Apr 212015
by Robin Spano

Question of the Week: What are your favorite writing conferences/conventions to attend?

First, thanks to Susan Shea, who defined the difference between conferences (collegial writerly gatherings) and conventions (fan-based gatherings).

My favorite conventionis Bouchercon. I've written a post about that before. Here's a link if you're interested: http://www.robinspano.com/5-things-i-love-about-bouchercon/

My favorite conference is Surrey International Writers Conference. The atmosphere buzzes with warmth and excellence, which radiates down from the warm, brilliant organizer, Kathy Chung, and her team of similarly devoted board members. There is so much talent in any room you're in—not only because the presenters include the likes of Chevy Stevens and Diana Gabaldon, but because the aspiring authors who attend are smart, serious, and quite advanced in their craft. Some attendees are even published authors.

I'd attended educational sessions there in the past (if you ever have the opportunity to take a workshop from Don Maass, jump at it), so I was excited to be a presenter there in the fall of 2014. I taught two workshops—one on the craft of mystery writing, another on public speaking for authors. I sat for three blue pencil sessions where attendees brought me pages of their work to insta-critique. Both during those sessions and at meals, I met aspiring authors who I've stayed in touch and become friends with.

I also doubled as an attendee. I used every break I had to sit in on other presenters' workshops and soak up the wisdom of my colleagues. Favorites were “Making Readers Cry” taught by Robert J. Wiersema, and an excellent take on setting by Hallie Ephron.

I also had a lot of fun (maybe one night too much fun?) with my fellow presenters. There's something about being in a hotel with wine and fellow writerly folks that makes your inhibitions mysteriously disappear. (But they come back with a thud the next morning, right Rachel Letofsky?)

Next convention on my list to attend is Left Coast Crime. I've never been, but it sounds warm and wonderful. Maybe 2016?

Facts and Fiction–one more time

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Apr 212015

So, I saw this headline over the weekend:

FBI admits it fudged forensic hair matches in nearly all criminal trials for decades

Seems like a pretty big deal. What’s more shocking – or not surprising at all – was this part:

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favoured prosecutors in more than 95 per cent of the 268 trials reviewed so far..”

95 percent of the “overstated forensic matches… favoured prosecutors.”

It seems like such old news now, the authorities breaking the rules, cheating, lying to get a conviction. The science being manipulated – for one side, in 95% of the cases.

And yet, in popular crime fiction science has become the star. Years ago someone said, “I’m not really into forensics, so I don’t watch much TV.” For a while there it seemed like every other show had people in white lab coats solving crimes. Pretty much always honestly, always above reproach. It was science and science doesn’t lie.

Did crime fiction show too much faith in accepting science? Or in underestimating the lengths people will go to get what they want? (This is a pet peeve of mine, how a lot of crime fiction actually sees the world as completely honest – except for the fact that everyone in a small town could be a calculating, cold-blooded murderer, capable of not only committing the most serious crimes but also of going about their lives as if nothing has happened.)

Another article I saw this week was from Cracked.com about why The X-Files won’t work today. Reason #4 was, “The attitudes towards the military are from a different era,” and pointed out that, “Americans now trust the military more than they do religious leaders, doctors, or teachers. Whether you think that's fair or a result of media brainwashing, the fact remains that repeatedly involving the military in a dark television conspiracy today would be about as popular with audiences as aliens disguised as and played by cute kittens that needed to be slaughtered at the end of every episode.”

Reason #2 was that “The conspiracies are all real now,” and said, “while there has never been a time when the U.S. government's actions were 100 percent peachy, the '90s was definitely a low point for shady government activity. Now, compare this to today. In the last 10 years, we've learned that the government has gone to war for no particular reason, tortured innocent people in secret prisons, and repeatedly executed American citizens without trial. In theory, this should give the new X-Files some great plot fuel, maybe even enough fuel to melt steel, I don't know, the truth is still out there about that. In reality, though, I think it works the opposite way. After the last 10 years or so, the mind-blowing conspiracy theories we saw revealed on the X-Files seem kind of ... quaint, like a kid finding out for the first time why their parents share a bed.”

There’s a joke in Canada that we’re always on the brink of, “Coming of age,” and we never really do (one of our prime ministers once said, “The 20th century belongs to Canada,” and we’ve now revised it to, “The 21st century,” and I expect we’ll keep revising that forever) and that Americans lose their innocence every thirty years.

