame without seeming weak or contrived. The style is something just a little different from most modern thrillers—it has a certain hardboiled and gritty mentality—

“The air was thick with tobacco and marijuana smoke, along with sharp tangs of whiskey, beer, and cheap perfume.”

The plot is interesting and well executed. Its major weakness is the abundance of over-the-top political overtures—the sum of the United States’ (and the world’s) problems can be blamed on a cabal of liberal Senators. An argument that even in the subtext of the novel felt tired and paranoid, but if you can get past that Vengeance is Mine is really a pretty damn good novel.

A NOTE. As a teenager I loved the idea of Johnstone’s novels; particularly his adventure stuff. It was always populated with angry survivalists who had the foresight and courage to see the coming disaster and survive it, but while the plots intrigued me the execution and style always left me disappointed and wanting. I must have started ten or more of his novels before I completely gave up on his work.

When I heard the novels under his byline were being written by other writers I was intrigued. These “collaborations” seemed to be an ideal solution to the Johnstone problem—all promise and no delivery—and some of them might even be pretty good. Vengeance is Mine is certainly cast from the Johnstone formula: the lone man as both outcast and savior of society mixed with a bevy of right-wing propaganda. The difference: It delivered. The quality of the writing was significantly better, the tone and style was more lucid and interesting, as was the execution of the plot.

The point? Besides abusing a dead man? Vengeance is Mine is worth taking a look at. It will appeal to fans of the original writer as well as new readers who avoided Johnstone's writing, or were never introduced to it. I know I plan to read another one.

UPDATE: 15-Nov-2008

When I re-read this review I was struck that I was a little harder on Mr. Johnstone's work than I intended to be. I didn't mean to question his talent or the product he produced other than to say that, subjectively, I was generally a little disappointed in it. One of the reasons is that I read one of his novels in the early-1990s and absolutely loved it; its title What the Heart Knows. It was a beautifully written love story very much like The Bridges of Madison County. A type of story that I don't generally read, but Johnstone's take on the "love-lost" story was compelling and interesting and I have judged the rest of his work based on this novel. Something that is probably unfair to both the writer and his work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Trailer: THE DUMA KEY by Stephen King

It’s been awhile since I’ve found a good book trailer; probably more that I haven’t been looking all that hard and less that there aren’t any out there. I’ve been eyeing Stephen King’s latest paperback the last few days and I found a book trailer for it over at YouTube. It looks great.

Now I just need to read the book.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Hardboiled" by Tim Maleeny

Carver is a partner in a two-man private investigation firm. He is alone in the office when a new client walks in the door. She wants Carver to find her husband, a man who is missing, sort of. A fact the woman is hesitant to reveal and it takes some patient and fancy interrogation work for Carver to get at exactly what she wants.

"Hardboiled" is a play on the hardboiled detective story. The opening paragraph creates the scene perfectly:

"Some women just looked like trouble. This one didn't, which should have been the first clue."

Mr Maleeny takes the built-in expectations of the genre and cleverly, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, twists a story that surprises and satisfies the reader simply because it builds and breaks the stereo-types. He takes the expected and turns it against the reader.

"Hardboiled" is short--three digest-sized pages--and very fun. I didn't guess the climax until the author wanted me to and when it ended I had a smile on my face. This is my first exposure to Tim Maleeny's work, but it won't be the last. He is the author of three novels: Stealing the Dragon, Beating the Babushka, and the forthcoming Greasing the Pinata.

"Hardboiled" is in the most recent issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; January 2009. EQMM is the premier magazine of short mystery fiction and this issue is a good example of why. It contains stories that run the gamut between classical whodunit-style mystery to hardboiled American. It contains original stories by Andrew Klavan, Simon Brett, Doug Allyn, Robert Barnard, Gary Cahill among others, and a reprint by Edward D. Hoch.

If you haven't read EQMM you should, and this issue would be a great place to start. It doesn't hurt that the cover art is wonderful.

Friday, November 07, 2008

NIGHT OF THUNDER by Stephen Hunter

Night of Thunder is the fifth novel to feature Vietnam sniper Bob Lee Swagger. The first three—Point of Impact, Black Light and Time to Hunt—were published in the mid- to late-1990s. The series was seemingly over when last year saw the release of a film—Shooter—based on Point of Impact and a new novel The 47th Samurai, which sent an aging Bob Lee to Japan on an errand of honor for his long deceased father.

