Thursday, October 24, 2013

H.E.R.O. Corps. / Protect.org


I've written here and elsewhere many times about the critically important work being done in recent years on behalf of abused/exploited children by Protect.org (see link as per the listing to the right of this text). That work continues with increasing intensity and ever-increasing importance.
Now those efforts have been enhanced by Protect's association with the H.E.R.O. Corps. --- a group of truly heroic veterans dedicated to a new war: the war on abusers and exploiters of the most vulnerable in our society. You can learn more about this by checking out the video and the organization's home page as per the links below.
In the video, you will here one of the vets sum it up beautifully when he says (and I'm paraphrasing a bit): "We spend time fighting enemies overseas … when there are bad people right here in our own country doing unspeakable things to our children … why would we NOT want to fight that just as hard?"
When you hear him say those words … well, why would you NOT want to be supportive of such a cause? I hope you check out these links and then support these worthwhile causes however you can.



http://protect.org/hero


Monday, October 21, 2013

Interview: Les Williams (author of WHEELS OF JUSTICE)

http://www.amazon.com/Wheels-Justice-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00G09CREM/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382358375&sr=1-3&keywords=wheels+of+justice



I got to know Les Williams through Becca Vickery's Western Trail Blazer publishing, when I noticed that several of his "Dime Novel" titles for WTB were set in Nebraska and then learned that he also lived in Nebraska. I figured, heck, there aren't that many people in the cornhusker state, let alone fellow writers. So I made contact and we've been communicating and swapping stories ever since.
I've enjoyed his Western yarns and have had the privilege of "previewing" some of his contemporary crime stories, so I was delighted that he has taken some of the latter and collected them into the just-released WHEELS OF JUSTICE.
If you like your crime/mystery stories fast-paced and not too hard or not too soft, but just right - and with some neat twists thrown in here and there - then you'll want to check out this collection (follow link).
In the meantime, I think you'll enjoy getting to know more about Les Williams, the man behind the byline, in the following Q&A:


WD:  Les, you didn't begin writing seriously until you'd retired from the NCRS in 2006 and then took a creative writing course, after which you say you "discovered my passion for writing". You published your first story a mere two years later, in 2008. That story reads so polished that I can't help but wonder if you must not have done some amount of "tinkering" with writing during the years you were still working?

LW: I “wrote” sports commentary via emails to a few co-workers. I never seriously entertained writing for an audience until taking a week-long creative writing course in North Carolina. Writing themes and reports was not my strong suit. Neither was spelling. Thank goodness for spell checker.

WD: I've always felt that a writing course is valuable for teaching the mechanics of writing such as formatting, outlining, writing a query letter, etc., but it's not going to take an individual very far if there isn't already some kind of instinctive writer already "inside" said individual. Since you experienced success getting published shortly after your writing course, do you care comment on that?

LW: I may have had the writing instinct inside but did not know it. A large part of the polished look and success of my first published short story (Under Nebraska Skies) goes to Regina Williams (no relation), the editor/publisher of The Storyteller magazine. For a fee, she would critique stories. This was before electronic submissions. When I received my manuscript back I was hard pressed to find the black ink amongst all the red. After passing the manuscript back and forth several times, we were both finally satisfied. It was Regina that suggested I send out Nebraska Skies to other publishers as a gauge to see how much she had helped me. It was picked up by Wanderings, a local web based publisher and initially released in a very small booklet. It has since been published in The Storyteller magazine and as an eBook short by Western Trail Blazer. 

WD:  You started out writing Westerns and have said that you were a big Western fan growing up --- books, movies, TV shows, etc. What were some of your favorites in those different formats and what among them, if any, do you feel might have influenced your own writing in the genre?

LW: Starting with TV westerns, a few of my favorites were, and not necessarily in this order- Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, High Chaparral, Bonanza, Lone Ranger, and Rawhide. As for books, I was a big fan of Louis L’Amour, having read every book or short story he wrote. Some more than once. For movies, like the TV westerns, I’ll name a few, otherwise the list would be long. These are also not necessarily in order of top favorites. The Long Riders, The Gray Fox, The Searchers, Hondo, Silverado, The Man from Snowy River, Quigley Down Under, and True Grit. My favorite was not a movie but a mini-series --- Lonesome Dove. I can’t say any of these really influenced my western writing. I was only hoping I could tell a good story that would captivate the imagination of the reader.

