Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”

You don’t get very far as a reader of hard-boiled literature without hearing how “great” Chandler’s “Red Wind” is. The first paragraph gets all the attention and is, I think, the highlight of the story. It reads:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Chandler maintains the wind motif throughout the story. The wind is always banging against window, kicking up dust in the streets. You get the sense that such a condition is really a detriment to the city and its inhabitants. Throughout the mayhem Philip Marlowe (or whoever the original detective was, my version has Marlowe’s name in it) solves a murder and tries to track down some missing pearls.

My copy of “Red Wind” comes from the “Trouble is My Business” collection; I also have it in the Everyman’s Library edition which contains every short story Chandler wrote (an excellent volume; if you don’t have it, you should, it’s a great way to see how Chandler developed as a writer). Overall, I think Chandler wrote better short stories than “Red Wind”; after the hook of the first paragraph, you'll find the rest of the story a by-the-numbers caper. Chandler’s characterizations are terrific (the cop, Copernik, for example, always combing his unruly hair and behaving like a corrupt punk), but Chandler always excelled in making you see his supporting characters, probably better than we can see Marlowe.

You have to give a guy some slack while he’s learning and finding his voice, and by “Red Wind” Chandler didn’t totally have it. Jump over to the first Marlowe novel, and you can see how much he learned and improved over time. Read through the short stories Chandler used to partially construct that first novel, and you can see even more improvement, but for a good murder mystery and a good pulp story and a great slice of life in Southern California when those hot winds are blowing, “Red Wind” is as good a read as you can find.

I have also listened to the radio versions of "Red Wind", both with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr playing Marlowe, and it doesn't translate very well. The Heflin version is quite boring. Gerald Mohr excelled as Philip Marlowe and his appearance in the rest of the Marlowe radio series is a treat. He sounds like Marlowe should sound, but he’s the young Marlowe, and not the man we later meet in The Long Good-bye. But don't get me started on The Long Good-bye. We'll be here all night.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mickey Spillane Favorites

The Blackstone Audio Mike Hammer plays showed up in the stocking Friday, and listening to the stories put me on a Mickey Kick like I haven’t been on in several years. Hammer was the first hard-boiled P.I. I read about back in the day, so when I started writing my own private eye stories, of course the hero vaguely resembled Hammer. I read anything I could get my hands on that had Spillane’s name on the cover—still do—but in the last few years I’ve moved on to other authors and Mickey has fallen by the wayside; with the posthumous Spillane material Max Allan Collins is working on, that won’t be the case for long.

The audio plays made me think of the two last Hammer books Spillane wrote before he died, 1989’s “The Killing Man” and 1996’s “Black Alley”. “The Killing Man” is my favorite of the two, so that’s what I’ll start with. That’s also, incidentally, the order in which they were published, in case you didn’t realize.

When we meet Hammer in “The Killing Man” not much has changed since the novel that preceded it ten years earlier, “Survival…Zero” (one of the best Hammer books, by the way—what an ending!). He’s on his way to the office, a rare Saturday appointment, and when he gets there he finds his secretary Velda on the floor, wounded from a blow to the head and near death, and a dead man in his office chair with a note staked on his chest that reads YOU DIE FOR KILLING ME.

Hammer proceeds to beat the tar out of bad guys; verbally spar with politicians, federal men, and a feisty district attorney; and dishes out some .45-caliber punishment as he tracks down the man who nearly killed Velda.

I think the first chapter should be memorized by anybody who writes and wants a lesson on how to create tension. That first chapter is nothing but tension and Spillane carries the mood through the rest of the book. The first time I read it, I thought, “Wow, what a great book!” After reading it the third time, flaws started popping out. Hammer doesn’t really do much other than talk to sources who provide information and argues with members of law enforcement who think they know more about crime busting than he does. He really doesn't do any real detective work. The solution comes out of thin air and I don’t think is properly set-up, but it’s a decent ending as endings go. We learn that the killer wants to murder Hammer for something Hammer did to the killer’s family, and it’s the last bit of righteous firepower Hammer dishes out since when we see him again in “Black Alley” he barely does any shooting. “Black Alley” is not my favorite book; I hated it so much, I read it three times. It’s a good book but it’s not a real Mike Hammer book. (And that concludes my comments on “Black Alley”.)

Mickey Spillane will always be a favorite, and forever an inspiration, but I think he was at his best with his original seven books. The stuff he wrote post-The Deep doesn't have the same impact; one or two are good, the rest are formulaic. My absolute favorite of the latter-day efforts is The Delta Factor, it’s just a rip-roaring adventure, and I’ll write about that soon, and meanwhile hope that one day we see the rumored sequel to Morgan the Raider’s first adventure (any word on that, Max?). Then again, The Delta Factor has some competition, and that book would be The Erection Set. And anybody who admits that they enjoy The Erection Set is a Spillane fan indeed.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Whirlwind Stops + Erle Stanley Gardner

Well, friends, I am happy to report that my new spy novel, now entitled The Eagle Intercept, is complete at 70,000 words. For those of you just joining us, this manuscript started out as my NaNoWriMo project and almost didn't get finished (I had a hard time with the first draft) and when it was finished, was far too short (about 40,000 words). The first read-through and subsequent revision netted a ton of material I hadn't realized was there to tap, and as spy thrillers go I think it's pretty good. I do not like being out of my preferred crime fiction arena, and as long as I don't get type-cast as the next Vince Flynn I suppose we'll be okay. After all, how many different subjects has Dan Simmons written about? Or, as Donald Westlake might have said, that's why we have pen names.

