Monday, October 15, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: BONDS by John A. Curley

In this debut novel from author Curley we are introduced to Jonathan Creed, an exciting new addition to the ranks of fictional hardboiled private eyes. Curley's raw, impassioned prose is given the added distinction of coming from someone who is himself a licensed private investigator. The authenticity this brings is an added treat to what is already a complex, well crafted crime mystery. The characters you will meet in BONDS, starting with Creed and then including friend and foe alike, are all multi-layered and fascinating (sometimes in decidedly unpleasant ways), as is Curley's presentation of New York City. The tale, as already mentioned, is complex and compelling, its thrills and twists mixed with emotion and romance and some nice touches of wisecracking humor.
You're going to like BONDS. A lot. And you're going to want to see more of Creed and the John Curley byline.
Strongly recommended.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Interview: Richrd Prosch (author of BACK MASK)

I have written in these pages a number of times about the works of Richard Prosch. Until recently he has written mostly in the Western genre—his stories and novellas featuring the adventures of John Coburn, the Peregrine; his Holt County series featuring deputy marshal Whit Branham; and his delightful turn-of-the-century YA tales featuring inquisitive Jo Harper and her pal Frog. His short story “The Scalper” won a prestigious Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.
Like most writers, however—and in spite of admitting he maintains an “itch” to do more Westerns—Richard also seeks to flex his writing muscles and expand into other genres now and then. Toward this end, he has done work in horror, science fiction, and contemporary crime.
Most recently, Richard has launched a PI-like series featuring Dan Spalding, a former investigator for the Missouri Highway Patrol who nowadays runs a used record store in touristy Ozark City (think Branson, MO). Naturally, Spalding's background and his knack for attracting trouble, keeps getting him involved in “cases” where he needs to call on his old skills and a growing cast of colorful secondary characters to help set things right. So far Dan has appeared in the short story “Spalding's Groove”, the novellas ANSWER DEATH, FLIP SIDE, and the just-released BACK MASK.
So what about the man behind these tales of the Old West and modern-day mayhem? In conjunction with the release of BACK MASK, I got Richard to sit for a lengthy, enjoyable phone conversation and then agree to answer some questions about him, his life, and his writing.
Here goes:

DUNDEE: Your formative years, up until you went off to college, were spent on a farm in northeast Nebraska. I know that, to a large extent, part of your heart still resides in Nebraska and you have used it as the setting for many of your stories, particularly the Westerns. Will you please comment further on that—your growing-up years, what impact/influence, if any, it had on your writing? Did you have writing aspirations back then? If so, did you get any encouragement from parents, teachers, friends?

PROSCH: I logged a great many hours under the wide open sky with not a lot to think about except the stories I would make up. So the environment, the landscape, contributed a lot to my imagination. I can’t say my family paid much attention to my writing, but I had a fifth grade teacher who did. I wrote a vampire story where blood “billowed out from the victim’s neck like scarlet ribbons.” Mrs. Neuharth wrote in the margin, “Gross! But I love it! You could be a writer someday!” With that positive feedback, I was hooked. I’ve often given Mrs. Neuharth credit, and I will here again. I wouldn’t be doing this without her.

DUNDEE: In college, you met your lovely wife Gina. (Congrats, by the way, on just recently celebrating your 30th year of marriage!) I believe you were studying Graphic Art, with an English minor. Judging by the critical role Gina now plays in your current writing and self-publishing career—cover design, print layout, and soon to be co-author—it seems obvious that you certainly get support there for your writing. The two of you also are home-schooling your son Wyatt, who is gaining local and perhaps national prominence in the world of figure skating. The three of you have a very busy yet very close, enviable family dynamic. Can you expand more on that, please—your family/working relationships, the schedule balancing that must be required, etc.

PROSCH: Gina’s answer would be “we work our butts off,” which is more or less true. She’s being funny, but it’s no joke. And by work, she means we put in the time. It’s that simple, and that hard. All the successful people—I mean truly successful--I’ve ever known have that in common. They put in the time. Whether it’s at the keyboard, the musical instrument or the personal relationship. Early on, we found ways as a family to double-up on the time we spent together. For example, we wouldn’t be able to homeschool without a home office.

DUNDEE: Growing up, your father was an avid reader of science fiction and so you also read a lot in that genre. Your grandfather, you told me, read a lot of paperback Westerns. I don't recall you saying whether or not you read many of those. But in your writing career to date, you've done very little in the way of science fiction yet, as detailed in the introduction, quite a lot in the Western field. Most writers tend to write, at least in the beginning, what they were fans of reading. Why do you suppose that wasn't the case with you?

