Saturday, August 28, 2010

Booklist's Top Ten Westerns of the Decade

Booklist  has a list of its picks for the top ten Westerns of the decade; 2001 to 2010. The list is interesting and surprising, to me at least, because I have read only two of the novels. There are some familiar authors on the list--Loren Estleman, Robert Parker, Tim Champlin, Elmer Kelton and Bill Brooks.

I'm a little skeptical of it, too. Of the ten novels four were, or will be, published in 2010, which means that 2010 is either a renaissance year for Western fiction or the writer of the article tended to have a memory for his most recent reads. But all in all its not a bad listing of authors and there are more than a few that I added to my ever increasing list of books to read.

To read the article click Here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ONE FOR HELL by Jada M. Davis

Stark House Press is gearing up for its release—in October—of a reprint of a Fawcett Red Seal original in 1952 titled One for Hell and written by Jada M. Davis. A writer I wasn’t familiar with and after reading it, I really don’t know why. It is terrific and one of the best hardboiled noir tales I’ve read. It resembles the work of two pulp writers, W. L. Heath—particularly Violent Saturday—and Jim Thompson. It has the violence and dark shadows of Thompson and the sociology of secrets that Heath did so well.

Willa Ree is a drifter and a petty criminal. The novel opens with Ree riding the rails toward a small Texas boomtown. His plan is simple: fleece the town and move on. What happens is beyond Ree’s expectations and the town looks better to him by the minute. 

One for Hell is pure entertainment. There isn’t a protagonist. The supporting cast, Willa Ree is the main player, come and go like visitors to an amusement park. One by one they ratchet the pressure on Ree until he is ready to break. And one by one Ree pushes them aside until he no longer has the ability.

The plot is tight and woven with a sophistication of character, morality and corruption. The town has secrets—everyone has something to hide and Ree uses this underlying human weakness to his advantage. He culls his enemies, the weaker ones first, from the herd and eliminates them. He has a girlfriend who is an arch-type, flawed at that, of woman. She has all the strengths and the weaknesses and most are both—a desire to trust, to love and believe. She is the light of the story and the hope.

The action is developed with a solidity and audacity that separates this novel from so many others of its type. There is a scene in the middle part of the novel that covers 18 pages that changed my view of what can be done with both violence and action in a prose story. It rolled like a freight train in the dark hard night. It changed Ree from a smalltime hoodlum to a big time psychopath. It was the crux of the story, the beginning of the end for Willa Ree, and the push that leads the reader into his twisted mind.

There really isn’t anything flat in One for Hell. Everything works. From the plot to the characters to the psychology to the prose and it wraps itself together without the reader really knowing that it is happening. Willa Ree spends much of his time trying to guess the actions and motives of other people and the internal dialogue is simple and interesting:
“Maybe the old woman knew. Or maybe she found it, though not likely. Baldy wasn’t a trusting sort of person, and she wouldn’t have guessed he had money in the first place. He sat on the trunk and surveyed the room. Pictures? Too simple.”
One for Hell is proof that Stark House is one of the best publishers of classic crime fiction. This, like all of its releases, is still fresh and vibrant all these years later and it is going to be on my bookshelf for a very long time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Revenge is Bitter-Sweet" by H. A. DeRosso

H. A. DeRosso is best known for his dark Westerns. His better work is unusual—it tends toward dark, but it has vibrant and visceral settings and descriptions. His protagonists tend to be indecisive and lost. His work is frequently, and correctly, compared with Cornell Woolrich’s bleak and violent noir.

His Westerns are amazing. They were original in an era when the genre was cluttered with stereotypes and cheese, but he was also an accomplished writer of pulp crime. His crime stories vary from readable to damn good; an example of the later is his 1960 story “The Hired Man”. I recently found a crime story he wrote in the collection Alfred Hitchcock’s Death Bag. It is titled “Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” and, while it isn’t as nearly as good as “The Hired Man,” it is an entertaining and well developed story.

Will Owen is bitter and angry. Another man caused his father’s death and the woman he loves is lost to him. The story opens with a late night appointment in the woods. Will is anxious, but it’s not from pleasant expectation. He is anxious because he is he is going to get some long awaited revenge for his father’s death.

“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” is a twisty story with a surprise ending—it opens rushing down one avenue and quickly turns down another. The climax, and the twist, is planted early in the story. The author didn’t cheat. Unfortunately it was also quite easy to guess the surprise before it was revealed. A situation that would destroy most stories, but it didn’t matter much with this one. It was the journey and the writing that made it work.

The protagonist is a believable character that displays emotions relevant to us all—sorrow, anger and guilt in shifting shades. The setting is brilliantly conceived and executed to support the thematic emotions of the story. It is a dark and gloomy rural wilderness that matches the internal sufferings of the protagonist. A place that is likely very much like Mr DeRosso’s native Wisconsin.