The two recent titles are a departure in style from Swagger’s roots. The novels are shorter and a have cartoonish literary flair; the prose is hipper, and the plots are looser and much larger than life. The style of the early novels was very much in the mold of the 1980s Tom Clancy-style thriller; long, vast amounts of technical information, a wide stage, and an unhurried pace. It should be noted that Hunter’s work has always featured strong action and solid pacing, something many of Clancy’s novels, particularly his later work, did not showcase. I favor the three earlier novels in the Swagger saga, but that’s not to say Night of Thunder or The 47th Samurai aren’t enjoyable, because both are entertaining modern thrillers.

Nikki Swagger, Bob Lee’s daughter, is a police reporter for the Bristol Courier-Herald. It is her first job out of college and she is hot on the trail of a story about the rampant methamphetamine trade when late one evening she is knocked off the road in a hit and run. When Bob is notified of the accident his daughter is in a coma and the doctors are uncertain when Nikki will come out of it. Bob Lee is concerned not only for the life of his daughter, but for the rest of his family as well. It could be what it’s reported, a simple hit and run, or it could be payback from his past.

When he arrives in Bristol Bob hires the Pinkertons to protect his daughter and then starts his own one-man investigation. He traverses the city—in the throes of a major NASCAR event—and the backwoods to discover what happened to his daughter. He confronts a publicity-seeking Sheriff, a cult-like religious crime family, a NASCAR race team, and bunches of rednecks in his search. He also expends a few rounds of ammunition and gets in more than one fight.

Night of Thunder is an enjoyable thriller that, while not to the standards of the early novels, is packed with action and a sense of urgency. Bob Lee is his tough warrior self prone to do things alone and hard. He is good with a gun and still pretty good without one as well. The prose, at times, has a cool lyrical quality:

“It was that old-time religion, fierce and haunted, harsh, unforgiving. It was Baptist fire and brimstone, his father’s fury and anguish, it was Negroes in church, afeared of the flames of hell, it was the roar of a hot, primer-gray V8 ‘Cuda in the night, as good old boys in sheets raised their own particular kind of hell, driven by white lightning or too much Dixie or too much hate, it was the South arising under red snapping of the flag of the Confederacy.”

The plot is swiftly executed with a sure hand. There are no loose-ends, but there are a few plot twists that rely too heavily on coincidence and at least one that was incredulous; a problem with many modern thrillers. I guessed the major twist less than halfway through the novel, but the writing and action was strong enough to keep the story interesting and fresh.

Night of Thunder is not one of Stephen Hunter’s best, but it isn’t bad either. If you enjoy a wild and bigger-than-life thriller that flies straight, hard, and fast with a hero that can hold his own in a fight—a throw back to the old West gunfighter, really—you will want to read this one.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

In Memorium: Michael Crichton

I learned last night that Michael Crichton died from complications of cancer. Crichton was one of a handful of writers that I read voraciously as a teenager. His later work tended to straddle the line between science fiction and thriller. His earlier work was made of slim 1970s-style thrillers, two of which have been re-published by Hard Case Crime over the past few years.

I read everything Crichton published up through the mid-1990s. I would anxiously mark the calendar when one of his novels would be published; I would mark it about a year later when the mass market paperback would be released because I could never afford the hardcover. Jurrasic Park was a big novel that carried punch and I remember being mesmerized by the world Mr Crichton created. I carried it everywhere hoping I would get time to read a page or two.

My favorites of his novels are Grave Descend and The Great Train Robbery, with Binary as a close third for one simple reason. It is the first novel I read with a scene in Utah. It was a short scene on a train leaving the Dugway Proving Grounds in the desert just west of Salt Lake City. I loved it. Mr Crichton and his work will be missed.

Here is an interview Mr Crichton did with Charlie Rose. It is long clocking in at 57 minutes, but it reveals Mr Crichton as intelligent—if his work isn’t indication enough—and interesting.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Horseshoe Springs

I'm feeling a little shaky this morning; too much work, too much coffee, and not nearly enough sleep or peace. A few weeks ago my wife and I went out on the West Desert; a place that has a certain magnificent desolation. It is nothing like the bad lands in Southern Utah, but it is nonetheless a place we visit often in the cooler months to escape the city, people, and even our own existence for a few hours.

So this morning I went through a few photographs of the trip and found this one of a small spring in Skull Valley called Horseshoe Springs. I thought it was especially peaceful and relaxing. I think I could look into this window on a different place for hours. I can almost see the trout lurking in the shadows, jumping at bugs, and the feel of the autumn sun gently warm against my face.

