Saturday, December 31, 2005

Sad news tonight

Ed here: Anybody who ever spoke with Elmer Grape for even a few minutes realized that here was a gentleman of the old school, funny, kind and bright. Our condolences and prayers are with Jan.


From Jan Grape:

With a heavy heart I must tell you that I lost Elmer, my wonderful
husband,friend, companion, sweetheart, partner and chief supporter on
Dec. 29th. A bowel obstruction surgery went fairly well, then
surgical site broke down, second surgery to repair on Wed, seemed to
do fine, then heart, lungs and blood pressure could not stay stable.
Doctors fought all day Thursday. Elmer fought all day Thursday. We
were in Dallas with all our kids and grandkids when this happened on
the 23rd. He was in VA medical hosp. in Dallas. Late Thursday (29th)
doctors had exhausted all means of helping him. Nothing else could
work. And would only prolong with no good outcome. He'd have been on
ventilator permanantly or dibilitated even more. He would not have
wanted that. Our children and niece and my sister were all there and I
made the decision to withdraw the medication. He was heavily sedated
and was in no pain.

By his wishes he will be cremated and there will be a memorial service
to celebrate his life (in 2-3 weeks) but I don't know details yet. I
will let everyone know. If you'd like to write a short note sharing a
memory or funny story of Elmer I will make sure it's read at the
service.

Trying to find small blessings, he was not sick long, only 7 days from
onset to end. He did not have to live in any diminished capacity. He
was in no pain. We spent 3 fun days with all our kids and grandkids.
We bowled on Wed. 21, with 3 of the grands and our daughter and her
husband and he bowled 2-200+ games. Elmer was fine and had a great
time.

Love,
Jan

Night Walker

Cover copy: Night Walker by Donald Hamilton Hardcase Crime $6.99

Who was he, really, under the bandages?

When Navy Lieutenant David Young came to in a hospital bed, his face was covered with bandages and the nurses were calling him by a stranger’s name. But David’s nightmare was only beginning. Because the man they believed him to be was suspected of treason—and had driven his wife to murder.

Now David’s got to make his way through a shadow world of suspicion and deception, of dirty deals and brutal crimes, and he needs to stay one step ahead of enemies whose identity he doesn’t even know—since if he can’t, his impersonation of a dead man is about to become a lot more realistic...

-----

The storyline of the Night Walker was common in crime fiction from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. What Hamilton brought to it was a new energy, a skill with standing a few of the tropes of their heads, and a surrealistic sense of nighttime much like the film version of Kiss Me Deadly. Even when it's daylight in this book it's midnight.

The other thing Hamilton did well was define, in a reasonable way, the ethics or lack thereof, of the Cold War. Despite being an honorable military man, the hero is a victim of that war. Hamilton is careful to show that elements of the Cold War (from the U.S. point of view) were necessary. But being a good cynical citizen he also saw the excesses and gets them down here in dramatic fashion.

This is an exemplary chase novel, with a good deal of violence and some oddly sweet romance for leavening. Few writers were able to get the spy mentality down as beleivably as Hamilton and it pays off for him here in this moody page turner of a relentless example of Cold War noir.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley's recent death was acknowledged the way it should have been, the world wide press not only taking note but devoting significant space to the occasion. They too narrowly defined him as a science fiction "satirist" which he was, of course, but he was also much more.

I remembered that last night when I accidentally stumbled on a Galaxy magazine from November 1955 and found Sheckley's Warrior's's Return inside. It's a very Cold Warish piece. We were losing a prolonged battle to the Russians until we discovered a young man from a small town who had the power to destroy things with his mind. His killed so many Russians that they surrendered. All Hibbs wants to do is go back home and settle down. He is traumatized by all the killing he did; be abhors the word "hero." But norma life is not to be. Not only can he destroy things, he can heal people and give stock market futures that are exact. And many more things. There'll be no settling down. Everybody wants him to do favors. He realizes he is doomed to being the lonely freak he's always been. I won't spoil the ending in case you run across it in one of Sheckley's many collections.

A description of the small town drinkers in a grungy tavern: "The three drinkers had a night look, too. Their leaning bodies fitted cunningly against the bar, as though shaped for that purpose. Their feet were intricately twined in the brain rail, in a manner no human feet should assume. They looked like fixtures that simulated humans that the owner might have bought to keep him company."

I outlined the story. Seven scenes. The economy of words is remarkable as is the elegant structure of the story itself. A beautifully wrought tale that in 4,500 words manages to be effectively suspenseful, melancholy, angry and humorous in a black comic sort of way. Perfection.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Night Walker

Cover copy: Night Walker by Donald Hamilton Hardcase Crime $6.99

Who was he, really, under the bandages?

When Navy Lieutenant David Young came to in a hospital bed, his face was covered with bandages and the nurses were calling him by a stranger’s name. But David’s nightmare was only beginning. Because the man they believed him to be was suspected of treason—and had driven his wife to murder.

Now David’s got to make his way through a shadow world of suspicion and deception, of dirty deals and brutal crimes, and he needs to stay one step ahead of enemies whose identity he doesn’t even know—since if he can’t, his impersonation of a dead man is about to become a lot more realistic...

-----

The storyline of the Night Walker was common in crime fiction from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. What Hamilton brought to it was a new energy, a skill with standing a few of the tropes of their heads, and a surrealistic sense of nighttime much like the film version of Kiss Me Deadly. Even when it's daylight in this book it's midnight.

The other thing Hamilton did well was define, in a reasonable way, the ethics or lack thereof, of the Cold War. Despite being an honorable military man, the hero is a victim of that war. Hamilton is careful to show that elements of the Cold War (from the U.S. point of view) were necessary. But being a good cynical citizen he also saw the excesses and gets them down here in dramatic fashion.

This is an exemplary chase novel, with a good deal of violence and some oddly sweet romance for leavening. Few writers were able to get the spy mentality down as beleivably as Hamilton and it pays off for him here in this moody page turner of a relentless example of Cold War noir.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Feeding my head (remember Grace Slick?)...

I don't see why we can't live in peace with these dudes...

MULTAN, Pakistan - Nazir Ahmed appears calm and unrepentant as he recounts how he slit the throats of his three young daughters and their 25-year old stepsister to salvage his family's "honor" — a crime that shocked Pakistan.

The 40-year old laborer, speaking to The Associated Press in police detention as he was being shifted to prison, confessed to just one regret — that he didn't murder the stepsister's alleged lover too.


Hundreds of girls and women are murdered by male relatives each year in this conservative Islamic nation, and rights groups said Wednesday such "honor killings" will only stop when authorities get serious about punishing perpetrators.

(Ed here: the last guy who killed like this was given PROBATION!!!!!)

