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.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: I ONLY HAVE LIES FOR YOU (a Rat Pack mystery) by Robert J. Randisi

This eleventh entry in Bob Randisi's highly entertaining “Rat Pack” mystery series is another solid job. It will hook you right from the get-go, swirl you into the high-living, fast-paced world of mid-1960s Las Vegas (as well as, this time around, Miami Beach) and propel you along as fast as you can turn the pages or thumb the tab of your e-reader.
 
Once again you'll be making the rounds with Eddie “Eddie G” Gianelli, former pit boss but now unofficial fixer/troubleshooter for the Sands Casino. Moreover, Eddie has become pals with the Rat Pack crew—in particular, Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—due to past problems he has helped discreetly “handle” for them and some of their showbiz friends.
Such is the case once more when Sinatra invites Eddie to join him on a trip to Miami Beach where he'll be playing a brief engagement at the Fontanebleu. Dino will be in town too, making an appearance on Jackie Gleason's TV show that does its taping in Miami Beach. Because it is Sinatra making the request, Eddie's boss at the Sands has no qualms about grating him some time off for a little “vacation” that Eddie is certainly eager for himself.
 
Once in Miami Beach, however, Frank takes Eddie to meet “the Great One” himself, Jackie Gleason. This introduction, it turns out, is really a chance for Gleason to size up Eddie and then, liking what he sees, solicit his special services—discreetly looking into a problem the Great One is having. After all, Frank and Dino have lauded Eddie as “the guy” ... the guy who can be counted on to handle such things.
So, wanting to neither disappoint or possibly anger Frank, who obviously set up the whole thing under the guise of a “vacation, Eddie agrees to see what he can do. It starts out simply enough: Some creep seems to be stalking Jackie's girlfriend, Marilyn Taylor (sister of the famous June Taylor, who choreographs the intricate dance performances on Gleason's show); Eddie is tasked with finding out who he is, what he's up to, and stopping him from continuing. From there, things quickly start to turn un-simple. The action shifts back and forth between Vegas and Miami and along the way Eddie will run up against murder, betrayal, police corruption, mysticism, and threats to his life including becoming the apparent target of a knife-wielding “ghost” hit man no one can find a trace of except for the stabbing victims he leaves behind.
All of this is told in Randisi's lean, dialogue-driven narrative style that does a fine job of capturing the era and the settings without layering on too many details just to show he's done his research. Which, make no mistake, he has done; if he says, for example, that Sinatra was playing a gig in Miami on a certain date – he was there. The nasty deeds and shady characters and plot twists woven in and around the realities, that of course is Bob's craft and imagination at work.
 
Eddie G makes a fine protagonist. Likable, engaging, tough when he has to be, smart enough to know his limitations. When he calls on a couple of pals to assist him—mob strongarm Jerry Epstein and Vegas PI Danny Bardini—the banter and friendship between them seems real and well balanced. This is especially true with Jerry, and some of their exchanges, in particular, made me laugh out loud.
If you want a slick, fast-moving murder mystery with colorful settings and characters, plot twists galore, all told in a lean, clear narrative, you don't need to look any further than right here.
Strongly recommended.





Monday, April 30, 2018

Impactful Reads: THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963) by Mickey Spillane

For me, this is where it all started.
This book, more than anything else, is what set me firmly on the path to not only one day becoming a writer myself but also falling in love with the hardboiled framework within which I would do my writing.
Oh, I had “tinkered” with thoughts of writing and storytelling all through grade school—initially blocking out pages of paper, comic book-style, and filling the blocks with drawings and conversation balloons to tell a story; until eventually deciding I was more interested in (and better at) the writing than the drawing. And as far back as I can remember I was an avid reader—comic books, youth adventures and mysteries, young adult, Whitman editions of classics and TV show tie-ins, etc.
 
Then along came Spillane.
I bought my copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS off the spinner rack of a drug store in Antioch, Illinois. I recognized the names of Spillane and Hammer because of the old Darren McGavin TV series. I remembered liking that show when it was on, but I was soon to find out it did little to prepare me for the real thing. “The first Mike Hammer in 10 years!” read the back cover blurb of the book; and then, “Only Mickey Spillane can write them as rough, raw, and violent!” I couldn't plunk down my 50 cents down fast enough, and it was possibly the best investment I ever made.
 
