Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Hitch-Hiker directed by Ida Lupino (starring Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O'Brien, William Talman)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Screenplay by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. Adaptation by Robert Joseph.

This film came in a Classic Film Noir DVD set I received as a Christmas gift. It contains eight other public-domain films noir and, at under $10, is a great deal even if you don't get it for free.

The Hitch-Hiker is widely considered to be the first film noir directed by a woman, acclaimed actress Ida Lupino. The cast, however, is what made me curious to see it, and it was not coincidentally the first film I watched from the set, though it is in fact the second film on the second disc.

To someone like me, this is an all-star cast: Edmond O'Brien (star of D.O.A., also included in this set), Frank Lovejoy (star of Nightbeat, my favorite old-time radio show), and William Talman (Hamilton Burger from TV's Perry Mason, the show that made me want to be a lawyer when I was a teenager). The three leads are all in top form: O'Brien and Lovejoy embracing their everyman status and Talman at his most threatening as the — as Burger his threats were always just below the surface, but Lupino allows him the freedom to truly disturb.

That The Hitch-Hiker is supposedly based on a true story (Lupino co-wrote the screenplay) scarcely enters into the experience after this idea is pronounced on an introductory title card. The film itself is the reason to watch as it makes this simple story far more entertaining than it has any right to be. What would normally serve well as the plot to a half-hour anthology series is stretched to seventy minutes with hardly a look at the clock due to solid performances and a gripping narrative.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

True Grit by Charles Portis (unabridged audio book read by Donna Tartt)

I read a lot of books (over 100 a year), and it's rare that I actually have an emotional response. Not to the story — that has to happen or reading would be no fun at all. I mean feeling genuine affection for the characters, so that I'm actually sorry the story is over.

True Grit is the first book in a long time to elicit that response from me, and I'm not exactly sure why it did. It was certainly not the plot, which is simplicity itself: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires an unconventional deputy U.S. marshal (and former member of "Quantrill's Raiders"), Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, to hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. That’s all, but it takes the whole book for that storyline to complete itself, and what a glorious ride it is.

What makes the read memorable is how Portis draws his two lead characters. The title attribute is at first meant to apply to Cogburn, of course, but we soon discover that Mattie herself has just as much "grit" (the word "sand" is also used in this way) when she asks the local sheriff for his opinion on who the best marshal is:

He said, "...I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking.... Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive.... He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say that Quinn is about the best they have."

I said, "Where can I find this Rooster?"

Mattie is full of surprises, but we soon find that Rooster is, too. Introduced as a hard-drinking, unreliable man who is the epitome of the loner, Rooster begins to grudgingly admire the "sand" (a.k.a. "grit") of this "child" and a kind of respect (and later, affection) grows between them. It is this unexpected turn of character (along with other surprising touches that kept me on my toes) that display Portis's skill to such great effect.

Donna Tartt (an author in her own right) gives a fine reading on the audiobook of True Grit. Her Mississippi accent substitutes for the Arkansas twang of the characters well enough for most listeners, and her vocal characterizations are utterly perfect. Not only are they distinct and unmistakable, but they also express a deep knowledge of these people as individuals, allowing the listener to completely get lost in the story.

Tartt's afterword adds little except to express her entire family's love for the book (it is, I understand, an introduction to the print edition, and is probably better served in that capacity), but acts as a good celebration of a book that is likely to become one of my favorites, as well.

Like I stated at the beginning, very few books speak to my emotions the way that True Grit did, and I look forward to reexperiencing its wonders in the near future because this is one book that will require multiple readings to really understand its subtleties. This is not just a terrific Western; it's a terrific novel, and one that deserves a wider audience.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Terminal by Brian Keene (dark suspense)

After finding many serious flaws in the only two of Brian Keene's novels I'd read — The Rising and Ghoul — I was hesitant to delve any further into his work. But I kept hearing people say, "Read Terminal. It's very different from his other books," and since I had enjoyed the page-turning qualities of both those previous books, I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try, especially since an online pal offered to loan the limited edition novella to me so I could read it for free. (Only the expanded novel-length version is available commercially.)

Tommy O'Brien has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The disease has taken hold of various parts of his body ("like roots") and is therefore inoperable. With a wife and son to provide for, but recently laid-off and with increasing debts (and maybe only a month to live), Tommy makes a pivotal decision: he and his friends will rob their local bank so that his family will be taken care of after his death.

The things Keene does well are all in Terminal: believable characters, a fast-paced plot, and really tight suspense. What makes this one different is its probability: just about everything in here could really happen and probably has. In fact, up until the robbery itself, Terminal was one of the best stories I'd recently read. The camaraderie between Tommy, John, and Sherm is realistically portrayed, and Tommy's love for his family makes him easy to identify with.

It's too bad that the story required the bank robbery to take place because that's where things go wrong — not only in the story, but with the story as well. For example, the inclusion of the character of Benjy seems entirely wrongheaded and unnecessary, especially since his appearance does nothing to change the story's conclusion. It's as if Keene was not satisfied with a simple little crime thriller with a twist, but felt as if he had to add a supernatural element in keeping with the rest of his work.