------
Reading Joy House by Day Keene, maybe his best novel ever. Was made into a French movie with Charles Williams (!) writing the screenplay. Two Gold Medal giants on one project.

Last night read a long story by Somerset Maugham called The Pool. I have a brother-in-law who lived out the basics of this story, man meets native girl, marries her, brings her back to UK/US and watches his life go completely to hell. Man, what a powerful tale this is. I don't care if Maugham was considered of The First Rank or not. The sumbitch could write stories almost like nobody else.

Just got the new Hardcase Crime title, Night Walker by the one and only Donald Hamilton. Will review it right here tomorrow night/

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Deadly Honeymoon

Spent the last few hours reading Deadly Honeymoon by Lawrence Block. A fine little book. I seem to remember Larry saying somewhere that he wished he'd given the hero some more difficulty before wrapping it up. But it worked well enough for me.

The story concerns a honeymoon couple that witnesses a crime and pays the consequences. The burden of such a story is to keep it beleivable. Block is probably as good as anybody at working against the melodrama of most crime tropes. And it's no different here. There's a whole section that turns into an investigation rather than the usual chase-and-hide stuff you find in this type of material. The investigation lends the book authenticity.

Then there are those sentences. Block writes the simplest sentences of any crime writer I've ever read. Each conveys exactly what he wants it to, no more, no less. The effect of each is is exact because Block never entangles the reader in clumsy syntax or undue dependent clauses to get lost in. The prose shines.

There's no doubt that Block's work will survive its time. What's most amazing is that he's been producing it for nearly fifty years. Yes, he's much better than when he started out. But what's even more remarkable is that he's never been bad.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Not saying hi to David Morrell

For me, David Morrell is one of the two or three best suspense writers of my generation. I don't think I've ever read a first novel as good as First Blood. And he's only gotten better since then.

I'm rereading his novel Long Lost, a perfect novel of suspense. I keep a copy on my Classic shelf.

Given my admiration for the guy, you'd think I'd take any oppotunity to meet him. Well...I went out to a Waldenbooks one Saturday afternoon to intrroduce myself and got about ten feet from him...and froze. I've always felt embarrassed about being me. There's no other way to say it. And all I could think of in that moment was how I'd say the wrong thing or lean on his table of books and knock it over or spill my coffee on his shoes. I faded back.

At the time he lived in Iowa City, about forty-tive minutes from Cedar Rapids. I twice ran into him there and had the same experience. Frozen solid. I once tried to lurch in front of him so I'd be forced to say something. But even the lurch didn't work. I am a late lurcher. By the time I'd angled myself in proper lurch form, he was gone.

A few years later, my wife Carol did a couple of signings with him and found him to be one of the nicest people she'd ever met. She was deeply moved by the way he talked about the young son he'd lost. And his graciousness with mid-list writers.

I think it probably worked out. Mr. Morrell got to meet the far better half of the Gorman marriage, that's for sure. The only thing he might have missed was some world-class lurching.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Kong-ed

I'm waiting for the post-mortems on King Kong. Should be interesting. Will any of them offer any real insight? Hopefully. It's heading to 100 mil easily enough as long as you don't take into account the 300 mil spent on making it and promoting it.

What went wrong? Great reviews for the most part, plenty of pre-opening slots on news and Hwood shows, and an almost communal sense of good will for this picture that just might turn Hwood's fortunes around. The girl is pretty and a fine actress (if that matters); Kong is spectacular; and the scenery is singularly stunning.

The criticism seems to focus on a slow first act. That's about all I've heard by way of carping.

But I wonder--and hope--if something else isn't happening here. Maybe a good segment of the movie audience is just plain tired of special effects pictures. I've seen a few of them this year and you know what? Special effects seem to have hit a wall. They've begun to repeat themselves. The technology, at least for now, seems tapped out. It doesn't help that most special effects are written around moronic scripts.

Yes, I know Narnia's doing well, but it's also being pitched to a born-again audience, a block of attendees grateful for just about any kind of recognition (hence the feel good vibes it managed to take away from Mel Gibson's sado-masochist telling of the Crucifixion).

Be fun to see what far wiser heads than mine come up with to explain the merely middling success of Kong. It's clearly going to make its money back; DVDs and foreign guarantees that. But why not Harry Potter success? Stay tuned.

Holiday wishes everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Various Stuff

I got a little overexburant last night about all the good things that had happened to me in the past five days. Technically, it should've been nine or ten working days.

---

Just got my review copy of the new Stark House double book--for which I'm a free-lance editor--Violence is My Business and Turn Left at Murder by Stephen Marlowe. Max Collins notes that the first chapter of Violence is mandatory reading for anybody serious about writing crime fiction and I agree. It is a masterpiece of mood, suspense, mob psychology and true terror. And the following chapters are just as good. And Turn Left is one of those seedy, gripping noirs that director Jsoeph Lewis did so well. Reserve your copy now. It's way past time that Stephen Marlowe be acknowledged for all he's contributed to mastterful suspense fiction. Marlowe also contributes an enertaining and enlightening essay on the perils and pleasures of writing directly for paperbacks back in the `50's and `60's.

---------

I see that the Brits are going to continue on with the Inspector Morse TV shows--even though Morse is dead. His sergeant will now become the lead figure in the series. Interesting to see how that turns out.

----------

For those of you who like Hitchcockian suspense novels as much as I do, be it known that one of the true classics of the genre is now back in print. I refer to Patricia Macdonald's tense, spooky, breathtaking nail-biter The Unforgiven. This is one of those books you want to read straight through, foregoing even sleep.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Catching up

Tom Wallace said he hasn't seen any new fiction of mine for some time. I have a new noir western from Berkley out just now, Shoot First. I'd been reading Lionel White and I thought it would be fun to do one of his multiple-viewpoint stories that don't read like mysteries but are in fact fair clued--as you learn in the last of the book. This week my agent got me six foreign sales for novels of mine (not huge dough but needed and appreciated) and I sold a very long story to Ellery Queen and a short one to Jeff Gelb for an anthology of his and then (believe it or not) a western short to a history of popular fiction anthology. And it looks as if a story of mine will be adapated to a crime show in Canada. It's true that given my health I don't write as much as I once did but that may not be a bad thing. And given all our medical expenses, this is the kind of week we need every once in a while to reassure ourselves that we won't end up in ahomeless shelter.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Richard Prather

Bud Post wrote to ask my why I never talk about Richard Prather. As I recall, I think I've devoted two or three columns to him over the past four years.

I loved Prather because he was always fun. I was naive about his right-wing politics so they never got in my way, I just liked the hilarious situations chicks always led the willing Shell into. One of my all-time favorite scenes is Shell in a hot air balloon flying above the nudist camp he's just escaped from. His attire consists of his holster and gun.

