Friday, October 31, 2008

New Template

I don't know about y'all but I sometimes have difficulty reading my own blog with its white on black style. I decided to try something different, just for a change. And the text area is larger. Let me know if you like it or the old version better.


NaNoWriMo - My Version

As many of y'all know, NaNoWriMo kicks off tomorrow. In theory, you are supposed to write a 50,000 page novel in the 30 days of November. It's not that difficult, if you think about two things. One, it's only 1,667 words a day. Two, that number is doable *if you don't edit.* Just Get It Written.

I'm doing my own version this year. By 30 November, I will complete me second novel. I suspect I'll need an additional 40,000-50,000 words so I'm basically doing NaNoWriMo. I'm just not starting from scratch. By comparison to my first novel, Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery, which I wrote in about nine months, this second novel is my sophomore slump. Two years in the planning and writing and re-writing and re-writing and re-thinking. I've got my story down. I know what the chapters will focus on. I know where my heroine will go, what she will do, and the effect it'll all have on her. And I even will make room for little things that pop up.

But I will finish this book by the end of November. I don't expect my blogging to lessen but, if it does, you'll know why. Heck, reading James Reasoner's blog about his current schedule makes me laugh at my own lack of focus on this second book. I have it easy compared to him. But he is exactly where I want to be: a professional writer without the word "technical" in front of the word "writer."

I'll give everyone updates throughout the month. It's going to be a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Forgotten Books: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

(My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Book Fridays.)

Halloween is a day to remember what we have forgotten. What have we let slip from our collective human consciousness? Fear. Being scared of things we can’t explain, things that go bump in the night. Isn’t that why we dress up as scary monsters, to help laugh at the things that used to scare the dickens out of us even if we don’t know why? I think so, and the same is true for the heroes of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

Eight boys dress up for Halloween in various costumes: an ape-man, a mummy, a druid with a scythe, a ghost, a witch, a beggar, a gargoyle, and a skeleton. They are beside themselves with excitement. It’s Halloween! The best day of the year, including Christmas. But their cadre is not complete. They need Pipkin, the ninth boy of their group. “Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived.” As the eight gather on Pipkin’s doorstep, awaiting their friend to bolt out of the house and lead them, Pipkin meekly walks out. Without a costume. He tells them he’s okay but that he’ll meet them at the house on the outskirts of town. Bewildered, they go.

Once there, they see it: the Halloween Tree. “There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes.” Suddenly, some thing shows up: Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, a tall, skeletal man. He asks them why they are wearing those particular costumes and then chastises them for not even knowing what those costumes represent. The boys implore Moundshroud to tell them about the history of Halloween. At that instant, however, from a distance, the soft voice of Pipkin wafts to their ears. He’s trapped. He needs saving. They run to him but Pipkin disappears into the darkness and only the mysterious Moundshroud can help. With swirling fantastic magic, he whisks the boys away on a giant kite. They need to hunt for Pipkin in the history of Halloween. First stop: Egypt.

The bulk of the book is given to the eight boys’ flight through time and space, learning the history and folklore of the celebration we now call Halloween. It’s a phantasmagorical history lesson, really. At each stop—Egypt, pre-history, Greece, Rome, England, Europe, Mexico, etc.—the boys experience the traditions of the various regions and how each place celebrated—dreaded?—the coming winter darkness. And at each stop, Pipkin is there. But he’s not. He’s enshrouded as a mummy in Egypt, he’s a gargoyle atop Notre Dame in France, or trapped in catacombs in Mexico. He’s always just out of reach, always requiring another jump through time.

The manner in which the boys travel from one place and time to another is fascinating. Hanging onto each other’s heels, they act as the tail of a giant kite created from old circus flyers. The catch: all the animals on these flyers are alive and growl and roar. At one time, they are whisked away by leaves. Leaving Mexico, they are commanded to break a piñata and little figures fall from the piñata, each corresponding to one of their own costumes. Thus freed, the little figures lift each boy up and fly him back to Illinois.

If there’s one thing that stands out in The Halloween Tree, it’s Bradbury prose. It’s had a singsong quality to it, a brazen joyfulness in just being alive. It’s like the prose itself were a twelve-year-old boy dressed up on Halloween and running through the town. It picks you up and sweeps you back to a time and place you may never have known but, somehow, know. It’s a part of the human DNA. Take these wonderful Dickensian opening lines:
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…Boys.
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind.
And the town full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
The day dying, the sunlight being “murdered” as Moundshroud puts it, is an important theme in this book. Halloween, throughout history, is the celebration of the ending of the season of light. The passing of October 31 equates to past generations of humans, far and wide, the beginning of the long, dark winter. As Moundshroud asks the boys, once the sun sets, what assurance do we have that it’ll rise again the next day? What if it never does? It was a real fear for our ancestors, something the boys and our modern culture have forgotten.

I touched upon a similar theme in my music review of the CD “Chiller” this past Monday when I wrote about the demonic tone poems of 19th-Century music. Not too long ago, the darkness in our world was quite a bit closer than it is now, at least in the modern western world. We have science to tell us the true nature of things. We can rely on it to cast away the superstitions and fears our ancestors had. Our children say “trick or treat” but don’t really know why.

Halloween, however, is the celebration, the remembrance, of our past. It’s a cumulative organism now, an amalgamation of traditions and beliefs passed down. It’s a celebration of death as marked by the living. Toward the end of the book, Moundshroud forces the boys to make a choice to save Pipkin or not. The price they have to pay is a year of life, taken at the end of each of their respective lives. He warns them that here, when they are twelve, life seems so long. Later, however, when they’re going to want one more year, it won’t be theirs. Here, Bradbury, through Moundshroud, gives these modern boys a taste of the past, a past they know nothing about but, by learning about history and what makes life special, they make their choice.

At the end, one boy, Tom, the default leader of the eight, asks a question of Moundshroud: “…will we ever stop being afraid of nights and death?” Moundshroud has an answer. You may have another. But, on Halloween, for one day a year, we get to revel in the fear that our ancestors lived with daily. We get to remember. And, on November 1st, we get to put it all away and forget about it all over again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Monsters" by Ed McBain

Last Christmas, some teenage punks stole our spotlight from the front yard. We needed the spotlight to shine on the Christmas decorations that didn’t have their own intrinsic lighting. It’s pretty difficult to explain to a young son why someone would do something like that. Moreover, it’s really difficult to explain and not use bad words. Well, at least they weren’t as bad as the teenagers in Ed McBain’s story “Monsters.”

It’s Halloween and long after the little kiddies and the middle schoolers have gone home to count their loot, a couple of teenagers show up to the house of our nameless narrator. He’s a sixty-eight-year-old widower and, when he opens the door, he sees the two boys “wearing identical green Frankenstein masks and dark jackets over blue jeans and high-topped sneakers.” McBain’s story was published in 1994 but I couldn’t escape the images of the two shooters from Columbine as I read this story back in 2002 and, again, yesterday. It’s not a far stretch to think those thoughts because one of the Franks pulls out a switchblade. With the elderly gentleman scared to death, they rob him. He’s okay with money and other things being taken but they steal his dead wife’s precious things. For that, he doesn’t’ forgive.

The two Franks even take the jelly beans and fruit—pears and apples—from the bowl near the front door. They stuff the candy into their pockets and raise the masks just enough to chop the fruit. Laughing, the last thing the two Franks say is “See you next year.”

The gentleman calls the cops but they’re bored and never follow up. The gentleman buys a gun but doesn’t think he’ll be able to look another human—even ones as monstrous as the two Franks—and pull the trigger. Still, he’s ready. He won’t let it happen again.

Sure enough, they return the following year. This time, they have a gun, too. The two Franks brazenly use their names—Tommy and Frankie—and haul so much stuff from the gentleman’s house that it takes them three trips. Finally, before they leave, the gentleman pulls out his gun. They laugh. From Frankie, this: “Blow him away, Tommy,” he said softly. The gentleman whirls and is stuck in the head. He falls, gasping.

Tommy and Frankie guffaw yet again. “See you next year,” they say. They take the man’s pistol and stuff their pockets again with fruit and jelly beans.

And then it happens.

(Don’t want to give away the ending but an astute reader might see it coming.)

Ironically, this was the first McBain story I had ever read. Back in 2002, I had a vague notion of who McBain was but that was all. Now, after reading Cop Hater, I can see the best traits of McBain’s writing style here in this nasty, brutish short story: great pulp fiction verbs and a quick, no-nonsense delivery.

If you’ve read my review of Cornelia Reed’s award-winning story “Hungry Enough,” you’ll know I love how the meanings of titles can change after you’ve read a particular story. As the lead-off story of the anthology Murder for Halloween, “Monsters” evokes certain images in your mind, especially considering it’s tied with Halloween. We usually think of the monsters from the old Universal films: Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. Modern readers might think of Freddie, Jason, or that weird guy from the Saw movies. Here, the term monster is meant for the two teenagers. Surely, their actions make them monsters, right? Sure, not as bad as the punks who stole my spotlight but that’s just a difference in degree, not kind.