I wanted at least three chapters ready to mail out by January and I have more than met that goal; after the next read-through this coming week, the whole thing will be ready. Now I just need a bloody synopsis. Hate those things.

We will now resume regularly scheduled blogging since this site was never supposed to be about my own scribbling, but since nobody seemed to get upset by the detour, detoured I did. Thank you for your indulgence.

I've written before that I'm a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, but not all of his books turn me on. I'm not crazy about Perry Mason. I like the character, but by the time he was doing Mason, Gardner seemed to be phoning it in and I've never seen as much effort put into the Mason books as there was in the Ed Jenkins series, and that's just one example, and an appropriate one since this note is about Jenkins.

I like the Phantom Crook. He's totally on his own. No gal Fridays, no side-kicks (except for his dog, maybe), and everybody from other crooks to the cops is somehow out to get him. But he always comes through in the end, and you have to dig that. The stories are fast an exciting and really carry you along. I have one collection of Jenkins material, Dead Men's Letters and Other Stories, and had the second collection, The Blonde in Lower Six, but the second book was stolen when some dastard broke into my shed at one of those pay-to-store-your-crap places. Oh, well. That's what ABE is for.

Back when Gardner was doing Jenkins stories for the pulps, he was often critizised for having his gun battles end as soon as the very last round was fired from the hero's gun. Gardner commented that when a writer only gets paid a penny a word, he's a fool to leave four-cents worth of ammunition in the hero's gun. I cannot disagree with that statement, hacked as much as it is because I don't have the actual quote handy. But gunfighting is not the only place where Gardner stretched out his word count.

Has anybody ever noticed, not only in Gardner stories but in those of Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly, that the Big Bad Guy or Other Character of Note in their stories (often lawyers) were often referred to by their first, middle, and last name? I thought it was just a joke between then, since, allegedly, they all knew each other, but now I see it as a conspiracy of sorts to get even more money out of various editors, and one wonders why said editors allowed the conspiracy to exist. Somebody call Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone. This one's bigger than JFK and would probably be told just as truthfully.

Anyway, Gardner never fails to entertain with the old pulp stories. And Mason is entertaining, too, but Gardner's writing is far too anorexic for me to be a real Mason fan. That's why I'm glad that there is so much pre-Mason material available, not just Ed Jenkins but also Ken Corning (of whom more later will be written) and many, many others....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Road to Paradise by Max Allan Collins

Over the last ten years or so, work, life in general, and work has required me to move around a lot, and sometimes, as you can imagine, things get lost in the shuffle. One of those things was a book I bought in 2005 and only recently discovered that I had never read. That book was the third in the "Road" series by Max Allan Collins, one of the prose sequels to the "Road to Perdition" saga that began with the famous graphic novel of the same name.

So I set aside other reading material and dug into "Road to Paradise", and five days later I finished. This (for now) concluding episode in the "Road" saga is a heck of a read and packs the usual Collins punch, though some might say it's the most predictable book he has produced. There are only one or two ways to get the action going in a story like this, and the ending is already set in stone for those who read the graphic novel, so predictability can be forgiven because the result is very, very satisfying.

There is one gripe I have, however. This is probably the first book Collins has written that does not contain a graphic sex scene. What the heck else does anybody read Collins for, I ask? Certainly it's not the thrilling stories and punchy plot twists. There is an off-stage sexual encounter between the hero's high school-aged daughter and her boyfriend, and methinks that was indeed best left off-stage, but I will raise holy hell if the upcoming Nate Heller book and maybe even the forthcoming Mike Hammer novels do not include two or three extra graphic sex scenes to make up for the lack of same in the final "Road" book.

I kid, of course.

What I like the most about "Paradise" is that the story takes place not only within my lifetime but in places I have actually been. It's always neat to read stories like that (which is why I like Hammet's Continental Op tales so much; San Francisco was once a stomping ground of mine), and Collins provides the added benefit of historical background, some of which I had not known.

As always, Max Allan Collins provides an action-packed thrill ride that makes you eager for his next effort.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Coming Up for Air....

I haven't posted much the last few days because I've been frantically scribbling the final pages of the new manuscript, typing them, and getting the first draft out of the computer. Today I edited and did some revision on the first 50 pages, and the excitement I'm feeling over these pages is coming out my ears.

I don't care for my title, but I can fix that later. I'm trying to a Ludlum-style "The [noun] [proper noun]" style, but it's tough. Right now I have "The Lassen Agenda" which refers to the villain's plan. I do not want a generic title that makes the book sound like the usual bookstore cannon fodder. Anyway that's for the future. Right now it's fun to play in the world I just created and see how this comes together. I want 50 pages in shape to start submitting in January.

I've been reading some good books lately so I plan to post on those soon. One of the books has been sitting on my shelf, unread, since 2005, and when I realized that I started reading right away and it's been a thrill, the last of the "Road" books by Max Allan Collins. Details to follow, but as usual Collins has done quite well.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, or: Here Comes Another Thompson Revival

I just learned that in 2010 we will see a new film adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me". I have several reactions. One, an anticipation to see the final product; two, a fear that the final product will be sludge; three, boy, I sure love that book.

I first read "Killer" back in 1998 when I had decided to abandon spy fiction (reading and writing, only to return to writing it recently) and take a whirl-wind tour through hard-boiled literature. What a great place to start! "Killer" is a love-it-or-hate-it novel but you can't argue with how authentic Thompson wrote the interior character of Lou Ford, giving us the ability to watch this man break down in a way that is almost like watching a house fall apart from neglect. And the twist at the end always makes me smile. Lou thinks he's pulling a fast one on everybody but not so fast. His "prayer" at the end, as I think Ed Gorman once mentioned, is moving and tragic at the same time, and speaks for a lot of us who feel like we started life with our own crooked cue (or were handed the crooked cue later in life).