So now, according to Cracked.com, the 1990’s were a low point for shady government activity. I think maybe a new X-Files will work really well as it seems we’re almost due for another loss of innocence.

Apr 212015

BOB SHAW – A Wreath of Stars. Doubleday, Januray 1977, US, hardcover, Dell, paperback, April 1978. Baen Books, US, paperback, November 1987. First published in the UK: Victor Gollancz, hardcover, June 1976.

   If you want science in your science fiction, albeit of the most sensationalist nature possible, look no further this rather dull and plodding tale of adventure. It starts well, with the invention of a special kind of glass that allows wearers to see in the dark — a discovery made just in time for the Earth’s population — but only those wearing glasses made of the material — to see a giant planet consisting solely of anti-neutrons bearing down on the planet. Or more precisely, to pass right through it.

   And causing no damage as it does so. But no matter. As it happens it swerves off from its oncoming path at next to the last minute. No one knows why.

   But what it does do is what the book is all about, beginning with the “ghosts” miners in an underground cavern in a post-colonial country in Africa begin to see at regular intervals. Turns out that an entire world made of anti-neutrino matter has existed within the Earth for perhaps billions of years, and only the onrush of the anti-neutrino planet has forced it out of its hiding place below the Earth’s surface.

   What follows is one of those old-fashioned Sci-Fi movies from the 50s and 60s that the British did so well. Is there a means of making contact with the race of people living on this new world? Problem is, the rulers of the African country are despots of tin-hat generals who do not want the outside world barging in.

   A fellow named Gil Snook (don’t snigger) is one of the outsiders on hand to give a hand to the lone scientist who learns early on what a find this new world within our world represents. There is a woman, too, who finds herself in the middle of all this, one both men find irresistible, one only wistfully, as the lady has a mind of her own, very much a creature of her time (the 1970s).

   Unfortunately this is one of those novels that slows down as it goes. Dull and plodding, I said up above, but not in the beginning, I grant you, and it is great fun for a while. The novel ends in a most uninteresting fashion, however, leaving way for a sequel, perhaps, one that never happened, not with the characters spread out between two worlds, never to see other again, with no opportunity for the strange, unconventional but somewhat interesting love triangle to ever have any chance of a resolution. I regret that.

   Nor if you were to ask me, do I know where the title comes from.

 Posted by at 3:41 am
Apr 212015

by Fred Blosser

I was in the mood to revisit Horace McCoy, but I already had a half-dozen other books stacked up in my to-read pile.  I was reluctant to break my stride by reaching for “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” or even one of McCoy’s other, shorter novels.  Bill Pronzini’s wonderful  anthology, “The Arbor House Treasury of Detective & Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps” (1983) charged to my rescue.  One of the stories in the collection, “The Mopper-Up” from the November 1931 issue of “Black Mask,” is 101-proof McCoy but short enough to read in a quick sitting.

The title character, Captain Tom Bender of the Texas Rangers, is dispatched to the prairie town of Rondora, where an oil boom has drawn an influx of gangsters, grifters, and bootleggers.  In a gunfight on main street between the two gambling honchos, Miller and Patton, a stray bullet killed a little girl.  The shooting was the final outrage for the town’s old timers, who are fed up with the lawlessness and the lack of follow-through by the police chief.  Led by the little girl’s father, they’re organizing a vigilante committee.  “I want you to get over there and head off trouble,” Bender’s boss orders.

There’s no detection in the 31-page story and minimal complication.  The plot moves in as straight and focused a line as Bender himself.  The Ranger comes to town, gets the vigilantes cooled off before they can make things worse, shuts down one gambling den, torches the other one, and shoots two or three thugs.  He produces evidence needed to convene a grand jury investigation, and leaves town after helping to install an honest citizen as the new police chief.  

No love interest or even sex interest.  “Women looked at him but he paid no attention because he didn’t know women could talk with their eyes.”  The line makes Bender sound incredibly naive, but elsewhere McCoy clearly indicates that Bender -- true to his name -- likes to let loose when he’s not working.  Maybe he’s like Hammett’s Continental Op, who has no time for foolishness when he’s on the job, or maybe like Jules Feiffer’s famous analysis of Superman.  He’s the idealize alpha male, so confident and self-sufficient that he doesn’t need to make passes at available women, or even respond to every pass that comes his way.