In fairness, I should mention that, in this same time period, Ace paperbacks had begun re-releasing the Tarzan novels (and other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs) with those wonderful Frank Frazetta covers. These, too, factored strongly into inspiring the writer in me. The thrill and enjoyment I got from reading these works by Spillane and Burroughs (and other writers they subsequently led me to) was something I not only wanted more of but it became a goal to one day produce work of my own that would hopefully provide that same kind of enjoyment for others. And if you're thinking what a strange combination Spillane and Burroughs make, well, I can't help it—that's the way it was.
Spillane ultimately won out as far as the direction my own writing would take (though there's still a part of me that hankers to one day do something in the fantasy/high adventure mold). I think this was largely due to my blue collar background and a peripheral family influence. My folks were pretty basic, hard working, middle class types (as I consider myself, and proudly so) who didn't exactly dis-courage my writing aspirations, but neither were they enthused about it as I grew toward manhood. Telling them I was going to be writing detective mysteries or maybe Westerns was one thing; had it been forgotten realms and tales of derring do, hard to tell what their reaction might have been.
 

Getting back to THE GIRL HUNTERS. This remains my favorite Spillane book (though I tend often to think of it in conjunction with THE SNAKE, which makes a very powerful second act if for no other reason than the terrific ending). When it comes to a series of books or movies, it is sometimes hard, for me anyway, to make a distinction between favorite and best. No less a Spillane expert (not to mention colleague and collaborator in continuing the Hammer series) than Max Allan Collins considers the seven earlier Hammer books to be Spillane/Hammer at their best. Me, I consider three of the titles that came after Mickey's ten-year hiatus – from1952 to 1962 – to be his best. THE GIRL HUNTERS, THE SNAKE, and THE BODY LOVERS. But, like I said, that's where I came in and where I was first bowled over by the world of Hammer and his creator. My favorites? For sure. The best? Each can judge for him- or herself.
The premise for THE GIRL HUNTERS recognizes Hammer's absence from the scene. In this case, it's only for seven years. Velda, Hammer's beautiful and beloved secretary/partner has been missing for all that time. He sent her out on a case by herself, to guard some jewels being worn by a high society dame at a large function. Velda, the jewels, the high society dame and her husband, all come up missing and presumed dead. Hammer blames himself and goes on the skid, becoming a drunk and a has-been. Until the day a man named Richie Cole, wounded and dying, hanging on just long enough to beg for Hammer to be summoned to his bedside, whispers some startling news to Mike before he checks out. Velda is alive though in great danger – having urged Cole to contact Hammer because he is the only one “terrible enough” to do what is necessary to save her! This is a terrific set-up for everything that follows. Hammer must not only race against the forces looking to kill Velda (a team of high level Soviet assassins, it turns out, seeking to silence her for the secrets she learned after being shanghaied and then spending all this time on the run inside the Soviet bloc), but he must also dodge the cops and feds who want to know what Cole told him, while all the time fighting his own diminished capacities after being shocked out of a seven-year drunk. Along the way he meets a Spillane-special female who he almost falls in love with; he dodges bullets and those seeking to “test” him in order to find out if he's got the old moves; and engages in a brutal fight to the death with one half of The Dragon assassination team before he finally puts the last of the pieces together that will ultimately lead him to Velda.
Damn! Writing about it after all these years and even after re-reading it once again before sitting down to do this piece, the power of it still hits as hard as ever.
Two final notes about THE GIRL HUNTERS:
  1. A film version came out in connection with the paperback release of the book. It starred none other than Mickey himself as Mike Hammer. Inasmuch as he was also executive producer and screenwriter, it was, as you might guess, pretty faithful to the book. What's more, Spillane made a damn good Hammer and it was a solid crime mystery overall. With good direction and co-stars like the veteran Lloyd Nolan and the voluptuous Shirley Eaton, it deserved to get better distribution and reception than it did. The fact it had to be shot in black-and-white for budgetary reasons and the timing was such that it was going up against the just-building James Bond craze combined to make it a little-seen gem. But if you ever get the chance to catch it on cable or DVD, it's definitely worth checking out.
  2. The copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS that I bought way back in 1963 (same as the cover scan at the start of this piece) is still in my possession. That's 55 years, folks. Think it might be kinda important to me? That book has endured countless moves, adding up to several hundred miles. In those 55 years, I've lost loved ones and friends, lost my youth and my hair, lost my patience with the world and most of the people in it. Yes, I've been blessed by many things along the way, too – no complaints. But the point is: My copy of this book has been with me all the way. What's more, in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Collins' movie Mommy 2: Mommy's Day, I got it signed by the very gracious Mr. Spillane.
By this point, I trust I have impressed upon you that THE GIRL HUNTERS was/is a very important book to me.
If, for some ungodly reason, you have never read Spillane or never read this particular title, I urge you to seek it out and do so. You won't be sorry.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: THE BARTERED BODY by J.R. Lindermuth




