May’s Day

 Awards 2014, Peter May  Comments Off
Sep 212014
When I met for an evening drink last week in Seattle with Glasgow-born crime writer Peter May--who is in the midst of a month-long international book tour--he confided that were he still a resident of Scotland (rather than living now in France), he’d have supported his native country’s recent referendum seeking independence from Great Britain. Well, that vote did not go as he’d wished, but May might feel somewhat compensated by having won the 2014 Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award for his latest novel, Entry Island (Quercus). The announcement came tonight during the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival being held in Stirling, the onetime capital of Scotland.

The other contenders for this honor were: Flesh Wounds, by Christopher Brookmyre (Little, Brown); The Amber Fury, by Natalie Haynes (Corvus); Falling Fast, by Neil Broadfoot (Saraband); A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh (John Murray); and In the Rosary Garden, by Nicola White (Cargo).

Congratulations to all of the nominees.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)
Sep 212014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TEENAGE CAVEMAN. American International Pictures, 1957. Robert Vaughn, Darah Marshall, Leslie Bradley, Frank De Kova, Charles Thompson, June Jocelyn, Ed Nelson, Robert Shayne. Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell. Director: Roger Corman.

   Teenage Caveman, a low-budget project ($70,000) with a title that conveys adolescent culture, is a far more interesting film than you might expect it to be. Directed and produced by Roger Corman, the movie’s original title was “Prehistoric World.” Which makes sense given that there are dinosaurs and strange lizard creatures lurking about in the background.

   Whatever it rightfully called, the occasionally stylish movie stars Robert Vaughn as – you guessed it – a teenage cave man. Known as “Boy,” Vaughn’s character is plagued by curiosity. Why does his society’s law forbid people to travel beyond the river? What’s there that’s so forbidden or so dangerous? Right from the get go, one is plunged into a society seemingly ossified by religious dogma and intolerance.

   By the time it’s all over, one feels as if the rug has been ripped out from under one’s feet. Perhaps there was a reason – a very good one, at that – why the Boy’s elders warned him against traveling far beyond his immediate surroundings. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that fans of Planet of the Apes will find Corman’s worldview, as conveyed in this particular film, to be not all that different from Rod Serling’s.

   So, is Teenage Caveman a good movie or is it just a silly exercise in filmmaking? The best way to answer that question is as an attorney would: “It depends.” It depends what you’re looking for or how much stock you put in Corman’s abilities to convey serious ideas with a meager budget.

   In terms of realism special effects, it’s basically a notch below a B-film. The lizards and dinosaurs, for instance, look more silly than scary. And Vaughn has to have the best coiffed haircut of any caveman since time began. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a very good actor or that he doesn’t take his role in this movie seriously. He does. And that’s what makes what could have otherwise been a total dud something worth watching, even if you have an inkling what the surprise ending is going to be.

 Posted by at 5:04 am
Sep 212014

MILTON LOTT – The Last Hunt. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Cardinal paperback C-203, 1955. Gregg Press, hardvover reprint, 1979.

THE LAST HUNT. MGM, 1956. Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis. Based on the novel by Milton Lott. Director: Richard Brooks.

   Fans of Western fiction need to run out and get a copy of this book, which ranks right up there with The Big Sky, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones and a very few others as one of the great novels of the American West.

   Lott takes a simple tale of buffalo hunters in the 1880s, charges it with vivid description of an unforgettable countryside, adds some thoughtful and very surprising plot twists, and lights it up with scenes and characters you won’t forget.

   Lott has a way of telling a story that seems to build up to a dramatic life-or-death confrontation every so often, then suddenly develops it with a maturity and naturalness that seems to grow directly from the characters and their setting.

   Even the bit players come alive here, and Lott’s descriptive powers are such that — well let me just say that when the freighter trekked through a Dakota blizzard, I forgot the warm Ohio Sun on my back and felt myself shiver!

   MGM filmed this in 1956, and they did a pretty fine job of it, too. Writer/director Richard Brooks always loved filming Literature, but he sometimes stumbled rather badly. Here though, he takes the best bits form Lott’s novel, simplifies when he has to, plays up the drama nicely, and doesn’t flinch from the grimmest parts. Along the way, he loses a bit of what makes the book so unique, but he turns out a damfine movie, so what’s to complain?

   I should also mention the acting: where Lott evoked character, Brooks provokes performance. Robert Taylor makes a chilling kill-crazy hunter (his second portrait of a psycho, after Undercurrent) Stewart Granger — who lost his wife to Brooks in real life — seems at home on the range in his first and best real Western; Russ Tamblyn looks a bit unlikely as a red-haired Indian, but that’s how Lott wrote it; Debra Paget, typecast again as a dusky Indian maiden walks through the part with assurance, and best of all—best of all is Lloyd Nolan as a one-legged mule-skinner whose commentary on the proceedings puts things into context.

