Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Writer Becomes a Hero: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

Many times, we writers invent characters to project our greatest fantasies upon. Wish you were a World War II spy? Invent one. Wish you were a dashing hero in a romance? Invent one. So it came as a fun surprise when writer Lee Goldberg created a different kind of hero: a writer.

As a huge fan of the TV show “Castle,” I’m fine with lead characters being writers. Ditto for any number of Stephen King books. What makes Ian Ludlow different (albeit slightly) is that he doesn’t suddenly become a stud. Say what you will about Castle, but he became more adept at handling situations the longer the seasons went on, despite his constant man-child behavior. Ludlow doesn’t. Granted, this is his first adventure, so who knows what’s down the road for him.

Years before the opening scene of TRUE FICTION, Ludlow and a few other writers were recruited to dream up scenarios that terrorists might deploy to inflict huge amounts of damage to the US or US assets. Ludlow’s brainstorm was a plane crashing into buildings, not in a well-populated city like Houston or Denver or Los Angeles but Waikiki, Hawaii. The definition of paradise. Ludlow thought nothing of the experiment…until a plane is hijacked and crashes into a hotel in Waikiki.

Immediately, Ludlow knows he’d likely be a target. And when the other members of his secret writing group turn up dead, it is confirmed. Margo, the grad student assigned to drive Ludlow around Seattle on his book signing, quickly gets swept up in the action and the pair must escape the attempts by the secret agency who launched the attack.

Goldberg keeps the action moving along at quite a pace as befitting a thriller. But he manages to inject some humanity into Ludlow, who, more than once, wishes he was Clint Straker, the uber-hero of his own novels. Those moments are rather humorous, especially when Margo keeps reminding him of his inadequacies. And the humor sprinkled throughout the book made me chuckle more than once.

TRUE FICTION is a fun romp of a book that’ll keep you entertained from the first word to end.

Recommended.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Sometimes, a little known fact in history can spark an entire story.
THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the latest novel by Meltzer, a man who has a healthy respect, understanding, and love of history. If you haven’t read any of his books, you might know him from his TV shows “Decoded” and “Lost History.” He first came onto my radar when he wrote “Identity Crisis” for DC Comics, a graphic novel that shows actual death in the DC Universe and how it affects the characters. The ending of that story reverberated through the comics for years after, and it’s still unnerving. I read his Culper Ring Series featuring Beecher White, an archivist at the National Archives. Any author who can make an archivist a hero is a good writer. I earned two degrees in history and while I may have soured on the political aspects of being a professional historian, I still retain the passion. It’s a passion Meltzer shares and it’s why I enjoy his novels. And don’t’ even get me started on his awesome series of kids’ books focusing on heroes for his son and his daughter.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, Meltzer’s excitement for THE ESCAPE ARTIST was palpable. His social media and his newsletter (sign up herehttp://bradmeltzer.com/) was filled with anticipation that we would soon meet Nola Brown. She is one of the two protagonists in the new book. Taking a page from lost history, Meltzer made Nola the official painter of the US military. Ever since World War I, the military have hired a painter to capture things a photograph cannot: the anguish of war and what it really means. She doesn’t show up for a little while in the book, but her presence does.

The opening chapter shows a military plane taking off from somewhere in Alaska. Soon thereafter, it crashes, but not before the unnamed female character has a chance to write a last message. The message is received by the other protagonist, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who works at Dover Air Force Base. This base is where all our fallen soldiers arrive after they die in service to our country. Zig and the other morticians help to give families closure by fixing up the dead. When the name “Nola Brown” comes across the big board, Zig personally takes it upon himself to work on her corpse. You see, Nola helped saved the life of Zig’s daughter back when they were Girl Scouts. It doesn’t matter that his daughter died a year after that; Nola gave Zig the extra time, and for that, he’ll pay the debt. But the woman identified as Nola Brown is, in fact, not Nola at all. Zig would know because of a particular physical mark on the real Nola. This unidentified woman’s identity is specifically being targeted so as to wipe away Nola’s existence. What gives Zig even more pause is the note he finds in the most unlikely of places: on a piece of paper in the dead woman’s stomach.  You see, if a person wanted to pass along a message in the seconds before a disaster strikes (like a plane crash), the person can write a note and swallow it. The stomach acids will preserve the paper and the message. It happened in real life on 9/11with one of the people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Meltzer took that unknown piece of history and wove it into a spectacular story.

The narrative is divided into two main POVs: that of Zig and Nola. Often, we get “This is Nola at age sixteen” or “This is Nola at age ten” segments where a particular moment of his life is revealed, giving us a greater understanding of what makes her tick. I listened to the audio with my favorite narrator, Scott Brick, is teamed up with January LaVoy who reads Nola’s parts. The combination is fantastic.

As is the story. There are too many layers to note here without spoiling the fun of this book. In January, I discovered THE SHADOW novels from the 1930s and thoroughly devoured all that were available on Audible. Now, I’ve moved on to the reprints in my library. In breathless prose, Meltzer’s writing is clean and precise as always, delivering a bonanza of excitement that would have been right at home in the heyday of pulp fiction, with a heroine who can stand alongside The Shadow himself.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Online Identity or What URLs to Use

I’ve been planning out the new 2018 changes for my writing business and a question came to mind: when it comes to our online presence, are readers more likely to remember an author’s name or an author’s publishing house?
I think the answer is self-explanatory but let me tell you why I’m asking.

Currently, I maintain three websites: a blogspot one (my first and the one I’ve turned into my western pen name site); my mystery one (scottdennisparker.com), and one for my publishing company (quadrantfictionstudmio.com). It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to maintain, but I’m considering streamlining everything down to one, perhaps two sites. Ditto for my mailing lists (I have two). Longterm strategy is to convert at least one of my sites into an online store.

The majority of authors have websites keyed to their names: James Patterson, J. F. Penn, Dean Wesley Smith, Russell Blake, Mark Dawson, etc. A few, however, use a publishing house to serve at the main online presence. Kevin J. Anderson comes to mind (wordfire.com), the fellas at Sterling and Stone, and a few more. If you google “Kevin J. Anderson,” the first link is wordfire, complete with a tagline indicating it’s the office home of Anderson. When you consider ebook links are all hidden anyway, the actual URL doesn’t matter. Plus, readers are, by and large, computer savvy, so they’d be able to find a website.

But it’s our job as author to make it easier.

So, what do y’all do? Have a URL with your name or promote your publishing company? Or both?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Crushing Weight of Canon

At my book club this past Tuesday, we discussed Andy Weir’s new novel, ARTEMIS. Generally, we all liked it. The grades for all five of us averaged out to somewhere in the B range. One of our fellows—the one who gave it the lowest grade—said this about the book: without the nifty descriptions of the workings of Artemis, the only city on the moon, the book and plot are quite slight.  Another person asked what has become, perhaps, an obvious question in this modern day and age: Did we think ARTEMIS had any connection or lived in the same universe as Weir’s other novel, THE MARTIAN?
The question led us down a rabbit trail of observations. ARTEMIS is a slim book and it achieved a good blend of world building without pages and pages of backstory and exposition. The talk quickly went back to the classic SF novels of the 1950s through the 1970s when major classics like RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA were not very thick. More importantly with RAMA, not all questions were answered. Why? One possibility was that Arthur. C. Clarke wanted readers to think, to wonder, and, perhaps, to finish the book each in their own way.

Cut to modern times. For this mental exercise, I’m landing more or less at 1980. In the past four decades, we have seen the rise of thicker and thicker genre novels with tons of world building. Some readers are cool with that. I am, too, but only to a degree. In addition, there was the rise of role playing game source books, with every minute detail laid out for the players to pore over, memorize, and internalize. More and more media products—books, comics, movies, TV, games—all began to have their own internal source bibles, a canon. The original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories are called “The Canon.” Serialized TV shows began to have an overarching “mythology” and writers of all stripes were steered back into the canonized boundaries.

That’s all well and good and I frankly love it when a later-season episode of The X-Files refers back to something I remembered from season 1. I’m a fan. I dig it. Ditto for Batman comics and Marvel movies and even modern-day Doc Savage novels. Speaking of Savage, when Philip Jose Farmer went to craft his "biography" of Doc, Farmer said he had the devil of a time because he was having to codify—Canonize—the work of a dozen authors over 181 novels all to meet a deadline.

But along the way, The Canon (and here, I use it in a general sense for any given property) begins to weigh down imagination. The most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was, I think, burdened with the crushing weight of Canonized Star Wars. Force projection? That can’t be done. Force Space Flying? That can’t be done. Ships jumping to light speed against and through another ship? That can’t be done.

