Monday, March 31, 2008

Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime)

I'm really glad that Hard Case Crime has chosen to reprint this early Donald Westlake novel, not only because Somebody Owes Me Money is a really good book, but also for a more personal reason. I've been reading his series books for so long — whether under his own name, or the Richard Stark pseudonym — that I had really forgotten how good Westlake could be at standalone comic crime novels.

The most eloquent cab driver in New York City, Chet Conway works nights so he can spend his days at the track (and he works days where there are no races). When he gets a tip on a horse instead of the usual spendable gratuity, Chet decides that a man who can calculate in his head the return on a $3.54 bet at 22-to-1 odds must know what he's talking about.

But when Chet goes to pick up his winnings ("Almost a thousand dollars! I was rich!"), he finds his bookie Tommy McKay "spread out on the floor, sunny side up. With the yolk broken." And suddenly people start thinking he did it. Tommy's wife Louise, the police, the syndicate, etc. But nobody seems to know where he can go now to collect his $930.00 payoff.

When Tommy's sister Abbie climbs into his cab, things take a definite turn for the worse. Chet gets shot in the head and has to recuperate at Tommy's place, where eventually every member of organized crime in the city treads through, wanting to know why Chet killed Tommy. Chet has to clear his name by figuring out the real killer.

Somebody Owes Me Money is one of the few actual mysteries put out by Hard Case Crime. Off the top of my head I can only think of three, but they all involve licensed private investigators, as opposed to this amateur. After all, Chet may be eloquent, but, like all good crime protagonists, he's also a little dim. (Truly smart people manage to avoid these situations.)

God Save the Mark is more wildly clever (it's Westlake's masterpiece, in my opinion), and any given Dortmunder book has more belly laughs, but Somebody Owes Me Money is still vastly entertaining (with an ending that is 180° from the typical whodunit) and yet another reason why every Donald E. Westlake book, even the lesser-known ones, should stay continuously in print.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Thin Man directed by W.S. Van Dyke (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Thin Man (1934). Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich from the novel The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.

This first in the series — the only one actually adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel — set the stage for the five sequels that followed. In The Thin Man we are quickly introduced to Nick and Nora Charles and their dog Asta (who became a star in his own right and is still a favorite of crossword puzzle creators) in a scene that typifies their relationship: the opening club scene.

From there on, William Powell and Myrna Loy are the best things on the screen. Their banter floats The Thin Man from being a normal sleuth picture to another level. I really believed that these two are a married couple. Or, rather, I realized that this was my idea of the perfect married couple.

The wordplay in The Thin Man gives a welcome break from the detection. For example, there is a particularly tense shootout in their apartment. The next morning they are reading about it in the papers:

Nick: "I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune."
Nora: "I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids."
Nick: "It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."

That is not to say that the crime doesn't matter. In fact, The Thin Man is the only one in the series that treats the murder inspection equally with the banter between the two main characters. It is therefore much darker than its successors. But a balance is struck by director W.S. Van Dyke between light and heavy that is perfect, whereas in the sequels the focus was placed more on Nick and Nora and barely gave lip service to the crimes.

The sequels are all fun, though, and I recommend the entire series without reservation. Although the quality does decline steadily throughout, Powell and Loy make these characters so enjoyable that you hardly notice.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director [W.S. Van Dyke], Best Actor [Powell], and Best Screenplay Adaptation [Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett]), but won none, losing all those awards to It Happened One Night.

(Incidentally, contrary to what the titles of the sequels would suggest, Nick Charles is not the Thin Man. It was how the character Clyde Wynant in this film was described in a police bulletin.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ravenous by Ray Garton (werewolf horror)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Down in the Cellar. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

In 1987, author Ray Garton’s novel Live Girls revitalized the vampire novel with its groundbreaking mix of sex and violence, in the process practically creating the “erotic horror” subgenre on its own. Over twenty years later, Garton’s latest is poised to do the same for werewolves, another classic horror mainstay in dire need of a makeover.