But the end of the story makes you wonder about the elderly gentleman as well. Is he the hero? Or is, he, too, a monster? That’s the beauty of the title: you can make up your own mind.

“Monsters,” by Ed McBain, published in Murder for Halloween: Tales of Suspense, edited by Michele Slung and Roland Hartman (The Mysterious Press), 1994.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hitting the Book Jackpot

I forgot to let everyone know about the treasure I found this past weekend. I went to the Bellville (TX) Historical Society’s antique and book fair. It's a nice little town 45 minutes northwest from Houston. The main draw? $0.25 paperbacks, 5 for $1. At those prices, there’s no reason to cull the inevitable stack any of us would generate. And I didn’t. I spent $3. All books but one were mass market paperbacks.

The prize, for me, was another Cool and Lam novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, Traps Need Fresh Bait.
The Black Curtain – Cornell Woolrich
The Hand in the Glove – Rex Stout (featuring Dol Bonner, not Nero Wolfe)
The Corpse That Never Was – Brett Halliday
A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael #1)
The Emperor’s Snuff Box – John Dickson Carr
Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr
Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr
City of Bones – Michael Connelly
The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling – Lawrence Block
Poison – Ed McBain
The Long Chase – Max Brand (thanks to David Cranmer for having Brand on the brain)
Stories of O. Henry
A Hell of a Woman – Jim Thompson (trade paperback)
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre (classic I've never read but wanted to)

That’s the list. Look for most of them on a future Forgotten Book Friday. Anyone have any comments on any of these?

Book Review: 13 Horrors of Halloween, edited by Isaac Asimov

Halloween is perfect for anthologies. Even though you may have a month-long build up to the event, trick-or-treating really only lasts an hour or two. The short burst of a short story is enough of a treat to get in the spirit of the orange-and-black holiday without upsetting your stomach too much.

Over the years, I have searched out and found some Halloween-themed anthologies. Halloween Horrors, edited by Alan Ryan, focuses, as you can expect, on the supernatural and terrifying aspects of All Hallow’s Eve. Murder for Halloween is a nice collection of suspense stories edited by Michele Slung and Roland Hartman that runs the gamut from Edgar Allan Poe to Ed McBain. The last Halloween anthology I own, and the one I’m focusing this review on, is 13 Horrors of Halloween. Why, you may ask, does this collection get the prize? Simple. Isaac Asimov is one of the editors. Can’t go wrong there.

Besides, Asimov’s collection begins with, what else, an introduction detailing the history of Halloween as we now celebrate it. For a man as equally celebrated for his non-fiction output as well as his fiction, this was a nice addition to the usual diatribes about Halloween in other anthologies, including the aforementioned titles. I love history and how things and events have evolved over the centuries. Asimov runs the gamut, from biblical traditions to Persian mythology. It’s all quite fascinating. Asimov ends with this paragraph:
Halloween reflects itself in our literature in three ways: in mystery stories in which the atmosphere of Halloween heightens the natural suspense already present; or fantasy stories that are rooted in the witches, goblins, and devils that are inseparable from the celebration; or horror stories that take advantage of the effluvium of evil that clings to the day.
I love words and their meanings and I particularly enjoyed the word “effluvium” and how it associates with Halloween. A definition is “A usually invisible emanation or exhalation, as of vapor or gas.” I don’t know about y’all but Halloween, the day as well as the night itself always feels different somehow. Rarely here in Houston do we experience the cool winds (although we are today) but there is a certain spirit that permeates October 31. Even the date itself looks and feels different. The stories in this collection exude that same, certain, unique spirit no matter the genre of the story.

Leave it to Asimov to lead off the anthology with a detective story. Asimov, the SF master, dipped his considerable genius into detective fiction with a couple of his novels including The Caves of Steel. In this story, simple titled “Halloween,” Detective Haley has to find some missing plutonium. The thief is dead, collapsed in a stairwell of a large hotel, and his last word is the story’s title, “Halloween.” It’s the early hours of 1 November and the thief could have hidden the small box of plutonium in any of the hotel’s 800+ rooms. The detective has a theory on where to find the plutonium and you’ll just have to read the story to find out if he’s right.

Ray Bradbury makes an appearance. Bradbury writes fiction that can be as nostalgic as old, sepia-tinted photographs even if you never lives in the world’s Bradbury describes. One of his favorite holidays is Halloween. But, unlike The Halloween Tree (which I’m reviewing Friday), “The October Game” is a fun little ditty with this first line: “He put the gun back in to the bureau drawer and shut the drawer.” It’s always fun when you start a story with a gun. It’s just waiting to be fired.

A few other mystery writers show up; Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen, and a great story by the late Edward D. Hoch. I haven’t read many of his stories but this one, “Day of the Vampire,” is a good one for this election season. Sheriff Frank Creasley is running for reelection but a body is found and all the blood has been drained from it. After Creasley carelessly get the ME to hide the evidence, the sheriff’s opponent makes political hay from the cover-up. Unless you are a jaded reader, you won’t see the ending coming.

A few other folks you’ve probably heard of take a turn at a Halloween tale: Edith Wharton, Robert Grant, Talmage Powell. Al Sarrantonio’s “Pumpkinhead” is a devilishly good example of how an author can take something that can evoke fond memories in all of us—kids Halloween party, at a school and a home—and turn it upside down. The story takes place in two parts, one at school and one later that Halloween night. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the story:
Ghouls loped up and down aisles between desks, shouting “Boo!” at one another. Crepe paper, crinkly and the colors of Halloween, crisscrossed over blackboards covered with mad and frightful doodlings in red and green chalk; snakes, rats, witches on broomsticks. Windowpanes were filled with cutout black cats and ghosts with no eyes and giant O’s for mouths.
Here’s how Sarrantonio describes the night:
A black and orange night.
Here came a black cat walking on two legs; there two percale sheet ghosts trailing paper bags with handles; here again a miniature man from outer space. The wind was up: leaves whipped along the serpentine sidewalk like racing cards. There was an apple-crisp smell in the air, an icicle-down-your-spine, here-comes-winter chill. Pumpkins everywhere, and a half harvest moon playing coyly with wisps of high shadowy cloud. A thousand dull yellow night-lights winked through the breezy trees on a thousand festooned porches. A constant ringing of doorbells, the wash of goblin traffic; they traveled in twos, threes, or fours, these monsters, held together by Halloween gravity. Groups passed other groups, just coming up, or coming down, stairs, made faces, and said, “Boo!” There were a million “Boo!” greetings this night.
I don’t know about you, but after reading lines like these, I want to travel back in time, don my Han Solo costume, and go trick-or-treating. But, since that isn’t an option, I’ll have to improvise. I think I might put in my vampire teeth and paint on the fake blood. I might sit by the front window, light a candle, and read Isaac Asimov’s 13 Horrors of Halloween by its light.

Oops! Gotta go. There’s the front door bell. I wonder what the kids would do if I said “Trick”? Let’s find out.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman: R. I. P. (and thanks)

Word from The Rap Sheet that Tony Hillerman passed away yesterday. My mother read almost all of his books so I always knew who he was. I have only read one of his novels but enjoyed it. And, I thoroughly enjoyed the three films made in conjunction with the PBS "Mystery" series. Adam Beach stars as Chee and the incredible Wes Studi is Leaphorn. These adaptations nailed Hillerman's New Mexico, the characters, and what it meant to try and preserve native traditions in the modern world. I only wish there were more of them.

Like I'm going to wish there were more Hillerman books. But, good for me, I have almost his entire collection awaiting me. Sure am going to miss his presence, though, especially with respect to the American southwest.

Music Review: Chiller by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra

Mozart never made a concept record. And, no, I don’t count opera. It wasn’t until the 1800s that music took the natural next step and created a sonic landscape with a unified story or theme. A concept record before there were even records.

What am I getting at? Program music—that is, music with the intended purpose of creating images in a listener’s mind—didn’t flourish until the Romantic Period in the 1800s. And it wasn’t long before music evoking a pastoral landscape gave way to things that scared us: demons, witches, and death. Often referred to as tone poems, some of the best are collected in the 1989 CD “Chiller,” by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Kunzel has made a niche market of popular music from movies being recorded and packaged together to go with a common theme. “Round-Up” features western music, “Star Tracks II” showcases some great themes from science fiction films, while “William Tell and Other Favorite Overtures” shore up the usual pops orchestra material. So it was not long before they tackled the music of the macabre.