I know nothing about the movie other than that Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba star. I'm not sure Casey Affleck is the best choice, but I didn't think Daniel Craig would make a good James Bond, either; now, I think Craig is a terrific Bond. Thompson described Lou Ford in such a specific way, though, that it's hard to see anybody step into that mental picture. I hear Stacey Keach played the role once, and if anybody could do it, he sure could, but having not scene the Keach film I cannot comment further.

Thompson is one of my favorites but I never did get around to reading all of the books when Black Lizard/Vintage Crime reprinted them twenty years ago. I have a few on the shelf along with "Killer", though. As for my second favorite Thompson, it's really a tie between "The Grifters" and "A Hell of a Woman" and "The Nothing Man" and I'll be hanged if I can decide which one belongs in the second slot. Oddly enough, I don't care much for "The Getaway" probably because the movie, I think, ruined the book; Thompson's writing wasn't terribly coherent, at least when I read it the first time; and his choice for an ending always leaves me scratching my head. If you have a comment on that ending, and I'm sure you do because how could you not, I'd appreciate your opinion. I think now that it's been a few years I can read the book again and not see Steve McQueen as Doc (forget that other version), but we'll see. Once my TBR stack gets lower, maybe I'll go back to it.

In the meantime I wish the participants in the new "Killer" movie the best and hope it brings Thompson more attention and puts his books back in stores so I can snatch 'em up. He's a writer who should be rediscovered every few years.

If you're interested in reading more about the new movie, here's the link on the IMDB.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Wisdom of Ian Fleming, or: The Best Writing Advice EVER

As I said in the previous post, I have finished the first draft of my spy novel, the working title of which is "The Lassen Agenda". I'm trying for a Ludlum-style title, but, frankly, I think my title bites and sucks rocks, but nothing else has come to mind other than a two- or three-word generic title like "Dead On Target" or "High Risk" which also don't do anything for me. But the title is not my concern right now.

With the first draft done, my mind is free to generate more material to flesh out the manuscript. I'm pleased with what's come to mind so far and a practice outline has proven that the new stuff works well with what's already in place, but the bad side to being done with a first draft is also coming into play, where I doubt every single word on the page. At times like this, I reach for the strongest bottle of rum I can find.... kidding! Actually, I pick up "Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond" by Andrew Lycett. On page 216 (of the hardcover version) there is a passage that I think all writers, at whatever stage of their career, should memorize and recall often, and I am grateful to Lycett for including it in the book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint...Never mind about the brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don't be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do. Try and remember the weather and smells and sensations and pile in every kind of contemporary detail. Don't let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don't allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don't worry about what you put in, it can always be cut out on re-reading....

This advice is righteous. With that in mind, to quote Harry Whittington again, I persist.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo Done / James Reasoner

So NaNoWriMo ends at midnight. Luckily I finished my novel over the Thanksgiving weekend. However, calculations show I'm ten thousand words short of the 50k word goal; I'm also far short of the 80,000 words I imagined this ms. to be. But do not let your heart be troubled, I have ideas for extending and expanding the ms. and fleshing out the character relationships. More exposition may come in handy, too. The book may weigh in only at 65-70,000 words but I'll take that.

Anyway it was a fun exercise and got me back in the habit of writing every day. Now I'll move through December with revisions and second drafts and have three chapters ready to send out once 2010 begins. Once this is done I want to start on the outline of a novel that I've put off because it's terribly autobiographical, and something like that is always hard to write, yet has the potential, I think, of being a terrific crime story when all the pieces are put together.

Tonight I read a great short story by James Reasoner called "Graveyard Shift". It featured a character who works a convenience store at odd hours who comes up against a potential hold up man and the twist at the end will make your jaw drop. Very short, to-the-point, no wasted space. I enjoyed it a lot. Nice work, James.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update #3

There's no way I'll be done with my NaNo manuscript before the end of the month, but I was never going to finish on time, anyway. The book is too long for 50,000 words; right now, it's looking more like 80,000 by the time I'll be done (30,000 words so far), and I want to be done by Christmas so I can have some clean chapters ready to send around after the first of 2010.

Today I wrote "the spy is captured" scene and it was hard not to fall back on the usual hokum in scenes like this, but I managed to keep it tongue-in-cheek with the villain doing his version of the "if that's you real name" joke from Dr. Strangelove. There's a lot of humor creeping into this otherwise two-fisted spy story. It's really become a fun romp instead of grim and dark, but it's not a change I'm totally comfortable with. The characters seems to like it, though. Give them their head, and they surprise you.

I'll have tomorrow to work some more, and then will have no production over the four-day weekend as I'll be suffering the holiday--I mean, celebrating--with my family.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Remember to be thankful for something, anything. I don't like how the holiday has become a celebration of gluttony and self-indulgence (in other words, just another day) rather than a true thanksgiving of life's blessings, even in tough times like we're going through now. Compared to a Chinese leper colony, we have it pretty good even when it's tough.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chipmunk Go Home; or, California Leads the Way (Sorry, Bill)

Recently I read about a woman named Dixie Goldsby who had a problem: what to do with a chipmunk that had stowed away in her car after she wrapped up a camping trip in Utah. Apparently her camp site had a small population of chipmunks that, attracted by Ms. Goldsby's organic snacks, kept making daring daylight raids into her car to grab the food. When she packed up and left, one of the little critters remained trapped in the car and made the trip back to the lovely hot tub loving town of Marin, California.