But I think the cleverness of the plotting--Robert Leslie Bellem incoprating Mickey Spillane--cost him something in reputation. Nobody that much fun could be any good, right?

But Prather was a real writer. His depiction of LA after the big war, the nut jobs who seemed to fill TV screens 24/7 and the various type of restaurants, parties and clambakes Shell went to gave us a good sense of what LA was like in this days. Good solid reporting.

The unreality came in the form of the gangsters--straight out of ZIV TV--and the women. Has there ever been so many beautiful babes so willing to drag a man into bed? And all with such cute, coy dialogue.

I can still sit down and read one of the Shells with great enjoyment because however dated they seem they're soundly built by a man who knew what he as doing and did it with pride.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The sort of good old days

I can't remember which blog it was that last week spent a couple of days talking about writing house name books. A dozen writers sharing the same pen-name.

One of the bloggers mentioned the practice of handing off the house name assignment when a better deal came along. When I started out in the early eighties the house name field was flourishing in many different genres. Men's action seemed to do better than westerns or detectives.

I got to know a few writers who regularly produced house name books. One by one they asked me if I'd like to write a book for them. I'd do the first draft and they'd do the polish. They had better things to do. Generally they gave me half the money and no royalties. As a beginner, I was grateful for the job. I was being paid to write. It was the equivalent of being paid to go to school.

I've noted before some of the difficulties I ran into. One writer who said I was a pornographer; another who said I made fun of heroes (his hero was, alas, a psycho). And yet another who told me that men of the old west never used dirty language in front of women. The fuck if they didn't, I said.

But I learned a lot with these jobs, especially about writing westerns. The funniest part of it was, since I was the beginner, getting an assignment after it had passed through three or four other writers. Didn't have time; decide they hated writing these books; got a much better deal to do a serious book bearing their own name. So it worked its way down and down...till it came to me.

I always think of Don Westlake's great book (and I do mean great--hilarious and not a little bit sad) about the young guy, no writer at all, who is talked into writing hack porno novels. Adios, Schherazade gets this whole hack job world down perfectly. It is a masterpiece of rue and wit and desperation.

I'm not sure that world exists anymore, not with so many category novel lines being canceled. I rarely see, except for Louis of course, any western novels outside the chains and certanly never any action adventure stuff.

I don't say this with any great remorse. The down and dirty days are gone. Publishers put their money into books with potential. But while it existed, you could learn a good deal about craft and get paid pretty well, too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Marie MacDonald

I watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies and every once in a while I get curious about some of the actresses I see there. The other morning I started watching an old Gene Kelly movie and couldn't break away to write because I was so taken by the female lead, Marie MacDonald. She is one of the most shockingly beautiful, elegant women I've ever seen. And despite what th following bio implies, she did well by her role. I was curious about why I'd never heard of her before. So I looked her up. Her bio is straight out of Raymond Chandler, the dame who gets killed right after the credits roll. What a sad, frantic life. If looks alone could make a star, she would've been up there with Garbo--and put Garbo to shame.

Birth name

Cora Marie Frye

Nickname

The Body

Mini biography


Kentucky-born Marie McDonald, born Cora Marie Frye in 1923, was a leggy, voluptuous blonde starlet who pursued her career with a vengeance but found little reward in the end. Her mother was a former Ziegfeld girl and her grandmother an operatic singer. Her father, on the other hand, was not so artistically inclined, earning a living as a warden at Leavenworth Prison. Her parents divorced when Marie was just 6 years old. Marie's mother remarried and the new family moved to Yonkers, New York, where she attended Roosevelt High School and excelled in piano. Although she was offered a college scholarship by Columbia University in journalism, Marie's impressive beauty and physical assets propelled her to try a show business career. A Powers model at 15 (she lied about her age), she quit high school and started entering beauty contests, winning the "Miss Yonkers" and "The Queen of Coney Island" titles, among others. In 1939 she was crowned "Miss New York," but subsequently lost at the "Miss America" pageant.

The attention she received from her beauty titles, however, pointed her straight to the Broadway stage in "George White's Scandals of 1939." This in turn led to Los Angeles and the chorus line while trying to break into pictures. She found her first singing work with Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra on his radio show and eventually joined other bands as well. Although Universal signed her up, she couldn't get past a few one-line jobs. She knew publicity would have to be her mode of operation if she was to draw the necessary attention and advance her career. Press agents dubbed her "The Body" and the tag eventually stuck. Though her physical attributes were impressive, her talent was less so. Managing to come her way were the films Guest in the House (1944), Living in a Big Way (1947) with Gene Kelly and Tell It to the Judge (1949). Marie was once in contention for the Billie Dawn role in "Born Yesterday," which could have been her big break, but she lost out to Judy Holliday. The audience simply didn't latch on to Marie and she ended up more on the road doing bus-and-truck shows than anything else.

Despite the numerous tabloid attention (she was married seven times), sex scandals and publicity hijinks she mustered up, notoriety that would have made the late Jayne Mansfield envious, Marie's career was stalled and she turned to drink, drugs and despair. This led to frequent brushes with the law and more than a few nervous breakdowns. Her last effective role was in the Jerry Lewis starrer The Geisha Boy (1958) where she gamely played a snippy movie star at the mercy of the comedian's outrageous slapstick. In 1965, at age 42, the never-say-die gal finally decided enough was enough and she ended it all with an overdose of pills.


IMDb mini-biography by

Gary Brumburgh / gr-home@pacbell.net

Spouse



Donald F. Taylor
(1964 - 21 October 1965) (her death)

Edward F. Calahan
(1962 - 1962) (annulled after 48 hours)

Louis Bass
(1959 - 1960) (divorced)

Harry Karl
(1955 - 1958) (divorced) 1 child

Harry Karl
(1947 - 1954) (divorced) 2 children

Victor M. Orsatti
(10 January 1943 - May 1947) (divorced)

Richard Allord
(1940 - 1940) (annulled)

Trivia


Interred at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California, in the Freedom Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Heritage.

Singer.

Married seven times, twice to Harry Karl, the shoe tycoon who went on to marry to Debbie Reynolds and lose both his and her fortunes.

In one of her many publicity stunts, police reports state that Marie was found on a desert road in her pajamas ranting and raving that she had been kidnapped from her home by two men.

Killed herself with an overdose of Percodan. Her seventh husband, Donald F. Taylor committed suicide shortly after.

Her two older children are adopted.

When she still a child, her parents divorced and and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York, where her mother married a man whose last name was McDonald and ran a hardware store. Marie worked as a journalist on her high school newspaper, but dropped out of school at fifteen to become a model and began working for a modeling agency. She competed in beauty pageants, including the Miss New York competition, but did not win.