This latest by J.R. Lindermuth is rich in atmosphere, filled with colorful characters (some quite engaging, others on the decidedly nasty side), and presents as nifty a set of mystery elements as any I've read in a good long while.
 
It is the third entry in Lindermuth's Sylvester Tilghman series—Sylvester being the sheriff of the small town of Arahpot in Jordan County, Pennsylvania, at the the turn of the twentieth century. Lindermuth paints the era and setting effectively, without slowing the pace of the story with too many period-piece details. Sylvester himself is a likable character, dogged at his job in spite of the various obstacles and distractions placed before him. Among the distractions in this particular case is an old girl friend who shows up and seems bent on re-kindling past feelings, regardless of her being married and Sylvester being thoroughly devoted to his somewhat elusive love, Lydia.
 
At the center of everything is the body of a prominent, recently deceased townswoman, stolen from the local funeral parlor just ahead of scheduled services. Add to that a crippling blizzard, a sudden string of strongarm robberies, a murder that may or may not be connected to the escalating tension of a looming strike at the local mine, and Sylvester's patience and crime-solving skills will be sorely tested before he manages to unravel everything.
 
This is all adeptly handled by Lindermuth's clean, uncluttered writing style, a sharp eye for characterization, his smooth way with plot twists. As a result, readers will be kept entertained and guessing right up to the end.
Highly Recommended.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. SPILLANE

Yesterday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane. Spillane was one of – if not THE -- most influential mystery writers of the twentieth century, certainly the last half. And surely the top seller. At one point seven of the top ten best selling mysteries carried the Spilane byline. When one of his many critics lamented that fact, Spillane famously quipped: “They're lucky I didn't write three more.”

 
I had the distinct honor and privilege of meeting and spending a couple of days around Mr. Spillane back in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Allan Collins' film, Mommy 2: Mommy's Day. In the accompanying picture, left to right, you see Mr. Spillane, Lynn F. Myers (a mutual friend), myself, and Max. Spillane had a starring role as Mommy's lawyer, I had a non-speaking bit part as a prison guard who wheels Mommy to the lethal injection chamber. (SPOILER ALERT: Mommy turns the tables so that doesn't quite work out.)
When Collins first invited me to come be a part of the filming, I naturally agreed. Then wisecracked: “Do I get to be a prison guard for the women's shower scene?” To which Max sternly replied there was no women's shower scene. Still trying to be a smart ass, I asked why do a women's prison movie without a shower scene? But Max remained unamused. He took his planned movie very seriously and rightfully so – it turned out to be an entertaining, much-acclaimed film. It's available on DVD, if you're interested – and I'm not encouraging that because of my meager part, but rather because it's a nifty little thriller that I think you will enjoy. In addition to Spillane, it stars Patty McCormick, Gary Sandy (from WKRP In Cincinatti), and Paul Peterson (from The Donna Reed Show).
 