WD: You've recently switched to writing contemporary crime stories. Why make the switch? Will you continue writing in both genres? Contrast your thoughts/feelings as far as writing in one vs. the other.

LW: Phyllis always told me I was limiting my reading by only reading westerns. Since I’ve always like mysteries, I began reading mystery and crime novels. For now, I’ll probably write more crime stories than westerns. With having said that, I have a few western story ideas in the back of my mind that hopefully someday I’ll do something with. I believe you told me that you found writing a western is easier than crime writing. For me it’s the opposite. I find I don’t have to do quite as much research for a crime story as a western. I look at a western as being similar to a crime story. Often there is robbery, or a murder to solve. Instead of doing so in the present day or back in the 1930s or 40s, you’re doing it in the Old West. 

WD:  In your early work you wrote in the more standard past tense. In your more recent work you write in the present tense. What brought about that change, and do you expect to continue that way?

LW: Honestly, I was unaware of this.  Depending on the story or time period, I may continue with this. My guess would be that early on, writing westerns, I thought in the past tense. With contemporary fiction, the action is more in the “here and now.” 

WD:  I know that your charming wife Phyllis is pretty involved in your writing --- first reader, editing, storyline suggestions, etc. Care to expand on that for our readers?

LW: I’ll let Phyllis answer this one. Phyllis: Les is the one that spends an incredible amount of “seat” time, working on his stories. I read a wider range of books, and from that perspective, come up with additional story ideas, plot lines, and ideas to help Les out. I’m his first reader (a pretty critical one), but we still work well together. The final product, however, is always what Les feels works for him.

WD:  I know that you have always been an avid reader and I assume you continue to be. Do you read in all genres, or stick mostly to Westerns and mystery/crime? Do you have any all-time favorite books or authors?

LW: Lately I’ve been reading crime/mystery stories. I enjoy these who-done-its and this is the genre I’m currently writing in. My favorites in the crime field are/ were Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson, William Kent Kruger, and John Sandford to name a few. I’ve enjoyed the westerns of a number of our contemporary western authors. There are many out there so I will only name a few, and again in no particular order. Frank Roderus, Robert J Randisi, who, as you know, also writes crime and westerns; as does Ed Gorman. Jory Sherman is another western author I not only enjoy but admire. There's also Dusty Richards, and David P Fisher, who writes excellent western shorts. My favorite western novel is Lonesome Dove.

WD: Finally, your work so far has been short stories. Is there a novel on the horizon or perhaps already in the works?

LW: There is. It has been and continues to be a work in progress. There are two reasons for this. First, life sometimes just seems to get in the way. Secondly, I’ve been concentrating my efforts on Wheels of Justice. This is a collection of fourteen crime stories published by Mockingbird Lane Press and is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Next up I’ll begin working on a second collection of short crime fiction. When that project is completed, I will resume working on the novel, which at this point is about ¾  through the first rough draft. The novel will feature three protagonists. John Walking Horse, a Lakota, Sean Hagarty, an Irish descendant, and Jackie Kwon, an Asian American woman. These three characters are also at the heart of my second story collection.



Friday, October 18, 2013

Another Look: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962 film)


Been years since I saw this movie and was pleasantly surprised after a recent DVR viewing at how well it holds up. It remains very powerful and actually quite chilling in a couple key scenes, even when you know what's coming.


I should make it clear that I have never read the 1959 novel by Richard Condon upon which this film is based, nor have I seen the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington. So my remarks here are based strictly on the 1962 film version --- considered a "classic" by many --- starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury (cast very much against the Bednobs & Broomsticks/ Murder, She Wrote character types she will likely always be best remembered for – despite her performance here receiving an Academy Award nomination).