She replaced sexpot Mamie Van Doren in the movie Promises, Promises in 1963 but had numerous fights on the set with the other bombshell star Jayne Mansfield. She married the producer of that movie, Donald F. Taylor, who would be her last husband.

After several miscarriages, she adopted two children, Denise "Dede" and Harrison "Bo", between the years 1951-1954. A daughter, Tina Marie, was born later in 1956.

Her 1962 marriage to Los Angeles lawyer and banker Edward F. Callahan was annulled after 48 hours. They officially divorced in 1963.

Was the model used by illustrator Alex Raymond for the Dale Arden and Princess Aura creations for the Flash Gordon comic strip.

Some of the beauty titles Marie held were "Miss Yonkers," "Miss Loew's Paradise" "Queen of Coney Island" and "Miss New York."

She died because there was air in the needle that injected with her drugs. Her husband was charged with murder, but he killed himself two days after she died.

Harry Karl, the father of her three children, did not want the children after Marie died. His wife at the time, Debbie Reynolds, insisted they move in with him anyway.

Her daughter, Tina, was born with drugs in her system. She had severe problems related to this while growing up.

Her marriages to Harry Karl was the inspiration for the film The Marrying Man (1991).






Personal quotes


"Husbands are easier to find than good agents."








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Monday, December 19, 2005

Richard Matheson; Trevanian

As much as I like those 750 page collections of short stories, they're hell to manipulate in bed. They are for me, anyway.

Edge Books, an imprint of our friends at Gauntlet Press, have done old-timers like me the favor of taking the huge volume of Richard Matheson's epic Collected Stories and, with the help of editor Stanley Wiater, turned it into four handsome, affordable ($16.95) volumes.

The book I'm looking at is volume three and it's the best so far containing, as it does, some genuine masterpieces that will outlast us all. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The Likeness of Julie, Mute, Girl of My Dreams, Shock Wave, Prey and Duel are just a few other stories here, along with remarks by such folks as Harlan Ellison, Stephen King. Dennis Etchison and Richard Christian Matheson.

This is a book you'll keep for life.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Marvin Albert

Mystery File online has an long article about a Marvin Albert novel that may or may not exist. Since I'm not a bibliophile, I can't say I'm all that interested in its machinations but in the course of the piece the writer talks about Albert's writing, which interests me a lot.

He was a fine pulp writer of the old school. And in the Tony Rome books he was a little better than that. The Rome books, as I recall them, were filled with lore about the Miami-Miami Beach area of the early `60s. When Albert was at his best there was an element of journalism in his books, the kind of journalism you get in many literary novels. He wanted to share a real piece of of fleeting history with you.

He was the same with his westerns. He wrote about bounty hunters as they really were, some were eseentially para-lawmen who hunted down the killers folks in a particular area were terrified of. He was a good guy here. Then there were the slime, as was inevitable. They were especially bad after the Civil War, which I didn't know about until I read a couple of Albert novels. These were men who'd developed a taste for killing and they'd kill your mother for a silver dollar if that's all they'd could get. And blue and gray alike produced these men.

In order to like the Rome books, I have to forget that Frank Sinatra had anything to do with them. I'm sorry, Sinatra as a tough guy always struck me as a joke. His thugs were tough guys but Frank baby was anything but. When a Brooklyn writer named Max Eastman gave Sinatra a bad review for a particular singing performance (he even said in the review that Sinatra had had an off-night), Frank baby jumped him in a cafe. Eastman, as was reported long ago in Esquire (I believe) was five-three or five-four and skinnier than Sinatra. He flattened Sinatra with one punch. Frank baby being Frank baby his sicced his punks on Eastman, of course.

Aside from Sinatra...I enjoy the Tony Rome novels very much. And again, as much for all the local color as anything. I've mentioned this scene before. Tony finds a dead guy and is desperate to get to a phone. He tries several bars on the same street. None have payphones. Why? Because drunks rip them out of the wall when they're arguing with their wives--and the phone company won't replace them.

Now there's local color.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Stealing

In a 1984 interview I did with John D. MacDonald and recently posted on the excellent Mystery File, JDM talked about somebody ripping off his early stories and then reselling them to magazines.

A friend of mine who sells a lot of books once had a novel of his copied virtually scene for scene by another writer. Readers picked it off instantly. The book was pulped.

A famous romance novelist, apparently frustrated that Nora Roberts was doing so well, cribbed heavily from a Roberts novel and published her version. Nailed immediately.

God knows I have a difficult time writing. Because I wrote so much in the early part of my career, people think I just sit down and let the words just automatically write themselves. Every single piece I create, good or bad, is tough going and results in headaches, irritability and insomnia. Not all the way through but there are few pieces that don't inflict at least two out of three of those devils on me at some point.

That said, I still wouldn't crib. It's not that I'm so moral. It's that I know I'd get caught within seventy-two hours of publication. Somebody would fire off an e-mail to the publisher saying, "Gorman lifted this story from a 1928 Hungarian pulp magazine called (translation) Babes Ahoy. He even forgot to update it several times, calling all the women in it `flappers.'"

I mention this because another writer reminded me recently that the first time I'd talked to him I was telling him that I'd just gotten an anthology submission that was clearly lifted from a three year old copy of a mystery magazine. A very popular mystery magazine.

So be careful out there all you would be plagiatrists. God pays you back with carpel tunnel symdrome that affects you all the ay to your bicep.

And if any of this happens to sound like something you read in last month's Writer's Digest, forget about it. There';s no comparison whatsoever.

Well, maybe a coincidental paragraph here and there but...

Friday, December 16, 2005

The King and The Kong

King Kong opened yesterday at 9.7 million and that has movie people nervous. It could be a portent, it could be nothing but an irrelevant moment in a march into movie history.

Today I saw three different pieces on the inherent racism in all three versions of the movie. While I think that charges of racism, like most kinds of charges, sometimes suffer from excess and fanaticism, I have to agree that Kong is racist. In what other way can it be viewed but the dangerous culture of blacks despoiling the white virgin (or seeming to at first) and yielding up an iconic monster that must be destroyed by whites defending their honor and safety.

The question is, I suppose, is does this racism have any relevance to the audience. I'd guess not. The audience wants entertainment and from most reviewers, I take it that Kong, despite a rambling first act, is certainly the spectacle people had been hoping for.

I mention this because I saw a few letters that take the movie on as a purely racist tract. But it's hard to imagine any but the most deranged racist sitting in the theater and smirking about the white colonials kidnapping the monster and then destroying it. Yeah, that'll teach them pagans who's boss on this here planet.