Ms. Goldsby brought her new friend to the WildCare animal rehabilitation center in San Rafael, where they had the bright idea to fly the chipmunk back to the campsite where his friends and family would undoubtedly be happy to see him and ask, in their beautiful chipmunk language, what the heck he was doing in a state where the population likes actors so much they keep electing them to run the state. This had to be done, because, as Ms. Goldsby correctly opined, if it were anywhere other than Marin, the animal would be shot. I'd like to add that he'd also be smoked and slow-roasted and enjoyed with a cold glass of beer.

Karen Wilson, WildCare's executive director, explained why they were taking the time and expense of dropping the critter back on his home turf:

"We are trying to make the point of how each animal that comes through our center, we do our best for," Wilson told the Marin Independent Journal.

In other words, animals are people, too.

A Marin pilot donated his time and airplane to take the chipmunk back; Goldsby and a member of WildCare went along, and as of this writing the critter is back home and presumably happy, though I’m sure he misses the hot tubs that are a state requirement for every home in Marin. But what the article didn't say was whether or not they dropped the critter from the plane and expected him to open a parachute.

I’m trying really hard to come up with why this operation was a colossal waste of time, but deep down I understand why they did this. After all, don’t you remember those classic cartoon chipmunks known as Chip & Dale? Those two have seen to it that chipmunks everywhere get a little extra care and attention. This chipmunk had no name--he was christened “chipmunk 1344 from Utah”--which makes it sound like he was an undercover secret agent. That would actually make a pretty good movie. Imagine the whole car trip as the only way to insert Chipmunk 1344 into California to stop a great chipmunk criminal conspiracy involving Chip & Dale, who, tired of being on the shelf, are cooking up a scheme to murder Mickey Mouse and recapture the spotlight. Or something.

I’m sure a real writer can come up with a plot. And, perhaps, somebody already has.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Donald Hamilton is the BEST

If you have never read a book by Donald Hamilton, you have cheated yourself out of experiencing one of the best authors ever to put pen to paper.

I’ve been a Hamilton fan for years. I have most of the Helm set, a couple of his westerns, and the one-shot thrillers that set the stage for the Helm series. I reread the first Matt Helm book, Death of a Citizen, recently, and I’m currently working through the Deadfall novella, and Hamilton is amazing.

I don’t know how to describe how he sucks you in, but he does. There’s something hypnotic about his writing. Once you get started, you can’t look away. His characters, especially the heroes, are always well characterized and you feel like you are the hero. They’re drawn so well that you can’t help but identify with them, especially with Matt Helm and his first-person narration. Max Allan Collins says he wrote the Quarry character as somebody who might repel readers, but is compelling anyway, and Matt Helm is the same way. He’s ruthless as a secret agent, cold blooded like James Bond isn’t, yet Helm is totally human, with ideas and points of view that make him more than somebody who fights and *ucks and loves America. He’s as crusty and cranky as I am sometimes, and that’s why I stick with him before, during, and after the fight.

I think Line of Fire is my favorite Hamilton book, or maybe Assassins Have Starry Eyes. It’s impossible to choose. Maybe Assassins, after all, because who can beat those opening pages, which describe a hunter’s morning camp activity followed by his mistaken-identity shooting in a fashion that is just… wow. He really grabs you by the neck like nobody else. What about Hamilton’s westerns? Mad River. The Big Country. Amazing novels, both, involving heroes who go their own way despite the harsh criticisms others around them, and they’re never quite what you expect them to be, until the end when they’re up against a wall and have to grab the six-shooter or the long knife and then get ready for some action that is so subtly written it leaves you a little chilled afterwards. Hamilton’s violence is very matter-of-fact. A guy gets shot, he falls down bleeding. Nobody has ridiculous monologues before the guns go off. Hamilton’s heroes have no patience for that. Get the fight going, get it over with, move on. It feels like a real fight. Almost.

Everything Hamilton writes is worth reading, though I tend to shy away from the Helm novels written after The Terrorizers, which aren’t as good—they’re too long. Hamilton is an example of an author who is at his best when the story was written in 50,000 words or less. Everything is tight and to the point with shock and surprise and plot twists well done. When you double that length, everything suffers a little.

I haven’t finished Deadfall yet, but despite its Cold War plot it’s a winner all the way. It’s too bad that Hamilton left us. Every man’s life has an end, but what Donald Hamilton left us with is a body of writing that is ten times better than half a dozen other writers of his time—and today.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update #2

I've given up going to the NaNoWriMo site to update my word count. Every time I go, I have to reset my password because, for some reason, it doesn't remember my password, so I'm just going to go on my own and forget the "support" of the site, which seems to consist of a bunch of pep talk emails and forums where writers in my area can piss and moan and share achievements. Sorry, guys, I'm too busy writing.

Anyway I hit 20,000 words this week, which is nice, but I discovered something. While I enjoy reading and watching action-packed spy stories and action shows, I don't necessarily like writing them. My crime fiction may have bursts of shoot-em-up action here and there, but not consistently, and this new novel requires consistent shoot-em-up action. Luckily I'm midway through the book where intrigue replaces gun play and I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters interacting instead of blasting. Not that the action scenes aren't good but I like the character scenes in between much better.

I suppose saying the book "requires" shoot-em-up action is wrong, because I can always rewrite the damn thing, but I like the way it's going so I don't see a reason to alter it (plus, the action really does fit in with the plot; they're not a pointless exercise in blowing things up). But during the revisions, the action scenes will need more attention to make them better because right now, I feel like I'm rushing through them.

