Saturday, July 31, 2010

MASTERSON by Richard S. Wheeler

I don't have a Kindle, or any kind of ebook reader, but with the growing list of older novels reappearing on Amazon it probably won't be too long until I buy one. The latest that made me wish for a Kindle is an older Western (not really that old, but it is out-of-print) written by Richard S. Wheeler and titled Masterson. It features an aging Bat Masterson in the early Twentieth century. The Publisher's Weekly review is terrific. It, in part reads: "This is classic Wheeler, a solid story about real people told with wit, compassion and a bit of whimsy."

No one writes the biographical novel quite like Richard Wheeler. If you have a Kindle, or the free download of its reader for the PC or Mac, you might want to try this one. It's $3.99 and worth every penny. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

TESTAMENT by David Morrell

I have been reading the work of David Morrell since I was a teenager. The first novel I read was Brotherhood of the Rose and then I quickly read its two succeeding, loosely related novels, The Fraternity of the Stone and The League of Night and Fog. It is a trilogy that is related by theme rather than character, although one character does appear in two of the three novels. If you haven’t read them, you should.

The point? Other than David Morrell is a terrific writer? I recently reread Mr. Morrell’s second novel, Testament, and really had a good time. It is a suspense novel with a stark and brutal plot and even better writing. It is similar to First Blood in that both are essentially chase novels. The difference between the two are the characters—John Rambo is a major league tough guy with not much to lose, and Reuben Bourne (the protagonist in Testament) is a family man with everything to lose.

The novel opens with Bourne and his family—his wife, his young daughter and his infant son—enjoying the morning meal, but everything is about to fall apart. He is a writer and several months earlier he wrote an unflattering article about a Militia leader. When it was published the subject of the article threatened Bourne and his family, but Bourne didn’t think much about it until the final morning with his family; a morning that left Bourne a shattered, scared and a nearly broken man.

Testament opens with a flash. The opening line reads:
“It was the last morning the four of them would ever be together: the man and his wife, his daughter and his son.”
And it never lets up. The chase begins in Bourne’s house, but it quickly moves to a small cabin in a rural town. Then it moves into the wilderness where Bourne is drawn to his limit. It is written in a starkly realistic style. The action is quick, hard and believable. There is a scene in a ghost town—a town that isn’t marked on any maps, a town that is nearly intact, the buildings upright, whiskey still on shelves, glasses and plates set at tables and blankets and beds—where a battle ensues between Bourne and his pursuers that is as well written and suspenseful as anything I have read.

I came across Testament late. I read it for the first time in 2005, but it has become my favorite of David Morrell’s novels for the simple reason that it terrifies me. The situation is frightening—a man against real, solid bogeymen who also must battle the harsh reality of winter in a wilderness without provisions. It is something of a mix between Jack London and a Geoffrey Household title, Rogue Male. It is reminiscent of these older tales, but it also fresh and invigorating, even nearly forty years after its first publication.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Sunday Western Art Series

Carl Oscar Borg. Sons of the Desert, c. 1925. Oil on canvas.
Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947) emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1901. He was an art teacher in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, and worked as a theater stage painter in both the United States and England. He is best known for his later work of the American West, particularly of the Southwest deserts.  

Sons of the Desert is a romanticized vision of the West. It portrays the rugged beauty of the land with the mythological vision of the men who inhabited it. It is a truly beautiful painting with its soft lines and rough, broad strokes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Trailer: Neverland by Douglas Clegg

It has been sometime since I posted a book trailer, but when I saw this one I just had to. It's the best trailer I've seen. A trendy little computer animated film. It is two parts spooky, two part alluring and one part cool.  

The book itself is a new edition of one of Clegg's early novels. Unfortunately it is one I haven't read, but need to.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

THE FLY ON THE WALL by Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman is a writer who nearly slipped past me. He was a bestseller in my teenage years and I have always had a slight bias against the big sellers because I thought, and rightly so in many cases, that their fiction was overstuffed and vapid. But Tony Hillerman’s fiction certainly does not fall in that category. It is both lively and interesting—very, very interesting. His work deserved to be a bestseller because he was a damn fine writer, which should be a requirement to finding a place on the lists.