What buffers the movie from being something Rudyard Kipling might have written is the relationship between blonde and monster. It's an innocent story for kids and a sweet sad erotic one for grown-ups who know that innocence doesn't stand a chance in our world. As we learn when Kong discovers the Empire State building.

I hope this doesn't become an issue because I think there's slim pickings for any serious debate about race in it. Sometimes a movie is just a movie and inherent white imperialiam aside, Kong is just that--a Saturday afternoon story for fairy tale lovers of every age.

The lager and more pressing question is will the damn thing survive it's shaky opening day and ever make back its enormous cost.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

American Pulp

Somebody once asked me if I ever grabbed a novel of mine off my office shelf and read through it. Lord no. As I've said here before, one of the most embarrassing moments in my advertising years was sitting in a screening room with a client and showing him the commercial I'd just produced. All I ever saw were the flaws, which were usually considerable. Same way with rereading my own stuff. No way. I've humiliated myself enough all my life. Why persecute myself even more?

I do, however, read old anthologies that Marty Greenberg and I have put together. Last night, for instance, I grabbed one called American Pulp edited by Bill Pronzini, Marty and I. I couldn't find anything else that appealed to me so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I read a most of the shorter stories and loved every one. Because this is out of print, you'll probably have to order it through Amazon or Abe but I have to say it's a perfect nightstand book for when the novel you're reading goes bland on you and you need a little excitement fix.

How about these names? John D. MacDonad, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Marcia Muller, Stephen Marlowe, David Goodis, Bob Randisi, Marthayn Pelegrimas, Vin Packer, L.J. Washburn, James Reasoner, Day Keene, Donald Wandrei, Clark Howard and John Lutz. And these are just the short stories. The longer ones include pieces by Talmage Powell, Richard Prather, Leigh Brackett, Norbert Davis and Richard Matheson.

Since we aren't earning any royalties on it, I can honestly recommend it. The one thing the stories had in common was their spare style and energy. Most of these came from the digest magazines of the Fifties. As they demonstrate, that really was a golden era.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Planeteers unite!

I was late getting to my MRI appointment yesterday so I grabbed whatever reading material I could find from my office. I've been carting some books and magazines to the basement. As it happened, the material handiest was two copies of Planet Stories.

You want to bet me that I was the only person in a medical waiting room ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD reading two issues of Planet Stories from 1953?

I have a small, maybe thirty issues, collection of them but I hadn't read them in a long long time. It was fun. I'd forgotten all the then-young writers who wrote for them back in the early `50s. Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson and of course RAY BRADBURY. They were late working me in so I had time to read about ten stories and they were surprisingly good. Tight pulp tales of the kind I'll always have a fondness for. One guy who went on to have a distinguished career as a Pulitzer prize winning historical novelist was Michael Shaara. He was a hell of a good science fiction writer. At the time he was selling to Planet, he was also hitting Astounding, Galaxy and Startling and Thrilling Wonder. A very good pulp career.

I wish the covers were as good as the stories. Gaudy doesn't quite capture their tone. Lurid would be better. The women are semi-beautiful (as David Frye used to say of LBJs daughters) but the monsters-- Those babies are laughable.

And then there are the story titles. Calling World-4 of Kithgol!,The Brain Sinner! Mirage for Planet X! and of course The Virgin of Valkarion! (In fact, in my collection I counted four stories with Virgin in the title. Musta been a lotta altar boys in the audience looking for sexy "good" girls.)

I have to admit I got several glances from other patients. It's those covers, I tell ya. Nobody could get any respect holding up magazine covers like that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Always Magic in The Air

Second only to Hollywood, the music business has always fascinated me. And not just the singers and the bands and the producers but the thieves and mobsters and goons who keep the big jukebox running.

For several decades the Brill building in New York--and another building associated it--housed the likes of Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Bachrach and David, all of whom were writing songs for stars much bigger than themselves--the late `50s and early `60s stars of my generation.

Always Magic in The Air recreates that time with elegant ease. A lot of it is funny, a lot of it is crazy, and almost all of it shows how much a role coincidence plays in making hits.

One of the stories writer Ken Emerson tells with obvious glee concerns two songs written by rock legends Pomus and Shuman for the then-big Bobby Vee. But when it came to actually recording it with the singer they knew instantly that he was too laid back to put any fire into the tunes, "His Latest Flame" and "Little Sister." They made a demo and took it took their friend Bobby Darin. He recorded them but nobody liked them, especially Darin. He felt that rock and roll no longer suited his new image as movie and nightclub star. After a few other attempts, they were able to get the songs to Elvis. He loved them but the demo Pomus and Shuman had done scared even him off--too hot. He toned it down for mass consumption. The Brill building had a big week that summer. The song that Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffinwrote for Bobby Vee went to number one and the two-sided hit Little Sister and His latest flame went to 4 and 5 respectively.

If you like showbiz lore, this is the book for you.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Stephen Marlowe remembers Evan Hunter

THOUGHTS ABOUT EVAN, AND ME, AND EVAN AND ME

In the early 1950s, when we first met, he was still Sal Lombino and I was still Milt Lesser. Sal, a Navy veteran and sometime schoolteacher, was working the phones for a wholesaler of lobsters in New York, taking orders from restaurants, and I was working as chief editor–at the grand old age of 23–of a large literary agency, having been hired straight out of college because the agent, Scott Meredith, didn't like to advance editors through the ranks and dreaded resorting to a classified ad in the New York Times, knowing it would result in a couple hundred wannabes storming his office. I'd got the job on a tip from sci-fi writer Damon Knight the day before Meredith would have placed his ad, and I worked a year or so before deciding to give up the munificent salary of 40 bucks a week (raise to 50, if I stayed!) to freelance full-time–this on the basis of a couple of sci-fi stories I'd sold to Howard Browne at Amazing Stories.

I well knew the problem of those wannabes storming the gates, because interviewing for staff positions had become one of my jobs at the Meredith office. How to winnow the applicants? Well, I wrote a short story called "Rattlesnake Cave," intentionally the worst short story ever written, though on the surface it seemed plausible. Applicants for the job, before being interviewed, wrote a critique of the story, and it swiftly cut the number from hundreds to a handful.

The wholesale lobster salesman, Sal Lombino, showed an immediate and instinctive grasp of all I'd intentionally done wrong in the story–and maybe a few things I hadn't realized I'd done wrong. He wryly observed that this story hadn't come in over the transom, as I'd claimed, but had been concocted for the purpose, and dared me to deny it. I didn't. Milt Lesser became the freelance writer and Sal Lombino the editor who wrote nights.