I'm also tired of the nomenclature of equipment and guns other action stories have a lot of. Does a reader really care if my hero is shooting a customized Colt Government Model .45 auto or if he carries an M-16A2 on an island assault (is the M-16A2 still being made???? See, I should know that). But I don't care. "Automatic rifle" is just as good, "pistol" is just as good. Saying a speed boat has a machine gun mounted on the bow is better than going into detail about it being a .50-caliber air-cooled Browning whats-it. I'll leave the technical details to Clancy (is he still alive?) and just tell the story. Heck, it worked for Robert Ludlum; of course, Ludlum also had characters screwing silencers onto revolvers, which makes no sense since you can't silence--or "suppress"-- a revolver, so maybe he's not the best role model in this case. Maybe it's better to say I'll emulate Jack Higgins in this matter, though his books, over the last fifteen years, have sucked royally. Former IRA man Sean Dillon working for British Intelligence? I don't believe it. Higgins never quite made Dillon's loyalty change work for me. (Sorry, Jack, love the pre-1990 books, really I do.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jerry Ahern: King of Adventure

Of all the authors who influenced me when I first started writing, Jerry Ahern is one of the top three, the other two being Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Ahern is the author of close to 100 novels, and you probably know of some of them. Such series as The Survivalist, The Defender, Track, and The Takers bear his name, and that of his wife, Sharon, his co-author.

I liked Ahern’s books because they were loaded with heroes you wanted to cheer for. Full of the usual red-white-and-blue, yes, but there was something more. They were motivated to take on the bad guys not because they had to, but because they could; in other words, they were willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater good, which is something that set Ahern’s heroes apart from, say, Batman, or Mack Bolan (The Executioner), who only wanted to get even with the villains for the murders of their (respective) families. Ahern’s heroes battled terrorists, the Soviets, and scores of other evil-doers who had world domination or other nefarious goals in mind, and when I was in junior high and high school, his books were perfect for reading on the bus or between classes (or during class, ha ha) and never failed to entertain.

So imagine my delight when Mr. Ahern, through his web site, answered my (embarrassingly) gushing fan letter and agreed to an interview for his blog.

We talked a lot about his books and his writing style, and even though nothing he’s done is particularly noir or hard-boiled, he shares something with the best hard-boiled authors that is worth pointing out: his attention to character. In the massive crop of action novels produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s and early ‘90s, character never seemed like an important concept. Not so to Ahern.

“If people don’t care about the characters it doesn’t matter if you have somebody hanging over the edge of the cliff,” he said. “If you [as a reader] don’t care, you won’t care if he or she falls. You want people to care.”

Not only did Ahern create characters you cared about, he was lucky enough to do that over and over as readers gobbled up his series, and those recurring characters continued to grow into their own personalities.

“Characters get a life of their own and you sort of allow them to do what they’re doing,” he said, adding, “and then you have to be true to that character so they aren’t doing something that character wouldn't do.”

Ahern kept the actions and reactions of his characters fresh by putting himself in their shoes, something he calls “method writing” as opposed to method acting. And this method writing brought out the kind of attention to detail not every author adheres to.

“We have a real passion for realistic detail,” he said. “We try and actually make people suspend disbelief by anchoring the situations in reality as much as humanly possible.”

An example?

“In a gunfight we actually count the shots.” he said. “There are [also] a few [of my] books I’m aware of where the main character starts out standing in the forest taking a leak. People rarely eat or answer nature’s call in fiction. The more you suspend disbelief the more you want to put in realistic detail.”

Through it all, Ahern maintains a simple philosophy when it comes to his fiction.

“You want to write things you’re interested in reading. If you’re bored with it, readers will be bored too.”

Thinking back over his body of work, Ahern summed it up this way:

“I was writing about things that were commercial. I wasn’t going to write the great American novel that no one was ever going to read. If you write the great American novel and nobody reads it you haven’t done anything. If you write an adventure story and get good ideas across to people, you have done something. Sharon and I would much rather touch individuals with good ideas and thought-provoking situations for them in a way that is palatable rather than get that message across in a way that’s non-palatable that people won’t necessarily read.”

And while there hasn't been many spine-tingling thrillers emerging from his typewriter lately, Ahern hasn’t stopped writing.

In March of 2010 you’ll see an interesting book coming out, “Survive!--The Disaster Crisis and Emergency Handbook”. Ahern calls it “a practical guide to what you can do to stay alive” during a disaster. (Perhaps it will finally replace my old, worn out Boy Scout handbook!) Also, Ahern just finished a new novel, but there’s no news on that yet. Hopefully it will be released soon. The Soviets may no longer be the villain of choice, but there are plenty of terrorists running around the world, and real life good guys, as usual, are hamstrung by rules and regulations and political correctness. Get that new book out quick, Jerry. The world needs your kind of hero now more than ever.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Quarry Dead On Target

Whenever a new book by Max Allan Collins comes out, I stop what I'm doing, acquire the book, and set aside whatever else I'm reading, and read the book until I'm done. Which usually takes a couple of days. Collins makes the pages fly.

Collins's new book from Hard Case Crime is Quarry in the Middle and you can't beat Quarry for a hero to spend time with. Despite Collins's claims that his hit man protagonist is despicable, I enjoy his point of view. He can be a punk, but he's the kind of punk I think, in my fantasies, I'd like to be. The first Quarry novel I ever read, because the books are hard to find, was Primary Target, which is still my favorite, because it was the first, but each book in the Quarry series has a gripping plot, terrific characters, and a sucker-punch twist somewhere near the end. Collins always knows exactly where to put the twist, and I have to wonder how much outlining he does in advance, if he does any at all, or whether or not he just makes it up as he goes.