Friday, October 31, 2008

THE COMMISSION by Michael Norman

I have never found a mystery novel set in my native Salt Lake City very compelling, and surprisingly there have been a few. The best was Stephen White’s Higher Authority, which I enjoyed and really had some pretty accurate and colorful local scenery. Unfortuantely it is the exception. The others were pretty drab and uninteresting. The worst was a lazy effort by Thomas H. Cook titled Tabernacle. It was written pretty well, but it also showcased Cook’s lack of knowledge about the culture and even the geography of the place. There was also a private eye series that starred the moronically named Moroni Traveler written by Robert Irvine. The scenery and setting were an improvement, but the character and mystery were both lacking.

I have always wondered why mystery writers stay away from Utah. Sure it sounds uninteresting, but under the placid white shirts and black suits, the prim cleanliness and façade of wholesomeness resides the same decay and rot of any culture. Salt Lake City is a major hub of the Mexican drug trade. There is the sinister grip of the Mormon Church on local politics. There is polygamy, murder, rape, and above all else the tendency of financial fraud—Salt Lake City is the smallest American city with its own FBI fraud office. And the politicians are as seedy, corrupt, and nasty as anywhere else. One of our Senators actually employed E. Howard Hunt during the Watergate years.

Needless to say when I learned there is a local writer—Michael Norman—producing a Salt Lake City-based police procedural series I was intrigued. The first novel, of two so far, is titled The Commission. It is a slim volume published by Poisoned Pen Press and amazingly it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The cast consists of two cops. The first, and the narrator, is Special Investigations Branch of the Utah Department of Corrections Chief Sam Kinkaid. The second is the stunningly beautiful and always competent Salt Lake City detective Lt. Kate McConnell.

When the son of a local and very powerful businessman is gunned down in the driveway of his home in an exclusive neighborhood Lt Kate McConnell is tapped to lead the investigation. Kincaid is called in because the victim—Levi Vogue—was the Chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole. It doesn’t take long for the pair to discover Vogue led a less than ideal Mormon lifestyle; he was a philanderer who enjoyed strip clubs and hookers. The two detectives quickly find themselves walking a tight line between an escalating criminal investigation and a deepening political quagmire that threatens not only their careers, but potentially their lives as well.

The Commission is an enjoyable straight-forward procedural. It is written in first person with an occasional, and not too annoying, switch to third person. The setting is well drawn—while Mr Norman doesn’t quite capture the nuances of local life, he does make a good attempt that is more than just throwing out names and places. There are a few scenes in the small Casino border town of Wendover that are particularly well drawn. The cast is broad and the victim and his family are easily compared to a local clan that claims the current Governor as one of its own.

The plot is straight forward and unmarred by any jolting twists. I did guess the conclusion no more than one-third of the way into the novel, but it really didn’t bother me. The narrative is clear and readable and there is enough tension and suspense to keep things interesting.

The Commission is the best mystery novel I have read set in Salt Lake City. It is quick, believable, and very entertaining. It is certainly good enough that I plan to search out the second in the series.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

2008 Halloween Film Festival

October is winding down. The days are shortening, the shadows are lengthening, the temperatures cooling and the leaves are changing from green life to the dashing colors of death. And, best of all, Halloween is quickly approaching. A holiday that I treasure as much as any holiday—it is part sentimental and part adult anticipation. It is the unofficial end—at my house anyway—of the summer season and the beginning of the season of hibernation.

As I mentioned in a previous post my wife and I watch a horror movie each Sunday in October to celebrate the coming of Halloween. There is no real preparation for the films other than selecting a broad array of horror films from the library and video stores to choose from and then simply picking one and watching it Sunday evening.

This October has been the season of Richard Matheson. Of the six films—we slipped a few extra into the schedule—three have been based on novels by Mr Matheson. And all three were pretty good; I have my favorite, but none were complete bums. The films represent the modern-era of Hollywood. The oldest was released in 1964 and the latest was released in 2006.

October 4. We watched the recent release BUG. It was a modern tale of paranoia and fear. It was a well made film that shouted low budget. It was filmed in one small place—a cheap and decaying motel room. It was enjoyable and thought provoking, but at moments felt a little flat. I wrote a review of this one earlier in the month. Click Here.

October 10—this is one of the extras. It was a chilly Saturday night and we decided to cheat and watch an old horror film instead of going out. We made the right decision. Last Man On Earth was released in 1964. It stars Vincent Price, was directed by Ubaldo Ragona, and based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Of the three films made from I Am Legend, Last Man on Earth is the most faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

Vincent Price admirably brings the protagonist Robert Neville to life—for some reason his name is changed to Robert Morgan in the film. He is alone in his home. His wife and child are gone, and the marauding vampires call his name at night as they circle and try to get through the walls of the building. His days are lonely and long, until he discovers he is not the last man.