Why? Because canon dictated it.

Well, so what?

On the one hand, director and writer Rian Johnson probably butted up against established canon and had someone tell him ‘no.’ On the other hand, his decision was to burst the bubble of canon and tell a story outside the canon. Granted, he has now made new canon and has expanded the boundaries of what can be done with Star Wars, but that’s kind of what I’m talking about. The boundaries of certain properties get so rigid that someone needs to come along and just blow them up and reform them anew. Give writers a chance to expand a canon while still respecting it. More often than not, the breath of fresh air given a property will satisfy.

Oh, and we all agreed that ARTEMIS and THE MARTIAN are likely not in the same universe. We all agreed that it was a good thing. Two stories, well told, and each could be enjoyed on their own.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Batman and Bill (Finger): The Search for Justice

Justice. That’s the one word that comes to mind when I watched the recently documentary by Mark Tyler Nobleman about the life of Bill Finger

Do you know that name? Well, if you don’t, perhaps you know the the character he co-created: Batman. If you are like me and you’ve read Batman comics for any length of time, you know the name of the man solely credited as the sole creator of the Dark Knight from 1939 onward. That man’s name is Bob Kane. In the heady days after Superman debuted in 1938, the company that eventually became DC Comics asked Kane to come up with a new hero. He came up with “The Bat-Man,” a red-garbed hero with a domino mask and a black, scalloped cape. Kane ran the drawing by his friend, Bill Finger, and Finger re-engineered the character into the hero we know today. He also created many of the ancillary characters: Robin, Joker, Catwoman, Scarecrow, Commissioner Gordon, and Gotham City itself.

And yet you probably don’t even know Finger’s name. Based on Nobelman’s documentary, the person single-handedly responsible for for marginalizing Finger was Kane himself. In 1965, Kane responded to what is likely the first public history of Finger’s contribution…and Kane flatly refuted Finger’s version of history. Finger died less than a decade later, alone, unknown, and all but penniless.

Nobleman is a writer who learned of Finger’s contribution to Bat-history and set out to do one simple thing: get Bill Finger credit as co-creator on comic books, movies, and TV shows. The documentary is a step-by-step story filled with photos, interviews with relatives and business associates, and audio clips of Finger himself. Most charmingly, however, are moving comic-book like illustrations to depict certain events like Finger’s life at the end, the meeting of Kane and Finger, and even Nobleman’s own research.

That research caused a groundswell among the fans that ultimately compelled Finger’s only living descendant—his granddaughter—to pursue the great cause. If you’ve seen the 2016 movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you know the answer.

Mark Tyler Nobleman sought justice for Bill Finger. He passed the baton off to the Finger family and earned the justice Bill Finger deserved. It makes you want to have documentaries like this for all the Golden and Silver Age creators so that they’ll all have screen and print credit.

If you are interested to know all the details, carve out 90 minutes and watch this compelling documentary from Hulu.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Gospel of Creativity with Kevin Smith

(The news of Kevin Smith's near fatal heart attack stunned me yesterday. He's a little under two years younger than I am. His heartfelt post about his near-death experience moved me to verify with my family if they knew how much they meant to me if I were to pass in an instant. I have grown to love and admire Smith's brand of optimistic fandom. The world needs more of what he's offering.

This is a piece I wrote in August 2015 after seeing Smith live. It was an event.

In his tweet, Smith wrote that he didn't want his life to end, but if it did, "I can't complain. It was a gift."

Kevin, your work has been a gift to us. Thank you, and get well soon.)

--------------------

I went to "church" on Wednesday night and the preacher was Kevin Smith.

Some of you will probably stop reading right now. Kevin Smith? The independent director of films like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Jersey Girl"? The guy who has a few dozen podcasts and fills them with talk of film and comics and humor all laced with profanities? Yup, that's the one.

I'm unique in the world of Kevin Smith fandom. I've never seen any of his films. I know him as a podcast personality. Three years ago, while listening to the podcast from SF Signal, there was mention of "...a Batman podcast by filmmaker Kevin Smith where he talks to Mark Hamill." All I heard was "Batman" and "Mark Hamill." The definitive voice of the Joker as far as I was concerned. I listened and fell in love with Fatman on Batman podcast. I've written about it more than once. (here, here, here, and here). Add in Hollywood Babble-On and  I have some great content for the week that includes the wonderfully talented Ralph Garman. 

Cut to a few weeks ago and word came down that Kevin Smith was going to be live in Houston. I knew I had to get tickets. A couple of friends and I met at the Improv Wednesday night. We got there at 7pm for the 8pm show. It started at 8:30...and didn't stop until 12:10am! No breaks. What followed in between was one part comedy show, one part great stories, and a huge, heaping helping of a motivational speaker who preached the gospel of creativity so well that if I hadn't already started my own company and published two books would've had me going home to write a business plan.

The format was Q&A and Smith joked that he might be able to get through five, maybe six questions. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. What is great about podcast--not just Smith's--is that there is no ticking clock or commercials butting up against the host to curtail discussion. There have been many times when an interview goes multiple parts. I love it because you can really dig deep and ask questions we listeners want to know. I assumed that in a live setting, some of that would actually be trimmed.

I assumed wrong. For each question asked, Smith gave the audience member his full attention. The answers were in depth and, dare I say it, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor in that whatever rabbit trail Smith traveled, he always came back around to the question asked. And the rabbit trails were so fun. A year or so younger than me, Smith basically loved the same things i loved as a kid: Batman, comics, and Star Wars. He has made a name for himself just being himself. He just has twenty something years in the film industry to bolster his heritage.

What really struck me was his passion for independent creativity. One of the questions involved a podcast. Smith paused to give an impassioned tangent about the power one individual can have in this world through podcasting. He used podcasting as a real-world example but basically said that any art can save lives. He talked so well and deeply that I wasn't the only one who picked up on his motivational style. Heck, there were so many good nuggets that I flipped over the comment cards and started taking notes. Yeah, I know: I’m odd, but when you hear words of wisdom from a guy who’s been in the fray, you take notice. Among the things I took away, in case you can’t read my scribble, are these:

  • There’s too much ‘Why’ in the world. Go for “Why not?”
  • Find something that’s yours.
  • Don’t be afraid of your thing not working.
  • Put some ‘secret sauce’ in your project, something that just for you.
  • Ask yourself: What would make your bliss?
  • Smith made “Clerks” because he kept looking for a movie like it and realized it was never going to be made unless he made it. (Of all the things I’ve heard Smith say, this one resonates most with me.)

There were others, but those are the highlights. Oh, and he talked extensively about “Tusk,” the movie he made last year. He told about its genesis (via a podcast), how his daughter had a part (as a convenience store clerk), and how Johnny Depp got involved merely by Smith taking a chance and asking a question.

I absolutely loved the show and the message of independent creativity. I’m already doing the independent publishing thing (new western short story and new Benjamin Wade novel coming next month). Now, I just have to go watch some Kevin Smith films.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Shadow: The Black Falcon

THE BLACK FALCON is not only the fourth Shadow novel I’ve read in 2018 but my fourth one overall. And, to date, it might be my favorite for all the action, mystery, and zeal of the storytelling.

As the story opens, Rowdy Kershing is at a poker game amongst his criminal brethren. When he loses his winnings, he needs to buy more chips. He does so with a fat wad of money he makes sure all around him see. What he hides is the presence of a falcon’s feather, dyed black. For Rowdy has been assigned a task: recruit some “gorillas” to be of service to the super criminal, The Black Falcon, who has already kidnapped one millionaire and taunts the police that he’ll do it again.

But as gruff a talker as Rowdy is, he pales when the Knight of Darkness enters the room. They all do. Action ensues and Rowdy squeals like a rat.

The next set piece is the preparations the police deployed to protect Elias Carthers, the next millionaire on The Black Falcon’s list. This is a great action sequence mainly for how it plays out and the clues it reveals. I know that in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, authors frequently left clues for the readers to draw their own conclusions. Pulp fiction was not too known for that, but the clues in this sequence are plain to see.

It is after these scenes where The Shadow, in disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston, takes action not in Shadow garb. Again, I’m too new at reading these stories to know if this is normal or special, but I’m guessing it’s likely normal, seeing as how The Shadow inserts himself as Cranston into the action.

And by poking his nose into the action gets Cranston in hot water. You see, he’s a millionaire and he walks directly into the clutches of The Black Falcon. From here to the end, the action is fantastic, the revelations are eye-opening, and the ending is outstanding in a “how will he get out of this” manner.
Perhaps the reason I like this one so much is the similarities to the villains of Batman. The Joker or The Riddler rarely commit their crimes without letting everyone know ahead of time, and The Black Falcon is right in that wheelhouse. Surprisingly, the Falcon makes some deductions of his own, and that got me to worrying for The Shadow’s safety. This novel is from February 1934 so I needn’t have worried. There was still going to be another fifteen years of stories, but still.