The prose isn’t exactly hardboiled, but it is far from delicate. There are passages that feel like a dark and masculine poetry—
“The car stopped. The lights winked out. The night shadows dwelt in unruffled peace again.”
“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which is one of the more mainstream magazines that published Mr DeRosso’s work. And it is easy to identify the difference between this story—aimed at the fat part of the market—and his Westerns, which tended to be published in smaller, edgier magazines. The elements are all there, but it is muted just enough that it loses the gritty power of his best work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SWAS: William Herbert Dunton

Crow Outlier, c. 1896? Oil.
William Herbert (Buck) Dunton was born in the state of Maine in 1878. His art schooling was conducted over decades. He attended both the Cowles Art School in Boston, Massachusetts and later the Art Students League in New York City. Mr Dunton, as a young man, earned his living primarily as an illustrator for both magazines and children's books.

In 1896 he made a trip to the Western United States, particularly Montana, and was enthralled by its landscape and people. He continued to live in the East, but he spent time each year traveling across the Mountain states. In 1914 he permanently relocated to Taos, New Mexico and earned his living primarily as a Western artist. During the Great Depression he turned to the painting of portraits as his primary source of income. In 1935 he was diagnosed with cancer and he died early in 1936.

Crow Outlier is an oil painting. It, like much of Dunton's Western art, has a rich texture with thick brush strokes and brilliant colors. It beautifully captures both the Western landscape and the solitary, ostracized Crow warrior. I have a print hanging on my wall and the rich and vibrant scene is always an amazement to me. It is purported to have been painted in 1896, but I have my doubts and believe it was painted much later, possibly in the second decade of the 20th Century.

If you would like a professional poster print of this painting please email me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Giveaway

I found a terrific copy of Jack Higgins' Dark Side of the Street in a thrift shop and as a celebration of the new blog--the one you're reading--I want to run a contest to give it away. Dark Side of the Street is the fifth of six novels Jack Higgins wrote in the 1960s that chronicle the adventures of super spy Paul Chavesse. It was originally published in 1967 under the moniker Martin Fallon, a name you will read occasionally in some of Higgins' other work, and this particular copy was published in the 1980s by Signet. It is one of two Paul Chavesse novels that are out-of-print in the United States. The other out-of-print Chavesse novel, Midnight Never Comes, was reworked and published in the early-1990s as On Dangerous Ground.

If you are interested in entering the contest you need only do two things: 1) send an email to zulu1611@yahoo.com with a subject line that reads "Jack Higgins Giveaway" and include a mailing address where it can be sent, or if you prefer you can provide your mailing address when I give notice that you won; 2) complete the first task by 11:59 PM MDT, August 28, 2010.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene

I haven’t read much Graham Greene, but the few novels I have read—generally with years in between—I have enjoyed. And with every novel I read, without fail, I wonder why I don’t read more of his work. I recently read his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American. It was originally published in 1955 and it literarily documents, through the actions of a young American agent, the seeds of the United States’ entry, as combatants, into Vietnam.

The Quiet American is told in first person by an aging British newspaper journalist named Thomas Fowler. The novel’s opening scene has the arrival of a French policeman with news of the murder of one of Fowler’s friends. A young American named Alden Pyle. Pyle worked for the U. S. Economic Aid Mission in Saigon. He is an idealist who believes it is both possible and without doubt that the U. S. can bring democracy to Vietnam.

Pyle’s knowledge of Vietnam is based on the work of a journalist named York Harding who has written several works about communism in Asia. Harding wrote of a “Third Force”—something like the partisans in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War Two—that could rally the people into a popular rising for democracy. The only problem, Vietnam is not Europe and the world is never as simple as we would like it.

The Quiet American is a prescient novel. It was first published 10 years prior to the first major U. S. battle in Vietnam, Ia Drang, but it deftly and accurately defines many of the problems that the United States faced in Vietnam. It explores the gung-ho naïveté with which the U. S. Government entered the country. It foretells the debacle U. S. intelligence services would create with their secret wars and covert operations. But the most interesting is its view of America and Americans as innocents unfamiliar with the world beyond its own borders.

It is a novel that is rich with both historical perspective and its contemporary world. The author obviously loved Vietnam; it is painted with a tapestry of vivid description and loving detail. It is a literary thriller—in the best sense of that term. It is a story first, but Graham Greene expertly weaves ideas, characters and truths into the narrative in a manner that they become an intricate and necessary part of the story.

The Quiet American
is also a metaphor for the end of the British Empire and the rise of a young America as a superpower. Pyle is the new—he is young, strong and full of ideals and ideas. Fowler is the old—he is cynical, knowledgeable and somewhat world weary and frightened. He is scared of age, but mostly he is frightened of losing his status and potency as a man.