Last Man on Earth is a great film with more meaning than is expected from an old low budget black and white from the 1960s. Very much recommended.

October 11. This was a two film night. The first was a short slasher movie titled The Descent. It was probably the weakest of our Halloween films. The opening thirty minutes felt like a Richard Laymon novel—a diverse group of women get together once a year for an adventure. They are smart-alecky, attractive, brave and scared. I really enjoyed the opening, but the film devolved into mindless violence and gore.

It was written and directed by Neil Marshall. I don’t know this, but it felt like a foreign film aimed directly at an American audience. It was released in 2005.

The second horror special of the night was “Sounds Like” from Masters of Horror. This is the best episode from the uneven Showtime series I’ve seen. It was written and directed by Brad Anderson. It first aired in 2006. If you haven’t seen this one, you should. I wrote a detailed review last year. Click Here.

October 18. We watched the second of three films based on Richard Matheson’s work. Stir of Echoes is an updated adaptation of the novel by the same name. Kevin Bacon plays the role of Tom Wallace—again the protagonists name is changed to Tom Witzky in the film. The adaptation is loose, but faithful to the ideal and concept of the novel. There are a few startling and chilling moments; the climax is predictable, but fun.

Stir of Echoes was adapted and directed by David Koepp. It’s an enjoyable film that, if you leave your expectations at the door, is enjoyable, quick and a little unsettling. It was released in 1999.

October 25. The Legend of Hell House. This is one of the films that I really anticipated watching this October. It is based on the novel by Richard Matheson and also adapted by Mr Matheson. It was originally released in 1973. It is a traditional ghost story with a twist of modern technology thrown in. As I watched the film—I have yet to read the novel—I was struck by how closely it resembles several more recent ghost stories, the most notable Stephen King’s Rose Red.

The Legend of Hell House is the story of four people who are hired to enter an old mansion that is proven to be haunted; a scientist and his wife and two mediums. They are paid a large sum to stay for four days and interpret what they see. It is a well made film that doesn’t feel its age, or even of the 1970s. There is nothing overly gothic about it and there are even a few legitimate scares. It is very probably my favorite film of the Halloween 2008 Film Festival.

October has been a great month, and I can’t wait to see what is on tap for the evening itself. Here is to a wonderful and eventful—the good kind of events—Halloween at your house too.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman, R.I.P.

We’ve lost another wonderful writer. This time it is Tony Hillerman who wrote the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels along with several stand alone novels. I first read Hillerman in the late-1980s and then, like so many of the authors of my youth, I lost track of his work until about four years ago when I read Skinwalkers. The Navajo tribal range never seemed as stark, as likable, or so much like home before Mr Hillerman brought it to life with his skill and talent.

He will be missed.

Here is the opening Marylin Stasio’s obituary in the International Herald Tribune (The New York Times):

Tony Hillerman, whose lyrical, authentic and compelling mystery novels set among the Navajos of the Southwest blazed innovative trails in the American detective story, died Sunday at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, The Associated Press reported.

He was 83 and lived in Albuquerque.

The cause was pulmonary failure, according to the AP report.

Click Here to read it all.

Friday, October 24, 2008

SNOWBOUND by Bill Pronzini

Hidden Valley is a beautiful mountain town that in summer is awash with tourists, but in winter is home to only 74 residents. The Christmas season is in full swing, which at Hidden Valley means the tourists are gone, the streets are empty, and the snow is piling up. There is only one highway that connects the village with the outside world and it runs through a treacherous pass.

The residents are hunkered down and enjoying the quiet, solitary winter. The village is aglow with the season:

“Mantled with a smooth sheen of snow, decorated with tinsel and giant plastic candy canes and strings of colored lights, the tiny mountain village looked both idyllic and vaguely fraudulent, like a movie set carefully erected for a remake of White Christmas.”

The country store, the restaurant and the other small businesses along Sierra Street are quiet as the town waits for an impending storm. What they don’t know is that three strangers are coming with the bad weather and one of them plans to violently take the town hostage. And when an avalanche blocks the pass he effectively, violently and insanely puts his plan in motion.

Snowbound is an early Bill Pronzini novel. It was originally published in 1974 and it has all the earmarks of a 1970s thriller—the prose is sharp with a medium-boiled style, the plot is quick without any tricky gimmicks, the characters are developed with just enough backstory to make them interesting, and the length is perfect: 313 pages in mass market. It doesn’t hurt that you can feel the heavy brown polyester pants clinging to the characters like a talisman against the future. Perfect, really.