At one point, The Shadow reveals his true face to another character…and author Walter Gibson doesn’t describe the face! He only describes the reactions of the other character. I found that simultaneously great and frustrating. Who really is The Shadow? And what must his visage look like to bring such dread?

Of the new productions by Audible, THE BLACK FALCON is not a full-cast recording but a single narrator. Thankfully, it’s the same narrator as the full-cast versions so there is continuity.
For those of y’all who have never read a Shadow novel, here is a good one with which to start. It’s got all the pieces in place for a rip-roaring pulp adventure tale.

Partners in Peril
The Shadow Unmasks
The Romanoff Jewels

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Shadow: The Romanoff Jewels

In the third Shadow novel I’ve read (actually heard; thanks Audible!), THE ROMANOFF JEWELS begins in the apartment full of wealthy men. Author Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson) tells the reader who they are and why they’re there. One of those men is Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as…The Shadow.

Another one of those gentlemen is Marcus Holtmann. Unpretentious, Holtmann has a secret buried deep in his brain, a secret other men desperately want. You see, a friend of Holtmann’s casually let slip the hiding place of the Romanoff jewels, the very jewels seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917 when they overthrew—and murdered—Czar Nicholas II and his family. Priceless in value, nefarious men want to steal the jewels and return the czars to power. To bring out his knowledge, Holtmann is kidnapped and tortured by the insidious Michael Senov for the information.

Naturally the Shadow deduces Holtmann’s whereabouts and does his best to save the man’s life. But he was a few minutes too late. Holtmann was poisoned! With his dying breaths, Holtmann relates to The Shadow all that he divulged to Senov. Armed with that knowledge, The Shadow races across the Atlantic to thwart the attempt.

I won’t give away the ending here, but I’ll just say that a piece of information The Shadow relates I didn’t see coming…but it makes all the sense in the world.

This being only my third Shadow novel, I don’t know how prevalent it was for the Knight of Darkness to travel outside the confines of New York or even America, but I appreciated how, to the European adversaries he encountered, The Shadow was a complete unknown. At least the gangsters in The Big Apple are smart enough about The Shadow to be scared. In addition, I liked how The Shadow got injured at one point, so badly that he needed to be nursed back to health, once again proving he is simply a man.

Which leads to a question I hope long-time fans of The Shadow can answer: is there ever a novel in which author Walter Gibson relates The Shadow’s training?

I’m not sure what criteria Audible used to choose which Shadow novels they produced, but I think him traveling abroad might be high on the list. Or the great ending. PARTNERS IN PERIL is a good one because of how it was used in the first Batman story. THE SHADOW UNMASKS was a natural choice that The Shadow’s origin was reveal. THE ROMANOFF JEWELS not only had foreign travel but the revelation of a key aspect of The Shadow’s legacy.

I am thoroughly enjoying these books. Next up: THE BLACK FALCON.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eighty-five Years of Doc Savage

Eighty-five years ago today, Doc Savage landed on magazine shelves for the first time and, one might argue, helped change popular culture all the way up to the present day.

The brainchild of Street and Smith publisher, Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, Doc Savage was the brighter answer to the magazine’s other runaway bestseller, The Shadow. But where the Knight of Darkness fought crime at night and in the, um, shadows, The Man of Bronze was a different type of hero. He strove “every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.” He was a paragon of virtue, the kind of person kids could look up to and revere.

Clark Savage, Jr. appeared in 181 adventures from 1933 to 1949, mostly written by a single author, Lester Dent. In nearly all of them, he was accompanied by his five stalwart brothers in arms: Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, John Renwick, Long Tom Roberts, and William Littlejohn. Each man of the Fabulous Five was an expert in his chosen discipline, but Doc bested each. Doc had trained his mind and body since birth to be a superman. He even had a Fortress of Solitude where he would retire from time to time to study. Invariably he would emerge from his seclusion with some new invention, knowledge, or something else to benefit humankind. His headquarters on the 86th Floor of the unnamed building in New York (but we all knew was the Empire State Building) was a palace of gadgets, technology, and books where Doc and his comrades planned their adventures. And his villains were trying to take over the world long before Lex Luther or Blofeld.

If you’ve read this far, I think you will recognize some names and terms. The obvious descendant is Superman himself. Extrapolate, if you will, what Superman wrought: Batman, DC Comics, other superheroes, Marvel Comics, novels, toys, merchandise, movie serials, major motion pictures with superheroes, and many other things that shape large chunks of popular culture. In fact, the biggest superhero movie to date, The Avengers: Infinity War, can trace its roots all the way back to a pulp magazine character that debuted eight-five years ago today.

I am woefully deficient in my Doc Savage reading, but then just imagine reading one novel a month at the pace Lester Dent and a handful of other co-writers drafted the books. You would finish in 2034! But these stories are fantastic to dip into from time to time for the breathless sense of adventure and wonder.

Generations of readers grew up on the original pulp magazines while other generations were raised on the Bantam reprints of the 1960s and 1970s, with Frank Bama's depiction of Doc with a widow's peak and a tattered shirt.

Nostalgia Ventures reprinted the entire run, adding historical commentary. And Will Murray has been using abandoned outlines from Dent’s personal papers to write new adventures, including one in which Doc teams up with The Shadow, bringing the entire saga full circle.

Now, in this 85th year of Doc Savage, I plan to read a few more adventures, including the black-and-white comics from the mid 70s as published by Marvel Comics. I'll be reviewing these yarns as I get to them, beginning with The Polar Treasure next week. 

What are your favorite Doc Savage stories? How about a Top 10 list?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Passing of Bill Crider

Even when you know the ending was approaching, it doesn’t lessen the impact when it arrives.

Bill Crider passed away last night. My deepest condolences to his family.

For all of us who knew him, he was a kind, honest man who warmly said hello whenever he saw you. I shared my thoughts about him back in December, which I now include here:

By the time I stuck my toe into the ocean that is blogging, Bill Crider was a veteran sea captain.

His was one of the first names I kept seeing pop up over and over again in comments. Slowly but surely, in reading his comments on other blogs and especially on his own blog, I got a sense of who Bill is and the kinds of stories he enjoys. I can tell you that the day he wrote his first comment on one of my own blogs was a great day. When he namedropped my blog on his “Blog Bytes” column in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I knew I had stepped onto the stage. For so many of us writers who “came of age” in the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, I honestly think it’s a rite of passage for Bill to have read your blog and commented on it.


He has a kind, jovial face that radiates warmth and charm and a personal demeanor to match. Nevertheless, the first time in which I saw him in person, at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I grew nervous. I’m a fanboy in that I love seeing writers in person but, back then, reserved enough not to want to bother them. It was Bill’s easy-going personality that immediately put all those fears to rest. He greeted me like an old friend, smiled, and asked me about my writing. I found it odd that an accomplished writer would care about a newbie, but that’s Bill’s way. He cares about the genre, the writing, and the people behind the writing. At one meeting, right after hello, his first comment was to congratulate me on a new story. He was nice enough to respond to emails when I would send a few cover concepts to him, encouraging me all the way. He made me feel welcome, and I pass it on all the time to every writer I meet.

Godspeed, Bill. Thank you for your kind words and advice.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Night Manager TV Series

If you read the rumors about whom might replace Daniel Craig back in 2016, you would have heard Tom Hiddleston’s name bandied about. And, Daniel Craig returns for his fifth and final bow as 007, we viewers have been treated to a glimpse of what a Hiddleston-as-Bond might be like in BBC’s “The Night Manager.”

Based off a 1993 John Le Carre novel, The Night Manager has been updated to modern times. The six-episode series opens with Hiddleston serving as the night manager in a Cairo hotel during the Arab Spring. Most of the action takes place outside the doors of the hotel, but a fetching woman, Sophie, the mistress of local big shot Freddie Hamid, asks Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine to copy some documents. A former soldier, Pine is horrified to read a list of weapons, including chemical weapons, as sold by Ironlast, the front company for notorious arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Pine sends the list up to London and where Oliva Colman’s character, intelligence operative Angela Burr, sees it and realizes this is a vital clue to bring down Roper. Unfortunately for Sophie, Hamid believes her to be the leak and she is killed.

And Pine drops out of sight for four years. When next we meet him, he is working in Switzerland hotel and is tasked with welcoming none other than Roper and his moll, Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). He can barely stomach the man, but puts on a professional face. Until Angela Burr approaches him about going under cover. To do the right thing. Of course Pine says yes or else we wouldn’t have enough to fill up six hours.