The Meredith office in those years was a spawning ground for writers, some of whom stayed on for years, some hardly long enough to hang their hats. Two who come immediately to mind are Lester del Rey and Don Westlake, but there are others.
By the mid-1950s, after a couple of years that Sal spent at the agency and I in the army, we were both freelancing. Sal/Evan lived in Hicksville, NY, with his wife Anita and their three children, and I a few miles away in Syosset with my wife Leigh and our two daughters. We had drinks and dinner every month or so, until it became apparent that Leigh and Anita disliked each other. Both were New Yorkers born and bred, both were brash and bright. Possibly they saw in each other aspects of themselves that less than pleased them.

Sal by then had written a couple of suspense novels and a short story that in 1954 became his groundbreaking first straight novel The Blackboard Jungle. Earlier, when Popular Library was about to publish the first suspense novel, Sal had put the pen name Evan Hunter on it. Nice name, I said. He smiled, waiting for me to ask how he'd come up with it. I asked. "Simple," he said. "I went to Evander Childs High School and Hunter College." He would sometimes later deny the origin of the name, but that was what he told me then.

And so a writer with a brand-new name was born, and he made it his legal name (half a dozen years before I changed mine). He quickly needed another one, as Ed McBain split off for the 87th Precinct.

Evan was the easiest writer I ever knew. By this I mean that his stuff just flowed, as they say, swift as a mountain stream, letter perfect, as fast as he could type. And he avoided revisions like the plague. I wrote that way too, when I was young. Evan wrote that way the rest of his life, and the quality of his work never diminished.

One morning out of the blue he phoned me to ask for a short-short story to fill a hole in Ed McBain's Mystery Magazine, which he was editing. When did he need it? That afternoon. We batted it around for a while, and I sat down and wrote "Drumbeat" in about an hour, took the train to New York, and gave it to him. We both smiled. In a way I'd accepted his challenge, as he'd accepted the challenge of "Rattlesnake Cave." "Drumbeat" has been anthologized more times than I can count. Evan was contagious that way.

But our friendship got hung up for a time on the rock of geography and our wives' mutual dislike. I began to wander the world in search of background material for my globe-trotting private eye, Chet Drum. Evan, meanwhile, was a quintessential New Yorker. How he loved that town–and showed it in every page of his nameless 87th Precinct city. The geography may have been turned on its side so that Isola was a sort of horizontal Manhattan, but the entire city itself was straight-up New York, though in the 87th Precinct's fifty novels he never called it anything but this city.

When I next saw Evan, in the 1980s, it was not in New York. After some phone tag, we caught up with each other in London, where I was lunching at the Groucho Club with my second wife, Ann, and Liz Calder of Jonathan Cape to celebrate the publication in the UK of my novel The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus, and Evan was at Claridge's with his second wife, Mary Vann. I had reason to thank Evan. A couple of years earlier, I'd begun to write Columbus but felt very insecure about such an offbeat novel. I wrote to Evan and he urged me on. After I finished it, four good U.S. agents said its anachonistic tone made it unsalable. It was many months–by which time Ann and I were in Spain with scarcely a peseta–before a Brit agent saw it, loved it, and sold it at auction. Other countries followed, including the USA, with advances of the sort I'd never seen before. Evan didn't know any of this until I wrote him a long letter that seemed to be saying, "You and your advice, thanks for nothing, pal"–until I divulged the good news at the end. The letter didn't fool Evan. Hey, he wrote back, I write mysteries too and I know how to foreshadow happy endings, but I didn't peek at the ending, I read your letter in the order you wrote it.
In London we had lunch, and I met Mary Vann for the first time. She was very much the Suth-ren belle, and my wife Ann had been born in a village on Canada's Gaspe Peninsula, literally within sight of spouting whales. Both had done some writing–Ann had published a trio of romantic suspense novels, Mary Vann a literary novel. As they felt each other out, a look passed between Evan and me, as if to say, Is it happening again?

Evan and I stayed in touch, and back in Connecticut for a spell, where the Hunters owned a splendid house in Norwalk and the Marlowes rented one in Madison, we got together periodically. Evan and I talked nostalgically about old times and with great optimism about what we still planned to do. (Like most writers, we both lived as much in the future and the past as in the present.) Our wives remained as studiedly sweet to each other as only women who disdain each other can.
Ann and I wandered overseas again, and came back to find that Evan and Mary Vann had split, and Evan had found the delightful Dragica (called Dina early on, until Evan decided people could handle Dragica's real name)–and Ann and Dragica liked each other!

In all the years I knew him–half a century and more, on and off–Evan's writing never changed, except to get better. "One and only," indeed. Long friendship aside, he was the sharpest, clearest, and best suspense writer I ever knew.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor wasn't the first comedian to make me laugh but he was certainly the first to make me cry. I grew up very poor in an alcoholic household and was pretty much an outcast wherever I went to school. Some things happened to me when I was young that I couldn't face down until I quit drinking and drugging in my Thirties. Because of these things my life was largely interior.

I'm not equating my experience with that of a black man's but there was just enough similarity in Pryor's pain and mine that listening to him was a cathartic experience. He never quite entered his own house justified, to quote Sam Pekcinpah in Ride The High Country. For all that had been done to him--the fucking priests refusing to let his alcoholic father be buried in hallowed ground; and the poor nuns giving the man a sort of funeral in one half of the gym while the girls played basketball at the other end of the court--his rage and pain were such that he could never outrun them. Nor could he outrun the shame he felt for what he'd done. You listen to him talking about pumping bullets into his wife's empty car and you hear the remorse of drunks and dopers everywhere. Laugh and cry become indivisible.

As has been said many times this weekend, he wasn't a comedian, he was a performance artist. Like all of us in show biz, he turned in a bad performance now and then but I don't believe he ever turned in a dishonest one after he found his own voice back in the early `70s. I remember somebody on the set of Paul Schrader's powerful working class film Blue Collar saying that they'd remembered Pryor as being a nice young Negro man on his numerous Ed Sullivan show appearances. He went on to say that he wondered if physical and spiritual violence of of Schrader's script hadn't helped bring Pryor out. Whatever, that nice young Negro man was now somebody you didn't dare approach. He was just plain sick of all the bullshit.

People loved him. The one time I saw him the audience clearly revered him. This wasn't Johnny Carson time. This was psychodrama. This was confession. This was, for the audience, a hilarious trip through hell that they could discuss on their way home in their BMWs.

As much as those who've come after are clever and amusing--and I mean both white and black--none have the courage to reveal themselves, good and bad, the way he did. Or the skill. It takes a level of craft that approaches true art to stand there on stage and forget all the Vegas crapola and simply tell the truth.