The protagonists—a small group of townies—are well painted and one, a stranger to the town, is downright sympathetic and likable. But the power of the story rests with the development and believability of the villain. He is an unlikable man with a feverish insanity that Mr Pronzini develops and enhances as the novel progresses. He, and the other two outlaws are perfect for the story, and they help elevate Snowbound from the pedestrian to the pretty damn good.

The suspense is expertly increased with a measured pace from the idyllic and peaceful opening scenes of life in Hidden Valley to a botched robbery in Sacramento to the violent climax. The early scenes in the village are developed much like a small town horror story; a slow build-up to a known—by the reader—and unavoidable collision with a sinister, almost evil, force.

Snowbound is a novel that would translate very well into a hardboiled film, either as an updated version or in its historical context. Its force and impact have diminished little over the thrity-four years since its original publication. It is not on the par of Pronzini’s recent work—specifically the character development and the unique sense of place—but it is a well-written and entertaining novel that will appeal to anyone who enjoys their thrillers crisp, tight and to the point.

Snowbound was recently—last December—reissued by the terrific small press Stark House Press. It was issued in trade paperback with another early Pronzini novel Games. A novel that I haven’t read, but is on my list.

Other Gravetapping reviews of Bill Pronzini's work:

"The Winning Ticket"; October 4, 2008
The Crimes of Jordan Wise; August 2, 2007

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rat Pack Film Update

Some cool news from Robert Randisi about the film deal he made for his first Rat Pack novel Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime. He wrote the screenplay and in an email he said it “was a blast.” And it seems like a novel that should translate to film quite well.

The project was recently featured in Variety.

Randisi solves 'Rat Pack Mysteries'
Hackett options first novel 'Everybody Kills'


In a move that features life and art imitating each other like a dog chasing its tail, Sandy Hackett has optioned Robert Randisi’s novel, “Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime,” the first of Randisi’s “Rat Pack Mysteries” featuring the eponymous Hollywood bad boys.

Hackett, son of late comedian Buddy Hackett, created “The Rat Pack Is Back” tribute revue at Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel. He met Randisi when the author was researching the Pack in 2007, and the two struck a pact this summer.

“Everybody” is set in 1960 when the storied showbiz gang (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Bishop) was shooting “Ocean’s 11” during the day and headlining the Sands’ Copa Room at night.

The tale finds Randisi’s protagonist, pit-boss Eddie Gianelli, summoned to look into a series of death threats against Martin.

“The Rat Pack were drinking before there was alcoholism, smoking before cancer, and having sex before AIDS,” says Hackett. Still, he adds, “There is a romanticism about them.”

With Randisi set to deliver the screenplay —his first — by year’s end, Hackett, who also co-exec-produced the 2007 horror film “Portal,” hopes to roll cameras by the first quarter of 2010.

It’s not too early, however, for Randisi to muse on who might make a good bigscreen Sinatra: “If Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr.. read Variety, I’d like them to get in touch with me.”

Click Here to go to the article at Variety.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fresh Air Interview with Charles Ardai

Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai was interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air. It originally aired May 5, 2008, and it was rebroadcast yesterday. I didn’t catch it on the original air date, but I sure did yesterday and it was extremely enjoyable.

Mr. Ardai was articulate, intelligent, and overall very impressive. His knowledge of the pulp era authors and titles is vast, as proven by the selection of reprints he has selected for HCC. He also divulged a significant amount of personal information, including that he is the son of two Holocaust survivors. Overall I was as impressed with his wit and poise as I am with the novels he writes and publishes.

Do yourself a favor and track over to the NPR website and listen. It runs about 30 minutes. Click Here to go there directly.

A Note: Ardai's novel Songs of Innocence won the Shamus Award for best paperback original earlier this month. To see the entire list of winners over at Bob Randisi's PWA blog click Here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A STIR OF ECHOES by Richard Matheson

A few years ago I read an interview with Richard Matheson where he categorically denied being a horror writer. At the time I thought it was simply a case of him being uppity because he is absolutely known as a writer of horror fiction. I also wasn’t well-read on Matheson’s work. I had experienced only a few of his novels and a handful of his short stories and I had certainly never seriously analyzed it beyond the point of: That was cool.

Over the past few months I have more intimately acquainted myself with his work. I have read several dozen of his short stories and two of his novels—The Incredible Shrinking Man and A Stir of Echoes—and I have to agree with Mr Matheson. He is not simply a writer of horror. His work certainly contains elements of horror and terror, but it is also something much more. It is a study of the human condition. It illuminates humanity and, his early work especially, opens a vivid and stunning window on Cold War American suburbia.