PROSCH: I think westerns offered a fresh landscape to explore. Also, I started writing westerns with more enthusiasm after Wyatt was born. I wanted to get him grounded in his family’s Nebraska history, and our own Wyoming experience. As we explored the real-life west, the stories just naturally developed. That said, I loved westerns on TV growing up—The Rifleman in particular.

DUNDEE: Who were some of your favorite authors growing up? Are there current authors you follow regularly and/or whose work you find particularly appealing?

PROSCH: Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein—those guys eventually gave way to John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Steve Frazee, and others. The list goes on. And there are writers I used to like that I can’t look at now. Vonnegut is one. And some that I judged too harshly. Even now though, I would have to put Ellison and Bradbury at the pinnacle—for their flat out passion for the craft.

DUNDEE: Your Westerns tend not to fall so much into the “shoot-em-up” variety. While there certainly are some bad hombres and a fair amount of violence—especially in the Peregrine stories, inasmuch as Coburn is a renowned gunman—the action is not overly graphic and it usually happens for a reason and comes with consequences. The characters in your stories, good and bad alike, often come across as people just doing their jobs (even if those jobs sometimes fall on the wrong side of the law) in order to try and get by in a hard land during a hard time ... Simple, common folk, in other words, as opposed to the larger-than-life, over-the-top kinds of heroes and villains often found in the genre. How deliberate is that on your part? Or is it merely a by-product of the stories that come to your mind?

PROSCH: It’s absolutely deliberate. I like stories about everyday life and how, without much warning, a domino falls over and things go on from there. My heroes have always been the unassuming people who—without fanfare or notice—stood up and started putting things back to rights.

DUNDEE: Dan Spalding is an immediately engaging character in a distinct setting surrounded by colorful secondary characters. He seems to have appeared fully realized in your initial story “Spalding's Groove”. Given his training and instincts, it seems perfectly logical for him to get involved in the kind of matters does, yet you cleverly avoid the stereotypical trappings of a straightforward PI set-up. Again, how calculated was this? What was the genesis for Spalding?

PROSCH: Gina says Spalding is my alter ego. Maybe he’s somebody who I might like to be if I had a second run at life. Every day I’m inspired by friends in the law-enforcement community, the EMS guys, the first responders, the firefighters—the people who make a real difference and pave the way for the rest of us. But there’s no way I could stand the bureaucracy, and neither can Dan. He needs to run his own ship, his own way, and right there he’s at odds with half the world. I’ve had some experience with that too.

DUNDEE: Records and the music industry—current and old—play a big part in the Spalding books. Are you a pretty thorough records/music nut in real life, or do you have to do a lot of research for the facts and observations these stories are built around?

PROSCH: My mom had this fantastic record collection that I cut my teeth on, and the passion grew from there. I used to record songs from the radio on my portable cassette player, and I was a faithful reader of Song Hits and Creem all through school. A friend once turned me on to jazz and heavy metal and classic country music—all in one summer—and challenged me to write for Rolling Stone magazine when I graduated. I’ve lost track of him now, but when I write the Spalding stories, I think of my friend and my mom and hope I’ve somehow done them proud.

DUNDEE: I know that you follow and support the work of Andrew Vachss, both his writing and his life's work of protecting and fighting for the rights of the vulnerable and abused in our society. I know how strongly your personal feelings are in this area and now a theme of protecting/aiding the vulnerable seems to be running through the Spalding books. Care to comment further on this?

PROSCH: Yeah, I don’t think that was planned as much as it developed naturally from some experiences in my own childhood. Watching my son and his friends deal with the culture we now live in really brought home those memories and sense of responsibility we all should have. I mean, it’s a shame that so many people spend so much time kvetching about issues that absolutely don’t matter. Television and sports and petty political beefs come to mind. Meanwhile they’re out to lunch on child abuse, neglect, abandonment, trafficking—all the vile things going on around them every day. The next Spalding book, STAGE FRIGHT, will deal with some of that in a direct way.

DUNDEE: You, like me, seem to have fully embraced the eBook/self-publishing movement and you have received wide acclaim for your work. What do you see for the future of the business? And what can readers expect, in the future, from Richard Prosch?

PROSCH: I think the Indie movement will continue to grow and improve. It will change, as all things do, and some folks will drop out. For me it’s a chance to share a story more quickly and move on to additional ideas.