What follows is mostly standard fare for spy shows, but the three lead actors help carry The Night Manager above other movies or TV series of its type. The lengths Pine goes to in order to get inside Roper’s inner circle had me asking if I could do it. Likely not. But Hiddleston’s charm in on full display in every scene. He may not be Bond, but he would have been a decent one, probably a little harder edged than Pierce Brosnan but not as masculine as Craig or Sean Connery. Speaking of Bond, the opening title montages is straight out of the Bond playbook as is the music.

Hugh Laurie was a nice surprise for me. I never watched his TV show, “House,” or most of his other movies. In fact, the only thing I can truly remember him in is the live action “101 Dalmatians.” But he plays a bad guy very well. He’s eerie calm, which makes him all the more dangerous. And when he stares at Pine or other characters, silently studying them, it’s a penetrating, withering stare.

The Night Manager is full of tropes and, for the most part, the show steers away from all but the most obvious choice. The one trope that I constantly wonder about is the villain inviting the hero into the evil inner circle. Why do that? Is it born out of excessive suspicion? That isn’t the case with Roper and Pine but it still made me wonder.

What are y’all’s thoughts on The Night Manager? Did the tropes bother you?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Longarm and the Border Wildcat

In the 229th adventure of Custis Long, U.S. Marshal, he acquires a partner in the most Longarm-ish way possible: a fight over a woman.

Just as the voluptuous red-headed Anne Marie is about to lead Longarm up some stairs to her boudoir, a bearded, beefy hombre questions the federal lawman about his intentions with "my girl." The brawl ensues and both men get in their licks under the man, Lazarus Coffin, produces his Texas Ranger badge. Longarm laughs and trumps the state badge with his federal one. It is only then they realize they are both in Del Rio, Texas, for the same reason: to provide security during a delicate negotiation between diplomats from America and Mexico.

This being an adult western, naturally there is yet another woman. She is Sonia Guiterrez, sultry daughter of the Mexican diplomat, Don Alfredo. She in openly wanton in her wants and desires and she teases just about every man in every scene in which she appears. Naturally, her father is unaware, but Coffin and Longarm aren't. Thus begins a rivalry between the two men to see who can bed the temptress. Guess who wins.

Another factor is at play in this story: a mysterious marauder, El Aguila. The local owlhoots who ride through the streets and shoot up the town are alleged to be members of his gang. That may be so, but if they are his men, the leader himself proves too elusive.

Longarm and Coffin chaff at the boredom of standing guard while the diplomats negotiate, but that lull is quickly dispatched when El Agulia's gang again rides into town. This time, however, they kidnap Sonia. When asked why she was out of her hotel room, Longarm doesn't answer that he and Sonia were having a rendezvous in an alley.

Naturally, the two lawmen must pursue the kidnappers and bring back the lovely Sonia. Along the way, they meet El Aguila himself, sling lead with the bandits, and uncover the truth behind the entire scheme.

As always, these Longarm westerns are fun, action-packed, and a joy to read. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the more cautious and reasoned Longarm and the brash Coffin. This one was written by James Reasoner.  I emailed him and asked if Coffin ever showed up again in a future Longarm novel he wrote. He said no, so this is your one and only time to meet the big Ranger.

Speaking of Ranger, I also got a smile on my face when Reasoner namedropped "Jim Hatfield" as one of the Texas Rangers Longarm wished had been sent to Del Rio. Hatfield was the lead character written by Bradford Scott in the old pulp magazine TEXAS RANGER. Speaking of old pulp characters, there's another one hidden in plain sight. Read this book and see if you can identify the character.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

January Reading Report

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about how well my wife read in 2017 and how poorly did I. She has a habit I called “mindful reading,” which is nothing less than reading a single book at a time without being distracted by other books. Maybe it should be called “non-ADHD reading.” No matter the term, she reads a book, finishes it, and then moves on.

Why not try it myself?

No reason at all. So in January, I set about reading mindfully. I selected a book and read nothing else until I finished it. My only bonus: I simultaneously read a physical book while listening to others during my day job commute. But the main thing was whatever book I was reading/listening to, I finished it.

And I ended up completing eight books in that single month!

Yeah, some of them were shorter pulp novels from the 1930s but they were books. And I consumed eight of them. I was really thrilled and I realized how simple a thing it is to choose a book and just focus on it. None of them were bad—because I will not finish bad books. Life’s too short to read bad books.

Here is what I read and the format:
So much for January. I don’t expect every month to be this productive but it was nice to start the year off on the right step.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Shadow: The Shadow Unmasks

Hot on the heels of my first Shadow novel, PARTNERS IN PERIL, I have now read my second, THE SHADOW UNMASKS. And I loved it just as much.

In order to kick start my Shadow experience, I decided to listen to the new productions at Audible Studios. They feature a main narrator and multiple voice actors for the cast. Both I’ve heard are fantastic and recommended. As a result, however, I’m reading these Shadow novels out of order, which means what I learned in UNMASKS surprised me.

Up until now, I’ve always thought The Shadow was, in fact, Lamont Cranston. If my memory serves me, that simple one-to-one equation was on the radio shows and it certainly was on the Alec Baldwin movie. As I started in with UNMASKS, I was expecting the same, and it started out that way until the story took an interesting turn.

The main plot of UNMASKS involves a crook named Shark Meglo (great name!). He and his gang have a straightforward plan: find, attack, and kill the buyers of some rare and valuable gems before the buyer can utter the name of the seller. For you see, the master crook behind the entire operation recycles the gems in new settings. Every three weeks or so a new member of the wealthy class dies. All of them had recently purchased gems.

Naturally, the story begins with the most recent murder. The Shadow tries to thwart Shark’s evil plans…but fails. He learns vital clues to what’s going on, however, information needed to prevent the next death. But a distant accident lands on the front pages of New York’s newspapers. A plane accident in England injured a few Americans. The story not only listed the names of the individuals but splashes their photos. There, for all to see, is the real Lamont Cranston. The problem is, especially if you are police commissioner Ralph Weston, who reads the newspaper standing outside the Cobalt Club, is that you are literally talking to Lamont Cranston. Only it’s The Shadow in his disguise. There follows a fun subterfuge as the Agents of The Shadow basically try and convince Weston that he didn’t really see Lamont Cranston but Cranston’s nephew. And the commissioner bought it.

The odd turn the story took for me was when Kent Allard, famed aviator who crashed in the Guatemalan jungle a dozen years ago, has made a reappearance. He arrives in New York to great fanfare and very quickly, we learn Allard is really The Shadow. And, lest anyone (me included) wasn’t hip on how it all shook down back then, The Shadow visits the house of an old ally, Slade Farrow (another great name!) and reveals his true identity, complete with the entire background. The reasoning is spot on—The Shadow uses the identity of Cranston as long as Cranston stays out of New York—but I couldn’t help wondering how many times in this series and, of course, the comic book masked heroes, that the characters revealed their identity to others. It also makes me wonder if, after this August 1937 issue (number 131 overall) if Lamont Cranston was ever used again. Long-time readers of The Shadow: please let me know.

Anyway, after that startling revelation, the story continued until the inevitable end. Two things struck me about this ending. One, the big finale was somewhat low key. I guess you can’t have every novel end in a big shoot-out or something. The second thing was that The Shadow is very much like Sherlock Holmes in that he knows the likely ending far in advance and just moves the various chess pieces along the way, usually with his agents none the wiser.

I’ve now read two Shadow novels and I’m not gonna stop now. They are a blast. And, as a lifelong Batman fan, I’m really fascinated to research more in depth how Bill Finger drew on his love of The Shadow and helped shape the Dark Knight Detective.

So, fellow Shadow fans, where does this story rank in the all-time list?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

P. D. James and the Golden Age of Detecitve Fiction

I can’t recall why I bought P. D. James’s slim volume TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION but I’m sure glad I did. It’s been on my shelf, unread, since 2014, but as part of my mindful reading regimen—to say nothing of my lovely new commute here in Houston—I knocked out the audio in record time.

As James points out in her introduction, this book resulted from a request to speak about the history of detective fiction. She takes us through a history of the genre, starting mainly with Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, with a nod to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin. Most of this section of the book covers ground I pretty much knew, but I appreciated James’s viewpoint.

After a necessary but brief examination of Dashielle Hammett and Raymond Chandler, it is when James migrates to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (i.e., between the world wars) that the book really took off. I’m not as familiar with stalwarts like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers so I soaked in as much as I could. I find myself actually wanting to read a book or two from these expert practitioners.