A great example of Matheson’s view on Cold War America is his novel A Stir of Echoes. The plot is definitely speculative—Tom Wallace, after he is hypnotized in a parlor game at a neighborhood party, is endowed with a perception that allows him to read the thoughts of others and vividly see into the near future. This new ability is seemingly attached to a woman who visits Tom’s house in the quiet hours of the night. She is dressed in a black dress and Tom has no other explanation than she is a ghost and she desperately wants something from Tom.

While the ghost element is what pulls the story, it is the human element that creates the power and longevity of the work. It is set in suburban Southern California in the 1950s and Mr Matheson, with a seeming simplicity, paints a vivid and complex portrait of the American dream. The neighbors are genuine: they are living, breathing individuals who, on the outside, love, dream, and live. It is this surface that Tom is able to see and understand in the beginning, but as the story develops along with his psychic abilities the neighbors are revealed in a much deeper sense—he can see their lust, hate, depression, fear, anger and all the broiling complexity that is humanity.

A Stir of Echoes is written in Richard Matheson’s effective and understated prose style. The dialogue is strong and it has the sound and texture of reality. It is technically a ghost story, but it is much more. There is a well-developed mystery with a subtle flow of paranoia and fear; a paranoia that is very closely related to the Cold War-era itself. It is multi-layered and can be read as both an immensely entertaining novel as well as a work of illuminative literature. It is dark, but it also develops a strain of hope as it reaches its climax. It is a literary work that has already survived past its own generation, and it well very likely remain relevant and read well beyond the current generation of readers. As it, and much of Richard Matheson’s work, should.

A Stir of Echoes was originally published in 1958 and it has a stylistic and thematic relationship with Matheson’s short story “The Distributor,” which was also published that same year. The stories are different in the way each is told, but the subtleties of meaning and the relationship of the individual to society are similar. Each story casts humanity in a dark light, but each also develops a sense of hope and triumph—“The Distributor” in a much murkier and less clear manner. If you want the full impact of A Stir of Echoes find and read “The Distributor” first and then analyze and compare the two as opposite sides of the same coin.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack Higgins

Ed Gorman, on his blog, wrote a terrific review of an old title—The Wrath of God—by Jack Higgins. Higgins is best known for the few dozen bestsellers he has written over the last thirty years, but he also had a pretty terrific (some would say better, so far as quality is concerned) output of novels from the late-1950s to the mid-1970s. His early stuff was comprised of slim adventure thrillers that, word-for-word, are as exciting and well-written as any thriller ever published.

His Paul Chavasse novels, a James Bond-like spy, made the Bond novels look boring and redundant and boring, and his other work was just as good. A few of the better titles are: Savage Day, East of Desolation, In the Hour Before Midnight, A Game for Heroes, The Khufra Run, and a dozen others I’m forgetting. The basic idea is, if it is a Jack Higgins title that was published pre-The Eagle Has Landed it is going to be a treat. And honestly most everything Higgins wrote pre-Sean Dillon days—which comes out to anything published before 1993 (the first Sean Dillon novel was published in 1992, but it wasn’t bad; Dillon was the villain) is pretty good.

I’m getting carried away. I meant this to be a short and simple post about the review Gorman wrote and the small discussion it started over on his blog. To read the review and the discussion thread go Here.

I also found a couple interviews with Higgins—his real name is Harry Patterson—that I thought were quite interesting. There is one on the website of his publisher where he explains why Sean Dillon didn’t die at the conclusion of Eye of the Storm. It was a weak ending and started a series that should never have been. Of course it has probably netted Mr. Higgins a few million dollars…that’s why I’m not in the publishing business. I don’t know what sells or why it sells. Anyway, here is Higgins’ response:

"However, at the end of the book [Eye of the Storm], the good guys pursued him to a French chateau where he was shot dead. When my wife read the final chapter, when I said, "hey, it's finished. What do you think?" she threw it back at me and said, "The readers will hate you because you've created this very unusual character: very strong, very interesting, full of humour and wit and Irishness and so on, and they're going to be angry with you". I said, "Well, what are you suggesting?" She said, "Let him survive and just walk away in the snow in the night".

"So I went and rewrote the final chapter, so when he was shot he was wearing a titanium waistcoat, which, of course, stops rounds going through but knocks you out. He was lying on the floor unconscious, the good guys left him there for French intelligence to do the cleaning up and, of course, Dillon came to. And he walked away through the snow into the night."