DUNDEE: It's always a pleasure talking with you, Rich. I really appreciate your time and cooperation for this interview. I think readers will enjoy it and will come away knowing a little more about Richard Prosch and his work. In closing, if there's anything I failed to ask about that you would like to comment on, please feel free to do so now. And thanks again.

PROSCH: I’ve been posting free stories on my blog this summer, and that will continue indefinitely with a crime story on the first Tuesday of the month and a western two weeks later. It’s a fun way to revisit some work that might’ve gotten lost and share something with a new reader without asking them to part with any cash up front. I’ve picked up some new readers that way and come up with new story ideas too. So be sure to stop past www.RichardProsch.com every few weeks.
I also want to let you know how much I appreciate the interview and your kind words of encouragement, Wayne. Writing is a terrific endeavor and one of the best parts is the friendships you make along the way. Thanks for a fun interview!

For readers already familiar with Richrd's work, be sure not to miss the just-released BACK MASK, now available in eBook and print through Amazon. You can catch up with all of Richard's work via his Amazon page, his blog, or on Facebook. I urge you to do so, you'll be in for some fine reading.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: FLIP SIDE (a Dan Spalding mystery) by Richard Prosch

This is the second novella-length outing to feature Dan Spalding, former Missouri Highway Patrol Investigator now turned used record store proprietor. Old habits and instincts are hard to break, however, which means Dan has a knack for still getting involved in matters considerably more dangerous that those usually found in stacks of old vinyl 

Building on this premise, author Prosch firmly establishes that the fine kick-off to the series (ANSWER DEATH) was no fluke and that Spalding is a character readers will want to continue seeing more of. Not only is Spalding himself very engaging, but so is the cast of recurring characters who also inhabit his world within touristy Ozark City. Add in the the author's distinctly evocative writing style and wrap it all around a clever murder mystery featuring unrequited love, betrayal, revenge, and even a dab of Dixie Mafia favor-trading – and you've got an entertaining, very satisfying reading experience. 

Strongly recommended.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My Take: THE MEG (2018, starring Jason Statham)

An increasingly popular way for reviewers to critique movies these days, especially those aimed at being big summer blockbusters, is to concentrate first on whether the film is going to “earn out” as well as expected against their budgets (often outrageously high due to more and more dependency on CGI special effects). After that comes an examination of the movie itself -- how good it is, how close it came to doing what it set out to do, how entertaining it is or isn't. (And if the money-making potential isn't there, then the reviews tend to be more negative [though such an admission/claim is never openly made]).
Seems like a sort of ass-backwards approach to me. I say, review the damn movie and let the box office do what it may – and not be adversely affected by poor reviews (or vice versa).
 
Okay, that little rant aside, let me get to THE MEG – which I enjoyed the heck out of, no matter what its budget (though I suspect it was pretty hefty due to the special effects). The latter did not overwhelm the film, however. They were necessary to the story and they were well done. Period. But at the core of the story, amidst all the undersea and on-the-sea action involved in fighting the giant prehistoric terror from the deep, there are people relating to one another in various and interesting ways. There is humor, lots of it stemming from the kind of banter that happens within a group of people who work together and face stress together, there is a bit of romance, some guilt and blame passed back and forth, some heroics and betrayal ... and all the while there is the menace of the megaladon shark, risen from the depths and angry and hungry as hell.
 
Jason Statham turns in another solid job as a slightly flawed action hero, and even gets a chance to flex his acting chops a bit. (Calm down, I said “a bit” - I'm not calling him the next deNiro [as if anybody'd want to be anymore] or Olivier or anything like that.) A Chinese actress named Li Bingbing at first comes across as merely a pretty scientist type (like we saw dozens of back in all those 1950s horror/sci-fi flicks) but then progresses to become a very appealing female lead, in contrast to other more flamboyant actresses in the cast. The rest of the cast in general is quite good, including a little 8-yr-old charmer named Shuya Cai, as Li Bingbing's daughter, who steals every scene she's in (and whose presence in the film's storyline is fine and natural, as opposed to “the little girl in peril” stupidly injected into the most recent, highly disappointing JURASSIC WORLD entry).
 
All in all, if you're looking for a well done, balls-out, high-energy summer popcorn flick, THE MEG – in my humble opinion – delivers the goods.
Strongly recommended.