Big Rock, CA — His search for The Pine County Rapist has been filling his time, but Sheriff Farrell Hurley’s problems are about to get much worse. His receptionist, Emily Crane, killed the shadowy figure (with silver eyes!) that raped her, but the corpse was subsequently seen escaping from the morgue, running naked through the hospital waiting area to the outside, where it attacked and killed a deputy who tried to catch it.

After the attacks in the opening pages, Garton holds off for almost one hundred pages before the next batch. In the interim, he develops his characters so that we get to know them as people before it’s their turn to be transformed into creatures with undeniable cravings for raw meat and rutting.

In Ravenous, lycanthropy is a virus that is transmitted sexually when an extant werewolf couples with an uninfected person. Garton plays with the suspense factor since a person does not have to know they’re infected to pass on the disease. That the infection makes the recipient randier than usual only means that it spreads more quickly in this small town.

(Though best known for his erotic horror, Garton’s approach is not exploitive. Only the consensual sex scenes in Ravenous are written to titillate; the various rape scenes are appropriately horrifying. This sets him apart from some horror writers who don’t seem to know the difference.)

And around the halfway point, all bets are off. Garton plays for keeps. There are no favored characters. Everybody is a possible target for sex or supper, even if they were only introduced pages before. But in a Ray Garton novel, the walk-ons get a full characterization, too. Garton doesn’t shirk in his writing, which makes him one of the top horror writers working today.

(Update: a sequel, Bestial, is forthcoming in April 2009.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hard Case Crime Quote of the Day (from Zero Cool by John Lange)

"I want to know what he told you."

"He told me nothing."

"I don't believe that."

"It's the truth."

"Perhaps. There are way of telling. As you may know, the castle is equipped with an exemplary dungeon. All the finest equipment from the fifteenth century. It was the time of the Inquisition, and the inventiveness was remarkable."

— from Zero Cool by John Lange (reprinted by Hard Case Crime)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lake Mountain by Steve Gerlach (horror)

If you told me that author Steve Gerlach was channeling the spirit of the late Richard Laymon, I would believe you based on the evidence presented in Lake Mountain. Gerlach writes so much like Laymon that it is a mystery why someone would pay the extra money for this Gerlach limited edition when, for eight dollars in paperback, they could get the Laymon novel that this book was most reminiscent of: After Midnight.

Lake Mountain is narrated by Amber Hamilton, who lets us know right away that she is not even as pretty as her name, let alone as pretty as her roommate, soulmate, and best friend Raven (who has been lovingly portrayed on the book's cover by Vince Natale). Amber obviously has a problem with low self-esteem, a fact that becomes more and more annoying as the story progresses.

Ah, yes ... the story. Raven is a stripper whose landlord Duke visits her during her shift one night and gets out of hand. After getting the brush-off, Duke follows Raven back to her trailer, lets himself in with his key, and tries to rape her, getting killed for his trouble. Now, Raven and Amber have to get rid of Duke's corpse. Only they don't get around to actually touching it for another hundred pages!

Despite the ridiculous actions of the characters (and my better judgment), I was riveted to Lake Mountain like something unhealthy, not coincidentally the same compulsion I find when reading Laymon's work. Just like his predecessor, Gerlach painstakingly describes every moment of each event — part of the reason the story stretches to 500 pages — but somehow it is not bloated. It kept me reading all the way to the end and even offered up the first truly shocking and appalling scene I've read in years. (Hint: it involves lovingly described necrophilia.) Gerlach may be a copycat, but at least he's a damned good one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice (Moonlighting, Season 2, Episode 4)

"The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" (1985), episode 4 from season 2 of the television series Moonlighting. Teleplay by Debra Frank and Carl Sautter.