I recently read one of his early novels, The Fly on the Wall, originally published in 1971 by Harper & Row. It is the first Hillerman novel I have read that didn’t star either (or both) Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn and I really enjoyed it. The protagonist is a political writer for the Tribune named John Cotton. The location is never fully identified, but the descriptions and climate make it seem like an Eastern state, maybe, probably, a place like Virginia.

It opens with Cotton writing his column, an hour or so before deadline, when a jubilantly drunk colleague interrupts him with the news that he has a huge story about the state governor’s office. Cotton doesn’t pay much attention, but a few minutes later the man falls to his death in the state capitol building. He doesn’t really make any connections there either, except that his reporter’s instinct makes him curious about the story. Then things start to happen that make Cotton more and more curious.

The Fly on the Wall is a whodunit with enough intrigue and action to make it more akin to an American-style crime novel than the old British Agatha Christie-style mystery. It is plotted with a precision that only solid and professional whodunits are, but it is also filled with suspense and, in a few scenes, violence—not just the hint of violence, but actual violence. There is one scene in particular that lifts this novel above most in the category; a scene just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico (in the only chapter of the novel that the protagonist is outside the bleak wintery locale of his newspaper job) that is a beautifully rendered chase scene. It is a scene that could have been lifted from an early David Morrell novel, but at the same time it is all Tony Hillerman.

The novel has a sense of reality to it. Mr Hillerman was a newspaperman, and the book acts as a guide to what the industry must have been like in the 1960s and 70s, particularly what it must have been like to be a political reporter: the deals and counter-deals; trying to report factually while also not angering the politicians enough to freeze you out; the jaded cynicism matched against the idealistic sentiment of the job.

The Fly on the Wall was, according the Wikipedia, Hillerman’s second novel, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a man learning his trade. It is full-bodied and has sense of importance. It is as fresh today as it was when it was first published.  In fact as I read it, it felt as though it was written yesterday, and I bet the same will be true in ten years and then again in another ten.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Handful (plus one) of Jim Thompson Trailers

We all know who Jim Thompson is, thanks in part to the original Black Lizard Crime line. There is a new film out based on his novel The Killer Inside Me that looks really good. While I was watching the trailer I went on a little hunt and found a handful of trailers for movies based on the work of Jim Thompson. 

The Killer Inside Me, 2010

Hit Me, 1996, from the novel A Swell-Looking Babe.


The Getaway, 1993

The Grifters, 1990

After Dark, My Sweet, 1990

The Getaway, 1972. Is it just me, or does this trailer have the same soundtrack as The Rockford Files?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

THE RED MOON by Warren Murphy

Warren Murphy is best known for his The Destroyer series (he co-created it with the late Richard Sapir), but his body of work is impressively diverse. He has authored everything from horror to mystery to suspense to fantasy. He won two Edgar Awards and two Shamus Awards in the 1980s and, while he has been silent for nearly two decades, he is a giant in the field.

I have a weakness for all his work, but I am particularly fond of his suspense novels. I recently read his 1982 novel The Red Moon and it is as exciting, vibrant and interesting today as it must have been when it was published nearly thirty years ago. It seemingly has an interesting history—a history that I am guessing at. It appears to have been written as a novelization for a film that was never released. The copyright holders are Davis/Panzer Productions (a production company that produced the “Highlander” television series) and Stan Corwin Productions.

While the genesis for the novel is somewhat shadowy, the novel is wonderfully so. It chronicles the story of one Christopher Caldwell—a former CIA agent who dropped off the radar when his wife and child were murdered in a car bombing. He is reluctantly pulled back into the clandestine world of murder and betrayal when his father-in-law is found dead in what is ruled a fishing accident. The canvas is broad and it includes World War Two art theft, oil, Iran—it was published a mere three years after the Shah was deposed—greed, secrets and betrayal.