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Another Look: THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979, starring Robert Redford)

Yeah, I know – this movie also stars Jane Fonda. So if you're among those who hate Fonda and will never watch anything she's in, then that's your right and so go ahead and skip this too. All I'll say is that, in this case, you're cheating yourself of a pretty darn movie. I'll add that I myself share few if any of Fonda's views, especially her antics during the Vietnam War years, but am able to separate that from enjoying some of the movies she's been in.

Okay. That said, moving on to THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN:
This is, very simply, the story of a cowboy (a modern-day one) who has lost his way via fame and booze and manages to find his way back with the help of a twelve million dollar horse who has been drawn into a similar situation.
 
Robert Redford is the cowboy, Sonny Steele, a 5-time All-Around rodeo champ who these days, too bent and beat up to continue competing, serves as the “face” for a top-selling cereal product that is part of a big bucks business conglomerate on the brink of a very important merger to grow even bigger. The horse is Rising Star, a thoroughbred racing champion, now owned by the same outfit and serving as the symbol for their future expansion.
Both Sonny and Rising Star are in Las Vegas as part of a promotional extravaganza that will culminate in the finalizing of the merger. Upon examining Star, however, in preparation for riding him during an on-stage production planned as a highlight of the promotion, Sonny discovers the horse is doped to the gills and even has an injured leg that is not being splinted properly because it wouldn't “look good”. When he tries to bring this to the attention of the head honcho of the company, he is rudely blown off. And when no one else will listen to him either, the cowboy decides to take matters into his own hands.
At the height of the big stage show, astride Rising Star and all decked out in strings of electric lights fed off a battery pack, Sonny rides off the stage, out through the casino crowd and onto the Vegas Strip, then gallops away into the Nevada desert.
 
From there it's a game of cat-and-mouse. Sonny and Star on the run -- trying to keep from being discovered as they work their way toward a remote location where Sonny plans to set the horse free after he's purged the drugs from his system and healed his leg – and all the forces of the law and big money influence trying to intercept and stop them.
Only a savvy TV newswoman named Hallie (Fonda) manages to figure out what Sonny has in mind and manages to chase him down. Hearing his side of things, Hallie convinces Sonny to let her record what he has to say so she can get it played on the air and present to the public that he's more than just a crazy, drunken horse thief. A (somewhat illogical) romance blossoms between the two and, from there, Hallie sticks with Sonny to help him try to free Rising Star. It helps that her tape of what Sonny had to say starts to sway the public and the business conglomerate that owns the horse has to go into spin mode to try and convince everybody that they've only wanted what's best for Rising Star all along.
 
This is Redford's movie pretty much all the way. He's perfect as the sincere but rather dim (maybe from being dumped on his head too many times) cowpoke trying to recapture “the best part of himself”. Fonda is on hand mainly for the romance bit and to serve as a cypher to get Sonny's words heard. There are a number of good turns from the supporting cast, too – John Saxon, Wilford Brimley, Valerie Perrine. But Willie Nelson, in his acting debut and providing some key songs for the soundtrack, damn near steals the whole show with one immortal line. After Sonny has run off and Willie (playing his best pal) is left behind, somebody asks him what he is going to do. To which he replies: “Me? I guess I'll find me one of those Keno girls who knows how to suck the chrome off a trailer hitch ... and just kick back for a while.”

Ah, yes. My heroes have always been cowboys.
This is not a movie I'd stand in line around the block to see. But it's pretty good. A little different, enjoyable, well done. I liked it when I saw it at the theater almost forty years ago, I still did when I re-watched it on cable recently. Check it out if you get the chance, I think you might, too.



Monday, July 23, 2018

Another Look: WALKING TALL (1973, starring Joe Don Baker)

When this modestly-budgeted, little-heralded film first came out, it walloped the movie-going public like a smack from the “big stick” that played a key role in its storyline. It wasn't uncommon for theater audiences of the time to stand and cheer. Said stick – literally an oversized, hand carved baseball bat – was wielded by star Joe Don Baker in his portrayal of real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, a lawman who rose to fame (along with a certain amount of notoriety) via his stance against the crime and corruption being introduced into his McNairy County by the Dixie Mafia.
 
WALKING TALL was a huge hit (no pun intended), building on the success of movies like THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK that came a bit earlier and going on to inspire a long list of other popular, often big-budget, “vigilante” films to follow. (DEATH WISH, DIRTY HARRY, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, TAXI DRIVER, etc., as examples.)
 