And the legacy began. I also stumbled across a few other interviews that were pretty good and you can find the links below. He is a terrific writer and his early work is absolutely awesome. These interviews remind me how much I like his stuff. I might even try another Sean Dillon book.

Shots Magazine
BBC, this one is partially written and partially audio
Times Online

Saturday, October 11, 2008

KISS HER GOODBYE by Allan Guthrie

A couple of years ago I wrote a few reviews and a short story for an online magazine called Adventure Fiction Magazine. It was a magazine devoted to adventure fiction, specifically Robert E. Howard-type fantasy. It was short lived, but I had a good time writing for it. One of the reviews I wrote was for Allan Guthrie's terrific hardboiled Kiss Her Goodbye. A novel that really opened my eyes to the new movement in modern crime fiction. I'm a little slow sometimes.

The movement recaptured the essentials of the old hardboiled noir that permeated the paperback market of the late-1940s, 50s, and 60s, which was an evolution of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s; a subject for which I'm far from expert. The movement has caught the attention of critics and readers alike, and its strong and uncompromising style kills me. I absolutely love it. So here is my review of Kiss Her Goodbye. It is one of the first reviews I wrote (which is the nice way of saying it's not one of my best), but it still sums up my feelings about Guthrie's entertaining novel.

Noir is back. The new line of crime novels published by Hard Case Crime, a partnership between Charles Ardai, Max Phillips and Dorchester Publishing, has brought the 1950s style paperback original, complete with alluring, colorful cover art and stark, dark stories of the noir era back into the mainstream. Hard Case has published eight novels to date, four original, and four classic noir reprints.

The latest original novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, arrived in bookstores in early March. It is written by Scottish writer Allan Guthrie. It is Guthrie’s second published novel—the first was Two-Way Split—and you will not be disappointed. If you like your action swift, your violence fast, your women tough and your men hard, you will love Kiss Her Goodbye. It is pure noir. The description is short and blunt. The dialogue is crisp and the characters are, to put it simply, anything but heroic.

This gritty thriller is the story of Joe Hope. He is a collector for an Edinburgh loan shark named Cooper–Cooper also made a brief appearance in Guthrie’s debut novel. Hope is a rudderless man who lives for nothing more than the thrill of collecting and a night spent at the pub, but all that changes in a flash when his daughter kills herself and his wife is murdered. It’s an understatement to say Joe is angry, but he also finds himself as the prime suspect for the murder of his wife. He goes on the run to solve the puzzle; he has to figure out who he can trust, why his wife was killed, who set him up, and then how to get payback.

The prose is written with a rapid fire pace that keeps the story cruising along. It is quick, concise and brutal:

“Bile rose in his throat. He stood up and spewed all over the carpet. He doubled up. Folded to his knees. Puked once more. His guts hurt. His damaged ribs were throbbing again.”

The sentences are short. The storyline is well constructed and executed with the precision of a craftsman. This is the new noir: tough, hard and fast as a bullet. The pace is unrelenting and the plotting strong.

Kiss Her Goodbye is not for the squeamish. The language is coarse. The story is violent. The characters are difficult to like, but it is a masterpiece of noir. It is dark, dreary and real. This one is better than Guthrie’s first, and I’m betting his next will be better still.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


We have an annual Halloween tradition at my house. We choose a different horror film to watch each Sunday evening in October. There are no rules. The films range from slasher to quiet to psychological, and from old titles to recent releases. The films can be television originals, small budget independent films, or big budget Hollywood releases. Anything goes.

We usually enter October with a pool of several possible titles and wait to make the actual selections each Sunday evening. This past Sunday we watched William Friedkin’s paranoid film BUG. It is a film that I have mixed feelings about. It went in a direction I wasn’t expecting, but at times it felt overwrought and a little tight. The majority of the film took place in a dingy old motel room; a room that successfully gave me a vague feeling of claustrophobia and as the film moved forward the director, subtly at first and then more overtly as the climax approached, turned into a raw slash of paranoia.

I enjoyed BUG, but there were a few moments when it stalled and it took Friedkin too long to get it restarted. The motives of the characters were successfully portrayed and Ashley Judd did a great job as a lonely and sad woman susceptible to a visiting paranoia. It is an uneven film that is more about ideas than horror—it can be seen as a denouncement of the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism, specifically the paranoia that was generated by certain (unnamed) governments for self benefit.

The description over at Yahoo!Movies reads:

A lonely waitress with a tragic past, Agnes rooms in a run-down motel, living in fear of her abusive, recently paroled ex-husband. But when Agnes begins a tentative romance with Peter, an eccentric, nervous drifter, she starts to feel hopeful again--until the first bugs arrive.