But the main gist of this post is to recognize, on what would have been his 100th birthday, the power and importance of Mickey Spillane and his work.
Thanks to the strength of his writing and to the continuing efforts of Max Allan Collins (at the urging of Mickey before he died) to complete many of Spillane's partial manuscripts, his work continues to be enjoyed by millions yet today.
As for me, I'll always not only have the satisfaction of enjoying said work, I also will have the memory of meeting Mr. Spillane in person and finding him to be every bit as cordial and engaging as you would hope for one of your heroes (and influences) to be.
Happy birthday, Mickey!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: IN SILENCE SEALED by J.R. Lindermuth


John Lindermuth's latest entry in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series is now available in both print and eBook formats, and it is a fine addition to the series.

If you're not already familiar with Sticks and the other folks from Swatara Creek -- and their encounters both in the line of duty and their personal lives -- then you need to be. Otherwise you're missing some sure-fire reading entertainment.

"Here's what I wrote in my Amazon review for this book:
IN SILENCE SEALED is a deeply satisfying murder mystery, rich with characterization and atmosphere, wonderfully complex in its plot twists. Bullet-fast scene shifts set a lively pace that utilizes a large cast of characters, anchored by the always-reliable Sticks Hetrick, and orchestrated by the sure hand of author Lindermuth. Don't miss this latest entry in the Hetrick series!"

Not a lot more I can add, other than -- what are you waiting for? Get your copy ordered and get set for a great read. You won't be sorry.

Monday, February 12, 2018

R.I.P. BILL CRIDER

I heard the sad news a little while ago about the passing of Bill Crider. We've all known it was coming, of course, but that doesn't make it much easier. It never does in such cases; and certainly not in this one. 
I didn't know Bill extremely well. We met a couple of times at Bouchercons a number of years back and corresponded on and off afterwards. He was gracious enough to supply some blurbs and reviews for a few of my books. I also reviewed some of his -- which was no stretch since he was so talented and wrote such entertaining work. 
The closest we probably got was in the months following the passing of his beloved wife Judy. As someone who had also endured that kind of loss, I offered my condolences and we traded a number of e-mails, sharing the feelings one goes through. I'd like to think I helped him at least a little bit to endure the emptiness he was left with.
Some time last year, on the occasion of Judy's birthday (I can't determine the exact date) Bill posted on his blog what I will be sharing a little bit further on. It really struck a chord in me at the time. He stated it so beautifully. It broke my heart and I knew I would always remember it. When I heard today's news, I immediately thought of it. I think it is a fitting way to remember Bill (and his love for Judy). Here is what he wrote: 

"Judy would have been 74 today. I still think about her constantly, and one of the things I remember best is our dates at the Fort Parker State Park lake. There was a clubhouse with an outside dance floor, which you can see in the picture on the right, and we spent many nights there all year 'round. I wasn't much of a dancer, but I could dance with her to the slow numbers. We both agreed that the song that reminded us the most of those days was 'Twilight Time' by the Platters. I hope that someday Judy and I will meet again on that dance floor where we do another slow dance and I'll fall in love again, as I did then, when we're together at last at twilight time." 

I hope you will share with me in finding solace in the the thought that Bill now has his wish of be with Judy again, dancing, doing whatever -- once more by each other's side for eternity. 

 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Another Look: FIVE GUNS WEST (1955 Western, directed by Roger Corman)

This is one of those cheaply made, poorly acted B-movie entries that somehow, in spite of its shortcomings, has enough quirky, interesting touches to still make it rather appealing. And then, if/when you check into its back story (as I, being something of a film buff, tend to do) you find a number of additionally interesting facts that also add to it.