While there isn’t much that distinguishes Rondora from any other corrupt boom town in pulp fiction, McCoy’s description of the adjacent oil patch bristles with vivid detail, from the back-breaking toil in winter that brings in the first gusher to the Ranger’s initial impression as he arrives in town by train at night:  “The rigs were thrown around the town in an uneven circle, a glow about the floor of each derrick, a lone light gleaming up near the double board, another ninety feet in the air to light up the top of the stands and another above that on a gin pole which shone dully down on the crown blocks.” 

Tom Bender personifies the Texas frontiersman in terms that the “Black Mask” audience of 1931 would have read without batting an eye.  Today’s readers tend to be a little pricklier, granting minor leeway if the terms are used in an ironic hipster way.  “He was the issue of a frontier ancestry that had driven the Indians west of the Pecos to clear settlements for log cabins, a civilization of contrasts: hard, kind and tragic.  The measure of an aristocrat was the nerve he had and the speed with which he could bark an Injun in his tracks and pitch a buffalo on his head with one ball.”

And, in a backstory about the Ranger’s previous mission on the Border that McCoy relates tersely as Bender arrives in Austin to receive his new assignment: “They were as slick a gang of greasers as a man ever clapped an eye on and they fought like wildcats but he brought four of them in alive.”

Wearing a big white hat “that had silk lining as red as the alegria stain that saves your face from the sun,” packing a  .38 revolver and a .45 automatic, Bender brings to mind the flinty, modern-day Texas Ranger played a few years ago by Nick Nolte in “Extreme Prejudice,” with a little bit of “Searchers”-era John Wayne.  Violence erupts suddenly, and McCoy’s descriptions are dillies: “He gave up trying to get the .38 and lashed out hard, struck one of them and heard him grunt.  He fell back, still swinging and something hit him a powerful lick behind the head and he thought it was going to snap off.  A white explosion ascended in front of him and he staggered.  As he did he came out with his .45 from his hip pocket and shook his head desperately to clear the mists and locate one of his assailants.  In a moment he saw a form before him and he leveled the .45 and squeezed the trigger.”

There’s a fair amount of discussion about Horace McCoy on the internet, and even a downloadable HTML of “The Mopper-Up” at the Munseys.com site.  It’s unfortunate that no one has ever collected his “Black Mask” stories in one volume -- at least here in America, in the original English.  According to William F. Nolan’s listing in “The Black Mask Boys” (1985), there were 17 stories, mostly featuring the adventures of another Prohibition-era Texas Ranger, Jerry Frost.  That’s a worthy project for someone in this era of pulp resurgence in e-publishing and POD.

Apr 202015

The private hunting lodge of the Kingery family was called "Hunting's End," and it was located out in the middle of the desolate Sand Hills of Nebraska. It was certainly no place to be stuck in the middle of a howling blizzard, with no way to get out or to communicate with the outside world. And there was the added complication that one member of the gathering at Hunting's End was a murderer - a person who, it was increasingly clear, would have no qualms about killing again.

Welcome to The Mystery of Hunting's End, by Mignon G. Eberhart, a tremendously popular and prolific writer of mysteries and romances whose career ran from the 1920s through the 1980s. The Mystery of Hunting's End, her third mystery, published in 1930, is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Five years ago, the owner of Hunting's End, Huber Kingery, was shot and killed at Hunting's End. The people who were present at the time, members of the Kingery family and other friends, managed to cover up the murder. But Kingery's daughter, Matil, wants the killer uncovered. So, on the fifth anniversary of the murder, she has invited all of the guests who were present at the time to come back to the lodge. Unknown to the guests, who rather grudgingly agree to return to the lodge, Matil also invites Lance O'Leary, a private detective, to join the guests. And, at O'Leary's suggestion, Matil hires Nurse Sarah Keate to look after Matil's elderly Aunt Lucy Kingery, an unpleasant old woman. O'Leary and Nurse Keate have worked together before - or, more accurately, have both been involved doing secret investigative work, usually at least nominally on the same side.