Casual Moonlighting fans will likely remember "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" as "the one in black and white." Operating as investigators on a dubious "unfaithful spouse" case, private investigators Maddie Hayes and David Addison (of the Blue Moon detective agency) are told about the notorious Flamingo Cove Murder, which involved a clarinetist, his songbird wife, and the new cornet player in their swing orchestra. The clarinetist was murdered, and the singer and cornetist (?) always swore that the other did the killing, right down to their dual executions.

Hayes and Addison instantly form opposing opinions as to who is "obviously" guilty, leading to an argument, after which each goes home and dreams his/her side of the story. It's fairly weak for a wraparound, but the dreams make it worth it.

Done in a film noir style, "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" references films of the era (especially The Postman Always Rings Twice) in addition to being solidly crafted, designed, shot, acted, written, and directed. (That year saw the series nominated for sixteen Emmys, eight of them for this episode.)

Each's dream perfectly suits their personalities. Maddie's is more reminiscent of the expected style: straightforward, romantic, and melodramatic (with a nicely cathartic first kiss for Shepherd and Willis), while David's involves more ironic voice-over, wisecracks, and parodic fourth-wall breaking. (For those reasons, I prefer David's, although a tad more seriousness would have made it perfect.)

And how they did this, I don't know, but Orson Welles made his final filmed appearance by introducing this "Very Special Moonlighting." ("Television," he says with the ever-present glint in his eye, "is about to take a huge step ... backwards.") "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" is my second favorite of the series; only the second-season finale "Camille," guest starring Judd Nelson and Whoopi Goldberg, tops it for pure entertainment value.

Hard Case Crime Quote of the Day (from Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake)

"The girl I went with last year ... kept wanting me to put money in the stock market.... I’d tell her I’d rather play the races than the market because I knew the races and I didn’t know the market, and she’d get mad and start claiming that horse-racing and the stock market weren’t the same thing, and I’d say of course they were and give her analogies, and she’d get madder and insist the analogies were false, and so it went until finally we gave the whole thing up and she went her way and I went mine."

— from Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (reprinted by Hard Case Crime)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Midnight Haul by Max Allan Collins (environmental mystery)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Though I usually enjoy something about every Max Allan Collins novel I read, Midnight Haul was just a disappointment all around. The title led me to believe that it was a nighttime bank heist novel when what actually lay between the covers was a sociological, environmental activist novel about the dumping of toxic waste.

This was probably groundbreaking news when Midnight Haul was published in 1986 (the same year as Collins's much better novel, The Million-Dollar Wound), but it doesn't have enough else going for it to be anything other than a passable time filler.

When Crane's fiancée Mary Beth commits suicide, a door opens involving the local Kemco factory and four other suicides in the same town that year (we are told repeatedly that this is ten times the national average) and how they were all Kemco employees. Soon, Crane meets Boone, whose husband works at the plant and who is writing a book on the environmental dangers being perpetrated by Kemco.

Conspiracy theories abound in Midnight Haul, where a thin plot is stretched to novel length. Collins does manage to create some believable characters, but his "fact-based" original storyline does not compare to the more realistic historical fiction he has done better elsewhere.

(Perhaps if Nathan Heller had investigated Love Canal...)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Movie Sequels That Are Better Than the Originals

The main problem most film sequels have is their attempt to recapture the success of the original by replicating its cast, story, etc. The best sequels avoid that trap by going off in their own directions, or by expanding on what made the original so popular. Here is a list of what I think are the best improve on their predecessors:
  1. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 — Now don't get me wrong: I loved The Blair Witch Project. But unfortunately most of its success, in addition to a very effective fear approach, was due to the "this really happened" marketing gimmick. Instead of trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, director Joe Berlinger and his co-screenwriter Dick Beebe created an original story of the effects the first movie had on a group of young filmgoers.

  2. Superman II — The original Superman is a classic, but it is primarily devoted to what comics aficionados call "the origin story": where Superman comes from, the people in his life, his super powers, etc. Where Superman II takes off (pun intended) is by expanding on three fringe characters seen only in the beginning of the first movie. Giving Superman three villains (four if you count Gene Hackman's return as Lex Luthor, though he is mostly relegated to the sidelines) to fight ratchets up the suspense level. And allowing for more humor (related to the three aliens' unfamiliarity with Earth customs) simply makes for a more entertaining film.
(More to come, including Aliens, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Toy Story 2.)