One of the fun things on a Kunzel CD is the sound effects. “Round-Up” begins with sounds around a campfire. The CD that includes music from “Jurassic Park” starts off with the sounds of a T-Rex stomping through the forest. So, as you can expect, “Chiller” starts off with a scream. A very loud scream. You hear thunder and rain, a mewing cat, and footsteps running—natch—up some wooden steps. Three knocks of the door knocker boom and the door creaks open. The woman, so happy that some is home, turns to look at the…thing in the doorway and screams. The thing screams back. The short piece ends with the door slamming shut and immediately, the opening to the Andrew Lloyd Rice’s “Phantom of the Opera” kicks in, the pipe organ played to full volume. It really starts things off with a bang.

After the Phantom has left the stage, the remainder of the CD’s first half (time wise; these are long pieces) meanders through the great supernaturally-themed orchestral pieces from the 19th Century. All the great ones are here save one. “Night on Bald Mountain” blows through your speakers with its accustomed ferocity. You hear the intense string line flurrying around and, then, suddenly, the thunder of the low brass bolts from the sky. Having played this piece before, it never gets old.

My personal favorite supernatural piece of music is Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” Musically, you hear night fall and the dead rise, led by Death sawing through his violin concerto as the dead dance. Kunzel and the orchestra nail this reading of the piece, bringing forth all the innuendos of the instruments: xylophone as dancing bones, harps tolling midnight, the oboe as rooster, among others. This piece just floats along and, man, you can just see (dead people) the skeletons and ghouls prancing in the graveyard and over the tombstones. It all climaxes in a fantastic melding of two scales, one ascending and one descending, being played over each other. Just like when you turn up the volume on your car radio when you hear “Hotel California,” I always crank up the volume when these scales do their thing. And then it all ends at dawn.

The rest of the classical music includes two pieces from Berlioz (“March to the Scaffold” and “Pandemonium”) and Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, a piece that can always leave you panting. The one piece whose inclusion would have made this CD perfect is Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” You’ll have to get it elsewhere. “Classics from the Crypt” includes it as a few other pieces not on this CD. I have both and pretty well have all the great supernatural orchestral pieces out there.

The second half of “Chiller” is a let-down after the spectacular music from the 19th Century. It’s film music from the 20th Century. None of it is bad, it just suffers when compared to the older music. Moreover, the carefully-crafted mood evoked by the classical music is broken with happier-sounding material like the overture to the movie “Sleuth” or the theme to the movie “Without a Clue.” If I had selected the music for this disc, I would have included more pieces like the Herrmann music from “Psycho,” complete with the exact sound effect you’d expect from the famous murder scene. The theme from “The Bride of Frankenstein” does its job well, bringing to mind all the fantastic images from that horror film of that era.

The fact that there are images associated with the film music is why I enjoy the older tone poems better: they were intended to stir up in the listener images of their own imagination. Film music, by its very nature, compliments eerie pictures on a silver screen. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some great music is out there to correspond to some great horror films: the theme to the movie “Halloween,” for example, or the music from “Silence of the Lambs.” But so much horror film music is best experienced within the context of the film. The classical music on “Chiller” is of itself and the images are entirely yours. Yeah, I’ll admit that I can’t listen to “Night on Bald Mountain” and not think of the demon from “Fantasia” but that’s the exception (and, oh boy, what an exception!).

What made these concept classical pieces of the 19th Century so compelling was that we, as humans, didn’t know as much as we 21st Century citizens know. With our ultra modern lifestyle, we can keep the supernatural at bay more easily than we used to. Heck, we keep nature at bay, as well. To some extent, with greater scientific knowledge comes with it a greater understanding that supernatural things our ancestors were scared of are merely figments of our collective imaginations. Death doesn’t rise from the grave and play a violin. There is no supernatural witches’ Sabbath. With nature largely conquered in the western world, the things that scare us are falling stocks, serial killers, terrorism, or bio-warfare, things all man-made. We don’t get scared at the supernatural anymore.

Which is why “Chiller” is such a wonderful CD. With the classical pieces included here, you can get a sense of the frightening wonderment audiences experienced two centuries ago in the concert halls. After an 1870s concert featuring “Danse Macabre,” I can imagine a few folks looking around shadowed corners as they walked home or rode in carriages. Horror films do the trick for us nowadays but there’s a part of you that knows, logically, that the amputated leg is fake, that the demons in a film use fake blood, or that it all is created on a computer.

Not so with this music. It’s all in your head. Which is why I would have loved to experience a demonic piece by Mozart. With his brilliant orchestral work, can you imagine how messed up and scared the citizens of Vienna would have been if Mozart trotted out a “Danse Macabre” or “Night on Bald Mountain”? I know your smiling one of your devilish smiles at that delicious thought. I am, too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

(My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays.)

The letter “S” appears twice in the name of Robert B. Parker’s private investigator from Boston. Obviously, the word “Spenser” begins with an “S” but the other one is in the middle where most folks put in a “C.” That pretty much says it all for a man created in 1973 and is still going today. He’s just like you and me, yet slightly different.

Boston PI Spenser is the direct heir to the triumvirate of Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Not surprisingly, Spenser’s creator wrote a PhD dissertation on those three authors and Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) takes off where the American trio leave off (or, in MacDonald’s case, was still going in 1973). Having read at least one novel by each of these three authors, I immediately felt at home with Spenser as a character and with Parker’s style. Heck the first line of the book gets you in that particular mood you need to be when you follow Spade, Marlowe, or Archer around on their cases.
The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.
Have to admit I laughed out loud in the car as I listened to the audio. (Interesting note: the same man who reads The Godwulf Manuscript, Michael Pritchard, also read MacDonald’s The Moving Target. My take on that book here.)

Spenser is hired by a university president, Bradford Forbes, to locate the Godwulf manuscript, a 14th century tome stolen from the university library. The ransom note is odd, instructing the university to donate the ransom money to a charity. Spenser’s skeptical about the job but takes it anyway. Quickly, his interests focus on a student group named S.C.A.P.E. (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). This is but one example of how much this 1973 novel is of its time. The US was getting out of Vietnam but the movements spawned by the late 1960s were still twitching with life. At the time, I suspect, Parker was just writing what he knew. Reading it for the first time in 2008, however, it’s a great immersion into that world. It’s one of the book’s better qualities.

Spenser locates the group’s secretary, Terry Orchard, a twenty-year-old daughter of rich parents, and gets the cold shoulder from her. In another nice introduction to the PI, Spenser decks Orchard’s boyfriend who dislikes that Terry is talking to “the pig.” It’s a fun scene; not much talking to the boyfriend, just punches thrown.

The problem occurs when Spenser gets a call from Terry late the same night. Spenser goes to her apartment and the first thing he smells is cordite and gunpowder. The boyfriend’s laying dead on the floor and the gun, Terry’s gun, was what put the holes in him. Oh, and Terry’s drugged and incoherent. Spenser gets her fixed up and sober then calls the police. They want to pin the crime on Terry and why not? The gun’s hers, it has her fingerprints on it, she had motive, who wouldn’t like it?

Spenser doesn’t and neither do her parents who hire Spenser to acquit their daughter. It’s here where the real story takes off. To be honest—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away in a famous book published thirty-five years ago—the manuscript theft is an afterthought. It turns back up, unexplained. Spenser hardly cares. He’s more concerned with keeping Terry out of jail.

I couldn’t help but think of a couple of quotes from Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” as I read Spenser’s first adventure. One quote is this: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons…” In much of the PI fiction I’ve read thus far, there haven’t been too many bodies piled up (pun intended). True, murder has provided a means and a rationale for the story but killing seemed somewhat rare. I guess it was just odd that an ostensibly private citizen would go around shooting people even if they were threatening life and limb. It kind of speaks to why Ed McBain created the 87th precinct as a group of cops rather than a group of private detectives: only cops have the real authority to shoot people. Who knows? Maybe I just need to read more. Anyway, there’s a body count in The Godwulf Manuscript and Spenser, himself, is not without injury. You discover that the Korean War vet is a good shot and keeps his wits about him even as he drags his bleeding body through the snow.

The other quote from Chandler’s essay is all but embodied in Spenser: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Many characters in books and film would conduct the job of acquitting Terry Orchard merely as a job. They would go through the motions but not care, one way or another, about the future of an innocent twenty-year-old girl. Not Spenser. He cares for Terry, including one scene when he really cares for her. All during the second half of the book, he repeats that he’s after the truth to spare Terry jail time. He knows what jail will do to her; it’s what it would do to any of us.

I started to conduct some internet research for this review and quickly realized that most of the material on the internet is an accumulation of thirty-five years worth of trivia and data on Spenserdom. I didn’t want to spoil the fun I’m going to have as I read the books in this series. I know enough about Spenser from the Robert Urich TV show to know that he has a friend named Hawk. I kept waiting for Hawk to make an appearance but he didn’t in this book.