He always said it was scarey up there all alone and I have no doubt it was.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Robert Sheckley

December 10, 2005

Robert Sheckley, 77, Writer of Satirical Science Fiction, Is Dead

By GERALD JONAS

Robert Sheckley, a writer of science fiction whose disarmingly playful stories pack a nihilistic subtext, died yesterday in Poughkeepsie. He was 77 and lived in Red Hook, N.Y.


The cause was complications of a brain aneurysm, said his former wife, Ziva Kwitney. Mr. Sheckley wrote more than 15 novels and around 400 short stories; the actual total is uncertain since he was so prolific in his heyday, the 1950's and 60's, that magazine editors insisted he publish some stories under pseudonyms to avoid having his byline appear more than once in an issue.


Four of his stories were made into films; the best known, "The Tenth Victim" (1965), starred Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.


Born in Brooklyn and raised in Maplewood, N.J., Robert Sheckley joined the Army in 1946 after graduating from high school, and served in Korea. In 1951 he received an undergraduate degree from New York University and sold his first short story.


Over the next two decades, he was a major force in the development of modern science fiction. His first collection of stories, published in 1954, was hailed as one of the finest debut volumes in the field. In the 1960's he found a wider market for his science fiction in magazines like Playboy.


Many of his novels were well received, among them "Journey Beyond Tomorrow"(1962) and "Dimension of Miracles" (1968), but Mr. Sheckley was best known for his short stories. At a time when science fiction was just starting to grapple with the social implications of technology - from atomic bombs to missile-carrying rockets - Mr. Sheckley turned a satirist's eye on the genre and its concerns.


Like Ray Bradbury, he was interested in the scientific apparatus of science fiction - space travel, time travel, extrapolated futures - only so far as it served his purpose. While Mr. Bradbury poetically mourns the failure to live up to our dreams of the future, Mr. Sheckley mocked the self-delusions that lead to dreams in the first place.


He reveled in the freedom the genre afforded him to dramatize the fears and anxieties of everyday life. When he wrote about the war between the sexes, he conjured a future in which disappointed lovers had the legal option of using real bullets to express their anger. When he wrote about alienation as a state of mind, he sealed the reader in an endless loop of disaffection that reduced the outside world to a hallucination wrapped in an illusion.


Because he leavened his darkest visions with wit and absurdist plotting, he is considered one of science fiction's seminal humorists, and a precursor to Douglas Adams, whose "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (1979) seems to take place in a Sheckleyan universe. But Mr. Sheckley's work is darker than Mr. Adams's; the smiles he evokes leave a bitter taste on the lips. A better comparison might be to Kafka, a fabulist who could never understood why his friends didn't laugh when he read his stories to them.


Mr. Sheckley's fiction has been translated into German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish and Lithuanian. His work is especially popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.


Mr. Sheckley's marriages to his first four wives, Barbara Scadron, Ms. Kwitney, Abby Schulman and Jay Rothbell, ended in divorce. At the time of his death he was separated from his fifth wife, Gail Dana. Other survivors include a son, Jason, from his first marriage, a daughter, Alisa Kwitney, from his second marriage; a daughter, Anya, and a son, Jed, from his third marriage; his sister Joan Klein of New York; and three grandchildren.

Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

Ed here: As much as I enjoy and admire mysteries, my first love was science fiction and for that reason I'll always be sentimental about it. Discovering Sheckley was like discovering electricity. In a field of originals, he was more original than anyone else. He made me laugh out loud, something only Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch had ever made me do before him. He also made me question aspects of my life in ways I never had. My cousin Terry Butler and I used to discuss Sheckley the way others discussed Johnathan Swift. I don't think I had even an inkling of what hip was until I started reading him in '55 or so.

Like Roger Zelazny, he had his fall from grace and spent the rest of his post-`65 career trying various other forms and genres. He was a passing fair spy novelist and a good detective story writer, the latter being a form that allowed for his wit and saner takes on insanity. In stories such as "Prize of Peril," he demonstrated that he could write first-rate adventure and suspense without sacrificing any of his uniqueness as a writer. It is, for me, a perfectly executed story, a masterpiece of tension and steely control.

They say first impressions last. This was certainly true for me with Sheckley. From the first time I ever read him, I felt just a little bit smarter, in all senses of that word, just for being in his presence. So long, Robert.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Jerry Williamson

Everyone:

It breaks my heart to tell you that Jerry Williamson died this morning
at 1:20 a.m. in his room in the nursing home in Indiana. Memorial
services are tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

I wanted to let all of you know how very much it meant to him that you
contributed such fine work to this edition of Masques, and that you've
stuck with it through the several delays. I think this will serve as a
fine testament to Jerry's memory. Thank you.


Gary A. Braunbeck

Ed here: Jerry was known in both the horror and suspense communities for his fine work, especially his short stories. He wrote in just about every form of short fiction and did well by all of them. He was one of those people whose life was never easy. Especially in the last two decades of his life, he had to endure some bitter personal tragedies. He worked until he could work no longer. Only in our last phone conversation did I have the impression that he'd given up the struggle. He sounded whipped. Gary Braunbeck has done a fine job finishing one of Jerry's most accomplished projects, his series of dark fantasy/horror anthologies Masques. The books spanned nearly twenty years and were among the genre's most acclaimed series. So long, Jerry.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Stephen Marlowe

Got an e-mail from one of the all-time paperback kings Stephen Marlowe. He's offered to write a brief memoir of his friendship with Evan Hunter. I'll have it here pretty soon.

I wish Steve would write a piece about himself. He has survived the publishing wars for six decades. And during that time written innumerable Damned Good Books.

I first read Mr. Marlowe when he was appearing under his real name (which he later changed to Marlowe) Milton Lesser. I don't remember the title but the magazine was Amazing and it was likely 1955. The story had to do (as I recall) with a monster inside the vaults of Ft. Knox. Very cool premise and he had a lot of military stuff in there (I believe he'd gotten out of the Army sometime in the early `50s). From then on, I bought everything of his I could find.

A year or so later I disovered the Chet Drum series. As much as they've been celebrated, I don't think they've ever been appreciated in quite the way they should be. Of all the private eye/adventure pb series, they were certainly the most literate and authentic feeling. I never understood the comparison to Mickey Spillane. I love the early Spillane books but they exist on an alternative world that is and isn't the earth most of us share. That is their genius.

Drum always struck me as a realistic, intelligent, reasonable, melancholy man who tried not to be cynical in an age in which cynicism was the price of survival. I prefered the books set in America to those set abroad. Drum's take on the mores of the time was wise without being dogmatic in any way. He gave us teenagers who were really people and politcians who were whoremongers cloaked in radiant white robes. He didn't seem unduly frantic about commies, either. He had an appreciation for good public servants,, whatever their stripe, and a genuine sorrow for the nobodies who got crushed beneath the jackboots of the powerful. Those nobodies being most of us.