The basic plot of MC is centered on the son of a prominent right-wing political family being brainwashed (along with the rest of his platoon) after getting captured by enemy forces during the Korean War. Their brief period of captivity takes place in Manchuria at the hands of a joint Soviet/Communist Chinese team of interrogation/mind control experts. The politico son, Lt. Raymond Shaw, is conditioned to become a "sleeper" agent upon being released and returned to the States. Shaw and the other men of the platoon are further brainwashed to believe that Shaw heroically "saved" the platoon (except for two members he actually killed in cold blood to demonstrate the success of his conditioning). Subsequently, back Stateside, Shaw is recommended for and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Shaw's mother-in-law, the driving force behind the political career of her otherwise inept husband, Senator Iselan (Shaw's stepfather), utilizes the CMH to reflect positively on Iselan in order to aid in his climb up the political ladder to the point of him becoming his party's candidate to run for vice president in the upcoming election.
Ultimately, Shaw's "sleeper" role is revealed to be that of an assassin assigned to kill the presidential candidate at a key moment during the convention and thereby elevate Iselan to the slot of new presidential candidate with tremendous emotional momentum behind him.


It is only when the nightmares of Capt. Marco, Shaw's commanding officer during the capture/brainwashing, finally break through and begin revealing the truth of what really happened back in Korea, instead of Shaw's platoon-saving "bravery", that Shaw begins to fall under scrutiny. Military Intelligence forms a counter team, headed by Marco, to try and figure out the complete plan set in motion by the brainwashers and then stop it before it's fully executed (no pun intended).
Everything comes right down to the last-second climax in as tense and suspenseful three or four final minutes as you're likely to find in any movie. And the opening sequence, as we are watching a demonstration of the brainwashing's "success" and the camera is cutting back and forth between the Soviet and Chinese captors who are present in reality and the Ladies Garden Club members who are merely an illusion as seen by the captives, is hardly less memorable.

Sinatra plays Marco, Harvey is Lt. Shaw, and Lansbury is Mrs. Iselan (Shaw's mother). None of them has ever  been better. The rest of cast is fine, too. And while it's never a chore to simply watch Janet Leigh on screen (and her performance here is slick and professional as always), the role she is given seems unnecessary and ill-fitted to the rest of the movie. Her whole introductory scene (where she meets Sinatra on a train) is awkward and extremely odd, then a romance between the two is established, then Janet sort of fades away in the last quarter of the film.

A final matter worth mentioning (at least I think so) is a fight scene that takes place between Sinatra and Henry Silva. In my humble opinion, it marks the first karate fight in American film. There are those who insist that distinction goes to Spencer Tracy in Bad Day At Black Rock, where he plays a one-armed war vet who dispatches baddie Earnest Borgnine with some Oriental fighting skills. To me, however, they seem more ju-jitsu than karate (with the exception of one or two chops, one to the back of the neck). At any rate, the Sinatra/Silva fight is much longer and better staged and certainly has a lot more chopping, kicking, flipping, and furniture smashing.

All and all, this is a very good movie. If you haven't seen it in a while, it deserves another look; if you've never seen it, keep an eye peeled and check it out if you get the chance. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interview: Michael A. Black (author of DARK HAVEN and SLEEPING DRAGONS)



Mike Black has been a friend of mine for twenty-five years.
He recently retired from the Matteson, Illinois, PD, after thirty years of service. As a police officer, he has received multiple commendations and decorations, including the Cook County Medal of Merit awarded to him in 2010.
During that time, he also found time to author over twenty novels and 100-plus short stories. Now that he has retired from a full-time gig in "the real world", readers can only expect (and look forward to) an increased output.
As evidence of this, he has had two novels --- DARK HAVEN and SLEEPING DRAGONS --- just released. To learn more about the man behind the byline, in his own words, I urge you to check out the following Q&A that I recently conducted with Mike:


WD:  You worked for over thirty years as a police officer in various capacities. Care to recap or comment on some of the more memorable experiences from that career?