The Red Moon was a paperback original published by Fawcett Gold Medal—a line that has sadly disappeared—and it is very much a novel of its time. The plot is straight out of the 1980s: Nazi hunters, big oil, Mideast plotting, sinister corporations and corrupt politicians. The style is different from many of Warren Murphy’s suspense novels—there is less humor, although he does have some fun with two Israeli Mossad agents who tend to speak with British accents, and it reads something like a contemporary Robert Ludlum novel, less the annoying exclamation marks.

While The Red Moon is different than some of Mr Murphy’s work it is no less entertaining. It is sharply plotted; the story unwinds with just enough surprises to keep the reader wondering. The bad guys are introduced as the story moves forward, and a few are genuine surprises. The prose is simple and effective and the dialogue is expertly used to both explain the characters motives and quicken the pace to the next crisis.

In short, The Red Moon is an entertaining suspense novel. It is large and complicated (376 pages in mass market), but it reads much more quickly than many novels in the genre. It is also one of Mr Murphy’s better suspense novels, which is high praise, and is well worth seeking out a copy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Birth of a Monster" by Richard Stark

I found a small collection of old digest-sized science fiction magazines in a thrift shop last summer and I finally seriously looked them over this past weekend. The first is a magazine titled Super-Science Fiction. It is the August, 1959 issue and it is filled with a decent collection of science fiction and horror. There are eight stories, and four are by Robert Silverberg, under various pseudonyms.

The story I want to talk about today however is by Donald E. Westlake, written as by Richard Stark. It’s title: “Birth of a Monster”. It is the story of a doctor who gets a late night call from a man whose wife is in labor and, even though the soon-to-be mother isn’t a patient, he agrees to rush to the couple’s home and deliver the baby. Once there the doctor discovers something a little unusual.

“Birth of a Monster” is a decent little pulp story. It is straight up horror, but Mr Westlake played with the tropes just a bit; to tell how would ruin the tale. The language is stilted and sharp and adds to the slight unease that the story creates in its reader—
“He hung up, hurried back to the bedroom and dressed. He knew the estate, at the end of Larchmont Road. Empty for years.”
It is told quickly, which keeps the reader from jumping ahead to the final twist before it arrives. It reminded me just a little of an early Richard Matheson story, although not quite as vibrant and polished. And while it is not as mature and solid as Mr Westlake’s later work (he was only 26 when it was published) it is a story that will bring a smile. At least it did for me.

And as for those Robert Silverberg stories. I'm reading them, or at least savoring the thought of reading them, as I type. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Adventureland" and "Diggers"

I'm a sucker for independently produced coming of age stories and over the past few months I've seen two that I want to recommend. The first is a film starring Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart called Adventureland.

James Brennan is a recent college graduate who has planned to spend the summer in Europe with a friend, but his father is demoted, and his plans quickly evaporate. Instead he finds himself working a summer job at an amusement park. It is a dead end, but he finds something there that he didn't at college; a view of the future and the world.

It was directed by Greg Mottola, of Superbad fame, but it isn't the same type of film. The humor is more muted and the story is, while admittedly just a bit self-indulgent, more intact and interesting. And it's essentially a carny movie. How can you go wrong?

Click Here to visit Adventureland's IMDB page. 

The second film is a Paul Rudd vehicle titled Diggers. It is different than Adventureland. Its focus is on a group of friends approaching middle age in the late-1970s. Their world is changing, as it always does, and each friend has to find a new way to live. It is a comedy, dark at times, that made me laugh and think at the same time. There are also a few poignant moments about life, love and escaping the shadow of not only your own past, but also that of your parents and family.

Diggers was directed by Katherine Dieckmann and written by Dan Marino. It stars Paul Rudd, an actor who has grown on me since I was first underwhelmed by him in his Friends role, Ron Eldard, Maura Tierney, and Dan Marino. It was released in 2006.

Click Here to visit Digger's IMDB page.

These are both films that, if you like this type of story, you will enjoy. They are both definitely worth a look.