By the way, I believe I am the only person I know who does not believe that The Godfather II is better than The Godfather. The continuation of the Michael Corleone story is much welcomed, but the Young Vito clips are just boring and unnecessary.

Irma La Douce directed by Billy Wilder (starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine)

Irma La Douce (1963). Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond from the book and lyrics of the musical Irma La Douce by Alexandre Breffort.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of The Apartment, director Billy Wilder reassembled the stars of that film, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, in an adaptation of a popular musical — and promptly removed the music. The result was Irma La Douce, a film that has been mostly forgotten my modern movie lovers even though it was a huge box-office success in 1963 (earning more than The Great Escape and The Birds combined!).

Part of the reason for the obscurity of Irma La Douce may be its highly contrived and mostly unbelievable plot. Jack Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, a Parisian policeman who falls in love with streetwalker Irma La Douce ("Irma the sweet") after arresting her (and losing his job in the process). Taken by him as well, Irma (MacLaine) takes Nestor on as her live-in "fellow" (read: pimp).

But Nestor is an insecure, jealous man, and he instantly schemes to replace her customers with a single one of his own — one rich enough that she won't have to see any others. So he dresses up as "Lord X" a British millionaire and spends his nights working several jobs to produce the cash for the role. Then Irma's ex-fellow almost sees Nestor changing from his costume, but thinks he's witnessed a murder....

The real appeal of Irma La Douce is in how Lemmon and MacLaine genuinely seem to like each other. One could easily imagine a relationship blossoming between them, and that is the key to believing in these characters.

Wilder himself has called the film a "failure" (see Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe), mostly due to the fact that his actors, though playing native Parisians, speak with their own accents. But their fans will not care because, though it does not come close to the quality of its predecessor, Irma La Douce is one of Wilder's most purely engaging films, even during the slow spots. Jack Lemmon has a lot of fun with his dual role, and Shirley MacLaine has never been sexier!

(Keep an eye out for a walk-on by the young James Caan, in his film debut as a soldier.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dead Earth: the Green Dawn by Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks were fairly new to the horror scene when they wrote Dead Earth: the Green Dawn, their first published novella. In between the time they wrote it and when it was accepted for publication, however, Justice began the Pod of Horror podcast and brought Wilbanks on as his co-host. The show took off among horror fans, and the pair quickly made names for themselves. Their chemistry on the show was so natural and easy-going that it's no surprise to find that their writing styles mesh well.

The morning sky is green over Serenity, New Mexico, and Deputy Jubal Slate knows that's just wrong. Locals have heard rumblings about a secret government project that has created a gruesome effect: a "dead army" of local residents who get mysteriously ill and soon die ... but get right back up again, with a hunger for human flesh.

Slate (along with his fiancée Fiona, the town pharmacist) appears to be the only hope for Serenity, which is quickly turning into gray-skinned, red-and-yellow-eyed zombies. Armed with a Mossberg and a sharp sense of irony (Slate has seen this kind of thing happen in too many movies), he is more than up to the challenge — even if he knows he might not survive to see another verdant sunrise.

Justice and Wilbanks take this time-tested premise and run with it, offering some twists and surprising emotional depth along the way. In fact, it's in the characters and other details that Dead Earth: the Green Dawn truly shines. The relationships between the characters feel real, and we are given a chance to care about people before they start dying off. Slate, a small-town mama's boy whose boss is also his father figure of choice, is one of the more complex personages I've run across lately. The fact that he appreciates Beethoven makes him just that much easier to admire.