MB:  I was a Military Policeman in the army and developed an appreciation for police work during my service time. I subsequently went into civilian law enforcement with the hope that I could help people. I know that probably sounds na├»ve and idealistic, but that’s what motivated me the most. I was very fortunate to come through a lot of situations that were both dirty and dangerous. I arrested a lot of bad guys, got in a ton of physical confrontations, was shot at a few times, and worked with some great men and women. But the most satisfying times I look back on are the ones when I was able to help someone, even if it was just being there for them in their time of need at something as simple as a traffic accident. There were serious things as well. I remember talking a despondent guy out of committing suicide one lonely Christmas, and wrestling with a 300 pound mental patient holding a razor blade in a small washroom of a half-way house. I remember catching a car-load of armed robbers after we’d shot out the tires, and almost getting dumped over a second story banister fighting with this big ex-con who didn’t want to go back to jail.

WD:  I believe all or most of your police career was spent with the Matteson force, a southern suburb of Chicago. Like most people who live outside the Chicago sprawl, I have a hard time differentiating between the city proper and its numerous suburbs --- to me, it's all "Chicago". But I expect it's quite a different matter for residents, perhaps especially for police officers. Can you comment on the accuracy of that perception --- the difference between being a suburban cop vs. a Chicago one?

MB:  My buddy, Dave Case, is a lieutenant in the 18th District in Chicago and we meet once a week to talk about writing and police work. The city of Chicago is so immense that it offers a much greater variety of neighborhoods and activities for a police officer. It also depends a lot of the area in Chicago where a cop works. My buddy started out working in the 2nd District, which had a lot of public housing projects. Those areas contained some of the worst crime in the city. I had to go up there a few times to arrest people on warrants and it was like another world. On the other hand, due to the much smaller size of my department, I got the opportunity to work a variety of assignments. A lot of the criminals we dealt with were from the city so we got there on numerous occasions. Plus, both Chicago proper and the outlying suburbs are all within the same county, so we deal with the same court system and jail.

WD:  I've often referred to you as someone who worked harder at the craft of writing than anyone I've ever known. While working a full time job with the police, writing at every spare moment, and training/fighting as a kick boxer, you also made time to earn a BA in English from Northern Illinois University and a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. I've always maintained that writing courses are certainly valuable for teaching mechanics and discipline, but unless someone already has a writer "inside" them, it's unlikely the courses alone will turn them into one. Your thoughts on that?

MB:  You’ve made it sound much more impressive than it was. I managed to get my English degree way before I became a cop. I went into the military after that, and then came back and became a cop. The martial arts have been part of my life since I was eleven years old. I never fought as a pro, but used to spar with my buddy, Mike McNamara, who was a world-class, professional, champion kickboxer. Keeping in shape was a necessity for me as a cop. And going back to school for my masters was more the result of trying to get on a permanent night shift schedule so I could avoid an intolerable boss. (I owe it all to him.) I certainly agree that you have to have the desire to learn and work if you want to develop as a writer. A lot of people think it’s simple, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I doubt that it can be taught unless the person has the accompanying desire and drive to write and rewrite.

WD:  Speaking of your kick boxing background, you also made that part of the back story for your PI character, Ron Shade. Inasmuch as Shade made his debut in the pages of Hardboiled back when I was still its editor/publisher, I have a certain affinity for him (and, as is well known, for PIs in general). But we haven't seen much of Shade lately. Any plans for him to be showing up again in the future?

MB:  That’s right, you published my first short story in Hardboiled and gave me my start. For that, I’ll always be grateful. You’ll never know what a thrill it was for me to meet you and later get accepted into Hardboiled. Even before we met, I was a big fan of your work and thought Joe Hannibal was one of the best PIs in the business. Shade has kind of been in limbo for a while now. I have released Dead Ringer, the fourth Shade novel that I wrote with Julie Hyzy, as an e-book through Crossroad Press, and Windy City Knights was released as an audio book by Books in Motion. I hope to get the rest of the backlist novels available as e-books soon. I also started a new Shade novel, but had to put it on the back burner for the moment.

WD:  While you've been giving Shade a rest, your other writing in the meantime has become very diverse --- the Doc Atlas adventures; the Leal and Hart police procedurals; the Thin Man/Nick and Nora Charles-inspired mysteries featuring Vince and Laura Pope; a pair of books written with actor/comedian Richard Belzer; and several stand-alones. Do you enjoy this diversity? Is there any of these series or characters you enjoy writing more than the others?