   He sometimes seems to be carrying Brooks’ Important Message for him a little too obviously, but he does it with such robust good humor I didn’t mind a bit.

 Posted by at 2:38 am
Sep 202014

Marilyn Thiele

We’re all becoming familiar with the latest trend in the airline industry: those little “perks” (food, checked baggage, leg room) that used to be a means of attracting customers are now available only for a fee. Hotels are charging “guests” for clean linens, exercise rooms, and many other items that used to be free. Recently I heard of someone’s being charged $25 to print a boarding pass. The concept of beating the competition on service and amenities has given way to the bottom line. If you have to compete on price alone, then the costs of the business must be cut to the bone, and every “extra” has a cost and thus a price.

Sad to say, some recent reports from authors lead me to believe that this mindset has invaded the bookselling world. The image of the gracious small bookshop, careful to maintain the image of being a bit above any show of “filthy commerce,” has already been diminished by the large chain stores. Now it seems that in order to survive, some shops are following the lead of other industries in charging for what used to be a normal expense of the business. My information is anecdotal, and I would be interested in any comments indicating how widespread some of these practices have become.

First I heard that a local author had been asked to pay a fee to have a book signing at another shop. I know that authors of a certain stature are paid for appearances, but this is the first I have heard of the reverse. These events consume some time and money of the bookseller, who often does publicity, serves refreshments, and, of course, stocks the books. It also takes up the author’s time and resources in travel, preparation, and answering the audience question “How do I get published?” The financial compensation to bookseller and author is in book sales. The additional benefit, we hope, is in drawing attention to both the author and the shop.  There is always the risk for both that no one will come, and much time is spent by both parties looking for a “hook” that will increase attendance.

Independent booksellers are approached almost weekly by self-published, small-press-published, or mainstream-but-first-book-published authors requesting signing events. I have hosted events for all three categories, but it never occurred to me to charge for them. If I think what is being offered is cr--, I politely decline. It would be hard to promote something I don’t think has potential, and I haven’t figured out the price at which I would sacrifice the trust I have built with my customers.

Next, I learned that another bookshop was selling advertising for books in its customer newsletter. Wow! I would get my intermittent newsletter out a lot more often if it was a paying proposition. I have not seen this newsletter, so I can only hope that the ads are clearly marked as such. I’m a bookseller, not a reviewer, but I think the same ethic applies: it should be clear if there is compensation for recommending a particular work.

“Ticketing” book-signing events is becoming more common. There is an admission charge, and it is the price of the book. You must buy the book to attend. This practice began to prevent attendees from purchasing the book on A#*$@% and bringing it for signing at the local bookshop. There is nothing wrong with requiring any books presented for signing to be purchased at the shop, and unless the event is huge, is not hard to monitor. Most attendees come with the intention of making a purchase, but I think it is justifiable to decide after hearing an author that the book is not the customer’s cup of tea. There are, of course, a few “regulars” who come for the entertainment and never purchase, but that is just part of the business.

Times are tough for both authors and booksellers. Marketing budgets at publishing houses have been slashed. It seems that the cost of the two-page spread in the New York Times Book Review for an author whose book will be No. 1 on “The List” no matter what could be better spent on the many fine works sitting unread because only small shops are promoting them, but that is a topic for another time. Most authors find that after the book is published, the work is not complete but just beginning; now they have to sell it. The independent bookseller has to deal with giant retailers who are selling books at or below the price the bookseller without market power pays for the same item. Is it wrong for the author who has poured years of blood, sweat, and lost family time into his effort to pay a bookseller who is struggling daily to keep the doors open to recommend his work? If it comes to that, something valuable will be lost in the bookselling world.

In a post earlier this year, Jessy Randall suggested that bookstores might need to begin charging an admission fee for browsers. I responded by pointing out that those who appreciated the physical display of books, the bookseller’s expertise, and the general ambiance, could support that effort by buying books. An idea that seemed preposterous to me at the time (we aren’t museums yet!) now has some appeal. Perhaps a $5 entrance fee, to be credited toward a purchase if one is made?  It seems that bookselling may be going the way of airlines and hotels: if you want what used to be included in the package, you must pay an additional charge for it. Maybe I’m getting too old for modern commerce – retirement may be closer than I thought.

Frost The Fiddler by Janice Weber

 Uncategorized  Comments Off
Sep 202014

While on tour in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leslie Frost discovers a clandestine group in possession of a hidden, ultra-sophisticated computer and working on a new system of smart bombs. For the sake of stability, she is ordered to bring the group down.

Most concert violinists wouldn't pack explosives in the case along with their Stradivarius, but Leslie Frost is no ordinary musician. When she's not performing the Kreutzer sonata, she's spying on neo-fascists and ex-communists in the emerging new East Germany. Frost, aka Smith (code names for the all-female band of American super-spies come from the Ivy League's Seven Sisters schools) witnesses a murder outside an East German church and is drawn into a mission that centers on a powerful computer and a ring of communist spies. With an array of high-tech gadgets in her purse, and a Harley motorcycle in her garage, She is as savvy and cool as James Bond at his best. Between concerts and recording sessions, her time is filled with midnight meetings of both the romantic and the dangerous varieties, with high-speed chases and nick-of-time escapes. 