And that is where yall come in.

I’m mostly familiar with crime novels. You know the ones: Lehane, Connolly, Pelecanos, and the other folks here at Do Some Damage. In addition, with the true Golden Age of Detective Fiction nearing the century mark, those author names are pretty well known.

But what about nowadays?

Who are the authors who have picked up the baton of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and are carrying it into the 21st Century? Who are the big names? Who are the new indie names? I want to expand my reading in 2018 and I want to read more of this type of fiction.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Remembering Terry Kath, The Soul of Chicago

Forty years ago today, founding member of Chicago, guitarist, Terry Kath, died, and, arguably, the band was never the same.

I wasn’t aware of whom Kath was four decades ago—heck, I’d never heard of the band back then—but I know him now. I was one of those 80s kids who discovered Chicago with ‘17’ and wondered why in the world the band would name their album with that number. “Oh, you mean there are sixteen other albums? Cool!” Little by little, album by album, I collected their complete discography and learned that the band’s sound in 1985 was markedly different than the sound in their first (introductory) years of the  late 60s and early 70s. Two things stood out: the horns, specifically the intricacy of the arrangements, and the guitar player. In those pre-internet days, I can’t remember how I learned about Kath’s tenure and his untimely death, but I did. In the late 80s, we had Bill Champlin filling in the soulful vocals and DaWayne Bailey doing 80s guitar fireworks with the best of them. But over time, when all the songs and the history permeated my mind and memory, one thing became clear: Terry Kath was irreplaceable.

The older I’ve become, the more I gravitate to the Columbia-era material, namely the first eleven albums. Chicago had a sound with Kath leading the band that hasn’t been replicated in the four decades of his absence. If you watch any of those early shows—specifically Tanglewood 1970 in total and "25 or 6 to 4" specifically—you will see a band hungry, on fire, being led by one of the best rock guitarists ever. That was Chicago: raw talent honed to scratchy perfection over the band’s first decade of existence.

I completely admire and respect the band’s difficult navigation through five decades of music. Few bands reach that longevity. They deserve our applause. If they had packed it in after Kath’s death, it would have taken me a lot longer to discover them, but discover them I would have. I’m a sax player and I gravitate to horn rock bands.

They are one of my two favorite bands of all time. I will always love them and their music. I love Robert Lamm’s smooth vocals and politically charged lyrics, giving the early band its brain and conscious. I love Peter Cetera’s McCartney-esque bass playing and his high tenor voice, giving the band a Beatles-eque vibe. I love Danny Serephine’s spectacularly complex drumming, giving the band its beating heart. I love the combined sound of the triple horn section—Jimmy Pankow’s trombone (and terrific songwriting); Lee Loughnane’s trumpet; and Walt Parazaider’s saxophones—for being the fourth ‘voice’ in the band and proving you can be cool to be a horn player.

And I love Terry Kath’s contributions. He wrote the band’s mission statement song (and my favorite Chicago song) “Introduction.” His soulful voice blended well into the cachophony of sound coming out of our speakers. His reckless and relentless spirit drove the band to experiment and push the envelope of what a ‘rock band with horns’ could be. And his guitar playing is almost second to none (I’ll objectively give Hendrix the edge), giving the band a hard edge they needed to stand out in a crowded musical field.


Most of all, however, I love that Terry Kath was the soul of Chicago.  A soul that was shattered forty years ago today. The surviving members have done their best to collect the pieces and forge them back together—mostly to smashing success—but there will always be a part missing that cannot be replaced.

But we have the music, and we’ll have it forever. Kath said it best himself in “Introduction,” the opening song from the first album.

Now we put you through the changes
And turned around the mood
We hope it’s struck you different
And hope you feel moved
So forget about your troubles
As we search for something new
And we play for you

Boy, did they!



If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely must view The Terry Kath Experience, a documentary made by his daughter, Michelle Sinclair.

Here is my personal list of favorite Terry Kath songs, including vocals, guitar work, and songwriting. What are yours?

Introduction
Poem 58
Liberation
The Road (as writer)
In the Country
Colour My World
25 or 6 to 4
It Better End Soon (all three, especially on Live at Carnegie Hall)
Sing a Mean Tune Kid
Now That You’ve Gone
Dialogue
Alma Mater
A Song for Richard and His Friends
What’s This World Comin’ To?
Aire
Italian from New York
Byblos
Woman Don’t Want to Love Me (guitar!)
Oh, Thank You Great Spirit
Once or Twice
Mississippi Delta City Blues
Takin’ it on Uptown
This Time (guitar!)
Little One (his last, poignant vocals)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is there such a thing as book addiction?

In 2018, I have started reading more mindfully. That is: choose a book, read it and finish it without being distracted by another book along the way. Note: this doesn’t apply to books I dislike. I have, and will continue to stop reading those. But the corollary to reading mindfully is to read the books on my shelves. And I have a lot of them, so many, in fact, that in order to declutter my office, I stored many in boxes and moved those boxes out of the office. What is left are the books highest on my reading list. The office is neater and my TBR pile is…still pretty huge.

But as I packed those books in boxes, I got to thinking why I had so many. It’s mainly  because I bought them all. And the reason I bought them at the time was that I wanted to read them. Mostly. You see, sometimes, I buy a book because of its cover. Or for research. Or because of a review. Or any of a myriad of reasons. The more I thought about my book-buying habits of just 2017 the more I realized a certain trait of myself: there was a good chance I would never, ever read all the books I was buying.

So why buy them?

A good and honest question. Why indeed?

Because I love books, especially used books. I love their smell, their history, and, more often than not, their classic cover art. I frequent more used bookstores than new nowadays. When the family suggests we go to Half Price, I am usually the first one out the door.

Except last weekend. You see, as I packed all my older books away, I mulled over why I keep them. If they are out of sight and out of mind, why not just sell them? Because of my emotional attachment, of course, even for those books I’ll likely never read. Moreover, I enjoy having a small library of my own—even if they are in boxes—so when a particular fancy strikes, I can go back through all those packed books and find that one paperback.

But back to addiction. It seems to me now I have been—and always have been—addicted to buying books, especially after graduating from college. Graduate school probably helped this along. Every semester, the history professors would assign books to read. Typically, there’d be one copy in the university library and, unless you were the lucky first person to check it out, it meant you’d have to buy the book. I was in grad school for five years [yikes!] and I amassed a large collection. Then there was fiction. Don’t even get me started. To paraphrase Dory from “Finding Nemo,” I just kept buying.

And not reading.

So, when I returned to Half Price the other day, it was with an air of detachment. It was an air I shrugged into even before I left the house. I told myself that, unless there was that Very Special Book, I was to buy nothing. As I strolled the aisles, I found a few things—a dozen Longarm novels, all practically brand new—I normally would have snatched up. But I put them all back and waited for my son to check out. It was an odd feeling, this detachment, and it made me wonder about folks who suffer from actual addiction issues, be it alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or worse. I was able to channel my active detachment for about twenty minutes. I can’t imagine doing it 24/7.

But back to the original question: is there such a thing as book addiction? For me, yes, but it is something for which I can mindfully manage.

How about you?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Batman: Detective Comics No. 27

A couple of days ago, I reviewed Partners In Peril, the first Shadow novel I had never read. I selected this novel because the publisher packaged this novel with a couple of historical essays indicating how it was adapted into the very first Batman story. Today, take a look at Detective Comics No. 27 and "The Case Of The Chemical Syndicate," the first Batman adventure.

When you read the two stories side-by-side, it is obvious how writer Bill Finger took the Shadow novel and distilled it down to six, tight pages. The comic book opens with "young socialite" Bruce Wayne talking with Commissioner Gordon at the policeman's house. Gordon receives a call informing him that Lambert “the chemical king” has been stabbed to death and his son is being held as the prime suspect. Feigning boredom, Bruce tags along with Gordon to the Lambert house where he hears the young man's story of how he found his father, dead, with the knife stuck in his back, and his father's last dying word, "contract." When questioned about his father's business contacts, young Lambert names three men. And, with the speed of a 1939-era comic, one of those men – Stephen Crane – telephones the house. Crane, too, has received death threats, and Gordon urges Crane to stay put until police protection can arrive. It is at this point that Bruce Wayne, exhibiting disinterest, empties his pipe and exits.

The action cuts to Crane's house where he is brutally shot by some thug. As the thug escapes out the window onto the roof, he and his partner are met with the first image the world ever saw of Batman, or “The Bat-Man,” as Finger styles it. The hero quickly dispatches both thugs and snatches the paper recently stolen from Crane's house. Upon reading the purloined document, he speeds away in a red sedan. Yeah, just some random car. Can you image driving along a road and seeing Bat-Man behind the wheel?