But on the very first day that everyone arrives at the lodge, a November blizzard blows in and completely isolates Hunting’s End from any possible contact with the outside world for several days. The people at the lodge very quickly come to realize that they are trapped there – and that, if Matil is correct in her insistence that her father was murdered, one of them must be the killer and will undoubtedly not hesitate to kill again to protect his or her secret.

Mignon Eberhart manages to give her readers a real sense of the near-panic and claustrophobia among the guests at Hunting’s End, all of whom know each other – but do not like each other. Some of this, to be sure, is in the “had I but known” viewpoint which we are offered repeatedly, but it’s also in the keen observations of our narrator, Nurse Keate.

Nurse Keate is certainly among the "Had I But Known" school of narrators, popularized by such writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart, and there's a great deal of narration along the line of, had I but known the horrors that awaited us behind those locked doors, I would never have gone there alone in the middle of the night. That sense of foreboding was a strong suit for Mignon G. Eberhart as well. Her characters are quite well-defined - and many of them are quite unpleasant. As our narrator tells us, at one point:

It was quite natural, I suppose…that the little cloaks of conventionalities to which we had clung so desperately during the preceding days and nights should finally and completely escape our clutches and vanish. I have never before or since that time seen men and women in their primitive, selfish state, and I never wish to again, for it is singularly disillusioning. Our treasured little masks of customs and behavior were gone entirely, and the sight of what was left was not pretty.

 The Mystery of Hunting's End is an enjoyable and thought-provoking mystery. It's available in a trade paperback edition from Bison Books, with an introduction by editor, Jay Fultz, who notes that Eberhart was able to create "an atmosphere of all-encompassing dread, a polished style that barely puts the lid on the underlying barbarism of some social sophisticates." I think you'll like the book.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

Continuing my participation in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. under way at the My Reader's Block blog, The Mystery of Hunting's End is my entry for the square (second row, sixth column) calling for one book with a place in the title.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Apr 202015

Thieves Fall Out
By Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime, April 2015/$22.99
ISBN: 978-1-781-16792-2

Reviewer: Kevin Burton Smith

Despite the obvious pen name (Really? “Gore”?), this guy Vidal looks to be a pretty promising pulp writers. Whatever happened to him?

* * * * *

Of course, Gore Vidal wasn’t a pseudonym, or at least not much of one — Gore was a family name, and anyway, when this potboiler came out way back in 1953, it was published by “Cameron Kay.” After the homophobic furor unleashed following the publication of The City and the Pillar (1948), the suddenly black-listed Vidal, struggling to make ends meet, pumped out four pseudonymous crime novels, three well-regarded novels featuring a PR flack turned pseudo-P.I. as “Edgar Box,” and this one, his first stab at crime fiction, proof perhaps that the cheese stands alone. 

But hey, who doesn’t like cheese? 

Literally just off the boat, manly American drifter Pete Wells finds himself down and out in post-war Cairo, ready to do “almost anything to make a dollar.” So he’s easy prey for a gang who rope him into their scheme to smuggle a priceless historical artifact, a necklace with a ruby as big as “a pigeon’s egg,” out of Egypt. Naturally, the thieves aren’t playing it totally straight but then Pete’s no boy scout either — he soon suspects he’s being played for a patsy.

The plot’s pretty much by the book, but the well-rendered setting (Vidal lived for a while in Egypt) is well used, and you’ve gotta love a multicultural gallery of rogues that includes a jaded but pip-pip British agent, a charming criminal mastermind right out of a Fleming novel, a piano-playing hunchback, a lusty French countess, a crooked Egyptian cop with the disconcerting name of Mohammed Ali and a sexy German lounge singer with a secret Nazi past and ties to King Farouk himself.

Oh, the era’s usual racial and cultural stereotypes are all present and accounted for (“swarthy” gets a particularly good workout), and Vidal’s piercing wit is for the most part missing, but there’s the sense he was still very much exploring new avenues. He got better, and the success of his subsequent Edgar Box books convinced him to aim higher. By the end of the decade he was cranking out scripts for stage, television and film, as well as scores of essays and non-fiction books, eventually becoming one of his era’s pre-eminent essayists and “public intellectuals.”.

But historical and literary interests aside, the book’s just a lot of fun; very much a product of its era. Not as twisted as Spillane or Thompson, or as psychologically complex as MacDonald or Whittington, but chockful of that good old pulpy flavour. Give it a Gold Medal for effort.