Quarry in the Middle is another great entry in the series, and it feels like the book that covers the territory leading to Primary Target. It takes place in the '80s, and feels like it was written in that time but it isn't written as a period piece. If this had been a trunk novel, I wouldn't be surprised. The story is fairly simple: Quarry tries to find out who has put a contract out on a casino owner, and murder and mayhem and sex and violence follows in the typical Collins glory. It's a short book, and it moves quick, and while the twist at the end is somewhat subdued compared to others in the series, it is still more than satisfying and left me with a wide grin wondering when, if at all, we'll see Quarry again.

I only have one complaint about the book. Somewhere in the book somebody puts a body in the trunk of a Corvette. Problem is, Corvettes do not have trunks, they have glass-covered hatchbacks that let you see inside the car, so stuffing the body in the back of a Corvette would advertise the presence of said body to whoever, like a cop, happens to drive up behind said Corvette. Considering all the bang-up research Collins does on his Heller novels, I'm surprised he let that get through. Looking at a photograph would have done the job, but I only mention that because I'm a Corvette nut. A normal person won't notice.

What a reader will notice is a whopper of a story that leaves you wanting more, and more, and more.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update

So we are six days into this year's National Novel Writing Month and all's going well. Tonight I hit 15,250 words on the manuscript I'm working on. Call it 2500 words a day, adjusting for the stray 100 words here and there. That's not a bad bit of output for six days, if I do say so myself. I don't think I've ever kept my rear in the chair that long or typed that many words per day. Can I keep up that level of productivity? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Cool & Lam Deficiency; The Orson Welles Hard-Boiled Connection

Gardner’s Bertha Cool & Donald Lam

At the used bookshop the other day I picked up a Bertha Cool & Donald Lam book called The Count of Nine. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the series under the A.A. Fair pen name, and they’re fun, but for the life of me I can never finish one. Gardner’s writing is crisp and the banter between Cool and Lam is fun, but there is something missing from the story. I think the lack of description keeps me at a distance; also, the lack of personal motivation on behalf of the characters makes me not care about their adventures. It seems that Donald Lam, the legman, is always on the verge of saying, "I'm going fishing, solve your own damn murder," and I can't get past that. They don’t even go about the work as work, such as Richard Stark described, which is engaging; so while I enjoy the Cool & Lam books for their pluses, their minuses keep me from reading all the way through. I’ll keep buying the books when I find them, though, because I like old paperbacks and, when there’s nothing else to read, Cool & Lam fill the gap nicely--for about 60 pages or so.

I think Gardner did his best work in Black Mask Magazine, when he was perfecting his craft. The stories he wrote are full of so much scene detail and great characterization that you wonder why Gardner decided to leave out such details in his future work (like in Perry Mason). If he hadn't cut the fat, maybe I'd read more Perry Mason books.


Over the last few Halloweens, I’ve listened to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I’m trying to make it a tradition, I guess, since the program is associated so closely with Halloween. I know the back story of the broadcast; the panic in caused; but I tell you, the show gives me the chills every time I listen. It is so well done, so well acted, and seems so real. You cannot help but be scared by the action as it unfolds. What separates Welles's Halloween broadcast from any other program is that it involves the audience, breaks the fourth wall, if you will. The actors speak to the “ladies and gentlemen of the audience” and because of the “live news” coverage, you really feel like you’re there in Grover’s Mill when the Martians land and deploy their deadly heat ray (can you beat the sound that thing makes?) That’s why I like it so much, and it explains why it caused such a panic in October 1938. If you haven’t listened, you certainly should.

Now you may be wondering why I’m talking about the Martian broadcast on a hard-boiled forum, but there is a connection. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater, not long after The War of the Worlds program, adapted for radio Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. In his introduction of the show, Welles calls it “Hammett’s very best” and seems to have a sincere appreciation of the story. The adaptation is fair, watering down Hammett’s concept somewhat, but Welles as Paul Madvig is spot-on.

Both The War of the Worlds and The Glass Key are available for download at the Internet Archive, which has a huge collection of other old time radio programs as well. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Top Five Things Never To Do At a Wedding

So I had to go to the wedding of a friend over the past weekend. Most people have a good time at such events but let me tell you, I'm not one of them. As author Raymond Chandler once said about Southern California's hot Santa Ana winds, they make my hair stand up and my skin itch. It's not that I'm opposed to weddings or marriage, far from it. Flowery sentimentalism and vulgar displays of emotion just aren't my idea of a good time. But I wanted to support my buddy Mark as he began his Last Mile, so the wedding I attended.

The event proved quite educational, mostly at my expense; as a service to you, gentle reader, so you don't make the same mistakes, I present:

(with names changed to protect the GUILTY)

ONE: Never get a ride from a couple who argues.

My friends Mike and Peggy Colusa were attending as well so I hitched a ride with them. Peggy's 80-year-old mother, known to everybody as Granny Lucy, sat in the back with me.

We're on the freeway with Mike driving and Peggy reading off directions and sniping at her husband's driving style. It turned worse as time went on and all I wanted to do was get out of the vehicle and either walk - or hitch a ride with a stranger. The dialogue went something like this:

"Did you have to cut that guy off?" she said.

"I didn't cut anybody off."

"You're an accident waiting to happen."

"OK, miss I-hit-a-car-in-a-parking-lot-at-five-miles-an-hour-and-did-$500-damage-to-the-van," he said.

"We're gonna miss - see, we missed the exit you're going so fast."

"Forget it. I know a better way."

"Through downtown?" she said.


"We'll be in traffic for an hour."

"Not at this time of morning," Mike said.

"Any time of morning!"