Paul Rogers, the second of the business partners, visits Alfred Stryker, the last of the business associates of the murdered chemical king. Stryker's assistant, Jennings, wallops Rogers on the back of the head, ties him up, and informs the injured man that he is going to kill him with nerve gas used to experiment on guinea pigs. As the glass dome comes down, Bat-Man enters the scene. He throws himself into the dome, seals the incoming gas with a handkerchief (would that even help?), then breaks the glass dome, freeing both him and Rogers. With little effort, Bat-Man takes out Jennings right before Stryker himself arrives.

And the villain is revealed to be Stryker. As explained by Bat-Man, Stryker had agreed to pay his three former associates an annual fee, but with the three of them dead, not only would Stryker own the entire company, but he could keep all the money. With his plan revealed, Stryker draws a gun to kill the hero, but Bat-Man wallops him over a railing and down into the vat of acid. "A fitting end for his kind," mutters Bat-Man in a vein likely normal in Depression-era pulp stories but seems rather cavalier from here in the 21st Century.

The story wraps up with Bruce Wayne and Gordon again chatting until the last frame when it is revealed Bruce Wayne is secretly...The Bat-Man.

As a debut, it’s got all the ingredients necessary to whet the reading appetites of kids and adults in 1939, especially the tag ending. It would have been something if the modern convention of splash pages were in effect back then because the reveal could have been the last page. As it was, it was merely the last frame on the page. It also makes you glad that Bill Finger re-worked Bob Kane's original idea for the character--primarily a red suit--into the dark image of The Bat-Man. Still, this kind of character begs for a second and third adventure and we’ve gotten a monthly installment of Batman ever since. Stop and ponder that for a moment: For something like 950 months in a row, we have had at least one Batman story each month, with many months—especially in the 1990s when four Bat-titles were published—more than one. That’s a seriously incredible feat.

The one question I’d love to have ask Bill Finger was why this particular story from The Shadow was used? For debuts, it’s best to put out the best possible story. Did Finger think this was the best? Did he not yet have a handle on the character? Only a reading of the new few issues will reveal the answer, something I’m doing in these next few weeks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Shadow: Partners in Peril

Well, it took a while, but I finally read my first Shadow novel.*

I think like most of us, I’ve known about The Shadow for a long time. I first discovered him back in the late 70s when my parents purchased some old-time radio episodes on cassette to listen to on vacations. Ten years later, some of those episodes were broadcast on local Houston AM radio on Sunday nights and I’d listen to them as I returned back to college in Austin. And I’d even began collecting the wonderful reprints by Vintage Library to say nothing of some of the comic adaptations. Actually, up until now, the only time I’d encountered The Shadow in print was the two times he guest-starred in Batman comics (my reviews here and here).

Interestingly, it was because of Batman that I first wanted to read PARTNERS IN PERIL. The good folks a Vintage packaged PARTNERS along with LINGO and commissioned a couple of article about how PARTNERS and The Shadow influenced Bill Finger and Bob Kane to create Batman. The historian in me always gravitated to the historical commentary before I read the stories, and this collection is fantastic with not only historical commentary by Will Murray and Anthony Tollin but an introduction by Jerry Robinson, co-creator of Robin and the Joker. But today, the focus is on this November 1936 story.

Reed Harrington calls the police with a desperate situation: he’s been marked for death at midnight. For over a week, Harrington has tried to evade the mysterious caller, but every time, the mystery man finds him. With no one else to turn to, Harrington asks the police for help. Detective Joe Cardona is assigned the case and he’s there in the room when Harrington receives a call just before midnight…and falls dead! In short order, Arnold King arrives at the dead man’s apartment with the same incredible story. What links these two men? Well, they both were former partners of the Milcote Chemical Corporation. Armed with police protection, King holes up and waits…until he, too, falls dead. King dies of electrocution; Harrington of poison.

Enter: The Shadow. He directs his agents to discover the identity of other partners of the company and land on three: Simon Todd, Thomas Porter and his son, Ray. But what complicates the mystery is that Harrington, King, and the two Porters all are former partners of the chemical company. Who would want them dead? Perhaps it is sinister agents of a foreign power out to discover the secret formula for the new chemical weapon created for the United States to use in the next war.  Perhaps it’s something else, but you know before you even read the first word that The Shadow will emerge triumphant.

THOUGHTS

First of all, I really enjoyed this story. I liked how the action played fairly quick and straight. I have since learned that the author of PARTNERS wasn’t Walter Gibson but Theodore Tinsley. In fact, PARTNERS is Tinsley’s first Shadow novel. I read he studied Gibson’s writing style and aimed to achieve a certain verisimilitude with the prose. Today, I can’t say if he did, but the prose flowed well. An aspect of the writing that was likely a product of the times was the omniscient narrator where you rarely got into the characters heads, much less The Shadow. That was likely intentional because Tinsley has us readers (and certain characters) witnessing a thing only to reveal later that The Shadow had already performed a different task. It was very much like the movie serials of the time.

Speaking of The Shadow himself, I enjoyed his disguises and his ability to blend into his surroundings. He appeared both as a young and old workman and Tinsley treated us readers to a classic sly wink as the disguised hero vacated a scene just as another character paused and frowned in odd recognition. A surprising aspect of The Shadow’s character was when he constantly seemed to be five steps ahead of events. Like Sherlock Holmes who knew, for example, the villain in the The Hound of the Baskervilles before he even left London yet sent Watson on errands anyway. The Shadow did the same thing with his team which consisted of Burbank, a man who communicated the plans to other agents, reporter Clyde Burke, and Harry Vincent, who acts as The Shadow’s second-hand man. Ironically, just like Doc Savage’s compadres, Vincent gets himself in trouble and The Shadow has to rescue him, but Vincent proves an able partner.

I listened to PARTNERS from a new all-cast recording up on Audible. It was fantastic and I got a definite old-time radio vibe. There were no sound effects,  but there was soft jazz music at the end of each chapter. A funny aspect of the narrator was his slight pause every time “The Shadow” was mentioned in prose. Another note on the recording: they edited out much of the attribution. Since I had the hard copy and there was a particularly great action sequence, I marked it to re-read and study. It was then, while the audio was playing in my ears, that I noticed they were leaving out some words. As an avid audiobook listener, I wish other productions would do the same thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed PARTNERS IN PERIL and I’ll be quickly moving on to more Shadow novels. THE SHADOW UNMASKS is the only other full-cast recording while THE VOODOO MASTER and THE BLACK FALCON are narrated traditionally.

*P.S. In 2018, I’m reading mindfully and part of that is to read more of what I already own. Ironic timing, then, when I open up the hard copy to mark the passage I mentioned above only to find the receipt. I checked the date: 14 January 2009. I finished PARTNERS  on 14 January 2018. Nice serendipity.

Batman and The Shadow Meet Again: Batman 259

Batman_259[This post originally was published in July 2016]

Nearly a calendar year after Batman 253, Batman 259 landed in the spinner racks across America in December 1974. Denny O’Neil is again the writer. The artists, whom I failed to note, are also the same: Irv Novick and Dick Giordano. The opening splash page shows a shoot-out with three hoodlums, a shadow in the shape of The Shadow, and a nurse, a gentleman in a suit, and a young boy. Breathlessly, O’Neil warns young readers that they haven’t opened the wrong magazine. “The Caped Crusader is in this scene! But you may not recognize him…because the event you are witnessing occurred a quarter of a century ago.” The gentleman turns out to be Thomas Wayne; the boy is his son, Bruce. The hoods are making their way off with the Starlight Tiara. The unsuspecting civilians walk into the escape and the nurse trips and falls. In the process, the nurse rips off the bandana from one of the hoods. It’s Willy Hank Stamper, the Boy Genius of Crime [doncha just love all the extras to characters back then?]. Just as Stamper is about to shoot her, Thomas Wayne leaps into action. He knocks Stamper away. A shootout ensues and Thomas, Bruce, and the nurse huddle on the floor. There, young Bruce is traumatized by the gunshots. The Shadow triumphs, Stamper is put in jail, but the scars in young Bruce remain.