What gave WALKING TALL its distinction was that it was based on factual events and, at the time of its initial release, Buford Pusser was still alive and practicing his brand of law (though he would die [as the result of sabotage, in the belief of many] only little more than a year after its initial release). As usual with these “based on true events” films, certain liberties were taken as far as the truth vs. what ends up on the screen. Although, in this case, less so than in many others – mainly a condensation of time between Pusser's return to McNairy County following his retirement from a pro wrestling career to being elected sheriff. The fame that became attached to Pusser following the success of this film and then the controversies that arose after his somewhat suspicious death in a car accident produced many claims and all sorts of speculation that have blurred and in some cases unfortunately diminished his image. At its core, his story, I believe, is still that of a brave man who was willing to risk everything in a stand against evil forces.
 

Taking WALKING TALL strictly as movie entertainment – apart from any subsequent controversies that rose around Pusser the man – it works very well. It is an action/drama with some emotional depth, about a stalwart, quasi-tragic hero who refuses to be swayed from doing what he believes is right, even to the point of great cost. In the hands of celebrated noir director Phil Karlson (99 RIVER STREET, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, THE PHENIX CITY STORY) and with an outstanding performance by Joe Don Baker, this film plays like a much bigger production than its budget. Other than veteran actor Noah Beery Jr. in a supporting role as Pusser's father, and a couple B movie heavies like Gene Evans and Kenneth Tobey also on hand, the rest of the cast was made up of little known actors and actresses. Not to say that many of them – particularly Elizabeth Hartman as Buford's wife and Felton Perry as his black deputy – didn't give fine performances. And although some of the casino sets look a little cheap, production values overall are very solid.
 
Re-visiting favorite old movies and books and such from one's younger years can be risky. Too often you find your tastes have matured or changed in some other way, and you're left wishing you would have not bothered and just left the good memory alone. Such was not the case when I sat down for a couple of re-viewings of WALKING TALL after a forty year gap. It held up great. I found it every bit as exciting and emotional as the very first time I saw it. If anything, I came away with an even greater appreciation due mainly to the acting chops of Joe Don Baker, whose size and graceful power satisfied all the action hero requirements but with an intensity that took it to a whole 'nother level.
Buford Pusser's life and career, along with the success of this film, inspired several additional movies, made-for-TV movies, and even a brief TV series. In 2004, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who tends to make movies I usually like) starred in a big-budget effort that was supposed to be a remake – but aside from using the same title, it changed the locale, the premise, even the Pusser name, to the point of bearing little or no resemblance to the real deal and ending up a dud. As far as the other aforementioned productions (even though one of them starred Brian Dennehy, a good actor who physically should have made a perfect Pusser) I wouldn't recommend wasting your time.
 
But as for the original, it's exacly the opposite. If you've never seen it for a while – or have never seen it – I definitely urge you to check it out. It's playing now on various cable movie channels and is available on DVD. If you crave a hero and like movies that literally kick ass, WALKING TALL gets the job done.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: COLD IN THE GRAVE by Stephen Mertz

Steve Mertz has returned to the private eye genre with an engaging new protagonist, a fresh setting, and a solid murder-mystery that will grab and hold readers from first page to last. The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Denver, Colorado, and the man on the job is Kilroy, a bearded, quasi-laid back Vietnam vet who takes no guff and locks onto a case like a pit bull on a throat.

Mertz is well known for his acclaimed contributions to the Mack Bolan-Executioner series; he has also written Westerns, thrillers, horror, and created his own highly popular MIA Hunter series. But his first book was SOME DIE HARD a hard-hitting private eye tale with a surprisingly clever mystery at its core ... and now he's back and most assuredly has not lost a step. Even better, is that the news that COLD IN THE GRAVE is the first of at least three Kilroy thrillers.
This time around, Kilroy is hired to follow a young woman whom her jilted lover thinks is in trouble, possibly being blackmailed. Sounds simple enough. But matters quickly turn more complicated ... and dangerous. Few things turn out to be as they first seem. Yes, there is blackmail involved – but who's trying to extort who becomes questionable. There's little doubt, however, that something plenty serious is on the line when murder rears its ugly head, followed quickly by betrayal, political corruption, escalating threats, and flying bullets.

The writing is smooth and assured, the dialogue crackles, and there is real depth to the characters. Mertz's descriptions of Denver capture the time and place very vividly, and a winter storm at the climax becomes a threatening character in and of itself. Kilroy is tough but human, equally sharp with a wisecrack or a deduction, and definitely the kind of guy you'd want in your corner. Readers will be happy to see more of him.
Strongly recommended.