MB:  My first two novels featured Ron Shade, then I purposely wrote a stand-alone (The Heist) so I wouldn’t feel locked in to writing about one set of characters. I do enjoy the diversity of writing different characters and different novels. Sometimes I get an idea that I want to explore that wouldn’t be right for Shade. The Doc Atlas stories, as well as the ones about Vince and Laura, are set in the 1940s. Leal and Hart are contemporary, but they’re cops and thus wouldn’t get along with Shade very well. I like writing about all of them. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

WD:  You've done a fair amount of co-writing with other authors --- Ray Lovato, Julie Hyzy, and the aforementioned Mr. Belzer. Do you enjoy that? Do you expect to be doing more in the future?

MB:  I’m certainly available if the Belz wants to do another one. He’s a joy to work with, as are Ray and Julie. Writing with someone else has its own set of challenges, and sometimes it can be a bit tricky. The chemistry has to be right for both the authors and the project and you have to be able to communicate on a special level with the other writer. I love a challenge, though, and I’m always open to new projects if they sound interesting.




WD:  Finally, I know that, in addition to DARK HAVEN, you've written another just-released novel (SLEEPING DRAGONS) in the immensely popular Mack Bolan/Executioner series. I assume you're probably a Bolan fan from way back. How satisfying was that experience? I believe you are committed to at least one more --- do you see yourself doing more beyond that?

MB:  Yeah, I do remember being a fan of the Executioner back in the day. I remember being in the barracks at Fort Polk, Louisiana during basic training and seeing some guy reading one of the novels. I asked him if I could read it when he’d finished and he gave it to me. I can’t remember the title, but it was one of the more pleasant memories of that time period. The series has been going strong all this time and has morphed and changed into what you could term the American James Bond series. When the opportunity arose for me to write an Executioner novel I jumped at the chance. I was honored to be a part of it and wanted to show my respect for Don Pendleton and the characters he created. I vowed to make it my best effort. The publisher (Harlequin) liked Sleeping Dragons so much they offered me a contract for three more novels in the series. I’m currently working on the third one in that contract. I hope to do more.

WD:  Thanks for your time and for all the enjoyment from your writing, Mike. If there's anything I failed to cover but you would like to comment on, please feel free to add something further if you wish.

MB: I think you’ve covered it all, and then some, big guy. But let me once again say thanks for giving me my start in writing fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading the next Hannibal novel.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Another Look: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II

I've been on a bit of a Sly Stallone kick lately, going back and looking at some of his earlier hits and misses. This has been partly because I've always enjoyed most of Stallone's stuff and also partly due to wanting to introduce my oldest grandson to some of it.
Bill (my grandson, who lives with me) and I go to a lot of current movies and he has enjoyed the recent Expendables films as well as the latest chapters of Rocky and Rambo --- but he had seen only bits and pieces of the early entries in the latter two series, so I've been trying to catch him up on these and other "older" films I think he'd enjoy, when and where the opportunity presents itself.
The other night he and I sat down to watch Rambo: First Blood Part II, which has always been one of my personal favorites. For me, the movie held up about as good as I remembered and Bill seemed to enjoy the heck out of it as well.
Afterwards, it occurred to me that I had done a written review of the film back when it came out in '85, in the debut issue of my Hardboiled magazine. I thought it might be fun to go back and see what I had to say then. Here it is:


This is the kind of rousing, action-packed movie that causes you to leave the theater feeling the same kind of energized exhaustion you experience after participating in hard-played athletic competition. A art of you is ready to wind down, to relax, to come off the adrenalin high, but your mind is still racing, replaying certain lines of dialogue and key scenes that charge you up all over again. You want to stop strangers in the theater lobby and ask them what they thought of it. If you were still in school, you'd make it a point to get there a little early Monday morning and find out which of your friends saw the same movie so you could begin the 'How about the time Rambo did the such-and-such' routine.