The story premise is pretty simple, if somewhat unbelievable. It takes place late in the Civil War. Five captured Union soldiers, scoundrels and murderers all, are pardoned in agreement to take on a mission for the Confederacy: Ride through Indian country to intercept a secret enemy gold shipment and the traitor who is allegedly diverting it into Union hands. The five agree to take on the job and are promptly sent to a remote stagecoach swing station where the gold shipment is expected to be passing through. Inasmuch as no Confederate soldiers can be spared to accompany them, they are (illogically) expected to honor their deal and return with both the gold and the traitor. Almost before they're out of sight, of course, they begin making plans on how they'll split the gold and ride off on their own pursuits.
The five men are: Govern Sturges (played by John Lund, a leading man of some renown from the 1940s [opposite the likes of stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Grace Kelly] but here looking sort of old and weary); Hale Clinton (played by Mike Conners of Mannix fame, billed here early in his career as “Touch” Conners); J.C. Haggard (played by popular character actor Paul Birch); and the Candy brothers, Billy and John (played, respectively, by Jonathan Haze and R. Wright Campbell [more on him a bit later]).
The men quickly begin squabbling amongst themselves as they ride through rugged country. But the threat of Indians keeps them dependent on each other. Haggard has some familiarity with the land and also with Indians. So does Sturges, who gradually comes to the fore as unofficial leader of the group. Clinton is an oily deal-maker, seeking to make a secret alliance with one of the others so that, when the time comes, he can wangle out a bigger share of the gold. The Candy brothers are an odd fit to everything, with Billy showing signs of being deranged and dangerous and his older brother John barely able to contain him.
After some Indian skirmishes, they reach the swing station where they take captive the two people who run it—a pretty young woman, Shalee Jethro (Dorothy Malone) and her drunken Uncle Mike (James Stone). While they're waiting for the stage to show up, the men quickly begin angling for a chance at Shalee. She does a pretty good job of fending them off on her own, but Sturges also steps forward as her protector. Romantic feelings develop between them and its revealed that Sturges is really a Confederate officer working undercover to make the five-man mission a success.
When the stagecoach arrives, the small contingent of Union soldiers guarding it are ambushed and killed and the traitor from inside the coach is captured. When no gold is found, however, he is forced to admit that it is on its way to California and was never on the stagecoach.
Everything breaks down at that point and a shootout erupts with the “five guns” taking sides against one another. Sturges takes refuge inside the house with Shalee and her uncle and also the captive traitor and, one by one, he prevails over the others. At the conclusion, the bodies are buried and Sturges rides off with his prisoner to rejoin the war effort, but promises Shalee he will be returning to her.

Throughout this film there are some interesting dialogue exchanges, terse and almost noirish at times. The psychotic side of Billy Candy is always simmering just below the surface and adds a tense undercurrent to any scene he is in. And Lund, whom (as stated earlier) I found rather dull and tired-looking at first, actually builds to display a low key, steadfast strength that ends up carrying much of the movie's credibility. Malone—sandwiching this between a meaty role in the highly popular BATTLE CRY only a year earlier and then an Academy Award-winning performance (best supporting actress) a year later for WRITTEN ON THE WIND, brings a solid, feisty touch to her role, but is given only a limited amount to do.

This was Roger Corman's directorial debut and was an early release for American Releasing Corporation which would soon turn into American-International and for whom Corman would go on to direct and produce many, many films, mostly low budget entries in horror/thriller/exploitation genres. Much has been written about Corman's schlock output over the years, and a certain amount of it is deserved. Nevertheless the man was responsible for a ton of output and a good share of it was fairly decent entertainment. Moreover, he was responsible for recognizing and launching the careers of many people in various capacities (acting, writing, directing, cinematography) who would go on to huge, award-winning success.
The cinematographer on FIVE GUNS WEST, for example, was Floyd Crosby, who Corman used often, and also did Award-winning work in such films as TABU, HIGH NOON, and THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.
The screenplay for FIVE GUNS was by R. Wright Campbell (who also starred as John Candy). Campbell would go on to write for numerous television shows and would receive an Academy Award nomination for the James Cagney film MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. He would eventually give up acting and writing for the screen and turn to novels. As Robert Campbell he wrote the La-La Land mystery series featuring PI Whistler and the Jake Hatch railroad detective books. For The Junkyard Dog he won an Edgar and an Anthony award.

Back stories and so forth aside, FIVE GUNS WEST is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 78 minutes. Nothing extraordinary or ground-breaking. Just a simple little Western tale with some quirky, interesting touches ... Sometimes that's all you can ask for.