One thing I did discover about Parker and Spenser is that Spenser is largely responsible for keeping the PI genre alive. One of the characteristics of mainstream mystery fiction—the kind found both in bookstores and supermarkets—is the niche mystery. You know what I’m talking about: mysteries that involve cats, park rangers, old ladies who like to quilt, young people who like to garden. It’s everywhere. So, if Spenser indeed saved the PI genre, might some of his idiosyncrasies be responsible for niche mysteries? Judging from this first book, it’s possible. Spenser names his beers and bourbon choices. Spenser can quote classical literature and, yet, beat the crap out of a college student. I definitely got the sense that there is much more to Spenser than just a gumshoe with a lonely office.

The notable standout characteristic, however, is Spenser’s cooking. Parker lavishly tells us exactly what haute cuisine Spenser concocts in fine detail. To be honest, it surprised me that a single man of thirty-seven, a PI no less, would take the time to prepare such meals for himself. But later on in the book, he eats cold McDonald’s hamburgers washed down with bourbon. See? Just like us, only a little different.

As a writer, I learned something very important: take the time to describe things, people, and situations. My current novel is a first-person POV story and, to date, I’ve not described things to the detail that Spenser does. My critique grouped has nailed me on it more than once. It helps me, as a reader, to have all the detail Parker makes Spenser provide and it’s something I will now give to my heroine-detective as she moves forward through her story.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Godwulf Manuscript and Spenser as a character so much so that I’ve already put the next book in the chronology, God Save the Child, on hold from the library. I’m a creature of habit and I’ll read any series in order even if it’s not necessary. But I’ve a question for all of y’all who have read more Spenser books than I have: do they have to be read in order?

And for all of y’all who have never experienced the truly American creation that is Spenser, get thee to a bookstore or library and find The Godwulf Manuscript. It’s very entertaining and well worth your time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Femme Fatale" by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman has always been on my To-Read list. I know of her, who her main heroine is (Tess Monaghan), and, more importantly, where she lives (Baltimore). She has become synonymous with that city just as Pelecanos has with DC, Connelly and Chandler with LA, or Lehane with Boston. Just last month, at Bouchercon in Baltimore, the native daughter walked away with three awards, all for her novel What the Dead Know. As I wait for that audiobook to arrive from my library, I decided to take a read at a short story Lippman wrote for Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, edited by Duane Swierczynski (Busted Flush Press).

“Femme Fatale” is the last story is a sub-section entitled “Killers and Cons.” You meet 68-year-old (“No, I’m really 61.”) Mona in LeisureWorld, a retirement community and immediately, you begin to wonder: is Mona a killer or a con? Mona doesn’t fit in with the merry folks at LeisureWorld. She’s moderately well-off after her fourth (although she convinced the man he was her second marriage) but not so well off as to afford the kind of lifestyle she thinks she deserves. More importantly, Mona has nothing to do, nothing to occupy her time. Until she meets Bryon.

In a Starbucks, Bryon (“With an ‘o,’ like the poet, only the ‘r’ comes first.”) mistakes Mona for a famous starlet. Even when it’s proven she’s not the former star, Bryon keeps after her. He’s an independent filmmaker and he’d like to get a few shots of Mona. He convinces her to come to his studio—“a large locker in one of those storage places.”—and model for him. Cautiously, he gets her to pose in her birthday suit. Mona is shocked at first until she learns people pay to see what she has.
“People pay?” [Mona asks.]
Another shy nod. “It’s sort of a. . . niche within the industry.”
“It’s my niche,” he said. “It’s what I like. I make other films about, um, things I don’t like so much. But I love watching truly seasoned women teach young men about life.”
“And you’d pay for this?”
“Of course.”
“How much?”
“Some. Enough.”
“Just to look? Just to see me, as I am?”
“A little for that. More for . . . more.”
“How much?” Mona repeated. She was keen to know her worth.
Mona’s worth gets established as the story progresses. She’s always liked the looks of her own body and gets quite fond of performing for the camera. Later, she realizes there’s more money to be made if only Bryon will let her in. When he doesn’t, well, let’s just remember the title of this sub-section: “Killers and Cons.” You’ll have to read the story to find out which one is Mona.

Prose-wise, I particularly enjoyed the way Lippman used ellipses. She keenly conveyed Bryon’s hesitancy at broaching the subject of his films to Mona and, later, Lippman uses them to show Mona’s adept acting abilities.

Lippman is sly in the way she introduces the true subject of her story. And, when it clicks for Mona, as in the passage above, you can just see her hesitant eyes sharpen, her brain working over the angles. Work them over, she does, and, by the end of the story, she finally has something with which to occupy her time. And she’s happy. You’ll be happy, too, after you’ve read this fun little noir gem.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Today's book review... delayed until next week. Since this blog has evolved to what it is (my own self-education into crime and mystery fiction and, along the way, a book review site), I didn't have time to publish a book review that meets my own standards. I'll be back tomorrow with a short story review, Thursday with new chapters of my first book, and Friday with a Forgotten Book (hint: it's the first book by an author with whom I share a name). Plus, next week is Halloween Week and I'll have all my regular posts be one theme: Halloween and scary stuff.

Until the morrow...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Music Review: Hot Streets by Chicago

Now what?

That must have been the thoughts of the members of the band Chicago after fellow founding member Terry Kath’s untimely death in January 1978. The previous year, they had released their eleventh album and conducted yet another successful tour. Their last show—the last time Kath performed in public—was 1 December 1977 and they had already decided to move in a different direction by parting ways with James William Guercio, their producer and manager since 1969. The year 1978 was going to be a time of change and transition anyway. Soon after Kath’s death and funeral, the band had to wonder if they should move on as a band or call it quits.

Before they could even think of recording anything, they needed a new guitarist. The remaining members of Chicago—Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walt Parazaider, Danny Serephine—interviewed numerous guitarist. The true list has never been revealed so it’s a wonderful mystery thinking about who jammed with the band during their try-outs. One of the last guys to play was twenty-seven-year-old Donnie Dacus from Texas. At that point, his most recent work was with Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) and he went into his audition and decided to play with abandon. According to various sources, the guys were impressed that Dacus didn’t seemed cowed and just played his heart out in his own style. The Texan landed the job. And Chicago lived another day.

After hiring a new guitarist, Chicago needed a new producer. Phil Ramone, already legendary by 1978, had mixed a few of Chicago’s albums and he signed on as co-producer. The other listed producer was “Chicago.” Now, self-producing a album can have mixed results. If an artist has one vision, the results can prove excellent. Without a cohesive musical vision, the results can leave something to be desired. The ten songs that ended up being Chicago’s twelfth album lands somewhere in between. That’s to be expected with so much riding on it and the questions that would inevitably arise. How would Chicago sound without Terry Kath, the musical soul of the band since the early days? How would Chicago cope with the changing musical landscape of 1978, the year after “Saturday Night Fever” and the rise of disco, not to mention punk rock? How would the new guitarist blend in with the now-traditional Chicago sound?

The first track of the new album, “Alive Again,” was the answer. A bold, brash opener, complete with a disco-ish guitar riff, “Alive Again” told the world that Chicago was not dead. Pankow’s lyrics spoke of romantic love but you could pretty much read the band’s love of Kath in between the lines.
Yesterday I would not have believed
That tomorrow the sun would shine
Then one day you came into my life
I am alive again I am alive again
Heck, you could even account for the newfound enthusiasm the band had on stage with Dacus in those lyrics as well.

If the opening track on their first album, “Introduction,” is all you needed to know about Chicago circa 1969, then “Alive Again” is all you need to know about Chicago post-Kath. Peter Cetera sings the tune and this is the beginning of his ascendancy. The band accommodates and incorporates a newer musical sound within the context of the band (read: disco; although not as much as Chicago 13). The guitar solo by Dacus, while good and appropriate for the song, is less inventive than previous solos by Kath. Dacus’s vocal range is not Kath’s deeper baritone and the band’s vocal sound collectively rose in pitch without Kath and with Dacus.

And then there's the horns. Yes, they are there but only in a support role. “Alive Again,” in all of it’s three-minute, radio-friendly glory left little room for any extended horn breaks. To be fair, many of Chicago’s radio hits featured few horns breaks (“Just You n Me” is the most famous exception) but the horns were always, there, as the “fourth voice,” in many Chicago hits. (See how the horns interact with the vocals on “Saturday in the Park” as a good example.)

This diminished capacity of the horns on this new Chicago record goes on for most of the ten songs. “The Greatest Love on Earth” is Cetera’s attempt to write “If You Leave Me Now” Part III (after Chicago XI’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise;' here's my take on that album.). It’s a pretty song but you know that the band is capable of so much more. It’s also another indicator of the change in the sound of horns. Most Chicago songs feature a horn sound that is mellow, balanced by Pankow’s trombone, giving the sound a rich, deep timbre. With “The Greatest Love on Earth,” the trombone is there, but the mix reduces its sound. The result is a higher pitched sound, like Ramone turned the treble too high and the bass too low.