 

In short, in case you haven't figured it out by now, I liked 'Rambo'. I liked it a lot. Like all of Stallone's best work, it is a physical story that takes unabashed aim at our sentiments and follows the theme of an underdog rising up. In this case, the underdog is John Rambo, who represents the forgotten Vietnam vet and, in a larger sense, anyone who feels remorse for us 'losing' the war over there and turning our backs on those who put their lives on the line to fight it. For this reason, a lot of critics will probably take potshots at 'Rambo' for its right wing politics and gung ho Americanism. I know of one already who has chastised the film for 'racism' --- accusing it of reverting to the old Yellow Peril theme by pitting Rambo against a horde of faceless, nameless Vietnamese soldiers. Come on, for crying out loud. If you're going to do a POW rescue story set in the Far East, who the hell are you going to have for the bad guys --- albino Martians?

 

A certain amount of the film's dramatic impact may be lost on anyone who hasn't seen the original 'First Blood'. In that one you get a better feel for why John Rambo is the way he is. In this sequel, you get huge close-ups of Stallone brooding, sometimes with a faraway look in his eyes. That worked effectively for me, because I've seen the previous film. It's a good example of letting the viewer do part of the work, not slowing down the pace by putting too much into words. But, like I said, all of this might not be so clear for someone who is encountering Stallone/Rambo for the first time.

But that's a minor point. 'Rambo' is not a dramatic film. It is, above all else, an action picture and --- on that level --- it succeeds very well. Staged with state-of-the-art stunts and special effects and recorded by fantastic camera work, some of the scenes hit you like a kick in the stomach. Nevertheless, it is Stallone who makes the whole thing work. You actually believe that someone with his intensity and rugged physique could do all that Rambo does. It is primarily through him that the movie achieves its added dimension of reality, keeps it from being just a big screen TV episode.

 

The story, involving the discovery and rescue of American MIAs being held by Communist Vietnamese forces and used for slave labor, has been done before and undoubtedly will be again. But, I strongly suspect, will it be done any better. And if you don't find yourself wanting to stand up and cheer when Rambo lands a stolen helicopter in the enemy camp --- after blasting hell out of it --- and singlehandedly goes in to rescue the MIAs … well, you're probably  better off staying home and catching an old Jane Fonda flick on the tube.



If I were to review this same film today, I likely wouldn't be quite so gushing … But, by and large, I wouldn't say it a whole lot differently. It holds up pretty darn well. On this most recent viewing (somewhere around the tenth time, probably) I still liked it a lot. And so did Bill.
If you're in the mood for a good actioner and haven't seen this in a while (or ever) and you spot it listed on cable or available in a WalMart bargain bin, go ahead and check it out. I don't think you'll be sorry.

Friday, October 4, 2013

HELL UP IN HOUSTON (the Jack Laramie detective series) by Garnett Elliott

http://www.amazon.com/Houston-Drifter-Detective-Series-ebook/dp/B00F565UP4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1380901172&sr=1-1&keywords=hell+up+in+houston

This second title in the Jack Laramie series is another intriguing entry that slams the roaming PI up against some mighty hard edges and spins him around in a number of deft plot twists. The pace never lets up and, even though you know Jack is going to get his bearings and do some hard pushing back before it's all over, you're driven to keep reading in order to find out how and also learn the answers he needs before he can settle all scores.                         
Spawned by David Cranmer's popular Cash Laramie westerns, Jack is the grandson of ol' Cash who --- in place of his grandfather's U.S. Marshal star --- has taken up the plastic badge of a PI during the early post-WWII years. Unbound by a standard office in a particular city, however, Jack roams West Texas and surrounding areas hunting up cases where he finds them. He covers the miles in a hard-driven old DeSoto, pulling a horse trailer that serves as a mobile office and, as needed, his living quarters. This concept gives the overall series a nice distinction right from the get-go.
In this tale, returning to Houston is just about the last thing Jack wants to do. The last place he wants to be. But misfortune, in the form of a blown radiator on his DeSoto, plants him there … and, by the time he's ready to leave, he has even more reasons for never wanting to go back
Recommended.