And here’s the trailer…

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

New Mike Hammer Novel: THE GOLIATH BONE

I bumped into a new Mike Hammer novel in a local bookstore this past weekend. It is a collaborative effort between the late-Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Collins, or so I think, finished a manuscript left by Spillane at his death. This is the second Spillane novel Max Allan Collins has finished since his death—the first was Dead Street, a Hard Case Crime title that I haven’t read—and I don’t think it is the last. I’ve heard there are at least two more Hammer novels scheduled.

The two also collaborated on a recent short story—“There’s a Killer Loose!”—in the August issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was really pretty good. It had the flavor of a 1950s hardboiled story and a plot that could have been pulled from an old radio mystery. I really enjoyed it.

The description of The Goliath Bone:

The bestselling American mystery writer of all time brings back his world-famous PI Mike Hammer for his biggest—and most dangerous—case. In the midst of a Manhattan snowstorm, Hammer halts the violent robbery of a pair of college sweethearts who have stumbled onto a remarkable archaeological find in the Valley of Elah: the perfectly preserved femur of what may have been the biblical giant Goliath. Hammer postpones his marriage to his faithful girl Friday, Velda, to fight a foe deadlier than the mobsters and KGB agents of his past—Islamic terrorists and Israeli extremists bent upon recovering the relic for their own agendas.

A week before his death, Mickey Spillane entrusted a substantial portion of this manuscript and extensive notes to his frequent collaborator, Max Allan Collins, to complete. The result is a thriller as classic as Spillane’s own
I, the Jury, as compelling as Collins’s Road to Perdition, and as contemporary as The Da Vinci Code.

P.S. Hopefully it's significantly better than The Da Vinci Code.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

"The Winning Ticket" by Bill Pronzini

Nameless and Jake Runyon are on stakeout in an all-night diner waiting on a deadbeat dad who has a history of spousal abuse. Nameless isn’t keen on the job because it feels more like a strong-arm bounty than detective work. The weather outside is wet and the pair are about to call it a night when a couple bang through the entrance. The man is about forty and hard-looking with tattoos on his neck and the back of his hand. The woman is thirty and nervous.

The detectives both sense something wrong with the couple and when they notice a gun tucked into the man’s pants they decide to follow them out into the night. To tell more would ruin the story.

I’ve read “The Winning Ticket” twice over the last year—once in the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and then again in the anthology Prisoner of Memory—and its images struck hard and fast with each reading. It is delivered in Bill Pronzini’s stark and modern hardboiled style and it unravels exactly as expected. There are no jarring surprises or twists, but it is styled, plotted, and executed perfectly.

The setting is detailed with a rich and vibrant nuance that transports the reader to a rainy Northern California winter night. The characters are nicely fitted into the story with a detail that endows each with a sense of reality. The atmosphere is heavy with impending violence and Mr. Pronzini doles out the clues and hints like the professional he is.

“The Winning Ticket” is a nearly flawless short story. The plot relies on an element of coincidence, but it is explained through the action and by the narrator. It is unique and original while also being steady and familiar. Bill Pronzini is deserving of the title of Grandmaster, and this story is another notch on his belt. It is a winner and very much worthy seeking out.

“The Winning Ticket” originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and was republished in the anthology Prisoner of Memory: And 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Covers of Sam McCain

I've always had a fondness for book cover art and I love to see the different editions of the same novel. I've been collecting the various covers of Alistair MacLean since I was twelve; unfortunately most of my collection was lost when I moved to the East Coast several years ago. And then when I moved back West a few more disappeared.

It's not a rare event for me to jump on Amazon's UK website to take a look at the various British artwork of my favorite authors, and that's exactly what I did this morning. I found the cover art for all of Ed Gorman's wonderful Sam McCain novels, less two--the first in the series The Day the Music Died published in 1998 and the most recent Fools Rush In published in 2007; to read the Gravetapping review click Here.

So I thought I would run comparison of the artwork used by his American publisher and his British publisher. The titles are in order of publication date and every one of them is worthy of reading at least once. But I would recommend you give each at least two reads. You won't regret a page of it.

The U.S. Edition is on the left.

Wake Up Little Susie (1999)

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Save the Last Dance for Me (2000)

Everybody's Somebody's Fool (2003)

Breaking Up is Hard to Do (2004)

P.S. There is a rumor Ed has a contract for an eighth Sam McCain novel. The release date is sometime in 2009.