“Little Miss Lovin’” is Chicago’s answer to KISS’ “Christeen Sixteen.” It’s a rocking paean to teenage lust that features the Bee Gees on background vocals. Makes you wonder what Cetera was thinking when he wrote this tune. Another Dacus guitar solo and this one’s better.

“Hot Streets” is the fourth track as has the distinction of being a title track. For eleven albums, the only title was a number (other than the Carnegie Hall album). Chicago decided to title their twelfth album and they chose the most Chicago-sounding song on the album. “Hot Streets” is a Lamm-penned tune that evokes the spirit and feel of 1978 while still remembering where Chicago’s sound originated. The horns are back to being the other voice throughout the song. The high-hat is definitely of the late 70s and is a good example of how Chicago incorporates other trends into their own sound. And, shock of shocks, there is a horn solo. This time, it’s Parazaider’s flute blowing a fantastic, jazzy solo that evokes his great solo from Chicago II’s “It Better End Soon” without all the early 70s experimentation. The solo segues into an honest-to-goodness horn break. The timbre of the horns is still high but the break definitely hearkens back to the way the horns were used early on. “Hot Streets” ends with an extended guitar solo by Dacus that, sonically, is the sequel to Terry Kath’s last recorded solo (XI’s “This Time”). It’s a compositional solo, with refrains and a melodic line that runs to the end of the song. If, in 1978, any fan was listening to the new album wondering where the old Chicago was, the song “Hot Streets” put their worries to rest.

Dacus’s vocal debut, “Take a Chance” rounds out side one. It’s a pleasant song, pretty good really. Again the horns are the fourth voice, with a secondary melody behind Dacus’s singing. The guitar solos are wonderful, trading leads with the horns. These last two tracks of side one can be considered the best of the old and new Chicago.

Side two is opens with “Gone Long Gone,” a standard Top 40-type song of the post-Kath era: Cetera sung (including his own backing vocals) and hornless. It’s nice, yet simple. “Ain’t it Time” is Dacus’s second lead vocal. Decent song just nothing to write home about. One thing you can tell is how well Cetera and Dacus sound together. They are, in a sense, Bee Gee-sounding without all the high screeching. Lamm’s “Love Was New” is a pleasant, wistful look back at new romance. “No Tell Lover” is another ballad and probably the best one on the album. Cetera sings it and it’s the foremost example of how well Dacus and Cetera sound together. It’s got a horn break but it’s pretty simple. The album ends with the somewhat experimental sound of “Show Me the Way.” Synthesized strings open the song and poke their heads out during verses. Chicago had used strings before but mostly they were real players with real instruments. I can certainly see why they put this song at the end. It’s a good tune, written by drummer Serephine and sung by Lamm. It’s just one of odder-sounding cuts in Chicago’s repertoire. The ending fades out with a pseudo-Russian sounding chant “Marching into your heart” under the synthesizer.

The album “Hot Streets” was released to the world thirty years ago this month and the band hit the road. Regardless of what listeners thought of the album, the band’s stage show rocked. Dacus brought a new enthusiasm to the show. He wasn’t Kath and didn’t play like him. He had long, blond hair, he moved and gyrated like, well, a rock star. On older cuts, he interpreted the solos his own way. In February 1978, Van Halen’s first album hit the world and a whole new style of guitar playing emerged. Dacus played like Van Halen. Check out his take on Chicago’s most famous guitar-driven song, “25 or 6 to 4.” It was probably a shock to the crowd’s who loved Kath’s playing. Ironically, the very enthusiasm that Dacus showed in 1978—and that another guitarist, Dawayne Bailey, showed in the late 1980s—would eventually get him fired from the band two years later after making one more album.

No one would have blamed Chicago if they hung it up after Terry Kath’s death. You can make the case—and some members have—that the true Chicago died in 1978. (I still think of the first eleven albums as Chicago: The Originals.) But they didn’t. They forged ahead and continued to make some fantastic and lasting music. And it started with the addition of Donnie Dacus and the ten cuts that make up the album “Hot Streets.”

Love it or hate it, this album is the key album in Chicago’s nearly forty-plus year history. Without “Hot Streets” you would not have the famous ballads of the 1980s, you would not have “Stone of Sisyphus,” and you would not have the Christmas CD. While their first album was one of the best opening statements in rock history and their second solidified what it meant to be a rock band with horns, “Hot Streets” demonstrated that Chicago could and would adapt to changes in personnel and musical trends. Unfortunately, when their record label cancelled their contract two years later, Chicago was again left with the same question they asked in early 1978: “Now what?” The good thing for us, looking back, we know the answer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Forgotten Books: Stolen Woman by Wade Miller

It’s a rare book that can deliver a punch literally on the last sentence. Wade Miller’s Branded Woman does that. It is an enormous payoff to a book that propels you along page after page. With that one book, Wade Miller’s prowess sealed itself in my mind. As soon as I finished Branded Woman, I knew I needed to find more books by this brilliant two-man writing team.

Found two I did and one of them, Stolen Woman, is an honest to goodness Gold Medal book. Happily, I opened the book and wondered if Branded Woman was a flash-in-the-pan or a sign of something special. As if I really needed to worry.

Burke is an American piano player who performs at La Mujer Robada, a bar and showplace just south of the American border in Calexico. Ironically, the bar’s name, translated, is “stolen woman.” It is remarkable how often that term comes into play in this novel. I mentioned in my review of the newly award-winning short story “Hungry Enough,” by Cornelia Reed, how I love the way titles can have one meaning as you start the book and a different meaning after you’ve finished. The same holds true with Stolen Woman except this time, you actually get multiple meanings.

Burke plays the keys and the boss’s wife, Gretchen, with equal flourish and artistry. The problem occurs when the boss, Frank Portillo, comes home early and finds Burke and his wife in bed together. One instant later, Frank is lying dead on the floor, a smoking gun in Burke’s hand. No sooner had the gunshot’s blast faded away than a Mexican policeman, David (pronounced Dah-veed), arrives and escorts Burke away. Except they don’t go to the police station. David blackmails Burke to get the American to carry a “package” over the border. Having no choice, Burke relents. Now, Burke is a murderer and a smuggler.

Then he meets Feeney, an American border cop, who seems to know a little bit about everything, including Burke’s murder rap and subsequent blackmail. Feeney also puts the screws to Burke, using the piano player as a pawn in Feeney’s goal of taking down the top drug smuggler in the area, El Uno.

Burke’s in a tight spot. He can’t run, he can’t hide, and he’s beginning to realize he can’t trust a whole lot of people. But there seems to be one, a Mexican senorita named Socorra, who fawns over him, even going so far as to arrange to meet Burke in a fun yet contrived way. This little scene is actually quite tender, a rare respite amid all the other shenanigans. He falls for her—natch. Then things really go wild: bullets fly, truths are revealed, and alliances (and double-crosses) come to light. It’s a roller coaster for Burke and you as the reader.

Stolen Woman is a master class on how to withhold the big reveal while still giving clues along the way. There is something like three or four reveals toward the last quarter of the book. I’ll admit that I saw the last one coming. No, check that. I suspected it based on one particular character’s actions. Still, when it was time for the final curtain to be raised, it was still satisfying.

A hallmark in pulp fiction is the innocent person caught in a web of unfamiliarity and having to do what it takes to survive. Like Christa Faust’s heroine, Angel Dare, in Money Shot, Burke doesn’t know his way around the underworld. Burke is a piano player. He’ s not a former hit man piano player who can fire a gun and always hit the target; he’s just plays piano. So he’s not equipped to deal with all the stuff that comes flying his way. But he deals with it as best he can. It’s fascinating to watch him go through the motions, having to fight his way out of the tangled mess he’s in. Miller purposefully puts Burke through the ringer—hey, it’s entertaining, to say the least—but he also shows us Burke’s changes, both in his outlook on life and his situations. Burke gets a harder edge to him as he starts to see different angles, a possible way out. Burke is a different man by the end of the book, less sure of himself, but confident in what he’s done and what he now has to do. And, more often than not, Miller uses Burke’s hands as the metaphor of Burke’s predicament at various stages of the book. It’s something to watch out for and note.

Style-wise, Miller is a fine practitioner of good pulp fiction turns of phrase. Some examples that stuck out:
• He ground out the words.
• The name tasted evil.
• His narrow cold eyes gave away what he was like inside.
Miller even got a little tongue in cheek with one of the characters:
The Mexican straightened. His eyes flashed. “You forget, Senor. It is you who are dependent on me!” All he failed to do was twirl his moustache.
Wade Miller—actually the writing team of Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller—can write a pulp yarn with the best of them. Branded Woman is an excellent place to start as you can find the Hard Case Crime version fairly easily. But don’t’ stop there. Stark House Press just released two titles: The Killer and Devil on Two Sticks. Search for any Wade Miller books, including Stolen Woman. There’s quite a bit going on in such a brief little book. If you’re a writer, study it. It’ll make you a better writer. But don’t forget to just read it for fun.