Printing History
Written by Janice Weber (1950- )

St Martins Press
May 1992
ISBN 312 07758

Grand Central Publishing 
December 1994
ISBN 446 36474

Warner Books Inc
ISBN 751 50902

Audio Book
February 2009
 Posted by at 4:40 pm
Sep 202014
The Fiction House Western pulps nearly always had good covers and good authors inside, and this issue is no exception. The lead story by Frank Bonham, "The Canyon of Maverick Brands", is one that was reprinted in a Leisure paperback collection of his work. Other authors include top-notch pulpsters Barry Cord (Peter Germano) and Chuck Martin. There's also a novelette by Wayne C. Lee, almost
Sep 202014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins

  WILLIAM ARD – Hell Is a City. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Popular Library #756, paperback, 1956. Ramble House, softcover, 2012.

   In the early 1950s, when our political and cultural life was dominated by Senator Joe McCarthy and HUAC, and our crime fiction by the bloody exploits of Mike Hammer, a young man named William Ard joined the handful of hard-boiled writers — among them Ross Macdonald, Thomas B. Dewey, and William Campbell Gault — who carried on the legitimate private-eye tradition of Hammett and Chandler.

   In Ard’s world the PI stands for personal and political decency, a clear line is drawn between dramatically justified violence and gratuitous brutality, and sex is seen as a restoration of oneself and caring for another. Anthony Boucher, the dean of mystery critics, praised Ard over and over for his “deft blend of hardness with human warmth and quiet humor,” for turning out “masterpiece(s) of compressed narration … backed with action and vigor, written with style and individuality.”

   Hell Is a City, seventh of Ard’s nine novels about private eye Timothy Dane, is the most powerful and exciting of his novels. Dane is pitted against the corrupt forces of law and order in a nightmare New York where the mayor, the police commissioner, and most of the officials are allied with the mobs and determined to hang on to their power in the coming mayoral election.

   When a young Latino shoots a Brooklyn vice cop who was about to rape the boy’s sister, the municipal bosses use their puppets in the news media to portray the case as the cold-blooded murder of a heroic officer, and put out word to shoot on sight whoever might contradict the party line.

   Brought into the picture by a crusading newspaper editor, Dane finds himself in the classic roman noir situation: knowing the truth no one else will believe; threatened on all sides by killers with badges and without; hounded through city streets dark with something more than night.

   With its sharply drawn characters, pulsating pace, and terrifying premise, this book could easily have been masterpiece, were it not for its grotesquely bad denouement, perhaps the first televised criminal trial scene in fiction, where all is set to rights in record time and in an impossibly silly manner. In a later Dane-less novel, As Bad As I Am (1959), aka Wanted: Danny Fontaine, Ard reworked the same story line to a better effect, but without the raw, nightmarish tension of Hell Is a City.

   Ard was far from a model of all the literary virtues. He wrote quickly and revised too little, and his style, though readable and efficient, lacks the hauntingly quotable quality of Chandler and Ross Macdonald. His plots tend to fall part under scrutiny and he recycled certain names again and again so that his novels contain small armies of characters named Stix Larsen and Barney Glines.

   But his best books — among which are The Diary (1952), .38 (1952), Cry Scandal (1956), and the paperback original Club 17 (1957), published under his pseudonym, Ben Kerr — are miracles of storytelling economy in which Ard’s special brand of tenderness is integrated with the standard elements of mean-streets fiction.

   His death from cancer in 1960 at age thirty-seven silenced one of the most distinctive voices in the history of the private-eye novel.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

 Posted by at 1:37 am
Sep 192014


My short review of David Shafer’s novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in today’s Sacramento News & Review:

The title of David Shafer’s novel (Mulholland Books, $26) is the military radio phonetic spelling of that slang staple, WTF. That’s fitting, because this thriller is about a small group of disaffected 30-somethings who are out to prevent a shadowy international conspiracy to put the entire Internet behind a paywall that will make its creators even richer than they already are. Shafer, a journalist, creates some outstanding characters including Leila, a nonprofit do-gooder working in Myanmar, and Mark, a self-help guru in New York who’s got plenty to fix in himself. In Shafer’s hands, they’re as funny and as paranoid as can be, which makes this an entertaining and smart book.

Sep 192014
This weekend, I'll be at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Maine for BangPop Comic Con, hanging out with such talented comics pros as Fred Van Lente, Alex De Campi, Alex Irvine, Charles Paul Wilson III! The cool media guests include Mystery Science Theater 3000's Dr. Forester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), Battlestar Galactica's Nicki Clyne, and Andrew MacLean and Joseph Schmalke of The Walking Dead. Come on down and say hello!