With the exception of one short scene that lacks the confidence of the rest of the book, the duo’s writing is smooth and assured, not at all like the product of most relative beginners. The authors have created a paean to the old pulp-style adventures, only with dead instead of living foes. I would advise readers who wish to retain any suspense regarding the survival of the main character to skip the introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck — though he does seem to know his way around the post-apocalyptic subgenre. Leave his commentary for after, and enjoy the straightforward, cinematic prose style that Justice and Wilbanks offer up in Dead Earth: the Green Dawn. It's good old-fashioned storytelling, the loss of which is often lamented by today’s readers.

Monday, March 10, 2008

HarperCollins Treasury of Picture Book Classics: A Child's First Collection

This is the kind of book that should sell itself -- a collection of classic children's stories. At a time when going to the children's section of any bookstore can be overwhelming, it's a relief to find something like the Harper Collins Treasury of Picture Book Classics. It takes away all the guesswork by being filled with over a dozen stories that are already tried and true, stories that are proven entertainment to a wide variety of children. And they're all in one book (though it's a heavy sucker, to say the least). The contents are as follows:In addition to these timeless stories, the Harper Collins Treasury of Picture Book Classics contains short author and illustrator biographies (such as what other books they've done) and useful ideas for sharing the story further with children (like concepts to discuss). And all proceeds from the purchase go to First Book, which donates books to needy families. It's a win-win situation, and not only for you and your children, but for others as well.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz (audio book read by Cassandra Campbell, Robertson Dean, and Arthur Morey)

Sunday, July 24, 1994. 8:45 PM — Waiting for his family to come out of the gas station where they stopped to let his little sister Emma go to the bathroom, ten-year-old Josh Learner stood by the side of Reservation Road. Then a car came around the curve and knocked Josh thirty feet into the nearby shrubbery.

Local attorney Dwight Arno was in a hurry. The Red Sox game he had taken his (also ten-year-old) son Sam to went into extra innings. As Sam's noncustodial parent, he was expected to return Sam home sharply at seven. It was already almost nine. He didn't see Josh until it was too late.

But he didn't stop. The impact made Sam scream. Worried that it had somehow redone some of the damage caused by Dwight's own fist (it was an accident but was also totally preventable) years ago, Dwight continued on, wanting to get Sam home even faster now.

Ethan Learner, Josh's father, saw it all happen as he exited the gas station on his way back to the car. But it was dark, so he didn't see the driver, the color of the car, or the license plate. When the policeman at the scene tells him later that it is very possible the driver will never be caught, Ethan decides to pursue his own justice.

For me to go any further with this description would be to give away the closest thing Reservation Road has to a plot twist. It is purely literary fiction, after all, simply disguised as a crime thriller. In fact, after the crime is committed in the first few pages, there is little in the way of "action." What author John Burnham Schwartz does instead is put the reader in the minds of Dwight, Ethan, and Ethan's wife Grace as they go through the aftermath of the tragedy.

I got interested in Reservation Road from seeing the trailer for the recent film adaptation. The premise was intriguing, but I didn't expect a movie to be able to tackle the subject matter with enough depth, so I sought out the book.

It was a stroke of brilliance to have the audiobook of Reservation Road read by three different people. This helps the listener delve even deeper into the individual psyches of the characters. And "individual" is the right word. There is never any chance that the reader is going to get characters confused because Schwartz (or is that Burnham Schwartz?) has created three distinctly different personalities, and he is not clear as to which characters we are supposed to like and which ones deserve our derision.

I used to read a lot of literary fiction, but I stopped because of the popular interest in character over story. Reservation Road is an example of how both can be done well together — a compelling story with people that really exist, and a level of suspense that is unmatched, primarily because these are people we've come to know intimately.

These are not characters we've seen before in other books. There are books you read, and there are books you live. Reservation Road is one of the latter. It's a book that I believe will stay with me always.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Classic Wodehousean Comic Novel Quote of the Day (from Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome)

We are very fond of pineapple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.

Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.

Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.

Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

After that I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry—but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.

There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead.

— from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (audiobook read by Martin Jarvis)
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