Note: The Mystery File’s website has some excellent material about Miller including an interview with Robert Wade and a bibliography.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Bodies Piled Up" by Dashiell Hammett

In a recent blog review of the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, one commenter wrote that he didn’t even realize EQMM was still being published. Such is the state of mainstream short mystery fiction that even avid mystery readers don’t know about EQMM or its sister, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Well, EQMM is still being published, albeit in a smaller format. I have been an infrequent reader these past years but the editors at EQMM started something in 2008 that will certainly bring more readers who, like me, loved the hard-boiled material.

Starting with the January 2008 issue, EQMM features reprinted stories from the old Black Mask Magazine and new stories written in the same style. Black Mask was one of the most popular pulp magazines of the 1920s and many of the names we now associate with pulp and crime fiction—Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Leslie Charteris, Raymond Chandler, and other—got their start in Black Mask. But EQMM decided to begin their new series with the most popular writer to emerge from the pages of Black Mask, Dashiell Hammett.

“Bodies Piled Up” is a 1923 Continental-Op story set in a San Francisco hotel. The Continental-Op is a nameless detective who, according to Thrilling Detective, is the reason we have the PI in the form he is now in. This story begins with the Continental-Op working a shift at the Montgomery Hotel, filling in until the hotel owners can find a replacement for the detective they fired for drunkenness. There is a problem in room 906 and the Op and the assistant manager go up and see what’s what. The maid is standing in the room, transfixed by a thin line of blood snaking out from under a closet door. The Op opens the door and a body falls out. Then another. And a third. The main fainted. And the Op has a mystery on his hands.

Having recently read two novels (here and here) by Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the masters of the puzzle in detective fiction, I was impressed by Hammett’s ability to present the facts as the Op saw them. This is not some rote, boring, long-winded recitation of data. No, Hammett punches you in the gut with short, blunt sentences that gives you all you need to know. His investigation leads to three men, one of whom registered under a false name. Once the Op figured out who the man was, he decided to set a trap for him. In disguise, the Op meets with the suspect. Unfortunately for the Op, the suspect doesn’t just want to chat. He has a gun and wants to take out the man (Cudner) the Continental-Op is supposed to be. Then, the fun begins as the real Cudner shows up.

In a brisk fifteen pages, Hammett gives us dead bodies, a murder mystery, a gun fight, and a resolution, all with clean, precise hard-boiled prose. “Bodies Piled Up” is quite entertaining and a high standard for all future Black Mask stories.

Note: the August issue features a new story by the late Mickey Spillane.

“Bodies Piled Up,” by Dashiell Hammett, published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January 2008.

To subscribe to EQMM or AHMM, visit The Mystery Place. Starting in 2009, I'm going to subscribe again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Review: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (as by Ian Fleming)

Bond is Back! And he’s…different*.

To celebrate what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, the estate commissioned literary novelist Sebastian Faulks to write the “thirteenth” novel that Fleming he never wrote. (For those keeping score, there are fourteen Bond titles published under Fleming’s name. Two of them, For Your Eyes Only and Octopus-y were story collections. Thus, Fleming only wrote twelve novels, the last one being 1965’s posthumous book, The Man with the Golden Gun.) By choosing this course of action, Devil May Care eliminates some forty years worth of novels written about James Bond by other authors. You could think of it as the literary equivalent of a reboot, just as the movie version of “Casino Royale” was to the films.

Faulks, born in 1953, the same year the first Bond book, Casino Royale, was published (coincidence?) is better known as a literary writer. I haven’t read any of his books so I can’t comment on his own style. However, other reviewers have commented on Faulks-as-Fleming is pretty dead-on. I’ve read the first five Bond books (check out for the true novel order) and I can tell that Faulks did a good job at emulating the style of the late author.

*In the opening sentence, I said that this Bond is different. He is only different if you’ve never read any of the Fleming novels. The Bond of the books and the Bond of the movies are different creatures. Heck, the movie Bonds themselves are different creatures. Differences can be good. Let me put it this way: the movie "Casino Royale" knocked my socks off it was so good. This book is better than half the films—easily—but not as good as, say, the movie or novel From Russia With Love.

Like most Bond films, Devil May Care starts off with a “pre-credit” sequence. Here, an Algerian drug dealer in France gets his tongue ripped out with pliers. Cue Theme Song. Next, we see Bond at the end of a three-month sabbatical after his encounter with Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. (Again, judging by the movie version, my first question was “Really?” Perhaps the book is better. Couldn’t possibly be worse.) Bond stays on Barbados and learns tennis, travels in France, and ends up in Rome. One day at an outside café, he sees a man with a large left hand wearing a white glove. Odd, thinks Bond, I think that chap is up to no good. (That’s foreshadowing, by the way) With two weeks remaining on his sabbatical, he has a decision to make: return to the field or be benched behind a desk for the rest of his career. A lovely woman catches his eye and, after having dinner with the married woman, declines her invitation to go up to her room. Yes, I said declines. Yes, this is a James Bond book. It’s okay. Just keep reading.

For Bond, that refusal of a sexual encounter is proof that he’s lost the edge. Well, until he gets a cable from M ordering him to report back to London. Here is where Faulks demonstrates that he’s read all of Fleming’s material. And it’s part of the book’s charm. If you have never read the Fleming novels, you are missing a lot about the fictional Bond. When Bond returns to London, Faulks takes you to Bond’s house and you get to see his housemaid—and she ain’t one of the tall, slim, scantily clad ones either. In the novels, the second book, Moonraker, shows you Bond’s house and his habits for the first time. Faulks lovingly throws in snippets of details that the die-hards will already know and new readers—perhaps those who only know Bond from the films—will find appealing. Faulks has Bond remember past adversaries throughout the book and this plays like a greatest hits.

M dispatches Bond to investigate Julian Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate suspected of importing heroin into the West. And, lo and behold, if Gorner isn’t the man with the large left hand that Bond just happened to see in France one day. (I’ll be honest: I rolled my eyes on that one. Too coincidental and unnecessary.) Bond lands in France and is met by Scarlett Papava who just so happens to be the same lady Bond refused to sleep with back in Rome (roll eyes again). This time, she’s being her real self and wants Bond’s help to rescue her sister from the clutches of Gorner.

Every Bond story has to have the inevitable battle of wills between Bond and his adversary. Think golf with Goldfinger, shooting geese with Drax, or that horrid video game in "Never Say Never Again." This time, it’s tennis (eye roll again because that’s just exactly what Bond took up in Barbados during his sabbatical. Good thing, huh?) I think you can guess who wins. Which brings up a question: in almost all these films with the egomaniacal villain who think that they are so superior to Bond, why do they always feel the need to cheat?

I’ll admit that the eye rolling stopped here. Once Bond makes his way to Iran (a first for Bond), the scope of a typical Bond story rolls along very quickly. He meets up with Darius Alizadeh, MI6’s man in Tehran. He’s a great character and as staunch an ally as Darko Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. And you get a real sense of what Bond likes to eat, something that is usually skipped over in the films. Soon, Bond discovers the Caspian Sea Monster (as told by a man not unlike Quarrel from "Dr. No" who thinks the tank in that film is a dragon) and Gorner’s plan to bring Britain to its knees (like in "Goldeneye" and "Die Another Day") in a manner not unlike Elliot Carver in "Tomorrow Never Dies." Got all that?

One thing that surprised me was the climax. It wasn’t at the end; it occurred about three-fourths of the way into the book. But, like "The Spy Who Loved Me," the #1 Henchman returns and, well, you could have guessed that. And if you’re wondering if Bond and Scarlett end up together…come on! It’s a James Bond story. What do you think?

You get past the opening, slower sections and the book picks up a head of steam that barrels it way to the end. I listened to the book and the reader, Tristan Layton, does a fine job. He even nails the stereotypical Texas accent of Felix Leiter (bet you didn’t know Felix was a Texan if you just watched the movies).

I certainly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading others as they are released. I’m up to Book 6 in the novels, Dr. No, and, after reading Devil May Care, I might tackle the rest of the Fleming books soon. I always hesitate to plow through novels by authors who are dead because there are a finite number of books to be read and I want to savor them. But if the Fleming estate continues to commission books as enjoyable as this one, we’ll all have our constant fix of James Bond for years to come.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wonderful Hard Case Crime News

Wow! This Monday just got a lot more exciting. Want to know why? Head on over to Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine blog where he reprints the latest updates from Charles Ardai, one of the founders of Hard Case Crime.