"Will you please just let me drive?"

"Will you please just slow down?"

Then Granny Lucy fired off three words that stunned us all.

"I miss Pa!"

Silence. I think we missed the downtown exit, Mike was so surprised. He said: "Uh, Mom.... we all miss grandpa.... but.... um..."

Granny said: "Stop yelling!"

Thus ended the argument and Mike turned around and found the exit specified in the directions. I had to smile. Methinks Granny Lucy knew exactly what she was doing.

TWO: Never complain about there not being any booze.

For the record, I don't drink very often. Why? It's a long and sordid story involving a trash compactor and a car battery and that's all I'll say. Regardless, I think the option should be available (what can't be cured with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a funnel?).

Did I mention we're all a bunch of Christians? Jesus freaks, Bible thumpers, whatever label you prefer. That bit is sort of important, and explains why there wasn't any booze. I learned this as I asked for a Coke. And since I'm a trouble-maker, I had to force the issue.

"Can you sweeten that a little?" I asked the barman as he filled my glass.


"You know, throw a little extra in."

He filled the glass to the top.

"No," I said, "I mean throw a little rum in it."

"No rum, sir."

"What kind of wedding is this I can't get rum in my Coke?"

"No rum, sir. Next!"

I took my glass and turned away only to find myself intercepted by a woman in a blue dress with a bobbed haircut who proceeded to holler about the evils of alcohol and how it was from the devil and did nothing but corrupt and destroy and I shouldn't touch the stuff like Jesus said.

I almost told her: "Good grief, call your sponsor if you have a problem."

I also almost said: "Lady, get off your cross because somebody in Sri Lanka needs the wood."

But my Momma didn't raise a rude boy, so I told her she was 100% right, and I'd never touch the foul stuff again, never mind that I couldn't think of a specific part of the Bible where Jesus said no alcohol and seemed to recall a part where - but never mind. My words made the woman happy. She smiled. And she walked away. Praise the Lord.

THREE: Never laugh during the toast.

The best man was saying something flowery and emotional and the bride and groom were getting weepy when my friend Greg, to whom I sat next, leaned over and showed me his soda and said: "What kind of wedding is this that I can't get any scotch?"

I let out a belly laugh. A loud one.

In the small hall we were in, the laugh echoed. I mean it bounced off the friggin' walls.

Sudden silence. Every evil eye in the house turned on me. I sank down in my chair and covered my face and Greg, to his credit, because he could have easily thrown me under the bus, raised his hand and said: "My fault."

Then the toast continued.

FOUR: Never hit on a girl under 18.

I swear, I swear, I swear, I swear she looked at least 21.

She was a willowy girl with long black hair and that's about as much as I can say without getting arrested. In a room full of mostly middle-aged folks there weren't many females my age in attendance, so when I saw her I had to make a move.

I went over and said hello and isn't this a nice wedding and how are you and all that. A perceptive young lady, was she, and the flash in her eye told me she knew more about my intentions than I probably did so when I asked her to dance she hit me with: "I can't dance with you."

Wow, that was a new one. I told her so. She leaned close, whispered: "I'm 17."

My whole body went ice cold and my hands started to shake and what I wanted to say shouldn't be said in front of a lady, underage or otherwise. I fired off a quick prayer - "What would Steve McQueen do?"

The answer came quickly. When you're stuck like this, you laugh it off like McQueen did in THE BLOB when - but never mind. See the movie. So I laughed and said: "You're kidding me."

She tilted her head to the side. "I'm sorry."

Funny thing is, she sounded like she meant it.

I said: "I'm gonna go back to my table and we'll pretend this never happened."

I stood to leave and she said: "Nice meeting you," but I hadn't even asked for her name.

Now I really needed that bottle of Walker (and don't forget the funnel), but of course there wasn't any booze and to add insult to injury another friend came up and said I saw what you did and Jesus did too and you know she's only sixteen, right?

"Seventeen," I corrected.

"What's the difference?"

"About five years," I said.

And just to prove I was an equal opportunity pervert, I went looking for Granny Lucy to see if she'd dance with me.

She did.

So there you have it. My wedding horror story. Now certain people will read this and say it didn't happen this way and I've exaggerated certain points. Horse feathers, I say! But while you decide what's true and what isn't, keep in mind the most important lesson of the day:

FIVE: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Nice Surprise in the Email Box!

I received some terrific news in my email box yesterday, a request from Kensington Books to submit sample chapters of my novel.

Some writing pals and I worked feverishly over my query letter several months ago, because it wasn't getting any responses; I've been firing off the new version since. Twice now this new query has generated next-day responses and requests when sent via email. The first was from an agent who still has the material (in fact, I need to touch base with him since it's been about four moths and no word); the other was from Kensington yesterday to a query sent Wednesday. (For the record, there have been several nos, too, but this is the first time in a long time that a query has generated requests.) So I sent the material off and now fingers are crossed. I like the product Kensington puts out, especially in recent years; in fact, I always have enjoyed Kensington's books. When they were top dog in the men's adventure genre they published Don Pendleton's "The Executioner" and Jerry Ahern's "The Survivalist", both of which I devoured as a young man and still maintain large collections of the series. If I can be part of the organization that those authors worked with, that would be really cool.

Anyway, with the posting of my recent short story, The Red Ruby Kill at "Beat to a Pulp", and now this, I think I'm on the verge of something nice. If not, next time, for sure. Or maybe the next time after that, or the next time after that.

Like Harry Whittington (the pulp writer, not the guy Dick Cheney shot) used to say, "I persist."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Calling Michael Shayne!