In a quick two pages, we see Stamper in jail, the murder of Bruce’s parents, and the appearance of the dread Batman. (I always loved that O’Neil used “dread” as an adjective to describe Batman.) After a brief conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon—where the cop questions why Batman never uses a gun—Batman as Bruce goes to visit Mildred, the nurse from the opening panel. It’s just at the right time, too. She’s in her wheelchair on the roof of her old folks’ home. Stamper is there! So is Swofford, the jeweler, holding a large jewelry box. A quick fight ensues, but Stamper gets away because Swofford suffers a heart attack and dies. Interestingly, the box of jewels disappears right under Batman’s nose. Hmmm…

The next evening, at the Rare Gem Exhibit, the Starlight Tiara is on display. Bruce Wayne expects Stamper to strike. Instead, there’s a note that claims the Tiara is a fake. Upon closer inspection, it’s true! Suddenly, that peculiar laughter fills the loud speaker. Bruce knows that laugh. He also understands the message: “It will end where it began!” Now, Bruce heads back to the same building as the opening panel. The Swofford jewelry shop is now a dilapidated mannequin store. Batman walks in. Stamper’s there, of course, but he has no quarrel with Batman. Nonetheless, the Dark Knight Detective leaps into action. Stamper shoots at him, and then there’s an odd thing. Batman/Bruce has a flashback to that night 25 years ago. Again, he’s like the young Bruce who was traumatized by the gunshots. It freezes him as he remembers. Stamper’s about to shoot Batman when The Shadow’s laughter interrupts the action. Batman is snapped out of his fright and takes out Stamper.

Now, I’ll admit that in this day and age, Batman is all but a super man. He can do no wrong and has thought things out ten steps ahead of everyone. His brain is his super power. However, one of the things I still enjoy about Batman in the 1970s is that he’s still a man. He has the occasional moments like this. It humanizes him. So this scene worked for me.

The issue ends with Batman and The Shadow talking. The Shadow offers Batman a gift of a gun. Batman refuses. The Shadow points out that the box Swofford [where does O’Neil get these names?] was carrying had a hidden compartment. In there was the real Tiara. Lastly, Batman asks the obvious question: “You know my real identity.” That was the implication from their first adventure in issue 253, but it’s out in the open now. The Shadow assures Bruce that the secret is safe with him. The Shadow disappears into the night. Batman/Bruce laments that he didn’t get a chance to thank him. “He’s freed me from a dread [see the nice counter-use of the word here?] I didn’t realize I had.” O’Neil ends the issue with a text box: “The Batman does not fail…and neither does The Shadow.”

Overall, this is another excellent issue with these two heroes. It makes you really want to have more adventures with these two characters. Too bad that never came to pass. The last panel is a simple box: “We dedicate this story to the memory of our friend Bill Finger.” The co-creator of Batman died in January 1974. Back then, I think only a few knew of Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos. Now, it’s generally acknowledged that the character we know today as Batman is the way he is largely as a result of Bill Finger. Glad he got his nod.

One more thing: This issue is one of the 100-page issues. DC would write a new story for the featured character and then fill in the rest of the pages with reprints. This way, they could charge $0.60. It was a bargain! In the days before trade paperback collections, this was the best (only?) way for young readers like I was to read the older stories. There would also be special features, like “The Strange Costumes of Batman” in this issue. Best of all for someone of my age, this issue had the new Saturday Morning Schedule for CBS. It was a two-page spread of all the new shows and the times. Back when cartoons and kids’ programming was relegated to Saturday mornings, I would often look for current issues and hope they had a spread like this one. Granted, 1974 was a little ahead of my time, but it is still good to have a peek at what CBS thought kids would like. Good times, huh?

When Batman Met The Shadow: Batman 253

Batman_253[This post was originally published on another blog in July 2016] As much as I love and enjoy continuity and canonization of material in comics, I also appreciate the more free and open days of the past. Nowadays, DC Comics controls Batman so much that EVERYthing he does is canon and must align with every other book being published. The same is true for just about every other property published in comics nowadays. It’s great because we typically get great titles and stories, but the chances that characters from two universes meet can be pretty low.

Not so in the early 1970s. Batman was enjoying a dark renaissance after the comedic turn he took in the 1960s in both comic and on television. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had taken the Dark Knight back to the night and returned him to the atmospheric stories from the 1940s. By 1973, DC had earned the right to publish a new series featuring the pulp hero The Shadow. Denny O’Neil was the writer of that series as well. So I bet it was a no-brainer to have the two dark detectives meet.

Batman 253 was the result. These were the years where Batman’s typical rogues gallery was off-limits to writers, so Batman would face bad guys that were a whole lot less colorful but no less deadly. In this story, titled, “Who Knows What Evil?”, Batman tracks some goons to the docks. I got a huge chuckle and thrill with the opening text of the story: “It is a dark time at Gotham Freight Yards, when dawn is no more than a distant promise…a time when furtive men do furtive things…and when the Batman moves like an avenging wraith.” Pure pulp goodness.

No sooner does Batman take out the goons than one nearly gets the drop on him. But a bullet from the shadows knocks the gun out of the goon’s hand and Batman survives. He hears laughter, “coming from everywhere…and nowhere.” That’s his first clue. Alfred helps Batman figure out that the counterfeiters are based out of Arizona, Tumbleweed Crossing to be exact. Bruce Wayne arrives by bus—yeah, you read that correctly—and gets a room at the local hotel run by an old geezer named Bammy. No sooner does Bruce arrive than a gang of young hoodlums in dune buggies zoom through the town. The slang O’Neil writes for both the youngsters and Batman is so charmingly late 60s/early 70s. Again, after Batman learns that the hoodlums got bribed with “Fool’s money,” he hears the laughter again. Now, he starts to think it may be “Him.”

Later, at the hotel dining room, Bruce meets Lamont Cranston, complete with gray hair on the temples. Bruce doesn’t know of Cranston’s alter ego, but a remark from Cranston is the last clue Bruce needs. Here, in another charming note that’s now gone from comics, there’s a little yellow box: “Bruce [Batman] Wayne seems to have cracked the case! Have you?” It allowed young readers to be detectives. Love this. Still later, toward the end of the book, another clue is revealed. The editor wrote a note with the page and panel number. Sure enough, the clue was there. Wonderful stuff! As you’d expect, Batman travels to the counterfeiter’s hideout and fights them. And, in a very Robin-like move, Batman gets ink thrown in his face. His mysterious benefactor rescues him again, then leaves a note to meet back in Gotham the next night. They do, and The Shadow reveals himself. Basically, Batman is a huge fan and just wants to shake the hand of the old pulp hero. The Knight of Darkness, on the other hand, wanted to know if the Dark Knight deserved his reputation. He did.

As the Shadow melts into the night, Batman asks if the Shadow will come out of retirement. You know what the Shadow’s reply is before you even read it: “That…only the Shadow knows!”

 This was such a fun issue. It lead directly into the Shadow comic series. The two heroes would meet again in Batman 259…but that’s a review for a different day.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

River - TV Series

Hot on the heels of watching the excellent Broadchurch, my wife and I decided on yet another program she discovered. The one aspect of this six-episode series (really, just a six-hour movie broken up into six parts) that got her attention was the star: Stellan Skarsgård. I first saw Skarsgård in The Hunt for Red October back. He's a good actor, but not on my list of actors of whom I will see anything they do. This was likely off my radar but, again, I'm so glad it found its way onto my Netflix cue.
If you’ve seen the trailer or read the description, it’s giving nothing away to relate the basic gist of this story. Skarsgård plays DI John River, a man whose partner, DS Jackie "Stevie" Stevenson, was recently murdered. He is haunted by the event, but also by Stevie’s ghost…because River can see her and interact with her. And not only her but other ghosts—“Manifests” as he dubs them—all the time. What is fascinating is the more he digs into the truth about Stevie, the more he realizes there were shades of his former partner about which he never knew.

The plot could come across as rote or mundane, but the acting, especially Skarsgård, allows River to rise above other television programs of the same. It’s not just a crime story; rather, it’s more a nuanced examination of the character and how one violent moment—the murder of his partner—can have such profound impacts on his life. Skarsgård is excellent in this role. More than once, River would be in some dark place, like punching a wall he thinks is a ghost, only to have the character turn on a dime and smile like nothing’s wrong. It’s a bit disorienting for us viewers to say nothing of the supporting characters, especially Adeel Akhtar, who plays Ira King, River’s new partner. We viewers felt for King in the beginning, but he, like us, began to adjust to River’s bizarre behavior. I’d go so far as to say that King is the grounding character River needs to keep one foot on this side of sanity. While King doesn’t necessarily have an arc, he comes across as very sympathetic the longer the story goes on.

Lesley Manville, who plays Chrissie Read, River’s superior officer, also shines. Halfway through the story, it dawned on me that in many of these BBC shows I’ve watched, there are women in powerful positions. Prime Suspect, Broadchurch, The Fall, and Fox’s The Killing. The thing is, in these shows, it’s no big deal. It’s refreshing. Watching Manville’s character react to the events of this story is fantastic.