And once the robbery begins, everything that was truly readable about Terminal pretty much goes out the window. (A cursory examination led me to believe that the novel-length edition actually expands on the robbery, which is truly unfortunate because what it really needs is more family scenes.)

Still, Terminal is without a doubt the best thing Brian Keene has done yet. But since he seems to have continued on with his zombies and other flesh-eaters, I am still unlikely to pick up another of his books until he realizes how to leave well enough alone and let a really good story speak for itself.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kill Clock by Allan Guthrie

I started my copy of Kill Clock the morning after I received it in the mail and read it from cover to cover in 45 minutes! This is one hot little Scotch bonnet of a novella: short, sharp, and shocking. (Though maybe not as shocking as that scene in Hard Man.)

All of author Allan Guthrie's great attributes are on full display here, with none of the drawbacks that made Hard Man a disappointment for me. (Yeah, Pearce is still pretty dumb sometimes, but he's smart in all the right ways.)

Gordon Pearce (from Hard Man and Two-Way Split) is back once again. Kill Clock takes place a few years after the events in Hard Man, with Pearce out for the evening with his three-legged dog, Hilda. It looks like another case of "teach a prick a lesson" and then head home, but his ex-girlfriend Julie shows up with her two kids and a sob story: she needs 20,000 by midnight or she's toast.

Kill Clock was written for "adult reluctant readers" (with a reading age of 8+) and the simplicity of the text is pure fire. At 150 pages of large text — with no complex conversations or descriptive digressions — keeping the story moving is the key here, and Guthrie follows through with a tight little tale that takes an old suspense plot and polishes it up bright and shiny. And yet there's room for Guthrie to insert little bits of insight on how some people change when you haven't seen them in a long time, and some people stay exactly the same. This extra spice wasn't necessary for Kill Clock to kick serious arse, but it boosts this little tale into a fine addition to any dark crime fan's library.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When One Man Dies by Dave White

I got an unexpected ARC in the mail in September: Dave White's When One Man Dies. Intrigued by the quotes on the back, I started it right away. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past page 10. This is a good example of how a distracting "surface" (an author's style) can get in the way of the appreciation of deeper matters like character and story.

I have a few pet peeves in fiction, and one of them is long-windedness. Stating the same thing, reworded, in two (or three) consecutive sentences. Or letting characters spend five paragraphs talking about what's on the jukebox if they do nothing but agree with each other — that doesn't tell me anything more about them than I already knew.

Another thing that has unfortunately become very popular is an author's thinking that real-world dialogue is the same as realistic fiction dialogue. People in real life mutter and "um" and take forever to get to the point, but this is grating in a novel. If your characters state everything I need to know in two sentences of a conversation, the rest can safely be cut. I like a little color in my characters as much as anybody, but it needs to be carefully folded into an already tight text.

Style and voice are subjective things that we react to individually. Obviously, based on the blurbs, other people really enjoyed When One Man Dies, so your experience may be different from mine. But I won't be going any further with it. And this is unfortunate, because the relationship between the young P.I. and the older gent intrigued me.

Update: Though I only got to page 10, I am reassured that page 69 is no improvement.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Winter Shadows by Will Henry (Western novellas)

"Will Henry" was one of the pseudonyms of Henry Wilson Allen (another was "Heck Allen," under which he wrote several Tex Avery cartoons). "Will Henry" was a Western writer, however — a prolific one and a five-time Spur Award winner.

Winter Shadows contains two of Henry's Western novellas, both winter-focused and both about Native Americans. "Lapwai Winter" features the Nez Percé tribe. At 50 pages, it is little more than a trifle, and did not seem to have as much story as it had "message".

"Winter Shadows," however is something else entirely. At 150 pages, it is really a short novel and takes up most of this slim volume. It is also the far better story. It tells the story of a mixed-blood Mandan Indian named Little Raven. The Mandans are starving during the long and rough winter, and Little Raven takes it upon himself to save the tribe, venturing out into the elements to get food by whatever means necessary.

But Little Raven also has a strong sense of honor, and this is where Will Henry's story really takes off. Nursed back to health after exposure by a mother wolf (now, stay with me here), Little Raven promises he will come back with food for her. This leads him on several interconnected adventures (one of which involves a medicine man with questionable intentions) — all through the blustering weather that Henry makes the reader feel strongly. Little Raven is a character I am unlikely to forget soon, and Will Henry is an author I am definitely going to seek more of.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Vengeance Rider: a Ralph Compton novel by Joseph A. West (audiobook read by Terry Evans)

Author Joseph A. West's second novel under the Ralph Compton name, Vengeance Rider, is a vast improvement over his first, Doomsday Rider. The plot takes place ten years after the previous book. Buck Fletcher is now retired and married, with a daughter who has a terminal illness. Only a trip overseas can possibly save her life, but Fletcher doesn't have the money. The only chance he has is to take his best horse to a race in another part of the country; if he wins, he get the $10,000 he needs.