And you thought 2008 was a good year for Hard Case Crime? Wait until 2009. Here are the teases:

  • Something from Robert Parker (no, not that one)
  • Chance to win a free book!
  • Lester Dent
(Thanks, Bill)

Movie Review: Harper

If, as the trailer proclaims, Paul Newman is Harper and if “Harper” the movie is a little dull, does that make Paul Newman dull? In a math world, yes. In our world, not at all.

“Harper” is the screen adaptation of the Ross MacDonald book The Moving Target, featuring the PI Lew Archer. In a nice introduction to the DVD, Robert Osborn from TCM explains how the name Archer became Harper for the movie. Paul Newman had, by 1966, some success with movies that had the letter “H” in the title. See "Hud" and "The Hustler." So, he lobbied for the name change. I’m not that much of a purist so it didn’t bother me one way or the other.

If you’ve read my review of the novel, you’ll know that I didn’t love the book all that much. In fact, I found it dull in places. Bruce Grossman from has assured me that MacDonald’s books get better once the author starts writing in his own voice rather than a Chandler pastiche. Unfortunately, the somewhat dull book created a somewhat dull movie. Not that it wasn’t entertaining. Newman gave Harper a lively appearance and his sarcastic wit shined as brightly as his blue eyes. He made me laugh in places that I didn’t in the book. And the cast was quite good. Lauren Bacall as the invalid wife of the missing husband dripped with barely-concealed venom. A young Robert Wagner as the pilot/hanger-on of the missing husband gives a buoyant and cheerful performance. Shelley Winters plays the older actress who is past her prime with a drunken authority that is hard to believe she’s only four years older than Bacall, the “younger” wife of Ralph Sampson, the missing husband Harper’s been hired to locate. And Pamela Tiffin exudes the overt sexiness that rivals our modern pop stars but with a lot more left to the imagination.

William Goldman, who would later write “The Princess Bride” and snag a couple of Oscars, adapted and updated MacDonald’s 1949 novel. With the story now set in 1966, you get almost everything that you would expect from a movie set just before the tumultuous final years of that decade. You get the cars—Newman drives a beat-up convertible—the clothes, the lingo, the vibe of a decade trying on everything new. You get the teenagers all dancing in sync with the latest jazzy tunes. About the only thing you don’t get is a beach scene with Newman on a surfboard, riding the waves, to the cheering applause of enraptured teens. (Maybe that’s in the sequel?) Actually, the jazz score by Johnny Mandel is one of the best things about the film. His music, not altogether unlike the soundtrack to the recent film "Sideways," consisting of nice and breezy melodies with combinations of instruments that just scream mid-60s (flute, congas) makes the watching of the movie much easier.

Newman does rise above the rote script. In fact, one of the nicest visual touches in the film is how Harper moves from flippant but professional PI to serious and hard-edged PI. His gum chewing is another visual clue to how he does his job. When interviewing the clients, he chews gum like a hood. When it comes times to draw a gun and take action, he chunks the gum. And Newman’s affected accents work to make you laugh, too. Harper is off-putting, and the folks he interviews never quite know that they’ve just revealed something of interest.

“Harper’ is not a bad film. It was enjoyable albeit slow. There is nothing wrong with a slow-burn story. I enjoy them and, frankly, I wrote my first novel in that fashion. But you’d certainly expect the big finish. And “Harper,” like the novel, ends the way it begins: somewhat dull.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Winners all around...even me

The Shamus Awards were announced today up in Baltimore at the Bouchercon. Head on over to The Rap Sheet for the list. Cornelia Reed won for "Hungry Enough," a short story from A Hell of A Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, edited by Megan Abbott (Busted Flush Press). You can read my review of that story here.

At my local Fall Writer's Conference sponsored by the Ft. Bend Writer's Guild, at which Robert Cremins was the terrific guest speaker, I won for the 6-word novel contest.

My winning entry: Wanted: new husband without bullet holes.

This marks the third time I've written something and won money for it. You know, I like that feeling. I'd like to keep that going...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Forgotten Books: America at War: The Best of DC War Comics

News Flash: World War II lasts forty years! The war ends in a whimper in the 1980s!

Those headlines are not true, of course, but you could believe it if you only read the war-related titles from DC Comics. And some of the finest are collected in 1979’s “America At War: The Best of DC War Comics,” edited by Michael Uslan. What’s ironic is that this anthology emerged at the twilight of the great war comics. Just a few years after its publication, the comics this anthology touts would fade to memory.

Uslan offers a nice introduction giving a brief history of war comics from DC. He points out that in 1939, DC published a new book, All-American Comics, that featured Hop Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airway and Red, White, and Blue. What’s fascinating is that the cover and lead story featured the original Green Lantern. The editors at DC didn’t know if the books would sell if outright war characters graced the covers. They soon found their answer. Harrigan became an instant hit, eventually spawning his own radio show.

Even in the early years of World War II when America was not at war, we knew who the enemies were: the Germans and the Japanese. And the stories and featured characters—Blackhawk, The Boy Commandos, etc.—started fighting America’s true enemies rather than spies on the home front. But after V-J and V-E day, in real life, our soldiers returned home. In the comics world, they kept fighting. And, in 1952, DC issued its first all-war title, Our Army at War. Its success spawned more and more, eventually giving birth to Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, Gravedigger, The Haunted Tank, and the Unknown Soldier. Even through the divisive Vietnam years, war comics thrived mainly, I think, because they focused on the “good war” of WWII and, occasionally, Korea.

Uslan highlights many of these characters in his nice anthology. He makes his apologies in the forward stating that he’d selected nearly 600 pages of war comics that he had to edit down to 250. That must have been agonizing. As such, we get mere tastes of these titles and characters, enough to whet our appetite and cause those who like this material to seek out and find old issues or reprint editions.

The book is divided into decades, starting with the 1940s and ending in the 1970s. The 1940s offerings showcase Blackhawk and his origin story (he was a crack pilot who was shot down over Poland only to discover his family had perished), the Boy Commandos (created by Jack Kirby), Hop Harrigan, and a couple of Superman stories. The funniest piece here is the day Superman failed his Army physical. Originally published as a newspaper comic strip, Clark Kent is the perfect candidate for a soldier except he flubs his eye test. You see, his X-Ray vision caused him to read the chart in the next room, not the room in which he currently stood. Humorous. Later the same year (1943), however, in the comic book version of Superman, Kent goes undercover in the Army Air Force to dispel the rumor that the training program is too timid. It’s subtle propaganda but propaganda nonetheless.

The 1950s is where the real action begins. And there was no hero larger in DC war comics than Sgt. Rock. Uslan doesn’t include Rock’s first appearance. Rather, he includes the first time artist Joe Kubert illustrated one of Rock’s stories. Kubert is, by definition, one of the best artists out there and his take on Rock and other war comics are all but definitive. In this issue, a new member joins Easy Co. and questions why Rock is called “Rock.” One answer is this: “’Cause that what he is. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets so rugged that only a rock could stand, he stands.” On a different level is Gunner and Sarge in the Pacific. This story has Gunner temporarily blinded and, with the help of a “seeing eye dog,” takes out a tank and saves Sarge. We jump back to Europe and follow an adventure with Mademoiselle Marie of the French Resistance. It’s during the 1950s where my favorite illustrated word—the words like “Pow” and “Bang” to denote some action—comes into its own: “Budda budda” is the written method to characterize machine gun fire. Heck, I still make that sound.

The stories from the 1960s demonstrate a wider range of creativity and, frankly, bizarreness. Uslan includes the first Haunted Tank story. In this one, the ghost of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart watches over a light tank commanded by one of his descendants, Jeb Stuart. At key moments in his battles, the ghost Stuart renders aid to the tank commander Stuart, usually with a happy ending. The key is that Jeb Stuart is the only one who can hear the ghost. Enemy Ace does a 180-degree turn, spotlighting a World War I German flying ace instead of the usual American characters. “What the Color of Your Blood” is a 1965 Sgt. Rock tale that speaks to the civil rights movement of the time. Having been captured by Nazis, a black American soldier fights a white Nazi with the Nazi trying to force Jackie (Robinson?) to say that his blood was black. Only in the end, when Jackie offers his own blood in a transfusion to save the German’s life does the Nazi man see the color of Jackie’s blood. Uslan includes one story from the 1960s—where a PT boat comes face to face with dinosaurs (yeah, really)—that would eventually become Weird War Tales. We get one Vietnam-era story from 1966 before the nature of the war changed. It’s a straight-up tale featuring Capt. Hunter.