Of course, we could always ask Louie to do it. That man can do anything. 


Apr 202015

The-Pulpster-24-coverEditor and designer Bill Lampkin is hard at work on the next issue of THE PULPSTER, the award-winning PulpFest program book. He’ll be featuring articles on Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, adventure writer and the founder of DC Comics, the Thrilling Group of pulps and comic books, and other topics. The highlight of the issue will be a round-robin article on H. P. Lovecraft and WEIRD TALES. We’re currently expecting contributions from filmmakers Andrew Leman and Sean Branney; game designer Kenneth Hite; Marvin Kaye, the current editor of WEIRD TALES and W. Paul Ganley, founder of WEIRDBOOK; authors David Drake, Cody Goodfellow, Richard Lupoff, John Pelan, Tim Powers, Darrell Schweitzer, Chet Williamson, and Gahan Wilson; pulp scholars Scott Connor, John Haefele, S. T. Joshi, Will Murray, Damon Sasser, and others. So expect a slam-bang issue from the esteemed editor of our highly popular program book. Every member of PulpFest will receive a complimentary copy of THE PULPSTER.

If you’d like to reserve advertising space in this year’s PULPSTER, you have until June 1st to do so. All advertising is sold on a first-come, first-served basis, with payment expected immediately upon reserving a space. Please realize that the cover spaces sell very quickly. Our rates are reasonable: color back cover–$190; inside color covers–$140; inside color full page–$100; inside black-and-white full page–$80; color half-page–$70; black-and-white half-page–$40; black-and-white quarter page–$30. To inquire about space availability, please write to PulpFest marketing and programming director Mike Chomko at mike@pulpfest.com. THE PULPSTER has a circulation of approximately 450 copies. You can also ask Mike about back issues of our program book.

The deadline for submitting your advertisements to THE PULPSTER #24 is June 15, 2015. Please feel free to send material as early as possible to ease production of our magazine. Submission guidelines will be provided upon receipt of your payment. Your space is not reserved until payment is received.

Another way to advertise at PulpFest is to donate material for our giveaway tables. Over the years The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Radio Archives, Stark House Press, and other organizations have donated a variety of materials that were given away free to PulpFest attendees. Your donation will be acknowledged on our website and at the convention. If you’d like to offer something for our giveaway table, please contact Mike Chomko at mike@pulpfest.com.

(Join PulpFest 2015 in August at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus, Ohio, beginning on Thursday, August 13th and running through Sunday, August 16th as we celebrate H. P. Lovecraft and WEIRD TALES, just a few short days before the author’s 125th birthday.)

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Apr 202015
SOBs #2: The Plains Of Fire, by Jack Hild February, 1984  Gold Eagle Books The second volume of SOBs is much better than the first, and I’d recommend anyone new to this series to just skip Jack Canon’s first installment and start with this one, which was written by Alan Philipson, who would go on to become one of the regular authors on the series. Philipson wisely avoids all of the

Keith Rawson’s Shelves

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Apr 202015
The real deal-Keith's shelfie

What books are currently on your nightstand?

For pure pleasure: Kill Fee By Owen Laukkanen and The Heart Does Not Grow Back By Fred Venturi. For book review: Find Me By Laura and den Berg and A Head Full Of Ghosts By Paul Tremblay.

Who is your all-time favorite novelist?

This seems to change month-to-month, but right now its James Ellroy, Roberto Bolano, and Denis Johnson.

What book might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a small mountain of Anne Rule true crime paperbacks. True crime is kind of like my sleazy romance novels aka my guilty pleasure.

Who is your favorite fictional hero?

Big Pete Bondurantfrom James Ellroys Underworld USA trilogy.

What book do you most often return to?

The Ecstasy Of Influence By Jonathan Lethem. Im not a huge fan of Lethems novels, but his short fiction and his critical essays knock me on my ass. Whenever Im having a little difficulty getting myself writing, I usually pop open The Ecstasy Of Influence, read an essay, and then Im usually good to go.

Keith Rawson is the author of hundreds of short stories, essays, interviews, and articles. He is a regular contributor to LitReactor.com. He lives in southern Arizona with his wife and daughter, and you can find him at his website: http://lifeinmetropolis.com/