We were delighted to hear that Hard Case Crime will soon publish a Michael Shayne novel, but I am somewhat surprised at the choice. I’ve always had a hit-or-miss relationship with Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne books. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, and his writing was so clunky it made the bad ones even worse. I never hesitate to buy a Shayne book should I come across one, but if he doesn’t have me by the neck after three chapters, it goes into a box. It’s a worthwhile investment, because when Halliday fires all 12 cylinders, he’s very good indeed. I like the Miami books better than the New Orleans adventures, but certainly don’t avoid them.

My two favorites would be Dividend on Death, or Mike Shayne #1, and This Is It, Michael Shayne. What I like about Shayne is that he’s the next best thing to Sam Spade. Shayne gives you brains-over-brawn and does his best to get one over on everybody he meets, not unlike Spade. I just wish Halliday had actually read more Hammett, because maybe then he wouldn’t have used so many unnecessary words.

Dividend on Death, of course, introduces Shayne, and is a very entertaining murder mystery. It took me a few days to read, so it was a little slow in parts, but the payoff was worth it.

This Is It, Michael Shayne is one of the Miami books, and, wow, I finished that book in one day. It’s absolutely breathless and races along to a great conclusion that will keep you reading the series even when you find a clunker. Like I said, when Halliday was good, he was GOOD.

So I’m very much looking forward to Murder Is My Business, soon to be published by Hard Case Crime. Maybe this will rekindle some interest in the Mike Shayne books. He’s hard to come by lately. None of the local used bookstores carry the books; luckily, we have eBay and ABEBooks. (In fact, I still kick myself for passing on a big set of Shayne books that one local shop had; before I could save up enough geetus to buy the whole set, the store closed down, and none of the other stores picked up the inventory.)

I should talk about some of the other Shayne media. I’ve never read the comics, but I’ve watched the movies with Lloyd Nolan playing Shayne. They tossed out the books, but the flicks are entertaining and Nolan is a treat to watch. I don’t care for the radio program, especially the Jeff Chandler episodes which took place in New Orleans. They’re generic private eye radio shows like all the others done at the time. I have heard one or two pre-Chandler episodes where Shayne has Lucy Hamilton with him, and those are good, if not a little preachy on the evils of crime.

Eventually Halliday turned the series over to ghost writers, and I've read one or two of those ghosted stories, and enjoyed them. The ghost writers turned Halliday’s excessive wordsmithing into very tight and economical stories. Fun stuff indeed.

So give Brett Halliday and Michael Shayne a try. I think you’ll be very happy with what you experience.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Carroll John Daly Deserves More Respect

Has anybody ever really read anything by Carroll John Daly, or do we just read other people's comments that he was inferior to Hammett and go with it?

If Daly were alive today, he might borrow Rodney Dangerfield's "I can't get no respect" line, and he'd be justified.

Daly was the first to publish what we know as a hard-boiled detective story, and was a huge hit with Black Mask Magazine readers with his character Race Williams, a shoot-first-ask-questions-never private eye.

Daly has been called everything from a poor writer (at the least) to an incompetent writer. Yes, Daly's dialog was awful; his characterizations clumsy or nonexistent; his writing choppy and sometimes incoherent. But when he was good, he was good, and very, very entertaining.

As some of you also know, Dash Hammett published his first story about a month or so after Daly's appeared, and the quality between the two is readily apparent. But I think most critics dislike Daly because he wasn't Hammett, and I think they're upset that Hammett didn't get to the mail box fast enough, and Daly has the "first" title. This kind of critical snobbery is uncalled for.

When Daly had all ten cylinders firing, he wrote well. He wrote a trilogy that's worth looking up, "The Tag Murders", "Tainted Power", and "The Third Murderer". All three are riveting and lead to slam-bang climaxes that will leave you gasping. His five stories in "The Adventures of Race Williams", put out by Mysterious Press back in the '80s, are wonderfully entertaining, and all the dots connect. Yes, the dialog is still weak and characterizations flat, but not always.

Daly deserves better than critics and readers have been giving him. Yes, he wasn't Hammett, but so what? He was his own writer with his own strengths and weaknesses--there's no crime in that. Besides, we already had one Hammett, do we need another?

Aren't there enough imitators as it is?

The Spy Novel Wins; JFK

In my two previous posts I mentioned National Novel Writing Month and how I was trying to decide whether to do a hard-boiled novel or spy story; the spy story won, and I started early, and it's going great, so I'm very happy... so far.

Tonight the History Channel is showing a program on the JFK killing. It's funny that, having followed the various conspiracy theories and the players involved and watching Stone's movie on the subject two or three times, I know the story backwards and forward, but it's something I'll never stop being curious about, because maybe something new has been learned or discovered. I believe it was the History Channel who did another show a few years ago basically debunking the magic bullet, showing that in the way in which Kennedy and Connelly were seated in the limo, diagonally, because of the way the limo's seats were laid out (Kennedy sitting higher, back and to the right of Connelly), one bullet could have indeed gone through both of them as stated in the commission report. It's really the only thing that's made me question the multiple gunman theory, but nobody else has ever acknowledged the program or followed up on the re-enactment the program did. I've also never seen it repeated, which is why I can't remember the title and why I'm not positive it was on the History Channel. If anybody know which program I'm referring to and knows where I can get a video copy, I'd appreciate a tip.

I often wonder if JFK had lived how the world might be different, but the exercise is moot. Things happened the way they happened and some things would have happened anyway. I'm more concerned with who pulled the trigger. Was it really Oswald, acting alone, or a CIA/Mafia/Cuban/Soviet conspiracy? Maybe we'll never know, but one keeps watching JFK programs just in case.