And he wrote page turners. Plot almost never makes me turn pages. I've read and or written too many of them myself. Character and atmosphere grabs me and boy howdy did the Drum books deliver them.

So Steve, as soon as you do a piece on Evan, do one on yourself. Just think of all the money you'll be making.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The One & OnlyThe One & OnlyThe One & Only

Couldn't find a book that grabbed me last night so I dug around in an old bookcase and turned up Jigsaw by Ed McBain. It's about a B as an 87th and not terribly beleivable as a portrait of a black detective but everything else in it cooks.

He makes everything intense and he does this without often resorting to melodrama. The intensity gives it its page-turning quality. That and the fact that there are no saints in McBain, only sinners. He knew us all too well.

As I said on the weekend he died, I've been reading the guy for fifty years and he's just as exciting now as he was when I first picked up one of his Winston juveniles in 1954. I know there are people who feel he padded some of the later 87ths to get them up to bestseller size. I never noticed it in the cop novels. Where I saw it because it was so flagrant was in the Matthew Hope books. A couple of them, Goldilocks and Cinderella, were A++ by my reckoning but the others were either padded or dull.

But when he was kicking ass, as in Jigsaw, nobody in mystery fiction could bring such sheer urgency and FUN to the process of reading. And unlike the cliff-hanger boys, his surprises rarely amounted to more than three or four a book but they were really SURPRISES. If you doubt me, pick up his Halloween 87th. He got out his full-max stun gun for that one. The shocker in the middle involving the magician's wife is set up with such subtle grace that you are absolutely flummoxed by it.

And I don't have to tell you what's it like to be flummoxed now, do I?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Brain Death

I baby sat my six year old grandson P.J. this afternoon. As usual we went to the movie store for a video. There were three movies he wanted but none were available. We settled for a Power Rangers.

Based on what I saw I have to say that I fear for PJ's generation. I have never seen--and I'm not exaggeratinbg--one hour and twenty-five minutes of such brain killing junk in my life. There is no through story. There are just incidents of the Power Rangers doing battle with various papier mache moinsters in the Mothra mold. Many of the scenes in one encounter are cribbed for moments in a later scene. Even within themselves there's no real drama--there're just battles.

The worst western ever produced by Monogram or PRC had to be more intelligently written and acted and dressed than this one. The special effects, such as they are, consist of two explosive bursts that resemble 4th of July fireworks with a smoke machine standng by.

But again, the worst aspect of the whole thing is that fact that it lacks even an attempt at narrative coherence and characterization. I have never played a video game and don't intend to but I have a feeling that I had a introduction to video game narrative patterns this afternoon.

The kicker is that PJ went to sleep after about an hour. Real exciting stuff.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Jack London

"The excellence of (London's) short stories has almost been forgotten." --George Orwell

It's been snowing here since dawn. It's just about five p.m. While Carol built a fire (no pun intended given tonight's topic), I did a supermarket and library run where I had a lucky find.

In my Chicago days I paid $100 for a hardcover copy of The House of Pride And Other South Sea Tales by Jack London. What made the book pricey was the fact that London had inscribed it aboard a ship to a woman he was gently but obviously hitting on.

The new Modern Library trade pb of London's South Sea Tales has no flirtatious inscription but it's sure got twenty-some excellent short stories.

Of the three I've read so far, my favorite is "The House of Pride" which is not unlike Maugham's "Rain" in that both deal with pious men who are the progeny of missionaries and who must fight their demons.

The contrast tells you a lot about the differences of the two writers. While "Rain" certainly gives you a great sense of the South Seas, the story focuses intently on the drama. In "The House of Pride" London gives you a slightly less dramatic through line but a lot more sociology about the Hawaiian island where this takes place. Maugham's masterpiece is the more emotionally violent tale but "Pride" is in ways more interesting.

London long ago fell out of literary favor with educators. I remember W.H. Auden's wan remark about Poe being taught in America as nothing more than a "respectable rival to the pulps." Except for "To Light a Fire," London isn't taught at all. As this edition contains a Reading Group Guide, maybe teachers will give him another well-deserved chance.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sue Grafton

Without intending to, I believe I've read most of Sue Grafton's short stories in the past few days. I got hooked. Then I started going through every anthology in the house. Way past time for a Grafton collection.

At the moment, her new novel is riding high on all the lists and the reviewers are fawning. Understandably. I've seen Grafton's style and substance anaylized from many different perspectives but I've never seen anybody state the obvious. She's just a damned good, which is to say first-rate, storyteller.

She's much more obersavant than many writers lauded for their seriousness. And she's much more plain fun to read than a whole Greyhound bus full of cliff-hanger specialists like James Patterson.

Her turf is the American middle-class. High end and low end. Her cases are never flashy nor are her investigative techniques anything fancy. She gives us perfectly composed snapshots of our time. She has a fondness for everyday folks that makes you like her and she never lets her villains get all Lectered up. She sees them for what most villains are--mean, greedy, selfish, often self-pitying jerks who put themselves in situations for which violence seems to be the only solution. Not Evil; but evil in the Hannah Arendt sense of the banality of evil.

There are few writers I'd nominate for lasting beyond their time. But I think Sue Grafton will be read well into the upper reaches of this century and maybe even longer. She's just too damned good to forget.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Them bad old days

The local community college channel sometimes runs series from the early years of TV. You know instantly that these were non-network productions. Everything from the sets to to the clothes were, to understate, cheap.

I caught one the other night (I missed the beginning but think it was The Lone Wolf with Louis Hayward) that made even Ramar of The Jungle and Superman look good.

Most of the Wolf was filmed on set. Fast, cheap. But they did go outside. And when they did it was astonishing--even when the actors were obviously talking to each other, Hayward delivered all the info voice over. No live outdoor sound to be dubbed later. Save the $.

Ramar of The Jungle has three sets basically. Jon Hall, supposedly once a hunk, was somehow boyish even in his Fifties. Sort of like Roy Rogers. As much as I liked Roy, I always thought of him as the slightly embarrassing older brother whose dying words would be "Gee Whiz." As a jungle show, Ramar committed all the usual racial sins but kind of even things out because the whites were just as stupid as the blacks were supposed to be (M'gowa, my ass!). And needless to say about half the running time was stock footage of snakes, tigers, lions.

I'm waiting for Highway Patrol. Broderick Crawford went from Academy-award status to Patrol in six years. There has to be a sad career tale in that one. I suspect booze. But folks my age will never forget him leaning his considerable bulk against that bloated bathtub of a Nash police car bellowing "Ten-Four! Ten-four!" into his hand mike. Fifty years ago it was the number one syndicated show.