Tellingly, there is a break in the chronology from 1966 to 1971, the height of the Vietnam-era protests. Uslan’s first 1970s story is “The Glory Boys,” a Civil War-era story that speaks directly at the less-heroic and yet tragic nature of war. By 1971, the horrific stories to emerge from Vietnam—My Lai, the mentality that our soldiers had to destroy the town to save it—spilled into Sgt. Rock stories. In “Head Count,” a soldier named Johnny Doe loves to kill, and forces Rock to an agonizing choice. The last panel includes two things. A closing quote from Rock and a little seal that states “Make war no more.” Rock’s last line of dialogue echoes the sentiments of that seal: “Was Johnny Doe a murderer—or a hero? That’s one question each of you will have to decide for yourselves.” Lastly, Uslan includes one of the best war titles from DC, an Unknown Soldier story. An American soldier, whose face is so severely burned that he goes around with bandages on his head, becomes an indispensable spy specializing in disguise and stealth. In “8,000 to One,” the Unknown Soldier infiltrates the Gestapo in order to sabotage the Nazi plans to transport 8,000 Jews to a concentration camp. The Unknown Soldier must confront the inequities of war that force men to choose one life over another.

As I mentioned earlier, in the 1980s, the war comics just withered and died. The last issue of the Unknown Soldier hit the newsstands in October 1982. The following summer, Weird War Tales—which showcased one of the coolest creations in the 1980s, the Creature Commandos (think Frankenstein, Dracula, a werewolf, and a robot fighting the Nazis)—ceased publication. G.I. Combat, the only war title to get DC’s Dollar-sized issue treatment, lasted until March 1987. As you would expect, Sgt. Rock outlasted them all until, in July 1988, he, too, faded into history.

The irony in the death of war comics is that they died when new found realism invaded the superhero comics. With The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-87), and others, comics and graphic novels became less the entertainment of the young and more an art form equal to novels. This type of medium would seem to have been a suitable outlet for more adult war stories. You could have even tagged the books with a “Intended for Mature Audiences” label like the one-off issue of Weird War Tales in 1998. And, yet, it hasn’t come to pass. I just wonder why it happened.

In recent years, Sgt. Rock, Blackhawk, Enemy Ace, the Unknown Soldier, and others are getting the archive treatment from DC so we’ll have nice hardbound versions to keep and re-read. But if you want a nice anthology that you can dip into and read a little bit of everything, you can’t go wrong with Michael Uslan’s “America at War.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Interrogation B" by Charlie Huston

Cops get the shaft more often than not. If it’s not the brass dictating some new bureaucratic regulation whose only designs is to appeal to the mayor’s office and crime statistics it’s the criminals who laugh in their faces and make cops’ lives miserable. You see it in the newspapers, on TV, and in stories. In real life, we hate reading about this kind of thing. In a book or TV show, we love it. What’s a cop supposed to do?

Well, if you name is Borden, a lady detective, you can do a lot. But first, she’s got to take grief from the skank chick that’s she’s just arrested. The chick is mouthing off with “bitch this” or “bitch that” and worse. Then there’s Daws, the prick fellow detective, a male, who wears designer clothes in a way that she, as a female detective, could never get away with. Pisses Borden off. And all she wants to do is fill out the BS form with information from the chick. The chick literally spits on Daws twice, once on his shoe and once on his crotch. He’s pissed, especially since they are $200 pants. Daws wants Borden to let him have five minutes alone with the chick, teach her some manners. Borden defers and tells Daws to go get cleaned up. He leaves, grumbling the entire time.

Then Borden does her thing. You’re just going to have to read it.

In the second section, Daws, Borden, and some other cops are playing poker and Borden ruminates on what she did to The Bitch, as she thinks of the skanky chick. Borden makes an interesting point about the value of life. Oh, and stay until the last line.

This is my first Charlie Huston story and it’s the first time I’ve read a story with its unique format. There are no quotation marks. Every bit of dialogue is prefaced by an em dash. As such, there are no “he said” or “she said” bits of prose either. That’s a good thing when reading this story. The streamlined prose makes the reading zip along. This style also avoids many adverbs, letting the dialogue or the action give you context. This is black-and-white storytelling. There is no gray. Cool stuff.

"Interrogation B" by Charlie Huston, published in A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir (Busted Flush Press).

Note: it's ironic that I'm reviewing stories from this book on Wednesdays and not as a whole because this anthology is so good. Kinda makes me think I should have done that. However, this way, I can give the stories more attention. I'm basically picking stories at random and none have failed to entertain. David Cranmer, over at The Education of a Pulp Writer, commented on Busted Flush Press's new blog that he's reading A Hell of a Woman. I suspect David will write about this anthology when he's done. Look for it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Review: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

When you think of comics, I bet you think of superheroes in spandex. Nothing wrong with that. But there used to be a whole other realm when someone mentioned comics—horror, mystery, crime, and terror—in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then, with the Comics Code Authority, much of what was in comics evaporated and the superheroes were neutered. Crime-focused comics fell under that knife and stayed dormant for decades. By the 1970s, when I began collecting comics, I don’t even remember any crime comics out there. And I’m not including Detective Comics that long ago became just another vehicle for Batman. No, crime comics died and only rarely rose up to see what was going on. The only crime comic title I can think of before the 1990s was Max Allan Collins’s “Ms. Tree.”

The late 1980s saw the introduction of a newfound realism in comics. The emergence of the graphic novel as a medium proved that comic books were not just kids’ stuff. DC Comics launched the Vertigo line of comics intended for mature readers and focused on subjects more intense than Superman trying to get the alien imp Mr. Mxyzptlk to say his own name backward (thus banishing him back to the Fifth Dimension). With this new attention being paid to comics as a storytelling medium, it was inevitable that crime comics would be re-born.

While the re-birth cannot be attributed to one person, there is one man who can take a large amount of credit for the revitalization of crime in comics. Ed Brubaker bounced around the comics’ world, writing his own material that was usually crime-related and putting his own unique stamp on standard heroes like Batman, Catwoman, and the X-Men. In 2007, he and artist Sean Phillips launched a new title, “Criminal” that featured multi-issue story arcs. The first five issues have been collected in a trade paperback.

Coward” tells the story of Leo, a pickpocket with a genius gift for planning heists. He got the gift from his dad and his dad’s best pal, Ivan. Over the years, Leo has internalized his father’s rules, one of which is always have more than one way out of a situation. Leo lives by these rules and he has survived. The fallout is that he knows when to bail—and does—and he’s earned himself the reputation of being a coward. He’s cool with that, however. As he tells one character, “My ego can take a few morons thinking they scared me.” What Leo realizes (too late) is that his aloofness turns people away, even people who try to get close to him.

Leo’s gone under the radar in the five years since the Salt Bay heist went belly up. He takes care of his dad’s friend, Ivan, now a heroin addict with early onset Alzheimer’s. But an old friend shows up asking for Leo’s help in a heist. It’s a big payday: an armored car full of trial evidence including $5 million in diamonds. Leo says no way. “I’m out of that line of work.” Then his day nurse (the one looking after Ivan) quits. Greta, whose husband died on that botched Salt Bay job five years ago, shows up, cajoling Leo to help. She’s a recovering addict with a kid who needs some medical bills paid. Suffice it to say, Leo agrees and sets out to plan the perfect heist. He’s working with crooked cops and he knows he’s going to be double-crossed. It’s just a matter of time. But what he doesn’t know is that the double-cross is going to allow him and a wounded Greta to get away with the real target in that evidence van. Only when he sees the prize he’s stolen does he start to form another plan, a plan to get himself and Greta out from under the thumb of the guys looking for that briefcase, and, while he’s at it, see about getting paid for his services.

“Coward” is a joy to read. Oh, it’ll slap you in the face with its realism and it’s language, but it’s still a rush. The language surprised me. If filmed, this would only work as an HBO program as the language is riff with four-letter words. But that’s how real criminals talk so no harm, no foul. The plot is tight. Brubaker plays his cards close to the vest, not revealing the true nature of Leo’s actions and outlook on life until late in the book. The artwork is film noir on paper. Sean Phillips uses shadows and light exactly as a director did in the late 40s, giving “Coward” its visual tone that matches the bleak outlook of its text. This is a noir story, not necessarily hard-boiled. There is a bleakness to Leo’s story that permeates most characters as they question their motivations.

In a nice touch, there is a story within a story. The characters all read the newspaper and most of them read a comic strip featuring Frank Kafka, Private Eye. Okay, you can start sniggering now. But the name Kafka and the story being depicted speak to Leo’s story and vice versa. It’s a style Alan Moore used brilliantly in “Watchmen”—except he used three stories.

I’ve been interested in crime comics for a little while now and decided to start with Brubaker’s work. This will not be the last trade paperback I buy. Next up will be "Gotham Central," Brubaker's story of the Gotham City Police working under the shadow of Batman. “ Coward” has merely whetted my appetite for more crime comics, modern as well as golden age. If you like crime fiction, there’s more to it than just novels and short stories. Try the comics and start with Brubaker’s work. Don’t worry: they’re so good, you won’t have to hide them.