But the plot's not the part of Vengeance Rider I liked. It's the characterizations. Fletcher is more mature and grounded this time around, and he meets up with Doc Holliday on his way to the horse race.

West's portrait of Holliday is fantastic and filled with the things that make this mythic figure so popular — though few authors have been able to make him quite so interesting. It's one of the few times I've seen the old dentist practically "leap off the page," so to speak. Figuratively speaking, I often felt while listening to Vengeance Rider (again read with skill by Terry Evans) that Doc Holliday was riding in the seat next to me. I commend Joseph A. West for taking this necessary step up in quality. Now, I will be much more likely to pick up other books by him.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Doomsday Rider: a Ralph Compton novel by Joseph A. West (audiobook read by Terry Evans)

When people bad-mouth Westerns, this is the type of Western they mean: the kind that seems to be just be telling an often-told story over again, with very little plot (except for the typical revenge motif) and characters who speak and think in cliches. Here's the summary from the audiobook version of Doomsday Rider:

Framed for a murder that he did not commit, Buck Fletcher is given the chance to redeem his reputation by rescuing a senator's disgraced daughter from a war-torn region of Arizona, braving a band of renegade Apaches, the senator's minions, and a determined bounty hunter along the way.

Pretty straightforward, wouldn't you say? People in this world are either good or bad, and author Joseph A. West is perfectly willing to keep things that way.

I'm usually more interested in Westerns that try to stretch the genre in one way or another, but that is not to say that Doomsday Rider is not a pleasant read. After all, readers looking for their idea of the "typical" Western will likely be pleased by West's second tale featuring Buck Fletcher (author Ralph Compton is deceased; various authors are continuing his legacy in a series of novels that retain his name on the cover).

I found it satisfying as an audiobook. Reader Terry Evans's range of voices gets increasingly more surprising as the book continues. At one point, the text calls for a "fine, high tenor" to sing a song with new lyrics to the tune of "John Brown's Body," and Evans gives it his all, showing that he is more than up to the challenge. Evans's reading, in fact, was good enough to make it easier to overlook Doomsday Rider's other flaws. But for a much better example of a well-written Western, pick up Vengeance Rider (this book's sequel), also read by Evans, or Rio Largo, another Ralph Compton novel written by David Robbins.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street by Paul S. Powers (edited by Laurie Powers)

Among all the famous writers who started in the pulp era, the name of Paul Powers is one that is not well known. This is likely because most of the stories he wrote for Wild West Weekly (and others) were published under pseudonyms and house names. Also because his one novel, Doc Dillahay (also known as Six-Gun Doctor), was not a big seller, and it is a rare author who achieves fame and fortune by writing only short works — short stories are easily forgotten, whereas novels last much longer in the memory.

Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street is Paul Powers's memoir of his years in the pulp machine, producing thousands of words a week, primarily for publisher Street & Smith's cadre of genre magazines, and most recognizably under the name "Ward Stevens." His most popular characters were Sonny Tabor and Kid Wolf, and Tabor's adventures were even adapted for a short time on radio.

Equally as interesting is the history behind the publication of Pulp Writer. Written around 1943, Powers tried to get it published but was rejected. He then placed it in a trunk where it stayed until his granddaughter Laurie Powers, who had done her thesis on Doc Dillahay, began asking family members for information about her grandfather. Amazingly enough, one relative had boxes of Powers's old papers, including this manuscript.

She tells this story in the introduction of Pulp Writer, and she also uses the other papers to piece together some facts about the remainder of her grandfather's life after the writing of the memoir. Altogether, this gives a much fuller picture of the life of a very interesting (and productive — it is estimated he wrote over ten million words in twenty years) writer whose name is little-known even among pulp-era aficionados.

And Powers is not shy about revealing how he succeeded during this era. Because of his persistence (he started out writing short, two-line jokes), and his ability to gear his stories to their markets, he states that the Depression hardly affected his income. Powers also goes into the process of getting published, working with editors, and how important it is to be flexible in a constantly changing marketplace. This is information straight from the man who used it, making Pulp Writer vital for anyone interested in being a published writer, or just interested in the process.

Powers writes his story just like you'd expect a pulp writer to: smoothly and with very little dressing. His plain, clear language makes it easy to go right along with him as he tells his tales of writing and publishing and struggling for the next paycheck while trying to make ends meet with a family depending on him. It's a really great read, and one of the best books I've read all year.

And after you read about Powers's life, make sure to pick up some of his fiction. A collection of four Sonny Tabor novellas called Desert Justice was reprinted in 2005 by Leisure Books as an affordable paperback. Others are available in hardcover and large-print formats, and they're a lot of fun: filled with action and engaging characters, especially Tabor himself. In addition, they allow the modern reader to essentially go back in time, if not to the real Wild West, at least to the period when they brought a lot of joy to readers looking for an escape during a rough period.
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