This is a show of nuances. Little facial tics or a half smile. Of small moments of growth or pain or a character willing to open up a part of themselves.  When you watch this—and you should—do not be distracted by your phone or anything else. If you want to find out just where you know Eddie Marsan from—Sherlock Holmes and Little Dorritt for me; there; I helped you—wait until the end of an episode. Devote your full attention to “River” and you will be justly rewarded.

Recommended

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

I think it’s safe to say we all admire Sherlock Holmes’s brain, reasoning ability, and sheet intellect yet shy away from his more esoteric qualities like tobacco and drug use. When we read Holmes’s adventures, we see ourselves as Dr. Watson, the common man so to speak, who can’t fathom Holmes’s techniques ahead of time but the truth becomes crystal clear after the great detective reveals his methods.

Well, Maria Konnikova, PhD in psychology, is here to say that you and me, indeed each of us has, within ourselves the capability to train our minds to think like Holmes. For even Sherlock wasn’t born Sherlock Holmes.

The key quality in all of her remarkable book is that Holmes has “a method of mindful interaction with the world.” To make Konnikova’s point more succinct, Holmes was always in the moment. He didn’t multitask, but devoted his entire brain to the problem at hand. True, he lived in an era without smartphones, the internet, television, and all the other media glaring at our minds and eyes for attention, but he lived in arguably the most advanced town of his time. As did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Holmes. We, too, can train our minds and our attention to interact with our modern world in a manner such as Holmes.

Like the modern version of Holmes in the BBC show “Sherlock,” Konnikova uses Holmes’s own comment about a mind attic as the basis for how we can train our brains. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock calls it his mind palace, the place where he stores all the information in its own specific place. It’s an ancient technique developed by the Greeks, but in the age of Google, perhaps the need for our own mind attics has lessened. Not so, says Konnikova, but with a caveat. You see, our mind attics are only good if we know where to find a piece of information and can retrieve it. But, as a point she makes late in the book, as long as we remember where and how to retrieve a piece of information—even if it’s on Wikipedia—we can retain the knowledge. So, is Google our collective mind attic? Maybe.

In recent months, however, I’ve begun not to reach reflexively for my phone if I can’t remember a fact I know I have learned. I give it five minutes or so, often spending a good minute trying to pull the data point out of my brain before I move on to a different task. Little did I know that technique—Konnikova calls it mindful distraction—is exactly what Holmes often did. She uses various scenes and quotes from the canon to illustrate a point, like this one from “The Red-Headed League.” Mindful distraction—where you take your mind off the immediate problem and focus your conscious mind on a different task—relegates the problematic thought to the subconscious. More often than not, the solution will manifest itself. It’s a rush when I actually remember the data point without resorting to the “source of all truth.”

Konnikova’s book is chuck full of examples of how to think differently, coupled with research and examples you can do yourself. Some are a bit more difficult when you listen to the audio, like I did, but nonetheless worthwhile. What’s especially good is when she lays out a regimen of how to retrain the brain. As 2018 is only eleven days old and I’ve already begun mindfully reading the books on my bookshelf, I think, too, I’ll work on my brain. It is, after all, the main reason I bought this book on New Year’s Day…2014.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Under An Arctic Sky

I live in Houston, Texas, a mere hour away from the Gulf of Mexico, but I rarely see surfboards. What I do see is just about every other type of on-the-water craft. You see, surfing just isn’t really in the DNA on the upper Texas coast. As a result, I don’t normally gravitate toward much of anything surf-related.

Which meant the documentary Under an Arctic Sky, directed by Chris Burkard, is such an odd choice film for me. It’s on Netflix and if it had appeared on any of those feeds, I likely would have just passed it by. But my wife enjoys surfing movies and she had already seen it. She loved it and talked about it enthusiastically enough that come New Year’s Day evening, I suggested we watch it.

Boy am I glad we did.

The plot of this documentary is right there in the title: a group of professional surfers travel up to Iceland—in winter!—to catch some pristine waves in a remote area of Iceland where even the natives rarely go. I had to chuckle when a couple of the Americans were from Florida and California, both locales associated with surfing but not cold weather.

When it comes to unique stories like this one, often there is some sort of external issue that we viewers know about but the participants in the show do not. Sting and his band’s documentary back in 2001 is a good example. We knew 9/11 was approaching and it was fascinating to watch their reactions. Similarly, with these surfers, the worst snow storm in twenty-five years hit while they were filming. What started out as a search for a wave became a survival/adventure story.

Even if surfing isn’t your thing, two aspects of this documentary are worth noting. One, it’s only forty minutes. You clearly can carve less than an hour of some evening to watch this unique show. But the second reason is more important: the cinematography. It is absolutely gorgeous. The stark beauty of snowcapped landscapes and I-don’t-even-want-to-know-how-cold-that-water-is ocean waves are reason enough to watch this film. Plus, you are treated to the utter incongruity of men surfing with snow in the background.

And the northern lights. C’mon. It’s not a spoiler. It’s right in the title.

Recommended.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Broadchurch: One of the Best Things I Watched in 2017

Some series arrive out of the blue and land your radar that you wonder how it is you never heard of it. Chances are good that the reason I never knew about Broadchurch was that I am not—as yet—a Doctor Who fan.
Someone correct me if I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Broadchurch must have been written by Chris Chibnall with star David Tennant in mind. He plays detective Alec Hardy, a grizzled veteran recently assigned as lead detective to the police station down in Broadchurch (a fictional town Dorset, England) largely to get away from a case that had gone badly. He immediately ruffles the feathers of detective Ellie Miller (the brilliant Olivia Colman) who had just returned from a vacation with the full expectation that she would land the job of lead detective. You can imagine her chagrin at not getting the post, but all of that is subverted when the body of a young boy is found on the beach, below a massive cliff.

What makes Broadchurch the series so utterly compelling is how the death of the boy affects the residents of Broadchurch the town. The first season (all seasons are eight episodes) zeroes in on the family of young Danny Latimer. The Latimers—father Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan); mother Beth Latimer (played by future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker); and sister Chloe—are understandably beside themselves with grief. They are also good friends with the Millers—Ellie’s son was friends with Danny; Ellie is best friends with Beth—and that relationship is stretched from time to time as the investigation drags on.

As in most great mysteries, we viewers see certain characters doing things that casts shades of guilt over them. The mystery is compelling, but the acting is superb. This counts as my first exposure to Tennant and if he brings this kind of gravitas to Doctor Who, I’m so there. I saw myself in Whittaker and Buchan, as the grieving parents, and wondered if I would do anything much differently. But the true breakout star (for me) of this series is Colman’s Ellie. Indeed, she won a BAFTA for Best Actress. Over the course of season one, she quickly grew to be my favorite character and she stayed that way all the way to the series finale. Her humanness at what she witnesses is compelling and draws you in more and more. Colman’s ability never to hide her true feelings is refreshing in a TV detective, and her strength, while tested, remains strong. I’ve not watched an episode of “The Crown” but as soon as I learned Colman would assume the lead role, I put that show on my list.

Word of advice: do not watch season one and read up on the series on the internet. You will spoil the reveal of the true culprit.

Season two of the series focuses on two plot threads: the trial of the person responsible for Danny’s death—and what it does to the town—and the old case Tennant’s Hardy failed to solve that eventually led to his assignment at Broadchurch. Where many second seasons and sequels tend to go over the top, with Broadchurch, you merely get additional layers peeled away. Colman continues to shine as my favorite character, but the actions and motivations of the Latimer parents take a prominent role. We get a bit of backstory with Tennant’s Hardy here, especially as he asks Ellie to review and re-investigate the previous case which has landed again in his lap.

Again, do not read up on this season, but stay to the very, very powerful ending that will have you asking if you could do it.

The third and last season jumps forward in time about three years. Hardy is back in Broadchurch and he and Ellie investigate the brutal rape of a woman at a 50th birthday party at a nearby mansion. Like the previous two seasons, the detectives investigate folks and we see them not only doing something that makes them look suspicious but also outright lying to the investigators. Season three uses this story to say a few things about modern culture, not all of it good. As you have come to expect, the acting is superb and Colman shines, as does Tennant.

This is an excellent series and is one of the best things I saw in 2017 (we finished a few days shy of 2018). All the episodes are on Netflix. I’m not a binger, but I started to be as this series progressed. Season one was a one-episode-per-night thing. Season two had a couple of nights where my wife and I watched two episodes. Not so with the third season. Most nights were two episodes each. I ended up finishing the series sooner than I would have liked, but it is so good I didn’t really care.

Broadchurch: Seasons 1-3: Highly Recommended

P. S. Happy Birthday, Sherlock!