The Quiet American
is a wonderful novel. The writing is smooth with a certain antiseptic feel—the reader views the events very much as a spectator, but the performance is so compelling that it envelopes the reader with its dark and cynical view of how things are. Its view of America is rough, but it is done in a way that is forgiving and understanding; almost in a manner of a parent disapproving of his child.

The Quiet American is, in short, the best novel I have read this year. It is appealing as both a suspense novel and literature. Its themes are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and the story (the plotting, the description and setting) is brilliantly executed. If you haven’t read this novel you should.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

SWAS: Irving R. Bacon

The Conquest of the Prairie, 1908. Oil on canvas.









 

Irving Reuben Bacon was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1862. He studied art at Munich, Germany. He was a student of William Merritt Chase. Irving R. Bacon is best known for his portraits of the Ford family; he was sponsored by Henry Ford as a protege.  Mr. Bacon died in 1962.

His styles varied dramatically from theme to theme. He painted cityscapes with broad, rough strokes and a loose European style. Reuben Bacon's American West themed art was painted with a more controlled realism that captured the West much as it must have been. His art, specifically his frontier themed art, was popular during his lifetime and continues to be very collectible.

The Conquest of the Prairie
is an oil on canvas painted in 1908. Its smooth realistic lines capture the crisis of the westward migration of the pioneers to the native Indian tribes. Its subtle portrayal of the approaching wagons pushing the buffalo past the stationary Indian encampment vividly captures the end of one era and the beginning of another.

If you would like a high quality poster print of this painting, or any of the other paintings featured in our Sunday Western Art Series, please contact me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Dorchester -- the Death of Mass Market?

Sad news this week from Dorchester Publishing. As of this coming Monday, August 9 it will switch business models from a mass market publisher to a digital and print-on-demand only service. I'm not sure how it will affect the availability of new titles. My assumption is that its future titles will be available on the major Internet bookstores as ebooks, but as far as the print-on-demand versions I'm a little skeptical. My guess is the prices will increase dramatically and the quality of the physical book will decrease.

This looks very much like the beginning of the end of mass markets. A book form that brought reading to the masses simply because it was inexpensive. But just as the mass market ended the run of the pulps and slicks, the ebook seems to be the end of mass market.

With this move the electronic book reading device appears to be gaining not only prominence over physical books, but it is also now moving from luxury to a necessity for readers of new books. This may be the mark where paper books become the luxury.

I hope that Dorchester finds success with its new plans because an ebook only Dorchester is much better than no Dorchester at all.   

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about Dorchester Here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"In a Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald

I originally wrote this review July 31, 2010 for Gravetapping, but I recently reread "In a Small Motel" and I was blown away all over again. The amount of story John D loaded "In a Small Motel" is impressive, but it is almost awe inspiring that he was able to tell an interesting and well-plotted story with a richly textured atmosphere and an abundance of humanity without many words.

"In a Small Motel" is in my top two or three favorite short stories of all time. You should find a copy and read it.
 
This week I have another short story to talk about from the nifty anthology American Pulp; an anthology that every reader of hardboiled mystery should own because it simply rocks. The story: “In a Small Motel” by John D. MacDonald. It was originally published in the July 1956 issue of Justice.

Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.

As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.

The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.

“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:
“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”
And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.

“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is, however, a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out.

There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, hear the cars on the highway, smell the exhaust, and feel the empty and hard fear that escalates from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

SWAS: N. C. Wyeth

Above the Sea of Round, Shiny Backs the Thin Loops Swirled and Shot into Volumes of Dust, 1904. 
Newell Convers Wyeth, known popularly as N. C. Wyeth, was born in Needham, Massachussets in 1882. He was a pupil of Howard Pyle at his School of Art in Wilmington, Delaware. Wyeth is best known for his illustrations of classic children's literature. His first illustrated book was for the Charles Scribner's Sons edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. He went on to illustrate more than a dozen classic novels, for both Charles Scribner's Sons and other publishers, including Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deer Slayer and Kidnapped.

Howard Pyle emphasized that the artist should paint from his experiences and N. C. Wyeth took his advice seriously. He traveled to the Western United States three times between 1904 and 1906. It was this period and later that he painted many of his best Western paintings, including the featured oil on canvas above. He died in 1944, but his work continues to inspire and help define the romantic vision of the early American West. N. C. Wyeth's son, Andrew, and grandson James, are also successful artists.

Above the Sea of Round, Shiny Backs the Thin Loops Swirled and Shot into Volumes of Dust was painted at Colorado in 1904. N. C. Wyeth was only 22 years of age when he painted this beautiful and romantic piece. It has a richly textured style that captures both the harshness of the Western desert and the lifestyle of the working cowboy. Its colors are muted, which focuses the audiences attention to the panicked horses and the working cowboys. It is a truly beautiful painting.